Congratulations on making it past the third switch point. Most of you are doing well, and making the right choices, clearly in tune with what really happened. Some of you, however, have been repeatedly distracted by the detours, and this isn’t a good sign. I urge you to concentrate before making your choice. So, with the formalities reiterated, let’s get back, shall we?
Paul was stunned to silence, but Frank would never be. ‘How long have ya known?’ he roared at Harding, as the armed cops came back in. The agent raised a hand to calm them and he shook his head. ‘We couldn’t be sure,’ he said. ‘We thought something similar to you…that the girl might have worked for them. So we were digging into her life when the kid died. Needless to say, that theory didn’t hold up.’
‘And then ya started looking into peoples’ heads?’
‘Pretty much,’ said Harding. It all sounded so ridiculous now, but Paul would help them to understand without causing too much of a panic. ‘We need you to do something for us, Paul.’
‘I’ll explain in private.’ He gestured to the guards. ‘Get him out of here,’ he said as he pointed to Frank. Frank looked like a cornered rat as he prepared to take on the cops, but one of them pointed a gun and shook his head to recommend otherwise. It was a course of action to which Frank found himself swiftly and fully committed, and he allowed himself to be escorted from the room. He glanced back at Paul the way an orphaned child might look back at a potential foster parent, his expression saying ‘You better get me out of this place’. Paul found himself nodding with promise, but he certainly didn’t feel any of the confidence inherent in that gesture. ‘So…what do you want me to do?’ he asked Harding as the door was closed. Harding grinned like a cat with a plan as he replied, ‘How would you like to be on TV?’
For a sighted person, being blindfolded against your will is an unmanning experience. Luckily for Rachel, she was a woman, and therefore did not get unmanned. She had sometimes sought to unman Paul with such measures, but that’s an entirely different kind of story. In the rear seat of the black SUV which was doing 80 up the highway, Rachel steadied her breathing and focused on identifying everything she possibly could by way of her other available senses. One thing she was sure of was that she wouldn’t forget the smell of these guys for some time. The one to her right must have thought that a roll-on was a type of wallpaper, because he certainly hadn’t introduced his armpits to one for a couple of days. The guy on her left smelled like he’d been rolling around in toilet cleaner, and Rachel couldn’t decide which of the two aromas was likely to make her vomit first.
She had to get beyond le scent d’homme, however, so that she could listen instead to what was being said as well as the changing sounds of the road. You know the way you see those kidnap movies where the know-it-all cop, who would have had to spend more time learning everything he appeared to know than his age appeared to allow, managed to catch a sneaky conversation with the kidnap victim on some conveniently forgotten and abandoned telephone and say in that unnecessarily raspy voice, ‘Think carefully now…what did you hear on the way? Was there anything that caught your attention? What did the road sound like?’ and the kidnap victim thought for a moment and said in that desperate, whimpering whisper, ‘I think…*sniff*…I think…we hit a bump…and the road…*sniff*…sounded like…*sniff*…a road…’ and then the know-it-all cop would stand back and nod and say, ‘A bump, eh? On a road? I think I know where they’ve taken her…’ and everything would be a-ok. Well, that wasn’t going to happen for Rachel, and not only because it was absolute nonsense. It was because the sounds made so little sense to her that she realised to her dismay that she’d been sighted all her life and had never really paid much attention to sounds. Still, this didn’t unman her. At least, not in the way the stink of these two guys did. Seemed like it took a man to unman a woman.
The SUV left the highway and then after a quick left turn, it exited on to a dirt track. Rachel could at least feel and hear the difference here, but she had no idea where they’d left the highway. And she’d no idea what she was going to do once she found that conveniently forgotten and abandoned telephone. She could not have known that the dirt track dipped to an underground tunnel into the hidden facility in which Karl Wright and his people were monitoring the situation.
A young man burst into the Operations Room, saying, ‘Put on the news! Channel 3!’ and Wright felt his stomach turn. Someone put it up on one of the monitors and the staff watched as an attractive female reporter interviewed a handsome male nurse in some unidentifiable location, the two of them seated opposite each other at a nondescript table. The room was grey and featureless, and the scene was illuminated by harsh fluorescent lighting. Wright’s curiosity and suspicion was immediately piqued, but he listened carefully:
‘So, how long have you worked at the Golden Heart Hospital, Paul?’ the reporter asked.
‘About three years,’ Paul replied, nodding for no apparent reason and struggling not to look up at the camera. He kept his gaze firmly fixed on the woman in front of him, hoping that Rachel would never see this. He concentrated quite hard to ensure that his eyes didn’t wander any lower than her chin.
‘And how many autopsies have you assisted with?’
‘Oh…I’m not sure.’ He shrugged. ‘A lot.’
‘But this was the first young person who hadn’t died from an accident or been killed by anyone or anything else?’
‘Yes. I’d been told that she’d died in her car, so I figured that it was a traffic accident before I got there. They didn’t tell me what was going on.’
‘And what did they find, Paul? What was the result of the autopsy?’
‘They found something that had been attached to the girl’s central nervous system. I think it just…switched her off…’ he laughed nervously. ‘I know it sounds crazy, but…’
‘No, Paul, it doesn’t. Because the same thing was found during the autopsy of a six-year-old girl, and that can’t be just coincidence.’
Paul nodded. ‘People don’t die that young.’
‘Of course they don’t. Everyone knows that you grow old before you die. That’s the natural order of things, and the only exceptions to that are murder or accidental death. And these autopsies show that murder is behind these deaths.’
Paul clearly hadn’t put it that way in his head, but he had to concede that it made sense. ‘I…I guess so.’
The reporter turned to the camera to finish her piece, saying, ‘And there you have it. Someone is murdering young people…as young as six years old! And this reporter believes that any one of us could be next. Think about it. When were you last under general anaesthetic? Perhaps these…switches…are put into people while they’re in hospital. Or perhaps…’ And here she paused for effect. ‘Perhaps they do it while their victims sleep. So go to your doctor or your emergency clinic and arrange for a scan. You could be next!’
Wright sat wide-eyed as the piece ended and the attention returned to other news. There was silence in the Operations Room. Back in the police station, Harding congratulated the young woman playing the role of the reporter: ‘Well done, Officer.’
‘Thank you, Sir,’ she replied. ‘I’ll get back into uniform.’
Harding grinned. ‘Oh, you don’t have to.’
‘Now, now, Sir. I’m sure that’s harassment.’
‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’
She left the room as Paul considered the enormity of what he’d just done. ‘Do you think they’ll buy it?’ he asked. Harding shook his head, saying, ‘They’ll figure out soon enough that it wasn’t live. But they’ll realise what it means.’
'And what does it mean?’
‘It’s your life insurance, Paul,’ the agent replied. ‘Anything happens to you…and this goes out for real.’
Frank knew that it was neither the best time nor place to fall asleep, but without a reason to stay up drinking – that reason being alcohol – he decided to catch up on some much needed rest. Now this is what’s known as a dream sequence. The font changes slightly to show you that the experience is not occurring on the same level as the rest of the narrative. I’ll keep it simple and just put it in italics. Here we go:
Frank was somehow aware that he was dreaming, but it was more like a memory. Perhaps it was. He was driving the same old crappy car, so it must have been a memory. Surely his dream self would have a better mode of transport. There was a detour sign up ahead, with a turning and flashing orange light above it that was almost blinding. Frank held up one hand as he turned the wheel to the right and headed down a laneway which he had never before noticed. He glanced in his mirror to see that the detour signal had vanished, and the traffic was continuing onwards along the route he had been travelling. That was weird.
He continued down the laneway a little, but it looked like a dead end and so he slowed down. There didn’t appear to be a turn up ahead, and the laneway narrowed to the point that he couldn’t drive any farther. He shook his head and put the car into reverse, but the engine went dead and it suddenly went dark all around him, pitch dark. He felt panic rising in him as he went to open the door of the car just as the locks went down. Spotlights suddenly came on all around the car and the walls of the buildings on either side appeared to have vanished. The windows of the car rolled down of their own accord while Frank roared and shouted in fear – okay, okay, he screamed – and strangely-shaped hands, long and dark, reached in to take hold of him. They dragged him out of the car and…
Frank shouted out and fell off the bed in the jail cell. What happened to him in this terrible dream was designed to look so ordinary and pedestrian that it wouldn’t attract any attention. And it didn’t, because it wasn’t even noticed that Frank went missing.
See what I did there?
He heard the keys rattling as the cell door was opened and two cops came in to put him back up on to the bed. He was sweating and confused, a condition made doubly worse by what happened next. Two more cops came in, closely followed by a man in a white coat. He must have been a doctor, because he had a stethoscope. Everyone knows that’s how you identify a doctor. Where a white coat is in play, a scientist has pens in his pocket, a doctor has a stethoscope. And a psychotic has his arms tied back. Everyone's a winner.
‘What’s going on?’ Frank snapped with his eyes wide.
‘Hold him down,’ said the doctor. And they did, much to Frank’s dismay. He struggled as much as he could, but the four men kept him restrained enough so that the doctor could stick a needle in his arm and draw some blood. ‘Jesus Christ!’ shouted Frank. ‘What are ya doin’?’
Of course, no answer was forthcoming, and they left Frank feeling violated and humiliated in the jail cell. Outside, one of the cops was laughing as the doctor walked away. ‘He didn’t like that, did he?’ he joked.
‘No, he didn’t,’ said another. ‘And what does…Jeesos Kryste mean?’
The first cop shook his head. ‘No idea.’ He shrugged. ‘The guy’s crazy!’
‘So what do we now?’ asked Paul, as he was handed a cup of coffee by Harding. The Agent, who hadn’t bothered to identify which agency he worked for, appeared to sip at his own coffee and then sat back in his chair. ‘Well,’ he began with a friendly smile, ‘first we sort out this business with the switch.’
‘That’s quickly becoming the official name for these things, isn’t it?’ Paul noted, taking some valuable time to deflect.
Harding shrugged. ‘What else would you call them? They’re stuck inside us and they switch us off!’
Paul felt a dreadful chill run through him with that thought. ‘You don’t seem too concerned about that.’
‘Of course I am,’ Harding argued. ‘But we’re looking into ways of deactivating them safely.’
Harding held his gaze for a moment, before asking, ‘Where’s the switch, Paul?’
Paul sipped his coffee, his heart pounding as he then dared to reply, ‘It’s safe.’
‘You don’t want to give it to me?’
‘Why do you need it?’
‘It’s simple really. At the moment, people die when we take them out. That’s what we need to overcome. The switch you took is the only one that our…mysterious mutual friends haven’t been able to acquire without fuss.’
‘You mean this has happened before?’
‘Of course. Not too often, but it’s happened. Fran Redmond wasn’t the first switch victim. She was just the first one that got away from them. And you did that.’
Paul took a deep breath and let it out slowly. ‘That’s why they want me dead.’
Harding nodded. ‘They get the switch and they’ll kill you.’
‘How do I know you won’t do the same?’
Harding appeared offended. ‘We’re the police, Paul,’ he argued. ‘We don’t do that sort of thing!’
‘So where’s Frank?’
‘He’s…assisting us with our enquiries.’
‘Ah…that old line.’
‘The old ones are the best.’ Harding rose from his chair and held out his hand. ‘I want the switch.’
‘I don’t have it.’
‘So take me to where you put it.’
‘I lost it.’
‘You expect me to believe that?’
Paul shrugged. ‘That’s the way it is.’
Harding noted something that you all should have picked up on by now. ‘You’ve become a lot braver in the past few hours, Paul. I’d be willing to bet that I know the reason for that.’
Paul was silent and he looked away. Harding pressed on. ‘Did they contact you?’ he asked. ‘Did they threaten you? Or someone close to you?’
It was one of those moments where you had to make a decision about who you trusted the most, or possibly who you trusted the least, which usually amounted to the same thing. Paul had to choose the lesser of two evils here, and his decision was made by the fact that the one he hadn’t seen yet had his fiancée and the other was standing over him. ‘Will you help me?’ he asked.
Harding nodded, saying, ‘Of course I will, Paul. Whatever you need.’ It was a lie which Paul would never forget.
Rachel was ‘helped’ out of the SUV and it was then that she knew she was underground, or at the very least in some kind of enclosed parking lot. ‘When are you morons going to tell me what you want with me? If you knew who my father was, you’d let me go now. I’m telling you, you’re making a big mistake!’
They said nothing and continued to manhandle her – as opposed to womanhandling, which will get you arrested in some countries – until they were in an elevator. Now, this particular facility had not been designed to double as a shopping mall, so neither was the elevator music designed to calm you in preparation for arriving at the floor with the ladies underwear or the household goods. Instead, there was some guitar music that sounded a bit like a Spanish waiter who’d had a bad night for tips. If Walmart had managed to expand into this world, they’d sort out the elevator music. But, of course, the guys at Walmart didn’t even know this world existed.
Rachel could tell that the elevator was going down, and she didn’t like that one bit. It wasn’t that she was claustrophobic; she just knew that she’d be harder to find and that it would be harder to get out of this place if she got a chance. It was good to remain optimistic in these situations. After what seemed like an eternal descent, the elevator went ‘bing’ and the doors opened. Rachel heard a woman saying, ‘I don’t think the blindfold was entirely necessary, do you?’
The man to Rachel’s right, Sweat Central, replied, ‘You do your job, we do ours.’ Still, the blindfold was removed by the woman and Rachel took a moment to adjust to the light in the room in which she stood. It was enormous, with huge monitors covering the wall opposite her and workstations all around. There must have been thirty or forty people working here. Rachel could see the back of the head of the man in charge, seated as he was on a raised platform overlooking the entire area. For some reason, she felt a chill run through her, but she steeled herself and shouted, ‘My father works for the government! And if you hurt me, he’ll make sure that you never see the light of day again!’
The man rose from his chair slowly and raised a hand to his forehead as if this threat might actually have troubled him. Unfortunately for Rachel, that wasn’t the reason for this reaction. ‘No one’s going to hurt you, Rachel,’ he replied, before turning around to face her. She was already stunned, though, because she had recognised that voice. As he turned around, her captors released her arms and she stared up at him and gasped, ‘Dad?’
You see, although sometimes the artwork is attractive and might give you a good idea as to what you’re about to read, it isn’t always good to judge a book by its cover. Likewise with people, in case the slow amongst you still don’t get the age-old analogy. Unfortunately, we seem to have been programmed or conditioned to judge the character of people and even animals by their appearance. It’s like when you throw stale bread out for the birds. We don’t do that for the crows…oh, no. It’s intended for the little cute birds who are just as vicious and predatory as crows, and scavengers like them too. But we shoo away those big bully crows to make sure that the precious finches and wagtails get their fair share. And then, once one or two of those little birds come down, an entire migrating flock of these miniature vultures drop out of the sky and obscure your grass. Sneaky little creatures, batting their eyelids and taking advantage of your good nature while their fast metabolism fools you into thinking they need more food and those poor crows starve, dropping head first off your washing line with a pathetic ‘Cawwww!’
So it’s entirely understandable that you may have judged Karl Wright and his people unfairly by this point. They were like the crows of this world, and they deserved as much attention as anyone else who might misappropriate your emotional response. ‘I’m sorry, Rachel,’ Wright told his daughter as he came down the steps towards her. She had not yet moved. ‘I never wanted to involve you in this.’
‘What…’ Rachel was clearly lost, in every sense of the word. ‘What is…this?’
‘I’ll explain everything, Rachel. I promise. It’s just that things are moving quickly and we have to find Paul.’
‘Paul? What does he have to do with this?’
‘Like I said…I’ll explain. But I’m going to need you to trust me…and to help me.’
Before Rachel could reply, the woman who had removed her blindfold approached Wright, saying, ‘Sir, there’s something you should see.’ She turned to face the wall of monitors, upon which a new image was being displayed. It was a schematic of an active switch, with a profile of its host alongside. ‘Look at the figures, Sir.’
Wright did so, seeing immediately what she meant as numbers scrolled up the right-hand side of the central monitor. ‘Are you sure this is right?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Sir,’ the woman replied. ‘We can track him, we can identify him, but it’s only a one-way transmission. The switch isn’t receiving like ours are.’
‘So his switch is a fake?’
‘It looks that way, yes.’
Wright stared at the screen. ‘So what are we thinking...that he doesn’t belong?’
‘He’s definitely not one of us,’ she agreed.
‘So they put him in with us then. But why?’
The woman shook her head. ‘We’ll have to pick him up to find out,’ she said. ‘We need to know everything about him.’
Again, Wright stared at the Switch Profile up on the screen and he nodded. ‘Well, let’s make sure we get to him before anyone else figures it out.’ He raised his voice and ordered, ‘Okay, people, your new priority is Frank Billings. He’s an outsider and we need him locked down asap.’ Yes, Karl Wright was one of those people who said ‘asap’. Not a sap, like you might expect. No, no, this was an acronym, not a personal insult.
‘Dad!’ Rachel snapped, adding quieter as he turned to her, ‘Please tell me what’s going on.’
Wright approached her and took her in his arms. Confused, she put her arms around him, as he reached out beyond her for the syringe offered by one of his men. ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart,’ he said, as he plunged the needle into the side of her neck and pressed down on the plunger. She gasped in fright, but the lethargy hit her immediately and she lost consciousness in his arms. ‘Put her somewhere comfortable,’ he warned the guards. ‘If I see so much as a hair out of place, I’ll input your switch code.’
So, the plot is thickening like tar in a smoker’s lungs. No one in this world would get that one, but I’m sure you do. I do hope you’ve been taking note of the little asides which separate the identity of this world from your own. It’s imperative that you keep track of the differences, because everything is a clue as to how this world functions. I also hope you’ve noticed some differences between Frank and the others, because he not only looks and smells and acts differently; he also talks differently, and says things that none of the others do – things that the others don’t even understand. Don’t worry about going back over it…there’s no time for that now when things are moving along. And I can’t dictate this story to your screens for ever. I’m going to take you back to Paul now, but I want to remind you to concentrate before making your choices with the upcoming options. You should all be aware of how this all unfolded, and yet something appears to be challenging those memories. Please stay focused.
Paul was escorted out of the police station, trying to imagine what he might possibly do to help Frank, and then finding himself wondering whether he really wanted that guy back by his side. It was a realization which struck him with guilt, but one which he knew was just about being honest with himself. ‘You can forget about that waste of space,’ Harding told him, as if he could read his mind. ‘He’s more trouble than he’s worth.’
‘He saved my life.’
‘You’ll get over it.’ He pushed Paul on into the floodlit parking lot. ‘Now where’s the switch?’
Paul suddenly realized the flaw in his little deception as he looked out on almost thirty cop cars parked around the station. He found himself laughing as he turned to Harding and said, ‘I left it in the car.’
Far away, an influential and grieving parent was beginning to change the world. ‘How could this happen?’ Harry Aston shouted. ‘What sort of a world do we live in where a child can die like this? It’s our right to know who’s to blame!’
This was met by cheering tinged with sympathy. The people in the gathered crowd outside the hospital to which little Becky had been taken couldn’t have realized the path they were about to take. They were beginning to ask questions which the people of this world had, up until this point, failed to consider. However, things hadn’t gone according to plan, and the switches had been exposed, so that the wrong questions were being asked. Harry Aston went on, channeling his grief so that he could capture the crowd: ‘My child…’ he paused to keep it together. ‘My child was murdered! Someone…put something inside her that killed her, and I won’t rest until I find out who’s responsible!’
Wright watched the news feed, knowing that this one was real. ‘Contact the Foundation,’ he ordered. ‘Tell them…’ he hesitated, feeling an unfamiliar rush of fear. ‘Tell them that they’ve failed. Tell them that their precious experiment didn’t work.’
Harding was not amused. ‘I’m not sure you understand what’s going on here, Paul,’ he said. ‘I need that switch.’
‘You need it?’ Paul noted.
‘Not “we”...but “you”. There’s a difference.’
‘Is there?’ Harding stepped up to Paul, his face so close that Paul could feel his breath on his skin. It was strangely cold. ‘I think you’ll find that what I need is exactly the same as what the people I work for need.’
Paul stared into his eyes and saw for the first time an emptiness that he hadn’t noticed before. He stepped back a bit as he asked, ‘Who...who do you work for?’
‘All you need to know is that I don’t work for the people who want you dead. And that I need that switch. People need to know the truth, Paul.’
‘The truth? People will go crazy! I’m trying not to think about it as it is!’
‘Maybe it’s about time people started facing up to the fact that they could die any minute.’
Paul was horrified. ‘What? Why?’
‘Because the people I work for need things to go according to plan.’
‘Plan?’ Paul snapped. ‘Was that six-year-old girl part of the plan?’
Harding nodded. ‘The plan appears to have changed in recent days. Someone must have got tired of waiting.’
‘Waiting for what?’
‘I can’t tell you that. And you wouldn’t understand if I did.’
Paul looked away, staring out across the parking lot as if he might find some sense there. ‘I wish I didn’t know anything,’ he said. ‘Look, they’ve got Rachel...my fiancée. I’ve got to do something.’
Harding nodded. ‘I know where they are. Now get me the switch.’
In the darkness around the parking lot, numerous teams of heavily armed men and women were moving in. One of the team leaders saw the two men standing outside the station and raised a hand. The approach was stalled and the leader contacted her ultimate commander. ‘I see Paul Bradbury outside the station,’ she reported. ‘There’s an older man with him.’
There was a short delay before Karl Wright responded over the radio, ‘There’s no switch profile for him, Jones. Can you get me an image?’
Jones took a small cylindrical scope out of her pocket and looked through it towards Harding and Paul. ‘Are you getting this?’ she asked.
‘I see it, but there’s no hit on the system. I’ve no idea who this guy is.’
‘Do you think it could be...one of them?’ ventured Jones.
‘I suppose it’s possible. They’ve certainly changed the game recently.’
‘What do I do, Sir? Did they reply to the message?’
‘No,’ Wright replied. ‘They don’t seem concerned, but if they’ve sent this guy in as well as Frank, then things are getting very confusing.’
‘They’re starting to move, Sir. Do I leave them to it?’
‘Yes. Get Frank. I’ll keep an eye on the nurse. Hopefully, our mystery man will stick with him.’
Paul started to search the police cars, oblivious to Wright’s soldiers closing in upon the station. Paul had dropped the switch in the back seat of the car, and it was difficult to see anything in the badly illuminated parking lot. ‘Can’t you find out which car I was in?’ Paul called to Harding, who had just closed the back door of a car four cars away. Harding looked over and replied, ‘Don’t be a smartass, Paul. Just keep looking. Hurry up!’
‘Whoever you work for can’t be the most intelligent shower,’ Paul called back, with a triumphant smirk.
Harding ignored that. Not because he felt insulted in any way; it was because he had seen the stealthy approach of Wright’s people. Okay, so it wasn’t completely stealthy, because if it had been, Harding wouldn’t have noticed. Although his senses were slightly better than anyone else in this world.
Paul climbed into the back of a car, and the smell reminded him of Frank. Bingo! Not the dog...the game.
The four teams sent by Wright moved in around the station, covering the exits. Jones had a portable tracker for Frank’s switch and could see that he was in a small room near the back of the building. ‘Okay, let’s go,’ she commanded them. ‘Remember...no survivors. Wright’s sending a clean-up team.’
They burst into action, and Harding saw it happening. He had made his way across to Paul, and dragged him out of the car and down to the ground, hissing, ‘They’re here! Stay down!’
There was the sound of shooting and shouting from inside the police station as the slaughter unfolded. ‘I don’t understand,’ said Harding. ‘They should know you’re out here. They should be able...’
‘They’re not here for me!’ Paul realized.
‘Frank!’ Harding agreed. There was nothing they could do. ‘We have to go,’ said Harding. ‘Do you have it?’
‘Yeah. But what about Frank?’
‘It’s too late.’ And it was. They saw Wright’s men bringing Frank out of the station. They had lost only three men, which wasn’t so bad, considering what was at stake.
Frank was thirsty, and surprised that the thought of a glass of water appealed to him. He was still unconsciously rubbing the puncture wound on his arm from which his blood had been taken. Now, it was one thing having blood taken when you knew what they were looking for, or at the very least, what they were trying to rule out. But Frank had no idea why they had taken his blood, and he was desperate to find out.
As if someone had read his mind and understood his intentions should he be released from his cell...the door was unlocked. Frank stood up, anticipating another violation of his rights, but no one came in. He approached the door, which was opening outwards into the silent corridor. If he didn’t know any better, he’d have thought that the door had opened by itself.
Outside, Harding approached Paul and grabbed him by the arm. ‘We have to get out of here,’ he warned him. ‘They’re all over the place!’
Paul looked around, but couldn’t see anything, and Harding asked, ‘Did you find it?’
‘No,’ Paul lied. ‘Do we have time to keep looking?’
‘No,’ said Harding. ‘Let’s go.’
© Ronald A. Geobey 2018