We’re in the underground comms room of a deserted nighttime British High Commission in Singapore. Outside, a swaling wind, a tropical storm mixed with the burnings of Indonesian crops, is battering the city state’s good people and browning out their power supply.
In the comms room, the atmosphere is also difficult. Via the EYE graphical intelligence retrieval system, we are reading the onscreen personal file of a certain Natasha Williams. It contains no photo ID, no description of her and no date of birth but it does contain an age.
“Wish I could be twenty forever,” said Lotus, realising the significance.
Permanently twenty. Near the age I had been when myself and Natasha were close colleagues. The file showed plenty of operational experience, all, through the decades, on the same lowly grade, an HCO. Her most recent contact details were there. It was pointless putting them to use. She would have no recollection of me or the Operation Swaling which was occupying our interest. She was, quite literally, not the girl that I’d known, nor had been through several previous reincarnations.
“Did you not realise, cousin?” Asked Lotus. “It does seem a bit obvious.”
“No,” I replied, “I thought that was her real name and everything she told me about herself was genuine. There’s no chance of finding her now.”
“Is there something I should know?’ Asked my wife, Nicole.
Lotus filled her in.
“Your husband’s colleague, this Natasha Williams, was a cutout, an identity, not her real name, an office name with a fake biography that Worth thought was real. Can come as a bit of a shock. Easy mistake to make. There’s a bit of deceit involved and there’s no chance that you’ll ever be able to find them again, even in an emergency. Like this one.”
“Were you fond of her, Worth?” Asked Nicole.
“No, yes, sort of. Couldn’t get on with her, often wonder what happened to her. She despised me, in a nice way. To be honest, I was half pleased all this nonsense had cropped up as I might get to touch base with her again. Ah well.”
We seemed to have reached a bit of a cut de sac, added to which the electrics were beginning to wobble. Our two remaining computer screens, Rose’s and Nicole’s, flickered. The air conditioning blew intermittently. We were starting to stifle. Outside the storm-damaged power grid was struggling. The High Commission’s generators having already run out, the backup batteries were threatening to falter.
“What shall we do with our last ten minutes, ladies?” I asked in resignation.
“I want to go to Battishill Barracks, Mr Worth,” said Rose. “All these computer graphic archives are named after famous battles, but I don’t recall a battle of Battishill. I cannot help but be curious.”
“Out of bounds, Rose. Don’t bother, and that’s an order,” I snapped.
She waved Mr Lee’s access all areas card that had snook us into the High Commission out of hours.
“You can’t order me about, Mr Worth. I report to Mr Lee. And I’m sure Mr Lee would be curious of this Battishill too.”
If I still had an avatar I would have blocked her way but I didn’t. Along with Lotus’s, mine had perished in a secret sanctum dungeon while downloading the Defence Dirty List. At least Nicole was happy where she was. Having found Natasha Williams’s and Mr Stein’s PFs, she casually tried to claim that something else had accidentally fallen off a shelf and into her avatar’s lap.
“Oh look, darling, here’s your personal file. What a surprise.” She began to flick through it, reassuring me, “I’m not nosey, I’m interested.”
“Bermuda? St Kitts? Grand Cayman? Panama? All places you’ve never been posted to, Worth?”
“But his money has been,” sniggered Lotus.
Sure enough, she’d found an embossed financial statement, part of my annual vetting. Across it, a snotty had scribbled, “This one should be framed and hung on the High Commissioner’s wall.”
Nicole looked at all the numbers, some of them rather large.
“One wonders why we never have a holiday, have to rent and go hungry the week before payday?”
“It’s for our retirement, darling. After tonight’s shenanigans, probably bit sooner than we’d hoped. And for the little one. I nodded towards her tummy. We’ll have to start thinking about a school.”
Self consciously as I spoke, I touched my own fake old school tie. Some of my anticipatory gentleman’s side bets on the stock market, via the lightening fast Sino-London Cable Company’s empire connecting cable, had done rather well. Likewise, what happens on the course is always a bit ahead of what’s happening on the bookie’s blower. Seconds count.
In the meantime, while I’d taken my eye off Rose, not only had her avatar wandered over to Battishill, she was reading from a file.
“You’re much better off than I am, Mr Patel, you don’t live next door to a Pakistani,” She announced, sounding genuinely puzzled. In Mr Lee’s utopian city-state, nearly everybody rented from a Housing Development Board that deliberately ethnically mixed residency. What would it matter who Mr Patel lived next door to? Without fuss, Nicole and myself were neighbours to the Bakshi’s and Paddy Fitzgerald, the Straits Star journalist, albeit in three-million-dollar townhouses.
“Two Irish men got off the boat,” Rose continued. Still puzzled.
Duty called. I pushed Nicole to the floor, sat on her stool and took control of her avatar. Tammy had allocated me a virtual wife who looked like a dark-skinned Mrs Thatcher with a bit of a moustache. Not to worry. I sprinted her towards Battisford. Rose had barricaded the door. As you’d expect of her, Mrs Thatcher climbed onto a window ledge, put the glass in with her elbow, rolled through the frame and landed feet first. Inside, at the top of every row of shelves was a little sign saying, “Not to be removed from the Jim Davidson Room”. Oh no. The Graphical User Interface animators had even erected a statue of Chalky White. Portrayed strong and calm, more noble savage than Saarf London, he wore an immaculate London Underground uniform.
Mrs Thatcher ran down a corridor and past the complete unexpurgated collection of “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.” Continuing the Orientalist theme, a stuffed Cyril Fletcher, dressed as an Indian, sat in a luxurious chair in a glass case. Mrs T found Rose’s avatar and pushed it to the ground. It hit the deck with a thump, falling as flat as a Colin Compton Morecambe mother-in-law routine at a mother-in-law’s convention in Morecambe.
Lotus realised what was happening, she snatched the keyboard from me and took control of the avatar. Having known her since her childhood, I realised what she going to do.
“What on earth’s going on?” Demanded Nicole, in real life, picking herself up from the floor.
Rose’s avatar was still clinging to that file.
“Bernard Manning here,” She read aloud from the frontispiece. Being ethnically Singaporean Chinese with a smattering of Americanisms, she pronounced it, “B’nard Manny.”
“Worth?” She continued, “Who is B’nard Manny and why is his file thicker than Kim Philby’s? And, while I have your attention, who is this Ting Tong and why does he try so hard look like me?”
Elsewhere, Lotus had found what she was looking for and had pressed a play button. She shook with laughter as O’Riley the Irish builder had his head bashed against the wall by an irate Basil Fawlty.
“It’s the fabled archive,” Lotus said between the guffaws, “I thought it was just a legend. Wow. All the embarrassing emails, internet posts and text messages are kept here too. Worth thought he could control the world by blackmailing sordid VIPs but all you have to do is mismatch previous times with changed times.”
She laughed all the louder as a Spanish waiter was slapped about the head before being locked into a burning kitchen.
“I didn’t realise it was an actual intelligence archive. I thought journalists had to do some research to discredit someone. I didn’t realise it was all dropped into their laps by the powers that be.”
Rose’s avatar had stood up and was beside a shelf of video files.
“What would happen if I pressed this?” she asked. Her blocky avatar’s finger was hovering over the play button of a shelf labelled, “Jethro”.
“It’s an archive of political incorrectness?” Mused my wife. “Every comment ever made by anybody is archived and used as a weapon? When people are caught out by such things, this is where it comes from? But Worth, why’s it called ‘Battisford’?”
Before I had a chance to reply, she’d had another idea. She’d decided there would be a file on me and she must find it, explaining,
“When he was posted to Ulster, my husband wrote to me once a week. He was surrounded by Tighes, Tims, Fenians, bog dwellers, Billys, Prods, Paddys. Weren’t you darling? You should have read what he had to say about Bob Geldof and Bono.”
At that, Rose gave the Jethro play button one firm hard press and, voila, right on cue, thank goodness, every cloud having a silver lining, with a sinking whirring noise, the batteries ran out. We were plunged into darkness, to a sigh of relief from me.
“Why’s it called Battisford?” I replied to my wife.
I addressed my cellphone and turned on its torch. I held it under my chin as if a scoutmaster about to tell a ghost story at camp.
“I suppose I’d better start at the very beginning.”
To be continued….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file