In real life, we’re sat in a row in the comms room, logged on to our computers. On the screens our avatars are in the virtual 3D interactive world of EYE, an intelligence archive retrieval system. They are in the British Sector which is animated as if a walled Norman castle complete with a keep, and a parade ground surrounded by Victorian barrack blocks (named after great victories), wherein the intelligence files are stored.
There’s a whiff of smoke and some shredded paper about the place as computer viruses, including our own Operation Bonfire, have wrecked some of the data. I have dispatched our avatars operated by Nicole (my wife), Lotus (my colleague and cousin) and Rose (our one-time maid, now revealed to be Mr Lee’s top security officer), to different buildings to retrieve what we need. While doing that, I have had a crafty word with Sandy, the semi-autonomous something or other, the ‘here to help’ on-screen bot. We whisper to each other via private messages on my screen.
“The Defence List, sir?” says Sandy. “It’s kept in the keep, strictly out of bounds.”
“I suppose the security’s mega tight?”
“Absolutely sir, there’s a ‘Keep Out’ sign, by order. A gentleman wouldn’t dream of walking past it.”
“Of course not. Excuse me,” I replied, typing, *shamefaced* at the end of the sentence.
At that, Sandy disappeared from my screen and my avatar, via careful deployment of my mouse, ambled towards the keep trying to look nonchalant. Meanwhile, in real life, I barked instructions to the ladies sat beside me.
“Place of interest, filed upstairs in Alma block, place known as ‘Earthly Desires’, near Tangiers, on the camel driver’s slow road to Ouija.”
As every fool and psychologist knows, every woman in the world wants to be dominated by a man. Having turned into Worth 2.0 and taken control, the ladies not only followed my every order, they even started calling me ‘sir’. On more than one occasion, Lotus Flower called me ‘daddy’.
“No such file, sir.”
“Place of interest, they’re filed in Trafalgar block, which is two along from Battishill barrack, anybody got there yet? Look up Madame Baba’s Dockside Hostel, near La Rue de Ibrahim Al Ass, Tangiers.’
“No such file, sir.”
I get a PM from Nicole, “You certainly know how to make your pregnant wife feel special.”
“From the sources files, kept upstairs in Alma block, Mademoiselle Emile Îles du Salut, Dockside Hostel, occupation, maid.”
“No such source, Daddy.”
“Mr Kenneth, surname unknown, an ex-pat resident of Tangiers.”
“No such source.”
While I was doing that, my avatar was hobbling across a bridge, over an inner moat, past a ‘Keep Out’ sign and into the Norman keep. I was also receiving secret PMs from the ladies, each of whom seemed to be infected with the urgency of one who thinks they’ve realised something others haven’t.
From my wife, “Battishill?”
From Rose, “The battle of Battishill, Mr Worth? Red coats with machine guns against Pigmies with spears?”
From Lotus, “I’m going to check out Battishill, can you spare me for a few minutes?”
I called them all to order as if a submarine commander on sea trials, “Stay where you are, concentrate on your own task, don’t even think about anything else or anybody else.”
Meanwhile, my avatar had entered the darkness and gloom of the keep. Water dripped from the ceiling. A half-light was provided by burning torches of willow branch and oil-soaked rag attached, by iron clips, to roughly hewn stone walls. To the left was a passageway leading to the janitor’s room. Its door was ajar. Sandy was sat in a chair, beside a single bar electric fire, reading the newspaper. I crept down a flight of stone stairs opposite, towards the dungeons, where I would begin my search for the Defence List.
The first room I entered, seemed to contain records of the British Empire’s births, deaths and marriages. For some reason, Kenya 1961 had been trashed but, apart from that, all seemed to be in good order. I couldn’t help but notice that ‘Births, British Guiana’, had attracted an awful lot of red ink. I took a closer look. Trevor Philips? David Lammy? Gina Miller? Baroness Amos? Good God, all from a population not much bigger than that of Cumberland. Chastened, I hurried into the next chamber which concerned the Royal Family. I closed my eyes as tight as they would go and sped my avatar on, stroking my mouse furiously until I heard my avatar stumble down some stairs.
I seemed to have arrived in a storeroom containing all kinds of odd bits and pieces. Was this the inner sanctum? Or was it a private joke between the animators who’d created this secret intelligence world? Infuriatingly, there was no way of knowing. While looking for the Defence List, I found a patent for a car that ran on tap water and another for genetically modified grass, that only grew to be an inch long. There was a vial full of virus. My Mandarin is a bit rusty but it seemed to be labelled, “Not to be opened until 2019”. Then, in a man-sized jar of preservative, I noticed some sort of a specimen, as if a Victorian taxidermist’s freak show hoax. The bottom half of the figure appeared to be of an outsized, upright-walking lizard. The top half, to be blunt, looked a bit like Ted Heath. There was a bullet hole between its eyes.
At that point, I heard footsteps approaching. Heavy steps, as if an avatar of a Norman guard in chainmail carrying an axe. I snook into a corner and hid behind a padlocked filing cabinet with “Rothschilds” stencilled across it. The footsteps came into that very room. Even in real life at my computer terminal, I was sweating and holding my breath. I received a private message,
“Come out, come out where ever you are.”
My avatar peeped out from around the cabinet to see Lotus Flower’s, weighed down with virtual files.
“What are you doing down there?” She asked.
“Looking for the Defence List,” I said.
“Dirty List, Daddy,” she corrected me.
“Defence List,” I corrected her.
As we continued to contradict each other, I began to realise what every fool and psychiatrist also knows. Women pretend to want to be dominated by men in order to choose their moment carefully and turn the tables in the other direction. As Lotus said, “Dirty List”, one last time, I also realised that we’d been speaking out loud. Rose and Nicole had heard everything we’d said. I tried to distract the three of them into fighting amongst themselves, instead of picking on me.
“Rose is wearing your jewellery remember, Tai Tai, nicked it from the safe.”
They just ignored me. Something gleamed brighter than East Rand gold and Kimberley diamonds. Having found it before I had, it was that Defence List, shining in Lotus’s avatar’s arms. Becoming more of a French admiral at the Battle of Trafalgar than a submarine commander on FOST, I felt a terrible sinking feeling. Lotus pressed a few buttons on her keyboard and put the file up on all of our screens.
“Where did you find it?” I asked.
“In a draw in Sandy the janitor’s room, while he was fast asleep in front of the online Daily Mirror.”
She swept her mouse from left to right, causing the file’s pages to flash past at lightning speed. Sure enough, some of them were blank, as if shredded by the IT viruses that the British sector of EYE was particularly prone to. She clicked a button and stopped on an entry.
“Oh, guess who’s on the Dirty List,” Lotus announced with a little bit too much enthusiasm. “A threat to national security and eminently blackmail-able. Keep an eye on him. To be pensioned off fairly soon to prevent a scandal,” she read aloud.
“We have hidden our light under a bushel, haven’t we cousin?” Lotus continued with undisguised relish, “The communal shower in a YMCA, goodness. More moral encouragement to the morally in peril?”
“A misunderstanding, it should never have been put on my file, let alone made a disciplinary issue,” I retorted, confidently, as if telling the ratings to take off those silly life belts.
“Meanwhile, down at the beach.”
Lotus showed one of the Operation Swaling pictures. It appeared to be,
“Me,” I admitted. “Carefully cropped to show me in a bad light. Oldest trick in the book. I was accompanied at all times (while giving cigarettes and money to young men in swimming trunks), by an adult female, off-camera, my American colleague Tammy.”
“Somebody mention bad light?” Announced Lotus, putting up a photo of me down at the docks in Tangiers in the middle of the night. A nice wide angle showed me unaccompanied and in conversation with a dark-skinned lost boy who, despite the dreadful weather, appeared to be wearing little more than a short skirt.”
Another PM arrived from Nicole, “Does this get any worse?”
I reassured the ladies that, “What the photo doesn’t reveal is what was being said.”
“Small mercies,” observed Rose.
“As I left Tangiers, I was reassuring the victims that Operation Swaling would be used to protect them. Which it has been, up until very recently.”
Meanwhile, I was sending a furious PM to Lotus (all capital letters, exclamation marks, and F words) which abbreviated to,
“Whose side are you on?”
Drawing breath from giving me a good hard public kicking in front of my wife and Mr Lee’s best security officer, Lotus’s private reply came at once. It was very revealing.
To be continued ……..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file