We’re in an underground comms room in Singapore, suffering a bit of low key blackmail as an old contact, Tammy, on the New York side of a cell-phone loudspeaker, wants to know something, before she’ll log us onto EYE, the American’s all-singing all-dancing interactive 3D graphical intelligence archive.
“Can you believe it’s been twenty years?” She begins. “Tell me about yourself these days?’
It could have been worse. She could have insisted upon some of Her Majesty’s top-secret operations but instead, she exhibited the female’s weakness for a nosy needing to know about a man.
“I’m married,” I replied. “My wife, Nicole, is sat beside me and expecting our first child.”
I was interrupted already,
“Waaaa,” responded Tammy, persisting with the adolescent silliness of pretending to talk like a text message, “I didn’t think you were the marrying kind, lolz. Rainbow flag. Remember those boys dressed as girls down at the docks in Tangiers?”
“Switch that bloody loudspeaker off and give me the phone,” I instructed Rose, crossly.
Instead, Rose held the cell-phone higher up in the air, out of my reach, where its proximity to the ceiling made it even louder.
“And your little friend Emile,” knowledge of whom Tammy insisted upon the assembled. “Why did she have a moustache? Asterisk, sniggers, asterisk.”
There was a gagging noise from beside me. I suspected my shocked wife was going to be sick all over me and then storm out of the place, adding a further complication to an already difficult night. Rather, Nicole was laughing at me, over her pilfered midnight feast of seaweed sandwiches and lime juice. Rose and Lotus joined in the mirth.
“I was giving them all moral encouragement,” I explained, which simply increased the merriment at my expense. “And promising that we’d protect them with Operation Swaling, which, at this point, Tammy, with odd goings-on, seems to be under threat.”
That sobered them. On cue, a humming noise in the background changed tone. The lights flickered. The humming stopped altogether. I explained to Tammy, “There’s a storm here in Singapore. The power’s off and the generators have just run out. We’re on batteries now, time’s very tight.”
As often, the silly thick American was neither silly nor thick. Her next comment arrived with the lightning-fast precision of a colonial wary of King George’s descendants.
“I’m in a restroom, on my cell-phone, on my break in Poughkeepsie Place, New York City. If you’re in Singapore, shouldn’t there be a delay on the link?”
Rose shook the phone, then pointed to two-needle aerials on a box on the wall beside us. Then she pointed to the corner of the comms room, beneath which ran the Sino-London Cable Company’s lightning-fast global connection that the Americans weren’t supposed to know about. I counted for two seconds, in my head, nice and slowly, “one doll-ar, two doll-ar,” before replying, “There is.”
“Ah,” replied Tammy, hopefully reassured. “I’ll get busy.”
Five minutes later, all hands were at the plough. Myself, Nicole, Rose and Lotus were sat in a row, each at our own computer terminal. Rose had logged us onto the outside world, the other side of Mr Lee’s Singapore firewall and Tammy had logged us into the United States Government’s top-secret EYE system, a virtual graphical world designed to make the retrieval of information intuitive and effortless.
Tammy had created avatars and joined us. She herself had, optimistically, represented herself exactly as she had been two decades earlier; slim and mousey with an easy smile. As for myself, she’d added twenty years to her recollection but in the nicest and most American of manners. I appeared to have spent the last two decades in the gym and, about the temples, had gone only slightly grey. My teeth were American private healthcare pearly white. On the briefest of descriptions (Lotus, Hong Kong Chinese, Rose, Singapore Chinese), Tammy had made good representations of the pair of them.
“Not difficult since they all look the same,” I’d quipped in a humour that, to total silence from both sides of the world, didn’t go down very well.
“Sorry ’bout my stereotypes Rose ‘n Lotus,” said Tammy apologetically.
“You’ve got them in business suits, like high flyers from Harvard, Tamz. Where’s the stereotype?” Thinking out loud, I couldn’t help but add, “I would have put them in Chairman Mao suits with cane hats and rice hooks, fresh from the nutmeg plantation.”
That didn’t go down very well either.
“Worth,” Tammy chastised me. “There’s a thing called political correctness? At its most basic it means being nice to different types of people. Yes? Maybe you have a problem with that?”
Nicole’s avatar was also problematical. Tammy had created an image of who she thought I might marry based upon our short and platonic relationship, twenty years previously, on a North African adventure. Imagine Mrs Thatcher, dark-skinned and with a bit of a moustache, dressed rather boyishly. Time was short, it would have to do. Together in this virtual world, the five of us walked rather jerkily down a busy American intelligence Main Street. There was a CIA building, also, a Firearms, Drugs and Tobacco Tower, the United States Post Office (neoclassical, very grand), the Office of Naval Security, they were all there.
“For our purposes, all the phone companies have been amalgamated back into one,” Tammy informed us as we stood before a Ma Bell skyscraper which disappeared into the clouds.
“Every phone call, email and text message ever made has been recorded, transcribed and catalogued,” she announced proudly. We looked up at the tower. Wow.
“Who’s that’s awful woman throwing ripped up emails out of a window?” Lotus asked, “Is it…”
Tammy’s avatar hurried us along. We had to continue to the British Sector. As we did, she sent me a private message, as if our avatars were whispering conspiratorially.
“Wassup?” She asked.
“Our operation Swaling’s unravelling,” I replied. “Another operation, called Bonfire, is destroying it, making it difficult to control the nefarious types on the Defence List, who prayed on the lost boys in Tangiers and elsewhere. Off the leash, they’re up to no good again.”
“Oh,” replied Tammy. “Worth, that Swaling wind may have changed direction, you be careful.”
“Tamz, what happened to the photographs? The incriminating evidence of the boys down at the docks being approached by British VIP’s.”
“They were digitised, Worth, and the originals destroyed. I would say the digital versions might have been wiped by this Operation Bonfire. It is quite a mess down there in the British Sector.”
Our avatars were leaving the American zone now. The animators had made the British Sector as if a big Norman castle with biscuit tin red-coated guardsmen marching back and forwards in front of it. Still whispering, Tammy continued,
“All that’s survived, Worth, might be the pictures of you. I was tasked to spy on you as well.”
“Pictures on the beach, pictures of you down at the docks when you thought I was at a compound inland. Your superiors in London wanted you to be set up too. In a way, you have to admire them.”
I took a deep breath.
“You know, hunny, we have a saying over here, ‘the British always win the last battle’. Your superiors may have been playing a very, very long game. You be careful, sweetie.”
Then she addressed all four of us, loudly, as if in block capitals, “End of my lunch break, burger icon, enjoy your day, smiley face. gtg tc, Tammy.”
Then her avatar disappeared, leaving us at a stone bridge which led over a moat and through a portcullis to the parade ground of a Norman castle. Inside, there was a square keep, signposted as being strictly out of bounds. At first glance, all seemed to be in reasonable order but Rose was the first to observe,
“The place is deserted.”
Added to which there was shredded paperwork blowing about the Victorian barrack blocks which surrounded the parade ground. Those stout sandstone barracks were named. Immortalised in carved stone above their door lintels were famous battles. But windows were broken, some masonry crumbling. A whiff of smoke drifted over from Trafalgar, ominously not from the chimney stack but from a hole in its tiled roof. A figure emerged from the keep and lumbered towards us. It was an avatar of a janitor in a blue uniform with a peaked cap. He was further defined by a thin military moustache and a pronounced limp, as if a war wound.
“Good day, sir.”
“Good day,” I replied. “Might I enquire,” I added, rather embarrassed, “are you a real person?”
“Oh no, sir, an animated bot. A semi-intelligent one, here to help. Sandy’s the name, sir.”
He explained that SANDY was an acronym for Semi-Autonomous something or other and then startled us by adding, “It’s Mr Worth-Saying’s party, isn’t it? From the Singapore Consultancy? I’ve been half expecting you. The computer viruses, Bonfire and the like, are so intense here that real intelligence officers avoid this place like the plague. All a bit of a mess really. The arms-length, deniable contractors don’t seem to care as much. A breed apart they are, as you know yourself. But I must ask you to wear face masks.”
Little black masks appeared from nowhere. Sat in a row at our computer consuls, we fiddled with our mouse buttons in order to put them onto our avatar’s faces.
“It’s a nice reminder that you’re in a danger area. The longer you’re here the more likely you are to infect your own equipment with something that wrecks it. Be careful what you open and download when you’re in the archives,” Sandy instructed.
With that, I got down to business, informing him that I needed access to the Human Sources records.
“Alma block, sir.”
“People of Interest.”
“Alma too, upstairs.”
“Places of Interest.”
“Trafalgar, on fire, not really on fire, won’t do you any harm, just a representation of what’s happening to the data there. Motivates you to work a bit quicker.”
“In Waterloo,” Sandy pointed to a barracks block at the very far end of the parade ground, tucked in beside the castle wall.
“And Operational Files?”
“Blenheim. Some of them completely shredded I’m afraid, sir, some of them completely intact. Very suspicious. Blenheim is just to the left, next to Battishill.”
I split our little squad into four teams of one, giving each of us a task or two. After they’d wandered off towards the relevant barrack blocks, I took the opportunity to send Sandy a whispered private message.
“Sorry for the PM old chap, mum’s the word, but where might I find the Defence List?”
To Be Continued……
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file