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Short story: Connection lost

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This is the first in hopefully a few short stories set in the universe of “The Unjudged”.

Teaser

Would you let someone else control you for the weekend? Greg Solu wanted a weekend away from the kids, so has given up his actions to an Engineer. But Engineers have their own reasons for wanting a human to control, and Greg may regret his escapist holiday.

<connection lost> 

RESET CONNECTION 

Greg Solu clicked into consciousness in front of a dead body, knife in hand and blood on his shoes. There must have been a malfunction, restoring him too early. He reached for his phone, but it wasn’t in his pocket. He tried looking at his watch, but it wasn’t there.

The scene in front of him was shocking, but no more than the murder in the first scene of a murder, or the first page of a whodunnit. He tried to think back to what he’d done that weekend, but couldn’t recall it. That was strange – people controlled by an engineer were supposed to be left with memory of the time. Otherwise, what was the point? He reached to his implant, but then thought the better of it. It would be sorted soon, he was certain. The important thing was to stay still, to make no movements that would reveal to any watchers that he was conscious. 

The scene in front of him was not entirely unexpected. Before he signed up for the Engineer Programme he’d watched a number of tutorials and documentaries. The official stats told a clear story as well – almost thirty-five percent of Shells committed a murder during their control and not one had been successfully tagged for the crimes. It was an easy way to commit a crime – the person actually doing the killing didn’t know they were doing it until it was too late, and the Engineer in charge could be anywhere in the tagged world.

He’d known the risks when he signed up for a weekend of guilt-free debauchery and chaos. The Engineers were vetted internally, and had to fill in information papers, but no system was perfect, and no-one who was a terrorist ever ticked yes in the ‘are you a terrorist’ box. Besides, he had a lawyer lined up with the paperwork in case he was tagged in error, with instructions for find him and get him out of any trouble.

But now, having suddenly regained control, and being presented with the situation as a participant rather than an observer, Greg started to wish he’d been one of the sixty-five percent. He knew he should be grateful that the murder he’d just committed was on the mundane side. The Engineer hadn’t wanted anything sexual, or anything more… unusual. The same documentaries went into a lot of detail about the more shocking cases of Shell abuse. But the body in front of him wasn’t mutilated, wasn’t tortured and wasn’t toyed with. 

It felt, like all intents, like an assassination.  

As the blood ran down his fingers and started to drip on the floor, he realised that didn’t know where his family were, for the perhaps the first time in his life. His phone had an implant tracker, and he knew that he could, at any point, check the location of his girls. But now his phone was gone and the feeling was disconcerting to say the least. Before he signed up for the Engineer Programme he’d agreed that his wife could stay at her sisters, and the kids… the memory flashed in front of his eyes, then faded. Where were the kids? It didn’t matter. They were safe. This was his weekend. And anyway 

<connection restored> 

<connection lost> 

CONTACT SUPPORT 

<support unavailable> 

RESET CONNECTION 

It was the type of moment that everyone had told him about, the reason that everyone online raved about signing up for the programme. Even with the risks, even on the off chance that the implant hack could be manipulated, or short circuit, or get you accidentally tagged, the benefits were spectacular. The Engineer was reprogramming his visual and auditory systems. The sky was a pale green, and the orange blackbirds fighting over the scraps of bread on the floor were barking like dogs.  

Someone bumped into him from behind, and Greg realised that once again he was back in control of his own body. He momentarily panicked, then 

<connection restored> 

<connection lost> 

CONTACT SUPPORT 

He was starting to get used to these little bursts of control. He didn’t know what was happening, but he found the brief ability to control his own actions in the Engineer’s world quite fun, like a lucid dream. He looked around – this time he’d become aware in a takeaway.  

The spotty teenager behind the counter made absolutely no attempt to hide his confusion. Solu was experiencing the sudden taste of blueberries in his mouth and had no desire to talk at that moment. He wasn’t even sure why he was in the takeaway, but he was glad that his engineer was taking care of him. 

There were rumours, of course, of Engineers letting their Shells starve to death. It was unusual though, and the moderators would step in if there was a chance that a Shell’s stats were about to flatline. But still, one or two people would regain full control malnourished or hungover. Solu could cope with a hangover, and even a little weight loss, but he wasn’t planning on dying for a weekend’s fun.  

The young lad had a hooked nose and greasy black hair poking out from underneath a branded baseball cap. At the base of his neck, where his scratchy looking polo shirt started, Solu could make out a painful looking red rash.   

<thank you for contacting support> 

<shell name> 

SOLU 

<engineer name> 

WHY DO YOU NEED THAT 

<unknown command> 

SUPPORT 

“Can I help you?” the teenager said, and Solu watched with a horrified amusement as his fingers reached into his neckline and gave his flaking skin a scratch. Every movement was slow, as if underwater. The flakes of skin broke free from the rash, and floated to the roof. Solu watched them go, trying to understand what the Engineer was doing to make gravity change.  

“What’s the cheapest thing on your menu?” Solu asked. His croaky voice surprised him. He tried to think back to when he had last had a drink, but couldn’t. It must be thirst, rather than the sign of anything wrong. The moderators would have stepped in. Solu brought his fingers up to his neck and massaged his throat.  

<engineer name> 

TERMINATE SUPPORT  

“Margarita,” the teenager said, leaning forward on one elbow and pointing to the menu above his head with the other. The menu had nothing but pictures of sharks. “But I’m going to need to see the money first fella. No offence.”  

Solu put on his best grin and laughed in what he hoped was a relaxed manner. “None taken.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a collection of coins. His vision blurred as he counted out the money into neat stacks. “A margarita and a of water please.”  

<connection restored> 

<connection lost> 

LOCATE 

<Deans BarNGrill> 

RESET CONNECTION 

The young woman behind the bar looked at him quizzically. “Tap or bottle?”  

Solu paused. The money in front of him was the same, the order was the same, but the surroundings had completely changed. The grease stained walls and bright coloured walls had vanished, replaced with oak panels and solid mahogany bars. A row of bottled spirits attached to a mirrored wall shuddered in front of him. Inside them Solu could see tiny baseball caps swimming around like fish. It was the only thing in the room that resembled anything that had been in the takeaway. 

Solu held his hands out in front of him and gazed at them. He then let his focus shift to analyse the barmaid, in case she was just the spotty teen in a costume. As he studied her in what he hoped came across as a purely scientific investigation, she shifted her weight onto her heels and placed a hand on her left hip. She looked familiar some how, homely. Solu felt himself relax in her company. 

“I think you should go and sit down,” she said, “I’ll get Triumph to bring you over your drinks.”  

Solu nodded, not knowing our caring who or what Triumph was. He headed to the corner and perched on a stool that overlooked the entire bar. 

The takeaway to bar trick was part of the process. He knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier to stomach. Everything was getting away from him, the world he knew was wobbling and becoming random.  He wondered if he’d actually eaten that pizza. 

A large Asian man marched over, his arms as thick as his head and shirt as tight as a sausage skin. His hair was receding and his eyebrows were trying to catch up with his hairline, huge bushy caterpillars that moved as he did. Two glasses were just about noticeable in his hands. He stared at Solu, looking him up and down. He put the water and cocktail down and hovered at the table.   

Solu pulled his attention away from the water on the glass.  

“You’re under Engineer control.” The big man declared. His forehead wrinkled as he spoke, shrinking his forehead even further. The man’s jaw clenched as he waited for a response.  

Solu looked up at Triumph and tried to focus all his attention on the answer.  He found himself taking in the man’s square jawline, well-maintained beard and dark brown eyes.  Concentrating, he took his hand away from the table and crossed his arms. He cleared his throat.  

<you have a message from system> 

<read?> 

NO 

“No.”  

The lie completed, Solu swung his head back towards his drink. He closed his eyes and clenched his buttocks, hoping upon hope that Triumph would walk away. That he’d think that Solu was having a strange day and leave it at that. His dominance would be asserted, his masterful reign of the bar would continue without any further interruptions from the little man with the fruity drinks order.  Solu had no desire to be identified as being under Engineer control. People had funny reactions to someone who could act without fear.

Instead, Solu felt a warm hand on his shoulder. His implant started to itch.

Maybe this was part of the experience, he thought, maybe getting thrown out of the bar will be the real start of the adventure he had been promised. That stuff with the pizza was a joke, a test of the system. Sure, it threw him off his game, but the Engineer would reset the system so that his story could begin anew.  

“Right then,” Triumph said, “up you get.”  

<you have a message from system [2]> 

<read?> 

NO 

<connection restored> 

<connection lost> 

<you have a message from system [3]> 

<read?> 

Triumph sighed and reached down to pick him up. He put his hands underneath Solu’s shoulders and began to pull him to his feet. 

Solu searched Triumph’s face for some sign of how the giant of a man might be reacting, but his expression was unreadable. As they stood there, frozen, the bar’s phone began to ring, a shrill, high pitched bell that echoed across the room. Both men watched as the barmaid picked the phone up, muttered something, and put it down.  

<you have a message from system [9]> 

<read?> 

NO 

LOCATE 

<location blocked> 

VISUAL 

<visual unavailable> 

SUPPORT 

<thanks for contacting support> 

<engineer name?> 

YOU DON’T NEED MY NAME 

<name not recognised> 

<you have a message from system [15]> 

<read?> 

Solus was rather disappointed that he didn’t wake up with a start, or at least with a sense of returning to reality. Instead, he felt nothing but contentment as he stretched out his arms, yawned silently, and opened his eyes.  His implant was no longer itching.

The room was dark. He was alone, lying on a large, uncomfortable bed that he didn’t recognise  and the room around him was unfamiliar. A blackout blind was blocking the morning sun, which seemed a shame to him as morning sun was such a rarity nowadays. The walls were pale coloured, with no photos or pictures on them. It felt for all intents and purposes like a hospital room. 

He checked for any clothing. Nothing. He never slept naked. But then, there was a lot about last night that represented a first for him.  

Solu listened for sounds of movement in the house around him, but couldn’t hear anything. His mind darted back to the night before. Pizza, cocktails, sleeping… then new memories. Screams. Pain. Swearing. Someone  standing over him, something in their hand. A slow trickle of blood running across someone’s palm. Solu put his hand against his head. His forehead was hot. His palm was sweating. Everything was –   

READ 1 

<message [1] we suspect you are compromised> 

<you have a message from system [20]> 

<read?> 

READ 20 

<you are now disconnected from system good luck> 

A wave of nausea swept over him, and he realised that he was desperate for some water. On a small black bedside table there was a large jug of water and two glasses. He grabbed the jug and drank straight from it. Water spilled down his bare chest and onto the bedsheets and pillows, but he continued drinking. There was a gluttony to the way he threw back the water, as if he was using it to wash away what had happened the night before.  

He thought back to the knife in his hand, to the body on the floor, and wondered if he’d ever find out who his victim was. Not that it mattered. His weekend away was a moderate success, apart from the unexpected conscious moments. He made a mental note to write a complaint letter to the Engineers. Maybe they’d give him some of his money back.  

He stood, and water dripped off his chest onto the tiled floor below. 

Then a woman’s voice echoed down towards him.  

“Mr Solu, please put on some clothes.”  

Solu twisted to the side, diving to the floor next to the bed. He froze like that, arms outstretched, squashed to the floor, staying perfectly still. If he didn’t move, he theorised, he would avoid any conversation. 

A pair of jeans and a t-shirt landed on the floor next to his head. He watched them, but didn’t move.  

“Please Mr Solu, put some clothes on. We must hurry.”  

It was too late, he’d been made. Time to play the game. 

TERMINATE 

<terminating without shut down may harm subject [3]> 

TERMINATE 

<terminating without shut down may harm subject [2]> 

TERMINATE 

He pulled the jeans on.  

<you cannot terminate during a data download> 

WHAT 

<unknown command> 

DEFINE DOWNLOAD 

<download underway> 

DOWNLOAD PROGRESS 

<download at 2%> 

DOWNLOAD INFO REQUEST 

<engineer data> 

<engineer name> 

<engineer history> 

He pulled the jeans on.  

“Mr Solu, please, we must hurry.” The woman’s voice had taken on a despairing air. The voice was tired, worn down and defeated.  

Solu hated it when people sounded like that. He took a deep breath and jumped up, his fists raised in what he hoped was an intimidating stance. “What do you -” but there was no one in the room.  

In a way, the empty room worried him more than a score of screaming hooligans would have done . Silence provided no barrier, no obstacle to overcome.  

“Hello?” He asked. His voice cracked as he spoke, and he silently chastised himself for showing weakness. He looked at the window behind him, in case the woman speaking was hiding behind that – 

He was pulled roughly backwards and landed at the foot of the bed, one leg in the air.  

“I’d like you to remember that I tried to do this nicely.” The barmaid was now standing above him with her hair pulled back into a ponytail. It made her look more mature, more professional and, Solu had to admit, much more scary. 

She said, “I have to ask you some important questions.”   

From somewhere else in the room Solu heard Triumph’s voice. 

“It’s started.” 

TERMINATE 

<you cannot terminate during an implant data download> 

DOWNLOAD PROGRESS 

<download at 10%> 

“Mr Solu, my name is Chloe. I’m here to help you.” The name was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. Solu watched as she pulled a mobile phone from her pocket. 

“You’ve been on quite the adventure.” 

She showed him a picture. It was him, crouching over an unmoving body. The dead body from earlier.

“I was under Enginner control,” he said.

“I know.”

 Chole swiped. An image this time, taken by a long distance lens, showed him standing with an automatic weapon at some kind of military checkpoint. 

“That’s not me – ” he tried to cough. 

She swiped again and a video started playing. Greg watched himself running at the camera brandishing a blood-stained machete above his head. There was a shudder, and the camera fell to the floor, flicking into darkness. 

“That’s not me.” 

STOP SHOWING THOSE VIDEOS 

<you did this> 

NOT THAT 

<who?> 

THAT WASN’T ME 

<download paused> 

 <who was it?> 

WAS WHAT 

<who controls the shells before you?> 

I DON’T KNOW 

<download resumed> 

Solu reached up and grabbed Chloe’s forearm. 

“It can’t be,” he said, crying, “I’ve only been under for a weekend.” 

Chloe smiled the same sad smile. She put her hand on his cheek. 

“Dad, it’s been eight years.” 

The filter dropped away from his view. Suddenly, Solu could see the world around him properly. The sheen that was in place for almost a decade vanished. He started to remember – deaths in alleyways, murders in holiday resorts. All the time, being controlled and all the time being reset at the end of it. Solu looked at his hands. They were not the hands he’d seen a moment before, instead they were the hands of an older man. His fingers were calloused, his palms thick, hard skin. There was a scar across the back of his left hand wrist – massive and white, it looked like a watch strap burnt permanently on to his skin. 

Above him, hands over her mouth, was Chloe. Not a stranger in a bar, not someone who had abducted him for an unknown reason. His twelve-year-old daughter, who he left only two days ago to have a bit of fun on a long weekend. She was the same, but different. She was grown up, a woman. 

<visual re-acquired>  

IS THIS YOU?  

<unknown command> 

LOCATION 

<location unavailable>  

She leans closer. He recognises her chin, her defined cheeks and the way she brushes her hair out of her face. Some of the little mannerisms that made up the child now made up the woman. 

<message from new user> 

<read?> 

READ 

<release this shell> 

WHY 

<download at 20%> 

STOP DOWNLOAD 

<unknown command> 

<release the shell or I social share download> 

Chloe smiled gently at Greg. She closed her eyes for a moment. 

<connection restored> 

<connection lost> 

His side burned. Solu slapped his hand to his side in reaction, and felt the blood seeping from the wound in his side. This time, pain was different to what he remembered. Although he could feel the burning, there was a rush in head, one of pure happiness.  

Someone struck him across his face, and he collapsed onto his knees, all the time with a smile on his face. Above him Chloe stood with a knife in one hand and the other reaching out toward him. She had three scratches running from her forehead across her eyes. He remembered – that was him. But not him. The Engineer. 

“He tries that again, I’m putting him down,” Triumph sat cross legged in the corner, a laptop balancing on his thighs. He wasn’t looking at him and Chloe, but instead his face was lit up by the screen, casting strange shadowns over his face. 

“Are you getting anything?” Chloe said, pointing the knife hand at her conspirator.  

“Nothing.” 

“Then lets try something else.” She looked at Greg, tears in her eyes. “Stimulate the memory cortex.” 

<download at 50%> 

STOP 

<release this shell> 

STOP 

<invalid request> 

RESET CONNECTION 

<invalid request> 

<release shell> 

FUCK OFF 

<unknown command> 

<download at 60%> 

TERMINATE 

<you do not have permission> 

TERMINATE 

<you do not have permission> 

<tell us where you get the shells from> 

FUCK YOU 

<unknown command> 

Chloe put the knife on the floor behind her. Memories flooded into Greg’s mind. Driving a lorry full of people over the Italian border. Pushing someone underneath a train on a rainy afternoon. Selling a coffin that was rocking with someone trying to escape.

“Dad, can you hear me?” Chloe maintained her distance, but Greg could see the concern on her face. He nodded. “We need to catch whoever is modifying implants like this.”

Greg nodded.

“I need you to think back. Before you are sent out, where are you?” 

Greg tried to remember. 

TERMINATE 

<you do not have permission> 

<implant download at 80%> 

<tell us> 

FUCK YOU 

<unknown command> 

YOU CAN HAVE ONE 

<what?> 

THE NAME OF MY SELLER 

< > 

OR THE SHELL 

“Fuck,” said Triumph from the corner. “Check your feed.” 

And Greg remembered. A figure, opening the door to the small room in which he’d been imprisoned. A bright light as the same person hooked his implant up to a small display. And a sting that shook his whole body as his implant was corrupted. He looked up at Chloe. He felt sick, appalled and angry all at once. He’d wanted a weekend of fun, not a decade of slavery. 

“What do you want to do?” Triumph asked. 

Greg started to cry. There was a sharp pain in his stomach and he doubled over. Then, a sharp shock to his left arm. He tried to use his right hand to steady himself, but he toppled over anyway. 

“Dad,” Chole said, crouching next to him, “do you remember who did this to you?” 

The figure, beckoning him, the light behind her. That was her. He nodded. 

“Are you sure?”  

“He’s bluffing.” Triumph said. “Let’s make a deal.” 

ARE YOU THERE? 

Chloe touched him on the shoulder. It was a gentle touch, but it kept him in place. 

“We’re trying to catch the people that did this to you.”  

Greg looked up at her, and more memories flashed before him. Shooting at women running through trees, taking money from men as they come out of dank hotel rooms, sobbing coming from the room behind them.  

And then going into the room himself. 

ARE YOU THERE? 

“The Engineer running you will give us their name.” 

Greg nodded. 

“Or he will release you.” 

Greg closed his eyes. Chloe placed her hands on his cheeks. The softness of her hands was something he didn’t deserve. What kind of father had he been, what would he be in the future? What kind of man does the things he’d done, even with other people controlling him? How would he – 

What was his life worth now? 

He opened his eyes and looked into the eyes of his daughter. She was crying. Behind her, Triumph tapped furiously at the keyboard in front of him.

“I’m losing control.” Triumph said.

Chloe snapped her head around. “What?”

“Someone else is hacking the implant.”

“No one can hack this implant when we’re in it.”

“Someone can.”

“Dad,” Chloe said, stroking his cheek, “we might lose you. Can you tell us anything?”

Somehow, he knew these would be his last words to his daughter. This would be the last time Greg would be Greg. His implant tingled. He needed to help her, somehow.

He reached up and took her hand from his cheek. He opened his mouth to speak.

<connection restored> 

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