The Recycled Man, part 2’, Rob Sharp

Illustrations © 2009 Cécile Matthey.

Previous chapter: The Recycled Man, part one

 [ Corpsicles © 2009 Cécile Matthey ] There was a thumping in his head as Finn woke up. Not like the usual whisky hangovers he had every morning—this one was accompanied by screams. The Tallyman sat bolt upright on the bed, Salamander already in hand. Even before he struggled to get his pants back on, he stuffed the business end of the gas-fired gun with perfume beads snatched from a shallow bowl next to Julie's bed.

Ever since the two attempts on his life—ha!—his second life—the universe had been turned upside down, and shaken vigorously. He was just a dead man trying to keep his own books balanced in this dour recycled world. 18 months dead, with a custom made personality programmed into his fucking brain; which told him he was a debt collector, a corporate executioner, and a dog lover... Not a bloody moving target!

There was no sign of Julie Francisco, the doctor turned sex-worker he had just spent Happy Hour with, and the screams were getting louder from right outside the door. Seconds later, the sliding panel was smashed in by someone tall and armed with a length of scaffolding, who stood in the settling dust of the corridor.

"I know who you were..." said a grating voice through the haze.

With an almighty swing, the man nearly took the top off Finn's head.

The Tallyman's finger strained on the trigger of his Salamander. It was an easy shot. The perfumed balls should have enough alcohol in them to create a stream of blazing, adhesive pellets. But this was Julie's house, her place of work. She wouldn't be too pleased if it went up in smoke.

"Just put that fucking pole down and let's talk about this," he said, trying the diplomatic route. Finn was rubbish at the diplomatic route. Just to irk him a little bit more, HeadSpace went off with that annoying buzz. The Office again.

His manic attacker, who was a young man clothed in the dark blue boiler suit of a hi-rize window cleaner, also thought he was rubbish at the diplomatic route. With a sudden twist of the pole, he tried to shove the eight foot improvised weapon through Finn's stomach.

"Finn—back on the Book, immediately," twittered his handler Kassandra in one ear.

"Busy now... I'll call back!" Finn replied, as the scaffolding grazed past his chest and embedded itself in the bedroom wall behind him.

Pouring the perfumed balls back out of the gun's muzzle into the palm of his hand, he slipped them into his trouser pocket. Scooping up a sharp chunk of plasterglaze from the wrecked wall, he rammed that home instead.

"You swore on the Lions that this would always matter," his assailant babbled. Finn wondered, almost absent-mindedly what the young man had died of and what cock-eyed insurance contract he'd taken out that had placed him in the hands of the reanimators.

"This country... this green, verdant land should not be stripped away and sold overseas, bit by bit!"

Now the nutter was spouting democrat propaganda. Those political throwbacks that still kicked against the worldwide Corporate system. Government run as and by a Business. Strewth, history had shown communism never worked, and democracy went down the pan shortly after that. The world was a better place under the direct control of Global Conglomerates.

Then, maybe that was just his reprogramming talking.

Finn gave up trying to pacify his attacker. With a belch of fire, the gun launched its jagged chunk of plaster and impaled the man in his left shoulder. The window cleaner looked at the offending item and then returned his full psychopathic attention to trying to smear the Tallyman over all four walls.

"Finn5612. The last two kills you have been involved with have severe repercussions. You must report in person to the fucking Office now!" Kassandra was getting a little annoyed.

"I'm on my way..." lied the Tallyman.

"What's that noise in the background? Did you just discharge your weapon again?" the disembodied voice of his handler squawked in his ear.

Finn hastily cut her off.

"Don't you dare blow him up in my room!" he heard Julie shout from somewhere in the corridor. This raised his game slightly. The screams he had heard mustn't have been hers.

"Well how am I supposed to get this lunatic off my case?" he shouted back through the wrecked doorway.

"You let him out..." the man suddenly butted in, tears now welling in his eyes. "Mum said that he had to stay in the garden, but you let him out!"

The pole caught Finn square in the chest, knocking the breath out of him. Straddled across the bed, wheezing for air, he watched in detached horror as the man loomed over him and raised his weapon above his head, poised to slam it down and spear the Tallyman through the heart.

At the last possible moment, Finn hauled himself to one side, the weapon ripping down his left shoulder blade. Not for the first time did he thank the Company for installing a morphine shunt embedded under his left armpit. For a moment the two antagonists stared at each other, face to face. There was only one thing he could do... Finn bit down hard on the young man's nose and wouldn't let go.

Fist flailing and roaring like a bull in pain, the attacker punched him again and again in the belly. In a blur of movement, Finn could see Julie stood behind them both, with some hand-held gizmo as she frantically crunched in the numbers.

"Keep him off you for just a few more..." she began. Then the man suddenly collapsed heavily across Finn's bruised body. "...seconds..." Julie finished, lowering her remote device.

Finn lay there on his back looking up at that familiar ceiling, catching his breath, and wiping the taste of his attackers blood from his mouth. It didn't take an expert to tell him his dancing partner was dead and it was nothing to do with his actions.

Heaving the corpse off him with his last ounce of energy, he sat up and rubbed the sweat from his face with his crumpled shirt. He glanced over to the ashen-faced Julie, in her pink silk dressing gown and fluffy rabbit slippers.

"How did you do that?" he asked, nodding at the deceased man.

"Every one of you has a biological kill-switch, Finn. Just needed to find the right algorithms."

He stared open-mouthed at the ex-doctor.

"I never knew that... What would have happened if you had found the code for my kill-switch first?"

"I'd be having this conversation with him," she replied, tight lipped.

This whole thing was getting out of hand, Finn mused as he sat on the cross-town Linear Accelerator to Xiang&Whitechapel's prestigious offices. He had cleaned himself up as best he could, with his coat hiding most of the damage and his round fedora pulled low to hide his face from the peepers, but his mind was still in trauma.

He and Julie had pulled just enough out of the kid's skull to confirm that he too was initialised on the same day as Finn and his previous two assailants. Julie had not been able to translate enough glyphs to identify which body shop had done the deed, but she promised to HeadSpace it to him as soon as the figures popped out of her Babbage machine.

He offered to pay for the mess that his xombie attacker had made, but she had shooed him out, reminding him that his Office was getting a shade suspicious that all was not well.

"That's why they had us medics install kill-switches, love. For the public's greater good. If your Office thinks you've gone a little fruit-loops too, they can switch you off quicker than a 10 dollar light bulb!"

Sat on the Accelerator, he wondered why the idea that his employers had created a fail-safe system in their recycled men was such a shock to him. That they could permanently terminate his contract on a whim? It wasn't as if he was a second-class citizen any more. He simply had no class. Dead man walking... still paying off his own debts that he had incurred in an unknown life.

"I know who you were," the voice of his last assailant echoed around his head, as the Accelerator shot between the round towers of Hurricane City on its single magnetic rail.

It wasn't as if he had never wondered before what his original name had been, whether he had been married or if there had been any children left behind when he had died. It was just now, these recycled maniacs seemed to know more about his forgotten past than he did.

Which made it all the more tempting to try and find out who he had once been...

"Don't be such a fool," Julie had reprimanded him as she had helped him to dress. "That is the unforgivable. The ultimate sin. You try and fish out who you were before they brought your body back, and you'll be on the slab with another personality being jammed into your head before nightfall!"

Some of the perfumed balls had squished over them both and the odour filled up his senses, drowning out the smell of his own sweat. He couldn't help noticing how deuced good she looked, all dishevelled and up close like this. She had committed a crime for him. She had used classified knowledge to turn off one of his would-be murderers. Now they had to cover up far more than illegally tapping into other people's persona-maps.

Before he left to answer the Office call, they kissed. It hurt him to leave her alone to dispose of the body. Finn didn't remember feeling this way before in his long eighteen months of shelf life. Just for a second, the 'L' word popped into his head. Then he dismissed it just as quickly. That didn't happen to a corpsicle.

Things churned over in his mind. He kind of guessed that if he had had time to break into his last assailant's living space, he would find the place trashed and that damn eye graffiti sprayed on the wall again. What was this all to do with the anarchist, Ra?

In his initial briefings by the Company on the various democratic terrorist organisations, the current intel couldn't prove whether Ra was a group identity or a single man. These 22nd century hippies chipped away at the Company laws; smuggling bad debtors out of the country, helping people escape the recycling clauses in their life-term contracts. He had read somewhere that ten years ago, 5% of the world's population had entered into repossession of their lifeless corpse, to balance the book on their life. The latest figures now suggested this figure was more like 27%—and rising.

Death was the fastest growing business in the modern world.

It seemed such a little price to pay for being financially looked after in life. No funeral expenses for the deceased's family and sometimes a further cash settlement to the next of kin. What was the harm?

Ask any recycled man that question. Ask them what they thought about during their new, brief life, with all their greatest assets, their memories and personality stripped from them. Living a half-life with a fictional persona, always wondering what actions were your own and what had been programmed into you as you lay on the slab. Like Finn, a second-lifer only began to realised what a violation had been done to them when it was too late.

The central offices of Xiang&Whitechapel were a prestigious affair. Nestled in the heart of the James Brown tower block, they had been built and fitted out in the more frivolous age of the late 21st century. Someone once described it as Art Deco meets Marvel Comics. Finn had hunted for several days for books on those two eclectic art styles.

Hat still pulled low, he walked between the sightless twin statues of some forgotten Greek deities, into the vast oval arena of the office floor, with its domed roof decorated with stain-glass art work. Holographic sights and surround sounds were being projected up from the business floor via a variety of Babbage machines—like a luminescent waltz of light, movement and sound. On the balcony surrounding the business floor, armed Politz thugs were patrolling, their guns mounted on gimbals and pointed inward. The office joke was, whether this was to keep anarchistic elements out, or keep the workers in. No one was ever really sure.

Hurricane City was constantly on an uneasy alert, as was the whole Northern European Block, due to democratic insurrections. These were mainly graffiti and lurid slogans, such as "Votes for the People!' sprayed on national monuments. But there had been shootings and there had been explosions. Who exactly had done these deeds was questionable, but it had been decided in the boardrooms, long ago, that every good Corporate State needed an enemy to keep its Citizens sharp.

Kassandra Pi, ravishing in her auburn wool pencil skirt, magenta silk blouse with padded shoulders, with her copper hair piled up in the present WW2/gauche fashion fad, was not in a good mood.

"You are in so much deep doo-doo, Finn5612!" she berated Finn from her bucket seat before he had even set foot on the office floor proper. "Two dead bodies to log and process... Companies to be contacted and remuneration bonds to be discussed... Several citizen injuries and one Gonzo-bot destruction to place on your book. This is going to tie me down with RedLegislation for a deuced week!"

Flamboyantly, his handler kissed him on both cheeks, whipping the round brimmed hat off his head before she did so.

"You're such a naughty guy! If we didn't have dozens of peeper digi-files to back you up, we'd be looking at a serious spanking here!" she grinned, wiping a smudge of dirt from one cheek, like a mother would her favourite son. Kassandra was barely 22 years old and a born handler. She loved playing the femme fatal, and Finn's little exploits had earned her multiple-bonuses in the last eighteen months. Greed was her god.

But the Tallyman was breathing an inner sigh of relief. There was no mention of a third body. Julie must have managed to spirit it away, with the help of her slightly dodgy business connections.

"What those two bozos were on, we could only guess at. CEO Bok of Xiang&Whitechapel has counselled the European Northern Block Multi-Corporate Committee for increased drugs tests on recycled employees. There's enough substance abuse amongst the living, without frying the minds of the dead too!"

Finn resisted the reply that she should know.

Robotically, he placed his thumb on one of the input pads on Kassandra's table to log in. He noticed she had his files-to-book already pulled up in a holographic stack. The input pad pinged away for a few seconds before it gave him the green light. How Julie had been able to mask what had happened to him in the last few hours was beyond him. She really did know the workings of a crown of thorns inside out.

Then the rocket went up.

Ten-point alarms began to clang around the office floor, as Kassandra's desk began to pulse with a sickly green light. The clack and hum of maser rifles training on him, made him freeze to the spot.

"Oh, you naughty, naughty boy..." his handler muttered, her fingers tripping over the lightkeyboard. "You've picked up a bug!"

Finn knew the routine. Hands flat out on the table before him, an armourlite Politz officer relieved him of his Salamander and a second mute Company thug ran a detection rod across his body. It beeped when the rod was passed over his left forearm. Still leaning on the table with his right hand, the Tallyman allowed Kassandra to slip his left coat sleeve off and roll up his shirt. Embedded in his arm was the tiniest of bumps.

Around any modern city, cleansed of most natural insect life, buzzed miniature peepers on tiny wings. Little industrial spies. Once they landed on an unsuspecting person, they would burrow into thick clothing or even under the skin, to transmit Corporate secrets back to rival Companies. Slipping on a microthin pair of rubber gloves, Kassandra took great delight cutting into his skin with a disposable scalpel to remove the cybernetic bug.

What no one noticed, just as Finn and Julie had planned, was he had never removed his thumb from the input pad. With his files wide open, out of their usual impenetrable digital vaults, he was streaming everything he could see via HeadSpace back to the pleasure rooms.

That little bit of theatre done with, with weapon returned, Finn strode casually back out of the offices, leaving Kassandra to dissect the bug he'd picked up and see who was tagging her Tallymen.

"There were a full eight bodies initialised in your pack," Julie's voice came over HeadSpace, once he was out of Xiang&Whitechapel peeper range. "There was you, the three you have killed and three more who have committed suicide in the last fifteen hours."

"No coincidence there. Something went wrong when they brought us back. Something at the body shop where the reanimation was done..." he muttered, pretending to look over the balcony at the Elephant Gardens from an elevated walkway, laid out in stacks and home to various rescued species of African wildlife.

"The other survivor of batch ST9/RL/Jun8/2102 is called John9595. Funny that... he's a Tallyman too for Xiang&Whitechapel. No information on who you were before you died. That's perfectly normal. A Company purchases clean and newly personalised corpsicles from the independent body shops. They have no interest in who the xombie's were before they died. Information like that should be held at the body shop in question."

He held his breath. She was grandstanding again.

"Which is?" he finally got out.

"The rather darkly titled, Sweeny Todd Esquire. Somebody's got a sick sense of humour."

"Let's see if they're still laughing after I've paid them a fucking visit," Finn replied, already following the map Julie had placed inside his mind.

The lower levels of Hurricane City lost some of the shine, which the Companies liked to keep in their business and social districts. Old heating ducts and exhumed sewer pipes had been revealed as the city had burrowed deeper below the rising sea level to create new foundations. Reaching Apple Way, Finn knew he was getting close to his destination. The moving pavements ran out and he had to walk.

The body shop of Sweeny Todd Esquire sat in an old converted mill, which had been reinforced over thirty years ago when the pillar-shells of Hurricane were first raised. Its red brickwork, encased in a peeling reinforced gel looked almost unreal. How anything that old had stood up to two centuries of climatic corrosion was a mystery.

Inside, the place was a similar time capsule to things best forgotten. Squeezing through the rotting wooden door, on terminally rusted hinges, one energy-saving light bulb lit an empty hall-way and staircase. Cracks patterned the walls, the bare staircase was littered with mouse droppings and there was a dead pigeon rotting slowly in one corner. All nice camouflage. Tentatively, Finn began to climb up the creaking stairs.

Three floors up, the walls were suddenly white, having been skimmed with a vegetable resin. White metallic doors lined the corridor, sliding into invisible frames, each with a newly installed thumb pad next to them. Peeper boxes clustered around each entrance, little red lights winking to show they were awake.

The body shop had a conservative brass plaque next to its door. He stuck his thumb in the usual place and the ironglass shard overrode any security code, making the door hiss open. Like an animal must have felt being taken to the vet, back when people were allowed to keep pets, Finn felt ill at ease. The pristine white walls with their low-energy blue light lines resonated with the sense of death.

At least they did to him, because this was where he had been reborn.

No one seemed to be around. The narrow entrance soon opened up into a large floor space, sectioned off with opaque curtains into separate cubicles. The soft hiss of pneumatic pumps and an odd clickerty-clack came from all sides. His heart beating a little faster, Finn risked pulling the nearest curtain aside.

There were eight slabs grouped around a central medicGonzo behind the grey curtain. Only three tables were occupied in this particular resurrection suite—all heads pointing inward. Their naked bodies were covered with flimsy green sheets, their vital organs hooked up to tubes and wires as the Gonzo monitored and breathed for each of them. Whilst the sound of clicking needles came from a host of spider-like Waldos that were working frantically on the cadavers' exposed brains.

Cutting, slicing and cauterising... Finn could feel the bile rising in his throat.

In the next area, seven more bodies were being prepped for a new life. In the one beyond that, five. The automatic surgeons shaving away slivers of human brain and dropping the pieces into recycling bins, making way for the artificial crown of thorns. Preparing the dead to receive their new personas.

It was all sickeningly fascinating, as the Tallyman watched limbs being replaced, muscles toned and plastic surgery alter faces. Wouldn't be good for business if a widow had a screaming fit in her local WAXTescoMicrosoft as she bumped into her dead husband.

It all left Finn cold, as he imagined himself and the seven other bodies in batch ST9/RL/Jun8/2102 being cleansed of everything that made them who they once were. Waiting to be initialised. Born again into the all-embracing, Corporate world, where the average Citizen didn't give a fig about their recycled cousins.

Shelter+Warmth+Food+Occasional Sex = A Happy Citizen.

"Really... for a Tallyman, you do blunder into things like an amateur," said a cold, articulate voice from behind Finn. "Now, remove your Salamander with the thumb and forefinger of your left hand and drop it in that medical waste bin next to you," the voice commanded.

In the reflective stainless steel surfaces around him, Finn could see the distorted image of a short man dressed in green. The man, a doctor by his clothes, was pointing a blunt gun at the Tallyman's back. He calculated the distance between them, and then let out a sigh. Doing as he was ordered, he dropped his ornate weapon into the metal container, where it landed with a dull squish amongst the body waste.

Without waiting to be told otherwise, Finn turned to face his captor.

The middle-aged doctor with an almost hairless head but an impressive moustache, smiled wryly. He had a gap between his two front teeth. Finn smiled back, as best he could. You didn't see many moustaches these days. Plus, you didn't see many illegal African Corps masers pointing at you either.

"Nice piece," he tried to get the conversation going, nodding at the gun.

"You haven't a clue who I am, have you?"

"Well actually, I have. You're Doctor Karsten Johannson, from the information I stole from the Office. I've always had my doubts about Kassandra's honesty. I presume some illegal peeper embedded in her desk told her I'd hacked into my personal file?"

The Doctor pulled a face. "Now you've spoiled my little reveal. How do you think a handler like her affords fine dresses and supports several nasty habits? A few back-handers from the body shops here... a touch of blackmail there... you'd be surprised what that little minx gets up to!"

"No I wouldn't," Finn scowled. "So, what's the game, doctor? Why have snippets of my original memories been scattered through a complete batch of recycled cadavers?"

"A fascinating accident, I'm afraid. I can't claim the cerdit for that one. But what I think you really want is to find out who you once were. What all those dreams and visions mean." He patted a fat, innocuous looking drum, embedded in the brick wall next to him. "It's all stored here in the shop core-frame."

Johannson sat down in a swivel chair, the fat barrelled weapon beginning to grow heavier. Finn could already detect a tremor in the man's right hand.

" By the way—I've already cheated and looked. Your parents bought Scruffy as a pup when you were four years old. They thought it would teach you some responsibility. Rather stupidly, they left you both playing in that tiny front garden somewhere on the new south coast, and you left the gate open, silly boy... Scruffy got converted into road-kill when a five-coach wagon train flattened him. Never should have allowed those lorry-trains to take the C roads."

Finn suddenly felt an odd lurch inside his gut. His eyes began to prickle at the image of that little dog swam back into his memory and he had to chew his bottom lip for a moment, to try and regain some composure.

"Do you get off rummaging through dead men's memories, Johannson?" he asked. The gun jerked back up, aiming for his face.

"Only the special ones. And you, my boy, were very special... Mark." Johannson smiled at him, regaining the upper hand.

"Mark..." Finn repeated, rolling the name around with his tongue. It was proving difficult to stick to the game plan. "So what happened? How did the operation screw up?"

The doctor waved the maser around in a distracted sort of way.

"Do you know the oldest a Recyc lives to? Eight pathetically short years. You all go mad, often before then... that's what the constant psych screening is really for. That yawning gulf behind you and your lost past eats away at you like a cancer, until we have to put you down like the animals you are and re-initialise you all over again."

"Something to look forward to, I suppose," Finn shrugged.

This ticked his captor off a touch.

"You think you're all so deuce clever! Pain management, reinforced skeletal structure, increased stamina... personality created by lottery rotation from a Babbage. But you, Mark... You thought you were the bee's knees when you were first alive!"

The doctor laughed and sat back in his chair. Finn gritted his teeth. The trajectory had been better when he had been sat forward.

"Little Mark Brass... still pining for his mummy's embrace. The things I could tell you about you..."

The Tallyman just smiled. It was time to play his joker.

"I was still alive, wasn't I, when you hooked me into your machines? A learned friend of mine told me that there was no way any remnants of memory could be retained after initialisation—let alone passed down the line—from dead mind to dead mind. So I had to be alive, laid out on one of those tables with spider-knives cutting into my brain... as you killed me."

He spoke the words as cold as that. Finn had worked it out between the Office and the body shop, but couldn't quite believe it was true. Until the expression of rage on Johannson's face confirmed his darkest suspicions. The Company had had him murdered.

The doctor leaned forward again, both hands around the shaking maser.

"The docket said you were dead. When I first hooked you up, I thought you were dead! If I wasn't so deuce lazy I'd write a paper on how a living patient's memories can be scattered through any number of linked resurrected brains. As you gasped your last, all those private little memories must have flooded through the Gonzo-system to your fellow Recycs. Must have driven them raving-crazy!"

"It's the thought that kills," Finn snorted.

"Still trying to be a clever bugger eh, Mark? Not on your own this time, though. Kassandra's traced the little line from you to your pet strumpet. Sending round the Tallymen for her as we speak. But you're still the clever college boy with all the smart answers. You and your politically extinct pals sat in your retro-coffee bars discussing the next revolution. I mean—democracy? Don't make me laugh! When Joe Public had the right to vote, back in the day when he was using up the Earth's resources like there was no tomorrow, what did he do with it? Sat on his fat backside in front of the Mural, too bone-idle to go out and put a cross on a scrap of paper!

"People need the Company. The Company feeds and clothes them and keeps them in work. Educates their sluggish brats and even takes their mortal remains away when they choke to death on their spun Soya burgers."

He raised the gun a little higher, an insane gleam in his eye, his finger tightening on the trigger.

"Is it such a high price for the Company to demand its pound of flesh in return?"

There was a loud retort, as Finn's Salamander went off in the waste bin.

Shrapnel and bone fragments ripped out through the side of the container, tearing through the doctor's right leg, severing it just below the knee.

Johannson's mouth opened in a silent scream, as Finn took two steps forward and caught him as he fell, disarming him with ease. With a deft judo flick, he dropped the little man flat on his back on one of the empty slabs.

"Julie... Get out of there now! They know!" he shouted into HeadSpace. There was no reply from the other end—only static.

As the doctor began to scream with the delayed pain, Finn silently pinned him down with metal restraints. Picking a water resistant pen from a little rack next to the still bank of spiders, he drew a neat dotted line across the man's forehead.

"You wouldn't!" Johannson squealed. "You couldn't..."

"I'm a Tallyman, doctor. You made me capable of murder without any thoughts of remorse. Remember... the books must always be balanced."

"No... Nooo!"

Finn leaned forward, his face inches from his former antagonist.

"Who was I?" he croaked in a horse voice.

"I already told you! Mark Brass... your name was Mark Brass!"

If Kassandra had sent the heavies out after Julie, it made sense that she had sent a bunch over to Sweeny Todd's too. He didn't have enough time to try and hack into the shop's archives. Deftly, he punched the button to start the lobotomy process on Johannson.

"Who... was... I?" he repeated the question, as tiny buzz saws began to cut along the dotted line.

At that moment, Finn saw how quickly a man could go mad. His voice paralysed with the pain, Johannson spasmodically drew something on the table with one finger, using his own blood as ink. Then the hand went limp. The first incision into his cerebellum had begun.

Finn looked quietly at the sign the dying man had drawn and he finally realised the truth. It was a ragged image of a single eye. Big Brother, back after such a long time.

The sign of Ra.

Running at full tilt, time now short if not completely out, the Tallyman crashed down the rotting stairs and out of that charnel house—to nearly mow down a woman with a mass of curly auburn hair. The woman he thought he'd killed by knocking her into the sea the previous night.

She held out a hand, as he raised his Salamander.

"Wait! Is Johannson dead?"

"Near enough," Finn replied, tersely.

"Good. John wants to see you. Sort all this out."


"John9595. The recycled man who ended up with the lion's share of your old memories..."

The lion's share. Now wasn't that something. There was a joke hiding in there, somewhere, waiting to roar. But Finn quietly holstered his gun and followed the girl with the curly hair through the foundations of Hurricane City. Wanting this all done.

Wanting an end to it.

The boats were floating in loose formation, drifting through the drowned streets of Old London. The lead Viking skiff hoisting a proud sail with the red white and blue of Ra' eye. In their coffee-shop days, the radical students discussing Cultural Revolution had ripped-off Egyptian iconography just because it looked Kool.

Nelson's Column still stood proudly, if a little weather beaten, in the centre of the lake that was once Trafalgar Square, coated in lichen and high tide marks. More boats of all shapes and sizes were waiting for them there. Finn felt suddenly unprepared in the face of so many of the enemy and had to fight his programming and not call in backup.

He'd forgotten—he didn't work for the Company any more.

As he had fled from the body shop, he had sent a single word command back to Kassandra's desk; to start its Babbage spewing her secrets out to the rest of the Office. She'd have her hands full covering her own backside for a while. But the Company, in all its terrible glory would eventually turn its all-consuming attention back to him.

John was waiting for him on the wooden platform they had built around the column, now only half its former height, the rest of it hidden beneath the choppy waves. He was an unassuming person. Dark haired. A little overweight for a Tallyman. Finn had probably walked right past him a dozen times when reporting back to the Office.

The head of Ra... The top dog of the democratic terrorists, leading the double life of a Company's Man.

"Congratulations," said Finn, "You've obviously lived my former life better than I did, or I would have never been caught."

"I doubt that," John9595 smiled back. "They jammed my head full of a fake identity, then all of your cruddy memories piled on the top. Mark Brass' memories came crashing in like a fucking tidal wave and screwed me over. You were a real student Meep in your day!"

"What happened? What started this mess?" Finn asked, fingers spasming to draw his gun. His programming ever-lurking just beneath his skin.

This man was an enemy of the Company, after all.

"Gemma?" John asked the girl with the curly hair.

"We were in a demo around the Wembley Arena. Peaceful stuff at first, until the Company decided to let off a few bombs and blame us. They sent in the Tallymen... to balance the books. You were shot, Mark. They gunned you down like a dog—sorry. Sore point, that. Mum and Dad never forgave you for Scruffy..."

The enemy of the Company is my enemy. Balance the books. Balance... the... books...

"It's Gemma Brass, by the way. I'm your sister." The tears of mixed emotions ran down her face. "Sorry about the axe and the foot and all of that. Anyway, the Company needed information from you about Ra's activities. Johannson decided to put you on the slab whilst you breathed, to get it out of you, but the system crashed. As you died, your memories were looped through the other seven corpses. Little engram time bombs waiting for the right moment to explode. Which was your 100th kill. Your automatic recall for servicing triggered them all off.

"Only John had enough of you to make sense of it all. He'd found us not long after your... and... well, he plays a good you, let's put it that way. Ra lived on."

"I was Ra?"

She nodded in reply to Finn's blank-faced question.

"Corny, I know. But the graphics worked. You came up with all the slogans too. 'Rule Britannia, Britannia beneath the waves'. I always liked that one."

"But now it's time to take the memories back, Finn5612... Mark," his stand-in said quietly.

For once, just at the right moment, the winds that usually blew night and day through the submerged city fell still in some sort of reverence.

Finn knew what he had to do. There was a pounding in his head, but his programming knew what to do.

Ever the Tallyman, Finn drew his Salamander smoothly and pointed its business end at John9595.

"I'm arresting you for civil terrorism, under the Inter-Company Law of 2190."

All around the flooded square, a miss-match of guns were cocked and loaded.

"Don't be such a fucking fool!" John begged. "This was your cause. These were your ideas! I'm just the poor bugger who had them jammed inside his head! I've done all of this for the downtrodden citizens of the British Isles!"

"Democracy was always a flawed ideal," said Finn, and blew the platform between them to matchwood with an explosive bullet.

The water was freezing and salty as they both plunged beneath its surface. The smoke and debris masking what was going on from the rest of the urban terrorists. Both men's heavy woollen clothing dragged them down in a swirl of collapsing scaffolding and bubbles, their hands on each other's throats.

What was going through John's mind, the Recyc who'd lived with another man's memories for a year and a half, was impossible to tell. But Finn's own training had taken over. There would be no passing the baton on—he could never be Ra again. In a world of red, with his HeadSpace crashing like a machinegun to the brain, Finn had no choice other than killing this pretender.

Good = Evil.

Balance the Books...

As they fought, both drowning beneath the freezing waves, Finn's visor popped neatly out of its skull-jack and the two of them turned and tumbled, sinking deeper into the debris of Old London. At least no one would be able to send his kill-code now... If John didn't do the job first.

He really hoped Julie had got clear before the heavy mob turned up.

A ragged image of a little black and white dog skipping down a garden path flickered in front of the young Mark... Balance the books, screamed the other half of his recycled brain.

You have been given a second life by the Company. Use it wisely... Use it for us.

In a dream, Finn reached beneath the water and felt in his trouser pocket. His hand closing around the perfume balls he'd taken from Julie's room. The scent of her was flooding his mind, as the lack of oxygen to the brain began to cloud his vision causing black blobs before his eyes.

As the two versions of the same man sank passed the noble head of one of Trafalgar Square's stone lions, its vacant eyes watched their dance unfold in silence. The sunken lions which those young, politically active students had drifted above all those years ago. Sworn an oath to a forgotten ideal. How many of them were still alive?

Finn realised dimly he would probably never know.

Loading the barrel of his Salamander with the perfumed balls, Finn jammed the gun into John's mouth. There was just one last, frantic struggle as the man realised he was dead, and the Tallyman pulled the trigger. Even underwater, the gas gun ignited the perfume, lighting up the inside of John's skull and illuminating the underwater lions for just a few seconds, whilst the impostor burned...

The living cube seemed all the more cramped when Finn returned to it later that evening. It'd taken hours through a series of sewer tunnels and back alleys to reach his home again. A man wearing sodden clothes, stinking of seawater was rather too conspicuous on the main streets of Hurricane City. Plus there had been the peepers to sideline and avoid.

He sat down heavily on the inflatable chair, leaving his soaking wet coat in a heap by the door. The prize sat on the Babbage table, leaving small puddles of blood where its razor sharp points touched the glass surface. Next to that, he placed a fresh carton of whiskey.

The world inside Finn5612's head teetered on the edge of total mental collapse. He was a Company Man. How much Company subliminal brainwashing was tied into the fictional persona of Finn, he had no idea. But you don't make an army of commercial xombies without building in a ton of safeguards.

Yet John9595's artificial persona had succumbed to the lies of Mark Brass—that was the crux of the problem. Programming or not, Finn agreed with the psychopathic Doctor Johannson. Democracy didn't work. But neither did Corporate Dictatorships. Only in Africa were they more honest by calling their CEO's 'presidents'.

He poured three fingers of whiskey into a tumbler and stared at his prize. There had been no time to mess about linking his mind with the impostors. A more hands-on answer was needed.

 [ Trafalgar © 2009 Cécile Matthey ] Julie had been right. The crown of thorns that was sat on his table, cut from the dead brain of John, was a thing of beauty.

Sometime soon, when all the fuss over the body shop and Kassandra's duplicity died down, some bright spark would wonder if he really was that dumb to go back to his living space. Then sometime shortly after that, the ceiling would cave in and Politz multiple maser fire would reduce him to a pile of dog food. If he still had a dog that was. If anyone still had a dog...

He placed the crumpled picture of the scruffy little canine that may or may not have looked like his childhood pet, next to the crown of thorns. All he had to figure out was, was it worth it? Was surrendering himself to a series of crackpot political ideas in order to find his childhood memories really worth it?

Was that what really mattered, in the final reckoning? Family... friends... old memories like a rich glass of whiskey, trickling down inside a man's mind. All he had to do was jack his own crown into this one, and the forgotten past of Mark Brass would be his—political warts and all.

What to do... What to do...

He sighed, deeply. Whilst he decided which road to take, he would have a little drink.

© 2009 Rob Sharp

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News