When Edward is woken at stupid-o-clock by a prank call, he’s not amused. He’s even less amused when his breakfast is ruined by a letter saying much the same thing. But his amusement become something quite different when he finally takes a trip to the Yard, and the world he knows it turned upside down…
‘You’re defective. I’m terribly sorry, there seems to have been a mistake in the early stages of your manufacture. It’s nothing too serious, structural I think, but enough to bring you back in.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I pull the phone away from my ear and stare at it a moment. I didn’t recognise the number. Why did I answer it, I never answer when I don’t know the number. I rub the sleep from my eyes and glance at the clock. That’s why. It’s half four in the ruddy morning.
I put the phone back to my ear, intent on saying exactly that, but the gentleman on the other end, who sounds like he lives in the 1930s, continues before I can get a word in.
‘I know it’s terribly inconvenient but could you make it tomorrow, please? We have a very tight turnaround on this before the authorities get uppity and we have very high standards to maintain.’
I open my mouth to complain again and stop. Why am I even bothering? This is some kind of sick prank call, which would even be potentially funny if it wasn’t so damned early. So I end the call, switch my phone to silent, and let my head rest back on the pillow. Sleep comes easy.
The alarm makes me want to vomit, but I crawl out of bed and into the shower. After far too long beneath the scalding water, I lurch into the kitchen, grab some cereal, and slump at the table. Down the hall I can see a letter on the mat. I must have missed it yesterday, because the postman is never this early.
Something compels me to stagger down the hall, scoop up the letter, and amble back to my breakfast. I dump it on the table, stuff a spoonful of cereal into my mouth, and flip it over.
That’s it. No address, nothing. Explains why it’s on the mat, because the postman didn’t deliver it. I tear it open and pull out the single piece of paper inside.
Due to a structural defect, units 1007 – 1057 are being recalled for termination. Please present yourself, with all affairs in order, at the address at the top of this letter. You need to arrive before 10:30pm, on Tuesday 3rd November, 2015.
The Manufacturers? Sounds like some dodgy industrial band. My brain flashes back to the weird call I received a couple of hours ago and I wrinkle up my nose. This is one elaborate prank. Then again, if you’re gonna get up at half four to prank call someone, you must be pretty serious about it in the first place.
The address is some random building in an industrial estate in the middle of town. I don’t think I knew there were industrial estates in the centre of London, but it’s a W1 postcode, and you don’t get much more central than that.
My morning routine means I’m ready to leave in 20 minutes and I find myself back at the kitchen table, musing over the piece of paper. I’m almost tempted to turn up to the address, just to see what happens. I shrug, stuff the letter in my pocket, and head for the door.
The sun keeps bouncing off my office window. It’s a welcome sight at this time of year but it keeps distracting me from my spreadsheets. I hate spreadsheets, with a passion. It does beg the question of why I got a job where I spend half my life filling them in, but that’s one I stuff to the back of my mind, as I’ve done so often before.
Lunch begins with me tugging the paper back out of my pocket. It’s the third today, so they’ve not given me much notice. There’s certainly no chance of me getting my affairs in order. Not that there’s much to my affairs. A few bits of furniture, a photo of ‘the one who got away’, a house with half the mortgage paid off. Nothing remarkable, nothing to write home about. My folks passed away a few years back, so there’s no one to miss me…
I sniff and stuff the letter away. It’s a hoax. A good one, but still a hoax.
Cheese and pickle sandwich today, and a hot chocolate because I’m feeling glum. Put my affairs in order. Is there really anyone who has to spend weeks doing that? I get a vague vision of a couple swanning around in a vineyard, chatting about who was going to get the summer house and what they’d do with the yacht. Then again, someone who lives like that wouldn’t be recalled for a manufacturing defect.
I can’t decide what’s made me glum, the letter itself, or the horrible, yawning feeling that my life has finally clicked into place. I’ve spent far too much of my life wondering what was wrong, wondering whether other people felt the same way I did. I always assumed they did, they were just better at hiding it. Now, though, I’m thinking differently. Now I’m wondering if the empty kind of sadness I’ve felt most of my adult years is due to a manufacturing defect.
Part of me loves the idea. Part of me would love there to be an excuse, a reason for my uselessness. But the rest of me, the bit that got through school without killing myself, and got through uni without killing someone else, hates it. How dare they? Whoever they are, how dare they suggest there’s something wrong with me?
And what do they mean, a structural defect? Is that like my bones aren’t set properly? Because I’ve come off my mountain bike more than once, and a skateboard more times than I can count and I’ve never broken anything. Not one bone. Come to think of it, I don’t get cut much either.
But thinking that doesn’t help, because it brings me back round to thinking the defect must be in my head. And there’s plenty broken in there.
The afternoon passes blessedly quickly and the unseasonal sun is still shining when I skip out at half four. It’s a little early, perhaps, but no one gives a crap. I get my work done and it’s always good quality, so they’ve no reason to moan. I’m sure they would if I left this early every day, but I’m often in at half six, beavering away on something to save me going home to my empty flat and photo.
I’ve got loads of photos of Becki on my phone. We meet for dinner every few months and natter about our respective lives. I sit across the table from her, eyes never straying far from the wedding ring on her finger, wondering why I never asked. It’s an exquisite torture, but I wouldn’t dream of not making our dates. And, to my surprise, she’s not cancelled one yet, in nearly ten years. Maybe she’s waiting for me to ask.
I sniff at myself as I wave away the free newspaper vendor on my way into the tube. She’s married, what exactly would she be expecting me to ask? But I still love that photo, of her just after we left sixth form. Her hair’s being blown about and she’s got one hand holding it against the side of her head, but her smile never fails to stop my heart.
I blink as we roll into a station and I realise I’ve gone the wrong direction. Except I haven’t. I leap out of my seat and out the door, then dash up the escalator. I’m not in any hurry to meet the Manufacturers, but I know if I don’t get there soon I’m going to lose my nerve.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I tap the postcode from the top of the letter into my phone and let it guide me through the streets of central London. I’m marched through Soho and down towards the river until I’m in amongst the government buildings. It’s not far from here to the Houses of Parliament, though I’m not going all the way.
The map turns me a sharp left and I’ve reached my destination. I’m standing before a red door, shining bright in the sun like it’s proud of its bold colour. There’s no number or bell, but as I raise my hand to knock, the door is opened and a woman in a white lab coat looks up at me.
She’s slow to speak, instead letting her eyes run from my feet up to my head and back again. I feel like I’m in one of those new biometric passport machines in the airport. Should I smile or keep a flat expression? Her beautifully-shaped eyebrows rise and her mouth curves in what looks like a smile. I say looks like because there’s absolutely no humour in it whatsoever.
‘It appears that way.’
‘We’ve not had many so far. Can I be the first to apologise for this. It really is terribly embarrassing a—’
‘You can’t be the first because the inconsiderate person who woke me at half four this morning takes that honour. He said it was embarrassing as well, but it might surprise you to know I’m really not that bothered by your level of embarrassment. What I’d like to know is what…’
I trail off, clearing my throat. What I’d like to know is what the hell I’m doing here, but I’ve already engaged in this stupid conversation so asking that now would look beyond stupid. ‘What I’d like to know is what sort of compensation you intend to extend me as a result of your failure.’
Those eyebrows leap skywards and the smile goes. She steps back, then steps forward again, then coughs. ‘I think perhaps it’s best if you come inside.’
‘I’m sure you do, but until I receive an answer to what is an entirely reasonable question, I have no intention of stepping through that door.’
‘Oh dear.’ She shakes her head and rolls her eyes. As far as customer service goes, it’s not a great start. ‘That is a really pity, Mr Tillerson, I had really hoped we wouldn’t need to resort to such measures.’
‘What happened to Edward?’
‘I think it best if we remain on formal grounds until this is cleared up.’
‘You think it best. That’s bloody splendid, I’m glad you think it best. Now who’s going to answer my question?’
She finally turns her attention fully on me, eyes boring into mine. I feel something slip inside me, like my heart lurches when I miss the bottom step of the stairs. When she speaks again, her voice sounds like she’s speaking at the bottom of a well.
‘Edward Tillerson, enter the Yard, now.’
I’m moving, though I have no idea why. I don’t want to go through the door, but something is dragging me, forcing my limbs to work. Although, forcing makes it sound like I’m trying to resist it, and I’m not. I’m moving with alacrity and without any intention of doing anything else, despite knowing I don’t want to.
It’s the foulest feeling I’ve ever had. It makes me feel like I’ve got spiders crawling under my skin. I don’t know how they’d be crawling under there, it makes no sense, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
I step through the door and something else slips inside. This is, quite possibly, my grasp on reality. I’d expected a corridor, or maybe a reception area. I’m standing in a warehouse larger than any building I’ve ever been in. The walls are coloured silver and chrome, with pipes and girders running here and there. The floor beneath my feet is white as well, shiny and tiled, and buffed to a high sheen.
I can’t see the ceiling. I’m sure it’s there, but ropes and pulleys, chains and vast platforms, obscure it from view. There’s something not quite right, aside from the obvious, and it takes me a second to work out what it is.
Silence. Not quite silence, not really, but with all the random crap in this place, I’d expect a clamour, noise coming from everywhere. Instead, I can hear the gentle clank of the nearest chains, displaced by my entrance, and my own breathing.
‘What the hell is this place?’
‘This is the Yard, Mr Tillerson.’
‘I got that. What’s the Yard?’
‘It’s a manufacturing centre, for the most part, though we do some servicing as well.’
‘What do you manufacture?’
‘Do you really need to ask that?’
‘I really do.’
‘People, Mr Tillerson.’
‘Anyone that is needed.’
‘Needed by who?’
‘I think they’re changing that.’ I glare at her, daring her to challenge me. She doesn’t need to. She just stands and waits. I crack first. ‘Fine. Needed by whom?’
‘And the Watchers are?’
‘The people who run our planet.’
‘There are people who run this place? Really? I only ask because I’d have thought if there actually was a centralised form of control, they wouldn’t be making such a terrible hash of it.’
‘Hah hah. You might be amused to know they’re very happy with the job they’re doing. Except, of course, in the case of you and your peers.’
‘Yes. The other 1000 Units.’
‘There are a 1000 of me?’
‘Oh no, sorry, 1000 is your unit code. There were 50 of you made, just as with the previous units.’
‘Not quite. Please, come this way.’
‘If I say no, will you do that creepy voice thing and make me?’
‘I’d rather not get into that, Mr Tillerson.’
I follow her. I’m tempted to dig my heels in, just because I’m fairly certain raping my mind makes her feel uncomfortable. But I’m also fairly certain that my own level of discomfort is considerably higher, so I trudge along in her footsteps, ignoring the massive steel hooks hanging above my head.
There’s a part of me that seems to be hovering above my head, watching the proceedings with something akin to utter astonishment. It’s impressed that I haven’t dropped to the floor, gibbering and giggling insanely. It’s impressed that I seem able to take the complete impossible in my stride. Maybe that’s part of my defect too, I don’t know, but I do know I should be considerably more freaked out than I am.
I know a place this large doesn’t exist in central London. I know I was just compelled by something I’m finding more and more difficult to think of as anything other than God. And I know the woman walking in front of me isn’t human. Or at least, isn’t what I understand human to be. But somehow I’m still standing and apparently still in charge of my functions and mind.
It takes twenty minutes to reach the right hand wall of the Yard where we reach another door. This one is a bright, cheerful blue, like you’re only allowed primary colours in the Yard. My guide doesn’t strike me as a primary colours sort of girl.
She pushes open the door and we walk through into something a little closer to what I’d expected. The floor is still shiny white but the ceiling’s not too far away and I can see all the walls. But my eyes are drawn to the seven people milling around a group of sofas in the middle of the room.
The nearest turns to look at us as we enter and my throat closes up. I open my mouth to speak and discover I can’t, so I burst out coughing instead. It’s the sort of cough where the first one burns your throat and the rest just strip it of any moisture. I hack until my eyes water, then look up.
He’s still looking at me. Or rather, I’m still looking at me. It’s me. He’s got different clothes on and is leaning against the sofa in a way I’d never feel relaxed enough to, but it’s still me. I step closer like I’m expecting him to launch himself at me, but he doesn’t. He smiles instead, the sort of smile I can imagine myself giving someone just before I give them the bad news.
As I get up close, I spot the differences. His hair’s a bit lighter than mine and his nose isn’t exactly the same shape. Maybe a few less freckles, but I’m reaching now. If someone saw us in the street, they’d think we were brothers at the least, more likely twins.
My skin’s crawling, sweat trickling down my neck. I scrub at it, wincing at the coolness of it, and bring my hand back to my side. I’m trying to decide what to say when another of them turns round and I almost choke. It’s me, only this one is a woman. She’s lucky because the differences are more pronounced here. Is it weird I find her attractive? Not sexually attractive, but I know she’s pretty. Would I look that good if I put a wig on?
‘Mr Tillerson, please wait here and I’ll find someone to discuss your question regarding compensation.’
‘Thank you.’ I say it like she’s just told me the doctor will be with me in a moment. I look around for the table of magazines, but it’s just the sofas and the other mes.
‘Hi.’ I say to no one in particular. The man who’s smiling at me sticks out a hand.
‘Hi. I’m Daniel.’
‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘Yeah, I’ve got to be honest, I’d have happily never met you. I mean, are you me?’
‘I haven’t a clue. They asked me to come and I couldn’t really say no.’
‘I bet you wanted to, though?’
‘It was weird, because I did, but at the same time, I didn’t.’
‘What are we doing here?’
‘Waiting.’ The woman answers this time. She’s sitting over the back of the sofa and now swings her trouser clad legs over to face me. ‘Just bloody well waiting.’ She even sounds a bit like me. Same impotently frustrated tones.
‘But what for?’
She shrugs. The man shrugs. Silence falls. As the afternoon wears on, another ten people are led into the room. 18 of us out of 50. I’m just trying to decide who the smart ones are when my woman comes back.
‘Mr Tillerson, if you’d like to come this way?’ She says it like I have a choice. I’m getting the strongest feeling I don’t have a choice about anything. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m wondering whether I should be blaming this lot for never asking Becki to go out with me.
She leads me into an office that contains a wooden desk and two huge swivel chairs, one on either side. In the one behind the desk sits a man I would swear I’ve seen on an advert somewhere. He has perfect hair and, when he smiles, I see perfect teeth hiding behind his perfect lips. It’s the sort of look you either spend thousands getting or spend your life hated for having naturally. I already hate him a bit.
‘Mr Tillerson, please, sit down.’
‘Thanks.’ I do so, leaning back to get the full comfort from the chair. And it’s a lot of comfort, this thing is superb.
‘Nice chair, huh?’
‘So what seems to be the problem?’
‘Well, I’d like to know why you’ve asked me to come here. I’d like to know how long we’re going to be here. And I’d like to know what compensation I can expect for the upset and distress you’ve caused me over the last 24 hours?’
The man raises a perfectly manicured hand and ticks the answer off on his fingers. ‘We’ve asked you here because the 1000 units have been demonstrating some serious structural issues which, upon deeper investigation, we believed were caused by a flaw in the manufacturing process. You’ll be here another few hours at most. There will be no compensation because what point would there be in granting you compensation for the few hours of life you have left?’
‘Which part would you like me to repeat?’
‘The part where you tell me I only have a few hours left to live.’
He chuckles, like it’s all a big joke, and leans forward onto the desk. ‘Mr Tillerson, I understand you’re new to this, so I apologise—’
‘I don’t want your bloody apology. All I’ve got all sodding day is apologies. I want to know what’s going on.’
‘You have structural defects that will cause issues with the project going forward. For that reason, your unit has been recalled for disposal. I’d like to say we’ll be trying again, but to be honest, we’ve moved on so far since the 1000s, it would be utterly pointless to make any more of you.’
I feel like I should be saying something about now, but what the hell is there to say to that? ‘You’re going to dispose of us?’
‘Indeed. We’ll use an injection to avoid any unpleasantness. I can give you yours now, if you’re fed up with waiting.’ His hand goes to the drawer in his desk and I leap out of my seat faster than I’ve moved in several years.
‘Get the hell away from me.’
‘Now then, Mr Tillerson, there’s no need for that. I know this must be strange for you, but there really is no reason for your continued existence.’
‘What was the reason?’
‘Why did you make me in the first place?’ I burst out laughing as I scan the corners of the room. That’s what they’ve been waiting for, isn’t it? That was the moment I admitted I believed the complete rubbish they’ve been telling me. There’s a camera somewhere, recording all this, and soon I’ll be on Youtube, the results of some screwed-up experiment into gullibility and the power of persuasion.
But I can’t see any cameras.
‘The 1000s were made as security units, for the most part. You guys were going to be at the forefront of national security. You know, guarding prime ministers and the like.’
‘So why aren’t I doing that now?’
‘Well, since the Watchers brought in the new HR laws, we’ve had to give you a minimum of thirty years living time before we switch you on.’
‘Switch me on?’
‘You know, engage the necessary genes to get you working properly.’
‘So I’m not working properly now?’
‘Of course not, Mr Tillerson. You’d know if you were working properly, trust me.’
‘But I’m not. Why not?’
‘Well, we began switching on a week or so ago and, of the five subjects, four have buckled. We’ve had complete physical breakdown in two of them and mental collapse in the others. The autopsies demonstrated clear structural deficiencies and—’
‘Blah blah blah. Yeah, I’ve heard all that already. So if one of the five survived, why didn’t you just turn the rest of us on and use those of us who made it through?’
‘That’s very pragmatic of you, Mr Tillerson.’
‘That’s my job. I have to look at numbers and work out what’s worth doing and what’s not. Seems to me you’re wasting potentially successful units.’
‘Indeed. I would be inclined to agree with you if not for the fifth unit. The one who survived. You see, according to the scans, everything’s working just fine…’
‘But he’s gone AWOL, which should be impossible with the genetic programming he’s been subject to.’
‘So you find him and bring him in.’
‘That’s tricky with the 1000s. Your inbuilt security rig is the highest spec. Assuming his powers are fully integrated, it would be next to impossible to retrieve him without causing some serious collateral damage.’
‘Aren’t you guys like the government, though? I mean, you can make that stuff disappear, right?’
‘We aren’t government. And stuff like this doesn’t just disappear. It would only take one person with a cell phone to film a 1000 unit flying, or tearing a car in half, for everyone in the world to know what we do.’
‘I can fly?’
‘No. You would have been able to fly, but now you’re an embarrassment, so you’re being terminated.’ The friendly tone has gone from his voice. I assume now he’s told me all this, he knows he can’t let me go. Which sucks, because I have no intention whatsoever of letting them murder me.
‘How do you turn the powers on?’
He smirks and shakes his head. ‘That’s classified information.’
‘I thought only the government could classify stuff?’
‘We own the government. We own everything. I’m sorry to be blunt, Mr Tillerson, but you aren’t leaving here to—’
He cuts off at a sound from outside. There’s no mistaking the crash of shattering metal or the cries of panic from the room beyond. My interviewer dashes around the desk and through the door, muttering under his breath. I scamper around his desk to the far side and yank the drawer open.
There’s a needle in there. In fact, there’s two, both filled with an ominous brown liquid. There’s also what looks a little like the dial you might find on a microwave fixed to the front of a small black box. I take it out, praying it’s what I think it is.
On the back is another dial, this one with the numbers 1007 all the way up to 1057. The dial is on 1012. I click it to number 1013 and flick the switch. Nothing happens. I click it up another number and try again. Still nothing. Maybe it’s nothing. It’s got an aerial sticking out the top, but I don’t get how this little box could change my genes or any of that crap. Then again, I’m stuck in a warehouse that doesn’t exist and there’s clearly the sounds of fighting from the room outside.
Gun shots rattle off the walls and I duck, blushing as I straighten and dash to the door. I peer outside and gasp. The room is in complete disarray, but the main thing I notice is another of the mes, standing tall on one of the sofas, with one of the lab-coated technicians gripped in either fist. In the next moment, he hurls them both across the room and they smash into the wall with sickening crunches.
I wince and duck back into the room. More gunshots ring out and, as stupid as it is, I peer back out. There are three guys in suits, cut to perfection, aiming what look like very expensive guns at the me on the sofa. The bullets spray wildly across the room, at least some of them colliding with the me. Where they do strike, they drop to the floor, blunted and useless.
I’m bullet proof. Well, that me is, anyway. I duck back into the office and continue twisting the dial and flicking the switch. I’ve reached 1021 when it happens. Something grabs me at the base of my spine, like a hand trying to break me in half. I scream and collapse to my knees, then bend over until my face presses against the floor.
The hand is no longer a hand. Now it’s a net, wrapping around me and squeezing until I can’t breathe. I can’t think. I’m panting as a fire courses through me, burning up every part of me it touches.
Then it’s gone.
I can’t feel Becki anymore. I close my eyes and find the image of her photo, but I stare and stare at it and feel nothing. I think about my mother’s funeral, which remains the saddest day of my life, and there’s nothing. I hear the screaming from outside, and the gun shots, and feel nothing but a dull calm.
I can deal with this. Because that’s what I do. I deal with stuff. My current predicament is being held against my will, so I’ll deal with that. Once that’s done, I’ll take stock, strategise, and decide what comes next. A man dressed like a model, with perfect chiselled features, comes charging back into the office. He sees the machine in my hand and is mid-curse when I break his neck. He was part of the problem, so his death is part of the solution.
I can deal with this. I was made to deal with situations like this. Literally. I can see Becki’s picture in my mind but can’t for the life of me remember who she was.