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It's Friday. Yet again. Time for another dose of SIBA!
There is no playlist for this story as only one song is referenced:
4 - AfterLife
|AfterLife by Richard Murray
First version : Richard Murray, 1997.
Revised version : Richard Murray, 1997
Based upon “SIBA:AfterLife”, Richard Murray, 1992.
This version : Richard Murray, 2017.
© Copyright 2017 Richard Murray.
Richard Murray is asserting his right to be identified as the author of this story.
This story is not to be republished anywhere else in any form (electronic, paper, or otherwise) without the prior permission of the author.
“Sometimes I wonder why I bother. You know, sometimes you just gotta ask yourself why the hell you even get out of bed in the mornings. Why not just stay there, and slowly...rot...die..... What is the point?”
With that said, David kicked the chair out from under him and flinched as the electric flex tightened around his neck.
I ignored my tomato soup and explained a new bit of hardware to James. We had recently started the summer term. It was April 1989. I knew David would like this gizmo, but it seems as if something had gone badly for him during the Easter break, so James and Anna and myself were chatting the dining room and trying hard not to pay too much attention to what passed for dinner.
“It’s a simple concept”, I explained, “You create a picture and this clever little box takes the picture on the computer screen and mashes it into the same timing as the video signal. With this, pictures can be put into the video. There is also a mask layer so we can choose if the pixel on the screen is from the picture or if it is from the video feed, so we could overlay graphics into the video.”
“So how does this work with the computer? Whatever is on the screen or something special?”, James asked.
“Ummm... You, ummm... Good point, I don’t know. Hang on, I’ll go get the booklet.”, I muttered. After stuffing the last of my toast into my mouth, I stood and walked out of the room. Where did I put those instructions? I remember sorting out tapes for this evening’s broadcast, and marking which one had Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” on it, as that was requested since it was the new number one song. Somewhere in the mêlée was the instruction booklet. I wonder where it ended up?
I opened the door to our studio-come-dormitory. “David, you seen oh my God!”. I backed out and closed the door.
“No way. I didn’t just see that.”, I whispered to myself.
I pushed the door open a crack and looked in, then closed the door again.
James was still poking his toast when I leaned over and whispered in his ear, “The transmitter is belching smoke. Care to assist?”
Anna raised her eyebrews. “Belching smoke? David would have sorted that.”
Both rose and followed me out, leaving their dinner.
Outside the dormitory, I stopped James and said, “Transmitter is fine... Houston, we have a problem.”.
“Yeah?”, asked James, “Like what?”.
“David is thermostatically challenged.”, I replied.
James laughed, “I thought you were smarter than to fall for one of his pranks.”
James and Anna moved for the door. I blocked Anna’s way.
“You don’t want to see this”, I told her.
James casually walked into the dormitory, took one look at David and screamed. Anna ducked past me, ran in and screamed also. I shrugged and walked in, closing the door behind me.
“Is he really dead?”, Anna asked me.
“Does he frigging well look alive?”, James retorted.
“What do we do?”, Anna asked.
“Does this mean we don’t go on air tonight?”, James asked.
There was a resounding slapping noise and James rubbed the side of his head.
Anna checked David’s pulse in five different places. She then reached into the toolkit and grabbed a dentist mirror, which she held under David’s nose for the longest time. I didn’t need any scientific rubbish, David was a pale shade of blue and cold to the touch. After a while Anna confirmed the inevitable.
Yes, he was dead.
I told her not to touch him any more or cut him down. The police will probably want to examine everything in detail. I called the secretary and told her to tell the acting headmaster when he finished his meetings. She screamed. The acting headmaster probably screamed when he heard, and he heard almost immediately.
Acting? Well, after the events of last term there was no official headmaster. The English teacher took over the duties. I guess somebody will be officially nominated to the role, but for now it was the English teacher.
An entire entourage of officialdom descended in less than twenty minutes. The ambulance people, the police people, the local media people, spectator people, lost people, people following the police radio broadcasting people and a few people in expensive suits watching all the other people from a distance.
“Colin Roth, Homicide”.
I turned. One of the suits was standing behind me. I hadn’t said anything but he was already writing in his notepad. He sized me up, wrote a little bit more then turned the page.
“You are the leader?”
“You run this... this... charade”, the suit said, waving the end of his biro around to encompass the scene of chaos.
“Yes.. well... not quite like this... usually.”
“Broadcasting act. Ever heard of it?”
“Try the part about illegal broadcasting. You....”
I interrupted, “Listen bud, don’t try to intimidate me. Our equipment was not involved. The fact we broadcast was not involved. You said you were homicide. What exactly are you leading up to?”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Getting detention. Failing maths. Never getting laid. What about you?”
“Why do you look uneasy?”
“I don’t know exactly. It might have something to do with the fact that one of my best friends just hung himself...”
The suit’s turn to cut in, “...or was hung”.
The suit closed his notepad and turned. He turned back and whispered “Be very careful if I were you. I am watching. You make any mistakes, you will be mine.”
Before I could reply, he had mingled into the chaos and was gone.
I turned around and saw Anna sitting on my bed in an awkward position. I slumped beside her.
“You’ll never guess what some cretin just suggested...”
Anna nodded. She lifted her skirt and pulled out one of the smaller video cameras that had been wedged between her legs in a rather painful way.
“I think I can guess”, Anna replied.
There was an unofficial broadcast that night. A camera was propped up on top of the television set up in the corner of the room. It was hooked directly into the transmitter. Nobody was told it was operating. The news swept through the school like fire. Our broadcast helped keep the number of onlookers down to a mere dozen sickos that tried to pull the sheet off of David as he was carried out on a stretcher. There were no hifis on. No stragglers wandering the corridors looking for something to break to pass the time. Everybody was in a state of shock, even those few who didn’t like David. The retributions and accusations will probably pour out tomorrow, but for tonight everybody was stunned about what happened.
At midnight, the forensics zipped up their bags and left. I yanked the transmitter power plug off the wall. We were off air. Anna was already asleep on the spare bed. James, still angry about something, asked me if I wanted the lights out. I nodded so he punched the wall and missed. Oblivious to the pain he punched again, and again, and again. It is remarkably difficult to punch a lightswitch off. Giving up on that, with a bruised and bleeding hand, he picked up a chair and screamed a dozen obscenities as the chair smashed the switch off the wall. A few sparks later and the lights were out. James swore again, yanked the door open, stormed out and slammed the door so hard plaster fell off the wall.
I got up and covered the broken light switch with swathes of electrical tape. Anna flicked on a torch so I could see and not electrocute myself.
“Come, let’s go back to my study”, I said. Anna nodded and followed me. I got there and found Amy already asleep in my bed. “I’ll take top”, I said, gesturing Anna to sleep with Amy.
My study was still study 10. David was still in 12. Was. Was. Our old studio was in between, study 11. However after the events of last term, a little over a third of the student body had left so we were invited to make one of the dormitories into a studio. It gave us considerably more space. In addition, there were currently exactly two prefects, both of them not even pupils, both of them in the bed below me. Surprisingly Amy did quite well as a prefect. Despite her reputation and being younger than half the school, she was just so completely and utterly polite and nice that most people just did what she asked because it felt wrong not to.
The next day was set in perfect mood. The sky was an angry dark grey, the wind and rain hit the earth with a measure of ferocity. Anna was still asleep on the bed and James was still absent. I’m not sure where Amy was. I got up and went into the studio dormitory. A short loop of electric cable protruded from two holes in the ceiling. I pushed open the window and leaned out of it, staring into oblivion as the rain bounced off me. It was remarkably dark for this time of day at this time of year. I could see the fog rolling in like one of those spooky movies. Parked beside the pond was a black car shaped like a Cortina. It had no visible licence plates. I could just make out the faint red glow of a cigarette. I grabbed a camera off of the table and powered it up. I couldn’t make out who was in the car. Whoever it was was staring directly at me with binoculars. Ruby coated lenses, reflecting orange-red in the light but going clear when pointed directly at me. I watched the mystery person watching me for a few moments then I jerked the camera sideways to look in the back seat. Empty. Over a little more, passenger seat, empty. Back to the drivers seat. Empty. Zoom out a little and scope around the car. Nobody. What the? They were certainly ballsy, watching me as I was watching them.
I lowered the camera and ambled back to my study. Anna was still curled up on the bed, I didn’t want to wake her. Aimlessly I looked back out from the window by the study stairs and the car was gone. It might have rolled itself back behind the pond. Who knows? A mere few seconds later and the fog washed across the end of the front oval hiding the pond. Seconds more, the far end of the school was hidden. Then it advanced across the building and eventually covered here. I could feel this eerie cold breeze blowing across the hallway. I walked to the door of the studio dormitory and watched as the fog crept in through the window but quickly dissipated as it emptied into the room. My eyes released focus and I stared into a grey swirling mass. If the bogeyman wants to reach out and pull me to hell, it’d be a step up from the way I’m feeling right now.
Back in my study, I stripped off my pyjamas and pulled on my school uniform haphazardly. Then I set to work replacing the broken light switch and cutting down the cables that David hung himself with. There is a maintenance guy but getting him involved requires the kafkaesque nightmare of layers of beaurocracy. I have to put in a request with the house master, who passes it on to the headmaster, who debates the issue during the next staff meeting and if approved passes the request to the bursar for final approval and if the bursar approves then my request is sent back to the headmaster who kicks it over to the house master who then goes and asks the maintenance man to change a lightbulb, and the maintenance man then needs to go and verify with the bursar that there is sufficient leeway in the budget to cater for a light bulb.
Actually, I’m making all that up. But given the extreme lag between reporting a problem and having anything done about it, that’s what I imagine happens. God help it if there’s a leaky pipe...
At any rate, basic repairs are best just done and then deny knowing anything about it. That switch was broken? Really? Looks fine to me...
I powered up the camera, the mixer and the transmitter. Now broadcasting the testcard. I brushed my hair and looked at the “emergency script”, the one we created to be read when we wake up late and don’t have enough time to think of anything original. I stared at it blankly. It was a jumble of ink particles arranged on a piece of paper. Letters, numbers, cues. It should make sense - I wrote it - but it didn’t. I scanned across the videocassettes for today. Anna had arranged them sometime yesterday or the day before. Nothing looked interesting. I looked in the cupboard. I picked up “The Exorcist”. The flip side said the BBFC jury were still out on this one. Damn. I put it back and flicked off the camera.
It was approaching breakfast time. I sneaked out the back entrance and walked towards the woods. My school uniform was no match for the heavy rain that appeared to have set in. It took me a good half hour of walking before I reached James’ caravan. I sidestepped that large puddle, up into the fir trees, and then ducked under the black fabric screen. Knocking on the door received no reply. The door was locked. I scrambled up the side and peered through the fanlight, the only window that wasn’t blacked out. James was lying there, surrounded by beer cans. He looked up at me and give me the finger.
I slid down. Unhelpful, mate, but I understood. Slowly, I began back to school. Oddly, as bad as I felt, I didn’t think that going on a bender would be helpful. Knowing my luck, I’d puke and pass out before I even got properly sozzled.
Just as I was about to reach the bottom end of the village, Anna appeared from nowhere. She was soaked, and breathing quickly as if she’d run a few laps or something.
“That weird guy, er, Colin something, Roth? Well he has been poking around. I heard him suggesting possibly James and you sorta set this up. He’s picking people carefully - seems he wants to get the more gullible students and teachers on your case but avoiding the smarter ones who might ask for some evidence. He totally avoids me, too.”
I shrugged. It was hard to care about what some jumped-up numpty was on about. It was hard to care about anything. Except maybe Anna. She was drenched and shivering, so I pulled my jumper off and put it over her. It was wet too, but extra layers would keep her warmer. Now I was the cold one, but I found the cold was helping my concentration.
We walked back in silence. Anna didn’t know what to say, and I just had nothing to say. I ambled into my study, kicked my shoes off, and fell spread-eagled on the bed. Staring up at the ceiling around the side of the bunk above, my thoughts were finally focused... on Colin. I’m now pretty sure it was his car I saw earlier. I don’t know why I think that. It must be this thing called intuition.
I glanced around the room. It was so familiar yet so alien at the same time, like a prolonged déjà vu trip. I had been here before... I think... Maybe.
It was, however, the same old study with the same old disorganised crap on the fitted tables and the same old beds. The ceiling rose had a crack, the cupboard door was a little wonky and there was condensation on the windows. Nothing had changed as far as a camera would detect. But something was radically different. Not missing, just...different. It all felt wrong.
“I should kick his bloody head in.”, James muttered. Slamming the door behind him he grabbed a chair, spun it around with one hand and sat on it. In his current state of inebriation he missed but corrected before he landed on his butt on the floor.
“He’s definitely been spreading a few small untruths hasn’t he?”, Anna said.
“Small? Murdering your friend is a ‘small untruth’?”, I replied as I sat up.
“Yeah, like nothing that will seriously affect the rest of your life. As I said, he should have his head kicked in.”
“What I’d like to know”, began Anna, “is who he is? Also who he is connected to. There has to be a reason for this. I just cannot figure it out right now.”
“Should we confront him?”, James asked.
“No. How you are right now, you’d just want to punch him repeatedly”, I replied.
“I don’t see any problem with that”, James snapped back.
“No, he’s right”, Anna said, “We have to bring things to a head and see what happens. Something subtle. Something... Something...” She trailed off.
“Guys, I have an incredible idea!”, I said.
“Send him to Hillsborough so he can join in with the fan blaming?”, James asked.
Anna switched the microphone to voice-over and faded out the ending of an intensely boring film. “Ladies and gentlemen... Music is the universal language. Whilst spoken and written languages differ, and even hand gestures and body positions can have several meanings, music is the one thing that is globally understood. So here with a little music... the remaining two members of SIBA!”
I smarted. Put like that, it was really unpleasant.
Amy began playing the piano. James on guitar, myself attempting to play an electric keyboard and a few other kids we had collected playing their respective instruments. My vocal abilities were poor at best, but I think James and I managed a suitably heartfelt rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Like a Dire Straits song, we got kinda carried away, having a quarter hour ‘jam session’ tacked onto the end of one of the greatest rock songs ever written, that we pretty much gleefully trashed with our decidedly less than competent playing. I know Amy played a few wrong notes on purpose as she winced before playing them, but even doing that she was miles better than the rest of us. As we were winding down, blue lights flashed outside. The place would soon be crawling with cops and right in the middle giving orders was Colin Roth. Our psychological bait worked.
I grabbed a few of the OB transmitters and a child’s telescope then headed to the locker room in the cellar. I pulled one of the locker cabinets out and climbed through a hole in the wall behind. Pulling the lockers back behind me, I then sidestepped past the old victorian furnace, down a long corridor and into the “war room”, the only part of the cellars we discovered last year that wasn’t filled with concrete.
By the time Colin reached the studio, I was gone.
Amy scanned up and down the TV dial continuously. Nothing new had appeared. A policewoman poked her head around the door and said a transmitting device was found in the woods. It was tuned to 70MHz. They were leaving it there as it was hooked to a receiver tuned to 76MHz. Then she left.
“70?”, Anna asked.
“That ain’t right. That’s below broadcast FM band.”, James replied.
“Do TVs even go that low?”, Amy added.
James popped the back of an old TV and fiddled with it for a few hours. Nothing he could do would persuade it to tune below 250MHz. Two digits would be near impossible. Sadly James wasn’t David, so probably nothing anybody could do would get that TV receiving broadcast signals ever again.
“James...”, Anna said, “Instead of seeing what is there... Have you got a radio? Maybe we can get an idea by listening to it?”
James grabbed a small FM radio. It only went down to 88MHz, but after poking around inside, James thought he’d got it into the 70MHz range. What he found was silence. Dismayed, James switched the receiver off.
“Good-oh!”, Anna exclaimed.
“Huh? It was dead air.”
“Exactly. It was silent. Proof of a signal by absence of a signal.”
Two hours later the policewoman came in again, “We’ve tracked down the 76MHz transmitter. It is tuned to 89MHz.”
“Why are you telling us this?”, Amy asked.
“Pardon Anna? We want to know this!”, James replied.
“Exactly. So we should be kind of the last people to be told anything. It is obvious we will know him better than the police.”
“Yes”, the WPC said, “That is why we are keeping you up to date. It is too foggy to bring in the search helicopter and he is leaving these bizarre clues around the place.”
“Do you think he did it?”, Anna asked.
The WPC said “I can’t comment on that. Looking purely at the evidence, or lack of it - I’d say no. But there is probably a lot I’m not aware of. What I don’t get is a murderer running from the law is not exactly going to periodically drop clues around the place. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Presumed murdered you mean. Anyway, who is this Colin Roth prat?”, James asked.
“I don’t know. He seems to be some sort of highfalutin detective from London. He walks all over our Sup’ and, well, let’s just say he isn’t into the concept of making friends.”
“What about...”, Amy began. The WPC cut her off, “Look, I’d better be getting back. I’m only supposed to be telling you the frequencies.”
“What haven’t you told us?”, Amy asked.
Amy and the WPC stared at each other for the longest time, before the WPC broke her stare. Blushing slightly she walked out the door, looked both ways and then leaned back in, “There was a message written on the second transmitter. It said something like ‘Fluffy at two fifty two’.” Then she was gone.
“Fluffy? Two fifty two?”, James said.
The girls looked at one another.
For the second time today I was walking through the woods in the rain. It rains too much in this damned country. Still, I’m not one for hot sunny days either. I was wading through thick mud, something that had the cheek to call itself a bridleway. I figured everybody would take a regular path. I was getting fed up of having my shoes sucked off, but if I walked along the road I might as well go and turn myself in. My path so far had been a predictable jaunt around the woods in the way we get sent to run during games lessons, only staying off the main path. Games lessons? That’s a contradiction if ever there was one. We don’t learn anything and running in circles isn’t a game. Still, it sure beats always being on the losing team of football.
I arrived at an old road. It carried a fair amount of traffic before the bypass was built. But after, there were hardly any cars. I shook my feet in a puddle to wash some of the mud off, and started to run up the road. I wanted my new transmitter to be somewhere unexpected. Somewhere that’ll break the expected trail. But not just yet.
I sat down behind an Austin Metro in the car park of the restaurant. I looked in at a family eating an all day breakfast and felt hungry. But I had other things to do. This transmitter was tuned to 79MHz and a little bit of fiddling later, it wouldn’t come on until it received an input on 76MHz. As I had already used that frequency, I rooted around in the dustbins behind the restaurant for a bit of aluminium foil. On the way back to the transmitter I snapped the antenna off a Cortina. Same type of car that Colin drove, only this one was bright orange. Yuck. I kicked one of the tyres, just because, and suppressed a laugh as the hubcap fell off.
The foil was formed into a tunnel which was placed over the receiver antenna. The car antenna was snapped in two, and spiked through the foil and into the ground. The foil tunnel was open at the end facing up the road. The tunnel should mask out the other transmitter. It was probably unnecessary because these were fairly short range, but you never know.
With that done, I crossed the main road avoiding a Sierra and an Allegro. Safely across, I wandered back into the woods. I picked a suitably muddy path and set off to the place where the final transmitter would lay. Taking the muddy route was a bit paranoid as the police were probably busy scouring the main woods path from both ends with a fine toothpick. Still, if that is all that is between me and my plan is a little mud - hardly something worth getting caught over.
It took twenty minutes to reach the back of the petrol station. I placed the transmitter on the far side of the forecourt and waited. When the road was clear and no traffic in sight, I switched on and ran like hell across the road, up the side and across the field. Just as I was nearing the gate I heard distant sirens. I took my chances and jumped the gate. Across that road and through a bush into the wooded area. I stopped and slumped to the ground. I lay low as two police cars went by. One was shining a searchlight out both sides so I crawled closer to the road and forced myself down further. I tucked my shirt collar under my jumper and pushed the telescope into the mud. It was plastic, it would survive. Navy jumper, black trousers, black shoes. Arms either side of my face and dark hair. The spotlight passed right over me and the cars carried on down the road. They might still have seen me, so I looked around. If I went directly north I’d be off the path. A few moments of vulnerability then I could slide down an embankment and be out of sight. The end police car stopped. I froze. I saw the reverse lights come on. I ran again, faster than before. I kept low on the embankment and dived over it. The other side was a mud pool. It was where three bridleways met and it was obviously used fairly frequently. I glided across the puddle, like it was some sort of weird amusement ride. Rolling over and picking myself up, I ran onwards through the woods. Every so often I would catch the flicker of the searchlight. The car apparently was reversing all the way up the road. Maybe to take the lower road or maybe they had figured it all out. I wiped some mud off of my face with the cuff of my jumper and not paying attention I almost landed face first in a ditch.
Amy sat at an empty table and looked at her food. She realised with alarm that she wasn’t sure if the whitish thing in the middle of the plate was meat, fish, vegetable, or something else. She’d heard plenty of scary theories from James, and she was still sore about the time she spent half an hour poking her fingers down her throat trying to make herself throw up after James told her that she’d eaten fried rat. She was younger and more gullible then. And James...hadn’t changed a bit.
She looked at the note she’d written down, what that policewoman had said.
“Where did you get that?”
Amy turned around. She didn’t recognise the face. Average looking person, a fourth or fifth former. His eyes seemed to twinkle though. He was pointing to the piece of paper she had been staring at.
“Fluffy at two fifty two?”, she asked.
“Shhhhh!”, he replied as he sank into the seat beside her.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you!?”, he retorted a little too sharply.
They looked at each other awhile. Eventually the boy said “My real name is Timothy. Just so you know. However I think Timothy is a daft name so people usually refer to me by my middle name, Chris.”
Amy nodded slowly, “Well, um, I’m Anna’s friend. I’m not a boarder here.”
“That figures. This is a boys school.”
Chris ate some of the nondescript slop on his plate, then said “That address. It is an unofficial server on the network. It runs out of station two five two.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m the uncredited network manager. I mean, unofficial. Well, I sort of hack it and use it for my own nefarious ends. But once in a while I fix something so nobody complains too much. You know, I have four FileStores stacked up in my study?”
“You have a study? You have four file storers? What’s a file storer anyway?”
“Yes”, Chris replied confusingly, “It’s one of the perks of the job. I like taking them apart too. I could seriously do with Level 4 or an MDFS or something. Still, can’t complain. At least I have something. Hmmm... The day they fit Ethernet will be the day I die.”
Amy looked confused. Chris seemed to realise he was speaking geek to a girl.
“Never mind... Some of us know about Fluffy. It’s an innocuous sounding name hiding a nice archive of files. How to hack, how to make bombs, lockpicking. You know, the nicer things in life. The stuff you don’t list on your CV.”
“Where is it? Can I see?”, Amy asked.
“We can log in, but nobody seems to know where the server actually is”, Chris replied, “I mean, I’ve traced the network cabling all over the place, but I’ve not seen anything. It has a sixty megabyte harddisc, do you have any idea how much those things cost?”
“Uh...?”, Amy replied blankly.
“Me, being here, for a whole year. Costs less.”
“Is there anything really really special on there?”, Amy asked.
“Well, this message was attached to one of the transmitters.” Amy then realised that the transmitters were not common knowledge. She went pale.
“That’s clumsy, sticking a note like that on your transmitter”, Chris said.
Amy’s face widened into a smile. This boy thought it was the studio transmitter. Thank goodness.
Chris raised his eyebrows and looked at Amy. She was smiling like some sort of lunatic axe murderer. He opened his mouth and closed it again, not knowing what to say. Then he saw the little metal badge on her pinafore.
“Holy crap, you’re a prefect? You’re like ten or something.”, he gasped.
Amy rolled her eyes, “No, I’m little.”
Amy was sitting crosslegged on Chris’s bed. She swept her skirt behind her and lay the keyboard across her lap. Chris pushed a disc into the Master Compact. It booted and logged itself into Fluffy. Amy looked around. This Chris person was a lot like the SIBA guys. Dead computers littered the floor. Repaired machines and all sorts of unidentified junk lay around the desks. Additionally, Chris seemed to talk in what Amy decided was a pseudo-language. Heavy use of the kind of phrases you would find in a computer jargon book. Relatively little use of normal easy to understand words. SIBA was broadcasting the automated music program, and that was on in the background. Two Pentax cameras were on the far side of the desk. One in pieces. Amy looked behind her. A large poster of a naked cartoon babe with a huge sword and even bigger tits was stapled to the underside of the top bunk.
Chris saw this and quickly said, “That’s not mine. I, uh, I thought it was pretty cool. There was another one on the wall over here of a real person. But she was a bit slutty so I took it down. Gotta have some standards.”
Further along the wall was a picture of a cute looking tank with a star logo on the front.
“That’s Bonaparte. Ever watched Dominion Tank Police?”, Chris asked.
Amy shook her head.
By the window was another drawing of a cartoon girl with enormous eyes. It looked hand drawn.
Amy looked back to the computer and at the menu that had appeared. Options for snooping on people, shutting down their machines, reading all the user passwords, staff info. It was a regular hacking haven.
Chris sat down on the bed. Amy passed back the keyboard. He glanced at her panties now fully visible, shrugged at the fact that they were pink, and he began tapping away at the keyboard.
“So, uh, what sort of message do you think he was trying to give us?”, Chris asked.
“Do you know about somebody called Colin Roth?”
“Ah, that arsehole, thinks David was murdered. Hey - you reckon he is on here somewhere?”
Chris loaded a search program set it looking for the name “Roth”.
“Two kids from Rotherham. One called Rothschild. One adopted, legal guardian Andrea Roth”, he said.
Little lights on the servers and around the room were flickering. Chris shrugged again and passed the keyboard back to Amy. He went to his desk and began playing Elite, having bored of searching for ghosts.
-- 254: AMY USE PNCRACK
Amy stared at the message that had appeared on her screen. “Chris, did you send me some sort of message?”
“Nope, I’m kicking Thargoid arse.”
Amy typed in “*USE PNCRACK”, remembering the asterisk at the beginning, but that came back with a “Bad command” error, so she tried “*PNCRACK”. The screen cleared and lots of complicated stuff rolled around the screen.
“What did the message say?”, Chris finally asked.
“To use pee en crack.”
“Don’t. Ever. That’s one is reputed to hack the PNC. It’s not worth the hassle of getting caught.”
“Well, um, in that case we’re about to find out.”
Chris abandoned his game and came over to stare at the screen of the Master Compact.
“It’s assembling something”, he said.
“Assembling?”, Amy asked.
“Making a program.”
“Isn’t it already running a program?”
Chris didn’t reply. He was fascinated by the massive amounts of 6502 assembler whizzing by.
“What’s PNC?”, Amy asked.
“Police National Computer”, Chris replied, “some mainframe that the rozzers use.”
“Mainframe?”, Amy asked. She wished he’d speak in comprehensible English.
“Yeah, a really big computer. Probably hot stuff in the late seventies, but prehistoric now. I bet it even has those big tape spools on it.” Chris laughed. Amy smiled politely.
The screen went blank, to be replaced by a single solitary question mark at the upper left of the screen.
Amy typed in “COLIN ROTH” and pressed Return. The screen went blank. And stayed that way.
“Did I break it?”, Amy asked.
“It might have broken itself”, Chris said, “It was a good try, but I think we’d better go break into the office and make sure the modem isn’t still...”
Then, abruptly, a dot matrix printer buried under a pile of magazines screamed into action.
Chris leapt up and removed the magazines. The noise became quite horrific.
“You can see why I don’t use this much, it’s a noisy bugger ain’t it?”, Chris said.
A four page report was printed. It mentioned Colin Roth in a way that was starting to come together in some twisted alternative reality.
Amy snatched the fanfold paper, wrapped her arms around Chris. “You’re wonderful!”, she said as she danced out of the study.
The door clicked shut at the same time that the keyboard fell from Chris’s hands. He slowly turned and lowered himself onto the bed. “I’ll never understand girls”, he mumbled.
On the screen, one solitary word. “DISCONNECTED”.
The WPC came in just as Amy skipped in.
“Hello again”, the WPC said, “Two more frequencies. 79MHz and 76MHz. This is it. The last transmitter had no receiver attached.”
Anna wrote the two new codes in her diary.
“I reckon it is some kind of code. That 76MHz has come up twice. Of course, I’m not telling my boss that.”
Amy stared at the WPC. She looked back, but wasn’t going to try staring anybody down, not after last time.
She looked at Amy with a puzzled expression.
“Are you okay?”, she asked Amy.
“Wah!”, cried Amy before hiding in the closet.
The WPC shook her head and walked out, somewhat confused.
“You can come out now!”, Anna called.
Amy reappeared and sat down on the bed.
“So what’s up?”, Anna asked as she was writing down the numbers. 70, 76, 89, 79 and 76 again.
“This”, Amy said, pulling the printout from under her skirt. “I don’t really get it, but I think you will.”
James was in the squash courts with a tennis ball and racquet. He started by bouncing the ball off the wall and hitting it back. Within minutes he was hammering the ball around. He took a swing so hard that the ball shot upwards and broke a fluorescent tube inside its protective cage. The ball fell and bits of glass rained down around it. James kicked the ball out the door into the hallway. It rolled along the concrete floor and came to rest by the crash mats neatly stacked under the stairs. James followed it and brought the racquet down on it. And again, and again. Where the ball went, he hit. The ball finally shot off into a dark corner out of sight. James screamed something and threw the racquet as hard as he could....through the window in the door. He slowly sunk backwards onto the steps and sat panting, holding his head in his hands.
Anna was lying back with her diary across her abdomen. Her pen was still in her hand, hanging over the side of the bed.
Amy picked up the diary and looked at it. She avoided looking at the photos inside.
“70, 76, 89, 79, 76. What a bizarre collection of numbers”, Amy said.
Anna nodded gently. “They added up to 390. They divided into themselves to be a number that the calculator couldn’t show without using exponents. Multiplied together, more exponents. Each raised to the power of the other gave a number so big the calculator simply said error. The sum of all parts, having previously been divided by PI was 124.14 and that as multiplication was nine million and something. I tried a few more mathematical idea such as closest primes, common factors and such before giving up. There are three pages of A4 on the table if you want to add anything.”
That evening, Anna and Amy sat in the corner of the dining room and played with their dinner. Everybody else had already eaten, two meals were held back. Well, four actually, but the two SIBA boys were AWOL. Swirling the peas and mash around the plate. Neither girl wanted to eat. With my disappearance becoming more and more of a concern, Anna just didn’t feel like wasting time eating. She wanted to do something but didn’t know what.
“Network? The last note pointed to a server on the network.”, Amy suggested.
“No, I’ve already checked. Station 89 is broken, the others are in the remedial lab.”, Anna mumbled.
“What if they aren’t numbers?”, Amy asked, “but numbers that mean something, like the numbers are a code?”
Anna opened her eyes wide. “Amy! You’re amazing! Where’s this geek bloke?”
Anna practically dragged Amy up to Chris’ study. “Hello. I’m going to nab one of your computers. Just need to get into BASIC. Anything I should know?”
“Switch on the one with the smiley face painted on the side. It will log you into the server at 251 and pop up a menu, stuff like EdWord or View. Press Escape at the menu. Type BASIC at the star prompt and you’ll be in”, Chris replied, adding “Damn, you’re a prefect too?”
“Of course”, Anna replied.
“Anybody here that’s a prefect and not a girl?”
“After last term? ... And last year?”
“Okay, well basically it is a code. The numbers do represent something. The encoding of the alphabet as the computer would know it. You know, ASCII.”, Anna explained, “Well, the numbers translate to the letters F, L, Y, O, L.”
“Flyol?”, Amy asked.
“Not a word. Even looked in the dictionary in case it was some sort of old fashioned word nobody uses any more.”
“Could it be an anagram?”, Amy asked.
“The only word that fits is folly. And I can’t help think that this whole thing is a giant folly.”
Amy knelt on the bed facing Anna, and flicked her on the forehead.
“Hey!”, Anna exclaimed, “What was that for?”
“Folly... Folly...”, Amy said.
“Wha..? Oh! Shhhhhhh!”, Anna hushed her, “Yes, that is it. I think he is at the Folly. He has certainly been leading the Police on a merry chase and they’re probably tearing apart everything from the front gates to the petrol station. All on the South side. The Folly is quite close and it is Northwards. Indeed if he has my telescope he may well be watching.”
“We... We need a plan.”, Amy whispered.
“We? You need a plan. You have your answer, now go leave me to tweak these score results”, Chris said, “Wait, crap, you’re both prefects, pretend you didn’t hear that.”
The “Folly” was a stone wall and a bit of an arch. There were all sorts of stories as to its origin, ranging from King Henry VIII ordered it to be built because he was bored, to it was the remnants of a Catholic abbey razed by King Henry VIII. Ultimately anything “really old” was something to do with Henry-the-Eighth, and I didn’t actually know what this thing was, other than a bit of a wall and a bit of an arch. I’m guessing it’s seen better days.
I was quite cosy. I had pulled a large binliner over my head and sat between two parts of fallen wall so air could get in from underneath. I had poked a little hole in the front for the telescope lens. On my way out I borrowed a pair of tights from Anna’s bag. Part of them covered the telescope lens and was held in place with an elastic band. This was to help prevent the lens reflecting light. Not that there was any. The rain was crashing through the trees and hitting the bag so hard I could feel every drop. Out there it was totally black. Out there were two frightened girls heading towards me in the darkness. They dared not use a torch in case anybody saw and followed. Anna carried a backpack. Inside it was some equipment and a few printouts, all sealed in a plastic bag. Lucky it was sealed as the girls were falling over about twice a minute and had spent the last few minutes more or less slipping around in the mud. Amy pulled her skirt up around her waist and tried crawling along on her hands and knees but gave that up when she crawled headfirst into a tree. Anna kept stopping to retrieve her shoes.
“Look”, Anna said as she wiped her face with the top of her pinafore, “This really really really isn’t working.”
“I have an idea.”, Amy replied.
“Take our clothes off, close our eyes and run for it?”
Amy giggled. Anna was pleased. She was scared of the weather so could imagine how Amy must have felt. Right, so tell jokes and make silly comments and before we know it we will be there.
“Did you watch Ghostbusters?”, Amy asked.
“You know the way they walk, slowly and surely, well we should try that”, Amy suggested.
“Do we have to lean real far back?”
“No, and Anna, don’t take your shoes off. It might be a pain having to find them every so often - but we can’t see the path. We don’t want to step on any barbed wire.”
“My shoes wouldn’t offer much protection against sharp things. Fine, okay, we’ll carry on. Standing here guarantees we don’t make it.”
Suddenly a bright flash of lightning lit up the sky. Amy jumped, fell over backwards and screamed. Anna stood tall, the image of the path burned into her retinas. The thunder rolled in and shook the ground, this storm was close. Anna sank down to her knees and hugged Amy, who eventually stopped screaming.
I just happened to catch two figures kneeling in a puddle on the path up here. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. Wouldn’t be the police. No lights. One looked to be wearing some kind of dress so not a runaway. It must be Amy and Anna. What are those crazy girls playing at?
Anna and Amy finally reached their destination and slumped down against the wall, on the other side from me. I stayed motionless, waiting for another flash of lightning or a voice or something so that I could positively identify the girls. I felt I was being maybe a bit paranoid, but an apparent murder charge would have that effect.
The monitor flickered. A fuzzy picture rolled around the screen for a few seconds, then synced. Chris took his coat off and stared at it. Anna had said she’d forget hearing about diddling the score results if Chris looked after the broadcast for a while. He agreed because it was horrible weather, but the longer it took the more he thought he should have gone with them. Two girls out alone in the storm, especially that nervous looking little one. Another few seconds and he would have gone out after the girls.
“Hey, Chris... You there?”, Chris’s headset asked.
“Yeah?”, Chris said into the headset microphone. So he was watching a slightly fuzzy video signal and talking to the older girl with a two way radio link. He would never admit it, but he was actually kind of impressed. He didn’t imagine that SIBA had equipment capable of doing such things.
“Okay, get ready to switch over.”
Chris then watched the shaky image zoom out, then in slightly. Anna was wearing a clean white blouse, but she had taken her pinafore off. Her hair was pulled back and, as long as the image didn’t go below her waist, she looked presentable. Little scared girl, in the background, looked a wreck. A wet muddy wreck. She walked towards the camera and the image lurched sickeningly. Chris could see me walk over towards Anna. I was wearing a clean blue shirt. Anna thinks of everything.
Chris pressed the pre-mute button and when the song finally came to an end, the broadcast picture switched to a colourful graphic that said “Please stand by, something interesting will happen presently!”.
“Okay, we’re ready”, Chris said.
Colin Roth and several police were present in the building, probably watching by now. Chris looked at the piece of paper Anna had written. Press this and then this. He watched, slightly amazed as the video player started up and began playing a pre-recorded article about the history of SIBA. It opened with an ‘arty’ sequence created for something last term using the boom camera. As that sequence finished, Chris poked another button and ‘LIVE’ appeared on the screen in bright magenta teletext characters. Another button press and a fuzzy picture rolled several times and then synced. Anna appeared, medium shot.
“Hello everybody. Meet our so-called murderer.”
The image zoomed out to have Anna and myself onscreen. A quick person might have spotted Anna’s muddy underwear, but the image jolted upwards before it had really sunk in. It was so dark, they could easily have been part of a tree.
“This here with me is the one who has been accused of the murder of our friend David. Accused by a homicide detective going by the name of Colin Roth.”
The image slowly zoomed in on Anna’s face. Rain drops were trickling down her face and every so often the image would sparkle as the light from the battery powered lamp scattered across the rain drops on the camera lens.
“However it is interesting to note that Colin has no real evidence and that his arrest warrant is actually bogus. The judge that issued the warrant died in ‘81, and Mr Roth is in fact David’s father’s lawyer - himself wanted by the law for approximately fifty counts of contempt of court. And now, I guess, several counts of impersonating a police officer, slander and whatever else.”
Anna just came right out with it, and even held up a printed copy of his police file. My jaw hit the floor when I saw the file. What the...? A mile away in the studio, Chris’s jaw hit the floor when he found out who Colin was. What the...? Wait, was that what the PNCRACK software printed out? What?!
“Okay boys in blue, over to you”, Anna said sweetly, just before the video clicked off leaving a magenta streak on a blank screen.
Chris fumbled and switched the video back to the fish tank. There was no music. He didn’t know how to get that going again.
Anna was packing up the equipment ready for the journey back. Bright lights pierced the night and we saw a large vehicle approaching. As it got closer, we could see it was a Land Rover Defender in jam sandwich markings.
“I guess this is it then”, I said.
The vehicle approached and the driver’s side window rolled down. Anna looked up, at the WPC from earlier.
“He’s been arrested.”, the WPC said, “We got halfway into reading him his rights when he confessed. He told us everything, and I mean everything. From when he used to drink mouthfuls of vegetable soup, then cough it up all over his desk in maths class to get sent home... to trying to get you arrested for murder.”
“Oh?”, I replied, unable to think of anything better to say. It sounded really lame. It was.
Amy looked at the WPC.
“Who are you?”, Amy asked.
“I’m Lucy”, Lucy, the WPC, said. She flicked her torch on and pointed it into the sky. “One of these would have made your journey so much easier.”
Amy looked up. The torch beam reached far into the sky. The rain drops flashed brightly as they crossed the beam. Then they were gone, adding to the general wetness of the ground. A bit like memories. They start somewhere far away. Then there is a bright flash as they become our realities, and then they are gone. Not totally gone, but diluted with all the rest of the memories. Partial details remain, and over time, fade. Like the evaporation of the water when the sun comes out again.
Amy hit reality. Lucy was out of the vehicle helping Anna stow her backpack in the back of the vehicle. Lucy helped the girls in, then helped me in.
On the way back we talked about many things. Mostly about David’s suicide. The official forensic report, that Colin had hidden, was 96% certain of self-inflicted loss of life - or some equally bizarre phrase. David’s home life wasn’t the happiest possible. He was thrown from one parent to the other during the Easter break. His parents were involved in a messy divorce, and both seemed to want to use their son as a weapon against the other. Maybe that was the reason for his suicide? Maybe it was because of his GSCE exams? He pretty much got at least a B on everything. He wasn’t an ‘A’ person, he was happy with a B. But he wanted to do that much better to get a few A’s in his exams. It became an obsession. He had left no note and hadn’t made the usual “God, I’m gonna kill myself” type of threats. He had just gone and done it. The precise thought patterns leading up to it will never be known. However I suspected he might have heard some bad news because it all happened so suddenly. Then I remembered last term. No, he was cool after the arrests because he never got completely involved. Maybe there was no specific reason, just a lot of little things all at once?
About a hundred metres from the school gate, Anna asked Lucy to pull over so she could pull her pinafore back on.
We decided it might be better to get out here. We hopped out of the vehicle and thanked Lucy for the ride back, then we walked slowly towards the gates. Approximately half the school and several press people and the good old reliable local news programme. James, who had been absent for most of the day, had returned when he saw our broadcast. He was now by the gates with the boom camera. Why were so many people there? Some kids were wearing only their pyjamas. Maybe it was an excuse not to go to bed. Something vaguely interesting was actually happening. Right here. Right now. If not that, then maybe they stand a chance of getting on real TV, or in the papers? Fame at last? Or maybe they actually enjoy standing in the middle of a storm wearing next to nothing, some teachers use that as a punishment!
We walked right through the crowd, round to the back entrance into the study block, and I was a little surprised that nobody was following. I guessed that I was right about everybody being attention seekers. We went through the corridors to the other side of the building. Amy and Anna walked into the gym room showers. After standing there for several minutes warming up, they both kicked off their shoes and began to strip down, creating a trail of mud between themselves and the drain. I made excuses and left. The girls didn’t seem to mind me there, but I wasn’t so certain their mothers would agree. I went to the upper study shower and cleaned myself in much the same way.
After I was done, I grabbed my pile of clothes and headed down to the washing machines. The girls were loading the machine, and I thought it was very un-Annalike to allow her white blouse to go in with Amy’s brown cardigan. Amy was wearing her kimono style bathrobe. Anna, who actually lived with her mother in a small house in the village, had nothing to change into so she was wrapped in a large towel. We went up to my study and dried each other’s hair. In the middle of this, Matron brought up a lovely chicken in white sauce for each of us.
“This was dinner?”, I asked, surprised at something resembling restaurant food.
“No, Abbie made this for you”.
Abbie? Oh, Abigail the chemistry teacher.
We ate, then I got into bed. As Amy was here, I was relegated to top bunk while the girls took the bottom. I didn’t need to worry about SIBA, James had taken over the shutdown. Well, with David no longer around I guess James will have a larger roll to fulfil. I just hope nothing breaks down as neither of us are genius enough to fix the equipment.
By total contrast to the previous day, I woke to find the sun shining in my eyes. It was a Saturday. Amy prodded me and told me the teachers had cancelled morning lessons, final respects to David who will be missed. His burial was scheduled to be on Thursday and anybody who wished to attend was allowed to. I sat up. David’s study had been cleared out. I guess things were supposed to return to normality - whatever that may be.
“Ugh, my shoes are all slimy!”, Amy moaned. She fiddled with her buckle awhile, then promptly forget about it when Anna woke up.
I skipped breakfast and went to the shed. The shed was formerly a stable, but it had been occupied by the motor mechanics classes. Each project had a stable and we could go down after school to work on our stuff. Actually the boys mostly went there to doss around and smoke out of the view of the staff. My mower was there, in pieces. More impressively, David, James, and myself were building an aeroplane. It wasn’t much more than some metal poles and a mower engine, but we had hopes and dreams. On my own I added the tail frame and the wing supports. Much of this plane was a kit and plans. We didn’t design it ourselves, thankfully.
It was like some kind of therapy. Be creative and occupy your mind.
About half an hour later the girls arrived wearing the same clothes they had on yesterday. I was wearing my uniform, having forgotten Amy’s message almost about school cancelled as soon as she had said it. I fiddled with the engine and the girls looked over the diagrams. Half an hour passed. Amy sat outside and looked across the field. People were playing and having fun. The teachers were playing baseball. It is weird to watch teachers play baseball. I was watching too. What was weirder was David’s day of respect being so much fun. It’s almost as if nobody gives a damn. They are just happy to have an excuse not to go to lessons.
“Can I sit in it?”, Amy asked.
“Sure.”, I replied, “Though there isn’t exactly much to sit in...”
Amy tried to climb the frame but didn’t get very far. The last pole she grabbed came away in her hands as it wasn’t bolted to anything. She picked herself up and tried again.
“I’ll give you a push if you want?”, I offered.
I wrapped my hands around Amy’s wet shoes and pushed hard. She rose into the air and landed in the plane body with a bump. There was no seat there, just a few holes where cables and such would pass.
“Sorry!”, I called.
Anna climbed in by herself and sat directly behind Amy.
She looked around and asked if three people would fit.
“No, it’s two max. If it is you, Amy is small so maybe she could sit on your lap? I don’t know if it would actually take off. I think the weight capacity is something like eighty kilograms.”
James came in at that moment.
“It’ll work a whole lot better with wings and an engine!”, he remarked, “Good grief. You’ve added all that? I thought it was like an unwritten rule that this thing would never be built!”
“Times change”, I replied.
“So why are you doing it?”, Anna asked.
“In David’s memory. I feel that we should do something, We should achieve something vaguely worthwhile, and dedicate it to him. It’s like a positive act. Sure, cutting school is nice - but how many people like care about why?”
“Count me in!”, Amy said.
Anna nodded. We all looked to James.
“What!?”, he exclaimed, “What? Do you need me to say I’ll agree? Or is just doing it enough for you?”
I worked on the engine. Getting the propeller attached to a mower was easier said than done, as was the problem that mowers were intended to operate at a fixed speed, and not terribly fast at that. Still, I fired up the engine and the propeller blew the plans out the door. Actually, it looked positively lethal.
James worked on the mechanics. Anna worked on the control linkages and Amy was our test pilot. She sat in the cockpit, on a proper seat this time, and wobbled things when we wanted them wobbled. She kept getting her feet caught in the aileron links. I removed a panel and popped my head up between her legs.
“Do it again”, I asked.
Amy wobbled the stick again. at a certain position the linkage clanked over and caught her shoe. She pulled her foot free and repeated the action several times. It looked painful, but she wasn’t complaining. I followed the linkage out along the strut. I looked back at her shoe trapped under it, then turned to face her.
“Okay, I think it is happening because we don’t have any wings yet. Nothing to resist the link. That shouldn’t happen in flight. But just in case I’m going to add something to cover all of these links and things.”
Amy pulled her legs back and poked them out of the sides of the frame. I cut up bits of guttering and used those bits to cover the links and rods and other things in the cockpit. I then cut some fine mesh and made the cockpit into a proper compartment.
James and I mounted the engine in the front of the aircraft. We fired the engine up to make sure it still worked, and switched it off shortly afterwards. Anna figured out the rivet device and began to build up the tail fin. When she finished, we left her to bolt it into place while James and I created a wing. Then I played cat’s cradle with Amy as James and Anna assembled the other wing.
James, Anna and I lifted the front of the plane. Amy rolled the wheel into place and loosely bolted it on. Same for the other side.
The girls then carried the wings out as James and I picked up the plane by the tail and trundled it out into the open. We lowered the tail and left it just outside the shed. This whole area was a bit of unused land between the playing fields and the animals area. The air was a bit chilly, and the sun was hazy in a way that only happens in springtime. It was still warm though. Anna was wearing her light pinafore. Together we fixed on the left wing, then the right. Anna lowered the dashboard controls in place while Amy screwed it to the bodywork from underneath. Amy was upside down in the cockpit to do that, and Anna’s gestures made it quite clear that us boys were not to watch as Amy’s dress ended up somewhere around her waist.
Anna guided Amy to hooking up the wires. There was a fuel meter, ball compass, airspeed meter and one of our two-way radios. Inside were two seats. Up front, the pilot sat. Behind him was the passenger. Beside the front seat was a small fire extinguisher. The back seat had fold-over camera mountings on each side. When not in use, they folded back and doubled as a handle. We had added that.
I was elected to fly the maiden mission since I had the impetus to actually get the plane built. We’ll skip over the part where I have no idea how to pilot a plane. James started the engine, then climbed in the back and sat on Amy’s lap. He was going to tell me how to fly. This ought to be interesting.
Once the engine had warmed up a little, I applied throttle and we began to move forwards. Many people, staff and pupils alike, were having an informal salad dinner on the fields. When they saw a plane emerge from the undergrowth they dropped their food. James slid a camera into its mounting, faced it towards me, and then set it recording.
We eased across the croquet lawn, down an embankment that nearly up-ended us and on into the playing fields. A crowd had begun to gather behind us.
Nothing needed to be said. The name “David” was stencilled on the side of the plane. Anna did that as she had the best writing.
The acting headmaster stopped us. I lowered the engine to idle.
“Ten pounds says you don’t take off”, the games tutor said. Cynic. But probably right.
“Twenty says it does”, the acting headmaster replied, secretly wishing he could find a way to convince us not to do this.
“It may take off, but I want it to fly directly over the school building. I’ll bet fifty it can’t go high enough”, the Physics teacher added.
“A weeks pay says they do it”, Abigail answered.
“My daughter? In a plane? She’s going to throw up”, Matron said to the two anti-flight teachers, adding “and I hope it lands on you.”
Soon real money was changing hands. The pupils were getting in on the act too, though most of them were betting on Amy puking over the teachers.
I applied throttle and we trundled into the playing field. A minute later we were on the far side. Ahead of us was about 200 metres of track followed by the dell which was a rather large hole in the ground surrounded by trees. There was another 50 metres or so of ‘green space’ unaccounted for. Amy was getting excited, so James swapped places with her. She left her seat and knelt behind my seat, holding on.
I kicked the throttle as far as it would go. The engine noise was loud, and we could feel the wind blowing past. We started. Slowly, then gathering speed. The acting headmaster won his bet at 150 metres. We lifted a little off the ground, then landed again. James muttered something about the Wright Brothers.
We were reaching the end of our runway. Following was a solid fence and twenty metres of overrun space. Then the hole.
The fence was getting dangerously close so I leaned back and pulled the stick. We rose again. Amy put her arms around me and held on tight.
A terrific crash shook the entire plane. Somebody screamed. Behind us lay bits of broken wood. Our undercarriage had fought the top of the fence, and won. We cleared the dell. Not free yet. We were flying fairly level, but below tree height. When I pulled us up, we would go up a little, then level out. Not enough airspeed.
Then I noticed the throttle wasn’t in its proper position. It was only part way.
I leaned forward and traced the line with my fingers. There was a sharp bend in it. I pulled the cable free from the clips to relax the bend. Suddenly the engine died. A moment of silence, then it screamed back into life. This time full throttle meant a full throttle. I pulled on the stick and we soared up. I pushed us down to tree level and flew us over the forest. While James had flying experience, the girls didn’t quite trust him not to try something dumb like a barrel roll. Our seatbelts were an afterthought, basically some pieces of rope. That was why Amy wasn’t belted in. So I, the one with no flight experience at all, was flying this crate.
“What now?”, I called back.
“Ease up on the throttle so we don’t thrash the engine.” Good idea, I did so. “Now that stick you pulled to get us up? Move it slowly to the right and back a tad.”
I did so and the plane started to roll to the right.
“That’s enough, keep it there, and back a little more.”
I noticed the nose had started to drop, so moving the stick back helped to correct that.
“Good work, now go back to the straight position.”
I moved the stick back to centre and the plane went back to level flight. The nose was rising so I pushed the stick forwards to correct.
We had made a full turn and were heading back towards the building.
“Can you move us to the left a bit?”, James asked.
I made a few motions with the stick, the plane banked then straightened out.
“Okay Amy, left side.”
I looked back and saw James holding on to Amy as she leaned over the left and threw up. Above the noise of the engine I could hear a loud cheer. I looked down and saw the games tutor storming away.
“Well done Amy!”, I called back. She went back to holding on to me and snuggled herself against my back.
“Okay, we’ll do a long turn this time. Fly out to the girl’s school and then come back over the church.”
“Why out there?”, I asked.
“Long approach for landing.”
Landing. Oh God. Landing.
As if reading my thoughts, he said, “It’s okay. You want to aim towards the ground, real shallow, and at the last moment pull back on the stick while slowing down the engine. That’s so we don’t take off again, but instead keep going down until we land.”
“It’s okay, you can do this. You’ve done great so far.”
I slowly took us up, until it felt like we could reach out and touch the clouds. We had travelled out to the nearby town. The river was below us.
“Are you going somewhere?”, James asked.
“Nope. Just look at that view.”
“It’s amazing”, Amy whispered.
I guided the plane back around and skipped around the sky a bit until I had the girl’s school and the church lined up. Beyond the church should be the playing fields.
“Okay, now listen, if Amy doesn’t pee in fright at us crashing into the spire, we’re too high. We need to barely miss the spire, barely miss the trees, and then we’ll be on a good approach.”
“No mate, barely crashing into stuff isn’t a good approach.”
I came in higher. While I understood James’ idea, there’s a fine line between almost crashing and really crashing. I didn’t want to end impaled on the spire. I pushed the plane down sharply, and turned towards the school building. Just as we were about to crash into the building I pulled back on the stick and cut the engine completely. The nose rose slightly and we stalled, dropped a short distance, and bounced and rolled to a stop. About three metres from the building.
“Hey James, weren’t you supposed to guide me through the landing?”
James took a moment to compose himself, then said “Bastard, you knew how to fly!”
“Maybe now, not before. Just kind of got the feel of this aircraft.”
Anna ran over and scooped Amy out of the plane. Amy was gasping, her eyes wide open. She didn’t look scared, just very excited, and like all her emotions and thoughts were happening at the same time.
I hopped out, followed by James who stumbled and landed on all fours.
“Don’t pull that crap on me again, I though we were gonna crash”, James admonished.
“James, mate, tell me if you were piloting, you wouldn’t have done something like that?”
“Bastard.” That meant yes.
I picked up the tail end and was joined by Matron and Abigail.
“How was Amy?”, Matron asked.
“I think you’ll need to calm her down. She seemed to like it though.”
“First time she’s ever done something like that. She completely refused to be in the plane until she heard you would be the pilot. Then I couldn’t stop her.”
“Well, I’m glad it went well.”
I was finishing up with the plane. The girls joined me. Amy slumped down in a chair and looked around the shed. She spotted a tea maker and asked if it worked.
“I’m on it”, I replied.
I made three teas and then sat awkwardly on a bench. We stayed there long into the night talking. Amy had not been aware that she had actually thrown up over the games tutor. She laughed so hard she spilt her tea.
The girls drifted off to sleep. I got up and locked the doors and closed the curtains. Anna had slipped half off of her chair. Amy was on the floor in a foetal position. James was probably having a few beers on his own. I think I hurt his feelings. I’ll need to talk to him tomorrow.
I lay Amy’s coat over Anna and lay my coat on the floor. It was silly to sleep here with a bed so close. But I was much too tired to walk up there and get undressed. I quickly fell asleep.
Two weeks had passed since David’s death. I attended his funerals, both of them. His mother held one, then his father held the other. Fewer people came than I was expecting. About forty in total, a third of them staff.
SIBA was spending more and more time in radio mode. The whole TV station idea had faded a little. We took Anna on board - but David was a big loss. I was the dreamy one, James was the wacky one and it was David that applied liberal amounts of common sense and more importantly technical know-how. Anna was sensible, but not in the same way.
The sun was shining. It was a pretty good day. Summer was arriving and the GSCEs were getting closer by the day. For me, it was only a mock exam, but some of the final result would be based upon coursework and that started now. Somehow it seemed an entirely ridiculous idea. In third form, aged about thirteen or fourteen, we had to pick several subjects that would guide us for the remainder of our time at school, and then in life. I choose physics and chemistry, and threw in music because I wasn’t too keen on history. Then, at the age of sixteen we have exams. These exams are it. The end of compulsory schooling, the beginning of life. If you are having a bad day, it is too damn bad. Screw up your exams, screw up your life. It’s a crazy situation really... Especially when you throw in the fact that I have no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I bet when I’m forty I still won’t know.
I was sitting on my bed reading Acorn User and absentmindedly stirring my tea. To by left a floorboard creaked. It does that in old buildings. I glanced over anyway, and looked straight into David’s eyes. The magazine dropped to the floor and the spoon clinked against the side of the mug.
Was sitting there.
Buttoning up his shirt like he had many many times before.
He looked up.
A long pause.
“Like, aren’t you dead?”
Another long pause.
“Are you a ghost?”
“What does it look like? Were you expecting me to wear a sheet over my head?”
I picked up my magazine and flipped to the yellow pages - software listings. That Danish bloke Jan Vibe had some more programs. A few weird looking calculations that resulted in these impossible graphics. It was a bit genius but I have to admit I didn’t understand how those programs worked.
“Are you going to ignore me?”
I looked up. David was standing in front of me. He was shimmering gently. “That was the plan”.
“I thought you were my friend!”
“I was David, I was. But, um, you kinda died.”
I tucked a floppy disc into the magazine and put both on the desk.
“What next? Barnabas Collins? Morticia? You seem rather, um, well, um, you seem to have overlooked a few small technicalities - like the fact that YOU...ARE...DEAD.”
“Oh shut it. Do you think I don’t know I’m dead? The fact that I am slightly translucent and that I can’t touch anything are very strong hints.”
“How come you didn’t you scream and pass out or something?”
“I have a small problem with the human body cutting the juice when you need it most. Besides, it is like I am here with a ghost... Deal with it.”
“Look, anyhow. Why’d you kill yourself?”
David didn’t answer. He walked over to the computer and typed “I miss you. I miss you all.” and with the last full stop typed, he burst into a million fragments which slowly rose through the ceiling like bubbles. The text on the screen vanished along with him.
Did that even happen? God, if I’m imagining stuff like that, I oughta just quit everything and get some damned sleep.
Anna knocked and entered. I was sitting in the chair staring at the desk. The desk was empty.
“You miss him don’t you?”
“More than I imagined”, I replied quietly.
Anna knelt down beside me and held my hand.
“How do you feel?”, she asked.
“I feel like I don’t need psychological bollocks right now.”
“I’m only trying to help!”
“Get out. Go on. Go. Go!”
She rose and walked towards the door. She opened the door. She walked through and closed it behind her. She stood outside. A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Wait!”, I said.
Anna came back in.
“I’m really sorry. I... I...”
“It’s okay. I know you prefer to be left alone, but it has been three peculiar weeks and there comes a time when you need to speak even if you don’t realise it.”
Silence. Anna sat on the bed. I sat beside her and laid my head in her lap. She stroked my head.
“I feel kinda angry. It must sound sick. My friend dies and I’m angry with him”.
“It’s a normal feeling. You are angry because he did what he did with no explanation.”
I didn’t hear anything else she said as I quickly went to sleep.
Now that you know what happened in Dalliances, the opening paragraph makes a lot more sense than it did when the prior story was about nut-job "satanists" (in scare-quotes at it was largely the Hollywood definition).
Having reached the fourth episode of the series, I wanted to shake things up a little so I decided to kill off one of the main characters. The clear choice was David with his messy home life and what nearly happened in the previous story (now finally written!). What follows the opening paragraph is an examination of the protagonist dealing with the fallout of finding his friend dead while at the same time having a fake cop of some sort accusing him of having murdered his friend. All in short, a pile of nasty mindscrews.
PNCRACK is a total deus ex machina. I needed to get us to the place where Colin Roth's real identity is uncovered in a way that would happen that very night, not through the protagonist being arrested and going to trial, juvie, or whatever. I write short stories, not thousand-page novels. And, hey, how better to achieve that aim than having a BBC Micro build some code on the fly to hack into the PNC. I mean, come on, the Beeb was a solid eighties computer. Beeb owners were often described as smug, but compared to the Vic-20, the Oric-1, anything Sinclair made ever...it was no surprise. If an eight bit home micro could hack the PNC, it would totally be a Beeb.
Talkng of which, the story photo. I wasn't sure what exactly I should have as the picture to accompany the story. I do have a length of wire that I could make into a creepy looking noose, but I don't have anywhere that looks like the inside of a dormitory. So I decided to go a little abstract. That photo is of the inside of a dusty (unused) BBC Micro model B. To cover over the dust and cobwebs (because the Beeb was in a stack of stuff so I could only open it up enough to poke my phone inside), I heavily saturated the colours. I then added a wind shear effect (which reminds me of VideoCrypt), and finally I digitally sharpened the image with max strength. The result is a weird abstract circuit that you'd have had to be a geeky child in the eighties to recognise that as a Beeb. Or, you know, read this blather at the end of the story...
The character of Chris has been largely removed from the story. He was added in the 1997 rewrite for a friend that I knew at that time, but he wasn't in the original. So you will see Chris mentioned again in the guest written story, which is pretty much the only reason I kept him around (so you, dear reader, know who he is).
Yup. A guest written story. Coming next week. Set in the 1997/1998 timeline, you'll see what I mean about anachronism stew, but it's a cracking story. Definitely worth reading. Did I mention it's coming next week?
And, as always, I hope you enjoyed the story.
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Last read at 16:02 on 2023/01/29.
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