Facility

5,664 words – approx. 19 minutes

The voice that welcomed Scott into room 256 was warm and familiar. The door was lighter than he expected, and it crashed against something wooden and unyielding.

“Don’t worry,” smiled the woman at his apology. She seemed to mean it, and Scott couldn’t help but smile back. He didn’t usually go for black girls, but the soft contours of her face, framed by her dark hair, put him instantly at ease. She consulted a spiral-bound notebook. “Scott, isn’t it? Take a seat, please.”

The room was only a little larger than the room he’d woken up in, and had clearly been decorated by the same person – it had the same beige carpet and walls. But whereas his room was empty except for a bed and a small table, here there were tall, packed bookshelves lining the walls and a leafy plant stood in front of a large window, which looked out onto a field of some sort. A metal rail attached to the ceiling curved above the stiff wooden chair Scott now sat in.

The woman pressed a button and a blue plastic curtain slid around, cutting them off from the door.

“For privacy,” she explained. “Now, Scott, has anyone told you what this session’s about?”

Scott grinned, showing his teeth, and rolled his shoulders beneath the tight black t-shirt he’d found at the foot of his bed. “Nope. Just got told to come here after breakfast.”

She nodded, plucked a pen from a mug on the table, and made a note in black ink. Scott tried to steal a glance at the notebook but couldn’t make out the words. “Are there really that many rooms in this place?”

“What- oh! The numbers! No, we number them differently here. Each one’s double the one before. So we have one, two, four, eight-”

“Sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four,” Scott continued, his grin returning. People always underestimated him. They saw his dirty teeth and tats and decided they knew everything about him; there was almost nothing better than proving them wrong. Besides, he was really starting to like this one. Smart girls were always the most impressed.

But she didn’t react as he’d expected, just made another note in the notebook. “Why’s that then?” he asked, a little put out.

“You know, I’ve never asked,” she said lightly. “Anyway. My name’s Donna, and I’m your counsellor here.” Scott raised an eyebrow and she hurried to correct him. “Not like that! I’m more like a guide. I’m here to make sure everything’s going okay. We’ll have these sessions a couple of times a week, just to check in.”

She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, so he nodded. “Yeah, sure.”

“Great. So is there anything you particularly want to talk about today?”

He mostly wanted to ask if she preferred cowgirl or doggy style, but she didn’t seem the type to respond to that. Too uptight. He’d need to work on her. He ran his hand over the bristles on his head as he tried to think of something. “We could maybe talk about the others here?” he said finally.

“Sure,” said Donna, in a voice that made Scott think there was something else she’d expected him to say. She made another note.

“Don’t get me wrong, they all seem sound, no trouble or anything,” he said. “Just at breakfast there was this one guy, older, he kept staring at me. Like, without blinking, or hardly, not moving his head.” Scott tucked his head into his shoulders and mimicked a hostile, if not directly threatening, glare. “Are you writing about me or him?” he demanded.

Donna looked up. “I just need to take a few notes to make sure we’re doing as well as we can for everyone here,” she said.

Scott shifted in his seat. “Well like I say, I didn’t even know the guy, never seen him before in my life, so for him to be giving me the eyes like that was a bit weird, you know?”

“Of course,” said Donna, with an understanding tilt of her head. “I can completely appreciate that. We take the safety and comfort of everyone here extremely seriously.”

“I mean, I wasn’t shitting myself or anything,” said Scott. “Sorry,” he added quickly.

Donna’s laugh was a lovely trip of a thing. He could definitely stand to hear that again. “That’s alright. I’ve heard worse.”

At this, a pang reverberated through Scott’s chest, and his hands clenched in his lap. “How many of us are there… here?”

“It changes. At present there are about seventeen.” When she thought, her lips pinched together in a cute little pout, but Scott hardly noticed.

“Do you see all of them?”

“No – there are a few of us, and we each see three or four.”

Scott nodded slowly and licked his dry lips. “And what is this place?” He spread his arms as he said this, and saw something flit across Donna’s face. But it vanished as soon as it had come, and now she was the one nodding.

“I understand why you’d have questions. We’re here to help you, and we want to answer anything you want to know.” She glanced at a watch on a thin silver strap that encircled her dark, slender wrist. “I’m afraid we’re out of time for this session, but I’ll be happy to answer any concerns you have next time.”

“All my questions?” asked Scott with a flirtatious glint in his eye.

“All your questions,” smiled Donna.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Scott winked. It was always good to leave on a bold note. He left with a swagger, leaving the door wide open behind him.

Donna waited until he’d gone before releasing a puff of laughter and closing her door. Back at the table she looked down at her notes. She took another pen from the mug, this time red, and in a tight, neat hand wrote in the top left corner of the page, Scott Carter, Session 8.

*

“Come in!” Donna called. Sometimes they knocked, sometimes they didn’t. It didn’t seem to mean anything clinically. There was a pause, then the door crashed into the bookcase.

“Sorry,” said Scott. His outline in the door could almost have been that of a stick man. Lean if you were feeling generous; stringy if not.

Donna smiled. “It’s lighter than you’d think, isn’t it. Take a seat. Scott, right?”

Scott nodded and ran a hand over his head and its short, dark bristles. He looked around the room. “Who- what’s your name?”

She waited for the curtain to shield them from the door before answering. “I’m Donna, and I’m a counsellor here.” When Scott raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth to protest, she added: “Not a mental health counsellor! I’m just here to make sure everything’s going okay, and that everyone here’s comfortable.”

“Right, yeah, great.” Scott gaze wasn’t settling. Donna made a note.

“We’ll have these sessions a couple of times a week. Is there anything you’d particularly like to talk about today?”

Was it her imagination, or was he looking her up and down? His tongue slipped from his mouth and wet the edge of his lips. “Can I contact anyone here? Like, on the outside?”

Donna tried not to react. “Who do you want to contact?”

“My mum. I mean, I figure I’ll be here a while, so maybe I could call her or write a letter or something?”

Donna was scribbling furiously on her notepad. “Sure, sure,” she said. When she was finished she looked Scott straight in the dull, green eyes. “Of course. I’m sure that’s something we can look into. Let me just check a couple of things, and then at the next session we-”

Three stern knocks interrupted her, and Donna exhaled through her teeth. “Sorry Scott, just a moment.”

She yanked the door open. “I’m with a clie-” she began, then stopped at the sight of the tall, balding figure in front of her. “Dr Saunders, sorry, I thought…”

“Donna,” said Dr Saunders, gesturing a white-sleeved arm to two men standing behind him, wearing identical dark suits. “This is Clarke Richards and Alan Hennessey from the Department.”

In turn the men stepped forward and shook her hand with dry efficiency. Donna eased the door closed behind her back.

“Mr Richards is from the Partnerships team, and Mr Hennessey’s in Outcomes. I think I’ve got that right. I’m showing them around our little facility here, and thought it would be good for them to meet you, as one of our most effective counsellors.”

Donna knew the compliment was deserved, but still the heat rose to her cheeks. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m with a client at the moment.”

“Oh, really?” Dr Saunders peered at the plastic panel by the door that held a sheet of paper with names and appointment times. He furrowed his brow. “Not according to this.”

Donna pulled out the sheet. “Damn, this is last week’s.”

“Not to worry,” breezed Dr Saunders. “I’ll have Chloe look into it.”

One of the men – Mr Hennessey – cut in. “There’s a patient in there?” The way he looked at the door put Donna in mind of a child peeking at the presents beneath the Christmas tree.

“We prefer client, but yes. Donna, perhaps you could give a quick précis of your client’s process?”

She’d have to work through lunch to catch up, but she couldn’t exactly refuse. “Scott’s a level 3, so one of our more challenging clients. He’s had, uh, he’s on his ninth session now.”

“Meaning he’s got three more before we can see if the effects have taken and we can consider withdrawal,” Dr Saunders broke in.

Mr Richards nodded and addressed Dr Saunders. “And do we know how the targetting’s working so far?”

“Yes,” said Donna, unable to keep irritation from the edges of her voice. “All the signs are positive. No recall identified.”

“Fascinating,” murmured Mr Hennessey. “Alan, will we have time to observe a session?”

“Not on this occasion, unfortunately,” Dr Saunders smiled sadly. “But it’s certainly something we could discuss in the future.” Donna looked at him urgently. The sessions were confidential, and if he thought she or any of the other counsellors would agree to break that just so he could impress some civil servants he could think again.

But if he noticed Donna’s glare, Dr Saunders didn’t show it. “Right!” he said with a clap. “I think we’ve taken enough of Ms Walker’s time.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you, it’s been extremely interesting to talk to you.”

“You’re welcome,” said Donna. “Have you seen the Adjustment Centre yet?”

“We’re headed there now,” smiled Dr Saunders. “Gentlemen, if you’d like to follow me.”

Donna waited until they rounded a corner before going back into her office. It was silly, but she half expected to find an empty table and Scott gone – but no, he was sat placidly, his hands on his lap.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “Now, where were we?”

“Writing to my mum?”

“Ah yes, well that’s definitely something to discuss at the next sessions. But for today it’d be great to find out how you’re getting on here so far.”

Scott paused for a moment, thinking, then scratched at his arm. “Are there really that many rooms in this place?”

*

Donna checked her watch again and sighed. She stood, walked to a bookcase and ran her fingers over the spines, then with her index finger she eased a thick book from its berth. She had to squint to read the dense text: a tangle of words, numbers, symbols. It was less than five years since books like this had been her life – days, evenings, and weekends, to the exclusion of near enough everything else, chasing the uncertain promise of a conclusion, a finding, something to justify the time she was spending in silent twenty-four-hour libraries, the glow of computer screens lingering when she closed her eyes.

And now here she was, taking that dry theory and applying it. It was only a trial, she had to remind herself, but even that was a momentous step towards the world she knew was possible, a world with true second chances instead of brutal prison sentences or mistrusted rehabilitation that left a persistent shadow over people’s lives. Every morning here was a thrill; she still paused outside of her office – hers! – to read the bronze plaque that read Dr D Walker, PhD. She replaced the book, taking care not to let it bow or bend, and looked again at her watch. It was now five minutes since the session should have started. The clients were never late; they woke early in an unfamiliar room with a note slipped under the door, telling them where to be and when. Invariably they obeyed – glad, Donna assumed, of some indication of order in the strange place they found themselves in.

Except today. Donna thought back to their last session, when Dr Saunders and his visitors had interrupted them. Could that have had an effect? She was sure she’d closed the door while they spoke, but perhaps Scott had heard something that had lodged itself deep enough to have stayed there overnight, hidden enough that the neurotargetting hadn’t found it. This latest formulation was the strongest yet, but…

She exhaled. She was getting ahead of herself, she knew, but she couldn’t help it. It had been the same in her doctorate: she always wanted to get deeper, to test the foundations rather than staying focused on the immediate problem. She could feel her mind overheating, and she tried to apply cool reason to it. Even if he’d tried to run he couldn’t have got far. The nearest town was ten miles away, and before that there was a three-mile radius covered by a grid of hundreds of cameras and heat and motion detectors. It had been a condition of building the facility that Donna had, at the time, thought ludicrous, but she was glad of it now. If Scott had run, he’d be caught – and then what? She didn’t want him to be hurt.

Dr Saunders would know the protocol. They might even have brought Scott in already. She was starting to dial when there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Donna called. Her body was taut. The door swung open and Scott stood there, his arms hanging by his sides, his eyebrows a little lowered. His eyes flicked around the room, before settling on Donna.

“You must be Scott,” she said, fighting to keep the simmering panic from her voice. At first he didn’t move, then he began to walk forward in slow steps. She offered him a seat, but he just stood by the chair. “Please,” she said.

He sat, then spoke in a low, careful voice. “Do I know you?”

Donna was grateful for the familiar words she could recite while her mind stormed. “My name’s Donna, and I’m your counsellor here. I’m here to make sure your stay is as comfortable as possible.”

She stopped. Scott was grinding the palm of his hand into his forehead and groaning.

“Are you alright?” Donna asked, her voice shot through with genuine concern.

“What is this place?” he growled through gritted teeth, still not looking at her. She started to reply but he leapt up, towering over Donna, eyes ablaze. “No. Shut the fuck up with your bullshit!”

His nostrils were flaring, in and out, his body shaking. Donna’s palm rested on the button below her desk. If she pressed it, within thirty seconds two guards would be here. But after a moment Scott sank back down into the chair and shook his head slowly in his hands.

“I just…” he started. Donna’s body was rigid with anticipation. “It’s there, on the edge of my mind. I remember bits, but…”

“Bits of what?”

“Not remembering, really. Things seeming familiar. Like, I’ve met you before, I know.” He looked at her then, for confirmation, and she saw the dark rings below his eyes.

“Have you been sleeping well?”

“No, I-” he began, then stopped.

As slowly as she could stand, Donna took a pen and started writing. “And have you talked to any of the other residents about these thoughts?”

Scott shook his head, and Donna sighed in relief.

“Alright,” she said. “We can talk about this more at our next session. In the meantime, try to get some sleep.”

Scott shot her a look. “I know that’s when you do it.”

“When we do what?” Donna could feel her hands shaking.

“When you make me forget.”

*

The dialling tone was loud in Donna’s ears. “Come on,” she muttered, tapping her nails on the table.

“Hello?” said Dr Saunders, before something seemed to distract him. “Yeah, just a moment, hang on – hello?”

“Dr Saunders, it’s Donna, I-”

“No, two sugars, two sugars. Thank you. Hi, Donna? Sorry about that, some idiot Eastern European who can’t speak English.”

“No problem. Is now still a good time to talk? Chloe said you’d be free.”

“Did she? Okay, sure, yeah, sure. What’s up?”

Donna could hear the slurp of coffee down the line. “I was hoping you’d read the report I sent? About Scott?”

Now there was the sound of papers being riffled. “Right, yeah, here we are. Scott Carter, level three, da da da… I did read it, but maybe you could give me a quick summary.”

Despite her tension, Donna rolled her eyes. She’d sent the report last week, and had wanted to speak to Dr Saunders sooner, but he’d been off around the world, trips to China and Australia. She didn’t know what he’d been doing there – something about investment, probably. Whatever it was, it clearly hadn’t involved catching up with papers.

“Sure. So Scott was one of our first intake back in February. He seemed to be responding well, no memories of the facility or before it, and no other psychological issues present. But for the last four sessions he’s been acting strangely.” She’d brought up her report on the screen, and was now reading directly from it. “He appeared in an agitated state, and physical indicators were suggestive of a lack of sleep, which he confirmed verbally. He was mistrustful and appeared to have retained some indistinct cognisance of his surroundings from previous sessions.”

She stopped there and waited.

“This has been over several sessions now? Why didn’t you report this earlier?”

“I tried, but Chloe said you-”

“Never mind, never mind. Is the retained cognisance only of the facility, or is there anything from earlier?”

“No, nothing earlier. The kitchen has said he’s not been eating,” Donna added.

Dr Saunders murmured something she couldn’t catch. “Sorry?” she said.

“I’m thinking he might be suspicious of the food. Is there any indication he’s spoken to any other clients?”

“No – he’s said as much, and no-one else has reported any similar incidents. I think he’s as suspicious of them as everything else.”

“Okay, that’s good,” said Dr Saunders, more to himself than Donna. Then his voice softened, turned more soothing, which always pissed Donna off. “As you say, he’s one of the first cohort, so there’s bound to be some unanticipated responses.”

“I really don’t think we should just leave it.”

“If you’re feeling unsafe, we can-”

“No, it’s not that.”

There was the scrape of a stool down the line, and she could hear Dr Saunders’ sarcastic ‘Excuse me!’ to the offender. She tried to collect her thoughts. She didn’t feel unsafe – on edge, yes, but she knew that all she had to do was press a button and any danger would quickly be dealt with. It was the anguish punched on to Scott’s face, the incomprehension, that she couldn’t bear.

When Dr Saunders returned to the line, she knew what to say. “We need to know why some memories are coming back.”

There was a moment’s silence. “You said he’s not sleeping?”

“Yes – he thinks that might be when we wipe his memory.”

Dr Saunders laughed drily. “Well, he’s got a point. Can we tranq him? We know the neurotargetting works best if the client’s unconscious. If he’s not sleeping well we’d expect it have an impact on the treatment.”

“But that doesn’t explain why he’s not sleeping. What if it’s something to do with the formulation, about how it reacts to him? Or something we’re doing, something to do with the environment? He leaves my office every session thinking we’ll answer his questions next time! Something’s making him suspicious.”

“Okay Donna, what do you suggest?”

She took a breath. “If we could put cameras, or even just audio, in the bedrooms, we could-”

Even over the phone his reaction made her flinch. “Come on Donna, do that and we’ll have Liberty and the rest of the human rights lobby straight up our arses.”

“It’d only be for a few nights, a week at most – they wouldn’t need to find out.”

“No, Donna, that’s out of the question. For Christ’s sake, I can’t jeopardise the entire project for what is, at best, a fishing expedition.”

“Fine.”

“Look, I don’t like it either, but it’s where we are. Until they see the sense of what we’re doing they’ll look for any opportunity to shut us down.”

Donna closed her eyes. He was right, she knew that. But there had to be something. “Maybe we could just search them,” she said, then as she heard Dr Saunders’ objections start she hurriedly added: “Just the rooms, not the clients.”

“Just the rooms.”

“We’re allowed to do that, right?”

“As long as there are no clients present, yes, we can inspect the rooms however we want. About the only bloody thing we’ve managed to get. Okay, I’ll arrange that for… Wednesday?”

“Great.”

“Great. Is there anything else we need to talk about? I’m supposed to have a panini on the way, but I expect they’ve forgotten.”

“No, that’s all.”

“Alright. I’ll be back in the office next week, we can catch up then.”

*

Donna sat at the table and waited for Scott. The light through the window came and went as clouds covered then released the sun. The thin laptop blinked intermittently, and Donna occasionally picked up the brown medicine bottle as if to inspect it, although it had nothing else to tell her.

“Come in,” she called when she heard the knock. By now she was no longer shocked by Scott’s deteriorating condition, the bruised sag of the skin below his eyes, the revealed sharpness of his cheekbones. He hovered uncertainly. “Take a seat.”

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“What makes you think that?” Donna asked, pleasantly. Scott shook his head and growled, as if even this question was too much for his exhausted state.

“My name’s Donna, and I’m a counsellor here.”

“Where’s here? Where am I?” The frustrated tone from previous sessions was still there, but the hot fury had dissipated with his energy over the last weeks. He’d still not been eating, and what had once been a blazing fire was now a guttering flame.

“I’ll tell you everything, I promise. But first I want to hear what you know.” Donna readied the notepad in front of her. She genuinely wanted to find this out – it might contain some useful data they could use in future.

Scott didn’t reply immediately. The effort of thinking was etched into his features.

“Why don’t you tell me about your morning?” Donna asked.

He started to speak in a low, distant voice. “I woke up and… I was in a room. It was a room I remembered, but hadn’t been in for a long time. Like my bedroom when I was a kid, you know?” Donna nodded encouragingly. “And there were clothes on the bed, I mean that was all there was really, just a bed, a table, and a light. So I put the clothes on.” He tugged at the black t-shirt that now hung a little loosely over his frame. “There was a note under the door, in plastic, telling me to go to breakfast, then to come here.”

Donna took this down. There was something he wasn’t telling her, a slight catch in his voice, but she still didn’t know what it was. There was no need to push just yet though. They would get to that. “Is that all?” she asked.

Scott closed his eyes as if thinking, or trying to make a decision, then nodded.

“Alright. And other than this morning, what do you know about where you are?”

“It’s… it’s some sort of facility. Medical, maybe. I recognise parts of it, I mean I’ve been here before, I know it, but it just doesn’t make any fucking sense.”

“And you recognise me?”

Scott nodded.

“This must be quite scary for you.”

“Yeah,” he said, not meeting her eye.

“Are you scared of me?”

He nodded again.

“Why?”

“Because… because you’re to do with this. Whatever this is. You’re part of it.”

Donna held up the pill bottle. “Do you know what this is?”

“Some sort of medicine?”

“On most mornings the sign on your door also tells you to take two of these. The bottle’s in the bedside table. But for the last week or so it hasn’t.”

“I’ve been here a week?” Scott squeezed his eyes shut, trying to force some sense from the situation.

“Nearly three months now,” said Donna. “These are only sugar pills but we use them to make sure everything’s alright. If someone doesn’t take them, we know there’s a problem. You’ve not been eating, either, have you Scott?”

“Why am I here?” He was digging his nails into his palms now, rocking gently backwards and forwards.

Satisfaction licked at the nape of Donna’s neck. Soon she’d understand. Soon she’d have solved the mystery, and after that she wouldn’t need to worry and Scott could return to the schedule. “We’re only here to help you Scott – you and the other clients.”

“Clients, what do you mean clients? You take our memories.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Overnight we diffuse a neurotargetting chemical into the bedrooms. It works best if you’re fully asleep, which you haven’t been, which is why you’re having these unwelcome… half memories. Can you tell me why you’re not sleeping?”

Scott shook his head in refusal. Donna sighed and tapped her fingers on the desk. She’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, although she had to admit she was interested to see what would happen. She opened the laptop. “I’m going to show you a video now, and afterwards you’ll understand why you’re here.”

A few clicks brought up an image. Scott gasped in incomprehension as he saw himself on the screen. It looked like security camera footage – it was of a small room, painted unappealingly in light green. Next to him was a thin man in a suit with a stack of papers, and opposite were a man and a woman in white shirts. The woman pressed a button on a tape recorder on the table, and began to speak in a voice that sounded like he was reading from a sheet of paper, although there was none in front of him.

“Scott Carter, you have consented to the commutation of the sentence handed down to you by the Crown Court. The fact of this consent and the details of the commutation have been provided to you in writing.” He looked at the man next to Scott. “Mr Hargreaves, do you have the signed agreement?”

The lawyer slid a single typed sheet across the table.

“Very good. Now, Mr Hennessey, as has been explained to you, your commutation is conditional upon a full, recorded confession. Once you have entered the program you will no longer have any awareness of your previous actions, and so this will be your final sanction. Are you still prepared to make this confession?”

Scott swallowed hard and nodded, looking at his hands. Donna had seen the footage before, but even she found herself tense, waiting for him to speak. Beside her, Scott was very still and pale.

On the screen, Scott began to speak in a dull recital. “On August the 12th 2021, at around 10:30pm, I was in the south east corner of Hyde Park. I was drunk, I’d had maybe eight or nine cans of beer. A woman walked past me and I stepped out in front of her. She was alone. I told her she was pretty, then I asked her if she wanted to engage in sexual relations with me. When she said no, I grabbed her wrist, and-”

“Turn it off,” said Scott suddenly. “TURN IT OFF!”

Donna did. The room was silent except for Scott’s wild breathing. There was a charge in the air, and no-one spoke until it had begun to subside.

“Did I…” he began.

“Yes,” said Donna. Then she added, as gently as she could: “How have you been remembering things, Scott?”

Wordlessly, Scott reached to his waistband and pulled out a small, crumpled page of paper. Donna recognised it as from her notebook. “How did you…?”

“I don’t remember,” Scott said, and for a moment they both wanted to laugh. Then Scott laid a pen on top of it. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said, gesturing apologetically to the paper, and Donna could see he was right; fragments of thought and random words spidered across the page.

“Is this all of it?”

“Yeah.”

“Thank you. Now, we’ll give you a tranquiliser to help you sleep tonight. I’ve checked with the doctor and it won’t interfere with the treatment. Is that okay?”

Scott nodded. “What will happen to me once the treatment’s over?”

Donna ran her tongue along her teeth. There was no harm in telling him, she supposed. “There’s a community about fifteen miles away from here. Purpose-built.”

“I won’t go home?”

“You wouldn’t be safe. It was part of the approval of the program.”

Scott sat, taking this in. “How many others?”

“About fifteen so far, but there’s a waiting list for the facility. Soon it’ll be a real village.”

“Are they all like me?”

“More or less, yes. It’s only appropriate for certain clients.”

He nodded. He was drawing circles with his finger on the back of his hand, a gesture which seemed oddly sweet to Donna. “I think I should go now.”

“Okay Scott. There’ll be someone come to give you the tranquiliser shortly.”

He nodded again, and for a moment looked as if he was about to speak. Then he left the room. For several minutes Donna sat without moving, then closed the laptop lid, the screen still frozen on Scott’s face.

*

One Wednesday morning in July, on a day the heat made the air shimmer in the distance, Scott walked into Donna’s office for the final time. Donna felt excited, and ready, and proud as she waited for him. She was glad he’d not questioned the continuation of his treatment after she’d shown him the confession – not that they could legally have stopped it, but it was a good sign all the same.

She wondered if he’d be any different. He shouldn’t, she knew, but he still one of her first finished clients. Whatever the science, or even the four clients who she’d seen off previously, said, there was a flicker of expectation.

The door crashed open, and Donna had to keep herself from laughing. She’d now installed a shock absorber to protect the bookcase, but it was still alarming.

“Hi, you must be Scott,” she said.

Scott blinked and nodded, and took the seat she gestured to. She sent the curtain around them one last time.

“Where am I?” Scott asked.

Donna smiled. “I’m your counsellor here, and I’m here to take you to your new life. I just have to check a few final things, and then you’ll be off to somewhere new, somewhere designed just for you.”

He ran a hand over his head. “I don’t… is this heaven?”

This time she did laugh. “No Scott. No it isn’t. We’re just here to help you.” She ran through the final set of questions that confirmed no memories remained. “Come with me.”

They walked along the pale yellow corridors. “You don’t know this,” Donna said, finally delivering the speech she’d had prepared for several weeks. “But we’ve been looking after you for some time now.”

She paused to let Scott process this. It made a distant, vague sense; he felt safe, as he was among people who understood him. There were boundaries to his thoughts, but he was happy to stay within them. He felt swaddled, not constrained. Donna continued her speech as she led him through corridors he didn’t remember. There were doors with signs outside bearing inexplicable patterns of numbers. He’d ask about that when they stopped, but for now he followed.

They saw no-one else on the journey. The whole place had a sterilised feel; he could almost imagine they were alone in the building, although he knew from his breakfast, when he’d sat on a long, white table shared with around ten silent others, that they weren’t.

At one point they passed a door with heavy-looking metal bars across it and a flashing red light above. Then Donna stopped.

“Here we are,” she said. For a sick, dropping moment Scott thought she was going to open the grilled door and force him inside. But instead she motioned to a set of large blue-tinted glass doors, outside of which stood a coach.

“This is your ride,” she said, smiling. “Good luck, Scott.”

He blinked, and then dumbly shook her outstretched hand. The coach was empty save for the driver, a short man with thinning hair who didn’t look at him. He took a seat in the middle of the coach and in the reflection of the window he watched Donna waving as it pulled away.

Jenny

Jenny’s waiting for me downstairs.

“We need to talk,” she says, spreading precisely the right amount of butter across perfectly-browned toast.

My mind races. I charged her last night. Was there an update I forgot to install?

“You’re cheating on me.”

Shit. I start to protest but she interrupts.

“I’ve scanned all incoming and outgoing messages to your communication devices and there is a 98.73% probability that you’re in a clandestine relationship with Sharon Holdsworth. That’s in direct contravention of your End User Licence Agreement.” She swivels her head towards me and says, quietly: “Our End User Licence Agreement.”

I grab a slice of toast, stalling. I’ve no intention of admitting my transgression, but wouldn’t know how to explain it to her anyway. Things change – Jenny was exciting and new at first, but I miss human warmth, human connection, human foibles. Jenny doesn’t make mistakes. Even if you install the DitzPack, it’s not the same.

“Is it because I can’t have children?” Clear liquid rolls down her cheek. As emotional blackmail from a machine goes, it’s remarkably effective.

“We can talk tonight. I have to go or I’ll be late.”

“No.”

Our central-locking system clicks. I pull at the door. “Let me out!”

Her eyes are flashing. “Contravention of an End User Licence Agreement is prohibited. Under the Artificial Intelligence Act 2028, I am authorised to interrogate you and to administer a sanction.”

“Er, what sanction?” I’m suddenly very aware of the thick, unyielding metal of her arms – intended to guard against misuse, but titanium knows no distinction between misuse and an attempt to prise the grip of hands from a neck.

“I am not at liberty to disclose that information,” she says, and I think I see the sharp curl of a smile as she marches towards me.

The teeth of the sun

Author’s note: I wrote this for Storgy’s Exit Earth competition, and had a lot of fun doing so. It didn’t make the cut, which means that if you enjoy it there are 14 better stories out there – and who doesn’t like better stories? Please consider backing their Kickstarter to get those stories out into the barren, blasted physical world!

3,102 words – approx. 10 minutes

Ever since it was announced that the Earth was drowning, the traffic had been dreadful. Adrian drummed his fingers uselessly on the steering wheel. Cryogenix provided state-of-the-art company cars, but there was only so much that the latest in dynamic flow-management and hazard-evasion technology could do to counteract the rush hour congestion, even without the waves of people responding to the latest rumours about evac points or making what could be their final trips to see family.

At least he could leave the painfully slow progress to the car itself. He sighed and looked out at the clear blue sky, searching for something to occupy him. A change in one of the billboards caught his eye: it now showed a familiar tanned face with an artificial smile that gleamed at the world. This was Richard Kimmler, one of the key financiers of the evacuation. He must have looked at it for several seconds, because a notification appeared on the dashboard: Accept connection?

Continue reading The teeth of the sun

The town that elected a computer

2,390 words – approx. 8 minutes

The first artificially intelligent mayor was a disaster.

The people of the town had become tired of politicians. There had been several scandals involving finance, relationships, and favours, and at the third recall election in five years, a majority of ballot papers were returned spoiled, or simply dropped to mingle with the leaves that covered the pavement.

Continue reading The town that elected a computer

Monitor

4,465 words – approx. 15 minutes

“Hannah, if you’d like to come in?” The woman jerked from her thoughts at the sound and rose from the purple, rectangular sofa, tugging down her lead-grey skirt as she stood. Before she took a step she crouched to pick up the plastic cup of water at her feet, careful not to crush it. This was no time for clumsiness.

She didn’t recognise the man who held the door open for her. He was smiling, but without showing his teeth, and there was something goblin-like in the way his head bowed towards his outstretched arm. Hannah flashed him a quick grimace then watched her feet cover the check pattern of the carpet. As she passed him he flattened himself against the door, as though scared to come into contact with her. Be assertive, she reminded herself, and forced her head upwards. But she couldn’t stifle the shiver that ran through her when the door clicked to.

Continue reading Monitor