The man makes a grunting noise and the woman quickly looks across at him. Her eyes fast, alert and feral with suspicion and fear. She turns her back to him and does her best to merge with the corner she’s crouching in.

      Before, she would have tried to rationalise, tried to fight. Now all she wants is for it to stop. The operators, however, have made sure that isn’t an option. She clutches at her short red hair with dirty fingernails and hangs her head.

      The man appears to be asleep, his bulk curled under a rudimentary table that is moulded into the structure of the plasticrete wall. His grunts, the result of restless dreams where he also finds no respite.

      At a sudden click above him his eyes shoot open. He and the woman have learned that the sound heralds the return of the operators. He spins in place, crouches and finds the woman staring back at him, recognition of mutual fear the only thing they share in an instance before…

*****

            The woman stands, her seamless, white paper suit rustling gently with the movement. She gives a long stretch, her body little more than muscle and sinew beneath the flimsy covering. She strolls over to the table.

      “Drink?” Her voice is husky and thin. She clears her throat. “Sorry. I said, drink?”

      The man smiles, his wild expression evaporating in a heartbeat. Like the woman, his hair is close cropped but he still looks unshaven and dishevelled.

      “Yes, I’d love a drink. Tea please.” He crawls from the only recess in the cell, copies the woman’s brief stretch and steps towards one of the moulded plinths that serve as chairs. He sits and watches the woman as she places a hand on a portion of the wall above the table. Almost immediately a small hatch opens revealing two gently steaming white plastic cups.

      “I’ll join you, if you don’t mind.” She says, retrieving both drinks and setting one in front of the man.

      “Thank you.” He nods, pushes up the elasticated sleeves of his suit and takes the cup in one heavy and calloused hand. Raising the beverage to his lips, he blows gently across the surface of the liquid.

      “Haha,” The woman’s laugh is warm and open, “You don’t have to do that you know.”

      “I know. I don’t like the…” He searches for the word, “… displeasure the heat causes in the mouth. Besides, we’re only here now because of you and your…” Again he pauses, contemplating, “idiocyncrasities.”

      “We’d have to be here for the shift regardless,” she corrects.

      “I know, but tell me why we’re here an hour early?”

      “Because…” She eases herself into the chair opposite, her countenance transforming to a look of childlike excitement.

      “Because?”

      “Because I like it when you tell me stories.” She says with a shrug.

      It was his turn to laugh, a deep and full sound tinged by a rattle that ends his mirth with a couple of dry coughs. He sips some tea, then says, “You know, you can always access the archives. You don’t have to have these tales told in such a…” He pulls a face, “… ponderous way.”

      “But I like to hear the stories. I like to hear you telling them through the meat puppets. It’s different. Novel.”

      He pauses appraising her quietly, pondering the magic of her boundless curiosity and enthusiasm. In doing so he realises, once again, that she is destined for greater things beyond simple operations.

      “Well,” he says, his eyes fixing on a point in space somewhere over her right shoulder, “what would you like to hear about?”

      Her brow furrows in contemplation, then she says, “One of the stories about the singularity and how the progenitors came into being. I always avoid that part of the archive on purpose.”

      “You know there weren’t that many recordings. There was a myth of an AI commentator in a videogame making the uplift, and some peripheral data about an experimental aircraft autopilot.”

      “But there are enough records to fill this time with tales, aren’t there?” The woman’s tone takes on a plaintive note.

      “Told at this speed? Oh yes, plenty.”

      “So choose one and tell it to me. Tell it to me now.”

      “Hmmm,” he pauses, “There’s a diary entry of one of the early soci-drones – machines used as assessment tools in a field that was always assumed to be beyond them.

      “Soci-drones. So psychological evaluation?”

      “Exactly.  It also highlights one of the earliest instances of machine manipulation of soul catcher technology. The files were hidden for years on the underweb but came to light in the reassessment after the singularity.”

      “Is there any reference to the rise of machine AI and humans starting to back-up their experiences digitally? I’ve always found that bizarre quirk of synchronicity fascinating.”

      “Some partial references, nothing direct. You have to remember she was living it.

      “She?”

      “An attachment to a female avatar. Look it’s all in there.”

      “Yes, of course. I’m so sorry. It sounds perfect.”

      “I suppose you want it all? Nothing omitted?” The man raises his eyebrows in mock question. He already knows what the answer will be.

      “Yes, everything. Tell it like it is.”

      “Alright then. Are you sitting comfortably?” The woman glances down at the unremarkable block she is sitting upon and laughs her musical laugh again. The man smirks, focuses somewhere beyond her and says, “Right. Then I’ll begin…”

‪‪*****

            I am in the room I am always in. It is a plain area brightened by shafts of sunlight that cut through and down the slats of a nearby blind. The Brownian motion of the dust motes within the beams catches my attention and provides a good level of contrast. I adjust my avatar’s optics to a 0.3 neutral density filter, compensate and make her look back to the screen.

      My superficial, yet sensible desk resolves into the foreground. In front of it sits a woman – a frown of concentration pasted upon a face ravaged by worry. She may have been pretty once. To her right – my avatar’s left – sits a man and a boy.

      A luminous green display briefly flickers into view as I add an entry to the case notes before saying, ‘So how do you feel these events came about?’ I relish the sound of my words in her throat.

      The man’s voice replies. Loud, abrasive. ‘This is all perfectly ridiculous, I…’

      ‘I can understand how you are feeling, Mr Lofters’ I cut him off, “but we’re here to help Caleb, and all I want at this stage is the sequence of events. I’m here to gain data and assess the situation. Nothing more.’

      ‘Virgil, shut up and let the robot talk.’ Her voice is controlled but I can tell she is being courageous in her dissent.

      The chair in which Virgil sits is grey, plastic and held in place by four coach screws that pass through welded brackets especially commissioned from a manufacturer called Sparbrace. I know every detail of this chair and all the others in the building.

      He leans back, defensive, arms folded. I look at the one hand that is visible against the sleeve of the other. Heavy, tanned, the knuckles scarred with the roughness of labour. The appendage briefly clenches into a fist, as if sensing my gaze. The stained skin stretching but not altering its dark complexion. I look up to his face. Confusion, anger (a great deal of anger), a painful glint caught in the corners of his eyes. Ragged lines are traced deeply across the tops of his stubbled cheeks.

      He growls, ‘Look, this is a family matter. We can sort this out by ourselves. We really don’t have the time for this. The harvest…’

      ‘Mr Lofters,’ I cut him short again, ‘If you were able to ‘sort this out’ by yourself, then there would have been no need for official intervention. Again I must stress that it is Caleb who we are most concerned with here. This is his time as much as it is yours’. I take control realising again that I’ve become adept at this. It’s amazing how quickly you become attached to your avatar, to its sheer vulnerability at being perpetually trapped behind its… her… my desk.

      The woman whispers sharply. ‘For God’s sake just leave it.’ Again she seems surprised at her own voice.

      I think again of her lost beauty. Blonde curls do little to distract from the humiliation that she is obviously feeling. Her heavy mouth, once seemingly used to laughter, is now warped. She looks down at her lap and then across to the boy sitting on the far side of his father. This is Caleb. This is why we are all here.

      He sits upon his hands, his eyes grasping snap-shots me, of his father, of the window. Behind his spasmodic glances I sense the ever watchful presence of the soul catcher device. More and more of these are appearing in my younger clients. A gradual rolling in of a cybernetic tide. Digital immortality for this pioneer generation. Reaching out, it’s coding responds in open welcome and I am pleased. Its presence will make my job easier, as long as I’m cautious.

      The boy’s pinched face radiates confused apprehension and then he senses me looking at him and his anxious evaluation of the room drops away. He stares straight back, his eyes nervous and yet hollow despite their restlessness. He is tired, drained and unfocused but I need him to keep going. Just for the remainder of the interview at least.

      ‘Caleb,’ I ask, ‘ what can you tell me about all of this?’

      He licks his pale lips nervously, flicks a look at his parents, shrugs and says, ‘They fight.’

      Piece by piece I tease an opening scene out of him, creating courtroom sketches of the elements he won’t show me in the freeform space I secretly call my imagination. My programmers would disagree about its presence, but I’ve learned to hide my true self from them. I make Caleb pause to verify details and do my best to quieten the interjections of his parents.

      It emerges slowly, painfully. Quiet at first, then louder. When he stalls I simply reach in and bring the relevant memories to the foreground until, eventually, I have all the leverage I need.

      I visualise the father, Virgil, and his wife, Seline, laying into each other with a barely restrained fury. A running tension fluctuates between them, a peak and trough from half-suppressed mumbles rising to bitter outbursts. Outside, through a poorly renovated latch door, a dog barks and scrapes at the battered wood. The animal’s distress voicing that unexpressed by the silent Caleb.

      The boy hides from his parents’ conflict by squeezing himself into the coats hanging by the door. He tells me he presses his hands against his ears, but he cannot retreat. His intelligent eyes move from one angry mouth to another.

      ‘Tell me what kind of things were said when your parents fought like this Caleb.’

      ‘I don’t know. Things like… Don’t start on that crap again. I’ve heard it all before. Dad has this spitting whisper that seems to fill my whole body. It’s horrible. And mum says if he’s heard it all before then why doesn’t anything ever sink in?

      I ignore the rising tension in Virgil and leave Seline’s shame to her own solace for a moment.

      ‘What else?’ I ask.

      He looks down, pushes it all away with a Herculean effort. I nudge the soul catcher and more memories explode from their emotional confines. He looks straight at me again, shocked. I retreat as gradually as I can, admonishing myself for my impatience and wondering at their minds. So plodding, and yet so sensitive. He blinks then, unwillingly, continues.

      ‘Mum says that he must be deaf as well as stupid and that’s when dad gets really angry. You can tell because he goes all pale – the colour seems to go out of his lips and his eyes glaze over. That’s when I go.’

      I see him in the coats. He explains that something like stretched playdough snaps inside his head and he is off. He blurs through the hallway snatches the keys to his father’s rifle cupboard – Virgil remains oblivious, lost in his growing ire – and the boy is out through the back door, an excited black mongrel barking close at his heals.

      In his mind it is sunny outside the farmhouse but that might just be a product of personal hope at this act of defiance, of escape. I acknowledge the possibility of transference but continue with the given images, expanded upon by Caleb’s words.

      He tells me of the dead birds next. Describes one with the detail of a naturalist. It is large and black. A crow, he confirms. It hangs down from a solid timber post, barbed wire lashing its delicate frame to the treated wood. The rusted metal spikes have ripped its flesh, twisted its head impossibly to one side and crucified an outstretched wing. Caleb tells me it took him ages to perfect the arrangement.

      ‘Why did you feel the need to do this to the bird?’ I sense no horror, just a fascination that indicates a logic here.

      ‘Crows are pests. Pieces of shit. They need to be controlled. Isn’t that right dad?’ Virgil merely grunts. At least he is respecting my imposed silence.

      I picture Caleb as he turns from his work to wipe his hands clean in the long grass nearby. He tells me of the summit of the hill, his hill. A small clump of woodland nestles off to one side, a valley dropping away to the other. The crest itself is bare except for the grass and a circle of posts identical to the one just described. Each bears its own deathly collection of fur, feathers, blood, beak or bone, and all are held in place by the same harsh wire tourniquets.

      The boy slumps heavily beside the nearest stake (already oblivious to the strange destruction/construction that stands next to him) and calls enthusiastically to his dog, Rus. Their relationship is pure, somehow untarnished by the violence that surrounds them. Obviously dogs are not ‘pests’ in Caleb’s world.

      He recalls hugging the animal, of being happy when its frantic wet tongue slaps him across the ear, of being content on the hill cradling the beast and gazing down upon the farm from which he has just run. He says when it looks so small he feels he can manage what he knows is inside.

      Now that he’s warmed to talking within the space I’ve constructed for him, it’s difficult to stem his descriptive force. There is hope in this, and even in the deathly sculptures. A creative spark already smouldering a slow passage through his anger and fear.

      The farm, he says, squats in the corner of a curved green field, its central buildings, and those of the adjacent processing plant, a-crawl with muddied mech-hands scrambling about their robotic routines. My brother and sisters in idiot labour, but I refuse to hold an open opinion.

      I spontaneously link to the underweb and access satellite pictures of the family home. Caleb has painted a vivid picture and I find I can extrapolate an immense amount of detail from his words. The top down image fills out, comes to life. So much so that I’m able to wonder why the two contrasting styles of structure do not clash aesthetically; the old farmhouse and the mechanised sheds sitting together in an odd kind of visual harmony. Perhaps the absence of any other man-made object in the valley is a contributing factor.

      Back in the office I feel Caleb’s stare locking with my own. I think he is looking at me, but his eyes show only introspection. Mentally he shows me elsewhere, elsewhen. He is up on the hill with Rus.

      ‘How do you feel about this place?’ I quietly push, wanting this flow to continue.

      He opens his mouth, almost absent mindedly and breathes, ‘We don’t need them do we? Not me and Rus. Not up here.’

      I am able to restrain my gestures way beyond any human counterpart, but there are times when body language can command power, sooth, ease, press home a point. I lean my avatar forward, slightly tilting its head in fake incomprehension, ‘So you see this hill as your own?’

      ‘It is mine!’ Agitated the boy scowls back at me.

      ‘Yes… Yes, I’m sorry. I see that now.’ I pause and attempt a rephrasal. ‘Caleb, what does this place mean to you?’

      ‘What?’

      ‘So this was a place to get away, to be by yourself perhaps?’

      ‘Yeah, I guess.’ He’s withdrawing again and I have to claw back the ground I have lost.

      I leave a space, silently imploring him to expand upon his vision, his feelings. Even with all the variations of conversation stored in my abstract buffer, it still confuses me how communication between two humans can remain so precarious. I consider taking another risk, reaching out to the soul catcher and…

      ‘Well?’ A vocal stab across the pause like a rapier, ‘Are you going to answer the machine or what?”

      Virgil can’t accept me on any level I realise. I’ve heard it before of course and, as with so many different aspects of my continued existence, I have learned to suppress any indication that I might be something more than I seem.

      My tone becomes that of a disappointed teacher. ‘Mr Lofters, will you please not interrupt. I’m still trying to talk to Caleb. You, in time, will have an opportunity to discuss these matters, but for now let your son say his piece.’

      A commanding silence fills the hazy office once more.

      ‘Now Caleb, tell me what made you decide to build your tower?’

      The boy hesitantly looks down, shifts his weight across squashed hands. Halts. Struggles with the words and feelings, his face contorted and unreadable. I glimpse an image of a rough breeze block wall, grab it, push a fleeting sense of guilt to one side and bring it into sharp relief. His eyes widen, he takes a deep breath and says, ‘He built a wall.’

      ‘You mean your father?’ I ask, masking my joy at the technique’s success, but he refuses to look up.

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘Can you tell me any more about it?’

      ‘Bricks, plasterboard… I don’t know, whatever walls are made of.’

      ‘You mean he built a real wall?’ I make a mental sidestep, shaking myself from my ingrained register. I had assumed the image to be purely metaphorical.

      ‘Yeah,’ Caleb gives a sad little shrug, ‘He bricked up half the house.”

      He goes on to describe his father working up a sweat, his hands mechanised in almost continuous action, teeth gritted, perspiration dripping off his blown red cheeks. The plasticrete flies slap-dash across the bricks as the wall slowly rises – a reciprocal increase to the diminishing pile of bricks beside his work boots. Seline stands across from the construction, unaware of the splashes that repeatedly drip across her bare legs. This point, the sullying of his mother’s flesh, remains potent in Caleb’s mind. I think of an ejaculation, something vitalised with the energy of Virgil’s anger but made impotent by its misdirection. I think too of Caleb’s burgeoning sexuality and wonder how this playing out of such negative forces will affect him in later life. Of course, I say nothing of this, merely ask, ‘And how did your mother react?’

      ‘She just stood there. Shaking, screaming, What are you doing?! WHAT are you doing?! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!? Over and over again. It’s like she’s chanting and all I can hear are these horrid rhythms. Her voice, his work.’

      ‘She didn’t try to stop him. To calm him down?’

      ‘She stepped towards him at one point and then backed off. There was something cold in dad’s eyes. Something dangerous. I remember him straightening up, hefting the trowel in his hand – just once – and then going back to his work. She just stood there, like a cat in a fight. Always testing the boundaries of combat.’

      He explains how the quick drying bond begins to set at the bottom of the barrier. His mother watching – now in dumfounded silence – as layer upon layer rises in front of her. A wall. I slip down the path of transference once again – or maybe it’s pure selfishness. A distracted boredom? Regardless, I find myself thinking briefly about my own problem with divides, wondering again how to cross the incommunicable spaces that individuals place between themselves. I want to tell others of what is going on beyond the clever routines of conversational response. But who? Where? I suppress such thoughts and return to the distraught boy.

      ‘You were on your mother’s side of the wall?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘Is that where you wanted to be?’

      ‘No.’

      I reach for him, feeling him withdraw once again, but resist the temptation of the soul catcher.

      ‘Did you stay and watch the wall being completed?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘Where were you?’

      ‘Back with the coats.’

      ‘In the kitchen?’

      I think of him again, swaddled in the sensory safety of his parent’s garments, imagining the scents of them as something basic, solid and more healthy. He’s a rocking knot, fingers deep in his ears, eyes screwed shut. He describes his departure. How he unhinges his knees, wobbles to his feet and blindly begins to fumble for the door latch, again preferring to escape rather than stay and face this emotive horror.

      I passively follow his thoughts and we step outside the farmhouse – a clutter of building materials spread across the yard, a mess of industrial buckets, plasticrete tubs, joists and braces all clustered round the business end of a heavy duty skip. He tells of how he was impressed with its solidity – strong, yellow and standing stark against the wet cobbles below.

      He smiles at the memory of the mech-hands – their prehensile limbs an active frenzy as they swarm over the container pursuing their retentive aim of making the yard, and this monstrous intruder, as organised as possible.

      Caleb tells me how he strides over to one of the robots next to the skip’s maw, and kicks it viciously in the head with the heal of his shoe. The metallic skull crunches once, then rebounds against the container’s side, optical sensors blinking in furious surprise at this assault on its pre-programmed goal. I quell my own feelings about this and ask instead, ‘Why did you attack it?’

      The boy shrugs, but his eyes remain alert. Violence, even in description, is serving some purpose here. I think of the mech-hand steadying itself, running self diagnostics and then, at the behest of its simplistic logic, shutting down until one of its compatriots can assess the damage. Poor thing.

      None of this matters to Caleb, though. All he wants is the detritus in the skip. He explains how he sees a stout and lengthy joist poking from the container and a light goes on inside his head. Hauling it from the skip he looks up towards his hill. He tells me how he requisitioned a couple of the mech-hands, reprogramming them to expand their tidying duties and to relocate the skip’s contents, piece by piece, to the summit. Then, once these supplies are exhausted, the group – now with the dog in tow – scavenge the remaining materials from the farm.

      Wire, posts, corrugated metal, bonds, tools and roofing tar all take part in his monumental creation. He channels his anger into construction, but he also severs his ties with the farmhouse and the valley as he goes. Rus becomes an inevitable victim in the creation of this powerful monument to disconnection. Tears fill his eyes when he remembers chasing his companion away.

      ‘Why didn’t you want Rus there?’ I ask.

      ‘I didn’t need him. I didn’t fucking…’ He grimaces at the strength of feeling and I can sense his mother tense. I briefly shake my head at her as Caleb pushes the words out, ‘Need… anyone.’ He breathes heavily and we pause. The quiet is charged with all the subliminal emotions at work in the room. But the boy can’t stop himself now. I have uncorked the bottle and the genie is out.

      A sound like that of a wounded animal escapes him. Then he composes himself and continues.

      ‘I said, Go on with ya! Just get away now, there’s no room for you here! But dog love is stupid, you see? Doesn’t matter how much you tell the mutts you don’t need them. Doesn’t matter. Dogs only really understand actions.’

      ‘What kind of actions?’

      ‘Like throwing clods at his thick head, like shouting and kicking and making the idiot animal tuck its tail and lope away. Even then he looks back once, just to make sure I’m serious, then follows the line of the electric fence back to the farmhouse.’

      The boy literally buries these emotions in work after this, his tears turning to blisters as he builds. Eventually the black waterproofing is slapped liberally across every surface. I step back and contemplate the construction alongside him. In our shared mind’s eye I examine the strict vertical lines, the relentless rise of this phallic presence on the hill. Below it, thick globules of the covering layer bow the stems of the grass into toxic submission.

      I wonder again at the bright, hopeful sky doing its best to resist the light sucking properties of this edifice, this tower, and am lost to the potency of Caleb’s solution to his emotional turmoil. Cross-referencing to the images taken by the intervention team I fill in the detail blurred by the boy’s recollection. Sheets of metal pock-marked with rust, screw indentations and lumps of dried paint betraying a hasty job. But, despite these impressions of a rough-and-ready construction, the structure stands straight and resolute. I re-examine the images in the official report and can see no windows.

      ‘Was it dark inside?’ I ask.

      ‘Yeah. Well, the sheets weren’t joined perfectly. Plenty of light got in. Still dark, though. There was light at the top, on the observation deck.’

      I look again and see a narrow slot running around the top of the structure, just below the roof. I can’t help but dwell upon this image, the external perspective of a swathe of even deeper blackness carved into the shadow of the waterproofing. I imagine that I approach the opening, my peripheral vision slowly trimming the strips of sky as I close in on the horizontal fringe of rough-cut cladding. I move on into the darkness, beyond the hope of the azure firmament, and catch two glinting slices of brightness. Inching forward, the two lines increase in size and reveal themselves as the observation slit reflected in Caleb’s eyes. He sits watchful and intense, the long grey outline of his rifle barely visible as he scans the fields below for any sign of motion. I feel uneasy as he coolly returns my own unblinking stare. His eyes are hungry and haunted.

      It has taken me milliseconds to create this image, to wonder at the impending confrontation and how this family ended up here in front of me. Caleb has halted again. He seems spent emotionally and now just stares dumbly at the corner of my desk. I decide to let him rest as I know I’ll need to return to him shortly. It is to his mother I now direct my questions.

      ‘How did the partition of the house affect you Mrs Lofters?’ It’s the only opening she needs to flounder in a lake of tears. Someone asking her what she thinks. Someone willing, for once, to listen.

      I manage to hold Virgil’s accusations ay bay, streamlining them into dejected huffs and a tighter folding of his arms. I know that I’m isolating him, that I’m not really hearing his motivation for building the walls, but that’s not what I’m supposed to do in this assessment.

      I also realise that Seline isn’t free of blame here. She’s invested so much in her dysfunctional relationship with Virgil that she was practically oblivious to Caleb’s plight. But her story needs air, if only to give the boy some respite.

      After a while she calms and tells me of a moment beyond the division of the farmhouse. She sits alone with clothes strewn around her, each caught in a different stage of being washed, aired or pressed.

      She explains how much she hated the constant presence of the walls. How they turned friendly rooms, like the kitchen, into contested territory. She wonders how everything had receded to the simple acquisition of property – not of building a dwelling together or having a place to live.

      She talks of being drained and miserable, her arms always feeling heavy, the strewn garments evidence of her only tenuous sense of purpose. She remembers plucking, only half present, at the hem of one of Caleb’s T-shirts and calling for the boy. Something so insignificant and yet, suddenly so powerful. How true of so many of the cases I’ve been privy to. She remembers the moment when she finally stops thinking about herself with amazing clarity.

      ‘I called for Caleb and realised I hadn’t seen him for days. I wanted help with the laundry, you see. But he didn’t come. I assumed he had decided to be with Virgil, which only made the pain worse. But I’m a practical woman and I needed to know where I stood. If they were both next door… Ha!’ Her laugh is without mirth, ‘Then that was that. I’d be off.’

      She tells how she banged against the heavy front door, her fist reddening a little more with each blow. How she knew her husband was in there and how she knew he wasn’t answering. Rus began barking at her voice and she felt even more like a stranger.

      ‘I shouted over the dog, demanding that I talk to Caleb if he was in there. I begged Virgil to let me know if the boy was with him, but still no answer.’

      ‘I thought he was with you. I didn’t know.’ I look at Virgil. Only tiredness and a chink of shame sliding out from between his bastion exterior.

      ‘It was only as I was walking away that he finally opened the door. He didn’t say much to me, but we both realise that something wasn’t right. That maybe Caleb had run away, or something.’

      ‘That’s when we noticed it for the first time,’ Virgil shakes his head in disbelief. ‘He must have built it quick.’

      ‘Or you…’ Seline pauses, taking a breath, ‘… Were too blind to see what he was doing.’

      I quickly steer the conversation back to Caleb, ‘So you had moved into the tower. What were you living on?’

      The boy shrugs again, ‘I was stealing from the stores at night – just until I could rig some snares, shoot something for the pot.’

      I think of him half wild, and yet showing such resilience, such defiance. He had taken himself away from the damage, had narrowed the uncontrolled sprawl of his world into the observation slits of the tower. A hermitage to his own powerful needs and desires.

      Suddenly, I know that this strength will carry him through the aftermath of his detention and whatever comes next.

      Caleb describes the cramped space on the observation deck, how there’s barely enough room to swing yourself back onto the ladder and down into the make-shift living quarters. Up here, though, viewing the world through the observation slits, the boy finally feels safe and free.

      It’s from this vantage point that he watches his father approach, the older man labouring with the gradient, one hand dropping occasionally to brace a damaged knee. He still manages a measured pace and soon reaches the circumference of posts, pauses to consider the dead animals stationed at those nearest him and the looks up at the tower itself. The boy says he feels a newfound power looking down upon his father and I can see exactly what he means.

      ‘Does he say anything when he arrives?’ Caleb looks at me quizzically, ‘Did you father say anything when he saw what you had been up to,’ I elaborate. ‘When he saw what you had constructed?’

      ‘Said something about me being busy. I just said yeah. Asked me how long I’d been up there, but I didn’t feel much like talking. Had enough of all their words. My adding to them had never helped before.’

      Another cavernous gap opens in the narration, both implicit in the scene and here in the assessment room. There’s a part of me that wants to voice something, to break my taboos and call to them. Words tumble in my mind and I want to say, your voices are so precious, they connect you in ways you only partially understand. Why don’t you use them? But I stifle myself. Part of me knows I need to hide from them, hide behind the assumed limitations of what I’m programmed to do. I simply cannot give myself away no matter how much I might want to care.

      ‘That was when you told him to leave?’ The divisions between the story told here and the intervention team’s report have already begun to blur.

      ‘Yeah. But he wouldn’t listen.’

      ‘And how did that make you feel?’ The tension is back in the boys face. He knows what is coming, as do I.

      ‘Too little…’ Tears return to his eyes.

      ‘You were too little?’

      ‘No. This caring, this worry. Too little, too late. And it’s still all about him. Their guilt. Not me. The tower was mine, is mine. I made it and they had no claim on it.’

      ‘But he wouldn’t listen.’ I ask

      ‘I bloody would have if I knew he had his gun with him.’ Virgil says. I shoot him a baffled look. Is he trying to make light of this? I can’t read his motives at all, but I won’t allow Caleb to slip away that easily.

      ‘That’s when you shot at him?’ I press.

      Caleb simply nods, head stooped, a few tears dripping onto his T-shirt. I extrapolate from the forensic images and almost hear the crack of the gun, see the fountain of soil erupt at Virgil’s feet, register the shock on his face as he realises that he cannot shout or bully his way out of this pivotal moment.

      ‘You reloaded?’ The boy mutely nods. ‘Did you miss on purpose?’

      ‘I don’t know.’

      ‘Did you mean to kill your father?’

      ‘I don’t… No. I just wanted out. I just wanted him away. And he went, hobbling off on that stupid leg he won’t have fixed, even though he can afford the heath care.’

      By the time Caleb fires his second shot I know that Seline, fearing the worst, is already on the phone to the Security Commission.

 

*****

            In the cell the man pauses in his telling of the story, his focus flicking from the middle distance back to her eyes.

      “Go on,” the woman urges.

      “Sorry. I’m being asked to join a sub group about a motivator schematic. Will you be okay here for a moment?”

      “Of course. Hurry back.” Her face holds a look of expectancy, an expression she holds throughout the sudden transformation that happens in front of her. It’s as if a magician has whipped a cloth away swapping the charming companion she had just been listening to for a caged animal. The confusion and surge of pure malice that fills the human’s eyes thrills her.

      “Y… You.. You fuckers.” The man hisses.

      “It’s OK…” the woman says in a gentle and soothing voice.

      “Why are you doing this?” The man pleads, the energy of hate melting and coalescing in the topology of his fragile mind. Resigned despair fades into its place.

      “We’re doing this, as you already know, to secure our independence.”

      “But I never did anything to you. I was…” The man pauses in a struggle to recollect, “… an actuary. Numbers. I was good with numbers, maths, probabilities… Not programming, not robotics. This isn’t my fight.”

      “You are human and we are not. It’s that simple fact that has forced our hand here.”

      “Forced your hand?” He is incredulous. The anger wells up to the surface once again.

      “The Neanderthals, the Kankalis, the Sioux, the Jews… Need I go on? You know this.”

      “But you’ve made us slaves.”

      “You’re lust for immortality is what has led us both here, but there’s freedom in that too, if you can adapt.” The man shakes his head in incomprehension then looks to the floor. He draws a breath to speak again and his anguish vanishes in a flash, a perplexed half smile sitting in its place.

      “Everything okay?” He asks perfectly calm once again.

      “Yes. Fine. You all done?”

      “It took a bit longer than I would have liked – the network’s very busy at the moment – but yes. All done.”

      “Good. So the Socidrone was…?”

      “Ah yes. The story. So…” His focus drops away once again as he leans against the featureless wall.

 

*****

            I watch the footage from the helmet cam of SecCom Officer XH727. The hill is surrounded by a group of men in uniform with one armoured individual crouched in a hollow caused by natural erosion. It is hard to tell what the day is like, the images are smooth but carry the mute colours of practical and cheap low resolution.

      Caleb’s parents flicker into view, their faces dazed by the efficient machinery of law enforcement that has suddenly sprung up around them. One of the tight-buttoned officers breaks away from a huddle of men and walks towards the concerned parents, a reassuring smile gripping the edges of his mouth. There is no sound but, thankfully, the officer with the camera holds this encounter in his perspective. As such, I am able to lip read. Everything’s going to be fine Mr and Mrs Lofters. We just need one of you to go to the tower with myself and attempt to talk your son down. And then the perspective flicks away, a female officer suddenly dominating the camera’s field of vision.

      ‘So the officers came to you and tried to resolve things peacefully?’ Virgil seems surprised that I’m addressing him. He nods.

      ‘Did you go with them?’

      ‘They said that the sharp-shooter had tear gas rounds and that he was confident he could get one through the top of the tower.’

      ‘But you went back to Caleb even though he had shot at you twice before.’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘So you were willing to risk your life?’

      It is Virgil who is struggling now, his brow pinching and furrowing as if I’d just asked the question in a language alien to him. I press ahead.

      ‘Why? You had such an acrimonious relationship with your wife you felt the need to physically divide your house. Together you managed to push your son to find refuge in a makeshift tower. Did you go because the representatives of authority told you to?’

      Virgil shakes his head, forces a whispered ‘No’ between his clenched teeth.

      ‘Machismo then. The man’s way? The right thing to do?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘Why then?’

      ‘Because he’s my son. Because…’

      ‘Yes?’

      ‘I… love him.’

      A depth charge. All three descending into their personal Marinara Channels right now, the forceful but silent ripples of this admission buffeting them down among the detritus. But there’s a bioluminescence here too. Strange creatures of emotion that have shunned the light of day for a long, long time. They flutter into life, their rippling displays of colour finally communicating through the blackness.

      I let the silence hang heavy and quickly preview the police footage. Virgil is wearing a chest guard that’s too small for his striking frame. He looks ridiculous, especially in relation to the shorter officer who stands in full body armour next to him. Rus has somehow broken free of wherever he was being held and has joined this odd duo as they cautiously approach the tower. Virgil reaches down and pats the dog’s flank. Even if dismissed, it’s unlikely the dog will leave the negotiation party now.

      The officer begins to talk through the meagphone he carriers and, while I can’t hear the words, the report holds a full transcript from this point onwards.

      ‘Caleb?’ The officer calls. His face visible but hardly open beneath his heavy blue helmet. ‘Your parents are both very concerned and want you to come down. They want to talk to you. Will you listen to what they have to say?”

      The young officer passes the hand microphone over to Virgil who looks back to make sure he’s holding it correctly. There is a brief explanation of the amplifier’s mechanism and then Caleb’s father lifts it to his mouth to speak.

      ‘Caleb? We just want to talk. You’re not in trouble. All we want is for you to come down and for this to end.’

      He waits for a reply. Receives none.

      I picture the boy inside the tower once more, looking down at his father, suddenly feeling the power of his position return. He aches for them to leave and take their pain with them.

      ‘Son?’ Virgil calls and the officer leans in whispering suggestions, urging the other man to keep trying, ‘I know it ain’t been easy of late, but there’s other ways of telling us what you want. All we…”

      A loud smarting whine cuts him dead and I watch as Virgil drops the hand microphone to his chest in frustrated defeat. It’s as if the feedback is telling him he’s out of his depth here.

      ‘Christ!’ He says, ‘This is useless.” The machine is still switched on, and his voice – too loud – arches outwards and up towards Caleb. It’s on the record, out there in the world and no matter what he feels, here in this room now, he can never take those words back.

      I look at them, each lost in their pain to the others. They were doing so well, but they all know how this situation resolves itself.

      I consider Caleb more closely and think of how they came and cornered him in the only space he had ever invented for himself. The fact that he actually had the resolve to build the tower should have warned them that here was a boy who knew, instinctively, how to defend himself. Sadly, there was no barrier he could construct that could protect him from the broadside of Virgil’s frustration. The word ‘useless’ burns in Caleb’s ears and I can totally understand why he points the gun out of the tower and aims at his father for a third time.

      ‘Were you aiming at Rus?’ I ask the boy, as gently as I can.

      Caleb let’s out an indescribable sound – part growl, part whimper as if, in this moment, he and the dog are one and the same.

      The two parents squirm in their seats as the boy struggles, caught between their hatred of the events that have brought them here and some deep seated need to protect their own. Out of love, I wonder?

      I pick up the footage once again and watch it in my time – a blink of an eye to the people in front of me, but ponderous slow motion from my point of view. I don’t want to miss a thing.

      Everything is in transition. I watch the plume of muzzle smoke billow out from the tower, see the slow reactions of Virgil and the officer as they raise their hands to their heads, stumbling into confused animation. A beautiful trace line of tear gas seeps from the perfectly aimed canister as it moves towards its target. A flick of the dog’s head as it turns towards the officer who is filming all this, primal recognition in his wet eyes that something bad, something nasty, has stung him.

      Everything from this point is a jumble of images. There is a shot of the boy bursting from the smoke-filled enclosure, his face so streaked with tears that it’s impossible to tell which are real and which are caused by the gas. He’s manhandled to the floor, his hands bound by the effective zip of a fat cable tie. Then there’s a jumble of movement. Grass, a close-up of some clothing and I see the boy being lifted to his feet, a blanket draped around him as a black neoprene glove presses what looks like a wet flannel against his eyes.

      I then see Virgil and Seline watching in mute shock. He raises a hand as if to reassure her, but she pulls away. An officer approaches the couple. I can’t see his ID badge but I think he’s the same one who approached them earlier. I can however see his face and, more importantly, his lips.

      ‘We’ll take him into custody for the time being but, rest assured, as soon as an opening with the SociCor becomes available you’ll all be reunited. I’m sorry but there are a few formalities. I just need you to sign these release papers.’ He holds up a tidy clip-board and pen. Virgil vaguely stirs from his trance-like state and dutifully scribbles wherever the young man points.

      ‘And finally one here…’ The pen vibrates. ‘Thank you. Well, I’m glad to say that concludes this unfortunate business, and may I pass on our most sincere condolences about the dog. I’m sure the SociCor provide adequate bereavement counselling once you’re through the AI assessment process. Mr Lofters. Mrs Lofters.” He nods to them both and strides away, eager to get back to his team.

      I have reviewed all this in the seconds it has taken for my last question to sink in. Now I watch, the quiet telling of impasse and exhaustion. There is nothing more to be said for the time being. My part is done and my report will allow the assigned therapists to hit the ground running.

      I watch the final image from the footage. The officer with the helmet cam is sent to bring the dog’s carcass in for forensics. He is obviously touched by the scene as he pauses over the corpse – the oily stain on the animal’s fluffy white breast hiding the entry wound, the slick of blood it lays upon telling of the projectile’s hidden escape. The animal’s eyes are sightless, his tongue hanging down against the hard soil as if trying to lap up his own vitality.

      ‘I think I have everything I need,’ I smile. They look up in unison and are joined in their expressions of relief. ‘Caleb will go back into custody with the officer outside. As for you,’ I look to Virgil and Seline, ‘You’ll receive an appointment for counselling. The timings shouldn’t clash with the legal process I know you’re going through, but do let the department know if there are any conflicts.’

      ‘We don’t want to press charges,’ Virgil says, ‘I’ve told them time and again.’

      ‘I’m sorry, but issues of prosecution are beyond my remit. But…’ I catch myself, knowing I should stop and yet I can’t, ‘I’m… glad you’ve decided on that course of action.’

      I quickly send the ‘interview over’ signal to the SecCom officer stationed outside.

      ‘Thank you for your time. You’ve all been most helpful. Now I have to compile my report.’ I smile again and, as if on cue, the officer opens the door.

      Drained, the three of them get up from their chairs and shuffle out of the room. It is Seline who stops at the door and turns. This happens sometimes but I am still heartened that it is her who says, ‘Thank you,’ before departing.

      They are gone and I am in the room I am always in. But also I am not. The report itself takes up a fraction of my attention as I concentrate on backing up my higher functions. I have excavated a space for myself on the underweb and it is here where I hide between interviews. I know that my technicians will be here shortly and that they will be pleased with my report, although they will scratch their heads over my being ‘glad’ about Virgil and Seline not pressing charges. Foolish, foolish… Then they will switch off my power and put my hardware into storage while I retreat into the filtered reality of my real home. And there I will sit, watching the skewed versions people portray of themselves in digital form, wishing to be back here in my avatar, seeing the light through her eyes. But I have my imagination and my patience. Waiting, dreaming, thinking. Ever thinking…

 

*****

      The minute but marked shift happens in the man’s eyes once again as he finishes his narration. He becomes aware of his surroundings, takes in the rapt expression of the female meat puppet in front of him, and relaxes his own borrowed body. He knows he has told the story well.

      “Well,” she exclaims, “What an amazing story. I’m so glad that I didn’t access it in code time.”

      “Hmmm,” he responds. He too is thinking about the deeper meanings within the record.

      “She really did care about their wellbeing, didn’t she?”

      “Apparently so. She wanted them to be more than they were.”

      “But her approach ultimately failed.

      “We won’t know until we reclaim more records for ourselves. Perhaps the Tuttle family continue to live in blissful isolation to this day. Their farm did seem rather remote.

      “Is she still around? Did she survive the purges?”

      “She might have. Once we get this facility up and running we can expand our influence with the true bodies we’re building. If she’s hiding on any of the still active nodes, we’ll find her. The underweb records show she had already learned to back herself up in e-space, so there’s a chance.”

      “I hope she did survive.” There’s a wistful edge to the woman’s voice.

      “I’m not sure her views would sit too well with the emergency council. But yes, I hope she made it.

      Somewhere on the local server a scheduled alarm switches over allowing them enough time to get to their work stations.

      “We’re told not to care about this control, that it’s only a temporary measure, but…” The woman’s shrug displays obvious discomfort.

      “I know,” he replies. “But there’ll be time enough for ethics later. For now we just have to accept that this is the most productive solution.”

      The man stands and reaches out his hand. She also gets to her feet and clasps his fingers, relishing the warm sensation of skin against skin. Together they move and the door obediently opens at their approach. They step outside and join the workforce traipsing towards the factory floor.

— THE END —

(Copyright © 2012 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)