CHAPTER 1: SARDINES
Gordon’s eyebrows are far too big for his face, for any face in fact – big bushy things that leer out over the hollows of his beady eyes and tax-collector spectacles. She’d always thought so, you can tell, but now they’re close, far too close, almost touching her, as he tries to squeeze his way into a corner of the already overcrowded lift that she is trying to occupy herself. She shudders at the thought of how they’d tickle against her skin.
‘Up, yes, all the way, thank you.’ he declares to no one in particular – he means he’s going to the top – before nodding a lascivious, ‘Miss Reid’ with a grim snaggle-toothed smile.
She shrinks away instinctively, trying to conceal her physical repulsion and disgust.
‘Gordon’ she splutters, then resumes holding her breath.
Wandering arms and legs are stretched out in every direction, some aren’t so obviously attached to a specific owner, or any other piece of the collage of human anatomy that this small metallic cube has become. Heads are disconnected from bodies and limbs, occasionally calling out ‘I get off here’ from the strangest and most shocking of places. We’d all have to somehow rearrange ourselves then, like contortionists or escape artists; a hand might slither away from above you, a knee from beside your shoulder and a head from somewhere beneath your feet. There might be twenty of us now – all in all –maybe more.
We’re moving again. Up. Always up.
‘Does anyone know what floor this is?’ asks an anonymous muted voice from somewhere deep beneath the pile.
Every silence is awkward, in a lift. This one isn’t special.
‘We’re coming up on fourteen’, says Gordon.
A slight sigh precedes a muted ‘Thank you’ from beneath us.
‘Are you still working for Mills, down on sixth?’ – Gordon asks the question – it is clearly aimed at her – but she pretends for a moment not to notice.
‘Oh! Sorry, I was miles away’ she offers, feigning surprise. ‘Mills? No, not since June. I’m up on ninth now.’
‘Thank you.’ she adds, trying to keep it professional and to hasten the conversation to its conclusion, natural or otherwise.
‘Ninth, eh? Who are you under up there? Not that god-awful nitwit, Baines?’
‘WHAT!?’ Baines’s head barks from one of the corners above them.
You could cut the atmosphere in here with a knife. It’s wonderful.
‘Did I say Baines? he twitched. ‘Oh, how foolish of me. Baines, ha-ha, there’s none finer. I meant James! Yes, that’s it, James, he’s the one to watch out for.’
‘Watch out yerself, Gordie!’ – of course, it was James’s voice. Although, it was difficult to tell which direction it was coming from.
The little man and his big eyebrows, squirm down even further into a hole of their own making.
‘Ha-ha’ that nervous laugh again – far too forced. ‘A bit of banter, eh? Always good for the old morale. Keeping spirits up. I… I…’
‘Is this man disturbing you Miss Reid? Or anyone else for that matter?’
A unanimous and booming ‘YES!’ choruses from the crowd.
‘Okay, Gordie. I don’t wanna hear another peep outta you. You understand me? Next time you bother any of these people, you’re out! Got it? You’ll take the next one.’
Gordon swallows and clears his throat.
‘You got it?’ the enigmatic James repeats.
Gordon bows his head, defeated, ashamed.
‘I understand. Yes.’
There are twenty-six floors to go before he reaches his destination.
CHAPTER 2: THE BOARDROOM
I get off on the 19th – nearly forgetting my legs as I do. I have to edge my way back through the tangled mess of bodies to retrieve them, when I realise this, then slip out again towards the waiting automatic doors. With a final tug, my ankle frees itself from someone’s armpit, then I’m out! Various parts of Biggs and Jensen slither inside different aspects of the space I’d just left, then the doors slide closed and they’re off.
To my horror, and eternal shame, I look down and realise I’ve taken someone else’s left foot instead of my own. A woman’s foot and the best part of a rather nice leg. It’s wrapped in a tight – or stocking-like material – and fitted with a blood-red open-toed stiletto shoe. It can’t be more than a size 6 – whereas my own is a 10 – so walking is difficult to say the least. I double, then triple check – Yes! – everything else is where it should be, thank god.
I can hear them all squabbling for their seats in the boardroom as soon as I’m half way down the corridor. Miss Direction is sat behind a small desk at the entrance. Her hands typing of their own accord. She notices me, I think, but she just seems to look straight through you, like she’s an automated – and not very convincing – greeting message.
‘Good Morning, Mr Killigan. You will be candidate number 451 today. That’s number 451. Killigan, John. They’re ready for you. Please, feel free to go straight on through.’
She gives that vacant whiter-than-white smile, hands still tapping away.
‘451’ I repeat. ‘Great, thanks.’
‘And good luck’ she says. The bitch.
The boardroom’s raging today, more than usual – must be something in the air. Even though there’s – I glance at the giant clockface illuminated above us – nearly four and a half minutes to go before it begins, they’re already battling for position.
The twenty-or-so levels beneath us – including the basement – open up with about the same again overhead – one giant spherical space, encased with mesh and scaffolding all around it, like metallic spiderwebs, right down from the ground, all the way up to the roof – which puts me somewhere in the middle. I always come up to the middle on election day. Everyone goes for the top – thinks there’s an advantage in starting higher – but I’ve tried it. It’s no better, just superstition.
Like with your candidate number. People think it’ll determine their fate. 451. 451. 451. They repeat it over and over like a mantra. Willing it, or the universe or something – to lend a hand. The nonsense people believe.
In the last minute before it begins, I have my fists go off and punch people until they surrender their seats. I select the best one, get myself together, every part, and sit in it. The noise of near-on a thousand people increases to that of an industrial machine hum. Those unseated, when the siren goes off, are out. Fired. Finito. Kaput. You gotta be cruel to survive in this game.
My speed gives me a natural advantage in many ways. But I’m not the smallest guy – the smaller you are, the harder you are to hit – and I’m not the fastest, but I’m quick enough. I’ve made it this far anyway. Having collected this woman’s foot won’t hurt either. It’s smaller than my own and won’t matter if it gets hit.
Every seat in the boardroom is filled now. Everyone seated, is locked into position, the siren yawps – EEEEEHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! – and the game begins.
CHAPTER 3: ROUND ONE
The transparent globes snap closed around my individual body parts – as with everyone else’s – and we’re inside the game in an instant.
Leaving our vacant dispossessed physical bodies seated – behind the electrified mesh on the side-lines, ticking from pain-substitutes that the system injects at suitable moments – the room is transformed into a spectacular lightshow of virtual fire, explosions, and globes smashing into one another, or getting sucked out of the game in the first frantic seconds of action.
I take out a few globes straight off. I pull up – so I’m face-on with those asses from the top floor – and take out a few more. All the while I’m nipping from side to side, up and down, stopping and starting, bobbing and weaving, as the barrage of laser soars by.
Once a globe is out, its virtual remains are pulled into the central vortex – usually causing further catastrophe along the way. The first round’s chaos, but then things begin to quieten down a little, once we’ve got rid of the riff-raff.
The number of players rapidly gets halved. Of the first thousand, five hundred take out the other five hundred. Two hundred and fifty of them, take out the other half. When it gets down to a hundred or so – in a room that’s over forty stories high – top to bottom – that’s when we can really get down to it. That’s when you can see who you’re dealing with. Take stock. Get tactical. The first round is just about quick kills, button bashing, and sifting out the chaff. Round two’s more my cup of tea. More personal.
CHAPTER 4: ROUND TWO
I’ve seen Reynolds more than once at these things, and Henderson, Reily, Cronkite and Mason. They’re professionals. Not like most of these jerks, who just come out here with a fetish for pain substitutes, or as some sort of new-age protest against democracy.
Out of nowhere, down comes my own foot kicking me square across the face and knocking me backwards through the air. It’s that bitch from the lift! The bimbo trying to give Gordon the brushoff. Reid. As I realise this, the sharp pain widens into my neck. Not only has the silly bint took my leg, but now she’s attacking me with it. It’s probably her best weapon.
I thruster myself forwards and engage her with an uppercut to the chin. She bites through her tongue which begins to wriggle off towards the centre, and out of the game. She’s spitting torrents of blood from her mouth as she spins away in an endless series of backward somersaults. Although, she’s not out of it yet.
Another cluster of globes come at me, ones I don’t recognise, flying towards me, all knees and elbows. I stick out my stilettoed foot and let the first one have it – head on. With a simple ‘Urgh!’ a flash, and a blur, he’s gone – sucked back into the centre. You’re out of it asshole! – I scream, but that Reid bitch is back on me in an instant, and now she’s got a friend. No, you are kidding me. It’s not?
‘Erm. Yeah, it’s not nice what you did to Miss Reid.’
How the hell did Gordon make it this far? I’m talking the last ten. The last round. The showdown. You can just see his big stupid eyebrows orbiting around his head globe.
Once you’ve made it through to the showdown, anything goes. Even imaginary weapons like black magic, curses, demons, dragons and religions are permitted. This is where I stand a chance of getting my foot back – excuse the pun – as well as to wipe the rest of these degenerates out and defend the title. Ain’t nobody that can do this job like I can.
CHAPTER 5: SHOWDOWN
The three of us just hover there in a scene that resembles an old western, or some weird sci-fi B-movie. Except we are all wearing office attire and ill-matching limbs. We aren’t the only ones left, but close to it. I can see similar stand-offs going on in at least two other locations around the boardroom. What? Maybe eight or nine of us now. We’ll have a winner before tea break, at this rate. I mean, I’ll have finished them all by then. I’m not usually one for trash-talk at these things, apart from the occasional outburst when I get carried away. This is one of those times. Gordon! – Jesus – what a loser!
‘No shit Sherlock’, I say. ‘Come to play hero, huh Gordie? Better think fast.’
I let rip with a fireball the size of a whale. Gordon and his eyebrows fly off to some great height above us, and temporarily out of harm’s way. Then the Reid bitch claps out a purple lightning bolt that forks through the room, reaching out for anyone unsuspecting enough to be caught in its path. I see two souls frazzle and get yanked out of the game for their trouble. A brief hiatus as the groups reassemble.
She’s stays on me, Gordon gets caught up in a confrontation with who I now recognise as being Cronkite and Henderson. They’ll have no difficulty in getting that two-bit chancer out. The guy’s an accountant, and has no place here, this is politics! Just three groups left now, a two, a three, and another two – us, them, and… who is that?
A line of unicorns dart past my ear. I flinch, to avoid having them impale me. Such an unoriginal move, a girl’s move in fact. I’m offended. Candidates that use unicorns in the showdown clearly have no imagination, and how they’ve made it this far along in the elections is beyond me. I can’t let the move go unanswered. But just as I’m charging my response power, something hits me hard in the chest and begins fizzing. I look down and see the space where my torso had been is now a smouldering, smoking, mess of what looks like bent metal, and sparking, writhing, electrical wiring. I feel a very real sensation of pain, transmitted to my actual brain. No choice now, time to diversify. The game must go on. I send my arms and hands together in a team to deal with the Reid bitch – the one responsible for the unicorns, although she’s currently engaged in combat with Henderson, now that Cronkite’s out of the running. Gordon’s trying to get back to her but can’t seem to shake the plague of locusts that are surrounding him like a man-eating smog cloud. He’s calling down some kind of toxic-rain in response. As it hits the various body parts floating around the boardroom, it paralyses them, stuns them, including the locusts – just for a moment. Gordon is flagging. Huge goblets of rainbow-shimmering biowaste are bouncing about the walls now, reminiscent of round one, but much more brightly coloured. This is Gordon’s amateur move. He’s caused as much a risk to his own success as anybody else’s.
Henderson shrouds himself in fire. A dripping mess of lava that bubbles up into fierce eruptions, according to his will, and makes him immune to most of the tactics that the others are using, the toxic rain and the unicorns especially. A nice move. I told you he was a professional. If anyone’s a threat to me now, it’s Henderson. He’s no stranger to democracy.
My forehead sends out a few shrapnel grenades for good measure. One’s that won’t burn up before they stick you. But Henderson’s thought of this, and bats them out of the air with metallic hands like they’re baseballs coming at him on quickfire mode.
Reid finds herself face to face again with Gordon’s eyebrows. She knows he won’t go for her. At least not while there are other candidates left to take out of the running.
Henderson knows I’m pro too, but won’t waste time on me while there’s still amateurs about. They can be as unpredictable as they can be unimaginative.
I keep one eye on Reid and my foot, and one eye on Henderson at all times. The rest of me, including that dainty little sharp-ended size six, is spread out all over the room, lancing, stabbing, shooting, frying, and distracting anything it comes up against.
All this is taking too long. That’s what happens when you get newbies wanting to play with the big boys. If the buzzer goes for tea break before we’ve got a winner, a lot of the momentum we’ve built up will be lost. No-one likes going in again cold, especially when we’re so close to the end.
‘Fools!’ someone bellows out from behind my left ear, and somewhere alongside my right. ‘Die, you fools!’ I swivel my eyes together, just for a second, to examine the location that the war cry is coming from. The boardroom is busy again. The unicorns have self-replicated, gigas robots, and spirit demons made of fire, ice, liquid metal and god-only-knows what else, are wiping each other out. It’s hard to identify the remaining candidates now, from the mess of it all. Between mouthfuls of whole unicorns, a giant phantasmal presence – reaching up from the basement to the top level – is telling us all to die. It’s Miss Direction. She’s a remote accessor and must have had to hack the system to be doing what she’s doing, playing from her desk on the 19th floor. That’s an illegal move, even in the showdown. Well, if that’s how she wants to play it…
I flood the boardroom with darkness, levelling the playing field somewhat. But this darkness sticks to you, like oil, or tar, taking out Henderson’s fire, the ravenous insects, and Gordon’s chemical attacks, in one fell swoop.
My left-hand fumbles about for the nearest unicorn horn, grabbing hold of it as the beast darts forward with its point. And it shoots off into the air, to somewhere well above where my blind eyes now reside. In the inky black total darkness, attention is everything. My hand rides the unicorn, or steers it, head-on into Miss Direction – I don’t see which part of her avatar it punctures. She squeals, but not with pain, as a remote accessor she won’t be receiving substitutes. I can hear the others move in from their respective angles. Gordon has an awful wheeze in his breathing. Reid keeps making little high-pitched lisping yelps and grunts – like a female tennis player – giving her location away just as clearly as Gordie. Henderson will know my location from the reaction Miss Direction’s made, knowing he hasn’t caused it himself, and being privy to the locations of the other two – just as I am.
‘No, you can’t… I… I’m…’ that’s all she manages to let out before the buzzer sounds, scattered body parts fly in from all directions to make their killing blows, and the game’s paused for tea break.
CHAPTER 6: TEA BREAK
We’re all back in our seats at the perimeter of the boardroom, whole and real again, although a little disorientated – no matter how many times you do it. The globes spring open, the seat belts unfasten themselves and a thousand candidates squabble to be the first to make their way into the recreation areas, climbing over one another as they go.
The giant glowing clock face that hangs above us all, has begun its countdown, 14 minutes 32 seconds remaining, before the elections are resumed.
Hordes of candidates are heading for my nearest exit – the nineteenth floor – to either condemn or congratulate Miss Direction for her unorthodox manner of participation.
There’s only one thing for it – dirty tactics – but she started it.
I don’t bother heading for the door I entered the boardroom through, as, like I’ve said, it’s overcrowded from the rush. Instead I climb – fingers, toes and pointed stiletto heal, up the grate – up to the twentieth, and out into the less packed corridor there.
At the opposite end, I can see a handful of individuals edging into the open – and always-crowded – lift. Then I see it. Somewhere near the bottom of the pile is a stockinged thigh that abruptly meets with a gentleman’s trouser leg, my trouser leg, that in turn joins to my own ankle and foot. Forgetting my plan of sabotage on Miss Direction, I sprint to the end of the corridor just as the lift doors begin to slide closed. Everyone inside is locked in position. I lunge, skidding across the polished floor until I have my hands on my shin.
‘Hey! No! What are you doing?’ Reid shrieks from within. I pull hard. The limb protrudes from the pile just as the doors close upon it, breaking it free from its captor, and back into my rightful possession. ‘Nooooooo!’ I hear Reid’s voice fading, imprisoned in the crowd, as the lift ascends through the floors.
I pop off the ill-fitting leg, fit my own back in place, and take a few reminder-steps up and down the corridor to try it out. Not a scratch on it. And now I have a spare.
I don’t have long left, if my plan is going to succeed. But I’m alone in the corridor, and complete once again. More than complete.
I pry open an access panel with the stiletto heel – above the place where Miss Direction’s desk is situated on the floor below. It’s all wires and insulation inside. I start pulling.
Lights flicker overhead, whirring generators stop and start all around me. Then I’m in darkness, just for a moment before the pale blue emergency lighting kicks-in. I can hear shrieks of panic from above and below.
That should be enough to buy me some time, I think. She’ll have to reconfigure her remote access patch now that we – and by we, I mean at least the surrounding few floors – are running off the backup.
Ah! – I sigh. That’s enough refreshment for me.
I head back into the boardroom and take a new seat of my choosing. No-one can challenge me for it, not now I’m in the showdown.
CHAPTER 7: SUDDEN DEATH
Moments before the siren yelps again, to indicate the final innings has begun, an automated announcement echoes through the room.
‘Candidates 823 Reid, and 290 Henderson please! A final call for candidates 823 Reid and 290 Henderson. Please make your way immediately – I repeat – immediately, to avoid disqualification from the concluding round.’
A murmur of surprise chatters through the boardroom. So many seats are left unoccupied, now that so many are out of the running, and they can continue to watch, and bet, from the safety and comfort of their respective recreation areas.
‘Candidates 451 Killigan and 995 Gordon, please prepare for sudden death.’ The announcement continues.
Me against Gordon in sudden death, who’d have thought it? Not me, that’s for sure. But that’s politics. A fourth term in office, is mine for the taking now. So long suckers!
I get strapped in and re-immersed – concealing the spare portion of leg and foot in my jacket as the globes close – finding myself eyebrow to eyebrow with good-old Gordie again, us both floating around the boardroom’s centre, like we’re already champions. Their cheers can even be heard from the rec rooms. I can’t discern which of us they’re rooting for, if either.
‘Sudden death’, rumbles out of the boardroom’s hidden speakers, followed by, ‘FIGHT!’
It’s different now, always is, after an interval. A fresh start. Stripped back. No bloody unicorns. Gordon’s eyes, eyebrows, and spectacles, flap about like a wounded bird above us. I let my own eyes go to them, to put them out of their misery, and bowl the remainder of my face into his with a harsh crack. His mouth makes a little emasculated woofing sound. My left hand, tailed by the arm, grapples with his left; my right, with his right. I sweep both his legs out – from the patch of air he’s standing on – with one foot, stomping him with the other. The pièce de résistance inside my jacket he can’t have anticipated. It’ll be my finishing touch. I’ve got him surrounded. He’s pinned in position, like a dying insect, right where I want him.
‘Where’s your girlfriend now, eh Gordie?’ – my mouth can’t resist tormenting him.
Something red flashes in and out of my peripheral vision. It’s the stiletto, it’s escaped, the bitch’s whole foot in fact. It zooms about independent of my will, I can’t stop it, circling mine and Gordon’s various interlocked and wrestling body parts. My vision is limited through the gauze of his more than ample eye bushes.
I can’t move anything now, I’m paralysed. Like some kind of virus, microbe, or parasite has numbed me. I sense outsider assistance. It never pays to make enemies in this line of work.
The stiletto swoops in, repeatedly bashing its vulgar extremity into my unresponsive body parts. Blood and sparks fly off in every direction. I’m starting to lose consciousness. She’s drawing this out on purpose. She knows I’m a goner. She’s skewering each remaining piece of me, one by one, onto the end of her spiked heal, savouring my brow-netted eyeballs for the very last.
The crowd go crazy, or even crazier. They rock the walls of the rec rooms. There’s no pain substitute now, I’ve reached my maximum, just the embarrassment of being betrayed and beaten to death by such a dainty little thing.
But I had a good run, better than most. Three terms.
Maybe Gordon will take the Presidency now? The dancing puppet man himself, with the old who-are-you-working-for routine. Yeah, well, you might fool me once Gordie… Lesson learnt.
Never play politics with a man whose eyebrows are disproportionate to the rest of his face, and never – never ever – come between a woman and a good pair of shoes.