Pale light flickered round Manly Price’s workstation as his chest ratcheted in. He was pushing it too close to the deadline again, and SuddenDeath Inc. hadn’t scheduled a break for relaxation until well past noon. For a moment he debated dialling head office and asking for another extension. But Prices shook his head; he’d already had two this week, another and he’d be swinging in the gibbet outside reception. He switched off the nearest screen and tried to ignore the meter on his chest as its lights came on.
There was plenty of time to take in the sparse plastic furnishings of a Gondola VIP Lounge because Ms LaPout’s booth had flashed up empty.
Manly Prices dialled in his lounge code and watched the view expand until he could see the love of his life sitting with her back facing the camera.
‘There you are.’
LaPout swivelled round and for a moment Prices was a little shocked because her normally welcoming face had gone. The illusion vanished as she gave him a guilty smile and giggled with one fingernail between her teeth.
‘Oh Manly, I’d forgotten I’d given you a special VIP access code at reduced rate. I’m just putting together a little present I’ve been told to put on board the next flight off world.’ She giggled again and let her long blonde hair fall across her shoulders. Manly had to crank the lever on his chest at least a half dozen times before the content parameters expanded enough to cope with the sight.
‘Why haven’t you talked to me for so long?’ said LaPout.
This time it was Manley’s turn to look guilty. His current liberation rating was nearly in the red.
‘Oh, you know pressures of work; there’s been a staff shortage. I might be up for a promotion though,’ he said leaning eagerly toward the girl on the screen.
‘I’m so glad; will you tell me all about it?’
If Prices noticed LaPout’s delicate yawn he had other things on his mind.
But they still spent a good hour or two chatting, or at least he did as he ignored the readout on his freedom meter march slowly upwards. She was such a good listener he felt like he could go on for days. When he’d first met Ms LaPout, she’d been so keen on him she’d taken notes as he explained the intricacies of SuddenDeath Inc. But after a while they’d gotten beyond the preliminaries of their relationship and now all she did was listen. He only noticed how tired she was when he realised she’d fallen asleep with her mouth open. Manly so wanted to be there to wipe her little chin, but there was nothing he could do trapped in his apartment. He left an emoticon and closed the session before leaning back. There were still a dozen other things he had to do with the day.
Manly Prices eased himself out of his wave chair as a knock told him he had visitors. He didn’t have much time for guests so the man in the black pointy headgear that had levitated to a halt outside his flat was a double surprise.
‘The Department of Liberation?’ said Manly through his steel security door as the KLF’s ‘What Time is Love?’ faded down the corridor. ‘I thought I was up to date on my payments.’
His visitor pulled an inverted triangle with an eye at its center from round his neck and held it out so Manly could see. ‘My name is Rubble, and this is my associate Cryogenic Load.’
‘Wotcha, we’re here to read your meter,’ said Rubble’s companion, a man who looked like several brick shit houses welded together as he adjusted his hood so it didn’t dent against the ceiling.
Rubble glanced at the scanner in his fist, ‘In your case there appear to be…irregularities.’
‘They’re worried about your liberation usage, sir,’ shrugged Cryogenic Load, ‘there’s some odd activity associated with your account. You haven’t been contacting anyone outside of your allocated liberation parameters, have you?’
He stopped and listened to his earpiece for a minute. ‘Mrs Occidental Creation from the Department has told me the irregularities may interfere with more than just your monthly meter subscription.’ He pointed to the lever and the one-armed bandit attached to Prices chest. ‘That’s not yours you know, we have a repossession order we can serve on you right now.’
‘All debts must be settled in this life if we are to avoid an eternity in limbo,’ nodded Rubble with his eyes raised to heaven and his hands clasped together.
‘How can that be?’ Manley Prices couldn’t believe he was hearing this. He’d had good equity and bona fides for years. ‘The Government of Personal Freedom’s’ honesty and scrupulous sacrifice has inspired every decision I’ve made.’
The skin at the corner of Price’s eye started to twitch.
‘If you can just show us the main meter sir?’ said Cryogenic Load.
‘Of course, it’s this way, in the basement.’
When they’d reached the block storage units dodging water mains and electric cables on the way Manley Prices shone his torch at the vast box bolted to the wall.
‘That’s it,’ said Manley, ‘it’s the standard model. All the flat’s round here are wired up to it.’
There was a little Department of Personal Freedom logo in one corner and the dials showed the current liberation capabilities of each of the block’s residents.
Cryogenic Load peered closely at the readout for Manley Prices’ flat. The wheels were spinning round so fast you couldn’t see the numbers.
‘Have you left anything on, sir? Any *ahem* domestic help?’
‘Nothing I can remember.’
‘Are you sure sir?’ Cryogenic Load pointed at the dial and his eyes glinted through the slit in his hood, ‘Anything at all?’
Manley Prices pulled nervously at his collar. It seemed to have become uncomfortably hot in the basement, ‘I don’t think so, if I did I’d tell you wouldn’t I?’
‘If you look here it seems you spend a lot of time in the Gondola suites,’ said Rubble as he examined the readouts. ‘That may be the problem. Who do you speak to while you’re there?’
It was said innocently enough, but there was something about Rubble’s tone of voice; and he was looking at the ceiling again.
‘No one, at least, no one important.’
‘Nevertheless,’ Rubble pressed the triangle with the golden eye to his forehead like he was drawing something from it. ‘Your liberation rights may have to be curtailed.’
‘What? I need those windows; you don’t know what they mean to me.
Rubble shook his head, and Manley felt a heavy hand clamp down on his shoulder and another pinch his lips so he felt like a duck about to quack.
‘What do you say to Mr Rubble?’ said Cryogenic.
‘I mean…’ Manley bleated ‘…of course Mr Rubble.’
‘Good,’ said Rubble. ‘We’ll be returning to see how you’re doing early in the morning sir. Be up and ready when we do. Now, there’s work to be done, hup, hup, hup.’
Rubble’s mouth was hidden by his black hood, but Manley Prices didn’t need to be able to see the smile to know it was there.
‘I’d hurry if I were you Mr Prices, or we may begin making adjustments now.’
Some bolt croppers had appeared in Cryogenic Loads’ hand and he opened and shut them meaningfully under Manley’s nose. Prices gulped.
That night he barely slept a wink. Visions of men in pointy hoods descending out of the sky kept him awake all night. His usual dreams of LaPout and him floating away on a candy floss cloud surrounded by flying pink marzipan bunnies were ruined. When light finally made it through the curtains Manley rolled out of bed with eyes that felt like he couldn’t have kept them open even if he’d propped them up with matchsticks.
He hadn’t gotten far before he was slammed back down in a rain of plaster as Cryogenic Load fell through the ceiling and Rubble appeared from behind Prices ornamental potted plant. Manley pulled one of his pillows over his head.
‘What are you doing in my flat?’ he screamed with his voice breaking.
‘Now stay calm, sir, we don’t want to disturb the neighbours, do we? We’ve been conducting some preliminary research,’ said Cryogenic Load affably enough.
‘That’s right, this is now Department of Liberation property,’ said Rubble, ‘we got the papers through this morning.’ His voice dropped to a whisper, ‘I say this man to man you understand sir? I too have had my problems with the Department. Manley sensed Rubble lean closer to his pillow, ‘if they think you’re co-operating you’ll find it that much easier to do a runner sir. I’ll say no more.’
Tentatively Manley Prices peeked over the top of his pillow and sweat broke out across his brow. They couldn’t know about the other chat rooms, could they? His black listed attempts at industry employment were guarded by as much encryption software as he’d been able to afford.
‘You understood the terms of your contract when you signed it didn’t you Mr Prices? Unauthorized usage of company property comes with serious penalties.’ Rubble sounded less than pleased, ‘We’re letting you go as of this morning.’
Manley Prices gasp of horror could be heard right through the pillow. He thought of Miss LaPout and shuddered with barely contained rage. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, live without telling her about his progress through SuddenDeath Inc.
Cryogenic Load hadn’t finished, ‘Or, of course, you can help us.’
‘Doing what?’ said Prices.
‘Installing meters as part of our mobile sales team,’ replied Rubble. ‘There are elements of society out there that haven’t been caught yet.’
They haven’t been paying their taxes, sir,’ said Cryogenic Load.
‘That’s right, some of them even refused to obey the Department of Liberation.’
Manley felt the pillow pull away from his face. ‘Anything you want,’ he stammered, ‘I don’t need the Department on my back.’
He didn’t get past lunch without regretting his words.
‘How many more of them are there?’
Manly Prices eyed the ruins of the sprawl they’d stopped in and finished zapping the youth at his feet.
‘Hundreds, the Department’s hardly had a chance to really get to work round here.’
Rubble was wearing rubber gauntlets that reached past his elbow, and it was him that was doing the really interesting work. He had a line of comatose applicants stretched out on their stomachs, each with a freshly installed meter wired to their chests.
‘You finished loading the first batch into the van yet?’ said Rubble.
‘Course, I haven’t,’ Cryogenic Load’s brow furrowed, ‘the newbie’s hardly stunned most of them, and his works terrible, look.’ He whacked a lever down on an applicant’s chest and flashed a picture of Mrs Occidental Creation in front of their face as three golden hearts appeared on the one-armed bandits dial. The lad’s eyes bulged with terror; Mrs Occidental Creation was the department’s secretary. She had green skin and bolts on her neck after a budget holiday on a little-known atoll of the Kiribati Islands. Cryogenic Load watched carefully for a moment as the smell of frying cables filled the air. ‘Shoddy workmanship, that is. If there’s no emergency cut out their bodies can’t take it.’
When Manley finally made it back to his flat at the end of a hard day herding unemployed from the wilderness to the workstations where they’d spend the rest of their lives he was exhausted, bitten, and extremely worried he’d caught something. More than one of the applicants had had a variety of diseases ranging from gangrene to halitosis. He flicked on his workstation to see if Ms LaPout was free and found a notice flashing back at him.
‘We have Ms LaPout Mr Prices.’
Alarms began to sound. Too late Manley Prices remembered he’d hard wired her web portal to his hoover and left it on automatic. Another message appeared on the screen as silence fell so suddenly it felt like his ears had popped.
‘Kill the Department of Liberation agents and we’ll let her live,’ read Prices.
A picture of Ms LaPout appeared with her usual perfect ‘O’ of surprise frozen on the screen.
Manley felt something lurch in his chest just looking at the picture.
‘If you hurt her…’
Another message flashed up,
‘The Department’s agents Mr Prices…that’s all we want.’
Manley Prices felt air begin to slide past on its way to the wall vents. Whoever was behind the messages must have instituted a purge.
‘Please, Manley,’ it was LaPout’s voice and it was coming from the speakers, ‘I told them you’d do it. You have to…please?’
‘LaPout?’ the air was fast disappearing from the room, and there were spots dancing in front of Manley’s eyes. ‘They’ve kidnapped you, is that it?’
‘The device…Manley they made me do it.’ There was a sob, ‘it malfunctioned. A lot of innocent people died.’
Manley forced himself to remain calm, clearly someone had to under the circumstances. If they’d laid so much as a finger on her…he breathed deep.
‘It’s them isn’t it?’
Who Manley? I don’t understand.’
‘The Secratariat, don’t worry I’ve known about them for years. Manley’s hand began scratching at his bruises; some of them were taking ages to disappear. ‘They’ll never let you talk freely.’
The hot pink lipped replacement pool were always itching to get a foot in the door at SuddenDeath Inc. It never ceased to amaze him that no one had told them it would help if they shaved. ‘Just tell me what you can Ms LaPout. I’ll come get you.’
Whatever else LaPout had been about to say was cut off as feedback blasted through Manley’s workstation. When the monitor spoke again it was several octaves below subterranean as the well glossed lips of one of the Secratariat filled the screen.
‘Kill them Mr Prices or we send her to you in pieces; if you do we’ll reinstate you to your position and meter usage in SuddenDeath. You can keep your other work too. Manley winced as a snigger reached his ears. Some of his clients had been harder task masters than anyone would ever know. Manley Prices puffed out his chest and picked up the phone.
‘You say it’s the flat meter that’s malfunctioned this time?’
The sound of the KLF’s backing choir died away again as the two pointy hooded agents floated past Manley’s door.
‘You have to see it to believe it; that’s why I called you. If something’s not done all the residents might be affected. This sort of thing spreads.’
‘What were you doing on it anyway? I thought we told you to leave it alone?’ said Cryogenic Load. He’d collapsed on the sofa. Levitating was getting harder work these days, ‘Were you tampering with it?’
‘I swear I wasn’t.’ Manley Prices backed away. The freezer where he stored what was left of his love industry toys was in the next room. One jab with the Pelican and Cryogenic Load would find he had something else on his mind besides laughter.
‘We’ll check, but if we find you’ve been lying to us…’
‘I swear I’m telling the truth,’ said Manley. ‘Look, I’ll show you, it’ it’s all in the next room.’
Manley’s hands found the freezer door at last. There was barely enough space in his flat to swing a dead cat let alone a deep-frozen bird, but he had to try. He could well imagine what a life of servitude with the Department of Liberation would mean. What he and LaPout had together could never take that sort of strain. There was a crackle as frost snapped and he pulled the dead migratory animal from its tomb.
Rubble was first to wake.
‘Where the hell is this?’
‘Bradford upon Stanley; what’s left of it,’ said Prices.
Manley glanced across the irradiated rubble stretching away to the horizon as mating calls bounced off the ruins; already the first feral unemployed were beginning to appear.
‘You can’t do this; we’re Department of Liberation employees.’
‘Then you should know all about what’s coming, shouldn’t you?’ said Prices with an evil smile.
‘Who’s tied me up?’ Cryogenic Load had re-entered the land of the living too, and he was struggling against the wire Manley Prices had used to attach him to a lamp post.
‘Quiet, Cryogenic, they’re getting closer.’
There was an edge to Rubble’s voice Manley hadn’t heard before as the air began to fill with the smell of unwashed job seeker.
‘Time to go,’ Manley Prices backed toward the van, glad he’d left the key’s in the ignition. But, he hadn’t gotten far when glass crunched behind him and a woman’s voice rang out.
‘You’ve done well, Manley. The resistance will be pleased.’
Prices whirled round; LaPout was standing next to the van drawing her fingers through her pet albino mink’s fur. The mink was called Stalin and it had a nasty look in its eyes. Manley Prices followed her leather gloved hands as she scratched it behind an ear.
‘Cryogenic Load and Rubble have been a thorn in our sides for years,’ said LaPout. Look at them now Stalin.’
‘Ms LaPout; is that really you? What are you doing here?’
Manley was having to work hard to remain calm. The young lady was everything he’d imagined and more.
‘I’m working Manley, you deluded fool. This is my real job; I’m a member of the Resistance. This is my employer.’
There was the whine of an electronic motor as a wheelchair appeared. An oversized monitor was sat in it. With a pop the display blinked into life and the familiar stubble and hot pink lips of one of the Secratariat became visible.
‘You’ve done well Mr Prices,’ said the mouth, ‘we knew you wouldn’t let us down. But will you go all the way?’
LaPout’s mink gave a low rumble of appreciation and fixed Manley with its jet-black eyes. Manley heard a click as though someone had pressed record.
‘Come here Mr Prices,’ said LaPout.
She unclenched her other hand to reveal a gerbil.
‘This is Nibbles, what do you say Mr Prices? Them or you? It’s our world if you’re prepared to do what it takes.’
Manley Prices stepped forward.
‘I’m sorry, really I am.’ He looked at the two agents on the ground, ‘but there’s no choice.’
Cryogenic Load and Rubble began to scream.
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