Private Detective Joseph Waterman was surprised to find his desk furnished with a neatly folded newspaper. Normally his secretary, who was also his girlfriend, left the paper rolled up outside the door, as though fetched and dropped there by a faithful dog. (Joseph once observed this to her, and she still hadn’t let him forget what she considered his calling her a dog.)
Sitting down, he picked up and unfolded the paper, letting a note fall out. The latter said: ‘I thought this might amuse you. Yours, Faithful Dog’. Joseph smiled, put the note aside and turned to the paper, which was folded to page 48. ‘NEMESIS WANTED’ was its heading, and Joseph realised he was looking at the main item of the reader’s notices page. Whoever ordered the notice had money. Beneath the heading was this text:
‘We are a race of malevolent beings seeking a human enemy to work against our various shenanigans in your city. “Shenanigans” include kidnapping politicians to advise us on the best ways to manage human slaves, poisoning your water supply to encourage future compliance, undermining your law enforcement with frequent viruses sent to their computer system, and other nefarious deeds designed to leave your race vulnerable to our steady encroachment.
You may be wondering why we require a nemesis. We have read your stories and studied your culture; in the literary and televisual genre your leaders refer to as “alien invasion”, there is always a plucky young hero, a “Buck Rogers” or “Captain Kirk”, destined to fight the alien hordes. Though our selected nemesis will not succeed in his attempts to subvert our will, he will be rewarded with a position and freedom above that of the slaves. Our aim is to use your city to forge a narrative witnessed by all human life on Earth, wherein a human champion was selected by invisible destiny, yet still was conquered by us, proving the futility of your stories, and thus your aspirations.
Anyone interested in becoming our nemesis should go to the courtyard on 4th Street, Mason Sector, entered from the street through the archway between Jones & Jonson Solicitors and Fast Food Empire, at a quarter past noon on the day this broadsheet is dated.’
So, Joseph thought, some idle-rich bastard was making a joke. He admired its audacity and tastelessness. Three politicians had been kidnapped, three weeks ago, during a terrorist attack on the yearly parade, organised to celebrate the city’s brave, charitable and influential citizens. The float carrying the present ruling committee was plunged into chaos when a masked gunman emerged from the driver’s cabin, forcing three committee members into a van which drove up alongside. The city’s mayor tried reasoning with the gunman, and was shot in the gut. He’d rolled off the float and into the gutter at a screaming child’s feet, the dropped scoop from the boy’s ice cream cone cooling his face. He had been conscious for two weeks now, but was still bed-bound.
No sign of the terrorists or clue to their motive had yet been found. No contact had been made, and the deputy-mayor, leading the city during his superior’s recovery, was worried that his colleagues were long dead. On television, radio and broadsheets, the liberal pundits blamed the right wing, while the conservative pundits blamed the left.
Receiving the heftiest portion of the blame, however, was the city’s police force, whose computers, as described in the article, had been regularly besieged by viruses since a few days before the parade. A connection was suspected, but no source could yet be found, and while the force’s best technicians searched, thousands of criminal records were tampered with. ‘ON YOUR STREETS NOW?’ ran the front-page headline of the paper Joseph was reading, above various thumbnail photographs of convicts.
He scanned the NEMESIS notice again, chuckled, and laid it aside as he heard a vibration from outside the 37th-storey room’s window. Swivelling, he saw a balding, middle-aged man seated at the wheel of an open-topped hover-car. He pressed a button on the windowsill and the glass began to descend. When it was a sufficient distance from the sill he said ‘Harold! To what do I owe the dubious pleasure?’ Harold smiled in that always leering way of his which was probably unintentional, at least some of the time. ‘Got a Boiler tied up in the trunk. We take him to District, split the money 60-40?’
“Boilers” were people who illegally possessed certain weapons, some of which were only authorised to be used by the military. These included the nominal Boilers: nasty ray-guns which boiled their organic targets from the inside out, heating their blood until it corroded their vessels, then skin. Joseph had seen some unpleasant videos of pre-killed rabbits receiving this treatment. “District” was a colloquial term for police HQ, which was so large it operated like its own social structure within the city.
Joseph heard feeble tossing and turning from Harold’s trunk. ‘What do you need me for? I’d heard you were your own boss these days.’ Harold smiled, popped open the glove compartment, grabbed a loose cigar without turning then put it in his mouth, fumbling for the lighter in his breast pocket. ‘Still am’ he said, and lit the cigar, ‘only District doesn’t like me too much these days. Thinks I’m a stain on their honour.’ He snorted. ‘Stain on their honour… They lost all that three weeks ago. What’s there left for a guy like me to stain?’
‘Plenty’ said Joseph, watching the cab driver and occasional mercenary seem to chew his cigar, two lips like bloodied parchment in a sodden trench. ‘I didn’t realise I was 60-40 valuable, though.’ Harold shrugged. ‘I can’t afford to sniff at 40% these days, what with my expensive tastes, and I know a plum bastard like you doesn’t get out of bed for anything less than the lion’s share. So, what do you say? I need you to make me look respectable, and you need me to buy you a new suit, by the looks of things.’
Joseph sighed. ‘You’re as observant as ever, Harold. Drive around to the parking bay and I’ll meet you there.’ ‘Sod that for a Boiler-man’s kiss!’ Harold replied, ‘just climb in through the window, you pansy. Or are you worried your girl’s gonna walk in and see you leaving with a handsome new beau?’ Joseph did as he was told, but not before insisting Harold pull up so the car touched the wall, leaving no space between Joseph’s foot and eternity. As if wanting to kill his captor’s new guest, the Boiler jerked suddenly, though the movement was too feeble to upset the car in any way. Harold flicked a switch on the dashboard which emitted a light knockout gas in the trunk. ‘Why didn’t you do that after you got him in there?’ asked Joseph, now settled in the passenger seat. Harold smiled. ‘I like hearing them struggle’ he said.
‘Have you read this?’ said Joseph when they reached a stoplight. Traffic was heavy. In a time when police were trained and equipped to the efficiency of robots, crime was a gentleman’s pursuit; these ghoulish tourists were no doubt on their way to the parade route, to see if their gadgets could detect any bloody residue. Though they didn’t hold much hope they even came with hi-tech swab-wands, in case they were able to retrieve some shadow of a particle of the mayor’s blood.
Harold glanced at the NEMESIS WANTED notice, and snorted. ‘Yeah, I’ve seen it. Seems like a lot of shekels for a cheap joke.’ “Shekels” and “sheep” were the names of the national currency, “shekels” meaning notes, “sheep” coins. After the last World War, which survived twelve years and was fought mostly by private armies, a religious fanatic reached office. He promised restoration of our elders’ simpler, quainter moral codes, and his enthusiasm for the ancient Christian myths inspired him to rechristen the money. Even as later leaders came and went, the custom wasn’t altered. As the man’s successor said, ‘it’s got to do better than the dollar or the pound, anyway.’
‘“Buck Rogers” and “Star Trek”, too’ Harold continued, ‘couldn’t they think of any shows that aren’t a thousand years old?’
‘I might go along, once we’ve deposited your booty’ said Waterman, ‘God knows I’ll have time to kill with what the District pays for Boilers.’
Harold laughed. ‘Yeah, then you’ll get mugged for your 60% and I’ll be laughing at you from the business end of a beer mug.’
‘There’s not been a mugging in this city since the war.’
‘Yeah, and wouldn’t you be the one to break that record.’
The light changed and Harold turned a corner. Now they hovered above one of the many city squares, eye-level with a giant TV playing serials and advertisements. Below, people streamed in and out of businesses, not one pausing to look at the hover-car latticework above them. There appeared on the screen a tall, muscular young man in a fishbowl space helmet, transparent enough to display his unshaven jaw. The logo CAPTAIN DU MAURIER: INTERSPACIAL SLEUTH unfurled below his dimpled chin.
‘Susie’s always raving about that guy’ said Joseph, idly, setting the paper down. ‘I bet she is, given the ugly lump she shacked up with!’ Harold replied, ‘girl’s got to get her kicks somewhere, and I’m busy.’
Joseph made a mental note to buy a Captain Du Maurier costume, preferably one as tight-fitting as the actor’s, though he knew he didn’t quite have the figure to make it work. He owed it to Susie, considering he’d once cajoled her into dressing as Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura. ‘I’m not even black’ she’d observed at the time.
In a small and spotless hospital room, disguised as a janitor’s office by virtue of a doorplate, Mayor Eustace Mahoney sat up in bed. He chomped through cigars like they were chocolates, grounding each massive bite into a paste which he then spat in an electric spittoon. This revised the paste’s natural composure into seasonal smells (which season dependant on the programmer’s taste). Mahoney was in a wintry mood, hence the sharp smells of chestnuts, braziers and pine cones which filled the room.
‘F______ little s___’ Mahoney grumbled, ‘screamed his stupid little head off. Between his screaming and the ice-cream sliding down my face, I felt worse than when the f_____ on the float shot me.’ Mahoney’s aide, a man who looked like a lightning rod repurposed as a scarecrow, gave his boss a tiny nod. ‘Speaking of little s____’ Mahoney continued, ‘this waste capsule they stuck up my ass is almost full. Tell some lucky nurse when we’re done here.’
‘Oh, and before I forget, get this wrapped and sent to my nephew, before his birthday this time.’ Mahoney opened a drawer in his bedside bureau and removed an immaculate hardback book, titled Bone China, and Other Fairy Stories from the Lost Land of Arrows-Field.
Spitting, and then chomping another bite, Mahoney grabbed his newspaper. He snorted and thrust it at his aide, who gripped it with one hand while using the other to store the book in his cavernous jacket. ‘You’ve seen this s___, I suppose’ he said. The paper was folded to the NEMESIS WANTED notice. ‘Clearly the f_____’s got sheep to spare, and I want him or her in the f______ stocks the moment I’m out of this s___-heap you call a hospital. There’ll be something we can get them for, disrespecting an official or some such crap. And I want this paper’s editor on his f______ knees, begging me for forgiveness! F______ swine… Mayor almost killed, three senators probably dead, and they’re already whipping their d____ out to p___ on our graves.’
‘Yes sir. Should I send a posse to the specified location?’
‘Nothing’ll happen, but yeah, do it. Show the cops we’re willing to f__ this comedian.’
Someone knocked on the door. ‘That will be PR, sir, with the woman from the city journal.’
With swift motions Mayor Mahoney closed his cigar box, threw it in the drawer, shut the latter, spat his last bite, and said, in a loud gregarious voice: ‘Come in, my friends. I am afraid we have many vulgar things to discuss.’
Apart from Waterman and a couple of college-aged stoners the courtyard was empty, but it was early yet, and the detective expected human nature to drive a few more here. Maybe some of the gentleman sleuths he’d seen in traffic.
The Boiler delivery went better than usual. Harold and his fellow cabbies were famous in District for using cheap knockout gas in their trunks, which was probably part of the reason they no longer welcomed Harold unaccompanied. His last delivery, he’d said as they pulled into a station’s car park, ended with an officer getting six month’s paid vacation after the Boiler sprung from the trunk and stuck a knife in him.
The one he and Waterman delivered had more than a little fight, but the station, seeing Harold approach, was ready. The sleuth and the cabbie surrounded the trunk with five officers. Harold popped it open with a button on his key-ring remote, then a half-conscious man, sturdy and just below middle-age, lunged from his vehicular coffin, blindfolded, hands tied behind his back, head poised as a battering ram. One bored officer stunned him with a laser before he could split his skull against the man’s armour.
As the prisoner was shouldered and carried like a martyr into the station, its chief stepped out. ‘Well, if it isn’t Mr Gresham, back from the sewers with a friend’ he called to Harold. Harold smiled. ‘F___ you, Tweety’ he called back. The chief, Joseph thought, did look like a giant canary, with his sallow skin and distended gut. ‘That’s Tweedy to you, Mr Gresham. Chief Inspector Tweedy if you want your share of this.’ He pulled two small certificates from his jacket, each printed with a sum to be redeemed at any cash clerk in the city. (Cash clerks were street-side machines which re-arranged the matter comprising the certificates into smaller, more disposable shekels.) Taking the certificates, Harold briefly acknowledged the little shepherd and sheep printed in their top right hand corners; seals of approval from the printing press. Tweedy noticed this gesture, and laughed. ‘You really think we’d get away with distributing fake certs, even if we were so inclined?’
In the courtyard, Waterman read the newspaper’s funny pages. His trouser pockets now had a pleasant cash lining. He’d treat Susie to a meal and the costume tonight. Several plainclothes men and women dribbled into the courtyard from the street. Despite their plainclothes and discreet distances from each other he knew exactly who they were; a Mayoral posse. The stoners, and the nerdy middle-aged men with swab-wands who’d also arrived, were probably fooled, but in this city even the lowest private dicks, the ones working divorce cases for shekels a poor ancient shepherd would have sniffed at, had some experience of the law’s upper echelons.
Waterman wondered if this curious group would only number eleven, including himself, the stoners, two nerds, and six who were paid to be here. Finally, five teenage boys (two he recognised from their respective lives as solicitor’s apprentice and fast food cashier) and a vagrant showed. Their group was completed. Waterman glanced at his watch: 12:15 exactly. He closed, folded and put his newspaper on the bin beside him.
A tortured rattling sound sprung from the ground between the arches. Everyone looked in its direction and saw, to their mingled fear and confusion, spiked latticework rise at an unbeatable pace from a trench freshly carved through the stones. Before two seconds passed, they were sealed in. One of the boys grabbed a spike-shaft, and was mildly electrocuted. Waterman, who’d seen such guard technology before, sensed the force-field stretched like elastic in the spaces made by the shafts. Now he was truly interested in this newspaper prank, if not yet frightened.
The middle-aged men backed against the right wall and everyone else save Waterman the wall with the arch, as another tortured sound dragged itself out of the courtyard’s centre. A large circle opened, spiked cobblestone leaves receding into unseen hollows. Once the hole was complete, a platform rose and filled it. Eight short metal monoliths, just shorter than the average man, dotted the platform’s rim, an alien mockery of Stonehenge. Okay, Waterman thought, now I’m really truly interested, and like the Mayor’s posse instinctively reached for the gun in his jacket. One of the men at the right wall, he saw, had dropped his swab-wand, which he suspected with sickening surety would soon have a lot of samples to analyse. The teenagers huddled together for comfort; a scared and intimate gesture they’d pretend never happened should they survive this.
They needn’t have worried. Rectangular holes appeared on the monoliths’ faces, below their crowns, and each hosted a machine gun. Waterman dived behind the bin supporting his paper, and the posse also took cover, a few trying to drag the nearby boys down with them. The platform rotated and the guns began firing, killing the stoners, the vagrant, one of the men and three boys almost instantly, their bodies torn apart like old parchment. The remaining man took two bullets to one shoulder, slumped to the floor and screamed in stupid agony as his arm separated from its socket, then dangled; a rotted tree limb. He did, however, take time for an indignant sniff of the smell seeping through the holes in the stoners’ corpses.
A posse-member, whether out of mercy or annoyance, finished him with a bullet through his forehead. The dying man remembered reading his first detective story as a precocious eight year old, staying with his grandmother in a simulated beach landscape; one day, he’d thought, he’d be smart, violent and courageous. Now, just before the mortal curtain fell, he thought: ‘I should have stayed in the f______ car.’ The two surviving boys wailed; another member, using his magazine as a cloche, smacked one then the other on the backs of their heads, rendering them unconscious.
Besides his next move, all Waterman thought as he crouched behind the bin was ‘Susie…’ her face and her body and her voice and her laugh. Prostrate on the bed in that silly simulation of a sleazy motel, where he played the cop and she the hussy; how she’d begged him to “complete” her, and he wasn’t sure if her urgency was real or a feigned arousal technique, nor cared because it worked either way. He closed his eyes and sighed; behind every cornered man there was a woman, reminding him what he’d miss if the next bed he booked was a coffin’s.
The gunfire ceased. A bullet ricocheted against the force-field (which also worked as a soundproof one-way mirror, Waterman realised, when he saw people on the street walking past the carnage) and was buried in the opposing wall. The courtyard’s walls, windows and open ceiling, he supposed, were similarly shielded. He thanked whatever God permitted this that bins were better reinforced than tanks in his city. Framed by a window just above the dead, nearly armless nerd, a bored woman fed paper to a shredder.
A voice, awkward and without accent, like a computer’s speech function, spoke through one of the monoliths. ‘You have passed the first test. But a story can only have one hero. The fault is not in your stars, but in your storytellers. The primitive minds you have secured a place on this frail world with can, it seems, allot sympathy to just one main protagonist in your narratives. That leaves us with you, our mayor’s men and women, and you, our private sleuth. Conversing with your stolen leaders, we have reached the conclusion that an underdog is always more sympathetic than, if you will permit us the use of your colloquialism, a “company man”. Even Captain Kirk fought bitterly against the Federation. As such, we have made our choice.’
The speaking monolith emitted a beam of light towards the posse, who lay like dogs enraptured by it. The beam then separated into six strands, each piercing one forehead with more precision and finality than the bullet that ended the nerd’s life. A metal hose extended from another monolith and sprayed the unconscious boys with whiskey, while a robotic arm turned one’s body, retreated, returned and placed a spent machine gun in his limp hands.
This elegant process completed, the monolith nearest Waterman emitted a gas so pure and dreadful it drifted like merest atoms through the reinforced bin, and then rocked him to sleep.
He awoke in darkness, not just an absence of light but an absence of any recognisable shape or texture. Even the floor he presumably lay on did not respond to his touch; he could push against it, but somehow not feel it. To what he guessed was his right a bank of monitors without discernible support floated down from unseen launches. The monitors erupted into static, and then each displayed a different science-fiction serial from Earth’s history. In one, Captain Kirk fought breathlessly against an android collar’s chokehold, his eyes popping out of his face. In another, Buck Rogers posed on an outcrop of moon rock, ostentatious laser in hand, a female model kneeling beside him. And, Waterman saw with eyes watered by bottomless sadness, there was Du Maurier: Interspatial Sleuth, wrestling with a rogue robot soldier.
‘Human adjustment to these vessels takes about a week, which is time our hosts are impatient to spend elsewhere. Earth-time, one presumes, requires its own adjustment for them.’ The voice appeared to the left of the monitors. Waterman turned and saw Christopher Plangent, a prominent figure in the mayor’s cabinet. This tall, wispy man, wearing the same dark red shirt with black tie and trousers he’d worn the moment of his kidnap, jacket slung over his shoulder, approached Waterman. He was calm, even serene. Waterman punched him. His fist, however, went right through his face, creating ever decreasing circles of static until the picture stilled again, an image in a lake. Plangent laughed, kindly and a little sadly.
‘I did the same thing when I was brought here’ he said. ‘Our hosts interviewed us separately, and I was graced with an image of our mayor, who I’m sure you know has a very punch-able face.’ Waterman lifted a corner of his mouth in vaguest acknowledgement of the remark. ‘There’s nothing you can do to stop what will happen’ Plangent continued. ‘Though, of course, you’ll try. You’re the perfect kind of hero. Smart enough, but not an intellectual, strong, brave… handsome.’
‘Thanks, though I thought you were the marrying kind, Mr Plangent.’ Plangent laughed. ‘Yes, that’s right, my wife. She and our two daughters will lead long, relaxing lives in the new world. That’s mine and their good fortune. And yours and Susie’s.’
‘Leave my girlfriend out of this.’ Plangent smiled and placed a holographic hand as best he could on Waterman’s shoulder. ‘Trust me; you do not want her left out of this, Mr Waterman. The freedom promised by the notice will also be extended to her and anyone else you’ve invested yourself in. Is there anyone else?’ No, thought Waterman, not really. Harold Gresham, though loyal to his friends, was in the end a brute and a sadist. Waterman’s father was killed in the last war before he was born, and his mother, whose only family died when he was fifteen, had also breached the mortal curtain. He was an only child, and his father was estranged from what relations he may still have for reasons Joseph couldn’t remember, if he’d ever been told. No, there was only Susie. His “faithful dog”.
As if he’d somehow read this internal monologue, Plangent nodded. Beside them, the monitor playing Star Trek switched to a news report: ‘TEENAGE GANGBANGERS KILL THIRTEEN IN COURTYARD. “THEY SEEMED SUCH NICE YOUNG MEN” SAY FAMILIES’ Plangent saw this and snorted. ‘Morons’ he said, ‘they don’t question why no-one saw or heard two drunken kids spraying bullets around a crowded courtyard, they just play up the “nice young men” angle.’ Waterman didn’t bother asking who exactly the morons were. ‘What happens now?’ was all he asked.
Plangent faced him again. ‘You’ll awake in your own bed, and the moment you open your eyes your every movement will be recorded by millions of invisible cameras. Not that “camera” is an appropriate word for our hosts’ technology, but we appeal to what context we can.’ He seemed reflective. ‘They’re so damnably advanced, Waterman. It’s astonishing… Technically, you’ve been asleep in this vessel a day, but it reacts to its own space-time continuum, so on Earth it’s barely been an hour…’
Waterman stared at him. ‘I know you’re a politician, Plangent, but you’re also a husband and father. Do you not feel anything for the people these bastards slaughtered down there?’ When Plangent looked at him, his eyes weren’t haunted as much as void of all illusion. ‘What did they have to look forward to?’ he replied.
Joseph did awake in his bed, naked (as he always slept) with Susie encircling him. He removed himself from her grasp slowly and methodically. He stood before the un-curtained window as naked and unashamed as a hunter-gatherer. He remembered the millions of invisible “cameras” watching him and pointlessly surveyed the room. The nature of reality seemed entirely different for whoever these aliens were. He wondered why they needed such primitive humanoid mammals. Glancing at the flow of humanity in the morning traffic outside, and then staring at Susie, he decided that he would crush these bastards, whoever they were.
No matter how absurdly advanced their technology, so beyond conception by human minds it lived on the level of dark magic, his spirit, his determination would conquer, like all the heroes of those stories the aliens aped and dismissed. Captain Kirk, Buck Rogers, Du Maurier… Joseph Waterman. Pulp fiction would be written about him, and he’d one day be played by an actor like the one who played Du Maurier, in a fishbowl astronaut’s helmet. He would prove humanity’s divine essence, its worthiness, its compassion, and save every single life in the cars beyond his window now.
And even if he did fail (which he assured himself he wouldn’t) it’s not like he’d get the short end of the stick in the ensuing dystopia…