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From Later

by Mark Cantrell on Nov.22, 2009, under ,

CHAPTER 14: GUILTY SECRETS
An Extract From The Novel Citizen Zero By Mark Cantrell...


TERRIBLE news, Jane thought as she sat in the gloom. She'd called in sick two days ago, when the disaster first struck. Since then all she could do was stare at the screen and watch the nightmare unfold. Those damning messages glared back at her from the screen of her notebook, though they wouldn't be there for much longer. The fading display indicated failing batteries. Soon the information would trouble her no more and a nagging conscience would have to do instead.

So many people dead because of her. She tried to picture the faces of the ones she'd personally ushered into the nightmare. Yet she couldn't dredge one from the depths of memory. The dead are anonymous, just as they are in life. So much hope, so many dreams, all lost to a forgetful eternity.

The phone's sudden chirp startled her from the grip of morbid depression. She stared at it, as if she had forgotten what it was for, and wondered whether to answer. Just then she didn't feel like talking to anyone. She just wanted to be left alone. Then again, what if it's Stuart? That thought -- that need -- motivated her sluggish limbs and she rushed over to the phone. After a breath to steady her nerves she picked up the handset. "Hello?" she said, her voice quavering.

"Hi Jane! It's Alice. Just ringing to see how you're doing."

"Oh, hello," she said, hoping the disappointment didn't show in her voice. "I'm fine I suppose. Apart from this awful 'flu."

"You do sound rough. I hope you're taking things easy. Actually, I could do with some sick leave right now. Things are crazy around here after what happened."

"Is it bad?"

"Hectic. All the zeros have been excused duties. Seems all we're doing is sorting out the lives ones from the stiffs. That and fending off worried relatives. Not my idea of fun."

Jane chewed her lip. Alice sounded so put out, as though she'd been asked to cover for a sick colleague when she'd planned to go to a party. What did she care? What did any of them care? They weren't dealing with human beings: just the unemployed.

"So, where's that man of yours?" Alice asked, mock cheerful. "When he called in sick too I got so jealous. I wish someone would take the time to pamper me, you know ..."

Not now. Not with all that's happened. "Oh Alice, you'll find someone," she soothed, feeling her own loneliness stirring. That woman's failures with men were a legend around the office. And she missed no opportunity to court sympathy.

"Yeah. I suppose so. Anyway, you two aren't exactly subtle. Fancy calling in sick on the same day. I hope I haven't interrupted anything too raunchy!"

The first sob erupted from her throat and a flood of tears followed. Unable to hold the emotion back, she allowed herself the chance to vent her feelings. Alice may not have been there in person, but even a long-distance shoulder was better than nothing.

"Stuart isn't here. I haven't seen him for days. I don't know where he is. He hasn't called or answered the phone."

"I'm sorry," Alice said, sounding genuinely concerned. "You two haven't had a row have you?"

"No."

"Well, maybe he's really sick. You're always so close after all; it's a wonder the Boss never noticed. You probably gave him a dose of 'flu."

"Maybe. I just need him. I've done something terrible..."

She stopped herself just in time. Phones have ears. You never know who is listening. Even so, it would be such a relief to tell someone and unburden the guilt.

"You haven't got yourself pregnant have you?"

"No!"

"Glad to hear it. The Boss would hit the roof!"

She laughed through her tears. The suggestion was so outrageous she couldn't help joining her friend's humour. Laughter made such a welcome change after the melancholy days that she realised just how much she missed human company. Especially Stuart's.

Right now she needed a hug. The warmth of his body close to her own, his voice murmuring softly in her ear. Yet just when she needed him most he had vanished. Typical man.

Humour drained away and the grief rushed back. She pulled her cigarettes from the pocket of her robe and extracted one with her teeth. The lighter ignited on the third strike and with a trembling hand she struggled to make the flame meet the tip.

"So what's so terrible?" Alice suddenly asked. "Come on, you can tell me."

A confessional urge took hold; she longed to share the burden with someone. Maybe Alice would understand, then she wouldn't feel so alone.

"I killed those people."

Confession brought no relief, however, just a fear of the reaction. Alice made no sound.

"Alice?"

"Don't do this to yourself, Jane. You can't blame yourself for doing your job. All you did was plug them into the system. What happens after that isn't your fault."

"I suppose not."

"Not good enough. I want to hear you say it. Come on say it: it wasn't your fault."

"It wasn't my fault," she whispered, feeling utterly forlorn.

"I couldn't hear you. Say it louder."

"IT WASN'T MY FAULT!"

"That's better. I want you to remember that. You can't let these zeros play on your sympathy. Do that and they'll take you for everything you've got."

Alice didn't understand. Jane felt lost. Without Stuart there was no one she could turn to. All she wanted to do was help people. The system was wrong, but nobody seemed to care.

"Oh shit! The Boss is doing the rounds," Alice said quietly. "I've got to go. Are you going to be all right?"

"Yes."

"Sure? You don't want me to come round after work? Keep you company."

"No. I'll be fine. Thanks for the offer though."

"Okay. If you're sure."

"Thanks for calling, Alice. It was nice to hear from you."

"Any time. Bye!"

Abruptly the line went dead. Jane was alone again. With a sigh she put the handset down and slumped onto the couch. Then she lay back and closed her eyes.

They were waiting in the shadows, the crowds, and every one of them lacked a face. But in the middle of the multitude Mills stood slightly taller. Slowly he raised his hand and pointed in silent accusation.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, all she could find to say.



"PULL!"

Dark specks arced gracefully through the air and exploded into fragments. The twin roars from the Prime Minister's shotgun pummelled Carswell's ears before fading into the distance.

"Good shooting, Sir!" one of the nameless flunkies called out. Polite clapping greeted Carlisle's beaming face when he turned round to give a mock bow. Carswell joined in, smiling weakly at the junior minister beside him, some nondescript lapdog with a damp lower lip and watery eyes.

The Prime Minister reloaded and unleashed another volley. The muscles in Carswell's neck and shoulders ached. Each blast caused an involuntary flinch and twice he spilled tea on his lap. He hated guns. Unfortunately Carlisle loved them.

So did his men. Not that you could see them, but he knew they were out there somewhere. He sipped his tea and looked around. The other guests paid little heed. Most of them lacked the imagination to picture the nearby trees hiding armed guards and state-of-the-art security systems. That was the one saving grace -- the Summer House was the most secure place in the entire capital.

"Enjoying the view, Mr Carswell?"

"What?"

"Forgive me for interrupting your thoughts, I just asked if you were enjoying the view."

"Yes. It's quite breathtaking." He turned to face the speaker at the next table, the bald-headed man in the bland suit, quite out of place amongst the expensive tailor-mades of the other guests. He wondered what such a badly dressed individual was doing there at all. Then he caught sight of the barcode laser-burned into the man's forehead.

"Would you partake of a little caviar? It is very good, Father has it smuggled in from his Russian holdings."

"No thanks," he replied, appetite quite gone. "I ate before I arrived."

"Ah well, your loss."

The freak turned away to deliver the plate into the hands of a harassed-looking waitress. Carswell allowed himself a little shiver. Just his luck to run into one of the PM's freaks: his special bodyguard. No secret they were bred in vats, from the PM's own modified genetic material. Not quite clones. And they were absolutely loyal.

"This is your first visit to the Summer House?"

"No. I've been before -- on business -- not quite like this. In fact, I'm waiting to see the PM now."

"You like Father's retreat?"

Before he could answer the PM let rip with another blast. Carswell flinched and bit his tongue. The freak gave a cadaverous smile. "You do not like guns, Mr Carswell?"

"No, not much." He struggled to regain his composure, embarrassed to have his dislike publicly broadcast.

Almost as though on cue, a burst of derogatory laughter came from the man across the table. It was Soames, a powerful man in government and business circles. "Can't stand guns?" he snorted. "Never took you for effeminate, Eric."

Soames laughed and slapped the thigh of the barely dressed woman sat on his lap, another of the courtesans he was so fond of. She giggled and writhed provocatively. Soames rolled his eyes in playful ecstasy, and opened his mouth to accept the spoonful of caviar the women shovelled into his mouth.

"Guns do not define the calibre of the man," the freak said. "Especially when it is known they are impotent."

The buzz of inconsequential conversation faded. "Why you ..." Soames stopped once he noticed the barcode. The freak smiled, but there was no humour in the gesture. Carswell sipped his tea and tried to pretend he was elsewhere.

"You know, you're absolutely right," Soames said, laughing nervously. The freak turned away, dismissing one of the most powerful men in the country as though he were jobless.

"I am Shreck," the freak said after a while. "And I ask again. Do you like Father's retreat?"

"Oh yes. It's peaceful. Makes a change from the city."

Except the Prime Minister's private retreat was slap in the middle of the city, he thought. The place where he conducted most of his business consisted of fifteen square miles of landscaped scenery carved out of the heart of the old East End. On a good day the ramshackle mausoleum that had been Canary Wharf towered over the treetops to the south, a ruined legacy of the Turmoil.

"Did you know that Father generously re-housed all the people who once lived here? They were poor, and yet he helped them. He is a great man. A caring man."

A brief smile flickered across Carswell's face. Looking carefully at Shreck, he realised the freak was totally sincere. Such naivete. The misconception was interesting, though. So the PM even lies to his pets? He made a mental note of the deception. Never know what details may be important at a later date.

"He favours you," the freak continued. "He considers you one of his ablest executives."

Hostile glances seared the back of his neck. He could feel the heat. It didn't do to be praised so publicly.

"I do my best. It's an honour to serve my Prime Minister." Hopefully that would be a safe reply.

"Which makes what has happened all the more unfortunate. Father is much displeased."

"Ah!" The surrounding hostility turned to lynch-mob glee. "That situation will be resolved. I'll inform the PM as such when I see him."

"So you say. Yet there is the possibility of danger."

"I don't follow --"

"We in the Social Security Agency greatly appreciate the services you render society. Though you do not know it, we have worked at times to aid your activities. We consider it of the utmost importance that you be allowed to continue your work."

"I don't know what you mean," he replied, trying to hide a sense of random guilt. They couldn't possibly know. Yet it was said the SSA even knew God's secrets.

"As you wish," Shreck smiled. "Just consider this: we exist to protect Father. This situation may threaten him. And that, ultimately, is your responsibility. So pray to your deity that this situation be resolved promptly. Hurt him. And we shall hurt you."



POLITICIANS come and go, Parliaments change, even parties rise and fall, but the Prime Minister was always there. Carlisle was a constant in government, member of all parties, beholden to none.

Captured in synthetic oils, he glowered statesmanlike from the canvas. He overlooked the minions who kept his regime ticking over. Small, nervous men orchestrated by the will of the longest serving British premier in history.

Carswell look around apprehensively, aware that he was one of those minions, jostling for position and competing for the PM's patronage like all the rest. An unpleasant feeling, to be a small fish in the wrong pond awaiting the shark's return. Is that how his own staff feel? Better to be the shark than the minnow. The sooner he got back to his own fief the better.

The machinery of government buzzed around him. Men with notebooks and desktop computers worked their mysterious magic. Political alchemists, they balanced delicate social forces on the razor's edge of one man's will. If only events hadn't brought him to the centre of this Machiavellian web.

And how the waiting grated at the nerves. He recognised the game, played it often enough with his own people. The portrait formed a nice addition, an intimidating addition. Those fierce eyes seemed to glare right at him. A formidable man, his master. Carswell suppressed the urge to shudder and wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers.

"Ah Eric! Do take a seat."

Startled, he turned his gaze away from the portrait. The Prime Minister swept past, leaving a scent-trail of cordite and oil. For all his bulk the man moved like a cat.

"Prime Minister! You wanted to see me?"

In the flesh Carlisle didn't seem so bad. Easily mistaken for someone's grandfather. Somehow that made him worse. Young eyes gazed from wrinkled flesh, a playful gleam deep in the pupils. He gestured towards a chair and Carswell sat down in what he hoped was a business-like manner.

Two Social Security Agents flanked the Prime Minister's chair. One of them was Shreck, and Carswell was dismayed to find the other physically identical. They both stared impassively with those characteristically dead eyes.

"Have you met Reich and Shreck?" the PM asked conversationally. "Two of my best agents. They're twins you know. Quite remarkable."

The two men ignored his polite nod, but there was a faint hint of malicious humour around -- Shreck's? -- eyes. Another man joined them. He leaned against the panes of the glass wall and gazed out at the flowerbeds beyond. The reflection revealed a barcode. He felt his spine shudder.

Theoretically, Carlisle should have surrendered his control of the Social Security Agency once he became PM. Plenty of fools believed that. He knew better. Control of the SSA brought Carlisle to power and it had kept him there all these years.

"Now then Eric, what have you been up to?"

"Sir?"

"This situation with the virus is not good. I appreciate what you are trying to do, but you could have found a safer way. You're not supposed to burn the guards along with the inmates."

"I'm sorry Sir, I don't understand --"

"Just my little joke, Eric."

"Father is referring indirectly to your policy of isolation within the JobNet system," the man at the window interrupted.

"Quite so." Carlisle sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers together. He looked over the tips almost as though sighting his shotgun. Sweat began to run down Carswell's back.

"I don't see what this has to do with the virus, Sir. Yes, we utilise certain surplus elements. Artificial reality has been demonstrated to work more efficiently the more users are hooked up. There is the added benefit that we are able to utilise an otherwise useless resource, thereby reducing numbers."

"Some people might say you're depriving them of their civil rights."

The Prime Minister was playing with him. The man who systematically suspended every civil liberty, without actually striking them from the statute books, and he used the unemployed for this very purpose.

Carlisle rose to power on the back of the Turmoil, when millions of jobless rioted and ransacked society in demand of work. The old regime had proved incompetent, not to mention uncaring. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that they had arisen on the promise of social justice -- surely an outmoded concept now if ever there was one. Then Carlisle turned up from the shadows. With a politician's honey-tongued cant, he promised great things, wonderful things.

Unbeknown to the generality he headed some obscure branch of the intelligence services, what became the forerunner of his Social Security Agency. There were rumours that Carlisle caused the unrest that exploded into the Turmoil, or at least he manipulated it to help his power play, but sensible people didn't talk about such things -- or think them for that matter -- even as the country descended into something akin to totalitarianism.

On the whole people were too relieved that the violence was brought to an end to question their leader, or why his years of rule turned into decades. The power of terror, and it was a terrifying period, he remembered from the time he was at Civil Service college. Back when the Civil Service still existed in any meaningful sense.

"With respect, Sir, you don't believe that," he said cautiously.

"I believe whatever is conducive to efficient government."

"Your policy of isolation is immaterial," the man at the window interrupted. "Except for one thing. This man, Mills. We are aware of the problem you experienced regarding his location. We are also aware that you highlighted him as potential material and took steps to prevent his obtaining employment."

"He had skills and aptitudes that computer models suggested were favourable to an increase in network efficiency. The tragedy of it all is he put himself forward for employment within JobNet. We couldn't have contrived it bet--"

"Ironic. That the man you selected as a new component should turn out to be the conveyance for the entity that may destroy your system."

"This man was used to carry the virus," the Prime Minister interjected.

"Ah!" Is this how the fox feels when cornered by the hounds? He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. They couldn't blame him. It was not his responsibility if terrorists attacked the network. "I see," was all he could think of to say.

Suddenly Chief leaned over. A notebook in his hand displayed several photographs and scrolling data windows. The names and details meant little.

"Observe," he said. "These images were taken from City Watch cameras. Note the images of the man and the woman. Both of them work for your agency, Mr Carswell. You will note the man -- Stuart Sutcliffe under his current alias -- has a long history of terrorist activity."

"I can't be held responsible ... I'm not in security --"

"You do not conduct basic identity checks?"

"Of course --"

"Then I should have them improved. Note this man: Clute. He is a known anarcho-chaotic terrorist. Two of your employees were seen talking to this man. They also handled Mills' uplink before he conveniently disappeared. Were you also aware that this Mills has links to the Martyrs of Jarrow organisation? Your incompetence has endangered us."

"I don't see how. The virus is static." The material in his briefcase seemed utterly irrelevant now. This wasn't the crisis briefing he had been led to believe. Rather it was a trial. Unfair. Suddenly he realised the PM was laughing.

"Poor Eric. Let me give you some advice. The art of government is in hiring the right staff to do the work for you. Just let them get on with things while you handle the broader issues. A man who must control everything is a man who controls nothing."

With a casual gesture from the PM, Chief backed off. Carswell felt his muscles unknot and he began to breathe again.

"As to the virus," Chief added, "it is static at the moment. We do not know how long that will remain the situation."

"Wait a minute! You have a go at me for employing terrorists, yet you allowed a terrorist to get his hands on this thing! If you knew so much why didn't you intervene before?"

"Eric!" the PM barked. And then more softly: "Kindly remember where you are."

"I'm sorry, Prime Minister."

Red-faced, Chief paced round to the back of Carswell's chair. He gripped the backrest and leaned over. "We are not infallible," he said. "Yet! Even we cannot control everything. We deal in probabilities. Not certainties."

"Eric, you need to look at the whole picture," the PM said. "You look at the jobless as a huge pile of scrap and you're looking for what can be recycled. That's good. That's your job. But what you don't realise is that this pile of scrap itself serves a purpose. I need my zeros, Eric. They put fear in people; fear of crime and terrorism. They are a stark reminder to the stakeholders that what they despise today, they may end up joining tomorrow. It keeps them obedient. Remember that! The virus endangers us. It could upset the delicate balance of our society."

"Sir. Would you like to hear my report now?" Fingers fumbled at the lock on his briefcase. Carswell cursed and felt his face flush. The muscles in his forearms trembled with suppressed anger. As a high-level executive he should not be receiving such treatment. He knew his job and expected a little professional courtesy, not a view that would wash with the Prime Minister.

"No, Mr Carswell, we shall not be requiring your report. You are to be relieved of the problem."

"That is correct, Eric. This one is beyond your resources. Don't look so glum. I still have a very high regard for you. One day, I hope, you will be joining my staff. I was very impressed when you turned your little department into a successful commercial venture. I never thought it could be done."

"Thank you, Prime Minister." Yes. A commercial venture. And it was his. They could remove him from office. But they couldn't take away his stock in the companies he established. Then his gaze fell on Chief and his blood trickled cold. They didn't need to take his stock. They could take something much more precious.



LEATHER squeaked as Carswell got up to leave. He clutched his briefcase as though a horde of zeros were after him. Alex watched his minion leave and laughed quietly.

"Poor Eric," he muttered and shook his head in amusement.

"You keep saying that, Father."

"I know. Ah! He's keen, ambitious, but he over-extends himself. Perhaps we were mistaken to let him slip. But I suppose we can't watch everything."

"No, Father. So what is our next step?"

"Arrest the woman, Jane Sutton, and the doctor who treated Mills. With luck they will be able to direct us to his whereabouts."

"And that other one, Clute?"
"We'll be lucky to find him straight away. Get men on it, anyway. Pull them off other assignments if you have to. This is priority."

"Yes, Father."

"Clute!" Alex stroked his chin in reminiscence. "I knew a man by that name once. An old friend and rival from my Cambridge days. I beat him at everything, you know, especially chess. We were recruited together to the forerunner of the Agency. Never did find out why he was recruited, he had some odd ideas, very idealistic. Quite the wrong sort, really and it held him back. Made him quite bitter, but malleable. Funny, I always wondered what he'd been up to."

Much to Alex's chagrin, Chief remained impassive to the recollections. "There are reports from one of our operatives that this Clute is attempting to infiltrate the Martyrs of Jarrow," he said.

"Really? Well, we can't have that, can we? Not after the effort it took to nullify that organisation. I think it's time we sent the MoJ into receivership. How about the agent, is he a long-term field operative?"

"Yes, Father."
"Hmm. In view of recent events, perhaps we should retire the man. Shame to lose good agents but I suppose we shouldn't really take chances."

"Yes, Father. Anything else?"

"Yes," he said, looking up at his portrait. "Get somebody to dust my picture."



Copyright (C) 2001/2006.
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