Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Go for the Dome
by Sean Monaghan

Quantum Rose
by Jude-Marie Green

Autumn’s Net
by Matt Thompson

Crawley, I Tell You!
by Tim McDaniel

In the Cave of the Silver Pool
by Peter J Larrivee

How Uncle Larry Became a Shape-Shifting Blob
by Marc Rokoff

by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Through a Poisoned Stream I Flow
by Brandon Ketchum

Shorter Stories

Robot Story
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

by Jeffrey Abrams

Dumb Luck
by Michael N. Farney


Xenophobia Destroys Science Fiction
by Carol Kean

Computed Cryptograms
by Sam Bellotto Jr.



Comic Strips




Autumn’s Net

By Matt Thompson

ADNAN ISMAT, POLYMATH-IN-WAITING and—until that plan came to fruition—part-time debt collector, swerved through the pedestrian hordes on Sadaqa Street. He tried to ignore the mellifluous crackle of prayer calls that rang out into the hubbub from the battered, distorted speakers teetering on poles beside the roadway. Instead, he jostled and harried and shoved his way along with the rest of them, past the tourist shops and casinos that blighted the pleasure district of al-Zahra, skirting the tour parties, cursing his job, cursing his life and trying not to get mowed down by any stray pedicab drivers.

Such was life in Homs. Such was life in the year 2045, there and everywhere else along the Pan-Arab Peninsula.

And who had the time to pray these days anyway? Not Adnan: he had to pay his bills, had to eat, so he found himself ducking and diving and scrabbling for survival as best he could, dreaming his dreams and trying to keep his head down.

Which soon proved to be as impossible a task as it ever had. As he inched round the wheels of yet another laden pedicab there came a flurry of activity somewhere to his left. Then: a volley of screams. The sound of men’s voices, fearful and panic-stricken.

A gunshot.

The speakers lining the thoroughfare cut out in a sudden explosion of static. Around him, the clamour of voices died down in a matter of seconds. High up above the street, wall-mounted cameras began to swivel this way and that, the faint whirr of their movements eerie and disquieting in the near-silence.

Adnan froze. And that was his undoing. A woman pelted out of the mouth of an alleyway, pushing her way past a young couple and stumbling, almost knocking Adnan down in her haste to get away. A pistol clattered to the pavement.

She didn’t look much like most of the people around her. Her skin, sallow and dotted with yellow welts, stretched taut over her cheekbones. One of her sleeves was torn; he could see track marks on her arm, extending down most of the way to her wrist. Her black hair was flecked with red. In horror, he realised it was blood.

A cry came from the alley: “Killer!”

Heads turned. The woman clambered back to her feet, looking around in desperation. Everyone on the street backed away from her, Adnan included. They knew what was coming.

But it was too late. Adnan felt a tell-tale tingle in his bones. Before he could run, before he could do anything about it, his limbs snapped to attention. Around him, others were doing the same; spines straightening, shoulders set back, legs stamping the ground in unison.

A faint whimper escaped the woman’s lips. Adnan, paralysed, looked on in despair as the light went out of her eyes. She hung her head in acquiescence, unresisting as the crowd moved in and surrounded her tiny figure with an impenetrable wall of flesh.

Adnan suddenly found himself breaking away from them, legs plodding one in front of the other as if he were a toy soldier. He marched stiffly across the street to an antiques stall. Set out there were rows of statuettes. GENUINE ARTIFAX, the sign next to them said. FROM ANTIKITTY. A small, wizened man sat behind the table, unmoving, glaring at Adnan’s hand as it reached out of its own accord and hefted one of the artefacts, a marble statue of a lion that sat on the stained tablecloth next to another just the same.

He marched back. The woman still stood where he’d left her, blank-faced and shivering, hemmed in by the unwilling denizens of al-Zahra. A group of drinkers from a nearby bar had formed themselves into serried ranks; one or two of them were armed with cocktail umbrellas, the ends sharp and threatening. A pedicab driver and his ride waited, backs straight and eyes front, almost daring her to try and flee.

Adnan stopped before her. She looked up and met his gaze. Inside her eyes he caught a flicker of shame; or was it fear, or hatred? He couldn’t tell. He raised his arm; or, rather it was raised for him, neuron pulses shooting from his brain into his arm muscles, flowing into the figurine as if it were a living creature. The woman lowered her eyes and flinched, just for a moment.

Adnan smashed the statuette down onto her head as hard as he could.

A sickening crack echoed along the narrow street. The woman fell to the floor, kicking her legs in involuntary spasms that churned up a noisome cloud of dust, choking Adnan even as he continued his reluctant assault. He lifted his weapon once more. Nausea rising within his gullet, he battered the lion into her skull, over and over and over, until blood and viscera and brain matter ran into the gutters. No one spoke; no one moved a muscle, apart from him.

The motions of the woman’s legs slowed to stillness. Adnan’s arm dropped to his side. One of her eyes still seemed fixed on his own, poking out from the remains of her face and angled towards him. He fancied he could see a faint trace of consciousness still lurking within it. Soon enough, even that was gone.

He felt the tingling inside him again, and suddenly he was free. He stepped back, gasping in horror, slipping and almost falling in the pool of blood. Around him, others were moving again too, shaking themselves as if waking from a nightmare and murmuring to each other in low voices. Adnan found he was still gripping the lion. He relaxed his fingers, not without some difficulty, and the statuette clattered to the floor, only now breaking into two pieces.

A hand plucked at his sleeve. “Hey, mister. Two hundred.”

Adnan blinked. “Huh?”

“For the artefact. Two hundred riyal, man. You owe me.”

The man from the fake antiques stall thrust out a tobacco-stained hand. Sighing, Adnan reached into his pocket. Next to him a group of men, still conducting their bodily movements in a stiff, unnatural manner, were lifting the woman’s remains onto the tailgate of a truck that had pulled up from somewhere.

Adnan offered a one hundred riyal note to the shopkeeper. “All I’ve got, man.”

The shopkeeper snatched it away from him. He pulled a creased notebook from his breast pocket and wrote something on the top page with a blunt pencil he’d produced from behind his ear. He tore the page out and jabbed it into Adnan’s hand.

“Pay the rest by next week. Otherwise ...”

Adnan shook his head in disgust. Otherwise, as he knew, he would be hauled in to the feared offices of Command Control, billed for the rest of it, plus interest, plus administration fee, plus interest on the administration fee (backdated to the beginning of the financial year), and, if he couldn’t pay the bill there and then, dragged away to a labour camp until his case was settled.

Which it never would be.

One of the work gang was scrubbing down the street with a rag that he had, more likely than not, procured from a nearby shop. Adnan wondered, as the man’s clumsy, robotic motions continued, how much the guy would get stung for that one.


The clamour of shrieking voices around him was making his head hurt. He had made the mistake of trying to drown his sorrows in a bar farther along Sadaqa Street. Early evening crowds scurried past outside, intent on their journeys, intent on not being delegated a similar role to that which he had been forced into not an hour earlier.

On the screen above him a silent holo-ad pulsed: bikini-clad women danced on a beach, holding soft-drink cans out to the camera.

KIFKIF; the words flashed rhythmically in the air. U R IN CONTROL.

He took a tasteless sip of his beer and caught sight of himself in the mirror above the bar. He felt hollow. He looked hollow. The screen changed to a different holo-ad, this one for KifKif’s rival KafKaf.

“You okay, man?”

A hand laid itself lightly onto his arm. Adnan turned his head, to see a small, slim woman looking at him with concern.

“Great,” he mumbled, and sank his face into his drink. The holo-screen had cycled back round to the KifKif ad again.


“I saw you. Earlier, I mean.” The woman squeezed his arm in what might have been sympathy. “That poor woman ...”

“That poor murderer,” Adnan countered. The screen was showing the KafKaf ad once more. Someone stumbled past on their way to the bar, almost knocking him from his stool.

“Well, I suppose so.” She slid into the vacant seat next to him and gave him a bright smile. Adnan tried, and failed, to smile back. On the screen above them the ad began to fade. The images of laughing children drinking KafKaf shimmered and morphed into the perfectly smooth skin and coiffured hair of an announcer, clad in the red-and-green colours of Command Control. She smiled and started to speak.

Welcome to the Peninsula.” Her voice slithered out above the noise of the bar. Adnan groaned. “We wish all of our visitors a happy stay. Please listen to this public announcement.

“More propaganda,” his new companion murmured. Adnan looked at her properly. She was pretty, he had to admit. But it wasn’t just that. There was something different about her from everyone else he knew, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

The two decades-long Arab Spring and subsequent Autumn,” the announcer intoned, “grew, in its final stages, to encompass nearly every country in the Middle East. The entire region was plunged into dangerous instability.” Adnan rolled his eyes. “The resultant power vacuum allowed a succession of despots to attempt local coups, climaxing in a series of nuclear exchanges that almost forced the then-great military powers of East and West to intervene.

The woman beside him grimaced. “Doesn’t everyone know this crap already?” She held out a hand. “Tamar.”

Adnan took it. “Adnan.”

“Was that your first assassination?”

Adnan sighed. “Hopefully the last.” He let go of Tamar’s hand, reluctantly.

The announcer was still going. “The end of the war was achieved by the signing of a charter, transforming the region into a single economic and political entity known as the Pan-Arab Peninsula,” she droned on. “A hastily-convened committee of former Sultans, Presidents, and Prime Ministers then agreed to hand over power to a centrally-administered department, to be known as Command Control. But how to ensure compliance among the populace?

Adnan snorted.

Well, major advances in machine-interface surgery meant that each and every citizen could be fitted with neural meshes. These Nets exude a latticework of vat-grown copper into every nook and cranny of brain tissue, able to receive override commands from any centralised source. This wonderfully egalitarian solution worked perfectly!

Manically-grinning actors paraded across the screen, dutifully sweeping the streets, directing tourists or helping nonagenarians to cross busy highways. The announcer, unfortunately, hadn’t finished. Adnan felt Tamar’s eyes on him as he attempted, unsuccessfully, to phase the voice out.

The political chaos that had reigned for centuries beforehand was now under total control. And today, babies in the womb are fitted with the Nets! Anyone, at any time, can be requisitioned to join work gangs, welcoming committees, police units or any other jobs that need doing. Peace across the Peninsula has been assured forevermore ...

The screen faded back to the holo-ads. Conversation around them picked up, soon attaining the same level of crazed over-excitement as before.

“How many this month?” Tamar had to raise her voice to be heard over the din.

Adnan frowned. “How many what?”

“You know. Commands.”

Adnan counted on his fingers. “Four. First time, I had to clean out a toilet cubicle some clown had lobbed a firecracker into. Then it was handing out bottles of water to the riot police. Then ...” His eyes went dark with the memory of the humiliation. “I had to deliver a pizza to one of the Chiefs up there in that fortress they stay in.” He jabbed a finger in the direction of Command Control, or at least where he thought it probably was. “Which I wasn’t even paid back for.”

“I had to help beat up a protestor last week.” Tamar shivered. “There was blood coming out of his ears by the end of it. Then some goons turned up and dragged him off somewhere.”

“Off to the work gangs, right?” Adnan made a gesture of disgust. “And we can’t even leave.” A warning bell sounded deep inside him. Should he be confiding in a complete stranger like this?

“Why not?” Tamar said. “Why not make a break for it, go and live somewhere else?”

Adnan, deciding—inaccurately—that things could hardly get any worse for him, spoke on. “Well, where? The Nets are banned everywhere. Europe, North China, South China, the Russian Union, you name it. Maybe if you’re in the diplomatic corps ... otherwise, they’ll just deport you. So we’re stuck with this crap.”

“Everyone pulling together, Adnan, isn’t that the truth?”

“So I hear.” He finished his drink and hiccupped dispiritedly. “Everyone apart from Command Control. Us, we have to do whatever we’re made to. Man, if I could get rid of this thing ...”

He thought back to what he’d done earlier, and shuddered at the memory. The sound of the skullbone crunching, the smell of the blood and brain matter ... The woman’s eye stared and stared in his mind, a halo of blood surrounding her ruined head as she lay at his feet, the lion statuette heavy in his hand. He could still feel it, solid and cold, so cold ...

The announcer’s voice blared to life once more from the holo-screen.

Welcome to the Peninsula.

Tamar tapped his arm. “Shall we go somewhere quieter?”

“Like where?”

Tamar shrugged. “You live near here?” Their eyes locked. Adnan gave her a tentative smile and indicated towards the exit. He had had an idea.

As they got up to leave, though, a new image swam unbidden to his mind. He remembered now with horror: somewhere within the bloody mess of the dead woman’s head the gleam of metal had shone out.

He wondered who she’d shot. Then he realised he didn’t care: getting involved in that kind of thing, in Homs at least, generally led to trouble.

And he had enough of that already.


“Did you mean it, though?” Tamar murmured.

“Hmm?” Adnan tousled her hair. She smiled and snuggled up into the crook of his arm, squeezing closer beneath the sheets. This, he decided, is a keeper, this one. Being a daydreamer by nature, he began to plan out their life together. He knew of a double room nearby, a nice one with a view out across the city. Then ... he cast his thoughts to the future. Couple of kids, maybe? Marriage with papers, all of it.

She, he had found out, came from the region formerly known as Afghanistan and now known as—well, nothing much, really. It was just rubble, mainly, and vast pools of radiation that sometimes blew across the Persian Gulf when the Mistral winds whipped up, veering off to follow the ancient course of the Silk Road and, from there, across the Nineveh Plains to end up somewhere not too far from Homs—where Adnan and several million of his compatriots did their best not to think about it.

He bent down to kiss her forehead. She glanced up at him and gave a secretive smile. “Adnan?”


“... Oh, nothing.”

“Hmm?” There was something intriguing in the way she had spoken. “What is it?”

“Oh, well ... I was thinking. About what you said. Before we ... you know.”

“Which bit of it?”

“The bit about losing your Net.”

Adnan drew back, suspicious. “That was just talk, Tamar, what do you mean?”

“Oh, I’m not a spy, don’t worry. At least ...” She trailed off.

“At least ... what?” The conversation had taken a disquieting turn. Adnan’s reverie of the future drifted away as he stared at her, worry lines etched across his brow.

“Oh, Adnan. You’re so funny!” Tamar giggled. “No, it’s just ... there’s another way, you know.”

“There is?”

“Oh yes. Shall I tell you a secret?” She leaned towards him. Her breath was hot on his neck. He thought he could smell cinnamon on her. She whispered: “I did it myself.”

A cold knot of fear formed in the pit of Adnan’s stomach. He felt sweat break out on his palms. Who was she, this girl? “It was a year and a half ago,” Tamar continued. “I’m on a different Net now. A better one. You’d never have to kill anyone again, Adnan, I swear it.”

The heat in the small room suddenly seemed oppressive. He jumped up off the bed and stumbled to the window. Streetlights were burning all the way out to the suburbs. He heard faint music drifting across the rooftops from somewhere, oud and bass drums and Egyptian singing. He raised his face to the moonlit sky and exhaled, his thoughts racing.

Tamar spoke again. “They tell us it was the only way, after the war.” Adnan tried not to listen, tried not to think about it. Her voice was hard and unyielding now. “Egalitarianism, right? Pure equality from the foetal stage onwards, everyone pulling together for the greater good, all that rubbish.” Her tone was scathing. “But you can leave the Net, Adnan. You didn’t know that, did you?”

He gave a sad shake of his head.

“No, you didn’t. But if you like I can help you to cross over. It’s better, you know. You just have to do a few harmless things every so often, nothing much. Command Control won’t even notice you missing. That’s part of the deal.”

“How much?”

“Nothing, Adnan. It’s all free. I can show you.”

He turned to face her. She gazed back, her eyes burning with a fierce intensity. He started to speak, and hesitated. “You know, don’t you,” she said, “that woman you killed today was one of us?”

The pit of fear in his stomach lurched upwards towards his throat.

“Don’t worry. No one blames you.” She shrugged. “Happens. We can’t always get the right kind of people on board. We found her at some brothel in Teir Maalah. It was never going to end well.”

Adnan didn’t know whether to believe what Tamar was telling him or not. Not being the most enquiring of minds, the thought of trying to negotiate a web of half-truths and hidden motives filled him with befuddled despair. He rested his forehead into his palm, trying and failing to make a decision.

Tamar was still talking. “She went after her pimp. That’s who she shot when you were there. Probably going to bring the whole of Command Control down on us if they hadn’t done the job anyway. Hey, listen.” She rose to her feet and padded over to him. She pulled his head down and kissed him on the lips. “Tomorrow. Hamar Market, nine o’clock. Outside the sahlep bar. I’ll see you then.” She began to dress. As she pulled her sweater over her head Adnan finally spoke.

“Will it hurt?”

Tamar shook her hair free. “Well, depends on your pain threshold. Did it hurt today, Adnan Ismat, murdering that poor woman?”

He couldn’t think of anything to say. Without another word, without looking back, Tamar opened the door and left. He looked out of the window again. Soon enough she appeared, slipping away into the shadows of the street like a stray cat. Or a snake, he thought gloomily.

From far away a call to prayer rang out. Nearby, an owl hooted. Adnan lay down on the bed and tried to get his thoughts in order.

Within seconds, though, he was asleep.


The following afternoon he found himself sitting nervously in a reclining chair, a white smock covering the upper portion of his body, the anaesthetic beginning to seep into his bloodstream in waves of narcotic stupefaction. The clinic he had been brought to was dirty, hot, and infested with flies.

Stood facing him was the impressive figure of Ben el-Mughrabi, founder, managing director and—so he had been told at his induction meeting not an hour before—visionary of AlterNet, Inc. “Incorporated in secret, of course!” Ben had boomed at him. Adnan had laughed along then. Now, he was finding it difficult to see the humour in the situation. It was when the surgeon, Dr. Rafa, had wheeled out a tray of rusty, ancient-looking surgical instruments that he began to panic. But, by then, the anaesthetic had been administered and it was too late to back out.

“Well, Adnan, how do you feel?” Dr. Rafa said from somewhere behind him.


“You’ll be free soon. Just think of that.” Ben tapped his own forehead. “Nothing in here but freedom. AlterNet’s freedom!”

“That’s right,” came Tamar’s voice from the door. She slid into view. Ben took her hand and began stroking it. “See, Adnan, Command Control have got everyone where they want them. And how fair is that?”

“Competition, Adnan!” Ben exclaimed, as Adnan tried to ignore the intimate manner in which he was caressing Tamar. “If the Pan-Arab Peninsula wants to pull itself out of the dark ages, well ...” He snorted in disdain. “Remember the dying days of the war? The massacres, the starvation? If we carry on like this it’ll happen again, believe me.” Tamar nodded in eager agreement.

Adnan shivered. “Even Command Control’s better than that,” he slurred.

“Maybe,” Dr. Rafa said, suddenly at his side and clutching a circular saw. “Still, not your problem from now on, is it?”

Adnan stared at the saw in horror. “I thought this was a software job?”

“Oh, it is, it is,” Ben said soothingly. “Mostly, anyway. Don’t think about it, that’s the best way.”

Adnan remembered once again the woman he’d been forced to kill. Ben and the rest of them didn’t seem too fussed about her one way or the other. So how about him? Was he just exchanging one form of servitude for another? Through the last remaining vestiges of consciousness he saw Tamar and Ben el-Mughrabi exchange a worried look. What, he wondered with increasing trepidation, will I wake up as?

The last thing he heard was the buzz of the saw as Dr. Rafa switched it on. Somewhere deep inside him, at the root of his bones, a tingling began.


The next day was as hot as every other day. Once again he found himself trying to negotiate the crowds on Sadaqa Street; once again he found himself stuck behind a group of tourists, this time led by one of the state-sanctioned guides that plied their trade across the city.

Adnan wished he were somewhere else. He had woken from the operation to find himself sprawled in an alleyway, soaked in cat urine and with a throbbing headache. Luckily, the scars were small enough to be hidden under a cap, but he had been wondering all day quite what he had got himself into. Of Ben, Rafa and Tamar there had been no sign.

The two decades-long Arab Spring and subsequent Autumn,” the guide said in her amplified voice, “grew, in its final stages, to encompass nearly every country in the Middle East ...

Adnan groaned and attempted to sidle around the throng in the narrow street, with little luck. An impatient crowd built up behind him.

"... a hastily-convened committee of former Sultans, Presidents, and Prime Ministers then agreed to hand over power to a centrally-administered department to be known as Command Control ...

“Excuse me.” Adnan tapped one of the group, a sturdy-looking Scandinavian, on the shoulder. The man ignored him. Adnan tapped again, harder. The Scandinavian shrugged him away as if he were a mosquito. Adnan, giving up on the possibility of politeness, made to grab him by the torso. As he did so he spotted the logo on the soft drink bottle the man was holding.


Inside him, something stirred. The guide’s voice sounded as if it were coming from a thousand miles away. "... and today, babies in the womb are fitted with the Nets! Peace across the Peninsula is assured forevermore ...

His body stiffened.

A moan escaped his lips. Hadn’t they said ...? But here it was again, the old familiar feeling; fingers clenching and unclenching, limbs starting to move of their own accord. Strangely, nobody around him seemed to be following suit. Adnan made a weak attempt to resist, but the pull of his Net was, as ever, too strong.

He watched in horror as his arm reached down and wrenched the glass bottle from the Scandinavian’s grip. The man stared at him in bafflement. Before he knew it, Adnan had raised it above his head. A throbbing, insistent pain inside him beat out its message: AlterNet. AlterNet. AlterNet. He felt neurons firing in his brain, and could do no more than watch, helpless, as events unfolded.

With a swift movement he brought the bottle down onto the man’s skull. It burst open, showering glass splinters onto the ground. Behind him, someone screamed. Blood gushed from a wound in the man’s forehead, soaking the members of his party nearest to him with crimson and splashing his sweat-stained shirt. The guide ceased her prattle and stared at the scene in open-mouthed shock.

Adnan looked up, knowing what he’d see. Sure enough, the cameras overhead had begun to swivel in his direction.

He dropped the bottle and sprinted away down the street, legs heavy and unyielding on the impacted dirt roadway, feet pounding onwards however much he tried to veer from his assigned path. Without warning, he skidded to a halt. He was, he realised through his panic, at the bar where he’d met Tamar. Today it was packed with laughing, chattering groups of patrons, shouting to be heard above the holo-screen still pumping out its soft drink holo-ads.

He lurched towards them. Terrified drinkers scattered in all directions at the blood-drenched sight of him. He reached out and clumsily hefted a metal stool above his head. Every sinew screamed: stop! Every muscle burned with the attempt to lower his arms again, but it was futile. He tried to cry out, but no sound came save a strangled gurgle.


He smashed the stool into the screen. The noise it made as he battered at the panels reminded Adnan only too well of the wettened crack of the woman’s skull the previous day. Liquid plastic spilled onto the floor. He repeated the action, again, again, again ...

The holo-screen lay in pieces at his feet. The pounding in his ears died down; only then did he sense the silence around him. Panting with exhaustion, he turned to see ranks of his fellow citizens standing stock-still, eyes fixed on him, mouths set in firm, serious lines.

The cold knot of fear leapt into his throat once more.

Slowly, slowly, the crowd advanced. Adnan tried to back away, but found himself pinned against the remnants of the screen. One or two of the panels still flickered with the KafKaf logo, the slurred voice from the speakers repeating a single syllable over and over in his ears: ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka ...

He was so terrified it took him a few moments to realise his limbs were now under his control again. He thought quickly. Taking a deep breath, he hung his head in a passive gesture of compliance as the nearest hand reached out for him.

He jerked his head upward, swatted the hand away and barged through the zombified group that surrounded him. Gasping in terror, he ran from the bar and pelted off down Sadaqa Street. He turned a corner and looked wildly around for an escape route, dimly aware that almost everyone in the vicinity had fled. The few people left nearby were starting to get a glazed look in their eyes.

To his right was the dark entrance to an alleyway. He sidled behind a pile of bin bags and away into the darkness as quietly as he could. The noises from the street dwindled to almost nothing the farther along he crept. Rats scurried out of his way, squeaking and snarling in territorial fury.

And that, he thought, will be me from now on. Ducking, hiding ... how long will I last? A day? A week? He was trapped, and he knew it.

He spied a gap in the fence at the end of the alley. Not without some difficulty, he squeezed through and away. There was only one thing left for him to do.


He found her within the hour. Tamar was in a different bar, talking to a young man who looked very much like himself, laying a delicate hand on the guy’s wrist every so often and laughing at his jokes. Adnan ghosted into her line of sight and raised his eyebrows. She, in turn, widened her eyes and halted in mid-flow.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Back soon.” She inclined her head towards the door. Once outside they sidled round the corner of the building into another refuse-strewn alleyway. Tamar whirled to face him, her eyes blazing. “What the hell are you doing here? Adnan, AlterNet doesn’t mess around. You’re with us now, like it or not, so get used to it.” She sneered. “And don’t bother me again, okay? What happened to your arms, anyway?”

Adnan, taken aback by the ferocity of her outburst, looked blankly down at the Scandinavian’s blood drying on his skin. “I ... I ... hit some guy. With a bottle. Then I smashed a holo-screen up. Is that what AlterNet want me to do?”

“You ... why did you do that?”

“How the hell do I know? It’s like Command Control, but worse! What have you got me into?”

Tamar gripped his arm. “Adnan, it’s just a glitch. Happened to me, too, once or twice. Don’t worry, it’ll sort itself out in time.”

“What do you mean, a glitch? That was more than a glitch, Tamar.”

Tamar shrugged and gave him an embarrassed smile. “The thing is,” she said in a soft voice, “we didn’t tell you everything. Ben didn’t, anyway.”

Adnan groaned. “What didn’t you tell me?”

“Well ... we have sponsors, you see. AlterNet, that is. It’s not cheap, you know, something like this. And it’s dangerous. So, Adnan ...” She caressed his cheek. “Ben took up an offer he couldn’t really refuse.”

“Who is it?” He pushed her away as roughly as he could manage in the circumstances, which wasn’t very roughly at all. “Canada? The Bosphorus states?” He racked his brains. “England?”

Tamar shook her head. “You’re on the wrong track. Think about it, Adnan. What did you hit the guy with?”

Dim light manifested itself in the mush of Adnan’s thoughts.

“And,” Tamar continued, “what did you attack after that?”

“KafKaf? What have I got against them?” Realisation dawned. He stared at her in despair. “You’re sponsored by KifKif?”

“Yeah, well ...” Tamar shrugged. “We put it out to tender. Secretly, that is. And they came back with the best offer. Just so long as we ceded control of the Nets to them ...”

Her voice tailed off. There came a shuffling noise from behind them. Adnan turned, a yawning sense of dread settling over him. What he saw confirmed his worst suspicions. A disparate group of passers-by stood there: a schoolgirl, an elderly man, a professional-looking couple on their lunch break. The farthest forward, a middle-aged woman in a hijab headscarf, hefted a wooden stick in her hand. Her companions clutched at similar weapons.

Legs and arms straining at unnatural angles, mouths quirking and wincing, they advanced.

“Shit.” Tamar looked around in terror. “Adnan, Command Control must still be after you! What have you done?” She manoeuvred him in front of her. “Go away! Adnan, this is your fault!” She put her hand into the small of his back and gave him a shove, making him stumble and almost fall. The woman in the hijab was almost upon them now.

“How is this my fault?” Adnan screamed. “You lied to me!”

“Well, KifKif lied to us!”

The woman drew her club back to strike. Tamar and Adnan cringed, arms raised to ward off the blows. Flashes of his life blinked within Adnan’s head: schooldays, college, his first girlfriend; Sadaqa Street blazing in the sunshine, the lion statuette heavy in his hand; a bottle of KifKif, condensation cold on the glass, the taste memory of it, a narcotic allure pulsing over and over inside his skull ... A feeling of peacefulness washed over him. He closed his eyes and waited for the first blow.

Seconds passed. Warily, he opened his eyes. The woman with the club stood frozen on the spot, her face registering shock and dismay. The others were doing likewise. Adnan glanced at Tamar. She, in turn, inclined her head towards another figure, standing behind their adversaries with a hand raised to his ear.

It was the man she had been talking to in the bar.


The three of them sat in a deserted café on the other side of the city, in an area that Adnan had never been to. Behind the counter stood a giant of a man, silent and unmoving. Their rescuer, a man who had introduced himself as Ghaith (“that’s not my real name, of course, but it should suffice for the time being”), fanned himself with a menu. A torn, stained poster for KafKaf had been pinned to the wall above their table. Adnan hoped he’d be able to control himself.

“So,” Ghaith said. “You may well be wondering who I am.”

“Kind of,” Tamar said. Ghaith had summoned an autocab as soon as they were out of the alley. It had taken them the better part of an hour to get to where they were now; he had insisted on following the most circuitous route possible, explaining that the jamming signal he’d put out would have already been compromised.

He spoke to her directly. “Who are you with, may I ask?”

“I’m ... with you,” Tamar replied cautiously.

Ghaith smiled. “Is that right? Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Go on, you can go now. I want to talk to your boyfriend here.”

A feeling of deep unease washed through Adnan. He rose with Tamar; all he wanted to do was get out of there, away from whoever this guy was and whichever branch of Command Control he worked for, and back to his normal life.

Not that that existed any longer.

Ghaith grabbed his arm and forced him back into his seat. The bodyguard came out from behind the counter and pushed Tamar towards the door. “Don’t sweat it,” she told Adnan. “Remember what I told you. Anyway, I think I know who these guys—”

The bodyguard raised a hand to her face and shoved a pellet up one of her nostrils. She gasped, and collapsed into his arms. He dragged her outside and shoved her into a waiting autocab. As the vehicle sped away he stomped back inside and disappeared out the back.

Ghaith smiled and nodded, as if nothing untoward had happened. As if this kind of thing happened every day. It only served to make Adnan even more nervous.

Ghaith sipped at his bottle of KafKaf. “Well,” he said, “That’s that. Now, Adnan ...” He placed the drink back onto the table and pulled an electronic tablet from his pocket. “Have you ever thought about switching sides?”


Two years went by.

Adnan, older but not necessarily wiser, puttered up to a high-rise apartment building on the outskirts of Homs, perched uncomfortably on the saddle of a misfiring scooter. He pulled an envelope from his inside pocket and squinted at the faint lettering written there.

SUNSET APTS., BLDG. 7, APT. 124. He turned it over. IF UNDELIVERED, it said, PLEASE RETURN TO: HAPPYFACE DEBT COLLECTION INC. The address of his employers followed the notice.

He looked up at the façade of the block towering above him. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he trudged past a selection of burned-out cars to the entrance and went inside. The elevator, naturally, was out of commission. With a sigh, he began to climb the steps. That had been the way of it ever since things got more competitive: nothing worked any more. Not that it ever had, much.

The ascent made his head ache. His head, in fact, ached most of the time nowadays. His neural Net had been re-programmed so many times he wasn’t quite sure who was in charge of it. Ghaith’s employers, Neuralghe, had kept him on their books for the better part of six months. It hadn’t been so bad, apart from the times he’d been sub-franchised back to Command Control and forced to clean the toilets at the National Sports Stadium as—he reckoned—punishment for quitting in the first place.

Command Control, interestingly, had found themselves unable to halt the tide of progress that swept across the Peninsula in the wake of everyone’s dawning realisation that Things Could Change. A plethora of similar rivals had sprung up—BrainMatter, MindOverMind, NewNet, NewerNet—the list went on. Adnan had been with all of them at one time or another, surviving largely on the buy-on fees the corporate sponsors would allocate to early adopters such as himself.

That, and rent collection runs. He knocked on the door of apartment 124 and glanced down to make sure he’d brought the right envelope. He was still looking when, with a soft sigh, the door opened. After a brief pause a familiar voice spoke.


He looked up. A slight, attractive woman was smiling at him. He frowned, searching the remains of his memory banks. Then he remembered.

“Oh. Hi, Tamar. How’s it going?”

“Oh, well, you know ...” She glanced behind her. “Would you like to come in for a minute?”

Adnan peered past her, to see the shabby figures of Ben el-Mughrabi and Dr. Rafa slumped on the sofa in the small room. Ben raised a wan hand in his direction and turned back to Rafa.

“You back in business?” he said to her.

“Sort of. Look, Adnan ...” She leaned in close and whispered into his ear. Her breath felt warm on his neck. He fancied he caught a faint whiff of cinnamon. “The thing is, we’ve got ourselves a new sponsor. It’s Happyface Debt Collection, actually.” Adnan groaned. “Yeah, I know. Kind of cheap. But hey—gotta start somewhere!” She drew herself back and shrugged. “Restart, anyway. So, Adnan, we’re building it back up. Kind of an alternative to all the other Net controllers. And Ben, here ...” Ben waved a hand again, “... reckons he might even get a franchise out to Command Control. They’re trying to consolidate their power base again. So what do you think? We’ve been watching you, you know.”

“That’s right.” Ben turned to him and spoke. “You could come in on it if you like. Just the four of us.”

Adnan hesitated. He thought back over the past two years, to all the false dawns and broken promises, token payments, and street brawls, and near-death experiences. Tamar laid a light hand on his arm.

“Don’t worry,” she said, a momentary flicker of uncertainty passing across her face. “This time it’ll be different. Promise.”

Adnan, after the briefest of pauses, stepped across the threshold and into the room. the end

Matt Thompson is a London-based writer of oddball, fantastical fiction and player of experimental music. His stories have been published at “The Fable Online,” “Bewildering Stories,” “Apocrypha & Abstractions,” and elsewhere.


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