BY ROGER LEY
This is an excerpt from the novel Chronoscape. Copyright is held by the author.
U.K. circa 2040s
MARY LEE walked across the parade ground at RAF Waddington. Although she moved purposefully and wore her smart Air Force blues, she had a hangover from her weekend activities in the officers’ mess. Being young and single, indulging in the three Ds, Drinking, Dancing and Dating, was pretty much mandatory. She noted the activities around her. Vehicles carried personnel and supplies from one part of the station to another. There was a shrieking from the engine test bays and the smell of jet fuel. Looking up, she watched a pair of fighters execute an impossibly sharp and noisy turn. There could be no humans on board, they’d be unconscious from the g-force. Artificial intelligences have taken over all the best jobs. She sighed and tried to put the thought out of her head, as she entered the operations building to start her shift. In the changing rooms her ear lobe tingled, her software sprite spoke quietly in her ear.
“The boss wants you in his office ma’am.” Its familiarity level was set to “respectful”; there was no point in being friendly with software that wasn’t even self-aware.
“Okay, tell him I’m on my way,” she sub-vocalized. After buttoning her jacket, she ran a hand through her bobbed black hair and walked back to the admin area. The Group Captain’s door was ajar, he was standing talking to a civilian, so she knocked, and waited in the doorway. Her boss beckoned her in.
“This is Flying Officer Lee, Dr Abrahams,” he said. “Dr Abrahams is over from Langley, Mary.” She shook hands with the newcomer. He was the same height as her, short for a man, about sixty, and lightly built. Mary thought he looked like a jockey. “Dr Abrahams is a scientist with a ‘special interest,” I’d like you to show him the drone control room; answer any of his questions and bring him back in an hour; we have to attend a meeting later.”
Mary knew better than to ask about Abraham’s “special interest,” he was obviously a spook, if he worked at Langley. His English accent suggested he wasn’t CIA, perhaps he was SIS.
“I understand you’re a drone pilot,” said Abrahams, making conversation as they walked along the corridor. They entered the control room, with its dozen black upholstered couches and racks of related equipment. “What type of drones do you fly?”
“Small ones,” she said, and took him over to a mahogany display case. It contained an array of dead, but carefully mounted flies, of various types and sizes, from the humble house fly, to a large horse fly. They were labelled with both their Latin and their common names. “If you look closely, you can see that their thoraxes are enlarged.” Abrahams looked blankly at the display, Mary pointed to the squadron emblem on the wall. It depicted a member of the same genus “diptera,” with the motto Non muscae super me. “No flies on me,” she joked.
“Oh, those are the drones. Well, I’m impressed at the miniaturization.” He peered at the specimens with more interest. “Are they real insects or fabrications?” he asked.
“They’re modified insects. No point in reinventing the wheel, when the natural version is so efficient.” Thinking she might have sounded sarcastic, she continued in a more careful tone. “They insert a small pack of quantum electronics at the pupal stage, while the maggot’s anatomy has melted into an organic soup. As the adult insect forms, the pack makes millions of connections into its central nervous system, and ‘bish bash bosh,’ you have your drone. It’s more complicated than that, but I only have to know enough to fly the little buggers. They don’t need any maintenance, they die after a few weeks and we get issued with replacements as necessary. The wranglers look after them, feed them, transport them around. They have insectaries all over the country. The electronics are easy to produce so the drones are cheap to manufacture.” Mary picked up a virtual reality visor and put it on. She turned its mirrored surface towards him, hoping to surprise him with the distorted reflection of his own face.
“What does it feel like when you’re flying them?”
She sat on the couch. “As pilots, we have total sensory integration and control. When I lie back like this, put on my visor and place my hands in these sensor depressions, I am the fly.” The visor muffled her voice.
“But how can you handle six legs and two wings?”
“The software handles many of the functions; we point our host in the direction we want to go and the electronics do the rest. It’s not that different from riding a horse. Probably more like being a centaur, because you’re integrated with your host’s nervous system.”
Abrahams was about to ask something else when the next shift arrived, wearing their black sensuits. The pilots began to get into position on the couches, their orderlies checking their straps and connections before fitting visors over their faces.
“While we inhabit our hosts, we’re not exactly high dependency patients, but we need to be monitored. That’s why we have orderlies. The restraints are necessary too, you wouldn’t want to act out the movements of your host while you’re piloting. It can happen if the feedback filters are tuned out of resonance, like sleep walking.” She vacated the couch as its scheduled occupant arrived, smiling, followed by her orderly, a corporal burdened with her visor and other equipment. They left the control room and walked down the corridor to the canteen. Abrahams ordered coffee as they sat at a table. Mary drank hers gratefully, her headache diminished, either from the caffeine or the hydration, she didn’t care which.
“How secret is the fly drone program? I wasn’t aware of it, I expected something bigger and more mechanical.”
“Very secret,” she said. “We get all sorts of requests from SIS and MI5. Sometimes we leave flies in odd corners and on lampshades, curled up and apparently dead, but their electronics can still function as surveillance devices for weeks. I heard of a pilot who flew a drone into an enemy’s code room and landed on an operator’s shoulder. He recorded the clear data as the operator typed it into the encryption program. The enemy assumed we’d broken their code and had to change all their security protocols, very disruptive and expensive for them.”
“What about assassination,” he asked hesitantly, “are they ever used for that?”
Ah, thought Mary, one of them. A pity, he’d seemed all right until now.
“There have been stories of horse flies being adapted to deliver poisons; they have a strong bite so you could prime their jaws. I suppose you could use wasps with a modified poison in their sting. There could be another team doing that sort of thing but I’m not aware of it. I’m currently on ‘Royalty Protection’ keeping an eye on Prince George and his family.”
“How did you get involved in the first place?” asked Abrahams.
“I trained as a fighter pilot but, as they use AIs to fly most military aircraft now, it isn’t easy to get a seat flying anything. They offered me this; it was a big change from flying jets to flying insects though.”
“Now, every time I see a spider or a fly, I’ll wonder if it’s spying on me and reporting back,” laughed Abrahams. “I’ll be adding fly spray to my office supplies list. In future I want it to be a no-fly zone. Are you all right, you’ve gone quite pale?”
“Not spiders,” she said with a shudder. “Arachnids don’t go through a pupal stage, so we can’t insert the little box of tricks into them. No, not spiders, you’re safe from being spied on by them.”
He laughed, “ ‘Spiders, spied on,’ very good.”
Holding her emotions in close control she took him back to the Group Captain’s office for his meeting.
Mary went to the changing room; she needed a few moments alone. Sitting on a bench with her head in her hands she remembered the horrifying incident two years before, when the spider had caught her. She was on “Royalty Protection” at Clarence House, spying on Diana the Queen Mother. The Establishment hated her and watched her every move. Mary had been following her from a reception room to her bedroom, flying just below the high ceiling, when she found herself entangled in the sticky cables of a web. Puzzled at first, as she bounced back and forth, it was a few moments before she activated the disengagement procedure. The software was slow, and she lived through the horror of the first few seconds, helpless, as the enormous, hairy, grey beast approached, its strange array of shiny black eyes unblinking, its palps quivering. It grabbed her and stuck its foot-long fangs into her poor body, turning her insides to liquid pain as its venom and digestive juices did their work. Then she was spinning round and round as her attacker wrapped her in a gossamer shroud. Helpless and disorientated she screamed silently.
The system bumped her out, but her heart rate and other vital signs had gone into the red. It had only taken a few seconds, but it had seemed much longer. Groggily she returned to consciousness; an alarm was sounding nearby. She could move her head but the wrist and ankle straps still held her.
“Doctor, doctor, over here quickly, she’s having a fit,” her orderly was shouting. Maureen is panicking she thought, not a good sign.
Dr Tom came and sat on the orderly’s seat. “Don’t worry Mary, you’re back now,” his voice was calm, and she heard the hiss of the aerosol on her arm. “You’ll feel much better in a few seconds.” He held her hand while the drug took effect, and she felt herself floating away, Maureen removed her visor and undid her restraints.
Several hours later, waking up in the psychological evaluation unit, she lay entranced by the shadows, cast by the gentle light shining through the venetian blinds, as they drifted slowly across the wall opposite her bed. An hour passed before the medics noticed that she was fully conscious. They brought her a cup of tea. How glorious it tasted. She sighed contentedly and leaned forward as a nurse plumped her pillows.
They kept her sedated for two days before they started the therapy. She never got the pictures out of her head but the treatment helped her to live with them most of the time.
A week later, Mary was sitting in the hospital day room when the unit’s civilian software engineer came to see her. Patrick worked for General Electronics, the drone control system’s manufacturer. He was a quiet, dark haired, good looking, young man. She had spoken to him from time to time; he often led the update training on the squadron. He asked after her health, looked suitably sympathetic and then explained his visit.
“They want me to find a way of avoiding all this trauma,” he said. “We can’t exterminate spiders, but we can make the system bump the pilot out quicker, before they experience the spider attack. The decoupling routines are too slow, and disengaging abruptly is also unpleasant and dangerous, like ejecting out of a cockpit. I want to make it fast and safe.”
“What will you use as the trigger?” she asked.
“It’ll be the moment that the fangs touch the fly’s epidermis, and then it’s probably just a matter of putting in a software buffer. That’s what I’ll try first.”
An hour later he had all the information he needed, he said goodbye, and left. The next afternoon he returned.
“How are you today?” he asked as he sat opposite her in the dayroom. Mary put down her magazine.
“I thought you’d finished interviewing me,” she said, pretending not to see the flowers that lay across his lap. He might have just called in to clarify something on the way to visit his mother.
“Well, I’m not here on official business,” he said as he offered them to her.
“How nice,” she held them to her face and inhaled. “I love the smell of freesias. It reminds me of my childhood. My grandmother used to grow them on her balcony, back in Singapore. Mum and I used to visit her every year, and there was always the scent of freesias hanging in the air.” Mary realized that warm tears were running down her cheeks. She put a hand to her forehead and wept quietly for a moment, Patrick passed the box of tissues from on the side table.
“I’m sorry, they’ve taken me off the tranks and my emotions haven’t settled yet, they warned me about this.”
Patrick moved over to her sofa, took the flowers and put his arm around her shoulders.
“This isn’t very military of me,” she said.
“It’s all right, you’ve been through a terrible experience, like something out of a horror movie. Hardly anybody else has experienced anything as alien and awful as being attacked by a giant spider. The only other person I can think of is Frodo Baggins.”
“He doesn’t count, he’s a fictional character,” she said, they both laughed.
Patrick visited her every day, and when she returned to work a few weeks later they started to see each other socially. After a couple of months Mary moved in with him. Sharing a bed helped a lot in the small hours, when the nightmares came.
Tied up, lying helpless in total darkness, unable to move, she sensed a nameless silent horror slowly approaching. She screamed, and struggled with her bonds, but they were too strong. There were delicate, feathery probings at her throat and collar bone. The next thing would be the fangs, rapiers pushing relentlessly through the base of her neck and down behind her ribcage, into her heart and lungs, before the filthy burning poisons were injected. Mary thrashed wildly and tried to scream, suddenly she was aware of the sheet wrapped tightly around her, the mattress supporting her and the warmth of Patrick’s body next to her. After disentangling herself, she rolled onto her back and lay panting, waiting for her pulse to stop hammering. She wiped her forehead with the top of the sheet and sub-vocalized to her sprite. It was four in the morning. Patrick was still asleep. She moved across the bed and spooned into his back, he smelled of sweat and aftershave, his hair made her nose itch. She felt such comfort with him beside her. He was a gentle soul on the surface, but strong and dependable underneath. As she calmed down, her thoughts returned to a conversation she’d had with her shrink, a few weeks before.
“I’ve never been phobic about spiders,” she told him. “In the tropics, I’ve seen big ones, as big as your hand. I was brought up to respect spiders of all sizes, because even the small ones might be poisonous, but I’m not afraid of them on a day-to-day basis.” Mary walked over to a corner of the room where a long-legged house spider hung in a web near the ceiling. She made a cage of her hands, caught it gently and carried it over to show him. He flinched and moved his chair back as she dropped it onto his desk. The spider ran to the edge and abseiled to the floor. “Physician heal thyself,” she thought as she sat down again.
“It’s when I’m working, expecting one to creep up on me, the thought of having to go through all that horror again. I hate it; I can’t concentrate on the job, I’m always looking over my shoulder, or would be, if a fly had a shoulder.”
“But you’ve told me that your drone has been caught by a bird. You said it’s a fairly common occurrence in the summer.” He was peering around at the floor and had pulled his feet under his chair.
“Yes, but if you’re caught by a swallow or a swift, your host dies instantaneously. You find yourself ‘back in the room,’ lying on your couch, almost at once. It’s physically unpleasant for about half a minute, but spiders are a different matter, they make you suffer.” A soft chime sounded.
“Right, well we can continue this on Tuesday,” he said, nodding encouragingly as his keyboard appeared in front of him. Mary stood up; as she walked to the door, she spotted the spider running madly across the floor, seeking the safety of the skirting board. She stepped on it, ground it into the carpet and glanced back, the shrink was watching, he looked down, began tapping at his keyboard and moved his feet back in front of him.
She lay in the dark next to Patrick, worrying about the next day, they’d be testing the beta copy of his new software, she wasn’t looking forward to it.
Now she was in the shower, they were crawling out of the shower head and the drain, crawling all over her. She was screaming and stamping on them, but more and more came, no matter how many she killed, bigger and bigger, climbing up her legs, over her body, onto her face. She couldn’t kill them fast enough. They were in her hair, biting her scalp as she tried to tear them off. She closed her eyes and mouth but they forced their way in. Small ones were creeping into her ears, her nostrils.
She woke with a jerk and sat up gasping.
“I’ll get you a glass of water,” said Patrick. He went into the bathroom, as she lay panting and came back, sat on her side of the bed and handed her the glass. “It’ll go away eventually,” he said. “It’ll just take time but you’ll be all right in the end.” She drank, then put the glass on the bedside table, he got in next to her and put his arms around her. “I’ll look after you Mary,” he whispered. “It’s my job. Go to sleep, it’ll be better in the morning.” He pulled the covers over them both and she drifted off.
The next day, Mary lay trembling slightly on her couch as her orderly checked everything for the third time. Now I know how Anne Boleyn felt on her last morning, she thought. I do not want to do this, but I have to show Patrick that I have faith in him.
“I’m sure everything’s okay Corporal, stop fussing around,” Mary snapped, then said more gently, “sorry Maureen, I’m very grateful for your help.”
The orderly shrugged and smiled, “That’s all right ma’am, I’d be feelin’ edgy meself.”
This is as bad as root canal work, Mary thought, and tried to control her shaking. If the software worked it would give her confidence for the future, and she had every reason to believe it would work. It had worked when Patrick stuck a tiny pin into her captive drone yesterday. Mary had found herself “back in the room” as soon as he touched her host’s dermis.
Today’s test was the real thing though. Her host was in one part of a plastic box in the next room, she felt sorry for it, the box was divided into two sections by a thin separator, in the other half sat a big, grey, garden spider. Patrick had caught it a week earlier and had shown her its impressive markings. He hadn’t fed it since its capture.
“Okay ma’am?” asked her orderly as she presented Mary’s visor. Mary nodded and lifted her head.
She lay back and spoke to her sprite. “Let’s get this over with.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t under . . .”
“Initiate insertion,” she interrupted.
A few moments later, Mary was standing on a smooth vertical surface, stable on her six sticky feet. She moved around until she could see the separator.
“Patrick wants to know if he can start?” said her sprite.
“Okay, go,” she said, and watched as, a moment later, the separator flipped up out of the way. She saw the spider, it was enormous, it horrified her, she felt her host’s agitation, but held it in check as its wings buzzed and it tried to flee. The spider jerked as it saw her, and then paused. It raised its front legs and slowly began to approach, its movements unbearably menacing. She saw lights reflected in its cluster of polished jet eyes, the spiky hairs that covered it, its jaws working. Mary couldn’t face it and turned off her vision channel. She waited in the darkness as her unseen assailant crept up on her and struck.
And she was back in the room, jerking on her restraints and shouting, “FUCK,” as she tried desperately to shake off her visor. Her orderly whisked it away; Dr Tom was already sitting on the jump seat holding her arm, ready with his aerosol. Patrick was hovering anxiously nearby.
“I’m okay,” said Mary breathlessly, “I’m okay, I didn’t feel a thing. It worked just fine, but I couldn’t handle the sight of the spider as it closed in on me.” She was shallow panting. Dr Tom stood back and looked at her vital signs, on the screen above the couch, the aerosol wand at his side. The orderly stepped in and undid the Velcro straps, with some difficulty because the stitching was partly ripped.
“They’ll need repairing,” she pointed them out to the Doctor. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It can’t be good for her.” She sponged sweat from Mary’s face and helped her up. Patrick supported her, as she walked slowly towards the changing rooms.
“It wasn’t my idea,” said the Doctor, as Maureen busied herself wiping the couch and tidying up. He sighed and walked back to his office, shaking his head.