HER MINT-GREEN BREATH material on a read free website including complete text stories in genres including SF and fantasy; fiction published online also includes horror, strangeness, weirdness and the bizarre. The site also features three complete novels online plus sample chapters of other novels.


Link to click to read SF, fantasy, horror stories online

diary          novels          poems ARC OF LIGHT collection          poetry archive          stories         writing guidance


        On the way home, Martin fell asleep on the rocking subway car. Pretty stupid thing to do — can't keep an eye out for muggers when you're hanging out in blob-blob land. But his latest mission had left him in a state of blurred exhaustion.
        Waking from sleep, he experienced a momentary sense of internal disturbance, followed by an odd kind of paralysis. He could stand, but he couldn't move. Then his body started to articulate itself, the head turning, the back straightening —
        The light dimmed then brightened. And he was still in the subway car, taking the familiar route home. Body okay. Someone attempted to take you over? Impossible. Not unless France ...
        Yeah. Maybe it was France. Still too much of a gambler, too much of a gameplayer. Ideally, France would be — what? More cold-blooded, that's it. More actuarial. So, yeah. Maybe it was France. Or maybe you imagined the whole thing. Well ... that's possible. Yes, you imagine it. Lighten up. You'll feel better once you're at home. With Jan.



        In grotesque close-up on the TV screen, a soft porn performer licked her lips. Wet red lipstick engulfed a banana's solid tension.
        "I'm ready if you are," said Jan, pawing for him, but missing.
        The old Jan would never have said any such thing. The old Jan watched classical ballet and Charlie Chaplin reruns. But the new Jan was — what was the word? Louche. That's it. Louche.
        "Sex," said Martin.
        Said, or had the word said for him. The oddness was with him again — the same oddness which had possessed him on the train. Possession. Impossible. You wouldn't dare — would you, France?
        "Sex," said Jan, echoing.
        A habit of the new Jan — to echo back his latest comment. What had happened to the old Jan? The witty one?
        "No," said Martin.
        Rebuffed by that negative, Jan subsided onto the bed, her lips opening soundlessly, her face becoming flaccid and limp. The limpness disturbed him. That, and the sidling semaphore of her restless right hand, the mint on her breath.
        "Are you really here?" he said, suddenly. "Jan?"
        "I'm a squid," said Jan.
        That didn't make sense. Maybe the real Jan wasn't home. Maybe the parent ego was in suspension and all that was operative was an echo, a low-grade software emulation of the true person. After all, Jan had been a beta tester for the Saigo interface. That was how they had met. And, though she supposedly never used it these days, the interface was still there. Capable of putting the parent ego to sleep, leaving just an emulation echo to run the body while the child ego went venturing. Sex with an echo — the very thought was dehumanizing.
        Yet —
        He was already erect, though he had not willed it, and was heaving himself onto her — stop! — and was roughing his way into the coldness of her squid, panting —
        It was happening, and Martin was less than a puppet. Was just an observer. Part of the audience. Trapped in his own manipulated flesh, the flesh which was raping his wife. Who lay beneath him like something damp from the morgue, exuding fumes of green mint.
        "Jan," said Martin, when he was released.
        Unutterably sorry, unutterably guilty, even though it had not been his choice, not his act.
        But Jan Dei Gratia, sometime beta tester for the Celestial Astra Corporation, and now wife of Martin Celeste, was asleep. And, when Martin took her by the shoulder and shook her — not too roughly — her only response was a confused murmur.

        "France," said Martin, speaking to the voicemail system, using the one and only name which his boss had ever made available to the interfacing world. "France, we have a problem. Someone has been illicitly splicing into me. While I have been fully conscious. I'll take a call from you any time. This is urgent."

        The doorbell. What time? One in the morning. Must be France. Guess he thinks this stuff is too sensitive for the phone.
        But, no, it was not France. It was Phil Wilshin. Barefoot. Pants but no shirt. Blood running from his nose. The security light lit his jailhouse pallor — even after three years, Phil had never acquired a suntan — and lit up the malevolent red eyes of the spider tattooed on his chest. The trickling blood from the bleeding noise had not yet quite reached the spider.
        "What the hell are you doing here?" said Martin, shocked to be so abruptly confronted with his enemy.
        "Martin," said Phil Wilshin. "I am you."
        "Say what?"
        "Listen! I don't have much time! The Gaia Gladiators have managed to hack into the Corporation's system. They took a shot at taking you over, today, but it went wrong. They calved off a child ego. That's me. I've been wandering — "
        Abruptly, Phil Wilshin stopped. Then swayed on his feet. Tottered. Fell over. Martin phoned for an ambulance, which arrived as Phil began to recover.
        "What's your name?" said the paramedic.
        "Wilshin. Phil Wilshin. What the hell's going on here? Hey — is that Celeste? Martin Celeste? Buddy, you're in big trouble. What've you done to screw me up like this?"
        Martin backed off, and left the paramedics to their work.



        "We have a problem," said Martin.
        "I know," said France. "I got your voice mail."
        "Then how come I didn't hear from you?"
        "Martin. You've been on a mission ..."
        "So my brain is fried? I'm imagining all this?"
        "I didn't say that," said France.
        It was difficult to argue with France, who was enshrined in his big director's chair, the throne of rationality. Today, Martin was all too conscious of his status as underling, as employee. But he tried.
        "The thing is," said Martin. "There's more. Guess who came to see me last night?"
        "I couldn't begin to imagine," said France.
        "Phil Wilshin. Saying he was me."
        And Martin explained that Phil Wilshin and his gang of Gaia Gladiators had hacked into the Celestial Astra Corporation's system. In the process, they had calved off a child ego from Martin himself. That child ego was now out there in the world — unless it had perished — wandering rootlessly from Saigo system to Saigo system.
        "Nice story," said France, "but it won't wash."
        "Why not?"
        "Wilshin doesn't have the bucks for a Saigo system, and we wouldn't sell if he did. Not to him. We have a complete list of everyone who's ever been sold a system, right from the time we bought out Plo Plo Plotonuzus."
        "Which was heavily into the jailhouse scalpel," said Martin.
        "Oh, bullshit," said France, impatiently. "Martin, you're the last person I'd expect to regurgitate that — you know. That's just crap. That's the stuff we — uh, I don't even want to get into it. Face facts. You went on a mission, I guess it was rough. You need therapy, fine. Take it. You can unload all that Auschwitz rumor stuff on your therapist. I don't want to hear it. If not — if you don't need therapy, I mean — we've got a job for you. If you want."
        "Another job?" said Martin. "Already?"
        "I said, if you want. Here. There's a tape we got to look at. Then you can decide."
        But Martin knew that the offer of free choice was spurious. France had already decided. Martin Celeste was going out on another mission, and soon.
        "Okay," said Martin, opting for the illusion of choice. "Let's look at the tape."



        The dog is trying to fly. The lab technician is laughing. Then the door yawns open. Enter a janitor. The lab technician turns, registering surprise in slow motion. His head explodes in a spray of black on gray. He swims backwards, pawing at the air, falling. The dog is already at the window. It jumps.
        The janitor walks up close and puts another bullet into the lab tech. Then a third, just for kicks. Then he pulls out a spraycan and does the wall. The logo he paints is the wounded eye of the Gaia Gladiators. As he exits, the security camera catches his shoulders hitching up — once, twice, three times — a kind of hypernervous shrugging. Then the tape ends.
        "What do you think?" said France, chewing on his unlit cigar.
        "Seems to be some kind of mannerism there," said Martin.
        "The shrug?" said France. "Yeah. And we got lucky. We found the shrug."
        "Yabu Yabu Television. At the corporate headquarters."
        "Say what? You're saying a, a TV station — "
        "Did I say that?" said France, interrupting. "Do I look that dumb? Do I really have to explain things to you, Martin?"
        "Well, yeah," said Martin.
        So France explained his elaborate theory about the Russian Mafia and how they aimed to take over the Celestial Astra Corporation. And about how Yabu Yabu Television was a Mafia front organization. The convolutions of this theory made Martin dizzy.
        "That's why they're always attacking us," said France, patiently, like an adult explaining things to a slightly slow child. "You follow me?"
        "I'm an Occam's razor kind of guy myself," said Martin.
        "You're still hung up on Wilshin, you mean," said France. "Forget Wilshin. He's just a clown. He's an asset of the light entertainment section, he's not a hitter. So — Yabu Yabu TV, the headquarters. That's where you're going. You have to find the shooter, and get a name out of him."
        "What name?"
        "Boy, you're really slow today! The name of the Mafia guy who ordered the hit. Then we find that guy, and we take him down. We can play hardball too, you know. Any questions?"
        "Yeah. What happened to the dog?"
        "It's 27 floors, Martin. Straight down. No swimming pool at the bottom."

        Enabled by MultiBody, the latest Duplicator software, Martin manifested himself in the body of Bill Chaffers, a corporate utility vehicle. The body was already in the precincts of Yabu Yabu Television's corporate headquarters.
        "I salute the human soul of William Jefferson Chaffers, with whom I am sharing," said Martin, following the Sensitivity Protocol mandated by the Corporation's legal department.
        Then transition shock hit him, and he rushed for the nearest hygienic facility. There, the borrowed body purged itself. He was hormones, a heartbeat, a gastrointestinal tract. I suffer therefore I am. If I did not exist I would not be suffering. Right? The ceramic tiles of the toilet wall were a cool aquamarine. Cool against the fever of his forehead.
        "I salute the human soul," said Martin, murmuring the words like a prayer.
        At first, he had laughed at the absurdity of the ersatz ritual. But, gradually, it had become his mantra. At moments like this, he needed any scrap of help he could get. Anywhere. Right now, he was not properly real. Did not really exist. Rather, he was a ghost enabled by the Atomic Telephone. Knowing that, he was barely a step and a stumble from the precipice of pure existential terror.
        Okay now? Yeah. I'm cool. Ready. Vengeance is mine, sayeth France. The Celestial Astra Corporation will not be mocked. Okay, Martin, let's do it.
        First, though, the mirror. Check. A bit of vomit at the edge of the mouth. Okay. Wipe it off. Now swill. Spit out the taste. Don't want this Bill Chaffers filing a complaint, now, do we?
        Okay, then. Let's get on with it.
        The Bill Chaffers body was a little short-sighted, something Martin would put in his report. Worse, it was a smoker's body. It had taken Martin all of two years to quit, so those familiar cravings were an unwelcome distraction. These days, unlike France, Martin didn't even suck on cigars.
        Nevertheless, the body was functional, and it took Martin along the corridors and through the doors to the gunman's sanctuary. There, surprise gave Martin the edge he needed.
        "I want a name," said Martin.
        "I want a lawyer," said the gunman, holding his right hand with his left, trying to minimize the agony of his dislocated shoulder.
        "Give me a name," said Martin, "then I'll give you a lawyer."
        They were all alone. No witnesses. The utility vehicle was softer than the norm — William Jefferson Chaffers must have been skimping on his gym training — but the fingers nevertheless were adequate to find the nerve centers.
        "I'll sue you for this," said the gunman, afterwards, through the broken tears of his humiliation.
        "I don't think so," said Martin, slipping the plastic bag over his head.
        Even in an age of cybercommunications, nothing beats being there.

        "So," said France. "Did he give you a name?"
        "Who?" said Martin.
        "The shooter," said France.
        "Shooter?" said Martin.
        Confused memories. Dallas. The Book Repository — was that what it was called? Shot, shooter, rifle, gun. The grassy knoll. Martin's father had been a lifelong conspiracy nut, at least until Alzheimer's claimed him.
        "The shooter at the lab," said France, studying him. "Did you get a name out of him. Come on, Martin. What's the problem? Clashing chords, is it?"
        "Yes," said Martin. "Clashing chords."
        Clashing chords. Reintegration syndrome. Theoretically, the Saigo interface prevented the formation of long-term memories by the parent ego while the child ego was out venturing. But the technology was far from perfect. You have been two people and now you must try to be one, and it isn't easy.
        "And he committed suicide," said France.
        "What?" said Martin.
        "The gunman," said France. "After you left him. He committed suicide, right?"
        "If you say so," said Martin, not knowing why France was playing this game.
        A hit is a hit, and you pay me to hit, and let's call things by their real names, okay? I hate games.
        "Suicide," said France, smacking his lips with a gameplayer's gourmet satisfaction. "Guilt, was it? Anyway. What did he tell you? Come on, Martin! What's the name? The name!"
        "Wilshin," said Martin, blurting.
        "Oh, come on!" said France. "You mean you let him do a snow job on you? We've been through all this. Wilshin's just jailhouse scum. He doesn't have the resources."
        "Hey," said Martin. "I killed the guy. What more do you want?"
        "Anyone can kill someone," said France. "But that's not what we pay you for. We want a bit more ... finesse. Okay. This Wilshin problem. We got to get on top of this. How about ... you're doing the TV show with the guy — when? Tomorrow, isn't it?"
        TV. Change gears. Forget nerve centers, pressure points, killing blows to the throat. Think makeup. Think studio lights. Almost there yet? Maybe.
        "Tomorrow," agreed Martin. He couldn't see tomorrow. There was something wrong with the concept.
        "Then let's goose him," said France. "Confront him with your killer theory. See what falls out. Disgrace under pressure, if he's guilty."
        Good theory, France. But Martin, who was still capable of logical computation, albeit in a blurred, disassociated way, immediately saw its central weakness.
        "The jailhouse," said Martin. "Some guy called it — what did he say? The university of lies."
        "Oh yeah?" said France. "You mean, you think Wilshin would lie to you? Well, hey, let me handle it."
        "You mean you want to be there?" said Martin. "It's a small studio. But I'm sure you could get a ticket."
        "That's not exactly what I meant," said France. "I want to be seated more, uh, intimately. At the center of the action, as it were."
        "You want to — you want to be me?" said Martin, the shock of raw affront making him coherently angry. "Oh, come on! Speech patterns, body language — you wouldn't fool anyone. They'd know it wasn't me."
        "Exactly," said France. "Top corporate spokesman — that's you — demonstrates confidence in the technology by letting someone else use his mouth."
        "Okay," said Martin.
        He was speaking to himself. Okay, then. This is it. This is a step too far. I'm out of here. I'm quitting, no matter what.
        "And where do you want to be?" said France.
        "Nowhere," said Martin. "Just suspended, that's sufficient."
        Suspension. Sleep without dreams. Oblivion without recall. Only it isn't, not quite. Stuff leaks in. The brain isn't as simple as the circuit designers presume. You remember stuff. Weird shit. The smell of the candle, the transparency of her skin. The shadow of the dinosaur's joints and the unexpected cold of the Carrara marble.
        "Tomorrow, then," said France. "At three. Be here. That's simplest."
        Simplest to take over the body in an installation suite in the headquarters of the Celestial Astra Corporation. Where they can hide the evidence of any accidents. Strokes, minor heart attacks, epileptic seizures — hey, it happens. If anyone tells you this technology is safe, well —
        Martin cut off that line of thought and got out of there. Headed to the lounge and hit the pinball machines.
        After reintegration, some people got drunk, but Martin liked to play pinball. It was the nearest thing to gambling he could risk. Ringing up wealth in the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. All your dreams coming true. And pinball kept his mind off smoking. You quit — right? Those cravings weren't yours. The utility can't quit, but you did.
        Okay. Quitting. Think quitting. Are you really going to do it, Martin? Quit your job? Think about it. So the boss wants to borrow your body for a bit — so what? Be cool, Martin. Think this one through. Don't make any sudden moves.
        Maybe you need a vacation. As it is, the pinball machines are all over you. Yeah — take a break. And don't go back until you're ready not just for pinball but for chess.
        That decided, he went home. To Jan.

        "Just do it," said Jan, commanding.
        If she commands you, it's not rape. But why does she command? The old Jan wasn't so in-your-face vulgar. Have you changed her, Martin? Or what? His pace slackened. Intellect and organism in conflict.
        "What's wrong, Martin?" said Jan. "This is happy animal time, right?"
        Then his vision began to rotate. The world tilted through a death and a drowning, pitching him into the darkness. Surfacing, he saw his own face up above, close yet distant. Out of focus. Wavering, as if made out of smoke. He was giddy. Drunk. Reality lacked granite. The world was as loose as vomit, and it was sliding down the plughole, sundering him from the light.
        An out-of-body experience. He was lost in a sodden corpse, trapped beneath the oppressive weight of his own frame, and above him the mouth was opening, he could see the faintly yellow stains on the teeth, and that body above was speaking to him in his own voice, saying:
        "Are you all right?"
        Then the world rotated again, and he was himself, and the woman was beneath him. Her lips parted, relaxing back to show the waiting void, from which there escaped the faintest snake-cold kiss of her mint-green breath.
        In sleep, she snorted, quivered.
        "Jan? Jan?"
        No response.
        "Okay," said Martin.
        Okay, this is it. It's all getting too much for me. So quit. Leave the company. Walk out. Do the Walden bit. Go find France and lay it on the line for him. The debts have been paid, I've done all you could ask, and it's over, finished.
        No France. Only voice mail. Very well, then.
        "France. This is Martin. I'm through. I want to have my Saigo interface taken out."
        Professional suicide. No interface, no life. But he was going to have it done. How come you can't stand the thought of raping your own wife, Martin? Even by proxy? Is it the act itself or the fact that it's done by proxy?
        He couldn't answer that question. And his inability to answer brought home to him precisely how lost he was. No moral compass left. You are a murderer, Martin. You have killed — what? Five people. If you count the hit-and-run.
        The hit-and-run. France had found out. And, under the pressure of that leverage, Martin had buckled. Had done the first job. And how quickly it gets easy ...
        "But you have to understand, France," said Martin. "I'm having these hallucinations. I'm imagining that they're taking me over. I'm imagining that I'm raping my wife. And I can't sort it out any more, I can't sort out what's me and what's just, you know, imagination. So I don't care what you do to me. I'm through."
        All these rehearsals, however, went for nothing. France was mute. Uncommunicative as the North Pole. Returning no e-mails, answering no calls. His secretary could not give his whereabouts.
        "Can't or won't?" said Martin.
        "I would if I could. Now ... about this TV show ..."
        The TV studio was waiting. Okay. I'll do it. The interview, and then ...

        The interview was the predictable set piece. Phil Wilshin attacked like a pit bull. Dressed in a suit and humanized by makeup, he bore no resemblance to the pallid bare-chested apparition which had so recently appeared on Martin's doorstep. It was hard even to imagine the convict tattoo lurking beneath his clean linen. And it was really hard to reconcile this polished figure with the junkheap wanderer who had shown up on Martin's doorstep claiming to be Martin himself.
        "The Celestial Astra Corporation is the inheritor of technologies developed by Plo Plo Plotonuzus," said Phil Wilshin. "And that company used convicts as experimental animals."
        This slander was just warm-up stuff, however. Nobody really cares about convicts. You can cut out their eyeballs for all the average citizen cares. Soft and furry animals are another thing, however. So Phil soon zeroed in on the animal experiments.
        The Celestial Astra Corporation was, undeniably, using animals as it tried to refine the Saigo interface. Exporting a bird's ego into a dog's brain. A chimpanzee's ego into the brain of a dolphin (disorientated, the chimpanzee ego panicked, and drowned its host).
        "But we're doing it for the human race," said Martin. "The technology is still at the polar explorer phase. We want to everyperson the tech. Imagine. At the top end, world leaders could meet face to face in real time. At the lower end, there's the rehabilitation thing. The — "
        Setpiece positions. Trading tokens. A jostling of sound bites a world removed from real debate. Martin's key phrase, three times repeated, "We want to everyperson the tech." Just that. Keep it simple, stupid. Not that I'm stupid, not that you're stupid. It's just the conditions of existence, okay?
        Then, at the end, Phil Wilshin had to stage the inevitable animal rights activist stunt, as everyone had known he would — no stunt, no invitation. This time, the stunt involved a paper bag laden with coagulating duck's blood.
        But, okay, Martin, blood is what you're paid for. And the Corporation will pick up the drycleaning bill.
        The next day, Martin renewed his efforts to contact France. The Celestial Astra Corporation still had no news of the whereabouts of France Elkoid the Second, president and chief shareholder of the Celestial Astra Corporation.
        But Martin found him.
        Martin found France in the Whirlybird Casino. Not at the craps table, not playing roulette. No. France was at the slots, hypnotizing himself with permutating patterns.
        "France?" said Martin.
        France breathed on him. Fumes of brandy and cigars, mixed. Cigars? But you quit, didn't you? And you're an alcoholic. You can't drink, France. At least, that was my understanding.
        "You need to shave," said Martin, seating himself.
        "He came in my head," said France.
        Unshaven, bloodshot. Smelling of vomit and the gutter.
        "Who?" said Martin.
        "Phil Wilshin," said France.
        So Martin tried get the story, but there didn't seem to be any story to get. Phil Wilshin?
        "You told me yourself," said Martin. "He doesn't have a Saigo interface, and couldn't buy one if he wanted to. He's just jailhouse scum. Forget him."
        "The experiments," said France.
        "Oh, yeah," said Martin. "The Auschwitz stuff and all that. Look, France, if you're that worried, just have your interface taken out, okay?"
        "It's too late," said France.
        But either wouldn't or couldn't explain why. In the end, Martin gave up the effort to have France start making sense. Instead, Martin focused in on his purpose.
        "France," said Martin. "I'm quitting."
        "It's too late," said France.
        "You can't stop me," said Martin.
        "I'm not your problem," said France.
        "Then who is?" said Martin.
        But France had gone drunk-baby blank. A little ooze dribbled from the corner of his mouth, which was hanging open. Martin couldn't help but notice that half the teeth in the mouth were missing, and the gums were still bloody where the teeth had been extracted.  



        The assassin got him on the sidewalk outside the headquarters of the Celestial Astra Corporation.
        "Martin Celeste?"
        Then bang. Just like that.
        Lying flat on his back, Martin saw the shooter's head thrash back. Someone had shot the shooter. Who? It doesn't matter. Nothing matters now, Martin. You're dead.



        Woozy warm water.
        He was in the shower, and had been for a long time. Water flowing over his thighs, his flanks, his breasts. An interesting dream, this one. His wife's body, plainly. Jan's. Enjoy it while you have it. Lucid dreaming. That's the word for it, isn't it?
        The dream continued. After a while, it got boring, standing there under the running water, so he got out of the shower. Towel off? It's only a dream, so why bother? Last dream of a dying man. A dream, or a hallucination. Guilt. That's it. You're guilty, that's why you hallucinated yourself raped by yourself.
        Raped yourself. That's what you did. At least in your hallucinating imagination.
        With an unexpected sense of — defilement, is that the word, Martin? — he tracked water through the house.
        The house was in darkness but for the inevitable background illumination of the city lights. He reached for a light switch. And missed. Tried again. Ah. The Jan-arms were a little shorter than his own.
        In fact, in a dozen tricky, unexpected ways, this body was subtly different from his own. It was as if a change of shoes had magically altered his height by a couple of inches — in this case, downwards — and had done odd things to his centre of gravity.
        The phone rang. He waited, and the answering tape clicked in.
        "You have reached the residence of Jan Dei Gratia and Martin Celeste. Please leave a message at the tone."
        Then his own voice came on. It was strangely different, somehow — as if a child or a woman were speaking — but Martin had no doubt that it was himself speaking.
        "Jan. Jan. Did you see it? On TV? I got through to the hospital. They wouldn't tell me what's happening. Jan. This is Martin. I beg you. Don't let them switch off the machine!"
        Martin picked up the phone and spoke.
        "Who is this?" said the child-voice caller.
        "This is Jan," said Martin. "Or, at any rate, I seem to be Jan, for the moment."
        "Who is this?" said the child-voice caller, getting hostile.
        Voice registers, that's it. You're using the lower register of this Jan-voice. You sound like a man. Go higher. And be Jan. That's what he expects.
        "Martin, it's me. I'm just playing games."
        "Jan! I'm not in the, in the — "
        "Go on, Martin. Say the rude word."
        There. Now that was perfect Jan, wasn't it? You'd make a good Jan. Sardonic. Mocking. Never quite satisfied with little boy Martin.
        "Not in the mood," said the man-voice on the telephone.
        "Don't worry," said Jan-Martin. "You've only been shot."
        "You don't understand," said the child-Martin. "I'm a, hell, let's say it. A ghost. A child ego. They calved me off. I'm wandering. If the body gets switched off, I can't get back. Don't let them switch off the body!"
        Then the phone connection was unexpectedly broken.
        Manipulating the Jan-body carefully, Martin put the phone down, and waited for it to ring again. But it did not.
        Well, hell. The original Martin Celeste was in hospital, possibly in a coma. A child ego which seemed to have ended up in a child's body had tried to make contact with Jan, but the real Jan was gone, in suspension perhaps, temporarily displaced by —-
        "By me," said Martin.
        Realizing that he himself was, at best, no more than another child ego. A ghost in the machine. Someone had been screwing around with his brain, illicitly activating the Saigo interface. And, this time, they had calved off a child ego, which was him.
        "Two of us," said Martin.
        Two child egos on the loose, roaming the world. And if both tried to reintegrate with the parent ego? The experimental evidence suggested that could be catastrophic. Particularly if both child egos ended up being reunited with the parent ego simultaneously. Worse case, trashed for life. Best case, convalescent for a year. If you can get back at all.
        And if you can't?
        He was beginning to realize that he needed something. A drink. That cellular craving was unmistakable. His body wanted — demanded! — a jolt of alcohol. But there was none in the house. Not since they had finished the gin, and that had been weeks ago, they so rarely drank. Nothing left but the French wine. That hideous table wine (electronic shopping was to blame) which tasted like paint stripper. Strictly for cooking. You couldn't possibly drink it.
        But when Martin went to the bottle, it was empty. Almost. How come? It didn't just evaporate, now, did it?

        Her gaze: not quite focused. Her mint-green breath. And you, Martin, you were oblivious. You never had the slightest clue. Because you were naive? Or because you didn't care? Maybe because you quite simply didn't bother to look.

        And then the door opened, and Phil Wilshin was there, and a shooter was with him.
        "Hi, Martin," said Phil.
        "I'm not Martin," said Martin, speaking with Jan's voice from Jan's body.
        "Oh, come on, Martin," said Phil. "We've been tracking what's been happening."
        That could only mean they had really and truly hacked into the Celestial Astra Corporation's system. They knew that a child ego of the parent Martin had been migrated into Jan's body. But how could they have gotten here so fast? They must have organized it. And Phil wouldn't be revealing himself like this unless he planned to —-
        "You can't kill Jan," said Martin. "She's innocent."
        "She was a beta tester," said Phil.
        "Just part of the system," said Martin.
        "Like Eichmann," said Phil.
        "Phil, we're human beings," said Martin.
        "Yes," said Phil. "That's why you should know better."
        "Well," said Martin. "I'm not even the real Martin. I'm just a, a — an electronic artefact."
        "The sins of the fathers," said Phil.
        The sins of the fathers will be visited on the children. They were going to kill Jan, and the child ego Martin with her.
        "But not before we get some information out of you," said Phil. "You will talk, won't you? Everyone talks, don't they? Unless I'm mistaken, your own experience tells you that."
        Yes. Sure. Everyone talks, and usually quickly.
        That was why they had called the child ego into existence. So they could torture it for the parent ego's secrets. As for the parent ego itself, they were going to integrate it with a child ego split away from the parent France.
        "Psychic spaghetti," said Phil, savoring the thought.
        And the physical France? Dead. They had killed France. Had killed the parent ego.
        "But you didn't kill me," said Martin.
        "You're not getting it," said Phil.
        And that was when Martin understood. They wanted the physical Martin out of the way so they could take care of the child ego without interference. They wanted —-
        Phil was speaking and telling him exactly what they wanted, but Martin could no longer hear him, because the voice was sliding away, distorting, and the world was becoming a rolling beerbottle in which voices bounced and bubbled, and it was less than a week until dawn, her head was a sugarlump, glue in the paper bag, the ants wriggling into worms, he was pushing in the needle, the falling shards of glazed ice were falling, the crampon was wrenching free as he fell, and as he fell he screamed —-


        He was sitting on a sofa and he was watching a woman who was brushing her hair. As he watched, a slight quiver of adrenalin kicked in — his psyche taking control of his new body and inflicting its shock upon the flesh. But he did not scream. He was quite proud of himself. All that, and I didn't scream. I'm quite calm, aren't I? Yes. But I do wish this would stop, it's getting a bit ... old. A bit old, yes. But I'm bearing up nicely, yes, I really am.
        The woman was still brushing her hair. Mysterious life of women. They can do it for hours, you know. Brush their hair, and all that. Lucid? Yes, I'm lucid.
        The woman was brushing her hair. And he was sitting on a sofa, pouched in an absurdly melodramatic pair of swimming trunks, a skimpy costume of skin-hugging canary yellow which threw the bulk of his manhood into unmistakable relief. He had hands: swarthy, hairy. Man hands.
        The woman said something to him in a foreign language. He grunted. She raised her voice: shouted. Not French, not Spanish, not known. Yet oddly familiar. Portuguese? He shrugged. She hurled a hairbrush at him. Then, abruptly, broke down and began sobbing, clutching her face to her hands.
        Carefully, wary of the unfamiliarity of his new body, he crossed the room and took her by the shoulders. He was bubbling with voyeuristic excitement, with a kind of champagne exaltation.
        Then the pain —-
        Trapped in the chair, he protested. Trying to speak past cotton wool. The dentist snapped at him. A huge brute of a man. Speaking — Russian? The whining needle descended, bit in —
        And the sky surrounded him, and —-
        He was standing on a wet I-beam in a gusty breeze, centuries above a plummeting fall. The air was loud with the noises of construction work, with the scream of a drill cutting into steel rather than enamel, with the grinding engine of a crane slowly shifting some lumbering weight across the horizon.
        He took one step forward then his nerve failed him. Down. Down on his hands and knees. His black hands wet. Slipping on the wet steel. His bowels quivered. His mouth was dry. People were shouting at him, their language incomprehensible. Someone was walking out across the I-beam, doing a circus act, coming toward him, speaking, calm, all masculine reassurance, but —-
        He slipped.
        And fell.
        The skewering steel caught him two floors down. Slammed through his bowels. Impaled on the vivisecting sky, he arced in white agony. Screaming. Each scream tore at the rupture within, but he could not help himself. The insistent blood was coughing itself out in gobbets. He was drowning on it, he was drowning —-
        Darkness all around, a drowning darkness, he was fighting his way up through the darkness, and he —-
        Broke free to the surface.
        Which rose in a plume of swerving light and crashed around him, forcing him back under again. But he knew where he was, sort of, and held his breath. And, when the surf released him again to the surface of the sea, he gasped for air, then struck out for the beach.
        He was half-dead by the time he got there, but managed to haul himself ashore. Walked up the sand past parasols, beach towels, oblivious sunbathers. Then collapsed on the whiteness. And stayed there. Stayed there as the sun dried him, as flies buzzed and nuzzled at his salty sweat. Then a woman was talking to him, her hands cool against his sun-warmed back.
        "You're still stoned, aren't you? You're right out of it."
        He didn't even bother to reply. Instead, he allowed himself to relapse back into the darkness.



        He surfaced in a hot, clamoring darkness. His whole body was sore, aching, bruised. When he moved, there were shattering protests of pain from his joints. He was in hell.
        No, not exactly.
        Bars, stone ... not hell, but a prison.
        We practiced on prisoners, didn't we? Yeah. To get the technology right.
        Now he understood.
        When Phil and his group of animal activist fringe fanatics had hacked into the Corporation's system, they had totally screwed up the system's workings. The system was randomly activating Saigo interfaces embedded in prisoners, in corporate assets, in experimental subjects, in God knows who. And, courtesy of the global satellite telephone network, was shipping his suffering ego from one to another.
        "Greasy," said a guttural voice. "I know you're in there. And you know what comes next. Don't you now?"

        Then Phil Wilshin loomed over him — over her.
        "Get up," said Phil Wilshin. "You can only push this zombie stunt so far. Get up on your feet or I'll shoot you in the kneecap."
        She — Martin, Jan, Jan-Martin — rose. Stood there, swaying on stilts a million miles tall. At a gesture, she sat. And Phil Wilshin put the gun to her head.
        "Feel it," said Phil Wilshin. "You have ten seconds to live. Then I'm going to pull the trigger."
        The gun. Grinding. Nine. She was a fish trying to breathe. Eight. Air offered no sustenance. Seven. She could not even. Six. Pull it into her lungs. Five. A sound. Four. From her mouth. Three. A cry. Two. One.
        "Bang," said Phil Wilshin. "And you're dead."
        A cry came from her mouth, a kind of sighing cry like the otherworld plaint that comes from a flexible piece of plastic tubing whirled round and round by a dizzy child turning the whole world giddy.
        "Remember me," said Phil Wilshin, sliding the swollen metal across her face, sliding it toward her mouth. "Remember me in hell." Then, hissing, vicious: "Open your mouth or I'll smash your teeth out."
        The barrel was hot, the gun had been fired, the stench was in her nostrils, she was going to gag, Phil Wilshin was huge, speaking. Saying something. And then —-



        The gun was in his hand. His grip was tight on Jan's throat, and the gun was in his hand, and that was when he understood. Phil Wilshin was an undocumented carrier, one of the prisoners who had been coerced into doing those very early Saigo tests, making our jails productive. Hey, there are plenty of prisoners — who cares if we vegetable a few?
        To understand all is to pardon all. But, even so. Goodbye, Phil. Goodbye, world.
        Opening the mouth he inhabited, Martin pushed the gun into it. Pulled the trigger.

        The hospital bed. A doctor asked him his name, his age, his nationality, the prime minister's name. Apparently he passed the examination.
        "Welcome back to the human race."
        He had been in a coma for ten days.
        And it soon became clear that the reintegration shock was going to take a lot of getting over. A year, maybe.
        So why not just die?
        Because you have a sense of duty, and because she has mint-green breath.



        He expected his homecoming to be kisses and blisses. But it was not really like that. Jan, at first, was positively withdrawn.
        "You've very quiet," said Martin.
        "It's hard being her," said Jan.
        Something about the accent and intonation betrayed the speaker's true identity. It was France.
        Then —-
        "Just kidding," said Jan, with her own unmistakable laugh.
        So the old Jan was back again. Probably. Maybe.

Terms of Use

All materials on this website can be read for free online. However, note that the website contents are copyright © 1973-2006 Hugh Cook - all rights reserved. For permission to use any of the material on this website contact Hugh Cook.

Link to click to read short fiction samples free online: SF, horror and fantasy

Link to click to read Hugh Cook books including three full novels