Strange News from the Trenches

Community Service

The first thing Trev remembered after the black spiral down from the injection was waking up in a white room that wasn't quite right.

He couldn't say what it was that was wrong about the room, but he knew it instinctively. The smell, the feel of the clothes on the couch underneath him, the faint sounds in the cool air: none of it was right. A terrible feeling of panic surged through him and he tried to jump up, but his muscles were strangely weak and sore and he found himself falling back, half on and half hanging off the couch.

"Ah yo awake. Gid." said an odd little voice, and soft hands helped him back onto whatever it was he had been lying on. A face loomed into view, a small beige-skinned man with a tiny rosebud mouth and a button nose. He had big brown eyes that at the moment seemed full of concern for Trev, and that sing-song effeminate little voice.

"Get your hands of me you little Paki fairy," said Trev. "What're you trying to pull ?" His hands balled into fists.

The little man blinked. "Plez dint trey ter git up yert."

"Do what ?"

The little man blinked furiously again.

"Is this better ?" he asked. "Please don't try to get up yet. Can you understand me ?" The accent was still sing-song, but he seemed to be speaking more clearly all of a sudden.

"Yeah, course I can bleeding understand you if you speak proper English," said Trev. "Oh me fucking head hurts. What've you lot done to me ? I'll have the press on you. You wait till I speak to my brief."

"There has been a problem," said the little man.

Trev felt a spasm of renewed alarm. Getting into this medical programme had seemed like a soft option, a real doss compared to the other alternatives that HM Prison Letchmarsh had to offer someone doing five years for assault. It wasn't like it was anything really dodgy, anything surgical or anything. Just trying to find out what happened in people's brains when they went to sleep or something.

"What sort of problem ?" As always when he was afraid he could feel himself losing it, getting angry.

"You have been in hiberstasis for a prolonged period."

"I told you already, speak bloody English. Don't think you can get one over on me by using fancy words or . . ." He stopped. The little man looked gratifyingly terrified by the outburst. Trev knew his type: stuck-up cunts who thought they were better than people like Trev. Yeah but get 'em in a back alley with a baseball bat or a chain, and then who was better ? They'd grovel in the mud and offer their wallets in shaking hands, beg not to be hurt, to be allowed to go. They knew who was the real man then.

He sat up, feeling less dizzy this time. The room was small, white, featureless except for the couch, which seemed to be molded as part of the floor, and a panel on one side of the door. There was no sign of any of the warders, nor of any lock to the door. There might be someone outside of course.

"Where am I ? This don't look like the Marsh."

"The Marsh ?"

"Letchmarsh Prison. Look, I'm getting well fed up of all this, innit, so either you tell me what's going on or there's going to be trouble." That was fairly safe, even if there was a guard outside. He could always say he'd meant legal trouble. And if there wasn't - well. They'd see.

"No no, please. I will tell you everything." The little man's eyes were showing white all around them and he was shaking. "Please let there be no violence. We are not accustomed to it. You see, the medical team at your 'Marsh' made a very important discovery, by accident. They discovered how to slow down the metabolism of the body very dramatically. That is, they slowed down the speed at which your body works."

"This don't feel like slow motion," said Trev suspiciously.

"No, not slow motion. More like a kind of sleep. Suspended animation."

"So I've been asleep ? Why didn't someone wake me up ?"

"You were - that is, no-one knew how. You were taken to a hospital, and looked after, but no-one knew how to reverse the process. Later, because of other developments, and to stop your body aging, you were frozen."

"Christ ! This is like that fucking Stallone film, innit ? Where he wakes up in the future. You're telling me this is the future."

"Yes." The little man looked relieved. "We did not realise that the concept was familiar to you."

Trev snorted. That kind always assumed they were the only ones who knew anything.

"How long ?" he asked. "How long 'ave I been frozen ?"

"I am afraid you were rather -forgotten," said the little man reluctantly. "You have slept through the Warming, and the Great Meteorite, and the Genetics Wars, and the Remaking. You have been asleep for five hundred and thirty-two years."

Trev sat down again abruptly. It was like being punched in the gut, that. He'd expected - well, he didn't know what he'd expected but over five hundred years ? Not that.

The door opened, and a second man came in. To Trev's eyes he looked identical to the first guy, except the long white dress thing he was wearing had one green sleeve. The two twittered away excitedly.

"Talk bleeding English ! " said Trev. He hated it when he couldn't understand what was being said.

The newcomer blinked rapidly.

"You may go," he said coolly.

"What ?" That threw Trev completely.

"You may go. Is the wording incorrect ?" Something about his manner suggested that he knew perfectly well the wording was correct.

"But I - but where ? I mean I don't even know where I am."

"You are in Gmertsan 5plex ato, level 2300. If you wish anything, touch one of the panels by the doors and state your request. The 5plex's hosting nan will provide it."

"You can't just leave me !"

"Leave you ? We have not. We have revived you, which is outside the Roster of Obligation, replacing one or two damaged or substandard organs as we did so. We have then granted you hosting privilege, which is likewise far beyond that which is required of us. We have also chosen not to notice your breaches of politeness, even when you threatened Hwilu here," he placed an affectionate arm around the other small beige man, "with crude physical violence, which is forbidden by all the Codes and Rosters."

I'll give you crude physical violence, thought Trev, if you and I ever meet somewhere where no-one is looking. Strangely the other man smiled as he thought it, a smug superior smile that made Trev's blood boil. He consciously relaxed his balled up fists. They might have rayguns, or killer robots. They very probably had video cameras. Best not to get into trouble till you were sure just how much trouble that was. But if they didn't have violence ? He remembered that Stallone film again. How all the people of the future were like a flock of sheep, unable to combat the violence of a criminal from the past.

"Where do I go ? Where do I sleep ?"

"Anywhere you wish, if it is unoccupied. The 5plex will find you a space, and configure it to your taste. Now go."

"Wait, I need to know more."

"I see no reason to grant you data privilege as well," said Greensleeve. The other man twittered at him. "Oh very well, basic level then. Ask at any panel." He blinked again, and to Trev's alarm the floor under his feet started moving and carried him out of the door, which politely opened to let him through and then closed firmly behind him. The floor stopped moving, leaving him in a featureless white corridor.

"You smug fucking cunt," yelled Trev at the closed door.

On the other side, Hwilu winced at the naked aggression in the man's tone. "Are you sure ?" he asked the other.

"Oh it will be perfect," said Uu, placing his arm, clad in the green of a Purifier, around Hwilu's narrow shoulders in the Gesture of Exchange. "Quite perfect. All we need do now is let genetics and environment take their course. The monitor strategy is agreed, I take it ?"

"Oh yes. Considerable interest has been expressed by both major 7plexes, and even the Ring say they may offer a couple of hundred terabytes if early uptake is good."

"Oh I think it will be very good indeed," said Uu complacently. "Do you know, all this excitement is making me feel quite peckish."

Trev banged his fists helplessly against the door, but it was like hitting foam rubber, it just seemed to absorb the blows.

One of the dark panels was set into the wall. Trev approached it cautiously, raised a tentative hand. It felt slightly damp and warm, a bit like touching sweaty skin. He pulled his hand back in disgust, but where he had touched it the outline of his hand remained, glowing a pale green.

"Hallo ?" he said tentatively.

"Hallo Trevorhalliday," said the wall. "What can I do for you ?"

Tell me what this place is, how everything got this way, and how I can get out of it and go home, thought Trev. But he already knew that there was nowhere to go. There never had been really, since he was 12 and his mum had taken up with that fat cunt from Bolton that smacked her about, and Trev too till he left. After that there'd only been squats and his various birds' places, or the young offenders institutions he'd been in and out of since he was old enough to get sent down.

"Is it true there's no violence here ?" he asked. "No GBH or nothing ?"

"The term GBH is not on file at this privilege level," said the wall kindly and calmly. "Physical violence is contrary to the General Code of Incorporation, link 3. Verbal violence is contrary to the General Code of Incorporation, link 4. Mental violence is contrary . . ."

"Yeah never mind all that. When was the last time someone broke them codes, and what happened to him ?"

"There has been no recorded violation of link 3 since aut350 cycle9. The violater agreed to community service. The last recorded violation of link 4 was pel397 cycle 16. The violater agreed to formal apology."

Trev sneered. What a doss. Community service and apologies. These wimps deserved to get beaten up.

"The guy with the green sleeve said you could make things."

"Within the limits of hosting privilege I can make what you wish," said the wall with calm certainty.

"A baseball bat," said Trev. "A fucking baseball bat."

"American, zeegee, or matuko baseball ?"

"Eh ? Er, American."

"It will take about five minutes," said the wall. "Have a seat." The wall of the corridor bulged out suddenly into a kind of low bench.

"Er no, no thanks." He didn't like the idea of walls that could move and become chairs. What if you were doing graffiti on a wall like that and it objected ?

The chair withdrew again. There was a wait that seemed to go on for ever. Trev paced irritably from one side of the corridor to the other, backwards and forwards. He was thinking about Greensleeve.

His hands balled unconsciously into fists as he thought about smashing that smug little face. And then a bit of community service - that was a laugh, that was. Weeding old ladies gardens, and the old dears half terrified of you. You asked to use the toilet as an excuse to get in the house and then if you were lucky you could pick up a bit of cash or the odd little valuable. Yeah, a real doss.

A low chime sounded and the wall opened. Inside was a full-size baseball bat with 'Nyo 10plex Yanxis' written on it in strange cramped letters, with the Ys upside-down. He reached in and took it out, hefted it experimentally. Nice balance, good and heavy. It was slightly warm. He smiled.

"Do you wish the location of the nearest sportiak ? Or some balls ?"

"No mate. I reckon I know where to find some. I reckon I do."

He stared at the door from which he had been so unceremoniously ejected. "Is there a doorbell for these doors ?" he asked.

"Citizens usually use cebnet," replied the wall. "However, for a non-incorporate such as yourself ... "

The wall bulged slightly beside the door, became a raised roundel with a central pushbutton.

Trev pushed it long and hard, then stepped back, raising his baseball bat.

The door opened, and Greensleeve stood framed in it. A faint frown crossed his soft features.

"I want a word with you mate," said Trev.

Greensleeve stepped out into the corridor.

"What meaningful communication can there be between us ?" he asked.

"This," snarled Trev as he brought the bat down. The little guy had good reactions, though, dodging with surprising speed and grace, swaying back just enough to avoid the blow. He looked shocked, shocked and - excited ? Trev raised the bat again. What was going on here ? The man danced back, seeming unencumbered by his long white dress, ducked under a second blow and touched Trev on the side of the neck.

Something like an electric shock knocked the bat from his hand and left him sprawling on the floor, which immediately grew bands around his wrists and ankles, pinioning him there.

He shook his head, stunned, and began to swear.

Greensleeve came and stood over him.

"That was really rather disappointing," he said. "One forgets just how slow the unmodified form was. Ah well, perhaps we can improve it a little in editing, make it a bit more dramatic."

"Editing ?"

"Oh of course. We already have terabytes of guaranteed data uptake. After all there hasn't been a GIC link 3 violation in over 50 mes."

"You set me up, you fucking bastard."

"You set yourself up. Given your genotype and conditioning I hardly had to do anything at all. That's why it was such a godsend, tracing your cryopod like that. You see, there just aren't many people like you around any more: aggressive people too stupid to be socially useful. They've all made their contribution."

Trev sneered.

"What, fucking community service ?"

"Yes," said Greensleeve, kneeling down. There was a tickling sensation, and Trev's clothes began to liquefy, flowing down off his body despite his frantic struggles, onto the floor into which they sank without trace. He lay there naked and helpless and for the first time was truly, coldly frightened. Please don't let it be rape, he thought. Not that.

"Shh, shh, don't be frightened, it's just clothing nan," said Greensleeve soothingly. "Look, mine is doing it too." As he spoke his robe was dissolving, flowing heavily down his naked, hairless body. Trev gawked in combined horror and relief. Greensleeve had no genitals.

The fear returned full force, mixed with a revulsion even more powerful, as Greensleeve laid his childlike, sexless body down onto Trev's. Trev felt drool gathering in his mouth, felt that he was going to be sick. A wave of pricking, like pins and needles, ran down him where their flesh touched.

For a moment it grew sharper, into the beginnings of real pain. Then it was gone, and instead there was a spreading wave of numbness. He began to feel high, in a relaxed kind of way, like after smoking really strong weed.

"There, see, it's not so bad," whispered Greensleeve.

"What isn't ? " asked Trev. His throat felt thick and clogged, his tongue clumsy. He raised his head a little. From Greensleeve's naked body thousands of little threads or tubes were pushing out, like worms or the tentacles of a sea anemone. They nuzzled against Trev's flesh, probing, entering him.

Strangely he found himself unable to feel horrified or scared. That was odd, wasn't it ?

"Community service," said Greensleeve. "You see after the Genetics Wars we re-engineered ourselves quite drastically. Our bodies can take in nutrition in all sorts of new ways. And quite by accident we found we'd solved a social problem that had been troubling human societies since they became tech: what to do with the untrainable. In your society, you had a violent underclass with no role. We found you one. The violent and stupid serve the community in the most basic way."

"We eat you."

Created with Sseyo Koan PRO/Koan X Platinum for the AWE 64 soundcard. All intellectual rights in these compositions remain the property of Paul Blake.