by David Barber
Debrief #7 : Subject, Anna F
She remembered her father threatening her with a gun.
He was standing guard over an aid shipment—this was somewhere on the south coast of England and Anna was still a child fascinated by the ant-trail winding from ship to warehouse, a line of ex-salesmen, middle-aged teachers and erstwhile office workers bent under sacks of grain.
A gift from the people of India, each bag said. Snow flakes whirled in the wind.
And she remembered the whispered arguments between her mother and father before he signed up for the proxy militia. It must have been a hard thing for such a gentle man to do. By then it didn’t earn a ticket out, just the approximate safety of an enclave, plus food stamps and a place where your family wouldn’t freeze.
Move on, her father had warned. The American accent made her grin; he was playing a game with her.
Then stone-faced, he turns his rifle towards the thin child, muffed against the cold. How could the proxy know that in his jacket pocket was a treasured 3D of Anna, joyous in the snow, taken before it dawned that the snow wasn’t ever going away.
* * *
In the past, soldiers got shot or blown-up. Now proxy warriors are run from virtualities in Fort Hood or Chongqing or who knows where.
Remoting technology was new and difficult, but the military learned to hire local bodies then fill them with their own professionals. Not as good as the real thing— reflexes don’t travel— but skills and experience do, and the soldiers got to sleep in their own beds at night, whether the proxy tripped a roadside or not.
* * *
Debrief #8 : Subject, Anna F
She speaks about what she knows; growing up in the years after Arctic meltwater shut down the North Atlantic conveyor and the British Isles froze.
It must have been the UN overseeing the evacuations, using gloved civilians, but she only remembers armed and shabby men, somebody’s father, somebody’s husband, earning tickets for their families on overcrowded ships bound for Australia.
In those days, proxies strapped on big electronic helmets, like pilots, but still held their weapons with familiar ease, their eyes constantly searching.
Did bitterness creep into Anna’s voice there? Those absent professionals oversaw Britain’s south coast becoming a vast refugee camp. In the end, where could fifty million hungry vagrants go?
A Yank shrink is quizzing Anna about her daughter’s childhood. They still don’t understand how Kate does her trick. Now they think it might have something to do with her past. Her upbringing, he calls it.
Anna has to keep explaining things; like how to the Brits’ surprise, it turned out nobody liked them much.
The Yank leans back in his seat. Go on.
She talked to her father about it, trying to understand. He shook his head. All our historical chickens coming home to roost, which she didn’t understand; and payback time, which she did. English servants were popular in India for a while, but North America had its own problems with the freeze, though at least they could go west. And there were rumours about the pom-camps in Australia. Soon there wasn’t even a choice.
The shrink seems vague about all this. But it happened a generation ago and in a third-world country.
She tries to explain about the gangs.
Not everyone approved of proxies, or of being a glove. Some raised militias to protect their neighbourhoods, and these gradually turned into gangs. There were bombs and shootings, mobs and factions.
We weren’t good at it in the beginning, Anna shrugs. We called the new warlords, bosses. They had only ever watched such things on the BBC, but they soon learned.
About your father, prompts the shrink.
One day her father didn’t come home. It took a lot of queuing to find out why. It wasn’t a secret, just that no one cared. Some skirmish with Scottish refugees in the no-go zone north of London. His contract guaranteed a place for his widow in a UN camp.
Her mother was too civilised, too polite for that life. She gradually stopped talking, stopped trying, just turned her face to the wall. Anna was eleven. She would never forgive her mother for leaving her alone.
The shrink busies himself with his pad.
Even in the south of England, summers were so cold that cereals would not grow. But root vegetables endured and you learnt things about your fingers digging turnips from ice-hard ground. Worse things would happen to her in the camps.
* * *
Decades later, UN proxies still stood guard as ships unloaded their cargos of handouts. By then, the situation had become an open sore with no prospect of healing.
Around that time, as silverlace replaced the old technology, the first proxy civilians arrived, from the UN aid-agencies, or WHO doctors chasing new-strain TB.
But London was a vast frozen trove of treasures trapped by the freeze, visited now in proxy by concerned academics. Later, it was proxy collectors from places where the sun still gleamed on their wealth, greedy for the arctic cellars of London’s museums; the ice-bound libraries of Oxford.
Finally it was the proxy tourists.
* * *
Debrief #12 : Subject, Anna F
Kate is her daughter, born when Anna was fourteen, and they could be mistaken for sisters. But Anna’s own child was never abandoned, and Kate carries a blade and a look that defies anyone to take it from her.
Anna is tempted to ask this Yank what happened out in the world. How the Americans coped. But what would be the point? You hunkered down winterlong, eking your way through the dark months, tumbling the dead into lime-pits dug quickly when the ground thawed.
She remembered the first tourists. Proxies only wore a silverlace now. Under a hat or a wig, anyone could be a wealthy Brazilian, a bureaucrat from the old EU, or a thrill-seeker from California.
Once, Anna witnessed huge twin-rotor helicopters lofting Stonehenge, monolith by monolith away into snow-filled skies.
* * *
“Jesus Cristo,” Anna hears the Brazilian in the back of the van complain. “Jus’ look at my prox,” He holds out a pipe-stem arm. “An’ I pay top dollar for this?”
His Yank companion gloved a tall, fine-boned black man with big wiry hair. He is rattling the bolt on a fifty year old Kalashnikov. “You got a gun. You don’t need to arm wrestle.”
The vans spluttered along on sour fuel oil, gifted from countries rich enough to spurn it. They skidded along what was once the M20 from Folkestone to London, trailing plumes of sulphurous smoke, like the days when the skies were chalked by jets. The road surface was feet below the ice, but at least it was straight and level.
“An’ he stink.”
Who else but the hungry and the desperate would proxy, Anna wanted to shout. And no one washes much when water freezes. Kate’s knuckles whiten on the wheel as she wrenches them out of a skid. Who knows what her daughter is thinking.
Why bring a kid along? tourists ask. Anna was a mother by the age Kate is now. Do they expect Anna to leave her child alone in the camps?
None of these eager tourists ever ask why they waste time driving to London instead of using gloves already in the city. They are getting close to the ambush. At Dartford, near the old toll-booths for the bridge that still arches across the Thames, the convoy slides to a halt in a hail of sling-stones that clatter off the windscreen mesh. Tourists are warned about the refugee gangs: Jocks; Taffs; Brums. It’s all part of the experience they’re paying for. There is a scatter of shots, but the tourists are told the gangs have precious few bullets to waste.
Even before the trucks are circled up, the proxies are out into the snow with a whoop, blazing away at elusive figures, shattering windows, writing pockmarks across walls. There is the distinctive donk of rounds striking the metal of abandoned cars beneath the banked snow.
Anna crouches down next to her daughter in the safest place, behind an engine block. The Brazilian slides in beside them, changes magazines and then pops up again. Cartridge cases rain down.
“Got one maybe!” he yells, stink forgotten; his gaunt frame no hindrance to firing a Kalashnikov after all.
The attackers are Brums. Anna has a kind of deal with the Brums. Perhaps they lose one or two, perhaps not; Anna has seen it faked before. In return, liberated food aid will be left at Dartford.
A return shot wings off metal and Anna warns him to keep his head down.
“Não há problema!” he grins. “Is corporate deal. Lose one, get one free. Don’t let dead spoil your fun.” He bangs away at everything.
This is why civilised nations ban proxies within their own borders. You learn not to care; just wake up back home the instant a lucky shot pulls off your glove.
Time to rev up the engines, to coax their excited warriors back on board, out of the tear-freezing wind, emptying their magazines as they head for one of the safe-truce crossings over the frozen Thames.
* * *
Debrief #15 : Subject, Anna F
There’s more and more black market stuff, Anna says. Sometimes it’s men wanting to glove up as women, or Ripper deals, loosing a proxy with a knife into the camps at night. Anna insists she would have nothing to do with all that.
She also maintained she would never be a proxy herself, though Kate and Zac just shrugged. Choose safe deals, they said. Pas problem. Zac is her man.
The Yank waits.
It’s complicated, she says. She should find somebody else. She keeps telling herself this, but she encouraged Zac because he was easy going and not frightened of her daughter.
Kate can be defensive. Gets angry quick. People don’t mess with Kate. There were lots like Zac in the camps, she adds. Taking each day as it came. Exactly what irritated her now.
Tell me more about Kate, persisted the Yank. How she got on with Zac.
Anna doesn’t like talking about Kate, about how damaged she was.
Instead she lets something slip. The deals she kept quiet about. How all you needed were contacts, a satellite link and a silverlace
* * *
She leads someone who isn’t her daughter through the dark basements of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, watching her excitedly waving a torch over old paintings. From the way Kate walks, she guesses the proxy’s a woman.
“A Raphael!” Kate cries, snatching up a small picture of a woman and a baby. “The Madonna of the Pinks!”
She winds the faltering torch back to life. “Wait, there’s black mould on it.”
“Yeh, well.” Zac props the shotgun casually on his shoulder; arrogant and careless. “They thought it would all go back the way it was. Storing stuff down here was just temporary. Lucky for you, eh?”
Anna wonders what her father would have made of Zac. But knows he would have said something wise and useless. You knew Zac was weak; that’s why you chose him; so you could make all the decisions. She wonders what her father would think of his daughter now. She wanted to explain none of what happened was her fault. She wanted him to know he had done his best for her, even if it wasn’t enough. And that she missed him.
“I had qualms about this deal,” insists Kate, in the voice of an educated Yank. “But it would be immoral to leave this canvas here to rot.”
This was how it went. The client picked out a painting like a child in a sweetshop, and Anna got paid to smuggle it to the coast. This was her life. She had her deals, a place in an enclave, and Kate was safe.
Then one day the strange thing happened.
* * *
Data travels both ways between the two silverlaces. One link so the proxy can inhabit the glove, the other, kinaesthesic and sensory feedback from the glove’s silverlace. Without it, remoting doesn’t work.
* * *
The youth is wearing a labcoat over a howlin’ at the moon T-shirt. The audio is turned off but the video cycles endlessly. He has his feet on the desk, intent on some virtual game.
This glove is meaty and big. It actually has a belly. Now Kate knows what it feels like being a man. She tells herself this can’t happen. You get switched off like a bulb and only light up again when the proxy drops the glove. Yet there she was, wearing him instead.
The youth looks up, surprised by a client standing at the desk, toying with a pencil. “Hey, you dead out? I didn’t hear the alarm.”
Around them, comatose figures lie on beds, each crowned with silverlace.
“Should I call tech support?” The youth reaches for a phone.
All it takes is a sharp pencil. There’s a lot of blood, a lot of gargling and thrashing about. She stands back and waits for things to quieten down.
Outside, the sun is blinding. And the heat. How do people live in this heat? In a shop, she buys candy, surprised by her deep voice. Later, when she takes off the glove, her mother is leaning over her, the old scar livid on her face.
Don’t do it again, Anna pleads, after they’ve talked it through.
Zac laughs it all off as a tech fault. Not possible, he insists, the glove taking over the proxy, but Anna thinks a weak flabby mind met a hard, hungry one. When Kate turns on Zac, he just backs away, holding up his hands in surrender. But he’s right about one thing; however she managed it, they can’t touch her.
Mostly, she walks her proxies round Yank cities. And round Melbourne once, which is in Australia. Even somewhere they don’t speak English. She spends the money in their pockets on sweets, though their flabby bodies don’t need it and it does her no good back home.
They just can’t figure out how to exploit the trick. It ends whenever the system times out; though usually Kate gets bored with sightseeing and pulls off the silverlace first.
But this time when she drops the glove, figures emerge from the shadows.
“Welcome back, girlie.”
* * *
The one with ginger stubble considers his gun. “No need for this, because you’re going to join us.”
Anna knows men like these. Politicals, who endlessly bomb and shoot each other back and forth across the camps. They talk endlessly too. How do they ever manage the time to kill anyone? They argue whether Kate’s trick could open doors, liberate more guns, more semtex for the Struggle.
Anna catches the shifty look on Zac’s face and realises they weren’t careless or unlucky. Zac had found a way to cash in.
Whose fault was it? demands Ginger finally. Which gradually silences everyone. Who left us to rot like this? Wasn’t it the Yanks? Wasn’t it the Euros?
His plan couldn’t be simpler or more stupid. Start with the Yanks, who all have guns. And cars. Kill as many bystanders as you can before they drop the glove; do it again and again. Before long they start shooting innocents in mistake for rogue proxies. The whole deal will collapse. Without gloves, they’ll have to get their hands dirty again. See how that works out.
“And what the girl can do, she can teach us to do.”
Casually, he knuckles the livid scar on Anna’s face, always keeping his gaze on her daughter. “Isn’t that right, girlie?”
* * *
Debrief #38 : Subject, Katherine (Kate) F
Eventually, in Houston, they grab her.
These men in blue with dark sweat-stains under their arms are police, not proxies. They have badges, and belts heavy with guns and kit.
No, she screams, thrashing at the outrage of their hands on her, but can’t stop them fastening her wrists.
Keeping apart is a man wearing a suit, even in this heat. “Stand him up,” he orders. “And for Christ’s sake, put the guns away.”
He thrusts his 3D badge into her face and she twists and screams again. She would cut him, she would bite him if she could.
“I represent the US government. You’ve broken Federal statutes on Proxy Use.”
“Keep his head still,” the man adds, when he realises the glove’s not denying it, just trying to shake off the silverlace.
“Tell us who you are.”
She’s left panting as the rage recedes. She’s a proxy and they can’t touch her.
“Listen. Listen. Whoever you are, you’re a lucky man, because we’re prepared to deal.”
He stares intently into her glove’s eyes. Does he think he can glimpse her in there?
“We followed the trail; we know you’re a Brit. We’ll get you eventually. Or we can come to an arrangement. My government wants to know how you do this.”
She spits at him.
He gives her a fierce grin and wipes his face, but doesn’t hit her. “Immunity, even if you did kill all those people. Imagine that. And we’ll keep you safe.”
In a way Kate can’t put her finger on, he reminds her of somebody.
* * *
An extraction is not difficult, not if you have armed proxies and helicopters and have been told exactly where to go. And it’s only a third-world country anyway.
* * *
Debrief #22 : Subject, Anna F
They’re still testing Kate.
We don’t talk about it in these interviews, but we all know they’ll never let her go. But they keep her healthy; she’s comfortable and safe, which is all I’ve ever wanted for her. You Yanks don’t realise you freed us both from prison.
A woman is asking the questions this time, wanting to know more about Kate’s formative years. Antisocial behaviours often get handed down within families, she says.
I can’t do Kate’s trick, but I’m kept around to remind her to cooperate. They don’t realise yet, but Kate can’t be manipulated like that. Meanwhile, I have somewhere warm to stay and a Federal handout. Does that sound bitter?
America has no laws against hiring proxies out-of-country so I’m saving up. I think about what will happen when I locate Zac, the look on his face. I imagine finding some other men from the camps. You don’t even need a knife, a sharp pencil will do. I imagine what my father, the history teacher would say.
Who knows where the chickens come home to roost, or how much payback really costs?