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This story appears in Keith Brooke's collection Memesis:
A world where islands of rock float on a molten sea, a man whose son flies high while he can only watch, a seaside town held together by the belief of its inhabitants. Eight stories about strange changes and the strangely changed, each with a new afterword by the author of Publishers Weekly starred novels Genetopia and The Accord.

Available from: (Kindle format, $3.44) (Kindle format, £2.18)

The Art of Self-abuse

a short story
by Keith Brooke


I tend to shy away from a lot of the tropes most people associate with science fiction, aliens and time travel being the big two that I've barely touched on. I'm not entirely sure why this should be, although I have a few vague ideas.

In the case of aliens, I think it's something to do with my own reaction to so many fictional aliens: they just seem to be either too like us or too silly to believe. (That might, of course, also be my reaction to real aliens as well as fictional ones, but I haven't had the opportunity to test that yet.) I'll be putting myself to the test soon, though: my next adult novel (after Genetopia, which is due from Pyr in February 2006) will be stuffed to the gills with aliens.

Time travel? It's probably simply that I never really had an idea for a time travel story that grabbed me -- my stories tend to stick to the kind of time that travels forwards at the usual pace. But then, a few years ago, this idea popped up in my mind and it really took hold. Since I wrote it, the story has stayed with me and it's one that readers often mention if they happen to remember a particular one of my stories.

If the magazine Science Fiction Age had survived one more issue this story would have appeared there... As it turned out, the story ended up in Strange Pleasures 2, edited by John Grant and Dave Hutchinson, an anthology series that really deserves more attention than it has had.

The Art of Self-abuse

Where do I end and you begin? We are each an island of consciousness, a self-aware node in the social matrix. Fuzzy boundaries between us, that is all.

It is a question for the philosophers, perhaps. Am I a philosopher, then? Can someone who is incomplete also be a philosopher? I ask too many questions. Like any design flaw, that can easily be put right.

I sit alone, my elbows resting on a Formica table-top, its surface filigreed with fine cracks -- too fine for you to see, I would hazard. Before me: a moulded white polystyrene container, three-quarters filled with dark 'coffee'. I use the term advisedly, with caution -- just as I sip, occasionally, at the beverage. With caution. It is hot, at least.

I chose my table for its view. The street is busy, grimy, the people confrontational and hostile. The mores of the age: in an overcrowded world on the brink of collapse personal space acquires disproportionate significance. You have far worse to concern you, if only you knew.

I sit and stare at the people and the slowly crawling traffic. I know not what I am looking for, but I have every confidence that I will recognise it.

I pick up the cup, my grip carefully controlled. I am powerful. I must be careful.

Fibre optics run from the biode hub in my left forearm to the siliconeural net interwoven into the substance of my brain. It is the best that money will be able to buy. When I am home, my memories -- every thought, every experience and sensation, every fear and emotion -- are automatically offloaded into the community's archives. I've been reloaded seven times, as a result of biological breakdown or accident.

I have eyes, of course: two, just like you. Only better than yours, enhanced for a wider spectrum. I can kick up the sensitivity at night, partially opaque my corneas in bright sunlight. I can pick up the signals from proxies wherever I go -- get a bird's eye view of myself walking down the high street, see round corners before I get there. I could see through your eyes, if I wanted, if you wanted to let me.

That remote camera -- over there, on the edge of that building: you probably only see it as a bird -- is it part of me, then? That mechanical eye that I can access with a brief mental impulse? No? Are the two eyes sitting in sockets at the front of my reinforced skull a part of me? Naturally, you would say yes. But you don't know that these are the second (left) and third (right) replacements. Vat-grown, vision boosted by a biode seeded into the retina of each.

You might have gathered by now that I am suffering quite a severe case of existential angst. I'm down. Blue (I could be, quite literally, if I chose).

The year is 1984. I don't belong here.

It happens a short time later, out in the street.

I walk with my head up. Perhaps it is my manner that unsettles those around me, the smile on my face as I revel in the physicality of this age.

So many people, each with a purpose! So busy, so self-important. As if your day-to-day concerns have the slightest significance.

People bump into me repeatedly as I refuse to partake of the intercourse of the street, the impregnability of personal space. Perhaps you see that I am enjoying myself, perhaps that is why I disturb you.

But then you -- you -- pass by in an open-topped car and everything changes.

You look so comfortable, leaning back in the passenger seat, the breeze pushing collar-length chestnut hair away from your face. At one with your world. At peace. The girl who drives your car clearly adores you -- I can taste it on the air, the pheromones, the sex. I hope you enjoy her. She could almost have been made to be enjoyed, I think.

It is you, I realise. You who gives my existence purpose.

There is a sheet draped across the back of the car. Big letters daubed in black paint on the white. You are publicising something then. That explains the noise of your car, the nasal honking sound it makes that is over and above the normal sound of its engine: your young assistant is making extra noise -- some kind of horn -- to draw attention to you, to make people read the banner draped across your car.

I stare at the letters. Writing. I have practised your script -- I am nothing if not well prepared -- but at this angle, on a moving vehicle, it all looks strange.

Why should 'miners' wish to 'strike' the 'universe'? It puzzles me.

You are gone. I am left with the memory from which to piece together meaning. It is all I have.

The posters explain all. You were not intending to strike the universe, after all. The Socialist Workers' Students' Society is holding a rally at the university to support the striking miners.

The terms puzzle me. A miner is some kind of manual labourer but I do not know what is striking about them and why there should be either a meeting or a race to support them.

Language acquisition is a continuous process for me, even now. I had thought I was doing so well.

I learnt the basics of your language quite easily. The meat-silicon fuck of a brain I have is good for such things. It processes sound and visual information, identifying patterns, constructing the native grammar, analysing the cues and rhythms of speech. At first I faltered, but soon I picked up enough from common terms, gestures and context to fumble my way along. Now, I can process new terms and constructions in real time so that those around me will not spot anything abnormal in my communicative abilities.

My makers made me well. And when I was broken, they made me even better.

They made me with a purpose, of course.

I want you. So badly do I want you.

It seems that you are greatly in demand at the moment. Here, at the university, it appears that you are something of a figurehead.

I should have expected that, of course. If there is trouble you will be at its centre.

I made my way here on foot, a walk of some twenty-five minutes, the route memorised from a two-dimensional map in the city centre. I could have used a bus, a two-tiered vehicle with promotional images on its outer skin that belches smut into the air and provides transport for the poorer sections of your society.

But I would only use such a contraption if I could operate it myself and the driver objected when I broached this possibility. I spared him, despite his invective. I have no wish to draw undue attention to myself, just yet.

Walking is better, in any case. I am strong, I am in control.

And so, too, are you.

They adore you, just as the girl who drove your car adored you. There is a crowd exceeding 200 in number at the rally, waiting to hear you speak, each with an intensity that is almost sexual in nature. Is this rally to be some kind of orgy, perhaps? I have known such things, I think.

As we wait, there is chanting from some parts of the crowd -- mainly those carrying placards bearing the white on red masthead of the Socialist Workers.

The favourites are, "The workers united, will never be defeated" -- sadly lacking in scansion -- and the more heartfelt, "Maggie Maggie Maggie, out out out." After a time, I join in with these chants, sensing the bonding effect of the communal singing.

And now a man with a megaphone talks above the noise, telling us of unity and solidarity, of jackbooted fascist filth, of working class values and capitalist plots. He is a miner, I gather. The rally is for this man and his kind. He seems rather angry. I do not understand.

But you, you are different.

You take the megaphone from the angry miner and you do nothing. Your silence says more than the previous speaker's words. You play it like a musical instrument, stretch the moment so that it feels right, then begins to get uncomfortable, and finally you speak.

"My friends," you say. I like that. Friends. From anyone else it would have sounded cheap. I do not believe that these people are your friends. You probably do not even know a lot of them.

"We are privileged," you continue. "We are spoilt. We can stay here in our ivory towers--" I see neither ivory nor towers "--and forget that the world outside exists. Or we can make use of our position of privilege to fight for a society that is equal and fair.

"Friends." Again, that word, that intimacy! "Here in the coalfields we are at the heart of a class war. I put it to you that if you are not a part of the solution then you are a part of the problem. The time has come to choose sides, to stand shoulder to shoulder with our comrades and fight the fascist oppressors!"

I understand little of what you say, but I feel the power of your words. You want to fight, cause trouble. I should have known.

Afterwards, an unwashed woman rattles a bucket at me. "Support the miners," she says. The bucket is full of coins.

I stare at her. "I want to fight," I say.

She steps back, smiles awkwardly. "The vans are that-a-way," she says before moving on, rattling her bucket.

Squeezed into a mini-van, so tightly-packed someone has to force the doors to close from the outside. Here there is no such thing as personal space. I breathe the odour of your kind, analyse the chemicals. Tobacco, alcohol and other contaminants are mixed in with the smells of stale sweat and shit.

I had hoped to share transport with you. We could have gone in your open-topped car. I would have worked out how to drive the thing quite quickly, I am sure.

Not to worry. I will locate you later. We are all heading to the battleground, I have been assured of that.

The fascist filth stop us at the point where a lane from our road tries to feed onto a larger road that is divided into two opposing streams of traffic.

Our driver argues with them through his open window, but I can see that they are not amenable to persuasion. We are not to be allowed onto the large road. These men, with their car marked POLICE, do not want us to join the battle.

"Do we have weapons?" I ask of the man squashed intimately between me and the window.

He laughs. "Too fucking right," he says. "We should take them right here, eh?"

We find an alternative route, through narrow lanes flanked by untidy stone walls. After a time we stop, abandon the van and walk across the fields.

One of my friends carries a petrol can and another carries a rucksack full of clanking bottles. We could make those into crude firebombs, I think, but that has probably occurred to them already.

Before long I can hear the chanting, the roaring of the crowd, the continual blare of sirens. I walk faster, leaving my new friends behind.

I scramble down a heather-matted bank, the battlefield spread out before me. There is some kind of industrial installation there: towers, buildings and lorries huddled together between heaps of black rubble. The installation is surrounded by high chainlink fence. This site is valuable, I suspect. This must be what they fight over.

Its entrance is shielded by white vans, marked with the same POLICE insignia as the car that had blocked our way earlier. Fanned out around the entrance and the vans is a double line of dark-uniformed men, cowering behind transparent shields.

Gathered nearby are more vans, more policemen, some even on horses. It is like a scene from a medieval battle. Why do they not appear to have any guns, I wonder?

A short way up the main road to the installation there is an angry crowd, the source of most of the noise. They shout and chant, gesturing at the gathered fascist filth, occasionally throwing stones at them.

I feel vaguely disappointed. I had expected far better of you. I think you need some help. And that would allow me to get close to you.

It is easy to forget yourself down here. The crowd surges around me, angry voices clamouring in my ears, rattling around my skull. I am repeatedly pushed and jostled. It is exciting.

Recognising my state of increasing arousal, I block some of my neurochemical pathways, damp down the adrenalin rush.

I stand solid. Those who jostle me now rebound as if from a tree, a statue. I do not yield to these creatures. They have no significance. It is good to be calm.

I look around, calibrating my vision both for breadth of field and pattern recognition. You are the pattern I seek, my friend: the boyish contours of your face, the flowing chestnut hair. I know you are here, you see: I can taste you on the air. Your olfactory signature is written across the smell of the crowd, faint but unique.

I see you. Twenty metres away, no more. You are with the other man who spoke at the rally, the miner. Heads together, trying to hear each other against the din. Hands gesture, point. You are plotting, planning your campaign.

I move towards you, ducking my head as a red-faced man hurls a stone at the ranked shields of the fascist filth. I hesitate, eyeing the man, weighing up cost and benefit. He turns away, hasn't noticed that his missile had passed within centimetres of my impact-resistant skull. I let it pass. Cost and benefit.

I can feel the excitement growing as I approach you. A surge too powerful to resist.

You are still unaware, only metres from me.

The crowd dynamic is changing, the noise more frenzied, the surges and flows redirected. Something is happening, then. I look around and in that moment I see that the filth are advancing now and that you have slipped away into the crowd with your miner friend.

The oppressors, behind their plastic shields, are hollering and whooping at us, trying to intimidate, trying to bolster their own spirits. They must be very scared.

More stones are being directed at them now. A fence post hurled like a javelin flies over my head and strikes a shield, knocking one of the uniformed men off balance.

Firebombs. Someone has filled the bottles with petrol, stuffed the necks with rags and ignited them. They fly through the air almost apologetically, but when they strike the ground they erupt in liquid flame, spreading under the shields, up their plastic surfaces.

There is a concrete post in the ground nearby. A man is pulling at it but it won't shift. I knock him aside with the back of my hand, seize the post and pull. It breaks at ground level -- I am very strong indeed, have I mentioned that? -- and I raise it above my head.

I am getting excited again.

The filth are close now. I am confused. I see your face, even though you are no longer here. I need to break something. Inflict pain. I raise the post high and swing it down.

These shields may deflect stones and firebombs, but against more serious weaponry they are useless. One blow knocks it out of your -- no, his -- hands. The second blow... well, the second time, he has nothing to protect him, does he?

It was a mistake. Stupid. I forgot my purpose, why I am here. I became too excited. Such flaws should have been designed out of me long ago.

I allowed them to beat me when they got me to a cell. I deserved it for my stupidity. I still deserve it, for their beating did not hurt -- I simply ignored the pain. My body repairs itself as I fill endless hours in my cell, sometimes alone, sometimes shared with other combatants who have been captured by the fascist filth.

The man in the interview room introduces himself as a doctor. "I have been asked to talk to you, so that I can make a report to the Magistrates' Court," he says. "I need to know a little more about you, Mr Magee." That is the name I have given them: Mr Out Magee. It amuses me, if not them. They think I must be from another country.

I tell him about myself. That entertains me, too. I have nothing to lose, after all.

"I am a killing machine, a vampire come from the far future. I am a genetic hunter-gatherer, exploiting the resources of the pasts to satisfy the genetic famine of my future. We need variety. Adaptability. We need the diversity that is so abundant in the primitive depths of our various pasts."

He humours me. "Do you have no guilt?" he asks. "No sense of responsibility?"

"No," I tell him. "That was left out at some stage. I am blank, without a conscience. It would be surplus to requirements, after all."

And it is meaningless, too. Responsibility for -- to -- what?

He looks at me attentively. He feels superior.

"You are not even my predecessors," I continue, enjoying myself, I think. "You are not my ancestors. In your own pathetic understanding, you are aware of the future as a multiplicity of alternatives, of options, choices to be made. But the arrow of time works in both directions. Just as timelines diverge towards the future -- each branch governed by dichotomy, decision upon decision upon decision -- so they diverge as you look into the past. Our own timeline is there, our own ancestry, written in the histories. But each line, heading back into the past is another dichotomy, another branch. There is a chaotic flowering of alternative pasts, a fractal history.

"The past is a foreign country. Many foreign countries. I am visiting one now."

Still, he looks attentive, sympathetic. Violence is tempting, but would be counter-productive, I suspect.

"You mean nothing to me," I explain to him instead. "You are irrelevant. You are just meat, raw materials for a greater age." I smile now. "I," I tell him, "I am a miner."

"And how long have you felt this way?"

He thinks I am deluded, but I can prove that I am not. If I choose to.

They treat me like a fool, albeit a dangerous fool. It is their mistake that they do not believe me.

There is to be some kind of hearing, a court. For this to happen they must transport me in a van. I have told them that I am strong -- really, very strong -- but they merely humour me. They do not believe that I broke that concrete post with my bare hands, for instance. They should know better.

I sit in the back of the van, my wrists bound together by a metal bracelet device. A policeman sits across from me, eyes never leaving my face. He is one of the ones who beat me upon my arrival.

He looks surprised when I wrench the bracelets apart, the chain between them fracturing with a sharp crack. He probably hasn't seen anyone do that before. I feel no compunction about knocking him unconscious with a back-handed blow.

I brace myself against the side of the van and kick the back door open.

The van is going faster than I had anticipated and I hit the ground in a spinning, flailing heap. Immediately, brakes squeal as the van skids to a halt.

They will blame faulty workmanship, I suspect, for both the bracelets and the door.

I catch myself, clamber to my feet, and run.

I do not have much time here, I suspect. I have hurt two of the fascist filth, perhaps quite badly. Such things do not matter, but they are of concern to the filth, themselves. They probably think I am deranged, that I am a danger to the public. They are right, I suppose, although my derangement is a consequence of my nature and I am only a danger if you obstruct me.

Every one of my actions is defensible, when seen in those terms.

The university is the obvious place to go. You spoke at a rally there, you might be a student or a teacher.

It is growing dark when I get there. The square where you spoke to the crowd is deserted. I should find someone, ask questions. I am familiar enough with this setting not to arouse suspicion.

But there is a reluctance within me, another design flaw, perhaps. I long for my barren future, for a time when something might actually matter to me.

I linger in the shadows, watching as people walk by, sometimes alone, sometimes in boisterous groups. I walk the paths, bordered with shrubbery and trees, leading between concrete buildings, some lit, others in darkness.

You have betrayed yourself. You have written your scent signature on the night air. You have been here recently, must still be nearby.

I am close, my friend, my target, my prey. So close.

A row of lavishly lit windows, smoky within. Music and voices belch into the night with every opening and closing of the doors. Inside, people sit around tables, or stand at counters drinking brown liquid from glass receptacles. Some lean over green-topped tables, striking balls with sticks. Others thrust at brightly lit machines, slapping at them and pulling levers, turning away to exclaim or laugh. They appear to be enjoying themselves. It must be a participatory thing, its meaning and value lost to mere spectators.

You are in there, my friend.

I stand in the darkness and look in, scanning the faces until I see you, standing at a long counter where they sell the drinks. You are laughing and talking. You must be enjoying yourself, too.

I may be short of time, but I know when to be patient. I wait.

I understand now that I've come here to kill you, for whatever reason. I am your nemesis. I will extinguish your life and then be snatched back to my future by those who watch. You do not have long now.

Eventually, you leave, accompanied by two of your companions.

I follow. Your body heat shines strongly in the darkness, a beacon to guide me.

You three head into one of the buildings and I follow. Up a flight of stairs, and then along a corridor lined with red doors. This must be some kind of dormitory building for students, I think.

I follow your trail at a distance.

There is a number on the door. 134. Your signature is all over it. Your companions have gone on along this corridor, but even though I did not see, I know that you have stopped here, that 134 is your room.

I touch the handle, still marginally warmed by your touch.

I enjoy this part.

I ease the handle and it turns. You haven't locked it yet, so soon after your return.

I push it gently before me and walk in to the room.

The gun is unexpected.

I have not seen its like before. It has a compact stock with a long, fat muzzle. That's a silencing device, I realise: fitted to deaden the noise. The gauge of the muzzle is about seven millimetres.

I will probably not feel a thing.

I look from the gun to your face. Your expression is unreadable.

"You've been here before," you tell me.

I stretch my perception of time to its extreme, slow everything down so that I can react as quickly as possible. But there is a limit: my body relies on the firing of neurones, the passing of signals from eye to brain to motor system. Electricity and biochemistry are the fundamentals of my being, as they are of yours.

I see the muscles twitch in your hand, the tightening of your trigger finger. The flight of your bullet is too fast, even for my heightened reactions.

I was right. I did not have much time left in this place.

I walk the streets, trying to orientate myself. It always throws me, I think, the shock of the new. Or rather, the shock of the old.

I let myself be jostled by the crowd, smiling in reply to their curses. I should watch where I am going, they tell me. The physicality of this bustling age is invigorating.

I do not know how long I have been walking through these streets. I have been learning your social syntax, letting the rules of your world soak into my consciousness.

I am looking for something, I know. I have been sent here with a purpose.

It will become apparent. Eventually my reason for being will find me.

I walk. And learn how to be normal.

The year is 1984. I do not belong here.

Information is everything here, in a world at this level of development. They usually call the stage that you are entering the Information Age.

It nearly always comes before the Crash.

I know who you are, now. I have information about you. The name you use is Gary Cromwell and you are the Vice-President of the local Students' Union. Nice touch that: you can abuse the power and spend the Union's funds without any of the responsibility of the presidency. You are a troublemaker, you stir things up. You are a thrill-seeker. You are, in the vernacular, one selfish sonofabitch.

I want you, Gary. You are mine.

Or you will be soon.

You like to drink. You make regular use of the Students' Union Bar.

I watch you there, Gary. It's easy to stand outside and look in. I have the measure of you, my friend. I know you as if you were my own brother.

I follow you to your room. Number 134. Your scent signature is all over this corridor, focused on the door.

I rest my hand on the doorknob -- still warm from your touch. I twist but it does not yield. A little more pressure and the lock pops. I blame the workmanship.

The gun... the gun is unexpected.

Its single black pupil stares at me. You are using a silencer. You are well-prepared.

I will probably not feel a thing.

I look from the gun to your face. Is that compassion in your eyes?

"You've been here before," you tell me.

I stretch my perception of time to its limit, slow everything down so that I can react as quickly as possible.

I see the muscles twitch in your hand, the tightening of your trigger finger. There is a faint puff of smoke from the silenced muzzle, a flash of metal as the bullet emerges.

I am very strong -- have I mentioned that? I am fast, too.

My right hand swings across, swats the bullet from the air. In the same movement I knock the pistol from your hand.

That is not compassion on your face now. It is fear.

I smile. "You should be proud," I tell him. "Honoured by our attentions. You have been chosen, Gary. You are valuable to us. You will be making a contribution to my future. You are the one person from this age who has any significance."

Your attitude puzzles me. That is a flaw, I suspect. One that should have been designed out. The fear was only transient. Now you are angry, defiant.

"That's what you think, is it, my friend?"

I like that: fighting for your life and you still call me 'friend'.

"It is the truth."

"It's your understanding," you say. "It's what they've written into your head."

You handle this situation well. With those few words you reveal that you are not an innocent target, that you actually have some understanding of the situation. With your words you undermine me, make me question my purpose. Sometimes the less obvious weapons are the more powerful.

I step closer to you. Your scent is so strong to my heightened senses. I am getting excited.

"And what is your understanding, friend Gary?"

"You're a toy, an entertainment." Your words disappoint me: I had hoped for more subtlety, a better fight. But... your attitude. Your tone is apologetic. You pity me. You are full of surprises, my friend.

"You've been here before," you tell me again.

I have already suspected as much. I remain silent.

"Twice. Both times I killed you. But you came back. You don't have to do it, though. You could stay here like me. Break out of the system."

"Why would I do that?"

"They're in your head," you say. "Riding in your mind, feeding on your experiences. They have a name for it here. Snuff movies. They want to watch you killing me. You're a living, historical snuff movie, my friend. That's all you are."

"No," I say. "That's not true. You have been chosen. I come from a future where diversity has been squandered. You and your kind will replenish our stock."

"My kind?" you ask. "I'm just like you, except I saw through it all, decided I didn't want to be used any more. I'm your predecessor: an early version of you. I know the hunger you have for meaning: there is meaning here, in this age, when we can make a difference. I know what it's like, my friend: you are me, we're kin. We are each other."

"I don't believe you."

In your eyes: the pity has hardened, become contempt.

"In this age I matter," you say. "You... you're just a tool. You have no significance."

That does it. I am important.

I reach for your neck, a fast, direct movement.

But you, too, are fast. Your right arm swings, deflects my strike.

Surprised, I stagger under my own momentum. You push and I smash into the wall, through the wall. A man screeches, leaping from his bed. I choke on the plaster dust, roll over.

You have gone, of course.

Outside it has started to rain and the dust runs in rivulets down my face.

I heard the sirens, but it was just one more alien noise to me. They had no significance. The flashing blue lights meant nothing to me, either, although I should have sensed the danger.

I resist when they seize me, but I have been weakened, I realise. It is not just rain and wet plaster dust running down my face, it is blood, too.

They are scared of me. They keep me locked up alone in a cell. Whenever I emerge I wear thick metal bracelets around my wrists and ankles that even I cannot break. They call me Mr Out Magee, for some reason.

It is easy to lose track of time here. They have moved me around: I have been in four prisons already. They are trying to disorientate me, I think. Or they do not know how to handle me.

I have spoken to doctors, and in front of public hearings where my supposed crimes have been discussed. They say I have attacked policemen. I argue in my defence that I have scarcely had the opportunity, but given the chance... That amuses me, at least.

I do not think they will let me out of this place -- or places like it -- for some time. They think I am dangerous. The opportunity will arise, I am sure, but they are being very careful.

I wonder about you, Gary, my friend. About your words. You clearly believed them.

Perhaps it is true that I have been misled. Perhaps I was sent to punish you, Gary.

Your strength and speed of reaction surprised me, you see. It makes me think that perhaps there is an element of truth in your words: that you, too, are not of this time, this place. Are you one of us, Gary? Are you some kind of renegade? Are you, as you claim, a rogue version of me? Is that why I must kill you?

That changes nothing. If what you say is true I am a killing machine, tracking down one of my kind gone rogue. Does that knowledge change me in any way? I think not: my mission is within me, it is central to my being. I do not possess the design flaw that would allow me to deviate: I have been made too well this time.

You couldn't resist, could you, Gary? You had to come and make sure that I have been secured.

Have you come merely to gloat? Or, perhaps, have you come to kill me again, fearful that I might still escape and track you down?

Foolish of you, Gary, my friend, my brother.

I was expecting another doctor, another investigator of psychopathy.

We are in the special interview room. I am bound up in a wire-reinforced straitjacket, tied by tethers to the padded bench where I have been forced to sit.

You stand across the room from me and study my features. Is that pity again, in your eyes, or contempt?

"You'll be here a long, long time, my friend," you tell me. "No more stalking innocent people. No more beating policemen with concrete blocks. You could help yourself by talking about it. Let us inside your mind."

I have been preparing for this moment. I am strong, you see. Very strong.

They know that, of course. Hence the reinforced straitjacket, the constraints.

You think that I am being sullen, refusing to talk.

But no, if you observe closely, you will see the workings of the muscles in my jaw. I have to swallow the blood so that you do not guess my plan.

I watch you, as you pace the room. I gauge the distances, the angles, the required trajectory. I will only get one chance.

I curl my tongue, forming a rough cylinder. I position the tooth carefully and take a deep breath.

I spit.

I am very strong -- did I mention that?

You are looking right at me and my aim is good. The tooth hits you in the right eye. There is a popping sound, a spurt of clear liquid. Then a duller crack as the tooth emerges from the back of your head and embeds itself in the wall.

You weren't expecting that.

I do not think they will let me out of this place -- or places like it -- for some time. They know how dangerous I am, even if they do not truly understand my nature.

I think that I have been abandoned here, in this age. In vain, I wait for them to snatch me back to my future but the summons never comes. I think I must have broken the rules somehow.

I must resign myself to my fate. I will die here of old age.

It is 2012 and I have finally come to realise that I belong here as much as I will ever belong anywhere.

Which is ironic, as I do not have long left. Your Information Age was not a long one. Your Crash will probably not take long, either. Your world is warming and your seas are dying and you were too selfish and short-sighted to do anything about it. You deserve your fate.

A fate I share: soon I will die from the disease of your age. I have cancer. A primary in the oesophagus, with secondaries in the liver, lymphatic system and large bowel.

It will be a messy way to die.

I do not have long now.

It always throws me, I think, the shock of the new. Or rather, the shock of the old.

I am walking through some kind of shanty town, an endless sprawl of lean-tos and shacks, protected from an angry ocean by a barrier of bulldozed earth. Dogs bark and children cry and I tip my face up to the violent sky, let the invigorating rain run down my features. I feel released and I don't know why.

I do not know how long I have been walking like this. I have been learning the rules of your world, acclimatising.

I am looking for something, I know. I have been sent here with a purpose.

It will become apparent. Eventually my reason for being will find me.

I walk. And learn how to be normal.

The year is 2024. I do not belong here.

© Keith Brooke 2003, 2005.
This story was first published in Strange Pleasures 2, edited by John Grant and Dave Hutchinson (Wildside Press) and is reprinted in the author's collection Memesis (infinity plus ebooks).

Memesis is available from: (Kindle format, $3.44) (Kindle format, £2.18)

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