Monday, 19 April 2021

Due Time by Jonathan Last


Due Time

by Jonathan Last

Mitchell Adams chewed his Imitation Wheat Flakes while staring out at the never-ending neon and chrome skyline. It didn’t work. He could still see the reflection of the gestation countdown grid in the dirty window. The bloody thing took up the entire kitchen wall; Mitchell hadn’t been able to enjoy a peaceful breakfast in months – more than nine months, as a matter of fact. He squeezed his eyes shut and told himself that tomorrow he would finally rip it down. Because today would be the day, it had to be. The alternative didn’t bear thinking about.

The grid cost ten weeks’ wages and had dominated the couple’s attention since the day it had been installed, back when they were still trying to get pregnant. Going out was no escape, thanks to the live feed app on their Z-12s. No doubt this was all good preparation for life with a demanding child, Mitchell mused ruefully.

When he opened his eyes and turned away from the window, his attention was drawn – as it always was, as it was supposed to be – to the grid’s countdown display. The number had changed, of course. The data it pulled in had so many variables that the display was in a continual state of flux. Mitchell couldn’t remember all of the salesbot’s boasts, but the device’s main selling point was that it accessed the latest birth and death statistics on national, local and micro-local levels and was attuned to even the most minor shift in atmospheric pressure. It then fed all of this information, and more, into one central report.

Currently that report read 0d-15h-46m-43s.

Mitchell turned his left hand over and glanced at his palm-grafted Z-12. The time was 07:17 now, so that would make delivery… just after eleven o’clock, nearly midnight. Tight. Too tight. This time last week it had been predicting that the baby would come today with several hours to spare; since then, it had been edging closer to tomorrow, closer to disaster, every time they checked it.

Come on, you – let’s get this over with.’

Her voice was croaky; Mitchell looked up as his wife entered the tiny room. She hadn’t slept well again. Sympathy rose through Mitchell, which turned into amusement when he saw the glint in her eye.

What?’ he smiled innocently.

Let’s hear it.’ Kaylee waddled through the doorway, one hand on her bump as usual.

Let me see,’ he said slowly, getting up.

She was waiting, arms crossed.

I’m thinking…’

She arched her eyebrows.


She frowned. ‘A swan?’

Yes,’ he said, moving one arm around her waist and the other across her stomach, ‘because you’re elegant and dignified, but with—’

But with a plump middle that I hide well.’

Yes.’ She turned her head up and rewarded him with a kiss.

Good morning.’

And to you.’

He pulled away, and when he was out of range, couldn’t resist adding, ‘I was going to say “hippo” but changed my mind.’

Kaylee gasped and reached out to pinch him, and they both laughed as she only snapped air.

What’s this – crab?’

Mitchell realised his mistake in the microsecond before they both felt their left hands buzz.

Oh, sweetheart,’ Kay said as she turned hers over to find out the impact of her husband’s carelessness on her Z-12.


I can’t be worrying, on this of all days.’

I know, I’m sorry, it was an accident.’ Mitchell turned his own hand over. One of the twelve circles, the one with the crab symbol, now displayed a 1. He sat down at the breakfast bar again but found that he had lost his appetite. ‘It was only one mention, surely you’ll be alright to—’

Now I have to worry about it, and I have to re-organise my mentioning plan for the day, and you know I’ve got baby brain.’

Yes, I know. Please, kitten, come here.’ She stepped forward and allowed him to cuddle her. ‘It’ll all be over soon.’


Yes, today.’ He stroked her hair.

Then she jerked away and stiffened.

Dread covered Mitchell like a sheet of ice. She must have seen the gestation grid change to an even more pessimistic report. Now she was upset and he’d have to stay and console her and he would be late for work. It didn’t matter how often he reminded Kay that it was only predicting when their child would be born, despite all the data it pulled in.

But when she stepped back, it was joy he saw in her face.

Look.’ She pointed.

Mitchell turned.


It’s jumped,’ he said with a glimmer of hope. ‘It’s jumped closer, further into today.’

Do you think,’ Kaylee turned to him, ‘do you think we’ll be okay? That our little two-X-chrome will be born on time?’

Mitchell stared at the pulsating mass of lines and numbers, the multi-coloured highway that was by now burned onto the inside of his eyelids.

I think there’s a good chance,’ he said evenly. Then, with a smile, ‘And I told you, it’s a Y-X-chrome. Not,’ he added quickly, ‘that I have any preference either way.’

Nor, of course, do I,’ agreed Kay. They were both speaking with their palms turned up.

Kay arched her eyes at her husband, then she rolled up her sleeve so the grid could take her daily DNA reading, giving it something else to add to its myriad of information.

The Adams lived on the seventy-second floor of a creaking mecca-block in Sector SW16, South London. Towering though it was, their block was not tall enough to have its own rooftop bullet bus stop, which meant that every day Mitchell had to travel all seventy-two storeys down in the packed glass lift, walk a hundred yards to the nearest stop, and then travel up another eighty floors to catch his bus.

The ‘spectacular views’ that the government had promised when it unveiled its plans for the BulBus network had ceased to take Mitchell’s breath away during the five years he’d been using it. And yes, the buses were quick, the air highways turning what used to take an hour into a mere fifteen minutes. But Mitchell hadn’t wanted to speed up his commute. He enjoyed the travel time: it was time to himself, the chance to quietly read, to think. Any snippets of isolation would become even more cherished when the kid came along – according to Bryant at work, who had twins.

And the commute was pretty much the only time Mitchell managed to forget his life’s other great responsibility, the one he’d been cursed with at birth, he and every other soul. Although he should have realised that on today of all days that was going to be impossible.

Mitchell squeezed onto the 133A1 and wedged himself between a fat woman wearing a touch-screen dress and a businessman in a triple-breasted suit. He tapped his Z-12 to load up his book, a historical mystery, flicked to close the ads – and frowned. One ad would not go away; it was going to make him watch it. He glanced up; the bus’s vid screens were all showing the same footage, as were any of the other passengers’ Z-12s that he could see.

The ad shouted in bold yellow letters: HAPPY GOLDEN BALANCISM DAY!

Mitchell scowled.

He had learned to live with the Balancism way of life; it was all he’d ever known, after all, and most of the time he managed to not think about it too much. He’d done okay out of it, too: dull but steady job, lower-middle-, potentially middle-middle-class lifestyle.

But Balancism’s intrusions into day-to-day life were definitely a pain, not least maintaining the twenty-four-hour balance ratio. Like this morning – he knew that his animal game with Kaylee risked them mentioning out loud one of twelve Signs that were associated with animals, but he had started it anyway. Maybe he did it because of the danger, as an act of defiance. But now he had got Kay worried, and that wasn’t good in her condition. If they really were going to have a Piscean baby of whichever sex (pre-natal scans were banned because they could be used to influence the balance) then sometime today they would be in a hospital, answering questions from staff, under stress, emotional. It would be hard to watch what they said, to keep from mentioning any of the Signs more often than the others.

The ad on his palm Z-12 was now telling the history of Balancism – even though everyone had had it drummed into them as soon as they’d learned to talk, the government never missed an opportunity to go on about it all over again. Overpopulation on an unmanageable scale had led to more and more variations of race, creed, gender and lifestyle. This meant more perspectives, more opinions, and more things about which people could fight about. After the conflict had reached its catastrophic, global apex, Balancism rose from the ashes. It recognised the twelve core types of person, those that had once been known as the Signs of the Zodiac, which superseded all other classifications – its labels were found to be the ones least likely to cause offence when used to describe an individual or group. All other ways of classifying people were outlawed. The history of persecution was finally over, and maintaining a harmonious balance of each Sign in the population was essential – hence the gestation countdown grids, along with fatality countdown grids – as was making sure that each Sign was spoken out loud or written down an equal number of times by every living person each day – hence Kaylee’s anxiety this morning.

The phrase ‘history of persecution’ that the ad used made Mitchell recall the time when once, during his lunch half-hour, he had come across a group of protestors who were threatening to start World War IV if their demands weren’t met. The Balance Police swooped in with their usual brutal efficiency, but Mitchell had got the gist of the unrest. Some Capricorns wanted the government to acknowledgement how their birth-period once overlapped with an old religious festival at the end of the Gregorian calendar, known as ‘Christmas’. Apparently, back then those born within the earliest days of the Capricorn cycle would receive fewer born-day gifts than other Signs, owing to the fact that their gifts were often combined with those given as part of the religious festival. So the group were after ‘proportional compensation’ for this past oppression.

Mitchell glanced up from his Z-12. They were passing over the Great Monument, down there on the bank of the Thames River. Mitchell barely noticed the grand tribute to Balancism usually, but today it stood out. The enormous concrete disc had had its twelve equal-sized segments painted different colours to mark fifty years of Balancism. Mitchell smirked as he remembered the news report last night that had detailed the national dissatisfaction with the choice of colours. Each of the twelve groups had something to complain about. The Leos were adamant that the Geminis’ yellow was a more fitting shade for their Sign; the Cancers claimed that their purple absorbed sunlight whereas the lighter colours reflected it, making them seem less important. Everyone thought that they were being marginalised and treated unfairly.

Mitchell was aware of a phase that people used to use: ‘life’s not fair’. Maybe that passed muster way back when, but in today’s world such an idea was scandalous. Everything was now completely fair, even and equal – perfectly balanced. The government had the statistics to prove it.

Mitchell’s palm buzzed. He immediately knew what the message would be about.

Due time’s gone up again! Can’t stop checking every two seconds!!

Mitchell sighed. Was the stress that the contraption caused worth its so-called reassurances? It didn’t actually influence when their child would be born, and in fact its predictions could very well be completely arbitrary. Mitchell had heard rumours that, pre-Balancism, doctors used to not only estimate the due time but were authorised to medically induce a child if they saw fit! But this was before there were population stats displayed on the side of every building. And it was definitely before the unavoidable adverts that bellowed things like London needs Pieces, do your duty! and Too many Aries, keep the balance! The Signs went in and out of favour but the ads’ imagery was consistent. Depicted was either a well-to-do family with a new-born being showered with gifts by well-wishers, or a family dressed in rags being cast out of their home, the Balance Police pursuing them with their electro-clubs.

Mitchell turned back to his palm and tapped out his return message. Try not to worry. Then, with a grimace, he added, Balance will be.

After a pause, he received a one-word reply: Chicken.

Mitchell smiled wanly, then replied: No – sheep.

Mitchell squeezed off the BulBus onto the roof of the Ministry of Balance headquarters. It was London’s most lauded building: an equal-sided dodecagon, made entirely of steel-glass to honour the transparent truth of Balancism. The Ministry proudly declared itself to be the most balanced place in the whole country: not only in terms of employing an equal spread of Signs, but with every other conceivable facet, no matter how minor. The air temperature was consistent; the desks were all identical; even the number of pieces of toilet paper in each roll in each cubicle of each bathroom was monitored and kept the same.

Mitchell’s department, According Representation, was buried deep within that grandiose exterior. He entered the lift, nodding hellos to colleagues, and descended eighty-seven floors to five below street level in less than a minute. The doors opened and he stepped out into the first of several bare-walled corridors, plodding his way along and nodding further hellos as he went.

Halfway up the final corridor he was met with his first friendly face.

Alright, Mitch,’ said Bryant. He was carrying two cups of near-coffee and handed one over.

Cheers, mate.’

Each man took a sip with his right hand. Mitchell scratched his hairline with his other hand, palm out toward Bryant. His friend adjusted his collar, exposing his own palm to Mitch in return. The gestures were well-rehearsed and furtive, too brief to draw any attention but lingering long enough for both to see what the other had to show him.

Mitchell nodded to himself, then asked, ‘How’s it going?’

Not bad. Bit of a sore head.’

Must be all that over-analysing you do – classic Virgo.’

Ha, more like I was too stubborn and wouldn’t refuse a drink – like a Taurus, you could say.’

Diplomatic as ever – anyone would think you were a Libra.’

Well, my advice to you, my friend, is to have a Sagittarian’s positive outlook. Especially regarding your expected bundle of joy.’ Bryant paused, frowned. ‘I’m sure it will be before midnight, mate.’

Mitchell looked at him. ‘Thanks, mate. If not, you can have the rest of my canteen tokens.’

They won’t—’

They will, mate. You know they will.’

Bryant nodded. ‘Balance will be,’ he said, one eyebrow raised.

But Mitchell offered only a weak smile by way of reply. Then he patted his friend on the arm and resumed the walk to his cubicle. Bryant moved on towards the non-fiction department. Both examined their palms as they went.

Mitchell didn’t find his job very fulfilling, but it was possible to lose himself in the work. He’d always liked reading, and now he did it for a living, sometimes famous pieces – and what’s more, he got to edit them.

Today he leaned over his screen and resumed working on a novel from the popular early 21st century conspiracy thriller genre, this one involving corruption in a sport called ‘football’. The main character spent the story straining to make sense of events around him, so naturally Mitchell described him as Scorpioian. But not too often, since this necessitated inserting the same number of references to each of the other eleven Signs across more than sixty thousand words. Keeping track could be a nightmare.

Figuring out how to amend pre-Balancism texts in ways that read naturally wasn’t easy and Mitchell needed to concentrate. Interruptions from Kay didn’t help, and today his Z-12 was buzzing like crazy. She was still obsessed with the due time; Mitchell replied as politely but bluntly as he could throughout the day between switching sentences about loyalty to be about devoted Leos and changing the insult ‘two-faced’ to ‘like a Gemini’.

Then, just as he was logging off, Kaylee video called him.

It’s being a difficult bugger.’ The doctor looked up at them and grinned. ‘Whichever chromosomes it has.’

Kay and Mitchell, she in a hospital gown on a gurney, he holding her hand, both smiled weakly.

‘Doesn’t want to do what it’s told – like an Aries, one might say.’ The man glanced at his left palm while pretending to adjust a dial next to the bed.

‘Doctor,’ Kay wheezed. ‘The last thing we want is for the baby to be an—to be one of those.’

‘Ah yes, I see.’ The doctor consulted his Z-12 again. ‘It’s eleven thirty-seven. I would advise you to prepare for the worst.’

‘Is there any way—can’t you make sure that—’

‘What my wife means,’ (Mitchell shot her a severe look) ‘is that perhaps she could be made more comfortable to help balance take its course?’

The cold expression that had consumed the doctor’s face melted back to a jovial mask. ‘Certainly. A midwife will be right with you.’

The doctor left to attend to another patient. Now alone, Kaylee returned Mitchell’s harsh look.

What?’ he said. ‘You want to get us thrown in jail?’

‘You should have bribed him. Everyone knows they can still induce. I read on MumsChat that—oh, oh!’

‘Shh, duckling,’ Mitchell whispered while Kaylee rode the contraction, gripping her husband tightly.

‘Mitchell… what if it is too late? What will happen to us?’

Mitchell’s face hardened. ‘I don’t know. But we’ll be fine. Whatever happens, I promise you, we will be fine.’

My loyal Labrador.’

Shh, panda.’ He rubbed her forehead and kissed her hand.

Feels—more intense this time—I think—Mitchell, I think this is it!’

Mitchell let go of her and spun around, just as the doctor and two midwives burst in.

Mitchell let the professionals work, his hand never leaving Kay’s. Every few seconds his eyes shifted to his Z-12.


The contractions came; the midwives told Kaylee to push.


The midwives announced that baby had entered the birthing canal.


More contractions, more pushing.


The midwives told them that baby was crowning.


But baby just didn’t want to come out.

In his mind’s eye, Mitchell saw the dreaded advertisement. The man and the woman being forced out were he and Kaylee: she cradled a bawling new-born while he tried to shield them from the Balance Police’s weapons and the missiles being thrown by their friends and neighbours.


Maybe they could run. Maybe, if they got to the roof, jumped in a helicab...


Or he could redress the balance himself – trawl the hospital, find some elderly Aries patient, push a pillow into his face and hold it there...

‘It’s coming. Come on, one big push!’

And Mitchell watched the midwife pull a wriggling purple thing out of Kaylee and before he knew what was happening, he was staring into a screwed-up, angry little face.

A beautiful little face, staring up at him from a bundle in his arms.

He found his wife’s hand again.

‘Congratulations, you have a healthy baby with two X chromosomes.’

Mother and father were overjoyed.

But only for a second.

‘The time!’ Mitchell almost dropped the bundle. ‘What’s the time of birth?’

‘Eleven fifty-eight,’ a midwife told him. ‘A much-needed Pisces child. Well done, Mrs Adams. In the name of Balancism, we thank you.’

The exhausted Kaylee pulled an it-was-nothing face.

‘Happy Golden Balancism Day,’ the other midwife said.

‘Yes,’ laughed Mitchell, preparing to pass the baby to Kay, ‘Happy—’

But something was wrong.

Kaylee cried out. The midwives sprang into action.

What—what is it?’ Mitchell stammered.

‘She’s not done yet.’ The midwife took the now-silent new-born from Mitchell and placed him in a cot.

Kay screamed. This one, it seemed, was not so reluctant to come out.

Mitchell stepped backwards slowly as the midwives worked around him in a blur.

‘Mitchell!’ Kaylee cried, her hand grasping for his.

But her husband was moving further and further away.

When his back touched the door, it was all over.

And silent.

Nothing could be said. But one of the midwives managed, ‘I’m sorry.’

Kaylee wept.

Mitchell exhaled slowly. When he looked up at her, Kaylee was staring at him with dead eyes.

He had shown his heart and his world had changed. The few feet he travelled back had left him a million miles away.

The surviving twin started to cry.

Jonathan Last is the author of the novel The Great Football Conspiracy and the memoir Teaching with Chopsticks: TEFL from the Frontline

BookSpot - Losers in Space by Scott Pixello


BookSpot - Losers in Space by Scott Pixello

Although the humour is a little silly at times, there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and I found this to be a very cosy, enjoyable read. Comparable to the Red Dwarf books, which is no mean feat.

Training astronauts requires a nation’s brightest and best. But what happens when the world has no brightest or best? Just a washed-up pilot, a young computer programmer and a garbage collector? It’s not exactly rocket science.

This is science-fiction but not as we know it.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Code Red


Code Red

by Chris Morton

McCain took a can of freestone peach halves from the bottom drawer of the desk; from deeper inside he extracted an opener and for nothing less than three minutes, wrestled with the can. He had large hands, and like his arms they were covered in dense black hair; his forehead furrowed beneath thick black eyebrows, his spectacles slid forward and a globe of spit formed on the right side of his rather fat red lips.

Damned contraption …”

On the left of the desk’s surface were six blue pencils, neatly sharpened and laying on top of a shallow pile of light brown folders. The center of the desk was smooth, shiny – a shadow of the bumping can stretched and wavered – while on the right was a typewriter, a heavily loaded ashtray and a dark green telephone attached to a set of buzzers.

From outside, busy car horns filtered through a half-opened window. Commuters and evening vendors; the muffled hustle of a city on which the sun had now set.


McCain hit at one of the buzzers.

Ginnie, could you get in here?”

A tall woman entered the room. Gangly, and though not unattractive, she was nowhere near as bewitching as many of these young girls could be.

The can?”

McCain murmured in response and the woman came over to his desk, bending down across him.

Can’t seem to –”

Yes, they can be a pain,” she said. “The trick is to hold it here.”

The can opened.


The woman stepped back. Beneath her a large tartan carpet covered most of the tiled floor – to their left was a whiskey cabinet with ice and server.

Shall I …?”

Much obliged.”

The woman, Ginnie strode over to the said cabinet.

You’ll have one?” McCain asked.

Not for me, thank you all the same.” She turned, a crystal tumbler having magically appeared in her clasp. A good measure of murky spirit – behind her a portrait of Eisenhower hung with a strained smile to match McCain’s own.

You should get home.”

I will, I will. You know how it is. Long day.”

Ginnie placed the tumbler beside the can of peaches. “Shall I get you a spoon?”

Of course. I mean, yes, of course. Can’t seem to think …”

And the evening paper?”

We’ve a copy here?”

I’ll check.”

Ginnie left the room, returning with a spoon and information that the paper would arrive shortly from downstairs. She hovered for a moment, watching McCain’s glass.

Would you like another?”

Not yet.” He waved away her offer; loosening his tie, he leaned back in his chair. “Just the paper, and get yourself off. Catch yourself a hot date.”

Thank you, Mr. McCain. Shall I organize a cab?”

No need, no need.” He waved her away again, though not rudely: there seemed in fact, by all appearances to be an understanding between them. Almost as if they were going through a routine.

Right you are.”

McCain was left alone.

Long day indeed,” he mumbled.

He stood and quickly made over to the cabinet; poured himself another slug, then returning to his seat, made sure he’d drunk just enough to make it look as if he hadn’t got a second. When Ginnie opened the door again, this time bringing in the paper, his cheeks were reasonably flushed.

I’ll get off then.”

Yes, yes, good-night.”

He still hadn’t touched the peaches – something which Ginnie noticed but failed to mention as she gave him a nod and left the room once more.

McCain opened the paper. Just one of those things. Without glancing at the first page, he opened it randomly. What exactly he’d been hoping to find, he couldn’t have said – but almost as if he’d shifted into a new light; awake, finally, from the morbid clout of nothing, his world began to spin.

My God.”

He reached for the buzzer.

Ginnie, get in here.”

His secretary returned, this time wearing a coat of purple fur over what had been a flat green dress.


Get me Barrel on the line.”


Yes, Barrel. And make it snappy!”

Right you are.”

Ginnie turned back. “Is this important?”

You’re goddamn right this is …” McCain paused. “Just get me through to Barrel and be off. I’ll handle this.”

Their eyes met.

I’ve got this,” McCain repeated. “You go see to that date.” McCain ran four fingers through his hair. “Probably nothing,” he murmured, this time more lightly. “Need to check something …”

McCain made to start at his peaches, though once Ginnie had left the room, he focused on the paper, on what he’d seen; his hands were shaking.

American ‘pioneers’ fail again to reach the moon. Fourth attempt this year ends in premature engine shutdown. Simple bad luck or suspicions of corruption justified? See tomorrow’s paper for our exclusive interview with NASA representative, A. T. McCain …

The words appeared in small print between a financial article on the rising price of inner city estate and an advert for bleaching detergent.

A light on the switchboard flashed.

McCain picked up the phone whilst at the same time removing his spectacles.


McCain.” (The voice was firm and sharp.)

You seen the evening edition?” said McCain with equal authority in his tone.

Not yet,” came the answer. “Anything I should be worried about?”

You could say that.”

McCain placed the receiver back down, cutting off the call. He stood and went over to the cabinet, mixing up another whiskey; once seated again, he began on his peaches.

The phone rang.


McCain,” said the voice. “We may have a problem.”

You’re goddamn right we do,” McCain mumbled, chewing and swallowing.

There was a pause. Then: “You’d like to find out who did this?”

I wanna strangle them,” replied McCain.

You serious?”

Of course I am.”

Another pause.

You mean an assassination, a code red?”

That’s your call, Barrel.”

And you’re … look, McCain, I have to ask. You sure you didn’t –”

What do you take me for? Damn it, it’s as much my job as anyone’s to see the true nature of the Pioneer missions doesn’t get out … why photographing the moon at this present time …” His voice suddenly rose. “You think I did an interview? For Pete’s sake, this isn’t even an article. It’s bait, I tell you. A frame.”

Okay, okay,” came the reply. “But you know a lot of people will be –”

Worried, yeah, I know.” McCain coughed. “Which is exactly why I need it dealt with and fast. Whoever set this up, I want them found and dealt with before …”

Before your position is reviewed?”

McCain breathed heavily. “Reviewed,” he repeated with a fair amount of irony. “My God, Barrel, how much time do you think I have?”

There was silence as the magnitude of that question began to form.

McCain, I’ll vouch for you.”

Like that’ll do any good.”

McCain …”


The code red, I’ll put it through. But there’ll also be –”

Sure.” McCain replaced the receiver, his eyes looking tired. Pushing the peaches to one side, he reached for the whiskey, then leaned back in his chair.

The fan in the ceiling whirled slowly and it was all of five minutes until the phone rang again.


I understand you’d like some information.”

Yes, yes, I … who is this?”

Name’s not important,” said the rough voice. “My assistance was requested. You are Allen McCain. I hear you’d like to track down a reporter …”

Yes.” McCain stood, still holding the receiver. He picked up the phone and went over to the window. Opening a slat in the blind with two fingers, he took in the dark street below. A phone booth opposite the building with a hunched figure inside. Wide hat and long coat.

Just need you to confirm.”

The figure turned around fully, looking up at the window – though there was no way he could have seen him.

What information do you have?”

That an article has appeared in the newspaper on your desk, and you’d like to take care of the source.”

No, not an article.” McCain squinted. “It was just …”

We can find who wrote it.”

You can?” McCain stammered. “How fast?”

We work quickly.”

How?” McCain’s face brightened somewhat.

We have contacts,” said the voice. “It’ll be easy enough to trace.”

Well, whoever it is, they need to be dealt with.”

It’s our business.” The man in the phone booth turned away. “You’ll hear from one of us shortly.”

Right … right you are.” There was a flash of lightning and McCain jumped back. Three seconds later the distant sound of rumbling, then the pitter-patter of rain hitting hard at the window.

McCain watched the figure stride purposefully along to the next block, tightening his coat, one hand up to his hat.

When the figure disappeared, McCain began to laugh – deep and from the belly; low, rumbling with a hint of mania.

All of a sudden, the phone rang – McCain almost dropped it, jumping for the second time in the same minute.


Allen …”

Still by the window, McCain swayed ever so slightly. Moving slowly back to the chair, he managed to sit down.

He placed the phone on the desk.

Allen, are you there?”


You all right?” It was a woman’s voice.

Fine, Joan. How are things?”

McCain, switching the receiver from right hand to left, reached into his breast pocket with his one free hand. He pulled out a packet of Lucky Strikes, expertly managing to extract a cigarette and light it in one swift motion (that also involved taking the zippo from his right waist pocket).

Allen, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Wouldn’t I?” McCain let out a puff of smoke.

The day I’ve had. I don’t know where to start.”

Sure …”

First the car, then the neighbor’s dog; that godawful Rottweiler, what do they call that thing? Some ridiculous –”

No idea.” McCain coughed.

Pitcher, that’s it. If you ask me …”

Ask you what?”

“… stupid name, that’s all.”


Yes, okay, Allen, I’m sure you don’t want to hear about all my troubles.”

No, no, go on,” McCain replied, drawing on his cigarette, eyes distant. “What did, what did Pitcher do this time?”

You think I’m calling you up to chat about the neighbor’s dog?”

McCain moved in his seat, stubbing out the cigarette. “No idea,” he drawled.



It’s Rosie. She got into a fight again.”


With a boy.”

A boy, eh?”

And you can stop smirking,” the voice said, guessing the expression on McCain’s face. “It’s the third time this year and they want … they’ve requested that we go there. Tomorrow.”


The both of us.”

McCain shifted. “Can’t Tom –”

No, Allen. It’s her father they want to see. Things are awkward enough already. For her. I’ve no wish to go parading –”

No, quite. I understand.” McCain was looking at the paper, a right forefinger gently resting against his typed name. “What time?”

Eight o’clock.”

In the morning?”

Yes, in the morning. You can’t get here for –”

No, no, I’ll make it.”

The voice huffed. “And you’re sure you’re all right?”

Never better.”

“… Well, I’ll be off then. You want to speak to Rosie?”

She not sleeping?” McCain asked.

I doubt it. Reads till the sun comes up. Thinks I don’t know …”

Behind, from the window, there was another flash of lightning.

It raining there?”

Like hellfire.”

Tom with you?”

Allen, you know he is.”

Of course.” McCain huffed. “And you’re exaggerating, right?”


About Rosie.”

The fight?”

Till the sun comes up.”

Yes, I mean … you want to speak to her or not?”

No, no. I’ll see her tomorrow. Eight o’clock, you say.”

Allen, you sound tired.”

Fine, I told you.”

You need to get home, Allen. Your health. When was the last time you had a check-up?”

On my way. See you in the morning, Joan.”

McCain stood from the chair, then hesitated before putting the receiver down. He lifted it again to his ear but the line was dead – he stared at the now dormant contraption, mouth open as if there had been more to say; something he’d forgotten; something that had slipped his mind.

Huffing, McCain went once more to the whiskey cabinet, mixed himself a new drink; this time with a hefty measure of sloshed ice. “Fight with a boy,” he murmured. He smirked again, then turned at the window. “Come and get me,” he wheezed.

The phone rang and he let it. Three, four rings.

Slowly, calmly, McCain paced back to the desk.


Allen Thomas McCain. Forty-seven. Divorced. Bachelor in physics, first class.”

Who is this?”

Works within the Seers conglomerate. A cog. Though of course that’s merely a cover. Information tells us that McCain is working for NASA, though we’re having some trouble in determining what exactly he does for them.”

What do you want?” McCain spat. Sweat had begun to form on his brow. “Who are you? How did you get this number?”

A friend,” replied the voice – high pitched with the twang of an out of town accent.

What do you want?”

You asked for information.”

I asked … who is this?”

The source.”

The article?” McCain spouted, his voice getting angrier.

We have reason to believe that an interview was conducted with an A. T. McCain, as stated.”

Impossible,” said McCain, pulling at the telephone chord in agitation.

Five foot eight,” the voice continued. “Jet black hair, with a double helping of gray; short back and sides; wears dark-rimmed, tinted spectacles with thick lenses; stocky in build; a preference for Italian suits – resides at 421 Park Avenue, though owns a much larger property in Rhode Island. There’s a daughter, Rose who lives with her mother and a man who has yet to become –”

Goddammit, yes, that’s me you’re describing. So what of it?”

Just passing on the message,” the voice said. “We take it you will not be ordering –”

Ordering what?”

Nothing was said for a moment. McCain breathed, the voice breathed.

It’s your call.”

What do you mean my call? You think I’m gonna request my own …?”

McCain’s hands were shaking, his face becoming redder.

We thought as much.”

What kind of a two-bit outfit are you?!” McCain began to shout.

Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.”

Don’t shoot?! By God, I’ll …”

The line went dead and McCain punched at the desk – he immediately clutched his right fist, inspecting the damage as the phone burst into life once more.

McCain went for it; almost busted it.

Goddammit, I’ll kill you!”


God …” McCain began to convulse. “Joan, I didn’t –”

Allen,” the woman’s voice stammered. “Are you okay?”

Yes, fine, sorry,” McCain, forced himself to relax, somehow pushing the words into a calmer tone; one palm on the desk for support; his damaged hand still holding the receiver. “Joan –”

Who did you think I was?”

Nobody. Just, nobody; what do you want, Joan?”

Nothing. Maybe I shouldn’t have –”

Out with it.”

Now there’s no need –”

Dammit Joan!”

The line went dead.

Standing there stupidly, McCain appeared too angry to know what to do next. His dark shoes dug into the tartan carpet. Eisenhower smiled down.

Got to be some kind of goddamn joke …”

McCain hit at one of the buzzers. “Ginnie …” then remembering she was gone, he hit the buzzer again, missed and the whole board lit up. “Damned …”

McCain began scrambling at the whole thing erratically, then stepped back, bewildered as the phone began to pulsate.

Outside a series of car horns started up in excited symphony.



Barrel. Damn it, Barrel, what the hell is this all about?”

You tell me.” The reply was calm, yet firm.

McCain stood straighter, sweating and breathing heavily. He hesitated, stumbled, and tried to think up an answer that would at least make some sense.

Look, man. What exactly was the plan?”

Now you listen to me,” McCain answered. “I’ve no idea what’s going on here, but I’ll get to the bottom of it. You have my word.”

It’s too late.”

What do you mean, too late?”

We’ve killed the publication. It won’t be printed. But … only a select few know why the Pioneer missions are being corrupted. If it were to get out –”

But it won’t.”

McCain, I’m sorry. You know how it is.”

You’re sorry? Dammit, Barrel!”

I’ll see that Joan is taken care of.”

Barrel, I’m pleading with you. Just give me more time. I can prove it wasn’t me. I’ve got no,” McCain clutched at the phone, “Barrel, why would I? What would I have to gain?”

Gotta admit,” said Barrel. “I was surprised. What was it? You get cold feet?”

Barrel, I’m telling you.” McCain was desperate. “All that I know. All these years. I was there, at Roswell, by damn! Why now would I –”

McCain … I can’t. It’s already been decided. Just wanted to let you know,” the voice, ironically, seemed to have grown warmer, “No hard feelings and all that.”

It was an impostor, I tell you. A setup. One of them.”

One of?”

Damned commies. You know how it is.”

I see. The Russians.”

Yeah, the Russians; who do you think I meant? Damn it, they’re framing me.”

The commies.”

Yeah, the … now wait just a minute, Barrel. It’s only one source says that I talked but I’ve been tried and convicted –”

A hint is all it takes. You know that as well as I do.”

McCain’s breaths began to speed up. “Barrel! By God!” He was overcome with rage. “We’re the ones in power here! Men like us. We’ve made sacrifices. Shown loyalty!”

The voice breathed, not responding.

So that’s how it is then! They put us in charge but at the end of the day, we’re just as expendable as anyone?!”

Look, McCain. We have to accept, there is a bigger picture.”

A bigger …? This is my life we’re talking about! What do you want, dammit? What do they …? What would it take?!” McCain scolded. “If that’s how it is, I’ll tell it all now. Let the world know!” he began to laugh like a madman. “Barrel!” but the line was dead.

A silence.

McCain fell into the chair; the phone, hanging off its hook, dangling beside him.

Goddamn … setup.”

* * * * *

The door of McCain’s office opened with the silhouette of a large man coming into view. The man stood facing McCain, and even in the semi darkness (for the outside office was barely lit) this man, in appearance was not at all unlike McCain himself.

So here it is then,” McCain muttered, not yet focusing. Tired and worn, his collar and tie loose now, his whole face and neck were blotched in red marks. His glasses were on the desk beside the smoking ashtray, beside the phone and typewriter; beside the folders and pencils. The whiskey bottle stood next to the still unfinished can of peaches; unashamedly in full view. “So here you are, then,” McCain repeated, swirling the fingers of his right hand in irony. “Better get on with it.”

Any last words, my friend?” said the man, stepping forward to McCain. In his right hand was a small black gun with silencer.

Yeah,” McCain replied, looking up lazily. “Give my love to Joan and Rosie.”

I’ll take good care of them, rest assured.”

Their eyes met: McCain’s and the eyes of his killer. A set of eyes he knew from somewhere. “My God,” McCain stammered. “What … what the hell is this?”

But for a fleeting moment he seemed to understand. A doppelganger. To be, not eliminated, but replaced. What the code red was – what it always had been for those in positions such as his. The authority he had … the knowledge …

Time to say good-night.”

A flash inside the office and McCain’s body slid to the carpet.

The man walked over to the window, carefully pulling it shut. He turned, tucking his weapon away while from the picture on the wall, Eisenhower gazed across, smiling.

Chris Morton is the creator of this blog.
He has released two sci-fi novels,
one collection of short stories
and a few other scribblings.
You can find his amazon page here.