Glitch

 

Glitch by Chris Green

Heliotrope destination,’ the caller says and then hangs up. Heliotrope destination? It sounds like a cryptic crossword clue. What does that mean? What on earth is he talking about?

 In these days of scams and hoaxes, I record the calls we get on our landline. I play the message back. A man’s voice. No trace of an accent. Nor does it have that metallic sound you get from a robot voice. The number is withheld. 

I try not to dwell on it. Perhaps it’s part of a bizarre promotional campaign to launch a new product which will become apparent in due course. I get back to my painting of the Aurora Borealis. Izzy will be home soon and I want to make it look like I’ve been productive while she’s been out. She keeps reminding me I haven’t finished a painting for weeks, let alone sold one. 

Multilingual interface. It’s a text on my mobile this time. Once again, an apparently meaningless pairing of random words. Number withheld again. Troll? Prankster? But why would a prankster target me? Nutcase? Someone bearing a grudge? I can’t think of anything I’ve done to upset anyone. I’ve led a very low profile life since I’ve been here.

Bewildering they may be, but the messages are not life-threatening. I get back to the Aurora Borealis. I dab some bold green swirls onto the canvas. When working in oils, you need to be decisive. The more layers of paint you can get into the painting, the better the result. That’s the beauty of oils. You can put some depth into the work. I am just mixing up some purple when I hear two emails ping in quick succession on my laptop. At first, I ignore them, but curiosity gets the better of me. The sender for both of them I discover is noreply@nowhere.com Neither of them has any subject, so there’s not a lot to go on. The messages too are becoming weirder. Corporation horn and nervous subsidiary.

Strange is never good. I learnt that a long time ago. My mind is racing. Surely, it couldn’t be …….. No, the idea is absurd. But, there again….. To distract myself, I slip a Wagner CD into the Bose. Götterdämmerung, Twilight of the Gods. I turn the volume up so I won’t be disturbed again and continue with my painting. I apply some viridian green straight from the tube and shape it with a palette knife, hacking at the canvas. I mix some with a little titanium white and cut that in. I step back to take a look. I do not hear Izzy come in.

‘I found this on the mat.’ she says. She is holding a plain postcard with the words, harlequin fancy written on it. ‘What is that all about?’

I mutter something about being as puzzled as she is. But I am getting a bad feeling the message might relate to my past. I have not gone into detail with Izzy about my past. I cannot.

‘I can’t hear you,’ she says. ‘Can’t you turn that awful racket down?’ 

For some time, I’ve been getting the impression that Izzy does not appreciate Wagner as much as I do. There again, I do not like Billy Joel. Or Elton John. Relationships, though, like other covenants, are all about compromise. Admittedly, I have had to compromise more than most, but that’s another story. With Valhalla in flames and the Rhine overflowing its banks, I pause the opera. I give her a summary of the previous messages. As i do so, fresh emails ping on the laptop. noreply@nowhere.com no subject. Incidental hejira. Aggregate reception. 

I try to shrug them off, but Izzy is having none of it. Perhaps she detects that beneath it all I know something is wrong.

‘What about that chap you met a couple of weeks ago in the market?’ she says. ‘The geeky one with the snake called Stanley, who started talking to you about that number that’s too big to tell you how big it is?’

‘Graham’s number. It’s called Graham’s number.’

Yes. That’s the one. Might it be him?’ 

‘What, Norman? No, I think Norman is just an ageing trainspotter with learning difficulties.’

‘How about the bloke who wrote The Early Worm Catches the Bird? The one who was telling us about Wet Blanket Ron, when we were in the pub. He was creepy.’ 

‘Just a lonely old author, I think. I can’t imagine many people read his books. Pretty harmless, though. Anyway, whoever it is knows my number, my mobile number, our house number and my email.’

‘You mean, it might be someone we know well?’

‘There is that possibility,’ I say. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, though. There’s bound to be a reasonable explanation.’ 

The room goes quiet. I can sense Izzy weighing up who she feels might be suspicious. Our friend, Hoagy Platt possibly? He’s a bit of a joker. Might he do something like this? Freda Mann, the poet or Dean Runner, perhaps? He’s a strange one.

‘Let me have a look at the emails,’ she says, finally. ‘Perhaps there’s something about these communications you haven’t spotted.’

I open up my Gmail account for her. 

‘Where are they?’ she says, scrolling up and down the page. ‘Where are these messages?’

I take a look. To my alarm, there is no longer any sign of them. They are not even in Trash. They seem to have somehow been completely deleted. I take out my phone. The text message too has gone. The message on the phone too is missing. Is this good or is this bad?

If you have been in a relationship for any length of time, you will be familiar with that look you get when your partner feels that you have been trying to deceive her. You will be familiar too with the stony silence that follows, in most cases for the rest of the day. Sometimes the following day, too. But it’s an ill wind and all that. Without any of her interruptions and with no further unsolicited messages, I am able to make significant progress on my painting. Could this be the secret of great artists? Might Mrs Monet have thought Claude was keeping things from her and given him the silent treatment? Might Mrs Matisse have been a frequent sulker?

Late the following day, Izzy’s son, Ben, calls in. We are not sure if Ben is living with us or not. He appears from time to time to raid the fridge and then is gone again. He is off to a festival this time, apparently. 

‘Mum gone to bed, has she?’ he says, as he munches his way through a slice of pizza. ‘She not speaking to you again?’ 

Having no children of my own, I get on pretty well with Ben. I give him a summary of what has happened.

‘Probably a password generator,’ he says. ‘Good idea! You and Mum are always forgetting passwords.’

I give Ben’s explanation some thought, but reject it. The people who offered you the password would also know it, which would immediately compromise its security.  

To my relief, there are no more unexplained messages over the next few days. Izzy now thinks that I may have imagined the earlier ones. I entertain the idea that she may be right. She suggests I ought to see someone to help me over my confusion, Dr Strummer perhaps. But as time passes, she backs down and things around the house return to normal. I even manage to finish my Aurora Borealis painting, and decide to take it along to Gallery 9. 

You get accustomed to the interior of a car. Its features become so familiar that as you drive it around from day to day, you hardly notice them. But as I start the Nissan, I feel something is different. At first, I can’t put my finger on what it is. Then it hits me. Alongside the various readouts for fuel, temperature and mileage on the instrument panel are the words supernova trampoline in blue Sans Serif script. It is difficult to see what this might have to do with the functioning of the car. Independent momentum, it reads now. It changes to perpendicular freefall. These might be just words, but there is no rational explanation for these muddled phrases appearing on the dashboard display. Someone is messing with my head. Someone with a shitload of technology and guile at their fingertips. Could it really be my comrades returning to spirit me away? Surely, after all this time, they would have forgotten about me. But who else could be behind it? No-one from around these parts. They are still working on the understanding that there are just three dimensions. And they have only just come up with the internet. They would not be capable of such diverse communication. It must be my people arriving to collect me and take me back home. They are probably having a few teething troubles with the comms equipment. After all, wasn’t it a glitch in the Earth translation widget on the landing craft that left me stranded here in the first place?

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved


 

 

Silent Trumpet

Silent Trumpet by Chris Green

1:

Quincy Saxx introduces himself at a Free Eva Morales rally. I have not met him before, so I am puzzled that he appears to know me. He laughs and says that everybody knows Cliff Rhodes. The thing is, I am not Cliff Rhodes, nor am I Jordan Castle who plays Cliff in Blood Money. I am not even an actor. I don’t believe I resemble Jordan Castle in any way. Strangely, Milo Devlin at The Fantasy Factory also mistook me for Cliff Rhodes when I was there to book a hot-air balloon ride as a surprise present for Betty’s birthday recently.

Although I know nothing about Quincy, he is a straight talker, something of a rarity in these days of chancers and weak-willed charlatans. I can tell straight away that he is a go-getter. He tells me I could help him further the cause. It is always good to have the backing of a recognisable household name in a campaign, he says. I go along with the masquerade, hoping that if I play my cards right, he might also be able to help me.

With a name like Saxx, I wonder if Quincy is related to the legendary Roy Saxx, the inventor of the bouncing eggcup. Roy’s contribution to our daily lives is huge. Where would we be without the metaphorical compass or the collapsible dog? I remember, when I was growing up, the initial resistance there was to Roy’s invisible kite. But in no time at all, every child had to have one. It was Roy Saxx who came up with the expression marketing. He was the first person to realise that people desperately wanted to be persuaded to buy things they couldn’t possibly have any use for. He discovered this was a basic psychological need. I ask Quincy if there is a connection to the great man. He says that Roy is his father. While he acknowledges the importance of Roy’s inventions to our lives, he has always played down the link. He was on the receiving end of his father’s temper too many times to want to bathe in his glory. A genius he may have been, but Roy was a brutal parent.

In truth, I am not sure exactly what Eva Morales is supposed to have done or where she is being held. Farland possibly? Or is it the People’s Republic of Costaguana? I have heard her name on the news a few times, and I have a vague recollection she is a writer of some sort or a journalist, but I am not certain. To be honest, with the saturation coverage of LGBT+ Rights, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Don’t Matter, Defund the Police and Stone the Crows protests there has been lately, I am experiencing virtue-signalling fatigue. I have merely come along to the rally to get me out of the house. Betty is having one of her cleaning blitzes and there is bound to be something that I haven’t got around to or am supposed to be doing. When Betty has the bit between her teeth, it is best to stay out of the way.

A quick search on the internet reveals that Eva Morales is a schoolteacher serving ten years in a Malbanian prison for plotting to overthrow the brutal Islamic regime. She probably took photos of a government building or found herself outside a mosque at the wrong time of day. Or tweeted something about the Koran. Or criticised the Supreme Leader in a casual conversation on the street. Google informs me that Quincy Saxx is a seasoned activist with many successful campaigns. Most recently his campaign Stop Abuse against Foreign Workers in Afistan is reckoned to have saved hundreds of lives, possibly because it stopped foreign workers going there.

Quincy seems to accept me as I am. There is no need to talk like Cliff Rhodes. Quincy understands that accents and character are part and parcel of the actor’s craft. The difficulty will arise if he requires me to do interviews. My cover will be blown when he introduces me as Jordan Castle. Milo Devlin might be fooled, but others out there may not. They will know exactly what Castle looks like and immediately realise I am not him. He is one of the most famous actors in the country and Blood Money is one of the most popular shows. I suppose I could tell the interviewers that I am staying in character for a new role in a film. I could wear a theatrical beard or a tousled-hair wig to go with the new part and get some thick horn-rimmed spectacles with a heavy tint. Actors of Castle’s stature can change their appearance out of all recognition at the drop of the hat. Or even simply by wearing a hat.

I work for SZID, an organisation so clandestine that none of us even knows what the letters of the acronym stand for. It is a nine-to-five position in a centrally located office block. It is a secure establishment with layer upon layer of security. We gather sensitive data. This is as much as we are told. It is boring, repetitive work. As everything is encrypted, none of us has any idea what this information might be or where it ends up. But it must mean something to someone, somewhere. It seems to command a high price. Enough for SZID to employ more than fifty people working around the clock to gather the information, not to mention the detail of security staff. Dmitri suggests the packets of data are thought patterns surreptitiously extrapolated from subscribers’ mobile phone use, ready to be input into a thought-control program. He’s probably right. Technology has been steadily moving in this direction for a long time. Ingrid goes a step further and says that this is the primary reason smartphones were invented. It makes sense. Why else would anyone come up with such a tiny product for watching films and listening to music when you already have sophisticated equipment to do this with? There could well be a hidden agenda behind it. It shows the same ingenuity we saw all those years ago with Roy Saxx’s silent trumpet. Can you imagine life now without the silent trumpet?

2:

I am planning to build a workshop in the garden to accommodate Betty’s growing collection of cleaning equipment. The conservatory is no longer big enough. But to do so, I need to generate some extra income. We are not well paid at SZID. What better way to make a fast buck than to sell a secret or two on the black market? Given Quincy Saxx’s wealth of maverick contacts, worldwide, I imagine he might be in a position to point me in the right direction. But as he believes that I am Jordan Castle, stealth is required. I need to tread carefully so that the information I need slips easily into the conversation. He is quite chatty so this may not present too much of a problem, so long as he doesn’t suspect I am trying to manipulate him.

Quincy invites me along to a protest outside the Malbanian Embassy. TV crews will be there, he says, along with a number of fellow celebrities who are committed to the cause, Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson, the singer from Blot, and Phillip C. Dark. I manage to hire a beard and wig and a Dickensian suit from a theatre company. I explain to the TV crew that I am staying in character for my new role.

We have just begun shooting,’ I say. ‘It’s important to get a feel for the part.

Very different from how the public has come to know you as Cliff Rhodes in Blood Money,’ Sophie Gossard-Black says.

Which is exactly why I’m staying in character,’ I say. ‘It can be difficult for an actor not to lapse back into the more familiar role. And historical characters are the hardest to crack.’

Of course,’ Sophie says.

Anyway, Sophie,’ I say, my confidence growing. ‘We are not here to talk about me. We are here to express solidarity. Thousands have turned out here today to show the strength of feeling there is to get Eva Morales, an innocent schoolteacher freed from the hell of a Malbanian gaol. We want to make the message to the rogue regime loud and clear. Free Eva Morales.’

I continue to echo the sentiments that Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson and the others have already shared, and the interview appears to pass without a hitch. Who would have thought that a desk-spook with no acting experience could pull it off? Quincy Saxx seems impressed with my performance and as far as I’m concerned, this is the main thing.

Chatting to Quincy afterwards, I discover that every government and political faction in the world spends a majority of its waking time thinking of new ways to shaft every other government and political faction.

Politics really is dirty, isn’t it?’ I say.’

You better believe it,’ he says. ‘Organisations and people to the left and right of centre. And those in the mainstream. Government departments and lobbyists. Individuals and corporations. The media, press barons, editors. Google, Apple, Microsoft. Bishops, Imams, gurus. They are all at it. There are some unlikely alliances too.’

What Quincy seems to describe is a sophisticated network of exploitation of the masses by an informal alliance for pecuniary gain. He manages to drop individual names and each time he does I make a mental note. As I see it, the bottom line is that data brokers have been buying and selling personal information for a long time. What I am planning is, in a sense, more of the same. Information is power. What I have might be seen as information on steroids. I am selling people’s thought patterns.

With Quincy’s unwitting assistance, I am able to come up with a diverse list of candidates to approach. And from this, come up with others who might have connections with them. I am spoilt for choice. I can juggle the names around and decide who is likely to pay the highest price for the information I am smuggling out of SZID. The best of it is that, in this line of endeavour, I don’t even need to go to the top. These days, it’s dog eat dog, every man for himself and all those other cliches. There are plenty of backstabbers who will be happy to do the deed. Loyalty is a thing of the past. I don’t know exactly what I am selling, of course, I can’t be specific. But mentioning SZID should be sufficient. Movers and shakers will be aware of what it is that SZID is engaged in and want some of it.

While it should be easy to sell the data, I get one knock-back after another. No-one wants to buy. It seems there are organisations like SZID the world over that are also gathering people’s thought patterns and selling them on. The market is saturated. This information fuels economies. Ingrid was right. Thought-control appears to be the main purpose of the smartphone. Like the world-wide-web, initially it was about finding out what you were interested in, but through clever algorithms, this quickly turned into telling you what you are interested in. You are now told what to think. Capitalism depends on it. It’s an open secret. Like the silent trumpet, the smartphone has taken us unawares. How could we have been so naive as to imagine it was introduced to enhance our lives?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved