By Edward Pearce
It was a comfortable suite. Just a couple of rooms with a separate toilet and shower, but spacious enough. And, of course, a screened-off area for Al, his escort, as they liked to call him. The furnishings were of good quality and the decor tasteful, if a little muted. A huge wafer TV hung on one wall, and on the sideboard was a lengthy menu with meals that Darren knew were excellent. He’d had three of them already, and regretted slightly that he wouldn’t get round to trying all fourteen. All in all, however, that was a minor concern.
Beyond the window lay a view of considerable beauty. The rolling downland, trees and hedges, patchwork fields, and distant river that glinted every now and again were quintessential English country landscape. He noticed how the cows in one field and the sheep in another moved about during the day, forming into little groups and huddling together as the light began failing, before it got too dark to see any more. He’d watched it for two days now, on and off, through the toughened glass. The afternoon scene was peaceful. It was one fifteen in the afternoon. Did sheep and cows take a nap at lunchtime too? They weren’t doing a lot, and he didn’t feel very active either.
Al was making little or no noise. Darren wondered what he was doing, and how he managed to fill the time. The one thing he was sure of was that Al would be keeping a close eye on him, but there must be other stuff for him to do behind that screen. He supposed there were monitors and a link to a control room of some kind. Darren couldn’t go in or see in, but Al had a belt enabling him to pass through the electronic barrier, as he’d explained to Darren on the first day.
Darren liked Al. His big, black presence managed to be simultaneously friendly, reassuring and authoritative. That was his job, after all, to act as companion and guard for a few difficult days, and he had to admit that Al did it well. He’d said as much to him on the second day, and Al had accepted the compliment graciously whilst kindly but firmly blocking off further conversation along those lines. Yes, if Darren were in charge of this operation, Al was the kind of person he’d employ, and whatever Al was being paid, he deserved it. It couldn’t be the easiest of jobs. Perhaps his Christian faith was a help, because Al clearly believed in the rightness of what he was doing.
He hadn’t asked “the question” since first thing in the morning and Al hadn’t volunteered any further information since, so now was probably not a bad time to raise it again. As casually as he could, he called out over the top of the screen “Any more news, Al? Do we have a definite time yet?”
“Hold on a minute, Darren,” and Darren heard Al busying himself with something before coming out from his cubicle. He had his usual smile, friendly and reassuring without being familiar or patronising. He’d begun by calling Darren “Mister Holdsworth” but seemed quite happy to change to “Darren” when asked. “I’ll play it whichever way suits you, Mister Holdsworth, I mean Darren!” and they’d both laughed.
“They did get back to me, within the last few minutes, as it happens. Looks like being tomorrow some time, as we thought. All the main arrangements are made, just a couple more things to put in place and then they’re ready.” The smile didn’t exactly disappear, but it flattened out a little. The eyes were kind, yet resolute and without weakness.
“Good. I’ll be glad when it’s all done and dusted!” Darren tried to sound as if he meant it, and in a way he did. Yet some things are impossible to rationalise away, and every now and again a dark blob would threaten to rise from the pit of his stomach and overwhelm him. Don’t think about it, he told himself, just think of how you’re helping those you care about instead, and be strong. It’s not long now.
“Would you like another game of chess, Darren?” Al said. “I know you’ll beat me again, but I feel I’ve improved my game a lot in the last two days.” But Darren didn’t feel he could focus on chess at the moment.
“What about the view? Want me to change it?”
“Nah, it’s fine, this one. Nice and restful.”
The light over the hatch came on. “Ah, dinner!” Al said. It was his job to collect food and drink from the hatch. He brought Darren’s tray over and laid it on the table in front of him, went back for his own and they sat down together. Darren’s meal was fillet steak with onions, mushrooms and Duchesse potatoes. Al had chosen sea bass with new potatoes and seasonal vegetables.
“Damn plastic cutlery!” Darren said. His fork wobbled and almost broke as he cut into the steak.
“I know. It’s the one thing they can’t get right. It is annoying.” Al’s expression was apologetic and Darren did his best to smile, embarrassed at the implied criticism of Al and his employers in matters they could not control. Under the circumstances, plastic cutlery was understandable – inevitable, even. It was the same as chairs fixed on sliding tracks, locked windows, and the absence of a door. But never mind about that now, Darren thought.
“This steak’s damn good,” he said. “That’s one heck of a chef they’ve got working here!”
“Yeah, the food certainly is one of the perks of the job. Nobody cooks a sea bass like this guy.”
Darren wondered how many times Al had had the sea bass, and how many other contractors he’d escorted. Contractor and Escort were weasel words, of course, but the people in charge were doing what they could to make things tolerable, and all things considered, they managed it well.
He ate the rest of the meal in silence. Al did likewise, pushing his paper plate away at the end with an appreciative “Mmm!” They both had tarte au citron with fresh cream for dessert.
“You know, I think I will try that change of scene,” Darren said after they’ve finished.
“Sure, what would you like?”
“What have you got?”
Al laughed. “Hey, I’m forgetting you don’t know them! Let’s see, there’s New England in the Fall, Red River Canyon, Himalayan Foothills, Cityscape, Black Forest, European Woodland, Headland Bay, Seychelles Beach, and there’s one other, can’t think of it. Oh yes, Gentle Meadow.”
“You know them off by heart, then?”
“Sure do!” It was said with the same kindly, yet unbending, look as when he’d asked if the time was fixed. We’re not pursuing this theme any further, the look said.
“I think I’ll try the Himalayas, Al. I’m in the mood for some grandeur.”
“Good choice, I like that one. Just let me nip out and fix it,” and Al disappeared behind his screen. A moment later English Pastoral disappeared and white, majestic mountains appeared in the window, behind a fast-flowing river where deer were drinking. Darren wondered for a moment what really was on the other side of the glass. Almost certainly a blank wall, but he knew better than to ask, and instead looked out with mild interest upon the new landscape.
Al sat in one of the chairs, watching the TV that was quietly on in the background. Sometimes, when his services weren’t called for, he’d sit in his cubicle, but sometimes he sat with Darren in the suite. He somehow knew when his presence was welcome and when to disappear, but he always stayed in the background unless Darren initiated a conversation or some other interaction.
“Do you have family, Al?” Darren asked.
“Yes Darren, I do. I have two boys.”
“That’s nice. How old are they?”
“Let’s see, one of them’s eleven, and the other’s six. He’s a handful! I think he’ll turn out all right in the end.”
“Want to know how I ended up here?”
Al didn’t seem fazed by the sudden change of tack. “Sure, if you feel like telling me. They do give us some of the details, you know.”
“So I suppose you know I lost my wife and my own kids in that plane.”
Al nodded. “Yes, I did know that. It’s real bad luck, Darren, and I do feel sorry, really I do.”
“You’re a family man, of course you understand. I hope you never know what it feels like, but you can probably imagine how it, sort of, changes things. I didn’t want to carry on after that. My cousin and her husband died a couple of years ago in a house fire, left three kids of their own behind. I thought the family might have had its share of bad luck, but no. My aunt and uncle look after them, they’re getting frail now. My job barely made enough to keep me alive. That’s why I did what I did. I don’t much care about me, but I do care about my own flesh and blood. I did it to take care of them and I haven’t regretted it, not for one second.”
Al didn’t say anything, just lowered his head and looked at the floor. Darren looked around the suite, wondering for the umpteenth time where the door was. There were no handles, keyholes or lines in the wall. He’d known better than to ask Al about it, or about any details of the process itself. He felt a completely detached, academic interest in the whole business, but there were certain obvious questions to avoid. That day when the plane had gone down, he’d been numb and he’d stayed that way ever since. After the initial shock wore off, he’d thought about this opportunity, and once the statutory minimum year was up he’d applied, going through the one-month cooling-off period with the same unchanging cotton wool in his head and the same feeling of not minding.
The only thing that bothered him about being stuck in the suite was the lack of anything purposeful to do. At home there were enough chores and cleaning to keep him busy, and there was the voluntary work that hadn’t given him a new sense of purpose but which he continued with anyway, just to fill in the hours. Here, everything was done for the Contractor: cleaning, cooking, an escort, like Al, constantly on hand. Darren could read, watch TV or go on the Web – only passively, of course – but there was only so much of that he wanted, and that point was reached sooner than one might think. He’d mention that this evening, as a suggestion to pass on for how things could be improved still further.
The light over the hatch went on again. Al went over and came back with coffee, one blue and one red mug. “Here you go, Darren. Mine’s the blue one, got sugar in it!”
The coffee was good, like everything else here. The one thing they didn’t give you was alcohol, not that he cared about that. He drank the coffee, then went over to an armchair and dozed for a while. Then he woke up and watched some more TV in a vague, disinterested way. Al sat in the other chair, also watching the TV.
The buzzer on Al’s belt went off. “Wonder what they want now?” he murmured, half to himself and half to Darren. He unclipped the buzzer and examined the screen, then looked over at Darren. “They need me outside for a couple of minutes. Darren, I’m sorry about this, but you know I have to strap you in. Regulations is regulations!”
Darren sighed. He’d been comfortable in that chair. “All right, Al, it’s not a problem.” He got up slowly, walked over and sat down in the high rubber-padded plastic seat by the wall, resting hands and feet in the slots provided.
“Let’s just get you comfortable first,” Al said. “Clothing not rucked up or anything?”
Darren shook his head.
“Ok,” Al said, reaching over to the side of the chair back out of Darren’s view and pressing something. Four wide grey plastic restraints clicked out of the chair and secured Darren’s arms and legs. Al reached over unexpectedly, cupped Darren’s forehead in a large hand and gently moved his head back, as a barber would move a customer, pressing it firmly into the padded back of the chair. Now there was another click and Darren found, to his surprise and annoyance, that he was unable to move his head.
“Is that last one really necessary?” he asked.
Looking down at the side of the chair, Al replied “Don’t you worry, Darren, you’ll be fine with me,” and pressed another lever.
The chair pivoted backwards like a dentist’s chair, but all the way, at the same time straightening itself out so that Darren found he was lying flat on his back and looking up at strange lights in a strange ceiling. For an instant he didn’t grasp what was happening, then he realised that the section of wall into which the chair was built was the door he’d been wondering about earlier on. Simultaneously, there was a faint rumble as Al pushed the trolley, which the door had now become, into the other room.
Darren looked around as far as his restricted vision would allow. Leaning over him were the faces of three men, one in black and two in blue jackets, all with businesslike expressions. The top of a screen was visible behind them. One of the men shifted slightly as Al pushed the trolley, which snapped into place as it docked with something in the far wall.
“Al! This isn’t supposed to be happening now! You told me tomorrow. I’m not ready!” Darren managed to gasp out, breathless with shock.
From somewhere out of sight, Al spoke. “It’s best this way, Darren. Trust me, it ain’t gonna hurt.”
Darren stared, mouth open and unable to say anything. One of the men in blue was holding a paper. Speaking quickly but clearly, he read from it. “Here is a copy of the agreement which you signed on the sixteenth of October. I Darren Swayles, of sound mind, hereby contract to hand ownership of my unharmed body to Beckford Medical and Custodial Group plc, in order that its representatives may permanently uninstall my own consciousness and permanently install the consciousness of their client, whose identity will not be disclosed to me. This process will take place at the complete discretion of the Beckford Group any time after conclusion of the financial arrangements, namely the permanent transfer by Beckford Financial Services plc of five million pounds into a trust fund for the care and upbringing of Joseph Tinson, Rebecca Tinson, and Shane Tinson, to be administered by your authorized representative until they reach the age of eighteen, after which an allowance will be made to each of them until they reach the age of twenty five, after which they will direct your said representative as to the future apportionment of their share of this money. I hereby commit to this procedure in full awareness and acceptance that once begun, it is irreversible.” He folded the paper. “Please confirm to me that you are Darren Swayles.”
The cotton wool cleared from Darren’s mind. He wanted to live. It didn’t matter about the money. He’d manage somehow, and he’d see the kids right. He’d make them stop it.
“It’s a mistake!” he called out. “I don’t want to do this. I’m ordering you to stop!” Then in a moment of inspiration, as he thought, “I’m not Darren Swayles! I deny being Darren Swayles!”
The second man looked down at Darren sympathetically. “It’s a formality, Darren. We know who you are. We are going ahead now. It’s like Al said, this way is best for everyone.”
Now the man in the black jacket stepped forward, and Darren saw that he was wearing a clergyman’s collar. At the same time, there was a mild pricking sensation in each upper arm, followed by a tingling. The clergyman said softly “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I absolve you of all your sins,” then stepped back and nodded to the first man.
Darren opened his mouth to call out, but the tingling had reached his throat and he couldn’t speak. The tingling became a buzzing, then a whirring which spread throughout his entire body and brain, bringing with it the terror of the inexorable. Now it was drawing him down and he didn’t want to go, but the pull was too strong to resist. With a last despairing cry that never reached his lips, his fingers slipped off the rock face and he slid down into the abyss, dissolving as he went.
The three men waited patiently at the edge of the trolley. Al sat down in a chair by the wall, his face showing signs of strain for the first time. His part in this was over at last, and he was glad of that. He always told himself he’d never do another one, and yet when the offer came the money was always too good to turn down. But he never really got used to it.
After about a minute of complete stillness, Darren’s hands and legs began twitching as sensation returned to his body. At the end of the trolley, behind his head, a green light came on. Now it was the doctor who breathed a deep sigh of relief, saying “I think we’re there.”
A pair of eyes opened, and a person who was not Darren looked out of into the world.
“Mr. Farnon? Blink twice if you can hear me.” The eyes blinked, twice.
“What number did I give you to remember?”
The eyes blinked again, first three times, then once.
“Thirty one. It’s him. Welcome to your new life, Mr. Farnon.”
Behind the screen, a ventilator was switched off and a tired old body breathed its last.
Edward Pearce is a retired technical translator who lives in Lincolnshire with his partner and their two cats. His stories usually contain a supernatural or eerie element, and have appeared in the All Hallows journal, in the UK Terror Tales series, and in the anthology “Acquainted With The Night,” and a further three are awaiting publication. In his spare time he enjoys walking, reading, looking for bargains in antique stores and online, days out on the East Anglian coast, and almost anything of historical interest.