Stanley Kildren turned his head slowly to one side, he heard the bones in his neck snap, crackle and pop like a bowl of his favourite breakfast cereal, while the muscles in his clenched jaw grew to stand out in clear definition. The clock, which was his intended target was in its usual position on the bedside table, and told him that it was 02:45am. Not that he could trust it at all, he knew that They had changed it. Probably only by a few minutes, thinking if They kept the changes small that he wouldn’t notice anything.
In any case, it as the middle of the night and sleep was over. Stanley sat up,
Reaching for the lamp which was carefully positioned next to the clock on top of the small formerly flat-packed piece of furniture that he had bought when he moved in because it was on sale and he could put it together himself. The lamp was positioned in such a way that if anyone tried to tamper with the clock they would have to move the lamp first, and that would double the number of changes being made, something he was sure he would recognise. Only the lamp wasn’t there.
A bolt of electric fear shot through him. Running from his skull down through his arms and legs shooting out of the tips of his toes and fingers.
His hand searched quicker, fingers brushing the surface like antenna’s, but all they found was the water glass that he had placed there two hours before. He almost knocked it to the floor in his state of near blind panic. The lamp should have been just there, next to the glass, but instead there was nothing apart from a thing ring of dust which had settled amongst the thicker layer of the same that covered everything else in the room.
Feeling his heart rate increase, accelerating like a formula 1 racing care at the first green light of the season, blood coursing through his veins which protruded from his skin in all manner of places over his body. His fingers became as nimble as sausages and as clumsy as those of a schoolboy working on the bra clasp of the cheerleader he had finally managed to get a date with. The water was the first to suffer, sent tumbling to the floor accompanied soon thereafter by the glass which shattered upon impact. The clock also fell after a balancing act unlike not other before succumbing to the suicidal temptations inherent in all inanimate objects.
They have been here Stanley thought to himself. It was his first reaction now.
Further bumbled fumblings found the lamp. It was still on the unit but had fallen over. Stanley reached with his useless fingers which by this point had all the finesse of a lumberjack attempting open heart surgery, but he managed to trace his hands along the wire, beginning at the base of the lamp – which had had righted at some point which he couldn’t remember – he ran them along until he found the switch, and then with a soft click the room was flooded with bright white light.
The 120-Watt super-bulb lit the room like a second sun, in both terms of visibility and radiated heat.
The small apartment was bare save for the bed and its partner drawer unit and a rickety cupboard which had come with the room. There were curtains over the window, but even when drawn there was barely any noticeable difference they were so thin and worn with age. Everything was stained with all manner of bodily fluids and there was a stale smell that hung in the air, and with a window that was bolted shut it was hard to get anything fresh in to clear it away.
Stanley’s eyes were rapidly searching the room, his lack of sleep forgotten, his panic and the knowledge that They had been there, in His room was overpowering. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stood up. Pushing himself with all of his strength – which was not much any more – he jumped away from the bed as quickly as possible. He had placed mousetraps under there, nailed to the floor so they couldn’t be moved, but that didn’t mean They didn’t have people, contortionists who could fit still, or even the robots … the androids……The could float just pull the traps out of the floor and not feel the pain, then he would be in trouble. So it was always best in his mind to jump clear.
It was only a matter of time now until the androids came for him. They were programmed just for him, given his DNA so that they could think like him, He had read about it on the internet They had given their secrets away. God Bless the Internet He had managed to avoid them once, the androids, but it had been hard work. He had seen the same face everywhere, following him a few months ago, in the supermarket, on each of the four busses he had taken to get home. Travelling out of the city before coming back home thirty minutes later to throw them off the scent.
Oh sure They had given them different faces each time, different ages and skin colours, even different sexes, but Stanley had seen through that that to the cold unfeeling face beneath. He had seen the android sitting there, watching him. Recording his every move.
He had been a happy man once, a lifetime ago it seemed as he stood barefoot in his cold apartment, nothing on save for a stained pair of underwear and three days of stubble, but now was not the time for memories, memories wouldn’t change anything and he had to sweep the area. That was it , Sweep the Area and neutralize the Threat. The was the term he had heard Them using on the phone that time. ‘Sweep the area and neutralize the threat.’
The first place to check, as always was the windows. Stanley hobbled over to them, his gaunt frame struggling to hold his meagre weight upright. He pulled the curtain to one side with his index finger and stared through the small gap he had created. The street was completely empty, deserted as was to be expected at such an ungodly hour. The only activity visible was the loading of the bakery truck, which was parked just up the road, wasn’t considered a threat. As he moved on from that part of the sweep, Stanley felt calmer.
Hey Hey! Wait a second. Just because its quiet out there doesn’t mean they aren’t just sweeping, setting the trap for you. The whispers of his approaching madness spoke to him, reverberating around inside his head like a shout travelling down a wishing well.
Stanley moved slowly forcing himself not to succumb to the powerful adrenaline rush that was surging through his body, then he was apt to miss something and he knew that making a mistake was something that he could not afford to do.
His heart seemed to be one continual beat it was going so fast, and in the back of his preoccupied mind Stanley spared a moments thought to the question of. ‘What if it just gives up?’ However by that point in time he had staggered his way over to the closer and was leaning against it. His ear pressed to the side gently like an Indian scout tracking the stampeding buffalo.
When he heard no obvious sounds of life coming from the closet Stanley inched the door open just to check completely. He wasn’t worried because he kept the cupboard full of Sandbags, he had amassed them ever since there was a few nights of police presence for the tenants a few floors below him. There had been a lot of noise and even some gun shots, so he had used the bags, mostly self made from pillow cases and dirt, to block the windows and doors, or at least to delay any entry attempts and give him a head start.
The cupboard was empty…..
Another small sigh of relief, but the tension didn’t lessen. He knew They were there, or had been. It was just a question of where They were.
By the time Stanley reached the bathroom door, his body was so weak from hunger that he could barely stand, he had to support himself with both hands against the wall, his neck bowed while the latest dizzy spell past. They had been getting progressively worse over the last week, but he knew it was just Them trying to force him to eat. They were probably putting something into the air from the cooling unit. Yet still not one bead of sweat fell from his body. He had learnt to conserve water as much as possible, he forced himself to urinate only once every few days also, but when drinking tap water was as safe as playing Russian roulette with a Kalashnikov rifle, and the supermarkets were infested with Them, you had to make sacrifices, and water had simply been one of them.
For a while he had boiled the water, he knew it was poisoned, it was the simplest thing to do, and he wasn’t going to fall at that hurdle. He was sure any others had, but who knew how many people They had already taken. After a while however, they introduced something to the water that was heat resistant as Stanley was suddenly and violently ill. He was vomiting blood and passing out for almost a week, and he couldn’t go to the doctor, that would be what They wanted. Hell, he probably was one of Them. I never trusted him. His handwriting was always too neat, and that’s not right with doctors. Insanity spoke to him again. Each time it did another item was packed into the suitcase that his rational brain was packing in preparation for its long vacation.
A sudden noise from the bathroom got Stanley’s attention again, and also set his mildly controlled heart back into hyper mode. If it didn’t slow down the blood was liable to start cooking from the speed it was travelling through his veins and arteries. The perfectly cooked meal any cannibal would dream of.
No, not now. Move, Run
Stanley ignore the voice, he had to know what was there, deep inside he had decided long ago that he would stand and face Them when the moment came, partly from curiosity and a belief that he could over power Them, and partly because he was tired of running.
Inching his way towards the bathroom, Stanley only stopped to flick on the light. Another modification he had made since moving in had been to relocate the light switch from the inside to the outside of the bathroom. This made his evening and nightly checks all that easier. He knew that his landlord would not be impressed, but thankfully Juan Gonzalez was an immigrant whose English was only barely understandable when he was sober and complete gibberish when he was drunk, which thankfully for Stanley was whenever there was a y in the day.
Yet it was this impedingly fatal character flaw that made Juan the only person Stanley was sure he could trust. No man could ever be as consistently drunk as he was an be trusted not to fuck everything up.
Breathing deeply to gather his thoughts, Stanley licked his bleeding lips, dry and sore from dehydration, they had reached the point where they bled from the slightest of movements. The skin ripping like crepe paper every time he even swallowed.
The bathroom door opened with no resistance, pushing inwards, an aspect of the building that was beyond change. Stanley lost his footing, his body weight was too much for his emaciated limbs to hold for too long in one burst, and he tumbled into the bathroom, catching himself on the sink, grateful that the room was the same size as a janitors closet at his old high school.
Look around you. Look. Check under the sink, behind the toilet. There. There over there behind the shower curtain. What is that?
The room was empty, save for Stanley and the only think out of place was the canister of shaving cream, with Aloe Vera for sensitive skin, and also for its natural incorruptible qualities.
Just as he was about to leave, a sudden movement behind him caught his eye and Stanley spun around, ready to grab whomever it was and restrain them with all the strength of a Vietnamese prisoner of war. Thankfully it was only his own reflection.\
That was close
He had seen himself in the mirror, his own shadow moving across the reflective surface no doubt, only the man that was staring back at him was not him, it was another man. One that Stanley didn’t recognise and didn’t want to have to look at, the man was stick thin and look as though his legs might snap in two should you so much as look at him in a frustrated way
He hadn’t always looked like that. No Stanley could remember a time when if anything he was a little overweight. It came from all the late nights in the office where he worked as an advertising specialist. He had stood 6 feet tall and weight 95 kilos in his prime. He had gone to the gym three times a week and boxed twice with a friend at the local centre. He had been earmarked for success, the next great hope for the company they had said the day they had opened the present they had gotten for him,
He had never been married, or even in a long term committed relationship. Being too attached the bachelor life, yet it had been very rare that he ever woke up alone. Even paying prostitutes from Easterton three towns further over to spend the night with him so that he could, for a few moment at least pretend to be happy to stay here, but now the figure that stared at him was frail, his skin had turned grey, hair began to fall out and his eyes which had once been large and an intriguing shade of blue were now almost black, sunken deep into his skull. Hidden away from the world much like their owner.
It is all Their fault.
If anyone actually took the time to ask Stanley what it was that he had heard that day, late at night after another 18 hour day working on the Felton account, he would not have been able to give them a complete answer. He had fallen asleep at his desk as he had done three days in a row before that night also, and had at some point whilst moving in his sleep had knocked the phone partway from its holder, opening up the line to his office. When he finally awoke he looked at the clock and saw that it was just after 3 am, and was getting ready to go home when he heard voices, low and quiet as though whispering the greatest secret in the history of mankind, only the voices were coming through the phone, and Stanley knew for a fact that he was alone in the building because Joe the night Porter had come up to check on him during his last round.
Stanley hung up almost immediately but not before hearing the one phrase that would haunt his life from that moment on. ‘What was that? You’d better sweep the area and neutralize the threat that is poses.’
It wasn’t until the phone that he had just nestled every so gently back into place began to ring that Stanley began to get jumpy. He had answered it as calmly as if it were his own mother calling.
The voice on the other end had been assertive and demanded to know what he had just heard on the phone line. Needless to say he didn’t answer any questions, instead he had hung up, gathered his coat and ran out of the building, and it wasn’t until a few days later – days spent ‘sick’ from work that Stanley realised that they had been talking about him. He was the threat. He had to be neutralised.
From then on the games began. They started taunting him, playing with him seeing if he would crack. His PC was suddenly infected with viruses, as was his laptop which had had connected into a network allowing him to move his downloaded movies from one to the other. He large spacious apartment was broken into twice just as there was a ‘fault’ reported with the buildings security system, which resulted in the two main security guards being fired. Both whom were members of Them! Stanley knew it; their eyes gave them away.
He soon became convinced that he was being followed. He saw the same people every morning on the commute to work, sitting in the same seats in all directions. Sometimes there was a slight change but in general they had him surrounded at every possible moment. This resulted in more ‘sick’ days and ultimately he had all the major accounts that he was working on taken away from him and distributed amongst the workforce. This was the final sign, They had gotten to his employer. Left with no other choice, Stanley quit his job and tried as hard as he knew how at that point, to disappear of the radar.
He spent all of his time on library computers – even then he knew that to use his own would be foolish – searching for others like him, others that They were after. Looking back it probably led Them straight to him, They no doubt monitored those sorts of things, especially library machines, which could be used by anybody.
His employers stayed in contact with him, offering counselling and psychiatric therapy. They told him that it was probably just stress reaction from the recent passing of his mother coupled with the 75 hour week he was working, not including the weekends at home he spent behind the computer. Stanley had fallen for it and actually gone to the first session. He had opened up and almost fallen into Their trap, until the doctor offered him some prescription medication. That had been enough to tip Stanley off and he had left the room, slamming the door to both the office and his career shut behind him. He received his last pay check and a sketchy letter of recommendation a few days later.
He moved out of his apartment, he was given no choice, as a result of the break-ins, a security team had spent two whole days in there ‘re-wiring’ they had told him, when Stanley knew, it was Them, planting bugs around his house. Nowhere was safe anymore, nowhere in his old life. He took the very basic things, not wanting to take too much because they had probably bugged his clothes also. He remembered reading an article online that someone - called Paranoia 666 – had written saying bugs couldn’t work if they were covered with Aluminium foil. Stanley had laughed when he read it. The idea was ludicrous. Aluminium foil was useless against the new bugs, the ones that they had saved just for him, just for the threat, which had to be neutralised.
Only a couple of days after he moved out, both the bus and the train that he used to take to work exploded in what was termed in the news ‘a terrorist attack’ Stanley however knew otherwise, blaming the Muslims served the right purpose for the government, but what worried him more than the threat of theoretical suicide bombers with their turbans packed with C4 was that knowledge that They were willing to kill so many people just to Neutralise him.
The next logical step then was to stop sleeping. Nothing was safe; the darkness could no longer hide him away. He had to be vigilant 24 hours a day.
Excessive amounts of coffee had been the first trick, drinking as many as 35 cups a day, sometimes even just eating the instant granules by the spoonful. Next came caffeine pills and the simple and initially overlooked option of 5 alarm clocks placed around the flat each set at hourly intervals, so should he fall asleep then he would have to get out of bed and walk around before the silence would return and sleep could being to encroach once more.
It didn’t always work, sometimes They managed to get passed the defences and get into his mind, - the human mind is more susceptible when you are sleep or so Stanley had read – once inside his mind they controlled him, planting ideas and urges. He remembered one time that he had fallen asleep and woken up three hours later standing outside wearing nothing buy his pyjama trousers his feet disappeared up to the ankle in the muddy sludge what was the bank of the river which tried so hard to surround his neighbourhood. Separating it from the more civilized neighbourhoods where people had jobs that didn’t involve standing on street corners offering various services.
The memories faded away and Stanley saw himself staring at the gormless, lifeless figure on the other side of the mirror, he looked at it and felt disgusted, he could see the skin of his chest pulsing rapidly as his heart beat furiously, as it seemed to do almost constantly nowadays.
He was hungry, he hadn’t eaten in three days, unless you counted the chewing gum and the Aloe Vera gel drinks. By drinking five of them every day he could build up enough of an immune system so that he could eat a real meal once a week. A treat he would save for a Friday afternoon.
Shaking his head despondently Stanley shuffled back into the bedroom, walking like an elderly man stricken with emphysema. He was contemplating making himself a cup of coffee but decided he would be better off without it, not to mention it would only aggravate the headache that was building slowly at the back of his skull. Besides, he had found a much more effective method of sleep deprivation, one that he had still not gotten accustomed to. He had bought a large tens machine a few weeks before and whenever he felt tired he would apply it to various places on his body, ranging from his arms and chest to his testicles and penis, the power was always on full, and by the third of fourth jolt of supposedly healing electricity he would be awake.
Once in the bedroom, Stanley opened the top draw of the bedside unit and pulled out a dog-eared notebook and a pen, before sitting down on the bed his legs stretched out before him. However, before he could write so much as the date he heard another loud noise coming from the Alley way that served as the view from his cheap apartment.
He had never been visited twice in one night before, and as he pulled back the curtain a crack, giving him just enough room to see out into the street, his teeth rattled loosely in their gum bed as his heart leapt into his mouth and continued to beat is rhythm there instead.