20 December 2018
Gibb’s 2018 Christmas
What is on the menu?
By Neil Tidmarsh
Bester chewed carefully, frowning with concentration. Then he swallowed. “Witchetty grub?” he hazarded. “And… wait… weevil larvae?”
Harrad simply laughed and shook his head.
Gibb looked round the table. There were six of them sitting there – six humans – Gibb himself, Bester and his mother, and Harrad and his wife and daughter. Two androids were serving them. The young male android was carving the roast and expertly serving the warm, steaming, golden-skinned, white-fleshed slices to Harrad’s guests. The young female android was serving the vegetables and pouring the wine. The pair of them looked very 2018. They were dressed just like the stars of those ancient movies Harrad liked to watch – posing as the connoisseur – on his collection of antiquated disks (Gibb tried to remember what they were called – CDs? DVDs?).
“Yellow mealworm?” Bester suggested. “Mopane caterpillar?”
Harrad shook his head again. “No, no” he laughed.
“Well, whatever it is, it’s absolutely delicious” Bester’s mother said. “I’ve never, ever tasted anything so… so… indescribably wonderful before…”
Gibb found himself nodding in agreement as he chewed. He looked up, smiling, and caught Bester’s mother’s eye. She was smiling, too. Bester and his mother – Gibb found himself rather liking them, against his better judgement. Bester was so innocent and his mother was so sweet. Neither of them had any idea what was going to happen to them. They had absolutely no idea of what was waiting for them once the meal was over. Gibb suppressed a shudder, thinking about it. No, don’t allow yourself to like them, he thought. That wouldn’t be professional. It would only make things difficult. Just think what’s at stake. He stopped smiling and turned his attention back to his food, trying to distract his thoughts.
What the hell was it, this ‘meat’? So tender and strangely dry, the incredibly rich taste coming out only when smothered with the gravy which must have been made from the meat’s juices. Whatever it was, it wasn’t reconstituted and moulded insect meal, that was for sure. Lab-grown meat, perhaps? Gibb shook his head. He’d eaten lab-gro before, three or four times – it had been good, very good, but nothing like this. And the vegetables – soaked in those same juices – those small round cabbages, the carrots, the parsnips, the roast potatoes, so crispy… And the sauces – the sharp red cranberry sauce, the subtle white bread sauce… He knew them by name only, but… He looked at the platters in the middle of the table. It certainly looked like a traditional Christmas turkey dinner from the late twentieth / early twenty-first century; everyone knew what that looked like, they’d seen it in the old films and photographs. He’d never actually tasted one, of course, but he’d always imagined it would taste just like this, somehow…
He knew the champagne was real, though, as was the claret – a Bordeaux from 2034, almost a hundred years old. Harrad enjoyed showing off his stockpile of authentic soil-vine-grape wines. The storage was expensive, of course, but they were a finite resource – no one had made wine from grapes for almost forty years now – and therefore increasingly valuable.
“Brown locust? Chapuline grasshopper? Short-tail cricket?”
“No!” More laughter.
“Pentatomid bug? Bamboo caterpillar? Queen termite? Grasshopper eggs?”
“No, no, no!” Harrad had a pleasant laugh when he was being charming. He shook his head and turned to Bester’s mother. “I don’t think young Bester’s going to guess what it is we’re eating, do you?”
“Well, neither am I. It’s a mystery. Like…” She frowned, and her smile faded for a moment. “Like… why you’ve been kind enough to invite us to share your Christmas dinner with you?”
Harrad sat back and spread his arms wide, generous and open. “Your son is an exemplary employee. Valued. Appreciated. I’m very grateful for all he’s done since he joined MzX three months ago. That’s all this is. Gratitude.”
“Well, we’re the grateful ones. Aren’t we, Bester?” She looked around the room with wonder. “It’s all so… so… real… It really is like stepping back through time a hundred years and more… 2018… I mean, books… paper books… too valuable to actually read, surely… shelves and shelves of them, over there… and the paper Christmas cards, on top of the shelves… I’ve never seen them outside of a museum before, or… and that tree… that Christmas tree… an actual Christmas tree, with electric lights! And the music – what are those songs called?”
“Carols” Harrad said. “Christmas carols.”
“Yes! They’re lovely. And they’re on CD? Is that an actual CD player? And is that an actual television?” She shook her head, wide-eyed with delight. “And it’s so peaceful and quiet, isn’t it? I can’t hear any drones or power-hum or transpol or adscream. It really is like going back a hundred years…”
Gibb nodded in agreement again. It was impressive, this show of Harrad’s. I wonder how he does it? An old-fashioned electricity generator in the basement, no doubt, and the rare antique fixtures and fittings wouldn’t be beyond someone of Harrad’s wealth and resources. But no power-strim? Wasn’t that dangerous? It was a blessing to escape from the everyday torrent of comms, if only for an hour or two, but does this mean the environment here is unfiltered? Are we in danger of GTU radiation right now, and TYD infection? No, there must be an external envelope of filtration somewhere, holding us in a bubble.
It also meant that Bester and his mother won’t be able to send an alarm signal out across the power-wave, he reminded himself. Their personal security and protection envelopes would be flat, impotent. The fools. Don’t they realise how vulnerable they are? Do they really want to make things easy for Harrad?
“It’s something of a tradition with us” Harrad said. “We like an authentic, old-fashioned Christmas. Every year, we like to turn the clock back a hundred years or so, to when Christmas really was Christmas – ”
“But it’s so boring!” His daughter – silent up to that moment – interrupted him. Her voice was an exasperated whine. “No reception!” She held up her right hand, palm outwards, to show that the membrane screen there was a pale-blue blank. “No transmission!” She held up her left hand, to show the screen there equally blank. “Nothing but that primitive rubbish – what’s it called? Wi-fi? Wi-fi! Pathetic! Nobody’s used fragging wif-fi for decades!” Her voice rose with anger. “It’s the same every year. The past stinks! Why go back there?” She brought both fists crashing down on the table. “Put the fragging power-strim back on, for frag’s sake! Frag knows what I’m missing!”
“Now, less of that smearing, if you please!” Harrad’s wife bristled indignantly. “Your father’s gone to all this trouble, so show some appreciation for once!”
“Well, did I ask him to?” the girl shouted. “No! I wish he hadn’t! And so do you! You know it’s boring! You said so, last year!”
“I most certainly did not!” Her mother’s voice sharpened. “And if you don’t behave yourself, you can leave straight after the Christmas pudding and brandy-butter and miss all the fun and treats we’ve got lined up after dinner!”
That shut the girl up. Gibb suppressed a grin. Harrad’s daughter was twenty years old. All the gene-masking and plastic surgery and pulchrinjections which science could provide and money could buy had gone to work on her, and the results were spectacular, close to physical perfection. And yet, all of those advantages couldn’t hide the girl’s toxic character. The family wealth (Harrad’s great-grandfather had been one of the first to invest in the SolPack, getting in before its breakthrough seventy years ago) had poisoned her psychologically. She was spoilt, idle and selfish, and it showed in her gestures and expressions, peeping out from behind her beauty like radiation damage pulsing through silken bandages.
It was particularly apparent in the moving tattoos which she’d insisted on having etched all over her otherwise flawless skin. Gibb watched them shimmer and shift up and down her arms and across her shoulders and face. He knew they were fashionable, and he knew that the artist who’d created them was one of the most famous (and expensive) in the business. But they struck him as ugly and grotesque, spoiling her beauty. They reminded him of the marks he’d seen branded on dissidents and terrorists and other criminals in Siberia waiting to be blasted off to exile on the Mars colonies.
But if she looked perfect, she also looked artificial. Like her parents. Gibb glanced over at Harrad and his wife. Well, they looked somewhat less perfect and rather more artificial. The couple took the same pulchri treatments as their daughter, but because they were older and had been taking them for longer, the strain was beginning to show in the colour and texture of their skin and in their muscle-tone. Gibb knew they were just as toxic as their daughter, even though age and experience meant they were better at hiding it. All three of them were dressed in the latest YeYe – the radiant and characteristic YeYe colours (trademarked) changing every few minutes and shining brighter than the lights on the Christmas tree.
“Do you understand, girl?” Harrad’s wife exclaimed with sharp finality. “So behave yourself!”
The girl nodded sullenly, sulking in silence once again.
Bester’s mother looked embarrassed and awkward. She opened her mouth, no doubt to say something emollient, then thought better of it and remained silent. The spat had all gone over her geeky son’s head, however; he was still intent on his food. “Packed with protein” he muttered. “But what kind of protein? Not plant – not insect – then what?” He looked up at Harrad. “Well, sir, I have no idea. Unless…”
Gibb knew that Bester was the same age as Harrad’s daughter – and he guessed that Bester’s mother was more or less the same age as Harrad’s wife – but they had little else in common. If the Harrads looked perfect but artificial, the Besters looked imperfect but authentic. Neither of them looked as if they’d had any cosmetic work done, apart from the routine procedures available free as part of the Citizen’s Entitlement. Bester and his mother looked grey-faced and slack-shouldered and worn-out, no different to the millions of other coders out there herded into vast corparracks around the world to ceaselessly program and reprogram the machines which were too vital or dangerous to be programmed by each other. Gibb knew the kind of cramped and under-powered estates on which they lived. The Harrad’s palatial quarters must seem like another world to them. The Besters’ clothes were old and label-less, but clean and functional.
Gibb noticed the criss-cross purple scars on the back of the mother’s right hand – the tell-tale sign carried by childhood victims of the abelo-k epidemic. The mysterious virus had appeared from nowhere fifty years ago, run riot among the weakest and the poorest for two decades, and then disappeared just as mysteriously. She hid her hand under the table when she saw him looking at it. None of the Harrads carried the scars – not because they would have had them cosmetically removed, but simply because the epidemic would have missed their family altogether.
Harrad smiled. “Unless what, Mr Bester?”
“Unless…” Bester pulled a face and started laughing to show that he was joking. “Unless it’s human being…”
“No, it’s not human being, I assure you.” Harrad laughed his pleasant, easy, charming laugh. His wife laughed, not quite so pleasantly or easily. His daughter didn’t laugh. She looked at Bester with disgust.
Gibb, who rarely trusted Harrad, knew that Harrad was telling the truth this time. Gibb had eaten human flesh. Decades ago, on that disastrous orbit of Saturn’s moons, when the ship had… Well, it had been a necessity. He wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t. He shook his head. No, different taste altogether.
“More wine!” Harrad’s wife ordered. “Here, fill my glass! Hurry up!” She glared at the female android. Gibb had noticed her glaring at the android before, casting a critical and hostile – and jealous? – eye over her. Both androids were very beautiful in an outrageously retro way. Both a bit on the heavy side, perhaps – the male too muscled and the female too broad in the hip and big in the bust for today’s fashion – but, well, magnificent, nevertheless. Perhaps it’s time the fashion changed, Gibb thought. Perhaps that’s what Harrad’s wife is thinking as well – no doubt she’ll be onto her surgeon’s comms site about a new, more curvaceous figure as soon as this business is over. And what Harrad himself is thinking, by the way he’s looking at that android’s curves.
“Yes, ma’am, sorry, ma’am, immediately, ma’am.” The female android bent over, bottle in hand, but then straightened up again almost immediately, squealing.
Harrad’s wife, furious, turned to her husband. “You said you wouldn’t! You said you wouldn’t touch them this year! You swore it, after what you did to the one we had last year!”
Harrad, laughing, held up both hands. “Guilty, I confess! Guilty! I couldn’t resist it.” His wife still glared at him. “Come on, the MeToo legislation doesn’t cover robots, does it?” He ran his eyes shamelessly up and down the android’s figure. “Human flesh? If she was human, I’d gobble her all up. Eh, Bester? Wouldn’t you?”
Both Bester and his mother looked embarrassed this time.
“Right” Harrad’s wife said. “You!” She pointed to the male android. “Come here!”
“Yes, ma’am.” The android bowed and put down the carving knife and fork. As soon as he was in arm’s reach, Harrad’s wife grabbed him and pulled him onto her lap. “I say! Ma’am! I say!” the android protested, but he didn’t struggle. Harrad and Harrad’s wife were both laughing now. Harrad’s wife ran her fingers through the android’s thick black beard. “Why don’t men have beards these days, Harrad?” she exclaimed. “Why don’t you have a beard, Harrad?”
“Mother!” her daughter screamed. “Put him down!” There was jealousy as well as outraged anger in her scream. Gibb had noticed her leering at the android all afternoon. She stood up and grabbed hold of the android’s arm and tried to pull him off her mother. “He’s not interested in you! You’re too old! Look at me, robot-boy, look at me!” There was a sound of tearing fabric, and a muscular shoulder appeared through a rent in the android’s shirt. “Ooooh!” screamed the daughter with delight.
At least she’s no longer sullen and sulking, Gibb thought. Bester and his mother were sitting very still, not eating, looking more embarrassed and awkward than ever. Gibb felt the unfamiliar stab of a strange and foreign emotion. Compassion. I’ve got to get them out of here, he thought, before it’s too late.
Harrad had given him the job eleven months ago. Harrad always used Gibb when he needed an investigator. Gibb was good at his work. In his time he’d hunted dissidents and terrorists through Europe and China and Russia. He’d hunted escaped convicts through the solar system. He’d been hunted and imprisoned himself.
At first the job had seemed like any other. A routine DNA trail. Missing persons, although there was no certainty that the persons had existed in the first place. That wasn’t unusual. It was just a matter of following each branch of the DNA trail until you hit a dead end. Or found someone living. Gibb had found someone living – Bester and his mother – at the very end of only one of the branches. He’d tracked them down to the other side of the world. They’d both been working for the RAD corporation in Hzou-Tzou city. Harrad offered them better paid work with MzX here in New London, and they’d taken it.
The mission had puzzled Gibb. What on earth could Harrad want with such ordinary people as the Besters? He’d dug around on his own behalf, and he’d almost put enough of the story together to know what was going on even before Harrad had fully briefed him only two days ago, in the thoroughly secured and de-bugged safe-room in Harrad’s New London apartment.
“Bitcoin, Gibb. The original and genuine cryptocurrency. Remember? Well, I’ve found billions of them. Almost nine billion, in fact. Just sitting there, in a hidden account, waiting to be claimed. They’ve been there for almost a century, multiplying year by year.”
Nine billion? In Bitcoin? Even more than Gibb had imagined. Astronomical. Gibb’s mind had clouded over at the thought of what such a gigantic sum might represent. But he’d been careful not to show any amazement. “Don’t tell me. Waiting for the Besters to claim them.”
“Now hang on, don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves. Once upon a time there was a genius called Yan Chia. Heard of him?”
“Of course. Wasn’t his start-up the beginning of MzX?”
“Sort of. It was absorbed by the Mz Co., which merged with my grandfather’s Exander business to become MzX. I’ve been going through the company’s historical archives for years, like a gold-digger from the 1850’s sifting for gold dust in mountain streams (in the days when California had mountains and water – can you believe it?). Those archives are family property, of course – no one else has access to them. Well, old Yan Chia’s personal bank accounts are all there – he tried hiding them, of course, in Switzerland and the Bahamas and all over the place – but finding that kind of thing is child’s play these days. There was one where he kept funds in trust for his offspring. It was emptied decades ago, of course, like all of them, but all the records were still there and there was something a bit odd about them. No interest – the funds didn’t seem to accumulate any interest. Then I found it. The old pirate had written a hidden program into the account which sent all the interest off into a separate secret account cunningly hidden on the early twenty-first century Dark Web. A scam so that his offspring wouldn’t have to pay taxes, of course. That was when the International Populist Police Force was going after oligarchs and monopolistic entrepreneurs with a vengeance – you’ll know all about that. This secret account was intended for his children and his children’s children, etc, and the really cunning thing was that it was hidden even from them every day of the year except one – Christmas Day. The portal into the account opened for them only on December 25 each year, a Christmas present – the year’s interest – from old grand-daddy Yan, the Santa Claus beyond the grave.”
“So how come the treasure’s still there?”
“Yan Chia only had one child, and that child had no children. The line died out. There’s been no-one waiting at the portal for that Christmas present for decades.”
“That’s right. I’m waiting, but I could wait forever. That portal won’t open for anyone but a proven descendant of Yan Chia. Someone with the right DNA and personal data.”
“That’s right. Now we’re getting there. On the off-chance that Yan or his son had fathered bastards and that the bastard’s off-spring had no idea of their ancestry – not at all unlikely – I sent you round the world with a sample of old Yan’s DNA and you came back with the Besters. One of the mother’s parents or grandparents or great grandparents must have been an illegitimate child of Yan or of Yan’s son, and they know nothing about it.”
“That’s it. That’s what we’ve got to do. On Christmas Day. They’re a trusting pair, it’ll be easy. They’ll have no idea what hit them.”
Something inside Gibb had recoiled for some unfathomable reason. “Is that necessary? How about telling them everything and cutting them in for a small percentage?”
Harrad had given him a strange look. “You’re not going soft on me, are you, Gibb?” His eyes had been full of disdain and suspicion. “I’ve never taken you for a soft man.”
Gibb was not a soft man. He’d been a soldier in more than one army. He’d been a policeman on more than one planet. He’d killed good men and bad – and women and children too – and had never thought much about it. He’d been left for dead many times himself, but he’d lived. He’d fought in three inter-planetary wars, he’d survived shipwreck in interstellar space, he’d contracted fevers from four mutant strains of the Delta-5 virus, he’d been exposed to Cirus radiation twice. His insurance premiums were so sky-high that his agent had been begging him to retire for the last six months. But he didn’t want to retire. What would he do with himself? The imagined boredom terrified him. What was he going to do – take up an extreme sport? His body was too old and battered for that, and no sport or game could ever come close to the adrenalin highs of his work.
“And something else” Harrad had said, squinting at him. “I’ve always trusted you, hard man. But if you’re thinking of double-crossing me now, of going to the Besters behind my back for a percentage, then… Well, you know that two-thousand year old story about the superhuman being who was born on Christmas Day? He was worshipped not because of his birth, but because of his death. He was born to die, and die he did, a long, lingering, painful and primitive death. If you cross me, you’ll die too, and your death will be long, lingering and painful, just like his. But not remotely primitive.”
Gib watched the woman and the girl tearing the shirt off the android, screaming with delight at the revealed muscles, the kind of muscles which human beings hadn’t bothered to develop ever since robots took over every type of heavy work. He watched the Besters, glancing at each other with dismay and discomfort and shifting uneasily over their emptied plates. I’ve got to help them, he thought.
He knew what was in the next room. It was kitted out like a hospital. The DNA transfer and masking would be straightforward enough, as would the iris-and-fingerprint capture, but the rest – the extraction of personal data, tax and national insurance passwords, keys to birth certificate decryption – that was always a bit trickier. They had samples of the latest truth serums and brain-scrambling probes, but even the most advanced truth serums didn’t work on everyone and the probes weren’t always as reliable as they should be. He knew that Harrad’s daughter had been doing a lot of homework about the more traditional methods they could use if they had to – she’d been teaching herself hypnosis, and she’d been studying all the twentieth-century manuals about physical torture which she could find on-line. She’d be an expert by now, a natural, desperate to try out her new-found skills.
I can’t let the Besters walk right into this, he thought. I can’t.
Mother and son would have no idea who they were by the time they came out of that room. Even if they did, they’d have no way of proving it. They’d be without any kind of identity or identification, they wouldn’t be able to find work, housing or welfare. Officially, they wouldn’t even exist. It would be worse than death. They might be able to scrape a living at the very lowest levels of the criminal underclasses, but Gibb couldn’t imagine people like the Besters managing even that.
Harrad clapped his hands to get everybody’s attention. “Clear the table!” he ordered the androids. “Bring in the Christmas pudding!” The male android, programmed to obey, effortlessly disentangled himself from Harrad’s wife and daughter, much to their evident disappointment. “And now” Harrad said, “while dessert is being served, I’ll tell you what animal you’ve been eating tonight.”
The word “animal” echoed around the room in amazement. “Animal?” everyone exclaimed to each other, bewildered. “Animal!” cried Bester. “I thought so! But… but…”
No one had eaten animal for decades, not since agriculture had collapsed sixty years ago. Meat-eating had been made illegal fifty years ago, but by then stock-farming had died out altogether anyway, killed by the deadly cocktail of ecological degradation, climate change, disappearance of farming-land, over-population, etc, which had triggered the collapse in the first place. No one had seen an animal for the last forty years, let alone eaten one. Nobody really missed them. Virtual pets were as affectionate as the real thing (and more obedient) and hydroponically-grown plants and farmed insects provided perfect nutrition for human beings.
“Yes, animal!” Harrad repeated. “And the animal which we’ve all been eating as ‘turkey’ is…” Harrad paused for dramatic effect. Gibb and the other four waited in silent suspense. The clink of plates and dishes was the only sound as the two androids went round the table, serving the pudding and pouring the cream and scooping out the brandy-butter. “Turkey!”
The room erupted. Uproar. Harrad’s wife and daughter and Bester were laughing and clapping and shouting with amazement and delight. Bester’s mother looked alarmed and frightened. She raised one hand in protest, and she tried to say something but shock rendered her speech incomprehensible. Only Gibb was silent.
“Turkey!” Harrad shouted above the uproar. “Everything else might have been synthetic – but the turkey was real turkey! Happy Christmas!”
“But… but… the supplies of deep-frozen fowl were exhausted years ago…” Bester blustered.
“No. Fresh turkey! Not ancient, deep-frozen turkey!”
“Then… cloned?” Bester lowered his voice. Cloning farm animals was illegal, too.
Harrad dismissed that with a disdainful shake of the head.
Gibb spoke. “I’ve heard rumours about illicit stock-farming. But that’s just modern folklore. Myth and legend. I’ve looked into it.”
Harrad pointed at him. “Mr Gibb has nailed it. Not myth and legend, my friend. Reality. Secret, of course. Well-hidden. But to someone with my resources – ”
“But this is illegal!” Bester’s mother shouted. She stood up. She was shaking with fear, but there was defiance in her eyes. “We’ve broken the law! You’ve turned us into criminals!”
There was silence. Everybody froze, surprised by her sudden courage. Then Harrad’s daughter jumped to her feet. “Let’s do it now! I’ve had enough of these two! The pudding can wait – there’ll be more for the rest of us if we deal with mother and son first!”
“One moment.” Gibb stood up too, but slowly. What’s this, a voice asked him. Are you mad? Is it the dreaded prospect of retirement, forcing you to look back over your work with fresh eyes? Is the Christmas story getting to you – all these carols playing in the background, those cards with their pictures of a baby in a manger, reinforcing a story of vulnerable innocence, humble nobility, self-sacrifice, redemption? If you’re reborn today as a Good Man, Harrad will crucify you.
What happened next happened very quickly.
“Don’t move!” someone shouted “You’re all under arrest!” It took even Gibb a moment to realise that it was the female android shouting. He looked up. She was facing them square on, a stun-gun in each hand aimed straight at them. Without moving, he swivelled his eyes to look for the male android. He was standing to one side, stun-guns ready, covering them from another angle. Professionals. Impressive. Gibb nodded. Undercover police. Not androids. I should have spotted them. How come I didn’t spot them? Perhaps it is time I retired, after all.
Harrad was frozen, stunned, as if he’d already been hit by their weapons. Bester’s mother collapsed back into her chair. Bester sat there, staring at the police officers with his mouth hanging open and a blank look in his eye. Harrad’s wife jumped to her feet, and she and her daughter started shouting angrily at the same time. “How dare you? You’re just androids! Androids! How dare you? You can’t..!”
The policewoman fired both her weapons. The air sizzled and the mother and daughter fell to the floor, twitching.
“Identity, please” Gibb said.
“I’ll show you once the power-strim’s up and running” the policewoman said. “You! Go and turn it on!”
The policeman accompanied Harrad out of the room – Gibb noticed that Harrad was trembling all over – and a few seconds later Gibb felt the air moving, as if there was a light breeze, and he heard a whisper and faint crackling from the microscopic receiver-inserts in his ear-canal. The power-strim had been turned back on. He shook his head to try and clear the whispering and crackling – he hadn’t even turned his reception back on yet – but to no avail. His ears had been damaged in that explosion in the collapsed sewage tunnels under the ruins of Kinshasha, and no amount of surgery had managed to correct the subsequent interference. No matter. He’d get used to it again and in a few moments he wouldn’t even notice it.
The police officers’ identification was in order. Harrad’s wife and daughter came round, groaning, and crawled back to their chairs. They sat there, lolling and groggy, while the officers completed the formalities. “You’re all under arrest, on suspicion of eating a banned substance. One or more of you are under suspicion of procuring a banned substance. One or more of you are under suspicion of preparing a banned substance for human consumption.”
They then started to run tests on the carcass of the turkey. They had all the kit with them. How on earth had they managed to smuggle it into the house? Where had they been concealing it? Gibb started laughing. He couldn’t help it. You really are losing your touch, old man. Bester and his mother, their eyes big with fear, watched the police at work. Harrad’s wife and daughter glared at Harrad, their eyes laser-sharp with anger and condemnation.
The policeman stood up, peering at the results on the screen in his hand. He looked puzzled. “This isn’t turkey” he said, scratching his head.
“What is it?” his colleague asked, her eyes and weapons still on Harrad and his guests.
“Brown rat. Also known as the common rat.”
Harrad’s wife and daughter starting screaming with disgust. Bester’s mother started gagging and put her hands to her mouth. Bester was still staring at the policemen with his mouth open and his eyes blank. Gibb was still laughing. Harrad was shaking his head, frowning with bewilderment and disbelief.
It wasn’t exactly true to say that all animals on Earth had been wiped out. One species had survived ecological collapse, over-population, habitat destruction and all the other disasters of the last century. That species was the brown rat, and it thrived in the over-crowded and insanitary conditions of the ultra-modern city. The one animal mankind had tried to destroy had survived, ironically, while all the other species which man had tried to save had become extinct.
“Hang on” Gibb said. “It isn’t illegal to eat brown rat.”
“No!” Harrad said. “Because no-one would want to!”
“But it is illegal to prepare it for human consumption” the policewoman said. “And it’s a serious crime to serve it as food, particularly under the pretence that it’s a different foodstuff.”
Gibb stood up. “So I’m free to go.” He nodded at Bester and his mother. “And so are you two.”
Harrad looked dazed. “Brown rat? They swore it was turkey!” His eyes narrowed with fury. “I’ve been had! They’ll pay for this! I’ll – !”
His wife and daughter turned on him, screaming. The policewoman was calling for back-up, a police drone to take the suspects away for interrogation. “You three can go” the policeman said to Gibb and the Besters. “But not you three!”
“Don’t you know who we are?” Harrad’s wife yelled at the officers. “Don’t you know who he is? He’s Harrad! Harrad, of MzX!”
The police officers ignored her and locked three sets of magnetic cuffs on three pairs of wrists.
Gibb hustled the Besters out of the apartment, down the escalator and out of the building. They were dazed and shocked. The recycled air outside in the crowded public arcades was hot and damp and stuffy and the light was dim. The public power-strim was so crude that he could feel the hair on his head stirring and the interference in his ears was almost unbearable. It’s amazing how sensitive a few hours of black-out could make you, he reflected. He led them through the crowds and into the first tea-house they came to.
He took them to a private and secure cubicle in the tea-house, brought them tea, and waited for their shock to wear off before he told them everything. At first they didn’t believe him. They thought it was just another of Harrad’s cruel tricks – they half-suspected that the rat business had all been a joke at their expense – but a few key-strokes on their screens persuaded them that he was telling the truth. A mere ten minutes of in-put later, the two of them were richer than they’d ever thought possible, but still struggling hard to come to terms with Gibb’s revelation.
“You’ll have to hide from Harrad for the rest of your life” Gibb said. “But that won’t be a problem for people with your resources. You’ll want to start a completely new life anyway, hide away from your old one. I know organisations and people who can help you. Here, I’ll give you their contacts.”
Gibb refused to take a percentage, even though they tried hard to press at least ten percent on him. It would be wasted, he thought. Even if he took it, he doubted that he’d have time to spend it. Harrad might not go after the Besters – Harrad would immediately realise it was too late for that, it would simply be throwing good money after bad – but he would most certainly send people after Gibb. Revenge. Punishment. And sooner or later they’d catch up with him. Even Gibb, with all his skills and experience, wouldn’t be able to run forever from the teams Harrad would send after him. But it would be a good game, just the game to keep him occupied in his retirement. It was a game he couldn’t win, but he’d play it as hard as he could and for as long as he could, and he wouldn’t complain when the final whistle blew.
He shook hands with Bester and his mother. His mother did it awkwardly, self-conscious of those scars on her hand. “You can afford to get them erased now, if you want” he said. “You can afford whatever you want now. But they’ll fade eventually, anyway. Mine did.”
She looked up at him. “So you had it, too?”
He nodded. “When I was a kid. Still remember the agony. Like my lungs were on fire.”
“Yes.” She shuddered. “Where will you go now?”
He laughed. “To find a doctor. Who knows what we might have caught from the half-dozen rats in that roast?”
“That rat tasted good.” Bester suddenly said. He’d been silent for a long time. “Who knew rat could taste that good?”
“I certainly didn’t.” I’d never eaten rat before, Gibb thought with surprise. How about that? “But I reckon rattus norvegicus did us all a big favour.” He laughed again. “They used to eat turkey for thanksgiving every year in the USA. I think I might start eating rat every Christmas now for the same reason.” He turned to leave.
“But where will we go?” Bester said.
“Wherever you like. The whole world, the solar system, the universe, they’re yours to explore. Only don’t tell me – because I might be forced to tell someone else.”
“Come with us!” Bester begged. He was no longer in a daze. Now he looked excited and overjoyed and frightened all at once. “Please!”
Gibb looked at Bester’s mother. Her eyebrows were raised in mute appeal. Her lips moved as if she was trying to say ‘please’ but was too frightened to ask in case the answer was ‘no’. Gibb thought about it. Why not? It would be good, almost like having a wife and son. A family. He’d never thought about having a family… No. He shook his head. “It would be too dangerous for you. It would double Harrad’s chances of finding you.”
Bester started forwards, as if to stop Gibb from leaving, but his mother held him back. “Goodbye, Mr Gibb,” she said “And good luck. And thank you. And Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you too.” Gibb left the tea-house and made his way through the crowded arcades. Through the dirty glass of the arcade roof he saw the blue and yellow lights of a police drone flashing against the dark sky. It passed noisily overhead from the direction of Harrad’s tower. And a Merry Christmas to you too, Harrad, he thought. And to your wife and daughter. But don’t invite me back next year, even if I’m still alive.