Author : Charles Paul Wallace

I thought I’d got lucky.

She was my type, you know? Late ’20s, not-too-pretty-not-too-plain, intelligent…and, apparently, interested. I was in one of those black-light bars by the Thames, near to the corporate headquarters of my employers, Allwood Associates. She took the seat next to mine and ordered a sesame-oil tequila infusion. Class, I guess. We got to chatting. Things went well. We retired to a booth, then went on to a waterfront okonomiyaki stand in the shadow of Canary Wharf and ordered a pair of prawn specials.

The name she gave me was Rita. Authentic enough for me. “So, Seb.” She laid a gentle hand on my wrist. That should have set alarm bells ringing – but I’d had a few, and…well. You know. Lonely souls in the city and all that. “Guess you’re one of the lucky ones, right?”

“How so?” I leaned in towards her. The chef flipped our pancakes over and hummed a tune to himself.

“Well…” She swept an arm to indicate the towering temples of commerce a hundred metres away. “Not everyone has the luxury of a job nowadays.”

“And you?” I replied. My head felt fuzzy.

“Oh, I’m just like you.” She extracted a flask from her handbag and unscrewed the lid. An odour of absinthe and mint drifted out, mixing with the cooking smells. “So here’s to luck, huh?” She tipped her head back and drank. I almost fell in love there and then. She offered it to me. “Share and share alike, Seb.”

“Then here’s to you, Rita,” I said with as much seriousness as I could muster, and put the flask to my lips. The drink tasted warm like blood and cool like permafrost. When I handed the container back her eyes flickered cold for a second.

“Ready,” the chef called. I paid him and passed her one of the pancakes. The first mouthful tasted strange; like something dead was squatting beneath my tongue, sucking my vitality out. By the second bite Rita’s face was phasing in and out. Was it me? Or something about her?

“Seb,” she said. Her voice sounded metallic now. Her right eye-socket shone, as if made of plastic. “You won’t remember any of this. Not consciously. But I am legally obligated to inform you that you are now the property of ProvoTech Ltd, company registration number 10429199. Any prior employment contracts have been rescinded. You will report to us any and all protocols, blueprints or minutes related to the period of your employment at Allwood Associates, Ltd, not limited to –”

But she never got to finish what she was saying. Never got to, because at that moment her face caved in on itself and the mesh of wire filaments thus revealed began to melt. She – it – stumbled forward into my arms. Behind her stood the figure of the okonomiyaki chef, legs akimbo in a combat stance, his heat-gun still pulsing.

“Lucky boy,” he said, shaking his head. “Getting taken in by a spy-bot, eh?”

‘Rita’ crumpled to the ground, its mouth emanating a low electronic moan. The chef murmured code into a lapel-mic. I ran before whoever it was he was talking to turned up.

Back at my apartment I found a black-light scanner waiting for me on the kitchen table. My right eye-socket shone beneath its unflinching illumination, as if made of plastic. Something clicked inside my head.
I got out my phone. “1042-18 reporting,” I – or something inside me – murmured. “Spy-bot neutralised. Returning to base.”

On my way out I shoved the scanner into the toilet. I didn’t lock the door behind me.