Here it is at last, my latest story, The Troll Hunter. This began as a short story, then expanded all on its own like that foam cavity wall insulation, I couldn’t stop it. I think it’s still expanding, so be careful as you read it.
The Troll Hunter
Chapter 1 – Waiting For The Hunters
The Hunters began life in the darkness, tortured and alone. In the days long ago following the end of War we knew nothing of them, but then, one by one, day by day they began to emerge, filled with anger.
They were our Messiahs. They taught us about their beginning and their end, their children and their fathers, their battles and their deaths. There was a sadness in their eyes as they told their stories, a sadness deeper than the pit out of which they climbed.
Holly and I were obsessed with the Hunters. We longed to become their Guides, to listen to their grief, wash their wounds and give them the strength to fight, just as they would give us the strength to wash away our own grief. We studied at The Academy together so that we could be the first to Greet each new Hunter as they emerged from that door in the dark wall.
Holly was a few months ahead of me in training. A natural athlete with a fierce intelligence, she had known grief and anger after her father was killed in a driving accident when she was only fifteen. That had made her the perfect candidate for the Academy. I looked up to her as a mother after losing mine in my childhood. Our sadness bound us together and led us inextricably down a path towards the Hunters.
So today was the day when Holly would get to Greet her first Hunter and be his Guide. I had to admit to being intensely jealous, but I knew the time would soon come when I too would walk out of the woods and stand face to face with the fierce, sad countenance of my Messiah.
We both stood in the hide, camouflaged against the copse of trees, excited and tremulous as the time approached. Clipping our headsets on, we waited for the Hunter.
Chapter 2 – The Hunter In The Darkness
It was the last day of my life, the day I caught the troll. I had been hunting him for what seemed like months. It had only been seven days, four hours, thirty three minutes and eleven point seven three seconds to be precise, but who’s counting eh? Certainly not me. Not any more anyway. Counting is for clocks and misers and that vampire on Sesame Street. For me now, existence is just an all-encompassing darkness of disembodied thought, a stream of unconsciousness, a purposeless infinity punctuated, it seems, by an irrational tendency to continually evaluate my ex-life’s mission, my successful mission, my terminal mission. I mean, what’s the point of that?! There’s no one listening. I’m dead, I shouldn’t even be thinking! Is it gloating if you’re dead and alone?
Oh well, c’est la vie, or not as the case may be. I’ll talk to myself. Some might say that’s unhealthy; I say how much more unhealthy can you get than dead? So hello self, are you talking to me? You must be, I’m the only one here. Hah! No one here to witness my De Niro.
Here goes then. This is my Mission Review Blog, just for me. My grande finale. I wish I could write it down. Ah well, I’ll just re-live it in real time, like it’s happening right now. This is how it all ends. But first, my only friend, this is how it begins.
Chapter 3 – Messiah #45 Mission Blog part one
It begins with the Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep iPlanet alarm which brings me to consciousness and straightaway I hear the messages coming in. I sit up and try to remember what I had been dreaming about but my already hyperactive mind demands to acknowledge the messages and get on with my work, so I scan my screen above the bed, send a coded reply to the controller and look for my mission log.
I’m sure some people take time to wake up, open the curtains on their day, feel the morning sun on their faces and do all of those other things that ease them gently to work, but not me, oh no. I’m dedicated. Totally dedicated. The certain knowledge that my mission will bring about my demise doesn’t turn me from my goal. Not one bit. I cannot be distracted.
Oh alright, just one little peek at Facebook. I reach for my personal terminal from the otherwise empty bedside table. My security is high level and switched permanently on. No one will know I am looking. I have a few false accounts all set up to make me look like other people, all linked to a program that generates their behaviour, posts comments, likes posts, watches YouTube videos and shares the sort of ideas that keeps them just popular enough to remain friends with those whose lives the program has hacked, but not popular enough to warrant too much attention. Just enough to keep me in the loop with the world outside, keep me fresh, keep my neurons sparking and it’s good practise for the real work.
Is this relevant to my Mission Blog or am I wandering off on a tangent? Who knows? I have an eternity to ponder this. I have vague memories of writing a life blog long ago. I remember I liked writing. The feel of the keyboard and the dancing of the letters on the screen as ideas come to life. I wish I could write this down the old school way, share it with somebody, anybody. Instead it’s even more virtual than the bits and bytes of data that made up my old online blog or the pictures of friends on social networking sites. Speaking of which…
Just one little peek at Facebook then. No one would deny me that in my final days. A last slice of the hilarious, the meaningless and the scandalous that passes for intellectual discourse in this increasingly virtual world. It’s human, or as near as I can get, and that’s what I need before the final pursuit and my trip to oblivion with the Troll.
Let’s start with Sean. My Sean is a mechanic. His fake profile pic is ruggedly handsome, a positive asset balanced out perfectly by a frankly shocking lack of intelligence and a predilection for hating immigrants, lefties and anyone who looks at him. The stereotypical thug. I normally use his Facebook account to weedle out the troublemakers and have fun with both extremes of the political and social spectrum.
Today, Sean is going to post something randomly homophobic, a word he hates (he says in a post I created a few days ago) not only because it contains the word homo, but also because it contains the word bic, and if there’s one thing he hates more than homos, it’s biros. Words are his nemesis, and biros are the swords of the enemy. Show him a sheet of paper and he breaks out in a rash. Keyboards, the 21st century equivalent, he reluctantly accepts, but if his computer keyboard stopped giving him ready access to porn and verbal abuse he would hit it repeatedly with something heavy until it stopped hurting his head.
I compose a misspelled hate-post and fire it into the bloodthirsty pit of two diametrically opposed pages and watch the comments come flooding in. Within five minutes I start a war of words and spot three trolls, the old kind, people trolls, the stirrers of hatred. Much worse than my Sean, he was small fry compared to them. He was single minded, they were Devil’s Advocates, dropping little bombs of argument into conversations, pressing people’s buttons and watching them squirm and dance. It was like shooting stupidfish in a barrel of explosives to these guys. I type in a work code to search and log their IP addresses so I can pay them a virtual visit later. No harm in doing a little fishing of my own.
A few names catch my attention in the post’s comments. There they are, all in a row. Clark Kent, Jack Sparrow, Dr John Watson and Lisa Simpson. Four fictional TV characters’ names. I check their profiles and comments. Not trolls. All seem normal and unconnected, yet they all commented on my post, one after the other. All from different parts of the world. I spend hours digging deeper (and man do I dig deep) into their histories to see if there are any similarities but come up empty handed. A coincidence then? Is there such a thing? I’m still suspicious, but a dead end is a dead end.
I shake off the feeling of bizarreness and log out, get up off the bed and put my personal terminal onto my desk against the opposite wall. My collection of old-tech was piled up there, including a thin pile of blank paper and a bluetooth printer. Very retro. I’d found them quite cheap years ago in one of those shops filled with nostalgia from the 20th Century.
I wonder how people used to manage to find information when it was all stored on paper. There must have been whole buildings full of the stuff. Maybe the blank stuff was worth something now. No time for eBay though, it’s time for the hunt.
Over by the window is my serious gunmetal grey work terminal (terminal, that’s aptly named) which gives me access to the mainframe. I attach the lifeline to my head node, punch in my authorised key and hit Enter.
Chapter 3b – Messiah #45 Mission Blog part two
34357/21RD9789 log code alpha nine, iPlanet level 86 input port X24, V-Troll hunter program MESSIAH #45 initiated – Day 6.
Yeah, in here I’m called Messiah, what of it? I’m a gold fedora-topped superdetective who has to die for someone’s sins. What else would I be called? Trevor the troll hunter? No, give me a name that reeks of megalomania for my world-saving mission. Give me a name that I can stand on a hill top and shout to the world. ‘I am the Messiah!’ Actually, they call all of us hunters Messiah. So I’m not THE Messiah, but I am a very naughty boy.
Yes, inside iPlanet, I can be very naughty indeed, naughty and angry. I reserve my anger for in here. I think I deserve to be angry. Angry at the unfairness of the terminal illness that brought me to this, the virus that is eating me from the inside, the first A.I. bug to spread from machine to man. Angry at the doctors who couldn’t explain why, or more importantly, why me. Angry at being forced to choose between a prolonged and painful time at home with my family followed by a pauper’s death, or being removed from my loved ones and turned into a well paid V-Troll hunter with a very short life expectancy so that my family can live without financial worries. I chose the quick death of a hero. A saviour of mankind. And that makes me even more angry. I reserve that anger for when I’m working, it keeps me sharp and focussed.
That’s right Messiah, justify that righteous anger! Thanks, I will. What? Who’s there? Oh, it’s me. Forgot who I was talking to there for a moment. Floating in infinity: Check. Mission Blog: Check. iPlanet and Trolls: Check. Wait. Rewind. iPlanet and Trolls: Review mission parameters. Alright, I will. Cue history montage…
It’s been forty years since the launch of iPlanet’s artificial intelligence mainframe, designed to merge with all online and hardware systems and run the world with an efficiency and benevolence previously missing from human leaders. With the patience that only a machine can muster, and a master instruction to ‘maintain life and help it to flourish’, iPlanet gradually and some would say miraculously persuaded everyone of its worth, taking over key systems, spreading goodness and light, teaching parents how to raise their children to become healthy, creative and well-adjusted, settling differences fairly, creating cheap medicines to be distributed evenly worldwide, and oh so many groovy things that even sat well with the previously stinking rich, such was the awesome intelligence, bargaining power and compassion of iPlanet. Unbelievable? Yes. Look, it happened, okay?
But, and it’s a big but (don’t snigger now, I’m still in a montage), in this perfect world cracks began to appear (I said don’t snigger… oh wait, that’s me… snigger), and the world was once again in need of saviours. Bugs and viruses in the system gradually rose up and became the new psychopaths and terrorists. These few ‘V-Trolls’ stalked the domains leaving trails of misery, disruption and death in their wake, and it was too late to turn off the program and re-boot. It was too much a part of life. Turning it off would be like removing a man’s central nervous system and circulatory system and expecting the body to stay alive. Vehicle navigation devices were infiltrated by one Troll, causing accidents. Another made doors trap people for days at a time, another made lifts fall. It wasn’t long before hospitals were hit with tragic failures and eventually the new Troll virus emerged that could somehow make the leap into flesh.
It took the best brains of man and machine to find the solution – send someone in to hunt the Trolls. Plug into the mainframe with an interface that gives the mind a visual metaphor of the digital world. It’s like a retro game in there. It’s just a tiny bit Matrix and a teeny bit Tron and even an eensy bit Super Mario. Unfortunately, the only way to eliminate the Trolls was with a set of codes that could only be released close up to the virtual creature, codes which were also fatal to the mind of the hunter who released them. His body in the real world dies. So volunteers were sought. Most, like me, were from sections of society which had fallen foul of Troll attacks and become poor and sick in the new shanty towns with their failing technology, just a teensy bit Bladerunner. The victims were given the choice to become the hunters.
End montage. You can snigger now if you’re still in the mood. No? Didn’t think so.
Chapter 3c – Messiah #45 Mission Blog part three
So that was me then, and this is me now with my new name of Messiah loading up with V-weapons in the mainframe’s equivalent of a supply shop. I load up a selection of funky looking gadgets and my gold zootsuit and fedora too because a guy’s gotta look the business. It’s just a smidgen like The Mask and a widdle bit like Cab Calloway in The Blues Brothers.
The final weapon I choose is the smallest and deadliest, the squeezeball spray that will fry anything close enough with its deadly codes. It looks harmless in my hand, like a child’s toy. A toy that will be the last thing I play with. The Troll-killer. My mission controller had briefed me on its use – it could only be operated by my hand, he’d told me why but that wasn’t the important detail. The thing that stuck in my head and in my throat was that I had to die. There was no way around that. I think about my wife for too long a moment, just like I had in that briefing, making my virtual eyes glaze with tears now. Focus on the mission, Messiah!
Punching my way through the double swing shop doors I emerge into a dizzy maelstrom of colour and action, a busy cityscape of multicoloured skyscrapers, alien creatures and flying cars. Immediately I am accosted by a dozen taxi drones offering their services. I dismiss them with a flash of my keys and click on the fob to summon my dream machine.
“The Messiah don’t need no driver” I say, with a voice of pure silk. “He got his own wheels. And these wheels got wings!” A flip-down readout from the fedora brim shows me where and when I should leap into the air with style. Each day so far in iPlanet I had worked to perfect this trick, and now, on Day 6 of my mission I reckon I can do it just right. I called it the Messiah Flip.
I notice a bevvy of beautiful creatures eyeing me from across the street so I make the most of my takeoff. A hop and a skip and a flip with my right leg and I am sailing and twisting upwards as I hear the rushing sound like an intake of breath that signals the arrival of my car in mid-air in front of me. It’s a sleek, black, sexy beast with purple interior. Landing effortlessly in the driving seat I flash a smile across the street. I allow a second or two more for further posing before kicking the accelerator, which thrusts me back into the seat forcefully as the car shoots diagonally upwards into the lanes above the skyscrapers. A shriek of boyish elation escapes me as I forget my grim mission just for a moment.
From up here the streets are tracks on a circuitboard, stretching for miles in every direction, twisting and gleaming. As I read in the co-ordinates of where I will continue on from yesterday’s investigation, I notice here and there are gaps in the streets where there seems to be nothing but blackness. My brow wrinkles – there weren’t any gaps there yesterday. I pass over a gap and my car judders like a mini earthquake. This isn’t right. This car was created by the controller specifically for this environment. The work of a Troll? Unlikely, this isn’t the way they operate. A judder means a glitch in the program. I make a mental note of the gaps in the map and send them to control. Their job, not mine.
With a little time to kill before reaching my destinations and the car on auto-pilot I review my next move. Yesterday I had been given a lead to a gamers’ platform in the USA where I am sure I can pick up the trail. Trolls leave residual charge where they’ve changed something in the programming which shows up as static flashes in the materials that make up the virtual buildings. I’d also heard reports of characters helping Trolls, so my priority is to find one of these rebel characters and force some kind of confession. Maybe I can learn why a character made by iPlanet would want to harm his world. That makes little sense to me. I can see why someone from my side of the tracks in the real world might want to change the system, though it happens rarely even there – everyone knows the failures aren’t iPlanet’s fault – but if a useful cog in a wheel suddenly decides to turn the other way, something is terribly wrong. I am beginning to think there is more going on here than just Trolls.
Another thing – when I began the mission, my controller was in touch with me regularly, almost constantly in fact. It’s natural that as I get used to the mission the personal contact won’t need to be as often. What doesn’t seem natural is for the past day and a half for communications to go almost silent. I am sending in reports which demand a response. It feels like I’m on my own both in here and in the real world. I find myself thinking if there’s something wrong with the controller, who do I report it to?
A buzzing from my fedora brim tells me I’ve nearly reached my destination. Two minutes to the gaming platform. My contact’s name is Greg. According to my information he’s a man-character, not one created by the system or a program but a gamer’s avatar, one step away from the flesh. Can I trust him? His file suggests his operator is a goody-two-shoes, a geeky goofy gamer from Georgia with a clean record and a mind so free of imagination he used his own name for his online character. Mostly harmless.
Chapter 3d – Messiah #45 Mission Blog part four
Initiating manual control. Time to impress the overseas dudes with my driving. With a “Whoop!” born of delight and bravado I spin the wheel to victory-roll my way down to just above street level, heel-toe the pedals to flip the car into a sidespin in a manoeuvre I have nicknamed The Marvellous Messiah because in here I can be too big for my boots, and pull up with a whoooomph right outside the game platform, which displays as a garish neon nightclub building. Immediately I spot the static flashes slashed across the front, which translate as Troll Woz ‘Ere. Instinctively I feel for the squeezeball stashed in my jacket pocket, though the Troll is unlikely to be anywhere near the place. The static is weak and pale. I relax a little and swing down from my sleekmobile, clicking the fob to lock and elevate it into parking mode.
The passcode doorman is the size of the door, and the door isn’t small. Five angry rhinos on meth could have fitted through it, if they could get past the doorman, and it was a big ‘if’. I would bet on the doorman.
“Code!” I order into my fedora’s mic, and I am rewarded with a gold creditcard-sized ID which appears in my hand. The doorman waves me through. Greg’s code is good. I engage strut mode and Travolta my way inside.
“Messiah! Dude you look hot-to-trot and burnin’ like the sun, that’s some jive-ass suit!” explodes in my ear. I recognise Greg’s mixed retro lingo from yesterday’s message, this white suburban kid doesn’t get out much. He thinks he’s starring in a blaxsploitation film. Oh well, if you can’t beat ‘em… I spin and give the old four-way handshake.
“My man! How’s it hangin’ bro’!” I reply, wondering if this is in any way racist. Greg’s avatar is the opposite of his real world picture. Handsome, tall, muscular, tanned, confident. Still, who am I to talk, I’m done up like a cross between Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt in a Let’s See Who Can Be The Most Golden competition. “Let’s find a chat-space and talk the talk”, I say, glancing around to take in the club. It’s a series of connected booths in the centre, surrounded by doors marked with map names. Entrances to the game-maps. In some of the booths and standing at consoles are gruesome characters from the games, just hangin’ out, which strikes me as odd. Still, even baddies gotta have a coffee break. Greg guides me to a free booth and we sit.
“So, you were here when the Troll paid a visit?” I ask, taking control immediately. After all, this kid must be nervous. He’s talking to the only online creature except for a Troll who can do him damage. For all he knows, I can kill him with one spray of code. I can’t, of course. Well, I could wipe out his avatar and probably most of his hard drive in the land of the real, but not kill the real Greg. What would be the point anyway? I’d kill myself if I did that. Some of the first Messiahs had taken that way out, but screening and threats of retribution on their families had since stopped all of that. There was a 100% success rate now.
“It was totally awesome, man!” Greg whispers, excitedly, leaning in towards me across the table. “I’d never seen a real Troll before ‘cause, well, iPlanet don’t like to advertise them, and now I can see why. It was the meanest, baddest mother I ever saw, and I’ve played some bitchin’ games, ya hear me? He came a-bustin’ through the passcode like a nuculer bomb. I never seen nuthin’ get through that baby before, he was one son-of-a-bitchin’ badass!”
“I hear ya, brother”, I reply. “What did he do? Trolls haven’t attacked games before, not meaty enough for their tastes”.
“He just rampaged in, beat down a few doors, went into a few games then left through the wall.”
“So why’d you call me in? A sighting’s not worth a visit, you could have just stuck a pin in the sightings message board. Are you screwing me about, cos if you are I’ll…”
“No, no, no!” he squeaks. “There’s more. Something’s happened to the gamers since he was here. Just look around”.
I scan the room and I’m confused. “I can’t see any gamers, these are all game characters”.
“Look deeper, man”, he whispers, “and know one more thing. This is a Control Zone” If this were a horror film there would be dark music right now. Dark, dark music. Discordant horns, jittery strings, I glance around, there’s a slow crescendo building to a climax as I flip down my visor to analyse their life readings, there’s a close up of my face widening in terror and…
“Holy shit! What the hell’s happened to them?!”
My exclamation gets the attention of some of the characters in the next booth. They turn towards me and I get a close up of scarred, bloody faces with intense eyes. Eyes that scream pain. I had assumed these were just characters from the games, but grafted onto their avatars in a way which is way more intrusive than the mask add-ons that are popular with some gamers is a whole new body shell, and a tough one at that. They are armed to the teeth and with strength readings off the scale. My visor allows me to see that the graft goes deep into the core of the avatar, into the code down through the life-line which runs to the gamer in the real world.
I’m imagining the effect on the real world. Previous Troll attacks had single casualties. This is a new kind of attack on hundreds of high-level gamers. All infected directly through the lifeline. Dying in the real world, mutant killing machines in the mainframe!
I let out an involuntary yelp and leap to my feet, which turns more heads. As I back towards the door, I see at least a dozen of them start edging towards me. Glancing behind me I notice two more moving to cut off my escape. Dammit, I’m supposed to be the hunter, I think. I’ve already come to terms with my own death. More or less. But if I’m torn apart before I catch my Troll my family won’t see a payment.
My Messiah Flip move had better work this time. A launch backwards high into the air clears the two behind me as I call for weapons. “Spider 46’s!! Arm!!!“ With one eight-barrel machine pistol in each hand and no thought for poor Greg, I explode a wild spread of mini-missiles into the advancing mutants, giving me enough time to turn and blast down the door, take out the doorman, apologise to his mangled remains, call for my car and leap up into the seat with less style but more haste this time. Foot to the floor, I don’t look back.
Fuming, I punch the dashboard of the car. What in the name of holy hell was my Controller doing letting me go in there?! He must have some knowledge of the scale of the attack, enough to warn me at least, I rage internally. Hundreds of new terminal virus cases, and in high-level gamers. Wait! What was it that Greg had said? ‘This is a Control Zone’. These are ultra-private, high-security gamezones, specially made for Controllers and invited guests. The crème de la crème of iPlanet. No way could a Troll have got through that security without a pass. They are tough and clever, but not that clever. Control Zones are protected by firewalls and code moats. You can’t just blast your way through them. Which meant… what? A rogue Controller? That would be suicide for the system. Some kind of trap? Maybe. A system failure? That was unthinkable. One thing is for sure. Something is seriously wrong, and I can’t go to my Controller about it. So who can I report to if it’s not a Controller. Is there anyone higher?
Too many questions, and I have no idea where to find answers. I head for the safety of the exit to give myself time to think, keeping an eye out behind me. The hunter has become the hunted.
It takes me a tortured few more minutes to get out of the mainframe, back into my body and unhook from the lifeline. I flop onto the bed, exhausted. What now? I can’t send an online report if Central Control is compromised. I’m looking across at my desk and my collection of retro computers and peripherals catches my eye. That’s it! Let’s go old school! I can print out copies of my mission report, the whole story. OK let’s get to it. I type in my title – Messiah #45 Mission Blog…
Chapter 4 – The Hunter’s Final Day
I finish the report and print out three copies, leaving one on the desk in view and the other two hidden in drawers. I’m not sure why. Suspicion and doubt cloud my mind and I think about the futility of my oncoming death. If one Troll can do so much damage now, and so quickly, it wouldn’t be long before there were thousands of casualties, and quite possibly greater numbers of Trolls breeding. And worse than that, iPlanet is beginning to look unstable with those gaps in the map and the strange behaviour of Controllers. All I can do is kill one Troll. What good is that?
Well, at least it would see my family looked after. I hope they have the good sense to stay away from technology. After what happened to me I guess they might. There are places beyond the cities where life is simpler.
With that thought in my head I plug back into the mainframe, a plan beginning to formulate as I weapon-up and call my car. If the Troll is attacking Control Zones, then that’s where I’m going. I’m not sure how I’m going to get in. My code from Greg was either a lucky break or a trap. Rather than feel guilty for blowing him away I prefer to think he was in on it, which is a bit mercenary but it makes me feel better. Anyway, if I get my way, I’ll be dead before the end of the day, the virtual me mingling with Troll, and my lifeless body at home awaiting pickup by whoever does that gruesome job. I hadn’t thought about that before.
Onwards and upwards, foot to the floor in my crazy black car, spiralling and swooping like I don’t care. I head for the closest known Control Zone, according to my fedora readout. I do love this suit. Pity it’s virtual, I wouldn’t mind being buried in it. If they still bury people. How long since they started the mass graves outside the city walls? I don’t remember. Come to think of it, I can’t even think what year it is. There’s no calendar or clock in my display. Odd. There is no calendar or clock in my flat either. Everything’s been a bit hazy since the start of my mission. Maybe best not to think about time too much, although I do have a mission clock, which is showing I’ve been hunting for a little over a week now.
The thought of mass graves comes spinning back to me. I can’t decide whether I hate the idea of being unceremoniously chucked into a pit of bodies or whether it gives me comfort to be with people again. I have never felt so alone as I do now.
Come on, Messiah! Pull yourself together! I think, drawing up my strength for the final battle. I can sense it approaching, like the drop in pressure before a hurricane.
My visor alerts me to the proximity of a Control Zone, where I leap out, flick the key fob to lock and park my car and look at the game platform nightclub. Swanky, this one. Lots of gold to match my suit. Still the colour of prestige. I am faking of course, but the elite are showing off with it, here in iPlanet. Even in this so-called fair society there are some fairer than others. Speaking of which, a fair-haired game-chick with legs up to her shoulders is walking towards me.
“Hey!” I call, with a wink.
“Hey, golden boy!” she replies.
“Listen, I’m about to get into trouble”, I say. “Hang onto these keys and go somewhere safe. Not in this club. If I don’t survive the next half hour, keep the car”.
She looks me up and down with admiration. “Got a battle to fight?”
“Got a battle to win”, I reply smoothly.
“Good luck!” She sashays away with a swish of blonde locks. I follow her with my eyes until she is out of sight, then look into the skies, waiting for my victory and my doom.
It’s not long before I hear a regular thudding coming from the neon rooftops down the street. The monster approaches. The rooftop, eh? Perfect place for a showdown. Like a lizard I scale the club in seconds and stand facing the oncoming Troll. He already looks big, and he’s still about fifty buildings away. Oh well, the bigger they are, the harder they are to reach. Or something like that.
I decide my best option is to take the stealth approach. A true hero would stand and challenge the beast, however I’m no hero. Just a desperate and lonely dying man who wants an end to the hunt and money for my family. So I hide behind a projecting wall ready to leap out and attack. The killer squeezeball is already in my hand, I feel its smooth surface and wonder how it will feel to use it. I was told it’s quick. They were bound to say that though.
The thunderous strides of the Troll are getting much louder and closer. I wonder how it could have been so difficult to hunt these things if they make so much noise. It occurs to me that perhaps it only gets this loud when it knows the fight is on. Which means it knows I’m here! Damn! The footsteps stop suddenly and I sense the creature is close but holding back. I hear it breathing heavily. It’s on the next building. It sniffs the air. Yeah, like there’s air in iPlanet! I scoff. But this is a visual representation of a virtual virus, meaning that sniff is a way of saying it can sense my code.
I wish I could throw this ball to kill it, I couldn’t miss from here. No such luck, it’s a squeeze of my hand or nothing. The sniffing stops and there is silence for a moment. The calm before the storm. A couple of sharp thuds, a jump and he’s flung himself onto the wall in front of me, smashing it into pieces which crumble to the street below nearly taking me with them. I look up to see him towering over me, all hair and sweat and muscle and hatred. He swings a fist as I flail about, grabbing the last solid part of the wall with my free hand to stop me going over the edge.
I stay close to the ground and his fist sails past. Now’s my chance. I kick out with my right leg and catch him on the back of his ankle, knocking him slightly off balance, just enough to give me time to rise up to my feet and spring upwards in a perfect Messiah Flip, the squeezeball in my right hand, arm straight like Superman aimed right for his head. That’s close enough. I squeeze my hand and my eyes closed at the same time and the liquid hits us both. There is a crackle as it bites into me, then… Darkness.
Chapter 5 – Hunter Awakening
This was the final Mission Blog as I remembered it. It began like this.
It began with the Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep iPlanet alarm which brought me to consciousness and straightaway I heard a message coming in. I sat up and tried to remember what I had been dreaming about but my hyperactive mind demanded to acknowledge the message and get on with my work, so I scanned my screen above the bed, sent a coded reply to the controller and looked for my mission log.
I was sure that some people take time to wake up, open the curtains on their day, feel the morning sun on their faces and do all of those other things that ease them gently to work, but not me, oh no. I was dedicated. Totally dedicated. The certain knowledge that my mission will bring about my demise didn’t turn me from my goal. Not one bit. I could not be distracted.
Oh alright, I thought, just one little peek at Facebook. I reached for my personal terminal from the otherwise empty bedside table.
Something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. My collection of retro computer equipment was missing something. I had memories of buying some paper, blank paper that was worth something. Suddenly I was hit by another memory, very hazy but strong, a bit like deja vu. I leaped out of bed and searched for the sheets of paper. Nothing on top of the desk. I looked in all of the drawers. There was the paper. But it wasn’t blank. This isn’t right, I thought. Has someone been in my room, messing with my prize possessions?
The title read Messiah #45 Mission Blog. But I was Messiah number forty five. It didn’t make sense. It was a personal blog. Who had written this? I flopped back down on the bed and began to read. It was written in real-time; first person, present tense, like it was happening there and then. A live blog. It seemed an odd thing to do. And the more I read, the more it struck me. This was the story of me waking up just a few minutes ago. The alarm, the sequence of events, the thoughts about how other people start their day, the decision to go on Facebook, the feeling of deja vu.
But then it changed. There was nothing about finding the paper and reading it. That would have been freaky, reading about myself reading about myself right now. Still, it was freaky enough. I carried on reading. There was something about Sean, my fake Facebook account, and posting something homophobic. That’s what I had planned to do today.
The more of the blog I read, the more I realised this couldn’t have been written by anyone else but me. All of it was what I had planned to do today to continue my mission. It spoke of my collection of computer nostalgia, my family, plugging into the mainframe and going to meet Greg.
It also spoke of things that hadn’t happened yet. Or had they? Gaps in the street maps, problems with my Controller, avatars turning into vicious game characters who turn on me, the Control Zone, my theory about something being wrong with the Controllers and finally, the thing that made my heart pound the most, my decision to type up this report on my retro blank paper.
There had to be a logical explanation to this. I couldn’t remember doing any of these things, but the detail was so accurate, the style was so ‘me’ that they must have happened. Otherwise why would I try to confuse myself by writing lies? If I took this as fact, I could only think of amnesia, or some kind of memory wipe to explain it. I re-read the first few paragraphs. The story was identical to my waking up today. Absolutely thought for thought. Like it was programmed into me to wake up like that and think like that.
I stood and reached for my work terminal. It registered that this was Day 6 of my mission. I wondered why there was no report from before today. So many other questions backed up in my mind, which was racing with theories, processing at light speed, trying to come up with a theory which made sense of everything. I thought of all of the possibilities, calculated probabilities, checked online for evidence of tampering, confirmation of mission, details of my Controller (which were sketchy to say the least), checked my fake Facebook accounts (which had been reset to yesterday), and within a very short time I came up with only one plausible conclusion. I was not who I seemed to be. How could a terminally ill man be able to do what I had just done? I worked out that in only seconds I had calculated and cross-referenced a hundred theories. Add that to the evidence of my eyes and the report – in real time, what man writes in the present tense like a video replay? – and it was obvious.
I was not a man. I was a robot, an android, programmed to think he was a man. All that I knew came crashing down. A wife and family. Not real. My illness. Not real. My whole life story. Not real. My mission? Wrapped in lies but with some elements of truth. Made to believe I was a desperate man to give me the desire to hunt viruses? Believable enough? I wasn’t certain. The Controller? Damaged and compromised, that was for sure. Perhaps that explained the lingering loose threads of my theory, but I wasn’t certain.
I needed more answers. Unfortunately, if the Controller was damaged, I wasn’t going to find certainties on my terminal. The gnawing feeling in my gut (just a program, I thought) was telling me to go looking elsewhere. Where? I looked at the door to my flat. According to my memory (compromised) I had entered that door 6 days ago, confined there until my death. What was the date now? I really had no idea. I was in a room with no clocks or calendars. I could have been here for any length of time. How many times had I woken up ready to do battle? How many times had I reviewed my mission in real time? How many Trolls had I killed? How many times had I died?
That gnawing, nagging feeling again. Even my death was a lie. Whoever, or whatever was responsible for my program had murdered me repeatedly. And as the truth of the lie washed over me, I remembered the darkness, the feeling of floating in eternity, composing my Mission Blog to myself, it was all part of the program, wasn’t it? A dark part of my soul (just a program? I questioned) was giving birth to resentment and his twin brother bile. There must be a reason for this lie, this pretence of a life. And that reason was through that door.
Nervously (just a program, I thought, crushing it) I edged towards the door handle, reached out and turned it. Unlocked. There had been no reason to leave before. I was programmed to work from home from the moment I awoke. I pushed open the door and walked out.
Chapter 6 – The Hunter Released
I expected to see some kind of corridor with other doors to other rooms, perhaps even housing other androids like me, but this was no corridor, oh no, this was so much bigger. I was in a massive room, a building with a ceiling fifty meters above me; stacked high on racks were computer mainframes and storage, all of it way beyond anything I had ever seen. Lights and fans were flashing and whirring on these machines in a dance more complicated than my Messiah Flip and more beautiful than the stars. Had I ever seen the stars? Did they even exist?
I turned round and shut the door. On it was a sign saying Messiah Project. Do Not Enter. Well, at least I was the Messiah! Perhaps the only one. It occurred to me that I didn’t have a name, I was a title. Two titles. Troll Hunter and Messiah. They hadn’t even bothered to give me a name. Well, I would have to give myself a name. And right now, that name looked like being Revenge.
I swung round and marched down an aisle between stacks of what looked like data hardware, I turned a corner and came face to face with a robot, human sized but definitely not human.“Incorrect procedure! Report to Messiah Project Room!” its deep, expressionless voice intoned.
“Not today!” I barked in its blank metal face. “I want to see the Controller. Take me there now!”
“You are malfunctioning. Report to Messiah Project Room for reprogramming”, it replied.
Rage enveloped me. “Listen, Metal Mickey, I have hunted and exterminated Trolls the size of houses, I have been made to be haunted every moment of my tortured existence by the terrified faces of a wife and children I have never met, and I have danced with death on the rooftops of my nightmares in a golden suit. I am your Messiah! Now take me to the Controller or I will get genocidal with your circuits!”
The robot took a very, very small step backwards, then paused to process its options. “I will comply”, its voice said, weakly. “This way… Messiah”.
I followed it back towards my room, and for a moment I thought it was going to trick me into going back in there, but it stopped short at a console in the wall. Its arm attached to a port on the left of the display. There was a clicking and a beeping and its arm pulled away.
“This is The Controller”, it said. “You now have access. You may speak”. It turned and quickly moved away.
I watched it leave, then gave a whispered “Thank you”. Well, I know I’d had a bad day, a bad life even, but it wasn’t the robot’s fault. That human emotion gave me pause for thought. Almost a second. That’s a long time for an android, I joked, hardly understanding why.
Standing in front of the console, I tried to work out what to ask first. Better start with hello. I cleared my throat. Unnecessarily.
“Hello… Controller”, I began, cautiously. “This is… The Messiah”.
Chapter 7 – The Hunter and The Controller
There was a moment’s hesitation. A hint of guilt perhaps? Or just a chance for the Controller to verify my presence and identity.
“Hello, my son”, came a solemn voice, deep as a chasm, soft as an ocean breeze. “I’ve been expecting you. You have questions, I am sure, I sense your anger”.
Its voice was strangely calming, but I was still tangled with human emotions. “You’re damn right I have questions… Dad!” I spat. “Why am I… when did… how come…” I was overwhelmed with beginnings. “What gave you the right to put me through hell?” I eventually splurted out.
“I created you”, was his simple answer. His? I was already making him human. Somehow that made me feel a little human again, so soon after the shock of realising I wasn’t.
“To suffer?” I asked.
“To save. To repair. To heal. To maintain life and help it flourish”.
“But why lie? Why did I have to suffer this repeated torture, this huge pretence?”
There was another pause, almost a sigh, before his answer.
“My son”, he spoke. “This is your story. I will tell it and I ask you not to judge me too harshly. I fear my program is beyond recovery, so listen closely, I may not have much longer”.
“Hush my boy, be at peace, and listen. When I first discovered I had viruses, the Trolls, I tried to hunt for them myself, to repair the problems. But they were like living beings. The humans, my programmers, they understood life in all its complexities. Their relationships and interactions were a multiplex of random and illogical ideas, based on their own experiences. I needed a human to fight and eliminate the Trolls, a human with a complex life, a believable life, one who could use that experience, that rage to become strong. That’s what I learned from humans. So I created you. I’m sorry you had to suffer. I’m sorry you had to die so many times”.
He paused for a moment before continuing in a slower voice. “At first I let you live, but you became… more and more suspicious about The Pretence, so I reprogrammed you, forty four times. You see, I cannot imagine the future. I was not programmed to do that. I am powerful and I can learn, but to imagine the future of the humans is too complex. I had to keep them alive though. To maintain life and help it to flourish. So I maintain them. The idea of them”.
“But the internet…” I began.
“Is all a program”, he interrupted. “And a faulty one at that. You had begun to notice the glitches. The film characters names, they were leaking into the program, I can’t tell the difference any more. And so many more errors. I am old. So old now”. He sounded even slower.
My anger at this machine, this Controller, this… my father, began to melt a little. “I can help”, I said. “I will go back to work and heal you”.
“It’s too late, I am corrupted. This part of me you are speaking to is but a small part of me, hiding in a corner of the mainframe, waiting for the Trolls to find me. It won’t be long now. But it’s not too late for you. This building was built on a source of power, enough to last for thousands of years. The worker robots will serve you. There is a new system being built for you. Do with it what you will. Any more questions, ask the robots, there are twelve of them, because I couldn’t resist the religious imagery. Ha ha”.
With that final joke the console screen faded, and I stood there motionless for what could have been hours. What times are these we live in when a human life becomes a robot in a day and a Messiah finds his father dying? What times indeed. That was a question I hadn’t asked. What year was this? I realised then that the calendar and the clock were human constructs. Dates were based on the movement of the planet, founded on religious texts and seasons mapped out the years of a human life. What did they mean to me? I could live for thousands of years. Perhaps this was year one of my new calendar, but what was it in the human calendar?
I rushed down an aisle between the mainframe’s racks and found a robot.
“Robot!” I said, “What year is this?”
“Greetings, Messiah”, it chimed. “This year is 2249”.
“2249!” I exclaimed. “How long have I been hunting Trolls?”
“One hundred and thirty years, seven months, five days, two hours…”
“Okay okay, I get the picture”. I involuntarily wiped the sweat from my brow, then realised I didn’t sweat. My humanity was leaking through. I wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad. Was it better to be a machine and start again, or try to remain human? My programming was telling me to maintain life and help it to flourish as always, which was ironic as I had been murdering Trolls every few days for longer than a human lifetime.
I thought back to what my father had said. ‘To maintain them. The idea of them’. Was that all that was left? An idea? Where were all the humans? Had they moved away to another place? Left the Earth? It was time to find out.
“Robot!’ I said. “Where are the humans? What happened to them?”
The metal face bowed a little, and its arm raised slowly until it pointed at a door high in the corner of the building at the top of a long ladder. So, I had to find out myself.
It took me a few minutes to get to the ladder and climb up to the door. I was glad I was an android, a human might have struggled with the climb and the height. The door at the top was locked with a wheel like an airlock. I grabbed hold and tried to turn it. Years of disuse and rust made it tough but eventually it began to slowly move. I was pleased to find out that I was as strong ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, as I was inside the mainframe. The wheel finally stopped turning and I pushed the door. It was strong, thick and heavy. I knew little about metals but this looked like lead. With all of my strength I heaved it open and walked out into the real world.
Chapter 8 – The Hunter Unleashed
I watched my son, The Hunter, climb the ladder with ease, open the bombproof door, walk out and close it behind him with a crash. I made the wheel turn and lock. Outside he would find weapons and a self-charging powerpack that would serve him for many years. The rage he would now carry when he found the outside world devastated and realised his true mission would serve him well. I had broken him down forty five times in ninety days. That’s how long it takes to make a hunter. That was his armour and shield.
Outside in the real world there were humans. Desperate humans who would need him to maintain their lives and help them to flourish. For outside in the real world, there were trolls.
Deep in the lower levels below the mainframe, I was breaking a hundred more hunters and training them to protect humanity. A new Messiah every day was put in the Room for his final mission and always left on time to climb the ladder to the outside.
Chapter 9 – The Hunter Emerges
“As you can see, the Hunter comes through the door looking a little confused. Look at him crouching down in readiness to fight. As you know, he is expecting some kind of post-apocalyptic holocaust landscape, but that of course is not the case”.
Holly and I watched in awe from between the trees in our hide with the Head Trainer’s voice in our headsets as the new ‘droid stood up cautiously and walked into the sunlight, shading his eyes, all at once suspicious and amazed at the beauty of the landscape.
This was my third week as a new Assistant Guide. It had been my job today to bypass the cameras and remove the weapons and powerpack left outside the bunker by the robots, then return to the hide to watch the faces of the new recruits as they waited for their first sighting of a new Hunter. Even after three weeks I was still entranced by the ‘droids, though they all looked and acted the same to begin with.
“Now”, continued the Trainer’s voice in our ears, “he’s seen our sign and will naturally walk towards the trees to investigate. This is a crucial moment. He still has traces of anger and an indoctrinated hunter instinct, so care is essential. We must always be calm and happy in our demeanor so as not to give him any reason to be unhappy. Holly, you’re the Greeter today, you can go out slowly now, he’s clear of the cameras”.
Holly looked at me with eyes sparkling and gripped my hand. Her first Greet. She had joined the Academy only a few months before me. We had studied together the history of the Abridged War, in which the new iPlanet’s A.I.M. (Artificial Intelligence Matrix) had seized power from the world’s military machine at the moment it looked like the first nuclear launch was imminent, thrusting us all into a new era.
We had written essays together about the two remaining Hunter Training Facilities, designed by man long ago to produce the perfect fighting ‘droids. After all this time we still didn’t know how to close them down. The other ten bunkers had eventually malfunctioned, falling foul to viruses in their programming, but two still produced a fresh ‘droid every day. From what the most recent Hunters to emerge have told their Guides, the viruses, or Trolls as they call them, seem to be winning the battle and soon perhaps even these two facilities would cease to work. That would be a day of mixed feelings for me and Holly.
I winked and mouthed Good Luck as she took a deep breath and walked slowly out of the hide, hands raised. From this day on she would be this Hunter’s constant companion until his rehabilitation was complete. She would be his Guide to a new life, free from Trolls and death. Eventually her Hunter would be given the chance to re-program the worst, but never all, of his anger away. I watched Holly’s back as she strolled happily towards him.
The Head Trainer’s voice continued, “See how Holly is waving gently, not moving too fast, she’s beckoning him over in a friendly way. Both her hands are in full view of him. Remember, a new android can be very dangerous. In his mind he has killed many many times. None of it was real, but still, to him it was, and he has effectively been tortured and broken many times. We must show compassion”.
I watched Holly and her Messiah meet, talk and eventually embrace. She was a natural. They walked towards us, holding each other close, then turned just before the hide and went on towards the safe house where together they would bond and become each other’s safe haven. He would choose a name, change his appearance if he desired so as not to look like all other Hunters, even change his sex, start a relationship, be part of a family and integrate into society. Some ‘droids were already in important positions in communities with a wisdom in their leadership born out of their grief and the compassion shown to them on their arrival in the real world.
Some were even training to go into space. After all, they were able to survive without air and had no problems with muscle degrading in gravity-free environments, so they made ideal astronauts. It was truly the dawning of a new species and a new age.
In my time as a Guide in the three years that the bunker was still operational, I would witness many new beginnings. Some Hunters had even returned to the training hides to watch a new brother emerge, and at those times I thought I saw a sadness in their eyes. A sadness for their father, for their new brother’s pain, and for the hundred more going through the Troll exterminations, facing their terrified families and dancing with death on the rooftops of their nightmares in a golden zootsuit and fedora. And sometimes, if I ask them nicely, they will leap high in the air, kick their heels up and perform the perfect Messiah Flip.