Peter’s boredom had reached its limit. It had compounded over many years but today it reached a kind of terminal velocity: he was as bored as it was possible for a man to be.
After waking, he entered his favourite breakfast buffet room. He was sick of food. All fruits regardless of season, many cereals, eggs every way, French toast, sausages, bacon and eggs, lamb curry, chicken stir-fry, a dozen cakes, endless juice, tea and coffee. He could eat for hours without getting full or fat. But what was the point? A lot of people didn’t bother eating any more.
He skipped breakfast and checked the Game of Thrones room. AI was constantly generating new episodes with deepfakes of John Snow and the other characters which mimicked the scripting of that era. Peter sighed. He’d done it to death. Even the interactive mode where you could play a role was dull after the hundredth time.
There was a fully pornographic version of the series but instead Peter went directly to one of the dedicated adult rooms. There were as many to choose from as human and AI imagination could conjure – spa baths, secluded beaches and presidential suites stocked with every variety of nubile woman, plus rooms specializing in anime characters, monsters, robots and a thousand other things. There were some very disturbing rooms. These used to be banned out of concern that someone might be conditioned to harm others in real life but over time that fear had faded. The only rule in the Pod now was that you had to be respectful towards real people. Computer-generated non-player characters, or NPCs, were fair game.
Takahashi looked more like an accountant or a mobile phone salesman than a real estate agent who specialized in suicide houses. Kanta was unkempt from manual labour and from living in shared accommodation where he had to vie with vile-breathed old men for bathroom space.
Takahashi opened the door and the pair winced. The smell was neither strong nor overpowering. It was faint. It would have been barely noticeable except that it was so . . . evil.
“There’s still a little smell, isn’t there,” Takahashi said professionally. “We’ve had the room professionally cleaned so there’s no problem with hygiene. The remaining odour is caused by trace amounts of gases that have permeated porous surfaces, mostly the wooden floor. It helps to keep all the windows open but of course that can make the room very cold in winter.”
Amid the rocky hills and olive groves of Cappadocia, there was a large, Greek village. On the outskirts stood a house just like the others from which many chanting voices could be heard.
Inside, former pagans recited a hymn for which there would one day be music. There were men and women, the latter covering their heads. The church leader, Abas, spoke of the miracles of Jesus. A freedman who looked like he had suffered much, Abas had studied under Peter himself.
As the Saturday congregation filed out, they noticed an old man standing in the shade of a nearby grove, watching them. He was dressed like a poor Jew, sun-blackened and unkempt from travel. There was a bundle on his back. He was bent with the exhaustion of the road.
Annie had just had her braces removed. She still wore glasses rather than contacts because she thought they were cute. Looking at her sixteen-and-three-week-old self in the mirror, she decided that she looked dorky but moderately attractive.
But what was the point?
She’d never kissed a boy, never been on a date, never even visited the mall. She hadn’t physically attended school since Second Grade. Never been to a dance or a cinema, never seen a live concert. Never been bowling.
Life sucked and it would continue to suck until her twenty-fifth birthday, which seemed an impossibly long way off. By then, a quarter of her life would have been stolen away. The best quarter. The most important part.
Simon Giordano dropped his gaze from the girl because her large boyfriend had noticed and was glaring at him like a pit bull. He kept his attention firmly on the coffee machine.
They were an odd couple. The girl was a petite, Vietnamese beauty of exquisite features. The boyfriend was a hulking, tattooed Lebo who would no doubt have a muscle car with a noisy sound system parked around here somewhere. He had the look of a thug from a tribal crime family.
Simon chided himself for thinking the word, ‘Lebo’. Lebanese Australian, he reminded himself as he kept his eyes cautiously on the frother. He wouldn’t dare glance over there until they were gone but his mind he kept replaying the electrifying moment she’d given him the look. Their eyes had locked for a second too long, alerting the silverback.
“Laura, I know you’ve been seeing your ex.” Josh Barros looked at his girlfriend nervously, waiting for a response to the phrase he’d rehearsed with his communication specialist.
“What the fuck, Josh? You bring me all the way to Taipei to start an argument about some crazy bullshit?” Laura was smiling contemptuously with her ten-thousand-watt TV grin. “I haven’t even seen him since we divorced.”
“No, I mean, the other one. The, um . . . football player.” Josh wished his voice wasn’t so whiny. Even when he was shrieking at his employees, demanding to know whether they were lazy or incompetent, he always sounded like that. No matter how diligently he lifted weights or how much he spent on tailors, everyone saw right through his tens of billions of dollars to his geek origin story.
Getting rid of Chen was harder than Tan anticipated.
As soon as Chen sauntered into the lab, Tan knew he must be eliminated. He was a kindred spirit – ambitious, ruthless, with a laser focus on obtaining the directorship of the Shanghai Robotics Research Centre and from there a high rank in the Party. This was the exact path Tan had plotted for himself and there would only be room for one.
As soon as Chen arrived from Canada, Tan embraced him like his oldest and fondest friend, waxing lyrical about his counterpart’s magnificent achievements, enthusing about how honored he was to work alongside him. Chen, of course, mouthed matching sentiments.
Ben’s fibro shack broiled. It was bleakly orange in the streetlights. His neighbours escaped the desert heat by constructing their houses underground but Ben couldn’t afford it. The new episode of Lost flickered unwatched on the TV.
“C’mon man, I’ve been stuck in Coober Pedy for three fucking years!” Jon whined. He had only two tones; plaintive and contemptuous. Tonight it was the former. “Why’re you being such a dick? I just need money for the bus. Hundred and twenty-seven bucks. Give me one job then I’m fucking out of here.”
“Not my problem,” said Ben. He hated Jon like a bush fly. “Don’t need more dealer. Got them but got no ice. I need supplier.”
“What happened to your old one?”
“Got bashed. In the hospital, teef all fucked up.”
Theo was not the type who would normally sign up for bizarre medical experiments but he needed the money. It was surprising they even recruited him because he was almost sixty and out of shape. After too long teaching English in Saudi Arabia and sedately overindulging in local culinary delights, his gut was bigger than it ought to be.
Theo had been in shape back in the day, when he’d been a scuba diving instructor in Palawan. Swimming every dawn, living on fish and bananas, tepid nights spent hammering sweet young things. It paid next to nothing. But by God, that had been the life. He wished he could relive those years forever.
But now Theo was ready to retire and found that his savings were a bit light-on. It was either this experiment or go back to teaching in the Kingdom for a few more years.
He chose the experiment.
It would be preferable, he calculated, to sit in a hole for six months than to ever again suffer the indignity of being jostled and abused by the ill-mannered scions of minor Saudi royalty.
The university couldn’t give Theo full details because the study was supposed to be double-blind, but was informed that it was some kind of sleep experiment. They wanted to see how a person’s sleep patterns would alter if deprived of normal cues like sunlight, temperature changes, clocks and so on. They would put him in a comfortable room underground for six months with no connection to the outside world and observe how he slept.
One of the smartest young men in Barbados, he’d studied at Harvard and now relished his dazzling finance career in Tokyo. Richie’s income was about thirty times the local average and his upscale Meguro apartment had more floorspace than the whole Caribbean villa where he’d grown up.
Richie enjoyed Tokyo life to the fullest, particularly its nocturnal diversions. He had three girlfriends. All were busy office ladies so he could only see them on the weekend: thirty-something Mika on Friday nights in her messy little apartment, beautiful Kyoko on Saturday (she was the only one allowed over to his place, to avoid complication) and cute, jagged-toothed Shiori down in Yokohama most Sundays at a plush love hotel.
Herein lay one of the few difficulties in Rick’s life: his copulations were all concentrated over this thirty-hour period. He liked to have two or three goes each time and was fully sated by Monday morning. However, weekdays were barren and his vigorous libido made him ache with frustrated desire.
“Your predecessor went missing,” Mr. Kumar told Meira, his toad lips curling a smile. “In any other case we would have been hiring a much more experienced surgeon but we had no choice but to accept the very first person who was basically qualified and available.” His accent was so thick that Meira doubted any non-Indian could comprehend a word he said. “You are extremely fortunate to enjoy this opportunity,” he continued, “and I hope you will be making the most of it, Meira. Very fortunate, indeed.”
Meira fumed stonily, a carved idol slighted. “Thank you, Mr. Kumar. I’m sure the hospital will find my performance more than satisfactory. If you don’t mind terribly, in my previous position at Boston General Hospital I was accustomed to being addressed as Dr. Ram. I would prefer to keep things formal, especially in the Middle East given that I am both a woman and a foreigner.” Her accent was similar to his though softened by years abroad.
“Of course, Dr. Ram!” he said, emphasizing her Dalit surname. “In America they address surgeons as ‘doctor,’ isn’t that correct? We British surgeons go by ‘mister’. Or missus, of course. But at BGH you were not yet a fully qualified surgeon so I guess the difference is not relevant in this case. How is your house?”
On his fiftieth birthday, Stephan bought himself a True Beauty™ doll. It was the most advanced in the range: an intensely lifelike silicone model equipped with some movement and conversational AI.
Stephan was well-off. He’d risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the army and had diligently saved and invested his income over the years. He now had a house worth half a million euros, almost paid off, and a salary that he found difficult to spend as a single man with no children.
Bill, Mark, and Elon sat down in the control room, preparing to argue again. Their families and the others sheltered deep below. Only the Steering Committee were allowed to come up here. Only they could be trusted to remain calm when scrutinizing data, and to make the right, critical decisions.
After all, they’d paid more than their fair share for a place in the bunker.
The old fighters greeted each other with their traditional, shoulder-bumping handshake. They went to their usual table on the raised section where they could look out at the other customers in the restaurant. There were two types of food to choose from: Eritrean or Italian. The fighters could remember when this colonial-era hotel had been owned by actual Italians. Their fathers had told them of the time before that when natives had not been allowed inside.
For better or worse, the Italians were long gone. The friends ordered a simple meal of lentils and injera because both were adhering to an Orthodox fast. It was late afternoon.
In any group of three there is a government spy but Johannes and Tesfay were only two, and the other customers were slightly too far away to hear their uninhibited conversation. They spoke of blackouts, feuds with tenants, mandated food prices, the water shortage. The coup attempt. The boys who’d been arrested for it, who they knew. In a small city of old families, there were only a couple of degrees of separation between anyone.
“Bastards!” The man’s exclamation rang out through the bush, fading until the only sound was the cicadas droning in the heat. His vegetable patch was completely turned over, the chook-wire fence pushed down and flattened.
The man looked like a retired bikie but in fact he was a retired biologist who’d let his greying beard grow wild. He stood bare from the waist up in the blinding sunlight, a surgery scar livid on the brown skin of his chest. He stared at his ruined tomatoes.
“What did it, Julius?” asked Alina. “You said there are no bears here. Was it wild pigs?” His young wife put an arm around him sympathetically. She spoke with a strong Russian accent.
Danae insisted on driving as they crossed the desert near Joshua Tree. She’d insisted on a lot of things since becoming Assistant Principal and Meilani decided not to argue. She remembered the time Danae had berated her during a staff meeting.
They’d been close friends for years. Probably Danae’s military contractor boyfriend had been giving her misplaced ideas on how to lead a team. Being an administrator of a suburban high school is different to commanding a brigade of mercenaries in the Sahel.
Whatever; it was water under the bridge. That and other things. Now they were just two BFFs on a road trip together. It was technically work because they were going to an education conference at a desert retreat but on route they could gossip and chill.
A Japanese labourer seeks solitude in a room that reeks of death. A scuba instructor volunteers for a bizarre experiment. Judas preaches his own gospel. Chinese scientists clash in a grim, winner-takes-all struggle. An outback miner’s attempt to raise money to return home ends in chaos. An old, African freedom fighter plots a daring murder. A kidnapped billionaire escapes across the remote highlands of Taiwan.
Tales From Captivity introduces you to scenarios which, while fantastic, are only one or two steps away from real life. It is these tiny little patches to the fabric of reality that lead to profound consequences. In it are placed normal, real, fallible human characters, and things unfold in unexpected ways. For almost all of these stories the ending was not what I predicted. Even in the most harrowing moments, I was captivated, and read on . . .
Tales From Captivity is aptly named, macabre, entertaining, and well worth your time and money.
You can read the first story on Amazon’s free preview:
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Thanks to Lemmiwinks, Deacon Blues and SR for their eagle eyes in spotting errors and for other feedback.