Walk, walk. Run!

Copyright Michael Hodgins © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"The location of the Player is fed to the Hunter. For fairness, the Player receives a short bleep from his wristwatch."

Everyone knows the rules; the Channel pays your taxes, and you make like you're a real citizen. There are others, but those are the main two. What it comes down to is money, and the human ability to do the old ostrich thing. We all have in us the willingness to ignore the possibility of undesirable consequences of our actions. In my case, like that of all the other Tax-frees, the action was a little greed, and the consequence was deadly. Me, I'm an ostrich like everyone else, and tax-free sand smells good. That's how the Channel makes its shows look like the players are picked right off the street, like it could be you, even with the mid-show ads, "Live free from taxation for life. Be a player in the biggest worldwide televisual game ever. Pick up the phone and call..."

*

It was warm in the city, and there was a light breeze that carried the smell of blossom, faint above the odour of diesel fumes and cheap food. I was walking home to my apartment with a bag of tax-free shopping under my arm, looking forward to a relaxing evening, a book and some old music. Work at the City Boundary refuse recycling plant had been the normal twelve-hour ordeal. I work down in what some of us call The Pit or The Dungeon, where all the paper and cardboard crap we throw away gets burnt to power office blocks and manufactories. Man, it's hot in there, so it was good to get out onto the street and into the cool spring air.

My Channel wristwatch emitted a sharp bleep, indicating that somewhere a Channel franchise was about to commence broadcasting. Why the manufacturers make them do that I can't say; what do they think we'll do, rush off home to check it out? Perhaps it's some kind of warning, but I was more interested in visiting the bookstore. I had already seen an Entertainment Drone, looking like something from an underwater documentary, using its electrically driven vertical turbine to manoeuvre, while filming the crowds. These types of drone are everywhere of course; all programming uses them.

At first the wristwatch and the Drones and the rest of it had scared me, or made me nervous at least. Things I had grown up with suddenly seemed sinister. The closed circuit cameras could watch me wherever I go (there is even one watching when I work), all could be linked to Channel, and every suited man could be a fake smiling face for the Show. After a time this fear stops, you kind of forget about it. Like I said, that's how the Show wants it.

I became partly aware of a buzzing, and a collective murmur from the television fed cattle around me, an annoyance that taxed part of my brain that was otherwise engaged in perusing the titles in the shop window (a humourous pamphlet on the subject of heterography had caught my attention). A man tapped me on the shoulder; he must have been taller than me because as I turned to look at him I was greeted by his set of perfectly straight and white teeth showing through his enormous smile. Fake smile.

"Man," he said, making this sound like a statement rather than a lazy use of language, his voice projected not really at me so much as at the camera obtruding over my shoulder, "You'd better run."

I stared at the man for a moment, unable to understand just what he had meant. A passing citizen pushed along her child who pointed and laughed, turning when he had passed me, forcing his mother to physically pull him down the avenue of shops. I could smell the vanilla in the child's warm-pop. His chubby legs bounced lazily down the street.

"Your time has already started," the fake smiling face continued, "I'm seeing you've got four minutes and fifty six, sorry, fifty four seconds before the drone starts his huntin'. As we can see, viewer citizen," He turned to camera, "today's randomly chosen player is undergoing the normal stage of bewilderment; after all this was a totally normal day for him until moments ago."

I looked around, vaguely aware that I, an odd and perhaps slightly distant-looking man with a bag of shopping under his arm, was being scrutinised by perhaps millions of hidden viewers, and then, slowly at first, I started walking. Walking just because it felt right, like I should be doing something. As I started to comprehend the importance of the situation more fully, like a man waking in the morning and remembering some terrible news, I walked faster.

I passed the corner of the pedestrian precinct and saw the Drone standing there, amongst the shoppers, immobile and waiting. I found it strange that my hunt Drone was watching me as I passed it, for it must have had in its memory cells files on me and all other possible player citizens; pictures and the rest.

Seeing the Drone cleared my thoughts, and my walking broke into a run. I could still hear the Channel face talking through the wristwatch.

<...And of course, the first few minutes of the game really give us some insight into how the rest of the game will proceed. This man, for example, took longer than most to realise that he is the lucky player in today's big game. And remember you too could be a Channel player. Just take a few seconds to watch this short...> I hit the well-placed mute button.

*

My door wasn't locked when I arrived, but this didn't surprise me. Channel gained the right a few years ago to open up player's apartments (they said to make the game more enjoyable, and no one would want to compromise the people's enjoyment would they?), but they were never given permission to lock them again.

The television unit was switched on, tuned to one of the Channel franchises, and showing the same face I had seen earlier, now back in the studio.

<Not unusual this, for the player to come home first> I tried to ignore the transmission. <A psychologist might quote some theory about seeking an area of normality or something, but the player should appreciate that the hunter Drone, who incidentally timed in a few minutes ago, is well aware of this fact and knows the addresses of all our potential players...>

I placed my brown paper bag of groceries on the kitchenette-working surface, after removing a food bar that I stuffed in my pocket, and moved though to the study area, past where the television unit was. There was something from my desk that I wanted.

<...And another reason players will often come home first is to pick up useful equipment. This player, as an example, owns a gun that his late father left him. He hasn't so much as taken it out of its case in years. To make the game more interesting and safe, we've cleaned the gun and removed most of the ammunition. He will find the gun loaded with about five shots, I can't remember the number exactly,> he added a playful wink to this sentence, <The ammunition will be returned to him or his next of kin after the game.> Smile.

I thought for a moment about planting one of those five or so bullets in the TV unit, where the already large smile grew to jaw breaking proportions while I looked at it, but I decided it would be a waste of my time and resources. Anyway, it's my TV, so I just left the unit talking to itself and made my way outside and on to a bus bound for the Shopping Arena.

When playing for Channel entertainment had only been a possibility it had often occurred to me that the Shopping Arena would be one of the safer places to go. Few people who shop there are tempted by tax-free status, as they rarely need the extra money, so the Drone would be less likely to consider a violent confrontation. The shopping Arena is clean and the air fresh, it is always busy but never crowded or noisy. No "Cheaper Then A Closing Down Sale" signs here. People move slowly around the various levels, past an unending line of consumables, as if time and other considerations are somehow separate from those of the illusory world outside.

I glanced through a shop window, aware that I didn't want to look like a child pressing his greasy nose against a toyshop window, looking at the fabulous and unreasonably priced must-haves inside. Shops here are unlike those one would normally see, being both unfriendly and sedate, with no indication that they would associate themselves with anything as vulgar as money (no price tags for example, "if you need to ask..." and all that). Each outlet is specialised to the point of exclusivity, the items placed spaciously on the shelves so that each can be seen as an individual, art demanding its own room to just be.

I walked around the Arena occasionally entering a shop (curiosity fighting the urge to keep moving) until I noticed a girl, all pink and laces, standing outside a Vanity shoe shop, holding some footwear as if it had just dropped from some large grass eating animal. She was accompanied by an older woman, who I soon realised was the girl's mother, and two men, who I assumed to be her father and fiancé.

"I will not wear them, mother, I just will not!" The girl's voice sounded as though it was normally quite low but was being forced into a high whine.

"But why? They're very nice shoes." The mother's hands dropped to her sides, making a flapping sound against her tailored trousers, so light I nearly missed it.

"They're wrong, okay. They're not big enough."

"They fit you perfectly, and go so well with your wedding dress."

"No MOTHER, not big enough. They are not expensive enough, they weren't made for me."

Father and fiancé looked at each other and shrugged, facially. A proximity warning sounded from my wristwatch and I started to head for an exit.

It was getting darker outside, as day turned to night, and the street populace was undergoing a transformation, as the daytime people meet the night-time people. A mix of late shoppers and early partygoers, each ignoring the other, each with their uniforms and body language; the old and the young fearful of being mistaken for the other.

*

When the game becomes a little uninteresting for the audience, the location of the Player is fed to the Hunter. For fairness, the Player receives a short bleep from his wristwatch.

*

When I was a child I lived on a farm. That was before the Automation Crises, but the farm was still quite large, providing jobs for many families. Behind my parent's house was a long field, which lead down to a shallow river. That river marked the boundary of my world, of my influence.

In the summer, when it was not muddy and sticky, I would sprint along the level part of the field, with trees on each side of me, and the sun hanging carefully above. As fast as I could, faster each year, I would run. The edge of the slope down to the river would arrive sooner, farther I would reach into the air, higher and faster, but I never made it to the other side; I would always land on the smooth rocks, wet or with a twisted ankle. Days or weeks later I would try again, and fail again. Some times I could feel my feet trying to leave to ground before I reached the slope, feeling lighter, not connecting, like the flat, grass covered range was my airfield.

As I was growing up many of my father's friends and colleagues were losing their jobs as the farm owners replaced them with automated workers. Many of my school friends moved away. Even though my father was said to be 'in with the management,' we still knew that the unrest was coming. I decided that I would rather leave than see the place I grew up rip itself apart, so I moved to the city. I drifted around, tried college, and eventually (though as I think back, I can't quite recall how) I ended up in the refuse recycling plant. It was new than and they were taking on anyone that showed willing. Meanwhile, my home was becoming a news story.

*

There it was, the Drone. It was pacing towards the same entrance I had just used to leave the Shopping Arena. Its well-tuned senses picked me up almost straight away. With too many Taxpayers around for it to risk a gunfight, it started moving towards me. I turned on my heel and ran.

Must think. Must hide. The hunter will be able to close the space between us very quickly. Need somewhere to hide. I glanced behind me. It was running faster than I thought, pushing its way through the crowds of people, most unaware of the events around them, the life/death situation. We ran past a queue of cars waiting at stoplights. I panicked and dashed across the road, just as the traffic started to move, leaving the Drone on the wrong side of the busy street.

I quickly found a side road, to put more of an opening between me and the patiently waiting Drone. The traffic would be stopping again in a few seconds. I started to force my way through a line of citizens waiting to get into a club, the Parvenue. There was a bouncer nearby, trying to look like he was in control.

"Hey," I said to him quickly, breathing hard, "You gotta let me in."

"Get in line and I'll think about it when your turn comes round. Get out of my facial."

"Come on, just..."

"Look, mate, I'm a busy man, I don't need this. Now be a chap, and go to the back of the queue. Okay?"

"I need to get in now," I tried to read the name printed on his pin-badge, "there's a Hunter after me. Come on," I pleaded as I glanced up the street; the Drone was making his way towards me again.

"Hell, why didn't you say so?" The bouncer turned to shout at a colleague behind the ticket desk. "Hey, open the side door, we got a Party-Boy here..."

I was about to thank him.

"...And keep it open for a Drone too."

I stepped past a large man, dressed in a startlingly green suit, who had been waiting in the queue for some time, judging by the way his glare moved from me to the bouncer.

The club was dark inside, with many small, shadowy alcoves, some already filling with their cliques. All I could see in the few moments it took for my eyes to adjust was the dimly lit stage, where a band was playing, loudly. Posters announced these were 'The Bastard Society,' who were supporting the main act, a local 'Progressive Transversal' rock combo.

The band members looked unusual, the fashion being for energetic showmanship, loud and acerbic, the Society were motionless, their music austere. I moved through lissom dancers and a sparse mix of people who were motionless, listening to the music, watching the almost non-performance, towards the circular bar, so that I could get into the main half of the club.

This area was large and lit by many low-power lights, like candles in a cathedral, giving the club a dark golden air, soft like an old movie, out-shone only by the glare of the neon bar that was now behind me. The live music was being piped in, not too loud, it would increase in volume as the night progressed and the crowds grew larger.

There were more people here than in the stage area. Amongst the early evening dances could be seen the occasional floating mote of light, usually red, sometimes blue, pairs of eyes in the skulls of those drinking Total Sunrise, a drink that had remained popular several years after its first release. Within the shadows above my head, on the balcony that crawled around the dance area, more of the illuminant pinpricks stared and blinked down at those below.

I noticed to my left a metal staircase that climbed to the balcony, and a plan formed in my mind. I would climb up there and wait for the Drone to go past and then slip out onto the street again. Standing amongst the Sunrise drinkers, the balcony, which ran most of the length of the club proved to be a good vantage point but I could not see the Drone. What was keeping it?

"Hello." Suddenly, there was a voice behind me above the music. "I saw you come in." I turned around quickly, almost knocking someone's drink out of their hand. "You don't come here often do you, I think I would have noticed?" A woman, quite tall and wearing a small uniform, was standing behind me holding a neon-plastic drinks tray. "It is you isn't it? You work with my brother at the refuse place." A part of my brain between the conscious and the subconscious noticed that she was wearing a Channel Wristwatch on her bare left arm.

Recognition slowly over took my brain. "Of course," my shoulders relaxed and I smiled. "We met at the last Worker Relations thing. How long ago was that, must be eighteen months."

"Nearly twelve."

"Oh yes, they're annual aren't they."

She blinked and nodded. "Yes," she laughed though her nose. "You're still working there aren't you."

"Yes, for my sins in a previous life."

"Well at least you don't work in a place like this, look at the clothes you'd have to wear."

"You carry them off a lot better than I would, I think, what with my legs."

She smiled again. "Look, I finish here in a couple of hours, why don't you hang around so we can talk properly?"

"I don't think..." I hastily threw a glance over my shoulder; the Drone was on the dance floor, scanning the crowd. Almost instinctively, just as he looked up, I dropped behind the balcony balustrade, followed shortly by a puzzled cocktail girl.

"Okay, going strange now," she quipped. Her smile had slipped a little.

"No, it's just that I'm being followed," I said slowly.

"Followed, that's terrible. I'll go and get the manager to call for..."

"No," I interrupted, "followed might not be the right word, I'm being... Hunted."

"What, for the Channel? Oh, I'm not sure that there is anything I can do to help you."

Tax-free paranoia, we all have it, I suppose. Officially, Players are picked at random, but there has always been the specious belief that there are ways of increasing your chances of being chosen, such as helping a Player, or not playing at being a good, model citizen. Urban rumour persists also that it is possible, for a small contribution, to have your 'friends' randomly selected.

"No, what am I thinking? Look, walk around to the other end of the balcony. There's a Staff Access door, take my ID card." She handed me a credit card sized laminated card, with a printed bar-code swipe edge. "Through there you'll find a fire escape; it leads into the alley at the side of the club. I'm going to go now, but you'd better come back, so we can finish our conversation."

"Thanks for helping."

"Not a problem." She turned to go.

"I'm coming back." I said after her.

"I know." She was gone, walking swiftly along the balcony and then down the metal steps. I peeked over the balustrade; the Drone was still below, scanning the crowds roughly parallel to the balcony. I walked quickly towards the door, keeping cover behind the bodies of the patrons where possible. Soon I found the door and the pass machine. I looked over my shoulder, as I fumbled with the card in my hand, at the space below. The Drone was standing there, still. Most dancers ignored him but some were starting to stare at the metal creation or move away. He was looking up at me, coldly into my eyes, dispassionate as he removed a gun from a holder on his side.

I put the swipe card into the slot and pulled, but the door didn't move. The machine made a dissatisfied sound and showed the message "~ Hold Card Firmly And Swipe Though Reader Slowly And Evenly ~." I looked down at the Drone again; The Needle gun was raised and aimed as someone stepped past him, knocking into him. The Drone turned and punched the citizen out of his way as I pulled the card though the machine again. The door popped open as the Drone fired the gun. I dived though the doorway as a projectile rattled into the swinging door.

Pulling myself up from the floor, I quickly took in my surroundings, a short office corridor. I nearly started down the corridor, but turned back to close the security door behind me. The thin, six inch long, projectile needle was embedded in the plate metal.

Running down the passage I came across a young man carrying a bundle of blank membership forms. "Hey man, you can't come in here."

"Here, take this." I handed him the swipe card.

"Thanks, but..."

"I'm just leaving."

"Are you a member?"

I soon found the fire exit. As I left the building, onto a metal fire escape, I could hear the Drone forcing his way through the security door behind me. Outside the air was still warm but a fine rain had started making small puddles, turned urine-like by the nearby sodium streetlights. I was two floors above a shadowy side alley. Beyond was the well lit main road, where I had entered the Parvenue.

As I descended quickly, each of my hurried steps shook the metal structure and made its rusting supports make unpleasant noises. I was pleased to reach the bottom. Ahead of me, blocking the way to the main road was a group of men. They were all well dressed but their style was unusual, large and multicoloured, not the minimalism that those in the Parvenue had been wearing.

I moved towards the men and the group parted save one man. He was dressed much as the others were but his head was shaved so only a fine down of hair could be seen. At first I wasn't sure that he'd seen me, but then he spoke to me.

"You shouldn't be here. Why are you here?" I wasn't sure how to answer his question, and I found myself thinking momentarily of the guy in the club carrying the forms. "Well?" He sounded both patient and as if I made him angry.

"I'm just leaving the club."

He smiled, I think. "Do you always leave public areas by the fire escape?"

"No, but... Well, if I could be going. Rushing you know. I'm sorry if I've interrupted anything."

"Don't be sorry. In fact, it's interesting that you've dropped by. You see, before I arrived here myself, I asked these beautiful people around you to secure the area. Now, you watch television don't you?"

"A little, documentaries mainly."

"But you know what the term 'Secure the Area' means don't you? S.T.A. To make safe against attack, to fortify. To make impregnable to those who are undesirable. Are you desirable? Was I expecting you here? No. Have my friends here done the job I asked of them to a level you or I would be happy with? The same answer. So, in a way, it's quite fortuitous that you have dropped by as you have, or how else would I know that I work with a bunch of half-rates?"

"Glad I could help, but I really must go."

"You can't go, I'm afraid. I can't have people going around knowing -- and what's more, telling other people -- that I work with a tribe of shit-heads." There was a crash from behind me; I sensed a few of the group moving to investigate.

"I don't know who you are." I replied.

"Sure you do, you watch documentaries don't you?"

I smiled this time, "Touché, but I must be going, really."

"What's your rush, man? Surely you can take a moment to talk to a guy. That's the problem with this town, everyone's too busy to stop and just take things in, to take a deep breath and relax. You're an intelligent man; can't you see how things are? This is why we do what we do, to give the people a shake, a slap. Television has made the citizens immune to vision, so now we have to make some noise."

It was at this point that I noticed the sports bag at the man's feet. It was open, and I could see it contained a bundle of wires and packages wrapped in tape. I didn't have time to react properly to the sight because, from behind, there was a gunshot, followed by a heavy thud and more gunshots.

"What the fuck's going on back there?" shouted the guy.

I jumped behind a trash-dumper. The guy followed, he had a gun in his hand. Taking his lead, I removed mine from my belt. "That would be the Drone that's following me," I told him. He looked at my gun and raised an eyebrow.

"I think I'm starting to like you," he said, before getting to his knees and glancing around the corner of the dumper. "I don't know how to deal with these, I've heard a head shot will take them out." He told me. "Look, it's you the thing wants, so you should go. I'll keep it here as long as I can."

"Are you sure? I mean, it's not like you know me or anything." There were still the sounds of gunfire from up the alley, but less as the moments past. I could hear the distinctive sound of the Drone's needle gun quietly using pressurised gas to project its deadly missiles.

"You owe me one, okay? Don't worry about me, I'll be fine."

"Okay, I'll go. Be careful." I glanced at the bag, which still sat on the floor and then ran down the alley, back towards the front of the club.

I thought about going back into the club to warn the staff about the sports bag, but I was certain that the Drone would kill all of the men in the alley. Drones earn extra points for processing criminals, useful if there is a draw at the end of the season.

On the main road, I flagged down a cab. I didn't know where to go from here, I'd never thought this far ahead. Then it came to me; I set the cab to go to the City Boundary Works. The Drone emerged from the alley moments after I got into the cab. It gave chase, but the cab easily outran it. I sat back and ate my food bar. Soon, a police force would be getting ready to clean up the situation in the alleyway.

*

Did I ever think of Dad as a friend? No, I don't think I ever did. I don't suppose there's much point regretting that. We didn't have a problem with our closeness, or lack of, when he was alive. I think it was the same with my brother, or do I hope it was? I find myself wondering, sometimes, if I jealously hope that my brother didn't have and enjoy something that I never had and never tried to achieve.

I could have tried harder, but then so could have my father. He could have been there when I was young, when boys need the guiding influence of a father. All my family memories centre on my Mother, usually in the kitchen cooking great meals that my father would eat on his own, after leaving work too late to eat with the rest of us. The only conversation I can remember having with my father was when I told him I was leaving to move to the city. He did not react well.

I think it's fair to say that my father didn't like the city or city people, but that's not unusual for a country person. Everyone likes what they have just enough to hate those that have more. For my father, this meant disliking the wealthy, and he believed that all city people have more money than they could ever need. Certainly, all the city people he had known were like that, those who visited the Country Club during the summer. He could not see, it seemed, that these were not representative of the whole. The people who visited the Country Club saw all the openness and friendliness in their chosen holiday destination and convinced themselves that the locals were somehow inferior; Too stupid to dislike others, to be capable of deviousness or duplicity.

In the summer time, I sometimes worked in the fields near to the Country Club. Even then, machines worked the rest of the land, but this would not do for the club. Instead, youngsters were employed, creating the image of a countryside that the tourists wanted to see; Slower, peaceful. Innocent. This made them feel safe, something that was difficult to achieve at home, and this somehow made it a real holiday, out of this world.

I told him I was planning to move to the city, and he nearly exploded. Until then, anger was not something that Dad did, or at least not at home. He said some very hateful things, not just about me, but about cities and now city people live, how I was choosing to live, which only strengthened my resolve to defy him. The fact that my mind was made up, and that I was abandoning the family and the country, necessitated that I moved. I was no longer welcome in his house.

*

My credit ran out maybe half a mile from the reprocessing plant, so I had to run the rest of the way. As I entered the City Boundary Works compound, I saw the Drone was still giving chase. It had followed me all the way from the city centre; it had probably managed to put a tracer on the cab. It was holding its needle gun in its hand, and it was now that I know what I had feared in the Parvenue. It was playing safe. Safe, that is, for it.

A Drone is awarded points based on how many Players it captures in a season. Killing a Player is considered a capture, but is worth fewer points, representing the relative ease of simply shooting a Player down. By playing safe, the Drone had decided to go for a higher chance of fewer points, a common enough tactic.

I convinced the security guard to let me into the refuse recycling secure area, and used my company employee card to enter the building itself. The perimeter fence would prove little obstruction to the Drone; as it climbed, its sensitive innards would be shielded from the high electrical discharges by the same kind of protection used by Elec_net Maintenance workers. It would find the security door harder to bypass, though, and this would give me time to get into the heart of the plant.

The sections around where I work are well lit but very noisy because of the machines that crush and move the tonnes of city refuse around until it is either burnt to power turbines, or moved on for further reprocessing. I moved through the sorting section, which is one floor above the furnace. I could already feel the heat. The furnace never shuts down, just as the city never stops producing garbage, and the heat and the noise are ever present. Workers normally wear equipment to protect them from this, which also act as communication devices.

I came to a platform that overlooked the next level down, the furnace level. I imagine it was about this time that the Drone breached the security door meaning I'd have a few minutes at most before it located me. I used the open lift to descend the 50 feet to the next level. It moved slowly but I used this time to check my gun. It felt heavy and I was reminded of how long I'd been awake.

As I exited the elevator, a spark erupted on the metal work by the side of my head. The Drone was standing on the platform, now above me, aiming its needle gun. With no time to pause, I dashed towards the furnace control area. The elevator started climbing back up to the platform. I should have wedged the door open with something but didn't think of that at the time.

Quickly I moved through the open area towards the noisiest part of the plant. The Drone loosed another two shots; both came close but missed. I entered the control section corridor as the elevator started its second descent. A white-collar man greeted me as I opened the door into the control room. I hadn't considered that there'd be anyone in this part of the plant at this time.

"Are you the guy to fix the lav light?" He asked.

"The what?"

"It's about time you showed."

"Look, you're clearly confused. If I were here to fix your toilet light, I wouldn't be carrying a gun, now would I?"

"Suppose."

"Right then..."

"You're some kind of terrorist aren't you?" He interrupted, "Gonna take over the plant or something. Wow."

"The gun is just for self defence, I'm being chased by a Drone..."

"The police are here already? Great!"

"...So I'm going to need your help."

"What ever you need, we'll tell the police you forced me to do it, right?"

"I want you to shut the power down."

"To the city?"

"Just to the plant."

"Oh. Okay." He moved across the room to one of the computer terminals, like a child who has just discovered a new game. I moved to the door.

"I'm going. Give me thirty seconds and then do it."

"Fine," he said. "It'll take me that long to shut the safety switches down."

I left the control room and continued down the section corridor towards the furnace itself. The heat and noise were intense, it made moving fast and thinking difficult, but my plan was already formed. At the end of the corridor a balcony overlooked the furnace and the automated machines that shovel rubbish into the ever-hungry burner. The rubbish came into the room on conveyor belts appearing from under the platform on which I stood. The mouth of the burner was directly in front of me.

To my side was a metal structure like a scaffold that supports the weight of the furnace and its satellite equipment. I got only a brief glimpse of this before the lights died. Suddenly all was dark save the red glow from the entrance of the burner. I groped in the dark and found the handrail. I climbed onto it, trying not the think of the space below me, and moved onto the support structure. The metal tubing was warm and slippery in my sweaty hands. I climbed up the structure, near blinded and my head numbed by the thunderous noise, so that I was above and across from the entrance from the section corridor.

There it was, the Drone, only a few metres below me. I could just see the light from the furnace and from the corridor reflecting from its metallic covering. It was moving slowly from the section corridor onto the platform, its needle gun in one hand, which it held out in front of itself, and the other hand was touching the wall as the Drone felt its way. In the dark its video sensors were all but useless, and its infrared and audio sensors could detect nothing over that given off by the furnace. Even the odour of the garbage masked my own body odour. Suddenly the Drone found itself vulnerable.

I reached out with my gun, but in the dark I was unable to aim. It felt heavier in my hands than it had when I'd first picked it up in my apartment. I pointed at where I hoped the Drone was and fired. The Drone reacted to the shot as the bullet left the barrel. It spun its right arm around to point its needle gun at me. Somewhere a needle clanged amongst the scaffold, wide of its mark. I emptied the revolver before I stopped firing, and below me the Drone fell backward, forced by the impact of at least two of the four shots.

I stayed where I was for some time, in the dark heat, my wrist aching from firing my Father's gun and my head buzzing with the noise and the heat and fear. Eventually some of the emergency lights came on, filling the lower parts of the plant with red light, and I could see the Drone again. It was lying on its back, propped up at the shoulders by the wall. Around it was what looked like oil or hydraulic fluid. I had to make sure the Hunter was stopped. I slowly climbed down from the structure. Every bone ached, each muscle complained at the effort and I was again aware of the drop below me.

When I reached the Drone, I knelt and touched the fluid that ran from its shell. It was red in the emergency light and still warm from whatever purpose it had had in the mechanism. The Drone remained motionless, its needle gun discarded and its neck limp so its featureless head hung towards the floor.

I heard a commotion from up the corridor, voices over the sound of the machinery. I looked and saw spotlights dancing with shadows on the walls. Soon these shadows turned to people, a camera crew, fronted by a suited man, and an assortment of security men and police officers. The suit was already speaking before I could hear him, so I wasn't sure straight away that he was talking to me. I recognized him easily enough though; He was the same fake smile from the street the previous evening.

"And we've found you, at last. Here he is, viewer citizens, the man of the hour. We have just witnessed one of the greatest chases ever. It was certainly the most exciting chase I have been involved with." As he spoke, the power was switched on in the plant and the main lights come to life, one by one.

The suite put his arm around me and started to lead me back up the corridor as he spoke, "You are hungry and tired... no, exhausted. You've been shot at and nearly caught many times, yet you are victorious. We're going to take you back to the studio to meet the audience, and every newspaper has requested an interview with you, but before any of that, is there anything you would like to say right now, to the viewers at home?"

I looked at my dirty hands, and mumbled, "The Hunter is dead."

"Yes, you stopped it, that's right, and for your prize, not only do you get to keep all the tax money that Channel have paid for you during your membership, also you will receive a cash bonus prize."

"No, I mean he is dead. I've killed him." I held up my hands to the camera, the fluid from the Drone was still there, still red and sticky between my fingers. "This is not my blood."

A panicked look appeared on the man's face. His smile dropped and he nearly lost his microphone. He turned to the Cameraman "Cut to commercials, now."

"We've already been dropped," shouted the Cameraman.

The suit turned his attention back to me. The panicked look was gone but his smile had not returned. "Shit," was all he could say.

"I need to sit down," I replied.

An office high enough in the plant to be quiet and friendly smelling was found, and I was given a coffee. The Channel suit sat at my side on the curve of a large meeting table, his legs crossed. He jiggled his foot anxiously.

"This is where you work isn't it mister erm..?"

He looked through his notes but couldn't find the information he wanted. I decided to save him from having to, and replied, "Yes, why do you ask?"

"Oh, just making conversation." He answered, looking up.

"You look rather tired, but I bet you're not as tired as I am, so lets cut to the chase shall we? I know something that you'd rather I didn't."

"Okay. What do you know, exactly?"

"That the Hunters are in fact humans in convincing looking costumes and not the Drones that Channel lets the public believe."

"'Lets the public believe,' a good choice of words. The original press release that Channel issued did say something about Drones playing the parts of the Hunters, but is it really such a surprise that we chose to use people instead? I mean, just think of the cost and the practicalities. A piece of hardware capable of doing the kind of thing we saw your Hunter do tonight would cost more than my lifetime's earnings, never mind yours, and then we're supposed to let it free on the street so a wildcard like you can shoot it through the hard-drive? Not likely.

"Wrap a man in tin-foil, give him a fancy gun and a heads-up display in his helmet with access to street cameras and a team of advisors and other simple but neat tricks, and what you have is much more entertaining than anything the boffins can come up with, and cheaper to boot."

"I also know that every time a Drone is killed, someone is murdered and the police aren't involved."

"You signed a disclosure when you became a Channel Player which stated we could do with you as we wish, including kill you. That's what we get in return for paying your taxes. The man who played your Hunter signed a similar contract, as did I. You're no more a murderer than I am, or the citizens who watched the show tonight. It's a game we play and those are the rules."

"What's to stop me going to the newspapers and selling them what I know?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all, but they wouldn't pay you for it and they certainly wouldn't print your story."

"Why?"

"Because any investigative journalist worth the name already knows. In return for not printing the kind of story that might harm Channel, we help them do their jobs, shall we say?"

"You bribe them."

"No, we just co-operate with them. All the newspapers want to interview or print stories about the celebrities we make, such as you and me, but without Channel's permission, they can't. We give them that permission in return for doing things our way.

"The only people we don't want to know about this are the viewer citizens, and so far we've been successful, but you my friend have put us in a bad situation. If the citizens are ever to find out, we'd like to be the ones in control of distributing that information, but you are currently outside our control.

"We could just kill you and because of your contract, your family would have no recourse; but that's not the kind of people we are, and anyway, if the newspapers were to learn of this story, it might jeopardize our working relationship with them. One of the smaller newspapers might be temped to print the story of the victorious Player who went missing in strange circumstances just to improve its sales, and this would hardly be good for Channels own position."

"So what do we do?"

"You walk out of here with your prize money and promise, honest onions, cross your heart and hope to die, not to tell another soul about what happened tonight. In exchange, Channel will make sure that the Hunters paperwork, which clears you of any suspicion of murder doesn't go missing."

"Sounds like a fair deal, assuming that the prize money is generous enough. I have couple of other requests if I might."

"Fire away and I'll see what I can fix."

"I'd like mine and my partners names to be removed from your list of candidate Players."

"We can do that, but one thing. We know a lot about you, and you don't have a partner."

"We'll see about that. The other thing I'd like is a ride back into the city. There's someone I've got to find, and all I know is she works at the Parvenue."

*

Sometime after I left, the Automation Crisis happened, sparked by the riots and vandalism in the part of the countryside where I grew up. It brought not only this country but also much of the world to a stop. Many people died and it would take years to remove the scars of the riots and protests. The government was forced to change the law in order to protect a human's right to work. It was this change in the law that meant, when the City Boundary Works were built, I was employed there rather than a drone or a computer.

Then my Father died. I was shocked; he wasn't an old man. The stress during the crisis of being the liaison between his management and the protesting workers had been heavy on him, and one day, while he was sunbathing in the field behind the house, his heart stopped.

I was surprised that my family welcomed me at the funeral; I was expecting to shunned as an outsider but instead I found that I was looked upon as a traveller, someone a little more worldly wise than them, a black sheep to be quietly proud of. My Mother assured me that My Father didn't dislike me, and that his reaction to my idea of leaving had been spontaneous and short lived. When I asked her why he had never tried to get in touch with me, she replied that it was the same reason I hadn't tried to contact him; He was a man and therefore stubborn.