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by Steph Bennion
It is Christmas Eve and Laverna is in no mood for seasonal goodwill. Cashiered from military academy with zero career prospects, she is put to the test in a job trial like no other. Can she show the smug little community what a girl of action can do?
LAVERNA GLARED AT THE OMINOUS DARK BLOBS moving across the enhanced-reality display of her glasses. The map showed trouble ahead. Moving cautiously, she edged forward a few steps, keeping close to the alley wall. Her red combat suit, festooned with stupid white fur trim, was far too conspicuous for this type of mission. The floppy cap and voluminous fake snowy beard were more ridiculous still. On the other hand, she was a young woman cashiered from military academy, stuck in the Alpha Centauri system with no job and the career prospects of a lungfish on the moon. If wearing an outfit with ‘cultural significance’ was what it took to find work, she would grit her teeth and show them what a girl of action could do.
Her stare dropped to the dog waiting faithfully at her side. Max was an illusion, a Mobile Artificial eXistance generated by her glasses, deliberately styled to look like a cartoon terrier. She resisted the urge to boot the avatar across the street.
“Hey Max,” she murmured, hating the way the beard muffled her American drawl. “You wanna go walkies and kick some more butt?”
“I do not ‘go walkies’,” the dog said icily. “Nor do I ‘kick butt’.”
At the end of the alleyway, two armed police officers stood in the street with their backs towards her, silhouetted in the glow of distant fires. The narrow passage was littered with rubble and the charred remains of a Christmas tree from a bomb-damaged house. Her map showed a third signal but there was no one else in sight.
Laverna raised a gloved finger to her glasses and frowned as the third blob smeared beneath her touch. Tucking a stray length of blonde hair behind her ear, she scowled at the faint reflection of her pale, dirt-streaked face.
“Blood,” she muttered. “You’d have thought these things would be self-cleaning.”
Her assignment was not going well. The town had reacted badly to her arrival and all hell had broken loose. Of her primary targets, none so far had willingly agreed to honour their obligations and things had got messy. The time display in the corner of her glasses showed she had perilously little time left to reach her final mark. She was determined to salvage something from this debacle.
She felt a tap upon her shoulder and froze. Startled, she whirled around and found herself facing an elderly man dressed in casual slacks and a horrible patterned sweater. Even if it was Christmas Eve, there was no excuse for knitted reindeer. The man wore gold jewellery and looked in very good health. Like everyone else Laverna had met in town, he regarded her with suspicion.
“Push off, grandpa,” she growled.
“Who…?” he began, taken aback.
Laverna did not let him finish. Lashing out, she shoved him hard against the wall and heard a satisfying crack of bone. A soft thump followed as his unconscious form slipped to the ground. On a whim, she dropped beside him and used her glasses to scan his face.
“Max?” she snapped. “Is he on the list?”
“Identity confirmed,” replied the dog. “Secondary target with one missed payment.”
“Good enough for me,” she muttered.
The man’s gold watch and fancy bracelet looked new. This was the sort of town where people spent a fortune on Christmas gifts. Laverna yanked them from his wrists, scanned each item to register receipt and shoved them into her bag. A thud of boots rose from the street. A glance confirmed the two police officers were hastening up the alley towards her.
Using the man’s fallen torso as a step, she vaulted over wall into the garden of the house beyond. A split second later, the muffled thud of an exploding mortar shell echoed down the street, muffling the indignant squeak of her stepping stone. Laverna ducked as a shower of debris rained from the sky, then cautiously peered back over the wall. The two police officers had been knocked unconscious by the blast.
“So long, wage slaves,” she murmured. The map showed she had just one more road to cross. “Love to stop and chat, but you’re not my target demographic.”
Max rematerialised at her side. Laverna scurried to the house, found a charred door and impatiently lashed out with a boot. The wooden door broke free of its hinges and crashed backwards into the gloom. She hastened through into a smoke-blackened kitchen, where a table held the remains of a hearty meal covered in soot. With Max at her heels, she shoved open a second door and swept into the living room beyond.
Laverna stumbled to a halt. A woman and child, huddled together in fear, knelt behind the sofa in the corner of the room. Both seemed to have taken fashion tips from the old man trampled in the alleyway. A window had shattered and their Christmas Tree lay on the floor, evidently a result of the bomb blast outside. Ragged strands of coloured tinsel hung mournfully from the ceiling. A holoprint picture book, motionless electric cat and other cheap gifts lay strewn amid discarded boxes, torn coloured wrapping and glittering shards of glass.
The woman stared at Laverna in fright. “Who…?”
“Merry Christmas,” Laverna said sarcastically, not letting her finish. She was already scanning their faces. “Max, are they on the list?”
“Negative,” replied the avatar. “Though there is a warning against her credit rating.”
“Sounds like they’re on the list to me,” declared Laverna. She scooped up the electric cat and holoprint book, rubbed them clean with a couch cushion and stuffed them into her bag. “It’s not good to be brought up expecting fancy gifts like these,” she remarked, eyeing the little boy. “The world they promise is too rich for the likes of you.”
There was no response other than their wide-eyed stares. Laverna continued through the room, through the far door and into the hallway. There was a nice brass-topped walking stick by the front door which she took for herself. A solid length of wood felt good in her hand. She released the door and stepped into the tiny garden bordering the street.
Fifteen minutes remained to complete her mission. At the end of the houses on the other side of the road stood an innocuous convenience store, the abode of her final target. Outside on the street was an abandoned army tank, its tracks hanging loose and black smoke belching from an open hatch. The road was otherwise deserted. Checking the map in her enhanced-reality gaze, Laverna saw the police officers had not moved from the alleyway. She was lucky to have given them the slip so easily. Luck was all she needed.
* * *
The lights were dimmed behind the cluttered window display of the store. With Max scampering at her feet, Laverna crossed the street and hurried towards her goal. The shop had closed for the day. Undeterred, Laverna gave the locked door a hefty kick.
The door opened with a bang, tinkling a tiny bell. Entering the store, Laverna was immediately struck by how old-fashioned it looked. On the shelves were grocery provisions in packets, tins and glass bottles, with no sign of a food molecularisor. The shop had no holovid screens with rolling advertisements, no annoying hologram sales assistants and no manufactured music with subliminal messages. It was like walking into a period drama set before the space age, like that old English Christmas story about a miserable old man being lectured by ghosts. She never understood why Scrooge turned nice at the end.
At the end of the counter stood a Christmas tree, topped by a bright golden star, its branches adorned with shiny baubles and tinsel. Beneath the tree lay a small stack of gifts in colourful patterned wrapping. Just then, a grey-haired man, wearing another dreadful example of seasonal knitwear, hurried from a doorway behind the counter. There was no one else in the shop. Laverna’s glasses scanned his features as she approached.
The man looked perturbed. “Who…?”
“Stop that!” Laverna snapped angrily. “Is that the way everyone greets visitors in this goddamn town? ‘Who’ him, ‘who’ her?! What is this, Whoville?”
The man cleared his throat and tried again. “We’re closed now until the new year,” he said curtly, speaking with an Eastern European accent in clipped, arrogant tones. He cast a cool gaze over her Santa Claus outfit. “Shouldn’t you be out delivering presents?”
“One moment, Mister Who,” snapped Laverna. She glanced to Max.“Is he the mark?”
“Identity confirmed,” replied the dog. “Jumis Vilks, three months of arrears.”
Laverna gave a wry grin. With a flourish, she whipped a squat device from her bag and slapped it onto the counter. Her other hand brandished the stolen walking stick.
“Mister Vilks, this is a most auspicious Christmas Eve. I bring you joyous news!”
“Sorry, I’m not interested in your joy,” he said, his attempt at a smile fading. “Or anything else you happen to be selling,” he added hurriedly.
“You misunderstand me. I am not here to sell trinkets,” she assured him. “You’ve built yourself a nice little life here, Jumis. I’m here to collect what’s due.”
The man frowned. Laverna extended a gloved finger and tapped the device. The air above the counter suddenly filled with a half-metre wide holographic projection of Alpha Centauri’s gas-giant planet of Thule, floating in space. As they watched, the image swiftly zoomed in on an orbiting greenish-brown moon wreathed in wispy clouds, then again to a space station high above the moon, a jumbled mess of spinning habitation wheels, solar arrays and glowing green bio-domes. The man twitched nervously.
“The Edward Everett Hale,” declared Laverna. “Home to vast databanks hosting the most exclusive private holoverse domains in the five systems. We gave you a world! Your own virtual realm with super-fast servermoon connectivity, high-definition interstellar data streaming, full sensory holoverse immersion, a year’s free subscription to the top ten media libraries and over two hundred sports channels for just ninety-nine credits a month!”
As she spoke, the projected image zoomed towards the space station and dissolved into a bright, cheery vista of a picturesque town, the same snug little community now reduced to a smoking ruin outside the door. The shopkeeper stared at the holographic image, his face filled with fear. Clients usually hid away in their own virtual worlds for a reason. An alert appeared in Laverna’s glasses, warning that the man was using his cranium implant to interrogate the network. He would be frantically trying to determine just why she was here.
The shopkeeper stared disdainfully at Laverna. “And?”
“Our records show you missed October’s payment. And November’s, and now December’s. Do you not like this world, Jumis? Is it not worth the price you paid?”
The man shuffled uneasily. “Well…”
“A world you have furnished with the best of what the holoverse can offer,” she added. “Secretly living the high life, while pretending to be a lowly shopkeeper?”
“Pretending?! How dare you…!”
“You made a deal,” Laverna said slowly. Leaning forward, she fixed him with her best glare. “Ninety-nine credits a month. Pay up or Christmas gets cancelled.”
Jumis tried to hold her gaze. Compared to the others, he was made of stern stuff.
“The fighting,” he murmured. “The tanks, explosions… That was you?!”
Laverna shrugged. “The reaction to my arrival was not what I expected.”
“All this destruction for a measly two hundred and ninety-seven credits?”
Laverna was impressed by his mental arithmetic. Switching off the hologram, she snatched the projector from the counter and dropped it into her bag. Actions spoke louder than words. Raising the walking stick, she smacked it into the palm of her free hand in a non-too-subtle hint of impending violence. The man flashed an apologetic smile.
“My current financial situation is, err… less than fluid,” he confessed, his tones dripping with insincerity. “There’s a war on, you know.”
Laverna scowled. “No, there isn’t.”
“It seems like you’ve started one out there.”
Laverna tried to remember her instructions. “How can you even contemplate throwing all this away?” she asked. “Holoverse domains are the future of civilisation! This is a once-in-a-lifetime offer for you and you only. I believe with a passion that this is what you want. This will change your life! It changed mine and I’m just collecting debts.”
“Do you have such a place yourself?” the man enquired politely.
“Me? I’m not worthy,” Laverna snapped. The conversation was not going well.
“Offer a deal,” advised Max.
“Yes!” she cried. Laverna glared at Jumis. “If you clear your debts today and sign up to a new twelve-month contract, you will receive a fantastic free laser stylus and six-months’ membership of Virtual Gymworld Extreme! Connection charges vary according to locality, adult channels and ultra sports leagues not included.”
“Go away,” Jumis said irritably. “I’ll pay you next month.”
Laverna’s scowl returned. Brandishing the walking stick, she smacked it hard upon the counter. The shopkeeper jumped in fright and stepped back.
“Pay up, damn you!” she snarled.
“You’re crazy!” he cried. “Stark, raving mad!”
“I am crazy,” she admitted. “About this fantastic deal, personally selected for you.” She raised the stick again and shoved the brass tip into the man’s chest. “Sign up!”
“They said on the news a lunatic Santa Claus was loose,” the man murmured, his voice trembling. He stared at her in disbelief. “Armed police, missiles, tanks, nothing could stop her. All this fighting, this destruction to our town, is all because of you?”
“I believe in doing my job! It is not my fault if others do not pay their debts.”
“Pay up and extend your contract!” she shrieked.
Laverna cursed beneath her fake beard. Stomping to the end of the counter, she knelt beside the Christmas tree, threw aside her stick and grabbed one of the wrapped gifts. It rattled when she shook it and felt reassuringly heavy. She stuffed the present into her bag, picked up another and repeated the ritual. Laverna grinned at Jumis’ perturbed grimace.
“No!” he cried. “Those are for my daughter!”
“Daddy?” piped a sudden small voice. “What’s happening?”
A young girl in flowery pyjamas had appeared in the doorway behind the counter. She looked barely more than four years old, with angelic blond locks tumbling messily to her shoulders. Rubbing her eyes sleepily, the girl gave Laverna a wary look of appraisal.
“Mara Lou, go back to bed!” hissed Jumis, turning to his daughter.
“So you got yourself a virtual daughter too,” remarked Laverna, grabbing more gifts from beneath the tree. “You really are living a fantasy.”
“Keep her out of this,” growled Jumis.
The little girl tottered forward and scrutinised the scene. Laverna’s sack was bulging with confiscated presents and it was an effort to get the final few inside. She had taken more than was required to repay Jumis’ debts but did not care. Laverna eyed the Christmas tree, wondering if she should confiscate that too. Swinging the bag to her shoulder, she rose to her feet and glared into the toddler’s wavering stare.
“Little girl, your daddy is on the naughty list,” she remarked. “Go back to bed.”
“You’re not Santa,” the girl said accusingly. “You’re not fat.”
“Why, thank you! I try to keep in shape.”
The display in Laverna’s glasses indicated she had barely a minute left. No time now for deals, she retrieved the stolen walking stick, then on a whim seized the trunk of the Christmas tree. The avatar of Max coughed impatiently.
The girl sidled closer. “Why are you taking our tree?”
Laverna paused, struck by the innocence in the girl’s voice. “The lights are broken,” she lied. “I’m taking it to Santa’s workshop to be fixed.”
Mara Lou cocked her head in thought. “It doesn’t look broken.”
Scowling, Laverna waggled the walking stick. “Really?”
“I’m thirsty,” the girl declared, changing the subject. “I want some milk.”
“Mara Lou, go to your room!” said Jumis. “I’ll bring you some shortly.”
“The refrigerator cabinet has synthesised dairy products,” said Max, in response to Laverna’s irritable scowl. “Over there, next to the popcorn and potato snacks.”
Laverna looked to where the avatar indicated. Letting go of the Christmas tree, she went to the cabinet and grabbed a carton of milk, conscious of Jumis’ furious glare. Mara Lou shuffled to the tree, stood on tiptoe and waved a hand in front of the golden star. On cue, holographic angels appeared and together slowly began to circle the star, gliding upon their outstretched wings. Laverna rolled her eyes, opened the milk carton and offered it to the girl. Tiny fingers ripped it from her hand.
“Mara Lou!” snapped her father. “Go to bed!”
“Say thank you,” Laverna chastised her. “Don’t they teach you…?”
Her words tailed away. The orbiting holographic angels had unexpectedly broken into song, filling the air with the sound of a heavenly choir. Distracted, Laverna recognised the words of a familiar Christmas carol. Unbidden, a gentle smile crept across her face.
The time display in her glasses flashing a warning. Laverna cursed, the angels’ spell upon her broken. She had failed her mission, lost her chance at getting a proper job and it was all the damn fool shopkeeper’s fault. Suddenly enraged, she raised the walking stick and swung it with all her might. Jumis stumbled back, his face twisted with fright. He opened his mouth to scream, then froze.
Laverna, panting from her sudden rush of anger, stared as the stick in her hand vanished. A split second later, so did Jumis, his daughter, the shop and the street outside. Laverna glowered at the white walls now filling her gaze. Max remained at her side.
“Damn you people!” she yelled. “I was so close!”
The time display was a row of zeroes. A final message in scarlet appeared before her eyes: ‘HOLOVERSE ACCESS TERMINATED’. Laverna cursed, pulled away her headset and threw it aside, banishing Max and her combat suit in all its Santa Clause tackiness. Sighing, she sank back into the virtual-reality immersion cradle, one of three in a grey-walled room with a concave floor. Emerging into grim reality was rarely a relief.
Her sweat-encrusted overalls smelt terrible. As she wriggled free of the walker frame, a door opened and a young man stepped into the room. Behind him through the doorway, Laverna spied a group of gamblers in the adjoining chamber, transfixed by the bright screens of Gods of Avalon gaming machines. Mutters of despair and occasional whoops of joy mixed with the whispering voices and seductive music of the machines, eager to be fed with all the credit tokens they could spare.
“Candidate, your time is up,” said the man. “This exercise is complete.”
* * *
He led her through the gaming lounge to a private room, where two dark-suited figures sat behind a desk. The first, a dark-skinned man with ageing yet handsome features, stared rather too deeply for Laverna’s liking. The woman beside him looked pale and uptight with bundled red hair, razor-sharp lacquered fingernails and a frown to crack glass. Laverna warily took the seat opposite. Neither attempted to greet her with a smile.
They were in the Edward Everett Hales’ Avalon Casino Hotel, a rotating torus of cabins attached to the main bulk of the space station, where centrifugal pseudo-gravity was around half that of Earth. The room had wall holovids to mimic windows, fed by cameras on the static part of the station. Feeling itchy inside her sweaty overalls, Laverna stared at the screen behind her interviewers and the bright green crescent that was the moon of Avalon, slicing through the inky void like the blade of a scythe. It was a better view than the screen behind her, which showed Avalon’s parent planet of Thule. The huge gas giant, wreathed in turbulent clouds of rusty red, cream and brown, was not far short of terrifying.
“Tell me,” said the man. “How did you think you did?”
Laverna eyed him carefully. “I assume you were watching my every move,” she said. “The challenge panned out a little differently to what I anticipated. But I found all three marks and attempted to negotiate repayment of what was due.”
“Your so-called marks were a little unreceptive, were they not?” remarked the woman. “You were meant to be collecting debts, not forcing service users into do-or-die situations! Two of them paid with their lives! Virtually speaking, of course.”
“Hey! That first man came at me with an antique sword from his collection!”
“Yet somehow the blade ended embedded in his own spine. Not the best way to maintain customer relations, would you agree?”
“The third came close to agreeing,” Laverna said defensively. “I think.”
“You tried to bribe him with a special offer he wasn’t entitled to,” the man pointed out. “And threatened him with a walking stick.”
“It was an incentive. I improvised. Is that bad?”
“This exercise was a simple work trial to see if you had the aptitude we seek,” he said, looking pained. “The holoverse subscribers we selected spend a great deal of their lives in their virtual homes, pastiches of provincial neighbourhoods harking back to simpler times. Your improvisations triggered a mass mobilisation of law-enforcement avatars and left a trail of devastation! Did you hack the immersion software? We saw combat units from Battlefield Earth and other linked holoverses. I didn’t know that was even possible!”
“But I did recover goods,” Laverna pointed out, getting annoyed. “Virtual items have real-life value, which you said you were happy to receive to clear a customer’s debt. What kind of person synthesises a fake daughter, anyway?”
“The girl was real,” the woman pointed out. “She was looking for her father.”
“He lets a toddler use virtual reality? That’s child abuse!”
“No, it’s a popular added extra to a family holoverse experience,” she replied icily. “Does it not bother you that all this happened on Christmas Eve? A time of rejoicing, family and exchanging gifts? Did the Christmas Carols not stir your soul?”
“Goddamn singing tree angels?” remarked Laverna. “Give me a break.”
The man regarded her levelly. “So what did you learn?”
“About Christmas? That happiness and joy has to be paid for,” Laverna said brightly. “Christmas is a vital bedrock of capitalism which retailers need to survive the year.”
The woman shook her head. “Debt collection requires tact,” she said sadly. “I’m afraid you’re not really cut out for the job.”
“What?” Laverna frowned. “I need this…!”
“Wait,” said the man, smoothly interrupting. “The American Government has other opportunities. An intriguing development has just come to light in Shanghai, which may require the services of enterprising new recruits. Such as yourself.”
“Good salary, swanky suits,” interjected the woman.
“An invitation to tonight’s Christmas party for our Alpha Centauri office,” added the man, smiling. “The best food and wine shipped from across the five systems.”
“American Government?” asked Laverna, confused. She scowled as realisation struck her. “That job advert was a scam! You’re fraudsters, luring me with goddamn lies!”
“You’re the one who stabbed a client in the back,” retaliated the woman.
“You trampled an old man,” said the man.
“You stole from the poor,” the woman continued.
“And what about the bribery and false promises?” remarked her colleague.
“Yes, but…!” spluttered Laverna.
The woman smiled. “Have you ever considered a career in politics?”
Laverna glared at her, wondering if they were winding her up. The woman glanced at her colleague, leaned close and murmured in his ear. The man, looking thoughtful, whispered his reply and gave a nod. Broad smiles unexpectedly broke across their faces.
“Hark the herald angels sing,” said the woman. “Laverna, welcome to the CIA.”
~ THE END ~
* * *
|THE WORLDS OF HOLLOW
MOON came about through my love of space opera and science
fiction. I enjoyed writing these books so much that more are sure
Worlds Of Hollow Moon
All content (c) Steph Bennion, WyrdStar and Danse Macabre 2007-2022.
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