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Shen Book One - Chapter One

When no one was looking, David set off his own ring tone. He pretended it was a call too important to miss, left Alyson talking with his brother-in-law and walked away. He faked some responses to imaginary questions. As soon as he was back in his office and out of earshot, he put the mobile in his jacket.

And he went round the room one more time. The sealant on the window frames, in a few places, wasn’t perfectly smooth. A hairline crack had started under the bracket that held the flat panel television to the wall. And when he ran a finger along the back of the radiator it already came up dusty. It all looked old, now that it was less than brand new. When Alyson finally came looking for him, he was crouched under his desk.

“OK,” she said, “so you’re not Simon’s best friend. But that was rude.”

He didn't reply. He got out his phone again, and used it shine a light on his chair.

“Send this back tomorrow,” he told her. “There's loose stitching.”

“I'll call them now.”

“Wait. Has Simon gone?”

“Yes,” she answered, pointedly. “Was it so bad?”

“Was he impressed?”

“Oh yeah.”

He pushed the chair away and crawled out. Halfway to standing he spotted something else. “And there's rubbish,” he pointed to underlay trimmings, “there, behind the door.”

“Cleaner will get it.” But Alyson turned to pick them up herself. She bent deep at the waist so her ass swelled inside her skirt, inches from his face.

“Need you to get me a cab,” was his response.

“Now?”

“Problem?”

“No no,” she straightened. She dropped the scraps in his bin and picked up the desk phone. While she spoke with the taxi firm he checked his tie in the window, opened his briefcase, dug through his top tray for papers he needed. “Ten minutes is fine if it is ten minutes,” Alyson said into the receiver. And when she hung up she added, “I’m just surprised that you’re going on time.”

"Made a deal,” David went back to the top of the tray and started again. “Quality time with the wife. Where's the rest of this?”

“You've got it,” she pointed at the document he held. “They're clipped together.”

He put them in the case and shut it. Then took one last look over the new office, to regard the built in cabinets, the sofa, the plants, the sculpture. “Could do it all again next week.”

“Does she know?” Alyson asked.

“Sorry?”

“Does Lucy know about us?”

“Oh,” he said, “thought you meant the decorating.” He picked up the case and walked from his office into hers.

“No,” she said, following. “I wondered--,”

“She knows nothing.”

From the wardrobe near the exit, he took his scarf. But Alyson beat him to his coat. She took it off the hanger and held it open for him. “I'm going to see Falcons tomorrow,” she said.

“If you like,” David shrugged the coat onto his shoulders. “We have the conference call Tuesday.”

“Can’t wait.” She talked while she got her own coat. “If they don't make up their minds Vosalias may change their price. Oh, and if Gaston is late when you get to Paris don't worry. He's got an agenda with the main points. There's no reason you couldn't cut that meeting by half.”

David nodded. “Good.”

She did her buttons. “You're sure she doesn't suspect?”

He shrugged. “Even if…,”

“Even if--?”

“It'd be biting the hand that feeds her. Feeds and clothes and don't talk to me about jewellery.” Alyson was digging for keys in her bag. “I'll let you lock up,” he said, and left.

Outside was cloying drizzle. The cab arrived on time but mired in traffic near the station. Football results on the radio reminded him that Falcons' MD would be presenting trophies to some school team. He emailed Alyson to say she'd better go there early.

He thought about emailing again. He even went through his list of restaurant numbers, but couldn't get motivated. Profit figures like theirs deserved celebration, and while the new décor was great it wasn’t enough, not given their relationship. Yet somehow it made Alyson look like the one thing he hadn't updated.

A text came from his wife as he walked through the station concourse, which he ignored. He bought a paper and boarded his train. A quick glance through the headlines made it clear nothing new had happened since he last checked online.

New things. That was the issue, not where to go for dinner. Every project, once it cleared the initial hurdles, reached a phase that left him with energy to spare. That drove him crazy. He tried to explain to Simon once, though to be fair it was shortly after he broke their partnership and stole Alyson, their most promising employee. His wife's brother was the kind who made up his mind and kept it made. Inventing phone calls was sometimes the only way to cope.

Not that David was stupid. A certain amount of reliability couldn't be avoided. So he did read his wife’s text eventually, after he left the train and before he started up his car. 'Sorry,' it said, 'prayer mtg 4 Sarah Big C dr says 3 mos’. He left her a voice mail to prove he’d made the effort. To rub it in he added, ‘don't worry -- I’ll feed myself.’

He drove to their village and made a detour onto the high street, where luckily there was a spot for the car right outside the Moonlight Tandoori Restaurant and Takeaway. He tried to recall the last time he’d been. Light from the upstairs windows had turned every puddle in the road lurid blue. He thought nothing of that as he parked and locked the car; it was the style now. Yet oddly, when he reached the door it was dark. The foyer inside was also dark: dark and cold and empty. He swore. It was a ten mile drive to the next easy meal.

And he would have gone back to the car, but the strange blue light made him pause. Out on the street it had been arresting. Other worldly better described it now. It streamed down from the next floor, where the dining room was. If that was emergency lighting, no one could work by it. And yet there had to be something going on if the place was unlocked.

So he started to climb the stairs. Halfway to the top he thought again about turning round, because it became impossible to see. To find each step he had to feel for it with his shoe. He grabbed the railing hand over hand until it ran out and then he put out a hand to find the door frame.

As he did he thought he heard a sound. Feet walked across a hard floor above him, which made no sense because that would be the roof. The noise stopped. David waited a few moments, hoping if he heard it again he’d come up with a better explanation. But nothing happened, and the light began to make his eyes tear. He shrugged, raised his foot to take the last step. And then he remembered, too late, that he’d already figured out there wasn’t going to be one.

He stumbled, and as his foot fell it stuck. What caught it he couldn’t tell; he could barely push it forward, and couldn't pull it back. The ankle had turned a little, so he had to hop on the other leg to keep his balance. He stayed this way several seconds. Then all of a sudden the trapped foot remembered how gravity was meant to work and it went down hard. The sudden force threw David sideways.

The sensation that swallowed his body, as he fell, was like feeding himself through a shrink wrap machine, or floating in the Dead Sea. Except he didn't float--he sank. A thickness got inside his ears and plugged his nose. It pushed between his suit and raincoat. Last of all, his arms were sucked in, fingers crooked into claws ready to dig himself out, if that’s what it came to.

But it didn’t. After a few moments the air became its normal consistency and he dropped onto a hard surface, banged his head. He kept his eyes shut until the dizziness passed, and when he opened them the searing blue light had gone. But he was no longer inside the Moonlight Tandoori.

He was in another room, maybe a tank. It was grey painted metal with eight sides. He got up, walked around. He ran his hands carefully over the walls, studied the ceiling and the floor. Everything seemed smooth and solid, with nothing to show how he could have entered.

"Do you speak?"

David froze.

"Do you speak?" the voice asked again. Very slowly, he turned to look behind him, but there was nothing.

“Do you—,”

"Yes," he interrupted.

The blue light appeared again. It started as a pinpoint at the ceiling and flashed down one side of the tank to make the wall disappear. That revealed a hidden compartment, about the size of a wardrobe.

"I think you should come up," the voice advised.

David smoothed his raincoat, put both hands in the pockets. “Why?” The answer was silence. “Who is this?” It kept him waiting. His stomach growled loud enough to make an echo. “I have a right to know what's going on.”

There was a sigh—a sigh!—that finally came in reply. And then, “The hold may not be safe.”

“It seems fine,” David snapped.

“But if we launch—,”

“Launch?!”

“--may happen, the atoms have been instructed--,”

“Launch?!”

“—might not pass through this structure without being hurt—,”

“What launch? What are you talking about?” Then the tank began to vibrate. “What?” David shouted. “What's happening!?”

“The atomic structure is being reconfigured,” the voice said.

“Reconfig--,” the craziness of it all made him feel odd. He moved closer to the walls in case he needed them for support and noticed the floor had turned sticky.

“Please,” the voice pleaded.

“Just let me out of here!!” David bellowed.

“I can't.”

Other noises were mixed in with the voice now, beeps and pips and sirens like an arcade.

“Then stop it. Stop the…launch.”

“I can't do that either.”

“What do you mean, can't? Who runs this? I'll talk to the person who runs this,” David yelled, but sweat had gone cold on his shirt collar. He talked more sense in his dreams. The shaking grew stronger.

And as he stood there, trying not to panic, he thought he saw a calendar. It was one of those promotional gifts with a pleat in the back cover so it could stand on a flat surface. The Moonlight Tandoori had their own and this was one of them, floating level with his waist. The corners of it came and went, as if it had existential issues. And then, for just a moment, David saw it resting on a semi-transparent table near a semi-transparent window.

“What…the hell?”

“Please,” the voice begged, “please come up.”

He lurched toward the compartment. But he couldn't move; his shoes were glued to the floor. He pulled until his feet burst out, and lost his socks in the next two strides. The instant he tumbled into the wardrobe space, the blue light flashed and returned the missing section of tank, sealing him inside. Overwhelmed, he slumped in a corner.

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January 2015

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