It was a rude awakening. The holo-link even woke my children, they stirred in the darkness of their bedrooms and then called to us in confusion.
“It’s OK!” I shouted back, trying to sound caring but with an unmistakable edge of utter frustration. “Just a holo-alert… Go back to sleep!”
The image erupted in three dimensions in my bedroom accompanied by that loud rhythmic noise you could not ignore. My wife, Seti complained and swore at me, grabbing a pillow and pulling it tight over her head, trying not to scream with sleep deprivation. The call-out message was becoming a regular issue, a recurring challenge and always at the most inconvenient time. The glowing revolving pictogram of the police emblem was like a symbol of our torture every night. It made us resent it, it made us resent my job.
“Paranodia siege in the Water Monitoring Station at Trenton East. Report immediately. This is not a drill.”
I gave the vocal affirmation I was on my way. I dressed quickly, dragging on some chinos and tucking in a crumpled blue shirt, almost forgetting to grab my Id lanyard as I headed out to the awaiting one-man government emergency tram, parked a few yards from my door.
Seti had not kissed me before I left, she was in a bad mood from lack of sleep and I didn’t blame her, but the truth was, every time I left the house this way, was potentially my last. Paranodia never made for an easy assignment. It was a chronic psychological condition where those who had it were never able to distinguish truth from fiction, they had degraded into a state of paranoia so steep, they believed no one was genuine and everything was a lie. The extreme of the condition always led to organised violence.
The last run I had for a paranodia case, a middle-aged man and his teenaged daughter declared they were at war with lizard kings by shooting their neighbours and burning a dog. The dog, they declared, was an AI spy, designed by an alien race and with cameras for eyes. When the SWAT team took them both out, all I remember is the streaked blood. It seemed to paint the walls. For all my training, for all the procedures, my words had been useless, my presence, as an official police psych doctor, only making it worse. Truth was, I was tired, exhausted. Dealing with reasonable people, with predictable thoughts, those days were gone. Why was I even needed on scene? It was a question that haunted me and every successive failure to change the course of a paranoidia encounter.
“Tell me the situation and background?” I asked the tram, which was now adjusted to my voice signature, giving me access to government and police databanks. “I need a summary before I arrive on scene?”
The computer spoke. “Four individuals. Three known and under aliases, one not identified. They have five hostages, staff on scene, and they are holding up the Water Monitoring Station, with shop bought assault rifles. Their claim is that the government is brainwashing the nation, aided with a susceptibility drug inserted into the water supply. The conspiracy suggests the government is furthermore subliminally making us despise each other through their campaigns of slogans. The conspiracy follows that these manipulative ‘hate constructs’ will divide us and make us pliable to their agenda of total control.”
“Divide and conquer, eh. Sounds a reasonable theory for once! Hell, that’s just politics!” I remarked, instantly regretting it, less it became logged and repeated back to me in an assessment.
The computer continued: “They have executed two policemen. You are authorised to do anything at all, if it leads to their arrest. We have a limited window before SWAT arrive on scene. Be advised SWAT has been green lighted to terminate them all, if necessary and expedient, to secure the monitoring station.”
When SWAT arrived, it would be all over. Likely nine body bags were being hauled in readiness into a truck at that very moment. The innocent hostages would be swept away from the news. Speed was everything in these cases. Get there before the phone cameras and TV drones emerge and it’s a win.
“And you wonder why paranoidia is so rampant right now!” I laughed. I was still a little drunk from the whiskies I had sat alone with and downed last night. These days were tough beyond measure. I wasn’t sure why I was making such remarks to a machine, it felt like I just needed to listen to my own rant, the pressure needed release.
As the tram accelerated to the east side of Greater Trenton, past the neon noodle bars and dirty half empty racks at the scooter stations, I wished for once this would end well. Maybe that would make a difference to me, the family, who could tell?
“Tram, show me their search histories relevant to the crime.”
A little smeared screen in front of me lit up with links. A pattern was obvious straight away. A guy from inside a government agency no less, presenting on TubeMe, his weekly videos around five minutes each. The thumbnails showed him in a grey suit and red tie, his government insignia Id badge still intact on his lapel, if a little out of date. I clicked on the most watched video, which had 3 million views, 330 thousand likes and 50 thousand shares.
“Those of you who know of me, will know I worked directly in the Trenton Water chemical plant. I was Chief Scientist there for one year before they destroyed my career and ruined my credibility. Why? I uncovered what they were doing in the labs and supply mixing tanks….”
I sat back, wishing to God I had grabbed a chocolate bar on the way out of the house and sighed with deflation. I had seen this sort of thing every day for the last ten months. It was like hearing a bad script from a bad writer, dreaming up an unlikely play that would never come to anything. Yet, somehow, these people found their audience, which meant the audience was always out there waiting for them. That terrified me. If I wanted a different outcome this time, I would need a different approach. I decided what to do.
“Tram, I need you to make a voice synthesizer, can you print one so I can attach it to my shirt? It will need to match exactly the voice patterns of ex-Chief Scientist at Trenton Water, Criton Monroe. Can you do that for me now?”
The tram’s little screen showed me a large smiley face emoticon as confirmation and I heard the whir of the onboard 3D printer begin its creation from a downloaded blueprint. The rain began to pour outside on the streets. It was never just drizzle, always big tropical drops, which quickly turned to a thrashing beat of attacking water. I had not brought an umbrella. What a night!?
The ping of the printer and a green light told me I could reach into the box compartment next to the screen, and grab my voice synth, about the size of an orange, which I attached to my shirt. It was still warm from the laser.
I tested it, and it was scarily accurate. I had the vocal match of the mad scientist, this would be interesting.
The blue and red flashes and taped off street alerted me that it was time to get out and do my job, despite the rain. The tram stopped abruptly next to a barricade of defensive police cruisers and armed officers.
One ran to me and greeted me with the customary thumbs up. Thankfully he had a spare police issue poncho so I slapped him on the shoulder with genuine gratefulness.
“Hell of a night, eh?” said Captain Wayward. His name printed in capitals on his peaked cap that poked out of the transparent poncho hood.
“You got a line open to the perps?” I asked loudly through the thrash of water.
“Yes. For what it’s worth – they are all batshit crazy. It’ll only end one way, sorry to drag you out here but it’s policy as you know.”
“Well, I’m going to try something, I have this voice synth on and I have an idea.”
“Ha – I thought you sounded off!”
He led me to a makeshift muster point in a police van.
The rain was relentless, we had to grit our teeth and squint through the ferocity of the noisy downpour. I could see the outline of the plain white rectangle of a low rise building they had hijacked ahead. It was detached, sitting alone like a monument. At a window in the water monitoring station, I could make out a head with scruffy black hair peering out alongside the long barrel of weapon.
The officer handed me the phone where they had an open line to a character they identified as the ring-leader.
“Just push off silent and you’re live. He calls himself Razor, can you believe that? Not his real name obviously. But better not call him Manfred, it will break his ego for sure.. Ha. He has the phone on loud-speaker, so you’ll be addressing the room in there. We’re going to storm it in ten minutes when… Sorry, if… you can’t shake them out of their delusions and get them to come out unarmed.”
The captain was smiling and shaking his head. He was immune to hope when it came to cases of Paranoidia.
I held the phone close to my lips and pushed the off-silent symbol with my wet thumb.
“Razor? Can you talk to me?” I began…
There was no reply, which the cops found odd as he had previously been highly enthused about his demands, to switch off the water supply to half the city.
Then the voice came, a man, a young man with unlimited, nervous, insane energy.
“You sound like… Like Dr Monroe?”
“That’s right,” I confirmed, “I am. I appreciate what you are doing in there, Razor. They have been lying to us all, I understand your anger and frustration. But you need to let the hostages go, they played no part in this conspiracy. Keep one if you must for leverage but release the others. I am on your side, believe me, but let us not threaten innocent people.”
“Strange….” came the voice, sounding assured and unmistakably cynical. “I always took Monroe for a revolutionary, not someone to sit in a police van telling those willing to act just to give up.”
The policemen around me stood straight in the rain, waiting, counting down the minutes so they could finish this night and get back home to a cold beer and confirming the overtime on their time trackers.
“I am who I am. Proof of those lying to us from authority, it is hard to really come by even when it’s true. I am not a revolutionary, I am just a man who worked at Trenton Water with an idea they were up to no good. Listen to me son, let those people go, I don’t want anyone to get hurt here. The police say if you come out without your guns it will be alright.”
My synth was excellent, no glitching at all. I was his voice, perfect in tone and pitch.
Razor began to laugh. It was disconcerting.
“You are not Monroe….”
“Why do you say that?”
“Turn on the TV, Channel 325…”
An officer picked up a device with a screen, switched it to streaming and found the channel. There they were, broadcasting live, four men and one woman on their knees with guns to their heads courtesy of two perps in waterworks overalls. There was Razor, sure enough, talking into the phone and staring out of the window at me. I could see one of the dead bodies splayed out on the floor in a blue uniform, missing part of a hand, no doubt a consequence of trying to resist them. And the last man in the crew, standing with his hands firmly on his hips in the corner, was the real Criton Monroe. He was the true leader in this siege, he was on a personal crusade, eyes wide and glistening, prepared to kill for publicity, to use murder as a platform to announce his theory to an even wider audience.
So much for my plan…
Behind me in the night, on the street, I began to hear shouts, loud swearing and bursts of forceful chanting. People, ordinary looking people, began to congregate as if from nowhere, edging like jackals nearer to the police cordon. Channel 325 was uncovering a police deception live and the viewing numbers were going through the roof. And there was me, as a picture appeared on the TV show, one downloaded from my social media account. In it I was having a Sunday dinner with my family, we were all smiling and relaxed and seeing it on the screen felt like the ultimate personal intrusion. Deception by Police Psychologist Confirmed in Conspiracy Plot read the tickertape style graphic of a banner, under my family picture.
My phone began to chirp in my pocket. It was other TV Channels, picking up on the viral story. That’s when I noticed Seti had tried to reach me. I had missed a message marked urgent, it read: There are men banging on the front door and shouting though the letterbox, come home now! I’ve called the police already. The kids are crying!
I heard a sound, like metal impacting metal. That’s when I realised objects, like bottles, cans and stones, were bouncing off the police van. A mob had formed, like insects circling an intruder to their hive. SWAT were not on scene, nor were they going to be. Captain Wayward was suddenly visibly angry at me for my botched plan.
“SWAT is turning back! The mob’s too big, the attention too. We’re on our own!” he spat. He had an earpiece relaying the dreadful news of abandonment from Police HQ. In the old days the whole precinct would be there in minutes, armed to the teeth, but it was too dangerous. Protocol avoided riots these days by de-escalation or rather, ignoring the problem until it fizzled away, with a smaller burden of collateral damage on the ground. It didn’t always work but it saved the police money and it made the crowd look like the bad guys on the media. That was important.
The chanting was deafening.
“Monroe! Monroe! Monroe!”
That’s when he appeared at the door of the water station. His arms were high above his head, like a chosen king greeting citizens of his realm.
A tin can struck me on my brow and a trickle of blood dripped down instantly to funnel through the plastic creases in my poncho. I ripped off my voice synth and dropped it to the ground. The captain fled but he tumbled straight into the baying crowd who tore at his clothes and disarmed him in seconds. He was pleading to them but their eyes were wild and unforgiving.
I held my hands up either side of my head, almost mimicking Monroe in some quirk of synchronicity.
The bolding ex-scientist walked up to me confidently, and with one hand waved down the air, asking the crowd to calm a little so they could hear his address. The yelling turned to a disgruntled murmuring, respecting Monroe’s need to be heard. I could see there were men and women of all ages making up the thronging gang nearby. Some had now armed themselves with wooden planks and metal poles. It had become a lethal moment, charged with menace.
Monroe looked me in the eye and shouted a question so everyone could hear, even through the rain.
“You dare deny your involvement in this conspiracy?”
If I did, I knew they’d kill me where I stood. I had to think fast.
“…I’m sorry,” I said, “I was told to do this by HQ. They were going to kill my family if I didn’t comply, you understand? What would you do to protect your family? I had no choice – that’s how it works. Can you forgive me that?…”
Monroe’s fierce stare electrified with vindication, he almost screamed in delight but managed to withhold the glee. It was strange.
He put a hand firmly on my shoulder like he was a father figure to an abused infant.
“You… You poor man!” he yelled. He turned to walk nearer the crowd, pointing and jabbing at me behind him, my hands still held high in surrender.
“Don’t direct your anger at him, they used him! He is just a pitiful fly, yes, a fly, caught and trapped in a web. He is not our real foe! March to the nearest police station and burn the rat-hole down! That’s right! Burn it and everyone in it. We’re going to blow this water station too, but leave this man and his family. Protect them if you can. They will tell us the whole truth if we protect their lives! This man is the key, he is the proof we need!”
I knew what I was doing. I would tell him and the world whatever they needed to believe. If it saved my family, that is what I had to do. Despite the insistence of the thrashing rain, the fires would not be put out tonight. If I had learned anything from my job, it was that truth never mattered, it was belief that always carried the day.