Testing Ground – free prequel to ‘Footage’
Footage is a tightly wound thriller, but it takes place in a much larger world than the novella can contain…
This is the same world as previous BAMs @ and The Human Trials. Footage is 100% standalone, you don’t need to have read the previous books to dig it, but this free ebook /audiobook, as with previous short story The Whistle, will give you a bit of context of things that are going on elsewhere at the same time.
Skelmersdale had always been colloquially referred to as “Britain’s Testing Ground”. That’s not entirely accurate, it was locally known by the names “Skem”, “Skum”, or “That shithole you drive through to get to the M6”. It was the site on which Britain ran pilot schemes to prove their worth. Where traffic calming measures had been tested; from lights to bumps, roundabouts to speed limits. Before the government took a measure nationwide, they would test it in Skelmersdale. The townspeople embraced progress, even if all the neighbouring towns considered them backwards because they’d sometimes marry their cousins by accident.
Whilst the tests of the seventies were focussed on the roads, the eighties and nineties were more biologically inclined. The poor oral hygiene of the country led to a dentist-backed scheme to introduce fluoride into the local water supply. When that proved a success, the waters of Skelmersdale were once again tainted as the century turned. Mood enhancers were distributed to quell the tide of unrest that was starting to raise its head, as the government was gearing up to enter a war the populace were strongly against. Yet again, the test was successful, and the project was taken national. Apathy reigned across the country. A quiet contentment-cum-resentment that had the pleasant side effect of also encouraging materialistic leanings; the economy improved in the face of a costly skirmish, that was going to go on for close to a decade. The population calmed, just as traffic had been calmed years earlier. Skelmersdale had once again proved itself the perfect testing ground for a controversial project.
These pilot schemes were seen as a unanimous success, and some ministers took it as a given that if a project were to be tested in Sklemersdale, it would guarantee a win. There were of course similar projects carried out in other towns, cities and boroughs. But none of them had the hit rate of those in Skelmersdale.
Nathaniel Myra knew this. He might have been relatively new to his role as Head Of Network Operations, but he had studied the logs of the company’s previous live tests, and was preparing for what he was certain would be the pinnacle of his already meteoric career. For three weeks, the water of Skelmersdale (which had long been a localised supply. United Utilities had been fiscally rewarded for keeping it separate to the wider Merseyside drinking supply) was tainted with the concoction he continued to call NLI-10. Despite this beta version being somewhat disparate from the NLI programme, which was now well into it’s eleventh iteration, he considered the phonetic simplification, enlighten, to be suitable for what he hoped would happen to the citizens of the town. Every day he read the reports in anticipation of news, as analysts watched live feeds of cameras installed across the town, in the hopes of observing some noticeable change in the population.
Three weeks, and there had been nothing. By week four he co-opted Skelmersdale’s early warning system, and fed tones through it. A guttural digital soundscape of robotic growls and moans, beeps and blips amidst static and a constant hum that could be heard faintly across the whole town if one were to listen closely. Mostly, it was lost against the background noise of power lines, but the tones were heard by all, even if only subconsciously. Punctuating their conversations, composing overtures in their dreams. It sowed seeds that he had hoped would not be necessary. But the project was proving itself fruitless without the sonics that activated the memetic link between the mind and the NLI-10 absorbed through the stomach lining into the bloodstream.
Week six, and still no observed changes. If the subjects of this live test were going to encounter or display any effects, they would have become apparent by now. He knew that all too well, even though he tried not to think about it. The board had given the greenlight, the scheme could go national and then international if he just gave the nod. But there was a nagging voice in the back of his mind. His predecessor would have been that rash, and he despised his predecessor.
He needed to see for himself that the residents were acclimatising to their dose of the nano-laced compound. This was to be the largest wide scale consciousness expansion ever attempted by mankind, and he was not willing for it to fail.
The town was essentially equidistant between three airports; Liverpool, Blackpool and Manchester, but Myra cared for none of them. He had his assistant arrange for the company plane to have private access to a microlight airstrip fifteen miles from the town, and a car and driver to take him directly from the airfield.
He sat in the back of the white Bentley and looked with disdain at the bald head of the heaving giant behind the wheel. Each of the company’s drivers was practically identical, all hairless, oversized muscle-bound lumbering lunks. No grace or finesse, no conversation skills, no thoughts in their head other than the job at hand. They were at least fit for the occupation allotted to them, but he took no solace in that.
Within twenty minutes they were coming out of fields and coasting through the dull and drab streets of Skelmersdale. Myra had only briefly glimpsed at photographs and video clips of the town, and it was exactly as boring as he had expected. He couldn’t fathom anyone actually living there, a town so very obviously purpose-built as a laboratory, and presumed that the populace of lab rats had not evolved any sense to escape the confines of a maze that was so very easy to leave. The car turned at yet another roundabout on the obviously named ‘Northway’ into a cul-de-sac full of identical tiny terraced houses.
“Here is fine.” he said to the driver, who pulled up at his master’s command.
Myra left the vehicle, muttering expletives under his breath in the direction of his chauffeur, who nodded reverently, despite having just been insulted. Walking along the small road, he avoided the potholes and looked for signs of life, as he mused that obviously the town had never had a pilot scheme for filling the cracks and dents in the tarmac.
At the far end of a small stretch of grass he saw man having trouble getting into his car. “Are you alright there?” Myra asked.
The man turned with a start, eyeing Myra suspiciously.
“Y’aint from around here…” said the man.
Myra raised an eyebrow and swallowed a scoff. The NLI-10 was intended to increase intellect, and he hadn’t expected such an obvious and clichéd observation from anyone he encountered who had it swimming through their bloodstream.
“I am not, my good man. Just passing through.”
“Pass away.” said the man.
Myra said nothing.
“Pass on through, I mean.” the man continued. “Don’t die or nofin’.”
A loud sigh emanated from between Myra’s lips without a thought, and he rolled his eyes as he turned. The beta test was not proving as successful as he had imagined.
A hand grabbed his arm, and he glanced back over his shoulder. The man was standing behind him, fingers tightly wound around his bicep.
“That ain’t polite.” the man said.
“Well consider my exit an apology…” said Myra, as he reached for the man’s hand and wrenched free of the claws grasping his arm.
The man thrust his other hand towards Myra, the grey sky glinting off something in his hand as it sped towards him, slicing into the soft flesh of his face. Myra reached for his cheek and felt the slow, wet trickle of blood from a cut above the bone, seeing the car keys in the man’s hand stained red.
“Y’aint got t’be rude, boy.” said the man, pulling his hand back for another swing with the keys.
This time Myra saw the gleaming silver coming for him, and was prepared to dodge and counter, but he didn’t have a chance. His chauffeur was already on the man, pounding his face into the tarmac, staining the ground with a red and a grey sludge that had once been brains.
“Time t’go, sir.” the chauffeur said, as he looked around and saw residents of the street watching from windows and doorways. The same feeling in his bones as in Myra’s, telling them that shortly, they were going to be under siege.
Myra began to make for the car, the chauffeur holding back as he glanced left and right, keeping track of all the locals as they came from their houses towards them. Each of them had makeshift weapons to hand; candlesticks and keys, knives and umbrellas.
The chauffeur turned to open the door for his employer, and took a candlestick to the back of the head for the effort. It bounced off his thick skull and he wrapped his giant hand around the face of his assailant, a housewife, picking her up by her head and throwing her at a group of teens coming towards him with skateboards raised like cudgels. His arm raised from the throw, he wasn’t fast enough to stop a pensioner’s carving knife from slipping in between his second and third rib. As he reached for the old woman’s knife-welding hands, an umbrella opened accidentally in his face, thwacking him in the head, the tip aimed for his right eye.
It bounced harmlessly off his skull, but it was distraction enough for a small chopping knife to slip into his gut, and a bread knife to slice across his thigh. He kicked the old woman away with his wounded leg, and took the umbrella from his assailant, batting it at those around him.
Inside the car, Myra watched as blood streaked across his windows and the giant lumbered against his attackers. A deep sound of thunking behind, and then on top of him. He watched in horror as another group of children climbed atop his car and pounced on the chauffeur, driving screwdrivers into his neck and back. A young man flanking him began to pound mercilessly and repeatedly into the increasingly dented bald head with a wrench.
Myra crawled through the window into the driver’s seat, breathlessly praying that the keys were still in the ignition. They were. The engine coughed and groaned as he whispered under his breath, praying for it to burst into life, and as a red rain started washing down on the windshield, from the hole made after the screwdriver was removed from the giant’s carotid artery, he pulled the car into reverse and hit the accelerator. Speeding back down to Northway as the residents of the cul-de-sac pounced on the driver’s barely-moving body. Each was going to have their pound of flesh, and he had plenty of flesh to go around.
Myra drove and drove, no clue where the airfield was, no clue which direction to go. He looked at his own reflection in the rear view mirror, at the blood starting to dry on his cheek. He would continue on that road until it joined the next road, and then continue on and on until signs for an airport, any airport, were in view.
The project was too close to fruition. Losing one driver would not be the end of it. It couldn’t be the end of it. Some adjustments needed to be made, that was all. Minor adjustments, and by the time the NLI-10 had been flushed from the systems of the people of Skelmersdale, it would be time to test again.
Next time, it would work.
And as an addendum to that thought, he made a mental note that on that next time, he would send an aide to investigate how the townspeople were getting on. He was far too important to risk.
Not that there would be any risk.
But still… Can’t be too careful about these things.
Once again, if you enjoy this free ebook, do please review it at GoodReads. If it’s whet your appetite, why not preorder the novella it’s the prequel of… It’s only 99p / 99c for a few more weeks!
Swing back around next week for the trailer to Footage!