Derek's Aunty Uzi (named after a product that cleans up in its own particular way) was what you would call a fine-looking woman. At least to her face, anyway. She stood all of six feet four in her holistic Doveston footwear, which she'd customized with a nice line of studs. For those who love a tattoo, her buttocks were the place to be. And for those who favour a duelling scar, her forehead was the business.
'On your feet, soldier,' said Derek's aunty. 'Falling asleep on parade, is it?'
Derek fussed and fretted. He was curled up upon a doormat that had long worn out its welcome, in a hallway where the angels feared to tread. Outside the gunfire was sporadic, with only the occasional bullet ricocheting from the armoured porch or bouncing off the titanium steel of the window boxes.
'He was always a cringing wimp,' said Derek's aunty to Kelly. 'Living the high life with the toffs in Brentford has softened him up even more.'
'People were shooting at us.' Derek remained in the foetal position, which seemed to suit him just fine. 'This is London in the twenty-first century. I knew things were grim here. But this…'
Derek's aunty rolled her eyes at Kelly. 'Would you care for a cup of tea, my dear?' she asked.
'Do you have anything stronger?'
'I can put two tea bags in your cup.'
'That should hit the spot.'
'Well, we girls will just leave you to your cringing, Derek. OK?'
Derek made silly whimpering sounds. Aunty Uzi led Kelly away into the kitchenette. 'They weren't even shooting to kill,' she said. 'They were just having a bit of fun.'
Kelly looked all around and about the kitchenette. It was grim as kitchenettes go, but kitchenettes always are.
A pokey thing is a kitchenette and this particular one was made all the more pokey due to the stacks of ammunition boxes and the grenade launchers which leaned against the cooker, beside the Mute Corp wonder mop and the Mute Corp sweeper.
'Is your water filtered?' Kelly asked.
'Oh you're good,' said Aunty Uzi. 'Very good.'
Kelly's hand moved up to her hair, but then moved down again. 'Good?' she said. 'Whatever do you mean?'
'Cool,' said Aunty Uzi. 'Very cool.'
'I try not to panic. Panic costs lives. Lost lives lose large battles.'
'You were in the marines.'
'I did my national service.'
Derek's aunty boiled up water and did what you have to do with it to make two cups of tea. 'Derek dodged his national service,' she said, stirring the tea with a four-teen-inch commando knife.
'I didn't know you could dodge national service,' said Kelly.
'Don't ever make the mistake of trusting Derek. He's a man who will always let you down.'
'I heard that,' called Derek from the hall.
Aunty Uzi handed Kelly a cup of something loosely resembling tea. 'So,' she said. 'Kelly Anna Sirjan, aged twenty-two, no convictions, no breaches of the civil code. Three degrees and a 12th Dan Master of Dimac. What's a lady like you doing hanging around with a jerk like my nephew?'
Kelly shrugged. 'I'm on attachment to the BrentfordMercury. He's showing me around.'
'Still cool,' said Aunty Uzi. 'You're not going to ask me how I know all about you.'
'You securiscanned us as we stood at your gate. That's standard procedure in a high-risk area.'
'We'll let that one pass for now, then.' Aunty Uzi slurped at the tea. 'This tastes foul,' she said. 'But there's more to you than meets the eye. And what meets the eye has been carefully put together.'
'You haven't asked us why we're here,' said Kelly. 'I'm sure you're not under the mistaken belief that Derek felt a sudden pressing need to visit his aunty.'
Aunty Uzi grinned, exposing ranks of steel teeth. 'I assume that he brought you here at your request. You can ask me what it is you wish to know. You never know, I might even tell you.'
Kelly leaned upon the cooker. It was a Mute Corp Supercook, the 3000 series, looking a little the worse for wear.
'Tell me this,' she said. 'Why do you stay in this place?'
'This is Mute Corp Keynes. The town of the future, today.'
Kelly made that face that says 'Yeah right'.
'I bought this place in two-double-o-five,' said Derek's Aunty Uzi. 'My husband Alf and I were amongst the very first to move in. It was all here at a price we could afford. Fully integrated living accommodation. Everything online. State of the art. High tech, low cost. It was all going to be up-and-coming young professional. The dream town UK.'
'So what went wrong?' Kelly asked.
'Well, it was all bullshit, wasn't it? Nothing ever worked properly. The whole thing had been done on the cheap and we'd all signed up for our low cost twenty-year non-transferable mortgages. Folk couldn't sell up, so they moved away and sublet their houses. That wasn't strictly legal and the folk they'd sublet their houses to soon realized that they could get away without paying the rent. Neighbourhoods can go down pretty quickly. By twenty-ten this place was already a bad place to walk around at night. Now it's a bad place, period.'
'And your husband?'
'One day he went out and never came back. It happens.'
'I'm sorry,' said Kelly.
'Me too,' said Derek's aunty.
And the two of them slurped tea.
'This really is disgusting tea,' said Kelly. 'Yeah, let's drink some Scotch instead and you can tell me what it is you want to know.'
They now sat in the front sitter. Although the sunlight was joyous without, it didn't venture much within. The windows were shuttered by bulletproof steel. The table lights had ultraviolet bulbs. The glow they cast was of that order which is called crepuscular. Connoisseurs of naked-lady lighting wouldn't even have given it one out of ten. In a near corner, a long-defunct Mute Corp 3000 home computer, built into the fabric of the room, gathered dust and made a house for spiders.
Derek, arisen from his foetal position, sipped at Scotch. Aunty Uzi tossed hers back. Kelly merely turned her glass between her elegant fingers.
'So,' said Derek's aunty. 'What exactly do you want to know?'
'Search me,' said Derek. 'I didn't even want to come.'
Kelly took from her shoulder bag the printout map and placed it before her upon an occasional table. Which, had it suddenly been granted the gift of sentience, would have become aware that at last and quite unexpectedly, its occasion had finally arrived.
'Mysterious disappearances,' said Kelly. 'People vanishing without trace. This map shows the locations of those who have done so during the last two weeks. I think you'll find that it speaks for itself
Derek lifted the map from the table and held it up to his ear.
'If he says it,' said Derek's aunty, 'feel free to employ your Dimac. Smack him right in the balls if you wish.'
Derek replaced the map upon the table. 'I wasn't going to say anything,' he said.
Aunty Uzi took the map and gave it some perusal. 'I can't say that this fills me with too much surprise,' she said. 'Going missing is what people do around here.'
'Hang about,' said Derek. 'Let's have a look at that map.'
'Oooh,' said his aunty. 'A burst of sudden interest.'
'Where did you get this?' Derek asked, thumbing the map.
'At the police station,' said Kelly. 'I made enquiries. The number of people who have vanished recently in London is way beyond the norm. I felt that it was worth investigating.'
'Have you got a list of these people's names?' asked Aunty Uzi.
Kelly produced the list from her bag. 'It's a very big list,' she said.
Aunty Uzi leafed through pages. 'And it's a very inaccurate one,' she said. 'Most of the people listed as living round here moved away years ago. And, good God. I'm on here. According to this list 7 vanished without trace last Tuesday.'
'Oh,' said Kelly. 'I wasn't expecting that.'
Aunty Uzi looked at her. 'You said that as if you were expecting something else.'
'This list was compiled by the national crime computer. I expected at least that would be accurate.'
'Good,' said Aunty Uzi. 'She is very good this woman of yours.'
'She's no woman of mine,' said Derek. 'No thank you very much.'
'Would you care to tell me what you really are, my dear?' asked Aunty Uzi. 'Whom you're really working for.'
'I'm just a student,' said Kelly. 'But I think that you'll agree that there's something very suspicious going on.'
'No,' said Derek. 'In fact, quite the contrary. My aunty isn't missing. The folk listed here as missing, aren't missing. They've just moved away. There's no mystery. Nothing suspicious. It's all a computer error.'
Aunty Uzi nodded. 'On this occasion,' she said, 'I am forced to agree with my idiot nephew. It's just a glitch. And when I speak of glitches, I speak of what I know. The computers in this district all crashed years ago. It's a dead zone around here when it comes to computer technology. The black hole of cyberspace. You're on a wrong'n, Kelly Anna Sirjan. You've been wasting your time.'
Kelly's hand was in her hair and strands were being twisted. 'I think we'd better be going,' she said.
'I'm pleased to hear that,' said Derek.
The border guard looked pleased to see them. He was smiling broadly as they came in his direction.
'No car?' he asked. 'Whatever happened to your lovely Ford Fiesta?'
Derek huffed and puffed the way that people do huff and puff, when they've been running hard and running very fast. 'They nicked my bloody car,' he huffed and puffed. 'That car was a collector's item.'
'That would appear to be correct,' said the border guard. 'It's definitely now an item in somebody's collection.'
Derek pulled out his mobile phone and huffed and puffed and pushed buttons.
'You won't get a signal,' said the border guard. 'You just don't around here. Sorry.'
'It's all too much,' and Derek flung himself down on the ground and drummed his fists in the dust.
'He must be a real disappointment to you,' said the border guard to Kelly, who stood looking very cool. Not huffing or puffing at all.
'I'm sure that he must have a use,' said Kelly. 'But so far I haven't found it.'
'Still,' said the border guard. 'Let's look on the bright side. It's a lovely day and the two of you are still alive. Rejoice and be happy, that's my motto. And never eat cheese after midnight.'
It was nearly midnight when the minicab dropped Kelly and Derek off in Brentford High Street. Well, it's a long and complicated route back from Mute Corp Keynes when you haven't got a car and you have to rely on public transport and there aren't any trains any more.
'Brilliant,' said Derek. 'What a brilliant day. I could have been writing an article about the floral clock. But no, I let you talk me into visiting Hell Town UK. I get shot at. I get my precious car stolen. I am mocked and ridiculed and then I have to pay your fares all the way back to Chiswick. And then your taxi fare back here. I don't mean any offence by this, but I truly wish to God I'd never met you.'
'I'd like you to do something for me,' said Kelly.
'What? You have to be kidding.'
'Look,' said Kelly. 'I'm very sorry about the way the day has worked out for you. But whatever your aunty says and whatever you think, there is something very strange going on. It could prove to be something that will make a name for you as an investigative journalist.'
'No thanks,' said Derek. 'I'll pass.'
'All right, then do this one thing for me and I promise I'll never bother you again. In fact I promise I won't even see you again. I'll keep well away from you for the rest of the time I'm here in Brentford.'
'Well,' said Derek thoughtfully. 'Does this one thing involve any danger to myself?'
'None whatsoever,' said Kelly.
'All right. Tell me what it is and I'll think about it.'
'I want you to take me home with you.'
'What?' said Derek.
'To your house.'
Derek gave Kelly a long hard look. 'Why?' he asked. 'It's not to have sex with me, is it? Only I've had a really rough day, I don't think I'm up to it. Although, well, what the heck. I'll give it a go.'
Kelly shook her golden head. 'I don't want to have sex with you,' she said. 'I just want to use your home computer. You do have a home computer, don't you?'
'Of course I do, everyone does. Well, perhaps not everyone in Brentford. But I do.'
'Well all I want is to use it for a while.'
'Why?' asked Derek. 'Don't you have your own?'
'Not with me. I have my palmtop, but that won't do. I -want to use one that is locked into a landline.'
'Why?' Derek asked once more. But for a different reason this second time.
'It's just a theory. Something to do with your aunty describing Mute Corp Keynes as the black hole of cyberspace and the fact that mobile phones don't work there.'
'All right,' said Derek. 'But if you're not going to have sex with me…'
'Derek, I'm never going to have sex with you.'
'All right. Then you will really have to promise that you will never see or speak to me again. Women like you are nothing but trouble.'
'I shall ignore that remark,' said Kelly. 'Take me to your house.'
Derek lived with his mother. Strangely this fact didn't surprise Kelly one little bit. Derek insisted upon a lot of creeping on tiptoe through the house and up the stairs to his room. It's a funny thing about men who live with their mothers, but they are always really proud to show off their rooms to young women. And they are really surprised when the young women they're showing their rooms so proudly to, stare about with their jaws hung slack, then turn upon their heels and take their leave at the hurry-up.
'Wallah,' said Derek when he and Kelly were in his room, the door was shut and all the lights were on. 'My private domain. My holy of holies. My inner sanctum. All pretty fab, isn't it?'
Kelly stared about the room and Kelly's jaw hung slack.
'I think,' said Kelly, her jaw now moving again. 'I think that you possess a very great many computer games.'
'Yes,' said Derek, his head nod-nod-nodding. 'Over ten thousand. A lifetime's collection. They date back to the 1970s. I'm really an Atari man. I've got an early Atari 2600 Video Computer System and the '86 compact version.'
'You haven't got an Odyssey have you?' Kelly asked.
Derek was taken slightly aback by Kelly's question but carried on.
'Sure. I've got the Magnavox Odyssey, an absolute classic. It was innovative, first home game system they released. But the Odyssey II…'
'49-key pressure-sensitive keyboard, 1978. Pure genius.'
Derek looked oddly at Kelly. 'They just don't compare with the Atari in my eyes. I've got the 5200 too.'
'Who, Pam ? What about Candy and Colleen, did you ever manage to get your sweaty mitts on those two lovely ladies?'
'Well the 5200, Pam, is really just a stripped-down Atari 400, Candy, solely for game-playing. As for Colleen, the Atari 800, of course she's here, but she was always too expensive to take out.'
'Boxed and stored?'
'Dust-free storage environment along with the Atari 7800. Only the best for my girls. So what do you think?'
Kelly stared at Derek.
And Derek stared right back.
'I think it's incredible,' said Kelly. 'I mean, well, I've never seen a collection like this before. I'm absolutely knocked out. You don't by any chance have adventure?'
'Warren Robinette, Atari 2600 VCS, 1979.'
'You mean Warren "Easter Egg " Robinette, he was the catalyst for all the cheats and hidden stuff. He was the one who got the ball rolling back in '79.'
'Well, that was Atari really. It was their policy that prevented the designers from getting any sort of recognition in the game or in the packaging. The designers were bound to rebel.'
'But moving an invisible "dot" to above the catacombs with the bridge and all the rest. Trust a twelve-year-old to find that one out.'
'Robinette thought he'd really get busted for that, but the gamers loved it. Atari couldn't help but add hidden features in nearly all its new games from then on. He was the start of the Easter Egg phenomena.'
Kelly whistled. Women don't generally whistle as a rule. Some do, when they're really impressed. Or when you do that special thing to them. And most women will only let you do that special thing to them once, anyway.
Kelly whistled again. 'I've surely misjudged you, Derek,' she said. 'You may be a spineless wimp, no offence meant…’
'None taken, I assure you.'
'But I never had you down as a collector of twentieth-century console games.'
'You approve then?'
Derek grinned. 'Brilliant,' he said.
'Do you have canyon bomber, Atari 2600 VS, 1978?'
Derek grinned again and pulled a cartridge from his shelf. 'Of course I do,' he said.
Kelly said, 'Can I touch?'
'Certainly you can.' Derek passed the precious thing in her direction. And Kelly ran a finger lovingly across it.
'But this must be worth a fortune. It's a compilation of those arcade coin-operated machine classics canyon bomber and depth charge. Now that was a marriage made in silicon heaven.'
'Yes, yes,' said Derek. 'I got it in a car boot sale.'
'No, you never did.'
'You can play me at it, if you want. Can you play?'
'Can I play? I can play them all. I spent my first ever wage packet at the Museum of Video Games in Penge. Ten hours on kaboom!'
'Oh yeah, I've got that here somewhere. Larry Kaplan game… 1981.'
'Based on avalanche in the arcade. Totally addictive, you could be there for ever if allowed. Kind of like tetris in that respect.'
'I know where you're coming from, I assure you,' said Derek.
'Money well spent. Although my mum thought I should have given her some of my wages. Mothers eh? What do they know about video games?'
'Damn all,' said Derek. 'My mum thinks they're stupid.'
'Because she's never played night driver.'
'You've played night driver.'
'Rob Fulop, 1979, Atari 2600 VCS. Only 2K of programming you know.'
'Also famously featured in the video-arcade sequence in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, of the very same year.'
'Like I didn't know. I snapped that one up pretty damn quick. I got paid the second week too. And the third. My mum never got any room and board though. Eventually she said that I'd have to go out and make my own way in the world. As I had enough qualifications, I went off to uni. Studied computer tech.'
'Don't tell me what's coming. You got access to their games archive.'
'Downloaded the lot into my PC. I've got 700 games on CD.'
‘I’ll bet you haven't got this,' said Derek. And he did some furtive lockings both ways before dropping down to his knees.
'What are you doing?' Kelly asked.
'You'll have to stand back. I have to lift the carpet.'
Kelly stared. 'Derek,' she said. 'You appear to have a floorboard with a combination lock on it.'
'So would you,' said Derek. 'If you had what I've got.'
'Oh no,' said Kelly. 'Don't tell me you have a copy of…'
'I have,' said Derek, twiddling the combination.
'You don't have. I don't believe it.'
Derek lifted the floorboard and brought out a metal box. He fished into his shirt and displayed the key that he wore on a chain around his neck.
And then he opened the box with it.
'Behold,' said Derek. 'impossible mission.'
Kelly's eyes widened. 'No,' she said. 'No, I thought that this was just a myth. No.'
'Yes,' said Derek. 'Yes indeed.'
'Oh my God,' said Kelly. 'But this is the Holy Grail that game-collectors dream about finding. What system does it run on?'
'It's for the Atari 7800,' said Derek. 'And it's in its original case, as you can see. And I have the game guide. And I know where the Easter Eggs are.'
'Is it the early or the late release version?' asked Kelly.
'It's an early one,' Derek said confidently.
'And have you reached the deadlock point?'
'Deadlock point?' said Derek. 'Are you kidding?'
'You mean you have? What happens?'
'No,' said Derek. 'I mean I haven't. I haven't played this. This isn't for playing. It's for owning. It's for, dare I say this? Yes I dare. This is for gloating over. I wouldn't play this game.'
'But,' Kelly stared at the original case. 'What if it doesn't work?'
'It would work,' said Derek. 'I paid a fortune for it. It would work OK. But it's too precious a thing to actually play. That would be like sacrilege somehow.'
Kelly stared now at Derek. 'You paid a fortune for it,' she said. 'And you've never dared to play it.'
'I wouldn't dare,' said Derek. 'What if I broke it, before I got to the deadlock point?'
'But what if it doesn't work? What if it doesn't run? What if it's a fake? Or a later version without the deadlock point?'
Derek nodded slowly. 'My thoughts entirely,' he said. 'Which is one of the reasons I've never played it. What if it is a fake? I have faith in it. The way Christians have faith in Christ. But what if there was suddenly some proof available, some unarguable proof that Christ didn't exist? That he never existed? And you could give this proof to a Christian, all packaged up in an original case like this one. What would you, as a Christian, do? Would you open the case? Or would you refuse to open it and go on believing in Christ?'
'I'd open the case,' said Kelly.
'But what if you didn't want the existence of Christ to be disproved? What if you wanted Christ to exist?'
'Hm,' said Kelly. 'If I wanted it more than anything else in the world, then I suppose that I wouldn't open the case, original or not.'
'Exactly,' said Derek. 'Which is why I'll never play this game. I own it. It's a collector's Holy Grail. I believe in it totally. As long as I never slot it into the console, then it remains the centrepiece of my collection and I can believe in it totally.'
'Let's play it,' said Kelly.
'No way!' said Derek. 'No way at all.'
'All right,' said Kelly. 'You go out of the room for half an hour and I'll play it.'
'No way at all!'
'Ah,' said Kelly. 'But I might not play it. I might just look at it.'
'You'd play it,' said Derek.
'But I wouldn't tell you. I won't tell you whether I did play it or whether I didn't. Whether it works or whether it doesn't. I promise I won't tell you anything.'
'No,' said Derek. 'What if you played it and you broke it?'
'You'd never know. You'll never play it and I'll never tell you, it will be exactly the same for you as before.'
'Oh no,' said Derek. 'Because you'll know and I'll know you know.'
‘I’ll give you money,' said Kelly.
'No,' said Derek.
Kelly chewed upon her Cupid's bow. 'I'll er…'
'Er?' said Derek.
'I'll give you a blow job,' said Kelly.
'I will,' said Kelly. 'If you let me play.'
Derek dithered, but it did have to be said, although only to himself and only to himself when alone in his room, that Derek had never actually had a blow job.
'Well…' said Derek.
'You'll have to wear a condom,' said Kelly. 'But I will give you a blow job.'
'Right here and now?'
'Afterwards,' said Kelly. 'After I've played the game.'
'And what if it doesn't work?'
Kelly looked at Derek. It would be so easy. And so so cruel.
'Whether it works or not,' she said.
Derek looked at Kelly. Here she was, one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen in his life. And she was here in his bedroom and she was prepared to give him a blow job, if he let her play one of his video games. This was heaven, wasn't it? This was joy, joy, happyjoy.
Happy Happy Joy.
Damn it. But.
But this was his game. This was his Holy Grail of games and this game, owning this game, owning the very concept of owning this game, this was his. It was something of value. Something that mattered, something that he cared about. Not everyone could understand a principle like that. Most men would just say, 'Go for the blow job, are you mad?' But collecting games was Derek's life. And things that mattered, things that had value, that deserved to be respected, that deserved respect, you didn't mess with things like that, you didn't devalue them. Not if you really cared. You didn't sell them out.
Derek looked once more upon Kelly. That body, those breasts, that face, that mouth.
'No,' said Derek, shaking his head. 'I won't do it. No.'
Kelly looked at Derek, and then she slowly smiled. 'Derek,' she said. 'You have just passed up the blowjob of a lifetime.'
Derek sadly nodded his head. 'Yes, I know,' he said.
'But,' said Kelly. 'In doing so, you have made a friend for life.' And she put out her hand to Derek. And Derek shook that hand.
Derek didn't know quite why he shook it. Well, perhaps he did, but he smiled with some relief as he shook it, and shook it firmly, did he.
So to speak.
'Well,' said Derek, when all the shaking was done. 'That was very stressful. And I'm glad it's over. Would you, er, care for a game of pong?'
'Oh God yes!' said Kelly.
'Then be prepared to have your arse most well and truly kicked.'
'Boy, by the time I'm finished with you, you won't be able to sit on yours for a week.'