The moment she heard about The Dimension, Anna knew that she had to try it.  She’d followed, almost religiously, the career trajectory that her parents, teachers and community had sketched out for her.  She’d never yet taken a drug other than alcohol and even then, her use of it had been discreet, sparing and always correct.  She lived in a detached, four-bedroomed house in Surrey.  Her husband, a lawyer with a major bank, worked long hours, and her son and daughter were at a private school and only came home at weekends, so she had lots of spare time during the day.  Lunches with friends, hair appointments, shopping and cooking and, of course, her Pilates classes filled some of the hours but the creative urge that she’d been suppressing since her late teens continued to grow and become more urgent.

‘You mean you get to make and dress your own … what did you call it? … avatar?’ she said to Helen, who’d told her about this new virtual world.

‘Yes,’ said Helen.  ‘Mine’s a nun.’

‘Oh, that’s so sweet,’ said Anna, although she was surprised at the revelation since there was much talk at their Readers’ Group of Helen’s many extra-marital affairs.

Helen laughed.

‘Not really,’ she said.  ‘It keeps most of the men away, so I can choose the ones I want to spend time with.  The minute I find one, my habits come off and I’m in skin-tight pink lycra which shows … everything.’

‘Helen,’ said Anna, both shocked and excited by her words.

‘But that’s the point,’ said Helen.  ‘You can be like that there.   Anything goes.  I’ve had better sex there than I’ve ever had with Don.’

Don was her husband, the non-executive director of six engineering companies and a well-known local rugby player.  Anna found him loud, rude and generally unpleasant.  But then, all men seemed perverse to her – wrapped up in their own worlds, incapable of understanding the delicacies and refinements that life could offer.

They talked some more about Helen’s experiences as a nun, but Anna was eager to get home and try this wonderland for herself.  She made an excuse about having an appointment with her manicurist, then drove home, checked that the phone was in answer mode, and settled at the computer.

The moment she was asked whether she wanted her avatar to be male or female and was presented with a standard, characterless female form, her mind leapt thirty and more years back into her past and she was with her first Barbie doll again.  She’d been crazy about them.  She bought them in all their forms, had boxes full of outfits, herds of ponies and the pink carriages to go with them, houses, furniture, tea-sets, ball gowns, jodhpurs, swimsuits. Anna was the archetypal Barbie girl.  And now, once more, she was being given the chance to slough off the cares of being a respectable member of a fine middle class community, and play with dolls.

She noticed other avatars, male and female, coming and going around her but, for days and days, she ignored them all and lost herself in refining her avatar’s appearance, buying clothes and accessories and animations that let her walk and pose like the stars she admired so much in Hello magazine.  The fact that Beebie (her avatar) could do such things made her so much more satisfying than dear Barbie had ever been.  Anna could launch her creation onto dance floors, into beach parties, shops and clubs and she looked like and was much closer to a real person than Barbie could ever have been.  It was the fulfilment of a dream.  Inside the woman, the girl who’d dreamed with her dolls still existed, as full of fancies as ever, and convinced that this was a world in which the transcendence she craved would be possible.  Here, she could side-step reality.

To begin with she WAS Barbie – or rather, Beebie.  In the same way that she saw other residents BEING their dreams – cats, dogs, teddy bears, dragons – it was so wonderful.  All these people had rediscovered a childhood passion and were free to revisit it and indulge themselves in developing it further – sometimes to astonishing extremes.

One day, after she’d groomed her pony, taken her shower and was looking through the ‘Wardrobe’ folder in her inventory to decide what to wear, the thought of Ken crept into her mind once more.  It had happened before but the idea that, with the magic available in this virtual world, a relationship with Ken could go so much further than it ever had in real life, had caused her to shake the thought from her mind.  She was used to sitting stiff-legged Kens and Barbies at picnic tables or in the dining rooms of plastic mansions, holding tiny cups and glasses to their lips.  The thought that Beebie might actually be embraced by a Ken equivalent was at first unseemly; she was the embodiment of purity, a perpetual virgin.  Even when her brother had crucified one of her Kens on the trunk of a cherry tree when she was nine, the realities of the harsh world in which they lived had still not sullied her dreams.

But now, her living Barbie could … make love.  The temptation was strong, and Anna began planning how she might find someone worthy of Beebie.  It went without saying that his name had to be Ken.  She typed it into the search facility and was delighted, if rather taken aback, to discover that there were over a hundred.  But she’d decided on this course of action and was now so eager to progress with it that she didn’t bother reading any profiles. Instead, she selected some at random and, in the end, chose one who hadn’t even bothered to write anything about himself.  The fact that he’d joined on the same day that she had was a clear indication that they were meant to be together.

After several deep breaths and a secret smile at how fast her heart was beating, she sent him an Instant Message.  She’d thought he wouldn’t be there, so she was surprised to get an answer right away.  With no time to work out a strategy, she blurted out (insofar as typing can be described as ‘blurting out’) something close to the truth – her Barbie craze, the attraction of his name, the fact that she hadn’t yet made many friends because she’d been too busy getting Beebie just right – and she was thrilled when he seemed to understand her and confess that he’d behaved in exactly the same way.

In the end it was Ken who suggested they meet and Anna, more and more excited that Beebie would be meeting her soul mate, agreed, saying only that they should leave it until the following day to give her time to think through what she wanted and what they might do.  Ken gave her a landmark for a rendezvous in a street in Paris near the Eiffel Tower and they said their goodbyes.

That night, after a meal of confit de canard with green beans and roast potatoes and garlic, she allowed her husband to have the usual perfunctory sex then lay unable to sleep.  The next day was endless as she crawled slowly towards the time of their appointment.  At last, she logged on and tried on outfit after outfit as she waited for three o’clock to arrive.  The second it did, she teleported to the street and looked around.  It was empty save for a blue, low-slung Corvette coupé.  She turned through 360 degrees just to check, and it was only when she fixed on the car again that she realised it must belong to Ken because there was his name floating over it.  She moved towards it.

‘Hi,’ said Ken, ‘God, you’re gorgeous.’

The passenger door of the car swung open and Beebie stooped to get in.  Then Anna paused.  There was no driver.

‘Where are you?’ she said.

‘Here,’ said Ken. ‘You’re climbing into me.’

Beebie stood and stepped back.

‘I told you,’ said Ken.  ‘I’ve spent as much time on my avatar as you have on yours.  This is a 430 horse power, 6.2 litre LS3 with a V8 aluminium-block engine, short-throw six-speed manual transmission and split-spoke silver-painted aluminium wheels.’

‘You’re a car,’ said Anna.

‘Of course I’m a car,’ said Ken.  ‘But if you don’t like this avatar, I’ve got others.’

‘Thank goodness for that,’ said Anna.

Then Ken went on.

‘I’ve got a 6 cylinder, 245 hp Porsche Boxster with 273 Nm maximum torque at 4,600 – 6,000 rpm and a compression ratio of 11.0:1.  There’s also a 4.2 litre Jaguar XK Convertible, a Toyota Avensis with sequential automatic transmission, a flat four overhead valve 1486 cc Jowett Javelin with twin Zenith carburettors …’

As his words continued to jump onto the screen, Anna turned Beebie round and began to walk her away down the boulevard.  Beebie’s hips swung with the same exotic insolence, but Anna was ready to cry.  Why were men always such a disappointment?  She sat back in her chair as Beebie continued her stroll and Ken’s words still trailed across the screen.



Brigitte’s Secret

Brigitte’s Secret

Everyone at the beach club in The Dimension knew there was a mystery about Brigitte. She had a friends’ list that split almost equally between men and women and each of them had a story of her kindness, consideration, willingness to help or maybe just listen when their various stresses were getting to them.  But they also felt that, for all her openness, there was a part of herself she kept locked away from them. Some had tried to penetrate it, using clever, oblique questions to get her to talk of her day-to-day living, her past, her actual family and friends out in the real world, but she’d responded with her usual apparent honesty and innocence.  However hard they analysed her or invented possible traumas, her avatar always appeared onscreen with the same smile, the same confidence, and yet the same lingering implication that there was an untouchable part of her crouching in the shadows of her mind.
‘Have you noticed how often she uses the word ‘control’?’ asked Scott one evening as, on the screen, he lay on some cushions on the bank of a gently flowing river with Azzura, his girl friend.  (He was in London, she was in Adelaide.)
‘No,’ said Azzura. ‘Does she?’
‘Lots,’ said Scott.  ‘Not in any weird way.  It just seems to crop up pretty regularly.  Once you start noticing it, you can’t miss it.’
Azzura snuggled into him.
‘Well, I’m glad she’s a friend.  She was so sweet to me when I broke up with Carnal.’
‘Best thing you ever did,’ said Scott, with a smile.  ‘We’d never have been like this if you were still with him.’
‘Yes,’ said Azzura, ‘I’m lucky.’
The break-up had come as a shock to Azzura.  She and Carnal, an American who was in Jamestown, Rhode Island, had been together for three months and, for some inexplicable reason, he had suddenly started accusing her of infidelities.  He’d invented secret assignations for her and seemed determined to punish her for imagined wrongs.  In the end, he’d just vanished – no goodbyes, no explanations.  He just left The Dimension altogether, leaving Azzura hurt and bewildered.
‘It’s not you, honey,’ said Brigitte, when Azzura first told her about Carnal’s accusations.  ‘It’s probably some domestic thing.  I think he said his wife was having a baby.  That’s bound to make him … well, think differently.’
Then she said all the things that Azzura needed to hear, made her laugh, turned her attention to all the other guys around who’d soon be hitting on her now that she was free again.  They swam, surfed, lay about on the beach and sure enough, within a couple of weeks, she’d met Scott at a concert and fallen so much in love that she couldn’t understand what she’d seen in Carnal at all.  Brigitte laughed at Azzura’s excitement and infatuation when she started describing her new love to her.
‘So,’ she said, ‘he’s a combination of Brad Pitt, George Clooney and the Wizard of Oz.’
Azzura smiled. ‘Yes, and much more.  He makes me laugh, he’s gentle – and when we make love …’ she ended the sentence by making a growling noise deep in her throat.
‘You’re disgusting,’ said Brigitte.
‘Yes, and it’s great,’ laughed Azzura.
She paused before adding, ‘There’s just one thing. He’s married.’
Brigitte shrugged.  ‘Most of them are.  Don’t think about it.  When you’re here with him, different rules apply.  Relax.  Go where your pussy leads you. And take him with you.’

Two weeks later, they were lying under a parasol on the beach.
‘Haven’t seen Scott for a while,’ said Brigitte.
‘No, he’s busy – domestic things to do,’ said Azzura.
‘Hmmmm,’ said Brigitte.  ‘Well, I hope he keeps his priorities right.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘I don’t want you going through all that Carnal stuff again,’ said Brigitte.  ‘I just want to be sure Scott’s heart’s big enough for you.’

It was a seed planted.  Azzura started asking Scott about his work, his home, his wife.  He answered her openly enough but he was guarded, too.  Her anxieties about him made her more insistent, made her questions more intrusive.  He became less eager to log on, the time they spent together grew shorter and the worm at the centre of their love grew and sucked away more of its substance.
‘I don’t know what’s happened with Azzura,’ Scott said to Brigitte one evening.  ‘Have you noticed anything?’
‘Not really, ‘said Brigitte.
Then she seemed to reflect.
‘Well …’ she began.
‘What?’  said Scott.
‘Oh nothing.’
‘Tell me.’
‘Well, it’s just … I think it’s coming up to the anniversary of when she met Carnal.’
‘Nothing, nothing,’ said Brigitte.
‘She said she was over him.  She couldn’t understand why she ever spent time with him,’ said Scott.
‘Well, there you are then,’ said Brigitte.
And so it went on.  Azzura and Scott both brought their concerns to her, laid themselves bare and she, as usual, smiled, sympathised, made little suggestions, and was always there for them to use.

The summer was fading into autumn when Scott messaged Brigitte asking if he could talk to her urgently.  She was with a group of friends, playing a game based on old film titles, but she went home at once and transported him to her Dimension garden.  They sat on loungers under the chestnut trees and Scott recounted the last conversation he’d had with Azzura.  It was an ultimatum.  She wanted a greater commitment from him but he was already as deeply into their relationship as he could be.  He was sacrificing aspects of his home life, making more and more excuses to his wife, and yet he couldn’t convince Azzura that he was serious about her.
Brigitte soothed him, promised to try to talk some sense into Azzura, and talked about the difficulties of blending the needs of their two worlds, real and virtual.  At one point, he asked if he could sit with her and they shared a lounger, Brigitte leaning back against him with his arms around her.
‘Do you still want to be with her – really?’ asked Brigitte.
‘Well, said Scott, with a smile, ‘I could get used to being here with you like this.’
‘Tut, tut,’ said Brigitte.  ‘I think Azzura would be much better for you.’
‘If only she’d ease up,’ said Scott. ‘Just enjoy us as we used to be.’
‘Well, there is a way,’ said Brigitte.
‘How? What do you mean?’
‘It would mean handing over your avatar to someone else’s control for a few minutes,’ said Brigitte.  ‘But it would give Azzura a different perspective on you.’
‘Hmmmm, not sure I like that,’ said Scott.
‘No, I don’t blame you,’ said Brigitte.
‘How does it work?’
‘Just a …  It … well, it doesn’t matter.  We’ll think of something else.’
‘Have you seen it working?’ asked Scott.
‘Yes,’ said Brigitte.  ‘It’s quite impressive.  Fun, too, if it’s a friend.’
‘Have you done it yourself?’
Brigitte laughed.
‘Lots of times,’ she said.
‘Could you show me?’
‘No, let’s think of something else.’
‘No, you’ve got me interested now.  Just show me.  Just once.’
‘You sure?’
‘Yes.  In fact, I command you to show me.’
They both laughed.
‘OK,’ said Brigitte and, almost simultaneously, a blue box appeared with the words ‘Brigitte wants to animate your avatar.  Do you agree?’
Scott clicked on the OK button and waited.

He sat in his apartment in England and watched as his avatar got up, leaving Brigitte on the lounger.  He then walked to her house. The door swung open and he went inside and down some steps at the end of the hallway.  It was dark; he could see nothing.  He stopped.  In his study in London, he clicked his mouse button to change the environmental controls to midday.  Nothing happened.
Then, Brigitte was beside him.
‘Welcome home,’ she said, and she flicked on the midday setting.
They were in a long room.  On each side, there were four cages suspended from the ceiling.  In seven of them, naked male avatars knelt in slave-like positions. None of them looked up as the light hit them.  Brigitte walked to the cage beside the empty one.
‘You never met Carnal, did you?’ she said.  ‘Well, you’ll be able to get to know one another now.  Compare notes maybe.  He’ll be your neighbour.’
And, at home, Scott’s ex-manipulator watched helplessly as his avatar undressed, stepped up into the empty cage beside Carnal’s and knelt on its floor.  The door shut, Brigitte walked along one side of the room, then back up the other, surveying her flock.
‘Goodnight,’ she said.
‘Goodnight mistress,’ came the chorus of eight male voices.
And on the screen in the study in London darkness fell.

Death Ship Episode 7 The End

If anyone’s stayed the course, I hope you’ve enjoyed the story. You might even like my books, but for now, here’s the end of Death Ship,…


We both scanned the deck ahead of us. Tam was right. No sign of Noah. We saw only the silhouettes of the bell, the rails and a single vent. The wind and movement had uncoiled several of the ropes from their belaying pins and they shifted back and forth on the deck. It was only when we came right up beside them that we saw that the bundle was made up of more than ropes.

Noah lay among them, his left leg tangled with them, his arms flung out and his neck a long cut from ear to ear, so deep that his head lay back at a preposterous angle. His blood had poured everywhere but there was still some left in him and it oozed out onto the deck and slid beneath his shoulders. I grabbed him and pulled him clear of the ropes, pushing his head forward to try to close the gaping flesh at his throat. The chill of the wind seemed to bite more deeply into me. I stood up and looked ahead at the grey tumbling seas. I grabbed Tam’s shoulder and pointed back at the rest of the crew. Together we made our way towards them and, from the top of the foredeck steps, I shouted to Big John.

It took a while to get his attention but, at last, he came forward and stood looking at the body, his head shaking slowly before he raised it to look across the waves running towards us. He turned once to where the crew was beginning to climb the rigging to set more sail on the topgallants and royals. As he watched them, he suddenly shrugged and turned back.

“Grab his shoulders,” he said to Tam and me.

We moved to Noah’s head while Big John bent to take his feet.

“Right,” he said, when we’d lifted him clear of the deck. “This one’s going straight over the side. I’ve wasted enough time with villains this trip.”

Tam and I looked at one another, but Big John was already pulling Noah towards the starboard rail. We had no choice but to follow and, as soon as we were near enough, Big John heaved the legs over and, as Noah’s chest lifted, we stumbled forward and let go of his shoulders. We had no time to see the splash and heard nothing over the shrill wind.

“You say nothing of this,” said Big John. “I’ll tell them in good time. But now, I want to get on as much sail as she’ll carry to get us out of here and back on shore. Understand?”

We both nodded.

“Right. Are you willing to stay together as lookouts? Just the two of you?”

Tam and I looked at each other and said nothing.

“It’s either that or one of you stays here and takes his chance with whoever comes along.”

“Aye,” said Tam. “We’ll stay.”

I nodded my agreement.

“I’ll send a boy up with a bucket and scrubber,” said Big John. He pointed at the dark stains on the deck. “You can start getting rid of this.”

We said nothing when he left us and, for a while, we took turns in looking at the sea ahead and scrubbing the blood from the deck. Then, as we stood with our arms bracing us against the forward rail, I saw Tam’s head nodding. His lips moved but I couldn’t hear what he said.

“What?” I shouted.

He looked at me, as if surprised to see me there.

“I was just saying a wee prayer for my lassie. She can rest now,” he said.

I just nodded.

“Every time I saw them,” he went on, “I couldna get her out of my head. Thirteen year old, she was.”

There was nothing I could say. Tam’s daughter had been raped and strangled. They’d found her in a fish barrel.

“Now they’re away,” he said. “Down with the devil they’ve been serving all these years.”

“It must make you happy,” I said.

He shook his head.

“If I could still hear her singin, that’d make me happy. But at least they’ve paid. That doesna happen all that often.”

“There are many who think like you,” I said. “Many who’ll be grateful they’re gone.”

The words made him turn to look straight into my eyes. He was quiet for a long moment.

“We’ve all got our secrets,” he said at last. “Who’s going to care who killed them? The world’s better off without them.”

I nodded and we fell back into our silence again.

It wasn’t until we were relieved by the next two lookouts that he spoke again.

“Dinna be feared, Joe,” he said. “I don’t think there’ll be any more. Do you?” And he skipped down the steps without waiting for me to answer.

As I said, my experience of being on board ships was confined to testing the planking while they were still on the stocks, so I had no way of measuring just how different the voyage was from the usual. Tam’s confidence was certainly not shared by the rest of the crew. The silences and the strange groupings and the number of lamps that were kept alight through the dark hours all spoke of the fear that still haunted everyone. They worked hard to keep the ship pushing through the water, all desperate to be on land and away from the hands that had killed four of their fellows.


In the afternoon of the day after Cammie and Noah had been killed, the wind backed through a hundred degrees and we were suddenly dancing along under full canvas with a force six coming over the larboard quarter, the figurehead’s outstretched arm pointing directly at Aberdeen. We moved around in groups, watchful, trusting no-one. I spent most of my time with Big John and the boatswain, and we were rarely out of sight of several others. When we eventually saw the low profile of the Scottish coast up ahead, Big John laughed, slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Well, Joe. We kept him quiet after all.”

I couldn’t help smiling with him.

“What of the dead men?” I said. “You’ll have to tell the police.”

“Just consider, though,” he said, his arm still at my shoulder, “Noah McPhee, Cammie Drewburgh, Rab Robertson, Davie Strachan. There winna be much grieving for the likes of that. They may even give me a reward.”

“And what about Mr Anderson?” I said.

“You can do the sums,” he said. “Four men times the number of days since we left Aberdeen. That’s how many shillings he’s saved. I canna see him shedding too many tears.”

He was right, of course. When we made harbour, Mr Anderson came on board and quickly dismissed the “worthless scum”, as he called them, concentrating instead on asking Big John and myself about how the ship handled and how she’d fare on the crossing to Jamaica. He charged me with the task of keeping him informed of how the police investigations progressed and invited us both to take a drink with him. Big John had no woman to go back to and so was glad to accept. I gave my excuses, anxious as I was to be back with Emma and tell her of the strangeness and horrors of the voyage.

As I walked down York Street, the sounds of horses, handcarts and the calls of the people working on the quays were soothing. They reminded me that I was back where I belonged, and safe in my own element again. I opened the door and went through to the bedroom. Emma was lying in her usual place, her eyes fixed on the door. As she saw me enter, the happiest smile came across her face. I smiled back, went across and kissed her. With great difficulty, she pulled her left arm from under the covers and lifted it to touch my cheek. Her right arm lay, still and useless as always, hidden in the sheets.

At first, we said nothing, I because my throat was full of tears, she because one night, in Sinclair’s Close, her voice had been ripped from her.

Then, “They’re gone, my darling,” I said. “All of them.”