Phil was watching in disbelief as the TV screen above the bar hummed monotonously over a rainbow patterned image. He was sipping water through a straw in a deserted pub three hours from home. He had been kicked off an intercity rail service for not paying the fare - he had money but always refused to pay for anything owned by Citadel Inc. He had planned to go home first and try take his mum’s car but realised that they would know and he would have to dump it. Instead he wrote a text to her saying he loved her but would have to go away for a while, asked her not to help anyone find him.
She would be worried but he was safe as long as he moved. He had money, withdrew a few thousand plus the cash that he always kept out of sight of banks and government. The rest would be frozen or watched. His laptop abandoned, phone given away, any clothes that he had snatched up were already filthy because he never washed them; a true fugitive out into the wild. It was all exciting at the time, romantic almost, but now he was starting to feel scared. Fear was the price for freedom.
Finally after what had seemed like hours, Channel 8’s broadcast came back on. They were in the news studios with breaking news banners and scroll bars shooting all over the screen. The telecast had stopped after the strange audience member was brushed aside. After a few moments there were screams heard and then a loud bang which Phil recognised as a gunshot. It had given him chills as the audience seemed to be running from something and then the coverage was cut off. Was there a madman running loose? Was there an attack? The barman thought it was a bomb, terrorism if you ask him. Phil was cautious to agree and glued to the screen still after the old barmen lost interest and polished some glasses.
“We are reporting live to you now on the terrifying scenes that you may have seen at the Walter Wallace National Tour Special at the Royal Theatre in Heartsfield. Fear, panic and ultimately confusion is what is being picked up in the aftermath; mobs of people exited the building many unsure of why. There were reports of a bomb, an attack from-”
“See I told you!” the barman interjected, craning his neck around from the dishwashing room. Phil wanted to shoosh him but thought it more effective to give a vague nod.
“-gunshots and bomb threats, but it appears that most of the audience simply had no clue of what was happening. The panic subsiding as authorities took scattered reports from the people who had settled out on the main streets that line the historic venue. We can say that inside sources have claimed that there was no bomb it was likely a fake device and that an audience member was shot but not fatally.”
“That’s bullshit.” The barman waved his hand dismissively and went back to his work. Phil found himself agreeing. His natural conspiracy theorist mentality saw through the convenience of it all: a Citadel production on a Citadel network with a Citadel news team there first to cover it. The news reporter had also failed to mention the one fact that had caught Phil’s attention in the first place.
When the girl had spoken she had claimed to be William Unston. That was the same name that had popped up after the Newport train disaster. Phil remembered the robot mentioning it. He had hoped to follow up the story on his site but he was distracted early by the fame and the drugs. There were other sites that had popped up with the concept but none received much exposure. In his arrogance Phil waved them away as silly knock offs of the real deal.
It all had the smell of something big, something sinister. He felt a little ashamed as he considered this incident a blessing, it would occupy the drones at Citadel; extra security for Walter Wallace would mean less focus on the hunt for the rebel blogger.
The door to the bar swung open and Phil’s heart jumped as he was brought back to reality from the depths of his thoughts. A short, dark figure entered the bar and sat at a stool near the entrance. He wore a long weatherworn coat, his baseball cap cast a shadow over his face. He tapped on the wooden bar, not with his knuckles but with a coin or a ring giving his raps a sharp resolution.
The barman popped his head around, “Can I help you, sir?” he asked cheerfully.
“Scotch, neat.” He replied, his voice husky. He let out a phlegm-laced cough, spat the remains into a coaster and folded it up.
Phil looked away with a grimace. He sipped his water in an attempt to wash away the mental image of bile from his mouth. He felt uneasy about this character. He wasn’t large but then again one needn’t be when it came to sizing up Phil. He hadn’t been in a fight since the 7th grade and that was with his cousin Laura. Eye contact was best kept to a minimum.
“Just a second, buddy,” the barman said, drying his hands on a tired looking rag. He took up a glass and a bottle and walked over to the stranger. Phil’s eyes tracked him, unable to look away despite his precaution. Glancing childishly to his right he saw the barman fill the glass halfway. The stranger slid his coaster to the barman and tilted his head briefly towards Phil. Phil’s heart rate soared. He turned back to his water and sipped it until the dregs made a slurping noise.
He was frozen still. The only thing worse than being caught by a Citadel robot was being raped by a truckie. He jumped as the barman put a beer bottle in front of him. He put the coaster down next to it and winked before placing the bottle on the coaster. Phil watched a drop of condensation slide down the bottle and absorb into the coaster, smudging the blue ink that contained the rapist’s proposition. He looked cautiously down the bar and saw the man down his scotch and cough violently into his sleeve. Phil took up his bottle with an unsteady hand and saw the short message scrawled on the coaster.
“A weapon. Distract him when he comes.”