Randal moved his fingers down the length of the weed so that his knuckles were pressed against the cold, hard paving slab of his driveway, a...

Randal moved his fingers down the length of the weed so that his knuckles were pressed against the cold, hard paving slab of his driveway, and tugged. The weed’s prickly leaves tore off in his hand, leaving the thick, wet body of the plant stuck in the crack, taunting him with its stubborn resilience. 
  He sighed.
  ‘You need to rip the little bastards out by the root. We don’t tolerate freeloaders in this neighbourhood.’
  Randal stood, pressed his hand against his aching hip. ‘Afternoon, Maud,’ he said, nodding. The old woman leaning over the fence smiled back at him, unable to make eye contact for looking down at his fist, and the limp leaves hanging from it.
  ‘I’ve got some weed killer in the shed, if you want it. I’m like a dealer for this stuff, been giving it to everyone. I can leave it on a fence post, so we don’t have to touch. Lethal, this stuff; kills anything it touches – breathe it in, and they’ll be scraping you off your drive.’
  ‘No, no it’s okay, thanks. Just clearing out the big ones. If I can.’
  Maud tutted. ‘Hm,’ she grunted, disapprovingly. She said nothing more; just stood there leaning on the waist-high fence, inspecting Randal’s paving and the ugly shoots sprouting from its gaps. Randal’s gardens were not quite as well-kept as Maud’s, but then he had a lot more going on in his life. The half-hearted weeding his driveway was experiencing this afternoon was as much attention as it was going to get this season, whether Maud approved of that or not.
  ‘So, how’s lockdown going?’ He asked. ‘Bored of sitting at home yet?’
  Maud looked up at him as if startled out of some distant train of thought. ‘Hm? Oh, no. Not at all, no. I’d only be sitting at home whether we were locked down or not. Don’t like going out much, anymore. Too many criminals and foreigners about.’
  She sniffed the air, as if the stench of all these undesirables was filling even her quaint little street, over which she kept a constant, close, completely silent watch. Randal shrugged, electing to ignore the less tasteful portion of her reply.
  ‘Yeah, I haven’t been that upset about it, either. Good opportunity to get some DIY done, read some books. Haven’t missed the commute, either.’
  Maud was no longer listening – she was watching Randal’s other next-door neighbour return from her daily walk. As she watched the woman, Maud’s face remained in that same twisted grimace she had worn when she smelt the stench of all those criminals and foreigners, and even when her neighbour smiled at them as she passed, Maud did not exactly return a pleasant look. She just lifted her chin, as if acknowledging an old rival with the bare minimum amount of civility.
  Randal blushed slightly, embarrassed to be thought of as an associate of someone who could be so shamelessly rude. He waved at his neighbour, wishing he could remember what she had told him her name was, back when she and her son had first moved in last year. Shirley? Shelley? She looked too young for either of those names, but they certainly came close to ringing a bell.
  ‘She don’t clap, you know,’ Maud muttered bitterly.
  ‘On Thursdays. She hasn’t been clapping.’
  ‘Oh,’ Randal said. 
  Most people had been going out once a week, to applaud health workers in the streets. Randal had joined in the first couple of times, but since then, due to work commitments and the onset of his usual apathy, his attendance had been sporadic at best; so he could not verify Maud’s claim. He did not much care whether she was right or not – which of his neighbours were participating in the applause and which were not was not something about which he was particularly concerned. But Maud was old, lonely and bored, and he knew from his interactions with his mother that that was a combination which cultivated nothing more than unhealthy interest in everyone else’s business.
  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’d better be getting on.’
  He continued weeding his driveway without waiting for a reply from Maud. She was the kind of person who needed more than just a goodbye to get the hint – he knew from experience that she would not leave unless he fully turned his back and walked away. And for all he knew, she had left; for the silence returned, and he was left alone with his thoughts as he tore out the last of the stragglers, with degrees of success which varied wildly between complete obliteration of the weed and any trace of root, and the pathetic, demoralising removal of less than an inch of leaf, which would likely regrow before nightfall.
  It never ceased to surprise him how small the concerns of other people could be. For instance, why did Maud care who was out there clapping every Thursday? People might have other things to do. They might not have heard what the clapping was for, or they might be so introverted that making such displays of themselves was an insufferable eventuality. Maybe some people decided not to clap because they saw it for what it was – a nice gesture, but not something which provided any material benefit.
  For all Maud knew, people who did not clap were abstaining because they had some deep-seated vendetta against health workers. He did not see why that would be the case, but it was possible. And were they not entitled to their opinions? Maud had enough hateful opinions, and none of the other residents of the street had accosted him to discuss those yet.
  For that matter, why did he care so much that Maud had brought it up? Was it just that he thought his neighbour should be able to get on with her life without being judged for something which, in the grand scheme of things, did not really matter? Or was it because of those weeks he had missed, and the fear they brought on that Maud might be saying things about him behind his back too? Perhaps, he thought, as he finished his weeding and stood with a fistful of dead plants, twigs and leaves, he would have to make sure to free himself up this Thursday evening.
  Then he looked up and saw Maud – still standing at the fence, staring past him at the house next door, her lips curled as if a sour taste lingered on her tongue – and he nearly dropped the entire clump of plants.

‘I’ve only just started dinner, Randy,’ Francine said that Thursday, tipping vegetables from a chopping board into the hissing pan on the hob, ‘I can’t be arsed to go out there tonight.’
  ‘You can turn it off for a minute, and continue when we get in.’
  ‘I’m starving. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. I’m not pausing dinner to go out and clap. Why do you suddenly care so much, anyway? It’s not going to be the first one we’ve missed, and you haven’t been this concerned all the other times.’
  ‘I just think it’d be nice,’ Randal lied. ‘Show some community spirit.’
  His wife rolled her eyes. ‘Well, you can show as much community spirit as you want. I’m just going to stare at this dinner until I think it’s done enough to pour into my mouth.’
  So, Randal stood in the street and clapped alone. Found himself feeling like an imposter, as the regulars banged wooden spoons on pots and pans and waved big blue NHS flags above their heads – flags which Randal would not know how to source even if he wanted to. Feeling watched, as the burly builder who lived opposite paced up and down the pavement, perhaps taking attendance in his head. Putting so much pressure on himself that by the end of the applause, not even two minutes long, he felt queasy.
  But relieved, too, that he had probably bought himself a few weeks free from judgement, by showing his face that evening. Because that was all he ever cared about, no matter how much it irritated Francine (who had always been much more adept at disregarding the opinions of others): being a good neighbour. Not a neighbour who works hard to place themselves in everyone’s pockets, knowing all their business and popping in unannounced for tea and gossip; and certainly not a neighbour who becomes the shame of the street, the unacceptably noisy or messy or inconsiderate neighbour whose departure would make the street a nicer place. The kind of neighbour who avoids both of these extremes by sitting comfortably at the top of the bell curve, contributing enough to stay out of the bad books, without going as far as to make new, unwanted friends. 
  He wrestled with this odd mix of relief and discomfort all the way to the front door, where he was distracted by movement out of the corner of his eye. The family who lived on the other side of Sharon (if that was her name) had been eating crisps and ice lollies in the street while they clapped, celebrating as if attending a summer party; and as they wandered back to their front door, they tossed their wrappers over the fence into Sharon’s front garden, with a disregard so complete and shameless that it was obvious that this was their weekly routine. Randal was about to call out to them, to tell them to pick up their rubbish and learn some respect, when the father made eye contact with him, and stared at Randal with such intense aggression that Randal shrunk back into his shell.
  Randal spent the rest of the evening feeling ashamed. Had he not cared so much about being an unremarkable, average neighbour, perhaps he would have stood up to that man, who after all did not appear to be that much bigger or stronger than him. Even if he had called out admonishments which had been ignored by that family, at least he would have done the right thing. But he had stayed silent, and allowed a woman to be bullied for a reason he had not even realised might be brewing in people’s minds until Maud had brought it up. 
  Clearly, if one wanted to stay out of this neighbourhood’s bad books, it required more these days than simply minding one’s own business.

Whether it was because he had more spare time now to think on these things or because the injustice had riled him that much, this bad feeling bubbling away under the lid of the street began to play regularly on Randal’s mind. He began to notice things, as he took his daily walks or sat in his garden after work, that had never reached him before, but which he now regarded as symptoms of a town with cabin fever, a populous who hated being stuck at home so much that being put into lockdown for their own protection was slowly driving them out of their minds.
  ‘I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind,’ he overheard one neighbour say to another, ‘keeping your cat out of my garden?’
  ‘Well,’ came the reply, tight as a drum, ‘I can’t control where my cat goes. You can feel free to chase him out, but there’s nothing I can do to stop him going in there.’
  ‘Maybe you shouldn’t keep animals if you can’t control them!’
  ‘So, only animals we can control should be allowed to live? Is that what you’re saying?!’
  This kind of bickering – formerly the hobby only of those who stayed at home all day while everyone else was at work, and who therefore became busybodies to pass all that free time – was suddenly commonplace, and could be heard in one form or another almost daily. Fence panels were not treated often enough, and trees were growing too far over property boundaries. Children were too noisy, animals too smelly. Everyone was finding it very difficult, of a sudden, to live in such close proximity to one another. Even Randal began to find himself irked by how often Maud looked over her fence at him, the regularity with which she gave him gardening tips he did not want or need.
  Everyone’s worlds seemed to be shrinking, which meant that by comparison, even their smallest worries were growing.
  And if Randal really had thought that the weekly applause was an opportunity to show community spirit, a chance for everyone to put aside their differences and concerns and come together to celebrate those on the front lines who might eventually get them all out of this mess, he was very quickly proven wrong. Once he began attending regularly – more to keep up appearances than because he wanted to be there – he realised that it was not a celebration, but a competition. Who could clap the loudest, who could cheer with the most enthusiasm, who waved the biggest flag – these were the things that won the competition on a Thursday evening, not the good will shared or the love demonstrated toward one’s fellow man. This was not a union of hearts and minds looking forward to a better tomorrow – it was a community turning in on itself, identifying those who did not conform today, so that they could be ostracised tomorrow.
  This was demonstrated when one house drew a three-foot-high NHS logo in chalk on the front of their house one week, and the house next door spray painted a six-foot-high version on their garage door the next. It was demonstrated when two neighbours almost got into a physical altercation over whose miniature fireworks display was better. But mostly, it was demonstrated by the treatment of those who chose not to participate.
  They were not simply losers of this great unspoken competition, who should be pitied or forgotten or told to try harder next time. They were ruining it for everyone else. They were the villagers who would not take part in the rain dance, and their abstention was the reason it was not working. One house, whose sole resident was a wheelchair-bound nonagenarian who had a carer visit him daily to help with his basic needs, was covered in toilet paper before it was established that the owner was not just unwilling but physically unable to participate. Another had a front window smashed – but for all Randal knew that one was empty, as there was never a car parked outside and he had never seen anyone go in or out.
  But the brunt of the street’s ire was being borne by Randal’s next-door neighbour. When she was leaving for her afternoon walk one day, Randal heard someone shout ‘Bitch!’ from their window, before quickly hiding to avoid identification. And one Thursday night after a particularly boisterous applause, one of her tyres was slashed so that she could not even drive to the supermarket that Friday to do her weekly shop. When Randal found her changing her tyre and offered his condolences, she told him that was not the only time that week she had been victimised – she suspected the family next door had also thrown a bucket of weed killer over the fence, killing half the plants in her flowerbed. She just wished she knew why these things were happening, she said. 
  Randal did not tell her the reason he suspected, simply because it sounded too trivial to be true.
  Trivial or not, the matter came to a head the next week. Clearly sick of having to hide their identities or perform their vandalism in the dead of night, a few houses armed their teenage children with eggs and sent them toward Sharon’s house to teach her what happened to households who did not conform. Hoods up and boxes in hand, goading each other on as if none of them could conjure up the courage alone, or would even be able to stand there if it were not for his co-conspirators. Child soldiers, on the front lines of a war against outsiders.
  They had only thrown a couple – one exploding on the roof, another unable to clear the drive – before Randal stepped in, and made up for his failure of weeks before by standing up for sanity, and refusing to tolerate this cruelty any longer.
  ‘I’ll call the police!’ He shouted, waving his phone around as if it were a dangerous weapon. ‘I know all your faces and I know where you live. You throw one more egg at that house, and I’ll have all you little shits arrested!’
  Some residents of the street continued to clap, either because they had not noticed the kerfuffle or because they were pretending not to notice. Others, most likely the parents of those children (and therefore the conspirators who had planned the attack) and their friends, stopped celebrating, and although too cowardly or furious to say anything, they glared across the road at Randal as though their suspicions had been confirmed, and he had outed himself as being in league with the traitors, added himself to the growing list of targets for vandalism and abuse. 
  Even Maud narrowed her eyes at him, from the end of her driveway next door – he would be receiving no more pruning advice from her.
  For a moment, with everyone staring at him and the heat rising in his neck and ears, he almost regretted stepping in.
  But this act of courage, although small and perhaps stupid, had its desired effect. The teens skulked off, only one or two of them brave enough to mutter a swear word under their breath or show Randal their middle fingers on the way. And despite the way he was being looked at, Randal felt good, pleased that he had redeemed himself for the time he had not spoken out when he should have.

Over the week that followed, it seemed that Randal’s outburst had made the street see sense. There were no more acts of violence or vandalism, and Randal did not even overhear any bickering or neighbourly friction on his daily walks. He was still receiving dirty looks, but he told himself that these were in his imagination, that he was noticing them only because he expected to, and not because they were actually happening. For seven days, it appeared that he had fixed a developing madness, by turning on a light and showing his neighbours the errors of their ways.
  But at the next clap, which he attended out of habit and to monitor the situation as, he thought, the only sane member of the street, he realised that the calmness he thought he had brought to the road was just a veneer, under which still seethed a bitter rage, a roiling stew of madness and distrust that looked like it might explode at any moment, and descend the street once again into total chaos. People looked at each other with suspicion, they paced their driveways with pent up energy, they glared at Randal with unmitigated hatred. The air was alive that evening, buzzing like a wasp trapped in a glass; and although nothing of note happened, he came away feeling like it had. As if chaos was taking hold before his eyes, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
  Over the next couple of weeks, this feeling did not go away – it only matured. The atmosphere on Thursday evenings was electric, the tension so palpable that it took great effort to remember why he was out there, what the applause had originally been for. It was supposed to be a positive thing, a pat on the back for all the brave people who were fighting to bring this dreadful pandemic to its deserved end; but it had become something entirely different, something which left a bad taste in the mouth and turned neighbour against neighbour, opening cracks in the town which might never again be healed.
  Or… was that his imagination? Randal knew that he too was feeling the strain of being locked indoors all day. He missed seeing his colleagues – even the ones he did not like so much – and he missed being able to go shopping with his wife or to restaurants with friends and family. His world was getting smaller, the walls closing in on him just as they probably were on everyone else; so perhaps all this bad feeling, all that bubbling hatred, only existed in his imagination. Maybe it had no basis in reality, and since he had stopped those adolescents from egging his neighbour’s house, perhaps the street really had calmed down. After all, his fears just then were based on nothing more than dirty looks and an energy in the air – and were these things not just a matter of perception, a choice one makes when taking in the world and its contents? If he chose not to notice them anymore, would they really be there?
  And just like that, the street’s cabin fever was cured. He did not fear his neighbours, because he had decided there was nothing to fear. He no longer read bitterness or anger on Maud’s face, because he realised it had always been a bit twisted anyway, so it had likely gotten no worse since he stood up for Sharon. He had gone a little mad, become a tad paranoid, but it was all better now, and he finally saw the neighbourhood for what it was – a group of people struggling not only with being stuck at home with all their issues, fears and relatives, but also with the regret of taking too far their punishment of a neighbour who had committed nothing more severe than the laughable crime of not clapping on a Thursday evening.
  How silly he had been, thinking the street could descend into total chaos. How little he must think of people, if he thought they could turn savage and set upon each other, for reasons so petty.

But then, he was woken one night by the smell of smoke. His bedroom full of it, a fog so thick that it made his eyes water and his stomach turn.
  ‘What’s happening?’ croaked Francine, sitting up in bed. ‘Is the house on fire?!’
  ‘No,’ replied Randal, as he got out of bed and walked to the window. ‘I don’t think so.’
  Their house was not on fire. If it had been, the smoke would be thicker and the alarms would be going off. But something was, and even as he pulled the curtains apart to find out what, a heavy feeling in his stomach told him he already knew.
  His fears were confirmed: the house next door was ablaze, fire pouring out of the windows and billowing thick, black smoke into the night’s sky as if the house had been filled with kindling. The whole thing consumed by so much heat and flame that the opportunity for anyone inside to escape alive must have long since passed. Leaning out of his front window to look sideways at the devastation, Randal almost vomited down the front of his own house from the shock of it. 
  ‘What is it?’ Asked Francine, wrapping the duvet around herself as if it might be enough protect her from harm. ‘What do we do?’
  Randal’s knees began to tremble, and he had to grip the window frame to steady himself. He was sick with shock, weak with fear. Crushed to find himself correct, that the entire street had gone mad. It had not been his imagination after all, was not a symptom of his own brief descent into madness; they really had gone savage, given in to their new rage and turned on each other, like a pack of animals pouncing on their weakest member.
  Look at them now – locked in their homes, not even looking out of their windows to watch the destruction they had caused. Not a single person in the street to observe, let alone help. Things were worse than even he had imagined.
  And as he tried to form a response to his wife, the words elusive and foggy in his addled brain, he suddenly remembered what Maud had said to him, that first day he knew anything about this madness developing in the minds of his neighbours. 
  ‘You need to rip the little bastards out by the root,’ she had said. ‘We don’t tolerate freeloaders in this neighbourhood.’
  ‘Call 999,’ he said finally, closing the curtains. ‘Then we need to pack our suitcases.’

‘Good morning, Alan,’ Trixie said gently. ‘It’s 6:30a.m. Time to get up.’   Alan Briggs lifted himself onto his elbow, rubbed his ey...

‘Good morning, Alan,’ Trixie said gently. ‘It’s 6:30a.m. Time to get up.’
  Alan Briggs lifted himself onto his elbow, rubbed his eyes, struggled to bring the bedside clock into focus. Trixie, it turned out, was telling the truth.
  How funny it was that he felt the need to check, now that he had compromised her. He had trusted her completely the week before, known she would never let him down. Hers had been the only impenetrable system, the only backend into which he had never been able to find a backdoor. But no database is infallible, no server completely secure, and since that eureka moment last week in which he had finally found a way to break in, he no longer felt quite as comfortable taking her at her word. He knew that her intelligence had not been changed, that her answers would still be correct and her assistance invaluable, but the awareness that someone had access to her servers, even if it was only himself, had destroyed his trust. They would have to remove her from the house, as soon as they could find a free minute to do it. Convenience be damned.
  ‘You can shower first, darling,’ his wife said. ‘It’s your big day, you need time to do your makeup.’
  He turned and looked at Nora, smiling sweetly back at him. He kissed her forehead, swung his legs off the side of the bed, and dragged his feet toward the en-suite. 
  ‘I’ll start the shower,’ said Trixie, before the water began pouring.
  After his shower, he stood in the kitchen, pouring two coffees and trying desperately to remember where he had put his cufflinks after the last time he had worn them. Most days, he could get by with a short-sleeved shirt and scruffy chinos; but there was no way he could accept a commendation from the Prime Minister dressed like that. He had to dress up, which meant locating those cufflinks, polishing his one pair of smart shoes, even combing his hair.
  ‘Good morning, hero,’ Nora said, wandering in in her dressing gown and picking up a cup. ‘What are you thinking about?’
  ‘Oh, nothing,’ Alan replied, ‘just my cufflinks. Haven’t seen them, have you?’
  Trixie had. ‘The last time I saw your cufflinks,’ she said, ‘was when you placed them in the drawer for spare wires and gadgets.’
  Alan grunted. Of course he had thrown them there – that was where he threw everything small enough to hold in one hand.
  ‘Are you okay?’ Nora asked, stroking his arm. ‘You seem nervous.’
  ‘Yes, yes. I’m alright. I could do without today, that’s all.’
  Nora laughed. ‘Oh, you silly bean. You can’t keep on being so darn good at your job and expect to never see the limelight. Your overachieving was always going to catch up with you sometime.’
  ‘Well, I suppose I’ll just have to be a bit less brilliant, eh?’
  ‘I don’t think you could manage it. It oozes from you.’ She put her hand on his chest, kissed him on the cheek, and he blushed.
  ‘Oh, stop it,’ he laughed, as he gently pulled himself away from her and poured the dregs of his coffee down the sink.
  ‘So, who’s actually giving you this award, then?’ His wife asked, leaning against the kitchen counter.
  ‘The PM.’
  ‘Oh, it really is? I thought you were joking when you said that. Well, now I’m even more impressed. My husband, receiving a medal from our glorious, noble leader of the free world. Gosh.’ She fanned herself with one hand, swooning over her coffee.
  Alan scoffed. ‘Are you thinking of the same man I am?’
  ‘Well, yes, it’s a shame that it's that fat, bigoted, election-fiddling twit; but it’s the office that matters. The country is proud of you, darling!’
  ‘I suppose so. As long as I can keep my breakfast down when he’s wobbling those chins in my face, I should be a national treasure by teatime.’
  ‘And keep your eyes off his ghastly wig.’
  ‘And try not to breathe in his stinking breath.’
  ‘And keep out of range of his wandering hands.’
  ‘Good point,’ Alan said, grabbing his wife by the waist. ‘You’ll have to stand behind me for protection, if you plan to carry on looking this good.’
  She retched theatrically, then giggled, then kissed her husband like a smitten teenager. ‘Go on,’ she said eventually, pushing him toward the door and smacking his bum on the way out, ‘get dressed now. He can’t give you a prize if you don’t turn up on time.’
  ‘The time is 6:52a.m.,’ said Trixie, always eager to get involved.

The ceremony was more boring than Nora had anticipated. She had known, of course, that it would not be an afternoon devoted entirely to her husband, a celebration of his achievements alone; but she had still allowed herself to imagine something close to that. What she got instead was more like those tedious graduation ceremonies she had been forced to attend when they had both been professors at the university, all those decades ago: long lines of students, too many to count and certainly far too many to remember, all waiting for their turn in front of some minor celebrity or other person of debatable note, who would hand them a blank roll of paper, pat them on the back and never think about them again. 
  Far from being all about Alan Briggs, there was a whole room full of Alans and Alices from different government and intelligence departments, all queued up for their commendations and their three seconds of small talk with the PM.
  But she was proud – so proud that she could not hold back the tears when Alan’s turn came – and besides, the party afterward was actually rather fun. It turned out that an old friend of Allan’s from one of his first jobs in the intelligence services, one Paula Hawkins, had also received a commendation that day, so when they bumped into her and her wife Lorna at the afterparty, they were set for the evening. They were so engaging, witty and vibrant that when Alan was led away by the PM, who grabbed his arm and pulled him halfway across the room for a private word, Nora barely even noticed.
  ‘It’s Briggs, isn’t it?’ The Prime Minister asked, his hot, chubby hand still clenched around Alan’s elbow.
  ‘It is, yes.’
  ‘I wanted to speak to you privately, just to let you know how interested I am in the work you’re doing.’
  ‘Oh, well, thank you, I—’
  ‘Really, really, important work. Vital to the old… the old…’ and he said the next words like they were a smutty secret: ‘…national security.’
  ‘Well, yes. I’m glad you think so. The challenge has always been for intelligence and crime-fighting services to keep up with the rate of technological progress that—’
  The PM pointed his glass of wine in the direction of a tall, grey man in decorated military uniform, to whom he had slowly been leading Alan Briggs. He gave Alan a smile that told him that he did not need to go on, that his words were not even going in, and then he opened his wide mouth to speak.
  ‘This is Commander Ashton,’ he said, ‘who leads many of our covert enforcement operations. The disturbing things you and your department find in your important work often end up on this man’s desk, and he uses them to keep our country safe, without most people on the street ever realising there was anything to be kept safe from.’
  Briggs smiled politely. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he said.
  Commander Ashton was long and thin in every regard. Long legs, long arms, long body, and the longest, thinnest, most horse-like face Alan had ever seen on a human. He was so pale and wrinkled that if one encountered him sleeping, one might well assume that he was a cadaver; but standing on his skinny legs, looking at Alan through icy blue eyes and breathing through flared nostrils, he was clearly alive, for now. He nodded silently at Alan, before turning to the PM. ‘Thank you, Prime Minister,’ he said. And as if Alan Briggs was a parcel they were passing around the room, he put his arm around Alan’s shoulder and led him away from the PM, who kept on smiling, even as his eyes wandered away, and settled on the buttocks of a young waitress as she carried a tray of canapes across the room.
  ‘So, I gather you have been commended today for the work you did on monitoring the communications of that small terrorist network in Cornwall,’ Ashton said, leading Alan away from the party and into a long, oak-lined corridor, the sound of bustling conversation fading fast behind them. 
  ‘Yes, that’s right.’
  ‘That was impressive work. Although having listened to those recordings your team uncovered last month, of foreign agents plotting once again to interfere in our referendums, I think you’ve done far more valuable work than that. That’s what you really should be here for.’
  Commander Ashton still had his hand on Alan’s shoulder as he led him along the corridor, the sound of eager networking and clinking glasses now just a muffled whisper in the distance. Alan smiled gratefully, unsure how to receive the compliment. ‘I suppose they can’t reward me for giving them information they haven’t used yet. No arrests have been made, I’ve heard nothing more on it. I’m surprised you’ve even heard about it; I thought it had fallen into the void.’
  Ashton’s thin, pursed lips broke, and he smiled at Briggs as if he were a naïve child, someone who had missed the point entirely, even as it stared him in the face. ‘Arrests or no, I’m sure someone found it useful. In fact, I know they did. Things like this are simply a little more… delicate. They call for action from departments like mine. A quieter approach.’
  Alan furrowed his brow, taken aback by the older man’s implication. ‘So, what happened to the people on the list I provided? Will they face trial?’
  Ashton’s smile grew wider, now more amused than polite. He closed his eyes, shook his head. Obviously, Briggs did not need to know. He stopped sharply at a door and opened it, pointing with his spare hand into a dimly lit room, directing Alan inside. ‘The point is,’ he said slowly, ‘that you might want to get used to occasions like this, if you intend to keep performing so magnificently.’
  As Alan stepped into the room, a flood of discomfort seemed to fill his abdomen. Perhaps he had been as naïve as Ashton’s smile had made him feel, when he had assumed that the criminals, terrorists and foreign agents he exposed would all face fair trials and public scrutiny. If the case that Ashton was talking about had been brought to a conclusion in secret, he was sure it must have been thought through thoroughly, that there was a very good reason to keep these things out of the public eye and resolve them quickly and quietly; but did he really want to be complicit in all that? If the people on that list were being tortured for information, or held in windowless rooms with no hope of escape… or worse, lying in a morgue, having been secretly eliminated by the state… did he really want to lend his name and his work to that kind of activity? Did he really believe that the ends justified such extreme, disagreeable means?
  He had never imagined that the information he gave would be used to hurt or detain people without trial or oversight. If he had, he might never have volunteered his services. That kind of thing made his stomach turn.
  It did not help that the room into which he had been led, by this sinister-looking old stranger, was so dark. So stiff and stuffy, the way one imagined hidden back rooms in Westminster, built for dark deals and treacherous negotiations. Dark mahogany and red velvet, drinks cabinet in the corner and secret documents in the desk drawer. It all felt so sordid, like he was being initiated into a secret society he had never wanted to join.
  ‘So, your specialty is hacking into communications devices, is that right?’ Ashton said, closing the door and taking a seat in front of an unlit fireplace, gesturing toward the seat opposite for Alan to do the same.
  Alan snapped himself out of his runaway train of thought. He was probably being dramatic, letting his imagination run away with him – he often did. ‘Well, yes, it was,’ he replied, taking a seat. ‘But recently, it has kind of morphed into gaining access to the data collected by digital assistants. Lori, Ada, Bugsby…’
  ‘And you recently added Trixie to the list.’
  ‘We did. She was the last one, so now we have access to every major personal assistant commercially available.’
  ‘I gather we are the first country to break into her backend. Impressive, I must say. But when you say “access”, what exactly does that entail?’
  ‘Well, we can read all the historical data they have ever collected. Listen to recordings, scan search histories. If the digital assistant’s servers still hold the data – which they usually do – we can pull it. We can even listen live, through the device’s microphone.’
  ‘So, we can listen in on half the country’s conversations, whenever we want.’
  ‘More than half – around 68 percent of homes have installed digital assistants now, and the number keeps on rising.’
  Ashton smiled again, his thin lips spreading wide, eyebrows raised. He was impressed.
  ‘Years ago,’ he said slowly, absently, staring into the fireplace as if he were watching imaginary flames dancing away, ‘it would be considered an outrage to bug the homes of millions of supposedly innocent people. Now they go out and buy the bugs themselves, and install them with no small amount of glee. We should find the man who persuaded the public that filling their homes with microphones was a good idea and give him a job.’
  ‘Yes. I’d like to see people’s faces if you went back to the Cold War days and told them that in the future, people would be happy with their television being manufactured in a foreign dictatorship and coming fitted with a camera and microphone. Still, I’d like to say they hadn’t fooled me, but my wife insisted we get one. Apparently flicking light switches and setting alarms with our own fingers was too much hard work. We settled on Trixie at the time, but now… Well, I don’t think she’s long for our house.’
  He laughed a nervous laugh, then felt himself blush. Talking about a subject he knew so well had given him confidence, but not nearly enough to overcome the intimidation of this dimly lit room, that stern looking man sitting across from him. Ashton did not seem to notice Alan’s silly laugh – he simply stared into the fireplace, as if trying to make it back down and light itself.
  After a few moments’ thought, he looked up and asked: ‘Do we have the ability to alter the recordings on the servers? Write data? Or, say, remove conversations which, for instance, we might not want any other agencies to ever gain access to?’ 
  ‘No,’ Alan replied. ‘Well, I mean, we do have a certain level of write access to Bugsby, and the ID we compromised on Lori practically gives us sysadmin rights – but that was no great surprise; buy cheap, buy twice. But I say no because we would just never want to use that access, even on the systems on which we have it. Reading is one thing – we can slip in, take a copy of the data, and log off before anyone who monitors the system notices – but changing the data is quite another. As soon as we write to the servers, make changes, remove data we don’t like, we’ve left breadcrumbs for someone to follow. They’ll notice something has changed, or something is missing, and at best, we’d suddenly find ourselves locked out, and at worst, they’d expose us. These companies like to make a big song and dance about how important their customers’ privacy is to them – it’s not, of course; they manipulate, sell and otherwise misuse that data all the time – but because they say it is, they’d very much enjoy an opportunity to embarrass us, catch us in the act of spying on them and shut us down very publicly. I don’t think it’s a risk anyone would have the appetite to take.’
  Ashton was nodding, looking into the fireplace again, his brows furrowed and eyes narrow.
  ‘Besides,’ Briggs continued, ‘as I say, we haven’t managed to get write access to half the digital assistants out there, so in most cases we wouldn’t be able to do it if we wanted to.’
  Ashton suddenly stood, brushed down his uniform, strode over to the drinks cabinet behind his chair. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, ‘I was so interested in getting to the heart of your work that I forgot my manners. Would you like a scotch?’
  ‘Oh, I’m fine thanks. I would love to, but it just ends up giving me heartburn.’
  Ashton shrugged, pouring himself a drink with his back to Alan. When he was done, he sauntered back over to the fireplace and stared at the painting above it – some fat aristocrat, surrounded by drooling dogs – as if deep in thought. He sipped his drink, seemingly mulling over whether it was wise to discuss the idea, or problem, or whatever it was that so preoccupied him, with his new acquaintance. Alan Briggs just watched him, growing gradually more unsure as time passed whether he should leave the room and go back to the party, or wait to be told why he had been dragged away from it in the first place. 
  Commander Ashton must have finally come to a decision, because eventually, he cleared his throat, turned to face Alan, and finally sat back down in his seat, staring across at Briggs intently.
  ‘The Prime Minister,’ he said slowly, clearly, but very quietly, as if this was a secret he would only say once, so it was important that Alan Briggs listened carefully, ‘has asked me to conduct a very special investigation, working directly with you and your team. He is aware, as have been the intelligence services for a long time, that the opposition are gaining momentum, and although his party have been in power for nearly twenty years now, it looks like the election next year could bring an end to the peace, prosperity and stability we are all very used to.’
  It was now Alan Briggs’s turn to furrow his brows. He did not see how election campaigns could be his problem. Unless they wanted him to find out, by searching for keywords in recorded conversations between families in their homes, why the PM was no longer so popular. If that was what they wanted, he could probably tell them himself.
  But soon, it was clear that this was not what they wanted. What they wanted was worse.
  ‘We think that the opposition, in their current state, with their current leader, would be a danger to the country, should they ever manage to claw together a majority in parliament. What the country needs at the moment is strength, certainty, to be assured that everyone has a place and everyone is kept in their place. So, the PM would like us to do whatever we can to help… give the country what it needs.’
  Alan’s mouth had fallen open, and his nerves had been vanquished by hot outrage. ‘You can’t be suggesting we work to rig an election?’
  Ashton shrugged, like Briggs had not quite hit the nail on the head, but the idea was not out of the question. Then he shook his head, solemnly, as if the whole thing had been a silly passing thought, and he wanted to get back to the matter at hand. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘The Prime Minister would never do such a thing – our democracy is an example to the rest of the world, one of the things that makes our country so undeniably great. No, what we are tasked with is simply compiling a list of subversives. People who are saying bad things about the government, people who have a lot to say about the Prime Minister in particular. Just a list of people to keep an eye on, in case things get out of hand.’
  ‘And what’s he going to do with it? How could he ever use that list meaningfully? It’s not illegal to criticise the government; not in this country, anyway. What are we now, Ingsoc?’
  Ashton held out his large, bony hands, stopping Alan in his tracks. ‘What we will do with the people on the list is my department,’ he said, and Alan physically recoiled. In his head, on hearing the phrase do with, he heard the cries of protestors screaming to be given back their right to vote, the screams as those protests were terminated with violence. The fear and suffering of the government’s opponents, as their leaders mysteriously went missing, one by one.
  He wanted to give this man a piece of his mind, lecture him on the sanctity of the democratic process, scream at him for trying to prop up a government that had spent two decades stealing from the poor to give to the rich, selling the country to pay for their dinner parties; but he could not. The man had made him feel uncomfortable before, intimidated and disturbed him with his spindly body and colourless skin and cold eyes; but now, he terrified him. He had become, with this request which crossed the line in Briggs’s mind from simply questionable to indubitably evil, and delivered with such shameless certainty, the kind of monster timid children feared. The leering, towering shadow up a wall, warning you that someone was coming from behind to stab you in the spine. Alan Briggs remained silent, wearing his shock, fear and anger on his face like a Halloween mask he could not remove, as Ashton continued. ‘For now, you can just stick to your own, which is to scan your records, search these assistants’ archives, for anyone talking about the kinds of things the government would rather were not discussed. Things like criticisms of economic policy or foreign dealings, or people who, for instance, talk about the Prime Minister’s sex life, or his hair. We’ll get the full list of topics and keywords over to you on Monday.’
  ‘Are you serious? Is this a joke? I can’t believe what you’re asking, or that you can even ask it with a straight face. This is disgraceful. I… I refuse to do it. I can’t. I won’t. You can’t make me, I’d rather quit. If the PM thinks he can suddenly become a dictator then he’s… he’s just…’
  Ashton’s hand slammed down on the arm of his chair loudly, and he roared above Alan’s protestations without changing his expression. ‘This is not a request,’ he boomed, his face stony and his icy blue eyes staring straight through Alan, ‘it is an order. If you would like to leave your post, that is your prerogative; however, I would remind you that your level of access to information, and to top secret investigations, has been far too high for us to simply allow you to re-enter society, another bitter subversive with an axe to grind and lies to spread. We can do this without you if we have to, you have built nearly all the tools we need and we are sure that someone in your small, expert team would be more than willing to step into your shoes to finish them. But I would advise you reconsider, if not for your sake, then for the sake of Nora, and her safety and happiness.’
  Briggs had fallen silent as soon as Ashton had begun, and now he felt sick. Not because his wife had been threatened – he had hardly heard that over the blood rushing past his ears, draining from his head and filling his stomach so that he could taste the iron on his tongue, feel acid rising in his throat. Something chilling had come back to him, in that moment: the conversation he had had with his wife that morning, in the kitchen, over coffee. One of what must have been thousands of the same sort of thing, too many to count. Joking about the PM’s wandering hands, his wig, his stinking breath. All while Trixie listened.
  And having been asked to pull a list of everyone who had ever said anything bad about the PM, he saw himself shackled to his wife, dirty and naked, two broken people in a long line of subversives being marched across a concentration camp yard, with guns poking into their sides and hungry stomachs growling inside them.
  He was doomed either way. If he helped them, he was giving them the information they needed to add him to the ever-growing list of enemies of the state, and the permission to do to him whatever they were planning to do to those enemies in the near future; and if he refused, they might just kill him now. Perhaps that was why he had been led here, so far from the party – so that he could be dispatched, if necessary, without causing a fuss.
  But then he realised: there might be a way to save his skin. If only he could find a way to remove all of his data from Trixie’s servers, delete any trace of his own subversion, he might yet survive. He might save Nora from whatever fate awaited her, when the PM found out that she was one of millions who loathed him to his very core. If he could buy some time, he just might manage to save his family.
  He swallowed down the rock-hard lumps of anger and fear that had formed in his throat, and tried to affect a willing posture. Ineffective, of course, given his nerves, and the fact that he had had to be threatened in order to finally accept the job; but still, he tried.
  ‘Okay,’ he said, failing to look Ashton is those bottomless, merciless eyes. ‘Okay. I’ll get to work on it, on Monday.’
  ‘Excellent,’ said Ashton, rising to his feet again. He held out his hand and smiled that emotionless, insincere smile that Alan Briggs had already learned to hate, within an hour of meeting the man. 
  When Alan stood and took his hand to shake it, his skin was cold and rough, like a leather glove left to age on a winter pavement.
  ‘Our requirements will be over to you by the time you arrive into work next week. Since you exposed those foreign spies within a month of being asked, we were thinking you could provide a comprehensive list of names, addresses and recordings within a couple of weeks?’ 
  Then, without waiting for an answer: ‘Good show. I look forward to working with you.’
  He strode past Alan to the door of the room, and opened it once more, waiting beside it for Alan to gather his composure and walk with him back to the party. Alan Briggs walked like a man defeated, exhausted and beaten, his legs dragging behind him and his mind too distracted to call his errant body to order.
  When he eventually reached the door, he was stopped momentarily by Commander Ashton’s hand on his chest. Pulling him back to reality like an anvil to the ribs. ‘The Prime Minister would ask you to ensure,’ Ashton muttered, talking past Briggs as if he was not even worth looking at, in that same quiet but firm tone he had used to brief him on this despicable mission, ‘that the data you provide is comprehensive. If our contacts within your team were to mention, during our regular chats, that you had decided to leave any names or found conversations out of the intelligence you provide to us… Well, I don’t think you’d make it to any more of these events, that’s for certain.’
  Briggs nodded. If he had a bucket, or a bag, or even just a room to be alone in, he could have thrown up the entire contents of his body there and then. But instead, he felt Ashton’s hand drape itself over his shoulder, just as it had on the way into this terrible meeting, and lead him back to the party, a shell of the man he had been when he had gone in. One step at a time, legs moving robotically, as his mind raced to find a solution to his life-threatening problem.
  ‘Alan? Alan! Where’ve you been?!’ Nora asked, and Briggs felt like he was waking from a horrible nightmare, as his consciousness drifted once again back from images of future incarceration and torture to the here and now, where his wife stood in front of him, shaking him by the arms and shouting in his face. ‘You disappeared for so long. Where the hell did you go?’
  Alan gestured to his right, attempted a smile. ‘Nora,’ he slurred, his mouth reluctant to cooperate, declaring itself out of the union between his body and his brain, ‘meet Commander Ashton. He’s…’
  ‘Alan,’ Nora interrupted, seeming now more confused than concerned, ‘there’s no one there.’
  Alan looked. She was right – there was no one there. Ashton must have slipped off into the crowd while Alan was daydreaming, worrying, scrambling to plot an escape from the grave he had dug for himself and his loved ones. ‘Oh,’ he said.
  ‘I think we should go home. You look really unwell. I’m worried about you.’ Nora took his arm, started to lead him across the room, past laughing spies and their drunk husbands, fat politicians and their pretty mistresses. ‘What on Earth could be so wrong, darling? Do you need some water before we go? I can…’
  Alan put his finger to his lips, as she led him through the room like a zombie on a leash. He pointed his red face at his beautiful wife, and he giggled, almost manically. 
  ‘Sssh,’ he said, then he pointed at the ceiling. ‘Trixie is here.’