Starting today: a six-part serialisation of the first three chapters of ‘Virtual Thursday,’ my new novel, featuring the return of Emma Kline aka ‘Thursday’ from the ‘AFK’ novels.
Part one: Thursday hunts down a mysterious virtual object.
I hate shopping centres.
I used to love shopping centres when I was a child. It’s one of my earliest memories. They were big and light and clean and cheerful, and full of shops which sold stuff that I was very interested in owning (and cafes which sold stuff that I was very interested in eating). My heart would leap for joy when the Christmas decorations went up, mid-November, and since my parents disapproved of this and always grumbled about Christmas coming too early, looking at them became my secret pleasure. It felt like the shopping centre was somehow on my side, giving me a friendly wink and whispering agreement into my ear that the season was indeed wonderful.
But now I hate them. Those same bold messages plastered across the windows that once connected with such clinical efficiency to my childhood desires, now turn my stomach in their shameless appeal to day-to-day impulsivity and self-indulgence – and, increasingly (let’s be frank here), their desperation. That friendly wink that became over time a crafty, you-deserve-it wink is now turning into a something that more resembles a nervous twitch. It’s a sweaty, faltering smile, a tug at the hem of your coat as you pass, a hopeful entreaty for a bit of spare cash as internet shopping does for all those ‘high street names’ precisely what they themselves once did to all those small, family-owned shops. I’m not trying to preach here. I’m just saying that it’s ironic, when you think about it: there is less and less distinction to be made between the behaviours inside these glorious consumer palaces and those of the growing number of homeless huddled in their cardboard boxes not ten feet from their entrance; the one is just a puffed up version of the other, wearing a cleaner shirt for now.
And I hate shopping centres for making me hate shopping centres. That memory of my parents is one of my favourite recollections of them because I knew that, behind their grumbles, they were secretly delighted by my delight. Every now and then I’d spot one of them catching the other’s eye, and seeing those little telepathic smiles between them was somehow bigger and more warming to my five-year-old brain than anything else that Christmas had to offer. It was a momentarily feeling of completeness, of connection to the universe, of everything being exactly the way things were meant to be. Why the fuck do we allow children to build meaning like that upon the cheap, sweatshop crap of a capitalist Christmas? I hate that my parents found such satisfaction in this saccharine-induced joy, and I hate shopping centres for making me hate that.
It was the first day of November. 2018. The clocks had been turned back just four days earlier and a week-long cold spell had put a final end to a summer that at one point had felt like it might just burn the soil from beneath our feet. It was just after 4pm. The sky was already beginning to darken. I strode through the shopping centre, part of a flow of after-work shoppers ‘nipping in’ before home to get that thing that wouldn’t wait until the weekend to be bought. I passed a card shop, an electronics store, a male clothing outlet, a discount jeweller.
“I’m approaching the food court,” I said. “Where now?”
“Up the escalator,” replied a voice inside my head. “Then into the department store at the top.”
The walkway opened out into a three-storey atrium, a vast cathedral of retail with a ring of fast-food outlets at the ground level. The latest trick of shopping centres is to make you think you’ve had some sort of spiritual experience inside them, an awe-inspiring encounter with concrete and open space, a glimpse into the eyes of the Gods of wanting and having things. I walked across chequered floor tiles to the escalator and started a smooth ascent, up into the heavens.
I looked awesome, by the way. Brown leather boots that disappeared into a Reiss overcoat the colour of the just darkening sky outside, and a black cashmere scarf in a loop around my neck. My hair was tied back. Of course, I wore glasses. I look good in glasses.
“I’m on my way up,” I said. “Still no idea what this thing’s going to look like?”
“We’ve been through this already. It’ll either look like one of the standard collectibles I showed you earlier or it’ll be blended in somehow. There’s no way of saying from here. You’re going to have to figure it out for yourself.”
I reached the top and stepped off. “I’m entering the store.” I walked through the tag detectors and into the perfumery. “Where now?”
“The item is about forty feet northwest of you. What can you see in that direction?”
I stopped and looked, and waved away a perfume sample. “Shoes.” I made off in that direction.
“Right,” said the voice. “Of course.”
“Why ‘of course’?”
“It’s a great camouflage.”
“You think it’s going to be disguised as a shoe?”
“Probably. That’s how I’d do it.”
“Ferric, you just told me you had no idea what it would look like.”
“How was I to know a department store sells shoes?”
“What did you think it sold?”
There was a pause. Then he said, weakly, “Departments?”
I came to the shoe section and stopped again. “I’m here. Now what?”
“Let me see if I can see you. I’m tapping into the security feed. Ah yes, there you are. My, what a lot of shoes. You’re going to have to switch repeatedly between your augmented and your real view whilst you examine then. I recommend not using the ‘clear’ button on your glasses: those cute little microswitches can only take so much punishment. Try waggling them up and down in front of your eyes.”
“I am not,” I told him, “going to ‘waggle’ anything.”
“We need that shoe, Thursday,” Ferric instructed. “Get waggling.”
I sighed, looked briefly around me – the nearest person was a shop assistant adding Christmas signage to the shelving – and started moving slowly along the first of the aisles. As I walked, I held my glasses by the left hinge and shifted them up and down, as subtly as I possibly could. I compared the real scene in front of me with the augmented version.
“Not so far.”
“Look closely,” said the voice. “It might not be a shoe. It might be something smaller, like a price tag or a coffee stain.”
I stopped walking. “Oh my God.”
“What is it? Did you find it?”
“There’s a pair of black mules here with my name all over them.” Because I’m as much a pathetic slave to the consumer trends as are the masses.
“Thursday!” Ferric snapped. “You’re not here to shop.”
The shop assistant came over. “Can I help you, madam?”
“I might come back to you on these mules,” I told him, “but I’m good for the moment, thanks.”
“Your fieldcraft is inspiring,” Ferric commented.
And then I noticed a difference. It was at the edge of my vision. I shifted my view. It was a fawn-coloured pair of suede clogs: they were there when the glasses were down and gone when they were up. On closer inspection, I could see that they were hovering a full three millimetres above the white shelf.
“I found it.”
“Excellent. Now download it as quickly as possible.”
I had to use my phone for this. I pulled it from my back pocket, crouched down and lined the clogs up in the centre of the screen, hoping that anyone watching would think I was doing an online price comparison. The app recognised the item immediately, and on screen the clogs turned a deep red. I tapped on ‘download’. A progress bar appeared. “Cancel that download,” instructed a male voice from behind me. “Right now.” I tried to turn and felt cold metal pressed firmly into the back of my neck.
Tomorrow: Part 2. Who is Thursday’s assailant?
Virtual Thursday will be published on Wednesday 1 December and available to purchase in print, Kindle, ePub and PDF versions.
Photo model: Caitlin Tobias