Jimi Jones didn't normally dream, particularly dreams as vivid as this. In his imagination, he assumed, Trisha Botherington had rescued him whilst expressing a desire to do pretty much the same thing he wanted to do with her, once they'd sorted out the whole thing about a government-sanctioned mass murder at VastTel. He just couldn't be that lucky, could he?
'Quick,' she said, as she pulled him through the panic room doors that she had managed to jimmy open with a lever that she had in her handbag. She could see he was short of air. He looked pale, even though there was no trace of English blood in his family. To be on the safe side, she took a deep breath, smacked her lips onto his and pushed some air down into his lungs. There was movement in his trousers. It was a sure sign that his body was behaving normally.
Would Trisha still want him if he turned grey and his flesh turned putrid?
In this dream, Jones and Botherington stumbled over the bodies lying motionless on the floor outside the panic room. These must be the angry, marauding customers, he thought. Why were they on the floor? Had they died? Were they just tired after too much marauding?
It occurred to him that if this was a dream, anything could happen. Maybe they were just playing dead, ready to grab him by the ankles, pull him down and devour him in a cannibalistic frenzy.
Then he saw something that convinced him he was in a dream. A nightmare, in fact. Zombies! A small group of pale creatures, their faces grey and lifeless, moving across the room towards him. And Botherington was pulling him straight towards them. He feared the worst. He was about to become one of the undead. Would Trisha still want him if he turned grey and his flesh turned putrid?
But they changed direction and headed to the lifts. It was then he recognised one or two of them. They weren't zombies. It was the IT team, who had come down for their injection of caffeine. They'd obviously seen all the dead bodies and were scampering back to their own den on the 4th floor. They didn't like to be out in public at the best of times, but this was all clearly too confronting for them. There was also sunlight shining in at the far end of the atrium, and they tried to avoid daylight.
'Quick,' said Botherington, trying to pull him along faster. He was tripping over his own feet as they headed across the floor. She was desperately trying to carry some of his weight, his arm wrapped around her shoulder.
'We've got to get back to fresh air,' she said.
At the far end, in front of the revolving doors to the building, a huge steel barrier had shut across the whole front end of the VastTel atrium.
'They wanted you all to suffocate in here...'
'My god!' he said. The first words Botherington had heard him say. He'd never seen it before. Perhaps, like the panic room, it had been created for emergencies, to stop angry customers from getting in and taking over the building. This time, it just hadn't been lowered in time. Hundreds had already managed to break in. Then he remembered.
'The Redundancy Program,' he gasped.
'I know,' said Botherington.
'The government wanted to kill everyone in VastTel.'
'I know. And they wanted you all to suffocate in here,' said Botherington. 'I just came from a very interesting meeting with the prime minister.'
Alvin Duff had confessed it all to her, and her first thoughts had been of the impressive young man she had seen finding his stride at the VastTel senior team meeting.
The two continued towards a narrow hole that had been cut through the steel with an oxyacetylene torch. The edges were still hot to touch. As she pushed him through onto the street outside, Jones could feel himself losing consciousness. His eyes were like lead weights pushing down into his skull. But he wondered how he could fall asleep now. Can you really drift off in the middle of a dream? Where would that take you? A dream within a dream. What if he fell asleep in that dream, would you ever really get out again? Would he have to wake up an equal number of times? How could you keep track?
'Ow!' he screamed. Botherington had slapped him across the face.
'Come here, you,' she said and pulled him towards her. She kissed him firmly and squeezed him close.
'I need you to be strong,' she said. She was climbing through the hole in the shutter, giving him ample opportunity to admire her bottom. Behind him, some of the customers were starting to wake up. Several were already standing, collecting themselves and lurching forward towards the hole, waving their phone bills in the air.
Botherington was through the hole now, smiling and looking into Jones' eyes.
'Come here, you,' she said and pulled him towards her. She kissed him firmly and squeezed him close to her.
'Oh, bugger,' he said. 'You're not real, are you?' He assumed he was still lying, gasping for air, in the panic room.
Botherington ignored the remark, and quickly pushed him into the back seat of a waiting taxi. They made it away in the nick of time, as VastTel customers, hundreds of them, started to squeeze out through the hole in the steel façade.
There were more angry customers out on the streets. The taxi driver knocked a few to the ground as he sped away — not because it was the only way to escape; he just wasn't a very good driver. He was always doing it. It had been reported, but the taxi authority had a long, slow investigative process.
'I wanted to see you,' she explained after they had cleared the crowds. 'I needed to see you. Ever since I saw you at your team meeting, I couldn't get my mind off you.'
So this is it, thought Jones. This is what death is like. It takes a fantasy of yours and throws it right back in your face. He assumed any moment now her hair would fall out, her face would peel away and she'd turn into an angry green monster. Or perhaps Madeleine Albright. He just hoped it didn't happen too quickly; he wanted to get laid first.
'When I got to the building, I saw this big steel barrier. I didn't like the look of it, so I went to get some cutting equipment. Thank goodness Big Z is open 24 hours, these days.'
If this was all created by his imagination, he was very pleased with himself.
That explains the big metal lever in the handbag, thought Jones, prepared to believe that maybe this was reality after all.
Whatever it was, Jones was enjoying being close to her. If this was all created by his imagination, he was very pleased with himself. His version of Trisha Botherington couldn't be more adorable if he'd tried; smart, sexy, loving and, it seemed, very interested in him. Surely this sort of thing didn't happen in the real world?
'Where are we going?' he asked. He wasn't sure why he'd said it, because they had to break from a long and passionate embrace for him to do it.
'To my house. We'll be safe there.'
The car turned onto the Harbour Bridge and headed north. Wherever they drove, the streets were filled with people wandering aimlessly. It had been years since these people had walked anywhere without their minds focused on their mobile phones.
Botherington was looking at them. 'The whole country is collapsing around us,' she said.
'Yes,' agreed Jones. 'How will it all end?'
'I have no idea how it'll end,' said Botherington, pulling the hem of her skirt higher up her thigh and putting one leg across his. 'But I have a pretty good idea what happens next,' she said suggestively.
The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.