17-20-S

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Sci-Fi
General
When, on the way to school, Anne findsthe coolest mobile phone around, a 17-20-S, at the bottom of a hedge, it seemsthat all her dreams have come true.But this is no ordinary phone.She quickly fi nds out it does more thansend texts and make calls. In fact it seemsto have a mind of its own.Soon she and her best friend Barney arebeing shot at in South Africa, appearingon MTV, fi ghting robots and solvingVictorian murders, in between doinghomework and generally survivingGrimbank High School.And as if all this wasn’t enough, she hasto do it in the company of the school’sbiggest crook, Ferret Faced Freddie andhis partner in crime Janet, though Eddie’shad it in for Anne since primary school!

Star Rise

‘Uch!’ A tidal wave of dirty puddle water curled from the car’s tyres across the pavement towards Anne.

In an instinctive attempt to avoid steaming through double history, she stepped sideways thinking she was near a driveway but she was wrong. The driveway was there OK but she was actually next to the low brick wall at its entrance. She was in mid-air when water arrived; as a result it soaked not only her legs, which it would have done if she had simply stood still, but got her from top to bottom. The whole trick was completed when the gravel pathway knocked all the wind out her.

Lying on her side, Anne gathered her senses. Two things held her attention. First, she could hear voices – girls’ voices - getting closer. Second, at the base of the hedge there was the glint of something silver. Quickly she got up, grabbed her bag and dodged behind the hedge. The voices came and went - what a relief.

The glint of that silver paper or whatever it was, came into her head. She looked again. It was definitely there, buried in autumn leaves. She felt she just had to find out what it was. Gently she pushed the leaves back. Even in the weak sun its opalescent case shone. She picked it up and stroked it. It was smooth and cool to touch. It was a 17-20-S.

Anne had never owned a mobile ‘phone. Her Mum and Dad had seen no reason for her having one. She had tried everything: pleading requests at Christmas and birthdays, logical arguments about safety and contacting them in emergency, sulking and tears. Nothing had worked. They just did not get the fact that no Year 8 at Grimbank Hall High was anyone, without a mobile. If she had not seen the photos, Anne would have thought her parents had never been children at all. She would have settled for any mobile but the one she literally dreamed about was the 17-20-S.

What she now held was as sleek and as thin as all the TV ads said. It glowed in her palm. She knew that one touch of the central decal and the top clamshell would rotate into place revealing a screen and an invitingly tactile keypad. Her thumb move towards the on-switch, hovered over it for a delicious fraction of a second, then she pressed. All that happened was a small fizzing noise and nothing else. It was dead. It had drowned.

‘What you got there?’ Anne looked up startled but her fear rapidly turned to relief. Barney didn’t look like relief but he was.

He was rather ungainly and podgy. Definitely not the world’s greatest athlete. He was in the same form as Anne and had been right from the first day at Primary School. They had been firm friends from the time Barney had saved Anne from being upended in the dustbins by Ferret Features Freddie who was trying to steal her dinner money. For what Barney might lose in quickness of mind or foot he more than made up for in size and strength. Cornered by Barney, you stood no chance. He was quite simply the biggest boy in the district for his age. Even at Grimbank, up to and including Year 10s were careful to be friendly.

It wasn’t simply that when his Mum gave birth, the stork had left her an infant Japanese Sumo champion by mistake, it had been rumoured in Junior School that when aged six he had killed, with his bare hands, a Rotweiler that had tried to attack his Mum in the park. They said it was in the paper but no one could produce the cutting. Whatever the truth, the legend stuck, and as Caesar would have said, reputation is worth a hundred legions. In fact, as with many giants, Barney was gentle and kind.

‘Nothing,’ said Anne sadly, sticking the 17-20-S in her back pocket. Then she changed the subject, ‘Done your homework?’

‘Well’, said Barney, ‘I was hoping you’d help me out with that.’ Anne slipped her wet arm into his dry one, just as they had done ever since she had been tall enough to reach.

Anne got home at about 5.30, just in time to meet her Mum walking up the hill from the Station.

‘Had a nice day, dear?’ her mum asked as soon, as they’d got inside the house

‘Not bad,’ Anne grunted on her run up the stairs.

Her Mum never listened to the reply to any question she asked Anne, so what was the point wasting time and effort on a proper answer? What would have been the point about telling her about the quarter of an hour she had spent in the girls’ bog trying to use the hand-blower to dry out her trousers and shirt? Nor the ordeal of double English, which she had got through in a rather damp condition: at least she hadn’t steamed too badly.

Anne had concluded long ago that for all intents and purposes her Mum and Dad did not live on planet earth. They both worked at the University and had met at another University when they had been students years and years before Anne was born.

They talked about strange things over tea so that Anne could only pick up odd words: words like plankton, arthropod or spigot. If she asked what they were talking about they always tried to explain but the explanations were always long and boring. But she had worked out that he was an archaeologist, mainly because he had once appeared on the telly, and she was some sort of ecologist.

Rather than give up entirely Anne had decided to try to learn some of the words. As soon as she got to Grimbank she had joined the History Club (3.30 to 4.30 every Tuesday after school) and the Science Club (3.30 to 4.30 every Wednesday after school). She still hadn’t picked up enough words to understand her Dad and Mum but she found she liked history. This was not good. Added to being small, having an interest in science and history marked you down for persecution at Grimbank. Without Barney she would have probably been dead before the end of the first term.

She tossed her bag onto the bed, pulled off her blazer and prodded the radio into life. The voice of Quentin DeSweeney oozed out of the speakers. She gazed up at his poster on the wall, sighed and fell slowly backwards onto her bed.

‘Ouch!’ Something hard and unforgiving stuck into her bottom. Irritated she pulled it out of her back pocket. That mobile phone got everywhere.

Seeing it again produced two opposite feelings: disappointment, that this, so-cool piece of technology did not work, and a curious sensation of affection. How beautiful is still looked, how much she loved it. She pressed the on-switch again. This time it didn’t even fizz. Her Mum called up the stairs ‘Do you want any tea, dear?’ Anne placed the phone on her table and rocketed out of the door.

When the room was quiet the 17-20-S opened as if it was looking around before closing again with a soft hiss accompanied by a soft glow. Then all was still.

Dreaming

The dream was very strange, but aren’t all dreams?

Anne was standing in a hall, a school hall. Somewhere in this school, a ‘phone was ringing. It was playing a tune, an odd little tune, slow and precise. It reminded her of tunes she had played for fun on all the black notes of the piano. The tune plodded on.

Then at the end of the hall there was a table. It had a bedside lamp on it, the same bedside lamp that was next to her bed. In fact this table was her bedside table. The lamp was shining and in a pool of light sat the 17-20-S. The tune was coming from the ‘phone. She picked it up.

‘Hello?’

A faint voice answered. ‘Help me! Help me!’

‘I’m coming. Where are you?’

‘I’m here.’

The room changed. A blinding light obscured the windows on her right. It was like being in the middle of a lightning bolt. The skin on her face became burned for a second, as if a hot lamp had been turned suddenly on, then off. There was no sound.

A red glow started to appear in the windows and with it heat, the heat of a huge bonfire. Anne just knew it would become unbearable. She threw herself behind the table. The intensity of the heat rose; somewhere a great oven door was being opened. Things started to catch fire: books, walls, everything except the table. Still the heat grew. It only took a second but it felt like an eternity.

The sound, the pressure and the darkness hit the school at the same time. Anne’s ears shot with pain. She was being crushed by some huge hand or sucked into the depths of the sea. The beams of the roof creaked and started to collapse. The walls buckled. The roar engulfed her. The windows shattered. There was a rat-a-tat of pieces of glass slamming into the table. Then the pressure eased and there was a moment of peace until the bedlam started again. This time Anne was catapulted through the air as the school exploded around her. Whole pieces of furniture flew past. But despite all the debris she was never hurt. When she landed it was not with a bump but as if she was being placed down gently. It was pitch black. She felt herself all over. Then someone switched the sun back on.

Anne was standing opposite the school, now a wreck of matchwood and broken tiles. The grass she stood on was scorched and what she thought was a cherry tree was a blackened skeleton. What remained of the school was on fire.

In one corner, next to one of the larger piles of wood, there was a young man. He was dressed in green and he was kneeling. Next to him on the ground was a cloth satchel. He was struggling with something Anne could not see. He was in danger, since the fire was coming towards him across the wood. He didn’t seem trapped so why didn’t he move?

Anne ran over to him. When she got there she realised why he hadn’t moved. Trapped beneath two large crossbeams was a girl of about Anne’s age. She had a few cuts and bruises but seemed in one piece. He was trying to free her before the fire got to her.

Again and again he struggled to get a firm hold on the main beam. Again and again he could not hold on. His hands were badly burned and he just did not have the strength. Anne knelt next to him and reached in. She placed her hands next to his and together they pulled. The beam moved. The girl screamed as its weight was taken off her legs but she was free. They grabbed her and pulled her out, just as the first tongues of flame started to lick the beam.

For the first time the young man looked at her. His face had a burn on its left side. As he saw Anne’s face a look of horror and anger came into his eyes. He raised his burnt hands to hit her. Anne reeled back. He screamed at her and tried to hit her again. Anne was on her feet and running. Through burnt-out scrub she ran, until she could no longer hear him shouting.

When she stopped she was on a small hill over-looking the sea. On the bay she could see there was a city, or rather there had been a city. Floating away on a gentle wind was a column of black smoke, miles high. Soft white ash was falling, probably from the many fires around her. About a mile or so away she could just make out a broken building topped by what had once been a dome, but which was now only recognisable by the naked metal ribs.

The scream, as she woke up, brought her Mum and Dad to her bedroom faster than she could have believed possible.

It took quite some time for Anne to stop shaking, and a lot of cuddling by her Mum, and making of milky drinks by her Dad. The images of the dream were so intense that she could not get them out of her brain. They kept flashing in. Unlike any nightmare she had had in the past once awake, the images did not seem remote or vague. They continued to seem like memories of something she had really seen, touched, even smelled.

Her Mum and Dad persuaded her to tell them what was in the dream. They muttered something about the Bushmen in the Kalihari saying you couldn’t go back to sleep after such a nightmare until you had come to terms with what it was trying to tell you.

She was reluctant at first but in the end told them everything. Though they tried to make light of it she could see they were troubled by the impact the story made, even on them, but it worked and she did get back to sleep. What was better, for the rest of the night, she didn’t have any more dreams.

The following morning she still felt a bit haunted and shaky, but she agreed with her Mum, school was better than moping at home. She got ready. Getting the last few bits together, protractor, putty rubber, Quentin DeSweeney Scratch and Sniff Card, her eye was caught by the 17-20-S. Again the impulse to pick it up came to her: so smooth, so useless. She should bin it. If only it worked. She pushed it into her bag. 

Freddie

‘You’re going to see who at lunch time!’ Barney looked shocked. ‘You’re barmy!’ Then he thought for a second. ‘What could you possibly want with him? How important is this?’

Anne didn’t reply, she just waggled the 17-20-S in his face. He goggled or was it drooled.

‘Where did you get that?’ He paused. ‘I’ll come with you.’

At lunchtime Ferret Features Freddie always held court in the same place, end bench, right-hand side of the sandwich room.

A year older than Anne and Barney, since leaving Junior School he had graduated through the simple extortion of lunch money from small children, via a rather elaborate library book scam, to his current place of eminence in the Grimbank underworld. He now specialised in the renovation of stolen mobiles.

Like all great criminal minds, he never stole them himself, nothing so crude. He didn’t carry stock either; stock could be traced or found. He was in a service industry. He gave old ‘mislaid’ mobiles new identities and numbers. He charged well for the service and if the fact he provided the service encouraged others to steal or mug to get his raw material, well he was hardly to blame, was he?

Anne came round the corner of the sandwich room at a brisk walk and made a beeline for Freddie’s table. When she got there she stopped and waited. Freddie’s acolytes on the table turned and giggled. A couple made clucking noises. One, a tall elegant black girl, with long beaded hair got up and circled her. Anne stood her ground.

Freddie looked up slowly. He had a face like a ferret, thin with small bright, eyes. His hair was short but had a fringe which draped over his right eye. It was streaked in a vermillion that set off a ruby-red stud in his right nostril.

‘Well if it isn’t Annie the Nerd. What you come for? Whatever it is I’d run now. I’ve been waiting to slap you for years.’

He started to get up. A cough came from Anne’s left. While all eyes had been on Anne and Freddie, Barney had walked up gently and was now lounging on the edge of a nearby table.

‘Too bad you’ve got your watch dog with you; one day, one day.’ The threat trailed off and he slumped back in his seat.

Anne took her opportunity. Pulling the ‘phone out of her bag she set it down in front of him. ‘Can you fix this?’ she asked.

‘Annie, Annie. Gone to the darkside have we? I’m surprised at you.’

‘I didn’t nick it fool.’

‘That’s what they all say, ain’t it girls.’ The acolytes twittered.

Anne was still aggressive. ‘I asked if you can fix it.’ Then doubt came into her mind. If they thought she had stolen a 17-20-S then that would give her plenty of classroom credibility but the next line was going to kill that stone dead. ‘It doesn’t work.’ The acolytes erupted. Freddie laughed.

‘Hard luck. Let’s have a look’, he picked up the mobile.

As soon as he touched the case Anne saw his face change. It was only a slight change but it was real. Initially it was a sort of look of pleasure but the lines around the eyes relaxed just a bit and his permanent scowl eased. Even he was in love with the 17-20-S.

Having tried the on-switch himself and got nothing, he turned it over and deftly opened the back. ‘It’s got no SIM card, so it won’t connect but even without it ought to start up. It should at least give you a sign-on and system status.’

He poked around a bit and then put in down on the table. He rooted in a bag under the table. He picked out a calculator sized yellow box, with a small screen and five sets of leads attached to it.

‘What’s that?’ said Anne, her curiosity beginning to get the better of her nerves.

‘It’s a Mobile Phone Diagnostic Gimp, an MPDG for short. It’s what the repair houses use for refurbishing. Cost me an arm and a leg.’

Carefully, he clipped on the leads and switched on the MPDG. Across its screen a series of numbers and letters flashed. Freddie poked a few of its buttons.

‘The battery’s still alive,’ he said half to himself and half to her. ‘You’ll need to get a charger. I’ll tell you which one.’

He poked again. The phone lit up. A soft polyphonic tune came from it, the DeSweeney start-up tune. Freddie grinned. ‘Not so dead now are we girl.’ This time he was talking entirely to the phone. ‘Now we need a suitable SIM for you.’

Out of his blazer pocket he took a slim plastic box. Opening it revealed an array of SIM cards, every network and every type. ‘This should do it.’ He picked out one card. Fitted it into the slot and poked the buttons on the MPDG again. ‘Got a piece of paper,’ he said to Anne.

He took the paper Anne held out and wrote down a mobile phone number followed by another number. He removed the leads, clipped the back on the phone and handed it back to Anne. ‘No charge.’

There was silence. Freddie never gave freebies. It was against his principles. In fact the main problem with going to Freddie was what would happen if he fixed it. She didn’t have the cash to pay him so it would be barter but she didn’t have anything to barter. She had thought there was a good chance she would lose the phone at this point. It had been the weakness in the plan.

A stunned Anne took the 17-20-S. He held out the paper to her. ‘The first number is the phone number itself, the second the serial number of the charger. You can get one from most shops in town. Use pay-as-you-go top ups.’ Anne, and everyone else, was still gaping. The bell rang for afternoon school. Freddie got up.

‘Great phone. An absolute babe. One thing you should know she’s got no serial number. She’s never been bought or sold even from a shop. There are things called factory testers. They’re the first batch of ‘phones in a new line that manufacturers give to their workers to get feedback on reliability. She’s one of them. God knows how she got here.’ He stretched. The tall black girl draped herself over his outstretched arm and off they went to class.

‘You’re going to pay for that someday,’ said Barney over Anne’s shoulder. Anne was sure he was right.

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