Big Bob Charker lay upon his bed of pain. Not that he was aware of any pain. He wasn't. Big Bob was not aware that his nose had been broken, nor that he had suffered extensive bruising, a degree of laceration and a fractured left big toe.
He was not alone in his ignorance of the left big toe injury, the doctors at the cottage hospital had missed that one too.
Big Bob Charker was aware of nothing whatever at all.
If he had been capable of any awareness whatsoever he would have been aware that his last moments of awareness were of his awareness vanishing away. Of everyday objects becoming strange and alien. Of colour and sound becoming things of mystery, of speech becoming meaningless. Of everything just going.
But Big Bob was unaware.
Big Bob lay there, eyes wide open, staring at nothing at all. Staring at nothing and knowing nothing. Nothing whatever at all.
Dr Druid stared down at his patient. 'I hate to admit this,' he told a glamorous nurse. 'But this doesn't make any sense to me at all.'
'Could it be conjunctivitis?' asked the nurse, who had recently come across the word in a medical dictionary and had been looking for an opportunity to use it.
'No,' said Dr Druid, sadly shaking his head.
'What about scrapie then?'
'I don't think so,' said the doctor.
'What about thrush?' asked the nurse, who had more words left in her.
'Shut up,' said the doctor.
Pearson Clarke (son of the remarkable Clive and brother to the sweetly smelling Bo-Jangles Clarke, who bathed four times a day and sang country songs about trucks to those prepared to listen) grinned at the nurse and then at Dr Druid. Pearson Clarke was an intern with ideas above his station. His station was South Haling and most of his ideas were well above that. 'You should run a brain scan,' said Pearson Clarke.
'I have run a brain scan,' said Dr Druid. 'It shows that this patient has absolutely no brain activity whatsoever.'
'That's impossible,' said Pearson Clarke. 'Even deep coma patients have brain activity. They dream.'
'This man doesn't dream,' said Dr Druid. 'Nor do the other two patients, the driver and the woman with the unpronounceable name.'
'I can pronounce it,' said Pearson Clarke. 'It's pronounced…'
'Shut up,' said Dr Druid. 'It's as if this man's thoughts, his memories, his personality, everything has been erased. Wiped clean. Gone.'
'That isn't how the brain works,' said Pearson Clarke. 'That can't happen. A patient can lose his memory. But the memory is still there in his head, he simply can't access it. Mostly it's just temporarily impaired. Bits come back, eventually.'
'I'm sure I recall telling you to shut up,' said Dr Druid. 'Although my memory might be temporarily impaired.'
'Impetigo,' said the nurse.
'Shut up, nurse,' said the doctor.
'Joking apart,' said Pearson Clarke. 'The brain-scan machine might be broken. You know that thing people do, photocopying their bottoms? Well, Igor Riley the mortuary attendant
'Son of Blimey and brother to Smiley Riley, who swears he has a genie in a bottle?'
'That's him, well, Igor Riley has been scanning his bottom in the brain-scan machine. He might have, well, farted in it, or something. It's a very delicate machine.'
'I'll have him sacked in the morning then.'
'Rather you than me,' said Pearson Clarke. 'A bloke in a pub once punched Igor Riley in the ear. Igor told his brother and his brother got his genie to turn the bloke into a home-brewing starter pack, or it might have been a…'
'Shut up,' said the doctor. 'Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.'
'Please yourself then,' said Pearson Clarke, grinning at the nurse, who grinned right back at him.
'I think it's Tourette's syndrome,' whispered the nurse.
'I f**king heard that,' said Dr Druid. 'But, as I said, before I was so rudely and irrelevantly interrupted, I am baffled by these patients. We might be witnessing something altogether new here. Something as yet unlisted in the medical dictionary.'
'That's me screwed then,' said the nurse. 'And I thought I was doing so well.'
‘I’ll teach you some more words later,' said the doctor.
‘I’ll just bet you will,' said Pearson Clarke. 'But listen, if this isn't listed, it will need a name. How about Clarke's syndrome? That rolls off the tongue.'
'Yes,' said Dr Druid. 'Druid's syndrome. I like that.'
'Eh?' said Pearson Clarke.
'Oh look,' said the nurse. 'Look at the patient, doctor.'
'Yes,' said Dr Druid. 'I am a very patient doctor.'
'No doctor, the patient. Look at the patient.'
'What?' asked Dr Druid, looking. 'What about the patient, nurse?'
'He's flickering, doctor. Look at him.'
Dr Druid looked and his eyes became truly those of the tawny owl. Big and round, like Polo mints, with black dots in the middle. Possibly liquorice.
'Oh,' went Dr Druid. 'Oh.' And 'Oh dear me.'
For Big Bob Charker was nickering.
Flickering like crazy.
His head was coming and going like the image on a TV screen when a heavy lorry goes by outside, or at least the way they used to do in the old days.
Dr Druid reached down and tore the sheet away.
All of Big Bob was coming and going, all the way down to his fractured left big toe.
'That left big toe looks wonky,' Pearson Clarke observed. 'There's a fracture there or my name's not… Oh crikey!'
And there was Big Bob Charker.
Dr Druid stared and gasped and then he turned around. The beds of the other two patients stood empty. They had just gone too.
Out of a tiny transparent dot of nothing whatever at all, things rushed back to Big Bob at a speed beyond that of travelling light. A speed that well and truly was the speed of travelling thought.
Big Bob did blinkings of the eyes and clickings of the shoulder parts. 'Ow,' and 'ouch,' quoth he. 'My nose, my bits and bobs, my poor left big toe. I am sorely wounded, wherefore-art hath this thing happened? And for that matter, where the Hell am I?'
Big Bob now did focusing and situational-taking stocks. 'I'm in hospital,' he said to himself. 'I'm in a hospital bed,' and then he saw intern Pearson Clarke and Dr Druid and a nurse with a very nice bosom. 'Why look you upon me in this startled fashion?' asked Big Bob. 'Thou seem to have the wind up. No don't turn away.'
But Dr Druid and Pearson Clarke and the nurse, who Big Bob now noticed also had a very nice bottom, had turned away, and were staring at two empty beds.
Big Bob followed the direction of their starings.
'Oh hello Periwig,' he said. 'Thou art here too. And the lady who wore the straw hat, hello.' And Big Bob waggled his fingers.
Periwig Tombs stared back at him. The lady said, 'Where am I?' And, 'Where is my hat?'
'We're in hospital,' said Big Bob. 'Weren't we on the tour bus a minute ago?'
Periwig shook his large and bandaged head. 'I am perplexed,' said he. 'What happened to us, doctor?'
'They're gone,' croaked Dr Druid. 'They vanished. You saw them vanish, didn't you?' Dr Druid shook Pearson Clarke by the lapels. 'You did see it. Swear to me you saw it.'
'I did see it. Yes I did. Stop shaking me about.'
'Doctor?' said Periwig. 'Doctor?'
'Gone.' Dr Druid buried his face in his hands.
'Oh yeah,' said Periwig. 'I get it. Very amusing. They're winding us up, Bob. Pretending they can't see us.'
Big Bob watched Dr Druid clinging to the nurse. He was blubbering now and he really seemed sincere.
'Periwig,' said Big Bob. 'I don't think they can see us. Are we dreaming this, or what? What is going on?'
'Some kind of stupid joke,' said Periwig. 'Can you walk, Big Bob?'
'My left big toe really hurts, but yes I think I can.'
'Then let's get out of here.'
'game on,' came a very large voice from nowhere and everywhere both at the very same time.
Big Bob Charker and Periwig Tombs and the lady, lacking the straw hat, covered their ears. Dr Druid and Pearson Clarke and the beautiful nurse blubbered and boggled on oblivious.
'Who said that?' asked Big Bob, staring all around and about. And gingerly uncovering his ears.
'you each have three lives,' the very large voice said. 'if you choose to play. if you choose not to play, you will be instantly downloaded.'
'I'm not bloody playing anything,' said Periwig Tombs. 'In fact I…'
And then he was gone.
'Periwig?' Big Bob's eyes came a-starting from-his sockets. 'Periwig, where have you gone?'
'player one has been downloaded for data reaction. player two, do you "wish to play?'
'Is that me?' Big Bob was trembling.
'no you're player three. player two, lady with the unpronounceable name.'
'Me?' said the lady. 'I'm a little confused at the present. Why can't the doctor see us and who am I talking to?'
'Oh,' said Big Bob. 'I understand.'
'Do you?' asked the lady.
'I do,' said Big Bob. 'I'm sorry to have to break this to thee. But thou art dead and me also. Surely this is the voice of God.'
'ha ha ha ha ha,' went the voice, from everywhere and nowhere all at the very same time.
'Oh my goodness me,' said the lady. 'And me hatless and all. Did I get struck by lightning? It was such a joyous sunny day.'
The large voice went 'ha ha ha' once again.
'I fear that this is not the voice of God,' said Bob the Big. 'In fact, I fear it is the other.'
'player number two. do you wish to play or not? counting down. ten seconds. nine. eight. seven.'
'Tell me what to do,' the lady implored of Big Bob. 'Say you'll play,' answered Bob. 'Say it rather quickly.'
'zero,' said the large and terrible voice. For terrible indeed it was, there was just no getting away from it.
'No,' cried Big Bob. 'Please have mercy.'
But the hatless lady simply vanished.
She was gone.
'I'll play. I'll play. I'll play,' cried Bob. 'Doctor please help me, please, can't you hear me?'
But Dr Druid was leaving the ward, the glamorous nurse's arm about his shoulder. Pearson Clarke was leaving too, he was trying to look very brave, but he •wasn't making much of a job of it.
'Come back.' Bob struggled up from his bed and hopped about on his good right foot.
'Yes I'm listening, I'm listening. What do you want me to do?'
'the game is called go mango,' said the large and terrible voice. 'there are three levels based on the three ages of man. ascend through the levels and find the treasure. find the treasure and you win the game.'
'Treasure?' said Big Bob, trying to remember whom it was he knew, whose brother was a pirate. 'Buried treasure?'
'you have three lives. you gain energy from the golden stones. in order to access weapons, you will have to crack the codes.'
'Weapons?' Big Bob hopped about. 'Please, I really don't understand. Am I dead? Am I in limbo? Why speakest thou of weapons?'
'game on,' said the large and terrible voice.
'No, wait, ouch my toe.'
'… no hold it.' It was a second voice that spoke. As large and terrible as the first, but ever so slightly different.
'game on,' said the first voice once more.
'no hold it. that's not fair. he can't run on one foot.'
'he can hop.'
'hopping isn't fair. give him both his feet to run on.'
'Art thou God?' asked Big Bob.
'all right,' said the first large and terrible voice. 'both feet. he won't make it past the first level anyway.'
'Level?' said Big Bob and then he went, 'Aaaaagh!'
Because his left big toe stretched out from his foot like an elasticated sausage and then sprang back with a ghastly twanging sound. 'Ouch!' and 'oh,' and 'aaah,' went Big Bob. 'Ah, my toe is better.'
'happy?' said the first voice.
'Not really,' said Big Bob.
'not you!' said the first voice.
'happy,' said the second voice. 'game on then, i'll kick your arse this time.'
'you wish,' said the first voice. 'and go mango.'
Big Bob now felt a kind of shivery juddery feeling creeping up and all over. He stared down at himself and was more than a little surprised to discover that he was no longer wearing the embarrassing tie-up-the-back gown thing that doctors in hospitals insist that you wear in order to make you feel even more foolish and vulnerable than you're already feeling. Big Bob was now wearing a tight-fitting one-piece synthavinylpolilycraspandexathene superhero-type suit with a big number three on the front. It actually made him look rather splendid, what with his great big chest and shoulders and all. On his feet were golden boots, and they looked rather splendid too.
Very Arnold Schwarzenegger. Very Running Man perhaps?
'Very nice indeed,' said Bob the Big. 'Although somewhat immodest about the groin regions. But how dost…'
'run you sucker,' said the second voice. And Big Bob suddenly felt like running. He felt very fit indeed.
'Find the treasure and I win?' he said.
But the voices said no more.
'OK.' Big Bob took a step forward. And 'Oh,' he said, as he did so. He certainly felt light upon his feet, a single step carried him forward at not inconsiderable speed. He appeared to be possessed of extraordinary fitness and agility. He'd never been a sluggard before. He'd always kept himself in shape. But now. But now.
'Oh yes,' said Big Bob. 'Oh yes indeed.' And he took another step and then another. And off he went across the ward and right out through the wall.
Bob paused upon his springing steps. He had just done that, hadn't he? He had just stepped right through the wall? Why had he done that? Why hadn't he just used the door?
Big Bob turned to look back at the wall. But the wall •wasn't there any more. He was standing now in the middle of the Butt's Estate. Brentford's posher quarter. On two sides of him rose the elegant Georgian houses built so long ago by the rich burghers of Brentford. Behind him the Seamen's Mission and before him the broad and tree-lined thoroughfare that led either in or out of the Butt's, depending on which way you're travelling.
Big Bob looked all around and about. This was the Butt's, and he was here. Well, he was here, but somehow this wasn't.
Big Bob looked all around and about just a little more. This wasn't quite right, not that anything was. But this wasn't right for sure. It looked like the Butt's Estate. The Butt's Estate he'd known for all of his life so far. Possibly all his life, if he was, as he feared, now dead. But this wasn't quite the Butt's Estate.
The evening sky above was a curious violet hue and all that it looked down upon was slightly out of kilter. The Butt's Estate wasn't real. It was more like a copy. More like a model. The colours here were too bright. The mellow bricks of the elegant buildings were unnatural, they lacked definition, everything had a flattened quality about it.
It was a copy. It was a model.
'Model?' said Big Bob to no-one but himself and then something inside his head went click. 'Model,' he said again. ' Computer model. This is like one of those holographic computer models of towns that architects create on their Mute Corp holocast computers.' And then Big Bob's brain went click just a little bit more. And then the light of a revelation dawned, as it was bound to sooner or later.
Though for some, it would have been sooner.
'Game on?' whispered Big Bob. 'Three lives? Golden stones? Weapons? Find the treasure? It's a computer game. I'm in a computer game.'
And then Big Bob began to laugh. He laughed and laughed and laughed. It was all so obvious, wasn't it? But he hadn't realized. He hadn't seen through it. What a fool. What an oaf. What a grade A buffoon.
Big Bob sighed. And it was a sigh of relief.
'I'm dreaming,' he said. 'I'm asleep. There was a film once. I saw it when I was a lad. Tron, that was it. A chap finds himself inside a computer game. Thou art a twotty git, Big Bob,' Bob told himself. 'But clearly thou dost have quite an imagination.
'Okey-dokey,' said Big Bob, smiling all over his great big face. 'Enough of all this. Time to wake up, I think.'
Well, you would think that, wouldn't you? You would try to wake up. And if it was a dream, and you'd twigged it was a dream, you probably would wake up. Or if, like those lucky blighters who are skilled in the art of lucid dreaming, you knew you were in a dream, you'd just stay asleep and really get into it. Because when you know you're in a dream, you can do anything you want to. Anything. And as men who are skilled in lucid dreaming never tire of telling you, you can't half have some amazing sex with some really famous women. But sadly, even if he had wanted to, which he wouldn't have done, as he was loyal to his wife, Big Bob wouldn't be having any amazing sex with any famous women.
Because Big Bob wasn't asleep.
Big Bob wasn 't dreaming.
But as Big Bob didn't know this yet, Big Bob tried to wake up.
Big Bob stretched out his big arms and did yawnings and stretchings and closings and openings of eyes and made encouraging sounds to himself and then began to wonder just why it was that he wasn't waking up and then he became very confused.
And very frightened also.
'I'm not waking up,' said Big Bob. 'I don't like this at all.'
'go on then,' said the large voice suddenly. 'shift off the square. get moving. go to level one.'
Big Bob ducked his head. Then looked up fearfully towards the violet sky. 'I am dreaming this, aren't I?' he said. 'Tell me I'm just dreaming this.'
'off the square. get moving.'
Big Bob now looked down. Although he stood upon the little grassy area of land before the Seamen's Mission, his feet did not rest upon the grass. His feet, encased as they now were within their rather dashing golden boots, stood upon a golden square. Rather plastic-looking. Rather unreal. Not very nice at all. Big Bob almost took a step forward.
'Er, hello,' called Big Bob. 'Hello up there, God, or whoever thou art. I don't like this. I don't want to play. I want to wake up please.'
'you have to play now. you're in the game,' said the large and terrible voice. The first one, not the second one. The second one said, 'do it. go mango!'
Big Bob fretted and dithered and worried and then he said, 'I'm going home to my bed. I'm bound to wake up in there.'
And then Big Bob took a single step forward.
And entered a world of hurt.