by Stewart Wilson
The flat of James Stamforth, in the Marchmont area of Edinburgh, was a large affair. As well as bedrooms, sitting-room, study, armoury, and library, one room existed for no better reason than to give Stamforth a place to think and reflect. Unlike the other rooms the decor was surprisingly spartan, no more than a writing-desk and chair bathed in the light from a large window.
James sat at the desk. Artemis Hemingway, his boon companion, was probably drinking himself stupid in the pub that the pair used as a base of operations. Normally Stamforth would have been there with him, providing a sober eye on Hemingway's mad plans and carrying the huge man to the door when the alcohol that had so pickled his system finally extracted its revenge. Instead, James sat at his desk, reading and re-reading the printed e-mail he had received earlier that day. Finding that it said the same as it had the last three times, he picked up a pen and started to write.
Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. And while I have had numerous adventures with H., I cannot help but consider the e-mail again and again. Could it be true? Could H. merely be projecting his drunken fantasies upon me, and I allowing myself to be taken in? Am I just a bit-part in his stories? Or worse, the stories of some other demented author, playing out his need for adventure with H. and I as protagonists?
I would not normally think such things, but there's a ring of truth to the whole thing. Why did I not notice my home before now? Why am I here and writing this? Is it for my own benefit? Or are there people even now looking voyeuristically over my shoulder?
If nothing else, T. spins a distinct yarn that has the ring of believability to it, and I find myself compelled to wonder. How is it that H. and I can carry weapons in Edinburgh without the police noticing? Why are we the ones who have such fantastic adventures? Is this all merely an attack of melancholy, or has T. pointed out a higher truth? His claims seem madness at first reading.
But even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.
Laying the pen to rest, Stamforth inserted the printed sheet below his latest journal entry and committed both to a large folder. The lettering on the spine was picked out in gold leaf, "The Journal of James Stamforth, Adventurer".
With a sigh, James stood and pulled on his boots. His pack, a bag of technological marvels and bottles of alcohol for Hemingway, lay in the hall. Donning a long-coat, he slung the bag over one shoulder and stepped out to join Artemis in the pub. Too much time alone, he reasoned, was bad for the faculties and he hadn't really talked to anyone for almost three days. Some human contact would do him good.
He'd got almost four streets before he heard the screams.
Running now, Stamforth rounded a corner and saw something hideous. A creation of what appeared to be scrap-metal was slowly walking towards him on eight many-jointed legs. Tanks on the torso of the mechanical device linked into a warped head with video-camera eyes and an odd nozzle where the mouth should be. As he watched, the device unleashed streams of many-coloured paint over the front of an off-license. When the spray had stopped, James could clearly make out an advert for cheap Rolex watches.
The sound of banging from inside the shop brought him back to his senses. Clearly the paint was very adhesive, and it had welded the door shut. Without another thought, he grasped the omni-rifle hanging off his pack and sent two high-explosive rounds at the awesome automaton, blasting it to smithereens.
Fortunately, none of the people watching from the street had been a target, and the shrapnel from the explosion had missed all of them. Moving in for a closer look, he could clearly see that the advert was made up of smaller adverts for Cialis and Viagra, often misspelled, and a sea of random-looking text. The paint by the door caught his eye, but despite his best efforts James was unable to budge the door. Just as he was about to give up, the paint bubbled and shriveled. The proprietor stuck her head out of the door.
"Bloody Hell, what was that?"
"I don't know, sir. But rest assured that Artemis Hemingway and I will soon get to the bottom of it."
"I'm glad of that. Without heroes like you, what could we do?"
Rather than answer, Stamforth inspected the paint. "How did you get out? I couldn't budge the door."
"Smirnoff." The proprietor frowned. "I panicked, started throwing bottles at the door. The vodka smashed, and some must have leaked through."
"Interesting... thank you very much." Stamforth set off for the pub at a run, pulling his mobile phone.
"Artemis, the city's under– … You know? … Oh, I see. Listen to me, alcohol dissolves the paint. If you can get some through the cracks in the door, you can get out that way. If not, I have some with me. … Don't worry, I'd only use Glens. I'll see you there soon."
The pub was as bad as he'd feared. Stamforth was confronted by a giant advert for eBay that stretched over the four floors of the building's front. Fortunately, a gap at the base confirmed that Hemingway had made good his escape. The great man stood with his mighty arms folded across his barrel-chest, his amazing beard frazzled.
"Jim, what the Hell's going on?"
"I don't know, Artemis. I saw one, some kind of robot made from junk, spraying these adverts — this spam — across an off-license. From what I've seen, they've targetted pubs and off-licenses first, to keep us from getting at their solvent."
"God's bollocks!" The great man roared. "They're cutting my city off from its booze?"
"I'm afraid so."
"I hope they break easily. I can see we have work to do."
The pair set off towards the centre of the city at a fast pace, passing fractal adverts plastered over many buildings. Soon, they found what they were looking for — a cluster of spambots, rounding up humans and leading them off towards another, larger junk-forged automaton that enveloped four people at a time. After it had hit, the people wandered off to find things to buy, often at places advertised in the huge murals sprayed on the walls.
"There must and shall be violence!" So crying, the mighty Artemis Hemingway leapt into action. His Hell-pistols roared, pouring streams of death towards the mechanical consumer-factory. Only then did the dangerous devices cast their optic sensors towards our heroes, waves of sticky paint splitting the pair up. Almost too late did they realise that they each faced a different adversary. Battle was joined. The fight for Edinburgh's freedom from a life of constant corporate pressure promised to be a hard one to win.
The largest of the spam-bots loomed over the city. The mighty Artemis Hemingway was at head-height to one, though he was stood on the South Bridge while the mechanoid's ambulatory appendages lay on the Cowgate below. This particular droid was quadripedal, four spindly legs ending in half-baked tracks, the torso just a frame for holding tanks and the odd advertising-guns in place of arms. Each automaton's design was unique, though each held storage tanks and at least one adver-cannon. Beyond that, they could have been built in any well-stocked scrapyard by any number of mad scientists.
One of the adver-cannons tracked towards the great man, but a barrage of Hell-pistol fire reduced the robot's head to a twisted mess of metal. The guns went crazy then, spraying a huge AOL banner across the existing billboards of the South Bridge Reclamation and coating the nearby buildings with a pre-programmed litany of slogans for viagra and illegal pornography. More bullets tore through the cannons and the central body, until the mechanical monstrosity was still.
Stamforth wasn't having as much luck. Though the spam-bot he faced was much shorter, it was a half-track with both arms and a tail-gun, coating the buildings both fore and aft of it in pervasive advertising. He was running low on ammunition, and he'd seen how the other automata had taken humans away for processing into better consumers. Chambering an armour-piercing round, he sighted straight into the robot's optical sensor. The bullet shattered the sensor and tore through the head-like lump of the clanking creation. But even with the brain destroyed, the adver-cannons still functioned. Even as he tried to throw himself to one side, James Stamforth found himself covered in the sticky paint of an online auction scam advert.
"Jim! Hold on!" Hemingway roared. He grabbed a fallen street-sign and ran across the road, using the stem to cleave through the damaged spam-bot. His fury peaked, Artemis swung and swung, his muscles taking their strength from the alcohol flowing through his system. Only once he was spent did he drop the sign.
"This is intolerable. The damned machines are everywhere, and no one the same as any other."
"Ghhhhkk.." Stamforth was still conscious, but not for much longer. The quick-drying paint had sealed his nose and almost all of his mouth, adhering his head to the wall.
Artemis knelt by his companion. "Don't worry, Jim. I'll think of something."
Reaching through Stamforth's bag, Hemingway cried out in despair. The fall had smashed all but one bottle of vodka. Reverentially, he withdrew the one thing that the pair had found to dissolve the paint — alcohol.
It would take the whole bottle of Stolichnaya to free Stamforth, but it was also Hemingway's last chance to revive his booze-fuelled physique and intellect. Without it, he would just be another fat old git until his next drink, and the off-licenses and pubs were all covered in paint. With it he could defeat the spam-bots, though Stamforth would surely die.
Weeping, Hemingway sniffed at the vodka. He already felt drained, and a couple of mouthfuls would put him to rights. But doing so had too high a price even for the world's greatest drunk to pay. Artemis had long ago given himself to the great goddess Booze, and there comes a time in every devout follower's life just before the hangover hits when a guy's friends are the only thing that makes life worth living. In such a mood, his superior abilities already drained, he poured the spirit over Stamforth's painted coccoon.
The paint bubbled and split. Jim gasped mightily at the fresh air as he sat up, then turned to his rescuer. Hemingway was slumped on the ground, his Hell-pistols hanging limp in their holsters.
"I did it for you, Jim. You're the one who knows what, what, what's going on."
"Artemis? What happened?"
"My reserves. The boozepower. All gone. Saving you. Now 'm nothing more than an old drunk."
"Don't get too morose, we have a city to save!"
"Jim, you don't, don't understand. The power can wear off, and there's just me. A fat meth who, who's pissed as a fart. Nothing to look forwards to but a hangover that'll kill me."
"Shit." Stamforth's mind raced. If Artemis was right, there was little hope. All of the alcohol in the city was locked down. Except the off-license he'd passed, and the pub. The pub. "Stay there. I'll be right back."
Waiting for Jim's return was the longest ten minutes in Hemingway's life. He'd run out of his power before, after times of great exertion the drunkenness had overcome him. But that had always been after the fact. Now, helpless and not even worth re-education by the spam-bots, he knew true desperation.
An aeon of morose introspection later, a familiar scent caught his nose. Highland Park, twelve year old single malt.
"Artemis, I've got something for you. Andy gave me a carry-out." Jim thought that it was for the best not to mention the sixty quid added to the great man's slate. Not when he was in this state.
"I don' wanna drink. Fuggoff. Jus' wanna be me."
Stamforth was shocked. He'd never seen Artemis this drunk before. Certainly, he'd seen the lows as well as the highs, but for him to actually refuse a drink...
"Don't worry, I've got some coke to mix it with. It'll go down a treat."
A gleam of hatred in Hemingway's eye. "Coke? Coke! You fucking heathen! I'll show you fucking coke. You don't deserve that."
Stamforth suppressed a grin as the great man took the bottle and downed a mighty gulp. He did feel guilt, in one sense he was hastening the demise of an alcoholic. But in another, he was saving the city from the terrors of advertising.
The great Artemis Hemingway got to his feet, murder in his eyes. "God's bollocks, someone will die for this!" Bending down to grab the street-sign with his free hand, he threw it like a javelin at an approaching automaton. "Whoever's in charge, he's on the Mound."
"How do you know?" Stamforth took the time to renew his ammunition clips.
"Call it a gut feeling. Come on!"
With that, our heroes set off for the Mound, gunning down spam-bots and conversion machines as they went. Revitalised, Hemingway was an avatar of destruction. This foe had caught him at his lowest, and now not Hell-hounds nor genocide barons nor murder trees could stand in his way. Bullets spat from his Hell-pistols, and when the barrels threatened to overheat the great man took to hitting the spam-bots with the closest thing to hand — often, another spam-bot.
Leaving a trail of awesome destruction behind him, Artemis descended the Playfair steps and headed forwards. There was indeed someone there, surrounded by drone-people. He stood out in the crowd, his gleaming white suit glaring in the sunlight. As they drew closer, Stamforth could just make out the surgical mask covering the other man's face, and the latex gloves on both hands.
"Gentlemen!" The man in white's voice rang out. "I'm surprised that you got this far without giving up. But it doesn't matter. I will still have my revenge!"
The drones leapt towards Hemingway and Stamforth, but a cluster of aerogel rounds from Jim's omni-rifle soon put paid to that plan.
With the seconds he had bought them, he looked to Artemis. "Revenge? This freak knows you?"
"I don't... wait. It must be." He looked to the man in white once again. "Thaddeus Q. Weetabix, I should have known. I didn't think that ex-dot-com billionaires traditionally went in for the surgical look."
"You know well enough that this is your fault. You forced me into that vat of defective natural penis-enhancement fluid!"
Stamforth looked confused. "Thaddeus Q. Weetabix? I've never heard of him."
"This was before I met you in that temple in India, Jim. He set his intelligence to developing insane devices and chemicals, and when he couldn't sell them through the normal channels he devoted himself to the art of junk e-mails. I shut him down then, but it looks like he's not content with just e-mail advertising."
"The world is paying me to advertise it's products and turn people into consumers. You were wrong, Hemingway! People want everything, they just need showing the way."
Stamforth turned to Hemingway, passing him a bottle of Gordon's. "I'll hold the crowd back. You have some unfinished business."
The great Artemis Hemingway opened the bottle with his mighty beard, downing a quarter of the contents in one gulp. Stamforth's efforts cleared him a path through the crowd, until he faced the nefarious advertiser face to face.
"You could have done so much good!" A mighty fist rammed into the spam-lord's gut. "You could have made a difference. You could have changed the world for the better." Another punch. "But you pander to humanity's lowest impulses and drag down any who oppose you." A third punch connected with Weetabix' head. "But we will rise above!" Lifting the frail mastermind above his head, Hemingway cast him down into the crowd. A pair of spambots rushed forwards to grab their fallen leader.
Stamforth joined Artemis atop the raised area. "Are you sure that's wise? He'll be back."
"Oh, he will. But I've beaten him twice now. And when he returns, we will be ready for him."