Chapter 1

He’d stood in that doorway probably a hundred times before, and shouldn’t have been surprised. The real surprise was that he always was. Over on the peeling whitewash of the window-side wall, just above the old Boxford lathe, the well-oiled centrefold of the resident, very buxom and scantily clad lady, still hung by the same rusted nail in the lintel; thermal long-johns and a hot water bottle would have been more practical in the workshop. It had taken a minute for his eyes to grow accustomed to the half-light that struggled through chicken wire and grease; but she didn’t look any the better for that.

Something scuffled behind one of the piles of scrap metal that George would have insisted were ‘spare parts’. He wouldn’t be insisting anymore. In the doorway, the Regulator didn’t move; but he was moved. There were few of these places left now, with the endless preoccupation with convenience and rulings. Those two words would have been enough to send George into one of his tantrums. Oh, yes, a classic George tantrum was well worth the seeing. The Regulator 137’s whimsical smile was gone in an instant; he resented the lump in his throat.

Putting his job at risk more times than he could accurately recall just by visiting this place and walking away those many hours later, he had never closed it down. It was a gamble with a lot more than his job on the table, but the place was precious; he knew it but he didn’t know why. He’d interrogated himself interminably; how could anyone bring themselves to eradicate the last of anything? Regulator 137 wouldn’t in his wildest nightmares have known ‘the how’; but ‘who?’ was easy. ‘Who’ was anybody scared enough, and that was nearly everybody these days.

#

The Regulator heaved the grimy planked door shut behind him, and took it all in, yet again. How George ever found anything among shelves bending under the weight of unrecognisable chunks of metalwork, cabinets and drawers half-open spewing stock festoons of chain, the open timber beams supporting step ladders, jacks and winches, was a mystery. It was even more of a mystery to Regulator 137 how George had survived it all without breaking his neck. But he had; and he could always put out his hand for virtually anything without much thought.

George was, to all outward appearances, a bumbling pensioner, and no threat to anybody. What was it about George’s workshop that could be so significant for the Regulatory to have wanted it closed down years ago? This Regulator understood the fear of the ‘one off’ only too well. It was the idea of having just one of anything that the Regulatory ruled as being so dangerous. It was linked to the element of unpredictability and that was treacherously subversive.

The twin manacles left little space for manoeuvre. Regulator 137 knew that on his departure from George’s workshop, he would be instructed to take the left at the end of the road; walk the hundred and twenty metres to the next left, and catch the seventy three transport back to headquarters. Compliance would be confirmed by the nav. system. Usually, they only wanted the box ticking on the progressive closedown sheet next to 23, Woodgate Street. Otherwise, nobody cared. Today was different.

#

George stuffed his obnoxious pipe full of God knows what, and had leaned back in the old carver chair that was mostly unrecognisable as such. There was precious little wood left amongst its matrix of welds and steelwork repairs. He flicked the acetylene torch across the pipe, without shifting his gaze from the flat metal plate on the bench.

#

The pipe was a curiosity; they had been banned long ago in line with risk factor capping, so they were bound to be a curiosity. The inexplicable and the unquantifiable had the same chance of surviving as the dinosaur. The Regulator 137 should certainly have reported both chair and pipe. Both of these were unlike anything he’d ever seen. There was no shortage of curiosities if you knew where to look but the looking was a dangerously subversive activity.

The pipe was even more subversive than the unquantifiable. It was a unique artefact, designed and crafted by George, from very un-pipe like materials; stainless steel and Kevlar. He’d used it as prop, a mallet, a hammer, a lever, a lathe tool, and even a pipe once in a while. It was virtually indestructible, and the idea that it could be put to many uses made it a classified ‘A’ Subversive Object. Possession of one of those could put you away for a long time.

#

He might have been of West Indies descent, but his colour had long since faded into the engineer’s pallor that was a requirement for that club; the club itself had become these days as exclusive as paper weights. Suffice it to say George had one of those, and as paperweights (along with paper, pens, all forms of written text, and even rubber erasers) held high priority on the list of ‘Decadent Materials’; just having the use of one was a danger to life and limb.

George was a prime candidate for ‘shuttered accommodation’, and should have been incarcerated years ago; such was his age. Old people were a nuisance. They remembered things, inconvenient things. The Regulatory’s answer to this was shuttered accommodation. Regulator 137 had George down as amber, which was about twenty-five years old in the ancient tongues. He was seventy-five if he was a day; a long way through green and into grey. His phone burped. That was also against rulings. All phones ding-dong-dinged the same jolly three-note brainless ditty, repeated at a speed that made them indeterminate.

George stamped on it, and the hob nails in his very ‘Decadent Materials’ boots smashed it to smithereens. That was the real start of the trouble.

#

“Why did you do that, George?” But as he spoke Regulator 137 turned to wrestle with the scraping door, and knew the question to be futile, as all the Regulatory questions were, relative to George. It was academic anyway. The roboids would be along to eradicate this source of subversion called George during the green part of the day. Regulator 137 looked at the watch on his wrist that said blue and was steadily browning over towards green. Green was imminent. From away down the road the ripple of metal-shod feet drummed its roboid rhythm on pitted asphalt.

Regulator 137 had some big problems coming up. He had turned up to arrange an unscheduled transfer to a shuttered compound and knew that George would be difficult; just how difficult, Regulator 137 had only just then found out. George had gone.

By secretively relocating George, and having the correct passes, Regulator 137 hoped to sidestep the potentially fatal question of how a ‘grey’ could possibly be still outside the shuttered sections. Regulator 137 would have no answer, because he didn’t know. Why he should have kept George from the shuttered accommodation lists he didn’t know either. There were, altogether, too many things he didn’t know. He did know that the rattling feet sounded much closer, and would have preferred not to have known about that.

That scuffle again; what was it? It set his back crawling, and he turned mechanically towards its source, a pile of George’s ‘spare parts’. Outside, boots hammered along broken tarmac; inside, metallic bits vibrated loose from around the heaps. With a deafening ‘rap’ the footfall stopped; they were very close. A wedge of silence stretched out, tense, flaking and brittle.

Inside, more scuffling. Regulator 137’s voice wavered, his fractured breath a shivering vibrato.

“For God’s sake George!” even as he whimpered into the workshop, Regulator 137 realised he was still much too close to being humanoid. He was scared out of his wits. He asked himself who he was appealing to and didn’t have an answer. It was yet another question with no Regulatory Solution.

At the other side of the door, a rain of percussive metalwork rattled as rifles were readied.

“You’ll be alright, Reggie.” Regulator 137 jumped as if shot, a response far too close to home for someone who would be full of holes in the very near future.

A slow footfall, heavy and confident, crunched up to the door and stopped. Outside, the roboid lieutenant halted a foot from the door. He was, of course, a Regulator. It was only the greys that weren’t.

“All resident greys on these premises are to vacate to shuttered accommodations immediately.” The tone of the high rank Regulator was identical to all the others of his rank. It was a long way down the list of rankings before any sign of personality began to show through.

“George?” squeaked 137. “George; don’t let them get me George,” he spun round as the workshop door scraped over grit and metal turnings. Regulator 137 yelped;

“Fuck! Help me George!” He screamed as a shaft of daylight widened across the workshop.

“You’ll be alright Reggie. I told you.” It had to be George. There was only George who ever called him ‘Reggie’.

“If this is alright, I don’t want to be alright.”

“Alright” said George.

“Fuck your ‘alright’s’, George,” wailed Regulator 137, “those roboids are going to shoot holes in me!”

“What roboids, Reggie? And kindly adjust your language for an old feller.”

The door had stopped opening, mid-scrape. Reggie could see the sole of one of the lieutenant’s boots sticking through the doorway. A different kind of quiet settled.

“Where are you George?” Reggie hesitantly crept about lifting various bits of the wreckage that was George’s Workshop, peering under the fragments. “You sound… strange.”

The flat piece of metal on the bench glowed like glass in a flame and sang quietly, a damp finger on a wine glass edge. Scrolled patterns across its surface glittered in waves and rainbows scudded across before a breeze.

“George.” Regulator 137 gulped. “You’re… in there, George.” A frown lined the Regulator’s forehead. “How the Hell did you get in there, George. I mean; how the Hell…” George was reclining, dimly, in his old carver chair, with his smelly pipe. He was, indeed, ‘in there’. And neither the chair nor the pipe, were ‘out here’. Not that Regulator 137 much minded the disappearance of the pipe, but that wasn’t the point. Firing squad noises outside concerned Reggie even more, and after a truckload of causes for concern in quick succession, another was the last thing he was looking for.

“It’s alright, Reggie.”

“George, if you say that one more time I’m going to scream.”

“There are just a few guests I’ve invited along. Don’t happen to have a six pack or two about your person, I don’t suppose?”

“If I had ever wanted to stay humanoid, you’ve just persuaded me I would have been nuts. You, George, are off your head.” Reggie cautiously poked his own head round the door, and dropped his clipboard. “There’s a dozen ‘greys’ walking up here, George. That’s impossible.” George rolled a fruity chuckle,

“Just a few pals I’ve invited round, Reggie.”

But Regulator 137 was well aware that greys were shot, as soon as they set foot over the shuttered accommodation boundaries. The firing squad lay around in the pot-holed yard. They seemed quite dead.

#

Chapter 2

“Not good enough! You ‘misplaced’ a dozen greys.” Regulator 1 fumed for a second, lost for words violent enough. “You lose; I mean, you lose, unbelievably, a dozen greys!” The Regulators assembled were four-figure Regulators, and they all knew they were as dispensable as a spent match. They shuffled about while at the other side of the vast desk Regulator 1 battered the plywood with his fists.

#

The Regulator had, long before, left behind all pretence of the humanoid. He had attained White, and the epaulettes said as much. The Regulators started off as humanoid, one of a seemingly infinite variety of shades of yellow, and with the endless indoctrination, little by little, through reds and blues and browns, all the way through to, eventually, white, became entirely roboid. Regulator 137 was a humanoid anomaly; only surviving because he didn’t know it. This situation had been beautifully stage-managed by George.

#

“I want to know; where they are; how they were removed from the shuttered sections; and mostly, why nobody even noticed! Now, out! Bring back answers or be thrown in The Duds.” Regulator 1 lowered his voice for the last phrase, having spat his way through the rest of the diatribe. ‘The Duds’ was a place from which even rocks kept their distance, such was its reputation. The Regulators ran for the door.

They didn’t know what to do. The situation didn’t come under any of the Regulation Solutions. Situations falling outside the colour-coded ‘Regulation Problems’ didn’t exist, so far as the Regulatory was concerned.

The higher echelons of the Regulatory employed a proportion of the humanoid in the beginning. Although watched suspiciously, these were capable of operating when the range of the Regulatory Solutions was exceeded.

But new members came into the Regulatory, replacing the natural wastage of those dying off, those being killed off, and the odd miscreant being locked away, and the humanoid were gradually depleted in favour of the burgeoning roboid population. Rote solutions were the only answers that the Roboid Regulatory allowed, and the humanoid was eradicated from the Regulatory.

There was no escape from this self-designed trap. The system had progressed so far at this stage, that the first major problem to come along, not covered by the Regulatory Solutions, would spiral into chaos.

#

The soldiery sprawled in the yard around the venerable door of George’s Workshop did not die comfortably. They had seen it coming, whatever it was; the horror-stricken death masks spoke volumes, though there was not a physical mark on any of the bodies.

The group of greys stepped over the roboids lying around. This one act set apart the greys from the Regulatory, and rendered them as dangerous as an uncharted minefield. A platoon of roboids lying flat out in the yard was in no way covered by the Regulatory Solutions. This was a first-category, Non-Regulation problem if ever there was one.

“That’s a Regulator, George,” said Cyril, poking his walking stick at Reggie as he walked through the door. “You drag us out here to meet a Regulator?” Cyril was bald, wrinkled, and walked with a stick. “When I can shake my stick at a hundred Regulators as easy as falling out of bed, why George, have I walked half the bus route to get to meet another?”

“Trust me Cyril,” chimed George from the plate, “this one is different. This is Regulator 137.” Cyril forced a low whistle through not many teeth, and the other greys nodded around to each other. Regulator 137 was confused. He didn’t know who George was talking to; neither, for that matter did he know who was talking to George. There was nobody. Outside, the greys had disappeared.

“I don’t understand, George,” said Reggie, and was surprised by his own statement. ‘Understand’ had disappeared from speech long ago.

“One, two, three,” said Cyril to the greys squad. Regulator 137 looked on, aghast, as the greys swivelled towards him and appeared like a group of playing cards from Alice in Wonderland.

“What? I mean, where, did they come from?” said Reggie.

“I knew you were different Reggie. There isn’t another Regulator anywhere that would see them at all.” George was sat in his steelwork chair puffing at his revolting pipe; the plate was grey and inert. “The Regulatory has so little connection with reality, being utterly bound up in the virtual conventions of the Regulatory Solutions, not one of them can see reality even if it was standing on their foot. But we’re real enough, Reggie.”

The clatter of heavy strides in the distance gave away the advance of another platoon of Regulators. Reggie gingerly shoved his head round the door.

“There must be a hundred of them, George. I don’t believe this. There’s a crowd of greys walking alongside the marching Regulators. They seem to be dancing about, pulling faces and blowing raspberries. Why don’t the Regulators wipe them all out?”

“I told you Reggie; they don’t know they’re there. The Regulatory Solutions have seen to that.” George chuckled. “It’s all over, you know. The whole system will be in shreds, very soon.” He got up from the chair which creaked and groaned. “If you insist on ignoring things that are real, sooner or later, you get to a point where you just daren’t see what is real; it’s a place way out of the Regulator’s control and they can’t imagine that. Everything’s under their control. But it isn’t, is it, Reggie?”

Reggie gagged as he watched well over a hundred Regulators walk around in circles and fall down in front of the platoon who had opted for the horizontal, on encountering George’s Workshop. How George’s Workshop actually appeared to the Regulators was anybody’s guess, but it had surely frightened them to death.

#

Chapter 3

Through the long, eroding process of indoctrination, Regulator 1 had finally reached this, the highest echelon of the Regulatory. He was no longer in any danger of humanoid reactions, at least not his own; Regulator 1 was mechanoid in every way, albeit still flesh and blood. A hammering at his door was the first indicator that things were in no way normal.

The assault on the door became feverish, and the rabble noise from the mob outside, inflamed. The armoured steel door was not one to flinch at this kind of threat, and the Regulator returned to his deliberations. Several monitor screens sat on his desk, him having moved them from surveillance next door, when he found the department deserted. The images panned across the city. Regulators were everywhere in the streets, either in bits on the ground or firing indiscriminately.

The door buckled under the force of a grenade. Regulator 1 spun to grab an automatic pistol from the wall rack, throwing himself across the polished floor and emptying it into the press of Regulators surging into the room. In the millisecond’s respite of falling bodies, the Regulator hefted a couple of grenades and shared them between the remaining interlopers framed in what was left of the doorway.

He turned back to his deliberations amid the destruction as pounding footsteps receded along the corridor. Vast numbers of greys had been reported missing from the shuttered sections; the system was fast collapsing under the deluge of reports. It seemed that there were many more reports in the pipeline. The Regulator had narrowed down the anomaly between Regulators 100 and 200. There was a grey somewhere that understood the teetering structure of the Regulatory; and understood it even better than he, Regulator Number 1. It had to be a non-report. He had to be located fast.

#

George had anticipated the fall years before. Regulator 137 relaxed amongst the junk that was George’s Workshop, and George contemplatively sucked at his poisonous pipe.

“That’s an amazing piece of metal on the bench, George,” said Reggie as the plate shimmered in the low sun streaming through the cracked window of chicken wire.

“Yes, the link. We can now use the link. The time is ripe, we have the interface.”

“You may as well have said it in French. I don’t understand a word of that either,” said Reggie shuffling around for that elusively comfortable position that he’d never found in the Workshop.

“The interface is a universe that exists between the real and the imaginary. Or the real and the virtual, is another way of saying it.” George was gradually disappearing under the fug of the pipe. “It is both at the same time. The plate you see on the bench is a gateway to the actual; the real.”

“Nope, sorry George I didn’t get that either; try it in Spanish.”

“Get a grip on this chair, Reggie. A picture paints a thousand…well, you know.” Other than for the twitch of a smile, George seemed not to do anything.

#

Reggie boggled at the still lake; its rippling rainbows and ghostly paisleys scrolled, lapping at a shimmering quartz beach. George peered intently into the lake; into the moving forms shifting like wheat in a wandering breeze. Regulator 137 asked where this place was and why was it and how he’d arrived at wherever this was and who was George and….

“A very prolific volume of questions Reggie; it’s a tall order to put a whole history in the bowl of my pipe, so to speak. This is a place unique in this universe; a changeless place; a place of peace.”

#

Chapter 4

The Great Conclusion threatened to be quite as catastrophic as the Great Beginning. Just when it seemed to be progressing nicely, the whole thing started to collapse in on itself.

They had observed its explosive creation; its erratic growth; it was a universe that concentrated all the unpredictability, conflict and violence of everywhere else, into the one finite sphere. If the experiment was going to fail, it would surely be wrecked in this churning maelstrom of cause and effect, action and reaction.

Universes communicated.

“If it works, don’t fix it. That’s the maxim for everything.”

So said the universe known as Sam.

Sam’s nearest neighbouring universe, although dimensionally remote, occupied the same co-ordinates on a plane that didn’t actually exist. So that was alright. Tom (the next door universe) agreed.

“That’s been the case for as long as we can remember. It’s only when you start messing with things that you get the like of that hell-hole.” Tom referred to the universe that seemed set on imploding.

#

The universes were infinite in number. Probably. They didn’t actually ever take the trouble to count. But they’d arranged it so that there were only about six that would ever do anything. This was just sufficient, it was found, for the odd anomaly of conflict that came up. The other Infinity minus about Six universes, didn’t care a bugger, until they had to put up with one of these occasional anomalies; which hurt. So this is where ‘The Six’ came in. They had to sort it out. Hurting was no fun.

At a meeting of the Infinity minus about Six universes, although most of them didn’t bother to turn up, those that did agreed that it wasn’t fair for all universes except the ‘About Six’ to have an idyllic existence. There was also some undercurrent of worry that there might be some sort of extended rota system where the next ‘About Six’ might come up for a turn of duty, and be picked from their ranks. It was an extra lever to get something done; as otherwise, in unchanging reality, nothing ever did.

“If the experiment works in this mess of a universe, it should sort out the scattering of anomalies everywhere else without getting its feet wet.” If universes smoked a pipe this would have been the time for Sam to do it. If universes nodded, Tom surely would have. George, who was somewhere else entirely, nodded and smoked his pipe.

“He’s a fine example is George. I hope he’s not been in that damned place too long; a paranoid George would be a dimension too far.” Sam would have frowned, if that was what universes did, but there was no need for Sam or Tom, or any of the other three of the ‘About Six’ to worry about George; who was quite able to take care of himself. He had succeeded in isolating and containing all the conflicting anomalies to a virtual world, a world that would soon drive itself out of existence but for the one representative that must survive.

#

“I’ve had a lot of help from the greys, who volunteered to help out segregating the virtual from the real. But they would have been a lot happier to stay with the Infinity minus About Six and not do anything,” said George, “it wasn’t easy for that lot. They’re agoraphobic to a universe.” That was it for Regulator 137. His head felt like the victim of a case of vodka dropped from a great height and he hadn’t even had a night out.

“Alright George, I’ll leave all the explanations for later; that’s if there’s going to be a ‘later’. Just answer me this. What is this interface?”

“Don’t be silly Reggie; you are. All this time we’ve spent together has not been wasted. You have to stay a while and get things started on the right track in this God-awful hole. We just can’t have the threat of anomalies surfacing again, Reggie. But we should go. Business awaits us.” George and Reggie walked into the lake and back to the Workshop, in time to hear boots running, beating hollow in the street.

The door burst open and Regulator 1 jumped through it in a blind rage.

“You! The grey! Up against the wall.” The Regulator didn’t look good; he hadn’t eaten for a fortnight and his personal hygiene appeared to have been similarly neglected. The automatic pistol he carried looked functional enough, though.

George made no move toward the wall, or anywhere else for that matter.

“Where’s 137? I have scores to settle. Regulator 137 first.”

“That is a very useful confirmation. I take it you don’t see him standing next to you?” George smiled.

“What’s happening George?” said Regulator 137.

“And where did this whale come from?” The Regulator’s face was turning purple.

“Whale?” said Reggie.

“Who said that?” said the Regulator.

“It’s alright Reggie,” said George.

“Don’t say that George, it’s never alright when you say ‘it’s alright’. And where’s the bloody whale?” Reggie waved his hands in front of the Regulator.

“Who said that?” shouted the Regulator.

“He thinks the Workshop is a whale, Reggie, that’s all; the Workshop belongs with the changeless, you see” said George, ignoring the Regulator.

The Regulator shot off several dozen rounds from the automatic. But apart from disturbing the peace, the flying lead had no effect at all. Reggie shook his head, but it didn’t improve matters. This was all too much for Regulator 1; virtual automatic fire inside a whale that wasn’t there was a step too far from Regulatory Problems. His head spun round and he fell forward.

“George, I don’t understand,” said Regulator 137. George was standing in his open Workshop doorway waving to the crowd of greys filing up through the streets.

“Time to go home Reggie,” said George, turning to the plate, “sadly you have to return; but only temporarily to get things on a real footing.”