On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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“I really can’t stress enough the importance of reading this document,” the man in the dark suit said. “This isn’t a just-click-the-agree-button situation. You should sit down and read this entire thing, right here and now, and then only sign it if you truly agree to be bound by its terms.”

Mills looked up from the paperwork at the man he’d met only ten minutes earlier. There wasn’t a hint of humour to be found, and nor was there a hint of any other emotion either. The man radiated only patience and detachment, and Mills sensed that it came from a lifetime of feeling completely secure in his position of superior knowledge and power. Mills nodded, refocused his attention, and began to read.

It was an unusual job, to say the least. Mills was a consultant software engineer, but it was actually something he’d done in his free time that had apparently been the genesis of the enquiry he received a few days earlier. For most of his professional life, and indeed his personal life, Mills had been frustrated at just how many different computer systems and interfaces he encountered on a daily basis. Everything was different. Computers, tablets, phones, and then all the ambient technology all around, like smart televisions, video games consoles, ticket machines, car entertainment and navigation systems, and so on. It was confusing and annoying. And so he’d set out to produce at least a theory of how a universal computer interface would work, and ultimately Mills had ended up with something like a four-hundred-page academic paper on the subject. He published it on his blog, and a few dozen people probably read it, and that was that. It had been years ago now.

The phone call was quite a surprise — not least because getting enquiries via phone at all these days was strange — and given that travel costs would be paid and Mills’ work life was quiet at the moment, he had agreed. The journey had been long, and the last couple of hours of it after landing was in a private vehicle whose windows were tinted so heavily that he genuinely couldn’t see where he was being taken. When he disembarked, it was to a parking area in front of a low building, with woodland all around.

Signing the document he was reading was an absolute requirement before proceeding with the meeting. He’d been told he was free to refuse to sign it, in which case he’d be promptly returned to the airport and could go on with his life — but if he did choose to sign, then the opportunity was lucrative, ongoing, and would provide challenges he’d never encountered before, as well as an opportunity to further his field significantly. A tempting offer, and Mills found he wasn’t as surprised as he should have been when he saw the draconian clauses in what was a unique kind of non-disclosure agreement.

“Imprisonment?” he asked, and the man in the dark suit nodded casually.

“Oh yes,” the man replied. “If you do choose to proceed, and if you then tell anyone at all — ever —about anything revealed to you as part of this project, you’ll be subject to immediate and life-long imprisonment, without possibility of parole, and without a trial or any due process at all. Automatically. No appeals, either. And the same applies to everyone you tell, without exception.”

Mills blinked. In a strange way, it was both exciting and also sort of a relief. He’d always assumed that such systems of extrajudicial punishment existed in secret, no matter what laws and democracy might say about it, and he was oddly reassured to have finally come up against them. Mills had no-one in his life, really, except for a few friends that he spoke to mostly online. There was no-one he was motivated to reveal any secrets to, and honestly he doubted that whatever the project dealt with was sufficiently intriguing to anyone except national security officers or their foreign counterparts.

He read the rest of the document, but it was really just more of the same, and an elaboration of the terms the man had just described. Mills was feeling fatalistic today, and his curiosity was now overwhelming.

“You didn’t just contact me because I wrote the paper, did you?” he asked. “You could have given my paper to anyone else, after all. You psychologically profiled me too.”

The man nodded, seeming pleased. “Absolutely. You’re a loner, intellectual to the point of social detachment, and your interpersonal relationships, such as they are, are subservient to your work. You value knowledge over position, and opportunity over ego. You’re ideal for us.”

Mills nodded. He couldn’t deny any of that, and it would be irrational to do so under the circumstances. He picked up the pen on the table, flicked to the final page of the stapled document, and signed his name.

“Good,” the man in the dark suit said. “Let’s get to it, then.”

He gestured to Mills to join him, leaving the document and the pen on the table, and Mills understood that it had really been a test. No court would ever enforce or even endorse those conditions, so his signature had been a formality. He was bound by them nonetheless, and these people didn’t require documentary proof in order to operate. Again, he found it all reassuringly simple.

The elevator in the next room wasn’t a surprise either, despite the building having only a single storey as seen from outside. They descended in silence, with Mills content to wait for revelation to be delivered to him. The doors opened again after a short while, and Mills was pleased to once again have his expectations met: a corridor longer than the entire surface-level building stretched out in front of him, with a large door at the end. They approached it, and the man in the dark suit began to speak.

“We were impressed by your work,” he said. “It’s not an exciting topic in itself, but it’s necessary. Interoperability of systems has been a real problem for us. We’re more than willing to redesign from the ground up in favour of efficiency, and we need a long-term solution. Your paper was very promising in several regards, though there’s a fair bit more work to be done.”

“On what aspects?” Mills asked. “I thought it was fairly comprehensive.”

“In terms of what you’ve been working with, yes,” the man replied. “But we have some strategic partners on this who have their own hardware and software. We’re hoping to circumvent future problems by making sure we have not just a common technology stack where possible, but also definitely a common software architecture and user interface layer. Compatibility from both a user and machine perspective is incredibly important. We don’t want to be constantly re-training people for trivial aspects of their work.”

Mills nodded, impressed with both the directness and the man’s obvious knowledge of the area. The door was opening now, revealing a larger chamber beyond with various people working around the perimeter. There were wall-mounted displays and rows of terminals, and the whole layout was very reminiscent of any number of military command centres he’d seen in endless movies and TV shows.

“I think I can help you with that,” Mills said, and the man nodded in agreement. “Can you tell me a bit more about the systems your partners are using? Is it in-house stuff? What’s the general domain? I’m assuming defence.”

“Amongst other things,” the man replied. “And you could say it’s proprietary, certainly. They’re sending a test system with some common software, running in isolation. The shipment should be here in half an hour or so. It’s had to come a long way.”

Mills glanced around at the large screens, not really understanding the diagrams and figures. “From overseas? Are we talking about integrating with foreign government systems directly?”

The man shrugged. “In a manner of speaking. And also yes to the overseas part, depending on how you define it. You see,” he said, gesturing to a highlighted point on the largest display, moving steadily along several curves that Mills didn’t understand the significance of, “that’s our package there, on its way in. Looks like about another twenty-seven minutes until it lands here. Been en-route for six days.”

Mills frowned. Nowhere on Earth was six days away by air transport. The man watched as the pieces fell into place.

“You’ll get some training on their systems first, then you can get to work finding commonalities. Just be sure to act nice and polite when they drop it off. Expensive business to get one of their computers to us at short notice.”

Mills looked around, asking himself the question to which he already knew the answer. “Expensive,” he repeated, and the man nodded.

“You don’t even want to know the fuel cost of one-week shipping over a hundred and forty light years.”

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