Leisure vehicle users were dying. They were going to sleep in their shiny ‘vans and just not waking up. Various theories were advanced for this phenomenon, including foul play by person or persons unknown, but nobody could actually put their finger on a cause. After some months of speculation. a government-sponsored study was set up. It discovered that people did indeed die in leisure vehicles far more frequently than was statistically explainable – even given the average age of the people concerned.
The findings were, of course, summarily dismissed by leisure vehicle builders as being merely an attempt to frighten customers, and the biggest players in the market banded together in defence of their profitable product.
For a while the buying public was convinced, but a proliferation of news stories about unexplained deaths began to seriously erode consumer confidence and the industry looked as if it would be reporting a drop in profits for the first time in living memory.
This was intolerable, so an emergency meeting of the big boys was convened to look into what could be done to repair the situation.
After a bit of fencing, the industry giants were forced to admit that some sort of a gesture was needed, and it was decided that the players would go away and have a think, reconvening in twenty-eight days with suggestions.
The second meeting was a noisy affair with not a few theories flying around the huge boardroom table. Some advocated an advertising campaign featuring holograms and huge city-centre billboards. Another faction was convinced by special edition models with gorgeous graphics and over-the-top specifications. Both options were considered seriously before being dismissed as being insufficiently impressive.
There was, however, one suggestion that nobody was prepared to entertain for a moment. It was proposed by a group of research and development operatives, who humbly suggested trying to discover whether leisure vehicles might indeed possess some underlying fault that could be responsible for the deaths. The scientist sent to present this unpalatable notion was lucky to escape the convocation with his skin intact, and it was made abundantly clear that such politically unpalatable ideas were not to be entertained.
The unfortunate scientist called his friends to report drawing a blank, and, although nobody was much surprised, there was more than a little disappointment among his peers. A small inner group determined to carry on researching the deaths, while resolving to keep what they were doing under wraps.
Meanwhile the wrangling among the bosses went on for days, with nothing of any substance being decided. In the end another four-week recess was called, and the delegates went away to bully their underlings for some better plans.
While the bullying and chivvying was going on, a very young research assistant beavering away in a design facility in the USA made a disturbing discovery. There was one factor that was common to every ‘van in which unexplained deaths had occurred. Each was fitted with a relatively new and spectacularly efficient battery system, part of which was a wireless control box enabling users to manage all the vehicle functions from their mobile phones. He postulated that there had to be a connection between the system and the fatalities, but the connotations of that were so sinister that nobody was willing to talk about it. The young geek was told to go and find some concrete evidence, and to keep his mouth shut until he did.
While this was going on, the big bosses met for the third time to thrash out an appropriate response to the growing unease. To say the meeting was tetchy is to massively understate the case. The arguments raged back and forth, and men in suits all but came to blows up and down the polished wood of the conference table.
In the end, the Managing Director of the biggest player of all stood up and spoke.
“What we should do,” he said portentously, “is host a worldwide series of long weekend rallies. Rallies with free food, free beer and free entertainment. By this means we will gain much public approval and prove to the doubters that leisure vehicles are absolutely safe.”
He paused for effect.
“We should each host at least one rally. More if we can. We offer free tickets to customers. We invite the world’s press to stay in ‘vans at the rallies. And we ourselves act as hosts of the events, also staying in ‘vans. Does anybody have a better idea?”
Of course nobody did and once the wave of arguments and counter-proposals died down, the job of making arrangements was handed to an army of administrators and gofers.
A paper-thin Latvian gentleman smiled thinly, and made a series of cryptic phone calls once he was in his chauffeur-driven Bentley. The upshot of these calls was a dramatic drop in the trade price of a certain battery system and a corresponding rise in production at a manufacturing plant in northern Germany.
The Latvian met an even thinner man in a private room at a very famous fish restaurant in Barcelona and, over course after course of seafood, into which neither man made much inroads, he reported the upshot of the industry meetings. His host laughed, a short humourless sound, and rubbed his hands together.
“It appears,” he remarked in a colourless and precise voice, “that I may have my vengeance at an earlier date than I could have expected. How did you arrange that?”
“We encouraged a young lady of dubious virtue to drop a suggestion in the ear of a certain gentleman. And he swallowed it.”
“Very good. You have my thanks. The second instalment of your fee will be in your bank tomorrow.”
When the Latvian had bowed himself out of the room the other man picked up his phone and dialled a number. When it was answered he had a quiet-voiced conversation with somebody on the other end. Had there been anyone in the room, they might have noticed the whitening of his knuckles as he held the phone and the single tear that coursed down the side of his rather beaky nose, but he was alone so those rare signs of emotion went unseen. He ended the call and sat for a while regarding his own hands with a grim set to his mouth. Then he spoke coldly and with absolute precision.
“Your little cartel declared war on me and mine all those years ago. Now you are about to pay your debts.”
Then he rose from his seat and left the room, walking very quietly.
High summer in the northern hemisphere saw hundreds of venues prepared to receive visitors. Enormous marquees had been erected, catering companies were roasting pigs and sheep, beers and wines were ready to serve, sound checks had been carried out by expensive musicians, and ‘vans began arriving to be pitched in serried ranks by an armies of smiling marshals in smart uniforms.
At close to the end of the working day on the Friday groups of influential journalists were bused into the each of the various venues. The biggest North American rally was taking place in a huge grassy valley in Utah, and the bus paused on the lip of that valley to permit its passengers a view of the immensity of the undertaking.
A young female news anchor shuddered.
“Look at them,” she pointed at row upon row of all but identical ‘vans pitched with mathematical precision as far as the eye could see. “Will you just look. How does anybody tell them apart? They are fucking clones. Can you imagine being lost among rows and rows of those things?”
A tall Texan grinned.
“Yup. They are mostly indistinguishable. However. According to the press pack, that I seem to be the only one to have read, each ‘van has a homing device accessed via an app on your mobi.”
The girl shuddered again.
“I like that even less. It’s too much like being led along by the nose. And how does anybody know all those things aren’t talking to each other? Talking and plotting. It’s creepy. I’m not staying. Nobody could pay me enough to stay. I’ll walk out if need be.”
The bus driver gave her a thumbs up.
“Just stay on the bus then. I’m dropping off, and heading home. I don’t like this vibe any more than you do.”
The young woman stubbornly stayed on the bus, even in the face of telephone threats from her bosses and increasingly desperate entreaties from representatives of the industry. Something about the setup had her rattled and she wasn’t entirely comfortable until she was on an aeroplane heading home.
Friday evening saw each carefully orchestrated rally swinging into action, and the charm offensive for the world’s media turned up to megawatt intensity. Nobody mentioned the young American anchor, or two Italians, one Frenchwoman, and a Japanese, none of whom could be persuaded to spend any time at all enjoying the hospitality.
As the rally attendees partied, a serious-minded young researcher logged in at a secret facility in Cincinnati. He was convinced there was something wrong with the battery system that now powered more than ninety per cent of leisure vehicles. But he couldn’t for the life of him see what. He should have been at home for his brother’s birthday party, but something inside his head insisted he needed to be in his laboratory. His family excused him and he sat regarding the two examples of the system set up in glass boxes on the laboratory bench.
Something was going to happen, he was sure, he just wasn’t sure he wanted to know what.
Midnight found the last of the music petering out and even the hardiest of ralliers returning to their accommodation. The tall Texan looked at the phone in his hand as it pulled him gently towards his allotted ‘van. He found himself feeling hugely uneasy, and cursed the nervous anchorwoman under his breath. He shrugged his muscular shoulders, unlocked the door of his palatial home on wheels and pulled his soft bag out of the cupboard. Slipping the bag onto his back he rolled up the duvet from the king-sized bed and stuck it under his arm before making his silent way out of the ranks of silver-sided monsters and up the escarpment to a level meadow where he could roll himself in the duvet and sleep under the stars.
Two hours later, in Cincinnati, the researcher was awoken by a message notification, something was talking to his two battery systems. Some elementary instinct for self preservation had him carefully closing the airtight doors on the glass cases before checking his gauges. Nothing. Then he heard the distinctive sound of breaking glass. In each of the systems set up for study a tiny blown-glass vial, which the schematic of the devices said was something to do with self-levelling, had exploded and its contents dripped through a grating into the largest of the batteries. The gauges went wild. It was nerve gas. Powerful nerve gas. The researcher grabbed for his phone, all the while fearing himself to be too late. Two hours later he gave up on trying to contact anybody at any of the rallies. He put his head down on his bench and let the bitter tears fall.
Some hours later in Utah, the Texan awoke with the sun in his eyes, and stretched before sitting up with a rueful grin. It must, he thought, be very early still as there wasn’t a sound in the valley below him. He looked at his watch, then stiffened. That couldn’t be right. It couldn’t be after nine. If it was, the valley would be abuzz with activity. Breakfast was scheduled to start at eight, and by nine there should have been volleyball, tennis, soccer, watercolour painting, and all manner of activities going into on below him. Something was wrong. Badly wrong. He dragged his phone out of his trouser pocket and called for help.
While he waited for the police to arrive he watched the valley, alert for any sign of movement. Of course there was none.
Just shy of fifteen hundred people fell asleep in that valley. None of them ever awoke.
It was the same story all over the world.
Nobody ever moved any of the ‘vans from the venue in Utah and for all we know they are still talking to each other as they quietly rot away where they stand…