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The Vampire Hours

Death is life's way of telling us to slow down for a while; and after a period of adjustment, to be reborn as one of the undead. Continuity is our unasked-for destiny.
   Live we must, because we have no other choice.
Dear Friends:- Your humble narrator has been tried and condemned to do a week of overnights. No, this is not a cruel and unusual punishment decreed by the Feck-Monster. Rather, I suspect that the agent of my misfortune is his namesake, the elegantly perfumed if vertically challenged Jill Day. I suspect that she happened to be earwigging when I made a derogatory remark about her to Sally Lee, whom she kidnaps for rotten jobs on a regular basis.
   Basically, the job involves interfacing between the 24-hour TV news operation of Sentinel TV and the printed news operation. The two news-reporting agencies live at opposite ends of the slab of a building, to which I report on most days. For all the contact that I have with the TV news operation during the normal course of events, they might as well be located in a different country. Although their proximity does come in very handy when one is condemned to shift one's time frame so radically. One can go to work on autopilot, arrive at about the right place and make a minor course correction at the last minute.
   Assessments and updates; that's what the job is all about. Making sure that the next edition of the Sentinel & Advertiser carries the breaking news from the period when our half of the world is asleep.
   This would be an ideal time for quiet contemplation were it not for the interruptions. They come quite rarely but they have the annoying habit of coming when one is in the middle of an important private thought. In fact, they

"What did you say your name is again, love?"
   The questioner was a woman of indeterminate age in the artificial light. She could have been 28 or 38. But one thing was for certain about her appearance - her shock of bright, pillar-box-red hair was straight out of a bottle and at odds with her dark eyebrows. Yet for all its artificiality, it suited her and, in the strange place to which the writer had been condemned, it looked almost natural.
   "Petronas," said the writer.
   "No, your first name."
   The writer explained that he was Martin without the t.
   "Yes, that's what I thought you said. Okay, if you go to the Update directory, you'll see a new MP sub-directory. You'll find most of the stuff you need in there."
   "Fine." The writer gave her the confident smile which he usually inflicted on the Feck-Monster to tell him that Marin Petronas was one of the most competent people in the building.
   "If you have any problems, send me a message. Okay?"
   "'If stuck, message Chloe2'," the writer read from his notepad. "Don't go too far from your work station, then."
   "I'm sure you'll manage." Chloe smiled at him - a very pleasant experience for the recipient - then she headed back to her small office.
   The writer returned his attention to the work station and consulted the filing system. There were two items in the new sub-directory. Both required translation from material provided as a voice-over for more important pictures into the stuff of unsupported newspaper text.

Dear Friends:- One of the oddest things about being undead is that we move around in familiar surroundings yet we never see a familiar face. Well, hardly ever. The creatures of the night meet only those sad daytime colleagues who are workoholics.
   I was surprised to learn that there are people around who work the night shift on a permanent basis, living in another time zone in their own country, time-shifting TV and radio or watching or listening to repeats, of which there are more than plenty.
   Being undead must have its compensations for a certain type of person. For my own part, however, I must confess that I have been here only about five minutes and I'm fed up with it already.

His phone began to ring. The writer reached for the receiver, wondering who knew his number.
   "Hi, it's Chloe. Have you got your messages switched off?"
   "Not so much switched off as I've not got round to switching them on," the writer admitted. "How did you know?"
   "I sent you a message asking you how you take your coffee about five minutes ago."
   "Oh, right." The writer enabled his messages.

You Have 14 New Messages

   "How many messages did you send me, only the pop-up box says I've got 14," the writer told Chloe.
   "Just the one," she replied with a laugh.
   "Which means at least 12 of the others are bound to be a load of rubbish."
   "So how do you take it? Your coffee?"
   "Oh, right. No sugar, milk optional."
   "Are you ready for a break?"
   "I'll see you in a couple of minutes, then."
   The writer clicked on the OK button of the pop-up box.

How do you like your coffee? I'm ready for a break. How about you?
Chloe Overanche

The writer got on with Waste Of Time-rating his other messages. Most of them were zeros and ended up in his Read Later Box, prompting the arrival of another pop-up box.

Your Read Later Box Is Now Full
Condense Contents?

The writer permitted the condensing operation. One of the remaining messages was from Jackie Sydenham of the archive. She wanted to know if it was true that most of the night shift were vampires. Sports correspondent Jeff Boon wanted to know much the same thing.
   The writer sent both of them a reply which began with a mocking tone and then ended abruptly in the middle of a cry for help.
   "You're keen." Chloe Overanche, remarked, catching the writer typing the last of his message to Jeff Boon. She placed two styrofoam cups on his desk and folded herself elegantly into an ergonomic swivelling chair as the writer sent the message on its way.
   "It's funny, being here now is so different from being here during the day that you don't think of obvious things. Like the messages catching up with you, no matter what time of the day it is."
   "Yes, it is a bit odd. That way," Chloe flicked her bright red locks backwards, "in the TV world, it's a mad panic somewhere most of the time. At the other end, where you usually work," she tipped her head forward, "there's just the cleaners or the odd idiot with nowhere else to go."
   "How many people work in this no man's land?"
   "About twenty percent of them," laughed Chloe. "No, it's usually six to eight. Or five, like tonight. The others are all skiving off at the moment. You can get away with a lot of skiving. As long as there's someone here to keep things ticking over."
   "I'm surprised they haven't been swinging the redundancy axe around here. Or trimming things down to the level of the real demand."
   "Oh, there's lots of other stuff to get on with. Reg will give you the details when he finishes sucking up to the TV mob."
   "I take it, Reg is a bit of a contemptible crawler?" the writer said.
   "You know him?" Chloe asked with a frown.
   "That seemed to be the message coming across from you," the writer told her with a smile. "I've never met the guy, but I half hate him already."
   "To be fair, he's not that bad. It's just that he thinks life starts and ends with the TV set-up. And everything else is pretty much beneath his notice."
   "Ah, is this our new body?" an approaching male voice asked.
   "Marin, this is Reg Travis, the night liaison co-ordinator," said Cloe.
   The writer tried not to react and display shock when his eyes met those of a tall, cadaverous individual. Reg Travis looked like he could play one of Count Dracula's empties without the aid of make-up. The writer assumed that it was an effect of the artificial lights in the liaison area. They gave everything a different cast from the ones in the newsroom. These lights were distinctly colder and starker.
   "I'll just get some coffee then I'll put you in the picture," Travis added, changing direction before he reached hand-shaking range.
   "There's a treat for you," Chloe murmured as she collected her styrofoam cup. She flashed one of her smiles. "See you later."
   "Maybe we can do lunch," the writer suggested. "If you still call it lunch in the middle of the night."
   "Oh, yes. Most of us. See you later."
   The writer braced himself for instruction from Reg.

Dear Friends:- Life can drag at times. Not being able to concentrate for fear of being interrupted at a vital moment leaves a lot of space to fill.
   One of the things that I find myself doing is composing pointless messages to my undead, daytime colleagues - and then deleting them instead of sending them when it comes to the choke point. Things like:

Life as we know it ain't working.
M. Petronas
Obliteration to the masses!

Who needs life after death? What we need is a life before death!
M. Petronas
Obliteration to the masses!

I am getting a lot more of my own stuff written but I'm finding the surroundings disorientating. I suspect that I shall feel right at home here by the end of the week - when my stint as one of the undead comes to an end. But that's life all over, ain't it?

As well as Cloe Overanche, the writer met - briefly - Dave One, Dave Two, Steph, Mikey, Ann, Paula and Min. He also noticed, lurking about, a very pale blonde - both hair colour and complexion - with the brightest of red lipsticks. He was never quite sure whether she worked in the liaison unit or she just sneaked in there to get away from the mad panics of the TV operation.
   Chloe, the writer decided, was rather like Sally Lee in that she wanted someone to talk to - indeed, indulging in conversation was necessary for her physical well-being. Like Sally, she was likely to explode if she was not allowed the release of chatting to someone from time to time during the working 'day'.
   The others, the writer discovered, were rather secretive types who remained crouched over their work stations, busy on personal projects, when the dead hand of having to do things to earn a living was lifted from them. Ann, a middle-aged woman with the sort of anorexic frame which can handle a pair of jeans without filling them to overflowing, was about the only one of the others who had much to say for herself.
   Her personal project was raiding the NASA, OSF, JPL and similar astronomy-based websites for pictures of the cosmos and articles on interesting bits of it. She would spend about an hour on-line hunting and then four to five hours off-line, re-writing the HTML code of her captured files to eliminate irrelevant bits, such as logos, surplus graphics and links which she would not be retaining.
   The Daves, Chloe believed, were researching the lives of some obscure Balkan poets. She had no idea whether it was a personal project or a commission from some academic, but she suspected the latter. The others refused to talk about what they were doing.
   Reg Travis was a bit like the Feck-Meister - in attitude if not in bulk and physical presence. Like Pierson Day, he tended to appear in the main office when he wanted to spread joy among the workers and then disappear back into the TV world for hours on end. Unlike Pierson Day, he seemed a fairly reasonable bloke who could appreciate a job well done and the value of having someone around who put his personal projects on hold right away when some work came along.
   There was some sort of history between Reg Travis and Chloe Overanche. The writer made the deduction but decided not to probe the matter further. There was no point if he was filling in among the undead for just one week and it was better, he felt, to be on friendly terms with Chloe than to be classed as an ally of her enemy.

Dear Friends:- It's strange to be in an alternative universe, where I am the only one aware of the Feck-Monster's existence. But I can feel his presence when I scan my complimentary copy of the Sentinel & Advertiser. Particularly on the letters page. There are currents aswirling, back in the land of the living.
   Dangerous currents. Maybe being stuck in the land of the undead is not such a bad career move after all!

Having two people to talk to, Chloe admitted during lunch in a café in the world of TV, was a fair treat but not a rare one. All of the people moved from daytime to night-time fill-in work for a week - about one per month, on average - were willing to chat. It was only the permanent night staff, apart from Ann, who tended to have more important things to do.
   The café was a strange place to someone who was still adjusted to daytime living. There were two large 'windows' in the wall opposite the service counter and they displayed an ever-changing street scene. Chloe, a skilled virtual luncher, took one look at the current view and announced that they were in Rome, Italy. A van wearing an advertising slogan in Italian went past a couple of minutes later to offer some confirmation.
   The writer pondered the notion of including a similar establishment in one of his novels. If anything, the idea seemed a little too cute and fantastical to be true. For once, the real world was being a little more exotic than was good for it.

Dear Friends:- One constant factor in my week-long night is that I continue to hear the voices of the still living. When I log on to a work station - not my usual one, for the undead 'interfaces' congregate in their own, special zone, which lies closer to the ever-throbbing heart of the TV operation than to the Sentinel & Advertiser newsroom.
   When I log on, their messages seek me out. All of the accumulating flotsam of the day washes up on the shores of night. I am in touch, but not necessarily happy about it.

To his surprise, the writer found that adjusting to sleeping at a peculiar time, for a natural day-liver, was not a problem. Resetting a spare watch so that he started work at eight forty-five a.m., subjective time, allowed him to take his meals at the normal times and to go to bed at his 'usual time' after time-shifting. Knowing where he was in his personal world seemed to make it work for him.
   The messages were disconcerting, though. As his week wore on, the writer found himself thinking that the communications from 'the other side' had less and less relevance of his undead life. On Thursday night, he logged on to his work station and refused to accept the pop-up box's intrusion. He zapped it via the Cancel button and went to his personal sub-directory to find out if there was anything for him to do.
   A period of work followed. And then a period of working on a personal project. The next incarnation of the pop-up box told the writer:

You Now Have 27 Unread Messages

The writer frowned at the box, trying to remember whether it had told him that he had had 27 new messages at log-on. In theory, it should have appeared again only if someone had added to his total of messages since he had zapped it, but he still did not trust the messaging system after its recent trickery. In the end, he resorted to his ally, the 2 coin. It came down 'heads'. The writer allowed the messaging system to give him the first of his unread communications.

I need a coffee break. How about you?
Chloe Overanche

Chloe was working about four yards away, diagonally to his right. She had abandoned her office for some reason. The writer could see her sitting with her hands on her head, glaring at her monitor screen. It was a posture which Chloe tended to adopt when she was feeling frustrated. Feeling like someone disturbing the peace of a library, the writer emitted a brief whistle.
   He had to repeat the sound before Chloe got the message and turned her head. The writer made a drinking motion in front of his face with a cupped hand. Chloe put her hands together in silent prayer and looked hopeful. The writer headed for the coffee dispenser. There was nothing much happening and another chat with Chloe would help to pass the time until the flow of inspiration resumed.
   The writer was feeling fully adjusted to his surroundings even if he was still new enough to them to wonder which part of the world would lie beyond the virtual windows of the café at 'lunchtime'.

Dear Friends:- Some of the messages which get through to me are personal ones, usually questioning my sanity after the weird ramblings which occasionally slip through my self-censoring intentions to zap all such nonsense.
   Both Sally and Archive Jackie keep in touch regularly and J.B. remembers me when he puts in his occasional appearances in the office.
   No one seems to know what is going on around them, however. The Feck-Monster's storm is still brewing. Maybe it would be safer to be undead when it breaks.
   Unfortunately, this is not an available option as it is Friday and I have to report back to the realm of the living next week.

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