Escape Pod 309: The Insurance Agent

The Insurance Agent

By Lavie Tidhar

The bar was packed and everyone was watching the Nixon-Reagan match. The fighters were reflected off the bar’s grainy wood countertop and the tables’ gleaming surfaces and seemed to melt as they flickered down the legs of the scattered chairs. The bar was called the Godhead, which had a lot to do with why I was there. It was a bit of an unfair fight as Reagan was young, pre-presidency, circa-World War Two, while Nixon was heavy-set, older: people were exchanging odds and betting with the bar’s internal gaming system and the general opinion seemed to be that though Reagan was in better shape Nixon was meaner.

I wasn’t there for the match.

The Godhead was on Pulau Sepanggar, one of the satellite islands off Borneo, hence nominally under Malaysian federal authority but in practice in a free zone that had stronger ties to the Brunei Sultanate. It was a convenient place to meet, providing easy access to the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and, of course, Singapore, which resented the island’s role as a growing business centre yet found it useful at the same time.

She wore a smart business suit and a smart communication system that looked like what it was, which was a custom-made gold bracelet on her left arm. She wore smart shades and I was taking a bet that she wasn’t watching the fight. She was drinking a generic Cola but there was nothing generic about her. I slid into a chair beside her and waited for her shades to turn transparent and notice me.

‘Drink, Mr. Turner?’

I liked the name Turner. It was Anglo-Saxon generic, a mid-level executive’s name, white as beige. ‘Call me James,’ I said. I liked James too. You could tell what a James Turner did just by hearing his name. The rest of me was tailor-made for the name, had been for some time: I had the kind of tan that suggested I had been East for just long enough to have acquired it, black hair that was short but not too short and had a decent but not overly-expensive cut, pale blue eyes behind shades that cost a lot of money to look like a knock-off.

There was a suggestion of a smile in the corners of her mouth and she said, ‘I don’t think I will.’

‘Mr. Turner, then,’ I said. ‘One name’s good as another.’

‘Quite,’ she said. There was something dismissive in that single word. For the likes of you, was what it implied. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I think I’ll have that drink.’

‘Preference?’ she said.

I said ‘Orange juice,’ wanted vodka. She didn’t say anything, didn’t have to. A moment later a waiter glided over and deposited the drink on the table, moisture condensing on the outer surface of the manifold that was the glass. I took a sip, put it down again into the ring of water that had immediately formed. Below, Nixon knocked out Reagan in the second round. I heard groans and shouts around me, tried to tune them out.

‘What can I do for you?’ I said.

I couldn’t quite tell where she was from. She had pale skin carefully kept out of the sun, an Oxford-acquired accent and eyes I couldn’t see. She said, ‘I would like to buy insurance.’

‘That,’ I said, possibly a little stiffly, ‘is why we’re here.’

‘Quite,’ she said again, and I felt I won the round – she did not like to waste her words and by answering me she had already thrown out six.

‘Is this personal insurance or –?’ I said and she said, a little too quickly, ‘Personal.’

‘Who’s the IE?’ I said.

She frowned for a moment and I could almost feel her scanning some remote database. Then she relaxed and again I had the impression of an almost-smile. The next fight was announced, Lenin versus Ho Chi Minn. I’d heard a rumour the company behind the fights modelled Lenin on his actual, mummified body, but it seemed unlikely. I don’t know how they did Uncle Ho.

They were circling each other and I was taking a sip of juice when she said, ‘The Insurable Entity’s name is Kim,’ and I almost choked on a cube of ice, which wasn’t very professional.

‘Do you fear she is in danger?’

It was her round and she knew it. She didn’t answer me but she smiled. Of course she was in danger. Aliens always are.

To understand Kim, you have to understand the Alien Theory of Spiritual Beings. It has been in and out of vogue since the early twentieth century, and goes something as follows:

There have always been, throughout human history, figures of extraordinary spiritual power, who have changed the course of human history. These figures have been, without exception, aliens.

As a theory it isn’t quite provable, of course. And purists always argue about the List. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Jean D’arc, L. Ron Hubbard, Elvis, Uri Geller, sure. But what about Marx, Hildegard of Bingen, Madonna or Ogko (if he was even real?). The problem was that the theory gained, if not credibility, then popular appeal some time post-Ogko and, to make matter worse, was complicated with the addition of the Conflict Codicil.

The Conflict Codicil of the Alien Theory of Spiritual Beings suggests that the alien manifestations on Earth belong to two or more opposing factions. What these factions are, or how many of them exist, is unknown, but the addition of the CC led to several bloodied clashes, most notably the Gellerite-Elron War in the South Pacific and the destruction of the Singularity Jesus project in South East Asia by forces unknown (various factions have been accused over the years, including Mossad, the Vatican and the SCR, the so-called Special Committee on Relativity, since listed as a terrorist organisation by the UN).

Which is where I come into all this.

I took the shuttle to Kota Kinabalu. From there by plane to Kuala Lumpur and from KL to Ho Chi Minn City, to find out I was in the wrong country altogether and Kim had left by then and no one knew where. It was my job to find out where and so I did, but it took me two days and then I was on a private helicopter going over Laos and into the badlands.

Kim, I only found out later, was about to declare herself independent. She and her followers had acquired land that straddled the borders of Laos, Thailand and the country that was variously known as Myanmar or Burma. The intersection used to be called the Golden Triangle and it was, literally, a dump.

Over the years, various factions in South East Asia found it useful to dump unwanted things into the forests of the badlands. Discarded Vietnamese battle dolls; Thai war drones that refused to shut themselves down and lived in complicated social flocks; Chinese nanogoo that never quite worked the way it was supposed to; in other words, crap. The drug trade was out ever since opium production for medical purposes was authorised for the entire region (previously almost the sole domain of India and Tasmania) by the UN, and the former heroin labs were abandoned and moved to new industrial cities where the offices were much better. Newsweek called it The Morphine Revolution in a cover story and then everyone did a good job of forgetting the whole thing ever took place. The first thing Kim said to me was: ‘I don’t need protection.’

‘With all due respect,’ I said. ‘Your advisors disagree.’

‘My advisors know shit.’

I could see why it was easy to fall in love with her. She was born a boy, was a popular boxer in her teen years, had the operation, stayed a popular boxer for a couple more years, branched into films, a brief pop career, and then came her revelation and before you knew it there were Temples of Kim in every major city on the continent and the North Americans were begging to be let to join. ‘I was hired to guard you,’ I said.

‘I can take care of myself.’

‘With all due respect,’ I said again, and she smiled, and said, ‘that just means you do not have respect.’

‘I have a job,’ I said. She nodded, once. ‘Fine. Just don’t get in my fucking way.’

She had a way with words, Kim did. The first tenet of the Book of Kim says: Do not fuck up. The second tenet is: If you do, hide the evidence.

So I did my job.

There was nothing to do but watch American wrestling, which was still live. The whole camp felt as if it were waiting for something, and I worried it might be another rapture. There was shit in jungles. I installed perimeter defences, sent out bat-scouts to fly and report back, anti-missile weaponry, a firewall. Kim had surprisingly wide bandwidth going into her camp and I didn’t know what she did with it. Every day followers would come. Some came by car, some on foot, some arrived in helicopters. I didn’t see the woman who hired me though I sent her daily reports. My people tried to be unobtrusive, and they were good at that, but still. I was getting edgier by the day, knowing I wasn’t being paid the amount I was getting to sit around watching the two hundredth and twenty-second reincarnation of the Undertaker fight in the ring. I didn’t even know where the threat would come from. It didn’t seem reasonable that another Spiritual Entity or various faction groups were in the area – and I checked, and there weren’t. And the other SEs all had their own insurance policies anyway. We regulated the industry quite well, and there hadn’t been a major SE war in a long time.

But Kim was obviously expecting trouble of some sort, and so I worried and checked the defences and the news networks and stuck close to Kim, and I was with her when she went into the forest.

Kim was the name she chose for herself when she became a player, because it had a nice all-American girl’s name ring to it. Call it alien, call it SE, call it what you will but sometimes it is as if the old entity had been cast off, a new one taken its place. Rumour is that it happened that way with Ogko but no one really ever understood Ogko properly. I had been a follower of Ogko for a while (a lot of people are, when they’re young) and I never understood it either.

Kim was different. She swore a lot and she drank and she watched American wrestling and she was very much – alive, I guess is the word I’d use. She wasn’t very holy, but then neither were Elvis or Geller or Ogko. I followed her into the jungle.

She had decided to go on her own. I said, ‘You can’t do that.’

‘I can do whatever the fuck I want.’

‘I will come with you.’

She only shrugged. ‘Whatever,’ she said.

We left the camp. I had arranged for the bat-drones to go discretely ahead and for some of my people to follow us at a distance. Kim didn’t seem to mind. I should have sensed trouble. I didn’t.

My first sign of things going wrong came when the feed from the bat-drones turned into static. Then there were some wet explosions behind us and I panicked. Kim seemed oblivious to the whole thing. She sat in the lotus position, eyes closed, breathing deeply and evenly. I built a hasty setup of motion mines around her and doubled back.

My team was gone.

I found the remains of one, an ex-Swiss Guard, spread out across several thick-trunked trees. There was a silence in the forest that was unsettling. It was impossible to see the skies through the canopy, had been for some time, and I felt trapped inside that net of growing trees, oppressed by the heat and the humidity and the insects and the knowledge someone had just eliminated my team. I went back and Kim was still sitting there, meditating or asleep or doing fuck knows what. I didn’t disable the mines. I said, ‘Kim, we have a problem.’

She didn’t even open her eyes. she murmured, ‘No, you have a problem.’

There is a long distinguished protocol for SE to go off into a wilderness and there achieve some sort of new equilibrium. Ogko was inspired by the death of a backpacker who drowned in the Mekong (in The Way of Ogko). Jesus went into the desert (in The New Testament). Geller went into the jungle (in I’m A Celebrity, Get Me out of Here!). I said, ‘Kim, did you wipe out my team?’

She didn’t answer, but I knew it wasn’t impossible.

When she surfaced she didn’t say a word to me, just shouldered her backpack and kept walking. I followed. I worried about an external agency. Someone killed my people. Someone disabled the drones. Someone was out there and I had the suspicion Kim had gone out into the jungle to meet them.

If I was being honest, I was afraid of aliens.

I don’t subscribe to the AToSE. There has been no evidence of alien intelligences on Earth, nor of any radically new theory that would allow to break the speed of light. If there were aliens they were a long way away, on their own alien planets, worrying about their own alien politics, their own crazy SEs. The problem, though was that it depended on your definition of aliens.

There were things in the jungle that shouldn’t have been there. Kim seemed strangely immune to them. I wasn’t. The first came when a tree tried to kill me. We were passing through a coconut grove when they began to fall down. Coconuts fall silently, but usually as long as you’re aware of the danger you can avoid it. This, however, was not a single coconut dropping, but a bombardment. The trees stretched above my head and, as they did, their trunks bending like the necks of giraffes, they dropped their fruit directly above me. Kim walked calmly ahead. I began to run and the coconut trees stretched to follow me, massive green coconuts falling in absolute silence, narrowly missing my head, exploding at my feet. As I ran a tree root tripped me up. I turned on my back and stared directly at the falling load and knew it would burst my brain open and that would be the end of that. I felt strangely calm about it. The air smelled very thick with fragrance, there had been strange little white flowers growing all over this region. The coconuts seemed to fall in slow motion, cannonballs or daisy-cutters dropped from a great height.

Kim saved my life. It was perhaps at that point that madness set in.

What does it mean to be mad? Were the SEs, all throughout the age, mad themselves? Perhaps madness is seeing the world in a different light, perhaps it is seeing things that are not there. But how much more crazy is it when they can then transfer their vision of the world, this stream of skewered, alien data, from themselves into other people?

The coconuts slowed in mid-air. They hovered above my head, ready to fall down and smash it, ready to cave-in my skull, destroy neural pathways, erase the entity that thought of itself, collectively, as I. They never did. They hovered in the air and then Kim came closer and batted two of them aside – I heard them hit the ground with a thud and roll to a standstill – held the third one with her palm upturned, reached with her other hand and gently split it open. I rolled from the it and stood up. The ground was covered with green coconuts like rolled heads. ‘Come,’ Kim said. ‘Look.’

I looked. I couldn’t help it. She had split open the coconut as if it were made of something soft and pliable and she showed me its inside.

There was a tiny living-room in there.

Table, chairs. An old-fashioned tv of a defunct Japanese make. Tiny cups and saucers on the table. A fire place. ‘No one in,’ Kim said, sounding sad. I stared at her, stared at the open coconut. ‘What are you doing to me?’ I said, or thought I did. She said, ‘Come on.’ She let go of the coconut and, like in one of those magic tricks that use invisible thread, it stayed suspended in the air. I reached out and touched it. The moment I did it fell to the ground. Kim said, ‘Come on,’ and started walking again. I stared at the coconuts lying on the ground, wondering what each of them hid inside. Then I followed Kim, deeper into the forest.

How do I describe that journey into the forest? One could never see the sun beyond the canopy. Things slithered and crawled on the ground where the mulch of dead leaves, branches and roots had its own odour, its own separate life. How do I describe my certainty that the trees were watching me, that unseen assailants were lying in wait, that things will end up badly?

My people had died. I walked like Lear, alone and crazy. I was a tow-boat and Kim was my anchor, but an anchor to what? She made me see things her way.

I don’t know how long we travelled in that region. The first night we camped in a clearing. I built a fire while Kim stared off into space. I began to hear voices. They came from nowhere. They spoke in a multitude of languages. It was like being tuned in at once to a thousand audio channels. Kim seemed to be listening for them too. Occasionally she would seem to reply. At some point the ground shook. Kim had slowly turned around to the source of the quake. I watcher her. The ground shook and something came out of the ground. It was a dull-grey, earth-brown creature. It shook and shivered as it climbed from its hole. It took me a moment to recognise it. A semi-autonomous mine-layer, of an old Vietnamese make. Kim called to it and the machine crawled towards her, and she slowly stroked its head, murmuring to it. After a moment the thing turned back, its snout pointing at the ground, and began to dig. Soon it was gone back into the earth.

‘What are we doing here, Kim?’

She smiled. ‘We are going,’ she said, ‘on a journey.’

‘No shit.’

‘Language, Mr. Turner.’ Then she turned to me and the smile melted away and she said, ‘What is your name?’

‘James,’ I said. ‘James Turner.’

She shrugged. ‘I have no doubt you used some extremely clever algorithm to come up with that name,’ she said. ‘However, it won’t serve you very well in this place.’

We use names like shields. We use names to blend in. I tried to remember my original name and couldn’t. I said, ‘What is your name, Kim?’

‘I have no name,’ she said. ‘Not here. One must be honest, here.’

‘Then I shall have no name either,’ I said. ‘In the interest of honesty.’

She smiled at that. ‘Good,’ she said.

Why did I have the feeling she had trapped me then?

I knew then that the insurance contract had been a scam. I had been set up, hired for something I was not prepared for. She did not need my protection – I needed her. And yet…

I said, ‘Where are we going?’

She said, ‘To the place where names begin.’

We came to an open area where the forest had been pushed back. There were banana trees here and wild drones flying overhead in formation. I watched them hunt, firing tiny missiles at an animal running through the trees. I watched them sit motionless in the sun, recharging. Kim called to them and they flew to her and one perched on her hand. There were too many deadly things in this place and they all came to Kim. With the exception of the trees before, they ignored me. We walked in the open and I was grateful for the sun. Then we went back into the trees.

The attack came at night. I had been stumbling after Kim. It was very dark, and there were noises in the forest. I no longer knew where I was, what my name had been, I knew nothing but Kim, but she was no longer there. Something erupted from the trees and slammed into me. I fell back and it was on top of me. I grappled with it. It felt alive, though there was metal there too. I could not see it. My breathing was very loud to myself. I punched and tried to roll away but it had me pinned down and I used a miniature device, a pen like delivery system that went like a blade into the thing’s flesh and embedded a tiny explosive charge. I pushed and flailed but it wouldn’t leave and then it exploded above me, burning my skin, covering me with blood and bones and metal.

Kim came to me then. ‘It was a bear,’ she said. ‘A half-mech. It must have been lonely.’

They’d been bred – manufactured – for jungle warfare. I didn’t reply. ‘We must be getting close,’ she said.

We were.

We came at last to a clearing in the forest. It was if the trees had simply uprooted themselves and retreated further from the spot, creating a perfectly circular space. A full moon shone overhead and in its light I saw him.

They are not like you and me.

I recognised him, of course, the boy in the moonlight. His feet were bare, the nails of his fingers ruined where he bit them. Skin like ground Blue Mountain coffee, eyes as innocent as a baby’s. I had seen him numerous times, but never in the flesh. He began as a poet, and at some point he started to perform his poetry, not in any formal way but spontaneously, in roadside cafés and waiting rooms and train stations, and people began to listen. He was SE, one of the great SEs, and he should have been nowhere near this place, and yet he was.

He said, ‘There is no longer a Nash Equilibrium.’

Kim said, ‘This place is mine.’

The boy smiled. ‘Is this your champion?’ he said. Kim said, ‘He will do.’

I realised they were discussing me. I sat on the ground, stilled my breath. I thought about the tiny living-room inside the coconut. Perhaps all living-rooms exist, in potentia, inside coconuts. A Nash Equilibrium is when all the players follow their best strategy and will only lose out if they change it. The boy said, ‘This is not a theme park.’

‘Do you understand what is here?’ Kim said. The boy smiled again. ‘Do you?’ he said.

I began to hear voices again. They were not in my head – not exactly. Something had congealed in this part of the world. Discarded technology, discarded ideas – they did not die but evolve, and finally meshed – became something new, something alien. The voices whispered in my head and the boy smiled and he had a nice smile. I had nothing to do with this, I realised. This was between SEs, a secret war of control. This place was a spiritual resource, and these two both wanted it.

The boy made a motion with his hand. A figure stepped into the moonlight.

‘Bradford?’ I said.

He looked at me. He could have been my twin. We were both so carefully tailor-made to be what we were. ‘Turner?’

‘Well, this is fucking touching,’ Kim said.

‘Fucking touching,’ the boy said. He laughed. He had a laugh like breaking glass.

Brad was an insurance agent. I said, ‘What happened to your team?’

‘They were taken out.’

He looked rough. He mirrored me. ‘There were things in the coconuts,’ I said. ‘There was this living room.’

He said, ‘There was a cave. There were winds living there. Localised tornadoes, sentient. They showed me…’ his voice was husky from disuse. He said, ‘There was a crab with a top a hat that could talk.’

‘The crab or the top hat?’ I said. He shook his head.

‘You will have to decide this,’ Kim said. She motioned for me and I obeyed her. I stood up. Bradford did the same his side. We faced each other in that perfect circle of trees. I could sense the silent watchers around the circle: wild drones and mech-bears and mine-layers and trees and wind. I knew Brad could feel them too. I landed the first punch.

Life, Ogko says, is like a river. It is a metaphor, he goes on to say, and not a particularly good one. Nevertheless.

We could use road, says Ogko, but a road is a created thing, while a river exists independently of humanity. The river can be turbulent or quiet. It can be calm and smooth and clear – or rough and full of turmoil. Though the river is infinite, individual journeys across it are finite. Lives sail the river for infinitely small stretches. Human lives are like tiny craft sailing the river. They are like canoes. They are organic, like the trees from which canoes are made. They are born of the natural complexity of the world and, like great complexity, they can appear very simple.

We fought. We were both very good at it, and neither of us wanted to fall into the river.

And yet… I understood, at that moment, that the battle being waged was bigger than a single life, human or otherwise. It was about reclaiming, for one side or the other, a wider stretch of river. I did not know why. But at least, for the first time, I knew why I was being paid.

They made love as we fought. Kim and the singer, naked in the moonlight. At one point I took Bradford’s eye out. Later, he had broken my knee. I knew then that we were not truly fighting, but re-enacting something primeval. The wheel of love and the wheel of violence turned like clockwork against each other, and slowly, slowly, the silent watchers came. The boy sang then, as I tore Brad’s ear off with my teeth, as he sank his thumb into my neck until blood sprouted out, and Kim spoke, and they were, and the jungle came to them and they claimed it. I know what happened but I do not understand it.

Much later it was daylight and Brad and I were lying on the ground and there were roots holding us down and strange creatures lapping at our wounds and Kim said, ‘Hush, now. It is over.’ I could hear helicopters in the distance, thought I was hallucinating.

‘Fighting and fucking,’ Kim said, close in my ear. ‘Ogko never understood that about life.’

They had needed a show and we provided it. The helicopters landed and Brad and I were loaded onto them. They took us to the clinics in Yunnan and rebuilt us.

Six months later I was in a bar in Mexico City watching the Ali-Tyson fight when she walked in. I’d been reading the papers: Singularity terrorists in South America, industrial strikes in the Belt, the appearance of a black-out area in South East Asia, a slice of Earth sunk into maplessness, a Here Be Dragons because one no longer knew what was really there. I’d been there and I didn’t know.

Something alien…

SEs change things. History is like a river, and human lives are rafts or leaves or corpses floating in it for a while. So said Ogko. But sometimes lives flare brightly, like an explosion, a seismic shift. SEs are history bombs, shifting the courses of rivers, causing floods or watering a desert. It’s hard to say which. I wondered what would come out of that place, what beast, its time come at last, as Yeats had said, would be shambling towards Bethlehem to be born. Or towards Ho Chi Minn City or Kunming or Chiang Mai, at least.

I turned off the news feed and she came towards me, Smart suit smart shades Oxford accent – she smiled when she saw me and said, ‘I would like to buy some insurance.’

‘That’s lucky,’ I said. ‘That happens to be what I do.’

She nodded and sat down, and I let her pay for the drinks.

About the Author

Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, Central Station, is out now to rave reviews. He is the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning A Man Lies Dreaming, of the World Fantasy Award winning Osama, and many other books and short stories. He lives in London.

Find more by Lavie Tidhar


About the Narrator

Christian Brady

Christian Brady is a person who exists.

Find more by Christian Brady