Read Almost Perfect Online

Authors: James Goss

Tags: #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Space Opera, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Harkness; Jack (Fictitious character), #Science Fiction - Space Opera, #Sagas, #Human-alien encounters - Wales - Cardiff, #Cardiff (Wales), #Intelligence officers - Wales - Cardiff, #Radio and television novels

Almost Perfect (2 page)

EMMA WEBSTER HAS A PLAN
FOR A BRAND NEW ME

Emma was out jogging. Like most new plans in Emma’s life it had required shopping. Shopping for lovely trainers, a nice sports bra and the dinkiest music player on the market. In pink, of course. She’d set off late, but managed to make it from Grangetown down through the Bay and off towards Penarth. It was dark, she was out of breath, her feet hurt, she kept having little breaks, and she was sweating like an old tea bag. But she had Girls Aloud in her ears and she was convinced the fat was melting off her thighs.

And that was when Emma saw the body on the beach. The street lights were bad, but it was unmistakeable. Lying on the rocks was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. Emma scrambled over, her music still playing as she stood over the body. Emma had never been good with dead animals. One of her earliest memories was of the cat leaping onto her bed with a dead vole. Her reaction was similar now – she just stood there, whimpering a little. She breathed really deeply, knelt down and, screwing her eyes shut, reached out to touch the corpse. Oh god, oh god, oh my god… It felt normal. A bit cold and a lot wet, but normal. Emma opened one eye. There was a chance the body wasn’t dead.

Emma stood up and screamed for help, but it was Sunday night and no one was around. She didn’t have her mobile – it was just her, a body, and the tinny sound of ‘Something Kinda Oooh’ leaking from her headphones.

Emma felt for a pulse – there was one. Gentle, quiet, and faint. She ran her fingers up and down the woman’s neck, distracted for just a second by how… perfect it was. She struggled to remember how to do CPR. It was something to do with pressing down on the chest several times and then giving the kiss of life. But how many times to do each thing? She remembered practising at work on a dummy – a weird old thing that whiffed of TCP and made a noise like a creaking bed when you pressed down on it. This was different. No noise. Just a strange wet feeling as she pushed the chest. When she tilted back the head and tried to breathe into it, a small trickle of water came out. Kissing her felt funny – and must have seemed bloody weird to anyone watching. But Emma kept on – pushing on the chest and breathing into those full, dead lips.

It was actually quite dull, despite her rising feeling of oh god-oh god panic. She was convinced she’d done it for hours, but when she checked her watch it turned out to be a couple of minutes. And no sign of life. On TV, some hunky doctor would be brushing her out of the way, yelling ‘Clear!’ and applying the shock pads. But this was just Emma. Alone.

With nothing but the beach and the woman, Emma started to notice things. Like the fact that the woman was wearing man’s clothes. Quite a good suit, soaked through, though. She carried on pushing down on the – really firm – chest. It all felt weird. Those cold, cold lips, kissing a corpse. How had the woman even got here? All that beauty and here she was, poor thing, dead on a beach. She could only be in her mid twenties.

Eventually, she spread the woman out and sat back on her heels, exhausted. She’d tried to save a life and she’d failed. The wind was getting up, and the waves were slapping at the rocks around them. Everything smelt of oil and rotting seaweed. Emma felt colder than she’d ever felt before.

It was then that she noticed the object clutched in the woman’s hand. About the size of an iPod, but like a flat snowglobe, glowing slightly. Curious, Emma took it from the woman’s grasp and held it up to the light – it was filled with a liquid that was a complicated blue that formed dancing shapes. As she looked into the globe she realised the shapes were straight lines and right angles and knotted cubes and so many shapes and colours and more shapes and—

Hey there, baby doll
.

‘What?’ Emma gasped. She spun round. There was no one else on the beach with her. No one, anywhere. Even her music was silent. She was utterly alone. But still she was breathing quickly with shock.

Oi! I am speaking to you, darlin
’.

The voice was female, strong, northern and very definitely in her head.

I’m the machine
.

This time there was a sigh. It was the long-suffering sigh that gave it away.

‘Cheryl?’ Emma gulped. What was Cheryl from Girls Aloud doing in her head?

Yeah. Right. Finally! I’m merely a representation of the machine’s mental interface, babe. You just listen up and Cheryl will give you an exclusive
.

‘This machine?’ Emma shook it. Her head filled with a shriek.

Hold on there, sister! That will not happen again! Understand? You get me, you stupid little bitch?

‘Oi!’ Emma was outraged. ‘Why are you in my head? What are you?’

The voice seemed calmer, more soothing.

Well now. This will take some explaining. Shall we go somewhere warm and snug so we can get to know each other better?

‘What about the body I found y—?’ Emma didn’t even get to finish the sentence.

Oh, don’t worry about that – that was just a civilian. It brought me ashore. It’ll wake up in a bit, go home, get some kip, forget all this happened. Now come on – let’s get back to your charming one-bedroom flat in Grangetown with an eighty-five per cent mortgage and talk about the future. Let’s just say there’s a lot in it for you, Emma darling
.

‘What?’ Cheryl had an odd way of speaking, thought Emma.

Hey, sorry, babe. It’s just my way. Forgive me, yeah? Cheryl is your favourite, isn’t she? Would you prefer if I was Nicola?

Emma thought about it. ‘No,’ she said.

So, Emma found herself turning away from the woman’s body and walking off the beach and back to her flat. Oddly, neither she nor the machine spoke to each other on the way – although the voice was humming along to the tune on her iPod. Thinking about it, Emma couldn’t remember much about the walk. But suddenly there she was, sat on her sofa, staring at her coffee table which contained the machine and a mug of her favourite instant hot chocolate (Midnight Orange Murmur, since you ask).

Well now, this is cosy
.

‘Yeah,’ said Emma, feeling a touch defensive.

But it could be better. Don’t yer think?
There was something about the voice – it was all caring and bright, but there was a real touch of steel behind it. But perhaps that was just Cheryl.
And that’s what I’m here for. Let’s just say I’m a real dream machine, sweetheart
.

‘So, you’re like a genie? And I get three wishes?’

A tinkle of laughter.
Oh, Emma, honey, you get waaaaay more than three wishes. I just have to look into your mind and I can give you what you want. I can make you what you’ve always dreamed of. Taller, thinner, better hair. Darling, there’s no limit to what you can achieve with knockout tits and a nice smile
.

Emma reached out a trembling hand for her mug and took an uncertain sip of her chocolate. There was an excited fluttering in her stomach. ‘Really? Does it hurt? How much does it cost?’

Ah, that’s the best bit. There’s no cost. I’m just chuffed to be able to help. And it’s started already. Want to see what you can look like? Go on girl – take a butcher’s in the mirror
.

Emma stood up and crossed to the wicker-framed lounge mirror. And she dropped her mug in shock. She bolted off to the kitchen and returned with a damp cloth. She scrubbed away at the carpet, staring at herself in the mirror and repeating over and over ‘oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god’ while the voice of Cheryl giggled delightedly in her head.

When she was eventually satisfied that there wouldn’t be a stain, she stood up, nervously straightening out her jogging trousers and staring at herself. She turned sideways and then sneaked a look at her bum.

And, finally, Emma laughed. She was suddenly gorgeous. Her figure was firmer, taller, and her eyes bluer – and yet she was still herself. She felt warm and confident and brilliant, and her skin was radiant.

And that, Em, is just the start of what we can do. We’re gonna have such a laugh. Things are going to be just perfect
.

GWEN IS LATE FOR WORK

Gwen was late for reasons that bored even her. She briefly toyed with an apology to Jack that took in Rhys’s eccentric approach to whites-only laundry, but figured ‘life is too, too short’. So she slumped down at her desk, grabbed a bite of her Greggs pastry thing, logged in to the baffling swirl of her Torchwood desktop, and then noticed the New And Upsetting Thing.

‘Er, hello!’ she said, grinning broadly at the stunning woman tidying a workstation.

The woman looked up briefly, smiled weakly, and went back to watering the plants.

Bitch, thought Gwen. She’d clearly missed a memo. First Martha, now this. Replacing Owen with some ice queen with no personality, great hair and bloody amazing shoes. Gwen decided this was the worst Monday at Torchwood ever. Working with a supermodel. Great. Goodbye biscuits, booze and Primark. Hello gym, bottled water and clothes she couldn’t afford. What was Jack thinking?

She sneaked a glance across the desk. Actually, she knew exactly what Jack was thinking. For a man who’d lived through the entire twentieth century, he sometimes seemed stuck in the Dark Ages. Gwen breathed in. Better make friends. You never know, she might be genuinely nice, or she might get horrid period pains or have a really bad stutter. Poor lamb. Thinking about it, hell, she worked for Torchwood – she was bound to have lost half her family and everyone she’d ever kissed.

‘Hiya!’ Gwen said again.

‘What?’ said the woman, looking up. She looked odd. Distracted, but also a bit… no, not shy… embarrassed. Why? She hadn’t farted or something had she? Oh, please let it be that. Please.

‘Is everything OK?’ ventured Gwen, trying to keep the smile out of her voice.

‘What do you think?’ the woman snapped back, miserably. ‘I look like this! It is definitely not OK.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Gwen, trying to sound sympathetic. ‘I think you look very nice,’ she finished, sounding like her Aunt Phyliss outside Sunday chapel. Please tell me she’s not about to start ranting about feeling fat. I am so going to hate her.

‘Nice?’ snorted the woman. ‘Not you too. Honestly, you turn up with a short skirt, and suddenly everyone’s trying to jump you. Typical Torchwood.’

Gwen blinked. ‘Excuse me, I think you’re mistaken. I’m, ah, definitely not trying to have…’ What would they say in a real office? Er… ‘Oh god. I’m not flirting with you. I am simply saying that I think that you’re looking… quite nice. Yes.’ Gwen finished the sentence and vowed never to start another one. There. It probably hadn’t gone too badly – the poor thing was probably constantly being hit on. Easy mistake to make, etc, olive branch extended. Lovely.

‘Oh, please, get over yourself, Gwen,’ snapped the woman, miserably. ‘You don’t understand a thing.’

‘Is that so?’ Gwen felt herself puffing up. The woman started to smile, smile in a way that Gwen decided would go really well with a slap. As the red mist started to descend, Gwen heard the thundering of boots on the metal gantry behind her.

‘Gwen!’ yelled Jack. ‘Gwen!’

Gwen turned. ‘What?’ she snapped.

‘It’s not what you think!’ said Jack.

‘No, it’s not,’ said the woman, looking a little scared. Good. Hang on. There was something familiar. A little sad, even.

Gwen looked back at the woman. ‘Do I know you?’

The woman shrugged helplessly.

‘Gwen, this is Ianto,’ said Jack.

‘Bloody Torchwood,’ said Gwen.

EMMA IS HAVING HER LAST
BAD DAY AT WORK

Emma took a drag on her cigarette and looked up at the office. The voice in her head was telling her marvellous things. And she believed them.

She couldn’t quite get over the changes in her. It was like she’d been on one of those TV programmes, only without the agonising surgery and patronising humiliation. She was calling today Makeover Day, the day she made a real difference at work.

Interestingly, people had only gradually noticed the change in her, which disappointed her slightly.

It will take people who know you a day to adjust. And that’s a good thing, trust me. They’ll just come away thinking you’re looking good. We don’t want them getting suspicious. Life is not just a case of taking off your glasses and throwing back your hair and but Miss Jones you’re beautiful. We’ll have none of that crap, ta very much
.

‘Oh,’ Emma had thought. ‘Not even a little?’

Oh, buck up, sweetheart. True class never makes a grand entrance. Just be the natural centre of attention
.

And yet, the morning had passed with barely a comment – good hair, nice dress, was that a new herbal tea she was drinking? But nothing to stop the world. The thing is, there was only one reaction she was waiting for – Vile Kate’s.

But Vile Kate hadn’t even noticed. ‘Ooh, you shouldn’t eat that, not now you’ve passed the big three-oh!’ she’d said. Vile Kate was always saying things like that. Always pottering surreptitiously around the office with large cards with nasty drawings of teddies on them, her life an endless round of collecting together presents for leaving-dos and birthdays and weddings and births and Secret-sodding-Santa.

Kate was, as far as everyone else seemed to think, the jolliest, nicest person in the office. She had a lovely new boyfriend (‘Maurice’ pronounced ‘Maw-reece’), an almost endless bundle of kiddies, and a natural ability to succeed at work without either intelligence or effort. And yet Emma hated and feared Vile Kate.

And this was because of her stunning talent at swatting her down without effort: ‘Aw, sweets – you’re all out of breath. Of course you’ll be like that if you keep smoking.’ Or: ‘Oh dear. You’re looking tired. Are you all right?’

Everyone liked Kate. No one really liked Emma. Not that that was a real problem – it was just work. It hadn’t been a problem in Bristol. Emma had had loads of mates back in Bristol. She’d loved living there. Well, until she and Paul had split up. They’d been really amicable about it, and it had been easier moving to the Cardiff branch when the chance of a tiny promotion had come up. She still saw him loads, and they still hung out with the same bunch of friends a couple of times a month. It was all great. It was just taking her a while to find friends of her own in Cardiff. Which had meant a lot of quiet nights in, or nights out with the girls from work. Everyone at work (apart from Kate) was lovely. They were just a bit… you know, All Bar One.

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