"I'd like to thank you so much for calling AOL. Can I please call you by your first name?"
Marc Sethargis sighed and hung up. AOL had been desperate for ages to prove that they could be as bad as BT when it came to dealing with the customers. Yes, they were dreadful, but then anybody could be dreadful - that didn't take any imagination at all and clearly they didn't have any. It was the repetition that got to him - they only had two tricks. One: put him through to people who understood what he was saying even less well than their predecessor had; two: cut him off after leaving him hanging on for ages. Boring. Where was the creativity, the wit, the panache, the... pazzazz that he expected of his staff when they were irritating their customers? No - this planet only needed one master and BT was it.
"Come on, Rolver," he said to his strangely-named dog. "We're going for a walk, old fellow."
Marc closed his front door and let his dog loose. He never believed in dogs being on a leash. After all, humans didn't walk around with leashes tied around their necks so why should Rolver?
The dog danced around in a circle with delight and then dashed across the field, trying to chase a rabbit. When he was tired of that, he rolled in some horse manure. Marc smiled affectionately. He'd have to wash the dog this evening. He didn't want him coming to bed smelling like that. Rolver would hate being washed, of course, but his reward would be bowl after bowl of Branflakes, cat food, dog food, soda water and milk that had been left out in a thunderstorm. He smiled as he thought of his dog literally dancing for joy when he saw the treats being prepared.
Marc sat on a BT park bench. He knew to perch on the end as the centre would let you crash through onto the floor. He got out his telephone-shaped sandwiches and started to chew thoughtfully before dropping off to sleep.
When he woke up he realised he'd actually become slightly sunburnt and that it was time to call the dog in.
"Rolver?" he called. "Rolver?"
He started whistling. "Rolver, old thing, where are you?"
After a while panic ensued. His fat old dog would never just run off like that. Something had happened.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Mrs. McCluskey looked down with disgust at the red dial which Len Trabban had installed on her 'phone. She disliked the idea intensely but he had been able to persuade Mr. Sethargis of its efficacy and, despite her promotion, Mr. Sethargis still outranked her. She had vowed from the moment of its installation never to use it and she wasn't going to waver now. Yes, it was inconvenient that her fast-food shop had been driven into and its entire stock removed but she would use the 'phone normally like everyone else.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Stella and Crispin Drummond were becoming world-famous. The brother-and-sister combo were rising up in the ranks of BT with record speed.
The 'phone rang. They each mouthed pleading faces at each other but she got there first.
"You have called..." she began and handed it to her brother.
"The Police," he said.
"Thank you for calling..." she continued.
"The Police," he said again.
They smiled at each other and gave each other a "high five".
"Please hold while we try to connect you," she said, trying to contain her laughter. She covered the mouthpiece.
"What is it? What is it?" he whispered, his face full of glee.
"Some old granny's burger joint's been robbed," she said, stroking her long red hair.
"Give it to me! Give it to me!" he said.
"I'm sorry. All our systems have crashed. Please call back in two hours," said Crispin.
He hung up and the two of them doubled up laughing for ages. Before they'd even finished, it started to ring again.
"D'you think it's her again?" asked Crispin.
"Er, duh, let's think about that - er, yes."
"Thank you for calling the BT Police. Did you know that you could access us online..." began Stella before droning on and on. "You interrupted me. Now I'm going to have to start all over again. Thank you for calling the BT Police. Did you know that you could access us online at www dot bt dot forward slash police? Why not put in for our fabulous BT Police prize draw..."
Stella had to stop as the laughter was in danger of showing in her voice. Her brother and best friend took it over, took a deep breath to keep his own laughter from showing and carried on.
"I'm sorry, you've come through to waste disposal. I'll transfer you now. Ringing for you."
He put the CD on. He had replaced the usual Haydn's Serenade in F Minor with "Boris the Spider", a particularly annoying track by The Who, which now filled their office loudspeakers.
The two of them removed their headsets and rolled around laughing. This had to be the best job in the universe. They could hear the distressed-sounding woman's voice echoing around the room.
"Hello? Hello? I'm trying to report a serious crime here. I''ve been robbed. All the money's been taken..."
Another line rang. Brother and Sister Drummond raced for the swivel chair and Stella git there first, leaving her brother skidding across the floor into the wall.
"You have called..." she said, gesturing towards her brother,who was nursing a hurt knee. She continued in a deep voice herself:
She returned to her own voice to say: "Thank you for calling..."
Crispin snatched the headset from her and said: "The Police".
"The number you are calling knows you are waiting," said Crispin. He looked for his sister's approval but she made a yawn face at that one and gave him a "thumbs down".
She took over.
"I'm sorry, I can hhhardly hhhear you, caller, I can hhhardly hhhear you."
Her brother was on the floor again, this time with silent tears coming out of his eyes. He gave his sister another "high five" and then mouthed at her, "What is it? What is it?".
His sister put on "Boris the Spider" and he put on Haydn's Serenade at the same time so it made the most awful cacophony.
"Oh, some cretin's lost his dog!" answered Stella.
"Now he'll be calling out, 'Hello, dog? Dog, where are you?' and listening to this rubbish - oh, what a mess!" gabbled Crispin.
A third 'phone started to ring.
"Let me deal with the first two," said Crispin. His sister went to answer the new call while Crispin slammed the 'phone down in the ears of the first two callers.
"BT Police? Stella speaking, how may I direct your call?"
After a pause she said, in a high-pitched voice, "Je ne parle que le francais, monsieur - desolee!"
"Are you pretending you only speak French?" asked Crispin. "That's a classic! That's a classic! What is it? What is it?"
"There's a man there and he's saying, "Oh, I've lost my sons - I'm very, very worried - I don't know what to do!' I say, what a wheeze!"
"Oh, this is jolly good fun!" laughed Crispin before kissing his sister on the back of her neck and spinning her round really quickly in the swivel chair so she screamed.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Hilary and Evelyn looked at their captors indignantly.
"Why you are keeping us here?" asked Hilary, the mouthier of the two. "My Mummy's going to be very cross and when she hears that you done it to us she'll give you a smack."
His brother was more scared but tried to keep up the Paddington-Bear-hard-stare routine which Hilary had started up as it seemed to be working so well.
"I'm so not interested, honey," said the team's only female, turning away from them.
Lynn Trabban was a most unusual-looking woman. She wore a fur coat that was black on one side and white on the other, a dress which was also black-and-white but the other way round to the coat and one black shoe and one white shoe. She smoked a very long cigarette, the smoke of which alternated between black and white.
"Can't you do something to shut dem up?"
She turned to her overweight companion, Peter Onion. "And shut dat dog up, too."
The bespectacled Peter Onion, wearing his red tie and white shirt as ever, was about ten years older than Lynn. A man in his sixties, Mr. Onion always liked to keep his hair very short so as not to show the baldness too readily.
"Here, have some cocolate. Don't say I never give you anything," he said, bringing out the biggest bar imaginable and breaking it into three. He had a third and he offered a third to Hilary and a third to Evelyn.
"It's bad enough you eating da smoking chocolate widout giving it to da smoking kids as well - it's so bad for dem!" she complained between blasts of smoke.
"When you've quite finished choking us, perhaps you could do some work yourself and feed the dogs?" suggested Peter.
"You feed da smoking dogs - I'm busy, honey," she said.
She held her nose and put on her strange voice again as she rang yet another influential member of BT.
"Vee hoff your AOL computer here..." Her voice changed back to her own. "And da same to you." She slammed the 'phone down. "Moron."
That one wouldn't be calling the Police. Oh, well - you can't win 'em all.
"Here, Fido, or whatever your name is. It's Rolver, isn't it?" asked Peter. "Here - have some burgers. You might as well. Look, knock yourself out, mate."
So saying he opened up the hatch where all the burgers stolen from Mrs. McCluskey were hidden. The dog leapt onto them, his tail wagging with delight.
"So now you're feeding da dog all da smoking burgers. Do you know how bad dat is for dem?" asked Lynn as she took another draw on her cigarette.
The boys did some theatrical coughing.
"Yeah, you tell her, boys - THAT stuff's going to kill you, not chocolate," said Peter.
Hilary and Evelyn decided that their favourite Knights Against BT member was Peter. They didn't take to Lynn at all. Their least favourite, however, was just about to walk into the room. They gasped and put their arms around each other as Commander Trabban, Lynn's cousin, entered. Even Rolver whimpered.
Commander Len Trabban always wore a tight black suit and had an eyepatch. He raraely smiled and one always got the impression that he was ten steps ahead of you and jeering at your patheticness. He had managed to infiltrate BT to a higher level than anyone else in their little band. He had his own BT troops under him no less - a whole unit whose job it was to root out people offering illegally good customer service and take them in for interrogation. Nobody would ever guess he was working for the other side.
He spared not a glance for the boys, nor for Rolver.
"How far advanced are we?" he asked.
"Oh, we're working on it, mate" said Peter.
"Working on it is inadequate. How near completion are we?"
"Put it this way. By the end of tonight BT should be finished," said Peter.
"Let us hope your competence matches your confidence," said the Commander before sweeping out again.
"Come on, mate - better make some more 'phone calls. I've got a few more suggestions for Miss Grannik," said Peter.
Peter ingeniously came up with further ways of hurting high-up BT officials, made the plans and radiod them through to Miss Grannik, the eldest but sharpest member of the Knights. A sweet little mild-mannered elegantly-dressed lady in her seventies, nobody would doubt her integrity when she came to smile at people's children, walk a dog or drive a car.
As with the telephone they used, the radios were all non-BT and worked without a hitch - Commander Trabban had seen to that.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Marc Sethargis closed his eyes. He would have to do it. He must get Rolver back. He turned the red dial on his 'phone. At roughly the same time, so did Mrs. McCluskey, Bo Johnson and numerous other BT staff scattered across the globe.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Stella was lying on top of her brother on the floor of their office. He was trying to struggle free while she demonstrated her superior powers when it came to martial arts.
"You can't move. You can't move."
All the 'phones were going potty.
"We'd better answer the 'phone," he said.
"Which one? There are about twenty!" she laughed.
"Well, we'd better answer one each, then, and slam the rest of them down in their ears."
She yawned dramatically. "How very AOL!" she said.
"Or play three tunes at once?" Crispin suggested.
His sister smiled and kissed him on his nose.
"But you couldn't move - admit it!" she said, giving him a gentle slap on the face and jumping to her feet and to a 'phone.
Crispin jumped to another.
"Crispin here, how may I help?" said Crispin, replacing his sophisticated voice with a North London accent, holding the receiver a long way from his mouth and crackling a packet of crisps in front of it. "I'm sorry - I've no record you've 'phoned before. Hello? Can you hear me? Are you sure Crispin Drummond works for BT? It probably wasn't us you spoke to. I'll just put you through to Complaints. Hold on..." (he changed to a Northern Irish accent) "I'm sorry - you have rung Complaints ite of ires, so you have. Please ring back between the ires of six and nine. Thank you." He slammed the 'phone down.
Crispin wanted to hear what jolly jape his sister was involved in when he sddenly saw one of the red lights going on. He stopped laughing and his heart started pounding.
"Oh no - er - Stella?"
His sister was bubbling her lips to make it sound as there she were underwater while she said something about... "At no extra cost to you..."
She stopped. Another red light had gone on.
She spun round and returned her brother's gaze. He replaced his 'phone and she the headset she was currently using. They stood up, dusted themselves down and pressed the wall panel which made the wall swing away. There behind the wall was a whole office full of booths, headsets, telephones, hole punches, computers - a proper office fit for a large amount of people to use.
"Emergency Code Q: Emergency Code Q" he said into the loudspeaker.
People who were paid to sit around all day and make the occasional 'phone call came hurtling into the office. Stella and Crispin were forced to join them. They had to take each call seriously and only promise to pass it on to someone if they really were going to pass it onto them. Nobody could roll around on the floor, pretend they hadn't heard of the person right next to them or do comedy duos on the 'phone anymore.
"Ruby" by the Kaiser Chiefs, which had just been playing, was switched off, as was "Boris the Spider" and even the beloved Haydn's Serenade. The Drummonds' world was being torn apart around heir ears. They'd never know such fun again.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Citizens of the Earth, please attend carefully," said Commander Trabban on every radio station and TV channel.
"As you may know, certain priviledged people on this planet had red dials added to their 'phones recently - dials which meant that they would get prompt service. Efficient service. Accurate and honest service. The sort of service that we all have a right to expect, not just the lucky few. Due to an unprecedented crime wave, many of these red dials were acivated at the same time, thus leading to efficiency everywhere in the world simultaneously. Now it's been in progress for a few hours, I'm loath to let it go. I am relieving BT of its control of this world and I am assuming command until such time as we can have a free and fair vote with an electronics system which doesn't keep crashing. I'm not one for speeches. There's much to be done. This world must not, will not go back to the old ways. But we must not thank the criminals. They committed serious crimes. They kidnapped; they stole; they destroyed property. We are reuniting everyone with their loved ones right now and working on reasonable compensation packages. The criminals are currently behind bars, pending a free and fair trial."
The TV image cut to one of Peter, Miss Grannik and the Commander's own cousin sitting in a cell together with their swear words beeped out.
"A New World will prevail," he said, raising his arm in a salute never before seen.
* * * * * * * * * * *
In bed that night Marc tried to sleep. Rolver, lying next to him, was already out for the count, the exhaustion having got to him. On his other side Crispin and Stella were also asleep. His bed was having to accommodate four rather than two as his star pupils had just been evicted from their flat and had absolutely nowhere else to go. He felt a little responsible as it was his own training, transmitted through others, which had informed their behaviour and they hadn't recognised his voice on the 'phone when he'd reported his missing dog. Why would they? They'd been told "not to dwell on voices or other distractions when taking calls". He'd turned the red dial; their world had ended... mustn't go through all that again. He stared up at the ceiling. What would he do now in this soulless, boring, depressing... EFFICIENT world?
Stella rolled over and woke up briefly.
"It was fun, wasn't it?" she smiled.
"Yes," sighed Marc. "It was fun."