Book published today! Learning: The First Fifty: Stories from the Blog

Today my latest book is available on Amazon… it is a collection of all the stories which I have thus far published on this blog, in a handy container.

The kindle book will be free for five days. The paperback is more or less as cheap as amazon will allow me to make it.

Amazon.com links here:

Paperback
Kindle

They’re not yet linked as the paperback was only put live today.

I will try and make the kindle edition free whenever I remember. My intention was to provide an easy way for interested people to download these stories if they proved entertaining!

Leave a Comment

Filed under General

Increments

I wrote this originally on a whim after reading something about industrial policy. I was trying to see what the impact on real people might be…

Increments

By Jason Gibbs

The government today announced their intention to nationalise Hardys, Julco and Faberdashers.  These last three independent great national champions will be merged into the United Retail Company, serving every aspect of our daily lives.  URC produces items from soap to dishwashers, and will now have the strength to compete with the foreign firms who have begun to dominate our domestic market.

Gladys sat in her comfortable chair, and stared at her supermarket receipt.  She did try to buy British, but it was just so hard.  She’d saved nearly twenty percent over the previous month’s shopping by switching to these odd-sounding brands.  Perhaps with this new British giant things would get cheaper again?  She’d try them next month.

The phone went.

“Yes?”

“Oh hello darling.  Yes I’m fine.”

“No, I’ll be fine my pension covers it now.”

“Yes yes, you sound like you’re busy?  Well, nice to speak to you, see you soon?”

Her daughter was always so busy, though Gladys wasn’t entirely sure what it was that she did.

URC announced today its results for its first quarter since nationalisation, and the results were good.  Sales were up nearly 6% and profits 3%.  The government announced that the profits would be used to accelerate the roll out of the automated home help program.  This government initiative seeks to put a care robot into the home of every single pensioner in the country, current estimates are that there are more than five million people who would be eligible.

Bill sat at his desk trying to work out what he was doing.  He’d been planning to respond to a letter, but couldn’t remember which.  He looked at the pile of papers and saw the one from the Department for Age Support.  Damn them. 

That was it, he remembered now, they wanted to put a robot in his house.  Probably to spy on him, or maybe inject him with all these potions the quacks kept trying to get him to take.  Well, he was going to tell them where to put the ridiculous automaton, and he wasn’t going to be polite about it!

Minister Johns today delivered the millionth care robot to the home of Mrs Jay.  She was heard to exclaim in happiness, and immediately asked the device to make a cup of tea and do the ironing.  The Minister stayed for tea and said he’d had a very pleasant chat with Mrs Jay.  In an interview after the meeting Mrs Jay said that she might now be tempted to vote for the Minister at the next election.

“No dear, he’s an old friend.  A very old friend, we went to school together.”

“Oh don’t be silly, it’s nothing serious at all, we’re just catching up.  Now I must go, the tea is ready.  Bye dear, do pop in soon.”

Gladys turned to her guest, “Sorry Bill, my daughter, Emily.  She does fuss.”

Bill shuffled his feet a bit, “Well these young ones.  At least she cares.”

“Yes, oh yes.  Wasn’t it lucky that we bumped into each other at the supermarket!  After all these years I could tell it was you, just by your walk.  You haven’t changed a bit.”  She smiled at him, and he caught a little of the twinkle he remembered in her eyes.

“Gotten old I have.  Not like you, still a real beauty.”

Gladys was saved the embarrassment of answering by the arrival of the tea, delivered by her new care robot.

“I call her Ruby.  Because of her red lights.”

“Hmph.”

“Oh don’t be an old stick in the mud, she’s jolly useful.  Makes very good tea, now that I’ve shown her how to properly warm the pot.  I do wonder about these engineers, they sent her out without knowing how to make a proper cuppa.”

“Don’t trust them, robots that is, not the engineers.  Though, I will admit that this is a nice cup of tea.”

“Bill, don’t be silly, I spoke to Tom, he’s Emily’s husband and does something with programming these robots.  He says that they’re saying these lovely helpers will give us at least an extra ten years life.”

He frowned.  Until last week an extra ten years of life would have meant a continuation of his purgatory, but finding Gladys again had lifted his heart.  He, almost, felt young again.

“They do, do they?  Well, maybe they’re not all bad.”

He was silent for a moment.

“Mine is arriving next week.  The ministry’s polite response to my eloquent refusal can be summarised as: tough.”

“Well I for one am glad.  I won’t be worrying about you, all on your own in that dingy place.  I’m sure those stairs will be the death of you.  But with a helper, well, you’ll be much safer.”

URC announced today a small drop in sales and commensurate drop in profits.  The CEO, former Minister Palpby, explained that the final integration costs had kicked in.  He also accused the competition of flooding the market with cheap goods to try and damage URC and therefore the country.  He called on the government to set mandatory prices for critical consumer goods such as soap, toothpaste and skin cream.

“These biscuits Bill, are they local?  They taste delicious.”

“Ah, no, they’re imports.”

“Bill!  I thought you were ‘Buy British’ all the way.”

“They are half the price, and taste better.  I’m as patriotic as the next man, but I have to subsist on pennies you know.”

Just then Albert hummed politely.

“Yes?”

“Would you like a refill of tea, sir?”

“Yes, and stop calling me sir.  Call me Bill or something!”

“Yes sir.”

Gladys smothered a smile.  She was glad to see Bill had a care-robot now.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Competition today announced that there would be minimum pricing on all goods defined as core.  He explained that these were all those day to day essentials required for a normal life, but did not include any luxuries.

“Now Gladys, I don’t want you to think I’m being too forward.  But…”

“Yes Bill?”

“Would you like to move in with me?  I can’t marry you.  I promised Beryl I wouldn’t marry again.  But…”

“Oh Bill.  I don’t need to be married to be happy.  Yes, of course.  This last month has seen the cobwebs swept out of my brain.  But why now?”

“Well, you see the thing is.  Oh, I’ll just tell you it all.  I don’t have very much money, in fact my pension just isn’t covering my expenses any more.  I was saving money by buying the cut-price foreign products, but now that all the prices have gone up, well, if I don’t find a way to cut costs I’ll go hungry.”

She just stared at him, and then said, “So it’s just to save money?”

He could see tears threatening to form.

“Oh no no, not at all.  I was hoping to wait and take you out to a nice dinner and do it properly, but this recent change has just.  Oh I’m such an idiot.  I’ve always wanted to be with you.”

Gladys looked at him sombrely and then started to laugh.

“You silly old goose, I was just joking!  Of course I’d like to live with you, but, I’d rather you moved in with me.  My place is quite a bit bigger for a start.”

He smiled and reached for her.  A humming sound interrupted them.

“Yes Albert?”

“Your lunch is ready sBill.”

“sBill?” enquired Gladys.

“I changed his word for sir.  Read up on it in the manual.  I’m not totally useless yet!”

Patoque-Deuters Industries, one of the largest foreign companies still operating in the domestic market, announced a massive increase in profits.  PDI’s spin on this blatant profiteering was that the government minimum pricing had forced them to raise all their prices and this had fed directly through to profits.  A government spokesman pointed out that this couldn’t possibly be true as URC had only achieved limited growth in their profits.

“Now Emily, don’t you worry.  Bill will be bringing his own care robot.  We’ve been told by the ministry that we can keep both of them for three months, and then there will be an assessment.  God knows what they’ll assess.”

“No, Em dear.  Listen, I know you worry about your old mother, but I’m not completely gaga.  This is my decision and I’m sticking with it.  OK, oh, you have to run?  No, that’s fine, we’ll speak next week?  OK, goodbye.”

URC announced the delivery of the four millionth care robot to a pensioner.  The government followed this by extending the care robot programme to cover all pensioners, implying that a further five million robots would be produced.

“So we can keep both robots.  It’s official.”

“That’s good Bill.”

“I thought you’d be more excited.  What’s wrong Gladys?”

“Well.  Bill, how much toilet paper do you actually need to use?”

Bill looked shocked.  This wasn’t something he’d ever discussed, not even with Beryl.

“Er, well four sheets.  Drummed into me in the army.  Never more.”

Gladys looked confused.

“Well I don’t understand, I’m buying twice as much as I used to, and yet we’re running out faster.  I assumed it was just you.  Everything seems to run out so fast these days.”

“At least we’re back to buying British!”

“Yes, though the pleasure of buying British doesn’t really outweigh the drop in quality.”

PDI today made the bizarre claim that they were responsible for ninety percent of the production of URC’s care robots.  Their CEO was hauled in front of the Minister to explain himself, he later made a public apology and blamed it on some confusion at head office.  A URC representative explained that PDI did provide some components for the machines, but that these were all low value items, and would all soon be taken in-house.

“What are you doing Albert?”

The robot turned, and said, “Sorry Miss Gladys, I was checking the toothpaste.  It is part of my regular routine.”

It turned back, screwed on the cap and put the tube down.  Gladys thought the tube looked quite a bit flatter than she remembered it being that morning.

“Please don’t.”

“Yes Miss Gladys.”

As she walked away she muttered to herself, “I can almost believe those robots are mostly foreign.  Stealing my toothpaste.  Wonder what the little devil wanted it for.”

Peter Shipps was today sentenced to ten years in prison for malicious economic sabotage.  Mr Shipps, a so-called independent journalist, had claimed that the care robots had been programmed to steal from their owners.  He asserted that the robots would use a little bit of every one of the core essentials every day, thereby forcing their owners to buy replacements much faster.  The only products being targeted were those made by URC, in an effort to improve sales.  Mr Justice Jenkins summarised by calling Shipps a ‘fantasist’ and enemy of the people.  He also stated that he was surprised that the prosecution hadn’t also added a charge of working for a foreign power, as that was the only motivation he could see behind Shipps’ actions.  Neither URC nor the government deigned to comment on the allegations from the report.

“Bill, I’m sorry, I’ve had to buy foreign.  The British stuff just isn’t as good, and it keeps running out so quickly.  I thought it might be your foolish robot, but after that time I caught it with the toothpaste I’ve never seen it do that again, and I’ve snuck up on it several times.”

“That’s alright love.  We must do what’s right for us.  We’ve given enough to this country over the years.”

He was glad they could go back to having the nice tea biscuits, he’d missed them.

URC announced today that sales in the last quarter had dropped a further 15%, making a drop of nearly 30% this year.  The company claimed that it was because their products had a longer life than their competitors, and this was slowing people’s replacement purchases.  In addition there have been supply delays which have slowed down the care robot delivery program.

“Bill, I caught that devil doing it again!”

“What dear?”

“Albert, stealing the toothpaste.”

“It can’t have been Albert, he’s been with me all day.  Perhaps it was Ruby?”

“Ruby?  Why would she want my toothpaste?  It’s that foreign stuff as well, and I thought she was mostly British!”

“Yes dear.”

One of Peter Shipps colleagues, who’s name cannot be reported during his trial, has made bold claims that in recent months the care robots have been reprogrammed.  He has said that the robots are now stealing small amounts of the products of foreign companies, particularly PDI, and leaving URCs products alone.  His rather contorted explanation is that people had stopped buying URC products because they were running out so quickly, and have now turned to PDI’s which seem to last longer.  Therefore the government has mandated that the robots reverse the process.  It is likely that this alleged merchant of truth will spend the rest of his life in one of the remote penal stations.

“No Gladys.  I don’t care if you think they’re going at the same rate as the British products, the fact is that they’re nicer.  If they cost the same then we should stick with them.”

“But Bill…”

“No buts.”

URC announced today that it needed a cash injection of many billions in order to continue to operate.  Sales have continued to drop precipitously.  Minister Jacobs blamed foreign companies for their cut-throat competition, and focussed his ire on PDI.  He said the government was reviewing options to seize PDI’s illegal profits.  PDI’s latest quarterly report showed continued growth in sales, and a robust profit, clearly as a result of predatory sales practices.  The report claimed the company now employed three hundred thousand people in the country.  The majority are in sales and distribution activities as PDI’s manufacturing capacity is based overseas.  

“Oh Emily, I’m sure it will be fine.  Governments always say such things.  They really can’t do it.”

“I know dear, I love you too.  See you next week?  Bye then”

Bill looked up.

“Is she ok?”

“She’s worried about her job.  PDI have always been good to her, and she’s done very well.  If the government does go through with their threats…”

“Bah.  It’ll never pass.  The courts will stop it.”

“I don’t know Bill.  It doesn’t seem like it was a few years ago.”

The government announced yesterday import duties of 70% on all goods. 

PDI’s response, issued today, was that it would be shutting down operations in Britain.  It was planning an orderly shutdown, and all employees would be terminated by the end of the year.  A government spokesman said that the government were taking steps, though was unable to specify what they were.

“Gladys, why have we got these horrid cardboard biscuits?”

“That’s all there were, love.  Not a single foreign made thing in the shop.  The nice girl at the cashier said that they’d had no deliveries since the government announcement.”

“But I like those biscuits.  Damned government.”

He paused and then taking a deep breath he said, “There is something else.  Gladys, we’re going to Spain.”

“What love?  A holiday?  I’m not sure we can afford it!”

“No dear.  To live.  It’s a one-way ticket.”

“But.  When, what?”

“We can’t stay here.  The shops are half empty, the queues are growing.  The country has gone to the dogs, and it’s getting worse.”

“I know, but Spain.”

She thought about it a bit then said, “It’s nice and warm there though.  Oh, what about Emily?”

“She’s coming too.  With the pay-off she’s getting from PDI she can afford to come as well, with Tom and the kids.”

“I didn’t think you two got on.”

“I think she knows now that I only have your best interests at heart.”

“Oh Bill.  That could be lovely.  But what about the robots?  We’d have to leave them, they are government property.  I couldn’t live without Ruby, and how long would you last without Albert.  Love, it’s just not practical.  It’s not.”

“Trust me dear.  Will you?”

“I can’t go to Spain, I can’t.  There must be another way.”

Reports have come in of rioters destroying shops in town centres across the country.  Government spokesmen have said that these are malcontents trying to stir up trouble.  We tried to interview some of them, but were stopped by the police under the Sedition Act.

“Well Bill.  We’re actually in Spain!”

“Now we can properly relax love.  Sun, sand, and peace.”

She smiled and looked over at him.  The bruising on his face had gone down.  He’d been lucky those rioters hadn’t hurt him more, though he kept saying it was the riot police who’d actually hit him.  He’d been getting milk.  Albert had brought him home and tended to him.  As soon as she’d seen him she’d known that her country was gone, replaced by somewhere she no longer recognised.  Somewhere that was no longer safe.  They had to leave.

“Another cerveza please Albert.  That means beer in Spanish dear.”

“I know Bill, that’s the fourth time you’ve told me.”

He looked out over the pool.

“Bliss.”

“You never did tell me how you managed to bring Albert and Ruby with us.”

“I just downloaded their memories onto flash cards.  Then I uploaded them into two blank robots I purchased here from the local subsidiary of PDI.”

“Oh you are clever Bill.”

He puffed up.

“I do my best dear.”  He didn’t want to admit that Tom had told him how to do it.

The care robot returned.

“Your cerveza sBill.”

“Thanks Albert.”

He raised the bottle and said, “Here’s to new lives.”

Gladys smiled and lifted her glass, “New lives.”

###

Comments Off on Increments

Filed under General

Asset Stripping

It’s a wonderful time of year, and I started thinking about the pragmatics.

 

Asset Stripping

by Jason Gibbs

 

“Right, we’re all here, let’s get started, point one…” said Vix sharply.

“But the old man…” interrupted Dash.

“Will be here in fifteen minutes, I felt we needed a…”

“Pre-meeting,” supplied Dan.

“Yes, a pre-meeting.  We need to be clear, otherwise you know how he is, he’ll be talking about the old days and we’ll be buried in anecdotes,” Vix continued.

“Fair.  He always likes to tell the one about how they used to have really bad fogs in the old days, and that they struggled to get through…” added Donna.

“Exactly, now can we please concentrate, otherwise we won’t be prepared.”

They all looked at him.  There was apprehension in the room, and Vix knew he needed to get them all gee’d up.

“Now, you know it’s been tough these last few years.  More deliveries, larger deliveries, harder locations.”

They all nodded agreement.

“It’s getting to the point where we risk failure.  And you know who’s going to get the blame…”

Dash started to say, “Who…”

“Us of course.  We do the hard work, but we’re not fast enough, or carry enough, or don’t stop in the right place.  The old man, he’s fine, it’s never his fault.  It’s all on us.”

“What are you proposing?” asked Blix.

“We pivot.  We use outsourcing for the manufacturing and logistics, and we concentrate on the marketing.”

They all looked impressed at the words he was using, and then Rudie, who’d been notably quiet, said, “Vix, what does that mean?”

Vix took a deep breath, and started to explain, “Look, everyone around this stable knows that our customers have been… supplementing… deliveries for years.  We’ve tried to keep up, but it just isn’t working.  So, what we do is licence out our image, and the customers can pay for the actual products.”

They all looked at him quizzically.  The man from the retail consortium had made it sound so easy.  It was time to be blunt.

“We get the parents to buy all of the presents, and we just appear on posters and movies.”

They all looked shocked.

“What about the elves…” asked Dash.

“We pension them off.  Their roles are moving to China.”

There was a pause, they looked at each other.  Then there was some nodding, their shock seemed to be wearing off.  And there had always been some bitterness that the elves got to stay in the warm and dry and weren’t flogging their guts out flying all over the world.

“So we get to be… movie stars?” asked Cupid.

Vix knew he had them.

“Yes, and TV, and on posters.”

They all nodded again, Rudie’s antlers scraped the side of his box.

“How is it going to work?  Do we just send letters with each delivery this year?” mused Dash.

“I’ve been speaking with some people who work for the various companies which have supplemented our products, and they have some ideas.”

“The toy companies?” Rudie was shocked.  They all knew what the old man thought of them.

“And the shops, and the delivery companies.  They have an offer.  They want to buy everything out, and they’ll manage the outsourcing of the manufacturing, selection and delivery processes.  We can concentrate on the marketing, and looking good.”

It all seemed to make sense to the reindeer.  And they’d all secretly been dreading this year.

“So what do they call that then?” asked Comet.

“I know,” said Santa, standing in the stable’s doorway, and not looking very jolly, “it’s called Asset Stripping.”

###

Comments Off on Asset Stripping

Filed under Flash Fiction

The Farm

I had intended to enter this into a competition themed around the centenary of armistic day.  But I didn’t quite manage it…

 

The Farm

by Jason Gibbs

The sun was just starting to rise, like cold fire, with mists obscuring it. Or smoke, was it smoke? Smothering sound, bringing silence, and death. Archie knew he should react, duck, crouch, do something, but, there was no desire. He was grey, like the smoke. There was nothing for him to do but to accept it.

A loud moo sounded in Archie’s ear.

He started. It was mist. He wasn’t in the trenches. He looked at the cow, which was cordially ignoring him, and noticed its tail rise. He stepped back, though he realised it made no difference. Some plopping sounds occurred, and he stared at the gift the cow had made.

Silver is what Father had called it. He could picture the old man pointing proudly at a pile of manure.

“Son, that muck is worth silver to us. We gather it, rot it, and the Parkers’ll pay us good money for it.”

“Yes Father.”

Edward, as always, had looked attentive. He’d be memorising it in his good little farmer’s brain. Being proud about manure was something which would seem natural to Edward.

He wondered where Edward was. At this time of the day surely he should be up with the cows? They needed milking. Maybe Edward was away on a trip, as he thought Mistress Stimpson had done it the night before. It was difficult to keep the days straight.

Mistress Stimpson, he thought she saw him sometimes, but then she turned away and said nothing, so she can’t have. He could remember an argument with her, she was telling him that he was the only one left to look after the farm. That must have been before, when everyone thought Edward was going to sign up. But he’d done it first. He knew Edward would have hated him for it, but he also knew that Edward was better for the farm. And for Father.

Thinking of Father made him think of his other family. His real family. His lost family. The one he’d spent every heartbeat with, crammed into dank cave-like rooms dug out of the earth, sheltering in the muddy trenches, or occasionally drinking in a farm house. He could see them, all of them. Lewis, his easy smile, Thompson, with his hat always at an angle, Peters, with his face cracking open as the shells exploded. He shut his eyes. He must not. They were all gone.

He’d woken briefly in a hospital. Felt such pain as he’d never imagined. Then he’d seen an angel, or thought he had. But he couldn’t have done because, the next thing that he remembered he was here. Drifting around the farm. He couldn’t do anything, and so, he thought he must be… well.

The cows mooed loudly.

He’d seen old man Johns, helping out, too many men lost. Johns had retired back in… well before the war anyway. Father had been sorry to see him go, but the old man had been getting slow. Good with the horses though. Edward must have asked him back, to help.

That must have stung though. Edward had wanted to get a tractor. He’d pestered Father again and again. “Tractors are the future, and horses are the past!” He’d say this and then point at Johns. The old man would just wave back.

Father’s response about the tractors and any other ideas Edward presented had always been to speak to Archie. It was going to be Archie’s farm, and so he needed to make the decision. Edward had been good about it, but Archie had seen it in his eyes, the frustration. They both knew who should run the farm after Father. But it had never seemed possible, until the war came, and the posters. “Join up and be a man!” or some such rot. All he’d wanted was to not be a farmer.

Archie looked around again, the place was falling into ruin. It had been such a good farm. He knew Edward would get it back together again, now that there was peace, things would be better, and the joy would return. Maybe that’s what he was waiting for?

He wondered if he’d see Father. He didn’t know whether to be sad that Father had seen the start of the Great War, or happy that he’d not witnessed the loss of one of his sons. He knew that he hadn’t always lived up to Father’s expectations, but he thought the old man had been proud, of the degree, the first in the family, and of Archie moving into a world Father didn’t, and couldn’t, really know. But he’d also known that he’d go back to the farm, when Father died. The old man had made it clear, and Archie couldn’t argue with him. Even though he had tried so hard to find a way. A new life.

The law. In the trenches he’d often wondered why he’d once thought it was so important.

Maybe Edward was courting? Perhaps that’s why he was’t there. Maybe he was even courting Lillian. Archie had been in love with her since they were… well, forever. He thought his brother had always seen her as an older sister, but perhaps these days? The war might have thrown them together.

His musings were interrupted by Mistress Stimpson calling the cows in to be milked. Rather late, Edward would need to attend to that. Some of the heifers looked a little grumpy.

They used to refer to her as Ugly Stimpson and laugh to themselves. But he looked at her now and realised that she wasn’t ugly, just old, and not even that old. She looked tired though. Worn out.

The cows moved around him, they at least could see him.

He’d almost bounced over to the recruiting station. They’d told him it’d be over by Christmas, and he must have looked crestfallen because they’d then said probably sooner. But that wasn’t what he wanted. He’d wanted Edward to have a year, a year to show Father the truth, and then, war won, he could go back, and leave. Leave the farm and be a lawyer. He’d been good at that, he’d been complimented on his fine arguments, on his grasp of the details which could swing a case. He’d imagined being called to the bar, starting with small clients, and then moving up.

Looking up he noticed that the hay barn roof was sagging in the corner. There’d be water coming in during the next storm, and that would ruin any hay in that part of the barn. Really, Edward should be here. There was so much to do. This place couldn’t survive with just Stimpson and Johns.

Then he heard a car on the track. This must be Edward. He’d give his brother a piece of his mind, even if he wouldn’t hear it. The car stopped and the door opened. He looked up to see a woman, wearing black, the mists coiling around her. She stepped down and he saw that it was Lillian. He couldn’t believe it, she was here, and she was looking at him. At him, as if she’d seen a ghost. Yet, then, her face changed, and she looked angry. She walked up to him, and pulled her hand back for a slap.

She delivered it. He rocked back. That had hurt.

“Edward is dead, and you’re not. For God’s sake man, pull yourself together and live!” she shouted.

End

###

 

Note: I think PTSD is something which is now better understood and those who suffer from it are getting more support than a century ago.  However, there is still a way to go.  I support Combat Stress (a UK based charity), and I think they do some amazing work.

Comments Off on The Farm

Filed under General

Virtual Death

This story explores another aspect of part of the future timeline described in Post Scarcity Blues (and probably would have been one of the stories in the book if I’d written it then!).

Virtual Death

By Jason Gibbs

It had been a long time since he’d physically visited a friend.  At least a decade, there was no need with modern implants and full immersion virtual reality.  Philip couldn’t explain why he was doing this, there was just an itch at the back of his mind.

The hall was dimly lit, as indeed was the whole block.

“Why am I doing this at night?”

Yet, once he’d decided he just had to go.  Also, he’d been on US time zone, so had thought it was late afternoon.

“Five flights of stairs.  Eric could have told me his building lift was broken.”

Though he hadn’t actually told Eric he was going to visit him, they’d just agreed to meet in the Dell, their usual place.  And anyway, it was unlikely Eric knew the lift was broken, he probably hadn’t been out for years either.

“Fifty-eight, fifty-nine… here he is.”

Philip knew he was only talking to himself to try and dispel the creepiness around him, but couldn’t stop.

“Oh is Eric going to be surprised!”

He knocked.  Nothing, and again.  He pressed the buzzer.  Nothing.  He tried the handle.  The door wasn’t locked.

“Ah, Eric probably disabled his physical alerts, I bet he can’t even remember the last time someone used them.  Eric?”

He opened the door into dust and gloom.

“Eric?”

He tried the light, but though he flicked it nothing came on.

“Eric, your lightbulb is out.  You should get maintenance to take better care.”

He walked into the living room.  It was lit by a few green flickering lights.  But Eric wasn’t in it.  The kitchenette was off to one side, and a short corridor with two doors was on the other side.  He walked gingerly towards the corridor.  The dust was thick on the floor.  This wasn’t a good idea.

“This place is a tip Eric, don’t worry I won’t tell anyone.  Eric?”

It was a standard apartment, so the bathroom would be to the right, and the bedroom to the left.

“The dust is just as thick here.  I wonder when the last time Eric actually got up to go to the toilet.”

Taking a breath, and trying to ignore the smells of staleness and slight decay, he pushed open the bedroom door.

He realised he’d closed his eyes and he opened them to look in, expecting, well he didn’t know.

There in the centre of the room was a standard VR coffin.

“Hmm, nice, a Paradise 23, or is it, no I’m wrong it’s a 24, top of the line before they stopped producing them.  Nice one Eric.”

He walked up, and checked the control panel.  All lights were green, and the panel indicated all was well with a cheery “Systems OK!” message.

“Right then, what was the protocol.  I think I press this, tap that…”

“Beep.  Please vocalise a message to explain the wakening.”

“Oh yes, this was to stop people being shocked.  Um, look Eric, it’s me Philip…”

‘Beep’.

“Damn.  I wonder if I can re-record.  That button.  No.  Um.”

The lights had started to flash red.  That didn’t seem right, and then there was another ‘Beep’, though this one sounded less friendly.  There was a hissing sound.  Philip stepped back.

“Why am I doing this…”

It was too late, the coffin had started to open up.  Philip wasn’t sure what he expected to see.  He wasn’t sure what he wanted to see.  When the hissing stopped he realised he’d closed his eyes again.  He opened them, and saw the side of the open coffin.  Nothing moved.

After a pause he said, “Eric?”

Nothing.  He frowned, and edged forward.  He could see the edge of the coffin, and then the lining, a sort of red plush, comfortable, though flashy, and some tubes, and then…

Then, nothing.  The coffin was empty.

“What?”

Philip heard something behind him, but before he could turn around blackness descended.

#

“Philip?”

“Um.. gargh.”

“Philip!  Are you alright?”

“Yarg, Eric don’t shout…”

It was Eric, but he’d seen, what had he seen?

“Philip, you really worried me there, you came to meet me in the Dell, and then just faded out.  I’ve had to connect into the emergency controls on your virtual unit.”

“What…”

Could he do that?  Wait, they’d signed something, like an emergency order, so they could look out for each other, it had been Eric’s idea.  But there was something he was forgetting?

“Come on Philip, say something sensible!”

“Ok, ok, stop with your yabbering.  What were we doing?”

Eric sighed, “We were at the Dell, catching up and then you just, like, disappeared, liked faded or something.  You alright buddy?”

“I, I thought I’d come to see you…”

“Like a dream or something?”  Was that hope in Eric’s voice?  Suggestion?

“No…”

“I think it must have been a dream Philip,” Eric said, with more of an edge in his voice.

“The coffin was empty, you weren’t there… what, where are you?”

“Cut the power!”

Darkness.

#

“Philip?”

It was a voice he didn’t recognise, a woman’s voice.

“Yes.”

He felt fine.  Disoriented, and it was dark all around him.

“You’ve had an accident Philip.”

“What?”

“You’ve discovered something you shouldn’t have…”

“Eric…?” asked Philip.

“Yes, Eric.  He’s dead Philip.  He has been for a while.”

“But, but I see him every day.  He’s…”

“The Eric you’ve been seeing is part AI, part actor.  Designed to fool you.”

“But…”

“It’s true I’m afraid.  We needed him to be alive for the funds to flow…” said the woman.

“Funds?”

“Eric is, or was, a very very wealthy man.  He paid us to… keep him alive.  And we failed.  Or, succeeded, depending on your point of view.  He paid us a lot.”

“I don’t understand, is he dead?  Or alive?” asked Philip, feeling a little confused.

“His physical body is dead.  Burned and scattered in case you wondered, but with no attachment to it, he was treated as an unknown, his ashes scattered in the sea.”

“I remember him saying that’s what he wanted.”

“Ah yes, well actually it happened before he said that, his actually wish was to be buried under an apple tree on the old family property, but that would have been a little tricky to hide, so… we had to make some decisions.”

“You are?”

“His… carers.  Yes, carer is the best term.  Part bodyguard, part nurse, part… well part many things.”

“And you replaced him?” said Philip.

“No, we just didn’t let his online presence die.  We kept him alive.  We hired an actor, and the best AI people, and we kept him alive.  It had all been going so well, and then you… you decided to visit him.”

“When did he die?”

“About five years ago.”

Philip was so shocked he said nothing.  Then he suddenly realised, he was in danger, wasn’t he.  They’d killed and replaced Eric, they’d do the same to him…

“Philip, calm down, I can see your heart rate has spiked.  Don’t worry, we don’t mean you any harm.  Really, in fact we have a deal for you.”

Could he believe them?

“What deal?”

“We’d like you to carry on being friends with Eric, as if nothing had happened.  You see, you are a vital part of the proof web which keeps Eric alive, and the money flowing to us.”

“But you could just replace me!”

He could feel the hysteria building, the darkness didn’t help.

There was a sigh.  Silence for a minute, and then the light came on, he was in his apartment.  His virtual one.

“Sorry Philip, the darkness was a mistake.”

The woman in front of him had few obvious markers.  She had red hair, a fifties figure and stylish clothes, but he realised that these were all actually off the peg.  She was anonymous.

“Um, who are you?”

“We are carers Philip, as I said, and we care for Eric.  We will not hurt you.  Cannot hurt you in fact.”

“But the…”

“We hired a security service to bring you in, they were more robust than expected, they have been reprimanded, and you will find a generous settlement from them, as well as a full apology.”

“Oh.”

He was confused.

“I know you’re confused Philip, so I’ll leave you the details here, and you can decide what to do.  Ultimately, we’re in your hands.  If you agree to work with us, we will provide you with a generous income, which will cover some of the things you’ve mentioned to Eric you would like… If not, well, no money, and Eric will be gone.  We will feel some pain too, but I’m sure legal will cover us.”

Philip thought she didn’t sound entirely sure, but he nodded.

She left a virtual dossier on his table, smiled at him, and said, “Goodbye Philip, hopefully we will not meet again.”

Philip pondered what he was going to do.

#

“Philip!”  said Eric, with surprise, and perhaps a hint of trepidation in his voice.

“Eric, lovely to see you.  Apologies, I’ve been a bit sick the last few days, how have you been?”

“Not great, had a few worrying things going on.  Better for seeing you though!  What shall we do today?”

###

Comments Off on Virtual Death

Filed under General

Peace in Our Time

This is one of the first short stories I wrote after Pigs, Poultry and Poo came out.  I’ve dusted it off, and tidied it up a bit, and am now releasing it into the wild… it’s original title was something like ‘Superhero Dutch Disease’, but I prefer this title.

Peace in Our Time

by Jason Gibbs

The war had been dragging on for years.  Sometimes we were in the ascendant, other times we were being pushed back, but never did it seem like it would end.  The dead were legion, and all lost over a strip of land mere miles wide.  We two enemies were too closely matched.  Though once powerful, the endless fighting had sapped our energies, and the other nations on our borders were waiting to pick over our bones, even if they had to help finish us off.

At the start of the eleventh year of the war a rumour came that the enemy had developed a super weapon which would finally end us, and the war.  Some were afraid, others merely laughed off the story as enemy propaganda.  In the event we were the ones blessed with a super weapon.

Jondril arrived one day in the capital.  He approached the war office building and told the receptionist he was there to end the war.  As you can imagine he received short shrift, and was thrown out, literally.  Two hours later an armoured figure, twice the size of a man, approached the war office and tore down the wall.  Security went crazy, and opened up with all their weapons.  The figure calmly stood, bullets bouncing off.  Lasers sitting on the armour’s shoulders knocked rounds out of the air and then destroyed the weapons facing him.  When the firing had all but petered out, the figure stamped its foot smashing the road and sending rubble in a widening circle of destruction.  Once more Jondril spoke, his voice booming as it was enhanced by the suit’s speakers, “I would end this war!”

The minister for war decided to play for time while the heavy weaponry was brought in from the outskirts of the city.  He walked out to talk to Jondril.  A brave man the minister, and one who would have still been at the front had he not lost an arm and an eye.

He and Jondril talked.  And talked more.  The weaponry arrived, and the minister was given the signal.  He ignored it.  The suited figure nodded its head, and split down the front, and Jondril climbed down.  The suit closed up again, and not a seam could be seen.

The minister guided Jondril into his building and to his office, and there they had coffee, and talked more.  More happened on that day, some said he should be imprisoned, others pointed out that he had not hurt anyone deliberately, though a few soldiers had been hurt by flying debris, but most hailed him.  He’d brought a suit which was all but impervious to our weapons, and also therefore to those of our enemy.  We heard that his father had been a scientist who had been working on such suits for many years.  He’d finally succeeded, but had sadly died before he could see his life’s work used for its true purpose, bringing peace.

The very next day Jondril walked to the front, and waded into the fight.  Again and again the enemy attacked him, but their bullets could not harm him, and their missiles didn’t bother him.  While he was untouched, every shot his suit fired was true, and the enemy soon found that all their weapons melted, or fried, or in some unfortunate cases exploded.  Jondril never once targeted a person, he only wrecked weapons.  As he explained to us later, “I wanted to stop the bloodshed, not become part of it.”  The enemy tried heavy weapons, but these too could not touch him, his suit was able to deflect heavy shells out of the air, and seemed to cause missiles to veer away sharply, or explode, as if by magic.  There were some who thought it strange that not a single heavy missile actually hit him, but the majority were just dazzled by the impact on our enemies as they fell back in disarray.

The enemy were, however, both brave and foolish, and regrouped to continue to attack.  But after two weeks they had made no progress, and Jondril had destroyed all of their armaments on the front.  Our generals wanted to plough through the now defenceless enemy and take their revenge, but Jondril was firm that he would not allow that.  He wanted the war to stop.  They realized they had no choice.  Like our enemies, there was nothing they had which could beat him.

Three weeks after Jondril’s appearance an armistice was signed.  We were at peace.  At first nobody could believe it.  Then came the celebrations, with parades and parties galore.  Then the hangovers from the celebrations, combined with effects of the war started to take its toll.  The government wanted to keep the armed forces on alert, in case of a resumption of hostilities.  Our people took to the streets to demand, quietly but firmly, that their sons and daughters should return home.  They did not riot, they did not march, they just accumulated around the parliament buildings, standing, and made their demand by their very presence.  Still the politicians did not relent.  Until Jondril joined the silent crowds.  He too said nothing, but his intent was clear.

Within days the soldiers were returning home, first a trickle and then a flood.  Some injured, some battered, and many scarred from the constant warfare.  It was a hard time for them, and their families, but also a joyous one.

Our weapons were stockpiled.  Our munitions factories converted to creating tools, toys and gadgets.  A year passed.  Peace reigned.  Our former enemy became a trading partner, though sadly only of a few fripperies.  There was hope for more.

Then, to our horror, two other neighbours invaded.   They had watched, and seeing our weakness had allied to dismember us.  We woke up, and at once the weariness of war crashed down upon us.  But also rage.  How dare they take fragile hope from us.  Sons and daughters rushed back to the barracks, ready to rearm and send these cowards home with their tails between their legs.  One young man was already prepared, he had watched our neighbours and realized they might harbour perfidy in their hearts.  Jondril marched out again, and as before none could stand against him.  Our neighbours tried half-heartedly to stop him, but soon realized that he was as untouched by their weapons as he had been by ours.

Many thought Jondril would stop at our border and let that be a lesson to all.  He did not.  He took the minister for war with him to each of the capitals, and ripped down the walls of the presidential palaces.  He then watched, silently, as a peace was negotiated, with each of our neighbours agreeing to destroy all their weapons, and pay us tribute.  In response we would destroy all but a token few of our remaining weapons.  Though truth be told there weren’t many left since the factories had not replenished what had been used in our latest battles.

Jondril stood over the pits of weapons, watching them burn and melt.  Had the suit had a face it might well have smiled, one can only assume Jondril was smiling inside.  His work was done, peace was assured.

A month passed.  Then another.  Peace became normal.  The few guards at the borders became more concerned with improving their volleyball skills than watching their peers over the border.

Suddenly our original enemies brought all their armies to our border.  While we had been enjoying the peace, they had quietly rebuilt their war machine.  They formed up and marched across, all the way to the capital.  There was no one to stop them.  They stopped in our main square, and the enemy president walked forward to meet our president.  The enemy leader was a brave man and showed no fear, even though Jondril was standing next to our leader.

Before either president could speak the suit cracked open again, and out stepped Jondril.  He walked to the enemy president, and embraced him, “Welcome sir.  The war is over.”

#

That’s not how it was.  I mean, yes, it sort of was.  Sorry, let me explain.  I was Jondril.  Well, Jondril was the suit, but it was me inside.  And it wasn’t exactly like that.

I should start at the beginning.  They said that I should just write what I remember, and then at some stage it will be released, and everyone will know the truth, or I guess, my version of the truth.

The beginning is tricky.  I can’t tell you my name, not least because after this I’ll be getting a new one, hopefully.  Jondril is not exactly a popular person amongst our new subjects.  I wasn’t a soldier.  I was a scientist.  Am a scientist.  I work with brain to machine interfaces, and before Jondril I’d been working on one of the many war efforts to find a new weapon.

The idea was to turn our soldiers into walking tanks.  We’d give them each an army’s worth of guns and send them off to wipe out our opponents.  The problem was that it didn’t work.  The suits were too slow.  While we’d been successful with bulking the armour up, and making it almost invulnerable to small arms fire, one decent missile, and blam: many millions of expensive tech up in smoke.  We added anti-missile technologies, shrunk high powered lasers and improved the targeting.  It still wasn’t enough.  Our simulations gave the suit wearer a survival time of between three and four hours in the first deployment, and less than fifteen minutes in all further deployments.

There was really only one successful part of the project.  My bit.  No, I’m not being arrogant, I’m just telling it the way it was.  We succeeded, I succeeded, in subconscious human to machine control.  What does that mean?  It means that I could control the robot’s actions just by thinking, but more than that, I didn’t have to think ‘move knee up, swing foot forward, drop foot down’, instead I just thought about moving forward.  The suit became an extension of my body, and one which felt, after some practice, natural.

The success was only partial however, as only I could interface with the original suit.  The only one now, I guess.  But we had worked out what we needed to develop next to allow others to do the same.

Our last test failure came just before the funding round.  We all knew what would happen.  I couldn’t face it.  I wanted there to be something out of all the years of work, over eight of them in fact, with me joining with the suit every day for the last five.

I was desperate.  I proposed one last gamble.  Something which would show the worth of the suit, and hopefully allow us to continue our work.  I promised to lead the enemy into an ambush.  We’d be able to turn the tide.  And if I failed, all they’d lose would be the suit.  And me.

I think I struck a chord.  The war was making us less human, and there were some who were desperate for it to be over, one way or another.  One of those was the general in charge of intelligence.  I suspect because he knew just how closely matched we were with our enemies,  despite all the propaganda, and therefore just how permanent our stalemate could be.

So, our plan was born.  I would persuade our enemies I was on their side.  Pretend to wipe out a section of the front, they would charge in, and we’d annihilate them.  I wasn’t comfortable with being instrumental in all that death, but it was going to happen one way or another, perhaps I could save some lives in the long run.  And the program of course.

I don’t hate our former enemies.  I didn’t hate them then.  I felt nothing.  My brother had died at the front, and my father.  My mother just faded after my brother’s death.  I didn’t blame the enemy, I couldn’t see the point, they were losing just as many sons, daughters and parents as we were.

The night the mission started I was a mess.  My heart was in my throat; my bowels had turned to water.  Fortunately, I was in the suit, so no one could see my face, which I’m sure was pale with fear.  I was dropped, in my suit, twenty miles from the enemy capital in mountainous territory.  The drop went without a hitch, and as I unfolded from the ball the suit had formed on landing and checked the systems, I could feel the adrenaline kick in.  This was my chance.  I power ran to the edge of the capital, using the darkness to hide me, aided by the stealth we’d built into the suit.

Taking the suit off was harder than I expected, but I knew I had to make the first approach in person to have any chance of getting them to talk to me without just wiping the suit from the planet.  I felt naked.  Alone in a country of enemies.  I’d spent some weeks being subliminally trained to use the correct accent and speech rhythms, so I would not stand out.  I had the right clothes, and enough money to get to and from the war office.  And buy some food.

It soon became clear that I was just as invisible on the streets as everyone else.  Indeed, I could easily have been in my own city, there was really little between us.

The events at the war office have been described often enough.  There’s only one thing I would add.  The suit was standing serenely, taking the punishment.  Inside I was panicking.  I had never been shot at before, and now the rounds were pinging in from everywhere.  My original plan had been to take some initial punishment, and then shelter next to a building to carefully pick off the weapons firing at me.  However, in my panic my ability to communicate to the suit failed.  I was trapped inside it, and its systems went to automatic protection.  Fortunately, I’d instructed it to avoid fatalities, otherwise there would have been a blood bath and the minister of war would have had to call down an airstrike, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed that.

Our talk.  I can’t tell you much.  He was, is, a brave man.  Some say he would have been the next president.  Perhaps.  He asked me what I wanted.  I told him peace.  He then asked me how, and I said I’d disarm our enemies.  He looked at the suit silently for a while, and then asked me to step out.  I nearly didn’t, but I knew this was my chance to persuade him.

I stepped out, sweating, but managed to hold myself straight.  He looked at me.  Said something about young men and war, and then offered me a coffee in an office, and we walked inside.  We didn’t talk much more then.  He didn’t quiz me about where I came from; he didn’t test my cover story at all.  I like to think he just trusted me, but of course he also knew that others would be interrogating me on those things later.

We had the coffee in his office.  I was then escorted into a comfortable, but locked room.  Some hours later I was visited again by an officer.  He wanted the keys to the suit.  I explained that it would only work with me.  He threatened me.  I repeated my statement.  He went away.

Oddly, they never did properly test my cover story.  I was pretending to be one of their scientists from a facility which had been blown up a year before which we knew had been working on suits.  I’d somehow made it to my nearby home and finished up my work and hey, here I was with a weapon to end the war.  It was the weakest part of the story, but it was only intended to hold up for a day or so, not long enough to be properly checked.  They created their own propaganda.  Possibly because they didn’t want to admit to having had a facility blown up, or maybe they were incapable of releasing the truth.

The next day I went to the front.  I’d told them I wanted to make a difference and that I’d clear our enemies.  I waded in, destroyed every weapon pointed at me, and defanged all my opposition.

Here was a tricky bit.  I knew that the suit couldn’t withstand true heavy weaponry, as of course did those in charge of my new ‘enemies’, but we had to pretend.  And be convincing enough that my new allies would buy it.  I was in constant communication with my old bosses, and they helped me manage such a show.  Every time a missile got too close they’d force it to self-destruct, and I’d point my arm at it just beforehand.  The artillery systems were surprisingly inaccurate that day, enough so that I could walk in between the paths.  It was all very convincing.

We managed to keep it going for two weeks.  The enemy forces fell back, leaving plenty of broken weapons in their wake.  Many of these were obsolete, but it wasn’t that obvious once they’d been sufficiently burnt, and both sides had been using obsolete weaponry for so long it probably wouldn’t have stood out.

How did I keep talking with my bosses without my new friends finding out?  Easy really, my suit was constantly chatting on every available network, wavelength and direct connection it could sense.  It was like a shining ball of communications, which meant that it was impossible to track any of it.  Especially as it was constantly shifting channels.  My new allies did try to hack it, as expected, but to them it always seemed one step ahead, and even turned the hacks around.  This was because it wasn’t doing anything with most of the information it was getting in, it was just scrambling it and feeding it straight back out again, like a crazed router.

With my former nation now appearing to be in deep trouble and on the run, my new friends were keen to take advantage and drive every spare man and woman they had, all the way to the capital to perform the coup de grace.  I was supposed to let them.  But I couldn’t.

I’d never before been at the front.  I’d not seen the dead and dying happening in front of me.  Sure I’d seen it on TV, but that’s TV…  As much as I was doing to try and spike weapons around me, there was still fighting, and blood and death, and it sickened me.  This was one of the reasons I failed the combat psych test and was allowed to continue in research.  And I wanted it stopped.

So instead of letting the fools walk into the giant trap I’d set up for them, I insisted they didn’t.  I further insisted they push for an armistice.  By this point I was a hero, and they couldn’t argue.

Unlike my former bosses, who were threatening all sorts.  There was much swearing, accusations of betrayal and suchlike.  I ignored it for a while.  And then told them of my new plan.

I’d realized that everyone wanted the war to stop.  I believed, rightly as it turns out, that the country I was in was desperate to stop.  The people had run out of fighting spirit.  I told my former bosses that if they agreed to an armistice, within a year the land I was in would be toothless, and they would be able to walk in unopposed.  All they would have to do is maintain combat readiness but keep it low profile.

The key was that my new best friends viewed me as an army on my own.  They wouldn’t need to retain troops if they had me.  The more sensible generals thought this foolish, and tried to keep the army together.  But the people soon stopped that.  Helped by some apparently ad hoc campaigns on social media.  I judged the appropriate time, and joined the standing demonstrations.  Within days the war machine was being dismantled with enthusiasm.

Why did my bosses not invade now?  In part because they wanted to rearm properly.  The last few years had left both sides armies exhausted and equipment and munitions were short.  In part I think they wanted to make sure that the old enemy was truly quietened.   And in part they needed to maintain control of their own people, allowing some peace, but not too much.  I also did my bit in staying their hand, by telling them that there were still many fit and trained men and women in this ‘adopted’ country of mine, and we needed time for their war skills to atrophy.

Months passed.  How did I avoid detection?  I told my new friends I needed space, and that I would be available if needed, but would respond badly to unnecessary contact.  I provided written responses to some questions from the news people, and then hid in the mountains, using the stealth on the suit to hide me.  In truth I did want the space, and the mountains were soothing.  I felt the burden of the deaths I’d caused.  Not directly, but I’d certainly changed the dynamic, and many of my countrymen had died.  Perhaps they would have died soon anyway.  The war would have chewed them up.  But the difference was that I had helped.  I didn’t want to face the probability that I would cause yet more death.

I spent all my time in my suit, and it became more and more part of me.  I slept in it.  It fed me.  We were one.

After a year my former homeland had recovered.  The armies were ready.  There were fewer men and women in arms, but those left were well fed, well-armed, and ready for a fight.  My pleading that the war not be restarted fell on increasingly deaf ears, and I was becoming desperate.  I was close to refusing to be any further part, but then, we all knew that I wasn’t needed for the planned slaughter.

Then fate intervened.  Two smaller nations on the borders decided to ally and pick over the weakened beast I now lived in.  They invaded, but tentatively.  Which was their mistake.  A year of peace had not healed all the wounds, and the anger of the people was frightening.  As soon as news of the incursions hit the media channels there was an eruption.  The people would not have their peace taken from them.  Vengeance and death were offered up by people who but days before were discussing poetry competitions and flower shows.

I made sure my erstwhile bosses were made aware of all of this.  They could see their enemy was weakened, but not defeated.

Then I saw a positive option.  Perhaps true peace was possible?  I joined in the defence.  Recklessly diving into the combat.  Fortunately, the two nations were weak, and hadn’t brought any proper heavy weapon support otherwise I might have been destroyed within hours.  Instead they fell back before me.  I continued to push them back, rolling over their armies, destroying any arms brought against me, but avoiding fatalities as far as was possible.  I also told my friends to let me do the work, and save themselves.  This would reduce the potential for death on both sides.

My actions in forcing the peace are well documented.  Suffice it to say the defeated nations were in such shock that they would have signed anything, and the peace they were offered was far better than any they would have given.  As all three sides destroyed their weapons I rejoiced.

Did I know my old bosses would take advantage of the situation?  Of course, I had presented the option to them.  They would win, and take over not one, but three nations, becoming a much more powerful empire.  One which could not be threatened by any of our more distant neighbours.  Was I comfortable with betraying my allies?  I never did.  I ended the war.  I gave them peace.

###

Comments Off on Peace in Our Time

Filed under Dark

Brain Ports

by Jason Gibbs

“There is no such thing as a soul!”

“Well, that was emphatic.  Can we at least ask…”

“No, that was the last question I am willing to take.”

With that, the minister stormed off the stage, leaving the press shaking their heads and laughing.  It was a game they liked to play with the new appointees, and normally they didn’t get such a good response.

#

“Minister Roberts…”

“I know Simkins, I should have held it together, but those press people, they’re like rabid…”

“Don’t worry minister, here is your coffee.  Also, Mrs Youre is on the line.”

“The Prime Minister?”

“Yes, minister.  Here she is…”

With that Simkins switched the mirror over and Roberts was face to face with his boss.

“Roberts.  What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Ah, Prime Minister, um, I, I’m sorry, I should have been prepared…”

She laughed, and then smiled at him.  He realised she was having as much fun as the press people.

“Don’t worry Roberts, that was actually perfect.  Your last two predecessors were too cool, I think the press were starting to wonder.  Your, let’s call it a performance, yes, your performance was brilliant.  They’ll be chuckling to themselves for months.  And not bothering about the other stories,” she stared at him.

“Yes, Prime Mini…”

“Your job Roberts, is to keep them off the scent for as long as possible.  We know this is going to get out, but we’ve managed to keep a lid on it for three years, and we’d like a little more time.  My people tell me they think they only need a couple more months, but they said much the same last year.  You hold on.  Do whatever is necessary.”

“Yes, Pri…”

She cut off.  Roberts was tempted to swear but held himself back.  She might reappear, and his day had been getting worse since she’d called for him that morning.

#

As he was driven back to the ministry he stared into the middle distance, remembering the brief feeling of joy when he’d received the call.  He was finally getting noticed.  He assumed it would be a junior position, but, the only way was up.

Instead she’d sat him down and told him straight, “Roberts.  You are cannon fodder.  The likelihood is you’ll do this and be consigned to the back benches for the next decade.  But your country needs you, I need you, are you willing to do it?”

There was obviously no answer to that.  He’d nodded, trying to look serious and ministerial.

“You are going to be our new Minister for Galactic Transport.  The fourth in 18 months so my aides tell me.  The last three are… well the wilderness would probably be preferable.  They slipped up.  You must not.”

He just stared at her.  The job was a poisoned chalice, and yet nobody knew why.  Ministers just didn’t last.  Maybe it was the souls thing?

“Now, I only have five minutes, so I’m going to give you the fast brief.  Your team in the ministry will give you background, but this is so important you need to hear it from me.  Firstly, the official line is that there is no such thing as a soul, and YOU WILL STICK TO IT.  DO you understand?”

There was a sharpness to her smile.  He nodded understanding.

“We have had some issues with the replication technology with teleports, this is true, but we believe that it is the central computer.  There’s a bug, a switch set to one, nothing more.  And you will not entertain any notion otherwise.  Got it?”

“Yes, Prime Mini…”

She’d stood up, and ushered him out, newly minted, a proper minister, and yet, a sword hanging over his head.  The previous minister had lasted 17 weeks, so at least he had a target.

#

“Right, so, Simkins, can you explain to me what the difference between the official line, and the unofficial line actually is, so that I might avoid abject humiliation next time I’m up in front of the press?”

“I’m afraid not Minister.”

“What?”

“There is no difference.”

Butter wouldn’t melt.

Roberts took a deep breath.  “Fine, tell me what the issue is, and why people keep mentioning souls.”

Simkins eyed him, but then clearly decided to take pity on him.

“Well Minister, do you know how the transportation works?”

“Yes, yes, brain ports, we get one put in, it maps the brain, a plug sucks the map out, spits it across the communicator and then we’re printed by a giant 3d meat printer at our destination.”

Simpkins nodded, though Roberts thought he detected a slight grimace.

“Quite so minister.  Though we tend not to use such… colourful language.  We’ve been doing this for some years, more than a decade of commercial licence in fact.  In the beginning we had strict rules, only one copy of a person at a time.  Obviously when the original person was, um, transported, they ceased to exist in their first location…”

“Why?” Roberts asked, he’d always wondered.

“We believe it’s the mapping process.  Nonetheless, from a legal perspective it makes it easy, one legal person, transports to another location, no duplicates, no… dare I say it, clones.”

They both shuddered.  Not worth thinking about that.

“Right, so what about the souls.”

“Minister please let me explain,” said Simkins sounding a little pained.

“Yes, sorry Simkins, go ahead.”

“And then two years ago there was the De Freito case, and suddenly the floodgates opened.”

Roberts looked blank.  “Um, if you could just remind me?”

“De Freito claimed that his human rights were being violated, because of the restrictions he was unable to be at home with his family and travelling at the same time.”

“Ah yes, I seem to recall something…” said Roberts, though he really couldn’t.

“So, they tried to send him to his destination, and a copy back round, and it failed.  He threatened to sue, it got a little ugly, and then… there was a small mistake and he ended up at a terminal station, which is at least a decade away from being able to send him back.”

“A mistake?”

“Yes, minister.”

More butter.

“Souls?”

“Of course, minister.  The tests didn’t stop there, they just found some more amenable subjects.  But what they found was that no matter what they did, there could only ever be one copy of a person in the galaxy.  The data would duplicate, triplicate or whatever, but whichever copy arrived first would be the person, even if the time difference was almost nothing.  The other copies would just… fail.”

“Ah, this is that glitch the Prime Minister mentioned, something to do with a switch.”

“That is the official line, Minister.  They are concerned about the fallout if people start thinking they have souls again.  Can you imagine?”

The wars of religion had been brutal, and religiosity was frowned upon in these enlightened times.

“What do they think it is?”

“Well, they have performed many experiments, even putting two ports into one candidate.  Nothing worked, no matter what they do, only one copy of a person can ever exist.”

“Do they know why?”

“Yes, they’re fairly certain now.  Empirically, there is a single point, a sort of essence of a person, which cannot be duplicated.”

Roberts nodded wisely.

“Ah, excellent, and what are they proposing to call this?”

Simkins looked at him with an expression approaching pity.

“A soul, minister.”

###

Comments Off on Brain Ports

Filed under Flash Fiction

Blood Doctor

It is World Haemochromatosis Week this week, and after my fortnightly venesection (phlebotomy), I decided to write a story about blood, and here it is.

#

Blood Doctor

by Jason Gibbs

Vanessa walked slowly along the street. It was late, she’d been drinking, but she felt she was walking on air. He’d said he loved her!

She’d been having dinner and a drink with her friend Louise. It had been the first time they’d been out for a while, she had been feeling so tired recently, but Louise had dragged her out. They’d been laughing about Louise’s latest dating disasters when Vanessa’s phone went, it was Peter. She’d apologised to Louise and then gone outside to talk to him. It had been such a short call, or a long one, but he’d said he loved her! He’d just woken up, he was on a business trip, and he’d just had to tell her.

She’d floated back into the restaurant, told Louise, who’d squealed with delight, and then ordered a bottle of champagne.

Oh Peter, he was so amazing…

Wait? What was that? She looked round, there’d been a noise. Where was she? Oh no, she’d missed her turn. And the noise had come from behind her, she’d have to head back towards it.

This looked like a bad neighbourhood, which to Vanessa meant there was some rubbish on the ground and a small number of weeds. There it was again. The sound of a step? Was someone following her…

Suddenly a shape loomed out in front of her, it was huge and scary and… she passed out.

#

“Miss? Miss? Are you alright?”

The young doctor, quite handsome she thought, was staring at her concerned. Where was she… an ambulance?

“I’m fine… where am I?”

“You’re in an ambulance, and we’re about to take you to hospital, don’t worry.”

“What happened?”

“Ah…”

“Please tell me.”

“You were being, um, followed by a vampire, and then you fainted.”

“And you saved me?”

“In a manner of sorts. I’ll explain more at the hospital.”

#

“Is she alright?”

The voice was deep, and resonant, and sounded a little irritated. The answer was from the young doctor.

“Yes.”

“I didn’t mean to frighten her, but she must have heard you, it put her on edge.”

“Apologies sir, but… we’re not all quite as, silent, as you are,” replied the young doctor, though he didn’t sound particularly apologetic.

“Hrumph.”

“Shall I explain the situation to her, and then you can…”

“Yes, please. I need to tidy something up, I will be back a bit later.”

There were steps, heavy ones heading away, lighter ones approaching.

“Miss?”

She realised he was asking her name.

“Vaness..ack.”

Her throat was dry, he handed her some water.

She nodded her thanks, and drank deeply, then said, “Vanessa.”

“Vanessa, nice to meet your properly. I expect you’re wondering what is going on?”

“Yes. You said something about… a vampire?”

“Yes, does that bother you?”

“No, I understand that they’re among us, though I haven’t met one. But I thought they didn’t stalk people any more?”

“They don’t, not normally. No, sorry, I didn’t mean that. The doctor was using the same techniques, but not with the same intention.”

“He doesn’t want to drain my blood?” She smiled, a trace of her usual humour. Then she saw his face.

“He does?” Almost a screech.

“Um, I’m not explaining this properly. Look, have you heard of haemochromatosis?”

“Hema what?”

“It’s a genetic condition where your body absorbs too much iron. It’s more common than you might think.”

“OK, and what does that have to do with me?”

“We think you might have it. The doctor smelt the iron in your blood. We’re testing his ability to detect high levels of iron, as it might help us catch more people before the disorder starts to hurt them.”

“Is it bad?”

“Well, it can be very bad as it damages your organs, particularly your liver. One of the most common symptoms is fatigue.”

“Oh. I have been feeling tired recently.”

He nodded. “Don’t worry, it’s actually easy to treat. It just requires regular venesection.”

“Vene-what?”

“Blood giving.”

“Your proposed treatment is a course of leeches?” She laughed.

He nodded, and said, “That has been done, though we’re trialling a new treatment.”

“What is the new treatment?”

As she said that, a large, pale man entered the room. He smiled, and she saw his large and growing incisors. Her eyes grew large.

The man looked at her and said, “Me.”

###

Comments Off on Blood Doctor

Filed under Flash Fiction

Our Man on Earth

By Jason Gibbs

Seriously, what in the name of anything which can be named were they thinking when they sent me here?  Look at this place, it’s… it’s despicable.

“Anton?”

What?

“Anton?”

“What?”

“Are you alright?  You seemed to zone out for a moment or two there.”

“Um, yeah fine.  Where’s that waiter, I’m ready to order.”

She looked at me, and two frown lines appeared above her eyes.  Her beautiful brown eyes.

“We just finished… and I’ve paid.  Again.”

“Ah, yes, sorry, just joking, and I’ll pay tonight.”

I look around, and realise it is night, and the frown is spreading.

“I mean tomorrow.”

“Yes Anton.”  She shakes her head, her hair, like long black snakes, almost alive.  She is beautiful, and yet… not.

“Sorry Sula, it’s been one of those, um, diurnal cycles.”

“It’s a day Anton, and it’s not funny, your way, you’re… I don’t know what it is.”

She stands suddenly.  Pushing back her chair with a sound which makes me flinch.  Hate it.

“Well?”

I get up, slower, and making sure to lift my chair.  No pain there.

“Let’s walk, and perhaps I can buy you…”

“A flower?”

“A drink?”

“We’ll see.”

I reach a hand out, and she twirls away, her short white dress swirling up a little, showing her long dark brown legs to their best advantage.  And no knickers.  I knew I liked her for a reason.

She catches my stare, winks and pauses long enough for me to catch her hand and we walk out into the hot Cairo night.

When we met, we were two strangers, foreigners, lumped together.  The locals view us all the same, no matter our different racial backgrounds.  So, we were forced together, and forced in a way to behave as the locals assumed we would.  Not that I didn’t enjoy it.

“Anton?  Anton!  Are you alright?”

“Sula?”

An intake of breath.

“No, it’s Rita.”

That’s right.  Sula’s gone.  Cholera?

“Sorry Rita, I…”

She looked closely at me.

“No, I know, it’s the shock.  The car hitting you, and yet, you are fine.  But…”

Oh, the car.  Yes.  I must stay in this time.

“It just tapped me, it was the angle.”

She frowns.  Her lashes are so long.  Dark, covering her eyes.  Blue, not like Sula’s.  But then Rita is very different from Sula.

Why am I here, in this purgatory?

“What?  Purgatory?”

“Ah… maybe I will have a drink.”

“There it is.”

I look down, and she’s right, some dark brown liquid is sitting in front of me.  I take a sip.  Scotch, single malt, Highland by the taste of it.  This place has a few advantages.  Women.  Whisky.  I can’t think of a third.

“Look Anton, I’ve been meaning to say, and after that… I mean with the car.  Maybe it’s not the right time.”

“What?”

“Anton?”

“Lea, how wonderful to see you here.  How have you been?”

Her beautiful face glows with a smile.  Brown eyes, so dark they’re black, twinkling.  I used to love making her smile.

“I’m well.  I…”

She’s remembered.  How we met after Rita left me, and the brief burst of fire and then… she was a doctor, she knew I should have died.

“I’m glad to see it.  Look Lea, I have to go…”

“No Anton, please.  I’ve thought about you a lot.  I want to talk to you.  I want to try and understand.”

I should run away.  I’ve run away before.  I’ve done other things too.  But this time, I can’t.  It’s too much, I’m so tired.  Tired of this place.

“We can talk, but you won’t understand.”

“Try me.”

I get a twitch.  Damn, not now, not when…

Anton.  Report.”  It was second control.  She was always prying.

“Now is not a good time Control.  Can we twitch later?”

“No need.  I just wanted to tell you that your latest request to return has been denied.  You must complete your mission.  Out.”

“But.”  She was gone.

“Anton!”

I looked up at her.

“Lea, why are you staring down at me?”

“You just collapsed.  Hitting the corner of the table, and then lying there, mumbling.  Look, let me check your head.”

“Um no, it’s fine, really…”

“If you’re sure… though given the fire.  Yes.”

Damn, the fire.  Right, what do I do now?

“Do you have any alcohol?” I ask as I pull myself up.

“Anton, this is a coffee shop, no alcohol.”

“Oh.  I don’t think I can tell you without a proper drink.”

She sighs.

“Fine, we’ll go to my place.  Yours will be a mess, and probably crawling with… well anything.  I have some scotch.  I blame you for introducing me to it.”

She takes my hand and leads me out.  It’s different from before, it feels like I’m an errant child being led home by a brood-parent.

“Here, something a bit peaty, I think you’ll like it.  Now tell me.”

“Yes.. Ree… I mean Lea.”

She frowns, but says nothing, and looks at me, her eyes hard.

“Right, yes.  So, um, the fire.”

“Which should have killed you.  Yes?”

“Yes, but this, corpus?  Corpse?”

“It’s not a corpse until you are dead Anton.”

“This body, it is, designed, yes designed to be robust, to protect me.  From everything.”

“Fire, flood and plague?”

“All the biblical scourges.”

“Who designed it?  A government?  A corporation?”

I laugh, choking on my whisky.  After a brief cough I take another slug, swirl it round my mouth and swallow the sweet burn.

“So?”

“Sorry Lea, no, not them.  I’m not sure you’ll believe me.”

“Aliens?”

My look of surprise makes her laugh.

“Once you’ve ruled out the impossible… and I looked you over when you were out, you are not something that would be easy to make.”

It’s out.  My secret is out.  Maybe second control will take another request.  Wait, no.  If my secret is out I have to stay, and they’ll start the life timer.

“Anton!”

“Lea, look, it’s supposed to be a secret, and if my controllers find out… I’ll die here.  On this miserable excuse for a…”

I look at her frown, and change tack, “Lovely planet I mean, great place, lovely people.  Nice whisky.”

“Why are you here?  Are you going to invade?  Steal our resources?  Turn me into a fifty foot giant?”

I knew I liked her for a reason, calm and still making jokes.

“Well, technically I’m here to ‘survey the local civilisation and report’, but honestly, it’s punishment for… well best not to say.”

“Was a girl involved?  Or your species’ equivalent?”

“Um, yes, more or less.”

“Ha, not a surprise.  You didn’t answer my question.”

“No offence, but there is literally nothing of value on this planet.  Once you get a space industry you’ll realise how poor the planet really is, but anyway, all I’m really here to do is try and prevent you lot from killing yourselves off.  Not because you’re special, there are thousands of similar planets and sentients, but because we’re sentimental that way.  Possibly several millennia of wiping out any other species we encountered, it’s amazing what trillions of deaths will do to a species’ guilt complex when it finally arrives.”

“How is it going?”

“Oh, well, I haven’t really tried, I mean, why bother?  If you lot want to kill yourselves, go ahead.  I just want to get home.”

“And when can you go home?”

“Only when I produce evidence you’re all stable and not likely to explode at any moment.”

“That’s it?”

“Or…”

Or… now that is interesting.

“Or what Anton?  Anton?  What is that gleam in your eye?”

“Lea, I have to go, sorry.  I’ll probably not see you again.”

The plague ripped through the population without mercy.  Billions died.  Civilisation collapsed, and the few who were immune to the bioweapon died in the ensuing chaos as a result of starvation or other prosaic killers.

Second control passed on his report.  The response was swift, “Well Anton, you failed.  But you can come home.”

###

Comments Off on Our Man on Earth

Filed under Dark

Attack of the Giant Purple Girls – Published Today!

Thirty years in the making, this book was started by my mother, and I’ve finally finished it.  Published using the createspace platform it is available from Amazon today as both a paperback and kindle (see widget to the side for a direct link).

This book is about two boys, Dominic and Jason, who have some interesting adventures on a perfectly ordinary Sunday morning, and end up on a strange world battling Giant Purple Girls, and hunger.

My mother passed away without finishing the story, and after some reflection I decided to pick it up, and find out what actually happened to the two characters, particularly the one based on a young me, and here it is.  The artwork on the cover, and inside, is all my mother’s work, though was not originally planned for the book.

I hope you choose to buy the book, and more importantly, enjoy it if you do.

Comments Off on Attack of the Giant Purple Girls – Published Today!

Filed under General