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.

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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?”

###

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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.

###

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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.”

###

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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.”

###

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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.”

###

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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.

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Star Donkey

By Jason Gibbs

Kael’s head slammed into the back of his helmet.  The stars spun.  Darkness tried to claim him.  Suddenly he was bathed in light, his little ship had twisted to face the sun, but was still spinning making the sun shift in odd ways.  A headache was building behind his eyes.

“Alpha one, do you read me?  Dammit Jole, what is going on?”

The last thing he remembered was approaching the object.  It was a giant cylinder, pointed towards the sun.  It was the first alien artefact humanity had seen, and all the expectations of seamless joins and matt black smart coatings had been dashed.  It looked like nothing so much as a piece of junk, cobbled together by a crazed inventor.  He’d prepared a speech to rival Armstrong’s, but as he neared the thing the words stuck in his mouth.  Then something invisible reached out and thrust his little craft violently away.  He tried to clear his head.

“Alpha one, please respond.  Where are you?”

“Alpha one here.  Please report Falcon.  Are you alright?”

Relief flooded through him, but, damn, it hurt to speak.

“I’m fine, I hurt a bit, but… no I’m OK.  I don’t know what happened, did you see anything?”

“We saw you approach, and then it was like you were slapped away.  Nothing visible.  A forcefield?  It didn’t affect any of the telemetry.  We saw that ugly pile of junk.  I wonder what it is…”

It’s an automated magnetic flux extraction and vessel reabsorption station.

“Um, was that you Falcon?”

“No…”

I am PK.  I run this facility.  I do hope our automated defence system caused you no permanent damage, but I must ask that you do not approach within ten thousand kilometres of our station.  For your own safety.

It was an alien, a proper real, non-Earth based sentient.  Eloquence was sadly lost, and the best he could manage was: “What?  Where are you from?  What do you want from us?”

All of Kael’s training was failing him.  The xenologists back on Earth had given him so many ways of approaching this, it was First Contact after all.  But none of them had anticipated this, whatever it was.

My planet’s name would mean nothing to you, and you only have a random set of characters naming my star.  We need nothing from you.  This facility will run for ten thousand years.  It’s only a short-term extraction, but with reuse we’ve got the cost of these facilities down to something reasonable now, so it’s net positive on the pay back to roll them out aggressively, even for stars like yours which will play out so quickly.

“Alpha One are you copying this?”

Kael’s brain had overloaded.  He had so many questions, he just didn’t know which one to ask, so he’d resorted to protocol: always make sure you have witnesses to back up your story.

“We copy you Falcon.  We continue to acknowledge your lead.”

Well that was very kind of them, now wasn’t it?

“Um PK, can I ask how you can speak our language and know our units, kilometres and years?”

Exploration did a brief survey of your planet when we agreed to deploy the project here.  I had to update the pack which is why I couldn’t contact you immediately after you were repulsed.”

Suddenly something the alien said jumped to the fore of his mind.

“Wait, what do you mean the star will be played out?”

The extraction engine will have consumed so much of the magnetic energies that the star will collapse.  There might be a mini-nova, but probably not a lot.

“In ten thousand years?”

At most.  Based on the magnetic fluctuations we’re seeing within the extraction process it might be only two thousand, which I can tell you is going to wreck the budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if heads don’t roll.  Still not my problem, I’m off to the next installation shortly.”

“You’re telling me that this machine is going to destroy the Sun in possibly two thousand years.”

I can see why Cultural Assessment decided not to invest any effort in your civilisation.  Yes.  Star, gone, two thousand years.  Look, I’m really busy, and I have to leave shortly.  Wait, I know, sorry about this, I should have played this to you first.  Bye.”

Some music played.  Kael tried shouting, but the music was drowning him out, and he doubted Alpha One could hear him.  The music faded and was replaced with a melodic, androgynous voice speaking, a message which was repeated endlessly, and over which Kael was unable to make himself heard.

“This is the [garbled] Mining and Extraction Corporation.  Congratulations, your system has been chosen for an extraction pump.  It will mine energy from your star and provide it to the interstellar community and help improve the lives of trillions of sentients across the galaxy.  We determined your civilisation was in a low-value category, and therefore ineligible for either payment or consultation, if there has been an error in grading, please raise it with the local civilisation assessment office.  In the meantime, you may notice some secondary effects in your star, ultimately culminating in its collapse, and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

###

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NPCs

NPCs

By Jason Gibbs

“Sometimes it feels like everyone else is an NPC.”

“What do you mean?”

He sighed, and looked around.  Waving his arms vaguely he said, “All these people, they’re just automatons.  Physical expressions of some simplistic code.  You know like non-player characters in games.”

“Right, or, and this is just a wild suggestion, but you might have been gaming a little too much recently.  You might want to take a break.”

Normally Ray would have laughed at this point, but instead he looked quite grumpy.

“No, Jules, really, I’m serious.”

“OK OK.  Look, I have to go.  I’ll meet you later, right, at the Old Lion?”

“Yeah yeah, I’ll be there.”

He wasn’t, in fact I didn’t see him for a few weeks, which is quite unusual.  Even more strange was that I saw him in the morning at our usual coffee hang out.  Ray was the kind of person to whom mornings were anathema.

“Jules.  How are you?”

“Erm, I’m fine Ray.  What are you doing?  Where’ve you been?”

“Ah, well, just trying a few things out.”

Then he looked at me oddly and leant close and whispered something in my ear.  It sounded a little like ‘shuzz-worzler’ but I didn’t catch it.

“What was that for?”

“Damn, I was worried there for a moment.  I thought you were one of them too.”

He was starting to weird me out.

“What are you talking about?”

“Look, can we grab a coffee, I need to talk to someone real, and you’re the only one I’ve found so far who’s likely to listen to me.”

I wasn’t entirely sure whether to be complimented or not, but I nodded, and we ordered some coffees.  I was going to pay, as Ray is often between jobs, but he said, “Leave it to me.”

The barista rang up the amount, and Ray leant over and said something to him.  The barista looked a bit vacant, and then entered something into the till, and said, “On the house.”

I looked askance at Ray.  He shrugged and said, “They know my face?  I’ll explain.”

Shaking my head I took my coffee and headed for our regular table in the corner.  It gave an excellent view of both doors, and had a comfy feel to it.

“Explain.”

“What?”

“Where you’ve been!  And why you got these coffees free.”

“Right yeah.  Where to begin… so you remember I said it was like everyone was an NPC?”

“Kind of.”

“Well it got me to thinking, so I did a bit of experimentation.  You know how in Dungeons of Trithory you could use special codes to get NPCs to provide information even if you didn’t know the right questions?  It was kind of a hack.”

“Um, I didn’t actually play that one.”

I wasn’t anything like the gamer Ray was.  Not least because I had a job and really didn’t have the time.

“Well take my word for it, there were these special words.  It’s quite common really, most games have some form of them.  The way to find them involves some trial and error, but they follow some common themes, usually a corruption of the title of the game, or some main part of the back history.”

“And this has what to do with free coffee?”

“Well, I did some testing on people who I was convinced were NPCs.  It took me a couple of weeks, and some slightly difficult situations, but I found the codes.  I found the codes!”

I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying.  I must have looked a little confused, because he went on, “Look, all I did to get these coffees was use one of the code words, and then tell him it was on the house.”

“Like a Jedi?”

“Yes, these are the coffees we were looking for.”

“That is BS.  I bet you just promised to pay him later.”

“No, serious.”

“You’re trying to tell me there are some secret words which will make anyone in the world do what you want.”

“Not anyone, just the NPCs, which is most people.  I reckon there’s only a dozen or so of us real people in this part of the city.”

“Ray, you have really lost it.  I am worried about you.  This kind of delusion… you need to give up the gaming.”

“I haven’t played a game for more than a week, other than the game of real life.”

I was getting quite worried.  I’d never seen him like this.  As he saw my face he started to get frustrated.

“Look, give me a challenge.  I can get anyone in this shop to do whatever I want, well except you.  Mores the pity.”

“Not this again.”

“No no, I know, we’re just friends.  But seriously.  Give me a challenge.”

I looked around the shop.  There were a few people sitting enjoying their coffees.  A couple of business men clearly having a gossip about work, their voices were too low and the chuckles too loud for it to be anything else.  An old man, doing the crossword and nursing a small latte.  Next to him was a pretty girl.  Long dark hair, red lipstick.  The coffee in front of her was empty, and she was checking her makeup with her phone, but the frown on her face said she’d been stood up.  I knew Ray was useless with women.  It was painful to watch, and normally I wouldn’t put him through it, but he was irritating me with this NPC thing.

“OK, get that girl’s number.”

“I’ll do better, I’ll get her to kiss me.”

“Right.  But if it doesn’t work I don’t want to hear any more of this MPC rubbish.”

“NPC.”

“Whatever.  Stop stalling.”

He walked over quite calmly and said, “Hello”.  The girl’s face was a picture.  Not only had she been left waiting on her own in a coffee shop for ages, now some geek was hitting on her.  Then he leant over and said something else.  She smiled at him.  They chatted for a couple more minutes and then she kissed him.  Not a peck on the cheek or anything, a full on, tongues and lust, she rose to press her whole body into him.  It went on for a while, and when it finished he stepped back shakily.  They were both breathing quite heavily.  Ray said something else, she laughed, and wrote her number down on a card.  He took it and she reached for him again.  After another kiss which was almost pornographic he managed to disentangle himself and walk back over to me.  The girl still stared at him hungrily, while everyone else in the shop seemed to have missed the show.

“See.”

He sat down with a self-satisfied smile on his face, and a smudge of lipstick.

“That was impressive.  And a little disgusting.”

“Yeah.  I think I’m definitely going to give her a call.”

“I’m sort of believing you, but she might just be madly attracted to the geekier man.”

“Do you want to do it?”

“What?”

“Use one of the words.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“OK, it is…”

He leant over and whispered it.  He had me repeat it back to him several times until he was satisfied I was saying it right.

“Now you have the power too.  Say that to anyone in here and then give them a command, and they’ll do it.”

The clientele hadn’t changed much in the last few minutes, and I was bereft of ideas.

“No idea what to do.”

A sly smile appeared on Ray’s face.  “Well, you could get the girl to kiss you too…”

“Oh you’d like that, wouldn’t you?  Pervert.  I’m not into that as you know.”

Well, I’d tried it once, and it was strange, and fun, but, well, I wasn’t going to provide Ray with the entertainment.

“OK, I’ve got one.  I’m not going to tell you what it is.”

I got up and walked over to the two men who were still gossiping away.

“Good morning gentlemen.”

“What do you want?”

I leant in and said the word.  Then I said, “Now please give me all the money in your wallets.”

They immediately started emptying their wallets and gave me everything they had, notes and coins.  It was quite a nice haul.

“Thank you gentlemen.”

I walked back.

“Well, it seemed to work.”

“But?”

“Well, these could all be actors you’ve hired, how do I know this isn’t just a huge trick you’re playing on me?”

He was getting frustrated again, “I’ll get that girl over, and she’ll do whatever I tell her.  Or those blokes, or anyone in this coffee shop.  Really.”

“Hmm, no, you could have paid them a lot.  I’ve seen some stuff on the internet which leads me to believe some people will do anything for money.”

“Well…”

“Wait.  I’ll believe you when I’ve tried it out in locations you won’t have had time to prepare.”

“Oh, well I guess.”

“Excellent.”

“Um, but one thing, if you come across a real person, you need to remember one thing.”

“A real person?”

“Like you or me.  Not affected by the words.”

“Right.”

“Well, they might take offence at your suggestion, and it can cause some embarrassment.  So far I’ve only met a few, but, still.”

I wondered what he’d asked them to do.  Knowing him it could be pretty disgusting.

“How do I spot them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Brilliant.  That adds a little challenge.  Are these people immune to all your words?”

He looked thoughtful, clearly he hadn’t tested it out.  Suddenly he leant forward and said another strange word in my ear.  I decided to play along.  I made my face go vacant.  His face lit up and a smirk crossed his face.  I nearly laughed at him then, but managed to hold it together.

“Kiss me like that girl just did.”

I reached for him, and just before our lips met I brought my hand round and gave him a slap.

“Ouch!”

“Stop trying your words out on me.  Or at least if you’re going to, ask first.”

“You didn’t have to slap me so hard.”

“Hmm, yes, sorry.”

I wasn’t at all sorry. He rubbed his face.  I really had caught him.  I was a little annoyed with how he was trying to use me too, just like these others, who it would appear might really be mere automatons.

“Anyway, how many words do you have.”

“Just four.”

“OK, well do you want to try the other two on me?”

He looked at me a little shiftily and said, “I thought you didn’t believe in them?”

“Well, I’m becoming convinced.”

“I’ll tell you the others when you really are convinced.”

“That seems fair enough.  Is there any difference with the effect of the words?”

“None that I’ve been able to find out, but I’ve not been using them for long.”

Something occurred to me.

“These other real people, do they now have words too?”

A look of fear crossed his face.

“Maybe, if they remember the word and try and use it.  But, well probably not I would have thought.”

“OK.”

I looked at my watch and realised I was going to be late back to work.

“Sorry Ray, got to run.”

Work is normally a real drag.  I work in an office pushing paper around for a large corporation.  The money is good, the benefits are great and the office politics is vicious.  I try and keep out of it, but that means I’ve watched a continuous stream of snakes get promoted past me.  The work used to be satisfying, if not entirely challenging, but even that has palled.

The first thing I did was visit my boss.  He quickly agreed that I should be promoted, and told me who else had to agree to an out of cycle pay raise.  I spoke with four more people and I had a letter by the end of the day with a whacking great increase, and a guarantee of a promotion and bonus.

While I was organising a better situation for myself I decided some payback was in order.  Michelle had pretended to be my friend, and then used my ideas to get ahead.  I also suspected she’d stolen my last boyfriend, but in all honesty he wasn’t a loss.  It was when she snubbed me once she had the metaphorical key to the executive bathroom that really hurt.

“Hi Michelle.”

“Ah, Jules.  Sorry, but I’m very busy…”

Oh yes, she was always too busy to speak with a mere peon like me.

I leant in and said the second word Ray had told me.  It worked a treat.  Her face went slack.

“So Michelle, did you steal my ideas and Paulo.”

“Yes.”

No hint of apology, but then she was in that suggestive state, so that wasn’t much of a surprise.  Here she was, I could do anything.  I could make her run naked down the halls, make her piss on her boss’ desk, or maybe even jump out a window.  But, the thing was I didn’t want to do any of those things.  Oddly I just wanted my friend back.

“Why?”

“I don’t know, I thought that being a manager is what I wanted.  And I was so jealous of you.  Pretty, clever and with a hunk like Paulo.”

“Do you miss our friendship?”

“I do.  I wanted to apologise, or make it right, but, I just couldn’t.”

She looked upset, but if it hadn’t been for the word then I wouldn’t have believed her.  What should I do?

“OK Michelle, I forgive you.  We are friends again.  Come for coffee with me.  Oh and, tell Paulo you have syphilis and he should get himself checked.”

She smiled at me.  The power of the word always seemed to ebb once instructions had been given.

“Oh Jules, it’s lovely to see you again.  Look, I shouldn’t, but do you want to grab some coffee?  I just need to make a quick call to Paulo…”

She looked embarrassed.

“Michelle don’t worry, I know, and to be honest it was all over for us.”

“I think it might be over for us too, which is a shame… but I have to tell him something.”

“OK, well I’ll see you in thirty minutes at the coffee shop on the corner?”

“Perfect.”

As I walked away I heard her dialling.  I did wonder what Paulo would think, though I didn’t really care.

That night I woke up sweating.  I’d had a dream where I was a puppet master, and I’d kept getting caught in my puppets’ strings, and then I’d become one of the marionettes.  It had been unpleasant.

I didn’t sleep at all after that.  My conscience was troubling me.  Sure it was nice to have Michelle as a friend again.  She’d been the same chatty, cheerful person I’d remembered.  Yet, it had lacked substance for me.  Knowing at any moment that I could make her do, well, anything.  I was starting to wish Ray hadn’t told me about them, or even that they worked on me.

It was too late though.  The genie was out of the bottle.  What was I going to do about it?

I met Ray for coffee again, at a different place, one I’d selected at the last minute.  I don’t know why, but I just thought it was safer.  Maybe I still didn’t believe the words worked and wanted a place he couldn’t have set up.

“Jules, you look terrible!”

“Always the charmer.”

“No really, what’s wrong?”

“Ah, I think I’m coming down with something.  But it’s nothing really.  How are you?”

“I am a god!”

He laughed.  I remembered the old saying about power tending to corrupt.

“That’s nice, and you’ve been doing good works?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Good works?”

“To help the unfortunates in the world, the poor, the starving and the destitute.”

“Um, but they’re not real.  They’re just NPCs.  Constructs put here to add colour to the world.”

He actually believed it.  It was worse than I thought.

“Right.  If not good works, what have you been doing?”

He smirked.

“I’m not sure you want to hear about it.  Suffice it to say I’m making up for years of women ignoring me.”

I sighed.  This should not have been a surprise to me.

“You’ve been using all these girls?”

“They have a good time, I tell them to.”

His eyes glittered.  He really was having a good time.  I just wondered about the wreckage he left behind him.  If they really were NPCs, then perhaps it didn’t matter.

Our coffee order was delivered but a petite blonde girl, with a cute shy smile.  Ray did a double take, and said, “Morning lovely, what is your name?”

She stared at him and started to back away, when he leant forward and said a word to her.  I didn’t catch which one it was, though it didn’t seem to matter.

The girl stood still.

“What is your name?”

“Greta.”

“Well Greta, it’s lovely to meet you.  You have an opportunity to join tonight’s harem.  Strip.”

“Ray…”

“Don’t be silly, she’s just a machine.”

The girl started to take her clothes off.  She was quickly down to her bra and panties.  This was enough, I leant forward said a word and told her to stop.  She just carried on.

I turned to Ray in surprise.  He too looked surprised.

“Stop.”

The girl was bending down to pull her panties off, and just stopped in that position.

“What word did you use Jules?”

I told him.

“Hmm, I used another one.”

He told me the word he’d used, which was a new one to me.  I held it in my memory.  I now had three of his four words.  Assuming he hadn’t added any more.  Though given what he’d been doing I somehow doubted that.

“That’s interesting.  So the first word stops the others.  Hmm.”

“Ray…”

Some of the other patrons had noticed the girl.  Her naked bottom was on display to the whole shop.

“Yeah, this sometimes happens.”

He shouted a word, and told everyone to go back to what they were doing.

The waitress stayed where she was.  Ray looked at her appraisingly, then handed her a card.

“Come to this address tonight, at seven thirty.  Bring a friend.  We are going to have a party.  Now get dressed and carry on with your day.”

She quickly put her clothes back on, smiled at us and went back to the tills.

I shook my head at Ray, “You really are a pervert.”

His smile was extra wide.

“You’re welcome to come along… the party starts at around five.  Oh, and I have a new house, more befitting my new stature.  I have a pool and everything.”

“What happened to the people who were living there before?”

“Who cares?”

‘Who indeed?’ I thought to myself.  I answered, “Sorry Ray, I have a few other things I need to do tonight.  Maybe another time.”

He looked disappointed.  “Well, you’re always welcome.”

“So are you going to tell me the other words?”

He was just leaning in to tell me, when he pulled back, I could see him calculating.  “You have two, so why do you need more?”

“No reason I guess, but you said you’d tell me.”

“Well Jules, I think I’ll keep them to myself for the moment.  Unless you’d like to reconsider your plans tonight?”

So that was how it was going to be.

“Ah sorry Ray, but they’ve been in the diary for a while.  As you say, two words are more than enough.”

He just smiled.

We talked a little more about inconsequentials, but he seemed distracted, probably thinking about hunting down more girls to join his party.  He quickly left, and I stayed sitting staring at my coffee.

Greta came over and asked me if I wanted another drink.

“A latte would be lovely, thank you.  One thing Greta.”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember the word that man said to you before you took your clothes off?”

“Oh yes.”

“Can you tell me it?”

She told me.  It was the fourth word.  Ray thought I had only two.  I repeated it back to her, and she went slack again.  The poor girl, she was just a toy in our hands.  I was in a quandary though.  If I told her not to go to Ray’s tonight, he’d know I’d found out the word, and I was starting to think that might be a mistake.  On the other hand sending this poor girl into his nasty mitts was repugnant.  What could I do?

“Greta.  You’re supposed to go to a party tonight.”

“Oh yes.  It will be fun.”

“Unfortunately you won’t be able to go.  At around five o’clock you’re going to start feeling very unwell.  By six o’clock you’re going to feel faint and want to throw up.  At that point call the number and tell the man your symptoms and that you’re going to hospital but will see him afterwards.   He won’t want you to come to his party and will likely tell you not to bother.  As soon as he does you will feel much better, and then you and your friend can stay in and watch movies.”

She just nodded.

“Good, and a latte would be nice.”

She smiled again and headed off.

Saving one girl, two I guess including the friend, wasn’t enough.  I needed to stop Ray before he went completely mad.  Looking at the girl as she had stood in front of me I got the impression that she wasn’t totally happy with what I was saying to her, there was someone inside screaming to get out.  Maybe I was projecting, but I just couldn’t believe that she was an automaton.

She brought my coffee and I sipped it slowly while I made some plans.  I needed a holiday somewhere outside this city.  I was sure work would agree to a paid sabbatical.

Two months later I returned to the city.  I wondered what Ray had been getting up to, but I was also sure I didn’t really want to know.  I went back to my little house.  It was so welcoming, and cosy.  I’d missed it on my travels.  I was making myself a coffee in my favourite mug when the doorbell went.  I’d wondered how long it would take.

At the door were two large men.

“Miss, you’re to come with us.  Il Capo demands it.”

Il Capo?  I just nodded at them and they escorted me to a limousine with blacked out windows.  I was expecting Ray to be in it, but he wasn’t and it occurred to me that he wouldn’t have been waiting.  He’d have just left these goons.

They didn’t say a word as we drove.  I tried to talk to them, but nothing.  I smiled.

We drove to a big house.  The tyres crunching on the gravel drive.  The two men were very courteous as they helped me out of the car, and then bracketed me as we walked to the front door.

A butler, an honest-to-god butler, answered the door, and led me to the drawing room.

A few minutes later Ray appeared.  He’d put on a lot of weight, and unfortunately I could see it all as he was wearing just a pair of shorts and an open silk dressing gown.  He did not look well.

My expression must have revealed my thoughts as his greeting stumbled.  “Ah hi Jules.”

“Ray.  How are you?”

“Well, very well, I’ve been enjoying life.”

“I can see that.”

“Oh don’t worry, I have an exercise man coming tomorrow, and my doctor is putting me on a new diet tomorrow as well.”

“Does tomorrow ever come?”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“So where’ve you been?  I haven’t seen you since we met in that coffee shop.”

“I needed to get away.  To think about things.”

“Did you think I’d be upset about the girl?”

“What?”

Damn, had he found out?  Had he hurt her?

“Yeah, she phoned up with some cock and bull story about being ill.  I figured you’d somehow turned her, and decided to keep her for yourself.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Oh Jules, I had so many girls I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if she hadn’t turned up.  It was only when she called that I figured something was up.  But that’s ok, I’m happy to share.  I’m happy to share everything with you.”

“Ah well, that’s nice Ray.”

He was starting to loom over me.

“Now Jules, I’ve decided we need to be together.”

“But Ray…”

“My words don’t work on you, but I think you can be persuaded.”

There was real menace in his eyes now.  He smiled, but there was no warmth in it, just a desperate hunger.

“These two gentlemen will take you downstairs, and make you comfortable.  Then they are going to make you very uncomfortable, until you agree to everything I ask.  Do you understand?”

How could he do this?  My heart was pumping, I looked around.  Was there a way out?  This wasn’t what I’d planned.

“There is no way out Jules.  Not ever.  I have more like these, and they will watch over you, always.”

I looked into his eyes, and saw only a hungry madness.  Fear froze me, I couldn’t say anything.  I tried to hold his eyes, but he looked away as his two goons loomed over to me, and just picked me up, one on each side.

They carried me down to the basement into a room which was part dingy strip club, part Hammer horror.  There was a large bed, a couple of poles on a stage, and a table in the middle, with straps to hold arms and legs, and a mirror above so that the victim could see everything.  There were some unpleasant stains on the table, and the bed.  Next to the table was the obligatory dentist’s trolley with an arsenal of pain-inducing implements.  Looking round I took in the cameras.  Everything could be watched, recorded and if necessary, shared.

I felt my knees go weak.  This place would break me, I knew it.  If I let it.  If I let them.  The two large men seemed like they knew what they were doing as they carried me to the table.

I wondered when Ray would come to see what was happening.  At first I thought he’d be watching, and then I remembered that he had no real stomach for blood or real violence.  He liked it at a cartoon level, but genuine razor blade to the throat stuff really didn’t work for him.  He’d wait until I’d begged, and begged and the men finally believed I was broken.  Then they’d tidy me up and call for him.  That squeamishness would be his undoing.

As they lay me on the table I decided that enough was enough, I said something to the men.  And held my breath.  They both went slack and dropped my hands and I could breathe again.  I hadn’t fully believed it would work.  I’d feared Ray might have learned a new word, or tried something different, but I was lucky.  Then again Ray thought he was already a god, why would he have learned more.

I got off the table, and asked the goon on my left, “What is your name?  And his?”

“I am Tomaso, he is Lars.”

“Nice to meet you I’m sure.”

Under the spell of the word they didn’t answer.

“How long would Ray expect you to take before calling him?”

“Twelve hours usually, maybe a little more.”

I shuddered.  I didn’t want to think about what twelve hours in their tender mercies might have meant.

I considered asking them for more information, how many girls they’d brought down here, what they did, but I just didn’t want to know.  They’d get their just desserts in due course.  I needed to deal with Ray.

“What does he do while you’re busy down here?”

“We don’t know.  But he always answers the house phone.  He might be in his room.”

Excellent.  I’d need to move fast, but I was inside, and he didn’t realise I was loose, or about to be anyway.  I figured I’d take my two new friends, they’d prove useful.  First, I needed to make sure they were entirely under my control.  I said another word to them, and then said, “Punch each other.  Hard.  Tomaso first.”

They really hit each other.  Lars lifted off his feet and fell back at Tomaso’s punch, and Tomaso flew back when Lars returned the favour.  Good, that was a start on their punishment, but I needed them so I had to refrain from anything further.

“Let’s go.  Keep an eye out for anyone threatening me, except Ray, and neutralise them.  Non-lethally.”

They followed me out, flanking me once again, but this time as my guards.

Ray’s house was big and spacious, and surprisingly empty.  I’d assumed he’d have some staff.  Some girls in French maids’ outfits perhaps.  Apart from the butler I’d already met, and who didn’t show himself while we were looking around, there didn’t seem to be anyone else.  I was going to ask the boys, but thought it best to keep quiet; I didn’t want to alert Ray with some careless talking.

His room was upstairs, at the end of a long hall, every other room being empty.  It was eerie.  As we approached the door I could hear the sounds of people having sex.  On the one hand I don’t like being rude, but on the other hand…  I had one of the boys slam open the door.

I walked in to see Ray lying on his bed, alone.  The projection on the wall in front of him was of some kind of orgy, the figures of almost lifelike size.  I almost started trying to count the participants as it seemed rather busy, but instead concentrated on Ray.  He looked up, and then laughed.

“I misjudged you Jules.  You found the other word.  I was so sure you hadn’t.  A mistake.  I should have watched, but, well I didn’t want to see you hurt.”

I couldn’t believe his nerve.  He didn’t seem at all worried, and I wondered what I didn’t know.  He languidly rose from the bed and then spun round, and I felt something hit me.  Then I was writhing on the floor in agony.  He’d tasered me.

“Pick her up, and take her back downstairs.  First gag her.”  He said to the boys.

The two of them did nothing, just standing there.

He sighed and leant towards them and said a word.  Then he repeated himself.  Still nothing.  He started to rave at them, shouting his word, and demanding they do something.  He was working himself up into a real rage when I managed to choke out, “Grab him, make sure he has no more surprises.”

Suddenly released the two of them grabbed Ray, and patted him down thoroughly.

I got up, still unsteady from the taser.

“Bastard.”

Ray was almost frothing at the mouth with anger.  “How did you do that?  You bitch.”

“Now now Ray, no need for that.  They’re mine now.”

All the energy went out of him, and he slumped down, and if he hadn’t been held then he’d have fallen to the floor.

“What have you been doing Ray?”

“Having fun.  I guess.  It wasn’t the same without you.  I just wanted you to join in the fun.  I love you Jules.”

“You have a funny way of showing it.”

“I gave you the words!  I thought that would be enough, you’d see what I could do, and then you’d love me too.  But you didn’t and then you ran away.  I couldn’t find you, I went to your office, but they just didn’t know.  Where did you go?”

“I went to find out more about the words.  I met with some people who’ve been studying them, trying to understand them.  They took me in, but interrogated me to make sure I hadn’t misused the words.  I have to make up for the small indiscretions I committed while testing the words, but they felt I was trustworthy.  Then they explained the basics of what they’d learned.”

“Some other reals?  With words?”

“Ray, everyone is real, they aren’t NPCs.  We all just have different levels of susceptibility to the words.  There’s a whole hierarchy.  If you’d spent more time studying them, instead of trying to sleep with every pretty girl you saw, you might have worked a little more out.”

“But we did that test, a second word cannot cancel a first word.”

“A weaker word cannot override a stronger one.  But a stronger one will always override a weaker.  Your words were quite strong.  Too strong, they gave you too much power.”

He stared at me.

I sighed and said a word.  He went limp.

“That’s how it feels Ray.  You’re still in there, trapped, but now you will do whatever I want.”

What did I want?  I wanted him to understand the suffering he’d caused, I wanted him to pay for his crimes.

“This is how it goes Ray.  You will never use a word again.  Every time you try and say one you will instead ask the person to kick you.  You have been stripped of your power.”

He didn’t move.  He couldn’t.  I could see a little of his internal struggle.  He hated it, as his many victims would have.  As I would have if I hadn’t been stronger than his words.

“I will now leave.  You will never see me again, and you will not try to see me.  I have a new mission in life.  To find and stop people like you.”

I turned to the two men holding him.

“You two will hold him until I’ve left.  Then you will go to the police station and admit to all the crimes you committed before you came under Ray’s sway.  Then you will be free of the influence of his words.”

They nodded.

I walked out.  As I left Ray was back in control of himself and shouted, “That’s it?  I already have everything I need, I have all this money.  Girls will flock to me now anyway.  I don’t need you, or the words.”

I shook my head.  He hadn’t learned a thing.

I looked outside to see that a car had turned up; there was a pretty girl in it.  Several more cars followed, each disgorging one or two girls.  They all looked angry, and some of them had weapons.  They all started to head inside with some determination.  I hadn’t told Ray the second half of his sentence.  The organisation I’d joined had found as many of the girls whom Ray had used as they could.  They’d freed them of his grip, and those who’d wanted revenge were told when they would be able to take it.  They were all told that they would forget everything about Ray after they’d exacted their price.  Those who wanted nothing more to do with him were freed of the burden immediately.  They’d still bear some mental, and in some cases physical, scars underneath, but it was the best we could do.

“Well Ray, you were right.  Girls are flocking to you.”

He looked confused as the girls started to stream past me, heading towards him.  The confusion turned to fear and he stared at me.

Before I walked out I winked at him and said, “Thanks for playing.  Game over.”

###

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Goatherd

“Ben, I can see my goats from this rock.”

“Yep, I’ve a good view too.  Any wolves come, we’ll stop them.”

“Thanks for helping,” I said gratefully.

“No problem George, that’s what neighbours do.  They take your goats and they’ll be on to mine next.”

I said nothing, watching the goats leap from rock to rock with a grace and insouciance; the capricious creatures were born for it.  They’d tried sheep at first, but damn things kept getting lost and really didn’t like the rocky ground.  Goats on the other hand loved it, gravity never having had much hold on them.

I watched Bill, my favourite goat, taking a bite out of a rock.  She looked at me while chewing happily.  She was a good producer, but cheeky.  I suspected she was the one who’d broken the fencing the day before.  It wasn’t there to keep the goats in, the gap to the next rocks did that.  It was to stop wolves.

“Fleeces look good George, lovely green, and their torso bubbles look smooth.”

“I’m always careful, I popped one a few years ago, and had to bring the injured goat inside to allow the chlorophyll fleece to regrow, and rebuild the bubble.  A real nightmare.  I always think it’s a pity they can’t live off the rocks, but that’s modern mechano-genetic-engineering for you.”

“Totally!”

A pause.

“You listening on the goats’ channel?”

“Nah, only so many ‘maaas’ I can take.  It’s obvious if they spot anything.”

Bill, bored with her position, bounced off, small pellets of pure metals coming out of her behind, and collecting in the little bubble I attached to her daily.  It still amazed me that they chewed into rock and pooed out these metals, but that was the whole point of bringing them up to the asteroids.

“Mind if I ask something George?”

“Course not.”

“You renewed?”

“Another three years.”

“Full term?”

“Yeah, I reckon if I double the flock over the next month, then I’ll be able to get most of the easy minerals out.  You?”

“I’m on rolling six months, I…”

Suddenly the whole flock looked up.  One of them had spotted a pirate wolf, I got my rifle ready, and hoped we’d get it.

“Got it, Sun-side top.”

“Where… got it too.  A single wolf raider.  There must be a back-up somewhere.”

“You take him out.  I’ll hunt the other.”

I aimed carefully and squeezed off a shot, then another.  The first grazed him, but the second was smack bang in the middle of his bubble.  It collapsed, and I could see the pilot thrashing before it exploded.  It was harsh, but if I hadn’t stopped him then I’d find stripped goat carcasses spinning in nearby space within the day.

I looked around to see how Ben was doing, and spotted another raider bubble collapsing.

“Yee-es!  Got the other.”

“Awesome.  I owe you Ben.”

“Beers next time we’re in town.  Unlikely you’ll see more wolves today.  I gotta check my flock, I bet they’ve scattered.”

Grateful, I watched my flock, oblivious once again and eating happily.  Despite the occasional wolf, it was a good life, for them and me.

###

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