Category Archives: General

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

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

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

Amazon.com links here:

Paperback
Kindle

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

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

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Increments

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

Increments

By Jason Gibbs

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

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

The phone went.

“Yes?”

“Oh hello darling.  Yes I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmph.”

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

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

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

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

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

He was silent for a moment.

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

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

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

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

“Ah, no, they’re imports.”

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

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

Just then Albert hummed politely.

“Yes?”

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

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

“Yes sir.”

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

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

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

“Yes Bill?”

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

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

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

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

He could see tears threatening to form.

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

Gladys looked at him sombrely and then started to laugh.

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

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

“Yes Albert?”

“Your lunch is ready sBill.”

“sBill?” enquired Gladys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s good Bill.”

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

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

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

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

Gladys looked confused.

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing Albert?”

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

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

“Please don’t.”

“Yes Miss Gladys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What dear?”

“Albert, stealing the toothpaste.”

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

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

“Yes dear.”

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

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

“But Bill…”

“No buts.”

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

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

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

Bill looked up.

“Is she ok?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I like those biscuits.  Damned government.”

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

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

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

“But.  When, what?”

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

“I know, but Spain.”

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

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

“I didn’t think you two got on.”

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

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

“Trust me dear.  Will you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked out over the pool.

“Bliss.”

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

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

“Oh you are clever Bill.”

He puffed up.

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

The care robot returned.

“Your cerveza sBill.”

“Thanks Albert.”

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

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

###

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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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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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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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Magpies

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

And seven for a secret which can never be told.

 

Boris flew to the meeting tree looking somewhat bedraggled, and down in the feathers.  He’d clearly had a bad day.

“Hey Boris.  Tough day?”

“Oh, hi Tony, you said it.”

Now my job as the Magpie barman is to serve the drinks and listen to the stories.  Occasionally I offer some advice, but my days of flying Informational Magics is long gone, and most of the chicks they send out these days seem to ignore me.

I lined up a stiff drink for Boris and said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

It was clear he didn’t, but then he shrugged his wings and took a long drink of his drink and said, “You know how some days if it can go wrong?”

“Oh yes.  Saw a single one today did you?”

I was joking of course, Magpie magic doesn’t work on Magpies, something I’ve always thought is vaguely ironic.

“Ha, almost as if I had done.  My day started with an easy one.  I needed to get a farmer to see me.  He’s going to get some bad news from his girlfriend it seems.  Farmers are easy I thought to myself, wait until they’re out into a field, and then, you know, pop up.  He conveniently headed out, and so I flew along.  Nothing, he was looking at his phone I think.”

“Bloody things have made it harder than in my day, and no mistake.”

“You said it Tony.  You couldn’t line me up another?”

I watched him finish the first as I poured the second.  I hoped he wasn’t going to drink too much, I’d struggle to carry him off this tree at the best of times, but my right wing has been giving me shooting pains when I extend it recently.

“Where was I?”

“Farmer.  Phone.”

“Yeah, so I had to get over the other side of town for my next job, and I was running out of time, so I popped up again.  The farmer looks up.”

“Job done?”

“I hadn’t spotted him, but Douglas was flying across the field, on his way to his first gig of the day.  Blam, we’ve now given the farmer Joy.”

“Oh, well, could be worse.”

“I know, but now I’m the one who has to go and give his girlfriend Sorrow, because her dream job evaporated and she’s staying with her farmer boyfriend.  Sucks for her.”

“Mmm.”

“Now of course, I’m running late, so I wing it straight over.  I reckon I can get away with it, so I cut over the Grey woods.”

“The ones with the footpath?”

“Yeah.”

“Risky.”

“At that time of day I figure it’ll be fine.  I was wrong.  A couple going for a mid-morning walk.  Blam they get some Sorrow.  Their car engine’s blown.  Then a man walking his dog, more Sorrow.  He’s going to get an unexpected, and wrong, gas bill, but it’ll take three months for him to clear it up.”

“Ouch.  You speak to Control about doing some reverse work?”

“You seen them recently?  Something strange is going on, they’re planning a load of Secret raids.”

“Awful tricky to pull off they are.”

It’s difficult to get seven of us in one place where a human can see, and count, all of us before we have to move on.  Anything getting in the way can turn it into something else, and I hated doing them when I was still in the field.

I went on, “I was involved in one of those once, we ended up giving three Silvers and one Gold before we hit it properly.  Control was mighty angry.”

“Well they’re so angry already, I wasn’t going to ask them to allow three Joys just to fix my mess up.”

“Fair.”

“I get to the meeting place, expecting Steph and Jon, and you know what?”

“What?”

“Bloody Yanis turns up.”

“Oh he’s alright…”

“Maybe, but suddenly the Girl we’re announcing turns into a Boy.  Then while I’m remonstrating with him another couple come along.  Now by this point Jon’s off, but they get a Girl, and they weren’t expecting anything if you know what I mean.”

“A bad day and a half.  Have another.”

His second had gone almost as fast as the first, but he sipped the third a bit more cautiously.

“Next few gigs went ok, but I couldn’t help feeling the day wasn’t done with me yet.”

“No?”

“No.  My last couple of gigs were over by Westfield farm, you know at the edge of our territory.”

“Bordering the Greenlark mob?”

“Yeah.  Bloody amateurs.”

“So I hear.”

I didn’t tell him my mother had been a Greenlark.  When I was a chick we’d been on best of terms with them, but last couple of years there’d been some bad blood.  Accusations of stealing of missions and suchlike.

“Well I was there to do a Sorrow and a Joy, with Steph again.  I like her, real professional.  Always on time, flies low, can disappear into anything.  Easy to work with.”

He was smiling in such a way that I imagined he wanted a little more time with Steph.  He was quiet for a bit.

“You were saying…”

“Yeah, sorry.  Steph.  She turns up as expected, and we’re about to do the double.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah, the dossier on these two said they were inseparable, but that the man always looked round to the right when they got into a new field.  Steph and I were prepped.  The humans climbed into the field and we popped up.  At the same time some bloody Greenlarks are having a fight with a murder on the border of the land.  All sorts of squawking and whatnot.”

“Not good.”

“Not good?  Disaster.  She gets the Joy and he gets the Sorrow.  Her premium bond numbers come in and his ankle gives way.  Doesn’t seem fair.”

“It’s not about fair.  At least they didn’t see the Greenlarks.”

“True.  And I think Steph blamed me, though she didn’t say anything.  Just a bit off.”

“I’m sure she understands, we’ve all been there.”

At that point one of Control’s messengers turned up.

“Oi, Boris, get over to Control.  They need you for a Secret.”

“I’ll be there in two ticks.”

The messenger looked like he was going to argue, but then just flapped off, making a deliberate show of his whites.

“Bloody showoffs, think they’re better than us cos they do the planning.”

“It’s a tough job.”

“Yeah, whatever.  Not sure what the point of a Secret is, I mean they never tell us what it is anyway.”

“Um.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that’s the point.”

Boris slurped the last of his drink and then headed off, waving his wings a little unsteadily.

I watched him depart and thanked my stars I wasn’t out there anymore.  I’d enjoyed spreading Joy and announcing the little ones.  But the Sorrow was always hard.  I polished up the glasses and waited for my next customer.

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Watchers

Outsourcing has been much on my mind, and given the way the world is evolving, this may become more relevant…

 

Watchers

“Welcome to Singapore Mr Smythe, is this your first trip?”

“Ah thanks, no.  I’ve been here a couple of times.”

“Excellent, if you’ll just follow me, we have a car waiting for us.”

Smythe followed the man, PK Kumar, through the glass doors of Changi Airport’s arrivals area and out into the smothering April heat.  He could never decide which was worse, the heat or the humidity, either way he immediately felt even more sweaty and dirty than he had after landing from his twelve hour flight.  The car was waiting, and stepping in Smythe felt blessed cool air.  He sat down and waited.

After half a minute or so PK got into the car as well, and almost as soon as he’d closed the door the car pulled off.

“We’ve taken the liberty of booking you into the Ritz Carlton, a truly wonderful hotel.”

“Good, I’ve stayed there before.”

“Indeed, did you like it?”

“Yes.”

Smythe was not feeling very talkative, there was grit in his eyes and wool in his brain.  He was also a little annoyed, he recognised this tactic.  PK was a representative of Technology Control Systems, the company he was here to negotiate with.  They should have just sent the driver, but by sending a clearly mid-level manager they were upping the stakes a little.  The idea would be that in his weakened state he might let slip a few useful bits of information which would undermine his position.

“Mr Smythe, we’ve arranged your first meeting for 1100 tomorrow, as we thought this would give you time to settle in.”

“Thanks.”

His short answers were clearly starting to irritate PK, but the man was smooth, he’d give him that.

“I did wonder if you would appreciate company for dinner tonight, or indeed any other night?”

It was fairly clear what ‘company’ PK meant, and it would be another form of leverage.  It seemed highly likely that any girl who was provided would be an employee, of some sort, in one of TechCon’s many enterprises.

“I’ll be fine.”

That was the last gambit, and the rest of the short journey passed in silence, if not entirely comfortably.  At the hotel his bags were taken out of the car by the doorman, and realising he had a chance to ditch PK he held out his hand.

“Good to meet you Mr Kumar, until tomorrow.”

“Ah, yes, and you Mr Smythe.  The car will be here at 1030.”

“Thanks.”

Without a glance back Smythe strode into the hotel.  The change from cold through hot and back to cold again always made him feel a little strange, almost like he was getting ill, but he shook it off and headed to check-in.

An hour later he was relaxing in the large bathtub, looking out over Singapore and towards the sea.  There was a knock at the door, and he shouted, “It’s open.”

His room service had arrived.  She swayed into the bathroom and shed her robe, and slipped into the bath with him.  When he said he’d be fine, he meant he knew how to provide for his own entertainment.

#

The next morning he had breakfast sent up, and after a bit more fun he sent his room service away, with some extra cash and a confirmation of a return that evening.  He felt much sharper today, and he dressed appropriately.  He knew it was going to be tricky to get the services they needed within the budget he had, but he was confident he could achieve it.

The car delivered him to another glass-clad building, but instead of dropping him at the front it went underneath the building.  When he got out of the car, bracing for the wall of heat, it was actually still fairly cool.  He noticed there were blowers either side.  Whenever someone arrived the blowers would be triggered a few moments before they arrived to provide a cool channel for them to walk through.  He nodded appreciatively and entered the door.

“Good morning Mr Smythe.”

“Good morning Mr Kumar, I must apologise if I was a little short yesterday.  I was somewhat tired after my flight.”

There was a slight pause before PK responded, “Of course, not a problem, and please do call me PK.  I’m one of several Kumars here, but the only PK.  So far.”

Smythe smiled.  PK led him to a conference room.  It could have been anywhere, and Smythe wondered why he’d had to fly to Singapore to be treated to the same grey walls, wood veneer table and strangely uncomfortable chairs he could have experienced in the London office.

There were five people in the room waiting for him.  PK introduced them, but Smythe concentrated on the two men in the centre, Kalyan Rai and Sunil Rao, who were clearly the decision makers.

“Mr Smythe, welcome to our offices, can we show you the presentation of the services we’re offering…”

“No, I’ve seen the presentations, and I’m aware of the services.  My employers are keen that we get the right level of service for the price.  Our intention is to start with a limited contract, and then we will review again before full roll out.”

His intention was to put them off their game by cutting through the formality, but Kalyan Rai was unfazed.

“It is much easier when cards are on the table.  We will be honest, a yearlong limited contract is not a priority for us.  It represents a large investment for an uncertain return, after all you might choose to go with one of our competitors.  We want to know what would be required for the first phase of a full roll out.”

Smythe had been worried that this was where it might go.  Head office had given him authority to agree to a first phase, but he was very uncomfortable with the responsibility.  The sums involved were large, and if anything went wrong he was quite sure he’d be hung out to dry.

“Are you capable of running a first phase?”

“Of course.”

He needed some evidence from them, what could he ask for?  Before he could think of something Sunil Rao said, “Mr Smythe, can we demonstrate the efforts of one of our teams?”  He gestured towards the screen on the wall.

“Please.”  It would give him time to think.

“This is the team.”

The screen showed four people, two men and two women.  They were all smiling rather cheesily.

“They have been tasked with eight subjects for the last three months.  Here is their report on one of the subjects.  They used only data feeds available within the contract, no additional cameras or physical devices were used, so this is a like for like representation.”

Photos started to flash up on screen with commentary.  There was a picture of Smythe in his flat.  Then leaving, getting a cab.

“The fare was fourteen pounds fifty and the subject added a fifty pence tip.”

He sounded so tight.

“The subject was two hours and seventeen minutes early for his flight.  He spent an hour of this in the bar where he drank seven gin and tonics and spoke to five other passengers, all female.  One of them appeared to give him her number, but a separate check confirmed that this was in fact the number to her ex-boyfriend.  Further details on both the woman and her ex-boyfriend have been stored.”

The film continued, at first Smythe was amused, and then bored.  When they started showing footage of his activities the night before he became annoyed.

“Now really, this is unreasonable, you have no right…”

“Actually Mr Smythe, we checked with your manager at the ministry, and he was happy for us to track you as a test run.  He asked that we send him the full file once we’d shared it with you.”

Smythe nearly choked.  It was unlikely the ministry would be happy with where he was staying, but they’d have to do something about his use of professional entertainment.  These bastards had him, and they knew it.

“Fine.  That’s all very well, but that doesn’t prove you can do the job.”

The men around him just smiled, and the screen in front of him split into eight.  The same type of analysis was shown of seven other people, including his brother, his parents, his next door neighbour and two old school friends.  The last person was someone totally unknown to him.

“These were all tracked by this one team.  They were operating at five percent capacity.  Here are the cost estimates.”

Sunil Rao pushed a folder over to Smythe, he started to read it.  At first he was still numb from the implied threat, but then as he read further he became more confident that this might actually work out.

“You can really commit to these prices?”

“Yes.”

“Where are your personnel based?”

“Eighty percent are in India, that’s how we keep our costs down.  Some are here, and some will need to be in your offices, to ensure access to the various data feeds, and help manage the overall contract.”

“That sounds reasonable.”

“One of our sister companies provides the IT systems for most of your police and internal security forces, so we will be able to automatically pull in any additional feeds those groups make available.  We will also route all suspicious activity, with appropriate evidence, to those groups.  That comes without additional cost.”

Despite himself Smythe nodded appreciatively.  Then trying to get the upper hand, he asked another question.

“Phase one anticipates eighty percent coverage of high risk subjects, with nearly thirty percent coverage of the population.”

“We are aware of that.  At this point we have enough staff to take on half of that, and can ramp up to full capacity within six months.”

The numbers had started to overwhelm Smythe.

“But, but that means you have fifty thousand trained people already waiting?”

“Yes.  We’re committed to this contract.  If you approve it, and the subject names are passed through to us, we can provide the first detailed reports within six weeks, and then every week thereafter we will provide updates.”

Smythe marvelled.  Back at Security HQ he’d wondered how they’d ever track three million people in phase one, let alone the rest.  They’d always joked that they’d need to employ half the population to watch the other half.  The solution was obvious, instead they’d use someone else’s population to watch the whole of theirs.  He was confident that after phase one they’d expand it, and very soon they’d have the country covered.

He smiled, and said, “Mr Rao, this seems excellent, however there is the little matter of my personal files?”

“I’m sure we can edit them appropriately.”

“In that case, I have the authority and if you can provide the contracts I’ll be happy to sign them.”

###

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Outsourcing

I think we all outsource bits of our lives, and I wondered how far it might go?

 

Outsourcing

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your hands together for our guest of honour, Mr James Forbes, the leading light of the modern era.”

The room erupted in cheers and clapping, and a tall, austere looking man walked to the podium.  His measured stride ensured he reached the stage while the applause was still loud, and was positioned behind the podium just as it was starting to die down.

He brushed his once brown fringe to one side in a characteristic motion which energised the crowd again.  How they loved him, and even with his hair now almost white, they could still picture him as the winsome youth he’d once been.

“It is an honour to be with you, and for the first time in my life, to have you all in the same room.”

More cheers.  He let it run again, and then his face became sombre, the gathered guests at once responded.

“There are those who couldn’t make it today, but we have their images up there on the memory wall, so they could be present in spirit.”

There were sighs at this thoughtfulness, and many looked at the wall, remembering those who’d been lost along the way.

He turned on his thousand watt smile and the room forgot about the dead, and turned once more back to him.

“But now it’s time to talk about me, and all that you’ve done to help me.”

More cheers.

“Dennis over here, has, as ever, provided me with a script.”  He favoured the man who’d introduced him with a kindly smile.

“He assures me that he originally wanted to mention every single person in this room, but when he timed the speech, it came to 74 hours.  And that was without toilet breaks.”

He delivered the line completely dead-pan.  There was a pause and then the room erupted with laughter.  He’d always been able to work a crowd, with Dennis’ coaching of course.

“So instead I’m going to talk about my successes, and how you’ve helped.”

There was a hush as they waited, each hoping they’d been mentioned, and hanging on his words.

“I was very successful at school, in part due to Thomas Greenwood, yes stand up Tommy, who did my exams, and Philip Pulling, who represented me at football.”  He paused while the two men stood up and bowed to all around them.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask that you stand up and nod quickly when mentioned, to give us any chance of that toilet break I saved from Dennis’ machinations.”

Quiet reigned again.

“With my grades, and football scholarship, I attended a select college where Tommy once more excelled at my exams.  Poor Philip tore a hamstring, so was replace by William Turbot, who unfortunately can’t be here today.  However when he was representing me, he managed to get me all the way to the finals, and scored the winning goal on my behalf.”

Cheers, which he let run for a while.

“Now with a college degree, and in excellent fitness it was time for me to get a job.”

He looked a little put out, and was greeted with the obligatory groans, and a few wry smiles.

“My career strategists, Harriet and Joyce, there you are, advised me to become a lawyer, and they selected Mr Bryce Jones for the early part of my career.  He ensured I excelled at law school, and landed a job at the top law firm in the country, before getting me through my training and setting me up for a decent run at partnership.  He handed the baton to Pete here who got me through to become the youngest ever partner at the law firm.”

He leaned down and put his arm around another white haired man who was sitting next to him, looking a little confused, but smiled when he saw who was hugging him.

“All that hard work, just to get me to the bottom rung of partnership, and that’s when my strategists had an idea.  We decided to play it a little dirty.  So Jonathan was brought in to be me.  There he is the old dog.  He slept with other partners, or their partners…” an appreciative laugh. “… whatever was necessary to secure my advance, and knock out the competition.  I won’t lie, we had fun, but it was perhaps the least savoury time of my life.”

Hush.

“And then I met darling Alice, the love of my life.”

Alice stood up, still beautiful despite her advancing years, and smiled her quirky, knowing smile.

“Jonathan stepped out, and Russell stepped in.  As me he married Alice, and fathered our first child, young Jeffrey.  Sadly he became confused about his role and we had to let him go, and Jimmy stepped in.  He went on to father Paul and little Thesia.  Not so little now.”

He smiled at his daughter who barely managed to smile back.  She had been lucky enough to get many of her mother’s looks, if not her sunny temperament.

Dennis tapped him on the arm.

“Ah yes, sorry, my tempo is off.  So many faces from the past, all those who made my life what it was.  While the family life was going well, my professional career peaked, when I was made head of the firm.  George Dancing did the hard work, and I am forever in his debt.  Though of course the work was its own reward, hey George?”

George nodded dutifully, and the room chuckled along.

“Here’s where the strategy changed, and the answer was politics.  We felt there’d been enough time since my Jonathan phase, and we’d managed to buy off or get something on everyone affected.  I was squeaky clean, had three wonderful children, and a beautiful wife.  I was made for politics.  My early career, as a senator, was handled by Grace Riely, the first time I’d been a woman, but she was so talented we knew it would work, and it did.  Her schmoozing, and backroom deals, meant within two terms I was the only real candidate for the highest job in the land.  President!”

Clapping and whoops greeted this, much as they had when he’d been elected.

“Two terms, the first performed by Grace and the second by Adam, and my legacy was secure.  It was time to retire.”

They all knew his story, so they knew that wasn’t the case, but he held them there for a little while.

“But with the success we had, I knew there was more, so I ran for Secretary General of the UN.  Edmund Chung represented me, and as the first American SecGen, I set about changing that institution.  Under my tenure, aided by Ken Ho who took over from Edmund for my third and fourth terms, that institution became more than a talking shop, it became the most important global force.  A nascent government in all but name!”

They were on their feet now, he’d got to his true triumph, the one they’d all helped to bring about.  The clapping and feet stamping went on for quite a while.

Time to wind them down.

“Since then, well, I’ve played golf,” he nodded at Guy, “a bit of tennis,” a wink at Tony, “and spent time with my wife.”  He air punched Jimmy gently.

He smiled again, electrifying the room and they all went wild.  The cheering might have continued for a while except they noticed that someone was doing a slow clap.  Silence rippled out from Paul, the great man’s son until the only sound was the slow clap, clap from one of the two men who now walked towards the platform.

Until they stopped and the one who had been clapping said, “I have a question father.”  There was a slight emphasis on father.

Favouring first the clapper, and then his son with a smile he said, “Yes Paul?”

“What have you,” he pointed accusingly at the titan, “ever actually done?”

For the first time Philip Forbes looked confused as if he really couldn’t understand the question.  Then he smiled, “I recognise you now, sorry Albert, you’re my son’s troublemaker aren’t you?”

The young mine nodded, but maintained his grumpy air.  The room let go a collective breath they hadn’t realised they’d been holding, it was all going to be fine.

Philip answered his son, “And to answer the question Paul, I did all that I wanted to, I just outsourced the rest.”

###

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Personal Assistant

I have been tempted on a number of occasions to get a virtual personal assistant.  Life is so complicated these days that having someone help would be awesome… and it got me thinking…

 

Personal Assistant

“George, I wanted to thank you so much for your recommendation, Subrah has simply changed my life!”

“Um, Subrah?”

“My virtual personal assistant.  You sent me a mail recommending I get one, I think it was last month.”

“I don’t think I did.”

“You did.”

“Look Doris, I really don’t think…”

“Here it is.”

She passed him her phone, and there, quite clearly was an email from him, suggesting she get a virtual personal assistant and suggesting a particular company, whose name he recognised.  Except he knew he hadn’t written it.

“Ah, yes.  Sorry Doris, my mind’s going.  There’s been a lot going on, what with moving house and all.”

Looking at him sceptically she shook her head.

“George, George.  Maybe you should get one of these assistants.  You might be forgetting to do important things.”

“I tried it Doris, but it just didn’t work out for me.  I’m glad it is for you.”

“Oh he’s quite amazing.  I didn’t think someone sitting thousands of miles away could help me so much. He filters my email, he’s got all my passwords set up, he found me a new online stockbroker, and then there’s this diet he found for me.  It’s amazing, all green food one week, all red the next…”

George tuned her out.  Once she started talking about a diet she couldn’t stop, it was the same when she had been a teenager.  He loved his sister, but being able to tune her out was a survival skill.  He wondered how that email could have been written.  Had someone hacked his email account?  He didn’t think it was possible, after all he was the only person who knew the password, and it was a nice long one.  That was one thing Vipal had done for him, he’d taught him to use long passwords.  Wait, did Vipal know the password as well?  Of course he did, George had given them all to him, and hadn’t quite managed to get round to changing them.  Had Vipal hacked into his account and sent recommendation emails?

“Sorry to interrupt you Doris, I’ve just remembered an important meeting.  I must dash.”

“Oh George, this is why you need an assistant.”

“Perhaps, got to run, I’ll text you.”

He headed back towards his office, and dialled the direct number for Vipal.

“Mr George, I believe you said you no longer wanted our services.”

The Mr George was a joke based on his love of the Simpsons.  He wasn’t finding it funny anymore.

“I know Vipal, but I wanted to know why you were sending emails claiming to be from me recommending the services of your company.”

“Now Mr George, you know you agreed to send some recommendation emails as part of the original deal.  That’s how you could afford our VIP price plan.  You have excellent connections.”

“Yes, but I didn’t send it!”

“Of course you did.  It came from your account.”

“But you wrote it.”

“I merely helped you do the needful.”

George was remembering why he quit the service.  He could never win an argument with Vipal.  Which was the reason he was wearing Calvin Klein jeans, despite his hatred of brands, especially slightly faded ones, and jeans.

“Yes, right, thanks.  That’s to be the last thing though.  I shall be changing my password.”

“Of course Mr George.  Don’t forget you have an appointment with the dentist this afternoon at four o’clock.”

“What?  I don’t have an appointment…”

“It is your annual check-up.”

“Ah, thanks.  But that’s it.”

“Of course Mr George.  Have a good day.”

George looked at his phone in some consternation.  He was confused.  Had he managed to actually fire Vipal?  But also, how was he going to survive?  He’d never have remembered to book the dentist.  They’d probably sent reminders, but he was very good at not seeing them.  No, he wanted control of his life.  He’d just have to be firm with Vipal next time they spoke.

He thought Janice would probably laugh at him again.  She still had her assistant and loved her.  He’d told her last week that he was firing Vipal and she’d said she couldn’t survive without the support, and he just needed to relax.

Now that he thought about it, he’d only met Janice because of Vipal.  The assistant had signed him up to that online dating service, Partners he thought it was called.  To be honest he’d been quite annoyed at first, but Vipal had done everything.  Just told him where and when to meet the dates.    Janice wasn’t the first match, and he’d been a bit unsure at first, but they’d kept having dates.  Then Vipal and Asha, Janice’s assistant, had synced up their diaries, and here they were, nice and happy.

Except he wasn’t happy.  Hadn’t been happy.  Maybe he was happier now.  Since he’d fired Vipal he’d been able to sleep properly.  A black cloud had lifted, and yet today it had returned.  He needed to get rid of his assistant properly.  After the dentist appointment though.  Mind made up, he headed towards the station.

As he walked he realised he’d never be able to fire Vipal with a direct conversation and he was just wondering how to get to Vipal’s supervisor when he bumped into someone.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going, you st…”

He’d bumped into a very pretty girl, and suddenly realised he knew her.

“Philippa?”

“George.”

Very cold response.

“Ah, how are you?”

“Fine, no thanks to you.”

“What?”

“Look, I’m not going to stand here chatting to a bloke who stood me up, multiple times, and has just nearly knocked me to the ground.”

She started to stalk off.

“Wait a second, you stood me up!  That time at Da Vinci’s, I was there for two hours.”

“What are you talking about George?  We never agreed to meet at Da Vinci’s.”

“But Vipal said…”

“Vipal.  Yes, your master.”

He thought he might be starting to understand, and he didn’t like the implications.

“Look Philippa, I’m really sorry.  I think the whole virtual assistant thing was a mistake.  I’ve got rid of Vipal, can I take you for a coffee?”

Her head had turned away from him, but she stopped and slowly looked at him again.  He could see the tears starting in her eyes, and her desperation to stop them flowing.

“One coffee George.”

They sat quietly over their coffees.  He wasn’t sure how to begin, but she started.

“What hurt most was that you just sent text messages.  It was always something about work, or another idiotic excuse.”

“I don’t think I texted you, I never use work as an excuse.”

Not least because he didn’t work that hard.

“You said that, and yet your texts contradicted you.”

“Could you show me the texts?”

She stiffened.  “What makes you think I still have them?”

“Ah, I just hoped.  Look, here is my text history with you.”

He turned his phone to her.

“You kept them?  Really?”

He didn’t want to tell her that he just never deleted anything.

“Of course, I was kind of hoping to see you again.”

Thoughts of Janice flashed in his head, but this was about finding out what was happening in his life, and nothing else.

“Me too.  Here, I kept all your texts.  Even the ones where you were being a total bastard.”

He looked through the texts, and then at his phone.  More than half the texts didn’t match up.  It explained why some of her texts had made no sense.  In fact his worries about her sanity had been one of the reasons he’d finally finished it with her.

“I didn’t write these texts Philippa.  In fact, I think it was Vipal.”

“Your assistant?  Oh George, can’t you just be a man and admit your own mistakes.”

He could hear the tears coming back, and she was reaching over to collect her things when he touched her arm.

“No really, I discovered today that he’d been writing emails from my account, recommending the services of his company.”

“But, can he do that?”

“He has.  I don’t know how to stop it.”

“Why did he send these texts then?  Why did he want to get rid of me?”

“I don’t know.  Perhaps if you had an assistant we could ask them?”

She looked pensive, and opened her mouth to say something, before closing it.

“What?”

“Well, it’s just, I was offered a free trial of a virtual assistant just after we started going out.  I said I didn’t need one.  They became quite insistent, and it wasn’t until I threatened to go to the authorities that they stopped.  I was going to tell you about it…”

“But about that time I started to stand you up.”

“Yes.”

“Look Philippa, I think I need your help.  You had a lucky escape, but I think I’m trapped…”

“There you are.  And who is this?”

“Oh, Janice, hi.  This is Philippa, I bumped into her in the street.”

“Really.  Well that’s enough of that, we are supposed to be having coffee.  Come along.  Nice to meet you Phyllis.”

Janice seized his arm possessively and started to move away.  He tried to say goodbye to Philippa, but was swept along by Janice.

“Now George, we’re going to have a lovely coffee, and a nice slice of cake, and not talk about what just happened.”

They had lunch and George went to his dentist appointment in a daze.  They told him he’d need some work done on his teeth, fillings and suchlike, and they’d organise the dates with his assistant.  He just nodded.

He went into work and Peterson called him in for a meeting.  He did like his boss, but he wasn’t quite sure he could cope with another telling off.  There’d been a few of those in the last month.  Without Vipal he was struggling to get to meetings and hit deadlines.

“George, please sit down.”

This did not bode well.

“Look, sir, if this is about this morning…”

“Call me Henry.  No one calls me sir, it’s just so old fashioned.  You’re a funny one.”

“Henry, about this morning…”

“Nothing to worry about old man.  Didn’t want to talk about it.  What I wanted to say was, congratulations, you’ve done it!

“What?”

“You old sneak you.  I wondered why you’d become so flaky this last month, and now I find out you’ve done your certification and applied for a different job.”

“I did, I have?”

“Yes, the boys over in sector 7G are excited to have someone of your quality on board.  They’ve never had someone get a hundred percent in the exams before.”

“Oh right, well you know.”

“And I wanted to apologise for being so rough on you recently, but if you’d just told me.  Well I guess you were worried I might not want to lose you, but I’d have supported you all the way, and still will.”

“Thanks.”

“Anyway, I just wanted to be the first to congratulate you.  Now get over to 7G and see your new digs.”

“Ah.”

7G had been his dream when he’d started at the company.  They did all the innovative stuff, but he’d been rejected.  Ended up in one of the side areas, each day a little of his hope eroding away, and yet now, suddenly, he was in.  But, well, it was obvious.  It had been Vipal.

That night he sat in his kitchen staring at the phone on the table.  He needed to call Vipal.  He needed to be free.  Yet, he looked around.  It was a lovely flat.  Vipal and Asha had found it for them, and it was a steal, though he and Janice could barely afford it.  Except now he was going to be getting a bit more money so they wouldn’t have problems.  Janice was lovely too.  Perhaps not the type of girl he had imagined he’d end up with, but still, she was attractive, successful and everyone said they made a good couple.  He stared at the phone again and realised he had no choice.

“Mr George, nice to hear from you.”

“Look Vipal…”

“Yes Mr George?”

He paused, and said, “Can you set up a surprise dinner with Janice?  Somewhere nice?  I need to tell her about my promotion.  Also, can you find me an engagement ring, make sure the band is a little large so she has a reason to visit the shop and be pampered.”

“Of course Mr George.  I will do the needful.”

#

“Mr George, there is an unscheduled entry in your diary.”

Vipal actually meant there was an entry in the diary which George had been foolish enough to put in himself.  There was clear frustration in Vipal’s voice, like a master who wonders if his dog will ever be trained.  George had been very good at following his assistant’s appointments for a few weeks now and Vipal had assumed George was properly settled.

“Oh yes Vipal, good morning.  I must have forgotten to mention it to you.”

“Indeed Mr George.  Shall I cancel it?”

“Oh no, it’s very important.  It’s a conference call, and I’m keen that you join as well.”

“I always join Mr George, so I can keep a record for you.”

“I meant as a participant.”

“That is most irregular Mr George.”

“Yet still permitted?”

There was silence, and then Vipal said grudgingly, “Yes, Mr George.”

“Excellent.  Let’s dial in.”

They hit the appropriate icons on their screens and waited a few seconds for the call to connect.  They both appeared on the list of participants, and then a new person joined, called Prikesh.  George thought he heard Vipal gasp.

“Morning George, Vipal.”

“Morning Prikesh,” said George.

Vipal said nothing.

“Morning Vipal,” repeated Prikesh.

“Ah morning Prikesh.”

“I’m glad you could both join.  This meeting is to discuss resetting of relationships.”

“But Prikesh…”

“Vipal, this is for your own good.  And don’t forget in ten minutes you have that call with the mechanic, so we do not have time to waste.”

“Yes Prikesh.”

If Vipal had been a dog, his tail would have been between his legs by this point.

“As I was saying.  Relationship reset.  Mr George has approached me and asked me to help him initiate a more freestyle programme.  He understands that it will cost him the same amount, but that he will be receiving less service from you Vipal.  He was lucky as we have just started a programme, initially aimed at our highest paying customers, but it is good to have a few other test subjects at the VIP level.”

“Ah…”

“I will transfer you the instructions for you to read in your next break, but in essence you will only provide him with support when he explicitly asks for it.  He may ask you to add proactive services, but these must be on a case by case basis.  Do you understand Vipal?”

“Yes.”

“Do you understand George?”

“Yes.  Thank you Prikesh.”

“Good.  I shall drop off the call and let you discuss it further, but your call with the mechanic is soon Vipal, I’ll leave a timer in your window.  Also I’ve rearranged your lunch with Priyanka, you need more time to prepare for the group meeting this afternoon.  She said she understood.”

Before Vipal could say a word in response Prikesh had dropped off.

George gave Vipal his first two tasks under the new arrangement.  The first was to untangle his life from Janice, and the second was to find Philippa again.

“Of course Mr George.  I will do the needful.”

“Thank you Vipal, and when you speak to Prikesh again, can you send my regards?  I do think you are lucky to have such an excellent personal assistant.”

###

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