My story Our Heritage is in Our Blood was published today on T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog! Read it here.
Category Archives: General
Another on the joys of twins, and converting to civvie life.
Staff Sergeant George Bentley arrived home at 14:07 on 14th November carrying his combat satchel. The satchel weighed approximately two kilos and contained one change of clothing, five medals, three for service and two for bravery, and his tablet. He greeted his wife of two years, Patricia Bentley, with a kiss, and a hug. After forty-three seconds he had to gently disengage his wife, and explain to her that yes, he was back, and no, he would not be leaving again. He’d done three tours and they had decided he needed to retire. Should he wish to return in a year’s time he would be entitled to do so.
At 14:09 he met his twin daughters for the first time. They were seven months old, having been born while he was on tour. Phyllis Grace honoured him with a smile, while Enid Ruth merely frowned thoughtfully. He looked around at the house, and his eyes could see only chaos. His wife, a wonderful woman who had coped so well without him, clearly did not understand the value of order. He recalled that his demob advisor had recommended a soft approach with civvies, including family, and decided that he would give her the benefit of the doubt for two days. But then there would be order. Though he couldn’t help but propose a few enhancements which might make things a little easier.
Over the course of the rest of the day he learned about his daughters, about their apparent daily schedule, which seemed far more varied than any schedule should be, and what his wife spent her days doing. His neighbour had been helping to feed their animals: a flock of eleven ewes and a single ram, a flock of three Angoran nanny goats, a herd of three sows, two currently in pig, and a peep of six chickens, all allegedly hens, though laying rarely at this time of year. His wife spent her days caring for the babies. When they slept she ate, did the washing and rested. It all seemed dreadfully inefficient. She explained that they had been sleeping through the night consistently for the last few weeks. He expressed sympathy for the months before that, but couldn’t remember the last time he’d had more than four hours sleep in one go. The enemy didn’t allow rest.
The next morning he woke at 0537. He was disoriented. His plan had been to wake up at 0600 to commence his day and start preparations for organising the household. He at first thought it must be an enemy attack; the noise of screaming was fearsome. He remembered that he was no longer at war. His time in a war zone was done, he was at home. He must get used to being demobbed. What was that noise? He requested an explanation from his wife. She avowed that it must be the babies, and suggested that as he seemed so keen to organise things he should deal with them. Perhaps he had been a little too forward with his ideas the night before.
He went into the nursery. A chaotic and garish place. Bright colours, toys everywhere, and clothes stacked in random piles. The two cots were next to each other. Each contained a blue eyed screaming monster. At first he could not decide which to take first. He could perhaps carry both, but that might not be comfortable for them, and he might drop them, which would be non-optimal. He picked up Phyllis Grace and carried her into the dining room where her chair was ready. His wife had told him that the first thing to do in the morning was to feed them milk. Or change their nappies if they were dirty.
Having strapped Phyllis Grace into her chair, he explained to her that he was going to get her sister, and then he would return, strap her in and then give them both milk. This had no effect on the noise emanating from her, other than perhaps to cause it to increase. He returned to pick up Enid Ruth, who was also producing a tremendous racket. Even in his worst fire-fights he could recall nothing of this piercing nature. It cut through him, right to his soul. He might suggest to his Captain that they use this as a weapon. Except he no longer had a Captain.
It occurred to him as he carried Enid Ruth to the dining room that she was surrounded by a miasma of such foulness that it might be classed as a munition. This was he believed likely to require a nappy change. He had watched his wife perform a few nappy changes the night before, and realising the simplicity of the process had declined the opportunity to practice, assuming she was just trying to avoid an unpleasant chore.
He carefully laid Enid Ruth down on the changing mat. Keeping one hand on her to make sure she didn’t fall off, while securing a nappy with the other hand. The volume of screaming had, somehow, increased. When he undid the nappy the assault on his nostrils was epic. He then started to wipe his daughter’s bottom. She started to squirm. First one way, then the other, then she reached for the nappy, and showing surprising strength and agility managed to pull it away from him, and over her head. Its contents disgorged everywhere. Phyllis Grace was still making her complaints about the delay well known.
His wife arrived at this point and took over the procedure. He was dispatched to prepare the milk, in bottles ready for the girls. His wife was unable to breastfeed both babies, and so they were reliant on bottle milk. He gave Phyllis Grace her bottle, and the silence was like a shock of iced water. In the background Enid Ruth was still wailing, but his wife was dealing with it.
Having now had first contact with the enemy he began to plan. Clearly he needed to be more organised when changing the babies. Milk first. Then nappy changing. The silence would allow his wife to sleep, and all would be well.
That day he met with his neighbour, thanked him for his help and said he would be feeding his animals again. His neighbour kindly offered to continue while he got settled, but Staff Sergeant George Bentley, well, George Bentley now, knew his mind.
Throughout the day he endeavoured to take the lead in the baby related activities, to demonstrate to his wife that really, it was all about organisation. Time and again the babies did unexpected things which his wife had never mentioned. Enid Ruth climbed out of her chair, even though he’d secured her. His wife claimed this had never happened before. He’d just changed Phyllis Grace into a new outfit, one which he felt her mother would describe as darling, when she threw up all over it. He had to change her again. And then again.
That evening he went out to feed the animals, knowing that proper organisation would solve all the issues. He told his wife that he would be no more than thirty minutes. The pigs came happily to feed, and the sheep rushed over too. He didn’t need to feed them, but wanted to get used to them and count them. The goats however, they were nowhere to be found. After searching all over his land he found a hole in the fence. A while later he recovered the recalcitrant goats, persuading them to follow a bucket, and covered the hole up with a sheep hurdle. He added fixing the fence to his mental work list. He arrived back in the house some ninety three minutes after having left. In this time his wife had bathed the twins and put them to bed. He was disappointed to have missed it, but his wife refused to let him say goodnight to the girls. She said it would only disturb them.
A while later, while they were having dinner one of the girls started to cry. In preparation for his return home George Bentley had read up on how to look after babies. The literature, some of which was contradictory, had much advice on crying. The authority he’d felt made the most sense had advocated a very strict timetable, which appealed to him. Her advice had stated that they should allow a baby to cry for exactly five minutes and thirty seconds before attempting to comfort them. He started a stopwatch on his tablet. At three minutes and twenty seconds the crying stopped. He looked satisfied. Some thirty seconds later it started again. The online guide hadn’t mentioned this possibility, he looked at his wife enquiringly, she smiled. He restarted the stopwatch. The crying stopped again, then restarted. He then realised that it could be either twin, or both. He stopped the clock and looked at his wife bemused. She told him that it was just settling crying and they’d soon stop. They did.
The next morning he woke up at 0552, courtesy of the girls. He was able to get them both drinking milk with the minimum of fuss, and was congratulating himself when Enid Ruth threw her nearly full bottle to one side and started crying again. The foul stench coming from her general direction gave him some indication of what the cause might be. Phyllis Grace copied her sister, and the assault on his senses ramped up. Shortly thereafter his wife appeared and between them they soon had the girls feeding again. She smiled at him.
He thought to himself that what was required was organisation, and delegation. He then recalled a discussion about delegation which he’d had with his wife when they were first married. The outcome had been clear, and as he remembered it, he was the junior. They’d never discussed it again, and he felt that it might be sensible not to bring it up.
The girls ate at regular times during the day, this apparently had been crucial in flipping them from a night schedule to a day schedule. He approved of this. Nothing else went much to plan. They might sleep when they were supposed to, they might not. Often one would sleep, and the other would not. Perhaps choosing to get some one-on-one Mummy, and now Daddy, time.
That evening as George fed the animals, he thought, perhaps organisation was not was required. Perhaps, some flexibility would be best. But not too much. He made sure to get inside in time to say goodnight to his girls.
The next morning he was woken at 0541. He checked both babies and determined that at that point Phyllis was poo free. He got her settled with a bottle, and then changed Enid’s nappy. Within moments they were both contentedly sucking on the teats. After breakfast he let them play. Today they decided they wanted to climb all over him. He loved it.
He was lying on the floor, laughing with his daughters when his wife walked in, having enjoyed her first lie-in since he’d gone away for his third tour. Her smile was like the sunrise, and she said,
“Welcome home George my darling love.”
Having young twins can be a lot of fun, but it is also exhausting…
Isabel rolled over and looked at the clock. It showed the time as 0307, the dull red glow of the digits taunting her. That made, what, eighteen minutes of sleep, or was it fourteen, nearly an hour over the night. Could be worse…?
She wondered which baby it was. Had she put Ruth down last? After giving her some milk. Yes. Probably. So it was likely to be Grace then. The cries continued, and she dragged herself out of bed. Sometimes they stopped before she had to get up, not this time though.
Stepping quietly into the room she could tell it was Grace. Though given the volume emanating from her daughter’s lungs she sometimes wondered why she tiptoed.
“OK Grace, I’m here, just one second.”
The whispering seemed foolish too, but she really didn’t want to wake Ruth up again. She picked Grace up and carried her out of her room and into the kitchen. Having initially stopped crying Grace decided to start up again. Each scream ripped through her, leaving her nerves tender and, worse, anticipating the next wave of sonic pain.
“Oh darling, what’s wrong? Is it your toothy-pegs?”
Isabel grabbed some gel and rubbed it on her daughter’s gums. Grace stopped for a few seconds, and then carried on. Then she heard an answering cry from the nursery. Ruth was awake too. Putting Grace down only increased the volume of the already intolerable screeching.
“I’m just getting your sister, and then I’ll sing to you.”
She shuffled back quickly to the nursery, running being beyond her at this point of tiredness. Ruth was standing up and howling at the world. Isabel picked her up.
“Don’t worry Ruth, we’ll go to the kitchen, and then we’ll have a sing song.”
She knew she’d have to give them milk, but she was trying to get them out of the habit of thinking it was always going to happen. Even if she could delay it for ten minutes that would help.
Two minutes later, having tried and failed to pacify them with her rendition of the greatest hits of Boney M, she capitulated and gave them milk. They were onto bottles now, she just wasn’t able to provide enough milk herself for the two of them, and as much as that hurt, she was happy that she could sit and watch while they drank. The day they’d been able to hold their own bottles had been one of the few good ones recently.
“Girls, I’m not sure how much of this I can take. Please, please start sleeping. If only your father was here…”
She started to sob. She missed him, how could he do this to her? How dare he die. How dare he leave her, alone, with no one to help her in this strange town. The insurance company were still deciding whether they could pay out, and in the meantime she was eking out her meagre savings. Another worry she couldn’t cope with any more.
The two girls started crying in unison, joining her in misery. They hadn’t finished their milk though, which was unusual. What was the problem? Isabel spotted one of the signs just as the stench hit her. Liquid brown was escaping from Ruth’s nappy. From the way Grace was wriggling she was in much the same position. She really hoped it was just the teething and not another bug.
“Now darling, let me change you and you can get back to your milk. In the meantime Grace, perhaps you could try your milk again? Or at least tone the volume down. Please…”
Ruth’s nappy was a mess, and it had crept up her back, Isabel would need to change the baby-grow as well. Ruth also hated it when Isabel laid her on her back, and was making her upset very clear. In fact she was so loud Isabel could barely hear her sister, who was doing her best to join the chorus. Eventually she managed to get Ruth out of her stinking clothes and wiped up. As she was about to put the nappy on Ruth started to pee, and it went everywhere. All over the mat, all over Isabel. Ruth didn’t stop screaming.
It was the final straw. She could take no more, they’d broken her, she sank to the floor, holding her naked squealing daughter and just started to cry.
It didn’t help. The girls didn’t understand, all they knew was that they were uncomfortable, and hungry, and had sore teeth and…
She couldn’t help it, her anger at the loss of her husband, the lack of money, the lack of sleep and the constant crying boiled over. She knew what she had to do.
“Enough is enough, I didn’t want to do this, but I have no choice. I’m sorry girls.”
Putting Ruth down firmly, she stalked from the room. Darkness seemed to gather, and even the twin girls realised something was happening and quietened. The silence was only momentary though, and they began again with full force.
Isabel returned to the room, filling it with her presence. In her hand she held a short stick, about eighteen inches long, and a thumb’s breadth.
“I hate to do this; it’s your own faults.” Her voice was filled with energy, and pain.
She waved the wand left, and right, and then made complex sigils in the air. She could see the shapes as the wand had started to leave a glowing path. The girls stopped screaming long enough to stare bemusedly at the pretty lights. They’d never seen their mother do this before.
Both babies started to rise into the air, the clothes came off, they were wiped clean and new nappies put on. All by invisible hands. They were placed back in their chairs and the milk handed back to them. They drank happily, but their eyes were on the scary woman who’d replaced their mother.
“Good. Drink well my little ones. After this you are going to sleep. And sleep well. Do you understand me?”
The two little girls shouldn’t have understood, but they did. They realised that they didn’t want to find out what would happen if they didn’t sleep.
Once they finished their milk they were burped and carried into the nursery, where they were gently rocked to sleep.
Meanwhile Isabel, barely standing with fatigue, stumbled to her bedroom and fell into bed. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow. She was finally getting some proper rest and she slept the sleep of the truly exhausted.
The babies woke up again at 0715, and were changed and fed again. Some soothing gel was applied to their gums. They made almost no sound, apart from the occasional happy gurgle. They were then placed carefully in their pen – the cage as their mother called it – where they played happily, watched over by an invisible force.
At just after noon Isabel woke up, feeling so much better. She would have been happier with another twenty hours of sleep, but even so she felt almost human again. Stretching she got out of bed and went to her bathroom, where she enjoyed a long hot shower. The first time in a long time that she truly relaxed.
She knew she didn’t have to worry about the girls. They were just fine. Then the horror hit her. She’d performed magic.
“What have I done?”
She had to find out what had happened, still naked from her shower she ran to the back window and looked out. The neighbourhood looked fine, nothing untoward. She looked left and right and could see nothing. She started to relax. Perhaps she’d avoided anything major happening. Quickly getting dressed she hurried to the nursery.
She approached the cage warily, but the little girls were playing nicely, even sharing toys for a change. It would be so nice if she could live like this all the time, but she feared the consequences.
Isabel waved her hands to dispel the magic nanny, and sighed.
“No my girls, we can’t have that again. As you will learn when you are old enough, and can control it, there is always a danger with magic. It is capricious, and insists on a form of balance. This time I think we’ve been lucky…”
That’s when she heard the fire engine.
“No no no…”
She ran to the front door, and flung it open. Across the road her neighbour’s house was in flames. She stopped, should she go out? Should she instead duck back inside? She didn’t want anyone to connect her with the fire. No, she realised she had to know. Rushing across the road she saw her neighbours were still alive. She was relieved, but, she still had to confirm what had caused the fire. The husband, Tom, seemed to be talking to a policeman, while Pauline was sitting on the grass, just staring at their once lovely home.
As she approached she heard Tom trying his best to explain what had happened to the obviously sceptical policeman.
“…was like lightning or something. Suddenly there was a crack, and then flames. Flames everywhere. We don’t have gas, or anything. And I haven’t smoked in, what, twenty years now. I don’t know what it could have been.”
“Oh I don’t see how, this house is very new. We have it inspected regularly. Maybe it was…”
He looked up, as if he was hoping to see a storm cloud.
Isabel knew there would be no storm cloud; she knew what had caused the crack. It was the magic discharging to balance what she’d done the night before. Guilt hit her, and unable to face her neighbours, she slunk back home.
Re-entering the nursery she thought she’d caught a whiff of dirty nappy, but leaning over it was gone. She tried explaining to the little girls what had happened, though they were oblivious.
“For every act of goodness you do, there must be an act of badness, or chaos. As you learn about your powers you will find ways to channel them and control the chaos so it causes minimal harm to people. You should always do your best to control it, as the effects can be fatal. I failed last night…”
Despite the sleep she was still exhausted, and the emotional stress was too much. She started sobbing again knowing what might have happened, and yet guiltily grateful for the small rest she’d had. Even at the cost of her neighbours’ house.
She stood there bent over, crying freely now, when she felt a hand inexpertly stroking her head. Surprised she looked up, there was no one there. No one except the twins, and little Grace was staring at her with concern. Isabel smiled tentatively and Grace responded, then lost interest and looked around her pen.
Perhaps she’d just imagined it? They’d only been exposed to magic for half a day. It shouldn’t have awakened within them yet. Isabel watched her little ones carefully, but they seemed to be behaving quite normally. She was about to go and prepare their lunch when Ruth started to fuss. She was looking around her pen grumpily. Then she saw what she wanted, her favourite toy, the tiger teddy bear, was on the other side of the pen. She reached out her hand to it, and it lifted up and headed unsteadily towards her.
“Oh no…” wailed Isabel.
Her worst fear was realised. It appeared that last night’s incident had been too much and the girls, having been exposed to all that active magic, were now starting to manifest some of their powers. They wouldn’t know they needed to be careful, or what might happen, and the consequences could be horrendous.
She’d have to train them, but in a place where she could limit the damage which might happen while she did so.
If they stayed where they were she could see a future in which theirs was the only house standing in the neighbourhood. Her neighbours, lovely people, would find their houses burned. Their pets dead. Some houses might fall into suddenly appearing sinkholes or collapse with rot. People might die.
In the past that would be the cue for the locals to rise up and burn her. Some witches had thought that if they did good that would protect them, but it had only made the whole situation worse as the magic forced balance. Ironically they’d only started to realise the truth during the Enlightenment.
These days, well, she could imagine the news frenzy it might become. She’d be hounded and wouldn’t be able to get away, and the girls, how would they cope? There’d be police, and social workers and psychiatrists. Scientists would be asked to ponder what was happening. They’d become freaks at the centre of their own circus. Other witches wouldn’t thank her; in fact they might decide that the best way to deal with her would be for an accident to occur. That had certainly happened a few times over the centuries.
No, they couldn’t stay here. Even though it contained the last connections to their father, she had to take the girls away. They needed to go somewhere remote, miles from anywhere. In the modern world it was ever harder to secure such places, but she’d find somewhere. She waved the magic over the girls again, after all she was already in such trouble she might as well get the benefit. She also concentrated to ensure she was controlling the build up of negative energy. It would get hard to hold after a while, but she’d be ready to go before it was a real struggle.
As she thought of options, she realised she only had one left. It was the one she’d been hoping to avoid. She called her mother.
“Darling, such a surprise to hear your voice!”
“I doubt that.”
“OK, I could feel the magic. Do you admit now you need my help?”
“See, it wasn’t that bad.”
“You have no idea.”
“Anyway, you’ll have to appear to leave normally. How soon can you be here?”
“In a few hours.”
“Oh, that is excellent. It’ll be so good to see you, and there are a few awkward characters we’ll need you to deal with.”
“You can’t come back unless you’re willing to work. You know that.”
“I know. I was just hoping…”
“For a break? What do you think you’ve been enjoying. Now get back here, and bring my lovely granddaughters with you. I am so looking forward to meeting them.”
There was little point arguing with her mother. She said, “I’ll see you soon mother.”
“Looking forward to it darling.”
Her heart was lighter, at least she’d be getting help, and rest, and it would be nice to be among other witches again. It was also weighed down; as she knew the kind of work she’d have to do. She shuddered.
One of her skills was controlling the negative energy produced by good work. She could harness and direct it. Perform targeted acts of evil. As much as she understood the necessity, she’d never enjoyed it, and the images had started to plague her. That’s why she’d run away.
Sighing she started to collect her things. The girls, still behaving impeccably, were quickly loaded up in their carry seats, and the basics for the trip were ready. She was tempted to use magic to load the seats into the car, but if anyone saw them it would cause real issues. She lugged them over, strapped them in and made sure they were safe.
As she was about to get into the car she took one last look at her home, and said a final goodbye to her husband. She got in and drove off.
She was half way along the block when she let the magic go. It blew the walls of her house down, and the roof collapsed. She didn’t look back.
The neighbourhood was surprised by three unusual happenings that day. There was the lightning strike, the collapsed house and the strange disappearance of the nice young widow and her twins. People gossiped, as they do, but they couldn’t see a connection, which was perhaps fortunate for everyone.
The early morning mists shroud the fields, smothering sound and isolating us from the frantic world. The ewe bleats as I approach, perhaps in greeting, though given her Herculean efforts overnight it may be pride. As I get closer, the mists both parting and settling on me in a damp cloak, I see the products of her labour. Three small, brown lambs, still wet from the amniotic sacks they’ve only just escaped. Their mother licks them, trying to dry them off, while the cold morning endeavours to do the opposite, potentially life sapping dew forming on the little creatures. When I am almost on top of them she bleats again, but this time with a mother’s warning. I retreat, and stare at the new arrivals, small bundles of ephemeral joy. Tomorrow, or the next day I’ll have to catch them, and castrate the boys and dock their tails; a chore which is unpleasant but less unpleasant than the alternatives, yet it tarnishes our relationship. From that point they will never trust me again, whereas now, mere hours into the world, they view me as a curiosity and I can take unalloyed pleasure in their very existence.
The early morning was never a source of delight in the city. It would usually mean another day of drudgery, of smog, and smut and the life-draining dreariness of work. The only brief moments of happiness were those found during alcoholic fuelled hazes, where the world appeared to have possibilities again. The ewe bleats again, she is not interested in my musings. I tell her to shush, as even her gentle warning may attract the others. The rest of the flock is out there, currently oblivious to my presence. If they detect me, via sound, or some other emanation, they will descend, their hunger driving them and making them careless around the lambs. I do not want to see the little ones knocked about by their gluttonous elders. I quickly enter the feed hut and gather a saucepan of food. The ewe has worked hard in the small hours, and she deserves both a treat, and to recharge her energy reserves. With three mouths suckling she will have to toil further to fulfil her maternal duties. I hold my hand out, full of feed. Normally this ewe would be wary, but she is hungry and exhausted and she voraciously chomps at the nuts and grains I offer her. The rest of the saucepan I up-end onto the floor, and she dives in, all concentration on the concentrates I’ve provided her.
The early morning will soon become just the morning, and my normal duties will start again. Till that time I can watch the first unsteady steps of new life. I can even capture some of it on my camera, though when I look back at the photos they will be missing the ethereal beauty of the breaking day, and that loss will render them flat in their two dimensions. I turn away, taking some pride from overseeing the birth, like any father at the arrival of their progeny, despite the paucity of their contribution.
The early morning mists are lifting as I walk back to the house. My day will start now, but I will spend it lifted, my connection with life reaffirmed.
Apologies for the hiatus, there’s been a lot going on… but hopefully back to one (or so) stories a month. Here’s December’s:
“Janine, do hurry please!”
“Sorry Jonathan, I thought I’d left my face cream.”
“Hmm, well I guess given the cost of that stuff it’s best you checked.”
“It helps me stay looking beautiful.”
“Well it’s jolly expensive.”
She looked at him reproachfully.
“I mean, you don’t need it my dear, you’re a true beauty without worrying about all those potions and lotions.”
It was too late. She was in a sulk now. He sighed and went up to the concierge,
“Look, I thought you said there’d be a taxi here by now.”
“Ah, yes sir. Sorry. The only one to have responded is an old style London Black Cab, which would be fine if you were going for a tour, but it’s a little slow if you want to go to the airport.”
“Well, do something man!”
“I’d like to take the black cab.”
“Oh Jonathan, it’s our last time here for who knows how long. I’d just like to actually see the buildings as we say goodbye.”
He looked to heaven, nodded and turned to the concierge and nodded again. The concierge gave him a smile which might have contained the hint of a wink, and then waved over at a trench-coated man outside. The man appeared to throw a cigarette stub to the ground, which couldn’t possibly be the case given the fine he’d have received, and headed in.
The taxi driver looked to be in his fifties, possibly even well-worn sixties. His coat was heavy and old fashioned, and he was wearing glasses. There was a faint smell of smokiness, with a hint of decay, wafting from him. Janine giggled and whispered to Jonathan, “He’s really putting on the act!” He shushed her and pointed the man at their bags.
“Where to guv’nor?”
Jonathan looked to the concierge as if to ask why the driver didn’t already know, catching the smile on the man’s face he realised this was part of the act.
“The airport please.”
Getting a little tired of this act, Jonathan said, “Estuary Main, of course.”
“Estuary Main, oh right, that’s the new one out past the East End. Certainly sir, I’ll get you there.”
The driver moved to pick up the bags, but his patience now exhausted Jonathan waved at them and they trundled towards the taxi. The driver almost jumped back in surprise, muttered to himself and went back out to his car. He opened the boot and started to lever the bags up, and then had to back off quickly when they climbed in. He slammed the boot shut with rather more vehemence then Jonathan thought was needed.
“Isn’t he a character.”
Given that Janine was enjoying the act he might as well relax. They walked to the cab and the cabbie opened the door for them. Jonathan thought the machine looked a little shabby, but was quickly inside and sitting in the back seat. It was extra wide, with old style seat belt details. He wondered where the modern restraints came out, he couldn’t see anything.
The cabbie got in, and started the engine up by twisting his hand. He seemed to play with a lever, and then put his hands on the wheel.
“He’s going to do the whole act,” whispered Janine.
“Yes, I fear he is.”
The car pulled out into traffic.
“Excuse me. Driver. Do we need to put these old seat belts on?”
“No need sir, while you’re in Black Bess you’ll have nothing to worry about. “
Perhaps there were some of the modern field restraints? Probably, though he couldn’t feel anything, and he’d heard you were supposed to feel a little tingle across your chest when they were switched on.
“Did you say Black Bess?” asked Janine.
“Yes Madam. Named after Dick Turpin’s horse, fastest equine ever to have lived in literature.”
Janine looked at Jonathan and mouthed “Dick Turpin?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
The cab trundled along, going through some of the back streets off Edgware Road. Jonathan assumed it was just to give them the full tour. He checked his watch, and realising they had nearly half an hour before check in closed, he relaxed. A few more minutes of this messing around, they’d get on the flyway, and they’d be there in time, if barely.
The whole cab juddered, and then swerved a little. Jonathan looked out and realised they’d hit the curb.
“Ah driver, what happened there?”
The cabbie, who still hadn’t turned round to face them when talking, said, “Sorry guv, just the curb, must’ve been broken recent-like. Don’t you worry though, this old beauty will see you through.”
The man’s insistence on holding on to the wheel while driving was really starting to bother Jonathan, so he decided not to the think about it, and instead reached for Janine’s hand. She gripped it tightly, and he turned to her. She smiled and leant forward to kiss him. He responded, and it was a little while later when they both came up for air.
Janine giggled again, and he smiled. It was strange, they’d never normally kiss in front of someone, and yet because the driver was facing away it was like a license to kiss. It was naughty even. They kissed again, and it wasn’t until they hit the on-ramp for the flyway that they both looked up. Janine took out a hanky and wiped his face, and then looked in her mirror and squealed at her smeared lipstick.
“I’ll have to fix it up as we’ll be there in a few minutes.”
He gave her another cheeky kiss and then looked out again. He’d been looking for a minute when he realised what was bothering him. They were going so slowly, the other cars were zipping past them.
“Ah driver, we have to be there in less than ten minutes, any chance of putting on a little speed.”
The driver mumbled something which sounded like ‘impatient punters’ and then said more clearly, “Sir, the old beauty is doing her best, we’re at 75.”
Jonathan felt a flush of irritation. They were going to miss their plane! Damned Janine and her sentimentality. He took his phone out and punched in their details. The system showed another flight twenty minutes later they could take, and as they’d flagged it before check-in closed they were only charged a small fee. By the time he’d confirmed his irritation had subsided and he looked out at the city again.
The view from the skyway was pretty spectacular, and from this bend he could see all of Canary Wharf, the City, and even the London Eye. He would miss this city, it had been good to them. Still, new opportunities, new challenges. This new posting could be the making of Janine, and he’d quickly find a new job with his skills. The future was bright.
His musing was interrupted when the cab swerved wildly. Janine squeaked, and managed to smear her lipstick again. The next thing he knew he was flying forward into the partition as the cab braked sharply.
He came to a little while later, crumpled on the floor, with Janine next to him. He reached out to her, and was relieved when he heard her say, “Jonathan. Jonathan, what happened?”
The cab was still trundling along, Jonathan put his head up, “What happened?”
“Oh, sorry guvnor, some idiot in one of those jumped up cabs cut me up. Would’ve hit him if I hadn’t braked. Are you and the missus alright?”
“No we are not! What happened to the restraint fields?”
“Fields? Not out here. Not for years. Not since, hmm, let me see, must’ve been thirty years ago they started building this thing.”
Jonathan stared at the back of the drivers head, and realised what he was seeing. The man was actually physically driving the cab. He sank to the floor of the cab.
“Janine. The driver. He’s. He’s actually driving this machine!”
“Well of course silly.”
She had tidied herself up, and seemed to be taking this as all part of the fun.
“No, you don’t understand. He. Is. Physically. Driving. This. Car.”
“What?” she screeched.
They looked at each other in panic. How was it possible in this day and age for someone to actually drive a car? It couldn’t happen, no modern cars even had steering wheels. Jonathan could feel the panic starting to bubble up.
“How long till we’re there?” asked Janine in a voice which quavered slightly.
“’Alf an hour tops, and we’ll be there,” called the cabbie.
How could they survive another thirty minutes in this death-trap machine? Could they ask him to stop? Not on the skyway. The clutched each other, and lay on the floor, feeling every judder in the road. The cabs creaks and moans took on more sinister aspects, and they feared the whole thing would fly apart at any moment. The cab changed lanes, and each time the two of them shook, as they felt the sharp turns, so different from the smooth changes they’d come to expect from cars.
After an eternity they arrived at the airport, and the cabbie unlocked their door, and beamed at them through the partition.
“Here you are, at the airport. Fastest she’s ever done it. Isn’t she a beauty, my Black Bess.”
The couple stumbled out, and were soon joined by their luggage. As Jonathan shakily got out his wallet to pay, their driver leaned across and said, “That’ll be twenty-five seventy.”
Janine was staring at the cabbie in terror. Jonathan passed his card over and the cabbie took their fare.
With a cheery “Good luck” he doffed his cap and pulled off. Leaving only fear and a puff of black smoke in his wake.
Post Scarcity Blues is a collection of 24 of my stories themed around 3D printers and virtual reality. Two of the stories were successful in competitions, but the other 22 have not been published before (even on this blog).
I published the book today using the Amazon CreateSpace platform, which was excellent. Available for kindle and in paperback form.
Here is the cover (before the barcode was added):
“I want a legacy. I want people to remember me forever.”
“Is this really the right way to go about it?”
“Can you tell me a better way? I am not an artist, or a purveyor of literature. I have no political skills, and you’ve heard my singing.”
Jeremy shuddered. He had indeed heard his boss singing. It was unpleasant to say the least.
“But, turning the sky red?”
“I know. It will be magnificent. Every time someone looks up they will say, ‘It was Kelvin the Magnificent who did this’.”
“Except the ones who think you’re called Kevin.”
Jeremy wondered. He’d worked as the assistant for Kelvin’s act for two years now. Most magicians had a scantily clad woman to help them, but Kelvin felt that was old fashioned. Jeremy suspected it was also because Kelvin had tremendous problems talking to women. All of them.
They’d been having a quiet drink when Kelvin had revealed his hobby. Or obsession. Anyway, it was the thing which kept him busy on the weekends. Jeremy had thought it was just a joke, but Kelvin’s eyes had lit up when he talked about it.
“You’ll see Jez my lad. Everyone will see!”
Jeremy hated being called Jez. It was also usually the signal that Kelvin had imbibed enough for the evening.
“Right then oh Kelvin the Magnificent, let’s get you home then.”
“Tomorrow Jeremy, tomorrow I shall change the colour of the sky!”
“Only if you can get through the hangover.”
This was followed by Kelvin tripping over and falling to the floor. Jeremy sighed and picked him up, then bundled him into a cab and headed home. He grabbed a kebab on the way and thought nothing more of Kelvin’s crazy talk.
The next morning was a Wednesday, a day off from being a magician’s assistant, and Jeremy luxuriated in a long lie-in. When he finally got out of bed he flicked the TV on and got his breakfast. Fairly quickly he was left staring at the screen with half a weetabix dangling forgotten from his mouth.
On the screen was his boss, handcuffed and being led away by the police. He flicked on the sound to hear the commentary.
“…the Magnificent being led away from the site of the recent explosion. It’s not clear what he will be charged with, but the police are taking him in for further questions.”
“For those just joining us, there has been a large explosion off the coast. There were no casualties, and the man believed to be responsible is in custody.”
The story cycled around a few times, interspersed with some gossip about an American singer and a boy band. Jeremy didn’t hear any of it, and it was a while before he even finished his Weetabix. When he finished he realised he had no choice but to go and see if he could help Kelvin. The man had no family as far as Jeremy knew.
“Oh Jeremy, you should have seen it! It was wonderful.”
“Kelvin, look, just be quiet until we get into the car.”
Kelvin gave him a reproachful look, but subsided while they walked out of the police station. He’d been released on police bail, but they were clear they’d want him back for more questions. At the very least they’d want to know how his machine had operated.
Once they were in the car, Kelvin couldn’t hold silent any longer.
“It was amazing. She hove, hove! Out to sea. The generator started running and I could see the gas coming off. Then.”
“Well, then it blew up. I made a slight miscalculation. It turns out that producing lots of hydrogen and oxygen near an engine can sometimes go wrong.”
“What? Wait. Stop, why were you producing lots of oxygen and hydrogen? Do I even want to know?”
“I told you last night. To turn the sky red. I ran the numbers and if I could convert much of the world’s oceans into oxygen and hydrogen then the additional gases would increase the size of our atmosphere, and therefore the impact of Rayleigh scattering.”
“That’s what makes the sky blue? Do they not teach anything at school these days?”
“Well, not in my school.”
“So the sky is red in the evening because the light has to go through twelve times the atmosphere to reach your eyes, so there’s much more scattering. Therefore, if I could increase our atmosphere by twelve times, then the sky would always be red!”
“We’d have no oceans!”
“But the sky would be red, people would know my name…”
“They’d know your name as the nutter who converted all the oceans into gas and as a result probably wiped out most of life on the planet!”
“Ah, yes. A side effect. I see what you mean.”
“That’s a pretty serious side effect Kelvin. One might even say a show stopper.”
“Hmm, yes. I need to think on this more.”
It was then that Jeremy realised that Kelvin might actually be properly crazy.
The next few weeks were tough. Obviously they lost their gigs, and Kelvin had to go court, and in the end received a suspended custodial sentence. He’d been quiet in the dock and hadn’t mentioned anything about turning the sky red. He revealed to Jeremy that it was because he’d wanted it to be a surprise.
After the case Jeremy had to get a new job, while Kelvin seemed to be staying at home. Kelvin had once mentioned to Jeremy that he had a lot of family money, so perhaps he was just enjoying it. Eventually Jeremy moved away and lost track of Kelvin.
Several years later Jeremy woke up one morning, and went for his regular run. He’d been keeping fit for a while, something which seemed to make his recently betrothed happy. He was half asleep when he started, and the sun had only just begun to rise. By the time he finished his run it was full daylight, and that’s when he noticed it. The sky was purple. Well, violet. No matter how he squinted it refused to be blue.
He thought to himself that maybe it was a result of too much running? Or perhaps an atmospheric effect? However it didn’t change. Pretty soon all the news channels were full of it. What had happened, why was the sky violet?
Jeremy dismissed it when he got to work, and was happily tapping away at his keyboard when an awful thought occurred to him. What if it had been Kelvin? What had he done, and more importantly, what were the side effects. After all the last time the man had tried something similar he’d been planning on evaporating the oceans.
A quick internet search found Kelvin’s latest locale. Jeremy rushed there. Panic gripping him.
He knocked on the door, and Kelvin answered. His face lit up when he saw Jeremy and he invited him in.
“It’s so good to see you Jeremy, how are you?”
“Is it you?”
“Is what me?”
“Ah, well, yes. In a sense. I’ve submitted my explanation to a number of channels. They rejected me as a crank initially, but I’ve had a call back from some eminent professors. Soon my name will be known!”
“Oh my god. What have you done? What else is going to happen? Have you destroyed the oceans?”
“Jez, Jez. Calm down. It’s fine. Nothing like that. You see, your lecture last time helped me understand. So I came up with a different way.”
Jeremy had started to calm, or perhaps it was the unreal nature of the conversation which seemed to give him strength.
“It’s simple really. I looked at the problem a different way. I realised that red was the wrong way to go, so I looked at the other end of the visible spectrum. You see, the sky has always contained violet, we just don’t have enough sensors in our eyes to see it that way.”
He held up his hand to forestall further questions. Jeremy held his tongue.
“Rayleigh scattering actually produces a lot of violet, but humans, until now, have only limited ability to see it. I’ve just fixed that.”
He paused, and then continued, “I released a virus which makes some minor genetic changes, which causes human eyes to develop additional violet receptors.”
He saw Jeremy’s face and said quickly, “Don’t worry, I tested it thoroughly, there are no other side effects. Well, except it’s irreversible. It is completely targeted, and very narrow. I released it two weeks ago. The change takes a while, but by my calculations, everyone in the country will be seeing violet by the end of the day…”
“How did you do it? I thought you were just a magician…”
“Oh, well I built a lab. I told you I had family money? Would you like to come and see it…”
Just then there was a loud crash and suddenly the room was filled with hulking men with guns all shouting. They both had hoods put over their heads as they were bundled into some form of vehicle which sped off.
Some while later Jeremy was released. His interrogators soon realised he knew nothing of use to them. The last admonishment was still ringing in his head as he stumbled home.
“Nothing happened. You didn’t see us. You have forgotten all about Kelvin. If we find out you’ve been opening your mouth we’ll have you back here so fast your head will spin. We could have you in prison for a million years as an accessory to a terrorist attack. That’s what this was. You understand?”
Jeremy had nodded mutely.
It took Jeremy a while to get his life back together. He kept worrying he was being followed, but he slowly relaxed. The news was full of reports of biological terrorists, and the government claimed that the original intention of the virus was deadly, but that a lucky mutation had caused it to turn into the violet producing variant. They managed to supress any mention of Kelvin’s name. This caused a lot of debate and very quickly buried discussions of what had actually happened.
After a while Jeremy could even smile when he looked up and saw the violet sky, Kelvin had left a legacy, even if no one knew he was responsible.
I wrote this for a competition. Unfortunately I entirely failed to notice it was snail mail only until the date it was due…
I picked up the next load of rubble. There was so much, the mound rose far above me, not that I lifted my head. My Master didn’t like that, and I’d feel the pain of his opprobrium if I dared look up. This was the fifth, or the fiftieth load I’d moved today. I couldn’t tell. We’d stop for a break maybe. My Master would tell me when. He’d let me relieve myself, and have a drink and perhaps some of the soup if it was a meal time.
Sometimes we’d whisper to each other. If the Masters were in a good mood they would overlook it. If not, then pain. We also had to be careful what we said, they were particularly cruel if they felt something might be subversive.
We worked all day. Every day. All of us. Maybe it wasn’t everyone on the planet, or even everyone in our town, but it seemed to be. We didn’t know what we were doing. Some had tried to work it out, but they always seemed to be the ones who were punished most. We soon learned not to speculate.
The others around me were becoming thin, and I knew I must be too. The Masters drove us from first light to dusk. Then they would sleep, but we were afforded no freedom even then. We could rest as well, but if we moved too much at night they would wake, and the punishment was always very severe. We learned not to move too much, even in our sleep.
I have always looked up at the stars above us. Before the Masters, when the world seemed to be on the continuous brink of destruction, I used to think that maybe there was hope in the stars. Perhaps we could build a boat, an Ark perhaps, and sail to those distant worlds, and start new lives, new societies. Free from the pressures of history, of malice and the terror of ever-diminishing resources.
I thought the stars would be man’s salvation. Instead they brought enslavement. They arrived one day in a wave of shooting stars. A meteor shower, but one which went on for days all across the world, and then, we all woke up to the new order. The Masters had arrived.
They bonded individually to each person, and once bonded it seemed impossible to remove them. Some had tried, but the Master soon asserted control, their neural hooks sending pain shooting though the person’s nerves. The few who hadn’t been captured were hunted down and provided with their own Masters. Or killed.
Perhaps somewhere there are free people. I hope so, but quietly; I don’t want my Master to sense my thoughts.
My Master stirs on my shoulder, his neural claws sinking further into my brain. I know I will never be free of him.
The Masters don’t speak. They only communicate through pain, and vague impressions. It’s amazing how quickly one can learn when the alternative is so unpleasant.
Some seem happy. I’ve seen them with dreamy looks on their faces. They don’t have to worry any more about where their lives are going, what to wear, or if they should change careers. All decisions are made for them, even when they’re allowed to go to the toilet.
I still look up at the stars each night, and hope. There is always hope, quiet and hidden.
Then the stars gained more friends. Another meteor shower. Day after day. I stared at the sky at night, and my fears grew. The last time we’d had such showers the Masters had arrived. We had come to an accommodation now. I knew my place. I didn’t want another Master. I was uneasy in my sleep. But then I realised, so was my Master.
Our work pace stepped up. We were driven harder. Fewer rests, which meant that sometimes I couldn’t hold it any longer. The shame burned, but not for long, I was driven on.
I realised, quietly, that the Master was afraid. It knew what the meteor shower was. It was a threat. Perhaps it would save us?
I had worked all day without stop. There had been no food, and I just fell to the ground when the Master stopped driving me.
I woke in the night, and my shoulder burned. Yet, something was different. My Master, it was gone.
I looked up at the stars. The meteor shower had stopped, and it was just the friendly stars I remembered from my youth. There was Orion, and the Bear. I was exhausted. Not just physically, but the loss of the Master seemed to suck all my energy. It had driven me for so long. Months? Years?
Relief. Fear. Joy. I whooped! I heard others doing the same. We were free.
Then the fear again. The Masters were so bad, or maybe not so bad? Just powerful. They had kept us alive, and… No, they were bad. What could scare them off?
The morning came, and found us gathered, unsure what to do. Skeletal figures in rags, we looked at each other properly for the first time in forever. It wasn’t pretty. Then we looked at what we’d been building. It looked like a mountain, or maybe a volcano. There was an entrance, and a trail of blood led to it. When the Masters disengaged they didn’t do so cleanly. My wound had closed quickly, but I could see others who were not so lucky. Still figures lying on the ground.
A loud boom split the air. It came from the mountain, and something shot out of the top. Then again and again. The noise was deafening. We fell to our knees, crying in pain and terror. I cannot say how long it went on for.
We were insensible for a time, and then someone, something, was soothing me. Applying balm to my wounds, both mental and physical. I had something on my shoulder. My Master was back! I panicked, but instead of shooting pain, a wave of calm and love suffused me. I looked to my shoulder, something a Master would never allow, and saw there a fluffy ball. The word Tribble jumped into my mind. It promised, without words, to look after me, to completely heal me, and to help us to rebuild our shattered land.
Over the next few weeks and months we recovered. The Tribbles, a name which caused them joyous amusement, helped us. Healing those, and helping those who had lost their way in servitude to return. They taught us about the Masters, and showed us how to protect ourselves. They told us that they would have to leave soon to try and stop the Masters at the next planet, a task they had been pursuing for many millennia, but now they were nearly upon them. They thought they’d stop them at the next planet.
Healing us slowed them, but the Tribbles couldn’t leave us as we were. They were so kind.
They left, all but a few to look after the most damaged, and to build a colony of their kind in symbiosis with us.
The Tribbles used the same method as the Masters. Shot out of the volcanoes. They were some kind of device which allowed the Masters, and the Tribbles, to travel the galaxy.
I look up at the stars and I pray that the Tribbles catch the Masters at the next planet, and that no more are enslaved. The stars were our salvation, but we had to visit hell first. It was ever this way.
It often amazes me the effort and determination some athletes invest into becoming the best. I wondered how far they might go…
It’s About Winning
“I’m tired of losing!”
“So am I Gee, but what you’re suggesting is crazy!”
“And getting whipped out there every week isn’t? Enough. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stormed out.
That was the last conversation I had with Gee. Or at least Gee when he was still baseline human. He was, is maybe, my best friend. We went to school together, played our first lacrosse together and ended up joining the same teams, until finally we made it, both professionals. He is an attack, I’ve always been defence. It made us great practice partners, and avoided much of the competition which can kill friendships in professional sports.
Gee is a big guy. Life of the party type. When he wants to be. He’s actually a bit shy, and covers it up with drinking, or cracking stupid jokes, or both. But he’s also all about winning. He wants to be the best, score the most, and never lose. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like losing, but being a defender is a bit different. In some ways it’s totally nihilistic; the best you can do is to stop a goal being scored. If you’re really good no one will know you’ve done anything because you’ll have stopped a shot early enough that it never really got started. Lacrosse is fast. If an attack move has even half started your chance of stopping it is almost zero, you need to be ahead of their moves. And so do the other defenders. A good defence unit has to be solid all round.
Attack however is different. You can be a hero, you often don’t need help, and many teams have done well with just one good attack supported by some chaff. Which is not to say Gee is selfish. He isn’t, as can be shown by the number of assists he gets, but when the opportunity presents itself, he scores. And occasionally he runs out of patience, takes the ball and goes for a drive, sometimes with spectacular success.
He wasn’t enough though. We’d lost twelve games in a row. The fans hated us, I hadn’t even bothered looking at my fanfeeds for weeks. While the invective had initially been inventive, it had now just degenerated into banal abuse.
Gee had decided he could save the day. And win of course. He’d mentioned it to me a few weeks earlier.
“JJ, look at this?”
I looked over at the screen. “What is it? Some kind of techno porn? You’re sick Gee!”
“No man, it’s the latest prosthetic. It’s an arm and eye combination. The military have been using it to get their marksmen up to perfection. Apparently one of their guys hit the centre of the target ten thousand times in a row using this.”
“Wow, cool, I mean really. So it is techno porn then.”
“Dude, stop being an ass. This is how we can get back to the top.”
I have to admit to being confused here.
“What, hire some cyborg soldier to kill our opponents?”
Gee laughed really hard. When he’d recovered he said, “You know, sometimes I don’t know if you’re stupid deliberately. No I mean, imagine the shots I could get with that rig.”
“But, but don’t you have to be injured first or something? Wouldn’t you have to give up your arm and eye?”
“No, they keep them on ice for you, you can change back whenever you like.”
“Of course not dumb bell!”
He looked at me pityingly, then went on, “Just imagine the angles you’d see.”
Scoring goals in lacrosse is all about the angles, if you can come round the goal and shoot as flat as possible, then neither the goalie nor any gadfly defender – such as myself – will have much chance to stop you. Even better, if you can step back and judge the shot past the defender you can use them to distract the goalie. The angles are always moving in the game, and a good defender is closing them down, while an attacker is constantly looking to exploit those which open up.
I laughed at him then. “Gee-man, you are being stupid now. We’re having a slump, but it’ll pick up.”
It didn’t. The games passed. I stopped even counting how many shots were going past. I’m not going to blame it on the other guys, we were all to blame. Gee wanted to fix it. He collared me again.
“JJ, guess what?”
“You’re an idiot?”
Ignoring me, he went on, “The Lacrosse Federation does not ban prosthetics.”
“Ha, as if the rules matter. The umpires spend half the time looking the wrong way, and the other half having discussions to try and agree on what it was they just missed.”
“Totally, but that’s not what I mean. I could get the prosthetics and they wouldn’t be able to stop me playing!”
I stared at him. This was starting to get worrying, what if he was really serious?
“Er right Gee. But if you lose an arm and eye, you’re going to be in recovery for like years. Your playing days will be long over before you can do anything.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” He smiled, and then changed the subject.
We’d talked about it a few times since, and I was getting more and more concerned he was actually going to do it, and he was becoming more and more frustrated by my ‘lack of vision’.
He went for the operation. Right arm and right eye. The med company was so eager to get him to do it they didn’t even charge him. Sure he wasn’t a superstar, but he was still a professional lacrosse player, so it was a celebrity endorsement of sorts. Or at least that’s what I thought. But I think they had bigger plans even then.
I didn’t go and visit him in the hostpital. For two reasons. Firstly I was kind of annoyed he’d gone ahead with it, and secondly, they wouldn’t have let me anyway. Apparently he was in some form of ‘intensive’ recovery, which meant he couldn’t be distracted. Clearly whatever it was they did worked, as only ten days later he played his first game. Ten days! The drugs they’d pumped in to him had accelerated his healing, but even so it was astonishing. The drugs must have been clean however, otherwise he’d have been picked up for them in our pre-season anti-doping tests. He was still a little red around the face and arm, but the kit and helmet covered it up.
The first few moves he was involved in didn’t come off, and he seemed a little off centre. And then it was like a switch was turned on for some goal scoring machine. Every time he got the ball, and I mean every time, he scored. He didn’t even need to get that close. For the first shot he just stopped, watched the defence and the goalie for a couple of seconds and his right arm whipped forward. There was confusion as everyone looked for the ball, and then the whistle of a goal scored. He did it again and again, sometimes just stopping, other times jogging, and a few times running round from behind the goal. We won. In fact we crushed the opposition, who up to that point were in a ten game winning streak.
After the game Gee seemed subdued and took a long time to get out of his kit. I went over to see him and saw there was some blood seeping out of the bandages around his arm.
“Gee, you need to get someone to look at that. You’re crazy man!”
“Oh, JJ. Yeah they said there might be a risk. But still. We won.” His emotions seemed flat, he was neither worried about the blood, nor elated by the win. Whenever he’d scored a goal in a game before he’d be almost drunk with the excitement, and insist on telling me again and again exactly how he’d scored.
“Let’s go out for a drink to celebrate – after you get your arm checked.”
“Sure, yeah. See you at the bar.” He never showed.
The media went crazy. Our opposition cried foul and complained to the Lacrosse Federation. Our own team responded and pointed out the rules specifically allow prosthetics, something introduced some years before to ensure open access to the game. There’d been some players with blades, but they tended to come and go. This was different. Or was it? The LF couldn’t decide, and so said Gee could keep playing.
Which was good, because while he was playing, we were winning. The next three games were complete walk-overs. Our opponents barely got the ball, and whenever we got it the new tactic was pass to Gee, and watch him score. After each game he still seemed down, better than the first, though he kept passing up chances to go out. Eventually I managed to drag him to the bar, it was his birthday after all.
“Happy Birthday Gee, and congratulations on changing the game!”
“Uh, yes. Thanks. And thanks.”
“What’s up man, you really don’t seem to be enjoying yourself.”
“To be honest JJ, I’m not really supposed to talk about it. But…”
“Come on man, you can trust me.”
“Sure yeah. Well, it’s the drugs I’m on.”
I looked shocked.
He saw my face and kind of half smiled. In the past I think he’d have laughed at me. “No no man, nothing illegal, all fully cleared with the LF. These are anti-depressants. They help with the brain to machine connection. Or brain to brain really.”
“Well you see, I didn’t just get a new eye and arm, I also got a new bit of brain. It’s wired up to the old one, I mean my real one.”
“Ouch, that sounds gross.”
“No. Yeah. I know what you mean, but I had to have it. I needed something to interface between my brain and the new parts of me. It takes my slow thoughts and makes them fast. But it takes a while to deal with strong emotions, or at least that’s what they tell me. So I have to take these drugs. They wash some of the colour out of the world. But it’s worth it. It is.” Another ghost of a smile from him.
“Well I hope it isn’t for long, you need to get the full buzz from being the top scorer in the league as of tonight!” It was true, in just four games he’d gone to number one, mostly because he’d scored almost every one of our goals.
The last two games of the season were almost processions. For the penultimate game our opposition barely bothered to turn up, and we kept a clean sheet for the first time in a long time. Our last game was against our local rivals, the Tigers. They were on course to win the league, but in order to do so they needed to beat us. Normally this would not be a problem for them. Gee made that different. It was one of the most brutal games I’ve ever been involved in. They threw everything at us, particularly targeting Gee as they wanted to shut him out of the game. Each time he got the ball they’d immediately try to double team him, usually fairly brutally. This didn’t help the rest of us though, as they also hit out at anyone else they could close to. Wipe outs, punches, kicks, everything was going on, and I’ll be honest, it wasn’t one way traffic. We really hated those smug assholes. The umpires completely lost control of the game. But despite all the dirty play the Tigers threw at us, none of it made any difference. We still thrashed them.
These wins had been too late in the season to get us to the top, but we still finished mid-table. Our best result in years, and it was all down to Gee. The whole team was jubilant. Well except for Gee. He raised a cheer or two, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.
Off season was usually a time when we went home, and Gee and I would hang out. This year we’d be heroes, but Gee didn’t come home. He sent some excuse about needing additional physiotherapy. I hoped they were tailing off his meds as well.
Meanwhile the Lacrosse Federation was going into meltdown. Half the members wanted the results scrapped, especially the Tigers who’d failed to secure the championship. The other half wanted to be allowed to ‘upgrade’ some of their own players. The biggest problem they had was that the ratings were up. Gee had turned a niche sport into something which millions wanted to watch. The LF had no idea how to deal with the pressure, and the money. Two months before the season start they came up with a compromise. Gee could continue to play, but anyone else who deliberately upgraded would be barred. As you can imagine this satisfied nobody, however, as is often the case with bureaucratic organisations they decided to dig in.
The new season was approaching, and when I heard the news I couldn’t believe it. The sense of betrayal, both of the team, and personally, was immense. I had to call him up, and I didn’t even give him a chance to speak.
“You bastard. How could you go to the Tigers! How could you do this to me. To us!”
Silence. I couldn’t say anything I was so angry.
“Look, I was going to tell you. I was going to call. They offered me so much. This season sets me up, and means my folks can retire. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
I still couldn’t talk.
“I did ask them about you. But they said. Well ignore what they said. But they didn’t say yes.”
“And I wouldn’t have gone. Damn them and damn you Gee.” I slammed the phone down.
Gee and I had a sacred pact. It had two parts to it. One was that we’d never play for the bastard Tigers, and the second was that we’d always play for the same team. I knew that we’d have to break it eventually, but I never thought that it would be the first part.
A few days before the first friendly game a call came through at nine in the morning. Off season this is considered early. Criminally so. I ignored it, until the third time whoever it was called. I was so hungover I was unable to express my outrage when I answered, and barely managed a grunt.
“Mr JJ Sims.” A female voice. Crisp, professional.
“Are you JJ Sims?”
“I knew Lacrosse players were inarticulate, but this is surprisingly bad.”
“Sorry, I’ve only just woken up“, cough, “give me a second to drink something.” I fished around and found a half empty cup of beer. Best I could hope for, I swallowed it, and my mouth stopped feeling like it contained a squirrel’s tail.
“Right, so who are you, and why are you waking me up in the middle of the night?”
“I represent GalMed Devices. And it is morning. Working time. I am a busy woman Mr Sims.”
“I am a busy woman, JJ.” I could hear a slight hint of distaste when she used my name.
“Yes, right, so how can I help, or at least get you off the phone so that I can go and deal with the jackhammer which is trying to escape my skull.”
“I would like to offer you the chance to upgrade.”
I went cold. The devil was on the phone.
“But the LF…”
“Are about to make a ruling which allows, in certain circumstances, anyone to upgrade. However, due to the timeline for the new upgrades we need to act fast to get players in shape for the new season.”
“Really? That must be a record turnaround in decision making. Still, well, why me?” Why was I continuing to talk to her?
“You had firsthand experience of our prototype. You know what it can do.”
“Yeah, it depressed my best friend, and turned him into a whore!”
“Now Mr Sims. I believe you all work for money, and I can assure you that we’ve resolved many of the issues which have caused your friend to stay on the meds for longer than anticipated. Not that you should know that.”
She pursed her lips. Oops, I might have got Gee into trouble there. I thought I’d string her along a bit in the hope she’d forget.
“Anyway, I’m a defence. It ain’t going to help me.”
“Imagine being able to pluck a shot out of the air. You’ll be fast enough to do that. Every time.”
“Can’t afford it.” Please go away. I don’t want this.
“But Mr Sims.”
“JJ.” I barked.
“JJ. We’ll pay you. A signing bonus shall we call it. You stay with your current team, we would not ask you to move, but we give you an extra salary, and you become the defence poster child for our new upgrade.”
“How much?” I’m a whore. But, what will I do when I stop? I needed to think of the future, and it’d be nice to give my parents something back after all they’ve done for me. Supporting lacrosse, or any small but spread out sport, involves a lot of travel, a lot of waiting around, and a depressing amount of bad weather.
She mentioned a number. It was more than I could say no to. So I said yes. The next day I went to the white, sharp building with the very subtle GalMed Devices logo on it. Signed some wavers. I can’t talk about the rest.
I had more work done than Gee. I had the arm and the eye. The LF ruling had said that only an arm and an eye could be upgraded, no legs, and not both of either. They hadn’t managed to get round to limiting the internal changes. GalMed Devices abused that as much as they could. I was round two in their real life prototype process. The additional brain was bigger, faster, and could activate my adrenal gland and produce endorphins. In effect it could make me aggressive, or happy, or both, and help reduce the impact of pain.
It also changed some other ‘choices’. If I did less than two hours of exercise a day I started getting cramps, more than two hours I got a nice endorphin hit. Depending on the cycle up to the game different foods would provide rewards or failures. I became fitter. Faster. Meaner.
My recovery time was a little longer than Gee’s, and I missed the first game of the season. We lost. Our fans realised we still stank without Gee. The abuse started to ramp up again, even on my feed and I hadn’t even played. Then the fact I’d been upgraded came out. There was confusion. Had I decided to become an attack? What was the plan? The speculation was fevered.
Meanwhile the buzz was that only Gee and I had gone for upgrades. Some said no one else had been offered, others claimed to have refused. I knew they must be lying. No one could say no to this.
I turned up for the second game. We won. With a clean sheet. Nothing could get past me. It was almost as if I could see the trajectory of the ball even before it had left the opponent’s stick. If I was anywhere near it then I could get my stick out in time to catch it. Every time. With the long defence stick that’s a pretty wide arc of defence, and the opposition were weak, with only a couple of decent attack players. I even scored a couple of goals. My accuracy wasn’t great as I’d never bothered practising, but it didn’t seem that hard. This only fed the speculation online.
The third and fourth games went the same. The fans were going crazy for the upgrades. We were getting as many spectators as the Tigers, and everyone else was getting the same number they used to, which now seemed rather pathetic. The cable companies were desperate to secure the video rights, which had always been something the LF had been forced to pay people to carry in the past. The bidding was as fast and furious as the games. Suddenly all the moral objections were put aside and all the other teams were approaching GalMed Devices demanding they allow them to upgrade their players. GalMed refused, saying they were still working on the next version, and that I needed to finish the testing on the latest tweaks.
Our fifth game was against the Tigers. It was me against Gee, just like the old days. In fact, it was more or less just the two of us, the rest of the teams were irrelevant. He couldn’t miss, and a ball couldn’t get past me. The look of shock on his face when I caught his first shot was a treasure. I stopped his second, third and fourth as well. Then he got wise, and his team got dirty. I was wiped out, long enough for him to get the ball and shoot. We fought back just as hard, and he was wiped out and I got the ball and scored. Back and forth, but his greater accuracy meant that more of his shots went in, unless I was near enough to stop them. Adrenaline surged through my veins again and again. The game went red, and I went berserk on one of the attackers who slammed me. I just turned around and slammed him back. And broke his leg. I didn’t mean to, I think. I was just so angry, and I just needed to get through him to stop the shot. And, well, I wanted to return the favour of the slam.
The player was carted off, I was red carded. The Tigers won. I expected to be banned.
I was not. I was warned that such a display in future would be subject to a ban, but my team had pointed out that the umpires had been allowing so much that my only crime was in having connected at the wrong angle. In fact the umpires had been completely out of it, mine was the only card given in the game. Watching the replays it was clear that they simply couldn’t follow the action if Gee or I had the ball.
The rest of the season was much the same. We won. The Tigers won, but by more, and in the end they won the championship. I managed to avoid breaking any more bones, but it was so hard with the adrenaline keeping me wired. I didn’t speak to Gee once.
I also didn’t enjoy the victories. I wasn’t taking anything, but I suspect my new extra brain was doing something to keep my emotions level, except when playing. I asked the GalMed Devices guys, but they somehow managed to answer the question without giving me any more information.
After that season pretty much all the players were upgraded. The season after that it was every player, and most of the umpires. I retired. So did Gee. We’d made a lot of money, but more than that, the newer upgrades made both of us redundant. We just weren’t fast enough to catch the shots, or make them past the new defenders. The whole game had stepped up in intensity, and aggression.
I was visiting my parents when there was a knock at the door. My mum answered, and called me. It was Gee.
“Look, I wanted to say sorry. I was wrong. I didn’t know what was going on, and with the meds and everything.”
“Hey man, water under the bridge. I guess I should’ve realised it was happening, it was just…”
“I know. The Damned Tigers.” He laughed. Then went on, “I got my ‘upgrade’ reversed.” He waved his hand at me. It still looked like a prosthetic, but was much more natural looking, and clearly less powerful.
“Cool. And the second brain?”
“Couldn’t take it out totally, but much reduced. And I’m off the meds.”
“Good news! Same deal with me, though it’s taking a long time to properly release me. It had been in control so long I still struggle to choose my own food.”
He looked confused at that, and I told him about what my upgrade included. He laughed at me, and reminded me that I was the one who’d said he was crazy. I told him he was, but it looked like such a rush I’d had to join him. That’d had always been our excuse for the mad stuff we’d done as boys. It was great to have my friend back. We talked for ages, and agreed to meet up the following day for a beer and a proper catch-up.
As he left he said, “Have you heard? Some of the fans are getting eye upgrades, they reckon it’s the only way to follow the action now!”
This story was longlisted but unfortunately didn’t make the final cut. Still, it is always nice to know that I was in with a real chance. Here is the story:
Language is Important
“Dear Sir, it has come to my attention that modern society, at least the less educated part of it, is having some difficulties in determining the correct usages of there, their and they’re. I therefore propose that we do away with all three of these words and replace them with ‘ther’, this will make communications much less painful to read, at least once the new word gets bedded in.”
He sat back and looked contentedly at the letter. He still had it.
“Morris, you’re not writing sarcastic angry letters are you?”
“No dear, of course not.”
“You are, I can tell. Come down darling, morning tea is ready. I have some crumpets for you.”
“I’ll be right down.”
He got up stiffly and reached over for his Zimmer. Damn this weak body. By the time he got downstairs the damned crumpets would be cold, and if there’s one thing he hated it was cold crumpets. Hmm, there might be a lewd joke in there somewhere. He was too tired to find it.
He whizzed down the stairs. Glacially. He damned his weak body for the umpteenth time that day.
“I expect the crumpets are cold.”
Mary looked at him reproachfully.
“Morris, we have been married many long years, and in all that time I’ve learned a few things about you. One is that you like your crumpets hot. Not least because you moan like a stuck pig when they aren’t.”
Oops, she was in one of those moods.
“Sorry, that’s wonderful Mary. Thank you. It’s that bloody stair lift. It needs a rocket. Or at least a stronger motor.” He stopped and looked contemplatively into the middle distance.
“Don’t you dare think of such a thing Morris!”
She fairly screeched.
He shook his head as she went on.
“That stair lift cost a pretty penny, and we can’t afford a new one, or the repairs after your tinkering.”
She looked at him sternly, in vain hope that he’d listen, before deciding a change of subject would be more effective.
“English Breakfast for you this morning. Ah, and that’s the sound of the crumpets, I’ll just get them.”
He sipped his tea, and then tucked into the crumpets when they arrived. Mary has smothered them in butter just the way he liked them. Silence reigned over the household while they both enjoyed their elevenses in a truly civilised manner.
“Now Morris, you do remember that young Charlie is coming today.”
He’d tried to explain that the tumour was having no effect on his memory, but her Aunt Jessica had lost her marbles when she’d had a brain tumour and Mary assumed that would happen to him too.
“Yes Mary. I’ve been looking forward to the visit since he suggested it. He is such a wonderfully inventive boy.”
He looked over at Mary, wondering what their own children might have been like. Those years had passed and Mary had invested her energy in her nieces and nephews. Charlie was their nephew by her, now departed, elder brother.
The bell rang, and Mary answered the door.
“Morning Mr Charlie.”
Charlie looked at her distractedly and said, “Morning”, before rushing over to shake his hand. “Morris you look great!”
“So you’ve spoken to my oncologist then.”
He looked nonplussed.
“You only use the word great when you’re hiding particularly bad news.”
“Well Morris, the thing is… may I sit down?”
“Of course. Mary can you get Charlie a cup of tea?”
“Yes Morris.” She looked a little disappointed at Charlie’s treatment of her.
“Morris, we’ve talked about this before.”
He gestured towards Mary.
“Have we? What did we say?”
“Look. I know it’s hard. But she’s been dead for nearly five years now. Naming your household robot after her, and then hacking it so it goes along with your games…”
He gave Charlie a hard look.
“Well. It just makes other things more difficult. That’s all. Still, I’m glad it’s not wearing her clothes this time.”
Morris shook his head.
Mary, or the house robot, depending on your point of view, provided Charlie with a cup of tea and then tactfully retreated into the kitchen. That would allow the men to talk.
“Charlie, lay it out straight. I’m an old man, and I spend so much of my time waiting for things, so please don’t join the ranks of the armies of delay.”
“Well Morris, you, I mean your body, is not responding to the treatment. They reckon you might have another six weeks.”
“They’re also mighty ticked off with you for refusing to speak to them.”
“Damned vultures. Worse than vultures, at least vultures are honest. Instead they play with their words. They use medical terms, or normal words but somehow changed, warped so that they are heavy with meaning, but only to them. When they have to say anything in something approaching English they hedge and caveat until it’s impossible to pin it down. Also, I’d always remember both a witty put-down and an important question several days after each appointment.”
“I do appreciate you going to the appointments for me. I will make sure you’re looked after.”
Charlie waved away the offer. He wasn’t doing it for a reward.
They sat in silence for a little while.
“So Charlie, make your pitch again.”
“Morris, I’ve tried so many times, you’ve made it clear that you aren’t interested.”
“Ah, a new tactic, I like it. Make me negotiate against myself. It won’t work you know.”
“Did you at least read the literature I sent you?”
Morris paused. He could tell that young Charlie, if anyone approaching fifty years of age could be called young, was genuinely worried about him, and he felt a tiny bit guilty at the way he was treating him. But it did have the positive of being at least a little entertaining.
“Ah ha, another nice ploy. Silence. OK, I’ll bite. I read it, and I have to admit to being intrigued.”
“No need to look so surprised nephew of mine, I’m not completely resigned to a journey across the Styx just yet.”
“Ah. You do realise…”
“That it doesn’t stop me being dead? Yes. The documents, in their flowery and somewhat euphemistic manner made that clear, if more tangentially than I’d have been happy with.”
“Right. But will you do it? I mean, I don’t mean to push, but…”
“It’ll take a week or two to arrange, and a week or two to actually do, and with the latest from those vultures I don’t have much more than that. Yes, yes.”
He was starting to feel as testy as he sounded. Tiredness probably. This body had served him well for so many years; it was so disappointing that it would fail him like this.
“Morris….” Charlie gently rocked him awake again.
“What? Yes, sorry. Tactic of my own, doesn’t always work though. Before I’m forced to use it again, the answer is yes, make it happen.”
Charlie beamed at the old man, who drifted back to sleep with the smile.
A week later he bid farewell to Mary one last time, and was driven to the institute. Or should that be Institute? He didn’t want to give it too much weight, it was to be his final resting place, in at least one sense, and he felt that it should have some irreverence.
He was wheeled in. Charlie was waiting, gripped his hand and wished him luck, before gently stepping away. Morris was then presented to the head man, Dr Surguet.
“Dr Tramferline, it is such a pleasure to meet you!”
“Ah yes, your famous informality. Of course, Morris.”
“It is not informality, it is my name, the other is merely a hook, a way for strangers to pigeonhole me. Given what you are going to do to me shortly, I prefer not to view you as a stranger, and your use of the title would create that impression.”
“Sharp. Yes, excellent. I can see why Charlie was so keen to have you on the program. Obviously you’ve already been through the first set of tests, required before you could even be considered. I’m afraid we will need to run a rather more extreme set of tests now, some of which will feel like repeats. Once that is done you will have a final chance to ask questions, and confirm your approval, and we shall proceed.”
Morris looked at him, and realised that he’d been dismissed. He’d wanted to engage in some form of wordplay at least, but the busy Dr Surguet clearly had other things to do. He nodded, and was wheeled out again.
They laid him on the table gently. There was a cute young nurse. Dark hair and stunning blue eyes, he felt he could get lost in them. He told her, and she smiled at him kindly. In the old days he’d have serenaded her, and she’d have been putty in his hands. Now he was putty in hers as she hooked him up to wires, tubes and straps. He was must have drifted off a few times because she mutated into a strikingly hard faced, but still attractive, red head, and then a large, hairy, and quiet-spoken man, before returning, eyes shining.
“Congratulations old boy, great news, you’ve passed all the tests, they’re ready for you.”
“You said great again Charlie. What’s the problem?”
Charlie seemed a little shocked, both at the weakness of his croaking, and that he’d spotted the bad news.
“Well, I’m afraid they don’t believe they can unhook you from this equipment, that is if you do decide not to go ahead with the process.”
“Damned vultures…” he started coughing, or was it laughing. The nice little brunette came in and gave him some water. When he’d recovered he winked at her and said, “I hear you’ve made sure I have to stay with you forever.”
She smiled and went back to monitoring all the systems which now surrounded him. He noticed that there seemed to be many more boxes and wires and tubes. There were bings, and beeps and other sounds coming from him, forming a soft lullaby.
“Sorry Charlie, what were you asking?”
“Are you willing to proceed with the transition?”
“Yes Charlie. Goodbye, and see you on the other side. Oh, and if it doesn’t work, take a look at my bookshelf, there are a few gifts there for you.”
Charlie’s eyes seemed to sparkle, and then darkness smothered him.
He awoke to the gentle susurration of the machines. There were fewer bings, and more whirring.
“Morris!” he growled.
“Morris, it’s so great to see you,” said Charlie.
“Druid fish. Cake.”
Charlie looked round at the nurse. Perhaps he caught the glimpse of dismay on her face before the professional mask returned, but his smile faded. She scurried out, and returned with Dr Surguet.
Meanwhile he’d been trying to speak to Morris.
“Morris, are you ok?”
“Peter. Nylon book and captive redundancy.”
He tried again, but each time the machine returned nonsense.
Dr Surguet arrived and listened for a short time. Then he put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder in a kindly gesture.
“Charlie, I’m sorry. The transfer hasn’t worked.”
“What? Why? You said he was perfect.”
“Now Charlie, I said a perfect candidate, but he was old, and very ill. Perhaps if we’d transferred him earlier…”
Charlie bowed his head.
“So what do we do?”
“I’m afraid we have to turn the machine off. “
At this the machine which contained some form of Morris started to make a lot more noise,
“Halibut! Purple Antigone!”
The doctor turned to Charlie and shook his head in sympathy, and then led him out. Morris tried desperately to call them back, but they seemed to ignore everything he said. His last words as they flicked the switch were, “There. Their. Ther.”