Returning Home

Returning Home

I played with the monitor in front of me. The flight provided modern entertainment, and I wondered what might be popular these days.

This was the last stage of my long trip. The first had been on a ship, and boarding it had been tough. I held on to Judi’a, as if I was drowning and she was my last hope.

“I don’t want to leave you.”

“You must. You have no place here.”

“Will you miss me?”

“Every day and with all my heart.”

She disentangled herself from my arms and turned away.

I felt cast off, but there was nothing more to say, except, “Goodbye my love.”

Judi’a shuddered and walked out of the room. She’d told me when we’d started our affair, that there could be no future for such as us. We’d have to enjoy the moments we had. Now thinking back to our farewell I tried not to acknowledge that she’d probably be dead by now.

My time on the ship consisted of sleeping. When we arrived at the port I took the next flight to London. I guess I should have been pleased the city was still here. When I left there’d been some tensions and talk of city-obliterating repercussions. Still, that had been a long time ago.

I managed to get a film going, a romantic comedy, as we hit turbulence. They’d said the shuttle flight could be unsettled. The movie was incomprehensible to me, and not just because of the screen juddering. Speech patterns had changed, but it was something else, maybe I just didn’t understand love anymore.

They’d told me my passage home was booked in such a casual way. No ‘thanks for your years of service’, or ‘for a foreigner you’re a good man’. Just ‘here are your tickets, and good luck’. I wasn’t even clear why I needed the luck. I didn’t think I’d made that many enemies. Though all my friends had been light-years away, apart from Judi’a that is.

The shuttle landed smoothly, and I was efficiently transferred to a train. This was unlike the London of my memories. Two hundred years can do that, even if I was asleep for the vast majority of them. The train sped along, through emerald countryside that looked at least vaguely familiar, and then pulled into a stop of the town I’d once called home. I didn’t recognise a thing.

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Lambing

Lambing

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.

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Airport Please

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:

Airport Please

“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!”

“Jonathan?”

“Yes dear.”

“I’d like to take the black cab.”

“But dear…”

“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.”

“Which one?”

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.”

“Yes dear.”

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.

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‘Tree Justice’ published in Flash Fiction Magazine

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My story ‘Tree Justice’ has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine today!

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Post Scarcity Blues released today!

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):

BookCover6x9_Cream_240 Final copy

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Purple Sky

Purple sky

“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.”

“They’ll know!”

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.”

“Pah.”

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.”

“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.”

“Erm…”

“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?”

“The sky!”

“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.”

“How?”

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.

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We Need The Money

We Need the Money

“Oh Sarah, come in.”

Sarah sobbed.

“Sit down, I’ll put a cuppa on.”

Dawn worried about her friend and made the tea quickly. She decided it was time for those American-style cookies, she knew Sarah liked them and probably hadn’t had any for ages.

“Tell me all about it.”

Sarah sniffed, “Well, you know we’ve been having money problems?”

“I thought you might.” Dawn looked at her friend’s gaunt face, and tried to ignore the ragged clothes.

“Well, the thing is. After I lost my job, and then Stephen did too, well we thought we could get by. So I’ve been looking for work. I signed up, but it’s a pittance you get these days, and you have to prove you’re looking. So embarrassing. I had a good job!” She wailed.

“There there love, have a biscuit.”

Sarah had been holding back out of politeness, or fear perhaps. She hoovered up the first cookie, and then the next one.

“So Sarah, what we need to do is find you a proper job again and you’ll be fine.”

“Oh no, it’s too late.”

“Why?”

“It’s Stephen, I think he’s done something drastic.”

A cold weight settled in Dawn’s stomach, she asked, fearing the answer, “What?”

Sarah just sobbed. Dawn, who usually had the patience of a saint was tiring of the tears, changed the subject, and soon had Sarah talking about her little ones. Hours of gossiping later and Sarah had calmed down. Dawn was considering whether to mention Stephen when the doorbell went.

“Who can that be? I’ll be back.”

Opening the door she stared in shock.

“Hi Dawn.”

“Ah, Stephen.”

He wasn’t dead. But, his face?

“Sarah here?”

“Yes, would you like to come in for a cuppa?”

“I’d love one. Hopefully a Thompsons’, they make the finest cuppa there is.”

“Err, it might be.”

When Sarah saw Stephen she burst into tears again.

“Dawn, have you some Fluffex tissues? They’re absorbent and soft on the skin.”

“I’ll look.”

When she came back Stephen was trying to comfort Sarah. Dawn was over the shock of his face, she’d just not seen anyone have burger and soft drink logos as tattoos before.

“Thanks Dawn, you’re a real friend. Real friends buy American Family cookies.”

“Why are you talking like that?”

“Earning money Dawn. Saving just pennies a day for the best life insurance, from Geneva Life.”

Dawn looked quizzically at Sarah.

“He’s sold out…” More tears.

“He’s a brand bunny?”

“We prefer advertorially confident. Confidence comes from whiter teeth, try new Solar Gum Extra Extra White.”

Sarah gathered herself together, “It’s only for a year, and it pays enough for our expenses. If I get a job then we’ll soon be out of this hole.”

“Until then…”

“Every other sentence will be an advert sent to me directly via 5G ear implant. The new Strakia 15S, the phone made for 5G.”

Dawn looked at him with horror and pity, hoping she’d never, ever be that desperate.

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Tattoo Shortlisted by CreativeWritingMatters

My story Tattoo made it to the shortlist of the CreativeWritingMatters WoW! 2014 Short Story Competition, but didn’t place.  Which means I can share it here.  I wonder what my old maths teacher might say.

Tattoo

“That looks amazing.”

“Thanks, I think it really suits you.”

The girl picked herself off the table, still staring at her arm. The dragon stared back at her, and occasionally flicked its tail.

“How long will it do that for?”

“Well it uses your own muscle power to change the colours in the inks, so as long as you have the tattoo. Guaranteed for life.”

“Wow. Awesome!”

She paid and then carefully put on her jacket, suffering only a brief wince of pain. Georgy watched her, satisfied in another job done well. Things were finally going his way.

There were no bookings for the rest of the day, so he decided to take it off. He deserved a break after all the hard work he’d been putting in.

In the old days he’d have headed straight for the pub, but that wasn’t an option now. He went home and changed into his running gear. A nice run would be great, and then he could maybe get his head down studying for his tattooing degree. There was so much more theory he needed to get properly sorted in his head.

As he ran around the park, marvelling at how much fitter he felt, and just generally enjoying the autumnal air he forgot to focus on the path and nearly knocked an old man over into the pond. He caught him just in time.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Hmph. Well, at least you apologised.”

“Erm, Mr Aster?”

“Yes, I am,” The old man peered closely at him. “Is that Kevin Bailey?”

“Ah yes sir, but I call myself Georgy now.”

“Hmph…. Well as we’re not in school any more you should probably call me Tony.”

It felt really odd talking to his old maths teacher like this, but maybe it was fate.

“Ah, thanks, ah, Tony. How are you? Are you still teaching?”

“Retired this year. That’s why I’m spending the day walking round the park. Not much else to do and the wife complains I get under her feet.”

“Right.”

Slightly awkward silence, and then the old man said, “So, what are you doing now? Still avoiding an honest living?”

Georgy’s face reddened. The old man followed hurriedly, “Sorry Kev… Georgy, I didn’t mean to imply you were doing anything illegal. It’s just that you were always one to try and find the easy way.”

“No, no you were right. I used to hang with the wrong crowd. Always convinced working was a mug’s game. We did a few stupid things. But I’m clean now.”

Georgy showed the tattoo of a date on his arm.

“What’s that?”

“The last time I took any drugs or drank.”

“Nearly a year. That’s great, good work. So what do you do now?”

“I’ve got a real job. I’m a tattoo artist.”

Mr Aster looked a little askance.

“I know what you’re thinking sir, ah Tony, but it’s not just tats for drunk lads or hen nights. I did a chef’s hands yesterday.”

“Oh, why would he want them covered in, er, art.”

“Not art, no not at all, well, not solely art anyway. It’s one of these new smart tattoos, it tells you when you’re hands are completely clean. Let me show you.”

Georgy turned his left hand over and on the back was a small area which looked like a faint spider’s web.

“This is my example tat. So normally it’s almost invisible.” They were still standing next to the duck pond, and so Georgy dipped his hand into it. He pulled it out and the web was bright, almost pulsing fuchsia.

“It tells me that it’s got both bacteria on it, the red, and some dirt, the bluer end, hence fuchsia and there’s a lot which is why it is so bright.”

He then wiped off the tattoo, and it went mostly red.

“Now it’s saying that although it looks clean, there’s still some bacteria on it, and I really should wash it properly.”

“That’s amazing. Didn’t have anything like that when I got my tattoo. What’s it for?”

“The chef is a sushi chef, and is out on display in the middle of the restaurant. Given some of the recent scares he thought it would be a good way of reassuring his customers.”

“Clever.”

They lapsed into a more comfortable silence, when Georgy suddenly said, “You have a tattoo?”

Tony smiled, and rolled up his sleeve. On his arm was a heart with a date and initials.

“It’s the date I met my Betty. I was so in love with her. It really hurt. Does it still hurt like the proverbial?”

“A bit. We often put a little local anaesthetic on these days to reduce the pain. It cuts down on the number of people who insist on having their tattoo while drunk.”

“Ha, I think I was perhaps a little worse for wear when I got this one done.”

“Actually Tony I have a tattoo in honour of you.”

“Really?” The old man looked sceptical.

“Yes, I remember you telling me that I had to know my times-tables, that I couldn’t assume I’d always have my phone or other calculating device with me, whereas I’d always have my brain if I cared to use it. So I had this done.”

Georgy rolled up his right arm, and on the inside just near the elbow was a calculator tattoo, the set of buttons and a screen which was showing blank. Georgy then pressed the buttons, and the screen blinked and showed twenty-two.

“That’s simply incredible! How does it work?”

“Yeah it is. I don’t really know. The ink is kind of smart, and forms a mini-computer. All the lines have to be drawn when doing the tattoo, and it just changes the colours to give the result. Just like the chef’s hands.”

“And an old style calculator. I almost take back what I said all those years ago. Except, well, there’s just one thing?”

“What is it?”

“Three times seven is twenty-one….”

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Penguins Don’t Need Frying Pans

Sometimes a line just begs to have a story written about it, and this one was from a previous story.  I hope I’ve done it some justice.

 

Penguins Don’t Need Frying Pans

“I worry about your penguin obsession Dave.”

“I worry about your personal hygiene, but you don’t hear me going on about.”

“Funny!”

“Not really.”

Sadly I was only half joking, Sebastian really did have a bit of a problem. I idly wondered if there was an elegant solution to the problem, and realised there was: a girl. As I didn’t have one to hand I parked that to one side and went back to trying to remember what state I’d left my experiments in.

For a while there was silence as we walked back to the lab. Beaker was out today, so Julian and I had snuck out for lunch, and a pint or two. During lunch I tried explaining to him my theory about penguins. It hadn’t gone down well. To be honest it never really did.

“Look, sorry. I’m sure you’re right about tool-use being over-rated.”

“I’m sorry too. Though you might want to consider a hair cut…”

I smiled to take the sting out, and it seemed to mollify him.

“So, why do you think penguins will survive longer than we will?”

Was he just humouring me? Perhaps not, I’d try anyway, after all we had a little way yet to walk, and I was still buzzing from the pints of Portly Porpoise. The local brewery had bowed to the fashion of foolish names.

“It’s simple. Humans have become over-dependent on technology. When The Fall comes, we’ll be screwed. The penguins however, well, as long as there are fish, they’ll be fine.”

“The Fall?”

This was the bit where I usually lost people.

“Yes, The Fall. You know, when civilisation collapses. Plague, a comet, massive earthquakes or alien invasion.”

“Ah yes. The Fall.”

I was used to the knowing smiles. They always thought I was joking.

“Think of it this way. What is required for our society to continue to function normally? Large amounts of power. If that gets impacted in any way, bad things will happen.”

“I see what you mean.”

I’d lost him. Our conversation lapsed and we arrived back at the labs and parted company amicably.

That night I was heading home and as usual took the sky bullet. I mused that this was the heavy tech I was concerned about. Here I was, in a small capsule made from little more than cellulose, being blown along an invisible path by a targeted blast of air. The path was created using some form of projected electric field, and was in effect an airtight tunnel, and the push would send me hurtling along towards my destination.

I’d refused to use them for their first few years. I’d been afraid of what might happen if they went wrong. I now used them all the time; they cut my commute substantially.

The capsule trembled, and then started to fall. It seemed like it was no longer following a pipe.

The power had failed.

As the ground hurtled towards me I thought to myself that penguins wouldn’t have got themselves into this mess.

The capsule trembled, and then I was rocked sideways gently. The backup system had kicked in and a new tube formed around me, carrying me safely home again. As I sailed through the air once more, I reflected on the fact that penguins can’t fly.

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Stellar Freedom

I wrote this for a competition.  Unfortunately I entirely failed to notice it was snail mail only until the date it was due…

 

Stellar Freedom

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.

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