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The Farm

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

 

The Farm

by Jason Gibbs

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

A loud moo sounded in Archie’s ear.

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

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

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

“Yes Father.”

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

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

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

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

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

The cows mooed loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End

###

 

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

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Peace in Our Time

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

Peace in Our Time

by Jason Gibbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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Spring Town

I wrote this for a competition where the theme was Spring.  I may have been a little wide in my interpretation of the brief…

 

Spring Town

By Jason Gibbs

 

Mortimer looked at his watch, then, surprised by the time, he held it to his ear to check it was working. He could hear the little cogs whirring happily. For once it appeared he was genuinely early. He shook his head in mock wonder and headed downstairs.

“Would you like a cup of tea dear?” his wife called as he was on the stairs.

“Yes please love, I’m running a little early so I shall have time to enjoy it for a change.”

He walked into the kitchen and took a seat. Lotty turned round and exclaimed.

“Mortimer Theodore Adams, you cannot go to work dressed like that. You are the General Manager!”

“Lotty, I am the General Manager, I can go dressed as I please.” It was to no avail, she was already shepherding him out of the kitchen and back upstairs.

He grudgingly changed his shirt to something white and plain, put on his cravat and his waistcoat and once more entered the kitchen. This time with less confidence and the nagging feeling he was forgetting something.

“Now Mortimer, that looks much better. Do you still have time to have your tea?”

He checked his watch and realised that not only was he now running late, but he’d now remembered he had a meeting with young George first thing. It would be most impolite for him to be late. Declining the tea he pecked his wife on the cheek, grabbed his coat and walked with some alacrity out of the house and down to the garage.

They had two of the modern carriages. His wife’s was an older, larger and slightly clunky model, but his contrivance, well, she was a beauty. When he’d been made General Manager of the Works he’d decided to treat himself. He’d worked so hard all these years he deserved a little present, so he bought one of the new run-arounds. She wasn’t cheap to buy, and no cheaper to run really. She had a dual spring motor, and even though she had reverse springs on the brakes, which would take back some of the energy lost, he often had to go to the main garage to get her topped up.

He climbed in and slowly eased the rather spritely throttle. It controlled how much energy the springs delivered, and when he’d first bought the thing he’d let it out in one go and bounced along the road. He started along his drive accompanied by the gentle whirring of the spring motor and the rumble of the tires.

As General Manager he was paid rather well, and this had enabled him to buy Lotty the home she’d always dreamed of. It was big, he wasn’t sure how many rooms, and the gardens were so large it seemed to take an age to get out of them. The house was on the other side of the ridge from the main town, and the drive to the Works provided the best moment of his morning.

Coming over the brow of the hill the whole of the town was spread out before him. He could see the river, gurgling and frolicking as it ran between the streets all the way to the Hampton Spring Works, of which he was the General Manager. The Works squatted on the river and would be quite ugly if it wasn’t for the three graceful snail shells which rose above it. Each shell contained one of the Main Springs, which powered every mechanical contrivance in the town, and was in turn rewound by the river itself. It truly was a modern wonder. The third Spring was a sign of how well the town was doing, now there was never a time when power wasn’t available, even during the annual maintenance of each Spring. The third was added just before he was promoted, and the last General Manager had told him it would make his life much easier, and he certainly seemed to be right.

Mortimer lost sight of the snails as he dipped into the town, and he glanced about at his fellows, wondering what they’d do if the miracle of spring power wasn’t available to them.

The security man opened the gate before he got to it, which was very kind of him as it reduced wear on the springs in his carriage, and Mortimer gently coasted up to his parking place at the front of the building. Getting out he looked around with pride. The Hampton Spring Works was a fine place to be General Manager and, he believed, a fine place to work.

He walked into his office and his secretary brought in his morning cup of tea. On the rare occasions he managed to have tea at home she seemed to realise and didn’t bring a cup in. It was quite wonderful having such an excellent secretary.

“George Yarde to see you sir.”

“Please send him in, and do get him a cup of tea if he wants one.”

“Yes sir.”

George bustled in. He was a large and florid man, not the typical emaciated engineer they seemed to get, and he had such energy.

“Sir, Mr Adams, you must come and see this.”

“Now George. Let’s first talk about it, and you can have your tea, and then perhaps we can visit your lab.”

On several previous occasions George had dragged him down to show him something, which while interesting hadn’t really been of immediate use, and he’d ended up wasting half the day in the labs. Though wasting was perhaps unfair, besides he did enjoy being back in his old hunting grounds.

“Oh.” George looked a bit crestfallen, but quickly gathered himself. “Well it’s about the energy transfer problem.”

“Yes?”

“Well you know how hard it is to transfer energy from the Main Springs to smaller energy distribution centres?”

“Easier now that we have the mobile water-wound spring. Much better than those old hand-wound devices which never produced any real power.” It was the last thing which Mortimer had worked on when he was head engineer, and he was rather proud of it, especially as it had been cited as the key reason for his promotion.

“Oh, well yes, but it is just so inefficient, it’s almost embarrassing, because the rewinding…” George then remembered who’d run the project. “Still, a marvel sir, and in its time amazing.”

“Its time has only just begun.”

“Ah, well sir. I think I’ve developed something which will solve some of the inefficiency.”

“Indeed.” Mortimer was still bristling from the criticism, but calmed himself by remembering that he was now General Manager, which was surely a sign that his contribution was valued. He’d also always told George to share his ideas and speak freely, he wanted to get the best out of him after all.

“Ah.”

“Go ahead George, tell me what it is.”

“You know that we’ve been working on very small springs? Down to the millimetre level? Well I was reading in one of the science journals, and it got me to thinking, what if there really were springs which were much, much smaller. I mean there must be, to power everything else, like muscles and things.”

“I too read that journal, and I have to say I wonder at some of the newer aspects of General Spring Theory. It’s become too abstruse for me.”

“Ah yes, well you see the thing is. I found a way of proving that the nano-springs exist.”

“Really?” Mortimer was sceptical, but George was more or less incapable of lying. Being overly excited about things others considered trivial, yes, lying, no.

“Yes. You remember that thing I showed you with the magnets?”

“Another thing Spring Theory can’t explain.”

“Well, I was playing with some acid and various other things…”

Realising that George would probably take the next hour to tell him in absolute detail every step he’d taken Mortimer decided that perhaps a trip to the lab was required.

Doris had come in with George’s tea, and when Mortimer suggested that he show him his device instead of continuing George fairly threw the drink down his throat and almost dragged him to the lab.

“Here it is!”

George’s worktable was covered in bits and pieces. Springs, some whole, some in parts, jars of acid, some of those new-fangled lucifers and all sorts of tools. Right in the middle was a cradle. On the outside of the cradle were some magnets, and suspended in the cradle was a piece of metal with some wire wrapped around it. The wire went through some large holes at each end and then round to a metal box. At one end of the cradle was a winder. Mortimer saw that one of the wires wasn’t actually connected to the metal box.

“What is it?”

“Let me show you.”

George picked up the loose wire, and attached it to a little hook on the box. Mortimer thought he might have seen a spark, and then slowly the piece of metal wrapped in wire started to rotate. It whirled round and round magically.

“Is this all? Where’s the spring?”

“Look inside the box sir.”

He did, and all he saw was some liquid and some solid lumps of something which might have been lead.

“Hmm, well?”

“The lumps of lead contain the nano-springs!”

“Well that is interesting, how do you wind them?”

George grabbed the winder and started to wind it in the opposite direction to the way it had been spinning.

“Like this sir. It took me a while to figure it, and then I was just toying with it, you know, winding it up. I let it go, and it started unwinding, just like a spring, and yet this wire, as you can see, is just plain copper with little ability to hold torsion.”

Mortimer looked thoughtfully at the device. The bucket was the size of a small cat.

“How much power?”

“As much as a normal water-wound torsion spring at least ten times the size.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes sir. It is really much more efficient than our current portable springs.”

One of the problems with the mobile water-wound spring was that at smaller sizes it ran out of power too quickly, and had less peak power. It was one of the reasons his carriage needed to be rewound so regularly. With these nano-springs, well, it might even be possible to go forty miles or more without a rewind.

“How do we wind it… oh of course. We can use the river.”

“Yes sir, we could run banks of them. Even better we could pull one out for maintenance and it wouldn’t affect more than a tiny fraction of the overall power. Once we had enough, I think we could even keep some as backup in case…”

“George my boy, this is amazing…” He was about to ask for a more detailed explanation when one of the messenger boys appeared.

“Mr Adams, there’s a message for you. It’s from your secretary; she says you’re needed urgently in your office.”

This was a little tiresome. He had worked out a signal with her when he went down to the lab after last time. She was supposed to give him an hour and then say there was an important message. It was unlike her to get it wrong, and it certainly hadn’t been an hour. Perhaps it was real? Doris didn’t usually make mistakes, so it really must be urgent. Mortimer sighed.

“Sorry George, I have to go. I’m impressed. Can you work out how long it will take to get a full size pilot going?”

“Yes sir… of course, I mean, there’s a couple of wrinkles left, but yes.”

Mortimer nodded and headed back to his office.

His secretary was aflutter when he got there.

“I’m so sorry Mr Adams, he let himself straight in. I asked him to wait but he wouldn’t…”

“Don’t worry Doris. Calm down. Now who is it?”

“Mr Phillips sir.”

Oh dear. Phillips was his boss. A dour man, prone to anger, and a real stickler for time. Mortimer looked at the clock and saw that he was three minutes late to the other meeting of his morning, one he’d quite forgotten. Well, he had to take his lumps like a man.

“Good morning Mr Phillips.”

“Hmph, nearly afternoon.”

“It is wonderful of you to come and visit us at the Works, how is head office these days?”

“Filled with the same lazy fools who seem to be everywhere these days.”

“Can I offer you a coffee?”

“Your secretary, Lucy is getting me one, thank you.”

Mortimer decided that correcting the misnaming of his secretary was unlikely to improve his boss’ mood, and so offered him a chair, and asked how he could help.

Phillips was still grumpy, but he also looked worried. This couldn’t be good news.

“The thing is Adams, we have a very big problem at these Works.”

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t know what you mean?”

“I mean that everything you produce is too damned expensive!”

Mortimer was taken aback.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean sir. We hit the targets set by head office on everything we produce.”

“You do, yes.”

“Then how can it be too expensive?”

“The core of the problem is that the targets we gave you were wrong. Our sales are slumping because we’re more expensive than our competitors.”

“But we’re the only major Spring Works in Hampton.”

“And as you well know our rewind charges are regulated, and at the moment, well. If we only ran the Main Springs we’d be breaking even. Everything else you’re doing here is losing money, even your portable springs.”

“Oh.”

Mortimer had nothing to say. When he’d taken over he’d asked to have the financials brought back to the Works, he’d wanted to learn everything, but head office had decided it was more efficient to have it all centralised. Efficiency didn’t necessarily map to competency it would appear.

“So I’m afraid Adams you’re going to have to cut. Starting with your old department.”

“But Research Engineering is what powers this company.”

“Don’t you quote the corporate spiel to me young man.”

“Sorry sir, but seriously, if we get rid of the engineers we won’t be developing the next product…”

“Head office had a consultancy do a study, and they determined we can buy new product development from smaller companies much more cheaply than developing it internally. We have too many barriers to innovation apparently.”

“But…”

“No buts. You need to get rid of them. Here is a list of all the departments who have to be cut. Overall you need to need to cut your headcount by a third in the next six months.”

Mortimer noticed he didn’t say people. They were headcount, or resources, or minions probably. He was feeling utterly powerless when he remembered George’s nano-springs.

“Sir… can I ask a favour.”

“What?”

“Can I have three months before we cut? I believe we might have something which will blow the socks off the competition.”

“Mmm, what is it?”

Knowing that talk of nano-springs would likely be dismissed as desperation, which it was in part, Mortimer said, “A much more efficient version of the mobile spring.”

“Hmm, well according to another study if we can make it twenty percent smaller then we should be able to defend our market position and move back into profitability…. no, no, sorry Adams, it’s too late. We just can’t afford another three months.”

“Two? And I’ll resign if it doesn’t work.”

Phillips peered at him. Mortimer stared calmly back.

“Dammit man! Six weeks, and then I’ll want your letter.” He frowned, shook his head and left without another word.

Mortimer sat down heavily at his desk. What had he done? He held his head in his hands, his mind whirring. He only looked up again when Doris bustled in a few minutes later with a fresh cup of tea. She nearly said something, but seeing his face bustled back out again mutely.

After a few more minutes of staring at his desk he sipped his tea, and stood to look out of his window. From here he could see the river as it ran out of the Works, and catch, just, sight of the Right Main Spring. Overhead one of the new fast zeppelins was passing, powered in part by the mobile water-wound spring he helped to design. Probably using springs from their competitors he thought grumpily. He wondered how fast they might go with smaller more powerful springs? That made him think again of the nano-springs. He could feel some excitement building. They needed to get moving on it fast.

“Doris, can you get me George urgently?”

“Yes sir.”

He was going to have to drive George hard to work through the inevitable wrinkles. In fact it would be almost like reverting to being head engineer. Strangely instead of feeling like a step back it felt more like he’d be going home.

He looked out on the still bare Works gardens, the unexpected warmth of the sun helping to calm the fizzing of the worry and excitement mixing within him. He was energised. Winter was over, and its passing heralded the advent of the nano-spring. It was going to change the world, he was sure of it.

 

THE END

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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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Filed under Flash Fiction

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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Language is Important

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.”

“Hmph.”

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.

Charlie sighed.

“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.

“Yes?”

“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.”

“I see.”

“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.”

He stopped.

“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.

“Yes.”

Silence.

“Ah ha, another nice ploy.  Silence.  OK, I’ll bite.  I read it, and I have to admit to being intrigued.”

“Really?”

“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!”

“Morris.”

“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.

“Morris…”

“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.”

“Goodbye Morris.”

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.

“Dr Tramferline?”

“Morris!” he growled.

“He’s back.”

“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.”

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‘Language is Important’ longlisted

The nice people at Labello Press have longlisted my story ‘Language is Important’.  The shortlist, which will be published in their ‘Gem Street’ anthology, will be announced on the 10th March.

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Housework

I wrote this for a competition which gave a choice of opening lines (the same competition as for this, and the same opening line – I obviously didn’t like the other options).   It was for Halloween, but doesn’t really have any connection to pumpkins etc., which is possibly why it didn’t win.

 

Housework

“Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”

Yeah, thanks Dad for yet another piece of disturbing and ultimately useless advice.  If only he’d taken less acid when he was younger.  If only he was still here.

“Sorry, what?”

“I said, goodbye dear, and have a good day.”  His wife had a bemused frown on her face.

“Sorry, love, you too.  Knock ‘em dead!”

“Of course, and don’t forget, we’re having the Renquists to dinner tonight.”

Damn, he had forgotten.

“All planned, don’t you worry, I know exactly what I’m cooking.”

She smiled, perhaps a little uncertainly, and then after glancing at her watch rushed out with a passing air kiss.

This was his first day of being an official house husband.  His gardening leave was over, not that the garden had seen any of it, and his wife was back at work.  He’d looked for another job, but there just wasn’t anything for someone of his age, and qualifications, or lack thereof.  The world had changed, tablets, virtual spaces and social presence rooms were all the rage, and he didn’t have a clue what they meant any more.

He shook himself, and decided to take the day by the horns.  First step, shopping.  Laura had shown him what to do.  She’d learnt all the new ways, and when it came to finding a job she’d been beating them off with a stick.  Not that he minded really.  He was all for feminism really.  Anyway, shopping.  It was easy, he just needed to get the tablet thingy, click on the Isquibo icon and click go.  Then apparently it would all arrive.

There was no Isquibo icon.  Or anything else that made any sense.  He tapped a few things randomly before giving up.  This was just like work, why was nothing named properly anymore?  He’d go out to the local supermarket later, they were still around he thought.

The cleanerbot wandered into the room.  Made a sort of hello beep and then started vacuuming, or mopping or whatever.  He wondered where its brain was.  He wondered where his had gone.  Trusting the machines was easy for everyone else, they’d not woken up to the new world with a hangover and a fear of rounded icons.  Or any icons.

Right, he should load the dishwasher.  Except, the dishes were gone.  The cleanerbot had already taken them.  He couldn’t help himself, the anger began to build.  How he hated it.  This horrid square box which was making him feel ever more useless.  He walked into the living room.

It was spotless.  There was really nothing for him to do.  He wondered what his dad would say.  He decided to go for a walk.  As he left the house he could vaguely recall Laura mentioning something about an alarm, but he figured he wouldn’t be gone long.

The trees were lovely in the autumn, and he spent a restful half hour sitting on a bench watching the world go by in the park.

When he got home all was much as he had left it.  He checked in to see that the kitchen was now clean.  Suddenly there was a loud beep behind him, it was the cleanerbot.

“Go away, stupid thing!”

It followed him into the lounge, and beeped at him again.  He had no idea what it wanted.  Laura had told him how to check, but it had all seemed so easy, and yet now the concepts had slipped from his mind, like all these technical things did.

There was another, more angry sounding, beep, and the cleanerbot advanced on him again.  This was getting a bit worrying.  Hadn’t she said there was some kind of pass phrase?

“Shut down!”

It continued to advance, and he backed away, tripping over the table and falling over.  In the process he managed to knock over a vase which smashed.  Maybe the cleanerbot would sort that out and stop bothering him.

The bot stopped still.  Its front bot opened up and an arm extended, and he relaxed.  This was obviously the vacuum.  He started to get up when something jabbed into his side and all his muscles spasmed.  He fell to the ground, and darkness took him.

His wife arrived back that evening, tired, but excited by her day.

“Darling!  Darling?”

She looked around.  The house was absolutely spotless, not a mark or stain to show that anyone was there.

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‘Feedback’ shortlisted

The nice people at thewordhut.com selected ‘Feedback’ for the shortlist for their ‘No. 12 Short Story Writing Competition‘  (You’ll need to scroll to the bottom to see the shortlist).  It didn’t win, but it’s very nice to be recognised.  Here is the story:

Feedback

Firemen today rescued a cat which had been stuck up an oak tree in a public park in Farnham, Surrey, for at least nine hours.  Mrs Kathleen Timkins, the cat’s owner, was distraught.

“Poor Tiddles was up there for so long.  I called the firemen, but they’re so understaffed these days, what with everything that’s going on.  I’m just so glad they could come and get him.”

Fire Chief Patton said, “We’re just glad to have been able to have help with this.  If we had more resources we’d have been able to get to Tiddles much earlier.”

A council spokesman commented that there were plans to have the lower branches of the trees cut off in the Summer to reduce the likelihood of similar issues.

Tiddles only comment was some purring as Mrs Timkins stroked him.

Report by Tracy Gared

 

Comment Feed (Chronological Order):

1 – Treehouse

Is this really the basis of modern journalism?  A cat in a tree.  How much money was spent saving this damned cat.

 

2 – MuttsNuts

Somun shouldve shot horrid little thing.  Would’ve saved everyun time.

<This comment is being reviewed for offensive content>

 

3 – PussyGalore

I like cats.  What is an outrage is just how short-staffed the fire service is.  When I was younger a cat wouldn’t have to wait for more than a couple of hours for rescue.

 

4 – SocialistWorker

It’s this bloody government.  Always cutting.  They don’t care about us.  I bet if it had been a Tory cat it would have been saved in minutes.

 

6 – PurplePasty

So nice of the BBC to finally allow us to comment on something real.  I’m assuming the propaganda police let this one through.

7 – ToryBoy

@SocialistWorker

You’re clearly an idiot.  Farnham is a proper Conservative area.  The real problem is that all our taxes are going on paying for scroungers like you, who seem to have lots of time to comment on BBC articles.

 

9 – TheTruthIsOutThere

what this report fails to mention is how tiddles got into the tree this is cleerly the work of aliens some form of sinister plot

 

12 – AverageTaxpayer

Classic BBC bias.  When are you going to report fairly and accurately on these kinds of stories and not whitewash them!

 

15 – SocialistWorker

@ToryBoy I have a job, a shift job, which I’m about to start.  I bet you’re one of those City types who only does a couple of hours before heading off to lunch or the strip club.  Probably commented on your post using your smartphone, while quaffing Champagne.

@AverageTaxpayer amen to that brother.

 

17 – LittleEngland

When are we going to get a vote on independence from Europe?  Now that we’ve ditched the Scots, let’s get rid of the real millstone around our necks, those damned bureaucrats in Brussels.

 

18 – CatGuardianFarnham

This is AN APPEAL TO RAISE MONEY TO BUY CAT RESCUE.  Please see our website here.  Remember, we get no money from the government, so are totally reliant on your donations.  From just £3 a month you can make sure that no cat will have to suffer like Tiddles ever again.

21 – ToryBoy

@SocialistWorker I’m a shift worker too, and not in the City, so don’t force your ridiculous left wing sterotypes on me.

@TheTruthIsOutThere stop smoking whatever it is you’re smoking.

@AverageTaxpayer did you even read the article?

 

27 – SocialistWorker

@ToryBoy doesn’t matter, it’s still government cuts which created this mess.

@LittleEngland I’m sure you read one of those so-called newspapers which constantly tell you that Europe is the cause of all our problems.  Maybe you should do a little research before parroting such ignorant views.

 

28 – ToryBoy

@SocialistWorker only because they’re dealing with the mess left by your lot.  If they hadn’t overspent so much!

@CatGuardianFarnham I’ve signed up.

 

29 – SocialistWorker

@ToryBoy they were just making up for the chronic underinvestment from the last time your lot were in power.  All you care about is making the rich richer, and damn the rest of us.

And giving £3 a month to save poor little Tiddles doesn’t absolve you of anything.

@CatGuardianFarnham I give money to the national CatGuardians, so hopefully some of that comes to you guys.

 

30 – ToryBoy

@SocialisWorker as much as I’d like to point out the fallacy of your comment, there is something else I’d like to mention.  Have you noticed we’re the only ones left on this thread?  I’ve looked and I can’t find any active thread anywhere else.

 

31 – SocialistWorker

@ToryBoy I assumed you were just using classic divide and rule tactics instead of arguing with me.  But I think you’re right.  Everything else seems to have just stopped.  My twitter feed is dead too.

 

32 – ToryBoy

@SocialistWorker I think it might be related to this:  http://bbc.com/massive-comet-expected-to-miss-today the last update seems to imply that it would hit Europe if it landed.  If it did hit, that would be an extinction event on the order of the one which wiped out the dinosaurs.

 

33 – SocialistWorker

@ToryBoy don’t be ridiculous.  If that had happened then the website would be down.

 

34 – ToryBoy

@SocialistWorker we’re probably looking at a mirror site somewhere else, probably a local repeater.  I’m guessing you’re not in England.  I’ve tried phoning people.  Nothing.  Try it.

 

35 – SocialistWorker

@ToryBoy you’re right,  I can’t get hold of anyone.   I’m actually in Antarctica.

 

36 – ToryBoy

@SocialistWorker ditto.

 

37- SocialistWorker

Tom?  Seriously.

 

38 – ToryBoy

Yes.  Lucy I assume.  Want to get drunk?

 

39 – SocialistWorker

Well, I did say I’d only have a drink with you if you were the last person on Earth… so I guess, yes.

 

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Flower of Youth wins a prize!

I was thinking about the next few years and how things are likely to change, and I wondered what the next stage of gaming was likely to be, and that led me to this story.  It came out well enough to win a prize from ‘Writers’ Village’!  You can read it here.

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