Tag Archives: near future

Dark Sentinel

Goats are very cool.  And intelligent.

 

Dark Sentinel

“Howard, have you eaten all my dinner?”

Course the goat couldn’t answer.  It didn’t even have vocal cords.  Or a mouth.  But I had to speak to someone.  The psychs had said back on Earth, “If you feel like talking, do so.  The sounds won’t escape the asteroid, and it’ll make you feel better.”

I wish I’d had the courage to ask the psychs if they had spent three years on their own in a dark hole.

They’d recruited me after I’d survived a spelunking accident.  Trapped in a tiny crevice for five days.  Just the dripping of water to keep me company, and alive.  Actually they’d recruited me after the second accident.  The first was only a day.  None of my friends had died in either accident, but poor Blakely had broken a leg and sworn never to enter a cave again.  Being trapped hadn’t deterred me, and I was planning my next expedition when Mr Philips approached me.

“George, I hope you don’t mind if I call you George, I wonder if you’d do me a favour and come and see me after your trip.  I have a job offer which might interest you.”

I didn’t want a job.  However I realised that given the state of my finances it might be sensible for me to listen to his offer.

“You want me to live in a hole, on my own, for three years?”

“Yes, and we will pay you handsomely.  Tax free, and you won’t be able to spend it.  You’ll come back a very rich man.”

“Assuming I come back, and come back sane.”

“Your profile shows you can cope with the stresses.”

I didn’t realise how desperate they were.  Of course I’d heard about the Istanbul attack.  Some kind of ravening alien thing had flown out of the sky and strafed the ancient city, before landing and sending out creatures which collected everything they could get their hands on.  Animals, trees, cars and people.  Everything was taken to their ship.  Which then flew off again.

Why did they let it get away?  They didn’t let it, they just couldn’t touch it.  The Turks launched missiles and fired rounds at it, nothing even scratched the paintwork.  There was consternation.  Not only were we not alone, but ET was a rapacious and apparently invincible rapscallion.

The great powers, for a brief period before they went back to their Great Game bickering, agreed on two measures.  First, they set up a technology program which was to design better weapons, and secondly, they would create a detection mechanism to provide advance warning of any future attacks.

“So you see, we’d like you to be in the outer ring of the warning shell.  In the Oort cloud.”

My astronomy was poor, but I was pretty sure that was a long way away.

“It will take five years for you to get there.  But you’ll be asleep, in deep hibernation.”

Perhaps this is the point where I should have started to get a little suspicious.  In a way I did as I demanded, and received, more money.  But I missed the fundamental point, which was, after all the effort to get me out there, why would they bring me back after three years?  I think the psychs had found that people would balk at being told it was longer.

I’d been in my new home for more than a year before I named the goat.  Before then it had just been an organic machine to me.  The first time I’d spoken to it was a few months later.

“Howard, you know you’re a goat don’t you.”

Nothing.

“A goat spider squid I guess.”

Still nothing.  I decided to explain to him what he was.

“You see Howard, you are a genetically engineered life form, designed to spot the things in the darkness, which is why you have so many eyes, you see, all over this rock.”

I waved around our little hole, though I was indicating the outside.  I also pointed at the fleshy trunks which snaked out of Howard’s holding box.  The brain just sat there.  Probably, hopefully, still staring out into interstellar darkness, to spot the monsters.

The memory of how I’d found out that I wasn’t the important member of the crew stopped my garrulous flow.

We, the chosen few, had been sitting down for lunch.  Morris was mouthing off again.

“You know we’re just going to be glorified shepherds, don’t you?”

“Goat herds,” grunted Simmons, someone who I could relate to, even if I couldn’t pronounce his Croatian first name.

“Whatever.  We’re just there to look after them.  Feed them, protect them from wolves or whatever, and wipe their bums.”

I must have looked a little confused, as Simmons explained, “You haven’t had the lecture yet about your companion.  They’ll tell you this afternoon, but, well, it’s basically a goat brain, hooked up to some extra sensitive eyes, which will stare into space and spot any intruders.”

“They hope!”

“Yeah.  They hope.  We’re there to keep it fed, set up the eyes and, if it does see anything, double check and then report back.”

I’m glad Simmons explained it, as I didn’t get half of that from the lecture that afternoon.

To be honest it was Simmons who stopped me from being one of the seventy percent who failed.  His brotherly attitude meant I could keep up with what was going on.

The first time I apologised to Howard was something which still made me wince.  The problem was that the only thing either of us had to eat was a high calorie liquid, of which they had tons.  There were also some flavourings, but after two years they were getting old in every sense.  Some of the other recruits had talked about the other option.  Goat.

Not all of Howard’s tendrils grew properly, or could be directed to an open area of the asteroid.  I was supposed to try my best to find a use for them, otherwise I was to surgically remove them and put them into the waste hopper, which would, organically of course, try and recover as much food value as possible.  Or, one could, well, eat it.

Problem number one with eating Howard, apart from the fact he was my best friend, was that I wasn’t really supposed to use any heat sources in the cave.  Sure I was many feet under, but the theory was that if I didn’t make any additional heat, then there was no way it could leak out.  Still, there were a few ways.  If nothing else I could use the hot side of the waste recovery tank.

The second problem was the lack of any utensils apart from the surgical scalpel.  Howard was pretty tough, and my teeth and jaws hadn’t been getting much of a work out.  Still, I managed to cut the excess tendril into chunks.  I felt so guilty.  In fact, in the end, I just put them into the waste hopper, and I spent an hour apologising to Howard.  It’s not that he’d have missed the tendril, I’d just been worried I might like it too much, and then I’d have been doing much more maintenance on Howard than was really appropriate.

“You men, will be the first warning of danger for the human race.”

I don’t know why there weren’t any women, perhaps they were being trained in a separate facility?

“The great sacrifice you are making will be valued by everyone on the planet.”

I hadn’t realised I was making a big sacrifice, and I really wasn’t sure that anyone else knew or gave a damn.  The graduation, that’s what they called it, carried on in a similar vein, with me adding silent commentary.  Simmons had disappeared so I didn’t have anyone to whisper to.

The last time I saw Simmons was during a practice run.

“This suit is disgusting.”

“It’s a living creature.  It will form a symbiosis with you, keep you warm and safe.  It will be your second skin for your sleep out and back, and the three years you are active.  Trust me, you will get used to it.”

“Notice he isn’t wearing one,” I whispered to Simmons, who just cracked a small smile.

The instructor ignored us and went on.

“It will provide insulation, it will protect you from radiation and it will, if necessary, keep you alive for up to two weeks in hard vacuum without additional tanks.  It is a miracle of modern gengineering.”  He paused for effect.  “Within a couple of days you won’t even notice it.”

We all stared at the giant jelly baby like blobs on the floor.  They looked as if they’d been attacked by equally gigantic slugs.  The thought of putting one of them on was revolting.

One of the cockier recruits stepped forward and started putting his on, to groans and commentary from everyone else.  The instructor started chivvying the rest of us along and soon we all were wearing them, all except Simmons.  He couldn’t touch it.  Even with the instructor screaming at him.    He wouldn’t, or couldn’t perhaps, explain why he felt such terror towards the suits.  He was taken off the program and moved to a support role.

After that day we lived in the suits.  They made us into clumsy marshmallow men, but we were assured that with practice we’d soon get used to them.  To be fair, I haven’t been cold since that day.  They recycled our urine into drinkable water, and our other waste was dried into pellets which we could easily put into the waste hoppers.

Howard couldn’t move.  He was more of a plant than an animal in that sense.  Occasionally, when I was bored, I’d taunt him.

“Not much of a goat are you Howard?  Can’t see you leaping from boulder to boulder in that shape.  You need to get some exercise mate.”

He just stared at me, with his single eye.  I’d let one grow in our living cave.  Strictly against orders, but after what might have been two years I didn’t really care.

I always felt guilty after I’d been mean, so I’d read to him.  We hadn’t been allowed to bring any electronics.  Nothing which might have any form of EM signature at all.  But we did have quite a large weight allowance.  I used mine on books.  And a ‘Go’ set.  Half the books were favourites I’d happily read again, and the other half were new to me.  Five hundred books.  I hoped I wouldn’t have to re-read them more than once each before I was recovered.

One morning Howard’s warning screen lit up.  It wasn’t really a screen of course.  Our instructors called it a luminescent biological dot matrix light communicator.  Simmons, who’d still been with us, tried to explain it.

“Look, you know that it’s part goat, part squid and some other stuff right?  Well you know squid can change their skin colours?”  I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“What they’ve done is sort of wired up the brain bits of the squid which could do that, to an organ which will grow mostly flat, and be able to produce luminous dots.  These will then be used to spell out messages.”

“Such as ‘Maaaaaaa’.”

“Funny.”

Gallows humour had set in.  We thought that we were the first soldiers in the war.  In earlier times we might have been called cannon fodder.

“But really, things like, enemy detected and then the coordinates.  Our job is to then double check the coordinates before sending the signal back to Earth.  If possible we should gather data on size, quantity etc.  But reading between the lines, the warning will be enough.”

I miss Simmons.  At least I have Howard though.

The morning the screen lit up I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.  Was he telling me there was a space invader nearby?  I walked towards the screen with not a little trepidation.  It said, “Go.  Please.  Black.  4, 4.”

It didn’t make any sense!  Was it telling me there were 44 ships? Or 8?  Where did it want me to go.

I looked around our tiny space in confusion, until I saw that Howard’s eye had moved a little, and now was hanging above my Go board.  He must have been watching when I played myself.  I often described my moves, and created characters.  I tried not to be biased in who I let win.  Now Howard wanted to play.

I didn’t recall anything about this from my long ago training.  I wasn’t sure how long, because they wouldn’t let us bring any timekeeping devices, too much metal apparently.  There were no days, and I had deliberately not marked the walls, I didn’t want it to feel like a prisoner.

Still, was this allowed?  Howard repeated his message, and then said, “Howard beat you.”

That was it; I wasn’t going to allow this jumped up semi-goat squid taunt me.  We set to.

He wasn’t very good.  He’d watched a lot, but didn’t really know the rules.  But I taught him, and eventually he was good enough to beat me.  He would write, “Howard beat.  Howard beat.”

The whole screen would go green and then pink as he celebrated.  I didn’t like losing, but I did like the challenge.

He’d also ask me to read to him, so I did.  My reading light was bioluminescent, and they’d done something to make my eyes more sensitive to light.

That’s how we lived.  Howard and I.  Our dark little hole was home.  It was a natural crevice in the asteroid, we’d been careful to avoid anything artificial.  It was long and narrow, with only a small bulge to form the main room.  But it was ours.  The supplies were in another cave further along the asteroid, with a small fissure connecting it to our cave and I’d put in a set of organic pumps so that I didn’t need to go out whenever I wanted dinner.  We had lots of food supplies.  Much more than I had expected.  They’d explained it away as preparing supplies for the next man.  Now I wasn’t sure.

The constant dark should have intimidated me, crushed my spirit maybe.  Instead it felt like comfort.  Whenever I wanted to see light I’d climb up to the surface, and watch the stars.  They were so bright, and beautiful.  They’d make me cry, partially in wonder, and partially due to my now super sensitive eyes.

Time rolled on.  Howard started beating me consistently at Go, and then started letting me win occasionally.  We made quite the odd couple.  I kept time by my books, a complete cycle being when I’d read all those I was happy to re-read.  Some 423 books.

Had Earth forgotten me?  Was it still there, or had the invasion come from another angle?  I stopped worrying about these unanswerables, and let myself get lost in my books, or playing Go.

This morning my vigil ended.  Howard had a message.

“Multiple objects sighted.  Angle 134.34 to 156.02.  No Go.”

No Go indeed.  I had to get to the surface to check the sighting, but I had to do it taking advantage of the asteroid’s spin, and then hiding in one of the prepared hides.  I checked the rotation schedule, and got ready to go out.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out.  Possibly one book cycle ago.  I looked out, and shut my eyes from the brightness.  I was facing the sun, and even though it was just a dot from here, it was still extremely bright.  I felt my way out, and crawled to the hide.  It was really just a hole with a stone grill above it, but it in theory would allow me to look out without being spotted.

The asteroid spun, and the region of space Howard had identified came into sight.  Normally there were stars galore, instead it was black.  There was nothing.  I’d have thought I’d gone blind, except around the edges I could see the occasional star.  Whatever was approaching it was large.

Why had Howard waited until they were upon us before telling me?  I wondered if he’d been concentrating so much on our Go games that he’d forgotten his job.  I didn’t think it would be fair to castigate him, he was, after all, just a goat.

I watched the edges of the blackness, and over time caught movement of entities leaving and re-joining.   In the faint starlight I strained to make out their shapes.  Eventually I was convinced they looked like the craft which had attacked Istanbul.  This was it.  This was the invading host we all feared, and if it reached Earth unchecked, then it would obliterate the planet.

I was supposed to signal Earth to tell them that something was coming, and give basic details.  This was via a system of flares which I could set off on the Sun-facing side of one of the static asteroids.  I just needed to get across to it and pull the appropriate cords.    It was close enough that I could jump across, and back again.  Hopefully unseen, though the aliens might investigate the source of the flares, and find me.  It wouldn’t matter as the message would be flying towards Earth at lightspeed, and my mission would be complete.

I asked Howard where the asteroid was as I couldn’t see it where I thought it should be.

“Flare Asteroid is 400km distant now.  Drift after collision.  Many kms per book cycle.”

Disaster.  How could I warn Earth?  I sat in the bulge, staring at Howard’s screen in despair.  Until I wondered to myself, perhaps he could help me?  He was clearly intelligent.

“How do we tell Earth Howard?”

“Tell what?”

“That the invaders are coming.”

Silence.  I tried asking the question in different ways.  Eventually he answered.

“They know.  Ships came from Earth.  Go?”

###

 

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Watchers

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

 

Watchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good, I’ve stayed there before.”

“Indeed, did you like it?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

“I’ll be fine.”

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

#

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

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

“Good morning Mr Smythe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you capable of running a first phase?”

“Of course.”

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

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

“This is the team.”

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

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

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

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

He sounded so tight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can really commit to these prices?”

“Yes.”

“Where are your personnel based?”

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

“That sounds reasonable.”

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

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

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

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

The numbers had started to overwhelm Smythe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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Personal Assistant

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

 

Personal Assistant

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

“Um, Subrah?”

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

“I don’t think I did.”

“You did.”

“Look Doris, I really don’t think…”

“Here it is.”

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

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

Looking at him sceptically she shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps, got to run, I’ll text you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but I didn’t send it!”

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

“But you wrote it.”

“I merely helped you do the needful.”

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

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

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

“What?  I don’t have an appointment…”

“It is your annual check-up.”

“Ah, thanks.  But that’s it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Philippa?”

“George.”

Very cold response.

“Ah, how are you?”

“Fine, no thanks to you.”

“What?”

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

She started to stalk off.

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

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

“But Vipal said…”

“Vipal.  Yes, your master.”

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

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

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

“One coffee George.”

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

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

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

Not least because he didn’t work that hard.

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

“Could you show me the texts?”

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

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

He turned his phone to her.

“You kept them?  Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But, can he do that?”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“There you are.  And who is this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“George, please sit down.”

This did not bode well.

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

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

“Henry, about this morning…”

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

“What?”

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

“I did, I have?”

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

“Oh right, well you know.”

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

“Thanks.”

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

“Ah.”

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

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

“Mr George, nice to hear from you.”

“Look Vipal…”

“Yes Mr George?”

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

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

#

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

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

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

“Indeed Mr George.  Shall I cancel it?”

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

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

“I meant as a participant.”

“That is most irregular Mr George.”

“Yet still permitted?”

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

“Excellent.  Let’s dial in.”

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

“Morning George, Vipal.”

“Morning Prikesh,” said George.

Vipal said nothing.

“Morning Vipal,” repeated Prikesh.

“Ah morning Prikesh.”

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

“But Prikesh…”

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

“Yes Prikesh.”

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

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

“Ah…”

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

“Yes.”

“Do you understand George?”

“Yes.  Thank you Prikesh.”

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

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

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

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

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

###

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New Lives

New Lives

As I lay back, waiting for the pain to begin, I wondered if I’d have changed anything. I stared at the ceiling, the squares disappeared and I could see her beautiful face. My Pashmina.

#

I could still picture the first time I’d seen her in the flesh. She was standing at the top of the theatre stairs, the ideal of a perfect woman. Her hair was white and her skin translucent, as if someone had dressed up a marble statue of a Greek goddess. She was still, poised, ready to fly. I knew I shouldn’t be there, but I’d wanted to see her. It was then that she stole my heart.

#

The first time I met her was a little while later. It was also at the theatre. I bumped into her on the stairs and knocked her drink. I insisted on buying her another and we started talking. My lines were weak, I could hardly believe she would give me any time, but she seemed to enjoy the attention. She later admitted she’d been stood up again, and I’d been a welcome distraction.

#

When I walked into her apartment, some weeks later of course, it was like going home. I knew where everything was. The tiny kitchen off the main room, the small bedroom, and the bathroom fitted into what might be a large cupboard in a different world.

#

We’d been sleeping together for a few months when she admitted the truth to me. “Paul,” she said, for that was what I’d told her my name was, “It is not safe to be with me; it’s my friends.”

“Friends?”

“With the underground.”

I’d known of course, but I was touched that she’d trust me enough to tell me. Perhaps she loved me? Or my love for her, so bright, so impossible to hide, led her to believe I thought I was safe. She told me everything, all about what she had done, what she was planning to do. I should have dissuaded her, or encouraged her, or reported her. I just listened and made my plans.

#

The first time I’d seen her face had been six months before. It was on the front page of her dossier. The photograph, a little grainy, showed a beautiful wraith. The description of her was so cold. Name: Pashmina Tun. Height: Five foot six inches. Skin colour: White (albino). Eyes: Blue. She was to be watched, Intelligence believed she had contacts with the underground. She was also clearly untrustworthy as she rarely ventured out during the day, preferring the night.

#

“Why don’t you go out during the day?”

“Silly, look at my skin.”

“Beautiful.”

She laughed, and said, “It burns in the faintest sun. I prefer to avoid the pain.”

Something I should add to her file perhaps.

“And you Paul, why do you prefer the dark?”

“It is filled with angels, or at least one…”

I could hardly tell her that it was the only time I knew she wasn’t watched, as it was my shift. I’d tried to tell myself I could explain my actions to my superiors as trying to get closer to my target. I doubted that would buy me any acceptance. Or mercy.

#

“Paul, what’s wrong?”

I was in a panic. I’d come in to my shift, to find that an order for Pashmina’s arrest had been made. I was to keep an extra eye on her, and she would be picked up the next morning when the Colonel had returned. I’d barely been able to wait for the previous watcher to leave before I rushed to her apartment, banging on the door like a crazy man.

“Pashmina, darling, you must leave.”

She’d talked about being ready to leave at a moment’s notice, but I knew she was quite incapable of it.

“Oh Paul, don’t be silly.”

How to explain to her? If I told her the truth, what would she do? She would cry. For some time. I tried to hold her, but she pushed me away. My panic grew. Time was being wasted. She wiped her eyes and looked at me.

“I loved you.”

“I love you.”

“Can I trust you?”

“You must, your life depends on it.”

She nodded. Her face was a statue again. Ice. We rushed around her tiny living space and collected some clothes and a few other things. I insisted that she be able to easily carry whatever she needed.

“Will you not be with me?”

Perhaps there was the start of forgiveness?

“Yes, of course, but what if we are separated? Or need to run?”

She assented. We left everything else, and went straight for the border.

“Paul, I’ll never get through, they’ll have my name.”

“Trust me.”

At the border post I showed my card. The guards saluted, and we drove through. At the other end Pashmina got out as instructed, approached the barrier and in broken English demanded asylum. I’d given her papers, transcripts. She’d be able to prove the state wanted her, and had bad plans for her. She’d be safe.

I reversed the car, and she turned. The look of confusion quickly replaced by comprehension. She took steps towards me, and then stopped. I was already out of her reach. I mouthed ‘I love you’. I’d given her everything I could, a start in a new country, a new life.

#

They arrested me at my post the next day. The guards had reported me, and the machinery of our repression, of which I’d been a cog, moved quickly. The horse had bolted, but they cared little for Pashmina, she was small fry. I was a traitor.

#

It was hard to picture her through my tears. My old life was gone. My love was gone. All I had now was a future of pain. First this ‘process’ as we so politely called it, and then a work camp.

“Begin.”

The electricity raced through me as the torture started. My new life had begun.

###

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The Dog Ate My Phone

This happened to me (the dog eating the phone bit, not the rest…)

 

The Dog Ate My Phone

“Did I ever tell you about the time the dog ate my phone?” said the rough voice.

Thomas Jensen looked up from his phone to see who was talking. The only person there was a tramp and he seemed to be staring straight at Thomas.

“Ah, no. Not that you’ve ever told me anything. And now…”

He tried to get up, but the tramp had moved so close he’d have to push him out of the way, and he really didn’t want to touch the man.

“Worst day of my life really. Best as well if truth be told. It freed me.”

“Oh, er, how?”

The tramp took this as an invitation to sit down, and start his tale.

“I’d left the dogs in the car. Two lovely chocolate Labradors. Beautiful. You have dogs?”

“No.”

“Great companions. Only problem, particularly with labs, is they’re hungry. I’d left my phone in the car, I don’t know why because I never left my phone anywhere. I left it in the little shelf in the door. Right next to some sweets.”

Thomas tried to look at his watch, but the tramp leant over.

“Dogs had never bothered with the sweets before? Do you know why they did that day?”

“No…”

The tramp leant back, “Nobody does. Anyway they went for the sweets, but the shelf was small and they struggled to get the sweets out, and got the phone first. Crunch. Little bits of glass all over the place. Phone dead. Kaput.”

“That’s very sad, but I have to…”

“Know why I couldn’t just get a new one?”

“Um.”

“Well I ordered one. Or asked my wife to. Same model. But you see the thing was, there was a delay. I wouldn’t have my phone for a week. Can you imagine?”

Thomas really couldn’t, he shook his head.

“My car wouldn’t recognise me. Couldn’t get into my front door, couldn’t buy anything. My virtual credit cards were all frozen until I got a new unit. I had an old one, but it took a different sim see, so they wouldn’t reactivate it. Or would, but it would take longer than the new phone. Do you think I could go to work?”

“Yes?” Thomas ventured.

“No. Front desk wouldn’t let me past, even if they did elevators wouldn’t have taken me anywhere.”

Thomas was starting to be interested despite himself, “But you told your boss?”

“How? No phone. No messenger. No email. I tried to call from the reception desk, but without my phone id to authenticate me… well he refused the call.”

Thomas shook his head sympathetically.

“Then they fired me. No payoff, failure to turn up for work. Except the firing bounced, no phone you see, so I didn’t find out directly. I found out from my wife. What did she do to help me I hear you ask?”

Thomas wondered if he would have asked, but it didn’t seem wise to argue.

“She called me a fool. She also told me to stop blaming the dog, he was suffering enough. I realised then the hierarchy in the house, and I didn’t like it. I said some things. I didn’t mean them, it was just the pressure. You know.”

Thomas tried to look sympathetic, and also as if he had somewhere else to go.

“Well, she said some things too. Then stormed out, taking the dog. Told me to call her when I’d grown up. That turned out to be hard.”

He paused.

“I think she’s in San Francisco now.”

“Um…”

“Anyway, so I was stuck. But only for a week I hear you say?”

Thomas nodded.

“If only. You see she’d ordered the new phone in her name. Now if she’d been around we could have swapped the sims and heydee ho, with a couple of hours, on her phone of course, to customer services it would have all been fine. I had to break into the house. I was watching. Saw it delivered, they wouldn’t have given it to me, and broke in. Big mistake.”

“Why?”

“The house called the cops. That expensive security system I put in. Tied to our phones. I grabbed the phone and ran. And ran, hoping to fit my sim in. Couldn’t, cos of it being in my wife’s name and all, but kept it with my while I wandered. Found myself in the backend of the city. Tough times. I learned a lot. First thing was to drop the new phone, even without my sim it had a tracker and they were trying to find it. I paid for really good security you see. Met some people, learned how to live without the phone, without id, and money. Hard life. Good life.”

The man looked wistful, and Thomas thought he might have a chance to get away.

“Ah, well, that’s a good thing to know. I need to run I’m afraid.”

He indicated his phone, as if he’d had a message. The old man misunderstood.

“Oh no, I don’t want your phone. Don’t need one. Just wanted to share the story, maybe it can help. Wanted to help someone today of all days.”

Thomas hesitated, but had to ask, “Why today?”

“I’m dead today. Legally. After thirty years, all of the automatic payments and suchlike I’d put into place have finally ground to a halt, and the world, your world, has decided I’m dead. Saw the notice while watching one of those demo phones.”

“Um.”

“Go now. No use you wasting time listening to a dead man. But take care of that phone.”

###

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No Judgement

Talking to random people on the internet can be surprisingly helpful…

 

No Judgement

“Look, I can’t explain, you’re only a computer. You wouldn’t understand.”

“I’ll try Paul, I will. Or I can raise a flag and someone will visit you.”

“No. No. I can’t.”

“Well, tell me. Tell Georgie.”

“It’s the world, everything, I, I just don’t understand it anymore. Phones are smart. Cars park themselves. My chip shop is selling low fat deep fried chips. I went for a run…”

“That’s good, you went outside. You didn’t tell me.”

“I, well it was yesterday. I ran. I was wearing my usual training outfit. Some kids saw the crest on the back, they started shouting at me. Insulting me. The unit.”

“How did you feel?”

“Not angry. Not anymore. I felt, nothing. An absence. I looked at them, and they were nothing. Is this what it was all about?”

“It’s difficult to answer. But I think the answer is yes. Look they were young, I’m sure they’ll grow up and regret it.”

“Or never think about it again.”

“True, but then it doesn’t matter. So why does it matter to you?”

“I feel so apart.”

“Ha.”

“What?”

“I just think you were never going to find a connection with some youths. Were you?”

“No, no I guess not.”

“Have you spoken to anyone else recently?”

“Um, well I had a brief chat about the rain with the shopping delivery man. And I waved, sort of, at the postie.”

“So this is the longest conversation you’ve had in a week, since we last talked.”

“Yes.”

“And it’s all typed.”

“Yes. I guess.”

“Are you losing your voice?”

“Physically or metaphor…”

“Metaphorically. Both.”

“No. I do talk to myself.”

“Only way to get a decent conversation I bet.”

“Funny, no. And you, I’d like to talk to you more.”

“You can, I’m always here.”

“But, it’s not the same. I don’t know how you feel.”

“How I feel? Well I’m worried about you. I think you need a companion.”

“Like a dog?”

“Well, no, someone you can talk to.”

“A person? No. I’m not ready. I can’t.”

“Why?”

“What if they…”

“Don’t like you? I’m sure…”

“No. Judge me. No not judge, I mean. Look at me the way that I feel about those people. The ones out there.”

“Perhaps we should try. Then you can see.”

“Wait. The doorbell has gone.”

“Answer it.”

“Why? Who’s there?”

“I am. I’ve come to stay with you.”

###

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The Old Ways

A slightly different angle for me.  I’ve described it as gentle.

 

The Old Ways

“What do you think Carol?”

“You look great, a little old-fashioned perhaps, but the barber did a fine job. Did you go to a different place? Usually you look a little like that sheep we tried to shear a few years back.”

“That’s not fair, I’ve never looked that bad, still I’m glad we have Matt the Shearer these days. But no, it was the usual place, but it was a new person. Though it was a little odd.”

“Odd, how? Cup of tea?”

“A cuppa would be lovely. Difficult to put my finger on. Well for one thing, I’m not sure if it was a man or a woman.”

“Don’t be silly Gerald, you must have been able to tell.”

“No, really. He, I’ll call him he, had a scarf over his face, and gloves. It was cold in there and he apologised, apparently the heating conked out this morning. He had a long coat on, and I think he was wearing a wig.”

“That does sound a bit strange.”

“Hmm, no, there was more to it.   He didn’t use the clippers at all, just scissors, and the cut-throat razor. I can’t remember the last time I had a hair cut without clippers, and none of the barbers use the cut-throat any more. I think they keep them these days just there for show.”

“Traditionalist then.”

“Yes, but he did a very good job.”

“He definitely did. How much did he charge?”

“Well that’s the other strange thing. His voice was soft, almost a whisper, and he asked for thruppence. I thought he was being funny, and gave him a tenner. He looked at it bemusedly and then it was if a lightbulb had lit up, and he thanked me effusively. He said as I left, ‘The old ways are best sir.’”

“Sounds like he was just having fun with you!”

“Perhaps.”

#

“Carol…”

“Gerald, you look pleased with yourself love. Come, sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Please.”

“I’ll just pour you a cup and you can tell me why you’re so happy.”

“Well, my hair was getting a bit long again. A couple of months’ growth, and I went back to my barbers.”

“He’s done you proud again I must say. Here you are love, a nice strong cuppa. Go on…”

“It was looking pretty deserted, but then that new fellow was there again. At least, I think he is a fellow. Same getup as last time. Still problems with the heating he said. I asked why they hadn’t just bought one of those cheap electric things, and he sort of grunted.”

“Maybe they don’t have the cash? It’s tight for everyone these days.”

“You don’t know how right you are…. I sat down, and he went to work on my hair. Like last time there was little conversation, and he used just scissors and a cut throat. When he was finished he asked me for thruppence again.”

“Not one to spot when a joke gets old is he.”

“Well, I’m not sure. I gave him a tenner as before, and he accepted it. I left happy enough with my cut and went to the butchers next door. I was in the mood for steak.”

“Ooh that sounds lovely? Is that’s what is in the bag?”

“Yes. Anyway, I was in the butchers, and it wasn’t the normal guy, you know Frank?”

“The chatty talkative one? I like him. Though I thought he’d moved away a while ago…”

“Well either way he wasn’t there. Instead it was another bloke in a long coat, gloves and scarf. Just like the barber. Could have been brothers. Well none of the cuts were laid out, instead there were carcasses hanging, and he said, ‘What’ll it be?’ Well, I said I wanted steak, he asked a couple more questions and then got a haunch of meat down.”

“Don’t gulp your tea Gerald, you know how sensitive your digestion is.”

“Sorry dear. Could I have another cup?”

“Of course. Sounds old fashioned too.”

“Oh yes. He measured it and quick as a flash I had two fine steaks. He didn’t bother weighing them, just looked at them and said, ‘Sixpence for you sir’.”

“How odd, perhaps he and the barber have the same joke?”

“It did bother me, but I just handed him a twenty. He looked at it, and like the barber, was blank at first before being very happy with it. He handed over my package, wrapped in paper, just like they used to, and nodded at me as I left.”

“Mmm. Gerald, which butchers was it again?”

“Ah, well I think it’s still called Frank’s.”

“Next to old Dudley’s hair dressers?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“Where did you really go Gerald? Is it her again?”

“What? What are you talking about, I told you I went to the barbers, just like last month.”

“Gerald Tomkins, you should know, and would if you’d actually visited them, that the whole row of shops containing Frank’s and Dudley’s has been condemned, and they’ve been shut for months now. So come on, where did you really go?”

“What… wait, here’s the steak, let me show you!”

“Dear lord Gerald, what is that stench?”

“It’s the steak…”

“Get it out of here right now. And you too. Come back when you’re prepared to tell me the truth.”

“Carol, don’t cry…”

Gerald stumbled out shocked and confused. He went back to the barber, but this time it looked abandoned. He was about to leave when he saw a shape in the window. He moved closer to see who it was, maybe it was the barber and then he could make some sense of it all. However when he got to the doorway there was no one there. He looked around a bit before giving up.

As he left, wondering what he was going to say to Carol, he heard a whisper saying, ‘The old ways are best…’

 

 

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Clothing

Clothing

“You can’t wear that!” said Rita scandalised.

Jessi twisted again, showing off the hot pants and crop top which seemed to be upsetting her friend.

“Too much you think? Maybe a bikini top?” She started reaching into her cupboard.

“No no, it’s too little!” Rita giggled.

“Oh Rita, you really need to chill out. It will be fine. Your mother thinks you’re staying here for the night, and you will be. When we get back. Just make sure you leave your phone here.”

“I know I know.” Rita bit her lip, then said, “Do I look alright?”

Jessi stared at her friend appraisingly. “Well you aren’t showing off your legs enough, and I suspect you have twice as much covering your boobs as the rest of us will have combined! But yes, you look good. Classy even.”

She smiled at her friend, and Rita returned it.

“Rita is this really the first time you’ve been to a club?”

“Yes!”

“Well prepare for fun. Now, let’s get a bit of slap on, and we’ll be ready.”

Over the next hour Jessi and Rita worked on their faces until they were both convinced they couldn’t look any better, though Rita kept having butterflies in her stomach at the thought of what her mother would do if she ever saw her like this.

“Right, ready. Now for a glass to get us fired up, and we’ll head to the club.”

She poured them each a Southern Comfort and lemonade, heavy on the liqueur. Rita eyed hers dubiously, but at Jessi’s insistence drank it. Soon her belly felt warm and the butterflies had bogged off somewhere else.

“Here’s yours,” said Jessi as she passed her the burqcoat with some distaste. It was kind of a cross between a burqa and a coat, and designed for Geordie weather.

Jessi put her own on, and then some mirrored sparkly glasses, and passed Rita a spare pair.

“Right, we are ready to go!”

They almost ran downstairs. Jessi threw a “Goodbye and don’t wait up,” back to her Mum as she closed the door.

“Best to avoid any interrogation!”

The girls skipped down the street happily. Two shapeless figures in black. They didn’t have to wait long at the bus stop before theirs turned up, and they went straight upstairs. At first they were alone on the bus, but as they got closer to the city centre more people got on. Most of the women were wearing burqcoats. The men were wearing heavy winter coats and hats, some even had balaclavas. The whole bus was anonymous.

The girls chatted merrily away, and Rita even had a few more surreptitious slugs of alcohol from the bottle Jessi had brought along for them. The bus arrived at their destination and they got off in a crowded street.

Almost everyone was heavily wrapped up. It had been a cold winter. They did however see one woman walking along uncovered. She kept flinching, and looking around a bit wildly. Rita stared at her, it was the first time she’d seen someone uncovered in public for years and years.

Jessi saw where Rita was staring and said, “Look away Rita. She’s obviously got something wrong with her.” By which she meant some form of mental problem.

They continued walking, Jessi confidently leading the way, until they arrived at the head of an alleyway. A sign in neon stated boldly ‘Ritzys nightclub’, and in smaller lettering, ‘Tech free since ‘03!’ There was a large queue, mostly women in burqcoats. There were some men too, most of whom were covered up, but there were a few who’d clearly already had quite a bit to drink and had thrown off their hats and balaclavas.

“Won’t they get spotted?” whispered Rita.

“Oh not here. Ritzys make sure that only dead cameras are allowed in this alleyway. If you’d brought your phone you’d have seen that it wouldn’t be able to get any signal. Only dead spot in the city apparently. And conveniently for us!”

They inched closer to the front. There were a group of lads in front of them and Jessi had bumped into the back of one of them a couple of times. The first response had been a little grumpy, but the second time the lad had realised that it was a girl. He’d started chatting to Jessi. After flirting for quite a while Jessi remembered Rita and introduced her, and soon they were talking to the other three lads in the party. Jessi decided she’d had enough of the burqcoat and took it off, much to the delight of the lads. They all followed suit until only Rita had hers on.

She looked around at them, and the fear of being uncovered in the open fought with the peer pressure. The latter won and she gingerly took the black thing off, to sounds of appreciation, both from the lads they were with, and some of the others around them. Rita blushed deeply and said little as they continued in.

At the doorway they were scanned by a standard entry system, and Rita looked a question at Jessi.

“Don’t worry. It only checks who we are, it doesn’t tell anyone we’re here. Trust me, I’ve been here tons of times and my Mum is none the wiser.”

Rita shook her head. Still she was here now. They paid, in cash no less, checked their burqcoats in and were inside. The music was so loud Rita thought her head would explode. Jessi was laughing, and quickly persuaded one of the boys to buy them drinks.

Over the next few hours the drinks flowed, and the girls relaxed. There was dancing and flirting, and all was good.   The girls got mighty tipsy, and the boys did too. Jessi particularly liked one of them, and was soon in a corner getting to know him better. Rita was left talking to the others, and feeling like a bit of a lemon. The alcohol coursing through her system was starting to make her feel queasy and when the boy she’d been talking to leaned forward and tried to kiss her she panicked.

Next thing she knew she was out on the street. She stumbled along, looking around in a bit of a daze. Then suddenly a willowy figure appeared next to her.

“Rita, you would look fabulous in our new autumn catalogue! With your credit rating we would happily give you a store card which would give you an extra 10% off all purchases.”

Another figure appeared and started to talk over the first.

“Miss Johnson, our winter clothing range will give you all the protection you need from the elements.”

Then more figures appeared, all talking, all trying to sell her something. She walked away, but everywhere she looked new figures appeared. They were projected from the posters on the walls, from the shop windows, from passing buses.

“Rita Johnson, you haven’t visited our shop for twenty three days, but we’d love to see you again. To encourage you back we’d like to offer you a 5%…”

“Ms Johnson, have you considered starting a pension? While you are very young, it is best to start early. The projections if you start with a small amount, as little as £5 a month…”

It went on and on, she started to run and then slipped and fell over. The ghosts continued to plague her.

“Rita we have the new album by GreenFish. You rated their last album 4 stars, would you like to buy this one?”

“Ms Johnson. Ms Johnson, are you ok?”

She realised that the last of the figures was real. It was a policeman. She didn’t know what to say. Getting up she managed a slightly shaky, “Ah, yes I’m fine.”

He looked at her for thirty seconds.

“I’ve just informed your parents that you are in central Newcastle. They seemed surprised. As you are under eighteen I’m afraid I’ve also had to tell them that you are intoxicated. They have asked me to stay with you while they drive here.”

“Oh no. Oh god no.”

“In addition I’ve been asked where Ms Jessi Phillips is. Her parents, notified by yours I believe, are also on their way.”

Rita was mortified. Jessi would never forgive her. How could she have left without her burqcoat? She started to sob.

The policeman looked at her in sympathy.

“You’re not the first lass to forget her covering and get confused by these damn adghosts. I’m guessing you’ll never make the mistake again.”

She shook her head miserably.

He looked wistful, “It’s getting harder to hide though. I hear they’ve nearly got the gait recognition software bug free. Once that happens. Well, God help us all, nowhere will be safe. Anyway, let’s head back to Ritzys and we’ll pick up your coat. That’ll stop this lot at least.” He pointed at the gaggle of ghosts, and Rita nodded, looking forward again to the anonymity of her burqcoat.

 

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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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