Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

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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Filed under Dark

Brain Ports

by Jason Gibbs

“There is no such thing as a soul!”

“Well, that was emphatic.  Can we at least ask…”

“No, that was the last question I am willing to take.”

With that, the minister stormed off the stage, leaving the press shaking their heads and laughing.  It was a game they liked to play with the new appointees, and normally they didn’t get such a good response.

#

“Minister Roberts…”

“I know Simkins, I should have held it together, but those press people, they’re like rabid…”

“Don’t worry minister, here is your coffee.  Also, Mrs Youre is on the line.”

“The Prime Minister?”

“Yes, minister.  Here she is…”

With that Simkins switched the mirror over and Roberts was face to face with his boss.

“Roberts.  What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Ah, Prime Minister, um, I, I’m sorry, I should have been prepared…”

She laughed, and then smiled at him.  He realised she was having as much fun as the press people.

“Don’t worry Roberts, that was actually perfect.  Your last two predecessors were too cool, I think the press were starting to wonder.  Your, let’s call it a performance, yes, your performance was brilliant.  They’ll be chuckling to themselves for months.  And not bothering about the other stories,” she stared at him.

“Yes, Prime Mini…”

“Your job Roberts, is to keep them off the scent for as long as possible.  We know this is going to get out, but we’ve managed to keep a lid on it for three years, and we’d like a little more time.  My people tell me they think they only need a couple more months, but they said much the same last year.  You hold on.  Do whatever is necessary.”

“Yes, Pri…”

She cut off.  Roberts was tempted to swear but held himself back.  She might reappear, and his day had been getting worse since she’d called for him that morning.

#

As he was driven back to the ministry he stared into the middle distance, remembering the brief feeling of joy when he’d received the call.  He was finally getting noticed.  He assumed it would be a junior position, but, the only way was up.

Instead she’d sat him down and told him straight, “Roberts.  You are cannon fodder.  The likelihood is you’ll do this and be consigned to the back benches for the next decade.  But your country needs you, I need you, are you willing to do it?”

There was obviously no answer to that.  He’d nodded, trying to look serious and ministerial.

“You are going to be our new Minister for Galactic Transport.  The fourth in 18 months so my aides tell me.  The last three are… well the wilderness would probably be preferable.  They slipped up.  You must not.”

He just stared at her.  The job was a poisoned chalice, and yet nobody knew why.  Ministers just didn’t last.  Maybe it was the souls thing?

“Now, I only have five minutes, so I’m going to give you the fast brief.  Your team in the ministry will give you background, but this is so important you need to hear it from me.  Firstly, the official line is that there is no such thing as a soul, and YOU WILL STICK TO IT.  DO you understand?”

There was a sharpness to her smile.  He nodded understanding.

“We have had some issues with the replication technology with teleports, this is true, but we believe that it is the central computer.  There’s a bug, a switch set to one, nothing more.  And you will not entertain any notion otherwise.  Got it?”

“Yes, Prime Mini…”

She’d stood up, and ushered him out, newly minted, a proper minister, and yet, a sword hanging over his head.  The previous minister had lasted 17 weeks, so at least he had a target.

#

“Right, so, Simkins, can you explain to me what the difference between the official line, and the unofficial line actually is, so that I might avoid abject humiliation next time I’m up in front of the press?”

“I’m afraid not Minister.”

“What?”

“There is no difference.”

Butter wouldn’t melt.

Roberts took a deep breath.  “Fine, tell me what the issue is, and why people keep mentioning souls.”

Simkins eyed him, but then clearly decided to take pity on him.

“Well Minister, do you know how the transportation works?”

“Yes, yes, brain ports, we get one put in, it maps the brain, a plug sucks the map out, spits it across the communicator and then we’re printed by a giant 3d meat printer at our destination.”

Simpkins nodded, though Roberts thought he detected a slight grimace.

“Quite so minister.  Though we tend not to use such… colourful language.  We’ve been doing this for some years, more than a decade of commercial licence in fact.  In the beginning we had strict rules, only one copy of a person at a time.  Obviously when the original person was, um, transported, they ceased to exist in their first location…”

“Why?” Roberts asked, he’d always wondered.

“We believe it’s the mapping process.  Nonetheless, from a legal perspective it makes it easy, one legal person, transports to another location, no duplicates, no… dare I say it, clones.”

They both shuddered.  Not worth thinking about that.

“Right, so what about the souls.”

“Minister please let me explain,” said Simkins sounding a little pained.

“Yes, sorry Simkins, go ahead.”

“And then two years ago there was the De Freito case, and suddenly the floodgates opened.”

Roberts looked blank.  “Um, if you could just remind me?”

“De Freito claimed that his human rights were being violated, because of the restrictions he was unable to be at home with his family and travelling at the same time.”

“Ah yes, I seem to recall something…” said Roberts, though he really couldn’t.

“So, they tried to send him to his destination, and a copy back round, and it failed.  He threatened to sue, it got a little ugly, and then… there was a small mistake and he ended up at a terminal station, which is at least a decade away from being able to send him back.”

“A mistake?”

“Yes, minister.”

More butter.

“Souls?”

“Of course, minister.  The tests didn’t stop there, they just found some more amenable subjects.  But what they found was that no matter what they did, there could only ever be one copy of a person in the galaxy.  The data would duplicate, triplicate or whatever, but whichever copy arrived first would be the person, even if the time difference was almost nothing.  The other copies would just… fail.”

“Ah, this is that glitch the Prime Minister mentioned, something to do with a switch.”

“That is the official line, Minister.  They are concerned about the fallout if people start thinking they have souls again.  Can you imagine?”

The wars of religion had been brutal, and religiosity was frowned upon in these enlightened times.

“What do they think it is?”

“Well, they have performed many experiments, even putting two ports into one candidate.  Nothing worked, no matter what they do, only one copy of a person can ever exist.”

“Do they know why?”

“Yes, they’re fairly certain now.  Empirically, there is a single point, a sort of essence of a person, which cannot be duplicated.”

Roberts nodded wisely.

“Ah, excellent, and what are they proposing to call this?”

Simkins looked at him with an expression approaching pity.

“A soul, minister.”

###

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Filed under Flash Fiction

Our Man on Earth

By Jason Gibbs

Seriously, what in the name of anything which can be named were they thinking when they sent me here?  Look at this place, it’s… it’s despicable.

“Anton?”

What?

“Anton?”

“What?”

“Are you alright?  You seemed to zone out for a moment or two there.”

“Um, yeah fine.  Where’s that waiter, I’m ready to order.”

She looked at me, and two frown lines appeared above her eyes.  Her beautiful brown eyes.

“We just finished… and I’ve paid.  Again.”

“Ah, yes, sorry, just joking, and I’ll pay tonight.”

I look around, and realise it is night, and the frown is spreading.

“I mean tomorrow.”

“Yes Anton.”  She shakes her head, her hair, like long black snakes, almost alive.  She is beautiful, and yet… not.

“Sorry Sula, it’s been one of those, um, diurnal cycles.”

“It’s a day Anton, and it’s not funny, your way, you’re… I don’t know what it is.”

She stands suddenly.  Pushing back her chair with a sound which makes me flinch.  Hate it.

“Well?”

I get up, slower, and making sure to lift my chair.  No pain there.

“Let’s walk, and perhaps I can buy you…”

“A flower?”

“A drink?”

“We’ll see.”

I reach a hand out, and she twirls away, her short white dress swirling up a little, showing her long dark brown legs to their best advantage.  And no knickers.  I knew I liked her for a reason.

She catches my stare, winks and pauses long enough for me to catch her hand and we walk out into the hot Cairo night.

When we met, we were two strangers, foreigners, lumped together.  The locals view us all the same, no matter our different racial backgrounds.  So, we were forced together, and forced in a way to behave as the locals assumed we would.  Not that I didn’t enjoy it.

“Anton?  Anton!  Are you alright?”

“Sula?”

An intake of breath.

“No, it’s Rita.”

That’s right.  Sula’s gone.  Cholera?

“Sorry Rita, I…”

She looked closely at me.

“No, I know, it’s the shock.  The car hitting you, and yet, you are fine.  But…”

Oh, the car.  Yes.  I must stay in this time.

“It just tapped me, it was the angle.”

She frowns.  Her lashes are so long.  Dark, covering her eyes.  Blue, not like Sula’s.  But then Rita is very different from Sula.

Why am I here, in this purgatory?

“What?  Purgatory?”

“Ah… maybe I will have a drink.”

“There it is.”

I look down, and she’s right, some dark brown liquid is sitting in front of me.  I take a sip.  Scotch, single malt, Highland by the taste of it.  This place has a few advantages.  Women.  Whisky.  I can’t think of a third.

“Look Anton, I’ve been meaning to say, and after that… I mean with the car.  Maybe it’s not the right time.”

“What?”

“Anton?”

“Lea, how wonderful to see you here.  How have you been?”

Her beautiful face glows with a smile.  Brown eyes, so dark they’re black, twinkling.  I used to love making her smile.

“I’m well.  I…”

She’s remembered.  How we met after Rita left me, and the brief burst of fire and then… she was a doctor, she knew I should have died.

“I’m glad to see it.  Look Lea, I have to go…”

“No Anton, please.  I’ve thought about you a lot.  I want to talk to you.  I want to try and understand.”

I should run away.  I’ve run away before.  I’ve done other things too.  But this time, I can’t.  It’s too much, I’m so tired.  Tired of this place.

“We can talk, but you won’t understand.”

“Try me.”

I get a twitch.  Damn, not now, not when…

Anton.  Report.”  It was second control.  She was always prying.

“Now is not a good time Control.  Can we twitch later?”

“No need.  I just wanted to tell you that your latest request to return has been denied.  You must complete your mission.  Out.”

“But.”  She was gone.

“Anton!”

I looked up at her.

“Lea, why are you staring down at me?”

“You just collapsed.  Hitting the corner of the table, and then lying there, mumbling.  Look, let me check your head.”

“Um no, it’s fine, really…”

“If you’re sure… though given the fire.  Yes.”

Damn, the fire.  Right, what do I do now?

“Do you have any alcohol?” I ask as I pull myself up.

“Anton, this is a coffee shop, no alcohol.”

“Oh.  I don’t think I can tell you without a proper drink.”

She sighs.

“Fine, we’ll go to my place.  Yours will be a mess, and probably crawling with… well anything.  I have some scotch.  I blame you for introducing me to it.”

She takes my hand and leads me out.  It’s different from before, it feels like I’m an errant child being led home by a brood-parent.

“Here, something a bit peaty, I think you’ll like it.  Now tell me.”

“Yes.. Ree… I mean Lea.”

She frowns, but says nothing, and looks at me, her eyes hard.

“Right, yes.  So, um, the fire.”

“Which should have killed you.  Yes?”

“Yes, but this, corpus?  Corpse?”

“It’s not a corpse until you are dead Anton.”

“This body, it is, designed, yes designed to be robust, to protect me.  From everything.”

“Fire, flood and plague?”

“All the biblical scourges.”

“Who designed it?  A government?  A corporation?”

I laugh, choking on my whisky.  After a brief cough I take another slug, swirl it round my mouth and swallow the sweet burn.

“So?”

“Sorry Lea, no, not them.  I’m not sure you’ll believe me.”

“Aliens?”

My look of surprise makes her laugh.

“Once you’ve ruled out the impossible… and I looked you over when you were out, you are not something that would be easy to make.”

It’s out.  My secret is out.  Maybe second control will take another request.  Wait, no.  If my secret is out I have to stay, and they’ll start the life timer.

“Anton!”

“Lea, look, it’s supposed to be a secret, and if my controllers find out… I’ll die here.  On this miserable excuse for a…”

I look at her frown, and change tack, “Lovely planet I mean, great place, lovely people.  Nice whisky.”

“Why are you here?  Are you going to invade?  Steal our resources?  Turn me into a fifty foot giant?”

I knew I liked her for a reason, calm and still making jokes.

“Well, technically I’m here to ‘survey the local civilisation and report’, but honestly, it’s punishment for… well best not to say.”

“Was a girl involved?  Or your species’ equivalent?”

“Um, yes, more or less.”

“Ha, not a surprise.  You didn’t answer my question.”

“No offence, but there is literally nothing of value on this planet.  Once you get a space industry you’ll realise how poor the planet really is, but anyway, all I’m really here to do is try and prevent you lot from killing yourselves off.  Not because you’re special, there are thousands of similar planets and sentients, but because we’re sentimental that way.  Possibly several millennia of wiping out any other species we encountered, it’s amazing what trillions of deaths will do to a species’ guilt complex when it finally arrives.”

“How is it going?”

“Oh, well, I haven’t really tried, I mean, why bother?  If you lot want to kill yourselves, go ahead.  I just want to get home.”

“And when can you go home?”

“Only when I produce evidence you’re all stable and not likely to explode at any moment.”

“That’s it?”

“Or…”

Or… now that is interesting.

“Or what Anton?  Anton?  What is that gleam in your eye?”

“Lea, I have to go, sorry.  I’ll probably not see you again.”

The plague ripped through the population without mercy.  Billions died.  Civilisation collapsed, and the few who were immune to the bioweapon died in the ensuing chaos as a result of starvation or other prosaic killers.

Second control passed on his report.  The response was swift, “Well Anton, you failed.  But you can come home.”

###

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Attack of the Giant Purple Girls – Published Today!

Thirty years in the making, this book was started by my mother, and I’ve finally finished it.  Published using the createspace platform it is available from Amazon today as both a paperback and kindle (see widget to the side for a direct link).

This book is about two boys, Dominic and Jason, who have some interesting adventures on a perfectly ordinary Sunday morning, and end up on a strange world battling Giant Purple Girls, and hunger.

My mother passed away without finishing the story, and after some reflection I decided to pick it up, and find out what actually happened to the two characters, particularly the one based on a young me, and here it is.  The artwork on the cover, and inside, is all my mother’s work, though was not originally planned for the book.

I hope you choose to buy the book, and more importantly, enjoy it if you do.

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Star Donkey

By Jason Gibbs

Kael’s head slammed into the back of his helmet.  The stars spun.  Darkness tried to claim him.  Suddenly he was bathed in light, his little ship had twisted to face the sun, but was still spinning making the sun shift in odd ways.  A headache was building behind his eyes.

“Alpha one, do you read me?  Dammit Jole, what is going on?”

The last thing he remembered was approaching the object.  It was a giant cylinder, pointed towards the sun.  It was the first alien artefact humanity had seen, and all the expectations of seamless joins and matt black smart coatings had been dashed.  It looked like nothing so much as a piece of junk, cobbled together by a crazed inventor.  He’d prepared a speech to rival Armstrong’s, but as he neared the thing the words stuck in his mouth.  Then something invisible reached out and thrust his little craft violently away.  He tried to clear his head.

“Alpha one, please respond.  Where are you?”

“Alpha one here.  Please report Falcon.  Are you alright?”

Relief flooded through him, but, damn, it hurt to speak.

“I’m fine, I hurt a bit, but… no I’m OK.  I don’t know what happened, did you see anything?”

“We saw you approach, and then it was like you were slapped away.  Nothing visible.  A forcefield?  It didn’t affect any of the telemetry.  We saw that ugly pile of junk.  I wonder what it is…”

It’s an automated magnetic flux extraction and vessel reabsorption station.

“Um, was that you Falcon?”

“No…”

I am PK.  I run this facility.  I do hope our automated defence system caused you no permanent damage, but I must ask that you do not approach within ten thousand kilometres of our station.  For your own safety.

It was an alien, a proper real, non-Earth based sentient.  Eloquence was sadly lost, and the best he could manage was: “What?  Where are you from?  What do you want from us?”

All of Kael’s training was failing him.  The xenologists back on Earth had given him so many ways of approaching this, it was First Contact after all.  But none of them had anticipated this, whatever it was.

My planet’s name would mean nothing to you, and you only have a random set of characters naming my star.  We need nothing from you.  This facility will run for ten thousand years.  It’s only a short-term extraction, but with reuse we’ve got the cost of these facilities down to something reasonable now, so it’s net positive on the pay back to roll them out aggressively, even for stars like yours which will play out so quickly.

“Alpha One are you copying this?”

Kael’s brain had overloaded.  He had so many questions, he just didn’t know which one to ask, so he’d resorted to protocol: always make sure you have witnesses to back up your story.

“We copy you Falcon.  We continue to acknowledge your lead.”

Well that was very kind of them, now wasn’t it?

“Um PK, can I ask how you can speak our language and know our units, kilometres and years?”

Exploration did a brief survey of your planet when we agreed to deploy the project here.  I had to update the pack which is why I couldn’t contact you immediately after you were repulsed.”

Suddenly something the alien said jumped to the fore of his mind.

“Wait, what do you mean the star will be played out?”

The extraction engine will have consumed so much of the magnetic energies that the star will collapse.  There might be a mini-nova, but probably not a lot.

“In ten thousand years?”

At most.  Based on the magnetic fluctuations we’re seeing within the extraction process it might be only two thousand, which I can tell you is going to wreck the budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if heads don’t roll.  Still not my problem, I’m off to the next installation shortly.”

“You’re telling me that this machine is going to destroy the Sun in possibly two thousand years.”

I can see why Cultural Assessment decided not to invest any effort in your civilisation.  Yes.  Star, gone, two thousand years.  Look, I’m really busy, and I have to leave shortly.  Wait, I know, sorry about this, I should have played this to you first.  Bye.”

Some music played.  Kael tried shouting, but the music was drowning him out, and he doubted Alpha One could hear him.  The music faded and was replaced with a melodic, androgynous voice speaking, a message which was repeated endlessly, and over which Kael was unable to make himself heard.

“This is the [garbled] Mining and Extraction Corporation.  Congratulations, your system has been chosen for an extraction pump.  It will mine energy from your star and provide it to the interstellar community and help improve the lives of trillions of sentients across the galaxy.  We determined your civilisation was in a low-value category, and therefore ineligible for either payment or consultation, if there has been an error in grading, please raise it with the local civilisation assessment office.  In the meantime, you may notice some secondary effects in your star, ultimately culminating in its collapse, and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

###

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Goatherd

“Ben, I can see my goats from this rock.”

“Yep, I’ve a good view too.  Any wolves come, we’ll stop them.”

“Thanks for helping,” I said gratefully.

“No problem George, that’s what neighbours do.  They take your goats and they’ll be on to mine next.”

I said nothing, watching the goats leap from rock to rock with a grace and insouciance; the capricious creatures were born for it.  They’d tried sheep at first, but damn things kept getting lost and really didn’t like the rocky ground.  Goats on the other hand loved it, gravity never having had much hold on them.

I watched Bill, my favourite goat, taking a bite out of a rock.  She looked at me while chewing happily.  She was a good producer, but cheeky.  I suspected she was the one who’d broken the fencing the day before.  It wasn’t there to keep the goats in, the gap to the next rocks did that.  It was to stop wolves.

“Fleeces look good George, lovely green, and their torso bubbles look smooth.”

“I’m always careful, I popped one a few years ago, and had to bring the injured goat inside to allow the chlorophyll fleece to regrow, and rebuild the bubble.  A real nightmare.  I always think it’s a pity they can’t live off the rocks, but that’s modern mechano-genetic-engineering for you.”

“Totally!”

A pause.

“You listening on the goats’ channel?”

“Nah, only so many ‘maaas’ I can take.  It’s obvious if they spot anything.”

Bill, bored with her position, bounced off, small pellets of pure metals coming out of her behind, and collecting in the little bubble I attached to her daily.  It still amazed me that they chewed into rock and pooed out these metals, but that was the whole point of bringing them up to the asteroids.

“Mind if I ask something George?”

“Course not.”

“You renewed?”

“Another three years.”

“Full term?”

“Yeah, I reckon if I double the flock over the next month, then I’ll be able to get most of the easy minerals out.  You?”

“I’m on rolling six months, I…”

Suddenly the whole flock looked up.  One of them had spotted a pirate wolf, I got my rifle ready, and hoped we’d get it.

“Got it, Sun-side top.”

“Where… got it too.  A single wolf raider.  There must be a back-up somewhere.”

“You take him out.  I’ll hunt the other.”

I aimed carefully and squeezed off a shot, then another.  The first grazed him, but the second was smack bang in the middle of his bubble.  It collapsed, and I could see the pilot thrashing before it exploded.  It was harsh, but if I hadn’t stopped him then I’d find stripped goat carcasses spinning in nearby space within the day.

I looked around to see how Ben was doing, and spotted another raider bubble collapsing.

“Yee-es!  Got the other.”

“Awesome.  I owe you Ben.”

“Beers next time we’re in town.  Unlikely you’ll see more wolves today.  I gotta check my flock, I bet they’ve scattered.”

Grateful, I watched my flock, oblivious once again and eating happily.  Despite the occasional wolf, it was a good life, for them and me.

###

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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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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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Lobbying for the Merchants of Death

This one came to me after a week’s holiday in Spain…

 

Lobbying for the Merchants of Death

By Jason Gibbs

“Thank you for smoking. Loved that film.”

“Film?”

“Old 2D movie, probably way before your time… anyway there’s this great scene where Aaron Eckhart’s character, who represents the tobacco companies, is explaining how his product kills more people than alcohol and guns.”

“Tobacco?”

“Yeah, you know smoking it? Seriously do they teach you nothing in school these days?”

“Um, yes, I see here it used to cause millions of deaths a year.”

“Yes.”

“More than your clients.”

“Exactly my point, exactly.”

“So it was banned, and alternatives found and now far fewer people die from it?”

“No, no, that’s the opposite lesson. Tobacco was rehabilitated, it’s used in all sorts of things now, paper, a lot of medicines. Tobacco production has grown for the last decade, even while smoking has been consigned to the wilderness of history.”

“Um, so your clients. You think they can be rehabilitated?”

“Of course. But first we need to stop painting them as evil. They do what they do, we just need to find a way of making it less, deadly.”

“But you admit they’ve killed a lot of people?”

“Billions according to some estimates.”

“So…”

“Does that justify wiping them from the planet? No. Are they an existential threat to us? Definitely not. They kill far fewer than they used to, and I think with a little research we can bring that number down to zero. I really do.”

“That requires investment.”

“Yes, and for us to stop this massacre. Do you know what the death toll related to the current programme is?”

“Human?”

“So species centric. Yes, human.”

“No, I thought…”

“Three thousand. So far. Accidents, chemical poisoning etc. That’s more than my clients killed last year and the year before put together.”

“OK, but…”

“But nothing. We stop the massacre, we put resources into finding a prophylactic. Everybody’s happy, the world is a better place.”

“And you have to find new clients?”

“There’s always more clients. And if I win this… well, the sky’s no longer a limit.”

“Who’s paying you?”

“First good question you’ve asked. There’s a lot people. They don’t necessarily agree with my clients, but they think their destruction is unwarranted. Something like, I don’t agree with what you do, but I will give my life to defend your right to do so…”

“Sartre?”

“Apparently not.”

“Ouch. What is that?”

“Might be a bite. If it is, you might want to stop scratching it.”

“Wait, are you telling me some of your clients are in here?”

“Of course. Couldn’t probably represent them if they weren’t here now could I?”

“And one of them bit me?”

“May have, no proof…”

“Um, do they carry malaria?”

“We have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on that.”

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