Back to The Shadows.

pump2018

The cat dashed past Gerard’s legs and up the stairs in a black, scrabbling blur. Moments earlier the backdoor had crashed open, squeaking and clattering noisily in the frame.

He ran to the backroom and wrenched the door closed against the resistant wind and whipping rain. Gerard locked the door, leaving the key slightly turned. He took a final glance through the frosted pane into the garden, weakly lit by a neighbour’s security light, and returned to the living room.

The family watched as he knelt on the sofa under the front window and peered out into the street. They sat across the room, on the larger sofa, huddled together in the far corner.

‘I take it that’s the last of you?’ Gerard said without turning from his watch.

‘I told you, we’re all here’ the father replied.

Gerard turned his head and grimaced.

‘You didn’t mention the cat. I don’t remember a cat. I don’t remember any of this. Thought I would. Any other potential visitors I should know about?’

Of course I didn’t mention the cat! The father wanted to scream at the intruder. You break into my house, threaten my family, and you think I give a damn about the cat? But instead he just nodded and simply said, ‘No. Why does it matter?’

Gerard turned to the window. The family watched the leathery curls on the back of his neck wrinkle as he spoke.

‘Nothing matters now. Everywhere is locked. No getting in, no getting out. Now it begins.’

Despite her husband’s hurried appeal for calm when the intruder was out of the room, the mother struggled to hide the frustration in her voice.

What begins? What do you want?’ she snapped, clinging to her son tightly.

‘I don’t want anything. I’m here to save you from what’s out there.’ Gerard peered into the gloom between the streetlights.

‘There’s nothing out there’ said the mother.

Gerard turned, smiled, and sat facing them. As he crossed his legs the mother noticed how he repeatedly toyed with the laces of his gnarled boots. A nervous tick? Obsessive behaviour? She’d seen it before somewhere she couldn’t place.

‘Not yet. We’re in for a long night. You might want to get some bedding down for the little one. Looks like he might need it.’

The son, despite the adrenalin and confusion, was nodding into his mother’s armpit, the whites of his eyes rolling up under flittering eyelids.

‘I’ll go’ said the father.

‘We’ll both go’ insisted Gerard, pulling himself up to his intimidating six and five, wreathed in his long, worn leather jacket.

The father ran another mental bout against the monster before him. There was no way he could beat him in a fair fight, and he guessed there’d be nothing fair about it. When the intruder had first appeared in the house just twenty minutes previously, having casually just walked in from the street through the unlocked door, he had quickly subdued the father’s attempts at retaliation with little more than a sturdily outstretched arm and a firm grip.

So far the intruder had revealed no weapons, but that coat could hide a small armoury. There was nothing in the house the father could use anyway, save a sturdy walking stick in the storm-porch, but that was locked away like everything else.

He got up and walked to the corridor and was signalled by the intruder to go first up the stairs. As he reached the top he realised there was one weapon that was available to all, given the right circumstances. He stopped and waited for the footsteps behind to catch up.

‘What are you waiting for?’ said the intruder, one foot half on the landing, his knees bent and arms spread to the walls.

The father turned, planted his hands firmly on either side of the stair walls, lifted his leg and kicked the intruder squarely in the chest, putting his whole weight behind his straightening knee.

Gerard instinctively reached forward to grab the assailing leg, but was already toppling backwards as he did so. His hands flayed pointlessly into the void between them. He hit the steps hard, with the weight of his body on top of him, and then tumbled through all the angles to the foot of the stairs.

The mother came running out of the living room, in an instant seeing the contorted intruder and closing the door behind her.

‘Stay in there darling, just stay in there a moment’ she called back, holding the handle to stop her son from following. The handle wobbled and then fell still.

‘That’s it,’ she said, trying to hide the shake in her voice, ‘just have a little lie down, we’ll be there in a minute.’

The father descended the stairs quickly, lunged and landed purposefully with his knee on the intruder’s throat, figuring he could at least hold him down him while his wife and child ran to safety. All the heap below him could manage, however, was to turn his head slightly to meet his eye.

‘I came to save you’ Gerard moaned, pushing back against the waves of pain and cold numbness that phased across his being.

‘Don’t move!’ the mother yelled. ‘I’m calling the police.’

She thrust her hand into the intruder’s pockets and pulled out the keys he had stashed away earlier after bursting into their home and overpowering her husband. She felt a guilty pride now as all the intruder could do to try and stop her was strain against unresponsive muscles and limp limbs, thanks to her husband’s besting.

She unlocked the storm porch and retrieved the mobile phones the intruder had sealed away.

‘Close the door’ he whispered through strained breath, but the mother didn’t listen, busy as she was frantically checking each of the devices.

‘No signal?’ said the father. She nodded.

‘Use the landline. I’ll be okay.’

She ran to the kitchen.

‘Don’t go out. Don’t let anyone in. Not till light. Please!’ Gerard’s eyes bulged with the effort of speaking.

The father twisted his knee. He could barely force out words through the anger.

‘You come into my house, you say we will die if we don’t do what you ask, you threaten my family and now you beg me not to call the police?’

‘They can’t help you!’ Gerard pleaded. ‘They can’t help anyone! Not tonight. Only me.’

‘Why? Because there’s something ‘out there’? There’s something in here, and you’re done, man. You’re sick, you’re a sick…’

The father was interrupted by the sound of his wife’s cursing from down the hall. He called out to her and she returned, clutching the telephone handset.

‘There’s nothing’ she said, handing it over.

The father pressed fruitlessly at buttons, listening to the silence.

‘You cut the lines? Why would you do that?’

The intruder seemed to be coming to some kind of peace. His breathing slowed, his features calmed, his eyes looked past the father and to the ceiling.

‘They’re all down. Everything’s down. I came back to stop it from happening to you again. I failed.’

‘Damn right you failed. Sarah. Go next door, now. Get the police, and an ambulance.’

There was a loud scratch from behind the living room door.

‘Darling?’ said the mother tentatively.

‘I told you. They’re here. But how can… How did I make it? If…’ the intruder babbled weakly. There was another scratch in the wood of the door, deep and jarring. And another. It grew louder, furious.

‘Mummy!’ the son shouted from beyond.

‘Get him out!’ she yelled at her husband.

The father jumped to his feet and quickly but cautiously eased the door open. His heart pounded violently as the cat flew past him and down the corridor to the kitchen. The son followed soon after, sniffling from the fright of the dark living room and the sound of animal claws. He stood blinking in the doorway.

‘Just the cat!’ the father said furiously to the intruder, but the intruder said nothing. His eyes twitched urgently, but the words wouldn’t come to his lips, his breath failing in his throat. All he could do was look to the top of the stairs.

‘What?’ said the father. ‘What’s up there?’ He peered up, trying to follow the intruder’s line of sight but could see nothing on the dark landing.

‘It was me!’ the intruder croaked suddenly and violently. ‘I let it in. But why send me back here if… Oh dear.’ the intruder choked on the end of his sentence.

There was another scratch, and a deep, rattling growl, this time it came from upstairs.

‘But, Claw just went to the kitchen?’ said the mother.

‘Probably a stray’ the father said. ‘I’ll go and have a look.’

‘I’m coming too’ insisted the mother. ‘What if he wasn’t alone?’

The father looked at the dazed son in the doorway.

‘We can’t leave him. Not here, not with,’ he nodded at the intruder who had closed his eyes, and was very, very still. ‘Oh god. I think he’s…’ the father stopped short of saying the word in front of his son, even the sound of it in is head made him shudder.

The mother turned the boy by the shoulders and stepped him into the porch.

‘We’re going out soon, so you put your shoes on, Mummy and Daddy are just going to get some things. I’m going to close the door. Only for a few seconds, I promise.’

The son sat down on the cold tiles. The father winked and rubbed his hair before locking the door behind him and heading upstairs with his wife.

That was the night the shadows came in from the darkness and waited for those who went looking. That was the night that changed everything.

Gerard fiddled with the laces of his shoes while he waited for his parents to return.

THE END

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Garry.

The Timeless Whirlpool of the Talkers.

I can still hear them, at night, long after the bell has rung and the doors are locked. I lay, restless and buzzing from the constant hum that has followed me to bed. The echoes of a hundred simultaneous voices still reverberate in my weary skull, punctuated by the chink of glass on glass.

Sometimes, when I am not so tired and lay alert and listening carefully, I can almost make them out, as if I have the ability to listen again to everything that was said that night, even those words I paid no attention to before. But somehow the utterances evade me. They crescendo and fluctuate with the familiar cadence and rhythm of a million well-worn conversations, but not one syllable can I decipher.

It’s not every night I hear them, just those evenings where the energy generated in the public house seems to overcome the natural order of the silence that should follow. You can tell, when you are down there, a night like that. It is when the edges of the various social bubbles meet and begin to merge. Ripples of mirth, mayhem and intrigue can spread from pocket to pocket, through lounge to bar and back again in a circle of electricity, growing ever more potent and powerful. Fuelled by flowing confidence from tap and optic, sometimes it can be frightening, but always exciting.

The weak willed like me get swept away with it, well past the end of the shift and the hasty clear-up and into the after-hours when tips are turned to drink, and drink is put to good use. Those remnant handfuls of workers and the few favoured regulars, leaching off the residual glow in the last illuminated corner of the now barricaded sanctuary. Here we tell on ourselves, and others. Here we share secrets we ought not. Here the accumulated gossip of a good night is doled out and dissected. We take more from you than your money.

And here, when those of us who don’t retreat because we work for our board (and maybe, board for our work?), are all that’s left, one last door is locked behind us as we ascend to our dowdy refuge. In my room, directly above the epicentre, I try to unwind and the murmurs begin anew.

Now, it appears, they are growing ever more frequent and raucous. Even in the quiet midweek, when fever pitch is seldom reached, I have begun to hear them. I wonder how long the auditory afterimage of the last searing evening can actually last. Is it there all the time? Have I partook in one-to-many extra-curricular sessions so that I can no longer shake them? Is it only when hush is mixed with dark that my senses notice the ever-present drone?

Here on a quiet and almost forgotten Wednesday, alone in the flat, punters long departed and lines well drained, I cannot catch that sober and elusive early-night, thanks to the infernal chatter from below. Yet I know no one is there. I turned the keys and set the alarms myself, but for all the world, beneath the boards the night continues. Without intoxication or high spirits to blame, there can be no doubt.

It’s 2am. It’s been 2am forever, it seems. Whatever the point was of lying here, it has long gone, and all I can think about is the chatter. A laugh breaks out of the mumble soup, as clear as the day will soon be. I swing my legs out of the sheets and pull on the jeans that lay waiting where I stepped out of them an eternity ago. I wrap the rest of me in the tatty gown that smells of smoke so stale it’s almost become fresh again, like everything here, smothered in an amber film of nicotine.

I don’t like to go downstairs after the furore has been sent home and its fallout contained behind the frosted door at the top of the stairwell. I don’t even like coming up those stairs with the cloying darkness on my heels. I never go down, usually, until the daylight has worked its normalising charm. But I’ve got to exorcise this madness from my mind and  give my eyes chance to lay waste to this myth in my ears.

I light up the stairs from the single switch at the summit and make the dash down to the extensive panel at the bottom, around the corner, groping in the darkness for the top row. I realise I have my eyes closed as I do this, a fire-with-fire defence against the heavy black. I click the switches and open my eyes. Only the inside of the bar is lit-up, as it must be at this time of night, should a passing lawman suspect some unlicensed frivolities peeking through the heavy curtains. Beyond the polished and worn oak, shadows prevail.

I tread the extended horseshoe that links bar to lounge yet never has the full view of either. I round the last corner to the far end of the lounge. The sticky, sickly orange glow of the bar lights barely penetrates as far as the upturned chairs resting uneasily on the squeaky red leather benches that run the line of the outer walls.

There is no one here but me, of course, and I hear nothing but the wind in the streets and the slight hum of meters and machines in the cellar. Suddenly I feel awake, stupid and thirsty. Why not pour myself a drink? After all, I’m alone tonight, for a change, and I can put it on my tab to be paid for later by the cheap generosity of clients with too many coppers in their change.

The optic drains into the tumbler, once, twice, hell, let’s make it three times. The ice machine has a few flakes left to push the whisky even further, and a cigar from the tin next to the limes tops it all off.

I don’t really want to go around to the other side, with the shadows, but my bare feet are cold on the dampish tiles behind the bar, and the high-stools are still out, customer-side. There’s a small envelope of pitch black where the hatch lets me out into a small corridor that joins the bar, lounge and services. I skip through it and back to the lounge, a shudder running with me all the way. I take the first stool I come to that hugs the last trap before the door, partitioned by thin, carved pillars.

My drink waits for me on the bar. It feels reassuring to sit facing inwards, like any lonely regular drinking alone at early doors, lost in thoughts, or found in their absence. The whiskey stings at first as it runs on dry, cracked lips. A slither of the ice remedies that as I work it around my gums before taking that first retching gulp. It makes me draw breath through my teeth, and now I’m ready.

‘I never knew him, not really…’ a woman says from behind, from the corner where we normally huddle after hours, cackling and gossiping. My bad habit of ear-wagging kicks in, and then I remember: I’m alone.

‘That’s not what I heard’ a guttural, male voice says, mirthlessly, almost menacingly. I don’t recognise it, I don’t like it, and I won’t, no, I can’t turn around. My glass is frozen at my mouth, tilted but not pouring, I can feel small discrepancies in the rim of the glass tremble sharply against my lips. I can’t move it, no, I daren’t move it.

‘You hear too much, and not half of it true’ the double-negative woman says. Is this it? Has the senseless chatter finally crystallised in my delusion? There is no doubt now. I can hear them, but they can’t be there. For one thing, the rear of the bar is mirrored, and although it is hard to see past my own pale reflection into the murk beyond the reach of the lights, I find not even a hint of a silhouette.

‘I know more than you think’ the man says. ‘I know he wasn’t alone that night, even if that was how they found him. Even if all the doors were locked from the inside, like they said.’

‘Oh yeah, detective?’ the woman says, sarcastically. ‘How’s that then?’

‘There was the glasses, for a start.’

‘Glasses?’

‘That’s what I said. Two glasses, on another table.’

The woman laughs in a breathy cackle I feel I’ve heard before, in the dusk chorus.

‘It’s a pub!’ she finally manages to spit out. ‘So what?’

The man doesn’t seem to find it, or her, funny.

‘It was after hours. The chairs were put up every night, the tables polished, the ashtrays emptied. Every night. Without fail.’

‘So he missed one.’

‘And didn’t notice it when he came down? Sat hardly a yard away?’ The man was speaking to her like she was stupid, barely tempering the contempt in his voice. Something tells me these two knew each other too well. Well enough to hate and abide each other’s companionship until the miserable sun burned out. The kind of couple who come to the pub every night to get away from each other, but end up spending each and every night in the same corner, trapped in contemptuous companionship.

‘And there’s more’ the man continued while the woman scoffed and gulped something down. ‘The mirror was broken.’

‘Which one?’

‘Behind the bar, over there.’

My spine locks. They’re looking this way. I can feel it, them, burning through the back of my neck. But in the mirror, nothing.

The woman grumbles, unconvinced, but curious.

‘I thought they found him slumped over there?’ she says. Now the burning is right on me, all over and around me. The man grunts in agreement.

‘So how did he smash the mirror? Unless he had a funny turn first.’

‘And then sat down for a whiskey and cigar?’ the man pointed out.

‘Maybe to calm his nerves’ she says, sounding unconvinced. ‘Anyway, he never lit the cigar, I heard.’ The pair fall quiet as both take slurps from drinks.

Calm my nerves? She might be right. That’s what these people are, my nerves, at devilish play. Nothing more. The mirror isn’t broken, and I’m not leaving this cigar untouched, I’m having it right now, except… The matches. Not here. Not in my pocket. Behind the bar. No problem. I take the cigar and break it in two.

‘It was snapped in half, though. What was that about?’ says the man, followed by a long sucking noise of moisture being drained from a presumably hairy top lip.

Oh come on! This is beyond madness now. This is a joke. A joke on myself. The mirror already confirms what I know. There is no one there. A quick glance over my tense shoulder will further validate this absence of reality. All I need to do is turn, but the thought of doing so, of actually peering into that dark corner, is the same thought as my heart stopping. But look I must. I must.

I turn my eyes first. Slowly my head follows, hastened by the confirmation from my periphery. There is, thankfully, no one, nothing. The voices have stopped. They haven’t just taken a break from their gossip, they have ceased to be present at all. I can feel the settled ambience of the empty room and my eyes have adjusted to the dimness. It is, as usual, just another corner of a smelly, locked, abandoned pub, save one. I shall take my drink, and another, and what remains of my cigar to bed. I swivel fluidly on my stool back to the bar.

‘Last orders?’

The shock is automatic, the snap of my hand to the drink beyond any conscious decision. The intense, sepulchral face is inches from mine and the bottomless eyes are absorbing my own. I hurl the glass at the craggy faced man who has appeared before me. I take in the dirty blue apron, sweaty white shirt and crooked teeth of the foul barkeep as the vessel passes through, and crack! I blink heavily at the shattering impact. My eyes open. The mirror is broken. The spectre has gone. The drink, somehow, is still grasped tightly in my white, blood-starved fingers.

I try to relax my grip, but the messages don’t get through. The tumbler is at eye level. The cold oak veneer is pressed against my cheek. Am I resting? Did I fall asleep? If so, why can’t I sit up? I can only feel myself tipping backwards from the stool, falling out of myself, away, into the baying crowd who ramble noisily behind me. They claw at me with their fingers and their words, tearing me cell by cell into the timeless whirlpool of the talkers. All that is left of me out there is a husk, broken, like the cigar, in so many fragments and tatters.

I understand now. If you hear them, their stories, their musings and mumbling in the night, then they have you. If you know their words, they know you. They have you.

I am with them now. This was my story. Soon we will have you too.

THE END.

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Bernie II – A Dimension Scales Christmas Tale.

robot-dog

Bernie II

A Dimension Scales Christmas Tale.

By Garry Abbott.

 

‘Frisky little thing, isn’t he?’

The little Yorkshire Terrier was jumping up again at the bars of the cage, his bright green eyes shining under a fringe of curly snow white fur and his tongue flicking in and out of his dark mouth as he panted excitedly.

‘That’s up to you,’ said the engineer, sensing a sale. ‘I can adjust his docility settings if you like? Most people do, eventually.’

‘No that’s okay’ Gareth said quickly before the engineer could fish his spanner out from his tattered leather utility belt. ‘I like him just the way he is. He reminds me of my old dog Bernie, before the, you know, the thing.’

The engineer understood. His whole trade had grown from the thing that happened that one time. The thing with the animals. No one liked to talk about or remember it anymore, that’s why they only called it the thing. It was mostly unavoidable for the engineer though, having made a roaring trade from creating realistic robot pets to replace those that were lost.

‘You want me to leave him as he is then? The default is the most accurate representation of this particular breed’s average behaviour and temperament. You can always tweak it later on, it comes with all the instructions and even a little screwdriver’ the engineer said, waving his own rather large screwdriver at Gareth.

Gareth chewed on his lip. The engineer was a good salesman, with talk of settings and accessories before he’d even said he wanted it. But it was, after all, what he had come here for.

‘Just as he is please. Yes.’

***

Gareth named his new dog ‘Bernie II’ and chose to walk him home, declining the engineer’s offer to have him safely packaged in a foam lined storage crate and drone-dropped the next morning. He even fitted him with a collar and lead, ignoring the funny looks he got from passers by, some of which were being followed obediently and unleashed by their own mechanical companions. Unlike those fashionably placid automaton, Bernie II pulled at the lead, yapped at anything and everything, and even stopped a few times to eject water vapours on the occasional lamppost.

Back at home Gareth managed to dig out the old blankets and cushions that had been stashed in the loft behind the boxes that held all the Christmas decorations. It was Christmas that had made him think about going down to see the engineer in the first place. He had stood there, last December, half up the step ladder, wresting with the awkwardly stacked and sagging boxes, baubles bouncing off his head and tinsel getting up his nose, when suddenly a box pulled free and a cascade of junk came streaming after it, including a chewed up plastic food bowl that rattled to a halt on the landing below.

Almost a year to the day, he now held the same bowl in his hands and used his little screwdriver to scratch the roman numerals ‘II’ next to the embossed ‘Bernie’ that was written across the side. He set it down and filled it with the food the engineer had given him. It looked and smelled just like real dog food, and for the most part it was very similar. It had just a few extra ingredients thrown in designed to make Bernie’s digestive battery converter sparkle with energy, and keep his replaceable teeth nice and white.

As soon as he had filled the bowl and tapped the fork on the edge, little Bernie II came bounding over and began to chomp away greedily at the slimy contents. As Gareth watched Bernie II gorge himself, he heard the key turning in the lock of the front door. His wife was home.

‘What a day!’ he heard her say as he quickly shot up, closed the door to the kitchen behind him, and kicked the dog cushion out of sight behind the armchair.

As always Tina walked in to the living room dressed in her long cream coat and black scarf, dropped her handbag on the sofa, and threw her keys on the pine coffee table with a loud scratchy clatter.

‘How was your day?’ she asked as she carefully plucked the fingers of her burgundy gloves away one at a time. ‘Mine was awful. The printer wasn’t working, so no one could print any paperclips to hold all the papers together.’

‘That sounds annoying’ Gareth said with a half grimace. ‘I’ve had quite an eventful day.’

He smiled and waited for Tina to ask him what had happened, but instead she flung her gloves on top of her keys and headed past him into the kitchen before he had chance to stop her.

‘What is that!’ she yelped, amidst a chorus of even higher pitched yips from Bernie II. He had made straight for her and was attempting something biologically impossible with her shins, even if he had been a real dog.

‘That’s what I was trying to tell you’ Gareth extracted Bernie who was panting and grinning wildly. ‘I did it. I got one. Like I said. He’s a bit lively, but then, so was the other Bernie, you know, the real one.’

Tina comprehended the drooling fur ball in her husbands hands with thinly veiled disgust.

‘So what’s this one called?’ she sneered, holding her hands close to her as if the dog may bite them off at any moment.

‘Bernie II. Do you like him?’

‘Well you can sort that leg humping business out for a start’ was all Tina said before turning away and heading upstairs to get changed.

There was no point in arguing, Gareth knew, not after such an unplanned and frankly unflattering introduction. So instead he got out his little screwdriver and removed the panel behind Bernie’s neck. Before long he found how to turn the dog’s sexuality setting to ‘neutered’ and put him back together again. Gareth thought that was fair enough, the original Bernie had been ‘done’ after all, so nothing had really changed.

***

That evening, Gareth, Tina and Bernie II settled down together on the sofa to watch an old film on the flat screen. It was some farce about a mad scientist who accidentally blew up reality, and at their feet, little Bernie II lay rolled up with his eyes closed, gently wheezing with each breath.

‘He’s sleeping’ whispered Tina, craning over her drawn up legs to look down at the little bundle on the floor.

‘I know. Isn’t he sweet?’

Gareth was happy to see Tina smiling at the sight. Since that afternoon she had paid little attention to the new addition to the household, save to step over him when he got in the way.

Next Bernie started to twitch his eye lids and paws and make little whimpering sounds as he did so.

‘Chasing rabbits’ Gareth suggested, quietly.

‘Or running through…’ Tina stopped before she could finish the sentence, interrupted by what sounded like someone letting a little air out of a tightly filled balloon. ‘What was that?’

It didn’t take long before they knew exactly what that was. The smell of digested dog food mixed with battery fluid filled the room in a near an instant, and Tina’s smile soon was soon replaced by a look of shock and a wrinkled nose.

‘Good God that’s awful!’ she spat, as if the miasma had gotten into her taste buds. ‘Tell me you can switch that off?’

‘It’ll pass’ Gareth waved away her protestation, much as he waved away the dreadful odour, which was gradually diminishing.

‘I don’t care if it does!’ snapped Tina. ‘I don’t want to smell that ever again!’

Gareth went to laugh, but caught the seriousness in her eyes before he did. Instead he tried gentle persuasion.

‘But my darling, if I switch that off,’ Gareth found himself still whispering, as if Bernie may hear and take offence, ‘instead of feeding him to recharge his battery I would have to plug him in to the mains. The manual said that the, exhaust, was normal and necessary, just like a real dog.’

Tina on the other hand spoke quite loud and clearly in response.

‘But you only get the exhaust if you choose to feed him rather than plug him in?’

Gareth nodded.

‘Then plug him in. He stinks. And it will save money on food’ Tina said in a fashion that would brook no argument. She stared at Gareth until he understood that she also meant right now.

So Gareth took the sleeping Bernie out from the room in his arms, got out his little screwdriver, opened his control panel and found the ‘void’ button, being sure to hold him over a plastic bag in the back porch before he pressed it. The remnants of the digested food drained out of the system, along with a smell so foul it nearly knocked Gareth out, which made him think that maybe it was for the best to switch off the feeding mechanism. Not all dogs were smelly. The original Bernie was a little stinky, but it was hardly his best feature. He would miss the routine of feeding his new little friend and seeing him wag his tail and paw for attention when he wanted a meal, but there was still all the other stuff, all the good stuff.

***

That night Gareth decided not to plug Bernie II in as his battery was still full from the food and he didn’t want the little fellow to be restricted to just a few feet from the power point. Besides, it had always made him feel that little bit safer when he knew there was a dog downstairs, ready to bark at the first sign of an intruder.

Tina insisted that Bernie stayed downstairs, however, but Gareth didn’t mind that. When he was growing up they had never allowed the pets to come upstairs into the bedrooms, so it felt reasonable enough. He would be lying though to say it hadn’t pained him to see little Bernie’s sad eyes as they told him to wait and then closed the door on him.

It was about two in the morning when he first started to howl.

Gareth sprang out of bed. ‘I’ll go’ he said, as if there had been another option. Tina grunted and rolled over, pulling the sheets up to her ears.

When Gareth went into the living room he found Bernie sitting on his back legs in the glow of the moonlight that cast a thin monolith across the carpet.  The room was flickering with the shadows of branches dancing in the windy night. Immediately Bernie ran up and jumped into Gareth’s lap as he knelt down to pat him. He was panting so manically that Gareth was almost worried he would pant himself inside out.

Gareth tried to sooth him, and for a while Bernie at least stopped howling, even if he did still twitch and slobber. But every time Gareth tried to settle him back down and close the door, the howling began anew.

Eventually Gareth found himself stood in the doorway of the bedroom, fiddling awkwardly with the hem of his nightshirt and wondering if Tina had actually managed to get back to sleep yet.

‘What?’ she eventually murmured, without turning from her pillow.

‘He doesn’t like being alone when the wind is blowing. Can he sleep up here?’

‘No’ said Tina abruptly.

‘Then I don’t know what to do’ Gareth pleaded.

‘Turn. Him. Off!’ Tina shouted into her pillow.

‘But I don’t want to turn him off. What if there’s a burglar?’ he said, cautiously.

‘Then he can bloody well take him! Turn it off. Turn it off. TURN IT OFF!!!’ she screamed once more, this time without the pillow, her voice joining the howl of Bernie from downstairs.

Gareth actually jumped with shock at her anger. He decided in an instant that he would do as she said, at least for tonight. He thought that maybe he could train Bernie II not to howl at the wind eventually, but that for now it was better just to put him on mute.

It didn’t take long to find the volume controls once he had opened the control hatch with his little screwdriver. Bernie still yapped and panted, but now he did it in total silence, which had rather an eerie and unsettling effect on Gareth, as if it was he who had gone deaf.

But there was still a problem. Every time Gareth left the room to go back upstairs, Bernie would jump and scratch at the door. He was probably doing it before, but all they could hear was the howling. Now all they could hear was the scratching, and it was one of those sounds that the ear latches onto and makes louder and more distracting with every second that passes until you just can’t take it anymore.

Gareth tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t ignore the tossing and turning of Tina in the bed besides him. He opened his eyes briefly to see if she was just dreaming and chasing rabbits, as it were, but her eyes were very much open.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

Tina slowly tilted her head to meet her husband’s eyes and said calmly, and steadily:

‘No. I’m not okay. And if you don’t sort that thing out right now, not only will I smash it into tiny, weenie little pieces and give it to the rag and bone man, I will also be staying at my Mother’s until I can find a man who has more going for him in life than A DEFECTIVE ROBOT DOG!’

Taking the hint, Gareth got up and powered down Bernie II completely and placed him on his predecessors old cushion. Gareth told himself that it was okay, and that Bernie II was just sleeping like a normal, real dog. Just like back in the days before the thing that had stopped people ever having normal, real pets ever again.

But it wasn’t okay, not really, and that night Gareth went to bed more depressed than he had been for a long, long time.

***

When the morning came the wind had settled down and Gareth had almost forgotten the trials of the previous night. That was until he came downstairs in his dressing gown to find Tina as usual nursing a cup of hot coffee, and the still  deactivated Bernie dumped on the table with his lead and open bag of food stacked unceremoniously on top of him.

‘What’s this?’ Gareth asked while blinking the sleep from his eyes.

Tina had barely managed to cover up the ever increasing semi circles under her eyes, even with a heavy foundation, but still she seemed calm and poised for work. She was dressed in her black skirt, striped shirt and long cream jacket with her burgundy gloves peeking out from the pocket.

‘You’ve got nothing else to do today have you? So you may as well take it back, see if you can get your money back.’

Gareth squinted back at her.

‘By it, I take it you mean Bernie II?’

Tina nodded.

‘Why would I do that?’

Tina lost her demeanour.

‘Because it’s useless junk!’ she whipped back at him, slamming down her coffee so hard a small tidal wave leapt out from the cup and onto Bernie’s tail.

‘Watch out!’ cried Gareth as he looked around fruitlessly for a tissue and then began to wipe up the hot steaming fluid with his sleeve.

Tina watched him as he fussed and fawned over the innate piece of metal covered in synthetic fur.

‘Pathetic’ she said, shaking her head. ‘What’s the point of him?’

Gareth drew a deep breath and turned his head away from her for a moment before standing up to his full height, which when he didn’t slouch, was imposingly greater than hers.

‘The point, if you had any inkling of such things, was to try and feel like I used to back when the real Bernie was alive, back when all the pets were still alive.’

‘But it wasn’t alive, and now it doesn’t even bark, or eat, or move for that matter.’ Tina waved a dismissive hand at the lump before her.

‘Only because you told me to switch him off, piece by piece! The whole idea was to believe in him, faults and all. Real dogs made mess. Real dogs were noisy, and Real dogs sometimes smelled bad!’

Graham found himself red in the face and shouting at his wife only a few centimetres from hers unconcerned smirk.

‘And real wives,’ she said with a wicked pout, ‘tell their husbands when they are being pathetic!

Graham couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t make her see. He could never make her see. He realised that now, and knew what had to be done as he reached his hands around her throat.

‘What are you doing?’ she whimpered as his grip tightened.

‘Maybe you’re right’ he said gently to her as she struggled against the force of his hands. ‘Maybe there is no point in trying to make something that’s fake ever feel real.’

And with that he twisted his hands sharply, removed the panel from the back of his wife’s neck, and went to fetch his little screwdriver.

THE END.

 

Scotland, Bombs and Book Sales – Speed Blog.

stopwatch

I’ve got too little time and too many possible topics to write about this week, so I’m going to attempt a speed blog. From the start of the next sentence, I will attempt to cover the title subjects in 30 minutes writing time (which will be a lot shorter reading time). As I finish this paragraph, my computer clock reads 10.35am. You will just have to believe me… and my time starts… now!

Scotland

So they said ‘No’ then, and what happened? Almost immediately the hastily compiled promises that swayed the debate started to unwind and become compounded with much wider, and much more complicated matters, of regional and national devolution. The leaders of the ‘No’ campaign claimed an ‘emphatic’ victory. Emphatic? I think just scraping 56% of the voting population is far from emphatic, which is described by Google as ‘expressing something forcibly and clearly’. I think a better adjective to use would have been ‘adequate’ preceded by ‘just about’.

That said, they did win, and for those of us who were up for a bit of constitutional mayhem (shake em all up, I say), we can at least hope that if the millionaire white English boys go back on their promises, we will get our shake up, but in a much less organised and civil way.

I’m running out of time for this section (10.41am), so I will finish by saying that I actually like some of the ideas about devolved powers to regions and nations within the UK. As I said, anything that just goddamn changes things around here has to be welcome as a start. But no one can promise anything about how things are going to work, because no one, as I am aware, has the power to look into the future. So if we start getting asked questions about constitutional reform, just remember, no one really knows, no one will really ever know. If we don’t go for it at some point, we will never find out, and things will stay the same, suiting the few at the cost of the many. They will try and scare us, threaten us and bully us into keeping things the same. Sod them. Time’s up. Next!

Bombs.

Two nights ago America started bombing Syria. Not just any old bit of Syria, specifically the bits with ISIL/IS/ISA/whoever the hell it is they are meant to be fighting in it. Of course, that’s how bombs work, they are discriminate, with excellent targeting that in no way kill innocent people.

It’s hard to speak up against this latest round of violence because of the stark and shocking news stories of hostages and beheadings that have been drip fed out of the region over the last few weeks. It is all equally as saddening to me. The violence on both sides sickens and disappoints me. Already we have an American General warning that this will be a ‘long and sustained’ conflict. That is the headline story on our public news channel. Why would they want us to know that? Why would they want their enemy to know that they think it is going to be a hard and complicated campaign. It hardly strikes fear into an adversary to tell them that you don’t think you are up to the task of a decisive victory. For some reason, there must always be a campaign of western intervention in the Middle East. As one ends, another starts.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a genuine crisis going on in Syria, but it is so intrinsically linked with what Western leaders have done in the past, is throwing more violence at it really going to help? Earlier this year, ‘peace prize’ Obama announced he was arming the ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels in the fight against Assad. There was much mirth about the definition of ‘moderate’ rebel fighters. Some ridiculous amount of US dollars and military support was pumped into the region. Within weeks this name-changing group had emerged and apparently ran a line through Iraq and Syria with superior force and the ability to take, control, and sell oil for millions of dollars a day on the international market (who exactly is buying it from them?). I wonder if the two things are connected?

Time’s nearly up for this section. Needless to say, I am sceptical about the whole campaign, and soon we will be joining in (Cameron is recalling parliament this Friday). Great. More life and public money wasted. They can’t help themselves. Not for a moment do I believe their primary objectives are for humanitarian reasons. Not for a blink of an eye.

Right! 10.54am, leaving me 11 minutes to write the next bit and check it over!

Book Sales.

As I’m sure readers will know, I published my book ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ earlier this year (April 22nd to be precise). It has been an equally exciting and harrowing experience. I realise now that the internet, while being the great connector, is also like a massive public shopping centre full of closed doors. Anyone can have a premises, but getting people to look into it and see what you’ve got on offer is a lot easier said than done.

The book has received good reviews, but moderate sales. It is extremely hard to get it noticed and circulated in a market that is swamped with titles. This isn’t deterring me though, but it does mean I have to try various strategies and spend nearly as much time marketing as I did writing the thing in the first place. Add to that the fact that I am trying to get my next book written, and occasionally I end up having little breakdowns. (nothing serious, just artistic fear and loathing).

So! The latest round of attempts is to reduce the price again and see what happens. Some authors give their books away for free to get noticed and build an audience – I’m not quite there yet, but is now available for a mere $0.99 or 77p.

The advert for the book is on the top right of this screen – it takes you to the Amazon page, but the book is available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Nook and Kobo. If you haven’t had a look, please do. And if you think it looks a bit interesting, why not buy it and find out? Or failing that, share it with a few people and see what they think. This whole ‘going viral’ thing isn’t a natural phenomenon. People will spend lots and lots of time and money in some cases, to get noticed. I would like to think that this can happen by mutual support alone, without the need for spamming and expensive advertising.

If anyone has any networks or channels that can help me get this ‘out there’ please let me know or just feel free to do so. I have quite a strong Twitter following and am happy to mutually exchange links and shout-out’s to those who have a creative endeavour of their own (within reason – no explicit or gratuitous material. You would be surprised how much of that is being peddled).

End.

And that’s it! The clock says 11.03am, so I will sign off with two minutes spare and do the fastest editing ever. I hope you’ve enjoyed my speed blog and I apologise if it is a little rougher around the edges than usual!

Goodbye.

 

What’s the story: mourning Tories?

by Garry Abbott

fish in barrel copy

There’s been a lot of talk and chatter this week on the airwaves about Ed Miliband’s need to construct a more coherent ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ if he is going to win at the next election. He has been accused by some party supporters and critics of ‘sitting back’ and letting the Tories dig their own graves. Apparently ahead in the opinion polls (who actually does them?) – even his own head of policy was secretly recorded at a focus group saying his policies had been novelty, cynical and few and far between.

But what could be more cynical I wonder, than the accepted conversation about an opposition leader who needs to ‘come up with’ (i.e. ‘invent’) some kind of narrative in order to present some option to the electorate? Is it just me who finds the rhetoric of ‘story-telling’ both patronising and worrying?

It smacks of political elitism in an age where we are regularly told that they are losing touch with the people – yet they don’t see that this kind of circular politics is exactly why. We shouldn’t have politicians and parties who are content to sit back for five years and watch the country descend into wreck and ruin, just because it means they will have an easier job winning votes at the next election. The hope is that by May 2015 we will all be begging for change (or at least most of us), at which point Miliband will just stand up and loudly exhort through his nostrils “I will save you”. Similarly, we will have the likes of Clegg, making back-of-throat guttural utterances about how they are the only party who can be trusted to reign in the Tories, after spending 5 years propping them up.

An example of a successful opposition ‘story’ that I heard quoted by a labour supporting media expert, was David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. In political terms, they think that was the bomb. Do you remember that? Cameron telling us that instead of the state doing things for us, we basically need to do it all ourselves (yet still pay taxes). If that’s the kind of narrative Miliband is lacking, then I don’t want to hear it!

There should be no need for a story. The problems are evident for anyone who has even an iota of socialism about them, or as I like to call it, common decency and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. There should be no need to wait five years to hear this. If he and his party were truly passionate about their cause and actually represented an alternative, they shouldn’t rest or tire from doing whatever they can, whenever they can, however  they can to promote it and stop the shameless pillaging of the poor and vulnerable by the current government. As it is, the little we hear from them is often just slightly amended echoes of right-wing policies with no firm commitments to reverse the damage done. Same ideas, different faces, all ugly.

So here’s a little story for Miliband – he is welcome to use it if he likes:

 

Ed went to the fair.

There once was a boy called Ed who went to a funfair. He walked around the funfair, looking at all the games. He looked at the coconut shy, and whack-a-rat, and test-your-strength, and hook-a-duck, but they all looked really hard, and poor Ed couldn’t decide where to spend his money. Eventually he decided not to bother and to go home and spend his money on lashings of ginger beer instead. But then, just as he was about to leave, he saw one last game.

A red faced man called David was standing on a soap box brandishing a sawn off shotgun in one hand and a box of cartridges in the other, shouting “Fish in a barrel! Who can shoot the fish in a barrel? One winner only!”

“Hey mister” he said, “what do I have to do?”

“Simple,” replied David, “in this barrel of water I have placed a fish. Here is a shotgun. All you need to do is kill the fish and you win.”

“What do I win?” asked the wide eyed Ed.

“It’s a surprise.”

No one else at the fair had played this game before, and before long a huge crowd had gathered around him, waiting to see what happened.

“Why has no one played this game before?” asked Ed, suspiciously. It seemed too easy, and Ed has his smarts.

“Because each cartridge costs one million pounds a go, and none of these plebs have that kind of money”.

“Hmmm” said Ed, pondering the situation, for you see, Ed did have one million pounds to spend, and some more, but he still wasn’t sure.

“Go on!” shouted the crowd, “we want to see it done! We can’t afford to have a go ourselves!”

What was he to do?! He really wanted to win the game, but he didn’t really want to spend the money or any effort on it. What if he missed the fish? What if the game was rigged and the shotgun blew his tiny face off?

Ed thought about it long and hard… for about five years. By that time, everybody had lost interest, and the fish had died of old age.

Ed asked David, “so, does that mean I win?”, to which David replied “Yes! You’ve won! Well done” as he removed the dead fish from the barrel and replaced it with a new, live and wriggling one.

“What do I win?” asked Ed.

“This barrel, this fish, this shotgun and cartridges, and this entire funfair! ”

And then David walked off into the sunset, able to retire a happy and rich man.

Ed looked down at the barrel with the new fish. He picked up the shotgun and ammunition in his hands, before standing up on the soap box and declaring:

“Roll up – roll up! Fish in a barrel! Only 1 million pounds a shot!” and once again, the crowd gathered.

THE END.

 

Gone Midnight – 500 word flash fiction.

By Garry Abbott.

soundwaves

Graham can’t stand these warm nights clinging to him as he tries to sleep. Getting in around the back of his neck and behind his ears, under his armpits and forming ponds below the small of his back.  He lies on his back in vest and boxers, the thin sheet over just one ankle (which for some reason feels just right) listening to the soft voices on his radio, waiting for sleep.

The production line presenter, tonsils crafted from treacle and dark wood, reads out the forecast.

‘Starting with the south west, then moving over the Midlands by mid afternoon, expect some light showers, perhaps breaking up that muggy feeling for a time…’

‘Muggy’ Graham mutters, he likes the sound of the word as it passes his lips.

‘Muggy, muggy, bloody muggy!’ he continues, realising he is thinking again, aware. ‘I’m muggy! I’m bloody muggy now!’ he protests to the radio, which becomes distorted and crackles back at him. Now it is just stuttered white noise that grows so loud it fills the room.

‘Not again. No, please’ whispers Graham, finding himself unable to move.

The radio continues to fizz sharp frequency spikes, random at first, then formed and shrill.

When does a crackle become a cackle? Zzzzzttt’ says the voice from the static. Graham closes his eyelids, the only thing he is able to do.

When does a cackle become a nightmare? Pzzzzt’ it continues.

It is only now that the terrible voice is shouting at him again that Graham remembers. This has happened almost every night for many years. He will lay and listen incapacitated to its taunts and threats until a smothering sleep comes over him, dragging him down into himself. And then, in the morning, he forgets.

‘How long can you resist? Pzzzt fzzz. How long? How long? How long?’ it continues, each repetition like a hammer at Graham’s sanity. For surely that’s what this is, his own mind turning. Becoming something of itself and angry at its captor. How can he fight what is him but is hidden? How long can he last? How long?

And then, as the terror inside of him grows, he feels the familiar lure of incomprehension and light as he stops plunging and begins to drift softly down and away from this world.

***

The next morning Graham is up early with new day ignorance. Soon later he is whistling as he waters the plants that frame his front lawn.

‘Graham?’ comes a voice from nearby. He looks up to see the new bloke who moved in next door. Graham silently squints back at him.

‘Would you mind turning your radio or TV or whatever it is down on a night? We can hear it through the wall.’

‘Oh yes, yes. Will do. Sorry, is it a bit loud?’

‘Yeah a little, but it’s more, well… It’s just that programme, whatever it is you have on, all that creepy cackling and shouting. It’s a bit much gone midnight.’

Pen Sieve. A very short story.

As I have a busy week, I’ve dusted down a short story I wrote last year which didn’t make it into my collection, but I think is still a nice little read. The themes of unseen controlling factors are present, just on a much lesser scale! You’ll see what I mean. I hope you enjoy this early, unedited draft of a little idea. Thank you.

penholder

 

Pen Sieve. 

Once there was a cleaner who worked in a big office.

Every night after all the office workers had gone home for the day, she would wipe off all the dead skin and debris that covered each desk in a thin film, vacuum the crumbs and morsels from the recently devoured meals that clung to the dull grey carpets, mop the scuffs from the tile corridors, and wipe the finger-prints from the metal door handles until they shined once more. On one day of the week, depending on her mood, but usually once a week, she would also steal a pen, and always from the same desk.

She didn’t know who the desk belonged to, at least not in real life. She knew his name because it was printed onto a flimsy piece of white printer paper and tacked to his monitor. His name was Julian Beswick, but she didn’t know him.

She rotated the specific day so it would be less obvious. Not because she was scared of being found out, but so Julian Beswick could never be sure if it was he who was losing his pens. She had figured, quite rightly, that if she were to steal the pen the same evening every week that somewhere in the back of his mind, overtime, he may start to notice the pattern and so become more vigilant. It was more fun for her to change the days. Sometimes she would steal the pen on a Friday night so that it would be gone the following Monday, and then not steal one again until the Thursday after next. In this way he could go almost a whole two weeks without having his pen stolen. And then, just as he was starting to doubt any suspicions that might be forming in his mind, his pen would be gone again, but so close to the weekend that the matter would pass into triviality.

For this was a trivial matter. The pens were not expensive. She never stole a pen that looked like it had been supplied from outside of the office. On occasion she would find, resting on the function keys of his keyboard as always, some kind of metal cased or rubber gripped oddity that had obviously been procured or borrowed. These she would leave alone until inevitably they would be replaced by a bog standard issue biro. Then she would steal it.

The thing is she had noticed how often Julian Beswick’s pens changed, that’s why she had chosen his desk to start stealing them from. One day there would be a brand new smooth biro with the satisfying black line running through it from one end to the other, the next day there would be a near dead sorry looking excuse of a pen covered with tiny puck marks from human incisors. He obviously lost them, took them home, lent them out or whatever, and then had to scrabble around for another the next day. Sometimes she would find the pen he had lost of his own accord underneath his keyboard or below his desk. On those days she would replace the new pen on the keyboard with the one she had found, carefully ensuring that they were positioned exactly the same, and then steal the new one.

She imagined Julian Beswick each morning flinging his jacket over his chair, switching on his computer and setting to work for an hour or two before the moment came. The moment when he would need to take a message from a phone call, or was off to a meeting, or had a flash of inspiration and needed to jot it down, or if he just fancied scribbling pointlessly on a post-it note. She imagined him reaching for the groove above the function keys on his keyboard, not even looking as he did so, and then fingering the plastic for a second or two before looking down to the sight of no pen. Naturally he would furrow his brow, look around, behind, underneath the keyboard, maybe even underneath the desk, and then straighten up while pulling his lips together in a moment of slight confusion.

He might even say to one of his colleagues ‘Have you got my pen?’ to which they would probably reply ‘No’ (or if she was lucky, also look around, behind and underneath their own keyboard, maybe even underneath the desk).

On the days when she replaced his pen with another, she imagined him happily gathering it up in his fingers, flicking off the lid (and at this point perhaps even starting to remember that the last pen he used didn’t have a lid) and mid-scribble catching a glance of it in his peripheral vision and thinking to himself, ‘I’m sure that’s not the pen I had yesterday’ before continuing on anyway, as he always must do.

In this way the cleaner was linked to Julian Beswick in more subtle ways then he could ever imagine. They have both worked in the same office block for twenty years.

The End

The Board Room Game.

Image

My desk sits in the square bowl of a test tube corridor that marches away from my line of sight into a corner I never get to turn. On each side of the passage there are adjacent doors where my advisors wait for the ping.

The room is stark bur brightly lit. My desk itself has shades of oak and brutal corners. There must be a way to receive the ping, so I guess there is a screen now. Maybe once it was a plastic inbox, or even a telephone; but now it is a screen. I figure this screen is to my right, at an angle, so that it doesn’t obscure my view of the corridor. There are no other computer parts. The screen is already connected through its conception in this place.

As I reckon it, I am dressed in a white shirt with black trousers and shoes. I suppose I am Mr Formal. My job is to be formal, reasoned, measured. Perhaps that is why my desk has no adornments or decoration. It is a bare room, waiting for the ping.

I don’t know what the other rooms look like. I’ve never been in to see them. When the time comes, those who are interested will flock out and channel down to the angular bell bottom suite. They will argue their case and I will listen and judge, maybe interrogate, maybe ignore. It all depends, as you will see.

The screen lights up (for it was otherwise dark and unreflective), and there is a proposition, a ping.

“Should I care about this?” it reads. It is accompanied by images of sneering men making decrees upon those less fortunate.

Should I care? I don’t know. I will wait to see who shows.

Doors start to open at various distances, but that is no issue. The occupants move at different speeds to compensate. Some are quick to my desk, others drag their feet. Whether they come from near or far is really not important.

I can never be sure which doors will open. They all get a copy of the same ping, the same question, the same relevant supporting information from banks below or above us (I’ve never been). Some may join later as the discourse develops, late to the game but spurred by some new concern or data, or they may not.

First at my desk, looking much like me (exactly like me) is Pandora. A pretty name for a man. We gave him that name. None of us really have names. He carries a can of worms that he hasn’t been able to put down since we discovered the particularly strange metaphor, and is permanently topped by a neon question mark. Other than that, he looks exactly like me, right down to the black shoes.

‘Is there something more to this?’ he asks.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well there’s what we’ve been told, and what we know already, but is there more we don’t know? Can we look further, deeper?’ he continues.

‘Not before I’ve heard the others’ I reply as usual. And here they come.

The next, Pyrrho, has joined us. He is a lot like me, but his shoulders ride higher.

‘What difference does it make? I mean, to us. Will it affect us?’

‘Maybe’ replies Pandora, ‘we’d need to know more.’

‘Do we? Do we really? If we don’t know it, and it’s not apparent, then what’s the problem here? Other than those we go and find’ he persists.

Before Pandora can answer Lyssa has pushed through the others and slammed his hand down on my desk. He is my image, but red in the face and he rarely stops moving.

‘This pisses me off!’ he screams at me, and the others, ‘who do they think they are? They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it! We should do something, NOW!’

He circles around, hand over mouth and eyes bulging, but of course, he cannot decide what to do: only I can decide. Though he does scare me, I don’t like him. On rare occasion he has held me by the throat and forced me to consider no others. But usually, he goes back to his room and seethes quietly to himself.

‘We should get more information first’ suggests Pandora.

‘Why bother?’ intervenes Pyrrho.

‘Why wait!’ demands Lyssa.

Anyone else to the table? Not just now. They may come out and appeal soon, but it is time to make a decision. I address the lobby.

‘Okay everybody. Here’s what we’ll do. Go back to your rooms and watch your monitors. I’ll call up what we’ve got, and we’ll go from there.’

‘What’s the point?’ says Pyrrho, whose memory is long but selective, ‘it will be the same as always. The options will be many and unrealistic. They will deter us from our primary objectives. Lyssa will calm down eventually, as usual, and Pandora, well he’ll get his day when we have a moment to spare I’m sure. Why not make the decision then?’

‘Go back and watch your monitors’ I repeat, and they do.

Moments later we are all appraised and gathered once again.

‘Has anyone anything further to add? Now you’ve seen the options?’

A more sedate Lyssa steps up.

‘Maybe I overreacted before. I’ve been talking to my colleagues. I mean, we’re not happy about this, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t want to take the lead. Not just yet’.

A predictable response. I look to Pandora.

‘It is something we would like to look into further, but not at this time, not as a matter of priority.’

‘And what of you Pyrrho? As if I need to ask.’

‘Whatever’ he says.

We are all sick with guilt. I know they feel it because I feel it too. It rumbles in our stomachs which are otherwise devoid of contents. There is still time for this to change what happens next: unless we take our medicine.

‘Let’s see how we feel after this’ I suggest. On the desk there are four small misty plastic caps filled with a dose of elixir. It is hard to tell from the colour, being a deep plum purple, but I suspect it is strong in pragmatics.

We all pick up and pour down, and wait. It soothes the guilt somewhat, not entirely, but it bolsters our resolve. It has a hint of selfish determination followed by notes of possible future action.

‘I think we all know what we need to do Gentlemen’ I conclude, and obligingly the screen presents me with the preferred option written in bold type, enclosed in a shaded grey box. It reads:

“Stay the course. We can do more about this later.”

Underneath there is the a tick and a cross. I press the tick and the image flicks to black. The others recede back to their rooms.

Inside me the concoction stirs and repeats a little. Outside of me the television changes to the next news story as I drain another cup of tea and think about what I need to do today, how I can ‘stay the course’.

My screen flicks into action with the next proposition and we start again. This will happen a million times at a million moments today, but not all will make it ‘to the top’ otherwise we’d all be for it. We would crank to a grinding halt and make no further steps, for the choices of so many. And we can’t let that happen because, well, because we just can’t.

A new premise.

gaia

Hello.

Something a little bit different today for this week’s blog.

I was watching ‘stargazing’ live the other day where a scientist man was talking through the technology of the new ‘Gaia’ telescope/satellite that will be imaging our galaxy to the highest level of detail yet, enabling us to ‘build up’ a 3D model when it is done. (Check out the website for the science stuff: http://sci.esa.int/gaia/). This also reminded me of a Brian Cox lecture where he said that we are actually able to find the composition of celestial bodies by monitoring the returned light to our sensors (that carry back a kind of ‘signature’ that allows us to know what the light particles been in contact with?!)… it’s all baffling and very exciting.

That got me thinking, as I am prone to do, about the future. A future where we are far more advanced at imaging and representing our Universe than we are able to reach it in physical space. Also a future where our (resurging) interest in immersion video games and entertainment (virtual reality and suchlike) has continued apace.

So, as a new premise that I may or may not run with to write some new Sci-Fi stories (or one big story – or a script), I projected these thoughts a few hundred years or so into the future, and wrote a speech introducing a concept in which to base a world. This is a good exercise for science fiction which is so often based around a technological premise. In this instance, however, I thought I would share this very early stage of writing with you, and see what you think. Cheers.

 

Transcript of speech by Dr. Raelan W. Krueger (NASA Head Administrator)

Introducing ‘The Great Connection’ project.

Y. 2567

“For time immemorial we have been looking to the stars, to distant galaxies, to the very edges of our known Universe. Like a captain with his telescope, looking out ahead for new lands, we have developed the most amazing techniques to observe our Universe in exquisite detail. Where once we saw planets as simple dips in light as they passed by their suns, we can now see the mountains, see the rocks, see the particles of dust as they settle on extraterrestrial plains. With our network of telescopes and sensors we have built a moving picture of our world, far beyond our reach, but within our sights.

Unlike the Captain who spies land, however, we cannot sail our ships to these places. While we have excelled in our ability to observe, we have barely travelled beyond our own solar system, restricted by laws of nature that we currently cannot bend or break. This leaves us with a question: “If we cannot travel to the places we can see, how do we explore them?”

Before now, two answers were posited. Firstly the pessimist would say, “we will never explore them – it is beyond us”, whereas the optimist would say “we will break through the physical restrictions one day, we will make it.” While I favour the optimist, that mantra has persisted for generations, and yet the breakthrough never comes. Today, I propose a third option. If we can’t travel to the farthest reaches of the observable Universe, we will  bring the Universe to us.

The data we reap, in real time, from our satellite and imaging network is vast. Our computers can store and analyse this data, but they cannot induce from it, they cannot marvel at it, they cannot explore in the way that you and I would understand that to mean. What computers do, very well, is represent precisely and follow instructions – instructions that until now were usually relayed via very dry, impersonal methods: symbols on a screen and complicated patterns of data that only a trained observer could comprehend with a degree of difficulty. While we are finding more and more potential signs of life in the Universe, we are pouring over them in such minute detail it could take us another thousand years to realise they are insignificant, while just over there, where the computer didn’t think to look, in the corner of the eye, are the answers we have been searching for.

Alongside the advancement in how we observe our outward universe, so too have we developed how we immerse ourselves in simulation. From the less invasive virtual experience centres, to the sensory direct link systems that we now find in almost every living-room, we have been stepping into our fantasy and fiction worlds for a generation now. At first we were scared, sceptical of this new level of interaction between us and technology. Game players loved it, parents loathed it, but one way or the other we all came to accept it as the value offered for education and expression far outweighed our reservations.

And so now we are drawing a line between dots that were already in place. We have developed a method whereby we can now relay the data into an incredibly detailed and accurate simulated model that can be explored via the same technology used for immersion entertainment. Teams of explorers, of simunaughts, can now enter and explore the landscapes of a changing Universe.

But we need your help. You may already be familiar with the concept of citizen science. It is a technique we have used for centuries to sift through and classify large quantities of data in the way that only we humans can. Typically it involves experts compiling and making available a database for the general public to either interrogate or contribute towards, helping to identify and flag points of interest for further scrutiny by specialists. Some of the earliest examples around the 20th Century were for spotting birds or surveying the insects living in and around our homes. This potential was expanded so that rather than just logging our own observations, we could help to classify the findings of others. In this way, people from across the world came together to help the scientists of the 21st century and beyond to survey the ocean beds, unlock DNA sequences, and yes, even explore the stars.

So what’s different about this project to what has gone before? Three things: scale, immersion and potential. We’re not going to be looking at stills on a view screen here. We need you to plug in and move around. Our galaxy alone has 100 billion stars. Each of those stars probably has a planetary system. Each of those planets may have moons. Currently, we have the data available for over a million galaxies – a figure that is increasing daily.

The task is vast. One hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, it sounds inconceivably big, but then that is just two star systems for each person living on this planet today. If we could get everyone on the earth to spend just a little time connected, we could have the milky way mapped in a month. Of course, we don’t expect everyone will want to help, and access to the required technology is not universal. But if every user of immersion entertainment were to plug in for just a fraction of the time they already spend in worlds of fiction, and contribute to the world of fact, we could make great strides, very quickly.

So what happens when you plug in? Firstly you will be asked to form or join a team of other simunaughts, because together we are better. Each of the teams who enter the simulation will be assigned a ship of sorts, a kind of virtual vessel that will help induce the feeling of exploration as you investigate uncharted worlds assigned to you by our mission computers. You will land and walk on these moons and planets, traverse through a resolution that can only be described as near-reality, almost indistinguishable from the real thing. If you find anything of interest, assisted by an array of simulated vehicles and equipment, you will flag this for further study. Back in the real world more resources will be trained on your marked locations, increasing fidelity and detail even further in the simulated landscapes.

We’re not talking about gathering rock samples here, we’re talking about finding the extraordinary. The possibilities are as endless as there are stars in the Universe. Imagine finding a planet with golden mountains, volcanoes of diamonds and clouds of fire. Imagine finding forests and seas teeming with alien life, or even finding the planet that brings us our first signs of highly intelligent life. Great cities in the stars. It is all possible.

What we do, is what no computer can yet achieve: think creatively and move impulsively towards discovery. No computer has yet spotted something out of the corner of its eye, no computer has had a thought of its own, and we will harness this unique gift of ours to our advantage. Human kind will become an explorer of worlds, without having even left our own.

So I endorse to you, I commend your support and raise my hand in contemplation to the stars that are now in our grasp, and I ask you to sign up, log in and join me in ‘The Great Connection’.”