Competition winners

There can be only one… but there are two. Both confessed to looking it up so maybe my pristine vinyl copy of Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ is worth something. I can’t guarantee the books ever will be but you never know.

The answer was, of course, ‘We are the Dead’ from the ‘1984’ section of that album. Here you go.

I had five copies printed of the final draft of ‘Norman’s House’. There are some differences between this draft and the final copy, some of them significant These last draft copies represent the final stage of editing, where the writer reaches the point where you’re reading what you thought you wrote, not what you actually wrote, and can no longer see the typos and plot holes. At that point you need an outside editor and it’s much easier if it’s in print.

One copy went to Roo B Doo and one to CStM for editing. I have set one aside as a memento. That leaves two copies.

One will go to Mick Walker and the other to Sagalout (do I really have to post it to China?)

So, get in touch, folks. A bit of writer’s angst will be coming through the post :

And don’t forget, the eighth Underdog Anthology is open for submissions.

Entertainment time – Old Timers

I haven’t put up a pure entertainment post for a while and it’s been a busy night. My printer died recently and I’ve been installing a new one. It’s incredible the features you get for £40 these days! It did, however, end with me pleading with the thing “I just want print and scan. I don’t want fax or wifi on this thing, I don’t want to print from my phone when I’m a hundred miles away, I don’t want reports down the internet and I don’t want a standing order for ink. Just print and scan”.

Eventually I got there but I’m too worn out to think of a post now. So here’s a jolly tale from the darker side of jolliness. It was in ‘The Gallows Stone‘, Underdog Anthology 6.

Here it is for free.

Old Timers

“That will be all, Chadwick.” Theodore Orson dismissed his butler, leaned forward to place his elbows on the red leather of his desk, and regarded the scruffy young man standing opposite. There was silence until the door closed and Orson was satisfied he had heard Chadwick close another door, further along the hallway.

Orson inclined his head. “Did you get it?”

“Yes. Two kilos of it. Might have been too much, but I don’t think anyone will notice.” The young man held up an insulated bag and placed it gently on the desk. “We should get this into a freezer right away.”

“Of course.” Orson zipped open the bag and took a quick look at the cylindrical block of ice before quickly closing it. “And the photograph?” The young man took an envelope from his jacket and passed it to Orson, who opened it and inspected the contents. “Perfect. Now we can close the transaction and you can be on your way.” He narrowed his eyes. “I hope I can rely on your silence?”

The young man grinned. “You’re paying enough to keep me quieter than a Trappist monk. Besides, if I were to talk, I would be in one hell of a lot of trouble.”

“Quite so.” Orson picked up a briefcase from the floor, placed it on the desk and opened it so the man could see inside.

Wide eyes blinked a few times at the neatly ordered stacks of cash. “Are those hundred bills?”

“You will find a little bonus in there. I might want to engage your services again in the future.” Orson closed the case and pushed it towards the young man, who lifted it reverently.

“Well, I won’t detain you further.” Orson rose from his seat and lifted the insulated bag. “I will, as you say, need to get this into the freezer at once. And I’m sure you have things you want to buy.”

The young man smiled. “Yes, but slowly and carefully. If they notice the missing piece and then I drive to work in a Lamborghini, someone might connect those things.”

“Very sensible.” Orson opened the door and led the young man into the hall. “Of course, I would expect no less from a Ph.D. student. I’m sure you have a long and successful career ahead of you.”

“I hope so, Mr. Orson.”

Orson opened another door. Chadwick was inside, polishing silver. Orson nodded to him. “Show our visitor out, would you, Chadwick?”

***

Orson sipped at his whisky and surveyed his guests. The Old Timer party had become a Halloween tradition and it had, over the years, become increasingly competitive. Guests competed to bring along the oldest thing they could buy, borrow or steal. This year, Orson was going to set a standard nobody would ever beat. At midnight, the big reveal would come. Orson chuckled and swished the crushed ice in his drink.

“Nearly time, eh?” Jeremiah Weston raised his glass to Orson, once again showing off cufflinks Orson had already recognised as Etruscan silver coins. Fifth century BC. Orson nodded, smiled and sipped at his whisky. Amateur.

“Just two minutes to midnight, Orson, old chap.” Weston took a sip of his ice-laden gin and tonic. “I hope you have your artefact on full view. That’s the rule. I admit I haven’t spotted it yet.”

Of course not. You’re drinking it. Orson winked. “It’s been in plain sight all evening. There’s no cheating here.”

“Looks like I have to wait for your reveal then.” Weston smiled and moved back into the crowd.

One minute. Orson watched the second hand move around the clock. His own hand reached for the small bell on the table. He halted when he noticed a tremor in his fingers. That was new. He would need to get that checked out.

The clock chimed midnight. Orson waited until the twelfth beat and then rang his bell.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the reveal. Some of you may have already guessed what your competitors have to offer since everything has been on open display all evening.”

“I haven’t seen yours, Orson.” Derek van Heusse called from the crowd.

Orson laughed. “Yes, you have. You all have. It’s been right in front of you all evening.” He held up his hand to silence the curious murmurs. “However, as your host for this year’s Old Timer party, I have the privilege of being the last to reveal.” He cleared his throat. “The prize, as always, is this.”

Orson held up a small plastic knight-in-armour toy. It was a token, valued at pennies, but money was of no relevance to these people. They all had far more than they could ever spend. No, it was the winning that mattered. To take home the trophy, the token of success, was what they spent thousands, sometimes millions, to win.

Sarah Morgan stepped up first. “You’ve all noticed my brooch. A beautiful gold scorpion. It’s from the tomb of the Scorpion King, the first Pharaoh of Egypt. Looted millennia ago and let me tell you, tracing its provenance cost me a tidy sum.” She smiled while a chuckle spread through the crowd. “Anyway, it dates to 3000 BC and I have the papers to prove it if – when – I win tonight.”

A short burst of applause was followed by the next order of business. Those who could not beat Sarah’s offering were to declare next.

Jeremiah Weston showed his cufflinks. Stephen Gradley-Smythe showed the shards of a Bronze Age Sword, from the Bonnanaro peoples, sewn into the lapels of his jacket. 1800 BC. Elizabeth Romero showed the spindle that had been stuck through the bun of her hair – Iron age, from the Latial people. A mere 900 BC. Orson struggled to keep his face straight although his fingers tingled uncomfortably.

They passed through the relative-newcomer errors of Napoleonic and Celtic and Mayan artefacts quickly.

A contender for the title then spoke up. Jayne Partridge lifted the heavy pendant on her necklace. “A dagger from the Copper Age. Remedello peoples, 3000 BC.” She winked at Elizabeth. “We might have to share our little knight.”

A murmur ran through the assembly. There had never been a draw. There was always one winner. It would come down to centuries, decades, years… damn, they would take it to seconds if they had to, and even if it cost them millions each to do it. One knight, one prize, one winner.

In the event, it didn’t matter. That well-known wild eccentric, Tarquin Rawlinson, held his (as usual) insanely decorated top hat up for inspection.

“Look at how my hat glimmers,” he said, turning it as he moved in a lazy circle. “See how it catches the light with its inlays.” He grinned, first at the assembled partygoers and then at Orson. “Neolithic pottery shards from Malta. 5900 BC. I think that trumps the dear ladies and their trinkets.” He took a low bow to the applause of his peers and replaced his hat.

Orson motioned them to silence. “We have one more, who has been silent so far.” He raised his eyebrow at a quiet, thin man who smiled around a glass of iced vodka. “Sebastian, I take it you hold an ace tonight?”

Sebastian Blackthorn moved to the front of the group and turned to face them. “You may or may not have noticed the wooden buttons on my waistcoat. Somewhat old and shoddy to hold together fine silk, I think you’ll agree.”

He displayed the buttons to Orson, who merely shrugged. They were plain wooden buttons. He saw no value in them.

“Well.” Sebastian closed his jacket. “These buttons are made of larch wood.” He waited for a response. Blank faces filled the room. “Very old Russian larch wood.” He raised one eyebrow. Most faces remained blank. Jayne furrowed her brow. Tarquin shifted from one foot to the other.

Orson felt a cold sweat form on his brow. He couldn’t have. After what happened?

Sebastian broke into a wide grin. “These are made from wood surreptitiously and,” he coughed, “not entirely legally, extracted from a Russian museum. They are shards of the Shigir Idol, currently dated to 9000 BC.” He took a bow. “I thank you all for your participation, but I believe the knight is mine.”

A scattering of half-hearted applause mixed with shaking heads and faces turning away greeted his revelation. Orson merely stared. Winning was the name of the game, yes, but at this cost?

“Seb,” Orson spoke softly. “We’re all aware of your family’s obsession with the creature the idol depicts, and we’re all familiar with what happened to your sister, Sofia, two years ago, this very night.” He paused for breath. “Are you sure you want to win this way?”

Sebastian waved a dismissive hand. “I win in honour of my sister,” he said. “And yes, we would very much like to own the entire idol and the power it represents but for now, a few buttons are all we have.”

Orson glanced at the floor then back to Sebastian. “It’s cursed, that thing.”

“Oh, spare me.” Sebastian laughed. “An evil demon from a Hell we cannot even imagine and I had part of its only known effigy made into waistcoat buttons. You think I fear it?” He took a breath. “Anyway, whatever you all feel about it, I think I have won the knight, don’t you agree?”

Orson let the room’s expectant silence fill him for a moment. He could refuse his reveal and let Sebastian win – but Sebastian showed no feeling for his sister’s death and had even used the instrument of her destruction in this game. To win a plastic knight for a year.

No. Orson drew himself up. “No.”

“No?” Sebastian looked confused. “You can beat my offering? With what? I have seen nothing of antiquity here other than what we guests brought with us.”

“Oh, you have. You have looked at it, tasted it, drunk it. All evening, you have experienced what I am about to reveal.”

“We’ve been drinking it? Is it safe?” Jeremiah Weston placed his glass on a nearby table. His hand shook as he withdrew it.

“Nothing to worry about, Jerry, old chap.” Orson’s grin grew wide. “No, it’s not some ancient concoction dredged from a shipwreck. It’s this.” He held up one of the buckets of shattered ice.

“Ice?” Sarah grimaced. “Somewhat ephemeral, don’t you think?”

“Well it won’t last much longer, but that doesn’t detract from its age.” Orson set down the bucket and took the photograph from his pocket. “This is ice from the bottom of an Antarctic ice core. Specifically, the last two kilograms at the very base of a core from a place called Dome C.” He paused for effect. “Ice that was laid down in 796,500 BC. Over three quarters of a million years old.”

He handed the photograph, his evidence that he had indeed had access to ice from that core, to Sarah, with instructions to pass it around. Then he allowed himself a moment to bask in the awed gasps of his guests.

Tarquin’s face bore an uncharacteristically sombre expression. “That’s very old ice. Are you quite sure it’s safe to drink?”

“I am assured that it is very nearly impossible for anything to still be alive after that much time.” Orson patted Tarquin’s shoulder. “You have no need to be concerned.”

“Oh, I’m not.” Tarquin broke into a wide grin and raised his glass. “I drink my whisky neat. No ice.” He laughed and moved off to mingle with the party.

Orson shook his head. Tarquin had inherited his wealth but even so, Orson marvelled at the idiot’s money management skills. Fool he may seem, but he had not squandered his inheritance.

“I think Sebastian took it a bit hard.” Jerry spoke quietly beside Orson. “He really thought he had this one sewn up.”

“It’s only a game.” All the same, Orson realised how much Sebastian had invested in this night’s game. Maybe he wasn’t just using his sister’s death to gain points. Maybe he really was doing it for her. “Where is he?”

“He’s already left. Looked quite miffed.” Jerry raised his eyebrows.

Orson lowered his own eyebrows. The Blackthorns were part of this social group but everyone was perfectly aware of the dark things they dabbled in. It was the reason everyone treated them with respect – the Blackthorns had been implicated in some very strange happenings and in quite a few bizarre deaths. Nothing was ever proven, since the family were very good indeed at covering their tracks. Still, annoying a Blackthorn was generally seen as unwise.

“I’ll call him tomorrow and make peace.” Orson pursed his lips. “I don’t want to cause any unpleasantness.”

Jerry snorted. “I think that family delight in unpleasantness,” he said, then looked around quickly as if to be sure nobody heard him. “I’m probably at my limit for drinking tonight. Starting to get a bit loose in the tongue area, yes?” He finished his drink and put his glass on the table.

Orson noticed the tremor in Jerry’s fingers and realised his own hands were shaking too. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead.

“I’ll say goodnight, old chap. And congratulations. The knight is yours by a very wide margin.” Jerry’s smile was tight as he held out his hand.

“It’s been a pleasure. And your Etruscan coins are impressive, I must say.” Orson forced his hand into a tight handshake and withdrew before the tremors would be obvious. “I’ll say goodnight then.”

“Goodnight,” Jerry said. Then added, with perhaps with more sincerity than was usual, “And good luck.”

News of Sebastian Blackthorn’s precipitous departure had spread. The party ended on a sombre note as the guests said their goodbyes, one by one, and drifted away. Finally Orson stood alone, a small plastic knight in his shaking hand, his triumph now feeling very hollow indeed.

All that money, all that risk and effort, all the potential trouble ahead, for a toy. I could buy the whole damn company making these things yet I—we, all of us—choose to compete for a bad plastic imitation of a mediaeval soldier. Hell, most of us have real antique suits of armour in our homes and we battle over this? Orson closed his eyes. How badly will Sebastian take it? He has part of the artefact he always wanted for its power. Can he use those little bits?

Only time would tell. Orson sighed, placed the toy knight on the mantelpiece and went to bed.

***

An insistent tapping on his bedroom door woke him from a troubled sleep. Orson wiped his brow against his sweat-soaked blankets and croaked “Yes?”

“Are you quite all right, sir?” Chadwick sounded worried. “You did not come down for breakfast and the staff are concerned.”

“I’m not sure. Come in, Chadwick.” Orson tried to rise, but fell back onto the bed.

The door swung open. Chadwick entered, took one look at Orson and put his hand over his mouth.

“Sir, you appear most unwell. Should I call Doctor Gill?”

Orson raised his hand to protest but stopped and stared at it. His hand shook – not so much shook as vibrated, he thought, considering the speed of movement. Worse, his fingertips had turned black and veins stood in sharp, pulsating relief on the back of his hand.

“Uh…” He tried to rise again but his pulse pounded in his skull as though it was trying to escape. “Yes,” he managed to gasp.

Chadwick disappeared. Orson lay on his back, breathing heavily, and closed his eyes in an attempt to still the hammers in his head. Sebastian. What did you do?

The phone on his bedside table seemed so very far away. The more he stared at it, the more it receded into the distance. This phone never rang, the ringer was turned off, but damn, he needed to reach it now.

Orson lifted one arm. His pyjama sleeve slid back to show black pulsing veins on his forearm. He wanted to cry under the weight of that arm, it was surely transmuted into lead. He aimed it at the phone.

As he shifted his weight to edge closer to the phone, the stench came to him. His bed stank as though he had lain in it for a month, the appalling reek made him retch but he focused on that phone. It had all his friends on speed dial and the fuzz in his brain cleared enough to let him remember Sebastian was number 13.

Dry rattles in his throat passed for laughter at the horrible coincidence.

His fingers touched the phone, or at least his eyes told him they did. There was no feeling in those blackened, swollen lumps of flesh. He kept his eyes open, blinking away tears, so he could guide his fingers around the handset.

Lifting the handset felt like lifting a car. So very, very heavy. Orson dragged the handset across the pillow until he could turn it and see the keypad. With numb fingers he pressed one, then three, then enter.

The phone autodialled and the shriek of the number tones almost caused Orson to pass out. Tears streamed down his face as the tones seared through his skull. Finally it settled to a merely irritating ringing tone. Then a click like a gunshot.

“Hello, this is the Blackthorn residence. May I ask who is calling?”

“Sebastian. I have to speak to him.” Orson felt as though his lips would shatter with every movement. His throat felt as dry as ashes.

“I’m sorry, sir, I have to ask again, who is calling?”

“Theo… Theodore Orson. Please, I have to speak with him.”

“I’m afraid Mr. Blackthorn is indisposed, sir. Perhaps you would like to call later?”

“No later. Might not be.” Orson tried to swallow but his mouth held nothing that could be swallowed. “Important. Tell him who calling.”

“Sir?” The voice at the other end of the line, Orson assumed it was Sebastian’s butler, sounded curious. “Sir? Are you the Mr. Orson that Mr. Blackthorn visited last night?”

“Yes.” Orson gasped it out.

“I will see if he can speak to you, sir.”

It was just a game. Just a damn plastic toy. Seb, why did you take it this far? Orson took a few long slow breaths. The beating inside his head felt like an enraged demon trying to escape and he wondered if that might actually be the case. Why do we do it at all? Are we all so rich that nothing matters now? Is the plastic knight a symbol of our disregard for value?

Orson shook his head and immediately regretted the action. The room spun like a turbocharged carousel and the stench of old sweat filled his nostrils. There were faces at his bedroom door. White faces. Very white. Clowns? Have the clowns come for me?

“Theo?” The voice on the phone was distant and cracked. “Why have you called?”

“I am sorry, Seb.” Orson stopped to take heavy breaths before continuing. “Call it off. Please.”

The line filled with coughing. “Call what off? What do you mean?”

“You can have the knight. I’ll say I cheated. You can win this for Sofia.” Orson felt as though his eyes should water but they had nothing left.

“I,” Seb paused. Orson heard retching sounds. “I don’t know what you mean. I had to leave last night because I felt sick. I’m very sick now.” A sound as if a blocked drain suddenly cleared. “Theo, I don’t know what happened but I caught something nasty.” The sound of a phone hitting the floor and the crackle as someone retrieved it.

“Seb?”

“I am sorry, sir, but Mr. Blackthorn cannot continue this conversation at this time.” The voice sounded stern. “Please allow him time to recover.” The click of a handset being replaced hit Orson like a nail into his forehead. He dropped the phone onto the bed and fell into something between sleep and coma.

***

“Mr. Orson, sir.”

Hands made of ice shook Orson’s shoulder.

“Mr. Orson, please wake up”

Orson opened one eye. It felt as if he was dragging sandpaper over his eyeball. He opened his mouth and tried to acknowledge Chadwick but all that came out was a dry creak.

“Sir, Doctor Gill can’t come right away. He has a lot of cases to deal with this morning. He suggested I keep you hydrated like this.” Chadwick held a wet sponge to Orson’s mouth, Orson sucked at it.

“Can you speak, sir?”

“I…” It was more a breath than a word, but the water in his mouth made it at least bearable. “I think so. Why?”

“There is a phone call, sir. Something about ice. The caller was most insistent.”

Oh, what does he want now? Orson groaned and closed his eyes.

“Should I tell him you are indisposed, sir? He could call back another time.”

“No, Chadwick.” Orson sighed. “Let’s get it over with. Hand me the phone, would you?”

Orson’s fingers were black to the knuckles now and his hands were completely numb. The handset slid from his grasp. Much as he would have preferred Chadwick leave the room while he spoke with the young scientist, he had no choice but to allow Chadwick to hold the phone for him, and to connect this line to the main house line.

“Orson speaking.” It might have been his feverishness but he was sure Chadwick’s hand was shaking.

“Mr. Orson. Thank God. It’s about the ice core. The whole facility is in lockdown, quarantine. Nobody gets in there and we’re all being screened.”

“They missed that section?” Orson should be worried but he was far too sick to care. “You know the terms. If you get caught, my name is never mentioned.”

Orson motioned to Chadwick to apply the wet sponge to his lips again. His tongue had begun sticking to the roof of his mouth.

“No, it’s not that.” The young scientist sounded panicked. “There was a study I didn’t know about. Some weeks back, they took samples to see if they could find any microbial life in the deep parts of the ice.”

“Did they?” Orson’s voice cracked. He coughed, which became a wheeze that brought tears to his eyes. “Did they?” he tried to say again, but only a whisper came out.

“They found a virus. Similar to a modern, harmless one. They tested it in rats.”

Orson cleared his throat and closed his eyes in an attempt to stop the throbbing in his temples “Harmless. So no problem then.”

“No, no, it’s harmless now. I mean the modern one is harmless. They’ve tested it in rats, at ten-thousand-year intervals along the ice core. It gets more dangerous the further back it goes. It lost its virulence over the millennia and became a harmless parasite, but at the start it was very nasty indeed.”

Orson’s breath came in shallow gasps. “How nasty?”

There was a silence.

Orson tried to shout. “How nasty, dammit?” His body twisted with the agony of a coughing fit. Chadwick held the sponge to his lips again.

“Mr. Orson, I know you paid a lot for that core but please, get rid of it. Let it melt and then sterilise it. Don’t let anyone touch it. If the virus gets inside it’ll… well, you’ve heard of Ebola? This is worse. And it’s highly contagious.”

Oh shit. It wasn’t Sebastian who did this. It was me. “What’s the cure for it? What treatment?” Orson’s eyes brimmed with tears.

“There is no cure. Maybe one day, but it’s a new disease. It has to be contained.” Voices murmured in the background. “I have to go. Mr. Orson, I’ll get the money back to you, I promise, but you have to get rid of that ice.” The line went silent.

Chadwick replaced the handset. His fingers trembled and veins protruded on the back of his hands.

“I couldn’t help overhearing some of that, sir.” He avoided eye contact. “Is it as bad as it sounded?”

Orson forced his breathing to slow. “Yes, Chadwick, it is. When Doctor Gill arrives, have him check out yourself and the rest of the staff first. Make sure he wears a face mask, I know he always carries some. Seal the house, don’t let anyone enter or leave.” This long speech was too much. Orson’s lungs burned, his nose and throat felt as though they were filled with acid. He wheezed and motioned for the sponge again.

Chadwick held the sponge with his now clearly trembling hand. “Sir, If I lock down the house the staff might panic.”

Orson waited until he felt safe to speak. “Think of some pretext. Say a valuable artefact went missing and nobody is to leave because there has to be an investigation. Something along those lines.”

“Very good, sir.” Chadwick left the sponge within reach and moved to the door. He paused. “Sir, I have not yet prepared a last will and testament. Should I do so now?”

Orson could have laughed, if he still had the ability to do so. “I would recommend it, Chadwick, old friend. I would heartily recommend it.”

Chadwick lowered his eyes for a moment, then put his shoulders back and stood erect. “I understand, sir. Thank you for the advice.” He left and closed the door quietly.

Orson closed his eyes. He tried to touch his legs – his hands had no feeling but he also felt nothing when he pressed them against his legs. How far had this spread? The young scientist said it was fast and fatal. Very contagious. Chadwick, dear, faithful Chadwick, already showed the shake in his hands.

Tears, and not just of pain, streamed from his eyes. All those guests. The drivers who took them home. Their staff, their families, their children. Even Doctor Gill, who would already have visited some of them without knowing he needed to wear a face mask. Would that even help against a virus? Orson had no idea.

In his mind, he chuckled. What came out sounded like the last gasps of an asphyxiated ferret. Tarquin. That bumbling eccentric, that peacock-feathered popinjay. The clown of the upper classes. He took no ice in his whisky. He would likely be the only one of us to survive.

All the others, though, all their immediate family, all their staff… and all the family of the staff, delivery and postal workers, maybe bank tellers. Every shop they visited, every pub they drank in, every school their children went to…

Oh my God, what have I unleashed? His dry lips cracked in a smile. The Blackthorns would be so proud of me, and so envious. The mayhem they have dreamed of for generations is here and I did it without knowing.

The effort even of moving his face became too much. Orson let all muscle movement subside. His breathing became shallower and shallower.

It was for a toy. Not for fame and glory, not for some noble ideal, not for the end of war and peace for all mankind. I have let loose a demon on the world and I did it for a petty competition over a little plastic toy.

His breathing became erratic. There was no more pain, no more feeling of any kind. His vision clouded and the room darkened.

It was just a game. A game of old times. Finally, the old times came back to bite us.

The game is over. The knight is mine.

Here comes the night.

I hope there are no screams in it.

______________________________________________________

Don’t worry. I’m sure nothing like this could ever really happen. Probably.

Hawaii at 100

Okay, I have finally finished with ‘Norman’s House’ and loaded it up. It has passed all the checks and the eBook version will spread soon. I’ll push it once the Amazon listings combine. Details are here.

The eighth Underdog Anthology is now open for submissions. Since we are not getting visited (parents again) until April 4th, I can set the closing date for submissions to March 25th, and I can be a few-days flexible on that. It’s the Spring (Beltane) anthology, details here.

Right, that’s the work stuff done. Now it’s time to get the popcorn, pour a good sized drink, sit back and marvel at the madness of the world.

I read recently of a man in India who plans to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. I have also noted that several American states now allow abortion up to the point of birth. Soon they will give new parents a one-year cooling off period, during which they can bring the child back for extermination if it keeps them awake or if they just change their minds. Oh I know, it sounds flippant, but I’m really not joking. There will be many counsellors on hand to help change their minds during that first year too.

It sounds horrifying but people will accept it because it’s all part of the plan. As is your child sueing you for bringing them into this world without their consent. Read Orwell’s 1984, if you haven’t already, and see what your children will be able to do to you in future. Heck, they can do it now.

This post isn’t about those things.

If I live to be 100 I am going to Hawaii. I won’t go before then but if I get that old I am definitely going. It’s quite a few years away yet and given that I have lived, and continue to live, a life that should, by all modern medical propaganda, have ended in 1985, it’s a long shot.

Still, as I said, I will not go there before I reach 100 because I won’t be able to buy any cigarettes there until I reach that age. I will definitely go there when I reach 100 because I’ll make a fortune. I’ll buy cigarettes and sell them individually to the 90-year-old senile delinquents on street corners. (tip of the heavy hat to Zaphod on Twitter for this one)

The idiots in charge of Hawaii are concerned about – a potentially strong backlash from tobacco companies.

They are not at all concerned about any kind of effect on existing smokers. Fuck ’em. Nor on any small retailers who rely heavily on the profits from cigarette sales. Fuck ’em too. The tobacco industry could write off the whole of Hawaii and their balance sheets won’t notice the difference. Hawaii’s corner shops will notice the difference very quickly and Hawaii’s smokers will, if they have any sense, be packing their bags right now.

Oh I know, smokers, eh? Who needs ’em? Wouldn’t the world have been so much better without the likes of Churchill or Einstein or Brunel? We could have been so much better off under the virulent-antismoker vegetarian Hitler. So all the smokers leave. You won’t miss them. You’ll have your new Righteous overlords looking after you and if you think it stops with smoking…. you really haven’t been paying attention.

If it goes through, and considering the current lunacy gripping the world I won’t be surprised if it does, I wil visit Hawaii in a little over 40 years. But not before.

I’d better start saving though. The way cigarette prices are going, that pack will cost me more than the flight to Hawaii by the time I get there.

The Marketing Begins…

Well, I set up a page on Farcebook since that seems to be the most likely successful marketing strategy. It costs nothing to try that so it seems like a good place to start. I have also spammed my friends list with the link. Hopefully one or two won’t just respond with ‘get stuffed’.

Thanks to everyone who responded to the last post. I’ll try to respond individually but there are a lot of you. You’re right. Spending a lot on throwaway stuff isn’t going to help. As several have said, I, too, have an attic loaded with free bags and all sorts of things from companies I’ve worked with, given talks and consultancy to (not for free, of course) and spoken with at conferences. None of it has influenced any later buying decisions.

I’ve gone ahead with the business cards, those seem likely to be useful, and had a small number of mugs made for family to show off to visitors. Random strangers would simply add them to the mug cupboard, family are more likely to show off what their lunatic relative is up to now.

Some months back I tried out the Twitter book promoters. It was only $10, not a big risk, but it did nothing. Not a thing. Took me a few days to realise that everyone does what I do when faced with five or six consecutive tweets pushing one book. I just fast-scroll past them all. Twitter, I think, will only work if I can insert a mention of a book into a relevant conversation. Someone talking about Jacobites? I could mention Mark Ellott’s ‘Rebellion’. Someone talking about grooming? Margo Jackson’s ‘The Mark’ is relevant there, even though the ‘grooming’ part is not as clear cut as you might think.

Cafepress, Zazzle and the new one on me, Spreadshirt, could be good places to set up merchandise. Not just the Leg Iron Books logo, maybe some book covers too. I’ll look into that. Vistaprint, who do the business cards, will do T shirts but I’d have to buy them first. They don’t sell direct. What sizes do I buy? How do I sell T shirts? I have no idea… that’s best left to the merchandise sites. If I can make money from merchandise I can further cut my percentage of profit from book sales and send more of it to authors. I’m currently on 30%, a few T shirt and mug sales and I could drop to 20%.

I still plan to work up a printed catalogue, well, a leaflet at this stage. That would be vital if I can get to a book show. I might not sell any books but ‘take one, it’s free’ should do well. Other than that, really, bookmarks are still on the cards. Not much use for eBooks of course but people do still like real print books.

There will also be ‘box sets’. I can’t yet make real boxes for box sets but I can do it with eBooks and I can, if I have several books that aren’t very thick, make a one volume omnibus edition. Why? Because the set, say three books, will be cheaper than buying all three individually. It appeals to latecomers who want a set but don’t want to pay for them all.

I should soon be able to make a Mark Ellott collection and I’m working on piling all my own short stories into one volume of misery and despair. I cannot go back and do annual omnibuses of the anthologies unless I get a new contract from every author. The contract is explicit: I get to use the story once. I can’t use it again. However, I will include that omnibus use in contracts from now so it’ll be in the Easter (Anthology 8) contracts. This changes nothing from the author’s point of view, they still get all rights back on first publication, it just means I can make a combined omnibus edition at the end of each year.

So, if I can manage to drink enough and think crazy enough, I’ll have marketing nailed eventually. For now, the marketing budget is limited but will rise if book sales rise. The two are inextricably linked.

It won’t be easy, but then I have something of a reputation for not taking the easy route 😉

A clue for the clueless?

I have been looking into marketing. I’m probably not going to get drunk or high enough to be a proper marketer but I’m doing what I can.

I have used Vistaprint in the past for business cards when self-employed, so I’ve just ordered some new ones. Magnetic ones so you can stick them to fridges. Also a few mugs to give away to start conversations. These just have the Leg Iron Books logo and the website address.

There are many options. Keyrings, drinking vessels of all descriptions, T shirts… all too expensive to give too many away and most have a minimum order of 50 units.

That’s okay for the general website. However, I had hoped to send every author some promotional materials for their own books and that could turn out expensive.

So I need ideas for low-volume (ideally also low cost) promotional materials. I have looked into places like Cafepress and Zazzle where I could potentially load up a design and just buy a few promotional items to pass to authors. They aren’t cheap but I wouldn’t have to buy 50.

Bookmarks… I can make those. Print on good photo paper and laminate it. Or don’t even laminate, just accept it has a limited life and keep pumping out the cheap ones. Those could easily be personalised to each author. Yet bookmarks only work if you have a related book, so those are best given away with copies of the book. Better, with an Underdog Anthology that author is in, to promote their own books.

There are many options but which is best? What would you use? Keyrings? T shirts? Baseball style caps? Perhaps more importantly, what would you buy? If you are willing to pay something then it has to be something you actually want to use or wear. There is no point in making something to give away if it all ends up in recycling or the ‘forever drawer’.

Pens and bottle openers are good but you just get a line of text. Fine for advertising the main site but sod all use for individual books. For that I need space for a cover image and at least a one-line description.

So, how about a clue for the clueless? What promotional material would you not only use, but would show off? A hat, a T-shirt, a mug, an engraved glass? What is there that you would buy with a Leg Iron Books logo on it? Anything?

Understand, I really don’t expect you to buy it. I’m interested in what kind of thing you would think a thing worth having, and would use it in public, with Leg Iron Books on it.

I have a very limited marketing budget and I really don’t want to spend it all in the wrong place.

Retirement is official

Well, the lab is empty. It was the last bits today. All the big stuff was out so the car is full of plastic bags stuffed with random bits for the final clearing-up. I am no longer paying rent on a lab I rarely used for the last few years and I won’t be doing any more 60-sample marathons. Ever.

See, with microbial samples you can’t do half one day and half the next. The half you do the next day will have changed. If you freeze them, you kill some species faster than others. If you don’t freeze them, the population will change overnight, even in the fridge. So if you get 60 samples you have to do them all that day.

This often meant working past midnight. In a remote lab, alone. Stuff that. I’ve done it many times and I don’t want to do it anymore.

I’ll still take on consultancy work if any appears but no more late-shift lab work.

With the demise of the lab, I can make my retirement from science official and concentate all my efforts on Leg Iron Books. No more distractions that lead to blunders.

Science is wrecked anyway. When I started it was all about getting new knowledge. Now it’s all about getting new money, and to hell with principles or diligent research. I can’t do that because I’ve never cared about money. I was always a blue-sky researcher and often, those wild experimentations came up with good results.

Nobody seems to care about results any more. The conclusions are pre-written by the funder and if you don’t reach those conclusions you get no more funding. I won’t play that game.

So I am now a publisher full time. Oh, and a seller of second hand lab equipment for a while 😉 I will hang on to some things that will be useful in brewing, of course, but there’s a lot I don’t need to keep.

I appear to have a large stainless steel condenser in my collection. I think I’ll hang on to that…

So, I enter 2019 at the start of a new career that really started in 2016, but which is no longer split by a second career. I am now Leg Iron Books and I have to learn marketing, fast.

Now, at least, I have the time to do it.

Waking Santa – a Christmas Tale

A tale of Christmas yet to come. If you’re new here you’ll need to catch up on where this story came from. First this one, then this one.

Those two now appear in Underdog Anthologies 4 and 5, and the one you’re about to read is in Anthology 7.

Yes, these stories are following a pattern and leading somewhere. Somewhere that isn’t all that nice. It’s a reflection of reality, when you sit back and consider it, but hey – this is just entertainment. It’s Christmas! (he says, smoothing his green fur and waiting for it to be over).

Without further ado, here’s this year’s instalment.

Waking Santa

“The snow is stopping. We should go.” Betty turned her gaze back to her tablet. “They might not have traced us yet but if they have, they’ll be able to send the drones now.”

“Just a couple of minutes. The download is almost done.” Alan visually checked his connections into the breached cable they had dug up, under cover of an open-sided white tent. “Anyway, it’s still Earth Hour. They’ll mostly be standing out in the woods and hugging trees that don’t even know they’re there.” He let out a guffaw.

“It’s not funny.” Betty slapped his arm. “This is seriously dangerous. As long as we don’t bother them, they ignore us. We are taking a big risk here.”

Alan took a breath and blew out condensation into the cold air. “They don’t ignore us. They can’t find us. If they do, we’re dead. The only way to find out what’s happening in the cities is to take a risk. Besides, it’s Earth Day, and after Earth Hour most systems will be shut down.”

“The civilian ones.” Betty stared at her tablet. “You know full well the government never shuts down.”

“I know. We nearly got caught last time. Still, we need to know how they are progressing in there and whether they are a threat to us.” Alan checked his screen. “Twenty seconds and we’re done.”

“You were out with Pete last time. What do you mean, you nearly got caught?”

Alan waved his hand. “Oh, it wasn’t a big deal. The drones were sent, we had six minutes to finish the download before they arrived and we were out of there in two.”

“You know a capture of any of us means a total pull-out, right?” Betty’s eyes widened. “Shut everything, take what we can carry and run. Find a whole new place to live. That’s a big deal. A very big deal.”

“Don’t worry about it. We didn’t get caught and we won’t this time. Download is complete.” Alan shut down his laptop and disconnected it from the exposed cable. “We leave the canopy. It’ll take them that little bit longer to find our breach and every second counts now.”

“Drones are activated. They’ve noticed us.” Betty tapped at her tablet screen. “Seven minutes. Let’s move.”

Alan folded his laptop and placed it in his shoulder bag along with the cables. “Seven minutes is plenty of time. Come on.” He grinned at Betty. “This is fun, isn’t it?

“You’re insane.” Betty took the lead. “Hey, won’t they just follow our tracks in the snow?”

“You go ahead. I’ll follow.” Alan picked up what Betty had assumed was his walking stick. He pulled a lever and extended one end into a rake, laced with strips of cloth. “Drone cameras are low resolution. They won’t be able to see our raked-over tracks and they’ll be busy hunting for the breached cable. Which they also can’t easily see because we’ve left a white canopy over it.” He lowered the rake to the ground, behind them. “They’ll have a precise location and waste time scanning and re-scanning it. We have time to get well out of the way.”

“You’re so fucking complacent.” Betty trudged through the snow, her tablet now stowed inside her thick jacket. “You don’t seem to realise how dangerous this is.”

“I know exactly how dangerous it is.” Alan’s voice lost its humour. “I’ve done this dozens of times, at all times of year, and we’ve cut it very close more than once. This is one of the easy ones.”

“Easy!” Betty snorted. “We have seven minutes to get clear before the sky is full of drones and you think that’s easy?”

Alan’s sigh didn’t make her turn. She was focused on getting away from what had just become a target site.

“The information we get is important.” Alan said. “And yes, it’s a risk. A big one. But they only ever send one drone to hunt for us and that drone always concentrates on the breach point. This time it’ll take them seven minutes to get here and we’re four minutes from cover. This really is one of the easy ones.”

Betty let out a gasp of disbelief. “I never want to be your watchman on one of these missions ever again.”

Alan laughed. “Nobody ever does.” His tone became serious. “It matters though. I’m the only one hacking into their systems. I take out someone different every time because if I can’t do it any more, or I get caught, the rest of you need to know where the access points are.” He paused. “If I take out the same person every time and we both get caught, it’s over.”

“Oh great.” Betty scowled at the new snow before her. “So I’m expendable.”

“No.” Alan spoke quietly. “I am. You, Pete, Stan, Eddie, Helen, all the others, are the ones who will replace me when I’m not around any more.”

“Huh?” Betty stopped and turned to face him. “What do you mean?”

Alan motioned her to keep moving. “We can talk about this when we’re safe. Let’s get inside.”

Betty scanned the fresh snow in front of them. “Where’s the entrance? I told you when we arrived, we should have marked it.”

“Never mark anything. It gives a drone something to find.” Alan pointed at her hands. “Where’s your tablet? It has a map that makes use of their GPS system to tell us exactly where we are, and where the access hatch is.”

“Can’t they track it?” Betty pulled out her tablet and turned it on.

“Yes.” Alan waved her concerns aside. “But we must be very close. It should only be on for a few seconds. It’s a risk, but pissing about here while there’s a drone on the way is a far bigger risk.”

“Okay. The access hatch should be about five metres that way.” She pointed to her left. “And it’s starting to snow again so we’d better hurry.”

Alan was already probing the snow. “Found it. Time to turn off anything electronic.”

Betty shut down her tablet then helped him shove the snow aside with her hands. They cleared just enough to get the hatch open and dropped into the darkness inside.

Alan lit an LED flashlight, pulled the hatch closed, spun the wheel that held it closed then jammed his rake’s handle through the wheel. “If they managed to trace the GPS signal, this should slow them down. The new snow will hide our tracks, hopefully before the drone arrives.”

“How can you be so calm? I’m terrified.” Betty hugged herself.

“You develop a certain fatalism after you’ve done this a few times.” Alan picked up the sticks wrapped, at one end, in pitch-soaked cloth, part of the return-journey items they had left here, and struck his lighter. “You just know that any mission can be your last. So every time I get home, it’s a great feeling.” He grinned, lit one of the torches and handed it to Betty, then lit another for himself. Then turned off the flashlight and pocketed it.

He hefted the bag containing the rest of their supplies and started along the rusting pipe. “Come on, we have to get the hell out. We have new information to take home and this whole trip is wasted if we get caught.”

Betty followed. “Why don’t we use the LED torches? We used them on the way here and they have plenty of charge left.”

“No electromagnetic radiation. Nothing. Not so much as a battery powered watch. We know their cameras are crap, we’ve downloaded footage that shows them getting worse over time, but we also know they are very advanced in RFID and in detecting electrical fields.” Alan turned to smile at her. “So we go all caveman on the way back.”

“You really think they can spot the EMF of an LED?”

“No idea.” Alan turned into a junction in the pipework. “In this game we take no chances. No markings anywhere, we can use the computer map to get here but to get back…” He took a piece of paper from his jacket. “We go old style.”

Betty took the paper and unfolded it one-handed. “What the hell is this? It looks like a computer map drawn in pencil.”

“That’s exactly what it is. I hear that, in the days before GPS and satellites, they had to make these by measuring distances on the ground.”

“Oh come on.” Betty followed Alan as he turned into another pipe. “How are you even making these turns? There’s nothing on this paper to tell us where we are.”

“I’ve done this trip so many times I don’t need the map any more. This is for you to follow. Call it on-the-job training.” Alan stopped and faced her. “Can you tell where we are on that map?”

Betty stared at the paper. “I don’t even know where we started from. How the hell do you work this?”

“It’s best used with a compass, but those don’t work in these steel pipes.” Alan took a pencil from his pocket and marked an X on the map. “This is where we just came in. Remember the turns we made?”

Betty shook her head. “Compass?”

“More olde worlde stuff. Don’t worry about it.” Alan smiled. “So, where do you think we are?”

 “Um…” Betty put her finger on the X and started moving along the lines.

“Wrong way. Not your fault, there’s nothing to orient yourself with here. Try again.”

Betty treated him to her best withering glare, then looked at the map. She moved her finger along the lines, traced two turns and said “here.”

“Yes.” Alan punched the air. “You’re a natural born map reader. Okay, we’re heading here ” he placed another X “– to a bit that looks like a blank wall. There’s a panel on the left side, press it and it pops open. Type in 5794 and the wall opens.  Always remember to close the panel before you go through.”

“Okay. I think.” Betty marked an X where they were on the map now.

“Right, Let’s go, and try to keep track of where we are on the map.” Alan started walking.

Betty followed. “Why are you showing me this now? Shouldn’t we be running?”

“We are in old steel pipes. If we run, the noise we make will echo through the whole system. Slow and quiet is the best way now.” His shoulders slumped a little but he kept walking. “You need to know this stuff. Everyone who has been out with me has one of those maps and knows how to use it. So when the day comes that I can’t do this anymore, there are plenty who can replace me.”

“You mean when you get too old?”

Alan half-turned his head, enough that Betty saw his tight smile. “I hope that’ll be the reason,” he said.

Betty followed him around a left turn. She marked the turn on the map, thinking about how her opinion of Alan had changed. He might seem irresponsible, even reckless, but he risked capture every time he went on one of these missions. She pursed her lips. She had been wrong about him. Everything he did was calculated and precise. It just looked random.

An echo along the pipes broke through her thoughts. A long slow groan, a bang, a rattling. They both froze.

“That can’t happen.” Alan’s voice quaked. “Drones can’t do that.”

“What is it?”

“Something broke open the entry hatch.” Alan grabbed Betty’s hand. “Where are we on this map? Right now.”

“What the hell does that matter?” Betty looked into his eyes and saw the raw fear in them. “I…” she touched the map. “Here, I think.”

“Good.” Alan reached into his bag. “Here, take my laptop. You’re younger and faster than me. You take the first left, the second left, then the second right turns, Open the panel, press 5794, close the panel and go through. I’ll catch up.”

“You want me to leave it open for you?”

“No. Always close it. I know how to open it when I get there.” He pressed the laptop into her free hand. “The information in here is what matters now.”

“But… what is it? Who broke the door open?” Betty clutched the laptop and felt her knees tremble.

“They sent more than a drone this time. Not a human, a machine. The one they only use on Earth Day.”

Echoing along the pipes came a heavy thump, then a deep, resounding ‘Ho ho ho’. The jingling of distant bells sounded but it was hard to say where they came from.

Alan closed his eyes. “Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle.”

Betty’s eyes widened so far it hurt. “He’s real? Green Santa is real?”

“Yes. Get going. I’ll be behind you but don’t look back and don’t wait for me. Get that information home. If I fall, do not – do not – come back for me. This is more important than either of us.”

She saw, in his eyes, a primal terror. A caveman faced with a tiger when all he had was a stick. She knew, in that moment she knew, that he was going to fight razor tooth and slashing claw with a stick because it was all he had to defend the thing that mattered to him. Betty turned and ran, her map now crumpled alongside the laptop in her hand, her blazing torch flaring behind her. First left, second left, second right. The map was in her mind and her imagination charted her progress.

Behind her, Alan’s footsteps and heavy breathing followed. She knew he had no need of the map but still she worried. His footsteps slowed, he was falling behind. After the second turn he was no longer in sight, only his wheezing and staggering footsteps told her he was still moving.

The bells jingled louder. Betty remembered the tales of her childhood, tales she thought had been made up. Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle. They jingle for thee. Nobody who heard them ever lived to tell, but stories said there had been one, long ago. Betty prayed to a God she half-believed in that she would be another.

Second right. The last turn. Ahead was the blank wall, the end of the pipe maze. Behind her, Alan’s footsteps stopped. His coughing echoed along the pipes. He was already too old for this game.

There were other footsteps. A steady, measured tread that gave the impression of a large man, or man-like thing, casually following. Something that never tired, never rested. No matter how fast you run, you have to rest sometime. Green Santa just keeps going.

Betty took two steps back along the pipe. Alan had told her not to go back but could she really leave him? She looked down at the laptop. Alan was right. If she lost this, it had all been for nothing.

The heavy footsteps stopped. Betty held her breath. They had no electronics switched on. All the Green Santa had to track them with was the flicker of their torches and if he couldn’t see that from his current position then his only option was to listen. To wait until they made a sound.

Betty turned, very slowly, and watched every step she took towards the end wall. She avoided every bit of debris, touched nothing that could make a noise. She had nearly reached the wall when the echo of Alan’s stumble came through the pipes. He must have tried the same trick, and failed.

“Ho ho ho.” The humourless laugh bounced along every pipe in this maze. The heavy footsteps resumed, faster this time.

Betty dropped her torch to the ground near the wall and used its light to find the faint outline of the panel Alan had told her was there. She pressed it, the door popped open and she hastily pressed 5-4-9-7. A red light came on but nothing else happened. Betty’s fingers shook. What did I do wrong?

Five. It started with five. Betty pressed five. She closed her eyes and thought about what Alan had said. It was linked to the map in her mind. First left, second left, second right. There were no ones or twos in the number. Her mind recalled Alan’s face giving her the directions. Open the panel, press 5794. That was it. Betty pressed 7-9-4.

The light turned green. Betty closed the panel. There was a soft click and a section of the wall swung open. There was light beyond. Betty glanced back, hoping to see Alan following. Instead, Green Santa’s voice boomed along the pipes.

“Well, it seems you are on the naughty list. Now you have to come with me.”

Alan’s voice followed. “Just kill me, you green metal bastard.”

“Oh no,” Santa boomed. “Naughty people have questions to answer.”

“I have nothing to…” Alan’s voice choked off, followed by the dull thud of a falling body.

Betty stifled a scream, but it came out as a squeal.

Santa fell silent for a moment then called out. “There is another naughty one here.” The stomp of his footfalls resumed. Betty stepped through the door and closed it as quietly as she could. Its lock clicked softly into place.

Betty placed her ear to the steel door. The muffled stomping drew closer, accompanied by the jingling bells. She clenched her teeth. Could he just smash through this door? The footsteps stopped.

Her body shook like leaves in the wind. Somehow she forced herself to silence, despite the tears rolling down her cheeks. Eventually the footsteps resumed but going away, getting fainter.

Betty let out a long, quiet sigh and sank to her knees, still clutching the laptop and the crumpled map. She knelt there for what felt like eternity before she finally looked around at where she was.

It was a corridor. White and clean with striplights along the ceiling. This is not where we started from. What do I do now? The map held no clues, it ended at the door she had just come through. She stared along the corridor, one way and then the other, but both directions seemed identical. Which way should she go?

A buzz, a hum, a rattle… familiar sounds. Betty stared along the corridor until a battered electric car came into view. More like an oversized child’s go-kart than anything else, it trundled along at a sedate pace towards her.

Phil sat in the driver’s seat. His face showed deep concern as he stopped alongside her.

“Alan?” The question needed only that one word.

Betty shook her head.

“Get in, quick.” Phil let her settle into one of the rear seats before turning the ramshackle machine around and setting off. “This is evac time. We have to get the hell out of here now. Don’t blame yourself because nobody else will. It was bound to happen one day.” He shook his head. “What happened? How did Alan manage to get blindsided by a drone?”

“It wasn’t—” Betty’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat. “It was Green Santa. He followed us into the pipes and caught Alan.”

“Shit. I can’t radio ahead. They’ll be scanning the area for signals now. I wish this heap of junk could go faster.”

“I think he killed Alan. I heard him fall.” Betty’s voice trembled.

“No way. Santa always takes them alive and Alan will talk. Oh, he will resist but they’ll make him talk.” Phil’s body shuddered. “They have very persuasive ways.” Phil turned his head. “You heard him fall, you say? Green Santa didn’t see you?”

“No.” Betty felt a tear slide down her cheek. “But he heard me, and I heard the bells.”

Phil whistled. “Wow. You’re only the second one in history to hear those bells and survive. You just became very, very important.”

“Me?”

“Since Dawn died all those years ago, just after we ran from the cities, it’s been harder to convince the young about Green Santa and the jingling bells.” Phil shot her a sly glance. “You didn’t believe it, did you?”

“No, not really. It all seemed a bit too weird. A robot they only use on Earth day? Why wouldn’t they use it all the time?”

“It’s fear. It’s how they control people.” Phil turned a corner. “For this one day they want everyone to turn off the power in their homes. They could do it centrally, but getting people scared enough to do it themselves – that’s real control. Green Santa is the enforcer for that specific control. And there are more than one of him.”

“How many?” Betty had found it hard to believe in one Green Santa. Was there an army of them?

“Nobody knows, but he’s struck in multiple places at once so there are certainly more than one.” Phil brought the vehicle to a halt beside a plain white door. “Here we are. Let’s go home and then leave it as fast as we can.” His mouth grinned, but his eyes were full of sadness.

Betty climbed out of the makeshift car and picked up her bag, Alan’s laptop and the map he had given her. “I don’t get it,” she said. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen this corridor.”

Phil moved to the door. “Oh it’s quite a labyrinth down here. Very few people know all of it. We only know the parts we need to know. So if any of us get caught, they can’t get the whole floor plan out of us.” He tapped on the door.

“Do you know it all?” Betty wondered just how much more her mind could take. Green Santa turns out to be real, then there are lots of Green Santas, and now her home was getting bigger around her.

“Well that’s the thing,” Phil said. “If there’s more I don’t know about, I don’t know it’s there. So maybe I do know it all or maybe I just think I do because I know more than some other people.”

Betty shook her head. “Forget I asked.”

Phil tapped the door again. “Come on. This is no time to be asleep on the job.”

The door swung open. A wide-eyed Terry stood there, with a much older man behind him. Grey, wrinkled and holding on to a cane, they both recognised him at once.

David. One of the few remaining of those who had originally fled the cities to found this colony. He was originally known as 23-David, his city designation, and the stories he had told about life in the city were hard to believe.

David spoke. “Come inside. We are already packing to move. Abandon that vehicle, we have no time to dismantle it.”

“You already know?” Betty blushed at the awe in her voice. “How?”

David pointed his cane upwards. “Hidden cameras in the ceiling. No point keeping them secret any more, now we have to move. They don’t have sound but Alan’s empty seat was all we needed to know.”

Terry ushered them inside. “Sorry about the delay. When I saw Alan wasn’t with you I went to alert David and the others. We just got back to the door.” Behind him, at his desk, his monitor was blank. “It’s all turned off now. We’re running silent on electronics.”

David laughed. “Yes, they are getting their Earth Day power-down in here too this year. They’d love the irony, if they had any sense of humour.” He shuffled to another door. “Come on. Bring the laptop. While we pack up, I want to see what Alan found.”

“You’re going to turn it on?” Betty clutched the laptop to her chest. “They might trace it.”

“We’re going to the Faraday cage. I gave instructions that it should be dismantled last.” David made surprisingly fast progress for a man whose legs seemed to no more than shuffle.

Betty leaned towards Phil as they walked. “What’s a Faraday cage?”

“It’s a big metal mesh box connected to earth. EM radiation from a laptop won’t go through it.” He motioned her forward.

The cage was only large enough for two but the mesh sides meant they could see and hear David while he started up the laptop and opened the files Alan had downloaded. His breath came out in a hiss almost as soon as he read the first few lines.

“This does not look good,” he said over his shoulder. He read further, fast, flipping screens and scanning the contents. “Oh this is very bad.” David shut down the laptop and closed it. “We’ll study it in detail later but just scanning it was bad enough.”

“What is it? Are they coming for us?” Phil’s fingers twitched.

“They are now.” David stood, opened the door and handed the laptop to Betty. “Take good care of this. Don’t let it get damaged. We’ll have to make copies of those files but there’s no time to do it now.”

Betty accepted the laptop and put it carefully in her bag. “What do you mean, ‘they are now’? Weren’t they before?”

“Oh, in a half hearted way, yes. They had hunts, they considered them sport, and they’d send armed drones out to kill us if they found us, but mostly they ignored us. That old drunk, Kim Jung Kerr, left most of the running of the cities to his sidekicks and they were pretty useless. They couldn’t co-ordinate a drunken night in one of Pissed Harry’s brew rooms.” He started towards the main hall where the evacuation gathered.

“So what changed?” Phil walked alongside.

“They finally left the old drunk in his mansion with an endless supply of wine and the lazy bastards let computers control more and more of the way their society works. We all know how computers think.” David tapped his head. “They don’t. They follow programs and they use algorithms to perfect the efficiency of those programs. Efficiency. Not humanity. Computers care nothing for that.”

“I’m not following this. Computers run the cities?” Betty’s head swam with too much information, too fast.

“They do now.” David pursed his lips. “People always placed too much faith in their computers. They thought artificial intelligence was real. It isn’t. You start a program and you give it algorithms so it can adapt – but it’s not a living thing. It can only adapt within the constraints of the original program. It cannot think up something new.”

“You’re losing me too,” Phil shook his head.

David stopped. “Okay. You were born here, you didn’t see the cities. You’ve heard about the genderfluid rules they had when I left, yes?”

They both nodded.

“And you didn’t believe a word of it, did you?”

Betty and Phil glanced at each other. Both blushed.

“I don’t blame you.” David resumed walking. “It sounds fucking crazy and it was. It was intended to be crazy. It was set up so people would demand an end to it. Computers, programmed by likely psychopathic morons, found a solution and applied it. Computers do not debate, they don’t ask opinions, they just implement what they were programmed to do.” He took a deep breath. “Everyone in the city is now neutered at birth, Except the breeding class, the elite. They produce all the children now and they select the best for themselves. The rest are surgically adjusted into worker drones. Like ants or bees. And they don’t even know it’s happened.”

Betty stopped walking. “That can’t be true. People would revolt.”

David stopped and faced her. “You’d think so, yes. Our people would for sure, but revolts, even talking about it, were so deeply crushed that all of us who would have revolted simply left. The rest, well, they got what they wanted. Someone else to run their lives for them.”

Phil wrinkled his nose. “So really, we can fight off an army of neutered weaklings, surely?”

“That’s not what they’ll send.” David’s eyes hardened. “They use people as workers, there is nobody in the military. That’s entirely computer controlled and it’s big. Very big.” He waved his hand at their protests. “Not to fight an enemy. To keep their people in line.”

“So why should we worry?” Betty said. “If they use their military on themselves, we don’t matter to them.”

“We are not talking sense and reason. We are talking computers. Give it a problem and it will try to fix it by any means at its disposal. It does not care about consequences or collateral damage. It is focused on one problem and what happens to the rest of the world does not matter.”

“This is getting scary.” Phil glanced at Betty. “Will they use nukes?”

“Unlikely,” David said. “Somewhere in their databanks will be information on what happens to electronics in a nuclear blast. Deleting themselves will not be an attractive solution.”

“So what then? What can we expect?” Betty felt for the laptop in her bag. It seemed less benign than it had before.

“When we tapped in before, humans would have seen it, humans would have sent a drone, found nobody and given up.” David paused. “Computers do not give up. You know those old scary stories about zombies? We still have some scratchy DVDs of zombie apocalypse films.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen them. Spooky, but you’re losing me again.” Betty blinked a few times and looked at Phil.

“Me too,” Phil said. “Zombies are walking corpses. Not computers.”

David continued. “What’s scary about zombies, even though they are slow, is that they never give up. Never stop. Never rest. You can easily outrun a zombie but you have to stop sometime. You have to sleep. While you sleep, the zombie is still going. Catching up.”

“So what you’re saying is that the computers are going to trail us like zombies?” Phil’s nose wrinkled.

“With a slight difference.” David looked them in the eyes, one after another. “Computers are a bloody sight faster than zombies. Welcome to the real zombie apocalypse.”

“Why? What did we do?” Betty’s lip trembled.

“We hacked in. Alan’s downloading of those files triggered a defence response – not from people this time, from the computers. This time they won’t give up.” David sighed. “We’re going to be running forever, and we brought it on ourselves.”