Virus science

Tomorrow, midnight, is the end of the quarter at Leg Iron Books and author royalties (if any) will go out on time. The anthology is going ahead too, it will close for submissions on March 31st although editing and publication will be delayed because of my father’s funeral. The delay on that has also put a complete stop on my own writing and on any kind of marketing.

I’m estimating mid to late April for publication on Anthology 11. It doesn’t affect this one too much since it’s not tied to a specific event like the Halloween and Christmas anthologies. It will be the Spring anthology, just a little later than usual. Spring is going to be delayed too, if there is any accuracy in the weather forecasts.

Anyway, science. I am/was a bacteriologist, not a virologist. I specialised in intestinal disease, pro- and prebiotics and in developing farm animal feeds mainly. Also, intestinal simulations, so I could run experiments on gut contents without animals messing it all up. So this is going to look a bit simplistic to a virologist who will have studied this in far more detail than me.

The current coronavirus is generating all kinds of conflicting reports, from ‘oh it’s just the flu’ to some serious tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theories. I read one that claimed the Spanish flu was bioengineered, some 30 years before Watson and Crick and around 70 years before DNA sequencing became a viable lab procedure. This somewhat dented the credibility of that story.

First, it is not the flu. The first round apparently has mild flu-like symptoms and will kill maybe 2% of those it infects. I have seen heartless bastards on Twitter type ‘yeah, but it’s just the elderly and the sick who die’. Will they say the same if their parents get it? Oh, and the doctor in Wuhan who died was 33 and in fine health.

The problem with this one, as compared to flu, is that it has a long incubation period where an infected person can shed the virus for around two weeks (or possibly more) without showing symptoms. Flu doesn’t do that. It also seems to have a gene or two from HIV which means it’s much more likely to infect anyone it comes in contact with.

It also appears that you don’t develop immunity, as with the common cold. You can catch it again. This means that even if someone does develop a vaccine it will be irrelevant. You simply do not develop immunity. The vaccine will achieve nothing. Or… it could make things much worse.

This one seems to do most of its killing on the second round of infection. It seems to be able to use antibody-dependent enhancement which means that the second time it infects, your immune system can’t kill it even though it’s trying to. This might or might not be the case, there is still a lot nobody really knows about this thing.

As Delphius says, it is possible that the first ‘infection’ was really normal flu or a cold, misdiagnosed. That would be understandable. The Chinese medics are overwhelmed and the authorities are dragging anyone with a temperature or a cough into the coronavirus hospitals. So, maybe they only caught the coronavirus after they arrived. The deaths could then be due to already-sick people getting stuffed in with those infected with coronavirus, and simply being overloaded with two respiratory infections at once.

So it is not flu. It has a remarkably long incubation period during which it is infectious and it is much, much easier to catch than flu. If it is true that you cannot develop immunity and that the second infection is far more serious than the first, then it really is nothing at all like flu. It’s too early to be certain on those last two points.

So, is it a bioweapon? Well it would be a really good one but only an idiot would release such a bioweapon in this age of global travel. You could get several times around the world before showing symptoms. Bioweapons are not going to stay where you put them, that should be obvious. There is a very good chance it will come back to bite you.

A bioweapon should not have a high kill rate. Your victims would simply bury or cremate the bodies and move on. A bioweapon should debilitate, while killing just enough to scare the crap out of everyone else. Loads of sick people will have exactly the effect we are seeing – medical facilities overwhelmed,infrastructure collapsing, travel and supply chains shut down…

The theory that it is a bioweapon comes from the HIV-like genes in it. Could that have been made in a lab? Oh hell yes. Building a strand of viral DNA or RNA is no problem. There isn’t much of it and we have machines that can do it overnight. It has in fact been done – poliovirus has been created in a lab. But that doesn’t mean someone made it, only that they could.

The other option – could it arise naturally? Viruses do not mate within their own species, much less with other species. They only reproduce within a host cell. They change due to mutations and errors in copying their genetic code and in assembling new viruses.

When a virus infects, it dumps its genetic code into the cell. That code, DNA or RNA, then uses the cell’s own mechanisms to read its genes and assemble new viruses. It’s like someone getting into a factory with a set of blueprints and making their own stuff using the factory’s tools.

The thing is, they are idiots. They have the blueprints to make new copies of themselves but the mechanisms they are using are not set up to make viruses. Oh each cell might make hundreds of viruses, in an infection there might be billions of new viruses produced but a lot of them will be wrong.

In the case of this Coronavirus it will create protein coats and stuff RNA into them. Some of them will be missing genes and won’t be viable. Some protein coats won’t have any RNA in them. Some will be filled with RNA from the host cell. Some will have a mix of virus and host RNA. These will attach to other cells and inject whatever they have inside, which will do… nothing, usually. This happens with all viruses. They make loads of copies in each cell but a good proportion of those copies are failures. Doesn’t matter, as long as they make enough good ones.

This has actually been considered as a treatment for some genetic ailments, such as cystic fibrosis. Create viruses containing the host’s missing gene and hope the cells take it up. I haven’t heard any more on that for years so I don’t know whether it progressed.

Right, so how does it get HIV genes?

HIV is a retrovirus. It contains RNA, but on entering a host cell it uses an enzyme that’s only found in retroviruses, called reverse transcriptase, to turn its RNA into DNA.

I should digress a little here… Living cells above viruses store their genetic information in DNA. The proteins it codes for are made on little machines called ribosomes. The cell has to get copies of the blueprints (DNA) to the machines (ribosomes) without using up its only original copy, and if it wants to make a lot of one particular protein it will need more than one copy anyway. This involves an enzyme called transcriptase which makes RNA copies of the DNA blueprint. The ribosomes use the copies, not the original, to make proteins. There’s a lot more to it but I’m retired from lecturing 😉

So, HIV gets its RNA in, turns it into DNA and now it has a master copy to make multiple RNA copies for the ribosomes.

But wait – HIV has another trick. Once it’s turned into DNA it can get into the host DNA and hide there. It can then send out a few copies as RNA to make just a few viruses at a time. The host doesn’t get sick, doesn’t even know it’s there, possibly for many years.

Now, if a coronavirus infects a cell that’s already infected with HIV, and the HIV is currently making a few copies to send out into the world, it is possible that a few of the protein coats contain full coronavirus RNA plus a few genes from the HIV RNA. Most of them will contain genes that don’t help but a few might contain the genes that give it a new site of attachment to the host cell.

Attachment is coded into the protein coat, how it sticks to cells depends on the proteins on its surface. If it picks up the right HIV genes, its next infection will produce protein coats with the HIV attachment sites built in.

It really doesn’t need more than one per billion to get this new virus going. Out of the billions sneezed out, only one single enhanced virus needs to get into a new host and the new host will sneeze out billions of the new virus. It has an advantage over its ‘parent’ in that it is now better at attaching to host cells.

Yes. It could have arisen naturally. Mutation and development of any creature is simply a numbers game and viruses produce numbers that will make an astrophysicist’s head hurt.

That just leaves the long incubation period.

The classic school-level teaching of viruses is very basic. Virus gets in, makes loads of copies of itself, bursts the host cell and infects other cells. Many viruses do this.

Not all. Some viruses ‘bud off’ their copies from the host cell so the host cell stays alive longer and therefore makes more copies of the virus before it dies. A HIV virus hiding in the host DNA will do this for years, and we already know the new coronavirus has acquired some HIV genes.

So – and this is pure theory – suppose it’s budding off viruses but not killing cells for a few weeks before it goes – ahem – viral. You don’t get sick yet. It doesn’t have all of HIV’s genes, so it can’t do this for years, only weeks. It has the gene that makes it a more efficient infector and maybe a gene or two for the slow release mechanism. That could have been engineered without much difficulty using modern equipment but it could also have arisen by pure chance.

If the chance of it arising is one in a hundred billion… that’s one infected HIV patient. Just one.

It’s not flu. This is far more dangerous.

The biggest problem is governments. Governments are fixated on money and viruses don’t care about money. Governments have no idea at all how to control a new virus, they only know about ‘the economy’. I am not talking about any particular government. I’m talking about all of them.

There is much wailing and gnashing of wallets over stock markets plummeting. The virus does not care. You can’t bribe this thing any more than you can bribe the climate. Oh they’ll try throwing money at it. It will achieve nothing at all.

If it has a reinfection level like the common cold then vaccines will not work. If second infection is really worse than first infection then vaccines will kill you. The vaccine counts as the first infection.

Nobody cares as long as they make money.

I wonder what they think they’ll spend it on?

Competition – Panoptica

Ten chapters posted so…

I wanna play a game

Up for grabs. Four books. Two of your own choice from the Leg Iron Books catalogue and two more random choices from me. If you’ve actually bought any of them and are a member of that elite group, let me know so I don’t send duplicates. Plus a Leg Iron Books mug.

Second prize is a Leg Iron Books mug and a random book.

Okay. So here it is.

10538 was not a random character. He was inspired by an old song. To win this, I need the name of the song, the name of the band, the album it first appeared on and the instrument Roy Wood played in its first iteration.

It’s easy if you google it. It’s easier if you own the album.

Did you see the man running through the streets today.

Did you catch his face, was it 10538? Ah!

If this song didn’t chill you, you’re already cold.

A Christmas Infection

Oh, go on then, since it’s Christmas. These anthologies don’t make any money anyway so here’s my other story from Underdog Anthology Ten.

Note: certain religious people might not think it as funny as I do…

A Christmas Infection

“How the hell did you catch syphilis, you hairy idiot?” Tiddles the elf stood with his fists on his hips. “And why didn’t you tell us before now?”

“Yeah, I probably should have said something sooner.” Santa stared into his whisky glass, his last drink before the big event tomorrow night. “It’s not an easy subject to bring up, you know?”

George tapped Tiddles’ shoulder. “Like that time you had crabs. You didn’t like to talk about it.”

Tiddles closed his eyes, raised his fists and drew a breath. “Shut up George. Just, you know, zip it. This is not about me and not about the past. This is here and now and we have an infected Santa about to go out tomorrow night and spread a Christmas present nobody wants.”

“Only if he shags them.” George grinned.

Santa swirled the last of his whisky. “Well, I could maybe use condoms…”

“Oh yeah,” Tiddles sneered. “We could fit a condom machine to the sleigh. That’s going to look great on Christmas cards.”

“Just a suggestion.” Santa shrugged and stared out of the window.

“You are supposed to be the very epitome of purity and cleanliness.” Tiddles paced as he talked. “You are there for the children, not for some random tart with ‘we never close’ tattooed on her thighs. How the hell did you do this anyway?”

Santa raised one eyebrow.

Tiddles raised both hands. “No details. An outline will do.”

“Okay.” Santa took a sip of whisky. “I’m stuck here for the whole year with nothing to do then I get busy on one night. For Christmas Eve, time means nothing to me. I have all the time in the world within minutes.”

“We know this.” Tiddles glared at the overweight bearded man and tried to avoid the pictures entering his head. “Get to the point.”

“Well.” Santa sighed. “These days there are a lot of single mothers out there. Their kids need presents too, and a few of those mothers get pretty lonely over Christmas…”

Tiddles realised his jaw hung open, and closed it. “You mean… you mean you’ve been trading sex for presents? That’s… that’s…”

“No, of course not, I—” Santa’s face reddened to match his suit.

“That’s brilliant.” George nudged Tiddles. “It’s a great scam. Even better than—Oof.” Tiddles’ elbow connected with George’s ribcage with rather more than a nudge.

“George.” Tiddles placed his hands on George’s shoulders. “I want you to do something for me. It’s really important. Will you do it?”

George rubbed at his side and scowled. “I suppose.”

“I want you to guard that sleigh and supervise the loading of the presents. Don’t let anyone near it unless they’re working.” Tiddles leaned in close. “Especially Santa.”

“Huh?” George raised his eyebrows.

Tiddles spoke quietly. “I don’t know what effect his magic, when it kicks in, will have on his infection. Might cure it or it might send him mad. Go guard that sleigh.”

George nodded. “You mean like the time he turned all the toy guns into real ones, after we made him give up smoking? It took some serious work to clean up that mess.”

“Exactly,” Tiddles said, while thinking; I really just need you to bugger off.

“Shouldn’t we be looking for a replacement then, if he’s dangerous?” George peered at Santa.

“We have less than twenty-four hours before launch. We have to sort this one out.” Tiddles guided George to the door. “Just make sure the sleigh is safe. And don’t tell anyone about Santa’s illness. We don’t want to start a panic.”

“Right.” George stepped through the door. “Bye, Santa,” he called as Tiddles closed it.

“You do realise I heard every word of that, right?”

Tiddles turned to face Santa. “Oh sure.” He waved his hand and headed for the drinks cabinet. “I think this calls for one more before we lock this up, don’t you?”

Santa’s glass was on the cabinet before Tiddles could blink. “Make it a large one,” he said, “or I dig deeper into whatever scam you two are pulling.”

Tiddles filled two glasses. “Never mind that. We have an immediate and serious problem here. How long have you known about this infection?”

Santa settled into his chair. “Just over a month. I found out on my last visit to Doc. I wasn’t feeling good so he checked me over, and diagnosed the problem.”

“Doc? The dwarf? You know how much he drinks, surely?”

“Of course.” Santa raised his glass and winked. “Why do you think I visit him?”

Tiddles took a deep drink. “Never mind. So how come it took you so long to realise you had it? You must have caught it a year ago.”

Santa stared into his glass. “Maybe longer.”

Tiddles stared into his own glass and then at the drinks cabinet. He felt like finishing the bottle. “How long? How long have you run your one-man gigolo business?”

“Four years. But I don’t know when I got infected. And it’s not a business. I’m lonely, they’re lonely, there’s nothing more to it. I do not make sex a condition of delivering presents. Sometimes it just happens, that’s all.” Santa glowered from beneath bushy eyebrows.

“Four years. Shit. This gets worse and worse and we’re not even at the bad part yet.” Tiddles drained his glass, crossed to the drinks cabinet and brought the bottle over. He sat opposite Santa, refilled his glass and placed the bottle between them.

“You mean the part where it drives me mad?” Santa took a gulp of whisky and refilled his glass. “Do you think that will happen?”

“Non a shance.” Tiddles waved his arm a bit more forcefully than usual, hiccupped and composed himself. “Not a chance, I mean. Now you know it’s there you can cure it with magic as soon as your power kicks in tomorrow night. I just told George that to get him out of the way. No, that’s not the problem.”

“Ah.” Santa set his glass down. “You think I might have been spreading this disease without knowing it.”

“Oh I know you have.” Tiddles smacked his lips. This was particularly good whisky and his head was starting to spin. “That’s still not the problem. How many women are we talking about here?”

Santa took a deep breath. “Well you know, time doesn’t mean anything when I have my power on Christmas eve so… probably quite a few.”

“How many fews? I mean, are we in tens, hundreds, thousands?”

“Hey, I’m not a tart.” Santa took a drink. “Hundreds. Probably. Maybe a few hundred. Maybe a lot of hundreds. It all gets a bit of a blur when time is irrelevant, you know?”

“And you didn’t once use a condom.” Tiddles buried his face in his hands.

“Well I wasn’t expecting to be so… able. You know, overweight, drinking, smoking, I couldn’t have managed more than one or two. Take away the drinking and smoking though and I was packing a spring that could hold up a truck, if you know what I mean.” Santa grinned. “Thanks to you taking away the booze and my pipe, I’ve had a great time the last few Christmas eves.”

Tiddles held up his hands. “Don’t smile. Really. Don’t. This going to be horrible and it doesn’t help to know that we elves caused it.” He sighed and sat back in his seat, his eyes wandering the room. “It happened once before, a very long time ago. Before this was called Christmas and before your predecessors were named Santa. It’s in the records and there are dire warnings not to let it happen again. Now it has. Last time we blamed the remedy on a Middle Eastern king called Herod. I wonder who we can blame this time?” He narrowed his eyes. “Maybe a prince…”

“What are you talking about?” Santa’s face contorted. “Remedy for what? If I’ve infected anyone I can fix them with magic when I visit tomorrow night. It’s all sorted. No problem.”

“You didn’t use a condom and you were full of magic.” Tiddles tried to fix Santa with a hard glare but he had started to blur. “You will have impreg – impregnated them all. Lots of new kids. Your kids.”

“Ah.” Santa winced. “I see.”

Tiddles banged the table. “No you don’t. You made kids with magic in them. Santa magic. If they reach the age of thirty they will have the same powers as you. All the time, not just at Christmas eve. They can do what the hell they like. Imagine that. Thousands of them, with absolutely no restriction on what they do.”

Santa stared at the bottle on the table. “Well, perhaps one of them could be my replacement. I could retire.”

Tiddles grabbed his glass and downed it. “So what do you propose? Some Highlander-style ‘there can be only one’ competition? The Santa Games? Mad Max and the Santadome? How are you going to reduce the numbers to one and how are you going to convince that last one to become Santa? They don’t need to. They already have the magic. These children are potential monsters.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes until Santa said “So what do we do?”

Tiddles poured the last of the bottle into their glasses and took another from the drinks cabinet. He cracked it open and placed it next to the empty one.

Staring into Santa’s eyes, trying hard to focus, Tiddles took a breath and spoke. “We have to identify every single one and kill them. Before they reach their age of power and before anyone else finds out what they are capable of. Then we have to find someone to blame because a rash of mystery child deaths will not go unnoticed.”

“You said it happened before,” Santa took another drink. “But you fixed it last time, right?”

“Almost.” Tiddles resigned himself to a vicious hangover in the morning and poured another drink. “We missed one. Just one. When his powers kicked in, you know what he did?” He giggled and almost spilled his whisky. “You would have been so proud. You know what the first thing he did with his magic was?”

Santa shook his head. “No. What?”

Tiddles roared with laughter, heedless of the drool he felt on his chin. He might as well drink, there was no way he’d sleep tonight. Finally he managed to get the words out.

“He turned water into wine.”

Santa is Coming – A Christmas Tale

Time for the annual jolly Christmas tale, although these aren’t all that jolly if I’m honest. If you have’t been here before you might want to catch up on the previous tales since this one carries on from them.

The first one is ‘For Whom the Bells Jingle‘, now available in print in Underdog Anthology 4

The second. ‘23-David and 81-Mohammed‘ is also now in print, in Anthology 5

Third, ‘Waking Santa‘, is now in Anthology 7

And finally, this one is in Anthology 10. And I do mean ‘finally’. These short stories were a prelude to a bigger project called ‘Panoptica’ and this story takes place right in the middle of it. It’s not in the actual novel because the main POV character is asleep for most of this story so doesn’t know about it. So it’s a stand-alone story.

However, it means there can be no more preludes. The novel will be the next instalment and it’s going to be contentious. It’s about where the current insanity of Western society is heading and it’s not going to be pretty. More of that later. For now, here’s a tale for that cold and dark Christmas eve.

Santa is Coming

“Are you sure about this?” Betty regarded the small group in front of her and in particular its leader, Terry.

“No.” Terry looked into her eyes. “But we have to try. We can’t just leave her there. You know what they’ll do to her.”

Betty’s shoulders slumped. They had to move anyway. Since Mary was captured, they’d get the location from her. She sucked at her lip. Being made leader of this group had felt like a great honour at the time but it had become more of a burden. She was responsible for too many life and death decisions.

“We can do it. I think.” Terry glanced at the woman on his left. “Rhian can stop the train and open the doors. We know there are only two in there and there’s no driver and no security on board. We can get her out and if we use the old diesel truck there won’t be enough electronics for them to trace us.”

“You have to be very fast.” Betty lowered her eyebrows. “We leave here in a matter of hours and you know I can’t tell you where we’re going in case they catch you. You have to get back here inside four hours. Can you do it?”

Terry snorted. “If we fail, we’re dead anyway.” He paused. “I think we can do it.”

Phil, Betty’s husband and right-hand man, leaned on the table. “That old truck isn’t reliable and we don’t have much fuel for it. You will need a Faraday cage too, in case Mary’s been implanted. They do love their chips, you know. We can’t afford to lose a cage.” He rubbed his chin and looked at Betty. “That said, I think they should be allowed to try. What will happen to Mary should keep us all awake at night.”

Betty nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. Okay, Terry, go for it, but be back here in four hours. If we leave without you, we can’t even leave a clue as to where we’re going.”

Terry stood. “Thank you. We’ll be back. With Mary.”

***

Mary let her head rest on the back of the seat and pretended to be asleep, but the idiot in the seat opposite kept talking anyway.

“I’ve been granted early retirement. I’m going to Pensionville. No more work for me. It’s all because I can read barcodes, well it wasn’t hard, I’ve been a camera watcher for so long now, I started to recognise the patterns and how they fit with the numbers. I have a special talent. So I get early retirement.”

You moron. Mary forced her mouth to stay still and avoid a sneer. You showed initiative. That’s why you’re going to die. After they rip out every bit of information on how you developed this skill so they can stop it happening again.

“I can read your code. You’re 71556. So you’re important. I can understand why you don’t want to bother with me.” The idiot’s voice became melancholy.

Mary opened one eye. The idiot really can read barcodes. They were on the onesies they both wore, horizontal stripes from top to bottom. Mary’s was stolen of course, as were the chips she had carried and then lost. That was her downfall – the cameras were now so crap that everyone was required to wear a patterned onesie with their number barcoded on to it, and the RFID detectors in the streets tracked their ID chips. If the data from the cameras and the RFID detectors didn’t match, the system would flag you up. Losing that chip was what got her caught.

She opened the other eye and regarded the idiot. “I can’t read barcodes. Who are you?”

The idiot grinned. “I’m 10538. I’m amazed that a Seven-One can’t do what I do. So did you get retirement too?”

“Same as you.” Mary stared at the passing scenery. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him what really lay in store, even though it should have been obvious to him. Nobody left the cities, at least nobody who did ever came back. If you were on a train out of there you were on a one-way trip.

10538 followed her gaze. “It’s awful out there, isn’t it? Global warming has destroyed the planet.”

Mary snorted. This one, she could not resist. She pointed. “See that tree? The scorched one, twisted over? Look hard at it.”

“I see it.” 10538 shook his head. “What about it?”

“We’ve passed it many times on this trip already.” Mary half-smiled. “You’ll see it again in three minutes.”

“Oh come on.” 10538 leaned back in his seat. “You think we’re just going in circles?”

“Wait three minutes,” Mary said.

***

“It’s bloody cold.” Rhian rubbed her hands. “I can barely type.”

“This won’t take long. I hope.” Terry looked along the snow-coated rails. “It’ll reach this junction in twelve minutes. We just need that signal turned red. The autopilot in the train will do the rest for us.”

“Okay.” Rhian tapped at her keyboard. “Would have been a lot easier in a few more days, on Earth Day, when most of it shuts down anyway.”

Terry laughed. “We’d be noticed a lot more easily if half the system were shut down. We’re just a blip, a glitch in the system, today.”

Rhian glanced at him. “Yes, I see your point. But Mary is a high profile prisoner. One of us, caught inside the city. If anything goes wrong they’ll react fast.”

“Eleven minutes.” Terry looked along the rails again. “You’re sure you can open the doors too?”

“Once the train stops, the doors are easy to open.” Rhian continued typing. “That’s the signal set. I’ll hit it when we see the train coming. We can’t do it too soon or they’ll have time to see our interference.”

Terry glanced over his shoulder. Derek and Jerry stood by the truck, the door to the Faraday cage lay open. They were ready.

***

Ten minutes later, they had passed the same tree three times. Mary had also pointed out the decayed badger, the smouldering grass and the five blackened stumps. The same things, over and over.

10538 slumped in his seat. “We are going in circles.”

“No.” Mary felt a pang of pity for the distorted human opposite. “Those are not windows. They are screens, like the ones on your buses and trams. They show you what you are supposed to see, not what’s really out there.”

“So what’s really out there? Something worse?” 10538 seemed close to tears.

“Something better.” Mary caught her breath as the train’s brakes came on and their movement slowed. “Something I might not see again, and something you’ll probably never see. I think we’ve arrived at the end of the line.”

***

“It’s stopping.” Terry watched the short railcar slow as it approached the junction. “Any response from the tracker bots?”

“They’ve reacted.” Rhian’s fingers flew over her keyboard. “Fastest reaction I’ve ever seen. We’re going to have to move like lightning this time.”

The small train rolled to a halt at the signal. “Doors opening.” Rhian typed so quickly, Terry could barely make out her fingers. “They’re trying to close them and change the signal. I have to constantly re-route around their blocks. In and out. Fast. If they get past me while you’re in there there’s no way to get you out again.”

Derek and Jerry had joined Terry at the trackside. The train doors hissed, moved outwards and slid back against the train body.

“Mary!” Terry called. “Run. This won’t work for very long.”

The signal flickered green, then red. The doors hissed, moved to close, then settled back against the side of the train. In the background, the rattle of Rhian’s fingers on her keyboard filled the air.

***

Mary froze for a moment. The doors opened but there was no platform, no armed guard, just a blast of cold air with a few flakes of snow.

“Are we there? Is this retirement?” 10538 pulled his onesie tighter at the neck. “They didn’t say it would be cold.”

A voice Mary recognised shouted from the white void beyond the door. Mary. Run. This won’t work for very long.

“That’s Terry.” Mary stood and grabbed 10538’s onesie at the chest. “You want to live? Come on, this is your only chance.”

“But… Retirement.”

“There is no bloody retirement. You are an anomaly. You showed initiative and you learned to do something beyond your station. They will take you apart, analyse you, and whatever’s left will go into the power station furnace. If you’re lucky you’ll be dead by then.” Mary pulled 10538 to his feet. “You want to see past those screens you call windows? Come on then, let’s go look.”

“It’s all burned out there. Nobody can live there.” 10538 struggled but Mary pulled him towards the open door. “It’s all blackened and dead and…” They reached the door.

10538’s face turned as white as the scene before him. Green shoots through a white landscape. People, living people, not wearing barcodes. There was no way his mind could process this information. He passed out.

Mary let him fall from the door. Instinctively, Derek caught him and laid him on the ground. Terry helped Mary down from the train and turned to Rhian.

“Let it go, Rhian, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

Rhian tapped a few more keys, shouted “Offline. Four minutes to drone arrival,” then closed the laptop and ran to the truck. The train door closed, the signal turned green and the little train continued on its way.

“Four minutes.” Terry grabbed Mary’s arm. “We have to go.”

“What about him?” Mary indicated the unconscious 10538.

“Well what about him? He, or she or it, is not what we came for.” Terry pulled her towards the truck. Jerry had started the engine.

“He, I think it’s ‘he’, was slated for interrogation and death, He’s an anomaly.” Mary resisted Terry’s pull. “He’s proof there are glitches in their system. We should take him with us.”

“He’s also full of tracking chips. He’s dangerous.” Terry pulled harder.

“Mary has a point.” Derek lifted the limp body of 10538. “We’ll put him in the Faraday cage with Mary. Then they can’t track either of them.”

Terry threw his arms in the air. “Hell, we don’t have time to argue about it. Box them both up and let’s get moving.”

Mary climbed into the cage and helped Derek load the limp form of 10538 in beside her. Derek closed the door and secured it.

Meanwhile, Terry laid a series of chains in the snow, attached to the back of the truck, to obscure their tracks. It wasn’t perfect but it should be enough so that the drone cameras couldn’t follow them.

Terry climbed into the truck. He glanced at Rhian, seated in the back with Derek. “How long?”

“One minute forty.” Rhian’s fingers were interlocked, her knuckles white.

“Floor it, Jerry.” There was just time for Terry to secure his seat belt before the old truck surged forward.

***

Betty stared into the Faraday cage, hands on hips and a scowl on her face. “What the hell is that?”

Mary avoided eye contact. Betty could be formidable if she was in a bad mood. “It’s one of the workers from the city. He was on the train with me. He’s an anomaly – he can read barcodes – so he was going to be killed. He called it ‘retirement’ but we all know what that means now.”

“He?” Betty’s mouth twisted in a sneer. “That’s a sexless worker drone. It has no concept of gender. Did it give you its designation?”

“10538.” Mary felt her cheeks warming. This is a human being, what was done to him isn’t his fault. “I couldn’t just let him – it – die. Besides, he’s proof that the system isn’t perfect. It still throws up anomalies. That could be to our advantage.”

“Hmm. A one-zero. Low level technician, most likely.” Betty rubbed her chin. “It’s going to be full of chips though, and Faraday cages aren’t perfect. If we get close to an RFID detector it could still spot this thing.”

“He’s not a thing! He’s a human being.” Mary couldn’t stop herself. “They took away his sexuality and they gave him a number instead of a name but he’s still human. He’s not a robot.”

Betty narrowed her eyes for a moment, then her face relaxed. “You’re right. I suppose I’m getting old. We’ve been fighting them so long we’ve dehumanised them.” She half-snorted, half-laughed. “Although they’ve been steadily dehumanising themselves.”

“Not robots, no. Not yet.” The jovial voice of ‘Doc’ Samuel preceded his roly-poly appearance on the scene. Phil walked beside him.

Doc approached the cage and stared inside. “Interesting specimen. What should we do with it?”

“Please.” Mary closed her eyes. “Stop calling him ‘it’. I rescued him from the train. Maybe we can learn something from him.”

“Designation?” Doc poked his finger through the mesh and prodded the prone body.

“10538. It’s not his fault. I keep saying this. He didn’t choose that world.” Mary waved Doc’s hand away.

“Huh. A one-zero won’t know much.” Doc rubbed his chin and looked into Mary’s eyes. “Don’t get too attached. Their world isn’t like ours any more. It’s more like an ant or bee colony. This – ” he indicated 10538 “ – is a worker bee. It’s either born female or surgically rendered female at birth. Either way, it’s sterilised and has been brought up as a worker. ‘He’ and ‘she’ have no relevance here, it cannot understand gender and cannot function without its routine, its designated role in life.”

Doc hoisted himself onto the back of the truck and opened the cage. “I’m going to scan you for chips. No point scanning your friend, he’ll be loaded with them and we don’t have time to operate on him now. He’ll have to stay in the cage.”

“I saved him from that Hell he was born into. There must be something we can do for him?” Mary held her arms out so Doc could scan her.

“Not much.” Doc ran a handheld scanner over her, checking every part of her body. “They don’t see it as Hell, you know. It’s their life, it’s all they know, and they’re happy in it, in their own way.” He switched off the scanner. “You’re clean. They didn’t bother to chip you because they were going to kill you anyway. It would have been a waste of a chip.” He grinned. “They didn’t expect you to escape from the train. Anyway, you’re okay to leave the cage.”

Mary stared at 10538. His breathing was shallow, his body unmoving. “Can you do anything at all?”

Doc grunted and held the scanner a few feet from 10538. He switched on. The scanner gave a loud series of beeps and the needle shot to the end of the scale. “As I said, he’s loaded with electronics. It doesn’t look like they’ve replaced any limbs or vital organs so maybe I can get them out, but the shock could kill him.” He stepped out of the cage and held the door for Mary. “Come on. We’ll have to lift this cage with him in it. It’ll be harder if there are two of you.”

“Shouldn’t someone stay with him?” Mary hesitated.

“Come on. We have to get moving.” Phil waved her forward. “We can’t take this truck, there’s no more fuel, so we have to load the cage onto an electric car. And we have to be out of here before the drones find us.”

“He’s fine.” Doc helped her down from the truck, then closed and locked the cage door. “He’s dormant. Switched off. One of their chips is a brain implant. If it loses signal they go into a state like hibernation until they get found and taken home. As long as he’s in the cage he won’t wake up.”

Betty put her hand on Mary’s shoulder. “He, she or it is lucky to have been on the train with you, Mary. Most of us would have been glad to leave him behind. Don’t worry, Doc will take care of him and maybe he’ll turn out to be as useful as you think.” She turned to leave as Terry, Derek and two others put poles through the cage to lift it off the truck.

“Come on,” Betty called over her shoulder. “We have to move out before they find the remains of the truck’s tracks. This place isn’t safe any more.”

***

Mary looked through the cracked windows of their new home at the landscape before her. A few windmills stood, most were toppled, buckled and burned. Not one of the standing ones had a full complement of blades and none of them turned in the wind. She became aware of Rhian standing beside her.

“It was a power station of sorts,” Rhian said. “It never worked, but then it was never meant to.”

“Not meant to?” Mary shot her a glance.

Rhian chuckled. “Nope. These things made money, not electricity. They lulled seven billion people into their own genocide. People moved north and south because they believed the earth was getting hotter and they shut down coal and oil for the same reason. It got colder and most of them, unprepared, died.” Rhian shrugged. “It was all part of the plan.”

Mary furrowed her brow. “But we have electricity.”

“Yeah,” Rhian laughed aloud. “We steal it. From the cities’ coal and corpse fired power stations.” Her face became serious. “You know there are only twelve cities worldwide now, with a population of maybe fifty or sixty thousand each?  A few thousand more operating a slave existence on farms and in mines. We could vanish into the wilderness but for two reasons. One, we have to be near a city to tap into power and information about what’s coming next. Two, there are heavily armed drones protecting nature reserves such as Africa and South America. We couldn’t last a week in there.”

Mary stared over the rusting windmills. “I knew some of that, not all. Africa though? It’s so big. You can’t get all the people out.”

“Oh the ones who live as they did a thousand years ago get to stay. Any sign of advancement and that tribe will be eradicated. It’s a human zoo, kind of anthropological slavery. But hey, they get to stay male and female.”            

“People treated as pets.” Mary shook her head. “It’s horrible.”

“It is.” Rhian said. “It’s worse for the city people though. At least those tribes get to feel as if they’re free.”

There was a long silence as they stared at the bleak landscape with its scattering of snow. Finally, Mary spoke. “Have you heard anything about 10538?”

“Huh?” Rhian’s brow furrowed. “Oh, the worker bee. No, as far as I know Doc is trying to get his implants out without killing him. He’s had some of them since birth. He’s dependent on them.”

“It’s been two days. Has he woken at all?”

“No. Doc won’t let him out of the cage. He’s on a saline drip to keep him hydrated but as long as he has the brain chip, he’s dormant.”

“I should visit him.” Mary looked at her hands. “I feel responsible. I’m the one that pulled him from the train.”

“Heh. If you hadn’t, he’d have gone through an agonising death by now.” Rhian put her arm around Mary. “Even if Doc fails, at least our worker bee will die a peaceful death.”

***

“Let her through.” Doc waved away the men who barred Mary’s path. “She’s the one who found our patient, she has a right to be here.”

“I still think he’s dangerous.” Derek folded his arms but nodded to his guards to let Mary pass. “The fewer of us who have contact with him the better.”

“Oh he’s dangerous all right.” Doc laughed. “Mostly to himself. When he comes round and finds he’s been disconnected from his world, the shock might kill him.”

“It’s not funny.” Mary shrugged off the hand on her shoulder. “He’s human.”

Doc raised his eyebrows. “He’s a she. Or was, at birth.” He indicated the cloth draped over the otherwise naked 10538. “Check for yourself if you want. She has no ovaries though. No Fallopian tubes, no uterus. Nothing after the cervix. All taken at birth.”

Mary’s head shook. “But he…she… must be about twenty-five or thirty years old.”

Doc smiled a small smile and nodded. “No boobs. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”

“Well…” Mary blushed.

“The medichip takes care of all that. It takes hormones from the bloodstream and deactivates them. Not that there are that many, with no ovaries to produce most of them. I’ve taken the chip out.” Doc looked at the prone body for a moment. “I don’t know what will happen now.”

“Maybe she’ll develop normally?” Mary shook her head at the small pile of chips Doc had already accumulated, and the many small wounds on 10538 where he had removed them.

“Not a chance.” Doc sighed. “Too old now, and anyway she has no ovaries. She might start to act a bit more feminine but she’ll never be normal. And of course, never have children.”

“They never do.” Mary bowed her head. “I didn’t see anyone under the age of about twenty all the time I was in that city. They rarely talk to each other so it was hard to get more than snippets at a time but as far as I can tell, the kids are produced by the elite.” She took a deep breath. “The elite have their own kids and they donate sperm to the creches, where drugged-up women are used as baby farms. They never see their children. The babies are taken away and neutered and raised in creches.” She shuddered. “Abuse—abuse is rife in there.”

“Probably not any more.” Doc poked among the chips he had already removed. “By now they will have replaced all the paedophiles with sexless workers.” He smiled at Mary’s shocked face. “The last download, the one Betty brought home years ago, told us how they kept the creches secret. The used paedos to run them because paedos won’t tell anyone what they’re doing.” He picked up one of the chips. “By now they’ll have all been shipped off to the farms or the power stations and the new staff have no idea what sex is, and no idea where the babies come from.” He held the chip so that Mary could see it. “Take a look at this.”

Mary stared at the twisted, bloodstained metal. A bent ring with a tiny blade attached. “It looks broken. What is it?”

“It was around her aorta. A signal would have sliced it open and she’d have dropped dead. Seems they’ve installed literal kill switches in case one of their workers goes rogue.” He dropped the chip into the metal dish, with the rest of them. “Or gets captured. Took me a while to get that off. I was scared it would trigger while I removed it. Fortunately it didn’t.”

“Is that important?” Mary asked.

“Very.” Betty strode into the room followed by a smug-looking Derek. “but you shouldn’t be interfering while Doc is working. He’s engaged in some very delicate operations.”

“I’m sorry. I just wanted to know how 10538 was doing.” Mary hung her head. “And I’m sorry I didn’t find anything useful in the city. They caught me before I could get very far.”

Betty smiled. “I’m the one who should be apologising. I was furious when you brought home this… thing.” She waved her hand at 10538. “Yet we’ve learned so much already, much more than we ever could from spies and downloads. That implanted kill-switch on the aorta, for example.”

Mary shrugged and shook her head, bewildered.

Betty nodded at Mary’s baffled look. “It shows they are still scared of the population. They have total control, they’ve turned the people into compliant sexless workers, they have destroyed all—almost all—independent thought, and yet they still need that final insurance. The ability to literally kill rebellion with the push of a button.”

Doc waggled his eyebrows. “Which means they think it’s still possible. It’s a weakness we might be able to exploit.”

“We thought they were static. We thought nothing was changing in there.” Betty picked up the bowl of chips. “They are still adding things to their workers. More and more chips. We don’t yet know what most of these are for. Most of them, we haven’t seen before.”

“How many more?” Mary gazed at the prone 10538. “How much more robotic is she?”

“Two more.” Doc rubbed his hands. “There’s a constrictor band around her trachea. I think that’s to limit her breathing if she gets too active so they can slow her down without killing her. Then, the final one in her forehead. I’ll need anaesthetic for that one or she might wake as soon as I detach it. The shock of waking in surgery is almost certain to kill her.”

Mary covered her mouth with her hand. “You’ve done all that without anaesthetic?”

“No need,” Doc said. “The brain implant has her deeper under than any anaesthetic could ever manage.”

“How long?” Betty asked. “Will you be finished tonight?”

“No.” Doc regarded his patient. “Most of the chips were superficial, just under the skin. The aorta implant needed deep surgery, the trachea band I can deal with before I close her up but the brain implant will mean opening the skull. She’s going to need time to heal from this bout of surgery before I can attempt the brain implant. A few days at least, maybe a week or more.”

“You can’t speed it up?” Betty seemed impatient.

“Not if you want her to have any chance of surviving. I’ll also need a feeding tube, she hasn’t had any food for the last few days. And I’ll need some volunteers for blood transfusions.” He sighed. “We’re really not equipped for this kind of surgery.”

“It’s Earth Day’s Eve tomorrow. We’ll have to shut down the power.” Betty looked pensive. “Will that be a problem?”

“We’ll need to keep her warm but otherwise it should be okay.” Doc didn’t look as if he was convinced by his own words. “I hope so. We do need to know how they react to losing all their chips so we really need this one to survive.”

“She’s not an experiment.” Mary struggled to make sense of what she heard.

“Mary.” Betty took her arm. “Come on. Doc’s going to do everything he can. Let’s leave him to work in peace.” She led Mary from the cage. “Doc, let me know what blood type you need. We’ve all been tested so it shouldn’t be any problem finding donors.”

“Thanks.” Doc closed the cage door. “And Mary, don’t worry. I’ll do everything I can to save her.”

***

“I’m sorry.” Derek took a seat opposite Mary and set his mug of beer on the table. “Betty explained a few things. I’d never seen one of them before and it was a bit of a shock to me.”

Mary glared at him. “Sorry for what? Are you apologising because Betty told you to?”

“No, no, nothing like that.” Derek stared into his beer. “This is just me. Genuine. From the heart. Betty never suggested this, I’m genuinely sorry about being such a hyped-up panicky bastard over you bringing the worker home.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Mary waved her hand. “I was the opposite – way too sensitive and touchy. Almost turned into his—her—mother.” She grinned. “I know, 10538 is just one of thousands who are all exactly the same.”

Derek sipped his beer, his face serious. “They aren’t all the same.” He sighed, deeply. “They still have a hierarchy based on their number designations. Your worker is a one-zero, that’s her rank. Near the bottom of the pile. Below her are zero-nines who work really menial jobs, right down to zero-ones and zero-zeros who work the farms and mines and if they show any resistance, they are lobotomised. Yours only just made it into the comfortable life.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Betty explained it. A lot more too. I can feel a lot more sympathy for your worker bee now I know more about that horrible place.”

Mary shook her head. “I was sent in there and I didn’t know any of this. How come?”

“The same reason the data miners don’t know the layout of our current residence and don’t know where the next one is planned to be. If you were caught, they won’t find out how much we know about them.” Derek stretched his arms and looked around, then leaned in close and spoke softly. “We can’t send you in there again. You might be recognised. I can’t go on another mission either, in case some hidden camera caught my face. So it’s safe for us to know a lot more now.”

The lights went out. Opposite Mary were fumbling and rustling sounds until Derek struck his lighter. He placed a short, thick candle on the table and lit it. Other candles appeared on other tables around them.

“Earth Day’s Eve,” he said. “We have to follow their ridiculous game because they’ll spot our drain on their power supply if we don’t.”

“No heating tonight, then.” Mary pulled her coat around herself. “It’s going to be cold. I hope 10538 makes it.”

“I hope we all do.” Derek half-smiled. “Doc had the room with your worker over-heated all day. He’s hoping the walls will retain heat.” He took a sip of beer. “And you know, if your worker survives all this, you really should think up a name for her. She can’t just be a number, not here.”

Mary allowed herself a smile. Derek wasn’t all hard-man and action-hero. He had a soft side too, a human side. She sat up straight. “Right, let’s get this beer down us and get some sleep. It’s going to be a long, dark and very cold night tonight.”

“Yes it is.” Derek looked as if he was about to say more but he downed his beer, excused himself and left.

Mary bit her lip as she watched him walk away.

***

“Mary. Wake up.” Harsh words cut through bitter cold and dark dreams.

Mary opened one eye and said “Why?”

“Doc wants you. It’s important.”

The voice resolved in Mary’s mind. Susan. Ah yes, Doc’s usual helper. She forced her eyes open, afraid they might freeze in the chill air.

“What for? It’s cold as hell out there. This had better be life or death.”

“It is.” Susan’s deathly white face showed the truth of her words. “Santa is coming.”

Mary was out of bed and dressed before the cold had a chance to chill her.

***

“It was one of the chips. We have no idea which. It used a wavelength so small it got through the Faraday cage.” Doc wiped sweat from his brow. “Our worker bee woke up, smiled, said ‘Santa is coming’ and dropped back into hibernation. One of those chips received a message and relayed it to the brain chip. It might have sent another back to base.”

“Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle.” Betty shuddered. “I heard them once, long ago. I hoped never to hear them again.”

“The chips are secure now, other than the brain chip. They are in a solid metal box linked to an earth stake.” Doc giggled, a harsh sound. “We’ve put a tinfoil hat on our patient. The irony is inescapable.”

“I hope, I really hope, we can laugh about this one day. But not today.” Betty turned to Mary. “We need you to guard our patient. Get in the bed with her. Keep her warm. But don’t fall asleep. We want a record of every movement.”

“Why me?” Mary’s brain struggled to think in the cold air.

“If she wakes, which really isn’t likely, she already knows you.” Doc’s eyes softened. “You’re the only one she has really met. If she wakes, it might reduce the shock she is bound to feel if you are the first one she sees.”

“Also.” Betty gave a wry smile. “They will have scanned your face. They are looking for you. Santa will have that scan. We can’t have you out there where you might be seen.”

“Can’t we run? Find a new place?” Mary wondered if the sweat she felt forming would freeze.

“No time.” Betty turned her face away. “It’s Earth Day so if we used any electricity we’d be easy to spot. This time we stand our ground and hope they pass us by.”

“There’s another way.” Derek stood in the doorway. “I can take that box of chips, drive until the batteries die then open the box. They’ll come for the chips.”

“They’ll get you too.” Doc shook his head. “Then they’ll get our location out of you and find us anyway.”

“Doc’s right,” Betty said. “They probably have an image of you from the train cameras. That ties you to Betty and our guest. They’ll get the information from you, no matter what it takes.” She looked away. “I couldn’t ask anyone to face that.”

“If that chip’s sent a message back then they know where we are anyway.” Doc sighed.

“No. They don’t.” Mary lifted her head. “They’re trying to flush us out.”

“What do you mean?” Betty stared at her.

“They never send warnings before raids. That wasn’t a warning. It was meant to scare us, to get us to run. They’re expecting us to break cover and head for a new place, because that’s what we always do.”

“Then they’ll have drones all over the place looking for movement.” Derek patted Mary’s shoulder. “You’re right, I think. And that makes it even more important for me to take those chips and run. They’ll follow the chips as soon as I open the box and let them pick up signals.”

“On the other hand,” Betty said, “if they don’t know where we are, that’s all the more reason for me not to risk letting you get caught.”

“Ah.” Derek looked crestfallen. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Betty reached into the cage and picked up the box of chips. “Is it safe to disconnect the earth wire from this?”

“It’s a solid metal box. Acts as a Faraday cage itself. The earth wire is just extra insurance.” Doc narrowed his eyes. “What are you planning, Betty?”

“I have to talk to Phil. Derek, I want you to stay here with Mary and Doc. That last chip could still be a problem. As soon as Doc gets it out, seal it in a metal box and put it in a fire. That should finish it off. Just to be sure, put the burned box inside another box and bury it deep. You won’t be able to do it for a few days, but don’t forget to do exactly as I’ve told you.”

“Betty?” Mary touched Betty’s arm. “You’re talking as if you won’t be here.”

“Don’t worry.” Betty smiled as she disconnected the earth wire and took the box. “It’s going to work out fine. I just need to talk to Phil about how we deal with these chips.” She shook Mary’s hand and left the room.

“What do you think she’s up to?” Mary looked into Derek’s face, but he looked away. Doc simply bit his lip and fiddled with his surgical instruments.

***

“Betty told us to stay with 10538.” Mary thought she should resist Derek’s pull, but she didn’t really want to.

“We will. Doc’s with her now. We’re just going for a beer.” Derek led her towards the canteen. “Come on, it won’t be for long.”

“You’re still pissed off about Betty stomping on your macho-man idea, aren’t you?”

Derek stopped. He took a deep breath before he turned to face her. “No. I’m pissed off that she’s planning to do it herself.”

“What?” Mary’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”

“You heard her. She couldn’t ask anyone else to take the risk. Then she took the box of chips. She gave instructions as if she wouldn’t be here to deal with it herself. Come on, you worked out what the ‘Santa is coming’ message meant but you didn’t see the obvious?”

“I can’t believe she’d do that. How would she get back? How were you planning to get back?” Mary’s sight misted with tears.

“I had an idea about using service tunnels, but I had a backup plan in case that didn’t work.” Derek stared at the floor. “I was going to take a gun.”

“A gun? We don’t have many of those.”

“They’re not much use anyway. Not against their weaponry.” Derek sniffed. “They’re only useful to… avoid capture.” He avoided making eye contact. “Come on. We’re going to need a beer.”

“We should stop her.” Mary stood her ground.

“We can’t. It makes a horrible kind of sense. We’re young, she’s old. There aren’t many of us left. Betty won’t risk losing the younger ones, she’d rather risk the old. Herself. It’s cruel, but it’s how we have to live now.”

“Can’t we talk her out of it?”

Derek laughed. “Have you met Betty? Once she’s made a decision, it’s made.”

“We can try.” Mary’s lip trembled.

“No, you can’t.” Rhian appeared in the corridor. “They’ve already gone.”

“They?” Mary blinked.

“Betty and Phil. They went together.” Rhian handed a thick envelope to Derek.

Derek stared at the envelope. “Did they take a gun?”

Rhian nodded. “A pistol. 9mm. Two bullets.”

Derek turned away and rubbed his eyes. He pocketed the envelope.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” Mary put her hand on Derek’s arm.

“I know what it is.” Derek choked on the words. “It contains the passcodes for Betty’s computer. Access to all the safe spaces we can use when we have to move. All the information we have gathered so far on life in the cities.” He drew himself up and blinked away tears. “It’s a handover. They don’t plan to come back, but I’m not going to open it yet just in case they do.”

“You’re in charge now?” Mary let her hand fall to her side.

“Only if they don’t come back!” Derek raised his hands. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound harsh.” He licked his lips. “I need that bloody drink now.”

“So do we all.” Rhian led the way to the canteen.

It was empty, this late at night. Everyone was tucked up and trying to keep warm. A few candles still burned, enough to let Mary find the beers and open three bottles.

No need to chill it, she thought. We’re lucky it isn’t frozen.

The three of them sat in silence, From outside, through the shuttered windows, came a faint and distant sound, the whine of an electric engine fading into the distance.

Then another sound. A rhythmic jingling of bells. Faint, then close, then faint again, as though hunting for a place to settle.

From afar they heard a booming ‘Ho ho ho’, then the jingling increased in frequency and faded away.

Mary stared into her beer. “I think, Derek, you might have to open that envelope after all.”

______________________________________________________

What happens to 10538? Well, that’ll be in the forthcoming book, ‘Panoptica’.

Friday the 13th

A full moon for the election, counts on Friday the 13th, and we were meant to leave on Halloween. Is Boris working his way through the horror film catalogue?

Anyway, I voted. Nothing more I can do about it and I’m not sitting around all night watching results pop up one by one. This place is a straight fight between Tories and SNP and the SNP lost it a while back with their attacks on alcohol. Well, it’s smack in the middle of whisky country. Lots of rural pubs buggered by the Scottish drink-drive limits and minimum pricing just made it worse. I’ll be really surprised if they can take it back.

I’ll find out tomorrow. I hear the exit polls have Bozza winning. Twitter is full of Corbynites hurling abuse and threats. They’ll never see it, will they?

Meanwhile I have a rather more important thing to worry about. I have copies of The Silence of the Elves and the cover has printed with an overall blue cast. It looks dreadful. I can’t put in an entirely new cover this close to Christmas and anyway, all three books will be available as an omnibus edition in a month or so. That will have an entirely new cover.

So, I have brightened the background, outlined the title text to make it clearer and tried to set the colour balance to offset the printer’s blue cast. It’s loaded but it’ll take a couple of days to show up.

It doesn’t affect the eBook versions too much but it really does matter for the print book. I changed the Kindle cover too since if they don’t match, Amazon might not link the Kindle and print version on their site.

Next year I’ll need to have covers ready in advance. I’ll also have to close the submissions window earlier. I’d only left myself a week between closing and publication, didn’t expect the volume of submissions and it really wasn’t enoiugh time.

Next Christmas the cover will be done before the submissions even start. In fact that will apply to all the anthologies. I’ll need a few suitable images all prepared for each one, so I have a choice of readymades to add titles onto.

I really didn’t expect the anthologies to grow this fast. Better get ready for an onslaught for the next one!

The elves are almost silent…

Underdog Anthology 10, ‘The Silence of the Elves’ is being loaded now. There is an issue with the fancy scene separators in the eBook versions that I will have to fix and retry, but the print book seems to be loading okay. Here’s the cover –

Half-sized image, so might not be easy to read.

I am still learning this publishing business. One thing this year has taught me is that my closing dates for submissions are too tight. I had left myself one week between close of submissions and publication in time for Christmas. I really hadn’t expected to get sixteen stories!

It comes hot on the heels of the Halloween anthology so it’s getting a little bit knackering. The spring anthology has a little more leeway and it’s out on its own, but these two are close together and – as you can see from three new names on this one – it’s getting bigger.

Next year the deadlines for both Halloween and Christmas books will have to be earlier.

I have also learned that novels are so much easier to deal with. You’re only dealing with one author per book. Marsha Webb’s book took longer than it should have because I was all tangled up in the Halloween anthology. This one has delayed Gastradamus’s book. Fortunately that now really only needs a cover – Roo B. Doo did the editing on that one. It shouldn’t take long.

I don’t much like Christmas. It’s cold and damp and the weather is rotten, the shops are full of crap nobody needs and yet everyone is in there buying it. I have to get Christmas cards written and woe betide me if I miss one. Maybe I should just take the easy way out and miss them all.

This year I’m actually looking forward to it. It’s just be me, CStM, Gloom Dog and the Fat Hamsters. No visitors.

Right. Get this book finished off and then I think, tomorrow, we’ll have a night watching the Grinch.

There’s a guy who really understands Christmas.

Extremes

Digression first – I think I have a title for the Christmas anthology. ‘The Silence of the Night’.

Although maybe ‘The Silence of the Reindeer’…or is that too brutal, even for me? I have some fava beans and a nice Chianti here if anyone wants to come round and argue about it.

Anyway. It has 16 stories from ten authors, three of whom are new entrants to the Underdog Anthologies. Stories range from traditional, whimsical, romantic, dark, to… mine. Editing is complete (unless another one comes in, it’s not closed yet) and this weekend will be occupied with sending out author contracts and payments (it’s also quarterly payments time for the novel authors) and putting it all together.

So, a quick one before going quiet again.

I hear Ohio are now demanding that doctors transplant ectopic pregnancies into the woman’s womb, or they’ll be prosecuted for ‘abortion murder’. This takes the ‘no abortion’ extreme beyond the pale. Even the Grauniad think this is a stupid idea. It’s that bad.

Ectopic pregnancy is where the placenta tries to implant in a Fallopian tube instead of in the uterus. Untreated, it is fatal. Both mother and baby will die.

The only treatment is to operate to remove the wrongly implanted foetus and that has to be done very early on, well before any sane country’s abortion limit. Yes, the baby will die but that was inevitable anyway. The mother can survive.

So, the Ohio idiots-in-charge have decreed that doctors cannot simply remove that wrongly implanted pregnancy, they must transplant it into the mother’s uterus. This is a medical procedure that, in layman’s terms, does not exist. It has never been done. It has never been attempted. Nobody has the slightest idea how to do it and it’s unlikely to work anyway.

You would have to extricate the placenta from the Fallopian tube and then reconnect it to the wall of the uterus in the exact same pattern of blood vessels. I really don’t think modern science can do this and I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the first doctor to try it. The experiment, for that is what it would be, is likely to fail and kill both the mother and the baby.

So, you are a doctor in Ohio and you have a patient with an ectopic pregnancy. Your choices are –

  1. Do nothing, let the patient die, be sued for malpractice.
  2. Attempt a never-before-tried experimental transplant and most likely kill the patient and be sued for malpractice.
  3. Perform the correct surgery, remove the wrongly-implanted foetus, save the mother’s life and… go to jail as an ‘abortion murderer’.

If I was a medical doctor in Ohio you know what I’d do? I’d relocate, fast! Before any patient shows up that is going to wipe me out one way or another. It’s probably best to avoid Ohio because if you get sick there, they soon won’t have any doctors at all. It’s not a safe place to be saving lives.

All of this is, of course, in retaliation for those states who have decreed abortion is legal right up to the moment of birth. Incidentally, Jerry Cordite’s Labour party want that here too. Pull out a fully formed infant and kill it. Premature births survive, a full term baby has no problem surviving, but if a mother in labour decides ‘nah, I don’t like it’, then baby dies.

In America now, you can cross a state line and move between a world where doctors are prosecuted for removing a wongly-implanted and inevitably fatal cell mass to a world where full term healthy babies are legally slaughtered. How the hell did it come to this?

What happened to a sensible medium course? That’s gone now, in so many areas. Humanity has polarised into extremes in every aspect of life. The centre ground is barren, the armies face each other on the peaks of extremity.

‘If you are not with us you are against us’ has always been a silly saying. Take the matter of gay marriage. I do not ‘support’ gay marriage, I do not ‘oppose’ it. Since I have no religion and I’m not gay, I don’t care about it at all. It’s none of my business. That, however, is not allowed. I must choose whether I celebrate it or condemn it. I refuse to choose. I don’t give a damn.

The Church of Climatology declare that if you do not accept the coming Fiery Armageddon of One Degree Temperature Rise then you are a ‘climate denier’. Personally I’d rather they were more honest about it and use the term ‘climate heretic’. At least they can’t burn us at the stake, not once we explain how much CO2 that would release.

A climate denier. Someone who denies the existence of climate? Well, they mean someone who denies that the climate changes. You know, someone utterly blinkered in their view of the world. They will never see the irony.

Of course the climate changes. The land masses move around. The atmosphere changes. There was a time when the atmosphere had a lot more oxygen than it has now. Sounds great? Well, you should see the size insects and spiders grew to when their oxygen intake was far less limited. Trust me, you don’t want those days back 😉 There was also a time when there was a lot more CO2 in the atmosphere. You won’t remember that time. Humans hadn’t yet appeared. Damn those dinosaur SUV’s eh?

The climate is changing as we speak. The sun has now entered a grand solar minimum and the coming years are going to be different. The thing is, they aren’t going to be warmer. Those solar panels are going to be covered in snow and the windmills will freeze up. It’s too late to build more traditional power stations, this isn’t ‘ten years away’, it’s now. If your house doesn’t have a chimney well you’d better get a generator to run some heating. Ideally something wood-fired because fossil fuels will still be taxed to the hilt to prevent the warming that isn’t happening. You could use some of Jerry’s billion imaginary trees.

Saying that puts me at an extreme. It’s no longer a reasonable ‘look at the actual science instead of obsessing over 0.04% of the atmosphere, most of which comes from mud flats and tundra anyway’. I’m a ‘climate denier’ for trying to warn of impending climate change. Well sod it. Let the buggers freeze. At least I can say I tried.

In America, you are either 100% for Trump or 100% against him. In the UK you are either 100% for Bozza or 100% for Jerry. There is no middle ground. The Lib Dims used to be a sort-of middle ground but Jo Swindles has taken them to the extreme too. Which extreme? Well they are on a little peak of their own that nobody is really looking at.

There have been many things I used to sneer at as conspiracy theories. Common Purpose. Well that’s real. You can see their little drones doing their teacher’s semaphore-signal exaggerated ‘body language’ in their speeches. It probably works if you don’t know about it. Now their graduates are fucking things up all over the planet. And it has become clear that that is exactly what they were meant to do. Take some dopes, teach them some tricks, set them loose and they will wreck everything while they honestly believe they are doing the right thing. Useful idiots, an age-old game.

The Georgia Guidestones, a modern day mini-Stonehenge with the New Commandments etched into them. Most likely the work of a rich lunatic but taken as Gospel by the idiots-in-charge. Massive population reduction is the delight of the cuddly Attenborough who you all love even though he wants you and your family dead. Reduce the global population to an easily controlled worker colony – it’s not a conspiracy theory when it’s in the open.

Old man Soros, with the face as benign as a smiling sloth. How could one old man be behind all this crap, I used to wonder. Now, I wonder how he’s still alive, he’s had a face like a retired army marching boot for many years. Then there is the conspiracy theory on adrenochrome, and now I have to wonder… all those very old white men, all those late term abortions… is it connected? Well anyway, it’s good story fodder.

This is the thing with writing. You research things. You make links that are credible, doesn’t matter if they are true, they just have to be believable within the context of the story. Those photos of ‘chemtrails’ might just be photos of busy airspace covered with vapour trails, but if I write something about chemtrails it’ll be credible because of those photos. We don’t see many of those trails here but then we are north of Aberdeen airport. Not much comes this way apart from helicopters heading for the oil rigs. They don’t leave trails.

I’ve written things that have later been true. ‘Telephone Pest’ happened six months after I wrote it. ‘The Sweet Man’ took about a year. I have stalled so many times on ‘Panoptica’ because the things I imagined turned up in the Daily Mail days later. I have wondered if maybe I should stop.

I’ve researched things for my writing, used ‘conspiracy theories’ to make them credible, and then watched it happen. A recent one. ‘All the Strangers’, had a kid with embedded electronics he never had to remove because it was wirelessly charged while he slept. I took the idea from the primitive wireless phone chargers that had started to appear at the time and combined it with the Borg and the alcoves they recharge in.

Now there are wireless chargers built into cars, and credit cards you just have to wave next to a reader. People have embedded chips to open doors at work. They will not balk at embedded credit card chips so they just have to wave their hand at a machine to pay for their shopping. They will fight to be first.

In this one, I will not be in the desolate middle ground. I will be right at the top of the ‘NO’ peak. As I am with things like Alexa, and TV with a camera in it. I do not want listening and watching devices in my home and I am sure as hell not paying to have them there.

So many other things. The human race is polarising. Us and them. With us or against us. The middle ground is a wasteland now. Make a choice. Choose one life or the other. You cannot choose your own.

If this continues it can only lead to one outcome.

They used to say, if you’re in the middle of the road you’ll get run over. Nowadays it might be the only safe place to be.

Because nobody else is there.