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’.

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.

Entertainment time – Troubled Water

Well, Halloween has passed so just for fun, here’s one of my stories from Underdog Anthology 9 – ‘Well Haunted‘.

I’m busy with a novel for publication at the moment, it’ll be done this week, but the rage is building at our political lunacy and I’ll be back.

In the meantime, a bit of fun…

Troubled Water

Murmurs in my dreams. Voices, insistent, persistent, nagging. It’s been so long. Why won’t they just let me sleep? Why won’t they let me fade into death in peace? I was so close. Nearly there. Nearly gone. They ignored me for so very long. Why now? I must answer. I am compelled.

He (or she or it, nobody was ever sure, not even itself any more) stretched and groaned from its slumber, then headed upwards. Slowly, reluctantly, it approached the tiny patch of daylight above it, reviving memories of so many years ago, of things it once enjoyed. No more.

***

“Take it easy. This isn’t a goddamn off-road wheelchair.” Brandon gripped the armrests as his chair lurched in another rut in the uneven ground. “And this field is full of cows. I hate cows.”

“You are wearing a leather jacket and we just had burgers for lunch. How can you say you hate cows?” Sally sighed and pushed the wheelchair forward a little more. “You’re heavy and it’s not my fault there’s no path from the road to the well.”

“I bought my jacket in a shop. We get burgers from a drive-through. What has that to do with cows?” Brandon coughed and spat. “There’s shit everywhere, don’t you dare let me fall in it.”

You might contaminate it. Sally closed her eyes for a moment. He’s my brother. He might be an insufferable arsehole but it’s not his fault, not really. He was born this way. I have to be more tolerant.

“I think I see it.” Brandon pointed ahead and a little to the left. “That pile of rocks. It’s like that photo on the Internet, not much of it left after nearly twelve hundred years but if it still has water, it should still be active.” He shifted in his seat to turn to look at Sally, a move that nearly tipped him over. “Well, come on, we’re almost there.”

Sally tightened her grip on the wheelchair handles, only just managing to keep Brandon upright. “Okay. Let’s take it slow and easy.” She moved the chair forward, watching for ruts in the cow-stomped wet ground. If this didn’t work, and she really didn’t think it would, she’d have to push him all the way back again.

“This is it.” Brandon leaned forward in his chair. “There’s a trickle of water. Not much, but the spring is still active.” He pulled a small metal cup from the recesses of his chair and handed it to Sally.

“You’re not seriously planning to drink that?” Sally turned the cup in her hands. The trickle of spring water flowed over grubby stones, into mud, and had cut a channel through several piles of cow manure. “Brandon, it’s disgusting. Give it up. Let’s go home.”

Brandon snorted. “This is my last hope. All you need do is get some of that water. Come on, Sally. I know you don’t believe it’ll work but we’ve come this far. I’m not giving up now.” He pointed to where the water emerged from the rocks. “If you get it from there, before it hits any of the crap, it’ll be clean.”

Sally blew a long breath. All those homeopathy sessions, all the faith healers, all the acupuncture, all the stuff Brandon had tried when he found modern medicine couldn’t help him. None of them worked, This won’t work either. Why can’t he just accept it? His spine is ruined. Nothing can fix that. There’s no magic cure. He has to learn to adapt.

“Come on.” Brandon rocked in his chair. “Just a sip of water. That’s all.”

Oh what the hell. Sally moved towards the trickle of water emerging from the algae-covered rocks, avoiding the worst of the mud and faeces, and resigned herself to the chore of pushing her brother all the way back to the car while trying to console him once again. He’ll never walk. The doctors said so, and no matter how deep he goes into this silly magic, none of it is real. She put the cup into the trickle of water.

You need no healing.

The voice reverberated in her head. Sally jumped back. The cup spilled its contents over the rocks and ground. Her fingers clenched so hard they threatened to crush it.

“What are you doing?” Brandon’s voice seemed to come from far away. “You just have to fill a cup, for God’s sake.”

Somewhere behind her, the moo of a cow sounded full of mirth and mockery.

Sally shook her head. “Did you hear that?”

Brandon came back into her reality. “Hear what? I just hear cows. Come on, sis. Just get some water in that cup.”

Sally stared at the cup in her hands. “It was a voice, but in my head. Everything went… far away… for a moment.”

“This is no time for you to have some kind of mental episode. Pull yourself together.” Brandon’s face filled with rage and expectation. “Come on. Get me some of that water.”

I actually hope this works. It’s the only way I’ll be free of him. Sally took several deep breaths. Since the death of their parents she was Brandon’s sole caretaker and he had been a remarkably unappreciative patient. She moved the cup towards the water again but this time she formed a thought in her head and pushed it forward. It’s not for me, it’s for my brother.

I see your thoughts. I understand. Take the water.

This time, the voice in her head was softer, almost gentle. Sally half-filled the cup and returned to Brandon’s side.

“Are you sure about this?” Sally held the cup in both hands. “We don’t know if this is safe. Anything could happen.” The experience of the voice still jangled her nerves. Something was going to happen, she felt sure, but what?

“Look at me.” Brandon spread his arms wide. “This is it. This is my life. How can it get worse?’

Sally stared into the cup. Mine too. It’s not going to get better as long as he’s stuck in that chair. Please, against all the odds, against all the logic and common sense in the world, let this work. She handed him the cup.

Brandon took a tentative sip, stared into the water for a moment then took the whole lot in one swallow. He closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, then opened them. His hands explored his legs, he slapped them, he moved them side to side, he roared at them. Nothing happened. Finally, he threw the cup at the pile of rocks and screamed his anguish at the sky while the cup clattered until it came to rest in a pile of cow manure.

“It didn’t work.” Brandon leaned forward in his chair, his hands over his face. “I’m stuck in this bloody chair forever. There’s nothing left to try.”

“Maybe it takes time.” Sally reached out to him, but hesitated. Of course it didn’t work. It’s nonsense. But that voice…

“You don’t get it. You never have.” Brandon’s voice came muffled through his fingers. “You can walk. I never have. I’ll never know what it’s like. I keep hearing that song, ‘Oh I would walk five hundred miles’ and you cannot understand what that does to me. I wish I could walk five hundred miles. It’s never going to happen.”

“Brandon—” A shifting in the rocks stopped Sally. Not so much a shifting of the rocks themselves, they didn’t actually move, it was more a distortion in the air that blurred their positions.

I have waited for you to articulate your wish.

The voice came from the air this time, not from inside her head. Sally glanced at Brandon and his lowered hands, the look on his face, told her he had heard it too.

Brandon blinked at the pile of stones. Sally understood, the rocks seemed indistinct, as though seen through a haze. A haze that thickened as she watched.

You drank my water but you did not say what you wanted from me. Now you have claimed your deliverance and I must comply.

“What the Hell?” Brandon gripped the arms of his chair. Sally moved to stand behind him. The haze formed into a skeletal creature, its fingers elongated and ending in talons, its smile coming from a strange place between benevolent and demonic. It stared at Brandon.

I am required to ask you. Are you sure?

“Sure of what?” Brandon trembled so hard, the handles of the chair vibrated under Sally’s hand. “Are you a demon from Hell?”

The creature’s laugh was deep and hollow, an entire cemetery of mirth, a sound from the places where happiness goes to die.

I was born there, long ago. Oh it wasn’t the most gentle of places but it was a lot warmer than my current prison.

“Prison?” Sally gripped both handles of the wheelchair. “You’re in prison?”

What, you think I lie around in shit-strewn fields, in a wreck of what was once a finely constructed well, and put up with being ignored for centuries as some sort of fun pastime? The creature’s eyes blazed. I have been here over a thousand years. Trapped by a man you people call a saint. I have other names for him. It was okay at first. People came, made offerings, I healed them. Then they stopped.

The rage in the creature’s eyes dimmed a little. They stopped coming. I could not leave. I am bound here but I had no purpose. Nothing. For many centuries I lay in the well. I watched it fall apart. I saw the farmers come and take stones to build their walls. I was here the day the last of it fell into rubble. I saw my holy field become a stomping ground and a latrine for cattle.

Sally took a step back as the creature’s eyes bored into hers. You think Hell is bad? This is far, far worse. Here I am entirely alone. Fading, dying, and I welcomed it, then you came along. One last wish, one last healing. Then I will fall back into the well and fade to oblivion.

Brandon found his voice. “But you can still heal me, right? You can fix me so I can walk?”

Of course. I can grant your wish. It is the only power your so-called saint left me with.

“Brilliant.” Brandon grinned, then frowned. “It’s not going to cost my soul, is it?”

The creature laughed its cemetery laugh again. I have no use for souls. The people brought me offerings. They gave me things that were important to them. It turned its gaze to Sally, who blanched and took a step back.

Brandon looked down at himself. “Well, this chair has been important to me all my life. Although if you heal me, I guess it won’t be important any more. Does it still count?”

It will do. I am beyond caring about the offerings anyway.

“Sounds like a deal to me. I get to walk and you can keep the chair.” Brandon clenched his fists in excitement.

I still have to ask the question. Are you sure?

Brandon’s earlier words came back into Sally’s mind. She leaned over him. “Brandon, don’t rush into this. Think for a moment. You’ve had nearly thirty years in that chair. Just think.”

“What’s to think about?” Brandon twisted to face her. “I want to walk. Yes, I am sure.”

The creature nodded and uttered a few incomprehensible words.

Sally held her breath.

Brandon pulled his arms around his chest. He coughed. Then groaned.

Then screamed, his arms flung wide.

Sally’s hand flew to her mouth. “What are you doing to him?”

The creature sighed. His spine is badly deformed. I have to re-route most of his nervous system. Of course it’s going to hurt.

“Can’t you use some kind of anaesthetic?” Sally grabbed one of Brandon’s hands and held tight.

What’s that?

Oh, crap. Sally tried to still Brandon’s flailing arm. This thing comes from a time when you got a shot of rum before getting your infected leg sawed off with five people holding you down. It doesn’t even know about aspirin.

I could have stopped the pain but he didn’t wish for that. I am constrained by the spells that bind me. I have to take the wish literally.

Sally was sure there was a hint of malicious glee in those words. This thing had a trick in store, she was sure of it. Was it evil? Or just bored and looking for one last strike back at the humans who left it to rot? What would it do to her brother?

Finally, Brandon passed out. He slumped in his wheelchair, breathing heavily.

“Is it over?” Sally faced the creature, who nodded.

Well, the pain is over for now. The wish begins when he wakes. He will walk.

Sally closed her eyes and pursed her lips. “Part of me wants to thank you, but another part thinks this is a trick.” She looked into the creature’s eyes. “Did you really take his wish literally?”

The creature raised some fleshy parts above its eyes that might have passed for eyebrows. I have no choice in this matter. It glanced away for a moment. I am not evil. I have a little leeway, but I must grant the wish as spoken.

Brandon groaned. Sally turned to face him. Brandon groaned again and his left leg twitched. Then his right leg. Sally’s eyes widened. There had been no movement in Brandon’s legs throughout his entire life.

“Can he walk?” Sally faced the creature. “I mean, his legs have never moved. He has almost no muscle in them. And it takes babies about a year to learn to walk. Won’t he have to go through all that?”

Oh I fixed that. I thought, since the process was causing so much pain anyway, I might as well boost his muscle strength and instil walking patterns in his brain. Those things hurt too, best get it all over with in one, eh? The creature tilted its head. Besides, I couldn’t fulfil his wish immediately if I hadn’t done those things.

Sally closed her eyes. His wish. Literally. What exactly did he say?

“Ah!” Brandon’s gasp made her turn to face him. He stood in front of his chair, legs twitching. He seemed unsure what to do next.

“Brandon. You’re standing! It worked.” Sally clenched her fists over her chest. Her brother was free of his chair at last And I am free of him.

Your wish is granted. You may begin at any time. Just move one leg in front of the other and it will all come naturally.

Brandon swayed a little, then put his right foot forward. He swayed a little more, arms out for balance, then shifted his weight to swing his left leg in front of the right one.

“Sally, look! I’m doing it! I’m walking!” He took another step, then another, and was soon striding confidently across the field. He turned, the first time with some difficulty, but soon mastered that too and marched back towards Sally.

“This is great.” Brandon flashed a smile as he passed, walked a little way more, turned and came back again. “I’m new to this. How do I stop?” He kept walking out into the field.

And I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more, just to be the man who walked a thousand miles… The song came unbidden to Sally’s mind. She remembered Brandon’s exact words when he made the wish. I wish I could walk five hundred miles.

The creature caught her gaze and sniffed. I did tell you I had to take the wish literally, and I asked him – twice – if he was sure.

“So he won’t stop until he’s done five hundred miles?” Sally put her hands over her face and breathed into her hands to stop herself hyperventilating. She lowered her hands. “What about when he’s done the miles? What then? He wished to walk five hundred miles but when he’s done that, is he crippled once more?”

The creature smiled. I also told you I have a little leeway, even though I must take the wish literally. No, when he’s done what he wished to do he’ll still be able to walk. Although he might not feel much like it for a while.

Brandon passed them again. “Sis. I don’t know how to stop.”

Sally faced the creature. “Can’t you do something? What if he drank another cup of water and wished again?” Her gaze flicked to the cup, now dented and slowly sinking into a pile of cow manure. She decided she might need a different cup.

The creature shrugged. He’s not in need of healing now. That’s all I can do— healing. All my other powers were stripped from me when your ‘saint’ conjured me and then trapped me here. He’s not sick so there is nothing I can do.

“How do I get him home? How can I get him in the car if he can’t stop walking?”

What’s a car? The creature furrowed its brow.

“Oh—” Sally threw up her hands and turned away, just in time to see Brandon heading back towards them. “Never mind.” Her shoulders slumped. “It’s only five hundred miles. I’ll cope. I always have.”

Brandon passed with a pained look on his face. “Sis, I need the toilet.”

Sally could have sworn she heard a giggle, but when she turned, the creature had vanished.

November

What are we supposed to give up this month? Smoking? Drinking? Driving? Meat? Dwarf Hustling? Otter Prodding? Breathing? I can never remember. It doesn’t matter anyway, I’ll just ignore it. I have to, there are unprodded otters in the river. Well someone has to do it. Those otters won’t prod themselves. Prodding poles at the ready…

Apparently we have once again failed to leave the EU. I don’t actually think that matters either. It’s already starting to fall apart, it’s just the BBC pretending it isn’t happening. Soon there’ll be nothing to leave.

November used to be, and probably still is, NaNoWriMo. National novel writing month. You are supposed to get the first draft of a novel completed in a month. No editing, no going back and changing anything, just blast it out.

I did it once. I wrote ‘Norman’s House‘ that way. Oh I completed the story within the month but it took years to get back to it and edit it. In the meantime I wrote the prequel, ‘Jessica’s Trap‘ and that was published first. Then ‘Samuel’s Girl‘. So the whole story came out in the right order in the end.

It’s not over. Demdike comes back in the next book, and there’s another one part-planned-out after that. There is mileage in the grumpy bastard Romulus Crowe yet.

The first of November marks the official opening of submissions for the Christmas Underdog Anthology. Number ten. And to think, when I started this, there were those who told me it was going nowhere. Every anthology has introduced at least one new author and the Christmas one already has its new voice. I won’t give a name yet in case he wants to use a pen name.

Still, Christmas 2019 has three stories locked in, two more likely, and it’s only just opened for submissions.

I have two other books to publish. One by Marsha Webb which only needs a cover. I decided to get arty and do it myself, but as always I have overreached. The cover is composed in acrylic paint, ink with a brush, ink with a glass pen, coloured pencil… and more. It’s taking ages. So there will be a first edition with a simpler cover in under a week and we’ll put out a second edition when the real cover is ready.

The other is by the new author in Well Haunted. Gastradamus is the name he goes by and he has a collection of pretty mad short stories to share. I need to get that done fast too. I’d like to engage a real artist for the cover but there might not be time if it’s coming out for Christmas. So it could be a first edition with a photoshopped picture cover and a second edition later too.

I also want to do this with some of the early books. Mark Ellott’s first novel, ‘Ransom‘, would benefit from a better cover and so would Lee Bidgood’s ‘You’ll be fine‘. Covers are important, it’s the first thing anyone sees. My cover image preparation has improved with practice, the early ones could do with a revamp.

Margo Jackson’s ‘The Mark‘ has a decent cover for an early attempt. It has a weirdo lurking in the woods (it’s actually me) which is integral to the story.

Some authors provided their own cover images – Dirk Vleugels and Justin Sanebridge, and later Mark Ellott – but since those first two tend to write in Dutch and French there wasn’t really much editing involved at all.

I’m probably digressing but I’m not sure I had a point to start with. Perhaps it was about building up and collapsing.

I never intended to build up Leg Iron Books. I genuinely did not expect it to get as far as it has. It was meant as a hobby business for retirement. It’s taken off far faster and bigger than I expected but I’m not forcing it. I set it up to get authors into print so they can go to an agent and say ‘Look, I’ve already published these’. It matters. Literary agents do not want one trick ponies. They get about 15% of the royalties and if you’re selling ten copies of your only book per year, that’s no good to them. They get pennies. They want to see you put out more books.

The big publishers do not accept direct submissions from authors. They will only work with agents. If you don’t have an agent you are never getting into the big publishers and if you are not published you will have a hard time getting an agent.

This is what Leg Iron Books is for. I want to lose authors to agents and big publishers. I’d like to think those authors will remember where they came from and maybe send some new ones this way but this is never going to make me rich. Leg Iron Books is small fry and staying that way.

Will Leg Iron Books collapse? Probably not unless I pack it in or die. It’s not being ramped up, it’s not leveraged, it has no debt and is not looking to be anything other than a backwater way in to the world of publication.

The EU is ramped and leveraged to the eyes. Riddled with corruption, bad debt and vanishing cash. It’s doomed. The Church of Climatology depends on its believers and on free grants from taxpayers. The believers don’t seem keen to chip in and the taxpayers are starting to wonder why their heating bills are going up rather than down. The scam is collapsing, hence the sudden panic-driven push to get as much as they can before the glaciers roll over Birmingham.

The new anti-vaping crap is falling apart too. What a pity so many vapers have joined the antismokers. They’d have had a lot more allies otherwise. But then…

First they came for the smokers. I was a smoker, and nobody spoke out for me.

The rest of you can suck it up.

The UK parliament is wringing its hands over what the public thinks of them. The truth is, the real aims of those bloody parasites are now clear and we’re thinking what we should have been thinking all along. That’s falling apart too.

The next election is going to be worth staying up to watch. Results finalised on Friday the Thirteenth and I hope it’s unlucky for all of them.

There has been no writing tonight. I took the day off. It’s Halloween so we watched a film called ‘The Nun’. Lovely. I laughed often. Tomorrow is back to work for me, I have those two books to get ready, then I have visitors to deal with for a week, then the Christmas anthology.

December to February, we are closed to visitors. We need some sleep!

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.

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.”