Three wheels on my wagon…

Remember that song? I doubt many do.

Anyway. I have sent the PDF of the whole interior of UA17 to the authors, with instructions to check their parts very carefully indeed. The real world distractions here have come thick and fast and none of them good. If any UA17 author reading this hasn’t seen it, check your spam folder and if it’s not there, let me know.

The cover image is set. I purchased the rights to an image from a very nice Australian cobber and will suitably distort it to make the cover. The book, being so late, will be called ‘The Wrong Kind of Leaves’ which fits that cover in so many ways…

I am again behind, but trying to get this wagon rolling again even if it’s down to one wheel. It won’t be easy but then I’ve come back from worse.

The world truly has gone to Hell in a handcart, although it’s a handcart attached to a Jensen Interceptor with a brick on the accelerator. I once saw the remains of an Interceptor in a scrapyard. The engine was indeed a sight to behold. Unfortunately I was a student at the time, only there for a window winder for an Austin Princess, so could do no more than ogle that engine… but I digress.

The WHO, faced with what they pretend is a pandemic of monkeypox (there are countries whose annual tally of infections is four times the current global scare story and they just let it ride because it’s really not a big deal) have a priority.

Cure it? Find a cure? Isolate the infected?

No.

Their priority is to rename it because it’s ‘racist’.

Monkeys are not a different race. They are a different species. This is exactly the same as calling chickenpox ‘racist’, Exactly the same. But nobody gives a shit about how poultry feel, it seems. And how about smallpox? I think the short people might have something to say here. Then we have Yellow Fever. The Chinese and Japanese *ahem* in the corner. And of course German Measles…

Oh come on, we all know why they want to change the name. It’s not scary enough. It has to be called Deathpox or RipYourFaceOffPox or FloppyWillyPox or YourPhoneBatteryDiesPox. Something to make the sheep shit pile higher. Something to scare people, since that’s the name of the game and always has been. Always will be.

The scare game has been silly for a long time but it has plumbed depths of silliness where the silly is under such pressure as to become almost a singularity of silly. A silly black hole from which no sense could ever escape.

Look at this. Just look.

I remember, a little under sixty years ago, we’d use a blade of grass to push aside the froth to reveal the insect beneath. This is nothing new.

The story is pure scare. So this froth-producing insect ‘could’ damage olive groves – how many olive groves are you personally cultivating? It ‘might’ damage your plants even though it never has before. It’s never been more than a curiosity and now it’s the greatest threat ever?

Report it, and your vegetable garden will be flame-sterilised ‘for everyone’s safety’.

China has been eradicating home vegetable gardens for ‘covid’. Australia has made it illegal to grow your own food. See it yet? You will have nothing but what those ‘in charge’ allow you to have. They have been making this very clear for years now.

I would say ‘get ready’ but I said it years ago and everyone laughed. It’s too late now.

But hey, keep laughing. I’m sure you’re going to love the punchline.

Anthology 17 and author payments

Author quarterly payment time – only three authors have sales and once more, I wasn’t one of them. The ones with sales have been contacted so if you haven’t heard – sorry, you’re as skint as me.

I have a feeling that the rising prices have destroyed many peoples’ ‘play money’. I can see that. It’s affecting me too, I can’t buy models nor esoteric weaponry at the rate I used to maintain. Although I probably have enough weaponry to supply a small mediaeval castle anyway…

Anthology 17 has officially closed to submissions, but it’s still subject to further delays. Editing has begun and authors are being contacted but if it’s not done in a week it’s going to take several. My mother has cancer, just a little one, it’ll soon be sliced out but I’ll have to go to Wales to check she’s following the after-surgery advice. Because she won’t. She’s also 80 which means any major surgery is a risk.

My younger brother lives near her but he has a full time job and I’m retired so I do need to be there. Maybe I should take my battle axe in case he gets hold of his morningstar, both of which have the scuffs and chips of teenage scuffles… nah. He won’t want to lose again. Anyway, my late father’s broadsword is still there in case he gets stroppy.

There are easily enough stories in to make Anthology 17 viable but this new delay means I could accept a few late entries as long as they don’t need much editing. They aren’t needed but they have a few more days, perhaps a week if I don’t get to finish in time. Something new is always welcome.

Just be aware that if you send in a late one and don’t hear back right away, I might not be ignoring you. I might just not be here.

Gene Genies

Well, some will have got as far as finding that Panoptica was populated with female worker drones, like bee or ant colonies. I was just making it up, okay? There was no way to make it really happen. In any non-insect species.

Well, now there is. In chickens.

At first… but there is a huge problem here. If the genetic meddling causes no male chickens to hatch, who gets the next generation’s eggs going? It’s a disaster that makes Dr. Frankenstein’s story look like a mere ‘oops’. Better get used to duck eggs folks because they plan to wipe out chickens in one generation.

The same issue will arise in Panoptica before it’s complete and I have to thank real life once again for making my insane fiction at least credible. I had it written but as with brain chips, I was worried it was too far-fetched, yet once again it seems I had not fetched it nearly far enough.

Well. I have to complete a story for Underdog Anthology 17. Mine had stalled but this is new inspiration. It allows me to follow on from a story I had published in Alienskin Magazine (sadly gone forever) in 2004. Where our MC finds that her edits have spread unintentionally through subsequent experiments…

Anyhow. Here’s the original. It was also in ‘Fears of the Old and the New‘.

The Gene Genie

This one had to be cut down to fit with the word count required by Alienskin magazine at that time (2004). This is the uncut version. Published again in ‘Fears of the Old and the New’ in 2012, but no bugger ever read it so here it is again.

“The bulk of the DNA in the human genome is junk. Most of it doesn’t code for anything.” Professor Armitage succeeded in looking haughty even while relaxing in his leather armchair. He had the air of someone who could emanate haughtiness in his sleep.

Diane’s response was immediate. “Surely, Professor, at least some of that DNA codes for proteins? Some of it represents intact genes that are not lost, just switched off?”

I always enjoyed Professor Armitage’s tutorials whenever Diane was there. I didn’t have to do or say anything in most of them, I could just relax and watch the battle of wits between these two.

The Professor smiled. He was ready for this one. “That’s correct,” he said, his eyes twinkling at Diane over his heavy-framed glasses. “But those genes are archaic, no longer required by the human animal. They’ve been switched off and forgotten for a good reason.” He paused. We all turned to look at Diane.

“What reason?” she said.

“They’re junk.” The Professor’s grin was huge. The other four research students covered their grins with their hands, as I did. We didn’t want to be noticed, we just wanted to be the audience.

“How do you know?” Diane said, her determined face unflinching. “Surely the only way to tell would be to switch them on and see what happened?”

“My dear girl.” Professor Armitage injected his voice with his best patronising tone. “We don’t need to switch them on. We know the sequence, so we can deduce the proteins that would have been formed, and from there we can work out what those proteins probably did.”

Diane bristled at the Professor’s tone. She was getting into her stride, this was going to be a good performance.

“Probably,” she said. “What the proteins probably did. We can’t be sure, can we? The only way to find out for sure would be to reactivate those genes.”

“Well, there are a few problems with your proposal,” Professor Armitage said. “For one, we don’t know the extent of the mutations in those genes. Remember, they’ve been unused for a long time, possibly since before ‘Homo sapiens’ evolved as a species. Mutations in unused genes would have no effect on the animal so they wouldn’t be removed by selection.”

“True,” Diane said, “but there are ways to determine the degree of mutation. We could selectively reactivate genes that are intact, or nearly so.”

“I’m sorry, my dear, but there is one final nail to place in the coffin of your proposal.”

“What’s that?”

“Ethics.” The Professor’s face was serious. “What if we reactivated a gene in a volunteer, and caused a rampant cancer? The risk is just too great. No ethical committee would ever approve such a project.” He held up his hand to forestall Diane’s interruption. “And I couldn’t approve it either. I couldn’t in all conscience ask anyone to volunteer for such an experiment.” His bushy eyebrows lowered and he peered at Diane through the narrow slot between his eyebrows and the top of his glasses. “Could you?”

We all turned to Diane again. Her lips were pursed, her eyes downcast.

“No,” she said. “I couldn’t ask anyone to take the risk.”

We all released our breath. The battle was over, and Diane had lost this time. Still, I thought I saw a hint of defiance lingering in those deep brown eyes, a suggestion of resolution in the set of her jaw. Diane hadn’t finished with this argument, I was sure. She just needed time to consider the next assault.

“Well, everyone, that’s our time up for now,” Professor Armitage said, clapping his hands together. “I’m afraid I won’t be here next week, so I’ll see you all two weeks from today.”

We rose and filed out of the Professor’s office, saying our muted goodbyes. Professor Armitage waved briefly then turned to his desk, already absorbed in his studies before we had closed the door.

I ran to catch up with Diane, who was striding furiously along the corridor. Matching her pace with some difficulty, I tried to glean some insight into her next moves.

“So,” I said. “Are you going to leave it at that? I had the feeling, you know, that you’re not going to drop this one.”

“Too right,” she said. “He’s wrong this time, and I’m going to prove it to him.”

“How?” I struggled to keep my breathing in time with her racing pace. “You won’t get approval for any experiments. He’s dead set against the whole idea.” The door at the end of the corridor arrived sooner than I’d expected. I just managed to avoid colliding with it.

Diane opened the door and shot through. “You’ll see,” she said, as the door swung shut. I leaned against the wall, catching my breath. Diane was the best research student here, better than most of the staff in the Genetics Department. We didn’t call her the Gene Genie for nothing. If she couldn’t do it, it wasn’t possible.

It was over a week before I saw Diane again. I had been working late in the library and was just leaving, looking forward to a cool beer. As I opened the main door to the chill air, Diane entered like a whirlwind, nearly knocking me off my feet.

“Whoa,” I said. “You must be keen, coming in this late.”

Her face was excited, her eyes glowing with unconcealed pride. I felt an unease growing in my gut.

“It’s not that argument with old Armitage, surely? You can’t be working on that?”

“Working on it? Ha!” she said, flashing her teeth in an insane grin. “I’ve done it. Look at this.” She pulled off her scarf to reveal three rows of slits on each side of her neck.

I recoiled in horror. “What have you done to yourself? We’d better get you to a hospital.”

Diane laughed, throwing her head back. The slits in her neck pulsed redly in time to her laughter. “I’m fine. I just reactivated some of the old genes,” she said. “Armitage was right. I couldn’t ask anyone else to take the risk, so I took it myself. It worked.”

“What have you done?” My books fell from my grasp. “What genes?”

She turned her head, showing the openings on her neck. “Very old genes,” she said. “These are gills, from our fish ancestors. Tonight I’m going to give myself a tail.” She brushed past me, towards the laboratories. “Wait until the old goat sees what I can do,” she called over her shoulder.

I stood there for a long time, my mind still seeing the gills on Diane’s neck. I knew I would feel no surprise at our next tutorial, when our Gene Genie would stand and flick Professor Armitage’s glasses off with her new tail.

_________________________________-

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”

It should be a big sign in every laboratory.

Entertainment Time – Christmas Trees

Well, it’s officially Christmas Eve (in the UK) so here’s a story from ‘Slay Bells in the Snow‘. Uncharacteristically jolly for me, I think, but then we all need a break from bloody covid.

Enjoy!

Christmas Trees

“They want what?” Tiddles slammed his toy-hammer onto the table.

George winced. “It’s not my fault. Santa’s letters were clear this year. The children want more trees.”

“They are up to their bloody eyes in trees.” Tiddles picked up the wooden train he was working on and considered smashing it. “If they got off their damn video games and looked outside, there are trees as far as they can see.”

George shrugged. “Seems they don’t think there are enough.”

“Oh crap.” Tiddles dropped the train and buried his face in his hands. “What will they want next year? Gender reassignment surgery?”

George coughed. “Well…”

“Don’t you dare.” Tiddles dropped his hands and stared at the wall. “Just don’t bloody dare. Okay?”

“It’s not really an issue.” George squirmed. “Santa says we can’t grant medical procedures as wishes so we’re off the hook for that one. There’s still the trees though.” He coughed again. “They also want something called ‘renewable energy’. Apparently it involves windmills and sunshine. Doesn’t sound too bad.”

“Oh…” Tiddles stared at the hammer and wondered whether he should use it on George or himself. “That ‘renewable’ crap involves clearing forests to set up wind and solar farms. Trees or those things. They can’t have both unless we magic up an entirely separate planet.”

George blinked. “Is that possible?”

“Of course not. If it were, we’d have done it and moved there and left all this rubbish behind for the humans to sort out.” Tiddles stroked his hammer. If I hit my head in just the right place it will all be over. He placed the hammer on the table and took a breath. “Right. We’d better go and visit Tubby.”

***

“Ho ho ho.” Santa raised his glass as they entered. “Another sack of letters for you. See they get passed around the workshop. We only have three more weeks.”

“That’s kind of why we’re here.” Tiddles folded his arms. “It’s about trees.”

Santa shrugged and took a sip from his glass. “Christmas trees are traditional. It’s nice to see the kiddies appreciate that.”

“Um…” George half-raised his hand. “That’s not what they’ve been asking for. They want real trees.”

“Huh?” Santa’s brow furrowed until his eyebrows merged into one.

“Real trees.” Tiddles tilted his head. “You hadn’t realised, had you?”

Santa stared into his glass. “I only have time to skim-read the letters. You guys get to read them in detail. Still, what’s the problem? People have had plants as presents for centuries. Just put a small tree in a pot and they can plant it themselves.”

Tiddles closed his eyes. “We are at the North Pole. Trees, indeed any kind of plant, are a bit thin on the ground around here. Every scrap of wood we have has to be shipped in and we use some of it for toys and the rest goes into the furnace so we don’t all freeze to death. We have three weeks. That’s barely enough time to grow a bloody radish.”

Santa pursed his lips. “Well. Would they know the difference?”

There was a long silence. George and Tiddles looked at each other. George raised his eyebrow.

“You know,” George said, “most of them think vegetables magically appear on supermarket shelves. We could sell the radishes as tree starter kits.” He screwed up his face and forced his mind, as far as possible, into thinking mode. “I reckon we can get away with it.”

“What? No!” Tiddles stamped his foot. “I will not be involved in such an underhand scheme.”

Both Santa and George raised their eyebrows as far as they could and stared at him.

“Yes, well…” Tiddles shuffled his feet and stared at the ground. “This is different. We make the presents in good faith. It’s the Job, you know? We’re talking about substandard work here. Passing off radishes as trees is going much too far.” He paused and cleared his throat. “Even for me.”

“Okay.” Santa shook his head. “If it’s too dodgy even for you then it’s a non-starter. So what do we do? Any good alternatives?”

“For trees?” Tiddles laughed. “Maybe a log? Or how about a windmill? They seem keen on those as tree replacements in many parts of the world.”

George rummaged in the sack of letters. “Hey, this one wants a train set. That’s easy. Oh, here’s one who wants a particular doll. No problem – eww.” He dropped the letter. “She wants a zombie doll with a removable brain.”

“We can do that.” Tiddles waved his hand. “Sick Bob is good at the creepy stuff. The problem is those who want trees. We can’t produce them to order.”

“Hm.” George held up a letter. “This one wants a vaccine. Well, we can’t do medical stuff.”

“That reminds me.” Santa scratched his head. “All this current vaccine stuff. Do you think we should vaccinate the elves? Should I get it?”

“Hell no!” Tiddles took a step back. “They haven’t even finished human trials yet. Besides, you can clear yourself of disease using magic when you get back. You’ll have time before it shuts down for the year.” He narrowed his eyes. “As long as you remember this time.”

George patted Santa’s shoulder. “We’ll remind you. In case you get knob-rot again.”

Santa coughed and examined the buttons on his jacket. “Well anyway, I’ve been interested in this green stuff for some time. I don’t have much to do other than browse the news, while you lot are busy in your workshops. So I was thinking, maybe we should replace the furnace with heat pumps?”

George and Tiddles stared at each other for a few moments.

George wrinkled his nose. “What’s a heat pump?”

“It’s a brilliant idea.” Santa refilled his glass. “These machines take heat from outside and pump it inside. They can get it from the ground or the air.”

Tiddles smacked his lips. “I believe I have already mentioned, Santa, that we live at the North Pole. There is no heat outside. Not in the ground and not in the air. The only thing you’d pump in from out there is frostbite.”

“Well,” Santa took a swig of whisky, “The scientists are saying cold is good for you.”

“Sure.” Tiddles walked over to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a large one. He had a feeling it was going to be one of those days, and wondered if Santa had really cleared himself of madness-inducing syphilis last time. “It’s fine if you’re surrounded by twelve inches of insulating blubber. We elves are forest creatures. We don’t like the cold.”

“You don’t like the idea?” Santa swirled his glass, his face filled with disappointment.

“We are keeping the furnace.” Tiddles folded his arms. “Can we get back to the problem at hand now?”

George coughed and stared at the drinks cabinet. Tiddles poured him a small one and handed it over.

George took a sip. “How about Bonsai trees? They’re small and they’re real trees.”

“They take decades to grow. We can’t possibly do that in the time we have.” Tiddles shook his head. “Still, George, that’s probably the best thought you’ve had this century.”

George smiled a wide and smug smile.

“There is a way.” Santa rubbed his beard. “You know that whole ‘adopt a penguin’ crap? Or ‘adopt a monkey’ or whatever rubbish they come up with? How about ‘adopt a tree’?”

After a considerable pause and a hell of a lot of blinking, Tiddles and George said, in unison, “What?”

“It’s a great scam.” Santa rubbed his hands. “People pay to keep alive things that are perfectly capable of keeping themselves alive anyway.”

“Scam?” Tiddles perked up.

“Well not for us.” Santa glowered at Tiddles. “Certainly not for you.”

Tiddles scowled.

“Right.” Santa took a deep swig of whisky and strode the room. “We send those kids an adoption certificate. Tell them they have adopted a newly planted tree in a forest somewhere and because of their wish it will grow tall and strong. Doesn’t matter where, there will be trees growing everywhere anyway. Include a picture of a small tree and next year send a picture of a bigger tree. Until they get bored of the whole shebang and ask for a PlayStation.”

Tiddles smacked his hands together. “Brilliant. We charge them for trees that were growing anyway and they believe they are making those trees grow.”

Santa lowered his head. “Tiddles, drop the scam idea for just a moment. These are presents. We do not charge for them.”

“Of course, of course.” Tiddles held up his hands. “I got a bit carried away there for a moment.” He motioned to George to leave. “We’ll get right on it, Santa. Thanks for solving our problem.”

“Yeah, back to work.” Santa sipped his drink under lower bushy eyebrows than usual. “Remember, I’m always watching.”

“No problem, Santa.” Tiddles backed out of the room with George.

***

“So we’re doing it under Santa’s watchful eye?” George struggled to keep up with Tiddles’ pace on the way back to the workshops.

Tiddles laughed. “He’s plastered and rummaging in the silly corners of the internet for most of the year. We don’t have to worry about him watching us.”

“Yeah but…” George furrowed his brow. “I don’t see how we scam this.”

“That’s why I’m in charge.” Tiddles said. “We’ll make the tree-adopting certificates as instructed, but they will include some small print.”

He winked at George. “Very, very small print.”


Merry Christmas!

The Last Ride

Tonight I sent out PDF copies of the anthology to all authors, but my email is looking a bit dodgy. So if you didn’t get one, let me know.

Meanwhile, here’s a preview story to get you in the mood.

The Last Ride

Jenny Armitage settled herself in the vaccination chair. “Didn’t this used to be monthly? I remember the time when there was longer between shots”

The doctor consulted his notes. “It seems your father went off the rails and disappeared. I hope that’s not hereditary.”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Do we have to do the whole ‘sins of the fathers’ thing every time? My dad went crazy. When I was a toddler. Ran off to join some nomad antivax nutters, I was told. It doesn’t mean I’m going to. I just asked a simple question.”

The doctor placed his notes on the table. “Well, we have to be sure. It’s procedure.” He avoided eye contact. “Yes, the boosters used to be further apart but the Theta variant is picking up steam and we have to get vaccinated more often now.”

“Every two weeks though? It’s seriously cutting into my social life.” Jenny pulled the left sleeve of her T-shirt to her shoulder.

The doctor filled his syringe. “It seems it will be weekly soon. Otherwise the next variant could kill us all.”

Jenny looked away as the needle went in. “Last year it was monthly. The year before, three-monthly. Is it going to end up as daily?”

“Well.” The doctor pressed a swab to Jenny’s arm. “There is likely to be an implantable chip very soon. It can release a measured dose at timed intervals. They say you’d only need to reload the chip once a year.”

“Oh, that would be brilliant.” Jenny checked the sticking plaster over her latest jab and rolled down her sleeve to cover it. “Can they do it for all the other jabs too so I don’t have to get a perforated arm any more?”

The doctor chuckled. “The research plans to put everything on the new Medichip. All your vaccinations, all your medical records, and it will even automatically call the medics if it detects something wrong with you. You’ll never have to worry about getting sick again, the chip will call in before you even know you’re ill. It has GPS too, so the ambulance will know exactly where you are.”

“Wow.” Jenny blew a long breath. “I hope it will be ready before Earth Day. I’d love to spend that day, for once, without side effects.”

The doctor snorted. “Earth Day is in three weeks. I doubt they can finish it by then. Next year though, it should be all set to go.” He tilted his head towards the door. “As are you. Fifteen minutes in the waiting area and as long as you don’t show any bad reactions, you’re done.”

“The reaction shows up a couple of days later. I feel like hell for a day and then it’s done.” Jenny picked up her bag and headed for the door. “Gets me a day off college, every time.”

“Fifteen minutes in the waiting area anyway. Just to be sure.” The doctor waved her away.

“Okay.” Jenny closed the door and resigned herself to fifteen minutes of boredom. Unless one of the others keeled over. She’d seen quite a few by now. Sometimes they just passed out. Sometimes they lay there shaking like they were being electrocuted. Sometimes their faces looked like they were melting, just sagging all down one side. There was always a stack of stretchers against the wall, just in case.

She took a seat and noted the time on the clock. There had been a time, she was sure, when these strange reactions made the news. Still, when things get to be common, the news isn’t much interested any more. Neither was anyone else, really. The commonplace isn’t interesting. It’s the new and sensational that gets noticed.

Jenny, like all the others in the waiting area, sat in silence. Nobody made eye contact nor did they acknowledge the existence of the others. They had, like Jenny, been raised properly, taught never to invade the personal space of a stranger. It’s just rude.

Companions in an empty room. I taste their victory and sin.

A snippet of an old, old song came into Jenny’s head. It was something she had heard as a child, from her grandfather’s collection of what he called ‘music’. Music had fallen out of fashion after Grandad’s time and nobody bothered with it any more. Grandad died in a nursing home, before any of the family could be contacted. Her father had visited him the day before he died, and within a week Dad had disappeared too. There were a lot of shouty fights between him and her mother after Grandad died. She never knew what they were about.

She frowned, ducking her head to hide the emotion on her face in case somebody saw. It wasn’t nice to make other people worry about you. Music, she remembered, was nice. It had made her feel good, even when the song was slow and sad. Head down, she tried to remember more of the song.

To work it out I let them in. All the good guys and the bad guys that I’ve been.

There was so much more. Was it still there, buried in that childhood memory, or was it forgotten forever? Grandad’s music collection was sent to recycling when he died.

I wander through an angry crowd. Wonder what’s become of me.

The line was out of place. Jenny forced her face to relax, forced the frown away. Someone might think she had a bad reaction to the vaccine and she didn’t want the attention. She looked up at the clock. Seven more minutes. She glanced around the room.

Face to face I greet the cast. Set in silence we begin.

She stifled a cough. It felt as though something in her mind had brought the song back as a message. Like it was trying to tell her something. She needed to go back to her room, where she could concentrate. Maybe write down the bits of the song she remembered and see if she could put it back together.

Half asleep I hear a voice. Is it only in my mind?

Or is it someone calling me? Someone I failed and left behind.

That was how the song started. Grandad played that song often and sometimes there were tears in his eyes. Then they took him away to the nursing home and nobody in the house ever played music again.

Four minutes left. Jenny struggled to keep her face impassive. It felt like a dam bursting in her mind, so many thoughts, so many memories. All pushing through, all wanting to be first. She really needed to be home.

Her pulse pounded in her head. Was this a bad reaction to the vaccine? Was she about to be one of those who passed out, or who lay shaking on the ground? Is this what happened to them?

I want to take you all with me. We have to get away from here.

Her father’s voice, shouting. Her mother shouting back ‘No, you’re insane’. Her father at the bathroom sink, cutting his hand, taking out his ID chip. Jenny stared at her own left hand, where the chip rested silently until the scanners activated it. She had never questioned it. Somehow, she had blanked out so many memories, or thought she had. Seems she only put them away in a drawer somewhere, and now her brain was opening all the drawers and throwing the contents out into her consciousness.

Should she alert someone? Tell them she thought she was having a bad reaction? Hell no, she’d get sectioned at once. Is that why the bad reactions so often pass out – because they are too afraid to ask for help?

I defend my soul to those who would accuse me.

Another snippet of the song. Almost as if her mind was telling her ‘It’s okay, you’re not going mad’.

Jenny checked the clock. It seemed blurry through her eyes. She rubbed at them, her hand came away wet, but the clock looked a little clearer. One more minute. She considered just leaving now, but that might raise suspicions. One more minute. She could wait it out. She closed her eyes.

In her mind’s eye, her father’s bandaged hand lifted his small bag. His other hand stroked her face, tears in his eyes as he said goodbye. He so wanted to take her, and her mother and little brother, along with him but he could not. He could not stay either, not once he had heard his own father’s story.

Like a circus on parade. Seldom close enough to see.

A story she had heard, and pushed away at her mother’s insistence over the years. She had to believe he had cracked up, that he had joined an antivaxxer group living outside of civilisation, in the climate-change-charred wilderness. He had not. They were not anti-vaxxers. They were free people, thinking for themselves, living outside the tightly controlled world she inhabited. It was in her memory, in the arguments between Dad and Mum, in the words her brain had filed away as ‘wrong’.

His shouted words came back as clear as when he first uttered them. You get on the vaccine train and you can never get off. Booster after booster and it never ends. It’s like getting on a roller coaster that just goes around and around and goes faster and faster and never stops. The last ride you will ever take.

She checked the clock. Time’s up. Jenny stood, reached for her bag and concentrated on quelling the tremble in her hands. It might look like a vaccine reaction and she didn’t want to get taken for treatment. Very few came back from treatment.

Outside, Jenny took a moment to breathe the air and try to grasp what had just happened. It was a song. An old song, now lost to almost everyone, that had triggered her memories. It was a song that had set her on a new path, a path so very, very different from her life as she knew it. Was it sensible, or was it really only the ‘sins of the fathers’ manifesting in her? Had she inherited her father’s madness, or his sanity?

I share the famine and the feast.

The song would not go away. Should she see the doctors about how she felt? Should she discuss it with her mother? Hell no! She’d be sectioned at once. Her own mother had called the authorities when her father left. Jenny took a breath. It wasn’t malice. If her mother had not reported her father’s aberration, they would all now be under permanent observation as accomplices. Possibly even in jail. No, she could not really blame her mother – but she couldn’t trust her with these thoughts either.

Jenny knew she had to leave this city. Get out into the barren wilderness beyond. Like her father. Find the wandering people and try to join them. She stared at her left hand. Would she have the courage to cut the chip out, as her father had?

Well, she would soon find out. Her mind had decided that she would not turn up for her next injection in two weeks’ time. Earth Day was one week after that and missing a shot would put her on Green Santa’s naughty list. She would hear the bells.

Jenny gritted her teeth and whispered the mantra she had been taught. “Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle. They jingle for thee.”

If she missed the next shot, she would be classed as ‘anti-vaxxer’ and Green Santa would take her to some unknown oblivion. It was terrifying, but now she had seen how her world really was, now she had finally seen the circus parade close up, it was terrifying to stay within it too. Running into the wilderness was also terrifying. Basically, she had a choice of terrors. Which to choose?

Jenny headed to her room, only a short walk away from the campus medical centre. She had an enormous decision to make and only a short time in which to make it. If she chose to stay, she would just take the shot in two weeks’ time. If she chose to leave, she would have to do that very soon. As soon as she missed that next appointment she’d be on the naughty list and then she’d be watched closely.

“Well.” Jenny placed her hand on the door to her student accommodation block and watched the door swing open. “Seems I finally have to make an adult decision.” She stepped inside and watched the door swing closed. “I just wish I knew how.”

The song’s closing lines played in her mind.

All the devils that disturbed me and the angels that defeated them somehow.

Come together in me now.

———————————————-

(The song, if anyone is interested, is by Paul Williams and is one of the excellent pieces of music from a film called ‘The Phantom of the Paradise’, a film I heartily recommend.)

Entertainment – The Trojan

Monday is author quarterly payment time. Currently Leg Iron Books pays 100% of profits to authors (every book sale has a profit even if it’s pennies) because there’s enough coming in from the anthologies that there’s no need to pick out a penny from the author pennies.

So. I have been keeping abreast of developments in the rather silly Covid nonsense that’s going on now and I thought, well, there’s a good idea for a story in here. This is it, I’ll probably include it in the Halloween anthology because this crap isn’t going to end any time soon so I’m likely to need yet another lockdown title. Later though, I’m still editing Wandra Nomad’s book (slow because I was a little bit ill lately, but it’s grown back now).

Anyway. Without further ado, here’s a tale of pure fiction. Pure fiction. I just made it up. Try to keep that in mind. Oh and it’s very first draft. There may be adjustments to be made.

The Trojan

Darius Blackthorn wrinkled his nose and dropped the sheaf of papers onto the desk. “This is a flu virus. It’s hardly a weapon. Okay, you made it a bit more infectious but it’s not going to do much, is it?”

“Ah.” Doctor Robson picked up the papers and tidied them into a neat pile. “I appreciate that your speciality lies outside the biological sciences, Mr. Blackthorn. Very few people would grasp the implications of this result and that is exactly how it should be.”

“So?” Blackthorn reached for the whisky decanter. “I’ll offer you a drink when you’ve explained yourself. I’m no expert, it’s true, but it’s pretty clear that all you’ve done here is add some attachment proteins to what is basically a flu virus.” He poured himself a drink and stared into Robson’s eyes.

“Well, that’s what it looks like because that’s exactly what I designed it to look like.” Robson eyed the decanter for a moment. “It’s meant to appear as though it evolved naturally. Just a flu virus with extra infectivity. Oh sure, someone will work out it’s not natural but by then it’ll be too late.”

“Why would anyone even investigate it?” Blackthorn took a sip of his whisky and placed the glass carefully on the silver coaster on his desk. “It’s bloody flu. It’ll kill as many as flu does every year and the rest will recover and forget about it.”

“This is only part of the weapon. The virus will do rather more than flu but it won’t do it to very many people. That’s true, but the virus isn’t the explosive in this weapon. It’s just the primer.”

Blackthorn shook his head. “You’re really not making any sense.”

“Well, let’s try an analogy. You are, of course, familiar with the story of Troy?” Robson raised one eyebrow.

“Of course. The gift of a giant wooden horse that turned out to be full of soldiers. It’s a legend pretty much everyone grew up with.” Blackthorn narrowed his eyes. “I’ve paid you a lot of money to come up with a new and effective bioweapon and you’ve produced flu. I suggest you hasten your explanation.”

Robson took a sharp breath. He was well aware of the reputation around the Blackthorn family. They did not exactly take failure in their stride, and especially did not tolerate failures they had paid a lot of money for.

Robson cleared his throat. “Okay. The flu is the beginning. Only we don’t call it flu, we call it something else. Then we ramp up the scares. We attribute every flu case to our new virus and when it puts a few into intensive care, we really publicise that.”

Blackthorn sniffed. “That part is easy. I can pull strings with the media and the health services and I have people advising the idiots in government. They’ll do what they are paid to do.” He steepled his fingers. “But it’s going to turn out to be flu in the end. We can’t keep the fake going forever. People will notice there are no bodies piling up anywhere.” He glared at Robson. “And the death toll will be a normal winter death toll. As weapons go, this is total shit.”

“The scare factor is a critical part of—”

“Dammit!” Blackthorn thumped the desk. “I can scare people just by looking at them. It doesn’t kill them. I paid for a weapon, not a bloody Halloween trick.”

Robson held up his hands and took slow breaths. Blackthorn was indeed currently scaring the shit out of him. “Okay. I’m getting to that. The scare factor is a critical part of getting people to take the vaccines.”

Blackthorn took a deep drink of his whisky. He rubbed his eyes. He topped up his glass and stared at Robson in silence for several minutes before intoning “Vaccines.”

“Yes, I—”

“You are going to give me a trivial ‘bioweapon’ and then cure it.” Blackthorn shook his head, slowly. “I should have gone with Armitage’s idea. It was crazy, as usual, but at least he didn’t plan to provide a cure.”

“Ah, but the vaccines are part of the weapon. The virus is the primer, the vaccines are the explosives.” Robson allowed himself a smug smile for a moment.

“Okay.” Blackthorn drew a deep sigh. “Explain.”

“The virus is actually irrelevant.” Robson clasped his hands. “It’s the attachment protein that’s important. It’s deadly, but nobody will realise that for months at least. They’ll think it’s the virus causing heart and other organ failures because all they’ll see is infected people.”

Blackthorn nodded. “Continue.”

“Well, the attachment protein is the obvious candidate for a vaccine. Which means vaccine companies will inject millions of people with the attachment protein and,” Robson grinned, “some new technologies will have people producing it in their own body cells. They’ll think they’ve been immunised against a virus when really, the virus itself would do most of them no harm. It’s our Trojan horse to get the toxic protein in. We don’t need to spread an infection. They’ll queue up to get the toxin injected.”

Blackthorn pursed his lips and blinked a few times. “Brilliant. That’s bloody brilliant. So the virus does sod all, it’s the cure that finishes them off.” He furrowed his brow. “But won’t they notice when people start keeling over after being injected?”

“Most won’t.” Robson wrinkled his nose. “But a few will. More than with any other vaccine. We’ll need your influence to keep up the virus scare and simultaneously play down the vaccine injuries and deaths.”

Blackthorn waved his hand. “No problem. But if it doesn’t affect too many, is there any point?”

“Oh that comes later. The attachment protein will react fast in a few who are sensitive, but it will react much later in most people, so far down the line they’ll never link it to the vaccination. Maybe a year or so.” Robson grinned. “It’s the weapon nobody sees coming, and they won’t even recognise it when it does. A Trojan virus full of molecular soldiers.” He coughed. “Oh and incidentally, those of us who have shares in vaccine companies might want to increase our holding.”

Blackthorn said nothing. He simply poured whisky into a fine crystal glass and set it in front of Robson.

Piper in Hazmat (the whole thing)

I’m having a subdued Christmas. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that my father died suddenly on February 14th this year. Well, his brother, my uncle and godfather, died in the early hours of Christmas eve. Yes, they knew how to make an impactful exit. This wasn’t sudden, he had been declining due to cancer for most of the year. The really harsh part is that he’s in Wales, I’m in Scotland so can’t go to the funeral.

Even if I were to get past Wee Nippy’s border guards and into Wales by crossing Offa’s Dyke at night on foot, the Drakeonian restrictions in Wales mean I won’t be able to visit my mother or my auntie or indeed most of the rest of the family. Only 20 are allowed at funerals, and this uncle had five children, all grown up now with grown up children of their own. His immediate family might not all be able to go, and that’s before we get to his surviving brother and sisters. It must be absolute hell to have to make the choice.

Well, it’s happened. No going back now. I had sent a copy of Coronamas because he always enjoyed these anthologies. It arrived the day before he died. I don’t know if he had time to read any of it though.

So I’ll just post this here. It’s the story I put in Coronamas and if he didn’t get to read it, maybe some ethereal internet connection will let him see it now.

Piper in Hazmat

Dawn wiped away her tears before they could freeze. It had been three years and yet the pain burned as bright as ever. She stifled a sob and kept her head bowed. Tree respect was nearly over and she would return home alone, to spend this Earth Day’s Eve night in darkness.

This year, again, she considered ending it. It would be so easy. Refuse to turn off the house. Keep a tablet or phone open. Wait for the bells and let Santa take her as he had taken Willow, and six years before that, Martin. She would be with them in spirit, somewhere, if the old religions replaced by the Green God still had any power. At least the pain would stop.

That’s what the old religions promised. The Green God promised nothing but despair, the burning of this planet now deep in snow and ice. The trees were dormant, having shed their leaves for their long winter sleep and yet the news declared that the planet was warming by the hour.

Dawn gasped when the klaxon sounded. Relieved, she turned and headed for home. Maybe she could simply not bother with her preparations and let the cold take her this year, as it took so many others. Mostly the old, but then it did also take some of the young, even some of those younger than Dawn’s thirty years.

Lost in her depression, she didn’t notice June draw alongside her as she walked. Normally the families maintained social distance and respectful silence on Earth Day’s Eve. Everyone was too intent on getting home for one last hot meal before turning all the power off to be bothered with any idle chit-chat anyway. June’s whisper startled her.

“Dawn. We need to talk.”

Dawn shook her head and whispered back. “Do you want us both on the Naughty List? We have to maintain tree respect this day.” She kept her eyes firmly ahead.

June’s breathing was harsh. “They’ve made something worse than Green Santa. The Piper. They plan to take all the children.”

Dawn curled her lip. “They’ve taken my husband and my child. Why would this be any of my business?”

June stayed silent until they were nearly at Dawn’s house. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry, Dawn. I know you’re going through a living hell but we need you.” She pressed something into Dawn’s hand. Something that ticked. “It’s not electronic so Santa won’t see it. It’s mechanical. Watch it after you turn off the house. When the thick long hand has moved halfway around the dial, and if you want to help us, open your front door and put a LEDlight outside.”

Dawn turned, but June was already receding into the growing darkness. She opened her door and dashed inside.

The door closed, her back pressed against it, Dawn stared at the small metal disc in her hand. Behind its flattened clear dome were three pointed sticks, radiating from the centre. A long one, a short one and a very thin one that rotated around the centre as she watched. There were numbers, one to twelve, around the outside of the dial.

It moves. Is it really not electronic? Is this a trap?

Dawn chuckled, a harsh and desolate sound. It really didn’t matter. She wanted an end to her personal hell anyway so if it was a trap she’d gladly walk into it. It took the decision to end it from her hands, it meant she didn’t have to choose.

In the kitchen, Dawn placed the disc thing on the table and switched on the kettle. She’d try, although she didn’t really want to, to fill enough hot water flasks to last the twenty-four hours of Earth Day. She set the soup on the hob, the last hot meal until sunset tomorrow, and remembered how she had taken the tepid leftovers when Willow was still here. Now the hot soup was all hers and it tasted of loss and despair.

Dawn filled two hot water bottles and three Thermos flasks with hot water before the brown-out started. She filled the fourth with half of the soup and sat to eat the rest at the table. Through the kitchen window, she saw the sun touch the horizon. She ate faster, soon it would be time to shut down the house and wrap up as well as she could for the long dark hours ahead.

Her gaze fell to the strange disc June had given her. It had protrusions either side, as if it was once fixed to something. As she ate, Dawn wondered where it had come from. It looked old, tarnished and scratched and yet whatever mechanism lay inside still worked. The thin stick in the dial moved in jerky steps, round and round. She was to wait until the long thick one moved halfway round the dial, after she turned off the house.

It’s a time measuring device of some kind. Dawn blinked a few times. A memory tried to resurface. Had her grandfather had one of these, or something like it, strapped to his wrist? The Great Cull had taken him while she was still a child, the viral plague that had wiped out many of the elderly. She sniffed and took another spoonful of soup. The four-digit clocks were so much easier to read, this little time measuring thing looked like hard work.

The soup finished, Dawn checked on the sun. Only a tiny arc of its disc now showed on the horizon. She sighed and rose. Time to turn off the house. Technically she had a few more minutes but what was the point? The electricity was now so low that the ceiling light seemed to suck light out of the room rather than illuminate it. She switched on a LEDlight and opened the panel for the power.

This was control. Martin had told her. They could turn off the power remotely through the smart meters but that wasn’t real control. Making everyone turn off their own power, that was real control. Dawn reached into the space behind the panel and pulled down the handle. The house fell silent. The pale bluish glow of the LEDlight was all that remained.

Dawn sat at the kitchen table and considered the tiny device June had given her. She was to wait until the ‘thick long hand’ had moved halfway around the dial then put a LEDlight outside her door. Well, assuming she gave enough of a shit to find out what this was all about.

What do I have to lose? Nothing.

The thin stick continued its rotations. The short fat one didn’t seem to have moved much. It pointed at just below the three. The one she was to watch pointed at the six. So she was to put out a LEDlight when it pointed at twelve. Dawn wondered how long that would take. The hell with it. I have to get some layers of clothing on. It’s already getting cold. She placed the little dial on the table and went off to the bedroom with the LEDlight.

Wrapped in multiple layers of clothing against the growing cold, with one hot water bottle in her bed and the other under her clothing, Dawn returned to the kitchen. She carried three extra LEDlights since her first one was already fading. There was not enough sunlight to charge them at this time of year. Should she really waste one by putting it outside her door?

The long fat stick pointed at eight. So she hadn’t missed whatever awaited her this night. Dawn tried to care, she tried very hard, but three years of being alone weighed heavy on her. If it was to end tonight, let it end.

Why twelve? There were twenty hours in a day, a hundred minutes in an hour and fifty seconds in a minute. Dawn had a vague recollection that it had been different and harder to understand when she was small but it was so easy to calculate now. Hardly any thought required. What was this little dial measuring? Transfixed, she watched the movements within the little dial, tracking the motion of the one that led to a decision. Would she agree to June’s request or ignore it?

Nine. Halfway to twelve. Dawn walked to the window and shivered at the moonlit whiteness outside. Every house, well, every box-shaped dwelling, all identical, all dark… it looked dead out there. She held her breath and listened but could hear no bells. Nobody around here was on the naughty list tonight, so far. Dawn glanced back at the table. So June had told her the truth. The tiny dial wasn’t electronic or she’d be hearing sleigh bells by now. The Green Santa wasted no time when dealing with the naughty ones.

Dawn hugged herself and returned to the table. The LEDlight was almost dead. She switched on another. These tiny solar-charged lights were the only electronics permissible on this night. Dawn picked up the little dial. Its ticking seemed louder now that all other sound was silenced.

Ten. Getting close to decision time. Was she going to put a light outside or just ignore June’s hinted rebellion and go to bed? The short stick had moved a little closer to four. That one must measure hours, June thought, although it seemed a little off. Still, it was hardly bedtime but what else was there to do now?

What was it June had said? The Piper will come for the children? Dawn closed her eyes. There was a tiny hint of childhood memory trying to get through, something about a piper who took children away. Vague, fleeting memories of a story one of her grandparents – she couldn’t remember which one – had read to her when she was small. Something about Hamlet… no, that was a white supremacy thing she had learned about in school. Piper of Hammering? Piper with a Pie? Dawn shook her head. It was too long ago, far too long. Even so, she was sure she remembered a story about a piper who took away children.

She opened her eyes and stared at the dial in her hand.

Eleven. Not much time left to decide. Should she base her future, or possible lack of it, on a vague memory of a children’s story? Dawn pursed her lips. They had corrupted Santa. Changed him from the old jolly fat smoking and drinking guy who gave away presents into the New Green Santa, who was lithe and fast and Pure, and who gave nothing but took away the Naughty Ones. It was not so much of a stretch to believe they had found another childhood icon to corrupt.

June was right about the little dial. It moved without electronics. Mechanical, she called it. Dawn turned it in her fingers and wondered what was inside, what powered it. It was certainly very old. Did the ancients have some knowledge that was now lost to the modern world? Or was it an elaborate trick? Dawn placed it on the table and watched as the thin stick made a complete revolution and the long fat one clicked one notch further. It can’t be electronic or Green Santa would be here now. June had told the truth, even if Dawn couldn’t work out why it was true.

So maybe June also told the truth about the Piper. The long fat stick was close to the twelve. Dawn took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

She had lost her husband and only child. Now this Piper thing was coming for other children. Should she care? Should she help? Or should she continue in her slide into despair and let the rest of the world suffer as she had?

Dawn pushed her seat away from the table and stood. “What the Hell do I have left to lose?” she said aloud. “I can wither away and die or go down in a blaze. Maybe I won’t be any use but I can face whatever god there might be and say that I tried.”

The hand was still one minute from twelve when she put the LEDlight outside her door.

Wrapped in as much as she could wear, with a hot water bottle among the clothes at her midriff, Dawn slumped over the kitchen table. Should she go to bed? Was the signal she had placed intended to get a response tonight or tomorrow? She exhaled. Her breath condensed in the air over the LEDlight on the table.

Damn, it’s cold tonight. What, if anything, is going to happen? Dawn picked up the little dial, now ice cold. It ticked away as if immune to the falling temperatures. The short fat stick had passed the twelve and the long fat one pointed at four. Dawn wished she could remember how to understand its measurement of time. She was sure her grandfather had taught her when she was a child, but the digital clocks were so much easier. She had forgotten this old and faded mechanism entirely until now.

She turned the little machine in her fingers. Its ticking brought comfort and terror. The regular tick-tick-tick was like a heartbeat but those beats ticked time away. Every tick, another moment lost to the past. How many are left?

Dawn shook her head. Don’t think that way. There might be millions more ticks to come. But… did she want them?

Tap-tap-tap.

Dawn straightened in her chair and stared at the little dial.

Tap-tap-tap.

It took her a moment to realise the sound came not from the dial but from her own door. Someone was knocking, very softly.

Dawn moved to the door and opened it a crack. Outside, the LEDlight gave a faint bluish grow, the dying embers of its limited charge. There was a figure, wrapped against the cold. Dawn squinted, unsure whether to speak.

“It’s me.” The voice identified the figure as June. “Pack a bag, light, only absolute essentials and absolutely no electronics. Not even a LEDlight. Bring any hot water you might have left. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

“June? You want me to abandon my home?” Dawn recoiled at the thought. Outside, on Earth Day, in the depths of winter? Nobody survives out there.

“It’s no more a home than anyone else’s. We own nothing, Dawn. These are not homes, they are boxes to store us in until it’s time to work. They have taken everything from us. Now they will even take our children.” June’s head moved from side to side. “We have to get the hell out, now.” She took a step back. “Ten minutes.”

“How will I know?” Dawn asked. “The power is off, none of the clocks work.”

“The answer is in your hand.” June gestured at the little dial, still in Dawn’s grip. “What does the long wide hand point to?”

Dawn glanced down. “It is between four and five.”

“I will come back when it is between six and seven. Hurry.” June turned and disappeared into the night.

Dawn closed the door and stared at the little dial. It brought memories.

The grandfather she had never hugged. It was the time of the plague, but she had been too small to understand. Her grandfather died without ever feeling her touch, nor she his. They had talked across a room and later through plexiglass. He had showed her this little dial – no, not like this one. His was a little larger and held on a long chain. It had a lid that popped open. She remembered she always wanted to touch it, she had left tiny fingerprints on the plexiglass when reaching for it.

She remembered it resting in his large and calloused hand, his face smiling and tearful through wrinkled skin. He wanted to give it to her, she felt it inside, he wanted her to have his… watch. That was it. It was called a watch. And the chain. The silver chain he kept it on. Memories burst a dam in her mind.

It was her father who had one of these on his wrist. Before he was drafted into the antivirus wars. She was maybe seven or eight when that happened. Then they moved to this box she called ‘home’ and she met and married Martin. Then her mother died of the plague too. Her father, well, she never heard what became of him.

Ah, the plague. It was the reason nobody saw death any more. All the sick were isolated, to die alone. The young were insulated from the horrors of death until, like her daughter, they had no idea what it meant at all. If Willow had seen death, she might have been more careful. She might not have been taken by Santa that night.

It wasn’t about her grandfather’s watch. She understood now, after all this time. It wasn’t the watch. He had just wanted to hug her, even just make one tiny physical contact. Handing over the watch would have meant their hands touched and they never, not once, experienced even that. All because of someone he regularly called ‘a gecko-faced psychotic twat’, whatever that meant.

Dawn’s breath obscured the watch in her hands for a moment. She blinked away tears. The plague was still around even though nobody ever saw anyone die any more. Anyone sick was immediately quarantined and few of them came back. They had to take care.

The long fat hand touched six. Dawn had little time left, but what time did she need? She was already wearing most of her clothes anyway. She hurried to pack spare clothes into a bag, carefully wrapped the remaining flasks of hot water and placed them inside. She was just lacing up the top of the bag when she heard tapping on her door again.

Scarf around her mouth and nose, her coat wrapped tightly around herself, hood up, Dawn opened the door and nodded to the shadowy figure outside. She pulled on her gloves, picked up her bag and stepped out into the night, closing the door softly behind her.

A shiver ran through her body. Not the cold, it wasn’t much colder outside than inside any more. It was the realisation that she had closed the door to her home – her storage box – for the last time. Whatever happened now, her old life was over.

What the hell, it had all gone to shit anyway.

“Come on.” June started walking. “We can’t be outside for too long. Santa is out tonight and now there’s the Piper to worry about too.”

Dawn started to ask where they were going, but realised she didn’t actually care. They were going somewhere on a night when nobody should be going anywhere. Unauthorised exit from her own home. Associating with other people. It felt good. It felt more than good. It felt euphoric. Dawn grinned beneath her scarf. If Santa caught her tonight, this feeling, this fleeting delight, something she thought she would never again experience… it was worth it.

“Did you remember my watch?” June inclined her head.

“It’s in my pocket.” Dawn hoped June didn’t want it right now. It would mean unbuttoning her coat.

“Good. Those are very hard to come by nowadays. That one was my father’s.” June continued walking.

If only my grandfather could have given me his watch. I could have worked out how to use it by now. Dawn shook herself. This was not a good time to let misery intrude. This was a new life. She had already broken the law, what further excitement could the night bring?

They passed many identical tiny houses, all shrouded in darkness. Occasionally the remnants of a glowing LEDlight could be discerned through thin curtains but most of those would have long since run out of their feeble solar charge tonight.

“Here we are.” June stopped in front of a large building.

Dawn squinted, but the darkness around it was complete. It didn’t seem to be a house. She recognised it at last as the derelict barn on the edge of town. Nobody ever went there. It wasn’t safe. Dawn took a step back.

June seemed to sense her fear. “It’s okay. We’ve spent many years putting around rumours about this place. It’s perfectly safe really.” She tapped three times on the door.

There was a pause before the door opened, just a crack.

“It’s June and Dawn.” June pulled down the scarf covering her face and motioned to Dawn to do the same. Their breath plumed in the icy air.

The door opened and they walked into total darkness. Once the door closed, several LEDlights came on.

Dawn gasped. The barn had at least thirty people in it! An indoor gathering of this size had never been legal as far as she could remember. And there were children too. All silent, adults and children alike, all staring at her. Some she recognised, others she did not.

A woman approached her with a girl who looked to be about ten. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Jasmine. This is my daughter April. She was a friend of Willow’s.”

Tears rolled from Dawn’s eyes. April was the friend Willow had spoken of often. Her best friend. They were only allowed three friends in school. April and Willow had been besties.

April stepped forward and took Dawn’s hand. Another law broken. The touch of other people’s children was forbidden. Dawn curled her fingers around April’s and held tight. This is what it would have felt like to be holding Willow’s hand now.

“I’m—” Dawn choked on the words. “I’m afraid Willow isn’t coming back. Santa took her.”

“I know.” April’s lip trembled. “And now the Piper is coming to take us all.”

“Not all.” The voice came from a man who now stood within coughing distance of Dawn. Unmasked. Yet another law broken.

Dawn’s head reeled. What was this? How did she go from obedient worker to renegade in a matter of hours? She felt April’s fingers tighten and tightened her own in response.

The man put his hand on her shoulder. “I am Sanjay. Jasmine’s husband and April’s father.” He smiled down at the girl. “We had a better name for her, one more in keeping with our traditions, but that was no longer allowed. The Church of the Green God decided the list of names we could use. Still, she is our daughter and we love her.” He turned his smile on Dawn. “We have to run if we are to keep our children. We need you to come with us.”

“Run where? And why me? I’m no hero.” Dawn stared into his eyes, knowing she would agree to anything if she could hold a ten year old hand and close her eyes and pretend it was Willow.

“You know more than you have ever said.” June pushed her hood back. “There have been hints in conversations, times when you have stopped short in discussion. There is knowledge in you, and we don’t have much of that.” She laughed, a short harsh sound. “Those in charge have made sure of it. You know more than we do about how this world works. We need you.”

Dawn lowered her eyes. They met April’s, who stared up at her, filled with hope.

I know what Martin told me, and he told me to never tell anyone else. Did I leak it without realising? I can’t have or Santa would have taken me by now. Martin knew so much, he saw through the veil of lies. Is that why they took him?

“Perhaps it’s time the truth came out.” Dawn gasped at the words. Her thoughts had become sounds.

“Perhaps it’s too late.” Sanjay patted her shoulder. “Or perhaps just in time. Time will tell.”

Another man stepped forward. He nodded at Dawn. “I am Leif. Time is not on our side. There is a place we can go, unused now but we can make it liveable. We have to go tonight while most power is off. It will not be hard to track us if we have any electronics so we will take no LEDlights, we will walk by moonlight.”

April tugged Dawn’s hand. “They say that you have heard the bells. Is it true?”

Dawn shivered. “Yes. It’s true.”

A murmur ran around the room. Nobody who hears the bells should survive. Sanjay licked his lips, stood back and turned his gaze away.

June put her arm around Dawn’s waist and squeezed. “Help us, Dawn. We need you.”

Dawn looked from one to the other, at the room of hopeful eyes, and made the only decision she could make. There was no going back now.

“Yes,” she said. “But first I have to know where we are going.”

Leif pursed his lips. “There is an old windfarm—”

“No.” Dawn raised her hand. “They revive the windfarms when they can. We need a solar farm. Those are no use at this time of year so they are never checked and they will have more recent facilities.”

Leif and Sanjay looked at each other and nodded. “She was a good choice,” Sanjay said. Leif nodded.

“There’s another thing,” Dawn said. “All those sites, wind or solar, are bristling with cameras. There’s no way to get in or out undetected.”

Leif smiled and motioned a small woman forward. “This is Holly. She works in a monitoring station, watching the cameras. Holly?” Leif stood back to give her space.

Holly cleared her throat. “At least half of the cameras don’t work. More are so grainy they’re no real use. Nobody bothers fixing them because there’s no need. Everyone is so used to thinking they’re being watched all the time that they just act as if they’re always watched. So there’s no longer any need for constant surveillance. The presence of the cameras is enough. The fact that so many of them are out of order is kept very quiet.” She glanced around. “Nobody outside this room can ever know I’ve told you this. I’d certainly be sent to the Farm.”

“Of course.” Dawn looked around at the expectant faces. “Do you know which ones aren’t working?”

“Yes.” Sanjay pulled out a sheet of paper and unfolded it. “This is a map of the area showing where the dead cameras are. We can avoid the live ones on the way to the wind farm, but we’ll need another route if we’re going to the solar installation.”

Dawn looked over the map. “The easiest way is to head for the wind farm and turn off here.” She pointed at the map. “This is just a dirt track, my husband took me there once when he showed me round his job, maintaining the wind and solar installations.”

Holly examined the map. “No cameras for a couple of miles. We’d have to watch for drone patrols but they aren’t common outside the towns.”

Sanjay and Leif conferred briefly. Sanjay addressed the room in a hushed voice.

“Okay, get a few hours of sleep. We won’t be able to show any lights so we leave as soon as the sun starts to rise. The power won’t come back on until tomorrow night so everyone else will stay huddled up at home, and the lack of activity in our own houses won’t be unusual until nightfall. By then we should be a good distance away.”

Amid murmurs and whispers and the occasional sound of a hot water bottle being emptied and refilled, the people settled into a large huddle.

Dawn caught Sanjay’s arm as he turned to leave. “Where are we going? We can’t stay at the solar farm for long. What destination do you have in mind?”

Sanjay pursed his lips and stared at the ground for a moment. He took a breath. “We don’t know. Holly has told us that the cameras only go so far out. We can get to the wilderness where there are no cameras and try to eke out some kind of existence.” He forced a smile. “We haven’t had time to really think about it. It would be better to go in summer, sure, but this is the only time the power is off. It’s the only time we can go without our absence being noticed for several hours.” His smile slipped. “Also, if we wait, they’ll take our children. There’s been no time to really plan anything beyond getting out of here.”

Dawn considered this. It had been a rushed decision because of the Piper. “I understand,” she said. “We can make plans when we get to the solar farm. There’s a kind of museum there, or maybe just storage. Martin showed me round it. Old vehicles, the ones that used to run on fossil fuels. They even had some fuel stored there. There are electric cars too, they use them to get around the farm. We might as well add theft to our list of crimes.” She smiled.

Sanjay grinned widely. “Oh June was so right to bring you in. You’re going to be so valuable to us.”

“I hope so. We can steal some tools and medical supplies while we’re there. Might as well go all the way, eh?”

Sanjay slapped her arm. “Wonderful. Better get some sleep though, there’s only a few hours till sunrise. If you want to refill a hot water bottle, there’s a drain over there you can empty cold water into.”

It was indeed getting chilly, despite the body heat of all these people. Dawn unbuttoned her coat and took out the hot water bottle nestled inside. She reached for her bag and stopped, remembering something. Delving into her pocket she brought out the watch, still ticking the moments into the past.

“June,” she said, handing over the watch. “Thank you. We might not last long on this adventure but it’s so much better than the gloom I was facing.”

June chuckled. “You underestimate the determination of these people. We’ve been very careful in who we’ve chosen. We had to be so, so careful not to bring in anyone who might betray us and there are so very many of those.”

Dawn bit her lip. She had had to bite her lip many times in the past, when talking to neighbours. That certain look in the eye, the incline of the head, sent a message that told her they were waiting for a misstep, a word out of place, something they could report and improve their standing with the authorities. June was right, there were so very many of them. She looked around the room, darker now that most of the LEDlights had been extinguished. That’s why there are so few here. It can be hard to know who to trust.

She said goodnight to June and went to the drain Sanjay had pointed at. Here she emptied her hot water bottle and refilled it from one of the flasks in her bag. She toyed with the idea of discarding the empty flask but it might be useful again one day, and it didn’t weigh very much empty. She put it back in her bag.

Hot water bottle under her buttoned coat, she curled up at the edge of the group, near the wall. The wind cut through a gap in the boards, so she placed her bag against it and drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Dawn woke to a pale light that gave no heat. She was aware of low murmurings and soft movements around her. For a moment she wondered who was in her house, then recalled the events of the night before. She opened her eyes.

Leif knelt beside her, his finger over his lips. Then she heard the scream.

It came from outside. When Leif moved away, Dawn moved her bag away from the crack in the boards. Outside, on someone’s doorstep, two people in Hazmat suits were forcing a child into a smaller one. The child’s parents struggled against the police holding them.

“It’s for your safety.” The shouted words came to her across the cold morning air. “And your child’s. Just relax. Be calm. Panic makes you more susceptible to the virus. Your child will be safe with us.”

“My baby!” The cry cut Dawn to the heart.  She knew how that mother felt. Her darker side knew that that particular mother would have delighted in turning her in for wrongthink, but even so, the pain in that cry was so deep, so visceral, it blew away any other consideration.

“I didn’t think they would move so fast.” Sanjay’s whisper made Dawn jump. He ran his lips over his teeth. “Although it makes sense. Today, Earth Day, nobody can use their phone to warn others what’s coming.” He closed his eyes. “This is bad. They’ll find out we’re not at home in a matter of minutes. I had hoped we’d have hours of head start but we’re going to be running right from the beginning.”

Dawn blinked away her tears. “Get used to it,” she said. “We’re going to be running for the rest of our lives.” She glanced behind her at the children huddled with their parents. “Probably for generations.”

____

This follows from ‘For Whom the Bells Jingle’. The next one, probably next Christmas, will connect to ’23-David and 81-Mohammed’ to complete that sequence.

Entertainment time – Bagboy

Late, but then it’s Halloween and that’s a busy time 😉 I didn’t manage to get a new one written – I was invited to participate in a scientific review a short while back, and agreed before asking the deadline. It was yesterday. It’s done, skimming the very tartar off the teeth of the deadline. Just like the old days 🙂

Anyway, a story for Halloween. This one is from Mask-Querade.

Bagboy

“What’s in the bag, kid?”

The boy set down his heavy bag and stared into the eyes of the grinning man who towered over him. This man wasn’t on his list.

“The head of the last person who looked into the bag,” he said.

The man laughed. “Good one, kid.” He patted the boy’s head and walked on.

The boy picked up his bag and continued on his way. Day faded into night and still the boy walked.

As the darkness closed in, the Halloween revelries went into full swing. A man shambled past him, his grin lopsided. “Hey, kid, whass inna bag, eh?”

The boy looked into the man’s eyes. Another one who wasn’t on his list. “The head of the last person who looked into the bag.”

The man snorted. “Smartass kid. Fegoff.” He staggered away.

The boy hefted the bag onto his shoulder and headed for the place he needed to be.

Denny fiddled with his mask. It was a pain to wear it, but wear it he must, even alone in this alleyway. It had advantages in his line of work. He took out his knife, admired its stiletto gleam in the moonlight and quickly resheathed it. This was his earner, his path to riches. So far it had made him enough to be comfortable and, he had to admit, it had provided a lot of fun. One day he would strike the mother lode.

Or rather, one night. Denny smiled behind his mask. It wasn’t a great mask, it was a cheap surgical mask that Denny knew did nothing to protect him from anything. Except one thing. Identification. He chuckled at the thought that in less than a year, the police had moved from arresting someone in a mask to arresting anyone without one. Times change, and they change very fast these days.

He could have chosen one of the many colourful masks now on sale, he could have picked a mask from a film or TV character. He chose this one for a reason. Most people wore this type now, even though the younger ones had forgotten why. This was true anonymity, having the same face as everyone else. In his profession, that was an ace card.

Footsteps approached. Denny tensed and sank into the shadows, prepared to grasp the night’s earnings. He should have been working with Bob but Bob had not shown up for over a week and nobody knew where he was. So, for now, Denny worked alone.

A small figure, silhouetted in street lights, stood at the end of the alley. Denny watched through narrowed eyes. The figure had a large bag, there might be something of value in it. Would that little one risk the darkness of the alley or would they chicken out and take the long way around?

There was no motion for several minutes. Denny wasn’t even sure he was breathing, the anticipation was so great. The small figure sniffed the air and looked around. Maybe it was listening, gauging the alley as safe or risky.

It’s safe. Denny tried to push the thought into the small figure’s head. Oh, he had no belief in anything supernatural but hell, it couldn’t hurt to try.

The figure took a step forward. Its head moved from side to side. Denny kept his breathing shallow and silent. This could be a big one. The kid could be a money courier for a gang. They’d never know who took that bag of cash. Maybe it’s drugs. What the hell, I know enough junkies, I could sell them. Must be something valuable, nobody else would let a kid out with a bag that big this late.

The small figure let out a snort of breath and strode into the alley.

Denny tensed, his hand on his blade. This had to be quick. He watched the alley behind the kid in case he had a shadow, a guard or a watcher to make sure he delivered the goods. No sign of anyone. The kid was alone. Denny stayed perfectly still in the shadow of an alcove in the windowless wall.

The kid walked past him. Denny was sure the kid’s eyes flicked in his direction and he thought he saw a smile on the small face, but the kid didn’t break stride. It was a boy of about twelve, Denny guessed, and he can’t have seen anything or he’d be scared.

Ah, the old days, in the gang with Bob and Pete and Scabby Ted. We used to have so much fun with the little kids. Scabby Ted pissed off somewhere three years ago. Pete turned straight and scared, I wonder what he’s doing now?

Denny slid the long thin knife from its sheath, Just have to get rich all on my own, I suppose. He moved in silence, came up behind the boy. One hand over the mouth and a quick cut across the throat. The boy made no sound, he simply fell. Denny grabbed the bag, resheathed his knife – no time to clean it now – and ran along the alley.

At the street, he relaxed into a casual stroll, the bag over his shoulder. Just another man in a mask, carrying home a work bag. Just like everyone else. The mask hid his grin. This is just too damn easy.

Denny’s flat was small, but then there was only him and he didn’t need much space. A bigger place would just mean more cleaning. It was a decent flat, rented from the local council and, he always thought, it was pleasant enough.

He placed the bag on the kitchen table. It was really quite heavy and he wondered how that scrawny kid had managed to carry it so easily. His fingers itched to open it but… Patience. I have all night and I need a drink.

He poured a large vodka and added a splash of lemonade. His knife lay in the sink, it had moved so fast there was only a trace of blood on it from the kid’s throat. The leather sheath had gained an addition to its spreading collection of bloodstains but Denny saw that as a kind of scorecard. The staining darkened over time. Gave the sheath character.

He took a swig of vodka and stared at the bag. It was well used, worn and wrinkled. There was a splash of blood down one side. Denny smiled. Seems nobody had noticed on his way home but then it was Halloween, it was dark, and everyone was too busy having fun.

What could be in there? It felt too heavy for cash. Maybe too heavy for drugs. Stolen jewellery perhaps? Denny took another swig. Maybe the kid was homeless and it was all just worthless shit. He shook his head. That kid was clean and healthy, he hadn’t been sleeping rough. Finally setting down his glass, Denny reached for the bag’s drawstring and pulled the top open.

“I’m supposed to give you one chance.”

Denny started at the voice. He looked around but saw nobody.

“I don’t want to. Look in the bag.”

The boy stood opposite him, on the other side of the table, between Denny and the sink where his work knife lay.

“How the hell did you get in here?” How the hell are you alive? And why do you look familiar?

“It doesn’t matter. Soon it will be over, or maybe I should say it will begin.” The boy smiled. “Do you remember me?” He lifted his head. Scars criss-crossed his neck, one of them recently healed.

“It can’t be. That was seven years ago.” Denny ran his tongue over his dry lips. That kid died, and if he had lived he’d be an adult now.

“I won’t tell you my name. You and your friends never asked for it. After the things you did, I have no reason to give you the one last chance I’m supposed to but those are the rules. So, I’m supposed to tell you not to look in the bag.” The boy leaned forward. “I have to tell you what’s inside.”

Denny swallowed, the vodka buzz in his head making this whole thing feel unreal. “Well? What’s inside?”

The boy grinned. “Your darkest dream. Your wildest imaginings. A thing beyond mere money and human materialism. Eternity. A thing whose value can never be counted. Whether you look inside is up to you. I cannot force you either way. It is entirely your decision.” The boy sniffed. “If you don’t want to look then I take the bag and go. Then you’ll never know.”

Denny took a breath and regretted it. The alcohol surged in his veins. “If I open it, do I get to keep what’s inside?”

“Yes, I suppose that’s one way of putting it.” The boy smiled at the floor. “If you look inside, the bag becomes yours. If not, I take it and leave.”

I should have added less vodka and more lemonade. The alcohol fuzzed Denny’s thoughts. He narrowed his eyes. “There’s a trick here, isn’t there?”

“Yes.” The boy answered at once. “I don’t want you to know in advance what’s in the bag. It is a thing of great value to me. So yes, I am trying to trick you.” The boy’s smile never wavered. “Even so, the choice is always yours. You can look in the bag or I take it away. Make your choice.”

It had been rather a large glass of vodka. Denny struggled to make sense of the conflicting thoughts in his head. The boy could not be here. He could not be who he claimed to be, that boy was dead. If he had somehow survived, he’d be close to twenty now. If it was him he had no reason to reward Denny for the horrors they had inflicted on him. If he was a ghost, how could the bag be real? It was real, solid and heavy. It contained something important and the boy didn’t want him to know what it was. That last thought beat out the others. The bag had something of value in it and Denny wanted it.

Denny reached for the bag. He pulled the top open wide and looked inside.

Bob stared up at him

Denny wanted to recoil, to close the bag, to forget the severed head he had seen, with its moving eyes and silent mouthings of horror but he could not look away. He had to watch as the head decayed at a frightening speed until it became a skull, then drop into an abyss of flame. It’s like the bag is a portal to Hell.

“It is.” The boy’s voice seemed far away. “You stay in the bag until I get the next one. Then your head goes to Hell.”

Denny wanted to answer but the cracking in his neck prevented it. Vertebrae separated, muscles tore, tendons turned to jelly. Then he was looking up, out of the bag, at a headless body that slid out of his line of sight. All he could see was his ceiling.

The boy’s face smiled down at him. “You won’t be in there too long. I have one more to find. Once that’s done, I get to rest.” He sniffed. “You see, I didn’t completely hate what you did, even though I was terrified and forced into it, so I was condemned to Hell anyway. I despised you and your friends for that more than anything. It turns out my hate was strong enough to do a deal. If I deliver your four souls before you have a chance to redeem yourselves – not that any of you are likely to try – then I get released.”

Denny moved his mouth but no sound came out.

“Oh forget it, you have no lungs and no larynx now. You’ll never speak again.” The boy gathered the drawstrings. “In Hell you will be a silent head and nothing more. Only the demons will hear the music of your screams.”

Denny moved his jaw. What about Pete? He was the one who went back to normal life. This kid can’t get him now.

“The last one is Edward Scabrous. The one you called Scabby Ted.” The kid’s face disappeared as he pulled on the drawstring. “Your friend Pete was the first I caught. He’d become a scoutmaster. He liked small boys.”

Darkness enveloped the interior of the bag. All that was left was the feeling of the bag being lifted and the boy’s last words.

“As did you.”

Small World – Entertainment Time

It’s been a long time since the last fiction posting. This one is from ‘Mask-Querade’, Underdog Anthology 12, which is currently loading on Amazon. The Kindle version is up but I’ll wait until the print version appears before adding a link. Update: It’s now available.

This is the ‘future’ story, the other is a plain old Halloween spooky story. I’ll consider putting that one up for Halloween unless I think up a new one. Note that this is not your future, probably not even your children’s. Your grandchildren, however…

Hey, it’s fiction. Not prediction. Enjoy.

Small World

One rose early, as every morning, and checked the food cupboard. It had the day’s food as always. She lifted the bags and took them to the kitchen where she placed the chilled food in the fridge and the rest in the cupboard. The toiletries she left on the table. They would be dispersed to the bathrooms later.
The others stirred. She heard them rising from their beds, heard them in their bathrooms and thought about Three. Three was the one she wanted as a mate but she knew Four liked him too. Two was, well, a bit weird. He spent too long thinking and thinking, as everyone knew, only led to problems.
She walked into the hallway towards the living room and this morning, as every morning, her gaze drifted to the dusty hazmat suits hanging beside The Door. The door to Outside. Where there was nothing but death. They had worn those suits many years before, as had their guides, before they had entered the safe place where they now lived. Just children at that time. The suits certainly wouldn’t fit them now.
The guides had told them they were all that was left. All of humanity in these last four. Outside was certain death, and they must stay safe in these few rooms to keep humanity alive. One shivered and pushed open the door to the living room.
To her surprise, Two was already there. Sat on the sofa, leaning forward, elbows on the coffee table, hands over his face. This was out of sequence. It was wrong. It was not how the day progressed. He should be still in his bathroom. One stood in shock, staring.
Finally, Two lowered his hands and smiled a crooked smile at her. “Did I surprise you, One? Don’t I always do that?” He burst into bitter-sounding laughter. “Oh I have so much more to surprise you with today.”
“Why are you up so early? You are out of sequence. Are you trying to ruin the day?” One’s lip trembled. This was outside her experience and she didn’t know what, if anything, she should do.
“I’m not up early. I’m up late. I couldn’t sleep.” Two rubbed at his face. “I’m greasy. I’ll need a shower soon.”
One’s legs trembled. Scared she might fall, she moved to sit opposite Two. “What have you done? You are far out of sequence. You risk killing us all with your non-compliance.”
“Nothing is going to kill us, and we are not the last humans.” Two let his head rest in his hands. “I’m not sure you are ready for this, heck I’m not sure I am.”
“Explain. Quickly.” One looked over her shoulder. Three and Four would be looking for breakfast soon. She needed to quell this lunacy before they were infected.
“I hacked into Parent’s core processors last night. I went past the firewall.”
“What!” One reacted as if he had hacked into the mind of God, and perhaps, in this world, he had.
“I read something. About monkeys.” Two blew a long breath. “Something disturbing. And a lot more.”
“You even being here is disturbing.” One clenched her fists and lifted them to her pinched face. “This is all wrong. This is not how the day goes.”
“That’s the thing. It’s exactly the same day, every day, You, Three and Four just accept it, every day and never question anything. I’m the one who asked the question.”
“What question?”
Two lifted his eyebrows. “Why are we here?”
One shook her head. “You know why. Outside is dead. We have to stay here until it’s safe to go out and repopulate the planet. It’s important. Otherwise humanity is finished.”
“Did it never occur to you to wonder,” Two spoke quietly, his eyes downcast, “that if everyone outside is dead, who is telling us the news? Or who taught our lessons as we grew up?” He looked up and sighed. “Who sends us food and supplies? Why does the electricity and water still work? How does any of this happen if there is nobody to make it happen?”
“Automated systems, silly.” Four entered the room, her long hair swaying around her waist. “Come on, Two, enough with the tinfoil hat stuff.”
Two shook his head. “Automated systems still need maintenance and power. And fresh food needs someone to grow it, pick it and deliver it. How is that happening if everyone is dead?”
Four’s smile faltered. “It… just is. Look, I don’t want to have to think about it. We’re safe in here and we could be happy too if you’d stop all this nonsense.”
One put her face in her hands, trying to stop the thoughts Two had started in her head.
“What’s for breakfast?” Three strode through the door, paused to take in the scene and narrowed his eyes. “Have you been scaring the girls with your mad ideas again, Two?”
“Didn’t we have names once? When we were small?” Two threw his arms in the air and stood. He strode to the television. “Now we just have numbers.” He toyed with the television controls. His voice shook. “I can’t remember my name. Can any of you?”
Their silence told him their answer.
One wiped her face and took a deep breath. “Breakfast. It’s already late and we can’t get more out of sequence. The day will be ruined.” She glared at Two. “If it isn’t already.”
“I’ll skip breakfast.” Two faced the silent television. It would come to life on its own, when it was the proper time.
“You can’t!” One shouted. “You’ve already broken sequence so badly. No more. You will have breakfast if I have to stuff it down your throat myself.”
“And I’ll hold you down while she does it.” There was real menace in Three’s voice.
“Okay, okay.” Two shook his head. “I’ll just have a piece of toast.”
“You will have the same as the rest of us.” One jutted her lower lip. “No more deviation. We’re getting back to normal.”
“Normal!” Two convulsed with laughter. “You all still think this is normal? A tiny home with no windows, food and utilities arrive by magic even after however long we’ve been in here, and we do nothing to earn any of it? This is normal?”
“It’s what we know. What we’ve always known.” Four lifted her head. “It keeps us safe, and you are meddling with that.”
“Enough. Breakfast time.” One stomped off to the kitchen. With glares at Two, Three and Four followed her.
Two closed his eyes. Monkeys, he thought. Will I ever get them to understand? He followed them to the kitchen.
They ate in silence. Two resisted the urge to tell them where eggs came from or to even mention the cycles of growth of cereals and the baking of bread. He had found all this when he had broken through the firewall. It’s all out there, on something called ‘internet’.
After breakfast, Three put the plates into the cleaning slot. They would return, spotless, in time for lunch. Two shook his head. They never questioned that either.
In keeping with their sequence, they returned to the living room. This was the time for idle chit chat before the television gave them the day’s news, then they would retire to their rooms, log into Parent and read the books or play the games it sent to their screens.
This would be Two’s only chance. As it turned out, One opened the conversation for him.
“You said you had damaged Parent. You’d better not have lost my high score. I was almost through the entire game.”
Three and Four gaped. “You did what?” Three looked ready to punch him.
“Relax, I didn’t damage anything. I just got through the firewall and into the rest of the world.” Two sighed. “And I found something we should all know.”
One pursed her lips. “You said something about monkeys.”
“Yes.” Two licked his lips. “It’s a kind of story, if you like. A story about a game.”
The others leaned forward. Two smiled. Stories and games were all they had ever known in this place, so his combination caught their interest at once.
“The game involves four monkeys,” he began. “These four monkeys are in a windowless enclosure, and in the middle is a tall pole with a banana on the top.” He bit his lip to stop himself from telling where bananas came from. It was far too soon and it would gain nothing but sneers.
“Okay,” he continued. “Monkeys like bananas so one of them tries to climb the pole to get the banana. As soon as he tries, all the monkeys get sprayed with ice cold water. Eventually another tries and they all get sprayed again. Soon they learn not to climb the pole, because that will get them an ice-cold shower.”
Four sniffed. “Doesn’t sound like much of a game.”
“Ah,” Two raised his finger. “That’s just the setup. Once they stop going for the banana, you take out one of the monkeys and put in a new one. This one doesn’t know about the ice showers so he goes straight for the pole with the banana. The other three beat the crap out of him because they know if he climbs the pole, they all get ice cold showers. This will only happen a few times before the new monkey learns to conform. At this point the new monkey knows the pole is dangerous but doesn’t know why.”
“No more spraying?” Three tilted his head.
“No need. You’ll soon see why.” Two winked. “So you take out another of the original monkeys and put in a new one. The new one goes straight for the banana at the top of the pole and the others beat the crap out of him. Including the one who doesn’t know why the pole is dangerous. Then you replace another and another until none of the monkeys in the experiment know why the pole is dangerous, just that, somehow, it is.”
One frowned. “But if they aren’t getting the ice bath any more, surely they can just get the banana?”
Two stretched his shoulders. He really needed some sleep and a shower but he knew One wouldn’t allow it at this time. “It’s learned behaviour. None of the original monkeys are in there. None of the current ones have experienced the ice-cold shower. Yet they believe the pole is dangerous to climb because they have been taught to believe. Do you see?”
“Very interesting, I’m sure, but still not much of a game.” Four scratched her head. “What’s the point?”
Two bit into his lower lip. It was time. “We’re the monkeys. We were all taken from our parents at three years old. We were already in a lockdown, we couldn’t see any other family so we were preconditioned to this. We are in an experiment.”
“Oh I might have known.” Three rolled his eyes. “It’s more tinfoil hat crap.”
Two bowed his head. “We’ve been conditioned for this. I’ve asked you if you remember the names we had before we were brought here. I doubt it because I don’t. Here’s more. I remember my parents screaming, me screaming, as they took me from the farm. I remember crying when they put that suit on me. I remember Mary –”
“Oh yes.” Four’s eyes lit up. “Mary was the one in the bubble suit who checked on us every day for a long time until she said she couldn’t come any more but it was okay because we could do it ourselves now.”
Silence fell. One and Three’s brows furrowed. Two smiled at Four. “So you remember something. There is hope.”
Three sighed and shook his head. “Okay, I’ll bite. If we’re in an experiment, what’s the point of it? What’s it supposed to prove?”
“The same as that monkey experiment.” Two stared directly into Three’s eyes. “You know there’s instant death outside, right?”
“Of course.” Three looked at Four and then One for support. “So?”
Two lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “What is it? What will kill us if we go outside?”
The silence hung heavy for a while. Four broke it. “It doesn’t make sense. None of us have been replaced, like in your monkey story. We’ve all been in here from the beginning.”
Two sniffed. “That part already happened to our parents. Our real mothers and fathers. They were so scared of something ‘outside’ that they couldn’t put up a fight when we were taken for our own safety. They were the ones getting the metaphorical cold showers. We are the monkeys who still fear the banana and have no idea why.”
One ran her hands over her face and through her hair. “You haven’t answered Three’s question. If we’re in an experiment, what’s the goal? What is it intended to prove?”
“That we, like the monkeys, can be conditioned. Controlled. We can be held in thrall by a fear even if we don’t know what we are scared of. You know the mantras. Comfortable compliant conformity. When there is nowhere to hide there will be nothing to fear. Stay safe. We’re being… prepared. Conditioned to some new life.” Two gave a lopsided smile. “I think the experiment has been, largely, a success.”
“One small detail.” One leaned back in her chair. “If someone is running all this, why haven’t they blocked you from accessing Parent? Why haven’t they taken you out of the experiment? If you are right then surely you’ve just wrecked the whole thing.”
Two shrugged. “I just got through last night although I’ve been trying for months. Maybe they haven’t noticed. Maybe they haven’t had time to do anything. Maybe they aren’t even watching because they never thought any of us would try. Or maybe I’m wrong about all of it.” He stood. “There’s only one way to find out for sure.”
The others followed him to The Door. Two regarded the hazmat suits and traced his finger in their dusty coating. No point even trying them, they were far too small now.
Two put his hand on the door handle. He hesitated, his eyes closed, and his head tilted back. Was it true, what he had seen? Was this a beginning or an end?
“Two. Don’t.” One put her hand on his arm. “Outside is death. You’re right, we don’t know why, but it’s better to stay in here. Stay safe. We know life in here. We have our daily sequence. Our comfortable compliant conformity. Come back to it. Come back to us.”
Two, eyes still shut, shook his head. “This is the test. Is the Door locked for our safety or did they rely on our fear to keep it closed?”
“Don’t test it.” Four’s voice trembled. “You might let it in.”
“She’s right.” Three sounded harsh. “Whatever risk you want to take, you have no right to make us take the same risk.”
Two opened his eyes and stared at The Door. “Fuck it,” he said, and pushed down on the handle. The door swung inwards with a screech.
Light streamed in. Two stepped through the door into light and warmth. He gasped in delight at the new air, the green around him, the blank wall of doors stretching into the distance.
“What’s out there?” Four shrank back from the opening.
“Are you okay?” One had one hand on the Door.
“It’s wonderful. So bright. So warm. Lots of green and lots of doors like ours.” Two spread his hands, “And people. With sticks,”
There was a bang. A red mist burst from the side of Two’s head and he dropped, lifeless, to the ground.
One closed the door and hung her head. “He was wrong. Death is out there, and there is no escape.” She clapped her hands together. “News time and then lunch.”
After lunch, the new Two was installed. After a few identically sequenced days, One, Three and Four had no idea he had not been there from the beginning.
And neither did he.

A little levity – Entertainment Time again.

Well, we could do with a break from tales of woe and despair about a virus. So let’s have a tale of woe and despair about something different for a change. This is an old one, it’s in ‘Fears of the Old and the New’ and was originally published in a now-gone Ezine called ’31Eyes’.

It should take your mind off the virus… by giving you something else to worry about 😉

The Window

The dark window seemed to call, “Come see, see the wonders within.”

Its mahogany frame was all that made it recognisable as a window against the featureless, black-painted wall. A black square on a black wall, framed with darkness, the building surrounding it indistinct in the moonless night. Thomas approached through knee-high grass, his legs shaking. He knew that behind that window lay something terrible, but he had to see. He had to look inside. He was close, so close. Just one more step, just a few feet more, and he would be able to touch the sill. He would see beyond the window. Then, he knew, he would die.

Thomas Crichton sat up in bed, the sweat-soaked sheets clinging to his quivering body. The dream again! This time he had been closer than ever. If he hadn’t woken, he would have reached the window.

He got out of bed, throwing back sweat-dampened sheets, and went to the shower. There’d be no more sleep tonight. Showered and clad in dressing-gown and slippers, he sat in his kitchen sipping at strong coffee. Thomas considered his dilemma. Every dream brought him closer to the window, that thin glass barrier between his soul and some nameless, undefined terror. As long as he was awake, he was safe. He’d have to sleep sometime, though. Sleep. Even as he thought the word, his eyelids drooped, leaden with the night-weights that called, soothing, to his thoughts. The kitchen around him flickered, fluttering between dark and light.

Thomas jerked his head up. He had spilled his coffee. He stared numbly as it spread across the table before him, brown rivulets pooling into crevices and knots in the pine. It was when he reached for the cloth to wipe up the mess that he noticed the whisky.

Whisky. Of course. He always slept in blank oblivion whenever he had too much to drink. Thomas mopped up the coffee and threw the cloth into the sink. He picked up a glass, then put it down again. This was no time for niceties. He opened the bottle and took a deep drink, coming up coughing and spluttering. Wiping his eyes, he took another shot. He’d downed over half the bottle and was feeling very drunk and a little queasy by the time he staggered back to the bedroom.

Maybe he’d overdone it. He wasn’t used to so much whisky, so quickly. He’d have a hell of a hangover the next morning, but at least he’d be able to get some sleep. No choice now, the alcohol seemed to say as it caressed his brain. You’ll sleep now, whether you like it or not. Thomas collapsed on the bed, flat on his back, and just managed to pull the sheets over him as he passed out.

He was standing at the window. This couldn’t be. He didn’t dream when he was drunk. He tried to wake himself, but his body had passed out in a drunken stupor and didn’t want to know.

“You were wrong,” a voice said.

“What? Who’s there?” Thomas looked around, but only the limited view of his bleak dream-landscape was visible. The scenery faded into mist, maybe twenty yards away in every direction. There were no trees or rocks, nowhere for the speaker to hide.

“You always dream when you’re drunk. You just don’t remember it in the morning.”

“Where are you?” Thomas said, turning back to the window. His face was reflected in the dark glass. The reflection smiled. Thomas felt his face. He wasn’t smiling. So the reflection wasn’t him, although it looked like him.

“You’d better come inside,” the reflection said.

“I can’t come inside. If I do, I’ll die.”

“That’s not true. Who told you that?”

Thomas considered this. Nobody had told him, he just felt it. But this was a dream, his dream, and he was talking to his own reflection. The absurdity hit him like a hammer. It was just a dream, and dreams can’t harm anyone. He looked along the wall in both directions. “I can’t come inside,” he said. “There’s no door.”

Then there was. Just a few feet from the window, a black, panelled door was set in the wall. Thomas hadn’t seen it before. Maybe it hadn’t been there, maybe he hadn’t dreamt it up before. Thomas smiled. So, he thought, I have some control in my dream. If I want a door, there’ll be a door. The face in the window bore an enormous grin. Thomas took a deep breath and opened the door. It was time to face himself, time to see what this dream was about.

The room inside was grey. Uniform and drab, floor to ceiling. There was light, but no indication of where it was coming from. The room had seemed completely dark from outside. No furniture, nothing. Thomas heard the door close with a click behind him. He turned. The door had gone. Thomas was alone in the sealed room. He ran to the window to see his reflection, that doppelganger of himself, now outside and looking in.

“I was right!” he said, his voice trembling. “I’ve died, haven’t I? I suppose I choked on my own tongue while I lay drunk in my bed. Is that what you planned? Is that what’s happened?”

“I sincerely hope not,” the reflection said. No, not a reflection, not any more. It was him, Thomas, standing outside the window. Yet he was here, inside. That wasn’t him – but it looked like him. “I hope you haven’t done too much damage with that whisky. I’ve waited a long time for this.”

“Who – what are you?” Thomas said.

“I’m Thomas Crichton. Rather, I’m the other Thomas Crichton. We’re a chimera, you see. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. Identical twins, fused together as an embryo. Two souls in one body. Only one of us can run the body, the other just has to watch. Thirty-four years I’ve been in that room, watching through that window while you lived life. Oh, it’s dark out here now, but that’s because the brain is asleep. When it wakes, you’ll see. Only now it’ll be me living life while you watch.”

“You can’t. Someone will notice. Someone will see it’s not really me.”

“Maybe. What will they do? Nobody can get you out but me, and I’m not likely to.” The doppelganger turned to leave.

“Wait,” Thomas said. “How did I dream this? How did you trick me?”

His double snorted. “It took me thirty-four years to work it out, and I don’t want you doing it any faster. Goodbye, Thomas, it’s time for the new Thomas Crichton to wake up. Looks like I’ll be starting life with a hangover. Still, things can only get better.” Laughing, the new Thomas Crichton disappeared into the darkness.

Thomas slumped to the floor of the grey room, hugging his chest. He had expected to die when he reached the window. If only he had. This was going to be worse, so much worse. To watch his life lived by another, trapped inside his own mind, unable to communicate, unable to tell anyone of his private grey hell.

Light streamed through the window as the body and brain of Thomas Crichton woke to a new day, with a different soul at the helm. Thomas curled on the floor of the grey room. He didn’t want to look through the window. He didn’t want to see what his life was doing without him.

But he knew he would. He had to.