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.

Opinions

So Boris is to tell us how lockdown ends on Sunday, and it starts Monday. I hope he starts with letting the car dealerships out because my car has been an ornament for three weeks and the part I need to fix it is a dealer-only part. Dealerships are closed to the public. So are scrap yards.

There are already shrieks from the usual suspects. ‘Why doesn’t he tell us now?’ Because he knows that if he tells us now we’ll apply it now and not wait for Monday. Many have given up waiting already and if the transmission rate is to be kept at its current low level, we need an orderly exit. Of course, Caviar Woman and the rest of the Spiteful Nannying Party are already planning to fuck it up, but hey, fucking things up is their area of expertise. I’m sure Labour-run Wales will do the same. Neither of them care about the virus nor the people, they just want the political points.

Anyway, I need opinions on something far more important. All but one of the authors in Tales from Loch Doon : Underdog Anthology 11 have responded to the last chance saloon PDF for final changes. It’s almost ready to go. So… the cover.

This is the base photo I plan to use. It’s Loch Ness, taken last summer.

It’s a wraparound cover, left side is the back, right side is the front. With 155 pages there will be a defined spine down the middle. I wanted to make it a bit more foreboding so I did this –

I don’t want to make it too surreal and I have to keep in mind that the print process usually turns out darker than the images I submit. I might have to boost the overall brightness a bit.

Which is better? The original or the meddled with one? Or do you have another suggestion?

Remember you’ll only see the right half on the front cover and on the eBook versions.

Entertainment Time – The Masters Return

It is taking a lot longer than usual to complete this anthology. So many distractions, and I still have no functioning vehicle either. So I thought I’d put my story up for a bit of light reading in these dark times.

It follows on from last year’s Spring story, Pandora’s Lost Luggage, which gives some background to this one. Hopefully it’s clear on its own though. This one is in Tales from Loch Doon : the eleventh Underdog Anthology.

Enjoy…

The Masters Return

“So, Mr. Moors, you have something for me?” Bill Richards’ pen was poised eagerly over his notebook.
John Moors smiled around his cigarette. These reporters, so eager to make a name for themselves. They never check anything if the story is sensational enough.
“I do.” He pushed an envelope across the table, avoiding the wet rings left by their beer glasses.
Richards opened the envelope and studied the photographs inside. His nose wrinkled. “Empty shelves?”
Moors stubbed out his cigarette. “Note that further along, the shelves are full. It seems people are panic buying toilet paper in response to a pandemic of a respiratory virus. Why? No idea, it makes no sense, but they are. Could make a good story.”
“Hmm.” Richards raised one eyebrow. “There is talk of a lockdown because of the virus. People won’t be able to go shopping. I guess they’re stocking up.”
“I’m sure they are. They are buying up dry foods like rice and pasta too. I’m afraid I have no photographs of those shelves though. Although I’m sure you’ll get some in a few days.” Moors kept his smile tight. This is going to be far too easy.
“Could be national news. How much for the photos?”
Moors waved his hand and tried not to laugh aloud. “No charge. Call it my contribution to public service. Anonymous, of course. Would you like another beer?”
“That’s very generous.” Richards rose to his feet. “I’ll pass on the beer, thanks. I have to get this written up in time for tomorrow’s papers.”
“I understand. Good luck, Mr. Richards.” As Richards disappeared, Moors pulled out his phone. He could now let his brother Dolos leave the body of that shop cleaner.
He hated it in there anyway. Dolos would be much happier, and much more effective, in debunking the cure for the virus. If they have a cure they won’t need a vaccine and then they won’t accept the microchips.


Billionaire businessman and occultist Erasmus Blackthorn drummed his fingers on his wide, and largely empty, desk. Opposite sat Professor Christopher Rooke, his face pale and drawn.
“Can we stop him?” Rooke eyed the glass of whisky in front of him but made no move to touch it.
Blackthorn lifted his own glass and took a sip before replying. “No.”
“I don’t get it.” Rooke’s head slumped. “It’s been a year and we’re no closer at all.”
“We are dealing with something very, very old. Something that is well practised in this art.” Blackthorn took a deep breath. “He’s playing a complex game this time. He started out demonising smoking and drinking and we all thought it was just the Puritans back again. Then he latched onto the climate change game. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, he has people hoarding toilet paper, pasta and canned beans. It’s very hard to connect the dots.”
“How is he doing this so fast?” Rooke’s fingers curled around his glass. “We know he has his siblings helping, but even so…”
“Last time, he didn’t have the Internet. It’s been so much easier this time. He has gone so much further, so much faster.”
“He can’t be using the internet.” Rooke’s hand lifted his glass. “There wasn’t even electricity when he was last out. How can he even know about it?”
“There was, you know. That whole civilisation, all it had learned and developed, disappeared.” Blackthorn refilled his own glass. “Almost entirely. And this new flu virus is the opportunity he has waited for. Or perhaps engineered.”
“Engineered? Do we even know what he’s doing?” Rooke took a deep drink of his whisky. “I mean, what’s with the toilet paper thing? He has everyone buying it up, and pasta and rice and pretty much everything. There’s no shortage, they’re just stripping it out before the shops can restock.”
“It feels like the first phase.” Blackthorn stared into his glass. “But it’s not.”
“No?”
“Hell no. Since the excavations I paid for last year discovered Moros’ escape, we now know he has been out for quite some time. His brothers and sisters will all be out too.” Blackthorn placed his glass on the table. “I have done considerable research in the occult aspects of this in the past year, as, I hope, have you and your colleagues on the science side. You have no doubt come across one of his sisters? Ker?”
Rooke’s eyes widened. “The bringer of violent death, often through incurable illness.”
Blackthorn nodded. “So I don’t think the current plague is entirely accidental.”


Moros grinned at his computer monitor. The quarantine had extended to closing the pubs, clubs, restaurants and all places of mass gathering. As he had expected. Governments in this modern age were no different to governments of the past.
Humans, even this variant type, are entirely predictable things.
Now the alcohol hoarding would begin, along with the soaps, dry goods and paper. Many homes would be tinderboxes. Time to move it along, before they realised the virus wasn’t going to kill all that many of them this time. Moors lit another cigarette.
This new world has some delightful vices. What a pity I need to take this one from them.
Ker had explained that the plague wasn’t perfect. There was a treatment, and the human-creatures had found it. Moros had sent Apate and now Dolos to sow doubt about the treatment and to whip up hate against those who promoted it. They were doing a decent job.
The human-creatures still insisted on using nicotine though, and that undermined the plague’s effectiveness. Moros had placed several of the Keres in the ridiculous Puritan movement of tobacco control. They had proved markedly effective, especially in reducing the impact of the new, safer, nicotine vapour system.
Still, the virus wasn’t meant to kill them all. All these and more were just aspects of the plan. The final solution was soon to be applied.
They simply need to be induced into wanting it.


Blackthorn ran his hand over his face. “He has them hoarding food, paper and alcohol. Does he think they’ll set fire to the paper with the alcohol? That’s ridiculous. Beer and wine won’t burn, they’ll put out fire. Only a few spirit drinks are flammable and they don’t seem to be stockpiling absinthe.”
“Are you sure this isn’t just coincidence? I mean, there are always hoarders in any emergency even if it’s not real.” Rooke placed his empty glass on the table.
Blackthorn refilled it. “I’ve never seen this level of hoarding, even when there was a panic over Brexit. This is manipulated through the media. And I am certain Moros is behind it.” He topped up his own glass. “I just can’t see where he’s going with this.”
“Do we at least know why?”
“Oh yes.” Blackthorn leaned back in his chair. “The information you passed to me made that very clear.”


Moors sipped at his beer and regarded the young reporter opposite. “Well, no doubt you have heard that the virus can be transmitted on fuel pump handles?”
Sophie LeGrange narrowed her eyes. “I heard that was just a scare story.”
“Oh no, it’s true. It’s extremely contagious. I have it on authority—” Moors leaned forward “—and this has to stay between the two of us, you understand.”
Sophie leaned forward too, her eyes wide. “Oh of course. I never reveal my sources.”
“Good. I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but I feel the public have a right to know that the government will have no choice but to close down fuel stations, and soon.”
“Really?” Sophie scribbled in her notepad. “This is big.”
“It could be the turning point in your career.” Moors licked his lips. “Of course, it would make my career turn in the opposite direction if my involvement were ever known.”
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Moors. Your name will never appear.”
“Thank you.” Moors leaned back in his seat. If only you knew my real name, or if anyone remembered it. Then this wouldn’t be quite so easy.


“Okay, so why is he doing it? Why is Moros trying to destroy us?”
Blackthorn licked his lips. “We contaminated their experiment.”
Rooke blinked a few times. “What?”
“Right.” Blackthorn pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is going to sound like tinfoil-hattery but it’s the only logical deduction from the information you passed to me last year.” He sighed and stared at the table. “Are you ready for this?”
Rooke shrugged. “About now, I’m ready for anything.”
Blackthorn took a deep breath and looked right into Rooke’s eyes. “Annunaki.”
“Oh come on.” Rooke tilted his head back. “Should I pass the tinfoil around now?”
Blackthorn groaned. “Haven’t you seen enough yet? You were the one who tried to keep Moros’ prison secret. You knew what he did to humanity last time, but you never knew why. Now I’m offering to tell you and all you can do is scream ‘tinfoil’. Don’t you want to know how much further down this goes?”
“Okay. I’m sorry. But the Annunaki are just legend. Part of a religion. Nothing more.”
“There are so many common themes in all religions. I’ve long suspected there must have been some truth that started them all.” Blackthorn took out his cigar case and offered one to Rooke, who declined.
“Very well.” Blackthorn clipped the ends of a cigar. “The Annunaki—” he stared at Rooke with his eyebrows lowered “—as legend says, bred humanity as a slave race. Then they left. Moros and his crew were left behind to clear up the mess. Long before even the Sumerians documented them. The Sumerians never actually met them, Moros and his band had been trapped thousands of years earlier, but they had reduced humanity almost to cavemen before they were stopped. Humanity was then left to its own devices, to start over. A few remembered tales, some hidden messages carved in stone, were all that was left.” He lit the cigar and blew a cloud of smoke into the air.
“What mess?” Rooke waved away smoke.
“Humanity had expanded. Some escaped Annunaki control and went wandering. Some of course stayed in Africa and the Middle East, where the Annunaki were based. Others travelled around the globe. Some came to Europe. And that’s where the problem set in.”
“Problem?” Rooke shook his head. “What problem? Why specifically Europe?”
“Neanderthals. And in the east, the human offshoot called Denisovans. They were not bred by Annunaki, they most likely developed independently from whichever anthropoid the Annunaki used to create their slave race. They were smarter than the slave race.” Blackthorn blew another cloud of smoke, this time away from Rooke.
“So? Those species are extinct. There is only Homo Sapiens now.”
“Not quite.” Blackthorn rested his cigar in the ashtray and leaned forward. “The humans that came into Europe interbred with those other human species.” He clasped his fingers. “We screwed up their breeding program. We developed into something unexpected, something smarter and not so easily controlled. As far as Moros is concerned, we are not human. He tried to eradicate us once before, and that was why. Last time, people managed to stop him and cage him and his siblings, but we still don’t know how. His motive has not changed. We need to work out his new method.”


The communicator tolled. Moros turned from his screen to regard it. Nyx, his mother, was calling. He tapped his code into the panel.
“Mother?”
“How does it go, my son? I see they have not trapped you this time. Yet.”
Moros laughed. “They haven’t even noticed me. I am just a faint legend to them now. I could announce myself to them and they would simply shake their heads and turn away. Most of them do not even know my name.”
Nyx grinned. “You will return them to be our servants?”
“I will, mother, and they will worship us once more. There will be some deaths and some minor explosions and they will demand order. Eris has this part to play and is doing very well. Then Thanatos will quell the agony with an imagined vaccine that will kill and frighten even more and they will accept the microchip to save them from the pain.” He grinned. “Then we will reduce their number. This first plague will cull the old and the weak. They will accept the vaccine and the chip, which will prime their Neanderthal DNA for the next round. The second will target those who still carry Neanderthal genes and our workforce will be cleansed.”
“You have done well, my son. We will have our servants under control soon. There is so much more to mine on that planet.”
“Thank you, mother.” Moros bowed his head. “I hope we can keep their tobacco plant alive. It is most pleasant.”
Nyx laughed, loud and long. “They will farm what we tell them to farm, and the chips will let us easily remove dissenters. Do they know what befalls them, these upstart servants?”
“No, mother, they do not. I have been blatant and those few who have noticed have been marked as cranks and idiots. They are too focused on their money.” He licked his lips. “Their economies are collapsing. Soon they will lose all their technology once again.”
“We are on the way back now. Can you be ready in two of that planet’s years?”
Moros laughed. “At this rate we will be ready in one.”
Nyx smiled, nodded and the screen darkened as she broke the connection.


“Seriously? Oh God. Thank you, Williamson.” Rooke shut down his phone and put it away. “It seems there is now a story that the government will shut petrol stations.”
“Rubbish.” Blackthorn shook his head. “Transport is essential. They’ll never close the fuel supply.”
“But people will believe they are going to. So they’ll stockpile fuel and cause another artificial shortage.” Rooke raised his hands. “Come on. You know people are basically stupid.”
Blackthorn sat in silence, staring at his whisky for several minutes. “I see it.”
“What?” Rooke sat up.
“Houses filled with dry goods and paper and alcohol and now about to be filled with badly-stored petrol. He only needs one more move.” Blackthorn lifted his glass and took a deep drink. “And there is nothing we can do to stop him.”
“What? What’s his next move?” Rooke pressed his palms on the desk.
“Rumours of power cuts. They’ll bulk buy candles.” Blackthorn slumped in his chair. “They will be quarantined in their homes with booze and petrol and candles and everything flammable that you can get.”
“Yes but the power cuts are just rumours, if those rumours even happen.” Rooke forced a smile.
“It’s all been rumour.” Blackthorn bared his teeth. “That’s how he works. A new flu virus, rumours it’s going to kill millions, rumours about paper products running out, rumours about alcohol being restricted, rumours about petrol being unavailable. They have all worked. A rumour about power cuts will lead to hoarding candles.”
Rooke took a breath and released it slowly. “Yes, but there won’t be any power cuts.”
Blackthorn raised one eyebrow. “Won’t there? All it takes is too many power station workers off sick. Half of them will have the virus and half will be using the virus for a free holiday.” He drained his glass and poured another. “People are, basically, pretty dim. They are mostly in it for themselves and will take any opportunity for a free ride. Moros knows this, he’s used that same trait against us before. He has never killed anyone, he leads them to destroy themselves and he is so very good at it.”
Rooke drained his glass and pushed it across the table.
Blackthorn refilled it. “There will be power cuts. People will light their candles and drink their booze in a fire hazard house with a petrol stash. They will take out several houses around them and a street of hoarders will be the biggest firecracker anyone has ever seen.” He ran his hand over his thinning hair and gazed at the window. “There will be terror like the world has not seen since the Great Wars. People will beg for a solution, any solution. They are already terrified of each other. Moros, or more likely one of his siblings, will offer them a solution. A microchip, implanted, to prove who is safe. Those who refuse the chip will be ostracised, then hunted down.”
“I’m struggling to work out how an ancient minor deity knows about microchips.” Rooke blinked a few times and lifted his glass for another sip.
Blackthorn’s shoulders slumped. “The Annunaki came from the sky. I think a spacefaring species would be pretty well acquainted with electronics, don’t you? As for the microchip, it’s already developed. Has been for years. Some companies implant chips to let employees access secure areas. This is just an extension of that.”
“Shouldn’t we warn people?”
Blackthorn shook with mirth. “You’ve worked on this your whole career, you’ve studied the information and historical texts, you’ve found some remarkable things buried in the earth, and you were ready to pass the tinfoil when I started talking.” He sighed. “You really think anyone is going to believe all this?”
Rooke rested his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes. “I’m getting seriously drunk here. Is there anything we can do?”
Blackthorn took a large swig of his whisky and held up the glass. “We’re doing it. There is nothing else we can do. We just have to wait and see what happens next.”

_____

Update: Less than two hours after I posted this…this appeared.

Loch Doon and Tinfoil Hats

I knew I’d lost a story somewhere in all the confusion. I had lost two from Marsha Webb. Those are now edited and returned and contracts, then payments, won’t be long now. I hope to have it assembled for Beltane, it’s not much time but until I can at least get the part to fix my car, I’m going nowhere anyway.

The book, thanks to Longrider, will be titled Tales from Loch Doon. This is a quick mockup of a cover using one of my photos of Loch Ness.

I’ll mess around with the lighting and I’m not entirely happy with the font there. Still, the basic image works, I think. Roo B. Doo will be first in the editor list since she did, by far, most of the work while I was dealing with life. Life. Don’t talk to me about life. Loathe it or hate it, you can’t ignore it.

The book will have 14 stories from 9 authors, unless I missed someone else. If you still don’t have edits back, please let me know. Check your spam cupboard for a Leg Iron Books email.

Okay, that’s the book stuff. Tinfoil hats ready? Here we go.

Is 5G really dangerous?

I don’t know. Ask Vanessa Redgrave. (Okay I can’t get to a post office, possibly for weeks, but if you get that reference I’l email you an eBook of your choice from Leg Iron Books in any format you want)

I have no expertise in microwave radiation at all and frankly, I live where 4G is only available if you stand in the right place and our landline comes through ageing copper wires. I’m not going to have to worry about 5G for a very long time, so I haven’t looked into it all that hard.

It seems to have a short range so you need a lot of towers. That sounds expensive. And ugly. I’ve seen the towers and they aren’t exactly pretty things. I admit I am not keen on this whole ‘internet of things’ idea at all but then I did grow up in a time where only the posh people had a landline phone in the house. It’s all accelerated at a hell of a speed. I remember the invention of cassette tapes, and how we couldn’t afford a Walkman and didn’t feel the need for one. I remember when the CD was a fanciful myth on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and those are already gone.

So, this new 5G, well, I doubt I really need it and if I stay in this house I’m not likely to get it anyway. I will not install an Alexa listening device in this house and I won’t buy a TV with a camera in it. There’d be no point anyway, the internet out here won’t cope with it. Most of what I do, most of what I send by email, involves text documents. I could do it with an old dial-up modem.

But is 5G dangerous? I don’t know. I admit I am concerned by the lack of any testing and the apparent lack of will to do any testing. I really do think it should be tested, high energy microwaves have the potential to be harmful and if they are going to tell me my smoking and drinking is harming me then they need to prove that their profitable new game is at least less harmful.

Baseline answer: I don’t trust it because of the refusal to run and publish tests, but I have no hard evidence it’s dangerous.

Can 5G create/control a virus?

No.

This is an area where I do have some expertise. You cannot create a virus from electromagnetic radiation and there is no way at all to control a virus. As most of the world is currently finding out.

A virus does not have a brain, nor even the basis of any kind of nervous system. It does not think, it does not reason, it considers nothing, sees nothing, hears nothing, feels nothing. It is not even an entire cell. It’s essentially a cell fragment. Lower in complexity even than archaebacteria. A bit of RNA or DNA enclosed in protein and lipid, with a surface that lets it attach and get into a real cell. It is a parasite. It does nothing but invade cells and replicate itself.

The current bout of Mao Tse Lung seems to affect some ethnic groups more than others. That does not make it racist. It knows nothing of race, it doesn’t even know humans exist. It doesn’t know it infects cells expressing ACE2 protein, it doesn’t know it kills people, it doesn’t know about people at all. It knows nothing at all. It has no means of storing any kind of external information and no means of receiving external information. You can blast Radio 4 at it for eternity, it will not notice.

So aside from the rather obvious observation that even 5G is not a Star Trek replicator and creates nothing, there is no means to control a virus via any kind of waveform because the virus has no means to even detect that waveform. 5G has absolutely nothing to do with any virus of any kind.

Are renewables renewable?

Windmills and solar panels are possibly the worst thing to ever have happened to this planet. Sure, oil spills are bad, but oil is part of the planet. The world can eventually reabsorb it and deal with it. Okay, timescales are longer than human lifetimes but we are ephemeral. Our entire history is such that the planet hasn’t noticed us yet. We really aren’t as important as we like to think we are.

Basically, we are a form of monkey that has developed fancy toys. All made from the planet’s resources and much of it will just be reabsorbed. Like CO2. It really is plant food, you know. Anyone who was taught real biology knows this.

The windmills and solar panels, those ‘green’ things, are causing lakes of toxic waste where the required elements are extracted. Solar panels, once expired, are buried in landfill where they leach out poison into the soil. They cannot be recycled.

Ever wondered how a 60 foot windmill stays up? It’s bolted to several hundred tons of concrete hidden below the soil. Every one of them. Those blocks will be wondered at by archaeologists a thousand years from now, and they will produce complex theories about the fibreglass windmill-blade mass graves they will find all over the planet. None of these things are recyclable and they are going to be in the ground far longer than any other landfill. They won’t rot.

Nuclear power waste will be long gone before the solar panel and windmill waste decays. Future archaeologists will wonder how we powered our world with such inefficlent systems while they power theirs with uranium. Just as ours now wonder how the Incas cut stone so precisely.

Eventually it will all fall apart and the realism that hydro and nuclear are the clean way forward will emerge, but we will never power any kind of long distance transport with those things. Fossil fuel use will reduce but I don’t believe it can ever be utterly dispensed with. Just ask Greenpeace and their diesel powered ships.

We could, of course, go back to putting sails on ships… Greenpeace hasn’t though. Why is that, I wonder?

Is there really a plan to reduce global population?

Yes. There has been for a long time and they really aren’t being subtle about it. Africa – all of it – will be a nature reserve, large areas of other continents will be no go areas for humans, we are to be corralled into economically productive cities and only the elites will travel.

Sounds horrible? It is, but the ones pushing it think it won’t apply to them. Just like the ones who fought for communism in the Soviet Union and China and those who supported Nazism in 1930s Germany. Just like those academics who supported Pol Pot until he had them all exterminated.

Oh you can call it tinhat foilery all you want. You can pretend it won’t apply to you all you want but it is no secret. The UN are quite open about Agenda 21. The delegates at their meetings think it won’t apply to them or their families. Agenda 21 was a ‘conspiracy theory’ but there are now conferences discussing it.

Does anyone want to destroy society as we know it?

You haven’t been paying attention, have you? The ecoloons want to drive us back to mediaeval times. No industry, no nothing, you will be caking your straw hut in cow shit and eating raw turnips to save a planet that has not noticed you exist. This is genuinely what they want and once again, they don’t think it will apply to them. They think they will film it all on iPhones and upload it to TikTok. Sorry guys, neither of those things will exist. You’ll be up at 4 am to chase badgers off your turnip fields and pick slugs off your lettuce just like everyone else. Unless, of course, you are executed for wrongthink.

You don’t need to look at the tinfoil hat brigade. There are no aliens coming to poke your bum, no reptiles coming to eat your children. That’s not even needed.

Look at what they are telling you openly. They are not kidding.

A Christmas Infection

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

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

A Christmas Infection

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

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

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

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

“Only if he shags them.” George grinned.

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

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

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

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

Santa raised one eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” George raised his eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa stared into his glass. “Maybe longer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.” Santa winced. “I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa shook his head. “No. What?”

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

“He turned water into wine.”

Santa is Coming – A Christmas Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa is Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait three minutes,” Mary said.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“But… Retirement.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well…” Mary blushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that important?” Mary asked.

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

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

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

Mary shrugged and shook her head, bewildered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know all this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary bit her lip as she watched him walk away.

***

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

Mary opened one eye and said “Why?”

“Doc wants you. It’s important.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A gun? We don’t have many of those.”

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

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

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

“Can’t we talk her out of it?”

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

“We can try.” Mary’s lip trembled.

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

“They?” Mary blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________

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

Extremes

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

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

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

So, a quick one before going quiet again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If this continues it can only lead to one outcome.

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

Because nobody else is there.

Entertainment time – Troubled Water

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

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

In the meantime, a bit of fun…

Troubled Water

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You need no healing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have waited for you to articulate your wish.

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

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

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

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

I am required to ask you. Are you sure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The creature nodded and uttered a few incomprehensible words.

Sally held her breath.

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

Then screamed, his arms flung wide.

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

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

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

What’s that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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