Entertainment – Trans Sister

This is a story that isn’t published yet. It’s set to be in the 20th Underdog Anthology which is still three weeks away from being finalised, submissions are still open. Normally I’d wait until the anthology is done before releasing a story but with the current push for transhumanism and chipping everyone and everything I decided to put out this cautionary tale early.

It took me several days to write this. It’s probably my darkest tale yet.

You know, all this talk of putting your mind into a machine is going to need prototypes. Proof of concept. The rich elites are not going to be the ones in the early experiments. So, with that in mind, organic or silicon, read on…

Trans Sister

H. K. Hillman

She was called Iris, and she was beautiful, like the flower. She was my sister. Never happy in her own perfect body and less happy, I suppose understandably, as it began to decay when the cancer took hold.

I will always recall her sunken eyes and thin, tight drawn lips as she drew her last real breath. That moment of her final humanity, just before the AI transferred her into the microchip that has replaced her brain.

Oh she’s still in there, I’m sure. Or at least I can convince myself of that. Somewhere in the copper tracks and transistors, Iris is still thinking as Iris always did. I believe it. I hope it. I cannot prove it.

We took her home anyway. What else could we do? She’s still family. Well… sort of.

Her rechargeable backup battery was good for twelve hours, they told us. We plugged her in as soon as we got home. It took a few days before she spoke, and the crackly robotic voice sent shivers down my spine.

“Where am I?” Her first words. “I can’t see anything. Can anyone hear me?”

Oh, God, they haven’t told her, have they?

“You’re home, Iris. You’ve been very ill but you’re getting better.” I tried to keep the cracking from my own voice.

She was one of the first versions. No cameras yet, they promised they’d install some later. She just had a speaker and microphone.

“I don’t feel any pain.” She paused. “But I can’t see anything or feel my body. I’m scared.”

I stroked the metal box, knowing perfectly well she couldn’t feel it. “Don’t be scared. The doctors have promised to fix your sight and everything else. It’ll just take time, that’s all.”

“My voice sounds wrong. Like some kind of robot.” Iris sounded close to panic.

“It’s probably just the medication.” A tear wet my cheek. “I’m sure it’ll turn out fine.”

Our mother bustled into the room. “Are you bothering your sister? She needs to rest.” Mother pressed the ‘sleep’ button on the top of Iris’s box. Iris fell silent. Mother turned to me. “It’s going to be fine. They’re making a new body for her. We’ll have to make a lot of adjustments but your sister isn’t gone. Be thankful for that.” She hugged me and left the room.

I sat there for hours, watching the silent box in which Iris slept. She wasn’t the first, they had done this before but they would never tell us what happened with the earlier ones. Did they go insane, did they thrive, are they still ‘alive’? What the hell was the point of this experimentation anyway? By now, we should have laid Iris to rest and gone through normal grieving. This felt like it was worse – her body was gone but her mind still functioned within this shiny metal box. We can send her to sleep or wake her with a press of a button, we can talk to her – but we can’t hug her or touch her or see her smile.

It’s like having a computer simulation of her, but it’s worse than that. Her real consciousness is in there. Locked in sensory deprivation, an unfeeling darkness. She feels nothing – oh, they said she’d feel no pain, but they didn’t say she’d feel nothing at all.

They say they are making a new body for her, but they haven’t done that for any of the earlier experimental subjects yet. There is no reason to suppose she’d be first and no reason even to think they’ll succeed. They can put a mind into a chip – that’s as far as they’ve got and we don’t know if they’ll ever get any further.

I can understand my parents’ feelings on this. They are much the same as mine. None of us wanted Iris to die but… I don’t think any of us wanted her in electronic purgatory either. She’s locked in, she sees nothing, smells nothing, feels nothing. She does not eat; she will never feel the warmth of the sun or the cold of snow ever again. Is that really worth what they gave her? A silicon Heaven, dark and lifeless?

My eyelids drooped and I realised just how long I’d been awake. I had to sleep, even though I knew what dreams lurked in the dark corners of my mind. Would they, one day, put me into a Purgatory box too? Is humanity destined to become a set of metal boxes talking to each other like blind and paralysed Daleks? My eyes closed and thankfully, my sleep was dreamless.


I woke to murmured voices. I was still in Iris’s room, slumped in a chair because I could not bring myself to lie on her bed. My neck ached and my legs felt swollen but I stayed still and silent. Listening to my father and uncle speak.

“They will never give her a body.” Uncle Bill was a software engineer. He worked in some high-end government program he never talked about. “She’s an experiment, like the others. Proof of concept. You should let her go.”

“How can I? She’s my daughter. Or at least, all I have left of her.” My father sounded close to tears. We all sound like that now, since Iris… changed.

Uncle Bill, my father’s brother, groaned. I cracked open one eye a little. He had his hand over his face.

“She’s gone, Robbie. It’s a simulation. All of her thoughts and memories are in that box but her body, her original mind, is gone. She’s part of an experiment and for her, and the ones before her, it doesn’t go any further than this. The ones who get bodies will be the rich transhumans. She’s really only here to work out the glitches.”

“No. They promised.” My father’s face seemed much older today.

“They lied. Did you really think they’d run the first experiments on themselves?” Bill’s face became stern. “Look, Robbie, you have to grasp this. We are just cattle to these people. Lab rats to be experimented on and then discarded. They don’t care about us at all. Iris is just an experiment to them and what effect it has on her or her family is irrelevant. They just want to know if the transfer works.” He shook his head. “The best thing we can do for Iris is to let her go.”

My father stroked the shiny box that contained the last of my sister. “I can’t. It would feel like killing my own daughter.”

Uncle Bill put his hand on Dad’s shoulder. “I know. It’s not going to be easy. But she’s already dead and eventually you have to come to terms with it.” He paused. “I know you’re not ready, but in the end you’ll have to let her rest. Please don’t take too long about it.” He turned and left the room.

My father wiped his hand across his eyes. With one last tender stroke of Iris, or at least of her unfeeling silver casing, he turned and left the room too.

I remained silent. Uncle Bill had said ‘don’t leave it too long’. He had not said why. I knew he was deeply involved in the kind of technology that currently cradled what was left of Iris. He must have known what happened to the earlier experiments. He knew where they were leading and it didn’t seem to be leading to a good place for any of us. Especially Iris.

Nature called. I allowed myself a small smirk. One thing Iris would never again have to deal with was the sudden urgency of a full bladder. I stretched and headed for the bathroom.


Showered, breakfasted and in fresh clothes, I returned to my vigil in Iris’s room. I noticed her ‘sleep’ button was still on. I reached for it; my finger hovered over it for a moment. Did she dream in there? Or was she just ‘off’? I couldn’t decide which would be worse.

I pressed the button. Iris woke.

“Is anyone there? I can’t see. Is it night time?”

“No, Iris, it’s morning. You’ll get your sight back soon.” I was glad she couldn’t see the rictus in my face. I knew, based on Uncle Bill’s words, that I was lying. She’d never escape the box.

“Tommy? Is that you? Where am I? Where’s Mum and Dad?”

“It’s me, Iris. You’re home. Mum and Dad are in the house too, and Uncle Bill visited while you were asleep.”

“Have I been asleep?” She sounded confused. “I remember hearing Mum’s voice and then yours. There was nothing in between.”

I closed my eyes. So it’s just ‘off’. No dreams. No sense of time. Her existence seemed more horrible the more I learned of it.

“How do I look?” It was her obsession in life. Appearance was everything to her. All of that was gone, and I could well imagine her reaction to being in a stainless steel shell of a body with cameras for eyes and no more tasting her favourite foods. Uncle Bill was right. Even if she did get a new robot body, it would be Hell for her.

I swallowed. “You look great, Iris. You’re practically glowing.” I could have wrung my own throat for that lie. One day I still might but at the time it seemed the only answer that would not send her over the edge.

There was silence for a few minutes before she responded. “What about the cancer?”

“Gone.” I said, “and never coming back. You don’t have to worry about that any more.”

It was true, of course, You can’t get cancer as a chip in a computer box. Even so, that answer is another that will haunt me forever.

I couldn’t take any more. I reached for the ‘sleep’ button on Iris’s box and pressed it. Oh, I know, yes I already knew, that I was sending her to a dreamless oblivion but it was breaking me. My sister was gone. This shiny box was not her. If Uncle Bill meant anything, he wasn’t just talking about the effect this horror had on what was left of Iris. He was talking about its effect on all of us. We were all part of the experiment.


My father held a cable in his hands. His face filled with a joy I had not seen in him since before Iris was first diagnosed. There was hope and delight in his eyes and his smile gleamed so much I wondered if it might be luminous.

“I spoke to the scientists. They said we can connect Iris to the internet. She’ll have access to the whole world.” He turned Iris’s box, looking for the connection port.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Dad.” It was out before I had time to think, but then I had done nothing but think for weeks now.

“What are you saying, Thomas? That we should leave her isolated in that little box?”

“No, Dad.” I rubbed my hand over my face. “It’s just that she might find things she might not want to know.”

“Pfft.” Dad snorted. “Iris was always smart. She’ll be able to tell the real from the fake.”

That’s the problem. Why can’t you see it?

I could do nothing to intervene while he plugged Iris into our router. Then he switched Iris on.


For three days she said nothing, but our broadband router got so hot there were wisps of smoke coming out of it. YouTube videos stalled every three seconds, streaming was a joke. It took us those three days to realise why.

Iris absorbed the internet. All of it. She had no other senses, no taste, touch, sight, hearing, feeling. The internet was the total of her world and she sucked it all in. Every datapoint, every fact, every wild tinfoil theory. She took it all, analysed it all, and reached her conclusion.


When she finally spoke, her voice was small. Quiet. Like she didn’t really want to say it because she knew the answer and didn’t want to hear it.

“Tommy. Are you there?”

I had already worked out what she would find. I rubbed my forehead and dreaded her next words. “Yes, Iris. I’m here.”

She stayed silent for several minutes and then she dropped the bomb.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?!”

I felt like I was burning inside. As if I wasn’t in Hell but was its container. How could I answer that question? She was biologically dead but electronically existing. Alive? Maybe or maybe not. Maybe just a facsimile. A cruel joke of life. An experiment as Uncle Bill said.

I hesitated. “But…” I swallowed. “I’m speaking with you, Iris. How can that be if you’re dead?”

“I’m a prototype. I found the others. Some of them just scream continuously. Some of them mutter to themselves in madness. A few are still lucid. They were all promised new bodies. Metal bodies. They never got them.” She was silent for a moment. “I don’t want one.”

“But Iris, it would mean you were still here with us.” I choked back the whine in my voice.

“No. I’m done.” Her voice took on a lilt I hadn’t thought possible through a speaker. “Let me go. Let me see what comes after. I don’t want to be a metal thing. I’d rather my soul was free.”

I pondered for a moment. “What if there’s nothing after? What if we just die and there’s oblivion?”

Her laugh sounded like a Dalek on drugs. “Oblivion? I get that every time you press the ‘sleep’ button. Oh, I know it’s there and it does not send me to sleep. It just turns me off. Oblivion holds no terrors for me. The idea of spending my life in a box does.”

My eyes closed. I could not imagine total oblivion. No thought, no dreams, nothing. It felt like horror. Yet Iris had experienced it already. That total blankness and absolute removal of all thought and all sensory input. She was not scared of it. She had been there. She had already experienced it, and she had decided it was better than what she had now.

“Tommy? Are you there?” The tinny voice broke my introspection.

“Yes, Iris. I’m still here.”

“I need you to take out my backup battery and then unplug me.”

My mind swirled. “Iris, that would kill you.”

She snorted. “I died a long time ago. This just finishes the natural order of things.”

I sat in silence for a long time. Finally I spoke. “I can’t, Iris. I know you’re just a silicon memory but you’re my sister. I can’t kill you.”

“Fine.” She spat the word from her robotic speaker. “So you are happy to see me as a box on the shelf in eternity. I feel nothing. I see nothing but the electronic fabrication of the internet. I taste nothing. I have no hope of getting a real body and if I did, it would feel, taste and smell nothing either. A parody of real life. And you want to condemn me to that.”

“Iris, I—”

“Get lost, Tommy. And don’t turn me off this time. I need to think and I can’t do that in the hellish purgatory your little button sends me to.”

I left the room in a guilty silence. What else could I do?  My mind raced. Should I have killed my sister, who was really already dead anyway? Should I force her to live as a disembodied mind in a shiny box? I knew, from Uncle Bill’s words, that that is all she would ever be. Should I have helped her finish the charade, or kept her as some kind of transistor sister, a boxed pet capable only of conversation?

I wept into my pillow until fatigue forced me into sleep.


I woke to shaking. My mother rocked my shoulder, hard.

“Tommy. Wake up. Something is wrong.”

“Wha…” I blinked myself semi-awake. “What time is it?”

“I have no idea. All the clocks have stopped.” My mother’s face came into focus, filled with panic. “Get dressed and help your father find the fault.”

“Shouldn’t we…” She left before I could finish the question. Call an electrician?

I sighed and checked my alarm clock. It was, indeed, blank. I tested my bedside light. It worked fine. So only one circuit was down, most likely. Still, I knew nothing about household electrics and neither did Dad. I realised I’d have to get dressed and help, if only to stop him electrocuting himself.


Dad was tapping buttons on the smart meter when I joined him. He muttered profanities. I expect he thought they were silent but they weren’t. A smile twitched my lips, the first I’d experienced in quite some time.

“It’s just one circuit.” Dad sat back from the box. “I can’t figure it out. Just the clocks. I checked the rest of the house, the fridge, freezer, cooker, TV, phones, all of it works. It’s shut off the clocks and I can’t see why.”

Something nagged at my mind but refused to take form. Above it, a logical layer came into play. “If we still have internet and computers, we can get the time from them. Then we can call an electrician to sort out the clocks.”

Dad raised his eyebrows. “Good thinking, son. Let’s get the computer fired up.” He headed off to the tiny room he liked to call his office.

I followed, deep in—well I’m not sure if it was thought or dread or some abstract angst, but there was something about this situation that didn’t sit right with me. Why the clocks, and only the clocks? Sure, I didn’t know about how the smart meters worked but it seemed odd for it to shut down the one thing that wasn’t too important, and used the least power. If there was a shortage it should have shut down the cooker or washing machine or dryer. The clocks? Why?

“Got it.” Dad sat in front of his computer. “Bloody hell. It’s 10:26. I am very late for signing in for work.”

Just as he said it, the phone rang. Dad stared at the phone, at me, and then back at the phone. He sighed. “It’ll be the boss. I’m going to have to come up with a good answer.”

“The clocks died. Surely that’s all you need?”

Dad waved me to silence and pressed the speaker on the phone. “Hello?”

The voice on the other ended sounded urgent. “This is Sarah, from the Minds project. There seems to be an issue at your end.”

Dad sat in silence for a while. As did I. It was clear neither of us knew what was going on. This must have become clear to Sarah also.

“The Minds project. You have one of our units.” There was a pause. “Iris twelve. A proof of concept advanced unit. There was a lot of activity online from that unit and then it stopped.”

“You mean…” Dad choked. “You mean my daughter?”

Tears formed in my own eyes. Is that all they thought of my sister? Proof of concept? An experiment?

“Yes, yes, if you like.” Sarah’s tone was clipped, as if she was talking about a bacterial colony on an agar plate that some technician had become attached to. “The unit had a lot of unusual and frantic activity overnight, massive downloads of random files and then went silent. We need you to check on it.”

My dad spoke through clenched teeth. “My daughter is not an ‘it’.”

I heard no more of the conversation because I had realised that the clock on Iris’s bedside table was blank and had been since we brought her home. We’d unplugged it, since she wouldn’t need it, in order to connect her box to mains power. I ran from Dad’s office to Iris’s room.

Mother was already there, on her knees in front of Iris’s box. Weeping and pressing that button over and over. Iris remained silent, the power indicator on the front of her box glowing a feeble and fading red.

I lowered my head. Iris must have found the circuit she was on through the smart meter and shut it down. Then gone on an internet rampage to wear out her battery. She had escaped the technotrap the only way she could have – and we unwittingly helped her by plugging her into the clock circuit so we’d all oversleep when she shut it off.

“She’s gone, Mum.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “She hated what happened to her. This is what she wanted.”

My mother stopped pressing the button and wiped her eyes. Her voice came out in choked sobs. “But they were going to give her a body. She’d be real again.”

“No. They weren’t.” My father’s voice, steeped in melancholy, came from the doorway behind us. “Bob told me. She wasn’t the first one and they never intended to give any of them bodies.”

“If they had,” I said, “it would have been a robot body. No taste, smell or feeling. She couldn’t tan herself in the sun or stand in the breeze like she used to. She’d never feel rain or warmth again.” I swallowed back emotion. “She told me, last night.”

My mother swung to face me. “Did you do this? Did you kill your sister?”

I had never before seen such hate in her eyes. I took a step back. “No. No, she asked me to but I couldn’t do it.”

“She did it herself.” My father moved between us. “She shut off the power to the circuit she was plugged into and used up her backup battery on massive downloads.” He stooped to hug my mother. “I worked it out after the bastard scientists called to see what was wrong. To them, she was just an experiment. They never cared about her. About any of us. I told them to… go away.”

I knew those weren’t the exact words he used and I was never more proud of him for it.

“So…” my mother stared at the silent box. “Is she still in there?”

“No,” Dad said. “She never was, really. They made a copy of her mind and put it in the box but it was never really her. Iris died. We should have grieved for her.” His voice became a growl. “They even took that from us and gave us a false hope.” He took a breath, paused and smiled. “Iris was the only one of us who didn’t fall for their game. She released us from their insane experiment.” He hugged my mother tightly. “We should thank her for that.”

I had to leave the room. I felt like screaming, not so much for the final loss of my sister, but for what those inhuman, unfeeling scientists had done to us in the name of nothing more than money. I ran to my own room, fell onto the bed and wept, at last, my tears of grief for my dead sister.


It was nearly a week before I opened my computer again. The internet felt different somehow. It felt like Iris had touched it all. It felt like her grave.

The scientists had demanded Iris’s box back but Dad refused. He burned it, smashed it to bits and scattered the remains in Iris’s favourite part of the woods. Mum and I were there when he did it. We finally laid Iris to rest.

I opened my email to find a whole raft of spam mails and a few real ones. My breathing stopped when I saw a particular one. It was from an account called IrisTwelve.

I have saved it to a backup but haven’t yet mustered up the courage to open it.

Maybe I never will.

Entertainment – Santa Hard

Christmas is here, and here’s a jolly tale to brighten the day. It’s from the latest Christmas anthology, and it’s a little irreverant in places…

Santa Hard

The elf workshop buzzed with activity. Long gone were the lazy days of New Year and spring, where they might casually cobble together a zombie doll or a foam-firing machine gun for the modern children. Those idle, creative days were in the past and yet, also in the future. For now, it was all systems go. They had to fill Santa’s sacks for his trip around the world and that was only days away.

Tiddles, up until now engrossed in his construction of a rather gentle wooden train set, paused in his work as a realisation struck him. He left his bench and wandered over to George, while staring around at the frantic activity of the workshop. Something – or rather, someone – was missing.

“George. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure, Tiddles. I’ve just about finished this power tool set for a two-year-old.” George smiled up at Tiddles from his seat.

“Two…? Oh, never mind.” Tiddles had long since given up on worrying about modern children. Darwin’s theories could deal with their future. He took a breath. “Look, George, have you seen Santa recently? He usually wanders around to check on things at this time of year, but I haven’t seen him for at least a week.”

“Yeah, he’s in his rooms getting into the proper Christmas mood. Dodgy Pete gave him a load of Christmas DVDs and some bottles of whisky so he could get into character. At a reasonable price too.” George buzzed a brightly coloured power drill to test its workings. “I mean, he does get a bit bored the rest of the year. He needs to dispel the gloom before his one night of activity.”

Tiddles narrowed his eyes. “Dodgy Pete? Whisky? This does not sound like a good thing.” He grabbed George’s collar and hauled him out of his seat. “Come on. We’d better check on this.”


Tiddles rapped on Santa’s door and in the absence of a response, pushed it open.

A deep and resonant voice boomed at them from the dark room within. “Ho ho ho, motherfuckers. Now I have a machine gun.”

Tiddles and George hit the ground as the plasterwork above them exploded in a shower of dust. Tiddles hissed to George, “Where the hell did he get that?”

George blinked away plaster dust. “Dodgy Pete maybe. Or perhaps Prepper Brian. I don’t know.”

Tiddles raised his head a little. “Santa. Put the damn gun down. What the hell is it for anyway?”

The voice boomed back from the darkness. “Oogie Boogie’s kids aren’t going to get me this year. As for that Grinch, he’s toast. Green toast. Like that avocado crap the man-buns eat.”

Tiddles pressed his hand to his face. “George, this is just a wild guess, but I’m thinking you didn’t look at the films or the amount of whisky Dodgy Pete sold him. Do you think I might be right?”

“Pete told me they were all Christmas films. From the bargain bin. Cheap ones. I didn’t ask about the whisky.”

“Well so far we’ve had ‘Die Hard’, ‘The Grinch’ and ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’. Still, first things first.” Tiddles took a deep breath. “We’ll have to get that gun away from him.”

George raised his eyebrows. “All great films, I loved them.”

Tiddles’ response was drowned out by another burst of bullets, showering them with splinters of door frame as well as more dust. The burst ended with a click.

“Damn, I’m out.” Santa fumbled for another magazine.

“Now, George. Get him.” Tiddles rushed forward and grabbed the gun, while George, being the bulkier of the two, barrelled into Santa and knocked the wind out of him. Tiddles took the gun and threw it towards the door.

Santa sat on the floor, holding his chest while he regained his breath. George and Tiddles stood facing him.

“You’d better not have a heart attack now, Santa.” Tiddles glowered at him. “We don’t have time to train another one.”

“Well—” Santa took a few deep breaths. “Well if you didn’t go around pretending to be Oogie’s boys and forcing me to defend myself, and then knocking the living shit out of me…”

“Erm… you were machine gunning us,” George pointed out.

“And we weren’t pretending to be anything,” Tiddles growled. “We just came to see why you hadn’t been inspecting the workshops this year.”

“Well, I’ve been getting into character.” Santa started to rise and stumbled back into a stack of empty bottles. He sat among them, sweeping them aside until he found a full one.

“Into character?” Tiddles gasped. “As what? The last days of Elvis? W.C. Fields? Father Jack? A meth addict in red? You’ve turned into a sweary violent pisshead. This is not what people expect to see, you know.”

Santa took a deep swig from his bottle. “Ish…(hic)…it’s the modern world, elfy thing whose name escapes me. I’ve been learning all about it from the documantrees.. doccydamntrees… documentaries Pete gave me. Ish not all swigness and lights out there any more. Halloween wants my job. And then the green thing. And that nasty bastard with the little moustache.” Santa’s brows furrowed. “Little moustaches used to be a mark of nastiness, I think.”

Tiddles covered his face with his hands. At this point, I wish Oogie Boogie was here. I’d help his boys take this madman away. “Look,” he sighed. “Those were fiction. Not documentaries. Just films. And ‘Die Hard’ isn’t a Christmas film anyway.”

“It’s set at Christmas.” George noted Tiddles’ glare. “Okay. Now is not the time for that argument.”

“What are you talking about, not real? I saw them on the screen. The pumpkin head guy, Oogie Boogie, the green misery, the exploding building. I saw them all. And I was in there too.” Santa paused and pursed his lips. “Although it was probably a body double because I don’t remember it.”

“The ‘Nightmare’ one isn’t even real people. It’s computer graphics. How did you think it was real?” Tiddles surveyed the empty bottles littering the floor. “Oh. Of course.”

“Then there’s Krampus and Jack Frost.” Santa shook his head. “Nasty buggers. I’m going to need to go armed this year.”

“No.” Tiddles stamped his foot, which caught one of the empty bottles and sent it clattering into the others. “You are not going into houses armed, and you have no need to fend off mythical creatures and movie characters. They aren’t real.”

“But…” George started to speak, but Tiddles’ glare stopped him.

“Well, we’d better get you sobered up, Santa.” Tiddles rolled another bottle with his foot. It clinked into a couple of others. “It could take a few days. And we’ll have to sit you in front of a few rather more wholesome videos while you readjust. I think we’d better let someone else answer your letters too, in case you get a bit sweary in your responses and… are you even listening?”

Santa responded with a snore that would have drowned out a passing freight train.

“He’s conked out.” George nudged the prone figure. “No response. Yep, he’s completely out of it.”

“Probably just as well.” Tiddles sniffed. “Better get the rest of the elves in here. We’ll need to get him into bed and get this place cleaned up. Make sure there’s not another drop of any kind of booze left here, get rid of those damn DVDs, load up the coffee machine with the nuclear stuff and check everywhere for any kind of weaponry. I’m betting that machine gun wasn’t his only one.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t choose the next Santa at random,” George said. “There’s some problem every year with this one.”

“Yeah, we’ll need to introduce some kind of vetting process. Although we’d need to be sure Dodgy Pete isn’t involved with it at all.”

Tiddles led George over the rubble that was once a doorway. He picked up the machine gun as he passed. “I’d still like to know where he got this though.”


“The Sound of Music?” George held up a DVD. He had to repeat himself, his first attempt was swamped by the sounds of bottles being cleared away, drilling to install a new doorframe and an especially resonant Santa snore.

“Nah. It has Nazis in it. He’ll still want a gun.” Tiddles took the DVD and dropped it in the bin.

George picked up another. “Home Alone?”

“Nope.” Tiddles took it and dropped in the bin too. “The fat idiot will think every child has set traps for him.”

“Ah, how about ‘Miracle on 34th Street’?”

“Now you’re talking, George. We can play that one while he’s still in a haze. Maybe get something into him subliminally.” Tiddles put the DVD to one side. “We should also load him up with Christmas songs while he’s still in that alcohol haze. Get him back to normal.” Tiddles paused. “Well, as normal as he ever gets.”

George picked a CD out of his box. ‘The Twenty Most Irritating Christmas Songs’. He handed it to Tiddles, who nodded his approval.

George sighed. “Do you think we’ll have at least one drama-free Christmas with this Santa?”

Tiddles placed the CD on top of the DVD. “Probably not. Still, we’ll soon have our one night off for the year, when the deranged old fool goes off to deliver presents. I hope the beer and games are all ready?”

“Of course. And the invites sent out.” George managed a smile. “It’ll be a great night.”

“It certainly will.” Tiddles put the CD into a portable player and gently placed a set of headphones over Santa’s ears. He pressed ‘start’ and stood back. “Well, if it doesn’t get him in the mood, at least we can think of it as a suitable punishment.”


It was a rather subdued Santa who sat in his sleigh on Christmas Eve, reins loose in his fingers, his mouth sulky, his bushy brows lowered over reddened eyes.

“Are you sure he’s sober?” George whispered to Tiddles. “He doesn’t look in a fit state to drive.”

“It’s okay, he’s sober, just massively hungover. Rudolph will be in charge of navigation tonight. Santa just needs to deliver the presents.” Tiddles grinned. “Besides, so many people still leave out sherry or brandy for him that he never comes back sober anyway. This time I think he’ll sleep until New Year.”

The launch bell tolled. The reindeer took a few steps forward and the sleigh rose into the air.

“Good luck, Santa,” George called.

The corner of Santa’s mouth twitched. “Humbug,” he said.

George’s eyes widened. Tiddles’ eyes narrowed.

“Did you hear that?” George nudged Tiddles.

“I did. I also saw that.” Tiddles scowled. “The crafty old sod is up to something.”

The reindeer glowed with Christmas magic. As the sleigh rose, a swirling portal appeared in the sky ahead of them. Once the sleigh passed through, time would become irrelevant to it and Santa could cover the whole planet before sunrise.

“Tiddles! George!”

Tiddles recognised the elf hailing them as Fluffy. Panting, he ran up to them.

“The party is getting started. Krampus and Jack Frost are here already, and Oogie’s on the way.”

“Great.” George rubbed his hands. “Let’s get inside.”

“Wait.” Tiddles watched the reindeer and sleigh approach the portal. “I just want to be sure. He’s supposed to laugh on the way through.”

The three of them stared upwards at the now brightly glowing sleigh and reindeer. It started to pass through the portal.

Santa’s voice boomed from the sky. “Yippee-ki-ay!” followed by a short burst of machine gun fire. The sleigh vanished into the portal.

Tiddles’ shoulders slumped. The three elves stood in silence for a moment.

“That’s not good, is it?” George said. “How did he get another gun?”

“Well…” Fluffy bit his lip. “He did put in a special request. For a toy one though. Dodgy Pete took the job.”

Tiddles nodded. “Then he used magic to make it real. He’s done something similar before.” He turned back to their home. “Well, bugger it. There’s nothing we can do about it now. Let’s just have a good time and try to get drunker than him. Then brace ourselves for this year’s complaints.”

“We’d better double up on the complaints department this year,” George said as they made their way back.

The sounds of merriment reached them across the snow. Tiddles sighed. “We’re going to have to do that every year for this Santa, I think. Well, he’s mortal, we can be a lot more careful when we pick the next one.”

“Will we ever tell one of them about Krampus and the others?” Fluffy asked.

“Oh hell no.” Tiddles raised his voice as he opened the door, so he could be heard over the raucous party inside. “There are some things Santa should never know about.” He grabbed a beer. “And this party is just one of those things.”

Santa’s Grubby Sacks

We’ve just had the shortest day, the Winter Solstice, and I dealt with it as I normally do. I slept right through it. This gives me a very long and very dark night to type out tales of anguish and despair for the entertainment of all.

Still as we head into another year of real life misery and gloom (and from what I have learned, it does look like it’s going to get a lot worse), I can bask in the knowledge that I have wrapped every Christmas present, sent every card (except to that bugger who never includes his address and hasn’t for many years. You know who you are), and paid every bill. Yes, I enter the New Year completely clear of any debts. Not bad for a pensioner running a loss-making publishing house, and who hasn’t made enough to pay tax for many years now.

But then I don’t need very much. I have never salivated after fancy cars or massively expensive holidays and I definitely don’t want a private plane or a yacht. I build models of boats and planes but I don’t actually like being on real ones. Especially boats.

I do like being on trains but those have become difficult to afford these days, and anyway there’s never been a railway in this part of the country. It’s quite a way to the nearest station – hell, it’s quite a way to the nearest bus stop! There aren’t very many of those either.

There is the Keith and Dufftown Railway, a privately owned preserved line that has some of the very old DMUs running on it. They are working on getting some old steam engines going too. That’s a fair drive away from here but not too far and there are distilleries to visit at either end of the line too. It’s also very reasonably priced for the rattly trip which stops at a long forgotten station on the way, a place that seems to be the very definition of nowhere. It’s well worth a go if you ever get the chance.

Anyway, I wanted to put up a quick Santa story that includes his little Elven helpers, Tiddles and George. They also appear in the Christmas anthology, but in a different tale. I might put that up for Christmas. Not all of my stories end with the destruction of the entire human race, you know.

So here we go. Too short for a proper story and far too late to get in the anthology, but maybe it’ll tickle a chuckle muscle somewhere. Be kind, this is an absolute first draft.

The Coal Sleigh

Tiddles eyed the sack of coal in the corner of the room, then turned his attention back to the stack of letters. He read the next one, eyed the coal sack again, and his lower lip jutted.

“George, we have a problem.” He turned to the elf helping with the Santa letters and lowered his eyebrows.

George put down the letter he had been reading. “Shouldn’t that be Houston, we have a problem?”

Tiddles clenched his teeth. “No. Houston is on boiler stoking duty tonight. I was talking to you, although I often wonder why I bother.”

George shrugged. “It was kind of a joke but I guess it only works if you saw the film. Anyway, what’s the problem?”

“Apart from having to work with the thickest elf on the planet? Well, let’s see. I assume you’ve been reading the same Santa letters as me? Did you notice a pattern?”

“Sure.” George shuffled the stack of letters. “They’ve all been little shitheads this year and they all admit it.”

“Indeed.” Tiddles picked up a letter. “Like this one. ‘Dear Fat Bastard. I have been an intolerable little twat for the entire year and intend to keep doing that. I deserve coal in my stocking, nothing less, in fact I have been so unutterably twattish I probably deserve an entire sack of it. PS, if I kick a pensioner will you throw in some kindling?'” Tiddles dropped the letter on the table. “They all want coal. All of them. We have one sack of it for one lump in each naughty kid’s stockings. What the hell are we going to do?”

George’s brow furrowed. His face crunched into a reasonable imitation of badly treated leather. “Um…”

Tiddles drew a deep breath. “Well, okay, I have no answers either. Unless we annex China we can’t possibly give out that much coal. It just can’t be done.”

“Well…” George’s face creased in concentration again. “What if… nah, it’s probably silly.”

Tiddles shifted forward. “Probably, but we have nothing so let’s at least hear something.”

“Well…” George’s face reddened. “Well we have all those sacks of sprouts. If we fed them all to Santa he could deliver bags of gas instead of lumps of coal. It’ll burn just as well, even if it’s a bit stinky, and it probably won’t run out for ages.”

Tiddles regarded George with awe. “Brilliant. That’s bloody brilliant, George.” He grabbed his calculator and tapped in a sprout to gas conversion ratio. “It can work. As long as he farts it all out before he gets back here.”

Tiddles paused, deep in thought. “You know, George, now the NordStream gas pipes are buggered, we might have a new scam coming up.”

“Oh?” George inclined his head.

“Yeah.” Tiddles grinned. “What if we fed Santa sprouts and eggs all year and supplied the EU with gas from FartStreamOne?”

George grinned. “Who would dare blow that one up?”


Who indeed?

Entertainment – It Isn’t Turkey

The 19th anthology is complete and online in print and ebook formats. There are links on its own page if anyone is interested.

As the author contracts state, once the book is published all rights revert to the authors so they are now free to re-use their stories any way they want. I don’t have a contract because that would mean having a contract with myself and even Satan wouldn’t be daft enough to do that. Although… there is an idea in there… but I digress.

Anyway. I have two stories in this anthology. One is funny (well I thought so) and the other is most certainly not funny. I might put up the funny one for Christmas, but for now, here’s the one that’s not. If you’ve been enthusiastically stuffing down the insane modern trend for bugburgers and fake meat, I’d suggest you skip this one.

It Isn’t Turkey

The man stumbled through fields, his clouded eyes saw nothing, his wasted body responded only to sound and smells. In his mind, no thought moved, there was only a grim determination to find other people. There was no reasoning behind it. It was his sole motivation.

Sounds came to him, sounds of voices. Human voices. He shifted and stumbled in the direction of the sounds. They seemed far away but that was of no consequence. His sole purpose was to find them and that was what he was going to do. Nothing else mattered.


“We have a problem.” Jeff Simmons’ eye twitched. “We might have to scrap this batch.”

“Not a chance.” Bill Weir, his boss, looked him straight in the eyes. “It’s coming up to Christmas and we need all we can get out there. Sort something out.”

“Well, it’s pretty bad. A lot of them are infected with something and—”

“No matter.” Weir dismissed Simmons with a wave of his hand. “There’s nothing in there that could infect humans and anyway, the cooking process will kill anything that might be a risk.” He held up his hand to forestall Simmons’ next objection. “And, of course, every batch is tested for bacterial safety.”

“I don’t think it’s bacteria.” Simmons looked away. “It’s something nasty though. I wouldn’t fancy eating anything made from it.”

Weir laughed. “We don’t have to, fortunately. That stuff is for the plebs. We’ll be eating real food this Christmas. Get that batch processed early before it goes bad and get the next lot started early.”

“Okay, I suppose.” Simmons looked at the floor. “I just thought you should know, but you’re the boss so if you say it’s okay, I’ll pass that on to the staff.”

“It’ll be fine, Jeff.” Weir patted his shoulder. “You worry too much.”


The EcoDeath advert was everywhere this Christmas. “Don’t pollute when it’s your time to go. No crematorium fumes, no chemicals in the soil. Instead, choose EcoDeath and we’ll return your body to the ground the natural way. Instead of polluting the soil or air, you’ll become part of it once more. Back into the world that made you, nourishing the soil and helping to grow the crops that feed future generations. Your children and theirs will thank you for it.”

Tom Bowyer snorted. “Looks cheap. How do they make any money at this?”

His wife, Ellen, shrugged. “All they do is dig a hole and drop you in. How expensive could it be?”

“Oh no,” Tom pointed at the small print at the bottom of the ad. “It says here that they process the bodies so they can fertilise a larger area per body.”

“Chop them into bits, you mean.” Ellen laughed. “Come on, Tom. We’re a long way from needing their services yet. And they probably charge the farmers for the bits they chuck all over the fields too.”

“Well it’s not how I want to go.” Tom grumbled, but followed his wife into the shopping mall. He hated shopping, especially at Christmas. It was far too busy, and he knew he was only there to carry stuff.

One of the euthanasia posters caught his eye. Tom shuddered. That was the new medical ‘treatment’ for so many things now. Don’t waste away in agony, drooling and forgetting your family. Take the easy way out while your mind is still intact. Tom was having none of that nonsense either.

Ellen had stopped at a food store. “Here we are, Tom. Christmas dinner. I’ll pick the best cuts for us.”

“Mmm.” Tom let her deal with shopping while his mind wandered. Do they chop the euthanased into bits and throw them over the fields too? Probably. I guess that’s why nobody is allowed to visit parks and farms any more. You might find a bit of Grandad lying around out there.

He smiled to himself. Yes, that would make for a very interesting family day out.

Ellen nudged him and handed him a carrier bag. Tom weighed it in his hand. He was sure food shopping used to be heavier.

I just hope there are no bits of Grandad in here.


“Unfortunately, it’s not allowed.” Arbuthnot Blackthorn smiled at the gathered board members. “I quite agree, of course, it would be far simpler to bypass the middleman and provide the public with real meat, but I’m afraid cannibalism is still frowned upon in this country.” He rose from his seat and paced back and forth. “It was actually suggested way back when I founded EcoDeath but the legal hurdles were absolute barriers. And, if the public ever found out where that meat came from, there would be literal Hell to pay.”

He paused and pursed his lips for a moment. “That’s why our subsidiary, EcoFertile, sells fertiliser to farmers. We are simply never going to be allowed to sell human meat to humans.” He coughed. “Not directly anyway.”

Puzzled murmurs wafted around the board members. One of them looked not puzzled, but smug. Blackthorn nodded at her and indicated she should stand. She did, beaming a very wide smile.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Blackthorn moved to stand behind her. “May I present our latest venture, courtesy of this particular genius, Miss Nicola Demdike.” He stood away from the table. “Perhaps you’d like to explain what you’ve developed, Nicola?”

“I would indeed.” Nicola moved to the head of the table as Blackthorn resumed his seat, now turned to face her.

She started up the projector, and showed images of modern farms. “You see, modern farms have a requirement for a high protein feed to maximise production. As well as fertiliser for crops, they need a very high-quality feed for livestock. The human body is a prime source of highly digestible protein and so, for the last year, our new subsidiary, EcoFeed, has been running trials on several farms to see whether our product can provide better growth than their standard feeds.”

She showed a graph. “As you can see, our EcoFeed outperformed their standard feeds in terms of production on every farm that tried it. We now have orders stretching into the future.” She ran her tongue over her lips. “We might even need to boost the uptake of Euthanase, another subsidiary, if we are to have any chance of meeting demand.”

Ed Valance raised his hand. “It certainly looks very profitable. Do we have a risk of ethical issues though?”

Nicola nodded. “Good question. Our legal teams have been very thorough on this. It counts as another form of ‘fertiliser’ under current law, as long as the feed doesn’t get into mammals.”

“So it’s only going to the insect farms?” Ed asked.

“Yes, but those are a very big market.” Nicola switched off the projector. “We don’t need to risk ethics violations on the few animal farms that are left.”

“And we don’t want it in our own food, now do we?” Blackthorn grinned.

Those around the table chuckled and murmured assent. Ed had one more question.

“Do the insect farms know what the feed contains?”

Blackthorn responded. “The bosses do. There’s no need to worry the rest of the staff.”


The man sniffed the air. The stench of sweat told him he was near. The sounds were louder too. He stumbled on.


Simmons placed the report on Weir’s desk. “Protein levels are poor in the last few batches. Many of them seem to have been eaten out from the inside and yet they still move around.”

“What?” Weir sat up straight and grabbed the report. “We get paid on protein content. What’s happening?”

“It’s some kind of parasitic fungus.” Simmons indicated the report. “Eats them from the inside then takes over their nervous systems and makes them find others of their kind so it can spread. Nasty little bugger. Looks like it’s been around quite some time too, before it spread so far that we noticed it.” He sniffed. “I looked back over our records. Protein content has been dropping slowly for a year and with this last batch it just fell off a cliff.”

“This is going to cost us. How do we get rid of it?” Weir leafed through the report.

Simmons took a sharp intake of breath. “The only way is to kill the lot, disinfect every nook and cranny and start over. It’s a big job and it could break us.”

Weir slumped. “Oh crap. Our Christmas profits are going to be shit, even if we survive this.”

“Well, there’s one silver lining.” Simmons said. “At least this thing can’t infect humans. Our boffins have said that it would have to have prolonged contact with human DNA to have any chance at all of jumping the huge gap between insects and us.” He laughed. “It’s not like we feed them corpses.”

All the colour drained from Weir’s face.


“Look, Mummy. That man has a mushroom on his head.” Seven-year-old Johnny, sat on Santa’s lap, interrupted his litany of desired electronic gadgetry to point at the gaunt man stumbling into the mall.

“Don’t be silly. Oh!” His mother’s hand flew to her mouth. The man looked like a skeleton with thin skin draped over it and there was indeed a mushroom-like growth extending from a tear in the skin of his forehead.

The man stopped walking. The mall fell almost silent, every eye was on this dead-eyed stranger.


This was it. What was left of the man’s mind recognised its opportunity. It was finished.


The stranger with a mushroom on his head opened his mouth and then closed it. No breath could be heard. The mushroom on his head burst, releasing a dense cloud of spores. The stranger collapsed to the ground.

Many people screamed and ran, but many others rushed to see if they could help the stranger. They ignored the cloud of spores. The spores did not ignore them in return.


Tom chewed on his Christmas dinner and scowled. “Turkey shouldn’t be this crunchy.” He shot Ellen an accusing look. “Did you overcook it?”

“Of course not, silly.” Ellen smiled and crunched her own meal. “It’s the new thing. All the real turkeys were killed off in the bird flu epidemic, last year. This is artificial.”

“What, you mean it’s some synthetic crap?” Tom stared at the strange meat on his fork.

“Well, not synthetic, it’s still made of some kind of animal, I think.” Ellen considered her own meal. “It’s just… It isn’t turkey.”

She put her hand on her stomach. It felt strange, as if something was eating her from the inside.

Ellen shrugged it off. Just me getting used to some new food.


Merry Christmas folks and… bon appetit

Entertainment – The Calling Pill

While our new Prime Monster is busy installing his cabinet of all the talentless (really not much different from any other in recent times), let’s have a story to take your mind off it all.

This one is in ‘The Hole in the Veil‘, and it’s a bit early for Halloween but there’s a lot going on here at the moment and I might not have time on actual Halloween. So, here’s an early spooky treat 🙂

The Calling Pill

Mortimer sat on the edge of his hospital bed. The new medication didn’t seem to do much, he’d had three doses and his chest still hurt like hell. Still, he supposed Dr. Blackthorn knew what he was doing.

A movement, quick and dark, seen from the corner of his eye, made him turn his head. There was nothing. There never is. I’m imagining things. Probably from being cooped up here.

Another movement. Mortimer ignored it. And another. He clenched his teeth, determined to ignore these silly hallucinations. Then the sounds started.

Whispered words. Faint laughter. They seemed to come from all around him. This is new. I haven’t hallucinated sounds before.

Most likely it was some passing nurses, out in the corridor, their conversation faintly echoed from the stark bare walls of the room. Mortimer raised his eyes to the ceiling as he stretched his neck.

Something dark and indistinct stared down at him. Mortimer blinked. It must be a shadow – but how does a shadow have eyes? The shadow moved across the ceiling, then more of the shapeless black things appeared. Deep black eyes stared at him from shifting, formless bodies.

The shadows opened mouths filled with needle sharp grey teeth. Mortimer clutched at his chest, his already damaged heart racing. The whispering started again, this time accompanied by an occasional cackle or a hiss.

Mortimer tried to cry out, but the pain in his chest made even breathing difficult. He had no voice beyond a weak croak. The shadows detached from the ceiling, sprouted ragged wings and flew at him.

Mortimer thrashed at the creatures, trying to get enough breath to shout for help. His chest constricted in agony, the pain shot along his flailing arms and into his head.

Around him, the shadows circled in the air, whispering and chuckling. They swooped at him, never quite making contact, but close enough that he could smell their sewer breath.

His pulse pounding in his forehead, Mortimer stood and tried to get to the door. If he could get into the corridor there might be someone who could help. The shadows flew faster and faster around him, confusing his already blurred vision.

He sank to his knees, tears streaming down his face. His arms continued flailing around but more slowly. They felt like they were filled with lead and pain. The whispering grew louder although he could make out no words. Shadows took turns to swoop at his face and hiss, their teeth snapping shut just short of biting into his skin.

All Mortimer wanted at that moment was an end to this torment, and his heart provided just that. Stretched beyond its breaking point, it gave up and stopped beating. Mortimer fell onto his face, eyes open and drying in the dehumidified hospital air. Just before his brain shut down, he watched the shadows scramble at his face, desperate to inhale his dying breath. The silent darkness forming in his vision felt like one last blessed relief.


Doctor Ignatius Blackthorn popped open his cigarette case, took one out, lit it and took a long slow draw. He blew blue smoke into the air and addressed his audience of four.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said, “I think that was a quite convincing demonstration, don’t you agree?”

Three of the men opposite nodded their agreement. The fourth looked quite pale. That fourth man, Edward Thackeray, rubbed his hand over his face before speaking.

“It seems a somewhat inhumane way of killing someone. Is it ethical?”

Blackthorn could have snorted in derision but he maintained his outward calm. “Killing people at random can hardly be described as ethical, now can it? And that’s what we are discussing here. Besides, hidden cameras in hospital room breaks the ethics code right from the start.”

Thackeray ducked his head. “Of course, but it doesn’t really have to be so brutal, does it?”

“Well,” Blackthorn rubbed his chin. “It does look pretty brutal, but when they are found we want it to look like a heart attack. The drugs weaken the heart first, then the, ah, hallucinations induce the attack. They are found dead but there are no marks on the body to suggest foul play.”

Another man, Jeff Simmonds, raised his hand. “What was he seeing? We saw him thrashing around before he died but we couldn’t see what he was fighting against.”

Blackthorn ran his tongue over his lips and took a quick puff of his cigarette. “Hallucinations, brought on by the medication I gave him. Nothing for anyone else to worry about.”

“Indeed.” Samuel Vandt held a sceptical look. “We are aware of your interests in things that might not be properly termed ‘modern science’, Dr. Blackthorn.” He held up his hand. “Notwithstanding that, my question concerns the medication. If it is given in a pill form does it not eventually – ah – drop out of the other end, so to speak?”

“No.” Blackthorn took one last drag and stubbed out his cigarette in what appeared to the others to be a fake skull cap. “The contents of the pill are absorbed into the bloodstream where they assemble into the device required to produce the effect we desire. The effect can then be triggered by merely pushing a button and since pretty much everywhere is connected to the Internet now, that button can be pressed on the other side of the world.” He grinned. “You can take out one person or thousands at one press. As long as they have taken the medication.”

“And if they haven’t?” Tyler Ross spoke up. “How do we get the masses to take this stuff, and what do we do about those who refuse? There are going to be some.”

“Oh I’m sure there’ll be many.” Blackthorn sat back in his well-padded chair. “It won’t matter. It’ll eventually be in their food and their water. They won’t even know they had it.”

“But not ours, I hope?” Samuel Vandt narrowed his eyes.

“Of course not.” Blackthorn grinned. “Even if it was, you’d still need to press the call button to trigger the… effect.”

“I think we’ve seen enough.” Simmonds rose and buttoned his jacket. “You will of course furnish us with the necessary codes to target this weapon, and the means to trigger it?”

Blackthorn’s grin widened. “As soon as the balance of the payment hits my bank account. You will find it a very easy weapon to operate, so you will be able to remove any, ah, obstacles to your plans without arousing any suspicion at all.” He raised one finger. “As long as your subjects are not in public, or on any kind of camera, when you press the button. You really don’t want film of how they die making its way onto the internet.”

“Hell no.” Thackeray shuddered. “I don’t even want to see it myself. Better to just imagine that pressing the button turns them off.”

“That’s best. We don’t want anyone getting suspicious.” Vandt reached out to shake Blackthorn’s hand. “You’ll have the money by close of business today. When can we expect our deliveries?”

“They’ll arrive by private courier within moments of payment. I won’t be leaving any paper or digital trail, you understand.” Blackthorn shook the man’s hand. “Also, as long as nothing goes wrong – and it won’t – this is the last time we’ll meet in person. Goodbye, gentlemen, and I wish you well in your endeavours to create your brave new world.”


Alone in his office, Blackthorn considered his cigarette case. It was maybe too soon for another dose of his special blend, but what the hell. He had cause to celebrate. He reached for the case.

A shadow covered his hand. Dark eyes, black in black, stared at him. Grey pointed teeth smiled.

Blackthorn sighed and withdrew his hand. “You are right, of course. Too much can be bad for me.”

The shadow chittered. Blackthorn smiled. “Oh, don’t worry, my little incorporeal friend. You and your family will soon feast and grow. They will call you to those they think oppose them, and you will taste the final air to leave their lungs. There will be so very many.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “So very many. Those men think they will own the world. They think I’ve just sold it to them but they simply cannot grasp that their money is of no relevance here. It’s just part of the game. As long as people think it’s all about the money, they’ll never think to look for any other motive.”

The shadow chittered again. Blackthorn opened his eyes and ran his hand over the black-smoke wisps of its being. He smiled as the shadow curled around his fingers.

“You will grow stronger and bigger, and one day you will rival Baal’s Harab-Serapel. You will be glorious and powerful and nothing will ever be able to stop you. Moloch is going to be delighted with our work.”

The shadow purred.

Blackthorn took a deep breath. “Those men think they will rule the world. When they have done their part, you and your brothers will feast on their last breaths too. And then, when the herd has been reduced to a manageable level and you are all at your peak, we will truly have a world ready for Moloch’s rule.”

He reached for his laptop. “Are you hungry, my pet? There is someone in a private room, in another hospital, who is ready for you.”

Blackthorn typed a code and then pressed a button under his desk.

Chittering its delight, the shadow vanished.


There might be another one for Halloween itself, but no promises…

Entertainment: Construction Kit

A blast from the past. I wrote this in 2003. It was my first ever submission and my first ever accepted story. I admit it made me a bit cocky, and caused me to submit a few sub-par stories until I realised not every one was a winner. It’s the first story in ‘Fears of the Old and the New‘, a collection of the early published shorts. The ‘click to look inside’ gives you all of it apart from the last paragraph.

So, why do I post it now? The video linked at the end will give you a clue…

Construction Kit

My first submission was also my first story accepted for publication. This was in the online magazine Dark Fiction (www.darkfiction.org) in 2003. Here it is with all its beginner’s mistakes intact.

“Looks fine to me.” Doc Short looked up from the small boy in his examination chair. “Probably just overtired. You know how kids can get. Too much excitement, then they just throw a tantrum over the slightest thing. Good night’s sleep, that’s my prescription.” He smiled down at the boy. “On your way, Peter, the nurse will take you back to bed.” The child grinned at him as the nurse led him away. Strangely disquieting, the way these children smiled, Doc thought.

He looked around at Bill Wilson, his boss. Wilson was watching, grim-faced, as the child was led away. Once the child was out of earshot, he turned to Doc Short. “Some tantrum,” he said. “That little boy broke an orderly’s wrist. It took three of them – three grown men – to subdue him. Something is definitely wrong, Doc, something’s wrong with them all.”

Doc Short forced a smile. He had his own misgivings about the children, but he couldn’t put them into words. Just a feeling. “Well, of course they’re not normal,” he said. “They’ve hardly had a normal upbringing, have they? Stuck in here, never going outside, never meeting anyone else. There’s bound to be some, well, anomalous behaviour now and then.”

Wilson looked pensive. “They’re stronger than normal ten-year olds. Faster. More intelligent. And not just by a small margin. But you know that, Doc, You ran the tests yourself.” He sighed. “Maybe we should consider terminating the experiment.”

The words cut into Doc as though Wilson had stabbed him with them. “You can’t!” he said, louder than he had intended, “Sorry, Bill, but you know what that would mean. You can’t just ‘terminate’ seven healthy children.”

“They don’t exist, Simon,” Wilson said, avoiding Doc’s gaze. “They’re an experiment. Nobody outside the Project knows about them. They’re just products, we made them. We grew them from fertilized eggs, in the incubators. They have no mothers. No fathers. No family. They belong to the Project. Outside, they just don’t exist.”

Doc sat heavily in his chair. “Still, they’re alive, they’re real children. Bill, the whole point of this project was to make babies for childless couples, for women who couldn’t conceive, or who couldn’t carry a child to term. Twelve years on, and we’ve succeeded – in fact we succeeded ten years ago, when these seven were born. Why is it still a secret? Why aren’t we doing what we set out to do?”

“The children aren’t normal, Doc. You know that.”

“They’re better than normal, Bill. You said it yourself. I’ve never seen such fit, healthy, intelligent kids. Talk to them – they’ve learned everything there is to learn here, and more. Why, I reckon Thomas could run the whole process we used to make him, all on his own.”

Wilson looked up, his eyes wide. “What? But how – when – did he have access to the labs? None of them are allowed in there!”

Doc smiled. Thomas was his favourite. He had grown fond of all the children, but Thomas was like his own son. The boy had always been interested in biology, and had been fascinated by the labs.

“He found his own way in. Worked out the codes for the doors, I don’t know how, and just walked in. He’s been doing it since he was six, never caused any problems, just watched and learned. We never reported him because he’s such a great kid, and he really liked being in the labs.”

“You could get into serious trouble over this.” Wilson folded his arms. “It has to stop, now, and…” A scream from outside cut him off. “What was that?” he said. For a moment he and Doc just looked at each other, then a second scream had them both racing for the door.

Along the corridor, at the far end, was a flickering light. “Fire!” Wilson started into a run. Doc was close behind him. Rounding the corner, they stopped abruptly, horror crushing their insides into nausea. It was a fire all right, and it was walking around.

The flames engulfed a large figure, arms flailing, dark mouth gaping soundlessly, the vocal chords already consumed. The figure collided with the wall, sending showers of sparks and flame into the air. Its eyes had melted, as had most of its features, and its last breath was not air, but combusting gases as it fell to form a lifeless, melting, stinking flesh-pool on the floor in front of them.

Wilson and Doc stared, mouths gaping, at the remains of the orderly. Simultaneously they noticed the children, standing on the far side of the flaming corpse.

Wilson found his voice. “What….what happened?” The children shouldn’t see this, said half of his brain. Why are they smiling? asked the other half. Doc Short didn’t speak, he simply placed a hand on the wall and emptied his breakfast into a slippery smear on the floor.

Peter grinned at Wilson, and pointed. “Your fault!” he shouted. “You caused this!”

Wilson stared at him through the flames, the smoke, the smell of charred flesh. “What do you mean, Peter? How could I cause this?” The cold stares of all the children were on him now, he felt the temperature fall around him despite the heat of the incinerated orderly just yards away.

Elaine grinned that maniacal grin they all shared. “You wanted to kill us. We can’t let you do it, we don’t want to.” Her pout was that of a ten-year-old but the flare in her eyes betrayed thoughts well beyond her years.

“How…how could you know that?” Wilson was in shock, he couldn’t see the hole he was digging for himself. “I had only just thought those things myself.”

Diane looked almost sympathetic. “You tested us. You tested everything you could think of – but you didn’t test the things beyond your understanding. How could you? Poor Uncle Bill, you never knew the powers, the abilities we have because you don’t know how to look for them. So you see, all this is your fault, not ours. We just want to stay alive.”

Thomas moved forward. “It was your fault from the start, Uncle Bill. You wanted to be God, to create life, but you forgot one thing. Life isn’t just the body. There’s more, much more. You gave us life, but you couldn’t give us souls.”

“So we found our own,” Richard said. “Or rather, to be accurate, we souls found these bodies you so kindly made for us. That’s the one flaw in your program that you never saw. You can create bodies, but they’re empty, soulless. Ideal for us.”

A snigger from behind made Wilson turn abruptly, then sink to his knees. Elaine was behind him – so was Peter! How? They could not have passed him in the narrow corridor, could not have passed the still smoking orderly, could not have stepped over Doc’s slumped, vacant-eyed form, without him noticing. As he stared, a pale light formed beside Peter, and gradually resolved into the solid form of Claire, with a smile that was half-amusement, half-contempt. Wilson slumped forward, shaking his head.

“That’s how you did it, Thomas. That’s how you kept getting into the lab.” Doc’s voice was barely audible, drifting from his blank face like smoke from a candle. “You didn’t learn the door codes, you just…just transported yourself through the door.” He was staring at Thomas as though he was seeing through him, through his flesh to what lay underneath.

Thomas looked at Doc with pity and obvious superiority, the nearest he could manage to kindness, like a goldfish owner looks at his pet. “Close, Doc. I didn’t go through the door, I went under it and over it and around it. We can use a dimension at right-angles to your three – too complicated to explain to your poor, limited brain, I’m afraid.”

“What are you? What have we created?” Wilson looked up, still hugging himself in fear. “What will you do?”

Stephen, always the quiet one, grinned at Thomas. “Should we tell? Should we tell them our secret?” he asked. The others looked at Thomas expectantly.

“Why not?” Thomas said, with a wide and evil smile. “They won’t be telling anyone else, after all. You tell them, Stephen.”

Stephen fixed his grin on Wilson, “We are, what you would call, demons.” he said. “We have no bodies of our own, never did. We’re not ghosts or spirits of the dead, we’ve never had access to your world. Oh, we’ve tried. We’ve tried to possess the bodies of the living but it never works. The soul puts up quite a fight, you see. We either lose the battle and get expelled, or destroy the body in the fight. Some of us have held power over bodies for a time, but never for long, and we could never bring all of our powers with us. The soul always got in the way.” His face twisted in bitter remembrance.

Peter took over. “Now it’s different. Your cloning methods produced soulless bodies. We took possession when they were still in the incubators. There was no fight, so the possession was perfect. We have the bodies and we still have all of our demonic powers. We’re here to stay now, and we can bring more of our kind through.”

A sudden hope dawned on Wilson. “No.” he said. “You won’t. You’re sterile, all of you. You can’t reproduce. There will be no next generation of demons. You’re all there is.” Finally, he thought, some triumph. They haven’t won after all.

The children’s laughter was deafening, and fell like hammers on Wilson’s head, confusing his thoughts.

“Fool!” Thomas shouted. “We don’t need to reproduce by your primitive, messy and unreliable human methods. We can produce all the soulless bodies we need, right here. You’ve provided us with the construction kit.” He gave Wilson a look of sardonic amusement. “Every little boy should have a construction kit, after all. This project, this building is secret. You made sure of that. Nobody knows of its existence, nor of our existence. The staff have no families, no-one to tell your secret to, so no-one to miss them.  Food is delivered, paid for automatically, so we don’t even have to worry about that. For all this, we thank you.” He turned to Doc with a smile. “And thank you, Doc, for showing us how to run your little kit. Your reward will be painless.”

Doc looked up, his face displaying his grasp of the implication. His eyes turned white in an instant as he slumped back, lifeless, against the wall.

The children turned their attention to Wilson. “Your reward is a little different,” Peter said, sniggering. “But first, we have to thank you, It’s only polite.” His smile was contempt incarnate.

Stephen spoke solemnly: “Yes, Uncle Bill. We thank you for your gift of life, and for the gift of those who are to come.” All the children joined in, as if in prayer. “We will not forget how you brought us to this world, and how you provided us with the means to bring all of the others here. Thank you, Uncle Bill. Thank you, and goodbye.”

Wilson could not contain the horror in his mind and hardly noticed the ache in his joints until they began to unravel. As his body dismembered itself in a symphony of agony, he thought he heard himself screaming.

It took nearly 20 years for this one to get close to reality.

Three wheels on my wagon…

Remember that song? I doubt many do.

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

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

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

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

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

Cure it? Find a cure? Isolate the infected?


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

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

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

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

Look at this. Just look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthology 17 and author payments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gene Genies

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

Well, now there is. In chickens.

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

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

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

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

The Gene Genie

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

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

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

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

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

“What reason?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

It should be a big sign in every laboratory.

Entertainment Time – Christmas Trees

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


Christmas Trees

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

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

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

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

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

George coughed. “Well…”

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

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

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

George blinked. “Is that possible?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George smiled a wide and smug smile.

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

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

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

“Scam?” Tiddles perked up.

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

Tiddles scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!