A timeless plot device

FICTION

In one of the stories in The Unfinished Literary Agency, a writer loses his most cherished possession: a pen. Even though I prefer to use a keyboard (I can type faster than I write (neatly, at least)), and although I refer to my laptop as a typewriter, the pen (or pencil) is the most basic, portable and enduring tool of the writer. And so it is in this other story, where it’s used as a plot device. A previous draft of this appeared on this blog, but this is the final version, from the book.

I used to think I might one day be a prominent scientist or writer. When I became neither, I decided to be a sci-fi writer, and apparently I’m quite good at that. This story was co-written with my son (13), who knows about as much of what he wants to do with his life as I did at that age. One of his many aspirations is to be a writer, and although I’ve advised him not to take the route I did, I’ll encourage him only if he decides that’s what he wants to do. Whatever he does, he has a story in a published book with an ISBN, which grants him some sort of immortality. He’s got a copy of the book, but he’s a teenager, so it’s easier for his peers to read it on a screen…

tower_bridge_wp

THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

Animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’, and all in longhand, using an old silver and black pen. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder.

Hello, human,” one of them said.

“Hello,” Eve replied.

“What’s your name?” The crow asked.

“Eve.”

“Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Desiato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room.

“Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

“Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

“Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

“Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

“Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

“Would you like your chair?”

“Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

“So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

“Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

“Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

“Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

“It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

“Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

“But how can I hear you?”

“Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

“One of them.”

“Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

“And others followed.”

“Many. Then everyone.”

“So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

“Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

“But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

“I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

“It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

“It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

“How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

“Lonely.”

“That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

“I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

“Who’s she?”

“He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

“A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

“Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

“I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

“If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

“You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

“Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

“Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

“I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

“But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

“There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

“That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

“Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

“Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

“Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

“Looked at like this, yes.”

“But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

“It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

“Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

“He was in London Zoo?”

“Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

“Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

“So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

“And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

“I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

“You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

“I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

“Why’s that?”

“Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

“It was a human thing?”

“It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

“Which was?”

“The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

“So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

“What’s not?”

“Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

“So where do we look?”

“Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person.

“This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out, right here, where it began.

“It all started with a simple device: an old pen, and it’s a story close to my heart. But now it’s yours.”

Jules reached into his breast pocket and handed Eve a silver and black pen.

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

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A cardboard Christmas sky

FICTION

It was four years ago today that I found myself on the streets, an alcoholic. But this story has only a part of me in it. It’s about the other people out there. They are the quiet ones, and those aren’t monsters under the bed. These are the ghosts…

Christmas Cardbord Sky

CARDBOARD SKY

The story of how I became a ghost is surprisingly ordinary: I died. My actual passing was like that moment when you fall asleep every night: You don’t remember it. The next day, you’ll remember being awake before you slept; you know you’ve been sleeping and you may recall dreams. But you won’t remember the transit from wakefulness to slumber. So dying was just like that, for me at least.

It didn’t take long to realise I was dead because people just stopped talking to me. I could still walk around but no-one could see or hear me. A couple of times, people just walked straight through me, as though I wasn’t there. I wasn’t but I was.

When someone walks through you when you’re a ghost, you get to know a lot more about them on the inside. I don’t mean how their internal organs look (just like in a hospital documentary or horror film) but a feeling of their inner self. It’s surprising how many people you thought you knew turn out to be complete twunts.

Even though I was invisible and inaudible, I felt vulnerable in this brave new world. I’m used to being looked at. I like it. I dress provocatively. But here, no-one was looking at me, which made me anxious. I felt invisible. I was invisible. That’s how I ended up sleeping under George’s bed.

So kids: It’s not a monster under the bed, it’s a ghost.

It was while I was under there that I decided to write this story.

I’d suddenly found myself homeless. I had no personal belongings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. But like any child’s bed, George’s had cardboard boxes underneath it. I wouldn’t pry into something which might be private, but like most children’s beds, George’s sat above a wasteland of discarded ephemera: a little-used word but for the purposes of this story, it was the right one. It’s a collective noun, for things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Or collectable items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Ephemera also has a certain supernatural aura about it (Ephemeral, an adjective meaning lasting for a very short time), so to a ghost and a writer, it suits the story very well.

As a ghostwriter, I could be anyone I wanted. I could do that in cardboard city but I had less to worry about under the bed.

It wasn’t me writing the story; I was employing someone else. When a man writes something, he is judged on his words. When a woman writes, it is she who is judged. Being a ghost was perfect. Because if a ghost writes the story, then they control it. If a ghost tells this story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Among the discarded stationery, I found a note: ”If you don’t finish that story, I will personally punch you in the face. Cool?” I had no idea who’d written it, nor the circumstances surrounding it. I assumed it was a note given to George. Or it might have been one he’d planned to give to someone else and thought better of it. It could just as easily have been addressed to me. Whatever, and if nothing else, it was a kick start. Sometimes that’s what we need.

It wasn’t a physical kick (There was no room under the bed) but it was a mental jolt, like the friend who places an arm around your shoulder and tells you they believe in you. That’s a very brave thing for them to do, because the kind of person who says that kind of thing is going to end up stuck with you.

I needed something to sustain me while I wrote, but I was under George’s bed. I had no idea how the rest of the house was laid out, so I wouldn’t know where to find the food. It occurred to me that even if I found any food, I was ill-equipped to cook it. One revelation leads to another: Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?

Eventually, I’d gathered enough odd paper to make a useful pad. All I could find to write with was a crayon. A fucking green crayon. So then I began to write, in green crayon.

Should I really have been denied drugs, when it was that which drove me, once I learned to control it? Should those who thought they knew better have removed my lifeline? If I’d allowed them to do so, I’d surely have died from the withdrawal. At least that’s what I was afraid of. So I kept going. I kept shooting up. Then I ran away. I was 16.

Once you’re 18, the law says you can leave home without your parents’ or guardians’ permission. Strictly speaking, if you’re 16 or 17 and you want to leave home, you need your parents’ consent. But if you leave home without it, you’re unlikely to be made to go back unless you’re in danger. You are extremely unlikely to be obliged to return home if that’s where the danger lies.

It didn’t matter to me that I had nothing. Just as long as I could get a fix, I had all I needed. Even personal safety and well being become passengers when the heroin is driving.

There’s a dark magic within you. A frightful thing I cling to.

But as a ghost I couldn’t score, just as I couldn’t eat.

So I had nothing to do but write. It would be romantic to write that the flow of ink from my pen replaced the alchemy running through my veins, but I was writing with a green crayon.

The writing was a distraction, but it couldn’t mask the withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that even being dead can’t do that. So I was faced with the prospect of cold turkey, a cruel joke as I was hungry and couldn’t eat.

How could I write but not be able to eat? Actually I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was delirium tremens brought on by my withdrawal, or the limitations of my new body, but I had no fine motor skills. I could rummage through things and pick them up, but I couldn’t do something like thread a needle if anyone had asked. I probably wouldn’t have been able to put a needle in a vein if I was alive, and I certainly couldn’t make my hands write. My fine motor skills were like those of a toddler. So I simply did what many authors do: They have an idea, some thoughts, a plot, and they’ll employ someone else to write their story for them: A ghostwriter. I was both a writer and a ghost. So I just thought my story; I willed it, in the hope that someone else might write it one day, now that I couldn’t.

I needed to haunt George.

I’ve read a lot and learned through self-teaching. I could have been so many things if it wasn’t for chasing the dragon. But that dragon must be chased, just as a puppy must be played with. So I’d read up on ghosts and the various types of haunting.

The “Crisis Apparition” is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.

“The reluctant dead” are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living, but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with “unfinished business” broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the “vengeful ghost”; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

“Residual ghosts” usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the “intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder.

All I could see of George when he first came into the room was his feet: Black elasticated plimsolls and white socks, like I used to wear for PE. I couldn’t say what size his feet were but I imagined them having a boy of about ten years old attached to them. I guessed George was quite a hefty lad by the way the sky fell slightly as he climbed onto the bed above me.

I laid still, because even though I myself was inaudible, my developing motor skills would betray me if I dropped the crayon or kicked anything. I could hear pages being turned and I was aware of movement above me. It could be that George was writing; doing homework perhaps. I didn’t want to entertain an alternative. I hoped he was writing.

No matter what we do in this life, we may eventually be forgotten. It’s a comfort I gain from writing, knowing that whatever’s published is recorded, and will be out there long after I’ve gone. The democratisation of publishing and reporting has meant many good and bad things, but for as long as the conversation is global, we need to keep it going. There may be voices with whom we disagree, but through writing, we can posit an alternative opinion and seed a debate. Beyond all that is happening in our constantly evolving universe is a simple fact: What is right will win. What is right can emerge from the anarchic democracy which is the internet, but only if there are enough voices. There will always be sides and factions but with everyone involved, those who engage the most because they are passionate enough will prevail. We don’t need to shout louder than the other side; we simply need to educate the ignorant. Evolution will tell the story of whether we became a liberal race and prospered, or if we destroyed ourselves because we were unable to evolve. Either way, history will record it. If we destroy ourselves, eventually our history will be lost in the vastness of space and time, and it may be as though we never existed. From the quiet above, I gathered George was quite a deep thinker.

There’s only one race on this planet and that’s the one we all belong to: The human race. Where death may scare most people, it doesn’t trouble me. I’m seeing evidence that the human consciousness exists independently from the body and continues to live after our bodies give up or we destroy them. What does scare me is even more existential: Being forgotten, as though I never existed. The human race faces an existential threat: That of ignorance. Simply by talking, we can make a difference. Listen to the previous generations, for they are our history. Talk to the next generation and don’t patronise them: They’re intelligent beings. They are the human race and the future. Maybe George would be heard one day.

After a while, the sky fell further and the lights went out. George had retired for the night.

Ghosts can see in the dark. As soon as George had been quiet long enough for me to be sure he was asleep, I was getting restless. I moved around and stretched a bit. I’d managed to keep the shakes under control, but now George was asleep, the withdrawal was becoming quite uncomfortable. Despite my anxiety and a developing agoraphobia, I was tempted to just get out and run around; to do something to distract myself. I decided against it. I’d be like a child who’d just learned to walk. I would bump into things and knock things over. I didn’t want George to have a poltergeist: They’re bad. I’m not bad and I didn’t want to be the victim of an exorcism, made homeless all over again.

I thought I’d try my night vision out and have another go at writing. I managed to draw a crude stick man, a house with a smoking chimney and a space rocket with flames coming out of the bottom. He was a green man, who lived in a green house (so shouldn’t throw stones) and he had a green rocket which burned copper sulphate fuel (copper sulphate produces a green flame). I wasn’t evolved enough to write.

I fought an internal flame: One which was a danger I wanted to flee but at the same time, a beckoning warmth. I didn’t know what time of day it was, and I had no idea how long George slept for. He might be one of those kids who was in and out of the bathroom all night, or he might be near enough to adolescence that he hibernated. Either way, or anywhere in between, I couldn’t keep still for even a minute.

The shakes were more like tremors now: Delirium tremens: a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation. Heroin withdrawal on its own does not produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or delirium tremens. The DTs were the manifestation of my other addiction, which I’d used heroin to cover up. It was somehow less shameful to be an addict of an illegal substance and hence a victim, than it was a legal drug which most people can consume with no ill effects. As an alcoholic, I was less of a victim. I was a sadomasochist.

As soon as you tell people you’re an alcoholic, if they don’t recoil, they just assume you’re always drunk. Or they presume that you must never touch a drop. Both are true in some alcoholics but there’s the “functioning alcoholic”, who still drinks far more than anyone should but who doesn’t get drunk. They can get drunk, but most functioning alcoholics simply drink throughout the day (a kind of grazing), to keep the delirium tremens and other dangerous side effects of alcohol cessation at bay. It’s called Alcohol Dependence Syndrome but most people saw it as a cop out. I couldn’t educate the ignorant, or get them to listen long enough for me to explain. So I started taking drugs. I got so tired of trying to explain alcoholism to people, educating their ignorance, that I gave up. You get much more sympathy as a drug addict. Yeah, right!

So as in life, this once functioning alcoholic is now a ghost.

For the brief period that I was on the road in the last life, one saying; one sentiment, was always to be heard in the homeless community: “Be safe”. Those two words convey much more than their brevity would suggest. But when you’re homeless, relationships and lives are fragile. It’s quicker and less sentimental to say “Be safe” to someone you may never see again than “I love you”.

Even if I was restless, I felt safe under George’s bed. To keep busy, I broke a promise and looked in the cardboard boxes. I placed the green crayon in my mouth, like a green cigarette. I sucked on it like a joint and the taste of wax was actually quite pleasant. It helped just a little as a distraction from the shakes.

The first box was a complete mixture: Sheets of paper, smaller boxes and random other stuff; like a model car, some Lego and, well, just all sorts. I gathered the papers first.

Some of George’s notes were apparently to himself: They were in a handwriting different to the first note I saw, so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but one such note read, “You came close a few times but you backed off. You didn’t want to be one of those boys who made her cry. That’s the only reason you did it.” If they were intended for someone else, he’d not delivered them.

There were unopened presents, and gifts addressed to others, but George hadn’t delivered them. Some things were wrapped, while others weren’t, but they were clearly intended for someone else as they had notes attached. A packet of 20 Marlborough Lights: “Should really have got two tens, then I could have given mum and dad one each. Like that’s going to stop them.”

I’d not seen or heard the parents. Without knowing even what day of the week it was, there could be many scenarios. In one, George’s parents argued a lot but they were very much in love. Perhaps they were frustrated and united against a common foe. With my parents, that was me. Whatever it was, I imagined something bonding them and keeping them together. That could have been George I suppose.

I wondered at what point in human evolution it might have been, that we started analysing things and where we started to over-analyse. Marriage guidance, or relationship management; fucking counselling, from professionals and the plastic police alike: We all have someone. We all love someone. They care about us and vice versa. But over time, something’s not right, so we take the lid off and start poking around in that jar. We keep chipping away, feeling more free to say things in an environment, which we might not in another. And eventually we say something irreversible. Something that’s niggling us deep inside and which doesn’t affect us until it’s dug up. And from there, the relationship breaks down further and ever more of the undead join the feast.

Rather than encourage engagement, that kind of situation can invoke the fight or flight reflex in the previous life; the past. And whether fleed or not, the past is history.

So we arrive in the next life with so much unsaid. We want to say it but we have to learn all over again, how to speak. And I suppose that’s why we want to haunt people.

George woke up. A light was switched on and the sky above me moved. I waited for the feet from above but there were none. There was movement like before, and the sound of paper. George must have been writing. Or drawing. After what I guessed to be around 20 minutes, he stopped, the light went out and the sky moved again. I was trembling quite violently by then, so I bit down on the crayon between my teeth and returned my attention to the boxes.

I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

Do the first one: Get to know yourself and be happy with what you are. Then do the second: Those who loved you first time around will be the ones who are still there. So you’re not lonely.

Life, packaged.

The human body is merely a temporary host.

Put like that, we simply inhabit a body for a period of time, like a possession; In “life” we are already ghosts possessing bodies which give us physical form. That organic structure will age and eventually die, but our consciousness is separate from what we look at as a living body and it goes on living, long after the host gives up. Life, as we know it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. Knowledge comes with death’s release. You may well have lived in another body in a previous life: Deja vu tells us that; that feeling that you’ve been somewhere before. George had deep dreams.

The trembling had reached my head. There was more than one person in there, and the dialogue was two-way. I wasn’t talking to myself; I was talking to another person.

I began to realise that perhaps George and I were somehow connected. I always subscribed to pre-determinism in principle. A part of me knew that the Big Bang carried an imprint equal to its original noise; that everything was mapped out in that pre-spacetime manifestation of knowledge and understanding. I was drawn to believe that our futures were mapped out long ago, but that they were as inaccessible as our pasts: We had no control over either. Great swathes of George were alien to me. But why wouldn’t I explore, if George was my destiny? Or it could be the withdrawal, and I may have been withdrawing to a comfort zone. I couldn’t do that to George. What had this kid done to deserve me, inside him?

Life had been very much a game of give and take: If George had taken something, then he was indebted to someone else. If he received something and it wasn’t in recognition of anything he’d done, he was in someone else’s debt. When he gave something, he expected nothing back. It was simply an accepted fact that life gave back far less than was put in. No-one understood him, least of all himself. Did ICould I?

His life revolved around visits to toy fairs with his father. They couldn’t afford the mint-and-boxed or the ready-made, so dad would just look around and George would use pocket money to buy spacecraft parts.

Broken and incomplete model kits were fuel for George’s shipyard in a cardboard box under the bed. When weekends were over, the shipyard had to remain where it was. When George was at his dad’s to build his craft, he didn’t. Because time was too valuable. So we were at George’s father’s house and it was the weekend.

When he wasn’t constructing, he was thinking. And he made more notes. He made the normal in my life fantastical, by explaining how science fiction writers were just one small step ahead of the real world. George knew I was there, or at least that it was possible for me to physically be there.

There were clippings from newspapers and magazines in the next box, including an obituary: Jemma Redmond was a biotechnologist who died aged 38 in 2016, like so many others in that awful year. The passing of her life was overshadowed by many more well-known figures in the public eye. But like George, she worked quietly, tirelessly and passionately. And she achieved some incredible things. She developed a means of using human tissue cells as “ink” in a 3D printer. She also helped in the design of 3D printers which reduced the cost of their manufacture. Jemma Redmond made it possible to “print” human organs for transplant into patients, and she reduced the cost so that the technique could be applied in the developing world. This is not science fiction. This is science fact, just a few years from now. Most people wouldn’t have known, unless it was brought to their attention and they then had the attention span to listen. But if anyone were to Google her name, her work is recorded in modern history.

There was a printout of a scientific paper about NASA’s EMdrive. The Electro Magnetic drive is a fuel-free means of propulsion, which could replace rocket fuel and all its limitations of bulk and speed. The EMdrive could take a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days. At present, it’s a two year trip, with a lot of psychological and physiological risks to any humans making the journey. Many of those problems would be overcome with the EMdrive. It’s due for testing soon and with development and improvement, could make other stars in the galaxy viable destinations for exploration and research. This is not science fiction. He had articles about solar sail arrays, the size of Colorado, taking tiny scout ships out to explore the cosmos ahead of humans. All of this could be possible within George’s lifetime.

But very few people know about these things because all of the bad news in the world shouts louder. If more people knew about the technological and scientific thresholds we’re at, they might talk about them. Others would then learn and eventually there might be a chorus of voices so loud that mankind has to listen and consider another way forward for the species.

George thought what a wonderful world ours could be if we concentrated on this stuff, rather than religion, conflict and capitalism. Of course, George was young and naïve in the eyes of most. He’d never be taken seriously if he proposed an alternative plan for humankind. So he kept and curated records, and he wrote about them. Like so many other people, he was recording his thoughts in the hope that someone might discover them later, or when he was older and might be taken more seriously. He was aware that he was documenting the present and the contemporary, and that it could become either history or the future.

My trembling had almost taken control of my limbs by now. Where it was first shaky fingers, then hands, now my arms and legs ached as though they needed to spasm.

The light went on again and the sky moved. There was more rustling of papers and scribbling with a pen or pencil. I started singing a song in my head, as I wondered something: I knew I didn’t need to eat, but would I need to get my hair cut out here? It was a song by the Crash Test Dummies: God shuffled his feet. If crash test dummies were to have nervous systems, I knew how one might feel by now. The light went off and the little big man upstairs settled back down. I needed coffee: lots of cream, lots of sugar.

My coffee used to come from a jug on a hotplate. George was planning a replicator. He explained in his notes how a replicator was just one step further on from a 3D printer. Scientists could already print human body parts after all. To print a cup, then some coffee to fill it, was actually quite simple. George was keen to point out in his notes that one should always print the cup before the coffee.

Like the quiet voices of mankind, George could only imagine. He could only wonder at the sky, or lie in bed and dream of what was beyond the ceiling. Humans travelling to other stars was one lifetime away. It was only a matter of generations before the dream could be anyone’s reality. George wanted to be anyone.

George escaped in his sleep. And he explained in his notes how it was possible to travel all over the universe. Not only was it possible, but everyone does it, every night. Everyone has dreams and George wrote his down. The spacecraft and all of its missions were in the same cardboard box; a microcosm universe beneath George’s bed. He explained how time travel could be possible:

It’s a simple matter of thinking of space and time as the same thing: Spacetime. Once you do that, it’s easier to visualise the fourth dimension: I am lying beneath a bed and I’m occupying a space in three dimensions (X,Y and Z); my height (or length), width and depth. Trembling limbs aside, I will occupy the same space five minutes from now. So the first three dimensions have remained constant, but the fourth (time) has changed. But also, I did occupy that same space five minutes previously. That, and every moment in between is recorded in the fabric of space time: I am still there, five minutes ago. I know the past. I don’t know if I’ll still be here five minutes hence: I can’t predict the future, even though it may be pre-planned from the start of all time as we understand it.

Of course, there is what’s known as The Grandfather Paradox: This states that if I were to travel back in time and kill my granddad, I would cease to exist. But if we assume that in George’s new world order, various ethics committees exist in the future, then time travel to the past could be undertaken in a governed, regulated and ethical manor. It might be a little like the First Directive imagined in many science fiction works, where it’s forbidden to interfere in any way in a species’ development, even if that means remaining invisible whilst watching them destroy themselves. This in itself is a paradox because no-one is qualified to say that it hasn’t already happened, conspiracy theorists aside.

When you’re despairing late at night and you just wish someone was there, but you don’t really want anyone around. When you’re confused, perhaps by internal conflict. That’s when you need a guardian angel. If someone would just phone you at that time, that would be perfect, because you’re not bothering them. You’ve not caused them any trouble. Guardian angels need a sixth sense and the ability to travel back in time.

George estimated his brave new world to be around 200-250 years from now; perhaps ten generations. There was a long way to go and a lot to do, and George would most likely not see any of it. Or so he thought. He was young and he had much to learn, then he needed to learn how to deal with it. The things which George wanted to do were the things I regretted not doing.

All things considered, I thought it might be better to not let George know that one of his prophesies does come true. It was too soon. He wasn’t ready. I couldn’t let him know that it was possible to send letters from the future, or that people from the past could be visited. It was a one-way street, a bit like going to see grandma because she can’t get to you. The departed are still around, we just can’t normally see them. Often they’re just watching over us. Sometimes they might want to speak to us but we need to be receptive.

By now, my arms and legs were in full spasm and I could feel my torso waiting to convulse. I cleared everything from around me as quietly as I could, so as not to interrupt whatever dream was unfolding above me.

The human body has an internal mechanism which shuts it down when stimuli get too much. An inconsolable baby will cry itself to sleep, and if a pain becomes truly unbearable at any age, we will pass out. I hadn’t tried to sleep since I’d been dead, but it looked like I was about to be shown how to.

I don’t know how far I travelled in the fourth dimension but I was woken by a voice:

“Georgie?” It was a man’s voice. Dad was home.

“In here dad.” George calling to his dad was the first time I’d heard him speak.

“I got you your magazines.” Dad was now in the room, quieter but closer. He had big feet.

“Thanks dad.” George’s voice had changed. Now that he was speaking at a lower volume, his voice was deeper: Young George’s voice was breaking.

“Writing, the science one, and paper craft. Is that right?”

“That’s the ones. Thanks.”

“What’s all this?”

“Notes. I’m writing a story. Here.”

There was a long period of quiet. George was shifting about on the bed and his dad was pacing around the room. There was that same distinct sound of pages being turned that I’d grown used to.

“Jemma Redmond. I read about her. Amazing woman. Deserves a posthumous Nobel.

“The EMdrive, eh? That’s exciting. I think we’ll use that for the interstellar stuff, and the solar sail ships for the wider galactic vanguard missions.”

“There’s some pretty deep stuff in here Georgie. Did you do this all yourself?”

“Well, I kind of had some help.”

“From whom? I’d like to meet them.”

“You can’t dad.”

“Why not?”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Can I smile?”

“You may smile”. There was a pause. “So, I had a dream.”

“We all have those. What about?”

“Nothing specific. Just a load of dreams mixed into one I suppose.”

“So you wrote about it. It’s good to write down your dreams.”

“But not all of that writing is mine. See, there was this girl.”

“A girl? In your dream?”

“Yes. A small girl, with blonde fizzy hair. And green teeth.”

“Green teeth? Was she a witch? Is she under the bed?”

Shit!

“No. Well, she was kind of a witch. A dark witch but a good one. She was just wandering around, like she was showing me things. She might have been lost. I want to see her again.”

“I imagine you do. At least your witch has somewhere to live now.”

***

George left at the end of that weekend but it wasn’t the end of the story. He visits every weekend and he continues to record things for historians of the future. Eventually, he may realise that he was part of the machinery which kept the conversation going. He didn’t know this yet but he was encouraged in his chosen vocations.

I was there, under the bed. If I’d been able to write, I’d have just added a note for George:

Do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it and people might notice you. If not now, then in the future. Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today. Because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

Your life is not empty and meaningless, regardless of who is in it or absent from it. Your life is what you make it, for yourself and for future generations. Don’t give up.

Hopefully George will continue this story, now history, but in the hope that it might be read in the future. Perhaps he’ll find the notes I left him.

Dust to Funky. Be safe George.

To this day, Dad has never gone through George’s things under the bed. I’d have noticed.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Another nativity (a play)

FICTION

I asked the editor of Schlock webzine if he’d like to re-run what he’d previously called my “Idiosyncratic take on the Christmas story”, as I’d re-written it, as a play. So this is in this weekend’s double edition of that fine publication, where “Steve Laker gets into the Yuletide spirit with a ruthless, uncompromising deconstruction of immaculate conception”, which is nice of me.

It’s more anti-Christmas, crass commercialism and consumerism than Antichrist (my atheism is grounded in science, as the prosecution in this story), drawing attention by schlock pulp fiction, to other issues all too conveniently overlooked at this time of year. It’s Christmas, and one of my hats is that of the horror writer with a dark heart. Please take your seats…

Another nativity

ANOTHER NATIVITY

(Contains material which may offend)

Another year, another end of term, and another Christmas. A different group of children, at another school, and another nativity…

Why are they doing the nativity at a secondary school? It’s a primary school thing, surely.”

It’s art, apparently.”

It’s bollocks.”

Well, it says here, A modern artistic twist is given to the well-loved story of Mary and Joseph finding shelter at Christmas, so that they may have their boy child, born of the Lord.

Like I said then, bollocks.”

Actually, I’ve heard of the writer they drafted in. I’ve got a feeling this might be a bit different. And besides, it’s our fucking daughter.”

Oh, does she still live here?”

Yes, I know.”

She’s fucking twelve. Where is Maz anyway?”

She’s at the school. There’s food.”

Oh, that’s a clincher then…”

 

Parents, guardians, family and friends, welcome to our production of Another Nativity for the stage.

The following is a true story, a Christmas message, adapted from the bible…

Act I

It was the old-school cheap props method of a cushion up her jumper which made Marilyn feel so secure on stage. She was pregnant. She couldn’t make out her father in the audience. This was a nativity, nothing else.

The stomach cramps were stage fright, only that. The audience out there really cared. She could get over this and speak her lines, after so many weeks of rehearsal. It was just a nativity. A man speaks:

Marilyn, we’re here to tell a story and we need your help. You are welcome here. Tell us first, how you came to be here.”

Joe and me have been walking for three days. We’re homeless because my dad chucked us out. As you can see, I’m pregnant. We came here for the health care and to register the birth.”

How did you come to be with child?”

I was raped.”

By whom, Marilyn?”

I don’t know. I didn’t see him.”

The child is not your partner’s?”

No.”

No. Thank You Marilyn. To spare you further questions for now, I will refer to the statement which you made previously under oath.

You suspected that you were pregnant because you’d missed a period, so you took a test. The test was positive. You thought little of it, hoping that the test was incorrect or that the problem would go away. Is that correct?”

Yes.”

You met Joe around two weeks after this, and a month into the relationship, you had unprotected sexual intercourse for the first time. Your hymen was ruptured and you bled. Is this right? Is this what you said?”

Yes.”

Confused, you thought that this might be your existing pregnancy miscarrying, so you took another pregnancy test immediately after that first sexual encounter: it too was positive. Correct?”

Yes.”

It was too soon after you’d had intercourse with Joe for his sperm to have penetrated any eggs in your womb, yet he had clearly taken your virginity. Therefore, it would seem that you’d been pregnant and a virgin at the same time.

I should like to call on Doctor Bateman. Doctor: you have examined the patient. Can you confirm the stage of her pregnancy?”

Yes, your honour. Based on the current size and development of the foetus, the patient is 20 weeks pregnant. This would place the date of conception several weeks prior to her first sexual encounter with her current partner.

Of course, the hymen can become ruptured in many ways besides intercourse. It is possible to be a virgin whilst not having an intact hymen but it is impossible to become pregnant with the hymen intact. I wish to hand you over to Inspector Aldred.”

Thank you doctor. Your honour: the doctor is of course correct in her statement. Our priority was to identify the father of the child. The claimant’s partner had volunteered for a DNA swab. Clearly we also needed the DNA of the mother and baby. This was gained with consent. I can confirm that the claimant’s partner is not the father of the unborn child. Furthermore, the unborn child’s DNA is identical to that of the mother.”

Which suggests a number of things Inspector.”

Yes your honour. We can discount accidental insemination through heavy petting, simply by virtue of the DNA tests. This leaves two scientific explanations for a baby which carries only the DNA of its mother. I shall return the stage to Doctor Bateman.”

Thank you Inspector. The first possibility is that the claimant produced a clone of herself. This has been observed in the natural world. However, any parthenogenetic progeny of a mammal would have two X chromosomes and would therefore be female: this child is male.

The remaining possibility is that the claimant is carrying a chimera. It is extremely unlikely but nonetheless possible, in theory at least, that an egg could be cloned by the mother, develop through the embryonic stage and only then be fertilised by male sperm to make the embryo viable. There is much academic research on the subject but it is not a phenomenon which has been observed under scientific conditions.”

It is therefore highly unlikely Doctor?”

Yes your honour.”

Thank you doctor. It would appear that there are two possibilities: the first is improbable and the second, more so. Either young Marilyn here has self-produced an embryo which her partner has then fertilised, or the alternative is quite fantastical.

The only remaining explanation is an immaculate conception. This would be a miracle and therefore, grounded in something other than science. But it goes further than religion and faith as well, because the most important thing of all, is how Marilyn feels about all of this.”

I feel sick.”

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we’ll take an interval. Court is in recess.”

Unseen backstage, Marilyn is being tended by three wise souls and three shepherds. In this production, those roles are respectively opportunist capitalists, looking to package up a religion and sell it, and those who might otherwise guide her: legal counsel, social services, and rehabilitation advisers.

While the jury has retired, we should like the public gallery to consider the implications of this unique case.

It cannot be denied that young Marilyn is pregnant, so we have to consider two possibilities: That she is pregnant with her partner’s child but through naivety rather than intention, and it is highly unlikely in any case. Equally unlikely however, is that she may have had an immaculate conception and is carrying the child of God. Either way, she is the incubator, the transport and the means of delivery. The foetus is viable but still at a stage where it may be legally aborted.

There are other ethical matters to consider however, albeit some theoretical: if she is carrying the son of God, who has the authority to deny that child’s life? If the father were to be her partner, there is no way to prove this, nor indeed is there sufficient proof that that the two of them may have engaged in underage sex.

Given the evidence before us, I have reached a decision.

I invite you to join us in court, for Act II.

Marilyn, firstly, I commend your courage in taking the stand today, and sharing your story with us. It’s a story which some might otherwise use for their own immoral gain, but your testament, and the expert evidence presented here today, allow us to prove something different, and to change the way people think, that while beliefs are to be respected, they should not deny liberty.

Even though I’m an atheist who can also reconcile some religious theory with science, I have to rule on something which others might consider superior to me. But as a judge, I must transcend beliefs, and witness false deities worshipped by the gullible. Standing before me, metaphorically – or some would believe, all around – is God. A god who refuses to be questioned, for questioning denies faith. I put it to this god, that questioning faith is a human liberty, and should he wish to be judged, let him stand before this court.

God had sex with you, Marilyn, without your consent. The conception may be immaculate, but the situation which I am faced with is unprecedented. With the eyes of the law, I see before me a 12-year-old girl who is pregnant. I will recommend that further counselling might be appropriate, so that you may retain the liberty of choice. I will ensure that choice is informed.

God, I find you guilty of rape, and of sex with a minor. Sentence is simply that which you desire: for stories of your deeds to be told in public. Marilyn, is there anything you’d like to add, anything you’d like to say to God?”

Yeah. I didn’t ask for this child, so why should I carry it for you? Maybe so he can spend thirty years tricking people about his old man, a filthy old kiddy-fiddler. But this kid can make amends for that, by killing himself, or as the other story goes, God gave his own son. Why? Because he thought he’d be found out? I can write stories too.

The son of God, who feeds the starving, by breaking bread and making wine, proclaiming that all those who consume it will be taking his body and his blood. Cannibalism by self-flagellation.

You are one sick and twisted old man, God. Behold, meat stolen from a fucking supermarket, for my family’s Christmas dinner, born to you this day from my vestal virgin vagina. Witness, the son of God, still-born on stage.”

From all at the school, and the many others who worked on this production, we thank you for coming. We hope to see you again for our Easter production.

Thank you for your Harvest Festival donations this year. All of the basics tinned goods which no-one else wanted are very welcome. Next year, please bring something worthwhile for the homeless, especially the girls. We desperately need sanitary products.

Have a very merry Christmas.

© Steve Laker, 2017

A twisted restaurant review

HORROR FICTION

I don’t get out much (whether this is a good thing is debatable), but when I do, I’ll go somewhere I could only make up. So when a retiring restaurant critic dined out with a colleague, he wrote a review of the evening (which includes unpalatable content)…

August Underground CoversAugust Underground’s films are deeply disturbed

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Saturday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Ergo, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total cunt, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture. Although I just called my agent a cunt, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2017

My next collection of short stories – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is published in January.

Ghostwriting with Botnik

THE WRITER’S LIFE | AI FICTION

In between sci-fi, family history, and other people’s real lives all getting mixed up with my own, I sometimes go off and do something random, to see what happens. So I read an article in The Guardian, of how a predictive AI wrote ‘Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash’. Then I wondered what would happen if I let it loose on Cyrus Song. It might even help me write what I’m really thinking…

robot-writing_1024

As one reviewer said of my (critically-acclaimed) sci-fi RomCom, “Anything is possible in a quantum multiverse, and Steve Laker explains how.” In times when many human jobs are threatened with redundancy by machines, and with the lines of sentience blurred, I wanted to see if a computer could replace me as a writer.

The Guardian article begins, After being fed all seven Potter tales, a predictive keyboard has produced a tale that veers from almost genuine to gloriously bonkers…” And Robotnik (the AI) came up with some interesting prose:

He saw Harry and immediately began to eat Hermione’s family. Ron’s Ron shirt was just as bad as Ron himself.

If you two can’t clump happily, I’m going to get aggressive,” confessed the reasonable Hermione.

The whole process is explained fully in the article, and it was the same one I used for this exercise: I fed the entire manuscript of Cyrus Song into Robotnik’s predictive text keyboard, initially guiding it in its penmanship. As far as the AI is concerned, it’s picking up from the end of the book. It’s effectively beginning a sequel, as it has all the information it needs from the first novel. I just had to choose a few of the opening words from lists of alternatives, before letting it find its own way…

The babel fish program works for some purpose…

Really? That first sentence was constructed by Robotnik alone, with me just confirming the first words on the lists of possibles. So, yes it does work for a purpose. And?

…I was to sit awkwardly with many people…

Just a normal day then, okay…

…because it thinks I could talk with them.

It seemed to be on to something, so then I just let it run…

…I thought that was what the whole thing was I’d written about. Hannah was talking German, so I twiddled the knobs on the Babel fish to tell her. But that’s not how it works she reminded me, in German.

I pondered aloud whether the doctor might be outside with animals. She was checking. Then she said the oddest thing: “Och.” Was Hannah unwell? She seemed contemplative. Then she said, “Can I be Frank about things?” She usually was, I’d heard. “Mr fry,” Why was she calling me that? “I mean, Simon, we might find answers elsewhere.” Where were we going?

“Hannah,” I said, “I speak as others probably think, and I’d say anything to the animals if they could translate it more. I think we need another mind, and I think we should use the quantum computer in your lab. If it’s been listening in.”

As soon as possible, the AI seems to have introduced the computer to the story, like it’s bringing in a mate to help…

“I wondered if you might think that. I really wanted to say something and then we just don’t. We scanned around the planet with the patients and they indicate something which could change our thinking about the really small things. As a translator, I thought you people are always different to mammals. They seem to have nothing but good intentions and pose no threat whatsoever. Marlene said something…

Marlene makes a brief appearance in the book, but I don’t know why she’s cropped up here. In fact, I’m not sure why anyone’s doing what they are.

…I do have other patients to see what that might be and did she know that today was Saturday?”

Now Marlene’s a vet too, but she seems as lost as everyone else. Safe to conclude then, that Botnik read the book, didn’t fully get it, or got it and is making its own attempt even more surreal. But it lacks human heart (mine, at least). Perhaps AI is sentient, but in a way we don’t yet understand. Maybe it was on something, rather than onto.

Of Cyrus Song itself, a reviewer wrote,“…If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.”

Tempting though it may be to let the bot write its own story, I’d hope people might notice I’m missing. Perhaps the machine does have something in mind for later in the book, which would explain the weirdness, but it’s probably some sort of AI in-joke, which humans wouldn’t get. So I’ll keep writing, while the lines between plausible surrealism and outright insanity remain reasonably well-defined, on this typewriter I’m using now.

Cyrus Song is nothing like the brief acid trip above, instead giving a perfectly plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. It’s available now.

Worlds apart, connected by words

FICTION

Some time ago, someone started writing a story, and not long after, they stopped. It made its way to The Unfinished Literary Agency, where some writers got together to tell the story. And writers create worlds…

Return to Innocence

THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

The animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder. “Hello, human,” one of them said.

Hello,” Eve replied.

What’s your name?” The crow asked.

Eve.”

Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Deisato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room. “Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

Would you like your chair?”

Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

But how can I hear you?”

Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

One of them.”

Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

And others followed.”

Many. Then everyone.”

So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

Lonely.”

That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

Who’s she?”

He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

Looked at like this, yes.”

But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

He was in London Zoo?”

Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

Why’s that?”

Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

It was a human thing?”

It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

Which was?”

The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

What’s not?”

Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

So where do we look?”

Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person. This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out is recorded in our history. This is where it began and you are always welcome back, wherever you are.

But keep this. This is yours. You made this.”

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker, 2017.

This story will be included in The Unfinished Literary Agency (ISBN: 978-1979983556), available in January.

The attraction of confusion

FICTION

On one of its faces, this story goes some way to explaining sub-atomic entanglement in the quantum universe, using hamsters. It’s a Cyrus Song time warp, and it’s also about asexual love, between friends, and connecting everyone else.

Quantum cats

QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT IN HAMSTERS

Where writers write is usually assumed to be a solitary place, and that’s true of me. My solace was to be found with a veterinary doctor, and a universal translation device called the Babel fish. How these came to be here could be found in two parents and other stories entirely. Their relevance to this story, was as my guides, both personally and as a writer.

A good story should be more showing and less telling, but to save much of the latter, it was specifically Doctor Hannah Jones’ degree in human psychology (even though she’s a vet), and my wonderment of the Babel fish (wondering how it actually worked) which are relevant to this fable.

So there I was, a writer with some powerful tools for fiction, waiting for the next story to walk in.

“Do you want to know who’s next, Simon?”

“No,” I replied, “I like to keep the suspense going for a while.”

“But,” Hannah said, “you read the patient list earlier, so I know you already know. I thought you might want to know for your story.” I wondered for a moment who was writing this.

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Which is why,” Hannah started. “Oh never mind.” She stopped. “What are you hoping to get from this one?”

“Well,” I said, “besides the input of some animals, I’m always wondering what makes the Babel fish work.”

“A quantum computer,” Hannah said, “like that one.” She pointed to a quantum computer which had been in her consulting room for as long as I’d known her, which wasn’t very.

Before we’d met, Doctor Jones had invented the Babel fish, not all of a sudden, but she had. My understanding of its workings were sufficient for me to write plausible fiction, but I still wanted to understand what made it work, so that I could show I’d researched this.

The fish was reliant on the quantum computer, and my knowledge of the quantum world allows me to appreciate how those work: essentially, a conventional computer works on binary code, bits of data which can be either 0 or 1, yes or no, black and white. The quantum world is much more cosmopolitan, and in a computer, each bit exists as the two possible states simultaneously, until called into action by a computation. Ergo, a quantum computer is almost infinitely more powerful than the one I use at home.

The Babel fish is a quantum computer program, which uses that enormous processing power to detect frequencies outside of normal audible range, then process them against a mind-bogglingly big database of animal sounds and human languages, before decoding it all into an audible form. I could talk to animals with it. I wondered how it did that, and how much of what I’d heard had to be accepted on faith, of the Babel fish doing a good job. If a dog had told me it loved me, for example, I had to accept that it did.

“So,” I said to Hannah, “who’s next?”

“Oh yes,” she said, clearing her throat and picking her notes up dramatically (I told her it would work better this way). “Next,” she continued “is Hannibal Lecter.” We both paused.

Hannibal was only one half, with Lecter his partner. They were Roborovski, which might pass as a cyborg Russian gang in another story, but in this one they were Roborovski hamsters, belonging to a girl called Nina.

Nina was a curious girl, both in nature and the story she didn’t tell, perhaps because she couldn’t. I almost did a double-take when she walked into the room with Hannah, as though a younger Hannah had walked in with her older self. So struck was I, that I kept looking at the door, to see if another Hannah toddled or crawled in.

I had to trust the Babel fish to do only as it was instructed, as it apparently worked on inaudible frequencies. When I’d tested it previously, it had picked up things which might not have been wilfully spoken by the translated subject; other voices, perhaps thoughts. I tuned it to simply translate from hamster to human, placing the Babel fish headphones on my head in such a way that only I could hear the hamsters in my right ear, while listening to the room with my left for context. As far as I could tell, the hamsters were in a box which Nina placed on Hannah’s consulting table.

“That,” Hannah pointed in my direction, and I looked behind me, “is Mr Fry. Try to ignore him.” I turned back to smile, adjusting the headphones like Princess Leia struggling with her hair. “So,” Hannah continued, “who do we have here?” even though we knew. “Hannibal and Lecter”, which is what we knew, “hamsters”, which we also knew. “May I ask, why?” We didn’t know that.

“It’s my favourite film,” Nina replied, even though The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t about hamsters. She lifted a cage from the box, and in the cage was another, smaller box, some sawdust, bedding, a food bowl and a water bottle. The box within the cage, within the box, struck me as a sensible carriage solution, ensuring the hamsters were safe, and effectively at home, to reduce stress. But as Nina lifted them from the small box, I was half expecting them to be wearing face masks and strapped to a trolley. “This one’s Hannibal”, she said, lifting the first hamster out. “And this is Lecter,” which was entirely to be expected of the second one.

Now with the relative freedom of the cage, it was obvious which rodent was which. Hannibal seemed the dominant of the two, rummaging in the bedding, while Lecter was the more observant, blinking in the light and looking around.

“So,” Hannah said, “what’s up with these two?”

“Well,” Nina replied, “that one,” she pointed to Hannibal, “keeps throwing shit at that one,” at Lecter. “I think he might be bored.” Nina was very intuitive, and, I now realised, had similar mannerisms to Hannah. For a moment, it was as though I was even more of a spare part than usual: Hannah and Nina were somehow the same, and so too were the hamsters. All I had was the Babel fish, so I turned the volume up in my right ear.

“Shit,” was all I heard, from a small, male voice. Then a curious thing happened:

Hannibal had indeed thrown a turd at Lecter, who peered around through the bars of the cage. Meanwhile, Hannibal was back to rummaging in the bed, occasionally storing things in his cheeks, possibly more ammunition. Lecter continued to look conspiratorial, then, when he seemed sure no-one was watching, he flung the turd back at Hannibal. “Shit, you,” he said.

“So,” someone said in my left ear. It was Hannah. “You think one might be bullying the other.”

“No,” Nina said. She was quite assertive. “I think they’re playing shit tag.” Then Hannah did something unexpected:

“Fucking hell,” she said. “You could be right. Hamsters do learn quickly.”

“So they’re amusing themselves,” Nina said, “or it could be love”. That seemed an odd thing to say. “But that’s my worry,” which was even more unexpected, “that they’re bored. So I wondered if you’d have any ideas on helping them learn.” I wondered how much she knew about Doctor Jones.

“Once upon a time,” Hannah began a story I didn’t know I was writing, “Mr Fry,” that’s me, “there, used to be just like Hannibal Lecter.” I couldn’t disagree, that was a good opening.

Nina looked at me, looking more like Carrie Fisher than Anthony Hopkins. “He needed something to keep him occupied.” I suppose that was one way to put it. “And now,” Hannah continued, “he writes.” And that was a nice way to both end and begin things. “So I wonder,” she began again, “if the Babel fish might help in this?”

So now I really was a spare part.

I suppose Hannah meant, use the fish to listen to the hamsters, to get a better insight into them. Ever since she’d overcome her initial reluctance to use the fish in her work (so as to be “less confused”), and she’d realised an insight might be useful input for her. It worked like this: The Babel fish translated the animals, and I listened in, but Hannah didn’t. It was up to me, as a writer able to do such a thing, to translate that further, sort of into only what she needed to know.

“Mr Fry?” The younger Hannah was speaking to me now, and I moved the settings around on the Babel fish, hoping to confuse it. For my part, I was very confused, as though I was somehow split over the fourth dimension, with ends 15 years apart. Knowing as I did, that Hannah had a degree in human psychology, I could be looking into a mind’s future, possibly that of a psychopath. I really hoped Nina turned out like Hannah.

“Yes,” I said, because I wasn’t sure whether to tell her to call me Simon.

“I read about the Babel fish.” I assumed she’d read Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This Babel fish was very much connected to that, so it didn’t really matter which books Nina had read.

“Oh, good,” I said. “Well this one does exactly the same. So let’s see what happens.”

Everyone happens in their current position, so I tuned back into the hamsters:

“Do you ever think about the bars?” Hannibal asked.

“Most of the time,” Lecter replied, “they’re always here, why? Do you think there might be a cat in that box over there?”

“I don’t have to think about it until someone opens it. The bars: to imprison us, or protect us? Keep us together, or keep us away from others?”

“Simon?” This was Hannah.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Are they saying anything?” Nina asked.

“Yes,” I said, “they are,” because they were. “I just need to translate it,” which I did.

Hannibal Lecter spoke at length, about fava beans (we call them broad beans), and how nice they taste, and of how that’s like sharing something made by the earth, like the breaking of bread. And how their water is like Chianti, like the blood which binds us all. And about their incarceration for no crime, when their wider family were free. Then about being grateful for the gift of protected life in the cage. They philosophised, about being great thinkers given sanctuary, but unable to spread their message. It was a problem which I and billions of others would empathise with, now it was countless trillions of others, unheard, but for the miracle of the Babel fish.

While this was all going on in my right ear, the young Hannah Jones spoke to her older self, first about game concepts, then onto computers, wildlife, and the human condition. They could both be noted philosophers themselves, outside of that room’s sudden connectivity of humanity, when two people meet and click.

Quantum entanglement is that which we all have with the rest of the universe, and every living thing within it. All of the matter in the universe was born of the big bang, and at the point of that explosion of reality, every sub-atomic particle was torn apart. But each retained a quantum connection to its partner, quantum physics being that everything exists in two states simultaneously. Ergo, each of us is made of the Big Bang, and every one of us contains those fragments which are still connected to their counterparts, all over the universe. What’s even more mind-bogglingly, is that the hamsters are latching on to this. But what all the other unheard voices might have to say is something I’ve not found out yet, so that’s for another time.

“Mr Fry?” Nina was calling me now, Hannah in a previous life. This was becoming surreal.

“Yes,” I said, preserving the anonymity of my addressee. “I’m wondering how to decode this.”

“Aren’t you a writer?”

“Well, I thought I might be.”

“Well,” Nina continued, “there was this time, in a shed.” What kind of story was this, and who was writing now? “My cat had been at my arm a bit, and I drew something on my wrist: a pair of scissors, with “Cut here” in Biro. And this guy I knew at the time said to do it, to cut myself.” Why was she telling me this? “It makes a nice story, because he said if I did it, he’d be sad. Just that, just sad. But sometimes words carry. And he had kids he didn’t see much. And if he was sad, so would they be. So I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do it to him. But what he said at the end really stuck: “You can only do it to yourself.” And I still remember. So it’s a story.”

“Everyone has one. It’s a brave person who tells their own,” I said, to the future.

“Simon.” It was Hannah who returned me to the room.

“I was thinking,” I said (I was, wondering if I’d just been abducted by aliens) “it’s best to just keep talking. Hannibal Lecter here seems quite well balanced and in touch with things as far as I can tell. Just keep talking while you’re around them. It engages them, and hamsters are quick learners.”

“Such a shame they don’t live for long,” Nina said, which was both deep and dark.

Hannah showed her younger potential self and Hannibal Lecter out, then returned as a single entity.

“So?” Hannah’s glasses tilted quizzically.

“I think I might know how the Babel fish works,” I announced. “Both this one, and the one Douglas invented.”

“Connection.” I wasn’t sure if Hannah asked a question, or had just made one, so I agreed:

“Pretty much,” I said. “You were right about the hamsters, so was Nina: they’re quick learners, looking to occupy their minds. Perhaps they’ll one day have trouble containing them. And somehow, both of you were able to see into the future, without my benefit of the fish, or perhaps that’s just helped me interpret things this way.”

“What way?”

“That the Babel fish really does work on telepathy. That’s provable now with science.”

“Quantum entanglement?”

“Everything is connected, Hannah. I think I’ve worked out why I write it all down as well. It’s because they’re stories, mine and those of others, and the beginnings of many more. And we only write them down, in case we die.

“The entanglement is in our minds, because we who think, long for knowledge. And it’s in what we share with others, or in my case, write. I think there’s more to hamsters than meets the eye. Never judge a book and all that. It’s what’s inside. But that’s in all of us. So what I learned, is I’m not that special, but none of us should feel trapped, which is quite depressing. So I thought about it another way.”

And then I myself said something which even I didn’t expect, because it just occurred to me:

“It’s entirely possible, to be in love with someone and not want to reproduce with them.”

“Have you been out in the sun? Your face looks a bit burned, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” And there I was thinking I was Princess Leia.

“Things happen,” I said, “because people make them. The Babel fish could make good things happen much quicker, if we could all talk. Humans aren’t ready to know what everyone else is thinking though, which is why I write this as fiction.”

I hope Nina spoke more about this to Hannibal Lecter.

© Steve Laker, 2017

Cyrus Song is available now. My new anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is published in January.