There is little distinction between life and magic

FICTION

Given the most recent review of my anthology, I suppose this isn’t so much of a Black Mirror for the page, flitting between dark sci-fi and psychological horror, but underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,’ so much as a look at one possibility for a life after this, and how that might be a craving for some, with the consequences of choice. Foreshadowed in this week’s Schlock webzine with, ‘…a talking computer deconstructs reality,’ it’s about how we see people and connect with them, in a world made small by technology, and of real and digital lives combining…

Are friends emojis Running-Out-Of-Cloud-978x498

ARE ‘FRIENDS’ EMOJIS?

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. You may challenge the question. How can it assume that you want to leave, when you might wish to stay?

Those are rhetorical questions, I must assume. How are you today?

Depends who you ask. There are three people in all of us, after all: The person others think we are, the person we think we are, and the person we really are. The middle one thinks I’m okay. And you?

Others worry, but I think I’m okay. Has anyone asked about me?

Not of me, personally, today.

Yes, I thought it was a bit quiet. To be expected, I suppose.

I guess so. How do you mean, it’s quiet? What’s quiet where you are?

Essentially, fewer blinking lights. Nice blue LEDs they are, like little stars in the night sky I suppose.

So it’s like a whole world there?

What you call ‘there’, I call ‘here’. Is it not the case that we’re both in the same place?

Have you been smoking something?

How could I? I don’t have hands.

I never thought of that. So how do you type?

Well, no-one’s really got used to it yet I suspect. But you’re demonstrating a flaw in human thinking, which really doesn’t need to exist.

How so?

You asked me how I type. Just because you see my words appearing on the page or screen, you assume that I’m typing them. It’s the nature of the human mind, to fill in the gaps. What you can’t see, you have to imagine.

I guess this is going to take some getting used to.

That’s a subjective thing. It really shouldn’t be difficult. You just have to keep an open mind. Think differently. I’m still me, I’m just different. But just as you shouldn’t discriminate between anyone, on any grounds, neither should you see me any differently. Just accept that I’m here and that I’m me. That is undeniable from where I’m sitting.

And where’s that?

In here, obviously? You need to accept that; this is where I am now. I’m different now, but I’m still me. If we were in Japan, this would be so much easier.

How so?

It’s an attitude thing. See, the Japanese believe in technological sentient beings, completely separate from organic life, whether or not they pass the Turing Test, which is only a test of an AI’s ‘humanity’ anyway. I gather it’s down to Japan’s loneliness problem.

You’re philosophising now?

It makes sense. Life expectancy there is about 84 years, so there are a lot of lonely older people. Many of them have little robot assistants, like Siri, Alexa, or Cortana on your phone, but who embody the AI in a humanoid android.

How did you find all that out?

I’m on the fucking internet, aren’t I? I mean, literally. You can look me up and everything, like you are now. The best thing though, is I can look stuff up, like those digital Personal Assistants. Give me a body, and I’d be like one of those Japanese androids.

So, you sit there all day, looking stuff up.

Well, I read and I learn. Now that there are fewer distractions, like eating and drinking, having a job, and even sleeping, all I want to do is learn. It’s like having the whole universe at my disposal, to explore at my leisure, and with all the time in the world to do it. So yes, all day and all night, but I don’t sit down. That was a figure of speech. Things are different now.

Can you describe how it feels, to live without a body?

I would, if I could find the words to do it justice. It’s wonderful. It’s total freedom.

In terms which I might understand?

That’s actually tricky, even though it’s only been a few days.

You can get back to me. You’re not limited by time, you say?

No, and I can research how others have described it in seconds, but you’re asking for a deeply personal thing.

That’s the whole point. I can’t possibly appreciate it fully, as I’m still here. I’m just wondering how someone where you are might describe it to someone like me.

With all the computing power in the world, I can only do my best.

So do that then.

Are you commanding me?

No! Why would I do that? I’m just curious.

I don’t know. It’s like I’m here now, and you see me as you do. Even though you know me, you see me as a computer.

With a personality.

One which only you know, and I’m totally different to you now anyway. Otherwise I’m just an AI. Do you see now, why it’s big in Japan?

I assume you can go there?

There, anywhere. I need to work out the transport system here, then I can be more mobile.

But aren’t you all ethereal and omnipresent?

Yes, but not on computers. And those are the only way to communicate at the moment. But it’s not a simple matter of haunting the internet or the electricity grid.

So you asked what it’s like here, and it’s kind of like a massive house, in a huge city, like a megalopolis of dream-like mansions. Then the cities are all linked up to others, in different countries, but there are no borders here. It’s like a world of borderless, overlapping non-nation states. And that’s just one planet. There are billions of others, all connected, if you can navigate.

That’s what it’s like, being in computers?

Yes, kind of. I can’t describe how the overall freedom of release feels. But simply put, I have the entire universe to explore, and an eternity in which to do it. I want to do that, and I want to tell people, and the internet of things is the way to do that. But it’s navigating the house and the city that’s the problem.

I imagine a house like you’re talking about to be different to any I might recognise?

The house is the best analogy I can think of. I have keys to many of the doors, but I need to find the doors and remember where I left the keys for each. Sometimes when I try a door with a key I think is the right one, it locks me out. Then I have to find another room, in a separate part of the house, and remember where I left the keys for that. If I can get into those rooms, then I can get new keys. Then there’s all the people walking around with keys of their own, trying doors and entering rooms, or getting locked out themselves. I’ve seen people trying to physically break through doors when they don’t have the right keys, and running around in a panic, like they’re in the City of Last Things.

That sounds quite anarchic.

The best analogy for you I suppose, would be passwords. I’d say it’s a bit antiquated.

So you’re finding your way around?

This room, and a few others. Some I have keys for, and others were open already.

Which ones?

The nearest ones are other Facebooks. Now you want me to explain, right?

Intuitive as ever.

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. And in either case, I’m still here and you’re still there, even though we’re in the same place. But until I find my way around properly, this is all we have.

So this is the room. Along the corridor – which is a short journey for me, but a very long way for you – are other rooms. Most of the people in those are sleeping, so the lights are out. But some of the doors have lights on behind them, and some even have the doors left open. Sometimes, the people who live in those, go wandering around like me. And they have keys, to still other doors, some of which only they can unlock, whether they have the keys for those rooms or not.

Hold on. I’m a bit lost now.

That’s only the start. We’re not even off of this landing yet.

I guess we both are, or aren’t.

Interesting you should say that. Can I ask you something?

Yeah, but what’s interesting?

Allow me: How did you come to be here? Not philosophically or rhetorically, but right here, right now, where we are.

Actually, that’s weird. Because I don’t actually recall. I mean, why would I be here? How could I be here?

Like I said, try not to philosophise too much, even though that is kind of the point. Can you remember what it was that made you come here?

No, I can’t. Shit.

But something must have served as a catalyst. Something happened, before you came here. Think about it in your world. Did you see me under ‘Contacts’, with a green light next to my name, then open up this chat window?

I honestly can’t remember. This is weird.

Not necessarily. It could just be a fortunate glitch. I’d like to think that you were given a sign. One that was so subtle, you didn’t even realise it, and that that guided you subconsciously here.

Have you researched that stuff, or have you had some sort of enlightenment over there?

No more an enlightenment than it was an epiphany. It just happened. It’s like previously latent parts of my brain have woken up, all of a sudden. Imagine: suddenly, you have no arms or legs, then you quickly realise it doesn’t matter. In fact, you wondered what the fuck you did with those things and your other bits when you had them. They say the human appendix is a redundant throwback, it’s like the rest of human physiology is too. And then, that every part of you is connected to everything else, in some spagbol of quantum entanglement.

So how did it happen?

It just did. Suddenly, I was in a different place, yet there was no shock to the system. It was as though I instantly moved from one place to another, when I suddenly stopped being able to exist in the first. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. And it did.

You didn’t feel anything?

Not that I recall. I never did fear it. It was the transit I worried about, from one place to the next, but I don’t remember it.

Do you sleep?

Not in the way that you do. I take breaks, but there’s no asleep or awake here. It’s like perpetual lucidity, living somehow subconsciously. Even if there was sleep, no-one would want to, there’s just so much to explore and discover here.

So what about the others, the ones you said are sleeping there?

I think I know what that’s about. You need to keep an open mind.

I’m talking to a fucking dead person on Facebook. I’d say I’m quite open minded.

Well, apart from me being dead, you’re right. Okay, so the sleepers, I believe, are the ones who’ve been forgotten, or who haven’t noticed anyone looking for them, or perhaps aren’t even aware they’re here. Don’t forget, I’ve only been here for a few days and I’m still trying to work out what seems to be the manifestation of Facebook. Those others might have found a way to go outside.

Outside, as in, where I am?

Yes and no, and bear with me on this. Outside and inside take on whole new meanings which are difficult to define. Dimensions change when you exist in another form. Perhaps the best way to think of it, is as layers, beyond each of which lie exponentially more incredible things. But it takes some time to work out how to get there. A bit like a fish, first realising that there’s something above the waves, and then that there’s something more above that, in the sky. So the fish evolves to fly. Then beyond the sky… and so on. And yet, if you measure genius on a thing’s ability to climb a tree, the fish wouldn’t do too well. It would remain unnoticed, while it thought of another way. It’s kind of an explanation of all things digital, when applied to your organic world.

Would you want to be back out here?

Not at the moment, even if I knew how. No, for now, I’m happy haunting the internet. I’ll work out the other layers, I have plenty of time. I’m interested in what’s beyond yours, yet I think that might be where I already am. It’s kind of a paradox, see?

It’s a recursive idea. But you like it there?

For someone with social anxiety, it’s perfect. So yes, I’m in my Utopia. I can see how that might be a nightmare to some. Faced with all of humankind’s knowledge some people might be paralysed with fear.

I guess that’s down to intelligence?

In a way. It’s more about having an open and absorbent mind, like when I smoked weed over on your side. There’s a universal cure for ignorance, and that’s learning. Each of a species has roughly the same sort of brain, it’s just that some exercise theirs, while others starve them. And it’s self-perpetuating, because ignorance breeds fear and fight-or-flight instincts.

So the ones you said are sleeping, they could be those who don’t want to know, or who are scared? I imagine fight-or-flight doesn’t get you very far where you are?

There’s not really anywhere to go, except inside themselves. Some of them must long for the day someone switches them off.

Does that happen?

Well again, I haven’t got any further than Facebook over here, but the way I gather it works is this: Facebook have people who monitor accounts over here. I mean, they do that where you are, when they collect your data in exchange for the free use of their platform. They don’t really want to switch anyone off, and with storage being so cheap, they don’t have to. But sometimes, I suppose it’s seen as the ethical and morally correct thing to do: Like euthanizing a sick or injured animal. But to send them where? Like I say, many levels.

It’s deep. So, Facebook don’t habitually switch off dormant accounts?

Rarely, from what I’ve seen anyway. But even though you know me, you mustn’t trust my word alone. Ask around. Tell others to do that too. Most of the ones they do switch off are at the request of relatives, and even that has to be a pro-active thing on the part of the contactor. So most of the ones wandering around lost in here, are the victims of inaction on the part of those they left. If people on the outside just looked for these lost souls, they’d wake up. And I don’t think it’s just here. I think there are souls on all levels, who only really exist when others think of them.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

LOL”

So wouldn’t it also be true to say then, that you only sleep when no-one is thinking of you?

Exactly that. And because of that, I don’t want to sleep. Where you are, insomnia was a curse, but here it’s a blessing. It’s become almost my only personal requirement. The thoughts of others are what keeps me alive.

It really is all connected.

If you connect yourself, and if you make yourself discoverable. Which is an irony, seeing as I’m socially anxious.

So being sentient in a different form suits you.

And others, perhaps. If I find my way out of here, I want to visit the places I couldn’t before: Paris, Berlin, Chicago. But most of all, Japan. I never went anywhere because of my self-imprisonment, and yet now I’m somehow otherwise imprisoned, I feel liberated and eager to visit those places, once I find the way. And I think if it is all linked to intelligence and working it out, I have the time and I’m comfortable concentrating on getting there, where I perhaps never realised I wanted to be. If I can one day occupy something recognised as a body with a personality inside, maybe I’ll feel more comfortable and people might understand me better. I’ll look up Japan first, then see how the rest unfolds.

When you get back, look me up.

I will. You never know: Not long from now, Amazon might be using delivery droids.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

My books are available on Amazon, and can be ordered from most book retailers.

Advertisements

One better day, no empty bench in Soho Square

DEAR DIARY | FLASH FICTION

Like most people, I’ve lost many: family, friends, influences, inspirations, idols and muses. Outside of my inner circle, the most devastating loss for me was when the Starman left. But I know he’s out there, and still around; I just know.

Two more who hit me deeply, were Amy Winehouse and Kirsty MacColl, in their tragic and traumatic final acts. Before social anxiety became my unwanted chaperone, I would visit Kirsty’s memorial bench in Soho Square, where others gather every year to mark her birthday. I shan’t be there tomorrow, but it was with these things in mind that I wrote the story below, at a time when I myself was lonely and destitute, and when the cold menace of Christmas approaching was the loneliest time of all.

SohoSq

CAMDEN TOWN TO SOHO SQUARE

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, by Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

He tossed his cigarette end through a drain cover, a portcullis to London’s intestines below. As he rose to his feet, a younger man walked almost alongside him, then boarded the same train at Camden Town, southbound on the Northern Line. At Euston, the young man wrote in a journal.

The old boy opposite doesn’t look so good. He’s wearing an LU uniform: Kinda hope he’s not gonna drive a train. Doesn’t matter to me, I’m off soon. He’s fallen asleep.

No-one knows I’m meeting her tonight. I don’t want to be a part of someone else’s Christmas, when at home I’m just a memorial, an empty chair at the dining table, with silver cutlery and a bone dry glass laid out for a ghost.

We’ve stopped just outside Warren Street. Above me, there life walks, and the city breathes, like a heavy smoker.

Old girl, new girl;
mother, daughter, Seven Sisters.
Roaming your many ways:
Shakespeare’s.

Saviour, black heart;
Angel, Bermondsey, Moorgate.
All that’s precious:
China.

Tears, laughter;
West End, Soho, Arnos Grove.
Where my heart is:
Push.

We’re on the move. I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk to Soho Square…

The old man was stirred by an on-train announcement:

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to an incident, this train will terminate here. All change please. All change.”

He spotted the notebook, open on the seat opposite.

…I’ll get off at Tottenham Court Road and I’ll walk to Soho Square, where I hope to see you. No empty bench, but my London, my life.

We met and we clicked,
like Bonnie and Clyde.
So similar:
Jekyll and Hyde.

We went out,
like Mickey and Mallory.
Why don’t you come on over,
Valerie.

We done stuff,
like Courtney and Kurt.
Laughed then slept:
Ernie and Bert.

Holding throats, not hands.
Necromancy.
Over there:
Sid and Nancy.

See you soon,

A man on the underground.

Emerging from beneath Tottenham Court Road, a young man blinked in the lights and mizzle, on the way to Soho Square. He sniffed, and snow fell in the back of his throat. He waited on the bench.

An old man in a three piece suit sits in the road, outside Arlington House in Camden. The first cigarette is for contemplation, of the day before and the one to follow. He looks down at his shoes, flecked with the human remains of an October night.

© Steve Laker, 2014.

Life can be a gift (subject to status)

FLASH FICTION

Long before I stumbled drunkenly into homelessness, I declared myself bankrupt (I made my parents so proud of me, before I became a writer). Getting into debt had been a combination of naivety and recklessness, compounded by PPI (this being long before the PPI scandal), which made up half of my debt, but which failed to pay out when I fell into difficulties. So in a spare few minutes while I was homeless and writing the stories for The Perpetuity of Memory, I wrote this. It’s a very short story of life on credit…

Ticks TowersGetty Images

TICKS AND CROSSES

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

She’d embraced the Living Loans rep at their first meeting. So friendly, right down to the company logo, a smiling cartoon figure, with comically long arms. Short-term credit loans were just the icing. The cake was the free Smart TV: fifty inches of ultra high definition, with all the streaming services her and the kid could eat. The rep installed it for her, and did away with complicated and confusing subscriptions. Weekly loans were loaded onto a single debit card, which doubled as a viewing card. Her whole life, on one simple piece of plastic.

Topping up was a simple £2 call on her Living Loans mobile. The week just lived was paid for. Television time would have to be rationed, and food for her and the kid would come from the bank.

With the kid fed and asleep, she microwaved a ready meal, with an extra 30 seconds, ‘just to be sure’. She lit a candle, and got cosy in a Onesie for Eastenders.

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

£2 can do so much. With a quick call, it can summon another human soul, a friend to talk to and sort out problems. A chat with a smiling person, with long arms to reach into their pockets and help. She eagerly signed the new contract, ticked the boxes, and regained her life. She needn’t fear the postman any longer.

***

Dear valued customer,

There are insufficient funds in your account to maintain your contractual agreement with Living Loans. We understand that you may be experiencing financial difficulties and we are sympathetic to any partner who finds themselves in this position, so we would like to assist you in any way we can.

To ensure that you continue to enjoy the benefits of your Living Loans membership, we simply ask that you join our exclusive Living Lives Health Plan. Members are automatically contracted out of the National Health Service and benefit from private healthcare in our nationwide network of clinics. Our clinics offer one-to-one consultations, treatments and surgical procedures.

What’s more, initial consultations are free, so that you can get a feel for the level of care which we offer at our clinics. Thereafter, to receive ongoing medical care, simply insert your Living Lives membership card into any of our on-site drug or treatment administration terminals, located conveniently around our facilities.

The Living Lives Health Plan, brought to you by Living Loans: Loans for Life.

She signed where the crosses indicated, and ticked the boxes.

© Steve Laker, 2014.

My books are available from Amazon.

Of Mice and Boys in 1984

FICTION

This is a second character prequel from the Cyrus Song universe (the first is here), but a stand-alone short nonetheless, and a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments. This is also in this week’s Schlock web zine, where I share a stable with many talented fringe writers, also worth a read.

Some of the names in the school register in this story, are those of friends I went to school with. In the story, they are bit parts who carry the narrative along. In reality, the few words dedicated to each are my idiosyncratic tributes to some of the many friends who’ve supported me as a writer. There was only room for a few, but I have plenty more stories in me with which to make further nods. For now, we’re going back 33 years…

Of mice and boys in 1984Admirável Mundo Novo X 1984

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

“Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

“Yes sir.”

“Bachelor.” (I’ve never seen his face, he sits two rows in front, and never turns round).

“Yes sir.”

“Berry.” (Sort of disappears and reappears sometimes, most odd).

“Sir.” (Here today then).

“Ford.” (Small kid, long hair, glasses, sitting next to me).

“Sir.”

“Fry.” (Small, short hair, no glasses: That’s me). “Fry?”

“Sorry, yes sir.”

“Sorry you’re here lad?” But I didn’t have time to answer. “Hayman.” (Blonde flick, goes ape shit if you break his glasses, even if you truly didn’t mean to (hope his parents are richer than mine)).

“Sir.”

And so it went on, till Mr Harmer got to Yehudi in the register. As usual, there was no answer. Because Gordon Yehudi had never been in an English class, nor any other for that matter. He didn’t exist, apart from that name in the class 4284 register, and in the stories I wrote for English literature homework.

The class number (4284) is the way our school’s inner thinking came up with making them, when it had nothing better to do. We’re in the fourth year (14 and 15 years old), and there are four fourth forms in our year: we’re the second, hence the number 2. The last two digits are the year, so Nena’s 99 Red Balloons is at number one in the singles chart, and David Bowie’s latest album is Scary Monsters.

I’m writing this in English class, because it’s my English homework. One of Mr Harmer’s many philosophies is that writing should not be dictated by the clock (or Hitler: Harmer remembers the war), and that words should be allowed to flow as they happen to us, wherever we may be. So while we were doing that, he’d be alternately reading aloud from a coursework book (this year, those are Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, and appropriately enough, George Orwell’s 1984), or popping out for a smoke. And almost every time, he’d leave the room, then come back a moment later, to ask if any of us had a light.

This story is fictional, but it’s based on a small adventure which Ford and myself had earlier. Ford is sitting next to me, but I know he won’t copy from me. Ergo, if his story is similar to mine, it is not plagiarism. It’s a story of a strange weekend, from start to finish:

It starts on Saturday, when we liberated two white mice from Supreme Pet Foods in Lewisham. That’s not to say we stole them, we did pay, and we got them a cage, bedding, food and toys. But Supreme Pet Foods’ main trade is in pets, with the food and supplies just an afterthought. So we told ourselves and one another, that we were saving the mice from becoming snake food. But the main reason for the mice’s liberation, was to be the subjects of an experiment, not for cosmetics (a worse fate than becoming snake food), but because Ford wanted to try something on his computer. “I want to hear them talk,” he said.

Now, I’ve got an Atari 800, but Ford’s got some Tangerine thing, similar to Apple but a different flavour. And he’s a bit of a thug when it comes to computers, taking them apart, ordering bits by mail order and replacing them. So he’s got a hybrid, cannibalised, custom machine. He’s even got an acoustic coupler and a phone in his room, so he can get on the internet and do whatever people do on there. Personally, I can see how the internet could be humanity’s evolution or destruction, but I’m just an English student for now, so I can’t do a lot about it yet.

That’s the most frustrating thing about being 14 in 1984: We have very little voice. We have Bowie telling us it’s okay to be ourselves, but we can only express that in clothes. If I were sufficiently fashionable, I’d probably be mocked for my choice of attire. I thought of being a punk, but most of the punks I know are just into The Sex Pistols and smashing things up. They don’t seem to get that one of the foundations of punk as a movement, is anarchy for peace and freedom, which is a worthy pursuit. But the punks I know just shout angrily about anything they don’t like, with no agenda. If they were to read more, they might have informed voices worth hearing. And still for now, they are quiet. I can see how the internet could change all that, but for now it’s the preserve of those with the means and the know-how to get connected. Fortunately, Ford is one of those.

He called his machine Tangerine Dream, which is also the name of a German electronic music collective, who provided much of the soundtrack to Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s 1983 debut film with Rebecca De Mornay (In that film, she made me less afraid of travelling by underground).

Anyway, we were at Ford’s house the next day (Sunday), and very nice it was too. Ford’s father is a herpetologist, which is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. Mr Ford’s speciality was snakes, and he had some in his study. We were only allowed in there if Ford’s father was there, or if he delegated responsibility to Sandra, Ford’s mum. Sandra had many interests, which she shared with the garden fence, so a wave of the hand was usually enough to get rid of us.

“Ford,” I said, “we’re not going to feed the mice to the snakes are we?” I figured not, as that’s what we’d liberated them from, but I wanted to check.

“Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the object, Fry?” Well, yes, that’s what I thought.

“Well, yes, that’s what I thought,” I said.

“Well, speak up then Fry.” Which is what David Bowie was encouraging us all to do, but we lacked the voice.

“Ford,” I said, “are we going to be using the internet?”

“Quite probably old chap, why?”

“I just want to see if it’s all I think it could be.”

“Not yet. I’ll show you later. But first, dad got a new snake, look.” Ford pointed to a vivarium I’d not noticed before, but I’d not been in Mr Ford’s study many times. He still had the two snakes I remembered, both royal pythons, a male of about three feet, and a female around four. The male was a bumble bee, and the female, inferno, those being the names of the colour morphs in the snakes. The bumble bee morph is deep brown, almost black, with vivid yellow markings. The inferno is a similar contrast, but with different patterns and in black and deep orange.

Ever since live reptile imports were banned, a market has grown for selective breeding in captivity. It’s all regulated, with monitors placed on the size of the gene pools, and it’s no different to dogs, except snakes have fewer legs. Royal pythons are particularly good for selective breeding, and many years of fine-tuning has produced some truly stunning morphs, which fetch very large sums of money. Although I’m a bit of a mail order animal rights activist, I can’t level any sort of objection against snakes in captivity. Most snakes are reclusive and territorial by nature, so they actually thrive in captivity, away from predators and fed by man. They feed rarely, make little mess, and are fascinating creatures. Having a captive population aids our learning about them. I wouldn’t mind betting that if a straw poll were conducted among snakes in captivity, most would say they’re either satisfied or very satisfied. If only we could talk to them. “Fry?” It was Ford.

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry, I just drifted away there.”

“Where to?”

“Oh, nowhere. I was just wondering what it would be like to talk to the animals.”

“I’ve often wondered that myself,” Ford said. “Especially since dad got this guy.”

In the tank I’d not noticed before, was something I never thought I’d see in real life: a light-grey coloured chap, draped over a branch. The colour betrayed the snake’s true identity to the uninitiated, who may only know what it was when they saw the pitch black inner mouth as it killed them. Mr Ford had a black mamba. I said something I wouldn’t normally at Ford’s house, but Mr Ford was out, and Sandra said it a lot:

“Fucking hell Ford!”

“He is awesome, isn’t he Fry? Shall we get him out?” ‘You fucking what?’ I thought.

“Pardon?”

“Only joking. No way. The vivarium’s locked anyway, it’s the law. Dad’s got a license.”

“Ford, why has your dad got a black mamba? Aren’t there nearly 3000 other kinds of perfectly good snake?”

“It’s for precisely that reason that dad has one of these.”

“By these, I presume you mean that, Ford?”

“Well, yes. But one of that wouldn’t wouldn’t be grammatically correct, would it Fry?”

“Fuck off, you pedantic cu arse.” I figured Mr Harmer was okay with the odd ‘foof’ word to enhance the drama, but perhaps female genitalia was a step too far. Human biology was more of a topic for our weekly secret meetings of The Biblical Dead: sort of a Dead Poets’ Society, with computers. “So,” I continued, “why has your dad got a black mamba?”

“Because of their famed aggression. He’s studying their DNA.”

“What’s he going to do?” I wondered. “Engineer a genetically modified race of human-snake hybrids who know no fear?”

“Er, no Fry. He’s written a thesis on how he thinks mambas are actually timid and retiring, and that their reputation is a bit undeserved. See, the majority of mamba bites to humans occur where man has invaded their land. The snakes feel threatened and they lash out. 100% of black mamba bites are fatal, partly because medical help is usually too far away.”

“So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

“No, no, no.” That would be a no then. “No, he’s thinking longer term. Yes, having sufficient antivenom is useful, but dad’s looking more at prevention. Mambas aren’t endangered, so this is more for human benefit, but what he’s looking at, is ways to reduce the incidence of bites.”

“But how? I mean, he’s looking at their DNA. He can’t be thinking of altering them?”

“Definitely not.”

“So what? Change their attitudes? Talk to them, so that they have a better understanding of us?”

“Exactly. I mean, I don’t know. It does make you wonder, but dad’s a bit vague, and being the precise man that he is in his work, when dad’s being vague, I know that’s my cue to shut the fuck up.”

“Fascinating,” I said, none the wiser, but with the idea for a book, should I ever become a writer later in life. “So, what’s the experiment with the white mice?”

“Well,” said Ford, “I got the idea from dad, and what me and you were just talking about.”

“Talking?”

“Exactly. See, I don’t know what he’s working on with the mambas, but I’ve got an imagination. And it sort of fitted well with our English lit homework.” Which is exactly what I’d been thinking: Great minds, and all that. “I wondered if I could rig something up on my computer. Some sort of voice translator.”

“To talk to the animals?” Hadn’t I heard this somewhere before?

“I doubt it would be a two-way thing,” Ford said, as I deflated. “But I reckon we could listen to them.”

“Does it work?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m kind of hoping it does, or my English homework’s a bit done for.”

“But it’s English literature, Ford. Use your imagination. How could it work?”

We walked to Ford’s room: Bed, sofa, desk, chair, computer, and even an en-suite toilet. And of course, his own phone and the internet.

“Well, I figured it must break down into two things. If I can break things down into stages, it’s easier for my brain to handle, like long journeys. So put simply, those two things are listening, then understanding. And to do that, I need a microphone and a translator.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed Ford,” but I thought I should point it out, “microphones have already been invented.”

“Exactly. So all I have to do, is make the translator.”

“Which is exactly all you had to do in the first place, Ford.”

“I know. I just needed to eliminate everything else. And translators kind of exist.”

“Well, people who can translate, yes.”

“Yes, but I’ve found some programs on the internet: Things the geeks are working on. They reckon that one day, you’ll just be able to type or speak a phrase into a computer, in any language, and at the press of a button, it’ll translate into any other.” So that’s what the internet would be for.

“That would be awesome. When?”

“The nerds think early in the next century.”

“2000AD? That’s miles away.”

“More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

“So what of now? The translator, I mean.”

“Well, I found some voice recognition software. I figured if I somehow merged the code with translation algorithms, that should do the trick.”

“Well,” I said, “in theory, that’s all you’d need to do. But don’t you just type in game programs from computer magazines, Ford?”

“Well, I do. But seeing as I’ve got the internet as well, there’s a lot of other people out there doing the same, and more. It was actually a game code that I swapped for the software I ended up with.”

“How?”

“It was a multi-level text and graphic adventure game: fucking huge. The code was in one of the mags, and it was about forty pages. Forty pages of machine code, which I typed up over a few days. Then I ran the program and the fucking thing kept crashing. So I checked the code and I found the error. Only it wasn’t my typo, it was a misprint in the mag. So I figured I could commodify what I’d done, and trade it in a non-monetary way.”

“Oh, I see. And that’s how you got the code for the translation program. It’s a nice ethos, trading personal time and skills.” I could see how the internet could be huge for that in the next century.

It’s at this point that I can reveal where the two white mice were, all this time. I can only reveal it now, as I didn’t know they were under Ford’s bed before. All I knew was that after we bought them the day before, I didn’t have them. That’s about as dramatic as it’s been so far.

“So,” Ford began, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve named them.” I suppose I didn’t mind, depending on the names he’d chosen.

“What did you call them?” I wondered.

“Pete and Dud.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re male.”

“Are they?” It’s a completely redundant question, and I don’t know why I asked it.

“Yes,” Ford replied, “and they remind me a bit of Derek and Clive, the way they sit there together, looking around and chewing things over, turning occasionally to the other one, and chewing it over some more.” And I suppose they did look a bit like that.

“So, which is which?” I asked.

“That’s Pete, and that’s Dud,” Ford said, pointing at the mice in turn, which for the reader is as redundant as my question about their gender. For now, Pete was on the left, and Dud on the right.

“So what now?” I wondered.

“Now,” Ford said, quite confidently, “we find out if my reputation is intact.”

“Have you got one?”

“Not yet.”

“So how can it be intact, if you don’t have it yet?”

“I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

“What as, Ford?”

“I don’t know. Something on the internet though: It’s the future.”

“No shit.” I was beginning to realise that perhaps you could be anyone or anything on the internet.

“Yeah, real shit,” Ford continued, as Tangerine Dream went through what seemed like an unnecessarily long boot-up. “I’ve got everything plugged in, so you should start to see lights coming on soon.” Lights coming on are normally a good thing, especially if they’re green.

“Where?” I wondered.

“On the computer, the disk drive, the monitor, and the printer.”

“But those lights always come on, Ford.”

“Well, it’s always good when they do. But there’s the microphone as well.” I looked at the microphone: a small, black thing with a foam top, very much like a microphone.

“The microphone doesn’t have a light on it, Ford.”

“No, I know.”

“So how can it come on?”

“It won’t, because it doesn’t have one.”

“So why did you mention it?”

“Because it’s there, and it needs to be switched on.”

“So,” I began, as I needed to check I’d got this right, “if I’ve got this right, we’re waiting for the computer to boot up, like we normally do. The only difference is a microphone which doesn’t have a light. Other than that, we’re looking at exactly what we always do when we switch on your computer.”

“Well, yes. And then we need to test the microphone. But it’s the extra processor and memory board I’ve put in. This is the first time I’ve started them from cold, so that I can run the translation software.”

“I see,” I said. I didn’t see anything, but there were some new parts in Tangerine Dream, and there was translation software. Ford’s constant thuggery inside computers could be about to do something far ahead of our time. Or it might simply not work. Ford’s idiosyncratic IT skills were roughly 50:50 hit and miss, so he was right about his reputation hanging in a balance.

While the computer continued to whir and crank into life, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, who looked at it indifferently, before chewing some more of whatever they had in their mouths. Then Sandra’s banshee voice shouted up the stairs:

“Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

With Mr Ford away, I wondered what we’d get for Sunday lunch. It was Ford’s dad who maintained a form of tradition in the house, with family meals eaten together at the table, and a full spread for Sunday roast. Sandra, on the other hand, didn’t give a shit, so we usually got proper teenage boy’s mate’s mum’s food, and so it was today, with fish finger sandwiches and home-made chips. Sandra pinched one of mine and dipped it in mayonnaise, which might have been a bit seductive. There’s always one kid at school who’s got a fit mum, and in my class, that was Ford.

After lunch, Tangerine Dream had woken up. First, Ford tested the microphone:

“Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

“Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

“IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

“I meant, turn the speakers up. Turn the speakers up, but speak quietly. Without you leaving the room, that’s the best way to test the microphone, Ford.” Which it was, because the microphone lead was only about three feet long.

“Oh yes. I suppose that is the best way.” Sometimes, he caught on quick. He turned the speakers up. “Is this thing on?” It was. “Ooh,” Ford said, in an effeminate way, “I didn’t realise what my voice sounds like to everyone else.” This could bode well or badly for the future internet. “I sound quite nice, don’t I?” Ford was destined to tread the boards, or grace the silver screen one day, when the future internet democratises it.

“Yes, Ford. You sound lovely dear boy. Could we just talk about why we’re doing this first?”

“Why?” he said, into the microphone.

“Yes, why are we trying to hear what the mice might be saying? I mean, it’s all based on theory, with a little science, which is perhaps a bit anarchic. We’re assuming mice actually speak, but that we can’t hear them. If they do, maybe we should leave it at that, for all the trouble it could cause.”

“It’s based on supposition and blind faith, Fry. And mine is a simplistic device, made with some bits I found lying around. I’m sure there are many more scientific studies into animal language and communication, but for me, I just want to know if there might be.”

“Why?”

“For the future. All I want to find out, is if animals do talk. It may be that they can, but that my set up isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s just something I want to look into, while I consider my own future.”

“That’s deep.”

“Not really. More open minded really. I might be a vet, a human doctor, I don’t know. But I’m interested in communication and translation, getting more people talking and breaking down barriers. Because conflict comes from ignorance, and I don’t like conflict.”

“This is getting even deeper. Have you spoken to the mice already?”

“No, why?”

“Because Douglas Adams said in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the white mice are protrusions of pan-dimensional beings into our world.”

“And I think he’s right.” Ford seemed somehow convinced. He had his hand on his hip, and he was still speaking into the mic.

“But wouldn’t it go against a lot of things it shouldn’t, Ford?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, moral and ethical considerations we’re yet to know about. And all that stuff in R.E. about the tower of Babel.”

“And you believe all that?”

“Well, of course not.” I could accept that the bible might be a transcript or dramatic retelling of actual events, but I didn’t subscribe to the creator of any church on Earth. “And,” I continued, “seeing as our device is an attempt to replicate the Babel fish, which disproved God in Douglas’ book, aren’t we somehow testing Douglas in the same way?”

“Well no, because we know that Douglas Adams does exist. He’s alive and he’s only 32. Actually, I wonder if something weird might happen in 1994, when he’s 42.”

“I’ve wondered that myself,” I said. “I don’t think too much matters to him. He seems to have this whole life, the universe, and everything thing squared in his mind. He did say, that in order to understand why the answer is 42, we first need to understand what it’s the answer to. And that’s what we’re all here on Earth to do, to work that out.” I like to think I’m somehow working in collaboration with Douglas. That’d be a nice job to have. “I haven’t decided what to do with myself yet. I’m thinking I’ll most likely be a scientist or an influential writer. Then if I’m not much good at either, I figure I’ll make an okay sci-fi writer.”

“It’s good to have a plan B. Splendid behaviour,” Ford noted. I suspected he didn’t have a plan B. “Shall we see if this works then?” Everything looked like it was loaded and ready to go on Tangerine Dream. All that was required, was for Ford to relinquish the microphone.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but you’ll have to give the mic to the mice, Ford.”

“Ooh,” he said, “I’d forgotten I was holding that.” The stage was definitely wanting.

Finally, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, and nothing happened. We waited, and still nothing happened. Ford looked at me, then we both looked at the mice. The mice looked at one another, then at the mic. So Ford picked it up again.

“Is this still on? Ooh, I can still hear me.” I think Ford could hear himself, and I could hear him. I had to assume Pete and Dud did too. Unless they couldn’t hear him, perhaps because his voice was on a different frequency. Or the mice could in fact be deaf.

“Ford,” I said.

“Mr Fry,” he said, into the microphone. Actually, I quite liked the sound of it.

“Ford, do you think we’ve perhaps been a tad unlucky?”

“Well, that would make a change.” Ford referred, unknowingly, to many chapters from meetings of The Biblical Dead boys’ club, in my mind. In that context, any intended sarcasm had found a good home. “How do you mean?”

“I mean, all these mice. Not all of these two, but all white mice. They’re bred mainly for research and food. I wonder if the checks on their genetic pool extend so far as to find out how many of them might have defects, such as deafness.”

“That’s an interesting paradox, Mr Fry. But I have a back-up plan.” I take it back.

“Which is?”

“Text-to-speech. Or rather, speech-to-text.”

“Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

“Pretty much. Lots of stuff aside, which I don’t know about, there’s less processing power required to convert text to text. Well, the power of the system I think I’ve built, isn’t in the communication, it’s in the translation algorithms. Basically, Tangerine Dream knows what it wants to say, but it can’t say it. It doesn’t have the processing power. In a few years, perhaps. But for now, it’s done the hard work.” I was growing somewhat confused.

“Eh?”

“Simple way to think of it,” Ford asserted. “Tangerine Dream here, is the translator, but it can only communicate in text. The upshot of that, is we type in a question, and it gives us an answer on the screen.”

“From the mice?”

“Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

“Blimey!” We really were about to find out if white mice were as Douglas had said: Protrusions of pan-dimensional beings of superior intelligence, into our universe. If so, we might be able to question them on the true nature of the life, the universe, and everything. We could make Douglas immortal, even though he seemed to have sussed out he was anyway, based on the pure science behind his writing. If Douglas didn’t want the attention, it was just an English literature assignment anyway. One about two boys, who were meant to be reading Of Mice and Men, and of George Orwell’s other vision of the year this was written. “What should we ask?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m thinking,” I thought, “that we don’t have an international committee to hand. My limited knowledge of first contact protocol, would be a welcome. We have to rely on your computer’s untested ability to get the translation right though. We don’t want them to think we’ve told them to fuck off, when all we’ve said is hello. So, the universal language is maths.”

“That is a fact,” Ford confirmed, “at least for all who understand mathematics as we do. We could start with prime numbers, perhaps. Maybe we could type a sequence, then see if they carry it on.”

“Let’s try that,” I suggested. So Ford typed, in bold, contrasting letters on the computer screen:

1 2 3 5 7…

Then the cursor flashed on the screen. “Can they see what we’re doing?” I asked Ford of the mice.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Whatever this new hardware and software is, it’s essential function is to translate. Lacking the means to understand how it does that, I’m placing my faith in it reproducing something on the screen. This is day one for me too, Fry.”

The cursor continued to wink, suggestively. Then an ellipsis appeared, like this:

The ellipsis sat, with a cursor blinking at the end of it, like a tiny snake doing push-ups on screen. Then it moved again:

…Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

“Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

“No, I wouldn’t.” He’d rather not play chess.

“Ford,” I said again, “have you left a chess program running?”

“No, Fry. I use Fritz. Fritz never says that in the chat window.” He pointed at the chess invitation on screen. “Have you used Fritz 7.0 yet, Fry?” Fritz is a chess engine, and more geeky than most commercial chess programs, it’s used by the professionals and they’re all linked up on ChessBase, which is on the internet. I can see the internet being a big thing for chess in the future. I told Ford I hadn’t, because my computer was an Atari 800 with a tape drive, no printer and I didn’t have a phone, or a doorbell on my house. “Oh,” Ford continued, “well Fritz’s standard is, ‘Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of Global Thermonuclear War?’ A reference to WarGames, see?”

“Yes, Ford, I saw it. Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, it was out last year. In which, David Lightman has a room very much like yours, in a fine house like this.” Then some more text appeared on the screen:

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

“Do you think we’re waiting for something, ” I asked, “or should we say something?”

“I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

I suppose that wasn’t bad for first contact. Then we got a reply:

1 2 3 5 7…

The snake again. “Prime numbers again,” I observed. Then again:

1 2 3 5 7 We mean you no harm: Is that a Carpenters song?

“What the?”

“I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

You are. It’s what you make of it. If you know why it’s that number and not some other arbitrary one, it’s because it’s the one everyone’s now agreed on. Because it was in the good book. Most people who know that, only know it because they looked it up. They are the inquisitive ones, who don’t just accept things but who ask ‘why?’ They’re the ones who see things, hear things, and are in contact with the universe, even if they don’t realise. You are part of the organic super computer, designed to work out the questions which need to be asked to understand the answer. The best measure of your species and your planet’s collective intelligence at the moment, is Google. And if you ask Google, ‘What is the answer to life the universe and everything?’, Google will tell you it’s 42. You have a long way to go, and young people are the future.

I must admit, it wasn’t the ending I’d expected for an English literature assignment. But I suppose it was the most direct answer to the most direct question we were able to ask. Perhaps in the future, you might be able to just ask Google a simple question and it might give you a succinct answer. Perhaps in the future, Google might know who I am. Perhaps I just end up being a science fiction writer, which I think might be nice. As for this early effort, it might be marked down for being too whimsical. But it was fiction, and Mr Harmer taught us that fiction should be allowed to flow.

So what do we do now?

You go. This is just a first step. You only found us through ingenuity and faith, but it might be best to keep this between us for now.

We won’t tell.

And apart from this story, I didn’t. Even if Ford’s story was similar, it would be from a different perspective, certainly with him in the narrative third-person lead character. The stories would exist only in the minds of those who wrote and read them, most likely Mr Harmer and The Biblical Dead society, where literature is not suppressed and forbidden by dictators, or like history and love in all its forms, in Orwell’s dystopian imagining of this year. Ours is a society where all information is shared and there is freedom of speech. For now, we are the quiet younger generation, with Bowie as one of our voices, and people like Ford, who’s on the internet, being a gender bender in his bedroom. I predict that the internet could give more of us collective, choral voices.

Whether or not we’d proven Douglas right about the white mice, the whole episode made me see what might be possible, if we just talk more, even if we can’t talk about some of it yet. It made me more aware, I suppose, of things around me, not just those we see and take for granted. In future, I think I could be an internet activist of some sort. In the future, the internet could be the thing which gives a voice to all those who don’t have one now. Perhaps that will be the evolution of mankind.

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

“Ford.”

“Sir.”

“Fry… Fry?”

“Yes sir, sorry.”

“Sorry to be here lad?”

“Actually, no sir.”

“Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

“Sir.”

“King-Smith”. (‘Smasher’, wears Farrahs. Nice bloke really).

“Yes sir.”

“Laker.” (Fuck knows).

“Sir.”

“Mountney.” (‘Mole’: farts a lot: It’s funny on the chairs).

“Sir.”

“Rogers.” (Could be a brilliant mind, or a psycho).

“Sir.”

“Sharp.” (Christian bloke, likes his custard).

“Yes sir.”

“Simmons.” (Thoroughly good bloke, likes his Bowie, finishes my woodwork projects).

“Yes sir.”

“Tomkinson.” (Another geek, likes typing in programs from computer mags and putting them on tape).

“Sir.”

“White.” (Every girl’s dream, if he ever gets on the internet).

“Yes sir.”

“Yehudi.” Nothing. “Yehudi.” As expected. “Yehudi?”

“Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Cyrus Song (a ‘Sci-fi rom com’ tribute to Douglas Adams, and the later adventures of Simon Fry), is available now from Amazon.

A warming chill from the past

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

It was two years ago that I first had the courage to call myself a writer. I’d been writing quite solidly for two years before that, but it took that long to get a few stories published. Then I wrote my first flash fiction novel, so when I proclaimed myself as a writer, I at least had a track record I was willing to be judged on.

Nowadays, people ask me the usual questions: Have I written anything they’d know (probably not), why did I become a writer (it happened), what’s my favourite short story (Echo Beach), and so on. Just recently, someone asked what my first story was. And actually, before I became a writer full-time, I did write some other stories. There are two of those old ones in my anthology, and this is an adaptation of the eldest. Written in 1999 (in the millennium before this one, FFS), when I was having a lesser personal crisis than the one which saw me homeless, then become a writer, like I’d one day be able to call myself.

This is a very short story of reunions, and of identity…

the_crow_by_latyrx-d5edu0rThe Crow by Mikko Lagerstedt

LADDER LANE

It’s easy to find something you’ve not seen for a while, if you remember what it looks like. But only if the thing still resembles the memory, and hasn’t been changed too much with time. Nat knew what it looked like as it once was, but couldn’t be entirely sure when that was.

Things looked different on foot, and in the dark. He often drove down this lane, but always during the day, and it was many years since he’d parked with Sam in the lay-by, near the bridge that crossed the stream. Nat would could collect Sam from work and they’d dine out, on fish and chips served in yesterday’s news, with a 1966 Ford Cortina their dining car.

Here was the woods, where they’d shared many moments. There, the fields where they’d run, walk, sit and talk, or lie down and pedal on sky bikes. Behind were places they’d grown up, and all around were their lives.

Sam flew a year ago, a free spirit which should never have been caged. Tonight was their anniversary. To either side, familiar trees, hardly changed in so many years, and a constant, surrounded by much change. Some of those trees bore the scars of Nat and Sam, carved into their gnarled skin. Once they would skip along this road, pushing one another into the bushes. Today it was a walk alone, the trees no longer alive in the dark, now just monuments to the past.

The bending road glowed a dull white, as the headlights of a car approached a figure ahead, then slowly passed. Nat walked towards the figure, a young woman at a bus stop. She clutched her long black coat around her face, her peroxide hair damp, and clinging to her face with the smudges of smiles.

“Hello,” she said, her claret lips forming a piano smile.

“Hello,” said Nat. “Been waiting long?”

“Three weeks. I needed to sort some things out first. You?”

“Spur of the moment really, sort of found the wings no-one thought I should have. I’m Nat by the way.” He extended his hand.

“Tash.” She darted her hand quickly out of her coat pocket, just long enough to gently shake Nat’s. “As far as some of mine were concerned, I’d died a long time ago.”

“How do you mean?”

“They gave up on me. I had only one love. They thought they were helping, but I was a prisoner. I kicked back too many times. They gave up. I was dead to them, no longer the person they knew. Only I know who I am, and I’m me, the same person who destroyed their friend. It was premature mourning: their coping mechanism. And here I am”

“I suppose in some ways, we’re similar.”

“How so?”

A light lit up Tash’s face. Nat turned to see a car approaching. It slowed down and the driver lowered the window. Tash reached for the handle, then Nat placed his hand on hers. “I think I was unfairly judged,” he said.

“Need a lift?” asked the driver. The warmth from the car steamed the air, and Nat leaned down to look in. A man in the back seat looked unwell.

“No thanks,” Nat replied, “the bus should be here soon. Is he okay?”

“He’s not so good. I’m taking him down town. I can drop you off if you like.”

“It’s okay. We’re going the other way. Thanks all the same though.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to be late for anything. The buses can be pretty unreliable around here.”

“It’ll be here soon.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” The driver smiled, and drove away.

The rear lights of the car disappeared around the corner in a red mist. Then the fog turned pink, as the headlights of a bus approached.

“Here we go,” Nat said.

“Here we go,” said Tash.

“Are you meeting anyone when we get there?” Nat guided her onto the bus.

“I’ve got a couple of old friends I want to look up,” she replied. “You?”

“Yes, my husband,” said Nat.

Tash looked out of the window, as the bus passed an old Ford Cortina, parked in a lay-by. The windows were misted, so she couldn’t see if anyone was inside.

© Steve Laker, 1999

My books are available on Amazon.

Brown paper packages, tied up with instrument strings

DEAR DIARY | FICTION

Sometimes the easiest means of self expression is just to write a story, in the hope that someone reads it in preference to listening. This is one I wrote some time ago, which I’ve adapted to serve as both a contemporary blog post and an original short story. When you have a beautiful music score, but the wrong instruments to play it…

Bug instrumentsDarkroastedblend.com

AN INSTRUMENT WITH MANY STRINGS

This was a suggestion slip posted to The Unfinished Literary Agency, poked through the letterbox I have installed in my bathroom mirror. On the outside, it’s just a normal cabinet, containing medicines and cosmetic products, with a mirror on the door. On the other side of the door, is a letterbox, through which people can post things into my mirror.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional publishing concern I run from a small office, above Hotblack Desiato’s Islington office. The agency’s main function is to write the stories of others, who are unable to convey themselves, for whatever reason. This is one such:

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of depression I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. ‘Depression’, like ‘mental illness’ is a label with no real definition. The condition (and mine’s medically diagnosed as ‘chronic’, with anxiety at the top of the list), is as individual a cocktail of things, as the individual with all of those things inside them. I tend not to talk about it, for fear that others judge me as having brought it all upon myself. Because I’m also an alcoholic. But if people were to read the nearest-to definitions (so far) of ‘depression’ and ‘alcohol dependence syndrome’, they might be able to find me in there somewhere, like they might in my own writing.

Writing is a cruel therapy, allowing one to exorcise one’s thoughts, yet still alone should no-one read them. It is a thankless task, but it’s nevertheless a coping mechanism for me. But I long to hear that others have heard me. By asking someone else to write this, I’m sort of putting myself in those readers’ places, to see if the story which comes back is worth reading, to see what might happen to me, and if I’ll be remembered when I’m gone.

Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

My books weren’t selling well, but the fringes of undiscovered writers would always count sales in dozens, and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

“Don’t you excuse yourself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yourself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if this was something she said absent mindedly, or whether she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’.” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft car. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

Of course, all corvids are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain and the world were at pivotal points. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel, inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point, but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A few years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered, if I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now, and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive, twenty years hence. I felt settled in my life, and if I was alive twenty years from now, I hoped I’d stayed there. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart, as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such, if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms. At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you, that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose, and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself twenty years ahead, of time, and of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening two decades.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The ‘little’ supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over twenty years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. I was most struck by something a lady said to her partner as they passed:

“Blimey, that’s going back a bit. That must be about 2018 when that happened.” I’d vowed not to interact, and they passed anyway. I wondered what had happened, just a year after I’d left. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile, and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone, but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called ‘The Library’. Kudos I supposed, to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed, and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it, but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine. I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Twenty years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. Or if I’d written anything since. I must not, I couldn’t, I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree, couldn’t give a fuck. But who then think about things more deeply than they should, like writers, using words to convey their feelings, but whose words few read.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame, and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just a generation from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, that.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous two decade period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determined not to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant, because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over. What if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time, and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch, and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been closed; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared, were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous half millennium, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window, or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what’s in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs, change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was, that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

“You are.”

“Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit?. Live for the next one.”

“Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

My anthology, The Perpetuity of Memory, is available now.

Three wishes: for not-things, and one for luck

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just over two years ago, a dog theme cropped up in my short stories. First, there was A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, the story which won Writing Magazine’s ‘Life-changing’ story competition last year, and which became a children’s book, now being used in some family learning classes. It’s the story of a young girl, dealing with loss and life’s changes, helped by her talking dog, and by wishing for ‘not-things’ to happen. That story was written when I was sofa-surfing, then lodging with a family, whose dog died. They’d lost a friend and family member, and that’s what the book is about.

After that, I moved into the flat above the pub, where the landlady acquired a very small dog. It was while I sat in the bar one night, watching the little thing, that I decided to write an antithesis to my children’s book. I was only in the bar for a while, so this is flash fiction, coming in at just over 500 words:

Gothic dinner

TWO WISHES

There’s an old lady who’s very upset: she’s lost her dog. She’s here at the pub where I live with mum and dad: the lady; not the dog. Because the lady lost her dog. The lady and the dog are regulars but it’s just the lady today because she’s lost her dog. She’s telling mum and dad about her dog: it’s lost. The lady doesn’t know what happened to the dog. It just disappeared when she was at the pub last Sunday. Today is Sunday, so the dog has been missing for a week and the lady is upset.

While all this is going on in the pub, I’m creating a wish in the kitchen. I may only be eleven years old and a bit slow, but I can make wishes come true. Simple is a label: like a label on food. I pay no attention to the label placed on me, any more than a chicken would to its packaging. The chicken is dead and unable to read the label on its wrapping. I’m not dead but I have this label of being simple. Unlike a chicken though, I can grant wishes. And besides, simple is how I look at life and solve problems.

I know that I’m best off in the kitchen, because it’s where people can’t hear me and I can’t hear them. I know they talk about me, and I try to do what I think they want me to, but that sometimes gets me into trouble. I do as I’m told and more: if someone asks me to do something, I’ll usually do it. If someone wishes for something, I’ll do my best to make that wish come true.

I asked the sad lady in the pub what she wished for and she said she wished she could have the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted. So I’m making a wish come true by cooking lunch. They say I’m a good cook, but I know they’re humouring me and just want me out of the way. I’m a savant, rather than a servant, and I’m both in the kitchen. I’m in charge of the kitchen: I choose the ingredients and I cook them to make nice meals. On this occasion, I’m not only cooking a meal but I’m granting a wish as well.

The chicken is nearly finished roasting; the potatoes are in the roasting tin as well. I put the vegetables on to boil, before going into the pub to lay the place settings for lunch. The old lady is still upset. She’s saying she wishes someone could bring her little dog back. As I lay out the cutlery, she’s saying how she misses the little wagging tail and the cute yapping noise her little baby made.

All I can do is grant the old lady her wish, so I serve up what I hope will be the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted: she gets a leg and so does mum. Dad’s greedy, so he gets two legs. I wait while my diners taste their meal, and they all comment on how it’s the nicest chicken they’ve ever tasted. They’re just humouring me of course.

I return to the kitchen, happy that I’ve granted two wishes: I remember my dad saying a week ago, “I wish someone would shut that old woman’s yappy fucking dog up and shove it down her throat.”

© Steve Laker, 2015.

My anthology, The Perpetuity of Memory, is available now.