A prequel inspired by Zaphod Beeblebrox

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

In the beginning there was Douglas Adams and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There was Pink Floyd and The Division Bell, and there was Keep Talking (AKA ‘Cyrus Song’), the track which samples Stephen Hawking. Then there was a book inspired by all of that, also called Cyrus Song. There was some other stuff too.

The original Hitch Hiker’s Guide became a trilogy in five parts (Douglas’ words), and Douglas wrote Young Zaphod Plays it Safe, a short story prequel, now only available in a rare, out-of-print hard cover compendium (which I’m fortunate to have a copy of). So to continue the tributes to an inspiration, I wrote a Cyrus Song ‘Bonus story’. It’s a story which stands on its own nonetheless, and it’s co-published here and in Schlock web zine this weekend, where I share a stable with other (very talented) fringe writers, waiting to be read and discovered.

Alchemist LaoratoryThe Alchemist Laboratory by Kashuse (DeviantArt)

A YOUNG CAPTAIN PLAYS IT SAFE

It was homework which started this story: an assignment marked ‘F’, my initial; because I’d misplaced a decimal point and completely fluffed up a calculation. But it was that very decimal point which had landed me in detention, so I’d taken it with me, in a Petri dish liberated from the biology lab where I now sat again after school. The detention was planned, so that I could further my studies. I looked down at the little thing in the dish, as I wondered what to do next. It was moving around, now more elongated, like a comma.

This being a school science classroom I was sitting in, I was surrounded by equipment and paraphernalia which might better allow me to understand what it was I’d caught, but for the occasional glance from Big John. Mr Fowle was our biology tutor and a fine man, both in profession and less regimented theatres. A man of science, but with a wider mind, he was admired by his pupils, and it was actually quite a privilege to be in detention with him, of all teachers.

For a moment, I thought about simply talking to John about this little thing I’d caught. He was a science teacher after all. But even though I viewed him as a friend, he remained a teacher and my thoughts on the scurrying comma were perhaps outside even his broad mind, as they grew whimsical. So I decided to write them down.

With my biology homework corrected with the removal the rogue decimal point, I thought I could use the duration of the detention to tackle some other homework: English Literature. I needed to turn in an open-form essay or fiction piece of 5-6000 words.

I had what could just possibly be a previously undiscovered organism secreted on my person: What on earth might I be carrying? Or might it not be of this earth? The possibilities began to multiply, and I realised I needed to have a focus for the rest of the story, if I was to remain within the word count. It turns out I fell asleep at around this point.

Ford.” That’s me. “Mr Ford?”

Yes, that’s me.”

Yes, well done lad. Off you go.”

Thank you sir.”

What for? Keeping you in detention? I’d rather not be here. No, in future, Mr Ford, beware decimal points and other mathematical indicators. Exercise caution also, with grammar and punctuation. Because the difference, Mr Ford, can be that between life and death. Think, Mr Ford. Think, before you speak or act. Open your eyes, then you might be made a prefect. But you have to get to sixth form first.”

‘Captain, my captain’ sprang to mind. I knew I should do well to heed his words.

Lewisham High Street is a long road. From school in New Cross, the road takes me past the station, with its bus depot, overground and DLR trains, then through the market and its fragrance – which could only ever be labelled ‘Lewisham’ – and into Catford. Sometimes I’ll walk the street and say hi to the Catford cat. Other times I’ll cut through Mountsfield Park. This particular time, I took a different diversion.

With Big John’s words in my head, I’d walked from school and thought about who I could speak to about this comma I’d found. I’d eliminated all the possibilities I could, but I was limited by means. It definitely moved of its own free will, so it was organic. But it was small. I hadn’t even been able to discern if it had legs. When I moved my spectacles between my eyes and the Petri dish, the best magnification I’d managed seemed to show the little thing floating.

Having no pets, I’d rarely paid attention to the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) hospital in New Cross. I’d passed it many times and it had always just been there, of no use or interest to me at all. But I had an idea.

This being late in the day, there was no-one in the waiting room. I had to fill in a form at reception, which asked for my pet’s type, breed, gender and name. I wasn’t really comfortable with any living being being called a ‘pet’, but I’d never had one, so I just scrubbed the word out in a rebellious 14-year-old schoolboy way, then wondered why I’d done it. For the other questions, I simply answered ‘NA’, on the grounds of, I didn’t know what it was, so I hadn’t named it when it might have its own name, and did it matter what sex it was (even if it knew)?

Mr Ford?” That’s me. “Mr Ford, and Nah?” I could see what she’d done there.

There’s always a mate at school who has a really fit, young-looking mum. I had no such friends whom I was aware of, least of all their mums. In any case, a school satchel is just as useful as a towel for a teenage traveller to carry about their person, arranged upon the lap before standing up. The MILF vet was the same height as me, which is not very. She had strawberry blonde hair, tied back from black-rimmed glasses. She was very pretty. She looked at her clipboard as I rearranged things in my satchel and retrieved the Petri dish. “I’m Eve. Come with me please.” Rare will be the schoolboy a certain way inclined, who doesn’t react to such words: A blush, snort, a guffaw, would perhaps be permissible in the circumstances, but a firm punch to my satchel contained mine.

Whichever way I looked at it, she was Eve: Forwards or backwards, her name was a palindrome. I followed Eve along a corridor and into a room, which wasn’t surprising. If it had led into Narnia, it might have been. But inside was as surprising to me as it would probably be to anyone else who’d never set foot in a veterinary laboratory, consulting room, or whatever it was. Inside the room were the usual things I might have expected to find, if I’d been in one before: An examination table with an overhead lamp, a portable ultrasound machine and so on. But there was also what looked like a scanning electron microscope and a mainframe computer.

It seemed as normal to Eve to be looking at a little scurrying thing in a dish, as I assumed it would if I’d had or been a dog or cat. She put the container down on the examination table and positioned the lamp over it. The lamp doubled as a magnifier, with a circular fluorescent tube surrounding a lens, which Eve peered through. Then she said something quite unexpected:

I’ve never seen anything like it.” It was unexpected, because I assumed that as a vet, she’d seen most things.

What is it?” I wondered.

I don’t know. It’s certainly alive.” She continued to peer. “It’s moving, anyway. But I can’t see that it’s got any legs. Shall we take a closer look?” I assumed she meant the electron microscope. This was confirmed when she walked towards it.

Yes please,” I said, perhaps a little too keenly placing myself next to her.

The electron microscope was more like some futuristic arcade game when it was switched on: A tiny camera operated by a joystick hovered around the Petri dish, now magnified so that we could clearly make out the shape and features of the little creature.

It was a metallic silver / black colour, and tubular, with rounded ends: Like a baguette. But not like a baguette at all, except in shape. But smooth, metallic and with a sort of translucent sheen. It was completely unlike a baguette. But as Eve panned in closer with the camera, we could see it was filled with something.

Running along both sides of the not-baguette was a series of what looked like portholes, all blacked out and recessed into the side of the creature: Perhaps these were breathing holes. The creature had markings too: red stripes, running along the sides, just above the belly. All the time, it was moving, but not by any visible means. We’d discounted legs, but the thing didn’t contract and expand, nor undulate, but still it slowly floated around, just above the surface of the dish. And it didn’t seem to be moving blindly: It didn’t hit walls then adjust its course, it seemed to know where it was going. Whether it knew where it was was another unanswered question. But it seemed to be sentient, and its movement allowed us to deduce which end was the front.

Eve moved the camera to what we’d now identified as the front of the creature, where we’d expect to find a mouth and eyes. Seeing the creature several times magnified, I could hardly believe that this was the little speck which had landed on my homework. And when Eve stopped the camera at the front of the thing, it became even more startling.

Around the top of the front of the thing (its head, we were assuming), was an apparently illuminated crescent shape, like a visor. If this was the creature’s eye, I wondered what spectra it could see in. I had to assume that the blue/green light was probably down to a chemical reaction, like that used by fireflies.

This is absolutely fascinating,” Eve finally said. “Where did you say you found it?” Well actually, I hadn’t said where.

It just appeared in my homework, on the page, like a comma.” I really wished I’d thought of something more dramatic.

Was it any help with your homework?”

No, I failed. But it made me resolve to look at things differently and check them over.” That was pretty much what Big John had said to me at school. “To always think, before speaking or acting.”

That’s a lot to get from an out-of-place punctuation mark.” Which is true, but such a thing can completely change the meaning of something if it’s in the wrong place. So it’s worth checking. And here we were, checking, trying to find out what this particular comma was all about. Where did it come from? Where did it belong? What was its context? It wasn’t long before there were yet more questions.

Eve zoomed in on the creature’s crescent eye, so that the microscope camera was almost peering into the thing’s head, when in reality it was two centimetres away from something the size of a speck of dirt. The eye was semi-opaque, as though it was double-glazed, with a thin white mist between the layers; very much like the eye scales of a snake just before it sheds its skin, loosening the top layer from that underneath with a milky excretion.

It looks like,” I began, “a snake’s eye just before a slough.” I resisted the urge to punch my satchel again.

I was just thinking the same,” Eve said. Great minds think alike. “It’s like there’s a milky excretion here.” When you’re 14 years old, hearing an attractive lady say things like ‘milky excretion’ can cause one a moment in one’s own thoughts. “Let’s see if there’s anyone at home, shall we?” Was she proposing psychiatry?

Eve panned the camera in even closer, so that it was practically knocking on the front of the creature. If I wasn’t already writing a fiction assignment for English Literature, I definitely was from this point hence, because no-one would believe it to be real…

As Eve adjusted the focus on the microscope’s camera, we could make out what was behind the eyes of the creature. It wasn’t a creature at all; it was some sort of microscopic spacecraft. The visor was a screen, and behind the white mist was what would look like a bridge in any sci-fi film. There were three very comfortable-looking seats, like reclining easy chairs, facing what we now knew to be the window / screen. Around the perimeter of the bridge were various computer screens, displaying text and graphics we couldn’t make out. The hi-tech was juxtaposed though, by metal pipes, levers and analogue dials. Every now and then, one or more of the pipes would expel what looked like steam, like a steam train whistle. I wondered if we’d been able to hear what was going on, whether the pipes might be playing some sort of tune. I tried to imagine some retro-futuristic pipe organ, parping out a steam punk tune, like the five-tone greeting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which this wasn’t yet.

Whatever this thing was, it could still be a man-made nano machine. If it was, then I probably shouldn’t know about it. Seeing as I did, I shouldn’t let on. The English Literature route was perfect for this recording of events.

Encounters with Unidentified Flying (or Floating) Objects have been categorised into five groups as close encounters of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth kind. When a person sees a UFO within 150 metres, it’s an encounter of the first kind. Given that we were about 150 micrometers away, we could tick that one off. When an encounter with a UFO in the sky or on the ground leaves evidence behind, such as scorch marks on the ground or indents etc., it’s of the second kind. Given that ours hadn’t stopped hovering just above the base of the dish, we hadn’t had one of those yet. When an encounter is with visible occupants inside the UFO, it’s of the third kind. Unless the aliens were invisible to us, we couldn’t tick that one off. Which is a slight paradox, because if there were aliens but they weren’t visible to us (through choice or otherwise), would that count? Anyway, assuming any extraterrestrials wouldn’t look like recliner chairs (unless they were disguised; another paradox), then we hadn’t seen any that we were aware of. The fourth kind involves the person being taken and experimented on inside the alien craft. At that point, we wouldn’t fit, on account of scale. The fifth kind involves direct communication between aliens and humans. This, I assumed to be impossible, even if there were aliens present. Yet somehow we went straight from first base to third.

Somewhere among the mangles and parps of the pipes and levers, a door opened.

At this point, I should like to insert a note to Mrs Walker, my English tutor, and to Mr Harmer, my other English teacher: One is Language and the other is Literature, and together, they taught me a lot of what I know. So:

Dear Lois and John,

Among the many things you taught me, was to imagine a situation: A situation as complex and fun as I’d liked. Then you told me to mix it up more, to make it not incomprehensible but fantastical, whimsical, and perhaps odd. Finally, you taught me how to translate what I see into the simple medium of words alone, through prose; to make my writing not implausible but just about believable. I learned how to use plot devices and all sorts of other ways to manipulate words and the thoughts they convey, so that each carries a part of an image. You even inspired me to write my own literary statement in the form of a challenge:

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you escape? Well, you could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.

This is what happened next:

To use onomatopoeia, there was a ‘whoosh’ sound, as the door opened. Then a snake fell out and onto the bridge. As the doors opened, a snake was standing, with more than half its body lifted from the ground. Then it just fell in through the doors. It raised itself up again, then moved around on the bridge, bumping into a lever and clambering over a pipe. And then it sat in the central chair. Its head rested well below the headrest, its back extended down the back of the chair and along the seat, so that its tail end dangled over the edge. I remember my father’s barber placing a wooden plank across a similar chair to prop me up for a haircut. And then the snake seemed to fall asleep.

I’m familiar with snakes in the wild and even though this one was microscopic, I had to rely on the limits of my personal knowledge. This one was a grey brown colour. Assuming the seat to be seat-sized, I put the snake at about four feet in length. Not knowing where it came from, nor its size if it were in my dimension, it could be any one of a number of snakes I knew about. It was only when the snake’s mouth drooped open, as though it was snoring, that I was almost sure.

It’s a fuc.. flipping black mamba Doctor!” I should have left it there. “You are a doctor, aren’t you?” What I meant was, ‘I really hope someone can tell me what’s going on here,’ and not, ‘Are you a fraud?’

Yes, I am. My PhD was in human psychology, but I branched out into other kinds of people.” I must have looked confused for a second. “Animal people. So much easier to understand.” How did she know? “And yes, that is a fucking black mamba.”

What’s it doing here though?”

I don’t know. You found it.”

Well, I did. But I didn’t mean to. It was accidental. It was what got me detention.”

But isn’t it also what brought you here? Think differently, young man.” I was trying my best. Maybe I should just submit this English Literature assignment as a poem. ‘Snake in a baguette / Don’t know what it’s up to / Cos we haven’t spoken yet.’ Because it was about to get stranger still.

Another black mamba, kind of walked onto the bridge of the ship. The second one didn’t fall out of the door like the first. Instead, there was another ‘whoosh’ sound, and the second snake moved onto the bridge, with about half of its body raised from the floor, so that at full size, it would be about two feet tall. It then sat, in the same way the first snake had, on the seat to the latter’s left. But this second snake didn’t fall asleep. Instead, it started moving its jaws as it looked at the other snake next to it. I’m familiar with snakes adjusting and stretching their jaws prior to eating prey, but black mambas have never been known to practice cannibalism. In fact, if I’d been able to hear, I might go so far as to say the second snake might have been talking.

Do you want to listen in?” Eve asked me. Of course I did. Could we? Should we?

Erm,” I stammered, “yes, please.” The pleading was really unnecessary. “How though?”

Can you keep a secret?” Well, I wasn’t going to say ‘no’, was I?

Yes, what is it?”

Well, if I tell you, it’ll no longer be a secret.” Was that a threat?

You kind of have, Doctor,” I reminded her. The Doctor smiled, which was reassuring, I think. It was one of those double-meaning smiles, like a newsreader at the end of a report they’re not sure how they should react to.

“Call me Eve. Well, it would be our secret then, Mr Ford.” I wondered if I should ask her to call me by my first name, but she hadn’t asked what it was.

So, how can we listen to the snakes? But more importantly, how the fuc… flipping hell did a black mamba get that small, and in what looks like a space ship?”

If we can speak to them, we might be able to find out.”

Yes, but how doctor?”

This,” she said, then stood up. She walked to the computer in the corner and pressed some keys, then fished something from a drawer and returned, trailing an electric cable behind her. She sat back next to me and plugged the cable into the electron microscope. “This,” she said again, “is something I’ve been working on, on the side.”

What is it?”

Well, it’s at an early stage: Experimental. I don’t know if it’ll ever have a practical application, least of all one I might be willing to use.”

Why so?”

Because it’s a prototype for a universal translation device. I’ve called it the Babel fish.”

And it works?”

Generally speaking. It needs a lot of tweaking for individual species, but as a concept, it somehow seems to work. If you look at the microscope’s camera,” which I did, “you’ll see there’s a tiny microphone attached.” She pointed, and there was. “So, theoretically, with this plugged into the computer and with the Babel fish program running, the microphone should pick up what the snake, or alien, is saying, and translate it for us.”

What about talking back?” I wondered.

It’s not something I’d ever planned to do, but it does work both ways. So if we speak, the microphone will pick us up. And then how it works becomes a bit confusing.

Why?”

Because with the few animals I’ve listened to, they’ve always had voices which reflected their personalities, of course. But also, which bely their physiology.”

How do you mean?”

A mouse, for instance, sounds squeaky. I’ve never deliberately spoken back, but when I first heard that, I giggled at the stereotype being confirmed, and the mouse must have heard me. It looked startled. And I imagined that if I’d heard a smaller thing as higher pitched, perhaps the mouse heard bigger me as a really deep voice. But I don’t know how the Babel fish actually does that. It’s kind of a paradox, like never really knowing what your own voice sounds like.”

Nor, by extension,” I offered, “does anyone truly know what they look like.”

Eh?”

Because we only ever see ourselves in mirror image, or in photographs. It is impossible for us to view ourselves directly. Ergo, as we really are, and are seen by other people.”

That’s pretty deep, Mr Ford.”

Yes, sorry.”

Don’t apologise. Like I said, think differently. So, back to the snakes?” I’d momentarily forgotten, in the presence of an attractive woman old enough to be someone my age’s mum, about two potential extraterrestrial snakes in a microscopic spacecraft, under the microscope.

Eve flicked a switch, then a sound came from some speakers on the computer. It was a high-pitched rasping sound, almost a shrill whistle. As Eve adjusted some controls, the shrieks became a voice:

Wake up.” By the way the mouth was moving, this was the second snake speaking to the first, who was still asleep. “Wake up,” it said again. “We’re here.”

What!?” The first snake now woke with a start. “What? Where?”

Here,” said the second snake. “Here, wherever you programmed the ship to come to. Well, we’re there.”

Are we?” The first snake adjusted himself in his chair, peering forward at the screen, and our camera. “What’s that?” I assumed he was talking about the camera.

I don’t know. I thought you would.”

Why would I?”

Because these are the co-ordinates you programmed into the ship.”

But that’s not supposed to be here.”

Well, what were you expecting?”

This is supposed to be a quiet country spot. There should be humans around.”

But you said yourself, it’s a quiet country spot. If it’s secluded, might there actually not be people there?”

Well, I suppose. But I was hoping for a little village or something. You know, where there’d just be one or two people around. Not that thing.” He gestured with his snout at the screen.

Do you think we should speak now?” I said.

What the fuck was that!?” I heard a sharp, whistling rasp: The alien snake had heard me.

I think he heard you just fine,” Eve confirmed.

What!? Who is that?” hissed the snake. Eve switched off the Babel fish.

So?” she wondered. So did I.

I don’t know, Doctor. They can hear us. Are we not breaking all sorts of rules?”

Probably.” That was very carefree. “But it looks like they’ve made a mistake. If they didn’t mean to be here, shouldn’t we help them out?”

Well,” I thought, “maybe. But without knowing we’re here. I guess it’s too late for that.”

I’d say so. So the least we can do is help them. We’ll say no more and perhaps they don’t either. That part we’ll have to trust to faith. Whatever else we pick up in any conversation will just remain our secret.”

Well, I was going to write about it. But for an English Literature assignment. Fiction.”

Perfect. Just so long as no-one believes you. Shall we get back to the snakes?” Eve switched the Babel fish on again. The snakes were still talking:

So why did you only want to see one or two humans?”

Because then we could’ve just buzzed them, you know?”

No?”

You know, float menacingly in front of them in the sky. Make the ship do some hoots and parps, flash a few lights. Then just fuck off.”

Why?”

Well, who’s going to believe them? One or two people, in a secluded place. The only ones to witness a UFO. Everyone would think they were cranks. It’s the best way to study them, so they don’t take us too seriously.”

They’re joyriding,” I said.

Who is that?” said one of the snakes.

Well it’s not God,” said another. “We’ve pretty much discounted him if that’s a universal translation device we’re hearing. We’re disobeying the lessons from The Tower of Babel, where God allegedly knocked it down, because he didn’t want people understanding all languages. With language barriers in place as a defence mechanism, God was maintaining the rules of confusion and misunderstanding though…”

Well, that’s what our books say. But what’s that voice?”

What?” Eve asked.

And that one?” hissed the snake.

I’ve read about it,” I said. “Aliens, they go around looking for secluded places on Earth, where they can put on a display for a few people.”

But why?

Well,” I continued, “as this snake here said, just to spook people. But not too many. A bit of fun, showing off. But I always thought it could be something more. I mean, if they were appearing to a lot of people, that could cause all sorts of problems. By keeping it within a select group, only a few people will take the story of the whole thing seriously. It’s a containment mechanism. Like the Babel fish, I suppose. I mean, if universal translation was suddenly freely available to everyone, that would cause all sorts of trouble. And that’s why I’ll keep this secret, so as not to spoil things. So my theory on so-called joyriders is that what we see is only a part of something greater, which we may not yet understand.”

That is both very liberal and deep, Mr Ford.” This wasn’t Eve’s voice. This was the rasping whistle from the Babel fish. I turned to look at the screen, directly at the first snake.

Thank you,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.

You are an interesting specimen, Mr Ford. You may benefit your species yet.” Which was kind of what John Fowle had said. The truth behind this story may be something discussed with school prefect peers, in a secret society, such as that of The Dead Poets. To anyone outside, the forbidden knowledge was just a work of fiction.

Captain,” I said, that just seeming to be the most appropriate way to address him.

Human,” he replied. Which threw up many questions. He referred to me by my name when he first addressed me. Then when I addressed him as ‘captain’, he called me ‘human’. Did this impart an assumed rank? Scholars might ponder over this in years to come if it wasn’t written as a work of fiction. The captain continued: “We are here by accident, as I believe you have gathered. I think we made a mistake with a decimal point in our co-ordinates.”

Are you aware of your size though?” I couldn’t think of any other way to point out that might be the error.

My what?” I may have touched a nerve.

Well, we’re looking at you through an electron microscope.”

Is that what it is? We thought that was a telescope.”

I think there’s been a miscalculation of scales.”

I think you may be right, Mr Ford. A decimal point would seem to have caused me all these problems. Thank you for pointing it out.”

I’m sure you’d have worked it out.”

Not without the benefit of your perspective. Can we agree that it might be wise to keep this between ourselves?”

We’d kind of agreed that already between ourselves, captain.” I looked at Eve, who was smiling at some inner news.

You won’t tell my father?”

I wouldn’t know who your father is.”

Good. Mum’s the word then.” Eh? Mum: Mother who? Mother Earth? More speculation for later English Literature assignments.

Keep learning, Mr Ford. For then you will truly learn.” From a snake, it didn’t seem so strange, when the snake was some sort of alien life form I couldn’t previously imagine, but never now dismiss.

So what now?”

Now, we go home.” Which really summed things up nicely.

And we speak no more of it, except with those in a secret club who know the truth. The Captain Mamba Society? It was a great beginning to end a story with. But I had a few things to attend to first.

How do we get you home?”

Just let us go, out of this thing you’ve got us in.”

You’re free to fly away.”

Well, we need a bit of a push, see? When we launched, we had a thing which shot us off at speed.”

And that’s back where you came from?”

No, it’s the engine of the ship. We need a bit of a launch assist, seeing as we miscalculated our size a bit.”

So how?”

At your size, just a good push should get us going.”

Yes, but what do I push?”

Do you have windows here?”

Yes, we do.”

Well, what’s outside?”

Er, outside?”

Well done. Well, that’s where we want to go. And how do we get there?”

Through the window?”

Well done. Think one step beyond, Mr Ford.”

You literally, want me to throw you out of the window?”

Unless you have a better idea?” Thinking outside, inside, and all around, I didn’t. I had to let this moment go.

So it was Eve in fact, perhaps sensing my newfound attachment, who picked up that Petri dish, opened the window, and threw Captain Mamba, his crew mate and their ship, out into the world to make their own way home.

Do you think,” I wondered to Eve, “they’ll make the return journey?” That was a very loaded question, and one which begged for a greater word allowance on an English Literature assignment. “There are so many possibilities.”

You’re the space cadet, Mr Ford. I’m sure you’ll make of it all what you will. Keep what you know between the friends you trust. Don’t abuse it for personal gain. You have a responsibility. I think you’ll make a fine prefect.” So, a girl called Eve had advised me to guard the words which the serpent had given us. That would make quite a good story.

I had the remainder of Lewisham to traverse before I got home. By now, it was dark. I walked beneath the street lamps and the Catford cat, as the park was closed. I’d write up my notes before school the next day. If what I’d written was judged to be a good fiction piece, then perhaps the misplaced comma which had caused me failure before, might get me recognition in a field besides biology.

You’re late, Dixon.” It was my dad, tuned into my frequency.

Yeah, sorry dad. I got talking after detention.”

Well, I won’t ask who to. That would shatter my illusion that you might have done something amazing.” He’d told me I had it in me, and now I couldn’t tell him.“One day,” dad continued, “you’ll be really late, Dixon.”

What?”

Late, as in the late Dixon Ford. Well, when you are, try to be remembered.”

Captain, my captain.”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

star-wars-force-awakens-captain-phasma-face-hat-16.jpg

Cyrus Song (a story inspired by Douglas Adams), is available now.

And there’s a second prequel short story, Of Mice and Boys in 1984.

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The Unfinished Literary Agency in fiction, and in fact…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Unfinished

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional entity which I’ve used in a few of my own stories. It’s based above Hotblack Desiato’s property agency in Islington, which actually exists, by virtue of the owner being a Douglas Adams fan. I can almost forgive the guy being a property agent because of that alone. I like to imagine he gets the irony of being one of the professions loaded onto the B Ark when the Golgafrinchans rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My fictional agency exists to tell the stories of those who are unable to tell them. As Paul Auster once said, “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” So the Unfinished Literary Agency employs writers to tell the stories of others, which is pretty much what writers do anyway.

So I wondered if such a place might exist online. Surely, there would be lots of people who have stories, and many writers grateful of ideas? Well, that’s why there are ghostwriters, of which I am one. But my motivation for writing is more than money, of which there is very little. For me, it’s the reward of having someone tell me how much they enjoyed something I wrote.

An example in the public domain, is my award-winning children’s story, A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie. It was written when I was lodging with a family while I was homeless, and the family dog died. As someone who sees animals as people, I saw Jake’s passing as that of a family member, not a pet. I remembered losing many animal people of my own and not being able to find a coping mechanism. Eventually, that came in the form of Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Pet, by Virginia Ironside. Like me, she saw the loss of an animal person, rather than a replaceable pet. But those most affected by the loss of a family member are invariably children, who might be unable to express or understand their grief. I remembered again, not being able to find anything when I was a kid. So that’s how the children’s book came about, and it’s been variously praised for how it deals with life’s losses and changes, through the eyes of a girl and her talking dog. Anyway, if your animal friend dies, there’s a book for that.

One of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory is called String Theory: It was written for (and therefore, by) a young lady I met via her mum, again, when I was homeless. The young girl was at a transitory stage in life, where she was about to move to secondary school, with all of the internal changes which someone of that age will also have to deal with. She was a little bit lost, so I (she) wrote String Theory, which is about a puppet girl on strings, who learns to fly.

I had to conclude that there is no real or virtual online place which does what The Unfinished Literary Agency does, to tell the stories of others. If such a place were to exist, there must be so many untold stories to feed it: Children and adults alike, facing challenging situations, which fiction might help them to see and understand in a different way; the terminally ill could be given immortality, people could become known and remembered. But such an agency would need a staff of purely altruistic writers like me. And there are many who ghostwrite like me. The unfortunate truth is, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency couldn’t be monetised, so it would have to operate on charity alone.

People have asked me how things might have been different if I’d started writing earlier. If I’d gained a degree in literature, then gone straight into writing as a professional. The simple answer is, well it didn’t fucking happen like that, did it? In fact, the main catalyst for me becoming a writer, was when I was homeless, without possessions and with nothing else to do. It turned out I’m pretty good at it by all accounts. And by living a life before I came out as a writer, I gained experience. I lived the stories which I can now tell, and I met the characters which I can now inhabit, while developing my own. I’ve been complimented on the depth of some of my characters. That’s because, like most writers, my stories have a part of me in them. And I’ve put other people I know into stories too, with The Unfinished Literary Agency, and The Human Lending Library, from Reflections of yesterday.

In yet more stories of mine, there are protagonists and narrators who are writers themselves. In some of these, the fictional writer’s actions make the story more real: Writing is art, after all, and the beauty of an individual piece is often to be found in the unique marks left by the human artist. One such story is the title track from The Perpetuity of Memory. Another, The difference engine, will be published in early July.

I’m already a ghostwriter, for stories I write for other people and which are published without bearing my name. With stories like A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, and String Theory, the arrangement was symbiotic: I told someone else’s story, by writing a story of my own. As a writer, I was given an idea and turned it into a publishable story, which the person I was writing for was then able to see in print. In a couple of cases, that person bought a copy of the book containing their story, then arranged privately with me to send it to me, to sign and return. Others have asked for this, even though they’re not in any of the stories. While I’m still on the literary fringes, this is something I have time to do and it’s something I enjoy. Because it’s another thing which is more than money: It’s a personal touch, which people appreciate.

So far, I’ve avoided politics. But in making another prediction (and I’ve been pretty much spot on previously), I’m predicting a Universal Basic Income to be part of Labour’s manifesto for a second parliamentary term. If so, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency could become real, with writers more able to work for a greater good with a reliable minimum income in place. Until then, it will remain a purely fictional place.

So for now, The Unfinished Literary Agency has but one writer in residence. But as I’m not driven by money, I will accept commissions. I’ll write the stories of others, free of charge, and both parties gain a little warm feeling, through helping someone else.

And for as long as I’m writing, I’ll always be happy to sign copies of my books.

The Perpetuity of Memory; A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie; and The Paradoxicon (my original, semi-autobiographical novel) are available now. My next sci-fi book, Cyrus Song, is due for publication around October.

Rise of the toasters

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Toaster Red2ToasterToaster Blue
They have a plan

The headline refers to Cylons (“Toasters”), for anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, and the opening title cards:
The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”
Like many sci-fi fans, I speak as though science fiction is actual history: It’s a geek humour thing, and it can make us seem exclusive to some, usually gathered in a corner somewhere. Excluded might be a better term.

My main distraction lately has been my next book, Cyrus Song: I’ve written much about it recently but now that I’m at a certain stage, it’s become a lot more. Essentially, it’s a tribute to Douglas Adams: Taking a couple of his ideas, expanding on them and adding complimentary ones. One of the ideas in my book is that The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a factual historical record, adopted by some races as religious scripture. It’s a book which I’m getting very good feedback on from people who matter, with one even telling me, “Douglas would be proud.” But it’s not the exclusive preserve of those of us who gather in corners: Anyone who knows nothing about Douglas Adams or The Hitch Hiker’s Guide, will still understand Cyrus Song. It’s a book about life, the universe, and everything. There is an answer besides 42. It’s a book for all ages and above all, it’s funny.

As is usually my practice, I wrote the ending of the book long ago. I’m now at a stage with the main narrative that it’s coming up to meet the ending. When that’s done, I’ll have a completed first draft manuscript. I still have competing tentative publishing offers, which I may yet explore, while I go through editing and redrafting. If I do end up self-publishing for any reason, I have the tools. I’m confident that the book will get picked up at some point, but it’ll be word of mouth that really sells it. I’ve been told that it’s the kind of book a reader will definitely recommend. I’m so confident of that that if I do self-publish, I might offer a money back guarantee. And if I self-publish, I’m in the company of around 80% of top contemporary writers, all of whom started out by doing it themselves.

And there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from the editing and publishing process. I never could have done half of it a year ago: It was the gift of my typewriter (a Windows 10 laptop) from the mother ship, because she “…thought it might help with your writing.” That, my dad telling me he’s proud of me, and my kids thinking it’s “awesome” to have a writer as a dad, is what makes me personally proud.

It was my birthday recently, so I received the mandatory social media greetings and niceties. I was touched to pause upon a few personal messages: It’s nice when people give a small gift of some thoughtful time. It’s a practice I’ve observed myself for a while now: For those who I know well, or to whom I’m close, I’ll always take the time to post something more than “Happy birthday mate” on someone’s Facebook timeline. Instead, I’ll write briefly of a memory I’ll have with that person, or even a brief eulogy. I don’t do traditional cards, but it doesn’t take much to give someone some time and make them pause among the many other standard greetings.

It’s been nice to be encouraged so much lately, and by so many, in what I do and what I’ve become. So now I’m 47: a prime number. If I only make it as far as Douglas did (49), then at least I’ll have written the book which I was somehow meant to write. And as I’m approaching the end of the first draft of the novel, some numbers are appearing: As it stands, Cyrus Song will be 320-340 pages and it’s split into 24 chapters (24 is of course 42 transposed). If I can get the book to be complete in 336 pages, that’s a multiple of 42. And at roughly 300 words per page, that’s 100,800 words: 2400 x 42. I should be able to pull those Easter eggs off, proving that the number 42 does mean something, although I know not what.

There’s so much more I’d like to write in this “Dear Diary” entry: Everything else that’s been going on while I’ve been concentrating on Cyrus Song. But then I might as well just duplicate my Facebook timeline, which is public anyway. It’s mainly political, satirical and scientific posts, too numerous to clog a blog with.

Once the first draft of Cyrus Song is complete, I’ll take a month off: From the book, not from writing. During that time, I’ll entertain the free-to-read markets with some short stories. I have many planned for a next anthology. But the next book out with my name on the cover will be Cyrus Song, by the end of this year.

In giving the real answer to the big question, my book proposes ways towards a better world, both internally and the world around us. By the time it’s out, I’m hoping to see radical changes in UK politics, for the better: It’s no secret that I’m a Labour / Lib Dem supporter (I read The Guardian) and all of my thinking around the subject is on that Facebook timeline above. What I’ve come to realise is that I was looking at our politicians as I’ve been conditioned to. In Jeremy Corbyn, I see a different kind of politician: a person in touch with the country and a person of the people.

I see an uprising. I see a gradual lifting of a veil.

The citizens were created by politicians. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”

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Who’s afraid of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings?

THE WRITER’S LIFE | POETRY

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings was a poet who wrote the worst poetry in the universe. In fact, her poetry is still considered to be the worst in the Galaxy, closely followed by that of the Azgoths of Kria and the Vogons, in that order. Well, we’ll see about that…

I’m between chapters and at a transitional stage with writing my next book, where Mr Fry is currently awaiting the arrival of a package from Norway. I’m aware that I need to write more to find out what happens next, but sometimes I take a break between chapters to review things. On this particular sojourn, I took a wander around the part of my brain labelled Douglas Adams / John Hegley, writing “poetry”, like this:

The difference between cats and cars
Not many cats have windows
and not many cars have fur
When you stroke a car it’s not very likely
that it’ll purr

If it’s got wheels it’s probably not a cat
and if it’s got claws it’s probably not a car
It’s not a very good idea to fill a cat
with four star

The difference between cats and dogs
Cats meow
Dogs don’t
Dogs do as they’re told
Cats won’t

A cat is not a dog
And a dog is not a cat
They’re like people
It’s as simple as that

The difference between dogs and cars
You can’t sit in a dog
and drive it
If a dog runs you over
You’ll probably survive it

And finally, my epic: Road Trip…

Road Trip
I like a satnav
If I’m going on a trip, I plan it
So if I want to go to Whitstable
I don’t end up in Thanet

You’re welcome.

This life, version 2.0

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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There are a lot of amazing feelings which come from publishing a book, just as there are in writing one. Obviously the writer has complete freedom if they are like me: Working mainly for myself and only in my own styles when I’m hired for freelance work. But I’ve written plenty about the writing part. What’s occupying me the most now is the post-publishing stage of a book.

The publication date was coincidentally poignant for more than the reason I’d already realised. It was three years to the day since part one of my life had ended. It was the day of Trump’s inauguration, and there’s a fairly barbed Trump reference in one of the stories. And it was the day my friend from Catford was laid to rest. It was a fitting date and it all happened by accident.

I like to play with numbers, to keep my mind always busy. It struck me that my last post was on what would have been day 1126 of me writing this blog. If you add all of the digits of that number, you get 10. If you add the 11 to the 26, you get 37: A prime number. Reversed, it’s 73: Another prime, and Doctor Sheldon Cooper’s favourite number for that reason and more: 7 and 3 are also both prime numbers. If you add those together, you again get 10. 10 is 2 in binary (well, 10 is 10 in binary, but you get my drift) and 2 is a prime number. It’s a lot of overthinking things on my part, but it demonstrates a point: Strange coincidences are there in real life. Some just take more effort to find. 42 is, of course, the answer to life, the universe and everything. When mankind couldn’t understand that answer, the point was made that in order to understand the answer to something, one must first understand the question. The question in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was extracted from Arthur Dent’s brain was, what do you get if you multiply six by nine? And it is 42. If you use mathematical base 13. We’re just not thinking radically enough.

Weird coincidences do happen in real life, as they do in fiction. Often, life’s happenstances are stranger than those told of in fiction. The fiction writer has to be wary of accusations of stretching chance too much. Such an accusation might be made of some writers (not mentioning names, but one which rhymes with “ban drown”) but most will make things believable without too much stretching of the imagination. But it is true that stranger things happen in real life. Paul Auster commented on this in a recent interview with The Guardian:

“People who don’t like my work say that the connections seem too arbitrary. But that’s how life is.”

As if to prove it, between 1999 and 2001 he took part in the National Story Project on American public radio, in which he read out yarns submitted by “ordinary people” across the country – “true stories that sounded like fiction”. His original call was for tales “that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives”. It was a success; thousands of stories were submitted and a selection published as True Tales of American Life. Auster found confirmation that “reality is truly as strange and incomprehensible as I thought it was”, and that others too felt the pull of improbability: “I’m happy to report that I’m not alone,” he told the Paris Review. “It’s a madhouse out there.”

“I borrowed some things from my own life, but what novelist doesn’t?”

None of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory rely on unbelievable devices. Even the more fanciful and fantastical ones have a grounding in science and some of my background research is explained within the contexts of the individual stories. There are elements of me in most of them but probably only recognisable to those closest to me. As fiction, they are good stories.

The truth is, so much has happened in my life that there are many stories to adapt and tell as fiction. “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them”, after all. This entire blog is the story of most of my life – non-fiction – or at least what I’m now calling part two of my life.

At the end of part two, I’ve published two books: The Paradoxicon and The Perpetuity of Memory. The Paradoxicon is a partly semi-autobiographical story, written in a hurry, in an effort to commit things to history. As a flash fiction novella, it’s a good little book (I’m told). The Perpetuity of Memory though, is the book I’d like to be judged on as a writer. It represents the three years during which my life was first in transit, then settled and contemplating. It’s a story in itself: 25 collected tales, one book, wrapped up in another story: that of my life, version 2.0. I’m contemplating and writing many more stories, for the webzine, magazine and anthology markets, then there’ll be a second volume, probably in about a year, and with the working title of Recollections of the Future (not final). I’ll also be re-writing The Paradoxicon as an expanded, full-length novel, incorporating a fictional account of the real autobiography I’ve found too difficult to write.

My book is out there. I’m earning royalties in various currencies as it’s bought around the world. The royalties are almost irrelevant to me. I have a modest, comfortable (if not luxurious) life and I have all that I need around me. So as not to complicate my benefit payments (writing is recognised by tribunal judges as being therapeutic for my depression and anxiety), most payments from my books will go to my usual charity benefactors. That, and just the knowledge that my books are out there, is why I do it. People are buying The Perpetuity of Memory and reading it. Friends are sending me photos of my book in situ in their houses.

It’s a good feeling; This life, part three, or version 2.0.