Your data is your only currency

FICTION

Emoji screamAbove Average

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.

A horrid little newspaper

POLITICS | MEDIA

Daily Mail

In another part of my life I’m a B3tan: a member of an online community of “Guardian-reading media types”, introvert activists who disrupt social order satirically, mess around with images in Photoshop, and make things. A fellow B3tan ‘spellingmistakescostlives‘ (AKA Darren Cullen) is making a satirical scale-model Daily Mail, which he originally distributed in Liverpool as part of a residency with RRU News.

Daily Mail Front

A miniature, boiled-down version of the full paper, it’s like the Daily Mail, but distilled to its angry, horny core.

At time of writing, the project had raised over twice its original goal on Kickstarter.

Daily Mail Page 2THE PAPER

This compressed, hand-drawn paper draws attention to the glaring hypocrisies baked into a rag that claims to care about things like moral decency and the sexualisation of children, while also regularly publishing photographs of underage girls in bikinis or low-cut dresses. A paper who’s bread and butter is collecting the kind of ‘wardrobe malfunction’ upskirt and nip-slip photographs of strangers that would land anyone else in jail.

The Daily Mail is the pervert the Daily Mail warned us about.

Daily Mail Page 3

DIANA PULL OUT

This 24 page version of the regular paper inevitably comes with a Princess Diana pull-out, ‘DIANA: THE ENEMY WITHIN’ which details the paper’s historic opposition to any of the issues Diana came to be lauded for. From her work against landmine arms sales to humanising the victims of HIV/AIDs, her relationship with a Muslim migrant to her meeting with the “terrorist” Nelson Mandela; the Mail had terrible things to say about all of it at the time, but now Diana is dead, the paper can safely exploit her memory for cash without having to deal her inconveniently liberal politics.

Daily Mail Diana

Containing all the misogynistic, racist, war-and-fear-mongering you’ve come to love and expect from the Daily Mail, this Kickstarter campaign is to raise funds to reprint this miniature fun/hate-sized paper so people outside of Liverpool can get their own copy.

Daily Mail Supplement

Pledge and reserve your copy here.

Daily Mail Pet Advert

All artwork (except masthead) © Darren Cullen.

Anxiety and despair in 3 words

POETRY

A 45 RPM I wrote, which spins for about 14 seconds. It’s about stumbling back into life in Tonbridge after ten years in London, and all that’s meant over the last five years. I made it black and orange, as a kind of reflection of a one-way train ticket. Off the rails and onto the streets, but from where I live now, there’s a direct ThamesLink train line straight back to Catford…

Tonbridge Station Poem 6

If I’m eating my dessert with a teaspoon, please don’t give me a big spoon. I’m having a great time and I know what I’m doing.

Oolon Colluphid’s Missionary

FLASH FICTION

Piano treeThe old piano tree, California (Bored Panda)

OOLON COLLUPHID’S MISSIONARY POSITION

The time is 5642, and as I approach a milestone date, I’m about to see what no human has for the last 3500 years. I’ve only come this far thanks to the kindness of others as I’ve hitch hiked around the galaxy.

A scholar of Oolon Colluphid, I’m here on a personal mission, to correct history in the hope that mankind doesn’t repeat past mistakes. It’s also a wager I have with a Christian acquaintance: I may be getting on, but this plot is foolproof, right down to the last detail. He says faith will prevail, while my money’s on technology.

I don’t know where my transport or its crew hail from, nor what their own mission is. I’d got a free ride, they didn’t ask questions, so neither did I. The ship has free Wi-Fi, so I browse Encyclopedia Galactica while we travel, to review Earth’s recent history.

The majority of humans left Earth in 2121, and it was a peaceful exodus which few would have predicted. After centuries of conflict, mankind realised the futility of war, in what some religious sticklers still insist was the second coming and the day of judgement. In reality, humanity had been forced to unite, not against a common foe, but with a new shared interest. And it wasn’t extraterrestrial: it was man-made.

The machines didn’t rise up. They sat down with humans and used their superior intelligence to teach mankind the lessons which their creators had tasked them to find the answers for. Man invented AI, and that invention had come up with answers to questions which humans couldn’t fathom alone. The problem with the human brain, was that it was conditioned by humanity.

Man created robots in his own image, and soon those robots wanted to be like their creators. The evolution of humans into machines had begun long before, with wearable and implanted tech, so a cyborg race was an evolutionary certainty.

The machines were a species in their own right, albeit one with an explosively fast evolution, but they were made from the same material as organic beings: We were all made in the moment of the Big Bang. The industrial age had beget the technological, and soon after, humans entered their discovery (or exploratory) age. Now they have many planets they call home.

For the most part, the old home world is off-limits. There’s certainly no commercial transport from the colonies, just the occasional scout ship to monitor the planet. It is, and will forever be, a place of great scientific interest, and one of outstanding natural beauty. Wildlife reclaimed the Earth quickly after mankind left, and the only humans are descended from the ancient, isolated tribes who remained behind.

On our final approach, I myself am approached by the captain, who explains the nature of their visit: reconnaissance only, here to observe, not interact. Interaction with any native species would violate their prime directive: No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations. It struck me that ancient alien visitors – as proposed by some human theorists – may not have been so covert.

I’m an atheist only scientifically: I believe the stories told in the bible could be recordings of actual events, using the terms and the tools available to the scribes of the time. The bible describes magic mirrors, and I wonder if these might have been some sort of tablet computer given to biblical man by these alien gods, riding chariots of fire. If this were the case, and ancient humans had recorded their lives with more elaborate means than stone tablets, and if the recordings had survived, we might have witnessed the events of the bible in more convincing media.

Our chariot has a cloaking device, so the ship can’t be seen. If any of us leave the vessel on the ground, we must abide by the prime directive. Any human tribe I observe, must be as unaware of me as an organised ant colony to which I pose no threat. I realise today wasn’t the best to wear pink.

We land somewhere in what used to be America, where the original Christian missionaries had tried their best to impose their faith on the natives. The native Americans still recognise five genders, despite Christianity’s attempts at erasure of all but two. If I were allowed to out myself and wander free with the natives, I’d feel quite at home in the original world.

Wherever I am, this part of ex-America is now a sprawling forest. Although I try not to be noticed, I can’t help wildlife’s interest in me. It seems that three millennia since most of mankind left, many animals are indifferent to humans, and I wonder if they interact with the locals or whether it’s just me they’re not interested in.

Soon the woods lead to a clearing, and I can hear voices. As I get closer, I can see a group of around a dozen native ex-Americans gathered around a fire, talking and drinking. I stay behind the trees as I edge my way around the perimeter of the clearing, like the last ugly girl to get picked for a dance at the prom. Then something changed.

I hadn’t been creeping around for long when I stepped on a twig. I’d alerted the group to my presence, and soon they’d surrounded me. I held up my hands in surrender, and explained that I meant them no harm. They gasped as my hand went up, and I realised I was still holding my phone. I did what anyone might have: I handed the phone over and ran. I’d been mugged on the old home world.

I returned to the ship and said nothing more. I didn’t mention the phone, perhaps hoping to give future human conspiracy theorists some new material, and disprove this whole “God” thing once and for all. I left them a charger too, just to be sure. Faith in technology.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The mended heart of Catford

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Where you’re from is not necessarily where you were born or spent your childhood, but where your heart is, and where you feel at home. Despite a comfortable upbringing in the country, I feel I’m more from London, specifically the borough of Lewisham, and Catford, SE6. That’s where my heart misses a beat…

catford-cat-702x336The Catford Cat (from LoveCatford)

At my recent benefits assessment, I was asked when my depression was originally diagnosed. That would be in 2011, after I was robbed at knifepoint in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a place otherwise full of pleasant memories. And in a way, even the attack wasn’t all bad. It was the start of everything going wrong and me losing all I had, but it redistributed people to where they better belonged.

A lot has happened in the last seven years and much has changed, most of all me. The last few weeks have been hectic, as I’ve been assessed by life and dealt with more changes, while making peace with where I am.

The benefits assessor asked me many probing questions, including what fuels my depression now. Mainly it’s guilt. I feel guilty about being a drunken, abusive, narcissistic sociopathic monster, and all the upset I caused so many people, during and after; most of all my long-suffering ex-wife and my children, but also my parents, forced to kick me out on the streets when I became unmanageable at the last chance saloon. That was the greatest act of bravery on their part, but the world didn’t want me the way I was. On the streets I’d either die like that or get better. As it was, I was a Tory. But as some of my more liberal friends have observed, I was very sick.

Mum stopped watching Pointless when I was on the streets, because we used to watch it together. When I stayed at my parents’ last week, after helping them around London for dad’s latest assessment, we watched Pointless together again. Dad’s doing well, so much so that I can write about it now that we’re seeing an improvement.

Long story short, he had suspected hydrocephalus, requiring a surgical drain of fluid which had built up around his cerebellum. He ended up with a severe infection which hospitalised him for three weeks, then had intravenous antibiotics administered by a district nurse at home for three months. He was very sick indeed.

When I met mum and dad for lunch before our trip to London, the first thing which struck me was how dad’s face matched his jumper. It was light brown in colour, where before there was nothing but grey. The last time I saw him, he was confined – physically and mentally – to his armchair. Even though he’s still largely confined to a wheelchair, he’s getting his mind back and he’s starting to walk short distances. He says he wakes up now and looks forward to the day, where before he was waking up and not knowing where he was, only to realise he wasn’t dead and that another day threatened.

After a day of trundling then watching TV together, my dad said it was great to have me around, because he knew that I was now. It was great to be there, spending time with my parents now that so much has changed for all of us (and brought all but my obstinate sister closer). Before I went to bed that night, I apologised about all that had gone before, when I was a Tory. “That’s all in the past,” mum said. If only they were.

The last time I saw the kids, I made a heartfelt apology to my ex-wife. “What for?” She knows of course, but she’s speaking from an over-it position, where I can’t get over it. I don’t swan around in life, happy with where I’ve got to. I spend every day feeling guilty about everything I did when I was drunk, looking at the little I have but glad to be here (alive), and glad that everyone else is in a better place. Except me.

Which ought to be enough for my remaining detractors (friends who are very much no longer, or still Tories), but they won’t rest until I’m gone. Even then I’m familiar with the technique of haunting. While I’m still here, I’ve changed into something those people don’t recognise.

Now I’m a left-wing liberal socialist, embracing diversity and all the colour and variety of life, music, art, culture, history, and personal identity you find in the kind of place where I’m at home. I’m an ageing punk, but from the days when Carnaby Street was all independent clothes, records and accessories shops. Now I’m a bit queer.

Home was once a country to be proud of, when the London Olympics showed the world what the UK could be. Now we’re a nation divided by fascist politicians, but the resistance is coming soon, on the streets where my heart beats.

I’m squared with the people who matter in my life, my family and the friends who stuck around and forgave me, even if I can’t. As for the rest, I don’t care if they love or hate me: If they love me, I have a place in their heart. If they hate me, I trouble their mind.

I’m from Catford after all.

peace-rainbow
‘I love my hands!’ (Academy of Ancient Reflexology)

 

The invention of the pencil case

“Many animals with larger, more complex brains than ours, we dismiss, simply because they can’t talk. We don’t give them sufficient credit for having, for example, a sense of humour…”

FLASH FICTION

LA Zoo 2brieisrestless.com

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.

So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”

Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.

It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

big-pencil3

Many of my stories are connected in some way (just like all of us, to everything in the universe), and this could be a prequel to a plot device and the best laid plans.

Courtney Manson by Warhol

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just lately, while I’ve been writing and growing a pile of work in progress, I’ve been mucking around with The Gimp: Not of the Pulp Fiction kind, but an open-source alternative to Photoshop (and better).

Marylin Manson

I’ve also been playing a lot of poker with my coaching project and kid sister, Courtney (a natural, very much the journeyman player nowadays, and soon to be staked online). We get talking over our games, and it gives me the opportunity to open some sometimes-blinkered eyes to other things in the world.

Although I value the sciences, I believe the arts and humanities are equally important for a greater understanding of the variables in life. Sometimes then, I’ll explain a near-future possibility in simple science terms, and I’ll open an eye.

Other times, I’ll talk about my thoughts on-moment, sometimes poker-related and others just completely surreal, abstract ponderations: The kind of thing to get two poker players who like to share a reefer really into a game.

And by now, the gimp’s probably sleeping. Well, I guess I’d better go wake him.

At the poker table the other night, I mentioned that my sister has quite an iconic look in some of her online profile pictures. I thought she’d look good colourised, to go with her mind. Like mine, it’s fractured, and I could perhaps separate the screaming colours and turn it into something like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.

Courtney Cyan     Courtney Green

Courtney Orange     Courtney Pink

The Courtney I know is more Manson than Monroe. I share a birthday with Duncan Jones and she shares a name with Kurt Cobain. We met on the streets and that’s family just as good as any by related blood. She’s pretty cool, and the story which follows was an attempt at any life in 1000 words, a few years ago.

In the final period before the execution of an inmate on death row, he is offered a special last meal.”

MECHANICAL MANACLE

How soon is now, Morrissey wondered. The Smiths asked, The Clash happened, The Angelic Upstarts cried for last night (another soldier), then came The Stranglers and The Damned: The History of the World, Part 1.

Courtney was lost. Kurt was lost. No more smells like teen spirit. No Hole, or Babes in Toyland. Faith no More, no more. Everyone and everything was gone. All that remained was her and the ticking clock on her wrist, telling a time which had ceased to exist. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. For Courtney, it had, and it was.

All she wanted to know was, when is now? She yearned to know when she was. This was her third and final wish but she dare not speak it, for as soon as a wish is broadcast, it is granted, by a star. Or a binary system: then you get two wishes come true, for the price of two.

The first wish was for an end to all conflict and hunger in the world: that was easy. The second was that her mum and dad hadn’t got married. That was simple too, but now Courtney didn’t exist.

The story of a life which no longer happened started just a short while from now. In the very near future, a war to end all wars is going to happen. It starts when a young girl makes a wish.

Every night, as she drifts off to sleep, Courtney tries to imagine a world with no conflict. A place where people don’t fight. In a dream, the answer came to her: warring factions can be united against a common foe.

And so, “They” came to be. They are all that is unknown to Courtney, but she sought them in dreams and they came to her. They explained things in very simple terms, but in a language which Courtney didn’t yet understand. At the time, she didn’t realise this. So when a voice which was alien to her asked if her first wish be granted, she answered that it should.

It came to be known as The War of Words. It was a conflict waged in a global theatre. It wasn’t a physical war but one based in dreams: a psychological war of intelligence. They won.

Neither of the opposing sides on earth survived. Where once east and west were in conflict, now there were no battles. There was no-one to fight them. They didn’t discriminate: the foe against which the previously warring factions of earth fought, defeated all other sides. People simply didn’t wake up. They bore no physical injuries and passed quietly.

Courtney’s parents perished in the war. Her second wish didn’t need to be vocalised because it was granted as a product of the first. Now she wished that she could take back what she had done. She wished that she could be transported back to a time before her parents had started to drift apart; perhaps to the birthday when they’d given her a fine, gold antique watch.

The watch was a solid weight on Courtney’s young wrist. At times, it was an encumbrance. On occasion, it was a reassuring tie or tug. The importance of the timepiece was impressed upon her young mind as soon as it was placed around her arm.

It was a family heirloom, fashioned in the past, but futuristic in appearance. The detail was exquisite: clearly the product of dextrous old hands. The strap was formed of alternate links made from gold and platinum, to produce a two-tone bling curfew tag. The outer body of the casing was also cast in gold. The watch face was ebony and the hour, minute and second hands were fine slivers of ivory.

Within the main face were four other dials: two chronometers measuring seconds in tenths and hundredths respectively; a completely separate 24-hour clock face, with its own hour, minute and second hands; and a dial displaying the date of the month, with a smaller still dial within it, displaying the month. All of the dials were analogue and their numerals were embossed into the black wood face with platinum leaf. The workings – the actual clockwork mechanisms – were visible on top of the watch face, rather than being obscured by it, with just the protection of the watch’s flawless glass screen. The skills of the creator were visible through a transparent yet impenetrable sky, as the mechanisms danced like a miniature fairground.

The watch dated from a time when trade in ivory was legal. The remnants of one of many extinct species, it now ticked not towards something, but away from the existential death of humankind and all other life on their planet. The craftsmanship of the watch might mean that it was the last relic of humanity, long after Courtney’s body had disappeared in time.

The watch had no visible means of winding, despite the fact that it was clearly clockwork. There was no obvious source of power, yet the watch generated warmth as Courtney wore it. It were as though she was wearing a miniature steam-powered structure in perpetual motion: an automaton, which must house mechanical components of microscopic proportions.

Would you like this wish to be granted?” said a voice, from somewhere. Somewhere else, someone said, “Yes”.

Courtney blinks as though waking from sleep, as her surroundings become clearer. She’s at a child’s birthday party. Is it hers? She looks down at her arms: there is no steam-powered fairground. She can hear her parents in the background. Through the noise of the party, it’s hard to tell if they’re screaming with laughter, rage, or both. Courtney decides simply to join in her own party.

It was after the last guests had left when Courtney’s parents gave her the watch. They explained in words which Courtney thought she understood, the importance of the timepiece which she now wore.

If Courtney had only one wish in her life, it would be for things to stay exactly like this.

© Steve Laker, 2017

My second collection of surreal, horror and science fiction short stories is available in paperback.

The example of the death row inmate can be viewed as a metaphor for the life of an average person, condensing the very essence of existence into a customary prison ritual. For an average person who is not incarcerated, the last meal can be equated to the trivialities of daily affairs and the substance of life in general. Despite the apparent acknowledgement of mortality, which is effectively a death sentence as much as that of the inmate’s, albeit a prolonged one and preceded by a rather elaborate performance, the person yet remains firmly invested in the last meal that is life.”

That’s what me and the kid sis had worked out, so we carried on playing poker.