Of Mice and Boys in 1984

SCIENCE FICTION

This is not John Steinbeck, nor George Orwell (who once lived just down my road), but it has to do with mice and a teenage year.Β This is a second character prequel from the Cyrus Song universe (the first is here), but a stand-alone short nonetheless, and a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments. It’s a bridging of eras and the debut of Captain Mamba.

While my life is being mangled by the social cleansing machine of the benefits system, Cyrus Song (β€œA remarkable juggling act”) is still free for one more day, but only $2.99 (the price of a coffee) when I’m not giving away a perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything. If anyone reads the book for free, then buys me a coffee using the PayPal donation button, sugar and warmth would be reciprocated in this game of survival we’re all in together.

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

I’m living a new chapter in my life which I’m growing less fond of, but there are many which preceded. For now, we’re going back 33 years…

Of mice and boys in 1984AdmirΓ‘vel Mundo Novo X 1984

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

β€œAdams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

β€œYes sir.”

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

β€œYes sir.”

β€œBerry.” (Sort of disappears and reappears sometimes, most odd).

β€œSir.” (Here today then).

β€œFord.” (Small kid, long hair, glasses, sitting next to me).

β€œSir.”

β€œFry.” (Small, short hair, no glasses: That’s me). β€œFry?”

β€œSorry, yes sir.”

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

β€œSir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

β€œWouldn’t that kind of defeat the object, Fry?” Well, yes, that’s what I thought.

β€œWell, yes, that’s what I thought,” I said.

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

β€œFord,” I said, β€œare we going to be using the internet?”

β€œQuite probably old chap, why?”

β€œI just want to see if it’s all I think it could be.”

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

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

β€œYes,” I said. β€œSorry, I just drifted away there.”

β€œWhere to?”

β€œOh, nowhere. I was just wondering what it would be like to talk to the animals.”

β€œI’ve often wondered that myself,” Ford said. β€œEspecially since dad got this guy.”

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

β€œFucking hell Ford!”

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

β€œPardon?”

β€œOnly joking. No way. The vivarium’s locked anyway, it’s the law. Dad’s got a license.”

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

β€œIt’s for precisely that reason that dad has one of these.”

β€œBy these, I presume you mean that, Ford?”

β€œWell, yes. But one of that wouldn’t wouldn’t be grammatically correct, would it Fry?”

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

β€œBecause of their famed aggression. He’s studying their DNA.”

β€œWhat’s he going to do?” I wondered. β€œEngineer a genetically modified race of human-snake hybrids who know no fear?”

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

β€œSo your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

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

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

β€œDefinitely not.”

β€œSo what? Change their attitudes? Talk to them, so that they have a better understanding of us?”

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

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

β€œWell,” said Ford, β€œI got the idea from dad, and what me and you were just talking about.”

β€œTalking?”

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

β€œTo talk to the animals?” Hadn’t I heard this somewhere before?

β€œI doubt it would be a two-way thing,” Ford said, as I deflated. β€œBut I reckon we could listen to them.”

β€œDoes it work?”

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

β€œBut it’s English literature, Ford. Use your imagination. How could it work?”

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

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

β€œI don’t know if you’ve noticed Ford,” but I thought I should point it out, β€œmicrophones have already been invented.”

β€œExactly. So all I have to do, is make the translator.”

β€œWhich is exactly all you had to do in the first place, Ford.”

β€œI know. I just needed to eliminate everything else. And translators kind of exist.”

β€œWell, people who can translate, yes.”

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

β€œThat would be awesome. When?”

β€œThe nerds think early in the next century.”

β€œ2000AD? That’s miles away.”

β€œMore than our lifetimes, Fry.”

β€œSo what of now? The translator, I mean.”

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

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

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

β€œHow?”

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

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

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

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

β€œWhat did you call them?” I wondered.

β€œPete and Dud.”

β€œWhy?”

β€œBecause they’re male.”

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

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

β€œSo, which is which?” I asked.

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

β€œSo what now?” I wondered.

β€œNow,” Ford said, quite confidently, β€œwe find out if my reputation is intact.”

β€œHave you got one?”

β€œNot yet.”

β€œSo how can it be intact, if you don’t have it yet?”

β€œI’m building a reputation, Fry.”

β€œWhat as, Ford?”

β€œI don’t know. Something on the internet though: It’s the future.”

β€œNo shit.” I was beginning to realise that perhaps you could be anyone or anything on the internet.

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

β€œWhere?” I wondered.

β€œOn the computer, the disk drive, the monitor, and the printer.”

β€œBut those lights always come on, Ford.”

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

β€œThe microphone doesn’t have a light on it, Ford.”

β€œNo, I know.”

β€œSo how can it come on?”

β€œIt won’t, because it doesn’t have one.”

β€œSo why did you mention it?”

β€œBecause it’s there, and it needs to be switched on.”

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

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

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

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

β€œSimon, Dixon? Lunch.”

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

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

β€œIs this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

β€œMaybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

β€œIS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

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

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

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

β€œWhy?” he said, into the microphone.

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

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

β€œWhy?”

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

β€œThat’s deep.”

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

β€œThis is getting even deeper. Have you spoken to the mice already?”

β€œNo, why?”

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

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

β€œBut wouldn’t it go against a lot of things it shouldn’t, Ford?”

β€œWhat do you mean?”

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

β€œAnd you believe all that?”

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

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

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

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

β€œYes,” I agreed, β€œbut you’ll have to give the mic to the mice, Ford.”

β€œOoh,” he said, β€œI’d forgotten I was holding that.” The stage was definitely wanting.

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

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

β€œFord,” I said.

β€œMr Fry,” he said, into the microphone. Actually, I quite liked the sound of it.

β€œFord, do you think we’ve perhaps been a tad unlucky?”

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

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

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

β€œWhich is?”

β€œText-to-speech. Or rather, speech-to-text.”

β€œSpeak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

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

β€œEh?”

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

β€œFrom the mice?”

β€œTangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

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

β€œI don’t know.”

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

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

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

1 2 3 5 7…

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

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

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

…

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

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

β€œFord?” I wondered what he was thinking.

β€œNo, I wouldn’t.” He’d rather not play chess.

β€œFord,” I said again, β€œhave you left a chess program running?”

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

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

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

β€œDo you think we’re waiting for something, ” I asked, β€œor should we say something?”

β€œI know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

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

1 2 3 5 7…

The snake again. β€œPrime numbers again,” I observed. Then again:

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

β€œWhat the?”

β€œI don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

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

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

So what do we do now?

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

We won’t tell.

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

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

THE END…

Β© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

β€œFord.”

β€œSir.”

β€œFry… Fry?”

β€œYes sir, sorry.”

β€œSorry to be here lad?”

β€œActually, no sir.”

β€œHayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

“Sir.”

β€œKing-Smith”. (‘Smasher’, wears Farrahs. Nice bloke really).

“Yes sir.”

β€œLaker.” (Fuck knows).

β€œSir.”

β€œMountney.” (‘Mole’: farts a lot: It’s funny on the chairs).

“Sir.”

“Rickwood?

β€œRogers.” (Could be a brilliant mind, or a psycho).

β€œSir.”

β€œSharp.” (Christian bloke, likes his custard).

β€œYes sir.”

β€œSimmons.” (Thoroughly good bloke, likes his Bowie, finishes my woodwork projects).

β€œYes sir.”

β€œTomkinson.” (Another geek, likes typing in programs from computer mags and putting them on tape).

β€œSir.”

β€œWhite.” (Every girl’s dream, if he ever gets on the internet).

β€œYes sir.”

β€œYehudi.” Nothing. β€œYehudi.” As expected. β€œYehudi?”

β€œSir?”

Β© Steve Laker, 2017.

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

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A wish upon a turkey wishbone

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The shit sandwich finally arrived in the post last Thursday, and it’s taken me this long to compose myself to address it. This benefits process is exhausting by design, and it’s exacerbating my anxiety and depression. I haven’t quite lost the will to live, as that would validate the Tory social cleansing machine’s purpose. It actually says in the rejection letter, “Personal Independence Payment is not for visiting relatives.” I’m appealing, so there is much more writing to do.

NovaNaked Lunch, David Cronenberg

It took nine and a half weeks for someone to decide I wasn’t deserving of my Personal Independence Payment (despite being in receipt of it for the last four years), so denying me much of my liberty and ruining what might have been mine or my parents’ last Christmas. On behalf of myself and my family, we’d like to wish upon the bone of a turkey, a Christmas free of guilt and conscience to the Department for Work and Pensions. With nowhere to go, I’ll be an empty box, a vacant chair; I will haunt their Christmases.

With my benefit payment reduced to a statutory minimum, I’ll have to borrow money to buy my kids’ Christmas presents (why should they go without?) I can no longer afford to visit my parents (nor buy them gifts; they say the children come first), so I may already have seen my dad for the last time while he still remembers who I am. Last time I was there, he said how good it was for him to have me around. Now all we have is memories of Christmas past.

There were past Christmases when I was estranged from my family, after I’d steamrollered through their lives like a drunken shopping trolley, and when I’d be represented by an empty chair at the dinner table. My sister still bears a grudge, somehow having it in her head that I’m the cause of our dad’s Parkinson’s. So while she won’t pick me up on her way through to my parents, my Christmas will be spent with a turkey baste on a true story: That I couldn’t afford Christmas dinner.

I could do as I did in those years of estrangement, and volunteer to help at a church homeless do, provided I can get the transport. But that would involve other people, and this dehumanising process also threw fuel on my social anxiety. The signpost to Christmases future.

Christmas will be cold, because I can’t afford heating. And it’s all thanks to the Scrooges who’ll be stuffing their faces at Christmas dinner, and counting all the money they saved through social cleansing. I’ll be present in spirit, at each and every table, wishing upon that wish bone, to stick in many throats.

Simons CatSimon’s Cat