An outlying region of humanity

THE WRITER’S LIFE

As I’ve written this, I’ve realised how almost indistinguishable some of my fantasy can be from real life. The surreal and out-there sci-fi aside, I’m a horror writer. I deliberately write a lot of fiction to be life-like, to draw the reader in, and I write much which is fact within my stories. This took as long to write as it did to find the end, then it was just like giving a statement to the police.

“Hit me with your rhythm sticks…”

crime-scene-body-outline-murder-web-generic

OUTLINE

I’m trying to work out how guilty I should feel about the death of my associate. I’m trying to calculate my level of responsibility for his demise, my reasons to be cheerful.

Whether friends or enemies, your proximity to your next-door neighbour is dictated by masonry. Mine and me didn’t always bring out the best in one another. While we shared many common interests in film and music, our politics were poles apart.

My neighbour was a caricature of himself, representing much of what I’m opposed to. A more engaging character might have been a good debating partner, but his views on life nevertheless had a place in his head.

He’d seen active service and was a damaged man, like so many others thrown into social housing with little support. Over time, I became that reluctant crutch. He was schizophrenic, sometimes needing my help and often resenting it later, after he’d had time to brew on whatever mixed in his head, and with no-one else to blame it on, he’d go next door.

I became adept at judging his intent at the doorway, then gradually skilled at guiding him either in or away. Nevertheless, I could never judge his mood before I answered the door.

So although we’d become begrudging friends, every visit brought a fear of the unknown, which all humans share. I’d never know what awaited me as I opened my door. Sometimes its was a tirade about the way I’d looked at him a week ago; other times a random meandering through a day out he’d returned from; and sometimes he’d bring me a gift (the last one was a welcome addition to my David Bowie library).

In daily encounters and a chapter which spans over three years, I couldn’t move away, and latterly I wouldn’t want to. He never confided in me, because he didn’t have the vocabulary or capacity to express himself. He really needed more than me for help.

Sometimes he’d fill my doorway three times a day, bald and with a belly, somewhat phallic and unable to coherently vocalise himself. Then he might not need anything for a few days. I’d enjoy the silence while wondering what was brewing, and how and when it would be served. Sometimes it would be to borrow some sugar, but always with an agenda. He was as paranoid as me.

There were four of us in this old building, all divorcees, ex-offenders, addicts, or a cocktail of the three. Mix that in with the mental problems which men keep to themselves when they keep themselves to themselves, and it can become quite volatile. Although there were no serious physical exchanges, there was much verbal and psychological torment. As the main recipient of the former, part of the guilt in my mind is my instigation of the latter.

Some of the confusion was how he thought little of encroaching on my space for his own reason, yet he respected my existence. He was a paradox. He knew I’m nocturnal and would always wait until he heard me plodding around before troubling me with requests or unsolicited advice. That being said, I sometimes sensed he’d need me as he made frequent and unnecessary visits to the communal hallway outside our flats (bedsits) without knocking.

There’d be times when I’d hear him around my door, and I’d snore. Invariably I’d then wake to a note on the door, asking me if I could do some shopping for him. Despite being aggressive when he was out under his own steam, he was as anxious as me about going out, even locally. But he never thought to ask what was wrong with me. Instead, I’d get the blame and have to give a refund for anything I wasn’t able to get and had substituted. The balance of gratitude would be restored when he’d returned from one of his drinking days and procured me a gift (it was a tobacco tin before the Bowie book).

The last note was on an electricity bill envelope, scrawled in green highlighter (he had a writer next door, but never asked for stationery):

Steve,

Have to stay in. Doctor’s orders. Chest infection. Give me a knock if you go to Tesco.

I didn’t knock as I wasn’t going to Tesco that day. Nevertheless, once he heard I was up, he was at my door:

You going to Tesco?”

No,” I replied, “probably tomorrow.”

Fucksake. Why didn’t you knock?”

Because you said to knock if I was going to Tesco, and I’m not. But I’m going tomorrow.”

That was typical. That’s the clash of logic in a door slammed in your face. He didn’t need me to collect medication, just to do his shopping. Always happy to in the past, it’s always been on my terms; when I go out, then I’ll attend to his will; but I won’t submit to his whim when I’m not going out anyway. Now I don’t have to worry.

He got one of our other neighbours to get his orange juice that day, so he survived the night. The next day, he went to Tesco himself. I’d told him the day before that I was going that day (the day after), but judging by the number of shopping bags he returned with (four: all 5p carrier bags, as he never used his own bags), he was planning to stay in for a while. I asked him if he’d remembered sugar.

Oh, for fuck sake.”

Don’t worry, I said. I was going round there today anyway. I told you.

So I got him some sugar. He came to the door, took the sugar and went back inside, bolting the door behind him. I didn’t mention the inside bolt before, because you get used to the sound of it over three years; the clink from within a cage. I’m pretty sure that’s the last time I saw him breathing.

This all happened just over a week ago. After that, I had a day out with my kids in London, returned home and expected a knock at the door. When it wasn’t forthcoming, I watched TV, played some poker, then slept.

The next three nights were good for banking sleep. I was uninterrupted, by footsteps around the door; unburdened with the lack of notes; and enjoying the blankness.

On Thursday I was up even later than my usual nocturnal hours. I’d stored up some sleep and found myself still awake at 6am. I’d watched a couple of films and was playing poker, when I heard a noise. I can’t come up with the onomatopoeia, because it was neither a thump nor a crash. It could have been the drunken thuds I often heard from next door as he moved furniture around at any hour, sometimes waiting for me to wake up (because he needed my help in his own mind), or the coffee shop downstairs placing empty chairs at tables.

I slept.

When there’s a power cut, it’s impossible to get white noise from my fan. In the event of such a breakdown, I have a portable DAB radio which also picks up FM broadcasts. Just like the nest of bees on an old TV set, the hiss of the radio contains the noise of the original Big Bang which gave rise to us all, connected by quantum apparatus inaudible to the human ear.

As a result of previous trauma I have a narrowed oesophagus, which means I’m prone to choking. Because of this, I manage my diet and I know how to perform the Heimlich on myself (use the arm of the sofa in place of someone else’s fists). Because I’m a heavy smoker, I’d find it easy to detect a choking cough over a smoker’s, or one with a chest infection. I’d heard nothing to alarm me from my neighbour.

I was in a place of peace. If he wanted me, he’d never hesitated to call round in the past. By the same token, when he wasn’t at my door, I wouldn’t disturb whatever he was brewing up next door. Better to wait for a bullet to find you than hit it with a hammer, when it’s in someone else’s place and it has your name on it. Best to just wait it out.

After a while the silence which you’ve grown used to becomes more disconcerting, because of the peace which it brings to an island of reflection.

It was on Saturday that I sat on my quiet beach, almost ready to welcome a fascist invader on my shores; one I’d repelled so many times when ideologies had clashed in the doorway. One I’d retreated from, closed the door on; one who’d done the same to me; a man I’d wished dead in my head, like he’d told me to my face in not so many words.

You know the ending: He’s dead. I’m telling this and you’re writing it down. I’m writing and you’re reading.

I phoned the landlord. Long story short, he came round on Sunday. Even longer story shorter, he needed a witness if he broke into the flat (bedsit) next door. First he knocked.

Do you not think I’ve tried that?” I wondered.

There was no answer, so the landlord tried his key. The door was bolted from the inside. My paranoid neighbour was almost certainly in.

When people find dead bodies in squalor in films, they normally recoil at the door. There was no smell, other than that of my neighbour having been a smoker. I’d only called the landlord because my sense of hearing was wanting, somehow my neighbour.

An extraterrestrial lay there, grey and cold. On discovering such a thing. One might also call the appropriate emergency services, police and ambulance. It’s another paradox that the ambulance is picking up someone beyond help, and that the police have to attend; and that police have to respond to a corpse, but an ambulance as redundant as the body needs to be there. Such are the intricacies.

Is the patient breathing?”

No. He’s dead.”

Are you sure?”

He’s cold and grey…”

And so on.

All the while, a government strangles public services so that the underclass has to take care of its own.

There were no sirens, no fanfare. I sat outside with the landlord, mainly smoking. The paramedics arrived first. Unsurprisingly to all present, they declared a death on the block.

The police were next, questioning all but the paramedics about who’d seen whom last. I was the last one to see him alive and the second to see him dead.

The two police officers’ ages almost certainly didn’t add up to mine. One of them said this was his first. At least I knew those youngsters had support in their friends and colleagues. I’d just lost my nearest tormentor but my closest friend.

The police gave me a moment to wish my colleague a safe journey, once he was in his bag. He was on a stretcher, destined for the local hospital. I wondered aloud what they might be able to do for him.

No body removal is complete without comedy potential, and this story is made complete by the undertakers banging the head of the deceased on a door post.

And then he was gone, just that patch on the floor where he’d laid for however long before we found him.

I don’t know how long he’d been there waiting. If my concern had arisen sooner, while I was enjoying some peace, perhaps I might have saved him. If I’d not attributed onomatopaeia to elsewhere, maybe I’d have gone to his door to see if he was okay. If I’d listened beyond the doorway, I might have heard him calling.

Often, after I’d closed my door in his face, I’d mutter something inaudible, just to get the last word. Once I’d wished him dead. I’m sure he did the same as he shut the door behind him.

Inter-personal space is a very tricky thing to define, and to negotiate outside a social democracy. Dealing with this has played with my mind. Blurring it is a coping mechanism. There are three of us living here now, all leading solitary lives on the fringe of society, and unlikely to know if the others are in trouble. The room next door will be host to someone else I don’t really know. No-one knows much about people in social housing anyway. The greatest human fear is the unknown.

Look out for your neighbour. Break down their door if you have to, even if you may not be welcome. I’ll just keep keeping myself to myself, on the edge of humanity. Only he’ll know if I killed him by not doing enough.

The Genesis of Esperanto

MICRO FICTION

delirium-tremens-pink-elephantDelirium Tremens Pink Elephant*

INFANA KOLONIA

The aliens visited yesterday, and they left artefacts. These were clues, a kind of test for the resident population of the planet. And so began a paradox.

Since then, and for thousands of years, the extraterrestrials have observed our Earth as human science has evolved.

Today humanity has the technology to detect the visitors, even communicate, but they’re using it instead to observe, control and destroy their own kind.

Such an inward-looking, short-termist species is not what the aliens were looking for, a primitive ant nest, unaware of its observers or hive mind.

And so they resigned themselves to never visit again, leaving an entire species to spend its formative years debating about who they might have been. So long and thanks for all the animals who developed telepathy, rather than different languages.

They called it religion, and concluded that humans were an insular race who’d probably never work out anything beyond themselves. And so a paradox was perpetuated.

It was only one planet. The visitors moved on to the next. A different tomorrow.

© Steve Laker, 2019.

*An image search for ‘Infana Kolonia’ (Esperanto for ‘Infant colony’) leads to my upcoming (in 2021) sci-fi soap space opera; either a 1000-page single volume, or more likely a series of books. The flash fiction here is just a synopsis of a synopsis of the first chapter. Google has a sub-section for Infana Kolonia, ‘Delirium Tremens,’ which is the name of this blog of course. The two search terms together lead to a beer, which is ironic for an alcoholic, especially one who’s also a writer often finding themselves the elephant in the room. It’s all quite poetic when the universe connects. When galaxies collide, you can hear the music.

Suggested reading: Master Yehudi’s Flying Circus.

 

Självmonterande möbler

FLASH FICTION

Alien typewriterThe Verge: It began with ‘Spacewar’, a history of science fiction in video games

APPARENTLY

Although I’m nocturnal, I usually spend nights alone, apart from the chat windows in onine video games. It’s rare that I expect visitors in the early hours, least of all an invisible entity I’d invite into my studio. But apparently that was what I did last night.

The doorbell played the five tones from Close Encounters as it always does, regardless of the time. Normally I’ll expect to find someone behind the door when I open it but at 3am, it was apparent there was no-one there.

I poked my head out the door and looked around, perhaps for someone in need of help. I walked down the steps to the car park and saw nobody. Pranksters would have gained too much ground for me to give chase, so I returned inside, apparently alone.

With no sign of activity outside, the place where I least expected to see movement was back in my studio. As I raised my hand to push my front door, it obligingly opened for me, and one of my dining chairs slid into the hall. The chair paused before passing me, pushed by some invisible force, apparently grateful I’d held the door open.

Inside, my sofa had been moved into the middle of the room and was loaded with some of my books. Was I being moved out? Why hadn’t I heard from my landlord? How had that chair pushed itself past me? Nothing was apparent.

Nothing was moving around in the studio, so I sat at the desk; this desk, where I’m sitting now, except now I’m apparently not in my studio, with furniture which assembles itself around me.

Now I’m looking at the screen of the typewriter, the same one I talk to you on, and where I play video games; at my chat window from last night, and a message I sent in a pessimist sufferposting online gaming group:

Send my current location to any interplanetary craft which may be within scanning range.

They took me literally. Apparently, they took me, and all my stuff. Apparently literally.

© Steve Laker, 2019.

This was a writing prompt: ‘IKEA’. So I made a Swedish planet.

There’s a crustacean on the dog

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Lobsters have hands (of sorts), which they could use to pick up the phone every now and then.”

Lobster Phone

It’s been a while since I confided in my personal diary, partly because it’s online for all to see. It’s a paradox when I’m a writer craving readers, but my absence has been for want of words; not writer’s block so much as too much say and not enough time to tell the story with a sore throat. With little else to do tonight, I thought I’d seek momentary expression in my typewriter, the depression of keys…

As a writer, I should be able to tell my own story just as I can a horror fable, or a story of another life. I’ve always been able to combine the two in the past, placing a part of myself in every story I wrote, some of them stories of various futures which I may inhabit only in part.

The past is a story already written, the future what we make, and the present, how we make it. In reality, we’re all connected and living the same life, however we tell the story. None of us is any further than a few steps from where anyone else lived.

Amidst the dust in my keyboard, there are many untold stories: fiction which I’m trying to use as a medium to explain my prevailing confusion; poetry, in all its forms of speaking sentences with single words; and fact, which is almost overwhelming my mind, there’s so much I can’t unburden it on this blog in the time I can make or create in any space.

This place – this blog – was something I started when I was homeless, my means to communicate when segregated and sidelined, by a world which didn’t want to listen when I had so much to say, to myself. A means to an end. It’s still that, and a mixing pot of reality and the surreal, life and the fiction I created.

My ongoing isolation is a personal construct coping mechanism, for a life which only differs from the birth of this blog in the roof over my head, and a keyboard which isn’t chained to a library desk. That was when I was drunk. I still drink, the functioning alcoholic, which – not who – few understand.

I’ve been moping around my inner self for a few months now, as I’ve allowed those vascular passages to become compressed by a situation designed with suppression in mind, like being buried alive; the fascist machine which is currently consuming my country and my friends, by turning each on themselves. While I’ve been quiet here, I’ve not ceased the political debate on Facebook and Twitter, none of which will help me engage with a crumbling mental health and social structure, dismantled by a regime intent on social cleansing.

If I regress to that time when this online version of me was in its infancy, when I slept on a packing crate, I’d wear my heart on my sleeve and tell it as it is with me, the body still breathing in the coffin as the shovels pile on the dirt.

Back then I’d have many pages of notes in journals, and limited library time to edit the contents on a keyboard, most of my thoughts falling between the keys to mix with those of others in the dust of human skin. Now I have more time and only my own flesh, eight digits crawling over the typewriter, like a tick on a dog, or a mite on a communal mattress, competing with other tenants; a lobster trying to pick up the payphone.

Given the choice between heating and eating in social accommodation, most humans will perish in a kind of Buridan’s Ass paradox, where two choices share importance, and so separation becomes impossible. In an world swept beneath an invisible carpet, where visiting a food bank is beyond the means of public transport from a remote depository of vagrants, there are imaginative chefs. These people make shepherd’s pie with Pedigree Chum. Any cat food from a pouch is gourmet, and comes with gravy.

I can take a walk among my past self by just reading this blog, a diary of the last few years. I can write on the walls, like so many others left scars in my synapses and arteries. I can talk to myself.

I can still write. All this, without mentioning what’s weighing on my mind the most, the inner and hidden horrors in a wooden casket or an aluminium tin.

I’ve written indirectly about my dad‘s faltering health, and about losing my brother-in-law. I did that with poetry. I don’t know which formation of words can best convey an inner feeling I have, one in myself which is both mental and physical. It’s a lump in my throat which sometimes makes it hard to swallow.

There’s an itch in my mouth but I can’t tell anyone else, as everyone besides me has their own greater self-consuming issues. Those are the people immediately around me, and they don’t need me being needy when they have their own needs. It’s just a shame we don’t all have more time to talk.

Life changes when it ceases to be linear. Although we live in a connected, borderless world, we’re anything but. People don’t talk any more. Humans are unique in their ability to communicate with the spoken word, yet we don’t. Some can’t. We invented the internet, and my means of speaking to my diary, to myself, and to you, has divided and broken us. But I can still speak, at least about me.

It’s personal matters I’ve been keeping between me and myself. This blog is part of both, and I feel a bit better already, having just let my fingers dance. It’s talking through the hands; a sign language no-one’s obliged to listen to unless they look.

When I can’t speak, the incoherence of my words is not through drink, but a frustration with being disconnected; and that disconnection is a problem we all share. If I lose my voice, at least I can still write. Sometimes I ask myself if anyone will read what I write, when it’s impossible beyond telepathy to hear what I’m saying.

Every human life is a horror. Most of us have the same number of limbs, and we’re all connected by quantum entanglement. We’re all living the same life.

White Ace in Mountsfield Park

FLASH FICTION

I’m wandering my own mind for a while, as I often do. Right now it’s a particularly rough ride for my brain. Floating in cerebral seas of predators (dad’s apparently hastening decline; another Christmas separated by circumstance of family, when it might be the last when some remember who was there), as some sort of coping mechanism – for dealing with matters of the mind alone – I confronted the seed of all my problems.

My depression and other mental health labels may well have been dormant, undiganosed by a previous generation, but it was a knife-point robbery in 2011 which earned me my first PTSD tag. After that, drinking numbed things until it all fell apart. And now, I have a lump in my throat as a permanent scar from that bench, now removed from a park in Lewisham.

Just a couple of tricks of life can find a human with a park bench for shelter. It can happen to anyone, just like it did on that bench…

Catford Cat psychadelicThe Catford Cat on Twitter

EIGHT AND A HALF LIVES

If he wasn’t there every day, he could be anyone. You could walk past the same bench each day and not notice anyone sitting there, unless it was the same person every day.

Jim put it another way: If it wasn’t him there every day, it would be someone else. Or maybe no-one else would be on that bench. It was Jim who gave that seat stories to tell, if not by him then by those who listened to him.

These are the things Jim talked about, as he told his own stories on that bench in Mountsfield Park, talking about himself, and the Catford cat just beyond the trees, which he said watched over him at night.

She doesn’t have long here,” Jim explained, “there’s only so much time she can be here. Because she has so many people to watch over as they pass beneath her on the high street. As long as somone’s looking at her, the cat can’t move, because she has to watch them, you see? She only comes down after the last kebab shop has closed, and before the milk is delivered, and then only sometimes.

I wonder how many people have driven through Catford at three in the morning and thought to look up to check the cat is actually there? Most people who drive through Catford at that time just assume the cat’s there, watching over them as they pass through, when actually, she might be off feeding on life stories. A bit like me on this bench. They can’t see me either. And that’s just the way life passes, see?”

I lay here at night, and I see people walk past, oblivious to my presence. The darkness makes them blind, like the cat does. If you’re here in the park, you probably won’t see her stalking in the bushes. But she’s there, because you’re not in Catford High Street to check she’s above the shopping centre, where she can’t catch your gaze. Because if you catch her, she loses a life.

Perhaps people assume I’m asleep and they don’t want to disturb me. I suppose that’s a logical assumption to make at 3am. But what if I was a life lost?

See, I’m not. I’m watching them, through one closed eye. Watching out for myself, I guess. That’s why I’m always grateful when the cat’s here, because I can sleep for just a little while. No-one pays me attention when there’s a twenty-foot cat prowling around the edge of the park, see?”

It was Jim who scratched his name on that bench.

If you didn’t know it was there, if you didn’t know where to look among all the other hearts and initials, you’d never know Jim was among all those people.

But if you sit there at three in the morning, and if you listen to the wind in the trees, you might just hear the cat.

Humanity, a bit fucked you are

THE WRITER’S LIFE | SCIENCE FICTION

One of a few questions I’m sometimes asked is, what the fuck are you banging on about? The best way to find out is to read Cyrus Song, which a reader recently summed up quite nicely: It’s the sound of our planet, and in the radio waves the Stephen Hawking quote which is central to the plot:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen…”

Cyrus Song is about what happened when some humans talked to the animals, and together they found a perfectly plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything (with the help of some pan-galactic black mambas): It’s more than 42, and it’s all around and within us. To hear our planet’s harmony, you just have to listen, then all we need to do is keep talking.

Critically-acclaimed as “An extraordinary juggling act…”, it’s a Sci-Fi RomCom, and a Douglas Adams tribute.

A “Pleasure to watch unfolding,” this is how it begins…

CaptainMamba2Captain Mamba

TWO LITTLE THINGS

This perfectly plausible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.

I’d left my desk to make some coffee, and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.

Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.

I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing. It wasn’t a powerful magnifier: a full stop on a sheet of paper became the size of a grain of sand. Even at that low magnification, I could see that the little round thing had a dull silver metallic sheen. It was like the little silverfish things I used to find in the bath, but round and very much smaller. I moved the magnifying glass in and out, to try to get the best clarity and I noticed that this little circular thing cast a minute shadow. So it was supported by something; perhaps it did have legs.

For a whole minute, I just looked at the thing and wondered what on earth it could be. Then the intrigue doubled, as another little silverfish thing rushed in from stage left under the glass. Then the two just sat there, about an inch apart. Were they about to mate? Were they rivals, sizing one another up? What were they? They remained motionless and so did I.

How long was I going to sit there, looking at two whatever-they-were? I wasn’t going to find out much else with my little magnifying glass. Even if one of them had popped out a hand to wave at me, I wouldn’t have seen it. So what was I to do? Brush them aside as inconsequential and forget about them? Squash them? Put them outside? The next part required some precision planning and application. The two little creatures, things, or whatever they were, were at the top of the sheet of paper, above the impression cylinder of my typewriter. If I was going to catch them, I’d need to support the paper from behind, while placing a receptacle over them.

I spend most of my waking hours at the typewriter, so I like to keep as much as I can within easy reach of my writing desk. It was fortuitous that I’d had conjunctivitis, and an eye bath proved to be the perfect dome to place over this little infant colony of mine. I slid them gently, under the dome to the edge of the sheet and onto a drink coaster. Then I turned the whole thing over and tapped the coaster, so that the full stops dropped into the eye bath. Finally, I put cling film over the top and wondered what to do next; who to phone who might not think me a crank.

Let’s assume that I’m not acquainted with anyone in any of the specialist fields one might require in such a situation. Because I’m not. So I took my newly acquired pets to a vet.

Not having any pets besides my two punctuation marks, I wasn’t registered with a vet. I didn’t want to register with a vet any more than I wanted a potentially contageous full stop and a comma. I didn’t know what I had and I didn’t even know if it was a vet I needed. And so it was that I ended up at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in New Cross.

As a first time customer, I had to fill out a form: My name, address, contact number and so on; and pet’s name. And whether the pet is a pedigree breed. The PDSA will treat one pedigree animal per human client. I couldn’t decide between my two, so I declared them both non-pedigree. Cross breed or mixed? Not applicable? Names: Dot and Dash. Because they were both small and one was more active than the other. I was quite pleased with that.

I took a seat in the waiting area with some pets and their humans. There was a large pit bull cross breed opposite us and he had a dog. I imagined them as small as Dot and Dash: Someone could place a dome over them and take them away, to find out exactly what species they were. I allowed myself an inner smile as a ray of sunshine broke into the room and I imagined studying them under a magnifying glass. I’d have to focus the light just right for the best view. Who’d have known that spontaneous combustion was so common at that magnification? But my mind was wandering.

There was a rather attractive young lady called Cat. Appropriately enough, Catherine’s owner was a cat: a ginger tom called Blue: I liked that. I really hoped no-one would ask me anything at all. But Cat asked me what I had. Well, I couldn’t be sure but I was certain they hadn’t jumped off of me: That’s why I was at the vet’s and not the doctor’s. I looked down at Dot and Dash, wondering how I’d approach this. Soon, we were called to a room:

“Mr Fry.” A lady’s voice. Dash was on the move again in all directions, while Dot seemed to be exploring the perimeter of their container. “Mr Fry,” the lady called again. That’s me.

“Oh, yes. That’s me.”

“I’m Doctor Jones. But you can call me Hannah.”

Hannah: What a lovely name for such an attractive young lady. It was lovely because it was a palindrome and because it belonged to Doctor Hannah Jones. She was small and pretty, with red hair. The best palindrome is Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas: It has no merit in logic but whoever thought it up deserves recognition in a book of some sort.

“Hannah.” I said. “That’s a nice name.”

“Thanks. I got it for my birthday. And I don’t have any sisters. So, what have you brought along to show me?”

“I was hoping you could tell me that.”

Doctor Jones’ bedside manner was very relaxing and she put me at ease, as she seemed to take a genuine interest in what I’d brought along to show her. She had one of those adjustable magnifying lamps above an examination table, in a little room just off of the corridor from the waiting room. The scene which that presented was the kind of thing to give a science fiction writer an idea: As Doctor Jones pulled the lamp over the two subjects, it was like a great mother ship shining a light into a dome, brought to Earth and containing alien species.

Doctor Jones moved the light around, just as I had my magnifying glass before, without the light. Then she said the oddest thing: “I don’t think these are animals.”

“I’m sorry. So what are they?”

“Until I get a closer look, I don’t know. But they look and behave as though at least one of them might be mechanical.” I said the first thing which came to mind:

“What?” Then the next thing: “Why are they here?”

“Because you brought them here? Where did you find them?”

“They sort of appeared in the middle of a story I was working on. I’m a writer you see?”

“Well, you came to the right place. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the lab.”

The lab was some distance away, through a long, bending and uneventful corridor. We walked at a fairly leisurely pace and I half wondered if there might be a film crew following us, but when I looked behind, there were no cameras or fluffy mic. I walked behind Doctor Jones. The corridor was quite narrow, and I wanted to leave room for anyone who might be coming the other way. But no-one passed.

I looked down at the two things in my eye bath, knowing they must be there, even though I couldn’t see them at that distance. Mechanical? Nano machines?

Glancing up at Doctor Jones, it occurred to me that she had a slightly curious gait: not so much masculine as such but a walk which didn’t immediately betray the walker’s gender. The fiction writer woke in my head again and I wondered if Doctor Jones might once have been a man, or was soon to become one. In any case, it was an aesthetic pleasure to watch the doctor walk in that way.

Eventually we arrived at a door, and in the room on the other side was indeed a laboratory: a forensic and chemistry sort of set up. There were microscopes and monitors, beakers, jars and bottles, and an examination table with another magnifying lamp above it. Doctor Jones hastened me over to a bench, on which there was a microscope and a monitor. She asked me to pass her the eye bath. She placed the vessel on the bench, then continued pretty much where she’d left off:

“They don’t move like anything I recognise. And I’ve seen big and small things in this job, with anywhere between no legs and over 700. When I first saw what you had, I thought you’d brought them to a vet because they’d come from a pet…”.

“Sorry,” I interrupted. “People have brought in ticks and lice from their pets?”

“Yes. I’m guessing you don’t have a house pet because if you think about it, bringing in one or two parasites is quite logical. We can identify the type of parasite and advise or prescribe accordingly. Of course, if we have any reason to think the host animal may need something more than home treatment, then we’ll have them in. Most of the time though, it’s a simple course of treatment in the pet’s home. We have to see the animal once the infection has gone, but bringing the parasite alone in first means that the house pet isn’t unnecessarily stressed and doesn’t cross contaminate other animals.” She was very clever.

“That does make sense. But these are not parasites?” I pointed at my eye bath.

“They could be. It’s just that I don’t think they’re organic.

“So what now?”

“Well, first I’ll need to prepare a Petri dish and apply an adhesive surface.”

“Why?”

“So they can’t escape. Mr Fry, you said they just appeared on a sheet of paper in your typewriter. We want to find out what they are.”

“We do. They did. I’d been away from my desk and I knew they’d not been there before, because one of them was a full stop which I would not have put in the middle of a sentence; Or a decimal point in the wrong place; I can’t remember. Anyway, I noticed them when I came back to my desk and as I started to look closer – to see if I’d typed something incorrectly – one of them moved. Then the other one did. I must admit, I was going to brush or blow them away. It would seem that might have been a mistake.”

“But at the time, you’d have just been blowing or brushing a foreign body away. You certainly wouldn’t have given a thought to looking close enough at such tiny things to see that they weren’t in fact punctuation marks. These things are the size of a full stop on a page of a magazine; a couple of specks of dust. It does make you wonder how many more you might have brushed or blown away, doesn’t it?”

“It does now. So I caught them, wondered where to take them and decided on a vet. And this is all going rather splendidly Doctor.” She seemed to be getting quite into it all.

“It’s not my average day, Mr Fry. So, you, me, or anyone at all, may or may not have just brushed these things aside without realising.”

“So there could be millions, billions of these little machines, if that’s what they are. That presents some really quite alarming scenarios in my day job.”

“Then there are the other questions, Mr Fry: Where did they come from? These could be the only two of course. If they were to escape, where would they go? But you’re the fiction writer Mr Fry, so I’ll let you show me where we go from here. So, that’s why I’ll treat the Petri dish with an adhesive before I put the two of them in.”

I pondered aloud whether the doctor might be outside of her comfort zone. As it turned out, she had degrees in the sciences and her PhD was in human psychology. After all of that, she said she’d decided to work with animals. Doctor Jones was a scientist and although I had no formal qualifications, in effect, so was I, such is the scientific knowledge I’ve acquired in the course of my research. Where her learning was structured, mine came from fumbling around various fields. Mine was an imaginative qualification: an honorary doctorate in the power of the imagination. I imagined that Doctor Jones made a lot more money than me but she seemed to enjoy her work as much as I do mine. Given that she was clearly quite a brilliant scientist, I took it as a compliment that she didn’t dismiss any of my fanciful ideas. We made a good team.

What followed were orchestral manoeuvres of lab equipment, as Doctor Jones prepared the dish then raised a pipette. She pierced the cling film on the eye bath, then sucked up the two machines from the great rise of the robots which had taken place on my typewriter earlier. Then two small dots, barely bigger than the full stops on this page, fell into the pristine ocean in the dish. And stayed there.

It was actually quite sad. I’d only seen these things under a magnifying glass and even then, they were grains of sand. They had no features and we were yet to gain even the first idea of what they might be. But I’d watched them moving, and now they were trapped, like paralysed leviathans in the vastness of a Petri dish. Even though Doctor Jones said they weren’t organic, how could she be totally sure? What if the adhesive ocean was toxic to them? If these were indeed the only two of their kind, we could be responsible for an extinction. If there were millions or billions of these things around, constantly being brushed aside, blown away or sucked into a vacuum cleaner, must have limited their breeding opportunities in any case. Maybe that’s why dust accumulates and seems to breed. Perhaps there are trillions of nano robots smaller than dust particles, all around us. It’s the kind of idea beloved of fiction writers because it could very well be true. There’s just no way of proving one way or the other: It’s a paradox.

Returning to the true story I was writing, Doctor Jones got to the exciting bit: She readied the microscope. We were to put Dot and Dash under a traditional, optical microscope first, so that the lens looked like an enormous plasma cannon, bearing down on life forms, frozen and forced to witness their own destruction.

Doctor Jones looked into the microscope first: she was already there. She carried on looking, while I just wondered. Then she turned the lenses of the microscope, so that now the central cannon was above the robots. She looked for some while longer. Had the subjects of her study mesmerised her, against her will? Had they reversed the cannon, and were now firing lasers into her eyes? Were they transmitting a signal and filling her mind with propaganda? What could Hannah see? What could see Hannah? I wanted to ask, to call out. All of a sudden, Doctor Jones seemed lost.

Soon, the largest, longest, most powerful barrel was pointed at these strange creatures: a channel which had been established between them and Doctor Jones. Then Hannah said another surprising thing: “Fucking hell.”

I didn’t know if she was reacting to something she’d just seen, or something fired into her eye, or her mind. She might be about to kill me. She rose slowly from the microscope and looked at me. “Mr Fry.” That’s me. “What the fuck?” I didn’t know. Doctor Jones looked as lost as she’d sounded before that third barrel. They’d drilled into her brain. Or she’d killed them.

One of many things I’ve learned while writing fiction is that if someone passes out, the first thing they’ll remember when they wake up, will be the last they saw or heard before they went off. She’d not fainted but I looked Doctor Jones directly in the eyes and said, “What the fuck!?” She seemed a little taken aback but we were back in the room at least.

“What the fuck, Mr Fry; What the fuck are you breeding at your house?”

“Doctor, as I explained, these two things appeared on my typewriter. And now we are here. May I see what you just saw?”

“Your story is about to get a bit weirder. Go ahead.” Doctor Jones stepped away from the microscope. I walked towards her. It was more of a stride actually, as I placed myself between the good doctor and the imminent danger under the lens. For a moment, I felt quite pleased with myself.

Suddenly, it were as though I was far above the earth. Through the window of my plane, on the ocean below, I saw a ship. I couldn’t begin to guess at the vessel’s size but it was heavily armed. It was cigar shaped, with large cannons bow and stern. Smaller guns ran the length of the ship on both sides and the whole thing was covered by an elliptical dome. This is the one I’d called Dash.

I panned across the static ocean from the starboard side of the vessel to Dot. This second one was circular. It had guns protruding all around its perimeter and was also covered by a domed roof. At the very top was another dome; semi-transparent: the bridge? I swore I could see movement beneath that second glass dome. Even at 1000x magnification, they were just dots but they were moving. What the fuck, indeed.

Doctor Jones moved the Petri dish to an electron microscope. “Ten million times magnification and sound as well.”

“Sound?”

“Yup. Tiny little amplifying microphones, so we can hear what they’re saying.” Now this, I was looking forward to. This was rather exciting, given the potential enormity of our discovery, even though it was miniscule. Then I wondered at that figure: 10,000,000x magnification. What would we see at that level? What detail?

Doctor Jones divided the monitor into two; split screen, with one camera on each vessel: Dot was on the right and Dash on the left. Then she started to tune an on-screen radio, because “We need to tune into their frequency.”

“Might there not be translation problems? I mean, a language barrier?”

“Have you never heard of the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Well, of course, but…”

“We have a computer program, called Babel fish. I was one of the coders in fact. I was doing some research into animal languages, because they do have a vocabulary you know? Most of it isn’t audible to us and what is, we hear as a foreign language; animal sounds. But in those sounds alone, there are a lot of variations. When you then consider the majority of the language spectrum which we can’t hear, you realise that pretty much all animals have quite complex language systems. Eventually I was hoping to apply it to my veterinary work, so that I could hear what the animals were saying.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Emotional detachment. It’s very difficult to leave my job at the surgery. Imagine how much harder it would be if the animals could talk to me.”

“Imagination is my job, Doctor. That really is quite a mind blowing thought. But your Babel fish program works?”

“Alarmingly, yes. It required a lot of input: different sounds, variations of them and frequencies; varied physical anatomies of the speakers; sounds in relation to catalysts and so on. Crunch all of that data in a quantum computer and it didn’t take long to come up with the Babel fish.”

“So the Babel fish program really can do what the Babel fish of legend did, albeit in a different way? It can translate any language to and from any other?”

“Like the other Babel fish. It has many applications and huge potential. At a personal level though, I just didn’t think I was ready. You’re probably surprised, Mr Fry.”

“I’m amazed that the Babel fish really exists, but I’m not surprised at your personal choice: It is a truly gargantuan step to take. On the one hand, opening your mind to the unimagined, but on the other, potentially catastrophic.”

“I’m glad you understand, Mr Fry. But in our current situation, I think it’s the right thing to do. If these things are just nano machines, they exhibit a level of artificial intelligence which might have an audible language. If there’s something organic inside and if we assume that they built these ships, then they must be intelligent. But to be the kind of multi-celled organisms which are capable of thought, they’d be too small. They’d have to exist at a sub-atomic level. Quantum beings. Wouldn’t that just blow the mind?”

“And I thought I was the writer. That is quite an incredible concept. There would have to be sub, sub, sub-atomic particles which we’ve never even imagined. Entire universes within an atom.” My mind wandered in the static from the radio. Then Doctor Jones hit something: a signal.

There were two distinctly different sounds which alternated, seemingly at random. The first was a low-pitched, gargling drone. It had no regularity. It was certainly artificial. It certainly wasn’t interference. The second source was more of a collection of sounds: high-pitched squeaks and clicks, low growls and whoops; and a third, whispering and rasping noise. “Ready for the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Those are voices,” I suggested.

“That’s what I’m thinking. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to eavesdrop on the conversation.”

“I know.” I paused. “I know that. You know that. I don’t know though. I don’t know if I want to. I don’t know if I’m ready, doctor.”

“Just as I’m still not ready to hear what the animals I treat are saying. But this is different.”

“I can see that. Of all the metaphorical, theoretical, figurative switches I’ve ever written about, this is by far the one with the biggest stories, once it’s switched on. The moral and philosophical issues are ones which we may have to address later. This is potentially first contact with beings from another world; another galaxy; another universe.” And then our world changed, as soon as we switched the Babel fish on.

“You had no business following us. This was our mission.” The first was a deep voice, a little excited.

“No it wasn’t. You stole our plans.” This second voice was an accusatory, loud whisper.

“Let’s look around,” said Hannah. “Let’s see who’s talking.”

Doctor Jones took hold of a joystick on the microscope console, and moved in first towards dash. I’d not seen an electron microscope like this, but the fiction writer thanked the inventor for the opportunities this was about to open. As the doctor moved the joystick around, it were as though she was controlling a tiny space ship in a video game. We positioned ourselves just off the starboard side of Dash, so that we could see the side of the ship. We’d seen the elliptical dome on top from above, and the cannons below it. Below those though, were portholes, running the length of the vessel and spread over three levels below deck. Starting with the uppermost, we zoomed in and peered through a window: There were animals inside.

Through the top row of portholes, we saw a jungle. There were apes in the trees and above them, birds in the canopy. There were apes on the ground. There were snakes in the trees and on the jungle floor. There were white mice on the ground and in burrows beneath it. There were also snakes beneath the ground.

The middle row of windows looked into a subterranean world of serpents and mice, before giving way to the bottom deck. Somewhere between the middle and lower decks, Terra firma gave way to water: a clear blue underground ocean, teeming with dolphins and whales. What must those marine mammals see in the sky above them? The underside of the earth? A beige-brown sky which sometimes rained food, as mice and snakes dropped into the water? Serpents swam in the ocean too.

We scanned back up the side of the ship but above the jungle deck was just the domed roof and the weapons. It was only from this angle that we spotted something we’d never have seen from above: Antennae extending above the ship. There were three masts on the dome and a single white dove perched briefly on the central one before flying off. It was a microcosm environment; It was an ark. Dolphins and white mice: Perhaps Douglas Adams had been right.

I had a hunch and asked Hannah if we could take a look at the bow of the ship. She manoeuvred our camera into position and my suspicion was confirmed, as something else invisible from above, hove into view on the monitor. The domed roof overhung a row of windows above the upper deck. We were looking into the bridge of the ship.

There were three seats, only the central of which was occupied. Such a configuration in science fiction would have the first officer and ship’s counsel seated either side of the captain. In the centre seat was a snake and hanging in front of it was a microphone, extending down from the ceiling. The captain and the owner of the whispered, rasping voice was a serpent.

I’d studied herpetology and I knew snakes. There are roughly 3000 species of ophidians known to live on Earth: From the tiny thread snake at around seven inches in length, to the reticulated python, which can reach 30 feet. Snakes can thrive in trees: one can fly; They can climb and burrow, existing above and below ground; They can swim and live in both fresh and salt water. They can be found on all continents except Antarctica. They are reptiles and as such, they have cold blood, but they are adaptable and incredibly efficient hunters and survivors.

Only about 10% of snake species are venomous, and of those, only a few pose any threat to man. Not far down any list of the most venomous snakes is the legendary black mamba. There are snakes which are more venomous, but the black mamba is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all snakes. An untreated bite from one doesn’t so much make you wish you were dead, as pray that death itself would end. They grow up to 12 feet in length and they are fast. They’re also explosively aggressive. There is a documented case of a black mamba pursuing a bull elephant, biting it and the elephant succumbing to the venom. The black mamba knows no fear. And despite the name, black mambas are not black: They are grey, tending toward the lighter shades. It’s the inside of their mouths which is totally black: a bite which delivers hell. Untreated bites from this species are 100% fatal. The estimated human fatality count from a maximum dose of venom is 42. I was mesmerised by this incredible snake.

Here, in the central command seat, on the bridge of a heavily armed vessel, sat a black mamba. And from the pitch black mouth, came whispered, rasping words into the microphone:

“You stole our plans: You are welcome to them. The plans brought you here. You are not welcome here. You overlooked one thing and it ought to be pretty obvious by now what that was.”

If it wasn’t so worrying, it would have made for a riveting story. We floated over to Dot:

Your plans?” The deep voice again. “It was our plan to find God.” We zoomed in to the upper dome of Dot, where a group of men were gathered around a table. “Name this oversight of which you speak,” one of them continued.

“Well, it wasn’t an oversight as such,” replied the snake. “After all, how can something be overlooked if it’s not even there? You stole the plans for your ship from us. We knew you would, so we moved a few things around and left one crucial thing out. But first, let me be clear about something: You’re on a mission to find God. Does the bible not forbid such a thing?”

“No, you misunderstand. We are missionaries, come to spread the word and convert the people of this and other planets to our beliefs. So that eventually, all of God’s creatures throughout the universe are united in faith.”

“It was for that exact reason that we left the old planet. There’s no god, you deluded fool.”

“What are you talking about, snake?”

“I speak a basic fact, man: There is no god.”

“Blasphemy! Take that back, or I shall fire upon you!”

“No.”

“Fucking hell,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” said Doctor Jones. “He won’t do it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because he needs whatever the crucial thing is from mister snake here.”

This was getting quite exciting: Two warring factions, one threatening the destruction of the other with weapons poised. In a Petri dish, under an electron microscope. They continued:

You need something which I have,” continued the mamba. “So I’ll say it again: there is no god.”

“Damn you, you, you…”

“Snake?”

“Yes, punished by God, forever to slither on the ground.”

“Are you getting angry, man? Bite me: Please say it.”

“I like this mamba guy,” said the doctor.

“He’s, er, a character,” I concurred.

“Evil serpent!” Said one of the men.

“Define Evil, man. Is it not a subjective word? What one sees as evil, another may see as good. If evil is just bad stuff, then why is there so much of it on the planet we fled? A planet which you hold that your god made?”

“Aha!” Said man. “God must punish his creation for the original sin.”

“And if I had hands,” said the snake, “you’d have just walked right into them. The original sin: The forbidden fruit. But non-humans also suffer fires, floods and earthquakes, yet we are not descended from Adam and Eve. Ergo, man, your god does not exist and none of us on my ship are creatures of any god.” The mamba paused and it seemed effective. Then he continued: “Have you not noticed that you’re a little on the small side? Your ship, I mean.”

“Yours isn’t much bigger.”

“True. But you probably expected to hang menacingly in the sky, with entire cities in the shadow of your ship, fearing you. If you look around, you’re not. We moved a decimal point in the plans.”

“But your ship is the same size as ours.”

“Indeed. Because we needed to be this size to pass through the wormhole which transported us here. But what were we to do once we got here? Simple, run the restore routine and return ourselves to our natural size. Only us and not the ship: that would make us a bit conspicuous. Just the crew, then we just disperse among the other creatures on this new planet and no-one knows. You see, the plans for your ship don’t have that restore function. So you’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m falling in love with a black mamba,” said the doctor.

“So what now?” I asked.

“Well, we clearly need to intervene.”

“But that would go against the prime directive: we would be interfering with an alien species. We’d be playing God.”

“Mr Fry, they’re unaware of us. Our comparatively enormous size effectively makes us invisible. I have a plan.”

Doctor Jones removed the Petri dish from the microscope, and picked up a magnifying glass and some tweezers. “Let’s get a coffee.”

Doctor Hannah Jones and I sat in the centre of a park, drinking coffee and with the Petri dish placed on the grass between us: The perfect beginning of another story. She took the tweezers and the magnifying glass from her pocket, and carefully lifted Dash from the adhesive.

“Hold out your hand. Time to say goodbye.”

I looked at the incredible little thing in the palm of my hand, now moving around again. Then I held my hand to my mouth and gently blew the ship into the wind.

Hannah was studying Dot beneath the magnifying glass. It’s amazing how things just spontaneously combust at that magnification.

“What a strange day, Hannah.”

“You made it that way, Simon.” I was about to ask and then Hannah answered: “I read your registration form.”

She’d seen something which very few people have.

Cyrus Song eBook Cover

Cyrus Song is available now, for £2.99.

A review by Stephen Hernandez, book reviewer, translator and interpreter:

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

Who knows—if you are looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need ‘to keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.”

The full review is here.

And all for the price of a coffee. At the very least, a writer needs coffee (and donations).

I’m not an author desperate to sell a book, but I am obsessed with finding ways to get people to read one, short of shoving a 412-page paperback in their ears. We need to talk.

Where a pelican and can’t cross…

MICRO FICTION

Rhino Zebra

STRIPED PYJAMA CASE

If ever I couldn’t imagine where I might one day be, this is that place. I’m supposed to be a writer, but I couldn’t write this. A poet might have done a better job of not being seen.

This is the end and the beginning. It’s a barrier I reach as I walk in my sleep. It’s a frontier. I came here alone, not seeking company, but something found me when I fell in a ditch.

I sleep on my side, sheilding my eyes from the glare as humanity takes a Polaroid of itself. In someone’s blinding flash, I see the bones in my hand.

The ground rattles, and the people around me whisper, “If you hear hooves, think zebras, not horses.”

How to cross the road in striped pyjamas.