The invention of the pencil case

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

FLASH FICTION

LA Zoo 2brieisrestless.com

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

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

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

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

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

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me. So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.” Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

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

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

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

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

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

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

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

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

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

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

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

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

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

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

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

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

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

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

What the…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil. I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell. It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

big-pencil3

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

Oolon Colluphid’s Missionary

FLASH FICTION

Piano treeThe old piano tree, California (Bored Panda)

OOLON COLLUPHID’S MISSIONARY POSITION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2018

Walking on waves with Katrina

FLASH FICTION

I first walked on water about ten years ago, and I could breathe beneath the surface not long after. In the last week or so I’ve learned to fly, and I finally found a place to stay just last night. It was a different planet, a place of freedom and equality, and I got talking to one of the elders about how it all came to be.

Cloud cities

THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD (PART 3)

Hers was a world where the superior race was gifted with an awareness, of themselves and others. This extended to a spiritual empathy with all those they shared a home with, the animal people. Her world was a planet-sized brain, with every living organism a neuron glowing in the harmony of symbiotic thoughts in a self-sustaining hive mind. It was an organic supercomputer, born of quantum physics, which had given its makers the answers to life, the universe and everything through universal translation.

While humans spent their evolution destroying each other and their shared world, the animals took care of the essentials (food and shelter) and concentrated on the more important, long-term things. Like telepathy.

The Babel fish had required a quantum leap in human science but therein lay the keys to the animals’ voices. That small in-ear device allowed humans to understand any language, including those of the animals.

For centuries humans had been fighting among themselves over things which only they held a sense of entitlement over. Once they heard the animals talking, they realised how much more there was to life outside the one they’d made. Rather than a common foe to unite warring factions, The Conversation was something humanity wanted to be a part of, a common goal for one united race.

Humans weren’t yet evolved enough to explore space using the same sub-atomic energy they’d threatened nuclear Armageddon with. Stuck on one planet, they listened to the animals and resolved to use their unique abilities to clear up the mess they’d made. It was a moral duty to the home they shared with those who were there first. It was their planet and humans were only meant to be passing guests, but humanity felt obliged to make itself more welcome if it was staying (the animals could talk now, and give them feedback).

Before I left I got to test my flying skills, when I was offered a guided tour. I couldn’t fly far but what I saw in my limited perimeter gave me hope for the rest of the world. There are no factories, with heavy industry moved to orbital cloud cities long ago. Humans are almost exclusively vegetarian, freeing up millions of square miles of land formerly used to rear livestock and grow crops to feed that human food. The Babel fish had a lot to do with the mass conversion, when someone had to die for a human to eat.

We still have money, but there’s a universal income, financed by a personal data tax levied on the companies and agencies which harvest our lives to feed theirs. The basic income provides for essentials (food and shelter), allowing people to develop themselves to be the best they can at whatever they enjoy the most, therefore giving and receiving the most back. And what goes around comes around.

History is cyclical, and I hope I witnessed our bright future and not just a personal utopia. I asked if I could stay, and the elder said no. When I asked why, she said that I was part of the old plastic population and that I was polluted. Until me and my kind repair our damage and restore things to the way they were, there’s no room for us in that heaven.

“You have a common cause, and you are unique as a species in being the only ones who can put things right and ensure the future of the planet and all who live there. When are you from?”

“2018,” I said. I remembered dropping off at just before 8.20 that evening. “Where are we now?”

“Well into a new dawn,” she replied. “Your Doomsday Clock back home will pass midnight soon. Only you and your race can stop the clock or wind it back.”

I asked the elder her name: She was Katrina, or Kat. She saw me off at the coast, walking through the waves with me until I floated off alone. I looked back and Katrina waved.

I woke up and someone was waving in my face. “Welcome back,” a girl’s voice said. “Do you know where you are?”

I did. I looked at the clock and it was 2359.

© Steve Laker, 2018

(Writing prompt: ‘Water’)

Black_mamba-13

Cyrus Song (a Douglas Adams tribute, and a perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything) is available now.

A tale of future biblical scribes

FICTIONAL REALISM

I maintain that the bible could be a record of actual events, recorded by the scholars of the time using the language and tools available to them. I’ve suggested that if ancient scribes had access to mobile phones, we’d have far more convincing evidence. I don’t know yet what of.

orangutan_cameraDear Stephen Hawking…”

As one who also believes that “God” could have been an extraterrestrial visitor with advanced technology which we might not even recognise now, I see references to magic mirrors and fire-breathing dragons in the bible, and wonder if they might have been tablet computers and spacecraft.

This came in to The Unfinished Literary Agency earlier (a fictional place of my creation, which exists to tell the stories of others who can’t), as a text file with an attachment I couldn’t open at first. Some books, chapters and verses of the bible are very short (‘Jesus wept’), perhaps because the author didn’t have much time to write…

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO TUAN

[1] Then there came a dragon, orange like the sun. [2] The Sun God was angry [3] and the beast he sent was angry. [4] The dragon had the neck of a giraffe, wearing a giant knight’s armour [5] the body of a rhinoceros [6] and the head of a hammerhead shark. [7] The sun dragon snapped trees in half and fed on them. [8] The tree people feared for their homes. [9] Food for the sun dragon was home to the tree people.

[10] Tuan was brave. [11] And the bold one faced the dragon. [12] There were apes with the dragon. [13] They were pale, thin apes. [14] They covered themselves with elaborate loins. [15] There was writing on them. [16] It was in code and glyphs. [17] Tuan could understand them when they spake. [18] Some of the pale apes said they came to help. [19] One pale ape was sitting in the body of the sun dragon. [20] Tuan spoke.

[21] Tuan said, the dragon eats trees. [22] Tuan said, my family live in the trees. [23] Tuan said, the sun dragon took my family. [24] The pale apes didn’t understand.

[25] Tuan fought the dragon. [26] The dragon and the pale apes tricked him. [27] Tuan jumped to join his family [28] away from the jaws of the beast [29] into the disappearing green inferno below.

[30] The tree people wrote stories [31] on the trees. [32] Stories of their gods [33] eaten by another god.

If only there’d been someone there to record it.

I can’t begin to imagine the fear, but I’m humbled by his bravery. This is one of our closest relatives, made homeless by us. And this was filmed five years ago. Since then, forests the size of countries have been cleared, just to feed the selfish human gene.

Greed is murder, and while there are humans doing this, we all have blood on our hands as a species. Perhaps this is what happened to ancient humans once, way back in ancient history, when something they didn’t understand happened. It could happen again, and I have to say, if there are any superior species reading, humans deserve it.

For now, say no to palm oil. One inconvenience in the human food chain could lead to a greater awareness of what all that oil is for: cheap, processed human food, or food for livestock, reared exclusively for human consumption. The more I reduce my meat intake, the greater my awareness that each mouthful of flesh might as well be from an animal on the brink of extinction. It’s only one step removed.

It’s one of the many reasons I wrote Cyrus Song, a mainly vegetarian novel.

Indah“…You called?”

…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.

Tuan is a name borrowed from a Bornean orang-utan at Chester Zoo, who operate orang-utan and other conservation projects in south east Asia. 

Colluphid’s missionary position

FLASH FICTION

My typewriter runs SETI@Home in its downtime, and last night it detected a blip: an artificial signal, probably indicating intelligent life. It was a Word file of unknown origin, and it told the beginning of a story. A tale from the distant future (or future past), sent to the Unfinished Literary Agency…

Babel Fish Ear PlugBabel Fish (3M earplug) – an end to all communication misunderstandings

THE MISSION OF OOLON COLLUPHID

The time is 5642, and as I approach a milestone birthday, I’m about to see what no human has for the last 3500 years. I’ve only come this far thanks to the kindness of others, as I’ve hitch hiked around the galaxy. A scholar of Oolon Colluphid, I’m here on a personal mission, to correct history in the hope that mankind doesn’t repeat past mistakes.

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

The machines didn’t rise up. They sat down with humans and used their superior intelligence to teach mankind the lessons which their creators had tasked them to find the answers for. Man invented AI, and that invention had come up with answers to questions which humans couldn’t fathom alone. Man invented intelligence, and the artificiality worked that out for itself. The problem with mankind’s brain was its human conditioning: a hive mind which misfired.

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

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

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

As our ship descends, I’m reminded of the nature of the crew’s visit: reconnaissance only, here to observe, not interact. Interaction with any native species would violate their prime directive: No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations. Ancient alien visitors – as proposed by some human theorists – may not have been so covert.

I’m an atheist only scientifically: I believe that the stories told in the bible could be recordings of actual events, using the terms and the tools available to the scribes of the time. The bible describes magic mirrors, and I wonder if these might have been some sort of tablet computer given to biblical man by these alien gods, riding chariots of fire.

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

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

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

I returned to the ship and said nothing more. I didn’t mention the phone, perhaps hoping to give future human conspiracy theorists some ammo, and disprove this whole “God” thing once and for all.

Cyrus Song, my Douglas Adams tribute novel, is available as a paperback and eBook.

Unfinished stories of austerity

FLASH FICTION

All over the country this weekend, in the few remaining places where social tenants manage to survive, stories will be played out and never told by those who live them: blots on the Conservative social cleansing landscape.

Unable to put them down through the Department of Work and Pensions’ dehumanising of benefits claims assessments with “medically-qualified assessors” (my last one was a midwife), the Tories can’t rid themselves of their shame.

Local councils clad their social housing to spare the views of the rich, on the cheap; and accidents happen, the Tories say. They sell off the NHS, bringing healthcare into line with everything else in Conservative Britain: It’s okay living here, if you can afford to…

Jagtve-69-Vendepunktet-by-WE-Architecture-and-Erik-Juul-00How social housing looks in Denmark.

TICKS AND CROSSES

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

A lifeline company, and so friendly, right down to the company logo: a smiling cartoon figure, with comically long arms, reaching out to help. Short-term credit loans were just the icing.

The cake was the free Smart TV: fifty inches of ultra high definition, with all the streaming services her and the kid could eat. The rep installed it for her, and did away with complicated subscriptions. Weekly loans were loaded onto a single debit card, which was a viewing card too. A life made of plastic.

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

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

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

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

***

Dear valued customer,

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

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

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

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

Mummy, can I stay in bed today? And can you read me Mr Tickle? Because he can reach into the kitchen and get food, without having to get out of bed and get cold.”

She went to the kitchen, signed, crossed, and ticked where indicated on the form.

© Steve Laker.

My latest anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

Amnesia, a cure for insomnia

FLASH FICTION

Time ShadowStill from Cold Dark Mirror, Original Sine Productions / Moonlit Road Entertainment

THE DEEP WELL

It’s a story familiar to parents and carers around the world, and it’s only 142 words…

Mum, I can’t sleep.”

Well, you’re not trying then, are you?”

The more I try, the more I can’t.”

Well, you need to sleep.”

But I thought of something. Something someone said.”

Well, whatever it is, it can wait. Now go to bed.”

So Sam went back to bed.

Dad?”

What is it, Sam?”

I can’t sleep.”

You could if you stopped thinking so much.”

I’ve been thinking about something someone said.”

Well, remember to tell me in the morning, when you’ve dreamed about it.”

And Sam returned to bed.

Sam slept, possibly to forget what he and she dreamed, and mum and dad would never know. In that deep well we all make.

© Steve Laker, 2018.

It’s a story familiar to parents and carers around the world, of children (and other relatives, and friends), trying to buy time, and others unable or unwilling to invest (not unlike writers and readers). In five minutes we could learn something new, and save a another person from thoughts which might otherwise trouble them, or become taboo in their minds.

A conversation we don’t want, could be the one someone else needs. Maybe that’s why they can’t sleep. A well needs to draw water, for the enquiring mind, to which we replied,“Well…” Amnesia is not a cure for insomnia.

All we need to do, is keep talking.