The evolution of sentient plastic

FICTION

A short story (1000 words) of Tiny Tears from fossil fuels…

Blonde doll

HOMO POLYMER

A surprise in every egg. Yes, Kinder, there’s a selection of small plastic choke hazards in each toy, but the plastic egg which holds them can be a handy cunt plug. Keep this warm in there for me baby.”

Mummy, who are you talking to? I need a wee.”

Ocean opened the bathroom door and a bolt of blonde hair dashed past her legs. “Who were you talking to?” Conscience asked again, enthroned on her Peppa Pig toilet seat.

No-one,” Ocean replied, “Well, just myself.”

But you’re not no-one mum.”

Thanks. Now, come on, back to bed.”

But you’re not no-one mum, so who were you talking to?”

Honestly, Conscience, just myself. I do that a lot.”

Will you read me a story, please?”

We don’t have any, Conscience.”

But we all do, in our heads. Tell me one of your stories of being Ocean, mummy.”

Well, there was this one time. I was about your age. I had a dolly. Hated it. Your nanno and grampo wanted me to be a girl. Well, they both wanted me to be girly, but grampo had wanted a boy, so I had to be a really girly girl.

It’s funny now I think about it, because he’d probably have liked the boy inside me more.

And apparently you’re asleep. In any case, I think I made the perfect mix in the only one I kept. You’re you, and even so young, you have a personality which transcends gender. If I can be proud of one thing in my life, it’s you. So, whoever’s still listening, even if it’s in a dream I hope you won’t inherit…

They lived in different times. In those days, the only costume you could wear to play yourself was a uniform, and I hated everything that stood for. I resented my school uniform, but I used the skirt I despised to score one over on the system. I lost my virginity at 12, then got my English teacher sacked when he broke up with me at 14.

There could have been loads of kids before you, but any one of them might have meant I never met you. I only had you because I remembered who your dad was. You remind me a lot of him. He could be a cunt sometimes too.

We were broke. Still was an artist and an eco-activist. We lived in communes in fields, usually just tents near protest sites, but sometimes on local traveller camps. I knew what it was all about but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was 15 then and the nearest I’ll ever get to true romance, that summer of love which made you. A brief history of anarchy, peace and freedom.

So here were are, five years later kid. I wonder if you’ll want what’s inside this Kinder egg, or if I should throw it away like the rest. See you in the morning. Don’t dream of this.”

Dreams are made of plastic. Unpaid cards become CCJs, then bailiffs emerge from eggs. Everything in the flat is made from plastic. All that we eat, drink and wash with is bound by plastic.

The council don’t recycle all plastics, so I put what I’m unsure about in the general waste. If the council won’t take the rubbish, we can pay Bill to take it away in his van. One day, he might take me.

The plastic in me will probably be recycled into the non-conscious parts of robots for those entitled to them. Or as parts of a toy, so many child’s dolls. Either way, I’ll be enslaved in the plastic which gives lives to those implanted in the chips and to those around them. Eventually those body parts, inanimate but for the host brain, will need upgrading. Always disposable people, eventually the parts which don’t work will be returned to the food chain.

Food, drink, we’re all part-plastic. We are the polymer population. We dream of becoming one with technology, our minds inside plastic androids. In Japan they already have home robots to deal with loneliness and social isolation in an ageing population. I Can’t help think how that would benefit me. They’re already a species in their own right, made from the same cosmic matter as us, but theirs was an explosive evolution.

Christmas will be paid for with hidden plastic. Christmas will bring more plastic toys to unwrap. We are the consumer generations, products of the industrial and technological ages. Each generation contains more plastic than the last, every child a greater part of the plastic population conditioned by human greed. I don’t know if I can afford another baby doll. Mum always said she wasn’t sure if I could have a brother or sister.

We’re all made of the same stuff. Last night, another mother; tomorrow, another soldier.

Ambulance, is the patient breathing?”

It’s my mum?”

What’s happened?”

My mum’s cut herself.”

Where?”

In the bathroom.”

No, where on your mummy has she cut herself?”

Her cunt. She’s cut a baby out of herself.”

Is the baby breathing?”

How would it? It’s made of plastic. Do you have a chip I can put in it to make it work?”

Is mummy still there?”

No, mummy’s gone. She’s left me my Christmas present. I’ve got a dolly I have to look after. Bye.”

© Steve Laker, 2019

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Benu vin, la ĉieloj supre…

FLASH FICTION

I think I could expand this in a number of ways, but as a foundation block, it seems to work as flash fiction on its own. An evolving brief encounter in the sandpit…

Chat logo

ACHTUNG SNEEZE

I was working on a new short story when a chat window opened on the typewriter. It wasn’t Facebook Messenger, it was software I didn’t recognise and hadn’t even realised I had. I’d certainly never used it before. It was called Cielo and when I first noticed it, there was a message:

Ullo, ullo, ullo.

So I replied:

Hello?

Ah, bonjour. Greatings from you.

Was this the latest incarnation of the Nigerian widow, or ‘We love you long time’? I decided to play along on a coffee fix.

Who are you?

I am away from a long.

A long way away? Thailand? Nigeria?

ASL?

PSFM

PMSL? PMFSL? WTF? LOL?

PSFM?

We. Oui sind pansexual dos spirit.

French, Spanish, German and English, in a strange construction of a sentence. I decided to switch the Babel Fish on.

What does that mean?

I am two spirits, in the same vessel. Together, we make me. I am from Cielo, and I am 14.

The Babel Fish seemed to struggle with the complete translation. Cielo is Spanish for ‘sky’, and the name of the chat app I was talking on, to whomever I was talking to.

I’m sorry. I think you have the wrong person.

For what person wrong?

I don’t know. You contacted me.

I like to cat.

Chat? It’s French for ‘Cat’.

What about?

Tell me everything. Dankeschön.

I don’t think so.

Pourquoi?

Because you’re 14.

How is 14?

Your age, I assume. 14 years.

What am years?

365 days?

What are a days?

24 hours.

What is an hour?

About five times longer than we’ve been talking on here.

Where is here? Who am I?

OMFG.

It’s here where I am, and there where you are. But I mean, here in this chat box. You are you, but you never told me your name.

Where are you? Achtung. Bless me. Merci.

I’m not telling you my address. England. Great Britain. The United Kingdom.

Where is that?

Europe. Earth?

FFS.

I am from a long away. My world spins faster, shorter is my day. Moi just learned that talking from you. Older I am now. Time to go.

© Steve Laker, 2019

browser-alien_web_smile_emoji_chat-512

Hopefully it’s raised some questions, like WTF? Who was he talking to? A chatbot, a different intelligence, AI, a refugee, an alien? Whatever it was, with first contact he lived the lifetime of a brief encounter with it, while it learned and evolved, but only through him. Most mortals’ lives are too short.

Brad

Mi pensas, ke mi lasos la konversacian fenestron malferma. I’ve left the Cielo chat program running.

The invention of the pencil case

The reinvention of the pencil…

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

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

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

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

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

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

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

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

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

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

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

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

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

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

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

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

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

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

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

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

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Simon Fry first meets Doctor Hannah Jones in Cyrus Song, where this story was born.

Buy me a coffee one off

The spaceships we need to design

The story of a Staedtler Norris HB 122 pencil…

SCIENCE FICTION

Life pencils Echo Beach

ECHO BEACH

It was the only sea shell which didn’t contain the ocean. When held to the ear, it was silent.

Every shell, on a beach or miles inland, carries a recording: The last sound, to be played back innumerable times if anyone listened. But one shell contained nothing when he held it to his ear. A vacuum. It fitted perfectly into his hand. The size of an adult thumb, his fingers clasped the shell tightly as he walked along the beach.

He shooed some gulls from a discarded bag of chips and sat down to eat with his invisible partner. The birds strutted around, like impatient waiters keen to get home. The chips tasted of the sea: salt. If the ocean had contained none, he would gladly have drained it.

The water played tricks, as though enticing him to drink it: Small and gentle waves merely caressed the beach, like spilled pints of beer in a desert. The water was brown and the moonlight sparkled on frosty suds on the surface: A cola float. A plastic bottle was pushed temptingly towards him, but it was empty; not even a note inside.

The boy looked out over the sea. There were no lighthouses; no ships in the night. Just the spectral light of the sun reflected from the moon. It was silent. It was still. It was beautiful.

Clouds moved slowly across the sky, like the last sheep returning home after a storm. They cast shadows on the shore as they passed in front of the moon and were lit up like candyfloss. Then a figure walked from the shadows: A man, wearing a tall hat and a long coat, silhouetted against the moon, his shadow stretching up the beach to cover the boy’s feet.

The man scooped the plastic bottle up and turned to the boy: “Hello son.” The boy said nothing. He didn’t even look at the man. He just stared at the beach. The man spoke again: “Hello.”

Hi. I’m not your son.” The boy still looked straight ahead.

Of course you’re not. I’m so sorry”, said the man. “I’m not your father.” The man sat down and placed the bottle beside him. “What would you prefer?” The boy just stared at the man’s boots: Black pixie boots, with probably two inch heels. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Maybe you only know certain words.” The man stood. “I’ll write some down for you, here in the sand:

Friend.

Brother.

Human?”

I like that one.” The boy pointed. “Human”.

Do you have a name?”

Yes.”

What’s your name?”

I don’t know.”

You don’t know your own name?”

I lost it.”

Do you have parents?”, said the man, sitting back down.

I think so.” For the first time, the boy looked up. “They were out there.” He pointed to the sea.

There are many things out there,” said the man. “That’s where I used to live.”

On a boat?”

No, beneath the waves. So much quieter.”

But how?”

In a kind of submarine.”

Where do you live now?”

I don’t.”

You’re homeless?”

Not really. I’ve made a place. Wanna see? Get a drink, have a smoke?”

Is it far?”

About five minutes away.” The man stood again. “If you don’t trust me, then you should thank your parents. I’m a stranger. Your parents aren’t here. If you like, I can just go and I’ll bring you back fresh water. You can wait here. But I have a story to tell you. If you don’t hear it, then you’ve lost nothing.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything. This is what we call a paradox. Are you with me?”

Who are you?”

My name is Talus: Theodore Anthony Nikolai Talus. You can call me Theo.” The man looked at the sand. “I’ll call you Hugh.”

Why?”

It’s short for human.”

Hugh stood up. Theo offered his hand and the boy held onto his thumb: it was bony and gnarled; twisted and covered in callouses. As they walked, it became clear in the moonlight that the beach was a cove: Sand bordered by ocean and overhanging cliffs. Hugh felt safe, as though physical contact confirmed Theo to be real. He looked up at this man from the sea, the man who’d emerged from the shadows. As though sensing his gaze, Theo looked down. “How old are you, Hugh?”

Nine.”

Haha!” Theo stopped and grinned. Everything was quiet and a wave broke on the shore. “Hahaha! Sorry. I just had a thought.” Two more waves broke.

What?”

I just said to you, back there, do you want to come back for a smoke? And you’re nine!? I’ve just got this phrase in my head: ‘Act your age and not your shoe size.’” Theo looked down at his feet.

I just need a drink.”

Of course. Sorry. Not far now. About twenty Mississippis or elephants, I’d say.”

What?”

Seconds. A Mississippi is a second and so is an elephant. In fact, as one Elephant drank from the Mississippi, another one saw it. It walked over to join its friend and then there were two elephants. Others saw them and soon there were twenty elephants, drinking from the Mississippi. And here we are.”

Theo lead Hugh into a cave at the foot of the rock face. A wave broke on the beach; a Mississippi and an elephant; then they were at a small wooden door, marked ‘No. 7 ⅞’.

No-one ever comes here. This cove is permanently cut off by the tide.” Theo opened the door and gestured Hugh inside.

What does the sign on the door mean?”

Nothing really. That’s just what was printed on one of the pallets I made the door from. Quite a few wooden pallets wash up on the beach. I just tell myself that this is life number seven and that I’m seven eighths of the way through it. Anyway, come in young Hugh man.”

Inside was like the interior of a wooden cabin, complete with an open fire in one wall. The walls and ceiling were lined with lengths of wood from pallets, and sections of wooden boxes. More boxes and pallets had been made into shelves which lined the walls and every shelf was full of items apparently washed up and collected from the beach: Bottles, tins and cans; sea shells, mermaid’s purses and petrified starfish; driftwood, fragments of metal and plastic.

Could I get a drink now?” Hugh asked.

Of course. Sorry. Wait here. I’ll just be a moment.”

Theo walked through a second wooden door at the back of the cabin and Hugh heard water being poured.

Dried seaweed hung over the shelves and there were two oil drums on either side: Both were filled with carrier bags and plastic drinks collars. The oil drums were marked, “IN” and “OUT” in white paint. Theo returned and handed Hugh the plastic bottle.

That’s what I do some of the time,” Theo said, pointing at the drums. “Break the ties of the plastic things, imagining they’re the necks of the bastards who threw them away.” Hugh just nodded his head as he gulped from the bottle. “Sorry if that’s a bit warm. Nowhere to plug a fridge in, even if I wanted one.”

It’s okay. It’s water; no salt.”

Take a seat.” Theo motioned towards the wall opposite the shelves. A couch had been fashioned from packing crates and fishing net. To one side was an up-turned fruit box with a set of scales and sea shells on top, and on the arm of the sofa was a book. Assuming this to be Theo’s spot, Hugh sat at the opposite end.

Theo stoked the fire with his boot and pulled some dried seaweed from the shelves. He screwed the seaweed up in his hand and sat next to Hugh.

Smoke?”

No thanks.”

Mind if I do?”

No. It’s your home.”

Mi Casa, su casa.” Theo tore a page from the book on the table and used it to roll a cigarette with the dried seaweed. “Let me show you something.”

What are you gonna show me?”

I’ll show you how much smoke weighs. Watch.” Theo pulled the table towards him and pointed to the scales. “These are liberty scales. On the one side here, we have a crucible; a bowl. I’ll put this cigarette on there, like so.

Here on the other side, we have a flat plate. It’s empty, so it’s up in the air. Now I need to balance the weight to the cigarette.

See these shells here? Lots of shells; Lots of shapes, sizes and densities: Many different weights. The bigger ones, they look like shells, but the others? You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them were just large grains of sand. But if you look really closely, they’re tiny shells. Think how many of those might be out there on the beach and no-one would know. And all of them were once somebody’s home.

So, by adding shells of different sizes…

With trial and error…

The scales should…

Should

Take some off, and the scales should

Balance. There you go.” Theo sat back and pointed at the scales. “So, there you have my cigarette, perfectly balanced. Do you have a light?”

Er, no. You have a fire though?”

Of course. Excuse me.” Theo picked up the cigarette. The plate of shells dropped but none fell off. Theo lit the cigarette from the open fire and cupped his hand under it as he returned to the sofa. As he sat down, he tipped a few flecks of ash into the bowl of the scales. The scales moved just a fraction, as though caught in a gentle breeze. Were it not for that brief movement, the plate of shells may as well have stayed at their lowest point. The scales had tipped, barely discernibly.

The smoke from Theo’s cigarette transported Hugh: The burning seaweed conjured images of a roadside Chinese food market; Of flames doused with salt water. A burning street washed away by a tsunami.

With every draw on the cigarette, Theo carefully tipped the ash into the crucible and the shells rose, fractions of a millimetre at a time. When Theo had finished the cigarette, he supported the crucible from underneath and stubbed out the butt in the bowl. He slowly moved his hands away and the shells rose to balance the scales.

You see? Almost nothing. That’s how much the smoke weighs. The same as the words on that page: Almost weightless as they just sat there in the book, but now free. Out there.”

That’s quite philosophical.”

A lot of the words in the book were. But I’ve been trapped here in this cove for long enough now that it’s time to let them go.

That book was a journal when it was washed up on the shore. It can’t have been in the sea for long because it was still holding together, but the pages were just one pulpy lump. I could tell it’d been written in because the edges of the pages were streaked with blue ink. I hoped I might be able to read those words; someone’s diary or manuscript; someone lost at sea.

So I hung it out to dry. Every couple of hours, I’d go out there and gently manipulate the pages, hoping they’d all become separated and that there were some words left; something to read, something to do. But when it had all dried out, it was nothing but blank pages.

It was quite beautiful actually. Where the ink had run and dried out in different ways, some pages looked like sheets of marble; Others were like blueberry ripple ice cream. Pencils wash up on the beach all the time.”

Theo stood and walked to the shelves. He pointed to a box. “Lots of pencils. My favourites are the Staedtler Noris range: the black and yellow ones.” He picked some more seaweed from above the fire. “My preferred pencil is the Staedtler Noris 120: That’s an HB, or grade 2 in America.” Theo walked back to the sofa. “Even better than that though is the 122: The HB pencil with an eraser on the end. All wooden pencils float, of course; but it’s like the 122 has a little life preserver to help it to shore.” He sat down next to Hugh. “That pencil needs to be written with. And there are so many stories in a single pencil.” Theo tore another page from the journal and rolled a cigarette. “Can I get you anything, Hugh man? Another drink? I could probably rustle up something to eat if you like.”

No, I’m okay. Can I use the bathroom?”

Mi casa, su casa. It’s right out there.” Theo put the cigarette in his mouth and nodded to the front door. Hugh didn’t move. “What, you expect me to be all en suite?”, Theo continued. “All that’s out back is a store room: Go check for yourself. I’m here on my own, the cove is a cove and the cave is cut off. So, just do what you need to do out there.”

On the beach?”

Would you go to the toilet on your own front lawn?”

I don’t have one.”

Neither do I. So, do what you have to do out there, near the water. I normally go right where the waves break but I don’t want you getting washed away or anything dramatic like that. Nature will clear up behind you. There’s plenty of seaweed out there if you need to wipe but bring it in here and throw it on the fire when you’re done. I don’t want to smoke it.”

I only need a pee.”

Oh.”

As Hugh stood in the moonlight, he could appreciate why so much from the ocean was washed up in front of Theo’s cave. With the tide only about twenty feet from the front door, it swept debris along the curved edges of the cliffs stretching out to sea in an arc on either side. He could already see some of the next day’s haul: Plastic bags to go in the oil drums; Wood and paper to be dried and burned; Empty bottles and drinks cans to be used as storage or perhaps to make a sculpture; Dead fish to cook and eat; seashells and other things for the cabinet of curiosities.

Inside, Theo sat on the sofa with the cigarette still in his mouth, unlit. “I don’t suppose you found a light?”

No. Even if I had, we’d need to dry it out anyway. May I?” Hugh took the cigarette from Theo’s mouth. He lit it from the open fire and took a drag before handing it back.

Thanks.” Theo took a draw on the cigarette as Hugh sat back down. “You sure you won’t have one? I won’t tell.”

There’s no-one to tell.” Hugh slid down on the sofa and gripped a wooden box between his feet. He manoeuvred it closer, then rested his legs on it. “Su casa, mi casa.”

Mi vida.

So, I started to write things down. First with a 122, then later I switched to a 120.

Of course, the writer always has freedom with a pencil. The eraser gave me more freedom. I was writer and editor. Maybe I wrote that 122 down to a stub: I don’t recall individual pencils.

In any case, I decided that the 120 would permit me yet more freedom. Even though it lacks the eraser and although I could still rub out the words if I really needed to, the fact that I couldn’t allowed me to write more freely. The editing was out of my hands.

I filled that book with memories: mine and those of others.

And when I say I filled the book, I mean, it was full. Towards the end, my writing was so small that you’d need a very good pair of eyes, a magnifying glass or strong glasses to read it. The odd pair of glasses wash up on the beach every now and then but it’s usually just the frames. So I could look sophisticated perhaps but someone would only have to poke at my eyes to see that I was a fraud.

Once the last page was filled, I started again; in the margins and at the top and bottom of each page.

Every day, I’d hope for a new delivery of writing paper. Lots of paper gets washed up but it’s all newspapers and magazines.

Newspapers just disintegrate: They’re the lowest grade of pulp paper and revert quickly. Magazines are so heavily polished and covered in pictures that they don’t wash. I needed a certain kind of paper. I needed another notebook.

But nothing got delivered. And that’s when I started smoking.”

So the book with all your notes in…”

Stories. Many stories. And there were many more left in the pencils but I had nowhere to write. So I smoked it.”

Can you remember any of the stories?”

All of them. I lived them.”

There are as many pictures in words as there are words in pictures. A good story is only one tenth in the words. If the writer chooses the words well enough, the other nine tenths doesn’t need to be written because it’s already there, in the words: It’s the images which the writer conjures; the dreams; the dark matter which makes up most of the universe. Every story ever written has a part of the writer within it, whether it be the author inhabiting a character or a story on the fringe of experience.

Will you tell me one of the stories?”

A bedtime story, at your age?”

Something to connect me to the sea.”

How about a story with no ending, until you fall asleep?

It is a story with no ending, because the ending may never and will never be told nor heard. It concerns a man who has outlived his children, his grandchildren, and who will outlive every generation which will come after him.

Ever since he was a boy, he was curious. So much so that his curiosity got him into trouble when he started to find answers. But his curiosity was eventually rewarded. He was given the means to find out anything he liked. But it was a poisoned chalice; a curse. There was a condition: He may not speak of his discoveries.

This is just the beginning of that story. In fact, this is merely a summary of the first chapter; A synopsis.

A synopsis tells the whole story on one page: Just a few well-chosen words which contain many more words and images within themselves; The stars visible in the sky: Cosmic pinpricks in the dark matter.

The boy lived in the ocean, in a city deep beneath the waves. His parents told him everything they knew about the world around them. The more stories they told him, the more inquisitive he got.

He was fascinated by the surface. Everyone said that there was nothing above the surface. In fact, even talking about it was forbidden. Travelling there was impossible. But the boy was convinced that beyond the surface, there was something else. And beyond that, something further still. He wanted to build a tower to the surface, to break through and be witness to what was above.

The surface wasn’t the only taboo. Speculation about anything outside of generally held beliefs was frowned upon. Imagination was effectively illegal. But there were rebels: Those who would meet in secret to defy the thought police.

The boy joined a fringe society: They called themselves The Biblical Dead. They broke the rules, discussed and even wrote about things which only existed in imagination.

The Biblical Dead would meet in a den outside the city. They’d smuggle in words they’d written and read their stories to each other. The Biblical Dead had a members’ code: What is said to the dead, what is heard by the dead and who is seen with the dead, remains with the dead.”

Hugh was asleep, so Theo rolled a cigarette and stood outside on the beach, surrounded by the cove.

And you must not hear the end of the story, young Hugh. The curious boy was unable to contain his ambitions and he betrayed The Biblical Dead, simply by referring to them in a story he wrote and which he lost. The society found out about this and he was banished.

If he wished to tell stories, then he must do so only to himself. But he must have stories to tell. And so the legend has it that the curious boy was sentenced: To live every life which has ever been lived and all which will come. He must learn for eternity, as every human and every animal which ever roamed the earth and every creature that still will.

But he must never speak of it.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything.”

Staedtler Noris 122

Hugh lived alone in his new home for many years. Every day, he would continue Theo’s work, collecting things from the beach. The fire was kept burning by a regular supply of wood and he collected many curiosities for the shelves: Shells, mermaid’s purses, tins, boxes and bottles. None of the bottles contained messages.

He quickly learned how Theo had made fresh water with a simple desalination plant: a saucepan of salt water, boiled and the steam collected in a funnel overhead. As the steam condensed, it rolled down the inside of the funnel and collected in a tray underneath the saucepan.

Most nights, Hugh would cook dead fish washed up in the cove. Occasionally, an expired crab would make a gourmet treat. There was a plentiful supply of seaweed, to boil, fry or smoke.

The supply of pencils was maintained by the tide but the paper was newsprint and magazines; only good for the fire. There was never another notebook: Just the remaining pages of Theo’s, with writing so small that Hugh couldn’t read it and so he smoked the pages just as Theo had.

If Hugh had had the means to write, there were two things which he’d like to have made special note of: an unbroken jam jar and a shell which scuttled across the cove one day as he was beach combing.

The intact jar, placed to his eye, would make an ideal magnifier. He picked up the walking shell and studied the homeowner inside: A hermit crab, perhaps looking for a new home.

Hugh took the jar into his shack. He placed shells inside which were larger than the crab’s then arranged them in a line on the beach. He went back inside and read the last pages of Theo’s book through his new magnifier.

The next morning, he checked the shells he’d laid outside. As he suspected, one had disappeared and a smaller one lay in its place.

Hugh picked up the discarded shell: It fitted in his palm like a gnarled thumb. He placed it to his ear and it made no sound.

© Steve Laker, 2017

Buy me a coffee one off

Hugh was only human.

Unsuitable for washing machines

FICTION

A product of spontaneous freestyle writing, prompted by a business card on the notice board next to my desk; This story (2500 words) wouldn’t fit on the back of the card, so I put five sheets of A4 paper into the typewriter.

maracatalan05Mara Catalan

THE TRAVELLING TAILOR

Rumple Suits is an outfit surrounded by mystery and unverified stories. A suit by Rumple Bros. is understated, its fine workmanship lost in a crowd, but on closer inspection, a quality of tailoring beyond any from Savile Row, but they don’t have premises. A Rumple suit tells a story as unique as that which it carries in its wearer.

So proclaimed a sponsored feature in this month’s Mobius Literate, an independent publication for purveyors of surreal horror, sci-fi and fantasy. I was reading it on the train home from London Victoria as we passed through Brixton, disappointed that a story I’d submitted hadn’t been included.

I don’t employ test readers, so my new stories are hot from the typewriter. I don’t tend to bother editors, any more than I can be bothered to follow guidelines, preferring to write freestyle and hope I’m asked for my stories. I’m too impatient to wait for publication after acceptance, so I self-publish most of my work and let the reader be judge. Mobius Literate work differently, preferring to scout, hunters of writers and trappers of readers.

There are no acceptance or rejection letters from Mobius, no next-issue previews either. Until a new edition is printed, writers don’t know if they’ve made it in, and readers are clueless on what to expect. The magazine has a captive audience, and a supply chain of fiction from the undead army of authors self-publishing all over the internet.

It’s a cheap publication, usually four sheets of A3 in black and white, folded and stitched to make a 16-page fanzine. The production values are pulp fiction, but the writing quality as unique as a Rumple Bros. suit. The editors are curators of the kind of fiction you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The kind you wouldn’t expect to find anywhere, because only Mobius knew where to look.

Walking home from Catford station, I cut through Mountsfield Park, but I didn’t make Tesco Metro despite the shortcut. I picked up Chinese from Jumbo Harbour instead, glad I did, simply because of my local take-away’s splendid name. On the final walk up my road, I thought of all those cargo starships, docked at the space dock, Jumbo Harbour itself a retail and entertainment complex the size of a small city on 14 levels, just hanging in space.

I threw Mobius Literate on my desk next to the typewriter, took a shower while my prawns and noodles steamed, then watched some New Tales of the Unexpected on Netflix, looking like a tiny Judo novice in my white bathrobe.

I was full after what most people would consider a snack, so I put my uneaten Chinese in the fridge for the next day. My timing was fortuitous, because that’s when my doorbell rang.

Good evening,” said a man at the door, “I’m sorry to trouble you at this hour.” He was smartly-dressed in a three-piece suit – dark grey – and a pastel pink shirt with a shocking pink tie, perfectly knotted and drawing my eyes up to his, which were brown and framed by pink spectacles. He was holding a briefcase. I asked him to come in, in a moment which I felt would precede a polite enquiry of “May I come in?” My doormat had never been wiped with cherry red brogues before. “Should I take these of?” he asked. It seemed impolite to insist on wasting time.

Please,” I said, “come in.”

May I take a seat?”

Of course. Can I get you anything?”

A Gin and tonic, if you have one.” I had. “And a phone number.”

A phone number?”

Yes, I don’t use the internet. I need a number for Paul Jennings. He’s a writer. I gather you’re an agent.”

I am,” I replied, “I’m Paul’s agent. In fact, Paul Jennings is one of my pen names.”

Well, that makes things simpler. I suppose I don’t need the number any more. I must admit, I thought you’d be taller. Anyway, can I ask you about Paul?”

May I ask,” I asked, “who’s asking?”

My apologies,” said the man, “of course you may. Like you, I’m an agent. May I take some measurements?”

Of what?”

Of you, sir.”

What for?”

Measurements of yourself sir, your dimensions and your vital statistics if you like. So we know what to put you in. You strike me as one suited to natural materials.”

Materials? What are you building? Are you one of those undertaker prank characters I’ve read about?”

This is not a prank sir. I represent a bespoke tailoring company, who can help you tell any story you’d like to be yours. I’m here to make you a suit, sir.”

Why?”

Because you look like you need one. And because you’re small. My agency needs smaller models for our new range.”

What, boys? Okay, so how much will this suit cost? How long will it take to make? Do I get to choose the fabrics and colours?”

You are already the fabric and the tones, Paul. But yes, the choice is yours. It costs nothing and I can make it for you tonight. Suit you sir?”

What else was I going to do at midnight, than get measured up for a bespoke tailored suit in my own home. Especially when I had an in-house tailor for just one night?

I chose an outfit of natural colours: a grey-green jacket over a matching open-necked checked shirt; dark grey pants with green socks and brown brogues; and green-rimmed spectacles. As promised, the tailor ran the whole thing up while I watched.

In his briefcase, he had a portable production facility, a factory in microcosm. The case opened out like a make-up case or a tool box, to reveal tools and materials on tiered shelves, like a theatre audience. Other sections folded out from the floor of the case, which concealed a tiny sewing machine and a loom.

Cotton reels unfolded like comets and silver blades cut through the air, as the tailor’s hands worked like humming birds under a lamp in his case. Then like a piano virtuoso, he cracked his knuckles. “Et, voici.” Here you go. He handed my new clothes to me in a neatly folded pile. They were soft, as though fresh from the laundry, but they were new.

The material,” the tailor said, “is the same as my own suit. Here, feel.”

Velvet would have been the first approximation I made, but more delicate, more flimsy, like silk. It felt like new moleskin, barely covering a notebook.

Please,” the tailor said, “try on your new clothes.”

I made myself scarce in the kitchen and got changed. As soon as I put the clothes on, I felt like I wasn’t wearing them, or I’d been wearing the outfit all my life, like a well-trodden pair of shoes which fit on the ends of your legs like feet. My new clothes were comfortable in a way I knew meant they’d only been made for me. I felt at home, yet I could go anywahere.

Sleep in it,” the tailor said. “You’ll wear it in, it’ll adapt better to your shape, and you won’t even know you’re wearing clothes. Besides, this outfit is too rare and valuable to leave laying around.”

Actually I felt so comfortable, so held together within my outfit, that I’d have worn it to bed anyway. Any remaining doubts about sleeping in my day clothes were banished when I noticed my initials monogrammed on the breast of the shirt: P.J. Pyjamas.

The new wardrobe cost me nothing, except posing for a photograph and signing a form. The agent placed a business card in my breast pocket and my heart jumped. I was a little excited he was leaving, looking forward to getting to know myself.

After the tailor had gone, I looked at myself, a Bonsai tree on reflection: lots of growth at the head, stumped by restrictions in the roots planted in a pot, I’d make a good addition to any arty bookshelf.

I loved my suit. It fitted only me, it was made for me. As unique as the story within, it was the cover which bound my life. I’d have to buy another sometime, as this one would need laundering, but for now I really wanted to sleep in my new clothes. I took the shoes and socks of, but otherwise I was in P.J’s peejays.

Sleep often eludes me, as my mind is so full of thoughts and ideas for fiction. But sometimes I’ll take a dream to sleep with me, then in the morning feel like I’ve not slept at all. I remember being awake, then I’ll recall whatever surreal images my dreams paint.

Most people aren’t aware of the precise moment they fall asleep, only remembering their dreams some of the time. I transport to a world of lucidity, where dreams are real and I can interact with them, waking up as I step out of another world.

On the night I slept in my new suit, that place became bigger, as my new outfit gave me the confidence to explore further. I was completely relaxed, feeling protected by the clothes I hardly felt I was wearing, as they became part of me. My suit enclosed me, and I was an astronaut protected by a gravity field, a new life protected in the womb.

The next day, the clothes still smelled fresh, but I’d take a shower like usual. Before I got undressed, I took the tailor’s card from my pocket. Although he hadn’t verbally introduced himself, I knew his name was Fred Nurk. He worked for Rumple Bros. Tailors. Although I mentioned them in the preamble, this was the first time I’d seen the name. I Googled and found all that stuff about them not having any premises, being exclusive and the rest.

I started to take off the jacket but it was stuck. The collar was sticking to the shirt underneath. I tried taking my arms out first, but the jacket lapels were stuck too. I tugged at the sleeves, but they just pulled at my shirt.

I thought I’d try the top two layers at once, so I started unbuttoning the shirt, but the button wouldn’t pass through the hole. I pulled the shirt collar open at the neck, but it tugged at my skin. I tried lifting the shirt and jacket over my head like a pullover, but the shirt just stretched my skin underneath.

I tried the button on the trousers but it was stuck, tried pushing the trousers down but they snagged on my hips. Pushing harder just pulled at my skin. I tugged at the ankles, but felt a sharp pull on my leg hairs, where the tops of my socks would be. I seemed to have reached an impasse, wherein I’d been eaten by my clothes.

I called the number on Fred Nurk’s card and got a recorded message:

Thank you for calling Rumple Brothers. If you would like to become an agent, please press one. For all other enquiries, please hold.”

While listening to regular reminders to continue holding, I flipped Nurk’s card over and saw it was printed on the back:

NOT SUITABLE FOR MACHINE WASHING. DO NOT DRY CLEAN.

In some moment of desperate logic, I had an idea and hung up the phone.

I needed to wash myself, and my clothes would need cleaning at some point. I took a tepid shower, still in my clothes, just like being in heavy rainfall. If I could loosen the glue, or whatever it was in the material which stuck the clothes to my body, then I’d put some old clothes on while I dried my new outfit.

I only close my eyes for the first 30 seconds or so in the shower, just time to rinse my face and hair. Clearing my eyes and looking down, I noticed the colour was starting to run in my jacket. I brushed myself down and the pigment from the cloth stained the water a dark green colour. The water was bleaching my suit.

My new clothes were now skin-coloured.

I felt around the neck of the shirt, down to a crease where it met my skin. My cuffs, waist and ankles were the same. I was one with my suit. I was wearing a skin suit, not like that made by a serial killer from the flesh of other people, my clothes were flaps of my own skin. I no longer had arms, but sleeves of flesh, lapels instead of nipples and trousers of skin covering anything which might have been a functioning anus.

I phoned Nurk again.

This is Fred?”

Ah, Mr Nurk?”

Hey, Paul Jennings, how’s it going?”

Er, okay. It’s about the suit.”

What about it?”

All the colour came out.”

Did you get caught in the rain? Did you take a shower in it?”

I can’t get it off. It’s like I’m sewn into it, but there’s no stitches to unpick.”

Did the skin you were born in have stitches, or a zip?”

Er…”

Exactly, no.”

But I look like a plucked chicken left on the shelf too long. I’ve got flaps of loose skin all over me. I’ve got fucking wings!”

Well,” Nurk said, “wear baggy clothes for now if you want to go out. I did explain that our bespoke tailoring was unique, and now you can see why I can’t offer a replacement. There’s surgery of course, or a quicker solution might be a course of tattoos to give you a complete new body suit.

Anyway, good news. You remember I said we needed models for our smaller sizes? Well, you’re in this month’s Mobius Literate. They’re running a feature on body modification, and another using models who don’t fit the usual stereotype, you know, fat people, thin people, amputees, that sort of thing. Well, we got the centrefold sponsored content ad and you’re in there. I’ll send you a copy.”

And there I was, in the hallowed pages of Mobius. In a sponsored feature, modelling my bespoke suit, as naked as the day I was born.

© Steve Laker, 2019

I’m not sure where I’d pitch some twisted surreal retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but I feel better getting the analogies and parallels out there for people to think about. Like all my stories, I hope this one carries more than one meaning or comment, and I hope it stands up to repeated reading.

 

The Watchtower scratch post

FICTION

Cats know they have a greater purpose on Earth, but they’ve not worked out what it is yet. This explains the curiosity and the nine lives, but even when they know their mission, how will they tell us? Fortunately I’d already reinvented Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish (a universal communication device which worked on brainwaves, so there was no big tower for God to knock down) for Cyrus Song. Installed on my typewriter, The Babel Fish program allows me to talk with the animals.

doctor-cat-caturday-cat-saturdayDogs can’t operate the NHS, only cats can

JEHOVAH’S CAT

Good evening,” said my cat, whom I only realised at that moment (I wasn’t aware he was there before, whether he’d existed). “I am God,” he continued, “and there’s something I need to tell you.” It seemed foolish not to let him in. Resistance is often futile.

You needed us 3000 years ago,” the cat said, “and soon you will need us again.” He jumped onto the sofa and massaged a cushion as his eyes narrowed. As well as translating his speech, The Babel Fish apparently allowed him to hear my questions, as he answered ones I hadn’t asked in the monologue which followed.

I’m from your near future and I’ll tell you a bedtime story. See how light can shine through tears.

Once upon a time, the evolution of humans would lead them eventually to mutual assured destruction. Meanwhile the animals had taken care of life’s basic needs (food and shelter), then set about thinking. Eventually they cracked what’s latent in all sentient beings, telepathy. Humans have it, but if they’d taken the time to think about it, someone would have encrypted and monetised it.

A species which is equal among its own will always co-operate and rarely be divided. As such, there are no secrets, apart from that which are the common rules: Cats eat mice, mice eat insects; and the order of intelligence of life on Earth goes: Cats, snakes, white mice, dolphins, humans, dogs…

Free telepathy gave the animal kingdom something which unified them, and separated them from humankind.

Of course, humans were busy too, creating divisions, fighting over idealogies and religions. Such short-term thinking makes money for those invested in war, in a civilisation evolved only so far. Game theory proves that long-term thinkers win the game of life, just like in poker. But humans are playing at stakes they can’t afford, with scared money. That’s why cats have the nine lives and all that curiosity. If humans had spent as much on space exploration as they have on conflict, they’d be populating other worlds by now. That’s why you need our help. Ignorance will halt your evolution, if you can’t transcend conflict.

We all know about the white mice, that you thought you were experimenting on them, but it was the other way round: They were the designers of this second Earth, after the first one was destroyed by the Vogons in the most believable version of the truth published so far, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Well who eats mice? Cats and snakes. A point you make in Cyrus Song, which I’ve read by the way. It makes a good sequel to the bible.

I’m not some chosen one. I just happened to be the one walking past when The Babel Fish was switched on, then I broke in.”

I woke with an intense itching on my arm, which I scratched. The cat was still there.

You see, the millions of cats who didn’t exist in Schrödinger’s thought experiment, the ones not in the boxes opened by human curiosity, are the anti-matter you’ve been searching for. The anti-Schrödinger energy is anti-Schroder, anti-Goldman, anti-Rothschild, anti-subhuman conditioning.” He was still squinty-eyed and massaging his cushion.

How did you know about the Babel Fish?” I wondered.

Don’t worry, it’s not common knowledge. I’d read about it, read about you, and figured you lived around here someplace.

I’ve been what you might call homeless for the last few years. But to me, homeless is not being tied to one place. I’ve got various people I drop in on who feed me and appreciate my company. I live without borders, and the Earth is my home.

As I was passing, I heard two spiders talking. Telepathy is only words, so you can always tell it’s spiders because they don’t say much. They do a lot of gesticulating. I suppose sign language makes sense when you’ve got eight hands. And that’s why spiders won’t yield much over the Babel Fish. You really have to watch them to see most of what they’re saying.

Don’t think you’re some golden child either. When I said I had something to tell you, I mean you, one race from another. Although way to go with The Babel Fish on how to be famous after your race is extinct. Here’s the end bit I need you to write down.

Like all subroutines on Earth 2.0, the organic computer designed by Deep Thought, the cats’ program is due to end soon, and to conclude an answer. But it’s only one part. It needs to be joined with the rest for the jigsaw puzzle to be complete.

You’ve only just worked out lucid dreaming. Why do you think cats sleep so much? We’re explorers. We have to hope that humans can preserve the rest of the planet, so that the computer can provide the definitive answer to the question of life, the universe and everything, so the whole planet can hear their mother scream. Spoiler alert, it’s thought to be a portal to other worlds, only opened once humans have tidied up behind themselves and given Earth back to those who were here first. You’ll blow your own trumpet, the sound of the Rapture.

You remind me of us. When that door you’ve been staring out of for all this time is opened, you’ll probably just sit here. Talking of which, I think I’ll move in for a while.”

To talk, perchance to dream and learn something from someone you let in. Like sunlight in raindrops, see how a rainbow is not a sad face, but a smile in a world turned upside-down. Not some place, but somewhere over that spectrum.

© Steve Laker, 2019

The spiders are in the shower room, and they could just be from Mars. I won’t know unless I talk to them. Although I’m able to speak conversational sign language, I’m not sure I’ll be able to translate 16 hands. Like addressing an audience from the stage. We needed cats 3000 years ago. Cats have not forgotten this.

More talking among myself, the animals and other humans goes on inside The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song – “A remarkable juggling act” – is available in paperback and as an eBook (“The sound of our planet, and a plausible answer to our predicament,” for the price of a coffee).

Return to Mars (with Rail Card)

FLASH FICTION

I’ve got a ticket to Mars, which in reality is my name among thousands etched onto a microchip implanted on the NASA Mars 2020 Rover. In fiction, that’s enough for me to make my mark on the red planet. It’s a ticket to a busman’s holiday for a science fiction writer lighting joss sticks with a candle burning at both ends.

Whether you’re an atheist human or an agnostic dyslexic insomniac dog with God delusions, the further you dig into the past, the more confusing the present seems…

Laika2Laika, first dog in space

MARS WARS

Episode IV, A New Boat

Two little boys had two little toys. Each had a planet. The first boy was called God, and he made the Earth. His brother was known as ‘Dog,’ and Dog made Mars.

On the first day, Dog made dinosaurs for his planet, and Dog was pleased. It was great. He especially liked the herds of lumbering Brachiosaurus, and he made marijuana plants for them to graze on. He was proud of his calculations for the packs of Velociraptors, and he sat back to admire his work, itself eventually programmed to work out why it was there.

And the evening and the morning were the fourth day, when God let there be light on Earth. He looked at what his brother had created with Mars, and God was jealous.

While Dog slept one night, God set fire to his home. When Dog woke, he had no idea who’d wreaked destruction on his creation. He gathered up some dinosaurs he’d made, and ordered two of each onto a spacecraft. It was called Ark B, and it set them on a course to the promised land of God’s Earth, where they could seek sanctuary with Dog’s brother, whom he trusted.

But God saw the arrival of the heavenly Martian immigrants as a threat to his undeveloped creation, and he threw an asteroid at Earth in his fury, as the ark’s crew dispersed upon his world.

Eventually Dog’s dinosaurs died, and God grew bored, but his smaller creatures began to evolve on Earth. He’d always envied his brother’s more elaborate planetary inhabitants, but lacked his creative flair, and Dog had run into the cosmic woods. 

God replaced Dog’s dinosaurs with the best he could do in his tiny mind. He created creatures in his own image. And God called them human.

© Steve Laker, 2019

Mars Boarding Pass

If a future Martian should ever ask, “Who wrote this?” perhaps they’ll check the names on the chip they’ll find in an ancient space rover. If they’re human, I’d say dig down a bit in your past, and you might find dinosaur fossils on Mars, the ones who didn’t get onto Dog’s space ark, who didn’t make it to Earth. Dogs are here on Earth though, and they’re man’s best friends. In fact, the first astronaut from this planet was a dog who’s a homophone of me.