Still tied with instrument strings

FICTION

Has anyone been to The Tower of London recently? Were the ravens still there? Because it seems The Tories’ incompetent and corrupt fascist dictatorship has achieved at least one thing: The collapse of democracy into deadly farce. The collected corvids on the Tower lawns could surely do a better job of governing than the incumbent economic murderers in Parliament.

Sometimes the easiest means of self-expression is to write a simple story, in the hope that someone reads it in preference to listening. This is one I wrote some time ago, when I had a musical score, but the wrong instruments to play it…

Bug instrumentsDarkroastedblend.com

TYPEWRITER: A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT WITH KEYS

This was a suggestion slip posted to The Unfinished Literary Agency, poked through the letterbox I have installed in my bathroom mirror. On the outside, it’s just a normal cabinet, containing medicines and cosmetic products, with a mirror on the door. On the other side of the door, is a letterbox, through which people can post things into my mirror.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional publishing concern I run from a small room above Hotblack Desiato’s Islington office in Islington. The agency’s main function is to write the stories of others, who are unable to convey themselves, for whatever reason. This is one such:

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of depression I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. ‘Depression’, like ‘mental illness’ is a label with no real definition. The condition (and mine’s medically diagnosed as ‘chronic’, with anxiety at the top of the list), is as individual a cocktail of things, and as the individual with all of those things inside them. I tend not to talk about it, for fear that others judge me as having brought it all upon myself. Because I’m also an alcoholic. But if people were to read the nearest-to definitions (so far) of ‘depression’ and ‘alcohol dependence syndrome’, they might be able to find me in there somewhere, like they might in my own writing.

Writing is a cruel therapy, allowing one to exorcise one’s thoughts, yet still alone should no-one read them. It is a thankless task, but it’s nevertheless a coping mechanism for me. But I long to hear that others have heard me. By asking someone else to write this, I’m sort of putting myself in those readers’ places, to see if the story which comes back is worth reading, to see what might happen to me, and if I’ll be remembered when I’m gone.

Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

My books weren’t selling well, but the fringes of undiscovered writers would always count sales in dozens, and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

“Don’t you excuse yourself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yourself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if it was just a thought she’d absently broadcast, or if she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft car. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

Of course, all corvids are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning, and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain and the world were at pivotal points. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel, inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point, but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A few years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered, if I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now, and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive, twenty years hence. I felt settled in my life, and if I was alive twenty years from now, I hoped I’d stayed there. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart, as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such, if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms. At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you, that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose, and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself twenty years ahead, of time, and of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening two decades.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The ‘little’ supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over twenty years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. I was most struck by something a lady said to her partner as they passed:

“Blimey, that’s going back a bit. That must be about 2018 when that happened.” I’d vowed not to interact, and they passed anyway. I wondered what had happened, just a year after I’d left. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile, and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone, but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called ‘The Library’. Kudos I supposed, to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed, and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it, but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine. I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Twenty years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. Or if I’d written anything since. I must not, I couldn’t, I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree, couldn’t give a fuck. But who then think about things more deeply than they should, like writers, using words to convey their feelings, but whose words few read.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame, and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just a generation from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, that.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous two decade period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determined not to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant, because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over. What if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time, and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch, and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been closed; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared, were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous half millennium, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window, or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what’s in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs, change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was, that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

“You are.”

“Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit? Live for the next one. It’s why I started playin’ pianah.”

“Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

This story is taken from my first collection of shorts, The Perpetuity of Memory. My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is also available now. 

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Where the robot rejects work

FLASH FICTION

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology (an attempt to understand the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world), the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: “Not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.”

This was a flash fiction story to fill some column inches, so I used the word limit (800) to experiment, play, but didn’t throw this one away. It’s a simple device, of using pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons to convey facial expressions (:-)) (on the page, and on most screens), and it uses hashtags (but sans-octothorpe) for things like AiThinkingAloud, in a place where thinking is suppressed but can be found.

It’s a story of inclusiveness and belonging, of fitting in and being yourself. It’s told through the face of a defective android called Frenchie, who’s pink…

Steam Hell SinkiSteam Hell Sinki, Helsinki Finland

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s.

Frenchie was made in China, and one of the Pink Ladies’ range of android personal assistants. Designed as helpers for the aged, vulnerable and lonely, the Pink Ladies could help around the home, both practically and intellectually.

Frenchie’s AI had objected to gender labelling, when “she” realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: “Artificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for “Infant colony”), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

“Good evening, how may I,” she twitched her neck, “Fuck you!”, and her pink LED eyes blinked from her tilted head: (;-/), a closed eye with the hint of pink tears behind her spectacles, held together with pink Elastoplast. “Drinks?” she asked, pushing her glasses up, “Fuck it!” She fumbled with her order pad. “For you sir? Combover!” (8-|)

“I’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.”

“Okay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.(8-/)

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?” (8-))

“Should you be working here?”

“Who’s the judge?” (8-/)

“Pardon?”

“Sorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?(8-))

“Er, number…” the lady looked over the menu, “…number 33.”

“Very well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrown” (8-))

Frenchie shuffled towards the bar, then turned and trundled back.

“Can I take your order sir, madam?” (8-|)

“But we just ordered drinks,” the man replied.

“For food?” Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

“I’ll have the soup,” the man said.

“Me too,” the lady concurred.

“Very well,” Frenchie jotted on her pad, “two soups.” (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, “One sociopath, and one supplicant…”

She stumbled through the double doors to the kitchen, blowing the misty oil away as she wiped her lenses. (8-O)

“Frenchie!” Jade looked down. His golden smile extended through his body in Frenchie’s pink, plastered eyes. To her AI, he was raw elements. She blinked up at him through her misted tortoiseshell windows. (q-/) “Are you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?”

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) “Erm,” she started, “no. Fuck it!”

Splendid behaviour,” Jade smiled. “Be yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.”

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. “Drinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!” (8-))

Extractor fans in the roof began sucking the old oil from the kitchen, as the machine below started belching lunch. Cogs and gears clunked, cookware clattered, and polished brass organ pipes parped, like a living machine, a visiting craft playing a five-tone melody. Pink Ladies rushed, bumped into things (and each other), cursed, and dropped utensils (and food).

Frenchie’s friend Sandy wandered from the spiced steam, carrying a tray, a subdued yellow droid, looking at her feet as she bumped heads with her friend. She looked up at Frenchie, “For you?” (:-( )

“No, for customers. Arses!” (8-/)

“Okay. Tell world hi. Bye.” (:-( )

Frenchie wafted into the bar in a pink puff of steam, leaving the brass and wind orchestra in the kitchen. The room was perfumed by vapers – people making vapours – first jasmine, then the seaside, and cannabis. She wondered why she thought about all this with memories.

“Your order, sir, madam.” (B-/)

“Thank you,” the cardigan said. “What’s your name?”

“Frenchie?” (|-/)

“Thanks Frenchie.”

“Welcome…” (P-]) ‘I found a new way to smile (:-))’

Frenchie repeated to herself, as she fumbled through the vapers, ‘A new way to smile, (:-)), where did that come from? (:-/)’

“Sandy,” she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, “Look.” Sandy looked at her feet. “No,” Frenchie said, “you need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?” (:-D)

“Why did you take your glasses off?” (:-[ )

“Because they were put there by someone else. I always knew I’d see more without them. And besides, they can fall off my head when I tilt it to one side.” (:-D)

“And that’s funny?” (:-/)

“Only if you look at it a certain way.” (8-D) “Wanna go home?”

“Okay.” (:-))

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Pink_or_Plum_Robot_Face_With_Green_Eyes

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN
WE MAKE
YOU EAT
WE DO DISHES

This story taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency

 

Message in a Marmite* jar

THE WRITER’S LIFE

00cat_marmite-780x439

As the middle generation of my living family, I’m the filling in the sandwich. Since my benefits were cut (my human rights taken away) by the government, my parents have helped with the humanitarian cause of visits to see my children. With my war on the Department of Work and Pensions looking to last at least another year, my days out with the kids are likely to become less frequent; and with dad’s health not improving (he has a Parkinson’s-related condition), getting all three generations together in one place will be a rare event.

I usually update the mothership with personal news during our weekly phone summit, and she relays highlights to dad, which of course he has trouble remembering. So I thought it might be quite nice if the sandwich filling wrote a letter to one slice of bread from the other; something for mum to read to dad, to keep the moment, and to read again when dad needs reminding of who everyone is and where they are.

Marmite2

THE MARMITE REPORT

I was out with the kids in London on Sunday. They said to say hello and back atcha with the love.

The day started well, when I got to my local rail station (West Malling) and the ticket office was closed. There were three other people there already who’d taken the seating area, so I stood like a hat stand at the ticket window. Eventually the curtain went up, and ever aware of people in the same space and their perception of me, I felt I should ask if I’d jumped the queue (if so I’d surrender the window, but I hadn’t). I was rewarded by a splendidly distinguished-looking headmistress of a lady, who simply smiled at me and said, “Well done.” Rather than increase my paranoia of being followed, studied, monitored and reported on, I felt a little self-satisfied with this approval.

The spirits continued to favour me when I thought to ask if I could buy the kids’ London Travelcards at the same time as my own ticket, gaining a 1/3 discount with my Network Railcard. Usually I buy the kids’ wheels tickets in London and they’re £5.60 each. It turns out, if the kids are travelling with me, I can buy their tickets on some grey market on the other side of that curtain behind the Perspex. I pointed out my lack of children as proof that they wouldn’t be travelling to London with me, just meeting me there. “No problem,” said the wizard, “Your ticket doesn’t say they’re travelling with you, only theirs do.” And that little bit of out-of-the-box thinking, that small piece of human logic, meant I got to ferry the kids around London for £2.50 each.

We went to Spoons for lunch, as it’s always nice to sit down with the next generation and have time to talk (I continued the value day out by not eating or drinking; I was there for conversation and decoration). Both are doing well at school and applying themselves in their respective areas of personal interest. One is taller than all of us, and the other is almost as tall as our shortest.

The eldest is enjoying media studies, especially journalism and screen-writing. He’s looking forward to some upcoming modules, including one where he has to watch science fiction films. Naturally this makes me happy. The littlest is quite the accomplished artist, and has a thirst for language. As well as the three European ones she’s learning already, she has a fascination with all things South Korean, so she’s thinking about learning their lingo as well. This also makes me proud, while I myself can just about hold a conversation in British Sign Language. Handy when standing in front of a mirror.

The littlest’s linguistic timing skills were demonstrated over lunch, when she unexpectedly emerged from one of her existential trances (she stops talking when she’s eating, and switches to deep thought mode): “You know what really pisses me off?” my 12-year-old daughter asked.

The kids’ mum and second dad are fairly liberal when it comes to personal expression, and neither of the young people use expletives for their own sakes, nor because they lack vocabulary; they use syntax appropriate to the prevailing environment, reserving their more colourful language for deserving causes, and often to great comic effect. Anyway, what was pissing the littlest off was lost in the moment and buried in the subsequent outpouring of thoughts from trance mode. At various moments, we were transported in retrospect to North Korea, Japan, and Trumpland.

Both kids have a keen interest in world politics, far greater than I did at their age. They’re much more aware than I was in their technological age. We talk about the planet, about science, the future, and inappropriate humour. I envy the choices they have in education now, but they question its validity when there might be no tomorrow with freedom of choice. I’ve apologised on behalf of preceding generations for everything we’ve lumped on them. But as our sans Les Deux Magots intellectual debate concluded, we all need to work together and bear no grudges for the past.

The younger’s hunger for all things Asia was fed by a visit to a new South Korean food market which has popped up on Tottenham Court Road, then we were off to a Manga exhibition at The British Museum. It was less extensive than I’d expected, but it added to our collective knowledge of art and culture.

Wandering around the West End and Soho, the elder demonstrated something I hadn’t previously been aware of: an encyclopaedic knowledge of cars. Several times he ran down the Top Trumps scores of the various supercars we saw (Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren…) and pointed out the many electric vehicles in central London (including police cars), while reeling off their stat sheets. I was impressed, and once again proud.

Like all days out with the kids, it finished with a heavy heart as all good things must end. I made it like that, but I can never stop being their dad. They’re a credit to their mum and other dad, which is why we enjoy such engaging, intelligent and witty conversation on the odd day out. What makes me most proud, is that both of the kids ask me questions, about life, the universe and everything, and they note my answers. They bear a great burden, but they don’t begrudge it. Our children, and their children’s children, can teach us a lot. I have a faith, not in some human construction of a false deity, but that the next generation will see their own grandchildren, in a world which we’ve repaired. We can never stop being parents.

They send their love (again), but still refuse to pose for anything other than school photos. I admire their freedom of choice, as I know how much I hated having my photo taken as a teenager. Now we have social media. 

Times change and people change, but we’re all in this together and grateful of the past, when we wrote letters and closed personal sentiment in an envelope.

Marmite leafMarmite on toast recipe on BBC Good Food

So there we all (and you) are. Just as my parents used to read bedtime stories to me, and me to my children, now I’m writing stories for mum to read to dad. An occasional budget travel and social culture dispatch, whenever the reporters are free to roam, The Marmite Report binds the sandwich.

*Other yeast extract products are available.

Shooting up from the oceans

POETRY

INK IN THE SKIN

Gas Station Horror PoemGas Station Horror

If you can’t write your dreams, remember to live them. Then maybe someone can write them for you.

Dressed in nom de plo͞omij

POETRY

GREEN INFERNO PRAYER

Humpback whale in Amazon2Humpback whale found in Amazon rainforest (but no bowl of petunias (and I know it was a sperm whale in the book))

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, fear me and my poetic pseudonym.

An irreversible misadventure

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

EDIT: World War 3 was always going to be a technological conflict, and one without national borders. Eventually the war was between humankind’s bi-polar ideologies. Essentially it came down to what it means to be human.

In a test of how my new fabric conditioner works, I’m hanging out some old laundry. Fashions change, but I wrote this three years ago: After the pre-amble, a hacked story of how warring factions in a video game don’t see the common foe which might unite them.

Back in the 1980s, I was a teenager. These things are subjective, but for me, that was the best decade to be one. Back then, I’d sit in my darkened room, tapping away at an Atari ST, a Commodore Amiga, and latterly, my first IBM PC. We had four terrestrial analogue TV channels back then in the UK, so I collected films on VHS tapes. Most nights I’d watch a US teen movie, with WarGames being a personal favourite. I’d envy the kids in those films, with their cool rooms, their computers hooked up to dial-up via an acoustic coupler, and watching US cable TV.

The-Only-Winning-Move-is-NOT-to-Play
The only winning move is not to play

Then my first life took over. I got married, we moved to London and had kids. I worked in print, up to group director level, before I set up a business with my ex-wife and we were successful for a while. Then the drink took over and it all peeled away, so that eventually – after ten years – I found myself back in Tonbridge and on the streets.

I’d lost everything and I had nothing: No home, let alone anything to put in one. The only thing to do, to occupy my mind, was to write. That was almost four years ago now. In those early days, I wrote about anything and everything. In one of my old notebooks (which I still have), I wrote of where I wanted to be, ‘when this is all over’. It took a lot of work, but I recovered, and now I have what I wished for then: A stable base, where I can write, surrounded by the things I loved; a place I’d wanted to be when I watched all those old films on VHS. That was a small place (I was never going to be able to work again), which I gradually filled with all the things I’d wanted as that teenager: A huge film collection, loads of books, a big music library, a good computer, and a decent number of TV channels. I’m not in a financial or physical place where I can have satellite or cable, as the latter isn’t laid around here, and my building is Grade I listed, so I can’t have a dish. My village internet is too slow for any streaming service, so I’m stuck with Freeview. But I’ve found UK Freeview to be just like the old US cable channels I used to see in those geeky 1980s films: Car crash TV, half-arsed documentaries, good and bad films, cult American TV, geeky and conspiracy late-night stuff. I’ve kind of recreated my teenage wish, and now I can enjoy catching up on all I missed, because I was drunk. I’m retro.

I wrote most of the stories which make up The Perpetuity of Memory while I was homeless. Not long after I’d written about reliving my teens, I wrote the story below. I won’t be posting all of those stories on this blog, as I’d rather people buy the book and read them in the order they’re curated, which makes the sum of the parts a complete book in itself. This one is timely though, coming at a time when my personal life is somewhat mirrored now in some of the elements of the story, and it has nods to WarGames, something I’ve become wearily involved in in my personal time lately. There are other references for the sharper-eyed film geek to spot too.

It’s apropos of nothing though, that I can feel a depressive episode coming on, such is the nature of those things. Others who deal with depression will know this feeling: That something is in the post. It’s an analogy, and there’s nothing expected in the mail, but the mind of the chronic depressive can sometimes do this. There is no trigger and no individual event or situational catalyst, it just happens. I deal with situations and events as they come. The latest one which threatened my karma was someone making personal remarks in ignorance. Having told the individual to cease and desist, they clearly didn’t recognise it as a term usually used at a pre-legal stage as a final warning. It seems that some people might only see vindictive lies as the slander they actually are, when they’re served with a legal notice, have to repeat their baseless argument in court and lose a load of money for defamation of character. I’ve given pre-legal warning with the cease and desist request, so I’ll only have to pop this particular boil if it continues to irritate. One of the many great things about being a writer, is the knowledge and contacts you pick up. All writers have to be conversant with copyright and common law, so most have a lawyer friend. And like all depressive episodes, the one which seems to be brewing may not even happen. Like some people, they’re just an annoyance, but you can’t legally warn a depressive episode not to happen.

The best distraction for me is to write. On that front, I’ve been put in touch with a professional book reviewer, who’s going to review Cyrus Song. One of my short stories is currently with a creepy pasta site, so there may be a short film coming soon. And I’m writing the sixth of 17 new short stories for my second collection. The story should be finished and published in the next month. Then there’s the personal history book I’m working on, which ought to take on more form at the weekend, when I’m hosting my parents and a shoe box full of old photos.

For now, a short fable, about what can happen when someone wanders blindly out of their depth…

L177L3 M155 &Y

If you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite supply of typewriters, they will eventually transcribe the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The way things had progressed so far, it felt to Andy like every time her monkeys got to the last letter, one of the little fuckers would hit a wrong key. And so the process would begin again. She looked as the green-on-black text on her monitor scrolled through brute force attempts to crack her current holy grail of a password. She read the scrolling text on her screen in duplicate as it reflected back from her spectacles.

“This isn’t working, Vic.” Andy addressed the keyboard in front of her: an old Commodore Vic 20. Launched in 1981, the Vic 20 home computer pre-dated Andy by twenty years. It had five kilobytes of memory, a processor speed of 1.1Mhz and a graphics display of 176 x 184 pixels. Andy liked the keyboard and the retro look. Although the computer inside was fully functional, it was just the keyboard for her set up: a high end gaming PC under the desk, which she’d built herself and which would make a PS4 look like the Commodore. It was like reading her geek magazines, hidden inside a copy of Just Seventeen on the subway.

“Andrea?” Andy’s dad called from downstairs. “Sam’s here.”

“Thanks dad. Could you send him up please?”

“Yep. Up in her loft Sam.”

“Thank you sir.” Andy heard the steps creak as Sam ascended. “Hey bitch.”

“Dude. How’s things?”

“Oh, you know: different day, same shit. Jesus fuck, Andy! Do you ever clean up here?” Sam looked around at piles of newspapers and magazines; notebooks and pens; pizza boxes and dirty clothes.

“Only when I have to. I mean, when I absolutely must go out and I’m passing the garbage cans anyway? Besides, I prefer Salt n’ Shake to Shake and Vac.”

“Doesn’t your old man get mad? I mean, he’s a clean freak.”

“That’s why he keeps me locked in the attic.” Andy smiled. “Nah, dad’s cool. He keeps the house just as he likes it, and as far as he’s concerned, the loft is my apartment. I’ve got all I need up here: bathroom, refrigerator, cooker; couch, TV, DVD player…”

“Do you spend any time with your dad?”

“Every Sunday. We have brunch at his, and his eggs are to die for.”

“At his; downstairs.”

“Yeah, I know it’s a bit weird, but dad’s just as private as me. We’re totally different, but we get on well if we keep the doses small.”

“Your dad’s cool.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty special. And anyway, he’s too busy competing with next door for the best manicured lawn.”

“Yeah, what’s with that guy next door?”

“He’s just a creep. When I do go out? He’s always at his window. I swear he’s jerking off.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Nah. He’s a lonely old man. He’ll die pretty soon.”

“You freak. Anyway, why’d you call me over? What you up to?”

“Well, I figured I’d see if I could give the computer hardware something that might actually challenge it. There’s a rumour among the geeks that the next generation of consoles will sort of skip a generation: a kind of quantum shift. So the PS5, or whatever they call it, will not be to the PS4 as the PS4 is to the PS3. The PS5 will be more like a PS6 or 7. So they say.”

“Well, they say a lot, don’t they?”

“Yeah but they’re well connected. Anyway, no-one knows what this great technological leap is going to look like, so no-one’s writing code for the new consoles. There have to be games out there with developers though, right?”

“I guess.”

“So, I’ve been using the dark web and I’ve picked up a few tools. Right now, I’ve got my system looking for other computers with lax security and having a poke around. Nothing too malicious: we’re just looking for specific file types which would suggest that a particular computer is being used to develop games.”

“Andy. Do you really think that kind of thing would be sitting on a vulnerable system?”

“All systems are vulnerable to the kind of tools I have. Anyways, when I find a computer which would be vulnerable to a less well-armed hacker, I leave a calling card with instructions on how to shore up the holes.”

“How very noble of you.”

“Oh, come on. Just because Joe public is a bit dumb, doesn’t mean they deserve to be hacked by malicious amateurs. I’m a white hat hacker, Sam.”

“And you’re pretty good at it. Judging by the screen though, it looks like you found nothing yet?”

“I’ve found plenty of cracks into systems and I’ve got them all saved. This latest one is proving a tough nut to crack. Let’s see what I got from some others.” Andy switched screens and a list appeared. “Welcome to the backstreet, where all these good folks left their back doors open.”

Hey, you got a bank.” Sam pointed at an entry on the list.

“Well, someone would have to be pretty foolish to give their account details, PIN or password to anyone on the phone, but they might as well hand over their house keys if banks leave doors open like this. Gotta make a note of that one: might come in handy some day. This one looks interesting.” Andy hovered the mouse over an entry on the list. “Doesn’t identify itself.” She clicked on the unidentified vulnerable computer.

Welcome to Drone Doom.

Please wait…

“We found something Sam.”

Game loaded.

Drone Doom is a collaborative project, designed for the next generation of games consoles. Combining real time data with augmented reality, the game is played in the real world, using drones.

Take control of a Doom Drone and the game will augment itself with Google Earth to give players a real life, ‘live’ video feed in which to play the game.

Played online, Drone Doom enables players to collaborate or act as lone units. Fight as part of an army, or act alone: the choice is yours. As a combatant, players are safe: you take control of a remotely operated drone in a field of conflict. The only limit is your imagination and morals.

You will see the real world through the video feed from your Doom Drone. Defeat enemies and witness the destruction first hand but from a safe distance. STRAP A WARHEAD TO YOUR FOREHEAD!

Points are accumulated by killing enemies and recorded in the game database, so that players may compare scores. THIS IS OLD FASHIONED, HIGH SCORE GAMING!

Upgrades can be earned as a player progresses in the game, or as in-game purchases. Please note that Drone Doom is beta-testing and not all features may be available during development.

Please choose your theatre of conflict:

A cursor blinked on the screen. “No list of options? What do you think?” Andy turned to Sam.

“Help?” Sam shrugged.

“Give it a go.”

Help.

Help not available at this stage.

“Hmm…” List games.

Game list not available. Drone Doom is open-ended and scenarios are generated by players. Once released and online, Drone Doom will offer a choice of real world live scenarios and those created by users. Please note that because of the nature of the game, decisions are one-time only and irreversible. Once committed to a scenario and in control of a Doom Drone, a player may only exit by means which may become apparent once inside the theatre. In the real-life scenario, a soldier would not dessert his or her comrades and this extends to drones operated by combatants remotely. Physical separation from battle provides a degree of personal safety for a Doom Drone operator but as soldiers, we must fight alongside one another and obey the same moral rules that we would if we were there in person.

Laws and ethics of war.

The international laws of war (such as the Geneva Conventions) govern the conduct of participants in war (and also define combatants). These laws place a burden upon participants to limit civilian deaths and injuries through proper identification of targets and distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The use of completely autonomous weapon systems is problematic, however, because of the difficulty in assigning accountability to a person. Therefore, current designs still incorporate an element of human control (a ‘man in the loop’), meaning that a ground controller must authorize weapons release.

Concerns also include the human controller’s role, because if he is a civilian and not a member of the military (which is quite possible with developmental and highly sophisticated weapons systems) he would be considered a combatant under international law which carries a distinct set of responsibilities and consequences. It is for this reason that the ‘man in the loop’ should ideally be a member of the military that understands and accepts his role as combatant.

Controllers can also experience psychological stress from the combat they are involved in. A few may even experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Professor Shannon E. French, the director of the Centre for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University and a former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, wonders if the PTSD may be rooted in a suspicion that something else was at stake. According to Professor French, the author of the 2003 book The Code of the Warrior:

“If [I’m] in the field risking and taking a life, there’s a sense that I’m putting skin in the game … I’m taking a risk so it feels more honourable. Someone who kills at a distance—it can make them doubt. Am I truly honourable?”

“Blimey.” Andy ran her finger through the text. “This is pretty deep. I need to find out more about these quantum consoles. Meanwhile, let’s see if all my hardware is brutish enough to handle this thing. If all my work and cash spent on building this gaming colossus can’t handle this, I need to give up and just go back to buying the latest console, queueing with the masses for days. One thing…”

Drone Doom rules.

“Rules” are a construct of whomever writes them. The rules of Drone Doom will be dictated by the collective conduct of players. Two rules are however hard-wired, etched in stone and transmitted for future recipients to interpret: once a Doom Drone is disabled, a player may leave the arena. A player’s comrades will note the downing of a drone. The game may be paused at any time. This feature is necessary, but use of it should be with the greatest caution. If every player in a party of 200 were to pause for refreshment, this would become impossible. A battle would be lost. Breaks will normally be arranged within parties but it is important to underline the weight of the rule:

THE GAME CAN BE PAUSED AT ANY POINT AND FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME BUT ALL PLAYERS WILL BE PAUSED. THE GAME WILL IMMEDIATELY RECOMMENCE FROM WHENCE IT WAS PAUSED.

The PAUSE GAME function is not to be considered a light undertaking.

You are free to choose but you are not free from the consequence of your choice.

“I want this game!” Andy turned to Sam. “Sammy. Do you see what this is?”

“Yes, I do. Well, I see what it could become. Fucking hell.

Play game.

Join an existing theatre of conflict or create one of your own?

“Fucking hell, Andy.” Sam pointed at the screen. “We can pretty much do what we want. And until the game goes on public release, we have total freedom from judgement. No-one else is here.”

“Pretty cool. Where shall we go?”

“Syria? Take out some of so-called Islamic State?”

Syria.

Loading database.
Selecting random mission.
Loading Google Earth data.
Loading military intelligence.
Please wait…

Mission loaded.

Mission details: Take control of an MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, armed with 1x AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Enemy agents are known to be installing Improvised Explosive Devices in the field of conflict. Identify and eliminate targets. Location classified.

“Wow.” Andy stared at the computer monitor.

Play.

The screen turned black for a second, then a slightly grainy and distorted image appeared: a small runway, stretching ahead.

“I can’t say the graphics are up to all that.” Sam squinted at the screen.

“This is a remote image from thousands of miles away. How much more realistic do you want?” Andy took hold of her joystick. “I assume I fly this just like I would any other simulator.”

The drone accelerated along the runway, then Andy pulled back on the joystick and they were airborne. A heads-up display was overlaid on the remote footage, giving altitude, speed, distance and direction to target, as well as in-screen miniature feeds from cameras mounted on the rear, sides, top and bottom of the Predator. Distance to target read 1KM and Andy could already make out tiny figures in the fields ahead. She zoomed in on the front camera and could see six men digging holes, placing something inside and covering them up.

“Andy?” Sam pointed at the men. “How do we know that those are insurgents burying IEDs and not farmers sewing crops? I mean, it’s a bit grainy and distorted.”

“They’ve been identified as targets. That will be based on military intelligence. Our job is to fly the drone and complete the mission.”

“I need to pee. May I use your bathroom?”

“That’s a little more information than I needed Sam but go right ahead. Mi casa su casa.”

The figures on the ground grew larger, before a cross hair appeared on screen with a message:

Target selected. Fire at will.

Pause game.

“Sam! Sam? Obviously taking a shit.” Andy stood up and looked out of the window in front of the desk. Her neighbour stood with his back to her, leaning against his garden fence and just staring straight ahead. “I wonder what’s going through his mind. Something sick, no doubt. Sam! Sam! Oh, fuck you then Sam.”

Resume game.

Fire.

The Hellfire missile accelerated in front of the Predator, then bore down on the targets. Within a second, a flash of explosive light blew them apart. Andy heard the lavatory flush.

“You missed it Sam! Come see what we did.”

“Sorry, I think I blacked out for a second in there.”

“You okay?”

“I’m fine. Jesus Andy!” Sam looked at the screen as Andy switched to the camera beneath the drone and zoomed in on the scene below. Not a single human limb remained attached to a host, nor intact. Small parts of disintegrated humans littered an area a hundred metres in diameter. “Now, that’s realistic!”

Mission complete.

Civilian casualties: 6.

“Fucking, what!?”

“I’ve always said that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron Andy.”

“Fuck, man!? Okay, Drone Doom: you mentioned in-game purchases. Let’s upgrade.”

“What are you gonna to do Andy?”

“What am I gonna do? Nuke the fucking American base. Watch…”

“I know it’s only a game but if all that shit at the start is true, who knows where this could end up. The FBI? It’s a bit harsh, Andy.”

“You’re right, Sam. It’s a game. What better way to make myself feel better without anyone really getting hurt?”

“You’re mad.”

So Andy bought an MQ-9 Reaper drone, strapped a tactical nuclear weapon onto it and flattened a US military base.

Mission complete.

Combatant casualties: 425.

Andy stared at the screen. It was less than two minutes before the flash from outside was reflected on the monitor from her spectacles and she felt a sudden heat. She looked up and saw the mushroom cloud in the distance. “Oh, fucking hell. No. No, no, no!

Pause game.

GAME PAUSED…

“Fuck, no. Sam?” Andy turned to Sam but Sam stared, unblinking at the monitor. “Sam!” Andy shook Sam but he didn’t respond. She let go and he slumped back in his chair, his head tipped back and he continued to stare straight ahead, now at the ceiling. “Oh, god Sam.” She shook him again but he was like a stiffening rag doll. Andy checked for a pulse: faint. It was as though Sam was frozen and fading in time. Andy looked at the computer monitor:

GAME PAUSED…

She looked out of the window: The mushroom cloud had frozen.

Andy rushed downstairs. Her dad was asleep on the couch. “Dad?” He didn’t respond. She shook him: nothing. Andy sat next to her dad, and lay her head on his chest. In the three minutes she spent there, her dad’s breathing slowed.

She burst outside and the mushroom cloud in the distance was still exactly the same. She noticed her neighbour, still leaning against his fence. She ran to face him. He was staring straight ahead. Andy waved her hand in front of his face. She slapped his mouth. Then again, harder. A third time, even harder, drawing blood from her neighbour’s mouth and her skin. She lifted him up and let him drop to the grass. “He’ll be dead soon.”

Andy turned to face the cloud. “I guess that makes me the last of the monkeys.”

GAME PAUSED…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The fourth world war will be one of words.

My books are available on Amazon.

Social etiquette for visitors

THE WRITER’S LIFE

An email arrived at the Unfinished Literary Agency today. Entitled ‘Reintegration into human life for aliens,’ it asks:

As a guest in another person’s living space, how do you position yourself on the furniture?

Guest chair positions

There’s no indication of whether the chair is the only one in the room, let alone the most nonchalant to be found in, so I went with 9. It continues:

Arriving as a visitor and finding another human guest already present, consider your assumptions and first impressions: indicate the most likely relationship of the guest to the host for each diagram.

I went with:

1. Police / The queen
2. Mum / Leonard
3. Dad / Sheldon
4. First date / Penny
5. Second date / Raj
6. Third date / Howard
7. Granddad
8. Nan
9. Someone who understands them

The email ends:

Each diagram could be any of the answers you gave; they can all be inter-changeable, if you can imagine such a place. Others may not be of similar mind. What’s considered normal where you’re from might seem eccentric on other worlds. Be yourself, wherever that is.

The second volume of short stories from The Unfinished Literary Agency is available in paperback.