The invention of the pencil case

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

FLASH FICTION

LA Zoo 2brieisrestless.com

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

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

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

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

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

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their 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

big-pencil3

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

Courtney Manson by Warhol

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just lately, while I’ve been writing and growing a pile of work in progress, I’ve been mucking around with The Gimp: Not of the Pulp Fiction kind, but an open-source alternative to Photoshop (and better).

Marylin Manson

I’ve also been playing a lot of poker with my coaching project and kid sister, Courtney (a natural, very much the journeyman player nowadays, and soon to be staked online). We get talking over our games, and it gives me the opportunity to open some sometimes-blinkered eyes to other things in the world.

Although I value the sciences, I believe the arts and humanities are equally important for a greater understanding of the variables in life. Sometimes then, I’ll explain a near-future possibility in simple science terms, and I’ll open an eye.

Other times, I’ll talk about my thoughts on-moment, sometimes poker-related and others just completely surreal, abstract ponderations: The kind of thing to get two poker players who like to share a reefer really into a game.

And by now, the gimp’s probably sleeping. Well, I guess I’d better go wake him.

At the poker table the other night, I mentioned that my sister has quite an iconic look in some of her online profile pictures. I thought she’d look good colourised, to go with her mind. Like mine, it’s fractured, and I could perhaps separate the screaming colours and turn it into something like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.

Courtney Cyan     Courtney Green

Courtney Orange     Courtney Pink

The Courtney I know is more Manson than Monroe. I share a birthday with Duncan Jones and she shares a name with Kurt Cobain. We met on the streets and that’s family just as good as any by related blood. She’s pretty cool, and the story which follows was an attempt at any life in 1000 words, a few years ago.

In the final period before the execution of an inmate on death row, he is offered a special last meal.”

MECHANICAL MANACLE

How soon is now, Morrissey wondered. The Smiths asked, The Clash happened, The Angelic Upstarts cried for last night (another soldier), then came The Stranglers and The Damned: The History of the World, Part 1.

Courtney was lost. Kurt was lost. No more smells like teen spirit. No Hole, or Babes in Toyland. Faith no More, no more. Everyone and everything was gone. All that remained was her and the ticking clock on her wrist, telling a time which had ceased to exist. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. For Courtney, it had, and it was.

All she wanted to know was, when is now? She yearned to know when she was. This was her third and final wish but she dare not speak it, for as soon as a wish is broadcast, it is granted, by a star. Or a binary system: then you get two wishes come true, for the price of two.

The first wish was for an end to all conflict and hunger in the world: that was easy. The second was that her mum and dad hadn’t got married. That was simple too, but now Courtney didn’t exist.

The story of a life which no longer happened started just a short while from now. In the very near future, a war to end all wars is going to happen. It starts when a young girl makes a wish.

Every night, as she drifts off to sleep, Courtney tries to imagine a world with no conflict. A place where people don’t fight. In a dream, the answer came to her: warring factions can be united against a common foe.

And so, “They” came to be. They are all that is unknown to Courtney, but she sought them in dreams and they came to her. They explained things in very simple terms, but in a language which Courtney didn’t yet understand. At the time, she didn’t realise this. So when a voice which was alien to her asked if her first wish be granted, she answered that it should.

It came to be known as The War of Words. It was a conflict waged in a global theatre. It wasn’t a physical war but one based in dreams: a psychological war of intelligence. They won.

Neither of the opposing sides on earth survived. Where once east and west were in conflict, now there were no battles. There was no-one to fight them. They didn’t discriminate: the foe against which the previously warring factions of earth fought, defeated all other sides. People simply didn’t wake up. They bore no physical injuries and passed quietly.

Courtney’s parents perished in the war. Her second wish didn’t need to be vocalised because it was granted as a product of the first. Now she wished that she could take back what she had done. She wished that she could be transported back to a time before her parents had started to drift apart; perhaps to the birthday when they’d given her a fine, gold antique watch.

The watch was a solid weight on Courtney’s young wrist. At times, it was an encumbrance. On occasion, it was a reassuring tie or tug. The importance of the timepiece was impressed upon her young mind as soon as it was placed around her arm.

It was a family heirloom, fashioned in the past, but futuristic in appearance. The detail was exquisite: clearly the product of dextrous old hands. The strap was formed of alternate links made from gold and platinum, to produce a two-tone bling curfew tag. The outer body of the casing was also cast in gold. The watch face was ebony and the hour, minute and second hands were fine slivers of ivory.

Within the main face were four other dials: two chronometers measuring seconds in tenths and hundredths respectively; a completely separate 24-hour clock face, with its own hour, minute and second hands; and a dial displaying the date of the month, with a smaller still dial within it, displaying the month. All of the dials were analogue and their numerals were embossed into the black wood face with platinum leaf. The workings – the actual clockwork mechanisms – were visible on top of the watch face, rather than being obscured by it, with just the protection of the watch’s flawless glass screen. The skills of the creator were visible through a transparent yet impenetrable sky, as the mechanisms danced like a miniature fairground.

The watch dated from a time when trade in ivory was legal. The remnants of one of many extinct species, it now ticked not towards something, but away from the existential death of humankind and all other life on their planet. The craftsmanship of the watch might mean that it was the last relic of humanity, long after Courtney’s body had disappeared in time.

The watch had no visible means of winding, despite the fact that it was clearly clockwork. There was no obvious source of power, yet the watch generated warmth as Courtney wore it. It were as though she was wearing a miniature steam-powered structure in perpetual motion: an automaton, which must house mechanical components of microscopic proportions.

Would you like this wish to be granted?” said a voice, from somewhere. Somewhere else, someone said, “Yes”.

Courtney blinks as though waking from sleep, as her surroundings become clearer. She’s at a child’s birthday party. Is it hers? She looks down at her arms: there is no steam-powered fairground. She can hear her parents in the background. Through the noise of the party, it’s hard to tell if they’re screaming with laughter, rage, or both. Courtney decides simply to join in her own party.

It was after the last guests had left when Courtney’s parents gave her the watch. They explained in words which Courtney thought she understood, the importance of the timepiece which she now wore.

If Courtney had only one wish in her life, it would be for things to stay exactly like this.

© Steve Laker, 2017

My second collection of surreal, horror and science fiction short stories is available in paperback.

The example of the death row inmate can be viewed as a metaphor for the life of an average person, condensing the very essence of existence into a customary prison ritual. For an average person who is not incarcerated, the last meal can be equated to the trivialities of daily affairs and the substance of life in general. Despite the apparent acknowledgement of mortality, which is effectively a death sentence as much as that of the inmate’s, albeit a prolonged one and preceded by a rather elaborate performance, the person yet remains firmly invested in the last meal that is life.”

That’s what me and the kid sis had worked out, so we carried on playing poker.

The sound of Sol (our parent star)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | SCIENCE FICTION

I’m not an author desperate to sell a book, but I am obsessed with finding ways to get people to read one, short of shoving a 412-page paperback in their ears. I’m a writer going through a dehumanising process of mental health assessment, to determine if I’m worthy of some arbitrarily-determined disability benefit.

And so I find myself in a state of elongating limbo, having been prodded and examined like some alien species today. But it any case, whether I get to carry on the life of the writer or not, I did write a book I’m still proud of. My last – and even if it so remains – novel is a book which others have said others should read. Who am I to argue?

One of a few questions I’m sometimes asked is, what’s Cyrus Song about? The best way to find out is to read the book, but a reader recently summed it up quite nicely: It’s the sound of our planet. Before then, the most common question was, would I release it as an eBook? So I did. (And it’s compatible with reading software, so you can have my book read to you by Hilly from Red Dwarf, or Stephen Hawking himself).

I gave the eBook a different front cover, which says more about what the novel is in the absence of a back cover synopsis, and the Stephen Hawking quote which is central to the plot:

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

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

This could very well be the last book I write, because it contains the answers, or at least some ideas on how we might all make a go of it down here. There’s nothing much to add, until humanity gets the message. Maybe then I’ll write a second chapter. There needs to be someone to write for.

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

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

CaptainMamba2Captain Mamba

TWO LITTLE THINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes. That’s me.”

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

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

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

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

“I was hoping you could tell me that.”

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

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

“I’m sorry. So what are they?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going?”

“To the lab.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what now?”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sound?”

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

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

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

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

“Well, of course, but…”

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

“So why didn’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those are voices,” I suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about, snake?”

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

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

“No.”

“Fucking hell,” I said.

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

“Why not?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Damn you, you, you…”

“Snake?”

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

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

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

“He’s, er, a character,” I concurred.

“Evil serpent!” Said one of the men.

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

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

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

“Yours isn’t much bigger.”

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

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

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

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

“So what now?” I asked.

“Well, we clearly need to intervene.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What a strange day, Hannah.”

“You made it that way, Simon.” I was about to ask and then Hannah answered: “I read your registration form.” Even so, I next wanted to interview Doctor Jones about what we’d discovered…

Cyrus Song eBook Cover

Cyrus Song is available now, for £2.99.

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

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

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

The full review is here.

And all for the price of a coffee. At the very least, a writer needs coffee.

Where the robot rejects work

FLASH FICTION

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

 

Of Mice and Boys in 1984

FICTION

This is a second character prequel from the Cyrus Song universe (the first is here), but a stand-alone short nonetheless, and a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments. It’s a bridging of eras and the debut of Captain Mamba.

Some of the names in the school register in this story are those of friends I went to school with. In the story they’re bit parts who carry the narrative along. In reality, the few words dedicated to each are my idiosyncratic tributes to some of the many friends who’ve supported me as a writer. There was only room for a few, but I have plenty more stories in me with which to make further nods. For now, we’re going back 33 years…

Of mice and boys in 1984Admirável Mundo Novo X 1984

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

“Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

“Yes sir.”

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

“Yes sir.”

“Berry.” (Sort of disappears and reappears sometimes, most odd).

“Sir.” (Here today then).

“Ford.” (Small kid, long hair, glasses, sitting next to me).

“Sir.”

“Fry.” (Small, short hair, no glasses: That’s me). “Fry?”

“Sorry, yes sir.”

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

“Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the object, Fry?” Well, yes, that’s what I thought.

“Well, yes, that’s what I thought,” I said.

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

“Ford,” I said, “are we going to be using the internet?”

“Quite probably old chap, why?”

“I just want to see if it’s all I think it could be.”

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

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

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry, I just drifted away there.”

“Where to?”

“Oh, nowhere. I was just wondering what it would be like to talk to the animals.”

“I’ve often wondered that myself,” Ford said. “Especially since dad got this guy.”

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

“Fucking hell Ford!”

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

“Pardon?”

“Only joking. No way. The vivarium’s locked anyway, it’s the law. Dad’s got a license.”

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

“It’s for precisely that reason that dad has one of these.”

“By these, I presume you mean that, Ford?”

“Well, yes. But one of that wouldn’t wouldn’t be grammatically correct, would it Fry?”

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

“Because of their famed aggression. He’s studying their DNA.”

“What’s he going to do?” I wondered. “Engineer a genetically modified race of human-snake hybrids who know no fear?”

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

“So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

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

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

“Definitely not.”

“So what? Change their attitudes? Talk to them, so that they have a better understanding of us?”

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

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

“Well,” said Ford, “I got the idea from dad, and what me and you were just talking about.”

“Talking?”

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

“To talk to the animals?” Hadn’t I heard this somewhere before?

“I doubt it would be a two-way thing,” Ford said, as I deflated. “But I reckon we could listen to them.”

“Does it work?”

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

“But it’s English literature, Ford. Use your imagination. How could it work?”

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

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

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed Ford,” but I thought I should point it out, “microphones have already been invented.”

“Exactly. So all I have to do, is make the translator.”

“Which is exactly all you had to do in the first place, Ford.”

“I know. I just needed to eliminate everything else. And translators kind of exist.”

“Well, people who can translate, yes.”

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

“That would be awesome. When?”

“The nerds think early in the next century.”

“2000AD? That’s miles away.”

“More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

“So what of now? The translator, I mean.”

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

“What did you call them?” I wondered.

“Pete and Dud.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re male.”

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

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

“So, which is which?” I asked.

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

“So what now?” I wondered.

“Now,” Ford said, quite confidently, “we find out if my reputation is intact.”

“Have you got one?”

“Not yet.”

“So how can it be intact, if you don’t have it yet?”

“I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

“What as, Ford?”

“I don’t know. Something on the internet though: It’s the future.”

“No shit.” I was beginning to realise that perhaps you could be anyone or anything on the internet.

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

“Where?” I wondered.

“On the computer, the disk drive, the monitor, and the printer.”

“But those lights always come on, Ford.”

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

“The microphone doesn’t have a light on it, Ford.”

“No, I know.”

“So how can it come on?”

“It won’t, because it doesn’t have one.”

“So why did you mention it?”

“Because it’s there, and it needs to be switched on.”

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

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

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

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

“Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

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

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

“Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

“Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

“IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

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

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

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

“Why?” he said, into the microphone.

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

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

“Why?”

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

“That’s deep.”

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

“This is getting even deeper. Have you spoken to the mice already?”

“No, why?”

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

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

“But wouldn’t it go against a lot of things it shouldn’t, Ford?”

“What do you mean?”

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

“And you believe all that?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I agreed, “but you’ll have to give the mic to the mice, Ford.”

“Ooh,” he said, “I’d forgotten I was holding that.” The stage was definitely wanting.

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

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

“Ford,” I said.

“Mr Fry,” he said, into the microphone. Actually, I quite liked the sound of it.

“Ford, do you think we’ve perhaps been a tad unlucky?”

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

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

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

“Which is?”

“Text-to-speech. Or rather, speech-to-text.”

“Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

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

“Eh?”

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

“From the mice?”

“Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

1 2 3 5 7…

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

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

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

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

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

“Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

“No, I wouldn’t.” He’d rather not play chess.

“Ford,” I said again, “have you left a chess program running?”

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

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

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

“Do you think we’re waiting for something, ” I asked, “or should we say something?”

“I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

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

1 2 3 5 7…

The snake again. “Prime numbers again,” I observed. Then again:

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

“What the?”

“I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

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

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

So what do we do now?

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

We won’t tell.

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

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

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

“Ford.”

“Sir.”

“Fry… Fry?”

“Yes sir, sorry.”

“Sorry to be here lad?”

“Actually, no sir.”

“Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

“Sir.”

“King-Smith”. (‘Smasher’, wears Farrahs. Nice bloke really).

“Yes sir.”

“Laker.” (Fuck knows).

“Sir.”

“Mountney.” (‘Mole’: farts a lot: It’s funny on the chairs).

“Sir.”

“Rogers.” (Could be a brilliant mind, or a psycho).

“Sir.”

“Sharp.” (Christian bloke, likes his custard).

“Yes sir.”

“Simmons.” (Thoroughly good bloke, likes his Bowie, finishes my woodwork projects).

“Yes sir.”

“Tomkinson.” (Another geek, likes typing in programs from computer mags and putting them on tape).

“Sir.”

“White.” (Every girl’s dream, if he ever gets on the internet).

“Yes sir.”

“Yehudi.” Nothing. “Yehudi.” As expected. “Yehudi?”

“Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

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

If I had a hammer and a fuzzbox…

FICTION

A conversation between narrators, protagonists and characters; an interview with a writer, from a couple of years ago. I look at the sun and I look in the mirror…

PinkSunshine

PINK SUNSHINE

Like so many things, and with so much in life, he didn’t realise at first that he was in the room. It was only when he had an itch in his left eye that he first thought he noticed. But he couldn’t be sure, because his eye instinctively and reflexively closed when he rubbed it. Nonetheless, his right eye picked up on something and his brain took over. It was a subtle oddness, noticing something he hadn’t before; a thing which was very strange indeed. It was like catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror through a lazy eye, a few extra microseconds to focus. His reflection seemed to be moving more slowly than he was, or rather, struggling to keep up.

This newly discovered physical inflection hadn’t affected him before, because it’s subtlety was such that he’d not noticed it. Even though that might seem a slightly strange thing to think, he decided to leave it in, as it may be relevant. Perhaps it was newly acquired. Wherever it had come from, he was curious. If it had always been there, he was more intrigued by it for that very reason. He had a tick. He decided he quite liked it. He was going to keep it. In that room, where he’d ended up, without realising that was where he wanted to be. But the mirror must always be returned to its own room.

The mirror was not something he was keen to look in, which is why he kept it hidden away. It was in the cupboard beneath the sink in the bathroom. It was behind two closed doors and the light was usually off, so that what it saw was mainly darkness. He was mainly nocturnal himself, the curtains perpetually closed and his work lit artificially. He didn’t like the sun. He saw its orange glow separated into different wavelengths of light: Red, black and white. The latter were binary; darkness and light, with no deviations to greys. First light brought another fear: letters. The daily mail was full of hate, from creditors chasing him for money he didn’t have; and fear, of ever-approaching legal actions.

Next to his bathroom was the locked room. The door to that room was always locked, except when he unlocked it to enter or leave the room. He worked under lock and key, but with an element of danger deliberately built into the situation. He would write more of that later. And when he wasn’t working, what he did was kept secure.

He was in the room when there was a knock at the front door. This wasn’t unprecedented at 3am, so he had few reservations about seeing who it was. As he opened the door, the outside security light did two things to the man on the threshold: It illuminated him, but the angle of the light obscured him, so that he was partly silhouetted.

“Steve Laker.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Good. You know me. Do you mind if I come in?”

“No I don’t. Who are you?”

“Steve Laker. May I come in?”

This was strange, yet not so strange that he could deny it was happening. “Do you have ID?” he asked.

“Of course.” The man took a wallet from his jacket pocket and handed him a driving licence and a business card. The licence appeared genuine and the business card gave his profession as private investigator. “Everything okay?” the man asked.

“Yes.” He thought for a moment. “I’m sorry, but this all seems somewhat familiar.”

“That’s because it’s a plot device. Paul Auster used it very well in his book, The New York Trilogy. In one of the stories, the narrator meets a detective called Paul Auster.”

He invited him in. He found the prospects of many conversations frankly fascinating.

They sat in the living room, him on the sofa and the man on a futon, and they drank coffee, which they both liked the same way.

“What are you working on?” he asked. He wondered what it was in the room which might have given him any idea he might be working on something, anything in fact. “You have a locked room, right?”

“Yes.”

“What colour is yours?”

“It depends.”

“Hmm, I know. What colour was it the last time you were in there?”

“Duck egg blue.”

“Small blue thing. From Vega.”

“Small Blue Thing, by Suzanne Vega. That’s how I imagine it. Do you smoke?”

“You have to ask?”

So they drank coffee, listened to music, and smoked a fine blend of Indica and Sativa marijuana.

“So, why is your locked room duck egg blue? What are you doing in there? Obviously, nothing at the moment, but when you’re in there?”

“Who’s to say I’m not?”

“And who’s to say it’s not duck egg blue?”

“Who’s to say whether I’m sick or not? Who’s qualified? Which judge? The main thing in that room is me. I’ve just finished a book and I’m wondering if it’ll be my last. So I’m writing things down in there. I’m getting things off my mind and as I’m doing that, more stories are occurring to me. So I’ve decided it’s best just to carry on in that respect, but for some of the things I want to say.

“When I wrote that last book, I had people around me. People who took an interest in a writer. Now that I have somewhere permanent to write; a writer in residence; those people are no longer around. Everything has changed. And yet, I look around me and I ask if it’s possible that everything in the entire world just suddenly changed, or was it just me? Whichever the case, I don’t know how it happened. So I’m trying to make sense of it in that room. I’m writing it all down and I’m writing letters to people. That’s the difficult part.”

“Writer’s block?”

“Writer’s block, only insofar as it’s a barrier erected by me.”

“Like a defence mechanism?”

“To protect me from my own internal truth? Perhaps. But not normally. In fact, writing is my means of exorcising it all. It’s just that some of it I may not share.”

“Such as?”

“There are other things in the room. I write about those too. I’m exorcising things which are in that room by writing about them, then leaving the writing in the locked room as well. It’s a bit counter-productive really, because I’m adding to it all the time. I find it recursive, inward reflection. Then I read it all back to myself, and it’s self-magnifying. When what I think are well-chosen words are read aloud, they prove themselves and take on other meanings. Then I think more. Because I’m challenged and afraid of the unknown. So I question it, gain answers and write. Then there are more questions which occur to me. Will I ever publish my findings? I think the space will eventually become too small.

“If you paint a room of finite size in a different colour, then do it again, and again, and again… How long before the layers of colours have built up, to make the room gradually smaller with each coat, until there’s barely room to swing a cat which I don’t have?”

“A rhetorical question?”

“Like so many I ask that room.

“My will and testament are in there, somewhere. I’ve written my funeral pinks: Not the blues of Auden’s poem, but pinks: Pink slips, ownership papers. I’d like to be shot into space, or scattered in an ocean, but I’m resigned to being burned. Some of me will at least escape. But whatever happens, all of me will continue the prediction imprinted in the big bang.”

“Doesn’t pre-determinism make you question the nature of your own free will?”

“Pre-determinism is the idea that all events are determined in advance. It is the philosophy that all events of history, past, present and future, have already been decided or are already known, by God, fate, or some other force, including human actions. Of course, this makes me question my own free will and that of others. But my own free will has allowed me to predetermine my end. If what I wish for doesn’t happen, then I have to console myself that it wasn’t meant to be.

“I’ve written a humanist service, and even though I’ll be cremated, I should like the minister to say, “Ashes to ashes”, then I’d like the congregation to say, “Funk to funky”. If they then wish to sing, “We know Major Tom’s a Junky”, then I shall smile behind my casket lid and they will know that I did.

“I don’t deny that there might be one or more greater intelligences out there. I reject God in the only image I know: That of man. I long to refute the Church of England and others. I hold them in the same contempt as they do the LGBT community. And I renounce all religion for all of the blood that’s been spilled in their gods’ names.

“So for the music, I’d like The Duel, by Giorgio Moroder from the Electric Dreams soundtrack, because it’s one of many to my life. Then, Everyone says hi, by David Bowie, from his Heathen album, for I am a heathen and one day I’ll see the original again. Finally, Grey Will Fade, the title track from Charlotte Hatherley’s debut album, because the grey will fade; This too shall pass.

“If people can take care of that by co-operating, it would give me comfort in knowing that they’ve done that, and that they’re capable of much more. And that it was pre-determined; meant to happen. But I haven’t published those wishes and I dare not, for fear they might be ignored or forgotten. At least if I can think that it might happen, that would be comfort enough. It’s a subject I’ve written about in one of my new stories.

“I have few personal belongings, other than what’s in that room. My most valuable possession, one would assume to be my typewriter. It is indeed important and I bequeath it to my children, so that they might carry on what I started, if they so choose. They might be able to make sense of, even finish, some of my stories. I’ve written about how my most valued personal possession is my pen, because it represents freedom and escape. The typewriter isn’t portable, but the pen could go with me anywhere, if I went anywhere. Then I’d be afraid of losing it while I was out, and that compounds the whole fear I already have of being beyond the door. It’s the only pen I’ve ever owned, given to me by a nameless character who narrates a story I wrote in my last book. It’s a bespoke Waldmann Adámas, made from titanium and gun metal. It’s effortless to write with, and to simply hold in one’s hand; It’s a thing of aesthetic and ergonomic, functional beauty.

“There’s a collection of blue marbles in the room: Small blue things, made of glass. It’s comforting to run my fingers through a bowl full of them. Then I imagine I’m handling what were once the building blocks of an ancient city of glass, eroded over millennia, so that they are perfect spheres, like sapphire pebbles on a beach. Small, blue ghosts. When knocked together, they sound an echo from the past.

“I’ve not been so busy lately, that I haven’t had the time, to open up my mind, and watch the world, spinning out of time; to paraphrase Blur. Because I wonder if I might be out of time to do all the things I want to. But the battle to step out is an ongoing one. It’s agoraphobia which really holds the key to that room, with anxiety and paranoia as deputy screws. But that’s where everything is; All my expressionism, for expression is freedom.

“I experiment, play, throw away, like a child trying on clothes and make-up at her mother’s dressing table. Except I can’t, so every one of those unfinished tales is in the room, along with finished ones which might never see the light of day. They are all of me. The unfinished ones annoy me sometimes. Not hugely so; a bit like having a hair in your mouth.

“With all that I’ve written behind that door, it’s quite a crowded room. Metaphorically, figuratively, and literally, it is full of people and places, with lots going on. There may come a time when I have to radically rethink the locked room, for things might become so many that they have to spill out, as I can no longer keep the door closed. People and situations could fall into the hall and start to inhabit other rooms. I still have a lockable front door to the flat.

“One who could get out, is a recurring character in some earlier stories. He’s a writer with no name and he wants to go out and kill people. Well, his protagonist does, so that he can write about it. He longs to cause pain, humiliation, fear and shame. He wants to go out, but he dare not, for fear he kills someone and he’s identified. But he longs to make his new stories real, just as he lived his old ones. If he completes his next book, some of it would be chronicles of his killings; confessions told as fiction but with clues scattered around. He wants to go out but he fears the consequences if he does. Yet those very scenarios would provide the fuel for new work.

“There’d be a roadie, crashed out on the floor in a pile of paper. He spent some time out on the road, touring with various groups: The Anti Nowhere League, Angelic Upstarts… He could tell many stories. There were two people in one particular band who he struck a pact with. It was a long and philosophical conversation which led to the pact, but it’s as simple or complicated as an opinion on the punk movement. It negates the need for many things, other than trust in fellow humans. The pact was signed on a Crass anarchy flag re-purposed as a table cloth.

“If ever I want to die, I simply have to make a phone call and say a codeword. If I can’t speak, or I don’t want to say the word, I can text instead. About thirty minutes after that, I’ll be dead.

“It was a gentleman’s handshake; a pinky promise, made when we were young boys. Despite our innocence, with hindsight, I can’t find anything; no moral argument, which I believe could invalidate that verbal contract. It’s more than one story.

“Three teenage boys are lost. For all anyone knows, they could be Kiefer, Jason, and either of the Coreys. They could be Kiefer and Feldman again, River Phoenix, or Wesley Crusher.

“The other two stood by him, and he still stands by them. No-one knows who they are. Most people could take an educated guess but they may just never know. We are all so flung apart now, by families and circumstance, that very few people would be able to join all the dots between what’s gone on since the big bang of us all becoming adults. It would be a map in the stars, destined to be there, right from the very start.

“No-one knows who he is to the other two. If it’s not his turn first, he could be called upon to deliver his end of the bargain. Then there’s only one left for him to call before he might be found out and caught. And then he has a decision to make. It could happen in any order and they did it to mix life up a bit. Teenagers think like that, and sometimes, when he thinks about it, it’s a suicide pact. That’s why the importance of that word, whatever it is, wherever it’s hidden, has been discussed among them, without mentioning it, at great length. It’s a word which the three of them will take to the grave.

“If it’s his turn first, he doesn’t know how the others will do it. That’s the beauty of it. He could be sleeping in bed one night, or out doing some shopping, when they come. All he knows is that as soon as he’s said that word, he will be killed. And there’s no reversal, no returns. But if it’s not his turn first, he could be called on to kill his friends.

“Another story concerns conversational furniture.”

“That which we put into a dialogue to remind the audience of the setting.”

“Perhaps if just to separate it from a monologue. It’s a challenging story to write, and one of many drafts.

“I write a lot about what makes people different, or how some people see things differently: Many viewpoints; multiple personalities.

“There is much I wish to write, to express, to set free. Some of it is in that room and more is in my mind, in that room. There are people I wish to exorcise, to deny their very existence. Those are more stories.

“There are more, in Neurotribes. That unfolding story considers the various spectra of the human mind; because everything can be looked at as having a place within a spectrum, when compared to others. In there, we have personality disorders, inner voices and dramatic emotional swings. The Neurotribes are groups of people who simply think differently. Together, they cover the whole visual spectrum of colours: A rainbow of thoughts and voices. They are nomadic peoples, often fleeing religious persecution. They are not of any religion but it is religion which persecutes them, with its warped view of sexuality being confined to two types: heterosexual male and female.

“The neurotribes believe in five genders, like native Americans did before the pilgrim fathers invaded. Within the tribes there are Female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male, and transgender people. These five genders and their ways of thinking gave rise to their philosophy of “Human operating systems”: Just because a computer doesn’t run a specific operating system, doesn’t mean it’s dysfunctional.

“There’ll be some kind of epilogue or revelations in Acquiescence, a story of self-flagellation, where God inflicts upon himself, all of the scars inflicted upon his own children by him. As an immortal, his atonement will be infinite, as he hangs for all to see on the cross.

“I do have company in there, in the locked room. It’s the subject of yet another unfinished work behind the locked door. It’s a story which transcends barriers by telling itself in a universal language: There is no God left to narrate chapters but there is still a planet to tell a chronicle. It’s the story of a lone man and companions of his own making, through his understanding of science and philosophy. There are three water nymphs in his locked room, each in a different form: Solid, liquid, and gas; Ice, water and steam. Theirs are troubled minds and where others might see them as odd, he sees them as three beings in the same spectrum, this being the one of their varying degrees of transparency. He helps them and treats them as his own, but there is a barely visible tension in the tale. He harbours a secret, which if told to one of them, would change the whole story. But he dare not speak it.

“He adopts a philosophy, in which that which is unknown will always be the greatest thing. For to find out the truth would be to end a dream. And people say I should get out more.

“Every story is a metaphor. There’s a part of the writer in all of them. Sometimes it’s subtle and others, it can be as obvious as a monologue turned into dialogue to convey inward reflection through fictional narrative; An interview with a ghost.

“It’s difficult to know how to end a story like that. We want the reader to think, so we leave loose ends but we need to find a way of influencing their thoughts, both narrowing them for the narrative and expanding them for the greater good.

“There is usually at least one extra person in my stories, even though that might not be apparent. There will often be at least one, somewhere unseen in the background but vaguely apparent in the prose. An even harder trick to pull off, is one fewer. Repeat readings will often reveal more, or indeed less but only where less is more. It’s all down to how many layers of opacity I apply; how many coats of paint. Sometimes it’s down to an individual reader’s interpretation of the number of narrators they can see or hear.”

“There is another way.” The man stood and walked to the locked room. He was moving the literal furniture around. “May I?”

He returned with a pen. “My pen?”, said the seated man.

The man placed the pen in his pocket. “The only one. Shall I show myself out?”

He remained in his seat for a while. Everything falls at the same speed in a vacuum. Objects don’t fall to earth. It’s the ground rushing up to meet them; the movement of the earth through space creates what we feel as gravity. A seated person doesn’t feel their own weight beneath and behind them: It’s the force of the earth pushing up. It’s the feeling of travelling through space at 67,000mph.

The door closed and the man stood. He was alone, outside the locked room. The visitor had taken the key. He tried the handle and the door was unlocked. He entered the unlocked room and closed the door. The key was on the inside. It was always on the outside. It was there, because he wanted control on the other side of the door. He could unlock the door to allow himself in, but he couldn’t lock himself in. If someone else were to enter the flat, they perhaps might. They could then leave with the key. It was a delegation of some element of control to pre-determinism.

With the key now on the inside, whether or not he was locked in, was entirely under his control. If he so wished, he could throw the key far from the window.

The man retrieved the mirror and stood it in front of him at the desk. Propped against the closed curtains, it provided a window to look out from the locked room. The slight delay, or the lazy eye, wasn’t there. When he looked up from applying shocking pink eye shadow, his eye connected with the eye looking in immediately. The application of rouge was now just a cosmetic blusher, hiding nothing.

He stood up and moved back from the mirror. The hat, the shirt and the trousers were androgynous; The heels only lifting his own by two inches, but they no longer had to be tip-toed around in.

He opened the curtains and looked outside. The sun was still below the horizon; a dark red morning sky. He saw himself reflected as the sun rose, turning the sky a peachy pink. He was outside the realms of his reality, yet in his comfort zone. Seeing another person and feeling comfortable in their presence, more confident and less confused. Two roads, with one less travelled. Switch on your TV, you might catch him on channel two.

He’d left himself a note:

It was the last thing he had. I know that he will do anything to get it back.

(C) Steve Laker

“A life made of plastic, was what made mine so fucking fantastic.”

Where the sun never bothers

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

One recurring theme in my writing is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place, which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own. Now there’s a book of the same name, which starts and ends with tales from the agency.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place where people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it (stories only happen to those who are able to tell them). So this is kind of how it all started, many times…

the-writers-desk-debra-and-dave-vanderlaanThe Writers Desk by Debra and Dave Vanderlaan

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up, when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker

The Unfinished Literary Agency (my second anthology) is available now.