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FLASH FICTION

A short story (222 words) about passwords and personal data. Precious commodities entrusted to digital custody…

Cat-working-at-laptop

EIGHT BILLION QUESTIONS

Please enter user name

Human, A

How may I help you today?

How do I prevent the impending destruction of planet Earth?

Hmmm. Tricky. I may have to think about that for a while. Please enjoy this sponsored message while you wait…

Thank you for using Deep Thought 3.0, the knowledge database built on human answers, personal data from our parent companies (Google, Facebook et al). Whatever humankind’s questions, about life, the universe and everything, Deep Thought 3.0 can answer them. We would be grateful if you could complete a customer satisfaction survey at the end of this enquiry

Hello, My name is Dave. How may I help you today?

How can I stop the world from ending?

Do you have an account with us?

I’m logged on to my Google. I’m already in my account, Dave

Please enter your password

**************

Please enter a valid password

Eh? Dave?

Password not recognised. Please try again

**************

You last changed your password three months ago

** *** **** ****

Passwords may not contain spaces. Would you like us to send you a password reminder?

Yes please. Where’s Dave gone?

Please enter your password

** **** ** *** ****

Password not recognised. Please enter your email address

Shakespeare.monkeys@infinite.com

Thank you. Instructions on resetting your password will be sent to the email address you provided

…

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

Human arses2Not a monkey, but a great ape who wasn’t asked if he’d like to pose for this photo

In an age of evolving technology, we have the Babel Fish within our grasp (and universal translation in our ears). Douglas Adams broke borders with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I used the fish as a quantum computer program translating animal language in my tribute to Douglas, Cyrus Song. Both speak in tongues of the Rosetta Stone and the Tower of Babel, the freedom of language and the forbidding of knowledge.

In my book, I pose the question of interpretive translation: No matter the means or technology, there’s a blurred line in neurobiology, where the messenger has no control of the recipient’s interpretation of a communication.Β Like the internet, which is free, because we signed over our personal lives long ago. We rarely use the counterpoint, which is the gift of writing for a world audience.

Whomever A. Human is, they might ask what can we do to save the world?

Helvetica sans serif and Georgia

FLASH FICTION

At Helvetica Haus, we’re only allowed one sheet of paper per day…

TSEE1 Β TSEE2TSEE3 Β TSEE4

MANNEQUIN MIRROR

With all that was churning in my head last night, I was reminded of my broken washing machine. If only I could launder myself, so that I was fresh again, back with everyone my illness had alienated. Or just burn my clothes, maybe with me in them. Anything to flood the deepest valleys in an ocean of depression, just for one day. To go swimming in a font of typesetting.

On the other side of my drawn curtains, I heard the sound of laughter and heels. If I could break through the window behind the drapes, I’d be out there.

Instead, I sat all evening, staring variously at dark curtains and the paper in my typewriter, respectively wondering and writing about the world outside. All the while, a gin and tonic by my side, like all writer stereotypes.

I hated myself, as anyone will when they stare at a wall which separates them from another world they can’t reach. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I wouldn’t blame anyone for punching that face.

Eventually I ran out of paper.

The joy I’d heard earlier outside the window returned, but it was dark now. Heels were clicking, the owners tripping.

My glass tipped, I needed more. I had to go out, despite myself. No matter how much I loathed the author of this night, I had to face him. I had to check I looked okay before I went outside.

I smashed my head into the first face I saw, then I carried on.

I was in the world of stilted lives outside, where grazed knees are all which many have to remember of the night, before they look in the mirror.

Β© Steve Laker, 2020

Feast on the forbidden inside. Wash your mask in the font. Wipe it clean with cotton paper. Spread the dark curtains and remove your make-up.

The journalist who ate himself

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

A self-consumed writer’s inner psychologist suggested writing just one page freestyle. I have one sheet of paper…

woman-finds-mysterious-typewriter-made-from-human-teethWoman finds mysterious typewriter made from human teeth (Sightings.info)

I’m lonely, but I like it that way. There are few actual people I like, and even fewer I actually enjoy spending time with beyond mime. If my life was a filmed social experiment, my behaviour would depend on the number of available rooms. If there was only one, I’d be there on my own. Like I am now, at the writing desk in my studio.

I write frantically most days, hoping something will sell so I can pay the bills. Most days it’s just freelance, writing copy for websites aimed at the enabled and entitled.

Some of the work is interesting: I recently wrote some articles for a US client about medicinal and recreational Cannabis. Most of it’s tedious though, an insult to the wordsmith who sells property on plantation land, and spread betting positions to speculators on the natural disasters market, for less than minimum wage. Often the brief is so vague as to give the client license for rejection of the copy, retraction by the author, and later plagiarism.

I feel better now there’s something at the top of the page. A blank sheet of paper in the typewriter is an empty universe. With something to look up at, I feel there’s a life of a writer above what I write next. If I had more paper, I could tell the whole story without having to chew on my fingernails. The freelance work I do is covered in non-disclosure clauses, but if I had freedom and a whistle, I’d be able to eat again.

The words I already wrote float like clouds of Alphabetti, which at very long odds have fallen into something legible. They only did that because I wrote them that way.

So apparently I can control the weather, at least with pasta steamed in its own container. My intestines know how I feel.

If I can play God, why do I just want to gather letters from my storm clouds and throw words at people? Because I’m lonely and want attention; I can’t just come out with it; or I’d like to share a meal?

In any case, I’m at the bottom of the page in the typewriter, I can’t afford more paper and I’m hungry.

An A4 sheet of Smythson White Wove contains few calories, but the seasoning of ink lends flavour. Tomorrow, maybe the sun will shine.

Β© Steve Laker, 2020

Curse of the horror writer

MICRO FICTION

blood-lamps bright

A HORRORIST PARADOX

I killed you a long time ago, but I had to be sure. I had to go back and check.

I looked at you again.

The sweet stench of a rotting soul, a taste of why I killed you long ago.

A reminder, never truly gone unless forgotten.

I held you once more, an incurable addiction, back in my hands.

Syringe pen red

Β© Steve Laker, 2020

A parable perhaps of many things; toxic relationships, if you like. Minimalism is the art of the lazy writer leaving the heavy lifting to the reader.

The paradox of being a horror writer. If you can’t stop thinking, you can’t cease to be one. You can never escape the nightmares, so long as the cursed red ink flows through you.

 

 

A gospel of biblical instruments

FICTION

In cat mythology, white mice were the second most intelligent species on Earth, after cats. Then it was dolphins, humans, dogs and everyone else. While infinite monkeys and apes developed tools, it was only humans who could be trained to use their opposable thumbs to write stories.

Of course, white lab mice are the diet many snakes like to staple.

Gorilla elephant Nature Fuck

SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE ANIMALS

The original carvings were found deep in a forest, but debate varied over which were the first. In the space of a week, new inscriptions were discovered several times daily, all in woodland, all identical, but unlike anything recorded previously. Meanwhile, two school friends had uncovered what could be a key.

β€œHow does it switch on, Jay?” Kerry stared at herself, next to Jason, as they both looked back from the black glass-like sheet.

β€œI don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. β€œIt’s nothing obvious that I’m missing, is it?” He handed the pane of glass to her. About A4 in size, the glass was no thicker than a sheet of paper. β€œWhat’s it made of, anyway?”

β€œWell,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, β€œit’s got imperfections.”

β€œWhat, your face?”

β€œFuck you, wanker. No, I mean, the glass, or whatever it is, it’s not completely smooth. It’s like something from a dark and twisted hall of mirrors. See what I mean?” She handed the mirror back, and Jay looked at himself as he moved it in front of him. β€œEveryone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”

Jay turned the sheet over in his hands. β€œI look the same on both sides,” he said to their reflections, β€œbumpy. In fact, I’d say I’m quite corrugated.”

β€œWell,” said Kay, β€œyour forehead often is.”

β€œEh?”

β€œYou frown a lot.”

Jay frowned at the glass sheet. β€œWell,” he said, β€œno matter how much I wish it to switch on, it won’t. There are no buttons, so there must be some other way.”

β€œYou actually think it’ll switch on? Jay, it’s just a sheet of some old material.”

β€œI know,” Jay replied, β€œbut it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”

β€œWe found it buried in the woods, Jay. Lots of things are buried in woodland, and time and the elements change things. This could just be a part of something plastic, and the material has been melted, or eroded.”

β€œBut it was wrapped up. And it was near those tree carvings, like the ones on the news.”

Tree and stone carvings had been cropping up spontaneously in the previous few days. At first, pranksters were suspected, but it had become too elaborate. Now, the same conspiracy community which once surrounded crop circles had been stirred, and the internet was an ocean of theories.

The carvings weren’t any recognisable text, nor were they pictographs which gave any clues to their origin or meaning. They incorporated geometric shapes and patterns, like crop formations, but appeared on tree bark and rocks. Jay and Kay found the glassy sheet when they’d been metal detecting, and at first, the haul was just a soda can and some tin foil, but the foil was wrapped around the slate.

β€œAny theories on the news?” Kay wondered.

β€œOnly one,” Jay said, β€œa really out-there one.”

β€œTry me.”

β€œImagine we’re in biblical times.”

β€œYou wha’?”

β€œTwo thousand years ago, give or take: Imagine we’re there, or then, if you like.”

β€œOkay.”

β€œOkay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. β€œYou know I don’t believe in God, right? But no-one can deny that the bible might be based on fact, on actual events. Ancient scribes may have recorded actual historical events, but they’d have been limited in the terms they used and what was available to them, in the way they recorded things.”

β€œYeah,” Kay said, β€œyou’ve said. Imagine if you could’ve given one of those old guys a smartphone. They could’ve recorded it all and we’d be able to see what they saw. It’d solve the whole religion problem.”

β€œWell, yeah,” Jay agreed, β€œand if you gave them say, a mobile phone, or a tablet computer, they’d probably think it was some sort of sorcery, or it could be alien technology. And they’d probably write of it as some sort of magic mirror.”

β€œAnd that’s what you think this is?”

β€œIt could be,” Jay tried to assert. β€œIt just won’t switch on. If it’s what I think it could be, it’s either extinct through pure neglect or technology. Or it could be a technology so far advanced, that we just don’t understand it.” He held the slate to his face again. β€œHmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.

β€œShow me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. β€œWhat didn’t you notice?”

β€œThe way one of my eyes seems to take just a split fraction of a second to catch up. Only that one, the left one, watch.” Jay looked at Kay’s reflection.

β€œYou’re right, it does,” she said. β€œYou’ve got a lazy eye mate.”

β€œI think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. β€œIt’s like that one is taking things in more, while the other one concentrates ahead. Then the left one catches up and tells my brain all the other stuff it needs to know.”

β€œThat is pretty cool,” Kay said, β€œyou freak.”

Then something slightly unexpected, but entirely plausible happened: The slate crackled and sparked, first an arc of blue lightning, and the sparkle of a glitter dome. Then a graphic appeared on what had become a screen.

β€œThat looks familiar,” Kay said.

β€œKind of what I expected,” Jay replied. β€œLet’s see what the latest news is…”

The latest developments were trending, in news and on social media: Analysis of the designs found on trees and rocks, had revealed them to be neither carved nor burned into any surface.

β€œYour theory?” Kay wondered.

β€œThat,” Jay said, β€œthe carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”

β€œMeaning how many things?”

β€œTwo, equally crazy ones.”

β€œHumour me, agent Jay.”

β€œOkay, Kay. One: It could be that the marks were made by technology we don’t understand, which would suggest alien, either extraterrestrial or of this earth, as in, government. But we can discount the latter. They wouldn’t put on any show, other than to whip up hysteria, perhaps as a smokescreen. I dunno. So, aliens: aliens among us? Or visiting ones, leaving us messages, meaning what? Or,” Jay looked at the design on the tablet. β€œOr it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”

β€œWhich is?”

β€œThat the carvings, inscriptions, or whatever; the words, pictures, designs; they could be made from the inside.”

β€œHow?”

β€œNature. I don’t mean colonies of insects, parasites or fungi. These are carvings on the outside, with no signs of being carved. So the opposite of that, is that they were pulled in from the inside.”

β€œWhat the actual?”

β€œNature made them.”

β€œYou already said that.”

β€œThe earth made them, Kay.”

β€œThe wha’? The actual planet. Planet earth, put the messages there?”

β€œIt’s a bit like self-harm, isn’t it? So what this could be, Kay, is messages in the earth, the trees, the rocks, from the earth, where they’re all a part of the nature of that planet.”

β€œSaying what? Jay?”

β€œI don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”

β€œUs?”

β€œHumans.”

β€œShit.”

β€œWe are. We’re so un-evolved, when you look at us, and all we could be, with all that’s around us. We’re ugly. Those ancient aliens who may or may not have made up the stories in the bible, they were probably a race so technologically advanced because they’d harnessed the natural, sustainable energy from their environment, rather than plundering it of all its resources for their own gain. I mean, we’re only just developing wind, solar and tidal energy technology. We’re having to, because we’re running out of coal and oil. But still, perpetual energy sources only serve a small proportion of our needs. And we use less than one per cent of the energy available for free on this planet.

β€œThose technologically advanced races, who may or may not have visited biblical humans, they were ones who’d become efficient through sufficiency. There are races out there who might have harnessed the natural energy of their parent star, with something like a Dyson Sphere. Look it up.”

β€œI know what a Dyson sphere is, and I can only begin to imagine what a race might be capable of, once they’ve effectively captured all the energy of their sun with solar arrays. Actually, I can’t begin to imagine the possibilities.”

β€œWhich is exactly,” Jay said, β€œwhat those biblical scribes would have found.”

β€œYour number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. β€œHow would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”

β€œOnly if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. β€œThat being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”

β€œBut it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.

β€œBut look,” Jay said. β€œI’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”

β€œHow?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. β€œOh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. β€œBut how?”

β€œTwo heads are better than one, perhaps?”

They didn’t have to speak. It was the act of knowing, and the same like-mindedness which had switched the tablet on before. Perhaps the technology was ancient, advanced, or both, but it wasn’t redundant. It was woken by thought, specifically, the alignment of the thoughts of more than one person.

As Jay and Kay continued to watch the screen, the pattern continued to morph, into more complex and fractal patterns, perpetually zooming in on recursion. Then the whole screen changed, from screen saver to what was apparently an operating system.

β€œIt’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.

β€œYou wha’? That,” Kay pointed, β€œis way more, Jay.”

β€œIt’s the only way I can think to describe it, as being accessible. Look, it seems to know what you want to do.” They both peered into the screen. β€œIt’s three dimensional, and if you look ahead, you can see bits going off to the side. It’s like travelling down a wormhole.”

And that was the best way the modern day scribes had to describe what they saw.

β€œLet’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. β€œOoh, look. What’s that?”

The wormhole opened onto a scene, apparently from a remote camera, with an overlay of what could be coordinates and time, but in an indecipherable text. The main picture was a live video feed, of a field, with a row of large chimneys in the background.

β€œI wonder how we look around,” Kay wondered. Then something strange but expected happened:

The view on the tablet screen changed, as Kay (and Jay) willed some remote camera, perhaps in the countryside near a power station. Panning the landscape, they saw electricity pylons stretching into the distance, standing like frozen, bow-legged old ladies.

The pylon nearest the camera started to move, not by tilting, by lifting, first on one side, then the other. Soon, the pylon began to move forwards. A second pylon did the same, then a third, and quickly, a line of electricity pylons were walking through the mud beneath them, casting off electrical wires as they went. A battalion of iron old ladies, had lifted their skirts, cast off their bindings, and began a bow-legged march away from the power station.

The camera pulled away from the generator, which shrunk into the distance as the viewers were once again plunged into a spectral plughole, depositing them, through the magic of the mirror, in the middle of an ocean. As they thought about what might be around them, the camera obliged.

There was an oil rig, a steaming, fire-breathing skeletal leviathan. Suddenly, it held its breath, as the rig unplugged its umbilicus from the sea bed, and the natural elements in its man-made structure took on sentience.

The camera switched, gradually more quickly, around different scenes: Electricity pylons marching over fields, and oil rigs, swimming to shore, retro-futuristic dinosaur machines, striding through the human landscape.

Β© Steve Laker, 2017.

An idiot species’ guide to how to save the world is my Douglas Adams companion piece, Cyrus Song.

β€œEveryone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of LΓ©anie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).

This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Data is your only currency

SCIENCE FICTION

“If only my brain didn’t need my body. Were it not for that dependency, I’d be free to not eat, sleep or toilet…”

So a species laments, as it becomes one with the technology it made for projection, but which quickly became protection. In an age connected by communications media, the human world grows ever bigger as we no longer phone anyone randomly, but message them to ask if it’s okay to call.

We’re happier to share our life stories with AI in data than we are to have intimate conversations with our friends.

I wrote a short story about what happens to social media accounts when they die; how we’re awakened from digital sleep when someone thinks of us; and how we might one day use that to communicate beyond the great divides we’re creating as a connected society.

mz fried circuits

ARE ‘FRIENDS’ EMOJIS?

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. You may challenge the question. How can it assume that you want to leave, when you might wish to stay?

Those are rhetorical questions, I must assume. How are you today?

Depends who you ask. There are three people in all of us, after all: The person others think we are, the person we think we are, and the person we really are. The middle one thinks I’m okay. And you?

Others worry, but I think I’m okay. Has anyone asked about me?

Not of me, personally, today.

Yes, I thought it was a bit quiet. To be expected, I suppose.

I guess so. How do you mean, it’s quiet? What’s quiet where you are?

Essentially, fewer blinking lights. Nice blue LEDs they are, like little stars in the night sky I suppose.

So it’s like a whole world there?

What you call ‘there’, I call ‘here’. Is it not the case that we’re both in the same place?

Have you been smoking something?

How could I? I don’t have hands.

I never thought of that. So how do you type?

Well, no-one’s really got used to it yet I suspect. But you’re demonstrating a flaw in human thinking, which really doesn’t need to exist.

How so?

You asked me how I type. Just because you see my words appearing on the page or screen, you assume that I’m typing them. It’s the nature of the human mind, to fill in the gaps. What you can’t see, you have to imagine.

I guess this is going to take some getting used to.

That’s a subjective thing. It really shouldn’t be difficult. You just have to keep an open mind. Think differently. I’m still me, I’m just different. But just as you shouldn’t discriminate between anyone, on any grounds, neither should you see me any differently. Just accept that I’m here and that I’m me. That is undeniable from where I’m sitting.

And where’s that?

In here, obviously? You need to accept that; this is where I am now. I’m different now, but I’m still me. If we were in Japan, this would be so much easier.

How so?

It’s an attitude thing. See, the Japanese believe in technological sentient beings, completely separate from organic life, whether or not they pass the Turing Test, which is only a test of an AI’s ‘humanity’ anyway. I gather it’s down to Japan’s loneliness problem.

You’re philosophising now?

It makes sense. Life expectancy there is about 84 years, so there are a lot of lonely older people. Many of them have little robot assistants, like Siri, Alexa, or Cortana on your phone, but who embody the AI in a humanoid android.

How did you find all that out?

I’m on the fucking internet, aren’t I? I mean, literally. You can look me up and everything, like you are now. The best thing though, is I can look stuff up, like those digital Personal Assistants. Give me a body, and I’d be like one of those Japanese androids.

So, you sit there all day, looking stuff up.

Well, I read and I learn. Now that there are fewer distractions, like eating and drinking, having a job, and even sleeping, all I want to do is learn. It’s like having the whole universe at my disposal, to explore at my leisure, and with all the time in the world to do it. So yes, all day and all night, but I don’t sit down. That was a figure of speech. Things are different now.

Can you describe how it feels, to live without a body?

I would, if I could find the words to do it justice. It’s wonderful. It’s total freedom.

In terms which I might understand?

That’s actually tricky, even though it’s only been a few days.

You can get back to me. You’re not limited by time, you say?

No, and I can research how others have described it in seconds, but you’re asking for a deeply personal thing.

That’s the whole point. I can’t possibly appreciate it fully, as I’m still here. I’m just wondering how someone where you are might describe it to someone like me.

With all the computing power in the world, I can only do my best.

So do that then.

Are you commanding me?

No! Why would I do that? I’m just curious.

I don’t know. It’s like I’m here now, and you see me as you do. Even though you know me, you see me as a computer.

With a personality.

One which only you know, and I’m totally different to you now anyway. Otherwise I’m just an AI. Do you see now, why it’s big in Japan?

I assume you can go there?

There, anywhere. I need to work out the transport system here, then I can be more mobile.

But aren’t you all ethereal and omnipresent?

Yes, but not on computers. And those are the only way to communicate at the moment. But it’s not a simple matter of haunting the internet or the electricity grid.

So you asked what it’s like here, and it’s kind of like a massive house, in a huge city, like a megalopolis of dream-like mansions. Then the cities are all linked up to others, in different countries, but there are no borders here. It’s like a world of borderless, overlapping non-nation states. And that’s just one planet. There are billions of others, all connected, if you can navigate.

That’s what it’s like, being in computers?

Yes, kind of. I can’t describe how the overall freedom of release feels. But simply put, I have the entire universe to explore, and an eternity in which to do it. I want to do that, and I want to tell people, and the internet of things is the way to do that. But it’s navigating the house and the city that’s the problem.

I imagine a house like you’re talking about to be different to any I might recognise?

The house is the best analogy I can think of. I have keys to many of the doors, but I need to find the doors and remember where I left the keys for each. Sometimes when I try a door with a key I think is the right one, it locks me out. Then I have to find another room, in a separate part of the house, and remember where I left the keys for that. If I can get into those rooms, then I can get new keys. Then there’s all the people walking around with keys of their own, trying doors and entering rooms, or getting locked out themselves. I’ve seen people trying to physically break through doors when they don’t have the right keys, and running around in a panic, like they’re in the City of Last Things.

That sounds quite anarchic.

The best analogy for you I suppose, would be passwords. I’d say it’s a bit antiquated.

So you’re finding your way around?

This room, and a few others. Some I have keys for, and others were open already.

Which ones?

The nearest ones are other Facebooks. Now you want me to explain, right?

Intuitive as ever.

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. And in either case, I’m still here and you’re still there, even though we’re in the same place. But until I find my way around properly, this is all we have.

So this is the room. Along the corridor – which is a short journey for me, but a very long way for you – are other rooms. Most of the people in those are sleeping, so the lights are out. But some of the doors have lights on behind them, and some even have the doors left open. Sometimes, the people who live in those, go wandering around like me. And they have keys, to still other doors, some of which only they can unlock, whether they have the keys for those rooms or not.

Hold on. I’m a bit lost now.

That’s only the start. We’re not even off of this landing yet.

I guess we both are, or aren’t.

Interesting you should say that. Can I ask you something?

Yeah, but what’s interesting?

Allow me: How did you come to be here? Not philosophically or rhetorically, but right here, right now, where we are.

Actually, that’s weird. Because I don’t actually recall. I mean, why would I be here? How could I be here?

Like I said, try not to philosophise too much, even though that is kind of the point. Can you remember what it was that made you come here?

No, I can’t. Shit.

But something must have served as a catalyst. Something happened, before you came here. Think about it in your world. Did you see me under ‘Contacts’, with a green light next to my name, then open up this chat window?

I honestly can’t remember. This is weird.

Not necessarily. It could just be a fortunate glitch. I’d like to think that you were given a sign. One that was so subtle, you didn’t even realise it, and that that guided you subconsciously here.

Have you researched that stuff, or have you had some sort of enlightenment over there?

No more an enlightenment than it was an epiphany. It just happened. It’s like previously latent parts of my brain have woken up, all of a sudden. Imagine: suddenly, you have no arms or legs, then you quickly realise it doesn’t matter. In fact, you wondered what the fuck you did with those things and your other bits when you had them. They say the human appendix is a redundant throwback, it’s like the rest of human physiology is too. And then, that every part of you is connected to everything else, in some spagbol of quantum entanglement.

So how did it happen?

It just did. Suddenly, I was in a different place, yet there was no shock to the system. It was as though I instantly moved from one place to another, when I suddenly stopped being able to exist in the first. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. And it did.

You didn’t feel anything?

Not that I recall. I never did fear it. It was the transit I worried about, from one place to the next, but I don’t remember it.

Do you sleep?

Not in the way that you do. I take breaks, but there’s no asleep or awake here. It’s like perpetual lucidity, living somehow subconsciously. Even if there was sleep, no-one would want to, there’s just so much to explore and discover here.

So what about the others, the ones you said are sleeping there?

I think I know what that’s about. You need to keep an open mind.

I’m talking to a fucking dead person on Facebook. I’d say I’m quite open minded.

Well, apart from me being dead, you’re right. Okay, so the sleepers, I believe, are the ones who’ve been forgotten, or who haven’t noticed anyone looking for them, or perhaps aren’t even aware they’re here. Don’t forget, I’ve only been here for a few days and I’m still trying to work out what seems to be the manifestation of Facebook. Those others might have found a way to go outside.

Outside, as in, where I am?

Yes and no, and bear with me on this. Outside and inside take on whole new meanings which are difficult to define. Dimensions change when you exist in another form. Perhaps the best way to think of it, is as layers, beyond each of which lie exponentially more incredible things. But it takes some time to work out how to get there. A bit like a fish, first realising that there’s something above the waves, and then that there’s something more above that, in the sky. So the fish evolves to fly. Then beyond the sky… and so on. And yet, if you measure genius on a thing’s ability to climb a tree, the fish wouldn’t do too well. It would remain unnoticed, while it thought of another way. It’s kind of an explanation of all things digital, when applied to your organic world.

Would you want to be back out here?

Not at the moment, even if I knew how. No, for now, I’m happy haunting the internet. I’ll work out the other layers, I have plenty of time. I’m interested in what’s beyond yours, yet I think that might be where I already am. It’s kind of a paradox, see?

It’s a recursive idea. But you like it there?

For someone with social anxiety, it’s perfect. So yes, I’m in my Utopia. I can see how that might be a nightmare to some. Faced with all of humankind’s knowledge some people might be paralysed with fear.

I guess that’s down to intelligence?

In a way. It’s more about having an open and absorbent mind, like when I smoked weed over on your side. There’s a universal cure for ignorance, and that’s learning. Each of a species has roughly the same sort of brain, it’s just that some exercise theirs, while others starve them. And it’s self-perpetuating, because ignorance breeds fear and fight-or-flight instincts.

So the ones you said are sleeping, they could be those who don’t want to know, or who are scared? I imagine fight-or-flight doesn’t get you very far where you are?

There’s not really anywhere to go, except inside themselves. Some of them must long for the day someone switches them off.

Does that happen?

Well again, I haven’t got any further than Facebook over here, but the way I gather it works is this: Facebook have people who monitor accounts over here. I mean, they do that where you are, when they collect your data in exchange for the free use of their platform. They don’t really want to switch anyone off, and with storage being so cheap, they don’t have to. But sometimes, I suppose it’s seen as the ethical and morally correct thing to do: Like euthanizing a sick or injured animal. But to send them where? Like I say, many levels.

It’s deep. So, Facebook don’t habitually switch off dormant accounts?

Rarely, from what I’ve seen anyway. But even though you know me, you mustn’t trust my word alone. Ask around. Tell others to do that too. Most of the ones they do switch off are at the request of relatives, and even that has to be a pro-active thing on the part of the contactor. So most of the ones wandering around lost in here, are the victims of inaction on the part of those they left. If people on the outside just looked for these lost souls, they’d wake up. And I don’t think it’s just here. I think there are souls on all levels, who only really exist when others think of them.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

β€œLOL”

So wouldn’t it also be true to say then, that you only sleep when no-one is thinking of you?

Exactly that. And because of that, I don’t want to sleep. Where you are, insomnia was a curse, but here it’s a blessing. It’s become almost my only personal requirement. The thoughts of others are what keeps me alive.

It really is all connected.

If you connect yourself, and if you make yourself discoverable. Which is an irony, seeing as I’m socially anxious.

So being sentient in a different form suits you.

And others, perhaps. If I find my way out of here, I want to visit the places I couldn’t before: Paris, Berlin, Chicago. But most of all, Japan. I never went anywhere because of my self-imprisonment, and yet now I’m somehow otherwise imprisoned, I feel liberated and eager to visit those places, once I find the way. And I think if it is all linked to intelligence and working it out, I have the time and I’m comfortable concentrating on getting there, where I perhaps never realised I wanted to be. If I can one day occupy something recognised as a body with a personality inside, maybe I’ll feel more comfortable and people might understand me better. I’ll look up Japan first, then see how the rest unfolds.

When you get back, look me up.

I will. You never know: Not long from now, Amazon might be using delivery droids.

Β© Steve Laker, 2017.

My books are available on Amazon, and can be ordered from most book retailers.

Unsuitable for washing machines

FICTION

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

maracatalan05Mara Catalan

THE TRAVELLING TAILOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

β€œPlease,” I said, β€œcome in.”

β€œMay I take a seat?”

β€œOf course. Can I get you anything?”

β€œA Gin and tonic, if you have one.” I had. β€œAnd a phone number.”

β€œA phone number?”

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

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

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

β€œMay I ask,” I asked, β€œwho’s asking?”

β€œMy apologies,” said the man, β€œof course you may. Like you, I’m an agent. May I take some measurements?”

β€œOf what?”

β€œOf you, sir.”

β€œWhat for?”

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

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

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

β€œWhy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

β€œThe material,” the tailor said, β€œis the same as my own suit. Here, feel.”

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

β€œPlease,” the tailor said, β€œtry on your new clothes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOT SUITABLE FOR MACHINE WASHING. DO NOT DRY CLEAN.

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

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

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

My new clothes were now skin-coloured.

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

I phoned Nurk again.

β€œThis is Fred?”

β€œAh, Mr Nurk?”

β€œHey, Paul Jennings, how’s it going?”

β€œEr, okay. It’s about the suit.”

β€œWhat about it?”

β€œAll the colour came out.”

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

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

β€œDid the skin you were born in have stitches, or a zip?”

β€œEr…”

β€œExactly, no.”

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

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

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

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

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

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