A story dictated by Mus musculus

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…

two-white-mice

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.

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

I don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. “It’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. “What’s it made of, anyway?”

Well,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, “it’s got imperfections.”

What, your face?”

Fuck 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. “Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”

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

Well,” said Kay, “your forehead often is.”

Eh?”

You frown a lot.”

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

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

I know,” Jay replied, “but it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”

We 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.”

But 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.

Any theories on the news?” Kay wondered.

Only one,” Jay said, “a really out-there one.”

Try me.”

Imagine we’re in biblical times.”

You wha’?”

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

Okay.”

Okay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. “You 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.”

Yeah,” Kay said, “you’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.”

Well, yeah,” Jay agreed, “and 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.”

And that’s what you think this is?”

It could be,” Jay tried to assert. “It 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. “Hmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.

Show me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. “What didn’t you notice?”

The 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.

“You’re right, it does,” she said. “You’ve got a lazy eye mate.”

I think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. “It’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.”

That is pretty cool,” Kay said, “you 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.

That looks familiar,” Kay said.

Kind of what I expected,” Jay replied. “Let’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.

Your theory?” Kay wondered.

That,” Jay said, “the carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”

Meaning how many things?”

Two, equally crazy ones.”

Humour me, agent Jay.”

Okay, 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. “Or it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”

Which is?”

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

How?”

Nature. 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.”

What the actual?”

Nature made them.”

You already said that.”

The earth made them, Kay.”

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

It’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.”

Saying what? Jay?”

I don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”

Us?”

Humans.”

Shit.”

We 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.

Those 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.”

I 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.”

Which is exactly,” Jay said, “what those biblical scribes would have found.”

Your number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. “How would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”

Only if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. “That being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”

But it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.

But look,” Jay said. “I’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”

How?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. “Oh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. “But how?”

Two 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.

It’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.

You wha’? That,” Kay pointed, “is way more, Jay.”

It’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. “It’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.

Let’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. “Ooh, 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.

I 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 landscape.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of Léanie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).

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

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.

A clockwork grim fairy tale

HORROR FICTION

Many classic fairy tales are much darker stories in their original form than the ones we know (Little Red Riding Hood is a very bleak warning, to young girls of sexual predators). The story below is one of my own fairy tales, brought into a more modern world and with a bit of surrealism thrown in.

The original (longer) version is in my anthology. I’ve dragged the story out of the basement, only because it came up in conversation with someone today. As I pulled her up the steps (and after I’d read her Solum Oculos Claude, my most recent horror post), she asked me what the nastiest story I’ve written is. We use the word in the same way we do when we watch films, we both like video nasties.

The question was subjective. I’ve written what was called a “twistedly idiosyncratic” Nativity; There was the writer at The Unfinished Literary Agency, writing the story of his own first-person character committing a murder, after a pleasant stroll around Bermondsey with the reader; and then there was COGS.

When I first wrote it, I was looking to shock, I was finding my feet. Later, I found my way more in science fiction, and now I’m writing my brief history of a family book (while spending too much time distracted, mainly by myself). But just as my musical roots lie in Ska, so my writing started with horror (from where I was at the time). And I’ve been taking two pieces of advice from a friend, which have been serving me well: Don’t be afraid to be proud; and, If you feel the need to censor yourself, then you’re letting your readers down. Only they can be the judge of that, and whether other people are up me, or I’m up myself.

This one prompted one reader to say of its original incarnation, “It’s utterly wrong, but beautifully written,” probably because it contains suggestions of wholly wrong sexual deviancy. But it’s also a comment on consumerism, possibly in a world post-humanism, and a bit Gothic steam punk, with some poetic revenge and liberation thrown in. Like much of my horror, there’s a heart in it somewhere. All that, in 565 words apparently, pared down, so that some of the imagination of the unwritten words is transferred to the readers who will judge.

So, fuck it. This is COGS…

COGS Bird

COGS

automata
/ɔːˈtɒmətə/
noun
1. a plural of automaton
automaton
/ɔːˈtɒməˌtɒn; -tən/
noun (pl) -tons, -ta (-tə)
1. a mechanical device operating under its own hidden power; robot
2. a person who acts mechanically or leads a routine monotonous life
Derived Forms
automatous, adjective

What for the man who has everything yet has nothing? A man who wants for nothing, can have anything, but has nothing? Hans Der Leibhaftige had all he’d ever wanted, but for the one thing he desired. Everything and everyone has a price, including unconditional love.

Life allowed perverted sexual gratification, cash from needy families. It bought him pets: canine companions whose love needn’t be returned. But the humans grew beyond their best before dates, disposable people. Apart from his current companion, who may see his master die.

Cogs was an automaton, a mechanical animal, a robot. But if Hans weren’t to furnish visitors with this information, they would be oblivious. Cogs ate, slept and breathed, just like a real companion. His creator was Angra Mainyu, a long-term, symbiotic associate of Hans. Former lovers, latterly sexual partners of convenience, sex was merely functional, an outlet for their mutual loathing, in consensual sadomasochism, torture, trauma and rape. Fucking to a climax of fluid hate in red love.

Angra was a necromancer, making automata so fine that the single person able to afford them was her sole client. Her creations were pure mechanical clockwork, barren of electronics.

An early commission was a chicken, which hatched from an egg, then laid an egg of its own. Then it would nest on that egg as the outer eggshell closed, in silent mechanical motion. Later those movements could be perpetual, as Angra honed her art; living, sentient, self-determining beings, financed by Hans. Infinite wealth could buy eternal life.

There was a snake, given perpetuity by manipulation. He was someone in control of a deadly serpent to all who watched, oblivious to its inner workings, lacking a fatal bite by Angra’s design.

She could create Hans’ desire, of a companion, which was naked and with no clear means of operation by human intervention.

The creation was born of a note to Angra:

I’m not in love. I would only fuck you and others until something better came along. I would like you to make me a daughter.

***

“I am Lilith. I was born to you by Doctor Mainyu. May I come in?”

She sat on the sofa and said nothing further, switched off. Hans looked over the girl staring blankly ahead, dressed lightly in the heat, her legs slightly agape as she slept. Her underwear was the same colour as her skin. He needed to touch her, to see if she was warm.

The automaton flesh was soft and smooth. For all to see, they were comfortable in a shared blanket. He explored the paralysed girl, with more intimacy, seeking something which might make her recoil.

The fluidity of movement and the perpetuity of pleasure were to be found in Lilith, in her lips, where he tasted fresh life, while the girl slept, owned.

Lilith only opened her eyes when she was one with Hans.

“Love me master. Fill me with your wisdom, so that I may be as wealthy as you. Your daughter needs to come from your blood.”

A sound, like a winding clock, came from Lilith’s tightened thighs.

“Red love daddy.”

© Steve Laker, 2015 & 2017

The evolution of a manual typewriter

FICTION | HORROR

This is my return to the fringes of horror fiction, after a few months away writing a sci-fi tribute to Douglas Adams: This is not a love story. Like many of my short stories, it has subtle links to others but it still works on its own. This one is from The Unfinished Literary Agency as it gains more offices, and one which will form a part of my second anthology. Co-published here with the co-operation of Shlock webzine.

Difference engine studio mainImage: Graeme Reynolds’s blog: Dark tales from a twisted mind.

THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE

I disappeared without warning and for no apparent reason. To the best of my knowledge, there were no witnesses. I wasn’t a well-known person, so few would miss me. It was perfect.

What made this apparent illusion possible was the difference engine: Quite a box of tricks in itself. The engine is a retro-futuristic, mechanical bolt-on device for my manual typewriter. It’s the steam punk equivalent of an app installed on a computer. The difference engine clamps onto the typewriter, between the type heads and the impression cylinder. It’s a translation device, so as I type out my thoughts on the keyboard, it produces edited fiction on the paper.

I was a beta tester for the engine, tasked with making the final tweaks to the switches, cogs and gears; the mechanical algorithms which made up the difference engine’s editorial code: Essentially, what’s permissible and what’s not. Where a newspaper might be governed by freedom of speech, but forbidden to express or incite hatred, the difference engine is concerned with fiction in a similar way. Specifically, I was testing the literary merit of the output, to see how well it translated my thoughts and actions into prose.

Like my typewriter, the difference engine wasn’t easily portable, but this actually suited me. I prefer to travel discretely as a writer, with just a notebook and a fountain pen for rough longhand notes. Then I return to my studio to copy my notes on the typewriter, usually self-editing as I transcribe. The difference engine would allow me to duplicate my hand-written notes verbatim, automatically editing for me as I worked. First I had to choose a protagonist for the story: a person chosen at random, who probably never thought they’d be the main character in a story. They’d never be famous, because this was just an experimental story, not destined for publication. Whoever it was would more likely languish in a drawer somewhere, or end up among the many potential but wasted words contained within screwed up sheets of paper in the waste paper bin: Rain which never fell, trapped inside coarse, jagged paper clouds. Stories which would never be told.

My fountain pen writes with blue ink. It’s not a cartridge pen, instead having a piston mechanism on the shaft, to draw ink from a well. I usually carry a bottle of blue ink with me. I use red ink too, but it never travels with me, for two reasons: Red ink is for editing, and I only edit longhand in my studio, where I can concentrate on cutting all the unnecessary narrative out. But red ink is also a very similar colour and viscosity to blood. If a red ink bottle were to break in my bag, I could find myself in all kinds of interesting situations.

I was in one of my favourite writing places in London’s West End: The Lamb and Flag in Rose Street, near to Covent Garden. It was a pleasant summer evening, and the pub was fairly busy with people leaving work. The first mention of a pub on this cobbled backstreet was in 1772, when it was known as The Coopers Arms. The name changed to The Lamb and Flag in 1833 and was a favourite watering hole of Charles Dickens. The pub acquired a reputation in the early nineteenth century for staging bare-knuckle prize fights, earning it the nickname ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ The alleyway beside the pub was the scene of an attack on the poet John Dryden in 1679 by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom he had a long-standing conflict. It’s a very small pub, so it’s almost impossible to retain a table to oneself. As such, I was almost invisible to a group of three men with whom I was seated. In a demonstration of my respect for the gentlemen’s privacy, I turned away from the table, whilst also erecting an invisible barrier for myself.

I might just as well have been in the 1980s as I was 2017, based solely on the conversation; one conducted at such volume that I could do nothing but be involved in it, at least as listener and note-taker. The eldest of the three was probably in his late forties, tall, slim, sharply dressed and well spoken. He ran a boiler room operation, and the other two, somewhere in their mid-20s, worked for him.

In business, a boiler room is an outbound call centre, selling questionable investments by telephone. A boiler room will typically be one where salesmen work using unfair, dishonest sales tactics, sometimes selling penny stocks, private placements or committing outright stock fraud. The term carries a negative connotation, and is often used to imply high-pressure sales tactics and, sometimes, poor working conditions. Usually, such an operation has an undisclosed relationship with the companies it promotes, or an invested interest in promoting those companies.

With insider investors in place, a boiler room promotes (via telephone calls to brokerage clients or spam email) these thinly traded stocks where there is no actual market. The brokers of the boiler room create a market by attracting buyers, whose demand for the stock drives up the price. This gives the owners of the company enough volume to sell their shares at a profit, a form of pump and dump operation, where the original investors profit at the expense of the investors taken in by the boiler room operation. A brokerage of this type will typically prey on the naivety and vulnerability of wealthy targets. It was just such a sting which the boss of the firm was bragging about to his subordinates:

“Old girl. Recently widowed. Husband left some money, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. So I tell her to invest it with me. I show her a few spreadsheets, blind her with bullshit, and I’ve got her hooked. I do a few good trades, to show her some decent returns, then I gradually suck more and more out of her. She phones up every now and then to ask how her money’s doing, and I just tell her it’s going brilliantly. Little does she know, she won’t be leaving anything for the grand kids. Unlike her old man, she won’t leave a legacy of unfinished business, know what I mean?” This was hilarious of course.

The boss offered to get more drinks. Leaving three empty glasses on the table, he stood and strode slowly to the bar, stretching as he went: His elbows punched out behind him, as he thrust first his chest forwards, then his crotch. As he arrived at the bar, he continued to stretch and twitch his limbs: An almost sure sign of a man on cocaine. His two seemingly besotted underlings were still chuckling together about the old lady. But it got better, as their boss returned:

“It’s funny how people confide in you when they’re grieving. I’m that old girl’s best mate at the moment. And her financial advisor, of course. She says she’ll use the money I make to gradually tick off her bucket list, depending how it goes of course. Her words. Give me a couple of months, and I reckon I can have her house. I’m doing her a favour really. I mean, she won’t have the money to go through the bucket list, so she’ll get all down. She’ll probably die pretty soon after she learns it’s all gone, saving her a load of money. Her kids won’t have to pay for her care, which they couldn’t afford anyway with the house sold. It’s really that simple guys. You’ve just gotta have the balls!” He grabbed his crotch and thrust it forward into his hand under the table.

He spoke briefly of his wife: A woman he kept. And their daughter, who at 14, was almost old enough, as he stroked his fly. He spoke disparagingly, condescendingly, and sanctimoniously, about everyone else in the bar whom he saw fit to judge. He was perfect: The kind of individual the difference engine could probably turn into someone who readers could sympathise and empathise with.

Excuse me,” I said. “What’s your name?” In typical salesman parlance, he answered: “Rupert. Rupert Koch-Rinehart” – surely a nom de plume? – and presented me with a business card. It was a fine piece of business stationery actually: a thick, non-calendared pulp board, and soft to the touch. His contact details were die-stamped in black, lifting the Helvetica typeface in relief from the card. It was so pristine that unless handled gently with cotton gloves, his card would be instantly marred by an imperfection: Perhaps some sort of capitalist statement. I was grateful for his details, as I’d run out of blue ink in my pen. But the story I was going to use to configure the difference engine now had a central character. As Rupert and his colleagues continued to talk, I loaded some more ink into my pen with the pump action of the piston on the barrel.

A narcissist is the easiest person to extract information from, because their favourite topic of conversation is themselves. Anyone within earshot would have known where he lived. Someone within wireless range of his mobile phone would be able to access his personal information. Some narcissists are so in love with themselves, they silently broadcast it, so that anyone listening can hear more about them, their ego, their contacts, social media circles and personal finances. Anyone so inclined could impersonate them, even taking over their life, and perhaps make them a better person; a bit like the difference engine.

A psychopath is not necessarily someone afflicted with all the usual negative associations of the word. Psychopathy is simply an ability to focus one’s mind on a specific task, in the pursuit of perfection, and to the exclusion of all outside interference. A psychopath might be an eminent neurosurgeon for example, able to perform high-risk operations which others might not. The psychopath surgeon might be able to remove a deeply embedded brain tumour, which others consider inoperable because of its close proximity to nerves and other crucial areas of the brain. Psychopathy detaches the surgeon from everything else, so that their mind can concentrate on a knife-edge, life-or-death situation, without emotion or outside distractions. There are psychopaths in many professions. A psychopath writer would be one who aims to perfect their prose, without the distraction of other thoughts. The psychopath writer would do all that they could, at any cost, just to ensure their stories seem as real as possible, using words alone. Psychopathy is detachment. It was this possibility which the difference engine represented. To make Rupert’s story more real, I needed to introduce him to the engine.

It’s not difficult to get someone to return home with you. It requires a concentrated effort on one very specific aim, but once all outside distractions are removed, words alone can persuade a person. I almost regretted Rupert’s faults being so obvious as to hasten his story. I’d perhaps liked to have got to know him better. But I was his caretaker, while he was drunk and a danger to himself or others. I’d just concentrated on the essential details: His current account PIN, when I’d helped him at a cash point. Then his address, when he gave it to a cab driver, before I suggested he might be better off spending the night with me. London cabbies are a mine of information, both given and received. In the rear view mirror, this cabby perhaps saw a couple, if he saw anything at all.

My studio is in Islington, just off Holloway Road, between Highbury Fields and Paradise Park. I lay Rupert on the couch, arranging him and the cushions around him, so that it pleased my eye. I thrive on order, hence my willingness to help with the difference engine, so that I could feed in my raw material, and the prose I desired would appear on the final typed page. My studio is small and eclectic, some would say cluttered. But I know the position and function of everything within. I have insufficient ink to write of my surroundings in detail, but they are irrelevant so long as they’re unknown.

I sat in my swivel chair at the desk and laid out my notebook, pen and ink well. The bottle I’d travelled with was almost dry and for reasons only known to my past, I didn’t have any more. There was a bottle of red ink on my desk, but it was ink to be used only for editing. Editing only ever took place at the desk in my studio. I hadn’t had to edit copy longhand for some time, instead relying on the automatic editing process of reading longhand, thinking, then transforming the thoughts into words on the keyboard; the very process the difference engine was designed to make redundant. The red ink had congealed and dried out in the bottle, so I had an unfinished story written longhand, with no ink to continue writing, nor edit if I were able to. The conditions were perfect for a working test of the difference engine: I would have to finish the story on the keyboard, relinquishing more control to the engine in finishing my work.

I wasn’t ready to be made entirely redundant, as humans had been by machines in the industrial age and now, by computers in the technological age. The difference engine could assist and replace writers up to a certain level, but there will always be that which only a human can do: Produce works which have the human touch. Like the finest paintings and sculptures, it requires human soul to produce art which is striking and open to interpretation, even if it’s the flaws of the human creator which make it unique.

Rupert was stirring, disturbing the cushions on the couch as he slipped between wakefulness and slumber.

Generally speaking, we are never aware of that moment when we drift off to sleep. As autonomous, self-determining beings, we are aware that we were awake before we slept. And when we awake, we remember being awake before sleep. Dreams aside, we don’t remember the part in between. Even when we do, we can never recall the moment of actually passing from one state to another.

There is a little-practised discipline of lucid dreaming, where the mind can be trained to recognise that it is conscious, yet not physically awake. With training, the lucid dreamer can recognise that they are in a dream and take control of it. It’s a technique which takes much practice to master and maintain. To begin with, the trainee will repeat to themselves a mantra, like ‘I am falling asleep…’. For many months of nightly practice thereafter, the trainee will simply pass into sleep and wake again, unaware of the moment of transition.

Next comes choosing a focus point: In my case, a clock. My sleep patterns are regular, so there are certain combinations of digits on a digital 24-hour clock which I never see in my wakeful state: say, 03.41. The numbers are arbitrary, but that was my focus, and the thought which I took with me as I fell asleep each night. After several weeks of practice, it suddenly worked one night: I rose, needing the bathroom. I checked the time and it was 04.38: A time I wasn’t used to, so on the clock, a sight I wasn’t accustomed to. I was dreaming, and as soon as I realised, I grew excited and woke with a start. It felt like being woken from a sleep walk.

Gradually, I taught myself to suppress my feelings when I witnessed a nocturnal hour on the clock. In doing so, I remained in control of my dream without breaking out of it. As my confidence grew, I found I could literally do as I pleased. I could fly, to anywhere. I could be invisible and eavesdrop, on anyone. It was all in my dream scape, but when I’d truly mastered the technique, so that waking dreams were part of the normal day, I found that strange things started to happen. Every day, I would retire for the night, then be unaware of the moment I fell asleep. As far as I was concerned, I’d just lain awake, rising and noting the time as 03.18, or whatever as being normal, no longer associated with the dreaming. This would go on and I’d rise for the day, with memories from the day before unbroken in my mind. Life had become one long day.

But in the dark day, my term for the one lived asleep, I was free. No computer or AI could claim that. Do androids dream of electric sheep?

I cradled Rupert’s head as his mind slipped between those waking and sleeping states, while I tilted coffee into his mouth. The caffeine would increase his awareness of his surroundings, but not a sobering up as such. The flunitrazepam would help him fall into a deep sleep, so that he could allow himself to be transported through his dream scape. He’d be physically paralysed, but with a heightened mental awareness of the dream. I was gifting lucidity, which had taken me so long to master. Flunitrazepam is a drug known as a hypnotic. It won’t give the same lucid fluidity which much practice had taught me, and the subject would be without clarity in memory, unlike that which burdened me. But he would be guided by me, an invisible hand-holder while he was trapped in his thoughts.

I cooked a rump steak while Rupert drifted: onto a smoking hot pan, for just two minutes on each side, without disturbing it as it tightened and tried to retreat from the searing heat. I lifted the cooked steak onto a warm plate and set it aside to rest. The fresh, red meat was crossed with sear marks, as if from a branding iron. The thick layer of outer fat was caramelised on the edges, but otherwise, white, soft, supple, and oozing juices, which mixed with the blood from the cooling meat. I left it to relax and chill slightly for five minutes, like a drugged teenager before penetration.

I tested a theory while I waited. The blood which flows through our bodies is only red when it’s oxygenated by the heart and travels through the arteries. Blood passing through the veins is de-oxygenated, and therefore blue. Unless the subject is in a vacuum, cutting a vein will produce red blood, as the blood cells come into contact with the oxygen in the air. I wondered if my fountain pen’s loading mechanism would maintain a vacuum.

The nib of my pen was sufficiently sharp to penetrate his skin and only rouse him slightly, like a conscious person being aware of an itch: Not in a place which can’t be reached, but somewhere indeterminate. Like all fountain pens, mine has a split nib. The aperture between the splayed teeth allows ink to flow through the nib, to be absorbed into the paper. The ink is stored in the barrel of the pen, and it’s drawn from an ink well through an aperture above the split tongue which delivers it. The piston mechanism drew blood from the vein, but any which came into contact with the air instantly turned red. Only if the reservoir was air tight would I collect blue blood. My fascination then, was whether his blood would remain blue in the reservoir. Of course, I’d created a paradox, like some sort of Schrödinger’s ink. Assuming the blood had been pumped into the pen, above the penetrating points of the nib, without coming into contact with the air, then the ink stored in the pen would be blue. I had no way of knowing, because the intake was hidden from my view during the pumping process. The simple act of writing with the pen would produce red ink, as it emerged from the barrel and came into contact with the air before being absorbed into the paper. Aside from dismantling the pen, the act of writing would be the catalyst which brought the words into being. The paradox was whether the words began their journey as blue or red ink: Original prose, or edited. I withdrew the nib of the pen and pressed on the wound to stem the blood.

The steak had cooled, as confirmed by a prod of my finger which registered only a little heat: Slightly above room temperature. Ambient body temperature, but slightly warmer, like the inside of a penetrable orifice. A gentle push of the finger into the flesh gives a clue to the inside: If the meat feels like a person’s cheek, or the base of the thumb on the palm of their hand, then it is too rare. It will be too tight to yield to gentle chewing, and it will bleed too much. If the flesh feels like pressing upon a forehead, or a knuckle, then the meat is too well-done, too resistant. Perfect ripeness lies in between, where the flesh of the beef is like the chin of a child’s face, or the fleshy back of the hand, between the thumb and forefinger, where one grasps a child’s hand with one’s thumb to lead them somewhere.

I sat with Rupert while I carved the steak, and talked about his daughter and how she was with us. He was awake only subconsciously, receptive to my hypnotic suggestion. His daughter was small, blonde and pretty, if one were that way inclined. He had a photo of her in a bikini on his phone, which I described in detail, using imagination for the unseen parts. Blood and fat oozed from the meat as I pierced it, then splayed the steak open to reveal a tender pink; the perfect medium-rare. I relished a few mouthfuls of perfectly aged and cooked meat, then I fashioned the remainder into a vagina. The fatty edge was the one which would be penetrated, like the soft, fatty white flesh of a labia. It gave way to folds of pink, slightly bloody, warm, soft and yielding meat inside.

My hypnotic description of his naked daughter had clearly worked, as he was aroused. Not wanting to actually touch any skin, I placed the steak in the palm of one hand, while I pulled his trousers and shorts down with the other. Then I gripped the steak around his hardened cock and started to masturbate him, while describing his daughter allowing him to enter her, then gradually getting comfortable with him inside her, before starting to move up and down on him. I gripped tighter as his little girl squeezed his shaft with her vagina and drew his foreskin down further and more firmly, deeper into her. I felt him twitch, so I slowed down. Whether he really wanted to or not, in his lucid state he was fucking his 14-year-old daughter, and I wanted it to last. I wanted him to know how a little boy would feel as he fucked his daughter. As I felt him unload in his daughter’s vagina, I gripped as though I was trying to pop a rodent like a tube of congealed glue. I pulled his foreskin down, hard and fast, then harder and further, until his frenulum snapped. A globule of blood bulged from the severed end, so I rolled his foreskin back over the glans of his penis and gripped it closed, so that his cock began to swell like a pink balloon. I’m sure his daughter would love a pink balloon, like the kind she’d get at a fairground from a traveller, before opening her legs for him round the back of a ride or a stall. I tied daddy’s cock off with fishing line around his foreskin, so as not to stain his expensive underwear.

Given that the rectum was practically staring me in the face, I evened things out a bit, in terms of Rupert’s daughter. I penetrated his anally, for what may or may not have been his first time. I started with a household candle, its wax composition giving it lubricant properties. His sphincter yielded easily to the wick end, then gradually relaxed as I pushed the candle in deeper. Not wishing to touch him directly, I again used the steak as protection. I turned it over, so that the side coated in his spunk was outermost. Then I gradually manipulated his anus, so that the steak started to enter it in such a way as to produce an internal funnel; an extra layer of thick flesh, both penetrating and lining his rectum. Once it was almost fully inserted, I artfully splayed out the protruding edge which hung from his sphincter. A special effects artist on a budget would be proud of such a prolapsed colon.

I re-dressed Rupert and enjoyed a fine bourbon as I surveyed a job well done, to make a story worth telling. He would remember little of the night, perhaps causing him a little embarrassment with his subordinates. But he’d wake up at his own home and assume he got there directly from the Lamb and Flag. Quite when he addressed the issues in his pants depended on many things, but none were my problem. I helped him outside and propped him up while I hailed a cab. I knew his address of course.

London cabbies are a mine of information, both given and received. In the rear view mirror, this cabby perhaps saw an incapable man being helped home by a friend, if he saw anything at all.

I had yet to write it all up, so the paradox of the blue / red ink remained. Or I could just type it, directly from memory, to test the difference engine and see what it made of things. Difference engine or not, the words which anyone reads will be the ones which were produced by my typewriter. If the resulting story were to be read, I was confident the difference engine would write it in prose which would only improve the story, by making it more thought provoking. It might add unwritten subtexts, prompting questions. It may make the story seem as though it actually happened, other than in someone’s imagination.

So the whole story was entrusted to the difference engine. It was up to the engine how much was revealed in the final story, like how I’d acquired it and who had given it to me. It might skip over such details, if it feels that the story itself is good enough to be a distraction and carry the reader through without them feeling the need to question. It may be that people get to the end of this story and not even know who I am, what my name is, or even my gender, because it didn’t occur to them.

I was truly invisible.

Difference engine mask
Image: Pinterest

© Steve Laker, 2017

My first collection of short stories is available now, and the Douglas Adams tribute novel will be out soon.

Revolutions of the difference engines

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Jez Guevara

Having said before that I’ll not politicise this blog, I’ll get the politics out of the way first. Specifically, why I’m backing the boy Corbyn: Man of the people, and the kind of new, progressive politician I’d like to see as prime minister. Of course, I’m biased: I’m a liberal, left-wing, Guardian-reading, part organic vegetable.

My reasons for backing Corbyn’s Labour are many, but for me personally, I’ll be able to make a greater contribution to society. I’m on benefits, signed off long-term from work because of mental health issues. Even forgetting for a moment, the changes to the NHS and improvements to mental health care provision proposed by Labour, I’d be able to take a distance learning course with the Open University when Labour abolish fees. I could study for a degree, which would allow me to give something back. Why should a university education be the preserve of the rich, when so many jobs are being made redundant by technology that soon a degree will be the minimum qualification for the remaining ones? My ex-wife and I couldn’t afford £9250 a year each for our children to become “future proofed”, so the kids would be saddled with loan repayments for the first few years of their employment.

The kids are intelligent, they go to good schools and they live comfortably with their mum and step dad. Naturally, everyone wants the children to be the best they can be, at whatever is best for them. They themselves made a point some time ago, as we were walking around Milton Keynes: They observed that there’s little for young people to do, since many local authority facilities have been closed down as a result of central government cuts. For the better-off, this isn’t a problem, since they can afford entertainment. And it was that statement which struck me, because two young but bright children had illustrated the two-tier society which they see around them. They have many of the things which children like to have, mainly financed by their mum and step dad. I contribute as much as I can, and they understand finances and budgeting, but they have an empathy for those less well-off (well, their dad was a tramp for a while). Like me and like Corbyn, they think long-term, and want to make a contribution towards a better society. Like me, they see that possibility under Corbyn and Labour. Personally, I envisage the introduction of a Universal Basic Income, or Guaranteed Minimum Income in Labour’s second term, a model which has proven successful in more enlightened countries, like Canada, Denmark, Brazil, Finland, Iceland…

A part of me still hopes that Brexit won’t happen. Kim-Jong May’s days are numbered in any case. She’s a danger and the country is a laughing stock among the other 27 EU nations and the wider world. As a country, we’re the kid left on the sideline and mocked. Isn’t it time she stepped down and allowed our re-uniting country a third chance at those “Put it to the nation” things so beloved of the Tories? Leave or Remain, Left or Right-wing: We need to agree that she isn’t a leader. Then the nation decides the rest in a general election which is triggered by her resignation. The woman’s ego is destroying a nation’s future and with it, our children’s prospects.

Meccanismo-Complesso-Octopus-Steampunk
An imagining of the difference engine (see below)

In other news, my next book is finished as a first draft, which is now out with beta readers for a month. Meanwhile the book is just over the half-way mark in a publishing sense. It’s been converted to 8 x 5” paperback size, and comes in at just over 400 pages.

Once the test readers come back with their comments, there’ll be another round of editing and Cyrus Song should be in the shops by October, all going well. Until then, I’m churning out pulp fiction for the shock horror web zines readerships, and the next one, The Difference Engine, will be out somewhere soon:

I disappeared without warning and for no apparent reason. To the best of my knowledge, there were no witnesses. I wasn’t a well-known person, so few would miss me. It was perfect.

What made this apparent illusion possible was the difference engine: Quite a box of tricks in itself. The engine is a retro-futuristic, mechanical bolt-on device for my manual typewriter. It’s the steam punk equivalent of an app installed on a computer. The difference engine clamps onto the typewriter, between the type heads and the impression cylinder. It’s a translation device, so as I type out my thoughts on the keyboard, it produces edited fiction on the paper…

As a literary plot device, the difference engine is an invention I may make use of in future stories. Like some of my mentors (Paul Auster in particular), I like to have links between stories and common themes within some of them. All of my short stories stand alone, but I have favoured geographical locations, fictional organisations and objects which I sometimes return to. The typewriter in The Difference Engine is one such thing, as is The Unfinished Literary Agency, above Hotblack Desiato’s letting agency in Islington (the latter actually exists).

Of all the writers I’ve been variously compared to (Douglas Adams, Roald Dahl et al), the comparison with Auster is the one I’m most grateful for, as it was recognition that I can pull off the kind of complexities which he does. Like Auster’s, many of my stories contain others within them. There are recurring characters, meetings with oneself, and writers as narrators of tales about writer protagonists. Most contain subtexts, and some are two or more completely different stories contained in the same narrative. The thing is, they’re not clever tricks: It’s just my style of writing, so to be compared to my literary idol is quite something.

I’m not quite four years in with this writing game, and I’m about to publish my fourth book. Given the nature of Cyrus Song and the messages within, if it was published in October, with Jeremy Corbyn in No.10, that would just be the literary icing on the cake.

My first anthology is available now.

1000 words in time

FICTION

steampunk-watch

By no coincidence at all, this will be auto-posted to my Twitter feed as my 1000th tweet. Just a 1000-word flash fiction timepiece:

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.