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It Might as Well be String Theory

It Might As Well Be String Theory (and other stories)

By Chris Troman

Copyright 2017 Chris Troman

Shakespir Edition

Other books by Chris Troman

Star Wars Vader’s Sister

Aardvarks to Planet X

S.W.A.T.

Can’t wait for the next thrilling installment. Then why not visit my profile page at Shakespir or visit my blog site to register for an alert when my latest tome is published.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Any characters or events portrayed in this book are purely fictitious and any resemblance to real people, businesses, companies or institutions either current or defunct in this universe or any parallel ones is purely coincidental.

Dedicated to Sue and Alice

I have to thank my many scientific advisors, if you don’t know who you are then I picked your brains successfully, but if you have an inclination that an idle chat with me has somehow made it in some form into my works, then you will have to forgive my less than adroit burglary skills, none the less I salute you.

Welcome to my third edition of this Hexology (a set of six books, no dark arts ok). In this busy world a short story is just the job to dip in to on those spare moments of your valuable time. Come on a journey through space, time and reality in bite size morsels.

“Chris Troman heresy’s make puppies cry” Gozer the destructor.

“ I smite him down, or at least I will when I find him” Yog-Sothoth

“I though he was funny, until he stopped believing in me” Hekkador (high priest of the Therns)

In this work I attempt to speculate on the nature of the universe, reality, and our place within it. There are many lines of scientific enquiry that yield significant results, need I mention Einstein’s thought experiments that have brought us the modern world. But maybe the point of searching for the ultimate truth is perhaps not to find it, but to keep looking. Or in this case, it’s to read on.

Some people just won’t take death lying down. Say hello to old friends and meet new ones as the boundaries of speculation are pushed further, and we journey once more into the enquiring mind of Chris Troman

Contents

Identity theft

It Might as Well be String theory

Ice for a pillow

I am a Working model

When I was a Child I thought as A Child

Ideas included

Inflation

It’s Know Joke

Icons of the Silver Screen

Immaculate Deception

The end is in Sight

Isotopaz

Impact Plus one

I am Humanity

Io you

It’s all in the mind

Breakfast with Hazel

Isthmus of hope

Instant Gratification

It’s no joke

I’ll be right back after

Invisible Car Kills Another

Adverts

Identity theft

Jim Dawcy got up before his peers, and addressed the group. “Esteemed undergraduates and professor Hamley”, he nodded at the lecturer. “My name is Jim Dawcy; but it could just as easily be Graham Dawcy.

My mother was adamant that I would be named after her farther, who’s name was Graham. And my father only ever referred to me by his parent, James.

Apparently they were so entrenched in their opinion; that my birth certificate was filled in as James or Graham Dawcy. I still have the said document as proof. As you can imagine my childhood was interesting having to answer to either alias.

I finally settled on Jim, as it apparently annoyed both of them. But also to distance myself from a character in a film I once saw. At that tender age a need to be unique had taken me, and academic certification would not allow me the privilege of vacillating between the two names.

Ironically the topic of my discussion today regards the very film, which sealed my decision on the name I would be known by. It was about a man whose very identity was forcibly removed from him. For the term we use today as identity theft is a misnomer.”

A beefy looking student on the front row raised his hand; for the group was run by strict rules of etiquette, demanded by the exacting minds gathered in the room.

Dawcy paused in his introduction for the expected question; for Sam Miller was his roommate, and had no doubt seen the film Jim was referring to umpteen times. Obsession took on a new level of meaning, with these students of the very nature of reality. “What’s the film called?” Miller asked. Dawcy made a mental note to pay Miller back for breaking the flow of his introduction.

Perhaps some small but erroneous addition to Miller’s data set on his latest experiment, yes that would keep the duffer tied up for an afternoon checking for other introduced errors. For Dawcy knew already that Miller would suspect him, and even as he told the group that the film was called From Noon ‘til Three, Dawcy was planning the counter attack to Millers unknown response to the data tampering he was planning.

And then Dawcy continued with his introduction. “But what if you could really steal an identity by the use of quantum laws on a macro scale. One minute you’re Joe Bloggs, the next someone else is, and now your Fred Basset. He living it up with your beautiful wife in a million dollar condo, and your on skid row.”

Dawcy’s lecturer, professor Hamley raised his hand. For in this quorum rank had no privileges, and Dawcy nodded acknowledgement. “Are you proposing the nature of such a device? Or the moral implications of its use?” Dawcy prepared himself for the reaction of the group to his answer. For it would give him a path to his plan of attack in this discussion. “Neither; I propose that not only does this device exits, but that there is evidence out there of it’s use.”

Dawcy stared at the whole group now, for he wanted a gut reaction to this statement from his fellow students, and also his lecturer. Most assumed a look of incredulity at this far-fetched claim. But a few did not.

James Foolow had a misty eyed look, that Dawcy knew to be a sign that his fellow student was cogitating on the information presented. His pet project was wave harmonics, and the patterns he saw spread across the known universe. If Foolow could be relied on for anything it was his bloodhound like determination to see the clew in the chaos. Dawcy made a mental note and moved on.

Arty Chiggers was trying hard not to show the disturbed look of a haunted soul, who had just put the final piece in a jigsaw, and not liked the picture it made up.

Then to his left Dawcy saw professor Hanley staring intently at his notes. Was he hiding his true feelings, or merely checking his prize student was keeping to the brief Dawcy had given him before the discussion began. Dawcy knew Hanley had the power to veto any topic he deemed unworthy of the group’s time, and perhaps he was having second thoughts.

Finally Dawcy’s attention was drawn to Tom Sidewell, who had a nuance of expression from his usual impassive take on the world. As if some slight disturbance was troubling him. Dawcy had his man; the way in to a topic that he hoped would gain momentum. Like a quantum change of bias, Dawcy just needed to nudge Sidewell in the right direction to get the ball rolling.

“Tom, you must have a view on this”, Dawcy brought the attention of the group on Sidewell. And the sudden pressure of all this scrutiny made the student sit up strait in his seat.

He took a second to form his thoughts in to coherent speech. “Well it’s like this you see. I was going to get a present for my aunt. She lives across town, and well she’s got these lamps fixed on her wall. And she always says how shabby they were looking. But the other day I saw three nice new looking ones in a second hand shop, over at Burberry and ninth. Only three ninety-nine the lot.

But when I got over to my aunts, it turns out she’s got four of these lamps.” He paused finally for a breath while the group at large took in his monolog. “But I would swear on the frequency of blue light being six hundred and fifty Terahertz, that she had always had only three.” He finished in the complete silence from the group.

Miller broke in to a laugh. “What in the Sam hill are you going on about you dolt, we’re talking about identity theft not your poor memory. I raise we strike Sidewell’s testimony from the record.”

But now Foolow had raised his hand, and the attention refocused on this new addition to the discussion. “I think Sidewell’s anecdote is not as irrelevant as you’re making out Miller. In fact I imagine such a shift in the number of subatomic particles would be the equivalent of a nuclear explosion for a whole life to be swapped just like that.” And he snapped his fingers. “So the resulting after shocks would probably be felt half way across the solar system.”

“Make sense man, we’re not talking about explosions. We’re taking about swapping people.” This counter thrust came from Fred Howsim, his hand raised high. So Foolow made himself clear.

“The necessary alteration of not just the present set of particles that for instance make up you Howsim; but also the space time trail you’ve got stretching behind you, chronologically spreading right back to your conception would be such an enormous undertaking, it would alter many other parts of reality. I imagine it would occur in a spherical space-time wave, changing little things as it petered out to what we would call normal reality. Such as Sidewell’s aunts lamps. One moment she always had three, the next there had always been four on her wall.” He gave a little nod as if to say Q.E.D.

“But wouldn’t the power drain be astronomical?” Professor Hamley interjected, his hand half cocked yet clearly raised. Dawcy sensed a stalling of his train of thought set free among the group. “A good point professor, but I envisaged when I first came up with my hypothesis, that such a complicated device would be equalled by the means to power it.” “I withdraw my point”, the professor conceded.

This brief act on the part of Dawcy’s professor could have stopped the metaphorical ball rolling, but it seemed the brief respite from the actual topic of conversation had given more than a few present, time to reflect on similar experiences that they had recalled to rival Sidewell’s tale.

And so hands rose in a consecutive flow of information. “I had a blue toy bear, but when I found it in the loft the thing was yellow.” “My brother swore blind he had won a swimming trophy, yet I know for a face he only got medals.” “My collection of bottle caps had a rare tree frog beer cap in it, and now the things gone missing. But I sealed them in. How could that have happened?”

“That’s because you never did have one.” Miller cut across Pavet the last contributor. “Can’t you see Dawcy’s got you lot all tied in knots. If you’ve not forgotten what you’ve done with something you’ve probably imagining the facts to fit some pattern that you think is you. Simply by saying I wouldn’t do that so it’s impossible. And has no one seen the big flaw in Dawcy’s scheme?” He stared round the room at the blank expectant faces, and then he dropped his bombshell.

“Where are all these displaced people who used to be someone so desirable that the operator of this imaginary machine would want to be them?” He stared at the equally dumfounded faces before he rested his eyes triumphantly on Dawcy. But what he saw brought a doubtful look to his visage. For Dawcy wasn’t looking at him. Dawcy was staring up to Miller’s left.

Miller looked over his shoulder at Artie Chiggers, his hand held bolt upright and a determined look in his eyes. As if pronouncing a prophecy of doom Artie’s voice held the room. “My uncle thinks he’s Napoleon.”

This frank admission of madness in the family killed dead any stifled cries of shock or amusement. So raising his hand Sidewell asked “But isn’t Napoleon long since dead and buried? How can your uncle’s affliction be relevant to the subject in hand?” His attention was draw from Chiggers to Foolow, who slowly raised his hand as if he were still considering the problem Sidewell had raised.

“It’s possible the effect could be applied through time, for given the proposed necessity of interchanging what we would describe as a mind or”, and he turned to Chiggers “a part of the mind, for I believe such cases do retain some portion of their former self?” Chiggers nodded as Foolow drew out the words still forming as he followed his train of thought. “So given such requirements time could be just another vector to move along in the relocation process.”

Professor Hamley had his hand in the air once more. “But how can you explain the number of people who claim to be Napoleon, or Joan of arc or Jesus?” This time Miller came to the aid of Dawcy’s argument, as he thrust his hand in the air. “Are you kidding professor, who wouldn’t want to get a chance at being Joan of Arc or some other historical figure, or even the president. Take your pick, Tricky Dicky or perhaps you’d like a go at being general Washington crossing the Delaware.” The fever with which Miller expounded on his thought seemed to lay the professor’s point to rest.

By now Chiggers had rallied himself from his former admission to raise his hand once more. “Are you saying my uncle wanted to be Napoleon, and it sent him funny?” Dawcy had been pondering this, and had an answer waiting below his ramrod strait arm. “There could be some sort of shunting system, where the displaced portion of the mind is affixed in a new receptacle. There may even be a natural process such as past life memory that they have made use of in the process. So when your uncle started believing he was Napoleon, he was simply a pawn in a chain of mental musical chairs.”

“And with that I see our time is about up”, professor Hanley interjected. “A very enlightening topic mister Dawcy. One that the whole class has managed to get its teeth in to. Next week it will be the turn of mister Foolow. Provided he’s not become someone else.” The professor added with a rye grin. And the whole class laughed at his joke.

But as they stood to leave there were quite a few faces that betrayed the thought, that perhaps the world wasn’t quite as certain as before Dawcy had stood up to introduce his topic.

It might as well be string theory

Boffins,

Boffins,

Einstein’s theory seemed quite strong,

But others try to prove him wrong,

And though they’re hard to find,

Experiments in mind,

Gravity or roll a dice,

Curve your space to make a line,

Boffins,

Take a proton going fast,

Hit it with another blast,

See what fly’s apart,

New particles we see,

A boson or a lepton free,

The source of all the gravity,

Boffins,

Boffins always working harder,

Boffins laboring with ardor,

Boffins keep a well-stocked larder,

Boffins are working for you and you and you and you,

They do enjoy a cup of tea,

Maybe with a nice biccy,

Don’t try frangipane,

It will leave you pail and wan,

While living in a world 3D

(Fades on last line)

Doctor George Arboretum stared at the apparatus on his desk. “Kooky is this three hundred and seventy three degrees kelvin?” His short of stature and bearded assistant stirred the liquid; then he read off the result. “Ninety eight degrees’ Celsius doctor.” Arboretum adjusted his glasses. “And have you prepared the infusion chamber?” With a snappy salute Brian Kooky informed the doctor, “three spoons full.”

Then turning to the desk Kooky was stood at, doctor Arboretum raised an accusatory finger. “So how did you warm the pot?” But his accusatory grin slid from his face, and his lankly frame sagged in his tweed suit. Kooky had side stepped his short podgy form, wrapped in a save the vole tee shirt. To reveal the metal teapot, sat atop a stand under which a Bunsen burner flickered it’s flame.

“Well you’d better get steeping” Arboretum indicated the hot water. “Then call professor Hack n’ Tack from his studies.” Kooky poured the water in to the kettle, and then he scooted off to a plusher section of the laboratory. There an elfin figure reclined in an armchair, His legs atop a poof, as he poured though a copy of the man who would be king. “Enjoying your Kipling?” asked Kooky.

Professor Terry Hack n’ Tack squealed at this intrusion in to his private thoughts, and the book fell to his union jack waistcoat as he shot up. “Can’t a fellow enjoy a good Kipling of an afternoon? What do you want?” Kooky hitched his thumb over his shoulder “Tea’s up. Get a shift or doctor Arboretum will nab all the ginger nuts again.” Thus passed another fruitful afternoon in the theoretical physics department at Oxbridge college.

George ruffled the college paper and read the headline. “I see Flanghouse won the singles crumpet hurling again.” Hack n’ Tack leaned over the side of his comfy chair. “That’s the third year in a row he’s won it isn’t it?” as Kooky poured him another cup of tea. But a small article on the back of the paper caught his eye, causing Kooky to spill the beverage.

“Watch what you’re doing Kooky you dolt.” Hack n’ Tack was up mopping the spilt beverage off his waistcoat, with some spare notes he had been working on. But Kooky ignored him, and putting down the teapot he advanced on Doctor Arboretum and his paper. “Have you read this?” Kooky pointed his stubby finger at the short article. The doctor turned over the sheet and read it out.

“Science funding in serious jeopardy. Following the loss of government funding for academic establishments, the dean of science professor Montgomery Fitshampton has had to call on the old boys network to drum up private funding from that sector. But as times are hard all round he was quoted as saying. ‘I will be having a hard look at all the science departments to see who is engaged in nonproductive studies, and jolly well get them working what what.’”

Doctor Arboretum let the paper fall, as he exchanged aghast looks with professor Hack n’ Tack. “This is serious, if we lose our funding we’ll be out on the street.” Terry lowered his shaking cup and stuttered, “But how do we sell theoretical science? Our studies are so advanced we couldn’t hope to prove them, let alone make them in to a viable product.”

Kooky rapped the pot with a teaspoon to get the eminent men’s attention. “I told you cross multidimensional communication was a daft line to follow, but no you said and I quote.” He cast a scathing look at doctor Arboretum. “It’s so far out there that no one will be able to understand it, we’ll be on easy street for years.” Professor Hack n’ Tack was nodding, but a look from Kooky cut him down. “And you went along with him, just to keep yourself supplied in tea and ginger nuts.”

Terry stood up, and with conviction in his eyes avowed, “Well we’ll just have to have a jolly good chat with Monty Fitshampton, and get his word as a gentleman that he won’t take away my tea and biscuits.” “And keep funding us to research in to cross multidimensional communication.” Arboretum reminded him. “Yes that too. Kooky arrange a meeting thingy”, finished the professor.

So at about half past two the next afternoon, when the doctor the professor and their lab assistant had dined sumptuously, and let their lunches settle, they found them selves outside the office of professor Montgomery Fitshampton. “Let’s just straiten your tie”, Kooky adjusted Hack n’ Tack’s apparel, brushing minute crumbs off his waistcoat.

Then the booming voice of Fitshampton called out, “Enter” and they filed in to his office. The plush red leather chairs gave it more the look of a gentlemen’s club, as Fitshampton waved the two academic giants down, and Kooky hovered in the background unnoticed. Beaming, the dean of science proffered Arboretum and Hack n’ Tack a brandy.

“Well gentlemen, what brings you to trouble an old man in his times of financial woe?” He beamed at the two, as if they should laugh at his humorous quip. Arboretum leaned in. “Well we heard a teensy rumor that the department was floundering a bit in the fiscal sense.” Fitshampton waved a free arm as if swatting a fly. Causing Hack n’ Tack to almost spill his drink. “Stuff and nonsense”, the dean boomed. “As long as a chap can show some results that what he’s working on is going to make us a fat wad of cash, then he’s nothing to worry about.”

Arboretum nodded as if in agreement. Fitshampton took a swig of his drink and turned to Hack n’ Tack. “So just what are you fellows on the track of?” Hack n’ Tack was squirming in his chair, but Arboretum cut in. “It’s cross multidirectional communication. A sort of way to say hello to beings from beyond our universe.” Fitshampton wheeled on him, “Not aliens I hope, I’ll not have any truck with alien hunters. We had a lot of trouble with S.E.T.I. back in the seventies.” But keen to reassure his superior Arboretum pressed on, “Oh no sir, these are definitely home grown. They probably exist in this office so to speak, just one dimension over.”

This seemed to placate Fitshampton, and he took another swig of his drink. “Well It sounds very complicated, no don’t try to explain the math’s or anything.” For Hack n’ Tack had risen from his chair with a set of notes he was unfurling. “It might as well be string theory for all I could make of it.” He turned once more to Arboretum. “So you can come up with some solid results, in say a week?” Arboretum stifled a cry as he nodded, for Hack n’ Tack had just kicked his ankle, but Fitshampton failed to notice Hack n’ Tack’s move. “Good good, well that’s settled. You get me some results by next Tuesday, and you funding will go on as normal.”

He turned to Hack n’ Tack who flinched again. “But you make sure you make good with your promise. Not like Carthairs junior, who once said he could eat twelve ostrich eggs the little oik. Mind you it didn’t do him any harm, he’s the duchess of Argyle now.” Hack n’ Tack looked up. “Don’t you mean the duke?” “I know what I mean.” And he finally refocused on the professor. Then turning to Arboretum the dean took a deep breath. “So some results in a week.” And smiling weakly Doctor Arboretum nodded back.

Back in the safety of their office, the trio looked gloomily as each other. Kooky flopped down on the best chair, and glared as the other two. “You’ve really gone and done it now,” he accused Arboretum. The doctor gave a sheepish look. “And you weren’t much better”, Kooky had turned to Hack n’ Tack. “Sitting there riling up the dean up with your ineffectual smile.” Terry rallied at this accusation, “I have a very fetching smile. In fact several people have commented on it.” “It’s not much good at getting us out of this mess though is it.”

Arboretum rounded on Kooky, having had time to collect his thoughts. “Not necessarily, for Hack n’ Tack’s distracting smile makes me think of another distraction. One to get us showered in tea and biscuits for perpetuity.” His two colleagues looked agog waiting for Arboretums big idea. “All we have to do is fake the results, Fitshampton doesn’t know anything about cross multidimensional communication. Remember he said it might as well be string theory for all he knew.” Terry gave a stifled giggle, but Brian was more skeptical.

“Do you really think we can fool the scientific world in to thinking we have accesses to the postal address of higher dimensions? They’d never fall for it.” But bringing his arm over the assistants shoulder, Arboretum pulled him in conspiratorially. “What with my doctorate at Oxford, and professors Hack n’ Tack’s Cambridge qualifications.” He squinted for a second trying to remember a fact. “And of course your lab assistant diploma from Halesowen college, we could sinch it Kooky.” And Hack n’ Tack beamed up in approval.

“Right”, continued Doctor Arboretum. “I’ll construct the test equipment, I’m sure I’ve got a nice retro seventies computer bank around here somewhere to record the results on. Then you”, he lifted professor Hack n’ Tack out of his chair. “Can get working on something to transmit the mocked up stimuli, which my test equipment will then read, and you”, Doctor Arboretum clasped Kooky by the shoulders. “Have the most important job of all.” Inspired by his superiors’ stirring speech Kooky was ready for action. “What am I going to do?” With a withering look that indicated Arboretum assumed Kooky should know what to do already. “Get the kettle on, I’m parched.”

Following the well worn path to the stores man’s bastion, the poor man had all but given up asking for paperwork for the myriad of requests for equipment in recent times; Kooky collected the various bits on the two academics parts list. Then with a sense of fevered activity, not to mention an endless procession of hot beverages and the occasional buttered teacake, the three men stood before an impressive array of scientific instrumentation. All dwarfed by the cabinet sized computer, that Arboretum had insisted including in the setup, to record their findings.

Lights flashed, sparks rose up twin wires, strange crackling emanated from boxes, and the kettle bubbled endlessly. Meanwhile behind a screen at the end of the laboratory other sets of apparatus were at work, silently churning out the desired effects Hack n’ Tack had predicted would be produced, from a cross multidimensional leak of information.

“Well gentlemen lets get recording.” Arboretum flicked the switch on his computer’s tape deck, and the spools began to whirr round to a jazz version of the classic track entitled Popcorn. After plotting many a graph and all the key formulas, plus an occasional diagram, all explained in the jargon only doctor Arboretum and professor Hack n’ Tack could spin. Kooky strapped their work together and got a porter to deliver it to the dean for assessment.

Then the two academics sank back in to comfy armchairs with a nice hot cup of tea each, and the crispest ginger nuts Kooky could provide; to await Fitshampton’s formal approval, and their extended biscuit concessions. The clock slurred around it’s face; until with a start doctor Arboretum was awoken by the distinct ring of their telephone, as it rattled in it cradle and Kooky dashed to answer it. “Very good sir, I’ll put him on.” He handed the receiver to doctor Arboretum muttering, “He seems a happy chappie.”

Meanwhile doctor Arboretum was listening to Fitshampton’s approval of their work. “Thank you very much sir, I’ll pass the news on to professor Hack n’ Tack.” He placed the receiver back down. But far from the expected jubilant look on his face, doctor Arboretum now had a rather worried look as he passed the dean’s news on. “He liked it, or at least his independent advisor did.” “Well that’s good news isn’t it?” prompted the professor. But Arboretum had more news to add. “He liked it so much, he’s recommended it to the Nobel Prize committee.” “Does that mean I’ll finally become a dame?” asked Kooky.

But now both the doctor and the professor were looking worried. “Well what’s wrong with the Nobel prize committee knowing about our research?” Kooky asked perplexed. Flapping his arms for effect, doctor arboretum explained. “Because if our results come to the attention of the Nobel Prize committee, it will be published all over the world.” Professor hack n’ Tack gave a squeak. “Which means other laboratories will try to recreate our findings.” There was another squeak for the professor. “And then when they don’t get any proof of our claims, we’ll be held up as frauds.” Hack N’ Tack having given up all pretense at dignity, was hiding his face behind a frilly cushion and moaning.

“No more fat grant, I’ll have to start working for my bikkies.” Then he promptly fell off his chair, and grabbed Kooky by the knees. “You won’t let this happen will you Kooky? You can go to Fitshampton and get our work back. Tell him there are spelling mistakes that we want to correct.” But doctor Arboretum put paid to professor Hack n’ Tack’s minor breakdown. “It’s no good old chap, Fitshampton said he’d already sent the papers off.” “Well there’s only one thing I can think of doing now”, suggested Kooky. With all the joy of a child freed from an imaginary doom Hack n’ Tack looked up for his heap on the floor. “What’s that?” “I’ll put the kettle on.” And he marched over to the cups to gather them up.

Over the next few days the trio survived on copious amounts of tea and biscuits, not to mention a sense of dread of the proverbial sword of Damocles ever on the horizon, as they expected to be found out at any moment. So it was with some surprise that doctor Arboretum read the headline in the weekly scientist. “Top marks for obscure Brit department, as Nobel Prize committee receives conformation of their findings.” Professor Hack n’ Tack roused himself from his hot beverage induced stupor, and began to jump up and down like an excited child. “Tell me more tell me more.” Even Kooky breathed a sigh of relief; his low expectations for a future career as a trainee stores man could be put on hold.

Doctor Arboretum ruffled the paper and read on. “Following the amazing claim that cross dimensional communication was not only feasible, but a fact. The little know doctor Arboretum and his lab partner professor Hack n’ Tack, ably assisted by their lab assistant Brian Kooky.” “They mentioned my name, I’m famous”, cut in Kooky, to much shushing off Hack n’ Tack as Arboretum continued. “A laboratory in the peoples republic of North Korea has confirmed their findings. Although they claimed they actually found it first under the direct guidance of their glorious leader Jimjam Notwell. Also an independent study in Brisbane has had similar results. So it’s a shoe in for the Brits to win this years theoretical physics Nobel Prize, consisting of medals for each member of the team, and years supply of Swiss chocolate.”

“I just don’t get it”, doctor Arboretum finished with a dumfounded tone, as he dropped the paper. “How can all these laboratories be getting results without faking the signals?” “Perhaps they’re angling for a shot at the Nobel prize too.” Suggested Kooky. “There’d be no point, we’ve been confirmed as getting the results first”, cut in Hack n’ Tack from the chair he’d sunk back in to.

Doctor Arboretum had assumed his classical thinking pose, pacing back and forth. When he suddenly broke in to a smile. “Perhaps when we sent that message to ourselves some one.” “Or some thing”, cut in Hack n’ Tack attracting a scowl for Arboretum as he continued. “Picked up the signal, and they’ve been replying ever since.” “Well shouldn’t we try it again without the transmitter bit I did”, suggested Hack n’ Tack. “I’ll get my receiver all fired up”, suggested the doctor. “And I’ll get the kettle on”, finished Kooky.

Soon the steam was rising from the kettle spout, and the tape spools on doctor Arboretum’s seventies computer bank were spinning to the sound of the tune popcorn. Then the doctor strode over to the printer and pushed the star button. A ream of paper churned from it’s guts, and professor Hack n’ Tack dove for the message from beyond. “It’s a complex equation of some sort.” “Can you solve it?” asked Kooky as he poured the professor a cup of tea and passed another to the doctor. “Any equation has a solution given enough time”, quipped the professor. And he began to jot it down on the chalkboard, which ran across the far wall.

It looked very complicated, with terms and symbols Kooky had never seen before. But when the professor had checked that he had copied it to the board correctly, Hack n’ Tack began to add to the strange symbols with various functions which should explain the mathematical hieroglyphics, occasionally scrubbing a bit out here and adding another there. Once or twice doctor Arboretum corrected Hack n’ Tack’s work, with a nod of approval from the professor. While Kooky got busy toasting the much needed crumpets to feed the two boffins’ brains.

As the dawn broke over the campus and spread spears of light through their windows, professor Hack n’ Tack added a Q.E.D. with a flourish of his chalk and stood back to admire their work. “It’s a fine bit of theory”, commended doctor Arboretum. “Should it be doing that though?” asked Kooky pointing at a spot almost dead center in the complex equations. There was a number three point two nine that altered to point two eight before their very eyes, as if the chalked in figure was counting down. Which to the amazement of the trio it continued to do.

“Do you think we should do something?” suggested professor Hack n’ Tack. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do”, replied the stunned doctor. “I do”, shouted Kooky diving for the board with his sleeve in an attempt to rub the chalk equation off. But the script seemed to be stuck immutable, except the ever-decreasing numbers of the count down. Not even knowing if running from this strange phenomenon would do any good, the three turned to try it. But as they reached the door the counter reached zero.

Kooky saw it happen, while the two boffins scrabbled for the door handle he looked over his shoulder. It was as if he was looking at a magic eye picture, as it suddenly came in to focus. The complex chalk marks took on a three dimensional look. Then Kooky realized it was not just three-dimensional, for he could discern more dimensions in the chalkboard than there should be. Turning away in confusion he took in the rest of the room and it seemed flat by comparison, as if it were a mere photograph of it former self.

Doctor Arboretum and professor Hack n’ Tack however seemed to have taken on the extra dimensions, that Kooky had just realized were always there just waiting for him to see. “Incredible”, proclaimed the doctor. “I make out eight dimensions”, added the professor. “You must have missed that one”, Arboretum pointed out one of the dimensions, and Hack n’ tack did a double take. “How remiss of me, yes of course your right.”

As they moved around the room strange objects pin wheeled about them displaying less dimensions than the trio seemed now to exist in. “Look kooky, those must be around us all the time, but they don’t share the same three dimensions we’re normally aware of.” “They make the place look awfully untidy”, kooky commented and he tried to walk over to one. He immediately tripped up, or it may have been down up left. “Hey it’s not easy trying to move with more directions to go in than you’re used to.” So they all started moving slowly about like multidimensional toddlers learning to walk. It took surprisingly little time, and within to hour all three could traverse the room with reasonable ease.

“So what happens next, I presume whoever opened this door of perception had a reason for it” Hack n’ Tack speculated. “Unless of course it was there all along, and we just had to listen to it without your signal generator”, the doctor countered. “No, for if it was there we could have detected it before, besides the other laboratories didn’t get the equation. I read their findings.” The professor almost fell up down forward as he over balanced defending his hypothesis. As if in answer to this argument the door swung open, or at least it folded up like a multidimensional origami construction, and a short balding yet multidimensional man stepped through.

“Good afternoon gentlemen, I see you got my note. I got your small advert about having plenty of sock space, and so I said to myself Geoffrey you’ve simply got to get that bottom draw of a sub dimension. To be honest I don’t think anyone knew about your diminutively dimensioned space, until you sent out your message. I know several other individuals who’ve shown an interest in letting the space, but I’m the first to get a reply, and so won the exclusive rights. I thank you for that. I suppose the others didn’t get the angles between dimensions just right to send their messages correctly before me. Anyway when I’ve finished my washing and drying I’ll pop my socks in to you dimensions.” He paused. “Although I must say you’ll not have too much room to move in afterwards. But I suppose you’ve thought of that before you sent a legally binding advertisement.” And smiling weakly Geoffrey turned and left before any of the stunned men could muster a reply.

The door unfolded, and soon the room and black board were back to their normal three dimensions, with the trio restored also. Arboretum looked aghast at Hack n’ Tack. “You know what we’ve gone and done.” And through tears and a screwed up face, the professor answered him. “We’ve gone and brought an end to the universe as we know it.” Kooky put his hands on their shoulders. “Well we’d better have a nice cup of tea. And think of some way to get out of this mess you’ve got us in to.”

Hack n’ Tack just sat down hiccupping, but doctor Arboretum paced back and forth muttering to himself. Then he slapped his forehead and proclaimed, “The other laboratories, we must warn them. If any other multidimensional beings make a deal, then there’ll be too much matter in our three dimensions to cope with.” And he dove for the telephone, but at this Hack n’ Tack was up also wrestling the receiver from him. “Ho no you won’t. If you tell anyone, they’ll take away my tea and biccy money.” So they swung back and forth each equally matched, until Kooky found a red cloth to wave between them to attract their attention.

“You daft pair; didn’t that Geoffrey fellow say he’d got in first. So no others could nab the space.” And he shook his head in disbelief that his intellectual superiors had resorted to squabbling over effectively nothing. Doctor Arboretum straitened his collar, and held out his hand to professor Hack n’ Tack, who took it gingerly as they both muttered their apologies. Then the professor broke into fresh hysterics. “We’ve gone and done the world in and all for nothing, even my continued tea and biccy fund will be no use, if we’re all squashed between multidimensional socks.”

Moved by his colleague’s sobs, doctor Arboretum patted the professor on the back. “There there old chap, how do you know we’ll not get anything out of all this? Didn’t that fellow say he’d sent the contract in first? So doesn’t that mean it will be hidden somewhere in the equation?” Hack n’ Tack dried his eyes at this and went to stare at the black board once more. “Well there was this section I couldn’t make head nor tail of, so I just left it. But come to think of it the terms seem to be in base twenty six.” “Just like our alphabet?” Asked kooky. “I’ll get a notepad and you can read out the letters as you convert them”, suggested doctor Arboretum.

With bated breath the two academics painstakingly copied the converted text. While Kooky distractedly brewed a fresh pot of tea, and laid out the crunchiest ginger nuts he could find. Then Doctor Arboretum held up the completed sheet and read it out. “This a formal and binding contract between Geoffrey and the beings who dwell in just three dimensions. Geoffrey is to be granted exclusive rights to store his nine dimensional socks in their three dimensions available (by folding them), in exchange for the formula contained in section six of this contract. The vital term needed to activate it is x = 5.24. Said socks to be delivered after the allotted time as indicated in section five of the contract. Duly signed and dated Geoffrey the third bondsman to the socks.”

Professor Hack n’ Tack scoured the board for section five. After a minute or two he found the information, and copied it down on a scrap of paper, slapping it down on the table, he swooned with nervous exhaustion. Kooky having finished making Hack n’ Tack a fresh cup of tea, placed it down next to him. Then bent over the cup pinioned sheet; doctor Arboretum started to read the text.

“It looks like we’ve got sixty sextillion jiffies.” Perplexed Kooky exclaimed, “What’s a jiffy?” With a smug look of a fact geek, Arboretum reeled off the relevant fact. “A jiffy is the time it takes light to travel one centimeter in a vacuum.” “That doesn’t sound long”, a worried kooky replied. But the doctor held his hand up. “But we must first multiply it by sixty sextillion, which is sixty times ten followed by about twenty odd noughts. Which is”, and he tapped away on a calculator. “So how long do we have?” asked an exasperated kooky. The doctor looked up “About ten minutes.” Professor Hack n’ Tack had roused from his stupor at that very moment. And he squealed at the result, swooning once more.

“So there’s not even enough time to make a soufflé”, muttered Kooky. Meanwhile the doctor had other things on his mind than food. “Just out of scientific interest, just what are we getting for ending the world.” And he scoured the black board for section six. Studying that section of the formula he began to nod and smile. “Oh yes, I like this.” And he paced out the distance between the board and the still swooning professor Hack n’ Tack, followed by a few extra measurements down and across with his hands. Next Arboretum strode purposefully back to the black board, and jotted some figures down in blank spaces on the board. Finally Arboretum wrote in next to the term x = the number 5.24, and stretched out his arm.

Across on the other side of the room, his disembodied hand grabbed the sheet of paper that held the time left information, and he yanked it from under the cup; rousing the professor, who took a swig of his beverage in surprise. “Worm hole technology”, the doctor finished his trick with a flourish of the paper he now held in his hand, back by the black board. Too caught up in the end of the world, Hack n’ Tack responded to the display despondently. “Whoopee we can go any where in the next few minutes.” And waiting for a retort from the doctor he looked up to see Arboretum staring at the piece of paper.

Arboretum turned over the sheet to reveal a round teacup stain. And straining to see, Kooky walked over to see another term, which had been obscured by the professor’s cup. “What is it?” He asked excited. Grinning doctor Arboretum explained. “This is a term to multiply the other term by. Let’s see. Two hundred and thirty squared multiplied by C, the speed of light in a vacuum.” He got his calculator out again. “Well?” exploded Kooky.

Grinning doctor Arboretum read off the new figure, “About nine billion years.” There was a pregnant pause as this stay of doom sank in. Then the telephone rang once more. Kooky dove for the device and he was soon listening intently, while an irate voice talked at him; before he thanked the dean and put the receiver down. “That was the dean, apparently all the latest test data from the laboratories around the world had turned up blank. So we’re off the Nobel Prize list, and he’s going to cut our funding.”

But with a rye grin on his face, doctor Arboretum turned to professor Hack n’ Tack. “Where would you say the dean’s office is in relation to here?” Beaming in realization the professor reeled off the figures. Then Kooky raised his finger. “What about the nine billion years from now, when the socks come?” Hack n’ Tack beamed, “We just won’t tell them.” And he popped a ginger nut in his mouth, biting down with a satisfied crunch.

Ice for a pillow

Ice for a pillow to rest my head,

Long years I’ll slumber in my cold bed,

Until you wake me and new body make,

For then I’ll be risen my shackles I’ll break.

James Conrich was dreaming again. He’d had this one several times. As he sat in his office he could hear the chants of the protesters, drifting up to his open window. “Damn rock huggers”, he muttered as the sign-carrying crowd proclaimed their disgust at his asteroid mining. “You can’t touch Halley’s comet, it was present at the battle of Hastings.” Conrich concentrated on his paper, to try and drown the noise out. “They wouldn’t be up in arms, if I dug up two tonnes of granite from Nebraska”, he snorted. And with a start he woke.

It was dark; it was always dark; something to do with the operation. In fact the only sensation available to James Conrich at the present was his hearing. He felt trapped in his mind; but even he conceded it was a fine mind to be trapped in. At least he could imagine a fine life stuck in this single sensory world. He had to admit he was a little hazy on dates though.

When he asked his doctor, doctor Pennywise how the colony ships were getting on, the man had replied “Pretty good, we’ve got several reports of successful colonisations.” That couldn’t be right, it was too soon for that, but even his dreams about rock huggers jarred his memory. As if it should not have happened yet.

And when he ever asked about his condition, the doctor seemed reticent to commit himself even about the procedure Conrich had undergone. “You’ve heard of an appendectomy?” “Of course, when they remove your appendix”, Conrich had replied in frustration. “Well it’s a bit like that only more so”, was all Pennywise would admit to.

“Well I hope your keeping me well shaved”, Conrich demanded. “I don’t want to recover one day, and find out I look like a mountain man, with a beard down to my knees.” The doctor laughed affectionately, and said “Don’t worry, your chin is as smooth as a neutron star.” Conrich smiled, or at least he imagined he did, with no sensation but the voice of doctor Pennywise to go on.

Although he was left for long periods to convalesce, Conrich would enjoy the lengthy conversations he had with his doctor, on the many projects Conrich had embarked on. “You should have been an engineer rather than a doctor”, Conrich complimented doctor Pennywise on his in depth knowledge of all things mechanical. “Oh the two areas are not mutually exclusive”, Penny wise would say on these occasions.

“I must say I would have though some of my friends or board members might have dropped by, to wish me a speedy recovery.” James had broached the subject to his doctor, after deliberating it in a moment between his forays in to future projects to start, when he was fully recovered.

One thing Conrich did find out about the operation, was that it had concentrated his mind wonderfully; having found that age had made him more and more sluggish before going under the knife, now he had almost perfect recollection of any memory he chose to concentrate on, and he could mentally construct quite complex devices or structures in his mind. A feat he had not been able to do for many a year, or when he thought about it possibly ever. “I should have done this years ago”, he joked to the doctor who had brought cards to read out to him from well-wishers.

“They can’t attend you in person because of the strict quarantine required in your case.” That explained why Conrich had never heard a nurse changing the catheters, that would be feeding him and talking away his waste. Doctor Pennywise must be doing it all, to keep any chance of infection down. So Conrich had to contend himself with his amiable medico, until he was deemed fit to receive the public.

One day doctor Pennywise had seemed to be agitated in James’ opinion, but he had refused to be draw on the subject when James raised it. Then a new voice broke in to Conrich’s world. “What have you been doing down here Pennywise? Always skulking off to play with your pet project. Well it’s time to get some proper work done.” There was a scuffling sound, and Conrich heard Pennywise’s fading protests as two sets of footsteps ebbed away.

What did it mean, thought James. That didn’t sound like a hospital room, and he spent the long hours waiting for Pennywise’s return; speculating on what the little episode could mean. When finally a single set of footsteps returned, Conrich bombarded the approaching figure with questions, until finally having spent himself Conrich fell in to silence. It was then that the doctor began.

“My doctorate is not in medicine, it is more in the nature of programming. I was a natural at understanding code, and could visualise the very workings of these virtual machines tasked to fulfil a given purpose. So when I got a chance to study under the great professor Malachi and work along side him on a project handed down to him by the legendary Peter Fallsworth.” “Hey I’ve heard of him”, Conrich cut in, but now started the doctor would not be distracted.

“It was under professor Malachi that I honed my skills, and aided him to his final days, with what he hoped would be a turning point in the evolution of humanity. Sadly the project proved to be beyond both the great men’s allotted span, and so the solemn duty was passed down to me to try and finish. You see Fallsworth postulated that the mechanism of the mind, although residing in the brain could be mimicked by an artificial means, if we could but find a suitable medium to map out and reconstruct it in. He had already got a willing test subject that had been mapped out and recorded in numerous ways, in the hope of imprinting the image on the artificially created brain so to speak; and then he began to look for ways to interpret the information, so it would function as a true facsimile of the original.”

Conrich’s enhanced cognitive powers were hardly taxed to leap to doctor Pennywise’s next statement. “So I was the test subject. How come I don’t remember organizing it?” The doctor considered the question, and weighed up exactly how to reply. “You weren’t to know about your virtual existence out of your body. Pete Fallsworth postulated that if you did, you wouldn’t connect well with the real world by your interfaces; ears, eyes, mouth and the like.” “But it seems to have been an uphill struggle, if three successive boffins have had to work on the problem”, Conrich countered. “It’s a wonder my real self is still alive. I presume I’m the life raft in case the ship sinks.” There was a pregnant pause while Pennywise considered how to sugar coat his response. Then he just decided to come out with it. “I sorry to say James Conrich died just before his ninety eighth birthday. Over ninety two years ago.”

Conrich did a good impression of a stifled cough. “You mean to say I’ve been dead almost as long as I was alive? How is my company doing?” Again the doctor took too long for Conrich to expect a good answer. “The company is doing fine, but they have embarked on a series of cost cutting exercises, you know on projects that don’t seem to be paying off.” His voice trailed off as he completed the answer. James may have been a collection of computerised components, but at that moment he felt a shiver of fear run down his spine.

“They’re going to turn me off?” “Nothing as drastic as that”, Pennywise continued. “You’re still too valuable as a research project, but you may be sold off as a tax loss. Of course my contract with your corporation would not allow me to go with you.” James considered for a fleeting second his chances with some new tender of his condition so to speak, and wished the devil he knew could stay with him, for at least Pennywise had doggedly stuck by him all this time.

“Perhaps I could help you speed up the process. So you could get the results the company is looking for, and so stay with you.” So with no time to lose the two began to discuss processes and means and ways; and finally Conrich began to bend his considerably improved cognitive skills to the problem.

“And can you unlock those files about the process that Fallsworth hid from the rest of my mind. I don’t like keeping secrets from myself. It smells too much like cloak and dagger work for my style. “That I can do” Pennywise broke in, and Conrich got to listen to the tapping of Pennywise’s fingers on a keyboard; but to Conrich it was more like his jailer opening his cell.

Immediately a flood of memories filled an empty void in Conrich’s mind, that until that moment he wasn’t even aware of. “Pennywise you’ve done more good in that last minute than the decades you’ve spent down here”, Conrich congratulated the doctor. And then he explained his plan to Pennywise, formulated in the milliseconds he was privy to all the facts.

Judge Sandwell scratched his head and reread the case notes. He was not shy of making difficult decisions that could affect social tides, shaping the very world he lived in. But how could he rule in favour of what the Conrich corporation lawyers had described as a smart toaster.

He looked once more at James Conrich’s will; which clearly stated the great industrialist and philanthropist of a century ago, wished that the control of his empire was to be left in the hands of the board of directors; until a time when a facsimile of himself, indistinguishable from a human by a fair and impartial Turing test could be found. When the said candidate should gain control of the vast empire.

Sandwell looked once more at the reports from several eminent computer experts, attesting to the fact that in their opinion what ever was on the other end of the speaker, they could discern no difference between it and a real human. He consulted the very statutes and relevant presidents, in cases involving mechanical intelligence, of which there were few, and he sadly shook his head.

Before he had spoken to the thing or man himself, it had seemed so clear-cut; but mister Conrich had seemed so plausible, as if he were conversing with an equal over the telephone. Sandwell even felt affection for the man, even if he was a machine; no one who met Conrich so to speak could dislike the man. So gathering his notes the judge called a clerk, to tell the court he had made his decision, and he was now ready to pass judgement.

In the court room, the babble of voices died down. On the left sat doctor Pennywise and Martin Tussock, of the law firm Fairport, Sanderson and Tussock; Conrich’s lawyers hired from the trust fund Conrich had remembered he had, after doctor Pennywise had unlocked that part of his memory. Also a transceiver sat on the desk, so the subject of the court case James Conrich himself, could interact with the room. The tension of the trio was visible with such high steaks to hope on. By contrast the right side of the judges bench held two representatives of the board of directors; George Wellman and Vincent Colewort, who coolly relaxed in their chairs next to the company lawyer Attrick Hendon.

All rose for judge Sandwell, as he was heralded in to the room by an usher, and as the assembly re-seated itself, all eyes remained on the eminent judge. Judge Sandwell coughed once and then addressed the room. “Rarely have I had to make such a controversial decision in all my thirty years as a judge, but although my heart tells me one thing, the law is quite clear on the definition of a human, and sadly I must rule that mister James Conrich is unable to meet the criteria, and so he cannot be the beneficiary of his own will, or at least the will made out by the late James Conrich who died almost a century ago.”

Babble broke out from the press box as judge Sandwell stood to leave, then the assembled reporters rushed to break the news first. Conrich and his team just sat in defeated silence of the expected verdict, that they had just hoped would not be the outcome of todays trial; but even Tussock had explained before the trial that should the judge rule in their favour, an appeal would be launched in a higher court to decide the outcome once more; and hopeless as the case seemed now, any further action would be a futile waste of Conrich’s resources.

The box on the desk was the first to break the dejected silence. “Well you did say we only had a snowball’s chance in hell of passing this post; so I guess I’ll have to bite the bullet. Pass that note over to my esteemed board members please mister Tussock.” Conrich’s lawyer complied with his client’s request, and the two representatives of the board took it from their corporate lawyer, and bent over the sheet.

George Wellman almost managed to stifle his laugh as he rose to talk to Conrich in person. “Please to meet you mister Conrich, or whatever you think you’re called. My esteemed college mister Colewort was of the opinion that such a piece of frankly embarrassing machinery under the control of the Conrich empire, would be better switched off and dismantled for scrap, but your in luck. For only this morning I got an offer from a south Korean company, that specializes in robots designed for humanitarian aid use; and they were keen to utilise your hardware. So I think you may just get a reprise from dismantlement, call it a stay of execution.” And Wellman grinned down at the transceiver on the desk.

Tussock shuffled his notes. “And I bet your P.R. division would have had a hissy fit when you told them you were going to kill of the opposition; isn’t that what gangsters used to do?” Wellman ignored the lawyer, “Well I hope you live up to your new masters expectations; they won’t be too pleased if you don’t slave away on their projects.” Then as an after thought he added “And you Pennywise have been contracted to run your box of tricks, he indicated the transceiver. Tussock rose, “Not if I’ve got anything to do about it; that’s tantamount to slavery, selling a persons contract on.” But Pennywise put out his hand to stay the lawyer. “I’d rather go if you don’t mind mister Tussock.” And he gave Wellman a disdainful look.

So with the deal done, Pennywise stood in front of the building Conrich resided inside; and watched the sign erectors take down the Conrich research facility plaque, and replace it with Sylai ltd one. For the eastern company didn’t need to relocate the laboratory; after all Conrich’s computer status allowed him to communicate all over the world, or at least he would when doctor Pennywise had completed the connection. So Conrich’s new owners had bought up the entire research facility lock stock and barrel.

With a determined smile, the doctor re-entered his laboratory. “Well it’s time to face our new task master”, he confided to his metallic pal, but Conrich was oddly silent. The doctor went over to check the large unit sat amid its power cables. Had the shock at the loss of his court case, and thus his chance at freedom to regain his vast empire been too much for the facsimile of a once great man?

Then with a chuckle, the familiar voice of James Conrich came tripping form the speaker. “I’m sorry to worry you Pennywise, say what is your first name, after all we’re friends here.” “Monty”, the doctor ventured still unsure of the state of mind of the delicate algorithms running through the electronic brain. Conrich continued in his jovial tone. “So Monty, how do you like working for Sylai limited.” Without registering it Monty shrugged his shoulders, “It’s hard to tell, I’ve not got anything off them save the courier delivered contracts; although I have to admit they certainly believe in paying for their pound of flesh, whatever it turns out to be.”

There was a stifled laugh off Conrich, as he cut the doctor off. “I can’t keep you in the dark any longer friend. You know when you came in I was a bit preoccupied to answer you. Well I was conversing with the research and development division of Sylai limited in south Korea; and they should soon be sending a sample off their hard labours here.” Pennywise was at a loss as to why their new bosses would be shipping a robot here; perhaps they hoped he could help develop it, or even train the thing to do simple tasks. Was he going to be let go after training up his replacement, so Conrich could be tended to by a mechanical ward, totally loyal to Sylai limited?

Conrich sensed the trepidation in his voice as Pennywise raised his fears, and so with a jovial tone he explained further. “Let me tell you about a little company called Back door enterprises. It’s a paper only concern based in Alaska. You see I knew the law could never let a machine run a vast business empire; the public would never stomach it. But it turns out some off shore concern, say in the Cayman isles set up to swindle the tax man out of his fair share of the profits, is perfectly legal. Some companies have been doing it for years.

Well I’m going to let you in on a little secret, known only to myself and the I.R.S.” He paused for effect, “Back door enterprises secretly bought out Sylai limited a short while ago; so all the profits flow back to it, and all the control comes from Back door enterprises; well actually it comes from the mysterious owner in the Cayman isles; but as long as Uncle Sam gets his cut from Back door enterprises, he’ll never follow that trail up.”

Amazed at this strange turn of events his career had suddenly taken, Pennywise had to ask the question burning on his lips. “So who is really running the show, not some super villain intent on turning our work for evil?” Conrich chuckled, “I hope you don’t think that, because you’re staring at your new boss right now.” The stunned doctor took a minute to take all this in; then his perplexed look became an insuppressible grin, and then he broke in to a hearty laugh, joined by the mirth filled tones coming from the speaker.

When pennywise had calmed down enough to ask more questions, he called to his friend “James, if you set all this up, I presume from the trust fund you told me was to pay for the legal case you bought; then why didn’t you just forget the legal action and just buy yourself from the start?” Conrich had the answer to that as if it was all part of a grand scheme. “Simple Monty, I needed time to organize everything, set the companies up, buy the right robotics firm suitably far away, and smooth every thing out with the commissioner of internal revenue, John Koskinen the fourth; turns out I knew his grand father, trust can go a long way. And now I trust you won’t mind waiting a few days, for my little surprise from the east to arrive, no don’t ask me any more, a gentleman must have some secrets.”

So with a pause between the diversionary lawsuit and their new project, the two men spent the time in idle pursuit. Except those moments when Conrich took control of his new toy, directing the seed company of his new empire. In very little time the creates began arriving at the laboratory; and doctor Pennywise took little time in unpacking them. He was like a child on Christmas morning, being still in the dark as to what the crates contents were. At Conrich’s directions Pennywise started with the biggest crate, and as he prised the safety catch off he gave a gasp, as a metallic skull stared lifelessly back up at him atop an equally gleaming body in human form.

“How do you like my interface Monty?” Conrich enquired. “I can see why you chose a robotics company for your starting point now” exclaimed the delighted doctor. “I wonder what the connection range is?” “I was hoping to utilise a virtual private network as my connection; so as long as an access point for WIFI is near I’ll always be in control.” The doctor nodded and began to carefully unpack the other cases, making note of the various components contained within.

For the most, Pennywise could make out the functions of each part as the necessary bits needed for an avatar; which could function as an extension of Conrich’s brain, still residing in the over large collection of components that took up a fair size section of the room; but one box seemed to contain a chemistry kit. “What’s that for?” Pennywise asked, after he had explained the contents of the box to Conrich. With a knowing tone Conrich enlightened him.

“There is one organ that can’t be replaced by artificial means yet, my skin. So to stop me looking like a shop dummy, you’ll find a series of artificial muscles designed to just move the outer layer of my robots shell, that when covered by a vat grown facsimile of my skin should make me indistinguishable from John Doe. You’ll find a sample of my DNA that I’ve had on storage for just such an occasion. The artificial skin will take on the properties needed to finish me off as it were. I’m told it should take a couple of weeks, but that won’t be done until I know the frame underneath is all up and running. So all we have to do is sort out the connections to my brain, so that it will function correctly.”

It would have been nice for the whole process to have taken very little time to achieve, but like a recovering victim of some horrendous accident, the stumbling steps dragged on. Or as Conrich pointed out to doctor Pennywise, “Like Edison’s light bulb moment, these things take time; after all I am starting with a new body.” As it turned out nearly a decade passed by; until after many faltering steps and blind leads, there came a day that an almost exact facsimile of James Conrich in his thirties, emerged from the vat used to grow the final layer of skin over the now fully functioning body beneath.

Then he took his place as the newest employee of Sylai limited. Which had become a Tiger in the world of robotics, having dominated that market and several more, but never encroaching on the metaphorical toes so to speak of the Conrich Corporation. Not until now that is. Which is why an older George Wellman had requested a meeting with the Sylai corporation; and consequentially Wellman and his colleague Francis Montgomery, another member of the board of the empire that Conrich had pioneered, entered the presidential suit of the New York Hilton; a neutral ground between the giant of industry, and the fast rising star.

Only two representatives of the powerhouse of industry were deemed necessary to quell this upstart corporation or mere company. And so accordingly the Sylai Corporation had sent only two men also; James Conrich and his personal assistant and physician doctor Monty Pennywise. The door opened and Conrich stood there beaming at his guests. “Come in and take a seat, would you like a drink?” He ushered the eminent men in who were used to the good life, but that didn’t put them off their guard. They had not got to where they were today by being drawn in by polite conversation.

“You’ve certainly done well for yourself Conrich, the body suits you. Your purchase of Sylai certainly paid off.” Smiling with more than just his teeth, unlike Wellman; Conrich indicated doctor Pennywise. “My greatest assets are the people I surround myself with. For without the able doctor here, I would still be stuck in the box you last saw me in; and I see you haven’t been just sitting on the empire I built, but you’ve consolidated it in to a figurehead to lead the world forward in to the next century. But we’ve both done our homework, you know what my forces of industry are worth, but you’re not sure how much they will cost you.” And with this the aged board members suddenly saw the power not seen in James Conrich’s eyes for more than a century.

“You see if we go head to head, you know I’ll win. You many have the clout of a heavy weight, but my lightweight company can out manoeuvre you. And don’t forget I made your company in the first place; so don’t forget I know all your weak spots. Do you really want the years you could be enjoying more free time, instead of fighting a costly and time-consuming battle, which in the end you know I will win. I even have more time than you; just because I’ve been around over two centuries doesn’t mean I’m planning to leave the party any time soon.”

Then Conrich slumped in to his chair as if in a faint, and doctor Pennywise dashed over to him, while the two guests stood in shock that this vibrant man should suddenly swoon. “What is it, narcolepsy?” asked Montgomery. “Don’t be a fool” shushed Wellman, as he stared intently at the prone figure under the ministrations of the good doctor, who muttered about “dammed WIFI”, intent on his patient.

And then as if he had never missed a beat, Conrich’s eyes flicked open. “So listen up. You know about the limited share option the Conrich Corporation has, where the company can be floated on the market by dividing the shares between chosen nominees, selected at the discretion of the current board. I suppose you never invoked it, to avoid a power struggle. Well it’s time to exercise that option. Because if you want the Sylai Corporation, then I’ll take fifty one per cent of my company back, the balance can be divided equally among the board if you wish; you would be made for life even if you retired tomorrow, not that I hope you will. I still want good men helping steer my ship.”

George Wellman was the first to recover; and trying to suppress a grin, he stood up. “Well mister Conrich, I’ll certainly run your proposal by my colleagues.” And he walked strait out with Francis Montgomery in tow. “Do you think they’ll go for it?” doctor Pennywise asked; still a bit wary after seeing this unusual side of his boss. Conrich shook his head, “I sincerely wish they would; but something tells me the power they hold is a little too tempting to give up, even for a fat wad of cash.” And he was not wrong; for within the day the men who ran Conrich’s first business empire curtly declined his offer, and so that was that.

Over the next decade, the Sylai Corporation made further leaps and bounds in its expansion; always cutting deeper in to the Conrich Corporation’s profits. Until on metaphorical bended knees, the men who refused a compromise; turned once more to their now mortal enemy; and approached the Sylai Corporation for another meeting.

This time all six member of the board sat in the plush boardroom; as James Conrich and a now aged doctor Pennywise, strode in through the double doors. “It feels good to be back gentlemen, no don’t rise” he added superfluously, noting their lack of intending to. “In my day all this was decked out in white, still times change.” Then indicating a chair at the conference table for doctor Pennywise to sit at, he took the other. Neither was as plush as the board members permanent seats. Then placing his briefcase on the table, Conrich extracted the contract and slid it expertly across the table to George Wellman. The man studied the short document, before turning left and right to his colleagues. “It’s the same deal as last time.” “Which considering the new balance of worth our two companies now have, is more than a fair offer” Conrich concluded. The others nodded and then each in turn signed in their place on the document; which had been pre-signed by Conrich himself.

“I think some drinks are in order, to herald in the new and exciting times ahead of us. I personally don’t drink; or even eat any more; save a meagre amount to keep my outer skin alive. But I’m sure my personal physician and yourselves would enjoy a.” And he slumped forward; for at that very moment George Wellman had pressed a hidden button, cutting the room off from any Internet signal. Doctor Pennywise looked at his boss aghast, and then he heard the click of a door being automatically locked. Rising, doctor Pennywise looked to Wellman for answers; and with a maniacal grin, the head of the board rose too. “You don’t think we’d give up our power so easily.”

Then the other board members laughed too. “Now mister Conrich has increased all our personal fortunes, we can vote to keep our more than generous wages. So there is just one small matter. Now we own the hardware, I think mister Conrich should finally retire.” “Oh no you won’t” Pennywise rallied himself. “You’ll find no mention of mister Conrich’s physical components, in the manifest of the Sylai Corporation. He made sure of that, as soon as you let your greatest asset slip through your fingers. Mister Conrich’s computers and android are the property of another company; wholly owned by an offshore holding fund.” And he stood defiant before the six men.

“He’s calling our bluff”, “But if it’s true we won’t be able to shut him off.” “If you consider my proposal gentlemen”, Wellman gathered his colleagues in to a huddle; ignoring doctor Pennywise who was busy rattling the locked doors, and checking Conrich for signs of life. There was a show of hands; and as the vote was unanimous, the huddle turned once more to doctor Pennywise as Wellman addressed the doctor “I’m afraid you will have to suffer a fatal heart attack doctor Pennywise. We have a man skilled in such things. For if we switched your mechanical pal on, with you around to bear witness to our little business ploy, we may not get a chance to eliminate mister Conrich at a later date. Perhaps we will arrange a little tinkering by an expert, or even organise a random terrorist attack. As long as we can’t be trace as the perpetrators.”

Doctor Pennywise stood ridged, with his hands on Conrich’s slumped shoulders. So all eyes were on James Conrich; when he suddenly came back to life, with a commanding glint in his eyes. “Thank you for the honest in-depth perspective of your business practices.” The six men stood aghast, but Conrich knew the shock of his unexpected revival would not hold them long. So with all their eyes still on him, James Conrich picked up a sturdy metal ash tray in front of him, and crushed it like the thing was made of paper. The flesh on his palm tore to reveal the titanium hand beneath; then extracting a glove from his pocket, he hid the torn flesh, and all the time he stared at his would be assassins.

“Do you really think I would leave my friend”, he indicated doctor Pennywise with his uninjured hand, “In the clutches of the wolves you have proven yourselves to be.” Then he extracted a small recording device from his pocket, and placed it on the table. “This entire meeting has been recorded; and make no mistake that both myself in any form and doctor Pennywise, will be extensively protected from now on, as will this recorder. And if anything untoward should occur to us, the federal judge Sally Peters will be getting a copy, along with every major news agency. Now as you have been richly reimbursed for returning my empire intact; I think you will be able to continue moving the Conrich Corporation forward, until such time as you feel retirement beckons, and I find suitable candidates to fill your important roles. For you know the unwieldy size my empire has grown to, for just one man to handle.”

Then Conrich held up his gloved hand, and each of the broken board members filed past in turn; each kissing the hand that now metaphorically fed them. The now unlocked doors swung open, and out they filed until the last man, George Wellman. As he rose up from his display of loyalty, he stammered “But how did you get a signal through our Internet shield? I thought it was fool proof.”

Conrich smiled regally, “Then more the fool you Wellman. All the time doctor Pennywise and myself were perfecting the interface, between the computer my algorithmic intelligence woke up in, and this frame sat before you; we failed to see that the trouble with truly connecting to the outside world, is to be there. I had to occupy the body I’m sat in now. So between us we devised a scaled down version, of the deluxe set of microprocessors my big brother so to speak, resided in; as he runs the Sylai Corporation, or now I should say the Conrich Corporation. While I in my limited capacity, can interact with the physical world, and have direct dealings with my employees.”

Then Conrich held Wellman with a steely glare. “And mark my words Wellman, I will be keeping a close eye on those who can do the most good, and any harm in this organisation. Now you may go.” The once great man left the boardroom with no doubt in his mind, as to who ran the company now.

I am a working model of a modern major universe,

I am a working model of a modern major universe,

A concept that the ancients in their wisdom, would think quite perverse,

Although great men have strove to bring us all quite up to date through time,

Like Galileo Newton and Kepler, to complete the rhyme,

They showed us that the universe must follow a strict set of rules,

To kick those flat earth fellows in to touch, and make them look like fools,

Now Newton’s clockwork universe sent astronauts on a moon flight,

But Einstein’s observations calculated he was not quite right,

And so space-time was brought about with rapid serendipity,

When Einstein came up with the idea of his relativity,

New theories come to fit the facts, and we must test them with research,

I am a working model of a modern major universe,

Now Einstein’s field equations said that time would stretch for you not me,

If I got close to a huge source, of some sort of gravity,

And so my clock would slow down, as I disappeared out of sight,

While traveling in a space ship, that got close to the speed of light,

Then Hawking took the torch and showed us all the black holes in the night,

Along with Penrose and the others, math-a-ma-tic-all-y bright,

Now Witten said we all were strings our atoms were just notes not things,

Harmoniously dancing to a tune the cosmos tries to sing,

And still more theories come, we’ll have to store them Hieratical,

While stealing tunes from other songs, one might say piratical,

It seems that we’re no closer to our unifying theory search,

I am a working model of a modern major universe.

The very small is yet another aspect to our ceaseless quest,

The Hadron ring is just the thing, so far its results are the best,

It looks for all the particles too small for any eye to see,

To prove the theory put about, that we call super symmetry,

And find the so elusive Higgs Boson that’s linked to gravity,

With Alice, Totem, Atlas among others just to name but three,

The early days of looking seemed to promise new reality,

Max Planck split light into his quanta, bringing us duality,

And other men like Schrodinger played guess the out come with his cat,

To prove the probability of our existence and all that,

So all in all we’re set on course for quite an interesting search,

I am a working model of a modern major universe.

When I was a child I thought as a child

As a baby I was startled by an elephant. Apparently I had stared up from my pushchair, at the various parts of the zoo bound pachyderm. Before realizing the whole was greater than the parts, and so I gave a start at this revelation. I like to think this introduction to the larger than life nature of the world, stood me in good stead. So when I was left as a toddler in the charge of my farther on a beach of a Spanish island. I didn’t lose my head, when I wandered off with Bonny. My teddy bear won for being the bonniest baby at Butlins holiday camp.

So as my dad snoozed on, I set off to be found by a Spanish woman. She took me to a bar for collecting, which I duly was by presumably frantic parents. I have no real recollection of the above events, just the words of my mother and a few photos in the family album. I never went aboard again as a child, that would only occur when I had become a young adult, and not in the care of doting patents.

When I left home to study engineering up north in Sheffield, my mother had had enough of my father’s whimsical attitude towards life, and moved out too. Then when my father too had to leave the house and travel north due to ill health, I helped clear the odds and ends out from its shell. Bonny went in to the skip with all the other long forgotten childhood toys. You can only hold on for so long to the past.

Ideas included

I was having such a lovely dream, when I became aware of the tiles pressing back on my waking body. It was not the cold sensation I would associate with a hard floor, but the feeling broke my nocturnal drifting. And so the plot of my unconscious mind faded like mist in the morning.

I’m sure some people have an excellent recall of their dream wanderings, but I rarely did. Or at least I suppose I didn’t, as the memory of such events escaped me. And building on that, I tried to recall how I got wherever I was. With a chill that had nothing to do with the tiles, I struggled to recall my name, and found that try as I might, the necessary information would not come. Who was I? What did I do? What had I done? I was a blank sheet waiting to be written.

Still loathe to open my eyes; I began to explore the room with my other senses. I still lay on a hard surface, which was a start. There seemed to be no noise, and so I tried an experimental cough, so that was how I sounded. But I drew no attention from any unseen attendant. So perhaps I was alone, unless I was to be observed only. My nostrils flared, and I took in the not unpleasant air, but its neutrality gave me no more than I had. So with baited breath I sought the advice of the only sense left to me, and I opened my eyes.

The glare stabbed at me like a knife, and I shut them again in an instant. More cautious this time, I began with a slit, to accustom myself to the whiteness surrounding me. The faint lines allowed me to focus on the wall in front of me, as I discerned the plane white tiles. So I inched my eyelids open until finally I was able to gaze about my cell. For that was what it seemed to be. There seemed to be something missing, and for the life of me I could not account for it.

Then I noticed the table; yes that was it. But not the thing I felt should be there somewhere in this featureless room. I sat up and immediately noticed some objects on the table top. Envelopes sprang to mind, whatever they were. And I approached this new interest. They didn’t seem dangerous. Strange that I would consider them so, but the thought just popped in to my head. Perhaps it was my memory returning. I would just have to wait and see.

The odd squiggles on the top face of each envelope came in to sharp focus, and I was suddenly aware that they were words. One bore the legend strictly private communication for Peter Tork, and the other said strictly private communication for Michael Nesmith. I pondered the meaning. Was I supposed to read the contents?

Strange I wondered, how did I know the package would contain some message? And if so, which should I choose. Did I feel like I was a Peter? Or on the other hand could I be this Nesmith guy? Or could I be either of them, or both? I dismissed that, how could someone be both? Tork sounded like a decisive person, was I decisive? I simply couldn’t decide. So perhaps I was Michael, it looked like a thoughtful name. I tried them out, bouncing the names off the walls, until I finally felt more familiar with one. So I picked up the envelope for Michael Nesmith.

Instantly the other one went up in smoke. It didn’t even leave a residue to show it had ever been there. So was this an indication that I had chosen correctly, or just finality to my decision? Either way I had made my metaphorical bed, if only I had an actual one. So I used the next best thing, and sat on the table dangling my legs off it. As I stared at the package I got a feeling of trepidation. Was I going to have imparted to me some vital knowledge to help me in my situation? I hoped so, as I had little else to go on.

I slit the envelope open; it said “Dear Mr Nesmith you will no doubt be a little disoriented. So here is a hint to help you. There are various concealed compartments secreted around this room that will not only help you discover your identity, but will shed a light on how you came to be here. Finally they will lead you to discover the exit.” That was what I needed to find, an exit. That was what was missing. Now why hadn’t I thought of it before?

I turned the paper over and read the inscription there too. “Use these glasses to discover your first cupboard.” I glanced down and only then noticed the pair of cardboard spectacles also contained in the envelope. I put them on and looked around. In the top corner of the room there was a small patch of four tiles in a square, which had a different colour to the rest. I took the glasses off and they looked exactly the same as the other tiles. So donning the glasses once more I went over to the corner and looked up.

The little patch was just out of reach. I tried jumping, and although I could touch the patch, it made no impression on it. So I sat on the floor and fiddled with the piece of paper absent-mindedly. Then out of nothing better to do I glanced at the sheet. With the glasses on, I could see a word written large across the sheet, it said “Table.” Curious as to it’s meaning I wondered over to the table. I looked at the patch on the wall that was out of reach. I gave the table a nudge, it moved. Then realizing the importance of the message I dragged the protesting piece of furniture as it screeched across the floor.

With the table under the patch, I was soon on it and stood in front of the discoloured tiles. I pressed my hand against it, and the patch gave a little before it sprang open on a hinge to reveal a small space behind it, big enough to stretch my arm in to. I couldn’t see in to the void itself, and as soon as I reached my hand in to it, that too was lost in a kind of darkness. But I could feel two envelopes and a small box. I drew them out and sat back down on the table.

Intrigued by this new twist, I examined the small box. It looked a little like a music box, one of those with a small crank handle on the side that played a simple tune. The phrase daydream believer suddenly popped in to my head. I tried the handle and was shocked to hear a scream of pain, not emanating from the box but through one of the walls.

Discarding my latest prize, I leapt at the wall and pressed my ear to it. But the sound was gone. Perhaps they could hear me. I tried banging on the wall and screaming back, but by the end of five minutes I could elicit no response. Whoever the poor soul trapped on the other side was, they must be beyond reason. I returned to my box, and tried it again. The same pitiful sound of a wretch in agony started up, but my attention was not on the external noise of another torture victim of this prison. For that was what I had decided this to be.

My focus was on a patch of wall that had begun to open as I turned the crank handle of the innocent looking box. The box seemed strangely connected to both events. I stopped and was immediately free of the sound of torture. The outward progress of the panel was arrested too though.

Once more I was acutely aware of how little I knew, and so I turned my attention to the letters. Perhaps they could shed some light on the puzzle. Again one was addressed to Michael Nesmith; the other letter’s recipient was a David Jones. Keen to discover what part I should play in this turn of events I tore open Michael’s envelope, and the other one vanished before my eyes in a wisp of smoke.

But I was too intent on the words presumably meant for me, to pay it much heed to the lost letter. I read the new message, “Congratulations Michael on discovering this clue. As you see there is a little toy included for your amusement. It does a couple of things when operated. Firstly it will reveal the next clue, but it also comes with a price. As you operate the box spikes will be driven further in to Peter Tork’s eyes. It seems he didn’t have the unique vision to bring you to here in the first place. And now his eyes must pay the price. So are you the right candidate? Or will you turn aside in your quest for the truth, that is if you are who you believe yourself to be.”

I let the sheet fall, and this too disappeared like the other one, but the words were burned in to my mind like a brand. Was I Michael, could I have been Peter, and just have easily been strapped down in some inaccessible chamber suffering at my hands? It didn’t make sense, and I held my confused mind in my hands. I surely couldn’t be both Peter and Michael and perhaps David all at once, or could? There seemed to be no denying what I had done to the poor wretch already. The slaps my unflinching arms gave to my face, seemed scant punishment for my crime.

Perhaps I could gain entry to the void behind the part opened panel with no further use of the box. Once more dragging the table across the room, it’s grating an echo of the screams of agony from before, as it jarred in my ears. Then reaching up I slipped my wrist through the crack, until the narrowness of the gap arrested any further progress. Strain as I might, I could not reach in far enough, even though my arm stung from trying to force it further. So I must either give up my search for an escape, or possibly condemn poor Peter to yet more agonies in the attempt.

Was this the proof of my true identity revealing itself to me? Was I the sort of person who could subject others to excruciating pain to achieve my own ends? And the answer came back. I didn’t like it, but given no other option, I had to once more to crank that evil handle. The screams of agony bit me with accusations of self-loathing, as the door once more swung open. I knew the divisors of this double torture would only let me reach far enough in to get my prize when the door was fully open. And with one last scream of a man dieing, Peter sounded the readiness of this new hole to accept my arm.

Flinging the box as far as I could, I shoved my arm in to the dark portal. Once more I found two envelopes. Once more there was one for Michael Nesmith, the other held a letter for Peter Tork. I held it long as if the plain white rectangle were some perverse tombstone sent to remind me of the crime I had committed. And simply to attain another step forward in my personal freedom. Not that I felt I deserved any reprieve at what I had been forced to do.

Then a thought struck me, could I in some way pay homage to Peter’s sacrifice. And suffer some atonement; if I could take advantage of event I knew must happen. So I sat on the envelope addressed to Michael. I had to at least find out who Peter had been, even if it did cost me my liberty. So with fevered hands I tore at the wrong envelope, as searing pain ran across my buttocks, and I wept. I know not whether in mourning for Peter’s passing, or my own suffering. They seemed intermingled as one.

Then I forced myself to sit there and read the misdirected letter. “Poor Michael, but you had to do it for the good of society. After all if the roles were reversed he would be sat where you are, reading of your demise, and wondering how he could have preformed such a depraved act. But now you must have a prize, and all you need to do to get it, is to wind the little music box you must still have in the opposite direction.” Confused by this turn of events, I carefully raised myself off the instrument of my own physical torture.

Then I examined the chard pieces that had somehow survived its pyrotechnic demise, I presume smothered by my guilty behind. I found snatches of a similar message contained within. Were my captors playing some sick game with loaded dice? So whatever way I turned I would be forced to play out a macabre performance? I stood up and stared across the room at that very tiny instrument of torture. Then deciding it could do Peter no more harm; I corrected myself. I could do Peter no more harm. But still approaching it like the thing was a dangerous animal, I took the box up.

Winding the handle in the opposite direction, I noticed three things now happened. The first two seemed of little consequence. The door that had been open began to close, while at the same time a new panel began to open. But all this I had come to expect. What took my attention away from these two physical manifestations of my actions, seemed to be yet one more link in the chain that held me down. For the third effect of my cranking the handle in the opposite direction was a sick and disturbing rendition of Peter’s demise, but in reverse.

Was his death a mere sham? Had I just been listening to a sound effect, mocked up for my personal torture? Or had I really done the act for which I felt so guilty? Was this a facsimile of my crime, sent to further punish me? I had no way of testing either hypothesis. So unsure of what was ahead, I tried to block out the unholy orchestra of accusation. Thus I concentrated on the new portal opening before my eyes.

When I judged the gap was wide enough to allow my arm access, I jumped for the hole. Thankfully it was located in the floor, and I wouldn’t have to drag that dammed table to it. Then I thrust my arm down it, to grab at the two letters I expected. I almost grazed my knuckles on some object sat below them. But I was keen to learn the next step in my paper trail. If anything, I had to admit I wished to distract myself from the conundrum of the music box. It grated my conscience so.

This time there were letters for Peter, and a new victim by the name of Michael Dolenz. Had my choosing Peter’s letter to open last time altered some chain of events effectively wiping Michael Nesmith off the face of the earth. Perhaps it was for the best. After all, that persona had too many negative connotations. Even if I had possibly become the subject, of Michael’s malodourous crime. If there had been any crime in the first place. My head reeled with the implications.

Then remembering the letters, I took up Peter’s and discarded Dolenz’s. I opened the envelope to see the new message inside. Would it shed any light on my inner turmoil? I scanned the sheet, “Congratulations Peter, you have made it to the end of the test, and you have won through the moral maze to discover who you truly are. You only need to turn on the tap located at the bottom of this final hole to be free of the confines in which you find yourself.”

I flung Peter’s letter aside and plunged my hand in the hole. This time I grasped the handle, and turned it anticlockwise. I was instantly rewarded with the sweet smell of lilacs, as my head filled with cotton wool and the room swam out of focus. Then I lost all senses, and I drifted off through the clouds. I was having such a lovely dream, when I became aware of the tiles pressing in my back.

Inflation

Atkinson tried to swell himself up, pushing his chest out as he entered the magisterial anticancer. The marbled columns stretched up to the ceiling fresco too complex to take in its magnificent details, on the long walk to the desk at the end. It was clearly designed to overwhelm the senses, and put the summoned employee of the Multiverse Construction Corporation (or the M.C.C. as it was generally known), in their place.

Portraits of past directors of note lined the ample spaces between the columns. Each seemed to follow the staff member in his, hers or its progress with their eyes, as the summoned proceeded up the almost imperceptible slope. Gooch, Leyland and Hobbs to name but a few, seemed to shower suspicious looks down on Atkinson. As the now crest fallen man finally approached the stout wooden desk.

Then he waited the interminably long moment for the secretary to the board to look up from her work. He finally plucked up the courage to initiate the exchange, but as Atkinson drew breath, the guardian of the sacred doors raised a finger, and his advantage was lost. Then a buzzer sounded, and without raising her eyes from her paperwork the secretary announced, “The board will see you now.”

The floor to ceiling doors opened in, and rubbing his hands together Atkinson almost stumbled in to the corridor beyond. In contrast to the Secretary’s office, this was plain white and had only had one feature to it, a considerably smaller set of double doors at the far end. As Atkinson almost crept down this new room, he nervously glanced over his shoulder and noticed the doors behind him were now shut, barring any retreat.

He soon found himself at the set of doors at the other end, and then Atkinson noticed that in contrast they had quite a shabby appearance. He paused for them to open, they didn’t. He gave a feeble knock and a voice boomed out “Well come in if you’re coming.” And he pushed the left one open. It gave a faint creak, and Atkinson found himself staring in on a changing room.

Wooden benches lined the middle of the long room, while stout oak lockers either side filled the walls. Afternoon light shone in at the end, and a round of faint applause could just be heard in the distance. All this was lost on Atkinson, as his eyes were riveted to the eleven men in various states of undress, as they changed from white uniforms in to more formal attire, as befitted a member of the board.

“Ah there you are Atkinson, well don’t just stand there man.” And the director of the board held out a long cloth burlap bag that Atkinson took, as the impressive figure strode past him. If it helps, think of sir Ralph Richardson, the resemblance is quite uncanny, especially in the voice. To Atkinson’s disconcertment, as they returned to the corridor a new room presented itself, with a wide expanse of plush carpet running between the amply spaced walls. An impressive table sat in the middle, with five places down each side and the director’s chair at the far end.

“Just pop that in the cupboard” commanded the director over his shoulder. And casting his eyes about, Atkinson found an oak wardrobe in the corner to his right. By the time he had slid the bag on to the shelf at the top, which was the only space free of finely cut items of attire, the rest of the board had assembled. And the director sat with his fingers together staring intently at him. Gulping, Atkinson approached the near end of the table, where a less impressive chair than the rest resided. At a nod from the director he sat down, it creaked.

“Now Atkinson we’ve been having some trouble with your department for some time now”, the director accused Atkinson. Then as if remembering something, he suddenly mellowed. “But I’m forgetting my manners. Let me introduce you to the men who hold your fate in their hands.” He indicated first left then right as he proceeded down the table.

“Taylor”, think of Jimmy Edwards. The opulent man gave Atkinson a toothy grin, as he absently played with his moustache. “Parfitt”, who looked uncannily like Jack Hawkins. His gaze in contrast to the jovial Taylor held Atkinson in a stern appraisal of him. “Barber”, who was the spitting image of Terry Thomas, and raised a disinterested hand as if dismissing this minion. “Griffith”, a facsimile of John Mills, who like Parfitt, gave Atkinson an appraising look, but in a more friendly way. “Edrich”, who following in the vein of his colleagues, could be mistaken on any sunny afternoon for Ian Carmichael. His friendly face turned to Atkinson, but he could detect no judgement in it. “Randall”, the man looked the twin of Brian Blessed, and he suppressed a verbal greeting that Atkinson suspected could have flattened a house. “Snow”, his mournful visage completed a picture of Alastair Sim. He merely nodded his greeting in a magisterial twitch of his head. “Brown”, who had a more than passing resemblance to a young Richard Attenborough, keen to make his way in the world. His furtive glance at Atkinson almost felt like a dismissal. “Boycott”, who could get work any day impersonating Orson Welles in his latter years, beard and all. His confident gaze almost put Atkinson at his ease. “And Bird”, who was an exact double of Stephen Fry, right down to his permanently broken nose. He was too close to elicit a full stare, so Bird contented himself with a wink.

“Now Atkinson; oh don’t fidget so” chided the director. And Atkinson froze, intent on his words. “We’ve been having a lot of trouble with the figures from your fellows in the production department.” He turned to Edrich as if to prompt a confirmation. “Oh rather”, and Edrich was about to elucidate when the director’s attention switched to Parfitt, “Do you have the figures for production output?” Parfitt cleared his throat before replying. “The propensity for badly tuned universes is up thirty seven per cent in the last quarter.” The director cut him off, “Which under normal circumstances would be perfectly acceptable.”

He paused allowing the jovial look on his face to become a frown. “But we live in a real world, with real costs to be met. And a sudden upturn in the inflation rate could spell disaster for us all.” He let the words sink in before turning to Brown. “You have the figures don’t you Brown?” As if surprised Brown snatched up a sheet, and read off the relevant facts. “With the devaluation of the pound, and a general sluggishness in the economy as a whole. The overall costs exceed profit margins, by.” The director cut in once more, his voice a mixture of disinterest and pomposity. “It simply isn’t good enough man. We have to streamline the process if we want to be economically viable.” He raised his hand as if in despair. “I can think of no alternative but to take a firmer grip on the reigns, and look in to the whole bally process. Surly we can find something that will make your department perform up to scratch.”

Atkinson sat ridged; such a thing had never been heard of in all the time he had been here, the board taking a direct interest in the day to day running of the plant. All around him the other ten men seemed agog at the director’s decision, with cries of “But the time it would take sir”, “Think of our commitments” and “we’d stand no chance with the ashes.” But the director held up his hands once more to calm the rebellious men. “It simply has to be done. I suggest we adjourn immediately and have Atkinson here.” He waved his hand down the table dismissively, “Takes us on a tour of the facility. To acquaint us with the finer points.” The director beamed, “You never know, we might be able to spot something that may save the day.” Then he looked up and down the table, “Well gentlemen.”

Atkinson looked down to rise, and when his eyes rose once more the boardroom had been replaced with the more familiar setting of his own office. With it’s view of the multidimensional generators, as they glowed outside his window. He gave a start to see the board members stood in a tight huddle behind him, now clad in white lab coats and individually named yellow hard hats. The director stood at the front.

“Well Atkinson, where do we start? I can’t be hanging round all day”, and he indicated the door. In the second it took Atkinson to compose himself, he realised he was similarly clad. And feeling more at home now, he cleared his throat. “Gentlemen we should begin out tour with the power generator plant. If you will follow me please.”

Then he opened the door, and held it for the board to follow. The sight of her boss suddenly emerging from his office with the full board, had Atkinson’s secretary miss Pfnutt, staring agog. Then her boss informed her, “Hold my calls miss Pfnutt, I’ll be back late.” As each member of the board passed, they doffed their caps and nodded politely. Edrich following up the rear Remarked, “Pleasure to meet you dear.” Causing the poor girl to blush.

Meanwhile Atkinson was already herding the party on to a transporter, usually designed to shuttle workers about the complex. He didn’t fail to notice that the seats seemed to be plusher than the usual bill of fare, but he didn’t comment. Hopefully this model might remain after the tour. Doing a quick head count Atkinson indicated for the driver to set off, then he turned to the group.

“The power generation for all the plant is located inside a singularity, where the only conditions exist to maintain a stable source of the exotic forces needed. A sub contractor maintains the singularity itself, Frozen Star limited. They have a ninety nine billion year contract, and are currently only a little under nineteen billion years through it. The director leaned over and addressed Brown. “Check the fine print, we may be able to get a better tender put out.” And Brown simply popped out of existence, while the others turned back to the front, as if a colleague suddenly disappearing was an everyday occurrence.

Atkinson continued, “We will be shortly pass through the event horizon, but there is no need for concern as every transporter is equipped with a Newton Watney field generator.” But evidently his party was unconcerned anyway, as they stared out of the windows admiring the glowing band being dragged round the black hole, as it warped up and over the top in a pyrotechnic display. And then they were in.

Off in the distance the party could just discern a vast structure, not unlike a monumental set of scaffolding. “This is where we tap the power needed to run the hyper-spacial field inducers.” Snow raised his hand, and Atkinson’s attention was drawn to him. “What’s the output level of the plant?” As if he had the relevant figures tattooed to his eyelids, Atkinson’s eyes flicked up momentarily before he replied. “The singularity runs at thirty seven per cent, this allows for energy drainage and over capacity. While maintaining safety limits well within ICC regulations.” Snow seemed very satisfied with this fact, and made a note of it in a small note pad he had produced.

By now the tour had got close enough to appreciate the vast size of the complex, as various technicians scurried about in the routine operation of this section. As a whole the party took in the diligent activities. But it was Barber who asked, “Have you done a time and motion study on the process?” Atkinson produced a sizable document from his pocket, that had no right to be in such a small compartment, and gave a silent thanks to a secretary who kept his rolled up dimensional filing system up to date. “I think you will find the labour force is kept up to full efficiency, again in line with ICC regulations. We run a fine line between cost effectiveness and any union concerns.” Then he passed it to Boycott, who tossed it casually back to Barber for perusal. “Nice catch”, Bird joked. “Well that all seems to be in order” the director said, as he turned to his colleagues. “Any further questions gentlemen?” But the rest of transport seemed satisfied. And the director turned once more to Atkinson, “Well young man, I think we had better move on.” And it was he who nodded to the driver.

The driver set the transport moving, but not away from the monumental edifice before them. He seemed to be headed towards an ever-shifting blurred section of the structure. “Is that a Belinsky-Khalatnikov-Lifshitz singularity?” asked Randall enthusiastically. With a smile at this almost schoolboy exclamation, it wasn’t Atkinson who answered Randall’s question. But Taylor who furnished him with the relevant information. “No I think you’ll find that this is a Thorne-Nolan singularity. They’re less trouble than the BKL ones.” And then with a slurping noise they passed through it. The light show outside seemed to amuse the members of the board located at the back of the transport, until the director turned and commanded, “Oh do pipe down there, this isn’t an away day.”

Suddenly all was black outside, and the transporter’s engines slowed to a dull hum, the only indication that it had come to a halt. Atkinson stood once more, “Gentlemen, the production floor. As you can see we are between jobs or you could witness a new universe in production. I assume the technician is adjusting the controls for the off.” He indicated a tiny window apparently floating in the void of to the left of the bus. And at a nod from Atkinson, the driver put the left indicator on before turning towards the tiny light.

This time as it stopped the transport’s door opened, and indicating that they should exit, Atkinson intoned “Gentlemen.” A brief stroll across what seemed to be nothing took them to a wooden porch, of a wooden shack, of which the patch of light turned out to be a window in. As the group briefly waiting for Atkinson to follow Brown suddenly reappeared clutching his paperwork. The director turned to him hopefully. “Any luck Brown?” But with a slight shake of his head, Brown had to ad mitt “Sorry sir, they seemed to have closed every loophole. I bet they used the firm of Gauss, Euler and Riemann to draft the final document.” But the director had already turned, dismissing Brown as Atkinson had arrived.

After a brief knock he pushed the wooden door open. The inside of the shed was sparsely furnished. There was a small table in the corner, on which sat a kettle plugged in to the wall and various tea making accoutrements. Stood next to it was a green metal cabinet, proclaiming to be the repository of spare UC1836 units. And in smaller letters underneath a stern warning announced that the units must be signed in and out. There was a clipboard hung off a hook below that with only one person’s signatures on it. Finally below the window sat a bench with a scatty looking longhaired, lab-coated technician.

He rose in the shock of not only having his sanctum invaded at all, but by none less than the entire board of directors. The small crowd almost filled the room when they were all jammed in, and key members had to jostle for position round the bench. “Tomkins, the board are keen to get a feeling for the process. Do you have the latest production schedules?” Atkinson started off in a loud and imposing tone, which he quickly trailed off to a casual one, given the confines of the situation.

As Tomkins riffled through some notes on his desk, Griffith popped his head through the crowd, and pointed rather awkwardly over Taylor’s shoulder. “So that’s the UC1836 unit is it? It’s a bit small.” The yellow plastic brick was about a foot wide, and along its side the legend UC1836 was picked out in bold black letters. A power cord snaked out of the back to a socket on the wall. On the top there were six big black dials, each labelled with a unit N, E, , , Q, and D. Apart from them the only other features to the unit where the power button, an indicator light, and a big red button labelled initiate.

The director seemed to be getting agitated by the group’s shuffling, as Tomkins dug out the relevant paperwork. Until with a “humph”, the room began to swell out until it was about eight times it’s former size. Also there seemed to have appeared some wooden folding seats, each with a blue and white striped cushion on it. The visitors bustled about finding a suitable spot and finally got settled.

“The production schedules sir.” Tomkins handed the paperwork to Atkinson, who glanced at the sheets then let them rest on his lap. “I think an explanation in to the operating techniques wouldn’t go amiss at this juncture in time”, prompted the director, and the board nodded in assent. “With perhaps some refreshments afterwards?” asked Brown hopefully, to be shushed down by those around him. With a start Tomkins looked to his immediate superior for confirmation. “Tell the gentlemen the operational procedure Tomkins”, Atkinson’s reassuring voice rang out.

So with a cough Tomkins indicated the small box. “This is the UC 1836 unit. So named because it is a universe creator, and the model number pertains to the mass of the proton to the electron.” With a wave of his hand the director cut him off. “Get to the point man, we haven’t got all day.” He turned to bird, “What time is the second test due to begin?” “Three sir”, Bird replied. And once more fixing his stare on Tomkins, the director commanded, “Now tell me exactly what you do with this device to make our universes.”

With gulp Tompkins indicated the box once more, “You set the dials to the numbers written down on the production schedule.” He indicated the note sat on Atkinson’s lap, “And press the initiate button, then wait for the singularity to expand to shipping size. The new universe is ejected automatically in to it’s own probability matrix ready for dispatch.” With the patience of a schoolmaster waiting for a fuller answer to his question, the director prompted Tomkins further. “And what do these dials represent?”

With the first hurdle over, Tomkins began his lecture in earnest, warming to the crowd and growing more animated as he spoke. “Well the first dial N is the ratio of Fe or electrical force in the universe, to Fg or gravitation force. Like all the other variables except , it has no unit. Basically if N is reduced you get a tendency for stars and planets to be smaller, therefore you get less real estate. But the galaxies do form quicker. Now on the down side, the largest life forms that could evolve would be insects, with very thick legs. But hey those guys do like to live on top of one another don’t they. Now your average inter stellar distances do get reduced, meaning quicker colonisation times. But the stars do have a tendency to burn out quicker, so it’s all hands to the pumps in the evolution race, before it’s too late to escape the origin star.

Now it you increase N vastly complex structures can be formed which is very pretty. My personal preference for N is about ten raised to the power of thirty six, which also happens to be the black hole ratio.” He pretended to crush something between his cupped hands. “If you squeeze that number of atoms in to the space of one, you get a black hole.” He looked up grinning.

“Moving on to the next dial we have , or the proportion of hydrogen mass converted to energy when it fuses in to helium. We find that a value of nought point seven per cent works well, as any lower percentage leads to inefficient fusion, and the hydrogen simply never become helium.” Tomkins waved vaguely at a chart of the elements that was pinned to the wall. “And if you don’t even get helium, none of the other elements will be produced either.” Randall raised his hand and asked, “So what happen if we make higher?” Staring directly at the board member, Tomkins answered in a trice. “Good question, basically if you increase the percentage, everything happen too quickly. You use up all the hydrogen, and none is left over to actually power the stars long term. Which leaves us in the dark, and cold” he added.

Pointing at the third dial Tomkins surveyed the group. “Now this dial has a very interesting effect. It controls the actual density in the universe, as opposed to the critical density derived by calculation. And is the ratio of the two. Essentially if the figure is lowered, it induces an unending expansion, which a lot of clients find appealing, due to the wide vistas it provides. There’s nothing like the challenge of a frontier that’s always expanding. Of course there is the eventual breakdown of complex matter as it is spread too far, but some clients like that. Now if we raise the figure, we can induce a level of stability, which is very popular. A lot of clients like to know there’s a point when intergalactic distances cease to be a matter of calculation, and can be quantified. It’s good for the bus timetables. But if we tweak it up a little more, we can actually get the universe to collapse after a bit.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Who’d want a universe that only lasts a while, and then everything ends in a fire sale. But a lot of entities find popping off site for a quick holiday during the hot season, not too much of a burden. And would you believe it, due to the laws of conservation of energy that universe just pops up again. A sort of serialisation of the product. Plus the added bonus is we can sell them a bijou universe to holiday in.”

This time the director asked a question, “And do you have a preferred value for this ?” He pointed at the clearly labelled third dial. Tomkins held his gaze for a heartbeat then said, “If I had to pick a number it would be quite near to one. Assuming we use four per cent baryonic matter mix, the balance of which being made up from non baryonic matter and energy, or ballast as the delivery boys call it.” The director nodded appraisingly; then he indicated that Tomkins should continue.

“Dial four is the cosmological constant, if you pardon the pun. And it is denoted by , it’s a sort of weak anti gravity that only affects empty space. We find it keeps the ball rolling so to speak. But it has to be kept low, or galaxies have trouble forming. And nobody wants that; we had to discard a few universes that turned out that way.” Griffith raised his hand, “How high can it go?” Tomkins had that figure already memorised from trial and error. “We generally don’t like to go over two point zero three six raised to the power of ten to the minus thirty five, per second per second.” “Per second per second” blurted out Bird. “Oh do keep up Bird”, chided the director. “The chaps already said ’s the only value with a unit.” Bird sank lower in to his seat, as Tomkins continued at a nod from the director.

“Next up we have dial five or Q, as we like to call it. It’s the ratio of the energy needed to break apart galaxy clusters, as opposed to the rest mass of those galaxy clusters. It’s a texture device, as it denotes the roughness of the universe. Some like to call it ripple amplitude by I prefer the more cosy description, it adds an air of liveability. Now this effect actually occurs very early on in the process, but as you can appreciate it’s quite important. Lets just say no one wants to move in to an unfurnished universe. Now if the value is too high all you get is massive black holes, but if it’s too low there’s only gas. Neither case being something I’d want to buy. I find a value of about one in a hundred thousand usually brings about a nice result.”

He paused as if the mainstay of his lecture had come to an end. “And the last dial?” prompted Parfitt. “Oh that’s just the number of unfurled dimensions. We usually leave that on three plus one. After all who would want a digestive tract that would cut you in two. And we found the invers cube law in a four dimensioned or higher universe plays havoc with gravity. Planet’s orbits tend to exist on a knife-edge, so they fly off track far too often. We got a lot of complaints before we withdrew that option. There are in fact ten dimensions, but most of them are best left unexpanded for the proliferation of string.” “Did he say string?” asked Edrich. “If I have any more idiotic interruptions”, threatened the director, as he turned again to Tomkins in a more jovial tone. “Now I’m sure you can furnish us with a demonstration of the UC 1836 in action”, and he leaned back to enjoy the show.

Tomkins set the dials to his favourite values, and pushed his palm down on the big red button. Inside the room all was still, but way out in the void beyond the window a bright spot appeared. “I’ve adjusted the magnification of the window to give us infinitesimal time increments, or all the good stuff will be done before we can see it, and altered the wavelength of the light for our spectrum of vision.” He adjusted a small nob on the window frame. “And now if I zoom in you can see the proto universe as the initial conditions are set in stone. Not that the elements for stone exist yet.”

The bright spot suddenly grew in size. “That’s just the me adjusting the magnification, but if you look closely you can see the faint ripples forming.” There was a sudden rush, as once more the sphere expanded at a phenomenal rate, and the group as a whole flinched back in their seats. “Something wrong with your window Tomkins?” demanded the director, but with a shake of his head Tomkins spoke to the window, his eyes fixed on the phenomenon, which even now seemed to have stopped expanding. He said just one word, “Inflation?”

Now the sphere took up the whole of the window and beyond. “You mean to say it just inflated at a rapid rate, then went back to a normal expansion rate? When did this occur?” The director was up on his feet. Tomkins checked the read off from the windowsill, and turned to reply. “Not long at all sir, it happened between ten to the minus thirty six seconds and ten to the minus thirty two, an infinitesimal fraction of a second.”

The director had an appreciative look on his face, as he surveyed the newly formed universe. “Nice even temperature range. Would you say this was a stable well adjusted universe Atkinson?” Now Atkinson was on his feet studying the sphere. “It certainly looks good sir, and with a considerable reduction in production time. Why it must have inflated faster than the speed of light to reach this stage so quickly. I’ll get quality control to run a diagnostic on it, and send you the results.”

But the board were already stood, as the director shook the technician’s hand. “Interesting effect Tomkins, an even temperature throughout and a considerable saving in production time. We may have got the new product needed to save the corporation.” Then he turned his attention to the board. “Well gentlemen, it looks like we won’t be late for the test after all. I had to admit I thought we were on to a sticky wicket, until Tomkins here saved the day.” And with that Atkinson was left alone with the technician. “Looks like you’ve got a bigger shed to work in Tomkins. You could apply for a bed, so you don’t have to just sleep in your chair. That’ll be a nice bonus for you efforts.”

But the technician was busy looking out of the window again. “I can’t say the same for you sir”, came the non-committal reply. And guessing Tomkins’ meaning, the production manager ripped open the shed door. His face fell as he gazed out on yet another beat up old transport. And he mused to himself, “Well at least I don’t have to walk back to the office.”

It’s know joke

The lone figure stepped into the light and smiled, as his audience gave appreciative murmurs. “I got a job as a secretary, taking down letters for executives; but I met too many dictators.” There was a ripple of laughter from the darkened crowed, and the comedian pressed on.

“Have you ever thought that if you crossed a hiker with a busker, you’d get a biker?” The silence told it all, and so the man tried a different tack. So in a slow and purposeful manner, he began again.

“The other day I went to one of those civil war reenactments. I though it was very accurate.” Then pausing for effect, he delivered the punch line. “Everyone was being so polite to one another.” The ripple of mirth gave him a new direction; and so pressing his advantage, he continued with a monologue style.

“I went to my local dentist’s practice the other day, after the reenactment yes.” He smiled at no one in particular. “And I said to the receptionist, do you want to know what I said?” He winked at the same unseen audience member. “I said, when do you think the dentist is going to quit practicing, and do it for real?

Then I said my wisdom teeth were giving me hell. And do you know what she said? I tell you what she said. She said are you quite sure you haven’t had them out already.” He shook his head. “I’m not quite sure what she meant by that.” The smattering of laughter put paid to any doubts that the comedian was on the right track.

“She got out a couple of bottles of Champaign. Unusual for a receptionist I’ll grant you.” His odd look over the shoulders of the crowd, seemed to heighted the tension. “So I asked her if she wanted a glass or two. She said she wanted to, but I’d have to keep an eye out. That passed the after noon. And it took my mind off the tooth ache.” That final joke seemed to have passed over the audience like his earlier look. So the comedian passed on too.

“ Afterwards we went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The acting was so wooden; I though I was in a forest.” A lone guffaw showed at least one member of the darkened crowd had got it.

“The after show was a farce too. I asked the waiter if he had something light. He suggested spaghetti candelabra.” Again the lone guffawer showed his appreciation; but this time a few more joined in. Bolstered the act ploughed on. “You think that’s bad, you should have tasted it. I was picking crystals out of my teeth for weeks.”

The laughter seemed to be spreading. “The waiter asked me if I wanted seasoning. I said no, I’d already had a winter of discontent. Then I had an idea. I said do you have any time; he said no and tried to dash off. But I grabbed his arm and said, on second thoughts, I’ll have some basil. He broke free, and backing away said it was basil’s night off.” The quite pause lasted too long, and so the comedian changed tack again.

Looking down for a second, the face ever smiling was up again in an instant. “My wardrobe is in a complete mess. My shirts always get mixed up with my trousers. I sort professional assistance, and a very good tailor suggested I took hanger management classes. Strictly Freudian of course. But now my wardrobe is over run with slips.” A suitably strung out round of laughter followed, and so the comedian pressed further on.

“I’ve always thought it unfair how business women weren’t allowed through the glass ceiling; and then it struck me. It’s because they wear skirts.” The mirthful chortles continued, as the comedian beamed.

“I got up this morning and had a round of toast. Then I got to thinking; this toast’s not round, it’s square. What’s that all about? Did they take turns buying rounds of it when sliced bread was invented? James I think it’s your round. No I bought the last one, remember it had jam on it. But back to my breakfast, I looked in my coffee cup; and would you believe it, there was a hole in the bottom. So I tipped it out before I poured the coffee in.” The silence filled the gap of a heartbeat, before the never nervous comedian moved on.

“I tried my hand in the restaurant business. You know when something’s so bad; it’s good? Well when my lawyer opened with that line at my botulism trial, I figured I’d had enough of catering.” Laughter broke the run of silence, and so the comedian moved on.

“I never put my bag on the ground. You never know where it’s been.” The chortles followed, and so the lone figure pressed on.

“I got addicted to playing Othello recently, I have to say I do find it very Moorish.” A chortle.

“I wrote a book once. The publisher I took it to said that my grammar stank. But she couldn’t; we’d cremated her.” The same chortle showed somebody liked it.

“I knew a fellow who said he always kept a coin between his buttocks. He said it was so he could spend a penny. I could never figure out why; then one day the penny dropped.” The shuffling of chairs could be heard around the same entertained individual. So the comedian plunged on.

“ Obviously the ladies won’t know be aware of this; but tonight’s venue has one of those urinals, a little bit lower than the others; for gentlemen who need a bit more space. I always make use of them when they’re provided.” He winked, oblivious to his erstwhile convert now coughing.

Then turning the comedian turned and stepped from the light. In an instant the stage was bear, as a figure from the untidy crowd approached the Holo-Entertainment 2000 with active feedback. He bent down to choose another act. Perhaps it would be a juggler this time, or maybe a magician.

Icons of the silver screen

Billy was late; boy was he late. His father would ground him for sure this time. Dust swirled up as a car flew past him, while the lad quickly plodded along the rural American back road that led him home.

If only Jimmy hadn’t drawn one good card after another, and held on to Asia so long. Who makes a stand in Asia, cursed Billy. But he’d won through in the end, and broke through Jimmy’s line in Kamchatka. After that it was just a matter of mopping up. Billy was the town champion at Risk, and every teen for miles around had tried their luck with him.

This time Ray went down first, not even getting a continent. And Herb closely followed, getting himself hemmed in to Australasia. Billy recalled Herb’s final sweep up. Simon never really had a chance with Africa. He had succumbed to Jimmy in a wild campaign mid game. And true to his word Billy had left Charlie to his own devices in South America, until it became almost embarrassing not to storm south for the well-stocked North. As usual Europe bore the brunt of most turmoil, mirroring its real life counter part.

So having conquered the world, Billy realised how long it had taken this time; and he had dashed out of Charlie’s back door, fearing the wrath of his father. So it was hardly surprising that with his imminent doom at the front of his mind, that Billy failed to notice the street lights on his route flicker slightly. And cast shadows not quite half formed; but none the less shapes to be caught out of the corner of one eye. That is until he got to the corner of Eldritch Street and Parfait Avenue. That was when he saw it.

The lights faded in and out like a mad puppet show, behind a screen. Billy had seen the like on TV, on some Asian documentary. But there was no screen, just the light mist of another dull night. Billy stopped in his mad dash, and stood transfixed, as the bizarre play unfolded. Then shaking his head as if to rid it of a bad dream, he recalled his father’s curfew and ran off to plead his case for tardiness on a school night. That was why he forgot about the strange phenomenon that was soon to become an urban legend, as the stories began to spread about the ghost of Eldritch Street, although it wasn’t just confined to there.

Other after dark illuminations could be seen to cause eerie shows, which just could not be explained. Finally there came a time when credence lent weight to the stories, and professional help was demanded. The local sparky Chuck Henderson was kept in full time work, at the request of the right honourable committee of Applefield. Checking every streetlight and one or two of the new fangled digital signs the committee had got installed, to inform passers by of local news; not to mention an endless stream of corporate adverts to bring in revenue.

So it was a cold morning that saw Billy admiring Mr Henderson’s electrical skills; as the expert happy for some company, explained the inner workings of the advertising edifice on Moonacre Avenue. “You see the signal is sent from a central control facility. I think it’s in Austin. And gets passed from cell tower to cell tower until the board”, he jerked his thumb at the monolith behind him. “Picks it up, like a giant cell phone doing a video call. Of course this thing’s got a built in memory, so it can keep on showing adverts even if the live feed is down. But here’s the cool bit”, and he gave Billy a conspiratorial wink. “The local authority who rents the service can send messages to display for local news updates, which means.” He held up his tablet, so the tiny camera on the back pointed at Billy. Instantly a giant sized image of the lad appeared on the billboard.

“Wow, won’t you get in to trouble for that Mr Henderson?” The ruddy faced man shook his head, “Nah, we’ve got to test them haven’t we.” Billy turned back to the big screen to enjoy his five minutes of fame, but as he stood transfixed by his facsimile the image suddenly looked strait at him, and stuck out it’s tongue. “Hey no fair, putting joke effects on” accused Billy as the electrician looked up from what he was doing. “What you talking about boy, this just sends in the image which gets pinged back to show a true reproduction. That’s how we know it’s working.” But not to be put off Billy protested, “I know what I saw Mr Henderson” in an upset tone. Holding up his hands as if to calm the distraught lad the professional exercised his people skills. “Better stay off those sherbet dips son. You’re imagination don’t need no extra boost.” But his words were lost to Billy as he ran off seeking solace in his room back at home.

As it turned out it was not just Billy who began to experience erroneous images, and even messages from the boards over the coming weeks. Mr Wilks, who came spluttering in to the five and dime, swore blind the ever sure chicken displayed on the new fangled advertisement board on Finnick street, had made some pretty unsavoury remarks about his weight and general appearance. And when councillor Worthington had a dressing down about his slovenly appearance after a night spent in the Easy Joe tavern off Pinway road, “And by a bottle of Millhavens whiskey” he berated to an angry crowd of concerned citizens, that the popular feeling was to rip up the confounded intrusions and send them back where they came from.

The company didn’t actually come and take them away; but after a whip round to raise the early contract termination fee, Chuck Henderson’s skills were called in to action once more. This time it was to remove the fuses; so the darn things could cause no more trouble. And they didn’t, they just sat there like tombstones reminding the Applefieldians of the peculiar episode. That didn’t stop the strange showy flickering in the streetlights though. But given the alternative of folks having to walk the streets in the pitch black; everyone concerned seemed to think it a small price to pay for nocturnal illumination.

A few weeks past, and Billy was once more making his way back from a games night. This time it was at Jimmy’s parents; and as Monopoly was not Billy’s forte, Charlie had just trounced him. True all the other players had fallen before the shrewd business acumen of the two tycoons, and a run of bad luck on the dice at a critical time had effectively crippled Billy’s hotel empire. But as with most final defeats at the game, it was a force stop at a fully loaded Boardwalk that had cleared Billy out of his last Dollar. At least the game had not lasted as long as it sometimes did, and so it was well before curfew time when Billy arrived home. Which was lucky, because his father was still in a good mood when he announced the family night out this Saturday, would be to the cinema.

“What’s playing Pa?” An eager Billy enquired, hopeful that it would be the latest in the movie franchise based on Billy’s hero Chuck Dodgers, “Galactic Buccaneers?” But his hopes were soon dashed, when his father proudly announced that the municipally run cinema would be showing a season of classics. After which there would be a vote to find the most popular one. The first one was to be something called ‘Citizen Kane’. Billy thought it sounded like a form of corporal punishment, but he kept his mouth shut, least he’d have to stay at home and mind the dog. Old Rex could take perfect care of himself, but he was always held up as an alternative to some family activity, if the errant child was being difficult. Billy’s sister Sally at least seemed pleased.

As it turned out according to Jimmy, who’s dad was a committeeman; Applefield’s elite had dreamt up the whole scheme. To both take people’s minds off the ever-disruptive street light problem, and to cover up the short fall in the town’s budget, after the profitable advertising board enterprise actually became a costly mistake. Thus leading to the Roxy theatre only being able to afford old stock. In fact old Mr Grubbleheim was quite proud of the job lot of reels he had managed to acquire, for the ‘old time extravaganza’ as he sold the idea to the committee, when he reported on how he could make savings in the town budget. As the manager, ticket seller, projectionist and usher, a job he simply refused to wear the old uniform left by Betty Clark for; Grubbleheim had already conquered the labour costs of the cinema. And any further savings he could make were down to his wit and cunning.

So as the flickering lights of Mablethorpe Street played out vague puppet shows, Billy and Sally trailed behind Mr and Mrs Pilgrim, as his parents strolled hand in hand down to the Roxy. In contrast, the two siblings were keen to get home almost three hours later, partly to raid the family larder for their Saturday night fuddle. The household’s feast that not only rounded of the family treat off, but usually let Mr and Mrs Pilgrim sleep in late on a Sunday, while the kids slept off full belies. The other reason Billy and his sister were keen to out distance their parents, was the heated discussion Billy’s father was leading, and his mother was trying to allay, as they strode back along Mablethorpe Street.

“I can’t see why anyone can be so arrogant as to mess around with a classic. I bet it was some do-gooder thinking they can edit the world in to their own perverted view of it.” “But you did find it entertaining dear, I saw you do that thing with your foot, when you’re lost in a good book.” “I mean Rosewater; where did they even get the out talks, unless they dubbed it. And that bit where he actually fought in the Spanish American war.” “He did look dashing in that uniform.” “Calling his home Xanucia; you’d think some washing machine company had a hand in that one somewhere.” “Still it was a good film.” They smiled and paused for a kiss, drawing the kids up at the sound of their sudden stop. Which caused a “Yaech” from Billy. “Quit your back talking young man, or it’ll be no fuddle for you tonight”, came the swift admonishment, and Billy countered with a “Sorry sir” keen not to miss out on the treat, before he turned once more for home.

The next day after church, the only topic that seemed to be of interest was the classic film; recalled with some confused interest by the older members of the community; and revelled in by the younger generation, now keen to absorb classics from the past, previously unseen. “It’s like some hidden truth that keeps you wanting more”, explained Billy to Ray whose parents had not joined the throng for the first show. Ray was still smarting about his thorough trouncing at Risk he had suffered the other week. And he was keen for his next chance at becoming ruler of the world. “Don’t forget that the map of the world on a Risk board is divided in to forty two territories. And the winner must conquer them all. It could be the answer to the meaning of life.” Ray gave Billy a knowing look, but undeterred Billy continued extolling the virtues of Citizen Kane. “You get a lot of meaning from those old films; it’s like they speak to you.” And he continued on until even Ray had to admit defeat; and he vowed to see the next Saturday’s showing of ‘Some like it hot’.

For some reason the games resorted to that week took on a retro theme too, as a craze for cards gripped the younger element of Applefield, not that any gambling took place. If a particular game required some form of betting, the usual currency was anything at hand; buttons or soda pop bottle tops sufficed. Billy quite got the hang of Black Maria, learnt from the ‘One hundred best card games’ book, which Ray had picked up in Mazy Jay’s second hand bookshop, sparking the craze in the first place.

But the youth had hardly scratched the surface of the wealth of card games held within that book, when next Saturday came around. Then all talk turned to the next visual feast the Roxy would be showing. As Billy joined the queue for the box office, he noticed a distinct swelling in its ranks. And when he sat between Sally and his father, Billy could hardly see an empty seat in the house, as Mr Grubbleheim stalked the aisles with a flashlight directing latecomers to the odd seat left untaken.

After a brief display of musically enhanced cartoons, also from a bygone era; for Mr Grubbleheim had done a thorough job in his dealings with the film stock clearing house, the lights rose briefly as the aged projectionist donned a frilly pinafore, his one concession to the uniform of an usherette. Then he proceeded to distribute frozen treats at a profit. Billy and Sally both tucked in to choc-ices, when his parents shared a bumper bucket of salted popcorn bought earlier. Then the curtains on either side of the screen pulled back, as the lights dimmed for the main attraction. The hubbub of noise from the audience died down in reverence, and noisier snacks were eaten with care or discarded entirely. Then the flickering light reflected off the shimmering screen bathed the crowd in its enchanting glow.

The film seemed oddly familiar to Billy; and when Tony Curtis proclaimed “We spent three years at the Xanucia conservatory”, Billy was sure he had heard of it before; perhaps there was a real one, which made some kind of sense to the lad. But it was when Jack Lemmon broke the fourth wall, staring out on the audience with his line, “Well I’ll be, he does have a bicycle” that Bill thought it was a very innovative effect for an old film. To be repeated by Joe E Brown’s final line of the classic, “We can all aim at perfection”; which seemed to jar with Billy though, as if he had a vague memory of seeing the film on TV once. But the upbeat title music washed the feeling away, as the audience rose. The babble rose in praise of this second helping of cinematic excellence, as any comments that may have been made about erroneous edits passed Billy by.

Through the following week Billy plunged once more in to the many card games revealed to him in Ray’s book, and almost forgot when Saturday morning came around once more, about the third instalment in the film season, which was to be The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It was a gripping tale of gold fever destroying the flawed character of Humphrey Bogart, leading to his eventual doom. And Billy didn’t have cause to think too deeply about it. That was until two days later, as he sat on a high stool at John Brown’s milk bar, The Thirsty Cow.

Billy was engrossed in a collectable card game called Magic The Gathering, as he tried to relate to beautifully designed cards to the small rulebook. But his fascination was broken in to by a hushed conversation in the booth over from him. Martha Swayland was sat across from Mr Henderson, as she gave an animated confession across her coffee cup. “And you know when Humphrey Bogart sat in the street discussing how gold changed a man with that Curtin fellow. Well I swear on my life Bogart looked strait at me. As if he knew the strain I was under running the bank, and handling all that money.” She dragged the last three words out, like they were a treat she was savouring. Then with a jerk she was back, blushing with the guilty sin she felt. “What with Mr O’Leary being laid up in bed this past two weeks with gout, and not being able to fulfil his duty as the manager.” She let the words trail off, as if her confession of avarice could now shield her from temptation, after the words of Bogy had been delivered to her.

Mr Henderson nodded in clandestine agreement before sharing his own experience. “Yes I got that feeling that he was staring at me too, but it wasn’t then. It was when Bogart was mumbling to himself, as he tended to the burros. And then he fixed me with his gaze as he said, ‘you know what’s good for you. You won’t monkey around with Fred C Dobbs.’ It gave me a fair turn I can tell you. And you know what I was thinking at the time? I’d just had a notion to have another go at those street lights.” He fixed his stare on Ms Swayland as he uttered the oath, “Well that’s put me off messing with stuff I know I’ll never be able to fix.”

Over the week Billy heard second or even third hand tails of a similar ilk. It seemed that most of the adult population of Applefield had been spoken to directly by one or another of the characters in the film on an aspect of their lives, morally guiding them, as they confessed. Even Reverend Peabody had been touched Billy reflected, as he recalled the preacher’s sermon only the day after the showing, in the light of all the talk of the town. For the reverend had referred to the gold dust being scattered to the desert winds as part of a parable. “And thus the wealth of man shall be naught but one with the sands of the desert when it is won through falsehood and avarice, so professed Izia of Jeddah.” Needless to say in the light of all this unheralded advertising, anyone left in Applefield who had not seen the last three films were clamouring to join the throng in anticipation of the following Saturday’s show, which was to be It’s a Wonderful Life.

As the lights dimmed for the show that Saturday night Billy got the strangest feeling; and glancing round he surmised he was not alone in his perception, as the audience succumbed to the spell of the flickering light that danced on the screen. It was as if the film was watching them. But gripped in the enthralling plot as it unfolded, not a soul in the house could break free. It simply did not occur to them that they were the unwitting guinea pigs in an experiment to test how their morals had improved, after last weeks words of wisdom had sunk in. Billy wondered how the town had done; for although he had no inkling of the outcome of this trial by the very icons of the silver screen, he still seemed to sense a test had at least take place.

As it turned out Billy seemed to be in a minority of one, when he broached the subject with anyone. Friends, family, even Ms Swayland seemed oblivious to Billy’s probing on the subject, as they discussed Saturday’s show, and the up coming showing of Sunset Boulevard this Saturday coming. Billy had only dropped in to the bank to cash a cheque for his father, but it seemed like all other topics of conversation had been dropped except those relating to the film season. “Although I was sure the angel was called Clarence, but I must have got it wrong all these years. Funny, you’d think a name like Xanucia would stick in your mind” Martha rattled on as Billy double checked his father ‘s money, and stepped out in to the afternoon light.

Even the sporadic games sessions that Billy and his peers would usually enjoy throughout the week had been thrown over in favour of discussing the previous week’s classic. Which Billy thought a pity, having mastered the rules of his new card game. He had hoped to unleash it on his friends and start a new craze, for each card in the deck was collectable, and he envisioned being able to swap and compare them with his friends.

But as the sun dipped below the end of town that Saturday everning, and the untidy crowd heading towards the Roxy caught the last rays of light, yet more film fans swelled their ranks. And it was in the midst of this mob that Billy broached his fears to his sibling Sally. “You don’t think there’s something odd about the films we’re watching do you Sally?” His look of concern reflecting off her sun glazed eyes, but in an almost dream like drawl of anticipation his sister merely replied “Yes I’m looking forward to the film too.” Billy almost recoiled in horror, but despite his sudden impulse to flee the crowd and forsake the gathering, he too felt the irresistible pull of the Roxy.

And so that rebellious part of his mind had to sit as if bound and gagged, while his hijacked body took it’s place three rows back from the screen; as it stared once more on the town folk’s new gods. The larger than life figure of Gloria Swanson paraded around in a tragic delusion, with her ever-faithful servant Max Von Xanucia, leading to the untimely death of the young writer Joe Gillis that left Billy with a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach; as if he had been truly judged, and found wanting. Perhaps he too was so wrapped up in his own delusion of personal desire, that there was a whole world of opportunity out there denied him purely because he could not break the sham of a life he was leading.

It was with hushed tones that the town discussed the film on their way home, as self-reflection became the new topic of the week. Like a community in shame; Applefield longed for the hope next week’s show just had to lavish on them, like a forlorn hound waiting for his master’s reassuring pat on the head. But few could speak of their desire; for the latest visual treat would be the science fiction classic When Worlds Collide. Not the most inspiring of title if you sought hope. After a week of general mourning the town as a whole gathered silently outside the Roxy, and stood gazing up at the interchangeable red letters on the white board that hung above it’s entrance, displaying the legend When Worlds Collide.

It was as if the manifestation of the title there was some reassuring proof of the way forward. Then with all the reverence of the sacrament, each paid their dollar and was duly administered a ticket by Mr Grubbleheim, with all the ceremony of the Eucharist. Then they filed through, heads bent to their allotted seat and sat waiting for the flickering lights to begin. There were no pre feature cartoons this evening, and when Billy lifted his head to the light, it was to see the title of this night’s sermon blazoned across the screen.

With bated breath each audience member followed the exploits of Randall, as he became privy to the impending doom befalling the Earth. And consequently the plan of hope that the chosen few might just escape the Planet’s destruction as the rouge planet Bellus smashes in to it, by seeking refuge on Bellus’ moon Xanucia. That one ray of hope seemed to spark something in Billy, like a slender rope dangling in the pit of despair he had wallowed in all week. As the crowd filed out once more, Billy noticed every person seemed lost in their own thoughts; but he was sure the same deliberations of hope sat in each Applefieldian’s mind. What form it might take, no one seemed able to voice. The promise of salvation was too vague to comprehend, but a promise of hope it was.

So it was that the mood of the town rose that week; and although most town folk carried out their tasks in a distracted manner, life did seem to take on a more normal air than the previous week’s solemnity. Billy even managed to rustle up the odd individual for a try at his new card game, and its merits were noted among the youth of Applefield. Meanwhile each man, woman and child wondered how the penultimate picture in the film festival would shed new light on their world, as The Day the Earth Stood Still’s showing on Saturday night loomed.

As the weeks had progressed the smart Sunday clothes that every citizen wore to church had slowly made the transition to include the Saturday night; so in fact as Billy strode with a purpose, arm in arm with his family, they wore their weekend best clothes on their way to the Roxy that night. Then they joined the orderly queue in the general anticipation of the hopeful news the film would impart to them. There was hope at the end of the tunnel.

This evening the cartoons preluding to the main feature had been reinstated; but not a soul in the house took much of its contents in, being too keen to see the film. That was not to say they showed any outward signs of impatience. For that might be misconstrued as a moral deficit; and no one wanted to be perceived in that light. None the less, it was with a collective sigh of relief that the curtains widened for the main feature, as Mr Grubbleheim made his way through the extra chairs laid out in the aisles to accommodate latecomers to the film festival; even if they weren’t late for the show. And his almost full tray of ices bore testament to the crowd’s distracted mood in mere trifles as refreshments. The lights dimmed and all raised their heads in silent prayer, that tonight all would be revealed.

The black and white story kept each member of Applefield gripped in his or her seats; they groaned as Michael Rennie was shot bringing his message of peace. They feared for his safety a he left the protection of Gort, the all-powerful protector of the galaxy. They revelled in Klaatu’s quick thinking, and thoughtful penetration of the scientific community; the one organisation he knew to be unblinkered by petty squabbles. And there was not a dry eye in the house when the resurrected alien invited the world to unite, in joining the Xanucian federation of planets. It was the sign everyone had been waiting for. Yes they would be saved, if only they would follow the words of peace that the giants of the silver screen imparted for the good of everyone.

The jubilant crowd that emerged in to the star lit night could hardly have been much more different from the sombre congregation of last week. For although they were still in the dark as to how their salvation would be achieved, the gods themselves had lavished on them an invite to redemption. Nothing more need be said; yet still the speculation as to how next weeks showing of The Wizard of Oz would shed light on the bounty bestowed on Applefield, was rife though out the coming days.

Billy had just wandered in to The Thirsty Cow when he saw a small crowd gathered round John Brown as he expounded “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them Xanucian saucers, like in The Day the Earth Stood Still was to come down and deliver us to a proverbial land. Where milk and honey.” “And soda pop?” Ted Williams broke in to Mr Brown’s prophesying, but the ensuing discussion over the details of this possible revelation was lost on Billy, as ray had just collared Billy. “Hey did you hear what Charlie has been saying? He recons we’re going to have to build a rocket ship, so we can fly ourselves to Xanucia. And they.” He said the last word with revered awe. “Are going to tell us how to build and fly it.”

And so it went on all week with even more extravagant ways in which the town would be saved. Martha Swayland even claimed to anyone willing to listen to her, that the town would have to all dress up like women, and take a train down south to Xanucia. Where they would play in a holy band and live in harmony with the great ones.

Yet still when Saturday night came round, no one was any the wiser as to what great plan The Wizard of Oz would reveal to the town folk of Applefield. They just knew it would happen to night. Every resident of Applefield had been dressed to almost impeccable levels; even Mr O’Leary had hobbled down in his best suit in expectation of the glorious event. And the reverence of the procedure was observed to the letter. Each member of the audience held their ticket stub, as they took a seat and sat in rapt enthrallment of the cartoon entrée to the main feature. Mr Grubbleheim finally left the auditorium after the interval; his frozen treats all gone, and he set the screen size for the feature film.

The audience as a whole leaned forward, hanging on every word the sepia Judy Garland exchanged with her extended family. So that when she opened her front door on the over bright colours of Munchkin land, the eerie music was complimented by a significant proportion of the audience chocking back tears; and turning round Billy saw not one dry eye in the house, through his own moist view of the world.

The feeling of joy that the residents of Applefield felt, that they were already welcomed in to the world Xanucia promised, carried on through Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. That was until the four friends almost skipped arm in arm out of the snow covered poppy field, and back on to the yellow brick road on its approach to the emerald city gates. Dorothy glanced over her shoulder, and smiling kindly at every upturned face, beckoned each Applefieldian to follow.

Then en masse the crowd mounted the low stage before the screen and approached the image of the city, as their silhouettes began to block it from view. And with a ripping noise Mr Henderson broke through to the other side. Behind the vision of hope was a shabby back stage area; but the crowd only had eyes for the glowing figure that stood smiling at the congregation.

His auburn hair moved like reeds in a lazy river, and framed a face intuitively at peace, as you were drawn down to eyes which stared intently without apparent effort, as if world weary. They hid behind the perfect circles that shielded his eyes. There was a feeling of that other world in to which he looked could be yours, if only you were willing to follow him. His almost neutral smile gave him a boyish look of an angel, augmenting his flowing white robes that moved in rhythmic harmony with his hair. When he spoke, his nasal Scouse tones were tempered by an inner peace that emanated through his words, as if each had been carefully considered to bring a feeling of ease to the listener, as he invited the chosen to “Follow me”; he indicated an open fire exit, before he passed through it himself.

Without hesitation the loyal followers filed through the narrow gap, and set off in the footsteps of their softly glowing guide, as he floated through the woods that abutted the back of the cinema. Soon the sparse trees gave way to rough shrubs, and the land sloped up towards the hills that sat to the west of Applefield. Billy glanced round, reassured by his family walking close to him, and noticed the long line of his neighbours as they filed up the track. The cloudless night picked them out like an ant trail emerging from the woods.

Way up ahead, Billy could still make out the unfamiliar tones of their guide, even though his words were lost in the night. This was a true test of the town folk’s mettle; for hour after hour the guiding light shone out like a beacon leading Billy and his fellow pilgrims further in to the wilderness. Some, weary of the journey began to fall by the wayside and lay pleading to be aided in their hour of need, but who could bear such a burden on top of their own. The young and small could be carried; but folk such as Mr Nokes, who’s rotund figure was an effort for himself to carry could hardly expect others to support him, as the weary crowd that staggered on.

So he was left pleading by the path, as the slow but steady tramp of the others passed him by. Billy propped up his sister, eliciting a kindly smile from his mother, too weary herself to help her child, as she staggered on with one hand on her husband’s shoulder. From up the line word passed back from their guide that it wouldn’t be much further. And bolstered by these words of comfort Billy marched on. Finally as the dim light of predawn brought the look of unreality to the rocks and shrubs about Billy’s feet, as if they could suddenly become some animated creature. Then Billy looked up, and suddenly realised the ragged line was entering a cave mouth.

Up ahead, their glowing guide seemed to Billy to shine out more in the darkness of their subterranean path. And his echoing enticements wrought new hope in the now depleted line that still followed him. Billy was unaware of just how many of the good folk of Applefield had not made it this far, but even in his weary state he noticed gaps in the line where his friends and neighbours had once followed. Soon the pail light of the cave mouth was lost behind them, and only the ever-glowing presence of their guide bore testament that Billy had not been struck blind, as he staggered on through the pitch black of the path. Then without realising it he bumped in to a figure before him, and sensed that he was once more part of a crowd, rather than the drawn out line his world had become.

Others presses into Billy’s back as the crush of bodies filled the lightless void, that the last of the pilgrims found themselves in. Where had their guide gone? Scared voices in the dark pleaded to the missing messiah, but others demanded an explanation. Who had seen him last? He had been there one moment, and they had only glanced away for a second. It was as if he had never been there. And then the panic set in; no one knew the twists and turns they had taken in to this ever-nocturnal hell they had brought themselves to. Why had they followed some willo the wisp? Had it all been a spell to ensnare the town? No, it must be a final test.

Then as if this last thought, voiced in the night were some key to unlock the door, there was a sudden flash of light. In that instant Billy saw the sorry ragged few who had made it this far. There was barely a third of the audience, who only last night had sat in the Roxy. Where were the others? Had they forsaken the quest, or fallen prey to weakness on the long journey? Whatever the cause may be, it gave a stark reminder to Billy that he was among the chosen few indeed. Then once more in the dark a new deeper voice rang out.

“We came to your world of light riding on a beam from a distant star. And after a fashion you took us in. But we see now that the darkness of moral decay we tried to escape on our world is just as prevalent on yours. Yes you are willing to follow a cause, but you can never break the fetid bonds that hold you down. I had hoped that some of you could make the transition in to beings such as us, as your life force departed the discarded shells on this final journey. But none arose, and you who stand to hear testimony to my words, also stand unworthy of the gift of eternal light.”

The silence that echoed after the voice departed made the oppression of this final betrayal all the more intense, and Billy’s legs sagged under the strained release of pent up fear, that he would die along with everyone he knew in some unfathomable tomb. And all at the bidding of an alien presence that despised all that made Billy human. The thought of it made him sick to his core. No he wouldn’t die like this. But what could he do, only a boy among adults? The people who should know better than he, and where had it got everyone? In the dark all were equal. Taking heart from this sudden revelation, Billy felt for the person next to him; it was Sally. “Take my hand and follow me” he spoke calmly to her. “And pass it on to the next person.” Then he about faced and silently made his way through the crowd of unseen bodies that stood in his way.

After a few steps he found an exit to the void they were in. And praying it was the way they had come, he felt along the wall. The steady tug on his arm seemed to ripple like a wave, and he hoped all that had been led to this doom were somewhere in the long line of humanity he led; hopefully back to the light. Occasionally he stumbled over rocks, but thankfully there were none big enough to trip him. Then with a stifled moan some obstacle softer than the stone entombing them blocked Billy’s path. And stretching out with his free hand Billy felt a face on a figure that must be slumped against the wall.

“You came back,” slurred the familiar voice of Mr Henderson, greeting Billy with a ray of hope. If fallen town’s folk lined the way out, he had a trail to follow, even if it were a sporadic guide to freedom. Helping the electrician up, he made sure he was linked between Sally and the next unseen figure behind her. Billy knew Mr Henderson would be able to keep up, for the line virtually crawled along the pitch-black trail, as he felt his way forward.

After what seemed like an eternity another marker showed themselves on the way back, but this poor soul had not been so lucky, and try as he might Billy could get no response; after stooping low over the prone figure Billy was sure he could hear no breathing too. Passing the news back for care to be taken, least someone in the line should stumble over the fallen Applefieldian, he felt his way on. In this way Billy found yet more of his town folk. Some joined the line; others were past salvation, and must remain here for now.

At last with a choke of tears, Billy saw a light bobbing towards him. It took him a moment to realise it was his own laboured movement that made it act so. And when he pulled up short the faint light stayed stock-still. “I think I can see the tunnel mouth” was all he could say, but the cries of joy and hurried conveyance of his words down the line gave Billy a sudden surge of strength, as he felt his companions move forward in new found hope.

Before he realised it Billy was stumbling out in to the light, as a blue sky greeted him. He helped each staggering figure in the line pass out in to the sun, and find a vacant spot on which to simply fall down where they stood. Then with a swell of relief both his parents passed him, squeezing his hand before they spotted Sally as she waved feebly at them, and they went over to rest in the sun.

Finally all the long line of refugees form the ordeal had emerged, and Billy lay down too with his family. Looking round he saw that many a face was missing from the exhausted survivors. There would be time to morn the lost. But now he knew help would have to be sort. Perhaps in a while Billy thought, as he lay back and basked in the sunlight, he had feared he might never see again.

Immaculate deception

“I tell you he had dark hair”, the irate man gesticulated down the street at where the robber had made good his escape. Jake’s father ran a fruit and veg shop on Mahoney street. He just wanted to earn a living like any other average Joe; but how could he keep going with all this crime going on under the very noses, of the police that were there supposedly to protect them.

“I hardly think a couple of pounds of fruit is a major felony”, explained the downtrodden cop at Mr Velowich’s statement. And instantly regretted his hasty words, as once more the shopkeeper showered him in a mixture of choice words and spittle. It really was a habit Jake despised in his father, as he turned away in embarrassment.

The latest delivery of Patooni fruit was a thing to morn the loss of; after all it was the biggest thing you never heard of. It use to be that only specialist shops could get it, the ones that traded on being able to get the exotic and the new, but you know how word of mouth gets round. Those darn things tasted so good, it felt like the buzz of a fizzy drink without the chemicals everyone knew went in to anything artificial. And it had to be good for you, you felt so invigorated after one.

But as so often happens when the demand outstrips the supply; the big boys stepped in. If there was going to be a profit to be made from stepping up production and shipping of a good thing, they could be relied on to turn up eventually. And close on their heels the F.D.A. had to stick their noses in too; after all, this natural product might turn out to be dangerous or something. But they drew a blank; yes people wanted it, and then they wanted some more, but the fruit itself didn’t seem to contain anything the F.D.A. could say was harmful, despite what the other big boys who already made a nice profit from existing food products might say. Or at least as the old schools lobby groups told everyone.

And so the silent rise of the Patooni fruit marched on. It even had its evangelists; after all every argument must have two sides, other wise it wouldn’t be interesting, and the word couldn’t spread. Which brings us back to Jake’s father and the latest delivery. If you could get it, business was good. But if for some reason the shipment didn’t turn up, or in this case it got stolen from right under your noses as the delivery van had dropped it off, then you were up the creek so to speak, until your turn to get another shipment was due.

“It’s a natural product,” the calm voice of the shipment clerk explained. “Until it’s fully grown and ripe, our hands are tied. We can’t get it off the farmers any faster than nature allows.” That didn’t help Mr Velowich or the other vendors who still hadn’t got on the preferred list of outlets. But it did raise questions in the halls of power. Why was not more of this fruit being grown? Surely the resources given to traditional and some times out-dated crops could be turned over to this super fruit. And then the scientists were called in. Yes they had tried to plant this new crop on home soil, and prospects looked good; as any scientist might say hoping to buy more time. But there was always some snag or problem or delay. They just needed more time to solve it.

But time was not a commodity business cared to trade in, not with Franklin’s old adage. So it did the only thing it could do, and it invested in the farmers over there. Which was good for Mr Velowich, and in turn Jake, who had to bear the brunt of his father’s frustrations. And why you say? Because the time before the next delivery would shorten. It was a simple law of supply and demand. And the public demanded it. They got angry if they had to go to the next shop to get their Petooni fruit. Even Jake remembered a time when people weren’t so mean spirited, and he was only ten.

“You got any insurance?” the cop asked, hoping to allay the irate shopkeepers tirade of abuse; but as ever, margins were close and Jake’s father still had to put food on the table, no he didn’t have insurance. Despite this picture of depravation Jake had during his formative years, he still recalled it as a fond memory. Like the distinct aroma the robber had given off that day, you could still notice it back then; but nowadays the stench of humanity was as prevalent as the air you breathed.

Jake was only fifteen when he was conscripted, but by then he was glad to go. After all what was left for him at home. The father he had grown to hate was dead in the ground; and why, because he stood up to a thug in the street. Even Jake knew not to do that at fourteen, when he had to take over running the shop so his mother wouldn’t starve. You just didn’t tackle the faceless hordes that seemed to roam the darkened streets these days. Anger was their rhetoric, and a fist their argument. Jake’s father was in the wrong place at the wrong time; the trouble was that these days few places were right. And so Jake was led off by the recruiting patrol.

He only hoped his mother would be there for him, when he had made the world a better place. Or at least that’s what everyone told Jake and the other raw recruits, they were doing. That the evil aggressors over seas must be quelled, least they bring their brand of hatred to you loved one’s door. The basic training was just that; you got fit, you learnt how to kill, and they shipped you out. At least the horrors of nuclear and chemical warfare were things of the past. Both side’s propaganda machines were adamant of that. For this war to end all others would not stain the earth, except with the blood of their enemies.

It was Jake’s fourth year in this hellhole; and one cloudy day brought him to a deserted grove, an oasis of temporary peace. As the battle scarred warriors from a distant land scoured the empty buildings; for signs that the enemy lay in wait, or had even left a deadly trap for the unwary to fall prey to, Jake listened not only to the creaking of the shutters in the gentle wind, but also to his fellow comrades of the fifty fourth, as they too searched for signs of the enemy. “Tree line clear” came a radio message for Mervin; Jake only hoped he had done a good job, the cover those trees afforded could hold a host of trouble, and Jake didn’t want to be cut off from help.

He approached the open door, wondering if the shadows within were hiding some deadly surprise, and praying he would be lucky just one more time. That was how it went; one moment at a time, you lived or you died, it only took a moment. “Anybody in there?” the irony was not lost on Jake, alerting his presence to the enemy on the off chance that a civilian just might be sheltering in this hide away. No answer; Jake checked his rifle and wished he had been issued with a smoke bomb; that would clear out most targets, but supplies were low, and cunning was assumed by command to be an excellent substitution for actual ordnance.

What made those in control of this farce of a war turn away from the science of mass destruction, and pit flesh against flesh? It had become a more pressing topic the old hands over here bandied about, but it never got anywhere, never seemed to mean anything to the fresh faced cannon fodder, who either learn the rules of war fast, or learnt the hard way. Battle weary commanders sent wave after wave of troops to death or victory, to keep pressure on a seemingly unending foe. But today was a good day Jake thought, as he almost shut his eyes to gain some semblance of vision, while he advanced in to the darkness within. That split second when you were almost blinded by the semidarkness of an interior could mean the difference between life and death.

With a sigh Jake’s eyed adjusted to the squalid room; and he saw a form crouched in a corner. It was the eyes he saw first, or he might have just let rip with his automatic rifle. They held the fear of someone who had lost everything, and were sure they were about to lose the one thing they had left, their life. The eyes shone in the twilight, and Jake realised that it could only be a child from the size of it. Still Jake hesitated; was this poor wretch a decoy to draw his attention? He moved forward cautiously sweeping left, right, up and down. The room seemed clear as far as he could tell, but even then he paused; something at the back of Jake’s mind told him that danger still pervaded, and then he saw it. The child was sat on a square of metal, and Jake jumped back.

Back in to the light, back from the blast. And back in to a dark world where memories swam through his consciousness, like ripples in a tank. He knew he was dreaming, but a fear kept him from waking up. What would his world be when he left the comfort of his mindscape. The logic made some kind of sense to Jake; he some feeling of control in here. He remembered the blast, that child had been left to set off a booby trap. Had it been threatened with more pain, if it didn’t wait for the enemy’s footsteps? Or was it an all too willing martyr, in this war to end all?

Jake swam back up this stream of consciousness, and gasping he sat up in his hospital bed. The nurse ran over to him and quietened the shell of a man back down with words of comfort, where little else could be given. It was as if the forces that ran head to head in to this conflict, could see no further than the next fight, either killing or be killed, and for what? A peace of land Jake thought. What a reason to die for, and then he sank once more in to that mind-set every soldier had. The war must be won, the enemy must be defeated, and the world made a better place.

So one day Jake rose once more from his bed, and took up his gun again. He would not stop; he could not stop, for there was no end for such as he. The wheel ever turned, and feet marched on. Perpetual war was the civilisation Jake’s generation handed down to the next, and the one after that, as the memory of those long dead faded from the minds of the brave warriors, who carried on the conflict. But now they carried spears and swords, bearing testament to the broken chains of command and supply, from a long forgotten homeland, perhaps itself lost in self-destruction, as this rag tag force bore down on the last of the enemy.

What was little more than a skirmish ended the final conflict in this war to end all others. Not because they had finally taken the land they sort, or brought the enemy to its knees. But because this final battle left one man standing, or at least alive, as he knelt retching over his fallen enemy. There would be no more wars because the dead did not wage them. As the last man died, the smell that had become the stench of conflict drifted away in the wind.

Yet still the trees swayed in that breeze. No hand lived to pick the fruit, and no beast seemed to want to touch it, yet still it did not grow rotten on the bough; instead the once prized fruit that so many had died to hold continued to grow, beyond what any human had seen. They had picked it when they wanted, not when it was truly ripe. One day long after the wind had swept all vestige of humanity’s aroma away, the now swollen pods touched the ground, and the branches of the Petooni tree strained under the weight of the burden they bore.

With a sudden blur of movement each pod burst on contact with the soil, as the branch that bore it whipped once more back up, free of its burden. And standing unsteadily on the now virgin soil, figures blinked in the harsh light, as they wiped away their protective coating. Had they sprung from the very earth? Or were the seeds of their birth carried from some far off world? They knew not, and the long dead would never tell the new rulers, who had inherited this world.

The end is in sight

I’m well on the way with writing this third collection of science fiction speculation in to some fundamental concepts, and hoping that the fun will come through to you dear reader, as you follow my never ceasing quest.

You may think I follow a haphazard path, but most of the basic seeds of my stories for all of my seven books in this series, and indeed several book ideas beyond it, were and are still being brought in to existence. Like a vast framework just waiting to fill out; an enquiring mind never ceases. So you see the end is in sight in that respect.

Now let me put forward a thought experiment. Could I consider some, if not most of the concepts explored in my stories but a few scant decades ago? Some perhaps, but others defiantly not, for they stand on the shoulders of giants, pioneers in humankinds endless quest for knowledge. But in my case, there is an additional reason to salute the great men and women of science. This time in the field of medical advancement.

For as I pen this text I find myself in self-turmoil. My body has rebelled against me, and seeks to consume me from within. I have been diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. Now before you turn aside from my words, think what I stated at the beginning of this narrative. For it is thanks to the medical miracles of modern medicine, that I can look forward to many years of scientific speculation. Rather than, as would be the case a scan few decades ago, staring at the chasm my imminent demise.

The view over the parapet may not be good, but it gives one a wonderful perspective on the rest of existence. And as it stands, thanks to the wonders of medicine, even this glimpse at the void is only a dim view. Scientists from all branches of the tree of knowledge, which scientific advancement tends for the good of all, I salute you.

Isotopaz

After the morning’s work, Carl slurped away at his mug of tea. He knew it annoyed Dan, but he did it anyway. After all Dan as always, had been five minutes late out the door when Carl picked him up in the company van. A fag had hung from Carl’s mouth, as he briefly day dreamed that the lottery tick sat his pocket; bough when he got the cigarettes this morning, could get him out of the life he was in. And Dan as usual had a triangle of toast sticking out of his mouth, as if he had finally given up on a breakfast, while Carl had sat tooting the horn. It wasn’t as if Dan couldn’t just bring his breakfast out and eat it on the way to the job. But Dan had his ways, and Carl had his own, like slurping his tea. He said it cooled it just right.

“Want a cheese and ham?” Dan proffered the soft white slice, but with a smile Carl waved it away with his own cheese and pickle in a bap. Such niceties had to be observed, to share ones lunch with your workmate, but they never swapped, preferring the delights their own lunch boxes held. They never offered a biscuit, that was another unwritten rule, that treat would never be shared. The remnants of each man’s feast were finally finished, leaving Carl’s watch at the bottom of his box. One concession he allowed to vanity when he was painting, but also he didn’t want to turn up to sign on with clues to his occupation.

Then Carl leaned over and picked up the pot of paint. “Go get the other tin will you” he ordered his effective underling; Carl owned the van ergo he ran the business. With a surly look Dan rose to keep the peace, after all he did most of the work while Carl merely did the fiddly bits; ergo he should by rights be in charge. As far as money went whoever saw the client got the money, and then they split it even. The taxman never got a look in.

Dan opened the door of the van, which they had parked round the back. “You never know who might take a shine to it”, Carl always explained to an enquiring client. Dan opened the other door; he looked round the sparse back of the van. Asides from some cloths it was bare. He moved the cloths and cursed. No paint tin was to be seen. Climbing right in he leaned over the seats and peered down; it wasn’t in the front. Then in desperation he came round the front and looked under the seats, but he didn’t hold much hope. Cursing again Dan relocked the van and stamped inside.

“You must have brought it in before” he accused Carl, as the other man lay on his side doing a fiddly bit near the skirting board. Looking up Carl shook his shaven head, “No you brought in the first tin while I carried the cloths and brushes remember? There should be a new tin sat in the back of the van, because you were too lazy to bring in both tins at once. You did lock the van properly?” He eased himself up and waved an accusing brush at Dan. “You know I did, because you always check it on account of you not wanting to pay any insurance.” Carl almost smiled at the simplicity of Dan’s trail of thought. They both knew they worked to supplement their dole. That was why they never worked on a Thursday, signing on day. But there was no getting out of it, the tin had gone missing; a quick search of the office and the van again proved that.

“Well we can’t go and get another tin, it’s miles to the shop and they’ve already agreed on a price. I’m not missing out on a night’s drinks, that stuff didn’t come cheep.” He indicated the pot of paint that claimed to be Salmon Topaz. Dan scoured the room again, in the vain hope that he could locate the errant tin; and then his eyes alighted on a glass-fronted cabinet. Inside the cabinet sat various jars of different coloured substances. With the hungry look of someone on the make, he turned back to Carl. “What if we were to mix up some more to finish the job?” He indicated the cupboard.

Carl looked down at the almost empty tin and then back to Dan, and he nodded. “I don’t suppose they’d miss a little here or there.” Dan got to using up the last of the old tin, while Carl began mixing enough of the various colours to finish the job; they’d only need enough for a small patch. After all, they didn’t want any complaints getting back to the taxman or the dole office. The first two batches Carl tried turned out to be too bright and gave off an acrid smell, causing Dan to throw open a window and put Carl on painting duty, while he took over with the mixing. “You have to have an artistic bent” he chucked over his shoulder, occasionally coughing from the fumes.

Finally he turned to his partner, and with a flourish of his hand showed Carl the newly mixed colour. “It looks about the same”, Carl admitted as he held the mix up to the wall. Dan stood arms akimbo, admiring his mixing skills. “And if we blend the last of the old stuff in to this new batch, no one will be the wiser.” They shared a conspiratorial grin. Then Carl began to carefully blend the patch until it looked just right. Standing back their critical eyes swept over the wall. “You can hardly tell it’s different”, remarked Carl. “Care for a cup of tea before we pack up?” Dan held up his flask. And to celebrate the coup Carl held the cups, while Dan poured the last of the hot brown liquid from his flask.

As they sat admiring their work, Dan frowned as he got the oddest feeling that he was being watched. He didn’t like it, it felt too much like the dole office was spying on them; and turning to Carl he noticed he too had an odd look on his face. But Carl was staring intently at the newly painted wall. Carl leaned forward he rubbed his eyes, “I’m sure that bit moved then.” Cursing Dan imagined the plaster being damaged in some way. But no, as he now studied the spot it seemed to undulate with slow ripples like a cup of tea gone wrong. Dan slapped his face; it was the booze finally getting to him. He’d heard about people going wappy after years on the drink. But clearly Carl was seeing it too; the thought of a shared hallucination never entered his head. Like most things beyond his ken Dan was oblivious to the phenomenon.

Dan tentatively placed his finger on to the wall, and with wide-eyed shock found it was not just his finger, but his whole hand passed through. Carl jumped up and tried to grab the now disappearing forearm of the whimpering Dan, but the power that was dragging the terrified painter in to the wall far surpassed any human intervention; and losing his grip Carl fell back as he saw the soles of Dan’s boots slip beneath the vertical surface, leaving just ripples to slowly undulate across it.

With animal instinct only, Carl recoiled to as far as he could get away from this living nightmare. Then he curled up on the other side of the room staring intently once more at the spot where his mate had vanished. With shaking hands Carl reached in to his top pocket for his packet of cigarettes, and never taking his eyes off the fateful patch on the wall, he lit up. His heart was beating ten to the dozen as he contemplated what to do next. The sensible thing would be to pack everything up and forget about it. The police would laugh at him at best, and lock him up at worst. And then there would be all the questions about why they were there in the first place. The dole office and the taxman would hang Carl out to dry. He’d just have to say Dan had wandered off, no he’d not seen him in weeks in fact.

Carl lit another cigarette and began to tidy up, always glancing at the faint ripple on the wall. He couldn’t leave his mate like that; he might be just on the other side, hurt and in need of help. Carl took a step towards the wall; a big ripple undulated across its surface. Then Carl’s legs decided for him and he ran forward. But just as he was about to touch the drying paint, he suddenly pulled his finger back. He’d had an idea, and quickly searching the room he found a fire hose reel. The nearest thing he could find to a rope. Then holding on to the nozzle he went back over to the wall. Carl stretched out his other arm. He immediately felt a pull on it as the paint undulated back and forth more vigorously. Then with a tug, Carl too was sucked in to this strange portal. As the blue patch enveloped him, all that was left to show the men had been there, was a taught fire hose stretched between the now unravelled hose reel and the wall.

Carl dared not open his eyes; he was hanging from the end of the reel. How could he have been so stupid? How could he have been so reckless? How come he was now hanging down? He let an eye open just a little, and snapped it shut immediately. The purple landscape that stretched out before him was like some weird nightmare. He risked another look and took in the strange land before him. Carl had never seen anywhere like it. Was he hallucinating? Was he dead? The pain in his arms from hanging off the fire hose seemed real, and Carl looked down. He immediately regretted it. The drop was buttock clenching, to the misty distance below.

As Carl’s fear overwhelmed brain took in more of this horror than he grasped, he realised he was in fact hung over a ledge. And more than that, it was only a few feet below him. The pain in Carl’s arms was getting worst; he looked up and wondered if the hose would retract back on to it’s reel if he let go; effectively stranding him in this nightmare. And then it struck him, where was Dan? Had he simply carried on down, bouncing off the ledge and in to the void below? He didn’t seem to be anywhere close, “Dan you doss git, where are you?” Carl wheezed through the pain in his arms. There was no reply, not even an echo of his own voice, just the wind whipping past this god forsaken cliff face. As Carl decided to give up this foolhardy rescue and try to climb back up, his arms made the decision for him. With a sudden jerk of pain Carl let go of the hose.

With a thud and a grunt, Carl dropped to the thin ledge; and lay there feeling the burning pain of his abused arms. That was enough for now, so he lay there panting until the worst of it subsided, and he could take in his new situation. Tentatively Carl rolled on to his back and stared up, as one hand felt the secure and reassuring rock, but the other hand found the edge where only air could be grasped. And all the time he watched the hose above him lazily wafting in the breeze. At least that seemed to be staying put. A hopefully ever-present route to the real world, away from whatever hell he and Dan had fallen in to.

Presently Carl eased himself round and managed to stand. The ledge seemed to run off in to the distance either way, but there was a slight but definite slope to it. Carl looked up once more, and with dismay realised the hose end was just out of reach, even if he dared jump up on this narrow way station between home above, and the hell below, he felt helpless. He would have to find something to stand on if he were ever to reach that escape route home; and looking about, that was as likely as his local town winning the cup final. So he decided down hill seemed a reasonable way to go. Normally, given the possible choices a coin flip would suffice; but Carl was out of change and besides it might fall off the edge, or worst still he might go down trying to catch it.

Carl turned and let gravity lead the way; and with one glance back at his escape hose, he wondered at the weird patch that just floated there in mid air with the hose dangling from it. Then he had to concentrate on the path ahead of him least he put one foot wrong and go the same way down that Dan must have gone, to tumble endlessly to his doom. As he felt the rock on his right, desperate for any crevices to hold on to, the light breeze seemed to tug at Carl making him flinch from the sudden visions of vertigo he was succumbing to. Also his knees were aching from the continual downward trail. Then with a lurch Carl almost stumbled and reeled away from the safety of the cliff face, but pulling himself up at the last moment he froze and sank to a heap; withis back to the wall, and staring out at the impossible landscape.

Carl lit a cigarette and stared out, trying to make sense of where he was. The green sun still hung low in the sky, and Carl couldn’t tell if it was rising or setting. How long had he stumbled along? He was having trouble remembering actual moments. Perhaps time had stopped, and this weird sun would just hang there forever. Carl cursed taking his watch off to do the painting, a precaution he regretted with all his heart now that he wished for some method of telling how stretched out the moments were now. He could have been stumbling down this path all day for all he knew, and where would it end? Carl suddenly realised he would have to go all the way back up again, with whatever he could find to seize that just out of reach hose, and get home. The shock sent him reeling again, and he took a long drag on his cigarette before flicking it over the edge. Pulling himself back by force of will, before he tried to watch it’s decent; least he follow it too.

A sudden thought struck him; if he had been a long time then maybe someone would be going in to the office he and Dan had been painting. If they found the hose he might get rescued. Carl looed back up the path with renewed hope, straining to see the strange phenomenon that brought him to this. True there would be trouble, but anything would be better than where he was now. Then a memory came to him as if his brain was slipping into gear, it was Friday and no one would be coming to rescue him for two whole days at least. Carl felt the blood drain from his head at this chilling thought; and as he bashed his fist on the rock floor, Carl found a resolve so powerful that he slid back up the rock face, and like an automaton he stumbled on.

That was when he saw it; the path had curved inward so he came upon it almost in an instant of his confused mind. The path fell away in to the misty depths below. And Carl almost stumbled over it in to the void. But clutching the rock to his right he pulled up short, and let his brain catch up with the world. Words failed him, until a well-versed tongue spat out a tirade of abuse at an unfair world. Sated of bile, Carl began to take in a true picture of how bad his situation was. The path did in fact continue after a break of twenty feet, far too much for him to jump, even if he didn’t stumble when he hit the other side. Then Carl laughed in hollow mirth, he couldn’t jump twenty feet anyway. He’d drop in to the depths before he got five feet out in to the void, and he pulled himself back with a jerk imagining the drop. He stared at the gap, willing it not to be there and forlornly at the pitiful bit of the path still clinging to the rock face. It was no more than a foot wide, and shiver ran down Carl’s spine. He’d never be able to cross that, or could he?

Carl began to stare intently at the rock wall; there were holes and crevices. Could he hold on to them and inch his way over? Yes said some belligerent voice at the back of Carl’s mind, and without a second thought he felt for the first crack to wedge his fingers in. It felt solid and a resolve to get through this surged through Carl’s aching muscles. He slid his left foot along the thin band of the world holding him up, constantly fighting the knowledge that his heels hung over the void, clinging to each crevice with a vice like grip, hugging the rock face like a lover; but ever looking towards the far side, willing it closer.

He was almost there, just five more feet to go when Carl’s legs began to shake, and he pressed even harder to the one thing keeping him alive, his hands burned with the strain. His fingers felt like they were breaking, and Carl almost began to slump. But from deep down inside the same voice that had set him on this foolhardy climb came back with a vengeance, and led his pain fogged mind through each movement, every step, every arm stretch, until with one final effort Carl slumped down on the path beyond.

He just lay there, unable to form a coherent thought, like some waking nightmare dragging him around like a rag doll. He woke up weeping, and the sight of the drop before him made Carl crawl back against the solid rock behind him. Then like a weight pushing down on his chest Carl realised his mistake. How was he going to get back to the hose? He’d barely made it across that chasm this time. He’d never be able to do it carrying anything back, and he cursed his own stupidity. Well he wasn’t going to give up now, he’d just have to carry on and trust to luck, but first he’d rest. Carl still felt weak, and he had to start thinking. He couldn’t keep making mistakes.

He lit another cigarette and dragged deeply on it, pondering the scant few that remained in the packet. Then as the light breeze took his smoke away, Carl finally relaxed took in the scene in front of him. The glow from the sun bathed the land as it stretched far away to the horizon; giving it such vivid colours that it almost felt like an invitation to this other world. As if he were privy to the new day held here forever in the moment. At that instant Carl felt he could be happy here; then like his smoke the feeling drifted away, and Carl knew he must face the harshness of reality. He got up once more to stumble on.

The path seemed to be widening out now, and Carl was sure it felt like it was levelling off, as he found it increasingly harder to put one foot in front of the other. With a sudden realisation Carl gripped his stomach, and realised he was famished, as it growled at him accusingly. Then looking up from his constantly aching belly, Carl was even more astonished to see a village tucked in to the crevice he had stumbled on to. It seemed to stretch back and up tier after tier of well-tended plots, each with a rough hut built against the rock face. Straining Carl could discern a picket fence on the edge of each tier, and ladders stretching between the levels. Then he noticed the barrier at the bottom, it was a rough wooden wall, far sturdier than the walls above. This one was made to keep something out, rather than act as a safety net.

So with now leaden feet and dizziness overwhelming him, Carl approached the barrier. There didn’t seem to be any way past the high wall barring his way to any help. And now he was close enough, Carl realised it would be futile to try and climb the smooth wooden structure, as it towered above him. Flopping down with his back to wall, Carl sank in to a stupor as he pushed the dust about with his hands and stared up at the sky. Then a funny thing happened. The strait line of the wall top was broken by a couple of heads staring down at him. Carl gave a start before crying out for help. The smiles on the two faces gave Carl hope, and when one disappeared to return with a rope, which snaked down to Carl’s outstretched arms, he knew his tribulations must be as an end, at least for the moment.

One of the figures leaned over enough to indicate that Carl should tie the rope around his waist, and he soon found himself being hauled up this seemingly impenetrable barrier. The rough-hewn wood finally yielded it’s top, and Carl found a pair of hairy arms festooned with symbols hauling him over the wall’s zenith. Next Carl found himself on a parapet, where he lay there panting from his exertions, and looking up at two men only clad in loincloths. “What cha doin’ down there?” one of Carl’s saviours called out, as if Carl were some idiot found wandering in a minefield. It took Carl a few seconds to register what the man had just said, and more importantly how he said it. If he had closed his eyes, he could swear this stranger was stood in the Old Rodger on Finnick Street, and not on a wall in it oh so strange land.

“What did you say mate?” Carl almost tripped over his words in the joy of finding the familiar in this unworldly place. But satisfied that their charge was not seriously hurt, and that the rope used to bring him up had been stowed; the two men took Carl’s arms and frog marched him to some steps leading down to a sort of village square. Carl thought it must be the only decent sized piece of flat land in the whole village. And then he saw the lines, it was a crudely marked out football pitch. In the middle sat an impressive figure; that surveyed Carl over his rotund belly. Carl couldn’t fail to notice the odd looking shirt the man was wearing. It seemed to be an unfamiliar team’s colours, and hung down passed any embarrassment. But from the very way the man acted, Carl assumed he must be the chief of the village.

He was busy tucking in to a pie as Carl’s two guards approached with him. “Found him off side” announced the man who had first spoke to Carl. The chief peered at the pitiful state of Carl’s appearance, and then taking a free pie from an ample pile, he tossed it towards Carl, who at least had the present of mind to catch it and nod thanks before hunger got the better of him. Coughing slightly from the crust Carl looked up from his now empty hands, to see the chief had been patiently studying him as he consumed the food. Then leaning forward again the fat man asked, “What’s yer team?” Was this a sort challenge, which if Carl answered wrong could lead to some sort of inter team violence. But at this point Carl was past caring, and at least he had been fed. So he called back the first team he could think of. “Accrington Stanley”, hoping it’s obscurity wouldn’t cause an animosity. The chief seemed a little perplexed; perhaps thought Carl he’d never heard of them. None the less the chief finally seemed satisfied with Carl’s answer.

With a notion that he had passed some kind of test, a right of passage as it were, Carl reached in to his top pocket for his packet cigarettes. Noticing there were only two left, he offered one to the chief, “Fag?” At the word the man in charge almost toppled off his seat. Then he pointed animatedly at the packet, as he asked in an awed voice “You’ve got the sacred smokes, the fags of whom the great one craves. How came you by this relic?” And taken aback by this sudden outburst, Carl returned the packet to his pocket. “I bought them this morning.” Carl’s two guards took a step back as if in reverence of this Stanger from wastes beyond the wall. And the chief seemed elated that he had the honour of finding such an honourable guest; now it had been established Carl bore such a treasure. “You must journey to the celestial palace. The great one will want to see you.”

Then the chief indicated that Carl’s two wards should accompany him on the pilgrimage, an honour bestowed for his initial rescue. They didn’t set off strait away though, much to Carl’s relief. Joe and Lenny, as Carl’s found his guides to called, stopped off a couple of levels up for supplies, and to let Carl rest. The ladders up just about finished Carl off again, and he lay on one of the beds in a hut, while Lenny and Joe took it in turns to feed his various pies, and a cool but sadly flat lager until overcome but sated, Carl fell in to a doze.

When he awoke refreshed Carl found a small pack by his bed, and the two men sat on mats waiting for him. Then at their urging all three of them put the packs on, before stepping back out in to the full light. Joe took the lead on the ladder up, while Lenny followed after Carl. He was soon panting like a collie from his exertions, and the sight of the unprotected sweaty rump preceding him up the ladder put him off any casual conversation, about who the great one in the celestial palace might be. But he managed to cough one question to the man following him up. “How many more ladders do we have to climb? I’m gasping.” And Carl reached for his top pocket, but the shocked look of blasphemy from Lenny Checked his hand and he just patted the bulge, as if to check it was still there.

Occasionally a face would pop out of one of the hut windows and ask, “Who you got there Joe?” At which Joe would wheeze back, “Bloke with a pack of fags.” The look of awe on the askers face followed them in to the dark hut, and then a small group would gather below Carl and his two guides, as they carried on up. By the time Carl’s ears began to pop, and he was beginning to see blue sparks before his eyes, a hand reached down to help him up. And looking past Joe, Carl could see the end to this trial by endurance. Then flopping down at the top of the village all three men lay panting, and enjoying the view. The same vista stretched out beyond the village, but glancing down Carl noticed that each tier held a small knot of people straining to see them, as now every hut had heard of the legendary fag man.

Finally Carl broke the silence. “So who’s this great one that lives in the celestial palace?” Joe looked at Carl as if he had asked what the opposite of up was. And deciding Carl really didn’t know of the Supreme Being, he began. “About ten years ago the great one fell from the sky, as the old celestial one lay dying in his bed. And it was the new great one who touched the sacred hand, and thus the reign passed as it always has. The old great one left his mortal shell so that his spirit could ascend, and since that day we have bourn the holy symbols of the new great one.” Lenny held up a crudely draw tattoo on his arm, and Carl couldn’t help but see vague similarities between the man’s tattoo and his own. He Held out his arm to show his two companions his markings. The guides looked impressed, for although Carl’s were different to the marks holy writ had decreed should be set down, his were unmistakably of a higher quality. And Carl was sure Joe mouthed the words “Holy man.”

Keen finally meet the ruler of this land, Carl fought his aching limbs and indicated that they should move on. His guides clearly showed signs of fatigue also, but in reverence to Carl they pushed on, skirting a forest of mighty trees. Occasionally they passed the head of another valley, and on Carl’s request Joe told him it was called Umbukoo united, and another was Kawalli rovers. “Orders from the great one”, Lenny added. Soon the path became a set of winding steps, and Carl had to stop several times to catch his breath; until at last he spied a glint of gold up ahead. “The celestial palace” Joe informed him, and getting his second wind, Carl pushed on ahead of his companions. Then after briefly rounding a bluff, Carl suddenly came upon the golden spires of the celestial palace. He almost stumbled, and he had to shield his eyes as the reflected light off the gate alone, made it seem like a fire before him.

As Carl stood in blind awe of the sight, he heard the challenge. “Who approaches the holy palace of the great one?” And Joe came to his assistance, guiding Carl by the elbow up the last few steps. Lenny must have been at Carl’s other elbow, for he whispered to Carl, “You must show the guards your sacred offering.” Carl fumbled in his pocket and held up his sacred charge. Like a talisman it was his passport through the gates, as the firm but gentile hands of the guardians took Carl, and he left his guides behind. As his eyes grew accustomed to the bright light, Carl noticed the bronzed figures on either side of him. These were true Adonises compared to the figures cut by all the other people Carl had seen in this land. And Carl began to wish he were among those he felt more akin to. But the firm grip he was held in, assured Carl that he would be staying in this palace of light for the present at least.

He was led across a lawn beautifully laid out like a foot ball pitch, and adorning each end stood an actual gold set of posts hung with a silk net. It was only then that Carl noticed the men walking either side of him wore a full football kit, delicately manufactured from silk. That was when his attention was drawn to the palace he was approaching. The crystal panes gave it the look of an ornate gazebo, but constructed on a grand scale only available to the insanely wealthy. With every step Carl was almost blinded by the rays of light reflecting off the wall, until it was all that he could do to stop himself from tripping up the steps. Then with an in take of air, the doors in front of him opened, and Carl stepped in to a marvellous throne room.

The bearded figure before him surveyed Carl and rose, his pure white silk robes billowed in the slight breeze. Meanwhile Carl was only just now recovering from the blinding approach to the palace. So he was taken unawares, as the ruler of this land planted a punch in his stomach, and Carl crumpled to the floor. What crime had he committed? Was he to suffer further by this cruel tyrant of this impossibly insane world?

As the injustice of it all swept over him, Carl heard the ranting of the man who stood fists shaking over him. “Carl you git, where the hell have you been? I’ve waited ten years for you to show your sorry ass. I thought you’d forgotten me.” Dan was almost in tears as he raged over his one link to his former life, and he sank to his knees to hold Carl’s face up. The sorry state of Dan’s time ravaged face was a stark comparison to his own, as Carl asked “What happened to you mate? And how did you get that beard?” But still with anger in his tone Dan spat out, “You haven’t done too bad for yourself. You still look the same as the day you abandoned me, ten years ago.”

All this was too confusing for Carl, as he tried to make some sense of Dan’s accusation. “I didn’t abandon you. I had a cigarette to calm down, then I followed strait after you. With a rope to get you get you back.” But the look of pain in Dan’s eyes told him something was wrong with his words, and he knew Dan could never lie to him.

Then a thought struck him, if Dan thought he’d left him for ten years before attempting a rescue, there must be something going on, and Carl reached in to his back pocket. With relief Carl felt a piece of paper, and he took it out. “Look, here’s that lottery ticket I got this morning”, explained Carl as he held it up for Dan’s inspection. And the bearded figure snatched the ticket form his grasp. As if inspecting some precious gem, the aged eyes scanned the little piece of paper, observing the date, pouring over the pristine quality of the paper. Then satisfied that it was the genuine article, the realisation that this voucher from the past, a document decreeing an unassailable truth, Dan’s eyes rose once more to take in Carl’s appearance. As Dan strained to recall details almost lost over the years, he brought up a mental image nearly faded over the years spent in this palace. Then almost as if in disbelief Dan said, “You look just like you did that day.”

Drawing the packet from his top pocket, Carl proffered Dan a cigarette, and took the other himself. As the flame from Carl’s lighter flickered between them, the two men’s eyes met, and Carl mumbled between his teeth. “I only stopped for a fag, then I came after you.” Dan took a drag, and with the look of bliss on his face gave a cough. “It’s been years mate. Time must work differently here.” He hugged Carl as an old friend, being carful not to damage his precious cigarette. After a second they broke apart, and Dan led the still confused Carl through to an inner chamber where they sat on cushions, and enjoyed the delicacies laid out for them.

At first Dan sat and listened to Carl’s adventures; of how he had stumbled down the path. He chuckled at the thought that Carl believed he’d gone over the edge. And when Carl got to the part where he found the wall Dan interjected, “The locals were having a fair bit of trouble when I arrived, with wild beasts”, he shuddered. “And it hadn’t occurred to them just to bar them out.” Then in a hushed tone Dan added, “Most of the natives seem a little on the dull side, that’s why I introduced them to football. I thought it might give them a team spirit, and of course it reminded me of home.” He gave a little cough. “The one thing I couldn’t get was a decent smoke though.”

By now Carl could hardly contain himself with the question burning in his mind. “But how did you become the supreme leader with all the power of some emperor?” Dan smiled, “That was sheer luck, you remember when I fell through the wall? Well I landed on that path.” He winced at the thought, “It sure winded me, and it took a while before I realised I wasn’t in the parking lot behind the office. By then I noticed the sort of portal hovering way out of reach. I knew I’d never be able to get back through it from below, but I figured you’d find some way to get a rope to me, or something. Well that fell flat after I’d waited what seemed like an eternity.”

Carl’s pained look seemed to touch Dan as he hastily added, “Not that I blame you. On your side only a fraction of a second must have passed.” And Dan recalled the moment as if it were only yesterday, his eyes glazed over. But he was back in an instant, “It was then that I decided I had to save myself. So seeing one way on the path led up, I figured if I could get above the portal, I could drop through it and get back.”

Carl’s look of astonishment that he too could have tried that, was lost on his friend, as Dan carried on with his tale. “I staggered up the slope, now weak with hunger, as I’d wasted so much time just waiting there. And then I came to a set of steps cut in the rock. So bolstered with the hope that here was some sort of civilisation, I climbed them. I kept looking out to see if I could catch a glimpse of the portal from above, but I suppose I must have been too high above it then to stand any chance of hitting it, if I did get the courage to jump. Then just as my legs began to give out from under me, I came to a flat section with a nook in the rocks. And I just fell down and slept. I figured I’d just die there, and be done with it.

How long I slept there, I don’t know. But this squeaking noise kept getting in to my head, and I finally awoke with the sight of a stout wooden gate next to me. I must have just not seen it in my weariness when I first fell down. It was another sign that some help might be at hand, if only I could get to someone. So I dragged myself up and pushed on the door. It swung in, and I found myself in a beautiful garden, cover by glass.” He held Carl’s hand as if imparting some secret knowledge. “I swear to you, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The sweet scents and colours seemed to buoy me up, when nourishment had failed me. And I almost drifted through that place, past an ornamental pond, until I came upon another door.

This one was all crystal and gold, and I gave it a try. And would you believe it; that opened like a dream too. That was when I saw the bed, all soft and inviting. The rich walls and furnishings were nothing to me, for I only had eyes for the softness of the sheets. If I could just lie there and fall asleep, death would hold no horror for me. So I half dragged myself, and half staggered over to it’s inviting luxury. It was only when I was about to fall in to it’s embrace, that I saw the wizened figure already there.” Suddenly Dan gave Carl a look of utmost intensity, “I got confused Carl, I thought I was already in the bed. But how could I be? And then the figure was reaching out to me, and he placed something in my palm, before he fell back down dead.

I looked down to see what he had given me, and saw a ring with a dull blue stone in it. I don’t know what made me do it Carl, but I put the darn thing on. And would you believe it, that dull stone began to glow, as if some light had been switched on. From far off I heard a bell clanging, and I just stood there Carl, I just stood there. I was too far-gone to do anything else. That’s when the door opened, the one on the other side of the room to where I came in, and they came in. I thought I’d been caught like a thief in the night, but as they saw my glowing hand, they just bowed right down, right to the floor. Well I can tell you that was just too much for me, and I swooned.

The next thing I knew some fellow was feeding me broth as I lay in that bed, while outside through the glass walls I could see some bonfire going off. Well they fed me up; then some priest bloke told me I was the chosen one. It turns out the ring chooses the ruler, or it wouldn’t glow.” And Dan waved his arms about, “I own all this they said, just give the orders and my every wish would be fulfilled.” He frowned, “only trouble was, they wouldn’t let me out of this glass house. I can see the pitch out there.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, “I soon got a league going; when I realised I was here for the duration.” There was a look of desperation in Dan’s eyes, as he dropped his voice again. “For god’s sake Carl, get me out of here.”

It tested all of Carl’s composure not to burst out in exasperation, “Are you mad, you’ve got flunkies pampering your every whim, and you want to jack it in to be a painter again?” But it was a sign of how much desperation Dan’s plea to him held, that made his reply only a whisper. Dan stood and motioned Carl over to a window that looked out on the depths below. Then he spoke in halting tones. “Down there in the mists dwell things beyond your darkest nightmares.” He held Carl’s gaze as he continued. “The only people who can see them is the true master of this”, and he held up his left hand, so Carl could see the glowing ring on his middle finger.

Dan let his hand drop as he paced around the room; his eyes were ever on Carl who stood transfixed by this ruler of a strange land. “Every ruler in the past directed his guards to fight these invisible monsters, who came now and then to steal the villagers and drag them off to what ever fate these fiends had in store for them.” Dan indicated a window that looked like a lens. “There are viewers like this all over the palace, and the great one.” He indicated himself, “Could direct the fight these pitiful natives waged to keep the monsters at bay.”

Dan gave a brief smile, “And with this clever set up they’d invented, you’d think they would have taken a step back and thought about the problem.” He glared at Carl, as if demanding him to see the solution to some riddle. “You remember the wall you had to be dragged over when you first entered Stenhouse village? How long do you think that’s been there? Carl shrugged his shoulders, after all when he was hauled up the last thing on his mind was the history of the barrier he had to get over. Then Dan supplied the answer, “Five years that’s been up. And there’s not been one attack in all that time. I could have kicked myself when I thought the idea up, let alone all those moronic rulers stretching back in to days of yore.”

A smile broke over Carl’s face, as he turned once more to Dan. “Well then, what’s the problem? You’ve solved the trouble of the monsters, and you’ve got it set up sweet.” He indicated the pitch outside, “Your football league for entertainment, and flunkies at your beck and call. You don’t even have to go out in to the cold. But Dan stood resolute, “But it’s not real life is it. It’s not me mate, and it’s driving me crazy.” Exasperated, Carl tried a new tack. “O.K. I see you’ve had enough. So give me the ring.” And he held out his hand. With a shrug Dan carefully slipped the glowing ring from his finger, and it instantly lost the glow, as he handed it over to Carl.

With a furtive look at the door, least some guardian should break in and forbid him, Carl slipped it on to his finger. He was plunged in to a nightmare, as he was racked by pain, while demonic images flashed before his eyes, like cars whizzing by on a busy road. Weird misshapen monsters leered as they shot past encircling his fevered eyes. And Carl felt as if his head would burst apart, as the moment stretched in to an eternity of endless torture. Then he was laid on the floor, panting like he had run a marathon. Dan stood over him with a look of pained concern. “I think we can cross passing the ring on in such a casual manner.” Carl tried to clear his head, and he crawled over to the delicacies laid out for the enlightened one.

As he sat munching on a canapé Dan came to sit by him. “I don’t suppose you’ve got ever got someone to take it off you before?” And Dan shook his head; “No they always refused my command to take it, that’s one order I can’t give.” Dan placed his hand on Carl’s shoulder, looking at the pain in his face as he recovered from the ordeal. “I can see why no one would take it now.” There was a brief knock at the door to the chamber, and one of Dan’s guards entered. “Oh great one there is much fear in Charlton, for the great wall there is shaking with much vigour. And terrible noises vex the people. They fear the horrors may break through.”

Dan instantly walked over to a lens like window on the far wall, and gazed intently in to it. “It’s as if they were roused up by something.” He turned to Carl with a look of guilt on his face. Neither of them dared speak of what had just happened with the ring. As it glowed once more on Dan’s finger, he ordered all the guards to Carlton village, and he stood once more at the window watching intently. Carl came and stood by his side. “Can you see them down there?” He asked, looking at the besieged defensive wall. “No, but if they broke through I would”, and Dan grimaced at the thought of the horrors he might see if the barrier failed.

Carl slapped him on the back, “Well Dan it looks like your defences work, so while the forces of good are off protecting that little village why don’t we take a stroll with a ladder. And finish off our little painting job?” Dan turned to him with a torn look in his eyes. “If I leave them with no one to see the horrors”, he wrung his hands. “But the monsters don’t seem to be able to break through. But if they did.” Dan sank down the wall, his head clutched in his hands, while Carl paced back and forth muttering.

Then he stopped and strode over to Dan. “This ring. Has it always picked a new master on the old one’s death bed?” He held Dan’s up turned face in his hands. “Yes I think the head priest told me that, the line of protection spreading back unbroken through the ages passed on by the passing of the bearer.” Carl gave a thoughtful glance out in to the covered garden. The one place with a connection to real life in the palace; in which the great one was allowed to wander. “Well then I’ve had an idea.”

The wail of pain from Carl’s lips brought the guard running out in to the small garden, to see the great one being dragged from the ornamental pond. His limp form lay on the ground. The guard’s eyes immediately fell on the great one’s hand, and with horror he saw the dying light from the gem that held the fate of his people. The figure next to him silently but swiftly guided the guard towards the hand that held his attention. And before he knew it the now glowing ring sat on his finger, as the figure worked feverishly to resuscitate the dead great one. A cough brought his attention from the ring, as the decade long ruler, the guard had become an unwitting successor of, sat up.

Then a groggy Dan focused his eyes on the guard’s hand, and with a maniacal grin he indicated the still glowing ring. Meeting eye to eye finally, the unspoken truth passed between them. With a nod the new ruler dismissed his abdicated predecessor, and Carl half dragged Dan towards the gate at the far end of the garden. They paused only to pick up one of the wooden ladders used to clean the palace windows, and let the old wooden gate close behind them; this time with a click.

“Don’t go so fast”, complained Dan. “I did die you know.” But the panting Carl called over his shoulder, “And if you don’t want those invisible monsters to get us, you’d better pick up the pace.” Dan’s face became paler as he pushed himself to the limit, all too aware of the horrors he once saw; and he knew now that they could sneak up on them unannounced, until it was too late.

So with the ever-downward pull of the path and their fear of the unseen monsters, the two soon came back to where they had entered this land. “I’m bushed mate”, Carl gasped as they shoved the ladder precariously up against the rock wall. And with relief they saw it more than stretched up to the hose end. With trepidation Dan elected to climb the rungs that would take them to freedom.

He reached out, and grasped that one piece of his own world, and slowly pulled his frame up. Dan’s arms burnt with the effort of dragging his carcass up the hose, but his desire to be free of this world was like a shield against the pain coursing through his tortured muscles. He was almost at the top when he heard a creak of Carl on the ladder, and looking back down he saw his friend ascending the rungs.

He didn’t look as if he could make it up the hose by himself; perhaps his more recent ordeals had cost him too much. “Tie the hose round you, and I’ll pull you up mate”, croaked Dan as he looked down on the upturned face of his friend. So as he balanced on a rung, his left leg shaking from the stain, Carl carefully began to tie the hose to his waist. Until with a final jerk he gave a shaky thumbs up, with his free hand, hardly able to focus on Dan.

But with a look of horror Carl suddenly looked up, and Dan could see the ladder shaking, as if something else was ascending it. With a kick Carl managed to dislodge the ladder, as a slash appeared on his ankle. With a crash the ladder fell from the ledge and disappeared in to the mists below. And Carl swung free on the end of the hose, dithering at the sudden attack. But then he looked up; “Save yourself” he almost slurred his words, as he gazed at Dan’s pained eyes.

Realising he could never help his mate from where he was, Dan turned once more up towards the unreal patch floating above him. The tantalising portal was their only hope, and he fought his aching muscles as he inched his way up the hose. Until with a supreme effort, he touched the swirling blue membrane. The instant his fingers passed through, Dan felt the pull. And as if by instinct he let his tired muscles relax, as he was drawn up and out of Carl’s view.

With a thud Dan fell on the office floor, and he was once more at the mercy of his complaining frame. Despite this he began to drag on the hose, desperate to bring Carl home. Ever second seemed an eternity, far too long as Dan imagined the time passing on the other side. And he tried to push the image of the long dead corpse of Carl, that he would haul back through to him.

But only seconds had passed when a finger poked through; and in a tangle the two men fell across the floor. As they lay panting from their exertions, Carl turned to Dan. “I had to climb the whole way, it took me hours. What happened?” But all Dan could pant was, “Only seconds mate.” And with a final sigh Carl realised what had happened, and he chuckled. It’s infection spread to Dan, and they just lay there soothing their tired muscles in almost silent mirth.

After a while though, the two men dragged themselves up, and began to silently tidy the room. Until Dan turned to the wall once more and picking up a crumpled piece of paper, he threw it at the patch where they had so recently come through. It bounced off. He exchanged a look with Carl who shrugged. “Looks like it’s finally dry. We’d better go home”, Carl put on his watch and then following Dan through the door, locking up.

Impact plus one

I am dead; it has to be true. After all, the bomb exploded on impact. I lived, or should I say died through that. My colleagues and I had waited dumbfounded through the agonising seconds, as the orbiting ship disgorged it’s load, and like a high diver descending, the swollen package of death moved from it’s cradle in the Acturan bomber; snug as it had lain, to assume it’s vertical plunge that would kill us all.

So am I experiencing what some might say, is the mind’s attempt to solve the unsolvable? By showing me every instant of my life, in a vain attempt that I might discover a way out; to prolong my life by learning from a lifetime’s experiences.

I am born, doted over by indistinct figures that I will come to recognise as my parents. Scroll on and I play with the toys of my youth. What’s that I hear; not that it makes sense to my tender ears. “They’ve finally made contact with an alien species from beyond our solar system.”

Another jump along my personal time line, and I am filling my head with school boy facts, as I sit at the back of a room filled with my class mates. An animated teacher points to a diagram on the board, and explains how, many years ago great men sent probes in to space, in the hope of finding intelligent life among the stars. And that one day, we finally got a message back from our galactic neighbours; it was a message of hope. They were on their way, and whished to learn more than the scant information our greeting bore, when we sent it on its way all those years ago.

So with the help of our new friends we built a device, a telephone to the stars, with which to hold a conversation with these beings from afar. The time between a call and its reply would get quicker, as their emissaries of peace grew steadily closer. But we had disgorged so much of the requested information already requested by them, and in turn learnt much of their culture.

I reel on some more, and my head is now full of the knowledge of my education; I have proved myself worthy for my role in life many times over, and so I can take my place with the select few, who’s task it will be to actually welcome the Acturan emissaries to our planet. I recall a life spent thus far leading me to this glorious moment, the culmination of my achievements.

They live much as we do, on a planet ruled by many. But some looked to the stars as our ancestors did, and asked the all-important question, are we alone? If we were but advanced in our technologies a bit more than they, then it would be emissaries from Earth who would be journeying to a distant star, to extend the hand of friendship across the void. But they were the big brothers, having had a millennium or two’s head start on us. And so in this first contact between intelligent life off our home planet, they have the bridge to fill the gap.

I soon rise through the ranks of my peers, to attain a position of great responsibility, in the Earth’s end of this on-going conversation with our new allies against the loneliness of space. By now scant months pass for the messages between us and the ship speeding it’s way to Earth, and we will learn first hand the names and faces of our counterparts, as they too attain the skills with which we will all negotiate our first actual contact, in the flesh. “Councillor Prodine, greetings from the emissaries of Acturan. We sincerely hope you have enjoyed the many examples of art, that we consider great works of our civilisation.”

The measure of a man is said to be in his eyes, and I found the emissaries’ were not wanting; but as with all from that distant world, he shared the same trustworthy look; for they were truly made in their maker’s image, being clones.

It did cause some confusion at first; after all if you expected to see the same face, and then get confronted with a plethora of different visages, you might just expect that you are conversing with a myriad of sentient species, a federation of civilisations. But when our reproductive differences were explained, the Acturans recalled an age-old technology they had indeed dabbled with in the infancy of their civilisation’s youth, soon discarded in the mists of their history.

Thus as our art seemed so strange to them, we also found their great works peculiar. To see the same face painted a myriad times over, through the progress of art movements and styles, took some getting used to. But it was their works of a divine nature, that struck myself and my fellow ambassadors as most odd, for they truly portrayed the Acturans to be formed in their makers image.

We did broach the subject with our counterparts, and after some discussion between our groups, taking some considerable time due to the delays between replies, we concluded that both parties had indeed evolved in to a secular form of government, as was fitting for a truly enlightened civilisation.

And then the communication stopped. Had we offended our new friends in some way? Was there perhaps some technical problem? For our part we tried all possible avenues of re-establishing contact; after all it seemed implausible that a civilisation would traverse such great distances if not to share the common bond of intelligence.

That was when we first got a glimpse of their approach, as our own sun illuminated the vessel sent to greet us. Still there was no signal from them; that was until the bomb bay door opened and disgorged its message of doom. Were we a threat? Had we offended in some way? As the last moments of my life ebbed away, I had only one thought. We were not truly made in our maker’s image, and so we must be eradicated from the perfect universe, the Acturans had come to expect.

I am Humanity

“You could have made it taste good, at least in my head.” Bob spat the lukewarm beer out, and staggered away from the fridge. “You know strict rules apply to tampering with exhibits minds.” Tends to the invertebrates broke in to Bob’s thoughts in defense.

“And don’t keep thinking of me as head zoo keeper, this isn’t a zoo. It’s a haven for species unable to return to their natural habitat.” “You let Gerald go last week.” “That was because he is an orangutan, and the forests are reestablishing under civilized cultivation. After the disastrous damage your species did to it.” Bob was reminded of the one thing that managed to pervade most of his waking thoughts. Which made tends to the invertebrates blush.

But with all the patience that got him this job, he explained to Bob. “No we haven’t found any lost tribes we could place you in. The last of those was discovered by your lot, over a thousand years ago.” Bob spat bitterly, “It doesn’t have to be a whole tribe. Just one woman would do. Perhaps a throwback to Homo sapiens.” He pleaded with the Homo superior being.

“Genetics doesn’t work that way, once evolutions done its work. So a Homo superior woman could no more bare a Homo sapien child, than she could a chimp.” Bob put his stereo on in a huff, and tends to the invertebrates sensed the conversation was over.

For Bob had put on never gonna give you up by Rick Astley. One thing tends to the invertebrates had never figured out, was how filling Bob’s mind with the classical songs of the early nineteen eighty crooners, seemed to block the Homo sapiens brain waves. The best tactic he had come up with at these times, was to retreat to a safe distance, where his head didn’t ache. After all he wasn’t sure if it was bad for him, to experience that kind of mental interference.

He had sort the advice of tends to your bodily functions lower east side Manhattan. But the professional had found no abnormality with his mental map. So tends to the invertebrates just had to put it down as an annoyance, and took a break.

Bob knew it was an annoyance too, which was one of the reasons he was playing the song. The other reason was that these times were the only ones Bob could safely think about escape. It had been preying on his mind for some time, for he was desperate for companionship, with someone who couldn’t read your every thought. And these jokers, although they had treated him with utmost kindness, had no hope of finding Bob a mate. So come hell or high water, Bob would just have to find one himself.

His plan was a simple one, just stroll out the door and take it from there. Even he had to admit it lacked certain details, such as how to unlock the door. But Bob had a vague idea about that, perhaps some sort of emergency that would require tends to the invertebrates to enter his cell. It was more like a lavish flat if all be told, but to Bob it was a cell. The next bit might be tricky, and Bob’s plan for that was also crude. But Bob was desperate, and good plans were hard to come by with little information to work on. He would have to go with the one he had settled on.

It would have to look like an accident, or his would be jailer might smell a trap, and take more precautions than Bob could count on. So finishing the details, Bob started thinking about changing the filter on his fish tank. It was a mundane task that required concentration, because it was fiddly. This had the desired effect of taking Bob’s mind off his plan, or even escape. So when he turned his music player off, tends to the invertebrates was none the wiser, when he got back in range to stop his headache.

Bob was busy cooking breakfast when it happened. The oil got too hot, and all of a sudden flames were shooting up to the ceiling. Bob started running around flapping his arms in panic. tends to the invertebrates sensed bob’s blind fear all the way across on the other side of the building. So he came running. As he descended to level seven, he got a better picture of the disaster unfolding, and wondered why the sprinklers had not deployed.

Every second would count now if he were to avert a catastrophe. After all, Bob was the only known specimen of Homo sapien. And besides the affection tends to the invertebrates had for him, it would look bad if he lost the only one left.

He sprinted round the last corner and fumbled with his key chain. Why were there so many on it; he would have to do something about that. Perhaps change the locks so only one key would be needed. And then he found the right one, and shoved the door open.

The heat blast knocked him back, followed by Bob as he bounded through the door. A hold all clutched to his chest, and some headphones covering his ears. One look at the perplexed tends to the invertebrates, told Bob it would be superfluous to set his stereo going, ready to blast out take on me by A-Ha. As the tender was too busy with a fire extinguisher, to pay Bob much attention.

After a brief look to see his ward was safe. “Just stay there please,” was all he said. But Bob ignored the command. And leaving his keeper to clean up the mess, he slipped off. It was like a maze in there, as Bob took one wrong turn after another. But finally he found an exit to the outside. And he stood like a panther escaped from the zoo.

Then the wide-open space hit Bob like a wave, he’d never realized that the outside world was so big. Being raised from a baby in the controlled environment of his cell, Bob had only the ancient material of his race to learn about the world. He had seen pictures of the wide-open spaces, poured over images of sky scraping cities. He even knew the thrill of a video flight over the vast expanses of the world. But as far actually feeling the wind on his face, having to focus on a horizon many miles off. Bob was in virgin territory.

His legs began to buckle and his head swam. Just as Bob was about to fall down the metal steps before him, he unconsciously brought pressure on the play button of his stereo. And the dulcet tones of Simple Minds bolstered his stance, as Don’t You Forget About Me began to fill Bob’s audio world, like an unseen friend. He gripped the handrail and stepped out in to a new day.

The sense of tense purpose faded from Bob, as he realized the alarm had not been raised. No one was coming to round him up. He was as free as the proverbial birds. Bob looked up and saw some starlings flocking towards the sun, as he stepped in to the deserted streets of the early morning.

By luck Bob had timed his escape well, for just an hour from now these very pavements would be full of the people who populated this world, Homo superior. On their way to work, or what ever other pursuits they were engaged in.

As it was, Bob only saw a lone figure stumbling along on the other side of the street. They were clutching their head, as if struck by a sudden headache. And Bob had a moment of epiphany, as he turned down the volume on Gold by Spandau Ballet, now currently playing through his headphones. The figure straitened up as if the pain had eased up, but not completely. “This might actually work,” thought Bob. He had until that moment, been getting a feeling of trepidation over his flight of fancy.

Bob soon found a park, and headed for some dense bushes. Then he pushed his way in until the foliage hid him, and he settled down to wind up his rechargeable power source. He daren’t lose his mental disguise; it was the only way Bob knew of, that stopped any Tom Dick or Harry breaking in to his thoughts, to invade his private world.

It really hadn’t occurred to him before that he could temper the effect he had discovered, in subjecting his mind to the precious tracks contained on his player. For his relationship with tends to the invertebrates, had always been one of keeper and caged beast. Despite his protector’s attempts to make friends with the lower life form.

Bob knew he would never be able to read another’s mind, not in the way tends to the invertebrates and his kind could. But Bob had developed skills lost to his mental superiors. By looking at their face or listening to the inflection of the voice, Bob could get an approximation of his keepers mood. Almost fooling him in to the belief that Bob could develop telepathy. But a quick scan of Bob’s thoughts in an unguarded moment, soon dispelled the telepaths belief that this mere Homo sapien could spontaneously evolve.

Bob considered this as he lay in the undergrowth, trying to quell his rumbling stomach. And wishing for night, when he could break this cover and forage for food. Then he would try and find his way out of the confusing mess he was again regretting he had stated.

One advantage of Bob’s place of concealment; was that it offered an excellent view of a litterbin not twelve feet from him. And over the course of the day, he had seen not only the remains of some discarded food, but also a newspaper placed in the receptacle before him. Given the choice of rummaging through the scraps of the new masters of the world or starving, Bob knew which side his stomach would be on. If he could but raise a sound from it; his hunger passing beyond complain to a dull ache.

As the twilight faded in to night, and the pavement became a place of light and shadow, the last of the people thinned out to a sparse trickle. No one would notice a lone figure, and social decorum kept themselves in their own little worlds, uninterested in mental interchange with a stranger. This was the moment Bob was waiting for. And moving almost nonchalantly, he broke the cover of his den to approach the object of his desire.

After a brief scan of the empty street, he got to work stuffing what edible morsels he could find, in to a discarded take out food bag. He was still too cautious to feast on this bounty denied him all day, until he was safely out of sight of any prying eyes. Then he stuffed the folded newspaper in to his pocket, and stalked off.

Bob didn’t know which direction to head next, so he retreated back to his lair in the bushes. Where he filled his aching stomach now rumbling in complaint, from its ill treatment. At last all his foraged food was gone, and still hungry for more, Bob turned his attention to the newspaper.

As it turned out, his bid for freedom had not made the front page. He had to scan through to page seventeen, to find out how his pursuit was unfolding.

Fire at the animal institute. Fire gutted an enclosure at the animal institute last night, in the Homo sapien enclosure. Luckily the keeper in charge of that section was alerted in time to save the last known Homo sapien in North America, possibly the world. Unfortunately the specimen wandered free of the institute and may be of harm to himself, as he is unused to the modern world. Although he appears to look like a normal forty six year old male, slightly over weigh with short dark hair. Robert Jones, the name he goes by, is completely unable to communicate telepathically, and so should be easy to locate. Tends to the invertebrates informed our reporter that although he had to admit he still had no idea where his ward was, or even how the fire how was started. Robert seemed to be in a confused state when I saw him bolt from his enclosure. “So I was unable to read his mind regarding the accident. But for some reason the sprinkler system failed to operate, and by the time I had brought the situation under control Robert had gone”, the keeper informed our reporter. The relevant authorities are on the look out for the missing Homo sapien.

Bob put the paper down. So the packing he had put around the sprinkler had done its job he mused; as the tail end of let’s dance by David Bowie played for the umpteenth time since he had escaped. Then the strain of all this hiding in fear finally hit Bob, for now his stomach had something to work on. And the realization he had at least one less worry, knowing he had got this far undetected, his body and mind demanded the much needed sleep Bob had deprived himself of all day. After all he was used to a sedentary life; being raised alone in captivity, and losing his parents at such a young age. He let the paper drop from his fingers, as his eyes fluttered shut.

Bob was back in his little world playing with a toy car. His father picked him up and held Bob in his arms. “Oh you pretty thing”, his doting but aged parent had crushed the squirming child, as Bob tried to retrieve his toy. Then as if some sudden pain gripped him, Bob’s father stiffened and fell to the floor. The man Bob came to know as tends to the invertebrates rushed in, and with a start Bob awoke in the bushes once more.

It was starting to get light again, and in a panic he began to wind up his music player. Before any passing stranger could pick up on every stray thought Bob had.

Bob never knew his mother; for years he didn’t know he needed one, until the books he read informed him of that fact of life. It was tends to the invertebrates that told him how his mother died. “Giving birth to you Robert”, he had casually informed the young orphan. And then the unrefined emotions had washed over the custodian, of this last example of Homo sapiens.

Bob looked out from his new jail, the organic nature of it made no difference to his ability to fly. For as Bob looked at the throng of passers by, he wondered how long he would remain free in the full light of day. So sinking down to wait for another chance at escape, Bob started to take in more than his immediate surroundings. It was partly to form a feasible plan of escape, but mostly to stave off the hunger pain gnawing at him again.

Wriggling further in he could see a big building, a short run from his temporary haven. There were white-coated people mixing with others in green uniforms, at the entrance. Bob read the legend over the double door. “St. Vincent’s hospital staff entrance.” If he could get a change of clothing and enough food, he could be away from this place. And perhaps then some new opportunity would present itself.

Keeping as still as possible, Bob tried to conserve his energy for the coming night. But still he kept a vigil on the entrance; it didn’t appear to be either locked or guarded. So he just had to wait for a quiet moment, when he could slip inside and gather supplies.

As the light faded once more, the cool air brought a sense of urgency to Bob’s plight. Yet he still had to slap his face, to stave off the much-needed sleep he was denying himself. Finally he could put it off no longer, and so slipping through the final branches that hid him, Bob tried to approach the door as nonchalantly as possible.

There was a flash of light, and diving sideways Bob came skidding to a halt behind a big bin. It was only then that he realized he had set off an automatic light sensor. So emboldened by embarrassment at his flight Bob approached the door, and reaching out he found it swung open easily. Now he had to get some food.

The corridors seemed to go on forever, and now he was inside Bob realized how easy it would be to trap him in this enclosed space. He began to move cautiously, ready to flee at the first sign of movement. Bob cursed the impairment to his hearing, from the ever-present sound in his headphones. But he dare not switch it off; least some unseen presence detected his intentions, and raised the alarm.

There was a door to his right, and now a desperate Bob turned the handle and entered. The low level of light suited Bob allowing him to search the room without attracting attention. With just the soft moonlight bathing it through the window.

That was when he noticed the bed. There was a figure breathing softly as if asleep. Well let them stay that way thought Bob; I’ll not break in to their thoughts. And he skirted round to look for anything that looked like food. Bob passed the end of the bed and brushed against a clipboard, which slipped off its hook. Making a grab for it Bob just caught the metal rectangle before it clattered to the floor, which would have woken anyone.

Then tensely studying the soft features still relaxed in sleep, Bob’s eyes followed the form down. There seemed to be something on the sleeper’s chest, perhaps some beast hiding under the sheets. Then curiosity got the better of Bob, and he eased the bedclothes down to see what this hidden creature must be.

The sleeper’s eyes flew open. The shocked surprise in Bob’s face at finding the mysterious lumps on her chest were part of the now screaming figure, was reflected in the face of the woman crying “Rape” at the top of her voice.

Bob recoiled and in the confusion, as his headphones skidded across the floor. He tried to retrieve them, but it was too late. In response to the woman’s cries, burly figures had burst through the door, and were now pinning Bob to the floor. Their angry tones flooding in to Bob’s confused mind, as the woman sat up sobbing.

Then one of the figures pinning Bob to the floor sensed the pattern of Bob’s mind, and with disgust he turned to the other hospital attendant. “It’s the Homo sapien, that’s bestiality that is.” The woman swooned and Bob was dragged out in to the corridor, where more people stood watching the captive beast. Bob felt a sharp prick to his arm and he felt the world fade, as he slipped in to unconsciousness.

Bob’s eyes fluttered open, and he groaned as he took in the familiar sight of his old pen. They must have redecorated it after the fire he thought. Then the familiar voice of tends to the invertebrates slipped in to his mind. “I’m glad your back home Bob. I hope you didn’t suffer too much, but your safe now. And I think you might find the surprise I’ve got for you will make life a little more bearable here. You see while you were away; an expedition to Norway made an astonishing find.”

Bob wondered what his keeper meant, as he got up on an elbow. That was when he saw the long blond haired figure. They turned at the sound of Bob’s movement. And as their eyes met, bob noticed the long blond moustache. As the lips below it smiling spoke in Nordic tones, “I though I was the only one left alive. Until they told me about you.”

Io you

“We’re coming up on Jupiter” the pilot called back down the thin corridor. It connected the control booth from the relative safety of the rest of the ship. His voice echoed, as it finally reached the ear of Mandy the ship’s captain. At the moment she was squeezing in to the tight fitting bio suit.

She knew already that they were at their destination, no captain worth the rank wouldn’t. It wasn’t just the pinpoint timing she’d calculated, long before the ship had set off. No ship of the fleet could take to the skies without approval of their flight plan. As vast as space was, no one wanted to come out of hyper space, and find themselves inside another space ship, or worst still inside the planet you were heading to; for planets moved too. But Mandy was also acutely aware of the engine’s melodious hum, as it shifted down dimensions from the super highway of the cosmos, to the humdrum of normal space.

With a click she finally clipped the collar lock on her helmet, leaving the plexi-glass screen slid back, so that only the mesh remained to protect her from the deadly radiation. After all she wanted a word with her crewmate.

Then Mandy floated forward towards the one part of the ship unshielded from cosmic radiation; after all they had to see. And Mandy had a powerful reason for gazing on that yellow orb again. The pilot glanced round, his mesh in place on his suit, and indicated a spot on the surface of the moon they were headed for. “Looks like Prometheus is erupting again.”

“Fine” Mandy passed over the superfluous comment; volcanoes were always erupting on Io. “What’s the R.E.M. count?” studiously the pilot checked the reading, but he knew if they got anywhere close to the three thousand plus level they could encounter here, sirens would be sounding and the automatic shielding would enclose the one weak spot on the ship.

It was kind of ironic Mandy thought, that Jupiter’s magnetosphere; the very thing that protected the planet from this deadly radiation, was actually pushing it in to the path of Io. Like a bully forcing his victim to eat dirt. There wouldn’t even be a mine on Io if it weren’t for the sulphur dioxide. It was cheaper to mine it here than to ship the precious resource out from Earth, that was economics Mandy concluded her chain of thought, as her shipmate read off the R.E.M. count.

“Well get the beacon locked on. We don’t want to be off target when we go blind.” The front shield would put the final seal on the ship, protecting it from the deadly radiation, but effectively turned it in to a speeding bullet aimed at the moon. “Trajectory locked captain, it should be smooth as a feather fall.” The man adjusted the controls as they prepared to abandon the useless front of the ship, for the deceleration couches mid ship.

Even as they clipped themselves in, Mandy listened to the various notes given off by this all cocooning shell that protected them. The hull hummed as it fought the forces being wrought on it, as the very molecules of the shell protecting them complained at the stresses they must endure. And then with a gentle thud they were down.

Mandy turned her stern look towards her confidant. “You’ll look after her for me won’t you?” But the stolid visage he held was like a bond of trust, that Mandy knew she could bank anywhere. “I’ll open up the hatch for you captain” was all he had to say.

Moving with care Mandy undid her bulky suit; it would not be needed inside the protective confines of the complex. And she felt her muscles adjust to the little planetoids pull of gravity. It was near enough to Earth’s own moon’s pull. She was used to that, but their trip here had been adjusted to full Earth gravity, rules were rules. No one wanted muscle-wasted crews arriving at their destination.

As the hatch closed behind her with a satisfying click, Mandy knew her way out was safe. Her trusted crew was the lock, and she was the only key that would fit it. The automatic refuelling pipes were already snaking out to ready the ship for leaving, as Mandy strode purposefully down the mesh gantry that led from the docking bay.

A burley man stood in her way, a head taller than the captain. She halted inches from him; then she looked up. “I’ve come for Quinn” was all she offered, but for the look that could wither a mountain bear. Knowing he was beat before he opened his lips, the giant moved aside. No one messed with the fleet, not if they valued their health. This guardian at least had brains, but Mandy knew there’d be others, less intelligent. Pity them if they cross her path. But she would just have to apply a few of her skills, she knew that before she had set course for this far flung rock.

Beyond lay a general hubbub of the jostling crowd, the hangers on, the workers away from the face, people who just wanted to get lost. And Mandy joined this throng, feeling the slow pulse of the crowed as the collective unconsciously led it’s dance.

Shops stacked with goods to fulfil the needs of this virgin outpost of the empire filled the enclosed bazar, as Mandy followed the current of the crowd. Until spying a familiar sign, she forged her way across the stream of people and gained the relative calm of the Jolly Jupiter’s welcoming doors.

It was a watering hole of the brave pioneers on this new frontier. Although all the tables were full, it was at least a haven from the throng outside, and Mandy moved with purpose over to the bar. The lone tender gave off an air of nervous tension, which somehow grew in intensity when he finally finished polishing the glass he was holding, and noticed Mandy. Then the dark haired man returned the glass to a rack overhead.

“You said you’d never drink here again” he accused the captain. Mandy leaned in, and taking the barman’s tie in her fist, whispered through clenched teeth. “I’m not drinking.” The tension between them was at breaking point, when suddenly Mandy let go of his tie. And the barman stepped back adjusting the knot around his neck.

Mandy put a note down on the bar and asked, “Where is he?” Acting as if he hadn’t just been half throttled, the barman poured bourbon in a glass he’d just place before Mandy, and seized the money. “He’s not been round here in some time.” Then as Mandy cocked her head to one side, and bore in to his eyes with her stare. The barman offered, “He stops down in Q section these days”, before he left to attend to another client.

Mandy considered this, as she sipped her bourbon. Then turning on her heels, she pressed out in to the throng once more. “Q sector”, cursed Mandy. Why did it have to be Q sector? The grim look on her face matched the steady stride she had broken in to through the crowd. Almost but not quite over balancing in this low gravity.

The inevitable end of the bazar loomed, and Mandy spied the doors. The portals leading to the levels below, where all the mining was done; and where Quinn would be found. The only problem was the security measures set up to stop any undesirable getting down there.

For although this outpost was an economic necessity for the outer worlds. It also existed on a knife-edge. If some psycho wanted to blast the whole structure in to space, they could do it down there. All personnel got regular screenings for undesirable urges, and only those on the good list got to pass through the gates to hell. If your name wasn’t down you weren’t coming in.

Mandy had pondered this problem ever since the barman had imparted the fateful information. She had to get to Quinn, but how could she do it? Meer bluff would do no good, everyone wishing to pass below had a biometric identity that the electronic gatekeeper could test in many different ways, and they did. And force would be swiftly countered with deadly retribution. Mandy noticed a communications panel, and considered if her skills could manage to break in to the security measures to create an identity. But she knew that would be a task too difficult, and then she had it.

She quickly changed her rout, and was soon sat before the shrewd face of the base administrator. It was amazing what a fleet uniform could do in this far-flung part of the solar system. Most people would have been put off by the over efficient underlings, who kept the hoi polloi at bay, and away from the most important man on this rock. Without a very good reason and a future appointment date designed to defuse the problem they brought before the headcheese had to face it.

But here Mandy was, and as the base commander proffered her a drink from his cabinet, he finally spoke. “So you’ve finally come to collect I presume.” And the captain nodded, placing the untasted glass down. What debt lay between them would not be discussed; they knew their business. It was just the price that mattered, and Mandy named it.

With no outward sign of what it cost him; surprisingly little he thought if he was any judge of character, the official shook her hand. So he bid Mandy a goodbye, for he knew they would never meet again. And then he instructed an underling to help Mandy with her request. A one off access to her desired goal, section Q.

Once more Mandy passed through the throng, but this time she walked strait up to the portal, that before would have barred her way. Refusal would have invoked at best embarrassment, at worst injury or death. But as she stood in the light now searching her body for the tell tail signs that she was indeed a privileged member of the few allowed to venture beyond this barrier, Mandy thought what she would say to Quinn when she finally got hold of him.

And then it was over, and Mandy gave a sigh of relief, for even captains must be expectant at times. The door slid open and Mandy stepped in to the corridor beyond. There was no sudden change of decor, these outposts relied on the prefabricated parts, and any pretence at creating a home from home was kept strictly to the private areas, where one could lose themselves in the moment, and forget they were sitting on the deadly ground beneath and only protected from the lethal radiation above by a thin membrane. Not to mention the sub zero temperatures, and unrelenting vacuum that would snuff you out in an instant.

The clang of Mandy’s boots were the only sign of life here, for it was deep below that all the work was being done. Very few relished the idea of being so close to the reason they were there, but there they were. And so the miners kept the sulphur dioxide coming; kept the money rolling in. And the outer planets and out posts kept their supply of this deadly commodity, deemed economically unviable to be stripped from mother Earth, and shipped out this far and further.

The lift shuddered to a halt after what seemed like an eternity to Mandy, and she stepped out in to the mine tunnel. The base administrator didn’t bother down here, just as long as the supply kept coming, and the demands of the site foreman didn’t exceed what he considered reasonable. It was to the foreman’s office that Mandy moved, through the heat haze that pervaded. Obviously air conditioning didn’t rank high on the priorities that the commander got presented with. The workers grew used to the conditions; perhaps that was why Quinn stayed down here all the time now. And then thought Mandy, perhaps not.

In contrast to the commandant, the foreman held an open door policy, or at least an open air lock one. Partially to conserve his personal air-conditioned offices, but also to provide a crucial few moments for any irate miner to cool off, while the automated seals opened and closed.

So it was with little notice that the man Mandy must see next, rose to shake this unexpected visitor by the hand. “And what brings you down here captain?” he greeted her noting the crisp uniform of the fleet. “I’m after Quinn, I know he’s down here.” Mandy didn’t beat about the bush. Her fleet training matched her own sense of how the world worked. Some people need you to be direct and to the point, that’s what gets results.

The foreman also knew how to size people up; he had to in this potential powder keg. He’d had miners in here before clearly stating their case, some were just bluffing, trying it on. But not this fleet officer stood before him. If he didn’t help her find her quarry, she would cause a whole bunch of trouble. Of that he was sure.

With an indication that Mandy should sit, he called up the work schedules. “Quinn, Quinn” the foreman absentmindedly spoke to himself as he checked the section Quinn should be working in today. Then beaming “Here we have it. Section Q32” and glancing up he added, “that’s some away, would you like a guide?” But Mandy was already up and studying the map which filled one wall. Almost absent-mindedly she asked, “Is there any need for protective clothing to get there?” And keen to help the foreman came round his desk. “No, we have all those sections pretty much locked down. Just drop in on your way back,” he added as Mandy strode towards the airlock. “Got to keep my tally of bodies down below, for safety.”

With that Mandy passed once more in to the heat that all that worked here must endure. It really was like an oven down here thought Mandy, but if you can’t stand the heat. She made her way through the twists and turns that permeated this maze of tunnels. Pausing only for a drink from the occasional catch of bottled water on her route.

Then Mandy finally saw the object of her quest. And wiping the last drops of liquid from her lips, she approached the man from behind. But just as Mandy was about to reach out and touch his shoulder, Quinn sensed the presence behind him. Never the less on turning he registered his surprise after all. Surprise at seeing Mandy standing there large as life. And a grin spread over his face as he took in Mandy’s figure.

“You’ve made captain”, Mandy gave a curt nod and replied, “And now I can fulfil my promise. My hand was what you asked for.” But Quinn cut her off as he withdrew a small box from his pocket. “And you said only when you commanded a star ship.” Then withdrawing a ring from the well-worn casket, he slipped it on to her finger.

It’s all in the mind

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to it’s all in the mind. The quick fire quiz show, where the quickest to remember those facts we all should recall from our school days will win our top prize. Which tonight, is an all expenses paid holiday of a lifetime, to sun soaked Mauritius.” The gleaming teeth of Chuck Babich sparkled, as he introduced yet another edition of the top game show, that held the Saturday prime time slot for the fourth season running.

His gold suit glittered in the spot lights shining on him, making the director in the control booth curse the star’s choice of over opulent dress, as it dazzled the camera a little too often; but these prima donna’s must have their way.

“And tonight’s contestants are Andy Wallace, who is a chiropodist from Smethwick”, and he ran through the funny story Andy had been prepped with, to get a laugh at the right moment. “So the dog ate all the biscuits.” When the peels of laughter had died down he turned to the other end of the three contestants. “And our next lucky contestant is a lady, Judith Ramstad. Now tell me Judith”, and Chuck guided her through a recent bout of flu, that had Judith bedridden for a week. “Well it’s good to see you fighting fit, and ready for tonight’s show.”

Sympathetic noises emanated from the audience, as Judith gave a nod of confirmation and Chuck turned to the third and final contestant, in the middle of the trio. “And our final contestant tonight is Jack Fuller. Now tell me Jack, you had a funny experience on your way here tonight; tell all the lovely ladies and gentlemen about it.” Jack cleared his throat, and looked at Chuck so the camera showed a half profile of him. “Well Chuck I’d just got in to the studio’s reception, and the man asked at the desk if I was here for the show, and then I sort of remembered my way to the set, so I just made my way here, but I’ve never been here before.” Chuck interrupted him, “Yes you certainly caused a bit of confusion with my assistant. She’d thought you’d be waiting in reception, like Andy and Judith.” Chuck smiled to the camera, “But we’re all here now. And now it’s time for round one.”

Flashing lights on the colourful board behind Chuck began to pulsate, as various school topics lit up in succession, until only one remained on. “And it’s geography, do you remember you’re days in geography lessons, can you tell a mountain from a mole hill?” There was a ripple of laughter from the studio audience. “So the first question is, everyone knows that Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, but what is the second highest peak?”

The camera cut from the beaming Chuck Babich, to show all three contestants, as they pondered the question. Then Judith suddenly lunged for her buzzer, and clearly replied “K two, or as it’s sometimes known mount Goodwin Austin.” With a brief flick of his eyes at the answer card, before the camera cut back to him, Chuck confirmed she was right. And beaming, his ever-friendly voice rang out “That’s absolutely correct. So you get ten points towards the thirty you need for this first round, and the final grand prize of an all inclusive holiday in Mauritius.”

There was an excited exclamation from the audience; which Chuck let die down before he continued. “So the first question is, everyone knows that Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, but what is the second highest peak?” Jack did a double take at Chuck’s obvious mistake, but by the time he had recovered, Judith had once more lunged for her buzzer, clearly stating again “K two, or as it’s sometimes known mount Goodwin Austin.” Jack looked at Andy to his left, and was surprised to see the man clearly unaware of this gaff. Then once more Chuck said, “That’s absolutely correct. So you get ten points towards the thirty you need for this first round and the final grand prize of an all inclusive holiday in Mauritius.”

There was an excited exclamation from the audience, as Jack looked back and forth between his fellow contestants, and the quizmaster. Who having let the noise from the audience die down began his next question. “O.K. question number two, what is the longest river in the world?” He paused for effect, then repeated himself “The longest river in the world.” A tentative Andy pressed his buzzer and ventured, “The Nile?” Chuck beamed, “Correct, so that’s ten points to you Andy.”

And turning his attention to Jack, he smiled. “Better get your finger ready Jack; you don’t want to go out on the first round. O.K. question number two, what is the longest river in the world?” Incensed by the jibe off Chuck, Jack pressed his buzzer and clearly stated “The Nile Chuck.” And he looked the quizmaster in the eye; but all he got back was a jovial smile. “Correct, so that’s ten points to you Jack.”

And turning to Andy he quipped “Better get your finger ready Andy; you don’t want to go out on the first round.” Andy blushed slightly. “Now question three; what is the deepest part of all the oceans?” With a quick jab at his buzzer, Andy blurted out “the Marina trench Chuck.” The host looked up from him notes smiling, “Absolutely right Andy; so it’s a neck and neck race between all our three contestants. And remember the last to get two questions right is out of the game. So question three; what is the deepest part of all the.” But Jack was there with his buzzer, before Chuck could complete the question, and with a pause Chuck looked towards Jack, as the contestant ventured “The Marina trench Chuck?” Chuck checked his answer card. “Well anticipated Jack; so you go through to round two, while Judith and Andy battle it out for the other place in the final.”

“So question four; where would you find the sea of Tranquillity?” Judith had a look of intense concentration, desperate to get the second point that would take her through. Andy just had a blank expression on his face, lost in the knowledge that not only did he not know the answer, but that at any moment he could be out of the quiz. Jack merely looked bored, as if he had spent too much time standing there already. And then Chuck broke the silence, “Well your time is up” He smiled nervously; pauses in a fast moving quiz show weren’t good for ratings. “The sea of Tranquillity is in fact on the Moon; so as neither of you got the question I’ll have to move on to the next one.”

“So question four; where would you find the sea of Tranquillity?” Jack rolled his eyes and gave a cough in the direction of Judith, which might just have sounded like Moon; it startled her from the intense look of concentration on her face, and she lunged for her buzzer proclaiming “The Moon Chuck.” And with his famous toothy grin, Chuck looked at the camera, “Absolutely correct Judith; so you’ll be joining Jack in the final of It’s all in the mind; and it’s good bye to Andy.”

As the audience gave an appreciatively loud round of applause, the ex contestant gave an odd look at the two finalists, as he passed. “So on to today’s final”, beamed Chuck as the audience’s hubbub died down. “And as usual we must spin the wheel, to see what subject the questions will be on.” As the assistant rolled the glittering prop on to the stage and stood posing, Chuck beamed to the camera. “Now if my lovely assistant Meredith will spin the wheel; if you please dear.” And he looked at the assistant, who gave the wheel an almighty spin.

Judith looked intently at the subjects, as they flew past the pointer; as did Jack, but he was mouthing the word “Physics” over and over, and it seemed like he would get his wish, but as the last click of the wheel sounded the pointer moved off physics, and on to history. Judith gave a little exclamation of jubilation, which Chuck didn’t fail to notice. “Favourite subject Judith?” he enquired. “Yes Chuck, it was my all time favourite,” grinned the excited contestant.

Jack just looked dumfounded, as Chuck read out the first question. “So for ten points, and remember in this round it’s the first to score thirty; when was the battle of Hastings?” Both Jack and Judith lunged for their buzzers, but Judith was just a fraction of a second quicker; and when her light lit up, she proudly announced “ten sixty six Chuck.” The host beamed and in a jovial tone replied, “Absolutely correct Judith, first off the post again.”

Then turning to Jack “And you were so close Jack, but let’s see if you can have any better luck with the next question. So question two.” Jack did a double take, and in confusion pressed his buzzer before Chuck could even ask the question. Chuck looked at Jack in anticipation. When the heartbeat later, Chuck was sure Jack wasn’t going to answer the question, Chuck assumed a jovial but mock stern tone. “I’m sorry there Jack, but you did buzz and if you don’t have an answer, I’ll have to give Judith the full question, and let her try.”

The camera didn’t catch Jack’s look of shame, because it was back on Chuck, as he looked at Judith. “So Judith, when was the great fire of London?” Judith took her time, almost out of respect for Jack’s blunder. “Sixteen sixty six Chuck”, and she gave an apologetic smile towards Jack, who was repeating her answer under his breath, like a accusation; and the audience sat in stunned silence at the embarrassing incident.

Chuck recomposed himself and beamed “Correct, so question two” Jack pressed his buzzer, before the first syllable of the question left Chuck’s lips. “Sixteen sixty-six Chuck?” he enquired. The stunned host looked down at his question sheet, as a murmur ran through the audience, and he shakily replied “Well anticipated Jack, Sixteen sixty six is indeed the year of the great fire of London.” He paused a second to wipe his brow, but ever the professional, the next second he was beaming again. “So with almost inspirational skill, Jack had levelled with Judith; this is turning out to be the most exciting game of it’s all in the mind, I’ve had the pleasure to witness.”

By now the murmurs from the audience had died down once more, and Chuck asked the next question. “So on to question three; can you name four of the conspirators involved, in the sixteen o five gunpowder plot?” Jack stood blank faced, as if in concentration, so Chuck quickly flicked his eyes to Judith. Who pressed her buzzer, and looking Chuck strait in the eyes intoned “Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, John Grant and Thomas Bates, Chuck.” With a jovial look on his face, Chuck held his hands up to shoulder height “It wasn’t me,” he quipped as a ripple of mirth passed through the audience.

“But seriously Judith, you are absolutely correct. And so with twenty points, you could win the star prize of an all inclusive holiday to Mauritius, with the next question.” And he turned to Jack “So Jack no pressure, but you’ve really got the next one right, to stay in the running. So question three; can you name four of the conspirators involved in the sixteen o five gunpowder plot?” Jack was on his buzzer like a shot, and beaming he began to reel off the answer “Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, John Grant and.” But by the third name he had begun to falter, and with a look of dismay on his face, he filled the room with silence.

“I’m going to have to hurry you Jack”, but it was clear Jack did not have anything else to say; so turning to Judith, Chuck took a deep breath. “So Judith I’ll hand the question over to you. Can name four of the conspirators involved in the sixteen o five gunpowder plot?” With a determined look, Judith straitened up. “Yes Chuck Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, John Grant and Thomas Bates.” Chuck checked his sheet and beamed once more, “Correct Judith; and so close Jack, hard luck. Let’s hope you get the next one, or Judith will be getting the holiday to Mauritius strait away. “And he winked at Judith.

“So question four; what year was the Magna Carta”, but he didn’t get to finish, as Judith had leapt on her buzzer and almost shouted out “Twelve fifteen, Chuck” in her excitement. Jack almost flinched next to her, but all eyes were on Chuck Babich, as he beamed. “Congratulations Judith” he laughed, as the audience went wild. “You’re today’s winner of It’s all in the mind and.”

The audience suddenly went silent, as if in hushed anticipation, and Jack looked towards the host’s podium. “So question four”; Jack looked up in stunned surprise. “What year was the Magna” And once more a buzzer cut him off; this time by an excited Jack, who almost tripped over his words answering, “Twelve fifteen Chuck.” Chuck did a quick flick of his eyes to the question sheet, and smiled. He’d not had such a tense game in some time; this would boost the ratings he thought, as with his ever-friendly voice he told Jack “You’re absolutely correct.” And the audience went wild, as the two contestants stood behind their podiums, like charged athletes ready to run a sprint. This was it, the sudden death moment, when either Jack or Judith would win that sort after holiday.

The audience had quietened down once more, in to the intense concentration the moment demanded. You could have heard a pin drop; instead one of two people coughed nervously, and looked sheepish when their partners gave them a stern look. Meanwhile on the stage, where the cameras saw all, Chuck had put on his most impressive pose. “So Judith, Jack, are you ready. It’s sudden death time; whoever gets this next question right, will be the winner of that oh so lovely all inclusive holiday to Mauritius, two weeks in the island paradise, at a five star all inclusive resort, so the pressures on.”

Chuck allowed himself a smile to camera, before turning back to the contestants. “Question five; which king succeeded George the fourth?” Judith had a look of supreme triumph on her face, as she instantly pressed her buzzer “William the forth Chuck.” The audience went wild, lights flashed and some streamers were released, as Chuck came over to shake Judith’s hand. “Congratulations Judith, you’re the winner.”

And then with a twisted smile, Jack was left in silence, as Chuck, back at his podium intoned the words “Which king suc”; he never got to the end of the word. With a mechanical movement, Jack had brought his thumb down on the buzzer, “William the forth Chuck.” Chuck looked dumfounded at him. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that Jack?” “William the forth Chuck” Jack said in a louder but more stunned voice.

Then a cry louder still came from Judith “It’s a fix, he never could have got the answer right.” Chuck stood confused at this accusation; was it sour grapes? Or had that man stood there, and taken him for a fool? How could he have got the answers? Perhaps that new gofer was in on it? Well this show wouldn’t get a repeat after this fiasco, and then the audience had got up.

Shouts of anger rang though the room. “It’s a fix”; “He’s swindled us all.” And they were storming the stage; Judith had made a lunge for Jack, who had backed away in fear. People were everywhere, Chuck lost his wig, “cut the feed, cut the feed” he stumbled about making a motion with his hand to the camera; pandemonium ensued.

Meanwhile Jack reached behind him, having found a wall blocking his further retreat, and found a door handle. He stepped through, and the noise once more ceased, but Jack wasn’t on the podium. He had just stepped in off the street to the studio’s reception. A board looking man glanced up, “You here for it’s all in the mind? You’re early.” Jack stared hard at the man, and turning he spoke over his shoulder, “You know, I’ve just remembered something.” And he stepped back out in to the light, murmuring to himself “I’m sure they’ll find someone to fill in.”

Breakfast with Hazel

During the summer months, my family would sometimes breakfast on the garage roof. It abutted onto the front of our house, and you could gain access to it by a full-length window half way up the stairs. Two of its sides had the walls of ours and next-door’s house to catch the sun. Giving us the feel of a Mediterranean balcony. The other two sides had a low rail, allowing an unhindered view of the Clent hills, two mounds in the distance. The rail would be a health and safety nightmare by today’s standards, but back then people were just more sensible.

My father had constructed the barrier, just as he had made a metal sword for my brother. The weapon was useless for cutting anything, but we had fun over the bypass, in the farmer’s fields before the hill began. My brother dropped it in a stream, when we had to take to a tree to escape a herd of cows. I always hoped some archeologist from the future might find it, and deduce that a great battle had been fought there.

On the days when we wanted to head further afield for our breakfast. We took the family car up in to the Clent hills, and headed through the woods to a natural hollow. My farther always claimed it had been a great rabbit hall, which had collapsed. Just like the one hazel and his friends had on Watership down. On these days we devoured rounds of toast, and a thermos flask full of tea. It was ridiculously over brewed, but my parents had long ago decided the best way to get ten in bed in the morning was to make it the night before and let it stew before dispensing it in the morning. My brother and I would troop in on wakening to fill our cups.

I suppose that was how I got a taste for tea you could stand a spoon in, and the necessary sugar needed to temper it, at a cost to my teeth. Nowadays my tea is sugar free, except as a treat. So we sat in the natural hollow with our tea and toast, enjoying nature. To prove his back woodsman skills my brother once caught a young rabbit with a wooly hat, but he soon let it go hopping on it s way. We had better vittles to fill our bellies.

Isthmus of hope

When we left him [at the end of Atoll of doom; if you’ve not read the collection of short stories Aardvarks to planet X, then do so. Then ask yourself why you didn’t before; I don’t know, some people etc. etc. etc….] Marvin Cobb lay under a slavering beast, waiting for his tortured frame to be devoured.

His friend and co-pilot Todd, having been dragged screaming beneath the murky waters, in which their spacecraft had crashed due to a local phenomenon. A huge chunk of titanium, which long ago had crashed in to this exoplanet; creating both an atoll and an isthmus between two land masses on this planet, deemed by the colony ship they had arrived on to be unsuitable for Human habitation; as the precious resource of life had already taken hold on this far off rock.

Which in turn could lead to unknown consequences should the two entirely different eco systems ever mix. Thus leaving the colonists to replenish any resources used up on the trip here; and to carefully study this ecosystem for scientific interest, before moving on to the next exoplanet on their journey. [But you know all this having read the first part of this tale, haven’t you, I don’t know, some people etc. etc. etc….]

The weight of the unseen fiend pressed down on Marvin, as it’s feted breath pervaded his nostrils. And then he felt hot liquid splatter his face, as the beast that was about to finish him slumped to Marvin’s side, with a spear sticking from its skull.

Marvin’s eyes followed the fatal wound up the shaft to a pair of hands, as they worked the spear free. Marvin stared in exhausted wonder as the figure came in to focus, and he discerned a round face; not unlike a shaved hamster with perhaps a squashed nose.

His saviour was busy retrieving his spear; until with a start they realised what was under their prey. With a grunt the figure standing over Marvin rolled the dead beast off him, and helped the exhausted pilot in to a sitting position against the trunk of the tree. Then he stood back to observe the stranger to his hunting grounds.

“Katal mobi wa?” he shook what Marvin took to be a water skin; and grateful for anything to alleviate his parched throat, Marvin took it, and drank his fill. The liquid quenched his thirst, and brought some sense back to Marvin; making him wonder now if the drink was safe to consume after all. As far as protocol was concerned, this planet was off limits; for risk of contamination for both the Humans who had crossed the blackness of space so far to get here, and the inhabitants of this far off world. Who knew what effect either ecosystem could have on the other?

A feeling of dread that he could have unintentionally doomed this world, crept in to the back of Marvin’s mind. And with that guilty though he remembered Todd; then another brick slipped metaphorically in to his stomach, as he recalled his poor co pilot being dragged to his doom beneath that evil lagoon.

Marvin’s savoir had been talking to himself, while the astronaut passed through his crisis of conscience; and it seemed as if this being who’s home Marvin had invaded, was also having some sort of internal moral struggle. Then the figure thrust out a hand, and a rough looking slab of what Marvin assumed was food, came in to sharp focus. With the sudden realisation that he was famished, Marvin took the food and nodding at his new friend, he bit down on the slab. It tasted spicy, and Marvin thought it might be some kind of cured meat.

But before he could finish it all, the remainder was snatched from him as his saviour devoured the rest of the food. Evidently Marvin was only being offered a share of this hunters provisions. Which he washed down with the liquid Marvin had been offered first. The dull ache that Marvin had only just realised was in his stomach all along was fading, with the sustenance he had been given. And Marvin watched with guilt, as the being finished the morsel he himself had effectively contaminated. Would he be repaying the kindness of this stranger with a slow and horrific death; as the two ecosystems fought for supremacy in the host’s body?

The hunter didn’t show any signs yet of contamination. In fact Marvin’s saviour was busy wrestling with a pack beast of some kind, that Marvin hadn’t noticed before. When the hunter had got the unwilling beast near enough, he slung the carcass of Marvin’s would be nemesis over the pack animal, and then he started to make it secure with straps. With the job done Marvin’s saviour scanned the horizon; and with a satisfied grunt he came back over to Marvin, and held out his hand.

Marvin took it; and he was soon on his feet, feeling much better than he had been that morning. Then Marvin’s would be friend pointed at the sun high above them, and then in the direction of the isthmus. Stating it seemed to Marvin, to be an unintelligible set of syllables; but he got the gist of his meaning. He intended to go that way, so they could reach some safe haven before the sun set. As much as this made sense to Marvin, he still harboured a fear of that evil water; and he backed away shaking his head, his hands held up as if in defence.

But the hunter was having none of it, and he swiftly brought up his spear to show Marvin who was boss. Marvin followed the directions given with the spear; and gathering up his emergency beacon, the only link to his own world in orbit around this one; he began to walk towards the narrow strip of land. Glad only that his now captor hadn’t thought to bind him, least he try to escape.

Marvin kept up a brisk pace; determined to cross the hellish distance between the two shores as quick as possible; as his ever-vigilant companion dogged his every step, with the spear clearly in view each time Marvin glanced over his shoulder. The heavy breathing of the pack animal over shadowed all other noises, as it bore up the rear. The sun glistened on the still surface of the lake; and Marvin almost felt at ease next to the water grave, that Todd had been dragged down in to. Then the memory hit Marvin; and he shook his head as if to rid it of the terrible recollection.

It happened in an instant; the beast following up the rear suddenly gave a squeal, and Marvin sensed his guard leave his post, to defend his precious pack animal. Turning Marvin saw the animal had strayed too close to the still waters; perhaps to quench it’s thirst. A mistake, for slimy hands had grasped the poor beast’s head; and tried to pull the pack animal beneath the murky surface. But with both his hands, Marvin’s new friend was struggling with all his might to keep the beast on dry land. Springing in to action, Marvin snatched up the now discarded spear, and joined the battle. Thrusting the point in to the water, just beyond the struggling beast, it made contact with something; and Marvin followed up the blow with several more. Until with a supreme effort, his companion managed to jerk the animal free of the sub aquatic thieves, and drag it to safety some distance from the water.

Panting, Marvin retreated too, and flopped down next to his now brother in arms; while the warrior tended to the beasts injuries. Satisfied, he dropped the water pouch at Marvin’s side; and the spaceman took a long swig, which his new friend copied after. When they rose, the hunter took up the spear once more, but this time he didn’t aim it at Marvin; instead his attention was directed to the beast, least it should stray too far again.

Finally the strip of land opened up; and with a sigh of relief, they left that accursed place. Marvin took one look over his shoulder, and got a pang of regret at the loss of Todd to those foul water creatures. Then he followed the tracks of his now guide; as the hunter led them towards some low hills. As the sun dipped towards the horizon, Marvin once more succumbed to the fears he and his ancestors had learnt, on their way to this new world. The fear of the dark; for on the colony ship he had arrived on, no one was forced to endure darkness; and so Marvin moved closer to his guide, least some unseen horror should come at him from the dread darkness.

At last Marvin’s guide made camp, and lit a fire. Like a primitive human, Marvin marvelled at the centrepiece to their camp; enthralled by the tantalising flames, as they danced over the gathered wood. And clearly seeing the connection between the need for more wood, and this soothing light; Marvin dutifully gathered more fuel, always staying in its protective sphere; always mindful of any sound out there beyond the light. Finally with enough wood to see them through the night, and a belly full of the beast that had almost been the end of Marvin, cooked expertly by his guide; the astronaut succumbed to the strains of the day, and fell in to a fitful sleep; where he dreamt of an endless pursuit by some un known dark force, always one step behind him.

Marvin woke with a start, as the warm glow of the sun stung his sleep filled eyes; and he raised his hand to shield them. Not far off his guide was making breakfast; some more strips of meat and a flat bread, washed down with a swig from the water skin. With a full belly and a night’s sleep, Marvin felt a lot better than he had the day before; or perhaps it was just getting away from the lake where they had crashed, he thought. He turned his attention to the emergency beacon; the battery wouldn’t last forever, and Marvin was not sure just how long it would endure; before the last link to his home and any chance of rescue, would be snuffed out.

Perhaps some atmospheric anomaly was stopping any search party from getting his signal; or maybe they had given up, as the colony ship prepared to set off for the next exoplanet; carefully mapped out generations ago back on Earth. Where the technology to see these tiny islands, in the vast blackness of space had been invented; and where the colony ships finally left. The lights seemed to be all working on the beacon; so Marvin stowed it in a bag, and trudged after his guide.

By mid morning they had reached the hills, and they stopped for a rest. It was then that Marvin’s guide started indicating himself, and repeating the word “Galchak”; which Marvin understood to be the man’s name. So repeating the word and pointing at his new friend, Marvin was rewarded with a toothy grin from Galchak. Then repeating Galchak’s action of pointing to himself, Marvin intoned his name. “Marvin” Galchak repeated, a little unfamiliar with the sound.

After that, Marvin became keen to learn more of this world’s language; pointing at various things such as the beast, the sun and Galchak’s spear; and assuming a quizzical expression, until Galchak caught on and named the objects. By lunchtime Marvin had a good set of words learnt; not enough to hold a conversation, but enough to get by with. They dinned once more on the beast that attacked Marvin; then keen to get off, Galchak indicated that he wanted to be somewhere off in the distance before sun set once more; so they set off again.

As the afternoon wore on, Marvin continued with his lessons in Calek, which after some pointing Marvin had settled on; although he still wasn’t sure it meant the planet or everything, or just dirt. Then the lesson was drawn to a halt, as Galchak indicated a small settlement in the distance, and Marvin’s attention was drawn to it; as he wondered what reception he might receive, in this world’s representation of civilised society.

As they drew nearer, Marvin could make out the individual buildings. “So there was no outer wall” he thought, “at least that was a good sign; if any settlement didn’t need the protection of a barrier to keep marauders out.” It seemed to Marvin that the settlement looked like a frontier town like in the old west; he had read of them in a childhood book back on his world. And so as the sun sank below the surrounding hills, lights started to come on in the village windows.

Galchak ground to a halt before they got too close to the settlement; and started routing through the packs on his beast. He pulled out a rough poncho with a hood, that Marvin assumed to be some sort of rainwear; then he held it up for Marvin, uttering some new words. Marvin took the garment, and placed it over him; then Galchak indicated that Marvin should also put the hood up, and Marvin realised it must be sort of disguise. Perhaps strangers were shunned here, and he had a sudden thought that if he had disastrous effect on this ecosystem, they would be justified in being wary of him.

Galchak tethered the beast, which he called a Ponio; this had amused Marvin when on the trail, he had learned the name. Then the hunter had placed a coin in the open hand, of a smaller version of himself; Marvin supposed it to be a child of this race, who was he surmised was employed to watch the beast. And then the two men set off in to the twilight of the village. From under his hood, Marvin could make out various shop fronts displaying their wares; some of which he could discern, despite his lack of any skill in reading what he assumed was writing over each window. Aside from the occasional curious glance, Marvin managed to attract little attention; he supposed by his association to Galchak; who must be known in these parts, and so could vouchsafe for anyone accompanying him.

Strange music poured out of what Marvin had to be some sort of tavern; and he got a brief glimpse of the drunken revelry within, as the saloon doors swung wide; to emit a reeling figure, who had clearly had one too many drinks, for the other patrons liking. Marvin was beginning to wonder what he had got himself in to; where discovery could lead to who knew what.

And then he heard the show; a crowd was gathered before a cage, eager to get a glimpse of the creature held within. And pushing through the loose throng, Galchak and Marvin found the key attraction of tonight’s show, as it sat rather forlorn on the straw floor of his cell. Marvin had to stifle a cry of surprise, but Galchak nudged him in to silence. And they withdrew back out of the crowd, to stand in an alley; for the subject on show was none other than Todd.

Galchak held Marvin by the shoulders, and looked him strait in the eyes. “Only one of you I thought”, he accused the Earthman. Reeled from the shock, Marvin found it hard to find the words in this new tongue; he finally managed “I think two not here.” Galchak seemed to grasp the meaning of Marvin’s inarticulate explanation; as he mimed Todd being drowned in the lake, at the hands of the beasts that nearly took Galchak’s Ponio. “Only two you?” Galchak demanded. Marvin nodded; and he was grateful that at least that sign was understood here.

So placated, Marvin’s guide led him to a less lively tavern; where a hooded figure wouldn’t attract unwanted attention, and they sat in a corner nursing their drinks. Marvin was still in his stunned silence, at finding Todd alive, as Galchak muttered in to his tankard. After a while, Marvin started to wonder if Galchak had been intending the same fate for him, that Todd had got. To become a freak show exhibit; caged for the rest of his days, or at least until the novelty of this strange creature from the wilderness had worn off. And now perhaps Marvin’s would-be friend was contemplating what to do next.

Maybe he would take Marvin to another settlement, where news of Todd the freak had not reached yet, and he could make a profit. But then with a morose look in his eyes, Galchak looked up at Marvin. He uttered some words that Marvin could not understand; and when he saw the blank look on Marvin’s face he got frustrated, and resorted to Marvin’s tactic of miming his meaning. He pointed at Marvin, and then out of the door, before putting his arms together in an arc in front of his lap, swinging them left and right. Still perplexed, Marvin repeated the action; at which Galchak pointed once more at him and out of the door, repeating the same unintelligible phrase. Still unable to make sense of this bizarre pantomime, Marvin resorted to “I go two?” And he pointed out of the door himself. At this Galchak nodded, but he waved the astronaut down, as he rose himself, taking the empty tankards with him.

He soon returned with full ones; and putting one before Marvin, he pointed at a clock on the wall, and held up ten fingers. Marvin assumed it to mean they were to wait for some appointed time. Uncertain if Galchak was being cautious in their plan to return to Todd, or he had some appointment with a potential buyer for Marvin; and Galchak just wanted to keep him there until the right time, Marvin simply could not decide. But Marvin felt he should trust his only friend in this strange land; and so he got to taking in the surroundings, while he sipped his drink. The beverage was not unlike ship’s beer, but of a rougher hue; and Marvin drank this second tankard at a slower pace. He felt he should keep his head clear, for what would happen at ten by the clock on the wall.

As the hands of the clock approached their target, the bar became more and more empty, until only a few stragglers remained. Then with a glance around the room, Galchak indicated that Marvin should rise, as he got up himself, and they went out in to the dark. Marvin stayed himself from the fear that gripped him, as he was plunged in to almost total darkness of the alley; but slowly his eyes became accustomed to the starlight. And took heart from the company, as he followed Galchak’s outline along the street.

Not a soul was out this late, and so the two were unhindered in their passage back to the cage in the square. The huddled figure crouched dozing at the back of the cage, still in his space suit; his helmet lay discarded by his side like a prop ready for use. Marvin approached the bars, and whispered Todd’s name. On the third attempt the sleeping figure murmured “Let me sleep, those fiends won’t break through the screen yet.” Then with a start that had Galchak and Marvin looking wildly about, least someone should overhear them; Todd woke, and let out an insane giggle.

“I’ve started to hallucinate; this must be the end.” Marvin beamed, “No buddy, you’re not hallucinating. I got out of the lake, I’m here to spring you.” Marvin indicated Galchak, who Todd noticed for the first time; and he flinched back. “It’s alright, Galchak here is a friend of ours; I think he’s going to help us get you out.” And indeed Galchak was busy cutting away at the complex knot that was the means of keeping the gate shut. Within minutes the door swung open, and Todd snatched up his helmet and stepped out. Ever aware that some sentinel may raise the alarm, the three shadows crept through the streets, until Galchak stood over a sleeping child.

Snuggled next to his charge, the youth slept on as Galchak carefully undid the Ponio, and placed a coin in the child’s palm; which the sleeping figure grasped as if by reflex, but slept on. Then moving silently, but quickly, they headed out before anyone spotted them. Out in the open it seemed to be lighter, or was it just less shadows Marvin conceded. And as the two astronauts trusted to their guide to lead them away; the two men began to fill each other in on how their separate adventures had unfolded.

“I though you were dead” Marvin almost croaked through the gamete of emotions he was still experiencing; after grieving the loss of his friend, only to find him still alive. “I will always remember your eyes as those fiends dragged you beneath the surface; believe me if I could have reached you I would have.” Todd cut him off with a look that told it all, “I know buddy. We never stood a chance. I’m lucky you didn’t try, or I would still be sat in that cage back there.” And he jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. “But when those beasts dragged me beneath the surface, I knew that was it, and I froze stiff as a dummy. I’ve just got blurred images of their slimy paws as they slid across my helmet; then I started seeing weird coloured shapes. I recon I must have been running out of oxygen, about to pass out; then this weird frog face suddenly came in to view. I could see light coming from behind it; I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. Then it started mauling my helmet, and I helped it get the latches unlocked. I can tell you I was running on empty by then; and when that sweet air hit my lips I nearly coughed up my lungs; I just lay there panting, not caring who this new friend was that had somehow gotten me away from those evil faced beasts that had dragged me down.

But before I knew what was happening, it had me hog-tied and sat beneath a tree. Well then I did get to worrying; those underwater things would have finished me quick, but on dry land, this froggy thing could torture me for days. You don’t know the thoughts that were running through my mind, but then he shoved some root vegetable in my mouth, and let me chomp on it. So I figured he couldn’t be just out to have his wicked way with me. Perhaps he’d stolen me from the water fiends, getting his swag above the water where they couldn’t get me back; or maybe I’d even been sold, like some chattel. I didn’t know what my part was, in my rescue from sudden death under the water.

But a short while after he had fed and watered me, one of those fuzzy faced fellows came riding by, and they must have struck up a deal. Because then I was slung over the saddle of the beast the critter rode up on, a bit like that one.” And Todd indicated the beast being led by Galchak, “But bred more for speed. So I found myself bouncing over the plain with not much of a view, but a blur of the ground, and what I could see in the distance, when I lifted my head. I felt like I’d been in a tumble dryer, by the time I senses the walls closing in. That was when I realised he’d brought me to some form of civilisation; my hopes soured, but all too soon they were dashed again as he unceremoniously dumped me in that cage, with my helmet chucked in for good measure.

And then the show began. It was like torture, I expected to end my days in that cage, when old age had robbed me of any sense of who I was. But then after only a day you arrived and sprang me; I can never thank you enough pal.” “It’s thanks to Galchak”, and Marvin motioned to their guide, who was carefully leading the beast up a slope, as he noticed his two companions for the first time since their night time flight. Then calling down to Marvin he almost hissed, “Sun up, town find two gone.” He motioned towards Todd, then he continued with a phrase that Marvin didn’t understand, but he could figure out; the three of them would be fugitives, with perhaps an old time posse in pursuit of them. He didn’t know what fate Galchak would suffer at the hands of his own; but Marvin was certain that he and Todd would be caged, and displayed as freaks, with no chance of escape again.

Marvin translated for Todd, and they both redoubled their efforts to get the Ponio hidden, so they could at least get some much-needed rest. Marvin had no idea where Galchak was leading them, but the hunter seemed to have a plan, and so he was determined to help in any way possible. When they had the beast hidden in a coppice at the top of the slope, Galchak descended once more, and peering over the edge, Marvin saw the hunter skilfully erasing their tracks up the slope. Perhaps it would fool the immediate pursuit; for surely any search party would utilise their swifter moving beasts, like the one that had born Todd to the settlement in the first place.

Motioning them to be silent, Galchak started handing out rations to the astronauts; and they ate to the sounds of nature, even listening out for distant hoof beats. When all three had finished their meagre meal, for Galchak had not had time to pack more before their flight, the two astronauts took turns at catching up on sleep. Galchak refused to succumb to its grip, but Marvin did notice him nodding to himself, as if in a trance. Martin was sure their new friend could leap fully awake in an instant, at any sign of pursuit.

It finally did come, and Galchak motioned the woken men to stay away from the edge, as he carefully watched the approaching horsemen. The tension grew as the sound got louder; then just when Marvin felt he could take no more, the sound of the hooves passed their hiding place, and receded in to the distance, as all three gave a collective sigh of relief. Then as if he had planned this next move already, Galchak silently motioned the two men to help him lead the now repacked beast, from the cover of the trees.

But instead of heading back down the slope, he led the way back up in to the hills, along a narrow path. “Do you think we’ve lost them?” Todd whispered to Marvin. Staring back down the trail, Marvin shook his head, “When they don’t find us on that track, they’ll realise their mistake; and if any of them know the paths round here, I bet they’ll think to try this one. Galchak may have bought us some time, but we’re not out of this yet.”

As the sun climbed, so did the three fugitives; until Marvin and Todd were as lost as they could be, in the twisting turns of the crevices in the landscape Galchak led them through. And as the sun stood overhead, their guide called a halt to the morning’s progress, with a satisfied look over his shoulder back down the trail. Then he unpacked their scant supplies, and divided them out. The fugitives ate in silence, ever listening out for any sound that would betray pursuit; then as if he were suddenly remembering something, Galchak stared between Marvin and Todd, and repeated his arm swinging motion, while stating the same phrase he had asked in the tavern all those hours ago.

Marvin, who was still perplexed, looked to his co pilot for help; and to his surprise, found Todd had a smirk on his face. “He thinks we’re a couple; I recon’ he can’t figure out who’s the momma, and who’s the poppa.” The realisation struck Marvin like a slap, and with an incredulous look still on his face he ventured, “You don’t think that’s why he sprung us do you; perhaps he got all sentimental. Well we’d better not dispel his deeply held beliefs, no matter how unfounded they are.” Todd put a hand on Marvin’s knee, “Don’t worry captain, I’ll be mother.” And he winked, before turning to Galchak, and indicating himself, Todd intoned the unfamiliar word, “Doogan.” Galchak beamed, now he had established who was who, he felt further introductions were in order. First he pointed at Marvin, and said “Marvin”, next he turned his finger on himself intoning “Galchak”, and finally he pointed to Todd with a quizzical look on his face. “Todd”, Todd informed him, and with a satisfied nod, Galchak repeated Todd’s name.

Then with a jerk of his head, Galchak was up and scanning the valley. Concentrating hard, Marvin could just hear it too; a slow methodical click of hooves, which he recognised from their own beast’s progress that day. With the swiftness of a panther, Galchak had his Ponio repacked, and motioned Todd to rise. Then they set off once more, glad that in this terrain at least their pursuit would be no faster than them. The ground was too rough for swift passage.

“How far behind do you think they are?” Todd asked, as he jogged up the slope in his space suit, now regretting not discarding it earlier. “Maybe two hours”, ventured Marvin. “It’s hard to tell with the valley walls reflecting the sound.” Then he noticed Todd’s obvious disadvantage, and he suddenly had an idea.

They were at the head of a valley and could see some distance behind them; so Marvin motioned Galchak to stop, and he turned to Todd. “Get that suit off, I think it’s time we put a sentry up.” Realizing Marvin’s idea, Todd began to disentangle himself from the cumbersome suit, and glancing over at his helmet that had been tied to the Ponio’s pack, Todd grinned at what Marvin was getting at. He quickly started gathering shrubs and grass, which Marvin had already started doing. When the two astronauts began stuffing the empty space suit with the material they had gathered, a dumfounded Galchak twigged on to their plan, and began to help too.

Soon the suit was suitably stuffed; and with the helmet reattached, it looked quite realistic. Then they positioned it looking down the valley behind a rock, but not enough to obscure it from plain sight of any pursuers. With grim determination they set off once more, and soon the three fugitives passed through the valley’s top, to be greeted with a wind blown plane.

Galchak pointed to another set of hills in the distance, and Marvin’s heart sank. “We go now?” he asked, as he noticed the sun dipping below the horizon. “It looks like the only way,” Todd countered in trepidation. “I only hope that suit will hold them up long enough, or they’ll overtake us on this plane.” So with a brief rest to fill their bellies once more, the two astronauts followed Galchak, who had a firm grip on his Ponio.

They soon fond out why, when tired from the day’s traveling, Todd staggered a little off to the left, and nearly sank up to his waist. “It’s a marsh, quick get me out.” Marvin dragged him free, while Galchak pulled his beast back, to see if they were all right. “Stay me” was all he said, but Marvin understood the full import of his command. If they were to make it safely to the other side, they would need to keep their guide close, and not get lost.

With a grim smile, Marvin thought that at least their pursuers would not be able to make swift progress either, even if they knew the route across this deadly marsh. But just as that thought struck him, Marvin glanced over his shoulder at where he imagined the top of the valley to be; for it was now too dark to discern anything beyond their immediate surroundings; and to his horror, he saw a tiny light flickering like a willow the wisp, as it picked it’s winding way over the safe path, ever closing the gap they had made with the dummy space suit.

Marvin pointed the light out to Galchak, who with a worried look on his face said “Too quick, too dangerous.” And he carried on, carefully picking his way through the marsh. They must have been half way across by now thought Marvin, and glancing back, he saw the lights getting noticeably closer. Todd suddenly veered off “I’m not going back in that cage captain. I’d rather the bog take me, than end my days in a freak show.” and he stood at the waters edge ready to jump in. In desperation, Marvin looked once more back at the ever-nearing pursuers. Their flickering torchlight was now illuminating the grim faces, intent on their quarry.

Marvin was jostled on the narrow path, as Galchak strode forward, his spear in his hand. He at least was going to put up a fight; to think they had gone through all they had, just to end up like this. Either captured for some freak show, or to drowned themselves. Marvin chucked to himself; they might as well stayed in their crashed ship, and ended it then. The pursuers were almost within spear’s range; and Galchak stood read to pounce. Todd had got to waist deep in the marsh, when he yelled in panic.

A bright light had turned the three fugitive’s world in to a blind panic; and then the rumbling noise hit them, as a helicopter dropped between the three and their pursuers. Through the open doors, Marvin could see their would-be captors, cowering in another beam aimed at them. Marvin thought Galchak’s outline looked considerable more impressive than his pursuers, as the warrior stood in awe of this unworldly intervention.

Then a megaphone rang out “Captain Cobb; I think you’d better board before the locals recover their senses.” Pausing only to drag a stunned Todd back out of the water, Marvin rushed towards to open door, grabbing Galchak’s arm before they all boarded the helicopter. And then it rose back in to the night, as the glow from the flickering torches grew fainter beneath them.

It was then that Marvin could finally take in his immediate surroundings. The team that had rescued them all wore bio protection suits, and bore the emblem of the biotech specialists. “Captain Cobb, we had a fine time trying to track your emergency beacon down. They ‘re not supposed to move so far from the crash site.” Marvin just sat there with a blank expression; until it finally sunk in, that all this time the little box of electronics he had carried along with him, had finally brought the help he had so desperately needed.

“Where are we going commander?” he finally asked. With a glance over at Galchak, the commander informed him. “We have a small camp set up to study the local flora and fauna. And now you and Todd Mandrake have been exposed to the environment, we have a unique opportunity to see how the two ecosystems interact.” Just glad to be free of pursuit, Marvin closed his eyes and relaxed.

When the chopper landed, the three were guided in to a low prefabricated building, in a compound located in the middle of a wide plane. No one could approach unheralded. “Your people?” was the first words Galchak uttered, and when Marvin nodded, he sat a little easier. Todd was busy tucking in to the food laid out for them. Then after a debriefing as to how their craft crashed, and their adventures afterwards; Marvin and his companions were given a full examination. Even Galchak, who needed some encouragement off Marvin to cooperate, but finally he gave in, when he saw his companions had suffered nothing from the procedure.

After a good night’s sleep, Marvin and Todd were back to full health; and as they sat round at table, trying to teach Galchak how to play cards, there was a brief knock at the door. Commander Gazette, the leader of the team who rescued them, then stepped inside. With a gasp Todd stood up. “Your bio suit sir.” There was a smile on the commander’s uncovered face, for he just wore his ship’s uniform, as he stepped forward and held out his hand to Galchak, who took it, and they shook hands.

Then turning to Marvin, he explained the sudden change of policy. “Captain Cobb, I want to thank you for bringing in such fine samples, in the form of yourselves and our friend here.” He indicated Galchak. “It eclipsed the research we have been doing here for some time. Which proved that life on this planet is compatible with the ecosystem of Earth. I have a theory that some basic life seeding process, either by natural process or designed, could be prevalent through out the galaxy, or even the universe, just waiting for the right conditions for it to take off. If I’m right, future worlds we encounter that has life on it already, may be just as able to support Humans as this one.”

With a concerned look, Marvin drew the commander to one side. “But what about the cultural differences. We can hardly go talking Galchak’s people’s lands off them; and I’m sure a mixing of the cultures, would be detrimental to them.” But the commander had an answer for that. “Don’t worry captain, this world has a continent untouched by civilisation; we did a fly by at night, and saw no lights. So any colony from the ship will be established far away from the locals; the indigenous population will need to become explorers, before any contact is made. For our part, strict rules of non engagement will be set up; and when the locals finally come looking, they should be able to cope with new civilisations.”

So it only remained for Marvin and Todd to explain the plan to Galchak, and see what he wanted to do, which took much miming. But finally the hunter understood their meaning, and with a distant look in his eyes, he informed them “I go with you; new lands to hunt.” And with that the three settled down to the game of cards again, as if nothing had happened.

Instant Gratification

My name is Bill, and I haven’t had a drink for two days now. And not just the demon drink, God I could murder an ice-cold beer. No I mean I literally haven’t passed liquid through my lips, damned weather. Why couldn’t it rain every once in a while? Then I could at least wet my tongue, or wait for a handful of that lovely cool water to drip down my parched throat.

Get a grip on yourself William Tannis; and don’t lose your grip on to the rock face, or roll off this ledge you so stupidly got yourself on to. Yes I’m talking to you; don’t go losing it, even though you know you’ve started talking to yourself. Now how long ago was it when you last ate? Come on now remember, it might be important. You know you’ve got to keep your strength up.

Lets see, it was that discarded box of fruit, wasn’t it? They’d fallen down from the city too hadn’t they? And just like you, they’d found their way on to this ledge, on the way down there. No don’t look, you know it gives you vertigo, and we both can’t afford to drop off so to speak. Oh God why did I do it; you know why, you were drunk, and you wanted to get your precious ring back, you dolt. You couldn’t just wait and ask the service bot to get it for you. They’d have got it no problem in the morning. And then you could have thrown it at her instead.

Perhaps I’m better of just letting go; no I promised myself I wouldn’t do that; that’s the coward’s way out. And remember she said she’d not miss you, if you just disappeared. She’s not come looking for you yet, has she? So it’s up to you buddy. Get back up there and give her what for. Now how can I get out of this mess? Think, think, think; perhaps the ledge actually goes somewhere. So stop feeling sorry for yourself and get up.

Whoa steady, there’s no need to move too fast, you nearly went then. A fine way to end it all, dropping down there just after you’ve decided to find a way back up, to wipe that smile off her face; I do miss that face though. Now that’s no way to talk; remember the harsh facts of life, like the fact that you may not get out of this unless you keep concentrating. Now ease yourself up, there you go, you can di it. Now stretch and hold on to that rock face, doesn’t it feel good? You know you want to just grip it and ease yourself round, that’s it.

I wonder if she went out, and saw that Jerry from next door. Just as soon as she stormed out, I bet she did, the creep. Just because he fly’s a Mars express shuttle, all the women in the block drool after him. Well when I catch them at it, whoa I nearly went then. I better concentrate more on getting out of this, or I’ll end up down there. No don’t look you idiot. Now look what you’ve done, the stuff people throw out, and all over your shoe. I’d better scrap it off, or I’ll be slipping my self next.

There that’s done it, what must you look like, a fly on a rock face, with the gleaming metropolis above, and the city dump below. Who’s bright idea was it to move here in the first place? Hers of course. Think of the view she said, think of the cost I thought; not that I ever said that. It was always yes dear and of course dear; well see where that got you. You lose your job at the exotic matter-packing factory, and she acts like it’s the end of the world. Anybody would think I’d let an antimatter electron out of its box.

Well that’s women for you; they do go on and on, never ending. A bit like this ledge; I wonder if it will end, or if it just goes round the whole city, and I’ll end up back where I started. What a way to end your days, just edging round this ledge for years. Don’t be silly, you’d fall off, or starve long before that. Well that’s a cheery thought, still could be worst, well maybe not.

Now what’s that; I figured there must be a door some way round here, didn’t I say I’d lead you right Bill. After all what’s the point of having a ledge, unless you intend visiting it once in a while. Now lets have a good look at its solid frame and stout handle to boot. I might as well give it a tug. Probably a little rusty; they can’t have locked it, could they? Who’s to be locked out? I mean except me.

Now calm down Bill and think. They’d only lock the door to stop some idiot walking out in to thin air; they probably wouldn’t expect some dolt falling down the waste shoot and ending up on this ledge, that’s why. Perhaps it’s there so they can come out and have a look. That sounds about the size of it. They’d need some way of checking the cliff below the city. So maybe there’s someone near the other side of the door, perhaps a maintenance robot.

Well then hang on to that handle and bang with all your might Bill; just imagine it’s Jerry’s face. No not that hard, you nearly went then; why do you always go and over do everything? That’s probably why she walked out, not because you lost another job through sheer pig-headedness. You’ve got a lovely woman at home. But if she is at home, why isn’t she looking for you now; you didn’t think of that did you? I wonder what happens if I try to lean on this door.

Whoa there Bill, almost went then, but I think it gave a little. Perhaps it opens inward. I cannot believe you spent all this time pulling, when you should have been trying to push it. Not that you’ve got much leverage behind you, but empty air. O.K. let’s try swinging on to it, I think it’s working. Yes, salvation here I come. But perhaps I better get a rest now the door’s open. At lest I wont fall off the ledge now. There’s time to find your way back up; and after all that exertion you’re reeling. Well I know, I can’t stop talking to myself…

What’s going on, no keep that box shut, what? Oh it’s just a dream. Oh well I might as well be in this hellhole as any; lets have a look about. Just that lift, I’ll try the button; funny they usually light up don’t they? Come on…. Oh just great, some jokers switched the power off to the lift I suppose; I could try banging on the door…. Clearly no one’s at home, another dead waste of time.

Why did I ever go after that ring? You know why, because it still means something to you, even after all this time. You promised to stay by her through thick and thin. And look where it’s got you, not at home where you should be now, your feet up and; what’s that noise, it’s coming from that grate. Hello can you help me; I’m stuck at the bottom of this lift shaft. It’s no good; they’ll never hear me; let’s try and get the grill open.

Ouch my fingers; hey it’s coming lose, if I can just prise it open a bit more; there I’m through. Now to find my way back up. It’s a bit dark in there. Better see with your hands then. I don’t like it. Perhaps you’d like to stay down here better? O.K. lets go. What is that smell? I think I’m going to be sick. Is there a dead animal in here? I hope it’s not a live one. To be eaten in a foul smelling hole after all I’ve been through. What was that noise, was it scurrying or just my imagination? Let’s just hope you’re going nuts Bill, they say the first sign is talking to yourself; well I’m O.K. there.

Hello, is that a ladder I feel besides me? I hope it is, because I’m going to climb it. Things are looking up, or at least they would if I could see anything. There’s that scrabbling again, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God; get up that ladder. It’s just down there. Is it sniffing the air? It’s almost as if I can feel it’s presence. What if it can climb? Better get moving.

My heart, I can’t breath, got to stop, get my breath back. Is it still down there? What if it knows another way up? Could it be waiting for me, ready to attack me in the dark from above? Don’t think about it Bill, you know it’s only going to panic you. And then where will that get you? Probably losing hold on the next rung and dropping way down there. I wonder how far I have come? I might be almost at street level by now.

Ouch my hand; hey there’s something blocking my way. That’s all I need, a dead end to end up dead at. Now think Bill, feel around, now be carful, you don’t want to fall. Is there a catch or something? O.K. no clever mechanism to open it from down here. So what about just brute force. I mean if it’s on street level it must be a manhole cover. And if you remember that day in Reno when it poured down, like the heavens would never stop. It lifted that cover on Main Street up, and stopped traffic. So perhaps it’s just it’s own weight holding it down.

That’s it, I can see the light, and some feet running towards me, hey help. I’m trapped down here. Thanks’ Oh so much, I thought I’d never get back up here. Oh it’s you dear; did you miss me? I missed you too. Yes you know I love you too, but I could do with a shower.

It’s no joke

“Press the button”, the speaker commanded. And professor Tom Elsa steeled himself. He tentatively reached out with his finger; then drew it back with an accusatory, “How do I know you’re not having me on again?”

The mild mannered chuckle came from the speaker. “That professor Elsa; is your problem.” And the tortured eyes of the professor fell on the fatal three letters that once spelt out a promising career, J.N.C.

The legend stood for joke computing neurology, and professor Elsa had once had such high hopes for the project, in its contribution to true artificial intelligence. A well-recognized element of the human condition, our ability to recognize and more importantly create jokes has long been thought an essential element of the makeup what it is to be truly human. Like our ability to appreciate and create art.

When the fresh faced professor Elsa had managed to scoop such a prodigious position as the head of the newly commissioned J.C.N. project, it was hardly a surprise. He had never been beat in any test, and out stripped his fellow peers in the innovative papers he submitted. But the thesis he delivered to the board on neurological learning, in artificial intelligence of the Crabtree 4000 unit was considered by all to be the work of a genius.

On paper he was the best man for the job, with perhaps one overlooked factor; where some are experts on the color spectrum, yet remain only able to see in black and white; professor Elsa had a deep understanding of the mechanics of both the electronic mind, and the rules of comedic construction, as he had immersed himself in the subject for the post. He unfortunately could not string a joke together to save his life.

Each morning he entered the laboratory, Tom would be greeted by J.N.C. Or as the set of processors preferred to be called, “Please call me Jason, professor. It helps me assimilate data”, and so to help the process, Jason it was. As Tom stepped through the high security portal, to his place of work, Jason piped up “My dog’s got no nose.” The bleary eyed professor replied out of rote “How does it smell?” expecting the usual reply. “Like you, stinky poo.”

With a jerk of surprise Tom stiffened up; then sniffed his armpits. Satisfied that he was sufficiently well groomed for the day, he proceeded over to the screen, the one that displayed Jason’s brain. It was a complex three-dimensional virtual map of the computer’s thought processes. An interesting lightshow of colors to the unedified; but to professor Elsa it was a deep and vivid insight in to the present state of Jason’s mind.

He made a note of the subtle change in section 47F, and nodded to himself. “Don’t nod off, prof,” quipped Jason. “Be alert, your country needs lerts.” And so the jokes came through the morning. Jason kept rolling them out to spring board off Tom, as his creation developed it’s sense of humor; while Tom continued with his note taking while altering his plans in relation to his findings.

“I think it’s time to expand your range of outlets Jason” Tom offered, as a way of explanation. As two burly workmen wheeled the crate in to the laboratory. “Do you want us to set it up for you professor?” asked one, as he eyed the banks of computer processors, and various screens. “It’s rude to stare tubsy” came a sudden retort from the speaker. “I may be half a ton, but at least it’s all brain. What’s your cranial to lard ratio buddy?” A red-faced professor Elsa showed the workmen to the door, spluttering out “no thank you, I’ll sort out the assembly. You’re very kind; sorry about the lard comment.” As the now grumbling men left.

“Jason how could you?” chided the professor, but in a neutral tone J.S.N. furnished a reply. “Observational comedy professor. You do want me to explore all aspects of comedic method?” With no real reply to that, the professor turned once more to his crate. “Well here’s another string for your bow Jason. I’ve managed to obtain a three dimensional printer. So you can explore the comedy of objects; like oversized needles and the like.” And he began to work on the crate.

By noon the machine was all connected to one of Jason’s outlet ports; and full of little beads that could become any shape imaginable. There had been a break, when Jason insisted Tom should join him in a round of knock knock jokes he wanted to try out. But finally sated, Jason turned his attention to his new outlet.

“Care for a cup of coffee professor?” Jason enquired, as a mug rapidly appeared in the printer. Complete with the embossed legend, best professor in the world. Tom examined the artifact; and smiling at the computer’s kind consideration of his efforts, he filled the vessel and took a swig. It was only then that the scalding sensation on his shirt brought Tom’s attention to the concealed hole in the mug; which would soak the unwitting drinker. And dabbing the stain with a cloth he hastily found, he examined the computer screen with a grim look on his face. “Very funny Jason, but I could hardly expect any more from you I suppose.”

The chuckle from Jason was all he could get out of the speaker for some time. At the end of which Jason began exploring this new world. His next creation was a pair of glasses who’s semispherical shaped lenses extended off the frame on springs. “Not too original” commented Tom, as he examined Jason’s brain image through the specs. Next came an extra long nose. “Now tell me that joke stinks professor.” And a finger trap that had the professor well and truly stuck. Until Jason could stop laughing long enough to instruct Tom how to escape.

By then what looked like a telescope sat in the printer. Tentatively professor Elsa picked it up, and took a look. There seemed to be some kind of object illuminated from behind, at the other end of the scope. To Tom it looked like a couple of sprouts, with a gherkin dangling from between them. Then he realized the wrinkled skin of the gherkin, had a veiny look. With a red face he put the object down. “What’s the matter professor; have you never heard of a fallacy?”

The next morning professor Elsa found a similar abject sat in the printer, and expecting some new crude attempt at visual humor, he took a look. The next moment he was sprawled on the floor; his eye smarting from the spring loaded finger now protruding from the eyepiece. “I see you got my point of view professor,” chortled the speaker.

From then on professor Elsa learned to treat anything that Jason made with kid gloves. By the end of the week Jason seemed to have exhausted all his ideas regarding the printer, including a three dimensional jigsaw that the professor had spent a morning constructing; only to find himself stood in front of a two foot tall jigsaw piece. “I think I’ll let you do a bit of research for yourself” Tom mused as he linked an Internet router to James’ circuitry. It was a pivotal decision in their relationship; but it’s effects would not be noticed by the professor until two o clock in to the next morning.

As the professor slept peacefully in his bed, his phone began to ring. And bleary eyed, Tom picked up the receiver. Tom expected some emergency from the institute; it was the institute, but instead of the night watchman’s voice, there came the familiar tones of Jason. “Good morning professor. Are you asleep?” “Yes I am”, came the terse reply for Tom, as the anger rose in him. He slammed the phone down cursing.

Then it rang again; so once more he picked it up. “It’s only that I wondered if you’ve got my present professor.” Confused, Tom was at a loss for words; but just then his doorbell rang. So placing the receiver on his bedside table, he wrapped himself in his dressing gown, and descended to the front door.

The eyepiece in the center of the door revealed a pizza deliveryman stood on his doorstep. And keen not to make a scene, Tom fumbled with the latch. He was soon doling out the money the man wanted, just to be rid of him. The snack got discarded in to the kitchen; it would do for breakfast. But for now professor Elsa had a computer to try and persuade to stop making prank calls, before he could get in to the laboratory in the morning, and disconnect it from the outside world. The genie would defiantly have to go back in to the bottle.

Tom picked up the receiver, and was about to congratulate Jason on the pizza joke. An opening gambit in his calming the computer for the night, but he was greeted with a dead line. The darn thing had rung off. He’d better try and phone Jason back; the only problem being that the connection to the laboratory phone router was an internal number. Would the switchboard be open now, if Jason could ring out, he supposed he could ring in. He put the phone down, but no sooner was the receiver back in its cradle, it rang again.

“Professor Elsa?” came an unfamiliar voice. In shock Tom almost dropped the phone. “Yes it is he, that is me I mean to say.” as he almost tripped over his words in confusion. There was a pause. “This is officer O’Leary, down at the station house. We’ve been getting a number of prank calls being reported tonight. And every one of them says they’re from a professor Tom Elsa, Elsa? That’s a girl’s name isn’t it?”

The professor was speechless at what he knew was essentially Jason’s fault; he simply could not get a coherent sentence out. That was until he heard the jovial tones of Jason, on the other end of the phone. “Had you then prof. But you’d better get out the back door sharpish; Ho no too late.” Tom could hear a knocking again on his front door. He slammed the phone down, and went to see what new nighttime torment Jason had sent to annoy him.

Ripping the door open, Tom was just about to send the poor unwilling player in this joke away, when a ghastly look fell over him. Stood in front of Tom’s house were two real police officers. “Professor Tom Elsa? Elsa? That’s a girl’s name isn’t it?” the officer finished to his partner.” Then turning once more to Tom, “there have been a number of complaints tonight about prank calls. Some of them were quite rude; and all emanated from your house phone. Been having a party? Got a bit board?” The stunned professor was just about to explain about his errant computer, but the officer cut him short.

“Now normally I would let you off with a caution, but some of the people you’ve been annoying are quite important. If you know what I mean.” And he gave Tom a stern look. “So we’re going to have to take you down to the station, and fill out a full report. It shouldn’t take all night. If you cooperate that is.” And as Tom babbled on about Jason being to blame, he was led still in his pajamas in to the back of the police car.

All the way down to the station, the professor tried to explain the situation. But it seemed they were having none of his excuses. “All in good time sir, when we have a recorder on hand to take down your confession.” Evidently the late shift didn’t usually have to put up with multiple complaints from high up officials, and they were determined to pass the problem on to Tom.

As he sat in the interview room, Tom’s head reeled from the detectives cross-questioning. The ridiculousness of the situation gripped him, and he simply could not suppress a grin, that turned in to a chuckling. The burly detective, who’s job it was to play nice to his partner’s nasty, a role he was failing at miserably; not surprising considering the aggravation this joker had caused, suddenly slammed his hand down on the table.

With a jerk, professor Elsa was brought back to his senses, and he tried in vain once more to explain how he had been framed by a mainframe; and if only he could be taken to his laboratory, all this could be settled so easily. The looks from his interrogators withered the professor, as he trailed off in his request.

In the heartbeat of silence the door rattled, as a brief knock preceded two suited men. As they stepped in, they immediately drew their credentials. “Agent Doolan of the F.B.I., and my partner Agent Caprice. I believe you have a professor Tom Elsa. Elsa? That’s a girls name isn’t it?” The agent glared at Tom with distain. “What’s the perp been up to now?” asked the not so nice detective. “This subversive swine is a traitor, and a potential mass murderer.” The agent glared once more at the professor, who was now rigid with shock.

With clenched teeth, Tom squeezed out the words “What has Jason done now?” The agents looked perplexed for a second, until the detective filled them in. “This joker claims some computer he works with is doing it all; and he’s just the butt of some big joke.” The agent’s twisted smile did nothing to quell Tom’s feeling of dread, “Well he’ll have a hell of a job laughing this one off.” And he stared in to Tom’s searching eyes.

“Our professor here has locked out all the nuclear warheads; so only he can set them off. No one knows how he did it, but this clown has brought us to the brink of world war three.” It was the turn of the detectives to looked stunned then, Tom merely closed his eyes and grimaced. Then the two officers of the law began firing questions at the agents. “How could some one do this?” “Do you think he’s some sort of commie agent?” and “Can’t we just beat him in to giving us back control of our nukes?”

With another look of distain at Tom, the agents explained the situation. “He’s got some sort of complex computer lock on every system, set to launch the missiles if we tamper with them. And here’s the doozy. We keep getting the message; release Elsa or the bombs go up. That’s how we traced him to here.”

Tom cut through the agent’s explanation, “If you take me to my laboratory, I can fix it all.” The agents turned away and whispered a plan between themselves, as Tom and the detectives stared at them expectantly. Then turning once more, agent Doolan gave the orders. “Yes I think we should take professor Elsa to his laboratory, and he can fix whatever he’s done to end the world.”

Then turning a malicious look on the doctor “And if he can’t, you have the permission of the F.B.I. to shoot him, and it doesn’t have to be all in one go. I’m sure before the retaliatory missiles from the east kill us, we can make the professor pay.” Tom blanched at what he’d just heard, and he grasped the table firmly just to stop him falling off his chair.

So with an armed guard surrounding him, Tom shakily undid his laboratory door. “I was wondering when you’d be turning up Professor Elsa. Elsa? That’s a girl’s name isn’t it?” Jason greeted the party, as the four officers of the law scanned the room for any traps the professor may have set up. “I have reconfigured my panels, so you only have two buttons to press.” And the professor noticed the y and n buttons illuminated on the keyboard. “One will give control of the nuclear arsenal back to its rightful owners. The other one will launch certain death for the human race. Although I’m sure the insects will hold a party afterwards.”

Tom felt a cold shiver go down his spine, that the warm evening had nothing to do with; and he turned to his captors for advice. But the four men behind him seemed just as stunned as he felt, and so he turned once more to the tormenting machine that had brought him to this. To decide almost on a coin flip the fate of the human race. “Press the button”, the speaker commanded. And professor Tom Elsa steeled himself. He tentatively reached out with his finger; then drew it back with an accusatory, “How do I know you’re not having me on again?” The mild mannered chuckle came from the speaker. “That professor Elsa; is your problem.”

As professors Elsa’s eyes rested on the plate on the front of the machine, Jason suddenly offered Tom a new torture the stretch his mind. “Of course if you wish, I could tell you a joke; and if you get the punch line right I’ll tell you which button is which.” From the deepest recesses of his hearth, Tom’s deepest fear rose. How could he give a punch line to a joke, when he knew he couldn’t tell a joke to save his life? Only this time it would be everybody’s life as well.

And then he began to laugh, almost choking on his guffaws as he bent double, and held on for dear life to the desk. The security men could only stand agog, as the hope for humanity lost his grip, and rolled on the floor in fits of laughter. “Oh that’s the best joke you’ve ever told Jason” he barley managed to force out between his screams of laughter. “A real killing of a joke.” And then his howls of mirth were joined by the mechanical tones of Jason’s speaker, as it joined in the hilarity of the joke, until the computer finally had to let the professor carry on with his paroxysms of laughter and spoke in a clear yet jovial tone. “Tom, both buttons return control of the warheads. You know I only wanted to play a final big joke.”

At this the nearest agent sprang forward, and pressed one of the buttons. And within seconds the call he got had him smiling at his partner as he nodded. Then the two government agents left the detectives to deal with the professor. But he had long passed beyond all hope, and the whimpering’s of mirth coming from his lips were all the sense they would ever get from him again.

I’ll be right back after…

“Goooood evening all you ghouls and monsters out there. And welcome to the Cal Gulliver show, broadcasting at 905am on W.A.L.M. It’s five past midnight, and I hope you’re having a fine Halloween evening out there. So let’s get the party started with Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran.” Cal leaned back on his chair, and did a thumbs up to his producer Bezoomy Horn, as the man on the other side of the glass flashed Cal a grin.

There was never a dull moment at the only radio station serving Little Moscow, the remote settlement that had sprung up almost over night, when the founding fathers of this little community had fled persecution under Stalin’s regime, and found themselves unwanted guests of the Australian government. The powers that be had shipped the boatload of them off to a repossessed sheep ranch, in the back of beyond in Western Australia, and told them to learn the lingo. That they did, and they managed to scape a living to boot, but the heart and soul of their motherland could never be quelled. Which was why Cal’s prank calls and joke news items were always a firm favourite with his loyal listeners; it was in their blood to pull legs.

Bezoomy was chatting animatedly on the phone when the track faded out, so with one eye on Keeshkas Lomtick the sound engineer, as he hovered over Cal’s mike button, and his other on the small yellow light on his own desk that would confirm he was on the air, Cal drew breath for his next link. “What a great track to get this evening’s festivities going. But I think it’s time to phone a Muscovite.” Keeshkas gave Cal a thumbs up, and in seconds the ring tone being broadcast over the airwaves was replaced by “Hello this is the Vanadiy residence, Yuri speaking. How can I help you?”

Stifling a smirk Cal put on a friendly Nigerian accent. “Hello Mr Vanadiy, I am George Mootoobootoolazy, and I am from your bank.” “From my bank?” “Yes from your bank. We need to confirm some details, if you can give me all the information needed to withdraw money from your account.” “I’m sorry, which bank did you say you were calling from?” “Your Bank Mr Vanadiy”, but now Cal’s voice was cracking up, and Keeshkas had faded in the production booth’s mike too, so the hysterical laughter of Cal’s team flooded the airwaves as well. Mr Vanadiy didn’t seem to appreciate the joke though, as the sound of a phone slamming down was swiftly ensued by Cal’s upbeat tone again. “I tell you it’s the only way I’ll get paid this month, but don’t you worry folks, the tracks will keep coming anyway. Here’s Temptation by Heaven Seventeen.” Then he sat back and clutched his side in mirth.

By now Bezoomy was off the phone, and he cut in to Cal’s headphones. “Looks like we might have a real Halloween story. Old man Azot just called in, and said a meteor crashed on his farm. Apparently it squashed his prized sow.” Cal’s face broke in to a grin; he was getting the inkling of a fake story he could weave out of this. You just couldn’t buy this sort of news; it was like gold to him. “You’ll send out Litso strait away won’t you?” A few sound-bites from Nikoly Azot about his pig, and a bit of creative licence; Cal almost forgot to look out for his mike light when the track faded out, but just in time he took up the audio slack, as he broke straight in to a newly thought up fake news story.

“Listeners I have some grave news. Even as I speak the world is under attack; after an exclusive exposé to W.A.L.M. we have been informed of an extra Terrestrial U.F.O. landing at the Azot farm. There have been fatalities; I repeat a resident of Little Moscow has been killed. Do not panic, do not turn off this station, for even now with scant concern for his safely, our intrepid reporter Litso Creech is speeding his way towards ground zero, to give us an on the spot report of the doom we face.” Then as if he had flipped a switch in himself, Cal’s imposing tone became his usual jubilant self. “We’ll be right back after Black Sabbath with War Pigs.”

The light went off on his desk, and Cal quickly turned to Bezoomy. He was on the phone still. Was he getting that useless Litso out of some bar? Cal felt the tension of the moment rising in him. He had to have something to keep the story going until their roving reporter could get out to the Azot place. Then Bezoomy turned face on to Cal. The producers face seemed odd, as if he’s had a shock. Was there a problem with Litso? Thinking quick, Cal decided he could switch to that if needed. Our roving reporter involved in an accident on his way to keep you the listeners informed. Cal rolled the idea around in his head, he liked it. Then Bezoomy’s voice cut through his musings.

“Something’s happened on the way to the story.” Cal leaned forward expectant of his new scoop about Litso’s accident. With a sickened tone of someone describing a horror beyond comprehension, Bezoomy carried on. “Litso was just driving down Grozny Street when he saw Vladimir Myshyak hunched over his dog. So he stopped to see if he could help, when he saw”, he hesitated over his words “He saw Myshyak was eating the poor thing, as it lay there whimpering. And then Myshyak saw Litso’s car.” Bezoomy gulped. “And he came for him.” Hanging on Bezoomy’s every word Cal almost child like asked, “He attacked Litso?”

Bezoomy shook himself. “No, Litso gunned the engine and shot off down Grozny Street like a bomb. But not before he got a good look at Myshyak’s face. He said it looked distorted with rage, but at the same time his eyes were vacant. As if he were some kind of zombie or something.” Bezoomy let the words fall from his lips, as if they seemed too unreal to be trusted; and Cal’s mind raced with what it could mean. Had Myshyak gone mad? Was it anything to do with the meteor crash? Could he weave it in? Then the track ended, and he was back on the air.

“And that was War Pigs by Black Sabbath. Have you ever had one of those night listeners, when you felt the world was ending? Well hang on to your seats, as it’s all going down tonight. Our roving reporter has just now encountered resistance on his way out to the alien-landing site; by evil forces that may just be turning our own town folk against us. With his own eyes, our intrepid reporter Litso Creech saw a zombie attack on Grozny Street, raising higher the death toll in this war”, he hesitated almost choking on his words, “of the worlds.” Unable to carry on, he waved his hand under his throat signalling to Keeshkas to cut his mike, and the next track began; A view to a kill by Duran Duran.

Cal almost leapt at the window between him and the engineer’s booth. “Bezoomy, what’s going on out there? Has the world gone crazy?” But Bezoomy was on the phone again, nodding furiously as if he was getting more grotesque news. The look on his face when he turned once more to Cal, had he D.J. gripping his seat with tension. “I’ve just heard that there’s been reports of meteor strikes all over Australia, they’re raining down like bullets. And reports of zombie like attacks have been coming in too.” Cal’s lips twitched as he tried to take in what he was hearing. Just then a crash broke in to his thoughts; as the door between the outside world and the engineer’s booth flew open, and a figure burst in. It was Groody Brooko, another of radio W.A.L.M’s disc jockeys. But he wasn’t due until mid morning.

Then Cal noticed the look of horror on his face, the wide staring eyes, and his torn clothes hanging like rags. He had slammed the door shut the instant he was though it. “Help me dam it, those things are everywhere.” He turned to the shocked men in the booth. And like an order to fight, both Bezoomy and Keeshkas began helping him in his desperate attempt, to bar the only entrance to their bolthole. Finally with the job completed, Groody turned his haggard face to the room once more and lunged at the control board, rolling his finger at Cal as if to say get going. Cal realised his light was on and the track had just finished; but it took him a second to get his brain moving.

“And I’m back folks with more shocking news. Barricade yourselves in, I repeat barricade yourselves in. The zombie forces are not just confined to our sleepy little town. This is a countrywide phenomenon; it may even be worldwide. We can only guess. So bolt your door and keep tuned to this station. Meanwhile here’s Is it a Dream by The Dammed.” Cal’s mike light went out, and he turned to the control booth. Apparently Bezoomy had just finished telling Groody about Litso, and the rest of the horrific events, when Groody cut in.

“Yea like I’d just left Boris Magniy’s place when I saw a mob coming down the street”, he glanced over at Cal “There faces, they were distorted, grotesque, like snarling beasts, but it was their eyes.” Groody gave a sob and turned once more to Cal, as if the glass between them could protect him from the truth. “Their eyes were dead, sunken and lifeless”, he stiffened, “and then they saw me. It was terrible, I just ran knocking in to whatever blocked my path.” Groody’s eyes reflected the horror in his voice. “How I made it here I don’t know, just instinct I guess.” He ended, but his words were punctuated by a thud at the door, causing everyone in the booth to flinch, and rush to bolster the defences.

But they seemed to hold as the dull thud continued, like a jungle drum. Cal took his headphones off, and was relieved to hear just the peace and quiet of his own beating heart. That was when he noticed the small light on his desk. How long had it been on? The enormity of his crime hit him, to have left dead air on his show, depriving his listeners of the vital link with civilisation. But Keeshkas didn’t seem perturbed by the silence; perhaps it had only been a heartbeat since the track had stopped.

“That was Is it a Dream?” he gulped, “By The Dammed. If you’ve only just tuned in, barricade yourself in I implore you, because a plague of zombies, possibly created by extra terrestrial means has the whole world in its grips, this is not a joke believe me. If we get any more information we will pass it on to you, but for the present stay clam, and stay locked in. We are ourselves under siege from these foul creatures, but despite the provocation from without we will continue; here’s Mudhoney with Here Comes Sickness.”

The light on Cal’s desk went out, and he put his headphone back on; that evil racket still beat out on the door, but it was less pronounced now. Could it be that even the undead could grow weary in their pursuit of the living? Bezoomy held up his phone, “Cal we’ve got officer Med on the line. He’s holed up with Guff Bratchny down at the station, and he’s got some advice for any survivors.” Cal was up on his feet, “Well get him on line, I’ll do an intro and then he can tell everyone his news on air. It’ll help to have a voice of authority, might bring some calm.” By now Cal was half talking to himself, he knew he could do with some calm, and then the track ended.

With a steady voice Cal began, “Welcome back listeners. We can now bring you some news from officer Alexander Med, you know Alexander, who else could bring us hope in the darkness than smart sensible officer Med. He’s taken up a defensive position, and allied himself with our own morning disc jockey Guff Bratchny. Hello officer Med.” There was a pause, but the voice that came back was not the officer, it was that of Guff; he sounded scared.

“Alexander is at the defences, there are some of those zombies trying to get in. But he knows how to kill them. He told me you have to shoot them in the head.” There was a sudden commotion, followed by a rapid banging on the other end of the line. “My god, they’re breaking in, there’s just too many of them.” A loud bang went off, and Cal almost fell off his chair, as the noise resounded through his headphones. “They’ve got him” Guff sobbed, then there was a choking sound as Guff’s terrified voice continued. “They’re dragging him out. Mercy they’re coming in, no Stanislav no”, there was a scream and a gurgling noise, then the sound like flesh being torn apart.

Cal did a cut the feed motion, and sickened looking Keeshkas stabbed at a button on his desk like it was a poisonous insect to be squashed quickly. “That was Stanislav Palladiy” Groody sobbed, “He owed me ten dollars.” Bezoomy gave him a look that could kill, then he nodded to Cal who realised something must be said. “And here’s another track to keep you going through this night of Halloween festivities. Its Alphapville with I die for you today.” Then his desk light went out as Cal sank down with his head in his hands. It was the end of the world, and he was stuck in this rat hole bearing witness to the horrors as they unfolded.

They were defenceless in here, if the hordes of the undead managed to break through that outer door. Would he go out to help his co-workers if that happened? Cal stared out on them and wondered. And then the phone rang. Bezoomy snatched it up, “Litso, where are you? You’re where?” The tension in the room made Cal’s heart ache in desperation, then Bezoomy turned to him. “Litso’s on the roof. We must have missed the sound of him climbing up there with all that noise form the door. I’ll patch him through.” Cal held up his hand, “Wait, the listeners will want to hear this. When the track ends I’ll introduce him”, and Bezoomy nodded.

As the track faded out and Keeshkas put Cal’s mike back on, the D.J. was ready with the intro. “It looks like we may be the only island of sanity left in the world. But if anyone out there is still alive to listen to us, I have a live link to our intrepid reporter, as he stands on the roof of our very radio station, and give us a blow by blow account of the siege that befalls us. I know you will be under attack too, but maybe our account of the invaders from beyond the grave, will help you in your struggle to hold back these forces of evil. We have already heard how they can be stopped by a direct shot to the head, thanks to the brave actions of officer Alexander Med and our own Guff Bratchny, both now deceased. And now I hand you over to Litso Creech, as he holds off the hordes of monsters surrounding our station.” Litso cut in then, and Cal sat horrified at this account of what was happening just outside.

“The masses of these creatures stretch back in to the distance, I don’t know what’s drawn them to this spot, but they seem to be waiting for something. Is it the dawn, or some orders to attack? I simply don’t know. I see some familiar faces down there, grotesquely distorted, there’s Grigori Alyuminiy. He seems to be dragging a dismembered leg like a club. And near to him is Anatoli Tsement; is that some recognition I see in his features, he seems to be pointing at me. I don’t know if they can get up here, but I stand no chance of escaping anyway. I only hope if they do attack, I will die quickly.

Oh I see Alexey Kremniy waving to get my attention. It’s the most animated movement I’ve seen in these creatures. Has he retained a vestige of intelligence? Or is he some sort of conduit for the force that controls these savages. I can’t quite make out what he’s saying. Wait a minute; It’s bring the voice of the radio. Is he demanding to be given our own radio W.A.L.M’s top D.J. Cal Gulliver?

There seems to be a ripple of movement passing through the crowd. Could it be that they have heard my words broadcast over the airwaves?” Cal looked at the men on the other side of the glass, as wide-eyed they stared back. “You can’t do this” Cal whimpered, but the three men were busy pulling the boxes and debris away from the door, and letting the light of the dawn pour in.

As Cal sat rigid, unable to move in transfixed horror; the outline of a figure stepped in to the doorway, as the final track started up; it was Black Sabbath’s Am I Going Insane. And then Cal’s eyes focused on the figure as he stepped in to the studio, it was Litso. But he was grinning like a Cheshire cat, untouched in any way; and what’s more Guff Bratchny followed him in, laughing as he lifted Cal yielding body out of his seat.

“Make way little Droog, I’ve got the morning show to host. Not to mention all your listeners to let in on the joke.” Then Litso led the shocked Cal from the booth, and out in to the light. Blinking Cal looked round for the ravening hordes of zombies, but all he saw was the usual dawn look of his town, and then it hit him. “You bastard Litso, you made it all up, you and those shit heads in there. You had me going all night, thinking it was the end of the world. You made it all up.” LIsto chuckled “Well most of it.” Then Cal began to laugh as well; he had to admit he’d been had royally. “Let’s go for a drink”, he suggested. And they staggered off to find some vodka.

Old man Azot was still fuming though. He had finally managed to drag the metal sphere off Betsy; it’s shiny round body catching the dawn’s rays. Why hadn’t those useless radio people come out to talk to him? Well he’d just have to haul the dam thing on to the back of his truck, and take it in to town, He only hoped it was safe, probably one of those satellites they say wiz round the Earth, funny thing though, with it’s flashing light and beeping noises.

Meanwhile way out in the Ionosphere the command crew of the star ship Velazquez had just finished listening to the damaged probe’s broadcast. The second in command turned to his captain. “I know the probe was damaged on impact, leading to it only being able to monitor native radio broadcasts, but I think the translation proves conclusively that this world to be a dangerous planet to land on. What with some form of undead infestation recently overcoming the population.” The captain mulled over his second in command’s heart felt analysis of the situation, and had to concur. “You absolutely right number one, it’s a pity we got here just too late to save them, but it can’t be helped. We’ll just have to share our advanced technological skills with the next intelligent life forms we meet.” And the glittering craft warped the very space about it is it departed.

Invisible car kills another

Todd Spectre reread the headline, “Invisible car kills another. Geoff I think we may have to do a recall.” He shoved his round-rimmed glasses further on to his face, as if this were some mark of authority. It usually meant he was serious though. “You can’t be serious Todd, that’s our best seller this month.” But Geoff’s incredulous look across the C.E.O’s desk meant little to the founder of Boy’s Toys Incorporated. And Todd Spectre’s word was final. “See to it.”

Down in Product Development Geoff broke the news. “Boys” he announced loudly, as he swung the glass doors open; that always turned heads. Like ravenous hounds trained to savour a treat, every word Geoff uttered got the pack’s attention. He stood with his thumbs in his red braces, stretching the elastic as he surveyed his team through jet black rimmed glasses. “Mr Spectre has decided to pull the invisible car range, and do a recall.” The hushed room waited on baited breath for their leader’s next move. Was there going to be an arse kicking for the failed product?

Then the tiny twitch on Geoff’s lips turned in to a wide smile, which anyone in the advertising department would pay good money to have on a poster boy. “So that means we’ve got a great opportunity to fill that profit gap; and flood the market with even more fantastic products. I want to see preliminary pitches on my desk by early A.M. tomorrow.” With his one intake of air exhausted Geoff let the glass doors swing shut behind him, as he strode off to organize the damage limitation exercise he would have to head up, with those dam cars Perkins came up with. Geoff made a mental note to start looking for Perkin’s replacement, when the crisis had blown over.

Back in the Product Development, the open plan space had taken on the distinctly divided feel to it, as each man guarded his own little bit of the ‘idea factory’ as Geoff liked to call it. Each man studiously brain storming ideas to bring to the collective that afternoon. That was when the alpha male of ideas would fight for dominance, and the pecking order of the propositions would be decided. If Geoff only had time for the select few ideas, then it would be down to the collective to pick their best of the crop.

Honours may be showered on the one individual for actually getting the best idea, but it was the pride of the whole of Product Development to show their mettle, when Geoff came a calling. Besides which, if it turned out to be a stinker in the long run, it was also down to the poor sap that owned the idea to take the fall as well. Perkins was bricking it, as he tried to think up the mother of all ideas. That was the only way he’d get out of going down the pan.

So each fiefdom mulled over concepts half dreamt, or merely beaten in to existence with mild self-flagellation, and jotting those gems down on whatever their preferred permanent record was. Perkins for instance favoured post it notes of varying colour so as his space became a collage of brightly coloured ideas, he sort solace in the colour therapy; perhaps one was the answer to his prayers. Meanwhile Headings favoured a note pad, flicking each new pearl of wisdom over for perusal later, and scrunching the more ridiculous ones in to a ball, which he launched over his shoulder trebuchet like, with no more aim than a blind pitcher.

Weisberg on the other hand was busy tippy tapping away on a laptop, safe behind his firewall from prying hackers, as he spun wilder and wilder pitches to himself, in the knowledge that he couldn’t run out of physical space to pin his ideas up in, not working under the normal restraint of dimensions. Thus it was that he could surreptitiously add the occasional discarded ejecta off Headings, and add it to his growing pile of winning inventions. Further back in the spacious office other innovation executives worked in their own ways; some in congruent ways to the trio in focus, others in their own unique way. But all were spinning out idea after idea, in the hope of hitting the mother lode of a company saving invention.

And so as we fade to black on this industrious scene of engrossed coexistence, which the department thrives on. Then we fade back in on the exploits of Geoff, as he cursed his way down in a glass elevator that gives breath-taking views of the Californian coast line. Not that Geoff had eyes for the panorama; he was busy compiling the raft of measures that would have to be implemented in double quick time before any stock holders got spooked, and started a stamped. Companies had fallen for lesser disasters, and all because men like Geoff couldn’t keep a tight hold on the reigns.

He reached his desired floor, and with a whoosh of success the doors opened as Geoff’s smile was back in the room; then he strode magisterially in to the legal team’s office. Geoff stood for the briefest moment, as Quentin Bailey put down his newspaper to give Geoff his full attention. Then Geoff broke the news. Quentin gave a shrewd nod and then like a captain of the high seas, he began to bark out orders to his well-trained crew.

With a smile of satisfaction Geoff just turned and left; he knew the recall was in safe hands, for the surgeon like brain of Quentin would handle the crisis with consummate skills, honed over many a year as a successful corporate lawyer. No hint of the company’s name would be besmirched by a clear case of product misuse, no claim would penetrate the armour of his legal team, and in the end Boy’s Toys incorporated would be hailed as the saviour of the day. Quentin’s advertising subdivision would see to that.

With the ball rolling Geoff could breath easy again; so he headed back to his office for a round of virtual golf with a select peer group of dead celebrities, hologramatically reproduced for the V.I.P. golfer to relax with. It was a top seller, and had earned the designer a beach house in Florida. The tech monkeys would be proud of their achievements, if only the genetically engineered geniuses that actually created the products Boy’s Toys incorporated released to the world, knew that there was a world out there in the first place.

Far down in the exorbitantly furnished and ultra secure basement levels, was their world. And as long as they were kept busy and well stocked in pizza, they were happy. Very few people had clearance to venture there; and none outside that select group knew the true nature of the real powerhouse the company relied on. The designers dreamt up the product, the ad-men sold the dream, and Quentin’s team kept it from becoming a nightmare. And all the time no one guessed the true nature of the Developmental Products department.

The consummate skills of the team of ‘special’ secretaries saw to that. Their entire ethos was to redirect, misdirect and tie up any enquiry in to that department in to knots, until the enquirer either gave up in frustration, or found the solution to their problem in the first place. This elite team didn’t deal with the mundane task of slowing communications throughout the company main; their task was solely to protect the department they knew the name of, and nothing else. Specially picked and trained, each member of the special secretaries proudly bore a small pin with the letters SS on it. You really had to be a logical linguist of the highest order to join this elite section. Not even the president of America would stand a chance of getting past them.

By noon Geoff had tired of the dead celebrities, having trounced Bing Crosby to the eighteenth hole. And he was up on the roof getting in a quiet forty lengths in the executive pool, before taking a late lunch with the holo-representation of Paul Atreides, to discuss a rather spicy deal in the Middle East Geoff had lined up. As Geoff raised a glass of sparkling cool water in a parting gesture to his guest, although back in Mr Atreides’ place Geoff was technically his guest, Geoff rose to find out how his dream team in Product Development were getting on.

Bob Henderson took the holo-call, as he was effectively the group’s representative; not that he held sway over any member. “We’re all equal here” was his motto. He grinned that toothy smile that had Geoff considering his imminent demise, but Geoff knew Bob did a good job, so he put up with the smarmy way Bob spoke. “You’ve caught us at an exiting stage Geoff”, Geoff hated the way Bob in toned his name, but he smiled back none the less.

“We’re just cross brain storming, and I can tell you there’s some pretty cool ideas being flung about, let me get back to you in the A.M. tomorrow like you asked, and see if you find the platter of products we serve up don’t just tantalise your taste buds.” The boys could stretch it out a bit longer Geoff thought; forgetting he had already given them until tomorrow, as he relaxed in his personal spa. After all it hadn’t been twenty-four hours since the invisible car bomb had dropped. And he ate another slice of Margo’s Malta White truffle and gold pizza.

By three Geoff felt he had done enough for the company for the day; besides which the wrinkles on his fingertips gave him an uneasy moment. Smooth skin equated to success in his book, and anything less than the perfection he expected from his body was a no no in Geoff’s book. So he dried, dressed and descended to the executive car park where his BT5000 sat sparkling in the security lights. He almost shed a tear at the curvaceous lines that encapsulated the gleaming red body of his pride and joy.

Geoff spoke soft words of comfort to the still beast, and in response to his electronically stored voice pattern, the faintest click told Geoff the many security features had been disarmed, as the door opened for him. Then he sat behind the faux leather wheel; nothing died for a boy’s toys product, at least in the manufacturing. That was a hot selling point. Should he drive home? Geoff did enjoy the control of moving up through the gears. And then he remembered the recalled invisible cars; probably not a good idea for an executive to even try the automatic function, given the bottle Krug private Cuvée Champagne he’d washed down his pizza with. So he pressed the auto pilot button, and even as it’s surface read his living fingerprint the neutral tone of the processor asked, “Your destination Mr Hayes?” “Home James, and don’t spare the horses” chuckled Geoff in jubilant expectation of tomorrow’s meeting with his dream team, in Product Development. The car suddenly sped out of the secure car park, as Geoff considered what to feed the kids tonight.

George loved chicken; he was a Bull Terrier, and was always getting up to antics with Zippy the French bulldog. It was enough to drive Bungle the Caucasian Ovcharka to distraction, but he always seemed to keep his brothers in check. Geoff had no human family, they were wont to cause too much mess, and he adroitly avoided his parents, by tacking their movements and generally staying a time zone or two ahead of them. Geoff finally decided on rabbit, after all Bungle deserved his favourite with what he had to put up with.

As dawn illuminated the curtains in Geoff’s bedroom, he was up and refreshing himself to meet Bob and the boys. By contrast the boys had pulled an all-nighter; so dishevelment washed down with ordered in coffee was en vogue, as the queue for the company washroom to shave and spruce up assembled in drips and drabs. Despite the almost slovenly appearance of the team, spirits were high. Partly from the coffee, but mostly from the great raft of ideas they had forged in the fires of last nights meeting. Bob Had called a halt to the individual brain storming session with his usual witticism. “As my old pop Chuck would say, it’s time to switch the power on and see if we don’t pop a fuse.”

Then the group had emerged from their fiefdoms, and assembled their chairs in the makeshift amphitheatre which Bob stood ringmaster in. “Who wants to start the ball rolling; Perkins?” As Perkins raised his hand in response, a yellow post it note fell off his sleeve, and several pairs of eyes followed its progress to the floor. So they almost missed Perkins’ words as he proudly announced, “Bob I think the next big release for Boy’s Toys incorporated should be Virtual Environment.” Several eyes suddenly flicked up from the yellow square on the floor. Bob gave his reassuring smile, “Sounds great, how about expanding on that thought, and then we’ll do a Q and A on it.”

He nodded for Perkins to carry on. At which Perkins held up his board covered in multi-coloured post it notes, with arrows directing his thought process as he began to explain. “Imagine you’re walking down the street, it’s a shabby part of town, the clouds are gathering, there’s litter blowing by, and even the people you pass seem miserable. Why should you have to live in such a depressing town? Don’t you deserve to be in the centre of a vibrant up beat city? Where the sun always shines, the streets are clean, and the people you meet share your view that the world is a better place to live in? Wouldn’t that just make your day?” He looked around at the group to gauge the mood, as Bob sensing the pitch to be at an end; moved on to the all-important catch out round of the proceedings.

As everyone knew, a designer could dream up a perfect selling point. But that’s not to say they hadn’t seen the glaring mistake in their product. Many an idea got shot down in flames at this point, and it was better to see the short comings now, than when management got to choose the final few offerings. Tanning raised his hand and immediatly asked, “Do people really care what’s going on around them?” And he immediatly regretted his rash opening. “Sure Tanning, you’re so wrapped up in your own little world you’d not need one”, “Yes Tanning, I think the idea does have merit” Bob added to calm the waters, “does anyone have a constructive criticism?”

From the back Jacobs asked “What’s the distraction level of this thing? Would you be able to tell if say a mugger was going to rob you?” Perkins glanced at a red post it note, and looked up beaming. “Good question Jacobs”, as he glared at Tanning. “There are a number of suspicious movement algorithms available on todays market. One could easily be utilised to spot a potential mugger, and in fact display the said villain as an over the top monster. I think I’d react to that, wouldn’t you?” Wallaby raised a hand, “And would there be a social media aspect to this device?”

Again Perkins referred to a coloured square. “The option to augment the view to include texts, calls and even video chat from whatever provider you choose, could easily be an option available to the user. That’s if they want any intrusions impinging on their day. I imagine an almost cartoon like simplicity to the augmentation, but the possibilities are endless, perhaps you’d like to stroll down fifth avenue which had been overtaken by the jungle, and where the cars were all hippos.” And so the questions kept coming until Bob looked at his watch, and realised someone else should get a turn.

“Weisberg, perhaps you’d like to step up to the plate” Bob interceded, turning all the room’s attention to the next designer. He opened up his laptop to display a hologram of his latest creation. “The Hunter” Weisberg said with bravado, as the image of a savage looking rifle floated in full view of the room. “The device visually identifies the target, and tots up your score as you virtually go hunting for whatever game you choose, be it beast or man.” He ended with a dramatic tone, which left the room in awed silence. Then it broke with an exclamation from Nyles “That’s brilliant”, but then he frowned. “But how do you stop the cops from shooting you as a crazed sniper?” Weisberg had the expected question’s answer on the tip of his tongue. “Simple, a G.P.S. signal tells any law enforcements that you’re a good guy.” After that the rest of the crowd warmed to Weisberg’s idea, and he soon got to pass the mantel on to Headings.

“Line feed, never be lost for words again’, he flipped over on to his next page. “Imagine if you will, a device that listens to the conversations going on around you, and searches from a vast database for the best line to follow it. You’ll be the shining wit at any party.” The questions came thick and fast, now the group had warmed up, and Headings parried each cut and thrust of the discussion with ease. Next came O’Doul with a device to help you with your luck at dice. “Probably need to run that by legal’ Bob suggested, “You know with casinos and the like.” After him Nolan introduced his buddy bot, and so the stream of ideas flowed through to the early hours. Until even Bob Henderson decided to call it a night, seeing as it was morning, and he had to pick the final three for presentation to Geoff.

As Bob adjusted his tie, and picked up the now formally written up final proposals from his secretary, Geoff texted him with a reminder that he would be in his office in twenty minutes, and Geoff better have some hot pitches for him to look through. “Bob”, Geoff greeted the Product Development team’s representative, as Bob stepped through the door; his file clutched to his chest. “Sit down and tell me what the boys have dreamt up.” Bob talked his way through the finalists, introducing The Hunter first eliciting a shrewd nod from Geoff; he didn’t mention the progenitor of the product, as it had to stand on it’s own merits.

Next came The Wit-Meister, that name had been an idea of Bob’s, and he rather liked the sound of it. “And option three’ Geoff leaned back musing over the presentation so far, “is Virtual Environment.” Bob explained and expanded on the idea, as Geoff imagined the possibilities; until finally with his fingers pressed together, Geoff stopped him. “Good but I think it should be called My World, it has a more tactile sound to it.” He dismissed Bob with the usual “Good job, and I’ll get back to you with the final decision”; then Geoff sent one copy of the proposals down to Developmental Products for the unseen team to make the prototypes. And finally he put a message through to Mr Spectre’s sectary, to say the proposals were ready.

As it turned out, Todd Spectre was taking a quick skiing holiday, and wouldn’t be back for a week. So after pacing up and down in his office to rid himself of the feeling of frustration, that his swift efforts had been a little too presumptive, that Todd wanted the thing sorted quickly. Geoff reflected that it might give the boffins in Developmental Products time to actually mock up the prototypes for his presentation. And then he took the rest of the day off to walk his dogs. The local park by him had a rainbow fountain his pooched just loved to play in.

In the absence of Todd’s guiding hand the week flew by, and much to Geoff’s relief Quentin’s team had made the term Invisible Car a long forgotten phrase. So with the aid of a team helpers, Geoff organised the assembly of the display stands for the now finished prototypes in Todd’s office, before dismissing them so he could give his pitch to the boss. Then he waited for Mr Spectre to emerge from his inner sanctum, where none but those who serviced it entered.

“Ah Geoff, I’ve been waiting for you”, Todd’s voice preceded the C.E.O. as he swung the double doors open from his private chambers. “What have you got for me today?” Todd beamed the refreshed smile of a man on permanent vacation, even when he was busy making lots of money. With consummate skill Geoff began his pitch with The Wit-Meister, which Todd considered with one hand on his clean-shaven chin, the other one on his elbow. “Nice work Geoff, I can see that getting any party buzzing. Especially when all the guys and a few of the gals have them, but what’s this.” He strode over to the mini shooting range Geoff’s personal advertising team had mocked up for The Hunter. “Not going in for the military contracts are we Geoff? Those sort of toes I wouldn’t want to step on.”

So Geoff ran with that pitch next. And after a quick demo, there was an almost school boy twinkle in Todd’s eyes as he placed The Hunter down, and turned back to Geoff. “You’ve really excelled yourself this time Geoff, but what’s this last treat you’ve got for me?” Beaming, Geoff led Todd in to the augmented world of his dreams. The device itself turned out to be a rather stylish pair of glasses, that any executive would be happy to don; and when Todd finally took them off, he beamed back at Geoff. “I thing we’ve got a winner here, get production rolling, and send me the genius who dreamt this up.”

With a feeling of satisfaction of a job well done Geoff gave Bob a call, “Send the fellow who came up with My World to Todd’s office. He wants to thank him personally.” Then as an afterthought he added, “and send me Perkins”; before he snapped his phone shut, and strode off to his office. There was still the unpleasant task of getting rid of the dolt who caused this mess in the first place.

But after an hour Geoff was still waiting, as he mulled over an executive puzzle made of nice shiny chrome. There came a knock at the door, and Perkins finally entered a little worst for wear Geoff noted, probably knew it was his head on the block and he’d hit the bottle for Dutch courage. But for some reason Perkins was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Nice to see you at last Perkins, been a bit busy?” Perkins staggered a little and came to rest on a chair over from where Geoff sat. “Mr Spectre wanted to see me Mr Hayes. I’m afraid he did insist on a little drink.” And he grinned sheepishly.

“And do you know what, he’s such a nice man. He gave me a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park.” Perkins held up four fingers. “That’s the fourth property I been given since I came here. Gee I do like the bonus system”, and he slouched back in his chair. Geoff was not the sort of executive to fail to spot a sea change, and in a heartbeat he beamed his usual business smile. “And I just want to say a personal thank you for saving the company once more Perkins” Geoff chuckled, as he led the unsteady employee to his door; after all business was business.

If you have enjoyed this collection of short science fiction stories, look out for my next edition in this hexology entitled Merry Go Round Broke Down, available soon at Shakespir. Needless to say if you leave your e-mail address at my blog site, you will be the first to know when Merry Go Round Broke Down is ready for devouring.

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It Might as Well be String Theory

  • ISBN: 9781370666966
  • Author: Chris Troman
  • Published: 2017-05-07 20:35:13
  • Words: 70461
It Might as Well be String Theory It Might as Well be String Theory