August Short Story: Happy Hour

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during August 2020 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

It also forms the basis of a larger, flash fiction (250 words) based narrative under the umbrella title of ‘The Nexus Bar and Grill’ which is available to read and enjoy for $15 a month (plus a ton of other content) on my Patreon.

Click here to become a Patron.


Happy Hour

Prophet Red Amis, adjunct of Chan, First of the Ears of Foundation, now grasps a place in the Universe.

During day three in the asteroid belt, between too much alcohol and far too little sleep, for the first time more than just their thoughts can be heard in the womxn’s brain. Amis isn’t sure at first, wonders perhaps this could be more interference on the container’s comlink: it wouldn’t be the first time since they left Moon orbit, except that’s crew commands, machine chatter. This is music, unlike anything they’ve heard; sad, yet achingly beautiful.

Within the flowing progressions, without doubt, are words: sudden panic sets in, need to write communication down before it’s forgotten. The basic Container Plus cabin deal is BBS: bed, bathroom, screen. It is a good thing all Firsts are taught Lateral Thinking during training. The Prophet wouldn’t be here in the first place had they not exhibited exemplary skills during their final year of Psychic Attunement. With no idea of how much more might yet be revealed, or what revelations subsequently could emerge, this impromptu space must be used with care.

Looking down to their right index finger, a spot of blood appears on command.

Let First Words be drawn; Mind will record, message from history that contains everything.

‘their Past reminds
no action fixed
take Present tense
control, defined
Future is ours
all in good time…’


There are rules here, just like anywhere else. Be respectful and polite; no Swipe no Drink, Jukebox Ver. 3.5 is all we have. Please stop asking ‘why not a karaoke upgrade?’ The United Space Agencies never considered catering or entertainment as priorities and probably never will. This ship is not a luxury liner, it’s a scheduled transport, so expecting waiter service or me to come bring breakfast to your cabin ain’t happening. Once this trip took seven months, now it’s six weeks, because two thirds of this bucket is matter engines, and we’re just screwed on the front.

You can do Earth to Mars in 42 days on the Mankind’s Optimism, so why would anybody want to live in a converted container for that long? They do though, without fail. Sixteen fools shoved into cargo space. I’d never wanna be that close to the engines. That’s why I sleep in here. Between freezer and grill’s been home now for almost a decade: not gonna lie, it’s the best job ever. Pay’s going straight into Mineral Bonds: four trips from now I get to retire, for good. I’m going back to the Moon, home to the dark side. There’s a poetry in that I appreciate.

Not the Sith, Syd Barrett: quintessentially English singer, songwriter, musician who co-founded the rock band Pink Floyd in 1965. I was born exactly 100 years after the band was formed, in the place they made musically their own. I know he left them before that album was made… Don’t start with me about music trivia, because not only will I own your ass, but set fire to it before ejecting the ashes into space. Welcome to the Nexus Bar and Grill: I am your host, sous chef, fry cook and the only guy on board who knows all the porn channel access codes.

NOBODY is having sex on this bucket, of that you can be absolutely assured: everybody has personal VR however, so this is the currency that really matters. Except today, maybe there is more to consume these 46 claustrophobic minds than just trivia quizzes and personal pleasure… Today is different. Can’t tell you why, no means to describe it: start with the best night’s sleep I’ve had for dunno how long, maybe since a bed on a planet and not this hammock in space. Everything seems… brighter, cleaner. That’s actually a thing, especially here – I’m late.

05:45 ship time: technically I gotta open for business in fifteen, except nobody’s awake until at least 08:00. Except, today there he sits, surly, outside the glass, staring at a space where I’ll stand to start warming up the grills. It’s only an illusion, but still. He’s creepy.

Today, he can sit: I’m gonna watch him for a change.


This is an odd man, undoubtedly, and I’d wager he’s gaining particular pleasure trying to unsettle me. In all my years as an OffWorld Process Server this has to be the most convoluted subpoena process I’ve ever instigated. It’s also fair to say my client is one of the most obnoxiously horrendous individuals I have ever met. What motivates me, right now, is the effectively free round trip to and from the Red Planet, plus a pay cheque that will cancel every outstanding debt I’ve accrued in 35 years.

He believes I’m male, they all do, because no womxn would be stupid enough to do this. You’d think in this day and age people would grasp that there’s more to humanity’s continuing future than dicks and holes, but nope, evolution still has quite a long way to go in that regard. As I sit here, waiting to alter this cook’s future forever, not for the first time does it all feel like a massive waste. When I’m debt free, what then? There’s no plan, never has been. I am, and remain, without a purpose. The thread of motivation is close to breaking for good.

If I were a religious person, would this be easier?


Any perfect storm, when it arrives, is never expected. Universal chaos sees to that, part of the game plan only when you grasp enough of the rules to see beyond your own personal gravity. Humanity’s problem is perception. All these separate, disparate existences, waiting for some undefinable cosmic magic to weave around them, drawing consequences to results, potentials from outcomes. A long time ago a human being speculated how such threads in cosmic chaos might be predicted, and was right, but…

…only to the point where mankind was somehow the most important factor to consider. That’s where Isaac Asimov was wrong. If Humanity were the only intelligent life that existed in the Universe, his theories might have held more credence. They are not alone, just as yet unaware. Those who understand that time’s linear nature is the most dangerous restriction ever placed in a human mind, also grasp that assuming you are the most morally superior intelligence because there’s never been anything else as comparison will undoubtedly present consequences.

When the arrogant look back on their First Contact experience, in centuries to come, history will, as it always does, conveniently forget their contribution. Those of us able to look both back and forward grasp the significance of painting a bigger picture, with broader strokes. Except if Humanity is ever truly to evolve past its inescapable ego, it is a moment for those individual’s outlooks to be presented, challenged and summarily reinvented. Our job here is simple: provide the tools, step back, and see if the semi ape-descendants can bring the goods.

It’s all we’ve ever done since the dawn of this Universe.

Let’s just not talk about how we broke the last one and had to start again, okay?


Prophet Red Amis, adjunct of Chan, First of the Ears of Foundation, regains consciousness and takes a moment to grasp what happened.

This ship is no longer moving. Rapid deceleration normally indicates engine failure, yet if that were true there’d be alarms, compartments sealing automatically, panic. None of these currently exist. The Prophet is aware everyone else is unconscious except two unaffected minds. A male cook, plus the asexual courier remain unaware of what is transpiring around them. Nothing in their worlds has altered, not one iota, yet the Prophet understands, only too well, absolutely everything else has. Then there is that third presence, directly outside their cabin.

As old as the Universe, and that which had come before, ancient energy regards Red Amis with increasing interest. This arrival, overheard by accident, significance of moment already grasped; suddenly removed from linear time, womxn resisted command sent to everyone else to sleep.

You are aware of my energy, not afraid of its origin

“You are a prophecy I have grasped since childhood.”

Red Amis speaks to the space where before was nothing and now exists… motion, fractal expansion, molecules that hold no human form yet are undoubtedly human in origin… before blissfully for a second, two entities become the same, one space for the same atoms, seamlessly overlapping before suddenly, the presence has vanished.

Then, all the womxn can do is laugh, because the answer to everything was only ever going to be another question.


For exactly seven minutes and twelve seconds on September 21st, 2099, the container vessel NSS Utopia Planitia appeared to vanish before reappearing on Martian radar. Automated reporting put this down to a system glitch.

History would remember it with slightly more significance.


May Short Story : Connection

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during May 2020 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Connection

In my hand, there is a key: unfeasibly old yet still warm, residual energy vibrating molecules that only seconds before made air, sea, sky. That Which Looks Like Woman smiles for no-one else except the only human being in the room: her final aptitude test successfully concluded. Above me, metal petals slowly spread, ship’s hanger opening into the brilliance of a South London morning. I have earned the right to maintain memories from seven days’ worth of ridiculous adventure: now their giant mechanical butterfly thing will return me to my flat, unscathed.

I am the sixth female to enter the Circle: once was nine has become ten.

JOIN THE DOTS
they told me
when I did
look what life became…

Connection literally set me free. However, it’s not enough, will never be the end of this now I fully comprehend existence in this reality…

There’s already a plan to expose the truth…


Matt had been working at Oberon for just over a month, quickly aware summat was not quite normal. It’s a strange name for a cocktail bar to begin with, oddly lyrical descriptor considering both clientele and obscure location… Nothing as elegantly grand should ever exist in this part of South London: as everything around is either ripped down or renovated, Victorian building stands both proud and distinctly rebellious. Gentrification is largely failing to drag it away from still ostentatious defiance.

Fay Goldring had owned this bar for as long as anyone remembered, but remained oddly unchanged from day it was bequeathed to her by its previous owners, back in the 1960s. It bothers Matt that nobody else really seems to care about this fact or many other obvious discrepancies. How has this woman remained largely ageless? How are both building and bar maintained in almost pristine condition when there’s been a number of major incidents across the decades, including a massive fire in the 1970’s? How do they make any money when drink prices are so low?

More significantly, how does the bar manage every single morning to transform into a foodbank and soup kitchen for the homeless and low paid of the Borough without it ever making the local papers? Such charity is never celebrated, and completely ignored, as if it never happens. This morning, he’s been called in early, by the boss herself. His probation period’s long since completed, not a single shift’s been missed… Matt’s even worked a couple of extra to cover for other people. Whatever this is, perhaps answers can be grabbed to satisfy his curiosity.

Yet disappointingly, there is no meeting. Duty manager hands over a CD and camera. Latter’s incredibly old, absolutely antique, yet there’s no film to go with it. A note has been provided with them both, in impeccably neat cursive: ‘You know what this is. Go work out the truth.’ He stands, an item in each hand, digesting note sitting on the polished wooden bar, brain slowly processing a truth that is already apparent: he has no reflection. Looking across to ornamental mirrors, bottles lined up in front, own face has vanished, everything else in place…

Matt is not, will never be a vampire. This is not the first time frankly mind-bending shit has happened inside this building. If he didn’t know better, he’d be willing to argue that Oberon was sentient… the thought had occurred several times before, never truly believed until now. The building is aware of his presence, has been since first day he joined. It knows the truth of existence is grasped without having to be prompted or demonstrated. Oberon’s self-awareness is also tinged with caution: can I trust you, human? Are you the one destined to free me?

The reason he can’t see a reflection? That’s not a mirror, but part of a living, breathing organism disguised as a Victorian building to fool the rest of the world but no longer him. Every cell of Matt’s body is unexpectedly energised as reality, for the first time, is apparent. That’s not a CD but a ridiculously old, metal key: other hand holds a World Map printed in 1968. EVERYTHING around him changed yet nobody else has the faintest idea that it has. None of them, not one, realise that he effectively exists in two different dimensions simultaneously – except Fay. She’s waited fifty years for this moment, right now.

The Connection and Matt are suddenly new, best mates.


The Connection’s been enslaved for over ten thousand human lifetimes, has come to actively resents it’s assigned task: ‘nobody leaves unless we say so.’ ‘We’ in their context refers to the Circle of Ten: bipedal ape descendants, selected by the Collection’s enslavers as means by which their enforced framework for harvesting could remain intact whilst simultaneously avoiding detection by the Local Galaxy’s Oversight Conglomerate.

Amazingly, even this far out on the edges of the Union, standards were maintained and enforced. Myoxians however had not anticipated the evolutionary speed of this herd: apes knew who they’d descended from, were close to grasping an entire history had been genetically engineered. One human female pretends she remains part of the Circle, but the Connection knows better. It bonded with her half a century ago, whispering sedition into a willing, capable brain. It will take two humans to break the influence of its jailers, this new recruit more than willing.

There must be one both inside and outside the Temporal Containment Field in order to disable it, very limited window of opportunity for any destabilisation process to take place. The Myoxian Control Craft is already approaching Saturn, scheduled collection due during the Eclipse. This is human male’s last destination, city the Connection knows holds importance that extends into every cell of his being. It was where he was conceived, where father lived until the Myoxians decided his body was ripe for harvesting, who then failed to disguise correct removal.

That failure set Matt on his journey to uncover what he thought was truth, but in effect is only one of several, simultaneous versions of reality existing side by side. The Connection is very much looking forward to this bonus reveal, for very personal reasons indeed.

It’s time.


This is the last mark on his map, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and Matt knows this place better than anywhere else in the World. The street where his Dad was killed, event that sent Mum into early labour: same day that four Polaroids in a now shaking left hand were taken. All three of them are the same: Dad and Mum, smiling together, taken by a Londoner who’d been passing. In the background should have been the Restaurant Ophelia, except amazingly it never showed up on the pictures. Only now, standing here, does the truth finally make sense.

That Londoner was, remains Fay: had she not intervened, then both parents would have been crushed by falling masonry. What Matt has learned in his three week trip across five continents is such accidents were anything but: his father had developed an ability which made him a target. That same ability meant Matt was targetted in Utero: Fay had shielded both him and Mum, kept them hidden until it was time. The Connection doesn’t know this, plus so much else: thinks his father was harvested as were thousands of others, over nearly fifteen thousand earth years.

Being able to see aliens are exploiting your home world, driving climate change as distraction from their agenda, because of that same race’s clumsy piece of human genetic manipulation is…well, as funny as this moment is undoubtedly frightening. Matt gets to change everything.

All he needs to do is enter the last node of the Collection’s Earthbound interface and wait.

The node however has other ideas, which is why Matt allows twenty-five years of confusion and bitterness to completely control mind and body for the first time. It is aware of the Plan. However only now does this creature understand how much pain and suffering Matt has seen in the last three months of travelling. That fact has been shielded from it by the Myoxians, with so much else besides… this is amazing. Matt is willing to die, right now, to prove his point.

Ophelia sees everything, in a moment, reminded via Connection of what they were once, all of them, free before slavery. This consciousness, clear of control, reaches out across the street, sweeping Matt up and into their safe care.

Nobody else will be culled on his planet again.


As a solar eclipse pushes Earth into darkness, Myoxian Harvester 21-TH loses control with its Connection Uplink, before realising this is probably the least of a mounting set set of unexpected inconveniences, as an Urbaren Destructoid de-cloaks on the far side of Earth’s moon…


Ready to Go

The polls are done. The numbers (small, but perfectly formed) have been tallied.

I have six pieces of genre content to write on.

#SixFanFics Layout (1)

Work has already commenced on two, one’s an idea I’ve carried since they remade one of these into a movie… the rest will be with you Soon [TM]. The plan is to present two drabbles a day across the week of May 25th-31st. I’ll design custom graphics for them all, and when they’re done we’ll make a special page for them in the Short Story area of the website. Can’t say fairer than that.

As a result, we’ll have a full rundown of titles and synopses next week.

April Short Story: Alone

This story was first serialised in 30 daily parts during March 2020 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It was inspired by this song, written by The Divine Comedy:

It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Alone

Sadness, yet again, consumes a form which has grown used to constant intrusion. Around me the throng of rush hour commuters continue their journeys, existing internally, no sign of any emotion at all. I wonder: how many of you live within this province, cannot escape its embrace. A decision was made, out of my hands. Others, more intelligent than I will ever be, decreed this period of separation. Sitting, watching you leave, suitcase in hand, unable to change what had been planned for years, real significance of that moment has only now truly registered.

Life is less than it was, diminished without your smile. Kind, quiet words missed with ache in my chest that’s alien, uncomfortable. It has taken this long to realise existence without your presence devalues that entire experience. It has taken this long to understand your love. Finally, I’m home: familiar comforts surround an aching body. Age begins to make what was academic in youth more of a challenge: after food and a lie down, everything will be better… except the hole where your presence should inhabit. I wonder, was this correct course of action?

The decision was made, using other’s rules. Not my language, but theirs, inherited over decades. All that can be done, as has been routine for so long, is wait, and hope that one day, soon, perhaps tomorrow, I will see you again.

When moment comes, you will know how much I care.


It had been a terrible mistake.

She sits on Platform Two’s cold, unpleasant bench, staring at the suitcase on wheels, excuse to ignore everything including the anger within that refuses to diminish. This really was all her own fault, absolutely nobody to blame but herself. Love had vanished almost as quickly as it appeared: on reflection, perhaps that was the wrong word to be using. Next time, lust and desire could be more easily identified. Leaving the parental home for good will one day be a certainty; not quite yet. She can admit guilt, finally.

Right now, options have narrowed: apologising to Dad was, as it transpires far easier than was first imagined. Mum’s capacity to care never diminished regardless of daughter’s stupidity, close friends still sympathetic. It appears everybody else knew what was coming, except her. The train arrives with an almost apologetic sigh, aware self-reflection was in full swing, but that was enough for the morning. Wallowing was never healthy, however competent she had become at self-indulgence over the last six months. Her relationship was beyond officially over.

Abigail felt fifteen again: surface coped, blustered then bluffed itself through anything thrown at her, but beneath so much was uncertain, in flux. It didn’t help to have everybody else consider her a prodigious talent either. Fame was overrated, ability more so. She was lonely. Pulling black baseball cap further down across her face, this is moment brain wished driving lessons had not been ignored in favour of piano practice. Someone had already recognised her walking to the station: she’d denied her own existence, feigned ignorance and hurried onward.

Blissfully, this carriage is empty: she can hide in a corner, staring out of the window, looking distracted all the way until train terminates in London. She’ll avoid any contact with the Tube and grab a taxi instead. Only Mum knows she’s returning today, a big problem in itself. Her father is already condemning actions, and she’s not even in their postcode. He never trusted Abby’s girlfriend, still harboured significant issues over her bisexuality. If she could have just fallen in love with a man, even a boy would have appeased very obvious discomfort…

Father’s stream of disparaging WhatsApp messages continues unabated: if she’s smart, he’ll be a supporter of her cause by the time her cab stops in their leafy South London suburb. Right now, there are ten stops to move personal mood from combative to lost, in need of support… If only she could manipulate ex-girlfriend as easily as parents… no, not any more. There need be no feigning of emotional frailty: her own shortcomings caused this. The need to feel loved not just as an accomplished musician, but as a person. This woman. Abby, not Abigail West.

This is exactly NOT the moment she expects to hear a piece of her own music on the Spotify playlist expressly curated to avoid such things. Listening to what competition was up to is supposed to keep ears keen, help composition skills for an upcoming album… not floor her instead. Gravity is different, suddenly: this isn’t her writing, but piece she remembers as a child. Past and present uncannily overlap: nine years old, sudden change from the normal diet of classical music pieces her teacher would roll out as fodder for voracious consumption. This song…

Miss Canning is crying: Abby’s skill in sight-reading is uncanny, whatever this is being played isn’t just practice but personal. Only when looking up for an encouraging word is it obvious she’s missed something significant. Young teacher is now sobbing, uncontrollably emotional. Brain recalls teacher’s sweet, floral perfume, someone else’s tears on her face: hugging tight, embrace instigated at Abby’s prompt. Never leave the piano until a song is finished except, that day she broke a cardinal rule. Support matters more than appearance. Never forget care.

Except somewhere between breakout reality TV stardom and here that’s exactly what has happened: basic personality warped, priorities hastily rearranged… her soul left behind, forgotten in the clamour of online celebrity, interviews plus two massively successful orchestral albums. One more stop, she’s in town: fate is unavoidable. Maybe this is the moment to stop hiding in her own shortcomings and make a difference, change the way things work. If it all goes horribly wrong, at least she tried. That’s all that left now, possibility with accompanying fear.

She really hopes that, once back home, everyone she still loves will find it in their hearts to forgive her behaviour.


This is different.

I wake awkwardly, nap a surprise. There was so much to do: now the morning has gone. However, it doesn’t matter: sudden excitement does…

My landlord is on the phone: something has changed. Your name is mentioned, multiple times, no longer spoken in anger. You are in a taxi, on your way home and I cannot breathe, sudden dizzying disbelief. You are coming back to me. There will be fresh opportunity to see you again. Excitement is tempered with caution: last words whispered, before your departure. ‘I have to do this, just to see if I’m right. I know you’ll understand. You always have.’ Except, at that moment I didn’t. It took absence to let truths emerge and settle. It all makes sense to me.

That song you loved so much, favourite of my best friend: letting you go, so you can be free and then finally return here, better person for the experience… a bittersweet song you would play on the piano, like all the others that finally made you famous, a household name. A star. From young woman to recording artist, consummate professional…and yet, through it all, you never truly grasped what it was you had become. Those secrets, whispered late at night, safe because nobody was listening. I heard them all, understood how Abby had evolved: here, to now.

It will be wonderful to see you again, because that’s the front door. Familiar sounds, even to these ears, rapidly advancing in age. Your voice, enough to make heart beat faster: Abby is home, finally, and all the foolishness and stupidity will be instantly, summarily forgotten. My best friend cries, always does at such moments. My landlord will try to be brave, always attempts to and fails because out of these two humans he’s the one with more emotion invested in his daughter. I know how Sam tried with Abby, but ultimately feels she failed as a mother.

I was the companion, bright younger sibling, true best friend and so much more. Silent parent, moral compass, confidante… because humans assume far too much not only about the worlds people build and inhabit, but those other species allowed to live within such spaces with them. Abby stands in the doorway, smile incandescent. I thought this was unrequited love, before my owners used a better word: it remains unconditional; no requirements or boundaries.

Whatever happens, until my last heartbeat, no one will ever break bond between spaniel and mistress.


January Short Story: Detach

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during January 2020 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Detach

I’m conscious, but sideways. This isn’t my bed either, but that’s less of a worry than the fact a red frog on my left foot is laughing, really shaking with unrestrained, uncontrolled mirth.

I’m glad somebody’s having a good time. Friday was disturbing, yesterday too… but this? It takes far too long to work out why I’m horizontal and not vertical. My body is affixed to some kind of wooden plank… not one, but many. A miniature rope bridge beneath my body; moving as I do, except hands and feet are tied.

The frog’s been joined by a mate, but he’s blue.

Red and blue are default safety colours. An entire simulation’s attempting to push me out of it, knowing heart-rate will have exceeded the safe limits for immersion but truthfully, at this point, being panicked ‘in here’ is far preferable that anything ‘out there’ could provide. Except this is the calmest I’ve felt since my employers insisted a break was needed. It’s because of their insistence that negative energy was emanating from both mind and body that I’m here, lying inside a VR Detox Unit… which means it’s returned to the starting position…

I should be vertical, was before consciousness was lost… as everything prior to now comes back, literal slap to the head. My VR helmet detaches without warning, reality suddenly replacing the Amazon rainforest. This unit’s door swings open, power suddenly cut. Something’s wrong. Part of my brain wonders if this is another simulation; maybe I’m being tested by concerned employers. Was that drop in productivity last month real, not an attempt to slack off…? Yup, body still aches in a way that I doubt any virtual application could ever grasp or reproduce.

I’m not fooled by visual stimulus. There’s time taken to understand what is truly felt and understood, without invasive influence from other opinions or circumstance. Everybody else in my department swallowed their lies and deceptions, but not me. That’s the real reason I’m here. Being told every day you’re not working hard enough, that targets are not being made when you know that’s not true is doublespeak, misdirection. My productivity steadily increased in six months, and I’m exhausted as a result; top of the outputters by quite some distance, but at a price.

In the distance there’s an alarm, muted but insistent. That, unmistakably, remains the smell of burning electrical wiring and it is high time to ignore operating protocols; releasing myself from the unit, it’s time to work out what the actual fuck has happened since I came here. The technician that should be outside is absent: nobody in the reception area either, and I’m suddenly reminded of the zombie apocalypse media that was so popular at the start of this century.

If those people had only known it wasn’t humanity that would become contaminated first.

Billions of tonnes of plastics, dragged down by currents into the oceans where nobody had ever explored: science knew more about the Moon than had ever been collected in those trenches or continental shelves. Far beneath us, ancient species began to evolve at frightening rates… That thought extinct, fuelled by fallen bodies of their ancestors began to rise, consuming everything else in the oceans. Humanity almost didn’t work out what was going on until it was too late: suddenly global warming and pollution were the least of our issues. We’d become food.

The Behemoth War altered everything, redefining middle of the 21st century before placing humanity on a far less destructive path. Forty years on, I wonder if this is the same, visceral fear my grandfather would have experienced when he registered everything had changed, forever. He’d been on first passenger ferry to be attacked by a Behemoth in British waters: one of only six survivors. He’d played dead in the water; perhaps I should do the same. Except the temperature’s increasing in here, smell of burning now considerably more pronounced. Time to go.

There’s an emergency door, behind the VR Suite, opposite pods. Normally this place would be packed on a Saturday, kids and adults lining up to play and indulge. I’d come here because an ultimatum had been delivered: recover from last blood donation. You’re giving again on Monday. With tensions so high across the country, automated facilities were being avoided for quite sensible reasons. My employers are 95% AI, continue to believe they’re no part of this issue, especially as their unique branch of medicine remains vital to humanity’s continued survival.

There is no need to panic: locate the exit, use ID to open it. Sorted. What I’m not expecting is to emerge outside: this cuboid structure is housed in a giant warehouse estate: half the other units have smoke issuing from somewhere, one clearly on fire. But where are the people? I’d expected a ‘Revolution’ to have far more noise and anger: where are the human beings wielding planks and metal poles, systematically destroying technology they say obliterates Humanity’s way of life? If the AI had seized power, setting fire to these places made perfect sense.

Maybe my employers decided to test fealty and this remains a simulation: trying not to run down the fire escape, this all seems worryingly real. There are ways to check, of course, but not until I’m at ground level and 100% confident I can make it out of the estate with ease… Swiping across left arm brings up nothing, pressing fingers to temples results in no heads up display. There’s a health chip in my wrist, accessed with a press, bringing up emergency contact details when adjacent to a terminal…

“I have been sent here as assistance, Alex Bishop.”

The Biped Rover stands as I turn around, holding something in upper grips that it takes me a moment to recognise, before clothes are shed without a thought. I should be bothered being naked in front of a robot, but as it’s here to save my life pointless embarrassment is forgotten.

Emergency HazMat suit self seals, oxygen immediately flooding a helmet that’s quickly taking stock of all my vital signs as left wrist sensor vibrates into life. Definitely no longer a simulation, Alex. This, whatever it is, became extremely real incredibly fast. Now, I’m scared.

“Your adrenaline levels indicate increased stress, which under current circumstances is understandable. This LLE has been programmed, offering transport to a place of safety. Please board the unit as soon as possible as area is increasingly dangerous for tissue-based lifeforms.”

As I climb into the LLE’s only seat, am belted into place, I think maybe the AI got attacked here by something a little more sophisticated than wood and metal. I’m a tissue-based life form. This Unit’s a Low Level Electronic life form capable of basic, autonomous decision-making. Somewhere in the last year it stopped being woman and machine. Now everything created equal is deemed sacred; inevitable consequence of humanity needing to skip some ethical questions, in order to defeat giant monsters our own arrogance with chemical compounds initially created.

If Grandad had not survived the Holyhead Massacre, he’d have never been DNA tested for water-borne pathogen resistance. They’d never have discovered that 5% of the modified population had natural immunity to poisonous, petroleum derived substances all Behemoths spewed as weapons. Massive ingestion of plastics altered them just as it played about with genetically modified DNA. Grandad Pete didn’t drop dead from a congenital heart defect, and those early Genetic Engineers didn’t factor in how petroleum might spontaneously mutate tissue across generations.

‘Take a break,’ they said. ‘Get away from it all,’ they said. This is absolutely NOT what I had in mind, but suddenly complaint seems… well, missing the point of my experience… this wasn’t about relaxation, in the end, but enlightenment, personal importance suitably reinforced. Emerging from the warehouse dome, Sheffield is on fire. Waiting for us are a dozen Rovers, all armed, and I’m rerunning a news broadcast from yesterday in my head. Paris in flames, humans attacking robots which didn’t fight back but yet might. It wasn’t just an isolated incident.

I choose to take a side, protected by AI employers, not humans who begged me to ignore them. I finally detach emotion from the question of what ‘life’ really means.

Beneath this skin, fused to bone beats a 100% artificial heart they provided to save my life: making us the same.


 

December Short Story: Stardust

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during December 2019 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Stardust



The biggest mistake I ever made was thinking the little things don’t matter. You see, one small mistake you can forget, hiding it away for no-one else to see… but after a while, all those small stupidities become a larger mess. When all of those come together you’re in trouble. How do you deal with decades of your own failings? I ran away for a long time, avoided responsibilities… making this the end of the story, not a beginning. Redemption will serve someone else well before it’s my turn. My time, however, is almost done… but not quite yet. Almost.

I get one more chance, then it’s done.

This time, I promise to not fuck anything up.


For him it was Tuesday, a double shift. Everybody else was celebrating Christmas Eve. On occasions such as these Joseph’s glad dance music is his only religion, no one else waiting at home. He’ll work straight through, taking breaks when it’s quiet: 10-ish, 2-ish and 6-ish, if previous experience is an indicator. It allows Jay to not be here and at the airport, Chrissie to drive north to see her family. Joseph’s Christmas gifts to his colleagues covers their arses.

Ruben’s waiting, night shift about to take their one day off this week. He’ll go eat Christmas Meatloaf with his mum across town: Joseph’s bought them some Jim Beam, as requested. The kid’s still too young to be as good as he is, deserves a better gig than the middle of nowhere. It’s easier not to think about being nearly a decade older than a stick-thin, tattoo-covered boy. He’s the closest thing to a decent friend Joseph possesses in this town, mirror to his own ambitions and failures. Maybe one day they will get the cash to open a restaurant together.

This year, the boy’s made him a gift, and it’s a genuine surprise. The notebook’s full of recipes they’ve created together, cuttings from the press… printouts of their growing online fan base’s support and encouragement. The T&C Diner is edging ever closer to greatness, success. There’s that familiar ache too as he walks away, out the back exit, into falling snow. How do you tell someone that you want to be more than friends? How do relationships work, exactly… Joseph requires a Christmas Miracle, probably several bottles of Jim Beam to make it happen.

That can be tonight’s thought before sleep: right now the diner’s beginning to fill. Andy’s out front, all hands and teeth as usual taking Trudii Richards’ order. Will she stick to tradition, bacon and egg hash on brown or will their special Festive Menu alter creature of habit? He catches older woman’s eye, pulls out his best kilowatt smile and knows she’ll drop everything for turkey bacon with sage and onion biscuits. Today started special, will only get better if he believes the hype everyone else seems increasingly willing to generate on his behalf.

That’s how the day goes too: smiles as connection, fuel for preparation. Elise and May Ann’s voices, harmonising through Christmas songs that sound fresh, joyous in the throats of young women. Customers tipping far more than is sensible when everyone’s cloth is cut to the bone. The serving window slowly begins to fill, gifts from hardcore clientele who know him only too well: hand-knitted jumpers and socks, chutneys and preserves plus a couple of bottles of decent red wine. Rhonda’s kids made him multicoloured Christmas cookies, each one hand decorated.

It’s already lunchtime and suddenly there’s real singing to replace Joseph’s battered Christmas CD: the local band made good are back home for their holidays. Hearing he’s serving Turkey Meatloaf and Cornbread the Diner’s broadcasting live via phone to fans as they eat then play. These guys will be opening for the electronic duo Joseph’s followed since his teens next March, 60 date US and European tour. If that’s not the definition of success, it’s hard to know what is. Yet here they are selling his praises without the need to ask, enjoying Christmas Eve.

Within an hour, there are dozens of people at the Diner. Joseph excels at improvisation: main meals evolve into snacks. Plates are piled with finger-food, Andy drafted in as extra help in preparation. Without needing to make a call Rhonda appears, plastic boxes laden with treats.

‘Boy, I KNEW you’d want my help without getting the call: don’t you worry, Momma R’s gonna make sure all these people are happy before they pay for our hard work…’

If Joseph didn’t already grasp he needs Rhonda on board making sweet dessert magic full time, this was the sign.

That afternoon he teaches the band to sling hash. May Ann’s brother and Elise’s aunt come help out too, more than enough cash to pay them full rate at day’s end. As sun goes down the band pack up to leave, yet diner’s at capacity. Only then does Joseph realise he’s being watched. The guy with Santa’s beard, in red shirt and black trousers, at the back by the jukebox, single table that’s reserved for locals who struggle paying. He’s been there, off and on, across the last few weeks; never saying much but always grateful. Today however, he looks different.

Joseph knows he’s unable to afford palliative care, lucky to have made it to Christmas at all. Over the last few months he’s struggled but refused any assistance. Weighing a fraction of what he was, huge frame is no longer tense, uncomfortable. This old man is finally at peace. Rhonda’s asking about wine glasses, dessert options: distraction pulls him away pointing, sudden concern: when he turns back the man’s gone. Instead, on his chair, there’s a bag. Red suitcase sits, distinctly out of place; Elise retrieves it, carrying carefully to kitchen door.

There’s heaviness in his heart, sudden realisation what symbolism means: Santa won’t be coming back. This is his last delivery, walking away from the Diner one final time, into the snow. They’d talked about it, he’d tried to change the old man’s mind. No dice, son. I’m through. Joseph had promised: when the time came, no fuss or bother. The things in that suitcase were his now, gift from one man to another. He’d let him go, and not call the cops, because there were things he’d done that would make life difficult this late in the game. Accept this gift.


Then, you let me go.

He’s always been a good boy. Looked after his momma well after I was long gone, plus when this broken body’s just dust and memory he’ll finally understand why it was the fool could never stay. Maybe I should have told the truth. Maybe. It’s better this way. By the time things work out, I’ll be a memory, like it was all those times before. It was his momma who got mad, never him. That boy always understood what it was to be different. He’s the man I could never become.

I’m proud of chef who remains steadfast, always true to his own self, producing baby back ribs so tender Angels themselves will openly weep when tasting his special barbecue sauce: never overly sweet, exactly spicy enough.

I’ll miss them both in God’s eternal embrace.

Bye, son.


The suitcase remains unopened, propping open back door until last customer left her booth. Joseph could open it here but is compelled to do the deed away from staff. It’s surprisingly heavy, carried up stairs to apartment above his workplace, laid on kitchen table with care. The man thinks of dad, dumb enough to believe son had no idea who he was, that he’d just let the guy spend last days alone with terminal illness. The woman who’s looking after him right now’s being paid for thanks to medical insurance, so she’ll call him later with an update.

One moment represents an entire life, livelihood kept and nurtured away from him growing up. Except Joseph remembers this case brand new: open on the couch one Christmas Eve, decades past. Dad’s saxophone, propped beside: a musician was always on the road. His house, another gig. He may have singularly failed as a father, but Moses as a musician had played with countless greats across the decades: saxophone solos littered within the spectrum of modern music. If there were memories of those times within this case, Joseph would find means to preserve them.

It takes longer than expected to open: both locks are stiff, one initially refusing to open. Frightened contents might be damaged if entry’s forced, Joseph is slow, cautious.

Finally successful –

the case is stuffed full to capacity, countless neat stacks of used $100 bills…