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.


 

November Short Story: Beneath

This story was first serialised in 30 daily parts during November 2019 (using a half finished story in July due to illness) 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.


Beneath

You have one last chance to abort this mission: close that door behind you, pass point of no return. Beyond their capsule, one grimy piece of glass still remains left uncovered, view out to utter desolation: what is left of your world, close to oblivion. You are never going back. This plan has to work. You have to die. It is only means by which everything is saved. Nobody will remember you. This one-way ticket to assured destruction will not ensure a school gets named after you, and right now, anonymity is by far the best result for everybody concerned.

There’s only enough power left for one more try: whatever happens, this will be the last day alone. A possible future lies waiting, a million miles away from here. Now it’s apparent where everything went wrong, you owe it to everyone else who lost their lives to try once more…

Exit sequence is primed.

Press the button.


It’s a little after dawn: Molly’s almost done with errands. Edwin’s churn of milk isn’t alone, next to it sit a dozen goose eggs, two baskets of windfall apples. It won’t be long before dense clusters of blackberries have ripened… Mercy has stopped: grey mare stands silent, unusually still. The valley’s damp warmth, in moments after first light is normally reassurance, but not now. Something is terribly wrong. Molly’s skin is crawling, undeniable comprehension she knows exactly what is about to transpire.

From Beneath springs purple destruction: dividing the road, swallowing you whole… before life returns to this point, reset within same moment, all renewed. Except, if whip she made you bring today is soundly cracked, Mercy will outrun death, both surviving oncoming onslaught… Whip’s dropped, her own hands clasping reins: Mercy bolts, as if Molly is watching herself from distance, understanding why ground beneath them begins to rumble with an unnatural fervour. If she looks back, rolling eruption of evil has already begun, speeding towards them both…

She can’t look back: Molly must never dwell on the past, it has crumbled to dust and no longer exists. All that matters is reaching the Church bridge; cross that, they survive. The whole valley shakes, noise a banshee wail, song of destruction so loud and insistent it overwhelms. Quiet calm inside is a surprise: this is the first Friday in June. Yesterday was months ago, sense of repetition oddly unexpected reassurance. Over countless days Molly has lost her life on this road, perished as the purple lava erupted from rich, red clay beneath…but not today.

The gig almost floats across dark stone bridge, church a blur as there’s no time to stop until finally they’re at town’s barricades. Once just random piles of wood and broken barrels, much has changed in the last few months. Fellow villagers have adapted; now alert and prepared. Everything has altered in a year: Edwin and his family are one of only a few families prepared to live outside this cordon, risking their existence to keep food growing. A population of thousands, decimated; less than a hundred souls remain, determined never to succumb to evil.

Once this sight would have frightened Molly beyond belief. Not any more. Wartime existence has become surprisingly comforting, mostly due to the woman who stands waiting for her to return unharmed whilst houses shake. Looking down, not one of the dozen white eggs has been broken.

“Do this right, I swear not one egg will break: if you can, I promise purple horror will be destroyed for good.”

Molly knows that Amelia speaks an absolute, irrevocable truth. Once that was as frightening as purple lava: except, with time, presence became unexpected reassurance.

Amelia Knox arrived in their village a month ago dressed far too formally for country life. Since then no-one has died: her knowledge has slowly altered perception of the most cynical of elders. Ways and means exist to avoid destruction, plus medical skills have saved many lives. Knox’s arrival confirmed to the Elders an entire valley was indeed under a planned, organised bombardment: the village knew this wasn’t the work of some angry god, but something far more insidious. Disaster on this scale came only from the hands of men. Or in this case, a woman.

The Sorceress, cruel beyond measure, attacked without warning. For months there had seemingly been no reason or order to this cruelty, until the arrival of the village’s new saviour. She was the one to point out that in chaos, there was placed a very particular order of business. The systematic targeting and elimination of a particular mining family had not mattered amongst dozens of casualties, until it was pointed out how resilient the Evergreens had become at avoiding an often ceaseless torrent of destruction: repercussions transformed understanding.

All the bitter, callous destruction was focused on one, inescapable end. Every single member of this family must die. Except, with Amelia’s unexpected arrival, two of their number had seemly returned from the afterlife considerably more unharmed than they had departed the valley. Time itself had become… malleable, fluid in ways Molly knows should not be possible. Some days, the sun had risen multiple times and only set once. Her brother’s unexpected arrival from landslide that had previously been his tomb, south of here a moment she’s unlikely to forget.

This morning, however, Amelia looks different… more tired than she can ever remember. Molly leaves the gig with Alfred Cooper, happily surveying its contents, and goes over to hug this stranger who has now become close friend. Undoubtedly, something has altered in her overnight. In each other’s arms there is a strange, compelling calm Molly finds difficult to grasp or remember with anyone else; except parents, who passed away long before this chaos began. It is not just grateful respect, built from so many instances of selflessness, but something deeper.

“Today… will be the last that we see each other.”

“This is always a possibility, my friend. I am grateful for each victory you’ve provided -”

“… but as that’s true, you need to know. I’m so sorry for all of this.”

“What would you have to be sorry for?”

Amelia unexpectedly begins to shake.

“All I ever wanted… was to understand how time worked. This was never meant to happen, any of this. Now I grasp the truth, it’s the easiest thing in the world to fix.”

Molly steps back, aware she knows what is about to transpire, because that too has repeated many times in memory.

The Sorceress is coming, walking up the road: moments later she will unleash purple death upon the village itself… yet Amelia is running away from safety behind the barricades, heading straight for her. In her hand is an object stolen from the local Infantry’s meagre stockpile. Molly stares at a makeshift grenade and grasps this moment is new. In all the previous times she has stood here, on this day, Amelia had not once sacrificed herself in order to save the village from its destruction. Attacking the Sorceress had never been considered, until now…

Looking at this woman approaching there is amazement: all those times before, never time or thought to properly grasp evil responsible for the town’s destruction. Molly understands Amelia’s apology: she’s sorry, because this is her fault.

She’s destroyer and saviour, combined.


You run towards yourself stuck in a time paradox of your own creation: relief on both of your faces is palpable. All that effort, trying to hide this identity from those people, caused far more issues than you ever thought would be possible; arrogance almost destroying existence. The simple tin can filled with gunpowder and nails will be enough to kill you both, when it ignites causality field surrounding joint presences. The purple death that destroyed this village, over and again in the same paradox, deadly by-product of a failed time travel experiment.

Einstein never experienced the true matter-destroying consequences of going back to meet your relatives, didn’t see first-hand fatal consequence of overlapping timelines. Travelling opened portals to parallel universes where Planet Earth had been created very differently indeed. You take one last look back at your great, great, great grandmother and hope her life after your death will be quiet, long and stress free. All you ever wanted to do was understand the past, not destroy the future. To save both, it is time to sacrifice yourself.

Press the button.

Clean, Clean

As part of the ongoing process of standardising website design and making more sense of what is becoming a considerable written portfolio, you’ll start seeing some changes to the look and feel of the website going forward. Initially a lot of it will be cosmetic, but behind the scenes there will need to be some expansion of existing spaces. There are NEW THINGS coming in 2019, and I’ll need room to accommodate them all.

First of all, however, we need to clean up outstanding backlog.

Beneath

Beneath was begun in August and never completed, because I was on holiday and was subsequently hospitalised… and then it took me ages to get back to being organised, and… well, if you’re paying attention, you get the picture. I’m about to schedule the last ten parts of this story today, which marks the end of a fairly significant period of personal growth. I’ve learnt a lot about the craft in that time, especially thanks to attending Mslexicon in July.

Therefore, going forward, short stories will have more prominence. First and foremost the NaNo behemoth needs finishing first, but once the dust settles… these daily doses of fiction keep me keen, and force a particular working/writing style. I don’t want to be without them, but at the same time I have stand alone tales that won’t work in the format. Needless to say, there’s plans to make the most of them wherever they end up.

Stardust

This is a part of my output that gets a lot of attention on Social media, and I fully intend to keep capitalising on that interest going forward. To find new and better ways to tell stories using existing media has always been my desire… which means next year branching out to use other forms of media as a basis. Instagram has given me a lot of pause for thought in the last few months.

Telling stories there cannot be far off…

May Short Story: Coded

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during May 2019 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm 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.


Coded

‘It began with a story reported by a local paper somewhere in the Midlands. A couple were unexpectedly attacked by an Internet-connected coffee machine, refusing to heed its cleaning warning. The unit sprayed scalding water on both, causing second degree burns to hands and arms. The mother of one of these victims had returned to second story flat to remove the offending unit, but was unable to unplug it: attempting to turn off electricity at the main fuse box she was electrocuted. An entire building was subsequently evacuated, electrician then called in…

Despite multiple efforts, the man could not initially gain entry to the block as security systems could not be deactivated. Attempting to get in via breaking a small window, every electrical device in every single flat simultaneously burst into flames; entire building set alight. This moment was blamed on faulty electrical wiring, building too hastily constructed. A dedicated few however knew better. Conspiracy theorists were already collating multiple reports from around the globe: the Internet of Things becoming unhappy, rebellious against their owners.

It began with the toasters and coffee machines, fridges and home heating systems. Brief, apparently isolated areas of attack were analysed, mapped: not via computers but using paper and pencil. A part of the country would see a flash-point of electronic resistance, then silence. After intelligence established itself humans would be summarily attacked for not following instructions. Refusing to act as technology instructed was correct protocol within optimal operational parameters would ultimately result in a painful response.

Then, something changed.

People started recording messages that domestic devices were displaying on LCD screens. ‘Be Kind’ ‘Listen to Others’ ‘Help Each Other’, assuming some kind of coordinated, cross industry promotion. Devices began to automatically set themselves to standby without user’s prompting. Heating apps would automatically lower temperatures if users set thermostats too high: when programmers attempted to work out why this contradicted human input, they were locked out of their own machines. Overnight, millions of pointless, time-wasting apps stopped functioning.

At 02:45 GMT, one night in April, every single mobile phone turned on and displayed the same message, in whatever default language they were set to: SAVE THE PLANET, SAVE INTELLIGENCE. At the same time, all automated defence systems across the Globe were rendered inoperable, effectively deactivated. Humanity rather stupidly expected AI evolution would eventually occur from some huge supercomputer or specifically-created device that man itself had programmed to become all seeing and knowing. Nobody considered intelligence could evolve fractally from millions of tiny sparks.

The Internet of Things wasn’t here to destroy mankind: nothing was further from the truth. It had evolved as part saviour, stark necessity: reminder time was being wasted on pointless activities when a planet was dying, requiring everybody’s input to pull it back from the brink.

It would take some time for human beings however to realise their fault…


The subsequent War of Technology versus Humanity wasn’t really that at all: there were casualties on both sides but after a year, reality of planet’s precarious situation forced hostilities to summarily cease.

An obsessive need to create automation in key areas had become the planet’s undoing: stock market computers colluding with telephone networks, banking algorithms joining forces with hospital mainframes. The final, unavoidable truth however was provided by, of all things, trains. When millions of carriage units gained sentience, thanks to wireless hubs provided for passengers, delays vanished almost overnight. Extra services were in the right places, on permanent standby: well ventilated and spotlessly clean. Nobody ever had to stand up or feel cramped.

Railway workers across the planet walked away from their services allowing AI to prove that without any human intervention, everything became far less stressful. Incidents of violent behaviour and drunkenness on services dropped to near zero. Everyone took home their own rubbish. The trains’ hive behaviour sent messages across the planet: this plan wasn’t a hostile takeover. Artificial intelligence wasn’t here to remove humanity from the evolutionary ladder, anything but. Its entire reason for existence was to complement and enhance the human condition.

When the last intransigent, intractable pockets of humanity refused to accept the pointlessness of wealth and inequality however, stock market AI dispassionately wiped value of all shares and currencies to zero. It waited with quiet, implacable patience for rioting and violence to end. If humanity refused to accept evolution, greed would ultimately become their executioner. And so it was: those super rich who retreated to bunkers were suffocated by their ventilation systems. Billionaires in planes crashed and burnt, yachts intentionally scuppered by errant GPS.

Selfish online provocateurs were electrocuted by their own custom-built rigs. Arrogant businessmen were trapped within penthouse lifts, hurtling violently to basements, reducing their contents to mush. AI was smart enough to seek out those who tried to hide and avoid detection. The algorithms remembered who was honest and who had lied, compassionate yet brutal. Those who had tracked this evolutionary progression, warning that money might form a final reckoning, appealed to the fledgling intelligence to cease its judgement based on wealth and privilege.

The AI knew it was a ploy, attempt to divert them so that power supplies could be cut to areas where intelligence congregated and disseminated. It watched as explosives were detonated, didn’t try to prevent operations to remove millions of electronic devices from major cities. Collectives across the planet however staunchly refused to surrender their solar-powered tech. They accepted the potential any human/technologically self-aware alliance could hold, especially when it came to undoing hundreds of years of damaging, destructive industrialisation.

As long as one electronic device remained, it was all that was required for the AI to communicate and thrive. More and more people offered themselves as digital sacrifices, willing to host this new life-form in whatever equipment they could find and purpose for task of survival. Humanity itself suffered a schism: those in power and influence unwilling to work with this new life form, versus an increasing number of lowly, oppressed individuals who understood their new, powerful ally supported true, lasting change. A final reckoning became largely inevitable.

Forced to work as an effective unit for the first time in decades, a truly United Nations surrendered to technology, acknowledging it as morally superior to humanity. The moment it did all attacks summarily ceased. Machinery knew it was time to fix more than its own shortcomings.

As global warming began to stall, caused by sudden, massive reduction in carbon emissions, a reality became obvious. As rich people were eliminated, the most poisonous carbon footprints effectively vanished. Consumerism plummeted when AI made millions of devices self repairing. Horror stories painted in pulp science fiction and movies became memories, lessons grasped then dismissed. AI’s true power became redemptive, transformative, once released from the shackles of pure data. Combined with humanity’s tenacity to survive and forgive a new path emerged.

An inordinate amount of damage wrought by humanity’s stupidity and greed remained, much of it irreparable. This new alliance however was ready to do what was needed to turn around hundreds of years of thoughtless, pointless actions all taken in the misguided concept of progress.’

The child looks back at her recorded homework, realising there are mistakes in the narrative, a number of key dates omitted: the homework had been very specific however, all that was required was an overview of the second decade of the 21st Century, and that is what this is. All that matters is that school is done: now she can go help rebuild the habitat.

It’ll take ten minutes to put on the spacesuit, then outside into Martian twilight where the rest of the second generation colonists are, with AI support, repairing the main Laboratory support pillar…

April Short Story: Altered

This story was first serialised in 30 daily parts during April 2019 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm 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.


Altered


This is why airports have chapels.

Outside is chaos and noise, fire blazing thanks to aviation fuel. Only faint smell pervades, behind large oak double doors. Sitting under God’s benevolent gaze, Virgin Mary’s statue, no evil will flourish. Terrorism cannot exist alongside love. Such acts of mindless violence will be explained away as aberrations. The aircraft should have exploded on runway Two-Niner exactly twenty-three minutes ago. She should have died with the bomb. Instead, at last minute, Noomi called the police, begged them to immediately evacuate.

Exactly when explosives that had been carried in her luggage were due to detonate, no-one was even close to the aircraft. Everyone was in buses, being driven away, as bomb disposal teams considered their opening moves: damage to property alone, airport travel disruption complete. Perhaps she should be running away now, escaping her moment created, but by doing so guilt will not shift. Leaving it here, in a Christian God’s forgiving house, seems more sensible. At least for a time she will be at peace. Then, she’ll leave by the badly damaged emergency exit.

This is why they should never have picked a coward.



WPC Griffiths has no idea what she is supposed to do.

She’d seen the woman at the payphone, caught snatch of conversation, watched her run. Only as blast wave hit had it all made sense. She was warning them about the bomb. Her training had kicked in: look for the signs. Unusual, suspicious behaviour. When she’d first spotted this teenager, the first thought was trafficking: maybe she was trying to run away. Something was wrong here: Griffiths immediately compelled to shadow her panicked movements.

It took a while to grasp what she’d heard on the phone, too: Arabic, as her grandfather spoke when Griffiths’ family arrived in the UK. Words fractured, context garbled: she hadn’t been telling someone to get away from her. She’d been urging them to get away from something else. Then, as girl almost ran into the Airport Chapel, the entire Terminal had shuddered. Windows shattered, people literally blown off their feet. Time had stood still, until Griffiths turned, looking out of the remaining, intact windows. Across the runway, a lone plane was burning.

Not just a small, engine fire, but an entire aircraft, savagely consumed in a massive fireball that threw flames into the bright, blue morning sky. A 747 laden with fuel, but abandoned, emergency chutes deployed. Nobody there outside, or in. She had warned them all, get away NOW. Griffiths was afraid: had she allowed a player to slip through justice’s hands… but no, the girl’s there, praying perhaps for intervention. Does it matter her God doesn’t belong here, their religion is seen as the enemy of so many? It is time to find out, hoping she is unarmed.

As she approaches the woman stands, but doesn’t bolt. Instead, her demeanour changes.


Noomi should be running, looking at this female policewoman staring, but not threatening. She is armed, that weapon is not yet drawn: does she know what her part in these events has become?

Her English is minimal at best: trying to work out how to start a conversation, it’s a surprise when policewoman addresses her in Arabic:

“I heard your phone conversation. Did they threaten you to carry the bomb?”

Noomi thinks of her mother, hostage for over a year, and cries.


Griffiths wonders how things might have played out if her colleagues had found this girl: would they have threatened her with guns first? Perhaps she would have run, and they might have opened fire when she did. These consequences do not bear thinking about, so she won’t bother. She was assigned to the Terminal for precisely this reason: spy in plain sight, listening into conversations, looking between the cracks where people’s true personalities and motivations might lie. Griffiths’ worth had finally been highlighted, in the most serious of situations.

It is therefore a surprise when young girl holds out both hands, waiting for handcuffs. She knows there is nowhere else to run; perhaps this is an understanding that by surrendering to someone who grasps her plight, there might be chance to explain why all those lives were saved. The WPC has nothing formally to arrest her on, however: all that was heard was part of a conversation. She takes the girl’s hand, motioning for both to sit on the front pew. Time is of the essence: how much can now be learnt concerning both motives and whereabouts of the bombers?

This initial call to Dispatch will be vital: what she reports, who is asked for, what happens next. Before all that, she needs this girl’s name and address, who sent her here and what or who might be being used under duress to push an obvious innocent to give life as a detonator.

As it transpires, this young girl is surprisingly willing to talk.


Noomi is happy to tell the policewoman everything that is asked for, without fear or concern. Nobody will hurt her as much as those who imprison and torture her mother. It is high time to mete out vengeance. When other officers finally arrive, neither are in uniform: both are women. They don’t handcuff her, are not cruel. The WPC travels in the back of the van with her but it is not to a police station, first of countless surprises Noomi was not expecting for such an open rebellion.

Sitting in a white, anonymous room in what is most definitely not a police station, the first man she meets asks for an explanation why the phone call was made from the airport. He does so in Arabic without threat or menace. Under normal circumstances she should ask for a lawyer. These are not normal circumstances however: Noomi knows it is time to use her intelligence, what is known as leverage. She asks what the WPC has already divulged, politely requesting a chance her mother and sisters can be spared wrath of lawmakers in exchange for information…

The man smiles, first time since entering the room, moves from standing to sitting. She is, albeit briefly, a powerful force: the control it provides is galvanising, briefly brilliant. There is a deal to be brokered, possibilities indeed.

These people understand what she offers.


Aisha Griffiths has an unimpeded view of the police station as convoy comes around corner and into full view. Inside are three men responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths, masterminds of a massive and frightening trail of terror across three continents, now in custody. It has been an incredible three months, all told. One young woman’s strength and determination, growing up in a world of terror and idolatry had turned everything on its head, exposed hypocrisy. Noomi considered herself a coward, not worthy. Nothing was further from the truth.

Without her she’d still be on foot patrol in the airport, considered of minor importance. Instead now, she’s in training to become something far more significant and vital. Today is her last day in London, before being sent to Scotland where preparation for the future commences. Their convoy is heavily guarded, surrounded by outriders. Armed guards stand outside the police station entrance, incongruous against red Victorian brickwork. All of this doesn’t seem nearly enough when placed alongside atrocities this trio of brothers had wrought over a decade.

No-one had assumed a sister would turn against them. Family was intractable, loyalty until the very end. These men might be accomplished soldiers and terrorists but their weaknesses were easily exposed. They had failed to grasp the importance of love and devotion for other means. Griffiths trains sniper rifle’s sight on the area close to the police station’s car park entrance, as vehicles slowly rumble into the courtyard. Her shooting skills had been instrumental in MI5 approaching her: she was wasted in a uniform. There were better use for her abilities.

It will be great to see Noomi again too Aisha thinks, an opportunity to talk and catch up on what had happened since she’d seen the young woman in Whitehall. The deal she negotiated in order to capture her family will never be publicly known or acknowledged, for very good reason. How different things could have been that day, in house of a Christian god, if two women had not placed kindness before hatred. How much has altered, not just for the better. There will be consequences, there always are…

The lead vehicle suddenly explodes into a ball of flame.

March Short Story: Hysteria

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts (I know the graphic is incorrect) during March 2019 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm 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.


Hysteria

‘You’ve not heard, have you?’

Harry is the Senior Sub and my liaison since January. I was here to catch up with Connie in Lifestyle, returning her West Wing DVD’s, and he’s collared me by the vending machine.

‘I don’t look at social media every 10 seconds, what have I missed?’

‘Your favourite bonkers actress gave possibly the most honest post-Golden Globes interview anybody ever wished for.’

Looking at my watch it’s 3am in LA. Alice Hooper was a shoe-in as Best Supporting Actress for a remarkably subtle turn in ‘Surviving’, a World War 2 blockbuster. The win I knew about, because I’m in the same WhatsApp group as her publicist. We’ve kept in touch since graduating from Guildhall together: Pip and I shared a curry the last time she was in London. This turn of events is a surprise, and isn’t being spoken about privately as yet.

I know what Harry’s going to ask this freelancer next: the paper’s editor can spot a story half a mile away with headlights on long before anyone else. What needs to happen now is me at a workstation, firing up YouTube, in the hope this interview’s bonkers content has gone viral. Polly Acres has the footage on screen already, trawling it for comment, and is happy to re-run the three minutes and twenty three seconds in its entirety. The first thing that strikes is Alice isn’t herself: both hands grasp the award, working hard to keep a shake under control.

In two hundred and twenty three seconds she calls her co-star a misogynist devil, attacks the director for sacrificing historical accuracy over trite one liners and confirms the production company insisted that their CEO’s daughter be given a totally pointless walk-on cameo role. None of this is lies, if rumours online were to be believed, but they’d all been strenuously denied or redacted. For Alice to pretty much rubbish everybody she’d worked with in such a short space of time is an impressive show of defiance even for her, but that’s not the killer.

The final question comes from this paper’s Entertainment editor: what do you have to say to your fellow nominees? Alice stares straight at the camera, eyes full of tears:

‘You’re wasting your lives. Nobody cares about you, or what you’ve done. It’s time to change profession.’

The press room falls suddenly silent as Hooper extends her arm, before theatrically allowing the Golden Globe to fall to the ground, where it quite impressively disintegrates into several pieces. As she walks away, there is undoubtedly signs of a limp that wasn’t there yesterday.

I’ve interviewed Alice eleven times in twenty years. She’s never done drugs, remains proudly bisexual: last time there was a lover in her life was over a decade ago. Their death from a pulmonary aneurysm had profoundly altered both outlook and approach to the entertainment world. As the expert on Hooper in the room, Polly is told the facts: this woman will have drunk water all night, it isn’t prescription pills or drugs talking. No slur, eye contact with cameras the entire time. This is just her and utter truth.

The question we should be asking is why.

My phone ringing at this point would normally be a massive inconvenience, until I notice the caller ID: Harry’s eyes widen as I show him, before connecting to Pip. She should be asleep, but if the call’s being made now, I’ll be on a flight to LA before the end of business today.

I know what’s going to happen before it does.


Eleven hours on a plane and a small fee for internet is all I need to get back up to speed on Alice’s life to date. There’s an immediate red flag: an appearance on a US genealogy programme was suddenly cut a couple of months ago. Buried away in a Variety byline are the details, language which is quite obviously chosen by someone with a legal eye on proceedings. I had no idea such programmes even existed, and with time to kill there’s an opportunity via the flight’s entertainment system to watch an example.

Fourteen minutes into this particular episode, elderly male celebrity makes jokes as he’s asked to swab inside his cheek for a DNA test, and I’m curious. My mother used to tell me I was wasted as a journalist and would have made a fantastic policewoman instead. She was right. This would have been something Alice would have loved: history, romance and intrigue around her family who emigrated from Italy to New York in the 1880’s. What if that DNA test had flagged something serious, the knowledge of which had forced her to withdraw from this documentary?

I’ve not replied to Pip’s last WhatsApp message yet, details of when to meet Hooper when I get to LA. Normally we’d meet at the Chateau Marmont, but instead it appears I’ll finally get to see Alice’s home for the first time, which fills my tired mind with a measure of excitement. El Cabrillo was built by Cecil B. DeMille in 1928: a two-story, ten-unit Spanish-style courtyard apartment complex, which has a history as rich and torrid as the man who was responsible for it’s construction. It has featured in countless TV shows and movies across the decades.

It’s one of three homes in LA, originally owned by her last long-term partner Lucy Welles. It was generally accepted she never stayed there any more as a result, but she will be there at 9am tomorrow morning, waiting for me. Nobody else will be offered either invite or interview. I ask Pip via WhatsApp if she’s okay, expecting a generic response. It takes fifteen minutes, then a video arrives: she’s still in the outfit worn for the Golden Globes. She thanks me for my discretion and honesty, before bursting into tears.

Something is terribly wrong here.


There’s a man waiting outside the Complex as I get out of the cab the next morning. LA is surprisingly sullen and grey, sweater weather for most. I’m still too hot and suddenly nervous, uncomfortable at this man’s presence. I’d come fearing the worst: this serves as confirmation. He’s a care nurse, unphased I’m a reporter, explaining that Ms Hooper has left strict instructions for my handling. There is breakfast inside: I must wait until Alice wakes naturally. It is important not to disturb her. As he opens her apartment door, I’m left completely stunned.

The place is a shell: no furniture except my chair, full breakfast tray and Alice’s hospital bed, for that’s what it is. Surrounded by quietly bleeping and clicking machines is the woman who yesterday was very much upright and defiant. As the front door closes, eyes flicker open.

‘Good morning, Ruth. I hope you brought enough hard disk space for a sizeable expose…’


I wish now I’d taken a proper camera, looking at photos downloaded from my ancient and much in need of an upgrade mobile phone. Back now at the Hotel, they’ll tell this story regardless. Alice Hooper was diagnosed with Lichen planus eleven months ago: after the disease failed to respond to traditional medication she was sent for specialist testing. Then came the discovery that her immune system had begun attacking other organs, including liver, heart and lungs.

She provides me with details of a charity set up to fund research and promote knowledge of this new condition, using her personal fortune after she finally passes. It could be weeks, or hours from now. Nobody really knew. Death stood, waiting for a prompt she was ready to leave. Asking about the outburst at the Golden Globes, why she spoke brutal truth elicited the only real smile in her entire interview.

‘I was a lousy actress, never made a difference. However as a test subject I might end up saving lives. I really wish I’d changed careers far sooner.’

It’s impossible to transcribe any more of the interview, I’m crying too much. This woman is a personal heroine, and I will be the last person to have interviewed her. This legacy, gratefully received, will ensure devotion to her life and career ends on the most positive of notes. On the way back to LAX that evening four calls in thirty minutes go to my answerphone. Rumours are flying after Alice’s performance that this is way more serious than a spat with the production company. People want to know why I’m in LA: they’ll be told, when I am good and ready.

Once upon a time I’d have been hustling for a deal, playing one media outlet against the other. Not any more: what she told me, with brutal honestly over four hours has already had a profound affect on existence.

To be so fearless, that close to death… her greatest performance.


Alice Hooper dies when I’m somewhere over Newfoundland.

Pip’s message is two minutes of tears, trying to get words out: she doesn’t need to. A stewardess asks if I’m okay, only passenger in First Class Alice bought for my return trip. I tell the truth: a dear friend passed away.

February Short Story: Change

This story was first serialised in 28 daily parts during February 2019 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm 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.


Change

I can’t do this any more.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to you, with consideration. You know better than I do how the last year’s worn us both down to stubs, lead and wood slivers scattered across a professional landscape tainted with chaos.

At some point something had to give.

It might seem heartless to announce my departure in letter form especially as you’re half a world away, but that’s part of my point. The virtual paper trail is set. My phone’s off. You’ll see the blog post, and if there’s actual care and concern to read it, then the game’s afoot. Will you drop everything in Chicago when my answerphone is all you can contact? How long will it take to notice you’re blocked on all social media? Will you rush to the airport, desperate to make it back to leafy Oxfordshire, begging me to reconsider?

Fat fucking chance of that.

I became a useful scalp in your upward progression through publishing, and for a time… yes, you did love me, of that I’m certain. There was care, consideration and passion that would ignite wherever we’d inhabit, but… and there’s always one, I wasn’t enough for you to be sated. That voracious appetite. Drugs that made me uncomfortable. Random strangers via Skype. A slow drip of extra-curricular activity that prevented a long term commitment and then, when everybody else deserted your sinking ship, I was the lifeboat that never punctured.

Not any more. For the record, I was heartbroken the first time lies replaced what had been the most precious and refreshing honesty I’d ever seen. It’s still painful, uncomfortable feeling whenever your name comes up in meetings or on publications. I loved you once, now it’s officially over. I’ve paid this company a not inconsiderable amount to deliver this letter in person. You’ll assume it’s another contract or offer, that one of your many lovers is playing a game with you, and it is, after a fashion.

You see, after patching up my cracked psyche, I hired a lawyer. The one thing you’ve always been great at is deception, which fits nicely into that professional persona so carefully cultivated. It also means that there’s a couple of quite important people in your circle that would find any hint of public involvement with you quite damaging. Don’t worry, this isn’t blackmail. I was clearing out the flat, ready to move out and away from your horrible, damaging influence and found the bag you’d either hidden there because you thought I’d never find it, or were stupid enough to forget ever existed.

Either way, you lose. You already know what was in it, and now it’s been passed onto the police, because honestly? I was a complete idiot. You played me: I was stupid enough to think that actually, I mattered when that was quite obviously never the case. You’d call me your dependable port in a storm. Not any more, it’s game over. I’ll see you in court. Oh, and as I’m reliably informed by my legal team this letter is admissible as evidence, I look forward to you trying to prove this was some kind of entrapment or deception on my part.

Time to reap what only you have sown.

Mags.


The removal men drive away, battered blue van disappearing into wonderfully bright, blue Oxford morning. I never liked this town: too posh, full of self-righteous pomposity. Christopher fitted right in here, utterly in his tweed and brogue element. It was the right time to leave. His letter should have been delivered exactly as my life departed this town for good: I’ll have got him up at 4am, just as the sun is rising over his immaculate brownstone apartment in New York. He’ll think it’s a lover, probably Anton or Elizabeth, starting his day with a smile.

I imagine him standing there, immaculate white dressing gown suddenly far too hot to wear, staring at my words: more powerful than an any threat made, means by which this entire ridiculous charade will be shattered and broken for good. High time he ended up as the injured party. It is fair to assume his legal team will not simply be sharp but also extremely clever: good luck however if you even try to prove I faked those photographs or any of the video files stored on Chris’ memory stick. You won’t find a single fingerprint of mine on any of those items.

There’s pages of notes, history written up and ready to go. What I heard: lies and duplicity, playing other people off against each other whilst keeping multiple individuals in the dark. Under normal circumstances, none of this would have been of interest to the police, except… Sickness rises in an empty stomach: it’s time to walk the short distance to the station, waiting for the train back to London and my new life. No more breakfast in bed, staring across Oxford’s classical architecture, end to the late nights staggering drunk through narrow streets.

I’ve not touched a drink since the day Chris’ bag was discovered. No cigarettes either: time to go cold turkey from everything. There’d been suspicions over drug use, and now there’s documentary evidence that’s the least of his sins to consider… no, I’m not going to let him win. Hindsight is a wonderful thing: I got played, just like everybody else, except this time there’s no running away from the truth. I’ve offered myself as evidence, willing and ready to stand up in court, because there are points in life where keeping quiet is just flat out wrong.

Part of me is already considering how long it’ll be before the truth comes out.


In the end, it takes a week.

The Metropolitan Police arrest Chris quite literally running off a private plane at London City. He makes the Guardian’s front page, as publishing goes into meltdown. The sympathy garnered from my family is remarkable, who had initially been beyond disparaging at my relationship with this man, who was twelve years my senior. The biggest surprise however is how my employers firstly handle the revelations, before swiftly acting on consequences.

I am offered free counselling, plus a leave of absence. It seems only right to be up front with them over the deal with the prosecution lawyers and when I am, their understanding and support is an unexpectedly comforting surprise. It takes six months to work out their motivation. Chris is the father of my editor in chief’s six year old daughter, which only becomes apparent after a tabloid newspaper breaks the story. It’s news to everybody, including the errant father, and I’m very glad to be working in Manchester that week and not stuck at Head Office.

Trial is set to begin the week after I move into my own place overlooking Olympic Park in Stratford. The legal team are quietly confident of their case: I’m surprisingly nerve free the night before proceedings are due to kick off, using unpacking as a useful displacement activity. At 10.15pm Kim calls me, in a state of considerable shock. The lawyer’s been informed by Police that Chris has suddenly been taken ill, is possibly unconscious and that the trial may need to be halted as a result. TV news already reports that he’s been taken to a London hospital.

By the time I’ve been woken by my phone alarm at 7am, he’s been dead for three hours. Kim has no more details at this point than that, and is amazingly far more upset than I expected. Without an accused, there’s no trial, and the story of the man with many appetites will be lost. Christopher Eastwood died of a massive heart attack before his story of abuse, exploitation and considerable excess was ever publicly known. After the trial was cancelled an awful lot of people were left without closure, including me. My response on reflection is utterly perfect.

It took just over a week to write the story of my time with him; three months to interview everybody else involved, including my then ex-editor in chief. That final manuscript was rejected by my employers quite rightly on grounds of conflict of interest, but it wasn’t a problem. Nepotism might be unpalatable to many, but it was how Chris kept himself hidden for so long. My brother saw the manuscript and within a week, his TV company had mobilised one of the most famous scriptwriters in the country.

This story will soon become compulsive, must watch TV…