Monday, 17 November 2008


Anna-Mix moved quickly, her carpet-bag pulled tightly against her hip. The carpet-bag was blue, and wriggled now and then. She clutched it at the top like an outsize purse in a single hand, even though it was large enough to fit a child inside. A string of yellowed fake-pearls rattled around her neck, and her dress, long and white, floated on the air around her.

She moved along old paths, fast paths, paths that weren't hidden from sight but somehow went unseen amongst other people. She crossed the park in eighteen seconds, leaving behind her joggers for whom the traverse took several minutes. There was a scent of bonfires in the air, and a crispness like an October morning in the north, and then Anna-Mix had stepped off one path and onto another and the park was gone, a fleeting memory of much space condensed into something intense. The new path wound by the river, lengthened by the presence of flowing water and unable to cross it. Anna-Mix quickened her pace, aware of something in the water that was just as aware of her. An old pact was being remembered, and a decision being taken about whether it was too old to be honoured.

Another moment of transition, another couple of seconds back where everyone was, where people could see her as clearly as she could see them, and then she was on yet a third path, one that threw tiny sparks up behind her wherever her feet trod. She glanced behind her now, every few seconds, scanning for a hunter. There would have to be one, because there always was. She would outrun the hunter because she had no choice.

Just for an instant the path wavered and faded and a busy road emerged from the background trying to instate itself and she felt her grip slip. Something twisted, and her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes stung with acrid tears and she almost reached for a hand that wasn't there, a suggestion of a friend who would stand her aside from the chase and hide her until the hunter had gone by. The siren of an ambulance wailed and she heard a voice shouting.

'For the good name of paediatrics you must die!' screeched a man nearby and she believed him.

The path faded. The sparks from her steps hung again in the air, tiny burning embers, emissaries of a hell long unseen, and the ambulance stayed its course, Anna-Mix frozen between its headlights.

The carpet-bag wriggled and Anna-Mix blinked. The path reappeared like an elastic band snapping back and the siren of the ambulance wailed away somewhere else. She turned, and looked behind her again, and although there was no-one watching, no-one waiting, she turned back to her path forwards and started to run.

In the Excess Cafe, Dax walked through the door, and looked over to the table where the writer sat, tasting the rage in the salt.

Thursday, 13 November 2008


The chickshaw was a rickshaw drawn by chickens. The little cabin was made of bone, harvested from one of the huge ocean mammals and hollowed and thinned until it was large enough to allow two people to sit comfortably inside it. This one had a long, thin horn rising from the roof, which meant it had come from some relative of the narwhal. It was yellowish, the colour of a nicotine addict's fingernails, and was nearly frictionless. It made it difficult to feel when you touched it; there was a hardness there, but no texture, nothing to report back to you about what you were trying to touch. Sitting in it was a little like floating.
A team of eight chickens pulled the chickshaw, paired up into a column four birds long. They were harnessed together like huskies, but had wooden stays to keep them in line and stop them veering off randomly into the crowds. The birds were large and black, with little yellow and red dots in their feathers, and burning red eyes that stared madly around them. When they started running they put their heads down and forward and you could see their wings shuffling around as though preparing for flight. They had spurs on their ankles that were covered with little leather hoods like the jesses that birds-of-prey wear; I'd heard that some of the teams were also fighting birds.
The chickshaw ran fast, almost scarily so given the size and density of the crowds that lined the streets and spilled out into the road. This was normal at this time of year; autumn was only in its first month and the evenings were quite light. Up in the sky the day-squid lingered well past its winter bedtime, its green-tinged tentacles lazily tasting the clouds as they formed around it and broke away. The crowds gathered at bars, long low buildings that were little more than a storage area for the drinks, a counter and some often broken stools, and a shutter to close up when the paying customers left. They gathered outside the public buildings, standing on the grass lawns but never treading on the flower beds, talking quietly, and constantly in motion as news gossiped its way from one end of a street to the other. The chickshaw hurtled past them, people's faces becoming pale blurs. I would see people drift aside as the chickshaw started on a new street, leaving enough room for it to get through, and if I leant out of the little cabin and peered behind me, they would be drifting back again, filling up the empty space.
The chickshaw halted outside the office, the chickens just suddenly stopping running and skidding to a halt. I clambered warily out of the cabin, having already discovered that the lack of friction meant that I could lose my balance and crash down amongst the chickens very easily. As I pulled my foot clear, the chickens had started running again before I'd put it down on the ground. The chickshaw disappeared around a corner with the click of claws striking stone and the rattle of a wooden axle underneath the cabin, and I looked up at the office of Dr. Monsanto.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Disco Midget

He swears that his parents ruined his life from the day he was born. He was named Aladdin, which he says he hates so much he won't change it. He insists that his parents use his full name when he talks to them, to remind them of what they saddled him with in life. We all call him Dink, although he's told me before when he's drunk that he longs to be called Cap'n Al.

He also claims, but less often and when there's only his friends around, that his mother deliberately stunted his growth. I've met his mother, and she seems to be a lovely, blameless woman with literary tastes, but she does smoke like she's preserving salmon. She smoked all through her pregnancy, and instead of craving coal and margarine she craved Glenfiddich and Grey Goose. I can see why he says that, but then I also know that his father used to put horse hormones in his food when he was a kid. I've not found a good time to tell him that.

We were away on business, stuck in a hotel in the middle of Leeds when I found out his secret. Dinner had been in the hotel restaurant and had been competently cooked, if slowly served. After dinner we'd gone back to our rooms, and arranged to meet for breakfast the next morning. I had finished checking email on my laptop and was minded to soak in the bath with a novel for an hour before bed when the brochure touting the hotel's features caught my eye, and I noticed that they had a little nightclub. What the hell, I thought, it wouldn't hurt to check it out.

I walked into a small room with a mirrored dancefloor, a silver disco-ball suspended in the dead centre of the ceiling, listening to the DJ playing something by Rush from the seventies. My foot was tapping, which I'd have stopped if there'd been anyone there to see me, but the room was empty. I wondered if I should get a drink from the bar and wait to see if anyone came along, or if I should just scarper before the DJ could get excited about having an audience.

Then the track ended, and the theme from Saturday Night Fever started, and something moved on the dancefloor, and I just caught the movement at the corner of my eye. I turned, and there was Dink, all four foot six of him, striking a pose on the dancefloor. He was wearing an off-white pant-suit with faded black trim and rhinestones that had lost some of their sparkle. The top was cut deep to the waist, revealing a pale, hairless, concave chest and a medallion the size of the palm of my hand. It swung and glittered in the light from the disco ball as he posed, and then he kicked off in time with the music, a miniature John Travolta strutting through the song. My mouth dropped open in surprise.

I came back to my senses before Dink came to his, so he never saw me. I scurried off the dance floor and over to the DJ booth and spent the night there, chatting to DJ Samantha Panther and watching Dink, the only dancer all night in the disco, cutting his moves on the mirrored dancefloor.

I put the pictures up on flickr the next morning from an anonymous account.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Travelogue IV: Subtle Wind

In Autumn we collect leaves as they fall from the trees. The subtle wind shakes the branches and the leaves rustle and jostle, and eventually fall. The susurration is like whispers in the room next door: barely audible and mysterious. I feel a stirring inside myself, and wonder if I am remembering what love is at last. Then another leaf, brown and gold, dances past me on an invisible breath of air and I am distracted, racing off to catch it before the wind abandons it and it falls to the ground.

I am not alone, but I am isolated; we all are. We pursue the leaves, each of us driven to find the one that bestows the gift of memory. The trees tower above, and let through beams of autumn sunlight sometimes, soft drizzle and chill mists at others. People join us regularly, and I resent them briefly. Then I forget who they are, and return to my pursuit of the leaves. I think people leave us too, having found their fragile map back to... wherever. There are always more leaves.

Another leave whisks past me, but this one has a touch of light about it, a barely visible trail of sparks. Something inside me screams at the sight of it, but I have reacted already and leapt to catch it. Everything slows down.

I hang in the air, my hand reaching for the leaf, my fingers closing around it as slowly as though we were all suspended in syrup. At the back of my mind a voice is screaming but it is faint and tinny, distorted by static, heard as though on a badly tuned radio. I finally realise it is screaming one word over and over again: STOP.

I am stood on the ground again, holding a dead autumn leaf in my hand, and I am cold. I shiver, and look around at this ancient, dreary forest, and remember coming here, following a woman with smouldering black eyes. I look around for her, but she is gone. For a moment I think I hear a giggle and the sound of feet crunching on leaves, and then it is gone. I am alone, and on my way home from work. I kick aside a drift of leaves, drop the one I am holding, and carry on through the forest to the road.

The road, it would seem, has been gone a long time. I stare out across a desolation of black, ruined soil, carved with trenches, scattered with coils of barbed wire and smell a scorched smell on the subtle wind. I wonder where I've been.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Mr. Bendix

Mr. Bendix sat in the antechamber, a small room with threadbare green carpet and unpleasant yellow wallpaper. There were two high-backed wooden chairs and a smell of anchovies that grew stronger or fainter depending on the day of the week. He sat stiffly, as straight as he could, and tried to ignore the ache in his calves where the steel bola had caught him. His pinstriped suit, smart and elegant first thing that morning, now looked tired and shabby. This annoyed him far more than his injuries, and he radiated a calm anger about him as he waited for the summons. Finally a section of wall squeaked and slid aside to reveal a narrow hole, and a reedy voice called out,
"Enter please, Mr. Bendix."

The room beyond the antechamber was a board-room in the traditional manner: a long polished wooden table ran the length of the room with leather chairs spaced equally along the sides. At Mr. Bendix's end of the table was a three-legged wooden stool; at the opposite end was a leather throne of a chair. There were windows in both long walls that opened onto the thin air above London, and provided views of the river, the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye. Behind the throne-like chair at the head of the table was a polished wooden sideboard, walnut thought Mr. Bendix. Glassware sat on top of it and sparkled in the weak winter sunlight.

"Sit, Mr. Bendix," said the thin woman sat at the head of the table. She was bald, and her head was so pale as to appear blue. Her arms were stick thin, and her dress, though undoubtedly expensive and tailored, seemed made for a woman twice her size. And that woman, thought Mr. Bendix, would still look anorexic. "Tell us where we stand," she said, her esses whistling through gaps in her teeth.

Mr. Bendix looked around the table at the eight other people seated there, four on each side. They all looked politely bored; most had notepads in front of them on which were ineffable doodles, but one had a laptop open and was tapping idly on the keyboard.
"Gentlemen of the board," he said, "I have activated Dax at your command, and briefed Lehar. I have every reason to believe that the rogue Anna-Mix will be neutralised in less than seven days."
"Why so sure?" said a man from the right-hand side of the table, not looking up from doodling on his notepad.
"Dax has made his kill in under three days every time we've used him," said Mr. Bendix. "I have added in some contingency time as Anna-Mix has advantages that others he's hunted has not."
"You mean she knows we're coming for her," said the thin woman.
"And she knows something of our systems," said Mr. Bendix. "Yes."
"There will need to be an embassy made now then," said the reedy voice, and it came from a older gentleman on the left-hand side of the table with grey hair and a pointed moustache. "We cannot risk a diplomatic incident at court."
Mr. Bendix shivered and then hated himself for it.
"Will she care?" said someone from the right side of the table, and though no-one spoke, everyone around the table looked at the speaker and the answer was clear.
"She may already know," said the thin woman, "but nonetheless we must present the matter at court in the approved manner. Anna-Mix has gone rogue, and it is our prerogative to handle that appropriately. This is not an incorrect response."
'I wonder if you believe that yourself?' thought Mr. Bendix. 'But then, you're not going to the court are you?'
"You will need to leave immediately," said the older man who'd brought this up. "Change into something suitable; I hear it's summertime at the court at the moment."
"How much longer will I be the ambassador to the court?" said Mr. Bendix, trying not to sound whiny. "I think we agreed that it would be a temporary posting."
"We'll review it when you return," said the thin woman. "For now, just go. It doesn't do to keep her waiting. You should know that."
Mr. Bendix walked out the chamber backwards, keeping the thin woman in his sight the whole time. He had no respect for her, and he certainly didn't trust her.

Outside the antechamber he leaned against the wall next to the doorway and listened while the door squeaked closed. Sometimes the board members spoke too soon.

"When will we tell him that if he stays away from the court for too long now he'll die?" said the reedy voice, but no-one answered until after the wall had closed up again.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Extreme Vegan

The black Delia contains a single recipe for vegans, and despite my devotion to the culinary arts, it's always made me wince a tiny little bit when I read it. It's the same kind of wince you see when people are told that lobsters are boiled alive (and appear to scream) in order to be cooked, only much harder to spot. Whereas I have no love for vegans, who appear to despise their lives and seek to make themselves miserable by depriving themselves of all flavour and taste, the recipe is a little extreme.

It does taste fantastic when it's cooked, however. And in the final reckoning, the end always justifies the means when you're cooking. Certainly when I'm cooking, anyway.

I reflected briefly on this as I took the third leek and forced it into the vegan, who was now unconscious and curled into the fetal position. This is what is referred to in the book as an Advanced recipe, which means that the chef will require greater-than-average upper body strength, mostly to subdue and tenderise the vegan prior to stuffing it. There are two stuffings; one a vegetable based one and the other a standard farce made from pork. After that it all gets a little more complicated, and the culinary code of conduct prohibits me discussing it further.

I'd not intended to cook vegan at all; for the assassination I'd been hired to carry out I'd intended to use a basic food poisoning using elements of the cutlery polish to ensure that I was above suspicion. In fact there were seven ounces of chrome and an ounce-and-a-half of thorium in my chef's kit that I'd been expecting to add to a veloute that I'd serve with a Blanquette de Volaille aux Champignons. When I arrived though, and was faced with a whey-faced steward with a crooked back, a hooked nose and a mealy-mouth who informed me only then that the banquet, to start in a mere five hours time, was to be vegan, I saw red. The same red I saw when I passed the first practical at Chef School.

The steward is in the pantry on a meat-hook, bleeding out, waiting to be made into an andouilette. The guest of honour, a speaker for the rights of carrots, is now dish of the day instead. It pains me that probably no-one will get to taste how good this dish actually is, as my new plan is to mould the dish around a hedgehog of carrot spears, which is turn will be set into a small lump of C4 with a radio-detonated fuse. There will be collateral damage, but the contract clearly states that the kill may be a little untidy if necessary.

There have to be limits in my profession, and vegetarianism is definitely a step too far.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Within Reason

Lehar dropped her handbag onto the overstuffed blue futon and kicked her shoes off. High heels weren't really appropriate for waitressing in a cafe, even the Excess Cafe, but at only five feet tall she appreciated the additional height they gave her. She looked around her studio flat as she unbuttoned her light grey summer jacket, and then dropped that onto the futon as well. She needed to tidy up a little. There were coats and handbags all over the futon, four pairs of high heels scattered on the carpet in front of it, and a stack of magazines next to it. In the kitchenette on the other side of the room there were dirty dishes piled high in the sink, an unwrapped loaf of bread on the breadboard, some ham left out on the counter and a dish of soft butter. The microwave door hung open and something orange was puddled inside it.

She had just started unbuttoning her blouse when the man in the pin-striped suit stepped out of the bathroom. He was taller than her, and handsome in the same way that her father was handsome. In his left hand he held a leather document wallet, and in his right hand he was holding her toothbrush. There was a look of disgust on his face.

"This was the cleanest thing I could find in your flat," he said, and limped across the room to the futon. She noticed that both trouser legs of his suit appeared to have been sliced into a little below the knee. "Don't you ever clean up, Lehar? You have two rooms, that's hardly a lot."
"It's my flat," she said quickly, and then mentally upbraided herself for sounding defensive. The besuited man reminded her of her father in more ways than one.
"Actually, since we pay the rent, it's our flat. I think we should make your tidying a condition of you living here, if only to protect our investment." He dropped the toothbrush onto the pile of shoes and sat down on the futon. He winced a little as he did.
"Is that why you're here?" she said. "You're checking up on me as my landlord?"
"No. I'm here to let you know that things are becoming... difficult. There may have to be changes."
"Go on." Lehar's eyes narrowed and she buttoned her blouse back up again, then went to the counter and started putting the food away.
"When did you last see Anna-Mix?"
"Last Tu--" she paused, and then stopped what she was doing and turned to face the besuited man. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I was going to say last Tuesday, but I know it was more recently than that. But I can't remember when."
"That's what I expected you to say," said the besuited man. "We've activated Dax, he'll be coming to the cafe in the next couple of days. You're to serve him whatever he orders."
"Ok," said Lehar. "That might be expensive, you know that."
"We do. That's been accounted for." He stood up, wincing again. "Clean up, Lehar. Things are not as they are supposed to be, and we all need to be ready to move fast."
He looked at the stack of magazines and smiled. "Still hiding research papers in the gossip rags, Lehar?" Then he left.

Lehar turned back to the counter and started tidying again, but she was distracted. She knew that she'd seen Anna-Mix only recently, but couldn't remember anything else, and she knew that Anna-Mix shouldn't be able to mess with her mind. She started humming a tune she remembered from growing up, and quietly worried.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Northern Dawn

Dax stopped walking and leaned back against the trunk of a nearby Sycamore. The trees ended a few feet further on, and beyond them was a grassy plain. A herd of zebras were grazing on the grass and hadn't noticed his stealthy approach. In one hand he held a stiletto, its blade four times longer than its handle and darkened so as not to reflect light and give him away. In the other hand he held a bola, three heavy balls connected by strong, thin lightweight cord that he'd use to bring a zebra down before moving in for the kill. His face was smooth and pale though, definitely not the face of an outdoorsman or hunter.

There was a soft crunch in the undergrowth off to his left, but he didn't react. A man came forward, crouching slightly. He was wearing a pin-striped business suit, italian leather shoes and clutching a document wallet in one hand. He looked uncomfortable.

"We have a task for you, Mr. Dax," said the besuited man. He offered the document wallet. On the grassy plain the zebras started looking around nervously at the sound of his voice. Dax sighed and slipped the stiletto into a sheath at his hip that ran down the side of his leg. He took the document wallet and opened it. There were two pieces of paper inside. One was a glossy photograph, and the other was a brief biography.

"This is Anna-Mix," said Dax holding the photograph up in front of the besuited man. "There has been a mistake."
"There is no mistake," said the besuited man. He was sweating, and there was a slight tremor in his voice. The zebras in the distance were starting to jostle each other as they prepared to flee.
"This bio is incomplete," said Dax, returning the photograph to the folder and looking at the other page. "There's no real history here, the last-known location is given as a city, not an address -- what are you expecting me to do with this?"
"We pay more when the information is somewhat, ah, constrained."
"I'm not taking this one."
"Mr. Dax," said the besuited man, his voice gaining steel from somewhere and scaring the zebras enough at last that they bolted, a black-and-white stampede across the plain. "There is no question of you not taking this, this is your job."
"What did she do?"
"She has gone rogue, Mr. Dax. She purloined one of our operatives who was monitoring her behaviour, which we were doing because she'd not checked in in three months. You will do your job, and you will see to it that we are not compromised."
"None of that is in here," said Dax. He frowned and checked the backs of both pieces of paper. "If I'm tracking down a rogue, then I need more information, not less. This maybe a game to you and your --" he paused, and managed to somehow spit "gentlemen", just missing an italian leather shoe, "but to me this is a matter of life and death. Even possibly mine."
"You have what we think you need to know."
"I'll need a contact then. Someone who thinks I need to know more."
"You'll meet him in the usual place. We've been keeping his salt refilled."
Dax sighed again, and stared at his feet for a few seconds. "The Excess Cafe," he said quietly. "It's strange what you can't leave behind you."
The besuited man turned away, and started picking a path back through the undergrowth. Dax waited for him to get about twenty-feet away, then whirled the bola around his head a couple of times and threw it. It span through the air and coiled tightly around the legs of the besuited man, bringing him down with a sharp cry.
"There are lions out here," said Dax, walking past him. "And the strings of the bola are coated with curare, so be careful about getting it on bare skin."

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


Rain pattered down as steady as a girlfriend who still thinks she's got an exclusive, making soft splattery noises on the leaves of the hot-house plants. There was a large hole in the glass ceiling that I'd made five minutes earlier when my grip on a gargoyle's tongue had slipped and I'd fallen. Luckily for me the compost pile had broken my fall. I'd pulled myself back to my feet, checked that I still had all my teeth, and limped over to the door. As I'd expected for a hothouse filled with rare tropical plants the door was locked; what I wasn't expecting was that the door was chained and padlocked shut. From the inside. The chains were shiny and new, and the padlock looked like no-one had tried to force it, so I reckoned that I ought to be discrete. I looked around for the key, and saw miles and miles of fleshy green leaves, tendrils as thick as my ex-wife's tonsils, and bright coloured flowers and blooms that gave me a brief flashblack to an afternoon in a psychiatrists office doing tests intended for a four-year old. I got paid handsomely for that by his parents. He's locked up in a maximum security mental hospital now.

I figured that the key was probably in with one of the plants so I picked up a gardening trowel and smashed a few more panels of glass near the door. I smashed a bit more than was strictly necessary, but I didn't want to risk cutting myself getting out. The owner of this little plant haven also bred Doberman Pinschers, and I didn't want to leave an obvious scent.

I paused there for a moment and sniffed. I smelled strongly of compost, which was either the compost I'd fallen into earlier, or an indication that my aftershave was past its expiry date again. I wish I were joking when I say that. Never buy aftershave from a Filipino with a pushy attitude and a hand-cart filled with rotting squid.

Outside the greenhouse it was wetter, as more of the rain could reach me, and darker. The sun was setting, and I realised that the greenhouse must have artificial lighting; it seemed like a lot of effort to go to just for some squelchy plants. I could understand it if they were papavera somnolens or cannibis sattiva, but the ones in there reminded me of old cheese and horse chestnuts. I looked off to my left, and sure enough, there was the hedge-maze, grown in the shape of a flutterby. It had taken me all of my skills of persuasion to find out what was at the heart of the maze, and that means all of my patience too.

I groped in the long pocket of my raincoat, the one that starts at mid-chest and descends to mid-knee and found the spray-gun of Agent Orange and the machete. I'm only good at puzzles that allow lateral thinking. I had a set of Quantifiers to find, and what lay at the heart of the maze was going to go a long way towards retrieving them.

Monday, 13 October 2008


Anna-Mix trembled and talked to herself in a quiet voice. She wore a long white dress like an old-fashioned night-gown, a string of yellowed fake-pearls around her neck, and carried a carpet bag. Sometimes she found things and put them in the carpet bag; no-one ever saw her take anything out of it. Two days ago she'd found a ripped blue dog collar and had put that in her bag, smiling hugely and showing her teeth. Now she was eyeing some soft lemons rolling in the gutter next to crisp autumn leaves and the fingers of her left hand were twitching spasmodically.

Across the street from where she was stood, her face almost hawk-like as she concentrated on her lemon-prize, was a small white Ka in which were sat two small white men: midgets. The driver was smoking a cigar from which greasy gray smoke rose, and the passenger was pointing a digi-cam at Anna-Mix. A little red light on the front of the digi-cam told anyone who cared that it was recording. The midgets had been following Anna-Mix for three days.

There was a moment when everyone seemed to pause: just for an instant no-one moved, the traffic waited for a light to change colour, a young girl to cross at the zebra crossing; people looked in shop windows and their attention was caught, or sunlight through the leaves of the trees in the park across the road from Anna-Mix sparkled brightly and hypnotically and enchanted them; the postman stopped kicking the dog just before his foot connected, and the elderly matron whose dog it was froze while she gathered all of her righteous indignation, normally saved for accusing people in church of backsliding. Just for an instant the local area seemed to exist in an inter-calary second, and somehow in that extra moment of time, that spare second that was unowned, unrecognised, Anna-Mix moved.

The traffic started again, people moved on unsure why they'd stopped, and the postman and matron started an argument that would end in nine months time in a still-birth of both child and marriage. And Anna-Mix plucked the midget from the passenger seat of the Ka and put him and his camera into her carpet bag.

Soft, rotting lemons rolled in the gutter with crisp autumn leaves that were waiting to crunch under someone's foot and there was a sensation of neglect, and then it was gone again. The midget driving the car looked round and saw no Anna-Mix, and then looked the other way and saw his passenger had disappeared. With a soft expletive spat out next to the cigar he started the Ka's engine and drove away.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

In Viridian

The angel looked through the bars of the Faraday cage that imprisoned it at the empty workshop. It was silent, though there was a slight static crackle surrounding it at all times, right on the edge of hearing, like an untuned television in a room somewhere else in the house. Tiny little arcs of electricity constantly wrapped themselves around its body. Normally they would be invisible, but the Faraday cage contained it and raised its potential to the point where the energy had to change form in order to dissipate. Left in the cage for long enough, the angel would effectively evaporate. When this was realised, and the comparison with Hawking radiation for black-holes drawn, there had been a proposal briefly to call them Hawking Angels. That had fallen flat however, and was nothing more than an embarrassing footnote in the minutes of many Physical Society meetings.

The angel flexed its wings yet again, testing once more the limits of motion, how well the cage contained it. Fully extended, an angel's wings were like the faintest tracery of magnetic fields in the air. They reached hundreds of feet into the air, and several tens of feet either side of the angel's gaunt, glowing body. They generated enough lift to carry the angel, and they generated electric currents in any conducting object they cut through. An angel could fly through a city as street level and not physically touch a single building, but the wind of its passage left static discharges and lethal currents wherever it blew. While angels walked our earth, people died in epidemic numbers.

The angel settled down again, seeming to wait. There was a soft fluorescence around its eyes that might have been tears, or might have been some natural angelic function. Even at rest it glowed slightly too brightly to look at. People had attempted to view them through smoked glasses and optics designed for watching solar eclipses, but this annoyed the angels and brought a rain of lightning down on those who so dared. Trapped in a Faraday cage, there was at last the chance to see what an angel really was.

In an adjacent room, a young lad with a confident swagger, a broad Essex accent, and a silver shell-suit grinned cheekily, and laid a sun-bed-tanned hand on the doorhandle that led to the room holding the Faraday cage that housed the angel. He had figured out how to trap it by accident, but now he intended to make a name for himself by studying it. His hand tightened on the door handle, and he pulled the door open.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Crimson Jimson Weed

The butler harrumphed behind me like a dyspeptic horse, and stopped pushing the bath-chair. I pretended not to hear him, rearranged the blanket over my legs a little, and refused to move the steering rod.

"I fear, Sir," said the butler in his deepest, most gravelly tones, "that if I continue pushing the chair at present, we will run straight into that knot of small children gathered by the bandstand."
"So?" I snapped, annoyed that he was paying enough attention to spot what I was up to. "They've been lined up like skittles..."
"Nonetheless, Sir," said the butler slowly, "there are members of Her Majesty's constabulary watching them. You can see them over there, Sir, in uniform. I suspect that they would take a dim view of such a happenstance."
I sighed, and pushed the steering rod to the left, aligning the front wheel of the chair with the cycle path, and the butler resumed pushing. We started off slowly at first, then gained a little speed as the butler overcame the chair's inertia.

The cyclists hated me for using their cycle path, but the butler adamantly refused to run down the less deserving members of society, and had threatened to leave my employ unless I stopped throwing lit cigarrettes at shell-suit clad scum while we were out. Irritating the cyclists seemed to be the only past-time he was willing to indulge me in.

As he grunted and panted behind me, I laid one hand on the customised controls (one of which would pogo a sharp stick in and out of the side of the bath-chair fast enough to catch in the spokes of a cyclist's wheel and retract while being hard to spot), and pulled a book from under the blanket spilling over my seat. I lazily opened it at random, not looking at the pages but scanning the area for cyclists and any small children the butler might have missed, and stabbed my finger down onto the page. Now I looked down to see what sentence I had struck:
"The head is somewhat broader than the rest of the body, and often assumes a spatulate form."
I frowned, wondering what kind of person had a spade-shaped head, and how that could possibly affect my future.
"Are you indulging yourself in bibliomancy again, Sir?" asked the butler, who disapproved of most of my hobbies.
"Faster!" I shouted, at my most imperious. If the butler had the breath to talk to me, then he wasn't pushing hard enough.
"Turn left," gasped the butler as the bath-chair gained speed. "We're headed for the ducking pond!"

I pulled on the steering rod, and we took the corner in the cycle path sharply, the butler being forced to run at an angle to the bath chair as he tried to follow the curve. To my utter delight, I saw his foot catch the walking stick of an elderly lady, flicking it out into the middle of the ducking pond. She stood there, wavering, not wanting to move without anything to lean on as the butler caught his gait again, and managed to get square behind the bath-chair.

The ducking pond, mostly covered with blue-green algae and festooned with rotting wooden warning signs, was used up until 1961 for testing for witches. In 1961 the witchfinder general for the area found so many witches, (it being the flower-power era) that he declared the whole town to be ungodly and called for the wrath of God to descend and cleanse it. Quite dramatically, as he stood there his eyes flashing fire, his fist aloft, he was struck three times by lightning and cooked to a well-done state before he hit the ground. I've been petitioning for the job of witchfinder general to be reinstated, but with little success so far.

As we carried on down the straight away I looked in the wing-mirror and saw that the butler had his head down and his shoulders thrust forward and was clearly concentrating on maintaining speed. Looking ahead, I saw a couple of park-keepers not paying much attention to the cycle path as they tried to carry too many tools over to their little shed. I adjusted the steering rod.

The butler looked up just too early for me, and stopped running, throwing himself backwards while holding onto the handles, braking the bath-chair very effectively. We stopped just two inches in front of the lead park-keeper, who looked up himself then, and startled, dropped a bag of fertiliser and a large, flat leaf-rake. The rake bounced towards the second park keeper, who leaped backwards to avoid it, and then turned towards me to see what had happened. The spade that he was carrying over his shoulder struck the nanny of my neighbour's hell-spawned children square in the face with a crunch I found very satisfying indeed.

I glanced back down at my book, and smiled, happy that the prediction had once again come true. The butler leaned forward and said in low tones, "I think, Sir, we should leave as soon as possible." When he leaned back, he had taken my book with him.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

When Doves Sigh

Dr. Septopus sat on a three-legged stool at a desk raised especially high so that he could fit five of his seven limbs under it. On the desk was a thick, leather-bound diary. Dr. Septopus was writing in it. One tentacle was holding a thick-barreled pen, and the other compulsively smoothed the left-hand page of the diary down. The words on that side were slightly smudged.
'The Council of Nastiness is meeting, but nothing is happening,' he wrote. 'I try so hard, but no matter who I invite to join us the meeting always ends up in an argument or a fight. My core members hate each other, and so must have agenda of their own for coming. At least half of the extra members I invited are dead, usually at the hands (and paws) of the core members. I despair of it all, I really do. I know the good guys don't have these problems. They seem to get it genetically, they see one another and instantly form a League, or a Division, or a Squad. There's even a Girl Scout Troup of Underage Superheroines. And I can't have one small Council of Nastiness!"
He sniffed, and clacked his beak-like nose sadly. "I wonder if I could defect to the good guys side? I used to think that no-one would believe I was a good guy -- I'm a deformed octopus for the love of Dagon! -- but if the Kalahari Kalamari can make it, then there's hope for me. And being the good guy is easy; it takes brains, planning and cash to organise a supercrime, but you just need a police scanner and maybe some ESP to be a superhero. Maybe that's all it takes. One last crime, to kidnap some orphans, breed ESP into them, then liquify their brains and inject it into my skull to obtain the superpower, and then it's 'Goodbye Dr. Septopus!' and 'Hello spider-Kitty!' I'll need an extra leg, but there's still those orphans..."

In the room below Dr. Septopus's, the Green Lightbulb was contemplating committing suicide. In his hands he held Silvestra's latest range of cosmetics, which he'd already exposed to his green radiation. The heavy metals contained in the cosmetics greatly magnified the effects of it, and the superpowers that had given him leukemia and would slowly kill him had made the cosmetics lethal for even him. His favourite go-go boy costume was laid out on the bed, the sequins glittering in the dim electric light, and his padded thong was tossed lazily on the back of his chair. If he put the costume on, and then the cosmetics, then it would look like Silvestra had murdered him. He giggled to himself, stroking the pouch that held the cosmetics, and wondered if he had the courage to go through with it this time.

The room below the Green Lightbulb's was rented out to a Mr. Giuseppe who was of medium height and build, had thinning orange hair and the steel mind of a homicidal accountant. On his desk was a calculator with the bare minimum of functionality -- the number buttons, addition, negation and multiplication symbols, and an equals button that glowed red. Next to it was a letter of extortion, addressed to Silvestra, regarding the location of her factory for producing her cosmetics. Silvestra, had she been there, would have cursed and launched into a diatribe that one of the problems of being a supervillain was having to hang out with other villains. "There may be honour among thieves," she would have said, "but there was no respect, and certainly no chance of not getting rolled at the first opportunity. Half of her overheads," she would have said, "were keeping other villains from revealing her location, her secret identities, and her actual taxable income. Life," she would have said, disemboweling the accountant, "was indescribably hard." Then she would have gone on to rant about the hardships of being female, and that would undoubtedly have segued into another pet hate, until the listener realised why no-one really wanted to work with her.

The accountant pushed the equals button, the Green Lightbulb put his costume on and added some more padding to the thong, and Dr. Septopus closed his diary.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Excess Cafe

Back before the downtime the building on the corner of Archer Street was the Excess Cafe. I remember that it was June, and it was hot on London's streets. It was hotter still in the Underground, and I was sincerely glad that I could walk over to the Excess Cafe without needing the Tube. I walked in, letting the door swing shut behind me, and laid my laptop on my usual table and dropped my bag on the floor behind my usual chair. Lehar, the waitress, looked up from the glossy gossip magazine she was reading -- from where I was the title looked like 'loser' -- and smiled quickly at me. As she bent her head over the pages of her magazine again, her black hair falling to conceal her face, she said,
"The rage is in the salt."

I felt relieved, I never knew if they'd have any rage for me when I turned up. I've been using it for the past couple of years to write. I write a fairly gory brand of fiction, in a couple of different genres. I do police procedurals with serial killers and mass murderers; horror stories where people get ripped apart and gruesomely killed; and M&B style romance novels where revenge is exacted with deadly certitude. The rage helps.

My usual table was two away from the glass window that fronted the cafe and let the street outside look in. I'd tried sitting at the window, and found that there was too much light for me to see the laptop screen well for most of the day; a little further in there was more shadow and I could still see out. The table itself was formica topped, hollow-steel-legged, and bolted to the floor. The chairs were all moulded plastic, and my usual chair was just the one facing the window and next to the wall. The seat had a couple of rough spots where someone had let hot cigarette ash fall and melt it.

Anna-Mix was in, sat over at the counter on a tall red plastic-seated stool, hunched over a white polystyrene cup of instant coffee, shivering slightly. Her lips moved silently, and her knuckles were a little white, so I let her be. I'd love Anna-Mix if she'd let anyone get close; I've written her into so many of my stories now that she's becoming a stock character. I've not told her though, because she's not heroine material, which means that her character always meets a messy end. I don't think she'd cope well finding out how many ways I've found to kill her.

Jeff was in as well, eating the Excess Club Sandwich. It's a slice of brown toast spread with mayo, then stacked with a fried egg, a couple of rashers of bacon, two slices of fried tomato, a potato waffle squashed flat, a slice of white toast spread with mustard, another fried egg, a sausage sliced down the middle, a splash of ketchup, a spoonful of baked beans and a last slice of brown toast spread with butter. Yellow yolk pooled on his plate, and his face was shiny with grease and gritty with toast crumbs. He had a couple of paper napkins on the table, and a takeaway cup of ground coffee. Jeff freelances as a town-planner, and is currently overseeing the construction of a Gaudi-inspired multi-storey parking lot. He's told me a couple of times he's hoping to reduce traffic volume in the city with it.

Dax was missing, but I was pretty certain he'd be here soon, as he knew I was looking for him. I sat down, uncapped the salt and tasted it, checking the rage, then flipped the laptop open and pressed the button to turn it on. While I waited for Dax I could find a way to kill the latest incarnation of Anna-Mix. This time she was a young single mother just finding her way into prostitution, walking through the streets of the council estate she called home. I looked over at Anna-Mix as she shuddered over her coffee and talked to herself in words that only she could hear, and saw immediately that my character would be run down by an ice-cream van driven by a vigilante paediatrician who'd been treating her daughter for Polio.

I began to type.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Blue Remora

The car screeched to a halt as the road ended at the lip of a grand canyon, whose gulf stretched away as far as the eye could see to the left and the right. The far side of the canyon was in the distance, slightly hazed by the mist rising up and out. The scarlet tyres seemed to sigh to themselves, and the radio, which had been playing static for the last eternity, turned itself off. June sat up. She had been lying in the back seat staring up into the sky, watching the day-squid lazily wriggle.

"Have we arrived?" she said, her voice slightly thick as though she'd been sleeping and suddenly woken.
"I think it's time you opened the satchel," said the beautiful stranger running her hand over her head. It was the gesture of a woman used to having long, thick hair, and not the crew-cut that she sported. As she finished speaking there was a soft, warm chime, resonant as a bell, and there was a breath of hot brass in the air. A ripple sped outwards from the beautiful stranger, passing through everything and touching nothing, a perfect circle of movement five feet above the ground.
"What was that?" she said, for the first time sounding unsure of herself.
"The ring of truth," said June dreamily. She picked the satchel up off the seat where she'd been lying on top of it. "You genuinely believe that it's time I opened the satchel." She rubbed at her throat with her free hand, massaging the bruises there; five medium sized ones.
"And does that mean it is time?"
"It does, but not because you said it. It has always been time to open the satchel when we reached this point."

High above them in a cornflower blue sky thin clouds wisped together and started to tangle the tentacles of the day-squid. Oblivious, June laid the satchel on her knee, and pulled the first of the clasps loose with a little snick. The day-squid, startled, squirted ink. The beautiful stranger looked up, and saw the black cloud spread out from between the day-squid's tentacles and start to fall from the sky. It was a thick black rain with an ammoniac smell and a rich, earthy taste that enhanced a dish of pasta. June snicked the second clasp free, and opened the satchel.

Everything seemed to blur, and for an instant the beautiful stranger was stood on a hot street, cracked pavement underfoot and enormous buildings towering around her. People scurried past wearing suits and carrying briefcases and pinstriped umbrellas, some banging into her and cursing her for just standing there. Traffic grumbled in a jam next to her, more lanes than she'd ever seen, or could contemplate wanting, waiting for arcane instructions from poles with lights atop them. High above her the sky was empty save for a glowing ball of light, no day-squid at all, and she knew terror. She wavered, feeling her knees go weak, and then it all receded again and she was sat behind the wheel of a high-powered car on the road to nowhere, just in front of a grand canyon. Behind her was the woman she'd been abusing, sitting with a satchel on her knees and a look of wonderment on her face.

"I never had holes in my memories," said June, possibly talking to the beautiful stranger. "I always had memories in my holes. I've been created so many times, and always for the same reason and in the same way. I've never been except when I've needed to be, and I shouldn't have any memories at all. But there's a resonance across all the dimensions, and every time I'm reformed, I resonate, and memories form that have no right to a continued existence. I've been so many people and to so many places, that the world itself records my presence and tells me about it when I come back again."
"So you were in the brothel then?"
"Yes, I was there to meet a woman."
"Where were you before that?"
"I was starting a war that would rage for over a hundred years so that I could meet a woman."
"The Americonfusion war? You started the Americonfusion war? How?"
"I smiled at the right man in the wrong place and let events take their course."
"Then what are you doing here?"
"Meeting a woman."

For the first time in a long time there wasn't an unnatural silence. There was the chirrup of crickets hiding in the grass and bushes, there was the vibrant whistles of birdsong from the trees, there was a dull tremble and roar of water from the waterfall in the grand canyon that was throwing up spray as mist, and there was the soft ticking of the cooling engine of the car.
"Sweet dreams are made of fish," said the beautiful stranger. "I hope you've come to take me away from it all, and not take me back to the city that never sleeps."
"I've come to take your soul, but some souls take longer than others."

Their hands reached towards each other's as slowly as glaciation, and the thick black rain falling from the sky started to strike the ground.

Friday, 25 July 2008


I live in a haunted house.

I quite enjoy it, if I'm honest. A lot of the aspects of the hauntings don't bother me very much. I never wake up to find ghostly people standing at the foot of my bed eyeing me suspiciously, and there are no especially cold spots in the house anywhere. I've never noticed the temperature drop while I'm watching TV, and the electronic equipment around my house functions perfectly well (if you keep my house-mate away from it, because she seems capable of developing a charge of static electricity even when she's standing perfectly still on an conducting surface). The ghosts tend to communicate through the fridge magnets, and even then they're a little oblique about the things they say. We regularly find messages warning us that food in the fridge is nearing it's expiry date, and I've had recipes before now as well (the sausage and mayonnaise casserole was... indescribable). One of the ghosts keeps trying to flirt with my housemate through the fridge magnets as well, but as it appears to only speak Swedish and she has trouble with long words, I don't think it's going anywhere so far.

The thing that tends to cause us most trouble is trying to explain the toilet roll to guests. One of the ghosts likes to write on it, so when you sit down, you'll find essays and calculations running along in blue biro. We think that the ghost somehow manages to write on the sheets without unwinding the roll, but I'm not completely sure: a couple of rolls ago I found eight sheets of it that seemed to be a study of the maximum tension you can put toilet paper under before it rips, and there's some stuff I didn't understand except for the word torque. Some guests think we do it ourselves (we don't; neither of us could stand to use a pen as crude as a biro. I hand-sharpen my own fountain-pen nibs and mix up my own inks from acorn-gall, and my house-mate uses japanese calligraphy brushes). Others think we purchase it printed like that and want to know where they can get hold of it. Occasionally they steal rolls when they've got particularly interesting stuff on (like the eye-witness account of a fire in 18th century Leeds).

The message on the fridge this morning though was unusual even by our standards. It was a call-to-arms for all the ghosts in the house. Granted there's only so much you can say in 128 luminous Fisher-Price magnetic letters, but it looks like we're about to become the battleground for a war of ghosts. I'm wondering what that's going to be like...

Monday, 21 July 2008


A beautiful stranger, a woman with crew-cut blonde hair and icy blue eyes, drove the open car along the highway; black asphalt disappearing beneath the scarlet tyres of the car. The car was utterly silent and shone like destruction; only the hiss of the wind of its passage made any noise. In the back seat June lay quietly, her hands and ankles bound with electrical flex, her skirt hiked up to mid thigh and new bruises flowering just above her knee. In her head, over and over, she could hear herself saying 'I want you, I want you.' Periodically the beautiful stranger would turn in her seat, lean over the back of it, and whisper,
'Something says Obsession,' to her.

The hiss of the wind changed subtly as the air around the car thickened like custard and the car began to slow. The highway, which had been a black snake through the desert around them, turned grey and the asphalt gave way to paving slabs. The desert itself surrendered to fecundity, and grass sprang up where previously there had been none. Trees emerged and threw out branches like drowning swimmers throwing up their arms. Leaves cascaded out and down, and somewhere in the distance was the glint of gold.

'Hold your head up,' said the beautiful stranger. 'They're crucifying an Elf tonight.' June lifted her head up, and the car surged back to life.
'Keep your head up,' said the stranger, 'we're moving on.'

The trees thickened into forest, and then silver shards of light darted through the trees and struck the chrome of the car. Brilliant hallucinations filled the air, and even the day-squid, high in the sky far above, was hard to see anymore. June's neck, aching now, relaxed and she let her head back down onto the seat. Again the air around the car thickened like custard, and it slowed down and stopped.

'Let's get out and walk a little,' said the beautiful stranger in her melodic voice, and she reached back and loosened the electrical flex. June sat up, rubbing her wrists and ankles, and eventually pulled the brown, soft-leather satchel from underneath her, gripped it carefully in the hand whose wrist felt strongest, and clambered from the car.
'Where are we going?' she said, her voice loud in the silence around them.
'To see the puddles,' said the beautiful stranger smiling. She lead the way, along a narrow path between the trees where no grass grew and roots were partially exposed. Shrubs and bushes pushed at the edges of the path, taking advantage of the trees retreating from it, but still suffering from a lack of real sunlight through the canopy overhead. Everything seemed tinged just a little with green, even the tiny white flowers on the smallest plants. The walked for a little under five minutes before the path ended at the edge of a large puddle, one big enough that June could have splashed almost all of the water out just by jumping into it.

There were lots of puddles here, spaced irregularly but distinctly, and it was the sunlight reflecting off the water that had thrown darts of light at the car earlier. June grinned, seeming ten years younger all of a sudden, and tensed her legs, ready to jump into the first of the puddles. The beautiful stranger grinned, exposing white teeth in what was very nearly a snarl, and laid a hand on June's arm, stilling her. June looked up, her eyes narrowing and her brow furrowing.

'There are puddlesharks,' said the beautiful stranger. 'Watch.' She put her hand into her pocket and pulled out a packet of shark-chum, vacuum sealed for extra freshness with the gaudy packaging in red and white and the flashy logo that screamed Now with extra pain!. She ripped across the top of the packet which tore with a shriek.

'There are monsters and there are angels,' said June quietly. The stranger reached into the packet of chum and pulled out a bloody lump of flesh, and tossed it casually into the air over one of the puddles. It hung there motionless for a second, long enough for June to see that it was a gobbet with long thin bloody tendrils that skirled around it like the only listenable bagpipe composition in the world and then the nearest puddle exploded into a kaleidoscope of rainbow droplets. Water expanded out like a bomb going off in a chandelier factory, and a shark easily 13 feet long arced through the air and seized the meat with a single snap of powerful jaws. It landed with horrible grace in the next puddle, sending up an additional spume of water, and then the water from the first puddle hit them both, drenching them to the skin and shocking June with its coldness.

'Puddlesharks,' she said flatly while the beautiful stranger shook herself as vigorously as an Alsatian.

'Every rose has its thorn, every cowboy sings his sad, sad song, and every puddle has its shark.'

They returned to the car, and June sat in the front seat next to the stranger, where it was easier to hold her head up and keep it up, and the beautiful stranger started the car again and soon they were moving on.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

The art of persuasion

I was sat up in bed listening to the butler having sex. I had been reading previously, but the noises coming from the downstairs study were proving too distracting for me to concentrate on my book, so I was now staring blankly at the page and wondering who he was having sex with. I suspected he was using the fireplace tools in whatever he was doing, and mentally resolved not to touch the poker again with an ungloved hand. He swore that regular sex improved the immune system, and had provided me with references from, but I simply couldn't be bothered to check them out. And I rather thought that all he was doing was exposing himself to as many disease-causing pathogens as possible, which didn't seem healthy to me.

The noises culminated in a crash and a high-pitched scream like someone getting rather a lot of poker somewhere private, and then subsided to heavy breathing and quiet whimpering. I looked at my book, closed it up, closed my eyes, then opened the book and stabbed my finger at random down on the page. Opening my eyes again, I saw what sentence I'd found:

'Then, when you look at these people, it will be to the accompaniment of your finely tuned imagination.'

That seemed a pretty apt way of describing how I'd next see the butler when he walked in; maybe there was more to this bibliomancy than meets the eye!

There was a gentle tap at my door, and I let the book fall into my lap and called out, 'Come in!' The door swung inwards, its hinges creaking like a door from a Hammer Horror movie. I have a man come in every month to get them to sound like that -- normally he tunes pianos, so this is something of a diversion for him. The butler limped in.

'The stable-lad is feeling a little unwell,' he said gravely, 'so I think it might be prudent to have him taken to the vet.'
I nodded, but said, 'Have the vet come here; you'll probably not want to move the stable-lad. Or perhaps, he'll not want to move very much.'
To my immense pleasure, the butler blushed red, muttered 'very good sir' under his breath, and shuffled backwards out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him.

Thursday, 17 July 2008


"They call him the Kalahari Kalamari," said Dr. Septopus, reading from the sheet of paper held in three of his seven limbs. "Also known as the Desert Squid and ugh! Yukky tentacles!"

"Really?" said Silvestra, running a hand through her hair. She had long white hair with a black stripe running down the back that she worried made her look like a rare kind of badger. "I thought people only gave nice names to the good guys?"

"Well," said Dr. Septopus, shaking his piece of paper in what he thought was a bureaucratic manner, "it would seem that he's something of a populist superhero."

"I think you mean popular superhero," said the Green Lightbulb. He was sat diametrically opposite Silvestra at the round table the three of them had gathered at, and glared at her whenever he thought she wasn't looking.

"No-o-o," said Dr. Septopus frowning at the paper, but refusing to pull his bifocals off his unusually large forehead and use them. "Definitely populist. It seems that he only shows up to crimes and villainy where he's sure of good media coverage. Out of 171 bank robberies in his part of India last month, he showed up to 9, and left one without doing anything because the audience had fewer than three people."

"Hmm," said Silvestra, who was well aware of the Green Lightbulb's distaste for her, and was quietly lengthening her legs under the table to be able to stamp on his webbed feet with her stiletto heels, "that would explain the soubriquets then."

"I think you mean soap-suds," said the Green Lantern pedantically, causing Dr. Septopus to raise his eyebrows so sharply his bifocals fell off his forehead and landed on his beak-like nose.

"Did we get you that subscription to the OED last Christmas?" said Dr. Septopus as casually as he could. "Only I think we thought you might enjoy it."

An embarrassed silence should have followed, but Silvestra stamped down on the Green Lightbulb's foot causing him to shriek like a leaking gasworks and turn a deeper shade of green.

"Anyway," said Dr. Septopus pretending none of this was happening, "he's rather venal for a superhero, definitely vain, and should be easy to vanquish. The three V's. This will be something of a publicity coup for us as well; the public always sees the good guys beating us, so it'll be nice to reverse that for a change. It's time the bad guys got the glory!"

"How do we do this then?" said Silvestra, trying (and failing) not to smirk at the Green Lightbulb. "I know we can set up a photogenic crime, that's utterly trivial. Then what do we do?"

"Well," said Dr. Septopus, "I'm torn between discrediting him as a superhero, and going all out to kill him. I'm a bit wary of killing him though, in case we get another Betty Botox on our hands."

"She's not dead!" said the Green Lightbulb in a slightly strangled voice. "She's just pregnant. You can't have a pregnant superhero -- what if they gave birth in the middle of the action? Audiences are all for blood and gore, but not when it's part of childbirth. You'll be PG-rated before you know it."

"Let's leave Betty out of this, and focus on the Kalahari Kalamari, shall we?" said Dr. Septopus before Silvestra could explode into another rant about the inequality suffered by female super-heros and -villains. "I think we should be able to discredit him easily enough by making sure we get away with the crime. And we know that we're cleverer than some Desert Squid."

"You'll want me to be the glamorous side-kick again, won't you?" said Silvestra in sepulchral tones. "You always want me to be the side-kick. I'm a talented villainess in my own right you know. I have a laboratory in Manhattan that's making brain-washing fashion accessories and my own army of zombie Avon-ladies, and all you want from me is big shoulder pads, big breasts, and a pout that'll hit the 6 o'clock headlines."

"We don't have a lot of people with your looks and charm..." started Dr. Septopus waving all seven limbs agitatedly and clacking his beak-like nose.

"The Green Lightbulb's pretty passable in drag," said Silvestra nastily. "I nearly didn't recognise him in Madame Jo-Jo's revue."

"I was undercover!" screamed the Green Lightbulb and leapt up from the table. He starting emitting bright flashes of green light and pointed angrily at Silvestra, who promptly folded the shadows around her and caused the temperature in the room to drop by 25 degrees Kelvin.

Dr. Septopus sighed and slithered under the table out of the way, and added a note to the minutes that yet another meeting of the Council of Nastiness had ended inconclusively. Then he settled down to wait for the survivors to sit back down.


Bibliomancy is the art of predicting the future using books. A simple method is to take down a book from the bookshelf, open it to a random page, put your finger down at random on the page, and read whatever sentence you've landed on. And that's your guide to the future. Some people swear by using the Bible for this, presumably hoping to be guided by the word of God; other people will point out that since the Bible prohibits witchcraft (but then, the Bible prohibits just about everything somewhere in its meanderings; and what reasonable person takes a 2000-year old prescription for living in the middle east seriously in modern-day Europe?) using it this way is probably blasphemous. Not that that stops the Bible-thumpers; they have circular logic to protect them from such paradoxes.

Of course, you have to close your eyes while opening the book and stabbing at the page with your finger, otherwise you're cheating, and may (perhaps subconsciously) pick a propitious sentence for yourself. This proved inauspicious for my great-uncle Jeff however, who opened his favoured book (Wisden's; he swore that cricket was the Great Solution to the scheme of things) and put his finger down on a scorpion that scuttled across the page at just the wrong moment. I prefer to keep my eyes open, but take my spectacles off, so that I can identify poisonous creatures with wicked intent. Like my ex-wife.

I did it this morning, curious as to what the day had in store for me. My sentence was:
'The caroticotympanic branch is small; it enters the tympanic cavity through a foramen in the wall of the carotid canal, and anastomoses with the anterior tympanic branch of the maxillary artery, and with the stylomastoid artery.'
I will confess to being mystified by this pronouncement and ended up asking the butler for his opinion. When he suggested that I use a book other than Gray's Anatomy for my bibliomancy I threw it at his head and knocked him unconscious for twenty-three minutes.
As it turned out though, it was oddly prescient, but my psychotherapist has forbidden me to try remembering any of the events at lunchtime so I'm not really able to tell you about it.

I shall continue my investigations into this art, and let you know the outcome.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Sweet dreams are made of fish

June was standing by the roadside under a purple sky at dawn, carrying a brown soft-leather satchel and wearing sandals a size too big for her. On the horizon a few spindly trees stuck up into the early morning light and the land looked as though it might finally give rise to some hills, but all around her it was flat, and quiet. Terribly, terribly quiet, as though something had killed all the birds and insects that would normally be going about their daily business of living and dying.

A open car pulled up beside her, as silent as the rest of the world around her, and June wondered if maybe the silence was in her head; maybe she'd gone deaf and not realised. Then the stranger in the car spoke, inviting her to get in, and she knew that she wasn't deaf, but that the silence was still an oddity that needed explanation. She looked at the stranger and felt a deep passion for her that she couldn't explain, but somehow no explanation was needed. Above them, the purple sky started to shade into pink, and delicate tendrils of cloud pulled themselves into wispy existence.

'What's in the bag?' said the beautiful stranger as June got into the car.
'I've no idea,' said June truthfully. 'It's been with me as long as I can remember now.'
The stranger tossed her head as though her crew-cut blonde hair had once been much longer, put the car into gear, and they moved silently off along the road. The car made no noise at all, but the wind caused by its passage hissed like a snake with bad intentions.
'I've travelled the world and the seven seas,' said the stranger, 'and I'm not sure I've met you before.'
'I'm an obsession,' replied June, her hands stroking the leather satchel now resting in her lap. The road had started to curve, the landscape at last growing a hill. Some more trees grew on the hill, like hairs growing out of an infected mole.
'I've abused everyone I've ever met,' said the stranger, but she didn't sound aggressive. She seemed just to be making conversation.
'Some people want you to abuse them,' said June.
'And some people want to be abused by me,' said the stranger.
'Isn't that the same thing?'
'Depends on your point of view.'

They drove on, and the tendrils of cloud resolved themselves at last into the tentacles of the day-squid that lived in the sky and glowed so that the people below could see what they were doing. It was less scary than the night-cuttlefish that also lived in the sky and glowed, but that seemed to eat things; maybe people, maybe planets. But it was scary nonetheless.

'Aren't you curious about what's in the bag?' said the stranger, her voice sounding melodic over the hiss of the wind. 'How long have you been carrying it for?'
'Ever since I can remember,' said June, her fingers stopping stroking it at last and lying flat on top of it. 'That's not very long though, I remember walking out into the desert a few hours ago, and I can remember being in a whorehouse in a small town some days before that, but there are holes where memories ought to be. I think there are memories where holes ought to be as well, but I don't know whose memories they are.'
'Yet,' said the stranger thoughtfully. 'But you could open the bag and find out what's inside it.'
'I don't think it's time to know that yet,' said June. 'I think I'll know when the bag needs to be opened.'
'Ah,' said the stranger, nodding and accelerating as the road straightened out once more ahead of them and the head of the day-squid seemed to nod contentedly in the sky above. 'Sweet dreams are made of fish.'
'I want you to abuse me,' said June quietly.
'I already am,' said the stranger, and laughter out of nowhere rolled around the car like manic-depressive thunder.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Gourmet counsel

The Ambassador for Earth looked around the conference room. He was the first one to arrive, and had placed his burgundy leather portfolio at the head of the table, and rearranged the water jugs so that two were close to his position. He had also distributed copies of the agenda -- his agenda -- around the table for the other delegates when they arrived.

Delegates from all across the galaxy would be attending the meeting, at the end of which would be a vote, which the Ambassador was fairly certain he would lose. His agenda, and everything he had planned for the meeting, were intended to try and persuade the other delegates to see Earth's point of view, but he was still less than hopeful. The problem, from everyone's point of view, was taste.

It was rather unfortunate, the Ambassador felt, that over 80% of the other species in the galaxy had turned out to be so damned tasty. It was even more unfortunate, in his opinion, that various chefs on Earth were working on ways of cooking the remaining species that would make them exquisitely tasty as well. This was covered up as much as possible back home, but even so, most of the tourist guides published offworld about Earth now carried warnings in large letters (pictographs, smellograms, senseglyphs) that all tourists might be eaten. Also being covered up as much as possible was the fact that the most popular rerun on Earth television was the shameful series of 'Galactic Castaway' where the Earth team had systematically eaten all the other teams of contestants.

There was a demand for services from Earth, which is where the Ambassador's only hopes of a reprieve lay: Earth's technological knowhow was nonpareil in the galaxy. Other species might have physics and maths and biology skills far in advance of Earth's, but when it came to building devices, miniaturisation, and applying those skills in inventive ways, Earth definitely led the way. But the Ambassador felt that the vote was likely to end up with Earth being quarantined and effectively used as a sweat-shop by the rest of the galaxy: no way on or off the planet, and a lot of demands.

Slowly the room began to fill up with the delegates, and as each sat down at the table, they slipped on a translator, a tiny earpiece that did a reasonable job of machine translation of speeches being made by each of the delegates. It also linked to each delegate's translator corps, for when the discussion had nuances that wouldn't necessarily be caught by a machine.

The prevailing mood in the room was stormy, and despite his impressive presentation skills, and his educated persuasiveness, the Ambassador never quite managed to reach the delegates, and it became obvious over the course of the first hour how the vote was going to go. Earth had never really had a chance. The Ambassador sighed, leaned back in his leather seat, and pushed a button on a device taped underneath the table.

An electric pulse was delivered through the earpiece of all the other delegates, each configured for the delegate's biochemistry, rendering them all unconcious within a few seconds of each other. The Ambassador, after checking that no-one was responding to his poking and prodding, pushed a second button on the device to summon a clean-up crew, and then raised the motion on which they were all to vote. Being the only conscious delegate there, his vote was the only one that counted, and Earth was voted unanimously into the galactic council for another 5 years, with no strings attached.

That evening the Ambassador held a small banquet for the technical crew who had provided the earpieces and and the device that had made Earth's continuing participation in galactic affairs possible, and it was with only a small tinge of regret that he surveyed the table, seeing 12 people enjoying the well-cooked carcasses of the other delegates.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Storage baby

We received the authorisation for our storage baby yesterday, and Jack and I were over the moon. We'd been in the application stage for three months at that point, and I was starting to think that we were going to be turned down, so I was laughing and crying at the same time on the phone to Jack to let him know the good news.

It's a lot easier for straight couples and lesbians -- well, for any family grouping that involves a woman -- as they can simply have a baby and then have it converted into a storage baby, but Jack and I had to go through the whole adoption procedure first, and then apply to have it converted into a storage baby. Some local authorities can be a bit funny about that, because they say that there are plenty of people who want to adopt a child for more than just storage. Recent government guidelines however say that a couple with an adoptive child have the right to convert that child to storage if they wish, and our adoption approval came through before the guidelines came out, so we've got our wish.

Storage babies are becoming a lot more popular these days. You take an ordinary child, and flash its brain clean a couple of weeks after birth. They use a viral infection that erases most of the higher brain functions but leaves the autonomous systems intact, so the child is alive, but essentially a vegetable. And then you can use it for storage purposes. A little fibre-optic cable-jack is surgically implanted in the back of its neck, a small wi-fi receiver is embedded in its brain, and you're good to go. The child records everything it sees and hears, and you can upload your own data to it either via the wi-fi link, or via the neck-port. The storage available is fantastically huge, and it grows as the child grows! It's the first storage medium that doesn't need to be regularly erased and consolidated, and so long as you're not using it 24/7, it'll automatically sort and index data for you while it's asleep.

You hear stories of course: things like the dark cults that have women kept as brood mares who just turn out one storage baby after another, or the urban legend of people waking up in alley ways with their newborn child kidnapped to be sold into storage somewhere. Most of them just aren't true though, and the babies themselves are getting ever more tamper-proof. Because they record everything they see and hear, any kind of storage-baby-abuse is automatically recorded and social services have powers to come round and inspect your storage baby at any time. People do pick their storage babies so they'll be attractive, because once the baby's turned 18 it's legally an adult if it's not property, and otherwise it's property so you can do with it as you please. But I think most people who've lived with a storage baby for 18 years aren't going to be that interested in it by that point anyway.

The really cool thing is that when it's time to replace the baby, all of its organs are available for harvest. A good storage baby is really an investment when you look at it that way. I pointed that out to Jack, but he accused me of being callous.

I'm really looking forward to getting the storage baby and transferring our DVD collection onto it. They have superior video playback to all other media forms.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Boy meets grill

Jeremiah came into class on Thursday with thin burn lines across his face. During gym class, when he got changed in the locker-room, we saw that he had more thin burn lines across his chest. He refused to shower after gym, and his pants looked padded out, so the conclusion was kind of obvious to us all. No-one said anything, but after school I headed down to the mall, where I knew he'd be hanging out. Sure enough, he was in the ice-cream shop, sat at the counter looking uncomfortable.

"Dude!" I said, slapping him hard on the shoulders and sitting down next to him. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, biting his lip to whiteness. "Hell, sorry man," I said.
"What do you want?" he said back, sniffing. "Apart from making me hurt?"
"What happened to you, man?" I said. "Dude, you look like someone's sent you to Guantanamo for a week."
"It's nothing," he said, turning away from me.
I slapped his shoulder again, and he winced. "It's not nothing," I said. "Nothing is where I have to punch you in the nuts to get a squeak out of you. When I can give you a shoulder massage and watch you pass out in pain, that's not nothing man."
"Dude, just leave it, right?" he said. His voice sounded kind of choked.
"Dude, you can tell me what happened, or I can keep hitting those shoulders of yours. Your choice man, but I know what I'd be doing right now."
"Yeah right," he said. "Your mother doesn't get home from whoring on street corners for another hour, so you'd be sat at home playing with yourself."
I leaned in, and squeezed his shoulder. He looked at me, and I punched him in the chest. He couldn't hold the tears back this time.
"Smartass," I said. "Now tell me the deal."

It was the timeless story of course, the one that everyone's been through one way or another. Sometimes the players change a little, but this one was a classic.
"We met in the park," he said, slowly, hesitantly. "She was a beauty, I could see that right from the start. She was barbecuing, managing a dozen burgers, a dozen hotdogs, some sides of onion and slaw with no trouble at all. The sun was shining in a blue, cloudless sky, there were children being mauled by dogs nearby, and their parents were all drunk and rolling out in the kiddie's sandpit. Yet she handled it all with dignity and aplomb, and got that 'cue cooked to perfection. Something inside me knew it then, but I just turned away and walked on, and tried not to regret not making a move."
"But I went back to the park the next day, and she was there again, this time doing fish, with a tinfoil tray of tomatoes and peppers blackening alongside, and I thought to myself, she's versatile. She's flexible. She's got what it takes, and she can go with the flow. She knows how to handle herself. And I nearly went up there then, but there were two guys with her, and I couldn't be certain, but it looked like she might be with one of them. So I walked off again, and forced myself not to look back."
"And it's kind of been like that for a few weeks, but when I went to the park yesterday, she was on her own. She was sat there, cold and magnificent, but she was alone, and so I went up to her, and ran my hand down her side, and she was amazing. I touched her grill and smelled my fingers, she smelled of charcoal and there was a lingering scent of beef; no fish at all. She was mostly clean, but she was dirty where it mattered most, and that was just such a turn-on for me. And she was encouraging me, I could tell. She was such a cute little minx."
"I turned her on, I heated her up, and I took her when she was most passionate."

"Dude, you screwed a barbecue grill?" I said. "Way to go, homie! We thought you were the goat-fucker for sure!"

And there you have it, the timeless tale of 'boy meets grill, grill heats boy, boy ends up in intensive care.' Even Romeo and Juliet doesn't measure up to this.

Monday, 23 June 2008

It's better not to ask

Coxpip, a hobbit of a long-established line of hobbits who dwelled on the other side of the valley, pushed open the heavy wooden door to the Inn of the Shire, and padded inside. The Inn had been serving hobbits for generations, and was owned now by Furzepurple, or Fuzz to both of his friends. Behind his back, which was scarred and knobbled as the result of a childhood bout of Nettles, a particularly odiferous hobbit disease, people referred to him as Furzepustule, but only in quiet voices as the Inn of the Shire was by far the most convenient place to drink. The Inn today was quiet inside, with only three other patrons, all passed out in front of the cold, grey fireplace. Coxpip sniffed the air and recognised the bonfire smell of Americy, a strong narcotic smoked only by indolent and ne'erdowell hobbits. He avoided the unconscious hobbits by the fireplace, and seated himself at the bar.

"Ho Furzepurple!" he called, looking around for the owner cum barman and wriggling uncomfortably on his stool as he realised that it was wet, and that something was now soaking into the seat of his pants. "Furzepurple, are you here?" he called, wondering if he could change seats before anyone else came into the Inn. There was no reply, so he slid off his stool, and perched himself on the one next to him. He looked again around the bar, and this time noticed the stairs beyond the fireplace than led up to the bedrooms. He remembered hearing that once upon a time hobbits had stayed at the Inn when travelling and had praised its cheer and hospitality, but now it seemed that the Inn was not somewhere to spend the night.

Furzepurple fell down the stairs, bouncing on his face as he reached the floor, and sliding along on his prominent nose and chin for a good number of hobbit footlengths. He said nothing, but pulled himself to his feet, which Coxpip noticed were shaved completely smooth and had thin cuts running in parallel lines across the tops of them. He glared at Coxpip until one of his eyes fell out and clunked on the floor. It started to roll, but Furzepurple stuck out a foot and trapped it expertly. He picked it up, and put it back in. Backwards. Coxpip realised at this point that the eye must be made of glass, and forced himself to relax.

"What do you want, 'obbit?" said Furzepurple in glutinous tones. "Why are you disturbing the peace of the Inn?"

"I came for a drink," said Coxpip nervously, hoping that Furzepurple wouldn't make his eye drop out again. "I heard that the Inn of the Shire serves the best Brandywine in the whole of the Shire."

"Not today," said Furzepurple flatly. "All the beer's off today."

"How can that be?" said Coxpip in wonderment. "Can it be that the hobbits of the shire have drunk you dry last night?"

"No, you bleeding pillock," said Furzepurple. He reached up to his face and started to worry at a long splinter in his upper lip. Little droplets of blood formed where he picked at it. "The beer's off cos there's a dead 'obbit in every barrel. Most of 'em drowned in there, but there's a couple that were put there cos 'is wizardship thinks it's a preservative."

Coxpip had gone pale at the mention of spoiled beer, and went paler again at the mention of the dead hobbits.

"What wizard would kill hobbits?" he gasped. "Even in the time of Mordor..." he tailed off, unable to say any more.

"Gandalf, you cretin," said Furzepurple. "Sauron's eye, what kind of cumdump was your mother anyway? Ever since they diagnosed him as having Gulf War syndrome 'e's been a right piece of--" Furzepurple's voice was drowned out by an explosion from somewhere upstairs. "-- and if I wasn't providing 'im with 'obbits for target practise there'd be no Inn of the Shire any more."

"But you're a hobbit yourself!" spluttered Coxpip.

"Nope," said Furzepurple with a toothy grin. "I'm an Orc with a makeover. Now, if you could just go and run to the door and try and escape, I reckon 'is wizardship's 'angover has probably receded enough that he'll give you a bit of an 'eadstart before blowing your legs off and making them dance by themselves while you watch. And bleed to death."

Quality Assurance

"Sandy!" Ron was stood in the door of Sandy's office, shouting cheerfully. His face was red, and he was sweating even in the cool of the office's air-conditioning. "Good news, my boy. The review board have been very pleased with your work in the last three months, you're showing real signs of dedication to our cause. They've recommended that we turn the water and heating on in your little flat."

Sandy tried to smile, but his face seemed to just crease like an aborted piece of origami. He looked tired and dishevelled, and had been sitting behind his desk for the last 35 hours, working on a brief that argued that Oxfam's presence in third-world countries was on a par with that of Nestle. The abacus, with its beads made from tiny human skulls, rattled gently in front of him where he'd been using it just before Ron had turned up.

"Hot water?" he said slowly. "Strong!"

Ron's eyes glazed over slightly as he thought about what else he had to say. "There was something else..." he muttered, half to himself. "Something you could help out with. Oh, that's it! We're employing your mother, so we thought you'd be the ideal person to show her round the company and get her acquainted with the way we work."

"My mother's dead," said Sandy coldly. He found that he could only deal with this by suppressing all emotion when he had to talk about her. "You had her killed to incentivise me. I didn't dare go to her funeral for fear of what else you'd do."

"Well that's the thing," said Ron, looking embarrassed. "Our HR department was looking at their five-year plan of people they'll be surplussing, and the Director pointed out that whenever you see psychics on television, the dead always seem to know a lot more than the living. Being on the other side gives you a far better view of the world. So they've surplussed the entire QA team, and replaced them with a semi-famous psychic, and he's channelling your mother to do the QA job. It's a far more efficient use of resources."

"But what if the psychic channels the wrong person? Or what if my mother doesn't spot a QA issue?" said Sandy. He massaged his temples, feeling a pressure headache starting to build. His eyeballs felt hot and seemed to be popping out of his face.

"Well, that's why we picked your mother," said Ron, shifting his bulk awkwardly. His thighs rubbed together, and little sparks of static electricity crackled in the air. "If there's a problem with her work, we can punish you. You were the person she was begging to be allowed to see before she died, you see, so we're pretty certain she wouldn't want to see you taking the fall for her mistakes..."

Sandy picked the abacus up silently, and started rattling the skulls on their wires from one side to another, apparently calculating. Ron watched him for a few moments, apprehension written clearly across his face, and when nothing else seemed to be happening, relaxed slightly.
"I'll fetch the psychic then," he said. "I think you'll like him, his name's Moloch and he's got a real way with people. Only this morning he was telling me that there's a great shock in store for me in the near future, and that that will take me somewhere that very few people get to go." He shuffled out of Sandy's office, his shoes rubbing on the nylon carpetting.

"Idiot," said Sandy softly, almost under his breath. "We can all see that coming." There was a loud bang and a sudden, high-pitched cry from half-way along the corridor. "The build-up of static was going to get you sooner or later, Ron, all it needed was someone to leave something that could earth it for you lying around where you wouldn't see it until too late." The abacus clicked and rattled ominously. "And very few people get to go to the intensive care burns ward." Finally the rattle of the abacus died away, and Sandy put it back down on the desk.

"Now let's bring on this psychic and see if he's really met my mother."

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Crossing the desert

When I came to crossing the desert, I worried that I hadn't read enough philosophy. I wasn't even half-way through when I concluded that in fact, I'd read too much. What I saw on that journey has stayed with me for the rest of my life so far, and I doubt I'll forget any of it now. There are days though when I wonder if I'm still crossing the desert, and just hallucinating that I've crossed it; but there are other days when I can't get out of bed because I know I died in the desert and can't possibly be here now.

I think those are my good days.

I had been alone in the desert for four days when I met a man who painted round his eyes with something bright, that sparkled in the sunlight and kept me from seeing his eyes. He was older than me, probably in his late thirties, wore a khaki shirt open at the throat, dusty blue shorts and battered brown sandals. His skin was golden brown, lighter than I'd have expected for anyone out in the desert, and he had a rucksack that held bottles of ice-cold water. He tied an orange scarf over his head to protect himself from the sun, and when he smiled at me all I could remember where his teeth; white and even and somehow evoking the quintessence of toothiness.

I was walking across sand at that point, one of the patches of shifting sandy desert that were part of the whole expanse, but on the horizon I could see the bare brown branches of trees, and that was where I was headed. I had a rucksack of my own, and bottles of water enough for six days, but in the desert it is better to be near water than not. It was hard walking, my feet slipped in the white sand, and where it mounded into dunelets, my calves burned as I struggled to the top. The sunlight glared off it, and I squinted until the muscles around my eyes hurt as badly as my calves. Then a shadow fell across my face, and I looked up, and at the top of the latest dunelet was a man who's face glittered and shone like a biblical angel.

He introduced himself as Mordechai, and tried to shake my hand. I had reached his level though, and had raised my hand to shield my eyes and see him properly, so his hand missed, and he didn't offer again. I wasn't worried. Four days of my own company and my own thoughts had made me understand the metaphor of crossing the desert for investigating my own soul, and then understand that it was nothing more than a metaphor. Thinking like that would let the desert kill you.

He told me that he lived a couple of days away on the edge of the desert, and I asked why he was so far out. He was an artist, he told me, he sought inspiration, and he sought artifacts from the desert to use in his work. He took some smoky glass from his pocket and showed it to me: fulgurite, he said. It was formed when lightning struck sand, and was uncommon in the desert. I admired it for him, but it seemed unimpressive to me. The sand particle occluding it seemed to spoil it, and his argument that it was a part of the desert trapped in solid form and made durable didn't convince me.

He walked along with me, sparkling in the afternoon sun, his gaze sweeping across the sand looking for found-things to turn into art, and I didn't object. At first it was night to have company again, and a few hours later, it was interesting that we were still talking and had not exhausted our conversation reservoirs. When the sun sank behind the horizon abruptly, as it likes to do in the desert, and a chill wind sprang up out of nowhere, I stopped. The stars appeared as fast as the sun had vanished, and a cold light let me see my footsteps, but not the trees in the distance. I did not want to stray from my course in the dark; I was already aware that without a fixed reference the wanderer in the desert will walk in circles.

Mordechai evinced surprise that I was stopping, but when I freed the lightweight tent from the bottom of the rucksack and released the catches on the elastic poles to expand it, asked if he could beg shelter for the night as well. I could find no convincing reason to say no, and so he stayed.

Something, and I don't know what, woke me some hours before dawn. The desert has its nighttime noises, but I had already accepted them, and had slept well both night previously. I woke, lying on my back, and then sat up to stretch. I turned slightly, intending to lie back down and go to sleep again, and saw Mordechai, lying also on his back, his arms akimbo. In the dark, in the tent, with no light source to illuminate them, the stuff around his eyes still sparkled slightly, a softly phosphorescent glow, that I could clearly see now were tiny little tentacles like those of a baby squid. They waved, perhaps filtering the air around them, and the eyes sockets they surrounded were dark and empty, mere holes into a man's head.

I rose quietly, slipped my sandals on, and sat outside the tent for the rest of the night, shivering in the desert's chill, building collapsing walls of sand to try to keep the breeze at bay.

Mordechai left in the morning when the sun came up, not saying a word, and I was as silent. I packed the tent, checked my water, and headed off towards the trees, and tried to forget whatever it was I had walked in the desert with that day.

Saturday, 7 June 2008


We'd had a robot dog for years, because my sister was allergic to anything more intelligent that her. My mother, a stern but forgiving woman, had still wanted a pet, so she bought a robot dog. Unsurprisingly the dog outlived my sister, who was run over while chasing a car round the neighbourhood. My mother never cried, she just upgraded the dog until it could check my homework for me and find mistakes. I hated it.

When I left school I went to work in a bakery and moved out into a shared flat with two girls and a mechanical canary that would whistle the Marseillaise whenever they undressed. I closed my door and installed a bolt on the inside, and my mother had the dog upgraded again and sent it to university. At some point, she renamed the dog after me, and me after the dog. I took the hint, and refused to visit.

The mechanical canary exploded, its little head shooting off its body so hard that it embedded itself a foot deep into the ceiling. That was the day after I moved out, and I heard about it through the bakery grapevine. I changed jobs, going to a new bakery and a better salary a few days later. My new flatmate had robo-fish that kept rusting. I kind of liked them.

My mother's dog graduated from university and did three years at graduate school, after which she upgraded again, using designs that it created for her.

The dog killed her three days later, and fled the country. We've not seen it since.

My relatives say it's robo-dementia. I melted my screwdrivers down and flung the shapeless ingots into the river.