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.