Sunday, 27 March 2011


Dr. Silvera sighed, and tapped her pen against the chart. It was pinned up on a light-board so she and her assistant could both see it.
"I just don't get it," she said. She pointed with the pen. "This is supposed to the peak of his emotional cycle, and yet last night he was as cold and distant as he's ever been. I even remembered to take my lab-coat off when I got in, and I said thank-you for the dinner he'd cooked."
"What was it?" Tammy was sitting on a lab-stool at the bench.
"Ummm... there was meat in it..."
"Not that good then, huh?"
"Oh no, it was excellent, it just wasn't very, uh, well, interesting, I suppose."
"Probably needed a woman's touch."
Dr. Silvera didn't appear to hear her, but tapped the chart thoughtfully. "His physical cycle was down, so I suppose that would explain him going to bed early, and his mental cycle -- ah! His mental cycle was post-peak! Perhaps he simply wasn't in a place to pick up on my signals!"
"I took my lab-coat off when I came in."
"Ah. Yes, that would do it for me."

Dr. Silvera was leaning over the bench tinkering with some boxy electronic equipment when Antonio tapped on the door. He looked serious, with a hint of sadness around his eyes. In one hand was a plain white envelope.
Tammy jumped; she had had her back to the door and was watching Dr. Silvera, admiring the way her lab-coat revealed her legs when she leaned over like this.
"Oh, Tony," she said, just a trace of dismissiveness in her voice. "I don't think this is a good time really--"
"I invited him," said Dr. Silvera straightening up and shaking herself, a little like a damp Yorkshire terrier. "He's here to help me with this little experiment."
"About that," said Antonio. "I don't think I have time after all."
"Nonsense, darling, it'll take less than fifteen seconds. Sit here."
Antonio let her lead him into the room and to the lab stool. She took the envelope from him hand and put it on the bench, then picked up a metal circle with wires attached to it and set it on his head.
"What's this?" Antonio's hands twitched and started to raise to take it off again.
"A brain-wave reader." Dr. Silvera waggled her fingers behind her back, and Tammy interpreted this as 'turn the machine on.'
"This reads your brainwaves and determines what your biorhythms are. I think yours might be out of sync slightly."
"Biorhythms? Discredited New Age rubbish?" Antonio didn't sound angry, just serious and sad.
"Probably less discredited soon," said Dr. Silvera. Smoke start to rise from her husband's scalp. "Oh crap, not again! Turn it off!"
Tammy was engrossed in the letter from the plain white envelope though, and not listening. Dr. Silvera turned to race to the machine, but something inside it went pop and all the lights went out. More smoke rose, this time from the machine.
"Tony?" said Dr. Silvera, staring at the blank eyes of her husband, who was rocking very gently backwards and forwards.
"He was leaving you," said Tammy, waving the letter.
Dr. Silvera turned to her, still not hearing her. "I reset his biorhythms back to zero," she said. "Did we ever do any tests to find out what that meant?"

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Not the shrimp

"Why are we here?" The Blonde was looking particularly angry and for once I couldn't fault her. When we'd arrived, the maƮtre'd had led us to our table at a processional pace more suited to a funeral, seated us with cold aplomb (and as regular readers will be aware, I like my aplomb luke-warm to hot) and had then, with quiet dignity, picked up the Blonde's handbag and placed it in an ice-bucket. Where it sat still, the stitching slowly coming apart and the faux-faux-crocodile skin losing its patina.
Faux-faux-crocodile, if you're interested, turns out to be real alligator. The trick is to say faux-faux with such a tone of world-weariness that the pest who's demanding to know if it's real or not understands that you hear the question all the time and are sick of having to dignify it with an answer. I am still trying to think what other situations I could put this to use in.
"Because I review restaurants, darling," I said, "and this is the one for next week's column."
"I hope you won't be saying anything nice about it!" When she's in a tizzy she looks a little like Charlie Chaplin, which I happen to find quite erotic. I may have to buy her a bowler hat when I am dragged to New York to replace the handbag.
The waiter reappeared at that point and asked what we'd like to drink, and if we were ready to order. Pleasantly he appeared not to recognise me, and as the Blonde was still staring at her handbag and fuming I ordered more or less at random from the various vellum pages that were arrayed in front of me. Then I asked him about them.
"Vellum? That's that thing from the Lord of the Rings film, isn't it?"
I opined that although making a menu out of Gollum might be seen by some as the only humane thing to do, there probably wasn't enough of him to make menus for the whole restaurant. The waiter did his best troglodyte impression, and, heaven help me, I persevered.
"Why is this menu made of this substance?" I translated, waving a sheet of cured sheepskin under his nose.
"Dunno, guv."
Can I say I was surprised? Can I say that I shouldn't have been?
Twenty minutes later he was back with our starter. He set a glass plinth down in the middle of the table, set a single shrimp atop it, produced a tiny dish of what I assumed was cream, or possibly whipped horseradish sauce, and carefully lathered up the shrimp's face.
"What's he doing?" whispered the Blonde. She has a stage whisper, so nearly every head in the room turned, save for the waiter who was now industriously stropping a straight-edge razor.
"I think he's shaving the shrimp," I whispered back.
I couldn't answer that, even after requesting a copy of the menu when we left. The menu certainly listed shaved shrimp, but was I really expected to believe that they were going to shave each individual shrimp in front of us and then expect us to eat them?
"I need a new handbag," said the Blonde as she hailed a cab by the simple expedient of unbuttoning the top button of her blouse.
"I shall get you a hat to go with it," I remarked.

Channels of Communication

My mother brought both me and my brother up to be experimenters. She led by example: when I was born she was experimenting with the Borogradsky educational theories that were popular at the time. I grew up nearly fluent in Latin because that was all I heard at home, and when I went to school, unable to speak any language the teachers spoke, the teachers went to the Local Education Authority, who in turn went to my mother and suggested that she teach me a language that was spoken in the school. My teacher at the time struggled to learn a little Latin to make the transition easier, and told me at one point that she felt I'd been set back three years by my mother's efforts. I corrected her grammar, a little sadly, and she went away again looking hurt.
This became a recurring theme with my mother; I was taken into court-ordered custody when I was thirteen and severely malnourished. My brother had just died of mushroom poisoning, and while visiting him in the hospital the staff had spotted signs in me of both scurvy and pellagra. This was my mother's period of experimenting with inedible foods, and the eventual consensus was that I'd been getting eight times the RDA of wax and cardboard and if I weren't already a heavy-coffee drinker I would probably be dead too.
My mother promised to turn over a new leaf, and six months later won a court hearing to have me returned to her, though the judge presiding awarded me a small bursary to be paid to me directly in case my mother decided to experiment with some other inappropriate food source. As my mother had just read an article that suggested that it was possible to combine homeopathy with super-natural eating, this was a blessing that probably saved my life again. While she was boiling vegetables for eighteen hours to extract all their goodness, then diluting the vegetable water 600-fold to make super-vitality drinks I slipped off, at first to McDonald's, but later to places that served real food.
I received an email from her two days ago, which surprised me as we still live in the same house and talk to one another over breakfast. Her current experiment is fresh-fruit and we're both looking startlingly healthy. Her email read:
Shannon was right! I have an experimental algorithm that decodes Wikipedia discussions.
A second email some minutes later explained things, as it contained the algorithm and links to wikipedia so that I could see for myself.
Shannon is, of course, Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, who has some fairly interesting things to say about noisy channels and how to extract information from them. What my mother's algorithm did was to treat the wikipedia discussion page as a noisy channel and see if it could find any information in there. On many pages it concluded that the discussion was all noise and no content, and I found myself nodding in agreement every time.
But then there were the other pages, where the noise was concealing the words of a cabal intent on pushing their own agenda. The algorithm had identified five key editors, labeling them conspirators, whose seemingly adroit and maladroit comments on random topics were actually acute commentary on the pages that they were most interested in.
I wrote an email reply to my mother, and my finger hovered over the send key. Then it fell, depressing the key and sending the email. I had no idea if suggesting that she experiment on them was a good idea or not, but I was looking forward to watching and finding out.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


The spaceship was called the Smilebreaker, and it seemed to George that it was an accurate description. No-one seemed happy: the captain snarled when he walked past George in the corridors, the First Mate was so miserable that George wondered if someone important to him died everyday he was aboard the ship, and the Executive Chef served up menus of desperation and futility every day. Finding himself sat yet again alone at a table in the refectory with a paper plate of Gloomy chicken in a black sauce of hopelessness in front of him, George decided that it was time to find out what the problem with the ship was.
He waited till he was back at his workbench in Engineering. He was currently tasked with refurbishing one of the two spare lasers that pointed at the solar sail when they were cruising. Across the workbench, surrounded by spanners, ratchets and odd-shaped pieces of blued-steel was his colleague, Joanna. Her lips were pressed firmly together, and her eyes looked vaguely watery.
"Joanna?" He didn't raise his voice very much, trying to suggest that she could ignore him if she were busy.
"What?" The words were snapped out, and she flung a spanner down; it chimed musically on the workbench.
"Ah, sorry. Do you know why the ship's called the Smilebreaker?"
"I'd guess they needed to call it something so you could ask stupid questions."
"...Is everything ok, Joanna?"
"Oh jeez, really? Are you really asking that?"
George looked at her, her lips were trembling now and she was clearly on the edge of tears.
"Well, yes," he said. "You don't seem ok."
"It's this stupid ship," she said. "Everyday it finds a way to hurt you; that's why it's called the Smilebreaker. This morning my last pair of tights were shredded beyond repair and the replicator had leaked coffee all over my favourite book in the night."
George automatically looked over the bench at Joanna legs.
"This is duct tape," she said, tapping her leg and raising a plastic sound. "So this evening the ship will hurt me all over again when I take this off, effectively waxing myself."
"Is it like this for everyone?"
"Yes. Surely you've noticed?"
George shrugged. "Not really," he said. "I knocked my elbow on the doorframe last week, that hurt a little. But it got better."
"You didn't wake up to find your favourite songs had been erased, or your clothes were torn in embarrassing places, or your bed had deliquesced in the night and your shower was broken?"
"No. Should I? It's been quite normal on the ship, except that everyone's miserable all the time."
Joanna's face morphed into a look of horror and she started backing away. "Oh dear sweet jeez," she said, her voice little more than a whisper. "It's you. You're the Lachrymator, aren't you?"
"What's a Lac--" George began, but Joanna's scream cut him off, and he stared after her as she ran away from the workbench and deep into the heart of the Engineering deck.

Quiet time

I'd been lying on the couch when the doorbell rang. I decided to ignore it; the curry I'd had for tea had been excellent and I'd eaten rather more of it than I really should have done -- there would be no left-overs for tomorrow's breakfast -- and was quite enjoying sinking into a spicy coma.
The crash was rather unexpected, and I froze, wondering what the hell was happening. Then there was a lot of loud swearing from someone with a voice like a nut-sorting machine on high-speed and more crashing. I relaxed a little, and then tensed up in a different manner, and pulled myself into a semi-reclining position. I was just patting the cushions into place behind me when MacArthur hopped into the living room, my letter-box wedged firmly around his other ankle.
"Your letter-box is broken," he growled by way of greeting. "It's a bit more of a cow-flap now."
"You mean cat-flap, Mac?"
"Only if your cat's as big as a cow."
I reached for my notepad to write down that I'd have to get the front-door replaced tomorrow. MacArthur's eyes gleamed as he watched, and he fumbled in the pockets of his trench coat.
"I have a bone to pick with you," he said, his fingers finding a cigar stub and a fold of matches. "You never let me have any friends."
"You don't know how to make friends! And don't smoke in here."
"Sure I do," he said ignoring me and lighting the cigar stub. A dull orange glow suffused the end and a curl of greasy smoke made its way leisurely to the ceiling. He tossed the matchbook on the table. "You sit down next to someone in a bar and introduce yourself."
"You sit down next to people in bars and spit in their drinks."
"It saves them having to offer to buy me one. Speeds up the friendship thing."
"You also sneeze in the barsnacks, don't always leave your seat to go to the bathroom, and assassinate the entertainment."
"That was once!" Mac had the cheek to try to look injured.
"Which was once?"
Mac shrugged, but otherwise ignored the question.
"I need some friends, someone more than just you. You suck."
"What for?" Mac's cigar suddenly burst into flame and he spat it out onto the carpet where he ground it with a shoe that looked as though it had lived a long life, been buried, then dug up again, worn by a tramp for a few years and then passed on to Mac.
MacArthur smiled, showing yellowing tombstone teeth, then gave up.
"Collateral," he said, sounding guarded.
"Real friends don't get used as collateral," I said, trying to be patient.
"What's the point in having them then?"
"And this is the root of your problem, Mac. This is why you don't have friends."
"Bah." He spat and shook the letter-box on his ankle, which stubbornly refused to dislodge. "I don't know why I bother talking to you, you're never any help."
"Feel free to stop," I said with sincerity. "Any time."

Saturday, 12 March 2011


Zachary let the flexible metal measuring tape reel back into its housing, and placed his pad of paper on the mark he'd made on the dining room table. That mark was the exact middle of the table, just as his law professor had drummed into him. Then he sat down, aligning his chair with his pad, and hit his knee hard on the table leg as he tried to sit closer.
"Really, Zach," said his father as the string of curses died away. "That's what you went to law school to learn?"
"His name is Zachary!" His mother, sat at the other side of the table to his father, jabbed her finger at him as she spoke. "And you should be able to get it right, since your mother chose it!"
"You said you liked it, and she'd chosen it for the budgie, anyway!"
"I was on drugs! I didn't know what was going on, I'd been in labour for thirty-four hours! And what kind of a woman calls her budgie Zachary anyway?"
"My mother is not some kind of a woman!"
"No, she's not human enough to be a woman!"
Zachary put two fingers in his mouth and whistled; an ear-splitting screech he made good use of when coaching inner-city school netball teams. His parents subsided, both sitting back in their chairs, but neither losing the defensive posture.
"Look, guys," he said, remembering not to sigh. "Wouldn't a divorce be easier?"
"Hah! I'm not giving her the satisfaction!" Zachary's father smirked meanly across the table. "She'd go out and tramp it around with some kid your age if I let her."
"No divorce," said his mother firmly. "I'm not risking being lumbered with you in the settlement."
"Mum!" Zachary was shocked.
"Sorry kiddo, but you've only just moved out and I like the additional space."
"Hell yeah," said his father. "We've just turned your bedroom into a second lounge, and we're going to turn the garage into a spa. Your mum's been picking colours."
"And your dad's doing all the plumbing; it's good for him to get back into that kind of thing again, you know. He's going to the gym twice a week."
"Uh, hang on a second." Zachary looked from one to the other in confusion. "I thought I was here to help you sort out your differences."
"Oh no," they said in unison, and his mother laughed and let his father continue. "You're just here to let us negotiate a truce without anyone thinking it's our fault."

City of the Ilmatu

Three days north of Ilvo we found what we thought was a house; a tiny single-roomed dwelling built of heavy stone blocks that were greened with Arctic lichens. There was an arch where we thought a door had once been, and inside there was barely enough room for the four of us. Rainer, who had organised this expedition, kept looking around for something, while the rest of us puzzled over it.
"It's too small," said Matias. "Even for one person it's just too small. Where would he sleep, where's space for a fire? It's not a house."
"The stone seems rather too much for a folly though." Guldtronen's voice was always deeper than his appearance suggested.
"Actually," I said slowly, "where did the stone come from? There are no quarries north of Ilvo, the land's too frozen. And this stone, it's basalt isn't it? That's volcanic."
Rainer was staring up at the ceiling, which was vaulted and dark. He vanished outside and returned with a torch, which he shone up at the ceiling.
"It's a bell-tower," he said, waving the yellow circle of light over a rusted spur of branching metal that hung down from the ceiling. "It's not a free-standing structure, it's the top of one."
"That's ridiculous," said Matias, but Guldtronen and I had looked down straight-away, and we both saw the iron ring in the floor. I pointed, but Guldtronen knelt and freed it from the dirt. We all backed away, and he heaved on it. For a few seconds he strained, his breath grunting out of him, but nothing happened. Then there was a crack that echoed in the tiny space and part of the floor jerked upwards. Once he'd freed that much pulling the trapdoor open further was far easier, and shortly we beheld a dark square opening into something below the room we were in.
"Ropes," said Matias, accepting that Rainer might be right. "If it's a bell-tower then ropes would have hung down through here. Stairs would have been off to one side."
"Or outside," said Guldtronen. "When we arrived I thought the stonework at the base was strange."
He was right, although we had to dig a little, and in frozen tundra that's no easy task, there were stairs that had been carved into the outside of the tower. Which were useless for us unless we wanted to try and dig the entire tower out with just the four of us and shovels.
There were ropes in the sleds, and in the end we tied one end to a sled because there were no safe anchor points inside the tower. Then, Rainer excitedly leading the way and acting like a child in a sweet-shop, we climbed down the rope into the darkness.
At the bottom, in an icy chamber where our breath condensed in front of us in white clouds, we found a corpse. It was that of a young man with a thick beard, and showed no sign of decay. His eyes had been taken from his head, and his nose had been cut off, we thought; two slits of nostrils in the centre of his face all that was left. In hind-sight, we should have been a lot more suspicious about the lack of decay, but at the time we were more shocked by how he'd been defiled.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

These words are not my own

These words are not my own, they only come when I'm alone. They cover surface after surface, anything that doesn't move or can't get away. I wake in the mornings and there are words everywhere, on the sheets, on the walls, on my skin where I can reach. Where I can't reach there are squiggles and blurs where I have made the attempt anyway.
The words make no sense, they're in no language that I recognise. I self-diagnosed glossolalia and took myself off to church for a week. I was asked to leave after the choir-boys discovered that their cassocks were covered in my words, and no god had spoken to me. I lit a candle in their darkness and left it at the altar having written in the wax first. I hope that some of my words made their way to heaven.
I slowed the words down a little when I stopped reading, as though they need raw material in the form of other words. For a few days when I woke the sheets would be only half-covered, the walls barely grafittied, and my skin would be blessedly free from ink. Then I woke one morning to find two furious librarians and two curious policemen sitting in my kitchen. They assured me that I'd sleep-walked to the library, eaten three books with a little mustard and salt, and then written on every blank end-page I could find. They even showed me my handwriting in the books.
Now I'm trying to find the right words to read, the ones that will produce something comprehensible from the words I write. I hope that if I can just understand what I'm trying to say, that might be enough to stop it. I spent last night reading Nostradamus in the original French to see if I might predict the future.
The paper on the table in front of me has neat lines of text on it, as it always does. The question is, of course, do the words make sense? I lean forward to read it.
These words are not my own, they only come when I'm alone.

Irritant Cookery

You'd think I'd have learned, but when my manager sat on my desk at far-too-early in the morning and wiggled her bum, spilling stacks of unnumbered papers onto the floor and into the bin, my hangover told me not to argue with whatever she wanted.
"Darling," she cooed, "I want you."
My hangover retracted its previous statement immediately.
"I think I might be spoken for," I said. I still felt nauseous, and until I'd fished the papers out of the bin -- some of them were probably pages for our Modern Art coffee table book -- I couldn't throw up in it. Again. I suddenly realised that some of the pages might be beyond saving already.
"I want you to produce the next book in the series," she said, running her finger through her moustache. She had a bad experience with hair-removal products once and is happier looking like a gorilla than trying again. "We've have French and German cooking, we can't stop there or we risk upsetting our European market."
"Dutch Cuisine?" I suggested, wondering how well a recipe book that required illegal ingredients would sell.
"No silly, and it would be Netherlandish Cooking anyway. That'll be book six. The next book, obviously, is Italian cooking. I want lots of pasta, lots of pesto, lots of--"
"Piss off?" I suggested under my breath, just as she ran out of alliteration.
"I want you to take this seriously. The French cooking book sold well, the German cooking one is also selling well, so there's a high bar set for you. Do well, and I'll see that you get paid this month."
She launched herself from my desk, which rebounded like a continent reacting to the departure of a glacier only faster. Papers fountained into the air and fluttered to the ground like butterflies caught in a cloud of DDT.
"Well, get on with it!" she said. "And clean this office up, it looks like a war-zone."

My secretary swears I said "Irritant cookery" when I explained it to him, and I think I might have done. I was hungover after all, and I was probably joking. With a man who's sleeping intermittently with my mother and has less of a sense of humour than most corpses. Which explains why, yet again, I have another horribly inappropriate cookery book sat on my desk. The highlights include Bleach pudding, Nettle soup(which sounds quite edible until the last step where you add eight tablespoons of chili powder) and Lye and potato pie which just might appeal to the four people in the world who like Lutefisk.
"The first two books are selling well," said my secretary matter-of-factly. He was right, bizarrely enough; Trench Cookery had found a market with World War I renaissance societies, and Gerbil Cookery had found acceptance in South America. This one however, looked like it had the potential to kill people.