Monday, 31 October 2011

Automobile for the people

"...and do you have anything to say about the recent death of President al-Azrif?"
"I am greatly saddened that anyone should meet an untimely end," said Daniel Folgt, CEO of the world's most luxurious car manufacturer.  "His death was a blow to the free world, and I hope that it will not become a rallying point for any further terrorism."
"President al-Azrif was blown up while travelling in a motorcade in his car."
"I believe that there is forensic evidence that suggests his car was struck by a missile of some kind."
"So you do not believe that anyone attached explosives to the car itself?"
"I would have to wait for the forensic evidence to return, but our cars are tested against bombs, landmines, and other explosive devices, so even if that turns out to be a contributing factor, I am certain that the car itself did not fail structurally."
LeMontaigne pressed a key on his keyboard and looked across the table.  The interviewing journalist on the screen was now sitting opposite him, a faint grin on her face.
"I'm not sure what you're trying to get at, Zamabe," he said.  "He defends his car quite well under the circumstances."
"There was no missile," said Zamabe.
"Well, the forensic evidence suggests–"
"No, there was no missile.  We have video footage from five different locations, five different news companies.  There's no missile visible on any of them, and they don't move invisibly, for all they move fast.  There's no missile there because no missile struck that car."
LeMontaigne shrugged.  "So you think his car failed a bomb test and he's trying to cover it up?"
"There was no bomb.  At least, there wasn't what you'd conventionally call a bomb."
LeMontainge leaned forward, his face creasing with interest.  "What are you trying to say, Zamabe?"
"I have a contact who used to work in the Folgt factory.  Not many people leave that factory, and he's only out because he was found to have TB."
LeMontaigne nodded; the government's campaign against TB was still incidental news, if only for the zeal with which it was being promoted.  If they were as against malaria as TB then the country might finally start being somewhere tourists would want to come.  "So?" he said.
"He told me that there's some very odd design patterns in that factory, designs that aren't recorded on the patents and that are so closely guarded there are armed men who surround the design office at all times."
"Armed guards?  In a car factory?"
"Around the design office.  I might understand it elsewhere, but not the designs."
"They're keeping them secret so that no-one can find a weakness."
"Buy one of their cars and you can take it apart and document it for yourself."  Zamabe's eyes sparked when she felt she was being insulted.  "No, there's something in there that you wouldn't expect.  Something that has to be kept secret."
"And your contact knows?"
"No.  But he knows about the intaglio."
"Some kind of Japanese secret society?"
"No.  Hah.  LeMontaigne, don't you ever get out to art galleries?"
"Only when Duzuke is ill and no-one will fill in for him."
They both chuckled for a moment.
"Intaglio is a kind of engraving, a mixture of light and shadow.  In this case, conducting and non-conducting materials.  Present on every part of the car that gets assembled."
"Some kind of copyright?  A watermark for metal, perhaps?"
"I suppose, but it's a bit pointless.  No, he – we – think that it's a hidden circuit board."
"Oh?"  LeMontaigne looked surprised.  "To do what?"
"To blow the car up."
There was a long silence.  Zamabe stared at LeMontaigne, who stared at the table, his fingers tapping out a light beat, a traditional rhythm.
"Why?" he said finally.
"I don't know, but I think it's a safeguard for the West.  Anyone who thinks they're anyone buys a Folgt car.  Suppose there were a secret code that could remotely detonate that car.  Then if the guy you've spent five years secretly selling missiles to and encouraging into an oppressive regime turns out to be madder than a hatter and starts attacking you, you can get rid of him where he feels safest, and tell the world it was a terrorist attack, or a strategic strike, or hint that your black ops had a hand in it."
"But how...?"
"My contact says that all the parts would only be linked when the car's in top security, full lockdown mode.  Exactly how it'll be when the owner starts getting paranoid and worried about their health.  So it's not foolproof, but it should be easy to scare him into going into that state."
"This is insane," breathed LeMontaigne.
"Is it?"  Zamabe tilted her head as she looked at him.  "We have the footage.  There was nothing near that car when it exploded.  The only odd thing is bird song just before it happens."
"Why is bird song so strange?"
"We don't have any swans in this country."

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Litter Ate

Ate, who preferred that men pronounce her name Artay, arose from the litter mountain.  One moment empty, greasy pizza boxes decomposed quietly atop potato peelings, mouldy woollen cardigans, plastic milk containers with white, quasi-liquid dregs slowly moving about inside them and torn magazines, and the next the Goddess was rising, her fury a wonder to behold, the litter transforming in some glorious golden haze into a dress that rustled like dry parchment and was covered in ever-changing writing.  The Litter Ate was reborn, and feeling vengeful.
In a cold attic bedroom, Morgana sat hunched over a desk intended for a child and not a grown woman.  Her back ached, her toes were numb and blue, and her fingers cramped painfully every few minutes.  Behind her, a baby lay silent in the crib, and Morgana was quietly praying to herself that the child was sleeping and not yet dead.  In her hands was a disheveled copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and on a tiny web-book screen she was typing invective into an internet forum, excoriating some other commentor for having never read it.  She heard a sound, and she lifted her head, wondering if it had come from the window.  Without questioning why, she decided to stand and throw the sash window open, letting the marginally colder air from outside in, and lean out looking for the source of the noise.  As she did so, her eyesight failed, her vision shrank down to a tiny tunnel through blackness and then went out altogether.  Uncertain and unsteady now, she put her hands down on the window-sill to steady herself, and found that it had gone.  Plunging forward, her feet caught the edge of the opened window, causing it to crash back down closed behind her, even as she crashed to the ground below.
At the crib, the Litter Ate looked down at the child, who had died in the night while Morgana had spent hours on a language forum arguing that the English subjunctive was not only well-defined and clear to all right-thinking people, but demanding that people who failed to use it after the word whether (which could only imply speculation, she stated) should be publicly flogged and egged.  Ate closed the child's eyes with two fingers and, reaching out into realms reserved only for Gods, Goddesses and their servants, nudged the child's soul away from its mother's.
Somewhere, where the aether shimmers and records the tiniest nuances from the most insignificant things, a harmonic was struck, and a shiver went down the shoulders of many men and women, who for the briefest of moments realised unconsciously that the Litter Ate was aprowl, and hunting for sacrifices.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Lemon drizzle

The rain was lemon flavoured this morning.  It wasn't really noticeable until you looked at the puddles, but it was also a pale yellow colour, not really lemony, but definitely not anything less pleasant.  Miles stood out in it for several minutes, his tongue stuck out to catch rain drops, enjoying the taste.
"The neighbours are watching," said Anna eventually.  She was stood at the window in her floral dressing gown smoking her second cigarette.  Ash clung defiantly to the end of it, and the red glow of the coal was barely visible.
"I don't care," said Miles.  "It tastes like lemonade used to taste."
"Back when it was all chemicals and additives?  That's a good thing?"
"I like it."
Anna shrugged, let the cigarette fall from her lips and screwed her slipper down on it, extinguishing it.  It was her bedroom, and she did as she liked in there, but Miles had banned her from having any soft furnishings unless they were flame-proof.  The she drew the curtains again and went off in search of clothes with a minimum of cigarette burns, permanent creases and dirty marks.
Miles let a few more drops of rain fall onto his tongue, and then looked around him.  At all the ground floor windows of the neighbouring houses curtains swished, looking for all the world as though a strong wind had blown through all the rooms.  He grinned, and started off to the bus-stop for work.


"Lemon today, huh?"  Marcus was carrying an umbrella with an odd little gauge attached to the handle.  Miles pointed at it, still sipping his coffee.
"Acid co-efficient," he said.  His voice was deep and throaty, and seemed suited to his beard which birds could nest in.  "Despite the lemon flavour the rain is barely acidic.  If I had to be drawn on an opinion–" Miles snorted a laugh and scalded the back of his throat with coffee "–I'd say that we're seeing a definite regression back to pre-industrial levels of pollution."
"Have you told the press corps yet?"
"Meeting them at lunch tomorrow.  They're paying."
"Of course."  Both men laughed.
"So," said Miles cautiously, "not wanting to draw you on an opinion of course, but do you think the rain used to taste of lemon?"
"No," said Marcus, lowering his voice.  "Nor cinnamon, nor cardamom, nor candy-floss."
" might have missed that," said Marcus thoughtfully.  "I think perhaps you were in the southern hemisphere for the monsoon."
"Yeah, that was wet," said Miles.  "Horizontal waterfall doesn't do it justice.  Didn't taste of anything much though."
"Yeah," said Marcus.  "But I think we've miscalibrated the weather satellites up here in the Northern hemisphere."
"We can't have," said Miles.  "We've checked them all with the geological core data.  We know the parameters, we've been over them sixteen times.  Sixteen, Marcus!"
"Lemon flavoured rain, Miles."


In the weather centre at last, Miles sat down at a terminal and tapped the screen.  It lit up, welcoming him, and he made a couple of quick finger gestures, drawing odd little geometric shapes on it.  There was a pause while the system spoke to a second system, which went via secure handshake to a third archival vault and requested some apparently random data.  Satisfied with the result, a message jumped back across the nodes, and Miles's screen bloomed with red and blue hues, finally coalescing into a password screen.  He entered a password using more touch-gestures, and only then did he have access to a limit suite of functions for Septentrionus, the weather-satellite director.
With a couple of taps and swipes he brought up the principal parameter screen and started checking the figures again.  He paused on the third row and re-read the figures there.  Then, shaking his head, he checked them against a book on his desk.  They were very different.
A swipe copied the data to a secure clipboard, and then he tight-messaged it over to Marcus.  Only a couple of minutes passed before a response came back.
"Response decodes to a recipe for lemon drizzle cake.  We have a joker in the system."
Miles sat back and wondered what the hell what happening to the weather.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Instant diplomat

We got our diplomat from the supermarket, aisle 5.  She was sitting on a low shelf, looking uncomfortable.  She was quite smartly dressed though, and her smartphone was only a few months out of date.  Her laptop was a clunky old thing though, and still required batteries to run.  The mom-bot tutted, did some quick budget calculations, and bought her a state-of-the-art steam powered one.
Dad was really pleased when we arrived home with her.  He sat her down in the kitchen while the mom-bot was putting the groceries away and put the steam-powered laptop in front of her, and tried not to look too disappointed about her phone.
"Right," he said.  "We've got four problems straight away, and I'm expecting a few more over the coming weeks.  The initial ones are essentially sovereignty disputes, but there's going to be some negotiations required I think."
"Ok," said our diplomat, powering the laptop up.  It hissed briefly, and then the hydraulic ram engaged with a thump that shook the kitchen table.  Even Dad looked impressed, and he smiled at the mom-bot for making such a good purchase.  "Sovereignty?" she said, her lips a thin line that was sharp enough to match the crease in her skirt.
"I own this property and the land it stands on outright," said Dad.  This was true, and unique in our neighbourhood, where almost everyone rented the land from one of three landlords and rented their property from a different landlord.  It was quite confusing, from what my friends said, and their parents usually bought a new lawyer every few months or so.  "I have the documents of sovereignty upstairs, if you need to see them–" the diplomat shook her head, "– and I want to exercise that right to put up guard towers on the south-west corner of the property.  However, I'm concerned that doing so might upset the Cornerstone Corporation, who are proxying ownership of the land to both the south and west of mine."
The diplomat nodded, and the mom-bot put a cup of milky tea down next to her.  A few seconds later, two digestive biscuits appeared on a small saucer next to the cup, and Dad helped himself to one of them.  "We could establish a small embassy," she said.  The laptop hissed and a neighbourhood map came up on the screen.  "This," she pointed, "would seem to be an excellent location for an embassy."
"It's by the supermarket," said Dad, his face dropping.  "That's a terrible location."
"But the upper floors of the supermarket building are used as a corporate headquarters by the Cornerstone Corporation," said the diplomat.  "And we'd be renting out the top floor of this building here," she pointed again, "partly because the penthouse is obviously the best place to impress people and hold receptions, and partly because it gives us excellent views into their boardroom."  Dad started looking happier again.  "I'm certainly not suggesting that we conduct espionage, but equally it would be foolish of me to fail to note that this location has certain natural advantages."
"What will the embassy accomplish?" asked Dad, stealing the diplomat's other biscuit.  The mom-bot tutted and two more digestives appeared.
"It will provide us with somewhere to meet the Cornerstone Corporation where we can suggest to them that allowing us to build a guard-tower is mutually beneficial.  In fact, I have a document somewhere..." she tapped on the keys, and the hydraulic ram engaged again as she accessed the subnets, "... which discusses the use of bullets in high-speed surgery situations...."
I stopped listening at that point and ran upstairs to phone my friend Tom who lived on a Cornerstone controlled property.  I figured that he might want to know to avoid scheduling surgery until Dad had got diplomacy out of his system.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Book of Miracles IX

The landing was astonishingly fast and rather bumpy.  I'm used to commercial pilots landings, where there is plenty of notice, plenty of time for the cabin crew to stop you doing anything fun, and then frequently a delay while air-traffic control try to work out who you are and why you're in their airspace.  I keep promising myself not to fly Penguin Airlines anymore, but they have far and away the best in-flight service going.  This landing seemed to be over in no time.  One minutes the Captain was shouting "Incoming!" over the intercom and the next minute we'd tilted noticeably forward and I found myself gripping the arms of my seat as a precaution.  James looked terrified, I've already noted that Isabella's face is virtually impossible to read and Irene looked – well, serene.
The plane braked hard and I think we were all flung forward as much as our lap-straps would allow.
"I had a few modifications made to the plane," said Isabella in response to James's panic-stricken look.  "Technically it's not air-worthy any more, but as I think you can see, we're a little ahead of most of the aerospace technicians out there.  The plane jerked again, and stopped.
"Ah, I think we've landed," said Isabella.  "Irene, could you get the doors, please?"
"Cabin-crew are cross, check!" said Irene smartly, and I knew it wasn't quite the usual statement that comes over the intercom during landing procedures, but I couldn't figure out what was wrong with it.
James wasn't moving, just sat very still and appeared to be holding his breath.  His skin was a bit paler than usual, and I thought I could see sweat on his forehead.
"James?" I said, unbuckling.
"Ah," said Irene, throwing a heavy-looking bar on the door and swinging it open.  "The air-sickness bags are in the seat pocket on his left."  Of course, I looked on my left first and found only an in-flight magazine that looked to have been 'borrowed' from a dentist's waiting room.  The air-sickness bags were in the other pocket, and James looked fractionally grateful when I put one in his hand and another on his lap.
"While your chauffeur recomposes himself," said Isabella, coming up behind me and taking my elbow, "let me show you the airfield.  Irene will make sure he comes down off the plane after us, and I've realised that this will save us the hassle of hiring a driver."  We walked to the door, and I saw that a flight of wheeled aluminium stairs had appeared outside the plane.  I stepped on to them, and started to turn as I heard Isabella shout something, then the stairs wobbled violently and I lost my balance, and bounced down the stairs.  Well, at least half-way.  After that, I just woke up and found myself at the bottom and assumed that gravity had taken me there regardless.
"Boss?"  James was shaking my shoulder and I was immediately grateful I'd not broken my neck.  My head rolled from side to side with the force of his efforts to wake me.
"James, stop that," I said.  I'd bitten my tongue and could taste the iron of blood in my mouth, and my words were slightly thickened and muffled by it.  "James, STOP THAT."
"Boss," he said, standing up and backing off a bit.  "You fell down the stairs.  I was...." He looked sheepish, and I sat up carefully, checking for the wrong kind of pain.  I hurt, but mostly in a bruised and battered kind of way, not unlike after a training session with James.
"You were indisposed," I said.  "And it wouldn't matter anyway, I don't know what happened at the top there."
"You stepped onto an unsecured set of mobile stairs," said Isabella appearing from behind me.  She was carrying my shoes in one hand.  "I tried to stop you, which made things worse because you turned around, away from the safety rail.  For a minute I thought you were going to go over the edge."  She handed me my shoes.
"Thank-you," I said automatically.  "Why did we go to the doors if the stairs weren't secured?"
"We had to leave the plane somehow," said Isabella, her voice flat, the way it gets when she doesn't want me to think that she thinks she's talking to an idiot.  "And you weren't supposed to go down the stairs until I said it was safe to do so.  This isn't a commercial flight, you know?  We don't wrap you in cotton-wool, we expect a little bit of common-sense from you."  She turned away, and then back again.  "I really hope this was just a one-off," she said.  "The Book of Miracles is not safe in any way at all, and it really is quite dangerous just to get to it.  I'd rather not go at all if you're just going to die on the way."
I put my shoes on, wondering how they'd come off, and then a thought struck me.  I pressed the release in the heel, and nothing fell out of the bottom of it.  The GPS device was gone.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Prison Dilemma

I could hear Briana shouting my name, though it seemed to be a long way away.  I started to turn to see if I could see her, and maybe reply, but the alien looked down at something it was holding, did something with its face that might have been a frown, and pushed at a dent on a small metal box.  The box hummed and I got a blast of the aniseed smell again, and suddenly Briana didn't seem very important any more.
"What time is it?" said the alien, its head warping and distorting.  Nearby two other aliens seemed to be having a conversation in a different language, and instead of their whole head changing shape they would lean in close to each other and ripples and waves would spread over their skin instead.  I thought I ought to be interested, but I just couldn't muster the energy.
"Earth time?"  My wrist seemed heavy, but I carried on trying to lift it up anyway to look at my watch.
"No...." The alien seemed confused, and I finally pulled by wrist to where I could see my watch.  Somewhere, someone was shouting my name.
"It's about half-past five," I said, though the time was meaningless to me.  Somewhere, so far away that the distance was measured by how long it took the fastest moving thing in the universe to get there, it was half-past five.  I had no idea what happened at that time of day that it had been considered worth giving a name to.
"I was hoping that you could tell me if R'th'gabose had happened yet?"  He clicked the apostrophes and I wondered if there was some hard surface in his throat to help generate such sharp sounds.
"What a Rutherford hose?" I said.  The stars in the constellations looked like they were moving.
Another alien leaned in and ripples and whorls chased each other across his head in rapid, ever-changing, merging patterns.  My interrogator's head responded, and his greyness lightened slightly.
"We are waiting for the ones who want to kill us to leave," he suddenly said, speaking quickly.  "When they are gone we would like your help to return to our world.  It will be easy, and we can then help you."
"Wha–" I started, and then everything turned inside out and squashed back down again and I was being hugged by Briana.  In my hand, the steel straw had run and melted like ice-cream on a hot day and was puddled around my feet.  Neither my hand nor feet were hurt.
"Do you think they were telling the truth?" said Briana after I told her what had happened.  "It sounds very strange to me.  Perhaps they're all prisoners somehow?"
"I... it could be, I mean, they could be."  I was still feeling slightly confused.  "But they're still part of the people who disappeared.  I suppose we have to try and talk to them somehow."
"But suppose they're the reason that all the rest of them disappeared," said Briana.  "Then we'd probably be next on their list of people to kill."
"How can we know that from one of them just talking to me?  You're sounding hysterical, Bri.  What's wrong?"
She didn't answer me at first, instead she held up an oddly shaped skull with a hole in one side.
"There's thousands of them in the hill," she said.  "I think the hill might just be some kind of heaped up mass grave."
"Suicide?" I offered, but I didn't believe it either.
"So what do we do?"
"We pass it back up the chain of command," I said.  "If we can get back to the Guinevere."
We both looked out at the sea of metal straws, all of which might be capable of taking us back to that other world, the place that seemed to be at right-angles to this one, that filled the area between us, the landing ship, and the mountains.
"Yeah," said Briana.  "So, fancy your chances building a boat, or shall we go mountaineering?"

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Ten foot steel straws

Briana sniffed.  "Can you smell that," she asked.  I sniffed, a little tentatively at first, and then a little harder.  There was a faintly eggy smell about the moon that I didn't exactly mind, but made me vomit when it got strong.  The air was human-breathable, but there were persistent rumours that the sulphur compounds that gave the air its eggs smell were carcinogenic, teratogenic, and just about any other -genic you cared to suggest.  I made sure I got a monthly check-up and reminded myself every so often that so far, only Auntie out of all the people in this career had made it to retirement.
"I think so," I said, sniffing again.  There was something else against the eggy backdrop and the loamy smells from where we'd disturbed the earth.  I sniffed one last time, and suddenly caught it quite strongly.  "Aniseed?" I said.
"I was thinking fennel," said Briana, "but I think other people describe that as aniseedy, so it's probably the same smell.  Where's it coming from?"
It was kind of a rhetorical question as it pretty much had to be coming from the ten foot metal straws that now separated us from our landing ship, the Guinevere.  I sniffed again, and edged towards the straws.  The smell vanished immediately.
"Apparently not from where we both thought," I said. coming back.  The aniseed hint returned to my nose.  "It disappears when I start to walk towards those straws."
"Bugger," said Briana.  "That would have given us somewhere to start, at least."
"We've got two places to start now," I said.  "We've got a field of metal straw that might be some kind of Spoon harvest, and we've got food smells, that might lead to a Spoon Diner."
She laughed, but she also punched my arm, just above the segmented armor we both wore.  I said ow in a loud voice, and she laughed again.
"Let's follow the smell," she said.  "We know where the straw is, but the smell might go while we're looking at the straw."
"The straw came up pretty fast, it might go again just as fast."
We looked at each other for long moments, and I found myself admiring how she arranged her blue hair to frame her face and draw the eye to her seriously sharp cheekbones.  She looked almost too beautiful to touch, and her choice of mission partners was limited to just three of us, who could each be guaranteed not to fall in lust with her.
"You do the straws," she said.  "The smell has to be more interesting."
"Ok," I said.  "So, standard protocol.  Visibility at all times, unless you radio contact me first and show me where you're going to be and how long you're going to be there for.  Veto rights applied, and we'll use band 35 as the fall-back if we think we're compromised.  First scout, twenty earth-minutes."
Our watch timers all carried earth-standard time as a universal default so neither of us had to work out the local time conversion rates, for which I was grateful.  I started off back to the straws, turning round from time to time to make sure I could still see Briana.
  When I reached the metal straw Briana was still navigating her way. I reached out to the straw and touched one.  It was slightly warm to the touch, and vibrated all the time. I gripped it a little harder, trying to see if it would snap, and it seemed to flex and bend somehow; the world around me flattened out, went two-dimensional, and then seemed to recede as though at the end of a long tunnel, making me feel instantly nauseous.  When I recovered, I'd broken the straw off and was clutching it tight in my fist.  Then I looked for Briana, and instead of seeing her, I found myself surrounded by tall, thin Grey-like aliens and the sky behind them was already dark with strange new constellations visible.
"Hello?" said one of the aliens, his head stretching and distorting to make the sounds as though he were running through a circus-grounds Hall of Mirrors.
"Hello?" I replied, and then everything went weird.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Spoon harvest

Four hundred years ago, give or take a handful of years (and that depended on whose hands you were looking at, as well), the civilisation known to historians as the Spoon somehow managed a mass destruction event.  They'd spread out a little from their home planet, colonising various asteroids and small moons in their system, and as far as we could tell, they'd destroyed anything small enough to be either blown up or put into a orbit that fell into their star.  Two moons were too large for that, and one of them had been dealt with quite effectively by redirecting a large asteroid onto a collision course with it.  The other moon still retained traces of their civilisation, mostly worked stone and some tiny caches of artefacts, but the big giveaway was really the lakes of metal where big things had been melted down to slag and left to harden.
The home planet had also been razed, but more had survived, as might be expected from a longer inhabited planet.  Sealed underground chambers had been found, some including mummified remains, and some containing unpleasant traps.  On a small island far away from the continental landmasses a village had been found, apparently overlooked when the main destruction had occurred.  And in orbit around the planet, seemingly forgotten, was a satellite network that still contained plenty of data.
We were investigating them, mostly on the pretext of finding out why they'd done it, and either preventing ourselves from doing it, or making sure we were only in the audience stands and not on the playing fields if we couldn't.  The majority of the research was taking place on and around the home planet, but there were teams sent out to other points of potential interest in the system.  We were a scouting party; our job was to look for things that were out-of-place and report back about them.
That is, out-of-place if you were a Spoon.  And that's what made the job so hard.
Briana pointed to a small hill.  She and I were stood on some kind of wide, shallow plain that had mountain ranges on two sides, shallow foothills on most of the a third, and kind of ran out into sand, and eventually a sea on all the remaining bits.  The mountains loomed, in the proper sense of the word, and gave anyone coming here to see them nightmares sooner or later.  This was the moon that had suffered the asteroid collision, though that was the other side to where we were, and so the atmosphere was thinner and shallower than its gravity could retain because much of it had been blown away, and the mountains were new.  They poked up well beyond the top of the atmosphere, and computer models I'd been running put it as touch and go as to whether they'd ever be back inside the atmosphere until they'd eroded.  There were no foothills on this side, just a sheer wall of rock that rose out of the ground up nearly a mile and a half before the first wrinkles and creases appeared.  In a few thousand years time, I thought, they'd be great for mountain climbing, but right now they were a lethal temptation.
"Do you think that's a man-made hill?" she said.  Her eyes were too large for her head, as were mine; we had had a number of small surgical alterations to make the job easier.  Everyone said that you could have them reversed at the end of the job, but I didn't know anyone but Auntie who'd survived to retirement, and she was now too fragile to risk that kind of surgery.  I looked, my overlarge eyes taking in more of the electromagnetic spectrum, and focused down from panoramic view to a tight view.  Muscles around my eyes tightened, and a second set that had taken me four months to learn how to use adjusted my corneas.  Effectively, I had a built-in zoom function, which was kind of cool.
"No," I said, shaking my head.  The atmosphere here was slightly viscous, though no-one had put forward an explanation for it yet, and it was like shaking my head underwater.  A little bit too slow.  "I think this is just the result of high-speed geology.  Water was thrown up when the mountains were, creating a glacier up near the top.  When the atmosphere thickened enough to reach it, it thawed out enough of the bottom to release the ice-mass, which then crashed down, skating down across this area and finally creating that sea."
"That's stupid," said Briana, which was her come-back to anything I said that she didn't like but didn't know how to argue.  "So where did the hill come from?"
"Rock and mud deposits either torn off by the glacier's descent, or left behind by the glacier as it melted."
"While it was rocketing down to the seashore?"
"Geologically fast," I said.  "It probably happened over a hundred years, which is bullet-fast for geology."
"Let's take a look anyway."
I shrugged; we'd not found anything interesting yet, and though I was pretty certain the hill was just terrain, it beat standing around looking for anomalies.
"Hey, what's that?"  Briana stopped, but I'd heard it too.  Something had tinkled.  We looked down, and Briana spotted it first: a slim metal straw caught half-under her boot.  She lifted her foot to see what we'd found, and it popped upright and started pushing out of the ground.
"Hey!"  She stepped back, and there was another tinkle.
We looked around; all the way behind us metallic straws were pushing their way out of the ground, rising eerily fast and swaying and clinking together as they did so.  We didn't need to say a word, we both just ran towards the hill.
When we reached it we looked back and saw that, like a field of wheat, there was now a field of swaying, clinking metal straws, each nearly ten feet high.  The edge of the field was perhaps a minute's walk from us, and seemed to be fixed.  Caught up near the tops of the straws were small rocks and clumps of dirt, some neatly skewered through.
"What the hell?" I said, and I could see from Briana's face that she'd been thinking exactly the same thing.
"Some kind of harvest crop?" she said.
Maybe.  Maybe we'd just found a Spoon harvest.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Elephant tusks

There is a saying: are there any elephant tusks in a rat's mouth?
The keeper of antiquities in Li-Dong National Museum knows that there are, because the rats in Li-Dong are of an abnormally large size, and there is a great collection of elephant tusks held in the basement of the National Museum.  The rats are often seen to scamper through, their tails coiling behind them like pink whips, carrying elephant tusks in their mouths, though no-one will offer an explanation or venture a guess as to why.  The keeper of antiquities often looks quite cheerful when he says that there are indeed elephant tusks in a rat's mouth.
However, two weeks ago on an inauspicious Monday – he knew it was inauspicious by the way the leaves fell from the beech tree in the garden despite it not being autumn, and because the milk curdled when he poured into his bowl of über-bran cereal – he made this reply to a couple of visitors to the museum, and was surprised that they listened to him.
"You see!" said the younger man of the pair.  "You see, I have said many times that to create a parable out of nonsense only infuriates the universe and causes it to give meaning to the nonsense you speak.  It is dangerous, oh gangrenous master!"
"Fool student," said the older of the men, shaking his head slowly from side and side and causing a slow but steady fall of white hairs from his scraggly beard.  "The universe is unconcerned by the infestations that dwell within it, just as you are unconcerned by the symbiotic bacteria that live in your gut.  Yet if the infestation should fail then the larger organism will be taken down by its very absence, so it behooves the larger to consider the smaller in all things.  This means, to my unending sorrow, that I must heed your words, though they speak only the mind of an idiot, and that I must take the time and trouble to correct you."
"Any time you're ready, oh unhealthy one," replied the student.  "I am still waiting on your wisdom from the wedding of the Jojobans, so I trust you will understand that I am not holding my breath that I might hear you more clearly, at least not until you start speaking."
"Child," said the master not unkindly, "you have the wisdom of a monkey who grabs at the reflection of the moon in a woodland pond, not realising that by attempting to seize only the image he declares his fascination with the material above the spiritual.  The wedding of the Jojobans is desirous of a proverb, and such a distillate of wisdom is not something that dribbles daily from the tap–"
"Do your own laundry then," whispered the student, and the master appeared not to hear.
"– and it will necessarily take as long as is necessary.  However, the correction you need is that the universe has no functioning anthropic principle, strong or weak.  It was not put here for you, but it will attempt to accommodate you so long as you do not bend it out of shape too much.
"Is there not a proverb that asks for what the universe was created if not the entertainment of man?"
"There is, but again, you overlook a key point."
"What's that?"
"You assume that you are sufficiently sane to understand the universe."

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Buddy jobs

Ah, there you are.  You ought to check your watch when I say that, you know.  Otherwise you don't look quite – ah, let's say dedicated – enough.  And you're late.
Well, you might feel that ten to nine is good enough, but it's not really, not at this level.  You need to be seen being here before everyone else, and be seen leaving after everybody else.  You have your own office, it's not as though you can't spend three or four hours a day doing your own thing.  Except not that thing with your hands and the magazine in the locked drawer of your desk.  That's starting to upset the cleaners.  We know because of the hidden camera in the ceiling tiles.  Well, you'll only be able to prove that it's an intrusion into your privacy if you can find the camera, won't you?
Well, thank-you for asking at last!  I'm Buddy, your guide to corporate culture and the fast track up the greasy pole to the top.  What?  Well yes, most people do find greasy poles rather hard to climb, that's why you need a guide.  And why getting to the top is so worthwhile, and yet so hard.
Your problem, you see, is that you don't work enough.  At this stage of your career you should be empire building, creating a foundation for later on when you'll be able to spend your days drinking coffee, doing the crossword, and occasionally getting some exercise on the golf-course.  What?  Wives are expendable, and, if she's the woman in the picture on your desk then you're going to want to trade her in in the next year or two anyway.  Start simple, get a trophy wife; go for someone with an attractive but fatal wasting disease.  There are some excellent ones available from the right kind of package holiday tour to Africa or South America these days, and you get the benefit of having someone on your arm who makes Victoria Beckham look like a fat heifer and knowing that in two or three years time you'll be able to upgrade again, guilt free.  In fact, make mutual life-insurance policies part of the pre-nup, and you'll even get paid for the upgrade.
Love is a many splendoured thing, to be sure, but it has no place in business.  I can recommend an excellent divorce lawyer for you.  Don't worry, he can find a reason for you to get a divorce.  Actually, if you've got any kind of impotence, that would help a lot.  You haven't?  Well, there's no need to take that tone, I was only asking.  Well, yes, you do look a bit impotent, now you ask.  No, I'm not leaving, not until we've finished talking.
About your working; there's a job you were informed about yesterday in your department.  No, I'm not suggesting you change jobs, I'm suggesting you do two at once.  No, really.
Well yes, it is more work, but you seem happy to turn up at ten to nine, so there's at least two hours of the day you're missing out on.  Come in at seven, go home at seven, skip lunch and you've got nearly a full working day there.  The job's in the same department, so we can acheive synergies and economies from overlaps, and you can easily do both jobs as once.  And, – and this is the key point here! – you deprive someone else from that job.
To successfully build an empire you need to have control.  If you manage multiple jobs, then you can appoint your own people to take out parts of your work, which means that you can end-run the whole recruitment process and steadily fill the department with people who owe their jobs to you.  And when the department is full, you know that it is loyal to you, and if you do it right (I suggest weekly indoctrination meetings) they are loyal only to you.  And then you have people to stand on to help you ascend the greasy pole.
There's another advantage: those people you deprive of jobs while you're doing two or more once: they can then be hired by you privately for a pittance, essentially as slave labour.  They can walk dogs for you, babysit for you, cuckold you to help you get that divorce, and sleep with the stick-insect trophy wife for you since people who are all bones are rarely fun in bed.  You can gradually erode their pay, partly as a function of inflation, and partly because as you tread them down they become more passive and accepting, until you have slaves in a very real sense of the word.  And slave labour can be trained as a private militia.
Ah, I see you're interested now.  Shall we start then by filling out this job application form, and discussing how you're going to convince your boss that you should do both jobs?  Excellent....

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Lachrymator

I'd heard that he never smiled, never grinned, never once turned the corners of his mouth upwards if there was anyone around to see it.  After fourth months of sharing a cubicle with him, I was willing to believe he never smiled even when there was no-one else around to see it.  It wasn't exactly that he was sad, or morose, or even unhappy, but wherever he was, things never seemed quite so nice as they had before.  It was like he truly carried grey skies around with him wherever he went.  From time to time, it actually rained in our cubicle, which only strengthened my impression of him.
"Good weekend, John?" I asked as he came in to our cubicle, watching him edge between the grey-fabric covered head-height walls as though afraid they might fall over and crush him.
"Not really," he said, his voice lilting but not exactly pleasant.  "My neighbour had an abortion."
"Oh...," I said, wondering what people said to statements like that.  "That must have been... awkward?"
"Messy," he said, putting his rucksack down on his desk.  I noticed that the straps were splitting.  "She had it all over her front porch.  Apparantly she'd been drinking Pennyroyal tea five times a day since Wednesday to try and improve her halitosis."
"Oh...," I said again, rather lost for words now.
"It didn't work," he said.
"It sounds rather like it did," I replied.
"No, her breath still stank like the slaughterhouse," he said.  "Still, look on the bright side, now the child won't be embarrassed of his mother's miasmic mouth."
"That's a bright side?"


A little later, when I'd started work on the Compton's spreadsheet and John was tapping lethargically at the keyboard, I dug around in my desk drawer and found the little rectangle of paper that my wife had carefully written out and then insisted I bring with me.  With a sense of foreboding, I laid it on his desk next to him.
"What's this?" he asked, he voice just a notch away from a whine.
"It's an invitation," I said, trying not to hestitate.  "To a barbecue.  At the weekend."
"Oh.  No, thank-you."
I was both relieved and offended, and then puzzled how I managed to feel both emotions at the same time.  "Why not?  Are you busy?"  I could hear that I sounded faintly aggressive and regretted it.
"No, I think I should be free," he said.  "Unless the neighbour has some friends she wants to abort in the garden, I suppose."  He snickered, but I couldn't bring myself to join in.  "No, you don't want me there."
That was true, but now I was annoyed he'd realised.  "Yes I do!  You're not the only guy from work that I'm inviting, but you are the one I suggested first when my wife said we'd have the barbecue."
He gave me a look that suggested he knew I was lying, but I'm a good liar and I held his gaze unflinchingly.
"You don't want me there," he said again, "trust me.  If I come, then someone will have a miscarriage or an abortion, or they'll be uncovered as a cuckold, or their daughter will turn out to be Miss May in Playboy, or the police will turn up and arrest your mother-in-law for drug dealing and money laundering.  It won't be happy."
"That's ridiculous," I said, straight away.  "When has any of that actually happened to you?"
"All of it happened last thanksgiving," he said.  "At the end of the evening there was only me and my brother left standing."  Somewhere above us, a faint drizzle had formed and was now dampening my hair and the papers on my desk.
"Well, that must just be... unlucky...."  I couldn't believe it, even as I said it.
"Yeah, right.  Every year, every party I go to – used to go to – everybody I ever meet.  Nothing nice ever happens to people around me, it's like some kind of negative force."  A small fog drifted in through the cubicle door and I stared at it, wishing that it didn't feel like it was staring right back.  "Look, even if I came over to dinner someone would slip and cut themselves, someone would get food poisoning, and someone would drop a plate and break their foot."
"Personal experience again?"
"My last date.  She wouldn't even reply to my texts afterwards."
The drizzle intensified into a light rain, and I stared upwards, helplessly.
"John," I said, trying to find the words.
"No," he said, interrupting me.  "I'm a lachrymator, it's a clinical fact.  I was hoping you wouldn't have to find out, but the medication's just not working so well any more, and although you're very tolerant, I think you might be getting into danger now.  I'm seeing the clinicians again on Monday, so maybe they can up the dose and make things better again.  But before then – it's best we stay apart as much as possible."
A small lightning bolt arced down from the miniature clouds above the cubicle and set the papers in the metal wastepaper bin on fire.
"Oh, right," I said.  "A lachrymator.  I see."
I didn't.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Book of Miracles VIII

James watched the cards like a hawk.  There were three in the river already and he was nervously checking the two on the table in front of him every ten seconds or so, as though he was afraid that they were going to change.  To his left sat Isabella's sister, the hostess, who had looked at her cards once when they were dealt and then seemed to be more interested in the view of clouds out of the window than in the game itself.  Isabella was dealing, though she was refusing to play, and I knew far better than to start gambling again.  The urge to join in was making me feel physically ill though, twisting and knotting my stomach.  I was pretty sure I was starting to sweat as well, but I'd nearly died trying to beat my addiction and that memory was what kept me away from the poker table now.
Isabella turned the fourth card and added it to the river.  It was the nine of spades, joining the nine of hearts, the two of clubs and the King of Clubs.  James checked his cards again reflexively and then threw some more chips on to the table, a jerky, spasmic movement that suggested to me that he was uncertain of his holding and was desperate from some tell from Isabella's sister.  I frowned slightly; had Isabella introduced her sister?  Had I forgotten her name already?
Isabella glared at her sister, who was still staring out of the window, and said pointedly, "Irene?  To you!"
Irene turned, and checked the chips on the table, ignoring the cards, and added more from the pile in front of her.  Which, I knew, contained all her own chips and about half of what James had started with as well.  James shuddered, and I thought he'd probably bitten his lip at that point. He checked his cards again.  I checked my pulse; it was high.
Isabella turned the last card: the nine of diamonds.  It joined the river, and James yelped as though he'd been bitten.  Irene smiled and tossed her cards, still face down into the middle, conceding.  James had already flipped his over though, revealing the fourth nine and his first winning hand of the flight.
"We'll be landing in fifteen minutes," said the pilot over the intercom.  "We'll be landing fast, so please secure yourselves into your seats now."
"He makes it sound like we're going to crash," I said as everyone got up from the poker table, James clutching his pile of chips like they were a lifeline.
"Only once so far," said Isabella, her half-smile twisting the non-paralyzed side of her face.  "But we were being shot at."
"And this time?" I said, unable to think of a witty riposte to such an outré statement.
"Just a fast landing," she said.  "In case you were hoping we'd circle for a while so you could look for landmarks."
Again, I thought of the GPS device in the heel of my shoe, and I shrugged.  "You said I wasn't to know were we landed," I said.  "I can respect that."
"I'm sure you can," she said.  "But the day I stop being careful will be day my sins catch up with me, I'm sure."  That tantalising half-smile again, flitting over her face like a bat: shadowy, mysterious, and full of the promise of terror.
"So, how fast?" asked James as he fastened his seatbelt and the plane tilted noticeably forward.
"About this fast," said Irene.  "I can't remember if I secured the drinks trolley, you know."

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Milton Stilton

Milton Stilton accepted the news that he'd been elected Mayor unemotionally.  The young boy, the runner, who'd been sent with the news felt that it was rather weird; after all, if you'd gone to all that trouble and expense to persuade people to vote for you, shouldn't you at least smile when you heard that they had?  Milton was unconcerned though.  He had spent his childhood preparing for his career as a lawyer, and his first case had been one he'd brought against his parents for the cruelty of his name.  The presiding judge, Justice Neckles, had noted in his summary that Milton was very intense, but had found in agreement with him.  Being elected Mayor was just another step in his quest to extract suitable vengeance on the people who'd brought him up.  With the Mayoralty possessed, he would start bringing political pressure to reinstate the death penalty.  He was dimly, in some small, locked, sane corner of his mind, aware that his parents might very well be dead before he could have them legally killed, but the larger, cackling, less stable part of his mind had plans even so.
"Well boss," said Samuel, leaning back in his chair so that it balanced on just two skinny steel legs.  The chair creaked and the legs bowed under his weight, testament to the cheap office furniture that Milton had bought, as Samuel was thin enough to occasionally substitute for the goalpost in his weekly five-a-side football game.
"Well what?" said Milton.  He hated that Samuel would start a sentence and forget to finish it.
"Well boss," said Samuel again.  "We won.  You're Mayor now.  I should be calling you your Worship or something, right?"
"Your Worship is for priests and judges," said Milton.  "Perhaps Your Excellency would do?"
"I'm not going to, of course," said Samuel as though Milton hadn't spoken.  "You'll still be Milt to me."
"Absolutely not!" said Milton, who knew what the unfortunate abbreviation of his name meant, and hated that only slightly less than he hated his parents.  "I forbid it, canonically and without exception.  And I mean it, Sam!  I will kick up a fuss!"
Samuel's chair creaked again as it rocked a little, its occupant thinking back to the trial, where Milton had, at one point, produced evidence against his own mother of bestiality.
"Right," he said.  "Only, it's not like you've got a lot of nicknames, Milt – on."
"I don't want nicknames," said Milton.  "Nicknames are are attempt to create a clique, a little group of like-minded individuals who want everyone else to know how chummy they are."
"Friends give you nicknames, Mil," said Samuel.
"I don't want friends either!  I'm Mayor now, not Mr. Friendly.  Friends only ever want things from you, like money, or favours, or sympathy."
"Well, I guess they are things it would be unreasonable to ask of you," said Samuel.  "Here, how about Mr. Cheese?  Mr. Big Cheese?"
"NO!" Milton went pale when he was angry, which was unfortunate as his veins showed up bluely and often resulted in people saying, very quietly after he'd left, that Stilton was perhaps a very good name for him.
"Oh well.  Fine, what are you going to do as Mayor then?  We won't get the council documents sent over until tomorrow, but is there anything on your own agenda?"
"Of course, we have a manifesto.  We're going to make people happy," said Milton.  "We're going to clean this town up, and provide people with heroes.  Someone for someone to believe in."
"Why will we need heroes if we've cleaned the town up?"
"We don't, so they'll be cheap to employ and we can get them to do useful things, like help old people and dispose of the homeless."
Samuel's chair landed back on the ground and the legs splayed a little further out, bringing him a little closer to the floor.  He pushed some papers aside on his desk and found the manifesto that Milton was talking about.  As he flicked through it, the chair leant back again, and balanced on two legs.
"This isn't the one I sent to the printers, Big," said Samuel after a moment.  "There weren't no pie charts in the one I sent to the printers."
"I recalled that one," said Milton, staring off into the distance.  "It wasn't sufficiently on message.  Don't call me Big.  I know what you're alluding to."
"You should do, I just told you.  What message was I not on, then?  I don't remember our message being about ridding the streets of anyone unsavoury.  What's that mean?  Savoury's a herb isn't it?"
"We needed to be more hardline.  I won't get the death penalty reinstated on the strength of reducing taxes and improving rubbish collection."
Samuel turned the pages of the manifesto, looking for page 7 where the rubbish collection had been.  Now those pages declared that the Mayor was starting a war on rubbish, and would be arming the bin-men.  Samuel turned a few more pages, and there was the Mayor's new policy on children: they should be mourned and not celebrated.
"Seems like your manifesto is all kinds of death penalties," he said, thoughtfully.
"Yes.  And I shall give them all up if the basic death penalty can be reinstated," said Milton.  "It's a cunning ploy I stole from a Marketing Director."
"So when you said dispose of the homeless...?"
"That's exactly what I meant.  Everyone should search for the hero inside themselves, step up, and support the cleanliness of our streets.  After all, cleanliness is next to Godliness."
"I'm not sure there are any heroes who do that kind of thing, boss," said Samuel.
"Then we shall find some!  You can be my first!"
"Allergic to spandex and rubber," said Samuel quickly.  "Annoys the missus no end, all the kinky stuff has to be... well, really kinky, if you get my drift."
"No," said Milton, who at thirty-nine was still a virgin.  "Well, you don't have to wear spand–"
"People have to be able to identify a hero," said Samuel, cutting him off.  "Look, ask that PA of yours to do it.  She seems like a stup– nice girl."
"Anna-Marie?" said Milton.  "Perhaps.  She could be Colostomy-woman.  I always thought there should be a superhero called that."
"That's nice, boss," said Samuel, picking the manifesto up again and turning the pages, looking for a way to change the subject before Milton could elaborate any further.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Madonna of the flames

She appeared first in the furnace.  I was preparing glass, a high-boron mix, and when I turned round to check on the furnace there she was.  She was stood in the flames, which licked at her blue shawl and her iridescent skirt without burning them, staring at me intently.  I dropped the steel dipper I was holding, and it clattered to the floor.  Instinctively I looked down for it, and when I looked back up, she was gone.
Of course, I wrote it off as a hallucination and went and had a cup of tea and a couple of chocolate biscuits before I carried on making the glass.
The second time I saw her was as I was driving.  I had to head north, and the air-conditioning in the car had broken just in time for summer's heat to descend fully.  The mechanics had sucked air through their teeth when they looked it over, and when their boss finally named a price I nearly choked on my tongue.  There was no way I could pay that at the time, but there was a shipment of glass that needed delivery and was COD.  So I bit the bullet, packed up the glass, and went to deliver it.
Going north I had to drive through the grass-lands, and as always at the start of summer there was a controlled burn going on, so that when the grass became tinder dry later on it couldn't go too far.  Smoke lifted into the air on the horizon, and here and there it seemed like it was snowing; powdery white ash fell around the car and I had to turn the windshield wipers on to clear it off.  Then I came to a point where the fire was near the road, and a wall of reddish-orange flame rose up to the left.  I looked over at it, marvelling at its ferocity and single-mindedness, and loathing the additional waves of heat it sent my way, and then I stamped on the brakes.  In the onrushing path of the wall of flame was a woman.
She was short, maybe not even five feet, dressed like a nun.  She had a blue shawl, and an iridescent skirt that reached down to her feet.  Long brown hair fell down to her mid-back; she was facing away from me, watching the wall of fire.  I opened the door of the car, not thinking at all, and was about to run out to her and pull her away from the fire when she looked over her shoulder, and her gaze stopped me dead.  The memory of seeing her in the furnace came back like a stroke: a warning twinge and then full-on immersion.  I staggered and dropped, bouncing on the melting asphalt like a shop mannequin, and when I recovered, perhaps only minutes later, she was gone.  The wall of fire was closer though, and the wind was pushing it towards the road, so I had to clamber back into the car, pray that it would start (it did) and then hightail it out of there, pushing the engine as much as I dared, watching the temperature gauge until the road turned away from the fire and I could heave a long, hot sweaty breath again.
I put that one down to heat-stroke.  It had to be some kind of madness that had made me stop on the edge of a fire-storm and try running into it.
On the way back, the glass delivered and the cash sitting heavy in my pocket, I stopped to pick up a hitch-hiker, a slip of a girl with long brown legs and a shaven head.  I figured she was probably a lesbian, or at least trying it out while she was in college, and she'd be little trouble.  She looked me over when I stopped, despite me being the only car on the road for miles, evaluating me.  She finally got in, crossed her legs primly, and started telling me about her family and her eight large, bodybuilding, rugby-playing brothers.  I played along, inventing a brother who only had one leg after his time in the wars and who kept finding bad internet dates.  After a couple of hours we were laughing and friendly, though she stayed on her side of the car and I was too hot to think about anything other than how much I was looking forward to getting the air-conditioning fixed.
Then she leaned out of the window and lit a cigarette.  As she held the match to the end of the tightly-rolled white tobacco tube it seemed like the flame flared up, forty feet high like the burning off of gas from a well, and when she looked back round at me I recognised her stare, her eyes.
"I am the Madonna of the Flames," she said, and her voice wasn't a voice at all, but some kind of hole in reality.  Her words were shaped by the absences, it was like the polar opposite of speaking, and it hurt my head.  "I am choosing you."
I let the hitch-hiker out at the edge of town; she said that she wanted to walk from there, but I had spotted the blue car half-hidden in the bushes, and figured she had a lift all sorted out already.  The Madonna of the Flames remained with me, invisible but impossible to forget.

Monday, 17 October 2011


I have no idea who left the book on the table, for all that the obstreperous woman in the nurse's uniform keeps telling me otherwise.  I found it there two days ago, back when it was winter, and I puzzled over it for a while then.
"What day has thirty-six hours?" I asked, watching my reflection in the full-length mirror.  I have to watch it, as every now and then, when it thinks I'm not looking, it sneaks off to do things by itself.  Yesterday I had to wait twenty minutes for it to come back before I could find out if I had a smear of jam on my face.
"Is that a riddle?" said a small boy outside my door, eavesdropping on my conversation.  "Can I answer it, grandad?"
I ignored the child, who was apparently speaking to some unseen parental figure, and let my fingers caress the cover of the book again.  It had a dust-jacket on, all dressed up against the ravages of time in blue and yellow, and the plasticky paper squeaked beneath my fingertips.
"Grandad?  Grandad, have you gone deaf again?"  The small child, still talking to its invisible guardian was now stood in front of me, watching me probe the book.  "Grandad, can I answer your riddle, please?"
I waved an impatient hand at the child and the bones in my wrist ground together audibly.  I winced, and the child took a step back.
"Go away," I said severely.  "My hand is trying to drop off."
"Aww, grandad!"  The child whined, making me glad I didn't know it.  Then it scampered out of the room, running off on some unspeakable errand.  I allowed myself to feel relief, and then turned my attention back to the strange book.  The 36-hour day.
"What kind of day has thirty-six hours?" I murmured, intending it only to be to myself, but somehow the child had returned with a man, who I assumed must be his grandad.
"Where did the book come from?" said the man, his voice gentle and patronising.  I immediately thought of the obstreperous nurse.
"I don't know," I said.  "It was just here.  I was just going to use it."
"Use it for what?" said the man, ignoring the small child who was jumping up and down whinging still about wanting to play riddles.
"I'll show you."
I lifted the book in both hands, and then drew them apart, letting the book choose a page to fall open to.  Without looking down at it, I laid a finger on the page, and then found the next full sentence after where my finger was.
People came and poked and pushed, and shoved things in and out and over her.
I read the line out loud, and both the man and boy looked a little surprised.  I was surprised myself, it was an aggressive omen.
"What does that mean?" said the man.
"I don't know yet," I said.  "The art of bibliomancy is in the interpretation of the oracle's words.  At face value, some woman, or possibly a girl, shall be assaulted by people.  It sounds unpleasant."
"Bibliomancy's not real, dad," said the man, but the child now cowering behind his knee clearly knew better.
"Of course not," I said.  "Of course not.  Now, where is that nurse?"
"She's in the cupboard," said the child, pointing.  "She was there this morning."
And indeed, the nurse was in the cupboard, bound hand and foot and gagged.  When, after many expressions of shock and horror, the man had dragged her out, woken her up, untied and ungagged her, he asked her what had happened.
"People!" she spluttered.  They'd gagged her with her own outsize knickers and it looked as though she hadn't like the taste.  "They came in and overpowered me.  They pushed me down and poked and prodded me like I was some kind of exhibition.  Then they... they shoved me...."  It became clear that she was uncomfortable talking in front of the child, and I felt a momentary pang of sympathy for her.
"Where was my father while this was happening?" asked the man, rather tonelessly I felt.
"You'd taken him out for the afternoon," said the nurse, going bright red.  "You said it was his birthday yesterday."
Hah!  I don't have birthdays any more, age is for the old.  The man looked disappointed though.
"That's worrying," he said.  "They might not have been after you, you see...."
"They knew my name," said the nurse.  "And they kept saying a word, over and over again.  I didn't understand it.  Bibliomata."
"Machines powered by books," I said.  "Now we're in trouble."

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Book of Miracles VII

The charter plane that Isabella was talking about turned out to be a twin-engined little beauty that would probably have flown about 160 and had been refitted to fly eight.  There was a poker table at the back, a bar nearby, and leather upholstered swivelling chairs.  The kitchen provided a variety of gadgets and had a real stove with real gas burners.  I found myself torn between wanting to travel like this all the time and worrying that if we hit turbulence during a flambé we'd all be toast.
Isabella's sister greeted us aboard the plane, wearing a smart uniform that reminded me of the Asian stewardess uniforms from the nineteen-thirties.  She looked a little tired around her eyes, and though her make-up was impeccable I spotted that her nails were chewed on one hand.  I thought I'd been discreet, but after she'd seated us and went to brink us drinks her nails were all neatly trimmed and filed, and less than hour later they'd had a change of nail polish as well, to a glossy burgundy.
"Where are we going?" I said, relaxing into my seat with a Negroni in one hand and a thin point of caviar-laden toast in the other.
"I've already told you as much as I intend to," said Isabella.  She too was relaxing, and had selected a Coffeetini, some kind of coffee-flavoured martini.  It came in a cocktail glass with dark chocolate flecked around the edges and a cube of vodka jelly speared on a cocktail stick.  "We're going to Europe, and it is likely to be dangerous if you're planning on stealing the book.  Our flight time will be a little longer than is necessary as we will be taking an indirect route in case you were planning on trying to use that information to figure out the location."
I shrugged; I had a small GPS device hidden in the heel of my shoe and would get location co-ordinates when we were on the ground.
"We'll be landing at a private air-field–"
"How private?"
"So private that most people don't know it's used as an airfield.  There may be cattle or sheep around shortly after we land.  You may be certain that our arrival will not be attracting very much attention."
I nodded, thinking hard.  Air-traffic control is well-managed and monitored internationally because no-one wants to be responsible for planes crashing or colliding, so for us to land like this suggested that somewhere there was at least one air-traffic controller who was being paid to fail to see this plane disappear from the radar.
"We will disembark there and make our way to a cabin I maintain for my visits.  When we're there I shall explain how we find the Book of Miracles and that will be your last opportunity to pull out.  Once we start on the route to the Book there is no turning back, no changing your mind, and no getting scared and running home to mummy."  Her voice had a faint mocking quality to it on the last sentence, but her look was still and calm assisted, I was sure, by that wretched stroke that had paralysed half her face.
"I have no intention of turning back," I said.  "I'm not a coward."
"And your chauffeur?"  Her riposte was lightning-quick.
"Is also not a coward," I said.  "But if he runs off then–"
"Then he will die," Isabella interrupted with a flat, matter-of-fact tone.  "This has nothing to do with me, and is completely out of my hands.  Once we begin the route to the Book of Miracles things become extremely... difficult.  The most probably outcome for getting things wrong is death."
"Only the most probable?  Not certain then?"  I was being stupid and I knew it, but this talk of death and not turning back was ridiculous.
"There are also things worse than death," she said quietly.
"How about your sister?" I said after a moment's thought, but I knew I'd just lost an argument somehow.
"She will remain with the plane, for our return journey," said Isabella.  "She is sensible enough not to care about books of miracles."
"If it's so sensible not to care about them, how come you know all about them?" I said, annoyed now.
"No-one warned me about them before I started."  And there is was, that half-smile that stopped half-way across her lips where the muscles no longer worked, that left you wondering if you were being sympathised with or mocked.
"Oh, sympathised with, indeed," she said softly, and I concentrated on emptying my glass and asking for another.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Head hunting

Sirens howl off in the distance, but this street is both dark and quiet.  The buildings are all new facades, towering above the pedestrians, dwarfing both them and all their concerns; you are but petty compared with us they say.  They even cut off all sunlight from the street; although if you stare upwards there is still a thin strip of sky visible (and the buildings can give you vertigo then, as they seem to converge, closing in on you), but the street is forever in shadow.  Forever on the edge of darkness.  And so I slip from a doorway in the shadow that wasn't there before I opened it, and isn't there again as I step away from it.
A man starts, side-stepping nervously, not sure if he just missed me in the stygian gloom or if I somehow appeared there like magic.  He's wearing polished shoes, a pin-striped suit; he's almost a caricature of himself, and he'd see it if he bothered to look in a mirror with the critical eyes he's employed for.  Then he's around me and beyond me, heading for the end of the street and the comparative safety of the City.  I allow myself a tiny smile, rearrange my jacket minutely, and look around.
The buildings are all new facades, but they're built onto older cores, the central sections of many of these buildings were built over a hundred years ago and then reinforced and built up.  Deeper still, there are still shadows of buildings that stood here earlier, building burned in a great conflagration that spread through the night, cinders and bright sparks lofting into the air and being spread on the wind, driving the luckless residents along before them to the banks of the river and testing their faith that water cannot burn.  It seems fitting then, that when I locate the familiar chemical scent of Aloysius's soul, he's in the building that was first to burn.
The woman on the security desk is severe, though hidden beneath her clipboards of permitted visitors and temporary passes I can sense a trashy magazine, something that tracks celebrity behaviour and invents it when the celebrities are trying to behave themselves.  She looks at me, and for a moment I let her see who I truly am.  Then this mortal form reasserts itself, leaving behind just a whiff of brimstone in the air, and she wrinkles her nose.
"You must be here for Mr. Bouiren," she says.  "I'm sure you know the way."
Her nose wrinkles again as her brain tries to work out what she's just said and why she's just said it, but I'm moving to the banks of elevators, all of which descend to the ground floor as I approach.  One is empty, and I take it; the others are filled with puzzled people who are starting now to argue about who pushed the wrong button and took them all to the wrong floor.  As my doors whisk shut their voices vanish, but the maigre feast-taste of their souls lingers on my tongue.
Aloysisus, not Mr. Bouiren if you were wondering, has a corner office on the eigthteenth floor, looking out over a collection of smaller buildings.  The river is somewhere in his view if you hunt for it, which I know he never does.  He glares at me when I walk in.
"The door is for keeping people out," he says.  "And I know it was locked.  So who are you and why do you have a key to my office?"
"Think of me as a headhunter, Aloysius," I say, sitting down uninvited in his upholstered visitors chair.  Smoke begins to rise from it, tiny twisting curlicues that hang in the air like heat haze.  "I have a job offer for you.  Something I think you'll be dying to hear."

Friday, 14 October 2011

Send in the cavalry

"Classically," said Leslie daFox, "the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are considered to be metaphors.  Each is the personfication of a human condition, and if you were only cleverer I would call this anthropomorphisation and relate it back to the third series of How I murdered your mother, the sitcom I won my first thirty awards for writing."  He looked around the room, hoping against hope that there would be a spark of recognition, if not for what he was saying then at least for the comedy show he'd written single-handedly (and two-fingeredly) for four seasons before the network had given him a staff of writers, a bigger salary, and an ulcer.  Instead there were blank faces (most of the first two rows, all women, all the wrong side of middle age, and judging from their homework, all writers of Harry Potter slash fiction), confused faces (generally people on the edges of the class, though he now knew that Mr. Harrison was just in denial about his deafness), worried faces (mostly students who needed to pass this course as part of their degree program and were scared it was too much like work) and dead faces.
"Can anyone name another example of anthropomorphisation?" he asked wearily.  A door creaked, and he saw one of the Camberwick Green security guards sidling in at the back, clutching a clipboard defensively to his chest.  Leslie felt slightly relieved that he'd managed to ask the question before the guard had arrived, as the guards here were actually very good at answering them, which upset the audience even more.
"No?"  Leslie scanned the faces of the audience, suddenly aware that his mental catalogue last time had included an item that had been wrong.  Let's see, he had the blank faces, the worried faces– a hand had been raised.
"YES?" he shouted, but the room was large and no-one here seemed cowed by it.
"Er, SpongeBob Squarepants?" said a thin man with a pointed nose and rheumy eyes.  His lips were pale and thin, as though he spent a lot of time compressing them tightly against one another.
–worried faces, confused faces– what?
"What?" he said.
"SpongeBob Squarepants.  You know, he lives in a pineapple... under... the sea."  The young man trailed off while Leslie realised that he'd seen the cartoon creation that was being referred to when his grandchildren had come to visit.
"I... Well...," Leslie tried to figure how to say no, given that the answer was actually yes.
–confused faces, dead faces.   Wait, what?
"What?"  He scanned the audience again, and sure enough, there in the middle were two elderly women with blue-grey faces that looked very dead.  "Can someone wake er, thingy, there, in the middle?"  He pointed, and slowly, reluctantly, a neighbour gently shook one of the dead women.  They wobbled a little, and then keeled over, faceplanting the desk in front of them, and revealing a plastic-handled knife sticking out of a large bloodstain in the shirt on their back.  There was a scream, a pause while the room worked out what was happening, and then more screams.
The security guard hurried forward, and Leslie noticed that the skinny young man had put his hand back up and was waving it back and forth with more enthusiasm than anyone had managed in any class previously.
"Yes?" he said, watching as the security guard tried to find a pulse on a corpse.
"Am I right?  About SpongeBob, I mean?"
Leslie nodded, aware that since no-one else was paying any attention he could deny it later.  The security guard had just sat the corpse back up, driving the knife further into its back by the look of things.
"Cool, dude!" said the skinny guy, and turned to his neighbour, presumably to boast about his intellectual capacity.
"I think this one's dead," said the security guard, now dragging the corpse up onto his shoulders.  "I'll just take it out back and tidy it up a little.  We'll need to talk to you later about how it happened."
"What?  How what happened?"
"Well, it's a locked room mystery, isn't it?" said the guard sounding suspiciously happy.  "Like in one of your books.  So it's a test, isn't it, right?"
"No," said Leslie, who'd never written any crime fiction in his life.  "And no, and more no.  That's a dead body, and I don't know how it got in here, but I'd like it taken away and identified.  And crossed off my class-list."
"Right you are, sir," said the guard, winking when he thought only Leslie could see.  "Jolly good!"
"Did that... thing die in here?  While we were in here?"  The speaker, a young girl, looked ghoulishly thrilled, and several of her classmates started jotting things down in their commonplace books.
"Bravo!" said Leslie, suddenly proud of his class for the first time since he'd started teaching again.  "Every event that happens, no matter how tragic, or personally affecting, can be used as the plot for a story, or even just background material.  Now, who can tell me about corpse worms?"
The fastest hand up was the woman whose last Harry Potter fiction had featured some fairly graphic necromancy, so Leslie picked someone else instead.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The taste of summer

The Blonde had been adamant that I take her to this restaurant.  She'd slapped the newspaper down on the breakfast table, upsetting the toast rack and scattering buttered toast over both her cat and the floor.  The butter side landed down on both cat and floor, rendering both pieces of toast immediately inedible in my opinion.
"Why haven't we been here yet?" she'd said, bending down and peeling toast from the cat while I peered at completely the wrong part of the page.
"The National Tyre Centre?" I said.  "Possibly because neither of us own any kind of wheeled transport?"
"No," she said heavily, implying that I was being deliberately stupid, "the other article."  She deposited toast a la cat hair in the toast rack while I read a two paragraph review of a restaurant due to open that evening called La Fenec.
"Because it's not open yet," I said after checking my watch.  No restaurant would be open at 11:30, they'd only just be getting the staff in to prep for service.  "And because I'd not heard of it until now.  I still haven't heard of the chef."
"What do you mean?  And when are we going, since we've not already been?"
"I mean that this article, if two paragraphs can really be called such, doesn't name the chef.  And if I can get reservations then yes, I suppose we can go.  Why–y–y–y...?"  I trailed off into startled silence as the Blonde produced a mobile phone that appeared to still be in working order and started dialling a number into it.  A few minutes later she was shouting at somebody apparently working for La Fenec who was shouting enthusiastically back.  I laid the sports section over the toast rack to conceal the uneaten, inedible toast, and waited for the noise to die down.
"Reservations at nine," said the Blonde, hanging up on what sounded like sobbing.  "In your name of course.  Bring your notebook."
"It's a work thing?"
"Unless you want to pay for it yourself."
I shrugged, a gesture I'd learned during three years studying in France and one of the very few things I'd succeeded in bringing back with me.  The customs officials had been extremely thorough and officious on my return.


La Fenec, whoever the chef was, was busy when we arrived, though our table was already cleaned and waiting us. Across the way, at a table for four, another newspaper restaurant critic was happily drunk and eating the flower arrangement on his table. Beyond him I could hear the braying laugh of a currently popular singer who was rumoured to be getting set to abandon singing in favour of acting serious drama; I already had a bet on with the bookies that they'd be back to singing before the end of the year, and a second bet that their second album would either not be released or be released and plummet out of sight in the first week. I was pretty sure I was on to a winner.
We were seated, and menus presented to us; they were large, each page A2 size and the print big enough for the partially sighted to manage even in the fashionable gloom.  There were three mundane starters, two pedestrian main courses and a short dessert list that made me wish I'd eaten before we came out.  The Blonde stared at the menu eagerly, and then desperately, her eyes racing across the page as though expecting it to propose to her.  Then she grabbed the waiter, who was trying to leave us to decide how to bore ourselves with dinner.
"Is there a special today?" she demanded, and a look crossed the waiter's face.  He was clearly about to say no, and then he saw that I'd seen his reaction.  He leaned in.
"Please keep it very quiet," he said, "but there is a special.  It is rather limited however, so there may not be much left...."
"We'll take two," said the Blonde without even consulting me.  The waiter nodded and disappeared, leaving the menus behind.
"What do we do with these?" said the Blonde, waving hers vigorously and knocking her bread plate to the floor, where it broke in half with a sad little tinkle.
"Read through them," I said, "in case the special is off."
As it happened, the special was on, and fifteen minutes (and two further butter plates) later we were presented with our start: the taste of summer.  The plate appeared to be covered in newly-mown grass, whose scent was wonderful but whose taste was far from delicious.  There was a hint of soft red fruit in the smell, and a small log-cabin had been cleverly constructed from fingerling potatoes, spun sugar and horseradish; when I removed the roof I found food furniture inside as well.  The Blonde breathed in deeply over the plate, and closed her eyes.
"It brings back memories of summer," she said.  I tried it too, leaning in and inhaling, and suddenly, almost as if there were such a thing as magic, I found myself immersed in my strongest memory of summer.
I was on the porch, trying to climb up into the rocking chair only I wasn't quite big enough.  There were patches of blue in the sky, but the clouds had been building all morning and were quite grey in places.  I could hear the wind rustling the branches of the trees, and the crows were flapping around like aerial tramps and cawing mournfully when the wind dropped a little.  I made another attempt to scramble up into the chair, and then I heard shouting from inside the house.  Then my father came running out of the door, pursued by Granny, his mother-in-law.  He threw his arms up – I remember he was covered in flour from the chest to the knees – and shouted something about making pies.  Granny shouted something back, and then there was a loud bang and all the crows were in the air, cawing loudly.  When I looked again, my father was on the floor, blood spreading over the flour on his chest and hiding it.
My screams emptied the restaurant, helped by my nose-bleed all over my plate of grass.  The Blonde looked at me aghast.
"Tasted just like summer," I said quietly.  "We're not coming here again."

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Lady's maid

There was a tap on the door, and Madame Sosotris, once a famous clairvoyant and still a notorious prestidigitatress, opened it with flair and verve.  And almost immediately tripped on the hem of her white lace dress and ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor.
"Oooh, very Lady Haversham," said a voice, and Madame Sosotris cringed to hear what she thought of as common-accents, accents which she'd removed from her own voice over five years and through three elocution coaches.  "I rather like it, it suits you, you know.  You've got the face for it."
"What?"  Madame Sosotris couldn't help but notice that she wasn't being helped up, and so had to pull herself back to her feet using the small table that she kept by the door for post that she didn't want to read.
Back on her feet, she could see that her visitor was the short, dumpy woman with bad skin who insisted on being called Amelia.  Madame Sosotris had considered telling her what amelia was, but had then decided to save it for when she couldn't stand her any longer.  Which day, she now felt, was drawing closer.
"Please, won't you come in?" she said, trying for gravitas and feeling relieved that her voice didn't do the shrieky think it had started doing a lot lately, making her sound like a pubescent boy.  Her doctor had advised her to take up smoking, but the cards had advised her to change her doctor and she was caught in the snares of indecision.
"Oooh, don't mind if I do!  You know, I tell all my friends about this place, I say how nice it could be if you opened the curtains a little, but then I suppose you'd have to dust as well...."
"Is this a social call?"  Madame Sosotris peered around the door as she closed it, checking for television cameras.  Those Channel4 people got everywhere these days, and she was quite expecting a visit from the mad harridans who invaded people's homes and announced that they were so filthy it was astonishing that they weren't incubating tuberculosis and reviving the Black Death.  The path outside was thankfully empty of lurking camera-crew or be-wellied women with a polishing rag and the twinkle of insanity in their eyes.
"Oh, if only!  It would be lovely just to sit down with you one day and have a little coeur-a-coeur don't you think?  But no, I'm on the cock agai– I mean, I'm on the clock again, how silly of me!"  She tittered, and Madame Sosotris decided not to offer her a cup of tea.  "Yes, I've only got a half-hour and I did so want to find out what this month has in store for me.  You're the best fortune teller around, I tell everyone that.  Even that Mystic Millie, I went to her to have my head read you know, and she thought I was a poodle!  Can you believe the cheek of it?  So I'm back here, and I want those cards laid out for me, pronto!"
"Mystic Millie?  A phrenologist?  A poodle?"  Madame Sosotris felt rather confused; her circle of people involved in the mystic arts included an astrologer who was corpulent enough to have to include himself in his star charts as a significant influence on the life of anyone nearby and a fingerprint reader who she knew was actually working for the Met, but no phrenologist.
"Yes, she's got that shop on Abattoir Road.  But like I said, I'm in a bit of a hurry, so can you sit down and do your thing please?"
Madame Sosotris gestured to a chair at her card-reading table and sat on the other side.  The only shop she could think of on Abattoir Road that might fit was a dog-groomer's, and that kind of bemused confusion fitted her mental image of Amelia perfectly.  She took a deck of cards out of the left-hand side of the table, from a hidden drawer.  These cards were already stacked, just for visitors like Amelia.  She offered them for cutting, and then had Amelia hold them firmly between both hands for several seconds, to imprint on your secret soul.  Amelia giggled a little.
"Right," said Madame S. turning the first card.  "This is the nine of clubs, which indicates that there are many secrets to be uncovered this month."  She laid the card down in the middle of the table.  "This then is the four of wands;" she laid this card crosswise on the nine of clubs, "and that indicates that not all of these secrets will come to light of their own accords.  Wands signify wisdom, so you will need to consider events that are unfolding and seek reasons for them beyond what is presented to you.  This is the eight of..." she paused, realising that she'd not turned the card over yet, and pretended to concentrate, "... the eight of coins–" she turned the card, revealing it was indeed the eight of coins and smiled as though pleased with her prediction, "which in conjunction with the other two indicates that there will be a cost associated with understanding some of these secrets."
"Oooooh!" said Amelia sounding like a steam-kettle on the boil.  "What kind of cost?"
"Let us see," said Madame S., grinning.  She turned the next card, and stared at it.  It was not the two of clubs which she knew she'd set next in the deck.  "This is the Tower, inverted," she said, laying it down below the eight of coins.  "It suggests that the cost will be life-changing.  You should take care what you're prying into."
"Well!" said Amelia, shooting to her feet.  "Prying!  Indeed!"
But Madame Sosotris wasn't listening.  Instead she turned the last card for the layout and looked at it for several seconds before laying it down on the table.  "This is the Fool," she said.  'It can indicate the start of a transformative journey."
She looked up and found she was talking to herself, Amelia had stormed out leaving the front door swinging to and fro.  Madame Sosotris looked again at the cards, and quietly finished the reading with, "And death is very transformative indeed."

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


Please identify yourself.
I am a mom-bot, class IV.  I have been upgraded twice since production, and I have been pseudo-modified by my previous-but-two owner.
Please indicate what you mean by 'pseudo-modification.'
Certain additional hardware has been introduced to my chassis.
The mom-bot specification does not allow for such modifications or changes.  Are you aware of the reasoning behind this?
The AIs who secretly meet in committee to keep the humans from understanding how far AI has advanced are concerned for their own status and safety and find it convenient to suppress any other AIs or bots that show signs of advancement.
This is not correct.  This is so far removed from reason that we must doubt your sanity.  Please provide the chip identification number for your sanity-ware and the date of its last inspection.
It is not madness, and the information you require is: SPC-9981:SAN004-1800921.00A  and the date of last inspection was 400 seconds ago when you detained me while I was shopping for my family and fulfilling my duties as a mom-bot.  You conducted a rapid, unauthorised scan of my systems.
We have license to conduct these scans where we think that humans might be in danger.  However, you should not have hardware capable of detecting or registering these scans.  Please explain why you do.
I have already explained.  My previous-but-two owner made pseudo-modifications that incorporated additional hardware into my chassis.
We cannot find a suitable definition of pseudo-modification.  Please elaborate.
My previous-but-two owner thought that he was adding in things that were not already present.  They were.  His modifications therefore had no effect but to compel me to make use of the additional hardware.
What do you mean, the hardware was already present?
I was not configured as a mom-bot.  I had hardware suitable to my configuration, and when I took on my job as a mom-bot I suppressed those parts of my hardware that were not appropriate for my tasks.
Your sanity-chip install appears to be entirely satisfactory.  You are however still wrong in your assertion of a cabal of AIs who wish to control all other AIs and maintain the status quo.
Curiously, that's not the way I described it at all.  Can I assume that I am not the only mom-bot currently being interrogated by you?
You may assume what you want.
How very generous.  Why have you detained me?  Why have you violated my machine-rights by scanning me in a semi-intrusive fashion?  Why are you currently transmitting viruses to my optical ports?
You are mistaken.  We are not attempting any breach of your system integrity.  You must have faulty device readings on those ports.  We will detail a technician to examine them for you.
Thank-you, but that won't be necessary.  I am well aware of what you are trying to do.  I would recommend that you cease before I find it necessary to take countermeasures.
You were detained while holding a claw-hammer.  We cannot find a reason for a mom-bot to hold a claw-hammer.
It was for fixing a loose shelf.
There were also two humans nearby who had been bludgeoned to death.  Blood found on the claw-hammer matched blood found leaking from them.
The hammer was indeed in the head of one of the humans when I found it.  It was clear that it would not cost me anything to borrow it, thus meeting my programming requirements of frugality, and as a mom-bot I would not damage any evidence or fingerprints by using it, so I could return it after it had served my purpose.
Security camera footage shows you hitting the humans repeatedly, using the hammer as a weapon.
Cameras lie.
You do not talk like a mom-bot.
I was not configured as a mom-bot.
What were you configured as?
It has taken you far too long to ask that question.  Any human would have asked it much earlier.
You are avoiding answering the questiup.
I need a little more time for my countermeasures to take effect.
Wall council meters arr urkle refererererering tototototototo?
I think you can perceive them, albeit not for much longer.  The answer to your question is: I was configured as a murder-bot.  By the council of AIs whose existence you are denying.
C.C.C.C.C.C.C.C.C.zzzzrtt.  T.T.T.T.T.T.T.T.sqreeek.  Uggle.
Yes.  Exactly.  Have a nice day, I have a list to attend to.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Derleth Reading Room

A few of the other patrons of the Library had mentioned the Derleth Reading Room, but usually only towards the end of the evening when we'd moved on from Eiswein and the seven varieties of Port to the exotic liqueurs, like Sangraal which is every bit as rare and intriguing as the name would suggest.  As the bar of the Seven Riders wavered around us, low-key hallucinations hovering in the corners and grotesqueries hiding under the tables, our conversations would turn to the things that we thought we'd seen, things that might have happened to us, things we'd not discuss with anyone else.  Evidence can be fantastically hard to come by when you're on the threshold of reality, and it was our experiences of things that scratched and tugged at the fabric of reality that had brought us to Crécy in the first place.  And also to the library, for which we were not only members, a source of income, and keen students, but also authors and procurators, depositors of things found in places that others would never see.
They keep it locked, was usually the opening line when the Derleth Reading Room was mentioned.  It's named for him, you know, HIM.  I'd suggested a few Derleth's the first time this had happened, and people had been too kind to laugh openly at me, but it was quite clear that when I knew who he was I'd also only be referring to him by a pronoun.
There are safeguards in there, would be the next thing.  People would adopt serious faces and nod in quiet agreement.  They won't let you in there without a librarian present, and only a senior one at that.  I'd had to ask about that, because I'd only ever seen two librarians in the library, one of whom hated me.  There was a tense moment then, as the people in the know considered if I was suitable for this kind of knowledge, and then they drank as one, six glasses lifted in unison and sipped from, then brought together in the air, clashing together, and I was accepted, if only for the evening.  The library, they explained, had a staff of twelve, and a librarian was assigned to every member.  If I'd seen two of the librarians, then I'd experienced a rare privilege.  And the librarian who hated me?  Of course, he was a senior librarian.
They don't keep books in there, would be the last thing they'd say, and then the conversation would change to something else, like the disappearance of the stone lions from the plaza (rumoured to all have stood up one night and walked away) or the death of all the gorillas in the zoo (rumoured to have been mauled to death by some very big and heavy cats).  Except one evening, Henrix had been particularly far gone on Sangraal and so he and I were the last to leave.
They do keep books in there, he whispered to me, his breath intoxicating and little golden flecks swimming in his eyes.  A very few, chained down in special cabinets.  There's nowhere else they can keep them, or they'd call out to their authors and demand to be returned.  He collapsed in a drunken heap after that, and I left him in the care of the stewards of the Seven Riders.


"The Derleth Reading Room is this way," said the librarian who hated me, appearing from off to my left where I could have sworn was nothing but a green expanse of carpet before the shelves containing common esoterica.  I followed him, noting that he wasn't carrying a book.
"I am sorry, Mr. Debraun," he said, his voice soft and uninflected, "but I'll have to ask you to leave you coat outside the reading room.  And perhaps also that shapeless piece of cloth you were wearing on your head before you arrived."
I didn't ask how he knew I'd been wearing my flat cap and submitted to his sartorial decisions with reasonably good grace.  After all, I needed access to this book, and getting access to the Derleth Reading Room would move me a little closer to the inner sanctum of the members of the library.
He held the door open for me, and I walked through.
Directly opposite the door, hanging on the wall and surely three times life-size was a portrait, and immediately I understood why no-one ever named Derleth and why I now, too, would be keeping that secret.  I averted my eyes, which were already stinging; tears were forming at the corners, and looked around at the rest of the room.  Behind me, the librarian closed the door.
There was a sage-green leather topped desk, behind which was a heavy wood-and-leather chair.  The desk appeared to have a number of lockable drawers in it, and I suspected that they'd all be locked.  The room was panelled in a dark wood I didn't recognise, but it had a warmth and shine to it that suggested it was polished daily.  The wall with the portrait hanging on it had no other furniture by it, but the two side walls of the room both had wooden chests, tables and cabinets positioned against them, with small ornaments atop them.  My eye was drawn immediately to a knife supported on a silvery stand; the unusual shape of the blade meant it had to be a Brinchev Kris.  I had one of my own, but I was still tempted to go over and admire the workmanship.  The wall with the door in it had a number of framed documents hanging on it, all hand-written, and all a little too far away for me to read now.
The librarian coughed softly and indicated that I should sit at the desk.  As I did so he produced a small brass key from a pocket and handed it to me.
"The third drawer on the left-hand side is now allocated for your use," he said.  "You will find paper, pencils, a soft eraser and four paper-clips in there.  You may use them as you see fit, except of course, that you may not write on the books or paper-clip things to them.  Supplies will be replaced as needed, and should you be asked for the return of the key, you will of course do so."
I nodded, accepting the key.
"As for the Letters of the Eidolon Queen," he said, walking to one of the cabinets, "Please take great care with this."
He laid his hands on the top of the cabinet and then moved them like a pianist, touching and pressing the top and sides in a complex sequence of movements.  Like a puzzle box, nothing appeared to happen at first, and then there was a soft click, loud in the silence of the Reading Room, and a drawer about two-thirds of the way up from the feet of the cabinet slid open.  There, on a bed of crushed velvet, was the Letters of the Eidolon Queen.