Sunday, 23 September 2012

Game of Sitting Rooms

"Your brother," and here Mrs. Golddieb sneered without changing the lightly conversational tone she was using, "had telegrammed us to say that he will be in London this coming week and wishes to visit."  She was sitting in a high-backed wing-chair in the Blue Drawing Room, one of three in the Golddieb's five-storey townhouse, stiff-backed herself and holding the offensive telegram in one hand.  The chair was brocaded to match the carpet and appeared almost to grow out of the floor in an oddly organic way.
Mr. Martin Golddieb took care to look pained, and left the comfort of the Welsh Dresser to cross the sand-and-silver carpet and take the telegram from his wife.
"Oh Miriam," he said, glancing at the telegram.  "Well, I suppose we have a duty to entertain hi–"
"Like he entertains those whores?"  Little red blotches appeared in the centre of her cheeks, and he could almost swear that she was trembling with rage.
"Pas devant les enfants," he said reflexively.  "Mir–"
"The children are with the nurse," she said, hissing her sibilants like an angry snake.  "But you are here in front of me, telling me that you intend to invite that little viper into this house again!  How can you stand to be under the same roof as that vile little man?  You know he consorts with consorts frequently in his house in Leeds!  You must remember that he attempted to marry one of them last Spring!  Hah, if your father hadn't intervened then we'd all be disgraced.  And only two months ago, he hanged a man in his front garden!"  Her hands were clutching the arms of the chair so hard that her knuckles were bone white, and when he looked at her face again little beads of sweat were standing out on her forehead.
"The man was a traitor," said Martin, working backwards through the litany.  "He stole boot-blacking and was selling it to the baker to adulterate bread with.  My brother sought to kill three birds with one stone: he stopped the theft, he stopped the adultery–" he paused while Mrs. Golddieb snorted, "– and he made an example of the man that others could not deny they'd seen.  I sincerely hope you'd expect me to do no less under the circumstances."  He paused again, waiting for agreement from his wife.  The angry silence drew out, first for seconds, then for nearly a minute.  At last, unwillingly, she glanced at the Welsh Dresser where the heads of the northwards-neighbour's children were floating in preserving jars and nodded, her jaw tight and her eyes fixed firmly forwards.  "My father did thankfully intervene with Johann, and none are more grateful than me for that.  None," he emphasized, his foot striking the floor in time with the word.  "He had his failings, but we all have those and it is best not to mention them in polite company.  Even in discreet company it can only fare ill to talk of these matters."  He sighed, his tone dropping from formal and angry to weary all of a sudden.  "But you are right, Miriam, you are very right.  When Johann comes this time I will speak to him about his attraction to the less salubrious side of life and set him straight.  He must reduce his contact with these women; in fact, he should take a wife, a proper wife, and the sooner the better."
"I am pleased that you think this way," said Miriam stiffly.  Although she was pleased with her husband's words she couldn't bring herself to step down from the argument as easily as he could and would need to leave the room and let her anger cool down from its simmer before she could agree to his truce.  "I think I shall go and see what the children are learning this afternoon, and then instruct the cook to provide something suitable for their tea."  She stood up, and smoothed down her heavy dress that provided insulation against the cold and made her feel like walking was a constant struggle.
"I would like cucumber sandwiches for tea," said her husband quickly, aware that his wife was growing increasingly keen on the idea of a diet of raw meat for the boys.  "Perhaps with some of that new spice?"
"Paprika," said Miriam.  "If you insist, dear."  She swept out of the room, the fabric of her dress rustling against itself like the wind in trees in a storm.  The Blue Drawing Room door closed behind her, just loudly enough to be a final reproof, and Martin sighed again, and went back to the Welsh Dresser.  He picked up one of the heavy preserving jars in both hands and turned it until he could look into the dead eyes of the boy's head.  Their northward's neighbour had sent the children into his garden on a raid, probably hoping that not all of them would come back.  None of them had returned.
"Well Christian," he said to the dead head, "it looks like Johann will be causing his usual excitement.  All it needs now is for Nickie to cause a scene as well and announce her arrival and it will be a menagerie here instead of a home."

Saturday, 22 September 2012


"There you go, my pretty," muttered Gladys under her breath, pouring half of her can of Prozacade into  her dragonette's water dish.  The dragonette, a slim pink dragon as long as Glady's arm, watched her from what it considered a safe distance, waiting until she'd moved away from the dish before it came over to see what had changed.  Its long black toenails clicked on the parquet floor, and its tail swayed gently from side to side behind it – not an indication of friendliness, but just a means of staying stable – until it was close enough to sniff the contents of the dish.  Huge nostrils flared until they were as large as its eyes, which, like an anime character's, were too big for its head.  It tilted its head this way and that, and eventually decided that what was in the dish smelled fine.  It dipped its head and lapped up the Prozacade.
"Gladys?"  The voice behind her was soft, caring, and sounded a little tired.  Gladys's back still snapped ramrod straight and she froze as though she'd been caught hacking the nursing home's computers again.  "Gladys, what are you doing?"
"Feeding Lulu," she said.  She turned round to face Dr. Elizabeth, a middle-aged woman with horn-rimmed spectacles and a permanent clipboard held defensively at chest height.  Dr. Elizabeth's eyes moved down until they were focused on the can of Prozacade.  "Lulu likes it!"
"I expect she does," said Dr. Elizabeth.  The clipboard lowered and she took a pen from its attachment point on the side.  She looked Gladys in the eyes again.  "You used to work for BioPets didn't you?  Which is how come you have a dragonette, in fact."
Gladys said nothing, waiting for Dr. Elizabeth to reach her conclusions and go.
"Come on Gladys, you can talk to me.  Dragonettes: theyr'e gengineered pets aren't they?"
"Well of course," said Gladys, irritation forcing her to speak.  "They're not natural, are they?  Or do you have a bunch of them frolicking at the bottom of your garden?"
"That would be nice," said Dr. Elizabeth, a smile brightening her face.  Gladys thought that she still looked like someone's mother.  "How much are they fetching on the open market at the moment?  More than my annual salary, I expect."  Gladys nodded, unwilling to provide numbers, though she knew them all down to the decimals.  "No, they're not natural, and they're expensive and hard to come by even if you have the money.  And yet here you are, feeding your dragonette your Prozacade instead of drinking it."  Gladys could almost hear "like a good girl" at the end of that sentence.  "Why?"
"It likes it," said Gladys.  She stuck her chin out unconsciously.
"Yes, yes," said Dr. Elizabeth, writing something on her clipboard.  Gladys found herself curious as to what was being written, but the clipboard was angled just out of her view.  "But you wouldn't give it something it liked if you thought you were risking its life, would you?"
"Maybe," said Gladys, though she knew she'd not do anything to harm Melchior, her dragonette.
"Maybe," said Dr. Elizabeth, writing on the clipboard again.  She was writing for too long to have just written Gladys's answer down though.  "Maybe."  There was a pause, and then, just when Gladys was hoping that the conversation was over, "You used to work for BioPets, didn't you?"
Gladys stayed quiet again.
"Well, let me answer that for you," said Dr. Elizabeth.  "It's here on your chart.  You did, you were at various points the Dragonette Lead Researcher, the Technical Director for Reptilian Research, Head of Dragonette development, Vice President for Reptiles and Ophidians, and Medical Officer for Xenospecies.  It's a very impressive CV, and it suggests to me that you know exactly what Prozacade will do to a dragonette."
"Make it cheerful?" said Gladys.  She was slightly stunned that all her significant job titles were on her chart – this was just a nursing home after all, for people like her who considered children a nuisance rather than a life-insurance policy – and a little puzzled that Dr. Elizabeth was paying any attention to them.
"Hah, wouldn't that be a surprise?" said Dr. Elizabeth.  "Those things seem to be permanently grumpy unless they're with they're owner."
"They're territorial," said Gladys feeling a little awkward.  "They're quick to identify competition."
"I think," said Dr. Elizabeth, looking at the dragonette appraisingly, "that Prozacade probably opens up some extra branch of coding inside the dragonette.  I think that you did it deliberately; some little trick that you kept secret and took away with you, so that when you got bored with retirement you'd be able to use it to go back to work.  It won't work Gladys, you're simply too old now."
Melchior the dragonette stretched, feeling a little odd.  Its brain felt like it was fizzing and bubbling, as though there was a really big, important thought coming.
"I don't want to go back" said Gladys.  "There was always too much work and too few people."  Dr. Elizabth looked perplexed.
"Then what...?" she asked, just as Melchior opened its mouth, belched, and blew a ball of fire in front of him to crash against the wall and burn up the wallpaper.
Gladys turned to Dr. Elizabeth, who was staring wildly at the dragonette.  "I just want to take out an insurance policy."

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Steal your prayers

They used to call her Jackie back in the day, back when names had a meaning to her.  Now she wears tin-foil curlers in her hair to keep people from reading her thoughts, dresses out of dumpsters, and is the kind of hooker you go and find when you've already caught every disease going and need something worse to chase them all out of your system.  She was standing on the other side of the road as I exited through the hatch, my chest scraping along the pavement on some kind of slime – I was hoping for vomit as that washes out – squeezing spots on the side of her neck and peering at me like she was hoping she could frisk me before I woke up.  Her eyes were as crazy as ever, and her lips were so red I knew instantly I didn't want to know what she was using for lipstick.  She scuttered over to me like a hermit crab spotting a new hideout.
"Jackie," I said quickly.  A normal man would have stood up and chased her off, but I wasn't about to try standing for anyone until I'd got my breath back, and whatever I'd slid in across the pavement was making me retch.
"I'm Bella!" she said, her voice a half-shriek, cracked and scratchy.  "I'm Bella!"  She tilted her head sideways like a bird and eyed me again.  I felt like day-old carrion being scrutinised by the vulture, and suspected that I looked a lot like it too.
"Bella then," I said.  I got my hands underneath my chest and tried to remember if there were any tricks to doing a push-up.  "It's Mac."
She recoiled, and I felt insulted.  It's one thing knowing that there are fungi that consider you too far down in the sewer for their children to grow on, but it's quite another to meet any such fungus.  I pushed with my hands and they sank into whatever I was lying in without actually moving me any higher up.
"I'm Bella!" she squawked again, and I wondered how much of her brain had been scrambled by the tin-foil hair-curlers.  "I'm all sparkly!"
I pushed harder and managed to lift myself enough to get my knees underneath me and then my feet underneath them.  I felt like an accordion, but it was enough to lurch, unsteadily, to my full height and lean against a wall while my lungs heaved like a blacksmith's bellows on a midwinter evening.  "What are you doing here, Jackie?" I asked.  I didn't really want to know the answer, but I wanted her to keep in mind I was still alive and could probably fight back.
"I'm Bella!" she said again, and I wondered if she counted as a woman.  My mother, on those rare occasions she'd talk to me before she obtained the restraining order, had told me never to hit a woman.  I try not to disappoint her more than twice a year, and I still had four months to go.  "I'm turning tricks for Edward."  I thought about this: Edward couldn't be the name of her pimp because there wasn't anyone mad enough to take her on.  Even the guys who had two live hookers and three dead ones wouldn't take a chance on Jackie – or Bella, or whatever name she thought she had when she woke up that morning – in case they ended up with just her.
"That's great, Bella," I said, managing at the last moment not to call her Jackie again.  "I bet you're doing a great job."  There were no noises coming from the doors nearby, so either none of them went into the Blue Swan or they were still trying to sort out the fire-retardant chemicals.  I eyed the hatch warily, just in case.
"I'm pregnant!"
That was a low blow; just as I was trying to inhale and getting ready to move, she hit me with news that  I'd have sworn was physiologially impossible.  I actually stopped breathing through shock, and had to bang my fist against my sternum a couple of times to get things going again.  While that was happening, I thought I saw the hatch move very slightly.
"By Edward?" I asked, nervously.  "Is he the father?"  Had the hatch flexed a little then?
"No silly, by Jacob."
"Jacob was the name of that dog you used to keep on a chain," I said, concentrating on the hatch.  It looked like someone was trying to beat it open from the inside.
"I'm pregnant! By Jacob!"
"Right," I said, the horror of what she was saying knocking politely on the front-door of my attention while the definitely-flexing hatch kicked in a side-door and starting shouting.  I checked both ends of the street and decided to go with the closer.  It looked like a T-junction at the stop.  "Gotta go, Jackie, stay... stay... stay!"
She froze, and I lumbered into a run, my knees clicking like castanets and my feet slapping against the floor like an overenthusiastic penguin.  Behind me the hatch banged open and dark smoke began to billow out, while the bouncers slumped across each other, greedily sucking in fresh air.  Jackie – or Bella – stared after me, her eyes wider dilated than an elephant's cervix during the birth of twins, and as I rounded the corner I heard her say plaintively, "They steal your prayers."
"They can't if you never say any," I muttered to myself, and then I had no more breath for anything other than running.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The false transcript

MSPARKER was a quipping machine, built and maintained by the Department of Computer Religion at the London University of London and its Environs.  Bob Martin was currently only just authorised to use it, because there were suspicions hanging over him that he'd been asking it inappropriate questions. As Bob was studying Epistemological Eschatology (EE for short, usually pronounced like a short scream) he had his doubts that there was any question he could ask that could justifiably be called inappropriate, but his opinion wasn't one that mattered.
Right now, he was sat in a plastic-upholstered armchair in the long and narrow office of Dr. Malmstein, Head of Computer Religion.  The office had been originally designed as a corridor, which meant it was rather too narrow for comfort, and exceptionally long.  It had four doors, spaced at regular intervals along its length, and eight windows spaced at irregular intervals that eventually got on the nerves of anyone sat in there for any length of time.  Dr. Malmstein had placed the armchair where the windows would be maximally annoying, in order to limit the length of any visit, especially from students.  There were two swiss-cheese plants between windows, and a small rug on the floor that slid freely across the polished floor tiles, and frequently caused people to fall over and land heavily on their backsides.
"Bob," said Dr. Malmstein.  He was bald, had bloodshot, deep-set eyes that seemed to glow in their sockets, and had multiple jowls where other people would have had multiple chins.  His ears were enormous, and his lobes, stretched out when he was younger and experimenting with body-modification, were pocked with the remnants of piercings.  He wore a dusty black suit and fingerless gloves, which he claimed were best for typing on keyboards.  He reminded many people of a bloodhound, albeit one with a recursively nested face.
"Dr. Malmstein," said Bob after a few moments when it was apparent that Dr. Malmstein wasn't going to continue speaking.
"Bob, I'm concerned about MSPARKER.  I need to know what questions you've been asking her."
"It, Doctor," said Bob carefully.  "It's a machine."
"As a matter of Computer Religion, we have ascertained that she is, in fact, a she."
"Right you are then."  Bob tried to sound cheerful, but he had issues believing that there was a great silicon God in the sky that predetermined the shape and power of humanity's computers.  "She."
"Your questions?"
"I asked it abo– her about eternity," said Bob.  He looked down at his shoes, hoping that this Dr. Malmstein wasn't one of those people who believed that you could tell if someone was lying by where their eyes were pointed.
"And what did she say?"
"Don't you have the transcripts?"  Bob realised as the words came out that he sounded defensive and slightly rude, so he quickly added, "She told me that eternity was a boiled ham and a man and a woman in a room."
"We have transcripts."  Dr. Malmstein nodded and his jowls flapped.  There was something solemn and almost priestly about it.  "But we're not sure we have all the transcripts, and we are worried that one of the transcripts may not be true."
Bob lifted his head and looked at Dr. Malmstein in amazement.  To hear a high-priest of Computer Religion admit that his God might be fallible was like hearing the Monarch argue in favour of a republic.
"How can there be a false transcript?" he asked.  His mind immediately thought of the unexplained delivery to his office door of 5,116 ways to end the world.
"We don't know that there is," said Dr. Malmstein.  "But we have a transcript that answers a question that no-one seems to have asked.  Namely, –" he paused, and the blood thundered in Bob's ears and his vision narrowed down to a tunnel.  Did they know he'd asked how many ways there were to end the world? "– namely," repeated Dr. Malmstein, "At what age was Charles Dickens murdered?"
"Was he murdered?" asked Bob weakly, his vision expanding back to normal and his hearing restoring as well.  He felt light-headed and slightly dizzy.
"Does it matter?" Dr. Malmstein folded his hands in his lap.  "Someone asked that question, or they asked a question that was then misrecorded as that question.  The question now is, to what end?"
"That's a lot of questions," said Bob.  "Have you asked MSPARKER about it?"
Dr. Malmstein stared at him as though he'd grown another head and introduced it.
"No," he said slowly.  "And perhaps we should."

Saturday, 15 September 2012


Lounge XII was normally a large, echoing space with sheer plastic walls, plastic tables, and metal chairs bolted to a metal-grille floor.  At one end was a counter from which food was served and drinks dispensed, and both the side walls had screens mounted on them showing ship-information.  The Eagalante was too far out from Earth to receive any kind of real-time transmissions or entertainment feeds, so those were recorded and not usually played in public areas.  All this had changed for the cocktail party though.
The floor was now carpeted, something thick and plush enough that it was difficult to walk through unless she picked her feet up as though she was doing knee-raises in the gym.  Her dress definitely wasn’t cut for that, so she resigned herself to trudging around for the evening.  There were tables suspended from the ceiling by slender, silvery chains that connected to some kind of filigree centrepiece; the tables were dotted with glasses, mostly empty.  The walls were hidden behind tapestries that depicted scenes from the Eagalante’s own history, and must have been specially made for this party.  Anna shivered a little as she wondered at the expense and intent of such a gesture.  She scanned across them, spotting the launch of the Eagalante first, and then the first port of call, a planet called Safire II.  The tapestry showed the planet as seen from the ship in orbit, seemingly peaceful though a little more colourful than most due to the dust storms that slowly precessed around the planet.  Anna’s eyes widened a little; she hadn’t been on the Eagalante back then but she’d heard the stories of the crew expecting a quiet planet and sending down a trade mission, from which one person returned, half-dead and having staged a daring escape to warn them of the despot now in power.  Hours after they returned the Eagalante detected the launch of both missiles and small orbital gunships and accepted that the despot on the surface wanted to capture them.
The initial skirmishes had been one-sided, with the Eagalante destroying the missiles after they’d left the atmosphere, just in case they were nuclear, and attempting to just cripple the gunships.  There were a couple of accidents where the gunships were destroyed, or ripped open to the vacuum, but mostly the gunships crews should have been able to save themselves.  The despot on the planet below ordered the gunships shot down from the surface rather than let them land.
The second wave of the battle came just after the Eagalante received word from Earth, then not so far away that it couldn’t be contacted for advice, which simply told them to contain the situation and Earth would investigate it in due course.  The Captain of the Eagalante then, Captain Peverett, reportedly swore so colourfully that his First Office was reaching for his radio to get the ship’s doctor to sedate him before he calmed down again.  Then the missiles launched from space were detected, much closer, and faster moving.
The Eagalante suffered a small amount of damage from the missiles it couldn’t destroy in time, but its defensive shielding was more than adequate, and the damage was from the impact shock rather than penetration.  Captain Peverett at that point decided that containment was only possible if the despot of Safire II was unable to leave the planet before Earth got there.  Rather than waste armament attacking population centres and manufactories, which he was certain would be co-located to try and inhibit an attacker from assaulting them, he used the ship’s gigawatt lasers to heat the atmosphere over the next three days, stirring the already problematic dust clouds into a violent super-hurricane and then pouring more energy into it as it attempted to vent across the world.  The assaults on the Eagalante died off half-way through the second day, but Captain Peverett remained firm on his plan, and when the Eagalante finally broke orbit and started on to its second destination the surface of Safire II could barely be seen for the raging tumult of the dust-storms.  Where a rare gap opened up all that was visible of the land below was bare, sand-blasted rock, and the oceans seemed sluggish and silted.
Reportedly Earth had sent a message after the Eagalante to report on what they’d found when they arrived, but no-one on board the ship would admit to having ever heard that the message had arrived.
Anna shook herself, wondering why she was surprised that Michal should have decided to include a tapestry of what was arguably an atrocity in one of his dinner parties.  A hand fell to rest gently on her shoulder, and she tensed, turning her head to see that Captain Leverel had appeared next to her.
“He’s got tapestries of all the deployments of the EST,” he said, his gaze following hers.  “If I didn’t think he was an inhuman little shit I’d say he’s got a thing for you.”

Index cards

Dr. Fraud drew the curtains across his office window.  The window looked out and down onto the street eight floors below, and now and then he wondered how much trouble he'd get into for forcing it open and dropping things out of it.  People, as tiny as toy dolls, moved around down below and the traffic ebbed and surged along the street, obeying the ever changing patterns of traffic lights, and Dr. Fraud half-smiled, thinking of termite mounds.  Finally he pulled the curtains fully closed.  They were full-length but made of a light sepia material that still let the afternoon sun in, just tamed and mellowed. There were floor-to-ceiling vertical blinds he could use instead, but his patients complained that the shadows made them feel like they were trapped in a cage.
He returned to his seat, and sat down.  A stack of index cards sat on his desk, each with a phrase or two written on one side, and an elderly man was lying on the chaise-longue.  He'd been lying there now for several minutes without saying anything, and Dr. Fraud was wondering if he should go over and check for a pulse.  He decided he didn't want to touch a dead body, and so cleared his throat.
"Are you ready to talk?" he asked, letting a trace of his old Austrian accent creep into his voice.  He'd been living in America for nearly twenty years now and was more at home sounding like he came from Queens, but he found that the Austrian accent and slightly stilted enunciation seemed to fill a need for his clientele.
"This reminds me of the camps," said the elderly man, his voice breathy and weak.  Dr. Fraud shuffled through the stack of index cards until he found one headed "CAMP" and read it out:
"The notion of camp often hints at repressed homosexuality."
The elderly man chuckled weakly and wetly, a sucking, choking sound that didn't sound healthy.  "No, doctor," he said, "the camps.  The prison camps.  The light is just like we had in the afternoons, but it's cooler and the... vicious... flies aren't around."
The index cards shuffled again, and Dr. Fraud said, "Prison is a metaphor for things we don't trust ourselves to do.  Did you ever want to–" more shuffling –" have sex with; wait, that's not right... fly?"
More of that dreadful chuckling, sounding like a drain that was backing up.  "All you head-doctors are obsessed with sex, aren't you?  My, did you ever want to have sex with a patient?"
"No," said Dr. Fraud instantly.  "That would be unhygienic!"
There was a long pause while the elderly man thought about what that said about Dr. Fraud's opinion of his clientele and Dr. Fraud sorted his index cards, trying to work out why he couldn't get them into a order he liked.
"That wasn't an offer," said the elderly man finally, "For all that you seemed to be going there yourself. Do you want to hear more about the prison camps?"
Shuffle.  Shuffle.  Dr. Fraud rejected the cards he'd already read as having been heard too recently, but he didn't seem to have anything else on prisons or camps.  Free associating, he pulled out the card for boy scouts.
"Do you like wearing tight shorts yourself?" he read aloud.
"Not particularly," said the elderly man.  "And in the prison camps you wore what you arrived in, until it rotted off you.  There were no replacements.  We learned, eventually, to sew the larger leaves together with a type of grass to reinforce what was left of our clothes.  Everything rotted in the humidity."
"Is that a reference to marijuana?" asked Dr. Fraud, still reading from his cards.
"No," said the elderly man.  "It was just leaves.  One of the most normal things of life there, something that grounded us.  In the cages."
"Did your parents ground you a lot?" asked Dr. Fraud.  The 'GROUND' card had lots of options on it and he hadn't been listening enough to know which one to pick for the best.
"My parents were dead before I was captured."  There was a tremor in the man's voice now, and his hands, lying across his chest, clutched each other.  "They were dead before the war began."
"Thank-you for using Ay-Chihuahua brand Index Cards, sold in packs of thirty," said Dr. Fraud, suddenly realising that he'd reached the end of his index cards.  "Time's up!"
On the couch the elderly man began to cry.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Cashing in my bad luck

There's a little place, in the back alleys of the bad streets, where one of the ex-tooth fairies runs a counter.  If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find it.  If you don’t know what you’re looking for it might find you, but that’s a less welcome proposition.  It’s still better than all the other things that might find you in you’re in those alleys though, so perhaps that one’s a moot point.  This evening I was looking for it, and I was looking out for the other things that… hmm, live might be too strong a word.  All those other denizens on these alleys, whatever their true nature.  Just because I didn’t want to meet them.
The counter is one of those stable-door type affairs where the top swings inwards while the bottom stays put, and there’s a counter, sometimes little more than a wooden shelf, stained and stinking, on the inside where the girl (and they’re almost always girls) leans.  She’ll lean forward a little more than she needs to, and her top will be cut a little lower than is respectable, even here, showing off flesh that, from a distance, looks healthy enough.  There might be something on the shelf if she’s pretending to sell something else, and sometimes there’s things under the shelf for the… ahem, discerning… customer.  There’ll be something hanging over the door to tell passers-by what’s on really on offer, whether it’s a Barbie doll (upright or inverted, sometimes with Ken, sometimes with another Barbie), a playing card, a spray of flowers (or a single one if it’s a poppy or a snapdragon), or an ear of wheat.  Over the door of Lisa’s counter is a horseshoe with the curve at the top, hanging like a lower-case ’n’.
She was stood just outside her counter, leaning against the door-post when I approached.  She watched me stagger over with a hint of amusement on her clown-red bee-stung lips.  She was short, but that was one of the hiring-conditions for  her previous job, being a tooth-fairy.  She was wearing a short skirt showing off hairy, thick legs, one knee bent to rest her foot on the door-post behind her.  It was like seeing a Monroe-pin-up for the werewolf generation.  Her blouse was the same red as her lips, but buttoned shut to the collar, and her hair was a mass of chestnut curls that fell off the top of her head, down past her shoulders and ended near the top of her ribs where they bounced slightly with every breath she took.  When she was a tooth-fairy the regulation was a buzz-cut, and she claims that in the end that was why she left.
“Hey Mac,” she said easily.  She opened the lower-half of her door and stepped back inside, closing it behind her and then leaning on the counter.  Unlike many of the girls she didn’t lean forward, but she was short enough that she could have rested her chin on the counter without much discomfort.  She stood up again, kicked something by her feet, and then clambered up on something to make her taller.  I grinned.
“What have you got for me this evening then?” she asked.  She always sounded bright and perky, like she was permanently on uppers.
“Just the usual,” I said.  “Cashing in my luck.”
“I don’t know where I’d be without you, Mac,” she said, pulling a small digital scale from underneath her counter, the kind a dealer weighs his drugs out on.  She keyed it on.  “You must have more bad luck than anyone else in this town.”
I looked around me: at the towering tenements in whose bases the counters set up, at the rubbish-strewn alleys, at the shadows where danger and death lurked, french-kissing to while away the minutes until their next victim, at the dark skies filled with invisible hate, and the blood-red moon.
“This isn’t bad luck,” she said, and I might have been wrong but her voice seemed slightly softer.  “This is just the human condition.  Any one of these guys could come up here and offer to sell, but I can’t get more than the odd drip from them.  And even when I do, they don’t go home and win the lottery and move on up and out, they go home and get drunk, beat someone up if their insomnia’s playing up, watch some reality show on the television that makes them feel like they’re not the bottom of the heap.  There’s no bad luck round here Mac, just bad people, bad lives, and nothing that couldn’t be cured by a flamethrower.”
“Sounds like home all right,” I said.  “So how come I don’t go home and win the lottery then?”  She pulled her little siphon out from under the counter next, setting it down.  There was a little glass receiving bottle, a metal cannister and a little silvery funnel, all connected by delicate tubes of fibreglass and copper.  She placed the receiving bottle on the scale and tared it, then she handed me the little funnel.  I placed it on the back of my hand, wide end down touching flesh.  It was freezing cold where it touched and reminded me of the time I was leeched.
“I don’t know that we could ever siphon off enough of your bad luck to get that to happen, Mac,” she said.  Something nebulous and slightly gassy-looking, a pale green colour, started to flow through the pipes.  “I can hardly get a drop of bad luck from most folks, but with you, I turn the tap on and it never stops flowing.  It’s like you’re a focus for all the bad luck in the world.  You’re not related to Old Man Trouble are you?”
I shook my head.  Sure enough, there was a steady trickle of greenish liquid into the glass receiving bottle now, and Lisa gestured at me to take the funnel off my hand.  I did, and we watched as the bad luck trickled its way through the pipes and nearly filled the glass bottle.  She slipped a tiny wax-paper disc into the top of the bottle, floating it on the essence in there, and then squeezed a rubber bung in to seal it.
“Fifty quid, Mac.  I don’t know why I bother with the scale for you, it’s not like you’re ever going to give less than a full bottle.”
I held my hand out to give her the funnel back and get my money, and then asked the question I’d wanted to ask her since I started coming here.  “So what would happen if we just left the funnel on?  Got a bigger jar, say?”
“No-one has a use for that much bad luck, Mac,” she said, with a half-smile.  “That’s the bigger issue.”
“Say, what do you do with this stuff anyway?” I said.  “I’ve never asked you before!”
“Sell it on,” she said.  “Look, hits are tricky things, get it wrong and you’ve got collateral damage, you’ve got witnesses, bystanders, all those things that are bad for a cover-up.  And you’ve got a hitman, a guy who knows what you paid him to do.  Assassins are similar but more expensive, more reliable, and less likely to grass you up.  But this is a third option: buy a little bad luck in a bottle and slip it into your victim’s food, spike their drink with it.  Then let the bad luck take it’s course.  It might not be death, but it’s usually effective, and it’s cheaper and safer than a hit.”
I looked at her with admiration in my eyes.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Far away trains

My holiday this year shall be
– unplanned – a lengthy train journey
from here in Westerbork to the
resettlement camps of the East.

I know, I know what your camps are;
I’ve heard the whispers in the night.
My neighbours?  Packed in like cattle,
deprived of water, food and light.

I have a private car, paid for
by my collaborative words:
my praise written for the praiseless,
my defence for the defenceless,
my betrayal of my true thoughts.

I draw brocade curtains apart:
the flat lands roll away outside.
Like guilt borne from the guiltless.
Like guile borne from the guileless.
Like… all these things I cannot bear!

The Maharal  won’t walk for us,
the showers will not make us clean.
This train will haul six million souls,
who should have had the chance to be.

You wrote me letters, like my friends; 
words better than my own.  I brought
them with me in my satchel-bag.
Each one could be a death sentence.
I take them individually
in hands that shake from more than age
more than rage
and read them one last time, holding 
their words in both my heart and mind
so I can tear, methodically,
your written love and care to squares,
commit them to the wind beyond
the window, where I pray they will 
sow hope wherever they may fall.

You know, you’re just a number now?
Tattooed in blue, inside your wrist.
But numbers are platonic,
unlike us they will persist.

At Auschwitz we must disembark,
the guards that take me are polite.
They take my empty satchel-bag,
and will not look me in the eye.
The crash of jackboots, martial drums,
are ringing in a brand new age
that now resounds like thunder as 
we shuffle joylessly away.
The train departs, returning home –
with secret cargo I have stowed –
to bring more men.  Atrocity
will build upon atrocity.
Your handkerchief, soft linen, soak’d
with loving tears goes back with it:
I’ve never done enough for that,
I don’t deserve to keep your heart.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The party

The cocktail party was being held in Lounge XII and there were security guards on the door checking people off the guest-list.  Anna sighed when she saw them, but set her face to calmly neutral with a hint of a smile on her lips as she got close enough for them to notice her.  Captain Leverel wouldn’t have asked for the security, nor would he have approved it if it had been run past him.  It would undoubtedly be the work of his social secretary, Michal Anrasmus, who was a greasy little pole-climber in her opinion.  The guards wore standard issue uniform in olive-green with orange splash-patches; camouflage for an environment you never found on board the ship.  To mark their duties for this evening though, they were wearing silver armbands on the right-arm, and their weapons were concealed well enough that Anna couldn’t spot them or bulges where they may might be.
“Dr. Lesjes,” said the guard on the right as she drew close enough that he didn’t need to raise his voice.  “You’re right on time, ma’am.”
The guard on the left, a woman she realised, held out a tablet.  “If you would be so good…?” she said, leaving the sentence dangling.  Anna forced the smile onto her face properly and rested her palm on the tablet.  After a moment it beeped, and the first guard produced a copper bracelet from somewhere and held it out expectantly.  After another moment wondering if she really wanted to do this Anna offered her wrist, and the guard placed the bracelet around it.  It was slightly heavy and cold.
“What’s this for?” she asked.  She’d been to cocktail parties arranged by Anrasmus before where the ticket, as she assumed this bracelet was, was needed to access various areas in the party room.  She’d quickly removed the ticket, which had been a brooch that time, to a pocket so that she couldn’t accidentally walk into any of his little attractions.
“Identification,” said the female guard looking beyond her.  Anna glanced back over her shoulder and saw a couple of senior engineering officers approaching the party.  She was pleased to see that they looked as wary about it as she felt herself.  “If you need to leave the party for any reason the bracelet is the only way to regain entry.”
“Right,” said Anna, nodding.  “That sounds… like Michal.”  Presumably this meant that he could throw people out if they didn’t want to join in whatever he’d planned this time.  “Thank-you.”
“Please go in,” said the first guard, gesturing to the door.  He clearly wanted to start processing the guests now almost behind her.  She moved forwards without answering him, as both guards were now occupied with greeting the new arrivals.  She found she had to push the door to Lounge XII open by hand, which surprised her, and that her bracelet warmed slightly and tingled when she touched the door.  Then she walked through into Michal’s latest notion of a cocktail party.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

A door that sticks, fixed

Dan delivered the team to the door, and attempted to open it, showing them how it stuck.  When they just watched him and said nothing, he showed them how he had to push the door to get it open enough to get through, and then showed them that it had trouble closing again.  He stood there, panting a little from the exertion, wondering if the maintenance crew were going to burst into laughter and just walk off.  Instead, Malik started tapping things on his tablet, and the other two guys stood still, looking relaxed but alert.  Dan found himself wondering if they were more than just maintenance, as he’d seen the security staff adopt exactly the same pose.
Just as he was wondering if they’d maybe not understood what he wanted them to do, and trying to think how he could politely ask such a question, Malik’s tablet beeped softly and he looked up.
“The schematics says that this is the quarantine door for Lab-EST,” he said.  It wasn’t a question, and Dan wasn’t even sure that it was addressed to him, but the silence was making him feel edgy.
“I don’t know what that means,” he said.  Malik looked him blankly.
“It’s a quarantine door,” he said, he words sounding carefully chosen.  “It can be locked shut from this side so that it cannot be opened from the other.  Lab-EST has two doors: this one, and the one to Hanger 9.  Hanger 9 can be opened to space.”
The look of shock on Dan’s face was more eloquent than anything he could have said.  Malik paused, and then asked,
“How long have you been working on the Eagalante?”
“Two months, ship,” said Dan.  “I came aboard with Astromeral.”  There were a few murmurs from the other members of the crew, as the quiet guy asked who Astomeral was and was informed.
“You weren’t on a ship before that?” Malik’s voice quieted down the guys behind him.
“Briefly, but I came from High Colotonne as a specialist.”
Malik nodded as though that meant something to him, which Dan rather doubted: High Colotonne was a rather grand sounding name for a small military facility on a worldlet called Yorkten.
“Well,” he said.  “It’s someone else’s job to explain all this to you.  What I need to tell you is that this door not working properly is a serious security breach and I should be reporting you right now for not alerting us sooner and escalating this properly.  It is more important that this door is fixed though, so that report can wait until we’re done.  You might,” and he smiled, thin-lipped, “want to use that time to find someone to shift the blame to.”
He passed his tablet back to the man behind him, the quiet one, and then produced a screwdriver from a pocket and used it to open up a concealed panel beneath the door-open switch.  Tiny readouts and flashing lights became visible, and shortly after that all three men were discussing the problem in low voices, pointing at things on schematics on the tablets, and checking the door, its tracks, and the supporting electronics.  Dan rubbed a hand across his forehead, uncertain if he still had to be stood there acting like a nursemaid or if he could go back to his terminal and worry about what he’d just been told.  Almost as though he’d heard his thoughts, Malik looked up from what he was doing.
“We don’t need you to stand there,” he said.  “But don’t leave this lab without telling us first, please.  That would be another security breach.”
Dan nodded, and retreated to his desk, wondering how in the world he’d managed to find security even more elaborate than in the restricted military facility he’d come from.