Monday, 31 December 2012

Data Integrity Council

The offices of Data Analytic Marketetic Normalisations were always a little quieter over Christmas and the New Year period as various Vice Presidents and Executives took the opportunity to order their underlings to work from home and see their families.  The unspoken message – that a Vice President or Executive would either have no family or be much happier to not see them any more than absolutely necessary – filtered down, and only those underlings who grasped that slightly thorny message with both hands and a grimace of good cheer got promoted.  At the Executive level it then became known that Jeremy Diseased-Rat, CEO and UGLY (Unofficial God-Like entitY: his own description and choice of acronym) didn’t believe in holidays of any kind at all.  There were persistent rumours that he’d somehow succeeded is mortgaging his family and then defaulting on the repayments, but Jeronica knew better than to listen to such rumours.  At least until she reached the next level in the organisation.
She tottered along the corridors on fifteen inch heels, provided to her as a thank-you gift by Hermann van der Luft.  The Vanderluft brand made office furniture, and she’d led the Data Analytic task force that had created an artificial market demand (a “bubble” as she’d coyly noted in her PowerPoint presentation) and then collapsed it as the market leaders had tried to capitalise on it.  Vanderluft, who had publicly stated that they were waiting to see it pan out before taking action, were then ideally placed to take over and assume a commanding position.  The thank-you was architectural shoes whose heels could be adjusted anywhere up to twenty-three inches tall and ensured that no-one was taller than Jeronica at any gathering.  The height sometimes made her a little nauseous.
There was a woman waiting outside her office.  She turned as Jeronica approached, and then her head started to rise, and rise, and rise until she could see Jeronica’s face.  Jeronica smiled distantly, and came to a stop directly in front of the woman, whose head tilted finally far enough back that she lost her balance and fell over.  Jeronica touched a small control in her pocket, as black and discrete as a car-door fob, and her heels silently descended until they were only nine inches tall and she could fit through her office door.  Inside the office the heels ascended again, as Jeronica had had the ceilings raised to accommodate her new height.  A cough came from the doorway, where a slightly stunned woman was now standing again.
“Jeroncia?” she said, her voice high-pitched and squeaky.  Jeronica winced.
“I know we’ve not been introduced,” she said, “so your use of my name is entirely inappropriate and overly informal.  Why are you blocking my door?”
The woman flushed and started to come in.
“No, stop!  I didn’t invite you in, I implied that you should go away.  Turn around and leave.”
“I’m here to see you.  I’m your eleven o’clock.”
“Really?”   Jeronica’s tone suggested that she didn’t believe the woman, and her increased height made it very easy for her to look at the woman along the length of her surgically-enhanced nose.
“Yes, really.  I would hope that you don’t have many meetings on Christmas Eve, so I thought you might remember.”
Jeronica pulled a smart-phone from her pocket and growled her PA’s name at it.  The phone beeped twice and announced that it was calling her.  Jeronica never stopped staring at the woman, who shifted her weight nervously from one leg to the other and fidgeted with her cuffs.
“Tayberry,” said a voice from the phone, sounding mechanical and unengaged.
“Appointments today?”
“You have an eleven o’clock with a woman who thinks that information ownership is debatable, a twelve o’clock with Manguy who will be attempting to conceal tapestrisation details regarding global healthcare solutions, a twelve-thirty with Satellista, a twelve-thirty-five with the Swedish delegation, a one-fifteen –“
“Enough,” said Jeronica, and turned the phone off.  She blinked at the woman, who was looking a little stunned at the list of meetings.  “So, you do have an appointment, and for a surprisingly long time given the facility of your thesis.  I think I shall sit down.”
The woman looked around for another chair and discovered that there wasn’t one.  Jeronica’s office had one chair, a desk sized for four people, two laptops, a tablet, three smart-phones, a filing cabinet with three locks, a small credenza, a mini-bar, and an elaborate crystal table atop which several industry publications were scattered.  “I’m Joanna,” she said, a little helplessly.
“And you believe strange things about data,” said Jeronica.  “You’ve come to the right place, I would suggest.  We at Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations know an awesome amount about data and how to make it work.  What do you want to do with data?”
“I represent the Data Integrity Council of Kingston,” said Joanna.  “We are concerned about recent reports that ownership of data is only four-tenths of the law.  We have been reviewing social media interactions, and we have looked at over 200 million tweets for example, and we fear that if data integrity is not maintained there could be issues that would cause us, and some of our clients, problems.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Jeronica.  “I can assure you that data ownership is very close to 100% of the law, and when our tapestrisations have panned out to their fullest it will be so close to 100% that the difference will be negligible.”
“That’s reassuring to hear,” said Joanna, “but what proof do you have of this being true?”
“Well,” said Jeronica.  “We cannot expose any of our business details to you, but perhaps I can give you an example.  Were I to push you out of a window here now, what you would expect to happen?”
Joanna looked rather taken aback.  “You’d be arrested and charged with my murder,” she said.
“No,” said Jeronica.  Joanna looked shocked now, her face paling and her hand flying to her mouth.  “In fact, you would probably just be swept up and taken to the municipal dump, but if anyone were to question where your broken body had come from, there would be no data linking you to our building.  Except, maybe if wanted the peripheral publicity, you might have been found to have jumped from the top of it.”
“But people have seen me come in here!” she said.
“No-one of consequence,” said Jeronica.  “No-one who can’t be bought, or threatened, or hypnotised.”
“It’s cheap and effective; we use it a lot in second-world countries when we need to create temporary destabilisations.”
“That has to be illegal too!”
“You’re getting very hung up on illegality, Joanna.  It’s only illegal if it’s found out.  And it can’t be found out if the data isn’t free, can it?”
Jeronica smiled, thinly.  “Data isn’t free, no matter what the idiots think, Joanna.  Now, let’s talk about what we can do for you and you little Council.”

Sunday, 30 December 2012


Jerome yawned, a huge, body-shaking yawn that left him feeling slightly light-headed when it finished.  He shook his head a little, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed.  From the looks they were giving him, about half of his maths class had seen it.  Or hear it, he’d sounded like a small bear roaring.
“Tired?” said Celine, her eyes twinkling with viciousness.  She was (in Jerome’s opinion) stunningly beautiful on the outside, and as rotten as old cheese on the inside.  “You should try sleeping.”
“Thanks, Celine,” he said, his voice level.  He turned away from her, and Gavin’s hand caught his shoulder.
“Ignore her, she’s a bitch,” he said.
“Don’t call her that,” said Jerome, though there wasn’t much conviction in his voice.  “She’s got an opinion, just like everyone else.”
“Her opinions aren’t like anyone else’s.”
“You’re a toad, Gavin,” said Celine.  She turned away, then looked back over her shoulder at Jerome.  “And you’re just selfish.  Why don’t sleep already and let the rest of us have Christmas?”
“Class, be quiet.  And be seated, why are you out of your chairs?”  Doctor Hasselmann had arrived and was starting the class; with a gentle grumbling but quick movements the students took their places and settled down to listen to his lecture.  Jerome braced himself for the struggle of trying to stay awake while he listened to Dr. Hasselmann, and hoped he’d succeed.
An hour later he’d only started to doze twice and was feeling quite pleased with himself.  He’d written down everything Dr. Hasselmann had said, including the ums, ahs, and the incidental asides, because he couldn’t fall asleep while he was writing.  And now he’d have to rewrite his notes into something coherent, which would give him something to do that night while everyone else was sleeping.  He slipped his notepad and pen into his bag, and got up from his desk, only to find Celine stood in front of him once more.
“Sleep, already, doofus,” she said, pushing him back down.  Her hand was pale and stubby, not quite the kind of hand you expected from a girl with high cheekbones, long glossy hair and eyes so blue they were nearly purple.  “It’s the middle of January and I’ve still not had Christmas.  Do you know what my parents have got me for Christmas?”
“No,” said Jerome, trying to stand up again.  She pushed him back down.
“A car.  They’ve bought me a car for Christmas, but I can’t have it until then.  You’re keeping me from my car, doofus, because you won’t sleep.  So get on with it and sleep already.”
“You make it sound so easy, Celine,” he said, twisting round so he could get up from the other side of his chair.  Her hand landed on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off and got out of the seat.
“It is easy,” she hissed, leaning towards him.  “Just close those four little eyes of yours and wait.”
“Leave him,” said Gavin, standing next to him again.  “You’re such a cow.”  Celine gasped as though she’d been slapped, and her hand went up automatically, attempting to attract Dr. Hasselmann’s attention.  He, however, walked past her without stopping, and was out of the door before she thought to call him by name.  Gavin smirked.  “Guess he’s not got your back today, cow,” he said.  “Leave Jerome alone, go and pick on someone with your own IQ.”
“We’re in the same maths class,” said Celine icily.
“Yeah, but your daddy paid for you to be here, while the rest of us had to work to get here.”
The words hung in the sudden silence of the classroom, broken only when, a few minutes later, Jerome yawned again.
“Come on,” said Gavin. “We’ve got classes to go to.”
As they left the room Celine was still standing by Jerome’s desk, staring into mid-air and not saying anything.  Jerome glanced back at her, and then at Gavin.  “That was a bit mean,” he said.
“But true,” said Gavin.  “She’s only in most of our classes because she’s got a tutor to get her through the work.  She shouldn’t be in them at all.”
“How do you know?  She might be capable of doing them by herself, but her tutor just kind of means we don’t see it.”
“How can you defend her when she keeps picking on you all the time?  She knows about the nightmares, so she’s the one being selfish.  No-one should have to have nightmares like that.”
“Yeah, but Gavin, if I don’t then no-one gets Christmas do they?”
“Is Christmas really all that important?  I could do without it.”
Jerome laughed, though it was a tired laugh.  “Yeah, I’m not sure I miss not having it.  But…,”
“But what?”
“Well, what happens if I don’t get through the nightmares?”
“What do you mean, Jer?”
“Christmas only happens if I survive the nightmares.  What happens if I don’t one year?”
“Don’t talk like that!”
Jerome half-smiled.  “Sure.  What class are we in next?”
“We’re not, we’re done for the day.  I just didn’t want Celine following us.”

Friday, 28 December 2012

The assassin and the tea-master

Janet O’Steen, Ireland’s foremost logodisciplinarian, sat down on the only free table in the small café.  She put her handbag down on the table, knocking the laminated menu to the floor, and looked around her.
The café was full, but not quite crowded; the management had laid the tables out with a little space between them, foregoing the opportunity to cram as many people in as possible in favour of giving their customers a pleasant enough experience that they would want to come back.  The counter was against the back wall of the room and had the usual glass display cases housing pastries, pre-sliced cakes, and baguette-style sandwiches that hadn’t been there long enough to start looking wilted yet.  A huge chrome coffee machine took up about two-thirds of the space, and the baristas were constantly dancing around trying to tend to both it and the customers without collision.  The smell of roasted coffee beans was a permanent, mingled with a smell of damp (it was raining outside), and an occasional gust of baking bread from the ovens in the back room.  Janet inhaled deeply, hoping for bread and getting only damp.
Most of the tables were fully occupied, though perhaps ten percent of them, like hers, had a single chair free.  One or two had two chairs free, and Janet couldn’t help but give their occupants a reproving look that they were wasting space like that.  The occupants stoically ignored her, in most cases not even realising that the pinch-faced woman with the glare was looking at them.
“What will you be having then?”  A waitress had appeared at her elbow while she was glaring at the other customers, and was standing, poised alertly with her notepad at the ready and her pen aimed dagger-like at the page.
“Tea,” said Janet clearly.  “As black as a mother’s heart, with a small jug of sweet milk on the side to temper her wrath.”
“Yes, thank-you,” said Janet a little bit put-out that the waitress had ignored the way she’d phrased her request.
“And for your guest?”
Janet narrowed her eyes at the waitress, wondering what mysterious slight this was intended to be, and started to gesture at the empty seat across from her.  Only it wasn’t empty any more.  Sat there was a man with long chestnut-brown hair, a hook-nose, and gimlet-like eyes that might have been yellow.
“Ask him yourself,” said Janet, faintly surprising herself that that was the response she’d intended to give all along.  She toned the sarcasm down a little though.  The waitress turned to the intruder and raised an eyebrow.
“Tea,” he said in a deep voice that made Janet think of chocolate.  “Served in bone china, with a slice of lemon on the side.  Do you have hibiscus-tea?”
“Sure,” said the waitress, making a couple of notes on her pad.  She turned away to place the orders, and Janet glared at the man who had sat opposite her.
“It’s considered polite to ask before you sit down,” she said stiffly.
“It would be polite of you to clear the table before the waitress returns with our drinks,” said the man.  He put a hand on her handbag, and Janet immediately slapped it.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“I’m an assassin,” he replied.
Janet picked her handbag up and placed it down beside her chair, making sure it leaned against her leg so that any bag-thief would have to alert her to his intentions.  She didn’t take her eyes from the self-proclaimed assassin while she did this, relying on the comforting weight of the handbag to know that she was leaning it against the right leg.  For a moment she was distracted, thinking that she should create a character for her next novel that had a false leg and so had to constantly look at what they were doing with it.  Perhaps they could have an elderly mother in a wheelchair who was attempting to dominate their life still, until there was an accident… no, wait, her critics were still harping on about matricidal storylines, so perhaps the mother could be sent on a Saga holiday to get her out of the way while the protagonist found romance.  With… with a man who’d lost both of his legs to a landmine accident while on holiday with his sister, who’d lost both of her arms in the same accident and couldn’t hug her only child….
“What were you thinking?” asked the assassin.  The waitress laid a bone-china cup containing a fragrant orange liquid in front of him.  “Your eyes were slightly glazed and your heart-rate increased.”
“I was planning a new novel,” said Janet.  The waitress placed a mug of thick black tea in front of her, and banged a little white ceramic jug on milk next to it.  “Why are you sitting at my table?  Why have you not left when I pointed out how rude you have been?  I have cleared the table when you pointed out how rude I was being.”
“I am here to kill a woman,” said the assassin.  He sipped his tea, and smiled thinly.
“I see,” said Janet.  “Do you need some suggestions?  I have a list.”  The assassin paused, his cup halfway to his lips again, and lowered it.
“You have a list?”
“Well yes,” said Janet.  “I have been wronged, slightly, and improperly criticised.  I should think all authors have lists they’d be happy to have someone take care of for them.”
“I’m not here for you to hire,” said the assassin.  He removed a tiny knife from somewhere beneath his coat and laid it on the table.  The blade was as long as a finger, and the handle was barely long enough to grip in two fingers.  It gleamed.
Janet sipped her tea and sighed with pleasure as the hot liquid warmed her throat and stomach.  “Then why are you still at my table?” she asked.
“You are a very single-minded woman,” said the assassin.  He tilted his head, looking intently at Janet.  “I am impressed.  I – what are you doing?”
Janet pursed her lips.  “Stirring my tea,” she said.  She had picked the assassin’s knife up and was stirring a few drops of milk into her tea with it.  Then she skewered a sugar cube from a bowl on a neighbouring table, ignoring a soft gasp from the man at the table, and stirred that in too.  “I shall clean your knife, don’t worry.  But that slattern of a waitress has forgotten both my sugar and any spoons.”
The assassin stared at the knife, still whirling away in the mug of tea, his eyes large and shocked.  “How will you clean it?”
“There’s a ladies’ room over there,” said Janet, gesturing with the knife.  A few hot drops of tea flew from the blade and landed in a cup on the adjacent table.  The assassin’s face turned ashy-grey.
“That’s quite alright,” he said, tossing back the rest of his tea in one gulp and standing.  “You may keep it.”
Janet looked down at the knife, whose blade was no longer gleaming but jet-black and spotted, as though something coating it had reacted with the tea.  When she looked up, the assassin was gone.  She put the knife down, and picked her mug up, and then paused and laid down again.  The man at the adjacent table had just sipped his drink again and was now coughing in a most alarming manner.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

UrbEx part III

Geraldinium’s footsteps were squelches on the concrete floor and even tiptoeing didn’t help, so she walked normally and listened hard in case there was anyone else in there.  There were doors at regular intervals; some plain wooden doors with blistered round handles, some had frosted glass windows through which dim light fell, and some were made of metal.  Geraldinium tried the handle of the first metal door she came to, but the door was locked again.  She rattled it a little against the frame, wondering if she should try to force it open, and decided she would only if she couldn’t find anything to inspire her elsewhere.  She walked further along the corridor until she saw a door with frosted windows that was already ajar, and she pushed it further open and went inside.
The room was mostly empty save for a padded plastic couch on a thin metal frame pushed up against a wall.  There were deep rips in the padding exposing yellowing foam that spilled out like pus infecting a wound.  Against the other wall was a rotting wooden leg, seemingly all that remained of a desk that had been there at sometime.  Geraldinium pulled her camera free again, and snapped a couple of pictures, moving around the room to vary her angles.  The lack of a desk intrigued her more than the examination couch, but she took pictures of both.
Further along the corridor she found another door ajar, and stepping through this one found herself in another, shorter corridor that opened out into a lobby where the lifts where.  There were four sets of doors all in the one wall, and each of them had long black streaks running down.  Looking up, Geraldinium saw holes in the ceiling where lumps of plaster had dropped out, and that the black streaks all started there.  Staring for a moment she thought the streaks were moving, writhing, and then her vision resolved like staring at an optical illusion and she realised that the rainwater from outside was running down the walls and doors now, carrying the black muck from the ceiling to the floor.  Her camera was back out again, and she snapped more shots, smiling to herself as she did so.  Assigning a name to this room and creating a history for it would be easy.
She couldn’t resist pushing the lift-call button, but nothing responded, as she’d expected.  There was another way out of the lift-lobby so she walked that way.  The lumps of plaster that must have fallen from the ceiling were scattered on the floor of the corridor that way, which puzzled her slightly.  Why would anyone move them?  Another short corridor opened out into a long corridor running at right-angles, and she realised that the basic layout of the hospital must be roughly H-shaped.  She turned right, heading back the way she’d come but on the new corridor, and this time tried the handle of the first door she came to.  Slightly to her surprise it opened at a touch, revealing what was once a private room.
The wallpaper was peeling off from the bottom of the wall and there was a musty, mouldy smell like the room hadn’t been aired.  Which, Geraldinium thought, was probably true.  The bed frame, a white-painted metal contraption that looked more like it was for confinement than rest, was underneath a barred window.  It was divided into several small squares, three of which were broken.  The plaster around an electrical socket was exposed and gouged as though something had been dragged from it,  Pages from a magazine, yellowing and torn, were scattered beneath the bed frame, growing steadily damper from the rain blown in through the broken window.  Geraldinium hissed with delight, taking more pictures again, the digital clicking of the imaginary shutter a counterpoint to her joy.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

UrbEx part II

It was raining gently; the sky was a dark grey promising heavier rain to come.  Geraldinium ignored it and concentrated on the high walls surrounding the hospital.  Traffic was quiet on the road that ran around it, but there was still a car coming by every minute or so, making it difficult to scale a nine-foot high wall unseen.  She carried on walking, paying close attention to the wall, looking for footholds or handholds, or even a convenient tree or post-box that she could use to gain some height.  She wondered briefly if she should have brought the orphan-girl along to use as a step up, but then dismissed the idea.  Far better to have made the orphan-girl bring a step-ladder along and then take it away again.
She stopped at last at a green-painted, slightly rusted junction box, the kind the telecoms companies used to route cables and wires to provide internet and phone connections to the street.  It seemed a little out of place on this side of the road, but it gave her four feet off the ground, and that would be enough for her to get her hands to the top of the wall.  She looked around: there were actually three cars coming, two from one direction and the third from the other.  She frowned and glared at the traffic until it went past, oblivious to her anger.  Then she leapt athletically up onto the junction box, discovering at that moment that the top wasn’t flat but was angled.  Clearly the engineers didn’t want people standing on it.  Ignoring that, she jumped at the wall and grabbed the top of it easily, then flexed her arms and shoulders and pulled herself up.  Swinging her hips, she pulled her legs over, and let herself drop over the other side, pleased that no cars had gone past while she was climbing the wall, and a second later let out a hiss of breath as she hit the ground.  She looked up: the wall was nearly eleven feet high on this side.  Perhaps the landscapers had dug the ground out to make the wall more of a challenge.
As she climbed a wet, slippery slope to a lawn that approached the hospital she realised that that was exactly what had happened.  The lawn was, if anything, more slippery still, and there were patches that had succumbed to the invasion of clover and other ground cover which shed water from its leaves onto her feet and made her shoes wetter still.  As she slipped and slid her way across, she looked over at the hospital, and suddenly realised that she was clearly visible to anyone inside.  Was there security in this place?  She didn’t recall reading about any, but she wasn’t being cautious enough.  Without another thought she dropped to the ground, and slithered along like a snake instead.
The hospital was a pre-war construction, faced with a yellow-brown stone and ornamented with towers at either end and a clock-tower above the main hall in the middle.  The clock-tower was built in three stages, with the main hall building being the first, then an octagonal room above that being the second.  The third stage was the actual tower surmounted by a clock and stretched fifteen feet up in its own right.  Looking up at it, and blinking every few seconds as another cold raindrop landed in her eye, Geraldinium wondered if there was art to be made from that view.  She felt for her camera, and took a few shots, the digital clicking sounding loud despite the patter of the rain.  Then she looked at the doors to the main hall.  They were closed, and looked locked.
Geraldinium stood up again now that she was near the building, and checked around her.  There was no-one in sight, and by hugging the walls she could stay relatively hidden.  Her clothes, now wet through, stuck to her and were cold, but she decided that she could ignore that in the interests of finding something for her next exhibition piece.  She tried the main doors without much hope, and was rewarded with the dull clunk of a lock preventing the door knobs from turning.  She shrugged and started walking around the walls, her shoes squelching now with each step.
The windows on the ground floor had already been panelled over with sheet steel so there was no way in that way, though Geraldinium did notice that what she’d first thought was graffiti was in fact the signatures of previous UrbExers.  She snapped a picture of that too, a half-thought in her mind about connecting each name with a room in the hospital and creating a fictional life of people in there after the hospital closed.  About a third of the way round she found a stone urn, a planter now empty of everything save for smears of moss, standing a little way away from the building, and scratches on the paving flags nearby that suggested it had been moved at some point.  She almost walked past, then she looked up.  A little above her a first-floor window was very slightly open; if she’d not been stood in the right place she wouldn’t even have noticed it.  She wiped the rain off her face, and dragged the planter over.
The window was easier to get through than the wall had been to get over, and Geraldinium remembered to bend her knees this time as she dropped over the windowsill.  The floor was a far more reasonable foot and a half below the window.  She straightened and looked about.  She was in a corridor that stretched away into the distance in both directions, reminding her of her attic studio only shorter and smaller.  The walls were a mint-green colour that she remembered from her childhood, and she felt disoriented for a moment until she realised that she was expecting to smell disinfectant and instead she had only the damp, impersonal smell of wet concrete and undertones of mildew.  She took a step, and started giggling, the sudden euphoria of knowing that she’d successfully broken into this abandoned hospital and was now stepping where only a small army of UrbExers had stepped before her.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

UrbEx part I

The orphan girl was sat at a table eating porridge.  Her grubby, thin ankles were manacled to black iron rings set into the floorboards, and though she could stand up and move a little way away, she was restricted to an ellipse with a major axis of about six feet.  Her hair was limp, grey, and hadn’t been washed for over two weeks, and her face had little dried patches of porridge spotted here and there.  The porridge she was eating now was cold, as Geraldinium was worried about her trying to wear hot porridge and burning herself.  The orphan finished eating, put the spoon down, and put the bowl on her head.  A small amount of beige porridge dribbled down her temples.
Geraldinium came out of her enrobing room and saw the orphan sitting there, porridge-bowl-bedecked and staring vacantly into the long space of the attic room and sighed very faintly.  She’d only taken the girl back under pressure from the courts who had insisted that she was the closest thing the girl had to a real guardian.  There was now a social-worker who came round twice a week to check on the orphan, and Geraldinium suspected the pretty young woman with the earnest demeanour and arthritic fingers of having her own agenda.
“Take the bowl off your head,” she said, snapping her fingers to make sure that she got the orphan’s attention.  For a moment there was no reaction, and then her eyes slowly slid inwards and she blinked.
“But it’s art,” she said, her voice whiny and slightly nasal.
“It isn’t,” said Geraldinium.  “I should know.  I did something similar, but more original, for my A-level art studies and photographed it.  I had a row of my teachers lined up wearing bowls of custard, porridge, tapioca and wallpaper paste.  The bowls were all copper, and had cables running from them, as though there were hooked up to an electric chair.  I called it Does justice require intelligence? and my examiners wept when they saw the picture.  That was art.  What you are doing is retarded.”
“My hat is cold,” said the orphan, her voice sing-song and her eyes starting to diverge again.  Geraldinium snapped her fingers at her, and the orphan’s eyes stopped moving.
“Take the bowl off,” she said.  “I am going out, and you can either have crayons and paper circles while I’m gone, or you can be tied back down to the bed of your own making.”
The orphan shuddered a little, and as she pulled the bowl from her head with shaking hands her head turned slowly so that she could see the bed in the far corner.  “Not the bed,” she whispered, and Geraldinium wasn’t completely certain that she’d heard her.  “Where are you going?” she asked in a slightly louder voice.
“Out,” said Geraldinium.  She adjusted her straps: she was wearing a blue denim shirt and jeans with a utility tool belt strapped around her waist.  Her brown jacket was canvas and covered in pockets and straps.  Out of a side pocket poked an A-Z of London, and on the other side balancing that was an A5 sketchbook and a couple of pencils.  A tiny camera dangled from one strap and a water-bottle was held firmly in webbing at the back of the jacket.  She looked a little like a survivalist caught out in the city.  “I have a mausoleum-hospital to photograph.”
The mausoleum-hospital was in fact an abandoned hospital out in the East of London, slowly falling apart behind the high walls that had once made sure that the patients were kept in, but to Geraldinium’s mind its steady architectural senescence made it tomb-like, a mausoleum for the ghosts of lives that had been lived there.  She had stumbled across it mostly accidentally while researching UrbEx, wondering if there was art to be made out of the assault on the dangerously-abandoned and things only interesting because they were forbidden.  When she’d seen the first pictures on the website, taken by a 14-year old UrbEx – Urban Explorer – her imagination had been captivated.
She grabbed a slim transparent plastic wallet from a wormy dresser and dumped in on the table in front of the orphan.  Inside were white circles of soft paper and some crayons.  The primary colours looked almost new, while the autumnal colours were worn over half-way down, in some cases almost to stubs.
“And no more self-portraits,” she said.  “You’re not Batman, and drawing yourself as such is pure cargo cult.”  The expression on the orphan’s face was so blank Geraldinium found herself expecting the girl to moo.  “I’ll be back,” she said.  “Try not to get hungry before then.”

Monday, 17 December 2012

Nickie Golddieb

"Your sister," sneered Miriam Golddieb, "has invited herself for Christmas."  She peered down her nose at her husband, who was reading his newspaper.  "Are you listening Martin?"
Martin folded his paper carefully, keeping the rustling to a minimum and his face impassive.  He was well aware that in this mood his wife could – and would – take just about anything the wrong way.
"I don't think that's a good idea," he said.  His voice was calm and low, which is how he always addressed his wife.  "I think we should tell her that we'll be indisposed at Christmas."
"Well of course we will be!  How could you think otherwise?  It's Christmas, and there will be people arriving expecting to be entertained, Martin, and who will entertain them?  Not your sister, that's for absolutely certain!  She's only entertained things that paid for it.  Expensively paid for it."
Martin allowed himself a tiny sigh.  He didn't much care for his sister, and he felt that her approach to life was a little too mercenary and a lot too unfocused, but nonetheless she was his sister and Miriam seemed altogether too keen to put her down.  It was similar with his brother, Johann; Miriam never missed an opportunity to be catty.
"Miriam," he said, gathering his thoughts.  "Miriam, Nickie is quite probably a whore, and she is more masculine than Johannn when she puts her mind to it, and she definitely killed both Aunt Tilly and Cousin Julia.  Nonetheless, that she can call these people these things, or rather that she could, means that she is family.  She is blood, Miriam, and you must remember that.  Be nicer to her."
Miriam sniffed.  "That is far easier to say than to do," she said stiffly.  "Especially since it is too late to tell her to return."
"We received the letter only three days ago, and it should have arrived last week.  Unfortunately, the latest outbreak of hostilities between house numbers 19 and 25 mean that the postman's corpse lay untouched in the gutters for a week before they sent a postboy through to salvage the letters and complete the deliveries.  Your sister will be arriving this afternoon."
"Nickie will be here this afternoon?"
"I've told you that, Martin.  You sound ridiculous repeating it over and over again."
Martin stood, and with a sudden, sharp movement slapped Miriam in the face with his newspaper.  She recoiled, stumbling over her long purple dress, and then toppled to the floor, unable to break her fall without appearing inelegant.
"Be careful what you say, Miriam," he said.  "I will not tolerate your constant dismissal of my family like this.  I watch my tongue when discussing your family."
Miriam didn't reply, instead thrashing around on the carpet.  Her dress, a long thin purple tube with whale-bone reinforcements made it hard for her to right herself because she couldn't bend at the waist to sit up.  Instead she had to try to turn herself onto her front, press herself up and then use the furniture to pull herself back to standing.  Martin watched her struggle for a few minutes, his grey eyes wintery and his newspaper held loosely by his side, and then he walked out.  As he walked along the hall he passed the butler, a muscular middle-aged man who could carry a sow under each arm.
"Barnard," he said, his voice peremptory.  "Miriam is in the Blue Drawing Room.  Get a maid to help her up please."  Barnard nodded, but Martin had already turned away and didn't see it.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Bad Kitty

Bad Kitty came to see him.  He was still strapped down but they’d loosened the neck collar so that he could turn his head a little to watch the television or look at an e-reader on a stand.  A nurse, a new one who looked extremely muscular and was stationed in his room at all times during the day, made her stand in the doorway while she was checked over and checked out.  Cort could just see her face out of the corner of one eye.  She looked furious but resigned, and she didn’t say anything when the nurse went through the pockets of her dressing gown and made her open the backgammon board up.
“Hi Kitty,” he said when she was finally allowed in.  She looked around for a chair, and found that the nurse was sitting back down on the only one.
“I need a chair,” she said to him.  One hand went to her hip, and Cort remembered that pose so well from all the times that they’d fought over the years.  It signalled the onset of hostilities, and he found himself pressing himself back into the mattress in readiness.
“You’ll have to go and get one,” said the nurse, picking up the tv remote control.  Cort didn’t get to choose what they watched.
“No,” said Kitty, and there was a trace of a purr in her voice.  “No, because then you’ll have to search me again on the way back in, and apart from that, I’m too weak to carry a chair.”  Cort had to control a laugh there, as he could remember Bad Kitty throwing actual elephants at him when they’d fought in a circus once.  He managed to catch them all too.
“I can’t leave this room,” said the nurse, his attention back on the television, looking at the program guide.
“Then ring for someone to bring me a chair,” said Bad Kitty.  “Please.”
That was it, thought Cort.  That was the defining moment when you knew you were old.  When you stopped believing that you had the power, or the awe, to make people do things just because it was you, and you started saying ‘please’.  Even though Kitty made it sound a bit vulgar when she said it.  To his slight surprised the nurse pushed the intercom buzzer mounted on the wall by his chair, without stopping browsing through the program guide.
“Can we a chair for the lady?” he said when the intercom buzzed.  “And one of those little trolley tables, they want to play backgammon and if they can’t both see the board they won’t believe there’s no cheating going on.”
“I sometimes wonder,” said Kitty, now looking at Cort, “if I’d have had more success all those years ago if I’d said please more often then.”
“I doubt it,” said Cort.  “I said please all the time, and all that ever happened was that people stopped to think about whether they wanted to do me a favour or not.”
Kitty laughed, a giggle mixed with a purr.  “You never said please to me!”
“I don’t think I said more than three words to you until I met you here.”
“True, most of the time you’d yell Stop and I’d yell Never and then there wasn’t much chance to talk, was there?”
“There was the council meetings, we talked then.”
“But that was politics!”
The chair and table arrived then, brought by two more nurses who looked stronger-than-average, and Kitty graciously said thank-you and sat down, laying the board where Cort could see it.  Cort’s nurse selected a food program from the program guide at last, Masterchef, and sat upright, alert to any movement from Cort, while watching contestants cook a variety of foods.
“Can you stretch your way out of those things?” Kitty indicated the straps and restraints as she finished setting the backgammon board up.  “They don’t look very hard to escape from.”
Cort replied by starting to stretch his arm, thinning it out to pull it out from the strap.  Almost instantly the strap tightened further, pulling his arm painfully into the bed.  He stopped, and the strap stopped binding so tightly.
“That’s clever,” said Kitty.  “I never had that kind of thing!”
“I’m glad,” said Cort, smiling a little.  “You got me tied up a couple of times!”
“How do they do it then?”  She held up the dice pot, and Cort indicated that she would have to roll them for him.  “Do you know?”  The dice clattered on the board, and a 2 and 6 showed uppermost.
“Actually,” he said, “I do.  Build me on the 8-point.”  While Kitty moved the pieces as instructed and them rolled the dice for herself, he explained what Dr. Hernandez had told him.  “There was a fight between the Cut-throat Kid and Norman Nylon that ended up with Nylon breaking his back.  He’s ended up in here as well, but he’s in a near vegetative state, and needs life-support.  But, he’s started produced his signature nylon fibres all the time, and so the staff have hooked him up to this machine, a bit like an old-time Jacquard loom, that reels in the fibres so that he doesn’t end up smothered by them all.  The fibres are semi-sentient, and when Chip Inside heard about it, he came over to take a look at it.  He ended up building them a small AI device that can attach to the fibres and instruct them on how to move.  It’s all very clever, and that’s what’s holding me down now.”
Kitty looked thoughtful.  “Chip’s still alive?”
“Oh yes, but apparently he’s a working research scientist now.  Got a pension and everything.”
“I wish I’d thought about pensions sooner,” said Kitty.  “These places are expensive!”
Cort nodded, though it wasn’t all that visible.  “I feel sorry for Nylon,” he said.  “Sounds like he’s going to be kept alive like that for a long time to come.”
Kitty looked at him oddly, a side-long glance that lingered.  “How about you?” she said.  “What if you’re producing more of that mucus and Chip comes over and weaponises that?”
Cort shuddered, and all the straps tightened momentarily.  The nurse looked up from the tv screen, staring hard at him.
“I really, really hope that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Dr. Fraud

The afternoon sun attempted to shine in to Dr. Fraud’s thirteenth-floor office window, but the blinds were uncharacteristically closed.  Normally he kept them vertically aligned and casting shadows like prison bars, apparently unaware of the effect it had on the more delicate of his patients.  Inside his office, which was warming up steadily like an oven, and to which he was, like a boiling frog, oblivious, he was sat alone, staring at his laptop screen.  He’d closed the blinds because the sunlight bouncing off the screen was giving him a headache, but now in the relative darkness the computer was causing headaches of its own.
His claw-like fingers scraped at the mousepad and the cursor on the screen dragged itself lethargically over to the folder he wanted to open.  His thumb clicked the mouse-button twice, and the cursor was replaced by a rotating hourglass.  Dr. Fraud sighed.  He was sure that it shouldn’t take this long to open a folder.
Two minutes later, the screen changed colour to indicate that the folder was open, and gradually a list of filenames appeared.  Dr. Fraud ran his finger down them, his yellowed nails scraping away at the delicate LCD screen with a high-pitched sound a bit like a zipper undoing at high speed.  Each filename was the name of a patient, and most of the filesizes over in a column on the right were surprisingly small.  Dr. Fraud found the file he was looking for: Kristiana Brown, and laboured over getting the cursor over it so that he could open it up.  She would be arriving at his office for her eighty-third appointment in a little under half an hour.
The file opened a little over five minutes later, by which time Dr. Fraud had made himself a coffee using the portable electric kettle in the corner of the office and added a fifth of cheap scotch whiskey to it.  He sipped it, muttering in German under his breath as he read through his record of eighty-two appointments with Kristiana.  The file was not especially long; it read simply:
Woman, aged 32.  Aged 33.  Aged 33.5.  She doesn’t like her age being mentioned down to two decimal places.  She has dyed her hair today.  She didn’t like me mentioning it.  Woman.  Woman aged 33.5.  Woman.  Who is this verdunkelte woman?
He sighed.  For the life of him he couldn’t remember anything about her and his notes on her file didn’t help him.  Why hadn’t he ever written anything more about her?
He left the file showing on the screen so that he could add to it when she arrived, and checked the time.  His watch had stopped again, and he took it off his wrist and shook it, slightly frustrated.  The strap snapped on the third shake, and his watch fell to the static-creating carpet.  As he bent down to pick it up, the intercom on his desk buzzed and his secretary hiccoughed over it.
“Dr. Fraud?  Dr. Fraudy-wardy!  You have a, a wom…, a wom…, a girly here to see you.”  Dr. Fraud sighed, picked his watch up and pressed the respond button on the intercom.
“Send her in,” he said in his clipped, German-accented English.  “And make an appointment for yourself to talk to me about your drinking problem.”
“Sure thingy-wingy!” sang his secretary, and turned the intercom off.  The door to his office opened, and Kristiana Brown walked in.
She was short, had mousy-brown hair, grey eyes and grey lipstick, and seemed to almost blend in with the shadows.  She stopped as the door closed behind her, and looked around, clearly unable to see well in the dim light.  She took a hesitant step forward, then another and another, and fell over the chaise-longue that Dr. Fraud preferred his patients to sit on.  As she softly cursed, he sat down at his desk, turned the egg-timer on, and laid his fingers on his keyboard.
“My dear, so good to see you again,” he said, barely listening to the baseless platitudes he was speaking.  “How are you feeling today?”
“Sore, Doctor,” she replied, wriggling around as she laid herself out on the chaise-longue.  “I’ve just fallen over your furniture.”
“That sounds like a latent Electra complex,” said Dr. Fraud, arching his clawed hands ready to start typing.
“You say that about everything, “ said Kristiana.  Dr. Fraud yawned, and suddenly he remembered why he never managed to write any notes on this woman.  She was so boring he feel asleep after the first five minutes of the appointment, and she apparently never noticed.
“You’re thirty-three and a half,” he said, reading his woefully-insufficient notes.
“My age again?” said Kristiana, her voice a dull monotone.  “Really Doctor, must you tell me how old I am every time?  Are you conditioning me to tell my problems to anyone who mentions my age?”
Dr. Fraud started thinking about that, wondering how hard it would be, and completely ignored Kristiana as she started talking about her kleptomania and low self-esteem problems.

Prime Minister Hegaton

Prime Minister Hegaton, elected to the job by the people mostly because no-one had been willing to stand for it, strode into the Eidolon’s throne room with confidence.  Despite his age he had now been Prime Minister for nearly thirteen years.  The next election was due this year, in about four months time, and he was worrying constantly if he should step down, having reached a Fibonacci number of years in power, or if he should stand again and pray he could get another eight out to reach the next Fibonacci number.  Assuming, that was, that the Eidolon didn’t kill him in the meantime – or worse.
“Your Majesty,” he said, stopping half-way across the stone-flagged floor of the throne room and kneeling.  He knew that the Eidolon had been aware of him by various senses, several non-human, since he entered the room, but she was affecting certain odd traits from reading about medieval history, and announcing his presence in a suitably respectful manner was one of them, as was walking backwards when leaving her presence so that she was never out of his sight.  She turned her head – another affectation, as her head consisted of two rings of eyes, eight in the upper ring and seven in the lower – and pretended to have only just noticed him.
“Hegaton,” she clicked.  Her mouth was embedded in her long, graceful neck, and was hard to see unless you were looking directly at it.  When she spoke though, a dark red split opened up and stringy things, glistening wetly, moved inside there.  She had difficulty with most human languages as her voice seemed designed to make clicks, whistles and susurrations, but over the decades she had learned how to overlay susurrations as harmonies and punctuate them with clicks that humans could understand as words in their own languages.  Hegaton had made some progress in the other direction, constructing a small aural dictionary of Eidolonic sounds and what they meant, but it was a very secret project as he was sure the Eidolon would not be pleased.  “Report.”
“Your Majesty,” he said, adding the throat-click at the end that the Eidolon insisted on.  “Current trade projections suggest that there may be an issue between us and France.”  He spoke for nearly half-an-hour, running through the most pressing matters of governance.  He brought to her everything that he could reasonably expect input for, and a couple of things he knew she’d be disinterested in so that she could believe she’d heard everything.  He continually found it ridiculous that she would believe that a daily half-hour report could possibly keep her current on everything, but it allowed him more freedom to run the country on human terms.
“France’s Eidolon is dying,” clicked the Eidolon, her voice like the sighing of the wind in the trees.  “There are reasons for its erratic behaviour at this time.”
Hegaton looked at her, thinking hard.  That this Eidolon might die was always topmost in his thoughts, but he’d not actually considered what might happen if the Eidolon of another country died.  “What would that entail?” he asked.
“A period of transition,” said the Eidolon.  “And then a new Eidolon.”  She said something else, clicking and whistling in her own tongue, but didn’t translate it.  Hegaton pretended he’d not heard it.  “However,” she said abruptly.  “There is another option it would seem.”
Hegaton, who had been considering applying trade sanctions and other options open to governments bickering amongst themselves, widened his eyes slightly, wondering what she meant.
“What is that, please, Your Majesty?” he asked.
“We invade France while their Eidolon is weak, and conquer,” said the Eidolon.  “This is normally what you would do, isn’t it?”
The history books, thought Hegaton miserably.  She’s still reading the damn history books.  How can we fight a war now when we’ve no idea what weapons to use?  If our weapons were any good against the Eidolon you’d not be in power now!
“Historically, that is something we’ve done,” said Hegaton, hoping his diplomatic words might buy him some time.  “We haven’t had a war in decades though, in fact, I’m not at all sure we still have anything we could call a standing army.”
There was no army.  It had never been rebuilt after the Eidolon invasion, and the remnants of it had been all too glad to slip away back home and find other things to do.
“Then we will conscript!” The Eidolon’s voice seemed to almost hiss the words at him.  “Go away and ready us for war.  The Eidolon of France will be dead in a month, and we must be ready in half that time.”
Hegaton started backing away, his pace slow and measured, his feet shuffling to avoid hitting anything he couldn’t see and falling over.  Two weeks to raise an army was ridiculously short, and then there were the logistics of equipping it, shipping it overseas, and the still insoluable problem of what weapons to use against an insectile overlord that had shrugged off all their previous technologies.
“Hurry!” hissed the Eidolon.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Bodily Functions

Cort opened his eyes again, and found he was looking at the ceiling.  He tried to stretch, but something was holding his wrists and ankles in place.  When he tried to turn his head, he found there was a fixed, heavy collar around his neck.
“Kitty?” he whispered, remembering the four times that he’d been captured by Bad Kitty.  He’d won all of their encounters, but knowing that she was in the same retirement home as him gave him occasional nightmares, and now it seemed as though she might have taken advantage of his failing health.  There was no response from anyone, so he whispered her name again.  This time there was the rustle of paper, and then the clicking of heels on tile.  Approaching heels on tile.
“Mr. Stretch?”  It was his nurse’s voice, calm and motherly.  “Mr. Stretch, try not to move too much.  We’ve strapped you down for your own safety.  Your mucus… well, it seems your mucus has taken on a mind of its own.”
He blinked, and suddenly memories returned.
He collapsed in Dr. Hernandez’s office, everything going black, and he heard the alarm start sounding.  Dr. Hernandez must have pressed it, but why?  Then there was a shifting sensation in his chest, almost as though someone had been standing on him and decided to step off at last.  He curled up a little more, and then tiny pinpricks of light appeared in the darkness.  They grew larger and his vision untunnelled.  In front of him he saw Dr. Hernandez looking worried, and backing away.  Something lurched in from the left, something green and jelly-like.  It was shaped like an iceberg and about the size of a medium-sized dog, and clearly shouldn’t be moving around by itself.  Dr Hernandez backed away again, and Cort realised that the green blobby thing was chasing him.
A door banged back, though Cort couldn’t see it, and there was a sharp intake of breath.  Then someone barked orders, short, harsh instructions, and there was the sound of running feet.  Dr. Hernandez hauled himself up onto his desk, crouching there, one hand holding the edge of it for balance.  The green mini-iceberg paused at the desk, and then it started bubbling, translucent green spheres growing out of it like someone blowing into soapy water with a straw.  Dr. Hernandez looked deeply concerned, and was looking around too, hunting for a way to escape.
“Stand back!” shouted someone, and Dr. Hernandez, looking desperate, let go of the edge of the desk and allowed himself to fall backwards.  As soon as he was crashing off the back of the desk there was a crackling sound like the rapid discharge of static and a smell like old ice.  The air hazed, and the green bubbling blobby thing suddenly frosted over and stopped moving.  The last thing Cort saw before his vision faded again was snow falling all around him.
“It’s alive?” asked Cort.  His voice was coming back to normal.
“Possibly,” said the nurse.  “Possibly.  It’s been taken away for study now, so you don’t have to worry about it.  You just need to rest and recover.”
“Why am I strapped down?”
The nurse didn’t answer, but walked off instead.  Cort waited for her to come back, unwilling to believe that the nurse who’d been looking after him for the last eighteen months would just abandon him now.  Sure enough, a few minutes (that felt like an hour) later, she returned, with Dr. Hernandez.  He loomed into view, standing deliberately over Cort so that he could see him.
“The problem, Mr. Stretch,” said Dr. Hernandez, his voice sounding restrained and reluctant, “is that we don’t know if you’re going to produce more of this mucus.  That is, was this just a side effect of your illness, or is it a new thing that you’re going to be doing from now on?”
Cort shuddered.  “Are you saying I might be an incubator for that thing?” he asked.
“You saw it?”
“Yes.  A little.”
“We don’t know.”  Dr. Hernandez sighed.  He sounded genuinely upset.  “I really hope not, but… well, you superheroes are an odd bunch.  We’re always learning things about you that just don’t apply to normal people.”
“I’m sorry,” said Cort, meaning it.  The use of the words “normal people” still rankled, but not as much.  The green mucus blob had shaken him, and the idea that he might be producing more of it made him want to curl up in a ball and cry.
“Don’t be,” said Dr. Hernandez.  “You’re all fascinating.  So few of you seem to have expected to get old, or to have any problems when you did.  It’s like you all thought you’d be young forever, fighting amongst each other and having fun without thinking about the rest of us.  And then it all changed and there are no superhero doctors, so you needed us normal people after all.  In a way it’s flattering, and what I’m learning from you all is making me almost as famous.”
“Fighting amongst ourselves?  I always fought the villains.”
“Well, when you all get old there’s not much difference, is there?”  Dr. Hernandez waggled his eyebrows.  “I know all about how you and Bad Kitty used to fight, and now you’re three rooms apart and you both play backgammon on Thursday evenings.”
Cort was silent, thinking that he and Bad Kitty were pretty much level pegging on won backgammon games, but that was exactly where their rivalry, their enmity, had ended up.  Was that sad, somehow?
“How long before you know about the mucus?” he asked at last.
“A couple of days, maybe?” said Dr. Hernandez.  “I’d have you X-rayed, but it wouldn’t help.  You’re so stretchy, so extensible, that I can’t tell when a shadow is cancer, or mucus, or scar tissue from one of your many battles, or even just you being a bit stretched in that place when the X-ray was taken.”
“Do I have to be like this the whole time?
“I’m afraid so, Mr. Stretch,” said Dr. Hernandez.

Welcome to the Glasshouse

Cort coughed, a nasty wet rattle that made people standing nearby back away, covering their own mouths and noses.  The cough lasted nearly a whole minute, at the end of which he was folded over on himself, his head down by his feet and his chest hurting with every spasm.  A warm hand rested on his shoulder, then gently pulled him back upright.
“Now then, Mr. Stretch,” said a voice, “have you remembered to take your medication this morning?”  The nurse at his shoulder was middle-aged and wore her body comfortably.  Her hair was just starting to grey, and a strand of it fell, attractively he thought, across one eye.
“Yes,” he said, shuddering as he heaved a huge breath and got air back into his body.  “Bloody yes, of course I have.”
“There’s no need to swear, Mr. Stretch,” said the nurse, but her voice was still friendly.  She said this all the time to all the residents.  “That cough is sounding worse.  I think you ought to go and see the doctor today.  Get dressed and I–“
“I killed the Doctor!” Cort jolted upright and pulled his dressing-gown tightly around his thin, scarred chest.  “Three times!”
“That’s right,” said the nurse, smiling.  As part of her job she was required to learn all of the significant events of her patients’s history.  She stepped slightly to one side, just in case.  “And the third time, he stayed dead, so it can’t be him I meant, can it Mr. Stretch?”
“Hmmm,” said Cort, unwilling to back down.  His fights with the Doctor had been gruelling, days-long battles that had caused significant architectural damage, and had taken their toll on both of them.  During the first fight the Doctor had managed to destroy the only hospital in a fifty-mile radius, and during the second they’d done enough damage to a nuclear power plant between them that it had had to be immediately decommissioned.  Cort had a sneaking suspicion that the real reason he’d won the third fight was the radiation damage that the Doctor had sustained by Cort leaving his body in a pool of radioactive cooling water.
“So you’ll get dressed,” said the nurse, “and I’ll take you up to see Dr. Hernandez in twenty minutes.  Can you do that for me?”
Cort nodded, his head bobbing and his neck elongating.  The nurse laid one hand back on his shoulder, and gently pushed on his forehead, helping him retract his neck back to a normal length.  Cort said nothing, but he was quietly grateful.
After the nurse left, he pulled the bed-covers back and swung his legs over the edge.  His hips ached abominably as they did every morning when he tried to get up, and he forced himself to stretch his legs out until his feet touched the floor and he could effortlessly stand up.  Then he concentrated, shrinking his legs back down to his normal height, and then further until he was almost just feet, knees and torso.  Finally he stretched back up again, and let out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding.  He wiped his eyes, telling himself that the wetness was just the effects of the coughing.
As he dressed, he resisted the temptation to just stretch his arms out across the room, opening the wardrobe and collecting his clothes.  Instead he forced himself to walk over and collect them, just like a normal person.  The word normal left a slightly bitter taste in his mouth; he wasn’t normal, and he hadn’t been for years.  If he’d been normal he’d never have been able to take on the Doctor (three times!) and come away victorious.  He’d never have been able to save eighty-two people from a collapsing skyscraper, or face down Bad Kitty over twenty-eight times, twice in council meetings!
“Are you ready, Mr. Stretch?”  The nurses were always careful to use the ageing superheroes' public names, and never their private ones.  It was a small touch of respect that the superheroes were ridiculously grateful for.  “Dr. Hernandez is expecting you.”  She held out her arm, and Cort took it, hating himself as he rested his feather-weight frame on her, and limped slowly from his room.
The room next to him had the door slightly ajar, and he could see the beautiful Fizz Mission sat up in bed, staring out of the window.  The nurses kept her on Mogadon to try and keep her away from her memories, and there were serious consequences to anyone who tried to talk to her without written permission from the matron.  After that they passed a closed door, which was General Tcho-Tcho’s room; that the door was closed meant he was either sleeping or a dimensional reconfiguration of his body had gone wrong again.  After that was a door on the other side of the corridor that was Bad Kitty’s room, and then they were at the lift.
“I used to be able to just lean out of the window, stretch up to the fifth floor and climb in the window there,” said Cort.  “I hate having to take lifts.”
“There’s always the stairs,” said the nurse, and he fell silent again.
Dr. Hernandez’s office was two doors away from the lift, and he was stood at the door, waiting to take Cort’s arm from the nurse and lead him to the examining couch.  Cort sat down, grateful for the relief from aching joints, and looked at the doctor.
“Nurse tells me that your cough is getting worse,” said Dr. Hernandez.  He was in his fifties, with oiled-back white hair, facial hair modelled on Colonel Sanders, and knotty fingers in huge hands.  “And we will investigate that shortly.  But first, tell me how your memory is?”
Cort sighed, and started talking.  All his visits with Dr. Hernandez were the same, the doctor would check his memories, check his physical condition, and perform a psychological evaluation before he’d address the reported symptoms.  Cort really hoped that if he had a heart-attack it wasn’t Dr. Hernandez who was first on the scene.  Finally Dr. Hernandez pulled out his stethoscope and listened to Cort’s chest, asking him to cough a little.  Cort, who had been trying to control his cough for the whole meeting, gladly let himself start coughing.  To his surprise, he found he couldn’t stop, and then everything went black.  As his vision disappeared, he heard a siren sound, and dimly realised that Dr. Hernandez must have pressed the alarm button in his office.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Aboard the Aïdolate

Aboard the Aïdolate the air was still.  Much of the gigantic spaceship was still hermetically sealed; when it had crashed, nose-first, into the planet and buried nearly 90% of itself in the ground crash-doors had activated all through the ship, and only a very few had ruptured.  Of those that had ruptured, only 5% of them were near the ship’s exterior, and the native air had made very few inroads.  Throughout the rest of the Aïdolate the air was still, stale and poisonous.  This didn’t matter much to the ship’s occupants at the moment as the ones who cared were all held securely in stasis pods or cryo-fields, and the ones who didn’t care were held in necro-fields.
In chamber alpha-7-gamma-echo-112, a five-dimensional designation very useful in faster-than-light travel where the ship’s engines unshielded singularities in patterns that caused space-time to wrap around itself locally and allowed rapid travel across vast distances, a solid-state generator stuttered as crystals very slowly slipped across each other.  They’d been moving under a slight but constant pressure for over four hundred years since the ship had landed, and the shear strain was finally forcing them out of alignment.  The generator stuttered again, and a red icon starting flashing on a tablet-sized computer that had been flung into a corner during the crash.  Induced electric fields arose around it, sensing its need for power, and other things in the room flickered into life as they too received energy input.  For several hours that was the extent of the activity increase, until the change in temperature caused by the electronic activity added enough to the shear strain to let the crystals slip over each other completely.  There was a sharp crack like the momentary discharge of static electricity, and the generator blinked and failed completely.
The necro-field, a variant of stasis technology that keeps things dead, failed thirty-five seconds later.  A pale blue light faded away, more noticeable by its absence that when it was present, and a horizontal alcove like a long, deep, high shelf appeared in its place.  The necro-field had concealed it as well as ensuring that its occupant stayed dead.  Two and a half-minutes later, all the shadows in the room rearranged themselves, flowing across surfaces like oil across water, greasily merging into a patch of darkness by the alcove, and something that might have been a long, thin, spindly-fingered hand reached out and felt around as though tasting the air.
On the tablet computer in the corner the red icon blazed brightly and symbols appeared beneath it, also in bright red strokes.  Relays and solenoids clicked rapidly, chattering like a chipmunk, and a secondary generator received instructions to start up.  For a moment power flowed through it and back into the necro-field generator, but before it managed to stabilise a necro-field the power faded away again, delicate circuits jolted by the crash burning through and out.  In the shadows gathered by the alcove another hand appeared, and then another and another.  Behind them something darker, and vaguely oval appeared, a patch of deep blackness in the middle of the shadow, moving like a bloated spider.  Then the oval expanded, and for a moment it was as though a huge pair of wings unfurled above and around the shadows, ragged and torn at the edges.  Then they folded away again and as the shadows flowed back to their rightful positions the whole shape of the barely-seen creature folded in on itself, tucking it and stretching out, becoming vaguely human-shaped.
“Aïdolate?” said a voice, hoarse and husky with disuse.  It coughed.  “Aïdolate?  Can you hear me?”
Something hummed, and lights came on around the room.  “I can hear you, Elder Matthia,” said an inhuman voice that seemed to be made out of windchimes.
“Oh good,” said the man-thing revealed in the lights.  He now had two arms and two legs, one head, and a medium-height, slightly hairy, muscular body.  Spines protruded from along the backs of his arms and legs, and little horn-like stumps poked out from each of his vertebrae.  A ridge of bone stood out from his shoulder girdle making him look like he was wearing a ruff of some kind.  His skin was a greyish burgundy, and his eyes were violet.  “Aïdolate, where are we?”
“This planet is referred to only as Balanus-7-epsilon.”
“How very useful.  I suppose my next question is why am I awake?”
“The necro-field containing you has failed.”
Elder Matthia sighed, and coughed a little again.  Dust plumed in the air in front of him to his disgust.
“I had gathered that,” he said, his voice scratching but still managing to sound testy.  He took a couple of tentative steps, finding out how stiff his muscles were.  To his pleasant surprise he had no problems.  “I would welcome a little more data.  Why has the field failed?  Was it a deliberate action?”
“No, Elder Matthia,” said the Aïdolate.  “Your plan to have crew-member Frevel free you during the voyage failed when Frevel was killed during a maintenance check.  We have crashed on a planet, and the damage we have sustained has finally resulted in your freedom once more.”
“Who else is free?”  His voice was suddenly stronger, more strident.
“No-one else has woken yet.”
Elder Matthia smiled, the muscles in his face pulling the skin around as though it wasn’t properly attached, and his mouth opened enough to expose sharpened canine teeth.  “How long has it been?” he asked.  He rubbed his hands together.
“A little under five hundred years,” said the Aïdolate, a little surprised when Elder Matthia screamed in anguish.