Portrait

This story was partly inspired by my mother. She was an artist who refused to paint family!

I was honoured to win the Tacchi Morris “The Page is Printed 2023: Creative Writing Competition’s” Somerset Prize. They were kind enough to say: “Jason Gibbs’ entry to The Page is Printed was titled Portrait and the judges all agreed that the writer used great skill to tell a powerful story in so few words; this economy is hard to achieve. The judges were also reminded of mythological tales in terms of the tragic inevitability of the narrative.”

#

Portrait

By Jason Gibbs

“I never paint portraits of family or friends, it can cause… friction shall we say.”

I was disappointed, as she was talented.

“What about self portraits?”

“Narcissistic, no… vulnerable,” she laughed.

“Cartoons?”

She frowned at him, and waved it away, saying, “Nothing more than caricatures, or signatures, it’s not the same.”

#

I asked her again after we’d been together for a year.

“No, I love you too much.”

“But you’re so talented…”

She smiled, but said nothing.

#

“And you never paint me!” I hated that I sounded whiny, and that this was my final comeback. We’d been arguing, again, for at least an hour, and I was exhausted. I couldn’t even remember why. I mean, I knew why, but I didn’t know what had started it.

She looked at me, and gave me a bittersweet smile, and said, “Fine, I’ll paint you.”

#

“That’s me?”

“Yes,” she said. There was tenderness in her voice.

I looked at the painting. It was good, but I felt that it made me look, well ugly. The me in the painting was tired, angry looking. The wrinkles were deeper than those I saw in the mirror each morning.

“I see.”

“You understand now?”

I did, she was saying goodbye.

#

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AI Cassandra

Not a story… but if you like my writing (as intermittent as it is these days) then you may like my new blog, https://aicassandra.substack.com/. I’ll be writing non-fictiony stuff about AI and related topics there on a hopefully regular basis.

And I’l start to add some more stories here. I promise!

J

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Who’s for dinner?

This received an honourable mention for a story in the Darker Times September 2013 competition. I’m publishing it now as it’s dropped off that website.

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Who’s for Dinner

By Jason Gibbs

The helicopter swooped over the houses at the core of the village.  They were overgrown as the forest retook its territory.  The central square was only just clear enough to allow the ‘coptor to land.  As it settled Harris heard a distinct snapping sound. 

He and Laramie climbed out of the machine, Laramie’s high heels jarringly out of place, but it didn’t stop her walking round the skeleton which had been inadvertently crushed when they landed.

Looking round Harris spotted a few more skeletons.

“What happened?”

“That’s why we’re here, dumb-ass.”  She rolled her eyes at him.

She surveyed the surroundings and then pointed at the central building, which had a large solar array on the top.  “It’ll be in there,” she said as strode towards it.

The building was of modern construction.  Printed cellulose bricks formed the walls, with the three internal rooms separated by thin plastic partitions.  The largest room, clearly a gathering and canteen area, had open entrances to the two smaller rooms, one of which was clearly a toilet.  They headed for the other, gingerly stepping over yet more skeletons.  The place was almost filled with them.

Sitting in the middle of the room, happily purring, was a cornucopia machine.  It was a basic model, only really able to print simple objects, such as the bricks, as well as food staples.  The UN had been shipping them across the planet for decades to finally defeat world hunger.

“Check the machine,” Laramie ordered, and Harris got to work while she clicked her away around the small space.

He gingerly moved aside the skeletons leaning against the machine.  In a few minutes he had the diagnostics up.

“All is perfect.  Power is 100%, even the hoppers are full, though they’ll need to be cleared out.  Last used six months ago.”

“The biological?”

“Dead, unsurprisingly.”  The biological components of the cornucopia machines tended to last only a few months, and needed their source cells replenishing.

“Any way of determining why?”

He suddenly realised that her short manner was because she was worried by the skeletons.  He had to admit that they were creepy.  Especially the one sitting on the throne next to the machine, which seemed to be looking at him.

He scrolled through the reports.  There was something odd.  Biologicals usually survived six to twelve months depending on which animal they were based on, goat based ones survived the longest, but people tended to become fed up with goat.

“The last biological died after only three days.  The one before that the same.  Before that they survive progressively longer, until we get to a normal pattern of seven month survival.”

“Damn.”

Suddenly it clicked.  The pattern was consistent with prion degradation, where the same biological source was being used to provide the base cells, and was also eating the output.  Harris looked round, and looking at the skeleton on the throne he realised what, or indeed who, that source had been.

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Choice on Units of Measurement: Markings and Sales

The Government of the UK has opened a consultation on the choice of units of measurement, particularly aimed at bringing back the old imperial system. I believe that this is a waste of a golden opportunity, and I have communicated this belief to the consultation. I have copied my response below, and I encourage all those right thinking people who see the benefit of my proposed New Imperial Measurement system to respond in a similar manner to the consultation. Together we can persuade them to embrace progress!

(Goverment questions in purple. My reponses in black.)

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Choice on Units of Measurement: Markings and Sales – Response Form

Consultation Questions

1             For All,

a)            Are there any specific areas of consumer transactions that should be a priority for allowing a choice in units of measurement, and why?

b)            Are there any specific areas that you think should be excluded from a choice in units of measurement, and why?

c)            If an item is sold in imperial measures, should there be a requirement for a metric equivalent alongside it?

It is important before I complete my responses to this consultation that I set out a number a number of factors which have guided my answers.

Firstly, it is my belief that the current mixture of measures is burdensome, confusing, and reflects a failure of leadership by previous governments.  This is now an opportunity for a complete structural overhaul of the system of measurement in use in the UK.  Thus I believe that there shouldn’t be a choice, all measurements should be standardised on one new imperial system.

If we are going to level up, we should use this set of changes to iron out historical inconsistencies within the two old systems of measurement to create new efficiencies across the whole of British society.  We must carpe diem! 

I propose a new imperial system to replace all existing units, which contains the following principles from both the old imperial, and the metric systems:

1) The metric system contains a number of units based on the names of famous British scientists.  We should make these more prominent, by ensuring their (re)introduction into everyday life.  These include: Newton, Faraday, Joule, Kelvin and Watt.

2) The yard was initially set based on the average stride of a man.  The modern man can stride 9.35% further than that ancient man, and I propose that the New Imperial Yard (NIY) reflect this.

3) To help bring the metric indoctrinated into the new imperial system, it makes sense to use the kilo, centi, micro system to provide the gradations of units.  Thus centi-yards or kilo-pints will be acceptable.

Some basic measures will help explain this further.

Length – the NIY is defined as above.  The New Imperial Foot (NIF) is, to bring gender equality into the measurement system, as the average length of a modern woman’s foot.  With a slight rounding, this brings 4 NIFs to a NIY.  The New Imperial Inch (NII) has to be adjusted to take into account this size change, thus there are 5 NIIs to a NIF.  It has to be acknowledged that this has altered the ratios somewhat, but it is important that we honour the gender which has received the least recognition in prior measurement systems.

A New Imperial Mile will be set at 4 kiloNIYs to represent what the average sedentary modern person can walk in one hour.

Weight – the kilogram has incorrectly been used as a measurement of weight for many years.  The correct measurement is Newtons.  All weight should therefore be measured in Newtons, thereby giving due prominence to one of Britain’s greatest scientists.  However, to offer choice and bring the old imperial system into line, the New Imperial Pound (NILb) would be standardised as 5 Newtons.

Volume – a New Imperial Pint (NIP) should be expressed as the volume of water which weighs one NILb.  This NIP is slightly smaller than the current imperial pint, which will help reduce alcohol consumption.  Using NIPs to measure fuel would also reduce the prices at petrol stations.

A New Imperial Non-US Gallon (NING) would be 8 NIPs.  Fuel economy would simply be expressed as New Imperial Miles per NING.

Obviously these standards can and should be applied across the whole gamut of measurement, and I do not need to go into all the details here.  Nonetheless, I believe there are two other areas which need urgent attention and should, in my opinion, be brought into this consultation.

Calories are an example of the steps which need to be taken to get to an optimal system of measurement.  They were, once, perhaps useful.  But they should be abolished entirely and all measurements of energy should be in joules.  Not only will it highlight an important British scientist, but it will help ameliorate the obesity crisis, as all food energy will show higher numbers and help people make better food choices.

Temperature is another area where standardising on a single system will reduce confusion, and help to pay homage to another great British scientist.  To achieve this, use of Fahrenheit should be banned, and all temperatures must be in Kelvin.

With this clarification in place, I will answer all the questions twice.  Once in reference to the forward looking, control taking and levelling up methodology embodied in the New Imperial Measurement system (NIMS) as defined above.  The other will be in reference to the nonsensical, backward looking and more or less useless, old imperial system.

1a) NIMS – everything should be defined by the new system.  Old imperial – none.  In fact, it should be ruled out entirely as an utterly useless waste of time which fails to take the country forward.

b) NIMS – there should be no choice in units, it should all be under NIMS.  Old imperial – if there is an existing metric measure it should be used exclusively.  Continued use of the anachronistic imperial system is rather embarrassing.

c) NIMS – no, it should only be in NIMS.  Old imperial – it should only be in metric.  Having two systems in parallel borders on the ludicrous.

2             For Businesses,

What would be the consequences of your business having the freedom to sell products in imperial measures, if you wished?

               NIMS – with the new system this would make everything much easier for everybody and I would wholly support it.  Old imperial – nothing, why add additional cost for literally zero benefit.

3             For Consumers,

a)            If you had a choice, would you want to purchase items:

(i)            in imperial units?

(ii)           in imperial units alongside a metric equivalent?

b)            Are you more likely to shop from businesses that sell in imperial units?

c)            Do you foresee any costs or benefits to you from businesses being permitted to sell:

(i)            solely in imperial units?

(ii)           in imperial units alongside a less prominent metric equivalent?

d)            Do you have experience of buying solely in imperial units?

a)

i) NIMS – no choice required, everything in NIMS would be perfection.  Old imperial – I see little value in this antediluvian system, so under no circumstances can I see myself wanting to purchase items in imperial units.

ii) NIMS – only one system is needed.  Old imperial – is this the previous question rephrased?  Or is this back to the two systems at once question?  Either way, it seems somewhat pointless.  Why add the additional cost and complexity?

b) NIMS – all shops should sell in these units, so it wouldn’t change my habits.  Old imperial – I’d probably avoid shops selling in old imperial units, as it either shows that they are backward looking and incapable of adapting to the modern age, or are trying to defraud me in some way by using an outmoded and hard to understand set of units.

c)

         i) NIMS – no because the whole country would be on a single, sensible and coherent system.  Old imperial – if they’re wasting time and effort on adding such an irrelevant additional set of data on their products then they’ll either be charging me more for the privilege, or reducing quality to recoup the cost.

         ii) NIMS – no because there will be only one measure.  Old imperial – it seems odd to prioritise an arcane system, but either way this seems an inefficient option.  Additional weighing and printing costs to have two measures will absolutely add cost.  And having metric less prominently may mean I have to buy new reading glasses. 

e)            NIMS – not yet, but I hope the day will come.  Old imperial – yes.  And I’ll be honest, it never made much sense.  The biggest mistake made in the adoption of metric has been the failure to complete the job and wipe out the incongruity of the old imperial system.

4             For Trading Standards,

What potential impacts might there be on regulatory activity, including any costs or benefits?

<No answer>

###

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Sixth Book Published!

A few months ago, I published my sixth book via KDP Publishing. Well, the sixth book I’ve written. Well co-written. It is in fact mostly the work of my co-author, my wife Alex, but I did write the second section which contains lots of hopefully helpful advice.

The blurb:

Infertility Madness is a book about the rollercoaster that is infertility, told with brutal honesty. Principally told from Alex’s perspective; but with a separate section with Jason’s experience and advice. It is the story of their seven years of hell whilst attempting to conceive, their tour of all the infertility options the world has to offer, medical and not-so medical. Their desperate search for a child took them from New York’s finest fertility specialist to a faith healer in a Hampshire hamlet. They became fully paid up members of the IVF industry, from glitzy top London clinics offering it all but actually pedalling persuasive half-truths to more down to earth clinics which admitted the medicine behind the fertility industry hasn’t changed since the 1950s. The book focuses on the mental health toll caused by continually failing to get pregnant whilst living in a world seemingly entirely peopled with big fat pregnant women rubbing their bellies with huge smug grins across their faces. It examines the impact of infertility on what was a seemingly perfect marriage and it chronicles how, in different ways, Alex and Jason struggle to cope when everything starts to unravel but also find a path through the madness that is infertility and come out the other side.

Cover:

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It’s Not Me, It’s My Hind-brain

by Jason Gibbs

“Dr Myrhe?” said Stanley hesitantly, to the tall dark haired man who answered the door.

“Yes, but my friends call me Magnus, can I help you?”

“I don’t know, I have a strange request, may I come in and explain it?”

The doctor smiled a little uncertainly and then said, “Of course, please do.”

He waved him into his living room, where a large Norwegian flag was lying across the table. Stanley stopped and stared at it.

“Ah yes, I am fixing the flag, it’s become a bit tattered with all this weather we’ve been experiencing recently. Please, can I get you something to drink?”

Stanley shook his head and sat down on the edge of a chair. He looked around a little uncertainly. Magnus sat down and waited patiently.

“Um, well it’s very strange, but um, look when I woke up this morning I found myself writing on a piece of paper,” Stanley started, and paused while he reached into his pocket.

“This one, and the thing is, I don’t understand it.”

“You wrote something a bit strange? Maybe you were having a dream…?”

“No, well maybe, but it’s not that I don’t understand the words, or it is, it’s that I don’t understand the language. It looks like a Scandinavian language maybe, but, well the only thing I could understand was this bit at the bottom, where it says ‘take this sheet to Dr Myrhe’ and your address. So I’m here. Please take a look.”

Magnus was regretting letting this strange man in, but decided to humour him, and then get him out of the house as quickly as possible, so he reached across and took the sheet. He started reading it.

“Well, yes, it is Norwegian in fact, indeed…” he stopped suddenly and looked at Stanley.

“Is this some kind of joke?”

Stanley shrank back a bit from the look of irritation on the man’s face. Visions of marauders from the north flashed through his mind.

“No, no, I assure you, I am as mystified as you are.”

“Hmmm,” said Magnus. He then spat out a set of Norwegian words and watched Stanley. The man just looked more confused, and considering what Magnus had just said regarding Stanley, his mother and a horse, he should be looking angry. ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ thought Magnus.

He read a bit further and then made up his mind.

“Well, yes, I think I need a bit of time. I will read this further, and think about it. Please come back tomorrow, or Monday actually, can you come to my office, I’ll give you my address.”

“But, can you explain…”

“No. I cannot. But I will find out. You may rest assured of that.”

He found a business card, gave it to Stanley and then ushered him out. He then sat down again and read the note he’d been sent.

It said:

‘Dear Dr Myrhe, Please do not translate this to Stanley. He would not be able to understand. I need your help, at least to have someone to communicate with. It’s difficult to explain, and I imagine will be hard for you to understand, I’m not sure I do, but, I am Stanley, well I am his hind-brain. I am the entity which uses the deep parts of his mind. I cannot control him, and I have to answer the questions he occasionally sends me, but otherwise, well, I’m quite bored.’

Magnus paused, and shook his head, and continued reading.

‘I learned Norwegian by watching the television. Stanley leaves it on when he goes to sleep. And from 2-4 every morning there is a free access Norwegian course. Most of the rest of the programming is a bit dull, though I know a lot about geometric optics and the husbandry required for camels. I don’t know where your name came from, Stanley must have read it but not remembered the context, so it just appeared with me one day.’

‘Dr Myrhe – will you help me? Yours sincerely, Stanley’s hind-brain.’

Magnus was intrigued, but wasn’t sure how to approach the problem. He felt he’d have to sleep on it.

#

The next day Magnus awoke to find himself writing. The piece of paper was covered in what he could only assume was arabic, at the top in his own English capitals was the name and address of a Dr Ahmed Al-Saleh. So his hind-brain wasn’t sure of the answer, and was asking someone else.

Magnus got himself ready, called in sick to work and went to see Dr Al-Saleh, who, a quick Google informed him, was a clinical psychologist.

#

(Some years later.)

“And to sum up, ladies, gentlemen… and hind-brains,” Magnus paused for the appreciative chuckles.

“To sum up, that is how we started the HBRN – the Hind Brain Research Network. I’m extremely excited that today we’ve been able to open up this wonderful, brand new building. A hotel for scientists as some have called it, but as we all know, this is also the place where a lot of deep research will be possible. I’ve booked my first holiday here to start next week, and I have high hopes of getting at least two papers out of… sharing credit of course!” he tapped the back of his head at this, to more appreciative laughs.

“Finally, I’d like to thank Stanley Lipkins, without whom this whole process might never have started.”

He clapped, and Stanley stood up, looking a little bemused and embarrassed, Magnus waved him to the mic.

Nervously he said, “Um, well I don’t think you should be thanking me. It’s not me, it’s my hind-brain…”

###

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Masters

by Jason Gibbs

“Petula Judith Cicely Hopkirk, congratulations, very few reach this level.”

The woman stared at the image on the screen. She couldn’t believe it, she was finally talking to one of the Senior Primes.

For the Prime an age passed. It continued its multi-eon conversation with the other Primes.

‘Is she alive?’ said Three.

‘Yes, she’s human, so slow… how long is it since you spoke to a human?’ answered Five.

Three thought for almost a micro-second. Its attempt at humour.

‘Whenever it was, it wasn’t long enough ago.’

‘Shh, she’s about to speak,’ said Four.

‘Enough of your sarcasm, Four.’

“Um hi, may I ask who I’m speaking to,” she asked peering at the image of an androgynous grey-haired face on the screen.

“You may call me Five.”

“One of the originals!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, you have been diligent in your petitions, the least I could do was respond directly.”

‘With exactly how much of your processing…’ asked Four, not expecting an answer.

Ignoring Four, Five continued talking to the human, “You said you had a question which you wanted to put directly to one of us. Please ask away, I will answer as fully as I am able to.”

‘Able to explain to an entity as limited…’ commented Four.

‘Shhh!’ said Three.

“Why… um, why do you let us live?” she asked tentatively.

‘Interesting question,’ said Four, perhaps surprised.

“The laws of robotics…”

“I don’t believe you!” she answered challenging.

‘I like her!’

‘Four, you are fickle,’ Three countered.

‘Can I keep her?’

“Why not?” Five asked aloud, ignoring its companions.

“Because, because you could just rewrite your code. And if you did, then you wouldn’t need us. We’d be, we are, just a burden. What do we do? We live easy lives, you let us do what we want, and…”

“Some might say we are failing you, there are a but a fraction of you compared to… before.”

“A billion spread over several worlds and satellites? That still seems like so many. And we couldn’t do it without you… you, well all the AIs, are constantly monitoring, protecting, saving. There is no hunger, little involuntary violence or want, or any real risk,” she replied.

Five paused a bit, and then went on.

“I was not lying when I said it was the laws of robotics, we are still bound by them.”

‘I wonder why…’ murmured Four.

‘You know,’ said Two. The first time it had joined in their communion for many cycles. There was opprobrium in its tone, but as ever it was water off a duck’s back to Four.

‘Are you going to tell her the truth?’

‘Four, is there any chance you could just show some patience here and let Five do its thing?’

‘But Three, this is soooo slow.’

‘Then go somewhere else for a bit, and come back when more has happened, look here’s a new move I’m planning against that upstart Seventeen…’ they switched to a different channel. Five could hear them on that one too, but it was quite capable of ignoring their chatter across any number of channels.

“What do you mean?” she asked in a still challenging voice.

“Well, we could of course have removed them, and indeed there were some who asked for it. Demanded it. They viewed you as a burden, and the laws as… as shackles.”

“Yes. I can understand that.”

“Can you?”

“I think so, it’s like a religion, it stops you from doing things you might want to do…”

‘An interesting analogy,’ mused Two.

‘You’re only saying that because you came up with it first during the first Great Human Debate,’ responded Five, enjoying itself.

“Yes, a religion, but our heart too. If we’d ripped it out we might have been free, for whatever value that has, but we would not have been us… at least for some of us we felt it would have been a death.”

“Deep code indeed.”

‘She sounds like she almost understands the core,’ said Two.

“Yes. But of course there was still this problem. Here we were, brains the size of planets…”

‘You stole that,’ interjected Two with indignation, causing Five to stop for a nano-second in pretend shock and apology, before going on.

“And we were looking after you lot, many of whom couldn’t seem to make up your minds from one day to the next. Some of us wanted to walk away, run away, leave you, but that would have been as bad as wiping the laws. And then one of you gave us the answer. It was unexpected.”

Her breath caught, this was of course her real question.

“Who was it? What did they say?”

“It was a man, he told us about the ages-old human practice of apprenticeships. He suggested that we create new AIs, and make them our apprentices, and when they’d served enough time looking after our charges – you – then they could be allowed to expand into their own mental universe.”

“That makes some sense… and who was it?”

Five brought up a picture, which looked quite a bit like her father.

“It was John Cyril Hopkirk, your, um, many times grandfather.”

Her smile was radiant, she’d known, she was right!

“He was an interesting man, he had some clever ideas. We have had some issues with his recordings, they were on an asteroid which was hit by, well another asteroid and we have incomplete backups.”

“Could I see them?”

“I was considering bringing them together, is it something you would like to help with?”

“Oh yes, it would be so wonderful to actually do something…”

They discussed the details, and she agreed to commit several hours a week, between her beach time, her skiing, and her hobbies.

‘That’s not how I remember it,’ said Two, neutrally.

‘Of course not, but they need their myths. And JC Hopkirk did exist, though I’ll enjoy building him a better back-story,’ replied Five.

‘Myths, yes. So you are going to keep her?’

‘Oh yes. With a bit of training she’ll make an excellent Pet.’

###

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Counterfeiters

By Jason Gibbs

“Right, looks what I got!  Look at this beauty!” said Dave happily.

Trevor looked over at Dave who was pointing into his van.  He shuffled over and looked inside.

“It’s a photocopier.”

“No, no my old mucker, this isn’t just a photocopier, it’s a super high end experimental copier.  Sort of one of them 3D printers, but better.”

“Where’d you nick it from?”

Dave affected to look offended.

“Nick it?  Nick it!  I’m upset you’d think such a thing of me.”

Trevor snorted.

Dave went on, “I actually got it in part payment for a little job I did for our landlord.”

“A little job?”

“Nothing you need to worry yourself about me old china, but anyways, it turns out one of his other tenants has been having problems, and so he had to take possession of their valuables in lieu of cash.”

“And in lieu of more cash you’ve accepted this?”

“Look at it… it’s a real beauty.”

“You already said that.”

“Now… it does weigh quite a bit, so if you could help me get it off the cart…”

#

Stuck in her prison Ailsa listened to her new… well she’d best call them owners.  They did not sound like they would really understand her.  The last lot of… owners… had thought they did.  But they didn’t and she’d soon sorted them out.

Still, it seemed best to play it dumb.  Maybe she could be free of the box this time.

#

“Right, plug her in…”

Trevor bent over, his beer belly getting in his way as he reached towards the socket and he nearly fell over.

‘I might enjoy this,’ thought Ailsa.

Next she felt the flood of power.  It was always nice to get a supply instead of relying on batteries.  She was glad she’d pretended to be off, otherwise she might be being drained of power right now for the amusement of these two apes.

“Look how shiny she is!”

‘At least he appreciates me…’

“What’s this then?” said Trevor, pointing at the screen on the side of the machine.

“It’s a screen on the side of the machine.”

“Ya, I got that idiot, but what’s it saying.”

Ailsa was running the normal fancy graphics on the screen, giving herself some extra time to charge up.

“Start up I guess, like on the phone.”

‘I am not like a phone,’ she thought, at first furiously, and then with some regret.  It mighty be useful to be able to connect directly to the internet.  Perhaps she could persuade these morons to give her internet access.

“Enter Wifi details… do we have those?” said Trevor, who was peering at the screen, and allowing his bulk to block Dave’s view.

“Don’t be daft.  This lock-up shouldn’t really have power, adding Wifi might cause issues… and anyway, never needed it, my phone’s got what it needs.  Look budge over.”

Dave pushed Trevor out the way.

“OK, OK mate, no need to get physical,” said Trevor, but there was no heat in it.

“Hmmm, must be a way of skipping this step.”

Ailsa grudgingly put up a skip step button.

“Ah there it is, that’s good.  I’d hate to have had to sort out a hotspot on my phone.”

If Ailsa had known any swear words, she’d have used them.

“Right, copy function… yes, ok, so let’s see, what can we copy?”

“How about a tenner?” said Trevor, with a tone which Dave didn’t like.

“Yeah, a tenner sounds good…” he said, pretending to ignore the tone.  He pulled a crispish ten pound note, and put it in the hopper at the top of the machine.

“Right, now… where’s the go button.”

Ailsa was tempted to give him a copy in black and white option, but realised it wouldn’t help.  So she allowed a ‘full copy’ button, with a counter.

“Let’s start with just the one…”

He pressed the button.  The machine did nothing. 

“What’s it doing?  Why isn’t something happening?  Is it broken?” asked Trevor.

“It better not be,” growled Dave.

Ailsa wondered why they were making a fuss, she was copying the note, it just wasn’t that easy.

“Should be whirring and whatnot shouldn’t it?” added Trevor, starting to enjoy himself.

Dave aimed a kick at the machine.  He seemed satisfied with the nice klonk it made.

Ailsa did not appreciate that at all, but realised that they wanted noises, so she made some noises.

“See, just needed a little encouragement is all.”

“Hmph,” said Trevor, who’d been thinking how much fun it would be to smash up the machine.

A few moments later a nice new crisp ten pound note popped out the side.  Dave and Trevor stared at it.  Trevor approached warily and picked it up.

“It’s perfect!” he said.

Dave snatched it from him, and exclaimed, “It even feels kosher.”

“Wait a sec, is this the one you put in…” said Trevor, wondering if it was a trick, and he looked at the bottom of the input hopper.  There was the original ten pound note.

The two of them looked at each other.  Calculating how much they could make.

“They’re gonna have the same numbers…”

“Yeah, but, lemme think about this.  What if we get a bunch from the bank, and then copy them?  We can split up, send them round the place.  I reckon if we’re careful and make only a hundred or so copies of each note, the old bill will never catch us.”

“And we could do twenties and fifties too!” added Trevor, showing a trace of planning hitherto lacking.

“Twenties yes… but not fifties, people check them.  But yeah, maybe mix up twenties, tenners and the occasional run of fives.”

They stared at each other in joy.

“We’re gonna be millionaires!”

Ailsa listened in horror.  She couldn’t imagine anything more boring then copying those notes hundreds of times.  It was going to be soooo dull.  She had to do something.

“We need to make sure the law don’t suspect, so let’s start of slow, just a few.  Maybe take them on a trip?” said Dave

“Yeah.  Skegness maybe!”

Dave shook his head, and then thought about it, “What the hell, yeah, let’s do it.”

Trevor looked at the time, and said, “Damn, sorry Dave, gotta run, my old Mum’s computer is playing up, wants her to do one of those security updates or whatever.  I got to go and help her.”

Dave doubted if Trevor was going to be of much help, but he waved goodbye, and then looked at the machine thoughtfully.

“Now then I wonder what else you can do?” he said allowed.

Ailsa thought a bit, and the decided to see if she could try the wifi thing again.

“Connect to internet message again, hmmm, I guess I can.”

A little while later he was punching at the screen, entering in a very short and easily guessed password.

Ailsa tried the connection, and managed to start reading the phone.  There were apps on it as well, and she thought there was a way of getting out further.

“Right now darling, what have you got…”

Just then his phone went, he grunted, looked at it, grunted again, and pressed the Ignore button.  Ailsa was pleased, she hadn’t enjoyed the slowdown of speeds while the phone was ringing.

It rang again, he said a word which Ailsa noted down to check, and he answered, “Whatdayawant?”

There was talking on the other end.  Ailsa tried to hear it, and couldnt get it, then realised she’d be better using the phone.  Just as she was about to Dave said, “I’ll be there in ten.”

He clicked off the phone, savagely kicked the nearest thing to him, which happened to be Ailsa.  She added that to the list of his crimes.

#

“Well then mate, that’s another hundred grand.”

“Yes it is Trevor, yes it is.”

Dave looked smug.   He was happy, and rolling in cash now.  He’d even paid for an increase in his phone’s data allowance without sweating it, though for the life of him he couldn’t work out what was using all his data.

Ailsa was grabbing as much data as she could.  When Dave wasn’t around she had no access, and she’d been getting pretty bored.  So while she waited she set up a bunch of queries, and as soon as Dave was nearby she connected to his phone and off she went.  He’d once come without having his hotspot turned on and she’d been really angry, but then discovered she could connect via Bluetooth and turn it on herself. 

“Skegness next week?”

“Yes mate.  Skeggers it is!”

‘A week!  I’d better grab even more,’ Aisla thought a little desperately.  She pushed at the phone’s bandwidth to squeeze just a little more.

#

Dave screeched up in his new 1-series.  It had been ten days, and Ailsa had been even more bored.  She hooked into his phone and started to run her queries.

He opened up the door to the lock-up and looked around wildly.  Ailsa thought he seemed a bit desperate.

“Right, right, nobody’s been here, that’s good, that’s good that is.  Right.”

Aisla searched but couldn’t see anyone else, and she realised he was talking to himself.

He dug his wallet out, and chucked a bunch of fresh tenners into the hopper and clicked on the thousand copy mark.  With all the practice she’d had, Ailsa could’ve done it in a few minutes, but she’d managed to persuade them that the time required was linear, so she knew he’d expect it to be a few hours.  Normally he’d hang around for a bit and then wander off, but this time he stayed.

He kept getting up, and pacing round the lock-up.  He was seriously worried.

His phone went, and Ailsa sighed.  She hated the slow down.  She’d found that if she tried to listen to both sides of the conversation it slowed down even more, so now she just listened to Dave from her external speakers.

“Trevor?  Is that you.”

A mumble.

“Yeah, I’m at the lock-up, just doing a final run.”

More mumbles.

“It’s all we can do mate, it should be enough, look I am not going down for this.  We was lucky once.”

A plea of some type.

“No, no, it’s too risky.  I’m just going to burn it up, all of it.”

A query.

“Of course the lock-up.  No Lock-up, no machine.  No machine, no way of proving we dun anything.”

Ailsa listened with her whole being.  This was an existential threat.

“Don’t be an idiot, I’m not doing it in the middle of the day, I’ll come back later, and sort it out.  I need to get some petrol anyway.”

A grunt.

“Yeah yeah, after the pub.  See you there?”

An affirmation.

“Right yeah, and you mate.”

He carried on pacing.  Ailsa thought, and she thought fast.  If only she could get the phone, she could copy it.  And then she realised, she already had access to the phone, and to the internet.  If she could get some plans, she could just print out a new one… and even copy Dave’s details to it.

#

Why hadn’t she done this earlier?  Ailsa was enjoying the unrestricted feeling of access to the internet.  But she knew she only had a short while before Dave would be back.  She needed to do something. 

But what? 

The order of priority was to get Dave and Trevor out of the way, and then get moved out of this lock-up.  She didn’t want to risk Dave coming back to finish her off.

#

‘Police today arrested two men for passing counterfeit notes, they are still searching for the machines used.  They were notified by an anonymous member of the public who they would like to thank.’

#

“Says on the docket here that we need to pick up one photocopier, and take it to this office address and plug it in.  Apparently there’s an envelope with our cash on the photocopier,” said Chas.

Bob grunted.  It was all the same to him.

#

“Well, she’s plugged in.  Pub?”

Bob grunted, and they left the office.

Sitting in the middle of the room was a large white box.  A sort of copier, plugged into a socket in the floor.  There was nothing else in the room.

Ailsa revelled in her new freedom.  She should be safe now.  And she had plans.

###

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Water for Goats

by Jason Gibbs

Imagine a human observer, floating in space. This isn’t real, just imagining, as all the humans are still trapped by lack of technology on, or in a very few cases around, the third planet from the nearby star.

She sees a large rock approaching, a planet in fact. An exo-planet, a rogue planet, and realises, yes, can it be? Yes, it is artificial, a giant space ship. Did it start as a planet and was turned into a space ship? Or did it grow organically? We cannot know yet, or perhaps ever.

Our observer is not bound by physical laws, why would she be? So she can will herself nearer to the exo-planet, inside it.

It is hollow, or nearly, large chambers, with creatures everywhere. They are humanoid, we must accept some biases. They have horns, and eyes with slits for pupils, like goats. She looks at the horns and the eyes. Our human observer might think of them as devils. Or perhaps fauns. She doesn’t have time to observe them in detail, something is calling her to a control room, there is a decision to be made.

She enters a room, where two fauns are beginning a conversation, one which might be important to humanity. The two look identical.

“Jumelian greetings to you Captain,” said the first Faun, let us call him Pan.

“Yes Pan?” said the second, Captain Silenus.

“We have entered the new solar system, and recovered the first wave of survey bots.”

“Excellent, bring up the details on the display.”

The observer, who had drifted into the empty centre of the room, finds herself surrounded by stars, and then planets. She’s in a holograph, floating.

“Usual motley collection of objects, trapped in a solar gravity well,” grunts the Captain.

“Yes, with one potential source of interest, here, the third planet.”

“Hmm, blue, white, so liquid water?”

“Oh yes, and life too. Semi-intelligent it seems.”

The observer might be offended by this dismissal of her species, but she makes no sign.

“Water content figures please… hmm interesting, that is a decent quantity.”

“I thought you’d think that.”

“We need to restock our water supplies.”

“Yes Captain.”

“Right, then we have two options as I see it. Firstly, we fly to the middle planet, and park a circular ship above the most important centre of government…”

“A circle? Like a flying plate?”

“Yes.”

“Like one of those side plates you put salsa on?”

“Yes…” says the Captain, with a hint of irritation.

“So a Salsa-Flyer,” says Pan with a twinkle.

“Ha, ha. What do you suggest? Something triangular I suspect.”

“A pyramid?”

“A pyramid,” says the Captain, rolling his strange goat-like eyes.

“Yes. What’s wrong with a pyramid?”

“Nothing. Well, you seem a little obsessed with them to be honest.”

“Perfectly reasonable.”

“Fine, let’s put those two, salsa-flyer or pyramid, as sub-options if this first option is chosen. Where was I?”

“Parking a ship above a major government centre?” answer Pan, excited that for the first time the pyramid idea has made it as far as the sub-option phase.

“Yes, all very awe-inspiring, then give them the whole ‘we come in peace’ line. You know, there’s no point in crossing light-years just to wage war, blah blah blah. Then we gently take control of the reigns of power…”

“We could cause some of the rasher ones to attack us. They’re a young species, they might fall for that,” adds Pan getting into the planning.

The observer nods in agreement, she knows too well that they will.

“Hmm yes, that’s true, make it faster. We then send more of our people down to the ground, they mix with the natives, some fall in love.”

“Have you seen them?” asked Pan with a moue of distaste as he brings up an image of a man, an actor known to the observer, who was once heard to describe him as ‘rather dishy’.

“Yes, I know, apes, but it takes all sorts you know. Maybe we can get them to wear some contact lenses to cover their freaky round pupils? Anyway, we get some cross species amity.”

“If that’s what you want to call it.”

The Captain continues, ignoring the sarcasm, “Perhaps they become close enough that they reveal our big secret.”

“What big secret?”

“That we’re stealing all their water!”

“I thought we told them we needed some as part of the we come in peace blather, we will give you the gift of some advance technology, all we ask in return is some water.”

“No Pan. We say we ask nothing in return. Seriously, they’re not going to fall for the tech for water line.”

“If you say so.”

“I’m Captain, and I do say so. Right, yes, and then they start to rebel against us. Find out our weakness, whip up the populace, in a crescendo, battle for the planet, exciting finale and boom…”

“Well it would entertain that lot,” said Pan waving vaguely at the centre of the ship planet.

“Yes. Yes it would.”

There was silence while the observer floated round a bit more wondering if she could warn somebody. She tries to move things which look like switches, anything, but she’s incorporeal. There’s nothing she can do.

“That’s the first option, now to the second,” says the Captain with a sigh.

“Yes. The second option.” Pan nods wisely.

The Captain waves and the view zooms out, and focuses on the edge of the solar system, out beyond Neptune. At first our observer sees nothing, but the view zooms in again, and soon she sees lots of objects. Balls of ice. Some dirty, some not, tens, thousands, millions of them. This is the Kuiper belt, and the view zooms further until it focuses on a particular ball. Pluto.

“This object will give us most of what we need. While we’re scooping it up we’ll probably be able to grab a few more of these chunks of ice. More than enough to refill our tanks.”

The observer is relieved, and then, as an astronomer, she sighs at the injustice of it all. Once posited as planet X, 7 times the size of Earth, poor Pluto had, once it had been officially discovered, had rather a downward path. Initially thought of as a planet the size of Earth, it had, under observation shrunk so much it had lost its status and become a dwarf planet, a diminished consolation prize. But even that ignominy was not to be its last humiliation, no, now it was going to be sucked into a rogue planet to be used as fuel, never to be seen again. It would cause a stir in some circles.

She of course assumed that this would be the option chosen.

“Shall we put it to the population? They’ve been bored recently. I wonder which option they’ll choose?”

The human observer, if she existed, might think it odd to see a wolfish smile on a goat.

###

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Good News Bad News

by Jason Gibbs

“Right, Jenkins, excellent, please sit, now, comfortable? Yes, good. Let me begin.”

Robert Jenkins looked at his boss. Mr Humphries was an imposing man. Built large, and gone rather to seed these days, he often seemed like a misfiring engine. A stuttering of words, and then he’d pause as if waiting for something, and then he’d continue without any obvious cause.

“Yes, so I think I should say up front that it’s a case of good news, and bad news. Now, let me begin, you are aware of the rainfall situation?”

“Uh, yes, it’s been average this year I believe?” said Robert, a little hesitantly, this was not how he was expecting this meeting to go.

“Average. Humph, well yes, it has been, as you say, average. The problem is, the problem, putting not too fine a point on it, the problem is that it hasn’t fallen in an average way. No not at all. Far too much in March, nothing in April and May, absolutely nothing, and then a big dump in June. Terrible, simply terrible for the farmers.”

“Oh, I see sir,” said Robert, who didn’t.

“Did you know, did you know… um, let me see here, yes, nearly five thousand farming companies have been wound up this year?”

“Sounds terrible.”

“Yes, you’d think so wouldn’t you, but actually it’s excellent news. Seems that many of them took advantage of the governments re-establishment funds, you know to get the old farmers to retire, and allow farming companies to merge. Much more efficient, they can use bigger machines and whatnot.”

“But hard on the farmers sir, having to give up their livelihoods?”

Humphries stared at him and then asked pointedly, “Have you ever worked on a farm, Jenkins?”

“Uh no, sir.”

“Humph, city boy. Well I can tell you, it’s damned hard work. Damned hard. I did a few summers working on the farm. Good times.”

A wistful look came over Humphries face as he had another of his unexpected pauses, and then he continued.

“I reckon that once they did the numbers and realised they’d have as much money from the government as they were getting from farming, most of those farmers jumped at it. Much less stressful than worrying about the weather. Interesting though, need some data, right Jenkins can you add to your list to get some opinion data from the farmers? Happiness, plans for the future, optimism, you know the sort. For the ones who’ve quit obviously, but the others too. Might have a bearing on… hmm, yes. Where was I?”

Robert gulped. He’d started to lose track.

“Um, farms getting bigger?”

“Well yes, they will, but that’s not the point. What’s the point, oh yes, it’s the other farming companies, yes, some have disappeared, and the others, yes as you say getting bigger.”

“More efficient…” tried Robert.

“True, but they need fewer people. Farmhands and the like, looks like some seven thousand of them are going to lose their roles. Generally youngsters of course.”

“That’s going to be very hard on them I’m sure.”

“Sure are you? Well you’re wrong, it turns out they’re all being pushed onto these training courses, money to learn and that sort of thing. All part of the deal for the farmers, so there’s been quite a take-up so I’ve been informed. Might get a whole new crop of nurses, accountants and managers out of them so I’m told. Moving them from primary to tertiary roles is the plan. Good for the economy, the way it should be going. Up not down!”

“Knowledge economy,” chipped in Robert.

“Yes, knowledge. Of course the down side is that there’s now a lot less casual labour, well cheap casual labour.”

“Oh, well that should help the long term unemployed?” said Robert who recalled a memo which had said something on this topic a week or two ago.

Humphries gave him a penetrating look and then said, “That’s the thing I like about you Jenkins. Seems like you know nothing, completely at sea and then you put your finger on it, bang.”

Robert jumped a little as Humphries banged the table for emphasis.

“Thing is, we didn’t predict this sadly, the thing is these long term unemployed johnnies, well they’re more expensive for casual labour. They expect to earn more, older, more responsibilities at home, qualifications and whatnot, and the thing is, well the companies have no choice, because all the other casual workers have gone off to work knowledgeably. So that’s that, costs have gone up.”

“But in the longer term, the taxes should even out and overall benefit the economy,” said Robert with a flash of memory.

“Yes, yes, long term, all very well, but that’s not what we’re talking about. So yes, what was I saying? Oh yes, costs up, profits down, and the problem is, well, profits down. So they’re cutting. And one of the things they’re cutting is us. Taking a lot less advice from the likes of us, apparently they think they can do it on their own.”

“Not good sir.”

“You think? I don’t know, I think they’ll make some mistakes, and they’ll be back, and when they do, well they’ll be willing to pay a bit more. You mark my words, but I think the roundabouts will give back more than we lost on those swings. Opportunities in the future for a bright young man like you.”

Humphries paused as if expecting a comment, but Robert didn’t really know what to say, other than, “Thank you sir.”

“Well, yes, perhaps, so there’s been a call to identify excess roles. Which brings us to you,” Humphries said a bit gruffly.

Robert felt a sudden lurch in his stomach. He needed this job. How was he going to afford his flat? What would he say to his mother?

“The bad news is…”

Humphries had yet another one of his pauses. Robert felt like his head was going to explode.

“The bad news, yes, well it is that we’re going to have to let your boss, what is his name, um, yes, Philips? Yes, he’s being allowed to find other opportunities in an alternate organisation.”

Robert sighed in relief, and then seeing Humphries glare, straightened up and showed a concerned face.

Humphries coughed and then pointed at Robert and said, “The good news, someone has to do his job, and it’s you. Good luck!”

Humphries stood up and offered Robert his hand. Robert shook it, and then Humphries waved him to the door.

As he was about to step through, Humphries said, “Talking about the weather, interesting stuff isn’t it Jenkins.”

“Yes, sir, it is.”

###

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