The Recluse

By Jason Gibbs

The wind whipped across the beach, shaking the palm trees.  Roger was sitting in his deckchair, drink in hand watching the gentle sunset.  He sighed with a sort of wistful satisfaction.  He’d made it, he was here, and with Freya too.  In some ways it was heaven.

“Roger, you weren’t actually serious about there being no cornucopia machine here?”

He’d guessed this was coming.  The first few days she’d thought it was funny that he’d insisted on taking everything from storage and cooking it, but yesterday evening she’d seemed less pleased.

“Yes Freya, as I said last night, no cornucopia machines here.”

“But, but Roger, you are the cornucopia king!  How can you not have one of your machines?  It makes no sense.”

He sighed again, looked in the direction of the now almost gone sunset, and said, “I’ll explain over dinner.”

“How are you going to get dinner?”

He pointed at the fridge unit, and then separately at the BBQ.  She frowned, but acquiesced.

#

“Just taste the meat, it’s fabulous.”

She frowned again, she seemed to be doing that a lot recently, and then said, somewhat grudgingly, “Yes, it is very tasty.”

“That’s my point!”

“What?”

“You can’t get that from a cornucopia machine Freya.”

Another frown.

“You can get an approximation of a steak, but it’s not real, it’s just…” he carried on.  Her frown had deepened.

“Is this from a real cow?” she squeaked.

“Ah, um, yes.”

“I’m a vegan!” she wailed as she ran off.  A short while later he heard the sound of her being sick in the bushes.

#

“Are you sure you won’t stay Freya?”

The perma-frown deepened, she shook her head, and turned away from him.  He nodded to the copter pilot, and stepped back.  The copter leapt into the air, and he was alone.  Again.

#

He stared up at the copter.  He was worried, it only had a very small cargo box underneath it.  Why was it landing?  He’d been very clear in his instructions…

He backed away as it came down and watched in a combination of irritation and trepidation as a woman jumped out and headed towards him.  She was medium height, long dark hair, attractive and smiling broadly.  He had no idea who she was.

“You have no idea who I am, but I’m Stacy, and before you tell me to get back on the copter, please just hear me out, if you don’t like it, the copter will be back tomorrow and I’ll be gone…”

She had a low warm voice, and a charming smile, and he was, to be honest, a little lonely.

“Ah… yeah… sure,” he stammered.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken to anybody, it must be at least twelve months, maybe eighteen?

“Great,” she said, and waved at the copter which dropped its small cargo load, and quickly sped off.

She turned to him and looked at him speculatively.

“Buy a girl dinner?”

“Ah, well, the thing is…” he started and then ran out of energy.  He turned and walked towards the fridge, then stopped and turned back to her and beckoned.  She smiled and started towards him, and they arrived at the fridge together.

He opened the door and said, “Real meat.”

“I know, and I’m sure it’s delicious.  I’m really looking forward to it!”

He frowned, and then brightened.

“Do you like wine?” he asked, with a little more confidence.

“Oh yes!” she smiled.  She had been a little concerned by how such a once-powerful man could have fallen so far, but he seemed to be recovering a little.

“Roger, you don’t mind if I call you Roger do you?”  He shook his head.

“Roger, as I said before I’m Stacy, and I’m simply starving, so is it OK if we eat before we get down to business?”

He laughed, and then said a little seriously, “Well, I’m afraid the steak will need to rest for an hour or so to bring it to ambient temperature… perhaps an hors d’oeuvre and then we can have a quiet drink?”

“Sounds delightful!”

#

“Well Roger, that was delicious!”

She lifted her glass, and said, “To a magnificent meal!”

They clinked glasses, and smiled at each other.

Then she frowned.  Roger frowned too, he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I guess you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop?” she asked, with a wry smile.

He nodded.

“Yes, well, I guess the first thing is that I should tell you that I am Stacy Albright, CEO of Pan Cornucopia Inc.”

He looked startled.

“Yes, your old company.  I was brought in six months ago as part of a financial restructuring procedure.  You left the company in rude health, but your successors made a few mis-steps shall we say?”

“I left at the top, that was always my plan.  I could see that conditions were going to become a little more tricky.  I’d lost my appetite for it.  Quite literally,” he nodded to the table in front of them.

“Yes, indeed.  Well you’ll be unsurprised to hear that the food producer division’s margins have plummeted, there are just so many competitors now.  At the cheapest end, the nuggets and the like, well, there’s no profit to be had.”

He nodded.

“I have not come to ask for your advice, or indeed to ask you back.  Which is not say that you wouldn’t be welcome, but you were very clear…”

He sort of grimaced.  He’d been quite angry at the time.  The board kept trying to put in some provision to hook him back.

“As part of your contract with the company, it was agreed that you would be supplied with luxuries for the rest of your life.  These luxuries to include, meat, various special spices and fungi, and wine.”

“Truffles.”

“Yes, those… ah that amazing flavour on the little toasty things?  Hmm, yes, I quite understand.”

She paused for a bit remembering the astonishing flavour, “It was clear from your list that you wanted only bio-dynamic foods, whose flavours were impossible to copy in the cornucopia machines.”

“Yes.”

She paused as if gathering her thoughts.  It was quite a good act.

“We have had a few challenges.  While you were still CEO a number of countries started introducing the so-called forced vegan legislation.  Restriction, and eventual closing, of abattoirs and meat producing farms.  The logic being that the cornucopia machines, such as our top of the range Pan 5001, provided better quality, safer, meat-like substitutes.  In fact, in multiple taste tests, very few people could tell the difference.”

“Not everyone can be a gourmand…”

“No.  Well the thing is, there has been a sort of domino effect, and one by one every country in the world has found itself compelled to bring in the forced vegan legislation.  Even countries which normally hold out have brought it in, not least because it’s just so much simpler to use the cornucopia machines.”

“Ah…”

“Yes, you’re starting to see.  As of tomorrow, there will not be a single country in the world which will allow the legal supply of meat.  We tried to get legal exemptions. We even looked at the possibilities of setting up our own country.  Which will probably do… but even so it will have to have the forced vegan laws to allow us to work with the rest of the world.  There simply is no way around it.”

“Hmmm.”

“The thing is, the contract we have with you commits us to delivering you meat of specified quantities without any provision for a failure of supply.  Our lawyers kept telling us the contract was bulletproof.  In a sort of smug impressed way.  When I realised they were the ones who’d written it, I got external counsel.  But they felt that it was pretty robust, and given we’d be required to pay your legal fees as well… well they were actually quite keen on it.”

“Ha.”

“The Board decided that it was not tenable, and we considered two other options.”

She ticked them off on her fingers, “Number one, we would arrange to have you cease living.  Or number two, we would persuade you to have the deliveries stopped.”

She shook her head and said, “I can tell you, it was a pretty stressful Board meeting.  But in the end it wasn’t as close as I thought it would be, and we decided to go for the second option.”

“With fall back to the first?”

“Well, of course if I fail, then it will go back to the Board.  But I think it’s important that you realise that this is no way an attempt to threaten you.”

He laughed at that.  Then said seriously, “I doubt you’ll be able to persuade me…”

She smiled at him and said, “Oh, I can be very persuasive!”

He smiled in response, and then said, “But it’s the flavour, it’s not really a debate, or about persuasion.”

“Indeed, the chemical components of the flavour are tricky to print.  We’ve tried everything, and just can’t get it right.  I don’t think the wine or truffle industries are going to be replaced any time soon.”

“Exactly…” he answered and then said, “But you think meat will?”

“The fundamental about real meat flavour is around ageing.  Traditionally, older animals gave more flavour, mutton being a classic example.  Factory farming changed the dynamic, it made a virtue of fast growing high protein meat, which generally lacked flavour.  But it was cheap…”

He recognised this line.

“That’s my pitch!”

“It is.  You go on to say…”

“Um, something like, cheap, nutritious but lacking in strong flavour.  Well, our cornucopia machines can produce the same for almost no cost.  Electricity and a few basic, and easy to get hold of components, ingredients and suddenly meat is produced.  Soon every home in the world will want one…” he said, strength returning to his voice.

“Yes, and you were right.  It made you very, very rich.”

“But we sacrificed flavour.  It’s… it’s one of the most important things about life.  I was wrong, it was wrong.  But it was too late, I’d already done too much.”

“So you ran away.  You ran here, to paradise,” she waved around her.

“Yes.”

“But you ended hunger, and at the same time made a massive impact on obesity.  The cornucopia machines make food which tastes sweet, satisfies, but doesn’t actually have any calories in it.  People don’t even have to diet to lose weight.  It’s magic.”

“Yeah, I remember the tech report.”

“That was you.  And we owe you a lot.  But unfortunately, we’re not going to kill animals for you.”

He sighed.  

“So that was the last?”

“Oh Roger, don’t sound so down.”

He said nothing, she looked at him and then laughed again.

“What?”

“I said I was here to persuade you, not crush you.  I have some good news for you.  We’ve been trialling a sort of hybrid cornucopia product.”

“A hybrid?” he asked with interest.

“Yes, I’ll have the technical details sent to you, but in summary, the machine creates the initial flesh matrix, then moves it into a second part of the machine where it is aged, but more quickly than nature.  It’s still several weeks to produce something good, but with a reasonable size of machine it wouldn’t be a problem for you.”

“Perhaps, but… I don’t want to be difficult, but I can’t imagine you’ve had gourmand testers on this.  I can assure you I’d be able to tell the difference between such a steak and this…”

He pointed at the remains of their meal.  Her smile grew.

“No… that?” he asked, incredulous.

She nodded.

“Well, one steak doesn’t prove anything… no, wait, you wouldn’t risk it on one steak.  How long?  How long has it been?”

“Two months.”

“Two months?  I’ve been eating printed steaks for two months and not even noticed.”

Instead of looking angry he looked pensive, then turned to her and said, “I need to think.”

He walked off down the beach, and she decided it was best to leave him.  Despite this unexpected response, she felt confident he’d sign the papers she’d brought, and that would be her last test before being confirmed as CEO.  She’d not thought it relevant to mention to him that she was only Acting CEO.

#

Stacy woke up to the sound of frying bacon, and an occasional waft of deliciousness.  She quickly got dressed and unzipped her one person tent, congratulating herself again on adding that to her small amount of luggage.

“What is that divine smell?” she asked brightly.  She was casually holding a sheaf of papers which she needed him to sign.

“Bacon.”

He paused and looked at her, “Printed bacon I guess?”

“Oh yes, bacon was surprisingly easy, and popular.”

He nodded, and she thought he still seemed pensive.

“Did you get any sleep?”

“No, I figured I’d get some on the plane back.”

“What?”

“I’m coming back with you.”

She stared at him, and he looked at her and said, “Look, I’ll be honest, I’ve been getting bored recently, and the meat thing was just an excuse to hide away.”

“Oh, that’s great…” she said, thinking furiously.  They’d not considered this in their strategy sessions.  He was still a major shareholder.  He might sell a chunk… that would impact the share price.  Not good.

“Yes, I’ve decided to get back into the saddle again.”

“What?” she said again, with more panic.

“Oh don’t worry, I won’t be taking your Acting CEO position away from you…” he laughed.  He’d clearly done more than just walk and think.

“Oh, um.”

“Though you and the Board are clearly in breach of our contract to deliver meat from live animals, I’m going to wave that for a few small things.”

She sighed in relief.  This was going to be fine, and she’d be confirmed.

“Yes, I want you to sign over the hybrid division to my new company.”

“What?  Um, I don’t think…”

“I’m not sure you want to argue about this,” the sudden steel in his voice reminded her that he’d been, only a couple of years before, one of the most driven CEOs in the world.

“Uh yes, well I’m sure the Board will agree…” she said rather weakly.

“Excellent.  And don’t worry, I’ll sign that bunch of waivers… once you’ve completed the transfer of the hybrid assets.”

“Great, thanks…” she said, still subdued, “What are you planning on doing?”

“I’m going to be a vigneron, a wine maker.  I’m going to print grapes, and then use the techniques you’ve developed to make great wine.  Great, repeatable wine.  After that, I think I’ll go for truffles.”

“Ah good,” she said, wondering what that would do in the long term to her company’s profitability.

“Yes, our mission is to bring true flavour back to the world!” he announced.

Looking at her frown he said, “OK, we’ll probably need a better tag line than that.  I’ll think of something…”

###

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Dwarf Fortress: A Review

by Jason Gibbs

So I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  Dwarf Fortress is supposed to be an immersive game a la Civ, something I enjoy when I have a few days to kill.  There are various warnings about the steep learning curve, and the tagline is “losing is fun.”

Well, I thought, I’ll give it a try.

The game inspired Minecraft amongst others, and has been given a facelift for its Steam release, and the new graphics clearly take inspiration back from Minecraft.  The interface is in some ways aesthetically pleasing, and in others a little painful.  Search doesn’t work very well in a number of the screens and transferring control is tricky.  But I’ll come back to that.

When you start you can set some criteria and the world is procedurally generated.  This creates a history for the world, which results in civilisations with a rich past and sometimes artefacts.  None of this is particularly relevant to the new player, but at later stages can matter.

I started by selecting the tutorial which placed my dwarves in an area with a brook, some woods and no aquifer.  Which meant I could dig.  I dug out some caverns, started setting up workshops and generally following what the tutorial told me.  At this point I thought, you know, it’s not that hard.

I built out a bit, added bedrooms and farming plots, and lo and behold, some immigrants.  Now some people seem to see this as an issue, but at this point I figure it’s a sign of success.  I continue to build.

Then I get attacked by some goblins.  I see them off, but at the loss of one of my dwarves.  It made me sad.  So I set up a couple of squads of troops so I could respond properly to the next incursion.

My fortress grew further.  Then disaster, a big goblin attack wiped out more than half of my dwarves.  I was gutted.  This was what is known as fun.  Apparently.  So I went back to a prior save and looked at my troops.  Well, they had no armour or real weapons.  And they hadn’t even been training with what they had.  So I set up a steel industry, which took several tries, and a foray into the Dwarf Fortress wiki, and I got them into a training schedule.

This time when I had a big goblin attack I tore the slimey gits apart.  I lost one dwarf, I think they lost 50.  That felt like a fair exchange.

At this point the children start demanding some time.  The tutorial didn’t have any suggestions for that, but I managed to fob them off with a new game on their tablets.

Then my dwarves start complaining about being unhappy.  I mean really unhappy.  I have plenty of alcohol, and food, and bedrooms, but no, the high maintenance creatures were getting depressed and throwing tantrums.

You know why?  I wasn’t making them any new clothes.  What they were wearing was literally falling off them.  I had to set up a clothes industry, which involved gathering silk, weaving it and making clothes, all from the task menu.

My wife then wanted to know where I’d hidden the wine, so I gave her directions to the cupboard.  I made a mental note to set up a series of tasks to keep her happy, otherwise I could see things getting difficult.

It was too late on that timeline, so I had to go back, quite a way and start again.  I got my armour and clothes industries off to a start early on, and the squads training.

Apparently the children needed to be taken somewhere.  I checked the task menu, but there was nothing obvious I could do about it.  I had to perform the task myself.

Having wasted a lot of time on that I got back to exploring the underground caverns, and got over-excited about digging out gems.  I had targeted a pillar and unfortunately let out a demon.  The demon set about wiping out my dwarves.  There was nothing I could do, it was fast and brutal.  Then my wife came in and demanded that I join the family for dinner.  I tried to explain, but she just slammed the door.

So I went back in time and made sure not to dig out all the obvious juicy piles of gems.  I didn’t want that to happen again.  And anyway, I found enough on the upper levels, and I just hoped there was no more fun waiting for me.

I now had four squads of soldiers ready to go, and as a result of my bribes my fortress had been turned into a barony.  It was going well.  I figured it was time to give the goblins back some of the goodness they’d given to me.

My boss phoned, he sounded worried about me.  I explained to him that I was attacking the nearest goblin nest and that I was starting a new project to get a waterfall.  See the dwarves like waterfalls, and while they had clothes and bedrooms and whatnot, some of them were still getting annoyed.

He expressed some surprise about my choice of task cascades and said something about me not getting paid.  But I had three jewellers’ workshops cutting and polishing gems, so I knew I’d have plenty when the next caravan arrived.

The fortress had been humming along, one of the few times when there wasn’t much to do, when I realised the house had been quiet for a bit.  The note by my cold dinner said something about taking the kids and going to stay with her sister.  

At this point one of my missions had wiped out a goblin nest and my fortress had a new holding.  But I’d made a mistake and sent too many good squads… and my fortress was attacked and virtually wiped out before I managed to force them off.

I cried.

#

After a couple of days I began to feel as hungry as my dwarves when I forgot to gather food for them.  I looked at the dirty plate next to my desk and saw the note.

I stumbled away from the desk, had a shower and fell into bed.

#

I kept trying to find the earlier save in my life before I started playing Dwarf Fortress, but I wasn’t able to find it.  I realised I’d have to play this one forward.

#

My wife wouldn’t speak to me.  I couldn’t send a squad as an ambassador.  I did speak to my boss.  He chalked it down to stress and blamed himself for loading me up with too much work to try and get me promoted.  I had to agree to go back to a more normal work pattern, but he did say I could work from home on Fridays, which would give me lunch times for the dwarves, and avoided one commute a week.

#

My fortress became the Mountainhome, which was great, it basically meant it was the best fortress in this instance of the game, and the King and Queen had come to live with me.  The downside was that I had had to build them some really shiny quarters which was a pain in the butt.

I was speaking to my uber eats delivery woman more than my wife, which she thought was wrong.  The delivery woman that is, I had no idea what my wife thought as she wasn’t talking to me directly, and the letters from the lawyers all made me out to be some kind of psycho.

#

My son came to visit.  He let me show him the Mountainhome before insisting that I leave the dwarves alone.

He gave me a bit of a bollocking.  OK, a lot of a bollocking.

Basically I had to choose, the dwarves or my family.

#

You know, there was a good patch there.  But then those **** goblins came again, and a demon attacked at the same time.  The dwarves got wiped out.  I went back.  The dwarves started complaining a lot.  Then some started turning up dead.  A vampire, but where?  Then another bloody demon.

Again and again I had to restart, and the dwarves, you know what, they’re total gits.  They didn’t appreciate what I did for them.

#  

It’d been a week since I had looked at the game.  It was hard.  I couldn’t drink, because if I did I’d wake up in front of the computer.

#

I had a conversation with my wife.  It was difficult.  She had called me some names.  Said it had been bad enough when I was drifting, but this Dwarf blah blah was the final straw.  I had promised her I was clean, and would never go back.

#

That’s my story.

I went to my Dwarves Anonymous meeting today.  That’s a year clean.  I see the kids every other week, and my wife, sorry ex-wife even smiled at me last week.  I miss them.  The dwarves I mean.  I miss them every day, but I can’t go back.

###

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Shining Beacon

By Jason Gibbs

He remembered her.  Her mind was a shining beacon in the darkness.  They’d met, banally, at a bar, and begun talking.  Soon they were sharing intimacies as if they’d known each other for years.  He’d told her so much, and she had reciprocated.  He thought that, finally, his long night was over.

“Look, we’ve had a great time, but it’s over.”

The words still hurt him.  He knew why she’d said them, he’d tried to explain what he saw.

“The world is dark.  Everyone carries their own darkness with them, and it shuts out all that is right.  When there are big crowds the darkness mixes, merges and builds and I can see nothing,  And then there was you.  You blaze.  You cut through the darkness.  I followed your light, and found you.”

“You what?  You mean our meeting wasn’t an accident?  You were stalking me?”

How could he explain it better?  She wouldn’t listen, because she couldn’t see.  Perhaps her own light blinded her?

“No, no.  It was like I knew you before I knew you.  You see?”

“Not really.”

There weren’t words for this.  Perhaps he could show her?

“Please hold my hands, I think I can show you.”

She reluctantly put her hands out.  He grasped them firmly and opened his mind.  Her scream was one of pure anguish.  He let go immediately and she slumped to the floor, sobs struggling to escape her, as if she couldn’t let them out fast enough.

“What, what was that?  Why was I blind, and cold, and the dark, it wanted me, it hated me.”

It had been so long that I’d lived with it that I’d forgotten that aspect of it.

“That’s the real world, surrounding us.  The source of our suffering.”

She looked at him and shook her head, while her whole body was shaking.

“No, no.  That isn’t real.  Can’t be real.”  She looked down at her gin, “You spiked my drink!”

I tried to calm her, tell her that I was only sharing the truth, as I’d shared everything else.

It was too much for her.  Perhaps I had moved too fast?

Slowly I managed to pacify her.  I made her another gin, drank some myself to show her it was fine.  She sipped it, and I could see her thinking.  I could also see her light, which had dimmed while she cried, brighten again.

“So that’s what you see?  All the time?  Instead of the world I see?”

“No, I see that too.  It’s like a different sense entirely, like hearing.  It is so overwhelming when you first experience it, that it seems to stop sight.  But it is still there, though diminished”

“What are you?”

“I don’t know.”

She sat and thought.  I could see her thinking it through.  Rationalising, and forgetting.  This had happened before when I’d shown people, but I’d hoped she would understand, otherwise why did she burn so brightly?

“Look, I can’t deal with this.  I need to go home.  Shower.  I’ll call you.”

She left.  The following day she’d called him to tell him it was finished.

Now he had to face the dark each day alone.  He’d thought to find her again, persuade her to stay with him, but when he’d looked she’d gone.  He’d bumped into one of her friends who’d been rather unpleasant, and implied that he was some kind of pervert.  Her darkness had smothered him, and he had almost run from her.

Each day the darkness built around him.  He could no longer see people, just their shadows.  Hungry shadows, staring at him.

He awoke in a cold sweat.  He needed to know something, what did he look like?  Was he covered in darkness?  He’d tried in the past to see, but he couldn’t, it was like trying to look at the back of his eyeballs.  The fear started to build in him, perhaps he too was being devoured by a shadow.  He had to find her again.

The normal ways of finding her wouldn’t work, but he’d missed the obvious way of finding her.  He’d look for her light in crowds.  Climbing tall buildings he looked around the city, and could see nothing.  He travelled the country, always going to the tallest buildings, and scanning all around.  The days turned to weeks and then months.  Each night he would awake, feeling the darkness growing stronger.

He’d looked everywhere he could, he was close to giving up, when he thought of one final ploy.  The next day he was in a charter plane, criss crossing the country.  After two days he saw the light, burning, still so brightly, in the middle of the wilderness.  He’d found her.

He drove out towards the light, burning so brightly, surrounded by dark.

She was waiting for him.  She even had his favourite beer ready.  He took a swig and stared at her.  She spoke first.

“I saw you coming.”

“How?”

“Since you showed me the darkness I’ve been able to see it as well.  I came out here to get away from the crowds and the worst of it.”

“It’s still here.”

“Yes, but so much less.”

“So, how could you see me?”

She paused, and looked at him.  Her light dimmed a little.

“You too are a beacon.”

Relief flooded him, he was of the light too.

“You could see my light!”

She shook her head.  He was confused.

“Then what could you see?”

“Your darkness.  You are like the deepest black, rising as a beacon.  The darkness boils off you, smothering everything.”

He sank to his knees and bowed his head.  He had always known.

He couldn’t get up again.  He looked up at her quizzically as the beer bottle slipped from his numbed fingers.

She was crying.  His beacon of light.

“I’m sorry.”

The apology echoed in his head.  The pain from the drug was intense.  He fell onto his face, and slipped, slowly, into the final darkness.

###

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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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