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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Filed under Data and Statistics

Keyboards

by Jason Gibbs

“Hi, I’m Lucy, welcome to CABComms… I’ll be taking you round the office,” her tone was a little flat he thought, but perhaps she did this a lot.

“Ah thanks, I’m…”

“Dunstan, yes, I know. So let’s be going. I believe all your interviews were remote?”

Dunstan Howard nodded, slightly taken aback by the brusque nature of the woman. He thought she was pretty, in a careful low maintenance sort of way, and was wondering whether there were company rules about asking out colleagues when he realised that she had turned and was walking off at a pace. He trotted after her.

She waved to her right, “Lawyers.”

A few paces on, she waved to her left, “Accountants.”

And a little later, “Toilets.”

Every word with the same tone, as if the information was clear and equally valid. They turned a corner and she carried on at the same pace.

She stopped and turned to him, “Could you remind me, your keyboard rating was?”

“Ah, um, 98 wpm.”

She stared, nodded and said, “Basic. Yes, I recall, this way.”

He was feeling a bit bruised by her attitude, and was thinking that 98 was really rather good, certainly faster than anyone at his last place, when he was distracted by the sound of music. It was lovely, with a celestial feel.

“Ah, um, Lucy, what is that?”

She turned back to him and answered, “You should teach yourself to stop that.”

“Ah, stop what?”

“The ahs and ums. Inefficient, and you’ll need to be efficient to prosper here.”

She turned again and started to walk off.

“What is the music?”

She rounded on him, nodded and gave the hint of a smile.

“That is the top level communicators. By the sound of it they’re composing a new policy. Now, we must move.”

With this she headed along the corridor again, faster than before. As they went there were further one word descriptions, coffee, admin, supplies and suchlike. Dunstan thought he was unlikely to remember it all, and after three more turns they stopped at a door which said in big black letters “Basic”.

“This is where you will be starting. I’m sure you’ve noticed that we have done a full loop so the entrance is just there,” she said pointing to her right.

“Yes…”

“Good luck, I will see you at the end of the day to gather your feedback, now please go in.”

She was off before he could say anything. He took a breath and opened the door.

Inside the room were desks in rows of three. On the desk there was, as he expected, a large computer monitor. What he didn’t expect was the keyboard underneath it, it wasn’t qwerty, or even Dvorak. It looked rather like a piano keyboard.

He was still staring at it when an imperious voice said, “Sit.”

He did, and then looked around. At the end of the room was a woman on a slightly raised platform. She was petite, with grey hair in a tight bun, the stereotype of a perfect typist of the last century.

“You are fairly fast Mr Howard on a standard keyboard. You will be slow for a while until you have mastered this style.”

“Ah…”

She stared at him sharply, and he swore to himself he would never um or ah again.

“We do not select candidates with piano training, so do not ask. They have learned the wrong language and helping them unlearn it is painful. We used to only take those with no music training at all, but those standards have been relaxed.” It was clear what she thought of that decision.

“Look at the keys. You will see they have letters on them. Some have more than one letter, and most letters appear more than once, some, such as E and S, no less than 8 times.”

He stared down at the keyboard feeling even more at a loss than usual for the first day at a job.

“Carefully type the quick brown fox…”

He started tapping at the keys, using just two fingers. The first key caused a note to play which surprised him, though he guessed it shouldn’t have, but after looking up to see a scowl, he carried on. It was slow, and the sounds didn’t really follow, but he got to the end. He’d normally been able to type that in about three seconds.

“Not appalling. Now, use the left hand for the first word, the right hand for the next and alternate. You’ll see that the letters flow more logically than.”

He did so, and it was faster, and the sounds produced were almost a melody, like they fitted. He looked up at the screen to see that the sentence had appeared.

“Excellent Mr Howard.”

#

They carried on for the rest of the morning. He’d not been able to ask a single question, and at lunch time she’d merely said, “At 1300,” and disappeared. He’d left and found a sandwich shop, bought a sandwich, headed to the park and sat and pondered the morning. He could make neither head nor tale of it.

#

“Mr Howard, can you hear the errors?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are you making them? Do you like torturing your ears?”

“No.”

“Well then, try again.”

It had been a much tougher afternoon. He was now typing more complex sentences. He’d either have a document he’d have to copy, or sometimes dictation, played out of a speaker when he clicked on the icon. At first it had been jarring hearing the words and the sounds he was typing, or should that be playing? He was used to that now, but he was still bemused.

He didn’t know what it was all about, or indeed how to consistently play, or perhaps type? Occasionally the woman, whose name he still didn’t know, would give him a hint, at other times she’d just criticise.

He tried again, using alternating hands and various of the other techniques, and it seemed like he could feel the melody as he was typing. He was starting to enjoy it when he mistyped and the dissonance stopped him short. He looked up.

She looked approvingly at him and said, “I am Miss Eagle. You are progressing very well Mr Howard, I believe you almost found the line there. Now try the next piece.”

#

At the end of that day Lucy had met him at the door, enquired politely as to his progress, nodded and wished him good night. He wondered why. Yet each morning she would greet him, and each night she’d be there to see him out. She never responded to any attempts at further conversation.

After a month of practice he’d not done anything he could identify as work. He’d also never seen anyone else in the practice room.

He was left at the door by Lucy as usual, and he entered. He looked up, expecting to continue as before, but Miss Eagle was just watching him.

“Mr Howard, what was your typing rate before you joined us?”

“Just under 100.”

“98 in fact.”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what you sustained in yesterday afternoon’s session?”

“No,” he said quizzically.

“Just under 200.”

“198?” he couldn’t help himself.

There was a dead silence, and then she answered, “199.98 to be exact.”

“But… how is that possible?”

“You have passed Basic. The theory will be explained after you have passed Advanced. Tomorrow you begin Intermediate. You may take today off.”

She disappeared, and he walked out of the door even more bemused than before. Lucy was waiting, which was unexpected.

“Dunstan, you must read and sign these documents before tomorrow to continue your evolution.”

She handed him a stack of papers, smiled almost warmly, and conducted him to the door.

#

He’d started to read the documents and begun to have a nagging feeling of recognition. He was onto his third page before he realised he’d typed them, and then, suddenly, he just knew the whole document, what it meant and what it meant for him. It was a switch, a sharp refocussing of knowledge.

He also realised it was a good deal for him, more money and benefits, so he signed happily.

If he’d expected Intermediate to be different he was somewhat disappointed. Lucy led him to the same door, and Miss Eagle waited for him. The sessions were similar, though tougher. The dictation was faster, he sometimes had to copy from scraps of paper, and on a couple of occasions had to type up recorded conversations.

Now and again he’d get flashes of knowledge from what he’d written, but not in the same way as that contract. He didn’t know why. But he wanted to know.

The end of Intermediate was similar to Basic. His typing speed was now up to 300, which was unreal, and he could follow multiple lines at once. Miss Eagle even expressed mild approval.

Once again Lucy presented him with a pile of documents, and a real smile this time.

“Dunstan, you are progressing well,” she said. He thought she looked very pretty when she smiled.

“Lucy…”

“You will need to pass Advanced,” was her curt reply, even before he let the question out, but he could see that she was just communicating the rules, and it was not a personal rejection.

He read the document, and before the third sentence the knowledge had refocussed sharply. He now understood the process, and he signed the contract.

#

“Today we start on dissonance,” said Miss Eagle.

For the very first time she was sitting down, at a terminal like his own.

“Let us begin.”

She started typing, and music flowed. He clicked on his typing source file, and voices started and he commenced typing.

At first their lines inter-weaved and the music was pretty, beautiful even, and then, it started to clash. Just a note here and there at first, and then worse and worse. He forced myself to keep going but after only a few minutes he stopped, panting with the effort.

“Good Mr Howard, but you must focus. Hold yourself above the music and you will be able to continue for longer, you have allowed yourself to fall into the lines themselves.”

She was right, and over the next few days he was able to build up his tolerance until he could play with, or perhaps against, her for an hour without needing to stop.

“Excellent. And now true harmony,” she announced one day.

This was different. He had thought it would be a relief, but if anything it was harder. Holding the harmony with hers for long minutes. While dissonance was easy to hold at bay it was tempting to fall into the harmony, and if he did then it collapsed and he would receive a sharp rebuke from Miss Eagle.

“Mr Howard, that instrument is one of pleasure. Do not abuse it.”

He concentrated and improved, and one day while in mid-harmony he came to understand what it was that they were writing, he could actually understand her part too. It was perfect communication, and he began to vary it, and she did too, responding to him. It was like magic.

“Why Mr Howard, it has been some years since I’ve enjoyed a practice that much. Excellent. I believe you will be ready to pass soon.”

Soon was still another three weeks, the harmonies became more complex, and more beguiling, and then he had mixed harmonies and dissonance, and dissonant harmonies. She called these ‘Synthesis’, but he often didn’t know which of them was leading the Thesis.

Then suddenly, “Mr Howard, congratulations, you have passed. You may take a week’s holiday, and then you will be starting work.”

She walked over and shook his hand. She was petite but very strong, and there was a twinkle in her eye.

He left, and once again Lucy was waiting for him.

“Here are your documents. You may take me for coffee.”

They went for a nice coffee. She refused to talk about work, but that wasn’t a problem.

#

He took the week off to relax, signed the contract and went back to work.

Lucy met him and for the first time in months they did not walk to Miss Eagle’s room, instead they went the other direction, to where he’d heard that music on the first day. As they walked she said nothing, and he listened. He could hear documents in the air, and could pick out bits of the words, of the meanings.

“It is probably best that you don’t listen like that too much, it can sometimes be painful,” said Lucy.

He shot her a guilty look and she smiled, “Don’t worry, we all do it sometimes, but it’s just… well, if you get caught by a bad dissonance, it can be jarring.”

They walked on a little further, “This is us.”

She was pointing at an office with two desks in it.

“Us?”

“Yes. We have been paired.”

“Ah, is that good?”

She gave him a withering look, and sat down at her desk, and started to play.

She was using music.

“What?”

He did, and she played.

There was a playful a note in her response.

She continued with a more serious note.

She smiled at him, and her music smiled too.

He smiled, as did the harmony he wove with her. He was way beyond words per minute, he was now able to communicate perfectly whenever he wished, and he would be able to help others do so too.

###

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And Justice for All

by Jason Gibbs

There was banging on the door.

“Jeremiah Donjean, we know you’re there…”

Except he hadn’t come home. I went to the door and it was slammed open, catching me and sending me to the floor. I landed and looked up at the armoured man as he literally walked over me. His boots hurt.

“CLEAR!” he shouted seconds later, before returning to me.

“You are?”

“I’m Thaddeus, Thaddeus Donjean…” I stammered. I was a little stunned.

“Where is Jeremiah Donjean?”

“I don’t know, he didn’t come home last night…. argh that hurts!” I squealed the last bit. The ape had picked me up and thrown me over his shoulder. Powered armour made me weigh nothing to him, but his spiky armour hurt, almost as much as the rough treatment. I’d read somewhere that they were considering adding some kind of sea urchin spine, but weren’t sure how much poison to allow…

“You have the right to remain silent…” said a pleasant woman’s voice. He’d clicked a button to let me hear the recording. He couldn’t even be bothered to say it himself.

#

The hard man stared at me.

“I don’t believe you. I think you’re trying to shelter him.”

“I promise you…”

“It’s too late.”

He stood up, and as he left he slapped his palm against the wall.

The pleasant woman’s voice said, “You are being charged with Conspiracy against the Will of the People. Your trial will be held at the convenience of the Submarine State. A lawyer will be appointed…”

#

My lawyer was a grey man in a grey suit. He’d asked me nothing. I mean, nothing at all, as we waited in the ante room. He just stared at the wall, occasionally looking up at the red light above the door marked ‘Courtroom’.

The light turned green, and the grey man got up, and walked to the door. He opened it and walked into the courtroom. I followed him, it didn’t seem that I had a choice. The room was exactly like on TV.

The grey man waved at me as I looked around. There was a mixture of irritation and fear on his face. I headed over. As I sat down another man appeared at the desk next to ours. The prosecutor. He didn’t look at me.

The Jury filed in. And, after a loud, “All stand!” from the loudspeakers, the judge entered.

He sat down without looking at me. We all sat. The judge reached forward and pressed a button.

“This court is in session. The defendant has been accused of Crimes against the State. How does he plead,” said the pleasant woman’s voice.

My lawyer leaned forward and pressed a button in front of him. I noticed he had three.

“Not guilty,” said the pleasant voice.

The judge hit another button.

“Prosecution please proceed,” that same voice said.

The prosecutor looked at the dozens of buttons in front of him and pressed one.

“The defendant was interrogated by an Agent…” said the not-so-pleasant-now voice. It didn’t mention my name. Or indeed anything else.

I was going to ask my lawyer why he only had three buttons to the prosecutor’s many, when I noticed that the members of the Jury had a button in front of them. Just one.

#

“You have been sentenced to permanent marine exile,” said that voice, scraping my nerves with her pleasantness.

#

“Last words?” said the armoured man as he was about to close the inner airlock.

“I want to…”

“Not the worst I’ve heard, but pointless,” he cut in somewhat savagely, and he slammed the door.

###

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Own the Octopus

By Jason Gibbs

“Basically we want to stop anyone from being able own the Octopus. We want to be free!”

The cry of revolutionaries everywhere I thought. Well, except perhaps for the bit about the Octopus.

“I agree the current system isn’t entirely fair, but…”

“Isn’t fair Brandon? Isn’t fair! We work for almost nothing, while the algae farmers live in luxury. Look at them, up there, on the top vent, wallowing in luxury, while the rest of us struggle just to eat.”

“Luke, they did save us, and I’m not so convinced about that luxury.”

“Propaganda. Lies. They stole from the real algae farmers. Before we had to retreat from the surface the algae farmers were considered peasants. They’d never have been able to build the mechanisms of control our rulers have in such a short time.”

“Look, brother, I understand your anger, but it’s only been a couple of centuries, we can’t go back to the surface.”

He looked at me steadily. Weighing me. Deciding if he could tell me something. When at last the decision was made, it was in my favour.

“I can’t tell you it all, but I will say, it doesn’t involve going to the Surface. Or attacking the Main Bag, if that’s what you think.”

My eyes had swung to the giant algae and oxygen balloon which floated high above the main vent. At this time of day it was quite visible as a glowing green bulb. All our oxygen came from that one frail bag.

Luke pointed at it and said, “The Council of Algae Farmers, our rulers, destroyed all other balloons in the last purge. They now own the only source of life. And with that, our city, the Octopus, is theirs.”

I’d heard it before, and there was no point arguing, but I was worried about him…

“OK brother, but you know what will happen if they even find out you’ve been speaking against them?”

“I’ll go for a naked swim over the lower tentacles. I know.”

We both looked out over the lower city. Each district following one of the ridge lines, particular encrustations near each main vent. I had no idea who had first described them as tentacles, but it had stuck.

It was rumoured that the execution points were at the tips of two of the lowest arms, far away from the main vent. This was in part aesthetic, as allegedly our rulers didn’t want to see dead people floating around their pleasure palaces, but it was also practical, there was the possibility a corpse might interfere with the Bag. There was little chance of that if they were released so far away, as the fish and other creatures who swum at the edges of our realm would consume them quickly once they were released.

I doubted it was true, but I didn’t want to argue with him again. Before I could say any more, he looked at his watch, and sighed.

“I have to go. Keep safe big brother.”

“Keep safe Luke.”

I was worried about him. He was likely to do something foolish.

#

When I was sure Luke had gone I made a call.

“Hi sir, it’s Brandon.”

“Brandon, I have told you before, call me Douglas,” the white-haired man on the screen smiled at me.

“Si… Douglas, thanks. I’ve just spoken to my brother, and I’m worried…”

“Yes?”

“Are you sure he’ll be OK?”

The old man sighed, and said, “Brandon, as long as he doesn’t do anything violent, he’ll be fine.”

“I hope he’ll understand.”

“He might struggle at first, he has been fed a lot of… well let’s call it misguided information.”

I nodded.

He went on, “So now Brandon, let us discuss the plan.”

#

Several hours later, I was staring at a work screen when I heard the front door slam open. I quickly shut down the app I was using, and brought up the news channel. Luke stormed in, and I muted the screen.

“They’ve announced a total shutdown. This is it Brandon, this is where they’re going to purge anyone who disagrees. They know there’s many of us…” he stopped and looked at me strangely. Actually, not at me, at my screen.

I looked at it, and saw a picture, mine next to Douglas. Chief Farmer Douglas to be exact.

“What is this… no… you’re with them… how could you…”

He stared at me, and then ran to the door. It slammed again.

I turned back to my screen, wishing I’d not picked the news channel. I’d lost track of time and hadn’t realised… still.

I turned the sound up.

“… and the farmers believe that this technology will allow us to operate more independently under the water. Several researchers, including…” she gave a list of my co-workers, and then, “… Brandon Bridges, have been working on this, and in some cases have undergone the procedure themselves.”

‘Undergone the procedure’ I thought. Hardly that. Just a few pills and then… symbiotic algae in the lungs. My contribution had been the salt exchange process. And to be a guinea-pig.

My comms chimed, and I clicked a button, Maria’s face appeared on screen.

“Hi Maria…”

“Sorry Brandon, we have no time, we’ve been following your brother, and others. We think they were planning something, and this announcement may have forced their hand. They’re heading towards the Bag.”

“He said that…”

She frowned, and said, “Look, just come to the west main shaft entrance, I’ll have a unit there waiting for you.”

She cut off before I could answer. I guess being head of Octo Security allowed her some measure of rudeness.

#

I arrived at the entrance twenty minutes later, panting. I needed to rest, and also pass on this information to my colleagues. We’d done some exercise tests, but not this high adrenaline combination, or not enough. I shouldn’t be short of breath after such a short run.

“Brandon… Bridges…” I panted to the armoured figure.

She flicked a switch and I could see her face, it was Maria wearing a wry smile. She knew who I was.

“Brandon, I’m sorry, but, they’re in the control area. All eight of the Gang of Four, and a couple of others, including your brother. If they blow the Bag…”

The Gang of Four had started with just four, but grown, and either been unable to agree a new name, or, more likely, thought it was clever to keep the original name. Confuse the authorities.

“Have they made any demands?”

“Yes, the usual. They want the algae farmers put into custody awaiting trial, and all the political prisoners freed.”

“That should be easy… freeing nobody!”

She looked at me witheringly, “This is not the time for joking Brandon. If the Bag goes, we’ll lose…”

“Three quarters of our citizens,” cut in another voice. We turned round to see Douglas standing there.

“Si… Douglas!”

He smiled, “I’m going in to see them. Maybe I can reason with them…”

I grabbed him, “No! You can’t…”

“Why not?”

“The Gang of Four includes Stephen Cran, he’ll kill you, any chance he gets. He’s sworn it.”

He looked quizzically at Maria, “Commander, were you aware of this?”

She looked uncomfortable and said, “There was rumour…”

“My brother saw it, Cran cut his palm as he swore. He blames you for the death of his brother.”

“I see,” said Douglas.

Jonathan Cran had been one of those who had tried to save the auxiliary bags when they had been attacked. The attack was by a school of large fish, attracted by the new lighting we’d put in, and not some form of government purge as had often been alleged on the conspiracy forums. Douglas had shown me the raw footage, and the studies they’d done afterwards. If the farmers hadn’t turned off the lighting in the main Bag… well we wouldn’t be alive. But several people had died in all the confusion. Stephen had never believed it was an accident, and Douglas had been in charge of the rescue effort.

“So what do we do then Commander?”

Maria said, “I think we need to get up there, work out what they’re doing and if necessary knock them out.”

She made it sound easy, but I was worried.

“Agreed, please proceed. Let’s hope they don’t do anything foolish…”

#

“What’s the status Commander?”

A crackle and then Maria’s voice, “We are at the hatches. We’ve connected listening equipment. It’s difficult to determine what is happening, but it seems like there’s an argument going on.”

“Might we be able to take advantage of it?”

“… hope so …”

I wondered why the signal was so bad, Douglas looked at me and shook his head.

“I think they’ve got jammers up. It will make it harder…”

Maria’s voice suddenly came through clearly, “I think they’re going to push Luke…”

More crackle.

“What?” I was shocked.

“Calm down Brandon, let’s just think. Where would they push your brother?”

I took a deep breath. The only way to help Luke was to use my brains. I thought about the control area. There were only three external points, one to come down the shaft, one up to get to the Bag’s maintenance crawl-ways and the emergency hatch.

“The emergency hatch.”

He smiled at me, “I agree. What can we do?”

He liked this Socratic method, and to be honest I usually enjoyed it, but it seemed a little inefficient given my brother’s life was in danger. I took a deep breath and thought.

“Well, I, I could go outside and catch him.”

“With two sets of oxygen, it seems unlikely you’d be able to get to him quickly enough?”

“I… I know. I’ll let him use the oxygen,” I looked him straight in the eyes as I said this. He nodded, gravely, but I could see he was pleased.

“Right, well go then, quickly, you have no time to lose.”

‘And now he wants to rush…’ I thought to myself, but I headed off to the next maintenance point.

As with most adult members of the Octopus I had training in how to use the suits and the emergency hatches, though as Luke often pointed out, there just weren’t enough suits for everyone. He claimed that the farmers had stacks of them in store rooms, but just wouldn’t release them in case the people rose up. I’d mentioned this to Maria once, and she had laughed.

“We barely keep the ones we have properly tested and with enough oxygen. If there was a store room full of them? Well we wouldn’t be able to keep them maintained anyway. It’s not equipment we lack, it’s people.”

“Well maybe we can do something about that?” had been my answer. I smiled at the memory.

I got to the maintenance point, got the suit on, and attached the oxygen. Making sure it was all ready, I hit the button and the airlock started to fill with water. Before I knew it I was swimming up towards the control point.

The water was a little murky, but as I approached I could see the metal clad bulge of the control point. It was on top of a long spine, sitting under the Bag, like an olive under a melon as someone had once described it. All on one giant toothpick.

Suddenly there was a big rush of bubbles coming from one side, and I could see the emergency hatch opening. A body fell out, arms waving. It was Luke. I pushed myself harder to get to him.

I grabbed him, and saw that he was holding his breath. I quickly took my oxygen breather out and pushed it into his mouth. He sucked a breath in. He offered it back to me, and I shook my head. I was looking towards the control area. I could see through the glass. Maria was in there, and someone was aiming something at her. There was a flash, she fell back.

Something took hold of me, a surge of adrenaline, and shrugging off the oxygen tank to leave it for Luke, I kicked towards the emergency hatch. I knew what I had to do. I kicked hard at the safety, and then turned the release and the inner door popped. Air bubbles started to boil out, and the water started to drag me, I tried to kick away, but the current, while temporary, was too strong. I hit my head on a metal plate, once, twice and darkness.

#

“Is he OK?” said Luke’s voice from far away.

“Yes, he needs rest, now please…”

#

“Is he OK?” said Maria’s voice, far away, but closer than Luke’s.

The nurse repeated her injunction, with perhaps a little weariness in her voice.

“Are you OK?”

“For the hundredth time Luke, I am fine. My head hurts, but the doctor said no permanent damage, though if I notice any spots in my vision I need to call him.”

“But your lungs…”

“Yes, are filled with mutant algae, so I can breathe under water for a period of time. Which is at least an hour… but we haven’t fully tested it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” it was almost a wail.

“I… I don’t know Luke. I didn’t want you to be angry with me, you know for working with the farmers.”

“But…”

He held his head in his hands. He still couldn’t quite get his head around what had happened. He’d believed the Gang of Four had a plan, and followed them into the control area. Once they’d arrived Cran had admitted to him they were just going to threaten the Bag. He’d challenged him, said he couldn’t mean it, and then Cran had hit him. Cran said that he’d rather everyone died then continue to live under the shadow of the Bag. That’s when, finally, Luke had seen the real madness in Cran’s eyes. He’d tried to fight back, but the others still supported Cran and they’d thrown him out of the lock.

They had all drowned when I opened the inner airlock.

“Oh my valiant knight is awake again,” said Maria, and she came and gave me a kiss. Luke’s eyes widened.

“Um… Commander, Brandon, um, what?”

She laughed and then winced. Her shoulder was bandaged from the shot she’d taken. Fortunately she had been wearing a protective vest, but apparently it still hurt. She hadn’t drowned as she was another of the guinea pigs with algae lungs, though she had complained, playfully I think, about being knocked about a bit by the water.

Maria turned to Luke and smiled, and said, “So this is my future brother-in-law?”

He spluttered.

#

Luke was sentenced to six months of additional maintenance work, with the judge taking into account his attempt to stop the Gang of Four from destroying the Bag.

When he’d finished his sentence he took the algae pills. He lives just along the tentacle from us.

We have two little ones now. They have algae lungs too. I look up at the Bag from time to time. We still need it, for the moment. But soon we won’t, and we’ll be able to expand across the sea floor as far as we like. We will no longer be tethered to the Octopus, like pets to an owner.

###

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Filed under General

Living in the Countryside

by Jason Gibbs

“Alia, I’m back,” he called.

She walked into the atrium and embraced him, “Hi Lucius, you’re back early, how was town?”

He grimaced.

“I just don’t understand those people. I had to leave early. I couldn’t even see Philip.”

“Oh, why not?”

“There’s a panic on, again.”

She frowned, and he continued.

“I got to town, and thought about getting breakfast at the bakery. As I approached a man came running out shouting that they’d run out of bread.”

He paused, and she looked at him, “And?”

“And his arms were full of bread! I carried on, but was pushed aside as people rushed past me. Before I knew it there was a scramble of people at the door. Deciding that discretion was the better part I retreated, and went to Philip’s place.”

“But he wasn’t in?”

“No, he wasn’t. I saw his secretary who said I’d just missed him. Apparently one of his friends had brought him a warning, and he’d decided he needed to get out of town as quickly as possible.”

“Gambling again?”

He laughed, and said, “I said the same to his secretary. He just looked scared, and said no, and pointed up.”

“Up where?”

“To the mountain.”

“What?”

“It took me a while to get it out of the man, who kept trying to get away to pack or something. But I held on to the scoundrel, and he told me what he knew. Apparently a messenger came from the south. They’ve had a big problem down there, and wanted to warn everyone.”

He paused… she looked at him, knowing he was enjoying the drama, and said, “Go on!”

“Apparently their mountain blew up. Fire and stones all over the city. Many dead.”

“Dreadful!”

“Yes, it does sound terrible. I tried to calm the man, but he said he needed to go. He’d heard that the council had decided on measures to protect the town. And he wanted to get out before they were enacted.”

“No!”

“I didn’t quite understand, but by this time he was frantic, so I let the poor wretch go. He ran. Then I heard some yelling, and saw some people running. Soon there was a crowd passing me… and behind them I could see smoke. Well I’ll be honest with you, I wondered if perhaps they were right… but I looked at the mountain, and well, it was the same.”

“So what was it I wonder?” she asked musingly, knowing he needed encouragement.

“I managed to grab one of the laggards, who was panting. He told me that the town council had decided to set fire to the houses in the eastern district. To save the town… but the wind had got hold of the fire and it was now sweeping through the town.”

She shook her head.

“At this point, I decided to leave, and here I am.”

They both looked up at the White Mountain and he said, “I’m glad I live in the countryside.”

###

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Filed under Flash Fiction

Don’t Look at the Clouds

by Jason Gibbs

“Why does everyone have a cloud following them around?” she wondered aloud.

“Shh!”

“But…”

“Look, the first rule is don’t look at the clouds… now come in here.”

Sheila followed the man into the shop. She’d just got off the bus and had been checking out her surroundings, and seen the clouds. She hadn’t even asked the man, he’d just told her to shh… suddenly he was back grabbing her arm.

“Come in!”

She wasn’t used to being manhandled, but meekly followed him into the shop, it seemed to contain mostly books but there were random pieces of furniture all around it. He looked at her sternly.

“Never, ever mention the clouds.”

“But…”

“No, look, I will explain later. The problem with you country types is you…”

“We what?” she wasn’t going to take any stick from a city slicker.

“Cause problems. Look, right, sorry, let me start again. I’m the Bookseller, it’s nice to meet you…”

He held out his hand. She stared at it, then stared at him, then grudgingly took it. He had dry hands, not as soft as she’d expected, but they definitely weren’t farm hands.

She was wondering about his name when he said, “And you are…”

“Oh, I’m Sheila. Just here to… well, I don’t really know.”

“Follow your dreams? Build a new life? Dig up the golden streets?”

She was going to respond angrily when she saw his wry smile, and she just said, “Yeah, something like that.”

“Well let me help. No, wait, let me explain, and then you can decide if you would like my help.”

He paused, looked up at the ceiling, and then continued, “I cannot explain it all right now, there are, um, reasons, but for the moment, it is best not to comment on things. Anything. Just nod and smile, ask neutral questions.”

“What? I don’t understand…”

He shot a glance outside, and his face changed, fear washed over it. He took her by the arm, pulled her close and said, “Look, just don’t question the orthodoxy, you will not prosper. Come back at closing time if you want to find out more…”

The door opened with a sprightly tinkle. He then pushed her back and said loudly, “I’m afraid Miss we don’t have a copy of that particular work by Orwell at the moment, but if you come back tomorrow we might be able to order it. We are open from nine to six every day. Thanks…”

He turned to the tall person who’d just entered, “Good afternoon sir, how may I help…”

She stared for a moment, and he turned a fixed grin at her, and she realised he was genuinely afraid. She left the shop, shaking her head. Her father had warned her that there were crazy people in the Big Smoke, but she’d thought he was exaggerating.

She looked around again, and started to cross the road. A sudden beep alerted her to the fact that a car was heading in her direction and she leapt back. The man at the bus stop stared at her, and then pointed at the crossing a few paces along. She smiled thanks, but he didn’t respond.

Over the course of the afternoon she wandered around the city. Everywhere she went the people shuffled along, black clouds hovering behind them. They talked to each other, but it was, well quieter than at home, which surprised her as she’d been told the city was loud. Also, she’d nearly been walked into a few times until she realised there were arrows on the pavement, which seemed to be dictating lanes and directions. Certainly everyone else was following them.

Feeling thirsty Sheila stopped at a coffee shop. Joining the queue she saw that there were seventeen different types of coffee on the board, and she was wondering what to order. The three people in front had each ordered a flat white, and then it was her turn.

“Um, what’s in a Caramel MoccaMachiato?” she asked.

The woman behind the counter just stared. And stared. There was some shuffling in the queue behind her, and the air started to fill with tension. Panicking, Sheila said, “I mean, a flat white please.”

“Card here. Coffee at the end. Thankyouforyourcustomhaveanicedaynextplease.”

Sheila tapped her card, and shuffled along with the rest of the queue. The back of her neck felt hot with embarrassment, but she kept her head down until she’d picked up her coffee.

Sitting down at a table with her flat white, she started looking around the somewhat busy coffee shop. She noted that there were a few people without clouds above them, maybe one in ten. They all looked wary, scared, and wouldn’t meet her eye. The ones with clouds didn’t seem to really see her. That had been the same when she was walking around, unless she had accidentally prevented them from moving along their rails, like before she’d noticed the pavement lanes.

She sipped her coffee.

She’d absolutely decided never to go back to that not-quite-bookshop. But the whole atmosphere was creeping her out. And the clouds. She tried to look at them the out of the corner of her eye. They were dark grey, and had occasional little flashes of light in them. If she looked for too long there seemed to be more flashes, and the person under the cloud looked at her. After the second time it happened she’d felt such menace that she now managed to avoid looking at them entirely. Like everyone else.

At just before six Sheila found herself back at the bus stop, still undecided. As she was about to walk away the Bookseller came out and waved. Well, it would have been rude to ignore him, so she waved back and walked over.

“Hi, did you have a good day?”

“It was um, interesting,” she said.

He smiled without humour and said, “Well come in, and we can run through the ordering process for the book you wanted…”

She paused, and then stepped into the shop. He locked the door, then pulled out a chair for her and sat down at a pad.

Handing the pad and a pencil to her he said, “Please fill in your address at the top, the one you’ve come from as I assume you haven’t got a place to stay here yet. This way if anyone looks in, well, you’ll be ordering a book.”

She wrote her details at the top and said, “Is it really that bad?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. But I want to keep my shop, and I do what is required…”

“The clouds?”

He shuddered and said, “We don’t mention them. We don’t look at them. Look, let me tell you how it started…”

He took a breath and said, “We didn’t see them at first. But people started to change. Fashions came and went as before, but now almost everyone was part of them. Beards, twinsets, whatever it was, the variety changed. The spread on the distribution, it, tightened.”

She looked a bit blank.

“Sorry, but basically, the way it had been, there was always variety. And now, well there isn’t, not for 95% of people, they are all within the same pattern. The same styles, the same haircuts. Not identical, just, much closer.”

“Sounds a bit freaky, but hardly, well, scary.”

“It wasn’t just fashions, it was thoughts, ideas, everything. The last election was close. Very close, but it was impossible to tell the difference between the candidates. There was no argument, nothing. Everyone follows the orthodoxy.”

“Strange, but…”

“Look, you’ll have seen some people without clouds. How did they look?”

She thought, and said, “Wary? A bit scared maybe.”

“Wary, yes, they are. They’re tracking the changes. They don’t want to step outside the curve. They watch what the majority do, and they copy it.”

“But, what happens if they don’t?”

He shuddered, and said, “I don’t know. I don’t want to know, I just want…”

“But surely you know people who were outside the curve…”

“Of course, I sell books, I’m the Bookseller, in an age of tweets and video. Some of those who didn’t follow the trends are still here, without clouds, wary, watching. Others are also still here, but they have clouds. They don’t buy books any more. Well, unless it becomes the next fashion.”

She was starting to get scared.

“So what do I do? I’m clearly not the first person you’ve helped.”

He smiled again, the first genuine smile she’d seen in a while.

“Yes, I still get to help people. Basically, you have three choices.”

He ticked them off on his fingers.

“Firstly, you can leave, go back to where you came from,” he nodded to the address at the top of the page.

“Secondly, you can pretend to fit in, stay on the edges like we do, keep some of your self for yourself. You’ll never be part of this city, but you’ll be free to make your own decisions. Unless… until you make a mistake.”

“Thirdly, dive into their world. Follow their rules, fill in the forms, follow the fashions, mouth the same platitudes. Soon enough you’ll have your own cloud.”

She said nothing for a moment, and then said, “No other options?”

“Not here, I’d leave if I had anywhere to go, but this is my shop. It’s my town, and they’re my people, even if I don’t recognise them any more.”

#

She got onto the bus, looked back and waved at the Bookseller, and sat down towards the back. Suddenly she was really looking forward to getting home.

As the bus pulled away, the tall man stepped out of the shop and stood next to the Bookseller.

“What do you think?”

His cloud, which, if anyone had looked, seemed twice the normal size, split, and the new cloud drifted over the Bookseller, before settling.

“I think she is not a candidate.”

A dry smile might have passed over their faces.

“And her town?”

“Yes, I think we should move it up the schedule. Sad for her.”

They both turned and looked down the road. The bus was long gone.

###

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Filed under Dark

An Average House

by Jason Gibbs

“Did you know that this is exactly, I mean exactly, the average size of house in this city?”

“Mean average. Yes, I was aware of that.”

George looked askance at his customer. The man was about 175 cm tall, with mousey hair, brown eyes and a uninspiring suit. ‘Mean’ thought the estate agent, then tried again.

“Here we have the recommended set of security measures. I can assure you Mr Brown that this is a very safe neighbourhood.”

“It is within the norm for this part of the city, quite acceptable. These locks will, I’m sure, be sufficient.”

Did he detect a hint of impatience? George was wondering if perhaps he should change jobs again, maybe something less customer facing? Back to the pitch…

“Please do go in, you will see…” George continued his patter. Taking pains to point out the low energy consumption, efficient boiler and top of the range counter.

“This is not top of the range,” interrupted Mr Brown.

“What?”

“This is mid-range. No question.”

“Oh, ok. I had thought…”

The man held up his hand, “It is not an issue. I will take the place.”

“Excellent, there is one thing you should know…”

“What is that?”

“The place is only available for two years.”

Mr Brown frowned.

“I thought the median rental time in this area was 3.5 years, why is there a limit?”

“Well, it’s kind of a funny story…” George looked at the man’s face, and decided to go for the quick version.

“The owner of this place is called Mr Jones. He is an averagist, in that he wants everything in his life to be average, which is why he lived here.”

“And he’d reached 3.5 years?” interrupted Mr Brown.

“Oh no, he won the lottery.”

“But as an averagist he would not have played.”

“I see you understand, no, it was a gift. From a friend. Me in fact. I’ll be honest, he was rather angry when he won. Accused me of having destroyed his life.”

Mr Brown just looked at him. Most people expressed amazement, but no response.

“So I told him to give it away.”

Mr Brown shook his head angrily, “He couldn’t do that. That’s not the average response.”

“No, that’s what he said… are you an averagist?”

“I am not an ardent follower. And therefore I will take this place. I have all the paperwork…”

“So he’s gone on a cruise with his wife and… don’t you want to know why it’s two years?” asked George.

“No. That is obvious. The average lottery winner spends all their winnings by the second anniversary of their win.”

###

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Filed under Data and Statistics, Flash Fiction

Tried by Statistics

by Jason Gibbs

“Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.” – Homer Simpson

#

“Good morning Mr Jones, please take a seat.”

“Why am I here?”

John Jones was nervous. He’d been about to get into his car to drive home when the police arrived, and brought him to the station.

“All in good time Mr Jones, we need to establish a few things first.”

John sat down. He was a bit taller than average, with grey green eyes and strawberry blond hair. He shuffled his feet and stared down at his somewhat unfashionable patent leather brown shoes.

The police officer asked him to confirm his name and his address, which he did, and then he asked again what they wanted.

“I am Inspector Smith of the Deviation Analysis Squad.”

“The what?”

“The Deviation Analysis Squad. We look for people who are stepping outside the norm, by at least one deviation. For example, did you know that fewer than 10% of people a year have a formal interaction with a member of the police force?”

John stared and then said slowly, “I’m here because I have deviated from the norm by being here. That’s… Kafkaesque.”

“Indeed, and yet of the people who cite a reference to describe this situation, fewer than 7% choose Kafka, the vast majority prefer Orwell.”

Smith made a note on his paper. To John it looked like a cross next to the first item on a long list. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Right, your name, Jones, Quite common I believe. Welsh in origin?”

“Yes…”

“But not in fact your birth name.”

“No, I was…”

“Your birth name was… let me see here… Kalinsky. A rare name.”

“Yes, but…”

“Did you know that fewer than 1% of men change their name in their life time?”

“I didn’t… but you see.”

“Would you like some water?”

“Ah, what, no, I mean, yes actually please.”

“Excellent response…” said the Inspector as he stood up, and went to the door and whispered something to the officer standing outside. He then sat down and made a cross and a tick on his list.

“Now let us continue, and please be clear, I am only after facts. Reasons are not within my remit.”

John stared at him, wondering how he could have ended up here.

“May I ask why you have selected a moustache?”

“Um, as, I mean, compared to what?”

“A full beard. Or no beard.”

“I guess I just like it.”

“And yet two decades ago you had a full beard,” the Inspector sounded a little stern.

“How did you know?”

“We have ways,” said the Inspector showing a humourless smile.

John said nothing, and the Inspector’s smiled grew and he said, “It was on your SocialBook page… which we will come back to. Now please, the facial hair question, this is important.”

“I guess I just liked it.”

“Just liked it, indeed. As of the last survey only 3% of men had just a moustache. And twenty years ago it was a similar percentage who had a full beard, and yet now it’s up to over 20%.”

The Inspector rubbed his clean shaven and rather square chin and looked at John, before nodding, and noting down three more crosses on his list. John was wondering what the third cross represented when the Inspector looked up suddenly.

“SocialBook!”

John started, “Yes?”

“Do you use it?”

“Um, well I’m on it.”

“Yes yes, but how often do you use it?”

“Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I logged in. Does that put me in a minority again?” John couldn’t help letting a little fear enter his voice.

The Inspector laughed drily.

“Oh no, perfectly average, right in the centre of the curve in fact. Always good to check, we get some pretty severe Deviations in the social media world. Right, now, this says you are religious.”

“Ah yes, I believe in God.”

“Indeed. And you go to church how often?”

“Every Sunday. But you see…”

“Do you know how many people go to church every Sunday?”

“Well the congregation has been shrinking, but…”

“Six percent. Six. And of your age group, less than one percent. You are heading right into the tail there my friend.”

He marked a large cross, and John decided he needed to say something, “But you see I only go because I promised my mother…”

“Keeping a promise to a parent. Let me see…. no that’s neutral. Lucky for you. I’d suggest you consider answering only the questions I ask Mr Jones, I am after all trying to do you a favour here.”

John felt that this was the opposite of the case, but realising that discretion was the better part of valour he held his tongue. The Inspector gave one of his hard smiles again, and ticked another box. He then leant back in his chair.

“Hmmm, so it says here that you like classical music,” he pointed vaguely at a file on the table which he hadn’t opened at any point.

“Not really, I mean it doesn’t offend me, but I don’t listen to it very often.”

“I see. So who do you listen to?”

“Well at the moment I’m listening to the Eagles a lot, mixed in with a bit of Queen.”

“Classical music indeed. You know that neither of those bands have been mainstream popular for some time…”

“But the Eagles best of…”

“A glitch.”

And another cross. John was feeling more and more disoriented and worried.

There was a knock on the door and it was opened by a policeman who walked in and gave John the drink of water he’d asked for earlier. He took a sip and tried to gather his thoughts.

“Look, I really don’t understand…”

The Inspector sighed and looked at him.

“Mr Jones, do you know what the problem with modern society is? No don’t answer, it was a rhetorical question. We believe that there are no major problems with the core of society. The problems are in the deviations. The barbarians inside the walls as it were.”

“Barbarians?”

“Yes, a kind of fifth column, well slightly more or less if you count the Deviations…”

The Inspector looked at John as if expecting a response, but seeing nothing just shook his head and muttered something like “non-statisticians” under his breath.

Then he looked at his watch and said, “Mr Jones, please no more interruptions, I only have a few more questions and then we should be able to make a decision, please just bear with me.”

“Um, OK.”

A tick this time.

“Right Mr Jones, can I see your tattoo?”

“What?”

“Your tattoo.”

“I don’t have a tattoo.”

“A real individual aren’t you.”

John felt on more solid ground on this one, he’d had an argument with Philips from Procurement about this only last week.

“Only 25% of 18-40 year-olds have tattoos. So not having one is not really being an individual.”

“Did you just quote a statistic at me Mr Jones?” The air of menace in the room was palpable.

“Um.”

“Perhaps you don’t realise how much trouble you are in! But if I were you, I wouldn’t try and be aggressive again, because at this point I’m your only hope.”

“OK, um, sorry?” John tried to look penitent, but he was so confused it was hard.

“Indeed. Well you are in fact correct about the overall percentage. But what it hides is that within your social strata, educational class and regional variation, having a tattoo is now prevalent across 51% of males.”

John wasn’t sure if it was an accusation or a celebration so he just nodded.

“However, it is not a defining marker for Deviation, so we will mark that as neutral. No more statistics though…” he looked severe.

John nodded meekly.

“Final question for today. Are you a vegan?”

“No. But I have been considering it… I mean not soon, but at some point.”

“Hmmm, well well, now that is interesting. Last year that would have put you into a Deviation category, but the latest updates seem to show… yes, you are now in the majority. Excellent.”

He made another tick. Tapped at the paper, then wrote a number at the bottom.

“Do you have anything else to say for yourself Mr Jones?”

“Ah no, I just…”

“No time for justice here. I am making a summary judgement. You are found guilty of Deviation, but given the balance of information I believe you have a chance of redemption. Sentence suspended for two years pending confirmation of conformation. Do you understand?”

“Um, not really.”

“I’m saving your life Mr Jones, I’m letting you join the majority. You may remain out of prison for the moment.”

###

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Gods of War

By Jason Gibbs

Riel signalled right and two of his rangers peeled off.  They padded silently into the forest.  A signal left, and two more went, giving them the start of a skirmish line.  He looked at his Chief, standing silently in the centre of their line, right on the path.  He didn’t know why the Chief had ordered them to close together when they formed up after clearing away the tents, but it made him nervous.  He took it on his own initiative to spread the line more.  This would give them much greater flexibility.

Suddenly the Chief stirred.  He indicated forward, and called back the skirmishers.  They were to progress forward as a tight group.

“Oh no, another amateur.  No idea how to use us.”

“Shush Perel.  He might hear you.”

“He can’t hear me, and he’s not even real, you know that.”

Riel did have his concerns about the Chief, but he was clearly real.

Perel went on, “We’re skirmishing troops, I mean look at us.”

He pointed down to his green tunic and brown trews.  He was indicating the lack of armour.  This made them light, and fast.  But it also meant they’d be cut down if they were forced into a straight fight.

“I know, I know, but maybe this is just his way of travelling quickly, and when we get close to the danger area…”

“How will we know?  We have no scouts out!”

“He is guided by a higher power, I’m sure it will tell him what to do.”

“Right, like that time it told us to turn around just as those orcs were charging us?”

“Yeah, but we got out of that, didn’t we?”

“Did we?  I don’t actually remember.”

In truth Riel couldn’t remember much more than a tremendous pain in his side, and then waking up again, ready for war.  He just assumed the healers had got to him in time.

They walked on for a little while before the Chief indicated they should jog.

“Right, let’s tire ourselves out.”

“Perel, hold your tongue.”

“Bah.”

Riel was itching to get the company to spread out, and figuring that as the sub-Chief he had some control he signalled again to the left and right, and several of their troops peeled off.  They jogged like this for a while.  The bulk of the company was on a path, but the troops had such affinity with the woodlands that even those on either side who were dodging trees could easily keep up. 

Riel had assumed that his Chief’s failure to countermand his order meant he approved. 

“Bet he hasn’t noticed.”

“I’m sure he has.  I just wish we could prepare our bows.  Not having a decent weapon in my hands is making me nervous.”

While it would take moments to string and prepare them, those seconds might be critical, and they were now entering unknown territory.

The Chief waved, angrily it appeared to Riel, to the left and right, and the scouts reluctantly fell back in.  It was obvious from the way they dragged their feet that they were unhappy with the order, they’d relished the chance to dance among the trees.

“Told ya.  Bloody amateur.”

“Perhaps he has some intelligence of the way ahead?”

“He has no intelligence.”

Riel looked sharply at Perel, who was chuckling to himself.

He whispered harshly, “You may think that, but don’t say it so loudly, we don’t want the rest of the troop to notice.”

“They have no intelligence either Riel.  Just look at them.”

Riel inhaled sharply, he tolerated too much of Perel’s ways, and now he’d insulted their companions.  Yet there was nothing from them, no retort.  He looked around and realised he barely knew any of them.  They all had long handsome faces, pointy ears and almond shaped eyes.  He couldn’t actually think of their names.  They had received a lot of replacements after the last fight; perhaps that was why?

“Oh Riel, don’t worry, they don’t care that you don’t know their names.  They haven’t been around long enough to earn them.”

“That’s too much Perel.  You are cruel.”

“When will you realise…”

There was a roar ahead of them.  The Chief indicated they should stop, and the whole troop gracefully came to a halt.  Some seven hundred yards along the path, up a hill, they could see a band of orcs.

“Now let me see, notwithstanding that if we’d been running through the woods they wouldn’t have spotted us, what would be the correct thing to do here?”

“Fade into the woods and regroup.”

“Or try and get around them, then shoot them from behind and fade again.  Constant hit and run.  I’m prepared to guess that instead we’ll approach them slowly.  Set up with our bows and shoot at them while they charge us.  Then we’ll pull our hunting knives and fight bravely until we’re all dead.”

“That would be stupid, our Chief would never…”

The Chief signalled forward.  Riel tried to avoid Perel’s knowing eye, and jogged, hoping this was some kind of feint.  He couldn’t think of any way this was going to work out well for them.

The next signal was to charge.

“Dear gods, we’re six hundred yards away, lightly armoured and they are heavy shock troops.  What does he think is going to happen?”

“I don’t… understand how… you can still… speak… Perel.”

“Practice.”

They were now pelting towards their enemy.  Without armour, and with natural elvish athleticism they were fast, but it was still quite a distance for them to run at full pace, especially uphill.  The orcs seemed initially surprised by the move, but then prepared to receive the charge.  Riel thought that if the orcs were to charge down towards the elves at the last moment they’d scythe through them in seconds.

Suddenly the Chief signalled a stop.  They were perhaps a hundred yards from the orcs.  They stopped for a while, and the party started to shuffle a bit.  The orcs watched.  Their harsh shouts dwindled to confused mutterings.  Why was the troop just standing here?  Why weren’t they doing anything?  Riel thought that at least it gave them a chance to catch their breaths.

Finally the order to string bows came.

“Genius,” muttered Perel.

A ferocious roar came from the orcs, and they started down towards the troop.  The slope gave them added pace, and it was like facing a juggernaut.

“If we could just step out of their way, I suspect they’d run straight past and we could pepper their backs.”

“Now you’re thinking Riel, we’ll make a war captain of you yet.”

Instead they were ordered to fire.

“Hmm, three arrows maybe?”

All around Riel the company drew and fired, a smooth motion.  The arrows flew true, as only elvish arrows can, and embedded themselves in orcs.  Several fell, but their heavy armour, and stubborn constitutions allowed them to shrug off most of the attack.  Twice more the elves managed to fire, the last time at almost point blank range.  Perhaps some forty orcs had fallen, without the loss of a single elf.

Unfortunately there were still dozens of orcs left, and the fighting was now to their advantage.  A beast of an orc charged at Riel, his axe aimed for the elf’s head.  Riel managed to twist sideways and catch the orc across the head with his bow’s shaft.  It knocked him off balance and the elf behind Riel, another whose name he didn’t know, managed to cut the orc’s throat with a swipe of his hunting knife.  There was no time for thanks as Riel ducked the next attack, managing to draw his own knife out in time to deflect a saw tooth blade heading for his side.

They fought.  Many died on both sides, but more elves than orcs.  The elves could dance, and weave, but if a flailing orc weapon caught one of them, it would do serious damage.  The same could not be said for the elven knives.  Most of the time the knife attacks bounced off the orcs’ armour, or their thick hides.  Soon there were only a few elves left, gathered around the Chief.

He signalled they should run.

Perel nearly collapsed laughing.

“Run?  Now?  Where too!”

He was right, they were surrounded.  Yet the Chief and the others started to run back the way they’d come, and they were cut down quickly, leaving only Perel and Riel standing back to back.  The orcs just stared at them. 

“I see you’ve been careless and caught a wound in the side.”

“Perel, I don’t need the feedback.  Also, I recall your hair being long and blond, not matted and red.”

“New barber, not sure I’ll be going back.”

Riel staggered.  The blood loss would kill him if the damned orcs didn’t do so first.

His world went black.

#

“Aww, you cheated!  There’s no way your orcs should have won.”

“Little brother, I even gave you a points advantage, why would I cheat.”

“Then it wasn’t possible.”

“It was, look do you want to try again, and I’ll give you ten extra elves?”

“Twenty!”

“OK.  But you need to remember elves are better at skirmishing…”

“Don’t you try and confuse me; I know what I’m doing.”

#

Riel awoke.  The memory of the blood and pain was so fresh that he reached for his side, expecting his hand to come away slick.  Instead there was nothing.  The healers must have got to him, but he couldn’t imagine how.  Orcs never left anyone alive unless they were chased off.

He might be alive, but he was exhausted.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept.  Maybe he could grab a little more rest.

“Morning Riel.  Ready for another pointless march, foolishly managed battle and near death?”

He looked up grumpily at Perel. 

“How come you’re so cheery?”

“In this hell is there any choice?  Oh, here comes our new Chief.”

They were ordered into close formation, and started marching along the path.  Then jogging.

Perel shook his head, “I just wish they’d learn.  It’d be nice to win this one.  At least it’s a larger troop.”

Looking around, Riel realised that their troop was all different from the last one.  Yet with the same variants.  There was one with an eye patch, one with an extra-large knife, and even one who was probably female.  He didn’t know their names, and he suspected Perel was right.  They wouldn’t survive long enough to earn ones.

“Maybe this is a feint.”

“Riel, why do you have to be so naive?  This is the same joker as last time.”

“Perel…”

Up ahead there was a roar and a formation of orcs straddled the path.  The elven troop was brought to a halt, then jogged forward.  As they were once more ordered into a charge, Riel was knocked to the side and hit a tree.  He slumped down.

“Sorry Riel, I had to do that.”

“What?  Wait… Perel, we need to get back to the troop.  They’ll be slaughtered without us.”

“They’ll be slaughtered anyway.  This way we have a chance.”

“For what?”

“For a life without continuous stupidity and death.  Over that ridge.  I get the feeling that once we’re out of the sight of the higher powers, we might have a chance.”

In the distance he could hear the sound of the orcs readying a charge, and he knew in his heart they’d make no difference.  Perel offered him a hand up, and he took it.  The two friends jogged towards the ridge, and the hope of a different life.  Behind them nameless troops hacked at each other, and died.  Before the battle had ended, Perel and Riel were over the ridge, and in a different world.

###

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