Author Archives: gibbja

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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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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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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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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Malthus Was Right!

By Jason Gibbs

“Why are you so dissatisfied Jacob? We live in a perfect world.”

“I know, I know, and yet…”

They’d had this argument so many times, Jacob just didn’t know how to explain. In this utopia he felt like an ingrate, or worse, a serpent, looking for the apple of truth which would ruin it all. At first he’d tried to explain his unease to Zelia, but she’d just stared at him in incomprehension. Then she’d accused him of becoming too wrapped up in his old books. Orwell and Huxley had made him question his world.

“Anyway, there’s something I need to tell you Jacob.”

“What?”

“I’m having a baby with Ruthius.”

“What? But, I didn’t think you knew him or…”

“We’re friends on a different plane, and well, he and I have become close and he proposed and I said yes. That doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends on this plane, or whatever. But it does mean that we won’t ..”

“Be having a baby. Or a future.”

In his heart he’d known this was coming. She’d been spending more and more time on other planes. But Ruthius, that was a kick in the guts. He’d been looking forward to turning a hundred and being allowed to have a baby, but now, that was gone.

“Jacob, are you going to be ok?”

“Yeah, sure, fine. Look I need some time. I’ll ping you.”

He cut the connection and the space around him reconfigured to his personal homespace. He just floated, wondering what he could have done, and also why he felt such a sense of relief. A crazy plan had been building in the hidden parts of his brain, and it now took centre stage.

#

“Jacob Alliere 237634298?”

“Yes.”

“It says on your application that you’ve been studying engineering for six months.”

“Yes.”

“Real?”

He had to think a little, but he knew the question was designed to knock him off guard. Many planes ran at slightly different speeds, so six months could feel like four, or ten.

“Real and experienced, I was on a normal plane. It was a retro plane, which is why I can also speak like you. Actually I’d spent several years in retro planes, which is how I found your… advert. Text. I thought it was a quest or something.”

The man looked sceptical, but continued, “After this interview you’ll be run through several more tests, but so far you seem to have what it takes. Why do you want to be an Engineer?”

This was the real test. How could he answer? With the nearest to the truth he could manage.

“I feel something is wrong, in the planes. Or I’m wrong for the planes. It’s like I’m always out of tune. But it all seems so ethereal, irrelevant even. You, the Engineers, are the only group who ever do anything Real.”

“What about the researchers?”

“They’re just playing a different type of game on a different set of planes, but it isn’t Real.”

The man leaned back in his chair, rocking a little, a movement which seemed odd to Jacob who’d spent his whole life in a world where gravity did what he wanted, and which was always smoothly under control.

For a while the man just stared, and Jacob could think of nothing else to say. Then the man rubbed his chin.

“You’re the seventy-eighth applicant we’ve had this century. The first seventy-seven were more than eighty years ago, and we rejected all but five. You’ll find out more about them when you go through. I’ll be honest, the main reason I’m passing you is that we need new blood, but I don’t think you’ll last. You sure about the full term? I can give you the probationary two year option.”

“But then I’ll be in a mechanical won’t I?”

The man nodded.

“In that case I’ll go with the twenty year option, that way I know I’ll succeed.”

“Maybe. See you on the other side.”

The man winked out, somewhat rudely, Jacob thought, and he was led through several more exercises. His pod informed him that it was being asked to provide detailed medical information, and he gave his assent. Usually it was only required for procreation, but he wasn’t going to be worrying about that, or Zelia, for a long while.

#

The video finished and the light came up. The group stared at each other across the table.

“Are you sure he’s going to help?” said the first.

“He’s our best shot. We just don’t know how to communicate with them anymore, you heard, he thought our advert was a quest, we’re archaic to them,” answered the man at the top of the table who was known as Control.

“What about Felis?”

“It’s been three years since she last called. We’ve lost her, just like the previous ones. It’s a different world in there. Or worlds. Enticing. Intoxicating.” He shook his head sadly.

“Well Control, we’re running out of time. If this doesn’t work then we’ll have to discuss the Euthanasia protocols.”

The first time the protocols had been mentioned there had been gasps of shock, this time they all just nodded and avoided each other’s eyes.

“I know. I’ll rush him through as quickly as possible, but he has to bond. He has to want to stay with us.”

#

“He’s ready, everyone visited him in the first two weeks. He’s had every bug we’ve got. His pod and nanites handled most of them, there were a couple which looked a bit worrying, but we got him through,” the doctor looked strained, she wasn’t happy about this. She’d held them off for a week to give the boy, man, a chance, but they needed to get things going. Opening the pod each time one of their community had come to visit had been a chore, much worse was watching his vitals waver as he developed immunities she’d been born with.

“Thanks Doctor, can you bring him out of sedation, gently, and we’ll get him into training with Sasha. We’ll need you when, if, we bring him out of his pod.”

The Doctor’s eyes widened a bit, but she nodded and went back to her patient.

#

“How long do I have to stay in this place?”

“Until you learn how to move without trying to control gravity. In the Real gravity pulls one way, down, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If we let you straight out you’d fall over and hurt yourself.”

For three weeks Jacob had been living in this hell hole. It was a set of tunnels weaving through machinery, and it was hot, and he just couldn’t get comfortable. He’d always been able to have gravity changed around him so he’d be held perfectly, now he stumbled, cracking his head against walls, and grazing his shins. That was another thing.

“Can you at least allow my system to damp the pain?”

“We are. You’re at around 50% at the moment. As an Engineer, in the Real, you’ll need to be able to cope with normal pains, and you won’t have your pod to molly-coddle you.”

He could hear a slight sneer in her voice, he felt it was always there. It was clear she felt nothing but contempt for him. She wanted him to fail. Well, he’d made his decision, and he was going all the way.

“When will it go to 100%?”

“When you stop complaining.”

“How long did it take the last few applicants?”

A pause. Perhaps she didn’t know? Or it wasn’t a pleasant answer?

A man’s voice interceded, “Generally they took four to five months to reach the stage you are, and then another few months to complete. You are doing well. Continue.”

So there was someone who wanted him to succeed, and he was apparently doing well. His time in the rougher planes, where war was simulated, was paying off.

“I will, but why is she so hostile?”

Silence and then the woman’s voice, “Get back to the task, we have five more after this.”

He ducked down and started crawling along yet another path between whirring machinery. He’d spent the last weeks learning how to fix these machines. He kept bumping his head, scratching his arms and knocking his shins, but he was slowly getting better.

“Remind me again why we can’t use machines for this?”

There was a grumpy sigh in his ear, “We can, but we also need to do it ourselves. Machines tend not to cope with new or slightly different situations, when they happen, an Engineer has to be sent in. And before you ask the next question, yes we do send in remotes sometimes, but we’ve found that being physically on site makes all the difference. I’ve told you this before, and I’m not going to tell you again.”

He’d been surprised she’d answered at all, maybe the man’s interruption had helped. He got his head down, and followed the tasks he’d been set.

#

“Well congratulations on passing the tests and being born into our world. Welcome to hell,” said Sasha. He’d only found out her name the day before, and he’d hoped it meant she was mellowing. It didn’t seem so.

It wasn’t what he expected. Despite all the training he still tried to stop the gravity which pressed him into the bed. It felt like he was working twice as hard to breathe, and to top it all he was greeted with sarcasm.

“Ah… yeah… hello.”

“Hmm, shouldn’t you be adjusted?”

“Yes, but… it’s… the shock. Give me a moment or two.”

“OK, but we have work to do.”

Jacob nodded, took a breath and stood. It took all his willpower not to fall straight back down, but he managed to stay up. He nodded again and she turned and stalked off. Clearly she still hadn’t forgiven him for whatever it was he’d done. Or not done.

He couldn’t believe it, but for the first time in his life he actually walked.

The next few weeks were hard. He was working in the Real. The Real! But he didn’t get a real chance to properly appreciate it. At the end of every day he was so exhausted he fell into bed, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. He met a few other people in passing, but they were mostly taciturn. He still didn’t know exactly how many Engineers there were and Sasha still didn’t say much.

One night as they finished she said, “Right, you’ve passed. Tomorrow you have a break, and then we start real work.”

“What have we been doing?”

“Simulations, damned expensive ones. Good thing we did too otherwise you might have lost a leg.”

He ducked his head abashed. He’d not noticed the steel door closing, and Sasha had dived to save him. He had wondered how she’d been able to stop such a heavy door.

“Thanks again.”

“Any questions?”

He had so many!

“Lots. What do we do? Who decides the jobs? Why me?”

She shook her head.

“We supervise the machines, and occasionally fix things they can’t. Control decides the jobs. Control will tell you. You’re meeting him tomorrow.”

“Great. Was he the one who intervened in my virtual training?”

She frowned and nodded.

“Night.”

She was gone. As she walked away he wondered if they’d ever be friends.

#

He was summoned to see Control by a small message bot which travelled the corridors on wheels at high speed, often bouncing off walls or the occasional person.

“Jacob, welcome to the Real, and welcome to the Engineers.”

The man who greeted him was old. Jacob was shocked. No one in the planes would be old. Oh they might pretend sometimes, but it was rare. The man had wrinkles, and grey hair and was a little stooped.

“Ah thank you.”

“I am Control. Voted for, and with another decade to run on my term.”

“Nice to meet you. Um.”

“I know, you have questions. Can I show you in the Virtual?”

“I didn’t think…”

“Oh, not a plane. I’ll show you.”

The man waved him over to two couches, and indicated he should sit down. Once he had, the man gave him some headphones and a pair of bulky glasses. When he put them on he could see a very poor resolution virtual world and hear a slight hiss. Seconds later the old man appeared next to him, looking a little blocky.

“Not what you’re used to, but all we need.”

“Why don’t you use a plane?”

“We have tried, but we find it becomes addictive, and we lose good Engineers.”

“Oh.”

“Let me show you what we do.”

Suddenly they were floating above the ground. Only he could still feel the couch. This really wasn’t like the planes. Below them was a surface covered in shiny panels.

“This is part of the planet above us. Those panels are solar collectors. At this point more than seventy percent of the surface of the Earth is covered in them.”

The back of his mind tickled, he did know this, but he’d forgotten.

“We used to only put the panels on the land, but some centuries ago we found a way to platform across the oceans. Now the only places not covered are the poles, partly due to low solar absorption, and partly for more technical weather control reasons, and the nature reserves. We are next to a nature reserve here, and on your next rest day you’ll be taken out for a tour.”

“I can go outside?”

“Yes, but not for long, your skin will not be ready for it and we wouldn’t want you to get burnt. But we do want you to meet the animals.”

“So why do we need all the solar panels?”

“We need the power, to keep the planes going. Each panel supports, roughly, one person. Their dietary requirements, warmth and everything else, including medical. We have some other power sources, but the complexity and risk have made them unreliable. Solar is best. The energy allows us to create food, clean water and everything else.”

“But that means, well many millions of people are in the planes.”

“Approximately thirty billion, and growing, though slowly.”

“Wow. So we have to keep all of that going?”

“Oh no, the robots do the vast majority, we just deal with glitches and strangenesses.”

“How many Engineers are there?”

“Twenty thousand or so, scattered across the globe in half a dozen different settlements, all of them on the edge of a nature reserve.”

Jacob tried to work out how many panels each Engineer was responsible for, but the sheer size of it overwhelmed him.

“And you want me to help with this?”

“At the moment, I’d just like you to become a proper Engineer. Learn what we do, meet the others and understand the Real. I’d like you to go out and visit the animals as well. Once you’ve settled we can talk more about what else you can do.”

“You were the one who interrupted my simulations.”

“I was.”

“So what did happen to the others who joined from the planes?”

Control sighed.

“They went back. Not a single one completed their stint. We had to let them back.”

“It’s that bad.”

“It’s that different. As you already know. You will start to feel the weight of it soon. If you need to talk I’m always here.”

Jacob turned to leave and then turned back and asked, “So all the Engineers…”

“Were born in the Real. They’ve never experienced the planes. It’s been that way for several generations. Some from every generation elect to join the planes, we don’t stop them. They never come back.”

Jacob left thinking that the answers hadn’t helped him much.

#

“Why are you looking so happy?”

“Morning to you too Sasha. I am happy because I spent yesterday outside. With the animals.”

“Right.”

“No, it was amazing. I can’t explain how amazing they were. In the planes we have simulations of animals, but, they just aren’t the same.”

She grunted.

“I even learned to ride.”

She looked at him in surprise.

“Well I started, I can’t do much more than walk a horse round, but it was astonishing.”

Her expression softened for a moment, but then she shouldered her gear and nodded at him. It was the longest non-work conversation they’d ever had.

#

Over the weeks he met other members of the team. One of them, Tomi, was particularly friendly and they were soon swapping jokes and stories. Tomi showed him where the bars were, and introduced him to alcohol. The first few times it didn’t work out so well, but after a while he became used to it, and began to look forward to going for a drink after work.

“How was Sasha today?”

“Grumpy. As usual. I don’t get her problem with me, it’s like it’s personal.”

Tomi laughed.

“What?”

“You still haven’t figured it out?”

“No.”

“Well, you know Perri?”

“Yeah I guess I’ve met Perri a couple of times.”

“Well, Sasha and Perri were going to be work partners, and Sasha was hoping they would also pair up.”

Jacob looked confused.

“What do you mean pair up?”

“You know, like get together. Marry, that sort of thing.”

“So why do I prevent that?”

“Well, it’s kind of assumed that work partners will pair up. It’s been that way for a while, which is why Control takes such an interest in new pairings. Clearly you’re the one for Sasha!”

Tomi laughed at his look. Jacob had truly never considered it.

“Well Jacob? Don’t you find her attractive?”

“Um, well not really.”

Jacob was uncomfortable with the questions, but Tomi carried on.

“Oh. Are you, uh, you know, interested more in men? Were you a woman in the virtual world?”

Jacob said nothing, just looked away and shuffled on his seat. Tomi realised something was up.

“Sorry Jacob, I didn’t mean to pry, I was only…”

“No, don’t worry Tomi it’s fine. It’s just that where I come from it’s very rude to ask those questions. At least until an approach has been made.”

“An approach?”

Jacob sighed. “I guess I should explain. On the planes we meet each other and we may, or may not, have an obvious gender. Some people, possibly many, operate as different genders on different planes.”

“What, you mean be a man on one plane and a woman on another?”

“Yes, as a simplistic example.”

“Ugh.”

“It’s quite fun actually.”

Tomi stared at him.

“Look Tomi, that was normal. The planes are only limited by imagination, and some people have great imaginations. I could go on about all the combinations, but I was trying to explain. Generally we try to partner with someone we like, and then we can discuss the virtual physical side. That’s the approach.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Crudely, if you find the right person and want them to look different they can. Say you prefer girls and the person you meet is a boy, you could ask them to change. Depending on how deep the relationship is it can be fine. They might change totally in that plane, or they might just allow you to see them as a girl and everyone else sees them as a boy. Or they might suggest that you only meet in a different plane where they happen to be a girl.”

It was clearly blowing Tomi’s mind.

“But one thing we almost never ask is what a person’s real gender is, even in a deep relationship. It’s kind of taboo. Often the only people who know are their parents.”

“But surely people will see you naked as you grow up. I mean, it’s impossible to hide it.”

Jacob blushed a little.

“Well, it has become usual for children to appear be genderless. And have no genitalia at all.”

Tomi just stared at him for a few seconds and then said, “But how do they, um, go to the toilet?”

“It’s all handled in the machine, behind the scenes, so they never know. Until I did my orientation training I’d never consciously had to go to the toilet.”

Tomi looked at him, and laughing said, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Then he carried on laughing. Jacob smiled too, though he wasn’t seeing the joke. He waved over another couple of drinks, and managed to steer Tomi to more mundane topics.

#

“Jacob stop what you’re doing.”

He’d been replacing a power unit and thinking about his next day off. He was going to go outside of course, but should he go riding again, or hang out with the goats? Desmon had offered to take him on a mini safari. Off in a daze he hadn’t clocked the flashing red light on their communicators.

“Wha..”

Her outstretched hand silenced him. She was listening to the radio. She nodded and then clicked it off.

“This way, now. There’s trouble. Peretina is caught in a breach.”

With that she started running. He began to follow. While he’d learned how to run they hadn’t done it much and he felt very awkward. The service tunnel wasn’t the smallest he’d been in, but he still had to duck and dodge to avoid decapitation or losing a limb. Sasha was soon well ahead of him.

He heard a wail. It must be Sasha, he raced ahead again, narrowly avoiding concussing himself, and rounded a corner to see her banging on a steel door.

He tried to gather his breath to ask her what was wrong when she threw herself at him and started sobbing. He just held her, and then saw the tell-tales on the door. It was showing water pressure and an electric surge. If Peretina was behind the door, then she was in big trouble.

Sasha gathered herself, remembered it was him and backed away, turning around to stare at the door.

“Can we open it another way?”

“No.”

“How long will she survive? How long have we got?”

She turned to him in disbelief.

“She’s dead.”

“But she can’t be… I mean. Surely we have time…”

She just continued to stare at him, and the truth of what she’d said hit him. It was like the whole world rocked around him. Suddenly he was overtaken by blackness.

#

“I didn’t think he knew Peretina?”

“He didn’t.”

“Why did he react like that then?”

“We’ll have to ask. I think he’s coming round.”

Jacob opened his eyes to see Tomi, Sasha and a doctor, not the one he knew, looking down at him.

“Jacob, I’m Doctor Fisal. How are you feeling?”

“Um, ok. Tired. My shoulder hurts a little.”

“You bruised it as you fell. The good news is that you’re ok, the computer has cleared you.”

“And Peretina.”

There was a brief pause, then the doctor said, “She’s dead Jacob, she died instantaneously. She was working on a water pressure system and something failed, engulfing her in water and shorting the local electrics. She would not have felt much pain, or awareness of her situation.”

“But. She’ll come back?”

The doctor shook his head sadly.

“No. She’s gone.”

Jacob stared at him again, and then slumped back. He wouldn’t respond again and the doctor gently shuffled the others out.

#

“So why did it affect him so badly Doctor?”

“Sasha, it’s taken me a while, and it’s only a theory, but I don’t think he’s ever know anyone die.”

“What? How?”

“In the planes they live for a very long time. They each live in a hermetically sealed pod. The machines have pretty much eliminated disease. People don’t interact physically any more so diseases can’t be passed, and the nano medicine deals with the vast majority of internal problems. They don’t do anything in the physical world, so accidents, or deliberate acts of violence just aren’t possible. The only real possibility is something genetic, and even there I think the majority are screened out when the babies are produced – they’re all in vitro as you know.”

Sasha stared, and he continued,

“From what I’ve picked up, it seems that as people age they move from one group of planes to another. The new groups might be mostly contained of planes which run a little slower, or aren’t as exciting. When they move from a group they don’t drop off, but they fade away. They still contact people occasionally, but they’ve moved to a different life. Jacob last spoke to his parents about forty years ago.”

“They realised what an idiot he is?”

The Doctor frowned, “No, not at all, they just moved to another group. They’ve faded out of his life, though he thinks they’re still alive. If he had been closer to them he might have followed them to a new group.”

“There must be something, some external threat.”

“Like Peretina? Sometimes things happen. Meteorites we don’t catch, or a blow out like with Peretina, but they’re not always fatal and they’re very rare, and among the billions it’s not a surprise that Jacob wouldn’t know someone who’d died that way. Even if he did, he might just think they’d moved and not told him.”

“So he didn’t care about her.”

“No. Not in a personal way, but he cares that she’s gone. It’s touched him at his core. Changed him. Made him grow up perhaps.”

She snorted and shook her head.

#

“You have to get him to answer the question Control. Enough with this bonding. Playing with animals is not solving our problem.”

“I want to give him more time to get over Peretina’s death,” Control frowned at Benson, who was currently second Control.

“He didn’t know her.”

“Yes, but her death has shocked him. I worry that, well, that it has set him back. If we ask him to help and he doesn’t commit, or care, he’ll just go back to the planes. What do we do then?”

“If we had time I would agree with you, but you know where we are. We have no time. We have to discuss the protocols. Even if we slow the planes we have no more than ten years before the planes will literally be out of power, and none of us know what will happen then. We could lose millions. Billions.”

“I know. I know. I’ll get him in. Let’s see if he will help.” Control looked drained. The worry and responsibility was weighing heavily on him.

#

Jacob walked into the room and slumped into the chair. He didn’t even seem to notice the others in the room.

“Jacob, I’ve asked you here because we need your help,” began Control.

“What with?” Jacob answered, with a slightly detached air. Control looked at him worriedly. Tomi and Sasha exchanged a look, this is what they’d been dealing with for the last few weeks.

“We have a problem. We’re going to run out of energy for the planes. Soon, in a few years, if the population continues to grow, even as slowly as it is. At which point we have a number of hard options.”

“Such as?” Was that a spark of interest in Jacob’s eyes.

“We could sacrifice the animals.”

“No!” There was steel certainty in that no.

“I agree, and it wouldn’t help much, maybe give us another three years’ growth. If we slow all the planes we can buy another ten, maybe fifteen, years, but then we’ll have nothing.”

“What else have you considered?”

Control paused.

“Euthanasia and stopping childbirth for a period of time,” said Benson, a little gruffly.

Jacob looked shocked.

“But…”

“What else can we do? Not that they’ll really solve the problem.” Benson challenged.

Jacob had been thinking, and he felt stupid asking, but it seemed obvious to him. They must have already discounted it for some reason.

“Why don’t we gather more energy?”

“I’ve already explained. We’re getting the most we can from solar, and we’ve had to limit the geothermal and nuclear options. We can’t get any more,” answered Control.

“We could get more solar… if we put out some sails above the Earth. Or maybe mirrors to focus energy onto collection spots.”

Control brightened and said, “So you know how we could do that?”

“Um no.”

“Well then what good is it suggesting them? We need practical suggestions of what we can do!” the strain Control had been under was starting to show.

Jacob didn’t really notice, he was finally coming out of the fug he’d been in, he continued, “But we could ask one, or more, of the research planes. They’ll work it out, and we can just make it happen.”

This was the nub of the problem.

“I’ve asked. And asked. And pleaded, begged. Dozens of times. I’ve tried everything. Either they aren’t interested, or they come up with ridiculous suggestions.”

“I quite liked the perpetual motion engine,” interjected Tomi.

Control quelled his amusement with a look and turned back to Jacob.

“We’ve sent people in, they don’t come back. So you see, they can’t help. We’re Engineers, but we haven’t been able to come up with a solution. We need their help, and yet…”

Jacob thought about it, and then said, “Perhaps you’ve been approaching it the wrong way. They probably view it as an abstract, and not particularly complex, problem.”

“So how would you approach it?”

He started to describe how he’d get them involved using words like network dominance, disintermediated interest groups and quite a number of words which none of the others had ever heard of. He was in full flow when he looked up and realised he’d lost his audience.

“Um, let me see if I can explain in Real language. I think perhaps we should propose it as a sort of competition, maybe post it to one of the space mechanics planes and let the other planes hear of it, then they’ll want in. As long as we specify the starting conditions to be as if they are in the Real, and we may have to emphasise that, then hopefully they’ll give us some great ideas. I’m sure one will work.”

“What would the prize be, we can’t offer them anything they want.”

“Kudos. Perhaps say it’s the first of a decennial competition, and we could name it after Peretina.”

He stopped a second, thinking about the accident, then continued, “Then it has Real history as well. Also to have something built in the Real? That might be just unusual and odd enough to encourage even more to apply, and the more we get the better. I think they’d go for it.”

“I don’t know. But we’re desperate, let’s do it.”

And the Peretina Fal Yurlins Award was born. Jacob worked tirelessly to set it up, staying in the Real, but using all his connections on the planes. When it was officially announced the scientist planes went crazy. At first they thought the Engineers were restricting it to just the space mechanics plane, as soon as it was made clear that it was an open competition all sorts of crazy ideas flooded in.

#

“You were right Control,” Benson said, and there was no rancour in his admission.

“I was lucky. We all were.”

#

“It is my great pleasure to award the second Peretina Fal Yurlins Award from the physical manifestation of the first award.”

Control did sound pleased as his image was projected into the Planes, and the virtual award flashed into life.

While the speeches were going on, Tomi nudged Jacob, “Look down there.”

Jacob looked, though he’d been looking down all day. They could see miles of the planet below. The solar panels winking at them and the shadow from the beanstalk slowly swinging across.

“I can’t believe we’re on a giant plant.”

“And it’s still growing. I can’t wait to see the sails.”

The stalk climber continued up the giant beanstalk, taking them up smoothly despite its many legs and the roughness of the beanstalk.

A while later, after the ceremony had completed, Jacob nudged Tomi back. The climber was slowing as they neared the end, where the stalk was still green and growing. On each side huge silvery sheets spread out, like giant petals.

“They’re breath-taking.”

“What are?”

“The solar sails stupid.”

“I never believed they’d happen,” said Jacob.

Control leant over, “Without you Jacob, they never would have. The world of the planes had become too self-indulgent to save itself. No, that’s unfair. We’d just lost the ability to communicate with them. With your help, and this latest effort we’ve not only bought ourselves many more decades of gentle growth, but a new way of communicating. Of making friends.”

Jacob ducked his head, slightly embarrassed, and the looked at Sasha who was at the other window looking at. She turned to him and smiled slightly.

He smiled back, and said, “Or starting to…”

###

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Brain Hack

By Jason Gibbs

“Gerald? Is that you… I’m in the kitchen.”

The door slammed, and she heard his footsteps. They sounded heavy, and she hoped he hadn’t had a bad day.

“Dawn… I’ve… I’ve been in an accident.”

“What? Gerald, are you OK? Sit down…”

She pulled a chair out for him, and went to get him a whisky.

“Tell me about it.”

“I was driving home, work was hectic today and I was thinking about a presentation I needed to do on… well I can’t remember, but anyway, I turned off the motorway and then, then I hit something. Someone.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, but there was blood I think, and… I’m here. The car is…”

He slumped, and slid off the chair, falling almost gracefully to the ground before Dawn could get to him. She didn’t know what to do. She took a deep breath, put Gerald into the recovery position and signalled a call. An emergency services avatar appeared in the chat box in her eyespace.

‘How may I help you?’

She blinked a photo of her husband, and quickly summarised the issue.

‘Paramedics are on the way. Can you confirm the OS and version your husband is currently running?’

She’d worried about this, not that it should be a problem, but people were funny about these things.

‘He’s a natural. No implanted OS,’ she answered.

A pause before the response, ‘We will send police as well.’

‘What? Why?’

‘They will explain. Thank you for your call.’

The avatar shut down and a feedback box bounced into view. She irritably flicked her eyes left to send it where it deserved, and then sat down staring at Gerald. She absent mindedly drank the whisky she’d poured for him. She was worried, and wondering to herself, why the police?

#

Thirty minutes later the paramedics were loading Gerald into the ambulance, assuring her that all would be well. The police woman had been very polite, and stayed out of the way while the paramedics were working on him. Once the ambulance had pulled away she looked a question at Dawn, and Dawn sighed inwardly and went over to speak to her.

“I’m Officer Fisher. I’ve reviewed the report Mrs Richards, and I’m concerned. There are a few things which don’t make sense.”

Dawn stared at her. She’d been holding it together up to this point, looking after Gerald, but now… she started to cry.

The police woman didn’t move, but looked sympathetic.

“Now don’t worry Mrs Richards, I don’t think your husband has done anything wrong… quite the opposite in fact, I think he might be a victim. Is this Mr Richards’ car?” she asked as she pointed to the grey box Gerald had been so proud of getting.

Dawn sniffed a bit, then nodded and the police woman walked round it, then carefully looked under it. She nodded, to herself it seemed and then returned to where Dawn was standing.

“As I thought, no obvious damage. Would it be possible to go inside…”

Dawn looked around, and realised that some of her neighbours were loitering. She could see in the corner of her eyespace that there was a queue of messages in her neighbour channel. She nodded to the police woman, turned and went in. Officer Fisher followed at a respectful distance, and flashed a do not disturb message across all the local comms networks.

#

Officer Fisher sat quietly as Dawn busied herself making a cup of tea for them both. She’d wanted a glass of wine, but didn’t think it was entirely appropriate. Eventually she had to sit down and face the police woman.

“Thank you for the cup of tea Mrs Richards.”

“You’re welcome,” said Dawn somewhat woodenly.

“Now, you told the dispatch bot that your husband had no OS… and the request was shunted to a human. That is why I was sent. Now I have to ask this question, it may seem strange, but are you sure your husband is a natural? Some people claim they are, but…”

“Oh no, he’s a natural. You see we went to school together. I was there when they were testing us. He was the only natural in the school for a couple of years. We all knew. He… well he struggled a bit for a while.”

“It is hard for naturals, when they start to be shut out from the social aspects…” said the police woman sympathetically.

“He’s definitely natural.”

“Yes, I see, well that explains it. Please wait one second.” She stared left politely, then went on, “I’ve spoken to the paramedics and they are performing a series of diagnostics, similar to the OS testing you had at school. Hopefully they’ll find out the, um, semi-code and be able to help him.”

Dawn looked are her blankly, then said, “Please, just… I don’t understand, will he be fine?”

The police woman smiled reassuringly, demonstrating that the empathy courses were still in vogue. “He should make a full recovery, based on the other cases I’ve seen, but of course the doctors will need to confirm.”

“But what happened?”

“Your husband was hacked,” said Officer Fisher simply.

“But he’s a natural…”

“I suspect the hackers didn’t know that. They’ve started to use some aggressive techniques recently, and it may have been one of those. In essence they blank all the receptors, and in the case of some naturals, well, it gets partially through, along with a lot of noise and confusion. I believe that is what happened to your husband.”

“Do you mean like a blast attack for us?” Dawn had never experienced one of these, but knew of people who had. They said it was like receiving every message they’d ever had at the same time, and some of them had taken days to get back online.

“In essence yes, though as he had no training he would not have had any context. It’s fortunate he made it home before collapsing. These days blast attacks are much rarer, the underlying architecture has been improved somewhat.”

“I, I think I understand. And don’t I know that they’re still working on the Brain OSes. I had a version upgrade last year, it was pretty confusing. I have to admit I thought Gerald was the lucky one for a few days, I can tell you.”

There was a pause. Then Dawn asked, “What were they trying to do?”

“Oh, well you said he mentioned an accident? I think they were trying to plant the idea he’d been in a car accident. They try to plant it in the back memory of an OS-enabled person so it’s not obvious. It makes it much easier when they follow up a few hours later with a call, you probably know the kind.”

Dawn thought, and then smiled thinly, “Oh yes, the ones which say something like, ‘Hello, I believe you’ve been in a car accident which wasn’t your fault…'”

###

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The Barista

By Jason Gibbs

He remembered entering the coffee shop, but nothing before. He’d been stressed, he knew he had to do a presentation, to Peterson, and he was worried she was going to be angry. And he’d decided that a coffee, a small latte, would do the job.

The queue seemed interminable, but eventually he got to the front, and he looked at the list. The list of coffees. Of options. Of hopes. And he was stuck.

He was going to ask for a small latte, but instead the word ‘Cortado’ snagged his eye. Short. Yes, that sounded good. He asked what it was. The barista said something about less milk, and he’d said yes. He’d have one.

But he then asked about the difference with a flat white. And this was weird, because there was a queue behind him, but he didn’t care. All his English inhibitions had drained out of him.

Then his memory blanked.

And now he was behind the coffee counter. Listening to people. But really listening.

“A latte please mate”

Which means, “Give me some hope please mate, it’s a bad day already, the missus is angry, and my boss…”

“A hot cappuccino and please not too much froth, I do ask every time…”

Which means, “I can barely control my life, the bills, the demands…”

“Ah, I don’t know, just a coffee with some milk, is that the cheapest?”

Which means, “He was gone. Just gone this morning, and, I don’t know what to do, where I’m going to get the money, but, I’m free, I feel free…”

Every day he was there, listening, and doling out some small consolations. The occasional free coffee, a smile, a nod. Little gestures which he felt helped these lost people who came to him. As lost as he once was.

###

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Book published today! Learning: The First Fifty: Stories from the Blog

Today my latest book is available on Amazon… it is a collection of all the stories which I have thus far published on this blog, in a handy container.

The kindle book will be free for five days. The paperback is more or less as cheap as amazon will allow me to make it.

Amazon.com links here:

Paperback
Kindle

They’re not yet linked as the paperback was only put live today.

I will try and make the kindle edition free whenever I remember. My intention was to provide an easy way for interested people to download these stories if they proved entertaining!

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