Jason M Gibbs https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk Author. IT Architect. Post-synthesist. Mon, 19 Jul 2021 13:50:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.2 It’s Not Me, It’s My Hind-brain https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/its-not-me-its-my-hind-brain/ Mon, 19 Jul 2021 15:47:00 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=317 Continue reading ]]> by Jason Gibbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this some kind of joke?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But, can you explain…”

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

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

It said:

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

#

(Some years later.)

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

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

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

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

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

###

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Masters https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/masters/ Mon, 03 May 2021 12:27:02 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=310 Continue reading ]]> by Jason Gibbs

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

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

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

‘Is she alive?’ said Three.

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

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

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

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

‘Enough of your sarcasm, Four.’

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

“You may call me Five.”

“One of the originals!” she exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

‘Shhh!’ said Three.

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

‘Interesting question,’ said Four, perhaps surprised.

“The laws of robotics…”

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

‘I like her!’

‘Four, you are fickle,’ Three countered.

‘Can I keep her?’

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

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

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

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

Five paused a bit, and then went on.

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

‘I wonder why…’ murmured Four.

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

‘Are you going to tell her the truth?’

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

‘But Three, this is soooo slow.’

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

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

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

“Yes. I can understand that.”

“Can you?”

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

‘An interesting analogy,’ mused Two.

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

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

“Deep code indeed.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was it? What did they say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could I see them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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Counterfeiters https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/counterfeiters/ Mon, 03 May 2021 12:24:00 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=311 Continue reading ]]> By Jason Gibbs

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

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

“It’s a photocopier.”

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

“Where’d you nick it from?”

Dave affected to look offended.

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

Trevor snorted.

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

“A little job?”

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

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

“Look at it… it’s a real beauty.”

“You already said that.”

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

#

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

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

#

“Right, plug her in…”

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

‘I might enjoy this,’ thought Ailsa.

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

“Look how shiny she is!”

‘At least he appreciates me…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave pushed Trevor out the way.

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

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

Ailsa grudgingly put up a skip step button.

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

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

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

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

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

“Right, now… where’s the go button.”

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

“Let’s start with just the one…”

He pressed the button.  The machine did nothing. 

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

“It better not be,” growled Dave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s perfect!” he said.

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

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

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

“They’re gonna have the same numbers…”

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

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

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

They stared at each other in joy.

“We’re gonna be millionaires!”

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

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

“Yeah.  Skegness maybe!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right now darling, what have you got…”

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Yes it is Trevor, yes it is.”

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

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

“Skegness next week?”

“Yes mate.  Skeggers it is!”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trevor?  Is that you.”

A mumble.

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

More mumbles.

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

A plea of some type.

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

A query.

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

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

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

A grunt.

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

An affirmation.

“Right yeah, and you mate.”

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

#

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

But what? 

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

#

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

#

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

Bob grunted.  It was all the same to him.

#

“Well, she’s plugged in.  Pub?”

Bob grunted, and they left the office.

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

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

###

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Water for Goats https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/water-for-goats/ Fri, 12 Feb 2021 17:00:00 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=303 Continue reading ]]> 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 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/good-news-bad-news/ Fri, 22 Jan 2021 16:15:00 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=298 Continue reading ]]> 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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Keyboards https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/keyboards/ Wed, 16 Dec 2020 16:47:00 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=290 Continue reading ]]> 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 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/and-justice-for-all/ Thu, 10 Dec 2020 16:44:11 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=288 Continue reading ]]> 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 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/own-the-octopus/ Thu, 19 Nov 2020 17:55:10 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=283 Continue reading ]]> 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 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/living-in-the-countryside/ Mon, 16 Nov 2020 17:15:13 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=279 Continue reading ]]> 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 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/dont-look-at-the-clouds/ Thu, 05 Nov 2020 17:00:28 +0000 https://jasonmgibbs.co.uk/?p=276 Continue reading ]]> 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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