Tag Archives: slightly silly

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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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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Increments

I wrote this originally on a whim after reading something about industrial policy. I was trying to see what the impact on real people might be…

Increments

By Jason Gibbs

The government today announced their intention to nationalise Hardys, Julco and Faberdashers.  These last three independent great national champions will be merged into the United Retail Company, serving every aspect of our daily lives.  URC produces items from soap to dishwashers, and will now have the strength to compete with the foreign firms who have begun to dominate our domestic market.

Gladys sat in her comfortable chair, and stared at her supermarket receipt.  She did try to buy British, but it was just so hard.  She’d saved nearly twenty percent over the previous month’s shopping by switching to these odd-sounding brands.  Perhaps with this new British giant things would get cheaper again?  She’d try them next month.

The phone went.

“Yes?”

“Oh hello darling.  Yes I’m fine.”

“No, I’ll be fine my pension covers it now.”

“Yes yes, you sound like you’re busy?  Well, nice to speak to you, see you soon?”

Her daughter was always so busy, though Gladys wasn’t entirely sure what it was that she did.

URC announced today its results for its first quarter since nationalisation, and the results were good.  Sales were up nearly 6% and profits 3%.  The government announced that the profits would be used to accelerate the roll out of the automated home help program.  This government initiative seeks to put a care robot into the home of every single pensioner in the country, current estimates are that there are more than five million people who would be eligible.

Bill sat at his desk trying to work out what he was doing.  He’d been planning to respond to a letter, but couldn’t remember which.  He looked at the pile of papers and saw the one from the Department for Age Support.  Damn them. 

That was it, he remembered now, they wanted to put a robot in his house.  Probably to spy on him, or maybe inject him with all these potions the quacks kept trying to get him to take.  Well, he was going to tell them where to put the ridiculous automaton, and he wasn’t going to be polite about it!

Minister Johns today delivered the millionth care robot to the home of Mrs Jay.  She was heard to exclaim in happiness, and immediately asked the device to make a cup of tea and do the ironing.  The Minister stayed for tea and said he’d had a very pleasant chat with Mrs Jay.  In an interview after the meeting Mrs Jay said that she might now be tempted to vote for the Minister at the next election.

“No dear, he’s an old friend.  A very old friend, we went to school together.”

“Oh don’t be silly, it’s nothing serious at all, we’re just catching up.  Now I must go, the tea is ready.  Bye dear, do pop in soon.”

Gladys turned to her guest, “Sorry Bill, my daughter, Emily.  She does fuss.”

Bill shuffled his feet a bit, “Well these young ones.  At least she cares.”

“Yes, oh yes.  Wasn’t it lucky that we bumped into each other at the supermarket!  After all these years I could tell it was you, just by your walk.  You haven’t changed a bit.”  She smiled at him, and he caught a little of the twinkle he remembered in her eyes.

“Gotten old I have.  Not like you, still a real beauty.”

Gladys was saved the embarrassment of answering by the arrival of the tea, delivered by her new care robot.

“I call her Ruby.  Because of her red lights.”

“Hmph.”

“Oh don’t be an old stick in the mud, she’s jolly useful.  Makes very good tea, now that I’ve shown her how to properly warm the pot.  I do wonder about these engineers, they sent her out without knowing how to make a proper cuppa.”

“Don’t trust them, robots that is, not the engineers.  Though, I will admit that this is a nice cup of tea.”

“Bill, don’t be silly, I spoke to Tom, he’s Emily’s husband and does something with programming these robots.  He says that they’re saying these lovely helpers will give us at least an extra ten years life.”

He frowned.  Until last week an extra ten years of life would have meant a continuation of his purgatory, but finding Gladys again had lifted his heart.  He, almost, felt young again.

“They do, do they?  Well, maybe they’re not all bad.”

He was silent for a moment.

“Mine is arriving next week.  The ministry’s polite response to my eloquent refusal can be summarised as: tough.”

“Well I for one am glad.  I won’t be worrying about you, all on your own in that dingy place.  I’m sure those stairs will be the death of you.  But with a helper, well, you’ll be much safer.”

URC announced today a small drop in sales and commensurate drop in profits.  The CEO, former Minister Palpby, explained that the final integration costs had kicked in.  He also accused the competition of flooding the market with cheap goods to try and damage URC and therefore the country.  He called on the government to set mandatory prices for critical consumer goods such as soap, toothpaste and skin cream.

“These biscuits Bill, are they local?  They taste delicious.”

“Ah, no, they’re imports.”

“Bill!  I thought you were ‘Buy British’ all the way.”

“They are half the price, and taste better.  I’m as patriotic as the next man, but I have to subsist on pennies you know.”

Just then Albert hummed politely.

“Yes?”

“Would you like a refill of tea, sir?”

“Yes, and stop calling me sir.  Call me Bill or something!”

“Yes sir.”

Gladys smothered a smile.  She was glad to see Bill had a care-robot now.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Competition today announced that there would be minimum pricing on all goods defined as core.  He explained that these were all those day to day essentials required for a normal life, but did not include any luxuries.

“Now Gladys, I don’t want you to think I’m being too forward.  But…”

“Yes Bill?”

“Would you like to move in with me?  I can’t marry you.  I promised Beryl I wouldn’t marry again.  But…”

“Oh Bill.  I don’t need to be married to be happy.  Yes, of course.  This last month has seen the cobwebs swept out of my brain.  But why now?”

“Well, you see the thing is.  Oh, I’ll just tell you it all.  I don’t have very much money, in fact my pension just isn’t covering my expenses any more.  I was saving money by buying the cut-price foreign products, but now that all the prices have gone up, well, if I don’t find a way to cut costs I’ll go hungry.”

She just stared at him, and then said, “So it’s just to save money?”

He could see tears threatening to form.

“Oh no no, not at all.  I was hoping to wait and take you out to a nice dinner and do it properly, but this recent change has just.  Oh I’m such an idiot.  I’ve always wanted to be with you.”

Gladys looked at him sombrely and then started to laugh.

“You silly old goose, I was just joking!  Of course I’d like to live with you, but, I’d rather you moved in with me.  My place is quite a bit bigger for a start.”

He smiled and reached for her.  A humming sound interrupted them.

“Yes Albert?”

“Your lunch is ready sBill.”

“sBill?” enquired Gladys.

“I changed his word for sir.  Read up on it in the manual.  I’m not totally useless yet!”

Patoque-Deuters Industries, one of the largest foreign companies still operating in the domestic market, announced a massive increase in profits.  PDI’s spin on this blatant profiteering was that the government minimum pricing had forced them to raise all their prices and this had fed directly through to profits.  A government spokesman pointed out that this couldn’t possibly be true as URC had only achieved limited growth in their profits.

“Now Emily, don’t you worry.  Bill will be bringing his own care robot.  We’ve been told by the ministry that we can keep both of them for three months, and then there will be an assessment.  God knows what they’ll assess.”

“No, Em dear.  Listen, I know you worry about your old mother, but I’m not completely gaga.  This is my decision and I’m sticking with it.  OK, oh, you have to run?  No, that’s fine, we’ll speak next week?  OK, goodbye.”

URC announced the delivery of the four millionth care robot to a pensioner.  The government followed this by extending the care robot programme to cover all pensioners, implying that a further five million robots would be produced.

“So we can keep both robots.  It’s official.”

“That’s good Bill.”

“I thought you’d be more excited.  What’s wrong Gladys?”

“Well.  Bill, how much toilet paper do you actually need to use?”

Bill looked shocked.  This wasn’t something he’d ever discussed, not even with Beryl.

“Er, well four sheets.  Drummed into me in the army.  Never more.”

Gladys looked confused.

“Well I don’t understand, I’m buying twice as much as I used to, and yet we’re running out faster.  I assumed it was just you.  Everything seems to run out so fast these days.”

“At least we’re back to buying British!”

“Yes, though the pleasure of buying British doesn’t really outweigh the drop in quality.”

PDI today made the bizarre claim that they were responsible for ninety percent of the production of URC’s care robots.  Their CEO was hauled in front of the Minister to explain himself, he later made a public apology and blamed it on some confusion at head office.  A URC representative explained that PDI did provide some components for the machines, but that these were all low value items, and would all soon be taken in-house.

“What are you doing Albert?”

The robot turned, and said, “Sorry Miss Gladys, I was checking the toothpaste.  It is part of my regular routine.”

It turned back, screwed on the cap and put the tube down.  Gladys thought the tube looked quite a bit flatter than she remembered it being that morning.

“Please don’t.”

“Yes Miss Gladys.”

As she walked away she muttered to herself, “I can almost believe those robots are mostly foreign.  Stealing my toothpaste.  Wonder what the little devil wanted it for.”

Peter Shipps was today sentenced to ten years in prison for malicious economic sabotage.  Mr Shipps, a so-called independent journalist, had claimed that the care robots had been programmed to steal from their owners.  He asserted that the robots would use a little bit of every one of the core essentials every day, thereby forcing their owners to buy replacements much faster.  The only products being targeted were those made by URC, in an effort to improve sales.  Mr Justice Jenkins summarised by calling Shipps a ‘fantasist’ and enemy of the people.  He also stated that he was surprised that the prosecution hadn’t also added a charge of working for a foreign power, as that was the only motivation he could see behind Shipps’ actions.  Neither URC nor the government deigned to comment on the allegations from the report.

“Bill, I’m sorry, I’ve had to buy foreign.  The British stuff just isn’t as good, and it keeps running out so quickly.  I thought it might be your foolish robot, but after that time I caught it with the toothpaste I’ve never seen it do that again, and I’ve snuck up on it several times.”

“That’s alright love.  We must do what’s right for us.  We’ve given enough to this country over the years.”

He was glad they could go back to having the nice tea biscuits, he’d missed them.

URC announced today that sales in the last quarter had dropped a further 15%, making a drop of nearly 30% this year.  The company claimed that it was because their products had a longer life than their competitors, and this was slowing people’s replacement purchases.  In addition there have been supply delays which have slowed down the care robot delivery program.

“Bill, I caught that devil doing it again!”

“What dear?”

“Albert, stealing the toothpaste.”

“It can’t have been Albert, he’s been with me all day.  Perhaps it was Ruby?”

“Ruby?  Why would she want my toothpaste?  It’s that foreign stuff as well, and I thought she was mostly British!”

“Yes dear.”

One of Peter Shipps colleagues, who’s name cannot be reported during his trial, has made bold claims that in recent months the care robots have been reprogrammed.  He has said that the robots are now stealing small amounts of the products of foreign companies, particularly PDI, and leaving URCs products alone.  His rather contorted explanation is that people had stopped buying URC products because they were running out so quickly, and have now turned to PDI’s which seem to last longer.  Therefore the government has mandated that the robots reverse the process.  It is likely that this alleged merchant of truth will spend the rest of his life in one of the remote penal stations.

“No Gladys.  I don’t care if you think they’re going at the same rate as the British products, the fact is that they’re nicer.  If they cost the same then we should stick with them.”

“But Bill…”

“No buts.”

URC announced today that it needed a cash injection of many billions in order to continue to operate.  Sales have continued to drop precipitously.  Minister Jacobs blamed foreign companies for their cut-throat competition, and focussed his ire on PDI.  He said the government was reviewing options to seize PDI’s illegal profits.  PDI’s latest quarterly report showed continued growth in sales, and a robust profit, clearly as a result of predatory sales practices.  The report claimed the company now employed three hundred thousand people in the country.  The majority are in sales and distribution activities as PDI’s manufacturing capacity is based overseas.  

“Oh Emily, I’m sure it will be fine.  Governments always say such things.  They really can’t do it.”

“I know dear, I love you too.  See you next week?  Bye then”

Bill looked up.

“Is she ok?”

“She’s worried about her job.  PDI have always been good to her, and she’s done very well.  If the government does go through with their threats…”

“Bah.  It’ll never pass.  The courts will stop it.”

“I don’t know Bill.  It doesn’t seem like it was a few years ago.”

The government announced yesterday import duties of 70% on all goods. 

PDI’s response, issued today, was that it would be shutting down operations in Britain.  It was planning an orderly shutdown, and all employees would be terminated by the end of the year.  A government spokesman said that the government were taking steps, though was unable to specify what they were.

“Gladys, why have we got these horrid cardboard biscuits?”

“That’s all there were, love.  Not a single foreign made thing in the shop.  The nice girl at the cashier said that they’d had no deliveries since the government announcement.”

“But I like those biscuits.  Damned government.”

He paused and then taking a deep breath he said, “There is something else.  Gladys, we’re going to Spain.”

“What love?  A holiday?  I’m not sure we can afford it!”

“No dear.  To live.  It’s a one-way ticket.”

“But.  When, what?”

“We can’t stay here.  The shops are half empty, the queues are growing.  The country has gone to the dogs, and it’s getting worse.”

“I know, but Spain.”

She thought about it a bit then said, “It’s nice and warm there though.  Oh, what about Emily?”

“She’s coming too.  With the pay-off she’s getting from PDI she can afford to come as well, with Tom and the kids.”

“I didn’t think you two got on.”

“I think she knows now that I only have your best interests at heart.”

“Oh Bill.  That could be lovely.  But what about the robots?  We’d have to leave them, they are government property.  I couldn’t live without Ruby, and how long would you last without Albert.  Love, it’s just not practical.  It’s not.”

“Trust me dear.  Will you?”

“I can’t go to Spain, I can’t.  There must be another way.”

Reports have come in of rioters destroying shops in town centres across the country.  Government spokesmen have said that these are malcontents trying to stir up trouble.  We tried to interview some of them, but were stopped by the police under the Sedition Act.

“Well Bill.  We’re actually in Spain!”

“Now we can properly relax love.  Sun, sand, and peace.”

She smiled and looked over at him.  The bruising on his face had gone down.  He’d been lucky those rioters hadn’t hurt him more, though he kept saying it was the riot police who’d actually hit him.  He’d been getting milk.  Albert had brought him home and tended to him.  As soon as she’d seen him she’d known that her country was gone, replaced by somewhere she no longer recognised.  Somewhere that was no longer safe.  They had to leave.

“Another cerveza please Albert.  That means beer in Spanish dear.”

“I know Bill, that’s the fourth time you’ve told me.”

He looked out over the pool.

“Bliss.”

“You never did tell me how you managed to bring Albert and Ruby with us.”

“I just downloaded their memories onto flash cards.  Then I uploaded them into two blank robots I purchased here from the local subsidiary of PDI.”

“Oh you are clever Bill.”

He puffed up.

“I do my best dear.”  He didn’t want to admit that Tom had told him how to do it.

The care robot returned.

“Your cerveza sBill.”

“Thanks Albert.”

He raised the bottle and said, “Here’s to new lives.”

Gladys smiled and lifted her glass, “New lives.”

###

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Asset Stripping

It’s a wonderful time of year, and I started thinking about the pragmatics.

 

Asset Stripping

by Jason Gibbs

 

“Right, we’re all here, let’s get started, point one…” said Vix sharply.

“But the old man…” interrupted Dash.

“Will be here in fifteen minutes, I felt we needed a…”

“Pre-meeting,” supplied Dan.

“Yes, a pre-meeting.  We need to be clear, otherwise you know how he is, he’ll be talking about the old days and we’ll be buried in anecdotes,” Vix continued.

“Fair.  He always likes to tell the one about how they used to have really bad fogs in the old days, and that they struggled to get through…” added Donna.

“Exactly, now can we please concentrate, otherwise we won’t be prepared.”

They all looked at him.  There was apprehension in the room, and Vix knew he needed to get them all gee’d up.

“Now, you know it’s been tough these last few years.  More deliveries, larger deliveries, harder locations.”

They all nodded agreement.

“It’s getting to the point where we risk failure.  And you know who’s going to get the blame…”

Dash started to say, “Who…”

“Us of course.  We do the hard work, but we’re not fast enough, or carry enough, or don’t stop in the right place.  The old man, he’s fine, it’s never his fault.  It’s all on us.”

“What are you proposing?” asked Blix.

“We pivot.  We use outsourcing for the manufacturing and logistics, and we concentrate on the marketing.”

They all looked impressed at the words he was using, and then Rudie, who’d been notably quiet, said, “Vix, what does that mean?”

Vix took a deep breath, and started to explain, “Look, everyone around this stable knows that our customers have been… supplementing… deliveries for years.  We’ve tried to keep up, but it just isn’t working.  So, what we do is licence out our image, and the customers can pay for the actual products.”

They all looked at him quizzically.  The man from the retail consortium had made it sound so easy.  It was time to be blunt.

“We get the parents to buy all of the presents, and we just appear on posters and movies.”

They all looked shocked.

“What about the elves…” asked Dash.

“We pension them off.  Their roles are moving to China.”

There was a pause, they looked at each other.  Then there was some nodding, their shock seemed to be wearing off.  And there had always been some bitterness that the elves got to stay in the warm and dry and weren’t flogging their guts out flying all over the world.

“So we get to be… movie stars?” asked Cupid.

Vix knew he had them.

“Yes, and TV, and on posters.”

They all nodded again, Rudie’s antlers scraped the side of his box.

“How is it going to work?  Do we just send letters with each delivery this year?” mused Dash.

“I’ve been speaking with some people who work for the various companies which have supplemented our products, and they have some ideas.”

“The toy companies?” Rudie was shocked.  They all knew what the old man thought of them.

“And the shops, and the delivery companies.  They have an offer.  They want to buy everything out, and they’ll manage the outsourcing of the manufacturing, selection and delivery processes.  We can concentrate on the marketing, and looking good.”

It all seemed to make sense to the reindeer.  And they’d all secretly been dreading this year.

“So what do they call that then?” asked Comet.

“I know,” said Santa, standing in the stable’s doorway, and not looking very jolly, “it’s called Asset Stripping.”

###

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Brain Ports

by Jason Gibbs

“There is no such thing as a soul!”

“Well, that was emphatic.  Can we at least ask…”

“No, that was the last question I am willing to take.”

With that, the minister stormed off the stage, leaving the press shaking their heads and laughing.  It was a game they liked to play with the new appointees, and normally they didn’t get such a good response.

#

“Minister Roberts…”

“I know Simkins, I should have held it together, but those press people, they’re like rabid…”

“Don’t worry minister, here is your coffee.  Also, Mrs Youre is on the line.”

“The Prime Minister?”

“Yes, minister.  Here she is…”

With that Simkins switched the mirror over and Roberts was face to face with his boss.

“Roberts.  What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Ah, Prime Minister, um, I, I’m sorry, I should have been prepared…”

She laughed, and then smiled at him.  He realised she was having as much fun as the press people.

“Don’t worry Roberts, that was actually perfect.  Your last two predecessors were too cool, I think the press were starting to wonder.  Your, let’s call it a performance, yes, your performance was brilliant.  They’ll be chuckling to themselves for months.  And not bothering about the other stories,” she stared at him.

“Yes, Prime Mini…”

“Your job Roberts, is to keep them off the scent for as long as possible.  We know this is going to get out, but we’ve managed to keep a lid on it for three years, and we’d like a little more time.  My people tell me they think they only need a couple more months, but they said much the same last year.  You hold on.  Do whatever is necessary.”

“Yes, Pri…”

She cut off.  Roberts was tempted to swear but held himself back.  She might reappear, and his day had been getting worse since she’d called for him that morning.

#

As he was driven back to the ministry he stared into the middle distance, remembering the brief feeling of joy when he’d received the call.  He was finally getting noticed.  He assumed it would be a junior position, but, the only way was up.

Instead she’d sat him down and told him straight, “Roberts.  You are cannon fodder.  The likelihood is you’ll do this and be consigned to the back benches for the next decade.  But your country needs you, I need you, are you willing to do it?”

There was obviously no answer to that.  He’d nodded, trying to look serious and ministerial.

“You are going to be our new Minister for Galactic Transport.  The fourth in 18 months so my aides tell me.  The last three are… well the wilderness would probably be preferable.  They slipped up.  You must not.”

He just stared at her.  The job was a poisoned chalice, and yet nobody knew why.  Ministers just didn’t last.  Maybe it was the souls thing?

“Now, I only have five minutes, so I’m going to give you the fast brief.  Your team in the ministry will give you background, but this is so important you need to hear it from me.  Firstly, the official line is that there is no such thing as a soul, and YOU WILL STICK TO IT.  DO you understand?”

There was a sharpness to her smile.  He nodded understanding.

“We have had some issues with the replication technology with teleports, this is true, but we believe that it is the central computer.  There’s a bug, a switch set to one, nothing more.  And you will not entertain any notion otherwise.  Got it?”

“Yes, Prime Mini…”

She’d stood up, and ushered him out, newly minted, a proper minister, and yet, a sword hanging over his head.  The previous minister had lasted 17 weeks, so at least he had a target.

#

“Right, so, Simkins, can you explain to me what the difference between the official line, and the unofficial line actually is, so that I might avoid abject humiliation next time I’m up in front of the press?”

“I’m afraid not Minister.”

“What?”

“There is no difference.”

Butter wouldn’t melt.

Roberts took a deep breath.  “Fine, tell me what the issue is, and why people keep mentioning souls.”

Simkins eyed him, but then clearly decided to take pity on him.

“Well Minister, do you know how the transportation works?”

“Yes, yes, brain ports, we get one put in, it maps the brain, a plug sucks the map out, spits it across the communicator and then we’re printed by a giant 3d meat printer at our destination.”

Simpkins nodded, though Roberts thought he detected a slight grimace.

“Quite so minister.  Though we tend not to use such… colourful language.  We’ve been doing this for some years, more than a decade of commercial licence in fact.  In the beginning we had strict rules, only one copy of a person at a time.  Obviously when the original person was, um, transported, they ceased to exist in their first location…”

“Why?” Roberts asked, he’d always wondered.

“We believe it’s the mapping process.  Nonetheless, from a legal perspective it makes it easy, one legal person, transports to another location, no duplicates, no… dare I say it, clones.”

They both shuddered.  Not worth thinking about that.

“Right, so what about the souls.”

“Minister please let me explain,” said Simkins sounding a little pained.

“Yes, sorry Simkins, go ahead.”

“And then two years ago there was the De Freito case, and suddenly the floodgates opened.”

Roberts looked blank.  “Um, if you could just remind me?”

“De Freito claimed that his human rights were being violated, because of the restrictions he was unable to be at home with his family and travelling at the same time.”

“Ah yes, I seem to recall something…” said Roberts, though he really couldn’t.

“So, they tried to send him to his destination, and a copy back round, and it failed.  He threatened to sue, it got a little ugly, and then… there was a small mistake and he ended up at a terminal station, which is at least a decade away from being able to send him back.”

“A mistake?”

“Yes, minister.”

More butter.

“Souls?”

“Of course, minister.  The tests didn’t stop there, they just found some more amenable subjects.  But what they found was that no matter what they did, there could only ever be one copy of a person in the galaxy.  The data would duplicate, triplicate or whatever, but whichever copy arrived first would be the person, even if the time difference was almost nothing.  The other copies would just… fail.”

“Ah, this is that glitch the Prime Minister mentioned, something to do with a switch.”

“That is the official line, Minister.  They are concerned about the fallout if people start thinking they have souls again.  Can you imagine?”

The wars of religion had been brutal, and religiosity was frowned upon in these enlightened times.

“What do they think it is?”

“Well, they have performed many experiments, even putting two ports into one candidate.  Nothing worked, no matter what they do, only one copy of a person can ever exist.”

“Do they know why?”

“Yes, they’re fairly certain now.  Empirically, there is a single point, a sort of essence of a person, which cannot be duplicated.”

Roberts nodded wisely.

“Ah, excellent, and what are they proposing to call this?”

Simkins looked at him with an expression approaching pity.

“A soul, minister.”

###

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Goatherd

“Ben, I can see my goats from this rock.”

“Yep, I’ve a good view too.  Any wolves come, we’ll stop them.”

“Thanks for helping,” I said gratefully.

“No problem George, that’s what neighbours do.  They take your goats and they’ll be on to mine next.”

I said nothing, watching the goats leap from rock to rock with a grace and insouciance; the capricious creatures were born for it.  They’d tried sheep at first, but damn things kept getting lost and really didn’t like the rocky ground.  Goats on the other hand loved it, gravity never having had much hold on them.

I watched Bill, my favourite goat, taking a bite out of a rock.  She looked at me while chewing happily.  She was a good producer, but cheeky.  I suspected she was the one who’d broken the fencing the day before.  It wasn’t there to keep the goats in, the gap to the next rocks did that.  It was to stop wolves.

“Fleeces look good George, lovely green, and their torso bubbles look smooth.”

“I’m always careful, I popped one a few years ago, and had to bring the injured goat inside to allow the chlorophyll fleece to regrow, and rebuild the bubble.  A real nightmare.  I always think it’s a pity they can’t live off the rocks, but that’s modern mechano-genetic-engineering for you.”

“Totally!”

A pause.

“You listening on the goats’ channel?”

“Nah, only so many ‘maaas’ I can take.  It’s obvious if they spot anything.”

Bill, bored with her position, bounced off, small pellets of pure metals coming out of her behind, and collecting in the little bubble I attached to her daily.  It still amazed me that they chewed into rock and pooed out these metals, but that was the whole point of bringing them up to the asteroids.

“Mind if I ask something George?”

“Course not.”

“You renewed?”

“Another three years.”

“Full term?”

“Yeah, I reckon if I double the flock over the next month, then I’ll be able to get most of the easy minerals out.  You?”

“I’m on rolling six months, I…”

Suddenly the whole flock looked up.  One of them had spotted a pirate wolf, I got my rifle ready, and hoped we’d get it.

“Got it, Sun-side top.”

“Where… got it too.  A single wolf raider.  There must be a back-up somewhere.”

“You take him out.  I’ll hunt the other.”

I aimed carefully and squeezed off a shot, then another.  The first grazed him, but the second was smack bang in the middle of his bubble.  It collapsed, and I could see the pilot thrashing before it exploded.  It was harsh, but if I hadn’t stopped him then I’d find stripped goat carcasses spinning in nearby space within the day.

I looked around to see how Ben was doing, and spotted another raider bubble collapsing.

“Yee-es!  Got the other.”

“Awesome.  I owe you Ben.”

“Beers next time we’re in town.  Unlikely you’ll see more wolves today.  I gotta check my flock, I bet they’ve scattered.”

Grateful, I watched my flock, oblivious once again and eating happily.  Despite the occasional wolf, it was a good life, for them and me.

###

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Magpies

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

And seven for a secret which can never be told.

 

Boris flew to the meeting tree looking somewhat bedraggled, and down in the feathers.  He’d clearly had a bad day.

“Hey Boris.  Tough day?”

“Oh, hi Tony, you said it.”

Now my job as the Magpie barman is to serve the drinks and listen to the stories.  Occasionally I offer some advice, but my days of flying Informational Magics is long gone, and most of the chicks they send out these days seem to ignore me.

I lined up a stiff drink for Boris and said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

It was clear he didn’t, but then he shrugged his wings and took a long drink of his drink and said, “You know how some days if it can go wrong?”

“Oh yes.  Saw a single one today did you?”

I was joking of course, Magpie magic doesn’t work on Magpies, something I’ve always thought is vaguely ironic.

“Ha, almost as if I had done.  My day started with an easy one.  I needed to get a farmer to see me.  He’s going to get some bad news from his girlfriend it seems.  Farmers are easy I thought to myself, wait until they’re out into a field, and then, you know, pop up.  He conveniently headed out, and so I flew along.  Nothing, he was looking at his phone I think.”

“Bloody things have made it harder than in my day, and no mistake.”

“You said it Tony.  You couldn’t line me up another?”

I watched him finish the first as I poured the second.  I hoped he wasn’t going to drink too much, I’d struggle to carry him off this tree at the best of times, but my right wing has been giving me shooting pains when I extend it recently.

“Where was I?”

“Farmer.  Phone.”

“Yeah, so I had to get over the other side of town for my next job, and I was running out of time, so I popped up again.  The farmer looks up.”

“Job done?”

“I hadn’t spotted him, but Douglas was flying across the field, on his way to his first gig of the day.  Blam, we’ve now given the farmer Joy.”

“Oh, well, could be worse.”

“I know, but now I’m the one who has to go and give his girlfriend Sorrow, because her dream job evaporated and she’s staying with her farmer boyfriend.  Sucks for her.”

“Mmm.”

“Now of course, I’m running late, so I wing it straight over.  I reckon I can get away with it, so I cut over the Grey woods.”

“The ones with the footpath?”

“Yeah.”

“Risky.”

“At that time of day I figure it’ll be fine.  I was wrong.  A couple going for a mid-morning walk.  Blam they get some Sorrow.  Their car engine’s blown.  Then a man walking his dog, more Sorrow.  He’s going to get an unexpected, and wrong, gas bill, but it’ll take three months for him to clear it up.”

“Ouch.  You speak to Control about doing some reverse work?”

“You seen them recently?  Something strange is going on, they’re planning a load of Secret raids.”

“Awful tricky to pull off they are.”

It’s difficult to get seven of us in one place where a human can see, and count, all of us before we have to move on.  Anything getting in the way can turn it into something else, and I hated doing them when I was still in the field.

I went on, “I was involved in one of those once, we ended up giving three Silvers and one Gold before we hit it properly.  Control was mighty angry.”

“Well they’re so angry already, I wasn’t going to ask them to allow three Joys just to fix my mess up.”

“Fair.”

“I get to the meeting place, expecting Steph and Jon, and you know what?”

“What?”

“Bloody Yanis turns up.”

“Oh he’s alright…”

“Maybe, but suddenly the Girl we’re announcing turns into a Boy.  Then while I’m remonstrating with him another couple come along.  Now by this point Jon’s off, but they get a Girl, and they weren’t expecting anything if you know what I mean.”

“A bad day and a half.  Have another.”

His second had gone almost as fast as the first, but he sipped the third a bit more cautiously.

“Next few gigs went ok, but I couldn’t help feeling the day wasn’t done with me yet.”

“No?”

“No.  My last couple of gigs were over by Westfield farm, you know at the edge of our territory.”

“Bordering the Greenlark mob?”

“Yeah.  Bloody amateurs.”

“So I hear.”

I didn’t tell him my mother had been a Greenlark.  When I was a chick we’d been on best of terms with them, but last couple of years there’d been some bad blood.  Accusations of stealing of missions and suchlike.

“Well I was there to do a Sorrow and a Joy, with Steph again.  I like her, real professional.  Always on time, flies low, can disappear into anything.  Easy to work with.”

He was smiling in such a way that I imagined he wanted a little more time with Steph.  He was quiet for a bit.

“You were saying…”

“Yeah, sorry.  Steph.  She turns up as expected, and we’re about to do the double.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah, the dossier on these two said they were inseparable, but that the man always looked round to the right when they got into a new field.  Steph and I were prepped.  The humans climbed into the field and we popped up.  At the same time some bloody Greenlarks are having a fight with a murder on the border of the land.  All sorts of squawking and whatnot.”

“Not good.”

“Not good?  Disaster.  She gets the Joy and he gets the Sorrow.  Her premium bond numbers come in and his ankle gives way.  Doesn’t seem fair.”

“It’s not about fair.  At least they didn’t see the Greenlarks.”

“True.  And I think Steph blamed me, though she didn’t say anything.  Just a bit off.”

“I’m sure she understands, we’ve all been there.”

At that point one of Control’s messengers turned up.

“Oi, Boris, get over to Control.  They need you for a Secret.”

“I’ll be there in two ticks.”

The messenger looked like he was going to argue, but then just flapped off, making a deliberate show of his whites.

“Bloody showoffs, think they’re better than us cos they do the planning.”

“It’s a tough job.”

“Yeah, whatever.  Not sure what the point of a Secret is, I mean they never tell us what it is anyway.”

“Um.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that’s the point.”

Boris slurped the last of his drink and then headed off, waving his wings a little unsteadily.

I watched him depart and thanked my stars I wasn’t out there anymore.  I’d enjoyed spreading Joy and announcing the little ones.  But the Sorrow was always hard.  I polished up the glasses and waited for my next customer.

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Outsourcing

I think we all outsource bits of our lives, and I wondered how far it might go?

 

Outsourcing

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your hands together for our guest of honour, Mr James Forbes, the leading light of the modern era.”

The room erupted in cheers and clapping, and a tall, austere looking man walked to the podium.  His measured stride ensured he reached the stage while the applause was still loud, and was positioned behind the podium just as it was starting to die down.

He brushed his once brown fringe to one side in a characteristic motion which energised the crowd again.  How they loved him, and even with his hair now almost white, they could still picture him as the winsome youth he’d once been.

“It is an honour to be with you, and for the first time in my life, to have you all in the same room.”

More cheers.  He let it run again, and then his face became sombre, the gathered guests at once responded.

“There are those who couldn’t make it today, but we have their images up there on the memory wall, so they could be present in spirit.”

There were sighs at this thoughtfulness, and many looked at the wall, remembering those who’d been lost along the way.

He turned on his thousand watt smile and the room forgot about the dead, and turned once more back to him.

“But now it’s time to talk about me, and all that you’ve done to help me.”

More cheers.

“Dennis over here, has, as ever, provided me with a script.”  He favoured the man who’d introduced him with a kindly smile.

“He assures me that he originally wanted to mention every single person in this room, but when he timed the speech, it came to 74 hours.  And that was without toilet breaks.”

He delivered the line completely dead-pan.  There was a pause and then the room erupted with laughter.  He’d always been able to work a crowd, with Dennis’ coaching of course.

“So instead I’m going to talk about my successes, and how you’ve helped.”

There was a hush as they waited, each hoping they’d been mentioned, and hanging on his words.

“I was very successful at school, in part due to Thomas Greenwood, yes stand up Tommy, who did my exams, and Philip Pulling, who represented me at football.”  He paused while the two men stood up and bowed to all around them.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask that you stand up and nod quickly when mentioned, to give us any chance of that toilet break I saved from Dennis’ machinations.”

Quiet reigned again.

“With my grades, and football scholarship, I attended a select college where Tommy once more excelled at my exams.  Poor Philip tore a hamstring, so was replace by William Turbot, who unfortunately can’t be here today.  However when he was representing me, he managed to get me all the way to the finals, and scored the winning goal on my behalf.”

Cheers, which he let run for a while.

“Now with a college degree, and in excellent fitness it was time for me to get a job.”

He looked a little put out, and was greeted with the obligatory groans, and a few wry smiles.

“My career strategists, Harriet and Joyce, there you are, advised me to become a lawyer, and they selected Mr Bryce Jones for the early part of my career.  He ensured I excelled at law school, and landed a job at the top law firm in the country, before getting me through my training and setting me up for a decent run at partnership.  He handed the baton to Pete here who got me through to become the youngest ever partner at the law firm.”

He leaned down and put his arm around another white haired man who was sitting next to him, looking a little confused, but smiled when he saw who was hugging him.

“All that hard work, just to get me to the bottom rung of partnership, and that’s when my strategists had an idea.  We decided to play it a little dirty.  So Jonathan was brought in to be me.  There he is the old dog.  He slept with other partners, or their partners…” an appreciative laugh. “… whatever was necessary to secure my advance, and knock out the competition.  I won’t lie, we had fun, but it was perhaps the least savoury time of my life.”

Hush.

“And then I met darling Alice, the love of my life.”

Alice stood up, still beautiful despite her advancing years, and smiled her quirky, knowing smile.

“Jonathan stepped out, and Russell stepped in.  As me he married Alice, and fathered our first child, young Jeffrey.  Sadly he became confused about his role and we had to let him go, and Jimmy stepped in.  He went on to father Paul and little Thesia.  Not so little now.”

He smiled at his daughter who barely managed to smile back.  She had been lucky enough to get many of her mother’s looks, if not her sunny temperament.

Dennis tapped him on the arm.

“Ah yes, sorry, my tempo is off.  So many faces from the past, all those who made my life what it was.  While the family life was going well, my professional career peaked, when I was made head of the firm.  George Dancing did the hard work, and I am forever in his debt.  Though of course the work was its own reward, hey George?”

George nodded dutifully, and the room chuckled along.

“Here’s where the strategy changed, and the answer was politics.  We felt there’d been enough time since my Jonathan phase, and we’d managed to buy off or get something on everyone affected.  I was squeaky clean, had three wonderful children, and a beautiful wife.  I was made for politics.  My early career, as a senator, was handled by Grace Riely, the first time I’d been a woman, but she was so talented we knew it would work, and it did.  Her schmoozing, and backroom deals, meant within two terms I was the only real candidate for the highest job in the land.  President!”

Clapping and whoops greeted this, much as they had when he’d been elected.

“Two terms, the first performed by Grace and the second by Adam, and my legacy was secure.  It was time to retire.”

They all knew his story, so they knew that wasn’t the case, but he held them there for a little while.

“But with the success we had, I knew there was more, so I ran for Secretary General of the UN.  Edmund Chung represented me, and as the first American SecGen, I set about changing that institution.  Under my tenure, aided by Ken Ho who took over from Edmund for my third and fourth terms, that institution became more than a talking shop, it became the most important global force.  A nascent government in all but name!”

They were on their feet now, he’d got to his true triumph, the one they’d all helped to bring about.  The clapping and feet stamping went on for quite a while.

Time to wind them down.

“Since then, well, I’ve played golf,” he nodded at Guy, “a bit of tennis,” a wink at Tony, “and spent time with my wife.”  He air punched Jimmy gently.

He smiled again, electrifying the room and they all went wild.  The cheering might have continued for a while except they noticed that someone was doing a slow clap.  Silence rippled out from Paul, the great man’s son until the only sound was the slow clap, clap from one of the two men who now walked towards the platform.

Until they stopped and the one who had been clapping said, “I have a question father.”  There was a slight emphasis on father.

Favouring first the clapper, and then his son with a smile he said, “Yes Paul?”

“What have you,” he pointed accusingly at the titan, “ever actually done?”

For the first time Philip Forbes looked confused as if he really couldn’t understand the question.  Then he smiled, “I recognise you now, sorry Albert, you’re my son’s troublemaker aren’t you?”

The young mine nodded, but maintained his grumpy air.  The room let go a collective breath they hadn’t realised they’d been holding, it was all going to be fine.

Philip answered his son, “And to answer the question Paul, I did all that I wanted to, I just outsourced the rest.”

###

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The Dog Ate My Phone

This happened to me (the dog eating the phone bit, not the rest…)

 

The Dog Ate My Phone

“Did I ever tell you about the time the dog ate my phone?” said the rough voice.

Thomas Jensen looked up from his phone to see who was talking. The only person there was a tramp and he seemed to be staring straight at Thomas.

“Ah, no. Not that you’ve ever told me anything. And now…”

He tried to get up, but the tramp had moved so close he’d have to push him out of the way, and he really didn’t want to touch the man.

“Worst day of my life really. Best as well if truth be told. It freed me.”

“Oh, er, how?”

The tramp took this as an invitation to sit down, and start his tale.

“I’d left the dogs in the car. Two lovely chocolate Labradors. Beautiful. You have dogs?”

“No.”

“Great companions. Only problem, particularly with labs, is they’re hungry. I’d left my phone in the car, I don’t know why because I never left my phone anywhere. I left it in the little shelf in the door. Right next to some sweets.”

Thomas tried to look at his watch, but the tramp leant over.

“Dogs had never bothered with the sweets before? Do you know why they did that day?”

“No…”

The tramp leant back, “Nobody does. Anyway they went for the sweets, but the shelf was small and they struggled to get the sweets out, and got the phone first. Crunch. Little bits of glass all over the place. Phone dead. Kaput.”

“That’s very sad, but I have to…”

“Know why I couldn’t just get a new one?”

“Um.”

“Well I ordered one. Or asked my wife to. Same model. But you see the thing was, there was a delay. I wouldn’t have my phone for a week. Can you imagine?”

Thomas really couldn’t, he shook his head.

“My car wouldn’t recognise me. Couldn’t get into my front door, couldn’t buy anything. My virtual credit cards were all frozen until I got a new unit. I had an old one, but it took a different sim see, so they wouldn’t reactivate it. Or would, but it would take longer than the new phone. Do you think I could go to work?”

“Yes?” Thomas ventured.

“No. Front desk wouldn’t let me past, even if they did elevators wouldn’t have taken me anywhere.”

Thomas was starting to be interested despite himself, “But you told your boss?”

“How? No phone. No messenger. No email. I tried to call from the reception desk, but without my phone id to authenticate me… well he refused the call.”

Thomas shook his head sympathetically.

“Then they fired me. No payoff, failure to turn up for work. Except the firing bounced, no phone you see, so I didn’t find out directly. I found out from my wife. What did she do to help me I hear you ask?”

Thomas wondered if he would have asked, but it didn’t seem wise to argue.

“She called me a fool. She also told me to stop blaming the dog, he was suffering enough. I realised then the hierarchy in the house, and I didn’t like it. I said some things. I didn’t mean them, it was just the pressure. You know.”

Thomas tried to look sympathetic, and also as if he had somewhere else to go.

“Well, she said some things too. Then stormed out, taking the dog. Told me to call her when I’d grown up. That turned out to be hard.”

He paused.

“I think she’s in San Francisco now.”

“Um…”

“Anyway, so I was stuck. But only for a week I hear you say?”

Thomas nodded.

“If only. You see she’d ordered the new phone in her name. Now if she’d been around we could have swapped the sims and heydee ho, with a couple of hours, on her phone of course, to customer services it would have all been fine. I had to break into the house. I was watching. Saw it delivered, they wouldn’t have given it to me, and broke in. Big mistake.”

“Why?”

“The house called the cops. That expensive security system I put in. Tied to our phones. I grabbed the phone and ran. And ran, hoping to fit my sim in. Couldn’t, cos of it being in my wife’s name and all, but kept it with my while I wandered. Found myself in the backend of the city. Tough times. I learned a lot. First thing was to drop the new phone, even without my sim it had a tracker and they were trying to find it. I paid for really good security you see. Met some people, learned how to live without the phone, without id, and money. Hard life. Good life.”

The man looked wistful, and Thomas thought he might have a chance to get away.

“Ah, well, that’s a good thing to know. I need to run I’m afraid.”

He indicated his phone, as if he’d had a message. The old man misunderstood.

“Oh no, I don’t want your phone. Don’t need one. Just wanted to share the story, maybe it can help. Wanted to help someone today of all days.”

Thomas hesitated, but had to ask, “Why today?”

“I’m dead today. Legally. After thirty years, all of the automatic payments and suchlike I’d put into place have finally ground to a halt, and the world, your world, has decided I’m dead. Saw the notice while watching one of those demo phones.”

“Um.”

“Go now. No use you wasting time listening to a dead man. But take care of that phone.”

###

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Lobbying for the Merchants of Death

This one came to me after a week’s holiday in Spain…

 

Lobbying for the Merchants of Death

By Jason Gibbs

“Thank you for smoking. Loved that film.”

“Film?”

“Old 2D movie, probably way before your time… anyway there’s this great scene where Aaron Eckhart’s character, who represents the tobacco companies, is explaining how his product kills more people than alcohol and guns.”

“Tobacco?”

“Yeah, you know smoking it? Seriously do they teach you nothing in school these days?”

“Um, yes, I see here it used to cause millions of deaths a year.”

“Yes.”

“More than your clients.”

“Exactly my point, exactly.”

“So it was banned, and alternatives found and now far fewer people die from it?”

“No, no, that’s the opposite lesson. Tobacco was rehabilitated, it’s used in all sorts of things now, paper, a lot of medicines. Tobacco production has grown for the last decade, even while smoking has been consigned to the wilderness of history.”

“Um, so your clients. You think they can be rehabilitated?”

“Of course. But first we need to stop painting them as evil. They do what they do, we just need to find a way of making it less, deadly.”

“But you admit they’ve killed a lot of people?”

“Billions according to some estimates.”

“So…”

“Does that justify wiping them from the planet? No. Are they an existential threat to us? Definitely not. They kill far fewer than they used to, and I think with a little research we can bring that number down to zero. I really do.”

“That requires investment.”

“Yes, and for us to stop this massacre. Do you know what the death toll related to the current programme is?”

“Human?”

“So species centric. Yes, human.”

“No, I thought…”

“Three thousand. So far. Accidents, chemical poisoning etc. That’s more than my clients killed last year and the year before put together.”

“OK, but…”

“But nothing. We stop the massacre, we put resources into finding a prophylactic. Everybody’s happy, the world is a better place.”

“And you have to find new clients?”

“There’s always more clients. And if I win this… well, the sky’s no longer a limit.”

“Who’s paying you?”

“First good question you’ve asked. There’s a lot people. They don’t necessarily agree with my clients, but they think their destruction is unwarranted. Something like, I don’t agree with what you do, but I will give my life to defend your right to do so…”

“Sartre?”

“Apparently not.”

“Ouch. What is that?”

“Might be a bite. If it is, you might want to stop scratching it.”

“Wait, are you telling me some of your clients are in here?”

“Of course. Couldn’t probably represent them if they weren’t here now could I?”

“And one of them bit me?”

“May have, no proof…”

“Um, do they carry malaria?”

“We have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on that.”

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