Video readings

Just a couple of video readings.

The Cat Tree. A short fantasy story about life, death and crawling out of the bottle.

Moonlit shadow. a tale about a certain midwinter festival from a differing perspective. Published in Leg-Iron books 2019 anthology “Christmas lights and Darks”

Moving continents yet again and setting up home in a new house, renovating, learning to keep bees etc has taken up most of my storywriting energy. That and the ‘pandemic’ getting in the way. Hopefully that will change in 2023.

Am recompiling ‘The Cat Tree and other stories’ as an E-book. Link will be posted on the sidebar when it’s ready.

Happy new year.

Aug-E updated

Wrote the original a few years ago. Changed the story direction at the nodding of my youngest stepdaughter, and feel it now works far better than the original. The characters are sharper, better defined. All deeply flawed of course, but isn’t that half the fun of these things?

Anyway. For those who care for this kind of Sci-Fi,the following 7050 words (Excluding the italicised intro) are the story of Francis Yale, decommissioned Cyber-soldier and his fellow travellers.

Francis Yale, a decommissioned Cyber-soldier from the Army’s Augmented-Enhanced programme, with many of his ‘enhancements’ removed or disabled, is having a hard time readjusting to civilian life.    Until help comes from an unexpected quarter.


Man that hurt!    In the intermittent street light, blood mixed with the pouring rain, dripping onto cracked paving, tendrils of red washing down the debris clogged gutter into rapidly flooding storm drains.    Yale stumbled over a cracked kerbstone, panting with the pain, snagging disobedient toecaps on the ground, shouldering clumsily into streaming walls.    Soaked to the skin and shambling down dim deserted streets like some addled junkie in withdrawal, accompanied only by the soft roar of seasonal rainstorm.

Down by the canal towpath, under the remains of the old causeway bridge, two twitching bodies leaked the last vestiges of their miserable lives into the midnight downpour.    He’d tried to talk Saulie and Kayle off, but they’d been too amped up on ‘Rage’ to listen.    Good job they hadn’t really known how to fight or he wouldn’t have stood a chance.    All over a stupid chocolate deal gone bad.

Just over fifty kilo’s of illegal Belgian had been snatched by those sneaky Customs bastards before he could make pickup.    It hadn’t been his fault, but Saulie, number two enforcer for the Neverlanders smuggling cartel, had disagreed.    They’d given him the job, which entailed a blood debt, so they’d said.   

It had been a simple pick up and delivery in return for five kilos of protein bars.    Enough to keep him alive and not starving for two weeks.    Only there had been thirty plus armed Customs agents already lying in wait for the covert shipment.   

Yale had watched them pounce from the other side of the street, confiscating the banned cocoa solids less than thirty metres away as he lurked in the shadows.    What else could he have done but walk away?   

Saulie didn’t see it that way, and his big tattooed friend Kayle had pulled a knife, a big, evil looking home forged blade, more like a mini-machete, and it had all gone to hell from there.   

Saulie had been pretty quick with his gun, but Yale’s hands had been quicker.    That was the thing about ‘Rage’, it made you stronger and faster for a few hours, but it couldn’t make you smarter or better trained.    Which was why Yale was still alive, and they weren’t.

Flashover: The high speed flicker of Kayle’s knife tip clearing its sheath and Saulie’s ultra-quick right hand yanking at the gun stuffed into his waist band.

Instinctively Yale had spun left quicker than Saulie’s gun muzzle could track.    Side step and throat punch, flipping around, right into Kayle’s blade, cursing himself for being so careless as he slapped open handed at the knifeman’s wrist, at the same moment mistiming his backhand elbow into Saulie’s skull, feeling the shockwave of the gunshot on his face as the bullet sped past.    Then something heavy had cracked into his right cheekbone.    A whisper of air past his shoulder and for the next few seconds it all got kind of blurry.    Until he’d stopped, panting with exertion and pain over Saulie and Kayle’s rapidly expiring bodies.

Back in reality, the pain from his cracked elbow stabbed again, trying to outbid all his other agonies.    The back elbow swing he’d put Saulie down with had messed up his old right shoulder injury.   

Yale cursed inwardly.    After all this time he should have learned he wasn’t the superman he used to be.    Skin split to the bone all the way down his left forearm, from wrist to elbow, knuckles raw and bloody.   

The fingers of his right hand hurt like hell and it was agony to try and straighten them.    Two loose teeth, one painfully cracked down into the jaw.    Partially dislocated right shoulder and elbow.    Big ragged rip across his right forearm and two stab wounds, fortunately superficial, in his left thigh.      Muzzle burn on his left cheek from Saulie’s first shot.    Three ribs creaked.    It would hurt way more when the adrenaline rush wore off.   

But then something always hurt.    About twice a year his back locked up with muscle spasm, meaning near paralysis and a week lying flat on the floor high on pain meds.    There was the old right shoulder injury that had never healed properly as well as his troublesome right knee and a horde of other old combat injuries, knife, bullet and shrapnel scars from a war that hadn’t really been a war.    Just a series of superfast hand to hand skirmishes in dirty back rooms and garbage-choked alleyways.   Mano e mano.    Close up and about as personal as it could get.

The decommissioning medics had warned him of course, but in the heat of a balls-out fight those worthy cautions always got lost.    Still, good reflexes for a man of thirty seven.    Way quicker than any vanilla human had any right to be.    Quicker than the dead.

The remnants of Augment-E technology would always heal him faster, make him faster and his bones stronger, but didn’t suppress the pain or protect from injury any more.    He shouldn’t really have been drinking either, which always led to trouble.    But bootleg booze took the edge off the other kind of pain.    The kind that made a man drink.    Deep down in the soul, where other drugs just couldn’t go.

Right now there was only one place to go.    Pete’s.    Pete always helped.    Any time, night or day.    And Pete had real know-how of leftover weapons-grade augmentation which normal Hospitals didn’t.   

When he’d tried to get treated at a standard health service emergency unit, the human nurse on duty had taken one look and screamed for security.    So he’d had to run. Or rather stagger away.

An hour of stumbling down the glistening darkness of deserted streets later, he arrived outside Pete’s little Cyber-Tattoo store front under the shifting front wall light mural.

The secondary lighting rippled a rhythmic pale blue.    Pete was home.    If they were cycling through pastels, she was out.    He stumbled round to the armoured side door before knocking.

After a few moments a familiar voice drawled out of the door speakercam.    “Yeah?”   

“It’s me.”    He grated into the microphone.

“Aw she-it Yale. You messed up again?”   

“Guess so.”

“What was it over this time?    Deal go bad on you?”

“Kind of.”

“Still arguing over women?”

“I wish.”

“Still drinking?”

“Kind of.”

“You dumb bastard.”

“Sorry Pete.”

“Door’s open.”    There was a click, the outer heavy security door slid aside and Yale stumbled in.    The door clunked locked behind him in a sombre way and the air in the short entranceway began to warm before the inner door swung open into a small waiting room lined with armless black padded bench seats and a desk.    A small jungle of plants in the corner relieving the stark artificiality of the walls and furniture.    Two other doorways led in and out.    One to the public tattoo parlour entrance, the other, hidden behind a full length wall hologram, to Pete’s very illegal body mod shop.    Yale stood in the middle, swaying a little, dripping rainwater and watery blood onto the plain red resin floor.    In the cool pastel light he waited unsteadily for Pete to make her usual appearance.

Platinum blonde haired Pete swept into the room in a glittering deep red silk kaftan patterned with an animated white oriental dragon crawling over her shoulder, forked tail twitching idly at her hip, metallic eyeshadow and lipstick black as sin, glossy as a Starlings wing.    “Oh, you poor baby.”    She breathed.    “What have you been doing?”

“I got into it with a couple of Rage-heads.”

“How many times have I told you not to hang with those people?”    She chided, waving him forward through the shifting illusion of the hologram.

“Sorry Pete.”    He stepped through the concealed doorway into a clean and bright operating theatre, hydraulic bed and multiple lights ready for the next client.

She took his damaged hands in hers, deftly turning them over without hurting him.    “I can clean that up.”    She took in his other hurts with a professional glance.    “Have to graft over though or it’ll scar too much.”    A delicate sniff at his breath curled her elfin features inwards.    “Sobriety tab.”    She insisted.    “I’m not treating you until you do something about your booze breath.”    Delving into the folds of her kaftan she produced a small thin strip, placing it delicately between his swollen lips.    Yale sucked it in, attenuated taste buds prickling as the alcohol metaboliser got to work.    “Better.”    Pete raised her hand to pat his cheek affectionately, noted the swelling and thought better of it.    Yale breathed in deeply and shuddered a little as his head began to clear.

“What really happened?”    She peeled back his rain soaked jacket with a little motherly hiss.

“I was minding my own business.”    Yale lied.

“Really?”    She knew him too well.

“Well, kind of.    I was on my way home.”

“Mm-hm?”    She examined a propellant burn on his ear.

“A couple of guys wanted my Comm.”    He lied carefully.    No sense in getting Pete involved with the Neverlanders.    Pete’s place was way off their turf, but he wasn’t going to take any chances.

“Yes, and?”

“Wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“And they were on Rage?”    She cocked an eyebrow questioningly.

“Pinpoint pupils.    Bad skin.    Reflexes like greased cats on hot glass.    Stank of ammonia like scented dog piss.”    Yale’s hypertrophied leftover lexicon included an enhanced sense of smell.

“You could’ve run.”

“They had me boxed in.”    Yale shook his head, not meeting her eyes in case she spotted the lie.    He could have easily outrun them, but they or their friends would have caught up with him eventually.

“So?”    Again, she hissed softly at yet another seeping wound.

“They didn’t give me much option.”

“I take it those two ‘Heads aren’t troubling the world any more?”    She motioned him toward the lab door, which slid open with the distinctive hiss of positive pressurisation.    Yale entered the brightly lit room and the door closed behind them.    She took his silence as affirmative.    The ‘Heads wouldn’t have left him alive, ergo they weren’t.

“Strip off my darling and let me see what else those nasty men have done to you.    Clothing in the disposal hopper.    On the table when you’re ready.”

“I know.”    They’d done this before.    Far too often during his army days.    Yale painfully stripping out of soaking rags, unevenly cropped dark brown hair sticking up in tufts where the rain hadn’t slicked it to his scalp.    Pete dumping his clothing into the replicator hopper for recycling.    Carefully watching Yale’s outdoor tanned face, heavily lined with the stretch marks of pain.    He sat gingerly on the padded table in the middle of Pete’s treatment shop before swinging his legs carefully up and lying down.

Under his clothing was a patchwork of scars and graft marks, some more expertly healed than others.   

Except for a little wiriness above his groin, Yale was completely devoid of body hair.    His left nipple was a pale puckered scar and his ears were scarred with fresher pink.

“They broke your nose.”    Pete commented, slipping out of her Kaftan and into a biohazard suit.   

She was a skinny transgender, almost completely androgynous when naked, dark olive skin with no visible tan lines or visible genitalia giving her an almost manikin-like appearance.    “Again.”

“I’m getting old.”    Yale swung carefully onto the examination table.

“Too old for combat.”    She touch-sealed her light biohazard suit with a flourish, flipping the face mask down, putting a strip of dark plastic over his eyes..

“It’s why we are who we are.”    He said sourly and closed his eyes just before sterilising ultra violet light flashed over his skin.

Fifteen years on anti-terrorism ops then dropped like roadside garbage.    Alone and unemployable.   

Not even able to get a club doormans licence.    Nightclubs liked their customers, even the drunk and aggressively stupid, to get home intact and alive.    No one needed the lawsuits.

He shuddered as she laid a cool, surgical gloved hand on a bloody shoulder wound.    “Soldiers nerves, dear.”    Pete commented.    “We all have them.”    A fine line of green scanning laser ran over one ragged cut.    “Superficial.”    She commented.

“Hurts.”    Yale half gulped the word.

“As much as what drove you to pick a fight with not one, but two Rage-heads?”    Pete observed, watching him with suspicious eyes.

“That’s a different hurt.    Can’t seem to do much about it.”

“Have you seen Witherspoon?    He’s often online, asking after you.”

“The duty trick cyclist?    So last year.    Wasn’t doing me much good so I bailed.”

“You go on at this rate love, and you’ll be jailed, dead or in a cyber assist inside a year.”

“Maybe.”    He shrugged, then grimaced as the pain stabbed.

“I can fix most things, but Yale my darling boy, you have got some growing up to do.”

“Or what?”    He grunted as she began to swab up the worst of the damage, using a flesh welder as she went.

“Like I said.    I give you a year.”

“Yeah, yeah, a year, yeah.”    He grimaced as she sealed ruptured muscle ends together.

“Probably less.”    Pete said with a sly smile that only touched her mouth.   

Yale had always been one of those blaze of glory characters, so wired by the need that he’d explode if he didn’t do something.    She’d known him since school, then during their army days on field ops, hotwiring other adrenaline junkies.    Augmenting their nervous systems, feeding the hormone-hungry healing processes that could make Cyber-soldiers like Yale almost impossible to stop or kill.   

Latterly she’d seen several old friends die trying to climb down the long slow climb down the mountain, the perilous return to civilian life.    Then she thought about herself and her own internal journey before firmly shutting that particular door.      La-la-la, not listening little Miz darkness no more.   

Before the decades long war on terror had ended in three overlapping E-Plague pandemics, the climax had damaged their little band of specially enhanced super-soldiers beyond redemption, turning them all into addicts and worse.    Stuck in a matrix of lies and retribution that was hard to let go.    Maybe it was just inevitable.

“Pete?”    Yale winced as she began cleaning out yet another wound, ensuring no infectious material remained.    “I remember them all you know.”

“All?”    She said abstractedly.

“Everyone I’ve ever killed.    Every face, name and file.”

“You shouldn’t dwell on it Yale.”

“Keeps me awake.”    They both knew why.    It wasn’t guilt.    He missed the buzz of action, the adrenaline rush.

“So you drink.”


“You need a good woman, or man.    Someone to love.    Someone to heal with.”

“Like you?”    That raised an ironic smile.    Pete was notoriously celibate.

“Touché.    This may sting a little.”

“Ah!    You got that right.”    He clenched reflexively as antiseptic hissed onto his skin, stinging as it found raw flesh.

“I am.    Clench your right fist.”    She rudely twisted his shoulder back into place with a muffled crack, repeating the process with his elbow.    He clenched his teeth until the worst of the pain passed.

“Ah.    That feels better.”    He grimaced.

“You need help, Yale.”    She said, meticulously checking her workmanship.

“I know.”

“You can’t just take this pain on your own forever.”

“Yeah.”    He looked away, staring a million miles into the wall.

“Yeah me no yeah’s Yale.    You need help.”

“Nice work.”    He returned from wherever he’d been a moment ago and tried to change the subject, examining her repairs with a critical eye.    Pete was still one of the best.

“Now try not to break anything for at least a week.”    She’d finished on the right arm.    Now for the rest.    A quick spray hypo to hold the pain at bay while fixing the other superficial damage.    A nasty slash mark,    possibly fingernail induced, needed extra cleaning.    That was fixed with a dash of skin sealant.    No major bone damage.    Well there wouldn’t be.    Not for a modified human like Yale.    Even after the Army had taken back all their nano-implants some things could not be surgically removed.    Those deep muscle and bone enhancements were with him for the rest of his life.    However long that was.    Right, now on to the next set of injuries.

“There’s always Calvin.”    She tried to sound artless, but he wasn’t fooled.

“Get lost.    He’s still a copper.”

“He still owes you.    Last year?    The child prostitution ring?”    Pete pointed out.

“That was three years ago.”    Yale corrected.    “Maybe now he doesn’t owe me enough.”

“You could ask.”

“He’d see it all in my head.    Whether I wanted him to or not.    He’d have to turn me in for tonight’s little bust-up.    And a few others.”

“You’re an Oggie, Yale.    Aug-E. An augmented human.    Different, a permanent outsider.    So is he.”

“He’d still have to call it in.    I don’t want to go to jail.    Not again.”

“Mind reading doesn’t count as admissible evidence.    Where did it happen?”

“Towpath.”    She knew where he meant.    It was still pouring with rain so no-one would be out this time of night.    Besides, that was right on the edge of quarantine, down where only the stupidly desperate went.    Not even the rats would go anywhere near.    Come to think of it, he’d never seen any of the many urban packs of scavenging stray dogs down there.    Not alive anyhow.    Even after all the decontamination and scorched earth demolition, everything still died.    Wasta est.

Not that there were any decent people around any more.    The final and most fatal E-Plague had seen to that, filling up plague pits and the air with the smell of tainted burning pork and sewage. 

The E-Plague, an airborne cyberbacteria contagion created in some home lab, unleashed on the world by a crazy religious sect.    It had spread across the world like a dark stain.    Reacting with human tissue, wasting muscle and nervous systems.    Annihilating whole cities like a modern day Black Death.   

Yale curled a lip.    He remembered his first and only post army job as a disposal operative, spraying infected bodies with a sterilising accelerant, putting them six or ten at a time through the cremation oven, sometimes disinterestedly watching the dead writhe and crumble as they burned, until the bodies were reduced to sterile bones and ash.   

Dumping the ashes in a twenty metre square clay and plastic lined pit, covering them with acidified sand and a layer of clay and plastic steri-sheet, repeat until full, then cover pit with clay and tamp down with the digger to seal.    At the end of each shift spraying the burial yard equipment with toxic levels of disinfectant before a surreal journey through a plastic tunnel and flash decon. Then the promise of a hot food and a warm bunk for the night.    Good credit.    Pity he’d drunk it all.   

“Yale.”    Pete nudged him onto his right side.

“I know.”

“You got to straighten up.    Detox.    If not, you’re dead in a year.”

“I know.”

“Sure.    You know, that’s why you do it.    Mister Death Wish.”

“Maybe.”    He conceded.

“Others have made it.”    She pointed out.

“You?”    He teased.

“Hurrens, Javek, Powell.”    Pete said distractedly, a red line of reflected laser light flickering on her visor.    Enhanced flesh steamed as the nano sealants within it were heated to operating temperature.    The sour fleshy smell of not-quite cooking pork tainted the air. “Steady civilian jobs, girl and boyfriends.    Homes, lives.    Hurrens even has two kids now.”

“So you keep in touch?    Ouch.    That stung.”

“Done.”    She stood up to her full diminutive height.    “I keep up with their link stuff.”    She flipped up her visor and eyed her work critically.    “I could do better if you weren’t such a fidget.”

“Thanks Mum.”

“How are your folks?    I know your Dad’s still alive.    He’s helping organise that new refugee area over on the West side.”

“We haven’t talked since I signed up for Special Ops.    Mum, well, you know about her.”    Yale shrugged.

“I know.”    Pete said a little sadly.    “Yale, you still got to talk to someone.    Apart from me.    You come in here all busted up.    Face and hands looking like they’ve been in a war.    You got to remember you’re not Aug-E any more.    Not an Oggie.    You’re just plain vanilla human.”


“Yale!”    Pete chided sharply.    “Wise up.”

“Why?”    Yale snapped bitterly.

“Because there are people who want you to.”    Pete said slowly after a long pause.

“Aw come on Pete.    You of all people?”

“Do you want to end up in jail, or worse, face down in the street?”    Pete turned away so Yale couldn’t read her face.    She busied herself putting her toolkit back in order.

Hell it was sweet of her, he knew it.    It was sort of nice that someone cared whether you were breathing or not, but Pete; well, she was as much a freak as he was.    Another oddity the Army didn’t need any more.    Decommissioned and disabled.    A broken weapon cast aside.    Junk human.

“All right.”    Yale relented.    “I’ll go see someone.    But if my ass gets thrown in the hole…”    He left the sentence unfinished.

“Talk to a counsellor at least.”    Was Pete pleading with him?

“I’ve talked to them.    None of them understand.    All they’ve got is that touchy feely BS.”

“So you need someone to what?”

“I need to talk to someone who can.”    Yale said.    “Understand.”    He lowered his head, staring at the tiled floor, a great feeling of numb deadness spreading from his gut.    “Someone who can listen.    Who’s been there.”    He tapped his forehead with a splinted finger.

“Anyone can listen.”    Pete replied.

“But how will they know what I’m talking about?”

“Maybe that’s not important.”    Pete handed him some clean underwear with loose fitting shirt and pants from the workshops replication unit.   

“It is to me.”    Yale replied grimly, slipping into the proffered clothing.    She followed him out of her lab.    He went over to the front entrance, picked up his ragged, rain sodden coat and gave it a shake.

“There’s a spare bed out back.”    Pete stood in the middle of her workshop, arms folded.    “Sleep on it.”

“Can’t sleep.    That’s half the problem.”

“Booze will just make it worse.”    She warned, watching him slip into his battered sockboots.

“Yeah.”    Then the door was closing behind him.   

He thought he heard Pete’s aggrieved shout; “Oh, for fucks sake, Yale!” As the door clicked shut.    Hunching his ragged coat against the incessant drizzle, he told himself he’d pay the favour back, he always did, but this wasn’t a time to be around people.      Any people.    Not even a kindred soul like Pete.

Half way down the street, feet splashing through puddles, he almost stopped, hypertrophied combat senses tingling.      There was someone, watching.    Not far away.   

Keep moving, make an opportunity to get eyes-on without being obvious.    Converting the pause into a mis-step he lurched towards the empty left hand kerb, left arm flailing slightly in the anaemic streetlight, like a drunk looking for support.    Reach the edge of the road, drop down on one knee, one hand on the kerb as though ready to empty his guts into the gutter.    In reality wound like a spring, dynamically poised to bounce back and take down his observer.

“Cut the drama Yale.”    Shit!    It was that Mindfucker Calvin!    “Pete called.”

“You were quick.”    Yale stayed exactly where he was, but his body screamed at him to react, to attack.    He gritted his teeth and took a deep breath, trying to wind down.    Calvin’s shadowy form was leaning on a corroded but very solid stanchion across the rain slick street.    He wore a long Drovers coat with the hood up, lean features a deeper shadow within shadows.

“She messaged me ten seconds after you rolled in through her door all tattered and torn.”    Detective Sergeant Paul Calvin continued in that quiet but carrying tone he used when he wanted your full attention.    “I’ve been waiting half an hour.”    He added, knowing full well there was no one but ghosts within earshot.    The ones only he could hear.    So the rumour went.

How far away was he?    Eight metres?    One quick backwards kick off and a mid air twist….

“Yale, you never were much of a tactical thinker, were you?”    Calvin shifted easily behind the rusting steel upright of the lamppost.    Confident of his ability to know exactly what Yale was going to do next.    “Uniform have already found those two ‘heads you wasted.    I know it was you.”    There was a pause.    “But you know what I’m going to do about it?”

“What?” Yale grated, still trying to work out how to get a tactical advantage on a mind reading ex-copper.    “What are you going to do about it?”

“Not much.”    Said Calvin easily.    “Providing…”

“Had a feeling there was going to be a sting in the tail.    You’re a fucking scorpion Calvin.”

“Sort of.”    Calvin acknowledged.    You could hear him grinning.

“What?”    Yale swung around and upright in a single lithe motion.

“Go back inside.    Pete needs a favour.”    Calvin’s shadow didn’t move.

“Is that it?”   

“For now, yes.”

“Mind telling me why?”

“Because I’m asking you to help her.    Then you can pay your debt to me.    For keeping my mouth shut.    About those two ‘heads.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Go back in and find out.    You owe her.”

“Favours get me into trouble.”    Yale hedged.      Besides, favours?    Favours for who?

“I know.    Me too.”    Calvin agreed.    “All the time.    See you.”    Then he turned and began walking, ably dodging piles of rubble and other street garbage in near total darkness.   

Yale stopped again, puzzled.    Calvin only had that mind reading….. oh the sneaky fucker.    “Get out of my head.”    He snapped.

“I’m only borrowing your enhanced night vision, Yale.    Think of it as part payment.”    Calvin, still hooded against the rain, kept on walking.   

Yale smarted and looked along the street at Calvin’s receding back.    “What the hell.”    The rain dripped off his canvas hood.    He stared angrily after Calvin, who shrugged.    Mind readers didn’t need to look.

Calvin simply carried on walking, reaching the safe fringe of reflected light at the end of the street.    Yale let him go.    Calvin might know that Yale had snuffed Saulie and Kayle, but knowing and proving were two totally different things.    Turning around he found Pete, standing in the open doorway.

“Calvin tells me you need something from me.”    He said gruffly.

“I need some help.”    Was that desperation in her eyes?

Yale hissed reluctantly.    “Okay.”    He said cautiously.

“I need someone I can trust.    Someone who won’t talk.”

“Can we talk inside?”    If Calvin had found him, no doubt the Neverlanders were looking.

“Oh, sorry.”    Pete stepped back and let him in.    The outer security door clunked shut.    “The kettle’s on.”    She said, leading the way into the tattoo parlours little kitchen and living area.    Yale glanced into Pete’s spacious bedroom as they passed and did a double take.    A clear oval tank, half full of cloudy fluid stood next to Pete’s narrow little bed.    “What’s that?”

“Oh.”    Pete appeared at his elbow and saw what Yale was gesturing at.    “It’s the favour I want to ask.”

“You want me to get in that?”    A fuzzy memory from his own gene treatments surfaced.

“It’s not for you, it’s for me.”

“What’s the deal Pete?”

“It’s for the full biological.”    She sounded suddenly tearful.    “I’m going to go the whole hog.    XY to XX.    Ovaries, uterus, clitoris, the whole deal.”

“That’s impossible.”

“No.    It works.    It’s based on the tech we used on you guys.      I even tested it on a dog and a cat.    The cat lost it’s external sex organs and grew ovaries.    The Bitch I tested it on turned into a dog.    Penis, testicles, everything.    Then I tested their DNA.    I’m half way there anyway.    No balls, no dick, no urges.”

“Pete, you’re risking a lot.”    Yale said.    “You’ve been a good friend.    This could kill you.    We got warned about the cancer risk.    Two guys out of our original intake went out that way.    It ain’t pretty.”

“It’s not such a big risk to me.    If I can’t do this, I’ll probably kill myself anyway.    You don’t know what it’s like, being in the wrong body.    Cancer is the easy way, believe me.”    Pete said, her voice quivering.

“Sorry.    I didn’t know how bad it was.    But why are you asking me?    I’m no med-tech.”

“Yale, you dumb heap of meat, I love you like my big brother and you’re the only one I trust to see this through.”

“Okay.    What do you want?”    Yale said reluctantly.

“Watch over me while I’m unavailable.    Mind the shop.    Take the money.    Keep the place clean.    Call the repair techs if one of the Cyber-tattoo machines break.”

“For how long?”

“Six weeks.    It’s not so long.”

“Like, from now?    Tonight?”

“Tomorrow if you want.    I need to purge my system, get rid of my implants before I get in the tank.    I’ll hook up all the feeds myself, so all you have to do is watch.”

“What do I do if things go wrong?”

“Get me out and take me straight to the Harben Clinic on the other side of Quarantine.    I’ve got enough credit for emergency treatment.    Come on.    Don’t look so worried.    It’ll be fine.”    Pete gently touched his hand and led him into the little living area to drink tea.


Five weeks and three days later everything seemed to be going okay.    Until one of the Neverlanders walked into Pete’s tattoo parlour for a small piece of leg art.    Yale had taken the barter and said nothing as he set up the machine, hoping that the guy hadn’t recognised him.   

Afterwards he looked in at Pete’s cloudy form floating motionless in the oval tank.    The monitor said everything was okay, but how would he know if it wasn’t?   

For the next two days he felt wired, obsessively checking the tank and watching external security feeds. 

Over the next two days customers came and went, some paying with money, others with less legal tender, most via e-trades.    Yale barely sleeping until two evenings later when an alarm sounded.      He lifted a bleary face from folded arms and staggered into Pete’s room.

Sputtering and lank haired, breath mask discarded, a naked girl was sitting up in the cloudy fluid.    Yale tried not to stare.    It was Pete but not Pete.    The face had been elfin before, but the forehead was smoother, the nose more upturned and overall very feminine.    His eyes drifted down to well formed breasts and he abruptly turned his eyes away.    “Pete?”

Soft grey eyes blinked open.    “Frank?”

“Holy shit Pete.    What have you done?”

“I think it worked.”    Pete reached down below her waist.    The eyes widened.    “I think it really has worked.”

“You mean…?”

“I’m a woman Frank!    A real live one hundred percent woman!”    She cried happily.   

Yale’s eyes narrowed.    Pete’s voice had changed, it was still throaty but there were no male undertones like before.    “What?”

“Give me your hand.” She tugged and took his fingers in her own, plunging them down into the warm fluid, guiding them to….

Jesus!” Yale jerked his hand back, splashing fluid up the wall.    “That feels, er… you know.”

“Sorry.    I was so happy I needed your confirmation.    Don’t freak out on me, please.”

“Sorry Pete, it’s just..”    His sentence tailed off.

“Help me out of here.”    She reached out pulling him toward the tank then wrapped happy arms around his shoulders.    He easily lifted her out.    “Have I lost weight?”

“Er, I’d better get you a towel.”    He was trying not to blush, head and hormones colliding in disturbing ways.

“Oh.”    Her legs buckled and splayed as he put her down on the bed and he could see quite clearly the changes the gene treatment had made to her body.

“You look like a woman.”    He observed, handing her a fresh towel and pointedly looking away.   

Pete giggled.    “I’m having that effect.”    She noted.

“Ah.”    His face coloured.

“I’m flattered Frank.    And I owe you.”    She wrapped the bath towel around her, sitting up on the bed.    Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the tanks side, she remarked.    “Jesus H Christ on a bike.    My hair’s a mess.”

“Your hair can be fixed.”

“Unlike your dress sense.”    She said, then stopped.    “Did I just say that?”   

Yale nodded carefully.    Pete giggled again, hand covering lips that looked fuller, more…    No!    That just felt too weird.

Pete sniffed.    “I need a proper wash.    My pheromones must be off the chart.”    Yale turned away and nodded, strangling an embarrassed cough.

Pete struggled to her feet and pushed unsteadily past him into the bathroom.    He went back out into the shop.

After a while he heard the shower and happy humming punctuated by very female laughter.      After a while the sounds died away and there was the sound of a hair dryer.    Much later, Pete appeared at his side wearing a glittering black silk kaftan, platinum blonde hair tied back in a neat ponytail.      “I need a new name.”    She declared.

“Are you asking me?”

“Well, duh.”    She smiled.    “I want you to use it first.”

“Oh.    Petra maybe?”

“No.    Too much like Piotr.”


“My birth name.    Piotr Alexander Freedman.”

“I never knew that.”

“No shit?”    She looked thoughtful for a moment.    “Hey Frank, I got another question for you while you’re thinking about that.”

“Like what?”

“How do I pay you?”

“I hadn’t thought about that.”

“I want to do something special. Can I make it a surprise?”

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to.”    She leaned up against him for a brief hug.    “Be back in a minute.”    She returned with a small blue plastic oval in her hand.    “Lean forward.”

“Okay.”    Yale did as he was told and was rewarded by a buzzing sensation at the base of his neck.    The sensation drifted up his spine to the base of his skull.

“That should do it.”    She said brightly and slapped Yale’s buttocks.   

His head snapped around.    “Pete.”    He protested.

“It’s Rheya now.    I didn’t like anything beginning with P, or Q.    Or Z.    Too cliched.    Sorry Frank, but you do have a really nice ass.”

“What did you just do?”

“You’ve been relying too much on booze.”

“Not for the last six weeks.”    He paused.    “Rheya, okay, I can handle that.    I might call you Pete once in a while.”

“I can live with that.”

“What was the thing with the neck massage?”

“I unlocked two of your limiters.”

“You did what?”

“I wiped the limiter code on two of your implants.    The ones the decommissioning techs modified when you left the army.”

“Jesus Pete!    You know those things can remotely stop my heart.    It’s one of the things they warned us about.”    Yales’s eyes widened in alarm.

“It’s BS Frank.    I was a decommissioning tech, remember?    Besides, after the E-plagues the Aug-E program was shut down permanently.    There’s no-one home to take that call.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“You’re more at risk from the Neverlanders.”

“This is neutral territory.”

“Take a look on the security feed.”

“That’s Ariana with at least a dozen of her top guys heading our way.”

“Stand still Frank.”    Again the buzzing sensation.    This time followed by a bleep and a series of green lines and circles appearing in his vision.

“My targeting system’s rebooting.    They took that out didn’t they?”    The lines converged.

“Shut up and stop fidgeting Frank.    I’ve got to reactivate four more chips.”

“You knew?”

“I just saw the receipts.    Lolly Mac came in for a new leg tat last week.    He’s been a runner for the Neverlanders ever since.”    Pete / Rheya said flatly.    “You think he wouldn’t have gone and squealed.    I’m amazed Ariana and her goons weren’t kicking in my door two days ago.”    She moved the activator down his back.    Yale’s fingers and toes tingled.    “I can’t re-activate all your enhancements, but you’ll be fast enough to dodge pistol rounds.    You remember how to do that?”

“I remember.”

She gave him the traditional techs salute.    “Take care of those meat sacks trooper.    Then come back alive.”   

“On it.”    And Yale blurred out through the open side door.    Stopping on the building’s blind side, he paused to enjoy the familiar rush.    He’d be hungry as hell afterwards, but he could deal with that.

“Hi Frank.”    Ariana’s voice came from the drone that dropped into his field of view.    The element of surprise was gone.

“Hi.”    Frank gave the drones camera a quick grimace.

“You owe me.    We’ve come to collect.”

“I owe you nothing.    Customs took your shipment.”

“Saulie and Kayle though.    I can’t let you get away with that.”

“They started it.”    He heard stealthy footsteps from around the corner.

“It’s not them.    I can’t let you diss us.”    Yale saw the shadow of the gun’s muzzle and tripped into speed mode.

His three metre standing jump and fast backhand smashed the tiny machine and he twisted in mid air, grabbing at the brickwork and bringing the toe of his boot in at the gunman’s head height.    The hooded figure’s head snapped back, breaking the spine, but Yale was already sawing his right hand across the throat of the guy behind him.    Whoever it was dropped to their knees in slo-mo, choking on the sudden gush of blood in their mouth.   

A solid backhand cracked a skull against the wall and he head it pop.    The soft crack-whoosh of a pistol at fifty times slower than normal made Yale pirouette into a splaying jump that sent fingers into eyes, toes into groins and throats in one fast fluid motion.    More bodies dropping, blood spraying like some stunted up snuff-vid action sequence.

Eight down, maybe that many to go.    No, two dropping their weapons and turning to run, another three exchanging expressions of surprise and terror.    Four shambling into a slow run, bladed weapons raised.   

Behind them, Ariana, habitually smug expression morphing into a vengeful snarl as hands drifted to the cut down shotguns she habitually carried.    Frank shadow-danced past his assailants and took her guns before she had time to pluck them out of their holsters. A flick of a thumb to eject the chambers before throwing them, hard.    Wooden grips exploding in splinters against a dilapidated concrete wall.   

She was still turning, leather coat tails splaying as Yale drove her jaw into the back of her neck.    Time elapsed, three seconds.    Nine down, five turning to run for their lives, four missing.    The front door of Pete’s place still swinging closed.

Yale followed.    He found the last four grabbing Pete / Rheya, who was kicking, open mouthed and yelling defiance, toe catching one in the gut as they struggled, overturning equipment, scattering loose items across the floor.    Her robe riding up over her waist, showing her new female nakedness as one of the gang pulled at his own waistband.   

Yale easily punched him flat, ribs splintering, smashing the next assailant across the shop into the wall where he bounced, mouth spattering blood.      Then the blooming expressions of surprised outrage before he put the last two down.    Then it was over and Yale stopped, feeling his aching body slip back into real time.

Pete / Rheya was face down on the floor, a small blossom of blood on her nose and lips, eyes wide, discarded blade sticking in her side.    “Balls!”    Frank swore.    Outside there were distant sirens.

Someone had called the cops, who for a change would arrive on the same day.   He took a breath and slipped out of speed mode.

Footsteps crunched on broken glass when, a few minutes later, Calvin stepped inside the wrecked tattoo parlour to find Yale cradling Pete / Rheya in his arms, silent tears streaking his face.

“Yale.”    Calvin said softly.    “Frank.    Paramedics are on their way.”

Yale looked up.    “Five got away.”

“That many?”    Calvin stepped back as two bag-toting paramedics stepped into the wrecked shop and began checking the inert bodies, shaking their heads in resignation as each life was declared extinct.    He looked at the form in Yale’s arms. “Is this…”

“Yeah.    This is Pete.      Says she wants to be called Rheya now.”

“So it did work.”    Calvin squatted down for a closer look and gave a low whistle.    He waved to the paramedics, who bustled over and found Pete / Rheya still breathing.    They summoned a drone stretcher, stopped her immediate bleeding and snuggled her into a portable body web, leaving the dead for the local coroner.

“I’ll have to put in an official report.    Means legal trouble.”    Calvin said, offering his hand.

Yale swung easily upright.    “For me or the Neverlanders?”

Calvin saw what was in his mind.    “A little of both.    Can you handle that?”

“Guess I’ll have to.    For her.”    Yale said.   

Calvin raised an eyebrow.    Rising to his feet he nodded to himself.    He looked thoughtful for a moment before speaking.    “There’s a way around.    I can use an informant, an occasional quasi legal helper.    Especially one with your talents.”    Calvin said, looking at Yale from under questioning eyebrows.

Ex-Sergeant Francis Yale, Augmented-Enhanced 33rd Regiment Special Forces, looked back up at Calvin and understood.    He was being offered a chance to be wanted, to feel useful again.   

But perhaps that was all that was needed for a little redemption.    A chance for validation.    To once again do what he was really good at.      Maybe even in a good cause.    For a given value of good, maybe.    Taking a deep breath he paused, turning to Calvin before speaking.    “Okay.    I’m with you Calvin.    I’m so bloody right with you.”


The Happiness Engineers

Another short story first draft of about 4,680 words uploaded for criticism / entertainment. A dark little satire on ever more intrusive attempts by governmental agencies to meddle in the lives of their citizens.

No light penetrated this far down.    Down in the gentle darkness of the all encompassing earth.    Behind heavy steel doors set in heavier concrete walls shielded against all harm.   

Here and there shone solitary pools of bright white, spotlit oases in the whispering backroar of many tiny blades pushing tinier air currents.    Banks of steady green lights flickered in identical grey steel skyscraper-like stacks set in row after row.    Each stack three metres tall, half a metre on a side.    Hardly substantial on their own, but all together an intimidating wall of electronic babel.    Countless quadrillions of calculations per second driving the silicon heartbeat of this hidden cavern.   

The heavy doors hissed open and a solitary slightly built figure wearing a second best light blue shirt and dusty black chino’s entered.    This was Neville Malus, senior hardware engineer, whose job was mostly replacing failed modules in this massive data centre.   

As though for effect, the doors hissed closed behind him with a double subsonic thud.   

Ah well, another working day thought Neville.    Blade twenty one, stack 12, row forty two showed a drive with too many bad sectors.    He’d have to manually shut the power down when data processing had mirrored the drives across and shut all the stacks data processes off.    Once that was done he would safely strip out the offending components, and clone the special operating system onto the new module.    Then data processing would remotely spin the server stack up to speed and set it running.

There was the usual on foot visual check, a four kilometre walk all told, just in case the data-shovellers upstairs had managed to shut one or more of the server stacks down by accident.    It happened.    He’d come back from a long weekend last month to find his departmental management replaced and several of the data processor posts filled with unfamiliar faces.    He hadn’t asked questions, just went down to his desk in the server room and fixed the hardware problem like he was told.    That was the nice thing about being this projects sole hardware technician.    He built the stacks from base components as per spec and kept the online documentation up to date.    And he got to work alone.    Which he enjoyed.    None of the office politics of the guys ten basement floors up.    All Neville cared about was doing his job and saving for a house, because the money on this job was good.    Very good indeed.    His girlfriend liked that idea.    A house meant security, and Mel was very keen on security.    She wanted a family and it was only a matter of time before she brought the topic of marriage up, again.    Then there was her grandma’s ring that her mother had given him for when the time came.    All he had to do was not screw this contract up.

The job.    Yes.    Big government contract.    Serious bucks.    Neville wasn’t quite sure what it was about, but it was very secret, which is why as the projects only senior hardware engineer he took home a nice fat paycheck.    Two hours later, with the last hardware upgrade finished, he was at his desk updating the record database when his team lead phoned on the land line.    Cell phones weren’t allowed in this secure area and Neville, for all his other shortcomings, was very conscientious about security.    His personal old fashioned flip phone stayed in his backpack in his locker upstairs.

“Data centre, hardware.”    Neville answered.

“Hi Neville, it’s Claudia, data processing.”    Claudia was one of the new people after the last lot had been fired.    Neville didn’t mind her so much.    She was short, dumpy and plain, but very good at her job.    Which to Neville meant letting him do his and not interfering too much.

“Hi Claudia.    What can I do for you?” He liked Claudia.

“We’re going live at three this afternoon.”    she said without preamble.

“Oh.    I thought project said it wouldn’t be ready at your end until next month.”

“Project deadlines have been moved.”

“Everything’s ready down here.    I’d best stay in the data centre just in case something breaks.”

“You sure?    There’s the Minister of something or other coming.    Senior management is going to be there.    They’ve even brought in caterers.”    She tantalised without success.

“No.    If something breaks I want to be down here to fix it.    It takes at least ten minutes to get into the secure area.    Twenty if the lift breaks down, yet again.”    Neville replied, running his hand through a mop of dark hair.    “I’ll pass.”

On the other end of the line he heard Claudia pause. “Nev.”    That was strange, she didn’t usually shorten people’s names.    “Do you know what this project is for?”

“It’s a big government IT project in one of the biggest data centres in the world.    Muy dinero.    Big money.    Why?”    He asked.    Claudia sounded nervous. 

“Nothing.    Nothing.”    She said hurriedly and hung up.    Neville checked his watch and decided it was time for lunch.

Up in the beigely austere lunch room he found himself a solitary corner to eat a machine vended sandwich, vaguely waving greeting to several of the other groups huddled round their individual tables, most of them plugged into their smartphones like always.    Should he call Mel?    He checked his old fashioned watch.    No, she’d be in a meeting for the next hour, not worth going to his locker for.    He took a bite of his sandwich and munched thoughtfully.    He’d call her later.   

A harassed looking senior manager entered and caught his eye, hurrying over.    Neville took one look at the man’s haunted expression and stopped munching his sandwich.

“Neville.”    Mortimer Moranis, all pinstripe suit and trendy open necked shirt sat down at Neville’s table.    Heads turned briefly then turned back to their own business.    This was unusual.    Neville swallowed.

“Hi Mortimer.    We’re all ready for the big event downstairs.”    He tried to sound cheerful and failed.    Senior management didn’t seek people like him out in person unless serious shit was about to hit a massive fan.    Even then you usually got summoned into a ‘meeting’ so you could be fired in private so as not to make a fuss. Or by text. HR did that far too often.

“Sorry about this, but we’ve had to do a last minute reorganise of your team structure.”    Mortimer sat at the table.

“Okay.”    Neville said doubtfully.    He added to reassure Mortimer that whatever was going on, he was doing his part efficiently. “That’s not mission critical at the moment.    I’ve got everything under control downstairs.    Green board.”

“Erm..”    It wasn’t like Mortimer to be hesitant.    “It’s about Claudia.”

“Yeah, I think she’s got big project launch nerves.”    Neville shrugged, not understanding why Mortimer of all people sounded jittery.    “Is she okay?”

“Yes of course.”    Mortimer sounded relieved. He was also lying.    Even someone of Neville’s limited social skill set could see that.    “Just to let you know she’s been reassigned.”

Ah.    ‘Reassigned’.    Management-speak for ‘fired’.    Neville shrugged again, people came and went all the time.    He relaxed a little, this fell under a ‘Not my problem’ heading.    Then Mortimer leaned toward him and dropped his voice.    “She called you just over half an hour ago.    What did she say?”

“Isn’t our conversation on the internal call log?”    Neville said, successfully faking surprise.    All conversations were logged and monitored in a place this secure.    It went with the territory.

“Well, before she.. left.”    Mortimer left an ominous pause in the phrase.    “She scrambled her call logs.    Can you tell me if she said anything to you?”

“Not much.    Just that the project deadlines had been moved to three this afternoon and did I want to come to the big launch party.”    Neville said.    “I said I was fine but wanted to stay on duty downstairs just in case anything went wrong during the roll-out.”    He added but wondered why Mortimer had sought him out in person instead of via text or email.    “That’s all.”

“Just checking, we were worried in case there was some kind of harassment issue.”

“With Claudia?”    Neville failed to keep his face blank.    “No.”

“Fine.    Excellent.    Glad to have you on the team.”    Mortimer gave Neville a faux-hearty slap on the shoulder as he stood up and hurried out of the lunch room.

“What was all that?”    Bonnie Feynman asked, slinking over from two tables away.    Bonnie was wearing far less makeup than usual for the big day, long black dyed hair tied back in a severe ponytail, Goth tattoos hidden by roll neck sweater and long sleeves.

“Data processing team lead’s quit.”    Neville said simply.   

“Oh.”    Bonnie pouted and took her perfectly upturned nose back to her own peer group.    Nothing for her to get all bent out of shape about.    Maybe even an opportunity.    Neville could hear the whisper rattle round the lunch room, furtive eyes glanced his way.    At least more personnel changes weren’t due, yet.

After finishing his sandwich, Neville headed downstairs into the secure area and took another walk round the kilometres of servers.    Everything was fine.    No active requests on his job queue, so he opened up YouTube and sat down at the hardware bench computer to watch a livestream of the official channel with the sound muted.    A ticker with the dialogue scrolled across the screen.    “Project rapture”, apparently the projects official name featured prominently amongst the subtitles.    A project designed to spread joy around the world.    According to the dialogue ticker the method had been tested and found so successful that the UN itself had funded this massive data centre to push out the technology globally.    Oh, right.    Happy people.    That would make a nice change.

Not giving what he’d seen further thought, Neville turned his attention to more practical matters, picking up a faulty unit and testing it in case the unit could be fixed.    He did this even though there were enough sealed spares in the racks.    At a pinch he could remotely park a memory array and keep things ticking over, so even if the whole data processing team got fired this afternoon he could probably keep things functioning.    At least until Friday lunchtime.

At around four-thirty he glanced up from his work to see the YouTube livestream was over.    He’d identified the problem with the faulty unit and replaced the malfunctioning flash drive.    Now the faulty unit worked perfectly.    Feeling mildly pleased with himself, Neville placed it in an anti-static sleeve and put it in his box of emergency spares.    The land line rang.

“Hi Neville.”    It was Mortimer again.    Only there was something not quite right.    He sounded like he was high or something.

“Hi Mortimer.    We’re all good here.”    Neville said faux-cheerily.    Well, it couldn’t hurt if his ultimate boss was high as a transatlantic flight. It meant Neville wouldn’t get fired. At least today.

“Fabulous job.”    Gushed Mortimer over the phone.

“Thanks.”    Neville was taken aback.    Compliments from management?    That was a first.

“No, I mean it, well done.    Truly excellent.    Smooth with a capital S.”

“Do I get a rise?”    Neville said.    “Five hundred a month?”    He asked, steeling himself for a laughing    “No.”

“Yes of course.    Whatever makes you happy.”    The line went dead.

“That was weird.”    Neville spoke aloud, his voice sounding alien among the whispering roar of the server fans.    On a whim he took another walk around the massive banks of servers.    All green.    Not an amber or red in sight.    Oh well.    He checked his watch.    Five?    Almost time for home.    Did he want to chance rush hour?    No, he’d wait an hour or so while the all the usual commuter lemmings got out of the way.

Later, out on the freeway he found everything strangely orderly.    None of the usual road rage, lane hogging and cutting by other drivers.    Which didn’t strike him as odd at the time.    Reaching home he slowly became aware that everyone he passed was smiling.    What had happened?    Had someone put something in the water?    As he turned into the car park behind the flat he shared with Mel he noticed a woman, dreamily intent on her phone, walking straight across four lanes of traffic without looking.    Instead of the usual cacophony of horns, cars pulled to gentle halts and the drivers, instead of raising their middle fingers and fists, waved her across.    Neville was so surprised he almost rear-ended the car in front.

On the way in to the apartment building, he passed the janitor, a man reputedly never to have smiled in his life.    “Good evening!”    The shaven headed Janitor beamed with snaggled teeth before resuming his mopping.    Neville almost fell over.    He hurried past beatifically mugging people who all greeted him like a long lost friend.    This was spooky.      What the hell was going on?    He made it indoors pursued by delighted cries of    “Beautiful evening!”

Mel said nothing but threw herself at him, smothering him with passionate kisses.    “Er, hon?”    He said as she hugged him tightly, humming a happy little tune.


“What’s going on?”

“I’m just so happy that you’re back.”    Mel burrowed her tawny crowned head ecstatically into his chest.

“I’m happy to be home.    It’s crazy out there.    Everyone is, is…”    The sentence petered out.

Around midnight he crawled out of bed and staggered into the bathroom.    He stared woozily at his reflection.    What in the name of Satan’s left buttock was going on?    Everyone was acting so full of joy.    This felt incredibly weird.    As for Mel, he hadn’t found her this enthusiastic since their first few nights together.    Possibly not even then.    “I need something to eat.”    He muttered to himself and stumbled off to raid the fridge.    As always there was very little, just a half litre pack of skimmed milk and a carefully wrapped piece of slightly suspect cheese.    No bread or margarine.    Typical.

Mel was fast asleep, so he dressed as quietly as he could and snuck out of their flat and into the car park.    The midnight 7-11 clerks happily served him a hot dog and chattered away like they were his oldest best friends while he waited.    On the street outside, two Policemen in high viz yellow passed by, quietly smiling as several girls danced and gyrated ecstatically in the middle of a flower decked divider to a beat only they could hear.    A trans man was having his / its / whatever private dance party on Main street.    No one seem to care that it was raining.    Another figure was standing right on top of the building across the street, arms outstretched, palms upwards, in a gesture of rapturous rain worship.

Neville finished his hot dog and decided to take a walk in the sodium lit drizzle.    Carefully avoiding the hyperactive revellers he finally slid back between the sheets at around two.    Mel turned over in her sleep and cuddled up.    Then it was six in the morning.   

Instinctively he swung his legs out of bed and killed the alarm before it could wake her up.    A quick tepid shower and breakfast on the run saw him on site for seven forty five.    Security was briefer and much friendlier than usual.    What was it with everyone smiling?    Had he slipped into an episode of the Twilight Zone or something?    He checked his diary before switching off his phone and stowing it in his locker.

Down in the relative sanity of the server stacks, he did his usual patrol, noting that everything was working properly.    No calls flagged up on the server support job queue, which was strange.    Data processing always wanted some new stack brought online or someone on the admin team had a hangover and forgotten their password.    At lunchtime the lunch room was empty, even the offices were only sparsely populated by a few blissed out individuals.    Wasn’t this Thursday?    He’d never liked Thursdays.    Too early for Friday, too late for the midweek hump of Wednesday.

That afternoon, Neville stared at his monitors, desperately trying to remember his orientation lecture, most of which he’d simply zoned out of.    Something about using social media to transmit a signal which generated a sense of low level euphoria.    Something like that.    Words like dopamine and serotonin floated in and out of his mind.

On the way home, the opposite lane of the highway was barricaded by smiling police officers,    which was creepy in itself.    Neville slowed down and rubbernecked over the crash barrier just past a bridge.    He caught a glimpse of three mounds of plastic covered bodies in the middle of the carriageway.    Dark fluid seemed to be leaking from under them, then he was past and accelerating away.

Pulling into his street he stared upwards in horror as a grinning man swan-dived showily off a four storey building to an ecstatic crowd.    To rapturous applause the falling man pulled a full mid air somersault before hitting the pavement head first.    Neville pulled over onto the side of the road, hand to his mouth, trying not to vomit.    Oh God!  What was going on? This was terrible!

Wrung between the twin rollers of guilt and cowardice, he pulled away from the kerb and drove back to his flat.    The door was open, with enthusiastic moaning coming from the kitchen.    He looked cautiously through the gap between door and jamb.    Mel and two of her girlfriends were happily doing something unspeakable with courgettes.    Neville’s embarrassment meter flashed over into shock, making him back away, carefully closing and locking the apartments front door as he left, disgusted and red faced.    Courgettes were normally his favourite vegetable, but no longer.

Getting a tank full of petrol for free at a service station whose attendant was so euphoric he no longer cared about taking money, Neville drove as far from towns and civilisation as he could, looking for sanity, somewhere, anywhere, finally stopping at a scenic viewpoint.    In the distance, something was burning, a bright red glow at the base of a tall oily smoke column.    “No, no, no!”    Neville pounded the steering wheel and began to cry.   

Whilst he was beset by the agonies of guilt, a battered old Dodge pickup pulled over in front of his car and a heavy set baseball capped yokel got out.    “Oh God!”    Neville stared in terror as the figure shambled over to his drivers side window and tapped on it.    Shaking inside, Neville wound the window down a careful inch.

“Say friend.”    Said a gruff, friendly rural voice.    “You know what’s going on?”

“No.”    Neville said, using a soiled tissue to blow his nose.

“People acting crazy, like they’re high on drugs or sumpin?”

“Er, no.”    Neville replied.    Was this some kind of alt-right survivalist weirdo come to kill him?

“You blind?”    The voice enquired sceptically.    “Folks smiling all the time and doin’ stupid stuff.    You not noticed?”

“Well..”    Neville frantically searched for an excuse.

“My wife went a little strange yesterday, just sittin’ in her chair, smiling like she’s touched in the head.    Won’t let go of her smartphone.”    The stranger continued amiably.    “You know anything ‘bout that?”

“No.”    Neville said unconvincingly.

“I reckon someone’s been messing with the phone network.    Makin’ people go strange.”    He produced a smartphone with a heavily cracked screen.    “Mine’s only good for talking.”    The man explained.    “Not that I use it much.”

“I-I wouldn’t know.”    Neville stammered. Realisation began to creep across his mind.

“See that smoke?”    The man pointed.    “Looks like somethin’s burnin.”

“Oh, right.”

“You sure you don’t know what’s going on?    You look like you might.”

“W-Why do you think that?”

“Cause you got a Federal parking pass hanging off your mirror.    ‘Cause you’re acting real scared.”    The man scratched his stubbled chin.    “I figure you’re in denial.”

“Oh really.”    Neville fell back on unconvinced sarcasm.

“Yep.    I figure from the way you look, you might have an answer.”

“It’s not my fault! I’m just a hardware tech!”    Neville broke and began to cry again.

“Hey, hey now.”    Said the man gently.    “There’s a time for tears and it ain’t right now.    If you’re one of those people that made this craziness happen, you got a duty to set things right.”

“Why don’t you?”    Neville said, sniffing.

“I ain’t a technical type.    Wouldn’t know what buttons to press.    I don’t have no Federal access pass on my dashboard, neither.”    The man pointed out, a little too observantly for Neville’s liking.

“So what do I do?”    Wailed Neville.

“What you have to.”    Said the man.    “That’s just my opinion ‘o course.”    He turned away and went to watch the smoke rising, clambering up to stand on the rear bed of his pickup truck for a better view.    A battered sedan swerved along the road, narrowly missing the man’s pickup, spitting gravel as it clipped the roadside before disappearing off the road into some bushes.    The man on the back of the pickup truck gave Neville a pointed look.    Neville decided it was time to go home.

All the way back to his apartment, Neville felt that stern expression haunting him.    The man had seen right through him at a glance.    How could that be?    Was this some kind of Karmic justice?    A supernatural judgment for caring nothing but for his paycheck?    Thankfully Mel was asleep in bed, her friends occupying the floor wrapped up in duvets.    He tiptoed in and slunk guiltily between the sheets.    Mel opened her eyes.    “Oh hi.”    She smiled.    “You’re late.    You missed a lovely time.”    She closed her eyes and wrapped herself around him before Neville drifted off into a guilt-ridden sleep.

In the morning he slipped out of bed and left Mel sleeping before six, not bothering with breakfast.    He stopped at the lunch room vending machine for a half stale donut and coffee, noting that no-one else was around.    Two or three of the night crew were half dozing in the main office, but a short walk around showed that the remaining personnel were still in total bliss mode.    He had no idea what had happened to security.    A screen showing the ubiquitous news feed showed a happy looking female presenter laughing at plane crashes and sundry other disasters around the globe.   

Neville watched in horror as ordinarily sane individuals took crazy risks on camera and paid the ultimate price of failure.    The worst thing about it, he thought, was how happy everyone else seemed about the mayhem unfolding before their eyes.    Like everyone was competing for a Darwin Award.

Okay, he was going to have to stop the machine, but how?    If he simply cut the power to the data centre, wouldn’t someone just reboot the stacks once the power was back on?    How long would he have to get away before people began to wake up?    Would they stay happy?    Would they go crazy?    Would they find out he wrecked everything and do something horrible to him or throw him in jail with murderers and rapists?    A brief nightmare vision of being strapped into the electric chair by laughing guards passed through his mind.    He began to sweat.

Down in the familiar air-conditioned cool of the data centre he began to calm down a little.    Outside were millions, maybe billions of happy zombies out there setting the world ablaze.    Mel was one.    He was sure it was only a matter of time before she and her girlfriends…    No, that didn’t bear thinking about.    He had to bring the world to its senses, but how?    Neville didn’t have the admin codes or passwords and there was no single cable to be cut.    He could try disconnecting all the main patch cables but that would only leave the monster ready for resurrection.    The drives had to be wiped, irrevocably, the whole place wrecked, but where to begin?    If he tried deliberately setting something on fire, there would simply be a massive halon dump from the fire suppression system and he’d suffocate.

All that day he pored over the online project specifications, looking for some way to patch a cable so that the system would purge itself.    Nothing.    The off-site backups would have to go too, or someone would just reboot the insanity he’d seen outside.   

After seven solid hours he could not think of a single way to make it happen.    Then his phone rang. “Hey, how’s everybody’s favourite hardware engineer?”    It was Bonnie, newly promoted to data processing team lead.

“Busy.”    Neville lied.

“Look, everyone is so super pleased, we’re going out for a beer or three.”    Bonnie said happily.    “You wanna come?”

“I can’t.    Too much to do.”    Well, it was kind of true.

“Hey, hey.    If you can’t make it, can you hold the fort?”

“Is that okay?    What if something goes wrong?”    Neville said.    “I’m just hardware.    I don’t know about the data processing side.”

“It’s easy.    All you have to do is make sure data volumes don’t go over limit.”

“How do I do that?”

“Just open up new channels as data volumes increase.    Very intuitive.    Easy peasy.”

“What will happen if I get it wrong?”

“Not much, but it might cook the processors.    We’ve got them overclocked as it is.    Just don’t untick the auto load balancing feature.”    Bonnie didn’t seem concerned at all. 

Neville’s mind raced as he began to see the answer to his dilemma.    Overclocked processors tended to run hot.    Sometimes very hot indeed.    Maybe if he turned the data centres air conditioning up high and cascaded the data flows from server to server in sequence the processors would burn out and corrupt the whole system.    “Oh yeah.    You’ll need the admin codes and passwords.    I’ll send them direct to your terminal.    Hold on.”    Bonnie giggled.    Then his screen bleeped and there they were.    Oh.    My. God.    Neville’s jaw dropped.    Full admin access.    The keys to the castle.    “Play nice now.”    Bonnie rang off.

Neville logged on with shaky hands.    Once in he could see the whole network, all the data flows.    It was incredibly big, using massive fibre links and satellites to connect the entire world almost instantaneously.    All the special signals coded to trigger euphoria in anyone with a smartphone.   

Setting the network load balancing to manual, he waited an hour before turning the air conditioning to full and shifting data flows through two of the server stacks.    Ten seconds later the sound of multiple ‘pfft’ noises and a whiff of burning plastic announced the demise of two server units.    Two stacks, a hundred processors in each, the fans driving weak smoke trails away from fire detectors.

Carefully opening one of the rapidly cooling cabinets he saw the heat discolouration on circuit boards and flash memory units.    He pulled a circuit board.    All of the chipsets were damaged and two had literally exploded but the automatic fire alarms hadn’t gone off.    Neville gave a little shudder and looked around guiltily.

After a few minutes waiting for alarms that didn’t go off, he carefully began scheduling data flows, experimenting by shunting them across the network, setting up multiple cascades in the backup and emergency backup sites, watching displays disappear as servers went offline.    Then he repeated the process with the data sub centres placed all over the world.    He estimated three hours before the main server stacks began to run ever hotter until their processors failed.    Then the beast would die and hopefully everyone would return to normal.    He hoped.    Logging off, Neville wrote a careful resignation email and left at exactly six forty five, leaving his pass at the deserted security post.

By the time the first main stacks overloaded he was three hours drive away, ten miles north of the Canadian border.    By the time the last one went an hour later, he was heading west along a long straight gravel road north across flat Manitoban croplands.    By the time the sun went down, he was heading toward Alberta and the Rocky mountains.    Whatever happened, he was going to find somewhere very remote to hide until everyone had calmed down.

Los Endos

Swallows on the drainpipe

Inspired by recent events and the near-constant media drumbeat of fear, I would like to offer up the rough draft of this 7,500 word apocalyptic parable for reading / criticism.

“Hah!”    Liam turned the corner and looked up at the stippled brown mass, half as big as a man’s head, jammed between the gutter downpipe and eaves of his cottage.    A little black capped head poked out of a hole offset to one side at the top.    “Well I’ll be.”    Ageing blue eyes crinkled at tanned corners.    “Swallows eh?”    The little orange throated head ducked back into the nest and there was a riffling series of chirrups, tailing off into a buzz.    Liam ducked his buzz cut grey head as a streamlined form swooped past, out of the mud nest it had built.

“Maeve’ll have me hose you down.”    He said aloud to the nest, then paused.    “But then mebbe I won’t tell her.”    He added with a mischievous grin.    The smile disappeared as his cell phone rang.    He patted at various coat pockets and brought out the annoying oblong.    Another three rings, he flipped the phone open and fumble-answered the call. “Hello?    Oh hello lass.    How are the kids?    Are you coming over?”    Katherine, his eldest daughter, was checking up on him as she did every day.    “Oh shame.”    He tried to keep the insincerity out of his voice.    His suburban grandchildren were far too grown up for grandparents, so neither enjoyed each others company much.    Too many toys to get in the way.    “No, I’m outside, catching a little sun and doing a bit of gardening.”    He tried not to sigh.    “No, I’ve had my pills.    Yes, I’m feeling fine.”    He lied.    “Yes, I read that care home brochure.    I’m still thinking about it.”    Oh I’ll go to hell for lying like this, he thought as he ran through his usual lexicon of denials.    Why did the kids have to make such a drama out of everything?    Why did they fret so much?    He never recalled fussing his own parents like this.

The truth was different.    No, he wasn’t feeling fine.    Apart from all his normal aches and pains, the legacy of a robust youth, he hadn’t felt fine since last year when cancer had claimed Maeve.   

Secretly he hated these calls because they kept on reminding him that she was no longer in his life to share it.   

Of course Katherine meant well, but if only he could find a tactful way of telling her how much her persistent little reminders hurt, chipping away at his mental armour, draining his resolve to keep on going.   

The truth was that this little cottage in the sticks was a temple of sorts, a sanctuary he’d put his own breath and blood into building, an altar to the only goddess he would ever acknowledge, his Maeve, mother of three grown up daughters, all now bringing up families of their own.    Maeve, giver of their immortality, passer of the family flame.    Now just dust.    Liam clamped down on the thought just in case it made him cry.    Again.    He’d been doing too much of that lately.

They’d sweated and schemed to build this three bedroomed bungalow as their family home.    This isolated cottage had been a tumbledown wreck when they’d first bought it, before the girls were born, but the shell had been good and the roof timbers sound, so they had taken all their savings, mortgaged themselves to the hilt, and poured skill into the rest.

Once the girls had grown up and the mortgage was paid they hadn’t downsized so they could have time together, have the grandkids over at weekends, maybe spend some of the money they’d spent their working lives accumulating.    For an active retirement spent travelling the world, having a life while they still could.

As an additional luxury he’d even built a mini spa in the back outhouse, with a hot tub and sunken cold plunge for the grown ups.    Water for everyone to enjoy, with a nice big picture window for the bathers to sip wine and look out over wide green fields down to the trees beyond.

He’d just started digging out the outhouse floor when Maeve had first been diagnosed and finished the tiling and decoration the month after she passed.   

No, not ‘passed’, died.    Was no more.    Forever.    The bath house had never been used.    Without Maeve, his urge to travel faded.    Without her to share the adventure it just didn’t seem worth it.

Of course he secretly hoped there was a life after this one where they could be together again, but as the bird swooped back into the nest, he reflected on how brief the Swallows stay under his eaves would be.    One Summer, no more.    But that was all anyone had.    One life, one Summer, that was all.

Wincing, he recalled the often mischievous glint in Maeve’s yellow flecked opal eyes.    How they could lift him whenever his personal darkness came to call.    Without her, he found himself avoiding his own eyes in a mirror, just in case he saw her reflection because sometimes, no not sometimes, mostly, the loss was more than he could bear.

“Sorry Kath, missed that.    I was looking at the Swallows.”    He apologised to an urgent entreaty to think about selling up and spending the money on a care home where he could be looked after, properly.    Looked after my arse!    He could no more sell this place than flap his arms and fly like one of the nesting Swallows.    This was his waiting room for God, not some awful place being patronised by disinterested staff with only fading strangers to talk to.    But instead of saying what he really felt, he told her brightly,    “They’ve nested between the eaves and the downspout.”   

His face creased in annoyance at what Kath said next.    Hose down the nest?    Because they might take a couple of thousand off the sale price?    What kind of man did she take her old Dad for?    He’d never consciously harmed another living thing in his life and wasn’t going to start now. “I’ll think about that.”    He said carefully, his feelings about selling up ossifying into boneheaded resistance.    Kath could nag all she wanted.    Here he stood, and this was where he would fall.

Of course he’d tried not answering her calls last month, but after the Police had turned up on his doorstep after two refused visits by ‘Elder care’ workers, he knew that strategy wasn’t going to play.    She didn’t get that from her Mum, he grinned.      I’m the stubborn bugger in this family.   

“Kath, if you’re going to be like that, no.”    he finally dug his heels in, two could play the stubborn card.    “No I won’t hurt the Swallows.    They’ve done me no wrong.”    on the other end of the call, Kath’s cajoling voice took on an unpleasant edge.

“Look love, I’m fine.    I miss your Mum, we all do, but if I sold, I’d be betraying everything we built our lives around.    So long as I’m here I’m keeping her memory alive, that keeps me alive too.    And the Swallows help.”    he hadn’t planned to be short with her, but his thoughts had flowed straight off his tongue.    The other end of the line fell silent and bleeped to tell him she’d rung off.

Well that was a turn up.    A burring of wings and chittering chirrups past his ears announced the exit of one of the parent birds.    “All right, all right.”    Liam backed away from the nest and turned to look at the front lawn.      Did it need a cut today?    He stuffed the now-silent phone in the left hand pocket of his gardening coat and made his way to his storage shed were all he kept all the garden tools.

Sniffing at the light breeze he glanced up at the cumulus punctuated sky and smiled a little.    It didn’t feel like rain and the forecast hadn’t mentioned any for the next week, so maybe a quick run over his billiard table sward as a tidy up, and the Berberis hedge might benefit from a once over this weekend.

Checking the electric mower charge, he made sure the grass collector bag was empty.    Sandra, his youngest daughter and her husband, Spencer, had bought it for him when his old petrol mower had given up the ghost.    Something about a carbon footprint they’d said.    Whatever one of those was.    Probably something they’d seen on the telly or internet, two things he’d never really been interested in.    You got enough bad news without exposing yourself to more.

Nice lad Spencer, a bit other worldly, but he meant well. Still, the mower worked well enough on light cuts, but it didn’t cope well with long grass, nor could the battery powered strimmer that had come with it.    Still, it gave Liam an excuse to get out into the garden regularly, which had always been his exclusive domain.    Subject to pronouncements from Maeve on what bush would go where or what rose needed trimming.    But there would be no more of those, would there?    He felt a tightness clutch briefly at his chest.    Closing his eyes, Liam breathed deeply until the feeling passed.

For two hours afterwards he walked the little mower up and down, buzz cutting a neat geometric pattern in the well tended grass.    Nodding with satisfaction at the result, he emptied the grass box and added the last cuttings to the compost heap behind the shed.    Then walked out to the front to retrieve the mower.    Then he paused and partly closed his eyes, letting the world rotate around him.    Something primeval stirred in his hindbrain, telling him all was not well.    Very wrong.    What was it?

On impulse, he walked down his ten metre long drive to the road and stood between the gateposts, a scruffy sweat-shirted statue, grass stained and grubby, listening intently.    The road in front of his house was empty.    Well no surprise about that.    It was a Summer Tuesday, and the school run Mums and Dads that used this little lane as a rat run would be elsewhere.    Summer holidays, running around in town, shepherding their precious cargoes between shopping centres and various amusements.

Liam recalled his own childhood summers.    Shorts, Wellington boots and hand sized fishing nets on bamboo canes.    A bicycle if you were lucky.    Games made up on the spur of the moment with rules that changed every ten minutes.    Eating unripe apples fresh off a tree and spitting out the sour sharp flesh.      Unsupervised long walks between friends houses without a grown up in sight.    His thin lips creased lean features into a quiet nostalgic smile.

Liam sighed and waited a little longer.    A solitary half an hour later, he turned around, shaking his head.    Must be a problem up the road.    He returned to the house to make himself a solitary cup of tea and sit out in the back garden to watch the Swallows.    Off in the distance he could hear a dog kicking up a fuss, but it wasn’t so much a bark, more of a moan, a grieving sound.    Half howl, like a heart was being broken.    On and on, polluting the Summer breezes with it’s sad refrain.

Around five he went indoors to make himself a sandwich for tea.    Liam never cooked much nowadays, which kept the kitchen clean and tidy, but he was lucky that his small vegetable patch was fertile enough to produce fresh vegetables and salads from Spring through to much of Autumn, so that kept the shopping bills down.    Today’s treat was canned Salmon dressed in malt vinegar on home baked bread with thinly sliced home grown cucumber.   

Not that he’d ever been a great cook, but a trained Engineer could put his hand to most things, and baking was fun in it’s own small way.    Since Maeve had gone he’d simplified his life and kept the grief at bay by taking each task and small pleasure one thing at a time.    He’d made a form of studied elegance from his life, and never thought much about his neighbours.    Nice enough people so it seemed, but he was never much of a conversationalist, so they had lost interest after a couple of encounters and let him be.

“Book, book, book.”    He muttered softly to himself, carrying the small sandwich bearing plate into the dining room.    Liam liked reading.    So much so that the blankly looming fifty plus inch television Maeve had pestered him into buying was never switched on.    Never anything on that he cared to watch anyhow.    Placing his plate on the coffee table, he went to the bookshelves that dominated one wall and glanced along the titles.    Ah yes.    He selected a hardback and returned to his chair in the corner to indulge in his favourite sin, reading whilst eating.

As evening fell, he closed the curtains and carried on reading by lamplight until just before midnight.    Another little ritual.    Go outside, close the gate, lock the doors and set the alarm before going to bed.    All these he did, all the time looking around for what his instincts told him was missing.    The lights were off next door and the road remained silent.    Oh well, time for another few pages to see him off to sleep.

For a change, Liam slept through until seven, a rare event in itself at sixty eight years of age.    He swung sleep stiffened legs out of bed, deliberately not looking at the empty side before getting dressed in gardening clothes and going down for his ritual cup of tea.    De-activate alarm, note the morning dampness already drying on the small patio where he generally broke his fast in the warmer months.    Sniffing at the freshness of the morning air, he sat down and watched the Swallows swooping in and out of their mud nest.    Weathered features creased at the far off dog still barking.    Didn’t those people care about their animals?    Poor thing.

Closing his thoughts to the plaintive baying, Liam busied himself with the dozens of little jobs needed to keep his garden in tip-top condition.    Pruning, watering, tidying and sweeping kept him busy until lunchtime when he realised he’d heard no traffic at all this Wednesday morning.    Walking to his front gate, he opened it and walked the few steps to where he could see next doors imperfectly cut front lawn.    Should have got a cylinder mower, not that silly plastic thing they had, no wonder their grass was a mess of plantains, clover and weeds.    A few paces more past the end of the hedge and he could see something lying outside their front door.    Overhead there were a few big black birds circling, and as he watched, the black and white motley of a magpie landed on the object, digging its beak down greedily until it came up stained red and flapped away carrying something golf ball sized.

Putting his natural reticence aside he cautiously walked through their front gate to the sacklike object.    Breath froze in his throat.    It was the father, remaining eye staring up at the sky with an expression of horror, lifeless hand clutched at his throat, a thin line of dried foam around his mouth.    “Christ!”    Liam swore and tried not to be sick.    With what remained of his wits, he noticed the front door of the house was partly open.    Inside was the unmistakeable shape of a woman lying on the floor, mercifully face down, grey silky dressing gown splayed around her.   

Their three normally boisterous children were nowhere to be seen or heard, which was worrying.    Throwing his jacket over the poor man’s face, Liam hurried back home to get his phone, heart pounding, throat tight.    As he picked up the phone, he forced himself to calm down.    “You’re no good to them if you frighten yourself to death.”    he chided himself, mind silently shouting his panic into some sort of order.    Dialling the emergency number he took a deep breath.    “Hello?”

“You have reached the Emergency number.    Press one for Police, two for Ambulance and three for Fire,”    He carefully keyed the one.    “Thank you for calling the Police service emergency number.    We are experiencing a high volume of calls at this time.    Please leave a message and a number you can be contacted at after the bleep.”    The line bleeped.

“Hello.    This is Liam Collins.”    Liam reeled off his cell phone number.    “There are two dead people next door.    They have three children who don’t seem to be around.”    He carefully gave their address and conscientiously logged off.

Returning next door, Liam found a bigger tarpaulin in their garage, covered the man’s whole body against the predations of crows and magpies, then went to the front gate to await the arrival of official help.    After half an hours fruitless standing around, uncomfortable in the company of corpses, he dialled the emergency number again.    This time he requested the Ambulance service from the automated call handling system.    After that the fire brigade.    Off in the distance he could see two columns of thick smoke rising into the still afternoon warmth.    The emergency services must have their hands full to be this late.

Liam walked to and fro to the deserted road, growing increasingly frustrated with the wait.    Was the system down?    What was going on?    He got his first inkling when he walked around the house into his neighbours back garden.    The ugly sight of three children, hanging from a garden swing, ankles turning slowly, driven by the twist in the washing line around their necks.    He turned away, horrified at the sight of faces darkened with blood, eyes bulging, dark tongues sticking out.

“Oh dear God.”    Liam said, fell to his knees and vomited onto the grass.    Staggering to unwilling feet he stared with horrified eyes at the dangling corpses, uncertain as to whether he should cut them down or leave that grisly task for the Police.    There was certainly nothing he could do with no medical training.    He tried the emergency services number again, and found himself screaming “Answer me!    I’ve got three dead children hanging in the back garden of…”    His voice trailed off into sobs and the call bleeped    “This mailbox is full, please try again later.”

Infuriated, Liam stumbled into his own garage, car keys in hand.    If the emergency services weren’t answering the phone he’d go and bloody well find someone who could help.    How he would do this he had no idea, but he was going to damn well try.

Down in the town three miles down the road all the streets were empty of people.    A cat lay curled up in the middle of the road, enjoying the sun warmed tarmac, moving only reluctantly as his little grey SUV nosed toward it.    A Jack Russell terrier standing in a roadside window stared at his car, yapping soundlessly as Liam drove slowly on.    “What the hell?”    Liam found himself repeating as his neck twitched this way and that, seeking out some form of human life.

A cloud of big carrion birds circled in a the sky to his right and a whiff of hot metal and burning rubber flicked across his nostrils.    Pulling to a halt at a crossroads, he wound down the window and stared.    Down a side street, an Ambulance was burning.    He only recognised it because the word ‘Ambu’ remained on a yet-unburned section of electric yellow and blue bodywork.    No sign of the Police or Fire services.    No wonder they weren’t answering.

Reluctant to get out of his car, he slipped into gear and moved on.    There was nothing he could do here.    No-one to help.    What had happened?    Rather that explore further he went home and closed his gate behind him.

Trembling and ashen he collapsed into a garden chair he had set up so he could watch the Swallows comings and goings.    He rubbed his jaw fretfully and glanced at the little mud nest jammed between downpipe and eaves.   

The Swallows seemed to be managing all right.    There were bees in the Lavender bushes and Fuchsias.    The natural world was carrying on without a seeming care, so what had happened to the people?

Liam abruptly stood up.    Help wasn’t coming, the burning Ambulance told him that much.    There was nothing left to be done but what he thought was the decent thing.    Retrieving a spade and heavy gloves from his garden shed, he went next door and began to dig.

By late afternoon, he was tired to his bones but dragged the husbands body on the tarpaulin into the shallow pit he’d been able to dig.    Swatting intrusive crows away with the flat of his shovel, he cut the washing line to let the three little corpses thump to the ground.    Then he went back for the wife, reflecting how awful she looked, eyes wide and staring, a rictus of horror frozen on immobile features.   

Covering the pit with the tarp, he did something he hadn’t down for over a year, he prayed.    Please God, stop whatever is happening.    People are dying.    Please let it stop.    They didn’t deserve this.    And when he was finished sheltering the bodies under the earth, like all strong men do, he let unfettered tears run down his cheeks.

Leaving his shovel as an upright grave marker, Liam returned home.    He was still somewhat surprised that the power was still on and that the phone had a dial tone.    “Oh god.”    the girls.    He dialled Katherine’s cell number only to get a busy tone.    Same with Mary.    After a heart stopping few minutes, he nerved himself to contact Sandra.    Someone on the other end picked up, but all he could hear was frightened breathing.    “Sandra? It’s Dad.    Sandra?    Answer me love.”

“H-hello, Dad?”    it was Spencer.    Liam had never been more relieved.

“Spencer lad.    Get Sandra and your baby to my place.    Can you do that?”

Spencer sounded terrified.    “I-I don’t know.”

“Right.”    Liam found some more steel in his soul.    “Then I’ll come and get you.    Pack a bag lad.    Is Sandra there?”

“Yes, but she’s not well.    Neither of us are feeling very well…”    Spencer’s voice tailed off.

“Stay there, I’m coming.    Have you heard from Kathy or Mary?”

“I-I think Sandra’s talked to them.”

“In the last hour?”

“Um… I don’t know..”    Another voice, more of a snivel, made it’s presence known.   

“Put her on Spencer.”    he heard a muted sound of agreement.    “Sandra my darling, can you talk?”    he was answered by a sniffle.    “Get a bag packed, I’m going to take you somewhere safe.”

“Thanks Dad.    Oh Dad, it’s awful.”

“I know, I’ve been out.”    he spoke to her softly.    “Now do what your old Dad tells you and we’ll all be golden.    Can you do that?”

“S”    she snivelled.

“Okay.    Have you heard from Kathy and Mary?”

“Yes.”    this time Sandra’s response was stronger.

“I’ll get you and Spencer first.    While I’m on my way over, you tell them to pack a bag and hunker down, got that?    Just say Dad’s coming to get them.    Might be a bit of a squash in my little car, but if we’re sensible we’ll manage.    Have you got power and water?”

“Yes Dad, the lights flicker a bit, but the taps are still running and our toilets flush.”

“Stay where you are and keep a lookout of the window.”    he advised.    “I’m on my way.    See you in about half an hour.”

“Thanks Dad.”    Sandra sniffed.

“Right.    See you shortly love.”    Liam said and rang off.

Alone on the road, he elected to drive the back roads to the modern starter housing development where Sandra and Spencer had set up home.    Over on the towns bypass there were clouds of smoke and a tang of burning rubber and something else on the wind.    Off in the distance he thought he saw flashing blue and red lights, yet otherwise the normal noise of humanity was muted.    Still, it paid to be safe.

As he passed down the street of the cul-de-sac where his youngest daughter lived, he could see the multicoloured flickering of television screens, but still no people.    Cars parked in drives, even something that looked like a…    Liam drove a little faster until he arrived at his destination.   

Spencer came out first, hair and eyes wild, wearing stained t-shirt and shorts, face white with fear, head twitching this way and that as though looking for an invisible enemy.    He was followed by Sandra carrying their baby in it’s little carry cot, in another hand she carried a bulging black rubbish bag bouncing off her leggings, presumably full of baby care stuff.

“Come on, throw that in the back.    Sandra, you go on the back seat with the baby.    Spencer, I need you up front.”    Liam ordered.    Unlike their usual complaints and bickering, everyone did exactly as they were told.    Which was, Liam thought, surprising.    Swinging himself back into the drivers seat, He keyed the central locking and set off back the way he had come.    Spencer and Sandra stayed mute, eyes full of fright, fussing over their little boy, who seemed totally unaffected by his parents terror, gurgling and chuckling as if nothing was amiss.

Once through his own front gate and pulled to a halt, Liam finally broke silence.    “Can either of you tell me what’s been going on?”

They stared at him in disbelief.    “You don’t know?”    Sandra said.

“No.    All I know is that my neighbours and their children are dead.    I had to bury them in their back yard to keep the crows off.”

“Oh my God…”    Sandra put her hand to her mouth, red-rimmed eyes staring at him.

“Spencer?”    Liam asked.

“Haven’t you been watching the news?”    Spencer said.

“You know I think it’s a waste of time.    People gassing off about things they don’t understand.    I don’t watch it unless the sports are on, and not even then.”

“But, but…”    Spencer gasped in disbelief.    Sandra looked at her father pityingly.

“I’ve been too busy in the garden.    Or reading a book.”    He unlocked the car doors.    “Okay.    Everybody out.    I’ll get the kettle on.”

“We can’t stay here.”    Spencer declared.    “I won’t live with a denier.”

“Denier?”    Liam said.    “Well Spencer me lad.    If that’s the way you feel, you can bugger off, but Sandra and the baby stay.    They’ll be safe here.”

“Safe?”    Spencer scoffed.    “With a man who just buried his neighbours?”

“Spencer, sometimes I wonder about you.    I don’t know what killed that sweet young couple, but I don’t want to have to do the same for you.”

“Don’t you threaten me!”    Spencer’s voice went up an octave.


“You brought us here to kill us!”    Spencer’s eyes were wide and vacant, he seemed to sway on his feet like a drunk.

“Sandra.    Get the baby inside, use our spare bedroom.    Me and your husband need a little chat.”    Liam said, fighting down his own rising panic.    “No-one’s killing anyone.    And I’ve seen enough death for one day.    Come on.”    Liam opened the front door and shooed a fretful Sandra indoors.    “Not you.”    he put his hand up to Spencer.    “Follow me.”    he shut the front door and locked it.    Spencer wavered.    “Come on lad, I need you to see something.    We can have a cup of tea in a bit.”    Liam led the way to the back garden.    “Sit down and watch the Swallows.”    Spencer, stained tee-shirt flapping in the breeze, obediently sat down on one of the garden chairs to face the side of the house, staring at the wall.    Keeping a careful distance, Liam sat on the patio wall opposite.

“They’ll be ready to migrate again in another six weeks”    He said in conversational tones.    “All the way to Africa.    Thousands of miles across land and sea.    When the babies are all fat and ready.    I think there’s three in the nest.”

“Spencer.    I can see you’re frightened.”    he continued.    “But you and Sandra are safe here.    Take a breath.”    he added, trying to look as unthreatening as he could.    “Tell me all about it.”    he added gently.    “We’ve all had a bad day and I don’t want to make it any worse.    Please?”

Spencer sat in the shadow of the house, face closed in as though struggling to get his words out.    “We have to watch the news.”    he blurted, grabbing for his cell phone.

“Why?”    Liam said gently.    “Who says?”    He tried to look Spencer in the eye, but his son in laws gaze kept twitching every which way.

“We have to.”

“What’s it about?    You can tell me.”    Liam glanced up as the door to the kitchen opened, Sandra stood in the doorway, big eyed and right hand to her mouth.    “Come on Love.    Sit with Spencer, you’ve both had a bit of a fright.    Put the phone down.    I’ll call Kath and Mary when we’re done here.    Is the tea ready?”

At the mention of tea, Sandra brightened and disappeared into the kitchen, returning with three mugs on a tray.    Placing the tray on the patio table she sat down, clinging on to Spencer’s arm.    “The baby seems all right.”    Liam clumsily tried to get a conversation going.    Sandra nodded slowly, nervously watching her father as though he’d grown horns and a tail.    “Those babies sound as though they’re doing well.”    he added, thumbing at the nest to a chorus of hungry chirrups.    A parent bird swooped in.    “Wish I could judge distance like those birds.”

Sandra and Spencer seemed to relax a little.    Spencer’s fingers began to reach for his cell phone.    “Leave it be lad.    We’ll call the girls in a bit.”    Liam repeated.

“Who built the nest?”    Spencer said after a few awkward moments.

“The Swallows.”    Liam smiled.    “Funny that.    They can fly thousands of miles and build cosy nests, and we get twitchy if we don’t have our cell phones on all the time.    Makes you wonder at how clever we’re not.”   

At this, Spencer’s face relaxed a little and he gave out a half chuckle.    “Homo Stultus.    Modern man.    Lost without his gadgets.”    beside him Sandra gave her father a grateful look.    The cycle of panic had finally been broken.

“I’m a gardener nowadays.”      Liam said,    ”Latin’s something I never really learned.    Now show me some seedlings and I’m on familiar ground.”

“I said we’re not thinking man, we’re stupid man.”    Spencer explained with his more usual certainty.    “Drop me in the wilderness and I’m less talented than a monkey.”

“That would account for some of what’s going on.    I never watch television and my cell phone doesn’t do all the fancy stuff.    Today I’ve seen Ambulances aflame, everyone is dead or in hiding, can either of you tell me what’s going on?”

“You don’t know?”    Sandra seemed amazed.

“Know what?”    Liam shrugged at his daughter.

“I’ve forgotten.”    Her face clouded.    “We’re supposed to be staying indoors.    Something bad is happening.”

“That’s true enough.    Everyone is in hiding or setting fire to the emergency services.”    Liam reached over and picked up his mug.    “What are we supposed to be afraid of?”

A confused expression crept onto Spencer’s face.    “I can’t remember.”    He recovered.    “That’s weird isn’t it?    We just know we’re supposed to be afraid, but I can’t tell you why or what of.”    He frowned and exchanged puzzled glances with Sandra, who nodded.    “Thanks for coming to pick us up by the way.”      He added.

“Thanks Dad.”    she said, features gradually relaxing into her more usual enigmatic smile. Good.    Sandra was back.    They seemed to be breathing more normally.    Liam sighed an inner sigh.   

“Now we’ve got to see what’s happening with Kath and Mary.”    Liam said and took out his old fashioned flip phone.    “I’ll do it.    You two have been through enough.”    he waved them to stay seated.    “Keep your phones off.    Leave the TV off.    It’s something to do with that.”

“Yes Dad.”    Sandra giggled.    Liam gave her a gentle smile.    Welcome back love.    He nodded approval to Spencer.    “Go get yourself a shower, you’ll feel better.    You know where the towels are?”    Sandra nodded.    “Now finish your tea and we’ll see what’s what.”    Sandra led Spencer into the house, both a little shell shocked, but not as bad as they had been.   

He pulled up Kath’s number again and listened to the dial tone.    At least that and the power was still working.

“Dad!    Dad!    We’re been so worried!”    Katherine picked up on the fourth ring.

“Everyone is frightened to death love.    I had to go rescue Sandra and her husband.”

“We’ve been told to stay at home.”

“Why?    It’s a bit dodgy out there, and I’d avoid main roads like the plague, but we’re settling down now.    Everyone here’s fine”    Liam said calmly, listening to the panic in his eldest daughter’s voice.    He grimly declined to mention the bodies he’d had to bury next door.    “Who’s coming up with this stuff?”

“It’s all over the newsfeeds!”    Katherine sounded as though she was about to trip over into hysteria.    “The government are saying it!”

“Are they?    I never listen to what they say.”    Liam scoffed.

“Dad!”    She protested.    “You’re not taking this seriously!”

“Katherine.”    he said in slow, dangerous tones.    “I’ve seen people taking this seriously.    They’re the ones hanging their children and setting fire to the emergency services.”

“You haven’t!”

“Young lady.”    He put on his sternest voice.    “I have just had to bury my next door neighbours, something a man should never have to do.    That young couple and their three children.    I think you met them last year.”

“Marie-Lynn and Oscar?”

“I could never remember their names.    I spent all morning calling the emergency services and getting nothing, so instead of leaving them to the crows and foxes, I dug a hole and said a prayer over them.    God help me.”

“You did what!?”

“I found the young man lying dead in his front drive with a magpie picking at hi- him.    His wife was dead inside and their two little boys and little girl were hanging from the garden swing.    No idea what killed them and I’ve a notion they did it to themselves.”    Liam saw no reason to mince his words, although he did gloss over the Magpie plucking out that poor man’s eye.    Kath was in a bad enough state without making it worse.    “Now are you coming to me or do I have to come and get you?”

“N-no.    Bruce will drive us.”

“Stay off the main roads and keep clear of big towns.    Oh, and bring some goodies with you.    And whatever cans and dried stuff you’ve got in the cupboard.    Have you talked to Mary?”

“She’s coming to us.”

“Well when she gets to you let me know.    Looks like I’m going to need all the room I can make.”

“We’ll be fine here Dad.”

“You’re in the suburbs.    Have you checked out of the window and seen the smoke?”    He warned.

There was a pause, then a subdued “Oh.”

“See you in a couple of hours.    Stay off the dual carriageways, use secondary roads.    Switch off your phones.”    Liam added.    “Love you.”

“Love you too Dad.    Bruce will take care.”

“See he does.    I’m doing my special pasta sauce tonight.    A big batch.    Bring your appetites.    And a tent.”

“We’ve still got Bruce’s old camper van, and sleeping bags.”    Katherine offered.

“That will do nicely.    When is Mary due?”

“Any time Dad.”

“See you when you get here.”    Liam was very careful to use ‘when’, not ‘if’.   

“Yes Dad.”

“Am I nagging?”    He teased to see if his daughter was on the line, not the frightened shadow who had answered.

“Yes Dad.”

“Good.”    He allowed himself an inner sigh of relief.    “I’ll nag you some more when you get here.”

“Thanks Dad.    I mean it.”

“That’s good.    See you this evening.”    Liam rang off.    He could hear the shower tinkling inside.    “I need some gardening time.”    There was early fruit to be picked and he’d dig some potatoes in case there wasn’t enough pasta.    Always something to do.

When he tramped his cargo into the kitchen he could hear Spencer in the front room.    His son in law, now more his usual self, was fiddling with the television.    “It doesn’t work.”    He said like having a non-working television was an offence.

“I borrowed the fuse from the plug when the kettle broke last year.    Never watch it myself.”    Liam kicked his boots off before entering the room.    “Read a book why don’t you?”    He gestured at the wall filling bookshelves.

“Don’t you have Wi-fi?”

“No.    Don’t have social media either.    Just my old cell phone.    Besides, there’s no data signal this side of the hill,    Just voice.    It’s a bit of a dead spot.”    Why was Spencer so anxious?

“B-but how do you keep up to date?”

“What with?    We’re too far from the coast for tidal waves.    The closest nuclear or chemical plant is over fifty miles away.    Look lad.    I’m a pensioner with a few quid set aside.    Too old to fight any wars and I’ve paid a lifetime of taxes, plus I pay private health insurance, so apart from keep up my drivers licence and paying the bills I don’t have much to do with the news.    And I know the world is daft enough without any help from me.”    Liam said flatly.    “Now go pick up a book and take a breather for heaven’s sake.    Put on some music, I’ve got some old stuff you might like.    Ask Sandra.”    He turned around brusquely and returned to the kitchen to wash his freshly dug potatoes.

Outside as shadows lengthened he could hear a familiar regular subsonic beat.    What was that?    He stepped out onto the patio to see a helicopter in camouflage passing half a mile or so away over the trees.    He watched it until it flew out of sight.    So the Army was out was it?    Things must be bad then.    “What was that?”    Sandra stood in the kitchen doorway, biting her lip.

“Just the Army I think.    Went over that way toward the main road.”    He heard a heavier whup-whup noise heading directly toward them and the sound became deafening as a much bigger machine, this time with a camouflaged backhoe loader suspended underneath, flew right over the house.    Liam gave them a cheerful wave.    Sandra shrunk back inside the house.   

Someone must have seen him because the first machine reappeared ten minutes later and landed in the meadow outside his hedge.    A helmeted figure disembarked and trotted up to the boundary, eyeing the sharp thorned Berberis hedge.    “You all right?”    A young woman’s voice bellowed.

“Fine thanks.”    Liam told her.    “If you fancy some tea you’ll have to come round the front.    What’s going on?”

“National emergency.”    she said by way of explanation.

“I’d gathered that.”

“Have you got a phone number?”    the woman bellowed over the still running rotors.

“Sure.    What for?”

“We might need some help.    We may need volunteers.”

“Oh, right.    Why are you asking me?”

The woman doffed her helmet, revealing handsome coffee skinned features a little sweat stained from prolonged wearing of headgear.    “You’re upright and you didn’t run away and hide.”    She said in more conversational tones, favouring him with a relieved smile.    “We need some people who can keep their heads, as the rest of the population seem to have lost theirs.”

“I’m a bit pushed for space.    I’ve got the rest of the family coming over.”    He hedged.

“Okay.    I’ll check with regional command.    Hang on there, I’ll be back in a minute.”    She put her helmet back on and walked back to the helicopter.    Another flew over, and another two carrying heavy equipment toward the bypass.    The woman returned.    “Major Gwendolen Sparks.    Regional Rescue Command.”    She took off a glove and stuck her open hand over the low hedge.   

Liam shook it.    “Liam Collins.”    He added.    “Retired Mechanical Engineer.”

“Pleased to meet you Liam.”    She seemed more relieved to see him than he to see the Army.    “We’d like to set up here.”

“You’re welcome, but it’s not my field.”

“We’ll bring in our own equipment.    But we need a place with friendly natives.”

“Next door is empty.”    Liam gestured at the next door cottage.    “The family that lived there have… gone away.    It’s open.    What happened to the Emergency services?”    Either side of Liam’s thorn hedge, they walked around the line between Liam’s garden and the field.

“We don’t know.    Most of the larger towns and cities are off limits at the moment, can’t tell you anything more.”

“Can’t or won’t?”    Liam probed.

“No-one knows anything.    We’ve been told to clear the roads and I need a place to set up a local command post for senior staff.    This big field looks dry and there’s no livestock.    The nearest two farmhouses are empty.    In one we found the farmer and his whole family dead.    It’s pretty grim all round.”    She lithely vaulted the field gate into the road, landing like a cat.    Liam felt a pang of jealousy.    Oh to be young and fit.

“I had to bury my neighbours.”    Liam admitted.

“So you’ve got a strong stomach then?”

“Empty.    I left my breakfast on the ground when I saw what happened to their three children.”

“You say you buried them?    On your own?”    She seemed surprised.

“I’m not dead yet.”    Liam contrived to sound affronted.    She seemed to tense.    Then he flashed her a tiny grin.    The moment passed.

“They’ve a gate into the field at the back.”    He followed her out onto the road and pointed at next door.

“Good.”    She put her hand to her helmet and there was a crackle of conversation.    “I’ve got senior personnel inbound.    Do you mind waving them in?”    She said, as they walked up the short gravel drive, boots crunching.

“No, no.    I’ve got my own family coming.    It’ll be a bit of a crush, but we’ll make do.”    Liam showed her the way through to the back garden.

“I see what you mean.”    She nodded at the mound of turf and upright shovel.    “I’ll get a detail to move the bodies somewhere more appropriate.    Okay.    Thanks for that.”

“I’ll go direct traffic then.”

“Thank you Mister Collins.    We’ll drop you a few ration packs if you run short.”    She easily vaulted the gate and jog trotted back toward her helicopter.    As she approached the rotors sped up, and by the time she swung into the cab, the noisy machine was straining the bounds of gravity.    Liam saw the Major wave from above as it wheeled overhead and waved back.    Spencer and Sandra arrived on the road.

“Was that the Army?”    Spencer demanded.    He was freshly washed and wearing clean clothes.

“They’ll be setting up in the field for a while.    I’ve been asked to wave them in.”    Liam replied.    “Besides, Kath and Mary will be coming that way and I don’t want them stopped.”

“Bloody cheek.”    Spencer said.    “Coming here with their guns.”   

“They’ve come to help, not to shoot anyone Spencer, do grow up.”    Liam said in mild exasperation.    “All they want to do is set up a supply base to drop stuff in and go clear the roads.    I doubt if they’ll be here more than a couple of days.”

“Fascists.”    Snarled Spencer.    “They can go elsewhere.    We should protest.”

“Spencer.”    Liam looked his son in law up and down critically.    “People are dropping like flies.    Everything is going to hell in a handbasket and you’re fretting about a few uniforms and guns.    I’m happy to accept any help we can get.    If you don’t like it, go inside and read a book, help Sandra with the baby or go watch the Swallows.    Just don’t get in the way.”

“Well if that’s your attitude.”    Spencer snapped and stomped back up the driveway into the house.   

Sandra stayed by her father.    “Sorry Dad.”

“Nice lad, but not the sharpest tool in the box.”    Commented Liam and shook his head.    “Go on love.    Calm him down while I make sure the Army doesn’t end up in the wrong driveway.”    She nodded bob cut mousy hair and hurried after the offended Spencer.

The command staff didn’t arrive until mid-evening as helicopter after helicopter landed supply containers into the field.    A young soldier carrying an assault rifle dropped out of the rear of a truck and politely tapped Liam on the shoulder.    “I’ll take over sir.”    A second trooper took up station the other side of the driveway.

“Oh.    Right.    Cheers.”    At that moment Liam saw Bruce’s camper van cautiously arrive at the top of the hill, he stretched out his arm and waved frantically.    In response the van moved forward slowly until it was level with his drive.    Liam opened his gate.    “Welcome to the circus.”    he joked as a stunned looking Bruce wound down the window at the hive of uniformed activity beyond.

“Hello Dad.    Showing off are we?”    Katherine said from the passenger seat.    Now offline she had cheered up considerably.

“You know me love.    I like a bit of company.”    he laughed, genuinely pleased to see his family in good spirits.    “Excuse the mess.”    Up the road, the first soldier waved in a staff vehicle.    Liam opened his own front gate.    A mute Bruce drove the old camper van in.    Liam breathed again and closed his gate behind the careworn vehicle.    His family was safe until the craziness passed and they could all go home again.    The Army would do their job and go.    The Swallows would fly away and return next Summer.    Nothing else mattered.   

An End


I feel like I’m finally surfacing. The last year has been maddeningly frustrating due to moving continents, yet again, and the COVID restrictions, many of which seem farcical. given the current risk.

All of which has simply drained my energy and diverted attention from other projects, to the point where I am beginning to find just how out of the loop I have become. Apart from one clumsy attempt at literary blackmail, my works appear to have disappeared from public view. I prefer to think that this disappearance was down to my neglect rather than the efficacy of any would-be blackmailer.

Goodreads is completely out of date and needs revision, as does my listing on Author’s Den. Fortunately these things are now works in progress, along with “Darkness between the stars”, the third work in the Stars trilogy and my most recent addition to the fold “The Cat Tree and other stories“, the 2019 collection of my quirkier short stories containing;

  • The Cat Tree
  • Polish Ted
  • Moonlit Shadow
  • Just Another Day at the Office
  • Good Here Innit?
  • A Coelacanth in the Bathroom
  • The Hunting of the Squonk
  • Restoration
  • Honey Tells
  • Three Park Benches and a Bicycle Rack
  • Coffee House
  • Bats!

I will post some excerpts and notes on each once my Goodreads profile is sorted out and I can log back in.

Note; “Moonlit Shadow” my one and only Christmas themed short story, “Good here innit?” and “A Coelacanth in the Bathroom” were previously published in three of Legiron Books horror / supernatural anthologies.


Not much writing going on at the moment. My major focus has been our forthcoming move back to Europe. Have created a separate blog about our assorted adventures called Craicerjack Life. What that will turn into is anybody’s guess.

I don’t post much here because unless there’s a new release or development, there’s not much to say, but ‘fabblegab’ seems to have the panic over SARS/COV-2 down to a T.

For us, the future is going to be a very broad canvas. I get the feeling I shouldn’t be buying paintbrushes to fill it, but a large format spraygun.

Now I am no longer working for a Canadian Distance Learning School, there will be time for all the projects that I’ve been neglecting for far too long.

Mid September through October will be taken up with the fine detail of relocation, which I will detail with video content, on the other site.

Fabblegab, a definition

I came across a wonderful adjective the other day which is descriptive of so much. That word is ‘fabblegab’.

/ˈfābəl/ gab

noun: fable; plural noun: fables

A confusing mass of verbiage designed to deceive.

verb: fable; 3rd person present: fables; past tense: fabled; past participle: fabled; gerund or present participle: fabling

tell fictitious tales.
“I do not dream nor fable”

Happy new decade

Not just a happy new year to everyone, if as usual the deadline for saying so has just whooshed past, but happy new decade. The futures I was afraid of over twenty years ago don’t look like they’re going to happen. Which is a bit awkward when you’ve been writing dystopian sci-fi for much of that time.

Over the last week or so, having put “The Cat Tree and other stories” out in the marketplace, I have been watching lots of YouTube videos on what makes a successful writer. The first is my least favourite. It feels like the two festively dressed presenters are giving the finger to those of us who like me, are massive introverts.

For the record, according to the Myers-Briggs test I’m an INTP or ‘Fixer’. I’m really terrible at socialising and can only do it for short periods, after which I need a long lie down in the proverbial darkened room. So to all these self publishing gurus who say you need lots of reader / writer interaction, sorry, that won’t work for me. I just don’t have the emotional makeup to readily switch between creator mode and dealing with the rest of the stuff that comes with marketing. I’ve worked in marketing and hated every minute. I’m happiest out of the limelight, firmly behind the keyboard, inner eyes focussed elsewhen, my attention focussed on the story.

My favourite video, well at least so far, on the topic of writing and success is the 2016 mashup below, where successful writers are being asked about what and how they think. I particularly like the interview with Elizabeth Gilbert starting at 25:14 where she talks about the shit sandwich all writers have to eat, every day. It’s candid and revelatory. As are the three sections where Neil Gaiman has something to say.

If anybody does drop by, check out the videos and tell me what you think.

If anyone wants me, I’ll be behind my keyboard.


Have re-written “Oggie” and re-titled it as “Aug-E”. The beginning of the story has always worked well, but I was forever unhappy with the last version that can be found under the ‘Short Stories’ menu. So I chopped it in half and junked the Paul Calvin ambush story line, preferring to follow my stepdaughters comment about one of the characters, the transgender ‘Pete’. She told me she was disappointed with the original and told me I should have done more with ‘Pete’, so I switched story lines to make it more about the dynamic between the uber-male character Frank Yale and the less physical ‘Pete’.

At a shade under seven thousand words, it’s a much better read than the original and I liked the follow through from the gangland theme in the beginning. I know about gangs and how they work from my experiences in the late 70’s with some of the outlaw biker gangs in Birmingham, UK. Also, having worked with two pre-operative transgenders whilst in nursing college during the early 1980’s, I did some more research and threw in what I knew from personal experience. It seems to ring true. So I’m putting it into the ‘finished’ file.

The story emphasis in Aug-E is now more about transitions, both from the physical and psychological aspects. I’ve got an idea for some basic but interesting artwork and the ending is a lot better, but no spoilers at this point. It will form the key story from a collection of quirky science fiction short stories with the working title “Aug-E and clones”. I have the skeletons of another eleven tales that I shall be working on during January and February, hopefully with a total word count of fifty to sixty thousand words. White on black art for the cover and simple silhouette art for the inside of the hardback as before. It’s a lot simpler, far more striking, and fits in with Stobor Books general artistic ethos. Which it to keep things simple and striking.

Have finished the eBook text for the eBook version of “The Cat Tree and other stories” so should be getting an ISBN for that version in the next week of so, after which that will be released to follow up with the Hardback original which should be hitting Amazon any day now. Although if anyone wants a hard copy, I would prefer it if they bought it direct via this link. That way I get more of the royalties.

Released into the wild

Stobor books has now released my finalised Hardback edition of “The Cat Tree and other stories” for distribution. Currently only available from here for the modest sum of CAD$35.00, the hardback will be joined on Amazon and Barnes & Noble by an eBook edition in January 2020.

The rewrite of the Stars Trilogy grinds on, but in the times when I am not working at my day job, I will be putting out a collection of my short science fiction and fantasy stories, which I don’t have a working title for just yet. However, I do have around twelve four thousand word stories which should fit the bill nicely and provide some welcome diversion from all the doom and gloom in the news.

This means a lot of editing and re-writing over Christmas, but this will be my own antidote to terrible TV and far too much to eat and drink.

First on the list for revision is “Oggie”, originally written as a companion piece to the Paul Calvin themed stories. I’ve had what I think is a very entertaining idea, which means some major surgery, an amputation here, a few grafts there, but nothing that won’t make it a far better read.

Stobor Books

Stobor books, my new boutique publishing web site, is now up and running. “The Cat Tree and other stories” is published and due for general release when the main proof copy arrives and approved for general distribution.

For anybody keen to purchase a hardback copy, I appreciate that there have been long intervals where it appears that nothing has been happening, but these are delays mostly occasioned by production faults, travel and a four week illness, also holding down a part time job which temporarily drifted into full time hours and of course waiting for Canada Post.

One of the things I will do over this Christmas, as part of my own learning curve is share my experiences of the publishing and distribution process on video, hopefully enlightening any would-be authors about the quirks of putting their own work out in the marketplace.

Done and almost done

Life recently has been reduced to a box ticking exercise.

The Cat Tree and other stories draft proofed and final edit – done

Artwork design including logo for Stobor Books – done

Registration for free bar code as a publisher – done

ISBN and bar code created – done

Upload and recheck of all files – done

Proof copy ordered for final production check – done

Lie down in a darkened room – To do.

Well two weeks from now I should have my proof copy before giving the final okay on distribution so I can shift my focus back to writing once more. Or then there’s doing some brand recognition for Stobor Books. That means a number of other boxes to tick. There will be links, there will be other publicity related things. That and the eBook which I have to complete before December 12th.

Then maybe I can set aside some time for a much needed rewriting of the Stars trilogy. I’ve done the rough edit and will try to be ruthless with the next draft. In the meantime I’m going to try and place some copy with some of the science fiction magazines in the United States. That and keep on top of the day job.

No rest for the wicked.

Free ISBNs?

Well that is a turn up for the books. Quite literally. Canadian authors and publishers can qualify for free International Standard Book Numbers (Link here). Normally someone like Bowkers in the USA will charge US$25 each per 13 digit book number, or an eye watering GBP 89 From Neilsen in the UK. The only ‘price’ ISBN Canada stipulate is that the author / publisher send them a free copy for the Canadian Literary Archive.

Places like and other print to order houses do also offer ISBNs for free, but I’ve always had a nagging doubt that the distribution on those is limited somehow.

For the record, ISBN Canada registration was quite painless and no credit cards etcetera were requested. Although the Canadian Literary archive do say that it might take up to ten business days for processing, Stobor Books login ID came through at 4pm Tuesday 26th November, after being registered on the evening of Friday 22nd. Which I thought was quite brisk. Especially for a Government based initiative.

Will register the hardback and eBook editions for ‘The Cat Tree and other stories’ this evening when I get time to do so. Then I will create the barcodes using this site. The rest is simply finalising the layout and pressing the ‘go stud’.

Deep breath and off we go.

Update: I’m impressed. I filled in the online form and got my ISBN within thirty seconds. Fairly straightforward process too. The barcode likewise.

New Venture

Small announcement for those interested. I am launching a new venture, Stobor Books. At first this will be merely a vehicle for my forthcoming edition of ‘The Cat Tree and other stories’ and other follow up volumes on long-neglected projects.

Stobor, once I’ve ironed out all the bugs in publishing and distribution, will be a niche publisher specialising in Fantasy, Science fiction and Horror. Maybe I’ll open it up to submissions from other authors, maybe I won’t. Maybe the whole thing will be a massive flop, but if you don’t try you never find out.

Take a walk on the dark side of Science Fiction ©

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