Authors note: All posted excerpts are rough, uncorrected text only.
It has been observed that the Universe is a strange place, full of phenomena that bend the imagination back in on itself. Possibly into an infinite pretzel, or has been postulated, as ever branching spaghetti hoops, or in one projection, like an earthquake damaged Trombone. If you think that’s confusing, throw in the equation that matter is simply energy that has settled down to raise families. Then think about what happens deeper down, where the Quarks are. Trombones are so simple, even those damaged in Earthquakes, that they should merit no further mention.
On this small blue green planet, orbiting around an average sun in a fairly unremarkable solar system, the inhabitants plod their daily round, unaware of how insignificant they are. Even remarkable Trombone players are, along with politicians, great religious leaders, monarchs and anyone else in a position of power, when considered against the rest of the Universes, not really worth mentioning. So we won’t. This is not their story.
Yes, Universes, plural. There’s more than just one. More than grains of sand in the Sahara Desert. A lot more than even Teraflops. Just think of a number, go on. The largest number you can think of without spraining several billion neurons and it will still be too small. By a factor of several times its cube. Bigger than human minds can comfortably encompass. But this is beside the point.
No one, not even the most sagacious white coated scientist, beavering cerebrally away in his top secret laboratory under an extinct volcano for the benefit of all humanity, or not, can give you an answer to that one. Because no one has the map, they don’t even have the corner pieces of the jigsaw. Therefore it can reasonably be assumed that anyone claiming to have the answer is either lying or off their meds. Even the conspiracy theorists, who always get it wrong in precisely the right way. Even the ones who have made their tin foil hats properly. They forget that their metallic headgear, because it creates an effective aerial, actually improves the odds of their thoughts being controlled by secret government agencies. A fact that has been empirically proven by real scientists, even if they weren’t wearing their white coats and smiling a lot at the time. Which, we are told, real scientists never ever do. So the scientists in question may well have been joking. Ergo they might not have been real scientists at all and part of a ‘black psy-ops’ team actually working for the Lizard people who really control everything. At least that’s what some conspiracy theorists probably think.
None of which is important. Our story is about a struggle (Several happen every day) for control of one small blue green world orbiting a modest G-0 star in the Orion spur of the galaxy known to the inhabitants as the Milky Way. Which as far as the greater galaxies are concerned, is a bit of a misnomer, but that’s humans for you, they sigh.
On a windswept late November afternoon in Cheam, just inside the M25, a skinny grey squirrel chittered abuse from the bare branches of a traffic fume tortured Oak tree just off Station Way. Below, a solitary grey sweatshirt hooded figure with a couriers bag slung fashionably across his left hip completely ignored the rodents rabid ranting. It simply carried on trudging up Station Way in dispirited fashion toward the Broadway roundabout. Partly because it didn’t understand Squirrel, mainly because the hoodie wearer was listening to Dolly Parton belting out ‘Stand by your Man’ on his iPod. In frustration the squirrel hurled a mouldy acorn and missed.
The acorn bounced off a parking restriction sign, rattled briefly round a pothole in the tarmac of the new cycle lane, ending up abruptly crushed under the wheels of an ageing BMW 3 series. Furious at the miss, the squirrel frantically hurled several more inedible nuts at the hooded figure which completely failed to strike its intended target. Fuming at its failure, the squirrel stalked back to its dray to hibernate. Bloody humans.
A light English drizzle dotted grey tarmac with darker grey blots, for a short while camouflaging the dark grey dots left by the boroughs many enthusiastic chewers of gum and the councils less than highly motivated gum removal team. Who had seen the rain coming and were relaxing in their nice warm van. Where they were discussing such diverse topics as the virtues of Tottenham Hotspurs midfield team and the failings of Cartesian duality.
The hoodie wearer, whose back proclaimed him to either be or made by ‘Lonsdale’ speeded its walk as the rain intensified. Past rendered concrete planting troughs choked with weeds at the bottom of the Broadway. Right onto the High Street, wait at the double pedestrian crossing Belmont Rise. Dash across Cheam Road against the signal, earning an enraged horn blast from an Audi driver, incongruously wearing sunglasses on the misery of a damp English Autumn afternoon. Left into Quarry Park Road and down to Mum’s slightly careworn little semi detached residence at number forty three. The one she’d wrested from his father after catching him in flagrante delicto with the local Ann Summers party organiser and her entire inventory of sex toys. Yes, even the really kinky ones.
Under his hood, rain spattered unfashionably thick framed glasses. Terry Sand wiped the raindrops into a slightly greasy smear, absent mindedly wishing he could afford some contact lenses. Mum liked him wearing glasses, she said they made him look intelligent. Terry hated the way they steamed up at the least provocation. Harry Potter’s glasses never steamed up during those critical magical duels with Slitheryn House baddies or Lord Voldemort no matter how wet he got, so why his? Maybe being a boy wizard admired by all his peers had something to do with it, he thought gloomily.
Arriving at the PVC frame front porch door, Terry took his house keys out of his pocket, fiddling awkwardly with the barrel lock until the key finally turned and slid back the bolt. He fumbled the inner front door key, almost dropping it on the dark red painted screeding inside the front porch, an area crowded with various pot plants and the occasional curious ant.
He kicked off his shoes, leaving his rain dampened footwear to fester or dry out by the front door and unlocked the inner front door as the porch lock clicked behind him.
In the front room, Mum had the gin out, which was always a good sign. She was watching afternoon reruns of ‘Midsummer Murders’ in her cushion and sofa crowded sanctum, barely glancing at her only child whilst he tried to look inconspicuous. He knew and she knew he hadn’t got the job. No one needed to speak, the trudging noise his soggy sock clad feet made on the polished wooden floor as he walked in betrayed his sense of failure.
“John Nettles running yet?” He said by way of a greeting.
“It’s not a John Nettles. It’s the other bloke.” She obviously didn’t mind her viewing being interrupted today.
“You working tonight?” She asked. As if she didn’t know.
“I’ve washed your shirt and trousers. They were in a right state. What happened?” His Mother, a wavy haired bottle blonde with narrow features, skinny frame hidden by a Kaftan, replied without taking her eyes off the screen. She stifled a giggle at something one of the characters was doing, shifting restless Birkenstock clad feet on the footstool in front of her overstuffed armchair. She set her drink on a little false mahogany side table.
“I slipped on a spill.” His shrug was a symphony of pathos. What he didn’t say was that the Assistant shift manager had sent him running on an ‘urgent errand’ up the hypermarkets grocery aisle, knowing full well there was a stack of past sell by date melons next to a spill of cooking oil. He’d fallen for it. Literally. Right into the melons. Face first. Then he’d been told to clean up the mess. Bastards. Best friend Hassan had helped him up, but even being lifelong friends with someone doesn’t mean they weren’t relieved when it was your turn in the barrel.
Hassan was an equally geeky boy from the Iranian family across the way, the same age as Terry. They’d been at school together. Been bored in the same classrooms. Haplessly lusted after the same girls. Suffered the same disdainful rejections. Been buffeted by the same bullies. Now, Terry thought ruefully, what had happened at school seemed to be repeating itself in adult life.
“Sorry you didn’t get it.” His mother said, picking up her drink again and taking a sip of her gin with a splash of tonic.
“The interview.” She said, still not taking her eyes from the screen.
“Oh, that.” Terry said as if it was nothing.
“What excuse did they make this time?”
“Overqualified.” Terry’s single word came out loaded with resignation. “Well, they didn’t actually say that. They said they’d call me.” He tried to make his situation sound less hopeless than it actually was.
“Oh.” She replied, not really seeming to care and went back to her viewing. Which, Terry thought bitterly, she’d never really left. Heart like a leaden ball, he made his way up the narrow suburban stairs.
Second interview this week to go down the toilet. He’d got all the qualifications. Spent a fortune on student loans getting a good second class degree. Then on a CPA certificate. All the necessary academic credits. Money, it seemed, he could never repay. Not without a proper job. But right this minute it seemed like the whole world were queuing up to become Chartered Accountants.
As he reached the top of the stairs, he heard his Mother call from downstairs. “That bloody rat of yours is out again!”
Terry was so depressed he didn’t even bother to respond that it was a Hamster, not a rat. She knew it, and didn’t like the creature because the first of its line had been a twelfth birthday gift from his now estranged father. Since then, he’d replaced each one as it came to the end of its short little life, preferring the energetic little gold and white furballs to most of the humans he encountered.
In a fit of pre-pubescent creativity, he’d named the first one “Hammy.” Then lacked the originality to think of another name for the little creatures successors. Hammy’s one to six were pushing up the daisies under the big rhododendron bush in the back garden. Current version was Hammy Seven.
Seven and Terry often went for walks together, with Hammy poking curious whiskers out of Terry’s baggy sweatshirt pocket. When he thought no-one was watching or looking, Terry would talk to his pet about the world and what a shit place it was. In response, Hammy would twitch his nose, scrape little paws across gold and white furred cheeks, glance around disdainfully then subside into the warmth and safety of Terry’s pocket.
Today Hammy was sitting saucily on the pillow of Terry’s single bed, patiently grooming himself. His spacious cage lined with fresh wood chippings, wheel standing quite still, door unlatched and wide open. No doubt left that way by Mum’s home help, who disliked Hamsters intensely. The story was that when she was at school, one kept as a classroom pet had run up inside her skirt and bitten her. Exactly where the animal had sunk its incisors was a subject which, if broached, brought on a severe bout of hand waving pink cheeked evasiveness on her part. What this meant was ever since she began her weekly whisk round with a duster she’d deliberately left Hammy’s cage door open. Presumably so Hammy would escape and be eaten by next doors bad tempered black Persian cat.
So far this strategy had proven a complete failure. Next doors cat had already met Hammy. Said predatory pussy had slunk through the open back door into the kitchen one afternoon, spotted the Hamster waiting patiently on the draining board while his cage was having its monthly scour out. The cat had jumped lithely up onto the kitchen counter, no doubt hoping for an alfresco rodent on toast. She’d stalked toward Hammy, looking to cow her prospective prey with a threatening yrowl. That’s when everything went a little hazy, there was a flurry of fur and teeth, followed by said malevolent moggy making a rapid tail in the air strategic withdrawal.
Then there had been that encounter with Mister Bullivants massively jawed Rottweiller crossbreed, Rambo, who had forced a hole through the back garden fence last Summer. Terry wasn’t exactly sure what had happened. He’d been playing Angry Birds on his iPad at the time, with Hammy happily sunning himself at Terry’s feet on the slightly splintered grey decking of their back patio. The massive dog had easily headbutted weather worn boards aside and with a low growl begun stalking across the herbaceous border. Terry had frozen, not knowing what to do, trying not to wet himself with fright. He distinctly recalled being nailed to the spot on the garden lounger as the beast of Quarry Rise fixed him with it’s awful dark amber stare.
One moment the back garden had seemed full of drooling black and tan menace, the next there had been a gold and white blur, a loud yelp and a scrambling of heavy paws. Followed by an even larger exit hole in the back fence. Now Rambo, once capable of keeping the whole neighbourhood awake with his continuous aggressive barking, kept his yap firmly shut, staying indoors as much as possible, whimpering and shivering occasionally if he so much as looked at the repaired fence. Local rumour was that he’d developed the canine version of PTSD.
Terry never told anyone about either of these incidents because a: No-one would believe him, and b: He wasn’t entirely sure he believed it himself. Hammy Seven was otherwise such an amiable little creature.
As if to contradict Terry, Hammy stopped grooming and stared at the bedrooms bow window, teeth bared, ears flattened. Turning around quickly, Terry just caught a flurry of bushy tailed motion as one of the districts plague of Grey Squirrels ducked away. Bouncing branches through the front gardens ornamental cherry tree and over the high Leylandii hedge into next door, chittering and hissing with alarm.
“Don’t like Squirrels either?” Terry idly remarked to his pet.
Then he stopped dead as he distinctly heard a gruff voice say; “Not particularly. Scraggly grey tossers.”
He spun back, only to be greeted with; “Meep.” And a self satisfied little clicking noise as Hammy went back to rubbing his ears and cheeks.
Putting a finger in his ear and twisting it to check for excess wax, Terry looked around, then peered out of his bedroom doorway in case someone was playing a joke on him. There was no-one in the corridor, Mum was still downstairs watching Midsummer Murders on TV drinking her heavily ginned G&T. No-one else in the house. Or had he been dreaming? He looked under his bed. Hammy paused in his washing and watched with bright little eyes as Terry opened his wardrobe, picked up his iPad and checked for messages. Had there been someone on FaceTime listening in? Nothing on the message or call logs.
“Must be hearing things.” He sat on the bed and extended his hand for Hammy to sniff, which the Hamster duly did, and allowed himself to be picked up to have his tummy stroked. At times there were definitely advantages to this body shape, Hammy purred to himself.
“Well?” Demanded the slightly plummy tones of an unattractive but elegant man who wanted you to believe he’d been to Eton. The little grey form sat on the other side of the bowl of nuts, trying not to salivate too much. It chittered and squeaked for a minute or so. The middle aged man, smartly attired in a three piece pinstripe suit and striped tie that to the untutored eye looked like one of those worn by ex-military types, listened attentively. After a few moments silence he pushed the nut bowl forward towards the grey shape. “So what you’re telling me is that the horse chestnut crop is down this year?”
There was an answering squeak.
“Can you give me the figures?”
“Filbert and Hazel?”
At this point the Squirrel pulled its tail nervously in front of its face with a lower toned squeak. The bowl of nuts was pointedly withdrawn. A nervous shiver seemed to pass through the little tree rodents frame.
“Then might I suggest you and your colleagues collate them?”
The Squirrel cheeped in embarrassment.
“Very well. I’ll pencil you in for a briefing early tomorrow morning.”
With an elegantly raised black eyebrow, Silas Purl watched the little animal bounce off the elegantly finished conference table and out through the small casement window of his palatial basement office. He put his index finger to pursed lips for a moment, then swivelled his luxurious leather finished chair to face the screens.
The screens were magnificent, the screens covered the entire end wall in a display that would put a superstore to shame. Underneath the screens was an array of concentrated computing power that would make the IT Director of a major multinational dayglo green with envy. Information did not just flow, it gushed like a river in flood through a router stack gigabytes wide. The screens were the entire financial world. From New York to Singapore and beyond.
The entire global stock market passed this way. Futures, commodities, stocks, currencies and bonds to but mention the most basic. In amongst this school of minnows Silas swam like a Great White shark, the analysts analyst, the Emperor of information. If knowledge was power, Silas would be a black hole at the heart of a major galaxy. Yet all of this technology was worthless in the face of one piece of exclusive knowledge.
Where this knowledge came from was a secret known only to Silas. One he guarded jealously. A secret derived from quantum entanglement of global commodity prices and nut availability on Banstead Downs golf course. That was where the Squirrels came in. Every so often he would allow himself an avaricious smile because it was his secret, one that put him head and shoulders above all the other investment analysts.
Just to make sure, he spread the rumour that several large and undiscovered high explosive bombs had fallen on the course during World War II, which usually gave the greenkeeper pause for thought when it came to replanting. After all, no-one wanted their landscaping to make them part of the landscape now, did they?
Silas smiled a secret, tight lipped smile. It was not an attractive smile. It was the smug, slimy quirk of lips made by someone who knew he had the upper hand and didn’t care who got hurt. So long as it wasn’t him. On Silas it made his fleshy lips look like two ancient pale pink slugs clambering over one other.
Lips weren’t the worst of his features, his nose had overlarge nostrils and turned up at the end so that it resembled the snout of a truly unlovable pig. Small, mean looking eyes half hidden in fleshy folds looked over rumpled cheeks, which only accentuated his chinless jawline and flabby neck. The mind behind that face however, could cut diamonds like butter.
As if to prove that last statement, Silas picked up a small, exquisitely sculpted remote control and with an elegant flick of the wrist transferred several billion Rubles into Chines Yuan and back, making half a billion US dollars for a subsidiary company in the process. Then he sold his shares in renewables, put the profits into precious metals for the afternoon and dialled for a takeout pizza.
Pizza was his sole weakness, specifically a vegetarian special with extra chillies. Of course he’d tried to train the squirrels to make them, but they’d proven totally hopeless. He gave a small sigh, then stifled an unpleasant giggle as he remembered one setting its tail on fire whilst using the semi automated electric oven he’d bought for them. Then he frowned as he further remembered how often they’d snaffled all his pine nuts and left footprints in the dough. No, if you wanted a half way decent pizza cook, you were stuck with using people.