‘I think my girlfriend doesn’t want to get married. How do I make sure?’
‘What makes you think so.’
‘I’ve had to take care of all the wedding preparations. The guest lists,
the dresses, the flowers, the menus, the seating arrangements, I’ve done
all of it.’
‘So when you proposed —’
‘Oh no. She proposed to me.’
‘I think you just answered your own question.’
The phone call was vague at first. The caller walking around what he wanted to ask, throwing out general questions about the newspaper, and how it could call itself a newspaper when it was only available online.
But something told Rey not to wrap up for call. Let him keep talking, let him relax, let him see what’s on his mind.
‘I’m an informer,’ he said finally. ‘And I think they’re trying to kill me.’
‘I was an informer on the Cassidys.’
Ray knew the Cassidys. Two brothers with the reputation that won’t be unveiling some into sadism. Benny Cassidy in particular like to break fingers.
‘You think the Cassidys are out to kill you?’
‘No. The guards. I think they want to use me to catch the Cassidys.’
‘Okay, start at the beginning. What do I call you?’
‘Call me Dave,’ he said. ‘It’s as good a name as any.’
‘I’m an informer,’ he said after a pause. ‘I didn’t want to be. But now it’s what I am and I’m in danger. I’m in danger because they don’t need me any more. I think they want me to use me as bait.’
‘Tell me about it,’ said Ray.
‘I can’t talk to you. I can’t be seen.’
‘Then tell me where we can go where you won’t be seen. Tell me how you got here.’
‘It started with a traffic ticket. I drove through a red light.
‘That’s not so serious.’
‘Penalty points, you see. That would have put me over the twelve, and that means no licence. No car, no work. No job, no income, no rent. They had me just where they wanted me and they knew it.’
The barrister was uncertain.
‘I thought I was ready to proceed, judge, but apparently my solicitor has been informed that he is to go off record, I am awaiting clarification,’ he said.
‘Is the client here?’
‘I’ll do my own appeal.’
The judge turned to the speaker. Young, much too thin, one of several men cuffed to the boored prison wardens. The young man glanced down again at the several pages of handwritten foolscap notes which he leafed through, eager to begin.
‘That may be a very unwise decision. But it is yours to make,’ said the judge.
On the reporters benches, we put down out pens, waiting to see what would happen. I felt like a ghoul, watching, helpless to stop this young fool from self-destruction.
‘Please judge, I’m his mother,’ cried a voice from the crowd.
That’s new. Never had that before. Usually they’ve cut themselves off from family and friends by this point.
‘Ian, listen to what the judge is saying,’ she cried. ‘The judge –’
But Ian wasn’t listening. Not to the judge, and not to the cries from his family. He was waiting for the judge to finish speaking, so that he could begin.
The defence barrister stood up. ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware, judge. As my learned friend has just this moment gone off record, I do not know for certain if Mr Neill has seen my submissions yet.’
The judge grabbed the lifeline. It was a long shot, he knew, but who could tell? Maybe his mother could talk sense into him before the courts resumed.
‘I’ll adjourn then, to allow him to review your arguments and consider his position.’
Benny the idiot really wasn’t an idiot, but nobody knew his real name. His sweatshirt had a picture of Jack Benny, so the name stuck in my head.
‘You look lost,’ Quinn said to him, the first time he wandered into her cafe. ‘Can I help you?’
‘All the houses look the same here, but different,’ he’d said. ‘Why am I in a place that’s like a bad copy of home from long ago?’
Quinn couldn’t think of anything useful to say, so she said nothing.
‘Sorry, you must think I’m an idiot’, said Benny He shrugged and ordered a pot of tea with a hand and cheese toastie. After that, he’d show up two or three times a week, one of the semi-regulars.
Mostly, Benny kept to himself. It wasn’t until I arrived at the cafe on a busy day that I found myself sitting opposite him at a small table. There was nowhere else left to sit, and I hate coffee to go. Those fifteen minutes sitting down are precious to me, a rare time to gather thoughts.
Benny smiled when I asked if I could sit in the seat next to him, then nodded his assent. He shut the notebook he was doodling in as I sat down, resting his hands on top of it, fingers intertwined.
‘Why do people ask that?’ he said. ‘Do they think I own an empty chair?’
‘I think politeness,’ I said. ‘Maybe they think you’re holding the chair for someone.’
‘I never am,’ he said. ‘This isn’t where I’m from. I don’t know anyone.’
‘Ray Harper,’ I said, extending my hand. ‘Now you know me.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I know. You’re the writer?’
‘I’m a reporter. Nothing as literary as a writer. I tell people’s stories.’
‘I can tell you a story, if you pay for lunch. Want to hear a new story?’
‘It’s been almost three months now. A group of us went on a road trip together, a bicycle trip on one of the first good weekends of the Summer. The first thing I can remember is needing to go back because I’d forgotten something, but I can’t remember what it was. That morning we’d cycled together from Shanglin to Inishfall, and whatever it was, it was important enough that I needed to go back for it. So I told the gang to hang on, enjoy themselves around Inishfall for a few hours, and I’d catch up to them in the evening. That was three weeks ago.
‘So I cycled back, and everything went as it usually does. I enjoyed the ride, it was a fine day, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, far better than it had any right to be at the end of September. I switched off, went to autopilot.
‘Except when I got to the top of the hill and crested it, everything was different. I mean, it looked like Shanglin, everything was more or less in the right place, but it was all just a little bit off. Think of a landscape you know like the back of your hand, so much that you can close your eyes and imagine walking around it. An old neighbourhood where you grew up, somewhere you lived so long you know every twist in the road. Then imagine you see an old photograph of it before all the buildings there now were built. Or you see a painting of somewhere else, that looks almost like it. A church tower in exactly the right place, or a shadow of a hill behind the town. But somehow, it’s off. The chock tower is a little too tall. The mountain is too close. The buildings are a little too squat, or too clean, or the paint is too faded.
‘I couldn’t quite place what felt wrong at first. Like I said, it was a glorious day, and I’d been cycling on automatic, letting my thoughts drift. I was halfway down the Castle hill before I really noticed there was something strange happening. Half the houses were gone. All of the older buildings were still there, but the newer extensions, the developments pushing the boundaries out towards the Drum and the Fork were gone. And what was still there wasn’t quite right.
‘I cycled around Shanglin in a strange daze, becoming ever more certain I was in the wrong place. Somehow I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up somewhere I’d never been before, a doppleganger town. When I went to the place I knew best of all, my own home, it was unnerving. Murphy’s was still there at the river turn, but all around it were green fields. And when I turned the final bend, the old town-house was still where it always was, but the landscape around it had changed. The tops of the trees behind it no longer visible over the rooftop. Where there had been a flat patch of green and a road sign, there was a carved boulder, some sort of street artwork. Behind that, where my own home should have been, there was a house I’d never seen before. Beyond that, what should have been a plain two-story block of flats had been redesigned into a strange multi-level series of building blocks, like someone build a staircase out of room-sized cubes. I’d been cycling around for over an hour by then, but it wasn’t until that moment I noticed how quiet it was. I hadn’t seen a single person since I’d arrived.
‘I was lost in a world that felt like an echo, that’s the only way I can describe it. If I had taken a wrong turn, I could understand how I might have gone down a road I’d never been on before, arrived at the wrong place. The physical geography of two places could be similar, I guess, so that everything looks vaguely familiar. But the buildings? The roads? Bridges? How could that happen? How could two valleys have almost identical patterns?
‘Finally, I turned back, went to catch up with the gang in Inishfall. But when I got back here, there was no sign of the gang any more. I decided to stay here, it’s as good a place as any. So here I am. This isn’t my world, but it’s the world I’ve been given. I don’t know how I got here. And I don’t know how to get back.’
He paused for a moment as Quinn arrived with a fresh pot of tea, and finished off the last of the cheese toastie in a couple of bites as she poured a fresh cup.
‘There’s a theory that every time there’s a choice, the world divides in two. Tea or coffee, heads or tails, left or right? In one universe, you order tea, in the other, coffee. I think I fell through a crack in the world somewhere. Travelling down the road I switched off my brain and stopped making all those small decisions you don’t even think about. And when I stopped thinking, and I started slipping between all the worlds created by different decisions, and I ended up here. Almost the same as where I came from, just a few different coin tosses from home.
‘So what do you think. Was the story worth the price of admission?’
‘Is it true?’
‘Doesn’t matter, does it. All that matters is whether you think it was worth the price of admission.’
I paid for his lunch.
Knife: Flash Fiction
Afterwards, no one could remember seeing the knife. Everyone knew the Geeks had a knife all right, they heard it said. No one saw it though. When we tracked back who heard about the knife, and who told who, all the rumours started with Denny, but Denny made himself scare afterwards, so nobody could talk to him.
The Geeks arrived in town just as the bank holiday weekend was kicking off, a collection of well dressed young lads in clean shirts and slacks, sharing three cars between a dozen of them. They rented the Howland house, set up a barbecue on the lawn, an invited us in when we headed down to check them out. It was fun, everyone had a good time, nobody was going to ague with free beer and burgers. But Julie got talking to one of the Geeks, and Denny didn’t even like it when Julie talked to one of us.
I didn’t go to the pub that night, so I was still sober at midnight. Two minutes after midnight, the door got a battering. When I answered it, half a dozen Geeks were there, along with Kate and Carrie. They didn’t wait for me to say hello, instead they barged in, and closed the door behind. One of the Geeks was injured, two of the others were carrying him.
Kate took the injured Geek over to the couch, and lay him down there. Carrie turned down the lights before going to the window.
‘They attacked us outside the Hall car park. Stones came flying from everywhere. I couldn’t get to the car. I just ran,’ the Geek said.
We didn’t call the cops. What was the point. We had nothing to tell them, only that a hail of stones were thrown as strangers. Cops were unlikely to give a damn about the Geeks. Certainly not enough of a damn to tackle the local lads. So I put on a kettle, and we waited. Eventually the Geeks slept.
A while before daybreak, I went for a walk, first to Drum and then over to the Iron bridge, then back by the Hound’s Corner. Everywhere was quiet. Kate was still up, but Carrie was asleep when I got back. I made breakfast when Kate woke the others. We walked down to Howland’s together, escorting the Geeks. There was no trouble, hough we took out time, the injured Geek was feeling better but he still walked with a hobble. I put on a kettle again when we got there, while the Geeks tied and packed up. They left before lunchtime. I spent the next couple of days piecing together what happened, asking who saw what and who heard what, and listening carefully to the answers.
Julie left Denny the following weekend. Someone told me she moved to Geektown.
“And it will grant anything I wish?” the boy asked.
The demon nodded. “Aye sir, that it will do, anything your heart desires, the Bowl will provide. You only have to say out loud what it is you truly want, and it shall be yours.”
The boy turned the bowl over, examining its underside, and tapped the base with his fingernail. It made a dull soft thud. Nothing out of the ordinary as far as he could tell, just an ordinary clay bowl, like any of thousands he could buy in the city markets.
The demon smiled. “But be warned, sir, make your choice with care. There is always a price to pay.”
“Anything at all?” the boy asked again, a shade of uncertainty in his eyes as he turned the bowl face up again.
“I’ve heard of bargains like this before,” the boy said. “There’s always a catch, isn’t there? Some kind of unforeseen consequences, a terrible prices to be paid for messing with things a man was not does meant to understand. Magic isn’t a toy for a child to play with. It is a dangerous, poisonous thing.”
The demon smiled again, but said nothing.
The boy held the bowl up to the light, as if by examining it closely once more, he might discover some secret he had missed every other time he had looked at it. It was covered in strange abstract patterns, swirling lines and dots arranged in patterns he could not recognise, whose meaning he could not tell, if they had any meaning at all.
“I wish I knew what to do,” the boy said.
“No! Wait! You can’t–” said the demon.
The boy smiled, raised his arm above his head, and threw the bowl to the ground with all the force he could find. It struck the floor with an ungodly howl, and cracked into a host of sharp dark shards. The demon screamed, and scrambled across the room, frantically trying to gather up the shards, which turned to dust just before he reached them. The demon let out single pitiful sob, and then he too turned to dust before the boy’s eyes.
“Well, that was simpler than I expected,” the boy said.
It felt good to be warm. I was made for this temperature, a brand new world, not the cold ancient air of home. Heat coursed through the folding metals tubes across the outer surface of my skin, warming the metallic liquid conduction matrix to near boiling point. I stretched out my hand, each finger shining metal. For the first time in living memory, I felt fully awake.
The ground beneath was hostile, a desert my designers could never walk on.
The sky was a glare, bright screeching reflections intensifying the light and amplifying it, a sheer and intense whiteness with the merest tinge of blue grey. Beneath it, the earth was crisp and arid, baked yellows and dulled reds, windborn waves and crescents turned to dust with each step I took.
The air was silent and dead, full of silences waiting to be broken, as if the whole world was about to speak, but too shy to say the first word. I scanned in every direction as far as I could see, a straight line broken by an occasional small rise of rock and stone, and to the far left, what seemed to be a mountain range in the distance. I recorded as much data as I could, taking audio-visual, sonar and radar readings, and checked the timer. Once the satellite was in place, I transmitted the first message. Landed safely, here are my first impressions. Once I got an acknowledgment, I closed the signal, and looked towards the mountains on the western horizon. It was a good a direction as any, and I began to walk. Two feet. Two hands. Four fingers and a thumb. Legacy design artifacts, even when the configuration was inefficient. But it was familiar, and muscle memory is a powerful yoke, even when muscle is replaced by hydraulics and servos. One foot in front of the other.
Exploration is very often methodical and dull. Walk slowly, then stop. Measure, test, analyse, transmit findings. Wait for acknowledgment, rest, then begin again. Progress was slow, and after eight days, the mountains on the horizon seemed almost as far away as when I began. By then, I had shown that we could survive the heat and pressure. On Day Nine I found a suitably flat plain, and I signalled to send more help.
I was built to be the first, and the tests I ran were rudimentary. Soil and atmosphere analysis, temperature and air pressure, and the most primitive scans of the landscape ahead, enough to see the lie of the land and calculate with best paths to take, balancing the potential rewards in exploring more interesting sites against the hazards on the way.
Once the second wave arrived, we filled our days with more frenetic activity. Deeper soil analysis, higher resolution scans. Still, all we found was a dead world. The mountains in the distance held my attention, but I had to be patient. Protocols would be followed, and we would wait until we were done here before taking the next steps.
It was becoming clear this had not always been a dead world. Even a billion years cannot totally eradicate the traces life leaves behind, fossil markings encoded into rock and dust. The flat plain was once an ocean floor, and the seven of us pored over the new data, extrapolating as best we could from the echoes of the past.
Sixty-three days passed before we were ready to move. Sixty days to survey the ocean floor, and three days to decide where next. Seniority carries some privileges, and I argued successfully that the mountains were the best choice. Traces of life extended in all directions, but the mountains may once have been above the water, and that opened a whole new possible promises.
Even so, progress was slow. Travel half a day, stop for a day to test and survey again. Transmit, rest, resume the journey, and more often than we liked, stop and spend a day cleaning the fine dust accumulating everywhere and impeding our sensors and scanners. Still, we made progress, and the mountains drew closer.
Ocid was the first to detect the anomalies. Straight lines and sharp edges are rare in nature, and right angles are virtually unknown, yet there it was. It could be trick of the light of course, an optical illusion of some kind, a fluke of perspective and line of sight was always a possibility, but over several days, the results were consistent. It was still a distance away, but to the left of the range, the structures rose from the ground. Everything else in the landscape made sense, but this did not belong. Regular shapes persisted where they should not be, corners and the ghosts of corners.
The debate took another day, as we transmitted our results and argued over their meaning. I wanted to change direction, and others supported me, but the results were not unanimous, and others argued we should continue on our original path until we had more information. Ultimately, the decision was made for us. At our next transmission, along with our data acknowledgment , came the instruction to change course.
On the final morning before the course correction, as we rested and recharged, I found myself without any further data to analyse. There were no paths to plot, no landscapes to map out. Without any purpose to occupy my mind, my thoughts wandered, and I wondered how long it had been since I was last idle. I could barley remember the time before I was reimagined, when I was a living being and not just an aware mind. We wasted generations trying to build artificial intelligence, yet though our machines could run ever more billions of calculations, sentience eluded us in any detectable form. We made them bigger, faster, better than ever before, yet they remained machines. Fast, dumb machines.
The breakthrough came when we realised those fast, dumb boxes were now big enough to transplant our own minds. Why search for an artificial intelligence, when we already have the naturally occurring resource? It was much simpler to move our minds into the boxes. Or was I copied. Was I still the same mind I used to be, before that first transplant? How many times had I been copied since then? I could no longer remember.
This body was my latest, custom built for an alien planet, a world as hot as the lucifer’s hells. How long since the first? I realised I had not been idle in a very long time, so many I lost count of the years and the centuries. How long had I been too busy, too occupied with purpose to stop and reflect? How long ago since I was a man called Sevi?
We rested for the best part of the day, and though I never asked, I wondered where the others had let their thoughts go in idleness. Had they too gone back to their memories of the past, or the future and the near present, and what the new morning would bring?
Finally we set off to walk. By nightfall, we had made most of the ground, and I could not help but notice that as we drew closer, my pace quickened. I was impatient. We all were. I realised it had been a very long time since any of us had seen anything novel. We gathered data, we analysed it, we tested assumptions, we squeezed it for every drop of meaning, until data became information and knowledge.
At nightfall, we gathered round, but the consensus was quickly reached. Curiosity overcame caution, and we agreed to keep going even as the light faded. Caution would still dictate a measured pace in the darkness, but there was no reason to stop just because the light was fading.
As the first scout, I took the lead. I devoted my attention to picking out the best path, and did not speak, but behind me, I could hear the others talking. The new world turned purple, then a paler blue fading into pink, and the sun rose behind us. Shadows raced away from us, and the structures loomed ahead.
The sun was halfway to its zenith when we finally reached them. We were drained from the journey, so instead of scanning, we rested first. Up close, the structures seemed more random than they had first appeared, large flat slabs with esoteric marks carved into their sides. Cubes, prisms, a solitary cylinder. Their dark surfaces, in contrast to the bleached landscape, defied analysis. Whatever it was, it was manufactured. And now that we were closer, we could see the first inklings of even more structures in the mountains ahead.
Whatever their meaning was, or what purpose they had served, we had no way to tell. All we could know was that they were designed and built. But there was no way to know who the builders were. Perhaps they knew their world was dying, growing too warm to support life any longer, and they needed to leave a monument to the universe, a was to say clearly, for one brief moment we were here. Or maybe this was just a stray artifact, a single moment from the dead world preserved by chance, like five fingers on a metal hand.
All of our data told a single story now. This world was once cold enough to hold life, before it overheated. Our scientists and historians had debated the warm worlds theory over long generations, arguing that this planet, like our own, grew hot thanks to intelligent life run amok. But while we were lucky and stopped in time, there life ran unchecked until the world burned.
We barely escaped the same fate. The people who built these structures had not been so fortunate. It didn’t matter if this was a monument or an accident. They built it, and we would understand it. We would remember them.
Yesterday, I remembered who I was in an idle moment. Tomorrow, I will remember the people who build Venus. In the mountains ahead, we will explore even more of their creations. We will understand them soon, once we reach our destination.
A Short Fiction
Grandad would tell us the stories every evening while Gramma listened.
How he remembered the glorious revolution, when he was a young boy. How he was called to do his duty, and did not hesitate. How he fought alongside his friends, and how some of them fell. He would take Grammas’s hand in his, he would tell us he fought for Grandma, and he would smile.
After he died, Gramma told us her story.
“He was fourteen, and they gave him a gun and a uniform,” she told us. “It was the most terrifying of times.”
Gramma didn’t smile.