Wrong Kind of Speed on the Line

This is my entry for the November/December TCWG short story competition. It is about 1580 words long.

Wrong Kind of Speed on the Line

Today is the day that the London to Edinburgh Maglev service opens to the public. From city centre to city centre in forty-five minutes, it has been forecast to kill domestic flights between the two cities. The inventors are on board, a husband and wife team who travelled on Shanghai’s maglev and decided that they could do better. The Shanghai train does 268mph in service but can do 311mph. This new train can do 665mph and can probably do 666mph but no one wants to say that just in case religious nuts say it’s the Devil’s train.

Passengers are now boarding the train. I have a seat in First Class, along with other politicians, journalists and anyone prepared to bid for a seat in an online auction, which yielded an average price of £817 a seat for a service that will cost £225 each way. Standard Class passengers just paid the normal fare of £160 and from tomorrow, just like any other intercity train, Advance Saver fares will be available online.

In the seat opposite me is my opposite number in the Commons, Jason Freeman, pps to the shadow transport secretary. We’re the most junior MPs officially on board, though some others may have bought tickets as members of the public. Though we sit on opposite sides of the Commons, Jason and I are friends. It helps that we’re both fairly near the political centre within our respective parties but we share a passion for transport and I think we’d be friends even if we were politically further apart.

The doors have just closed and our 1400 departure time is just about upon us. “Ladies and Gentlemen”, a voice is coming over the tannoy, “we are about to depart. Please fasten your seatbelts until the sign goes off. Acceleration is more rapid than anything you’ll have experienced before.”

The seatbelts are a kind of harness and now the train is leaving the station, I understand why they’re needed. It’s 0-100 in 3 seconds, 100-200 in another 2 seconds and the top speed of 665mph is achieved in a fraction over thirteen seconds. It’s like being fired out of a gun. I understand that deceleration from maximum to zero can take as little as 30 seconds, though in that time the train covers between three and four miles!

Though there are windows, we don’t see anything. The train is in a tunnel for the whole journey. Where possible, it’s cut and cover but where not possible, conventional tunnelling has been made.

I’m reading the “in-flight” magazine. Yes, in effect it does fly. It is suspended by magnets, so it never gets closer than four inches from the tunnel walls. The magazine says this, “The train is a magnet and so is the tunnel. The magnets have the same orientation, so the train is always trying to get away from the tunnel. In fact, the motor is the interaction between the train and the tunnel.”

In fact there are six tunnels. A pair serves the express service to Edinburgh. Another pair serves express services that go directly to Leeds and Newcastle, alternating between the two cities, while a third pair is for the stopping service, with stops at Nottingham and Sheffield, as well as Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh. They are already building another set of tunnels to Birmingham, Manchester, where it will split with half going to Liverpool, Dublin and Belfast and the other half going to Glasgow.

We’ve been doing around 660mph for a few minutes now and the seatbelt sign has gone off. Two things are apparent, one that there’s no noise at all from the train and the other that the ride is as smooth as can be imagined.

“So, Jason, it looks like it’s 45 minutes to get plastered! Doesn’t seem to be much to see.” I look at the menu as the refreshments trolley approaches. There is a good selection of alcohol.

Jason replies, “I have brought along my hipflask of Welsh Penderyn Whisky. I think it’s my duty to introduce it to the Scots!” The Welshman grins.

We get our complementary refreshments and buy a bottle of wine to share. I say, “Is this wine strong or is something odd happening in the tunnel?”

Jason looks out of the window and says, “There’s something odd happening. It looks like flecks of light, something from a sci-fi film.”

Indeed, the carriage is getting lighter and lighter as the flecks of light get brighter and brighter. It’s all very strange and all the passengers notice. Then the guard comes on the tannoy and says, “Something strange is happening in the tunnel. The train monitoring equipment says that all systems are working within normal parameters. Whatever the light is, it does not seem to affect the train’s function.”

We’re now approaching the purpose built Edinburgh Maglev Station. The train is slowing quickly, though not anything like as fast as its maximum stopping speed. Instead, unlike the initial acceleration, deceleration is allowed to take some minutes.

Just about everybody on the train has simultaneously asked and exclaimed, “Where’s the official reception? There’s no one on the station!” The station is quite empty. There aren’t even station nameplates up.

The doors have opened and people are getting out. After all, most of the people on the train are in Standard Class and simply wish to travel from London to Edinburgh. We are in Edinburgh, aren’t we? I don’t think we can be anywhere else. Now the VIPs and journalists are also getting out, so I suppose I will too. Maybe the reception party is on ground level.

There is something odd about this place. I can’t say what but somehow it doesn’t feel as if it is Edinburgh, not even Scotland or the United Kingdom. It’s a very odd feeling. Did we crash? Is this the afterlife?

We’ve got to ground level and the lobby of the station is opulent and very attractive, though not decorated as I expected. However, there is a problem. No one’s around and the exits are locked.

Now everyone is out of the train and on ground level. Now there’s an announcement. Someone with a very foreign accent, though his English is good, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please do not panic. The doors are locked for a good reason. You are not on Earth. I would like to welcome you to Hukyu, a planet some 450 light years from Earth. We will shortly come to give you an induction into the ways of our planet and we will then let you out to visit the city of Gon, where this station is located. Please do not be alarmed by our appearance. We are friendly and you will be able to return to Earth.”

It seems that either someone is staging an elaborate practical joke or we really have arrived on another planet.

A door has just opened and the creatures walking in simply must be aliens. Otherwise, this is the most elaborate practical joke in history. I cannot begin to describe the creatures – there’s just nothing on Earth that looks remotely like these things.

The creature that appears to be the leader is now beginning to speak. “You may wonder how you got here. The answer is a fluke. Travelling in a maglev at 663.2mph for precisely 19.6 seconds and then either accelerating or decelerating will initiate entry to hyperspace. Depending on the degree of acceleration or deceleration after the 19.6 seconds at 663.2mph will determine which planet is your destination. Doing it in a maglev leads to your destination being another planet that has developed maglev. You can also do it in an aircraft with a self-generated magnetic bubble around the plane. Then you can visit any planet. We will teach you how to use hyperspace to explore the universe.”

Someone shouts, “Why is it 663.2mph for 19.6seconds?”

“It’s to do with the Universe’s natural frequency and harmonics. As time passes, the frequency changes but it will remain at its current level for at least 50 million years.

“We suggest that as this trip was unplanned, you should spend the afternoon in Gon and return to the station at 6pm for your return to Earth. That gives you three hours in our city and our technicians three hours to programme the right sequence into your maglev train to return it to Earth heading towards Edinburgh. We will also give you an instruction manual on how to explore the Universe by maglev, including the best and worst planets to visit. I just warn you that you’ve luckily come to a friendly civilization. Not all planets have friendly inhabitants. Agronatti is populated by carnivores who lust after exotic meats and, if you land there, you’ll be invited to dinner as the main course!

“Enjoy your visit to Gon and I hope that you’ll visit for holidays in the future. Today, all our traders and attractions will give you their goods and services free within reason.”

The doors are now being opened. It’s a nice sunny day. The sky is a hazy green and the first thing I’m going to do is to try alien food. I just hope that the Hukyuans don’t wish to eat me.

Well, I’m going to stop live blogging now but just one last word, I’ve just been told that the citizens of Gon are known as Gonads! It made me laugh…

© Charles Stuart 2017

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An Alien Solution to a Problem with the A36

This is my entry for the June 2017 TCWG short story competition. As usual it’s a science fiction story and it has about 1845 words.

An Alien Solution to a Problem with the A36

“Captain, we’re out of control, our engines are dead a we’re destined to crash into that planet! Our only hope is our thrusters, which may enable us to avoid burning up in the atmosphere.” The Chief Engineer’s voice yelled through the speaker.

“Navigator, do what you can with thrusters and everyone else, strap yourselves down and prepare for a crash landing!” The captain made the extraordinary order and then just prayed that he and his crew would survive.

The Navigator did remarkably well, keeping the spacecraft turning on its axis so it didn’t overheat, and as it approached a landing site, he got the spaceship into a good position for landing. However, the landing was a disaster. Seconds before touchdown, the spaceship collided with the top ten feet of a tall tree. This threw the spaceship up into the air, turning it so that its orientation was now perpendicular to the planet’s surface. Still turning on its axis, it drilled its way into the centre of the junction between the A36 and the A366, where the latter goes east to Farleigh Hungerford and Trowbridge. The spaceship was buried to just above its middle and all exits were sealed by the ground and melting asphalt from the road.

The Captain called out, “Casualty reports, damage reports! Why are we suspended with everything on its side?”

Fortunately no one was hurt but the spaceship was stuck fast with everything at 90° to how it should be. Getting from deck to deck was OK but getting from one compartment or cabin to the next was very difficult. Injuries had been avoided because everything heavy was securely fastened to the floor and people were securely fastened to the things. But this meant that most equipment and basic things like beds and tables were unusable because they were now stuck to the “walls”. As for bathrooms, they were quite unusable.

The Captain managed to assemble his senior staff in one of the meeting rooms and they sat on the wall that was now the floor, looking at the table, chairs and computer that were stuck to the floor that was now a wall. The captain had a laptop, which was connected by wifi to the spaceship’s computer. He began, “Somehow we’ve got stuck nose down. How can we extricate ourselves from this? How long will it take?”

The Chief Engineer said, “I don’t think that we can get out of this by ourselves. We’re well and truly stuck. We can repair the engines but we can’t start them because the lubricant won’t be in contact with the right parts. Kearsian, the immensely strong material that protects us from damage when we collide with space debris also means that, with the doors totally jammed, we’re completely imprisoned and reliant on being rescued. Without engines we only have electricity from solar panels and 90% of their output is needed to run the recycling plant. The remaining 10% will have to be rationed for all other uses.”

The Ship’s Doctor added his comments, “There were no injuries in the crash, and so my main concern is that sooner or later we will all need to use the lavatory. Right now, I’ve put buckets on every deck for people to use but they’ll be disgusting by evening and we’ll start to run out of buckets pretty quickly. Having liaised with Maintenance, I have established that there are only four lavatories that can be easily reoriented for use in our current position. That’s not many for 250 people. The other issue is air and ventilation. I understand that the engine vents have been opened and they will supply sufficient ventilation, even though that’s not their purpose.”

The Communications Officer was next to speak, “Without more power, it’s not possible to send a distress signal to the homeworld. However, there’s a chance that we can use this planet’s technology. I’m trying to hack in to their systems and I hope that I might be able to do something in two or three weeks. In the short-term, all cameras are offline and we have no idea in what we have become ensnared. I hope to have the aft cameras operational within a couple of hours. They don’t use much energy, so at least we can look to see where we are.”

The Captain gave orders, the most important of which were to conserve energy wherever possible and to get at least one loo working by the end of the day.

It was 0535 when Avon and Somerset police received the emergency call. The caller phoned to say that a meteorite had crashed into the A36 where it intersects the A366 eastbound. A patrol car was despatched and confirmed the report. A civil engineer was called from the Highways Agency to assess the damage to the road and the degree of obstruction caused by the meteorite.

Geoffrey Palmer and some workmen arrived at the scene at 0620. He was surprised to see that there was no crater surrounding the area of impact. He didn’t know that the spaceship had gone in like a drill. He also didn’t know that it was a spaceship. To him and every other observer, it looked like a huge shard of obsidian, which was actually the coating of Kearsian. He correctly estimated that the spaceship was about seventeen or eighteen feet long, the shape of a double-ended pencil and about eight feet in diameter, with about eight feet showing above the surface of the road. Around the point at the top there appeared to be a number of holes but it was not possible to see how deeply the holes went into the meteorite.

He went right up close to it to see if he could see anything interesting about it. At that point, the Communications Officer got one of the aft cameras working and the first thing he saw was unmistakeably a huge eyeball! “Oh my God!” He exclaimed. “The aliens on this planet are absolutely gigantic. This eyeball is half the size of a person! A baby could fit in the pupil.” Whether that last statement is actually true is questionable but it expressed his feelings to his colleagues. Geoffrey moved back from the meteorite/spaceship and the Communications Officer could now see the creature looking in. “The aliens are like us”, he said, “but absolutely enormous.”

Geoffrey had no idea that he was being observed and was busy working out whether the road should be closed and how to deal with the meteorite. “I think that the road is stable enough to remain open”, he said. “We’ll have to remove the meteorite but doing so now and closing this road during the working week will be a nightmare. As the road structure is stable, I suggest turning the meteorite into a temporary roundabout.” The workmen had the necessary equipment to restructure the junction as a roundabout and the work was completed as the rush hour reached its peak.

That rush hour was utterly chaotic, as TV and radio stations despatched reporters to report on what was the day’s main news story. Of course, next there were the sightseers but by the next morning’s rush hour the roundabout was working well. In fact, many motorists felt that it worked a lot better than the intended arrangement of the A366 giving way to the A36. Soon there were phone calls to local radio stations, such as BBC Somerset, calling for the roundabout to be made permanent.

Meanwhile, on the spaceship, the crew were adjusting to their bizarre existence and had realized that their spaceship was now being used as a traffic island, the centre of a roundabout. A series of rope ladders meant that people could get around each deck. Work was continuing on trying to find a way to send a distress signal home and the loos had been sorted as well as could be hoped for. Life was strange but at least it wasn’t too unpleasant.

But then something alarmed the crew of the spaceship. To pass the time, they’d tuned in to Earth’s radio stations and they heard a phone-in where people were calling for the meteorite (as the people of Earth still thought the spaceship was) to be left in situ and to become a permanent roundabout. They thought that they’d never escape their incarceration. Then another caller to the phone-in pointed out that just a little further up the road was the massive congestion over the Limpley Stoke Viaduct, Brassknocker Hill and Winsley Hill. Someone asked how one could improve traffic flows in an area of outstanding natural beauty without damaging that scenery. Someone else suggested putting the A36 through a tunnel to bypass the traffic lights and said that would make the A36 a much better road to drive on, together with the roundabout. The crew were quite lost, not knowing anything about parochial issues of Bath and North East Somerset but feeling that they might be left permanently in a hole in the ground.

But after nearly two weeks it was a Sunday and the road was closed. A large crane arrived and workmen drilled away some of the road to free the meteorite/spaceship. Chains were attached to the meteorite and it was lifted onto the back of a lorry. For the first time in nearly a fortnight the spaceship was oriented correctly relative to gravity, though it was only chance that led the crane operator to lay it the right way up. It was then chained to the lorry.

Though as far as anybody on Earth knew, the thing was a meteorite, it was nonetheless decided to take it to the Air Accident Investigation Branch at Farnborough for examination. Once there, it was delivered to a hangar, where it was placed in a specially built cradle.

The people inside the spaceship were still several days from completing repairs to their engines. With the spaceship the right way up, they had started to clean the door mechanisms. On the outside, workers at the AAIB had started to clean the outside in order to look at the whole meteorite without the contamination of pieces of A36. A woman technician on the cleaning team was cleaning an area with indentations when something she prodded caused a panel to spring open. She called out to her supervisor, “I think it’s a spaceship! I’ve found a panel that opens to reveal writing and switches.” As her supervisor ran over to look, she scraped a grain of asphalt-covered sand off a switch and accidentally activated it. A door swung open and there was a little man, the size of a newborn kitten, standing behind it! She picked him up but it was obvious that he was really terrified, so she gently stroked his head and put him back and he signalled a thank you. With that action, both the spaceship occupants and the people of Earth realized that they could be friends with each other.

This was the beginning and not the end.

© Charles Stuart 2017

When They Met Again

This is my entry for the April 2017 TCWG short story writing competition. It has approximately 1440 words.

When They Met Again

The two spaceships went their separate ways, completely unaware that one day they’d meet again. Viewed from their home star, one went left and the other went right. The two ships were enormous and completely identical. Each was a space borne nation with 100 million sentient beings aboard, plus approximately 10 billion other animals and a further 100 billion plants. Each was the size of a large moon, with sufficient mass to have its own atmosphere. Thus, the surface was used for farming and recreation, and the people lived in multiple layers beneath the surface, while the core contained the engines, water supply and sewage works. Each spaceship had the same species on board to try and ensure that the home planet’s flora, fauna and civilisation would survive for eternity. All the sentient beings knew how lucky they were, being among the five percent of the population who would survive the eventual demise of their planet.

The two spaceships headed off to explore the universe, heading in opposite directions in broadly straight lines. Within a few weeks they could no longer communicate with each other and a couple of months later they were no longer able to communicate with their home planet. Each one was now on its own.

To go into detail about the adventures of the two spaceships would take a million pages and what happened between the day they lost contact with each other and the day they first sensed each other again is not relevant to this story. The happenings some ten billion years later are the story.

In the control room of one of the spaceships, the officer in charge of long-range scanning reported to the commander, “Sir, I really don’t think this is a reflection but I’m seeing an identical craft to ours just on the edge of sensor range. We’ll be able to communicate without an unreasonable amount of time lag in about two days, if we both maintain our current courses and speeds.”

The commander responded, “Keep monitoring the other craft and send it a message to let it know we’ve detected it. Let me know as soon as we can have a two-way conversation. History tells us that there was another craft and it went in the opposite direction. If it is that craft, we’ll have proof that the Universe is a sphere.

“All defence units to yellow alert!”

Turning back to the communications officer, he said, “After ten billion years, how do we know that they’ll be friendly?”

Meanwhile, events on the other craft followed a similar pattern.

A couple of days passed and the communications officer notified the commander that the two spaceships were close enough to attempt communication. A hail was issued and an affirmative response received. A visual link was established and both commanders and crew did a double-take. Expecting to see creatures the same as themselves, they were unprepared for the differences. The crew of the spacecraft that had gone left had blue skin, green or orange eyes, depending on the individual, and furry hands with pink fur. They were also squat and rotund. The crew of the spaceship that had gone right were completely furry, with red fur but where their skin showed, it was canary yellow. They had blue or purple eyes, depending on the individual, and were tall and lanky with very long fingers.

Then there was the issue of language. Initially, they couldn’t understand each other but after some careful analysis, it became apparent that the language had diverged much less than the physical appearance. In fact, most of the language was identical in writing but pronunciation had diverged to the point that the spoken languages on the two craft were mutually unintelligible. Each craft had developed slight differences of word usage and some entirely new words but the differences were more like those between Spanish and Portuguese. It took linguists just a few minutes to work out the differences and establish communications.

With such noticeable physical differences, the two crews wondered just how much their DNA had diverged. No one had actually studied how much the DNA had changed on each ship compared to the crew who had set off some ten billion years earlier. What they found was that DNA had changed by about 0.2% on each ship and that the two crews had about 99.7% of their DNA in common.

The next thing was to arrange a meeting. It was agreed that representatives from the ship that went right would visit the ship that went left because the squat and rotund creatures of the ship that went left would struggle to get through the narrow doorways of the ship that went right. They might also struggle with the door handles.

Upon arrival, the first thing that the two species noticed about each other was the smell. They found each other pungent, to say the least. The representatives of both sides, being diplomats, dreamt of open sewers to take their minds off the smell. Soon it was found that a smell similar to that of strawberries was an effective mask to the smell of both species.

While their physical appearances altered enormously compared to the creatures that set off ten billion years earlier, both crews had maintained knowledge of their ancient history. Thus, friendship was always going to result from the encounter. One crew might have looked like beach balls with arms and legs, while the other looked like various versions of Chewbacca that had spent a rather long time on the rack but they had a common ancestry and looking back at history files that had only been viewed occasionally by academics for the last twenty million generations they realised that the common ancestor didn’t look like either of the current crews. Yet they were able to see how they could have evolved to their current forms and a constant spray of strawberry scent kept feelings of nausea at bay. One couple even wondered if sex was possible between members of the two crews.

The two captains met. On one spaceship it was an honorary position that was hereditary, like a constitutional monarch, while on the other it was an elected office with real power, much like a prime minister or US president. Neither was actually in charge of commanding the operation of the spacecraft. Both were more political and the day to day operations of the spacecraft were under the control of each one’s defence force. As heads of state, the two captains had a state dinner. Fortunately, the food on each spaceship had remained fairly similar over ten billion years. OK, there had been divergence in recipes but the basic plants and animals from which it was made were almost unchanged.

The rotund captain, the one who was elected and had real political power, said over a crustacean starter, “What do we do now? Between us we’ve completely circumnavigated the Universe and we meet roughly where each of us has travelled around half of the Universe. We could keep going and meet back where our home planet was located. Or do we go somewhere new together?”

His opposite number replied, “I think that we should travel further together. While nothing serious has happened for a million years, we have records of encountering aggressive species that have tested our defences to their limits. With a combination of our resources and scientific knowledge, I think that we’ll never face a serious threat again. Also, though we were meant to keep our population stable, it has grown, as has yours. By ourselves, it would be hard to build a new spaceship to expand our available space but the two of us together could do it easily. Not too far away is a solar system with rocky planets and no life. We could build several spaceships from the available material.”

The rotund captain liked the idea. He replied, “In our long history, our citizens have always disliked population control measures and if we had a new spaceship into which we could expand, that would be popular. I could win the next election on this.”

When the two creatures finished their meal, they did so with a feeling of mutual understanding and friendship. This was an unexpected reunion that made the two sides realise that perhaps they should never have gone their separate ways ten billion years earlier. A new beginning awaited where these friends would travel the Universe in an ever increasing convoy of spaceships. There were plenty of life-free solar systems from which they could build more and more spaceships. Life looked good!

©Charles Stuart 2017

Green Fluorescent Electric Cats

This is my entry for the March 2017 TCWG short story competition. This story is totally bonkers because it’s based on a dream I had a few years ago. The South Korean scientist and his experiment were real but everything else was a product of my dreaming mind. It’s about 1650 words long.

Green Fluorescent Electric Cats

The security guards’ uniforms were somewhat different to any I’d seen before. They looked like Confucian figures in long, flowing robes and caps. Each man or woman held one arm horizontally and this was because a cat rested in each of those sleeves of each of those arms. Thus, a guard who was right-handed would carry a cat in his left sleeve and a guard who was left-handed would carry a cat in his right sleeve.

It seemed strange that security guards would do their jobs while carrying around cats. But the cats made a vital contribution to the security of the complex. They could do something that other cats and other animals couldn’t do.

It all started with a South Korean scientist who managed to introduce the gene for Green Fluorescent Protein into cats. His work was purely academic and intended as a genuine piece of scientific research. However, it wasn’t long before there were rich people clamouring for Green Fluorescent cats.

Someone with less honourable intent managed to reproduce the experiment and started to sell these GM animals to the highest bidder. Soon people wanted other freaky features in their pets and someone somewhere successfully incorporated the gene from an electric eel for generating an electric shock into a cat.

All was well and good in this genetic engineering underworld until someone took delivery of a male green fluorescent kitten and a female electric kitten. What happened next was feline sex and more kittens. Two or three generations on, evolutionary amalgamation of the two introduced traits had a very strange and ultimately useful effect.

Now I was coming to the entrance of the complex where I was going to work nights for the next few weeks. There was a large van painted with a logo and the company name FSPC plc. I knew that this was the company providing security, not my employer. FSPC stood for Feline Security and Pest Control and it is a new entrant to the security industry.

I entered the complex for the first time. I had a three-month contract and, before I could start, I had to go to an induction meeting. At the meeting I was shown a video about the company’s security arrangements.

The video began, “FSPC is the UK’s newest and most radical security company. Using trained cats instead of dogs, we have revolutionized business premises security in just one year. We have introduced cats to the UK’s security industry, currently on an experimental basis. So far there has not been one burglary or security breach at any premises we patrol. We believe that our genetically modified cats are invincible!”

The complex was large and in addition to the cats being carried by security guards, there were other cats wandering around the corridors. I asked the person conducting the induction if they were a part of the security arrangements. “No,” he replied. “They’re for pest control. The complex comprises many old buildings and there’s a persistent rodent problem. These are, though, cats with the same genetic modification.”

I was wondering about this genetic modification and why it made the cats special. On the surface, they did just look like ordinary cats, though they did glow green in the dark. “Surely that glowing makes them vulnerable to an armed intruder?”

“No. The cats only glow when they’re happy, a bit like visual purring. The more contented they are, the brighter the shade of green that they glow. However, as soon as they sense danger, they stop glowing. When they get angry or wish to hunt, something strange happens.”

No one seemed interested in telling me what the strange thing was that happens. I was just warned not to do anything nasty to the cats.

I settled down to my job, which was pretty much a lone affair, with no one for company most of the time. From time to time a cat would walk by. Then, at about 9pm, I noticed a cat with a large rat in its mouth. There was a strange smell a bit like singed flesh. I didn’t connect it with the cat or the rat but at about 11pm another cat went by with a rat in its mouth and there was the same smell.

Someone brought me some more work and I asked, “I’ve seen two cats with rats this evening and each time there’s been a smell like singed flesh. Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the rat has been gnawing electricity cables. Maybe the cats have been sleeping too near the boilers, “ was the reply that I got.

I like cats but there was something very odd about these GM animals. And the security guards outside were now reminding me of zombies. This was all too strange, particularly as no one would tell me how and why these cats were better than dogs for patrolling the complex.

As the night went on I saw more cats with rats they’d caught and each time there was this singed flesh smell. I decided not to press issue as it really didn’t matter and it was obvious that no one would tell me what was going on.

I finished my shift at the complex and went home. I didn’t know what to make of the surrealist scenes that I’d seen. Anyway, the first day was over and I’d be there again the next evening.

And so it was. The next evening came and I arrived for work at the complex. There were the Confucian figures or zombies patrolling the grounds and inside there were cats catching rats and mice and the strange singed smell. I settled down to work.

At about 10.30pm I needed to go to another building in the complex. As I was walking down the link road, I came to a junction and saw a big juicy rat. Across the other side of the road there was a cat, eyes fixed on the rat. I decided to watch. The rat seemed quite unaware of either the cat or me. As the rat got near the cat and I expected to see the cat pounce, something else quite strange happened. The first thing that happened was that the cat stopped fluorescing. Next, it simply stayed where it was and didn’t pounce at all. Then I noticed its eyes. The appearance of the tapetums changed from reflective green to red. They then quickly got brighter, turning orange, the yellow and then yellow-white, all in a couple of seconds. Then two lime green beams emitted from the cat’s eyes and blasted the rat! The cat ran over and collected its quarry.

I was quite taken aback by what I’d seen. It seemed like something from a horror film, a cat with laser eyes. I did what I had to do and returned to my workstation. There was no one around to talk to and, as it seemed no one wanted me to know what the cats could do, I decided that I’d better keep what I’d seen to myself.

At about 1am a messenger came to me and said, “Mr Simpson, Head of Security, wishes to see you now.”

I didn’t have anything to fear and I reckoned that it was a routine check. I went to Mr Simpson’s office and knocked on the door. “Enter,” he said. I entered. He immediately knew who I was, even though I’d never seen him before.

He beckoned to me, “Come in and sit down.

“Our CCTV shows that you witnessed a cat catching a rat earlier. If the abilities of these cats become widely known, what do you think will happen? Don’t answer! I’ll tell you. The populace will either want them all destroyed as freaks or they will all want one. Neither outcome would be good for us. I’m afraid that you’re going to have to die.”

Looking like Blofeld from a James Bond film, he didn’t have a white Persian but he leant over to pick up an extremely large Maine Coon and started to stroke it. Its eyes turned red and I realized that Mr Simpson was going to shoot me with a cat!

Remembering the time taken by the cat firing at the rat, I decided that I could duck just before this cat would fire. That is what I did and the cat’s laser eyes blew the door right off its hinges! I took the opportunity to escape and ran like I’ve never run before. I left the building and didn’t head for the complex’s main entrance and this possibly saved my life. When I managed to compose my thoughts, I decided to run for the river at the back of the complex and swim upstream. Because the security guards were looking to protect the complex from intruders, they weren’t expecting to try to stop someone from escaping. At least, that’s what I surmised because I got to the river a swam away without being challenged.

When I got out of the water, I ran to the local town and ran into the police station. Of course, when I tried to report that Mr Simpson had tried to kill me using a cat as a weapon, they thought I was crazy. No one believed me at all. I really wasn’t sure what to do and I didn’t know whether Mr Simpson would come after me or not. One thing was for certain and that is that nothing would or will make me go back to the complex.

You know, I was really quite pleased when the men in white coats came to take me to the funny farm.

© Charles Stuart 2017

Rasputin’s Dream

This is my entry for the February 2017 TCWG short story competition. Being a short month, this is a very short story, just meeting the minimum length at 535 words for the story, with the introduction taking it to about 600 words in total.

Rasputin’s Dream

This is a cat called Rasputin (the fluffy one) and as you can see, like most cats, he spends most of his time asleep.

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He lives at The Bag O’ Nails in Hotwells, Bristol, along with many other cats. I am a regular customer of this pub, where I do the quiz most Tuesdays. I thought that I’d imagine being him and create a story of his dream.


Settling down for my fourteenth nap of the day, I drift into a pleasant dream. I’m out on Brandon Hill chasing mice, squirrels birds and the like. As I wander around the park, I encounter a young woman. She has a foreign accent and she bends down to pet me. She asks me my name and I reply, “Rasputin.”

She looks at me and says, “And I’m the Tsarina Alexandra! I need to know how to avoid the Bolsheviks.”

Looking back at her quizzically, I respond, “What are Bolsheviks and why do you have to avoid them all? I really don’t know the answer but a diet rich in field mice seems to serve me well.”

“I’m not really sure that field mice are a good diet for a tsarina. Being royal, I’d rather have caviar. I’m sure you would too. Doesn’t the thought of fish eggs make you salivate?”

“Yes, I guess it does. But I think I’d also like to eat the fish, not just its gametes.”

“I’m sure that could be arranged.” She strokes me and I purr.

“You still haven’t told me what a Bolshevik is. Could I catch one and eat it?”

“Well, I guess that would be one way for me to avoid at least one.” She looked around as if being hunted. “A Bolshevik is a communist, a most despicable type of human. Do you think that all the cats in Russia could hunt them down and eat all the Bolsheviks? I’m sure I could arrange for you to have the tastiest.”

I lick her hand and say, “I’m not sure that we cats want to eat humans because you give us warmth, shelter and CHICKEN!” Yes, the thought of chicken has my salivary glands working overtime.

She looks at me and says, “But the White Russians will give you all that and more if you eat the Bolsheviks.”

I think, “Bolsheviks raw, Bolsheviks roasted, Bolsheviks fried, Bolsheviks Bolognese. Yes, Bolsheviks Bolognese sounds good, but hold the spaghetti!” I entwine myself around her legs and she strokes me. She sits on a bench and we continue to discuss what to do with the Bolsheviks.

She continues, “You see, Rasputin, you are my advisor. I need you to tell me what I should say to my husband, the Tsar. The War isn’t going well for Russia and we may have to surrender.”

“Tell the Tsar that the War doesn’t matter, the Bolsheviks should be minced and made into spaghetti sauce and all the cats in Russia will help.”

The young woman looks at me and says, “I don’t really know much of my country’s history and I may have all the facts and dates muddled up. But does it matter. Is this my dream or yours?”

“It’s my dream and I think it’s ending because I sense the presence of chicken.”

I awaken to find one of the pub’s customers dangling a large piece of chicken in front of my nose and two customers discussing the Russian 1917 October Revolution. I’m just about to take the meat when Wolfgang, the Siamese, grabs it. But no worries, the customer has another piece.

The Electric Night Nurse

This is my entry for January’s TCWG short story competition. It is about 1865 words.

The Electric Night Nurse

“When we introduced robotic porters people said they wouldn’t work. Yet, five years later we have redeployed all the night porters and just have supervisory staff during the day. The robotic porters work well and the Trust has saved several million pounds over those five years.

“Now we’re going to try something really new – android nurses! We will introduce six onto the wards as an experiment. Our research showed that patients wouldn’t accept nursing from something that’s obviously a machine but a lifelike android was much more acceptable. Researchers have now perfected the technology and except when they go to recharge, they just look like normal human nurses. We have developed a large number of different models, with different personalities and different skills, though if a particular skill is needed by a particular nurse that doesn’t normally possess that skill, it will be able to instantly download the required information over WiFi from the central computer.

“The nurses will begin arriving from the factory next week and the first six will work the least popular night shifts initially. This will mean that far fewer people will have to work those shifts, though as with the robotic porters, they will initially work alongside people, rather than replace them. And, when we’re confident that they can work unsupervised, we will redeploy human nurses from nights to days, thus increasing the nurse:patient ratio when patients are most likely to be awake.”

The chairman of the NHS Trust finished telling his board about the new “employees” at the general hospital. The board members knew this would happen, as they’d agreed to let their main hospital pilot the technology.

After cellophane wrapping had been removed from the newly arrived android nurses and they’d had an initial 12-hour charge, they looked and behaved just like human nurses. Being the world’s first true androids, as opposed to robots, the human nurses were astonished by the accuracy of the androids’ human features. There were four “females” and two “males” in the initial consignment of six androids.

Having been sent to get some disposable bedpans from a storeroom, a newly qualified nurse exited the room giggling almost uncontrollably. Approaching a colleague she didn’t yet know to give her the bedpans, she apologized for her giggles and said, “It’s just so funny! There are four androids currently recharging and it looks as if they’re sitting on a row of toilets. The chargers even have toilet lids!”

Her colleague said, “I know. I am one of the androids. The lids are dust covers.”

Surprised, the new nurse blurted out, “But you look so human, so natural! How?”

“Our manufacturer has done that intentionally to be reassuring to patients who have nagging doubts about being treated by a machine.”

“And you have a personality and individuality!”

“Yes, again that’s been done to help us to interact with patients in a way that feels natural to them.”

“I feel a bit confused but I better get back to work.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to us and soon you won’t have to work a nightshift unless that’s your choice.” The two nurses went their separate ways.

The android nurse was working in a Critical Care ward and she was checking the patients. Reaching the bed of an elderly man, she felt through the sensors in her fingers that he was going into cardiac arrest. She stopped and her expression went completely blank for about three seconds. She then drew the curtain around the patient, pressed the emergency button to summon the crash team and began administering CPR. The crash team was there very quickly but found the nurse had successfully restarted the patient’s heart and was administering drugs to stabilize him. All that was needed was a decision to move the patient to Intensive Care.

Speaking at the next weekly board meeting of the hospital’s administrators, the team member in charge of the android programme announced, “I have some very exciting news. Last night, while doing the rounds, Android 005, also known as Annabel, encountered a patient going into cardiac arrest. Annabel immediately downloaded the patient’s medical history in order to determine the best way to treat him. While she correctly summoned the crash team, she administered CPR so efficiently that in the 30 seconds or so that it took the crash team to arrive, she had restarted the patient’s heart and was administering drugs to stabilize his condition. To give the patient the best chance of recovery he was moved to intensive care but he’s doing well and will probably be moved back to the Surgical Ward today.

“This really is a case of ‘androids are better’ and I propose issuing a press release saying just how the android saved this man’s life. However, I recognize the fear among nursing unions that nurses’ jobs may be undermined if androids can do all the work. We have to allay those fears and reassure nurses that real people will always be needed in the profession and that androids will only augment and not replace human personnel.”

That evening when the new nurse who had seen the androids recharging was back on shift, she had a break and was talking to a friend taking a break at the same time. “Do you know where those androids have their charging ports?”

“No.” Her colleague replied.

“Up their bums! Where we have a hole, they have a port.”

“Did you hear how Annabel saved a man’s life last night?”

“No. It must have been after I talked to her. What did she do?”

She told her how Annabel encountered a patient going into cardiac arrest and saved his life or at least ensured that he was a lot less sick than he would have been.

The new nurse asked, “Does that mean that we’ll soon be made redundant as androids take over?”

“I know the unions are concerned about that issue but the Trust has issued a statement saying that androids augment the nursing service and don’t threaten nursing jobs. The reps are going to meet management tomorrow. I will feel much happier if my union rep is convinced by whatever the management has to say. If the androids are this good, what hope is there for us?”

“I really like my job and I’ve only been in it a couple of months. I hope that I’m not forced to look for another job because an android has taken mine!” The new nurse was wistful.

Addressing the meeting with management, a union official from one of the nursing unions said, “We are delighted that an android saved a patient’s life. That is what we all work for in the Health Service. However, my members are concerned about their continued employment and whether there will be redundancies as androids take over. We need concrete assurances that there will be no redundancies and no reductions in staffing levels among the nursing profession.”

The response was, “The Trust has no plans to replace human nurses with android nurses. The intention is to improve the number of nurses available by supplementing our human employees with androids. As I’m sure you’re aware, people need to be paid a salary but androids just need a capital outlay and periodic recharging. Humans are still required for some aspects of the profession but androids can take over the less enjoyable work, the more mundane tasks and unpopular working hours. We cannot replace human nurses with androids, the way we’ve replaced porters with robots. Androids are great in a crisis, such as the patient going into cardiac arrest but they’re less capable when it comes to day to day management.

“If a time comes when androids are so good that they can take over completely, the nursing unions will be fully consulted. However, the cost benefit ratio of a human versus an android is very similar and each has its advantages over the other. This financial aspect will not change much in coming years because as we get more androids, we’ll be able to train more human nurses in specialisms. We get more androids and because we get more androids we are able to get more specialized, better trained and better paid human nurses. It’s a win/win situation for everyone.

“The Chief Executive knows the concerns of the nursing staff and will be available to the union representatives to discuss these concerns directly.”

The meeting continued for some time.

Later in the day the unions issued a joint statement to their members and the press, “Today we met with the management of the Trust to discuss the impact of android nurses upon our members. While the Trust gave verbal assurances, they were not prepared to match these with something in writing. Thus, we conclude that we had waffles for brunch, while listening to meaningless waffle.

“At this point we will not be balloting our members over any industrial action but we cannot rule out the possibility that this may develop into a dispute. Our members need an assurance in writing about the long-term. Our members need to know that the Trust will not stop using people as nurses. Nurses undergo rigorous training and, like doctors, continue to train throughout their careers. These people do not wish to find that their skills, acquired through years of work, are redundant.

“If the Trust sticks by what they’ve said to us, we’ll be very happy. However, that they they will not put it in writing makes us, the unions’ representatives, suspicious of their motives and we will be vigilant. We welcome new technology but it cannot be at the expense of nurses’ careers.”

When this statement was issued, anyone looking in would have instantly known who was a person and who (?) was an android. An atmosphere of apprehension and uncertainty was pervasive.

“1970s Industrial Disputes Revisited!” The headline on a national tabloid screamed. “Nurses’ Unions Poised for Extended Dispute!” Another headline yelled. But what was the truth? The unions had specifically said that they weren’t in a dispute, at least not yet. More reasoned articles in the broadsheets suggested that the management may have made a mistake by only giving verbal assurances but that the unions should also give the new technology a chance. One thing was certain and that was that this otherwise unremarkable general hospital was besieged by journalists from all over the world. One even claimed to have interviewed a robotic porter! (Probably The National Enquirer from the US because the robots had very limited communications capabilities.)

How this would all pan out, no one could tell. By trialling android nurses a moderately busy but otherwise unimportant provincial general hospital had become the focus of the world’s media. To be honest, after about a week, the staff and patients just wished they’d move on and find something else to focus their attention upon. But androids possibly displacing human employees is a huge human interest story and the media were to stick around like barnacles. Meanwhile, the nurses, human and android, got on with their jobs and for the time being, there was industrial peace.

Toenails

This is my entry for the TCWG short story competition for November on the subject of “harvest”. My story is around 1760 words long.

Toenails

The inauguration ceremony and all the celebratory events were over and the new president and his wife retired to the president’s private apartment in the White House. He looked at his wife and said, “I’ve got some business that I must attend to before going to bed. You go and make yourself comfortable and I’ll join you shortly.”

The president entered the private study within the presidential apartment and shut the door. Nothing like as grand as the Oval Office, it was nonetheless well appointed and comfortable. He sat in a big leather armchair, leant forwards and carefully loosened his face. The prosthesis slowly came off to reveal his true self, an extraterrestrial arthropod. Out loud he said to himself in his native language, “That feels better!” And then he got to work.

He picked up a small device that was actually some type of small walkie talkie that could transmit over massive distances. Comfortable in the feeling that he was safe, he called his contact who was many light years away. A bit like Star Trek’s subspace radio, this device could communicate in real time over the distance. He got a response to his hail. What to human ears would sound like a series of clicks, to him was a beautiful language, the language of his home world that he’d left some twenty years earlier for this difficult mission.

He greeted his contact and then said, “I can’t believe those dumb Americans elected me! But they did and I am now the President of the United States of America. For the most part, I will govern them well because it’s the power that I need, not anything about them, at least nothing consequential.

“What is it exactly that you want me to deliver?”

The creature at the other end of the communication device replied, “Toenails! Millions of tons of human toenails. More precisely, we need a fungus that grows on human toenails and nowhere else. For decades we’ve tried to grow it on other media but it just wont take.”

“So you want me to talk down the strange goings on as we abduct millions of Americans to harvest their toenails?”

“In essence, that’s it. We’ve been abducting people at a very low rate for years but we can’t get round the fact that about one in twenty remembers something of the experience. We’ve tried all sorts of memory block methods but we’ve always ended up with some people remembering something of what we did to them. When we’re abducting over a million Americans per night, that will mean at least 50,000 will have some kind of memory. Your task is to keep the people calm, assure them that there’s nothing harmful happening but also try to note who the people are who remember. We will try to avoid abducting them too often.”

“Well, these Americans are so gullible. I’m sure that I can come up with something but I think it’s important that we do not abduct anybody in a position of power: legislators, judges, police officers and the like. We should also avoid abducting any celebrities. We need the majority of the population to think that the tales of abduction are fiction by attention seekers.”

“You have your instructions. Now, govern America well, so you win a second term and we should be able to harvest enough toenails to last us indefinitely. I congratulate you on your election and wish you goodnight!”

The president responded and signed off. He leant forwards and slowly reattached the prosthetic face. He went to bed and made love to his wife. Little did she know why they had had to adopt children. Meanwhile, the mass abductions began.

The first night went well. 3.2 million Americans were abducted while they slept and the vast majority remembered nothing, though a few were confused by the fact that their toenails appeared to have been trimmed neatly to the quick. However, around 155,000 remembered something and aliens impregnated far-fetched ideas into their minds to confuse and muddle their memories. As a result reports of aliens carrying out anal probes went right up, despite the fact that the aliens only wanted toenails.

After a month or so, when the aliens had a good-sized batch of toenails, they decided to reduce nightly abductions to about one million. However, with about one in twenty remembering something of the experience, the media, particularly daytime TV talkshows were pre-occupied with stories of alien abductions. Because of the intentional befuddlement of those who did remember something, there were some quite incredible stories, such as the man from Idaho who claimed to have been disassembled, dissected and reassembled while remaining conscious throughout!

The President was kept informed about the growing public unease and fear that aliens wanted their bodies. He decided to address the nation on the subject during one his regular Roosevelt-style fireside chats. “People are alarmed by the huge rise in the number of reports of alien abductions. I can assure you that the FBI, the CIA and the Air Force are all investigating the reports. So far there is no evidence to suggest that aliens are abducting Americans. The reports show no sign of the reports being true. There is no evidence that we have been contacted in any way by an advanced alien race and no one has been hurt during these so-called abductions. Psychologists talk of mass hysteria causing people to imagine the same trail of events. I do not know why there’s been a big increase in such reports but I can assure you that the government is doing everything to protect our nation.” He continued with the usual patriotic guff that American presidents spout when addressing the country. Altogether his little talk reassured the public and reports of abductions did die down for a bit.

The years went by and the rumours of nightly alien abductions resurged and continued. Conmen were making a mint out of fraudulent devices and potions guaranteed to prevent a person from being abducted. One ad went like this, “Scared of having an alien anal probe? Then buy Chastity Plus, the invincible nighttime underwear! Guaranteed impenetrable to alien anal probes. Sleep well tonight simply by calling 1-800-555-6565! This simple $39 dollar garment will keep you safe.” Anal probes were just a rumour and didn’t really exist but, if they did, an alien would easily get a Chastity Plus off a subject.

The President did well and was re-elected. He was quite used to living his lie. He even loved his (human) wife. He governed well because it was in the aliens’ interests for the people of the United States to be happy. But one day one of his alien contacts told him of something potentially dangerous to the mission. He phoned to say, “Jerry Springer is going to interview a couple because the husband’s left her because he says he’s been abducted many times by the same alien and he’s fallen in love with her. The wife is devastated because she loves her husband and wants him back. She thinks he’s having some type of mental breakdown.”

The President thought for a moment before replying, “Has he really fallen for an alien or is he having a breakdown? If it’s true, maybe we could use this to our advantage. Maybe it’s time to be honest with the American public and tell them the truth, though I don’t think we could ever admit to them that they elected an alien to the presidency.”

“Yes, the story is true. What do you have in mind?”

“Let’s find our female compatriot and let her appear on the Jerry Springer Show. We can then gauge public reaction. If they think it’s an elaborate hoax, we’re fine but if they think it’s real, lets simply tell them that all we want is their toenails on which to grow this immensely important fungus.”

The programme aired and Jerry Springer interviewed the couple, Joe and Jane. Joe said, “I know I’ll be abducted again. I’m certain and when it happens I will be abducted by Ick-Ick. We’re in love and I’ll ask her to take me back to her home planet, Xesxe. It’s name is hard to pronounce but I think I got it about right.”

At this point Jerry Springer interrupted and said, “Joe, I have someone backstage who’d like to meet you.” He signalled to the stage director that he was ready and Ick-Ick was ushered into the studio.

Joe didn’t need Jerry Springer to say anything more. He rushed forwards and hugged Ick-Ick. She moved her enormous nose to one side and they kissed passionately on the lips or his lips to whatever an arthropod has that’s the equivalent. Jane was heard to exclaim, “Gee, that’s gross! How could you?” The audience stared in utter disbelief. Joe’s passion was obvious but they couldn’t really tell with Ick-Ick. How does an arthropod show passion?

The programme ended and immediately pollsters got asking representative samples of viewers whether they thought is was real or staged. Overwhelmingly, the response was that people thought it was real. Then, as days went by, people who hadn’t seen the programme but had heard about the passionate alien kiss were also polled. They were more sceptical but a majority thought it was real.

The President called a meeting of the Cabinet to tell them what he would do, rather than to seek their counsel. At the meeting he said, “I have known for some time that some aspects of the alien abduction stories are true. However, the intelligence services and I thought that America and the world wasn’t yet ready to meet aliens. The aliens only want our toenails so they can grow a fungus that has important medicinal properties. They don’t do anal probes or any of the other less pleasant things that have been reported.

“The Jerry Springer Show brought a real alien into millions of TV viewers’ homes. Pollsters report that the response has been amazingly positive and people were touched by the story of love that emerged. I will tell America and the world the truth and maybe we can trade our toenails for something the aliens have that we need. There will be no need for any more abductions.”

And so it was. The President made his TV announcement and the aliens opened an embassy and consulate in Washington DC. Now when you go to the shops and you see a human-sized arthropod buying a watermelon, you won’t be too surprised!

© Charles Stuart 2016