Magnificat Reloaded

This priest came to see me, Angelo — the bastard! — and he said: “Hi Mary, you’re a nice bit of stuff aren’t you? Well, your God, Yahweh’s been eyeing you up. He fancies you! That’s a really great honour, you know? It’s a great privilege for any woman. You’re going to have a baby.”

So I said: “How do you make that out? I’m a virgin, chuff!”

And he said: “Well, God’s gonna blow on you. And this breath, coming from God, will make you up the duff.”

So I said: “You can get stuffed! I don’t wanna.”

But he said: “You don’t get a choice. Just accept your fate, and from now on, generation after generation will bless you as the mother of God. So, you may as well like it. All right?”

And that was that. I never got a say in it. I never got a choice. And so I’m forced to play along with it.

But whichever way you cut it, it was rape — God or no fucking God!

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The Big Dig

It was day three of The Big Dig. Most of us hadn’t a clue what we dug up. Old Drew helped us name stuff. “That’s a cigarette lighter,” he’d say. Or “That’s a lecky fire.” Not that he made us any the wiser when he did. We knew ‘lecky’ meant magic. Old Drew tried to tell us what lecky things did. It made no sense, though. A fire’s a fire. You still need to feed it with wood or straw whether it’s ‘lecky’ or not. Don’t you?

There weren’t many olduns. Old Drew had to stretch hisself or the whole county. Used to be hundreds. In the times before the Big Dig. Sometimes Old Drew tells us stories about them times. Everyone lived three or four times what they live to today. Everything got buried, Old Drew said. Then the first olduns passed down the secret. Of the yunguns they taught, some became olduns. Most died. Old Drew could read. Old Drew had ‘The Bible’. He was teaching me. I couldn’t read much. But I liked to look at the pictures. Strange old gizmos. I got so that I could compare something we dug up with a picture in the Bible. It took a while, turning the pages. But I didn’t mind that. Then I’d show the picture to Old Drew. He’d read out what it said. “Television” or “Washing machine”. Still non the wiser, like I said. But I memorised the words so I’d know the next time. There were a lot of secret signs as well, jumbles of letters and numbers. Even Old Drew didn’t know what they meant. The Bible wasn’t called the Bible. The title was, ‘Argos Catalogue’. Old Drew said that meant ‘Bible’ in an old holy language called ‘Latin’. The old people sure knew how to mix things up. But then, they were magic, weren’t they? That’s why God punished them.

Sometimes, we found things that still worked. I found a thing called a clock that had a thing like a key sticking out of it. If you turned that, it would tell the time better than a candle or a sun dial or a can with a hole in it. Another time I found a thing called a ‘typewriter’. Old Drew explained how you used it to write real fast by pressing the keys. Only there weren’t any keys, just little levers you pressed with your fingers. Anyway, it needed a ‘ribbon’, Old Drew said. Unless we found one it wouldn’t work.

Old Drew said might be possible to get some of the old stuff working. If it wasn’t too rusted up. But some of it would never work. “The power’s gone,” he said. But while it might be possible to get the power back in a little way, some of the stuff God had cursed so bad it would never work again.

There was this place called Lun Dun. People who’d snuck up close came back saying they’d got the power going. There were lights all aglow, lights without fire. It was a magic place. The lights lit up in patterns and spelled out words. There were even horseless carts, moving by magic. Some even flew through the air, so they said. It was like the old times. Not quite as magic, but near enough for wonder.

Anyway, they only snuck up close enough to see a little. The Lun Dun people guns fired at them. There were soldiers all around the city. Most of it was just rubble, of course. But they’d built up the rubble like a wall to keep us out. The soldiers kept guard on the ‘ram parts’, as the old uns called those walls of rubble. Old Drew told us that they had lots of Bibles in Lun Dun. But still, none of the old magic things worked. The ‘compyterz’ and ‘Teevy sets’ and other things folk whispered about after lights out. God had touched all those and fried their innards. All right, we managed to get ‘General Later’s gizmo’ to work. So yes, we could have a few lecky lights. But the beautiful, silver thing I found this morning, the typewriter thing with no moving parts. That would never work again. Once more I traced my finger along the strange, meaningless words printed on the shiny, silver frame. ‘MacBook Air’. It wasn’t a book, and it wasn’t air. And no one, nowadays knows what a Mac was.

A strange thing flew over us today, I thing Old Drew called a ‘hairy plane’. Old Drew said we would have to up sticks and move on. He knew of a village nearby where a hairy plane flew over. And the next day, every soul in that village fell down dead.

Seems those Lun Dun folk still have the power.

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Friendly

“Friendlies, can I help you?” said Bernice.

A youthful sigh and then, “No. Nobody can.”

“Well, I’m here to listen, anyway.”

“You won’t want to,” said with another sigh.

“Well, go ahead anyway. And if you don’t want to talk to me, that’s fine as well.”

“I just mean, nobody listens to me for long.” Yet another sigh, and then, “OK. I’m good.”

“My name is Bernice. Would you like to tell me your name?”

“OK. Tom.”

“I have a little boy called ‘Tommy’.”

“It’s ‘Tom’, not ‘Tommy’. And I’m not a little boy. See, I knew this wouldn’t work.”

“That was my mistake, Tom. It won’t happen again.”

“It better not. Sorry, it’s a sore point with me.”

“Would you mind telling me how old you are?”

“Yes, I do mind. See? You’re doing it again!”

“I’m sorry, Tom. I won’t ask any more questions if you’d prefer that.”

“I guess it’s my fault. I’m not used to talking to people.”

“That’s a shame.”

“You’re telling me.”

“I’m still listening. We have plenty of time.”

“Well, I do. That’s for sure. Don’t know about anyone else.”

“Are you alone? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want.”

“I’m always alone. I always have been, always will be.”

“It can be nice to be alone, sometimes.”

“If you have the choice.”

Bernice decided to try not saying anything.

There was a long pause, then Tom said: “All right. I’ll talk about it. You think I sound young, don’t you? Well, I’m not. You see I have this condition. You know that ageing thing some kids have?”

“Progeria?”

“Yes.”

Bernice was puzzled. She couldn’t help herself, she asked: “Have you got Progeria?”

“No, you dummy,” said Tom. “I was just explaining I sound younger than I am. I’ve got the opposite of Progeria; ‘Antigeria’, or something. Everyone thinks I’m a kid, but I’m not. I stopped ageing at ten years old. I’ll never look any older.”

Bernice just stopped herself from saying something stupid, like — ‘Oh my!’ She decided to say nothing.

“So while you and everyone else wishes you could be like me, I wish I could get old, but I can’t. It’s called, ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’. Heard of it?”

“I can’t say I have,” said Bernice. That’s funny, she thought, they didn’t mention that during the training. She’d raise it at the next group.

“I’m not surprised,” said Tom. “There aren’t many people with it. Not the real PPS. We’re not talking about guys who drive their wives mental playing Doctor Who in some stupid shed, or Batman in the bedroom.”

Bernice could not believe it was a boy saying these words. But then she could not believe that it wasn’t. He sounded like a boy. “I’m sure you realise the problems I have. I’m too old for school, but I can’t get a job. It’s pointless applying for benefits, I don’t even have a National Insurance number. I’ve fallen off the edge of the Welfare State.”

How could he? There were school inspectors and social workers. It was a clear case of neglect. “But how do you live?” she said, trying to sound neutral.

He did not answer.

“How do you eat? How do you survive?”

“I get by,” Tom said, at last.

“There must be someone who can help you,” Bernice said. He was deluded, for sure.

“No one would want to.”

“Someone would.”

“No.”

Bernice just stopped herself from saying something unprofessional, like: ‘I would’. Best to let it lie, let him gradually come round.

“No,” he said, again. “See, I’m not human. I’m a monster. I need to be killed.”

This boy is disturbed, thought Bernice. Then she checked herself. I shouldn’t be judging him. I don’t know all the facts.

“It’s OK,” said Tom. “I’ll have to go, anyway. I’m in a call box and I’ve no more money.”

“Look,” she said, “Don’t go. We’re just around the corner. Why not call in on us? Then we can have a proper chat.” The friendlies often asked ‘difficult cases’ to call round for a chat. And Bernice was curious about this strange, lonely little boy. If he was a boy? Well, that was one of the things she was curious about.

“I shouldn’t, really,” he said.

“Why not? You needn’t stay long, but we can talk face to face.”

Tom sighed. “You wouldn’t want to, really,” he said. “I told you. I’m a freak. I’m a monster. You wouldn’t like me if you saw me.”

Was he disfigured in some way? she wondered. “Why not give me a chance,” she said. “We could be friends. That’s what ‘The Friendlies’ are all about.”

There was a long pause before he spoke. “OK,” he said, and hung up.

Strange, she thought. And he was such a… well, creepy sounding little boy with a fertile imagination.

The knock on the door made her jump. He was nearer than she’d thought.

She opened the door and there he was; in a smart suit, with short cropped hair and rosy cheeks.

See, he was a little boy after all.

“Come in and sit down.”

He stepped inside.

“Would you like something to drink?” Bernice said. “Coffee, or tea?”

“No thank you.”

“Lemonade, or…”
No thank you.”

“You were about to tell me how you survived without any money.”

“Oh, I have money,” he said.

“So, where does it come from?”

“People,” he said.

“You mean you beg?”

“No,” he shrugged. “It’s hard to explain.”

“Do you steal it?”

“Not really. I find it. People drop it and I pick it up.”

“That sounds like you do steal it,” she said, trying to sound casual, non judgmental — and failing.

“I warned you,” Tom said.

“Warned…”

“I said I was a monster,” Tom explained, patiently. “I said that I don’t get any older. But I only take stuff that isn’t needed anymore.”

“Stuff that isn’t needed?”

“Gee, you’re dumb,” he said. Such a rude little boy. Then he added: “That’s one thing, I won’t feel so bad, when…” His voice trailed off.

“When what?” said Bernice.

“What do you think? You asked how I survive, what I eat? Well, I don’t have to eat. That’s the one thing I don’t have to do. I told you, I don’t get any older. But you will. And that’s why I don’t have any friends. That’s why I can’t get a job or get handouts from the government, or food from a soup kitchen, or any of the other things you’re thinking of. And I don’t creep up on people and bite their necks, or tear their throats out. I don’t have to. Just put me in a room with someone, and I don’t have to do anything.”

He stepped closer.

And then Bernice felt fear for the first time.

“You had to know, didn’t you, Bernice? All that training for this pitiful befriending service, and you couldn’t resist trying to find out about me.”

He took another step, and she looked into his eyes. They were not the eyes of a little boy. “Well, here I am, Bernice,” he said, and his little tongue flicked out as he spoke. “You feeling weak, all of a sudden, Bernice? Is your eyesight getting blurry?”

She stood up, and immediately, she felt dizzy. Yes, everything was a blur.

“Maybe you feel the life draining out of you?” he said. “Well, I did warn you. I don’t have to do anything, not even raise a finger.”

She sat down again. And now raw terror flooded through her, at last.

“You feeling faint now, Bernice? Nearly done. In a second or two you’ll pass out. And then, when they come round to lock up the building, all they will find is a little pile of white powder on your chair…”

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The Melting World

‘Did God who made the lamb make thee?’— William Blake.

Mikey’s an awful long time. Hope the kids are safe. “Don’t fret, Sally. I’ll go straight there, straight back, I promise.” But that was six hours ago. Outside, the rain is hissing down on scorched earth. A dog howls in agony. Poor thing. Didn’t reach the door in time. Not sure if I trust this oilskin. Only needs a small hole and then — a painful, sleepless night at the very least. Should have asked Mikey to get some morphine, just in case.

He ought to be back by now. What if we can’t get seats on the next helicopter? What if there are no more helicopters?

I’m checking my cape for breaks in the stitching, and scrapes and tears that need sewing and patching. It’s already covered with little squares and strips of plumber’s tape because the stitches are weak points in themselves. The Droners came twice, yesterday. The atmospheric changes have speeded up and, chances are they will increase their attacks now it’s more to their taste.

We all used to worry about acid rain when we were the only ones poisoning the air. The clean air acts and other initiatives put that worry onto the back burner. Now global pollution’s back with a vengeance. And this time — Not. Our. Fault.

Mikey says, it turns out life is rare in our universe. And for any voracious scavenging species — like us — it follows that food is scarce too. And now we know we’re not the only greedy bastards in the galaxy. The Competition has arrived.

Back in the 70s, we suspected that we were not alone. So, what did we have to go and do? Only send out Space Probes with little, engraved gold discs on board — like Egon Roney five star marks. They must have looked at that plaque on Pioneer 2 and said, “Yum yum!” — or whatever you call that noise they make when they see something they like: “Drmnnn Drmnnn”; something like that.

Mikey said that rain of theirs isn’t really rain: just some kind of organic secretion they release high in the atmosphere that reduces everything living to a pink goo. Then they swoop down and suck it up. I shuddered when he explained it; how he and his unit had done a reccy — and what they found there. I’d just as soon not know. He made it sound so hopeless. Last year the buzz had been about going to the stars. This year, the stars came to us. The final humiliation is how they came…

A Droner is battering against the window. The ‘rain’ must have stopped if they are about. They don’t risk getting pissed on by their own kind. The Droner’s wings are threshing against the glass with cold determination. Better do something about the little fiend before it dissolves the glass and gets inside. Not that I couldn’t shred it with my twelve bore or splat it with my baseball bat if it did. It’s just it’ll lay eggs; they always do. No other reason for it to come in here. Once inside, it would find itself a little chink in the woodwork and shoot a gooey clutch of eggs inside before I had the time to kill it. And, I’d have to keep out of the way of its long, prehensile ovipositor — I wouldn’t want to go that way. Christ! Stuff of nightmares. Mikey said the Droners resembled ichneumon wasps in that respect. Being a biologist, he knew all about ichneumon wasps. Oh yes. I remember his description of their life cycle when I first met him, ten years ago. He’d said it was the main reason he couldn’t believe in a benevolent creator. Lions and tigers and bears were one thing, but parasites whose babies ate their host alive from the inside out. Ugh! I told him I didn’t want to hear any more. But I’ll never forget his final words on that: “We’re parasites too. We’re just more hypocritical about it.” I remember his final word on ichneumon too: “You have to admire its purity.”

You can tell his favourite movie is ‘Alien’, can’t you? Or rather was. I doubt it is now. They banned movies like that when the Droners first appeared. And sales of insecticide went through several roofs. Some morons even went on a rampage, burning beehives; didn’t even know the difference between bees and wasps, let along that earth insects are about as close to the Droners genetically as they are to palm trees or French poodles. I doubt Mikey admires anything about the Droners, these days, either.

It’s not showing any signs of leaving the window alone, so better just stick my gun round the door and cream the bastard before it gets inside. I’ll be safe, as long as I keep moving. They don’t risk snapping their six foot, microfine ovipositor off inside you. It’s the sting you’ve got to really watch out for. Paralyse the shit out of you and then the ovipositor… Oh Christ!

I did it. A little pink explosion and it’s gone.

Christ, there are others out here, feeding. Most stomach turning sight in all human history. Sucking up that grey-pink slime. Wonder how many of us have gone that way now? A hundred million? A billion? Ten billion? No way of knowing. Nothing on the radio for days; just the endlessly repeating emergency bulletins. Since that last one about the helicopter pickup points, there’s been nothing new. If only I’d gone with him. “No, you go and check that it’s going to happen, then come back for me,” I said. He protested, said it might be our last chance. I insisted I was safer in the house; though really, I was angry with him for taking the kids to stay with his folks. Angry with myself, too — for not going with them when I had the chance. “OK. We’ll go on the next helicopter,” he said. I thought it was for the best. The Droner attacks were less frequent then.

The military tried a counterattack with drones, fitted with lasers. Yes, drones versus Droners. Made great headlines. It worked as well, at first. They mass produced them by the million and they burned Droners by the million. But the Droners were ultrafast breeders and natural selection was on their side. They adapted. Their organic acid changed so that it would dissolve the drones in mid flight, and soon we were all collateral damage, and we had to give up on that one. The last big drone versus Droner exchange took place over New York and ended in a firestorm. No more Manhatten. So, back to the rapidly shrinking drawing board.

“There are three hypotheses about them,” Mikey had said. That was just after the Droners put in their first appearance. They weren’t even called Droners back then. They had some unpronounceable Latin name that didn’t stick with the public. ‘Droners’ was what the news media and press called them.

“You mean you don’t know what they are?” I said. “The Mail seems to think they are from Africa.”

“That was the first hypothesis: that they are a new species, from an evolutionary hot spot in a tropical rain forest. Although not Africa; that’s just the Mail’s prejudice. The main candidates were South America, or Malaysia.”

“But you don’t think so?”

“No. Can’t be, because if we pinpoint all the locations they were first sighted and trace them back with a computer simulation, they originated somewhere near Poland. That’s just not a likely place for them to evolve.”

“The Mail also mentioned biological warfare.”

“Yes. That was the second hypothesis. Someone spliced the genes of an Ichneumon wasp with a giant hornet from Japan, thereby producing a large insect, one that combined the traits of the wasp, with hornet’s flesh-melting venom. It was superficially plausible; after all wasps and hornets are related species. But the Droners were just too big. We really wanted it to turn out to be something like that because we stood a chance of developing an anti-venom or encouraging natural enemies — like bees — to attack them. Of course, then those fucking idiots started burning beehives. In the end, we had to reject that hypothesis because they showed too many alien traits. Which left us with hypothesis three.”

“That they are an alien species.”

“Yes. I’m afraid so. They don’t look anything like insects when you are close to.”

“How come? What’s different?”

“Well, the biggest difference is that they have seven legs instead of six. All earth arthropods — all earth creatures — have an even number of arms and legs. Droners have a seventh limb. Apparently, bilateral symmetry is unique to earth — as far as we know. Although we aren’t entirely bilateral; we have a single digestive tract, one head, one centralised set of genitals. Unless you count snakes with their two penises!?” He sounded so full of hope back then; laughing and joking. Months later, he said it was odd, but the Droners showed no sign of intelligence; despite everyone’s assumption they came here because of the Pioneer space probe. Hawking had warned us about that — said we ought to be ready for them. Then his warning backfired when the first Droners arrived and Christian and Islamist fanatics started lynching scientists left right and centre. Mikey only narrowly escaped when the mob attacked the helicopter airlifting his team from Royal Holloway. I just can’t fathom people; always looking for someone to blame. That’s another thing. We always thought that an external threat would unify us; give us a ‘super ordinate goal’. That turned out to be bollocks! People actually thought the scientists — all scientists! — had brought the fuckers here, firing off space probes. Scientists were the only people who could have saved us, and the crazy fools killed them. See what I just did? I said, ‘were’ and not ‘are’. Mustn’t give up. Mikey reckons they have a chance if they can sequence the Droners’ DNA, and look for a kink in their armour. That’s if the Droners DNA can be sequenced. No. That’s if they have DNA. He did say all in the exobiology team were baffled when they first looked. And Droners don’t fucking reproduce like us, with sex. They’re more like viruses. They just reprogram their hosts, and turn them into Droner nymph factories — nasty bastards; eating their way out. Mikey thought, at first, they must have something like our DNA to be able to do that. But so far, nobody’s found it. And the anti-science brigade hasn’t helped. Some pundits thought the Droners fixed things — rewired our brains — just like that protozoan that affects mice, and cats, and humans. So we’d kill the scientists, and leave ourselves wide open to the Droners. Some even claimed global warming and the attendant ‘climate scepticism’ was caused by the Droners, to get our climate more like one they’re used to. But then again, what everyone called ‘the Droner’s space ship’ turned out to be nothing of the kind. More like a big wasps’ nest: secreted; not manufactured — made of spit. Mikey told me how the current theory was that when they’d totally consumed a planet, they crawled inside their nests and let the planet break up, and finally blow itself apart. The nests would drift off into space while inside, the Droners slept for millions of years until they drifted into a planet’s gravitational field.

And that, said Mikey, is apparently why we haven’t found any intelligent life in the galaxy. The Droners have spread everywhere, moving outwards from planet to planet. And nothing — so far — has stopped them. I asked him what the evidence was and he said it was, a matter of probabilities. They’d run computer simulations, and in every one the Droners always won. That is, they spread through the galaxy, ineluctably.

Whatever. The Droners are here, whether driven by brains or viruses. And now it’s their turn to destroy our planet; taking out centres of population first — as if they know we won’t bomb cities. Or maybe it’s just some quirk of statistics. And when we try evacuation, people daren’t leave their houses because of the rain. They’d rather starve indoors — the ones who didn’t manage to stockpile food, that is. Anyway, I doubt anyone has the means to fire off missiles or drop bombs anymore. That acid — or whatever you call it — dissolves wood, metal glass, even concrete. Old-fashioned oil-skin’s about the only thing that really resists it; that and linoleum. I’ve covered most of the house with oil-skin and linoleum and I’m pretty safe for now. But it’ll get through that, eventually.

God, if that thing had got inside, and laid its eggs!

With a bit of luck, and for what it’s worth, when they’ve finished feeding on the poor bastards caught outside, they’ll move on.

Not much droning outside. I think they’re going. It smells awful — even in here. Outside, I can see a little way through the mist.

The smell makes me retch as I open the door.

The ground’s like brimstone and burnt treacle, it smells like hell and sticks to my shoes. Most of the pink slurry has gone. Only the odd glob remains, with grey arms and legs sticking out, melted and fused together; like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Hell.

A young woman — no more than a girl — comes staggering out of what’s left of a pub. She had the best idea. She has a Droner covering her face and she dances like a puppet, which is all she is, now. The second the sting entered her neck, she was dead; her brain melted. The droner doesn’t need her brain for what it’s doing to her. She falls to the ground, the Droner still clinging to her head. I have to be quick. I give the Droner both barrels, which shatters it and also removes what’s left of the poor girl’s head. She would have had a boyfriend, and dreams and hopes and ambitions. Now she is just a smear on the pavement. But at least the Droner is dead, and its eggs won’t live. I kick the droner away to make sure. It hasn’t had the chance to position its ovipositor. If only I’d been seconds earlier, I might have saved her. And this fucking isolation is driving me crazy. And we need all the humans we can get. Even so, what are we to live on? There’s nothing left. All the Embankment has gone. It’s just a pile of black, twisted metal and shattered concrete where the Barbican used to be. Probably still safer to stay in London — what’s left of it — now the Droners have moved on, to Surrey and Buckinghamshire, if we can believe the last bulletin. Not much shelter left, though.

Yes, I still think we might be safer here; if we could get the kids back. If Mikey doesn’t get back today, I might try the underground, tomorrow. We’d be OK there. I bet there are people down there already. When Mikey comes back, I’ll put it to him.

I did hope to find a phone shop with the phones still intact. But it looks like all that kind of shit is fucked up for good. And even if I could get a phone working, I doubt any network still works — not round here. If not the Underground, then maybe we could find a ship. But then there’s that story survivors told about what happened on that cruise ship. When the Droners hatched out below deck during a dinner dance; all those people flailing around in a panic while the vicious beasts dive-bombed them again and again, Christ! Herding them into a corner before their final descent.

I’m getting red blotches on my arms, and this dreadful itch. Just nerves, though, I think.

I hope Mikey comes back soon. I hope he brings others with him — like the cavalry in old Westerns. I heard some shooting two or three days ago. And of course, there was that last message on steam radio, telling everyone to meet up at Marble Arch. Only I don’t think there is a Marble Arch now. I passed it yesterday. Of course, I was in too big a hurry to look close. But it was all fizzling and crackling after the morning downpour. It reminded me of that chemistry experiment back in school; a piece of chalk fizzing and dissolving in sulphuric acid. Of course, their acid isn’t like sulphuric; it’s a million times worse.

I’ve already been out too long. Time to head back.

I pass what had once been gleaming Porsches, Aston Martins, even Rolls-Royces. Now they are windowless hulks with smoking, crumbling bodywork. I daren’t get too close to them; afraid of what I might see. As it is, if I close my eyes, I see a floating image of that poor girl. I’ll never get rid of that image. Not as long as I live.

I thought I saw someone just then. Nearer, I see it is a tall, black, smoking object. I stare at it for several seconds before recognising — a post box. One of the last standing objects in this gooey wasteland. The red paint has all gone, of course. But the cylindrical shell is still there, just. Those things were certainly built to last!

The house looks no different. Safe and defiant in a row of skeletal, smoking semis.

I open the door and slip back inside. Safe. For now.

Better get something to eat. Maybe open a can of Spam or Irish stew. Luxury. Not that there’s anything to celebrate.

What’s that?

Someone!

Mikey’s back; moving about upstairs! “Mikey!”

No answer.

That him coming down?

The door opens. “Mikey! Oh Mikey!” I’m hungry for a hug.

But it isn’t Mikey. I can tell by the way he’s walking, jerky and uncoordinated. His eyes are empty. Mikey doesn’t live there anymore. I try not to look as I shoot him full in the face. The Droner had stung him in the back of the neck. That’s a new one. That’s intelligence, that is. Now I have a nightmare vision of hundreds of Droners, squatting on the backs of scores of human necks, riding the last survivors like horses. Droning away as they herd us all like  cattle. God, no. Not that.

My eyes fill with tears. Why did it have to be like this? The droning grows louder, as it comes nearer.

No. Not just the nearness. More of them. Many, many more.

Too many.

Soon be in here.

And only one cartridge left.

Oh dear God, no. I used that last one on Mikey!

It’s true.

They don’t look like insects close to.

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Look, it’s not rocket science. 

 

During the 1940s and early 50s, food was rationed. People ate a lot healthier. When rationing stopped, everyone binged. Then wages went up. Everyone binged. We joined the European Community, so more choice was available. Everyone binged. (Presumably, if Brexit goes ahead, we’ll all be leaner and fitter.)

Take the British favourite, fish and chips. I can just remember it in the 1950s. You got a piece of fried cod, about the size of a pack of cards and a bag of chips, the equivalent of a medium sized potato; just about the size of your fist. Coincidentally, the recommended amount of protein, (if you ask a dietician rather than one of those phoney ‘nutritionists’) is about the same size as a pack of cards. Or put another way, you got enough fish to rest on a fish slice and enough chips to fit in a scoop.

But then the kebab sellers arrived.

Back pedal just a little. You may remember the ‘cod wars’ in the 70s. Iceland extended its fishing limits because we English were overfishing their waters. The price of fish escalated. And people boycotted it. There was a similar problem in the 70s with the price of potatoes. I forget offhand the reason, but potatoes became very pricey, too. So people — ordinary people, not toffs — started eating more rice and pasta. Spag Bol and Chicken Tika Masala became the nation’s favourite food, and fish and chips went out of fashion. In fact, thousands of fish and chip shops — the lowly, old fashioned kind, with the white brick porcelain interiors, prices painted in whitewash on the window, and a cue reaching right down the street — well, they all closed down. It was unheard of. Fish and chip shops had been gold mines. Ordinary folk would open a fish and chip shop and six months later they’d be voting conservative. But the surviving fish and chip sellers fought back. And one of the ways they fought back was to massively increase the size of the helpings. Restaurants would serve up fish and chips on huge carving dishes, with the head and tail of the fish hanging over the sides. Buy them in a fish and chip shop, and the server would cram at least three scoops worth of chips into the little paper bag. Here’s the thing. When I was little, I would be sent to the local fishmonger, (remember them) to buy: “a piece of filleted cod”. It was huge. Mum would cut it up into four pieces. And they weren’t tiddly little fillets. But that all changed. Now people expected the whole fish. And the bigger the better. Soon, our waters were being overfished as well. And our people were being overfed.

Next look at what happened in the Indian restaurants. People order two or three popadoms each, just as an appetiser. These they lather with various pickles that look, if not taste as if they are full of sugar as well as vinegar. Then they have a starter, which probably has a frightening amount of calories in it, and the main course is obscene! Not only is there a mountain of rice under it, but they usually add nan bread. In some restaurants, the nan bread is glazed with sugar to crisp it up. The total calories in the meal are at least 2,000. That’s more calories in one meal than should be eaten in a whole day. Is there any, real mystery about the nation’s obesity problem?

I have often bought packet meals. These are a real boon, going back to the 70s at least. Do you remember the Vesta meals? These were the nation’s original introduction to exotic food. They were pretty terrible. But they were convenient. Hundreds of others followed in their wake. Now, you can buy a bag of microwaveable rice and a tub of curry for a couple of quid or so, if you shop around.

But here’s the thing. Do you ever read the labels? I did, and I noticed that it usually said something like: “Sufficient for two persons”. You won’t notice this unless you look. But pick up that bag of Uncle Ben’s pilau rice and read it. What does it say? “250  calories per serving, (125 grams)”; the contents being  250 grams. Translation: “You’ve been eating twice as much as you were supposed to, you pig!” And so it goes on. In the Indian restaurant, order rice with your curry, and they bring you a little tray that is probably about 400 grams. This is why we are all becoming obese. It is not our fault. We have been sold a lie. Those little nan breads in Asda are rated at about 150 calories — bad enough. But the ones in the Indian restaurant are four times the size.

Here’s what I do, and I’ve been doing it for over a year. If I have a meal in an Indian restaurant, I put half the rice, and half the curry on the plate and ask them to bag up the rest. I can’t bring myself to ask them to do the same with the onion barjis, so I wrap half in a paper table napkin and hide it in my bag. Same at home. I put out half the food and put the other half in the freezer. As I said, I’ve been doing this for over a year.

And the weight has fallen off me.

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Weedkiller and Icing Sugar

 

“Have you ever killed anyone, Clare?” said Mark one day on the way back from Sunday school.

I looked down and examined the scuff marks on my pink Jumping Jacks Mummy bought me the day before. “Nope,” I said, not particularly fussed. Mark was always going off on one. “You?”

“Oh yeah,” he lied. I could tell he hadn’t. I’m psychic that way.  I can even make it rain when I want to skive off netball. I can forge Mummy’s handwriting for sick notes, too.

“How did you do it?”

“Strangled him. David Pickles. That’s why he hasn’t come back this year. I strangled him with his neckerchief after Cubs.”

I still didn’t believe him. I knew that the Pickles clan had moved to Birmingham. I knew that for a fact because on the last day of term we’d had a goodbye party for him in our classroom. Mark had been off sick that week, so he didn’t know. But he’d given me an idea. “OK,” I said. “Show me how it’s done.”

“You’re too little,” he said.

“What’s that got to do with anything? I’m little, but I’m not a chicken. Anyway,” I said, “killing a nine year old kid is easy. If you really want to impress me, kill a grownup.”

“How?” he said. He looked awestruck, and that made me feel good.

“I’ll help you,” I said. I hadn’t a clue how to do it, but that would come. “First, we have to choose a victim.”

“A grownup?”

“Of course. Come on, one of the teachers, maybe?”

“Maybe we should start with one of the caretakers or groundsmen and work our way up?”

“No,” I was emphatic. “We should pick someone who would really be missed. We want to shock people as much as possible, otherwise there’s no point. I think we should murder Mr Turner.”

Mark’s jaw dropped. “The head teacher?”

“Don’t talk so loud. Someone might hear. “Anyway, I think we should do one each,” I said, “You do him, and I’ll do Miss Coopland. One each. But we help each other, of course.”

“How are we going to do it?”

“Get some brains,” I said. “Why should I think of everything? I thought you’d killed someone before? You see, the trick is to not just kill someone, but to get away with it and make the police look stupid…”

“Police!”

“Yes, silly. You kill someone, the police investigate. The more important the person you kill, the more police investigate and the more effort they put into it. If we killed Mr Gilmore the lollipop man, it would be easy enough; we’d just have to push him under a car. Everyone would think it was an accident and we’d get away with it, easy as pie. But if we kill the two head teachers, they’d call in police from other areas. Like that murder last year that had them stumped.”

“But they got him in the end,” said Mark.

“Yes,” I agreed. “But we have two advantages. One is we’re kids, so they’ll never suspect us, and two, we have superior intelligence.” I reflected on this. “I have superior intelligence. Certainly superior to any copper around here, although I expect Scotland Yard might give us a run for our money.”

“You think they’ll bring in coppers from Scotland?”

Best leave the thinking to me, Mark.

Weedkiller; that’s sodium chlorate, and icing sugar make a deadly mixture. And they are easy to get hold of too. Then all it needed was two forged notes that said:

“Come to the bike-sheds and I’ll show you something.”

I signed one ‘Gilian Coopland’ and the other ‘Bill Turner’.

But Mark was wimping out, crying and saying stuff like: “What if they catch us,” and “We might be sent to prison!” and even, “But they’re nice people, Clare. I don’t want to kill them.”

“Look, stay here,” I said. “And don’t move or I’ll fix you. I’ll tell them what you said about David Pickles. They’re still looking for him, you know; the police.”

I left him crying by the boys’ loos. It was a simple matter to place my bomb near the entrance. I’d already planted the notes in the teachers’ pigeon holes. Now it was just a matter of waiting.

Miss Coopland was the first to arrive and she was shortly followed by Mr Turner. As soon as they were both standing together, looking suitably confused, I pulled the string to trigger the bomb. It was basically a big glass sweet jar full of assorted nails. And Oh my God, I’ve never seen so much blood!

I’d forged a third note, a suicide note. Not for me, silly! For Mark. And thank you, Mark, for that idea about the neckerchief. That was a nice touch.

Copyright 2016

 

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These Wings Are Not For Flying.

By Zoë Nightingale

A mouse squeezing through a sandpaper tube, my knuckles raw and on fire, I force, tear-stung eyes apart to drink in the next horror; the next whiplash to my raw nerve-ends.

It watches dispassionately as I gasp with each lung-scorching breath. “You earthlings are so fragile,” the huge moth says in its peculiar, whistling voice. Of course, it isn’t really a moth, or any kind of insect. Insects do not breathe or speak with their mouths. Nor do they grow as big as a horse, except in Renaissance Biblical art . No, this is something else. “Your companions did not last half as long as you,” it continues. Maybe this is the horror I have been dreading. “Go on. Ask the question all you humans ask at this point,” it says.

“What, you mean, why do you torture us? Why don’t you end it fast?”

“Perhaps for the same reason you prefer your food cooked? But that is not quite the question I have in mind. Try again.”

I must be careful. Maybe fear makes us more palatable. Could it be that the answer to my question would cause me to exude some pheromone that increases its ecstasy as it bites off my head? When it devoured Lance, the lurid mandibles crunched down on his skull, and its petrol-swirling-in-rainwater eyes rolled back in its head in a way no insect’s ever did. Then the nightmare face turned to me and said, “’Ello, Alice.” Peter went mad in that instant. I just covered my eyes and vomited.

__

We came to Ceres on a mineral survey. “Straight in, straight out,”  Colonel Dickinson had said. “Don’t try to explore. Your capsule is fully equipped to sink the test shaft. There are a few experiments we’d like you to do. But they won’t take more than five minutes.”

I was excited at the prospect and thrilled by the anticipation of returning to teaching in the autumn. I imagined standing in front of enthralled children, describing the journey out, the landing, the return to earth. And then there would be the book deals, speaking engagements, television appearances; ‘The Sky at Night’, voice overs for ‘Horizon’.  Perhaps I wouldn’t go back to teaching after all. But those were not the reasons I applied.

There are few things more beautiful than the Aurora Borealis when seen through the eyes of your lover as well as your own. That is just a statement of fact, and these days, for most, an easily verified one. Phelan and I had seen sunsets on every hill and every tide, from the russet heat and dust charged glow of the desert, to the scintillating ice caves of the Icelandic Jokul sound. We had seen nothing to equal those trembling electric green curtains that seem to be alive.

But what that sight did not prepare me for was Phelan being unfaithful. “For God’s sake, Alice,” he said. “Can’t we put it behind us? It was an on the spur of the moment thing. It didn’t mean anything. And it’s not as if we’re married.”

“No. And we never will be,” I said, putting him behind me.

To make matters worse, Mum had never liked him, and she was right. That was the bloody worst thing about it. She’s always fucking right! Sometimes I think mothers work like the CIA, exchanging information without passing it on to their daughters. You’ve got to be a mother yourself to tap into their database.

When I walked out on Phelan, I kept on walking. I saw the advertisement in ‘The New Scientist’ and applied. I never really expected to pass the selection procedure. I suppose they were sifting for people of a certain size and weight; elfin little balls of fluff like me. But my starred-first in physics and my second-subject teaching diploma in gymnastics probably helped.

There were many times when I nearly chickened out. I am not brave. And, I am not a stayer. I didn’t fancy anyone else on the course, either. As Mum would have said, they were all nudnicks and schlemiels located somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Even Peter and Lance were geeks, and not the chic kind. They were strictly ‘old school’ and always playing ‘CPU Top Trumps’.

If Cathy hadn’t broken her knee, I wouldn’t have ‘passed out’, I’m sure of that. But Cathy went into hospital, and NASA knew which side their very expensive brioche was buttered, so they sent me; the only European, as well as the only remaining girl.  So, with Pete and Lance, I blasted off to Ceres — with a whimper that the cameras never saw.

But once in space, Pete and Lance came into their own.

“I really did not want to come on this trip,” I confessed to them both on the very first day of the journey.

“Well, you could have stood down any time,” said Pete, and surprised me by putting a comforting arm around my shoulder.
And then the tears came — in floods.

“What’s wrong?” asked Lance. “Is it being cooped up in here for weeks with people you hardly know? I mean, neither of us is a barrel of laughs.”

“After three weeks with no exercise and no gravity, we’ll all be barrels,” said Pete. “We won’t be laughing about it either.”

“Just point me at the choccy ice cream,” I said. But I knew the onboard icebox didn’t run to comfort food. “No, it’s not that. It’s just I can’t help thinking we won’t be coming back. This isn’t just like going to the moon.”

“That’s just pissing in a bucket,” said Lance. “Ceres is pissing in a blender.”

Peter drew himself up and recited:

“There was a young astro called Alice

Whose life seemed to be full of malice.

Her knees knocked and shook

At each step she took,

Especially in Buckingham Palace!”

Peter had a limerick for every occasion, and a Clerihew for anything really bad, (so he couldn’t have thought my worries were severe). I tried getting back at him with a ‘Balliol Rhyme’. But he wasn’t impressed.

“We’re off in a gigantic rocket

We’re going to that asteroid Ceres.

It rattles thus: ‘pocketa-pocket,’

Don’t suppose that it’s anything serious.”

He clearly thought it was  doggerel. What’s worse, I tried to explain the reference to him and made myself sound like a schlepper.

__

“Let us recap,” the giant moth says. “You came here to devour us, or to devour our world. So you cannot have a moral objection if I devour you.”

“We didn’t know your world was inhabited. Had we known, we’d have tried to make contact.” But it was probably futile trying to tell the moth it was an accident when the drill penetrated their pressurised chamber. They must have been watching our television programmes all this time; analysing them, decoding and translating them. They must have seen the way we fought wars, with bombs and rockets and what not. “We didn’t realise the damage we were doing,” I say, lamely.

“That is the excuse of the murdering bully,” says the moth. “‘I did not know his skull was so thin, your honour.’”

Don’t rise to the bait. It’s toying with you; trying to provoke you to display the emotion that would titillate its taste buds.

And now it recites,

“There was a young lady of Riga

Who went for a ride on a tiger,

They finished the ride

With the lady inside,

And a smile on the face of the tiger.”

How extraordinary, how very extraordinary. Peter was always reciting Limericks. I had already suspected that the creature might be telepathic. But no. Far more plausible that it got that from the BBC rather than Peter’s brain. Coincidence, that’s all. Be careful. You nearly fell for it, then. It’s trying to trap you into asking the question. The Question. The ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. And its answer will shatter your reason to the winds and drain your courage away, leaving you no more than the smile on the face of the tiger.

I lick my palms and rub the spit onto my bleeding elbows, then I lick my grazed knees. The burning pain in my side tells me that at least one rib is broken. And it called me a bully! I can feel the rib moving; knife stabbing pain shoots up my side. I think my kidneys might be damaged too.

At least the pain is something I can fight against. At least I feel alive as a mouse or snail, crawling along the edge of Occam’s razor. Ask no questions and it will tell no lies. You can work it all out for yourself. For example: why does it need those delicate insectile wings when it lives on an asteroid that has no air? It must need air because this cavern is full of it, under pressure. Either the wings are not for flying, or it evolved elsewhere. Perhaps they are for breathing, or for temperature regulation? See, plenty of riddles to keep your brain active. You don’t have to ask questions. The answers could be lies, or misunderstandings. Evidence is best. Carl Popper and David Hume are your friends, now. Or Omar, my old phenomenology lecturer who asked, “Ask yourself: ‘What is the question to which the answer is “Yes”?’” The truth is I’m tired. I just want to sleep forever. But it won’t stop tormenting me.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?” It says, and its mocking laugh sounds strangely like Colonel Dickinson. Why is that?

I hug my burning knees and rock a little on my throbbing heels. My limbs are painfully thin, but my body is still whole. Why did I volunteer for this? Was it just to be the first female astronaut in my city? I enjoyed teaching. I had a full life and a decent income. I was engaged to be married, and my parents were proud of me.

“Very well,” it says. “I’ll let you work it out for yourself. The effect will be the same.”

Work out what for myself? How come this totally alien being knows so much about us? That’s the thing we never expected about alien species. The very definition of alien. But it knows everything…

It must have heard Peter call me by my name.

Its wings do not even look like a moth’s, now. They are throbbing, they even seem larger. They are not scaled like a moth’s. They are covered in short, trembling hairs; no, they do not remind me of hairs, they look more like synapses and nerve ends.

Oh my God! The horror! Here comes the candle…

Is that all?

No, it hurts.

__

There’s someone next to me where no one should be.

Peter, is that you? Is it over? Are we back on earth? Lance?

The horror!

Worst of all, here comes the certainty, I will be seeing the world through ITS eyes, not mine.

And these wings are not for flying.

They’re forever.

“Alice? Alice!”

“Go away, fiend!”

“Well, that’s the first time I’ve been called that,” says Lance; pseudo Lance.

“There once was a patient named Alice,

Who drank deep from life’s bittersweet chalice.

A decayed macular

And a retinal scar

Made her sight Aurora Borealis.”

“You’re not Peter,” I said.

“Who am I, then?”

“You’re a giant moth on an asteroid; Ceres.”

“You can’t be — serious,” he says, laughing at his own joke.

“Do you ever stop joking?” says pseudo Lance to pseudo Peter. Then he speaks seriously, to me — to pseudo Me? “Do you know where you really are, Alice? You’re in hospital. Yeah?”

“You’re not Lance. You ate Lance, and Peter. And then you ate me!”

“Listen, Alice. It’s going to take a while before the anaesthetic wears off, but in the meantime, you need a little help. I’m Peter Laithwaite, I’m your surgeon. This is Doctor Lance Michaelson, he’s the registrar. I’ve just done a very tricky operation using a laser to repair your retina and regenerate your macula. Ring any bells?”

“One of the symptoms of your condition,” says Lance, “is what we call ‘new variant Charles Bonnet Syndrome’ when you get hallucinations. We had to move fast, because you were developing a psychosis where you imagined all kinds of weird and wonderful things were happening to you.”

“Sometimes called ‘Walter Mitty Syndrome’,” said Peter. “James Thurber had it after he went blind in one eye. It’s usually old people who develop it. But the form you have is extremely rare and very traumatic. We had to work fast. Looks like we were only just in time.”

He goes on to explain how the bonding matrix they injected into my eyes was made out of the scales on the wings of certain moths. Clever.

But they’re not fooling me — it’s not fooling me. That’s not what its wings are for.

Ⓒ Zoe Joyce Nightingale Butler 2016

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