Gods of War

By Jason Gibbs

Riel signalled right and two of his rangers peeled off.  They padded silently into the forest.  A signal left, and two more went, giving them the start of a skirmish line.  He looked at his Chief, standing silently in the centre of their line, right on the path.  He didn’t know why the Chief had ordered them to close together when they formed up after clearing away the tents, but it made him nervous.  He took it on his own initiative to spread the line more.  This would give them much greater flexibility.

Suddenly the Chief stirred.  He indicated forward, and called back the skirmishers.  They were to progress forward as a tight group.

“Oh no, another amateur.  No idea how to use us.”

“Shush Perel.  He might hear you.”

“He can’t hear me, and he’s not even real, you know that.”

Riel did have his concerns about the Chief, but he was clearly real.

Perel went on, “We’re skirmishing troops, I mean look at us.”

He pointed down to his green tunic and brown trews.  He was indicating the lack of armour.  This made them light, and fast.  But it also meant they’d be cut down if they were forced into a straight fight.

“I know, I know, but maybe this is just his way of travelling quickly, and when we get close to the danger area…”

“How will we know?  We have no scouts out!”

“He is guided by a higher power, I’m sure it will tell him what to do.”

“Right, like that time it told us to turn around just as those orcs were charging us?”

“Yeah, but we got out of that, didn’t we?”

“Did we?  I don’t actually remember.”

In truth Riel couldn’t remember much more than a tremendous pain in his side, and then waking up again, ready for war.  He just assumed the healers had got to him in time.

They walked on for a little while before the Chief indicated they should jog.

“Right, let’s tire ourselves out.”

“Perel, hold your tongue.”

“Bah.”

Riel was itching to get the company to spread out, and figuring that as the sub-Chief he had some control he signalled again to the left and right, and several of their troops peeled off.  They jogged like this for a while.  The bulk of the company was on a path, but the troops had such affinity with the woodlands that even those on either side who were dodging trees could easily keep up. 

Riel had assumed that his Chief’s failure to countermand his order meant he approved. 

“Bet he hasn’t noticed.”

“I’m sure he has.  I just wish we could prepare our bows.  Not having a decent weapon in my hands is making me nervous.”

While it would take moments to string and prepare them, those seconds might be critical, and they were now entering unknown territory.

The Chief waved, angrily it appeared to Riel, to the left and right, and the scouts reluctantly fell back in.  It was obvious from the way they dragged their feet that they were unhappy with the order, they’d relished the chance to dance among the trees.

“Told ya.  Bloody amateur.”

“Perhaps he has some intelligence of the way ahead?”

“He has no intelligence.”

Riel looked sharply at Perel, who was chuckling to himself.

He whispered harshly, “You may think that, but don’t say it so loudly, we don’t want the rest of the troop to notice.”

“They have no intelligence either Riel.  Just look at them.”

Riel inhaled sharply, he tolerated too much of Perel’s ways, and now he’d insulted their companions.  Yet there was nothing from them, no retort.  He looked around and realised he barely knew any of them.  They all had long handsome faces, pointy ears and almond shaped eyes.  He couldn’t actually think of their names.  They had received a lot of replacements after the last fight; perhaps that was why?

“Oh Riel, don’t worry, they don’t care that you don’t know their names.  They haven’t been around long enough to earn them.”

“That’s too much Perel.  You are cruel.”

“When will you realise…”

There was a roar ahead of them.  The Chief indicated they should stop, and the whole troop gracefully came to a halt.  Some seven hundred yards along the path, up a hill, they could see a band of orcs.

“Now let me see, notwithstanding that if we’d been running through the woods they wouldn’t have spotted us, what would be the correct thing to do here?”

“Fade into the woods and regroup.”

“Or try and get around them, then shoot them from behind and fade again.  Constant hit and run.  I’m prepared to guess that instead we’ll approach them slowly.  Set up with our bows and shoot at them while they charge us.  Then we’ll pull our hunting knives and fight bravely until we’re all dead.”

“That would be stupid, our Chief would never…”

The Chief signalled forward.  Riel tried to avoid Perel’s knowing eye, and jogged, hoping this was some kind of feint.  He couldn’t think of any way this was going to work out well for them.

The next signal was to charge.

“Dear gods, we’re six hundred yards away, lightly armoured and they are heavy shock troops.  What does he think is going to happen?”

“I don’t… understand how… you can still… speak… Perel.”

“Practice.”

They were now pelting towards their enemy.  Without armour, and with natural elvish athleticism they were fast, but it was still quite a distance for them to run at full pace, especially uphill.  The orcs seemed initially surprised by the move, but then prepared to receive the charge.  Riel thought that if the orcs were to charge down towards the elves at the last moment they’d scythe through them in seconds.

Suddenly the Chief signalled a stop.  They were perhaps a hundred yards from the orcs.  They stopped for a while, and the party started to shuffle a bit.  The orcs watched.  Their harsh shouts dwindled to confused mutterings.  Why was the troop just standing here?  Why weren’t they doing anything?  Riel thought that at least it gave them a chance to catch their breaths.

Finally the order to string bows came.

“Genius,” muttered Perel.

A ferocious roar came from the orcs, and they started down towards the troop.  The slope gave them added pace, and it was like facing a juggernaut.

“If we could just step out of their way, I suspect they’d run straight past and we could pepper their backs.”

“Now you’re thinking Riel, we’ll make a war captain of you yet.”

Instead they were ordered to fire.

“Hmm, three arrows maybe?”

All around Riel the company drew and fired, a smooth motion.  The arrows flew true, as only elvish arrows can, and embedded themselves in orcs.  Several fell, but their heavy armour, and stubborn constitutions allowed them to shrug off most of the attack.  Twice more the elves managed to fire, the last time at almost point blank range.  Perhaps some forty orcs had fallen, without the loss of a single elf.

Unfortunately there were still dozens of orcs left, and the fighting was now to their advantage.  A beast of an orc charged at Riel, his axe aimed for the elf’s head.  Riel managed to twist sideways and catch the orc across the head with his bow’s shaft.  It knocked him off balance and the elf behind Riel, another whose name he didn’t know, managed to cut the orc’s throat with a swipe of his hunting knife.  There was no time for thanks as Riel ducked the next attack, managing to draw his own knife out in time to deflect a saw tooth blade heading for his side.

They fought.  Many died on both sides, but more elves than orcs.  The elves could dance, and weave, but if a flailing orc weapon caught one of them, it would do serious damage.  The same could not be said for the elven knives.  Most of the time the knife attacks bounced off the orcs’ armour, or their thick hides.  Soon there were only a few elves left, gathered around the Chief.

He signalled they should run.

Perel nearly collapsed laughing.

“Run?  Now?  Where too!”

He was right, they were surrounded.  Yet the Chief and the others started to run back the way they’d come, and they were cut down quickly, leaving only Perel and Riel standing back to back.  The orcs just stared at them. 

“I see you’ve been careless and caught a wound in the side.”

“Perel, I don’t need the feedback.  Also, I recall your hair being long and blond, not matted and red.”

“New barber, not sure I’ll be going back.”

Riel staggered.  The blood loss would kill him if the damned orcs didn’t do so first.

His world went black.

#

“Aww, you cheated!  There’s no way your orcs should have won.”

“Little brother, I even gave you a points advantage, why would I cheat.”

“Then it wasn’t possible.”

“It was, look do you want to try again, and I’ll give you ten extra elves?”

“Twenty!”

“OK.  But you need to remember elves are better at skirmishing…”

“Don’t you try and confuse me; I know what I’m doing.”

#

Riel awoke.  The memory of the blood and pain was so fresh that he reached for his side, expecting his hand to come away slick.  Instead there was nothing.  The healers must have got to him, but he couldn’t imagine how.  Orcs never left anyone alive unless they were chased off.

He might be alive, but he was exhausted.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept.  Maybe he could grab a little more rest.

“Morning Riel.  Ready for another pointless march, foolishly managed battle and near death?”

He looked up grumpily at Perel. 

“How come you’re so cheery?”

“In this hell is there any choice?  Oh, here comes our new Chief.”

They were ordered into close formation, and started marching along the path.  Then jogging.

Perel shook his head, “I just wish they’d learn.  It’d be nice to win this one.  At least it’s a larger troop.”

Looking around, Riel realised that their troop was all different from the last one.  Yet with the same variants.  There was one with an eye patch, one with an extra-large knife, and even one who was probably female.  He didn’t know their names, and he suspected Perel was right.  They wouldn’t survive long enough to earn ones.

“Maybe this is a feint.”

“Riel, why do you have to be so naive?  This is the same joker as last time.”

“Perel…”

Up ahead there was a roar and a formation of orcs straddled the path.  The elven troop was brought to a halt, then jogged forward.  As they were once more ordered into a charge, Riel was knocked to the side and hit a tree.  He slumped down.

“Sorry Riel, I had to do that.”

“What?  Wait… Perel, we need to get back to the troop.  They’ll be slaughtered without us.”

“They’ll be slaughtered anyway.  This way we have a chance.”

“For what?”

“For a life without continuous stupidity and death.  Over that ridge.  I get the feeling that once we’re out of the sight of the higher powers, we might have a chance.”

In the distance he could hear the sound of the orcs readying a charge, and he knew in his heart they’d make no difference.  Perel offered him a hand up, and he took it.  The two friends jogged towards the ridge, and the hope of a different life.  Behind them nameless troops hacked at each other, and died.  Before the battle had ended, Perel and Riel were over the ridge, and in a different world.

###

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Malthus Was Right!

By Jason Gibbs

“Why are you so dissatisfied Jacob? We live in a perfect world.”

“I know, I know, and yet…”

They’d had this argument so many times, Jacob just didn’t know how to explain. In this utopia he felt like an ingrate, or worse, a serpent, looking for the apple of truth which would ruin it all. At first he’d tried to explain his unease to Zelia, but she’d just stared at him in incomprehension. Then she’d accused him of becoming too wrapped up in his old books. Orwell and Huxley had made him question his world.

“Anyway, there’s something I need to tell you Jacob.”

“What?”

“I’m having a baby with Ruthius.”

“What? But, I didn’t think you knew him or…”

“We’re friends on a different plane, and well, he and I have become close and he proposed and I said yes. That doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends on this plane, or whatever. But it does mean that we won’t ..”

“Be having a baby. Or a future.”

In his heart he’d known this was coming. She’d been spending more and more time on other planes. But Ruthius, that was a kick in the guts. He’d been looking forward to turning a hundred and being allowed to have a baby, but now, that was gone.

“Jacob, are you going to be ok?”

“Yeah, sure, fine. Look I need some time. I’ll ping you.”

He cut the connection and the space around him reconfigured to his personal homespace. He just floated, wondering what he could have done, and also why he felt such a sense of relief. A crazy plan had been building in the hidden parts of his brain, and it now took centre stage.

#

“Jacob Alliere 237634298?”

“Yes.”

“It says on your application that you’ve been studying engineering for six months.”

“Yes.”

“Real?”

He had to think a little, but he knew the question was designed to knock him off guard. Many planes ran at slightly different speeds, so six months could feel like four, or ten.

“Real and experienced, I was on a normal plane. It was a retro plane, which is why I can also speak like you. Actually I’d spent several years in retro planes, which is how I found your… advert. Text. I thought it was a quest or something.”

The man looked sceptical, but continued, “After this interview you’ll be run through several more tests, but so far you seem to have what it takes. Why do you want to be an Engineer?”

This was the real test. How could he answer? With the nearest to the truth he could manage.

“I feel something is wrong, in the planes. Or I’m wrong for the planes. It’s like I’m always out of tune. But it all seems so ethereal, irrelevant even. You, the Engineers, are the only group who ever do anything Real.”

“What about the researchers?”

“They’re just playing a different type of game on a different set of planes, but it isn’t Real.”

The man leaned back in his chair, rocking a little, a movement which seemed odd to Jacob who’d spent his whole life in a world where gravity did what he wanted, and which was always smoothly under control.

For a while the man just stared, and Jacob could think of nothing else to say. Then the man rubbed his chin.

“You’re the seventy-eighth applicant we’ve had this century. The first seventy-seven were more than eighty years ago, and we rejected all but five. You’ll find out more about them when you go through. I’ll be honest, the main reason I’m passing you is that we need new blood, but I don’t think you’ll last. You sure about the full term? I can give you the probationary two year option.”

“But then I’ll be in a mechanical won’t I?”

The man nodded.

“In that case I’ll go with the twenty year option, that way I know I’ll succeed.”

“Maybe. See you on the other side.”

The man winked out, somewhat rudely, Jacob thought, and he was led through several more exercises. His pod informed him that it was being asked to provide detailed medical information, and he gave his assent. Usually it was only required for procreation, but he wasn’t going to be worrying about that, or Zelia, for a long while.

#

The video finished and the light came up. The group stared at each other across the table.

“Are you sure he’s going to help?” said the first.

“He’s our best shot. We just don’t know how to communicate with them anymore, you heard, he thought our advert was a quest, we’re archaic to them,” answered the man at the top of the table who was known as Control.

“What about Felis?”

“It’s been three years since she last called. We’ve lost her, just like the previous ones. It’s a different world in there. Or worlds. Enticing. Intoxicating.” He shook his head sadly.

“Well Control, we’re running out of time. If this doesn’t work then we’ll have to discuss the Euthanasia protocols.”

The first time the protocols had been mentioned there had been gasps of shock, this time they all just nodded and avoided each other’s eyes.

“I know. I’ll rush him through as quickly as possible, but he has to bond. He has to want to stay with us.”

#

“He’s ready, everyone visited him in the first two weeks. He’s had every bug we’ve got. His pod and nanites handled most of them, there were a couple which looked a bit worrying, but we got him through,” the doctor looked strained, she wasn’t happy about this. She’d held them off for a week to give the boy, man, a chance, but they needed to get things going. Opening the pod each time one of their community had come to visit had been a chore, much worse was watching his vitals waver as he developed immunities she’d been born with.

“Thanks Doctor, can you bring him out of sedation, gently, and we’ll get him into training with Sasha. We’ll need you when, if, we bring him out of his pod.”

The Doctor’s eyes widened a bit, but she nodded and went back to her patient.

#

“How long do I have to stay in this place?”

“Until you learn how to move without trying to control gravity. In the Real gravity pulls one way, down, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If we let you straight out you’d fall over and hurt yourself.”

For three weeks Jacob had been living in this hell hole. It was a set of tunnels weaving through machinery, and it was hot, and he just couldn’t get comfortable. He’d always been able to have gravity changed around him so he’d be held perfectly, now he stumbled, cracking his head against walls, and grazing his shins. That was another thing.

“Can you at least allow my system to damp the pain?”

“We are. You’re at around 50% at the moment. As an Engineer, in the Real, you’ll need to be able to cope with normal pains, and you won’t have your pod to molly-coddle you.”

He could hear a slight sneer in her voice, he felt it was always there. It was clear she felt nothing but contempt for him. She wanted him to fail. Well, he’d made his decision, and he was going all the way.

“When will it go to 100%?”

“When you stop complaining.”

“How long did it take the last few applicants?”

A pause. Perhaps she didn’t know? Or it wasn’t a pleasant answer?

A man’s voice interceded, “Generally they took four to five months to reach the stage you are, and then another few months to complete. You are doing well. Continue.”

So there was someone who wanted him to succeed, and he was apparently doing well. His time in the rougher planes, where war was simulated, was paying off.

“I will, but why is she so hostile?”

Silence and then the woman’s voice, “Get back to the task, we have five more after this.”

He ducked down and started crawling along yet another path between whirring machinery. He’d spent the last weeks learning how to fix these machines. He kept bumping his head, scratching his arms and knocking his shins, but he was slowly getting better.

“Remind me again why we can’t use machines for this?”

There was a grumpy sigh in his ear, “We can, but we also need to do it ourselves. Machines tend not to cope with new or slightly different situations, when they happen, an Engineer has to be sent in. And before you ask the next question, yes we do send in remotes sometimes, but we’ve found that being physically on site makes all the difference. I’ve told you this before, and I’m not going to tell you again.”

He’d been surprised she’d answered at all, maybe the man’s interruption had helped. He got his head down, and followed the tasks he’d been set.

#

“Well congratulations on passing the tests and being born into our world. Welcome to hell,” said Sasha. He’d only found out her name the day before, and he’d hoped it meant she was mellowing. It didn’t seem so.

It wasn’t what he expected. Despite all the training he still tried to stop the gravity which pressed him into the bed. It felt like he was working twice as hard to breathe, and to top it all he was greeted with sarcasm.

“Ah… yeah… hello.”

“Hmm, shouldn’t you be adjusted?”

“Yes, but… it’s… the shock. Give me a moment or two.”

“OK, but we have work to do.”

Jacob nodded, took a breath and stood. It took all his willpower not to fall straight back down, but he managed to stay up. He nodded again and she turned and stalked off. Clearly she still hadn’t forgiven him for whatever it was he’d done. Or not done.

He couldn’t believe it, but for the first time in his life he actually walked.

The next few weeks were hard. He was working in the Real. The Real! But he didn’t get a real chance to properly appreciate it. At the end of every day he was so exhausted he fell into bed, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. He met a few other people in passing, but they were mostly taciturn. He still didn’t know exactly how many Engineers there were and Sasha still didn’t say much.

One night as they finished she said, “Right, you’ve passed. Tomorrow you have a break, and then we start real work.”

“What have we been doing?”

“Simulations, damned expensive ones. Good thing we did too otherwise you might have lost a leg.”

He ducked his head abashed. He’d not noticed the steel door closing, and Sasha had dived to save him. He had wondered how she’d been able to stop such a heavy door.

“Thanks again.”

“Any questions?”

He had so many!

“Lots. What do we do? Who decides the jobs? Why me?”

She shook her head.

“We supervise the machines, and occasionally fix things they can’t. Control decides the jobs. Control will tell you. You’re meeting him tomorrow.”

“Great. Was he the one who intervened in my virtual training?”

She frowned and nodded.

“Night.”

She was gone. As she walked away he wondered if they’d ever be friends.

#

He was summoned to see Control by a small message bot which travelled the corridors on wheels at high speed, often bouncing off walls or the occasional person.

“Jacob, welcome to the Real, and welcome to the Engineers.”

The man who greeted him was old. Jacob was shocked. No one in the planes would be old. Oh they might pretend sometimes, but it was rare. The man had wrinkles, and grey hair and was a little stooped.

“Ah thank you.”

“I am Control. Voted for, and with another decade to run on my term.”

“Nice to meet you. Um.”

“I know, you have questions. Can I show you in the Virtual?”

“I didn’t think…”

“Oh, not a plane. I’ll show you.”

The man waved him over to two couches, and indicated he should sit down. Once he had, the man gave him some headphones and a pair of bulky glasses. When he put them on he could see a very poor resolution virtual world and hear a slight hiss. Seconds later the old man appeared next to him, looking a little blocky.

“Not what you’re used to, but all we need.”

“Why don’t you use a plane?”

“We have tried, but we find it becomes addictive, and we lose good Engineers.”

“Oh.”

“Let me show you what we do.”

Suddenly they were floating above the ground. Only he could still feel the couch. This really wasn’t like the planes. Below them was a surface covered in shiny panels.

“This is part of the planet above us. Those panels are solar collectors. At this point more than seventy percent of the surface of the Earth is covered in them.”

The back of his mind tickled, he did know this, but he’d forgotten.

“We used to only put the panels on the land, but some centuries ago we found a way to platform across the oceans. Now the only places not covered are the poles, partly due to low solar absorption, and partly for more technical weather control reasons, and the nature reserves. We are next to a nature reserve here, and on your next rest day you’ll be taken out for a tour.”

“I can go outside?”

“Yes, but not for long, your skin will not be ready for it and we wouldn’t want you to get burnt. But we do want you to meet the animals.”

“So why do we need all the solar panels?”

“We need the power, to keep the planes going. Each panel supports, roughly, one person. Their dietary requirements, warmth and everything else, including medical. We have some other power sources, but the complexity and risk have made them unreliable. Solar is best. The energy allows us to create food, clean water and everything else.”

“But that means, well many millions of people are in the planes.”

“Approximately thirty billion, and growing, though slowly.”

“Wow. So we have to keep all of that going?”

“Oh no, the robots do the vast majority, we just deal with glitches and strangenesses.”

“How many Engineers are there?”

“Twenty thousand or so, scattered across the globe in half a dozen different settlements, all of them on the edge of a nature reserve.”

Jacob tried to work out how many panels each Engineer was responsible for, but the sheer size of it overwhelmed him.

“And you want me to help with this?”

“At the moment, I’d just like you to become a proper Engineer. Learn what we do, meet the others and understand the Real. I’d like you to go out and visit the animals as well. Once you’ve settled we can talk more about what else you can do.”

“You were the one who interrupted my simulations.”

“I was.”

“So what did happen to the others who joined from the planes?”

Control sighed.

“They went back. Not a single one completed their stint. We had to let them back.”

“It’s that bad.”

“It’s that different. As you already know. You will start to feel the weight of it soon. If you need to talk I’m always here.”

Jacob turned to leave and then turned back and asked, “So all the Engineers…”

“Were born in the Real. They’ve never experienced the planes. It’s been that way for several generations. Some from every generation elect to join the planes, we don’t stop them. They never come back.”

Jacob left thinking that the answers hadn’t helped him much.

#

“Why are you looking so happy?”

“Morning to you too Sasha. I am happy because I spent yesterday outside. With the animals.”

“Right.”

“No, it was amazing. I can’t explain how amazing they were. In the planes we have simulations of animals, but, they just aren’t the same.”

She grunted.

“I even learned to ride.”

She looked at him in surprise.

“Well I started, I can’t do much more than walk a horse round, but it was astonishing.”

Her expression softened for a moment, but then she shouldered her gear and nodded at him. It was the longest non-work conversation they’d ever had.

#

Over the weeks he met other members of the team. One of them, Tomi, was particularly friendly and they were soon swapping jokes and stories. Tomi showed him where the bars were, and introduced him to alcohol. The first few times it didn’t work out so well, but after a while he became used to it, and began to look forward to going for a drink after work.

“How was Sasha today?”

“Grumpy. As usual. I don’t get her problem with me, it’s like it’s personal.”

Tomi laughed.

“What?”

“You still haven’t figured it out?”

“No.”

“Well, you know Perri?”

“Yeah I guess I’ve met Perri a couple of times.”

“Well, Sasha and Perri were going to be work partners, and Sasha was hoping they would also pair up.”

Jacob looked confused.

“What do you mean pair up?”

“You know, like get together. Marry, that sort of thing.”

“So why do I prevent that?”

“Well, it’s kind of assumed that work partners will pair up. It’s been that way for a while, which is why Control takes such an interest in new pairings. Clearly you’re the one for Sasha!”

Tomi laughed at his look. Jacob had truly never considered it.

“Well Jacob? Don’t you find her attractive?”

“Um, well not really.”

Jacob was uncomfortable with the questions, but Tomi carried on.

“Oh. Are you, uh, you know, interested more in men? Were you a woman in the virtual world?”

Jacob said nothing, just looked away and shuffled on his seat. Tomi realised something was up.

“Sorry Jacob, I didn’t mean to pry, I was only…”

“No, don’t worry Tomi it’s fine. It’s just that where I come from it’s very rude to ask those questions. At least until an approach has been made.”

“An approach?”

Jacob sighed. “I guess I should explain. On the planes we meet each other and we may, or may not, have an obvious gender. Some people, possibly many, operate as different genders on different planes.”

“What, you mean be a man on one plane and a woman on another?”

“Yes, as a simplistic example.”

“Ugh.”

“It’s quite fun actually.”

Tomi stared at him.

“Look Tomi, that was normal. The planes are only limited by imagination, and some people have great imaginations. I could go on about all the combinations, but I was trying to explain. Generally we try to partner with someone we like, and then we can discuss the virtual physical side. That’s the approach.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Crudely, if you find the right person and want them to look different they can. Say you prefer girls and the person you meet is a boy, you could ask them to change. Depending on how deep the relationship is it can be fine. They might change totally in that plane, or they might just allow you to see them as a girl and everyone else sees them as a boy. Or they might suggest that you only meet in a different plane where they happen to be a girl.”

It was clearly blowing Tomi’s mind.

“But one thing we almost never ask is what a person’s real gender is, even in a deep relationship. It’s kind of taboo. Often the only people who know are their parents.”

“But surely people will see you naked as you grow up. I mean, it’s impossible to hide it.”

Jacob blushed a little.

“Well, it has become usual for children to appear be genderless. And have no genitalia at all.”

Tomi just stared at him for a few seconds and then said, “But how do they, um, go to the toilet?”

“It’s all handled in the machine, behind the scenes, so they never know. Until I did my orientation training I’d never consciously had to go to the toilet.”

Tomi looked at him, and laughing said, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Then he carried on laughing. Jacob smiled too, though he wasn’t seeing the joke. He waved over another couple of drinks, and managed to steer Tomi to more mundane topics.

#

“Jacob stop what you’re doing.”

He’d been replacing a power unit and thinking about his next day off. He was going to go outside of course, but should he go riding again, or hang out with the goats? Desmon had offered to take him on a mini safari. Off in a daze he hadn’t clocked the flashing red light on their communicators.

“Wha..”

Her outstretched hand silenced him. She was listening to the radio. She nodded and then clicked it off.

“This way, now. There’s trouble. Peretina is caught in a breach.”

With that she started running. He began to follow. While he’d learned how to run they hadn’t done it much and he felt very awkward. The service tunnel wasn’t the smallest he’d been in, but he still had to duck and dodge to avoid decapitation or losing a limb. Sasha was soon well ahead of him.

He heard a wail. It must be Sasha, he raced ahead again, narrowly avoiding concussing himself, and rounded a corner to see her banging on a steel door.

He tried to gather his breath to ask her what was wrong when she threw herself at him and started sobbing. He just held her, and then saw the tell-tales on the door. It was showing water pressure and an electric surge. If Peretina was behind the door, then she was in big trouble.

Sasha gathered herself, remembered it was him and backed away, turning around to stare at the door.

“Can we open it another way?”

“No.”

“How long will she survive? How long have we got?”

She turned to him in disbelief.

“She’s dead.”

“But she can’t be… I mean. Surely we have time…”

She just continued to stare at him, and the truth of what she’d said hit him. It was like the whole world rocked around him. Suddenly he was overtaken by blackness.

#

“I didn’t think he knew Peretina?”

“He didn’t.”

“Why did he react like that then?”

“We’ll have to ask. I think he’s coming round.”

Jacob opened his eyes to see Tomi, Sasha and a doctor, not the one he knew, looking down at him.

“Jacob, I’m Doctor Fisal. How are you feeling?”

“Um, ok. Tired. My shoulder hurts a little.”

“You bruised it as you fell. The good news is that you’re ok, the computer has cleared you.”

“And Peretina.”

There was a brief pause, then the doctor said, “She’s dead Jacob, she died instantaneously. She was working on a water pressure system and something failed, engulfing her in water and shorting the local electrics. She would not have felt much pain, or awareness of her situation.”

“But. She’ll come back?”

The doctor shook his head sadly.

“No. She’s gone.”

Jacob stared at him again, and then slumped back. He wouldn’t respond again and the doctor gently shuffled the others out.

#

“So why did it affect him so badly Doctor?”

“Sasha, it’s taken me a while, and it’s only a theory, but I don’t think he’s ever know anyone die.”

“What? How?”

“In the planes they live for a very long time. They each live in a hermetically sealed pod. The machines have pretty much eliminated disease. People don’t interact physically any more so diseases can’t be passed, and the nano medicine deals with the vast majority of internal problems. They don’t do anything in the physical world, so accidents, or deliberate acts of violence just aren’t possible. The only real possibility is something genetic, and even there I think the majority are screened out when the babies are produced – they’re all in vitro as you know.”

Sasha stared, and he continued,

“From what I’ve picked up, it seems that as people age they move from one group of planes to another. The new groups might be mostly contained of planes which run a little slower, or aren’t as exciting. When they move from a group they don’t drop off, but they fade away. They still contact people occasionally, but they’ve moved to a different life. Jacob last spoke to his parents about forty years ago.”

“They realised what an idiot he is?”

The Doctor frowned, “No, not at all, they just moved to another group. They’ve faded out of his life, though he thinks they’re still alive. If he had been closer to them he might have followed them to a new group.”

“There must be something, some external threat.”

“Like Peretina? Sometimes things happen. Meteorites we don’t catch, or a blow out like with Peretina, but they’re not always fatal and they’re very rare, and among the billions it’s not a surprise that Jacob wouldn’t know someone who’d died that way. Even if he did, he might just think they’d moved and not told him.”

“So he didn’t care about her.”

“No. Not in a personal way, but he cares that she’s gone. It’s touched him at his core. Changed him. Made him grow up perhaps.”

She snorted and shook her head.

#

“You have to get him to answer the question Control. Enough with this bonding. Playing with animals is not solving our problem.”

“I want to give him more time to get over Peretina’s death,” Control frowned at Benson, who was currently second Control.

“He didn’t know her.”

“Yes, but her death has shocked him. I worry that, well, that it has set him back. If we ask him to help and he doesn’t commit, or care, he’ll just go back to the planes. What do we do then?”

“If we had time I would agree with you, but you know where we are. We have no time. We have to discuss the protocols. Even if we slow the planes we have no more than ten years before the planes will literally be out of power, and none of us know what will happen then. We could lose millions. Billions.”

“I know. I know. I’ll get him in. Let’s see if he will help.” Control looked drained. The worry and responsibility was weighing heavily on him.

#

Jacob walked into the room and slumped into the chair. He didn’t even seem to notice the others in the room.

“Jacob, I’ve asked you here because we need your help,” began Control.

“What with?” Jacob answered, with a slightly detached air. Control looked at him worriedly. Tomi and Sasha exchanged a look, this is what they’d been dealing with for the last few weeks.

“We have a problem. We’re going to run out of energy for the planes. Soon, in a few years, if the population continues to grow, even as slowly as it is. At which point we have a number of hard options.”

“Such as?” Was that a spark of interest in Jacob’s eyes.

“We could sacrifice the animals.”

“No!” There was steel certainty in that no.

“I agree, and it wouldn’t help much, maybe give us another three years’ growth. If we slow all the planes we can buy another ten, maybe fifteen, years, but then we’ll have nothing.”

“What else have you considered?”

Control paused.

“Euthanasia and stopping childbirth for a period of time,” said Benson, a little gruffly.

Jacob looked shocked.

“But…”

“What else can we do? Not that they’ll really solve the problem.” Benson challenged.

Jacob had been thinking, and he felt stupid asking, but it seemed obvious to him. They must have already discounted it for some reason.

“Why don’t we gather more energy?”

“I’ve already explained. We’re getting the most we can from solar, and we’ve had to limit the geothermal and nuclear options. We can’t get any more,” answered Control.

“We could get more solar… if we put out some sails above the Earth. Or maybe mirrors to focus energy onto collection spots.”

Control brightened and said, “So you know how we could do that?”

“Um no.”

“Well then what good is it suggesting them? We need practical suggestions of what we can do!” the strain Control had been under was starting to show.

Jacob didn’t really notice, he was finally coming out of the fug he’d been in, he continued, “But we could ask one, or more, of the research planes. They’ll work it out, and we can just make it happen.”

This was the nub of the problem.

“I’ve asked. And asked. And pleaded, begged. Dozens of times. I’ve tried everything. Either they aren’t interested, or they come up with ridiculous suggestions.”

“I quite liked the perpetual motion engine,” interjected Tomi.

Control quelled his amusement with a look and turned back to Jacob.

“We’ve sent people in, they don’t come back. So you see, they can’t help. We’re Engineers, but we haven’t been able to come up with a solution. We need their help, and yet…”

Jacob thought about it, and then said, “Perhaps you’ve been approaching it the wrong way. They probably view it as an abstract, and not particularly complex, problem.”

“So how would you approach it?”

He started to describe how he’d get them involved using words like network dominance, disintermediated interest groups and quite a number of words which none of the others had ever heard of. He was in full flow when he looked up and realised he’d lost his audience.

“Um, let me see if I can explain in Real language. I think perhaps we should propose it as a sort of competition, maybe post it to one of the space mechanics planes and let the other planes hear of it, then they’ll want in. As long as we specify the starting conditions to be as if they are in the Real, and we may have to emphasise that, then hopefully they’ll give us some great ideas. I’m sure one will work.”

“What would the prize be, we can’t offer them anything they want.”

“Kudos. Perhaps say it’s the first of a decennial competition, and we could name it after Peretina.”

He stopped a second, thinking about the accident, then continued, “Then it has Real history as well. Also to have something built in the Real? That might be just unusual and odd enough to encourage even more to apply, and the more we get the better. I think they’d go for it.”

“I don’t know. But we’re desperate, let’s do it.”

And the Peretina Fal Yurlins Award was born. Jacob worked tirelessly to set it up, staying in the Real, but using all his connections on the planes. When it was officially announced the scientist planes went crazy. At first they thought the Engineers were restricting it to just the space mechanics plane, as soon as it was made clear that it was an open competition all sorts of crazy ideas flooded in.

#

“You were right Control,” Benson said, and there was no rancour in his admission.

“I was lucky. We all were.”

#

“It is my great pleasure to award the second Peretina Fal Yurlins Award from the physical manifestation of the first award.”

Control did sound pleased as his image was projected into the Planes, and the virtual award flashed into life.

While the speeches were going on, Tomi nudged Jacob, “Look down there.”

Jacob looked, though he’d been looking down all day. They could see miles of the planet below. The solar panels winking at them and the shadow from the beanstalk slowly swinging across.

“I can’t believe we’re on a giant plant.”

“And it’s still growing. I can’t wait to see the sails.”

The stalk climber continued up the giant beanstalk, taking them up smoothly despite its many legs and the roughness of the beanstalk.

A while later, after the ceremony had completed, Jacob nudged Tomi back. The climber was slowing as they neared the end, where the stalk was still green and growing. On each side huge silvery sheets spread out, like giant petals.

“They’re breath-taking.”

“What are?”

“The solar sails stupid.”

“I never believed they’d happen,” said Jacob.

Control leant over, “Without you Jacob, they never would have. The world of the planes had become too self-indulgent to save itself. No, that’s unfair. We’d just lost the ability to communicate with them. With your help, and this latest effort we’ve not only bought ourselves many more decades of gentle growth, but a new way of communicating. Of making friends.”

Jacob ducked his head, slightly embarrassed, and the looked at Sasha who was at the other window looking at. She turned to him and smiled slightly.

He smiled back, and said, “Or starting to…”

###

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Brain Hack

By Jason Gibbs

“Gerald? Is that you… I’m in the kitchen.”

The door slammed, and she heard his footsteps. They sounded heavy, and she hoped he hadn’t had a bad day.

“Dawn… I’ve… I’ve been in an accident.”

“What? Gerald, are you OK? Sit down…”

She pulled a chair out for him, and went to get him a whisky.

“Tell me about it.”

“I was driving home, work was hectic today and I was thinking about a presentation I needed to do on… well I can’t remember, but anyway, I turned off the motorway and then, then I hit something. Someone.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, but there was blood I think, and… I’m here. The car is…”

He slumped, and slid off the chair, falling almost gracefully to the ground before Dawn could get to him. She didn’t know what to do. She took a deep breath, put Gerald into the recovery position and signalled a call. An emergency services avatar appeared in the chat box in her eyespace.

‘How may I help you?’

She blinked a photo of her husband, and quickly summarised the issue.

‘Paramedics are on the way. Can you confirm the OS and version your husband is currently running?’

She’d worried about this, not that it should be a problem, but people were funny about these things.

‘He’s a natural. No implanted OS,’ she answered.

A pause before the response, ‘We will send police as well.’

‘What? Why?’

‘They will explain. Thank you for your call.’

The avatar shut down and a feedback box bounced into view. She irritably flicked her eyes left to send it where it deserved, and then sat down staring at Gerald. She absent mindedly drank the whisky she’d poured for him. She was worried, and wondering to herself, why the police?

#

Thirty minutes later the paramedics were loading Gerald into the ambulance, assuring her that all would be well. The police woman had been very polite, and stayed out of the way while the paramedics were working on him. Once the ambulance had pulled away she looked a question at Dawn, and Dawn sighed inwardly and went over to speak to her.

“I’m Officer Fisher. I’ve reviewed the report Mrs Richards, and I’m concerned. There are a few things which don’t make sense.”

Dawn stared at her. She’d been holding it together up to this point, looking after Gerald, but now… she started to cry.

The police woman didn’t move, but looked sympathetic.

“Now don’t worry Mrs Richards, I don’t think your husband has done anything wrong… quite the opposite in fact, I think he might be a victim. Is this Mr Richards’ car?” she asked as she pointed to the grey box Gerald had been so proud of getting.

Dawn sniffed a bit, then nodded and the police woman walked round it, then carefully looked under it. She nodded, to herself it seemed and then returned to where Dawn was standing.

“As I thought, no obvious damage. Would it be possible to go inside…”

Dawn looked around, and realised that some of her neighbours were loitering. She could see in the corner of her eyespace that there was a queue of messages in her neighbour channel. She nodded to the police woman, turned and went in. Officer Fisher followed at a respectful distance, and flashed a do not disturb message across all the local comms networks.

#

Officer Fisher sat quietly as Dawn busied herself making a cup of tea for them both. She’d wanted a glass of wine, but didn’t think it was entirely appropriate. Eventually she had to sit down and face the police woman.

“Thank you for the cup of tea Mrs Richards.”

“You’re welcome,” said Dawn somewhat woodenly.

“Now, you told the dispatch bot that your husband had no OS… and the request was shunted to a human. That is why I was sent. Now I have to ask this question, it may seem strange, but are you sure your husband is a natural? Some people claim they are, but…”

“Oh no, he’s a natural. You see we went to school together. I was there when they were testing us. He was the only natural in the school for a couple of years. We all knew. He… well he struggled a bit for a while.”

“It is hard for naturals, when they start to be shut out from the social aspects…” said the police woman sympathetically.

“He’s definitely natural.”

“Yes, I see, well that explains it. Please wait one second.” She stared left politely, then went on, “I’ve spoken to the paramedics and they are performing a series of diagnostics, similar to the OS testing you had at school. Hopefully they’ll find out the, um, semi-code and be able to help him.”

Dawn looked are her blankly, then said, “Please, just… I don’t understand, will he be fine?”

The police woman smiled reassuringly, demonstrating that the empathy courses were still in vogue. “He should make a full recovery, based on the other cases I’ve seen, but of course the doctors will need to confirm.”

“But what happened?”

“Your husband was hacked,” said Officer Fisher simply.

“But he’s a natural…”

“I suspect the hackers didn’t know that. They’ve started to use some aggressive techniques recently, and it may have been one of those. In essence they blank all the receptors, and in the case of some naturals, well, it gets partially through, along with a lot of noise and confusion. I believe that is what happened to your husband.”

“Do you mean like a blast attack for us?” Dawn had never experienced one of these, but knew of people who had. They said it was like receiving every message they’d ever had at the same time, and some of them had taken days to get back online.

“In essence yes, though as he had no training he would not have had any context. It’s fortunate he made it home before collapsing. These days blast attacks are much rarer, the underlying architecture has been improved somewhat.”

“I, I think I understand. And don’t I know that they’re still working on the Brain OSes. I had a version upgrade last year, it was pretty confusing. I have to admit I thought Gerald was the lucky one for a few days, I can tell you.”

There was a pause. Then Dawn asked, “What were they trying to do?”

“Oh, well you said he mentioned an accident? I think they were trying to plant the idea he’d been in a car accident. They try to plant it in the back memory of an OS-enabled person so it’s not obvious. It makes it much easier when they follow up a few hours later with a call, you probably know the kind.”

Dawn thought, and then smiled thinly, “Oh yes, the ones which say something like, ‘Hello, I believe you’ve been in a car accident which wasn’t your fault…'”

###

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The Barista

By Jason Gibbs

He remembered entering the coffee shop, but nothing before. He’d been stressed, he knew he had to do a presentation, to Peterson, and he was worried she was going to be angry. And he’d decided that a coffee, a small latte, would do the job.

The queue seemed interminable, but eventually he got to the front, and he looked at the list. The list of coffees. Of options. Of hopes. And he was stuck.

He was going to ask for a small latte, but instead the word ‘Cortado’ snagged his eye. Short. Yes, that sounded good. He asked what it was. The barista said something about less milk, and he’d said yes. He’d have one.

But he then asked about the difference with a flat white. And this was weird, because there was a queue behind him, but he didn’t care. All his English inhibitions had drained out of him.

Then his memory blanked.

And now he was behind the coffee counter. Listening to people. But really listening.

“A latte please mate”

Which means, “Give me some hope please mate, it’s a bad day already, the missus is angry, and my boss…”

“A hot cappuccino and please not too much froth, I do ask every time…”

Which means, “I can barely control my life, the bills, the demands…”

“Ah, I don’t know, just a coffee with some milk, is that the cheapest?”

Which means, “He was gone. Just gone this morning, and, I don’t know what to do, where I’m going to get the money, but, I’m free, I feel free…”

Every day he was there, listening, and doling out some small consolations. The occasional free coffee, a smile, a nod. Little gestures which he felt helped these lost people who came to him. As lost as he once was.

###

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Book published today! Learning: The First Fifty: Stories from the Blog

Today my latest book is available on Amazon… it is a collection of all the stories which I have thus far published on this blog, in a handy container.

The kindle book will be free for five days. The paperback is more or less as cheap as amazon will allow me to make it.

Amazon.com links here:

Paperback
Kindle

They’re not yet linked as the paperback was only put live today.

I will try and make the kindle edition free whenever I remember. My intention was to provide an easy way for interested people to download these stories if they proved entertaining!

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Increments

I wrote this originally on a whim after reading something about industrial policy. I was trying to see what the impact on real people might be…

Increments

By Jason Gibbs

The government today announced their intention to nationalise Hardys, Julco and Faberdashers.  These last three independent great national champions will be merged into the United Retail Company, serving every aspect of our daily lives.  URC produces items from soap to dishwashers, and will now have the strength to compete with the foreign firms who have begun to dominate our domestic market.

Gladys sat in her comfortable chair, and stared at her supermarket receipt.  She did try to buy British, but it was just so hard.  She’d saved nearly twenty percent over the previous month’s shopping by switching to these odd-sounding brands.  Perhaps with this new British giant things would get cheaper again?  She’d try them next month.

The phone went.

“Yes?”

“Oh hello darling.  Yes I’m fine.”

“No, I’ll be fine my pension covers it now.”

“Yes yes, you sound like you’re busy?  Well, nice to speak to you, see you soon?”

Her daughter was always so busy, though Gladys wasn’t entirely sure what it was that she did.

URC announced today its results for its first quarter since nationalisation, and the results were good.  Sales were up nearly 6% and profits 3%.  The government announced that the profits would be used to accelerate the roll out of the automated home help program.  This government initiative seeks to put a care robot into the home of every single pensioner in the country, current estimates are that there are more than five million people who would be eligible.

Bill sat at his desk trying to work out what he was doing.  He’d been planning to respond to a letter, but couldn’t remember which.  He looked at the pile of papers and saw the one from the Department for Age Support.  Damn them. 

That was it, he remembered now, they wanted to put a robot in his house.  Probably to spy on him, or maybe inject him with all these potions the quacks kept trying to get him to take.  Well, he was going to tell them where to put the ridiculous automaton, and he wasn’t going to be polite about it!

Minister Johns today delivered the millionth care robot to the home of Mrs Jay.  She was heard to exclaim in happiness, and immediately asked the device to make a cup of tea and do the ironing.  The Minister stayed for tea and said he’d had a very pleasant chat with Mrs Jay.  In an interview after the meeting Mrs Jay said that she might now be tempted to vote for the Minister at the next election.

“No dear, he’s an old friend.  A very old friend, we went to school together.”

“Oh don’t be silly, it’s nothing serious at all, we’re just catching up.  Now I must go, the tea is ready.  Bye dear, do pop in soon.”

Gladys turned to her guest, “Sorry Bill, my daughter, Emily.  She does fuss.”

Bill shuffled his feet a bit, “Well these young ones.  At least she cares.”

“Yes, oh yes.  Wasn’t it lucky that we bumped into each other at the supermarket!  After all these years I could tell it was you, just by your walk.  You haven’t changed a bit.”  She smiled at him, and he caught a little of the twinkle he remembered in her eyes.

“Gotten old I have.  Not like you, still a real beauty.”

Gladys was saved the embarrassment of answering by the arrival of the tea, delivered by her new care robot.

“I call her Ruby.  Because of her red lights.”

“Hmph.”

“Oh don’t be an old stick in the mud, she’s jolly useful.  Makes very good tea, now that I’ve shown her how to properly warm the pot.  I do wonder about these engineers, they sent her out without knowing how to make a proper cuppa.”

“Don’t trust them, robots that is, not the engineers.  Though, I will admit that this is a nice cup of tea.”

“Bill, don’t be silly, I spoke to Tom, he’s Emily’s husband and does something with programming these robots.  He says that they’re saying these lovely helpers will give us at least an extra ten years life.”

He frowned.  Until last week an extra ten years of life would have meant a continuation of his purgatory, but finding Gladys again had lifted his heart.  He, almost, felt young again.

“They do, do they?  Well, maybe they’re not all bad.”

He was silent for a moment.

“Mine is arriving next week.  The ministry’s polite response to my eloquent refusal can be summarised as: tough.”

“Well I for one am glad.  I won’t be worrying about you, all on your own in that dingy place.  I’m sure those stairs will be the death of you.  But with a helper, well, you’ll be much safer.”

URC announced today a small drop in sales and commensurate drop in profits.  The CEO, former Minister Palpby, explained that the final integration costs had kicked in.  He also accused the competition of flooding the market with cheap goods to try and damage URC and therefore the country.  He called on the government to set mandatory prices for critical consumer goods such as soap, toothpaste and skin cream.

“These biscuits Bill, are they local?  They taste delicious.”

“Ah, no, they’re imports.”

“Bill!  I thought you were ‘Buy British’ all the way.”

“They are half the price, and taste better.  I’m as patriotic as the next man, but I have to subsist on pennies you know.”

Just then Albert hummed politely.

“Yes?”

“Would you like a refill of tea, sir?”

“Yes, and stop calling me sir.  Call me Bill or something!”

“Yes sir.”

Gladys smothered a smile.  She was glad to see Bill had a care-robot now.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Competition today announced that there would be minimum pricing on all goods defined as core.  He explained that these were all those day to day essentials required for a normal life, but did not include any luxuries.

“Now Gladys, I don’t want you to think I’m being too forward.  But…”

“Yes Bill?”

“Would you like to move in with me?  I can’t marry you.  I promised Beryl I wouldn’t marry again.  But…”

“Oh Bill.  I don’t need to be married to be happy.  Yes, of course.  This last month has seen the cobwebs swept out of my brain.  But why now?”

“Well, you see the thing is.  Oh, I’ll just tell you it all.  I don’t have very much money, in fact my pension just isn’t covering my expenses any more.  I was saving money by buying the cut-price foreign products, but now that all the prices have gone up, well, if I don’t find a way to cut costs I’ll go hungry.”

She just stared at him, and then said, “So it’s just to save money?”

He could see tears threatening to form.

“Oh no no, not at all.  I was hoping to wait and take you out to a nice dinner and do it properly, but this recent change has just.  Oh I’m such an idiot.  I’ve always wanted to be with you.”

Gladys looked at him sombrely and then started to laugh.

“You silly old goose, I was just joking!  Of course I’d like to live with you, but, I’d rather you moved in with me.  My place is quite a bit bigger for a start.”

He smiled and reached for her.  A humming sound interrupted them.

“Yes Albert?”

“Your lunch is ready sBill.”

“sBill?” enquired Gladys.

“I changed his word for sir.  Read up on it in the manual.  I’m not totally useless yet!”

Patoque-Deuters Industries, one of the largest foreign companies still operating in the domestic market, announced a massive increase in profits.  PDI’s spin on this blatant profiteering was that the government minimum pricing had forced them to raise all their prices and this had fed directly through to profits.  A government spokesman pointed out that this couldn’t possibly be true as URC had only achieved limited growth in their profits.

“Now Emily, don’t you worry.  Bill will be bringing his own care robot.  We’ve been told by the ministry that we can keep both of them for three months, and then there will be an assessment.  God knows what they’ll assess.”

“No, Em dear.  Listen, I know you worry about your old mother, but I’m not completely gaga.  This is my decision and I’m sticking with it.  OK, oh, you have to run?  No, that’s fine, we’ll speak next week?  OK, goodbye.”

URC announced the delivery of the four millionth care robot to a pensioner.  The government followed this by extending the care robot programme to cover all pensioners, implying that a further five million robots would be produced.

“So we can keep both robots.  It’s official.”

“That’s good Bill.”

“I thought you’d be more excited.  What’s wrong Gladys?”

“Well.  Bill, how much toilet paper do you actually need to use?”

Bill looked shocked.  This wasn’t something he’d ever discussed, not even with Beryl.

“Er, well four sheets.  Drummed into me in the army.  Never more.”

Gladys looked confused.

“Well I don’t understand, I’m buying twice as much as I used to, and yet we’re running out faster.  I assumed it was just you.  Everything seems to run out so fast these days.”

“At least we’re back to buying British!”

“Yes, though the pleasure of buying British doesn’t really outweigh the drop in quality.”

PDI today made the bizarre claim that they were responsible for ninety percent of the production of URC’s care robots.  Their CEO was hauled in front of the Minister to explain himself, he later made a public apology and blamed it on some confusion at head office.  A URC representative explained that PDI did provide some components for the machines, but that these were all low value items, and would all soon be taken in-house.

“What are you doing Albert?”

The robot turned, and said, “Sorry Miss Gladys, I was checking the toothpaste.  It is part of my regular routine.”

It turned back, screwed on the cap and put the tube down.  Gladys thought the tube looked quite a bit flatter than she remembered it being that morning.

“Please don’t.”

“Yes Miss Gladys.”

As she walked away she muttered to herself, “I can almost believe those robots are mostly foreign.  Stealing my toothpaste.  Wonder what the little devil wanted it for.”

Peter Shipps was today sentenced to ten years in prison for malicious economic sabotage.  Mr Shipps, a so-called independent journalist, had claimed that the care robots had been programmed to steal from their owners.  He asserted that the robots would use a little bit of every one of the core essentials every day, thereby forcing their owners to buy replacements much faster.  The only products being targeted were those made by URC, in an effort to improve sales.  Mr Justice Jenkins summarised by calling Shipps a ‘fantasist’ and enemy of the people.  He also stated that he was surprised that the prosecution hadn’t also added a charge of working for a foreign power, as that was the only motivation he could see behind Shipps’ actions.  Neither URC nor the government deigned to comment on the allegations from the report.

“Bill, I’m sorry, I’ve had to buy foreign.  The British stuff just isn’t as good, and it keeps running out so quickly.  I thought it might be your foolish robot, but after that time I caught it with the toothpaste I’ve never seen it do that again, and I’ve snuck up on it several times.”

“That’s alright love.  We must do what’s right for us.  We’ve given enough to this country over the years.”

He was glad they could go back to having the nice tea biscuits, he’d missed them.

URC announced today that sales in the last quarter had dropped a further 15%, making a drop of nearly 30% this year.  The company claimed that it was because their products had a longer life than their competitors, and this was slowing people’s replacement purchases.  In addition there have been supply delays which have slowed down the care robot delivery program.

“Bill, I caught that devil doing it again!”

“What dear?”

“Albert, stealing the toothpaste.”

“It can’t have been Albert, he’s been with me all day.  Perhaps it was Ruby?”

“Ruby?  Why would she want my toothpaste?  It’s that foreign stuff as well, and I thought she was mostly British!”

“Yes dear.”

One of Peter Shipps colleagues, who’s name cannot be reported during his trial, has made bold claims that in recent months the care robots have been reprogrammed.  He has said that the robots are now stealing small amounts of the products of foreign companies, particularly PDI, and leaving URCs products alone.  His rather contorted explanation is that people had stopped buying URC products because they were running out so quickly, and have now turned to PDI’s which seem to last longer.  Therefore the government has mandated that the robots reverse the process.  It is likely that this alleged merchant of truth will spend the rest of his life in one of the remote penal stations.

“No Gladys.  I don’t care if you think they’re going at the same rate as the British products, the fact is that they’re nicer.  If they cost the same then we should stick with them.”

“But Bill…”

“No buts.”

URC announced today that it needed a cash injection of many billions in order to continue to operate.  Sales have continued to drop precipitously.  Minister Jacobs blamed foreign companies for their cut-throat competition, and focussed his ire on PDI.  He said the government was reviewing options to seize PDI’s illegal profits.  PDI’s latest quarterly report showed continued growth in sales, and a robust profit, clearly as a result of predatory sales practices.  The report claimed the company now employed three hundred thousand people in the country.  The majority are in sales and distribution activities as PDI’s manufacturing capacity is based overseas.  

“Oh Emily, I’m sure it will be fine.  Governments always say such things.  They really can’t do it.”

“I know dear, I love you too.  See you next week?  Bye then”

Bill looked up.

“Is she ok?”

“She’s worried about her job.  PDI have always been good to her, and she’s done very well.  If the government does go through with their threats…”

“Bah.  It’ll never pass.  The courts will stop it.”

“I don’t know Bill.  It doesn’t seem like it was a few years ago.”

The government announced yesterday import duties of 70% on all goods. 

PDI’s response, issued today, was that it would be shutting down operations in Britain.  It was planning an orderly shutdown, and all employees would be terminated by the end of the year.  A government spokesman said that the government were taking steps, though was unable to specify what they were.

“Gladys, why have we got these horrid cardboard biscuits?”

“That’s all there were, love.  Not a single foreign made thing in the shop.  The nice girl at the cashier said that they’d had no deliveries since the government announcement.”

“But I like those biscuits.  Damned government.”

He paused and then taking a deep breath he said, “There is something else.  Gladys, we’re going to Spain.”

“What love?  A holiday?  I’m not sure we can afford it!”

“No dear.  To live.  It’s a one-way ticket.”

“But.  When, what?”

“We can’t stay here.  The shops are half empty, the queues are growing.  The country has gone to the dogs, and it’s getting worse.”

“I know, but Spain.”

She thought about it a bit then said, “It’s nice and warm there though.  Oh, what about Emily?”

“She’s coming too.  With the pay-off she’s getting from PDI she can afford to come as well, with Tom and the kids.”

“I didn’t think you two got on.”

“I think she knows now that I only have your best interests at heart.”

“Oh Bill.  That could be lovely.  But what about the robots?  We’d have to leave them, they are government property.  I couldn’t live without Ruby, and how long would you last without Albert.  Love, it’s just not practical.  It’s not.”

“Trust me dear.  Will you?”

“I can’t go to Spain, I can’t.  There must be another way.”

Reports have come in of rioters destroying shops in town centres across the country.  Government spokesmen have said that these are malcontents trying to stir up trouble.  We tried to interview some of them, but were stopped by the police under the Sedition Act.

“Well Bill.  We’re actually in Spain!”

“Now we can properly relax love.  Sun, sand, and peace.”

She smiled and looked over at him.  The bruising on his face had gone down.  He’d been lucky those rioters hadn’t hurt him more, though he kept saying it was the riot police who’d actually hit him.  He’d been getting milk.  Albert had brought him home and tended to him.  As soon as she’d seen him she’d known that her country was gone, replaced by somewhere she no longer recognised.  Somewhere that was no longer safe.  They had to leave.

“Another cerveza please Albert.  That means beer in Spanish dear.”

“I know Bill, that’s the fourth time you’ve told me.”

He looked out over the pool.

“Bliss.”

“You never did tell me how you managed to bring Albert and Ruby with us.”

“I just downloaded their memories onto flash cards.  Then I uploaded them into two blank robots I purchased here from the local subsidiary of PDI.”

“Oh you are clever Bill.”

He puffed up.

“I do my best dear.”  He didn’t want to admit that Tom had told him how to do it.

The care robot returned.

“Your cerveza sBill.”

“Thanks Albert.”

He raised the bottle and said, “Here’s to new lives.”

Gladys smiled and lifted her glass, “New lives.”

###

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Asset Stripping

It’s a wonderful time of year, and I started thinking about the pragmatics.

 

Asset Stripping

by Jason Gibbs

 

“Right, we’re all here, let’s get started, point one…” said Vix sharply.

“But the old man…” interrupted Dash.

“Will be here in fifteen minutes, I felt we needed a…”

“Pre-meeting,” supplied Dan.

“Yes, a pre-meeting.  We need to be clear, otherwise you know how he is, he’ll be talking about the old days and we’ll be buried in anecdotes,” Vix continued.

“Fair.  He always likes to tell the one about how they used to have really bad fogs in the old days, and that they struggled to get through…” added Donna.

“Exactly, now can we please concentrate, otherwise we won’t be prepared.”

They all looked at him.  There was apprehension in the room, and Vix knew he needed to get them all gee’d up.

“Now, you know it’s been tough these last few years.  More deliveries, larger deliveries, harder locations.”

They all nodded agreement.

“It’s getting to the point where we risk failure.  And you know who’s going to get the blame…”

Dash started to say, “Who…”

“Us of course.  We do the hard work, but we’re not fast enough, or carry enough, or don’t stop in the right place.  The old man, he’s fine, it’s never his fault.  It’s all on us.”

“What are you proposing?” asked Blix.

“We pivot.  We use outsourcing for the manufacturing and logistics, and we concentrate on the marketing.”

They all looked impressed at the words he was using, and then Rudie, who’d been notably quiet, said, “Vix, what does that mean?”

Vix took a deep breath, and started to explain, “Look, everyone around this stable knows that our customers have been… supplementing… deliveries for years.  We’ve tried to keep up, but it just isn’t working.  So, what we do is licence out our image, and the customers can pay for the actual products.”

They all looked at him quizzically.  The man from the retail consortium had made it sound so easy.  It was time to be blunt.

“We get the parents to buy all of the presents, and we just appear on posters and movies.”

They all looked shocked.

“What about the elves…” asked Dash.

“We pension them off.  Their roles are moving to China.”

There was a pause, they looked at each other.  Then there was some nodding, their shock seemed to be wearing off.  And there had always been some bitterness that the elves got to stay in the warm and dry and weren’t flogging their guts out flying all over the world.

“So we get to be… movie stars?” asked Cupid.

Vix knew he had them.

“Yes, and TV, and on posters.”

They all nodded again, Rudie’s antlers scraped the side of his box.

“How is it going to work?  Do we just send letters with each delivery this year?” mused Dash.

“I’ve been speaking with some people who work for the various companies which have supplemented our products, and they have some ideas.”

“The toy companies?” Rudie was shocked.  They all knew what the old man thought of them.

“And the shops, and the delivery companies.  They have an offer.  They want to buy everything out, and they’ll manage the outsourcing of the manufacturing, selection and delivery processes.  We can concentrate on the marketing, and looking good.”

It all seemed to make sense to the reindeer.  And they’d all secretly been dreading this year.

“So what do they call that then?” asked Comet.

“I know,” said Santa, standing in the stable’s doorway, and not looking very jolly, “it’s called Asset Stripping.”

###

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The Farm

I had intended to enter this into a competition themed around the centenary of armistic day.  But I didn’t quite manage it…

 

The Farm

by Jason Gibbs

The sun was just starting to rise, like cold fire, with mists obscuring it. Or smoke, was it smoke? Smothering sound, bringing silence, and death. Archie knew he should react, duck, crouch, do something, but, there was no desire. He was grey, like the smoke. There was nothing for him to do but to accept it.

A loud moo sounded in Archie’s ear.

He started. It was mist. He wasn’t in the trenches. He looked at the cow, which was cordially ignoring him, and noticed its tail rise. He stepped back, though he realised it made no difference. Some plopping sounds occurred, and he stared at the gift the cow had made.

Silver is what Father had called it. He could picture the old man pointing proudly at a pile of manure.

“Son, that muck is worth silver to us. We gather it, rot it, and the Parkers’ll pay us good money for it.”

“Yes Father.”

Edward, as always, had looked attentive. He’d be memorising it in his good little farmer’s brain. Being proud about manure was something which would seem natural to Edward.

He wondered where Edward was. At this time of the day surely he should be up with the cows? They needed milking. Maybe Edward was away on a trip, as he thought Mistress Stimpson had done it the night before. It was difficult to keep the days straight.

Mistress Stimpson, he thought she saw him sometimes, but then she turned away and said nothing, so she can’t have. He could remember an argument with her, she was telling him that he was the only one left to look after the farm. That must have been before, when everyone thought Edward was going to sign up. But he’d done it first. He knew Edward would have hated him for it, but he also knew that Edward was better for the farm. And for Father.

Thinking of Father made him think of his other family. His real family. His lost family. The one he’d spent every heartbeat with, crammed into dank cave-like rooms dug out of the earth, sheltering in the muddy trenches, or occasionally drinking in a farm house. He could see them, all of them. Lewis, his easy smile, Thompson, with his hat always at an angle, Peters, with his face cracking open as the shells exploded. He shut his eyes. He must not. They were all gone.

He’d woken briefly in a hospital. Felt such pain as he’d never imagined. Then he’d seen an angel, or thought he had. But he couldn’t have done because, the next thing that he remembered he was here. Drifting around the farm. He couldn’t do anything, and so, he thought he must be… well.

The cows mooed loudly.

He’d seen old man Johns, helping out, too many men lost. Johns had retired back in… well before the war anyway. Father had been sorry to see him go, but the old man had been getting slow. Good with the horses though. Edward must have asked him back, to help.

That must have stung though. Edward had wanted to get a tractor. He’d pestered Father again and again. “Tractors are the future, and horses are the past!” He’d say this and then point at Johns. The old man would just wave back.

Father’s response about the tractors and any other ideas Edward presented had always been to speak to Archie. It was going to be Archie’s farm, and so he needed to make the decision. Edward had been good about it, but Archie had seen it in his eyes, the frustration. They both knew who should run the farm after Father. But it had never seemed possible, until the war came, and the posters. “Join up and be a man!” or some such rot. All he’d wanted was to not be a farmer.

Archie looked around again, the place was falling into ruin. It had been such a good farm. He knew Edward would get it back together again, now that there was peace, things would be better, and the joy would return. Maybe that’s what he was waiting for?

He wondered if he’d see Father. He didn’t know whether to be sad that Father had seen the start of the Great War, or happy that he’d not witnessed the loss of one of his sons. He knew that he hadn’t always lived up to Father’s expectations, but he thought the old man had been proud, of the degree, the first in the family, and of Archie moving into a world Father didn’t, and couldn’t, really know. But he’d also known that he’d go back to the farm, when Father died. The old man had made it clear, and Archie couldn’t argue with him. Even though he had tried so hard to find a way. A new life.

The law. In the trenches he’d often wondered why he’d once thought it was so important.

Maybe Edward was courting? Perhaps that’s why he was’t there. Maybe he was even courting Lillian. Archie had been in love with her since they were… well, forever. He thought his brother had always seen her as an older sister, but perhaps these days? The war might have thrown them together.

His musings were interrupted by Mistress Stimpson calling the cows in to be milked. Rather late, Edward would need to attend to that. Some of the heifers looked a little grumpy.

They used to refer to her as Ugly Stimpson and laugh to themselves. But he looked at her now and realised that she wasn’t ugly, just old, and not even that old. She looked tired though. Worn out.

The cows moved around him, they at least could see him.

He’d almost bounced over to the recruiting station. They’d told him it’d be over by Christmas, and he must have looked crestfallen because they’d then said probably sooner. But that wasn’t what he wanted. He’d wanted Edward to have a year, a year to show Father the truth, and then, war won, he could go back, and leave. Leave the farm and be a lawyer. He’d been good at that, he’d been complimented on his fine arguments, on his grasp of the details which could swing a case. He’d imagined being called to the bar, starting with small clients, and then moving up.

Looking up he noticed that the hay barn roof was sagging in the corner. There’d be water coming in during the next storm, and that would ruin any hay in that part of the barn. Really, Edward should be here. There was so much to do. This place couldn’t survive with just Stimpson and Johns.

Then he heard a car on the track. This must be Edward. He’d give his brother a piece of his mind, even if he wouldn’t hear it. The car stopped and the door opened. He looked up to see a woman, wearing black, the mists coiling around her. She stepped down and he saw that it was Lillian. He couldn’t believe it, she was here, and she was looking at him. At him, as if she’d seen a ghost. Yet, then, her face changed, and she looked angry. She walked up to him, and pulled her hand back for a slap.

She delivered it. He rocked back. That had hurt.

“Edward is dead, and you’re not. For God’s sake man, pull yourself together and live!” she shouted.

End

###

 

Note: I think PTSD is something which is now better understood and those who suffer from it are getting more support than a century ago.  However, there is still a way to go.  I support Combat Stress (a UK based charity), and I think they do some amazing work.

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Virtual Death

This story explores another aspect of part of the future timeline described in Post Scarcity Blues (and probably would have been one of the stories in the book if I’d written it then!).

Virtual Death

By Jason Gibbs

It had been a long time since he’d physically visited a friend.  At least a decade, there was no need with modern implants and full immersion virtual reality.  Philip couldn’t explain why he was doing this, there was just an itch at the back of his mind.

The hall was dimly lit, as indeed was the whole block.

“Why am I doing this at night?”

Yet, once he’d decided he just had to go.  Also, he’d been on US time zone, so had thought it was late afternoon.

“Five flights of stairs.  Eric could have told me his building lift was broken.”

Though he hadn’t actually told Eric he was going to visit him, they’d just agreed to meet in the Dell, their usual place.  And anyway, it was unlikely Eric knew the lift was broken, he probably hadn’t been out for years either.

“Fifty-eight, fifty-nine… here he is.”

Philip knew he was only talking to himself to try and dispel the creepiness around him, but couldn’t stop.

“Oh is Eric going to be surprised!”

He knocked.  Nothing, and again.  He pressed the buzzer.  Nothing.  He tried the handle.  The door wasn’t locked.

“Ah, Eric probably disabled his physical alerts, I bet he can’t even remember the last time someone used them.  Eric?”

He opened the door into dust and gloom.

“Eric?”

He tried the light, but though he flicked it nothing came on.

“Eric, your lightbulb is out.  You should get maintenance to take better care.”

He walked into the living room.  It was lit by a few green flickering lights.  But Eric wasn’t in it.  The kitchenette was off to one side, and a short corridor with two doors was on the other side.  He walked gingerly towards the corridor.  The dust was thick on the floor.  This wasn’t a good idea.

“This place is a tip Eric, don’t worry I won’t tell anyone.  Eric?”

It was a standard apartment, so the bathroom would be to the right, and the bedroom to the left.

“The dust is just as thick here.  I wonder when the last time Eric actually got up to go to the toilet.”

Taking a breath, and trying to ignore the smells of staleness and slight decay, he pushed open the bedroom door.

He realised he’d closed his eyes and he opened them to look in, expecting, well he didn’t know.

There in the centre of the room was a standard VR coffin.

“Hmm, nice, a Paradise 23, or is it, no I’m wrong it’s a 24, top of the line before they stopped producing them.  Nice one Eric.”

He walked up, and checked the control panel.  All lights were green, and the panel indicated all was well with a cheery “Systems OK!” message.

“Right then, what was the protocol.  I think I press this, tap that…”

“Beep.  Please vocalise a message to explain the wakening.”

“Oh yes, this was to stop people being shocked.  Um, look Eric, it’s me Philip…”

‘Beep’.

“Damn.  I wonder if I can re-record.  That button.  No.  Um.”

The lights had started to flash red.  That didn’t seem right, and then there was another ‘Beep’, though this one sounded less friendly.  There was a hissing sound.  Philip stepped back.

“Why am I doing this…”

It was too late, the coffin had started to open up.  Philip wasn’t sure what he expected to see.  He wasn’t sure what he wanted to see.  When the hissing stopped he realised he’d closed his eyes again.  He opened them, and saw the side of the open coffin.  Nothing moved.

After a pause he said, “Eric?”

Nothing.  He frowned, and edged forward.  He could see the edge of the coffin, and then the lining, a sort of red plush, comfortable, though flashy, and some tubes, and then…

Then, nothing.  The coffin was empty.

“What?”

Philip heard something behind him, but before he could turn around blackness descended.

#

“Philip?”

“Um.. gargh.”

“Philip!  Are you alright?”

“Yarg, Eric don’t shout…”

It was Eric, but he’d seen, what had he seen?

“Philip, you really worried me there, you came to meet me in the Dell, and then just faded out.  I’ve had to connect into the emergency controls on your virtual unit.”

“What…”

Could he do that?  Wait, they’d signed something, like an emergency order, so they could look out for each other, it had been Eric’s idea.  But there was something he was forgetting?

“Come on Philip, say something sensible!”

“Ok, ok, stop with your yabbering.  What were we doing?”

Eric sighed, “We were at the Dell, catching up and then you just, like, disappeared, liked faded or something.  You alright buddy?”

“I, I thought I’d come to see you…”

“Like a dream or something?”  Was that hope in Eric’s voice?  Suggestion?

“No…”

“I think it must have been a dream Philip,” Eric said, with more of an edge in his voice.

“The coffin was empty, you weren’t there… what, where are you?”

“Cut the power!”

Darkness.

#

“Philip?”

It was a voice he didn’t recognise, a woman’s voice.

“Yes.”

He felt fine.  Disoriented, and it was dark all around him.

“You’ve had an accident Philip.”

“What?”

“You’ve discovered something you shouldn’t have…”

“Eric…?” asked Philip.

“Yes, Eric.  He’s dead Philip.  He has been for a while.”

“But, but I see him every day.  He’s…”

“The Eric you’ve been seeing is part AI, part actor.  Designed to fool you.”

“But…”

“It’s true I’m afraid.  We needed him to be alive for the funds to flow…” said the woman.

“Funds?”

“Eric is, or was, a very very wealthy man.  He paid us to… keep him alive.  And we failed.  Or, succeeded, depending on your point of view.  He paid us a lot.”

“I don’t understand, is he dead?  Or alive?” asked Philip, feeling a little confused.

“His physical body is dead.  Burned and scattered in case you wondered, but with no attachment to it, he was treated as an unknown, his ashes scattered in the sea.”

“I remember him saying that’s what he wanted.”

“Ah yes, well actually it happened before he said that, his actually wish was to be buried under an apple tree on the old family property, but that would have been a little tricky to hide, so… we had to make some decisions.”

“You are?”

“His… carers.  Yes, carer is the best term.  Part bodyguard, part nurse, part… well part many things.”

“And you replaced him?” said Philip.

“No, we just didn’t let his online presence die.  We kept him alive.  We hired an actor, and the best AI people, and we kept him alive.  It had all been going so well, and then you… you decided to visit him.”

“When did he die?”

“About five years ago.”

Philip was so shocked he said nothing.  Then he suddenly realised, he was in danger, wasn’t he.  They’d killed and replaced Eric, they’d do the same to him…

“Philip, calm down, I can see your heart rate has spiked.  Don’t worry, we don’t mean you any harm.  Really, in fact we have a deal for you.”

Could he believe them?

“What deal?”

“We’d like you to carry on being friends with Eric, as if nothing had happened.  You see, you are a vital part of the proof web which keeps Eric alive, and the money flowing to us.”

“But you could just replace me!”

He could feel the hysteria building, the darkness didn’t help.

There was a sigh.  Silence for a minute, and then the light came on, he was in his apartment.  His virtual one.

“Sorry Philip, the darkness was a mistake.”

The woman in front of him had few obvious markers.  She had red hair, a fifties figure and stylish clothes, but he realised that these were all actually off the peg.  She was anonymous.

“Um, who are you?”

“We are carers Philip, as I said, and we care for Eric.  We will not hurt you.  Cannot hurt you in fact.”

“But the…”

“We hired a security service to bring you in, they were more robust than expected, they have been reprimanded, and you will find a generous settlement from them, as well as a full apology.”

“Oh.”

He was confused.

“I know you’re confused Philip, so I’ll leave you the details here, and you can decide what to do.  Ultimately, we’re in your hands.  If you agree to work with us, we will provide you with a generous income, which will cover some of the things you’ve mentioned to Eric you would like… If not, well, no money, and Eric will be gone.  We will feel some pain too, but I’m sure legal will cover us.”

Philip thought she didn’t sound entirely sure, but he nodded.

She left a virtual dossier on his table, smiled at him, and said, “Goodbye Philip, hopefully we will not meet again.”

Philip pondered what he was going to do.

#

“Philip!”  said Eric, with surprise, and perhaps a hint of trepidation in his voice.

“Eric, lovely to see you.  Apologies, I’ve been a bit sick the last few days, how have you been?”

“Not great, had a few worrying things going on.  Better for seeing you though!  What shall we do today?”

###

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Peace in Our Time

This is one of the first short stories I wrote after Pigs, Poultry and Poo came out.  I’ve dusted it off, and tidied it up a bit, and am now releasing it into the wild… it’s original title was something like ‘Superhero Dutch Disease’, but I prefer this title.

Peace in Our Time

by Jason Gibbs

The war had been dragging on for years.  Sometimes we were in the ascendant, other times we were being pushed back, but never did it seem like it would end.  The dead were legion, and all lost over a strip of land mere miles wide.  We two enemies were too closely matched.  Though once powerful, the endless fighting had sapped our energies, and the other nations on our borders were waiting to pick over our bones, even if they had to help finish us off.

At the start of the eleventh year of the war a rumour came that the enemy had developed a super weapon which would finally end us, and the war.  Some were afraid, others merely laughed off the story as enemy propaganda.  In the event we were the ones blessed with a super weapon.

Jondril arrived one day in the capital.  He approached the war office building and told the receptionist he was there to end the war.  As you can imagine he received short shrift, and was thrown out, literally.  Two hours later an armoured figure, twice the size of a man, approached the war office and tore down the wall.  Security went crazy, and opened up with all their weapons.  The figure calmly stood, bullets bouncing off.  Lasers sitting on the armour’s shoulders knocked rounds out of the air and then destroyed the weapons facing him.  When the firing had all but petered out, the figure stamped its foot smashing the road and sending rubble in a widening circle of destruction.  Once more Jondril spoke, his voice booming as it was enhanced by the suit’s speakers, “I would end this war!”

The minister for war decided to play for time while the heavy weaponry was brought in from the outskirts of the city.  He walked out to talk to Jondril.  A brave man the minister, and one who would have still been at the front had he not lost an arm and an eye.

He and Jondril talked.  And talked more.  The weaponry arrived, and the minister was given the signal.  He ignored it.  The suited figure nodded its head, and split down the front, and Jondril climbed down.  The suit closed up again, and not a seam could be seen.

The minister guided Jondril into his building and to his office, and there they had coffee, and talked more.  More happened on that day, some said he should be imprisoned, others pointed out that he had not hurt anyone deliberately, though a few soldiers had been hurt by flying debris, but most hailed him.  He’d brought a suit which was all but impervious to our weapons, and also therefore to those of our enemy.  We heard that his father had been a scientist who had been working on such suits for many years.  He’d finally succeeded, but had sadly died before he could see his life’s work used for its true purpose, bringing peace.

The very next day Jondril walked to the front, and waded into the fight.  Again and again the enemy attacked him, but their bullets could not harm him, and their missiles didn’t bother him.  While he was untouched, every shot his suit fired was true, and the enemy soon found that all their weapons melted, or fried, or in some unfortunate cases exploded.  Jondril never once targeted a person, he only wrecked weapons.  As he explained to us later, “I wanted to stop the bloodshed, not become part of it.”  The enemy tried heavy weapons, but these too could not touch him, his suit was able to deflect heavy shells out of the air, and seemed to cause missiles to veer away sharply, or explode, as if by magic.  There were some who thought it strange that not a single heavy missile actually hit him, but the majority were just dazzled by the impact on our enemies as they fell back in disarray.

The enemy were, however, both brave and foolish, and regrouped to continue to attack.  But after two weeks they had made no progress, and Jondril had destroyed all of their armaments on the front.  Our generals wanted to plough through the now defenceless enemy and take their revenge, but Jondril was firm that he would not allow that.  He wanted the war to stop.  They realized they had no choice.  Like our enemies, there was nothing they had which could beat him.

Three weeks after Jondril’s appearance an armistice was signed.  We were at peace.  At first nobody could believe it.  Then came the celebrations, with parades and parties galore.  Then the hangovers from the celebrations, combined with effects of the war started to take its toll.  The government wanted to keep the armed forces on alert, in case of a resumption of hostilities.  Our people took to the streets to demand, quietly but firmly, that their sons and daughters should return home.  They did not riot, they did not march, they just accumulated around the parliament buildings, standing, and made their demand by their very presence.  Still the politicians did not relent.  Until Jondril joined the silent crowds.  He too said nothing, but his intent was clear.

Within days the soldiers were returning home, first a trickle and then a flood.  Some injured, some battered, and many scarred from the constant warfare.  It was a hard time for them, and their families, but also a joyous one.

Our weapons were stockpiled.  Our munitions factories converted to creating tools, toys and gadgets.  A year passed.  Peace reigned.  Our former enemy became a trading partner, though sadly only of a few fripperies.  There was hope for more.

Then, to our horror, two other neighbours invaded.   They had watched, and seeing our weakness had allied to dismember us.  We woke up, and at once the weariness of war crashed down upon us.  But also rage.  How dare they take fragile hope from us.  Sons and daughters rushed back to the barracks, ready to rearm and send these cowards home with their tails between their legs.  One young man was already prepared, he had watched our neighbours and realized they might harbour perfidy in their hearts.  Jondril marched out again, and as before none could stand against him.  Our neighbours tried half-heartedly to stop him, but soon realized that he was as untouched by their weapons as he had been by ours.

Many thought Jondril would stop at our border and let that be a lesson to all.  He did not.  He took the minister for war with him to each of the capitals, and ripped down the walls of the presidential palaces.  He then watched, silently, as a peace was negotiated, with each of our neighbours agreeing to destroy all their weapons, and pay us tribute.  In response we would destroy all but a token few of our remaining weapons.  Though truth be told there weren’t many left since the factories had not replenished what had been used in our latest battles.

Jondril stood over the pits of weapons, watching them burn and melt.  Had the suit had a face it might well have smiled, one can only assume Jondril was smiling inside.  His work was done, peace was assured.

A month passed.  Then another.  Peace became normal.  The few guards at the borders became more concerned with improving their volleyball skills than watching their peers over the border.

Suddenly our original enemies brought all their armies to our border.  While we had been enjoying the peace, they had quietly rebuilt their war machine.  They formed up and marched across, all the way to the capital.  There was no one to stop them.  They stopped in our main square, and the enemy president walked forward to meet our president.  The enemy leader was a brave man and showed no fear, even though Jondril was standing next to our leader.

Before either president could speak the suit cracked open again, and out stepped Jondril.  He walked to the enemy president, and embraced him, “Welcome sir.  The war is over.”

#

That’s not how it was.  I mean, yes, it sort of was.  Sorry, let me explain.  I was Jondril.  Well, Jondril was the suit, but it was me inside.  And it wasn’t exactly like that.

I should start at the beginning.  They said that I should just write what I remember, and then at some stage it will be released, and everyone will know the truth, or I guess, my version of the truth.

The beginning is tricky.  I can’t tell you my name, not least because after this I’ll be getting a new one, hopefully.  Jondril is not exactly a popular person amongst our new subjects.  I wasn’t a soldier.  I was a scientist.  Am a scientist.  I work with brain to machine interfaces, and before Jondril I’d been working on one of the many war efforts to find a new weapon.

The idea was to turn our soldiers into walking tanks.  We’d give them each an army’s worth of guns and send them off to wipe out our opponents.  The problem was that it didn’t work.  The suits were too slow.  While we’d been successful with bulking the armour up, and making it almost invulnerable to small arms fire, one decent missile, and blam: many millions of expensive tech up in smoke.  We added anti-missile technologies, shrunk high powered lasers and improved the targeting.  It still wasn’t enough.  Our simulations gave the suit wearer a survival time of between three and four hours in the first deployment, and less than fifteen minutes in all further deployments.

There was really only one successful part of the project.  My bit.  No, I’m not being arrogant, I’m just telling it the way it was.  We succeeded, I succeeded, in subconscious human to machine control.  What does that mean?  It means that I could control the robot’s actions just by thinking, but more than that, I didn’t have to think ‘move knee up, swing foot forward, drop foot down’, instead I just thought about moving forward.  The suit became an extension of my body, and one which felt, after some practice, natural.

The success was only partial however, as only I could interface with the original suit.  The only one now, I guess.  But we had worked out what we needed to develop next to allow others to do the same.

Our last test failure came just before the funding round.  We all knew what would happen.  I couldn’t face it.  I wanted there to be something out of all the years of work, over eight of them in fact, with me joining with the suit every day for the last five.

I was desperate.  I proposed one last gamble.  Something which would show the worth of the suit, and hopefully allow us to continue our work.  I promised to lead the enemy into an ambush.  We’d be able to turn the tide.  And if I failed, all they’d lose would be the suit.  And me.

I think I struck a chord.  The war was making us less human, and there were some who were desperate for it to be over, one way or another.  One of those was the general in charge of intelligence.  I suspect because he knew just how closely matched we were with our enemies,  despite all the propaganda, and therefore just how permanent our stalemate could be.

So, our plan was born.  I would persuade our enemies I was on their side.  Pretend to wipe out a section of the front, they would charge in, and we’d annihilate them.  I wasn’t comfortable with being instrumental in all that death, but it was going to happen one way or another, perhaps I could save some lives in the long run.  And the program of course.

I don’t hate our former enemies.  I didn’t hate them then.  I felt nothing.  My brother had died at the front, and my father.  My mother just faded after my brother’s death.  I didn’t blame the enemy, I couldn’t see the point, they were losing just as many sons, daughters and parents as we were.

The night the mission started I was a mess.  My heart was in my throat; my bowels had turned to water.  Fortunately, I was in the suit, so no one could see my face, which I’m sure was pale with fear.  I was dropped, in my suit, twenty miles from the enemy capital in mountainous territory.  The drop went without a hitch, and as I unfolded from the ball the suit had formed on landing and checked the systems, I could feel the adrenaline kick in.  This was my chance.  I power ran to the edge of the capital, using the darkness to hide me, aided by the stealth we’d built into the suit.

Taking the suit off was harder than I expected, but I knew I had to make the first approach in person to have any chance of getting them to talk to me without just wiping the suit from the planet.  I felt naked.  Alone in a country of enemies.  I’d spent some weeks being subliminally trained to use the correct accent and speech rhythms, so I would not stand out.  I had the right clothes, and enough money to get to and from the war office.  And buy some food.

It soon became clear that I was just as invisible on the streets as everyone else.  Indeed, I could easily have been in my own city, there was really little between us.

The events at the war office have been described often enough.  There’s only one thing I would add.  The suit was standing serenely, taking the punishment.  Inside I was panicking.  I had never been shot at before, and now the rounds were pinging in from everywhere.  My original plan had been to take some initial punishment, and then shelter next to a building to carefully pick off the weapons firing at me.  However, in my panic my ability to communicate to the suit failed.  I was trapped inside it, and its systems went to automatic protection.  Fortunately, I’d instructed it to avoid fatalities, otherwise there would have been a blood bath and the minister of war would have had to call down an airstrike, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed that.

Our talk.  I can’t tell you much.  He was, is, a brave man.  Some say he would have been the next president.  Perhaps.  He asked me what I wanted.  I told him peace.  He then asked me how, and I said I’d disarm our enemies.  He looked at the suit silently for a while, and then asked me to step out.  I nearly didn’t, but I knew this was my chance to persuade him.

I stepped out, sweating, but managed to hold myself straight.  He looked at me.  Said something about young men and war, and then offered me a coffee in an office, and we walked inside.  We didn’t talk much more then.  He didn’t quiz me about where I came from; he didn’t test my cover story at all.  I like to think he just trusted me, but of course he also knew that others would be interrogating me on those things later.

We had the coffee in his office.  I was then escorted into a comfortable, but locked room.  Some hours later I was visited again by an officer.  He wanted the keys to the suit.  I explained that it would only work with me.  He threatened me.  I repeated my statement.  He went away.

Oddly, they never did properly test my cover story.  I was pretending to be one of their scientists from a facility which had been blown up a year before which we knew had been working on suits.  I’d somehow made it to my nearby home and finished up my work and hey, here I was with a weapon to end the war.  It was the weakest part of the story, but it was only intended to hold up for a day or so, not long enough to be properly checked.  They created their own propaganda.  Possibly because they didn’t want to admit to having had a facility blown up, or maybe they were incapable of releasing the truth.

The next day I went to the front.  I’d told them I wanted to make a difference and that I’d clear our enemies.  I waded in, destroyed every weapon pointed at me, and defanged all my opposition.

Here was a tricky bit.  I knew that the suit couldn’t withstand true heavy weaponry, as of course did those in charge of my new ‘enemies’, but we had to pretend.  And be convincing enough that my new allies would buy it.  I was in constant communication with my old bosses, and they helped me manage such a show.  Every time a missile got too close they’d force it to self-destruct, and I’d point my arm at it just beforehand.  The artillery systems were surprisingly inaccurate that day, enough so that I could walk in between the paths.  It was all very convincing.

We managed to keep it going for two weeks.  The enemy forces fell back, leaving plenty of broken weapons in their wake.  Many of these were obsolete, but it wasn’t that obvious once they’d been sufficiently burnt, and both sides had been using obsolete weaponry for so long it probably wouldn’t have stood out.

How did I keep talking with my bosses without my new friends finding out?  Easy really, my suit was constantly chatting on every available network, wavelength and direct connection it could sense.  It was like a shining ball of communications, which meant that it was impossible to track any of it.  Especially as it was constantly shifting channels.  My new allies did try to hack it, as expected, but to them it always seemed one step ahead, and even turned the hacks around.  This was because it wasn’t doing anything with most of the information it was getting in, it was just scrambling it and feeding it straight back out again, like a crazed router.

With my former nation now appearing to be in deep trouble and on the run, my new friends were keen to take advantage and drive every spare man and woman they had, all the way to the capital to perform the coup de grace.  I was supposed to let them.  But I couldn’t.

I’d never before been at the front.  I’d not seen the dead and dying happening in front of me.  Sure I’d seen it on TV, but that’s TV…  As much as I was doing to try and spike weapons around me, there was still fighting, and blood and death, and it sickened me.  This was one of the reasons I failed the combat psych test and was allowed to continue in research.  And I wanted it stopped.

So instead of letting the fools walk into the giant trap I’d set up for them, I insisted they didn’t.  I further insisted they push for an armistice.  By this point I was a hero, and they couldn’t argue.

Unlike my former bosses, who were threatening all sorts.  There was much swearing, accusations of betrayal and suchlike.  I ignored it for a while.  And then told them of my new plan.

I’d realized that everyone wanted the war to stop.  I believed, rightly as it turns out, that the country I was in was desperate to stop.  The people had run out of fighting spirit.  I told my former bosses that if they agreed to an armistice, within a year the land I was in would be toothless, and they would be able to walk in unopposed.  All they would have to do is maintain combat readiness but keep it low profile.

The key was that my new best friends viewed me as an army on my own.  They wouldn’t need to retain troops if they had me.  The more sensible generals thought this foolish, and tried to keep the army together.  But the people soon stopped that.  Helped by some apparently ad hoc campaigns on social media.  I judged the appropriate time, and joined the standing demonstrations.  Within days the war machine was being dismantled with enthusiasm.

Why did my bosses not invade now?  In part because they wanted to rearm properly.  The last few years had left both sides armies exhausted and equipment and munitions were short.  In part I think they wanted to make sure that the old enemy was truly quietened.   And in part they needed to maintain control of their own people, allowing some peace, but not too much.  I also did my bit in staying their hand, by telling them that there were still many fit and trained men and women in this ‘adopted’ country of mine, and we needed time for their war skills to atrophy.

Months passed.  How did I avoid detection?  I told my new friends I needed space, and that I would be available if needed, but would respond badly to unnecessary contact.  I provided written responses to some questions from the news people, and then hid in the mountains, using the stealth on the suit to hide me.  In truth I did want the space, and the mountains were soothing.  I felt the burden of the deaths I’d caused.  Not directly, but I’d certainly changed the dynamic, and many of my countrymen had died.  Perhaps they would have died soon anyway.  The war would have chewed them up.  But the difference was that I had helped.  I didn’t want to face the probability that I would cause yet more death.

I spent all my time in my suit, and it became more and more part of me.  I slept in it.  It fed me.  We were one.

After a year my former homeland had recovered.  The armies were ready.  There were fewer men and women in arms, but those left were well fed, well-armed, and ready for a fight.  My pleading that the war not be restarted fell on increasingly deaf ears, and I was becoming desperate.  I was close to refusing to be any further part, but then, we all knew that I wasn’t needed for the planned slaughter.

Then fate intervened.  Two smaller nations on the borders decided to ally and pick over the weakened beast I now lived in.  They invaded, but tentatively.  Which was their mistake.  A year of peace had not healed all the wounds, and the anger of the people was frightening.  As soon as news of the incursions hit the media channels there was an eruption.  The people would not have their peace taken from them.  Vengeance and death were offered up by people who but days before were discussing poetry competitions and flower shows.

I made sure my erstwhile bosses were made aware of all of this.  They could see their enemy was weakened, but not defeated.

Then I saw a positive option.  Perhaps true peace was possible?  I joined in the defence.  Recklessly diving into the combat.  Fortunately, the two nations were weak, and hadn’t brought any proper heavy weapon support otherwise I might have been destroyed within hours.  Instead they fell back before me.  I continued to push them back, rolling over their armies, destroying any arms brought against me, but avoiding fatalities as far as was possible.  I also told my friends to let me do the work, and save themselves.  This would reduce the potential for death on both sides.

My actions in forcing the peace are well documented.  Suffice it to say the defeated nations were in such shock that they would have signed anything, and the peace they were offered was far better than any they would have given.  As all three sides destroyed their weapons I rejoiced.

Did I know my old bosses would take advantage of the situation?  Of course, I had presented the option to them.  They would win, and take over not one, but three nations, becoming a much more powerful empire.  One which could not be threatened by any of our more distant neighbours.  Was I comfortable with betraying my allies?  I never did.  I ended the war.  I gave them peace.

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