Short stories

I haven’t written too many of these but there’s a few. I’ll paste them below. I hope you like them.

The first one I called Cancer Sleeps. I wrote it upstairs in the house I grew up in on a tiny tinny typewriter during the course of a long hot summer while my father slowly died from lung cancer and I did my best to nurse him.

It is not easy seeing someone you love die and it messed me up for years. He was only fifty eight. Liz’s father had died the year before, at the age of sixty, from an inoperable brain tumour.

The story is based on neotony. Some organisms, including our ancestors that gave rise to the fish from which we evolved, underwent neotony. The larvae instead of undergoing radical tissue reorganisation and maturing into their adult phase remained as sexually mature larvae.

I decided that the DNA that coded for the adult form still had to be there. In my hopelessness I was writing a cathartic story in which the cancer victims were merely reorganising their tissues to develop into a wonderful adult phase.

It was wishful thinking. Dad died.

CANCER SLEEPS            By Opher    13.5.00 -2

Dull grey; dull red, throbbing closer, then further with every breath. Looking out as if seeing the world from the bottom of a crystal clear lagoon across which waves slowly rolled causing the already distant world to ripple and distort. Every breath, every heartbeat, a distortion of all he saw.

Henry Goit lay bathed in red light. He felt no pain. There was only this gradual ebb and flow as his glazed eyes stared out, unfocussed on the world, and his life force slowly leaked away. There was a resignation in the way he had allowed himself to become divorced from his body. He no longer fought it. The discomfort and fear had given way to a new lack of concern and it was becoming progressively harder for him to force his attention onto the world outside. For him it was now an hazy pattern that rose and fell in soporific rhythm. He had already left it behind. Only occasionally did the fear arise in protest and rage against the narcotic state that threatened to dissociate him from his body. Then he would remember who he was and all that he had been and fight against the force that was ousting him from this world.

In the early stages he had often been close to panic and his resistance had been intense. In desperation he had clung to everything he wished to remain part of, fearful, wretched and helpless. It had passed. Its loss was now inevitable. No amount of struggle was going to alter that. It was so much more peaceful, almost pleasant, to sink into this reverie, as if floating, bobbing, in clear, warm fluid. To allow it to gently slip away. To languidly watch. Even if he was usurped, even then it was of no consequence.

“I do not understand!  — It does not make sense!” Max Thurman exclaimed, shaking his head as they walked along the narrow, crowded corridor towards the long room that served as the ship’s medical centre. Already the situation had resulted in the commandeering of a number of other rooms. They were having to push their way through the gaggle of carers that had been conscripted into service. “There are over a third of the crew down with it already! It’s turning into a raging epidemic!”

Inside the main ward it was peaceful, at least they were not being bustled by the stream of helpers, and the two doctors stood deep in conversation. Around them the simulated night bathed the ward in dim red light with pools of darkness that obscured the bundles of flesh and bones that were patients resting in their adjacent beds. Nobody called out to them. The monitoring apparatus pinged and the slow, rasping breaths synchronised themselves into a constant background cacophony as of cicadas on a summer evening.

“There is no doubt about it,” Theresa Merl replied in hushed tones. “It is cancer.”

“But how can it be? The last recorded case was over a hundred and fifty years ago!”

“ There is no longer any room for doubt. Not only are the symptoms plain to see but the tactoscan confirms it.”

“I know all that. I have read the printouts. I have checked through the records and double-checked. There are no records anywhere of such a dramatic progression. It was always gradual. But this,” he gestured towards the prone shapes in the beds all around. “ This has happened in days, not weeks, months or even years. Days! How can it possibly be the same?”

“Yet it is,” she insisted. “Something must have triggered it off. We must have passed through a belt of high radiation, absorbed a rare kind of ionising ray. A unique experience. We know that was responsible for initiating a lot of it in the past.”

“But that was discredited,” he retorted sharply. They both surveyed the rows of beds. “Along with all the theories on carcinogens. When the cancer stopped happening in the 2000s those old theories were all discounted.”

“Only after it had stopped,” Theresa replied. “Their equipment and research was very rudimentary back then. When it all stopped and nobody could even induce it in the lab, they all surmised that a virus had caused it and that the radiation and carcinogens had merely triggered it. Nobody ever found a virus. The theory does not hold water. If it had been a virus and it had mutated that does not explain how it all simply stopped, virtually on the same day, all over the world, in all organisms. No organism operates like that! Not even viruses!”

“So why would it start up again here?”

“That is what we have to find out,” Theresa stated with determination.

Simultaneously they both turned to stare back down the long line of beds that had been crammed into the room.

“Well I don’t know what we can do,” Max muttered quietly, afraid to disturb the sleeping patients. “We can keep them alive but we are still three months from base. If we don’t find a cure for it soon we won’t have enough crew to operate the ship.”

“I wonder if we should go back at all?” Theresa enquired.

Max Thurman looked at her aghast. The thought had not entered his head before.

“And how are we this morning?” Theresa enquired cheerily as she checked the mediserve attached to Henry Goit. It was her formal morning rounds and she had made it her practice to tour round and visit with every patient. It was unnecessary, all the information could have been more easily gleaned from the computer terminal on her own desk and the three assistants that were forced to trail in her wake resented the stream of instructions she delivered. Yet she felt it was good for morale, and provided that human touch, despite the fact that it was so depressing for herself. With all this advanced technology and knowledge you would think that they’d be able to do something. None of their medications seemed to make the slightest difference and it was often heart-rending to see the deterioration that was so clearly visible after such a few short hours. It made her feel helpless but she was a professional and that meant giving the appearance of having it all under control.

With Henry that professional detachment was all the harder. She knew them all, with a crew of only sixty and a planet-fall time rarely less than two years, there was plenty of time to get to know everyone, especially in such a limited area. There were no excursions to get away from it all on an interplanetary flight. But Henry Goit was special. Not only had they crewed together on over thirty flights but also it was him that she had selected as her partner.

With a supreme effort Henry dragged himself up from the depths of that well and rose back into the world.. He focussed on her face and forced a smile.

“Fine,” he lied breezily. He was in no pain, the mediserve saw to that, but he was muzzy and so weak that raising an arm was a major effort. Even breathing was a performance and surfacing like this made him aware of the discomfort. It was not so bad when he was divorced from it all, drifting in the depths, but his abdomen was uncomfortable. The distension hampered his movement and the pressure of his swollen liver made him feel bloated and tender. The medication maintained a level whereby he could feel a dull nagging ache. There was no way you could describe it as a pain but it beat upon you like a dripping tap.

She eased the sheet down and examined his body. It was hard for her to see this shrivelled husk as Henry, her Henry. He had been muscular and supple; a boisterous, rollicking man. He had loved to work out and keep in shape and he had loved her. This was the body that had held her so tightly, caressed her so gently and loved her with mischievous passion. This haggard skeleton with its obscenely bulging stomach was so dissimilar to that man as to be unrecognisable.  She had to put it behind her; now she was the doctor, yet she could not help glancing into those eyes to seek the vestiges of the man whose every pore she had been so familiar with.

He lay still, a slight smile on his lips, with eyes that were glazed and feverish. His chest rose and fell pathetically and the skin was sallow and hung off him as if the flesh had melted away, making a mockery of his false cheerfulness. Only four days ago he had been muscular and fit. So much had happened in those four days that it was difficult to believe. They stretched back like years. She had watched the disease take hold and spread. First in Henry Goit and then in so many others. The bones poking through as the flesh turned to liquid and flowed away to congeal into rock in that swollen belly, making it so hard and distended that it looked and felt as if it must surely burst.

She adopted her detached manner and resumed her examination. The emotional contact left her drained. She had to put it aside.

The examination itself was a pointless routine that told her nothing the monitoring equipment could not do better. It merely appeased the two of them into thinking that they were doing something.

She lifted his eyelids and looked into the dark pupils, peering into that infinity that lay within. The whites were yellow with bile pigments, the lymph glands around his throat were swollen and his tongue was furred with white slime. The drugs were keeping secondary infections in check but the primary carcinoma was metastasising fast. She winced involuntarily. The chemotherapy was not having any effect. The disease could be in the brain and bones by now. The machines could keep him going almost indefinitely but there might not be anything left to salvage soon. She turned her attention to the site of the primary and pressed on his abdomen with firm hands to assess the condition of the organs underneath. The turgid shape of the liver, already over five times its normal size, was rock hard and easily defined.

She stood back to assess his overall appearance. The skin was sallow and waxy with signs of jaundice. Already the levels of drugs had been reduced, as he liver’s efficiency at breaking them down became impaired. They were staying in his system longer and did not need topping up.

“Right, that’s fine,” she remarked, addressing both Henry and her small retinue. It was a show of professional detachment that was unconvincing to them all. She studied the monitor and checked the readings and noted that the machines were automatically compensating for the rises in temperature and blood pressure and were also increasing his intravenous nutrients to counter the weight loss that was evident. Even so he appeared to still be losing substantially. He looked as if he was melting away in front of her. His limbs were skeletal.

“I think we will drain some of that fluid off from that abdomen of yours,” she said directly to Henry. “It will make you more comfortable and enable you to rest better.”

There was no response. He had already returned to that twilight world.

“I’ll be back later to do that,” she added, touching him on the cheek with a show of affection.

“Are there no other drugs we could try?”  She asked one of the nurses.

“We have him on a mixture of steroids and combination targeted chemotoxoids.” Th nurse replied. “There are no other combinations that have proved effective.”

“Let the bioliser adjust the balance,” she said resignedly. “I don’t think there’s anything to be gained at this point from manual interference. We’ll assess again later.”

By the time Max Thurman and Theresa Merl returned for their evening round Henry Goit seemed t have slumped even further into his stupor and she did not even make the attempt to rouse him. She pressed the anaesthetic gun against his abdominal wall and squeezed. It hissed briefly but Henry showed no sign of having noticed. While the anaesthetic was reaching maximum effect she bathed the area with antibiotic fluid and arranged the absorbent pads. Max programmed the robosurgeon and it surged into life. They stood aside as the machine assessed the task and moved in to undertake ultrasound analysis, apply the scalpel to the area selected and introduce the hollow needle. The abdominal muscle was resistant but the machine applied sufficient pressure and the needle slid into the cavity and was soon extracting fluid into a collecting bag in the heart of the robosurgeon’s circuitry.

Neither of them spoke but when the liquid ceased to squirt and the flow became a trickle. The machine withdrew the needle and applied pressure to the wound. A patch was applied and the operation was complete.

Later that evening they studied the monitor as the fluid was analysed. The cells in the lymph could be seen dividing and spreading at a fast rate.

“There’s no doubt as to its virulence,” Theresa said. “The comparison cells from the archives were nowhere near as active.”

“They must have been sparked by a virus,” Max conjectured.

“So why are there no signs of virus particles? Even prion activity would be picked up. This monitor works down to molecular levels. There are no unusual virus particles. The assay is normal.”

Max Thurman shrugged.

Henry Goit lay lifelessly in the bed. He had retreated to a stage whereby it was almost impossible to arouse him at all. Along with the majority of the others affected, he had lapsed into unconsciousness. His body lay lifeless as the machines maintained his vital processes. The skin on his stick-like limbs was now transparent so that the veins formed a network of raised blue tubes. The only part of him that remained vital was the massive swelling of his gut. They all lay there as the growths drained their energy and transformed them into husks.

Everywhere you looked in the ward and adjoining rooms were rows of beds with bodies mechanically breathing in rhythms set by machines, with synchronised heartbeats supplying tumours with energy and life. It was desperate. Every ounce of food funnelled down those drip tubes seemed to be directed to those masses of cells so they alone could prosper and grow. It seemed so pointless. If the bodies succumbed the tumours were doomed. They seemed to be purposelessly laying the seeds of their own demise and that was not like most diseases. Pathogens usually kept their hosts alive at least long enough or them to reproduce and find a new home. These tumours were destined to die with their hosts. It did not make biological sense.

The good thing, especially as their resources were stretched to their limit, was that no new cases had bee reported. As suddenly as the epidemic had hit it appeared to have run its course. The bustle in the corridors died away as people adapted to the new routine. The sense of urgency was over and it was possible to see everyone relaxing. Perhaps the danger had passed and they were not going to be stricken. The rotas became established and the huge ship continued to speed across the fantastic reaches of space towards its destination on Earth.

Talk of quarantine was taboo in order to protect morale. Only when they neared base would that subject be broached with the powers that be. Nobody wanted to contemplate those implications. Perhaps the specialists would have a solution.

The monitor screen was filled with a close-up of one of the cancer cells. The enhancement meant that every aspect of the structure could be seen and three dimensionally rotated in order to study it from all sides. This was something that Yelpha never seemed to tire of. For hours on end she would stare at that screen, comparing different cells, manipulating them, and homing in on cellular aspects.

“I cannot understand it,” she remarked exasperatedly. “They are all identical. It does not matter who they are taken from or what part of the tumour; these cells are clones.”

“Surely that is one of the characteristics of cancer,” Max observed.

“Yeees,” She agreed, adjusting the orientation with her mouse. “But these are not like the descriptions I have read. They are completely indistinguishable. These are not merely undifferentiated they are absolutely mirror images of each other.”

“Really Theresa, you cannot continue to drive yourself like this. No one can keep up this intensity of work. You are not getting enough sleep. You are not eating right. It will not do anyone any good if you break down. When you are not touring the wards you are peering at that screen or trawling the archives and pushing yourself to come up with some explanation or solution. You have to accept that there are occasions when there is nothing you can do.”

“I cannot find anything in these cells. I mean, look at this DNA. It is not fragmented. There are no signs of the sort of damage the records say we should be seeing.”

He threw his hands up in despair.

“They are being destroyed by their own cells,” she added angrily. “But why? Why? What has sparked it off? I have run through the bioscan a hundred times. The chromosomes are normal. These cells should be performing their normal tasks. They have the right chemistry; the right protein; the same structures. There are no viruses. Why are they not obeying the organisers and forming into normal body tissues and organs? Why are they anarchically running amok? I cannot fathom it out!”

“I’m going to turn in,” Max announced exasperatedly. At least if he got some rest she might follow. “I know I can’t take this pace indefinitely. I have to have some rest.”

He wearily walked through the door as it slid aside and then turned to see if it had had any impact. She did not appear to have even noticed as she squinted at the screen.

“I strongly advise you to get some sleep.”

“ I will Max,” she replied without conviction. Her mind was already back grappling with the conundrum of the cells. “You know, the astonishing thing about all this is that none of the patients have died.” She frowned at the monitor and continued to talk as much to herself as Max’s retreating back. “ I know we have the mediserve units, which take care of business but even so. Their weight has stabilised now, and even begun to rise in a few cases, but not one of them has really put the mediserve to the test. Now that is strange.”

He knew that she wasn’t really talking to him. He just happened to be there, that was all. He shook his head, grunted and stepped into the corridor. She was already absorbed back into the screen.

The liver tumour cells continued to grow. They were no longer liver cells but they reproduced at a steady rate. They were still definitely Henry Goit’s cells with their characteristic genome. They were not taking orders any more. Their only function appeared to be to clone themselves. They made no positive contribution to the organism that was Henry Goit and their only relationship to him seemed to be a parasitic sucking of energy with which to sustain their relentless growth to the detriment of the other cells that made up his body. The cancer drew in blood vessels and was starving the rest of his body. It dissolved.

It was spread throughout his body now. The small colonies had established themselves and grown until they had met back up. They were busy taking over.

“Max!” Theresa bellowed from the end of the corridor. “Max!!”

He started. She was waving to attract his attention, highly agitated and quite wild in her appearance. Even at this distance he could see the dark rings around her eyes standing out like dark smudges; the straggly hair, unbrushed and dishevelled; the crumpled clothes that were supposed to be uncrumpleable. He waited as she rushed up to him.

“Oh Max,” she panted breathlessly. “I’m so glad I caught you.”

“What is it Theresa?” He enquired, with a tinge of guilt. He had slept but it was quite obvious that she had not. “You look terrible. When will you take some time to get some proper rest? I keep….”

“There is no time for that now! I have been running through samples.” She seemed agitated. He would even go so far as to say excited. “Things are changing fast. This is a new phase; something totally different to anything recorded before. You must help me! We must record it!”

He could see from her eyes that she was dangerously close to the limit and strangely manic. She was such a strong willed woman but this was so futile. There was nothing they could do. Not that she’d listen to him. But did that mean that he had to join her in this folly?

“Of course I’ll help,” he said with a great deal more enthusiasm than he felt. “What s it that you have discovered?”

“I’ve been through the old records and it always seems to follow the same pattern.”

“What does?”

“Cancer!” she replied exasperatedly. As if she was talking about anything else! “Starts with a primary, goes through metastases migration, sets up secondaries, and then would impair vital functions, weaken the person to death, or secondary infections would finish the job off. I suppose they didn’t have the mediserve units back then and that must have made a big difference. There was nothing to keep them going. Any immune impairment and the patient succumbed. It was just a matter of time.”

“So?” He replied gruffly. “Get to the point woman.”

“Well this isn’t!” She stated excitedly, watching for some light of understanding in his vacant face. “This isn’t following the same pattern. Even though they have massive tumours, no one has died. Their life supporting organs are still functional and their immune systems are standing up.”

“So the mediserve works,” Max was still puzzled. What was there to get worked up about? “But none of the chemotherapy is working. The cancer is not being destroyed. We are no nearer a cure. It is merely a question of time. All we are doing is prolonging it.”

“No!” She countered eagerly. “This cancer is different.” She clutched at his sleeve with excitement. “I am sure that it is maintaining their essential systems. It has not infiltrated essential organs like the records suggest happened in the past. The brain, heart and lungs are unaffected. Now how can that be? All the patients have stabilised and are starting to put on weight. True, the tumours are continuing to grow but it is leaving essential systems intact – and unthreatened. Now that can’t be coincidence. Not when it affects all of them. We have thirty three patients!”

He mulled over her absurd notion. The idea of the cancer somehow consolidating itself without endangering the patients was patently ridiculous. The mediserve was doing that. That was its job. It was true that he id not know how it could be doing that but nothing else made sense. The only thing it made him see was that see was nearer to the end of her tether than he had imagine and that he was going to have to do something to pull her back down to reality. “Theresa,” he said gently. “You are fantasising. There must be a combination of factors at work here; perhaps coincidence working alongside the mediserve? The fact that none of them has died yet is pure fluke. It will happen before long. Cancer cells cannot discriminate about which tissues they invade. They will eventually work their way into an essential organ and cause it to malfunction and there will be nothing the mediserve can do.”

She stared back at him balefully.

“Come on now Theresa. You’re a doctor. Don’t look at me like that. You’ve been putting yourself under tremendous strain.” He didn’t mention Henry Goit and her emotional entanglement though that featured in his thoughts. “You are hoping for miracles and deep down you must know that it isn’t going to happen. You’re a scientist. There’s no point in trying to fabricate theories to fit a chance happening. You know as well as I do that there is little hope for any of them. All we can do is keep them stable and get them back home as quickly as possible. Somebody there might be able to figure a way of dealing with this.”

He was not sure how he was expecting her to react. He watched her carefully suspecting that she might break down. He was prepared. Who knows, it might even be for the best. Let all that tension out of her system; then she might be able to relax and even get a bit of rest. Instead she stood there looking at him and she did not even seem disappointed. If anything a triumphant gleam had worked its way into her expression.

“And I suppose these are fantasies, are they?” She said thrusting a folder packed with read-outs and scans into his hand.

She continued to study him as he thumbed through the material. It was impressive but then it ought to be it had taken her long enough to produce. She knew it would be worth it if it made him think. That required hard facts and plenty of them. Max Thurman was a hard-nosed scientist. Nothing short of absolute proof was good enough but she could see it was having the desired effect as the condescending look of irritation began to transform itself to concentrated interest.

“I will take these back to my study for a while, if that is alright with you,” he muttered in a detached manner, still leafing through and turning his head to squint at a microscan.

“I will run through them with you if you like. Explain the…..”

“I am not a complete fool!” He snapped rather sharply. “I think I can see what is inferred.”

“Just let me show you this then,” she said, unperturbed by his irritation and too excited to be diplomatic. She pulled out a cell scan from among the wad of printouts in the folder. “It is from Henry Goit. It shows that over 70% of his cells have changed now. Look ……… you can see. Only the absolute essential systems remain.”

“You must give me time to study these properly,” he said, turning away and shuffling the information back into the folder he headed for his room. A deep frown had creased his forehead as he studied a sheet of information. He was engrossed. His feet guided him along instinctively.

She watched as he strode away.

“You are right,” he said later, after he had emerged. “I do not understand what is going on. All I can confirm is that it is not following the same pattern as in the past and appears to be steering clear of life threatening organs.”

The two of them stood at the top of the main ward looking down the lines of beds with the carers flitting here and there adjusting the wiring and checking the monitors. They were lost in thought. What was going on here?

The ward was so quiet and peaceful in its dim red night-light that it was impossible to imagine that they were thundering through space at a colossal speed towards a still distant destination and some difficult decisions.

Max Thurman had spent hours pawing over the material and extending through his own terminal to ascertain that he was getting an accurate picture before rejoining Theresa Merl in the ward.

He had noted, on his return, that she looked calm and rested despite the fact that she had not had long enough to catch up on lost sleep and wondered what medication she was on.

She pulled him across to Henry Goit’s monitor without saying a word, and keyed up the display. It showed an increased food input with higher amino acid content. His urine was normal and his mass was increasing steadily. The hugely distended stomach and skeletal body told its own story of where that mass was going.

Three more days passed without any change in the pattern. The tumours continued to grow steadily as the mediserves maintained the equilibrium. The healthy crew felt contaminated by the presence of the ill, though they all fought hard to put this aside. The distorted bodies of the patients seemed at odds with the sleek efficiency of the ship. Their disfigurements made them no longer functional but ugly and corrupt so that being around them made one feel unsettled, as if the disease was contagious. Breathing the air they breathed, touching the utensils they had used, adjusting the mediserve tubing, left one feeling dirty. It took courage to actually touch their skin. No one felt good about it. The tension resulted in a cheeriness that was so obviously forced. Even the food one ate, straight from the sterile wraps, felt contaminated. Everyone was waiting. Everyone was geared up for death. It was inevitable and in some ways, the sooner it happened and broke this tension, the better. They hated themselves for feeling like this.

It felt as if everything in the ship had been touched by their illness and nothing would ever be right again.

To Henry Goit it was murky. It felt as if he had moved away from the light and was now suspended in the twilight of another universe. He drifted in and out of consciousness but had left his body behind. He was in the bottom of some deep pit and the whole world outside was a distant circle of light. In that light was everything he had ever known including the body he had once owned. As he drifted away from it, and the light receded to a point, the whole of that world along with the life he had once lived was robbed of its reality. This twilight world was more real. The insubstantial universe was a dimming star in his heaven. Even the memories had died but he had not. His consciousness along with his sense of identity remained fundamentally unaltered.

Surprisingly it was Max Thurman the cynic who first noticed the beginning of he next phase. Maybe it was because he kept himself more distant from the patients than Theresa and this gave him greater objectivity. For her life had become inextricably entwined with them and their needs. She saw each and very on of them as a series of weight curves, cellular dissociation and vital signs that she had to personally grapple with. The fact that she made no difference what-so-ever to the care the mediserve administered was not important. She struggled to see them as the people they were and worked for the day when they would recover and once again be the people she had known and loved. Max worked on a more rational basis and viewed the patients as problems that had to be solved.

He had got quite used to staring at their haggard skeletal bodies and the vital signs on the monitors showed nothing but things seemed different.

He first noticed it with Meili Tung. He could not say what. It was just a feeling at first. She had previously been a young, attractive and vivacious young woman, though little of that was now visible. A large rubbery fold of tumour, which had originated in her neck, now engulfed the upper part of her thorax. Out of this growth a skull-like head emerged with vacuous sunken eyes and straggly hair. The miracle was that her airways were unblocked and were still operational so she could still breathe. Meili Tung still had the capacity to upset him, like no other. He’d a soft spot for her, although nobody would ever have guessed it through the shell of his doctor’s persona, and it saddened him to see her like this. So much so that he usually avoided this room. Perhaps it was the time that had elapsed, creating greater objectivity, which enabled him to discern a change.

It was subtle. He looked and something told him there was a difference but he could not see it. He grimaced. There was a difference. He could not see what it was.

His fingers played across the keyboard. All the vital signs were unchanged. He punched in for shape and contour. There! He had it!

“Theresa!” He roared, as he burst into her quarters. She was busy at the terminal and was startled at is entry. There was etiquette on board a ship with such limited space and so few people. They all needed their personal space so it took an emergency for the code to be broken. Her heart skipped and her face must have revealed her shock. “Sorry, sorry,” he panted as he stood towering over her in the cramped space. “But you must come quickly! Something is happening!”

“What is it Max?” she asked anxiously. “What has happened?”

He was already out of the room and halfway down the corridor taking it for granted that she would follow. That in itself was incredible. He never moved faster than a professional saunter.

“They are changing,” he yelled back over his shoulder.

Once the change had started it proceeded swiftly. The bodies visibly crawled. The bones themselves writhed under the skin as the new cells dissolved them. The two medics stood frozen in awe at the speed of events. It took things out of their control.

Theresa was the first to react and grabbed for the terminal to manipulate the monitor. Everywhere the screen was alive with rapid change. Graphs dipped and rose, figures flashed by and visuals fluctuated madly. Max watched as Meili Tung’s body dissolved before his eyes. The limbs shortened and the body trunk thickened. Through the thin layer of skin he could see the internal organs forming and reforming through a series of transition stages.

Theresa activated the mediserve and a syringe neatly glided out and into Meili Tung’s body. It retracted back inside the machine and she manipulated the microscan. Max watched the screen as the cells came into focus. They could see something extraordinary was happening on the gross level but on a cellular level it was even more spectacular. Cells that were normally static or slowly moving through cytoplasmic streaming were madly dashing about the screen as if in fits of panic.

It was mesmerising.

“What is going on?” Max asked incredulously.

“I don’t know,” she replied in bewilderment. “We will have to wait and see.”

All the thirty-three bodies were undergoing the same changes. It was as if they had been slowly preparing for his, lying dormant, and gathering their strength, waiting or the moment to arrive.

Their limbs were reabsorbed, their heads grew into large domes and their trunks became bulbous and cylindrical. Nothing was left of the growths that had so disfigured them.

Eventually they were still. The waves of cellular migration had ended and the shapes had consolidated. Instead of humans with massive cancerous growths they had metamorphosised into fleshy cylinders culminating in great crania with large peering eyes.

The speed with which the events had taken place had produced a complete cessation of thought. When it was over it was as if they were released from a spell.

One of the carers turned to them open-mouthed. He could not find the words to ask but his expression of incredulity said it all.

Behind them other carers had found heir tongues and panic reigned. All around was pandemonium.

“They are identical,” Theresa said.

“No,” Max replied. “Their faces are different.” He was looking from bed to bed. The cylindrical trunks looked featureless and identical, and the heads were grotesquely large and bulged as if they had been overfilled, but the faces showed signs of individuality. In some ways they had retained some of the characteristics of their owners.

Behind them the noise died away. The alien forms in front of them should have appeared frightening yet they were not. It felt as if something inside them recognised this new form and in some inexplicably extraordinary manner a feeling of delight welled up inside them as if they had been present at a splendid birth.

In hushed silence they walked through into the main ward, past the rows of beds with their similar bodies. The one that had been Henry Goit was the first to turn his head, focus on them and smile.

For Henry it was as if the speck of light had rushed forward to become a world. He no longer languished in the twilight and he felt as if he was bursting with life. All the murkiness was gone and he joyously zoomed in on the light like a moth emerging from his cocoon. There was Theresa and soon his mind would fly!

 

It’s not easy growing up and accepting responsibility. You have to leave things behind and move on to a new phase. This story was about that.

Green means stop

Today when I woke I was feeling distinctly off-colour. This was not the first time that I had felt none too bright.  I had a moment of panic. When I looked at my hands they looked distinctly green. My stomach did a flip and my heart pounded. I’m only twenty seven. I was too young to be feeling like this.

Lena says she will be my mate even if I were brown. That was such a nice thing to say and it floated into my mind and helped me calm down. I also had to admit that there was a part of me that would be quite happy to settle down with Lena and start a family.

I dragged myself out of bed and headed for the bathroom reluctant to confirm my worst suspicions. With a great deal of trepidation I forced myself to look into the mirror. A wave of relief rushed through me. My normal face was peering back at me. I was perfectly normal. It was probably just some weird psychological thing. I wasn’t really changing at all. It was just me. I was panicking myself by thinking that it was nearly over. I was twenty seven. I knew it wouldn’t be long now and I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to be young forever.

It had happened to Dave. Almost overnight he had turned brown. That was really unusual – to go straight to brown – and it was so sudden – and he had only been twenty six!

That’s probably why I keep myself into this panic. What happened to Dave has had a big impact on me. He got a job with the bank and now he’s in charge of a whole department and he’s almost black. Can you believe that? In three years?

That night, at the party I was wilder than ever. I was so full of energy. I went at everything full tilt and Lena, lovely Lena, kept pace with me every step of the way. We were setting the pace. The walls were pulsating with the brilliance we radiated out. Everybody noticed. We were brighter and livelier than all those young pretenders. The energy flowed through us and we let ourselves go with it in desperate abandon as if we had something to prove. No one was crazier than us.

We had a reputation to keep up. Our vitality was legend. There was nothing we would try, snort or drink. You put it there we’d take it on. Whatever the craze or wheeze we were with it. There was no sound or dance we weren’t hip with.

I began to feel better. I was over it. It was not time yet. I was on the ball. I was still young and had plenty wildness still to come. After all, you only had to look at Pete. He was thirty five and he still strobed!

We stayed out later than usual getting wilder and wilder. It was such a gas. We were flying; so full of energy; so crazy. Lena was a gem. She stayed right there laughing along, egging him on. She was crazier than him. Nothing ever changed. All the girls loved a bad boy.

I copped some Zow and we lifted a racer. It was wild. I set it random and jammed it open so that it careened around so erratic we were flung from side to side, yelling and screaming with excitement.

Of course, it was inevitable; we got pulled over and taken in for a lecture. We got away with a caution. The blues were disdainful of colours but I sneered my way through, winding them up good with my greatest cocky panache. After all it was obvious to all of them that I’d scored the prettiest girl. They could see it and it screwed them up. Part of them envied my crazy ways. You could see it in their eyes. They really wanted to do me over but their hands were tied. They took my documents and zapped them.

Dad was not going to be pleased. It was the fourth time this week. But the old man could afford it and his Mum had always stood up for him when he did daft things. When he went ballistic at me granny would chip in that it was all just a phase – She told dad that I would grow out of it soon. She gave Dad one of her looks and reminded him that he’d been just as wild in his younger days. She hadn’t a clue. No one was as wild as me and Lena.

Dad always protested that they’d not had stuff like Zow and racers back then and Zip had been much weaker them – not like this new synthetic stuff. This was really charged. You only had to read the stories. Thousands never recovered. They were burnt out, living dead.

I just stood their meekly as if butter wouldn’t melt and waited for the wave to wash over me. It was utterly predictable.

It all proceeded as normal. The blues dropped me off and the lecture took its course.

My parents worried about me. That was only natural. They were scared by all the scare stories. They wanted me safe. They’d be happy if I was brown and settled down like my brother. They really liked Lena.

I finally got to go to bed.

The next day there was no getting away from it. Everything was subdued and there was a distinct green hue.

I stared at my self in the mirror in horror, opening my mouth and peering in. There was no getting away from it. There was green.

This time the green did not fade and I was having great trouble accepting it. Fuck. I could end up as black as my dad. He was so dark there was hardly alive. At least my uncle was still green. He could be a bit of a laugh. But black? – That was death, man. It was too frightening to even consider. That was so staid it was living death.

I sat on my bed in suicidal gloom looking from hand to hand, willing them to throb with vibrancy but only seeing dull fading colour and a new sheen of green.

There had to be something I could do? I zipped through my vibe checking what was out there. There had to be something I could take that would hold it back. There were all sorts of rumours that Pete was on something. There were all sorts of treatments offered but they were hellish expensive and I didn’t have a bean. It came in and it walked out. I never held it for long. Easy come, easy go. Besides, most of them were a con. Everyone knew they didn’t work. There were tales of people being left in a mess, bright purple, or worse!

But it was a risk I was willing to take.

I decided to broach it with Pete and zapped him. There was no response.

I felt so tired.

As time passed I noticed my colour began to perk up and a new zest came back. Perhaps I was OK? It was just a bug? Too much Zow? I would be alright.

There was simply no way that he was ready to go green.

Then there was a knock at the door. I slid it open and Dad was there looking stern.

My heart sank. I’d had my lecture. I didn’t need this – not a second time.

‘Henry my boy,’ my father said almost sorrowfully, eying me soberly. There was no anger indeed father seemed almost subdued. ‘It’s time we talked.’

I sat back on my bed. I had never heard him quite like this before.

‘I have been talking to the Firm,’ father continued apologetically. ‘You’re a bright young thing. They have an opening for you.’

His eyes told me all I needed to know. My heart sank and I could feel an involuntary flush of green sweep over my face.

This story was based on Clint Eastwood and Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s pretty weird. Though I’d never admit that.

MASLOW’S STRANGER

            The stranger appeared in the centre of the town. He was alone. Dust swirled in the deserted streets.

He blinked his eyes. Everything looked strangely familiar but his mind refused to function properly. He looked around but recognised nothing. No matter how hard he strained his mind no memory would present itself. He did not know how he had got here. He did not know where he had been. He could not even remember who he was. His mind was a complete blank.

He surveyed the arid town with wary eyes. The sun shone from an unbroken azure sky. The buildings were old and shabby looking. The paint peeled. Through slitted lids and screwed up features he nervously squinted trying to piece together where he was. All the while he held himself upright, looking assured and cool, radiating toughness.

From where he stood, in the empty Market Square, he could see that a high stone wall isolated the town. The countryside outside was lush. It consisted of green hills that rolled away towards the distant horizon encircling the town. This dried out husk of a place was different to the surrounds, incongruously resembling an oasis of dust.

He stood there, holding himself aloof, expecting something to happen. His presence here might precipitate trouble.

He hoped that he would appear calm and assured, radiating an aura of arrogant strength with just the right hint of challenge. Inside he was keyed up and afraid. He fought to keep his bewildered fear from surfacing.

Nothing happened.

Gradually the fear subsided and, despite the inexplicable strangeness of his circumstances, he found himself relaxing. After all, no untoward events had occurred yet. Perhaps nothing would. Besides the town was pervaded with a feeling of comfort and security, a calm familiarity. He felt at home here. Despite his apprehensions and immense confusion he found the tension draining away. He did not feel in any danger.

He had things to find out. He needed to speak to someone.

Still nobody appeared. Calmer now, he studied the town with greater objectivity, house by house, road by road. Turning his head slowly from side to side. Nothing moved except the eddying of dust devils in the gentle noon breeze.

The stranger felt the sun beating down on him. He cleared his throat and took a few tentative steps forward. He did not quite know what to do but he knew that he had to do something. But which direction should he go? He stopped and then shuffled from foot to foot in indecision. There had to be someone around, someone to ask. It worried him that he could not remember anything. He had to talk. He had to straighten things out in his head.

Gathering his wits like a protective cloak he set out purposefully to find someone.

The houses all looked alike. They had no signs, no numbers. He knocked at the door of the first house he came to. There was no answer.

At first he was hesitant. He turned away and was about to go elsewhere. Perhaps there would be someone at the next place? There was no one here to ask. Perhaps he would find out the answers to his questions somewhere else? Yet he felt a strange compulsion. An instinct was telling him to go in. Gathering his courage into a ball he discovered a newfound resolve. He had to trust in his instincts at a time like this. There was so little to base his judgements on. Instinct had as much chance of being right as anything else. He turned back to the door. He was hungry and a tantalising smell was emanating from within that house.

Besides, he still needed answers to some very disturbing questions and he had the notion that he wasn’t going to get to the bottom of all this without making a serious attempt to probe deeply. His mind was disturbingly still a chilling blank. There were still a hundred and one things he desperately needed to know. Things like ‘Who was he?’ and ‘ What was he doing here?’ were the obvious things to start with.

He pushed the door and discovered that it was not shut. It swung open before the pressure of his hand and he peered into the room beyond.

He was still keyed up with apprehension and had no idea what to expect. It was one thing to push open a door that was not locked, it was another to go in. Still, something had to be done; his inner voice was urging him forward.

“Hello,” he called tentatively.

There was still no answer.

He stepped inside.

It felt right.

The overpowering aroma of freshly cooked food immediately struck him. He could see it. Tables laden. Food laid out on huge platters. The smell of delicious food hit him like nectar on the taste buds. Saliva poured and he had to swallow to keep pace with the excitement of his glands.

“Hello!” He called loudly.

Nobody answered. There was nobody there.

Bewildered, he stood there dithering. The heady smell of the aromatic food was making him drunk. It was so strong that he could already taste it. The aroma was making him feel as if he had not eaten for weeks. Pangs of hunger wracked his stomach and he was beginning to become delirious with the need to eat. He took another step inside as if seized by desperation.

This was no shop.

There was one empty plate on a small central table. Invitingly calling to him. One set of cutlery. One place laid for a meal.

“Helllllooo!” he called louder still in what was nearing a full-blown shout. He was struggling with the overpowering hunger. It was increasingly hard to retain control over himself. He could have let himself go and started stuffing the food into his mouth.

Silence.

It was as if this was someone’s house and it had been set for a banquet for one. Yet there was enough food here for an army.

Surely nobody would mind? He could settle up with them later? They would not miss a little food from this table of plenty.

The decision was made. He had no choice. If he did not eat now he would surely die, and besides there was so much food, even if he ate his fill it would barely put a dent in this feast.

He picked up the plate. The hunger swept up from his stomach like a wave of cramp. He had to eat and began prowling the laden tables with a new determination.

On one side there was salad, rice, cereal, greens, and fish, tomatoes red with goodness, peppers red, yellow and green. There were baskets of fruit, slices of thick wholemeal bread and bowls of steaming pasta.

On the other side were sausages, pies, and plates of red meat, chips, savoury eggs, rich sauces, and further down, multi-flavoured ice cream, biscuits and cake.

The food called to him – there were decisions to make.

To one side were the vitamins he needed but right now he craved something savoury and filling that would satisfy his ferocious appetite. Like a famished slimmer on a midnight binge he crammed sausages, pies and chips onto his plate until it could hold no more. A slight feeling of guilt assailed him, he glanced around him, but there was no one there to blame him. He pushed the pang aside and smiled at the plate piled high with an assortment from the same side of the table. The more wholesome food could wait for some other time.

He sat himself down, cut a pie open and raised a piece to his mouth. The crumbly pastry melted on his tongue and the rich meaty contents swamped his palate with its delicious flavour. Once he had started he began cramming food into his mouth with gusto.

He cleaned up the plate quickly, returning for a second helping before moving on to the cake and ice cream.

He looked around for something to wash it down with. The hot sun had made him thirsty.

A table was laid out with beers, spirits, coffee, tea, milk, juices and various shakes. He chose a cooling iced shake. He followed that with a chilled beer and then a whisky chaser. He was beginning to feel all right.

With the food and drink consumed he felt pleasantly full and unusually full of energy, his attention returned once more to his predicament. There were no answers to be had here. Nobody had appeared. Besides, it was most probably better that he left.

Putting his plate aside with a clatter he got to his feet and strode purposefully out of the building. There must be someone here. The food had been hot and the ice cream not yet starting to melt, despite the heat. Somebody had prepared it and they had to be around here somewhere. Determinedly he stood in the doorway looking first one way then the other. There was no sign of life. His forehead creased into a frown and his ample eyebrows met in consternation. Some one had to have cooked it, but where were they? Which direction should he go?

The streets were just the same – empty and dusty. He strode towards the next building with renewed vigour. The food and drink had raised his spirits. Now he could focus more fully on the problem in hand. This would be resolved!

All hesitancy had vanished and he walked as if he meant it. There was no looking around. He made straight for the next house, head up, teeth clinched, eyes darting from window to door seeking some sign of life. They were playing games with him and he did not appreciate it.

From the outside it looked no different to the one he had just come out of and there was equally no sign of anyone being at home. He knocked forcefully on the door and it creaked open as if expecting him.

“Hello,” he called boldly, stepping inside with greater assurance than he had previously displayed.

There was no answer but he had rather expected that. He stood inside the threshold straining his senses.

The light was dim and a heady perfume struck his nostrils. He stepped further into the room, listening intently.

He stopped again as thought he could detect some faint moan from one of the rooms but it died away before he could properly register the direction it had come from. Even so, it fired his determination even further. Someone was here.

The scent grew as he made his way further into the darkened corridor that seemed to lead into the interior of the place. It sent his pulse racing. It was an aroma that hovered somewhere between fish and earth, rich and musky and yet light and exciting. It was alluringly familiar.

He pushed a door open. The interior was dark, pink and velvety. The carpeting was soft and giving. His feet sunk in. The air was warm. A huge circular waterbed filled the centre of the room.

He stopped inside the door as his eyes adjusted to the light. At first he could not quite make out what he was seeing. It was so unexpected. As his eyes adjusted it confirmed what he had trouble believing. There was a woman on the bed and she was naked.

She watched him with big sultry eyes. Lying back on the bed. She smiled and pouted at him with a look of amusement. It was as if she had been expecting him. He registered that she was beautiful. Not merely pretty but utterly mesmerising. Long curly blond hair falling around her face. She rolled over onto all fours. Her breasts swung slightly. She beckoned to him. Her eyes bored into his.

He was shocked and embarrassed at intruding into her room like this. The resolve of a few moments before had melted away and he was about to make his apology and leave without even enquiring. She gestured to him again, as he stood uncertainly in the doorway. He stared at her nakedness but she did not seem embarrassed.

She seemed to find his reluctance even more amusing and licked her lips invitingly, teasing him. She drew him like a magnet and she knew it. It amused her. She played him with an invisible line and the float bobbed and he was helpless.

He walked across to her as if reeled in from the hook in his groin. His heart pounded. He wanted her like he had wanted nobody else in his whole life. All other thoughts dissolved. He ceased to be rational.

She reached for him and embraced him, tugging him to her, pulling him onto the bed, eagerly undressing him. Nuzzling, kissing, nipping as she roughly pulled the clothes off his limp, compliant body. All control evaporated. He gave himself up totally to her attentions.

He emmersed himself in her flesh, her scent, her energy. They kissed, caressed, and fondled until they melted into a consuming frenzy of passion. Their love-making was violent and long lasting as they lunged at each other until they both collapsed, consumed in the ecstasy of consummation.

Exhausted he nestled up to her and fell into a sweet dreamless sleep. The questions that had filled his head were all put to one side. There would be time for that later.

When he awoke he was alone on the bed. He looked around. His clothes lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. There was no sign of the woman.

The bed was warm and cosy and he lay there feeling sated and refreshed. All that remained of her was the lingering fragrance of her scent. He stretched and yawned contentedly, lazily settling back into the soft cushioning, dozing.

Gradually his mind roused itself and began going back through the events that had transpired. He was no nearer solving his mystery. No memories had surfaced. He still had no idea who he was or what he was doing here. The whole situation was peculiar and surreal. The food and the sex were not normal and his behaviour had been extraordinary. The memory of it was disturbing. The afterglow dissolved away producing in its wake a feeling of panic. None of this was making sense.

He dressed quickly and left the room. For a moment he paused in the corridor but something told him not to try the other doors. Now was not the time. But yet he knew, with a disturbing clarity, that he would return. He turned and strode back out into the sunshine. The sun was still high in the sky shining down on the dusty streets. Nothing had changed.

Doing things was not sufficient. He had to know what was going on here. Where had he come from? And what was he doing in this strange place? Was this an experiment he was being subjected to?

The third house was quiet and tranquil with a musty smell. A corridor led him into a central circular room. Inside there was nothing. A bare wooden floor with plain grey walls.

Some one had daubed paint on the walls in runny words. He went closer to look.

” Life is a dream,” one stated.

“If infinity exists then we are not real,” another proclaimed.

“Where were you before you were born?”

“Where will you go when you die?”

“Are you dreaming now?”

Yes that was entirely possible. He was dreaming.

The sentences were arranged higglety pigglety here and there as if a group of bored teenagers had run amok passing the time by scrawling graffiti anywhere that it would fit.

” God is a construction of your psyche.”

“Nothing is the only thing that is real.”

“God is everything.”

“One is two.”

“Your mind has made the universe.”

He stared round at the daubed words. Did they have meaning? Was he meant to interpret them? Think about them? Were they messages to him?

He was becoming seriously confused.

This was a dream. This had to be a dream. Nothing in real life was quite this strange.

“Finity cannot exist within infinity,” a sign informed him. But could it? He wondered. Despite himself her felt drawn into considering the concept. Did it contain anything that made sense?

Where was he? Was any of this real? Was it possible that this was really happening to him? Were these messages here for his benefit? Was someone trying to communicate with him? He began to study the messages with more seriousness.

“Life has no purpose.”

“Life is a search for truth.”

He believed them both.

“Life is making the best of your situation.”

“God is not dead, yet.”

“Do you believe in magic?”

Yes. But was he making the best of his situation? He could not even remember who he was or how he got here. How could anything be important before he’d got to the bottom of those things?

“Life is experience.”

What else could it be? He was baffled. What was going on? He had to find someone.

He turned away from the wall and walked across the room to push another door open. Maybe he could find out more in here?

Another room opened up before him.

“QUIET.” a sign informed him.

The call froze in his throat. He stood there awkwardly, cowed by the sign, resisting the temptation to call out.

Rows of books confronted him.

He could see it was a library and peered at the signs that revealed to him the categories.

“Your life.”

“The history of your world.”

“Your family.”

“Science.”

“Education.”

He frowned. ‘Your Life’ – What the hell did that mean? This whole library was built for him – about him? That was simply not possible. It made no sense.

Selecting a book from the section marked ‘Your Family.’ He scanned it.

Page 1 – Your Mother.

Your mother loved you. When you were hurt she was always there to comfort you. She sat you on her knee and surrounded you with the security of her presence. She taught you. She stimulated you. She knew your every need. Your mother………

He had no recollection of his mother.

He flicked through.

Page 10 – Your Father.

Your father was a quiet man who found it difficult to display his emotions. He loved you……

Page 22 – Your Sisters.

You have two……….

Was it possible that he had two sisters? He put the book down. It was too disturbing. How could they be about him? He had no memories of these things. He was empty.

He walked out of the room and turned through the room of questions to the street outside.

The next house wavered in the air, seemingly hovering on the edge of insubstantiality in the heat haze. He hesitated before going in. He studied it. Did it exist? What was it made of? It shimmered in the air. Should he go inside? There was no choice. He was compelled.

The first room was red; vivid scarlet. A photograph of a politician, head askew, finger waving, confronted him.

A film played from a large TV screen. Around the room were other screens all with images playing over them. He looked from screen to screen.

Someone was sexually abusing a child with great brutality.

A gang of youths swaggered down the street. They grabbed hold of a passer-by and punched him; threw him to the ground; kicked him. One sat on him, punching him repeatedly in the face, challenging onlookers to come to his rescue. The other youths waited like sharks, smiling to themselves.

Bombs dropped on distant cities. People rushed around in despair.

A spindle armed baby with a bloated stomach was clutched to its mother’s shrunken breast. It’s eyes were huge lustreless orbs which no longer looked for anything.

People in dinner-jackets sat around a table. Empty bottles of vintage champagne littered the table. Half eaten plates of food were whisked away by subservient waitresses. They clicked their fingers and pointed as the waitresses scurried. They sneered. They laughed.

A man was being beaten because he had committed the crime of being black.

A man was being rewarded because he had the honour of being born.

A rabbit was cringing in the back of a cage waiting to be tortured.

A tethered horse had its eye poked out with a stick. The man doing it laughed.

He was sickened by the images and strode across to the pass through another door selected randomly from the many on offer.

The next room was a glowing golden softness. He did not know what to make of this. A couple walked along a beach. Her head nestled on his shoulder. Their arms stretched around each others waist. They stopped, hands on each others shoulders, motionless, peering into each others soul.

A heart beat thumped around the room. As he went inside it grew louder.

A smile smouldered on the lips of a man and exploded through the eyes as twinkling sparkles of adoration.

A queasy feeling rose in his gut.

A man shielded his wife and child from the snarling wrath of a gunman.

A wounded couple dragged their broken bodies painfully closer so that they could intertwine their fingers before they died.

An old woman studied an open locket with rheumy eyes.

A pair of eyes, irises dilated, stared adoringly up into another pair.

The sound of sobbing drew him to another room.

The child was abandoned and unwanted. No one went near her.

The mother clutched the man to her but he was dead.

It was all too much he could not think.

His head twisted round from image to image. He peered back through the doorway to the room he had just entered from. Cries and laughs, screams and smiles. He smelt the fear, tasted the terror, was touched by the love but it was all too much, too intense. He could not think. He had to escape. The aching needs. The overwhelming desires. He had to get away.

He raced back out into the scorching heat and stood there until his mind stopped racing and his heartbeat slowed.

The building across the street resounded with gaiety and laughter. The noise flooded out. Someone was telling jokes and an audience was laughing. It was the ideal place to escape, to unwind. Yet the images in his head were too strong. He veered away. Perhaps some other time.

The next house called him across to it and this one felt right.

Inside the rooms were empty apart from rows of buckets. He surveyed them with trepidation reining in his feelings and gathering himself back under control. He did not know if he could take much more of this.

He frowned to himself as he studied the buckets. He no longer knew what to expect. This whole sequence of events was out of his experience. There was no way of knowing what was going to happen next. It seemed that he was being led and all that was open to him to do was to follow, to go where he was pulled. Giving himself up to this new feeling of predestination he walked across to investigate. Each bucket was equipped with a huge spoon.

He peered inside the first and found that it was full of letters. Taking hold of the spoon he stirred the contents and watched in unexpected fascination as the letters first formed themselves into words and then the words arranged themselves into sentences. He peered into the layers and layers of paragraphs forming countless stories. And the stories spoke of adventure and intrigue, lust, honour and imagination that sent the soul soaring. When he stirred rhythmically the words arranged themselves into poems and danced with fun or illuminated feelings with metered insight. And the words revealed wonder that transcended their inspiration. A lifetime could be spent in awe and fulfilment in the thrall of this magic. He stopped stirring and they settled back into independent letters again, each a potential explosion of nuance waiting to be awoken.

His mind thrilled to the power of it and urged him to dip again but there was so much to do, so great a gamut of experience, so many buckets to stir.

The next bucket was full of colour and when he stirred this images flowed before his eyes. They arranged themselves into shapes, beautiful collages, and spectacular scenes. The vibrant colours shone with aching intensity. The images spoke to him with emotion as they captured the scope of human experience.

The third produced sound and as he stirred the sounds interacted to produce music, and the music weaved its magic patterns to soothe his brain and then rose to jerk the passion from out of his soul until the tears flowed down his cheeks. He stirred harder and the music rose majestically to fill him with pride and resolve.

He had ceased to be amazed by anything anymore. He had stopped having expectations and no longer looked for answers. For the moment ‘doing’ was quite enough.

He rushed from bucket to bucket excited to find what he could see. The rhymes, the rhythms and the shapes. The mysteries explored and the truths revealed. And every one of them new. Every one unique.          Everything as no one had ever seen before and would ever see again. And when he stopped stirring then everything was lost. Only he could create these new patterns, these forms, and these sounds. They all came out of him. They were of him and he gave them life. Maybe that was sufficient?

He ceased playing with the buckets and made his way back out into the deserted streets.

There were lots of other houses. Who knows, maybe he would find someone who could tell him who he was, where he had come from and how to get out of this place? There had to be.

The sun shone intensely.

The dust devils played around him.

OPHER   August 24. 1995  rewrite.  May 3rd 00 rewrite   rewrite 4.5.00

This is what happens when a bunch of retarded sexist gods take time off from tending their various universes to have an annual party.

Dinner of the Gods

‘Pass that devil’s nectar, there Wone.’

‘Pleasure Nynne.’

Wone passed the crystalline flask along the laden table. All around was riotous laughter and jollity. The table groaned under the huge weight of overflowing dishes. Lithesome serving wenches rushed back and forth replenishing, adding and pre-empting every wish.

Thirty dignitaries were gathered in the banqueting hall, great fires roared in the hearths.

Nynne chuckled to himself as he poured the rich honey into his golden goblet. He measured a rich demeanour in his voluminous robes resplendent with feathered hat, long beard and corpulent body. He pushed his plate away, took a big swig of the rich drink and sat back with a great sigh and belched.

‘I love these little get togethers,’ he announced to the room. ‘I love these period pieces.’ He gestured around at the whole scenario. ‘You never know what to expect. Is there no end to imagination?’

He held his hands out and looked down at his body. ‘Look at this. Who could possibly have imagined anything like this? This is all incredible. I love it!’

He had the floor. Some of the gathered clapped. They chortled. They banged their goblets on the table. They waved great ostrich legs in the air. The waved forks of skewered delicacies. They roared with laughter. They waited for him to continue.

‘Bodies. What next? Eating. Drinking! Fucking!’ He grabbed a passing table maid and spun her onto his lap as if to demonstrate the point. He kissed her on the lips and thrust his hand up her dress. He surfaced and roared with delight spinning her back up to her feet again. ‘Who could possibly have dreamt up anything so strange. Clothes. Fire. Walls. I love it! I love it!’

‘Wone, now tell me true – is this all of your doing?’

‘Why surely,’ Wone boasted. ‘You have to do something with your time. You can’t just swish around and vegetate.’

‘I don’t know where you get in from,’ Phive shook her head. ‘I can’t come up with anything as exciting.’

‘Nor any of us,’ Nynne proclaimed sadly. ‘You are truly a maestro. A one off. You put us all to shame.’

‘So what are you up to?’ Wone asked of Nynne.

‘I’ve got a few million on the go,’ Nynne replied. ‘They’ll all come to nothing I’m sure. I get so frustrated with them all. I haven’t got your imagination Wone. That’s the truth of it.’

‘I like your balls so much,’ Tweent interjected addressing Wone. ‘A master stroke of simplicity. A whole universe of balls, arcs and circles. Genius. I love it. Such a simple idea. If only I had thought of it first.’

‘Balls,’ Phyx observed. ‘Simple and effective but limited. No. They make a majestic backdrop, a masterly set of building blocks. Genius for sure. But limited.’

‘I don’t believe I heard you say that!’ Tweent exclaimed. ‘Who among us has come up with one universe as awesomely wonderful? Not me for sure.’

‘No,’ Phyx agreed. ‘And a worthy accomplishment even if that were all it were. And believe me Wone I am not knocking it.’

Wone inclined his head with a smile.

Nynne nodded. ‘I think I know what Phyx means though. The balls are simply majestic. They truly are. And I speak for all of us when I say that I have never been so impressed. I’m so glad we chose this as our venue. But I don’t think Phyx meant it as a put down. Quite the reverse. It was a compliment. The real genius is the detail – all this.’ He gestured around. ‘I have a million on the go at any one time. I dismantle and create but never have I come up with an idea as good as this. This is the true genius. Things will never be the same again!’

‘You can say that again,’ Waite agreed.

‘Will. Consciousness. Life. Death. Fucking. I really like this fucking thing! That’s genius. Feelings. Love. Creatures. One hell of an idea. That is something else altogether. I Love IIIIITTTTTTT!!!!!’

‘You do me an honour,’ Wone replied modestly. ‘I don’t know if I deserve it. It’s not that wonderful. When I think back we’ve had these gatherings in some exquisite settings. You can’t compare this to that do put on by Firkeen or even Thoughty’s. Now those were accomplishments that make this pale.’

‘You put yourself down,’ Firkeen replied. ‘This is something else.’ She guzzled at her flagon. ‘I loved my waffly swishing worlds. And I will admit to creating colour. That was a good one. But Wone, let’s be honest, you’ve taken it all on to a new level. Simply wonderful.’

‘Good of you to say so.’

‘I just love this body. I think I’ll keep it for a while.’

Wone grinned. He surveyed the room with its huge display windows through which the sun could be seen setting in all its agonising beauty. The castle was perched on a rocky shore and the waves were turquoise and purple, laced with white as they crashed upon the beach. The stars were just beginning to poke through above them and could be seen twinkling through the skylights. Truly idyllic.

‘Actually I’m getting bored with it.’

‘Already?’ the chorus went up.

‘Fraid so. I’ve been working on something else altogether different. Been thinking of abandoning it.’

‘You don’t mind if I steal a few of your ideas, do you?’ Firky asked.

‘Oh no, Feel free. Take what you like.’

Firky grinned.

‘I don’t know,’ Wone mused. ‘You get so into it. It’s so exciting. The joy of creativity. You build it up. You mould it. You play with it. Then you set it loose and it has a life of its own. You love it. You play with it. You throw in different ideas. You take stuff from some of the others and put them in. You create a set of laws. You alter them. You set a few thousand up with variations just to see the effects a little difference brings. Then it gets stale. I mean, what is the purpose?’

‘It’s a work of art, dear boy,’ Nynne said reassuringly. ‘A complete work of art.’

‘It has touched us all,’ Tenne agreed.

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ Wone replied dismissively. ‘But where does it get one?’

‘On to the next leap forward,’ Phor replied triumphantly.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Wone remarked in a maudlin voice. ‘Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the bother.’

‘What else is there?’ Nynne responded looking quite shocked. ‘You have to do something. Come on, man. This is a party. This is a wonder! Let’s raise the spirits and raise the roof! I’m looking forward to another good round of fucking I can tell you! More nectar down here wench!’ His goblet was filled to overflowing. He grabbed the young girl and pulled her back onto his lap. She squealed but did not struggle any too hard.

‘You know, sometimes I wonder how we were created? If there’s – you know, someone like us out there.’

‘Oh aye. And someone else who did her an’ all?’

‘What the fuck! Have a drag on this, a bite on that, a swig of the other and let’s get stuck into a good bit of fucking! You know Wone I really really like this fucking bit. That’s a real stroke of genius. If you get my drift.’

Opher 30.11.02

This last one is my attempt at a sort of H G Wells type story. Its a load of balls in that I was looking at atoms as being like tiny planets – a galaxy within a lump of coal and atomic planets on which people live. I found it quite amusing.

The Pretty Mad Professor

Professor Stillworth was standing on top of a large hill. The day was very pleasant and he felt the warmth of the breeze caressing his face and fluttering his shirt. Below him the countryside was laid out like a patchwork. The rolling hills looked as smooth as a billiard table as they swept down into the valleys below. There were large fields with different shades of green with long grass undulating as the wind rippled through to create the impression of a sea. It was all very reassuringly pleasant. A long way below he could see the people like ants moving in the fields. It was all rather idyllic and he felt completely at peace with himself. He took a deep breath and tasted the sweet smelling air. This was the life.

The only thing that he found a little odd was the strangely diffuse light.

As soon as he noticed it he felt uncomfortable. It was more than a little odd. Everywhere he looked there were no shadows. There was no contrast. It was as if the sky was hazy, as before a thunderstorm, and yet he could see the air was as crystal clear as spring water. The horizon was sharp and the heavens deep blue. He squinted up at the sky and was astounded to see that instead of the yellow orb of a sun he was used to seeing there were a whole host of smaller suns.

His analytical mind refused to accept what his eyes were telling him. Indeed there were a large number of what appeared to be small yellow suns. That was true. But they could not be suns. That was equally obviously true. They had to be bright lights, rockets, satellites, anything other than suns. He could not imagine what they could be though. He peered at the suns through slitted eyes, disregarding the dangers to his retinas, and still could not fathom it out. Whichever way you looked at it they appeared to be a host of small suns. It simply did not make sense.

Even as he stared upward in bewilderment the azure sky began to turn orange and then rapidly progressed to an angry red. An unimaginably fierce heat leapt at him and crisped his skin. Within an instant the sky turned to fire and all around him was scorched so that the very breath he took to scream seared his lungs and the scream died before it was born.

He jerked up in bed with that unborn scream venting itself through his teeth. He was shaking and his skin was clammy with sweat. For a moment he did not know where he was and imagined himself still on that alien hillside scorched and breathing fire. It was real. Then he took a breath and took stock of his surrounds. He was in his bedroom. It was all a dream. Gradually his heart rate clawed its way back to normal and he settled back onto the pillow. It was only a nightmare. He had had this same thing a dozen times or more, always the same, always under those suns, that sudden searing heat, and still he never seemed to get used to it. It seemed to plague him more and more these days.

He knew from past experience that the night was over for him; there was no chance of getting any more sleep. But then the sun was already up giving its wan light to a January morn and after a quick wash and breakfast he took his cup of tea along to his study. Today was an important day, possibly one that would go down in history – certainly one that would change his future. He was so excited it was a wonder that he had got any sleep and he certainly wasn’t going to allow any silly nightmare to spoil this day! This was the culmination of everything. The product of his life’s work was finally complete and was ready to be tested. He surveyed the intricate mass of wiring, lenses and machinery that fill his study. It was set up. All the maths checked out. The machine was rudimentary but it was at last ready. All the components had been tested. All it now required were a few final touches and it was finished. Time ceased to exist as he worked on it through the day. Outside snow was falling; icicles hang from eaves like transparent stalactites.

Finally the work was completed to his satisfaction and Professor Stillworth came out of his intense concentration to discover that he was famished. It was dark outside and the day had progressed into early evening. Where had the day gone? His throat was parched and he felt a little weak from hunger but before he ate and drank he just had to test it. He could not leave it like this. This was far too momentous an occasion for anything as mundane as eating. He swigged down the last of the cold tea from this morning and felt a little revitalised.

He looked around for a specimen to test it on and his eyes alit on the last lump of coal from coal box. He’d been so engrossed in his work that he’d totally forgotten the fire. It was no wonder the room had a chill to it. The flames had all long died down and all that remained was the white ashes with a few red cinders. He had neglected to go out and fill the coalscuttle. He had forgotten to feed the fire. Now all that was left was this one piece of coal. He was on the verge of putting it on the fire and going off to get some more. The night was so cold and the remains of the fire were hardly putting out any heat at all. He was not only hungry and thirsty but also visibly shaking with cold. But no – there was plenty of time for that later. This would only take a moment. First the experiment. If it worked there would be no need for coal; the excitement would warm him!

He placed the small lump of coal on the floor in front of the open grate then scurried behind the assembly of apparatus that filled the study. Making careful adjustments while muttering to himself he carefully pointed the long snout of the machinery at the coal on the floor. Satisfied that it was focussed properly he pressed the series of buttons which starts up the machinery. Whirring noises came from inside the circuitry as it warmed up. Professor Stillworth stared excitedly through the eyepiece into telescopic apparatus. He twiddled the focus until the screen came to life. He found himself staring at a group of spinning balls. His heart pounded and excitement poured through him. He had done it! They said it was not possible but he had shown them. This was no electron microscope. This was different. This was a machine that showed you atoms. Atoms as they were. Living atoms. And there they were – as real as billiard balls on felt. Like tiny rotating worlds, constellations lit by the diffuse light of hundreds of huge nuclear atoms of uranium, plutonium and the like. And he was the first human being to actually see these infinitesimally tiny atoms just as they really were. They revolved slowly in front of his eyes. He chortled to himself gleefully. This was a mere prototype, rudimentary, yet it worked perfectly. It was clearer than he’d ever dared hope. The focussing mechanism worked. The stabilisers and tracking were perfect. There was not the slightest shake or fuzziness.

He focused down further, centring on just one of the tiny atoms. It rushed towards him on the screen and he found himself staring at the surface of an atom. Most probably carbon he thought. That was the most likely seeing as how this was part of that piece of coal. Yet it was just like a tiny planet. As it rushed towards him on the monitor he could have sworn it was clouds he was rushing through, down to the surface – and what a surface, not black like coal but green and rolling like the countryside in England. Incredible! He marvelled as he made tiny adjustments to the fine focus. If he looked hard enough it was as if he could see movement. As if there were living things on that surface. Unbelievable! Living things on atoms? Incredible! Or was it his imagination playing tricks with him?

He stepped back and rubbed his eyes.

Perhaps he should stop there. This was surely enough for one day. He’d already been half an hour staring down that tube. Time had flown by. It was time to call a halt. He hadn’t eaten or drunk for at least fourteen hours. After all, he had tested it now and it worked. It jolly well worked! But it had been so incredible! Imagine! The first person to actually see the surface of an atom! Imagine! A small break to take on refreshments and stoke up the fire. That was what was in order. Molly would be here soon and she would chide him like a small child.

But no! He felt the excitement course through him. This was only half of it. If that was working so well then maybe the other side could also function – the diffuser. He had to test that as well. He couldn’t rest until he knew that was a success. He could hardly contain himself. What a discovery! What a triumph! He had to see. Heavens! If this was amazing just think what the diffuser would be! But no, the more sensible part of him urged. There was nothing to be gained by rushing. Stop now and take a break. Come back to it refreshed. Besides it could take hours to test that side properly. It was silly to try that now. Later this evening would do just as well, even waiting until tomorrow would be eminently more sensible.

Yet he had to know.

A small battle raged in his head but with the emotions fuelled by the incredible sights that he had already witnessed the outcome was a forgone conclusion.

The excitement raged and dinner could wait. If he were quick it would only take a matter of minutes. He was too excited to eat. The decision made itself.

Eagerly he pulled on his airtight suit, sealed it. Tested the visor. He could see. Inflated it. It was perfectly sealed. The quicker he did it the quicker he got to eat. He stepped in front of the diffuser chamber looking like a deep-sea diver. Somehow there seemed no danger, no chance of it going wrong. He was a scientist. He should have recorded his observations in details, carried out a million and one tests on the diffuser. He knew it, but the excitement had taken him over.

He stepped into the chamber, set the timer for one minute, just a minute – that would be enough, and pressed the button.

At first nothing seemed to happen. Then the chamber shimmered and all of a sudden he was standing on the top of a hill. The green slopes gently rolled away. In the fields he could see tiny figures like ants and a dozen orange suns gleamed down at him from an azure heaven.

Molly came into the study. It was empty. She looked around for the professor but he was nowhere to be seen. The machinery buzzed and she frowned at the ozone smell it exuded. She turned up her nose. He was obviously working on something. She sniffed the electric tasting air and made a face. He was a crazy old man. She did not know how he could exist without her looking after him. Him and his silly dreams, she mused, dreams that he’d been working on for years with nothing to show. She shook her head. There’d never be anything to show. He was just wasting his time. But then if it kept the old man happy. But where could the silly old duffer have got to? He did not appear to be around. He couldn’t have gone out, she thought glancing out of the window into the dank cold night, not in this weather. He must have gone upstairs. Probably catching up on a bit of sleep what with all those nightmares he’d been having recently. Never mind he would be down soon and there were things to be done. He most probably hadn’t even eaten today. Silly old fool.

She set about tidying up, keeping well clear of that damn apparatus with its buzzing and sparks. She did not trust anything the professor had put together. He’d probably kill himself one of these days. She shivered – the room was so cold. There was no coal in the scuttle and the fire was down. Trust him not to take care of even the basic things like that. She was not a betting woman but she would bet that he had not eaten yet. It was a miracle he was still alive. Now where was that silly man? She picked the last piece of coal off the grate and placed it on the fire taking care to drop it among the last of the red-hot cinders so that it stood a chance of catching. Muttering to herself she picked up the scuttle and left the room.

What would he do if she were not there to take care of him?

Opher revised 2.3.03

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