David S Mitchell - FADD2022

All the stories on this page are first drafts produced for Fun-a-day Dundee 2022 using Story Cubes to spark ideas. They will be edited and reworked into a book later in the spring.

All copyright retained on these works. Permission granted to individuals to create personal copies to read on other devices e.g. e-ink devices. For reproduction in anthologies and other formats, please contact me via Mastadon or email.

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Mirabilis

Brother Thomas was alone in the monastery that night. The rest of the order had been summoned to an important church council. As the sole junior, he was not permitted to attend. Their journey would take several days through the woods from their remote location on the mountainside to the capital city.

Thomas had spent the day illustrating a page from Genesis, capturing the colours of the rainbow the best he could with the inks they had available. Once the good light had gone, he would read by candlelight for a while before his simple evening meal. His next task was to go across the courtyard to the chapel and pray for his brothers.

He hummed the chant he was learning and listened to the sounds from the forests. It could sometimes be a noisy place and at this time of year wolves were around. He glanced at the solid wooden gate which was bolted shut with several iron fastenings. He felt safe but made a mental note to pray for the protection of the monastery. He was about to enter the chapel when he heard a cry from the forest that made him stop.

Two bangs on the gate, not clear enough to be knocks. Was that a person out there? Was that a knock? Thomas decided it could be someone in need. He prayed a prayer of protection and walked over the gate. He slid open the hatch. A young woman in strange clothes, was leaning upright against the doors panting.

“Please let me in. The wolves!” she said in a strange accent.

Without saying a word Thomas unbolted the door and let her in. He looked out around the familiar grounds and then shut the gate and secured it. The stranger was bent over gasping for breath. He could see an unusual chunky metal bracelet on her arm

“Come to the chapel. We can give thanks for your deliverance. You may stay the night here.”

She stared at him.

“What? Oh yes of course. Thank you, I am Gina.”

“And I am brother Thomas.”

They sat down at the front of the stone chapel near the altar. Thomas knelt and prayed for a while. When he sat back up, he looked at his visitor.

“The wolves you say?”

“Yes. Normally they stay away but tonight they are angry and numerous. I am not sure how I got away from them.”

“You often travel in this land alone? Unarmed?”

“Not usually this far north. I lost my weapon when I ran.”

“Come you must eat. We have a simple diet, but it is pleasant and there is wine. We have rooms for guests which are comfortable.”

The monk quizzed the stranger more but didn’t get very far. He backed off due to her tiredness, perhaps in the morning she would be more forthcoming. He showed her to the rooms, and she lay down immediately. The time for night prayers was approaching so he returned to the chapel.

There were noises coming from outside the walls. He stopped in the courtyard and listened. Movement in the trees from all directions. He headed upstairs to the library which had a good view of the south and west walls.

There were wolves all around. Calmly passing each other circling the monastery. Brother Thomas had heard many tales as a boy in the village, but wolves were a rare sight. Dark hooded figures, taller than any man wandered round. Scampering hissing creatures were exploring the wall.

“What evil is at work here! That stranger has brought them here,” he said out loud.

Only stopping to fetch his staff, he headed to the guest rooms. He banged on the door and yelled.

“Who are you? Why have you brought evil to this place of peace? Wolves circle us!”

Brother Thomas braced himself.

The door opened and he relaxed a little as he saw in her eyes that she was as scared as he was, if not more.

“I’m sorry brother Thomas... I can’t explain it to you… I don’t belong here. Somehow the wolves know it and want to drive me out. But I don’t know how I can get back to the right place and time.”

She clutched a chunky bracelet on her hand.

She covered her mouth with her hand as she welled up with tears. Banging on the gate started, scraping and howls too.

“Quickly, come with me to the chapel. It is the most secure place.”

“I’m sorry Thomas.”

“This is evil is not under your control. I will protect you best I can. I see that. Come quickly.”

Outside, they say dark winged creatures were landing on the wall. They ran into the chapel and closed the large doors. Thomas hunted for the large key in the back room. The lock was rarely used and stiff, but he managed to close it. He looked out the keyhole and saw the gate was still closed. s.

“Such evil will not enter this holy place. Trust in the goodness,” he said more to himself than Gina, but she seemed reassured.

“Yes, you are right. Didn’t have much faith myself until tonight but if those things are real… I’m not moving out of this sanctuary.”

The noise of the creatures increased. Howling and screeches. Then there was a new sound. A new voice in the room coming from near Gina. Brother Thomas looked at her in fear and took a step back.

“Gina. We’ve located you. Hold on. Just a few seconds and you’ll be back in 2173.”

She raised her wrist to her mouth.

“Holden? However did you find me?”

“You were incredibly lucky we found something in the historical record that pointed - “

“Wait, there’s someone else here,” she interrupted.

She looked at the bamboozled Thomas.

“It’s okay. Just my people trying to get me back. I’m a kind of traveller. You helped thank you, Thomas. I am sure you’ll be safe when I am gone. Pray for me.”

There was a bright light. When Thomas’ sight recovered. Gina was gone. He looked outside and the courtyard was empty. He prayed for an hour before leaving the chapel. He checked the gate and all wolves, demonic creatures and other spirits had departed.

The next day, he rose as usual. The events of the previous night hung around in his mind like a bad dream. He sung the daily psalm and prayed. At his desk in the library, he started the next illustration. He drew the animals going into the ark two by two making sure to include pair of wolves. When the rest of his order returned, he told them nothing of the incident.

For years, he contemplated over that night and of the strange words he had heard. He had only spent a short time with Gina, but he thought of her often. He prayed that she had completed her journey home, even though he did not understand.

Then one day he was illustrating a gospel of Mark, he came to the baptism of Christ. He meditated on the Spirit descending a dove. He pulled old volumes from the library shelves for reference. Looking at the dates some were centuries old. Then an insight hit him, and he knew exactly what to do. In the crowd, he drew a woman with as much a likeness to Gina as he could remember and, on her wrist, a large bracelet.

Posted 27th January 2022


Cosmic Merry-go-round

“Now, Mr Stevens, let me review your soul’s past few lives and we’ll get you back down on earth in a week or so” said the glowing green spirit with a clipboard.

“Oh, okay – is that how it works? I really don’t remember any lives but the previous one.”

“Hmm. Your past few lifetimes have been a bit rough. I think you could do with a break from people. Let’s find you somewhere remote. I know, let’s make you a monkey!”

“A monkey? Why?”

“Oh, it is simply the best. Wonderful community, tropical locations, trees to climb and a tail is super useful. Trust me it is a great life and helps your karma score.”

“Ok then. Where do I sign?”

After a few years back on earth the soul that had been Mr Stevens resided in a small intelligent monkey who was loving life in the jungle. The monkey recalled nothing of his previous incarnation.

Humans came to the remote jungle and put monkey in a box. He was distressed at being away from the trees but eventually he had new home and was looked after and fed by people who he grew attached to. There were a lot of things monkey didn’t understand but he was happy if he saw the human who cared for him most.

Then one day he was put in different box with a window and was left alone for a long time. There was a terrible noise and monkey was very scared and the box shook horribly. When monkey dared open his eyes, he saw so many beautiful bright shiny stars.

After a while, the bright blue and white began to get closer and closer. Close to the ground, monkey remembered his soul's past and thought to himself, “Always a life of surprises.”

Posted 26th January 2022


The Final Performance

Rushton had been a jester in royal court for three kingly reigns. King Erda’s father had died suddenly and unexpectedly. At just twenty-five years of age, the crown was placed on his head. Like his predecessors he would reshuffle those in office and reselect those in the court. Johann feared his time was over. He also recognised that the role of jester had perhaps had its time.

This morning’s call to the King’s court was likely to be his test. Even if he was no longer required, he would enjoy accommodation and a pension from the royal estate. However, he feared loss of purpose, loss of an audience and loss of influence. He had been approached by a couple of the bishops, but he did not care for the ecclesiastical form of dress or their lack of joy.

Even if the King was keeping the position of jester, it was likely he would be retired regardless. When he was just a prince, Erda seemed to grow out of enjoying the jester more quickly than his siblings and cousins.

This seemed to be his final trip to the court as jester, so he dressed in his best outfit and selected his favourite prop and ensured he looked his best.

He entered the courtroom and waited the other courtiers. A short time later the new king joined them.

“Your majesty is looking wonderful today,” he said in character.

“Good day, Rushton. It is a fine day in our kingdom, is it not? Sunshine and a light breeze.”

“But I sense the winds of change sire,” he said out of character.

“Yes. You have served my father and his father providing years of valuable service to this court. This should be rewarded. We will find a cottage for you on one of the estates and a fine housekeeper.”

“Your majesty is most generous, and I hope he is to the next jester,” he said in character.

“Ah yes. Whilst your appointment was valid in its day, we are moving into a new age now.”

“The final performance has gone already?” he said out of character.

“Rushton, I will miss your antics and insights, but I will ensure you are invited to many a banquet and given a seat of honour.”

“I wonder who now whispers in his ear,” he said in character to the little jester head on the stick.

“Ah. The memories you trigger from my youth... My father always spoke well of you.”

“Your father was a great man sire,” he said out of character.

“I only wish he was here for my wedding. This will be announced publicly soon but I am engaged to Princess Anthea Scarlet of the land of Upper Tuck.“

The court applauded for several minutes. Rushton bit his lip and his jaw wobbled. He couldn’t utter the words that came to mind. Yet he had to same something in the next few seconds. Tears welled in his eye at the end of the office of jester. The whole culture ended, and leadership would now be informed by yes men. Every kingdom would become like this. The guild of jesters would be forgotten.

So many crazed leaders had been put back in place, with sharp words of jester humours. The wars it had prevented. The humility it brought to arrogant young men who would lose their kingdom and ruin their people if they had not the corrective voice of the fool. Kings lifted out of depression and ill health with a dose of humour, magic and juggling. Visiting dignitaries with red lines had been brought to the negotiating table with good spirits. Jesters would not go quietly into the night.

The anger welled in him in a moment. By jove, he would do his duty whilst he was still jester of this court, and this puffed-up youngster would get a strong dose all at once.

In character, he burst into a rhyme telling of the folly of having no jester and the folly of naïve advisers. He compared the king unfavourably to his ancestors. The entire court gasped in disbelief. The guards looked to the king for direction. He waved him back despite the furious look on his face. He speech was a masterpiece of improvisation and he made sure to have a couplet rhyming with the princess’s name and one with her land. It was full of his favourite jokes and some new ones. This speech would be remembered for generations.

The next day, the rhyme still made him chuckle when the shining guillotine blade descended towards his neck.

Posted 25th January 2022


An Odd Foundation

The wild camping trip was a typical choice for Ali, and I dutifully agreed to go along. His plan was to collect mushrooms and fungi from the area. Botany was his life’s passion. He was a keen walker and generally liked exploring. I preferred to stay put and while I can appreciate the beauty of a toadstool, I cannot stand eating mushrooms of any sort.

We had been together for a few months and were enjoying the summer. After this trip we would be doing some museum and garden visit which were much more ‘my thing’.

I packed my books and many home comforts into the van, taking up two-thirds of the space. Ali packed minimally but always seemed to have what he needed. The drive out was busy as were the main campsites. We hiked out to find a quiet spot.

“Ok, today I will go up to six miles then that’s me,” I said feeling the weight of my pack.

“That’ll work out. Thanks Lisa. For coming along, I mean. Many wouldn’t,” he said looking up from his map.

“That’s fine. I will enjoy this trip. Really.”

I tried to reassure him as I wanted him to enjoy it primarily and not be concerned about me. We were quite different in a lot of ways but so we soon learned to accommodate our differences. It just worked at present, and we were happy, though sometimes I did wonder if we had anything to build on long term. On the third day, Ali headed off for a medium hike and I settled down with tea and my latest volume.

To stretch my legs, I head round and short loop round our campsite. I headed up the hill, where there was a rough, dry path and I sped up the last steep stretch, keen to stop for a drink. My foot landed on a loose rock which dislodged with a dull thud.

I fell and rolled. Things collided with me as tumbled down. When I stopped moving, looked up dizzily and checked each limb was still attached. Something was hurting. My left ankle which I gently prodded.

“Ow. Ahh. Ahh. Ahh.”

I wanted to turn the air blue but even though there was no one around, my mother still wouldn’t approve so I tried to deep breath it away. It hurt bad and I had the urge to shake the pesky limb though I knew it would make things worse.

Standing up wasn’t going to be an option so I dragged myself back to the campsite. Thank goodness I had not got that far from the camp. The first aid box was a pain to dig out, but I bandage up the ankle the best I could then washed down some pills. They wouldn’t be strong enough, but they were all I had.

I sat for a while wondering if there was anything much else to do but wait for Ali to return. I found some shade near the tent and picked up my book. I focussed the best I could and read for a while until it wasn’t distracting me anymore.

My eyes fell upon the headphones, so I popped them on and played music loud until I fell into a light sleep. I stirred a lot, woke up hot for brief moments and woke up properly to find a lot less time had passed than I hoped. I sighed and reached for some more pills. I ate a little, but my appetite was poor.

I put on some music again. One of those popular classic’s compilations, I tried to focus on each note and visualise it, trying to keep my mind occupied. I wondered if I would think of this day every time I heard Fur Elise. I dozed a bit more, but the camping mat just felt lumpy.

Eventually, I opened my eyes at the sounds of footsteps.

“Ali? Ali. Over here. I’ve broken my ankle.”

He looked pale when he took in what had happened. We swithered over what to do. I was determined to leave and not wait for further help to be fetched. It was slow but we struggled back to the main campsite with a makeshift crutch and drove to the hospital.

Later, when I was back in the ward, Ali still had a guilt-ridden face.

“Sorry, sorry about this. I dragged you out there.”

“Hey, I wanted to come, and I just fell over. Could’ve happened at home and been a lot worse. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry Ali – I’m not dumping you over this!”

This made him smile. I persuaded him it was time for him to go home. We whispered our goodbyes so not to embarrass everyone on the ward.

As I settled down for the night, I had a new reassurance about our relationship. When I was alone and vulnerable out in the countryside, I realised I wasn’t just hoping any old help would arrive, though a helicopter would have been nice. I only wanted Ali to come get me.

I wouldn’t tell him this immediately of course, as to his ears it would just sound like I was just trying to make him feel better over the incident. No, it would be years down the line when we knew each other far more deeply. I would keep this foundation of ‘us’ secret. An odd foundation perhaps but it was enough for me.

Posted 24nd January 2022


Urchin

Opening a stall on the market had been a big step for me, even though it was only at weekends. My hobby of soap making had grown and, although I sold plenty online, I wanted a step towards my dream of a real shop. A bell that rang when a customer walked in, a till that chimed and an aroma that carried out onto the street.

The sign on my stall read “Anita’s Natural Soap” and around it I arrange rectangular woven baskets packed with bars wrapped in brown paper, tied with strings. I sat on a tall stool at the back, wrapped in a huge jacket and a knitted hat. Though indoors, the building is well ventilated. I usually have a book with me which I drop as soon as someone comes close.

Jim, who runs the market, insists we all have hand gel dispensers on our stalls. I regard this as a little unfair for the small stalls and rather absurd for a soap stall! However, there are no exceptions, so I comply though I often give the plastic bottle of alcohol goop, nasty looks when placed next my creations which took months of work.

Sales on the stall were fine, paid for my pitch and coffees. I met some lovely people who bought my soap, and I had some wonderful stall neighbours. To my left was handmade jewellery made by Maria, who ran the stall four days a week and to the right, Edith, an older lady who sold knitted goods of all kinds. Her needles constantly clicked away. Across the way, were the larger regular stalls selling everything you could imagine.

Like any retail, we had a share of thieves. Why they chose to pinch from a struggling tiny market stall rather than some millionaires chain, I don’t know. I guess some do it for the thrill, others out of desperation. I accepted it as part of market life, my day job in a back-office was so cut off that any human interaction was welcome.

Today a common question came up from a well-dressed customer. I say well-dressed, but I mean well-dressed in outdoor gear.

“Do you have anything that’s good for dry skin?”

“Of course, I do” and I went to give a short tour of the products emphasising the natural ingredients and the slow process of making soap. He chose three bars to try.

“I often dig you see. Very dusty. Dries out the hands.”

“Oh, you’re a gardener.”

“No, an archaeologist. Travel quite a bit. Staying here for a while at a dig site out of town. Norman settlement. Fascinating stuff.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone walked up to the edge of my stall. I continued to chat to my archaeologist and hand him his change. Suddenly something flew through the air and bounced of the new customer’s head. It was a ball of red wool, tightly bound.

“Put that back, you sneaky urchin!” yelled Edith.

I looked at the teenager with his right hand in his hoody. He was momentarily too surprised by the projectile to leg it. When he did move, he was surprised again and so was I. The archaeologist, in one swift move, grabbed his arm and twisted it round his back extracting a cry of pain from the youth.

I leapt to my feet.

“Please just let him go! He’s not worth the trouble.”

Jim had heard the commotion and had come over from the food van.

“You again. Out now.”

The soap bars were returned to my stall, and I watched as the ‘urchin’ marched out the main door. Maria came over to my side.

“Are you okay love? Poor kid. Wonder what circumstances led him down this road.”

“I’m fine. Thanks. Let’s just get back to it. Thanks everyone.”

Three years later, I had moved to a larger city and now had a small shop selling my wares. One afternoon, the bell rang and a little boy ran in round the shop, followed by a man.

“Daddy this one! This one for Mummy!”

“Let’s have a look.”

I watched them work they round the shop properly and I eventually recognised the man as the ‘urchin’ from the market. I decided not to let on, though I glanced at my CCTV system and ensured it was on. I thought it unlikely, but I paid a fair whack for that bunch of electronics and wanted something from it. I didn’t have Jim around anymore.

They came to the counter and urchin instantly recognised me. He looked panicked then relaxed.

“Hi, we’d like to pay for these.”

“Of course, let me help you with those.”

I was happy to see him actually and good to see he had some responsibilities now. He tapped his card and it beeped. The boy took the gift bag and headed out the shop holding his dad’s hand.

His dad stopped and turned around and looked at me.

“Lovely shop you have here. Little bit of security advice for you. You know, back in the day, I always avoided places with too many mirrors. Didn’t like to see myself.”

“Oh, thanks.”

The bell rang as they left. I looked round the shop walls, making a mental list of where mirrors of various shapes would go. They might help brighten up the place. I imagined running the idea by Edith and Maria and the different opinions they would give. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t but I would keep my ball of twine close to hand.

Posted 23nd January 2022


Understanding The Motive

The captain of the cruise ship sent for me as soon as the body was discovered. We were two days out, heading towards New York. He was keen for a swift and clear swift resolution. Crimes committed in international waters can be a legal mess. Not to mention being detrimental to the passenger numbers.

He knew my reputation as a detective. Indeed, he had quizzed me on my most famous cases the night before over dinner together with some other notable company.

I examined the cabin first. On the ground lay the body of Jeremy Dyer, face down and displaying the injury that likely caused his death. A blow to the head. Nearby was the probable discarded weapon, a fire extinguisher. The rest of the cabin was all in order.

“Was he travelling alone Captain?”

“I believe so. I spoke to him briefly not long after he boarded. Returning home to his wife in New York.”

I reached over and picked up a brown briefcase.

“I will take this and examine these papers. See to it this cabin is not disturbed. Also, I will need a list of everyone on board.”

“Of course, I will have it sent to the meeting room which will serve as your office.”

“Thank you. I would appreciate some refreshments too. I will not rest until we apprehend the killer.”

The papers were quite extensive. It covered the execution of the will of Dyer senior. I read each document with great interest.

The estate was large and there were many matters to be untangled. This had required his prolonged visit to London. As the eldest son, Jeremy had benefitted the most with the younger son receiving a small annual allowance.

There were also a few love letters from an Oxford address, exchanged largely during the period of Jeremy’s stay. Needless to say, they were not from Mrs Dyer, though the woman was married. I sat back thinking over the various motives and poured another coffee.

My thoughts were interrupted by the captain knocking and entering the room.

“Forgive me for disturbing you, I am being put under great pressure over the radio. They want this rapped up before we reach New York.”

“All in good time, a picture is clearly forming. If you would, I have come up with a shortlist of passports I would like to see.”

I handed over a list of a dozen names.

“I will fetch them at once.”

I spent the rest of the day interviewing seven names from list and reviewing all their papers. Soon I had all the details I needed. I asked the captain to bring everyone to ship’s bridge.

The passengers were brought in individually when the last was brought in, James Thomas, he exchanged a long and intense look with a woman across the room. Uniformed members of the crew stood at all the doorways.

“Thank you all for coming. I hope to neatly wrap up this affair and we can all, other than the killer, return to our busy lives.”

I had the rooms attention; the only sound was the rumble of the ship’s engines.

“So, who killed Jeremy Dyer so brutally last night? Thanks to a witness who heard the noise, I know the very hour and minute. Was it the husband of his English lover, Mrs Bambridge? Or the lover herself?”

The accused women’s jaw dropped, and her husband stared silently at him.

“Really, what evidence could you have for this? I thought you were a good detective.”

I ignored the challenge.

“Was it his younger brother, travelling with forged documents to escape large debts, seeking a bigger share of the family fortune?”

“How dare you!” Said a brown man in an ill-fitting suit.

I continued round the room.

“Was it the business partner, who believes he was wronged?”

“I did not kill that man!” He protested.

“No. No you did not! For you have an alibi which I have verified. As do both Mr and Mrs Bambridge. As does Mr Cummings. Leaving only Ernest Dyer the brother of the deceased. Mr Dyer, please show us the cuff of your jacket.”

“I don’t see how that’s - “

I cut him off. “Please.”

He raised his hand, and I pulled a button from my pocket.

“Oh look, you are missing a button. Just like this one found in your brother’s cabin with his blood on it. You are the murderer. The rage at being denied your fortune bubbled up until this violent act. Captain, restrain this man until we reach port.”

His anger filled his face.

“Preposterous lies! That button must have been planted. But I am saying nothing more until I deal with the real police.”

Later, the captain and I were enjoying a strong drink in his cabin to mark the closing of the case.

“How did you solve it?”

“I merely had to understand the motive. The other details worked themselves out.”

“The NYPD will be as happy with your work as I am! The case all wrapped up with motive and means all worked out. A list of witnesses too, pre-interviewed. A good conclusion.”

“Alas not a great conclusion for Mrs Evelyn Dyer, now a widow.”

The captain seemed to realise his callous phrasing.

“Of course, forgive my crassness. What now for you?

“I know it was unintentional, you are of good character captain. I will continue my trip to the great city of New York, enjoy some culture and meet with a dear lady friend. When you are well known, like me, it is wise to keep these things discreet. I have done so for over a year. I confess another secret to you; I may stay in the USA for good and marry her.”

“Enjoy your visit and I hope you do stay. You would make a fine addition to our country.”

In the weeks ahead, Dyer was put on trial for the murder of his brother and convicted despite his protests. I made plans to stay in the country for good.

One week, I had arranged with my companion to visit the theatre and I headed to collect the tickets in advance.

“Yes sir, how can I help you?” said the keen young lady in the ticket booth.

“Hello. I have a reserved set of tickets to collect please.”

“Right, I’ll just get the box down. It’s a lovely play we have on right now. One of the best we have done. Wonderful cast.”

“Splendid, I do enjoy a good performance. A companion wrote to me a few months ago, recommending I visit your theatre.”

“Now what name were those tickets reserved under?”

“It was under my companion’s name. Evelyn Dyer.”

Posted 22nd January 2022


A Will So Strong

For our mission, I wished the star ship had been call the E.R.S Beagle instead of the Asimov. The astrobiologists were never high on the pecking order until there were potential planets for new colonies. There was plenty of animal life out there, but no civilisations found yet.

Our job was to visit forty or so planets that the probes had charted and make an initial assessment of the indigenous life. We had some freedom to explore for research purposes too and the ship with equipment for almost every terrain.

The first world we came too was 80% water and the land was covered in fauna and small frog like amphibians. Large colourful fish filled the seas. We sent probes under water and found the beds crawling with lobster-like crustaceans some of which were metres long. The gravity was weak, and the atmosphere was rich in oxygen. It felt so good to be there we openly discussed cancelling the rest of the mission and studying this one. However, the captain dismissed this idea, and we continued our trip deeper into space.

A dozen worlds on, there was one that we risked a trip to the surface when we probably shouldn’t have. The animal life on this hot world was lizard like and sand covered many of the continents with small intense rainforests scattered around. The sky was full of pterodactyl-like creatures who ruled the world from the sky. Unsurprisingly, the ground dwellers tended to be a combination of speed demons or well armoured.

The planet we were currently in orbit round, was lush and Earth-like. I decided to take a flyer out solo and look around an island near to the continent we were focussed on. Near the centre of the island, I saw a pillar of smoke. I spun round for another look. There in the centre of a large clearing was a small wooden house with a thatched roof with a stone chimney stack.

I was so baffled, I circled it four or five times before deciding to land. Of course, I had to call in first. I just said I was setting down for a look around. The situation didn’t seem real enough to communicate to anyone yet. I climbed out the flyer and looked ahead at house about a hundred metres away through my scope.

A figure was moving towards me with a determined pace. I reached for my weapon instinctively, but I relaxed when I realised it was an old woman, in old fashioned clothes carrying a large brown bag. I moved towards her cautiously.

“Well, it’s about time you came to take me home.”

I was too stunned to reply and stopped. She didn’t slow down as she passed me.

“The silent type. You’re not one of the ugly ones. That’s fine. Let’s get going back to Earth.”

I turned and followed her back to the flyer. She was already climbing into one of the passenger seats and buckling herself in.

I finally thought of something to say.

“They asked me to check out the house when I came to get you. I won’t be long.”

“Fine. I’ve waited years for this ship. Bit smaller than the others.”

She pulled a knitting project out and began twisting the yarn round the needle.

I headed towards the house, looking around for a flock of sheep but I did not see any. The large wooden door was unlocked.

The main room compose of a kitchen area and a large fireplace. Two smaller rooms at the back contained a bed and a bath. I turned on a tap and the plumbing did seem to be working.

It could have belonged in another century other than a metallic silver cube that sat in one corner. A stack of blankets, lay on top. The screen glowed and indecipherable text scrolled past.

I had better call the ship.

“Captain, It’s Jones here. I’ve found a house on the surface. There’s a woman here. Thinks she is getting a ride back to Earth.”

I started taking pictures of the room. The radio crackled a few moments later.

“Jones, this story is a pile of -“

I interrupted.

“Check the cam on the flyer. I’ve sent pictures of the house too.”

“Look I – I – Oh…” He trailed off.

“We can’t leave her down here. I am coming back up. No arguments, sir.”

I returned to the flyer. My passenger was hunched over her knitting, her long grey hair blowing in the wind.

“That’s all good. We can leave now.” I said in as normal a tone as I could muster.

“I’ve kept the place well. Now, swiftly onwards, young man.”

I did the usual prefight checks and lifted off. I thought I would ask some simple questions.

“Can I ask, what kind of ship brought you here?”

“Oh. A silver one, I think. Big and circular. There were a few of us on there. The pilots were the short ones. Grey skin.”

“Is there anyone else down there now?”

“No. Not for twenty years or so. The ship with no people comes by and drops off anything I need.”

“How long have you been… away?”

I was trying to keep it casual. For some reason, I feared upsetting her.

“Oh, I was much younger. I need to get back to my life. I never wanted to be doing with space travel, rockets and odd creatures poking at me. We all belong home on Earth anyway. It is what the almighty intended.”

I thought it best to warn her of the nature of her reception.

“We’ll arrive on the main ship soon. You can meet the captain and talk about home. They might have a lot more questions for you. I hope that’s okay. What’s your name? I’m Henry.”

“You can call me Mrs Adams. I expect a comfortable cabin on the return journey. No sharing and three solid meals a day.”

“I think we can arrange that. It is a large vessel.”

“Now. Don’t interrupted, I am counting stitches.”

We remained silent until we landed back on the Asimov. We sent more probes down and retrieved the cube from the house. That had to back on as soon as possible, the navigation computer was already calculating the return route.

After a few hours of quarantine and medical checks. Mrs Adams was led through to finally meet the captain and the rest of the crew.

“Captain, I am not happy with the facilities and service here, but I am not prepared to wait for another vessel.”

“Mrs Adams, we are from Earth and are surveying planets. We did not bring you here, but we will help bring you home. We weren’t due back for months, but we are turning right around right now.”

On returning to Earth, we were able to take Mrs Adams home and she was able to meet some of her descendants. The cube will probably be researched for decades to come or until we meet the creators. Her health began to deteriorate, and I visited her regularly in the hospital.

“Henry, I wonder if this is really my world I came back to. So much has changed. I fear at the end that my soul is lost between the worlds and the right god won’t find my spirit.”

I thought for a moment for something to reassure her.

“Mrs Adams, I have travelled far in the stars. Seen many things and many amazing creatures. I don’t know about spirits and gods, but I know you won’t be forgotten by anyone you truly encountered. A will so strong that overcame so much to survive and make it home.“

This took some of the worry of her face.

“Still, to be sure, when I’m gone, scatter my ashes at my home and my other home.”

I personally made the arrangements and was all done exactly as she had asked.

Posted 21st January 2022


Inheritance

Like my grandparents, I have seen the gnomes ever since I can remember, and now at the age of eighty-four, I still see them in the garden. My dear late Hans could never see them, though he never doubted or made fun of me. He grew up in the country too and understood its ways. None of our five children could see them.

My aching old hands have had their day to make things that will last a lifetime. Instead, I put effort into connecting the next generation to the eternal. I fear leaving this world, the ways of the country and the gnomes being forgotten.

This century is new, and in the newspapers, there is talk of a great technological achievement and even talk of a great war. I doubt I will see much more of it. I only dream of being reunited with Hans and keeping the cottage in good order for Ella and her family to move in. Maybe I can encourage them to move in sooner.

The cottage, which belonged to my grandparents originally, had a large garden that bordered on to ancient woodland. This is where the gnomes came from, but they enjoyed coming into the garden for the unusual flowers and ornaments. I started leaving gifts for them too, which were almost always taken – usually small biscuits wrapped in square cloth and tied with string. They kept the garden healthy and in balance, plus I believe they brought me luck.

I would see them most often in the early morning or late evening, provided I was along. They were two foot high at most, wearing brown and woven robes. Ideal colours for hiding in the forest. They had perfect miniature boots that never left a footprint.

Often, they were in groups of twos and threes. They love wandering the garden and sniffing the flowers. I planted different flowers every year and made sure they were at the right height. It did make me giggle to seem them on their tiptoes trying to reach a stem to pull the flower closed.

One winter’s day, it was just me and Ella in the cottage. Ella had recently turned four and we had spent a while in the garden building snowmen and snow gnomes. I told all the grandchildren of my little visitors, and they loved the stories. I was seeing to the fire when Ella came running into the room.

“Oma! Oma! There is a gnome in the garden!” she whispered excitedly.

“Wonderful dear, please show me.”

We went to the back window and sure enough there was a lone gnome curiously examining the sculptures we had made in the snow. We watched him in silence for a long time before he wandered off back towards the woods.

I can’t tell you of the great joy I felt, knowing that she could see them. Knowing that the little people would still be remembered when I was gone was a great comfort. There are so few precious things as these ancient companions of the woods. It brought tears to my eyes, though I hid them not wanting to taint Ella’s first sighting. It was also my first sighting when I was not alone.

That night we ate our soup and bread, and I was asked many questions about the gnomes. It was well past Ella’s bedtime when I finished the final story. She accepted them as peaceful residents of the woods and there were no nightmares.

We checked the garden the next day but there were no footprints in the snow that had fallen from the day. We spent the morning making cakes for Christmas, singing the old songs and talking about the new year.

My eldest daughter arrived the next day with a basket of food.

“Mutter, it is good to see you. How has Ella been?” she said untying her headscarf.

“Hello. Ella is fine and has been good help to me. She likes it here. You and Kurt should move here in in the spring. All your brothers and sisters have moved far away.”

“Well, we could do with the space. We will talk about it,” she said looking around as if it was the first time she had been here.

“Excellent. I could do with more company.”

They stayed for most of the day, and we sewed and knitted. That evening was bright, and the moon was out. When the fire was dying down, I got up to go to bed but something made me wander over to the window.

The gnome had returned. I was sure it was the same one from the pattern of his hood. It took me a few minutes to realise what he was doing. He was building a snowman. A little smaller but he added stones and twigs for the details just like ours. In the end, he built five and when finished stepped back to admire his work before heading off into the darkness.

That was something I had never seen before. We had had plenty of winters, but never snowmen built by gnomish hands. I lay down, looking forward to telling the grandchildren who built the new sculptures.

I thought over my many sightings of the gnomes through my life. I had my stories to tell, I had a new story, and I now knew I had storyteller in family. I slept more peacefully that night than for many years. There were no nightmares.

Posted 20th January 2022


To Draw An Elephant

“Why do you want to go out at night? Don’t you artists love the daylight?”

The native leader of our after-hours safari quizzed me for some time before I convinced him. I had read that the Roman’s believed elephants worshipped the sun and stars, and I had become quite taken with the idea. I arranged a trip to see them, carefully specifying my request for an all-night viewing. When I arrived, I had to go over it all again.

“They get a bit defensive at night. We’ll have to keep our distance.”

I assured him that this would be fine, that I had a good set of binoculars and would be able to draw at night if there was a good moon or some starlight. Otherwise, I would just work at dusk and dawn.

The first evening, four of us climbed into the large Land Rover and headed deep into the reserve. Our leader sat up front with a shotgun whilst a more junior ranger drove. Next to me was May, a retired lady off exploring the world who was curious about my night-time plans and requested to come along.

The sky was wonderfully clear, and we found a good spot to observe the herd through to sunrise. It was the height of summer so the dark hours would be short. I had been preparing for this for months. I gave myself half-an-hour to settle down and enjoy them. We chatted with the rangers who told us some of the names of the prominent members of the herd.

Then I settled down to observe and draw and draw and draw. I just kept going. Towards sunrise, my hand was sore, and I was tired. We were out of coffee and our guides were growing restless, tidying up already for the drive back.

The warm sun rose, and I finished off a sketch. Thinking that was it, I put a few things away. My companions looked at me as if to say, “Is that it? Can we go now?”. Then I saw one of the herd move towards the rising sun and make a great cry greeting it. I grabbed a small piece of paper and sketched it out in a minute before the sun was too blinding.

“I think we can go get breakfast now,” I said, keenly aware I had been testing their patience. I tidied up everything but caught them all glancing at the last drawing, frowning and exchanging looks. It wasn’t my best work. I had been up all night. Ignoring their expressions, I carefully placed each pencil back in order, rolled up the case and tied it together. We drove back in silence, only broken by the rangers discussing the next days’ shifts. May drifted off to sleep.

I ate and then went to my room to sleep for a few hours. I spent the afternoon in town, purchasing fresh notebooks just in case. May declined to come along for another night on the reserve so just the three of us climbed into the Land Rover again.

“That was Sakura you saw this morning. The one that yelled at the sun”, said the senior ranger, “We called her that on account of her big eyes. You know, like a manga character, so we got the name from a graphic novel or something. The other names are either our kids football players or politicians.”

“You will have to introduce them all to me.”

“Of course, of course.”

I learnt them all by the time the stars and the full moon were out. Around 2am, we were disturbed by the sound of an engine.

“Lights out.”

I turned off the reading light clipped to my pad.

“Poachers?” I asked.

“Quite possibly. Or just people snooping around.”

I heard the gun’s safety unclick and the ranger crept out of the vehicle. The engine noise faded, and he returned.

He turned to his colleague, “Call it in, Samson.”

I turned on my light again and continued, ignoring the chatter over the radio.

The rest of the week, we missed just one night due to weather, but we completed the week. I had drawings put aside for the locals who had helped me. I found a small sketch that I could bare to part with and gave it to May.

“Oh, thank you dear. A nice souvenir of that long night.”

I think she meant it though probably regretted coming along. For the rest of my visit, I resumed the schedule of a normal tourist and worked my camera more than my pencils.

I had so many sketches of the herd from before the trip. I compared them to those drawn on location. They captured the great beasts so much better, that I felt my trip was justified though the eco-guilt of air travel still hung over me. I made plans to plant some trees.

Now I had plenty of time and no audience, I would draw again. I arranged my pencils and clipped a large sheet paper to a board. I would draw a Sakura this time and capture how strong, rare, intelligent and beautiful she was. I hoped the world would see my drawing and would see what I saw.

A few months later, I was hanging the drawing in a gallery for an exhibition and had a moment alone with it. I found myself talking out loud.

“Do you worship the sun and stars Sakura? Is that why you were given those big eyes? Or were they given to you by the heavens to watch out for us?”

Posted 19th January 2022


In The Same Boat

“Where was I? Oh, I was out in the garden. Just pottering around when the sky went bright. It was oddly beautiful.”

“I wish I had been outside. I was just staring at the classroom clock wishing the hands would move a bit faster.”

“I was inside too. Nose in a book. I thought it was thunder or something. I barely looked up!”

“I was right in the centre of the city. Selling newspapers. The war had been good for sales, so I had started early. I had just opened the kiosk.”

“Yes, I was working too. Driving the 06:30 train. It was on the outskirts of the city, and I saw the great flash.”

“I was in my church praying for peace. My prayer wasn’t answered that day. Still, God is sovereign.”

“I was in the nursery, picking clothes for the twins. The weather was meant to be great that day.”

A pause.

“Oh, is it my turn to talk? Sorry. Yes, I don’t remember it. Wild final night. Such a laugh. Barely got home before sunrise. Nearly slept in the park.”

“I was in the hospital. On a double shift. I was exhausted and my eyelids closed for a moment, but I still saw the bright light.”

“I was memorising lines for my play. Finally got a decent speaking part.”

The last of them spoke.

“I was counting my money. Spreadsheets of course. Consolidating funds and all that. I was so close to cashing out and actually starting to enjoy it.”

The waves of the Styx lapped against the shore, and they stood in silence. Each held a silver coin in their hand. The wooden boat approached with Charon at the helm, holding a megaphone.

“Apologies for the delay. We are experiencing much higher than normal passenger levels.”

Posted 18th January 2022


The Swamps of Lower Eastkeep

One day, I just felt the overwhelming need for a change and a simpler life. I closed my laptop and decided I was going to do it.

The notion to sell up and move back to my hometown came rather suddenly. My small engineering company had given me a steady income and I enjoyed the city. My retirement plans were still twenty years off. It was just me so was easy enough to move. I sold up, bought an old property not far from the edge of the town I grew up in and was settling into my new lifestyle.

Lower Eastkeep was small with under 10,000 residents. It was surrounded by farms, many created from drained swamps years ago.

It was good to be back as I had rarely visited. Every street brought back memories and waves of nostalgia. I was often in town to either work at the garage part-time or pick-up supplies at the hardware store for all my repairs.

“Carl, I got your paint and varnish. Still waiting on those darn hinges. Sorry,” apologised Zack, the store owner. He had run the store as long as I could remember.

“That’s okay. The porch can wait.” I said pulling some dollars out my shirt pocket.

“Why’d you buy a house so far out? Still very swampy out there.”

“Well, I like the peace and quiet after the city. Great for watch the stars too. You know there’s no gators around here.”

“Correct. No ‘gators spotted round here not even in my great grandfather’s time but keep an eye out for the lights, my friend. Look out for…. Hey Monica, how’s that kid of yours?”

His warning was interrupted by the bell on the door ringing and another local coming in. I picked up my goods and left them chatting, certain that Zack would fill me in on the local superstitions on the swamp on my next visit. There had always been talk of ‘haints’ and other stories to scare the kids at Halloween. Worst I’d seen was a grumpy frog. I drove the mile and a half home then spent the rest of the daylight hours working in the yard.

I was rounding up my scattered tools when I heard a slow whistle in the distance. Three long low notes repeated, I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. You get hunters out here, mainly young guys trying to catch invasive species of snakes. It was hard cash for a good cause. I was tempted myself. After looking around for any lights, I called it a night and went inside.

I was in town again for a half day in the garage. It was good to be working with my hands again patching up trucks and the odd tractor. I bumped into our local lawman near the general store.

“You settling in okay out there? Thought you might have tried to get something closer to your folks’ old home”, he enquired.

“Yeah, going fine. Lots of work to do. I was going to stay right in town but the place just kind of spoke to me, you know.”

“I’m sometimes out that way. Often just kids drinking and scaring themselves by walking near the swamp land. Pretend to see gators. I just ignore the crank calls and keep it real. That keeps me and Joe busy enough. You’re from round here I guess, you know the score.”

That night, I had hoped to set up my telescope, but the sky was too cloudy. I put on a record and read. Side one had finished but I kept reading, unwilling to move. Then I hear the whistling again. Repetitive. I got up and looked out a few windows. Nothing stirred. I relaxed and sat back down. Half an hour later, the gate started banging so I got up to fix it. It was on the long list of things to fix.

I took some cord to shut it securely. Too dark to sort properly. A sudden noise at the back of the property caused me to spin round. An indistinct figure moved out of sight.

“Hello? Who’s there?”

I crept down the side of the house. The back was quiet and empty other than the accumulated junk of the previous owner. I heard footsteps from beyond the fence. I ran over to the back gate and watch a figure disappear into the undergrowth. I would have left it at that, but I heard the whistling again. I opened the gate and wandered in the direction. My good sense said to go back for a flashlight. My even better sense said just go back inside but there was an odd compulsion to follow this intruder.

I hadn’t explored the land behind the house very much. I kept going in a straight line, occasionally looking back to the house for reference. The pools were getting bigger and the dry solid spots of land smaller. I’d go a little further and give up. The trees were getting thicker too. I stopped. It was quiet, other than the frogs and the odd buzzing insect. I looked over my shoulder to check the house but to my alarm I couldn’t see it. I ran back in a panic, heart racing. I still couldn’t see it. How could that be? I’d had come no distance since my last check. I had only walked a few minutes.

To my left I heard a watery slurping sound, I turned slowly to my left, heart beating loudly. Across the pool from me was a pale naked figure of a woman drinking from the swamp water. Her long unkempt hair dangled into the mud.

“Hey don’t!” I said as I took a step forward splashing into the pool.

She looked up at me with a crazed grin on her thin face. I heard felt move under the still water. I took a step back and glanced down. When I looked up again the woman was running off in the darkness. I looked around and grabbed a branch to pull myself up the slippery slope when something rose-up from the water. It twisted round and grabbed hold of my left in a painful grip.

I cried out and looked down expecting to see a snake but saw a grey tentacle. Across the water, something was moving towards me beneath the surface. I desperately gripped the branch pulling as hard as I could. I look around for a branch or a rock or anything I could use. There was nothing. I cried out as the pain in my leg increased.

Loud footsteps were coming towards me. I heard raised voices. A loud metallic click from the behind the tree. The lawman stepped out holding a shotgun and put two shots into the water. There was a terrible cry, and the tentacle shook me. He quickly reloaded, took a step closer and blasted a single shot near my leg. The grip relaxed and I gasped in relief. The deputy appeared and pulled me out of the water.

“What the heck are you doing out here unarmed, six miles from your house?” he asked.

I was gasping for air and my stomach churned from nerves. I couldn’t have walked that far. I couldn’t have seen those things. I could not understand any of this. I couldn’t speak.

“As I told you, I just ignore the crank calls about gators. These waters hold many things though. I thought being from round here you would be savvier. They must have thought you were new and unprotected. Don’t worry. We’ll get you home and keep an eye on you tonight.”

We walked out the swamp to the road. They took turns to support me as my leg could take little weight. Back home I dried off, had a stiff drink and, amazingly, was able to sleep for a few hours. The next morning, we sat down for coffee.

“Will they… it… come back?” I asked in something approaching my normal voice.

“You’ll be fine in the daytime and fine if you stay in the house. Don’t let them lead you away from the property. Get yourself a gun as soon as you can though.” answered the sheriff.

“How I’d end up so deep into the swamp?”

“They just have to tempt you in a little and you start to fall under their spell.”

“What are those… things?”

The sheriff took a big drink of coffee and put his mug on the table.

“They are the ‘things’ of the swamp. Old. Very old. Always been here. If you haven’t seen them, you’d wouldn’t believe they exist. I don’t understand much about them, but I’ll protect this town from them.”

“When the last sheriff told me about them, I laughed in his face. Thought the crazy old man had finally lost it. Then I saw a creature in the water, I was terrified and fired every shot I had. I stopped it though. Who can you tell such crazy things to? You just have to get on with it and pray you are delivered from the evil.”

When I felt more like normal, I did buy that gun and kept it in working order, locked in a cabinet near the backdoor. I fixed up the gates and built a higher stronger fence. After a month or so, the night in the swamp seemed a distant memory and I was back enjoying my new life. I never did hear the whistling again but finally understood why there had never been any gators within many miles of Lower Eastkeep.

Posted 17th January 2022


The Crows vs Pink Floyd

Dear Roland,

Thank you for letter which is very much appreciated. The other prisoners were jealous of the thick handwritten envelope that were handed to me. Letter writing is becoming a lost art and you might be adding to its revival. I have a good few years ahead of me in here so I would appreciate your continued correspondence very much!

I’ve settled into a routine here. I’ll admit the first few nights were difficult, but it is better now. The facility is just two years old and, apart from ongoing remedial work, is, according to the more experienced residents of the penal system, a comfortable place. I started on a job in the kitchen, which is fairly normal, and I’d be happy staying there. Gives you a good sense of purpose.

I try and focus on the positives. For instance, I have a decent view from my cell. A cluster of trees outside the perimeter wall which is often used by birds. Every morning there’s a crow who has a favourite branch. About an hour after sunrise, it gets a bit vocal. For four or five minutes it tells the world what’s on in its mind. I will have to name that little guy.

I hope things are working out for you. Sorry I am not around to help like I used to. It was unfortunate I got dragged into that scheme and eventually ended up here. I was just going with the flow of my crowd. Still, can’t live regretting forever. The only thing that really bothers me is how little it would have taken for me to step back from it all. I wonder why that didn’t happen. Facing the music now. My ‘victim’ being the government/establishment buys me a little respect in here, but I am no revolutionary!

Sorry I meant that last bit to be about you and I ended up writing about myself again! Please do just write regularly with any small news. Even the tiniest trivial story, when transported through these thick walls is amplified to matter of great intrigue! Are you keeping up with the garden? What are you planting this year?

I’ll leave it there. Do take care of yourself,

Uncle K.

 

Dear Uncle,

Sorry for the slow reply. I must check the rules to see if I can send you some stationary. That standard issue paper is terribly thin and unappealing. Jack has been asking where you are, he doesn’t quite understand being so young. He suggested the name Arthur for your crow – not sure where he go that one from.

I am planting more of less the same this year, rotating the crops as you suggested. I will keep it in good order until you are able to attend to it again.

That’s all I can think of right now. It’s been a long day. I’ll keep this short, so it makes the next post. Let me know if there is anything you need. Stay strong.

R.T.

 

Dear Roland,

Thanks for the letter. Please tell Jack that I have named the crow as suggested and I greet him by name each day now.

I’ve decided that I will have a self-imposed rule just to talk about life on the inside for one paragraph a letter. I just want to keep this part of my life in proportion. I shall waffle on about music and politics like I used to instead.

We have tech gadgets here too. Maybe about ten years behind what you use but we have them. They all have a curious look – they are transparent so they can’t be used to conceal anything and a bit flimsy. Also, everything is very headphone focussed. The built-in speakers are incredibly tinny and turning them up to eleven wouldn’t deafen a miniature mouse. All that said, music and the radio are very appreciated in here. If I look to the positives, we are all freed from the bane of modern life, the mobile phone!

Please find enclosed a write-up of the first three Pink Floyd albums. I have copied it out by hand for all my correspondents. I bet your aunt Philippa won’t read it but I did it anyway!

Regards,

Uncle K.

 

Dear Uncle,

Thanks for replying so swiftly. I wish I could do so as promptly. Jack is at his mum’s this weekend, so I have no excuses. I have just been working in the garden, you will glad to know. Everyone is fine and so is your house. Work is okay.

Jack has been helping too. Messing about a lot but helping too. When we were working, we took your tape player out with us, and I found the Floyd albums you had written about.

I hope we did not disturb the neighbours too much. We cranked up the volume while we worked.. Definitely up to eleven because you can’t do that right now. It scared the birds out the tree! There might have been a crow amongst them. Jack says you should train Arthur to pick of the guards’ keys so you can escape. (I better check what TV he is watching).

Please find enclosed a photo of us and a progress photo on the garden. I’ll put in a drawing from Jack too.

I was good being out there in the sun and mud, thinking about what you said about the songs. It was almost like having you back for the afternoon. Not sure how to finish this one. Please keep writing to us both and know we are thinking of you. I hope Jack and I remain as one your positives.

Take care,

R.T.

Posted 16th January 2022


The Qualified Candidate

“So, why do think you are qualified to work with the mammoths?”

No matter how many times I said it, I enjoyed throwing out that question at the interviews. It broke the ice for most candidates and got right to the point. We had all sorts apply, our facility was world famous and the cute baby mammoths had been on every news outlet in the world. The influx of interest and investment had allowed for a big recruitment drive.

I pitied the department who filtered the applicants before I saw them. They cleared out the no-hopers, crazies and industrial spies. Our DNA technology was valuable. Very valuable. All references and previous places of employment were checked before any in person interview. I was always confident anyone who sat opposite me was probably a good bet.

The third candidate of the day Ella nodded when I asked that question and took a sip of water. She was older than many candidates, maybe fifty and I couldn’t quite place her accent. She had a pale appearance and long red hair. She wore a smart but unusual outfit and carried herself in a confident manner.

“Dr Mortimer, I am your ideal candidate because I have worked mammoths before.”

That was a new one. I racked my brains thinking which of our competitors had managed to bring the mammoth back before us. The research had been going on round the world for years and many mammoths had been dug out of the ice. But why would they have kept it quiet? I decided to play it cool.

“How did you find it?” I simply asked.

“Oh, they are very social animals of course. I always pressured my bosses for more space and larger groups. They can form close bonds with people too. The rescue cases were always my favourite. Exhausting for months but returning them to the wild was so rewarding.”

Oh no, I thought, one of the nutcases had gotten through. I may as well get the full fanciful story. This could be fun to share at the canteen later at least.

“You returned mammoths to the wild? Where?”

“Oh yes dozens. The places now called Russia and America were common sites. Of course, they are gone now.”

She reached for her pocket and pulled out a phone. Without asking she started to show me a video. It was her in some odd-looking winter clothes watching a nearby mammoths walking out on a plain. I then cut to a close-up of her petting a baby mammoth in a lab.

“Oh, that one was called Masto, she was very friendly. Great personality. Shame about the big freeze that got them.”

She spoke like it was a pet dog and the Ice age was last week. The footage was very convincing. Was she really trying to convince me it was recorded before they went extinct? This had to be wind up, so I thought I would dive into all twenty-five technical questions. Normally, I would just ask seven or eight but I asked them all and she absolutely aced it. Maybe I was just dealing with an eccentric genius.

“Sorry to bring this up Ella, but I am having a hard time having previous experience with mammoths. Sure you know this.”

“Yes, I brought this journal detailing my work as evidence.” She pulled a large book out of the bag and placed in on my desk.

It was written in a variety of languages but there were maps, drawings and photographs. Hundreds of pages. This was a ridiculous amount of effort to go for a joke.

“When did you do all this work?”

“Oooph. That must have been thousands of years ago, of course I was much younger then” she said.

I paused for a moment.

“Yeah, that doesn’t tie up with the 1968 date of birth I have here, you see.”

I was growing a little tired of this. Hopefully the thinning patience was showing on my face.

“Oh I was wondering if you would spot that. Yes. I miss off the BC bit now. It just avoids those discussion about BC and BCE. That can get awkward. There’s a lot of prejudice about older people. I hope this company does not discriminate.”

She was really committed to this story.

“No, no of course not. Equal opportunities. But no one is that old. No one has worked with mammoths apart from the two we have here.”

“I am one the old people. There are many of us all round the world. I don’t like to hide it. I like to be open and I want to help your efforts. I saw the mammoths vanish. I would like to bring them back. No one else has the experience I do.”

The passion in her voice sounded genuine. But this couldn’t be true could it? Maybe there was a great candidate behind this comedy act.

“Could I keep this book a while?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Thanks for coming in today. You did very well on the questions. I admire your passion and commitment.”

“I was quite nervous, but you were very kind. Thank you.”

“Let me, walk you out.”

We headed out the office block towards reception, I gave my usual tour speech pointing out the labs and the habitats we were developing.

“What are those buildings over there?”

“Oh, those are very early research into lizards, we have some crocodiles in there. Maybe one day we can do for the dinosaurs what we have done for the mammoths. Any experience with dinosaurs?”

She gave a relaxed laugh.

“Oh goodness Dr Mortimer… I am not that old!”

Posted 15th January 2022


Something Nebulous Clicks

A Tuesday folk session on a wintry February evening was never going to pack out the club but I gave it my all anyway. I settled on just the acoustic guitar tonight, swapping out some of my own songs for standards.

I was winding up the first half of my set with a mid-tempo number. It had a long instrumental stretch which was a natural wind down to a break. Three regulars sat by the bar. They were there every night regardless of the entertainment. A couple sat over on the left, more interest in each other than me. Lone drinkers sat at three other tables. At least two were listening, whilst the third scrolled on their phone. Of course, no one sat at the front.

I was enjoying myself. Whilst not the best turnout, it was better than rehearsing in my empty and cold flat.

I finished and after no applause, I announced I was taking a break and walked off stage. At the bar, I ordered a whisky and a large glass of ice water.

“There ya go Billy, enjoying the traditional ones tonight!” said Sean, who owned the club. He was generous with the drinks for performers.

I took my drinks and headed back to the stage. I’d check the tuning and sound before the second half. Passing the table in the middle, I heard some praise from a tired voice.

“Hey, thanks. Enjoying the music.”

She was one of the ones who had been listening tonight. Probably around thirty, long dark hair and a tall glass of something colourful.

“Thank you. Can I sit down for a minute?”

“Sure.”

I took a seat, and she brushed her hair back from her troubled face. Obviously out to forget something or distract herself.

“Any requests for when I get going again?” I asked.

“I don’t really know your music. Folk I mean. Just something… uplifting.”

She took a drink.

“So you want uplifted. Do you want to talk about it?”

I knew this risked depleting my small audience, but I wanted to help.

“No. No I don’t. Just here to relax.”

“Fair. Fair.” I said in retreat.

We sat in silence a moment. To my surprise, she spoke first.

“What would it help anyway? I know the situation inside and out. It would just give you something to feel bad about. You don’t know me. You can’t help.”

It was borderline aggressive.

“Sometimes it’s good to put things into words. The songs have helped me. Even the ones scribbled on scraps of paper than never make it out of my jacket pocket. I’m a listener, for the next ten minutes at least. No judgement.”

She looked at me more intensely and leant forward.

“Is that all you have to offer? Maybe I need a shock to bring me to my senses. Maybe the reality of the consequences and risks need hammered into me. Maybe I need to hear what I am doing is flat out wrong. Maybe I need to hear that more. Maybe the memory of those voices, those words, will help me resist and hold back next time,” she said in a monotone.

I was regretting my offer already. I was unsure of what to say next but was keen to lead the conversation again and not get stuck into defence again.

“A stranger’s perspective can be enlightening. I’ve been in some corners myself with money and people. Your choice but try me. I’m here.”

“I’ve had the tea and sympathy treatment. Time and time again. People are generous. No progress.”

She sounded more positive than any point in the conversation so far. I hoped to build on it.

“Sometimes it just takes the right circumstances of place, people time. Words are said. Something nebulous clicks and it all works out. I don’t have all the answers. I just know I’ve helped some people by talking sometimes or playing music. Just sharing the best I got.”

“Thank you,” she said making eye contact. She sounded genuine.

“But I’ll keep my problems to myself. In the end, it is just me. The moment-by-moment decisions in my hands. Just me alone to handle it because I will always have to handle it.”

I made the assessment I had got as far as I could. Maybe I would catch her at the end of the second set. Get her talking after a few more drinks.

“Well, you’ll know where I’ll be. I better get going. Hope you enjoy the rest of the music.”

“Night” she said quietly.

I put the conversation out of my mind and got back up on stage. I stuck to my set list and played on. A few more people came into the bar. I still had a good view of her. She sat and slowly tore the beer mats up. I was into the fourth song, and she abruptly got up and headed to the exit, pulling on her long black jacket as she left.

After I was finished, I packed up and decided to leave straight away. I scanned the crowds of people on the street, hoping to maybe see her.

Back home, I put on record, sat at my desk and pulled out my notebook. I recalled the conversation in my break and began writing. The words just flowed and flowed. After an hour, there were lyrics for plenty of songs scribbled over the pages. I hoped she’d be in the audience again one night to hear the words, see her troubles in them and know someone listened remembered. I’d work on the songs for a few days and share the best I got.

Posted 14th January 2022


Down To Earth

I am going to land in the water. I stare down at my booted feet as I hurtled towards the waves. On the plus side, the plane went down over the archipelago, and I had an island in each direction to swim to. I had been heading to the main island with supplies for the volcano disaster efforts when the engine failed. Luckily, I had enough time to throw supply pods out followed by myself.

I hit the water and got clear of the chute. I located my supplies and swam over to the bobbing box before swimming towards my chosen island. The small beach looked idyllic and sloped gently upwards into a thick jungle of trees and leafy undergrowth. The shore ran for some distance, so I guessed this place was a few square miles at least.

I collapsed on the beach, lying on my back, and feeling totally drained. My flight plan was lodged, and I would be missed so help would get to me. The problem was it could be a while. With the ongoing eruption, I would have to wait my turn. Time to put all that training into practice, I suppose.

I lay there for a while and a hundred things to do bounced around my head. I settled on finding a place for a camp first. I dragged the bright orange supply pod up the beach and left it in a visible spot. Then I picked a direction. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a machete so the going was tough, but I persisted, convinced I could hear running water close by. Sure, enough there was a stream and a rocky outcrop that gave some shelter from the sun. I snapped more branches on my way back, marking my path inland.

I sat on the pod and watched the waves for a while. I was in a slight disbelief at my predicament. After tying a spare strap to a tree, I dragged the pod to my camp. I opened it and pulled out a biscuit packet. I munched on a few then filled up the water filter. Feeling suddenly very heavy, I sat in the shade. When I awoke, it was dark. I watched the stars for a while before drifting back to sleep.

The next day, I build a bigger marker on the beach and left a message scratched on a branch. I walked the immediate shoreline and kept and eye out. The next thirteen days were the same. It was getting a bit monotonous.

When I got back, I’d make sure the supply pods had a book or two in there to help keep survivors sane.

At last, I saw a boat on the horizon, and it came towards my island. I saw the flag of the aid agency I worked for. They launched a skiff to come get me.

“Hello Jon. We’ve been looking for you for days! I’m Martin.”

“I am so glad to see you.”

Once on the beach, he scanned the shoreline and gave it an approving nod.

“Nice place you got here.”

“By day four you get bored of it. Give me an overcrowded camp anytime. Looking forward to civilisation.”

“Not sure you’ll want to. Might want to hide out here longer.”

“What? Why?”

“No longer after you crashed, a pandemic broke out. Affecting everywhere now. Countries locking down and closing borders. Might be quite an adventure getting home”

“I was just gone a little while… how’s the relief effort?”

“Fine. Eruptions settle down. Small scale evacuations. You’ll be recovering for a couple of weeks though.”

We headed to my camp to fetch my remaining supplies. Martin insisted on dragging the pod back with us.

“How were the locals?”

“Didn’t see much wildlife. No snakes around. But I didn’t go far.

We returned to the main boat, I met the rest of the small crew and was shown to a cabin. I was exhausted and there would be a lot of meeting and questions over the next few days. We were going to scan the coastline for any debris from the crash.

After an hour, I headed up to see the captain.

“So where have I been on this little detour?”

“Here’s the map. We’d covered the smaller islands to the south and we’re making our way across here.” He traced out the route on the screen.

“Didn’t have a radio to make it easy for you guys. You been following this pandemic thing then?”

“Yeah. The news covers little else. Working outdoors, we’ll be fine.”

“Well, if not, make sure you remember where this island is.” I semi-seriously jested.

“Already printed off a hard copy. Just in case. You picked the best one around.”

I sat down for lunch with the crew. They asked a lot of questions, but I had few stories other than the jump from the plane and the swim. They speculated who would play me in movie when the cinemas reopened.

“I don’t know who they’ll pick to play me, but they’ll change the story for the film of course. Make my island stay longer. Add in radioactive spiders, undead pirates, or some other nonsense. The main part of the whole experience, all those uncertain hours sitting alone and straining keeping my thoughts calm. All that will just be a ninety second montage with some sweeping strings.”

Posted 13th January 2022


Outside

I am one of the most privileged people in the world. I get to go outside. It’s required that I must wear the full hazmat suit, get thoroughly showered down afterwards and work hard when I am out there but I get to go outside.

Moving in the suit is awkward and slow. We have several suits, but they are decades old now and all are full of repairs which make mobility worse. Every day, I head out to collect samples of rainwater, soil or, rarely, any shoots that come up. It was repetitive and depressing. At least the rest of the population in the shelter could soften the image of the ruined surface of the earth.

After a bland breakfast, I headed into the lab as usual. Dr Ethan sat scribbling on some papers. He was supposed to monitor the readings, but they never changed so he did his own thing during office hours.

“What’s the weather today doc?” I asked.

“Oh, a few degrees warmer.”

“What suit is it today?”

“Use suit seven. I got the radio working on it again.”

“Great. Hope you are up for a chat.”

I suited up and went through the usual checks. The machine scanned it and reported all my equipment as in working order. We’d been underground for so many years that we had learnt to keep things going.

After the usual elevator ride of a 6.56 minutes, I was on the surface. The doors made their familiar whirrs and clicks, and I adjusted the panel on my wrist. I made my first few steps. It was then I noticed that under my boot was lush green grass. Not very long but it was there. I didn’t know what to think.

Slowly I raised my head, afraid of what I might see. The whole valley was transformed. Lush and green. Shrubs flourished. Flowers of so many colours as far as I could see. I grabbed my portable screen and check the readings. They were all where I never seen them before. Everything was good. Everything was exceptionally good.

I clicked on the radio.

“Doc, did you check the readings today?”

“No. You know I don’t. Busy here, Elizabeth. Anything wrong?”

“Err. No.”

I clicked off the radio.

That was no lie. Nothing was wrong. It was a beautiful summers day and fluffy clouds filled clear the sky. I started to move my hand upwards. I had the impulsive urge to unlatch my helmet, to breath the clean air, to feel the real sun on my face for the first time in my life. I hesitated only with the fear that they may not let me return inside the shelter if I did. I crouched down and ran my glove finger along a leaf.

I started to walk slowly along my planned route. The samples would make for an interesting analysis today. Then I stopped, as something blurred in front of me and landed on a flower. I recognised it from books. It was a butterfly. I had to tell someone.

“Doc. Doc!”

“What? Busy here.”

“I just saw a butterfly. It was beautiful. The colours! That’s not all, get to your screen. I’ll turn on the camera.”

“If this is some sort of joke…”

“Just freakin’ do it Doc. No jokes. This is important.”

“Alright already. Hey, it’s too bright. That’s better… What the… Is this a photo so something?”

“No! No!” I spun around showing off the transformed landscape.

“This is impossible… how?... just… how?”

“I don’t know but is real and here!” I said tears rolling down my face, “Get up here. Never mind the rules. Why else have we been doing this? Get up here.”

The Doc appeared from the airlock to see me, helmet removed, sniffing a flower.

“Elizabeth don’t!”

“Doc, it’s fine. All these readings we’ve been collecting for years, say it safe today.”

“How, though how? Is it just here or the whole world? Overnight. Literally overnight. Gaia has fixed herself.”

“That’s one theory” I said.

“I didn’t mean… I’m not a… maybe some sort of terraforming technology by aliens… no… maybe we made it…”

“There’s not enough of us left. Our shelter could be all that’s left. How’d they create something so extensive? Something that worked so fast. I think… I think God did this, Doc.”

I offered a silent prayer of thanks with my already raised hands.

“Poseidon jump out the poisoned sea and heal the land, did he? I’ll stick with something more rational. Another civilisation… Some sort of backup device formed by AI’s on the remaining space station… I … I … beautiful isn’t it. Liz… Liz… We’re not going to die underground. We need to tell command.”

“Yes. Not yet. Let’s go for a walk. Get the samples as usual.” I suggested.

“Sure. Then tell them. This is momentous.”

“Alright. Can we wait a day? Just in case it is gone tomorrow?” I asked.

“We can’t sit on this, sorry. Besides, could you blurt this out to your family?”

The Doc unclipped his helmet and took a deep breath.

“They might banish us for this!” he said throwing his helmet onto the ground next to mine. He was giddy with excitement and happier than I had ever seen him.

“You know Doc, I would be okay with that. I would be fine.”

Posted 12th January 2022


The Tale of the Beetle and the Troll

“One gold coin to cross my bridge,” said Toby the troll, with the most important face that he could manage. “We’re raising money for the local animal hospital.”

“Oh dear,” said the giant blue beetle, “I don’t have any gold, sir. I can draw though.”

“That’s no good to me. One gold coin or be on your way.”

The beetle lay down, to take the weight of his weary six legs. He saw a traveller wearing colourful clothes approach the bridge. Various musical instruments were attached to bag.

“Good day Mr Beetle and Mr Troll, may I pay to cross the bridge?”

“You need one gold coin, and I don’t have any!” said the beetle.

“That’s sad. I could pay for us both if you could help me out. What can you do?”

“I can draw.”

“That’s a great skill for a giant beetle. We could make it part of my act. Come with me to the big city my new shiny friend!”

“Oh yes, thank you sir. My name is Carto, “ said the beetle.

“And I am Cuthbert.” Said his new friend.

They left the troll happily counting the two shiny gold coins in his large green hands. The walked to the city and Cuthbert told Carto of the songs he like to play for the crowds.

In the city square, the people gathered as the music played. Carto drew pictures from the songs of dragons and faraway places. The people were keen to buy art drawn by a beetle and Carto was soon the talk of the town.

The news reached the royal court and soon Cuthbert and Carto were invited to perform for the King.

“Cuthbert, I am nervous and scared” whispered Carto as they walked into the big grey castle.

“Oh, it is just a few songs like we always do, little friend” Cuthbert said kindly.

The king sat next to the queen in golden thrones. Carto was nervous waiting but when the music played, he drew like he always did. He presented a drawing of a dragon to the king.

“How wonderful!” said the Queen.

“We will hang this in the great hall. Where did you learn to draw?” asked the King.

“Oh. I began copying some drawings I found on s scroll, then started to draw my own things. The drawings I found were a bit funny.”

“Why were they funny?” asked the queen.

“They’d have trees, rivers and mountains but also a long line of dashes with a big X at the end. I mean, what is that supposed to be?”

Everyone in the room was now looking at Carto.

The king asked, “Do you still have this scroll?”

“Why yes! They are in my big collections of scrolls,” answered Carto, reaching into his bag.

Cuthbert decided to enlighten his friend.

“This is a treasure map, Carto. A pirate treasure map!”

The king stood up and raised his voice.

“Send for my greatest knight, Maria! There is a quest to complete. Carto, return with this treasure and you will be the guest of the castle as long as you wish.”

Carto, Cuthbert and Maria the Knight were marching on the road the very next day. They soon went over the bridge. Suddenly, Carto ran back, spoke to the troll and they both caught up.

“I hope you don’t mind. I thought Toby would like a change from his bridge!”

“The more the merrier!” said Maria, who was excited about going on a proper quest.

They marched, camped, hunted, sang and covered many miles. Finally, they were getting closer to the buried treasure.

The map showed the X near a big rock. The team started to dig down and down until they found a trapdoor buried in the sand. Then they heard an angry voice from.

“Get back from my treasure!”

Out of the trees came big bad Captain Stinkteeth, the meanest and toughest pirate of the day. He was taller than a troll, stronger than an ox and fiercer than a tiger. He swung a great sword in the air.

“Keep back everyone!” said Maria, as she leapt out of the pit.

Clang! Clang! Clang! A mighty swordfight took place. Maria swung and dodged as the great sword swung down on her again and again. The pirate grunted and said bad words as he missed again and again. Suddenly, Maria slipped on seaweed and fell. The pirate moved in.

Then Carto did something he hardly every did. He flew. He flew up into the air. Turning his shiny shell towards the setting sun and blinding the pirate long enough for Maria to get back on her feet. With one mighty fighty blow, she knocked him down and the sword out of his hand.

“Bah! You’ll never get the treasure anyway and he ran off into the trees.”

Carto landed down next to Maria.

“Thanks friend – I needed you there!”

“No problem. What did you think he meant about us not getting the treasure?”

Cuthbert’s voice came up from below.

“Oh, I know. Come down here quickly!”

Underneath the trapdoor was a large treasure room, there were a hundred chests full of gold coins. There was also a big sign which read “All but one of these is real, the rest is Fool’s Gold! It will spoil in ten days.”

Carto sighed.

“We can only carry one back. All the pirates will have hidden the treasure again if we have to come back!”

Cuthbert asked, “How can we know which is the real treasure?”

“It smells,” said Toby.

“What!” exclaimed Maria.

“Trolls can smell gold. I know real gold. Many have tried to trick me to get over my bridge.”

Toby began walking around the room, snorting in the air. He was almost at the back of the room when he shouted, “This one! This one!”

Our heroes returned to the castle, even Toby the troll. They placed the chest before the king. Carto decided to open the chest himself.

“If we chose the right chest, the treasure will shine! If we chose the wrong one, it will turn into rotten cabbage.”

The king and queen pulled faces thinking of the nasty smell in their lovely clean castle.

Carto opened the chest and was very happy to see glistening real gold coins! The quest had been a success. Everyone in the castle cheered and a great feast was prepared.

Cuthbert and Carto moved into the castle. Toby was invited but decided to return to live under his bridge. Maria was given a new sharper sword and many songs were written about her bravery. The king and queen gave then all a share of the treasure.

Cuthbert asked Carto what he would spend his gold on.

“I think I would like some more coloured pencils!”

Carto drew pictures every single day and no one ever heard from Captain Stinkteeth ever again.

Posted 11th January 2022


A Rising Tide

“You’d think they’d be a zillion helicopters out here plucking folk off rooftops!” said Pete. Pete was a car mechanic. I was dropping a car at his garage when the situation became more drastic. We found this apartment block entrance open, and we headed inside. We were soon joined by a mailman, also seeking shelter.

“That’s it I’m done,” Clarke said throwing his bag on the ground. The noise attracted Mrs Brent to her door, a retired schoolteacher who took us in and poured some coffee. The neighbourly type.

The rain had stopped so we headed to the rooftop to see how bad things were. The past week of rain and a storm coming in off the ocean had flooded the city. The four of us circled the roof top watching cars and debris float by. The nearby buildings were quiet. Power had inevitably dropped out.

“No surprises, I think we are stuck here for the time being.” I concluded as we regathered near the stairwell back down.

“Well, you are all welcome to stay at mine until… until things dry off,” said Mrs Brent.

Clarke stroked his chin.

“That’s fine and all but I am wondering if we should move a floor up. Just in case.”

Pete stuck his hands in the pocket. “Wouldn’t hurt to have a plan B.”

Mrs Brent explained there were several empty apartments right now and the complex was virtually empty by mid-morning. We knocked on all the doors, but no one answered.

Back downstairs, Pete scanned the radio, and we all confirmed the phone networks were still down.

“So, Tom, what do you do?” asked Pete.

“Personal trainer,” I said, “Though I wish I was a stronger swimmer, looking at way things are.”

“FEMA will come. Won’t take long.” said Clarke in a confident tone.

After a short morality discussion, we forced our way into a neighbour’s place who was known to have an interest in the outdoors. We found a gas camping stove, dry clothes and prepared a warm meal. We made a list of everything we took. We all stayed in Mrs Brents and tried to get some sleep.

I arose the next morning and went straight to the window. The water had risen several feet. The morning radio repeat a message to the effect of ‘Shelter in Place’. We heard outboard motors zoom about in the distance.

“Kicking myself for not leaving earlier. Plenty did. I just didn’t think it would happen. You know.” I confessed to the group, like some sort of therapy session.

The next day the water had risen again but not as much. As a precaution, and for the sake of something to do, we moved Mrs Brent’s more precious belongings up a couple of floors. There were many boxes of books and we all ached by the evening.

We awoke to find the water level had dropped dramatically. Individuals, brave or desperate, were starting to wade down the street.

“I suppose we can think about going home!” exclaimed Clarke.

We all stayed another night. When the other residents of the building returned, it really felt like time to go. We thanked our host and promised to return soon to put things back in order.

“Such as same it took a crisis for me to meet all you nice young men!” she said as we left.

The city went back to normal. Defences were repaired. The endless debates over sea-level rises continued. Months later, after running a few errands, I found myself near the building again and I called on Mrs Brent.

“Let’s go up on the roof again, son. I never do it alone. It would be good to see everything running again.”

We headed up the flights of stairs and took in the view. The bustling city was full of life again.

“Our part of the city didn’t do too badly but I think I may move on.”

“Higher ground?” I asked.

“Oh yes. I had it all figured when the four of us were together. Head up out the city. Through the forests to the mountains. We’d build cabins, eat wild salmon, and keep warm through the winter. I’d be the town busybody. You’d be the sheriff, Clarke would run a store and Pete would fix things. Our little town would grow and you three would all get married in the local church. You’d bring your children round and I would treat them like they were my own. Spoil them with cookies and lemonade.”

She gave a hearty laugh.

“Oh… my dear, forgive the imagination of an old schoolteacher. I spend too long in my books, silly stories and daydreaming. Too many days alone.”

“That’s okay. Sounds like not a bad life up on the mountain,” and I raised my teacup in approval.

In a more earnest tone, she spoke again.

“We have to watch the tides, Tom. Keep a close eye on our home. You can go up a floor a few times, but eventually you are on the roof and there really won’t be any helicopters coming that time.”

Posted 10th January 2022


The Minotaur of Eldran

“No more of my subjects will be sacrificed to the Minotaur!”

The words of the newly crowned King caused alarmed whispers around the court and concerned looks between his advisers.

“Sire, it is… distasteful but has been our way for centuries…”

“That creature has taken seven of our young men and women every summer. During my reign all will be protected and we will be rid of this beast for good.”

“Sire, the sacrifice keeps the Minotaur in the labyrinth and out of our town.”

“Has that ever been put to the test?”

“The history scrolls tell of one king who sent cattle instead of men and women. After three days, the minotaur marched into town and took them.”

“Is it a magical beast?”

“It has no magic powers other than its curse and unnatural longevity.”

The King pondered this for a moment.

“So, we could kill it? We have a large army. Our newer weapons could pierce it’s armour?”

“It is mighty. We could not be sure of victory.”

“What do the earliest scrolls say? In the secret history?”

“They tell how the demi-god Gontor, when mortally wounded in battle with the first king of our city created the beast and his lair with the last of his strength and magic. The binding words of the spell were ‘A hex of protection I put over my instrument of revenge. No creature of the land of Eldran will slay the mortal Minotaur, his hunger will curse the city forever.’ You see, your majesty, it is protected. We must give in every year. There is no other way”

The King dismissed them all and considered the matter further. He sent for various advisors. He read every scroll there was on Gontor. The experts in the kingdom on every matter from exploration to science and alchemy in search of a solution. He kept his plan secret but instead of drawing lots for the sacrifice he ordered everyone to leave the city apart from his bodyguard. The two of them would settle this.

The pair walked the silent empty streets.

“It is a rare freedom to walk this great city like this, Captain. For the both of us.”

“Yes Sire. Though I find it rather eerie.”

The first night came and went. The Minotaur did not appear. They watched the entrance of the labyrinth on the second day. Nothing appeared. Finally, on the third day the beast emerged and powerfully marched through the open city gates. It was the height of summer and the sun blazed.

The King watched from the safety of a tower with an unobstructed view of the main square. There he had ordered his servants to stack barrels of salted pork from the royal stores. He hoped this would prove irresistible for the creature, but he would have to work hard for it as the barrels were made extra secure.

The Minotaur clawed at them and pulled them open. Exerting itself by throwing the barrels down on the ground to smash them open. It hungry ate every mouthful until it was all gone.

“Do you think it will leave now Sire?”

“I hope not,” said the king slowly. The captain drew his sword but the king signalled to put it away.

The hirsute bull head of the beast was panting and the sweat dripped down the human limbs and torso of the giant. The summer sun’s rays pounded down. Its eyes turned to the well.

It drew the bucket upwards and threw its head back, taking a huge gulp. Suddenly it froze and let go of the bucket which swung on the rope. It staggered grabbing its chest before toppling over.

“Now – let’s go,” ordered the King.

They reached the stinking but still creature and the King strolled casually towards it.

“Sire, be careful! It may be dangerous yet.”

“Oh, it is quite dead.”

The King drew his sword and plunged it into the neck of the beast and left it there. He turned and walked the well.

“This… this… is a great deed Sire. Not even as boy did I ever dream of slaying the Minotaur! How have you done this miracle?”

“Oh no miracle, captain. Know thy enemy. I read the tales of Gontor who spent much of his life imprisoned or battling on these lands or in the spirit realm. He did not appreciate nature. He was not a seafarer; he did not travel more than a hundred miles from here and he bound the magical protection to ‘no creature of the land’. We have explored the heights and the depths in the centuries after his time. All I had to do was encourage the beast to have a refreshing drink on a summer’s day.”

He tipped out the remaining water from the bucket which splashed on the cobble-stone ground. Wriggling and splashing around in the puddle were two of the rare venomous snakes of the distant Eldran sea.

Posted 9th January 2022


Looking Back

The irony of the long wait for the permission to operate the time machine was not wasted on the Professor. He sat in the busy corridor awaiting the deliberations of the Temporal Supervisory committee which he himself had founded. A bothersome bureaucracy in his mind but inevitable and necessary.

The technology had been proven in the lab and on paper. They sent items back and forth in time by hours and minutes. There was really no difference in upping the parameters to be thousands or millions of years. He had been surprised at the reaction of many. Treating history as sacred and immutable when they gave little regard to it normally. Besides there was so much to learn and that was worth the small risk of leaving tiny cameras scattered around millions of years of history. Time technology was now real, and humankind was risking the future if history was not studied as deeply as it could. That’s how the Professor attempted to sell it to them.

The modest proposed initial usages were around an area of well recorded history, the building of the pyramids of Egypt. It could be used to develop a timeline with the monuments being important points of reference.

Some wearisome questions came up in the committee session.

“Say, could you get a picture of Moses in the bull rushes?”

“Er. No. Rather specific event and we don’t have a clue when or where.”

“How about who shot JFK? What started Covid-19? Princess Diana?”

“The ethical boundaries we have set don’t permit anything in the last five hundred years. Even for national security.”

Eventually, a young intern was sent from the meeting room with an unofficial positive response. The Professor left the parliament building satisfied and relieved. Egyptology would never be the same again.

He met one of his doctorate students for a low-key celebratory drink the next evening.

“Of course, there’s the added benefit of not triggering any ancient curses,” said Ray pouring himself another glass of wine.

“Unless the Egyptian gods also knew a thing about time travel?” countered the Professor with a chuckle.

His tone changed a little.

“Do you think we should do this? It will kill the mystery. No more theories about aliens building the pyramids or dinosaurs pulling the stones or the pyramids being power stations.”

“We’ll finally have the truth. The ‘true believers’ will just claim all our photos are faked anyhow. We’re just part of the conspiracy.”

The next week, they project group gathered with delegates of the oversight committee. The machine was configured, and the camera set to go. The camera vanished and then returned. The first images were brought up. Just empty desert.

“Ah our first date was too early! Let’s skip forward 500 years.”

The trial and error continued until the image of the completed pyramid appeared. It was nothing like the present day. The sides were smooth with polished white limestone and the capstone covered in gold. The ancient wonder truly was a sight of beauty. A product of a great empire.

“Makes its current appearance look quite pathetic.”

For the next two years, they tracked the construction and carefully monitored the technology. Ensuring every camera return and appropriate bio-controls were in place. Ray was soon awarded his doctorate. In a surprise move, the professor decided to retire.

“Pyramids are not my passion! I’ve seen the technology develop and work. That was my goal. It is up to you to use it and perfect it,” he told them at his retirement do.

Eleven years later, on a cold afternoon, he stopped in to visit Ray. He took a deep breath before ringing the bell. Ray opened the door in his dressing gown. He was unshaven and looked pale and tired.

“Professor. It’s been a while.”

“Can I come in? Just want to see how you are.”

“Okay but the place is a mess.”

They sat in kitchen as Ray put together some drinks.

“So how are you?” the Professor asked again.

“Good days and bad days. The medication has improved lately.”

“I’m sorry. Feel I am responsible. I never should have invented the bloody thing.”

“No. No. Not your fault. It was my obsession. My lack of control. We made some breakthroughs after you left. Kept them from publication. Upgraded to videos. I spent all the time I could watching the pyramids be built from different angles. I got to know some faces and even some names.”

“We became obsessed. I barely slept, trying to keep up with everything we were learning about the technology and the past. There weren’t enough hours in the day. Once I completed the power reduction upgrades, I focussed completely on the past. Lost track of my own life. Girlfriend left. Eventually, the work began to suffer too. I stopped lecturing after missing so many.”

“The display of craftmanship was incredible. We’ve discovered so many new techniques for stonework. Those may be public soon. But… but I saw so much death. From accidents to disease to outright cruelty and murder. The dark side of the empire lasting centuries all condensed into a month of HD video. I was addicted. It was like it was happening now. We’re not that different. I watched every freakin’ minute I could until I… until I broke.”

“I got out the hospital last month. I have required therapy three times a week. PTSD type thing they say. Maybe you were right. Maybe should have left the mystery all alone.”

The Professor slowly drank his tea, unsure of what to say.

“I will visit more often. Help you get back on your feet. I need a new hobby” he said sympathetically.

“Thanks. I’d like that.”

“I just wonder, if I could have foreseen this. Prepared you and the others. Maybe I could return. Work on the ethics committee, examine all the events and put in a support structure for operators. Correct my life’s work and -”

Ray raised his hand and smiled.

“No. No. That’ll all sort itself. Don’t look back Professor. Just, don’t look back. Move on.”

Posted 8th January 2022


The Failing Memory Palace

Smith’s Jewellers had been in the same shop in the high street since it was founded by the current owner’s grandparents. The location had kept the business going through the ups and downs of the fortunes of the town. I had started working there two years ago and enjoyed the change of pace from my previous retail job.

The difficult customers were those anxious over repairs to valuable heirlooms and the occasional arguing engaged couple. However, the toughest were those selling items out of necessity. I like to think every item from a wedding ring to a simple bracelet has a story. Customers selling items often recounted the sentimental background. Obviously, it didn’t affect the price we paid though may sway me to offer them some of our ever-brewing complimentary tea and coffee.

One morning, just before opening, I had finish cleaning the glass counter. My boss appeared with a tall stack of old boxes.

“Mr Smith”, we always addressed him in this manner, “You have the Richards coming in at 10.”

“Ah yes, good customers as were their parents. We should be quiet today. Can you spend any free time helping to sort out the old store cupboard? Dusty work I am afraid! Hope it doesn’t set off your asthma Kate”

“Of course.”

The shop being so old had an awkward layout of small rooms at different level. Even though it had expanded into the unit next door, it was still a bit of a warren. Later in the morning, I was in the cupboard digging through worn empty boxes, most of which were consigned to the bin. Then I opened a small battered red box and a receipt fell on the floor.

It was a vintage dragonfly brooch in an emerald, green colour and about three inches in length. Not particularly valuable or rare. I picked up the receipt and unfolded the yellowed paper. It was a repair note dated 24th May 1965. The name was L.R. Richards and there was a local address.

I showed it to Mr Smith who was amused by it but unconcerned of how it was mislaid. He suggested I kept the find.

“Not very valuable then or today,” he said.

“Oh, I couldn’t. I will try and find the owner on my way home.”

I said my goodbyes just after five and headed it the wrong direction. It was worth a half-hour detour to be with a chance of returning the dragonfly all these years later.

I arrived at the house and surveyed it from the street. It was old but well maintained. When I got to the door, I saw the name ‘RICHARDS’ engraved on a little silver plaque. I rang the doorbell and a man in his fifties answered.

“Hello,” I said, “I am looking for a L. R. Richards. I have something that they, erm, lost.”

“Hi. That sounds a bit odd. That’s my father’s initials - Lance Robert. But he’s in a home for the past couple of years. What is it?”

“I work at the jewellers, Smiths, and we found this old brooch with a note inside. Thought I would try and return it. We fixed it in 1965 but for some reason it was never collected. Not particularly valuable.”

I pulled it out my bag and opened the box.

“Oh, obviously I don’t remember it. Thanks though,” he said taking it.

“His memory is not the best nowadays so he might not remember it either I’m afraid.”

“Ok. Well, I’ll leave it with you. Hope he is glad to get it back.”

“Thank you, bye.”

I turned and walked a few steps.

“You know, I was going to visit him tonight. You could come to?”

After a short drive, we were in a warm home sitting across from Mr Richards senior. He seemed glad of his visitors and someone new.

“This is Kate she works in the jewellers, they found something of yours when tidying up.”

He passed over the red box, already opened.

“What’s this?” said the older man holding it up to catch the light. “A jewelled monkey? A crow?”

“A dragonfly dad, was it maybe mum’s or gran’s? You got it fixed in the 60’s. Not long after you and mum were married.”

“1965, if that helps.” I chipped in.

He closed his mouth and put the box on the table. A phone began to ring.

“That’s me – back in a moment.”

I smiled at Lance, glad that I had been able to track him down.

“Maybe it will come back to you. It’s yours to keep.”

He sat up animated, catching me off guard.

“Oh, I remember it. Not his mother’s. Another… friend of mine. She… she died so I didn’t come back for it. I had to be silent. Yet I missed her. So much guilt. Very much. He cannot know. No lies but I don’t want him to know.”

“I understand, Mr Richards, it’s your business” I said in a professional tone, looking him in the eye, half-wondering why he was telling me this.

“You mind goes when you are old. Like a big spring clean and you forget. You talk it out of yourself. I hear them round here saying everything out loud. I listen. I really listen. So many secrets spilling out. The nurses are too busy to notice. I’ve heard it all though. I hope I don’t saw it all.”

He relaxed back into his chair.

“Sorry just work,” said his son on his return.

We played dominoes until eight o’clock. They both seemed glad of an extra player. I turned down an offer of dinner and returned home, the dragonfly still on my mind. I thought about work the next day.

I would be back in the storeroom and would check every box though am not sure I did any good by returning the brooch. How many more boxes were gifts to woo potential mistresses over the decades? Maybe I should burn any more receipts and forget the good deeds. I poured one more glass of red wine and pondered on G.T. Smith & Sons the jewellers established 1874. It was now the failing memory palace of our little town.

Posted 7th January 2022


The Family Home

The McAllister brothers were familiar figures in the village. Their mother was a central figure in the community life and, together, they regularly attended the local church, village shop and post office. Their father had died in the war and was buried in the churchyard. They travelled by steam train to the nearby city to work at the newspaper and the bank.

Gossip connected them romantically to local women, but they were never seen with anyone. They were always polite and in good spirits greeting people on the street. One night a week they would attend the pub for a single drink before leaving around eight to check on their mother.

This continued for years though disrupted for a short while when their mother suffered a short illness and died. They returned to their routine and worked another ten years or so until their respective retirements. The large family house of many generations continued to be their home. Village gossip speculated on who would live there in years to come, given they had no children. There was talk of a distant cousin in Glasgow, but no one could remember any details.

The brothers had a great joy in the outdoors, particularly fishing at the local loch and returning home with a trout or four. It was a fine summers day and Hamish was deep in the water, wearing waders. His younger brother sat under a tree, watching the bees buzz from one flower to the next. It was peak summer; every plant was bright with flowers and the trees never looked greener. The birds and crickets filled the air with occasional chirp.

“They’re not biting today. I hope I am not losing my touch.”

“Give it time. Give it time. I’ll take over in an hour or two.”

They always gave it plenty of time. Their summer days took in almost every hour of sunlight outside until they both reached their autumnal years. The younger brother went first, and the last McAllister went eight months later. The two sons buried next to their parents in the local churchyard all within the same year.

The appearance at the funeral by their distant cousin was the talk of the village, particularly her only attending the funeral of the final relative. An explanation about being abroad at the time, an extensive trip to China, was dismissed by many who had drawn their conclusions about her already.

At the funeral, Judith Allan was treated politely, and her charm won over many. Many enquired over the plans for the house, which they correctly assumed now to be hers.

“As a frequent traveller, I’ve never really had property but maybe it is time to settle down. My agent is always wanting me to focus on finishing my books.” she told the Minister at the funeral tea.

“Oh, you are a novelist, Miss Allan?” asked the reverend.

“Yes, first one got enough attention. Need to work hard on the follow-up. Publishing is a rough game though. So many paperbacks out there. Do you read outside the good book Reverend?”

“I have been known to indulge in Keats from time to time.”

She stayed a week, boarding at the guesthouse. On her final day, it snowed, and the peaceful rural scene won her over. In February, she would return and take up residence in the family home.

“I am going to stay. For at least three books! I could set a wonderful Christmas murder mystery in this place. I’ll get my editor to contact the magazines. So much potential!”

The snow thawed long before the spring. When it was warm, Miss Allan could often be seen in the garden with her typewriter.

“I will finish this one as soon as possible. I want to get onto my rural drama as soon as.”

She made appearances in village life much like her late relatives. Though some wondered if it was genuine interest or research. In truth, her main source of inspiration were the diaries of her cousins who kept a wonderfully detailed daily journal. The entry from a fishing trip stuck in her mind, dated after his mother’s death:

“…Glorious day to catch a few more at the Loch. 2 and a half pounds. Nothing record breaking but more than enough for a household of three. The game keeper stopped by at 12:10 for bit of a chat…”

Was it just a slip? A habitual phrase? I seemed odd for a former banker to get a simple figure wrong. There was nothing to suggest they took in a lodger and no tales of a visitor.

The village summer fete was approaching, and Judith had promised to attend. Her assistance was requested at one of the stalls by Mrs Knowles who ran the post office, where Judith was often seen thrusting manuscript pages into envelopes just in time to catch the next collection.

Her late arrival at the stall, was causes the elderly post mistress some significant consternation.

“Frightfully sorry Mrs Knowles.” said the flustered writer. Her companion saw she looked genuinely distressed.

“No problem, dear. If you could help me with this box.”

Judith composed herself and worked had until the early evening. When the tent emptied, Mrs Knowles turned to her.

“Now dear, what really is the matter with you?”

Judith’s face returned to the pale tearful state of a few hours ago.

“Oh. You’d think me mad. I left the house on time. I was halfway up the path and I heard... I heard… THEM in the house again... I looked through the window. She was working at the table. The brothers were working on fishing gear at the table. I watched them for some time until I pulled myself away. I couldn’t help but look.”

“No dear, that can’t be. You’ve been working too hard. You’ve been alone in that house too long. Let me fetch the minister.”

After a few cups of hot sweet tea and some gentle assurance, Judith agreed to head back to the house with company. All was quiet, as it was for weeks ahead. She put the incident behind her and put all her energy into her next novel. One day in the autumn, she opened an unread diary of her cousins. She was planning to burn them all eventually. She flipped the pages and settled to read the account of his last trip to the summer fete. Suddenly he dropped the book, calmly grabbed her bag and the nearest coat, and returned to Glasgow on the next train.

She sent instructions for the house to be cleared and sold. When the movers arrived, the foreman picked up the diary on the floor and read it out loud: “Summer Fete. Left to catch the start, happened to glance back and see mother working at the table...” He snapped it shut and threw it in a box.

“Well what else was he going to write about living out here,” he said to himself and got to work.

Posted 6th January 2022


Status Report

My ship crashed on this uncharted planet over four months ago. I was on a supply run for a large colony, so I had plenty to eat and nothing on this rock had tried to eat me, yet. I would have been missed by now, but a replacement shipment would take priority over a search and rescue.

I kept myself busy ensuring the distress signal was still firing, maintaining the ships systems, playing chess with the androids (why can’t those things play cards?) and reading cowboy novels.

My own frontier was pretty wild, had spiked plants and the nearby plains even had cow like creatures. The probes I sent out hadn’t spotted anything horse like yet. It was tempting to go outside for a hike but without a team of micro-biologists giving it the all clear, I was staying in the sterile ship. I had a few miles of corridor to walk around and, this being an older ship, had some recreational areas back from the days when crews were more human.

I was used to solitude and had plenty of solo lightyears under my belt, but I was beginning to need some company or at least the hope of it. We hadn’t found many habitable worlds so perhaps the promise of this one would persuade some gnarly captain to expend the extra fuel to pick me and the androids up.

“Incoming message.” Those two words made me sit up with a jolt.

“Play it.”

The computer voice continued, “Captain Nevis, this is the freighter ship Hawking. We have received your distress call. We are currently calculating our ability to reroute and assist.” Then the computer added time delay of ten minutes.

I formulated a quick response, so they were convinced I was still alive and awaited a reply.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to change course and collect you. It is not possible at current fuel levels.”

These cold calculations were what you had to do to make it in space. I understood but it was a gut-wrenching disappointment all the same. Another message came in.

“There’s another ship, an exploratory vessel. It can get to you in two Earth months and a few days.”

I could do another two months. I sent back two words.

“Thank you.”

The next message that came in was less formal.

“Anything else we can do for you?”

I thought for a moment.

“Send me news dispatches, any cowboy books you have in your library and, while you’re in range, could we talk a while?”

It was a nervous wait, kind of like telling someone you liked them in that special way.

“Of course, Steven, we should always make time for that. My name’s Sandy.”

“Out here, I have plenty of time but keeping busy. Keeping active and productive. Much like any supply run. Mapping a new world. The ship’s not bad but maybe a bit old to salvage and repair. So apart from the crash, the mission’s gone great. The androids and I are in good spirits.”

I made a drink as I waited for the response to come back.

“Yes, sure you are busy. You’ve been alone and without contact for a long time. So how are you really?”

Posted 5th January 2022


The Iguana Exile

“I just wish she would spend more time on her astrology rather than astronomy”, her mother would say on the phone, often when Louise was in earshot. “You need skills for the workplace and you don’t want people thinking you are a bit… odd. Her marks in divination, potions and all that are good but she spends hours with that telescope. Wish she would pick up her crystals more often.”

When she left school, Louise found an obscure university where she could study the stars. Night after night, she would gaze upwards. Clouds got in the way but there were spells to deal with that.

“I want to look at the real thing not just endless charts and birthdates.”

She graduated in the usual fashion, there were a few smirks on the faces of those attending who studied more respectable subjects. This did not phase her. What was their approval compared to gazing at the rings of Saturn? She found a rare research post where she could continue her study while working on new lenses, purifying the glass with magic.

“See mother, I am doing something practical.” She sent in a text message.

A couple of solstices later, Louise began trials of a new telescope then a revolutionary thought came to her.

“What if we could sent the telescope outside our atmosphere?”

She scribbled some notes on a parchment and turned to her pet iguana.

“Why haven’t I thought of this before, Cedric? Oh my Merlin, the spell would be nearly as simple as the one you learn on the first day of school.”

She went outside and placed the telescope on the ground. After a flick of a wand and a short spell, it became two telescopes and one began to rise into the sky. A hour later, Louise picked up the instrument and looked through. The objects were still linked and the telescope’s twin floated high above the Earth.

She could see the constellations clearer and brighter than ever before. Her jaw dropped at the beauty. The moon was so detailed with craters and scars of its long life. There were so many more stars out there than she even imagined. If she could share this with the world, she could change things.

Her experiments continued and she was soon bringing back photographs too. She was working on her master work. A three volume set showing the night sky like never before. Of course, this all had to be done in secret. She set a schedule of four to five years and had a shortlist for trustworthy editors in mind.

Then one night, she noticed a new light in the sky. She noted it and continued to track it through the week. An asteroid of significant size and it was getting closer. After some equations she determined it was coming to the Earth in seven weeks time. This weighed on her heavily after her months of elation from the invention of the space telescope.

She would have to prepare best she could and try and warn the governments of the world. Ridicule and derision of her field was the certain outcome but she had to try. She didn’t want the world to go the way of the age of the dinosaurs.

She wrote a paper of several scrolls with maths and diagrams then condensed it down to a one page summary, something a busy president could digest. Plundering her savings account she sent copies to all the leaders and thinkers in the world. Shortly after she launched a website with all the details.

The response was worse than she could have imagined. She was dismissed as a fool. Ridiculed in the papers and the website was continually hacked.

She went to protest in London outside the Parliament of High Magic. She thought she would be alone but to her great surprise around a hundred of her supports turned up with placards, drums and whistles. This small pocket of support greatly encouraged her and she returned home to plan her next step.

There was a knock and the door and she put down her quill. She opened a door to a uniform and a familiar face.

“Hello Louise. I am officer James. We were at school together. The President thought it best someone you knew came to see you about this. We can handle this in the best interests of all before anything bad happens.”

Louise was surprised. Was she really being thought of as a potential revolutionary leader? A revolt against the current magical order?

“I see. Yes I remember you James. You were one of the kinder ones.”

She told a short anecdote from their school days, whilst forming a plan in her head.

“Okay, I will come with you without fuss. Just come see the stars. That’s all I ask. Take a few minutes to see the sky yourself.”

“Look, I…”

“Please.” She pleaded and grasped his hand.

“Okay.”

Louise took him into the garden and showed him the main telescope. He put his eye to the scope for ten seconds.

“I can see why you do this. I really do. But we can’t have the doom and gloom end of the world stuff.”

Louise raised her hand and the telescope shifted to point at another area of sky.

“Look there, you will see the asteroid. Five point seven kilometres across. Was tiny when I first saw it. It’s coming here.”

Cedric scampered across the stone path and Louise picked him up.

James was finding himself believing her and he took another look. He felt the spell hit him. It was weak but he could not move.

“Just a minor freeze spell. Goodbye James. I hope you make it. Hide underground.”

She turned her wand to the house and uttered another spell. Stacks of books and a trunk flew out and surrounded her. She started to ascend.

The spell started to wear off James and he managed to turn his neck upwards watching her disappear into the night sky she loved. Seconds later more magical agents appeared around him.

“Too late. She has gone.”

Louise rose further and further her magical shield keeping her and Cedric safe as they hurtled towards their destination. Before going public she had made a new home. A castle in the sky where she could observe and record the impact. They would never find her there.

She watch the entire terrible event from the heavens and wept for days. Months later, when the storms and waves had settled down, she began to plan her return. She had a map all marked out with locations that likely had pockets of survivors. Would she leave tomorrow? No, she would leave it a day or two yet.

She pulled out one of her few remaining blank sheets of parchment and titled it “The Science of Wands in Zero Gravity”. She smiled as she began the opening paragraph.

“You know Cedric, we really should take this chance to learn something while we are still here.”

Posted 4th January 2022


Just A Smuggler

Every eight seconds the searchlights scanned along the wire fence. The spiralled barbed wire cast shadows onto the path. I stayed in the doorway, flat against the wall hoping my chattering teeth were not too loud.

This border had been protected for a long time, but this stretch had never garnered much attention. They hadn’t even cleared all the trees and bushes that had grown back since the revolution. The guards took a lax approach, spending the long nights drinking and playing cards. It was ideal for us smugglers.

Tonight’s load was a small but heavy pack. Pocket sized Bibles packed tightly. I had charged them triple. The US dollars were very welcome. The communists were easy on vices, a bribe would get you out of most situations, but anything ideological was sure to be serious trouble. I just had to get through the fence and go a few miles to the drop-off point. I’d wait until morning and use my genuine papers to return to my town without a worry.

It was frosty but thankfully not snowy. I crossed in the darkness at a steady pace and watched the light sweep the ground behind me. I pushed through the thorny bush, the gap in the fence, through to the other side and waited. During the change of watch, I made the longer dash into the nearby country lane. I had done this hundreds of times now, but I always recalled my nerves of my first crossing. Kept me sharp. Kept me alive.

I avoid patches of crunchy grass and head off into the darkness. I keep a good pace to stay warm and glance at the farmhouses around, jealous of their still burning fires. I was just five minutes away from my destination when I realise something is wrong.

The drop was an old coal mine, plenty of places to hide and dry too. It was away from snooping eyes usually. I could see several figures, a battered military vehicle and torches being shone around. Immediately I started recalling the route to the backup location. I was about to leave when the thought occurred to me that they were not lying-in wait. What had brought them here? I found a good spot to safely watch and pulled out my scope.

Armed men stood around two people kneeling on the ground. I didn’t recognise either the man or the woman. The voices became louder, and a pistol was pulled out. Suddenly three shots ran out and two bodies hit the ground. Another two shot dispatched the remaining uniforms. The couple kneeling leapt up, looked. A light flashed twice on the hill close to me. I started to turn to come face to face with a barrel of a gun.

“Stop.” the voice said silently. The accent was foreign.

“I’m… I’m just a smuggler.”

“Yeah, what you got?” said the voice.

“Bibles. From foreigners. They paid well.”

“Show me. Slowly.”

With careful moves, I opened the bag to show the packet.

“Open it.”

Reluctantly I tore open the top and handed over a book.

“Dammit, don’t think we could sell these. Bring real opium next time. You can keep this. Alright, be on your way.”

Despite my better instincts, I asked the question on my mind.

“What is the resistance doing at the mine?” I hoped he thought I was just passing.

“Downed pilot, a Brit or Yank maybe.” he said lowering his gun. I was surprised he shared this much.

“Look smuggler, can you get something out for me?”

“What?”

“A letter to my family.”

I immediately thought what would be encrypted in the text.

“Sure. I am going back soon after sunrise.”

“Thanks.” he said handing over the creased envelope which I tucked into a concealed pocket in my coat.

“Keep those snipers off me. I am heading to the railway line.”

“I don’t think we have any bullets left.”

“Good luck,” I said, still smiling at his last comment, which was probably true

“You too. One day I hope people like you are not needed. No offense.”

“Same.”

I made the drop at the railway line and headed nearer to the down. I was just another tired face in the crowd for the bus the next day, bags were searched, papers were checked twice, and boarded the bus where I slept a little. I was soon back in my hometown. At the bus station, I bought a stamp for the letter and headed to post it, planning to get some food and a newspaper hoping to read about the pilot.

I posted the letter. It had been tempting to open the well-worn envelope. How long since the revolution had they been apart? Did they think he was dead? I didn’t envy his chances. Maybe the government would fall in a few years. Would I go back to by former life? Not sure if I could.

I read the paper and there was no word of the pilot. I had another job that night so lay down to try and get some sleep. I listened to the traffic outside, thinking over the encounter with the resistance. What if they won? Who would I be? When I realised there would always be politics and there would always be borders. If there were borders, there would always be smugglers and my skills would always be needed. I soon drifted off to a peaceful sleep.

Posted 3rd January 2022


The Flute Morendo

The King had sent Raghnall, one of his finest warriors, on many a mission. None were like this journey to the far south lands, recently devastated due to a volcanic eruption, sending lava in all direction. It was an escort for a mission of mercy. At request of the King, the great healers of the eastern mountains were heading to help find survivors and aid refugees.

The small group consisted of Raghnall, two healers, a carpenter and a musician. Raghnall was doubtful of the use of the latter, other than leading the supply ponies, but enjoyed the flutist’s nightly playing round the campfire.

“Terrible things volcanoes,” said the senior healer. “Not just the unpredictable eruptions but the spirits they harbour too. Who knows what rides the fountain of molten rock from the dark depths to the surface. Soldier, where have you served?”

“Mostly in the northern lands, sir. This is new territory for me.”

“The soil here is fertile so many are attracted, despite the danger.”

They headed towards a small, raised settlement that was likely unharmed and would prove a good base for their work. Raghnall kept guard at all times, only allowing the younger healer to take a few hours watch. The lands were mostly peaceful but there had been reports of looters and attacks on refugees. When they arrived, the settlement was quieter than expected. Even for the few buildings it contained the resident population had gone. A dozen newly arrived survivors were resting in the great hall, with only a few others keeping watch outside on the small wall.

The healers got to work dealing with burns and other minor injuries. Raghnall discussed security with the lookouts and organised all weapons, mostly poorly maintained swords, into an armoury. He changed the watch pattern and move supplies to less obvious buildings.

Later the King’s party met together privately in the square, Raghnall raised his concern.

“There’s something very strange here. Why has the original population gone? They were never in danger this far out. There’s no signs of a fight.”

The healers agreed.

“They all seem genuine to us. We examined them all.” said the senior.

The musician spoke up.

“I have my suspicions. I served in a mage’s household for a decade. I have sensitivity to these things. I suspect two of the horsemen. They are always together so I am not sure which.”

“Sensitivity to what?” asked Raghnall more impatiently than he intended.

“Spiritual beings. We may have a demon among us. They probably came from the volcano and fed off the original residents. It will still be weak but be very careful. We will deal with it tonight.”

He turned to Raghnall.

“And you… be ready. We may have to move fast.”

After the tense conversation, the evening was calm and oddly normal. A generous meal was served with everyone apart from those on watch. With a careful interruption, they ensured the horsemen was sitting in opposite ends of the room.

The leader of the town gave a short speech thanking the new arrivals and giving thanks to the original towns people. Finally, she turned to the musician.

“Please friend, a few tunes to raise our spirits.”

Everyone listened as he played the first tune, it was a pleasant light number. He went straight into a second piece which was slower and more complex. The room was focussed on him. When he finished this piece, he stopped and removed the instrument from his mouth.

During the clapping, he quick turned to Raghnall and whispered, “I am pretty sure the demon is the guy by the window. Await the confirmation. Don’t hesitate.”

“Confirmation?”

“You’ll know. Trust me.”

Raghnall unclipped the axe on his belt as a new tune began. After a few beautiful bars, it became more unfamiliar. Still elegant but powerful. The emotional tones began to affect everyone in the room. Those listening wiped tears from their eyes. Even Raghnall, began welling up, as sensation he had almost forgotten. This melody though free of words was moving them all. Except one.

The horseman by the window was starting to notice this too and slowly started to back away from the table. The next bar of the music caused him to jump up in pain. Everyone spun to look at him. The music got louder. The demon began to spin a small portal. The air filled with demonic chant. The diners moved away from it as fast as them good. Raghnall leapt up. His axe span across the room and landed firmly in the demon’s skull. It dropped the ground, burned in bright red flames and then vanished.

The musician turned to Raghnall, not waiting to be asked.

“That’s a tune from another age. Few in this time have ever heard it. If it doesn’t move someone’s soul, you can be sure as hell, they don’t have one!”

Posted 2nd January 2022


One Hour Outside

"Come on! We are only allowed out for one hour of exercise Eve."

"Yes. Yes." said Eve adjusting the straps on her backpack and tucking a facemask into the side pocket. "Don't stress - no one is timing us, as long as we are there before the wind picks up. Should be sunny enough though."

They took their usual route to the city park, along once busy streets. Joggers and unmasked shoppers strolled past. Eve held her breath when then they came close. Mark kept up quite the pace.

They found a clear area and Eve began unpacking the drone, even though it was not as calm as expected. Mark wandered off to play his mobile phone game, locating and battling some virtual Viking warriors near the playpark. The drone was quickly airborne, and Eve's eyes were skyward as she perfected her piloting skills. The stresses of the morning were soon forgotten.

Suddenly Eve felt something small hit her back with some force. Forgetting about the drone, she spun round to see a happy spaniel lying on the grass with a bright green tennis between his front paws.

"Sorry!" cried a man over on the path. It stung a little, but Eve waved and smiled back. She picked up the ball and gave it her best throw. The black and white dog ran after his treasure.

A mild panic came over her as she realised, she had taken her eyes off the drone. Where was it? She spun around. It was towards the fenced off tennis courts, rather higher than usual. The wind was making it tricky to control but she managed to get its altitude down. It was heading back to the controller, but the wind made it wobble. Eve over corrected and sent it towards the fence. The drone spun over and dropped into the court.

"Blast it." said Eve gripping the wrist strap and picking up the pace towards the stricken drone. The spaniel, still nearby, noticed the speed and came along for the run.

Eve noticed her new companion.

"This is all your fault pooch!"

The pair arrived at the gates of the courts and Eve spotted the large padlock. Glancing towards the playpark she saw Mark making his way towards them as was the dog walker who seemed to like to stick to the footpaths. Eve glanced at her watch, she had to be back for a call in less than an hour.

The spaniel dropped the ball which rolled slowly under the gate which it began pawing under. The gates moved revealing a small gap between them. An impulsive thought came to Eve's mind. She pulled her hood up and made sure all her hair was tucked in. Next, she slid down on the ground and squeezed into the gap.

It was going quite well until her new canine friend decided to join in. Paws poked her all over and one squashed her cheek which made her grimace. She wriggled and tore her jeans on the metal gate.

“OW! You little…”

She pushed with her feet and was through. As she got upright, the dog retrieved his ball and dropped it at Eve's feet which she dutifully kicked off the wall at an angle to make him work for it. She watched him dash around in excitement then come back for a pat and gaze at her with his deep brown eyes.

She felt proud of her accomplishment of breaking in. Eve headed towards the net where the drone lay nearby. No major damage was visible, even after she picked it up for closer examination. The dog came in close for a little sniff. Mark's voice caused her to look up.

"Come on - get out of there. You'll get into trouble." he hurriedly said.

"Who will? You worry too much. It's fine."

"You've scraped your face."

Eve gently touched her cheek. That'd be fun to explain to her boss on her next video call.

"Can I have my dog back please?" asked the walker at the gates in a friendly tone.

"Of course." said Eve pushing the gates apart the best she could and let the pet trot through.

“Goodbye you,” she said giving it a final pat.

The lead was attached, and they wandered off towards the main gate.

Keeping her eyes on the dog, she passed the drone through and then squeezed back out.

"There - one drone rescued."

"Is it broken?"

"Don’t think so. Let's find out. Come on."

“Sorry you didn’t get a quiet half hour to fly.”

“Still nice to get outside!”

In the middle of an open area, they got the propellers going and the drone was soon up above the trees.

"There - it's all good." said Eve smiling.

"Thank goodness - you paid a fair bit for that."

"I know. Going to sell it though."

"Are you?"

"Yeah. Just decided now. Need the money. Prices for dogs have shot up during lockdown."

Posted 1st January 2022