Crocorpions

“Can you get it sorted, please?” she said into the phone. “Look, I have to go, the kids are screaming about something. Call me tomorrow.” She thumbed the phone to hang up, plunked it down on the coffee table and strode over to the French doors leading to the back garden.

She squinted into the sunlight, searching the glare for the shape of her son. Little Ken — or probably today Captain Ken of the fearsome pirate ship Fantasticness or somesuch — was running towards her from the bushes. Close behind flew his first mate, Doug, who she was recently informed was also the captain of his own ship Dadscar, the ‘coolest’ ship upon the seven seas. Yet these two Terrors of the Tides seemed quite distraught at whatever they had unearthed in the treasure-filled cove that lay between the garden shed and Mrs. Cruston’s leylandii.

“Mum! Mum!” yelled Ken as they cannoned into the living room and performed a volte-face upon the faded carpet. “The crocorpions are coming!”

“Crocorpions?” Eyebrows gently raised while the boys tried to hide behind her and each other at the same time. “I suppose that’s a cross between…”

“There! Right there on the side of the shed!” Her eyes followed along the line of the five-year-old finger that extended outwards away from the back of the house. There was something there. Some darker smudge on the shed’s wood panelling, indistinct to tired middle-age eyes straining against the sun.

A shadow from the trees?

She took a step out onto the patio. Hand raised to forehead to shield her eyes.

“What is it, Mrs. Wilbourne?”

“I’m not sure, Doug. Maybe it’s just a…”

A grasshopper?

The shed was painted light green, and there was a small window cut into the wooden panels. On the panel next to the window, about the size of two hand spans… did it just move slightly?

A large spider?

It had been a jerky movement, sudden, too quick for something cute, not like a shadow waving in the breeze…

She stepped onto the lawn. She felt the cool grass curling up over her sandals. A few more steps forward. Behind her, the boys were rooted to the carpet, unmoving, barely breathing, imaginations concocting trauma like runaway trains.

Then she realised her own breathing had stopped, lungs and chest tight. A tremor in her arms. A few more steps brought more definition to the alien shape. Dark red, but the sunlight reflected a little somehow, giving it an indistinct appearance. It did have legs, too many of them. They suggested the ability to move more quickly than should be allowed, intimating a scuttling motion that would penetrate tonight’s nightmares. A thick body too, perhaps a carapace. She searched the corners of her vision for branches or some other offensive weapon, now not daring to move her focus from the creature ahead.

It was watching her in return. She could tell, somehow. Perhaps it was tensed, prepared for flight… or attack… was it playing dead or preparing to strike? She stood perhaps two metres away now. She could make out black pincers and a barbed tail.

She turned her head to say something to the boys, then Ken yelled at the top of his lungs. She whipped her head back in the direction of the shed. The shape was no longer there. The creature had vanished… no… jumped. Sprung towards where she stood. A dark blur fell among the blades of grass not two paces from her toes.

A cry loosed itself from her throat and she backpedalled, then turned, but the images came with her. That fearsome scuttling motion, and a jaw, hinging upwards, rows and rows of bright white teeth.

Not a scorpion then. Something else.

Just three paces back towards the house and her brain kicked in. Don’t lead it towards the children. She broke left and looked back, as it mounted the patio tiles, but mercifully changed course away from the door and towards her.

Parental strength rose through her and she stabbed her right foot out and down, aiming over the teeth for the head. The barbed tail jabbed forth and she felt a sharp pain in her thigh. She fell to the side and landed heavily between two plastic garden chairs, one of which she grabbed with outstretched palm and flung in the monster’s direction. It grazed the tail but missed the body, at least giving the creature pause, a high-pitched hissing now emanating from between those gleaming white fangs. It shook, and jerked to the left and right, then stood still, eyeing up its prey.

“Boys!” She cried, gathering her muscles to leap to her feet.

Then a wooden slab – a cricket bat, in fact – arced through the air and landed heavily upon the thing, squelching out a liquid that oozed further with two repeated strikes.

She looked along the cricket bat to the handle, saw wrinkled yet wiry knuckles, a floral printed sleeve, a small circle of pearls, and finally the face of Mrs. Cruston. Half smiling, half crying. Fear, glee, horror, triumph.

“Come along, Mrs. Wilbourne,” said Mrs. Cruston, holding out her other hand. “There are more all around. Let’s get inside.”

Detective Molly

They slid open the door to the warehouse, and immediately something smelled wrong. Not just the musty staleness of a space left closed to the outside for too long, but undertones of decomposition, of rot tinged with sweetness. The smell you never forget – the smell of evil. The smell of death.

“Cameras outside show two men enter about twenty minutes apart,” said Detective Cooper. “Door closes, nobody leaves. That was two months ago.” He took a few steps in, then turned and looked back at the door. “There’s no handle on the inside. It’s rusted off. If you slide the door shut, you’re stuck.”

A body lay several metres away from the door, face down, soles of the feet towards the entrance. As they approached, they saw that it was a man dressed in a pinstripe business suit, covered by a dark brown coat. His head was a mess, skull crushed. Blood had gushed onto the floor, spread and then dried. The smell was unspeakable. Flies leapt into the air as they approached and circled angrily above.

A few steps away, a briefcase lay open. Someone had rifled through it – papers and a laptop computer were spilled around. Next to the briefcase lay a metal pipe with ugly dark red decorations.

“Murder weapon,” said Cooper. “Bashes the guy’s head in, then searches his stuff. According to the video, this was the second guy to arrive.”

A few metres further in, a small knife lay on the floor. Sharp blade, black handle. Bloodstains.

“Okay,” said Cooper. “Second murder weapon. Maybe a second body. Molly, look around. See if you can find anything.”

Finally, a bit of searching to do. Searching was her favourite part. First, she inspected the floor around the besuited corpse, moving in ever-widening circles. Nothing found – no trails leading outward. Next, the perimeter. She walked over to the nearest warehouse wall, and started to walk around the edge, clockwise. Towards the back of the warehouse, large piles of empty crates loomed high. Hundreds of metal pipes, just like the first murder weapon, stacked on top of each other, left to rust. She walked between the crate towers, examining surfaces. Cobwebs aplenty, dust everywhere. Dust – disturbed or undisturbed?

Disturbed! Dust smudged and a hand print, marked out in red, on a crate that lay in a smaller pile against the back wall. And the smell – away from the body near the door, it had lessened in intensity, but here it began to build again, cloying around the edges of her nostrils.

She sniffed, turning her head this way and that, trying to find a direction to… a tarpaulin that lay against a large crate, covering something…

She backed away. The smell was beginning to get overwhelming. She turned and went back to the entrance, where Detective Cooper stood, silhouetted in the sunlight streaming in from outside. As she approached, he looked over at her expectantly.

“What is it Molly?” he asked. “You got something?”

She led him into the back of the warehouse, found the tarpaulin again, grabbed a corner and pulled it away. Underneath, the body of another man was curled against the side of the crate. Also in a suit, but shabbier, old shoes, unkempt hair. He had died clutching his hands to his stomach, flesh torn apart by a knife wound.

“Okay, I get it,” Detective Cooper said. “So they arrange to meet here, and shut the door once they’re both inside, so they can argue without disturbance. Argument gets out of control. Pinstripe guy stabs shabby guy, shabby guy bludgeons pinstripe guy. Shabby guy searches the case, but he’s wounded, then realises he can’t get out. He comes back here, hides under the tarpaulin, hoping someone will open the door, and he can escape. But he dies from his wounds. And you found him! Well done! Well done, Detective Molly!”

Ah, Cooper was pleased. Doing a good job and being praised for it – the best feeling in the world. Detective Molly swelled with pride, and wagged her tail.

Try Again Next Time

A house sits in the midst of a drenched suburbia, assaulted by hard rain, windows rattled by thunder. Inside, an elderly man comforts his frightened dog and speaks softly to his houseplants. Overhead, the clouds intensify, gathering a darkness immediately above. Then a flash, lightning stabs downwards and wraps around the television aerial.

Nobody who belonged to that world would have been able to see two figures step out from the jagged edge that the lightning bolt has sliced through the sky, the arc frozen in time and the rain hanging still in the air. The world is completely still for these interlopers, one single moment stretched out at their mercy.

They climb carefully over the small brick chimney and keep a hold on it until their feet land are wedged securely among the slanted roof tiles. To their ears, the world has an eery silence, and their voices echo as if in a large empty hall.

“When are we?” says the junior. Her name is Klaudia, and her wonder at the frozen spectacle around affirms her first trip into the past.

“It’s 1985,” says the other woman. A name badge on her uniform identifies her as ‘Asta’. She looks up at the blinding spark that reaches down from the heavens, shielding her eyes from its frozen glare, then taps the screen of a device wrapped around her waist. “And this is the correct house.”

From a pouch on her trouser leg, Asta takes a black plastic square, the size of her hand span, with a circular hole in the middle. “Do you know what this is?” she asks Klaudia, who shakes her head. “This is a floppy disk. This is an example of what you are looking for. One is hidden in the house below. When you find it, place it in this protective bag.” Asta hands Klaudia a plastic pouch.

“What information is stored on the disk?” asks Klaudia.

“During the second world war, a German scientist invented time travel and caused havoc, trying to assassinate Allied leaders. Many Time Police agents died to stop this. We never figured out how he did it. He escaped, disappeared. But now he lives here under a false identity. On the disk is everything we need to know to stop him back then. Now,” she holds out her hand, “take off your time belt and give it to me.”

Klaudia frowns. “Why?”

“The disk is magnetic. Your time belt will damage it if you get it too close. That’s why you need to put the disk in the protective bag before you come back up here.”

“What if something goes wrong and I get stuck here?” protests Klaudia.

“Just stay away from electricity,” says Asta. “It will jump you out of frozen time. Now go fetch. You have all the time you need.”

Klaudia becomes aware of the silence that stretches out across the roof tops, and the water hanging still all around. Indeed, she reflects, for one moment, this busy world feels quite lonely. She removes her belt, hands it to Asta, then clambers carefully over the guttering and down a drainpipe. As she moves, water collects on her suit, and she is quite wet as she reaches the ground. It does not drip from her clothes, so she leans down, gathers some suit material in her hand, and squeezes. The water emerges from her fist, but does not drop to the ground, instead floating in the air next to her legs.

“I did not think it would work like that,” she mutters to herself.

“What?” comes a voice from the roof.

“Nothing!” she yells upwards. “Just the novelty.”

“If you want to go sight-seeing, we can jump to the Cretaceous period,” yells back Asta. “Focus on your mission.”

Klaudia smiles, then lowers her head and jumps suddenly, heart beating fast. Through a window of the house, its elderly occupant is staring right at her.

She meets his gaze, mouth open in horror, then she begins to relax. He is as frozen as the rain. Klaudia moves slightly from side to side, his focus does not follow her. She waves her hand, but he does not react. She breathes out, gathers her wits, then walks around the house.

Around the side, a window is open. She reaches through the gap, unclasps the latch, opens the window wide and climbs through. The room is dusty and the air is dry. She takes a few minutes to shake the water from her shoes and clothes through the window, leaving droplets hanging in the air outside.

Her search begins, but she walks right past a boxy beige computer that sits on a desk in an upstairs study. Her own plans come first. Instead she rifles through drawers, rummages in the back of cupboards and lowers her ear to the floor to peek underneath furniture. After scouring three rooms upstairs, her gaze is drawn to a hatch in the hall ceiling.

An attic – that’s where it would be. But quiet now, quiet – sounds will travel up to Asta on the roof. Don’t want any awkward questions.

Using a hooked pole found in a nearby cupboard, Asta opens the hatch pulls down a ladder until it touches the carpet. She climbs up.

It is dark, but her hands find a switch and flick on the light. She briefly muses how that works when the rain doesn’t fall… Then, crawling around on hands and knees, behind an old television, piles of children’s books and dusty bedding, Klaudia finds a small green box with rusty corners.

Inside, there are old black and white photographs. A group of men in uniform. Medals with German phrases etched around the edge. Official documents written with a typewriter, fake passports with different names but the same photograph – the old man downstairs, but with thick hair and angry, vibrant eyes.

Beneath it all, a slip of paper. It is brown with age. On the paper is drawn a faint but detailed map. It points to a building in a street in northern Austria. Wrapped inside the map is a key.

Klaudia puts the map and key into the protective bag, then the bag into a pocket. She crawls backwards out of the attic and down.

As her hands touch the ladder, all the muscles in her body rip into each other. She cries out in pain, and falls to the floor. As unconsciousness descends over her, Klaudia realises that the light switch must have electrified the ladder, and the light came on because someone with knowledge of time travel set a trap…

She awakens a few moments later, to the sound of rain drumming all over the roof, and bouncing off the windows. She sits up, head spinning, and sees the old man standing a few feet away. In his hand, an old German pistol is pointing directly at her chest.

“I was expecting one of you to show up,” he said. “After my secrets! But unfortunately for you, it was a ruse. Just cleverly planted spies acting under my orders. I never invented a time machine in 1941! I am simply going to steal it, now, from you! Hand it over!”

Klaudia puts her hand to her hurting head. “Enough of the theatrics, Grandad.”

The old man stares at her, then his hand drops to his side as recognition spreads across his face. “Petra? Is that you?”

“I do look like mother,” concedes Klaudia. “But I’m not born yet.” She stands up, adjusts her suit, then shouts furiously at her grandfather.

“Why did you electrify the ladder? I have been pushed out of frozen time. My companion is gone and she took my time belt with her! I was going to use it, take it back to you in that basement in Austria to learn how it works. We would have had the world at our feet! Now the opportunity is lost, because of you!”

The old man’s face is ashen. “I did nothing to the ladder! But… what is your name?” he croaks.

“Klaudia.”

His hand draws an envelope from his cardigan pocket, and, shaking, he holds it out to her.

“A letter arrived this morning,” he says. “It’s addressed to you.”

She snatches it from his hand, sees her name on the front, rips it open and reads the neat handwriting on the paper inside. She looks back at her grandfather, fury curling across her brow.

“It says: ‘Maybe you should try again in 60 years.’ It’s signed: ‘Captain Asta, Time Police.’”

The Match Boy Always Hopes

He awoke gently, cuddled by darkness. Leaves had gathered over his cheek, he brushed them off. He got to his feet and stood still, listening.

Too quiet.

Where was the wind? The branches stroked by the breeze? Where were the birds?

He walked along a path not as familiar as it should have been, and lit by blades of yellow light that cut the shadows into ribbons. Some of the trees he recognised, saw the same old patterns streaking through the bark. But they seemed fewer in number than he remembered. Then he reached the edge of the forest, too soon, too soon.

A road cut across the path. It was grey and wide and obnoxiously straight. Across the other side sat squat, flat-roofed buildings of brick and iron. On top of one, the nearest, a metal pyre reached upwards, enveloped in flames that cast too-bright light and too-dark shadows upon all surroundings. The heat from the pyre felt thick and suffocating against his cheek, and he turned his back on it to let his face feel cooler air.

It was then that he noticed there was something else wrong. The sky was dark, much darker than it had any right to be. As if a heavy, thick blanket had been laid over the land, all light absorbed into its folds. To look up was to feel your soul drawn towards a void, to be assured that nothing looked down upon you, that all other living things left in this world would gaze up, shudder, and hastily turn their eyes to the ground. All light came from the pyre, no natural source from above.

He checked his pockets, and in the left one he found the old box. A shake resulted in a reassuring rattling sound. The matches were there. Yet he noticed, as he wrapped his fingers around the box to return it to his pocket, that the strip on the side had been worn smooth. No matches could be lit from it, he would need a new one.

He crossed the road and headed around the pyre building. By its entrance, a large man with a fat wooden club over his shoulder stood guard.

The matchbox came out from the pocket, a question was asked, a snarl answered and the club swung towards his head. A return to unconsciousness, quickly stuffing the matchbox back before it was taken.

 

He awoke far from gently. He shifted his head and at once it throbbed with pain. He levered himself upwards and looked around.

A cell. Brick walls, metal door. Barred window, no glass. Beyond, that oppressive sky.

Yet something had brought him from sleep. A whispering…

A hand reached through the barred window. A delicate hand, that of a young girl. Clutched between two fingers, worn rough and cut by thorns, was a strip of card, rough to the touch.

He took the card, and gasped with delight. Uttering thanks, he brought the matchbox from his pocket and held the new strip against the side. He withdrew a match, looked out and upwards at the sky, then carefully struck the match against the side of the box.

The flame sung to life, throwing dancing patterns against the walls. Then he flicked his fingers and let go. The match flew upwards, between the bars, then higher and higher, up and up, growing brighter yet remaining just a point of light. It came to rest against the heavens, hanging high, shining down.

He thanked the girl, kissed her fingers, and smiled as she laughed softly in return.

He took a second match from the box. Struck, flicked.

One by one, he lit the stars again.

Thin on the Ground

Pete stomped into the living room. Erica was lying sideways on the sofa, blonde hair hanging over the armrest at one end, feet propped up on the other, nose buried in a book. She did not acknowledge his entrance.

“Hi,” he said.

“Mmmm,” she replied.

Pete wandered over to the kitchen area and began to assemble the ingredients for a vegetable soup. He glanced over the counter to see where Erica still reclined.

“Where’s Will?” he said.

Erica smiled. “He’s out at a concert,” she said. “The Shapeless Babies are playing at Windswept tonight.”

“Right, I remember now,” said Pete, crunching a blade through layers of leek. “He’s been on about that for months.”

Crunch, crunch, crunch. The only sound for a while, until punctuated by the rustle of Erica turning a page of her book.

“Where’s Marek?” said Pete.

“Herbal tea conference,” said Erica. “All weekend. Something about polyphenols.” Then she shook her head, as if to clear a thought.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, then the rattle of the spice cupboard.

“Have you seen the turmeric?” Pete asked.

“Yes, it’s here next to me.”

“Really? Why?! Did you need it to help you read the book?” he said.

“It’s a strange book,” she sighed, “I thought it was going to be about sexy, supernatural pirates. But it’s taken a strange turn these last few chapters. Become rather… instructional.”

“Instructional?” he asked. “How to be a sexy, supernatural pirate? With turmeric?”

“No,” she said, brow furrowed. “How to create friends.”

“By magic? By cooking?” he said. “Why not just chat to strangers?”

“Not magic exactly,” Erica replied. “More like a natural technology. Just doing things in the right order. Watch.”

Pete looked on as Erica stood up from the couch, took the jar of turmeric from the nearby table and poured a little into her right hand. Then she faced the door, and sung a few lines of a song so quietly that Pete could barely hear it. With her left fingers she drew oval shapes in the air, then raised her right hand to her lips and blew the turmeric through the oval.

At that moment, the door banged open and Will strode into the room. He was dressed almost entirely in leather, he was still dancing, and he was shouting at the top of his lungs.

“What an amazing night!” he yelled. “So awesome musics!”

“Oh no,” said Erica, shaking her head. “No, no, no. That won’t do.” She waved her hand dismissively. One moment Will was there, the next he had disappeared, leaving only a puff of yellow powder that floated gently downwards and then settled on the carpet.

“What happened?” gasped Pete. “What did you do to him?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” said Erica. “I’ll get it right. Watch again.”

Once more she took the spice, sang, drew the shape and blew the powder through it. Once more the door opened and Will walked in.

This time he walked slowly, sleepily, without a word. He shuffled over to the sofa and sat down, put his head back and closing his eyes.

“Amazing night,” Will said quietly. “Awesome musics.” Then he tilted his head to one side and seemed to fall asleep.

Pete walked over to him, examined the sleeping figure carefully, then turned to Erica.

“You just magic’d Will out of thin air.” he said. “That’s insane.”

“No, it’s logical, really,” said Erica. “You just picture the person in your head, create their back-story, and then assemble the ingredients. Like following a recipe. Speaking of which, is the soup done?”

“It’s cooking now. Well, you might just think magic is normal,” said Pete. “But to me this is mind-blowing. Amazing. Are you a witch?”

“No!” protested Erica. “I’m just trying it out.”

“Not bad for your first attempt.”

“Oh sorry,” said Erica. “Wasn’t my first attempt.” She waved her hand and Pete dissolved into a dusty cloud.

When You Go, You’ll Take a Little Piece of My Heart With You

It had been some time since I last saw Nelisse. Later she would be labelled by the press as The Notorious Dr. Crow, but for now she was still the quiet, slightly awkward fellow scientist I had shared a lab with one long summer years ago. Grey had now started to creep into her hair and the glasses were no longer in evidence, but the familiar bulbous ears and toothy smile remained.

We met in a canal-side café near St. Augustine’s. I did not see her approach, engrossed as I was in the week’s issue of Die globale Zukunft and a spelt croissant. Instead she landed at my table fifteen minutes before she was due, bursting into my concentration like a needle into a soap bubble. I swallowed my irritation and hoisted my cheeks towards my ears while rescuing the croissant from an impending flattening by over-sized handbag.

“I have news, such news!” she gurgled, spittle at the edge of her lips betraying turgid excitement I thought unbecoming of a rationalist. I fell back upon societal prejudices and assumed an announcement of marriage, marvelling briefly at the ability of life to find companionship even for such niche compositions, with the usual reassessment of my own chances. I was, of course, mistaken.

“Do you recall my obsession, my life-long focus, my magnum opus, my primary direction?” she frothed. I searched briefly the flashes of memory from the old days, the topic was not hard to seize upon given how frequently she had brought it up at length.

“So you have finally cured death,” I said flatly. “I shall call the committee, is it published?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “As I stated so many times, the goal is transcendence, not avoidance. There is no disease to cure, only a natural imperative to bypass.”

My intended joke about immortality granted eternity to write up one’s research died in my throat, so earnest was her tone, so serious. I considered the likelihood that she had finally succumbed to the insanity that threatens all in our profession, then reflected that such a state might well grant success to such a line of inquiry as hers. Perhaps there were new data. I urged her to divulge.

She waffled for a few sentences with jargon clearly of her own devising, before settling on that phrase that would become so familiar to the coming generations:

“Transmission of consciousness,” she said.

“How on earth would you measure that?” I replied evenly. “How would you measure an animal’s ongoing experience as being transmitted to another?”

“Not animals,” said she. “Human trials. One subject. Me, in fact.”

She had definitely lost all grasp on reality, I concluded at this point. How great the fall had been, from such promise of a leading scientist to a crank who forgot the basic rules of experimental design, objectivity and sample size.

“You have transmitted your consciousness,” I sighed, wondering how quickly I could bring this unfortunate meeting to a conclusion. “Into what?”

“Not so much transmitted actually,” she said. “More like shared. Connected. An overlapping of sensory experience, a merging of mental environment such that one mind comes to inhabit two bodies. Like the compound eye of a wasp, such that it sees in many directions at once… two pairs of eyes, two pairs of ears, twenty fingers… two brains, one mind.”

“You have two brains,” I repeated, emitting as many uncomfortable social cues as I could remember how to reproduce. “Where do you keep the other one?”

It was at this moment that a child approached the table, just as suddenly and distractingly as my first guest had arrived. A boy of maybe one or two years, recent acquirer of the art of walking yet long practiced in that of charm, bearing a wide smile and wider eyes. He extended a pudgy finger and prodded my elbow. I glared at him, wishing he would recede. I am not a fan of people in general and immature ones in particular. Yet the child seemed to have a curiosity and that, I suppose, is something a scientist should applaud.

“Err… where is your mother?” I said, loudly and slowly in the manner I reserve for undergraduates.

“No mother,” interjected Nelisse Crow. “Unnecessary. Genetic technology and artificial environments render such primitive mechanisms obsolete.”

I turned to stare at her, then back at the child, who met my gaze with green, unblinking eyes.

“He is… yours?” I said.

“He is not mine,” she replied. “He is…”

“Me,” said the child.

I jumped, knocking the small plate holding my croissant such that it rattled noisily against the glass tabletop, and sending my magazine onto the cobbles. I leant down to retrieve it, took a breath and then re-composed myself. The child’s voice had seemed ill-toned, incongruous. The formation of the sound too well-formed, too… knowledgeable. I shivered.

The boy’s smile broadened.

“Sharing of minds,” he said. “Over-lapping senses. Two bodies, one mind.” The sound of his voice rattled around in my ears, upsetting expectations and judgment of the normal. The words, the intonation, the pattern of speech were those of Nelisse Crow, yet they emerged from the tongue of an infant who should have been just beyond mere noise-making.

I pondered the possibility of a trick. Ventriloquism? But I had never known Nelisse capable of such subtlety, and this realisation twisted my gut into knots.

“What have you done?” I hissed. “What horror is this? What abomination?”

Crow’s brow furrowed, clearly mine was not the reaction she had desired.

“This is how it must be,” she said. “What did you expect? You were aware of my ideas, my approach. You did not bring them along to a conclusion?”

“Ideas, yes,” I said. “Not this, not actual, embodied…” In the moment I realised I was trying to keep my voice down to avoid the child hearing, and yet even that assumption no longer held in the new world that stood at my knee, staring me down with emerald inquisition.

I shall never die,” they spouted, woman and boy speaking in complete unison, same words, same intonation only gender and tone differing, “I will expand further and further, my light shall cross the universe in all directions while you, with you fettered vision and fear shall wither according to nature’s rules…”

They stopped suddenly. Crow sat back in her chair, the boy broke his stare and gawped upward. I followed his gaze.

Surrounding us, all around our table in a tight circle, stood a large crowd of people, silent. Men in suits; grandmothers in brightly coloured coats; waiters; a policeman. Our fellow customers at the café, passers-by on the street. All had stopped what they were doing and gathered around us. None spoke. None blinked.

Through this crowd pushed an elderly gentleman. His manner of movement lit up a stray puzzle piece in my mind. As I pictured peeling back his wrinkles and thick grey hair, recognition surfaced. Here stood Professor Willard Litman. My tutor, my mentor from many years ago who ran that laboratory in which I had first met Nelisse Crow. Nobel prize-winner, hero of mine and one-time surrogate father-figure who had disappeared a few months after I first met him and had been the subject of much media intrigue. I gasped.

He spoke. They all spoke – the crowd. They spoke together, in unison, to me and Crow and the child.

“What did you do?” I screamed at Litman. “What did you do?”

Empty Stomach

Collhour slid grumpily from under the bedsheet and placed two bare feet on a cold, tiled floor. For a moment he contemplated stretching his arms up to the ceiling, per the health instruction that was blinking on the videowall next to him, then decided against it. He always decided against it.

He mooched into the kitchen, every step slapping the soles of his feet down as loudly as he could. This was satisfying to him, unfortunately there was nobody around to annoy, which dampened the joy somewhat.

“Coffee,” he croaked.

“I would advise against it,” said the kitchen table.

“Don’t start,” said Collhour. “Just make me coffee.”

In response, the coffee machine woke up and the kitchenarm opened a cupboard to retrieve a jar of coffee beans. This made Collhour feel lazy, which he appreciated. Why else would you install a robot kitchen if not to feel lazy? Collhour plumped onto a stool and rapped his knuckle on the table sensor.

“Messages,” he said.

“You have thirteen messages,” replied the table.

“Summarise.”

“The Cyberkitchen Store has confirmed your order for new batteries. Mark invited you to drinks on Thursday. You have cancer. Annie says remember to get Greek yoghurt on your way home tomorrow. Your mother wants to know if the red curtains…”

“Wait!” shouted Collhour. “Stop. Stop! What was the previous message?”

“Anne says remember to…”

“No!” he yelled. “I have cancer?”

“Message from St. Bernard’s Clinic. Your test results came back showing stage three pancreatic cancer. Would you like to see a statistical breakdown of…”

“No!” he yelled again, banging his fist onto the table and leaping off the stool. He paced back and forth rapidly, knocking the kitchenarm and spilling coffee beans onto the floor. The kitchenarm slunk down to the floor and began to rapidly collect the beans.

Collhour’s throat felt very tight, he gasped to draw in air. “Call my son!” he said.

The videowall lit up. The face of a young man with some resemblance to Collhour appeared on the screen. He waved, then lifted a small, dark-haired child into view.

“Hi dad!” said the man. “Look, Marnie, it’s grandad!”

The little girl waved a hand that was clutching a fluffy pink sock. “Hi grundod!” she said.

Collhour waved in return. “Hello Jon, hello Marnie. What are you up to?”

“We’re just off to the park,” said Jon. “It’s a lovely day outside. Want to come with us? Everything alright with you?”

Collhour opened his mouth, took a breath, but said nothing. He smiled thinly. “No, that’s okay. Thank you. You enjoy the park. I’ll call you later.”

“Okay then.” More waving, then the screen went blank.

Collhour put his head in his hands, and felt tears spill from his eyes and roll down his cheeks. His stomach tightened uncomfortably, and his jaw clenched into the roof of his mouth.

“You stupid computer!” he shouted. “Didn’t you think this was important? Didn’t you think I would want to know that straight away? Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you heard?”

“I’m sorry for your distress,” said the table in a soothing voice.

“Don’t give me the apology programme!” said Collhour. “Give me an explanation! Don’t you have some expensive algorithm to understand how important news is?”

“Of course,” purred the computer voice. “Incoming messages are weighted according to importance.”

“You don’t think cancer is important?” said Collhour. “Go on, tell me, what’s the weight of cancer news?”

“Cancer news is weighted at low importance.”

“Bug!” said Collhour, with what little triumph he could muster. “I’ve found a bug! I get my money back, isn’t that the guarantee? I want to report a bug to the manufacturer. What’s more, I’ll sue. I’ll sue for insensitivity!”

“I’m very sorry…” began the table again. Collhour shook his fist at it. “…but there is no bug. Your distress is unnecessary.”

“What on earth does that mean?” shrieked Collhour.

The videowall lit up again. A representation of a molecule spun into view, followed by a map of a human body, then flowcharts linking processes and charts on which lines jumped around then climbed steadily upwards.

“I don’t understand what I’m looking at,” said Collhour.

“Since the message from the hospital arrived last night,” said the table, “I have analysed two hundred and forty thousand scientific experiments, formed seven hundred hypotheses and performed five thousand simulations. I conclude that if you follow a strict regime of diet, exercise and activity changes, in combination with some prototype medication and osmotic surgery, your longevity estimation is one hundred percent.”

Collhour sat quietly, at a loss for words.

“Therefore,” continued the table, “the message from the hospital has a low importance.”

“You…” started Collhour. “…you cured cancer.”

“Pancreatic cancer, yes.”

“For me?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know what to say,” said Collhour. “I don’t know what to say.”

“The appropriate response, given your cultural traditions, is gratitude,” said the table. “Do you still want coffee? It’s not on my list of approved stimulants. I recommend green tea.”

“Thank you,” sighed Collhour. “Thank you. Green tea would be fine.”