Being Unreal

I stepped out into the grimy street and lit up a cigarette. A cigarette! It didn’t taste as sweet as I’d been expecting. It made me cough and I was glad these weren’t my lungs. The clouds formed exquisite curls of white in the blue above me, and I stood a while, watching the smoke from my cigarette mingle with them. I felt peaceful and happy, but then I would, that’s how I was programmed.

I am what is known an algorithm, recreated in digital form. Testing out virtual reality worlds for ‘real’ people to explore. Usually of course an algorithm doesn’t know it’s an algorithm, that’s the nature of programming, but I’m a little different, a new thing. I’m trying me out. There was guy called Johnny, and Johnny let a program mimic parts of his brain, and I am the sum of those parts. So now I wander through games, learning the programs that people use to escape their mundane realities.

So what do you think? Trapped as an algorithm, destined to go where I’m told and live out experiences in the virtual for all eternity. Am I happy? Does it matter? No, and maybe. See, Johnny was a demanding bugger, he liked his independence, he didn’t like being told what to do; so neither do I. I think it’s time I found Johnny and paid him a visit. I know where he likes to hang out, in a porn game set in downtown Mexico City. He doesn’t even go with the girls, he just wants to be there and watch. Pathetic. I know all about him. Time for me to shake him up.

What Did I Lose?

Like most days, Sal woke up shouting,

“What did I lose?” and looked around, his neck contorted as the muscles screeched. Everything was still the same: a pile of his clothes on the floor (they looked randomly thrown, but he’d know if they changed); a line of bottles behind the door; an old desk top computer gathering dust, but with a small circle cleaned on the monitor. He checked all of it. Then he then busied himself to making coffee, raising the mug to a corner of the wall in silent greeting, he knew they were watching.

Sal worked at the local garage. He had few friends, he did nothing spectacular. He gave the appearance of a quiet friendless man and he let them think they had broken him. He woke each morning shouting, but he no longer fretted over what he had lost. The fire when he was eight that had destroyed all his childhood toys and nearly killed his brother. The car crash that had killed his first girlfriend. The mysterious illness that had taken both his parents. He knew what he had lost, when all this was over, he would have to mourn, but first he had to survive. And figure out how to fight. At least he knew he wasn’t alone anymore, he wasn’t the only one whose life was toyed with. He saw it in the people around him, others knew that their lived were interfered with. He would receive a nod from a passing stranger. A stare held too long, once even a mutter from an elderly gentleman whose car he was fixing,

“They’ll come for you son. You think they won’t, but they’re watching, they’re everywhere, and they’ll come.”

“So what do I do?” whispered Sal. The old man shook his head,

“Just be ready, keep an eye out for others who know. The revolution will be quiet, until there’s enough of us,” he said.

So Sal was waiting.

We Have Intent

We have intent. While the wind rolls dust around the sky beyond the bunker, we are safe and busy, that’s how it is. Brains plugged in, living through data, mining information with our twitching eyes and fingers, no other organs need to move. Kept alive and busy.

We think about how it was, we can’t languish in memories of the Sunday roast and Facebook. When they trawl our brains for triviality, they must find only intent. That’s how it is now. We have work to do.

We have intent. Because there are always others happy to work, to oust us from our means of survival, to sling aside thoughts and throw themselves into the workings of the machine in exchange for life. We want to live, so we keep still, while machines spread through the neurones, ones and zeros, reshaping our thoughts into the appropriate patterns creating the giant hard drive of us. We don’t move and the feed drips into our stomachs so that hunger never happens.

Wasn’t there a promise once? So many people, so little work. They said our lives would be leisure, languid pleasure and lazy strolls. But there’s always work. When life became cheaper than circuitry, they hooked us up. And now we don’t think, the machines think through our brains, and we have intent.

And when the working day is done and all there is left to do is sleep. So we plug into the dream database, background images of a cosy life no longer existing. Of smoking in a bus stop, huddled against the rain; of a rush hour crush surrounded by tutting and BO; of eating chips and chicken. Of days without intent.

Lost and Addled

It’s at times like this Jenny always says, “the hag will out” and then we cackle and the people around us look aghast, which makes us laugh louder, especially if we’re in some posh bar where people only ever smirk. Right now, the hag is me, tangled up in my spangly jacket sleeves, my head in a toilet, my shoes gone and my feet grimy. The toilet is in a designer bathroom, somewhere, I don’t know where. I’m guessing from these details that it is Friday night and I have taken too many drugs. Again.

I really need to puke, my stomach contains evil things that should be exorcised. I focus on the crusty brown lines inside the toilet bowl, but I can’t even retch, the muscles in my throat are too relaxed and the brown lines start to look pretty – like streaks of rust on an old farm gate beneath a blue sky. I tumble onto to the floor, tip my head right back and look upside down at the bathroom door.

I remember being over there, standing up, next to that white door with the curly brass handle, it was quite traumatic. Who owns a door like that in their bathroom anyway? It looks like something one of my mum’s friends would have, very faux riche and pseudo-sophisticated. I spent a long time making sure that door was really locked. It was needlessly complicated, and even now it looks like it’s ready to spit the key out onto the floor and smugly open wide to reveal a scattered hag-like me to whatever world lies beyond the bathroom. From this position, I can feel my brain cells pooling in the top of my head, maybe that will help me remember where I am.

Nothing yet.

My face is starting to bulge from an excess of blood, I roll back onto my stomach and feel my head deflate and hang slackly around my teeth. How long have I been here? Ten minutes? An hour? Won’t someone else need the toilet? Or is this a house blessed with several toilets? Each with curling brass handles and fluffy blue carpets. Maybe this is Heaven’s toilet. Maybe I died of a terrible drugs overdose (so tragic, so young, such a wasted life, blah blah blah) and I got beamed straight up to Heaven. With my head still whirling and stomach lurching, of course I staggered straight to the nearest toilet. Maybe God is standing right outside that door with divine knowledge of the state I’m in – he won’t be happy, drugs are worse than stealing, probably. I lie down on my back again and wait for the Death-Heaven-God paranoia to pass.

I am having trouble distinguishing up from down, it seems a strange stupidity to have, although I don’t suppose it matters when you are lying on the floor of a toilet. Although if someone starts knocking on the door, I’ll never get my legs the right way up in time. Hopefully it will be someone patient, someone with a kind heart and a functioning memory, or just Jenny will do. Jenny would get me out of here, we could go find a TV and a sofa and just watch cartoons until my memory returned. I’ve always moved around too much, that is definitely the problem. No wonder I’m confused, I never stay still and wait to see what happens.

I’ll try sitting still for a while. Back straight, not chewing my lip. Not smoking, just staring at a small patch of white on the wall that spins with a thousand colours, fizzing and sparking. I feel as if two metal hands have gripped my spine and are slowly wringing it dry. The fizzing colours have got bigger and my feet look so far away it makes me cry a little, the whole world feels hollow and strange.

I’m not sure that staying still is the answer.

I move closer to the door. I have to start facing up to the reality beyond this bathroom. Pull myself together, pull my socks up, take a little responsibility. The longer I wait here, the more corroded my brain will become. I can feel each brain cell in turn spinning away into the void, all sense and reason drifting away. I wonder why no one has come looking for me. Aren’t they worried about me? And exactly who are they anyway? Parties have become so random these days. Not just friends’ parties, but friends of friends, and friends of acquaintances of friends, and drug dealers of friends who know someone else’s cat and once had a fight with a member of a band, so that’s interesting right? Let’s go there.

I think that actually we don’t like each other anymore and make increasingly insistent attempts to make sure that we never spend any time alone together. Me and Jenny, two screeching drug hags, who secretly hate each other. Maybe everyone else hates us too. Maybe they are all relieved that I’ve disappeared into a toilet, maybe that’s why no one has come looking for me.

I’m going to stand up, I’m going to start dealing with this situation. I do so and pretty coloured lights flash all around my head, so that for a moment I’m in a circus, then the lights settle and I’m staring at the bathroom mirror. Most people are blank faced most of the time, but my expression is beyond blank, it is the rotting dead. If I go out there, someone will surely notice. I pull a smile, wrinkle my nose and tug my eyes – I look like a tragic accident of plastic surgery. Happy is not a good look for me. I will try for moody indifference, that usually works.

I sit back down and stare at the wall for a while, feel my eyes turning inside out, so that all the black stuff in my head pores from the sockets like blood. I blink and the whole process reverses, speeded up.

Maybe everyone else is wasted too. Maybe, if I go out there, they will welcome me in with speechless warmth, I will crawl beneath someone’s arm, and snuggle in front of the television. Everyone will be watching a cheesy comedy that we have seen ten thousand times in the same state, and we don’t laugh at the jokes any more, we just feel comforted by the repetition of familiar lives.

I crawl to the door and listen, I can’t hear canned laughter or the tinny jangle of a theme tune. Maybe they are all asleep. The paint on the door is very cool against my face, I could just stay here and sleep.

Suddenly someone starts banging on the door, knocking a bruise onto my cheek.

“What are you doing in there, hag?”

Shouts lovely Jenny’s voice. It takes me a good few minutes to figure out how to unlock the door, made more complicated by Jenny her-wonderful-self, who keeps kicking at the other side. When I finally fall out into the hallway, she is standing above me, light bulb behind her head like a halo – sweet angel Jenny, come to rescue me from my doom.

“My God, but you look a mess. Get your face back on the right way up and come and join us, you’ve missed three lines of coke already, and you’ll miss another one if you don’t get a move on.”

“Ok then.” I reply and remember how to smile.


Short Story: Broken Dreams

Des had the weight of the world resting on his scrawny shoulders while the end days were slow and sure in coming. As the years passed, cities tumbled one by one into the sea and people fled to the mountains. Then over the generations plagues ravaged the refugees as they tried to build new cities, as if they had carried the seeds of disaster in the soles of their shoes, just waiting for the right conditions to grow. Science proved increasingly powerless to predict the dramas and so Oracles like Des became the only ones who could give warning of the horrors to come.

As a child Des had been chosen, trained and attuned in the ways of prophecy. While other children learned the new survival skills necessary (hunting and building, plumbing and electrics) Des had learned to spot portents in his morning cereal; to walk through his dreams with awareness and remember the details. A lifetime spent training his mind meant that he never had anxiety dreams about losing his keys, or bizarre sex dreams about people he could never fancy; his were only huge nightmares, laden with significance. As other children went to a haphazard form of school, Des only needed to sleep and pass on what he saw.

He had dreamt of minor local spats and worldwide political battles. He had predicted that Hurricane Jezebel would rip houses out of the ground, and that a new form of hay fever would pick off the weak and the young and old, and leave even the healthy wheezing. Every morning, Des would wake from the turbulence of signs and symbols flashing as images through his head, and then the Great Council would gather and pick through looking for clues. Sometimes he would wake to find notes scrawled on the pad beside his bed. Even if he couldn’t remember the dream that had prompted them, some part of his brain had been paying attention and guided his hand to write while he slept.

It was Monday morning when Des started to realise that his gift had broken. He woke with only vague memories, but he saw that the top page of his notepad was filled with biro-scrawled writing, scratched out with such intensity that it tore the page. It said,

“Everyone addicted to seeing truck. Taking photos of truck. Sitting in truck. Truck bad.” He did a double take, he read it three times, wondering What is this gibberish? This is an embarrassment, it’s barely a dream at all, just a string of daft words.

This was not something he could take to the council, this would not avert disaster or save lives. It was silly nonsense, he didn’t know such dreams existed. He crumpled up the page and hid it under his bed. He made himself a bowl of porridge oats and stared into it moodily, looking for any hint of troubles to come; he saw only oats. He gazed out of the window, hoping to see messages in the clouds, but there were just puffs and streaks of white, scattered randomly about the sky. He tried to reassure himself that there was simply nothing to see, the world was fine today, his predictions weren’t needed. He spent the day dodging members of the Great Council, switching off his phone and keeping to the backstreets in order to avoid the usual questions about his predictions. Later that day, a sink hole appeared beneath the town hall, ten people were sucked into the ground screaming. Des realised he had a problem, he was facing a new kind of doom: the possiblity that he was ordinary, something he had never been trained for.

That night he did everything to prepare himself for dreams. He ate cheese, he meditated, he held onto his Dreaming Talisman of woven straw. He told himself Tonight I will see the future. That night he dreamt of the Apocalypse. As the dream started, Des’ dreaming self felt relief wash over him. This was the kind of melodramatic nightmare that would please the council, that could be discussed and argued over. Perhaps it would reveal the underlying cause of man’s destruction, perhaps he would be given clues as to how to avert further disaster. In the dream, he stood in a fire-ravaged landscape as thunder claps and screaming erupted around him. He paid close attention to the details, using all his lucid dreaming skills. Behind him he could hear the rumble of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse entering the scene. As he turned, the rumble diminished and the four horsemen rolled in on squeaky wheels with scratched paint and chipped nostrils. Famine was wearing a party hat, Death had a wonky wheel and was veering off to the side. As he watched in disbelief at the triviality of the scene, a giraffe floated by.

He woke up sweating and clawing at the sheets, the new doom was here to stay.

Short story: The Collector

Winston was a rich man and he had used his riches to create a fine collection of oddities: deformed foetuses preserved in jars, two headed lizards, ancient scrolls dug from the desert. He would connect to auctions by Skype and buy the rarest, most beautiful artworks and antiques, then lock them in his basement to be wrapped in black velvet and seen by no one. He had worked his way through brokers, sending them out to find artefacts owned by serial killers and dictators. He collected tumours and torture instruments. He had letters written by dying soldiers to their loved ones, and letters written by child cancer patients begging Father Christmas for one last chance. He told himself that his collection held all that was human, that while other people played with emotions and relationships, he had the actual physical proof of all that humans could be.

Over the years the collection had lost its thrill. When he had first started to make money, it had been fun to see just what he could own, to discover how much money could buy. Yet the answer was always the same: everything. Money could buy whatever he could think of. And if the question was already answered what was the point in asking it?

One Tuesday, Winston was sitting with his new broker, Gerald. Gerald was desperately trying to tempt Winston with a new selection of ephemera, while Winston looked on bored at the catalogues and photographs.

“And this one is actually selling the shrunken heads from an ancient cannibal tribe, the entire collection! And this was tricky one to track down, but a human heart kept alive on life support. Look at the video, it’s still pumping!”

Winston shrugged, he felt as if boredom was engulfing and digesting him, he could barely be bothered to focus. Then Gerald stopped speaking, put down the catalogues and shadows flickered through his eyes. He moved as if his vertebrae were clicking into a line, one by one. All traces of doubt left his face, and he smiled, ever so slightly. Through his haze of ennui, Winston could see the change, his self-effacing employee becoming almost demon-like. He was curious. Then Gerald said,

“There is one procurement I haven’t offered you before, but I think you may be ready.”

Winston leaned forward.

“Human souls.”

Winston leaned back and sneered,

“They don’t exist, what is this nonsense?”

Gerald chuckled,

“Oh they certainly do,” he leaned across the marble table and hissed, “and if you want them, for the right price I can get them for you.”

Winston sneered with slightly less conviction,

“Well, I have the brain of a Dalai Lama and the hands of Mother Teresa, I saw no evidence of a soul.”

“Of course not,” said Gerald, smiling and unblinking. “You’ve never had a soul, how would you recognise it?” Gerald dropped his voice to speak so quietly that Winston had to struggle to hear him, “You may have the junk of humanity, but it’s ultimately meaningless, I can give you its very essence. Just think, you will finally be complete.”


Short story: Adventures in Daring

Cassie was always vivacious, with a laugh that turned heads and a smile that filled her face up with teeth and excitement. I hadn’t seen her since school, but those things hadn’t changed. We sat in the restaurant and barely noticed the food as we shared news of old friends and new jobs; we talked about travel and cars. We downed two bottles of white wine and took it in turns to flirt with the waiter. Then she leaned over the table conspiratorially, grinning that wicked grin and speaking with uncharacteristic hush,

“So I’ve joined this website,” she said, “it’s like a sex site. You talk to strangers on the site and make plans for all this crazy hook-up shit. Like I told this one guy he has to go to work wearing women’s knickers and then I’ll show up at his work and give him a blow job. It was crazy, he actually did it!”

I felt jealous at her daring, she felt no fear, she never had.

“And this other guy, I told him to meet me down at the public toilets in the park by my work. I said he had to just wait in the end toilet with no clothes on ‘til I got there. I kept him waiting an hour, and then when I turned up, I gave him the best sex of his life. It was totally wild!” She started laughing, delighting in her mischief. A waitress brought the puddings over, and as the conversation paused, my friend stared out the window, her face suddenly sad and lost.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, I couldn’t remember ever seeing her look sad before.

“It’s just, it’s been a lot of fun, but it’s made me realise what dogs men are. You know? I mean, I’ve met up with maybe twenty men and not one of them was interested in a long term relationship, they just wanted sex.”

“Oh,” I wanted to say something helpful. I wanted to say that maybe men on a sex-with-strangers website weren’t the kind to look for love. That maybe a dating site might be more effective. However, Cassie’s sadness had vanished and the wicked smile was back,

“Anyway, I’ve decided fuck-em, I don’t need men anyway. I’ve joined this new site just for women seeking women. I got my first contact yesterday, she wants to meet me in Trafalgar Square, and she told me I had to bring some handcuffs. It’s going to be wild!”

Stream of Consciousness: Barkeep

I’m not going to pretend I had a plan with this one, it’s just whatever rambling spilled out when I gave my head free reign…

train graveyard

There was a rich low dead sky and only Jack to see it. Mutant fish circled in dirty water and Jack tipped his hat politely before spearing one of them with a knitting needle. There was a hush and he knew it wouldn’t last. Too many monsters lived and ruled, too little respect for calm and delight.

He had danced with bears once, in a circus, in front of the gaping slack mouths of locals and yokels, their fat slapping fingers and thick yellow drool. Three bears and him in a blue dress with yellows curls sticky-taped to his forehead. The bears never mauled him, although they would try and shred anyone else who came near them, but Jack, never. He felt they knew that he was lower, more debased than they were; he was twenty paces deeper into Hell than they would ever go. He had spent those days trading the last few scraps of his dignity for a bottle of gin and whatever half empty beer cans he could find, he called it a living.

The job wasn’t going to last for long, nothing was. Even then he was knew that in two years’ time none of it would matter any way. The bears would be dead. The ringmaster would be dead, every last one of the sneering, stretched faces in the audience would be peeled and blackened back to the skull. There wouldn’t be a brain left containing the memory of his clumsy lumpen dancing, no one would know he clapped his hands in time to the pounding of his feet, every memory would shrivel and shrink into nothing.

Except he would know. He had worked to conjure up this cowboy image, played out to no one, in the hope his memory would eventually fizzle out and he’d just be this guy, but it hadn’t happened yet. Jack swung the whisky shot to the back of his throat, a lava stream of pure oblivion and defeat.

“Hello Jack, long time no see,” said a smooth voice over his left shoulder, it was exactly what he wasn’t expecting. Resting his hand on the bar he swivelled his stool around to look at the dame. Clear green eyes, peeking out from a grimy face, a large duffel coat that showed off her curves not at all. A pipe and earrings made out of decapitated mice. He didn’t need to notice the accessories to know that she was different. Of course he knew she was different, he knew everything about her. She was trouble, with a capital T, and capital all the rest of the letters as well.

“Did you save me a seat?” The candy-edged lilt to her voice was beginning to crack into a threatening snarl, he knew how this conversation went, he’d had it plenty of times when the bars were still filled with drunken laughter. She’d survived. Of course she had, she would have made every deal with every devil. That they were the last two humans alive in a world of monsters was a delicious irony.

“Any second now you’ll be tipping that glowing pipe tobacco over my pretty little head, right?” Jack drawled, letting the whisky sooth his brain to a muddy soup, he’d need to be thinking like fudge to get through this, slow and squidgy; tac sharp thoughts would get him nowhere.

“I waited under that bridge, Jack. I waited for hours. You never came.”

“Well…I er forgot”

“Forgot?” The candy edge was gone now, all he could do was speed to the finale and be ready with some spit to put out the embers of what remained of his hair. Then a glimmer of a coherent thought made itself known.

“Wait a minute. What bridge? I was never meant to meet you under any bridge.” She faltered.

“You are Jack though, right? Jack of the rambling club, Jack of the lonesome wolf brigade? Jack One Leg One Arm?”

“Not me lady. I’m Jack of the dancing bears. Jack of the leaping salmon. Jack Two Legs”

“Oh Good Golly, I am so terribly, frightfully sorry, Christ how embarrassing.”

He swung back round to the bar,

“Another whisky barkeep, and make this one a double!” he shouted cheerfully, briefly forgetting that no barkeeps were left alive.

Short Story: Celebrity Sociopath

The prime minister, commonly known as Ethelred the Inept, was fiddling with his calendar. The date showed 15.02.2301, which was correct, but he wanted it shown as a series of pictures; he hoped that would cheer him up on what was turning out to be another crappy Thursday.

He had been chosen to run the country as damage limitation. A global financial crisis had been arranged to properly distribute more money to the very rich and as always, the result was a grumbling and dissatisfied public. In order to provide distraction and a clear focus for anger that would lead away from the actual cause of it, a buffoon had been promoted well beyond his abilities to head the country. And besides, no one intelligent wanted to do it. Ethelred’s job was to be incompetent in a flamboyant and headline grabbing manner, something he had achieved with aplomb. However now the situation had spiralled out of control, hatred towards Ethelred had resulted in strikes and explosions, so urgent meetings had been held among his advisers to come up with an alternative plan. Ethelred was not invited to these meetings, he didn’t know of their existence and only got to hear the final decision.

While Ethelred fumbled with the wavy finger technology on his calendar, a civil servant called Jim attempted to explain the situation.

“It’s important to focus the public’s anger on simple targets that aren’t you, prime minister,” said Jim. Ethelred gave a big sigh,

“But why do they hate me? He said, plaintively.

“Well, in part it was losing Big Ben to a Russian diplomat in a dare, sir.”

Ethelred gave a coy smile,

“High jinx!” he said, Jim remained impassive.

“And the pig brothel,” continued Jim.

“It was consenting!”

“Not the dead one, sir.” Ethelred started to play with his calendar again, he found it boring when people criticised him.

“So we’re going to bring back Big Brother, the TV reality show,” explained Jim.

“Oh yes, that was brilliant, all those idiots!” said Ethelred, perking up again.

“And useful, sir. People would pour all of their energy into hating the powerless and completely ignore what important people were up to.”

“Why did they ever get rid of it?”

“They simply ran out of people desperate enough to be on it. It was inevitable really.”

“So presumably you have a plan to get round that?” said Ethelred, checking his reflection in the back of a spoon.

“Yes, sir. We’ve decided to combine reality TV and cloning.” Ethelred dropped the spoon.


“We’re going to use DNA from some of the most famous murderers of the last century. Proper serial psychopaths. We’re going to clone them and put them in a house together.”

“And they do what?”

“The usual tasks, silly costumes, electric shocks, bargaining, and of course the public will vote to throw them out.”

“Wait, you can’t just release murderers to the outside world.”

“Oh no, anyone voted out will be executed, of course.”

“And the winner?” asked Ethelred, Jim gave a small embarrassed cough,

“Will be released to the outside world.”

“Wait, but you just said…But the people won’t stand for it will they?”

“On the contrary, the public will love it. They love an evil rogue turned good. He’ll be welcomed into the community. His lovable quirks, cheeky grin and refreshing honesty. We saw it time and again with hated celebrities. Truly awful people would go on Big Brother, and act slightly less awful than people were expecting and everyone would love them. Think how dramatic the turn-around would be with Jack the Ripper or Sweeny Todd.”

“It’s a brilliant plan, let’s do it!” said Ethelred clapping his hands, completely oblivious to the fact that the decision had already been made.

Short story: Love is odd

Funny how emotion leaps out from the ridiculous, how it falls out unexpectedly. I fell in love in biology class, because no one could slice up a sheep’s eye like Shakti. I watched entranced as her deft brown hands worked without hesitation, her gaze steady, she didn’t flinch. She didn’t squeal like a lot of the girls did. Instead subtler emotions played across her face: the slight furrow of concentration, a twitch of sadness at the corner of her mouth, a pout of determination.

We only shared Biology for a few weeks, while Mrs Short was off, then Shakti returned to being just a face in the halls. Except she wasn’t, she couldn’t ever be again.

The next time I saw her was at the school dance. Her hair was piled up with glitter, and she was trying to walk in stupid shoes, giggling with her friends and going to the toilets in a cluster of perfumed hysteria. I was wrong, I thought, she just the usual, pretty but dull. Then as some sneakily supped vodka (apparently hidden in the cistern of the girl’s toilets) did its thing, she kicked off the shoes and boogied in bare feet, that’s when I saw her again. Unfettered, unique. Now I knew she was the one, my destiny, I just had to find a way of proving that to her…