Short Story: Breakfast Deliberations

It’s not often that you walk into the dining room on a lavishly appointed airship gondola to find a seven foot steam-powered cyborg dressed as a butler. It’s even less common to do so while finding him holding an irate German by the scruff of the neck in one hand and someone in an oil-stained white lab coat in the other.

As I had been expecting a simple breakfast on entering the room, I hope I can be excused for being a little surprised and raising my voice in consternation. My name is Abernathy Fitzroy, of the Chelsea Fitzroys, and I’m Lord Farnsworth’s quartermaster for these little expeditions.

Barnes slowly lowered his two captives to the ground and released his grip, wide gauntleted fingers spreading wide. The two men stumbled away from each other and their erstwhile captor, and immediately began levelling accusations against each other and poor Barnes. As the butler was showing every sign of wanting to bash their heads together I thought it best to step in. I banished Orson to the workshop, while Herr Machen stormed off unprompted to his rooms.

Harp mimed applause and returned to the paperwork in front of them while the lethally polite ladies from the Finishing School pretended to ignore the whole thing while feeding each other morsels from their plates and cooing over a catalogue of hats. If I hadn’t seen Lady Alexa skewer a wirewolf with its own severed tail two nights ago, I wouldn’t have credited just how much my employer valued their presence here.

Barnes and I nodded to each other. He smoothed the front of his shirt and pulled out a chair for me. He was always sure to go that extra mile for me, knowing his maintenance relied on my being able to negotiate for and procure essentials for him.

“My dear Abernathy,” said Harp, “how lovely to see you this morning. Do try the black pudding, it’s lovely and moist – where on earth did you dig some up from out here?”

“Aren’t I allowed to have some secrets? A good quartermaster makes these things look simple.” I did help myself to a good size portion along with everything else. It was going to be a long day, even if Lord Farnsworth hadn’t told anyone yet what was in store.

Harp smiled in that secretive way they always did. The notes and map fragments on the table were soon tidied away for safety, and Harp’s eyes fixed on mine. “We should reach Talefirth by midday.” Harp pronounced. “It should be quiet enough to rendezvous with Lord Farnsworth’s coach without drawing too many prying eyes.”

The ladies had turned to listen. Miss Bellingharm smiled and leaned closer. “I take it this will be a short layover – or do we need to break out arms from the locker?” Alexa sipped her cup of tea and affected nonchalance.

“If Lord Farnsworth has beaten us there, then we should just need a few hours to take on more coal, isn’t that right Mr Fitzroy?” Harp seemed to need no more than confirmation, so I nodded through my breakfast. “Otherwise we may have to tell the crew to set a watch, but we really shouldn’t be in any danger.” Harp concluded.

“I really hope those words won’t come back to bite any of us.” Alexa quipped. “Though goodness knows an attempt on the ship might be a good warm up for the main event, don’t you think?”

Short Story: What The Butler Sees

Lord Farnsworth’s butler, Barnes, had seen better days, but the gearsmiths in Lanthorn Street had done their best to restore him after his last misadventure. The old ticking noise that had usually preceded him into the room was gone, but the pneumatic hiss of his prosthetic leg more than made up for it.

If the encroaching mechanisms fused with his ailing flesh bothered him, he was far too stoic to make a fuss where anyone might see him. He had served both the present Lord Farnsworth and his father before him with faultless efficiency, leading some to joke that he had a little clockwork in him long before the gearsmiths were commissioned.

He advanced with military precision ahead of the girls into the dining room, and supervised them as they prepared the room for breakfast. An array of platters and tureens were rapidly filled, and the smell soon brought the houseguests out of their respective rooms.

Lord Farnsworth may have been called away, but he had left strict instructions with his gentleman’s gentleman that the frankly motley crew now assembling should be extended every courtesy. Barnes was assiduous in his efforts to make this happen.

The Bellingharm woman and her companion Alexa were first to arrive, and politely acknowledged his presence even as they took their seats. The next to enter was Herr Manchen, whose polychromatic lenses concealed much of his scarred face. He was soon engaged in a heated debate with the dour engineer-savant who had arrived in the small hours of the morning. He had given his name as Orson – at least that was what Barnes hoped he’d said – his hearing wasn’t what it was.

Last but not least was Lord Farnsworth’s advisor, the mysterious androgyne known as Harp. Barnes didn’t trust them, but his employer did. They exchanged a cool glance and then Harp started filling a plate with a hearty selection of fruit.

The strange assembly paid Barnes and the servants little mind as they broke their fast. Seeing that the serving girls weren’t needed any further, he dismissed them for the moment and moved with heavy gait to rest near the speaker tube in the corner. If help was needed, he could discretely manage it.

Barnes allowed himself a private moment of reverie. He remembered his more dashing days with the regiment in Africa, and previous teams that Lord Farnsworth had assembled to resolve certain matters for The Crown. He wondered how many of this new group would return this evening, or the days to come.

Then Herr Machen threw a punch at Orson, and small pastries went tumbling. Harp moved out the way as they staggered back and forth, and just smiled as Orson produced a slide-rule to fend off his assailant.

Barnes stepped forward. He may have seen better days, but that didn’t mean he should let this one get any worse.

Wessex Nights

It’s that time of the year again folks, where I have people turn up and make offerings before me – or at least buy me a drink and join me in some silliness. Yes, it’s true – somehow I’ve survived another year. As good a reason as any to have a bit of a celebration!

wp-1450050337023.jpgAs luck would have it, the Wessex Pistols were playing our sort-of local again, just as they did last year – so it would have been rude not to go really… I was aware that Lady M was scheming in the background so I’ve had to carefully not ask anyone anything recently about plans for this weekend in case I put people in an awkward position of either denying everything or giving the game away.

All in all, between that and a hectic week with plenty of stress, I started the evening fairly frazzled around the edges – but good company from the usual irregulars and some special guests combined with drink, food and music soon brought me out of my shell. Earlier in the day I’d had a conversation around this with MreB – who much prefers their privacy when at a low ebb – about how the sense of connection at such events helps to recharge my batteries. If I haven’t got the energy to reach out, being around people who do helps immensely.

Today, I’m pleasantly tired – barring the general head-cold that is still lingering – and have a somewhat husky voice which certainly betrays the amount of raucous singing and dancing I did last night (yes, I do occasionally dance, especially if the band is singing me Happy Birthday)

Tomorrow is the actual day – with all this celebration, I hope you’ll excuse me if the stories are a little…delayed.

Short Story: Inspiration

The library of lives sighed around them as they walked between the shelves. They were following the tail flick of the cat that had brought them here. Whenever they felt lost or at the very least uncertain if where to go next, they would see the cat, pale in the shadows of the books down a particular passage, or sense the speed of his darting from place to place.

They had searched through dreams, first for their guide, and then for each other, determined to find the common inspiration for the visions that pulled them. In the waking world they had compared notes and constructed scenarios to ponder in those shifting grey moments before the veil of sleep claimed them.

The cat had been the first clue, pale as bone rather than the dark shiver of motion they had been expecting. It had regarded each of them as they slept in their beds, and the memory of it had been singular enough to stay with them on the other side of the dawn.

They made a pact to recall and follow where that cat led them. Past the deserts of Lost Nahend, and across the ruby-strewn obsidian plain below the Sundered Peak, their guide had dared them to continue.

Eager, their entwined dreams had brought them to the libraries that never were, and the various annexes that threatened to derail their search. They saw other dreamers from time to time in those crooked corridors, entranced by the volumes they had only ever planned, or contemplating the poetry they had never dared.

The white cat led them past those traps, and out into a sunlit room with bare floorboards and a sunny view obscured by the grime of autumns been and gone.

They cautiously explored the blank journals on which their guide had come to perch, but saw no titles on the spines. The cat yawned and began to groom itself as they looked around. They had been searching for the inspiration that drove them and sparked their work. Finding no answers in the waking world, they had turned to oneiromancy, sure that such an ephemeral goal could best be lifted from the skein of dreams.

They stood there in that plain room, surrounded by unmarked pages with no view visible through the windows and then realised the one thing that could inspire them to continue, to create, to grow and to explore their worlds.

They stood there and looked to each other, and laughed until they woke – separate and yet united at last.

Short Story: The Prank

My uncle had always been that uncomfortable combination of meticulous planner and prankster, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that his funeral arrangements had already been set in motion and paid for years ago, but that we weren’t allowed to know what those arrangements were.

Well that wasn’t entirely true. The time and place for the final service were related by the professionally calm representatives of the funeral home. The number of cortege cars for family were also announced and where the pickup would be from.

For all the frustration and annoyance he’d caused in life, we couldn’t have hoped for an easier passage in a difficult time, even if we did wonder how his sense of humour was going to be expressed in all this.

As the day arrived and relatives gathered in their somber attire, more than one conversation turned to his love of pranks. Old favourite stories of elaborate or raucously spontaneous tricks were dusted off, bringing more happiness than annoyance in retrospect. It certainly served to help lighten the mood, and I like to think he’d have approved of the celebratory nature of the stories.

Soon enough though it was time for the final farewell. We dutifully got into the cars provided, while others prepared to follow along. There was some debate as to whether his final prank might be to change the advertised venue, and so the family cars were closely followed so as not to lose them.

In that, we were disappointed. The venue was as advertised: the local crematorium – with the only slight variation to previous similar occasions being that he had asked for a humanist ceremony, and that he’d actually bought out the two surrounding time slots as well so no one would feel rushed.

The service was short and celebrated his humour, even as it acknowledged the sadness of the day and the darkness of some of his jokes. Perhaps that reminder was there to prepare us for what has just happened.

You see, normally as the service ends, we’re used to curtains coming across to hide the coffin from view while a music track plays. Instead the coffin has stayed in plain view and they’ve started playing a very short tune, over and over. It took me a moment to remember the lyrics:

Half a pound of tuppeny rice
Half a pound of treacle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel

It’s playing over and over, like the old wind-up jack in the box he used to keep in his study. It always used to terrify me with how suddenly the grotesque clown inside would pop out just when you weren’t expecting it.

Half a pound of tuppeny rice
Half a pound of treacle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel

It’s playing over and over, and more of us have remembered that jack in the box, and now as the tune cycles round and round, that coffin is somehow looming more and more ominously as we quietly watch with mounting horror.

Half a pound of tuppeny rice
Half a pound of treacle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel.

Unexploded Kittens

A friend has recently adopted a small kitten, causing no small amount of comment – mostly of the “awwww, that’s so cute!” variety. Others have looked askance at someone whose sometimes wild reputation and past would seem to suggest more of an affiliation with fiercer animals.

My friend just shrugs and dotes on the small bundle of fluff, enjoying the calming nature of his new companion as he winds down from a stressful job.
There are probably umpteen paragraphs I could write about how this illustrates the perils of making assumptions about people, or a treatise on the blood pressure benefits of pets.I could spin off into how the ex-Lady M and the Charleesi have just spent two days kitten-watching while he was called away, or talk about how the secret network of cat “owners” have begun to offer equipment already.

Instead, I’m just going to say how good it’s been to see a gentler aspect of my friend come to the fore this evening.

Short Story: The Canary Principle

They watched the burly troops finish their preparations while the kettle boiled. Henry always said that if they were going to save civilisation as they knew it that they should make an effort to be civilised in the process. Gerard had his reservations, but on the other hand a cup of tea was a cup of tea.

There were six men in the squad whose preparations they watched. Each wore plain tactical armour with no rank markers or insignia beyond a number stencilled on helmet, back, and chest. The van containing the mobile armoury was parked a short distance away, with fire engines and ambulances nearer the perimeter to block a clear line of sight by any gawkers.

While Gerard poured hot water onto the teabags, each of the soldiers was presented with a kitten in a sling of webbing. Henry was paying more attention to the screen of his tablet than his surroundings, so Gerard had to reach over and tap his shoulder. Henry looked up, his finger tapping the lock button to hide the diagram on his screen.

Gerard pointed across at the group, each of whom was attaching their live cargo to webbing. “Do I dare ask?”

“Oh they’re essential gear on these sorts of missions.” Henry didn’t seem inclined to elaborate, so Gerard tried again.

“Are you telling me we’re using kittens as weapons against eldritch horrors these days? That they have some secret power over tentacled or undead monsters?” He watched as weapons were issued from the van.

“Well, if you want to put it that crudely…”

“Please don’t tell me someone actually made exploding kittens. You know that game is just a joke right?” Gerard removed the teabags and added milk. Henry accepted his cup and saucer and took a sip before answering.

“No, of course not, that would be horrible, not to mention inefficient to manufacture. We’re not savages – we have Leng-grade scripture bombs for that. By the way, thank you, that’s exquisite tea.”

“So why are six force recon guys taking kittens into the incursion area?”

“Well I suppose you’re cleared for it. They’re early warning systems. Cats can see across different realities when things are thin enough, and they find our visitors quite uniformly disturbing. So they react quite noticeably when they spot them, which is usually before we poor people can.”

“Ah, so they’re an early warning system?”

“That’s as good a description as any. The slings are warded appropriately to protect them when things get hairy.”

“That’s good. What happens otherwise?

“Oh, well in this case they’ll probably experience a vigorous exothermic reaction. Better for everyone that doesn’t happen really, if only for the cleaning bill and counselling sessions.”

Gerard nodded and thought about the phrase he’d just heard. “Hang on a minute, they explode? I thought you said we didn’t manufacture anything so horrible?”

“We don’t. That’s the effect of any higher energy entity attempting to download into something native to our neck of the woods. The kittens are the first crack in the dam, so to speak, but the wardings and bindings protect them. Gives the men a chance to pull back.”

“And that’s when they send us in.” Gerard adjusted his dog collar and tried not to look uneasy.

“Correct. Our unexploded kittens warn their carriers who then tell us where to start work. Thoroughly more civilised than following a trail of corpses don’t you think?” Henry finished his cup and then held it out for a refill while the troops moved into the building. “More tea, vicar?”

Short Story: Timelines

“How do you keep them separate in your head? I’d have thought you’d be constantly getting them mixed up.” Sara was rummaging in her toolbox for something to undo a stubborn nut in the cabinet between us. Given the amount of swearing I’d heard the last five minutes, I’d half expected her to have dropped the subject.

“Well, it’s like when you’re reading two books at about the same time, and you have one for sitting on the sofa, and another for by your bed. You read each for different reasons but keeping those stories separate isn’t that difficult really.” She continued to scratch around in the box without success.

“Really? I don’t think I could do that.” She frowned and straightened up to look round the room. I saw a monkey wrench on the floor behind her but decided not to say anything. I didn’t want to detract from her sense of achievement when she found it.

“Oh it’s not so difficult.” I said. “You don’t have any difficulty remembering the differences between your siblings do you? You know their favourite foods are…?”

“I’m an only child.” She said. She turned round and saw the wrench, giving a brief triumphant cry.

“Ah.” I said, and juggled my next sentences around. “But you can imagine can’t you? If you had one who liked certain things and another who liked others – you’d remember and tailor your conversations accordingly.”

“Okay,” she said cautiously, “so you’re saying navigating timelines and paradoxes is like reading two books at once?” She’d turned back to the console cabinet and was busy at work again.

“Yes, and at the same time no, because both stories are in the same volume and they keep flipping depending on the moment and what you’re doing while holding that book open. Flicking the pages means you can have a different version of the story each time you flick back and forth.”

“Still sounds like you’re making it up. How come you can remember both versions?” She was plugging replacement components back into place now.

“Oh that’s because I exist in the old one and have travelled into the new one. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s simple enough. How are we doing there?”

“Nearly done. Don’t know what caused that surge and blew the console but should be good as new now. So, where next for you?”

“Oh not far, and yet it’s probably longer than you’d credit. We’ll probably not meet again – thank you, as ever, for your quick work.” I handed over a wad of bills in payment and escorted the engineer out of the control room. She had a frown on her face.

“What do you mean, as ever?” I heard her say as he closed the hatch and hurried back to the console.

“Don’t worry, you’ll have your family back soon Sara.” I said, and flipped the launch switch.

My Private Audience

I have a small number of people who have the option to read the stories I write a little earlier than anyone else. They are at one and the same time my cheerleaders and editorial eyes. 

They quite often manage to capture the more outlandish spelling mistakes and grammatical oddities before the stories hit the wild. This is just as well because most of my writing is currently done on my phone using an app called Journey. 

It’s a journalling app that exports very smoothly to other applications, but like anything on a phone it is rather held to ransom sometimes by the dreaded autocorrect feature.

So, my private audience serves both as somewhere to play with words with people I know and trust, and as a point of checking before publication. I’m beginning to think that they should have a collective name – but perhaps ‘private audience’ works well enough.

They’re amazing people: Ladies M, P, G, Gr, and of course the redoubtable Mre B are your first line of editorial defence against my wildest inaccuracies. You’re all very welcome.

Short Story: Brains of the Operation

We stopped using the word apocalypse after the third uprising in as many years. The first dawn of the dead had been an uncomfortable time, it’s true, and the body count had been horrendous. Unlike the heroes and heroines of our favourite films and TV shows though we actually had, well, zombie films as a cultural reference point.

People saw walking corpses and went for the head almost on instinct – and let me tell you that CCTV footage of the pensioners pinning zombies to the floor with their walkers that they keep showing on the clip shows is never getting old.

The second uprising, the following year, wasn’t so bad – someone had been stockpiling the pathogen for research purposes somewhere and got sloppy. The good thing was that the research facility had been in an isolated area. 

That meant when the authorities were alerted that the whole area was simply sterilised and warning signs and fences were erected to keep the stupid at bay. Armed forces from around the world pay good money to train there now.

The third uprising could have been a lot worse. That will sound callous to some, but when the dead started to rise from a fresh outbreak in the slums of Mumbai there were some who wondered if this wasn’t perhaps the critical mass that might actually overwhelm humanity’s ability to respond, especially with the international business world flying in and out of there so much.

Once again though, we underestimated the power of movies as a means of innoculating the mind against the horrors of the unknown – and the proud Indian fighting spirit wasn’t taking any nonsense from the walking dead. Two years of the media showing how to deal with outbreaks did the job. I hear some districts even toyed with the idea of running reward schemes for exterminations, but had to abandon the idea when people started faking zombie attacks to settle old feuds.

The amazing thing is that it took us so long to arrange such a systematic culling of our lesser brethren – those too far gone to cultivate the appearance of life and mortal appetite. There’s only so many of us that can exist in an area before someone starts noticing missing brains.

I was going to say live in an area, but I just couldn’t do it – I do have some pride, even if it fluctuates depending on the reliability of my suppliers. I’m rich enough to be able to vary between services so they have to keep competing and I fully intend, like many of my peers, to stay rich so that I continue to be on top.

Whoever described this as a dog eat dog world clearly has absolutely no idea. Now then, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Shall I call the chef in and see what she makes of you?