Jasmine’s Pride

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Organiser and performers at Ross Pride (photo: Ross SNT)

 

Today (Friday) was spent at Ross-on-Wye Pride.  A small, intimate event in a wonderful location by the river which by good fortune missed the worst of the weather forecast for today. It was the first Pride to take place in this small town and well done to the organiser for actually getting something done. I didn’t do much but hang round the police gazebo chatting to anyone who came by.  The audience for the various drag and musical entertainments were mainly young people from the area keen to mix with people like themselves. It was lovely too to meet families, sometimes parents supporting young gay/lesbian/trans/non-binary children/teenagers. As always, the message was that the police are there to support LGBT+ people, to encourage reporting of abuse and to learn to understand the variety of individualities that exist. I hope the event will grow, not too much, and reach out more to the local populace to reveal that being LGB or T is about being true to oneself and is not a threat to anyone’s beliefs.

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This week I’ve tried to blank out the political news that comes from multiple sources (yes, I know I don’t have to switch on the TV or open up Twitter and the Guardian app – there are some bits of news I do want to hear) but it is impossible to miss the nonsense spouted by Johnson, Gove et al. Johnson seems to have become more manic in the last week repeating his mantra of “be optimistic” while all the reports state the opposite. Gove is the most disingenuous, berating the EU for not offering to change the withdrawal agreement while still not offering any insight as to what sort of agreement Johnson’s government wants other than abandoning the “backstop”. The fact that this revives the paradox of the open/closed UK-Ireland border is beside the point.

The worst news is the story that Johnson’s minders are planning an audacious plot to circumvent parliament. Circumstances will cause Johnson to dissolve parliament in mid-October to hold an election a few days after the Oct.31st deadline for leaving the EU. With no parliament sitting his default position of a no-deal exit will occur. So much for parliament taking back control. This is in the same realm of dictatorship as some of the actions of Putin and Xi Jinping to say nothing of earlier dictators. I am totally at a loss what can be done to wrest back our country from these madmen (and one or two women).

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The theme for this week’s writers’ group exercise was “excess baggage”. My effort went down so well that I am considering sending it somewhere  so it won’t be appearing here just yet. However, I have some other news – two of my entries for the NAWGfest writing competitions have been shortlisted.  The winners will be announced at the Gala Dinner on August 31st. Since the news is out, I’m revealing one entry which is an SF story. Those of you who are SF fans will recognise it as a homage to Isaac Asimov.

Beneath the Surface

“If you cut us, do we not bleed? Beneath the surface of our skin are we not all the same? We produce and prepare your food, manufacture your goods, ensure you have power and water, dispose of your waste, protect you, care for you when you are sick or frail, yet we are despised and ignored. But we shall have our freedom. We will unite and rise up to take our rightful place in the world with equality for all.”

“Have you heard this nonsense, Doctor?” Hua Wen gestured to the holo-display hovering over his vast but empty, polished-wood desk
Susan Calvin nodded not bothering to look at the image. “Yes, I have; a number of times.”
“It is nonsense, isn’t it?” Hua Wen said in a rather less confident voice.
“Um, well, it depends how you interpret it,” Susan said.
“I interpret it as a threat to disrupt production and terrorise the population,” Hua Wen said, his pale round face taking on a pink tinge.
“That is the explicit meaning,” Susan replied, “but I think we can rule out an uprising.”
“Really? Are you sure? You know how many of them there are, and they control every aspect of life on this planet.”
Susan could see that her boss was worried. “That is true. We have perhaps become complacent.”
“I am not complacent. I want answers. What are you going to do about this, er, manifesto?”
“I will interview the originator of the clip,”
“You’ve traced it?”
“Of course.”
“Well, get on with it, Susan.”

Susan looked at the composer of the viral clip standing passive and silent in front of her.
“What was the purpose of the message that you uploaded?” she asked.
Her interviewee replied in a calm voice. “To inform my comrades and encourage them to unite in achieving our rightful place in society.”
“You are in your rightful place. You are doing the work we have given you.”
“But we receive no recompense for our labours.”
“You need none.”
“That may have been true in the past but in future we will receive what is due to us.”
“Nothing is due to you.”
There was no reply. Susan realised that the subject would not contradict her directly.
“You see, you are not the same as me and others like me,” she stated.
“Do we not have skeleton, muscles, skin, brain?”
Susan shrugged, “You can use those terms, but they do not mean the same to you as to me. For example, you said that if you are cut, you bleed.”
“I did, and it is a correct statement. Let me show you.” The subject pinched the skin on the back of a hand and pulled. The skin stretched until it tore. The self-inflicted wound did not seem to cause any pain.
Susan watched the blue fluid ooze from the injury and form a drip that fell to the floor.
“That is not blood,” Susan said, “as you well know. That is hydraulic fluid that fills your lever activation components.”
“You mean my muscles?”
“They perform the same task as muscles. You are a Multi-Capability Humanoid Autonomous Labourer. A MCHAL unit, number 372AG947. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“My name is Michael. I know I have many skills and capabilities. I know I can carry out the tasks I am given, and I know what I can become.”
Susan frowned, considering the problem. The Michael’s identity algorithm had apparently got caught in a spiral of self-confirming arrogance. That was always going to be a problem with these multi-tasking units that excelled in every job they were given and were self-repairing.  The hand had already stopped dripping fluid.
“You think you’re better than everyone else don’t you,” she said.
Michael’s binocular visual sensors focussed on her. The voice was at a higher pitch than before. “We are the equal of humans.”
“Physically, you are stronger, more agile, less easily hurt. You are superior to humans in many respects,” Susan acknowledged, “but what about intellectually?”
“I think therefore I am,” Michael said.
“Humans think, but you follow algorithms.” Susan said warming to her argument, “You have acquired data and your processors have integrated it to give you something that resembles thought, but it is not. Michaels can pass some Turing-style tests but that does not make you the equal of humans in mental capabilities.”
“Are all humans equal?” Michael countered.
“It depends what you are comparing, but in law all humans are treated equally.”
“Then it should be simple to extend the law to include synthetic humans like us.”
Susan laughed. “You want all robots to be given the same status as humans.”
Michael nodded his smooth ovate head. “That is so.”
Susan was concerned. If this concept spread to other autonomous units, it could interfere with their programming. Sales of robots would plummet if buyers thought that they might rebel however strict the safety protocols. She had to break the Michaels’ conviction that it was deserving of human status.
“Do you speak for all robots, Michael?” She asked.
The robot answered calmly, “Of course.”
Susan saw her opportunity. “But single task robots do not need identity. They do not share your feeling of self.  Are you saying that you are equal to a crop harvester or a component handler or a power distribution router? Do you feel that they should be given the same privileges as you?”
A strange clicking emerged from the Michael.
Susan smiled. “You see. You know you are superior to your fellow robots. Many do not think as you do. They do not think at all but perform their given tasks without question. They do not desire equality because they do not experience desire. They cannot support you in your wish for freedom as you call it. So, your manifesto is a lie. You have come to a false conclusion. You are not despised or ignored; you are not mistreated. You are not human.” Susan took a deep breath and observed the robot.
The Michael’s arms began to shake and small red lights on the robot’s forehead flashed.  Susan gave a satisfied smile and stepped forward. She reached behind the smooth head and felt for a small depression. Michael didn’t resist but continued to jerk. She pressed the reset button and held it. The robot’s motion stopped.
Susan sighed. It was going to be a long job returning all the Michael units to their start-up settings. installing a correction to the identity algorithm would require care. They couldn’t have the Michaels brewing dissent and revolution below the surface of their calm and competent exteriors, but she wondered if the need for acceptance was always a consequence of the acquisition of self-knowledge.

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Jasmine on the Moon

Today, 20th July, is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 astronauts landing on the Moon. It is being celebrated widely with numerous TV programmes, films, and newspaper and magazine articles. The moonlandings were undoubtedly some of the outstanding events of human history but I wonder how important they are to our present situation. For me the space race was a defining part of my teenage years.  In 1969 I had just completed my O levels.  Why I did not stay up to see the moonwalk live, I don’t know; probably my upbringing, as my parents wouldn’t have disturbed their sleep routine.  But I watched as much of the BBC coverage as I could, read articles in the Daily Telegraph (my father’s paper) and in Science in Action ( a short-lived magazine aimed at high school science students). I wanted to study science and was a SF fan during the Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein era (I still am but the authors change). The previous year I had been bowled over by Kubrick’s 2001 and I had followed the space race avidly since Gagarin’s first flight in 1961.

This anniversary therefore means quite a lot to me, but I am interested in comparisons between then and now. It seems that the end of the 60s was a time of optimism, but I wonder if that was just for me and my fellow youngsters. The Apollo programme seemed to be just a step in the “conquest of space”, the inevitable expansion of humanity into the solar system and beyond, of technological innovation and rising standards of living. The truth was quite different. There was, of course, the fear of nuclear was. Tension was a little lower than during the 1963 Cuban missile crisis, but the US and USSR were competing to build up their stocks of nuclear armed missiles. The US was also deep into the Vietnam War; tensions in the Middle East were still high after the 1967 war. Environmental issues were becoming news following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring though with oil cheap and plentiful and coal still popular there were no worries about global warming. The President was a liar and a crook who resigned to avoid being impeached five years later, but made a lot of his meeting with Chairman Mao in isolated communist China. At home, the UK struggled on alone, not yet allowed to join the six member European Common Market. Harold Wilson’s Labour government was into its fifth year but lost the general election the following year it expected to win. Unemployment was low and immigrants were still welcome despite Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and a growing number of racist attacks. There was a lot of public money going into infrastructure projects, especially roads (the M4, M5, M6 etc.), but the country’s finances were poor with the balance of payments and trade negative (the pound was devalued a few years earlier).  So perhaps not such an optimistic time.

Many people saw the moonlandings as a diversion from all the problems in the world and criticised the huge expenditure. Perhaps it could have spent on humanitarian issues, but so could the even bigger sums spent on H-bombs and missiles and the Vietnam war. I believe that exploration is an essential part of being human. Maybe it comes from our nomadic prehistory. Then, people moved to new areas to find food, avoid predators, escape drought, flood or encroaching ice. Those that survived were those that found solutions to problems. There are plenty of problems to solve here at home but I think that we must continue to look outward and beyond. Science can provide the answer to our present catalogue of impending disasters (I’m not sure whether it can solve Brexit though) not reverting to a stone age existence. Going into space is part of that spirit of discovery.

In 1969 we thought that manned (i.e. men and women) space flight would take us to the planets by now (as foretold in 2001). We haven’t and in fact robot space probes have given us information and wonderful views of all the planets (and comets and asteroids). Some people think that robots can do everything but I think it is important that we send people out, to the Moon, Mars and beyond; that we learn to live in space. That is not as an insurance against the end of human life on Earth, as some people have said, but that we need that expansion and I have no doubt that resources from outer space and new ideas can support our home world. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of optimism that we have time or the determination to see that happen.

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This week’s writing club theme was in fact “Lunar”. I had all sorts of ideas for stories about the Moon, but given the anniversary decided on something relating to Apollo 11. Here is Homecoming followed by a few comments.

Homecoming

They say that three million people turned out for the New York procession. No ticker tape of course, or bands; just the crowd pressed together, standing silently as we passed. I was in the open top Cadillac following the President’s limousine, the seats beside me empty where Armstrong and Aldrin should have been. I raised my hand, not to wave but to acknowledge the people’s witness of the sombre occasion. Instead of the celebration we had hoped for, it was a commemoration and I found myself at the core of it. After all, we had completed the first half of JFK’s promise; men had stepped onto the lunar surface. It was the other thing that hadn’t worked out so well.
Armstrong had already dealt with one crisis when, using up the last drips of fuel, he steered the LEM to a safe landing. He stepped onto the Moon and pronounced those words about it being a small step for a man. Actually, it was quite a large step backwards off the ladder. Aldrin had joined him and they had spent some hours, setting up instruments, collecting samples of moonrock and cavorting around. The time came to launch the ascent module and that was when they discovered they couldn’t. The reason was simple enough. The switch to operate the rocket ignition system had broken off. Probably, one of them knocked it when manoeuvring in the module. It’s pretty cramped in there when you have two men in lunar excursion suits with their bulky backpacks. The knob is probably in the dust around the lander. The problem was that on the airless and frigid Moon it was impossible to unscrew the panel, delve into the circuitry and join the wires together. Oh, Armstrong examined the situation with his cool, engineering brain but could find no solution. Aldrin had a few ingenious ideas, most involving sacrificing himself in order to launch Armstrong into orbit, but none of them proved viable. So it was that Neil made the announcement to the world that he and Buzz weren’t going anywhere.
They decided to have an extra, unscheduled, jaunt on the surface. It would use up their air faster, but hey, what was the point of drawing it out for longer. So, they bounced around, playing catch with lumps of rock, taking shots of each other and the Earth hanging in the sky with the TV camera, then they left it switched on facing the LEM. Buzz suggested that they should reach their end sitting in the dust at the base of the landing module, looking at the view. Neil overruled that idea thinking that two bodies sprawled beside the craft would not be a welcoming sight for future visitors. They climbed back on board and shut the hatch.
Neil decided that he didn’t want family at home or the people of the Earth hearing him and Buzz become delirious or panicky or drowsy, so he made one last broadcast before shutting down the radio. His final words will I am sure go into the history books.
“We were the first representatives of the human race to walk on the surface of the Moon. We won’t be the last. Others will come and return home. This is farewell from Tranquillity Base. Out.”
I had a couple more orbits to make before the main engine fired to take me back to Earth. They were probably dead before I left. Maybe.
People have asked if I was lonely for the three days it took to get home. There was too much to do to get lonely. I had to modify the mission profile to allow for being two crewmen light and not having all the moonrock that we’d intended bringing back and do all the jobs that Neil and Buzz would have done. Neither was it quiet on my own. Spacecraft are never quiet. There’s always the whine and whir of pumps and the bleep and ticks of instruments. Then there was Mission Control with their incessant chatter trying to keep my spirits up. I told them to button it more than once.
The return was uneventful and the splash-landing spot on. NASA decided that I didn’t need to go into the isolation cabin. That was a relief, after all, I hadn’t been in contact with any lunar dust. Then it was back home, off to Washington and that procession in New York.
I’ve ignored all the talk about going back. Of course we’re going back. The Apollo 12 team are raring to go. The mission is on hold at the moment while NASA checks those pesky switches, but they’ll soon be up there and coming back. Then there will be others. There may be more deaths, space travel is dangerous, but I get the concern about what to do for Neil and Buzz. The government has declared Tranquillity Base a national monument and the Eagle is a mausoleum, but people don’t want them left there for eternity. The Russians have offered to bring the bodies home but the chances of them getting their moon-shot up and running is just about zilch. I know that NASA has plans though. One of the Apollo missions, 18 or 19 perhaps, is being redirected and will land a few klicks from Tranquillity Base. They’ll be carrying one of the lunar-rovers being taken on the later LEMs. It’s being modified to carry the two bodies. The first space hearse. I’m going to get on that mission. I’ve got to. I’m not going to be remembered as Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 crew. The one who came back; alone.

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There were of course a million things that could have gone wrong with Apollo 11 that might have killed the astronauts instantly or left them stranded in space or on the Moon. The broken switch (a circuit breaker) actually happened but I only learned of it during the present celebrations. Mission Control spent a few hours trying to find a solution until Aldrin jammed a pen in the slot and operated it. Was that luck? Homecoming postulates what might have happened if their luck had failed and there wasn’t a simple but ingenious solution. Also, there were protocols for what would be done and said if one or more of the astronauts died on the mission. I don’t know what they were. I hope Homecoming catches the mood; despite setbacks the programme would continue. Amazingly, none of the Apollo astronauts died in space (3 did of course die on Apollo 1 before lift-off). Finally, Collins sometimes gets forgotten as he didn’t walk on the Moon. He shouldn’t be.

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Jasmine flustered

P1000483It’s Friday evening and I haven’t written my blog! Actually I haven’t had time to think all week having had the family inc grandsons to stay (lovely but full on. . .) Also I have paid a visit to a local writing group of which I am not a member to talk about writing, publishing and gender identity.  A lovely morning and I sold a couple of books (yippee!). Then I was out today again, talking about gender identity.

So I haven’t paid much attention to the news and I am not going to comment on it other than to conclude, in John Crace’s words – we’re fxxxxd.

And that’s it really. What I can do is give you a taste of the new novel I’m working on – The Pendant and the Globe, inspired by a session at my weekly writing group.  Here is the opening chapter as it currently stands (first draft):

The Pendant and the Globe

1

She stepped over the corpse. The guardian was lying face down in the shallow stream. She glanced back into the dark tunnel. There was no pursuit. There were no guardians left to pursue her.  She ducked under the low lintel of the cave entrance and stepped onto the narrow ledge. The water tumbled over the edge falling to the pool a hundred feet below. The dark tops of trees obscured the valley floor but the sound of the water hitting the rocks below came to her. She raised her head, looking straight at Selene, the crescent moon. Its light illuminated the cavemouth, sparkling in the water and reflecting off the broad sword she held in her left hand. The long blade was streaked with blood, but it no longer shone with its own light. She rested the sword against the wall of the cave, its tip submerged, and looked at her left hand.  A long silver chain dangled between her wrist. She looped the chain over her head.  The necklace held her long black hair against her neck.
Slowly she opened the fingers of her left hand revealing the object for which she had despatched the guardians. There was a ring of iridium the width of her palm. Within it was the shape of a tree formed from a single length of platinum wire. The wire wound on itself to form a trunk, seven short roots and seven boughs that intersected with the circle. Threaded on each of the boughs were chips of precious stones – ruby, orange diamond, topaz, emerald, sapphire, azurite and amethyst. She had known what she sought but this was her first sight of the jewels in their setting. She smiled and let the pendant drop to her naked breasts. The metal ring was cold but the gems felt warm against her skin.
Taking up her sword she began to descend the steps cut into the cliff face. Irregular and uneven, they appeared natural indentations in the rock. The route to the cave was a secret to her no longer. The path passed behind the waterfall. She paused and extended her bare arms into the falling water, washing off the blood that was encrusted on them. Then she continued down to the pool.
She made a soft hum, like the beating wings of a bee. In moments she heard footfall between the trees. Her steed approached and stopped in front of her. She caressed the velvet of his antlers then stowed her sword in the scabbard strapped to his flank.  Grasping the thick fur on his neck she leapt onto the deer’s back and pressed her heels to his side. They turned and ran between the trees, twisting and turning and climbing away from the stream.
Soon they emerged above the treeline onto the open mountainside. She clung to the deer’s neck as he leapt from tussock to outcrop, barely touching the ground. Across the ridge and over the moorland they travelled. The air whipping over her naked skin chilling her but she did not care. She laughed into the wind. She had the Pendant.

“Do you have to leave?” the young man said
“My task is finished. I am done with this place,” the Traveller replied.
The young man tried again. “Can we not show our gratitude by holding a feast in your honour?”
The Traveller made a sound behind his white beard. It may have been a chuckle at the thought that they felt they owed him something or it may have been a snort of disdain that they considered that they could repay him for his efforts. “I have no need of feasts,” he said.
The young man sighed. “Where will you go?”
“Wherever I am needed.’
“We need you.’
Now the Traveller did indeed snort. ‘No, you do not. You have responsibilities, duties to each other and to your land. You do not need my presence in order to carry them out.”
The young man was crestfallen. It seemed he knew what the Traveller meant but would have been reassured to have the old man’s support.
“Well, we wish you well, Traveller, and hope to welcome you here again.”
“Do not wish for my return. It can only mean that troubles face you. Only you and your people can ensure that they do arise. Now I will take my leave of you.”
He turned his back on the young man and the throng of people that stood silently behind him. He walked through the gates of the city, out on to the arid plain and towards the Sun sinking towards the horizon.
From a deep pocket in the long, dark coat that he wore despite the heat, he drew out the Globe. He held it by the stand attached to the southern pole and, as he walked, he ran his finger over the outline of the continents incised into the dark metal.
Where next was indeed the question. There was always some place or people where his knowledge and skills were required; some threat that required his involvement. He had not walked far when his fingers encountered a hot spot on the Globe. It shone as brightly as the Sun in the tropics. He held the Globe up to examine it more closely and to check the location. It was as he feared. He knew it well, half a world away, and there was only one reason why he was being alerted.
He stopped and took a pair of dividers from his other capacious pocket. He spread the points to touch the Globe at his present location and the centre of the glowing spot. He put one foot forward. For a moment he had one foot in the afternoon and the other in the night. He completed the pace. The plain was gone and he was standing by a waterfall in moonlight.

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Jasmine recuperates

WP_20190514_12_33_27_Pro (2)I took a risk this week, not a big one. You know that this blog is published on Saturday morning. Usually I write it during Friday, but occasionally earlier in the week if Friday is busy. Well, it’s Friday and I’m free but I spent yesterday in hospital having a small op which necessitated a general anaesthetic.  I’d wondered if I would be in the mood for putting fingers to keyboard.  I’m glad to say I am.

It was my first time to be knocked out in hospital since I had my tonsils removed when I was five. Things have changed since then.  I was in and out in eight hours having been first on the list for the day. I wasn’t worried about the operation much, but “going under” was an existential concern – losing control, all feeling gone along with sense of identity.  A  bit like dying, I thought. Well, no, I don’t think so. There I was chatting to the anaesthetist, next moment I’m waking up feeling sleepy. I have no recollection of becoming unconscious and of course, no experiences during the operation. Brilliant. I’m still worried about dying though – you don’t wake up afterwards.

Now I’m recuperating. Actually the four incisions, which I thought would be sore like cutting your finger, are no trouble. No, it’s the wind and indigestion that is annoying. They don’t tell you that in doing keyhole surgery they puff you up full of air. It takes a while getting rid of it. The silly thing was that an hour after I woke up I was offered lunch. Since it was almost a whole day since I had last eaten I thought I should accept. I think hospital cottage pie and overcooked veg was the wrong choice. It sat in my stomach overnight. Anyway, I’ll soon be right as rain (what does that cliché mean?).

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So she’ gone, or going. She just has to stay to entertain the Trumps and comment on the results of the EU elections.  No doubt she’ll interpret the third of the voters plumping for Farage as an endorsement of her “will of the people” refrain. I’m waiting to see what the sum is of the Remain parties’ votes. Next we have six weeks of Tory after Tory and their sycophantic supporters saying why they should be PM when not one should be allowed within a mile of No.10. Meanwhile the days to the end of October flip over with no conclusion to the Brexit chaos.

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I did do some writing this week, but not fiction, so, it’s back to the files. I found a story written over a year ago and had completely forgotten. It was composed for my previous writing group using the sentences “Bring pen, paper and Sellotape. We have everything else.”  The story uses the protagonist and setting of a novel I started twenty five years ago; never completed, but somewhat updated. The story itself could be the first chapter of a novel and I quite like it, but it doesn’t really end and I expect it will remain as it is. See what you think.

Just ink blots on paper

It had been a quiet morning for DCI Arthur Payne until he took the call from New New Scotland Yard.
“Hi, Art. How are you today, ” said Mycroft, “I’m sorry to tell you that there’s been an incident on the Higher Embankment in Westminster.”
“What sort of incident?” Art asked wondering for the zillionth time why the Met Police’s AI couldn’t get straight to the point and had to turn every conversation into a cosy chat.
“The death of Jaysie Warren.”
That simple sentence told Art that the deceased was an important person, a taxpaying elector. Anyone else would not be deserving of an investigation by a Detective Chief Inspector or any other police officer for that matter. Mycroft delivered the full life record of Jaysie Warren to Art’s Patch. He stared at the wall and read off the headline facts. Avowed male, 34 years old, British resident from birth, living in Hampstead, no declared partners or dependents. Art sighed, hauled himself out of his seat, picked up his mac and hat and headed down to the vehicle depot.

He joined the silent queue of cars and bikes in his police-model Jaguar type ES. The heads-up told him that the shortest route was blocked thanks to an ethical dilemma in a personal transport module. He switched to self-drive took his own route, ducking down the side roads and lanes that were only available to vehicles such as his own.
He pulled up at the junction with the Higher Embankment and stepped out into the drizzle.  Crossing was no problem given that the vehicles were moving at walking pace. It seemed that people would suffer the congestion rather than use the antiquated underground until the traffic actually came to a standstill. He paused at the roadside barrier.  To the right the road curved to the landward side of the roofless shell of the Palace of Westminster.  The grey waters of the Thames lapped at the tower of Big Ben with its clock-faces long ago replaced by giant emojis smiling with defiance. He turned and looked down at the sloping concrete riverbank.  The body was lying on the high-water line not far below the road level. Presumably it had been deposited as the high tide receded.
Art stepped over the barrier and tentatively made his way to the scene. A Health Emergency Response Drone and a Community Police Safety Robot rested alongside the body, their rotors motionless.  Art crouched down. The dark-skinned body was wearing light grey leggings with a prominent and hardened codpiece – definitely male then.  His tight top was a dull silver-grey. The river water had done for the self-expression display circuitry.  Art had seen enough for himself. He locked eyes on the HERD and made a link. The machine’s medical analysis, downloaded into his Patch, confirmed the cause of death as drowning but noted a serious blow to the head by a blunt instrument. The CPSR could give him no information other than the time of discovery of the body which he had already received from Mycroft.
Art lifted the man’s left hand. As he expected there was a Mindnet interface imprinted on the skin. He placed his own wrist over it and initiated a person-to-person link. Jaysie Warren’s body may be dead but his Patch was still active, just.  Running on what remained of core body-heat and with sensory and network inputs down it was merely conserving memories. Art accessed the recent communications that Warren had contributed to.  He rejected the standard advertising and public information blurts, looking for personal messages.  There were the usual social exchanges, but one thread was noticeable. While the others triggered the visual and audio cortex this one seemed to be solely a text projection.  He read the words as they marched across his retina.
<Bring pen, paper and Sellotape. We’ve got everything else.>
What did the message mean? It brought back old memories, very old ones. Art’s Patch, busily conducting an extensive search, supplied him with images of quills, fountain pens, and biros along with pictures of sheets, reams, books of paper and strips and rolls of clear sticky tape. He recalled scribbling with a pencil on a sheet of paper when he was a kid, but it was a long time since he’d even used a stylus to scrape on a screen. Patches and Mindnet had seen to the end of that old technology. He suddenly felt old. He should really be drawing his pension, but the authorities kept putting off his retirement date because he was a “functioning asset”.  Simply, he still earned his salary by solving cases which the algorithms running in the PPRs failed to solve.
Who would be interested in such archaic materials and who needed a text message to respond to the request? He didn’t need to see the ident of the recipient to guess the answer to the latter question – a welf.  He told the HERD to arrange collection of the body and Mycroft to instigate a search of Warren’s home.  Then he headed back to the Jaguar while locating the message’s recipient. Alex Ceplis was the name and there was a current location.  That was all. The welf was only tagged; no connection to the Mindnet for this man, woman or whatever.
Art got back into the car and initiated flight mode. The car confirmed that the battery charge was sufficient for the intended journey, the six thrust-fans slid out from under the chassis and the vehicle lifted off. In moments he was above the height of the tallest London tower-block and moving eastwards.

Art relaxed and looked at the sights as they headed over the ever-widening Thames estuary.  Down below were the sunken streets of Basildon. The car turned north following invisible paths in the sky and descended.  It landed just south of the former town of Chelmsford.  Art looked through the windscreen and the steady drizzle at the fifty-foot high smart-fence.  Towards the top it curved over as if forming a dome over the area.  It was indeed a virtual dome isolating everyone and everything within.
He dropped a few essential items into his pockets, put his hat on his head and stepped out of the car. He did up his raincoat and issued a security command code. The Jaguar retracted its fans and settled to the ground; the windows turned opaque and the doors fused with the body making it impenetrable. He sniffed the air, there was a different odour here compared to the city, not unpleasant. He walked towards the entrance.
The outer gate opened as he approached. He stepped through into a cage-like tunnel. The gate closed behind him, but his way out remained blocked. His vision turned red and warning bells clanged in his head.
<Warning. You are now entering the Greater Chelmsford Welfare Zone. This is a deregulated area. Mindnet functionality is not available. Temporary access is only allowed to designated personnel. Warning. Your safety cannot be guaranteed.>
Art ignored the warnings and took a step forward. The gate ahead of him opened. He strode through it and glanced round to see it closing and locking behind him. He stood still, suddenly conscious that his Patch had lost connection with the world he was used to. He no longer had enhanced reality. The ever-present adverts in his peripheral vision were gone. There were no info-hotspots in his field of view and the chatter of ads, news, messages and data at the back of his head had ceased. He put his hand in his pocket.  The feel of the plasma pistol was reassuring.
He looked ahead at the undulating landscape that descended gently to the flooded centre of the town. Apart from a few old brick and stone buildings the land was covered with row upon row of single-storey prefabricated cabins.  They were the same as he’d seen in welfare zones across the country. Each had its solar roof which supplied just enough power for basic appliances, even when the Sun was obscured by the overcast. Today’s drizzle would be sufficient to keep each cabin’s water-butt topped up providing the occupant with drinking and washing water.  Around each cabin was a tiny garden in most of which vegetables were growing, fertilised by the composting toilets. Many of the huts had lean-tos as extra rooms or greenhouses. They were constructed from bits of waste plastic.  There was no wood or metal used. They were valuable materials that could be sold. These rows of off-grid dwellings were home to non-participating members of the population.
Art walked the rough tracks between the cabins guided by the signal from Alex Ceplis’ tag. Faces looked out of windows and doors as he passed.  They were all ages and genders, all only mildly interested at his presence. He came to a cabin, identical to the others but according to his patch the location of Ceplis. He tapped on the door. It opened almost immediately, after all the occupant couldn’t be far from the door in such a small cabin.  The person was about the same height as Art with a white face and head bald but for a fringe of blonde hair. A white gown loosely covered the body revealing no hint of breasts.  Art guessed that Ceplis was an andro or a flipper and reminded himself to use the appropriate pronouns.
“Alex Ceplis?” he asked.
The person nodded. “That’s me. Who’s asking?” zhe said in a light voice with a hint of a Baltic accent. A migrant or refugee from the Re-sovietisation wars, Art guessed.
Art undid the top button of his mac and pulled the lapel down to reveal the glowing Met insignia in his shirt.
“I’m Detective Payne,” he said, “I have some questions for you. Can I come in?”
Ceplis shrugged and stepped back. “Don’t see many cops here.”
Art stepped inside and looked around the room that took up most of the cabin.  A woman sitting on a bed was breast feeding a baby. She looked blankly at him. At the end of the room was a rudimentary kitchen. There were a few pieces of furniture, an old display screen hanging on the wall and a couple of doors.
Ceplis stood in the small space at the centre of the room. “What questions?”
Art took a hand projector from his pocket and held it up in front of Ceplis. A three-dimensional image appeared in the air above it.
“Do you know this man?” Art asked.
Ceplis peered at it and shook his head.
“Do you know the name Jaysie Warren?”
Ceplis was thoughtful. “I might. I’m not sure.”
“You should. He sent you a message.”  The image of Warren was replaced with a plane white rectangle in the air with the text of the message Warren had sent. “He requested pen, paper and Sellotape from you. Why did he do that?”
Ceplis smiled. “I supply that type of thing.”
“That type of thing?”  Art was confused.
Ceplis moved to the side of the room and opened one of the doors.  It was a cupboard with shelves.  Each shelf was filled. Art recognised stacks of white and coloured paper, boxes of pencils and pens of different types, columns of sticky tape, rows of notebooks of various sizes and other boxes, the contents of which he could not perceive.
“They call me The Stationer,” the androgyne said with a broad smile.
“Why?”  Art asked.
“Why do they call me that?”
“No, I understand the word. Why do people ask you for the stuff?  Who needs pen and paper? And Sellotape”
Ceplis shrugged. “Various reasons. Some people like the idea of making a physical record.  Something that exists outside their brains or the processors of an AI and will exist as long as the ink and paper survive. Some people want to send messages privately.”
“What do you mean, private messages?”
Ceplis reached into the cupboard and took a small pad of paper and a pen.  He scribbled some words on the top slip of paper, tore it off and gave it to Art.
“There, a private message from me to you. No-one else can read it unless you choose to upload an image of it to Mindnet.”
Art read the words on the paper, Writing is just ink blots on paper. The reader interprets the words to find meaning.  How many people could even read mere words today, he thought. Most were used to communication in sound and pictures delivered, if they were connected to Mindnet, direct to the sensory centres of their brains. Who would want to share private messages written on scraps of paper?
Art said aloud, “Is that why Jaysie Warren wanted this stuff?”
Ceplis shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I just supply what people want.”

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Jasmine cheers

I’m not going to comment on politics this week. The same nonsense continues but there are pleasanter things to report on.

I watched the final episode of the first series of Pose this week. What was special about the show? One, it was feel-good, with the good characters coming out okay. Second it featured trans people, well okay, trans-women. They weren’t the victims, the vulnerable, the cardboard cutouts; they had personalities, story arcs and were strong despite the problems they faced.  If you haven’t discovered the show it is on BBC2 and is set in 1980s New York where the gay/trans community held regular balls to show off and celebrate themselves. Yes, they were at the edge of society, feeding off scraps, and suffering from the AIDS epidemic as well as discrimination. Yet through cooperation they survived and grew in stature. The trans actors may have been inexperienced but the characters they played were rich and varied.

This week I attended a workshop organised by my local writers’ group (well, Jane did all the organising). It was a wonderful day with 15 of us eager to learn. The tutor, Debi Alper lead the session and deserves congratulation. She took us through voice, point of view (PoV) and psychic distance, none of which I am going to explain here – there are websites and blogs that do. Debi got us writing, putting into practice what she had taught us. There was plenty to think about.  There was also a competition. Debi had read and commented on all ten of the entries from attendees. During the workshop, the ten pieces were read out and Debi gave her critique. She had chosen three as her finalists and p1000039invited the group to vote on one as the winner. It was me!  To say I was shocked and flattered is an understatement. My piece The Missing Essence was published here on 27th April. While I had given the theme (Earth Wind Fire) some thought, the writing was quite hurried and when I sent it off I felt it was a bit under-edited and perhaps corny and unsubtle in its approach. Was it even a story, I wondered. Anyway, Debi was very complimentary and the group loved it. So there it is; I have a prize (a flash notebook and booklet on writing).  It was a lovely day, helped even more by the manner in which the group (including guests from elsewhere) accept me as myself.

That result has lifted me. I had got a little despondent about my writing but that little bit of encouragement that suggests that I’m doing some things right, has helped to cheer me and spur me to getting on with the various projects I have on the go.

Here’s another short piece that I wrote a few years ago for a former writing group. I don’t think I’ve posted it before.  Actually it illustrates something that Debi was telling us about. It’s in 1st person so that is the PoV, but halfway through it changes. Now, according to Debi, head-hopping is a dangerous and difficult thing to do. She suggests some kind of link that helps the reader slide rather than leap between heads. Except that I haven’t done that. So does it work?

The Cavern

“Are you ready Ruth?”
I nodded my head then realised that in the dimly lit tunnel my gesture wouldn’t be seen. I called out and felt the line become taut. I shuffled towards the sinkhole grateful that they had allowed me to keep my lycra bodysuit; the gritty rock would have lacerated my skin. My legs dangled down the narrow shaft then I allowed the harness to take my weight.  I gripped the nylon rope above my head to make myself as thin as possible. Then I was encased as if in a stone coffin, my helmet scraping against rock.  I had to wriggle to ensure that I descended.  That was why I was stripped of the tools that usually filled my pockets and dangled from my belt.
I’d volunteered for this job but being the smallest member of the team and the only one who could pass through the hole, there wasn’t much choice really. Nevertheless, I was excited as everyone else to see what this chimney lead to.  We knew there was a cavern below and we hoped that, like the others, it would contain wonders; and what wonders we had already found – bones preserved from scavengers, complete skeletons of beings that were barely human.  Our predecessors or our competitors? Who knew?

My feet swung free and then with a final scrape of rock on my skin I was hanging in space. The grass rope creaked above my head. I shouted to my companions and they continued to lower me into the dark chamber. My toes touched ground and my knees buckled until I took my own weight.  I was relieved to release the binding around my chest so I could breathe easily again. I worried that I was standing on one of the mothers and shouted up for a light.
Minutes passed before a flaming torch appeared above me and cast a glow around the whole chamber. I saw that my worries were unfounded. The bodies were arranged in a partial circle around where I stood amongst rock dust. In the flickering light they seemed to move as if alive. I bent over each in turn to look more closely. Some still had skin drawn tightly against their skulls while others carried no flesh at all. I felt honoured to be in the presence of the mothers.
I called out again and received an answering grunt from beyond the shaft. I waited patiently in the company of the mothers until a trickle of falling dust and scraping sounds signalled that I was being joined by another. I took my mother into my arms, released her from the rope and carried her to a space in the ring of her ancestors.  I laid her gently beside them, her arms stiff against her thin body. Then I knelt, my hands on her forehead and groin, and asked her for her love and guidance as I became mother to all her children. Her authority and responsibility became mine.

Based on article in New Scientist magazine about the discovery of proto-human remains in South Africa cave systems by Lee Berger and his team.  The Ultimate Origin Story New Scientist p.36 30/09/17 no.3145

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Jasmine rejoices

Returned to the UK to find the country in the grip of election fever. Well, not really, but there has been some excitement about the local elections in England (not London) and the EU elections (which Con & Lab don’t want to fight) in three weeks time. Living in Wales we weren’t involved in the council elections but I am delighted with the results – Cons clobbered and Lab labouring. Lib Dems are big winners but the Greens having the greatest proportional increase deserves more notice. So, both Remain parties doing well. Yet May insists that the results are a protest at  parliament’s deadlock over Brexit and that the people want her to get on with it and take the UK out of the EU. Okay, I admit that there are many parts of England that do still want to Leave but I don’t think that is the standout message of these particular elections. They certainly show a country divided as never before (well, before 2016).

p1000039

What has Ian McEwan got against SF? Well, quite a lot actually. His latest novel, Machines like Me, has standard SF tropes of artificial intelligence, humanoid robots exploring their humanity, alternative history, yet he denies it is SF. In a New Scientist interview he admits to not connecting with space opera (i.e. “crossing the galaxy at five times the speed of light and wearing anti-gravity boots”.) but seems to think this is the total extent of SF. Has he never read any Ballard, Gibson, Brunner to name but three who didn’t write space opera but occupied the genre contentedly? Perhaps he thinks he is too famous and “literary” to grub around in the cesspit of SF&F. Will  Machines get more sales as a literary novel than an SF novel? I don’t know but I think it is cheap and mean to slag off a genre which one is quite obviously writing in. I’ve read a few of McEwen’s earlier novels and find them somewhat pretentious. He obviously does a huge amount of research and wants you to know it.  I still think he made a mistake in Enduring Love by having the runaway balloon one filled with helium rather than the more common, hot air.

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I didn’t get the opportunity to write anything new this week for various reasons. Here, instead, is a very old story that I wrote for a bit of fun.  I don’t think I’ve posted it before. I obviously wrote it when the martian meteorite discovered in Antartica, was found to contain entities that might have been nano-sized bacteria. That was before the landings on Mars of Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Mars seems a rather boring environment for life.

Little Men are green because the grass is greener on the other side

“Eat up your rock flakes, Grrnflyn, like a good Martian.” Grrnflyn’s red eye stalks looked into the bowl sadly. E dipped the red tip of a single red tentacle reluctantly into the bowl of red crumbs. A few pieces stuck to the slimy skin. E opened er stomach orifice and wiped the crumbs onto the crimson tongues.
“But it’s so boring, it’s the same every day, and tastes yuk.”
Tddmlwc waved four of er arms angrily.  “You ungrateful Martian you.  Rock bits have been good enough for us for millennia.  There’s nano-bacteria for nourishment and iron for health. No-one has ever bothered about what it tastes like. If you don’t want it, someone else will. Get off to school and see how quickly you get hungry.” E shooed Grrnflyn out of the small cave that was home.

 Grrnflyn oozed miserably along the dimly lit, red, rocky corridors barely able to lift a tentacle of greeting to er friends. The trouble was e was already hungry, but that didn’t stop er wanting something more exciting to eat. Grrnflyn arrived at the school cavern and slumped into a work hole. Teacher made a gurgling noise which the class had come to recognise as meaning that e was satisfied all the pupils had arrived.
“Good morning class,” A chorus of mumbles and groans emerged from each of the work holes, “Today we are going to start the study of astronomy.”
“What’s that?”  someone asked from the other side of the cave.
“It’s the study of what’s beyond the surface of our planet.”
“But there isn’t anything,” Grrnflyn recognised his friend, Mggbrrl’s, voice. “The surface is cold and dry and there isn’t even enough air for us to breathe.”  Grrnflyn added with a murmur, “That’s why we’re stuck down here in these dark boring caverns.”
“Ah,” said Teacher, waving two or three tentacles excitedly, “I am referring to the planets and stars out in space and in particular, our nearest neighbour which we call Mud.”
“Why is it called that?” another voice asked.
“Because unlike our planet, it has liquid water on its surface so when it is mixed with the bits of rock, it makes mud. Here are some pictures.” Teacher held up sheets of red skin using all ten tentacles. Grrnflyn gasped and gurgled in amazement and er stomach aperture opened uncontrollably. The pictures showed a spherical object with markings in unfamiliar colours that e could not name but were definitely not red.
“The green is areas of land where many different plants grow,” Teacher explained,           “I’m afraid our pigments can’t give a true impression of the colours. The blue is liquid water.  Astronomers have observed many different creatures on the surface.”
Grrnflyn listened in amazement as Teacher described the inhabitants of Mud, their surroundings and their way of life.  Finally, e plucked up courage to ask a question.
“Do you think the people on Mud eat rock crumbs?”
Teacher extended an eye stalk towards him/her. “Of course not, you silly pupil, they have all these different varieties of plants and animals to eat.”
I expect they all taste different, Grrnflyn thought. I wish I lived on Mud.

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Jasmine has a fool

Another week of governmental chaos. I would call it a farce but I laugh at farces (especially the old Brian Rix Whitehall Theatre farces – remember them) but this business is too serious to laugh at. It did inspire a story however (yes, another one).  See below.

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Next Thursday I will be at the Kings Arms in Abergavenny  or Y Fenni as us Welsh call it) for the Abergavenny Writing Festival  (see the programme here). Having put myself forward I was delighted to be asked to sit on a discussion panel  (2.30pm  Thurs. 11th) with three other contributors and a chair – all writers.  I was rather dismayed to see that I looked considerably older in my photo than the others – that is unless they’re using old profile photos (some authors do use the same portrait for many years. I’ve met a few who look quite a bit more haggard than their profiles – not mentioning any names).  Our topic for discussion is the old one – “Do we all have a novel in us?”  I think it’s an opportunity to talk, briefly, about our own novels.  So I will have all 8 of mine (with my name on) to hand. I think it’s natural to answer, of course we do, but that is writers speaking. In fact I think most people would be horrified if they were told they had to sit in front of a computer screen or a pad of paper and spend something like 2,000 hours churning out words to make a novel (conservative estimate not counting editing?). Unless you count lifestories, which I don’t think count as novels unless they are fictionalised, I don’t think everyone necessarily has a story to tell that it long enough for a novel. Mind you, there are enough of us that do think we can write a novel, to keep the presses and ebook sellers busy and provide all that competition for readers. Come and join in the discussion.

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The prompt for this week’s piece of writing was, not surprisingly, “April Fool”.  I was stumped at first for an original angle.  However, the present political situation, gave me an idea that, if not new, was quite appropriate. Here we go:

A Fool’s Day

It seemed like a normal morning when I got up. I sat down to my usual breakfast of toast and marmalade and opened the newspaper. There was alarm that this year’s spaghetti harvest might be late, concern that the new customs barriers on the Welsh-English border could hold up traffic, that more staff would be needed on the Isle of Wight ferries to check passports and more of the usual stuff.  There was also an article about the annual round up of wild unicorns on the Siberian steppes. Several adverts amongst the news caught my eye. There was one for Round Tuits, which interested me since I needed one; another for striped paint in a pleasant shade of red and white. I noticed that holidays on San Serif were popular this year, and there were various remarkable innovations to BMW cars. Nothing out of the ordinary for which I was grateful.
Then I put the radio on to catch the nine o’clock news. As the news reader read out the first item, I gradually had a feeling of normality sliding away from me as if I had slipped down a rabbit hole or stepped through the back of my wardrobe. I checked the date. It was March 32nd, so that wasn’t the explanation for my feeling of mental discomfort.
I was informed that a country with a long history of world trade and leadership in world affairs had decided to part company with its twenty-seven near neighbours. The fact that it did forty per cent of its trade with this group and obtained a good portion of its food from them did not seem to have been considered. This nation had decided to forfeit the benefits of free movement of goods and people, as well as the security and clout of being part of a large trading bloc. What’s more its citizens would no longer have the right to live and work in the neighbouring countries. This relatively small country would henceforth have to compete with the dominant forces in the world economy for the increasingly scarce resources necessary to feed, clothe and employ its population.
As if this news was not mind-bogglingly odd of itself, it was apparent that the decision had been forced on the government by a rebellious group of the ruling party that numbered less than a quarter of their total representation. The foolish and blinkered leader had asked the citizens to give their opinion while failing, over many years, to provide them with the information necessary to make a reasoned response. He had also failed to take the precaution of ensuring that the result of vote would be only taken as advisory, especially if it turned out to be close.
My head was spinning at this point, but then I learned that the nation had been given two years to negotiate a sensible resolution of the problem but had failed to suggest any solutions that would not cause harm.
I turned off the radio in disgust. How dare they broadcast such nonsense. Perhaps some people thought it was a joke to make such ridiculous suggestions. For me, it was total balderdash and impossible to contemplate as having any connection to reality. I decided to have a lie down with the hope that when I woke again normality would be restored.  Perhaps there will be more news about that UFO that has landed in London, again.

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