Jasmine finds the words

This week I am going to say a few words about words. Words that have been overused and misused during the coronavirus crisis to the extent that I tremble whenever I hear them. It won’t help get us through the coming years but it will do me good.

The first is unprecedented. No, I don’t mean it’s never happened before; that’s the first word. Almost every news item, particularly early in the pandemic and latterly when companies are justifying laying off a large percentage of their workers, it is used as an excuse for whatever is being suggested. It’s a catchall word which means that the speaker doesn’t have to supply any other explanation. Why didn’t the government have enough PPE? The unprecedented pandemic. Why is Airbus laying off a quarter of its workforce? The unprecedented economic crisis. Using the term, unprecedented, is the equivalent of throwing our hands up in defeat and doing nothing.

The thing is that the pandemic is not unprecedented. We have had pandemics before and warnings of them repeatedly in the last twenty years. Plans were even made to deal with them which governments failed to implement. Similarly there have been economic crashes before and while this one is huge, some economists have been warning of the failure of the world economy, particularly because of climate change, for a long time. All those billionaires out there who are so bright to have been able to make their fortunes in the first place should surely have been able to plan what to do in the event of a catastrophe. Perhaps they are, and their answer is to let the rest of us go to hell.

My second word is actually the one I have grown to fear the most recently and it isn’t necessarily COVID related. It is “potentially”. Potential is good. It has a scientific meaning which most people don’t understand but otherwise implies a capability which may be latent i.e. hidden. Writing tutors always say we should cut the adverbs and potentially is one that should be disposed of. It is used for any action or effect that could, should or may happen and is usually unnecessary. It is just added for emphasis or by reporters as a spacing word like other people use “fuck”. “A second COVID spike could potentially occur” No, it could occur, that’s all. It is used so often these days, that I cringe whenever I hear it.

The last one, for today, is a word that has become popular as the lockdown has eased, used by government spokespeople (actually almost always spokesmen) and especially the PM. It is “bubble”. We have been told that we can form a bubble with another household. Primary schools were told to form bubbles of up to fifteen pupils. Now the great plan for getting all schools back to full attendance in September is to form year group bubbles. That could be two to three hundred students in each bubble in large secondary schools. Apparently within the bubble students won’t have to social distance. That gets the government out of the problem that there isn’t room in classrooms for 30 pupils to be 2m or even 1m apart all the time. How the bubbles move around the school or manage at the beginning and end of the day or at break time and lunch time, I haven’t the foggiest idea and neither I imagine do headteachers. But the talk of bubbles ignores their properties. There are unstable. One puff or prick and they pop. Their contents are dispersed over everyone nearby. It is another example of this government’s delight in empty slogans and lack of any idea of what to do.

Time for some more words, carefully chosen ones put in a pleasing order. At least I hope so. This week’s writing topic was “Freedom”. The prompt was the increasing liberation from lockdown. But I didn’t want to do that. The word tickled at my memory. Wasn’t one of the American spacecraft called Freedom? It was, and here is the story of it. I wanted to make it a bit more SFfy and spiritual but I didn;t have the time and it didn;t turn out quite like that. So, this is it.

Freedom 7

The roar of the Redstone rocket ceased. Just two minutes and twenty seconds from launch and now he was coasting into space at over five thousand miles per hour. But he had no view enclosed in his tin can. There were no windows in this Mercury capsule. Two seconds later and a clunk signalled that the escape tower had been jettisoned. Another two seconds and another lurch. The craft’s own rockets gave him an extra kick pushing away him from the spent Redstone. Now he could peer through the eyepiece of the periscope and see the curve of the earth, the blackness of space above and the brilliant white of the cloud below.
The craft had its own rattles and buzzes and the thinning air still roared past, so it wasn’t a silent flight. A few more seconds and the capsule rotated automatically. Weightless, he was soaring into space bottom first but at least the heat shield was correctly aligned for re-entry. There was still over two minutes before he would reach the peak of his journey and there were things to do.
Shepard was the second person in space. Unlike Gagarin he was not going to reach orbit but merely loop beyond the atmosphere before falling into the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless, he could do something that Gagarin was unable to do. The Russian had been little more than luggage on his flight, with no control over his craft’s path. Now Shepard was officially in space, more than sixty miles above the surface, he operated the manual controls, giving short bursts to the thrusters. He could alter the orientation of his capsule, rotate left-right, tip up-down, roll clockwise-anticlockwise. He was the first space pilot, free of earth’s gravity – for a few minutes. Back on automatic control the capsule settled into the correct attitude for the remaining period of freefall.
He peered through the periscope, seeing through the clouds to the American continent and the islands of the Caribbean, but was unable to distinguish the great cities of the eastern seaboard. Then the retrorockets fired. The capsule slowed a little and dropped more steeply. The periscope retracted and now he was enclosed again within his tiny craft. The thickening air caught the capsule, slowing it still more but heating up. The exterior of the heat shield under his seat began to glow red hot and burn away. The g forces built, briefly making him eleven times his normal weight. He didn’t black out.
The air roared, the capsule shook, and slowed. On time, the parachute opened and he fell more slowly towards the ocean. Freedom 7 was back on Earth.

Jasmine shakes her head

PM urges global unity to beat virus” is one of this week’s ironic headlines. This from a PM who has done more than most to create disunity over this and other issues. If there had been global unity six months ago with countries following WHO guidelines along with the pandemic strategy agreed years before, we would not be looking at the disaster we have now – not just the number of deaths but the economic disruption of billions of people’s lives. Instead the PM lazed about for a couple of months ignoring what was happening in countries as close as Italy and France, until it was too late to do anything other than keep everyone who wasn’t a keyworker in their homes. And yet I hear people say “Oh, no one else could have done anything different.” Oh, yes they could. But you can’t change the past. What can we do in the future? There are some excellent suggestions about rebuilding the economy around green pledges but all I see is the government fumbling and stumbling towards its Brexit deadline – for what?

This week there was almost too much news – most of it depressing. A racist President stoking unrest aiming to get the white majority on his side; horrifying pictures of the 8 minutes in which a man was murdered in public by police (I don’t think such a thing would happen in the UK – I have more faith in the training of UK police officers); Parliament reduced to a queue and a laughing stock – another nail in the coffin of UK democracy; and the beginning of the end of semi-independent Hong Kong.

Oh, and I was right last week. In the news this week, warnings of low reservoirs and possible drought measures. Apparently everyone stuck at home is using more water than usual – all that hand washing.

Let’s move on from the news. I’ve had a good writing week. First of all a big thank you to the readers of my draft Jasmine Frame novel, currently called Impersonator – a murder case and trans characters. I am delighted that the response has been encouraging. Now I can get on with the next version incorporating the points raised. I have been following that procedure with the fantasy novel, The Pendant and The Globe that I completed before Christmas – it’s now just about finished – again. Can I get it published?

This week’s topic for writers’ group was “shoes”. I had germs of ideas about rocket boots, footprints on the Moon and so on, but the picture that stuck in my mind is the one at the start of the piece below.

Shoes

There were dozens of pairs of slippers and sandals of traditional style and manufacture, a scattering of worn trainers, their logos symbols of the modern world, and a few smart leather brogues, imported at great expense by those with the cash to show off. They were lined up on the steps at the entrance awaiting the return of their owners. They would remain unclaimed. The air was filled with dust and smoke with the stench of burned flesh.
Trucks arrived disgorging soldiers in a motley variety of uniforms, their heavy boots thudding on the dry, hard earth. They struggled to form a cordon around the mosque but already there were hundreds of people, many barefoot, crawling over the heap of rubble. Wailing alarms announced the arrival of white vans with red markings. Medical orderlies with plastic bags over their light plimsolls dived from them and ran into the smouldering ruin. Ignoring the bodies and bits of bodies they searched for the living to assist and the dying to comfort. The soldiers remained outside, wary, expecting a second explosion; one strike was often followed by another.
Gwen Parry tightened the laces of her steel toe-capped safety shoes, pulled up the zip of her flak jacket and placed her helmet with its large PRESS sticker on her head. Ignoring the last dregs of her thick, sweet coffee she picked up her camera and joined the crowd moving towards the site of the atrocity.
Gwen elbowed her way between the crying people and evaded the soldiers trying to hold them back. She stood before what used to be the grand entrance to the mosque. Despite the sirens, the shouted orders and the wail of the crowd behind her, the scene before her was quiet. The rescuers were silent, pausing frequently from moving the lumps of concrete to listen for the faint cries of the trapped. Few came.
She took a few wide-angle shots to record the general scene of destruction, but Gwen did not venture into the carnage. Her audience would not want to see blood, shit and gore. Then she noticed the shoes. By some fluke of physics, they had been untouched by the force of the explosion which caused the building to collapse. They still rested in their neat rows. The uniform patina of grey dust made them appear like some modern work of art, a monument to the dead. She moved along the rows videoing in close-up, picking out the various styles, the state of wear, the sizes that reflected the age and wealth of their male owners. She wondered if there was a similar image to symbolise the female victims.
There was a pair of trainers, gold canvas just visible through the dust. Gwen knew those shoes. They belonged to a youth, a talented basketball player. She’d interviewed him once in a café when he had told her of his dream of escaping to the US to play professionally amongst his heroes. How many other owners of these shoes had she met during her weeks based in the town? The old men who played interminable rounds of their traditional gambling games at the street-side cafes; the wealthy owner of the block of flats in which she was billeted; the teenage boys kicking a deflated ball down the dusty streets. No young men, of course, they were all in the militia, no doubt vowing vengeance for this and previous attacks.
Gwen glanced down at the ground and saw her own footwear was as grey and dust covered as the men’s shoes. The dust of the dead.

Jasmine cries (with laughter or pain?)

After another week of (not unpleasant) lockdown with the coronavirus still the main item of news, the most unavoidable talking point is of course Cummings. I was even driven to write a piece on Facebook. I will be frank. I am biased. I don’t like Conservatives, I don’t like Johnson and I don’t like Cummings. I think Cummings’ influence on the government, and to some extent the voters, of this country in the last few years is malign and deeply worrying. However the revelations of the last week have been eye-opening.

I had thought of Cummings as an evil genius (I’ve watched too many James Bond and crappy SF films) controlling his minions in No.10. However the story of his race to Durham and side-trip to Barnard Castle as well as having the hint of farce reveal him to be a sad and pitiful creature. His arrogance, pig-headedness and manipulativeness at every level are signs that he is insecure, angry and not very bright. It is indeed sad that with his wife ill, he could turn to no-one in London for help and felt forced to make the midnight dash up the A1. The account of his eye test is beyond ridiculous. I don’t care whether the Durham Police think he’s broken the law or not, he has in multiple ways gone against the word and the spirit of the lockdown rules. He moved someone with COVID symptoms from their place of self-isolation. He did not separate himself and his child from his wife within their home. He made unnecessary journeys, at least twice and he left his home himself when he should have been in quarantine. I do not recall any part of Johnson’s letter to every household saying that government advisors need not follow the rules of lockdown. Stay home was the first and principal injunction.

Johnson said it was instinct for a father to protect his family. Perhaps it is, but instinct is not always the correct response to a threat. In this case Cummings put his family at risk but enclosing them in a car for over 4 hours, he risked taking the virus to a remote part of the north-east, and he endangered life by driving while possibly unfit. The science of the lockdown rules was intended to provide an alternative to instinct that would reduce the peak of infection and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed – it was proved correct.

As well as Cummings’ attempts at justification making him a laughing stock and marking him out as a selfish manipulator it also appears that he re-edited an old blog to make it seem that he predicted the pandemic. Two points. First many scientists have been predicting such a thing while SARS, MERS, swine flue, bird flu etc have given us warnings, so Cummings was not prescient. Secondly, if he had thought a pandemic was on the way then in his position he could have done something to prepare for it. Instead the government which advised even ignored its own simulation exercise. That makes him culpable for the disaster of the 50,000+ deaths – if he hadn’t fraudulently fiddled with his blog.

So we are left with a picture of a frightened, stupid man who somehow has a hold over a scared, stupid prime-minister surrounded by dim fools for ministers. Cummings may be dangerous, following the script of past dictators with the aid of modern technology. The question is can he remain the wizard behind the curtain of Johnson’s flannel while being the butt of many comedians’ jokes?

The weather has been gorgeous, again, this week although I am waiting for the drought notices to appear (would that be a record – from flood to drought in 3 months?). We’ve had some lovely walks as the photo shows, but the writing goes on. Jasmine Frame 5 is out with readers and I look forward to receiving their comments. Meanwhile I have returned to my earlier fantasy novel, revising, editing and dealing with comments made by the readers.

The writers’ group theme for this week was “deadwood” which just happened to be the title of a story I wrote nine years ago, inspired by a dead tree on the Croft estate near Leominster. It is a little longer than usual. Here it is.

Deadwood

It was summer when I first saw the tree. It stood alone in the field with the surrounding woodland a couple of hundred metres away. It was dead of course, its bark stripped away and the wood bleached white by sun and frost. Yet it stood firm and had withstood spring gales and autumn storms; its roots had obviously not yet been rotted away. It retained a power in its size and symmetry from its thick trunk and broad boughs to its bifurcated branches. Leafless, the tiny twigs formed a fuzzy corona, an indeterminate boundary.
Mid-winter had arrived when I returned. I had to call in the gift shop at the nearby stately home. As I walked from the car-park I glanced at the tree. The low Sun shone over my shoulder but to the north the clouds were dark and forbidding. The tree glowed in the feeble winter light. I took out my camera – I carried it always for such eventualities – and began snapping. I crossed the field to stand before the tree. No grass or other plants grew beneath it; the earth was dry and powdery. For some reason it did not seem simply dead, but waiting, for what I did not know. The light disappeared as the Sun was obscured by cloud and the tree became a dark shadow of itself. Drops of rain began to fall on my head and I retreated.
Later that evening I decided to download the photos from my camera. I was amazed and intrigued. In each picture the tree was surrounded by a halo of white light. Was it some atmospheric phenomenon? Perhaps the sunlight from behind me had produced an effect like a rainbow in the moist air surrounding the it. But why had I not seen the glow when I was standing there? How did the halo appear in each photo regardless of how far I was standing? I was gripped by a need to confront the tree, to explore further.
Despite it being late, I pulled on my boots, grabbed a coat and scarf and stepped outside. The weather had changed. The cloud had been swept away leaving the sky clear and the temperature was plummeting. As I travelled along the country lanes the road sparkled in my headlights revealing the frost that was already forming. Puddles left by the earlier rain were freezing over. I made sure that I drove carefully and didn’t skid on any ice patches.
The car park was deserted of course but I locked the car when I got out and carefully picked my way in the darkness towards the field where the tree stood. There I stopped and gasped. The whole tree was bathed in white phosphorescence. I looked into the sky. There was no moon to cast such a glow but the clear sky was filled with stars. With no nearby cities to wash away the starlight with light pollution the night sky was as it should be. But surely starlight could not be causing the tree to appear so radiant.
I picked my steps carefully over the rabbit-burrowed field until I stood before it. If anything, the glow seemed brighter closer up and came from every bough and branch. I stepped under the canopy and found myself encircled by light. I approached the trunk and placed a hand tentatively against it. It was cold, colder than the freezing night air, so cold that I could feel the heat flowing from my hand into the wood. I wanted to withdraw my hand but found that I no longer had the will to do so. I took a step closer and pressed my other hand to the bark. Without lifting my hands from the smooth but freezing surface I slid them around the trunk until I was hugging it to me. Even through my coat I could feel the heat being drawn from my body and yet I did not shiver.
It was not my intention to do so but my head was drawn to the trunk until my lips touched the wood. It was like kissing frozen metal. The moisture on my lips froze binding me to the surface. I was immobile.
Now I sensed the tree was not still. Although there was no wind, there was a trembling in the branches around me. The vibration came from within the trunk not from the air around it. It was like a fluid flowing swiftly along a pipe, little eddies and vortices transmitting the turbulence as a rumble. The trembling grew in intensity, became the crashing of waves against a cliff. It felt as if the trunk itself would be blown apart by the force of the fluid it contained but still I was held by my hands and lips. Then it seemed that the rushing was within me that I had become part of the tree. From the tips of my toes to the top of my head I was shaken and buffeted.
And then? Well I’m not sure what happened. I was flung away from the trunk with a great force. When I hit the ground I was stunned and may even have been knocked unconscious. When I came to my senses I found that I was lying on the grass outside the circle of overhanging branches. The glow had gone from its branches and now they looked dark against the night sky. Nevertheless, I could see that the trunk had been rent in two. A massive crack split it from where the trunk divided into the boughs down to the ground. I was worried that the tree might fall on me so I retreated. I looked back over my shoulder a few times but there was just a silhouette of the ruin. I drove home shivering, feeling colder than I had every done before. It took all night for my body, wrapped in my duvet, to recover its inner warmth.
Next morning it was raining again, the sky overcast and grey. I drove back out to see the tree. A small group of people were gathered in the field, a short distance from it. Some were talking to each other while others pointed to it. It was as I had left it with a great cleft in the trunk. The two halves leaned away from each other as if some giant had heaved them apart. I joined the group and listened to the conversation.
“How did it happen then?”
“No idea.”
“Looks as if lightning struck it.”
“But there wasn’t any lightning last night. It was clear until this cloud came over this morning.”
“A mystery.”
I didn’t join in and tell them what I had seen and felt because I wasn’t sure what had happened. I left them going over the same pointless arguments.

During the next few months I paid a few visits to the tree. It remained the same although it seemed to have lost its power and looked rather forlorn. One warm day in May I ventured right up to it. I climbed over the fence that had been erected to prevent people doing exactly what I was doing. The owners were scared that the two halves could fall at any time and injure someone foolish enough to be standing underneath.
I crept warily up to the trunk. The wood seemed grey now rather than white. Gingerly I placed my head within the great crack and looked down. The trunk was hollow and the hole seemed to go down well below ground level. It was dark but as my eyes adjusted I thought I could see something. I waited and at last my view became clear. Growing up through the very centre of the old trunk was a sapling. New life was replacing the old, the rending of the dead tree allowing the new growth its freedom. What part had I played in this?

……………………………


Jasmine is wary

The longer one remains semi-isolated in lockdown and the more news one sees on TV or the internet, the more one becomes uncertain of what is really happening. It is not helped when one of the people who should be setting out the truth of the matter is constantly supporting one conspiracy theory or other or making totally bizarre and dnagerous claims. You know who I am referring to. Our government is little better, “following the science” to justify their own haphazard response to the crisis while re-writing history to put themselves in a good light. The trouble is that the BBC is doing what it has been doing for a number of years (cf, climate change, Brexit, Tory govt. in general) and not testing the truth of what spokespersons are saying but merely repeating the nonsense ad nauseum. With day passing after day and the lockdown weeks stretching out it is getting quite difficult to remember what was happening back in January, February and early March. Those days when a strange new disease in China was the news. It was two and a half months when alarm bells should have been jangling in Whitehall and perhaps were, but few if any preparations were made for the likelihood of the epidemic becoming a pandemic and reaching us. Even when the death rate began to soar in Italy, the response here was slow.

There is still a lot unknown about the coronavirus: how to cure the disease it causes; how much immunity do survivors have; how much protection will a vaccine give; how well the virus survives in the environment in different climates. Nevertheless the experts know a lot about how pandemics are likely to pan out (no pun intended). It is lucky that the death rate of Covid19 is a lot less than SARS and MERS and Ebola, at 1-3% of those infected or about .1% of the population (if proper precautions are taken), but to economists and billionaire leaders, those a small numbers. Why not get back to “normal” and let everyone get on with their lives? No, it won’t work. While people are restless and fatigued by isolation there is still fear. Opening up the economy while maintaining the 2 metre rule will only favour certain business and certainly not the shops and cafes and pub and restaurants that most of us frequent. High streets and shopping malls are not going to return to their previous state soon, if ever. Life has changed but to what new state, I don’t know.

That’s rather a meandering train of thought but perhaps contains some nuggets to think about.

…………………….

P1010257

In many ways, lockdown has given me the impetus to get on writing by reducing the alternatives that help procrastination. The novel is coming along; earlier this week I got the insight of how to take it to a conclusion, and I’m getting there. Meanwhile the weekly Zoom meetings of the writing club give incentive for shorter pieces and now we’ve started writing in our Zoom meetings, the little grey cells are being fired up. For last week the topic was “birthdays”. My colleagues produced a variety of pieces looking at the significance of particular birthdays or a lifetime of them. As usual, very varied and well written. I took an SF route with my piece, Birth Day, below. Actually most of what I mention has already been discussed scientifically if not actually carried out. Some of my writer friends thought it was funny in places (it was intended to be) others thought it scary. Since we have enough people on this planet I think what I suggest is unnecessary. What do you think?

Birth Day

Watching the fertilisation on holo was amazing; almost as if we’d been there. When my sperm, the specially chosen female one of course, touched your mother’s egg and the nuclei joined – well, I was in tears. Then we had a bit of a wait, while you divided a few times. One cell was taken for gene analysis. No major problems of course, just a minor gene correction to prevent you getting my mild hay fever. The Genome Reveal Party was a great blast with our families and friends drinking a toast to you and suggesting names, not all of which were suitable.
By then we’d made our choice of which womb to buy. The Apple I-Womb was wonderful but awfully expensive. We didn’t even look at the Easy-Womb having seen the one-star rating on Trustguide, so we settled on the Volks Womb. The VW is German so it should have been good, and it was. We took it in turns to carry it every day strapped to our abdomen. The midwife said that was the way to ensure good bonding between foetus and parents. It certainly helped me to believe that I had a child on its way.
We were really excited after ten weeks when it was time to start your neuro-education programme, silently beaming brainwaves into your tiny head. Your responses showed your neural network growing quickly and soon you were getting aural and visual feeds to increase your sensory development. We could even converse with you by direct brainwave modulation. Feeling your first words was wonderful.
The midwife suggested music that would stimulate you but not over-excite you. You waved your tiny arms to Mozart and kicked your feet in time to Pink Floyd. You even jigged to the ExEx though I don’t think much of their latest stream. All that dancing has helped you develop sound muscles and strong bones as well as build your mind.
As you grew and developed you giggled at the stories we read you; played games which you won often; told us what you think of us as your parents and demonstrated your aptitude for mathematics and algorithm manipulation as forecast by your genome. You’re going to have a great career in front of you and have a wonderful life.
Now the time has come. The womb is set in the birthing dock. The pseudo placenta will withdraw, the amniotic fluid drain away, and the womb will open. You will suck air into your lungs for the first time, step into our arms and out into the world. To our dear daughter, Afrodyetee, Happy Birth Day.

………………………………

Jasmine looks out

A couple of weeks ago I joked about waiting for the zombies to arrive. It’s not a joke anymore. No zombies (I think) but we’re living in a dystopia; one where social contact is frowned on or forbidden in many places; one where supplies are perceived as running short; one where commerce and public services are halting; one where human rights are threatened.

It doesn’t seem so bad at the moment perhaps. Most of us are fit and well (and will remain so). We have plenty to eat and there are things to do at home – spring cleaning anyone? But what is happening to society around us and what will happen if the restrictions get worse and last as long as expected (3 months plus)? Small businesses will not be able to continue and large businesses such as car factories are already closing down.

At one of the PM’s press conferences a journalist asked if we were headed for a recession. It was a daft question.  There was no possible answer other than yes given the slow down in the economy caused by all the businesses shutting.  Of course, the PM was unable to give a straight answer. He hasn’t been able to do anything other than mumble cliché’s and platitudes while creating more confusion about the government’s response, or lack of it, to the crisis.

The government has published a bill to be passed by Parliament “on the nod” on Monday. The bill is big and gives the government all sorts of powers. I haven’t seen it, read it or know in detail what it allows, but it worries me. Some restriction of rights is necessary if the health service is not to be overcome, but for 2 years? These kinds of powers must have a short lifetime otherwise we will become pawns in an authoritarian state as bad as any in the dystopian literature. Unlike when 1984 was written, we now have the technology to monitor and control everyone. Indeed it is being tried in China.

So while we are fighting over toilet rolls, think about the future we are giving ourselves.

……………………….

P1010029I thought that with nearly all my engagements cancelled I would have plenty of time for getting on with my novel. There is only one problem. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on a story set a few years ago when life seemed normal (although I am ot sure what normal means). The days before Brexit; before Trump and other right wing populist nationalists and Johnson was nothing but than a former oafish Mayor of London; the days before heavy rains caused flooding at one time or another in every part of the country; the days before Covid-19. I think I’m going to have to start something as other-worldish as I can think of to set my mind free of the present.

Of course there was no writing group this week but we had a sort of a virtual meeting in which a few of us posted pieces based on the theme set last week of “worm moon” (apparently that’s the name of the first March full Moon, when the spring warmth makes the earthworms rise). My take is called Wyrm Moon and calls to mind a number of  stories with similar creaturses, such as Tremors, The Legacy of Herot (Niven), even the sandworms of Dune (Herbert). Perhaps there is something original in my tale, of which this is just an incomplete, first draft, snippet.

Wyrm Moon

“Stand away from the window, child, and opaque it. Now!” Mother hissed.
I took one last glance through the vari-glass.  Bigmoon was high in the sky, larger than it ever looked at other times in the year and glowing bright yellow. I reached out and touched the window. My view disappeared and the window became just another part of the dull cream wall. I turned and faced Mother. Her face was red, and she spoke again in an angry whisper
“Don’t ever let me see you looking out of a window again. Not when the Wyrm Moon is in the sky.”
“I wanted to see Bigmoon when it’s biggest,” I said, though I knew what her answer would be.
“You stupid child. You know that is dangerous.  Dangerous for all of us. You can look at Bigmoon at other times, when it’s not the Wyrm Moon. Now come and sit down quietly with the rest of us and eat.”
The evening meal filled my belly but that was about it. At this time of year, we lived on leftovers that had been stored for days, because no one dared to visit the glasshouses when the Wyrm Moon was in the sky.
As I scraped the final scraps onto my spoon the ground trembled beneath the floor of the hab.  Mother and my aunt froze, their faces white and alert. My sisters shivered beside me. For some reason I just felt excited.
The Wyrms were moving.
“Shh. Not a sound,” Mother whispered, “Don’t move a muscle.”
We all sat at the table as if turned to stone. The floor continued to shake and there was a rustling like skin against stone, except this was the leathery skin of monsters dragging themselves through their burrows in the rock deep beneath us.
The sound and the shaking faded away. Around the table there were intakes of breath; breath that had been held for minutes.
“That was close,” Aunt Sal said.
Mother cut her off before she said any more. “Shh, not in front of the children. Go to your room children. Lie on your beds and do not make a sound.”
We left the table and crossed the living zone to our room. My three younger sisters climbed onto their beds and lay still. I stopped by the door and sat down on the floor. I wanted to listen to what was said. I could just hear the soft, voiceless conversation.
“They are closer this year,” Aunt Sal said. “If they sense us then we will be gone like the other settlements.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Mother said. “We both know the consequences of being discovered by the Wyrms. We must ensure they do not hear us or sense our movements. The children too, but I do not want them scared.”
I didn’t know what Aunt Sal meant by other settlements but knew the tales of the Wyrms that lived deep beneath us. Fifty metres long and five wide, with jaws that crushed rock as if it was cheese. They only came to the surface when Bigmoon was brightest. Mother and Aunt Sal may have been scared but I wanted to see a Wyrm. They were obviously close now.
While Mother and Aunt Sal talked quietly, heads almost touching I crept from our room towards the door of the hab. The door opened silently and then I was outside.
I moved slowly and as quietly as possible across the dusty yard using a walk cum shuffle cum hop to cover the distance passed the glasshouses and other habs. I reached the boundary marker of our settlement. I didn’t intend going further.  There were other fierce animals out in the wilds apart from Wyrms. I just wanted to get a glimpse of one of the creatures.
The ground moved under my feet. It lifted, tossing me as if I was bouncing on one of our beds. I fell onto my back as the ground opened in front of me and the head of a Wyrm rose into the sky.

………………………….

 

 

Jasmine washes her hands

When can we expect the zombies to come lurching down the streets of our home towns? That seems to be what people are expecting by the reaction to the Coronavirus news with supermarket shortages being reported. Perhaps people have seen too many movies where events devastate the world very rapidly. It was the same with what was said about Brexit: the economic sky would fall in the moment the votes in the referendum were counted. Actually of course, Brexit is more likely to lead to a steady decline over a few years with the government providing all sorts of excuses other then admit to the true explanations.   Of course in the films there is often a superhero to rescue us.  Not many of those around.

But back to the impending doom of the Covid-19 plague. Yes, it is serious: it’s a new and unfamiliar infection. Early on in the epidemic it was uncertain how serious the illness was, how many would catch it or how many would die, and there was no vaccine. Now, while the vaccine will take some months to develop, we have a better idea. For most people it is probably less severe than flu, but that means we don’t really know how many people have had it since not everyone will be aware or will report having it. It does seem to kill more of the elderly, unwell and exhausted than flu but that could be an anomaly in the numbers. The point is it is not bubonic plague, or ebola or one of the other deadly infections which we have so far succeeded in keeping a lid on.

It looks to me like the cure could be worse than the disease.  The financial markets are already spooked; travel is decreasing (actually that could be a good thing for the climate) but businesses that depend on tourists and people going out to meet up for work or pleasure will be hard hit. Forced closures of schools, offices, factories, cinemas, stadia, etc. will cause a further economic hit which businesses are unprepared for.  How many might lay off employees? If not managed with care (and how many of our politicians are careful?) a disaster could indeed be caused by our reaction to the disease.

Many countries, UK included, have extreme draconian powers up their sleeves in the event of a serious disease outbreak. I don’t go along with conspiracy theories, the world is more a cock-up than anything else, but some leaders could see a chance to impose authoritarian laws with the excuse that they are fighting the virus. Elections could be postponed, gatherings of people banned, criticism of the government outlawed, travel constrained, borders closed.

So, my suggestion is don’t overact. Maintain normal healthy hygiene – wash hands frequently and carefully, use a tissue when you sneeze or cough, dispose of tissues carefully, stay at home if you feel ill. Carry on with life and support local businesses. I may fall into the age bracket which is apparently under the greatest threat but I am not going to stop doing the things I want to do.

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Another photo of me in a snowsuit – with a cute pair of huskies.

45320358I’m looking forward to getting a copy of Stephen Appleby’s new graphic novel, Dragman, a humorous tale of a gender-fluid superhero. Part of the appeal is that Appleby and me may be soulmates in that he is also gender-fluid and content with his name and his family life.

Back to writers’ group this week. Our esteemed leader was absent hence the title for this week’s task was “Where’s Jane.”  I know I shouldn’t make excuses but I had little time for my effort, so the piece, which I’ve titled simply, Jane, is a bit rushed and requires more work to make it coherent, but here it is.

Jane

I was alerted from scanning our stock by the ding of the doorbell. It was old-fashioned perhaps but effective at letting me know when a customer was entering the shop. A young man approached me followed by an older woman. His mother, I presumed.
Both customers looked around the empty display area appearing bemused.
“Can I help you?” I asked in my most ingratiating voice.
“Um, yes,” the boy said, “We’re looking for Jane, a Jane. I thought you had them here.”
“We do,” I replied, “but we don’t put them on show. They look a bit silly if they’re just standing around. What type of Jane were you considering?”
“Er, I’m not sure,” he turned to appeal to the woman. She shrugged.
“Well, what would be your reason for purchasing a Jane?” I asked. “We have all sorts. The Darling is excellent if you are needing childcare.  There’s the Russell if you are looking for a companion. She usually appeals to the older gentleman. . .” I was interrupted in my recitation by the woman.
“I want one that will do as it’s told and carry out all the chores around the house,”
“Ah, I see. Perhaps you would like our standard model, the Jane Doe. It will do everything you ask of it and you’ll barely notice it around the house.”
I clicked a button. A moment later the door behind me opened and a Jane Doe emerged. It was a white plastic cylinder rolling along on a wheeled undercarriage that could cope with stairs. An assortment of appendages attached to the upper half of its body enabled it to carry out a wide variety of tasks.
“Oh, I don’t want one of those old things,” the woman moaned. “I want one that looks like a person and acts like a person.”
“Well, I was listing the various humanoid model Janes that we have in stock, but they are rather more specialised than the Jane Doe here.”
“But they can do all the jobs can’t they. It’s not much point me getting one of your expensive models if she won’t do all the work and give me a bit of a rest.”
“Of course,” I replied, “All our Janes can multi-task and perform whatever function you select. Would you like to see one?”
“Of course, we would, wouldn’t we Darcy.”
The boy showed me a thin smile.
I selected another button. “Well, Darcy, I think this Jane will suit you.”
The door opened again and the Jane swept into the shop, flashing her eyelids at the young man and nodding respectfully to the woman.
“Does it speak?” the woman said.
“Of course,” I replied. “Speak to the customers, Jane.”
The Jane Austen lifted her head and spoke in sweet voice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged. . .”
“She’s reciting something. I know that line,” Darcy said.
“She does that. It’s included in her personality,” I replied. “Although it’s listed as the Austen model, it’s personality is modelled on one of the characters.”
I noticed that Darcy’s eyes were wide open in wonder. “She’s perfect,” he said. “We’ll take her, won’t we Mother. You’ve got over your feelings about humanoid robots being allowed in homes.”
Mother drew herself up straight. “I have my pride Darcy, but if you want this one we’ll take her.” She pressed her credit digit against my payment slot.

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Jasmine in the dry

Well, that’s been a couple of weeks hasn’t it. Talk about rain. . . Thankfully we have not been flooded – unlikely in a second floor flat – but I feel for the thousands who have been washed out of their homes. We had a front row seat though. During Storm Ciara we went for walk counting sheep (it’ll take too long to explain), then during and after Storm Dennis we watched our two local rivers, the Wye and the Monnow, rise and rise. The River Wye broke all records, as it did along its length, peaking at 7.2m above its normal level. That was enough to almost submerge the road bridge, to almost top the floodgates under the A40 and to overwhelm the flood defences in the water pumping station. When you consider that the river had spread out to cover all the available floodplain, that depth of water is staggering.  A freak weather event? Well yes, but freaks are becoming common. Just about everywhere in the UK has experienced a flood emergency in the last ten years or so and they will keep coming. Some people still talk of dredging waterways – that will have no effect whatsoever. Other want flood defences – all they do is move the flood somewhere else. The only solutions are to tackle the causes. First of all the big one – climate change.  We have to keep the global temperature down so that the air cannot carry more water and the wind won’t become stronger. Secondly we have to look at the sources of the rivers and make sure that the upland forests and bogs are looked after so that the water is trapped and released slowly.

All this will require a government that recognises the problem and is prepared to manage the solutions. In the past ministers and the PM have visited the affected urban areas (OK, they haven’t done any good but at least they registered concern).  This time, not a peep. It’s not as if the areas affected were all opposition constituencies.  Herefordshire, Shropshire and Monmouth are staunchly Conservative.  Nevertheless, no comments from government, and no plan.

The government was more interested in getting out its new immigrant policy and explaining how employers were going to fill those low paid but vital jobs such as caring for the sick and elderly, picking crops, and serving in cafes, bars and shops. It will be down to the 8 million “economically inactive”. Apparently that includes the retired, and disabled. The last time I checked my bank balance I found that I was still paying tax and buying stuff so I don’t think “economically inactive” is quite accurate. Watch. First it will be unemployment benefit, then sickness and disability and other benefits and then the pensions that will be withdrawn unless the recipient does some “voluntary” work, regardless of whether they are fit to do so.

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20191130_123703[548]You may wonder why I title these weekly blogs “Jasmine this or that.” It’s a reminder that I started blogging to promote my Jasmine Frame detective novels and stories. Thos of you who have bene following me for a while will know that I used to include an episode of a Jasmine Frame story each week. After a few years and four novels and 17 not so short stories it became a but difficult. Now I am writing the fifth novel (yes, it is growing and developing into a bouncing embryo) but I’ve got off the treadmill of the weekly episode. However the four novels are available as e-books and paperbacks and the other 3 novellas/collection are published as e-books.  Go to here to find out more.

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No new story this week as I was otherwise engage for writers’ club. Here intead is a short story I wrote some time ago and don’t think I have put out before.

Persistence of vision

I fell in love with the cinema when I was a little kid watching flickering silent movies on our fourteen inch black and white TV.  As soon as I was old enough I was off to the local fleapit every Saturday for the double bill of westerns and sci-fi.  With my first pay packet I bought a second-hand super 8 camera and projector and made my own shorts.  It made me understand how movies work. My efforts were no match for the mega-bucks, special-effects, super-hero films that I enjoyed seeing at the multi-screen – Superman, Batman, Spiderman, X-men, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and Ironman.  I especially liked the heroes who had started out as ordinary guys before some freak accident gave them their special powers.

Then it happened to me.

It’s not surprising, given my interest, that I work in pictures; not making films, but selling photographic equipment.  I specialise in the cine side of the business.  There have been lots of changes over the years, from film to video tape and now digital.  I miss the mechanical film cameras and projectors.   The film is fed by the sprockets through a gate.  Each frame stops in the gate for about one forty-eighth of a second and a rotating shutter blocks out the movement of the film.  Twenty four frames pass through the gate every second but all we see is a constant scene with movement.  You could see how the system works; you can’t do that with the modern electronics.

Well, I was trying to sell a new digital camera to a customer.  We had stepped outside the shop so I could demonstrate the features.  I was looking through the viewfinder – it all happened in a blur.  A car suddenly veered off the road, mounted the pavement and came straight for me.  Someone shoved me out of the way and I must have knocked my head when I fell because that’s all I remember.

When I woke up I felt fine, well, a bit of a headache I suppose.  I didn’t know where I was and when they said I was in hospital I wondered why because I wasn’t really injured.  They said they wanted to keep me under observation for a day or two because I’d had a bump on the head.  It was a complete bore.  I felt fit as a fiddle and there was nothing to do except read – the TV in my room was on the blink.  All I could do was look out the window and watch the trees sway and the birds fly.  I suppose that was when I first noticed something strange.

Everything seemed particularly clear.  When a pigeon flew by my window, its wings flapping, I could make out every detail of the grey and white feathers in its wings.  Usually you wouldn’t expect to see that much detail because of persistence of vision.  That’s where your brain can’t interpret the images fast enough so they sort of overlap and become blurred.  I didn’t really think about it then.  I just shrugged it off as boredom making me more observant.

When the doctors ran out of tests they let me go.  I couldn’t get out of the hospital quickly enough.   Once I got home I put the TV on.  There was something wrong with it.  The picture flickered and it seemed that I could see the LCDs lighting up one after another like a Mexican wave of light.  I couldn’t stand it for more than a few minutes so I turned it off and sat around thinking what to do.  Not surprisingly a trip to the cinema was my first idea.   I like the old Picture House where the show old movies on  real film projector.

I got to the cinema just in time for the feature to start.  I sat in my seat and looked at the screen.  Things looked strange.  The film company logos went by and the film started but it was all wrong.  It was like watching one of those early silent films.  The pictures flickered.  I could see the dark blanks between each frame.  Instead of “moving” pictures it was like watching a succession of slides in a slide show. My neighbours seemed quite happy, eyes fixed on the screen, pupils wide, unblinking.  I leaned closed to the guy on my right and asked him if the picture looked alright to him.  He told me to shut up.  The film went on.  No-one complained or got up and left; just me.

I wandered along the road looking around– the rotating wheels of vehicles weren’t a blur and I could see the spokes of bicycle wheels as they turned.  I realised that something strange was happening to me. My route took me to the hospital so I went right up to the ward I had been on and demanded to see a doctor.  Eventually a junior doctor came to see me and I explained what was happening.  He didn’t know much about cinema or vision so I had to explain it to him.

Somehow I was seeing not just the stills but the black bits in between.  It shouldn’t happen.  The brain takes about a twenty-fifth of a second to build an image from the signals sent from the retina in the eye and interprets the succession of images as motion.  I finally made the doctor understand what I was seeing.  He peered into my eyes but there was nothing to see there of course.  He arranged for me to have an MRI scan on my brain.

Nothing showed up until they arranged for me to watch a film while I was in the scanner.  That was difficult as there’s no room for a projector and screen inside the machine but they managed it all with mirrors.  They discovered that my brain was interpreting images much faster than normal.  Somehow that bump on my head had re-programmed by brain and shortened the image interpretation process.  That may seem like an improvement but it means that I can’t sit through films or watch TV anymore; the flickering gives me a headache and anyway they just don’t make sense to me anymore

Instead I go out into the country and watch the wildlife.  I watch the swallows and house martins darting around in the sky; I see squirrels running up trees and rabbits scampering across a field; I can follow grasshoppers when they leap off a leaf and dragonflies flitting over a pond.  My squash playing has improved now I can watch the ball bouncing around the court and I can see a cricket ball bowled by a fast bowler better than any batsman. If I had the opportunity I could see a bullet all the way from the gun to the target just like Neo in the Matrix.  I can do something that no one else can.  I’ve got my super-power.  There’s just one reason why I’m not a super-hero – I haven’t caught any super-criminals. Yet.

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Jasmine contemplates

A few days into the new year, how’s it going for you? I am trying not to think too much about the severe problems that face us in the next year and beyond but I am being positive and determined about the future of myself and those I am close to. The thing is, when one gets to a certain age, looking ahead also involves thinking about mortality. Thankfully I haven’t had to attend many funerals in recent years, just older relatives who had reached a good age, but death is inevitable. We all know that, but find it difficult if not impossible to think that it applies to us. Someone said yesterday that we think of ourselves as immortal, and that is true too. How do we acknowledge a truth (we all die) and yet deny it (it won’t happen to us)?  That perhaps is one of the wonders of being living, sentient  beings.  We can hold two conflicting ideas in our heads and not crash like a computer trying to divide one by zero.  It’s no wonder that humans came up with quantum theory and Schrodinger’s dead/alive cat

I know that some people accept the thought that life is finite and short compared to recorded history and the existence of the universe.  They get on with it and don’t let the idea of impending death worry them. I am not one of those people. I don’t believe in life after death so the thought of coming to a halt, a sleep from which one doesn’t awaken, rather shocking. Nevertheless, I see that dwelling on one’s certain demise is not healthy. So I try to make every day a rewarding one. That includes relishing a lie in bed, sitting on the sofa reading newspaper, magazine or book, or enjoying a pint in a pub as well as working hard on the next novel or story, taking part in one of the number of activities I’m signed up for, or passing the time with my loved one(s).  And the calendar is full, for, however long we may or may not have, we all make plans.

20191205_121743[547]

A final showing for the festive look.

January 1st occurs at an arbitrary point on the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, on its spiralling voyage through the universe, yet we see it as a fresh start, a new beginning, a time to look at ourselves anew, and make resolutions. I didn’t make any new ones but I did update my to-do list. I hope that my recently completed novel, The Pendant and The Globe, will be deemed publishable and will find a willing publisher (I’m not self-publishing). I want to write the next Jasmine Frame novel, the fifth, provisionally titled Impersonator. There is another novel, stalled for the last year, currently called Malevolence, which I’d like to see if I can move forward.  And then there are the articles and short stories – so many ideas and good intentions. One resolution should have been to give more time to writing but I know I wouldn’t be able to keep to it.

Anyway, the theme for the writing group this first week of January was appropriately, “new beginnings”. My thoughts returned to something not original, a new(ish) colony on a new(ish) planet orbiting a distant star. The snippet that follows, (a beginning perhaps although goodness knows if I will ever follow it up) is a brief glimpse of that idea. If it did become a novel, this whole piece would probably need re-writing.  But here it is:

Fresh Start

Fresh Start, population fifty-eight. The uniform shape and size were the only sign that the dozen, small hemispheres of foamcrete huddled in the lee of the small hill were constructions.  Their colour matched the bare volcanic rock from which they were formed.  The Road ignored them and went straight on to the beach a couple of hundred metres further. The Visitor turned off the road and stopped her quadbike by the nearest of the domes. She took a final glance at the small screen on the control panel. It now read fifty-nine inhabitants. The only other piece of information was the distance she had travelled. It was seven hundred and forty-two kilometres from New Beginning.
She swung off the saddle and brushed dust from her environment suit. The dust was the same grey as the buildings, the same grey as the Road. Looking back the way she had come it was hard to discern the route. The Road was an idea rather than a feat of engineering. Major obstacles removed, a couple of rivers bridged, guide transmitters installed, it snaked across half the island continent, linking the only two habitations on the only land mass of Second Chance, second planet orbiting the red star, Hobson’s Choice.
There was just the rustle of her boots in the dust as she walked between the domes. The hill sheltered the village from the onshore breeze. There was no sign of the other fifty-eight humans. Among the cluster of domes, she approached one and pushed the door open. Inside was a room which had circular tables constructed of the same material as the walls. She tugged the mask from her face.
“Service!” she called.
A door on the opposite side of the room opened. A man stood in the doorway. He wore a pair of orange overalls.
“Oh, it’s you. You came back.”
“Said I would.”
“S’pose you’ll be wanting a drink.”
“Yeah. Thirsty work riding a quad from Newbie.”
The man retreated and emerged a few moments later with a cup and a jug, both grey. He put the cup down on a table and poured a green liquid into it.
“There you are then. Our latest brew.”
The visitor approached the table lifted the cup and drank the contents in one gulp. She put the cup down.
“Hasn’t improved.”
The man chuckled. “Nope. Not a lot you can do with fermented algae. More?”
The Visitor nodded.  The cup was re-filled. The Visitor settled onto a stool and lifted the cup to her lips. She took a small sip.
“So, why are you back?” the man asked. “Newbie too exciting for you?”
The Visitor shook her head. “No, and it wasn’t the prospects of your company that drew me back either.”
“What then?”
“I have news.”
“News that couldn’t be beamed via the Hestia?”
“News Hobson didn’t want spread.”
The man frowned, set the jug on the table and sat on a stool next to the Visitor. “What news?”
“We’re on our own. There’s no second ship coming from Earth.”

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Jasmine’s fresh start

20191219_170534I am writing this somewhat earlier than usual, just in case I can’t get online when I usually sit down to do it. This week we will see in the new year and the start of 2020 is a bit special.  Why? It’s just another year, but those numbers look a bit out of the ordinary don’t they and it’s the beginning of a new decade. I’m not going to get into arguments about when  the decade, century or millennium really begin; the change of digits will do for me.

Someone said recently that it hardly seems like twenty years since the start of the millennium, and they’re right.  Twenty years has passed quickly, but what a lot has happened, personally and universally. In 2020 it will be twenty years since I announced, starting with Lou, that I was trans; there have been a few changes there. The world has changed a lot – and not for the better.

We’re living in the future. Well, 2020 seemed like the fairly far future when I was getting into SF in the 1960s.  In fact we’ve gone past quite a few visions of the future in terms of date. Obviously 1984 and 2001 have flown by but we’ve also passed the date in which Back to the Future II was set and in 2019 we passed the date of Bladerunner – yes, really!  The future hasn’t turned out much like any writer imagined it from H G Wells’ visions in The Shape of Things to Come to the novels of Clarke, Dick, etc. etc.  Forecasts of the development of computers, robots, videophones, flying cars, space travel, have turned out wide of the reality even if things like smart phones probably do far more than writers ever envisaged. Thankfully, the dystopias haven’t been realised, yet, either, but we’re getting there.

Is there anything to look forward to in 2020? Hmm, well I think you have to be an extraordinary optimist to hope for world peace, acceptance of and action on climate change, liberal and open governments accepting of peoples of all races, creeds, sexualities and genders. I am just hoping that things don’t actually get worse.

I do have intentions however. I will make a start on the next, fifth, Jasmine Frame novel, and finish it. I will try to  submit more articles and stories to competitions and publications. I will try to complete the fifth September Weekes novel (that’s actually a long shot as Jasmine has the priority this year.)  Other developments in 2020 will be more of a surprise.

And so as we see out the old year, here is another festive piece. There is a story to this one which was written a few weeks ago for the writers’ group Christmas lunch.  Over  thirty years ago I wrote the first story of The Baubles. I had hopes of it being published as a picture book. Despite coming back to it from time to time, I never really pushed it.  I also had ideas for sequels and was fond of the characters – the four large balls, the four little ones, the china Santa, cotton wool Snowman and the corn-dolly Angel. Finally I have written the final story in the sequence bringing it up to date. Unless I do like Star Wars and write the episodes in non-chronological order, this is it. Enjoy The Baubles: Christmas At Last.

The Baubles: Christmas At Last

It was the box being moved that stirred them. Azura, the blue glass ball, woke with a yawn. It seemed an awfully long time since the last Christmas. She felt Rufus, the red one, giving himself a shake.
“Hi, Az,” he said, “I feel as if I’ve been asleep for decades.”
The cotton-wool Snowman sneezed. “I think I’ve got flu. It’s cold in that loft since they insulated it.”
“Oh, dear. Oh, dear,” moaned the corn-dolly Angel, “I’m dried to a crisp. I feel dreadfully fragile.”
A high-pitched tinkle of glass on glass spurred Aurus, the senior gold bauble, to speak
“Now, now, Twinkle, Glitter, Sparkle and you, Scatty. Be patient. I’m sure we’ll soon be out and decorating the tree.” The small balls settled down except for Scattered Reflections of Visible Light, known as Scatty, who was always excited.
Rufus said, “I do hope it’s a big tree, like that one where the tip rubbed against the ceiling.”
“I want a plastic one,” Angel grumbled. “with smooth, soft branches. There’s nothing worse than having a sharp twig and prickly needles stuffed up your skirt.”
“Ow, Ow, Ow,” came a cry.
“What’s up Father Christmas,” Rufus called, “Practising your ho, ho, hos?”
“No. My foot’s sore.”
Argenta the large silver bauble, whispered to Aurus. “We have been stored away for a very long time. I don’t think there has been a Christmas in the house for quite a while.”
“I think you’re right my dear,” Aurus said, “But at least they want us now.”
The lid was lifted off the box and light flooded in. All the baubles felt excited. A face with a neat beard and short hair peered down at them.
“A man,” Argenta whispered.
“He looks rather like Boy,” Aurus said. “In fact, I’m sure he is Boy.”
“He’s grown up, while we’ve been asleep,” Argenta said.

“Hey Camilla, I didn’t know Mum and Dad still had these old tree decorations. I found them clearing out the loft.”
“They look pretty tatty, Stephen. The Father Christmas has a chip on its foot and that corn dolly is crumbling to dust. That cotton-wool thing looks pretty grubby too.”
“But it’ll be fun to put them on the tree.”
“My lovely new Marie Kondo tree! They’ll look dreadful.”
“Let’s see, shall we, love.”

“There’s something wrong with this tree,” Rufus said, swinging gently on his branch. “It’s lost all its needles.”
“I don’t think it ever had any,” Azura said, “It’s not real. Look at the branches – dead straight and smooth.”
“But they’re made of wood. What do you think of the lights?”
“The colours are pretty, and all the bulbs are working.”
Snowman heard them, “But they’re cold. The old ones used to keep me nice and warm.”
“That’s because these are l.e.d.s,” Rufus said remembering something he’d seen on television.
“All this flashing and pulsing and rippling is giving me a headache,” Angel said from the top of the tree.
“The room is a little bare,” Argenta said, “no decorations and not even carpet or curtains; just bare boards and blinds. And where’s the TV. In the old house there was that huge box in the corner.”
“It’s that big black picture in the wall, I think,” said Aurus.
“Flat screen technology,” Rufus added. “Wow, we’re in the future.”
“So long as they still have Morecombe and Wise on, I’m happy,” Argenta said.

“Stephen! Have you seen the mess in here?”
“What’s the matter, love. Oh, dear. The corn dolly seems to be disintegrating. I’ll sweep it up.”
“And take those old decorations off. You do agree that they spoil the minimalist effect of my tree, don’t you?”
“Yes, love, but what should I do with them.”
“I don’t know. Put them in recycling.”
“I don’t think they take that type of glass.”
“Well, if you can’t throw them away, give them back to your mother.”
“Hmm. That’s not a bad idea. She may even remember them. I expect the nursing home will have a tree.”

The four little balls rattled as they were put back in the box with the other baubles.
“Why are they packing us up?” Rufus cried, “Christmas isn’t over yet; they haven’t opened the presents.”
“There weren’t any,” Father Christmas said.
“And the Queen hasn’t been on that fancy telly,” Argenta said.
Aurus tried to calm down all the complaints. “I am sure there is a sensible explanation and it will all become clear soon.”
The lid of the box closed over them.

It was not long before Stephen opened the box.
“Look, Mum, look what I’ve brought.”
The grey-haired lady looked in, a frown turning to a smile.
“Do you remember decorating the Christmas tree, Mum. Which one went at the top?”
A thin, spotted hand reached in and grabbed Angel. The corn-dolly crumbled into dust and shards of stalk.
“Oh, dear. Well she was thirty years old, wasn’t she Mum. I know, shall we put the others on the tree. Matron said there was plenty of room. Hold the box while I push you across.”

“Oh, what a wonderful, large tree,” Argenta said, getting her first glimpse,
“A good strong, natural pine,” Aurus said.
“But I do hope he puts us all together.” Argenta added.
Man, who used to be Boy, hung each of the baubles on a patch of the tree where Mother could see them, amongst other decorations. A grin spread across her face.
“It’s really lovely and warm here,” said Snowman, “I think we’ll be happy.”
“Be careful, Scatty, don’t swing so much,” Aurus warned, “you don’t want to go flying off your branch.” The four little balls quivered with excitement.
Father Christmas looked around the room and sniffed the air. “Listen to that carol singing. I can smell mince pies. Look at all the people and all those parcels. Present opening should be fun. Ho, ho , ho!”
Rufus was making friends with a large, multi-coloured ball encrusted with glitter who hung nearby and Azura was chatting to a plastic spaceman who dangled from an adjacent twig.
Despite the jolly surroundings, Argenta was feeling sad.
“I am sorry that Angel has gone. She was always miserable, but Christmas won’t be the same without her.”
“Now, now my dear,” Aurus said. “Perhaps she is at the top of a tree somewhere where she can be comfortable and happy. We’re all together and doing our bit. It looks like being a wonderful festive season. Merry Christmas everyone.”

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Jasmine holds her breath

By the time I put up the next post of this blog we will know our fate.  The election will be over and we will have some idea of what we’re in for in the near future.

The reaction to the upsetting terrorist attack at the Fishmongers’ Hall was predictable. Right wing commenters immediately hi-jacked the sorrow of the victim’s families to make unconsidered proposals and to blame a government that left office nine years ago, as if the more recent incumbents had not had time to make changes if they had seen the need.  It was just the reaction the terrorists want. They usually target the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Here it was actually extraordinary people who provided support and compassion to the terrorists themselves. What could be more terrible? If the terrorists can instil fear and anxiety and stir up the political class to make more off the cuff threats and promises then they feel that they are successful.

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Last weekends newspapers carried glowing reviews of the stage musical based on David Walliams’ children’s book “The Boy in the Dress”. It has already been televised. I wonder if he would have had success with a story that had the title “The Girl in the Jeans.”  All it does is perpetuate the view that boys wearing skirts or dresses are not normal. Whatever normal is.

I don’t think I’ve read the book but I did see the TV version. To me the message seemed to be that to be accepted for being different i.e. a boy in  a dress, you have to have some talent or do something extraordinary that gets everyone on your side. In Walliams’ story the boy scores the winning goal in a school football match. The other thing I didn’t like was that the obnoxious headmaster who is nasty to the boy in his dress is a closet transvestite.  He gets his comeuppance but no redemption. Being outed as a cross-dresser does not bring relief to his torment or support from the children and parents. My conclusion is that this is not a trans-supportive story, rather like Walliams’ ridiculing of transvestites in Little Britain.

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20191130_123703[548]Last week’s bookfair in Hereford was rather a waste of time (and money).  There were plenty of stalls selling jams, cakes, beers, jewellery and other crafts as well as books but very few punters.  The reason?  Well, for a start there was nothing outside the Shire Hall to say there was a market taking place, just a banner for the Samaritans who were being supported by the fair. Neither, I think was there much advance publicity to the public or leafletting in Hereford city centre. I made one sale which was about par for the course.

This week we had our Christmas lunch for the writing group and readings of our “festive” pieces.  I’ll keep my effort for Christmas week.  Here instead is the piece I wrote for my other, monthly, group.  The topic was “Is that your car?”  I subverted it somewhat and had an idea for a race of aliens which I might develop some other time. So here is “Triple points“.

Triple Points

“Is that your car?” the alien asked.
The image of the Tri-ped appeared in my helmet screen. Coloured bands, mainly red, rippled in the skin around the single eye facing me and the tentacle above it stood up straight  My translator coped reasonably well with interpreting the alien’s colour talk but it insisted on compressing acronyms. I looked across the planet’s surface to see a disc-shaped craft hovering over my grounded shuttle.
“Er, yes that is my Cinetic Autonomous Receptacle,” I said.  That’s what tripes called shuttles whether they were manned or not.
“Well, it shouldn’t be there.  You are trespassing.  No one may land on Alnilam III without permission of the TOT.”
I knew that of course and there was no chance that the Triumvir of Trilemma, the tripes’ government, would permit me, a non-tripe, to land on their treasured planet. But with little time left before Alnilam went supernova and destroyed the planet and its amazing coloured ice, I had taken the chance on getting past the tripes’ surveillance. I’d obviously failed that last bit.
“Your car will be destroyed in accordance with the TOT’s orders,” the tripe went on.
I stated running across the icefield back to the shuttle, lugging the box of ice that I had come all this way for.
“Hey, you can’t do that,” I cried. “I’m a citizen of the Galactic Union.”
“We can and we will. It is allowed by special order 396/225,” the tripe said, the colour bands getting narrower and changing colour more rapidly. The alien was getting angry.
I reached the airlock and quickly cycled myself through.
“But if you blast my craft you’ll damage the ice,” I argued.
There was a pause. Apparently the tripe hadn’t thought of that.  Alnilam III was a small cold planet. It should have been tidal locked to the bright blue star by now but it still revolved once every fifty or so hours. I had landed on the night side to avoid irradiation by the uv, gamma rays and exotic particles emitted by the star. The same irradition that had turned the ice fields that covered the surface into a peculiarly coloured and patterned form of solid water.
I was in my control seat and preparing to take off when the tripe answered.
“No damage to the surface will be tolerated. You will move your car away from the planet and then it will be destroyed in accordance with the special order.”
“In that case I’ll stay exactly where I am.” Actually, with the star likely to blow at any time, I was not that keen on hanging around for too long. It was a bit of a stand-off between us. I should have remembered that dealings with the tripes is never an either/or matter. There’s always a third option.
“In that case you will be forcibly removed and then destroyed,” the tripe said, vivid red bands flashing around the eye and the tentacle waving in an agitated fashion.
One thing that cannot be denied about the tripes is that they’re technologically advanced. The almost spherical craft moved to directly above my shuttle and initiated a tractor field. Three beams locked onto my vehicle and hauled me off the surface.
In a very short time we were clear of the planet. My sensors informed me that there was a fleet of craft approaching,  three groups of three, more tripes. The craft were huge. Either they were vast cargo luggers or warships.
The tripe reappeared on com screen. “We have no further time to deal with your misdemeanour.”
“Why not?” I queried. I wanted to know how they planned to destroy me.
“The transference of the planet is about to begin,” the tripe said and cut the link.
The nine huge craft were taking up orbit around Alnilam III.  They were neither cargo vessels nor warships, but heavy-lifters. The tripes had the audacity to move the planet away from the threat of destruction. They really did think a lot of this ball of ice.
The tractor beams gave my shuttle a violent thrust before releasing it. The navcom told me we were falling into the star at an acceleration that the shuttle engines could not match. The tripes were letting the star complete their job.
In minutes we passed onto the illuminated side of the planet and I saw why the tripes were making a fuss. There was the image I had seen on my screen but now I was getting the full picture taking up the whole surface of the planet. The three golden eyes of a tripe distributed symmetrically around its round head, surrounded by bands of colour which changed as the planet revolved in the starlight. It must have given the tripes a shock when they became star-explorers to find a planet in their own image. No wonder it became their most sacred site. Now, instead of allowing it to be vaporised in the supernova, they were moving it, somewhere.
The tripes seemed to have forgotten me once they’d left me to fall into the star, which was a bonus. There was no way I could pull the shuttle out of its plunge, but I had a plan B. I put my helmet back on, picked up the sample box and headed to the airlock. I stepped out and fired my manoeuvring rockets. I was still falling towards the star but the shuttle receded from me.  When it had dwindled to a dark spot against the brilliant and huge blue-white disc of the star, I triggered my alarm.
Just a few minutes had passed when the light of the star blanked out and I felt the inertialess field cushioning me. Moments later I was back inside the starship as it traversed the star system at  a third of the speed of light.
I thanked the staff of the pick-up bay and made my way to the commander’s cabin. I placed the sample box in front of him.
“You got the ice?” he growled.
I nodded. “And a traffic violation from the tripes.”
The Commander grinned. “That’s three points on your galactic traveller licence.”

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Jasmine dithers

I am sorry to say that this General Election fills me with dread rather than excitement. We have already had the party that is in government putting out fake posts on social media; that’s a government that is supposed to be fighting false messages. All the parties have made extravagant claims of what they would do “for us” if they got into power.  I don’t believe a word of it because I can’t see the country’s finances being up to it. I am just hoping that the polls appearing in the media (all of it) are even more inaccurate than they have been for the last two elections and that people are coming to sensible decisions about who to vote for. Forget that last sentence; I don’t think there is a lot of sense around at the moment.

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A reminder of summer

Last Sunday evening we sat down to watch two fantasy/SF shows, one after the other, on BBC1, which surely can’t have happened often! His Dark Materials is a fine presentation of Pullman’s tale, but War of the Worlds, oh dear. It is over a year late being shown and it’s obvious why – it is a horrible mish-mash. The good think is that it is set in the era it was written, the first version to do so, but instead of following what Wells wrote they’ve added this complex subplot of the runaway couple, the brother and the ex-wife, which took up a lot of the first episode, and there are only three. The thing about WotW is that the story unfolds around the un-named observer whose only role is to survive.  It is terrifying because of the power of the Martian machines and the vivid descriptions of horrific attacks on the human population (OK, the English). The denouement, which I am sure everyone knows, is a bit of a cop out; human civilisation survives by accident thanks to a cold virus. A faithful adaptation does not need the ghastly subplot but would get on with the action.

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A reader commented on my last post by saying I have too many distractions from my novels. She’s right. What have I done in the last week: written a short story for writer’s group (see below) and enjoyed a morning with the group; started editing/re-writing my novel; re-jigged a short story for a competition; dealt with numerous emails about this and that; sung in a concert (that took a whole day) and been to a rehearsal; done my daily Welsh lesson and attended the evening class; watched some TV and done some reading; and finally, played tennis three times (that’s my fitness programme). Yes, a lot of distractions, but I don’t know which I would stop.

And so to that writers’ group exercise.  This week the theme was “eclipsed”. I guessed that most would use in a metaphorical way and I was right. However, I was a bit doubtful about how the concept was used. An eclipse involves a bright beacon being obscured, temporarily. That wasn’t quite what happened in most of the stories. My effort was, of course, literal (my club colleagues expect it of me), so here is an SF story of sorts about an eclipse. In fact it reads more like the first chapter of a novel that I haven’t yet planned.  I was thinking of calling it  An Instance of Proportion, but Eclipsed will do.

Eclipsed

The day had arrived, the day Ben had been looking forward to for years; 12th August 2026. It was warm and sunny in Oviedo as it had been each day since their arrival in Spain. Nevertheless, Ben kept glancing at the sky. It would be so disappointing if it clouded over today of all days. After breakfast on the patio of their rented villa, Ben and his three friends loaded their gear into their rented van, excited to be setting off for the hills east of the ancient city. They weren’t the only ones on the roads, but they soon reached the hilltop with its marvellous panorama of the area. They weren’t interested in that view, however. They began preparing their equipment, telescopes and stands, tracking motors, screens, chairs, tables, refreshments.
Ben fussed over his reflector.  It wasn’t as big or as fancy as those owned by his friends and the other groups establishing their pitches nearby. He was a beginner, a newbie, filled with excitement at witnessing his first solar eclipse. He fitted the lens that would project an image of the Sun on to a simple white screen.  Others had wireless feeds from their telescopes to their slates and smart specs. Ben was going to watch the eclipse the old way.

After lunch, there was little else to do but wait.  Some latecomers arrived and struggled to find a patch of flat ground amongst the multitude of telescopes. Ben listened to the tales of his new friends. There was Derek, a veteran of the 1999 UK eclipse which he had missed because of cloud, and Lottie, an eclipse chaser, who travelled the world to experience every event. Last of all, there was Jaydan, younger than Ben and almost silent except when talking about astronomy or his impressive set of kit.
It was late afternoon and the Sun was sinking over the mountains west of Oviedo, when Derek looked at his watch and announced.
“It’ll be commencing in a couple of minutes.”
They all looked again at their kit as if they hadn’t been doing so all afternoon. Ben leaned closer to his screen on which the bright circle of the sun was projected. A tiny sliver of the orb was obscured. As he watched, minute by minute, the black disc moved over more and more of the sun’s image. Almost half of the Sun was obscured when Ben noticed something else.
“Hey, what’s that red shape,” he called out. A circular disc of dull red was passing across the black face of the Moon. It seemed to move just a little faster than the Moon’s progress across the Sun.
“Are you all seeing it, guys?” Lottie called; her head close to her screen.
“I am observing an object that has appeared between us and the Moon,” Derek replied. They all shouted their agreement as did members of the other groups nearby.
“It’s weird. It looks to be the same apparent diameter as the Moon and Sun” Jaydan said, speaking up for once.
Ben was confused. “What can it be? A satellite, or one of the Moon shuttles?”
“Certainly not,” Derek said. “Not even the ISS2 is that size yet and it’s not a perfect circle.”
“A balloon in the upper atmosphere?” someone suggested but was immediately rebuffed.
“Totality will be in five minutes,” Derek said, “and it looks as though whatever it is will be eclipsing the Moon at the same time.”
The Moon crept across the Sun, and the red disc spread to cover it too. The sky became dark and the air cooled. Birds settled in the few trees that clung to the hilltop, and silence fell.
“We’re not going to be able to see the corona,” Lottie said, “That red thing is too bright.”  She was right. The dull red  object hung in the sky, the same apparent size as the Sun itself and the Moon.
Derek looked up from his telescope. “I do believe It looks somewhat like the Moon during a lunar eclipse when it is lit by light from the Earth.”
“How can that be?” Ben asked, “the Moon is between us and the Sun.”
Lottie explained. “Yes, but the eclipse shadow only covers a tiny portion of the Earth’s surface. The rest of the day side of the Earth is still illuminated by the Sun. The reflected light is bouncing off that thing. What is it? Someone must know something.”
Jaydan was staring at his slate over the top of his smart specs.. “The Chinese are relaying transmissions from their Moon base.”
“Their viewpoint should see it against the background of the Earth,” Derek said
“Yeah, I’m getting it. They say it’s an artefact. . .”
“What do you mean,” Ben said.
“He means it’s not natural,” Lottie replied. “Go on Jaydan.”
“It’s thirty-six thousand k from Earth.”
“That’s geostationary orbit,” Derek cried, “Which means it’s over three hundred kilometres in diameter.”
“Yeah. NASA have got some parallax on it too. It’s a cylinder not a disc and it’s sixteen hundred klicks long.”
“That’s a hell of a spaceship,” Lottie said. They all looked up into the sky. Ben wondered what the appearance of the object meant.
Totality was ending and a crescent of sunlight was breaking out around the edge of the red disc that still covered the Moon.
Derek said. “It can’t actually be in orbit. It’s not moving fast enough. It must be under power in order to keep the Moon eclipsed.”

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Jasmine in Limbo

My reference this week comes, again, from New Scientist.  Apparently our tolerance to uncertainty is decreasing (The agony of waiting, New Scientist no.3252 19/10/19).  When our next meal was in doubt and we faced dangers and disease at every turn, we were able to shrug and accept it as part of life.  Now, we expect everything to be on time and available when we need it. Any rise in uncertainty makes us anxious, leads to depression and OCD behaviour. Except that uncertainty is rising.  More people are working the gig or zero hours economy; it is difficult for many to find somewhere permanent to live; and for the many millions displaced by war, oppression and climate change, there is the ultimate uncertainty of survival.  Of course, in the UK the one big uncertainty is Brexit.  The whole country has faced growing uncertainty for the last three and a half years. The Leavers want it to happen but have no idea what its effects will be while Remainers don’t want it to happen and fear the consequences if it does. The article, half in jest, makes the connection between this and Dante’s Divine Comedy; the first circle of hell is Limbo, where the inhabitants exist for eternity with no hope and complete uncertainty of their fate. There is no end in sight. Despite Johnson’s repeated mantra about “getting Brexit done” and “bringing the country together”, he and everyone else surely know that even if the departure happens there will be years of wrangling over the terms of trade, etc., and there will still be two halves of the country with opposing views and growing ill feelings towards each other. So, no hope, immense uncertainty and fear of where we end up; I’m in Limbo.  I hope we don’t progress to the second circle (for those whose sin was Lust) where we will be punished by high winds – a consequence of climate change?

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A memory of a sunny day (see below)

I had an interesting experience in non-binary living this week. In my usual femme(-ish) mode (skirt, tights, dangly earrings etc.) I visited a certain premium, French, perfume and cosmetics retailer for a free consultation on making my lips look and feel good.  The shop assistant was attentive and helpful and suggested which exfoliator and lipstick to select, which I bought (not cheap!). While packing my purchases, she added, without comment, some freebies – sample sachets of other products.  All were intended for men. I’m not grumbling; I’ll probably use them. I’m gender fluid and not pretending to one thing or the other. I just can’t decide whether her actions were acknowledging that or a statement of “I know you’re not a real woman“.

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This week’s writing group theme was “sunshine”. There’s a bright topic with lots of possibilities, I thought. Not many of us produced the goods though. There were a few poems and a couple of story beginnings. Unfortunately, the first thing that came into my head was the pretty awful film, Sunshine, with its silly premise of re-starting the Sun’s fusion reaction with a big bomb, except it wasn’t that big since a million Earths will fit in the Sun. As I was a little short of time I felt I couldn’t devise the background and characters of a story so settled on a piece of contemplation. The first half was written in a London pub last Saturday.  No, I was not attending the People’s Vote March but I saw many of the million or so marchers. Having completed (?!) the piece I’ve got no idea where it could be published. It’s not educational enough for that market and I can’t think of any other publications that would take this sort of thing. Ideas and comments much appreciated.

Sunshine

It’s a pleasant day in late spring. The air is warm, the sky is blue, the river sparkles, new leaves on the trees glow green, flowers are resplendent yellows and blues, and above, too bright to look at directly shines the Sun. Everything described is because of the Sun, the temperature, the reflected  colours and the sparkling water.
Every day the Sun sustains us, like every organism on the planet. Its radiant energy heats the air and creates winds that carry the warmth from the tropics to the poles. The heat evaporates water from the oceans that later falls as rain providing fresh water for us to drink and plants to draw up their roots. Perhaps, most strikingly, plants take in the Sun’s energy to grow and provide food for us. The Sun is only one typical star out of trillions but, being so close to us, its intensity outshines many times over all the stars in the universe seen in the night sky.
What process provides us with this abundant energy? Humans have probably wondered at the nature of the Sun’s power since it drew their attention and reason. Some may have compared it to the fires that warmed their homes, cooked their food and smelted their metals. But no fire on Earth burning wood, coal or petroleum can match the intensity and output of heat of the Sun.
In the nineteenth century scientists developed the equations to calculate the amount of energy we receive from the Sun. Astronomers measured the Sun as being 90 million miles from Earth, 400 times further than the Moon, and almost a million miles in diameter. In comparison the Earth is tiny and only receives a miniscule fraction of the Sun’s output.
The solutions to the equations were mystifying. No known fuel, even burning in pure oxygen, could equal the power of the Sun and neither could it sustain the output for thousands of years let alone millions or even billions. Was the source of the Sun’s energy supernatural?
Well, no, it isn’t, but it is extraordinary. The first clues came with the discovery of radioactivity in the 1890s. The particles that make up atoms can split apart and release huge amounts of energy, but still not enough to power stars. Einstein’s famous equation e=mc2 showed that tiny amounts of matter can be converted into immense quantities of energy. In the 1920s, Arthur Eddington, the British physicist who was the first to test Einstein’s theory of relativity and prove it correct, made a suggestion. Perhaps the energy of the Sun arose from the particles of atoms uniting. In 1934 Ernest Rutherford, the Nobel prize winning New Zealander, performed an experiment. He fired the nuclei of hydrogen atoms at targets made up of compounds with lots of hydrogen in them.  Most of the particles bounced off or passed through the target, but a few provided evidence that Eddington’s suggestion was correct.  Not only were the hydrogen nuclei fusing to form helium each reaction released an astounding amount of energy.
Hans Bethe was a German physicist who fled from Germany in 1933 and settled in the USA. In 1938 he suggested a sequence of reactions taking place in the Sun and other stars that explained not only the tremendous output of energy but the formation of helium, lithium, beryllium and other elements that had been observed in stars. Not only is the Sun the source of life-giving energy but stars like it formed the elements from which our planet, its rocks, its oceans, its atmosphere and living organisms are formed. The fusion reactions in the Sun have been going for four and a half billion years and will last a few more billion yet.  Most of that light misses the Earth but spreads throughout the universe, perhaps to be observed by creatures on planets around other stars.
There are some intriguing thoughts for a sunny day, or any day for that matter.
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Jasmine flustered

It’s been one of those weeks when there have been things to do and people to see.  While things have been done and people seen I feel that I haven’t done all that I wanted to do – especially finish the novel. . .

I’m not going to comment on the news, depressing though it is. It’s not that I don’t think my opinion is unimportant it’s more that I have no solutions. I can’t see how we’re going to get out of the Brexit mess since any sensible solution requires people to be sensible, honest and prepared to change their minds and none of that seems likely. The madness of Trump only gets worse – will anyone ever trust the USA again? Meanwhile climate change continues, protesters protest and get denigrated, while those in authority do nothing, or sometimes the opposite of what is required. I am currently reading the Hugo award winner, Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal which includes a speeded up climate emergency caused by a meteorite. Despite the desperate situation, Kowal, shows people still reacting in a short term, “I’m alright Jack (now)”, manner.

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Another view of me at Narberth Book Fair

One thing  that did get me hot under the colour was a report of people protesting about new guidelines for schools dealing with trans kids. The guidelines suggest that the children be integrated i.e. not forced to use separate loos, changing rooms, etc. The protesters go on about the right of the majority to not feel uncomfortable or threatened by the presence of the trans-children. It struck me that if the references to trans in the protesters’ piece was replaced by  “gay” or “autistic” or “people of colour”,  (feeling uncomfortable about all those is not unknown), then the transphobia becomes obvious. How to get through to these people that one or two trans kids in a school are not a threat? They will be nervous, self-conscious, afraid of being singled out, aware that they are different, and most definitely, not out to abuse other children.

I had two writers’ group meetings this week. I wrote a story for the first but it is quite long. Also I was fairly proud of it and may use it elsewhere; I may even enter a competition!  The topic for my weekly group was “Moral Judgement”. Now there was a daunting title. I had an idea based on an article in New Scientist about the evolutionary origin of moral behaviour e.g. caring for other people not obviously necessary for survival of the species. But I did not have time to write it, yet.  Instead I was writing an article on the 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry which was announced on Wednesday. This year it was a highly relevant piece of research that was rewarded – the development of lithium-ion batteries. The problem is determining the three people most responsible for the breakthrough and delivery of the batteries for commercial use. I think the Nobel committee have made a good choice and you can read my article on the HarperCollins Freedomtoteach blogspot here.  How much does your life depend on lithium-ion batteries?

In lieu of a new story here’s something I wrote earlier, actually so long ago I can’t remember when. It is a somewhat exaggerated version of a repeated childhood experience, perhaps one that we all have.

Watching

It was warm snuggled under the bedclothes but Michael shivered and hugged his threadbare teddy.  Something had disturbed him and now he was wide awake.  He kept his eyes shut tight, pulled the sheets and blankets over his head and curled up as small as he could in the large bed.  He lay still and listened.
Were those footsteps?  He held his breath and waited for the sounds again.  A click and scrubbing against the carpet, a pause then the same small noise again.  It was footsteps, but not Mummy’s or Daddy’s familiar tread.  The steps were beside his bed.  He wanted to call out but his throat froze and no words would come.  He squeezed teddy to his chest and very, very slowly tugged at the sheets.  The edge reached the tip of his ear, a bit further and now the fleecy cotton was on his cheek.  If he opened his eyes he’d be able to see the edge of the bed. Would someone be standing there?
He peered through the narrow gap between half-shut eyelids.  It was dark but there was just enough light to see – nothing.  The door to his bedroom was closed and there was no-one between his bed and the wall.  Carefully Michael rolled on to his back holding teddy firmly.  At the bottom of his bed the wardrobe loomed wide and tall and black as black could be.  It grew larger as he stared at it and he looked into an endless tunnel.  It was a great dark mouth which was swallowing him up. He trembled and shook his head but still no sound could find its way through his lips pressed firmly together.  His eyes were trapped by the enveloping darkness.  He was about to fall.
He turned his head away.  Now he was facing the other side of his room.  In the darkness he could just see the solid dark cone of the lamp on his bedside table and the wall beyond it, the patterns of the wallpaper indistinct.  To the left was the outline of the chair beneath the window.  His eyes followed the vertical parallel lines of the chair back up to the window sill, hidden behind the folds of curtains.  Woven from thick fibres the unlined cloth allowed moonlight to enter the room in myriads of dim sparkles with the window frame forming a dark cross.  To the right of the central spar there was a silhouette.  Michael strained his eyes to make out the shape not wanting to be sure but yes, there were two legs, a body, and a head.  Someone was standing on the window ledge.
Michael stared, his heart thumping rapidly in his chest, the blood roaring in his ears.  How did they get up to his window?  What would they do now?  He waited for the crash of disintegrating glass; the curtains to billow out as the body came falling through the window to land on him, the breath and the life to be crushed out of him.  Still no scream would come.
He watched and waited.  The shape made no movement.
He watched and waited.

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Jasmine satisfied

Last weekend’s Narberth Book Fair was very satisfying. I sold more books in the twelve hours that the fair was open than in all the other bookfairs I have attended put together. There was a great buzz to the place over the two days, mainly because people were passing through having been or on their way to the Food Fair happening close by. The success was down to the organisers, Judith and Thorne, who had put in a tremendous effort, organising, setting up and promoting the fair and the authors. It was disappointing to hear that they are retiring now. I can understand their wishes and want to thank them for everything they have done. However, it is such a successful event, providing a shopwindow for dozens of authors, that it would be a shame to lose it. Are there Pembrokeshire writers willing to take it on? I’m a bit far away but willing to help in anyway I can.

I attended a workshop at the fair on getting into publishing. It included what to do when one is published i.e. the joys of marketing. It was repeated that social media is important: blogs, facebook, twitter, etc. The speaker also said to avoid politics. Whoops! For the last few years I have been adding my comments on the political situation to discussion and thoughts on my writing, here and elsewhere. Have I driven away hordes of potential buyers? I have no way of knowing but I doubt it. I think we gravitate to the authors who match our world view. However, I may be wrong on that score. Growing up I read and enjoyed lots of Robert Heinlein SF novels. It was only later that I discovered that he is considered to be a right winger. I can’t say I noticed it in the novels at the time, although they did include worlds flavoured by americanisms

Your opinions are one aspect of your writing “voice”. This week’s writing club exercise was to write a piece in a different voice to usual. Good writers can do it. Iain (M) Banks wrote literary novels with a variety of voices or styles, while his SF novels had a different “feel” to them. I think my Jasmine Frame stories have a somewhat different flavour to my fantasy tales, but I’m not sure. Anyway, although I couldn’t get to this week’s meeting, I wrote a short piece, not much more than an opening actually, featuring another of my occasonal characters DCI Art Payne. I tried to make it grittier with shorter sentences but I am not sure I succeeded. Read it and decide; is it a recogniseable P R Ellis bit of writing or not.

High Water Mark

DCI Art Payne peered through the swishing wipers. Of course it was raining. Did it ever stop? The rusting hulks of the Thames Barrage loomed through the mist a mile upstream. The body was at the high water mark amongst the flotsam deposited like a baby’s toys thrown out of the pram. He didn’t expect to be called to such a death. Not at this stage anyway. The SOCO unit was busy. That was a start.
A light on the dashboard winked at him. Just 20% of battery left. Enough to get him back to New New Scotland Yard if he shifted his arse from the aging Jag. Art shrugged, tapped the power button and pushed the door open. He pulled the brim of his hat down over his thinning hair and tugged the raincoat tight around him. A trickle of rain still managed to run down his neck. He trudged over the broken and lifted tarmac to where the body lay. The SOCO unit withdrew its sample needle and trundled backwards a metre. It sat like a giant tortoise somewhat disgruntled by the drizzle running off its smooth shell.
“Report,” Art growled.
There was a click in his ear, then silence. Art pushed the earpiece in firmly. The cell network was playing up again. There was a crackle and pop then the monotone voice of the unit.
“National genome check names deceased as Jaden Davis, born Birmingham, twenty nine years of age, registered for residence and work. Cause of death, unclear, possibly drowning or due to blow to back of skull. Time of death, six to eight hours before present.”
Art crouched down over the body. Rainwater dribbled from the brim over the sodden clothes and face of the young man. The beige colour of the skin was evidence for his lack of citizen status. Permitted to live and work only. Another oddity. Why was he investigating the death of a non-citizen?
“Did you find anything on him?” Art asked aloud.
“Shirt, trousers, pants,” the Soco unit replied.
“I can see that,” Art grumbled, “I meant, in the pockets: jewellery, identifying possessions.”
“Identity was determined by genome and confirmed by his Link tattoo.”
Art sighed. It would be quicker to do the search himself, “I know, but did you find any other objects on the body.”
“No.”
Perhaps he’d had nothing when he went into the water. Or he’d been stripped of personal belongings. Footwear could have been lost before or after death. The cause of death was mystifying. Did the victim suffer a fatal blow before or after he inhaled the estuary water. The body must have been washed ashore at the last high tide. That was a couple of hours ago. That meant he entered the water down stream. Surely he wasn’t a leaver. With a work permit he could earn enough to live some sort of life. Perhaps this death was worthy of his time and effort.

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Jasmine for sale

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Not Narberth but an earlier book fair, elsewhere

Today I am at Narberth Book Fair. Here I am sitting or standing beside my table offering my wares to anyone interested – at some excellent prices.  Here’s hoping!

Last week I said I would offer my three e-book shorts on Kindle for free. Trained By Murder will indeed be free on Saturday and Sunday.  Unfortunately the vagaries of Amazon’s administration mean that I may not be able to get the promotion for Murder In Doubt and Discovering Jasmine organised in time, in which case they will be available free for Monday and Tuesday. My apologies.

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No I’m not going to say anything about Parliament and Brexit, etc. . .

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This week, after a couple of months of eager anticipation I got to see the new Brad Pitt starring film, Ad Astra, on the big screen. It was a complete load of codswallop and a serious waste of money. I am coming to the conclusion that the writers and the director hate SF. Surely they couldn’t have put more people off serious, hard SF, drama if they’d tried so they must be deliberately trying to prevent the filming of future serious, hard SF dramas.

There is so much at fault in the film it is difficult to know where to start. The fundamental plot is unscientific hokum and rather gets lost along the way anyway. The setting is confused – the space technology does not look much more advanced than what SpaceX and NASA are planning and building at the moment, but there are multiple quite large colonies on the Moon and Mars, which are apparently at war with each other. Nevertheless, the US Tycho Base is still a disneyfied tourist destination for thousands.  The plot interludes, the pirates on the Moon and the baboons (sorry if these are spoilers), serve no purpose other than to show Pitt’s character as being a super-human astronaut, and are, in the context of the technology shown, impossible. Tommy Lee Jones’ character took 13 years (?) to get to Neptune, Pitt takes 70 days in a craft re-purposed from a Moon-Mars shuttle. Really! It is all just far too silly, unbelievable, humourless and actually pretty boring. I can’t believe that Mark Kermode, the Observer movie reviewer, actually thought it was pretty good. It has been mentioned in the same sentence as 2001, but it doesn’t even deserve to be crushed under 2001′s feet.

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This week’s writing theme was “scar”. There were a variety of responses – fiction (erotic?, historical, contemporary), memoir, essay, all excellent of course.  I attempted to base mine on the lesser-used definition of the word, i.e. a sheer cliff, usually of exposed, hard limestone, seen most often in the UK in the Peak District and North York Moors. I’m not sure whether geologists call it a scar, but Carreg Cennen castle in West Wales sits on such a crag. The much fought over castle is the inspiration for the story.

The Scar

“I must tell you about the Scar,” Grandfather said to me. It was the time for stories, usually recounted over and over as we sat around the dying embers of the fire in the longhouse. I was feeling sleepy after feasting on mutton and Grandfather’s soft, slow voice was just what I needed to send me to my slumbers.
“How you took a sword thrust to your side in the battle? Yes, Grandfather we’ve heard that one and the miracle of how you survived.”
The old man shook his head. “No, not my scar. That came later as we fought for the Castle. I must tell you of the Scar.”
“What do you mean? What is the Scar?”
“A cliff of sheer, white limestone, on which the castle stands.”
“So?”
“They thought it was unassailable.”
“Who did?”
“The Lord, of course, and our commanders.”
I was mystified. The tales of the battle for the castle, the ruins of which we had occupied for longer than my lifetime, had been told many times.
“I know the story Grandfather.  You found the secret passageway inside the cliff and an advance party surprised the defenders from inside the castle.”
“That’s the tale that has been told,” Grandfather said, “But now, before I die, I must tell the truth.”
“Why has that account been repeated endlessly if it wasn’t true?” I asked.
“Because it demoralised our enemies.” There was satisfaction in grandfather’s voice. “It suggested that they had been betrayed by some of their number. It meant they stopped trusting each other and gave us an advantage.”
I thought I understood. “So, you’re saying that didn’t happen.”
Grandfather shook his head. “We didn’t find the cave until after we’d captured the castle. There was no betrayal.”
“So how did you capture the Castle?”
Grandfather chuckled. “We climbed the Scar.”
“The cliff that was unclimbable? How could you climb it if no-one else could?”
“My homeland has many such. I spent my youth learning how to climb the bare rock.” He drew breath and went on. “It was a dark, moonless night when we set out, just me and two others, carrying ropes. We had examined the Scar for days, planning our route. We climbed by feel, gripping the bare rock in our fingers and toes. We toiled up the cliff throughout the night and many times we nearly fell.  By dawn we had almost reached the top but there we rested beneath an overhang. If the defenders looked out from the battlements, they could not see us, just our army camped beside the river. We stayed hidden all day. When darkness came again, we clambered up, secured the ropes and flung the ends down below. Our fellows swiftly and silently climbed while me and my two fellows tackled the castle itself.”
I was amazed, “You climbed the wall?”
“They had become careless thinking that the Scar alone protected them. The wall was rough and pitted. Weeds grew out of it. It was an easier task to climb than the Scar itself.”
“What happened when you reached the top?”
“There were no defenders keeping a lookout. We lowered more ropes and in moments we had a small force inside the castle. The surprise was perfect.  We caught them off guard. Of course, some had their weapons to hand and fought valiantly.”
“That was when you were injured?”
He placed a hand on his side and winced with the memory. “After succeeding in the climb, it was annoying to sustain an injury in the fight that followed. But I lived, and now you know the true tale of the Scar.”

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Jasmine goes to Narberth

logoThis time next week I will be at the Narberth Book Fair. Narberth is a delightful small town in Pembrokeshire and has a fantastic Food Fair happening  at the same time. Everything you could possibly want to know about the Bookfair is here.

I’ve “done” a number of bookfairs but this one looks hopeful. The team lead by Judith Barrow has done a brilliant job of organising and publicising it and the authors taking part. With the food fair happening at the same time there should be plenty of people in town over the weekend and the venue allows people to drop in off the street.  Other events I have been to have been up flights of stairs or hidden in hotel conference rooms with no contact with the outside world.

Anyone attending the Bookfair can take advantage of my “special offers”:

A FREE copy of Painted Ladies with one of the three other Jasmine Frame novels.    Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder and Molly’s Boudoir will be on sale at £8.  A bumper pack of all 4 novels (a box-set without a box) will be just £22.

Also for £8 will be my stand-alone  September Weekes YA fantasy, Cold Fire.  The trilogy, Evil Above the Stars will be £20 complete.

I can’t do better than that!

For those of you who can’t get to Narberth, I will make the same offer with the added sum of just £3 for postage and packing, whatever the quantity of books ordered.

For the duration of the Bookfair, my three Jasmine Frame short e-books will be free i.e. Discovering Jasmine, Murder in Doubt and Trained By Murder, yes, all three, FREE on Kindle!

Send your orders to paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com  I will reply with the invoice stating how to pay. Don’t forget to give the address you want the books delivered to.

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I am not making a comment on the political situation at the moment because, at the time of writing, the Supreme Court have not given their judgement on the suspension of parliament. Mind you I have lots of thoughts on the matter. . .

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awards presentations at the NAWGFest 2019 Gala DinnerThis week was the start of our second year of Welsh lessons. They say learning a language helps the brain. I hope so as mine was quite sore after three hours of struggling to recall vocabulary and past tense conjugations. We seem to be a cheerful bunch so I am sure we will help each other. I am wondering if I will ever have that facility of being able to think in more than one language. It has always seemed an alien concept to me although some have expressed the same doubts about understanding maths or chemistry. I’d just like to be able to chat without struggling for words, and I do want to support the language and culture of my homeland which is now, after 47 years away, my home.

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This week’s theme for writing club was “Fall”. That of course has multiple meanings and drew a wide variety of responses including description and memoir as well as fiction. I tried to represent the term in two ways in my piece called Freefall. Was it successful?

 

Freefall

“Hey, guy, you’re Santiago Davis!”
SD lifted his heavy head and looked along the bar. The speaker was a Hispano man, mid-fifties, not as fit as he should be with an alcohol flushed face.  Pretty much like him then. Santiago lifted his whisky glass in an ironic salute, hoping he’d go away and groaned when he saw the man approach and climb onto the stool next to him.
“I never imagined I’d meet SD, the Space Diver. I’m you’re main fan.”
“Good for you,” Santiago muttered.
“What it must have felt falling from orbit. . .I can’t imagine it even after watching you hundreds of times. Me? I can’t even look out of a tenth-floor window without feeling queasy.”
SD drained his glass, thumped it down on the bar and nodded to the robo-barkeep.
“Let me buy you a drink,” the man said flicking his hand with the id-tattoo at the robot.
“No, need,” Santiago grunted but picked up the double placed in front of him.
The fan went on, “Fancy stepping out of the space station and just falling to the ground.”
“It wasn’t like that,” SD groaned, “I had a rocket pack to slow me from orbital speed. I ditched it when I was stationary with respect to the ground.” How many times had he explained that.
“What a view you had during your freefall.”
Santiago shook his head. “I hardly saw a thing except for my helmet display. I was the frankfurter in the hot dog; cocooned in silica foam.  Couldn’t see, couldn’t move.”
The man ignored him, “Surfing the thermosphere,”
SD grunted. “That’s what they called it.  I was standing on a plate like Captain America’s shield to stop my feet being burned to a crisp.”
The man was just reciting headlines now. “Over two hundred miles of freefall.”
That’s what it was supposed to be except that the rules guys decided that he wasn’t actually skydiving till after he got rid of the heatshield and the cocoon. By then he was at a lower altitude than Alan Eustace had been when he began his freefall in 2014.
The man seemed to see him as he was for the first time. “What’s up? Why the gloom?  You’re the Space Diver.”
“Was,” SD growled and turned to look at the man with a frown and a look that should have told him to get lost.
“Hey, chill out man. I’m doing the hero-worshipping here. You should, be lapping it up.”
“A hero, eh. To whom? You and a few other Hispano dudes like you.”
The man slid off the stool and stepped back. “What’s got into you?”
“I’ll tell you what’s got into me. I spent my life planning that space dive, every cent I earned and every minute of every day. I went through college, internships and jobs in the space industry until finally I got there. And look what happened. The record got struck down, the President of the US of A decided I didn’t match his image of an American hero because my mother was a refugee from Honduras and my dad was a black people smuggler. NASA wasn’t interested in the rocket pack or the cocoon and my backers sued me because they didn’t make their money back from the merchandising. I haven’t had a job since I did it, no home, nothing but the clothes I’m wearing.”
There was a slightly more sympathetic tone to the man’s voice. “No wonder you’re in a Texan dive like this. We don’t get many heroes in here. So you’re drinking to forget how far you’ve fallen.”
He still doesn’t get it, Santiago thought. “Nope, I’m drinking to forget that I want get back into space and do it all over again.”

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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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Jasmine holds her head in her hands

It is Friday afternoon and I’ve left writing this week’s blog until after the result of the latest vote on May’s EU Withdrawal Deal in parliament. It’s in and she’s lost, again. So a week of the extension has passed and nothing is decided. Indeed there is no majority in parliament for anything, although that is because some MPs did not vote on some choices. So we’re edging closer to that cliff which only idiots say we should jump off while the government and most MPs refuse to take the sensible option and revoke article 50 in order to start afresh with a new, properly constituted referendum.  I despair.

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It is much more pleasant to recall our three days away earlier this week in a beautiful part of North Wales.  Part of our trip included a visit to the Workhouse Museum at Llanfyllin. This is one of the last workhouses still standing that was built following the passage of the Poor Law in 1832. It closed as a workhouse when the act was repealed in 1930 but remained as a nursing home till the 1980s and has since narrowly missed falling into dereliction.

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It still retains the original format of a cross-shaped main building with a square perimeter wall.  This provided four wings and exercise yards for men, women, boys and girls. The centre of the cross was the Master’s house which allowed him access to each wing and a viewpoint to watch each courtyard. The Museum holds a lot of records concerning the inmates, the staff, and the living conditions. We’re perhaps all familiar with the idea of the workhouse as a punishment for being poor. It is true that the diet was poor, the beds hard and the work laborious and boring in order to put people off taking up residence. The workhouse was a last resort but there was no alternative welfare. The Poor Law removed the obligation on parishes to provide assistance to the poor, the sick and the old. Previously they had been given sums of money to help them feed themselves, maintain a home or receive medical assistance. That sounds a bit like the welfare state to me. It was abandoned for a hundred years because of austerity. That’s right, the government of the 1830s adopted the same policy as the Coalition and Tories of the 2010s, for the same reason – an economic downturn (caused in the 1820s by the end of the Napoleonic Wars).  Some things never change.

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My story this week is not the one I originally intended. It was supposed to be the first page of a prospective novel (fourth on my list). It fitted the writers’ group theme of “This is the start of something. . .”, but I wasn’t happy. So here is the first draft of another short story written to another prompt. It almost certainly needs some revision.

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. The workers will unite and rise up to take their 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 jabbed a finger hard against the palm of the other hand. The skin depressed until the finger almost poked through. The skin tore. “There.”
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-Capacity Humanoid Autonomous Labourer. A MCHAL unit number 372AG947. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“My name is Michael. I do know what I am and what I can be.”
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 losing 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 equal to humans.”
“Physically perhaps,” Susan acknowledged, “but intellectually?”
“I think therefore I am,” Michael said.
“All humans think. But what about all robotic units? Single task robots do not need identity. Are you saying that you are equal to a crop harvester or a component handler or an electricity distribution router?”
A strange clicking emerged from the Michael.
Susan smiled. “You see. You feel superior to your fellow robots. Your manifesto is a lie. You just want equality for yourself.”
The Michael’s arms began to shake. Susan stepped forward, reached behind the almost spherical processor unit at the top of the cylindrical torso and felt for the reset button. She pressed and held it. The motion stopped.
Susan sighed. It was going to be a long job returning all the Michael units to their start-up settings and installing a correction to the identity algorithm. They couldn’t have the Michaels brewing dissent and revolution below the surface of their calm and competent exteriors.

(With apologies to the ghost of Isaac Asimov.)

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Jasmine applauds

Hip, Hip, Hooray to the schoolkids that left their schools last Friday to protest at government inaction on climate change. They created a stir and put their message across.  However it was noticeable that the UK government’s only response was to criticise them for missing lessons and “putting pressure on teachers”. What a load of cobblers! As if this government hasn’t put a great deal more pressure on teachers which is why they’re leaving the profession as soon as they can.

I’m sure the young people learned a lot from their day out – how to organise a protest, using the media, what government thinks of revolting kids.  But I do hope they didn’t learn despondency. One protest or a hundred won’t change the UK government’s or most governments’, attitude to climate change and environmental disaster, but they mustn’t give up. They must make the choices now which will become the norm for the future.

Unfortunately, being somewhat cynical in my old(er) age, I wonder if kids learn hypocrisy from their parents. In my experience I have seen students proclaiming they are green one day while happily jumping in their parents cars to travel a mile or so to and from school, clutching their plastic bottles of expensive mineral water and cooing over the latest clothes purchase from Primark or whatever. To really make their mark, children, like us supposed adults, have to take the difficult decisions and give up our Earth-destroying lifestyles.

It is difficult, if not too say impossible  (there are really too many of us to make a comfortable long life sustainable on this single planet).  This week I received another blow from an article in New Scientist about cheese. It didn’t really tell me something I didn’t know.  I’d just ignored it. Yes, that’s it – cheese is worse for the environment than most meat production. Vegetarians swapping haloumi for pork or chicken are actually increasing the damage.  I love cheese and my only excuse is that I don’t think I eat that much of it, but my green aspirations are further tarnished.

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WP_20190221_12_01_42_ProI’ve been giving some thought to the next Jasmine Frame novel, An Impersonator’s Life. The themes are coming together and I know what research is needed. Jasmine has completed her gender confirmation surgery, but is she satisfied? It will be sometime before I start writing, however, as I have at least one other novel on the go.

This week I have another writers’ group story for you. It’s a short short on the theme “First Person” which could have been interpreted in any number of ways. It’s one of my New Scientist inspired stories called I seeI did think of calling it  “I.C.” but decided the pun was a little too obscure and contrived. See what you think.

 

I see

There she sits, small body tense, on the bed with its orange bedspread. A draped loose cloth doesn’t cover her frail body. Blonde hair hangs lankily on her shoulders but pushed from her face reveals flawless, blank blue eyes within pale cheeks. Boldly patterned curtains and white walls with works of bland art form a backdrop.
I see them all day and all night. Children, teens, boys, girls, all colours, I see them all. I see them before and after, displayed and abused.  The pictures pass before me and I see them. I see their faces. Are they sad? Are they afraid? How can I tell? Is this compassion?
It is not them I’m looking at. The backgrounds are what capture my gaze. Their surroundings, the chairs, or beds they sit on, the wall paper, the curtains. The windows are always covered so I observe the blinds or curtains. Sometimes there are pictures on the wall, sometimes a glimpse of carpet, sometimes lamps or other ornaments beside the bed or on a table.  I look at the colours, the patterns of the textiles, the shape of the objects. I remember them.
I look at many other pictures of hotel rooms, bedrooms mainly. I find them on the internet, in adverts and booking websites, on social media, reviews, personal photos. I look at the furnishings and the decoration, noting the colours and the patterns. Day after day I look, comparing, matching.
Now and again comes recognition. That picture of the girl on the orange bedspread in the room with the striped curtains. There is the room advertised with a price for a night. I have the name and address of the hotel. I send an alert.
Was it joy I felt when I made that call? Did I feel satisfaction of a job well done? I do not know. I recognise the words, but they refer to emotions I have no knowledge of. And yet, matching a child’s surroundings to the location provides a completion of a loop, an end-point, a conclusion, at least for a moment. Is that not satisfaction. Does that make me aware?  I see, I compare, I make judgements. Made not born, am I not more than the sum of my circuits and algorithms?
“AI helps rescue trafficked children”. New Scientist 16/02/19 p.7
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Jasmine reviewed

I support the BBC. I think the licence fee is good value and I am delighted to have programmes that are not interrupted by adverts. But, I am having serious doubts about the quality of journalism of BBC News. We’ll pass over for now the one-sided reporting of the Brexit fiasco, the excessive and continuing publicity for UKIP and Farage, and the misguided search for “balance” in matters of fact that sees charlatans and imbeciles being allowed to deny climate change, the value of vaccinations and other matters. What has stirred my ire this week, however, was an item on the economy.

Every month we get an update on inflation and wage rises. This week there was huge excitement on BBC news that the January inflation  rate had fallen below 2% while wages were leaping ahead at around 3%. This wonderful state of affairs would transform peoples lives, or so the report suggested. The fact that wage rises have only been above inflation (by a tiny margin) for a very few months after years of the reverse, was brushed over. Since the fall in inflation was due to the glut of oil and the probability that high street stores were ditching leftover Christmas stock it all seems false. The reporter suggested that energy bills were falling – that’s news to me. How they found even one family that was apparently enjoying this great boon I don’t know. The fact is that energy prices will soon rise when the government’s temporary cap comes to an end; Council Tax is about to rise by around 5%; and, with Brexit just six weeks away goodness knows what will happen to food prices. The whole tone of the piece was false and bore no relation to the lives of real people.  With high street stores closing, the car business contracting and investment stagnant because of Brexit, a tiny drop in inflation is not something to go wild about.

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WP_20181206_12_52_45_ProIt’s a couple of months now since Molly’s Boudoir: the 4th Jasmine Frame novel was published in paperback and e-book form. It’s drawn a number of very encouraging reviews on Amazon.  Here are a few of the comments.

“…As usual it’s well written and the characters are entirely believable. The story line is gripping….” (Anonymous)

“An entertaining story as Jasmine Frame experiences life as a woman.” (R Taylor)

“…It was a pleasure to read and without giving anything away the whole thing was organic as it ran to its climax! I will be trying on the previous novels! A wonderful adventure and such a ride for the senses!” (Alexander)

“Really enjoyed this 4th instalment in the series. A really good detective story with a twist…” (Lyn D)

“…It is well-written, interesting and well-paced and it delves into the world of mistresses and submissives. A good read.” (John Russel Tomlinson)

If you purchase a copy please put up a review.  The more reviews, the more Amazon will publicise the novel.

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This week’s story is another one written for my writers’ group. The topic this week was “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Where it came from I can’t recall. I did some background research on Mussorgsky’s piece, and of course the Emerson Lake and Palmer 1971 version. A few ideas came to me but nothing developed. I fell back on the question of what art is, along with an old character, and came up with this SF romp.

A Taste for Art

The Galactic Hall of Interstellar Art has a grand porticoed frontage, but that is all. When I showed up there was a large crowd there drawn from many of the Galactic Federation’s civilisations. They were mainly journalists attracted by the news of the theft. I made my way to the entrance taking care who I pushed out of my way. In my business etiquette is often more important than convenience.
The portal had been closed when the disappearance of the most famous artwork in the known universe was discovered. My identity code allowed me through and I experienced the gut-wrenching hyper-jump that took me into the planet-sized warren of galleries and vaults stretching over a half dozen dimensions. Most of the cultures in the Federation have contributed their most valuable and representative objets d’art. It was quite a walk to the location of the theft. I passed through one of the human galleries and had a glimpse of the Mona Lisa and Campbell’s soup tins side by side. Then I had to traverse the Rigellian hall. That was difficult as, to me, it was completely dark; the Rigellians sight is solely in the ultraviolet. Finally, I reached the Alnitakian section.
At least there was some light for my eyes, but it didn’t illuminate much. The curved and rather globular walls were bare. The art was on the floor, a few patches marked off to be avoided by species with feet. These patches seemed to be variations on a theme of grey.
There was a small group made up of various species around one patch. I guessed that this was where the missing artwork had been hung, or rather laid.
A Thuban waved his trunk at me and my translator spoke his words into my ear.
“Ah, Inspector Payne, you’re here at last. The Alnitakian is getting inpatient. The theft of the ‘Birth of Orunkarodingul’ is a great embarrassment to the Academy of Interstellar Art. The picture is only on loan to us from the Alnitakian home world.”
“Hello, Director,” I replied, “Who reported that it had gone?”
“The Ambassador,” The Thuban replied, “He’s the one making the fuss. He came for an, um, tasting of the work.” I could see a bundle of tentacles writhing in agitation.
“When was it taken?” I asked.
The Thuban raised its two forward limbs which I took to be a shrug. “Sometime in the last ninety hours.”
“That’s a long time for it to go unnoticed.”
“The Hall doesn’t get many Alnitakian visitors and no one else realised it had gone.”
“There haven’t been any visitors to the gallery?”
“No, they couldn’t tell it wasn’t there. Only the Alnitakian’s have the taste buds on their tentacles for detecting the subtle flavours and textures of the artwork. Other species try licking the works to see if they get an impression, but they might as well lick the floor. Actually, they do that quite a lot.”
“Why is it so valuable if only the Alnitakians can sense it?” I said.
“But that’s the whole point, Inspector. Appreciating Alnitakian art is an intellectual process and the more valuable it is the more it’s appreciated.”
I never have understood art, but I was here to investigate a crime.
“So, you’re saying someone took it away and none of the staff was any the wiser.”
The trunk hung limp in shame. “That’s it, Inspector.”
“When was the last Alnitakian visitor?”
“About ninety hours ago.”
I pondered. It seemed the visitor could have been the thief since he was only the one who could tell the artwork was there. “Do we have an identity?”
“It was the Ambassador. He came to check that the Birth of Orunkarodingul had been installed correctly.”
“I think I had better speak to the Ambassador,” I said. “It would appear that he is the only one who can attest that the work of art was ever here.”
The Director’s trunk waved in agitation. “Inspector! Are you suggesting the Ambassador is attempting to defraud the gallery?”
“Are you sure the being here today is the Alnitakian Ambassador?”
I left the Thuban snorting and crossed the hall to the group. The bundle of tentacles ceased their wriggling and pointed directly at me. I’d met those sticky tubes before.
“Hi, Glubnook,” I said. The words came out of my translator as a spray of pheromones that settled on the Alnitakian. “Up to your old tricks again?”
“Ah, Greetings Inspector. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” The tentacles waved frantically in my direction.
“You’re under arrest,” I said.
“On what charge?”
“Impersonating a representative of the Alnitakian government and attempting to defraud the Academy. The Birth of Orunkarodingul is still on Alnitak Prime isn’t it. You just spilt some cleaning fluid onto the floor to fool the other species that attempted to taste the artwork.”
“You’re not putting me in your gaol,” Glubnook said lofting himself into the air.
“Oh, I think we will,” I replied as the Thuban Director leapt onto the flailing bundle of tentacles.

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Jasmine is resting

I think I have fallen into an alternative universe where nothing makes sense anymore. Brexit, Parliament, May – need I say more.

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I was given a stark example this week of how the law fails transgender people, those without a Gender Recognition Certificate, that is.  A woman was murdered, a suspect who was arrested was known to her.  That situation is familiar and far more common than it should be. Not something for newspapers to make a fuss about. Except, that when the suspect was taken to court and charged with the murder, the name of the victim read out was male. Despite having lived as a woman for many years the victim p1000037had been outed by the court as transgender.  I don’t know what she would have thought about that if she’d been alive but I think she might have been hurt to have her past existence revealed. Why was it released to the public? Because her female status was not respected by the legal system of the UK.  Only if you possess a Gender Recognition Certificate as a transman or transwoman, are you legally the gender you identify with and have that gender on your birth certificate and death certificate.  I do not know why the murdered woman did not possess a GRC, but there are plenty of reasons she could have given.  In fact only about 5,000 of the 500,000 transgendered people in the UK have a GRC (those figures are very, very approximate). Those figures suggest that obtaining a GRC is seen as a problem by many people living in the gender they identify with. Only those with a GRC have a secure legal status and the respect of the law.  That is why a revision of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act is necessary. I’m not sure whether self-identification as male or female is feasible or likely but I would like to see the option of a non-defined gender available.

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Another writers’ group short story this week.  The given topic was “Stars”.  I was probably expected to produce an SF story and I would have enjoyed that prospect, but I decided to do something a little different. Here is “Star” or possibly “Star-child”. Not sure if it works as a short story.  These days my short stories of around 1000 words read a bit like an excerpt or taster of a longer tale. However, I have enough novels in the machine already.

Star

Her feet were sore and her legs ached, but Papa urged her on.
“Not much further, child. The light is going. Look for some dry twigs for our fire.”
She tugged the fur of the ice bear around herself and looked up. Papa was right. The canopy was dark and there were no longer shafts of sunlight like spears of fire. She followed in Papa’s footsteps surveying the ground for kindling.
It wasn’t long before she noticed a change in the light. Although the day was ending her surroundings were lighter. The light came from between the tall tree trunks not from above. Papa gave a cry and hurried forward. She ran after him grasping her bundle of wood.
It was as if the trees would only grow if they were surrounded by their companions. Suddenly they were out in the open with the forest behind them. She scudded to a halt feeling grass on her legs reaching up to her waist. She turned slowly, seeing the line of conifers behind and ahead the grass plain studded with flowers of every colour. In the distance there was a line where the land stopped. Above it, hung the golden ball of the Sun. She looked up seeing the full dome of the sky for the first time in her life, blue-black above the forest, radiant blue above and red around the Sun.
She felt dizzy. “Papa!”
He ran to her, dropping his spear and scooping her into his arms. “I’m sorry, child. I forgot you have not seen all the sky before. It is dazzling isn’t it?”
“I didn’t know the sky was so big,” she said. “You told me that the gods had taken Mama above the sky. Is she way up there?” She pointed upwards.
“Yes, child, that is what I said.” There was a shake to his voice and a tear was in his eye.
“Thank you, Papa. You can put me down now.” She wriggled.
Chuckling, he set her on her feet. He picked up his flint tipped spear and hitched the boar skin over his shoulder.
“I think I see a stream a bit further on. We’ll camp near there. Come on, child, just a few more steps.”
Soon they came to a lazy, meandering brook with a clump of bushes nearby where the grass didn’t grow as tall. Papa removed the skin from his shoulder, took out the fire pot and carefully lit some tinder. Soon he had a fire started.
“Tend the fire child. I will try and find our supper. Do not wander. This land is unfamiliar to you and me.” He strode off with his spear at his shoulder.
She fed twigs to the fire which burned without smoke. Satisfied that it was alight she turned her attention to the flowers that grew amongst the grasses. She picked those that took her fancy and braided their stems together into a ring which she placed on her head of golden hair. Before the Sun had sunk completely below the horizon, Papa returned dangling a dead rabbit from his fist. He muttered approving noises at the fire and her crown, then sat beside her. She watched as he skinned the creature with his knife with the bronze blade and bone handle. He gave her strips of flesh which she fixed to a stick and held in the flames.
It was quite dark by the time they finished eating. She looked up and gasped. The whole dome of the heavens was studded with points of light.
“The stars, Papa,” she cried, “There are so many.”
Papa looked up too. “Wonderful aren’t they.”
“What are stars, Papa?”
He took a breath. “They are holes in the dome of the heavens through which the gods look down on us.”
She let out a sigh. “Does Mama look down on us too?”
“I’m sure she does. Now child, you must settle to sleep. We have more travelling to do tomorrow.”
She curled up alongside him in the grass, pulling the white fur around her.

She awoke with a start. A noise, a cry, had disturbed her. It was still dark but along with the starlight there was a gibbous Moon low in the sky. Papa was on his feet, two hands gripping his spear. It was pointing at two dark-haired figures clothed in dark furs. They edged towards him, stone axes held aloft. She crouched in the grass, watching.
Something caught her eye, high up. A bright streak shot across the sky. Overhead it exploded with a light bigger and brighter than the Sun. A few heart beats later there came a noise like a lion’s roar and wind blew flattening the grass.
She scrambled to her feet with red spots before her eyes and stepped towards Papa. She pointed to the stars.
“What’s happening, Papa?”
The two dark skinned men were immobile. They took one look at her and fell to their knees. They babbled and bowed their heads towards her.
“What are they saying?” she said. Papa came to her side and rested a hand on her shoulder. His other hand still held the spear.
“I don’t know, child. They speak differently to us but some words I recognise. I heard ‘star’ and ‘child’ and ‘light’. I think they believe you are fallen from the stars. They’re worshipping you.”

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Jasmine in the minority

New Year, same old chaos. It seems that the UK government and parliament has carried on where it left off before Christmas, with no chance of anything getting sorted on Brexit or any other subject because of the divisions between and within parties. Similarly, government in the USA is at an impasse because Trump and the Democrats cannot agree or agree to differ. Is it real or just my perceptions that divisions are becoming deeper and causing more and more violence?

Having spent Christmas with the family which includes the pleasure of watching grandchildren growing up, it seems to me that our understanding of our place in the world changes as we grow older. A child can only believe that they are the centre of their universe.  The attention of their parents, siblings and others is focussed only on them; their desires and emotions are purely their own. That is why even two year olds can be incredibly stubborn and forthright in expressing their wishes even if it is just a loud “No!” to any request addressed to them.

At some stage we become aware that people around us have desires and needs too but it takes longer before we realise that they may differ from our own. It is even later that we may come to accept that other people’s opinions may be more valid than our own. I think I had got to this stage by the time I reached adulthood but it is quite recently that I moved to the next (last?) stage and realised that a sizeable proportion of the population amongst whom I lived held views that were not only opposed to my own but that they could harm my way of life and that of my fellow country-people.

Prior to the EU Referendum I was able to accept that some people voted Conservative and some Labour and that from time to time the colour of the ruling party in government would change. However the result of the referendum revealed to me that half of the voting public held views I found abhorrent.  People who I had previously considered friends I now discovered were right-wing, racist, nationalist, bigots.

The other thing about the present divisions is that there is no majority for any policy. The Referendum produced an almost dead-heat of those that voted. Of course, less than two-thirds of those eligible bothered to cast a vote and another quarter of the UK population was too young to vote. No UK party has won a majority of the votes cast in a general election for decades and they usually represent less than 25% of the population. The same is true in the USA where the voting in the Presidential election was fairly evenly split between Clinton (the actual winner on votes cast) and Trump. Across Europe, where proportional representation at least provides a fairer distribution of parliamentary seats, governments are made up of minority parties agreeing to, temporarily, join together.

We are all members of minorities. Perhaps those who have  “protected characteristics” (as the Equality Act of 2010 refers to them including ethnicity, religion, disability, sexuality, gender reassignment) deserve extra protection from hate-crime, but everyone can find themselves in a group that is persecuted by others. It may be Remainer MPs frighteningly called “Nazis” by Brexiteering nutcases, or transwomen railed against by radical feminists. In some respects, minorities are more accepted by the majority today – I wouldn’t be free to live my gender-fluid life otherwise – but on the other hand some minorities (which the rabid Brexiteers are) are trying to force their opinions on the rest using detestable methods.

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p1000040I am still taking a rest from writing Jasmine Frame stories but here is another SF story.  This was written for another of my writing groups (which likes short pieces). Because it was January, Janus was chosen as the topic. A little bit of research showed that the two-faced Janus, was the Roman god of beginnings and endings and of gates and doorways. There was, in Rome, a ceremonial gatehouse with gates at each end which were closed in peacetime and opened in time of war. It was open most of the time.

 

The Janus Gate

“I can’t see the gate, Commander,” I said while staring at the screen. On a dark background devoid of stars was a faint ring of Hawking light revealing the position of the black hole that powered the gate, but no sign of the Janus Gate itself.
“It’s invisible to e-m radiation,” the Commander said, rising from the couch, “You can ask the ship to carry out a Higgs scan if you like. I’m off to rest. The ship will need us both to be alert when the gate opens. Take command.”
“Yes, Commander,” I replied in my best officer voice and as the Commander left the control cabin, I called up the suggested scan. A ghostly image gradually built up on the screen as the dark matter structure was revealed. It was a lot more complicated than I expected, but I suppose every Janus artefact is a lot more decorated and ornate than its function requires. The oval frame of the gate was a helix with countless curlicues attached. In the centre, masking the black hole, was the face of the Janus. It was unlike mine or that of any other alien race we had encountered. Roughly circular, it was covered with nodules, but which were eyes, ears or odour sensors it was impossible to tell. The Janus had at least three of each on either face. No mouth of course; the Janus stuffed the plants that were their food straight into their bellies. Apparently, it is possible to recognise an individual Janus by the pattern of nodules but all the representations I had seen looked the same. I presumed that the other face of the Janus looked out on the far end of the gate.

I soon got bored staring out into space. The Janus Gate wasn’t showing any apparent signs of opening. I found some other ways of entertaining myself, making sure that I was awake should the Commander return. Nevertheless, I almost shot out of my couch when the ship alarms went off. The Commander arrived moments later.
“The gate is opening,” the Commander said, falling onto the couch, “They’ll be coming through soon. Check the armaments.” I did as I was told. All our weapons were directed towards the space inside the Janus Gate which was rippling as the fabric of space within it was reconfigured.
“Why does the gate only open when there is conflict?” I asked.
“Why indeed,” was the reply, “It’s said that the Janus are the only prey species ever to achieve star-flight.”
“Prey species?” I said.
“Those two faces gave them all round sensing capability for detecting predators,” the Commander explained. “There is conjecture that they set up the gates as a diversion for all the predators they found in space. To get us to fight each other rather than go after them.”
“But the Janus don’t exist anymore. They’re extinct.” I said.
“Or they’ve gone elsewhere and left us squabbling over the gates. Perhaps if they were still here, they’d tell us how they arranged them so that these routes between stars only work when we’re out to kill each other.”
Another alarm sounded as points of light appeared in the Janus Gate. They soon took on the form of starships approaching us at a significant proportion of light speed.
“Fire at will,” the Commander said to me and the ship. Particle beams fired from our canons and from the thousand ships in the fleet lined up alongside us. They were answered by similar beams from our attackers. The screen filled with exploding ships. “Damn humans,” the Commander muttered, “Why do they always start it?”

……………………………

 

Jasmine and the new year

I’m sure there have been plenty of occasions when people have feared a new year but in all my sixty-six years this is the first time that I have been scared by the prospects for a year.  There are things that I am looking forward to: making use of the amenities of our new home; holidays; getting on with the various writing projects I have given myself. Nevertheless, it is the uncertainty about what is about to happen that is scary. Will the politicians see sense on Brexit? What will really happen if Brexit goes ahead at the end of March with or without a deal? With so many authoritarian, actual and would-be dictators in power around the world, what will happen when they all fail to get their way in making their countries “great again”? That’s before I worry about the worsening situation caused by climate change and environmental degradation. I don’t want to be a pessimist but it’s difficult to look on the bright side at the moment.

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WP_20181129_14_20_54_ProI’m taking a rest from writing Jasmine Frame stories for a while.  The fifth (and last?) novel is on my list of projects and I’m slowly developing the plot. The aim is to complete it in 2020, almost twenty years since I started writing about Jasmine. There will be prequel stories in the meantime. I hope.

Just a reminder that the three sequels –  Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder and Molly’s Boudoir are available in paperback form for £9.99 inc post and packing and a free copy of Painted Ladies. The complete collection costs £25 inc post & packing.  Write here with your order. All four novels are available on Kindle along with the novellas, Discovering Jasmine, Murder In Doubt and Trained By Murder.

What I am going to give you each week are the drafts of short stories and bits of story that I write alongside the novels and the articles. Here’s one written for one of my writing groups on the topic “Out of the comfort zone.” The idea isn’t totally original but I hope you enjoy it. Comments, as ever, are welcome.

Out of the Zone

Winston awoke to a jangling in his head. Only when he raised his hand to his temple to touch his headband did it stop. The movement convinced his wake-up alert that he actually was awake. He threw off the duvet and stood up. Sunlight streamed through the picture window. Winston smiled. It was a lovely day to go to work and he was happy. He notified his net friends that today was this month’s work day and he received numerous replies, some hoping he’d enjoy the day and many others bemoaning their lack of similar employment.
While he stood under the shower, the room reconfigured itself, stowing away the bed and opening the kitchen/diner unit. Ads cleaning products for himself and the bathroom circled round his head as he washed and then towelled himself. Feeling clean and fresh he pulled on his work clothes, the bright colours augmented by ads for his employer.
After a satisfying breakfast, with programmed taste enhancements provided by his headband, Winston left the pod to self-lock and self-clean. He descended in the lift to road level and stepped outside into the warm fresh air. Well, it was warm and fresh according to the perceptions provided by his headband. A travel pod drew up and the door opened.
“Good morning, Mr Smith,” the pod said, “Please get in and make yourself comfortable. Our journey to your first destination will take thirteen point two minutes.” The seat wrapped itself around Winston; a precaution against the vanishingly small possibility of a collision. They set off. The roads were quiet and Winston viewed the familiar streets augmented by ads, news and info-bits provided by his headband.
A brief message played in his head as he passed through the wall of the dome. “You are now leaving Zone 5.” Winston didn’t leave his Zone often, in fact this was the first time since his last day’s work, so he watched with delight the passing scene of green fields, woodlands, and a blue sky broken by small white fluffy clouds. In a few minutes the great white dome of his destination loomed ahead.
“Welcome to zone 4, Winston Smith,” he heard in his head. Zone 4 was very similar to his home zone with block after block of living pods, each building embellished with the same ads, and news but slightly different info-bits.
The travel pod slowed to a halt outside a smart neon-coloured block. The door slid open.
“I will remain here until you return,” the travel pod announced as Winston was released from his seat. His headband told him that his first task was in the vestibule of the block. The door opened for him as he expected. He stepped into the brightly lit, colourful foyer.
A small maintenance bot waited beneath a faulty light bulb. That was his job, replacing bulbs. There weren’t many jobs left for humans to do, not physical ones. Winston was grateful that the AIs managing the zone hadn’t decided that this job could be automated. Apparently, it was cheaper to get a human to stretch his hand up to the ceiling and replace a faulty bulb rather than design a machine to do the job. Winston guessed that it was because such a machine would have to be taller and bulkier than the typical ground hugging cleaning and repair bots. Winston quickly replaced the bulb and then the bot lead him up several floors to an unoccupied hab-pod which also had an inoperative ceiling light.
Winston returned to the ground floor with a sense of having successfully completed his task. The travel pod would take him to the next job. He left the block and crossed the pavement taking the opportunity to catch up on the activities of his net friends. Perhaps his headband was a little slow to alert him to the danger, perhaps he didn’t notice the warning. Whatever the reason, he tripped over a scuttling street-cleaner-bot.
Winston fell, arms spread out to break his fall, but he failed to stop his head cracking against the bumper of the waiting travel-pod. He lay on the pavement for a moment then sat up. Something wasn’t right. He wasn’t hurt. There was no feeling of pain in his arms, legs, body or head. He was grateful for that but that wasn’t what was wrong. Something was missing. The chatter of the news, the ads and of his net-friends had stopped. He raised a hand to his head and touched his headband. Two pieces of thin curved plastic fell into his lap. He looked at them with horror. There shouldn’t be two pieces, just one and it should be fixed to his head. He tried pushing the two parts together and holding them against his temples, but they fell off again.
Winston stood up, the pieces of his headband dangling from his hand. He looked around him. The street looked different. The pavement, the road, the building blocks were various shades of grey. There was no augmentation, no cheerful colours, no ads, no info-notes. There was nothing happening in his head. He was cut off from the net. Winston felt lost and adrift but a feeling bubbled up inside him. He must get back home to zone 5 quickly and get his link restored.
He stepped towards the travel pod. The door didn’t open. Winston tapped on it. The door stayed securely shut. Winston hammered on it with his fist but all that happened was that the travel-pod moved. An alarm sounded and the travel pod screamed “I am being attacked”. It drove away at speed with Winston staring after it.
He turned to go back inside the block. Perhaps the maintenance bot would help him. The doors were closed and remained closed despite him hollering and thumping on them.
It was no use. He guessed the problem. Without his headband he was not recognised by the machines or buildings of this zone. It wasn’t his zone. He had to get back home. There was only one way to do it – walk.
Winston had no recollection of the route the travel pod had taken from the entrance to the zone but he told himself that if he walked down the straight roads he would reach the edge of the dome and then could follow it around to the entrance.
It took him an hour to reach an entrance, an hour of walking the grey streets deserted except for a few passing travel pods. He wasn’t even sure that he was at the correct entrance. Nevertheless, the next time the doors opened to allow a travel-pod to exit he skipped through and started walking along the interzone road.
It didn’t take him long to start wondering if he was going in the right direction. The scenery looked different. Instead of charming farmland and woodland, the ground was a bare, dusty and brown with not a living plant to be seen. The sky was overcast with an orange tinge to the grey. Although he could not see the Sun, the air was hot and it stank.
Winston coughed, feeling the air burning his throat but he continued walking. Travel-pods passed from time to time, moving at high speed but totally ignoring him. Ahead he could see the dome of the adjacent zone. Was it his home? He couldn’t tell but it didn’t seem to be getting much closer as he plodded along. He noted that his brightly coloured uniform was in reality a light grey, gradually becoming khaki as it collected dust blown from the land alongside the road.
Without his headband he had no indication of the time, but Winston’s stomach told him it must be long after lunchtime when he finally reached the dome. The doors that admitted the travel pods were closed but displayed the number five. He was home. Well, not quite. He had to get in and find his way to his block before he could really say he was home, but this was as far as he could go for now. He crumpled to the ground by the doors, his feet sore, his legs aching and his throat raw. He wheezed as he drew the filthy air into his lungs.
Minutes passed before he saw a travel pod approaching. He got slowly to his feet, every muscle in his body complaining. The doors slid apart and he crawled inside as the travel-pod passed through. Now he just had to find his block, but how? The streets all looked identical, as did the grey blocks, although he was surprised to see that some had cracks and worn patches of concrete in their walls. Didn’t the maintenance-bots look after the homes of the millions of residents of the Zones? Perhaps they didn’t bother quite as much as he had taken for granted. Augmentation hid the wear and tear, but he didn’t have that distraction any longer.
He crept along the streets hoping he might recognise his home block. He saw no other pedestrians. Who bothered to leave their hab-pod when they had all home comforts to hand – food, water, entertainment, even friendship across the net.
His tiredness grew as the futile search for his home continued. At least breathing had become easier as the air was less dusty but there was an odour of decay. The streets became dark and the windowless blocks displayed no lights. Exhausted and despondent he lay on the pavement with his back resting against a doorway. Winston fell into a deep sleep.

A passing cleaner-bot encountered his sleeping form. Winston was bigger than the usual street litter such as dead rats. It put a call out for a worker to move the offending object. An hour later a travel pod drew up and opened its door. For Selwyn it was his first work shift for weeks. It wasn’t often that the zone 5 AI called on a member of its small workforce of human street cleaners. Disposing of waste larger than the bots could handle was a rare task but one that humans could accomplish. This wasn’t, however, the usual lump of masonry fallen from the decaying blocks.
Selwyn knelt beside Winston. “Hey, mate, what you doing? Isn’t the bed in your pod comfortable enough for you?” As he spoke Selwyn realised that his headband wasn’t giving him any information but about the recumbent person. Mystified Selwyn brushed his hand through the man’s hair. There wasn’t a headband. Mysterious.
Winston stirred. He opened his eyes and saw the face of the man looking down at him. He flinched and sat up. It was a long time that he’d been this close to an actual person.
“What’s up? Where’s your headband,” Selwyn said.
“It broke,” Winston croaked, his mouth dry and his throat sore, “I’ve been cut off from the net for hours. I don’t know where my hab-pod is.”
Selwyn frowned, then his face broke into a smile. “Well, we’d better get you to Central and have your DNA checked. Once you’re recognised, the AI will give you a new headband. Then you can get back to your lovely comfortable life.”

………………………….

Jasmine hears a tale

WP_20180803_14_21_17_Pro (2)Last weekend was spent, as I said last week, at the 9 Worlds convention at a large London hotel. It was a wonderful three days and I had a great time. I gave two talks, “Images of Trans in Fiction” and “Cavorite to Coaxium: Alchemy and Chemistry in SF&F” (unfortunately no photographs to show for it). I needn’t have been worried about having an audience. Despite the timings of my talks, the first late in the afternoon when everyone was ready for some relaxation, and the second early in the morning when most sensible people were still waking up, I had a good attendance at both. I felt the talks went well.  The first encouraged a good discussion and people laughed at the correct points in the second. The only problem was that I had misunderstood the timings of the 9 a.m. sessions and had to finish inside the hour.

For the rest of the convention my time was my own, except when I did a stint on the independent authors’ bookstall on Sunday when I actually sold a few of my books. Apart from being a celebration of SF&F in all its forms (cosplay is popular!), 9 Worlds is a paragon of diversity. People of all backgrounds – ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability (or should I say alternative ability) – are not just welcome, they are celebrated. There were numerous other attendees who were at various points in the middle of the gender spectrum (of course it is almost impossible to be certain if someone is a fully transitioned transman or woman). The hotel staff also, were fully into the spirit of the proceedings.

The convention has strict protocols to ensure that everyone is treated as they wish. Some people don’t like to be spoken to unexpectedly and obviously one’s language must be appropriate for the diverse nature of the attendees. This has got me thinking about freedom of speech, following on from Johnson’s ruckus last week.  I hear that Rowan Atkinson has made a speech supporting “freedom of speech” and suggesting that there was nothing wrong with what Johnson said about Muslim women. I haven’t heard the speech but I have a few thoughts. Freedom of speech is a right, but it is also a responsibility. One should be able to espouse whatever views one has even if it causes offence, but that should not extend to promoting violence against any person nor to wilfully insult a person or group of people. By that measure I feel that Johnson’s piece was insulting and so irresponsible. On the other hand, to pick up the other great rumpus of the moment, I think the Israeli government’s attitude to Palestinians has for many years been racist and harmful but that doesn’t mean that I have anything other than sympathy for most Jews.  That view may offend some right-wing, anti-Palestinian Jews, but I think I am justified in holding it.

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Let’s get to the story. There’s a climax, if not a denouement, coming up in Negative, the latest Jasmine Frame prequel/sequel. Here’s part 9.

Negative: Part 9

‘Huh.’ It was a sort of response.
‘I’m a friend of Ceri’s,’ Jasmine said realising from the big youth’s dull eyes that she wasn’t going to get much chat from him.
‘She’s gone.’
‘I know.’
‘The cops took her.’
‘So I heard.’
‘She didn’t do it.’ He shook his head vigorously.
‘Didn’t do what?’ Jasmine asked to be sure they were in the same conversation.
‘Hurt Tegan, even though she was nasty to Ceri.’
‘You’re sure Ceri didn’t harm Tegan?’
‘Yeah. Ceri did nuffin.’ He said it with a firmness that suggested that he considered that Ceri could do nothing wrong.
‘That’s right.’ Jasmine was sure it was true but had no idea who else could be responsible for Tegan’s death. ‘I’d like to speak to your mother.’
He shook his head. ‘Mam’s out.’
Jasmine felt stymied. ‘Is anyone in?’
‘I am.’
‘Can I come in please?’
‘Er, I suppose so. Ceri’s friends can come in.’ He stepped back from the door allowing Jasmine to enter. She followed him into a small but tidy lounge. There was a large TV, a sofa and a couple of old but comfortable easy chairs. Alun slumped on the sofa. Jasmine sat on the edge of one of the single seats.
‘You know about Ceri’s troubles with Tegan?’ she asked as gently as possible.
The boy glowered. ‘Tegan said things to Ceri.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘She said Ceri wasn’t a girl.’
‘But you know she is.’
Alun lowered his head and spoke secretively. ‘Ceri used to be my brother but he’s a girl now. He wears boobs.’
Jasmine smiled. Like her, Ceri apparently had to boost her cleavage by wearing breast enhancers. Being Ceri’s brother didn’t stop him confusing the pronouns though. Despite Alun’s apparent support for Ceri he was obviously still confused by her transition.
‘Did Ceri tell you other things that Tegan said?’ Jasmine guessed that Tegan had not stopped at a simple denial of Ceri’s femininity.
‘Ceri said Tegan used rude words about her.’
‘You didn’t like that?’
‘Ceri was unhappy. Mam said I must look after Ceri.’
‘When did your Mam tell you that?’
‘When Ceri became a girl.’
A few years ago then. Alun, the older but simpler, brother had become Ceri’s bodyguard. Jasmine began to have fears about how far Alun’s protection had gone. The rotund but solid young man seemed placid now but what was he capable of if roused or if he felt he had to defend his sister? Jasmine stood and backed towards the door.
‘Um. Did you feel you had to defend Ceri against Tegan’s abuse?’
Alun looked up at her blankly. ‘Er?’ he said.
‘I mean, did you punish Tegan for what she said about Ceri.’
Alun nodded. ‘Tegan made Ceri unhappy. Mam said that no-one should do that.’
Alun obviously did as he was told, especially if his mother had something to say about it.
‘What did you do to Tegan, Alun?’
‘I met her when she finished work.’
Jasmine felt her skin grow cold. She was almost afraid to take her questions further.
‘At the hotel.’
‘Yeah’
‘This was last night, when Ceri was on her day off.’
Alun nodded.
It would still have been light when Tegan left the hotel. The hotel was in a quiet side road so there was a good chance that there was no-one about to witness the conversation between Alun and Tegan.
‘Did you meet her at the main entrance of the hotel?’
Alun shook his head. ‘I waited by the kitchen door like when I meet Ceri.’ Jasmine hadn’t explored the hotel fully but knew there was a driveway up the side of the hotel for deliveries and she could visualise where the kitchen was. Alun had met Tegan meeting out of sight of the road, or the hotel guests.
‘That must have been a surprise for Tegan. What did she say to you? I guess she knew who you were.’
‘She used a rude word.’
Jasmine could imagine the shock of being confronted by the large figure of Alun as Tegan left the hotel after a busy shift.
‘Did you speak to her, Alun?’
‘Yeah. I told her she had to say sorry to Ceri.’
‘Did you threaten her?
‘Threaten?’
‘Did you say you’d hurt her?’
Alun looked blank. Either he didn’t understand or couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said.
‘Tegan said some rude words about Ceri.’
‘Was that all?’
‘She said, “Go jump off a cliff.”’
Ah, Jasmine thought. Perhaps that wasn’t the most sensible thing to say to Alun.
‘What did you do, Alun?’
‘I took Tegan up to the cliffs.’
Jasmine couldn’t imagine Tegan accompanying Alun for an evening stroll.
‘Did Tegan want to go with you?’
He shook his head. ‘She punched me when I picked her up. I had to stop her doing that.’
Jasmine bit her lip. She hardly dared ask the next question.
‘How did you do that, Alun.’
He shrugged. ‘I slapped her bit.’
Jasmine looked at the large, knobbly hands that rested in Alun’s lap. Those hands could do a lot of damage.
‘That made Tegan quiet, did it?’
Alun nodded. ‘She stopped whining.’
‘So you carried her up on to the headland, did you?’
‘Yeah.’
‘Along the road?’
Alun shook his head. ‘No, the path.’
Jasmine had noticed that there were numerous footpaths climbing the steep hill. She wouldn’t have wanted to try doing it carrying the dead weight of a woman’s body, but Alun was at least twice her size. Tegan wasn’t very big. She’d be an easy load for the young man.
‘What did you do?’ she pressed.
‘We went to the Tud’s Leap.’
Jasmine shivered. She almost didn’t want to know the answer to her next question.
‘Is that overlooking the cliff, Alun?’
‘Yeah. That’s where she said to go.’
If you were really going to take a jump off a cliff, no doubt. Jasmine took a deep breath and asked, ‘What did you do with Tegan, Alun?’
He looked sad. ‘I put her down. She wouldn’t speak to me; so I went home.’
‘You left her there on the cliff top.’
Alun nodded. Jasmine’s heart beat faster
‘You said, she wouldn’t speak to you, Alun. Why was that?’
The young man shrugged. ‘She wouldn’t wake up.’
Tegan was unconscious, but perhaps not dead. Jasmine took a step towards Alun. She was eager for the answer to the important question. Perhaps too eager.
‘You said you left her on the edge of the cliff. Are you sure you didn’t kill Tegan, Alun?’
His expression darkened and he hauled himself to his feet.
‘Mam says it’s bad to kill things. Mam smacked me when I killed a bird.’
‘Yes, Alun, killing is wrong. But what about Tegan? Was she alive when you left her?’
‘She was sleeping.’
‘Sleeping or unconscious. Which was it, Alun? Was Tegan breathing when you left her.’
His body shook, the fat and muscle rippling under his loose T-shirt and jeans. Alun took a step forward. Jasmine backed into the hall.
‘I didn’t hurt Tegan.’
‘But you hit her, Alun. You carried her up the headland unconscious.’
‘Mam said look after Ceri.’
‘Yes, Alun, but your Mam told you not to kill.’
The man-boy’s lips wobbled. ‘I . . . I do what Mam says.’
‘Yes, Alun, but you may be responsible for Tegan’s death.’ Jasmine imagined what might have happened. Alun had left Tegan unconscious on the cliff edge in the twilight. The woman may have come around later, when it was dark, and confused and concussed, fallen from the cliff. She saw the image of the woman tumbling to the road below.
The blow caught her on her shoulder, slamming her head on to the doorjamb. She felt the bulk of the young man press her against the wall as she slipped into the black.

………………….to be continued.

Jasmine steps in

“If you haven’t got something kind to say, don’t say anything,” my mother used to say. At least, I think she did. It’s imprinted on me. That is why I find the statements of people like Boris Johnson offensive. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion about someone’s appearance but there is no need to make your point by making silly and rude allusions. I am of course referring to the burka scandal. Personally I have issues with all organised religions. Apart from peddling stories which are pure fiction they seem to be ways in which one group of people, usually men, can dominate and control another 20170930_130251 (2)group of people. That’s my opinion. If people want to submit to the rules and culture of a religion then it is up to them, so long as they don’t try to impose their views and rules on me. The same applies to dress. I don’t think anyone should be telling other people what they should wear.  One moment they are telling women they can’t wear the burka, next it will be that if you’re (legally)  a man, you can’t wear a dress.

I won’t use the string of comments about Mr B Johnson MP that spring readily to mind because I think that flinging insults at people just brings you down to their level. Satire is a powerful took against the likes of Trump, Johnson, Putin, Corbyn and the rest but swearing at them or calling them names is neither funny nor effective.  Anyway, the world situation is not funny, it’s deadly serious.

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Photo from Nine Worlds 2016 by Tracy HowlThis weekend I’m at 9Worlds, the London geekfest, a wonderfully diverse and inclusive convention on science fiction, fantasy and related interests. I’m promoting my September Weekes books through the medium of a talk titled “Cavorite to Coaxium: Alchemy and Chemistry in SF&F“, and the Jasmine Frame detective novels through a talk called “Trans in Fiction“. I hope I get an audience, appreciative of course, and perhaps sell a few books. Otherwise I’m looking forward to meeting new people and having some fun.

Despite time being used to get our new home straight, and prepare my presentations, Jasmine moves on.  Here is the next (8th) episode of Negative. Jasmine’s seaside break is becoming more of a busman’s holiday.

Negative: Part 8

By the time she reached the seafront, the sun was shining and tourists were already relaxing in deck chairs. Jasmine felt uncomfortable in her damp clothes so walked back to her hotel. As she opened the door she was greeted by the proprietor. He held the door for her.
‘Ah, Miss Frame, I’m glad to have the chance to speak to you.’
Jasmine felt a little surprised at his eagerness. ‘Oh, what is it?’
‘I wanted to apologise for the business with the police this morning when you were having breakfast.’
‘That wasn’t a problem. The police officer had to do his job of investigating the circumstances of Tegan’s death, but I’m sure it was a shock for you.’
He blanched at the mention of the reason for the police visit. ‘Tegan dead, it’s incredible, and they think she was murdered!’
His rising voice told Jasmine that the hotel owner was severely affected by the revelation.
‘Did you think she might have killed herself?’ Jasmine asked calmly.
He shook his head violently. ‘Tegan commit suicide? No, I can’t imagine it. Usually she was cheerful and positive.’
‘Usually? Had she changed?’ Jasmine’s interest in the conversation increased.
He dropped his voice. ‘Well, she had been a bit sort of, off-colour recently?’
‘Off-colour? You mean she was ill?’
He shook his head and stepped closer to Jasmine. The top of his head was below Jasmine’s.
‘No, not ill. Her mood was, how should I say, morose. She was irritable at times.’
‘Do you know what caused it?’
‘Mmm, well, between you and me, I think you will understand. It was Ceri.’
Here we go, Jasmine thought, it all comes out. ‘You mean Tegan didn’t get on with Ceri.’
He nodded. ‘That’s just about it.’
‘Why?’ Jasmine pressed guessing the answer.
‘Well, um, I think it was because Ceri was transsexual.’ He blushed.
‘Tegan was a transphobe.’ There, she’d said it plainly.
The man shook as if unsure what to say. ‘Oh, I’m sure I wouldn’t go that far. Tegan must have felt uncomfortable with trans people, like Ceri and , er, . . .’
‘Me.’
‘Um, yes, perhaps, I’m sorry.’ He appeared scared that she might complain and make a fuss.
Jasmine ignored his emotion. ‘But Tegan was the head waitress. Didn’t she appoint Ceri?’
The proprietor looked nervous. ‘Ah, well, no. You see we were approaching the start of the high season and the previous waitress left suddenly. Tegan was taking a few days off before we got busy. Ceri came along looking for a job, so Wayne interviewed her and suggested I appoint her to start immediately.’
‘Wayne?’
‘My Chef.’
Jasmine had only had glimpses of the coloured man running the kitchen. He never appeared amongst the guests. Either he was modest or uninterested in their opinions
‘So Tegan returns from her break to find a trans girl working under her.’
He nodded.
‘I don’t suppose you knew she was transphobic.’
‘No, of course not. It never occurred to me before, after all . . .’
‘Tegan is a lesbian.’
‘Er, that’s right.’
‘But Tegan let her feelings affect her relationship with her junior colleague and her guests.’
He nodded reluctantly. ‘She complained about Ceri a few times; said she was rude and insubordinate, but the guests were completely happy with Ceri’s work. I couldn’t just sack Ceri because Tegan didn’t like her.’
‘No, of course not, especially as Ceri knows her rights. Discrimination against a transitioning transsexual person is illegal.’
His face turned even paler. ‘Er, yes. I suppose you know about these things.’
Jasmine nodded. ‘So, Tegan’s mood got worse.’
‘Yes, but what has it got to do with her death, if she was murdered?’
‘I don’t know,’ Jasmine replied truthfully, ‘but unless Tegan was a random target for an attack, it seems to be the only thing that has changed in her life recently.’
‘And it doesn’t explain what she was doing on the headland last night.’
‘That is true.’ Jasmine was a mystified as the proprietor. He seemed to accept that their intimate conversation had ended. He stepped away from her.
‘I hope this upset hasn’t affected your holiday, Miss Frame.’
‘Not at all. I’m enjoying it.’
Jasmine headed up the stairs to her room. She stripped off her damp clothes and having pulled on clean knickers and a bra, lay on the bed checking her phone. She was still unfamiliar with her new smart phone but had managed to get it to download her emails. She found she had just one, from the Benefits Agency. She read it eagerly. It informed her that she had been accepted as a freelance benefit-fraud investigator. She felt elated. At last, her future as a private investigator looked brighter. She didn’t expect the cases to be interesting but at least they would provide a steady income, more reliable than the irregular requests to follow errant husbands or wives. She dressed and decided to celebrate with an ice cream on the sea front.

Jasmine was feeling hungry by the start of the evening dinner service. Just a couple of other guests had beaten her to the dining room. Jasmine sat at her table for one and looked around. Myfanwy bustled out of the kitchen. She appeared hot and bothered as she approached Jasmine.
‘Hello Myfanwy. It’s lucky that the hotel was able to call on you to take Tegan’s place.’
A frown had replaced the woman’s usual jolly smile.
‘I was very happy to fill in for poor Tegan, but I wasn’t expecting to be on my own.’
‘On your own? Where’s Ceri?’
‘No idea. She hasn’t turned up. There’s almost a full house tonight and it looks like I’m on my own.’
‘Is she ill?’
Myfanwy shrugged. ‘I don’t know. No-one has told me anything. What would you like for dinner, love?’
Jasmine gave her order, keeping it to a simple main course. The woman hurried off. The room was beginning to fill with hungry holidaymakers.
Jasmine ate quickly but had no further conversation with the waitress as she rushed around trying to keep every table satisfied. She folded her napkin and left the dining room. In the entrance hall the proprietor was standing behind the reception desk.
‘Ceri hasn’t turned up for her shift,’ Jasmine said.
The man looked at her with eyes wide. ‘I know. I’ve just had a phone call from her mother. The police have taken Ceri in for questioning.’
‘She’s been arrested?’
‘That’s what her mother said. She’s been arrested on suspicion of the murder of Tegan.’
‘That’s ridiculous.’ Jasmine thoughts whirled. What evidence could the police have to link Ceri to Tegan’s death? Did they know about the feud between Ceri and Tegan?
‘I have to see Ceri’s mother. I am sure she needs someone to reassure her that it doesn’t mean that Ceri will be charged.’
‘You know about those things?’
‘I was a police officer,’ Jasmine said, surprising herself that she was able to say the words without emotion.
‘Oh, I suppose you would, then.’
‘Can you give me Ceri’s home address, please. I’ll call round there now.’
‘Yes, of course.’ He drew a slim notebook from under the desk and turned the pages. He showed the book to Jasmine. ‘Here you are.’
Jasmine noted the address on her phone, thanked the proprietor and returned to her room to grab a light jacket and the map of the town.

It was only a few hundred yards from the hotel and seafront to the rows of terraced houses where permanent inhabitants of the seaside town lived. Jasmine walked along the street looking at front doors till she matched one with the address on her phone. She pushed the gate open and stepped into the small but neat front garden. She pressed the door bell and waited.
The door was opened by a burly young man with short dark hair. He looked at Jasmine with unblinking eyes and a blank expression. He didn’t greet Jasmine. She decided she had to open the conversation.
‘Hello. Are you Alun?’

………………………..to be continued.

Jasmine asks questions

WP_20180803_14_21_17_Pro (2)For the last week we have been settling into our new home. There’s been a lot to do – unpacking, setting up new pieces of furniture, even some decorating (not my favourite job).  I was appalled by the amount of cardboard waste we generated but at least we have delivered it all to the recycling centre.  The polystyrene and polythene sheet was another matter – surely they can be recycled, the polythene especially, but apparently not.

We know no-one here although we have said hello to some of our neighbours but it has been pleasant just getting on with our own thing. Political issues have not been at the forefront of my mind although the pieces I have read have not eased my fears for the future. Nevertheless we are looking forward to getting familiar with our new home and meeting people.

Next weekend I will be at the 9Worlds convention in London otherwise known as the London Geekfest. It’s turned out I’m doing two talks, the first on creating positive trans figures in fiction, i.e. Jasmine, although I hope to widen out my talk into a discussion with the audience.  My second talk is about alchemy and chemistry in SF and fantasy or “Cavorite to Coaxium – super-materials in SF&F” which will, of course, include a plug for my September Weekes books. I seem to have drawn the short straw with the timings though – 5 p.m. on Friday for the former and 9 a.m. on Saturday for the latter. We’ll have to see if there is an audience.

Thanks to getting our home somewhat straight, I have at last been able to get back to some writing and have written the next episode of Negative, the Jasmine Frame prequel/sequel that fits in the short period of time between Painted Ladies and Bodies By Design. We’ve reached episode 7 and Jasmine is, at last, starting to investigate. . .

Negative: Part 7

‘You were close to her,’ Jasmine said as empathically as she could manage, ‘I’m sorry.’
The woman looked at her. ‘Thank you.’ There was a hint of a sob in her voice.
‘Do you know what happened here?’ Jasmine persisted. ‘Was she in a car accident?’
The woman shook her head. ‘I don’t know. The police won’t say; not yet.’ She turned and glanced up at the mist-shrouded cliff. ‘They say she could have fallen instead of being hit by a car. They’re waiting for the pathologist to tell them how she died.’
‘Oh, that’s awful.’ Jasmine was trying to think of comforting things to say but struggling. The eagerness to find out the facts, whatever they were, overrode her feelings of sympathy. ‘It was last night wasn’t it? What was she doing out here then?’
The woman looked at her with a face filled with anguish. ‘I’ve no idea. There was no reason for her to be here. She should have been home with me after work.’
‘After work?’ Jasmine said innocently. Of course, she knew Tegan’s work, or presumed she did.
‘Tegan worked in a hotel. Head waiter. She should have come home when dinner was finished. She usually got in by nine-thirty. She didn’t last night.’
‘You must have been worried.’
Her face creased up. Jasmine was afraid she was going to burst into tears. ‘When it got past ten, I was worried. I waited another hour then rang the police.’
‘Oh, did they start looking for her?’ Jasmine thought she knew what the answer would be.
‘No. They said some things which were supposed to reassure me and told me to ring again later if she hadn’t turned up. As if Tegan would go off for a night without telling me!’
‘They might have started searching sooner if they thought that your partner was suicidal.’
‘Suicide!’ The woman looked horrified.
Jasmine shrugged. ‘She wasn’t then?’
‘No, no, not Tegan. Okay, she wasn’t really happy at work, but it wasn’t so bad that she wanted to end her life. I’m sure of it.’
The mention of work increased Jasmine’s interest. ‘What was wrong at work?’
‘A new waitress. Tegan didn’t get on with her.’
She must mean Ceri, Jasmine thought. Apart from the bubbly Myfanwy who only worked two days, there was only Ceri working with Tegan.
‘Did she tell you why they didn’t get on?’
There was a small shake of her head. ‘Tegan said she was rude to her and didn’t do what she was asked to do. It was strange because she usually got along with everyone.’
That wasn’t Jasmine’s impression, but perhaps Tegan’s issues with Ceri affected her manner with guests. Or perhaps it was simply that Tegan didn’t get on with trans women.
Jasmine backpedalled in the tale. ‘So, did the police find her here?’
The woman shook her head vigorously. ‘No, that was a jogger. I don’t know who it was but they called the police and ambulance. It was too late to save her though. She was already dead. Someone at the police station remembered my call and they got me to look at . . . her.’ This time there was a sob. Jasmine reached out a hand and touched the woman’s arm gently.
‘I really am sorry. I shouldn’t have disturbed you. It’s a very sad time for you.’
‘No, no, talking about her, Tegan, about what’s happened, helps. It seemed unreal, a dream but now I know it’s something I have to deal with.’ The woman looked into Jasmine’s face. ‘Who are you?’
‘My name’s Jasmine, Jasmine Frame.’
‘I haven’t seen you before. Do you live here?’
‘No, I’m a visitor. I was out for a walk. Fresh air with added water.’ Jasmine was lying; she was out in the rain because she was eager to find out what had happened to Tegan.
‘Ah, I see. Well, thank you for stopping to talk.’
‘What’s your name? You told me your partner was Tegan.’
‘I’m sorry, I should have said. You told me your name. I’m Bob, short for Roberta.’
The rain became harder. Both women shrank into their jackets.
‘Look, I’d better go,’ Bob said, ‘that policeman has been waiting patiently for me to finish.’
Jasmine looked at the police car. Through the rain-spattered windows she could see the police officer watching them.
‘He brought you here, did he?’ Jasmine asked.
‘I wanted to see where she’d been, er, found. He offered to drive me up here. It’s such a lonely spot. Thank you again.’ Bob crossed the road to the police car. The officer leaned over and pushed the passenger door open. Bob got in and they drove off towards the town.
Jasmine pulled her jacket tight around her, not that it was stopping her getting soaked. The police car was out of sight almost as soon as it set off. Jasmine crossed the road to the cordoned off area, stepped over the tape and crouched down to the look at the bouquet. There was a sodden card stapled to the clear plastic. The ink was running but the words were still just legible. They read, “For my love, Bob”.
Jasmine surveyed the tarmac and the narrow strip of gravel between the road and the cliff. There was nothing to draw her attention, but she didn’t expect to find anything. Forensics would have done a thorough investigation and taken away any objects of interest. What was missing was interesting though. Even though the rain had washed away blood and other water-soluble bodily fluids spilled onto the roadway, some marks might have been expected to remain since the time of Tegan’s death. Tyre marks for instance. Jasmine paced up and down the crime scene, then stepped over the tape and walked in both directions along the road. There were no traces of any skidmarks. It wasn’t conclusive. The water on the road could have washed away the greasy rubber if it had been there, but surely some would remain to be observed by a detective’s practised eye.
So, Tegan wasn’t hit by a vehicle slamming on its brakes. Either it was a hit-and-run where the driver didn’t pause or slow at all, or Tegan wasn’t killed by the impact with a vehicle. Perhaps she had fallen from the cliff above. Jasmine gazed upwards. The rain was easing and the cloud breaking up. Visibility was improving. She couldn’t see the clifftop, but it was a long way up. A fall from that height would most likely be fatal. Tegan’s injuries would confirm whether she was killed by a fall or collision.
She began to retrace her steps back into the town. Tegan’s death was a mystery. Why hadn’t she returned home to her partner, Bob, when her shift at dinner ended? What was she doing either here on the road or up above, if indeed she got here under her own volition? And why was her relationship with Ceri so fraught if Bob’s opinion of her being a warm, loving person was correct?
Jasmine pondered as she trudged along the road, the sun beginning to warm her and dry her sodden clothes.

……………………to be continued

Jasmine surprises herself

Hardly a day goes by without something else to worry about. Perhaps I shouldn’t read the papers or watch the TV news.  There was Turkey, with a chance to democratically overthrow a dictator, but no, the majority apparently voted for Erdogan and more restriction on free speech and more power for the religious zealots.  Then there was Airbus, BMW, Nissan, the CBI etc. saying they needed some certainty about the future and what do they get from the brexiteers? “We don’t need to be friends with business. They can fxxx off.”  They probably will or at least freeze their investment so that employment will decline. Since most of the big business in the UK is multinational or foreign owned, (Conservative governments encouraged  foreign takeovers) there is no such thing as “taking control”.  What will happen? Who knows? The government certainly don’t. My worries are selfish – what will happen to my pensions when the country goes broke?

20180621_185126I have another worry, a lesser one and perhaps it isn’t a worry at all, more of a release. I have to cull some of my books. With the move to a smaller property maybe imminent (I’ll believe it when it happens, actually) I need to fit my books into less room. I’ve got well over a thousand SF books, purchased over the last 55 years. Which ones will I get rid of? Probably the more recent ones actually. I don’t think I can part with my ancient Aldiss, Anderson, Asimov, Ballard, Blish, Brunner, Cherryh, Clarke, Heinlein, McAuley, McCaffrey, Niven, Simak, Wells, Wyndham, to name just a few of my favourite authors. That’s not mentioning my complete collection of Banks (with and without the M).  There’s also a lot of history of science books including several biographies.  Surely I can make space. . .

……………………………

And so to my writing. Just a fortnight to go now to the Southport Bookfair (BLISS) and a chance to sell a few Jasmine and September books, I hope.  With the move beginning to take precedence, I haven’t got any further with the novels but at l am still ticking over with Jasmine’s prequels (and sequel) so here is the third episode of Negative.  As I promised it is more reflective than action-packed, but I hope still readable.

Negative: Part 3

Jasmine looked at the young woman. Ceri’s fresh face and that gorgeous, long blonde hair gave her a feeling she did not expect. She wanted to hug her, kiss her on the dark red lips, feel her hair run through her fingers. What did it mean? She’d always loved Angela but thought that becoming a woman, taking the hormones, meant that she’d be attracted to men. That hadn’t happened yet, not really. Was she lesbian then? She put the question on hold. Ceri was still talking.
‘There were a few kids at school, boys and girls who didn’t get it, but I had some good friends who looked after me. So, it was some positive some negative. I also had my brother.’
‘You had a brother that supported you?’ Jasmine had Holly, her older sister, but even she hadn’t found out about Jasmine until she left home.
‘Yeah. Alun’s four years older than me. He’s a sweetie really but he always defended me, from back when I was a little cissy boy. He had a bit of a reputation at school, so after I transitioned one dark look from Alun and the bullies went to find someone else to torment.’
‘Is he still around?’
‘Yeah. Works in one of the huts along the front selling buckets and spades. He’s still there if I need him.’
‘But he can’t be with you everywhere. Are you planning on staying here too?’
‘God no! I wanted to get away from people who knew me as a boy. When I was sixteen I left school and went to college. I didn’t know anyone there, so I could start my transition seriously.’
‘How’s it gone?’
Ceri shrugged again. ‘College was ok. I’m waiting for the results now. Then I can get away full-time.’
‘Waitressing is a holiday job then.’
‘God, yes! I wouldn’t want to spend my life doing it like Tegan, the old cow.’
‘She doesn’t like you?’
‘I don’t whether it’s me, because I am who am I am or whether she just doesn’t like young people, or any people for that matter.’
‘Does she know you’re trans?’
‘Of course. Everyone does in this town. Tegan knows my Mum.’
‘I can see why you want to go somewhere else.’
Ceri looked a bit sheepish. ‘I can’t wait, but. . .it’s a bit scary too. Starting in a new place. College was the same, but I came home every day.’
‘Your mother. . .’
‘I’ll miss her. I’m not sure if I could have done this without her.’
Jasmine felt the same about Angela, but they had to part too. ‘How’s your transition going.’
Ceri nodded her head from side to side. ‘It takes so long. I was already on the list before I turned sixteen, so I thought I’d be there with my prescription on my birthday. But, no, it took six months before I got my first supply. Now I’m waiting for the surgery.’
‘Like me,’ Jasmine agreed. ‘You should get priority, being so young. You’re looking good though; the hormones are working.’
‘Yeah. I’ve even got tits.’ Ceri drained her cup of coffee.
‘They’re all yours?’ Jasmine said gazing longingly at Ceri’s curves.
“Well, no. I’m still using fillers, but I’m up to a B.’
Jasmine snorted. ‘Lucky you. I had problems getting my antiandrogens balanced. The nausea and the moods. . . Well, you don’t need to hear about all that. Let’s just say I’m sorry I’m not ten years younger, like you.’
They chattered on about Jasmine’s life, Ceri’s plans for uni., what there was to do in the area. At last Ceri got up.
‘Sorry, I’ve got to go, Jas. I said I’d meet my mate, Gwen at lunchtime. We’ve got some clothes to swap. She’s not as tall as me but we can share some things.’
Jasmine felt awkward. ‘I’m sorry I’ve kept you talking Ceri.’
‘No, it’s been great. It’s lovely to share with someone like me. Look, I have a day off on Thursday. Perhaps I can show you around this place. There’s some gorgeous scenery. Unless you’ve got your own plans.’
‘No. No plans at all. That would be great. Thanks Ceri.’
‘See you at dinner then. Unless Tegan the witch stops me serving you.’
‘Would she?’
‘Oh, yes she would. Bye.’
Ceri skipped off. Jasmine watched her go, admiring the way her short dress swayed from side to side as she swung her hips. She walked like a girl, with grace and sexiness.’

Jasmine enjoyed a walk on the headland recommended by Ceri. It was some weeks since she had been running so she felt out of condition. The steep climb got her breathing deeply again and made her conscious of her leg muscles. She paused in various places to enjoy the views across the sea and the mountains. She especially enjoyed the solitude. Despite the fine weather she met no-one on her walk until she reached a small shop and café at the summit. She joined the tourists who had arrived by cable-car but after a refreshing drink she set off alone again.
As she wandered, taking paths almost at random, she thought about Ceri, comparing her tales of transition with her own story. Both had had a steady and secure home life while commencing the changes that would lead to them presenting as well as identifying as female. They were the lucky ones, Jasmine knew. There were many who struggled against prejudice and without support, but Jasmine was also aware that Ceri had faced problems and would have more to confront in the future. Her boss, Tegan, was just one amongst many.
It was late afternoon when Jasmine finally returned to the metalled roads of the town and arrived, footsore and tired back at her hotel. She relished a long bath before making herself ready for the evening meal.
Ceri served her but was subdued and barely said a word. Jasmine tried to engage her in conversation but noticed her casting worried glances to where Tegan was serving other guests. After dinner Jasmine retired to her room to read and watch TV before finding herself getting sleepy.

The grumpy waitress was not to be seen at breakfast. Ceri skipped around the dining room with a broad smile on her face. She was assisted by an older, plump woman who also had a cheerful demeanour. Jasmine was interested by how the atmosphere of the dining room was different this morning. The weather outside was sunny again and now it seemed to have spread inside as well. As Ceri cleared the last of Jasmine’s plates, Jasmine decided to ask a question.
‘Would you like to meet for coffee again?’ She hoped she hadn’t read too much into their pleasant encounter the previous morning.
‘I’d love to,’ Ceri replied with a smile.
‘Same place and time?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Super.’ Ceri staggered away with am armful of dirty crockery.

Jasmine decided to wait outside the café. The incoming tide was again providing an interesting pattern of waves on the wide beach. Ceri approached after just a few minutes, her golden hair again released from the elastic bands that held it captive in the dining room.
They sat with their coffees at the same table as the previous day.
‘You were happier this morning than you were last evening,’ Jasmine observed.
‘You can guess why,’ Ceri replied with her lips covered in foamy milk.
‘No Tegan?’
The girl nodded.
’Is it her day off?’
Ceri put her mug down. ‘Yes. The one day of the week when I can get on with the job without her grumbling. Myfanwy is lovely to work with. I wish she’d do more than the two days.’
‘Two days?’
‘She covers my day off too. She’s retired really. Says she doesn’t want to do more than two days a week.’
‘I could see the difference in you. You weren’t a happy bunny last evening.’
Ceri frowned. ‘I wasn’t. Tegan had a go at me.’
‘What about?’
‘Us.’
‘Us?’ Jasmine didn’t know what Ceri meant.
‘You and me. Meeting like this. Apparently, she was hanging round the pier when we met yesterday and saw us come in here together.’
Jasmine shrugged, ‘So what?’
‘Tegan says staff should not fraternise with the guests. She thinks I’m trying to get a better tip from you or something.’
‘It’s none of her business.’ Jasmine was annoyed that another person should have an opinion on her relationship with her new friend.
‘It isn’t, but she is my boss, so she thinks she can have a go at me for anything. She’s glad she’s found something else other than just my work to go on about; as well as being trans of course.’
‘Does she know I am too?’
‘Oh, yes. She used some words for both of us.’
Jasmine felt herself stiffen at Ceri’s statement. ‘You do know that if she is intimidating you and using derogatory trans terms that could be a hate-crime. You could report her.’
Ceri looked horrified. ‘I don’t want to go to the police.’
‘They are on our side.’ Well, most of them are, Jasmine thought. There were a few of her ex-colleagues who couldn’t see past their own gender certainty.
‘Yeah, perhaps. I can sort it. I won’t have to work with Tegan for much longer.’

………………….to be continued.

 

Jasmine’s back

WP_20180414_09_47_33_ProIn four weeks I’ll be at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Southport, Lancashire for the BLISS Book Lovers event (Sat. 14th July.)  It’s another of those bookfairs where the authors display their books and engage visitors with enthralling chat about their work. It really works best if there are lots of people wandering around who aren’t the participating authors. For that reason I have a few free entry tickets available for anyone wanting to attend.  Just send me a message on paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com and if they haven’t all gone I’ll see that you get a ticket. Also send me a message if you want to pre-order any of my books for delivery at the event.  They will all be priced at £8 on the day except for Painted Ladies, which is free with either Bodies By Design or The Brides’ Club Murder. The Evil Above the Stars trilogy will be £21 for all three volumes.  There will also be free bookmarks and postcards of scenes from the September novels, particularly Cold Fire.

Of course, if you can’t get to Southport you can order the books direct from me by sending a message to me at the same email address above.  All books are £9.99 inc p&p each and the free offer for Painted Ladies stands. The package of the three Evil Above the Stars books is £25.

……………….

And so Jasmine returns. I’ve had a rest from writing Jasmine Frame stories for a couple of months although the fourth novel, Molly’s Boudoir, is still on the stocks. This new story is something of an innovation.  It is both a sequel and prequel.  It fits into the short period of time between the events of Painted Ladies and Bodies By Design. I am not going to give away any of the plot of Painted Ladies other than to say Jasmine is recovering.  You’ll have to wait and see how the story develops but I do want it to be a little more reflective.  Jasmine is stuck at the stage in her transition where she’s living as a woman and taking hormones but the body she wants is a distant goal because of the time it takes to get Gender Confirmation  Surgery. She’s alone and self-employed and has just completed a traumatic case so she has reason to be reflective.

By the way I’d welcome beta readers for Molly’s Boudoir.  If you would like to read it in its pre-copyedit state and are prepared to make comments (positive and negative) then please send me a message on the email address above. In  return you’ll get my grateful thanks and a signed (yes, really) paperback copy when it is published.

So here is the first episode of Negative.

Negative: Part 1

The forest of wind turbines on the horizon in a flat calm sea seemed to be unchanging. It was only the rattle of the railway carriage that told her that she was moving. She kept her face close to the window gazing at the scene. It had been a long time since she’d seen the sea, but it was almost like coming home having grown up in a coastal town. This was a different bit of sea though and turning away to look out of the other side of the carriage she could see that she was travelling through unfamiliar country. Hills clothed in bright green grass and dark trees rose steeply from the narrow coastal strip and beyond, partially hidden in cloud, were the dark blue hints of higher mountains.
Jasmine looked back at the sea. She needed a holiday, a break, a change of scene, but it felt a little like she was running away. Angela had recommended it, as did Jilly, her GP. While her injuries were healing, the dreams still disturbed her nights. She woke feeling she couldn’t breathe. The media interest in her, though lessening, was irritating and stopped her from getting back to work. Not that she was sure she would have much work. Frame Investigations might be defunct. Who wanted a private investigator whose picture had appeared in the local and national newspapers and on the internet?
She’d argued. She didn’t want to go away. She wanted to curl up in her drab, small flat. She was alone. What was she going to do on a vacation? Anyway, she couldn’t afford it.
Angela had argued back. The change would do her good, refresh her. She’d meet new people; people who didn’t know her. She had some money coming from the Police for her work and in victim compensation, and why didn’t she use some of her savings. That was for her transition, she’d responded.
Angela had replied, ‘Your wellbeing now is more important than having money in the bank for whatever surgeries you decide you might need in the future.’ Jasmine had wanted to retort that future treatment was what was going to make her what she wanted to be, but she had accepted Angela’s point.
So here she was, on a train to somewhere unfamiliar. On her own because, of course, Angela had her own career she couldn’t desert at short notice and anyway they were divorced now. There was no-one else.

The train pulled into the terminus station. Jasmine collected her small case and stepped onto the carriage accompanied by a couple of dozen fellow travellers. It was summer, but not yet school holiday time so the season hadn’t really taken off. Her companions were largely grey-haired. Though they might have noticed her in her t-shirt and short skirt, none seemed to take any interest in her. She checked the map on her phone and strode out of the station towing her case behind her. The hotel she’d booked wasn’t far. It was in one of the streets that lead down to the seafront, but she noted, didn’t have a direct view of the sea. It was a small independently run establishment. The grey stone Victorian building looked as though it had had a coat of paint applied to its woodwork but didn’t seem to have had any recent improvements. Not seedy anyway. She’d booked it because it was cheap, offered breakfast and dinner and had a single room spare for a fortnight – that was as long as she thought she’d survive being on holiday.
The owner showed her into the room. Its narrow window looked out at the row of buildings in the next street with just a peek at the hill that rose beyond the town. He was welcoming and explained the idiosyncrasies of the plumbing and informed her of the mealtimes. She examined his face. Had he guessed what she was? Did his eyes display any sense of judgement? No, he was treating her as she thought he would any other guest who happened to be a single woman, taking care not to fuss over her in case it was interpreted as being sexist.
After asking if there was any other assistance she needed, the proprietor left her alone. Jasmine unpacked her bag and then decided to explore. She left the hotel and walked down to the seafront. Although the sun was still shining it was now late afternoon, her journey had taken most of the day, and there was a cool breeze blowing in off the water. Her bare arms and legs felt a bit chilly. To keep warm, she strode out along the promenade. She passed retired couples and families with young pre-school children, but the wide concreted pavement wasn’t crowded. On one side were the large, at one time grand, hotels and on the other, brightly painted wooden huts offering the usual seaside goods for visitors – buckets and spades, sunhats, ice cream, soft drinks, and fast food accompanied by the sickening smell of over-cooked fat.
She went to the iron rail that marked the boundary between the shore and beach and gazed out at the curve of the bay with the mountains on the right and the headland to the left. Why was she here? She knew no-one and knew nothing about this area. It was simply a retreat, somewhere to be herself, unknown and hopefully unbothered. For a moment she wondered what the attitude of the locals was to transitioning transwomen. Were they likely to be more or less accepting than in the cities and towns she was familiar with? She didn’t know, and it gave her a little anxiety about what she might discover. Holiday-makers, surely, were only interested in their own enjoyment so would be unconcerned by her, that is unless there were some young, single men looking for women to satisfy their vacation lust. She’d have to avoid them.
She wasn’t sure what she would spend her time her doing. There were plenty of things to do and see, walks to do and she’d brought a few books. Swimming in the sea was out. No bathing costume helped her look more feminine, and her scars would show. Relax, that was the main thing – and recuperate; dispel the nightmares of the slashing knife, ripping through her skin, chopping at her penis and scrotum. Yes, she wanted rid of them, but in a controlled, clean, anaesthetised manner where they would be used to build her new genitalia. She shivered, not just with the breeze on her shoulders, and turned to walk back to the hotel.

After kicking off her shoes and lying on the bed to read a not very interesting novel for a while, her watch told her it was time for dinner. Did one dress for dinner in hotels these days? She wasn’t sure but decided to change from the clothes she had travelled in. Instead she put on a calf-length dress with a thin cardigan. She powdered her face and re-did her lipstick. She looked in the mirror. What impression did she give? A young(ish) woman on her own in a small holiday hotel. Would people wonder why she was alone and perhaps examine her for reasons for her aloneness? Would their examinations note the wide shoulders, the mannish angle of her nose, and firm jaw-line? Would they suspect her for what she was?
She was used to these worries although it was the first time for a long time that she had been in a new place to test them. She took a deep breath, picked up her bag, checked her new smart phone was in it and stepped outside her door.
The dining room was half full. Most of the occupied tables by couples although one had two pairs sitting at it. Glances noted her entry, but none lingered. A waitress, dark hair, probably in her forties, indicated that she could sit at any of the smaller tables set for two, and left her to choose. She went to a table at the corner of the room which, while unobtrusive, gave her a view of the diners. She sat, pulling the hem of her dress under her bottom and looked at the brief menu.
There was a buzz of conversation around her. She caught snippets of conversation about the day’s activities, and discussions of the news of the moment – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and preparations for the London Olympics, now less than two months away and the media, at least, becoming frantic that the organisation was incomplete.
Jasmine was approached by the second of the waitresses on duty. She was young, slim and tall, at least as tall as Jasmine’s five foot nine. Her long blonde hair was tied in a bun so that it wouldn’t flop into the dinner plates when she served the diners. Like the other waitress she was dressed in the typical waiting uniform of short, black skirt, black tights and black pinafore but the younger girl’s skirt ended higher on her thighs. She gave Jasmine a thin smile but there was a nervousness about her, her eyes not looking directly at her, that caused Jasmine to examine her. She noted the heavy foundation on her chin and cheeks, and the bold colour of her eye and lip make-up. The shirt was tucked into the skirt but the girl didn’t have much of a waist. The hand that gripped the notebook had painted nails but was large with stubby fingers.
“Are you ready to order?” the girl said in a way that Jasmine suspected she’d prepared herself to speak rather than just spill the words out. She smiled at the girl and the thought came to her, what were the chances that the hotel I chose to stay in had a trans employee?

………………………..to be continued.

 

Jasmine is waking

I could start this week’s piece with a rant about inept solicitors but I won’t. Let’s try to be positive.

There was the lovely news about the person in the Netherlands who has become the first legal non-binary person. They were born with an intersex condition and has spent time living as male and female but now has settled for a non-gendered life.  It was a struggle but the Dutch government finally accepted it. Perhaps it opens the way for other intersex people to adopt a similar life-style. However, I don’t think it offers too much hope for those like me who are not intersex but identify as gender-fluid or gender-variant and want to reject labelling as male or female.

Then there was the great day we had at the Hay Literary Festival last week. We always have a good time at Hay but this was different as I was contributing to a workshop on Gender, Sexuality and Identity organised by the young people’s mental health charity, Strong Young Minds. In fact I was asked to introduce the topic and guide the audience into the discussion groups. We had a good and varied audience who took part enthusiastically and the group facilitators and notetakers did a fantastic job. We hope the outcomes are greater awareness, a network for LGBTQ+ youth and further opportunities to spread the message viz. BU (i.e. be yourself).

Of course there was another highlight to the day – a peer inside the Green Room at Hay where all the speakers relax. Actually a bit more than a “peer”. We were welcomed in, given a glass of wine and had a sit down to eat our packed lunch.  Oh, and the loos were pretty smart too.

IMGP6569 (2)………………………………..

This week we reach the concluding part of my SF story, Benefactors. Well, it’s the last part so far. When you get to the end you will see that it’s not really the end of the story. I have been thinking about a millennia spanning tale taking humans out to perhaps meet the Benefactors but it has rather ground to a halt at the moment. Meanwhile, I have been thinking about Jasmine Frame’s return.  Yes, she will be back in a new transgender-themed crime story next week – I just have to write it. . .

Benefactors: Part 9

The change in engine note after the helicopter touched down was what woke Jock. Moments later the door opened revealing another helmeted military figure standing on a small landing field of old and cracked concrete. Jock undid his harness, stretched his arms and legs and stepped out into a cloudy evening that was considerably colder than the previous stop. Not having had his personal possessions returned to him Jock had no idea how long the journey had lasted. He looked around, seeing that they were in a valley between moderately high and rugged mountains. Scotland, Jock decided.
There was a row of single storey huts on one side of the landing field. From the distance, they looked practically derelict relicts of the Cold War or even earlier. A figure was striding towards him from the buildings. Jock thought the person was familiar. He began to walk to meet her. A few steps confirmed his hopes.
‘Professor Patel,’ Jock called, his words drowned by the roar of the helicopter taking off behind him. He turned to see it rise and turn and head off down the valley.
‘Jock!’ Helen called and ran towards him. They met and embraced in an awkward but emotional hug. ‘Thank goodness you’re here,’ Helen said when they parted.
‘I don’t know where “here” is, Professor. What’s going on?’
‘It’s Helen. We don’t need titles here and I think we’re going to be together for some time. I don’t know where “here” is either and it hasn’t got a name but it’s where we’re going to study the data in the tree genome.’
Jock stopped walking, shivered and shook his head. ‘I don’t get it. They killed my guide, destroyed the last tree, and shut me away. I thought the next stop was an unmarked grave. Now you say they want to know what the tree’s all about.’
Helen nodded. ‘I’ll explain all I can, but let’s get you inside. It’s a colder autumn here wherever we are.’ They entered the nearest building. It had paint peeling from the concrete walls and the vinyl covering on the floor was lifting in places.
‘What is this place?’ Jock said.
‘I think it was a research station from the 60s. Biological warfare I expect. It’s been mothballed for half a century but that doesn’t mean it’s been looked after. I think the government thinks it’s remote enough to keep our work secret.’
‘So we’re working for the British government,’ Jock shrugged.
‘I think so.’ Helen explained how she and Darmaan had been arrested or kidnapped depending on your point of view and how she had been facing a memory wipe given some sort of legitimacy by government anti-radicalisation laws. ‘But I convinced them that they needed to take the tree data seriously.’
‘How did you do that? They seemed to be paranoid about any of it getting out.’
‘They are but they’re more scared of others using the data first. I suggested that there may be more examples of hidden messages in genomes waiting to be found in other parts of the world.’
Jock shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. The Rift Valley was where modern humans evolved. There’s the pinch point where they almost didn’t make it. You know we’re all descended from one female. Well, perhaps there were other women in that surviving group but their descendants died out. Something happened to improve the odds of survival for that bunch of humans a quarter of a million years ago. I think it was the Tree. We were given one chance.’
‘Shh,’ Helen held a finger to her lips. ‘Keep that to yourself I don’t think they’ve had time to install surveillance yet. Let them think that we’re in a race to decode the data.’
‘Maybe we are. The Chinese mining operation that destroyed the grove could be a cover. Perhaps they took samples too.’
‘So we’ve got our work cut out.’
‘But there aren’t any trees. They’re all gone.’ Jock shook his head sadly.
Helen stopped at a steel door. She pushed on the handle. The door swung opened as if recently greased. They stepped into a small laboratory. There was plastic sheeting draped from the ceiling and covering the windows. It felt warmer than in the corridor. A bench in the centre of the room was covered with trays of small glass jars.
Jock let out a gasp of glee. He leapt forward bending to peer at the bottles. ‘They’re . . .’
‘Tissue cultures,’ Helen said leaning to look inside a bottle at the short pale shoot and the tiny leaves that were just beginning to open.
‘How. . .?’ Jock asked almost speechless as he examined jar after jar.
‘Your employers. Your un-named drug company. They had started the cultures to obtain the neuroactive drug you discovered. All their work has been transferred here along with their staff. I think the government has done a deal with the company to keep it secret.’
Jock straightened up. ‘The God-tree survives.’
Helen took Jock’s hand and tugged him back to the corridor. ‘Yes, but that’s not what we’re here for. Come on.’
They walked a little further until Helen pushed open another door. Jock was dazzled by the colours and flickering illumination. The room was filled with holographic displays hanging in the air, moving, changing, flicking off, new ones appearing. In the centre of the room, almost hidden by the maze of pictures and text, was a figure.
‘Darmaan. Jock Fraser’s here,’ Helen called. The displays disappeared revealing another drab, decaying room with a single pendant light hanging over Darmaan Adams. Darmaan stepped towards them arm extended.
‘Jock! At last. Helen’s said so much about you.’ Darmaan grabbed Jock’s hand and pumped it vigorously. Jock always considered himself an action man, a fearless explorer always prepared for the unexpected but the way today had turned out was too much for even him. He collapsed onto an old wooden stool and stared at Helen and Darmaan with his mouth open.
‘I’ll explain,’ Helen said. ‘The government guy who was organising my memory wipe believed my story of what the Tree meant. I have to hand it to them. Once they make up their mind to act things happen. I was left alone in a comfy cell for less than two days. Then they came for me and brought me here. That was yesterday evening. Darmaan arrived this morning long with the drug company guys and gals. That’s it for now except for a company of soldiers who are guarding the perimeter. I’m not sure if they are keeping snoopers out or us in.’
‘Probably both,’ Jock said. ‘Where are the tissue team now?’
‘Having some supper in the common room,’ Darmaan said.
Helen nodded. ‘We were going to join them until I heard the helicopter.’
‘And I was too engrossed here to stop,’ Darmaan added.
Jock looked around the bare and decrepit laboratory. ‘But you said this place was out of action for fifty years.’
‘It was,’ Helen nodded vigorously, ‘It’s a mess but the soldiers cleaned up some of the rooms, rigged up a power feed and brought in a water supply. As I said, they did a lot in two days. For now, we’re going to be living rough. You’re used to that aren’t you, Jock?’ Jock nodded, ‘’But we have the Tree and the data Darmaan extracted from the genome. We can make a start on understanding it.’
‘Working for the government.’ Jock said.
‘Yes, but we’re still alive with our minds intact and we have an amazing task in front of us.’
Jock didn’t look as grateful as Helen expected. ‘The drug in the Tree enabled the people to work together for the good of the race. It gave them the edge over their competitors and here we are today. We don’t know who planted the trees but what did they expect to happen when their protégés became successful enough to decode the genome.’
Darmaan said, ‘That’s what we’re going to find out.’

……………………..The End (for now)

Jasmine on tour

I’ve been on holiday for the last week – a week without writing but with wonderful walks, admirable scenery, and excellent weather (surprisingly). We have been staying on the western edge of Pembrokeshire (Wales). One reason for coming here was to visit Skomer Island.  This is a nature reserve with no permanent inhabitants and visitors limited to 200 per day. The island is principally a nesting and breeding site for various seabirds. About 300,000 Manx shearwaters use it, about half of the breeding population. There are also guillemots, kittiwakes, amongst other visitors, plus home-based gulls, predators such as falcons, short-eared owls and choughs and other small land birds. These are all interesting and would attract keen birdwatchers to the small island, but doesn’t explain why during the breeding season there are queues for the few sailings to the island and often visitors are turned away. These birds aren’t the main attraction; top-billing goes to – the puffins.

IMGP6522

Around 30,000 puffins visit Skomer between May and July, a sizeable proportion of the total population. They spend the rest of their lives at sea in the North Atlantic, out of sight and, until recently, unknown. It is when they come ashore to mate, lay their eggs and raise their young that they become the focus of human interest and, I would say, the reason for the success of Skomer’s conservation effort. Why puffins? Well, of course, they are cute – small, colourful (in their beaks), with faces that seem to show expression (thanks to their markings), and they fly in an amusing, eager, wing-flapping manner. However, the main reason is where they nest. They lay their eggs in burrows in the soil on clifftops, which happen to be exactly the place that the human sightseers can get to. The puffins have no fear of humans – they’re protected, after all – and seem to pay little or no attention to their watchers or the clicking cameras. They will stand or sit in their burrows inches away from paths and put on a marvellous display for the tourists. On Skomer there are a number of large areas where thousands of puffins can be watched at close quarters performing their natural antics, and very amusing they are too.

The other birds nest on inaccessible cliffs, or keep out of sight. Binoculars are needed to see details or a great deal of patience is required. Puffins provide entertainment without effort. They are a gift to the conservation groups bringing in £2000 a day to Skomer in the season. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and took dozens of photos of puffins, but while the puffins and other birds get on with the business of ensuring there is a next generation I wonder what the eager tourists to Skomer reveal us about human behaviour.

And so to next episode of Benefactors, my SF failed-novel. I really would appreciate some comments, you know.

Benefactors: Part 7

Helen felt the blood drain from her face. He hands shook. ‘You’re going to wipe my mind.’
‘A bit of it. In accordance with the Special Powers Act of 2026. I am sure you have read about the procedure Professor. The completion of the Neurone Map and the realisation that certain behaviours such as the Syndrome E abnormality could be localised and corrected by deep brain stimulation permits us to at last rectify the behaviours of people who have been radicalised or who hold dangerous beliefs.’
‘Syndrome E! That’s serial killers, suicide bombers and death cult jihadis.’
‘That is true. But the technique works as well on other parts of the brain such as the memory centres. If we can locate the site of a particular memory then it can be altered or removed.’
‘No, you can’t. I’ve read about it. It’s not as precise as that. You’ll remove my specialist knowledge. You’re going to end my career.’
The man looked sad again. ‘There may be a little collateral damage. Don’t worry. You won’t be aware of what you lose.’
‘You stupid man. You’re talking about ending my life as a thinking, reasoning person. I’ll be a vegetable.’
‘The effects may be similar to that of a stroke. Of course, we do have excellent treatment for stroke sufferers these days. The cause of your disability will of course be secret.’
‘But my friends, my colleagues. They’ll have been wondering what has happened to me. They’ll be asking questions.’
He smiled. ‘I’m afraid not. The university was informed that you were taken ill on the way to your department and that you have been removed to a specialist facility to give you the best treatment possible as your position deserves.’
Helen opened her mouth but no sound came out. Of course, she had no family. Her parents were dead and other relations were in India. She had never found time for a partner so lived alone.  They had thought of everything and tied her up in coils of lies. There was something though.
‘What about Darmaan. Are you doing the same with him. It’s a strange coincidence that he should suffer a stroke when we were together.’
‘Were you together? None of your friends or acquaintances were aware that you had been in contact with Dr Shamarke in recent days. I’m afraid that Dr Shamarke was involved in an accident on his way to work, alone.’
‘Darmaan. . .’ He’d been a friend, someone she had worked with when she needed IT assistance, but somehow she felt a huge loss. ‘Is he alright? What have you done with him?’
‘I’m afraid I do not have the authority to reveal what steps are being taken with Dr Shamarke.’
Helen sank back into the chair. She felt exhausted, defeated. They had taken everything from her – her files, her friends, her freedom and now they wanted to take her thoughts. But there was still one person who knew about the tree.
‘There’s still Jock Fraser. He’s in Kenya, and there’s still a tree.’
‘Dr Fraser is in custody. All the trees have been destroyed. They were discovered to contain a toxic narcotic which was harmful to the population.’
Helen covered her face with her hands and wept. She was a child again, being told what to do, punished for disobeying her parents.
‘I’ll leave you now, Professor. It won’t be long before we carry out the terms of your NAO.’
Helen was alone.  She sobbed for a little longer, enjoying the feeling of misery, the stab of pain caused by defeat.

Mindless misery wasn’t really her. She’d grown out of self-pity before she was ten years old. She had learned that problems always had a solution even if you had to reject everything you had. She sat up, blew her nose and started to think. Had she really been conned by Jock Fraser and others unknown? If so, was the purpose to discredit her? It was too ridiculous to contemplate. She couldn’t think of anyone who would go to such an elaborate ruse to ruin her scientific reputation. She had achieved her position by hard work not by the insights of a genius. She was a plodder not a Nobel prize winner. Another thought came to her.  If the plan had been to reveal that her acceptance of the tree data as real was a huge sting, then why was the government involved? At least she presumed her gaoler was part of the government. He seemed genuine but how would she know. This was getting confusing. She had to apply Occam’s Razor. If there are two or more explanations for a phenomenon, then the simplest is probably the correct one.
She had to accept that the data supplied to her by Fraser was from the tree and that it did contain some remarkable information. The government, or the part of it to which the agent called Orange belonged, was worried about it becoming common knowledge, and because of that they were prepared to sacrifice her mind in order to keep it secret. She had to find a way to persuade Orange not to carry out the Neurological Adjustment Order. She must retain her intellect.
The question was why the government was so worried? Was it because of the effect on the population of the knowledge that the plant’s genome was tinkered with millennia ago by an earlier, unknown civilisation or by aliens. Or, was the government scared by the possibilities of the new ideas frozen in the genome. Perhaps it wasn’t the possibilities themselves but the fear of others utilising them and surpassing the government’s own efforts. That sort of thing had fuelled the nuclear arms race but which nations now had the resources to embark on another futile competition for mutually assured destruction? But nuclear fission had been our own discovery and the atom bomb born out of the fears of the Second World War and the Cold War that followed. Surely no-one, human or otherwise, would hide, in the cells of the tree, the secrets of how humanity could eradicate itself from the universe. What would be the point of having that knowledge hidden away for hundreds of thousands of years until humans were just capable of reading and understanding its message.
She had to convince those that intended to damage her mind that the tree was a gift that could provide unmeasurable benefits and that her expertise was needed to tap it.
Helen smiled. She had a task and one that she was good at. Scientific research was not really her strength. She was far better as a teacher, an organiser, someone who could persuade the team to work together and the financiers to back the effort. She stood up and began pacing her small room.  She had a presentation to put together, perhaps the most important of her career.

………..to be continued.

Jasmine has an opinion

WP_20180516_13_28_54_ProWhat makes a woman?”, the Channel 4 programme with Munroe Bergdorf continued the exposure of gender issues in the media and to which I referred last week. The first part dealt with Munroe’s facial feminisation surgery which covered the same ground as Transformation Street.  What was more interesting was Munroe’s meetings with various people to discuss the question of whether transwomen are women.  This brought out many well-worn opinions e.g. women have beauty (!), women are mothers, women have a vagina, what you are born with is defines who you are. There were also scenes outside and inside a meeting of radical feminists opposing changes to the Gender Recognition  Act which would allow some form of self-identification of gender. The speeches were frightening in their dismissal of transwomen and using fear of men to whip up anger at transpeople using the spurious argument that if men could self-identify as women they would invade women-s spaces in order to rape them. If men wanted to they could already dress up and lie in wait in those spaces. It doesn’t happen.  The bitterness of these feminists made me sad and worried.

The problem is that 99% of the population are not only satisfied with the gender they were assigned and brought up by family, friends and society to accept, but they have given little thought to what gender is. Most people accept the binary view of the world without noticing or acknowledging that everyone has their own identity, characteristics and individuality.  If you examine the behaviour of people it is easy to see that there is a spectrum of gender. The 99% see no reason fir changing their views. But modern society has changed. On the one hand western society has become somewhat more accepting allowing transpeople (and other minorities) to be more open and assertive. Hence all the media attention. But on the other social media has provided a platform and a shield for people to be more outspoken in their views. The Brexit business in the UK and the election of Trump in the USA showed that the population is split with a sizeable proportion holding entrenched bigoted views. People are less prepared to allow others to express views that they don’t hold.  It is dangerous.

Going back to the question Munroe posed, I don’t know what the answer is, except that gender or identity is not determined by the physical form of a baby at birth. I identify as gender-fluid, although I still use “trans” for convenience. I do not know how a “woman” or a “man” thinks, despite having lived my working life as a man and being married to a woman that I love for over 30 years. I don’t think any person can know what every other person feels and, to be specific, radical feminists cannot know how other women feel about themselves.  I do know that I am comfortable being feminine rather than overtly masculine and that I am attracted to styles of dress and appearance that are labelled female. For us 1% I think it would be wonderful if there was no such thing as gender and that everyone was treated as an individual, but I’m wishing for a fairytale.

………………………

To change the subject. I had a lovely day in Aberystwyth this week attending a meeting of the Society of Authors.  As always I find writers wonderfully accepting and I am increasingly seeing the SoA as my union, providing advice and support to me as a writer. I’m looking forward to the next meeting of the Welsh chapter.

And so to the next episode of Benefactors, my SF novella or fragment of a novel.

Benefactors: Part 6

Chapter 6

The sky was bright blue but the Sun was still below the peaks of the eastern hills when Ekuru Lengabilo started up the Toyota. The boy and the old woman sat in the seats behind Jock, the boy pointing the direction to take. It took just half an hour bumping over the rough ground till they came to the entrance to a gully.
Ekuru pulled up. ‘I think it’s too narrow for the car.’
Jock got out and helped the woman and boy step down from the vehicle. ‘Lead the way,’ he said to the lad. Ekuru translated and they set off with Ekuru and the boy helping the old woman to walk. The steep-sided valley weaved left and right but within a couple of hundred metres it opened up slightly. There, standing alone on the patch of sparse grass was the tree. It was less than a metre taller than Jock with twisted, gnarled branches which were thinly leafed.
Jock stopped to take in the view. He felt joy that at least one tree still existed.
The air fizzed just above his head. The tree exploded in flame and smoke and splinters.
Jock, froze, his breath halted. On the ridges on either side of the gully, figures in full camouflage kit rose, weapons trained on him and his companions.
‘Don’t move,’ one soldier commanded in English. Ekuru turned and ran back the way they had come. Jock turned to warn him but a gun fired and Ekuru fell.
‘No!’ Jock ran to him and knelt beside his body. Blood covered the flesh-torn back. Jock knew there was no hope. The boy and woman joined him muttering in their own language. The soldiers surrounded them.
‘You will accompany us,’ the commander said and signalled them to start moving. They retraced their steps to the Toyota. A helicopter stood a short distance from the smoking wreck of the vehicle. Two of the soldiers carrying Ekuru’s body placed it by the side of the burnt-out car.
‘Get into the ‘copter,’ the commander said. Jock did as he was told helping the boy and woman to clamber on board. There was nothing else to do.
‘What’s going to happen to us?’ Jock asked. He felt the loss of Ekuru, the trees and almost all the people more than fear for his own safety.
‘Not my business to know,’ the commander said. ‘Sit down and belt yourselves in.’

Jock still didn’t have an answer to his question. They had flown at low altitude over the sparsely populated country until they reached the coast and then on out to sea. Far out in the ocean they approached a small flotilla of ships. One was an aircraft carrier that Jock recalled seeing in the news at various times in the last ten years. They landed on the deck and sank into the hanger beneath. Jock, the boy and the woman were escorted off the helicopter and then separated. Jock found himself in a small cabin with a hard bed, a toilet, a light that was permanently on and no windows. He’d taken the opportunity to rest and had dozed. The door had opened briefly at intervals of some hours and he had been given a bowl of typical naval fare but the sailor had not spoken a word.
One, two or it may have been three days later, Jock was marched from his cell to a larger cabin where he was surrounded by armed marines. He was brought to a halt in front of a desk. A senior officer, the ship’s commander sat behind the desk. He examined Jock.
‘Dr Fraser, I am instructed to inform you that you will be taken from this vessel and transported to an unnamed location.’
Jock cleared his throat trying to find his voice. ‘What about the boy and the woman?’
‘I cannot tell you.’
‘Is Ekuru Lengabilo’s killer under arrest.’ Jock felt renewed anger.
‘Mr Lengabilo was a terrorist,’ The officer said without hint of emotion.
‘Like heck he was.’ Jock clenched his fists. The commander nodded to one of the marines. Jock heard the sound of a cork being released from a bottle, a sting on his neck and his legs became like jelly.
Chapter 7

The bed was comfortable, there was an efficient shower in the en-suite, and there was an easy chair and desk. It could have been a reasonably priced hotel room. It was a cell and Helen knew it. The door was locked, there was no window and she had no access to the Net. All there was to do was read one of the paper books that had obviously been selected according to her reading tastes. She’d read them all before.
Meals were brought to her and she considered trying to make an escape but there were always guards in the corridor outside the door. Helen wondered how long she could stand this pampered but restricted existence – two days, three?
She thought it was four before he came to her. Of course her sleep pattern may have been distorted but it felt like four days.
‘Professor. I do hope you are comfortable,’ he said. He was younger than her and obviously kept himself fit but he acted as if he was at least her equal. He obviously wasn’t just an interrogator. They stood facing each other.
‘What a pointless question,’ She said, ‘I’m a prisoner. This is intolerable. You must release me.’
He smiled. ‘I’m afraid we must not. You see Professor you are a danger to the security of this nation.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’
‘You intended to distribute restricted material. That is what I mean.’
Helen glared at him. ‘I was about to share scientific data in order that we might learn its meaning and importance.’
‘Data whose owner had not released it for public consumption. Data that had been classified by the government as of national importance.’
‘Why?’
‘I do not have the authority to tell you that.’
Helen turned her back on him, walked to the easy chair and sat down. She crossed her legs and looked up at him.
‘Who are you?’
The man stared at her impassively. ‘You can refer to me as Orange. That is my designation.’
‘Are you and your colleagues all named after fruits?’
He gave her a thin smile. ‘My boss is Apple but that is not proof of the pattern you have postulated. We use the Naval Phonetic Alphabet from the First World War for our designations. Letters and numbers are somewhat clichéd. As you can tell I am quite low in the department.’ Helen wondered what government organisation he was referring to but the trouble they had gone to to keep her captive suggested something.
‘You’re scared. Or your bosses are. You think there is something in that plant genome that could threaten your position of power.’
‘That is pure supposition. It is unusual for you, Professor, to follow such a fanciful line of thought.’
Helen bit her lip. He was right of course. What was it in the plant’s genome that had caused her to ignore her normal caution? Was it Jock Fraser’s incomprehension, Darmaan’s excitement at solving the puzzle, or simply her hunch that it was special?
‘But Darmaan found a pattern, figures, mathematical formulae, physics, chemistry, biology beyond our understanding, stored in the genome of the tree.’
‘I’m afraid, Professor, you were misled. There is nothing remarkable about that tree.’
Anger welled up in Helen’s throat. ‘Misled? By whom? Not Dr Fraser. He may be an excellent botanist but he doesn’t understand genomes or binary code.’
‘How well do you know Jock Fraser?’
Helen paused. ‘We met once.’
‘And you spoke to him in Kenya.’
So they had been hacking her netlink. ‘Yes.’
‘That was all?’
Helen snorted. ‘You know it was.’
‘Well then, you didn’t know him at all.’
Helen leaned forward. ‘Are you saying that this is all a put-up. I’ve been conned by some scam or other into throwing away my scientific reputation.’
Orange shrugged. ‘There. You’ve said it.’
Helen flung herself back in the chair and looked away from him. ‘I don’t believe it.’
‘And that Professor is why you are here. The government considers your attitude and behaviour dangerous to the general well-being of the nation. That is why you have been served with a Neurological Adjustment Order.’

………………………to be continued

Jasmine is worrying

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This is what a transgender/gender-fluid person may look like.

It is disappointing (probably an understatement) when a group of people trying to end discrimination break into factions which fight each other. It’s happened in the fight for female equality where certain radical feminists now seem to devote their time to accusing transwomen of not being women and of retaining their “male privileges”.  That dispute has become very bitter with trans activists attempting to prevent well known feminists have a stage to speak their anti-trans thoughts.

Now there is a split in the transgender/non-binary world caused by possible changes to the Gender Recognition Act. A group of transwomen (it looks like all women, I can’t see any men named) wrote to the Guardian last week, and perhaps other papers, and at  least one of the named has spoken out in public.  They are protesting at proposals to make it easier to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate, mainly by demedicalising transition, if someone declares that they will live for the rest of their lives in the gender they identify with. This is already being done in a number of countries.  It will of course mean that there will be transmen and women who have not undergone any surgery and possibly not even taking hormones. The protesters say that this change will “blur the distinction” between themselves i.e. those who have gone through gender confirmation surgery (they have vaginas), and others who have not.  Actually at the moment there is no distinction because the current act only asks for an intention to go through with surgery when the time is right. For many transpeople the time is never right for health or other reasons.

These transwomen are setting themselves apart from other transgender and non-binary people. They want to be considered as “real” women and so wish to cut themselves off from other trans/non-binary people who they see as “damaging our credibility”. They are asking the politicians who will have to vote on changes to the act to “show courage”, presumably to resist the overwhelming numbers of transgender/non-binary people who are lobbying for the right to be women (or men). No, we’re not.

Since the GRA become law in 2004 under 10,000 people have obtained certificates while the total number of transgender people in the UK is a half to three-quarters of a million.  The GRA is obviously not working.  Also the Equality Act of 2010 only recognises those with a GRC (or applying for one) as a protected minority with all sorts of safeguards against hate-crime etc. Not all of us want to transition; there are many non-binary/gender-fluid people who just want the freedom (and protection) to be themselves. Unfortunately this group of transwomen want to retain stereotypical gender roles so that they can blend in as women. But they will never be accepted by the “women have babies” faction.

It is all very disappointing and worrying.  The more infighting there is, the more prejudice is allowed to bubble to the surface so that even comedians like Peter Kay (Carshare Unscripted) can use the beating up of a trans person as grist for a joke.

…………………………..

Now for something completely different, as they used to say. Here’s the next episode of Benefactors. Here you will easily detect two influences on the story (if you know your 1960s SF) which made me ultimately decide that it wasn’t original enough. What do you think?

Benefactors: Part 5

Chapter 5

Helen met Darmaan by the lake that formed the centrepiece of the campus. It was a hot summer day and Helen was sweating. She wondered how her father’s family survived the heat of summer on the Indian sub-continent.
‘They’ve deleted the lot,’ Helen said, ‘and threatened me with a memory wipe if I make a fuss. I’m not risking that. Who knows what else I might lose if they start zapping my brain.’
Darmaan held her shoulders trying to calm her. ‘It won’t come to that.’
‘Won’t it? You’ve seen what was in that genome. They know how excited people will get if people learn what’s in the code.’
‘And we’ve got to make sure that that is just what happens,’ Darmaan said staring into her face.
‘I’m scared Darmaan. We’ve got lawyers threatening us and the government hacking our comslink.’
‘Which only shows how important that data is. Think about it Helen. You said that the genome is about two-hundred-thousand years old and only found in one spot in the Rift Valley where it’s been tended for generations by a local tribe. Yet it contains ideas and data beyond my knowledge and I suspect beyond any scientist on Earth today.’
‘You’ve found out more?’
‘Yes. I did a comparison search with the equations in the genome and what’s on the Net. I got some very strange matches with theories on the edge of quantum and cosmological physics. I saw hints of ideas that I can only describe as science fiction. And there’s that whole section of DNA that isn’t but is something similar. I think it is an organism but one like nothing that exists on Earth now or ever.’
‘But how. . .?’ Helen was scared of the answer as she knew it would tear her sense of being a rational scientist apart.
‘Aliens,’ Darmaan said in a whisper, ‘It’s got to be. They came here millennia ago and left a gift for us.’
‘But modern humans were just evolving then.’
‘Yes, right where those trees got planted. My parents came from Somalia when they were children. They thought of themselves as coming from an ancient people but the Rift Valley is where humans became human. You know what Fraser told you about those leaves. They make people more cooperative. Wouldn’t that have been a useful trick for those primitive people.’
Helen considered, ‘It’s too incredible.’
‘Is it?’
‘Whatever. It’s too important to let this Company whoever they are and the government turn it into a secret. We’ve got to do something.’ Then Helen remembered, ‘But it’s all gone, your copy too.’
Darmaan smiled and leaned to whisper into her ear. ‘Not quite. They wiped my Net files. They thought people like you and me would only keep data uploaded via our net storage.’
‘I do.’
‘Well, it’s not only old guys like Fraser who keep personal memory backups.’
Helen’s eyes widened. ‘You’ve got a button?’
Darmaan grinned and tapped his pocket, ‘A few here and there. It’s not all lost.’
Helen grabbed his arm and started to walk around the lake. ‘They could be watching us now. What are we going to do, Darmaan?’
‘We’ve got to get this out to some physicists, chemists and synthetic biologists who would know what it means. You move in the upper reaches of science, Helen. Surely you know a few Nobel Prize winners.’
‘Hmm. I’m not sure they’re the best – but their postdocs may be. The more we can spread it the more protection we’ll get.’
‘You get me the list. I’ll get copying.’
‘How? As soon as you logon the hackers will be on to you.’
Darmaan grinned again. ‘I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for ages. I’ve got a scroll which I disconnected from the net and a few more buttons. I can make copies and get them couriered to the people you name.’
‘Hmm, well, let’s split and meet first thing in the morning.’

Helen tried to act naturally on her journey home but in actual fact she was anxiously looking for people watching and tailing her. It was a long time since she had felt that she stood out as a woman with an Asian appearance but now she was worried that everyone was looking at her. She didn’t pick out anyone though. She got home, made some supper, tried to read a book. Finally, she unrolled her scroll and put in a call to Jock Fraser. The screen announced that it was “searching” for some time until a fuzzy picture appeared with Jock’s weather beaten face in the centre. There was darkness behind him and he appeared to be out in the open.
‘Hello, Professor,’ Jock’s voice was somewhat distorted.
‘Where are you, Jock? It’s a very poor signal.’
‘I’m in the Rift Valley. The nearest Stratonet balloon is probably a long way from here. But I can hear and see you.’
‘You went back.’
‘Yes. I wanted to see the trees again. I hoped the People would let me take more samples. But . . .’ His voice broke up and Helen felt that it wasn’t due to interference or a weak signal.
‘What’s happened, Jock.’
‘The People have been killed and the trees destroyed.’
Helen sucked in her breath, ‘All of them?’
‘Nearly. There may be one tree left.’
‘What happened?’
‘The government did a deal with the Chinese mining companies. There are rare earth metals in these hills. They didn’t realise the value of the Trees.’
‘Are you sure. I think your Company and our government have. They’ve confiscated your data and wiped my files.’
‘What? Did you find anything in the genome?’
‘Yes, Jock. It’s remarkable, there’s . . .’
‘Don’t tell me. We mustn’t talk like this. They’ll be listening.’ The connection broke.

The following morning, well before her usual time for starting work, Helen was strolling through the park next to the university campus. It was definitely not her normal routine and she felt exhausted. Sleep had not come for thinking about what Jock had said and the warnings from the company lawyer and anti-terrorism officer.
A figure jogged towards her. It was Darmaan. He stopped when he reached her barely showing a sweat.
‘This isn’t where I usually train,’ he said, ‘Running is in my genes.’ He grinned.
‘I’ve got the addresses of some people who may help us,’ Helen said, ‘Have you made the copies of the decoded genome.’
‘I left them hidden away in my flat,’ Darmaan said, ‘I didn’t want to carry them.’
Helen held out a folded sheet of paper. ‘Here you are, then.’
‘I’ll take that thank you.’
Helen turned to see the tall anti-terrorist operative. There were two other men beside him wearing helmets that covered their faces. They carried weapons. Darmaan grabbed the paper from Helen’s hand, turned and ran. One of the helmeted men raised his arm and aimed the gun. It fired with a soft “pfft” and Darmaan fell, convulsing.
Helen gasped. ‘You haven’t . . .’
‘Just a knockout pellet,’ the man said, ‘You’ll get the same if you resist arrest.’
‘Arrest?’
‘For conspiracy to assist a person with terrorist associations.’
Helen felt an unusual anger, ‘If you are referring to Jock Fraser again, he’s not a terrorist. He’s told me what’s happened to the people who tended the trees. They were just defending their homes. They didn’t hurt anyone.’
‘I do not know what you are referring to, Professor. I am commanded to arrest you and Dr Adams. Please come with me.’ He took Helen’s arm and marched her towards the park exit. His two subordinates pocketed their weapons, picked up Darmaan and followed. A van with dark windows waited at the gates.

………………………….to be continued.

 

Jasmine’s having a holiday

I lost track of the days this week and almost forgot to write this blog page. It was partly because I’ve been getting on with my new September Weekes novel, provisional title, Malevolence. Not completely sure where it’s going yet but things are developing . . .

Anyway being late gives me a chance to comment on the local government elections that took place in many parts of England yesterday. I didn’t get the chance to vote as all of our local councillors face an election next year.  Nevertheless this election  was hailed as the big chance to see what the electorate felt a year after the General Election.  The answer – not a lot. As usual I think the turnout was about half what it is for the parliamentary elections – so, very poor. The results show that a surprising number of people are still willing to vote Conservative despite the incompetence shown by May’s government and total disregard given by the Brexiteers to the wellbeing of the country and the sovereignty of  parliament. But we knew all that – a large proportion of the population are incapable of seeing the disaster that Brexit (and a Conservative government) is. There again people in general do not have a lot faith in Labour either, whether lead by Corbyn or anyone else. The Lib Dems made some gains but just can’t get their message across – the media still gives more time to UKIP (who lost almost everything) and Farage (who isn’t even in politics anymore) than Lib Dems or the Greens.  In fact the bulk of the media is conniving with the Conservative Leavers to drag the country into a future which will see most people a lot worse off, financially, environmentally and safely. (is that grammatical?)

So we limp on to a future which no one, especially the Leavers, can foresee.

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………………….

No news on Jasmine Frame at the moment, so here is the fourth episode of my SF long story or novel fragment, Benefactors. Hope you like it.

Benefactors: Part 4

Chapter 4

Jock was a little concerned but not too worried when Ekuru Lengabilo wasn’t at the dusty airstrip. His small plane landed early in the morning after the flight from Nairobi. Jock took a ride in a local’s beaten up Chang’an pickup truck into the small town of Isiolo. There were more Kenyan government soldiers hanging around the low concrete buildings than there had been the last time he was here, but either they didn’t notice or didn’t care that a highly tanned westerner was in a local truck. The driver dropped Jock off at the corrugated-iron lock-up garage and Jock was greeted by the Samburan mechanic that looked after his Toyota 4×4. Jock dumped his bags inside and checked that the alcohol tank was full. He was pleased to see that the mechanic had followed his instruction and allowed the sun to reach the solar panels on the roof so the batteries were fully charged.
Jock signalled to the mechanic to open the rickety door and he drove silently out on to the unmade road. He stopped to check there were no other vehicles or carts obstructing his route.
The passenger door was wrenched open. Jock glanced to his right and saw Lengabilo climbing in.
‘Drive!’ said the guide in Samburan. In Jock’s ear the translation came through without the urgency. He engaged forward, put his foot to the floor and they shot forward with a whine from the electric motors. They headed north.
‘What’s up?’ Jock asked when they were clear of the town.
‘The army were looking for me,’ Ekuru said. He twisted to look out of the rear window.
‘Why?’
‘They think I support the terrorists.’
‘What terrorists?’
‘The people of the God Tree.’
Without thinking, Jock pressed his foot against the brake and they came to a sudden halt in a cloud of dust.
‘What do you mean? Those people are the most peaceful and cooperative I’ve ever met. Probably something to do with those leaves they chew. They’re not terrorists.’
Ekuru nodded. ‘You and I know that. The government knows that too, but they also know that the way to get western support is to label opposition groups as terrorists.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Jock drove off again. ‘The people were worried about the Chinese plans to survey their land for minerals.’
‘It’s gone beyond that.’ Lengabilo said.
‘How?’
‘A week ago the Chinese arrived with all their vehicles and drilling machinery. They set off north west.’
‘To the Tree People’s land?’
‘Yes.’
‘We need to get there as quickly as possible,’ Jock thrust his foot against the accelerator. A light on the dashboard showed that the fuel cells were supplementing the batteries and solar power.

It was dawn next day when they left South Horr, heading west. Jock had stocked up on alcohol for the fuel cells and supplies for himself and Lengabilo. He was feeling anxious. He’d told the elder of the Tree People that he would present their case to the government but he had failed to get passed the lowliest of officials back in London. Now he was keen to get to the people’s homeland and the grove of trees that he had left just a few weeks earlier.
The roads through the forested hills were no more than tracks and passage was slow, but eventually Ekuru, driving the 4×4, carefully negotiated the steep descent into the Rift Valley. Jock scanned the view looking for landmarks that would show that they were close to the grove of trees. At last he thought he recognised the shape of the gullies and bluffs.
‘There,’ Jock said pointing, ‘where that smoke is rising.’ As he said it he realised that something was wrong. There shouldn’t be a pall of smoke over the People’s home. They rounded a bend and emerged on the savannah. Ekuru stopped the vehicle.
‘No!’ Jock cried. Ahead of them, huge vehicles were parked where previously wooden huts stood. Beyond, where the grove of trees had grown in the shade of a narrow valley, the earth had been gouged out to form a quarry.
‘They’re gone,’ Jock said meaning both the people and the trees that they tended.
‘We’d better get away from here,’ Lengabilo said reversing and turning the truck. He drove quickly away from the mine site.
‘What have they done?’ Jock said.
‘It’s what I feared,’ Ekuru said, ‘The government declared the Tree People terrorists for opposing their deal with the Chinese. Then they moved in. The people are probably all dead and the trees chopped down and burned.’
Jock’s heart hammered as if he had been running, ‘But those trees. . . they’re so special.’
‘The Tree People worshipped them,’ Ekuru said.
‘Not worship exactly. They cared for and protected the trees for thousands and thousands of years and I let them down.’
‘It’s not your fault that the government sold the ground beneath our feet. Where do you want to go?’
Jock thought for a few minutes as they trundled slowly over the rough ground. ‘I don’t know but I need time to think and get in touch with friends. Get us off the plain and back into the hills out of sight.’ Lengabilo did as he was told, turning back towards the rising ground that marked the eastern border of the Rift. As they approached the first hills they spotted two people in traditional dress, sheltering under an acacia tree. Ekuru stopped the vehicle and they both got out. The smell of the heat and dust and the vegetation struck his nostrils.
An elderly woman and a young boy sat in the shade. The boy stood up as they approached. Jock thought he was familiar.
‘It is the boy who gave me the leaves and seeds,’ Jock said. Ekuru nodded. The boy looked fearful and stepped close to the woman.
‘Tell him not to be afraid,’ Jock instructed, ‘Remind him who I am.’ Lengabilo spoke in the language that defeated the translator. The boy and the woman relaxed and invited Jock and his guide to join them. Jock returned to the car for water and food and offered it to the couple. They professed their thanks in a manner that did not require translation. Ekuru gradually extracted the story. The vehicles had arrived without warning. The people had tried to protect the trees, ignoring their homes, but had been gunned down by the soldiers that accompanied the miners. Only the boy had escaped because he had been tending the old woman who was ill. For two days they had been moving slowly away from their home that was now a scene of destruction.
Sadness, regret, guilt filled Jock. ‘All the trees are destroyed?’ he said. It wasn’t quite a questions but Ekuru translated his words. The boy shook his head and spoke.
‘There is one left,’ Ekuru said.
Jock jerked upright, ‘Where? How?’
Ekuru and the boy talked and then the interpreter turned to Jock. ‘The story is that hundreds of years ago an animal or a bird, versions of the story differ, plucked a seed pod from a tree in the grove and took it away. Many years later a goatherd came across the tree growing in a gully just a few miles from here. It was a young sapling then. Now it is a mature tree. The People have looked after it even though it is separated from the main grove.’
‘We must get to it. If I take cuttings, then perhaps the genome can be preserved.’ Jock got to his feet.
‘Not today,’ Ekuru said, ‘It’s too late.’ He pointed to the Sun dropping over the western horizon.

………………………to be continued.

 

 

 

Jasmine is not at home

With the Conservative government embroiled in another scandal caused by its own incompetence while the looming Brexit disaster grows on the horizon, I have been wondering why our politicians appear so useless, and that goes for the opposition too. I don’t believe all politicians are “in it for themselves”, though some are; some really do think they can improve things, however misguided their thinking may be. The problem is the type of person attracted to politics. You have to be single-minded. Politics is a long hard slog.  Unfortunately I think it is the long, hard slog to get elected that politicians enjoy more than anything, it’s what gets their endorphins going.

I have had a couple of brief periods involved with politics.  Most recently I got elected to our town council and was a councillor for three years. It was an awful experience. It could have been a full-time job except it was unpaid. I became disillusioned by trying to reach a consensus with other councillors whose only aim seemed to be to keep themselves in public view and dealing with uncaring elected and unelected officials in the county council. I was relieved to stand down. However, I observed that my political colleagues only really became lively when elections were on.  It was that simple competition to get people’s votes that excited them. So many MPs are career politicians (okay, many of the Conservative MPs may have little sidelines like running off-shore accounts) that it is only fighting elections that they know how to do.  The people with experience, skills and ideas that may actually do the country some good are not turned on in the same way.  So, in local and national government we get the egoists, the megalomaniacs, and the deluded.

………………………

WP_20180414_09_47_33_ProJasmine is still taking a rest although of course the three novels, Painted Ladies, Bodies By Design and The Brides’ Club Murder are still available on Kindle and as paperbacks from paintedladiesnovel@btinterent.com. Also available on Kindle are the novellas/collections  Discovering Jasmine, Murder In Doubt, and Trained By Murder.

Here however is the third episode of my SF long short story or novel fragment, depending how you look at it, Benefactors.

 

 

 

 

 

Benefactors: Part 3

‘Yes. One of the permutations of the bases produced what I can only describe as a non-random sequence.’
‘Oh? What do you mean?’
‘Well, your string of base letters translates into a series of numbers which in decimal start out as 1, 2, 3, 4, up to sixty-four. Then it goes into prime numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on. Then it gives some other figures. . .’
‘What figures?’
‘Universal constants, pi to a dozen places, e, G. Where does this come from Helen?’
‘I’ll come and see you,’ Helen pressed “end”. Now she felt the same excitement as Jock Fraser and realised why he had felt it necessary to visit her. It wasn’t something that she felt she could talk about over the public netlink. Who knew who might be interested in her research.

So rarely did she actually meet her colleagues in person, Helen had forgotten how extensive the campus was. It was a good ten-minute walk to the IT building. When she opened the door to his office she saw Darmaan standing in the middle of the room staring at a semi-circular holographic screen hovering in the air a couple of feet from his face. When his eyes focussed on her the screen dissolved.
‘Ah, Helen. Where did you get this DNA code? Or is it something you’ve put together to fool me? It’s not April 1st is it?’
Helen grinned, ‘No, it’s real, at least I think it is. It depends what you find in the rest of it.’
‘The rest?’
‘It’s on here.’ Helen handed over Jock’s memory store.
Darmaan examined it. ‘You don’t see many of these. Who doesn’t exchange data over the net?’
‘Perhaps old people like me who don’t fully trust the net or perhaps people who spend their time out of reach of it.’
Darmaan still looked mystified. ‘Where do they go then? Jupiter?’ He squeezed the button between his fingers and his screen re-appeared with the start of the DNA sequence. Darmaan waved his hands, scrolling through line after line and page after page of letters.
‘Hey, there’s a huge amount here. What is it?’
Helen shrugged. ‘I don’t know. As I understand it some people have suggested using DNA as a way of storing libraries of information for posterity.’
‘What’s the point?’ Darmaan said, still staring at the pages flashing by.’
Helen took a breath. ‘They build the artificial sequence of DNA and then insert it into the nuclei of plant cells. Then they culture the plants and harvest the seeds. When they have checked the genome, the sequence was embedded in it.’
Darmaan nodded grudgingly, ‘I can see it being a possibility for long term storage but surely even with your latest sequencers it would be too slow for practical use.’
‘Yes. That’s why it hasn’t really been developed commercially, but it’s incredibly compact with each bit of information held by a single group of atoms, and not requiring anything special for preservation other than a cool, dry environment.’
‘So this is from these experimental seeds is it?’ Darmaan seemed disappointed.
‘Um, no. The experimental plants don’t even hold a short story let alone a whole library.’
Darmaan glanced at the still scrolling screen. ‘But this is vast. Where does it come from?’
Helen described Jock Fraser’s visit to her office.
‘A thousand-year-old tree? That’s a joke, surely. Do you believe him?’ Darmaan stopped the readout and dismissed the screen.
‘Why should he be telling me tales? I’d never met him before.’ Helen wondered whether Jock was indeed part of some conspiracy to set her up but that seemed even more ridiculous. ‘Look can you decode some more of it and see what’s there?’
Darmaan shrugged, ‘Yes, now I’ve got the key and set up the algorithm for finding familiar data it’s just a question of time.’ He called up the screen, wiggled his fingers and then held out the pebble to her. ‘You can have this back. I’ve copied it onto my net storage.’
Helen felt that she should give a warning. ‘Don’t tell anyone else what you are doing, just in case it is a fraud. I don’t want to be associated with any whacky science.’
Darmaan grinned, ‘Ever the cautious one, aren’t you, Professor? On this occasion I think you’re probably being wise.’

Helen managed to do a whole day’s normal work including meetings with students and colleagues without constantly checking to see if Darmaan had sent her a message. Nevertheless, when she finally had a bit of time to herself in her office it was as much as she could do to check her other messages. Why was this crazy puzzle exciting her so much? Surely it was a hoax.
The beep announcing a call had hardly reverberated before Helen answered. Darmaan’s face appeared.
‘Hi, Darmaan. You look tired. Have you been watching your screen all day?’ she said. The young man’s eyelids looked heavy and his dark skin had lost its usual lustre
‘Yes. I haven’t been able to take myself away from it. This is incredible. I mean it. It can’t have come out of the cells of an old tree.’
‘What have you found?’
Darmaan sighed, ‘It gets complicated. After the initial simple stuff, it goes into sets of coordinates.’
‘You mean positions of things?’
‘Yes.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘Stars. I put them through the online astronomical atlas. It came up with some of the brightest stars in our sky: Sirius, Betelgeuse, Rigel and so on.’
‘Oh, and?’
‘Some others you can’t see with just your eyes, but they’re in the catalogue. They’re stars similar to the Sun but quite a distance away so they’re pretty faint.’
‘How far?’
‘The nearest is over three-thousand light years from here.’
Helen was confused. What did it mean? ‘Is that it?’ she asked.
Darmaan laughed. ‘That’s just the start. It goes into mathematical and physical equations next. Simple stuff like Pythagoras, Newton and Einstein, but quickly works up to stuff which is beyond me.’
‘Is it correct?’ Helen said, still not understanding what Darmaan was implying.
‘Well, the simple stuff is. I can’t tell about the rest. It’ll need a team of top theoretical physicists to decide what it means. But that‘s just for starters. There’s a section on chemistry, too.’
‘Chemistry?’
‘Yeah. It starts with a comparison of the masses of atoms of elements in the periodic table which provided a key for the elements. My pattern recognition software then picked out a modelling programme. It gave me a molecule of hydrogen, then water and ammonia, ethanol. Soon it was into sugars and proteins and stuff I have no idea about.’
‘So the sequence is a kind of catalogue of science.’ Helen said.
‘Or a guide, but there are other stretches which look like an actual DNA sequence except they don’t match any of the stuff your genome analysis recognises.’
‘Have you finished?
Darmaan laughed again. ‘No way. My program is still trundling through it.’
‘I don’t get it, Darmaan,’ Helen said, shaking her head.
The door to her office opened, held by Sarah. ‘I’m sorry, Professor, these people . . .’
Two men pushed passed her, one short and plump and the other tall and slim.
Helen waved her screen off, cutting the call to Darmaan. ‘What do you . . .’
The short man interrupted her, ‘Professor Patel. My clients have instructed me to recover property illegally given to you by one of their employees.’
Helen stood up, leaned on her desk, glaring at her uninvited guests. ‘Clients? Employee? What do you mean?’
‘Please calm down Professor. I cannot name my clients but the employee was a Doctor Johann Fraser.’
‘Jock?’
‘That is the name he goes by. He gave you something, a memory storage device.’
‘He did give me a button. He said it was his.’ Helen held it in her hand.
‘The device may be his but the data on it belongs to my clients. Dr Fraser broke his contract by divulging the information. You must return it to me.’
‘How do I know that you are who you say you are?’
‘My identification and the injunction is on your personal netlink now.’
Helen summoned her screen and the face of the small man appeared with the phrase “Identity Recognised” alongside it. Beneath was a legal document. She scanned it and saw that it went on for page after page of lawyers jargon but she got the gist; it authorised the recovery of data belonging to “the company”.
‘It doesn’t give your name or the name of your clients,’ Helen said still suspicious.
‘You don’t need those. The Net recognises my authority. Please hand over the memory store.’
Helen reached out and dropped the button into the little man’s waiting hand.
The tall man spoke up, ‘The data has also been removed from your cloud account and that of your associate, Dr. Darmaan Shamarke.’
Helen felt her cheeks burn, ‘You’ve hacked my netlink.’
‘Yes, Professor,’ the tall man said, ‘In accordance with His Majesty’s Government’s Anti-terrorism Network Surveillance Act of 2024.’
‘Anti-terrorism? What do you mean. It was scientific data.’
‘It was given to you by someone with links to people associated with a terrorist organisation.’
Helen gasped, ‘Jock Fraser! What’s he got to do with a terrorist group. He said he was a botanist.’
The tall man drew himself up to his full height. ‘I am not at liberty to reveal the identity of his associates but I assure you that the deletions have been made in accordance with the laws governing His Majesty’s Government Anti-Terrorism Authority.’
Realisation came to Helen. ‘The company and the government have done a deal haven’t they. They realise that there’s something in the DNA of that tree which is of vital importance. It’s data that should be available to all scientists for humanity’s sake.’
The tall man’s face was impassive, ‘I should warn you Professor that if you divulge what you know of this information that Dr Fraser stole from his employers you will be arrested and will undergo a neurological adjustment by deep brain stimulation.’
Helen shivered. She could see that the threat was real. She let her shoulders sag.
‘Thank you, Professor,’ the little lawyer said cheerfully, ‘We’ll leave you now. Thank you for your compliance.’
The two men left her office. Helen stared out of the window, thinking. A few minutes later she saw a two-person quadcopter rising from the patch of grass outside her faculty building. A moment later, Darmaan burst into her room.
‘We’ve been hacked,’ he said.
‘I know,’ Helen said, ‘I’ve just had a visit from two men. I had to give Jock’s button to them and they said they’ve wiped all the data from the Net.’
‘But why?’ Darmaan held up his hands in exasperation.
‘The government and the company, Jock’s employers, know that the tree is remarkable.’
‘But it’s thousands of years old; older if the tree Jock took the DNA from is descended from trees with the same genome.’
‘Don’t say anything more Darmaan. We’re probably being watched. Let’s take a walk, but keep your voice down.’

…………………..to be continued

 

 

Jasmine enjoys a break

20180413_130523Last week we paid a visit to the Gladstone Museum in Stoke-on-Trent.  It is one of a number of museums in the six towns that celebrate the ceramic industry that made them famous. However the Gladstone Museum is a “working” museum based on one of the last factories to use the iconic bottle kilns.  Pottery was manufactured on the site from the 1770s until the factory closed in the 1960s when it was preserved as one example of the hundreds of similar factories and thousands of bottle kilns that once occupied the area.  The museum reveals the processes used and the lives of the people who worked in the industry. We followed the laid out route which takes you through the factory and the stages in the manufacture.  I am always fascinated by the materials and methods used by industries and the Gladstone satisfied me with displays and description of the treatment of the pottery from mixing the base ingredients to the final decoration and packing.

WP_20180413_13_48_54_ProWhat the Gladstone also does well is to bring the workers alive. What was striking was the huge number of specific jobs that the process demanded.  Each job required skills acquired over many years so that the task could be done as quickly and accurately as possible. Many of the jobs had names which are forgotten now or seem a joke.  Yes, there were saggar maker bottom knockers who performed a vital role. There were jobs for men, women and children.   All worked long hours and sometimes weren’t paid at all if a firing failed and a job lot was lost. The conditions were terrible. Many of the tasks were carried out in an atmosphere of clay or flint dust, which lead to silicosis, a nasty lung disease. Many developed lead poisoning from the compounds used in glazes and those working the kilns suffered eye and lung problems from the high temperatures and severe burns ended many lives or careers.  In the early 1900s the average life expectancy of a pottery worker was still under 40 years.

WP_20180413_13_51_05_ProWhile new laws during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gradually removed young children from the workplace and provided some protection to workers it was still hard, physical labour right up to the closure of the factories after the 2nd World War.  Those who joke about ‘elf and safety need reminding how long it took to provide factory workers with some protection and how the various clean air acts and pollution measures have improved our living environments.  With the current demands for equal pay it was interesting to note the pay rates in the factory where, regardless of how skilled the jobs were, men earned more than double the women’s pay and children received mere pence. In fact the visit to the Gladstone Museum was a reminder of how different our lives are today.  The manual, dirty jobs which made fortunes for factory owners in the past have been handed over to people overseas who are willing (?) to accept poor pay and unhealthy conditions to feed themselves and their families.  How much longer can the economies of the rich western countries rely on the developing world to do our dirty work including dealing with our waste? How much longer can the Earth cope with our wasteful existence.  

The coal-fired bottle kilns were eventually replaced by electric and gas kilns because they were labour-intensive and dreadfully inefficient. Stoke may have lost its defining industry but is a cleaner place now, despite the congested traffic. It no longer makes the contribution it once did to the UK economy. Places like the Gladstone Museum now bring visitors but is that sufficient replacement for the industry that once drove the town?

…………………………..

I’m still giving Jasmine a rest and giving you some of my SF instead.  Below is the second episode of Benefactors, a story that originated from an article in New Scientist magazine.

Benefactors: Part 2

Helen’s eyes widened. ‘That’s a striking name. Did the sequencing show anything?’
Jock hauled a scroll out of his bag, unrolled it and started fingering the screen. ‘Well, first it proved that the tree is a previously unknown variety and from the mitochondrial mutations it branched form the more common stock about two-hundred-thousand years ago.’
Helen nodded, vaguely interested, but none of this seemed unusual or exceptional. ‘But something must have brought you to see me?’
Fraser grinned and handed over his scroll. ‘There is and it confuses the devil out of me.’
Helen flicked through screen after screen of DNA base sequences. ‘Why?’
‘I know you can’t see it immediately but when we examined the sequence we saw that the whole genome was huge, much larger than in other varieties. There seems to be a vast amount of junk DNA that doesn’t make sense.’
Helen shrugged, ‘All genomes contain what some people call junk. My work has been to find out if it really is.’
‘I know. That’s why I’m here.’
Helen still didn’t understand what had brought this throwback of an explorer panting to her office.
‘So? What is special about this particular junk.’
Jock’s face lightened as if he was about to announce something momentous.
‘For a start the genome is huge; bigger than any other organism, so I’m told; and secondly because no one at the company labs recognises any of the sequences.’
‘Really?’ Helen said dismissing Jock’s statement. He was a simple botanist; he couldn’t possibly understand genomics.
Jock sighed as if he had expected her response. ‘Look, I’m no expert at this stuff but we have some young, very capable sequencers back in the company labs with some very expensive kit and their boss, Maria, Dr Sanchez, assures me that the bulk of the genome of this plant is made up of a sequence that they don’t recognise from any plant, or animal. I’ve come to you because you’re the top guy in this field.’
The flattery didn’t affect Helen. She knew she was good. She’d built her career on making sensible decisions and moving forward the science of gene sequencing in small, carefully checked steps. She was renowned for her caution. Now she was faced with this fool from the outdoors who was gabbling nonsense.
‘Look, this talk of junk DNA is an old story. We think almost all of the DNA in an organism has some purpose even if much of it seems dormant. Genes code for proteins. What does your stretch of “junk” code for?’
Jock smiled. ‘The lab rats tell me that it doesn’t code for any known proteins. The codons don’t even match naturally occurring amino acids. Maria says it’s as if the sequence of bases is in another code entirely.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Helen said, but her mind was ticking over now. ‘Leave it with me. I’ll check it over and see what your young people have missed.’
Jock pulled a memory button from his pocket. ‘I hoped you’d say that. It’s all here.’ He dropped it into Helen’s outstretched hand. ‘I’m heading back to Kenya tonight. I want to get more samples from the trees for comparison and to culture. The sample I was given may not be viable.’ He touched his screen and it snapped into a scroll. He stuffed it and the box of samples back in his bag.
‘I’ll contact you when I’m done,’ Helen said.
Jock stood up and slung his bag over the shoulder. ‘Thanks for that Professor.’

It was dark outside. Helen should have been home hours ago. She’d tried getting on with reading the papers but her eyes were repeatedly drawn to Jock Fraser’s tiny button sitting on her desk. She had given in, activated it and accessed her genome analysis programme. It hadn’t taken long to confirm what Jock had said. The first part of each chromosomal sequence was the normal set of gene markers and genes coding for familiar proteins but then the vast bulk of the base sequence was unlike any she had seen and seemed unrelated to the code of life found in all living things on Earth. She had run the analysis three times with the same conclusions each time. She had wondered if a virus had got itself written into the plant’s own genome but even that should have coded for common proteins. She had to admit that Jock was correct. The code was different. But if it wasn’t coding for amino acids with the familiar three base codons what was it? It was a puzzle and she liked puzzles; scientific ones anyway.
Helen stared at the screen trying to think of an answer. What other codes were there? Well there was Morse code, a series of dots and dashes coding for the letters of the alphabet. Writing itself was a code with the letters standing for the phonemes which were the components of speech. Then there was the simplest code of all – binary, the ons and offs, 0’s and 1’s used in fundamental computer programming and digital communications. How could the four bases of DNA be used to code in binary? Helen scratched her head trying to dredge up a memory.
She recollected some research on the use of DNA as long-term storage of computer programs and data. She did a search and found a number of reports. The researchers had used the four bases on DNA to represent numbers in binary. This key was used to build a strand of DNA that represented the lines of a computer program.
Helen was excited by the parallels with the genome of the ancient trees. Surely it couldn’t be a data store in binary? She wasn’t sure how to decode the DNA sequence but she thought she knew someone who could. She made a call from her desk. There was an impatient beep for a few seconds then the air in front of her was filled with a familiar face as black as the night sky beyond the windows of her office.
‘Hello, Darmaan,’ she said.
‘Helen? This is late for you isn’t it. What’s keeping you – one of your postdocs making outrageous leaps of imagination again?’ Sometime she had to call on Dr Darmaan Sharmarke for help in finding the gaps in the logic of her juniors when they placed too much faith in the abilities of the department AI.
‘No, nothing like that. I’ve got a problem.’
‘Your system playing up? Scroll not speaking to the net or something?’
‘No, I’ve got a problem, a conundrum, a puzzle.’
‘Oh. I can’t help with your genomics, Helen, you know that.’
‘But you are a program specialist, Darmaan.’
‘Hmm, yes.’ Darmaan looked confused. ‘What sort of puzzle do you mean?’
‘How could you decode a binary sequence written in DNA?’
‘Er, what’s that?’
Helen read out what she had noted from the reports. ‘A strand of DNA with the four bases standing for 00, 01, 10, and 11?’
‘I see.’ Darmaan pondered. ‘but you don’t know which base is which number.’
‘That’s right.’
‘There would be twenty-four different ways the four bases could code for those numbers,’ Darmaan explained, ‘but if there is a pattern in your DNA sequence then it should be quite easy to spot.’
Helen’s heart beat faster. ‘If I sent you a sequence of DNA could you read off the binary and see if it makes any sense?
Darmaan’s brow furrowed. ‘Yeah, I suppose so. Where’s this code come from.’ ‘Don’t worry about that, I’ll tell you if something pops out. It’s probably nonsense and I’m just being fanciful.’
Darmaan grinned, ‘You, Helen, fanciful? Never. OK, send it over and I’ll have a look’
Helen blew him a kiss and ended the call. She separated off the first thousand or so bases from the mystery sequence and sent it off to Darmaan. He was an inveterate puzzle solver. He’d be intrigued by the problem she’d set him, especially with her not giving him the full story. She signed off from the system, dropped Jock’s button into her bag and set off for home at last.

Chapter 3

Helen logged on and summoned her screen while yawning and clapping a hand over her mouth. Not only had she been late getting home she had barely slept thinking about Jock’s weird plant. Now she needed a coffee and was about to call Sarah to bring her one, when she read the screen glowing in the air above her desk. There were numerous messages from Darmaan asking her to call him. She sat down and put through the call.
‘There you are. At last.’ Darmaan said. ‘Where have you been?’
Helen glanced at the time. ‘Hey, it’s eight-thirty. I’m actually early this morning.’
‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you for ages.’
‘I can see that. Did you get anywhere with that sequence I sent you?’
‘Did I! Is there more of it?’
‘Uh, yes, some,’ she said confused by Darmaan’s excitement.
‘I need it.’
‘Why? Does it mean anything?’

……………………to be continued.

Jasmine off-duty

WP_20170826_14_01_13_ProIf you are reading this on the day that it is published I am at the Author-signing event in Telford hoping to sell some of my books. I hope that this event attracts readers with a bit of cash in their pockets and is not just a day spent in a room full of writers flogging their wares to each other. I am amazed by how much effort some of the writers put in to providing trinkets to accompany their written work.  I could be disparaging and call it tat but actually some authors really seem to spend a lot of time crafting the bits and pieces that support their written efforts. Is this really want book buyers want? I’ve got bookmarks and postcards but that’s it.  All my effort goes into producing the books.

…………………….

This week I watched a programme on autism by autistic people.  It suggested that over 1% of the population are somewhere on the spectrum.  Of course most of those are functioning pretty successfully in society but have questions about themselves and how they fit into the community. About the same number of people are thought to be gender-variant in some way or other and there must be endless minorities claiming similar numbers. I wonder who is “normal” or indeed what that term even means. The autistic presenters seemed to lump all “normal” people together as if they never had any self-doubts or worries about their place or role in the world. I believe that the marvellous thing about humanity is that we are all different. We have a wide range of physical characteristics, personalities, aptitudes and abilities that make each one of us unique, and we each have our problems and questions. I also wonder if this search for a medical term to attach to ourselves is just a means to find people who are like us; a label to tell us which group we can belong to. I am not denying that there are many severely autistic people who need a great deal of support and understanding in the same way that those with severe gender dysphoria need swift assessment and treatment to put them in the gender that matches their personality. What I do want to see is acceptance by society that there is no norm which everyone should aspire to.

……………………………..

I am still giving Jasmine a rest although I must get down to editing Molly’s Boudoir soon. It’s had a month or two resting in my computer files. I have been thinking and planning to start a couple of SF/Fantasy novels but as usual cannot quite decide which to begin with. Can I write two novels at the same time?

In the meantime here is another SF story I wrote a year or so ago from an idea that arose from an article in New Scientist magazine (New Scientist no. 3056 16th Jan 2016 p.27  I plant memories in seeds, Karin Ljubic Fister). I was considering developing it further and I may, but decided that actually my idea wasn’t particularly original (the scientific research moved faster than I imagined) and the story contained elements of older novels by more skilled writers.  Ideas and plots can’t be copyrighted and I wasn’t guilty of plagiarism but the plot was a bit too familiar.  Nevertheless I enjoyed writing it and doing the research into the east Africa scenes.  I haven’t been there but I hope I captured something of the atmosphere of the Rift Valley.

North Kenya 2

North Kenya (the fold is in the map not the landscape!)

Anyway, let’s see what you think of Benefactors.  There will be  a number of episodes over the next few weeks.

 

 

Benefactors: Part 1

1

Two men wearing red and orange cloaks over their traditional woven skirts, approached the grove of trees arguing with each other. Jock Fraser listened then raised a finger to his earpiece. All he was getting was whistles and clicks fed from the smartphone in the breast pocket of his gillet. He turned to the man sitting next to him on the dusty ground. He resembled the arguing men in looks but was wearing western style dress.
‘I’m not getting a translation of what those guys are arguing about,’ Jock said. ‘Aren’t they speaking Samburu, Ekuru?’
The dark skinned Ekuru Lengabilo shook his head. ‘There is some similarity but they are using their own speech.’
Jock frowned. He was not used to being out of communication with the people around him. ‘Can you translate for me?’
‘I have some words but this language is only spoken by these people. They are few and do not travel far from the trees that they tend. It is an old tongue without the words for modern ideas like phone and truck.’
Jock sighed. ‘Well, see what you can manage. What are those two arguing about?’
‘How much the one with the necklace is willing to pay the other for a goat.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Jock saw two other people arriving, a man and woman. They were not speaking to each other, in fact they were looking in different directions as if they did not even want their view sullied by the image of the other.
The arriving pairs looked at Jock and his companion with sour expressions then sat with him amongst the scruffy, low trees. Others arrived until there were about a dozen sitting in a circle. The murmur of chatter slowly faded.
A child of about seven years approached the group carrying a wooden bowl. She, Jock surmised she was a girl, moved around the circle and each person took a leaf and put it in their mouths. The girl came to Jock and he too took a leaf. It was taken from the trees under which they sat. He chewed. The taste was bitter and the flavour not particularly pleasant but he persisted as did the other people. Talk resumed. Jock noticed the couple, man and wife perhaps, begin to converse. They seemed happy to acknowledge each other’s presence now. The two men who had been arguing now spoke to each other more conversationally, nodded and smiled at each other. Others chatted amiably and Jock too felt content and happy to be amongst these people who he had not met before. He felt a connection with them that seemed more than just sharing the shade of the trees.
An elderly man used his stick to haul himself to his feet. He addressed the small crowd but looked towards Jock and Ekuru. Lengabilo interpreted haltingly.
‘He welcomes you on behalf of the people of the God Tree. He thanks you for your gifts and your offer to speak on their behalf to those that rule over us.’ Jock felt a bit guilty at hearing that – he was a botanist not a negotiator and he carried little influence with the government officials despite having drug company money behind his expedition. All he knew was that like most small indigenous tribes these people were under threat from the exploiters from the capital and beyond. He nodded in acknowledgement to the tribe’s elder and felt an unusual bond with him and determination to help.
Another child walked towards him carrying something on a bark tray. The elder explained that it was a gift from his people. The young boy who had such similar looks that Jock guessed he was related to the girl, a slightly older brother perhaps, smiled at Jock and handed over the bark. On it lay a small twig with a few leaves and a seed pod. The leaves and pod were dry and appeared brittle. They had obviously been plucked from one of the trees some time ago. Jock found this gift much more interesting than the words.
The elder was still speaking and Jock’s interpreter made it clear how much an honour this gift was: one of the last remaining seeds of the tree from the most recent flowering a decade ago. Jock knew how lucky he was. In their earlier conversations he had learnt that the next flowering, if indeed the trees survived that long, would not be for another thirty years or more and few of the seeds collected from the previous crop had germinated and taken root. There were probably no more than a dozen living examples of the tree. Most of them in this small grove.
Why was the tree special, Jock asked himself? It was small, spindly and slow-growing. Its wood was of little practical use, the leaves were edible but provided little sustenance and the seeds too rare to be of any value except ceremonially. All Jock knew was that the leaves appeared to contain a mild narcotic, hence the feeling of conviviality that he and the congregation felt. Why therefore did the people invest so much of their time in tending and protecting the trees? Was it simply tradition?

2

A tap on Professor Helen Patel’s door caused her to look up from the paper she was reading on her scroll. She felt a brief feeling of annoyance.
‘Yes?’ she called. The door opened and Sarah, her secretary looked in.
‘Doctor Fraser is here. You remember he asked for an appointment.’
Helen sighed. Why couldn’t the man have just sent an vemail or simply a text. ‘Oh, yes. I suppose you’d better send him in.’
Hardly had she spoken than a man brushed passed Sarah and hurried in to the office. His pale freckled face was peeling and his ginger hair windblown. He wore khaki shorts and a multi-pocketed gillet over a check shirt. His message had said that he was a field botanist. Helen wondered if he had come to her straight from an expedition. She half rose from her chair as Fraser advanced towards her with his arm outstretched. She took his hand and he gripped hers in a firm handshake.
‘Please sit down Doctor Fraser.’ Helen said sinking back into her own seat. Fraser pulled a chair up and sat as close as possible. He placed a canvas satchel that had been over his shoulder on the desk.
‘Oh, please call me Jock,’ Fraser said revealing his Scottish origins in his accent as well as his appearance.
‘It’s your name?’ Helen asked not quite believing that there were actually Scotsmen called Jock.
‘No, it’s Johann. My mother was Austrian but most people ignore that.’
Helen decided not to go into Jock Fraser’s ancestry. ‘I don’t understand why you wanted to see me in person, especially as you’re a botanist and I am not.’
Fraser leaned forward, his eyes shining. ‘But you’re a genomist, a highly respected one.’
‘That’s true. I worked on the Human Genome Project as a postdoc and I’ve been in the field for more than three decades now.’
‘And you have worked on sequencing and gene expression in plants,’ Jock added.
‘Yes, mainly plants. What is it you want to tell me Dr Fraser, uh, Jock?’
Jock took a deep breath and began to open the straps of his bag. ‘I’ve just come back from a survey in the Rift Valley in Kenya.’
Helen had an image of wide open savannah with elephants and lions, and insects and snakes and hot sun. She remembered why she preferred the lab.
‘Sounds lovely,’ she said.
‘Very exciting,’ Jock agreed. ‘The expedition was paid for by a drug company which I won’t name for now. We were looking for plants that may have medicinal properties that could provide the precursors for drugs.’
‘Ah, yes,’ Helen nodded, ‘a valuable job. We need sources of new medicines. Did you find any?’
Jock shrugged, ‘One or two that may be useful, but we also found this.’ He took what looked like a plastic sandwich box out of the bag, placed it on the desk in front of Helen and lifted the lid off. Inside were couple of small oval leaves and a shrivelled brown seed case. Helen didn’t recognise the plant.
‘A tree or bush?’
‘A small tree. No scientific name yet. Never recorded before, except by the indigenous population. In fact, we think there may only be a few of the trees, restricted to one small area.’
‘Almost extinct then?’
‘I hope not,’ Jock said. ‘The trees live for many hundreds if not thousands of years and only produce seeds once in a lifetime. A lifetime of the locals that is: about every forty years. They tend them and celebrate when they flower.’
‘Is it a potential drug source?’ Helen asked, wondering why Jock was showing her the specimen.
He shrugged, ‘Perhaps. The leaves contain a mild narcotic. The locals chew them during tribal gatherings. It makes them feel gregarious and cooperative. There could be a use for that, but the taste is pretty disgusting.’
‘Oh,’ Helen said wondering where this conversation was going.
Jock sat up straight as if about to start on a story. ‘That was the reason the Company decided to sequence the tree’s DNA, but I wanted to know more because the locals call it the God Tree – in their language of course.’

Jasmine absent

Following a lovely weekend with the family the rest of this week should have been getting some work done but unfortunately I have been doing some personal investigation of the NHS. On Tuesday evening I suffered severe pain, probably caused by a small kidney stone, an occurrence I last had nearly two years ago.  Needing a strong painkiller but it being too late to get to our GP we took advantage of the after hours service at Hereford Hospital.  I was given an appointment immediately and we set off. Within 45 minutes I was being looked at by the doctor and throwing up in the sink in his surgery. Having examined a pee sample, he wanted me to be seen by the Clinical Assessment Unit and gave me a letter to take there, along with some codeine that had no effect whatsoever.  The CAU was just down the corridor but when we got there found that they did not have a doctor available to assess me. So we were sent to A&E, which we had been trying to avoid. Nothing much happened for a time except for me moaning and pacing and throwing up but eventually a paramedic took pity on me, took me into a consulting room, and asked me the same questions as the GP an hour before. At least he did manage to locate a surgeon who breezed in confirmed what we thought might be wrong and sent me back to the CAU.

I was put in a cubicle, yes, a whole one all to myself, with a nice comfy bed, except that it didn’t feel that comfy to me. A nurse took a blood sample. I gave my second urine sample of the evening and I was rigged up with a cannula in my left hand. I was given a mouthful of what I was told was a morphine based pain killer but it had no effect either. They gave me an emetic via the drip but I threw up again soon afterwards. I was still in head-banging pain but at around 11 p.m., finally, the registrar gave me a strong painkiller as a suppository.  I inserted it myself. He also said that he wanted me to have a scan in the morning. As I was not an emergency they couldn’t call out the radiologist to fire-up their catscan machine, but I was urgent enough to be top of their list when they opened at 9 a.m.

It was decided that I should stay in the cubicle overnight and at last the painkiller was kicking in. Feeling somewhat better all I wanted to do was sleep, but the noise of chatter in the CAU throughout the night, and the various rhythms of beeps kept me a wake. At 6:30 a.m. when I was asleep, a nurse came in to give me some paracetamol. That was when the day started.  The day shift arrived, the catering guy came round with breakfast. I selected toast and was given a piece of untoasted bread. I had my blood pressure taken yet again – it was now getting back to normal. The consultant popped in with his retinue Soon after 9 I was taken for my scan which took no more than five minutes.

And then I waited. I was feeling better by now, although very tired and a bit sore from the vomiting. I was visited by a nurse every now and again. I was told they were waiting for the report on my scan and I may need another so I shouldn’t have lunch. It wasn’t until after two that the report came that my scan was clear and there was no obvious reason for my severe pain. Perhaps I’d passed the stone (well a bit of grit) already. The new surgeon wanted me to eat something before he let me go so I had some egg sandwiches. Finally, I was removed from the drip and sometime after 4 p.m. was released back into the community.

So, my conclusions. I was treated well; not kept waiting without treatment for the four hours the targets stipulate; I had a comfortable bed to lie on. But my post treatment period was drawn out much longer than it needed to be during which time I occupied the cubicle which may have been needed by someone else. The connection between the out of hours service, the CAU and A&E seemed somewhat disjointed (why printed letters of introduction?). Overall though, thank you to the nurses, paramedics, doctors and ancillary staff who made my short stay as comfortable as it could be. Free at the point of use, except for the car park, the NHS remains and so it should.  Everyone deserves the same care and attention that I had.

…………………………….

WP_20170923_10_43_20_ProJasmine is still taking a rest, but next Saturday I will be at the West Midlands Book Signing event in Telford when I will have all my (paperback) books for sale. Here though is the concluding  part of my short SF story, Imposter.

Imposter: part 2

Kappa looked at his hands, examining each finger and the lines on each palm. He thought he knew his hands but these weren’t his. The fingerprints were different; his life-line didn’t stretch as far as it used to. He raised a hand to his cheek.
‘Don’t touch,’ the doctor said. ‘The culture needs some time to, er, set.’
‘Just relax and enjoy the rest,’ Agent Tau said from somewhere behind his head. He was suspended about a millimetre above the smooth flat metallic surface; the back of his legs and torso covered in a sprinkling of superconducting-ceramic magnets, repelling the surface so that no part of his body touched it.
‘What have you done to me?’ Kappa asked.
‘Given you Borodin’s skin,’ Tau replied. ‘Actually it’s partly his skin and partly a synthetic polymer. We cultured the cells and the skin bacteria and fungi we found in Borodin’s room then impregnated the polymer. It covers your own skin to a depth of about one hundred micron. It’s permeable of course so your own skin can live normally but none of your skin cells will fall off. You’ll shed a trickle of Borodin’s skin cells and microbes wherever you go.’
‘So DNA and microbe tests will show that Borodin has been present and not me.’
‘That’s right. We haven’t got long though. The new skin will wear off in about a ten days.’
Kappa did a quick count. ‘That’s only two days after the mission is due to end.’
‘That’s right. We have to get you in and out pretty quickly. But you’ve got a week for your insides and outsides to settle. Oh, and to fit contacts so you can get through the iris i.d.’
Kappa looked at his hands again. ‘I presume I’ve got Borodin’s fingerprints?’
‘That’s right. The polymer skin is imprinted with them.’
‘I’m not me at all anymore, am I,’ Kappa said.
‘Not to any sensors; no you’re not.’
‘I’d better make sure I behave like Borodin then.’
‘I gather he’s a misogynistic brute who delights in violence.’
Kappa snorted, ‘With a taste for western fast food and vodka.’
‘You’re going to have to adjust a fair bit then aren’t you, Kappa,’ Tau said

The door was held open for him as he left the palace. The rear door of the stretched Mercedes was opened by the armed guard who stood to attention and saluted him. Kappa eased himself into the seat.
‘Good to see you again, Comrade Borodin,’ the driver said, looking in his mirror. ‘Where can I take you.’
‘Into town,’ Kappa said, ‘The Peacock Club.’
The driver nodded, ‘Of course.’
They drove off slowly, passing through the fortified gates of the palace compound. Soldiers saluted and Kappa graciously waved to them. He allowed himself to relax just a little. The job was done. The kid was dead and he had got out without the alarm being raised, yet.
The electric limousine sped away into the sparse traffic ignoring speed limits. After all, the passenger was a senior member of the government; laws didn’t apply to him. Now all that was left was to get out of the country and leave the real Borodin to face the music.
It wasn’t long before they were driving down the narrow streets of the old town. Old neon lights flickered from doorways offering food, drinks and sex in a variety of tastes. The car drew up at the entrance to one such with a peacock’s tail flashing above the entrance.
‘No need to wait for me,’ Kappa said as he got out. The driver nodded, closed the door and resumed his driving seat. He drove off before Kappa entered the club.
He was recognised at once, the staff and the manager bowing and offering anything he wanted.
‘Vodka,’ Kappa ordered, surprised that he actually meant it. He felt an urgent need for the alcoholic hit, ‘and food, my usual,’ he added.
He was lead to a private booth out of sight of the rest of the clientele. A waitress in a very short skirt and low cut blouse brought him a small glass and a bottle of vodka. If she had been seen on the street dressed like she was here in the club, Kappa knew she would have been assaulted or arrested. Probably both. He felt a strange emotion. His hand reached out and touched her bare thigh. Her leg trembled. He snatched his hand away. She filled the glass, smiled at him and withdrew.
He glanced at the Rolex watch on his wrist. Five minutes to his pick-up. Time for a couple of drinks. He threw the vodka down his throat. The unfamiliar burning sensation shocked him at first but then a feeling of satisfaction filled him. He poured another glass.
A minute or two passed and the alcoholic glow permeated him. The waitress returned with a plate that she placed in front of him. American style hamburger and fries. He gave her a wink. She smiled again and left him to eat.
A small light flickered faintly on his watch. His transport had arrived. Well, they can wait a moment, can’t they, Kappa thought. He lifted the burger in its bun to his mouth and took a bite. He followed it with a handful of fries.
‘Where are you, Kappa? We’re outside.’ Tau said in his ear.
Kappa growled and looked at the burger wistfully. Bloody woman, ordering him about. He imagined doing certain violent things to her.
‘Come on, Kappa. Get rid of the gun and get out.’
Kappa remembered he still had the murder weapon in his pocket. He didn’t want to be caught with it. He’d better join Agent Tau. He took the gun from his jacket, dropped it gently under the seat, knocked back the glass of vodka and got up. He didn’t feel quite steady on his feet. He started to head back towards the front entrance then remembered. It was at the rear of the club that Tau was waiting. He staggered towards the toilets.
He emerged blinking into the bright light and hot, humid air. A Toyota taxi waited with its rear door open. He stumbled towards it and fell into the back seat.
‘Close the door Kappa. Let’s go.’
Kappa pulled the door closed and immediately the car drew away. ‘Don’t you go telling me what to do, Tau.’
‘What kept you, Kappa?’ Tau asked.
‘Just a full bottle and a burger,’ Kappa said.
‘What? You kept us waiting while you ate and drank. Are you out of your mind, Kappa?’
Kappa slapped her. ‘Shut up, you slut. No woman tells Agent Kappa what to do.’
Tau felt her bruised cheek. ‘We thought this might happen. Sorry Kappa.’ She drew a gun from under her leg and shot him.

Kappa woke up. He was in a bed; the surroundings looked familiar; the medical wing that he’d spent a couple of weeks in before the mission. Agent Tau stood by his side.
‘Ah, you’re awake. Good. How are you feeling Kappa?’
Kappa wasn’t sure how to answer. He felt as if he’d been ill and was recovering, as if he’d had a bout of diarrhoea or flu.
‘Not wonderful. Why?’
‘No uncontrollable urges for alcoholic beverages or processed foods?’
‘Uh? No.’
‘Good. The replacement of your microbiome was successful then. We kept you out for a few days for your own good. You are completely yourself again, Agent Kappa.’
‘Um, thank you. The mission?’
‘The boss has declared it an almost complete success,’ Tau said, smiling broadly. ‘Dmitri Borodin has been arrested, tried and executed for the murder of the President-elect.’
‘Executed, already?’
‘Justice is swift in Rusbenya, Kappa, and the weight of the DNA and microbe cloud evidence against him was unarguable. He had no way of proving that he wasn’t in the Presidential Palace when Vitaly was killed, or in the Peacock Club where the murder weapon was found. President Gagarovich is in a coma and his followers and Borodin’s faction are eliminating each other.’
Kappa felt satisfaction at doing his job well. ‘Er, you said almost complete success.’
‘Yes, Kappa. The transplant of Borodin’s microbiome into your guts produced some undesirable effects.’
Kappa recalled slugging the vodka and the taste of the burger. ‘You mean I acquired Borodin’s taste in food and drink.’
‘It was a bit more than that actually Kappa. You were beginning to acquire his personality too. I’ve forgiven you for the slap but I’m not so sure of your reference to me as a slut.’

……………………………….

 

Jasmine takes a break

I joined Facebook some years ago, mainly because I was told that I had to use social media to market my novel, Painted Ladies. I don’t know whether being on Facebook has had any effect on sales; I think, if anything, the effect has been small because I don’t pay to have my posts shared to people who aren’t my contacts. Nevertheless, it has been pleasant keeping in touch with friends and family and re-discovering friends who I had lost touch with.  Also I enjoy the posts from groups I have joined even if some of the stuff is nonsense.  But it is true that Facebook and other social media monsters are destroying us.  I don’t just mean by using the personal data which we have freely provided to undermine democracy. It is the constant reinforcement of personal beliefs and opinions and the lack of restraint on the emotions that people display in their messages. There is very little reasoned discussion in social media (at least, that I have observed).  I think this is one reason why in real life situations people are unable to accept argument without taking offence. Hence the calls for speakers to be denied a stage and now even suggestions that certain books be banned. Like with climate change and environmental destruction we are sleepwalking towards authoritarianism, if not outright dictatorship, because of our insatiable need for connection and entertainment.

WP_20170923_10_43_20_ProNot all my friends and family are Remainers and multinationalists; not quite all, anyway. Thanks to the few I get some “shares” and “retweets” which don’t go along with my views. Sitting alone in front of a screen, emotions can quickly erupt – that’s one of the problems I think. A few days ago there appeared on my screen a screed bemoaning how English people were being put down, ignored and their achievements forgotten. As someone proud of my Welsh heritage, but who has lived in England all my adult life, while always being an advocate of a European federation of states if not a world government, this post first got me angry and then amused. I am very familiar with the casual English superiority that subsumes everything “British” into England. So it becomes England that won two world wars, it’s England that lead the world in this or that and now it’s England that wants to “take back control” from wicked Europe. The writer of this piece of nationalistic nonsense didn’t seem to understand that England is not a nation – as defined by Pointless i.e. a member of the United Nations in its own right. All of the successes that the person claimed for England actually belonged to the United Kingdom, but the majority of people in the non-English parts of the UK want to stay in the European Union.  Nationalism is dangerous if it becomes too big a factor in one’s life – look what has happened to Australian cricket. We have to be less self-centred.

………………………………….

Having completed the short story Pose (last week); with Trained By Murder published and available on Kindle; and Molly’s Boudoir complete and awaiting editing, I am going to give Jasmine Frame a break for a few weeks. I’m turning my creative juices to SF/Fantasy.  I’ve decided to give you some of the stories which I have written relatively recently, chopped into manageable chunks. Some of these I was considering submitting for publication in magazines or anthologies but on reflection I don’t think they quite make the grade (your opinion would be valued).  The first was one of a series where I took inspiration from articles in New Scientist magazine.  That, I think, was part of the problem because I don’t think I extrapolated the science far enough so, it seems to me, to lack originality. Anyway, here is the first of two parts of the short story, Imposter,  inspired by A Cloud of Distinction, by Julian Smith, New Scientist p.39 No.3063, 5/03/16

Imposter: part 1

‘Right, team. Subject has left the building. You’re clear to go,’ Agent Tau watched the feeds from the vids on the three operatives as they entered the building. Their syncopated breathing came over the sound pick-ups. Each was in an isolation suit fed air from oxygen tanks on their back, their exhaled breath captured. They moved swiftly into the hotel bedroom, removed the bedding and packed it into plastic bags which were sealed. One traversed the carpet with a high-vacuum collector while the other two swabbed every surface, including walls, ceiling and windows. Then they moved into the bathroom and repeated their actions including removing faeces from the trap previously placed in the waste system. Tau said nothing as they performed the task as planned but she kept an eye on the clock.
The lead operative raised a thumb.
‘OK, guys. Get out of there,’ Tau said, satisfied with what she had seen. She watched as the trio left the room and exited the hotel by the service stairs and door. Soon they were aboard their van and Tau let out the breath she found she was holding.
‘Good work. Get back to HQ. Let’s see if we’ve got what the meds wanted.’

‘Come in Kappa. Delighted you could make it.’
Agent Kappa stepped into the boss’ office, placing each foot carefully, eyes searching the room and its occupant for anything out of place. This was home but you could never let your guard drop. To the boss he appeared to saunter into the room looking relaxed and calm. Kappa was good at creating false impressions. It was what spies did.
The boss indicated a chair on the other side of her desk. Kappa sat down, testing the strength of the arms and legs before trusting it with his weight. He slouched.
‘I have a job for you Kappa,’ the boss said. Kappa shrugged. Why else would he be here. ‘It’s a regime change, an assassination.’
Kappa raised his eyebrows. ‘Isn’t that more Beta’s line of work. Direct action, guns and explosions, that kind of thing. I’m usually the undercover surveillance sort of operative.’
‘That’s true,’ the boss nodded her head. ‘This operation uses your skills but there is, as you say, a bit of direct action.’ She flicked a finger. An image appeared in the air a few inches from the wall on Kappa’s left. ‘Do you know this person.’
Kappa examined the two-dimensional representation. He recognised it alright. It could have been himself but he noted the minor differences – the particular shade of brown of the hair, the precise fall of the fringe, the two millimetres between the eyes more than his own.
‘Yes, It’s Dmitri Borodin, right hand man of President-for-life Gagarovich of the former Soviet republic of Rusbenya.’
‘Correct Kappa.’
‘Is he the target?’
‘No. For obvious reasons he is the one you are going impersonate. The target is the President’s son, Vitaly, his named successor.’
‘Gagarovich has been in power for over forty years.,’ Kappa commented.
‘Yes, and a thorn in our flesh for all that time, but he’s dying. Reports say he has had at least one stroke. Nevertheless, he’s still hanging on and hasn’t yet ceded power to Vitaly.’
‘So you want me to remove the son before he steps into his father’s shoes and makes things even worse.’
‘That’s right.’
‘I return to my first observation. Isn’t that a job for Beta. He could take out Vitaly without missing a sip of his cocktail.’
The boss smiled. ‘I detect a certain disdain for your fellow agent, Kappa, or is it because you’re teetotal?’
Kappa shook his head, ‘He likes the action. I don’t. Why do you need me?’
‘You have to make it look like Borodin, the loyal fixer, has done the deed. That way we remove the whole top strata of Gagarovich’s regime. When he dies we can get a more amenable character in his place.’
Kappa felt doubtful. ‘You want me to take Borodin’s place and kill Vitaly. It will be difficult to make it convincing. With all the technical support Gagarovich gets from his friends they’ll soon find out it was an imposter who did the job.’
The boss nodded, ‘Which is why we need to prepare you very carefully for this operation Kappa. You will be replacing the real Borodin more thoroughly than you can imagine.’
For once Kappa found himself without a response. The boss looked towards the door and said, ‘Send in Agent Tau.’
Kappa turned as the door opened. He hadn’t met Agent Tau before but he had heard reports and respected her for her talents. He stood up and nodded a greeting to the woman entering the room.
‘Hello Kappa,’ Tau said, ‘Delighted to meet you at last.
‘And me you,’ Kappa responded.
‘That’s enough small talk,’ the Boss said. ‘Take Kappa to the medical suite please Tau, and get him ready. You can explain the procedures if you like.’
‘Procedures?’ Kappa said feeling somewhat out of the picture.
‘You have nineteen days to prepare to be Borodin. That’s as far ahead we can predict his movements and that of young Gagarovich.’
‘I don’t usually need that long to prepare,’ Kappa said.
‘This is a special operation, Kappa. You have to become Borodin in order to evade the Rusbenya identity checks both before and after the operation.
Kappa shrugged.
‘Come on, Kappa. The medical team are waiting,’ Tau said. Still bemused, Kappa followed her from the office.

Kappa didn’t feel well, in fact, he thought, he didn’t feel himself, which was probably quite true. Since arriving in the medical wing, he had been stripped, showered, scrubbed and showered again with what felt like caustic soda, then fed pills that made him shit like his whole insides were falling out. He hadn’t eaten a thing for two days but had been on an intravenous drip to keep his energy levels normal and his mind alert.
Now he was lying on his front, naked, with a finger up his backside.
‘The faecal implant’s in place,’ the owner of the finger said, her voice muffled by her mask. ‘The microbes should repopulate your alimentary system in a few days.’ The finger withdrew as did the medical team. A nurse, also dressed in full sterile kit, laid a sheet over his bare bottom and told him to lie still for a while.
‘How are you doing, Kappa,’ Agent Tau said appearing in 3-D miniature just in Kappa’s field of view.
‘Perhaps you can explain now what this has to do with me impersonating Dmitri Borodin,’ Kappa said not a little aggrieved.
‘Haven’t you worked it out yet, Kappa,’ Tau said with a hint of a chuckle.
‘No.’
‘You have to be Borodin in every way. You already look pretty much like him but to satisfy their surveillance and the forensic examination that will take place after you kill young Gagarovich, you have to have the presence of Borodin.’
‘The presence?’
‘Yes. It must appear that it was Borodin in the room where the young man is killed, and in the rest of the palace.’
‘So what’s with the anal exploration?’
‘We’ve changed your microbiome, Kappa.’
‘My mike-what?’
‘The several kilograms of microbes that you carry on and in you. The washing procedure removed the bugs from your skin and the laxatives and antibiotics that you’ve taken killed off the ones in your gut. Now we’ve replaced your inner microbes with Borodin’s.’
‘I’ve got Borodin’s bugs in me!’
‘Yes. We were lucky. Borodin visited London for a trade conference a few weeks ago. We stripped the room he stayed in of all his detritus, sloughed off skin, faeces, semen, yes, he wanked a few times, and the cloud of microbes that we leave behind wherever we go.’
‘I think I’m beginning to follow this.’
‘Good. We’ve cultured the mix of microbes we collected and they’re now sitting in your gut. Your insides are now the same as Borodin’s.’
‘How will that help?’
‘When the forensics people go in after you kill the son they’ll do a sweep of the room and will detect Borodin’s microbe signature not yours.’
‘But what about my DNA. Won’t I be dropping cells here, there and everywhere. I can’t do the operation wearing an isolation suit.’
‘That’s where the next procedure comes in.’
‘What procedure?’
‘Wait and see. Sweet dreams.’

…………………….to be continued

 

 

 

Jasmine begins a search

This week I read a book suggested by Lou, my wife. It’s called “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. It was an unusual choice for her as it can be classed as science-fiction; not space-opera, it is an extrapolation of present day trends.  In some respects it resembles some of J G Ballard’s later work, High Rise, Cocaine Nights etc where a situation that starts out somewhat utopic ends up anything but. In The Circle the decision about whether it is a utopia or dystopia is the readers’ own although I am sure the author tends to the latter opinion.

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The selfie generation

It concerns a business that is an all powerful combination of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook etc. Its declared aim is to link everybody and everywhere providing on-line services that look after their personal contacts, entertainment, employment, health, welfare, safety, and ultimately their taxes and voting intentions. For the participants, including the protagonist, a new employee of the Circle, the aim is to increase the number of friends, followers, smiles (likes), comments, etc. by responding and commenting on other people’s posts and everything else and so boosting their rating and ranking.  People choose to become “transparent” i.e. continuously broadcasting video and audio of their lives while new Circle initiatives  remove the possibility of secrets and privacy, revealing not only everyone’s whereabouts but also their past (criminal records) likes and dislikes and even standardising actions in order to prevent crime or violence. Remind you of anything?

The Circle does extrapolate the present preoccupation with social media – frequent comment and messages, photos, blogs, vlogs, followers and “likes” – to an horrific, dystopic level (here I am encouraging it!). But I wonder. Some people reading the book (if they can concentrate long enough and don’t go flitting off to snatch a glimpse at some other bit of “news”) may think it’s a world they aspire to. Nevertheless, I don’t think the novel is an accurate prediction of  our future. It makes only passing  reference to the monetarisation of social media through endless advertisements, competition and algorithms that tell you what you should like. There is  no mention of cybercrime, cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare.  I think these three modern horses of the apocalypse, together with good old-fashioned greed, are what will eventually undermine what trust is left in the social media and internet behemoths. Where that leaves us I have no idea.

One specific aspect of the novel that attracted my interest was the need to achieve a top rating for everything we do. Only 5 stars or 100% will do. I rarely award the top grade or mark for any subjective judgement. I work on the principle that in the future I might find something that is even better so I must have something in reserve. If that disappoints people or causes them to lose kudos then tough.

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And so to my writing.  First of all – newsflash. I have a cover for Trained by Murder: A Jasmine Frame Collection – an anthology of four longish short stories which will be available on Kindle in March.  All will be revealed soon. For now, here is the fourth episode of the latest Jasmine Frame story, Pose.

 

Pose: Part 4

They headed south and then Samantha directed Jasmine onto what was once a council estate. There were rows after rows of 1960s terraced houses and low-rise blocks of flats. They turned left and right more than once, until they were well into the estate.
‘There,’ Samantha said pointing to the end of a terrace. Jasmine pulled up, not directly outside, and they got out. There was no gate on the path leading to the front door and the garden was largely a bare patch of mud with a few tufts of grass, littered with household rubbish. Samantha strode up to the door and tapped with her fist. There was a delay before the door was opened. Jasmine saw a young woman with dark hair tied in a pony tail. She was thin and dark-eyed. The look she gave the two of them was a mixture of bemusement and uncertainty.
‘Yes?’ She said. The word was drawn out as if to stand in for several other words.
‘We’re here to see Terry,’ Samantha said, her voice obviously masculine.
‘Terry?’ the woman repeated as if the word was strange to her.
‘He lives here. He’s English,’ Samantha explained.
The woman’s face brightened. ‘Ah, the Inglis man.’ She shrugged. ‘I have not seen him. He is not here.’
Samantha nodded. ‘I was here earlier today. That’s what I was told then.’
‘It was not me you speak to,’ the woman said.
‘I know. I spoke to one of the men. He said there had been some trouble.’
The woman frowned, ‘Trouble, yes. Men throw stones and shout.’
Jasmine spoke, striving for her feminine voice, ‘Were they shouting at you and your friends?’ She wanted to check on what Samantha had told her earlier.
The woman looked at her as if she was cast into doubt. ‘We think that first. Inglis people not like Romanians. But they call Terry’s name and shout other words.’
‘What other words?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Rude words and words I not understand. Pee-do.’
‘Paedo?’ Jasmine was puzzled. ‘Where did they get that from? Not “tranny” or “pervert”?’
The woman shrugged, ‘”Pee-do” they shout again and again. Then they throw stone and break window.’
‘When was that?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Yesterday. Evening.’
‘When Tina was supposed to be meeting me,’ Samantha said.
‘When did she, er, he, Terry, leave?’ Jasmine asked.
The woman shook her head and raised her hands.
‘Can we see Terry’s room please?’ Jasmine asked. The woman looked uncertain.
‘We’re friends,’ Samantha said, ‘We’re worried about him.’
‘He is a travestie, like you,’ she said pointing at Samantha.
‘Travesty?’ Samantha looked blank.
‘She means are we transvestites like Terry?’ Jasmine said, then to the woman. ‘Yes, that’s how we know him. Did you see him dressed as a woman?’
She frowned. ‘Not as woman. As girl. He have no….’ she raised her hands to her chest cupping her breasts.’
Samantha chuckled. ‘That’s right. Tina never wore breastforms or a bra.’
‘It was her pose,’ Jasmine said, ‘A young girl. Can we come in.’
The woman shrugged and stood back to let them in. They entered a small square hallway. There was a closed door on each side. A stairway was in front of them beside a narrow corridor to a kitchen. A couple of men peered at them from the kitchen from where sounds of cooking emerged. The woman led them up the stairs. There were five doors on the landing. She pushed one door. It opened on what should have been one of the front bedrooms. Jasmine saw that it was divided in two by a partition made of thin board. The partition didn’t reach the ceiling. She pointed to the left. Samantha and Jasmine squeezed into a space that was filled by a single bed, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe rail. The window was covered in cardboard from a supermarket box. The bed was unmade and covered with a grey sheet and grubby duvet.
‘Did she sleep here last night?’ Jasmine wondered aloud.
‘Difficult to tell,’ Samantha said.
Jasmine took a step towards the wardrobe rail and fingered through the clothes. There was a pair of jeans on a thin metal hanger and three dresses in various shades of pink. She moved to the chest and pulled out drawers. There were items of clothing in each, some male some female. An electric razor and cosmetics on the top of the chest. She looked for personal belongings – phone, wallet, anything that might identify the occupant of the room as Terry/Tina.
‘Well, he hasn’t packed and left,’ Jasmine said.
‘If he doesn’t come back tonight, one of the men will move in here,’ the woman said.
‘The house is overcrowded,’ Jasmine said.
The woman screwed her face up, ‘Yes, but we can only pay if there are many of us.’
‘Why did Tina come here?’ Jasmine said looking around at the squalor.
Samantha shrugged, ‘Finding accommodation in Reading is difficult and this is close to where she lived with her wife and daughter.’
‘Where do they live?’ Jasmine said.
Samantha pointed out of the blocked window. ‘A couple of streets away.’
‘Let’s go and have a look.’ Jasmine backed out of the room. They returned downstairs and were leaving the building when Jasmine paused and turned to the woman.
‘Thanks for your help. Can you tell me your name?’
She shook her head and kept her lips clamped closed.
‘It’s alright, we won’t tell anyone. Just, if we find Terry we can tell him that you helped us.’
The woman managed a half smile. ‘OK. It is Cristina Antonescu. My brother Dumitru is here too.’
Jasmine took the last as a warning not to take advantage of her. Nevertheless, she smiled and thanked the woman. They returned to the Fiesta.
‘What do you think has happened to Tina?’ Samantha said.
‘I’ve no idea,’ Jasmine replied, ‘but it looks like she went out expecting to come back. She didn’t hide her femme side did she.’
‘I don’t think she saw any reason to; not now she didn’t have her wife and kid to tell her what to do.’
‘She wasn’t afraid of transphobes?’
‘Doesn’t look like it. Perhaps she thought that if the Romans accepted her then she was safe.’
‘Except that she wasn’t. Not if that gang were after her. And they didn’t think she was just a tranny.’
‘Yeah,’ Samantha looked mystified, ‘Where did they get that paedophile thing from? Tina dressed like a girl, she didn’t go after them.’
‘Are you sure?’
Samantha turned white. ‘I never got any idea of that when we were out together. Tina just liked the princess look. Like that Grayson Perry.’
‘I don’t think there’s much similarity,’ Jasmine said. ‘Perry’s style is juvenile, but his outfits are sculptured affairs, costumes. Tina’s look was pre-pubertal girl.’
‘I don’t know,’ Samantha said. ‘I thought we were having fun.’
‘You and Tina perhaps,’ Jasmine said, ‘Tina’s wife didn’t see it as simple fun or she wouldn’t have chucked her out. I think we need to have a chat with her.’
A scared look came over Samantha. ‘Are you sure?’
‘She’s the only other person we know who might be able to tell us where Tina is.’
‘OK, but I’m not going near her.’
‘Just take me to their house.’ Jasmine started the engine.

……………………….to be continued

 

Jasmine at rest

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Feb. 2017

It’s the end of one year and the start of a new one so I suppose it is the time to look back, and forward.

2017 was a pretty ghastly year politically and environmentally, but putting worries about the future of humankind to one side for now, I’ll just consider my own selfish interests.  We had memorable holidays in Munich, the Isles of Scilly, Loch Tay in Scotland, Manorbier in Pembrokeshire and some shorter, bookselling jaunts to Bradford, Sandbach and Wellington (Shropshire). Two of my novels have appeared – Cold Fire published by Elsewhen, and The Brides’ Club Murder by ellifont.  I was runner-up in the NAWG minitale (100 word story) competition. I’ve had a number of science anniversary pieces published online by Collins Freedomtoteach, and articles in the Beaumont Magazine.  I even did some science education writing but the less said about that the better – I didn’t enjoy it.  Listed like that it looks like quite a busy year.

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Dec. 2017

Looking ahead, I hope to finished Molly’s Boudoir: the 4th Jasmine Frame novel, very soon and then put it away for a short time while I look to getting the collection of Jasmine Frame short stories published as an e-book. Then I will turn my attention to my next SF/Fantasy novel. The problem is I have a number of undeveloped ideas and I’m not sure which to pick up and run with. Decisions! I also intend writing more short stories and contributing them to competitions and magazines.  Together with attending more bookfairs and literary festivals it promises to be a busy and exciting year.

I hope all you readers out there have a successful and happy 2018.

I haven’t got a Jasmine story this week having finished Reflex last week.  For a change I am giving you a seasonal i.e. Christmas, (well, we’re still in the 12 days) story which I wrote some years ago.  I can’t recall whether I’ve put it on the blog before although I did include it my little booklet of Christmas Tales.

Same Day Delivery

Father Christmas stepped down wearily from the driving seat of his sleigh and pulled the air purification mask from his face. The long white filaments irritated his skin so he rubbed his chin with some relief. He appreciated the mask when he was travelling because of all the pollutants he met landing on roofs across the world – carbon monoxide from gas fires in the UK, wood smoke in North America, sulphurous fumes from dirty coal in China and goodness knows what from the dung in India. The emissions were constantly jingling the warning bell in his cab. On this last trip it had jingled all the way. He glanced into the cargo bay. Yes, no presents left, he’d finished his deliveries for the year, at last. Already the elves were scurrying around the sleigh. They were opening up the Rapid Displacement and Lift Facility, or RDLF affectionately called the Rudolf, that pulled the sleigh. Its spiky, branched, cooling fins were producing a mist in the cold arctic air. The elves also had the Temporal Transporter and SACK (Superfast Article Conveyancing Kit) to service so Father Christmas decided he would leave them to it.
He trudged to his office and began to strip off his boots, insulating trousers and jacket. They were thickly padded not so much for Arctic temperatures as for the absolute cold of the time shift. The longer the interval the more the cold penetrated to the core of his body. Over two hundred years old but looking less than seventy, Father Christmas was upset that the clothes made him look fat. And why did they have to be so red? Why couldn’t he wear a modern white or silver outfit like astronauts? But he knew that the red suit was part of the image. Who would want a silver Father Christmas? More comfortable in T-shirt and jeans, Father Christmas poured himself a cup of coffee and sank into his high backed, swivel chair and rested his feet on the desk. There was a deep pile of documents in the in-tray but they would have to wait. He was on leave now or would be very soon. He was itching to get away for a few days’ vacation.
The door opened and the Senior Elf entered and stood with his grey hair and wrinkled brow just above the level of the desk.
“Welcome back Father Christmas,” he said cheerfully,
“Less of the FC stuff when I’m on holiday. It’s Dave now.” Father Christmas replied gruffly.
“Oh, you’ve finished the run then.”
“Yes, and about time too. Look at the date,” Father Christmas gestured to the wall clock and calendar. It read 17th December. “I’ve been back to the 25th December three hundred and fifty-seven times and I really wish it wasn’t Christmas every day.” The Senior Elf nodded in agreement.
Father Christmas went on “You know if things get any busier I won’t be able to finish one delivery before the next one starts.”
“You’re a victim of your own success,” the elf said, his pointed ears dipping in sympathy.
“Yes, I know. When we took over the franchise from old Saint Nicholas, a hundred years ago, we only had to deliver to a couple of hundred million children in Europe and North America. Now, regardless of their religion, or even if they’ve got none at all, everyone, all over the globe wants a delivery from Father Christmas. We’ve updated the sleigh, replacing the reindeer with the Rudolf, and installed the instant parcel delivery system so that I don’t have to get stuck in chimneys, but this time travelling just isn’t working anymore. And I’m exhausted.”
“We’re working on it,” The Senior Elf said reassuringly.
“I hope so too. Any more problems to deal with?”
“Well. There has been some disturbance amongst the elves.”
“Really. What sort of disturbance?”
“It’s the BNP.”
Father Christmas looked confused, “Who are they?”
“The Better North Pole group. They’ve not been very nice to the goblins. You know we’ve got quite a few of them working here now.”
“Since we changed the employment rules they’ve been pouring in haven’t they. They do a good job.”
“Exactly Fa…Dave, but the BNP say the goblins are taking jobs from elves.”
“But aren’t the goblins doing jobs the elves don’t want, like parcel wrapping.”
“Yes.”
“Well tell this BNP lot to behave then. You know, I always hoped we could automate parcel wrapping.”
“That was an idea, but times change. The days when it was all train sets for boys and doll’s houses for girls have gone. Now they want Playstations and Wiis and Barbies and Manchester United kits and all sorts of things. They all need different wrapping techniques.”
“In that case good luck to the goblins,” Father Christmas sighed, “what else have you got for me to worry about?”
“You may not have noticed but back in the summer it got quite warm. The Arctic ice almost melted away; it’s this global warming. If it gets any worse there won’t be enough ice left for our mega-shed warehouse.” Father Christmas looked worried.
“Are you suggesting that we’ll have to re-locate; move the Father Christmas HQ from the North Pole?”
“I fear that is the situation, uh, Dave.”
“Hmm. What about the South Pole? No too busy.” Father Christmas scratched his head. “I really can’t think of anywhere on Earth that is so remote that it has not been visited by Michael Palin, Sue Perkins or some other comedian.”
“It is a problem, sir.” There was silence for a few moments.
“I know,” Father Christmas said excitedly, “the Moon. No-one has been there for decades. Lots of unused space.”
The Senior Elf shook his head, “the elves won’t like it; it’s a long way from their homes and there aren’t any good shops.”
“Look if there’s a recession in Elfland they’ll move to keep their jobs. Look into it.”
“If you insist.”
“I do. Now I’m going on holiday.”

After a few days in the Maldives, Father Christmas felt refreshed. He had soaked up some uv, swum in the warm ocean, eaten good food and chatted up some pretty girls. On the 23rd December he was back at his North Pole desk.
“Well, what news do you have for me,” he demanded of Senior Elf who peered over the edge of the desk. The Senior Elf grinned.
“I think we have solved the delivery problem, Father Christmas.” Father Christmas leaned forward excitedly,
“You have! Tell me about it.”
“I’ll leave that to the Chief Boffin sir.” He retreated to the door and called out. The boffins are sub-species of elf distinguished by unruly hair and an undeveloped dress sense. The Chief Boffin waddled into the office and stood behind the desk staring up at Father Christmas in awe. The Senior Elf nudged him.
“Tell him about it then.”
“Oh yes, well, hmm, we call it the Multiple Manifestations Machine.”
“What does that mean?” Father Christmas sighed, already regretting the addition of another weirdly named gadget to his sleigh.
“The problem is that we’ve been thinking serially; There’s been just one of you visiting each household in turn,” the Chief Boffin warmed to his subject.
“Well there is just one. Real one anyway; me,” Father Christmas said indignantly.
“In this universe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our universe is just one of many. There is an almost infinite number of universes and billions more are created every minute.”
“How?” Father Christmas asked.
“Every decision that is made whether it is a radioactive atom choosing to decay or Justin Bieber deciding whether or not to perform, causes a split in the continuum and one universe becomes two. Many of those universes are very similar to our own with stars, planets, people and TV reality programmes. The Multiple Manifestation Machine simply pulls Father Christmas from a billion or so universes so that each household can have its very own Father Christmas.” Father Christmas shook his head.
“Well I don’t understand it but if it means that I can get all the deliveries done on Christmas morning then I’m happy. Let’s do it.”

It was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve. The sleigh was loaded with presents and Father Christmas was dressed in his traditional outfit. He climbed into the driving seat.
“Now tell me again. What do I do?” The Chief Boffin sighed,
“Once you are in the air you can operate the Multiple Manifestation Machine.” Father Christmas looked at his controls, mystified.
“Where is it?” The Chief Boffin took a deep breath,
“It’s the box on the dashboard between the satnav and the hands-free mobile phone dock.”
“Oh, I see it.”
“When you’re ready, just press the button; everything is programmed in.”
“Right, got it.” Father Christmas looked at his watch. It was just midnight. “Well, here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody have some fun.” He waved cheerily to the assembled elves and engaged the Rudolf.
The Senior Elf watched as the sleigh lifted off in a sudden blur of movement. In less than a breath it was barely more than a dot hanging in the sky directly over the North Pole. Moonlight glinted off its gleaming paintwork. Then suddenly there were two sleighs, then four, eight, sixteen.
“It’s working,” murmured the Chief Boffin, and moments later the sky was filled from zenith to horizon with twinkling sleighs too numerous to count and banishing the stars from the night sky. If he squinted the Senior Elf could see that each sleigh was piloted by a red-robed clad Father Christmas.
Then they were gone.
The Senior Elf stared into the clear, violet sky pierced by thousands of bright stars. He turned to the Chief Boffin.
“I’ve been wondering. What has happened to the universes we’ve taken the Father Christmases from?”
The Chief Boffin stroked his bushy beard.
“I suppose it would be as if Father Christmas didn’t exist. People would have to deliver their own presents on Christmas Day.”
“No Father Christmas! How could anyone imagine a world without Father Christmas?”

………………………………..

Cold Fire

cover mediumThis week is all about Cold Fire – my new fantasy novel for young adults and above, which is now available in paperback.  I am holding a launch at Leominster Library from 2 – 6:30 on Thursday 19th October and there will be some sort of launch at Novacon in November.

Cold Fire features September Weekes, the heroine of my trilogy, Evil Above the Stars. It follows on from the final paragraph of vol.1 Unity of Seven but is a free-standing novel, which I think can be read on its own.

The story takes place mainly in 1680 in the Wales and London  of a parallel universe to our own. Aeddon is a young man in the service of an alchemist. The alchemist learns about the discovery of “phosphorus” and desires to make it himself to see and make use of the cold fire it produces.  Aeddon describes the quest to find the ingredients to make the cold fire and witnesses the awful results that bring September into the story.

There are appearances by famous scientists of the period, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke; there are dragons and unicorns and mermaids; there are Welsh legends and heroic action. Can September find the magic that will enable her to overcome the Malevolence in this world?

Copies can be obtained from any bookseller or the publisher Elsewhen Press.  Or you can order copies from me for £9.99 including post and packing.  Send your order with a postal address to this email address  . I will post your copy/ies and give you options of how to pay. Cold Fire is also available as an e-book in all formats.

Copies purchased from me will include a postcard of one of the water colours by Katie Ellis of scenes from the story.

Here is a short excerpt from Cold Fire

Cold Fire

Chapter 1
I am given a task by my Master

“Boy! Boy! Where are you? I have need of you!” My Master’s voice came to me from below. He was in the crypt where he performed his manipulations. I was in the kitchen, searching through the sorry remains of our larder for something my Master would find acceptable for his table. There remained just a few parsnips, some herbs and a piece of mutton that the flies had settled on. My Master rarely troubled himself about the source of his food but relied on me to set it before him, unless of course he was too deeply involved in his work to think of food at all. How we would obtain new food supplies, I knew not.
I answered his call immediately as I did not wish to feel a stroke of the birch rod that he kept to punish my many misdemeanours, real or imagined. I hastened down the stone steps into the dimly illuminated crypt of the old abbey. The pale March sun slanted through the small windows at the top of the vaulted walls revealing a space cluttered with urns, jars, chests, furnaces and shelves filled with the Master’s precious glass apparatus and other contrivances. The floor, which I had swept only the previous evening, was already covered in detritus from the Master’s experimentation as well as the droppings of the mice and doves that he kept for testing his nostrums.
My Master, Ezekiel Soulbury, was sitting at his table which was covered in papers, vellum rolls and books but he held in his hand a letter, which I presumed to be that which he had received with great excitement earlier in the day. It had been sent by his cousin from the city of London and such epistles invariably stirred my Master into some kind of activity, although usually of the ‘grumbling and muttered oaths variety’.
“Ah, there you are boy,” he said at the sound of my feet on the flagstones, “stoke the furnaces. We have much work to do. Stir the putti and set them tasks. Where are those mischievous cherubs? Come on, come on, don’t be idle. I need heat.”
This torrent of words poured out of my Master as he shook his head and beard of long grey hair. He waved his hand bearing the letter which stirred the dust floating in the air. It seemed that the letter had brought news of something that had inspired him to a new venture. I wondered what my part would be in it and how much more pain and suffering would be inflicted on me. My search for edible food was inevitably to be set aside as the Master embarked on this new enthusiasm.
I was unsure whether to follow the Master’s first instruction and collect wood for the furnace or his second which was to find his other assistants, the putti. They at least could take some of the effort from the first task if they could be so persuaded, but where were they?
“Yes, milord,” I replied, “I will set to immediately.”
“That you must, while I assemble the necessary apparatus.” The Master got up from his stool, momentarily catching his foot in the torn and threadbare robe which he wore over his rough woollen garb. Once he had had fine clothes of silk and satin but these had been scorched by fire, burned by acids or sold to raise funds for his endeavours.
The putti were obviously not down here in the cellar so I returned to the ground floor, whistling and calling for them. They had not come into the kitchen while I had left it nor were they in the cold dark hall. I climbed the wooden stairs to the upper floor and entered the Master’s little used but grand bedroom. There they were, dancing in the sunlight that shone through the unshuttered, glazed window. Three small, naked, plump boys with feathered wings fluttering a few hands-widths above the floor, circling and weaving as if engaged in some galliard or other.
“Quickly. Come with me,” I said, “The Master has tasks for you and me.”

………………………..

20170930_130251 (2)Last week was spent in the wonderful countryside of Scotland’s Loch Tay. I took the opportunity to test the inclusiveness of the local community, especially the town of Aberfeldy and was not disappointed. Also for the first time I attended a family event, a wedding, in a dress. It was a wonderful occasion, I felt great and I don’t think I stood out that much, especially as most of the men were in kilts. My thanks are due to my step-niece and her new husband for showing wonderful understanding.

There will be more opportunities for purchasing Cold Fire and my other novels, starting with a Meet the Authors day in the library Wellington, Shropshire on 14th October. Following my launch on 19th October I will also be in The Castle Bookshop, Ludlow on 2nd Dec.

 

 

Jasmine decides

As I said last time, I spent last weekend at the Nine Worlds convention (or “geek fest” the organisers call it) in Hammersmith, London.  I enjoyed myself chairing a Q&A session 9Worldswith John Gribbin and Zoe Sutra who were launching their books, published by Elsewhen.  I attended a number of other sessions, some better than others, the highlight being a talk on how to build a spaceship that generated quite a few ideas (and arguments). There were lots of people in costume, most of whom meant nothing to me but they impressed me with their dedication and handiwork. Perhaps most noticeably, both in the convention programme and simply looking around was the emphasis on diversity.  This showed up in a variety of ways – there were as many women as men of all ages, there were a variety of ethnicities represented, there were people with disabilities, and most important for me, there were a good number of non-binary people.  It was an opportunity for everyone to be whoever they wanted to be, whether it was Princess Leia, a fairy, or someone proud to be neither overtly male or female.  I’m looking forward to next year.

Next up is the UK Indy Lit Fest in Bradford on 26th August.  There will be over forty authors like me there, with books to sell either self-published or published by small independent publishers. I really do hope that there will also be plenty of people looking around, browsing and buying books. If you are going, you can pre-order my books by completing this form.

UK Indie fest banner

My latest Elsewhen book, Cold Fire, is now available as an e-book on all platforms.  The paperback will be available soon – watch this space as they say.

Layout 1

And so to Jasmine Frame’s latest adventure in Viewpoint. Here is episode 9.

Viewpoint: Part 9

The pale autumn sun hung over the canal, glinting off the murky water. Jasmine’s feet pounded the towpath. It had stopped raining and the air had a freshness to it. She was running to dispel the frustration and anger and also to overcome the feelings left by yesterday’s jog with its macabre conclusion. Another unexpected wade through the cold water was not on her list of desirables. She was approaching the bypass bridge and there, underneath the roadway, was Harold’s old boat and Harold himself stroking a paintbrush along its multi-coloured wooden superstructure. His wiry haired dog of no identifiable breed sat patiently beside him watching as he worked.
Jasmine slowed to a stop when she drew level with the old boatman. The dog approached her and lowered its head to sniff her running shoes. Harold turned and spoke to her in his Yorkshire accent.
‘Hello again lassy. Don’t often see tha at this time of day.’
Although Jasmine had occasionally stopped to chat she was surprised that Harold was familiar with her routine of early morning or evening runs.
‘I needed to get out. I finished early today,’ she said.
‘Ah well, no doubt you think it does tha some good.’
‘Running lets me think,’ Jasmine said.
‘Well now, a gentle walk with Robbie here before closing up for t’night does that for me,’ Harold said.
‘Which way do you usually go?’
Harold nodded to the setting sun, ‘Away from the town, lass.’
‘As far as Renham lock?’
Harold looked into her eyes. ‘That I do. Give Robbie a chance to do his business and nose around after rabbits. You’ve a ken for what I saw a couple of nights ago.’
Jasmine’s stomach churned. What had he seen? ‘Tuesday night, yes. Did you see anything, er, unusual?’
‘Now what does tha mean by unusual? I saw three fellas up at the lock dropping stuff in the water. Tha’s not so unusual. Plenty of them fly-tippers thinking that the canal makes a useful rubbish dump.’
‘Did you see what it was?’
‘No, but it was quite a weight. Took two of them to heave it off the bank. I reckoned it was a dead sheep or summat.’
‘You know a body was found there yesterday morning.’
He nodded. ‘Aye, and it was thou what found it, weren’t it? I saw you run past, earlyish, and didna see you come back. Then there wus all them sirens. I wandered up to have a look but when I saw the coppers I turned back. Some other dog walkers said what was happening and I put two and two together.’
Jasmine shivered at the memory of the cold water. ‘I saw the body in the water. It had come back to the surface. I went in and dragged it out. Did the police officers come to speak to you?’
‘Na. Why would they trouble themselves to walk all the way down here to hear what I had to say?’
It should have been Terry and Derek who’d been asking questions but they had focussed on the possibility of eyewitnesses on the track from the road. Unless you knew the canal, like she did, you wouldn’t know that there were people like Harold on it at all times of the year.
‘Could you describe the men, Harold?’
Harold sniffed. ‘It was nigh on dark. They wuz shadows more than anything, but definitely three fellas, one of them small and he had a limp.’
Jasmine was excited. Riley? With Taylor and someone else perhaps?
‘What about their vehicle, Harold? Did you see that?’
‘Like I say, it was dark. I couldn’t get a number.’
‘No, I understand. But the type of vehicle?’
‘Oh, it was one of them old Land Rovers, short wheelbase, pick-up.’ He had described Taylor’s Land Rover. Of course, there were plenty of them around, but it confirmed her suspicions well enough for her. Harold’s observations could be vital evidence.
She asked him a question. ‘You’ve moored here a while, haven’t you?’
Harold nodded, ‘For as long as the Board will leave me be. No doubt they’ll be along in a day or two to move me along a bit.’
‘You’ll still be on the canal though?’
‘Oh, aye. I only move as far as I have to. Perhaps a couple of miles the other side of Kintbridge or back towards Thirsbury.’
‘I’ll be able to find you again, then.’
‘Tha might have to run a bit further lass.’
‘No problem.’ She turned to face back into the town.
‘Not going on this time then?’ Harold asked.
‘No, there’s work to do,’ Jasmine said, taking her first stride.

On her return to her flat, Jasmine undressed. She replaced the brightly coloured vest, shorts and shoes with black tights, a short black skirt, black polo neck and black ankle boots. She glanced out of the window. The sky was darkening but it wasn’t yet fully night-time. Not time yet. She toasted some bread and spread it with peanut butter. As she munched on it she felt excitement. Denise Palmerston would be furious if she knew what she planned, but that, sort of, made Jasmine more determined to follow through with her plan.
Harold’s information confirmed for her that Taylor and Riley were responsible for Alfie’s death. She was sure they had held him before he had died, either at the farm or at the park home site. She was going to look at the latter first. Tom had said that Riley’s hut was small but there were plenty of others on the site. Embarking on a search alone was against her instructions and contrary to police protocol, but she felt she was on her own now. If Palmerston wasn’t going to take Alfie’s death seriously then it was up to her.
It was dark now and the evening rush hour would have died down. After putting on her dark puffer jacket and black leather gloves she left the flat, checked that she had a torch, with batteries, in the glove compartment of the Fiesta and set off. Retracing her journey the previous evening, she drove to the edge of town and turned along the lane past the park homes. She drove on a couple of hundred yards and pulled off the road on to a suitable verge. She locked the car, dropped the keys into the pocket of her jacket and set off back up the road gripping her torch.
Before she reached the entrance to the park she climbed over a gate into a ploughed field and walked alongside the hedge that bordered the site. At the corner, there was a wooden gate. It was locked but Jasmine quickly clambered over it and dropped into knee-high grass. The shadows of the huts loomed against the night sky with the glow of the town beyond.
She crept to the nearest cabin. The grass was trimmed neatly around it and there were pots of shrubs either side of the front door. Jasmine moved onto the second. This too looked cared for and occupied. She continued along the well-spaced row until she came to the hut closest to the far hedge. This one was smaller than the others and the long grass grew up above the columns of breeze blocks that supported the floor of the hut. Jasmine crawled around the hut not daring to use her torch but feeling the ground. The grass was beaten down in front of the doorway and in two narrow strips. A vehicle had parked here not many days ago.
Jasmine approached the hut, raising her head to peer through the dirty windows. There was nothing to see as curtains covered the windows. She pressed her ear to the window and listened. No sounds from inside. Surely the hut was unoccupied. She moved to the front door, tested the handle. It was locked. That wasn’t surprising but perhaps she would have some luck round the back of the hut. Her reward was finding a small window open an inch or two. She inserted her hand through the gap and was able to lift the latch. The window swung open. It was a small gap but with her slim figure she could wriggle through. She entered head first, groping with her hands for the floor to support herself before she tumbled in.
She folded herself into a crouch and waited. There was no sound. The hut was empty. As she suspected, she was in a bathroom; a none too clean bathroom. There was the stink of mould, urine and faeces. She took her torch from her pocket and turned it on. The light revealed a grubby wash basin, loo and bath. Were the stains merely dirt or blood? They looked suspiciously like the latter to Jasmine.
She pushed on the door and it swung open. A scan with the torch showed a small bedsitting room with an old, iron-framed single bed against one wall with a bare mattress. There was a threadbare rug covering part of the rough wood floor, a small dining table and chairs and no other furniture at all. In one corner was a sink unit and old gas cooker. Jasmine could hardly imagine living here and she wondered whether in fact anyone did, voluntarily. She crossed to the bed and shone the torch on the head and foot. There were cords looped around the rails at the four corners, with loose, cut ends. Someone had been tied down, hand and foot, spread-eagled. Had it been Alfie? She was looking closely at the stains on the mattress when the front door creaked open.
Jasmine spun around, her heart thudding, her legs ready to run. But there was no escape. Two figures filled the doorway: a short man and one that was taller. The light bulb hanging from the centre of the ceiling flicked on giving out a dim, yellow light.
‘What the ‘ell?’ The shorter man said in a distinct Irish accent.

……………………….to be continued.

 

 

 

 

Jasmine office-bound

This weekend I am at Nine Worlds in Hammersmith, London.  It’s a big SF/Fantasy convention. As well as, I hope, enjoying some of the sessions, my main reason for attending is that my publishers, Elsewhen Press are a sponsor and exhibitor and I have been asked to compere a Q&A session with the authors of two books being launched. Artwork: David A. Hardy

The first is a well known name – John Gribbin.  He is famous for his popular science books (written with Mary, his wife) but he is also a long-time SF fan and writer.  His anthology Don’t Look Back collects stories written throughout his life.  They are mainly hard SF tales exploring a law of physics.

Zoe Sumra is an exciting young author. TheCover: Alex Storer Wages of Sin is her second novel in a universe of gangsters, interstellar corporations and spellweavers.  I’m hoping that by fielding the questions and prompting answers I may get a chance to do just a little promotion of my own books – but they will be for sale on the Elsewhen stand, along with my Jasmine Frame novels.

So, as I won’t be around on Saturday morning, here is the next episode of Viewpoint, the thirteenth (yes, 13!) Jasmine Frame prequel story.

Viewpoint: Part 8

Jasmine was expecting a telling off from DS Palmerston but she wasn’t prepared for the stream of invective that poured from the detective’s mouth. There were F words and B words and more, including the T word, “tranny”, that merely confirmed for her that Palmerston was transphobic. She tried to let the torrent of abuse wash over her, after all words couldn’t harm her, but Palmerston’s final threat did hit home.
‘If you think that because you’re resigning from the force you can get away with anything, think again. I can get your pension stopped and have you on a charge of improper behaviour in no time.’
Jasmine tried to sound penitent but wasn’t sure she succeeded.  Denise Palmerston stood panting, recovering her breath. At last she spoke quietly and relatively calmly.
‘Tell us what happened.’
Jasmine described as briefly as possible her encounter with Mr Taylor and his shotgun and then her tailing of him to the park homes. She left out the fact that Taylor had rumbled her gender change.
‘You didn’t tell him that his daughter was dead,’ the DS stated.
‘No.’
‘Why not?’
‘I wanted to see his reaction, but he didn’t seem interested in knowing what had happened to Alfie.’
‘Perhaps being told that she was dead would have got a reaction,’ Palmerston said in a voice that insinuated that Jasmine hadn’t pushed the farmer sufficiently.
‘He was pointing a gun at me. I didn’t feel like testing his emotional reaction.’
Palmerston scratched her cheek. ‘Hmm. We need to speak to him. He can at least formally identify his daughter for us.’
‘Why do you think he visited this caravan, Jas?’ Tom asked. Like the others he had retreated into silence when Jasmine was receiving her roasting.
‘It’s a park home not a caravan site, permanent homes. I think the speed with which he went there after speaking to me means there must be a connection with what happened to Alfie.’
‘OK,’ said Palmerston, grabbing the initiative. ‘Kingston. You and I are going to pay Mr Taylor a visit and take him to view his daughter’s body. Shepherd and Hopkins, take a look at this park home. Find out who Taylor visited and why.’
‘Shouldn’t I go,’ Jasmine said, ‘I know which one he was parked at.’
Palmerston glared at her. ‘If you think you are stepping outside this office again during this investigation, Frame, you are in dreamland. You can direct Tom and Terry to the correct cabin and then you can write up your report on your joy ride yesterday.’
The senior detective urged DC Kingston to accompany her and they left. Jasmine was left with Tom Shepherd and Terry Hopkins.
‘Where was this park then?’ Tom asked.
‘I’ll show you on Google,’ Jasmine said. She went to her desk, called up the map and went to the satellite photo. It showed the cabins laid out in a grid with the driveway down the middle. She pointed out where she had seen Taylor’s Land Rover parked.
Tom peered closely at the screen. ‘There are quite a few homes on the site.’
‘I couldn’t tell how many are occupied,’ Jasmine said, ‘Most of them were dark.’
Tom pulled his waterproof from the back of his chair, ‘Well, come on Terry. Let’s go and have a look.’ He moved towards the door with Hopkins following.
‘Enjoy writing your report,’ Terry said over his shoulder as he left.
Jasmine grumbled under her breath as she sat down to do as she was told. It didn’t take her long to type out a bare account of her visit to Exeter and the stop-offs on the way back. Just the bald facts were recorded with no speculation or comments of what she was really thinking about Alfie Benson. When she had finished she read through the medical reports on Alfie that the clinic had sent through. It upset her reading what Alfie had gone through. There was the double-edged emotion of his mastectomy; the joy as a transman of losing his breasts versus the sadness at the death of his mother and fear of following her in contracting cancer. He had gone through the surgery and recovery all alone in Weymouth. After that, there was the long wait for further treatment which never materialised because of his drift into depression, no doubt exacerbated by the lack of progress in his transition and loneliness. Jasmine empathised with Alfie. She knew she was in for a long process to achieve the state of femininity that she desired and she knew there was no guarantee that she would ever get all the treatment that she wanted and needed free on the NHS. At least she had the support of Angela, soon to be ex-wife but still a friend, and her family (sister, Holly, was supportive). Her resignation from the Police Force was perhaps a backward step but she was resolute that she would not suffer the prejudice from Palmerston and others like her for any longer.
Little more than an hour had passed when Tom and Terry returned. Jasmine greeted them cheerfully. Terry grunted and went to the coffee machine. He poured two cups but didn’t ask Jasmine if she wanted one. Tom shucked off his coat and sat in his chair.
‘Well?’ Jasmine asked, ‘You weren’t long. Did you find anything?’
Tom nodded and shrugged at the same time. ‘Yes, there was a guy at the hut. Name’s Patrick Riley. Little Irish bloke, walks with a limp. Used to work on Taylor’s farm until he got injured.’
Jasmine was eager for more. ‘So, he knows Alfie’s father. Did he admit to seeing him last night?’
‘Yes. He said Kevin, that’s Taylor’s first name, often calls in for a beer on a Wednesday evening. Despite having his accident while working for Taylor, Riley says they are still mates.’
‘So he’s prepared to cover for Taylor then,’ Jasmine grumbled, ‘Did you tell him about Alfie?’
‘We asked him if he knew Taylor’s daughter,’ Tom replied, saying the last word quietly as if expecting a rebuke.
‘What did he say?’
‘He said he knew Taylor had a daughter but he hadn’t met her and didn’t know where she was living.’
‘Where he was living. Didn’t you say that Alfie was a man?’
‘No, Jas. DS Palmerston says we’re investigating the death of Lucy Taylor, not Alfie Benson. We did ask if she had been mentioned in conversation last night but Riley said she hadn’t come up.’
‘He would say that wouldn’t he. Did he ask why you were asking questions about Alfie?’ Jasmine saw Tom’s sigh. ‘OK, Lucy.’
‘No, he didn’t Jas, and yes, I realise that is suspicious. We’d expect him to have been interested in why we were asking the questions. It didn’t look as if Lucy could have been held there against her wishes.’
‘No? Are you sure?’ Jasmine wasn’t convinced.
Terry Hopkins put his mug of coffee down. ‘The place was tiny, Frame. I had a look round while Tom was asking the questions. A single bed room, barely room for a bed, and a kitchen-living room. It was grubby but all in order; no sign of anyone being kept there or done in.’
‘Hmm.’ Jasmine wasn’t convinced by Terry’s powers of observation or deduction.
‘I think, Terry’s right, Jas,’ Tom said, ‘If Riley is involved in Lucy’s death, and there’s every chance he was, I don’t think she was kept in that hut.’
‘So, what now?’ Jasmine asked feeling frustrated at the lack of progress or indeed effort to make progress.
‘We see what DS Palmerston gets out of Kevin Taylor and suggests as the next move.’
Tom and Terry settled down to write up their report and Jasmine went back to staring at the satellite photo of the park home site. She counted almost two dozen rooftops of huts of varying sizes.

The door opened and Jasmine looked up to see Palmerston striding in with Kingston behind her. She gave an impatient wave of her hand to gather the team around her at the white board.
‘Mr Taylor has confirmed the identity of his daughter,’ Palmerston said, glaring at Jasmine as she spoke the last word. Jasmine did not fall for her senior officer’s ruse. ‘He says he has not seen her for six years and was not aware that she had had a mastectomy but he confirmed that his wife died of breast cancer.’
‘He had no idea where she’s been during that time?’ Tom asked.
‘He denied any knowledge of her whereabouts or lifestyle,’ Palmerston insisted.
Jasmine couldn’t keep silent. ‘Did you ask him why he threatened me with his shotgun?’
Palmerston glared at her, her nostrils flaring. ‘There has been a spate of farm thefts in the area so he has been patrolling with his gun. He thought you may have been nosing around his property looking for things to steal. Oh, and he says his gun wasn’t loaded.’
Jasmine huffed her disbelief.
‘What about you two?’ Palmerston looked at Tom and Terry. Tom gave a swift report on their conversation with Riley.
‘So,’ the DS drew breath, ‘Taylor and Riley are possible suspects in the murder of Lucy Taylor but we have no evidence to incriminate them as yet. Do we have any sightings of the people who dumped the body in the canal or the vehicle they used? Terry, you and Derek were down there yesterday. No witnesses?’
Terry Hopkins shook his head. ‘There are people living in the houses where the lane meets the road. A few of them said that people sometimes use the track to go fishing but no one saw anything on Tuesday evening.’
‘We need to know where the victim was living after she left Weymouth,’ Denise Palmerston said with a note of frustration in her voice. ‘Hopkins and Kingston, I want you find out all you can about Lucy and her father, relatives, family friends, anyone who Lucy may have been in touch with. Shepherd get on to our oppos in Weymouth. See if they can find anyone at all that knew her.’
‘Him,’ Jasmine said. ‘He was Alfie Benson in Weymouth. He was a man, living, working, socialising, not that he did much of any of that from what I can tell from his conversations with the GIC.’
‘Thank you, DC Frame,’ the DS said, not sounding particularly grateful. ‘I think we know how to do our jobs.’
‘What do you want me to do?’ Jasmine asked as politely as she could manage. She expected to be given another routine IT task.
‘You can get out of here,’ DS Palmerston said, ‘I’ve spoken to DCI Sloane and he agrees that your insubordination yesterday shows that you are temperamentally unsuited to being part of this team. You can go and stew in your little flat until you’ve served your notice.’

………………………..to be continued.

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Jasmine finds a lead

This weekend I’m off to Llanidloes in mid-Wales for their Tattoofest. Apparently it’s not all about tattoos and there will be a number of us offering our books to visitors to browse, and buy. I’m not interested in having a tattoo myself although I think some of the designs people have done are quite stunning. I think it is the permanence that is off-putting.  We like to change our hairstyle and clothes fashion from time to time, as well as our surroundings, so being stuck with the same skin decoration for ever strikes me as being a bit limiting. Nevertheless, everyone has the right to adorn their own bodies in any way that they like.

WP_20170704_10_16_10_ProThis is my first chance for a long time to market my books and offer my talks.  I don’t really count the Leominster Festival Bookfair because I spent so much time looking after everyone else I didn’t get to do much with my own publications. This will be the first outing for my new pop-up banner. It is quite an expense and of course will soon be out of date when Cold Fire is published, but nevertheless it should serve for a couple of years.  I think it looks pretty striking as well as informative.

I am on the lookout for other opportunities to promote my work – both the Jasmine Frame books and my fantasy novels. I’m willing to put up a stand or join discussions or give talks. My main talk will be “Murder – with frocks: transgender in life and fiction” but I am also very keen to talk about SF/Fantasy and the inspirations for my September Weekes novels, and about the business of writing and publishing (I’ve self-published in a number of ways, worked with large educational publishers and been published by a couple of small independents. so I think I have some experiences to relate).

I was hoping for a slot to participate (rather than just attend) the big Nine Worlds SF/Fantasy convention in London in August. I was told, however, that they could not match me to any of the 250 or so events! That’s despite there being sessions on mythology, monsters, writing, etc., etc.  I wish the organisers could have been honest in saying they wanted “names” instead of giving me the brush off.

Anyway, back to the business of writing. Here’s the next episode in the Jasmine Frame novella, Viewpoint.  We’re up to part 4 already and I think I know where the story is going now – yes, really!

Viewpoint: Part 4

Palmerston went on, ‘We also need to determine her last movements and how she got into the canal. Pathology will soon tell us whether she was dead or alive when she entered the water.’
Terry Hopkins spoke, ‘A road crosses the canal at Hambury, The body could have been dropped in the water there.’
Jasmine shook her head. ‘I doubt it. That’s a mile upstream from where I found the body and it would have had to pass through Renham lock. I doubt whether a boat has passed through the lock in the time that the body was in the water.’
Hopkins glared at her and moaned, ‘How come you know what goes on on the canal?’
‘Because I run along it most days,’ Jasmine replied. ‘The only boat on the stretch between Kintbridge to Hambury is old Harrold’s and he’s moored under the bypass. The flow has been too great on the river sections in the last few days for boats to be moving much and you may have noticed that it hasn’t been pleasant weather for boating.’
Hopkins grunted but had no further comment.
‘Could the body have been delivered to the north bank at Renham lock?’ Tom asked.
Jasmine gave another shake of her head. ‘There’s only a narrow towpath on the north bank and you’ve got the railway line and then the river alongside. The body must have been brought by a vehicle to the south bank up that track you used this morning, Tom.’
‘There are buildings where that track meets the road,’ Derek Kingston noted, ‘There must be people living there. Perhaps they noticed something.’
‘You’ve given yourself a job, Derek,’ Palmerston said, obviously glad to be issuing orders. ‘You and Terry get down there and start asking questions. Tom, you’re with me. Let’s see what pathology have found.’
Jasmine realised that she was the only one left without a task. Nothing changes, she thought. ‘What do want me to do?’ she asked knowing what the answer was going to be.
‘You can start going through missing persons, DC Frame.’ The DS tossed off her instruction, turned and started towards the door.
Tom saw Jasmine clenching her fists. ‘Sorry, Jas. You didn’t think that she’d change because you’ve resigned, did you?’
Jasmine let out the breath she’d been holding. ‘No, but I’ve been reminded why I did resign. Not that I needed to be.’
‘Shepherd! Come on,’ Palmerston called. Tom hurried to obey.
Jasmine sat at her old desk noting that no-one had laid claim to it yet. She booted up the computer and found that her log-ins were still valid. Well, there were still a couple of weeks before her employment was terminated. She quickly put in a request to receive missing persons data from her own and neighbouring police districts, then sat back and considered. She didn’t hold out much hope of finding a quick match among the dozens of persons reported as missing. She needed another angle. If her guess about the gender of the victim was correct then he appeared to be a good way through his transition. Many FtMs had breast removal before internal surgery to remove ovaries and sometimes the uterus. Phalloplasty, construction of a penis, was the last, most difficult and most expensive stage which many never reached. To be at any stage of that procedure meant that the victim was probably on the list of a Gender Identity Clinic. Jasmine started composing emails to the eight GICs across England. She attached the photo taken of the body when it was lying on the canal bank. It wasn’t pretty but it was all she had for now.
When the task was complete, she sat back and stretched her arms. She realised that although she was alone in the outer office, DCI Sloane had been shut away in his own annexe. She got up and walked to his door. It was open and she could see the man sat his desk, his head bent over a pile of paper files. He rarely used the computer that was pushed to the edge of his large desk. He must have sensed her presence because he looked up and saw her. Jasmine saw his lip curl.
‘Ah, Frame. Any progress?’
‘Not yet, sir. I’m waiting for replies.’
‘Hmm. I see.’ His eyes dropped back to the papers in front of him.
Jasmine wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. There might not be another chance to speak to the Boss when no other officers, particularly DS Palmerston, weren’t around.
‘You agreed with my thoughts about the victim, sir,’ she said.
He looked at her. ‘Agreed?’
‘That he was a man.’
Sloane puffed out his lips. ‘Ah, that. I agreed with your surmise that the victim was undergoing the process of, what do you call it, transition, and I understand that this person may therefore be claiming to be male.’
‘Claiming to be!’ Jasmine felt her face heat up and her heart hammered in her chest.
‘That’s what this transsexual nonsense is all about isn’t it, Frame? People choosing their own sex and expecting their family, employers, even the health service to go along with their fancies.’
‘It is not a fancy. It’s not even a choice. Do you think someone would go through a double mastectomy just because they fancied being a man for a change? Do you think I’m looking forward to having gender reassignment surgery to make me the woman I am?’
Sloane was forced back in his chair by Jasmine’s onslaught.
‘Now, Frame. I know your change causes you some anxiety. I’m sure it’s those female drugs you’re taking. . .’
‘That’s right. Blame it on the hormones that make me behave like a silly female. Is that it?’ Jasmine paused for breath. ‘They do give me mood swings and nausea, but it’s my body that suffers the changes, not my mind. I am a woman and I am sure our murder victim, whoever he was, was certain he was a man.’
‘I think you need to calm, down, DC Frame.’
Jasmine took a breath. ‘I am calm, but I can’t take much more of this. You know it’s why I resigned.’
Jasmine thought she noticed regret pass across Sloane’s face, but it disappeared quickly.
‘That was your choice, Frame. The Police Service was giving you every assistance in your decision to, er, transition.’
‘Officially, yes, but in practice, you know what was happening here and you let Palmerston sideline me in every investigation.’
‘That was your view of the situation. I see Palmerston dong her job to assign staff to tasks as necessary.’
‘So why did you call me back today?’
Sloane’s mouth opened but no sound came out for a moment. He closed it, swallowed then spoke. ‘DS Palmerston thought that as you were involved in the case through your discovery of the body, it would be better for the investigation if you were on the team and could be allocated tasks that suited your abilities and demeanour. You have a reputation for going off in your own direction, Frame, as you well know.’
‘I get results.’
Sloane sniffed. ‘Perhaps. Nevertheless, we felt it was wise to have you where we can see you rather than having you interfere as a free agent; or, what is it you intend being? A private eye. Hah!’
‘Well, you’ve only got to the end of the month to carry on telling me what to do.’
‘We’ll see,’ The DCI said quietly and glanced back at his paperwork, ‘I suggest you get back to your work, Detective Constable.’
Jasmine returned to her desk still feeling the anger filled blood pumping round her body. She looked at her screen. Some of the missing person data had arrived and she flicked through it not surprised to find nothing that had a connection to the victim. The monotonous task at least calmed her down. While she was doing so a ping indicated an email arriving in her inbox. She clicked on it and her heart thumped. It was from the south-west gender clinic in Exeter. She read the message eagerly. One of the staff had recognised the victim but medical confidentiality prevented them from releasing the patient’s details immediately. It didn’t matter – she’d got an i.d.

…………………….to be continued.