Jasmine’s fears

With England’s lockdown hailed to end on July 4th (Wales will be somewhat later), perhaps its time look at what we’ve learnt and consider what the future holds. It is over three months since the UK entered lockdown, and six months since word of a new disease emerged from China. Personally, it hasn’t been an unpleasant period. The fine weather meant we have had lots of walks, losing most of my appointments meant more time for writing, and being retired meant that we had no financial worries (for the moment). In fact, thanks to not using the car for three months or going out, we’ve saved a fair sum. Neither have we suffered from the virus or had anyone close to us suffer serious ill-health.

That doesn’t mean that we are complacent. While we look forward to a loosening of the rules and the chance to meet up with family, the future appears foggy with heavy storm clouds looming. The mistakes of the last six months are yet to have their consequences. I have followed the weekly reports on the coronavirus in New Scientist magazine. These have covered the response across the world and the “science” of the virus and its associated disease. There are two points. One, a pandemic was expected and second, most governments had signed up to a pandemic protocol for concerted action. The problem was that many governments, especially the UK, took the risk that no pandemic would affect them and no government followed the protocol to the letter.

In other words, the government of the UK and many other countries, were unprepared, had no plan, were slow to react and were unable to understand the science. Scientists have learned a lot about the coronavirus and COVID19 but there is still an awful lot that is uncertain. How infective are child carriers? Do you acquire immunity if you are infected and for how long? How many people have been infected? What are the risks of infection from taking various actions? If the agreed protocol had been followed and countries had learned from each other, many of those questions could have been answered sooner, reducing the costs to everyone.

We now have the situation, in England at least, where most people think the crisis is over. Social distancing is in confusion – is it 2m, 1m, >1m, inside, outside, on the beach? How many families to a “bubble”? Can the contents of the bubble change every day? There will be second waves as there have been in China, South Korea, Germany et al. Perhaps they will be localised. Who knows? Certainly not the Johnson government.

The economic repercussions will be as bad as the disease itself and perhaps cause as many deaths except they won’t be reported as such. There will deaths from the mental health problems caused by isolation and redundancy, deaths from diseases left untreated, deaths from increased poverty and maybe, deaths from unrest and increased crime caused by unemployment. Yes, there are storm clouds ahead.

Last week it slipped out that the Johnson government is not proceeding with the consultation on gender self-identification, i.e. the 2004 Gender Recognition Act is not being amended. First, I’d like to point out that the Act is still in operation so transmen and transwomen who have received a Gender Recognition Certificate are legally men and women respectively. No argument. The problem is the rights of the many thousands of other transgender people who have not or do not want to meet the requirements of the act. Neither the 2004 Act nor the 2010 Equality Act protects transgender or non-binary people from discrimination and prejudice if they have not acquired a GRC.

It should be simple. It should be a basic right to be the person you identify as. Gender should be eliminated from the laws of the land and everyone treated equally. This doesn’t mean that there should not be help for pregnant women for example. As far as the law and provision of care and benefits is concerned their characteristic is being pregnant not that they are female.

There that’s said.

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The theme for writing group this week was inspired by the news of the death of Vera Lynn. Vera was the topic. We had a variety of tales and memoirs which as usual were very varied. Here’s mine inspired by Vera’s visit to Burma in 1944.

Forces’ Sweetheart

My mind was foggy when Nobby burst into the tent and announced there was going to be some entertainment. I can’t say I felt up to joining the poker circle. Snap was about all I could manage after our last patrol up the hill. I’d picked up a nick from an enemy bullet and had a touch of the fever that we all got from time to time.
“Not another card game. I already owe you all my pay for the next year,” I said turning over on my camp bed. I just wanted to stretch out close my eyes and dream of a cool beer and a bath.
“Come on Sid, you’ll want to see this. It ain’t cards, it’s a performance.”
It seemed Nobby wasn’t going to let me be. “What is it? Those three gunners dressed up as the Andrews Sisters. They look good enough to kiss, but I hope they’ve learnt to sing now.”
“Na, Sid. It ain’t them. It’s the lass from home. The forces’ sweetheart. You know ‘er.”
“She sings those sentimental dirges. Leave me alone.”
“Aw, come on, Sid. Everyone’s going. It’ll cheer you up.”
“What, one girl singing to five hundred knackered tommies.” But, Nobby had pricked my interest. No one else came out from home to entertain our forgotten army, so it said something for this girl to make the effort.

Nobby managed to get us in a few rows from the front, so at least we had some chance of hearing. She’d brought her own pianist with a small battered honky tonk that had gone out of tune and they gave her a microphone connected up to the camp loudspeakers powered by a couple of truck batteries.
After the customary shouts of “ger off” when the CO made his welcoming speech, she stepped onto the makeshift stage. There was a roar which the enemy must have heard up in the hills. She was a vision of an angel, to my tired eyes anyway. Her blonde hair may have been flattened by the sweat and the humidity, but her face and long legs were still a few shades closer to white than our burnt hides. She was wearing khaki in an imitation of our uniform but who cared what she wore. When she opened her mouth and let her voice take flight, well it silenced the lot of us.
Yes, the songs were poignant and nostalgic, and we probably all suffered homesickness, but don’t we always. She soon had the lot of us joining in the choruses and we sounded like we were all together for once. I thought of home. Were Mum and Dad still hanging on through the blitz? How was Dick doing in Africa? Was Betty still waiting for me or had she fallen for one of these GIs that everyone said were over there now.

I slept well that night. Perhaps a good sing is good for you. There were still the dreams of course, well, nightmares, but I dreamt of this pale angel with the soaring voice who had come to encourage us towards the end. It was the end for some of course. Nobby bought it on our next patrol. I’ll miss him but I’ll get to keep my pay.

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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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P1000555

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 troubled

I’ll get the politics over quickly. Another troubling and confusing week. Still no idea where we are heading although the government’s own forecast doesn’t make the future look at all comfortable. You know why Johnson wants 20,000 more police officers? Because of all the rioting and looting that they’re expecting. Unfortunately the time it takes to recruit and train officers means that they won’t be in time.

Following the judgement of the Scottish court that Johnson suspended parliament illegally, the BBC reported that the Scottish and English courts had produced opposite results. No, they didn’t.  The English court didn’t say that Johnson had not lied or that the suspension was legal, they said they couldn’t make a judgement because it was politics not law. It seems that our parliamentary government as well as having no written constitution also has no basis in law. Where does that leave us?

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awards presentations at the NAWGFest 2019 Gala DinnerI was disappointed to learn that a LGBT youth club in Caernarfon is being targeted by homophobes and that reported hate-crime against LGBT people in the area has more than doubled in recent years. Young people need safe places to go to meet others like themselves and to learn about their identity.  These places should be protected. While the police have run campaigns to increase reporting of hate-crime, this increase, which applies elsewhere, is worrying and symptomatic of the recent changes in society that make it easier for people to express their hate.  I want to know what the police in Gwynedd and elsewhere are doing to engage with the communities they represent. Producing papers, posting on websites, and holding meetings is insufficient.

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I listened to the author, Ann Cleeves (“Vera”, “Shetland” etc.) talk about her life, writing and new book the other evening. She made it seem so easy. Okay, her “overnight” success came after 20 years of publishing not very successful books and a remarkable piece of luck. She still loves writing, hence she is embarking on a new series, set in North Devon, having done Shetland but is still putting Vera Stanhope through it in Northumberland. She has honed her skills so well that it seems every new book is a winner. She insists she doesn’t plot nor prepare detailed character files; she just writes, one chapter at a time, wondering where the story will take her. However her detailed knowledge of the setting gives her the background and the characters are alive in her head as deep and complete people.

I can’t claim to write anything like as well as Ann Cleeves but I do tend to write in a similar way; an idea springs up, I write and it might develop, but I do lack her remarkable feeling for place. Anyway, this week’s writing task was on the theme “betrayal”. I was struggling, not with a lack of ideas but ones that I wanted to write (Gove betraying Johnson after the referendum was one idea). Then I read an article in New Scientist and had inspiration. I resurrected a character that I have used before, secret agent Kappa. As it is a fairly short, short story I think I have somewhat rushed the reveal and denouement. Perhaps I’ll develop it further, or perhaps not as there is so much else to do. I’ll put the New Scientist connection at the bottom.  Here is A Diet of Treachery.

A Diet of Treachery

Selene Tillington took her seat in front of the armoured glass screen. Beyond it, Agent Kappa slumped in the steel chair that was screwed to the floor of the small chamber. That a fine agent should have been reduced to this. Selene suppressed a sigh before starting to speak.
“You know why you’re here, Kappa. We need answers before we let you rot in prison.”
Her words had some effect on the prisoner.  He flinched as if pierced by a stiletto but did not reply.
She continued, “Your treachery has cost us the lives of a dozen agents.  Good men and women all of them. Why? How did an agent as highly trained and competent as you, come to betray so many people?”
Kappa raised his head and she saw his face for the first time. The pain was visible in every crease.
His voice came in a slow whisper. “I can’t explain it.”
“Were you tortured?” Selene asked. She knew the answer. There were no signs of injury on his body, not new ones anyway.
He shook his head. An agent of Kappa’s calibre wouldn’t have given away so many secrets whatever pain had been inflicted on him.
“Drugs then?” Selene persisted. That too was rhetorical. Medical tests carried out when Kappa has been recovered showed no traces of truth potions or mind-altering drugs, other than the chemical signals of the depression that Kappa had undoubtedly sunk into when he realised the extent of his betrayal.
Kappa shook his head again.
“The enemy looked after you well,” Selene commented. “You weighed more when you returned than when you set off on your mission.”
“The food was good,” Kappa admitted with a shrug.
That was strange, an anomaly, Selene thought. Captured agents were usually put through all sorts of trials to break them: beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation, sexual abuse. Simply treating an agent well wouldn’t turn them, surely.
“What did they feed you?” She asked.
Kappa’s eyebrows rose. He probably hadn’t expected this line of questioning.
“Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Regular.  It’s how I kept track of time.”
“No, not the mealtimes. What foods did they give you?”
Kappa looked bemused and then she could see him thinking, remembering.
“Lots of ruddy muesli, seeds and grains, with yoghurt; soup, Japanese stuff, miso is it? Dinner was usually some stuff made to look like meat.”
“Tofu?”
“No, made with soybeans.”
“Ah, tempeh,” Selene said, nodding.
“Yeah. There was usually sauerkraut or kimchi, with it.”
“Sounds pretty healthy,” Selene said. Kappa grunted and subsided into his depressed slump. The diet sounded pretty strange. Something was tickling the grey cells in her skull; something that might answer the questions about Kappa’s behaviour.

Just half an hour later, Selene returned to her seat. Kappa didn’t seem to have moved.
“We’re going to need a stool sample, Kappa,” she said.
The agent stirred and for the first time looked at her with something like his old interest.
“You’re taking the crap?”
“That’s right, Kappa. Those foods the enemy fed you, they’re all probiotics. Great for getting bacteria into your gut.”
“So, they were looking after my health,” Kappa said.
“Not really. We think they were getting some particular bacteria into your system, a tailored strain of Prevotella to be precise.”
“So what?”
“Once in your intestines they secrete neurotransmitters that give you the symptoms of depression.”

A month later, Selene visited Agent Kappa in his rooms. Still in a secure unit but no longer technically a gaol. He looked more like the agent she knew, smartly dressed, hair combed, alert. There was still a deep frown on his face.
“Good morning C. I gather I am no longer accused of betraying my colleagues,” he said.
“Technically you were responsible for that Kappa, but now we know you couldn’t help it.”
“What happened to me?”
“Your, er, sample, showed the presence not only of a highly active Prevotella strain but other psycho-biotics. Together they gave you severe depression and a form of dementia. You literally weren’t in your right mind. It took little suggestion by your interrogators to persuade you to hand over the information they wanted.”
Kappa shook his head.  “I do, kind of, remember how I felt. There was no point to anything, I was useless and unimportant. I couldn’t care less about the other agents.”
“That was the effect of the bacteria in your gut.”
“But I don’t feel that way now.”
“No, we fed you antibiotics to kill off everything in your gut. Then that faecal transplant you received has packed you full of good, mind-enhancing psycho-bacteria. You are fit for duty, Kappa, fitter than ever. Now you can avenge your betrayal.

For the source material go to New Scientist

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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 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, the future

No, I can’t comment, I won’t; politics is beyond satire, and it certainly isn’t funny anymore.

So, something completely different. I read an article in New Scientist magazine this week about discoveries in the Amazon (that’s the South American rainforest not the bloated parasite of a retailer).  For centuries it was thought that the jungle was the last natural wilderness only inhabited by small, scattered primitive tribes, and that conditions were unsuitable for a civilisation to be established amongst the trees.  The fabled lost cities, Eldorado and Z, were simply fables. Now it seems evidence had been found that, in fact, the Amazon was home to tens of millions of people in a network of cities connected by wide well-made roads. The civilisation began to decline after about 1000AD and collapsed and disappeared with the coming of Spanish and Portuguese explorers/invaders. What the evidence shows is a civilisation  unlike any other around the world.  It was not based on metropolitan centres depending on farming of a few staple crops such as grain or rice.  Golden Eldorado is indeed a myth.

Instead, the cities consisted of loose groups of villages or small towns (garden suburbs if you like) connected by a network of roads. They were built in the jungle not obliterating it. Crops such as cassava, but numbering up to a hundred different types, were grown amongst the trees.  The trees themselves were the biggest resource providing food and materials. The people don’t seem to have farmed grazing animals much if at all, but did catch and farm fish in the many rivers that cross the vast region.  They did not use metals or stone but built with mud and wood. For thousands of years the people lived sustainably within their jungle environment. It’s not known why the civilisation fell and was forgotten. Perhaps the population slowly grew till it reached the limits of sustainability; and then the Europeans arrived with their diseases.

The story tells us a number of things.  First, nowhere on Earth has not been altered or affected by humans. It seems even the Amazon rainforest has been modified and changed by human use. Secondly, the rainforest can sustain a sizeable population especially if it is not torn down and burnt to provide land for the short-lived production  of cash crops. Thirdly, people are resourceful. They have found ways of living and prospering in all sorts of environments. For thousands of years those lives sustained their environment rather than destroying it. Can we find a way of re-adapting our poisoned and depleted Earth and share it with the organisms that ensure our own survival?

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WP_20181129_14_20_54_ProI’m still not writing any Jasmine stories. The fifth novel is on my to-do list, perhaps for later this year. The question  is do I want to write any more short stories – or, can I?  I want to promote the Jasmine Frame series, and I would dearly love higher sales but marketing requires time, energy and skills that I am not sure I possess or can commit. So, would another short story about Jasmine during her transgender transition encourage more readers of this blog and the published books. I don’t know. I need some comments and advice.

I am writing though.  A fantasy novel is developing and there are the weekly assignments for one of my writing groups. This week the topic was “Vegetables”. What’s that all about you ask. Well, it produced quite a variety of responses. Mine is below. It is an allegory, of course, and I know it is not horticulturally accurate. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it.

The Brassicas

“Oi, Savoy! Have you heard the news?”
Savoy looked at the white head of the caller, from his vantage point at the high end of the field. It was Cauliflower growing in the next plot.
“Are you addressing me?” Savoy replied.
“Yeah, you daft cabbage. I said, have you heard the news?”
“To what news are you referring?” Savoy replied rather upset that Cauliflower may have news before him.
“It came from Neeps, down the end of the field.”
Savoy sighed. The Turnips were always passing on gossip from the neighbouring fields. “What did Neeps tell you?” he asked.
“He didn’t tell me exactly. I heard it from Romanesco.”
Savoy wasn’t surprised. Cauli was often conversing with his green, spiky and attractive relative. Quite improper, Savoy thought, they’d be hybridising before long and who knows what would become of that. “What did Roma tell you?” Savoy said.
“It’s Eric Unwin,” Cauli said, “The farmer.”
“Yes, I know who Unwin is. He’s the EU in EU Farms Ltd. What’s he supposed to be doing now?”
“He’s going to introduce legumes into our field.”
“Legumes!” Savoy almost went pale with apoplexy. His leaves curled. “That can’t be. Neeps must have it wrong. This field is for brassicas; always has, always will.” The days when it was all cabbages and white cauliflowers, and Neeps of course, may have passed. Now there were Reds, Sprouts, Broccoli. Even Kohlrabi and Pak Choi had been introduced, but they were all brassicas.
“There’s no need to bust your stem,” Cauli said, “I’m just telling you what Neeps told Roma.”
“I must speak to Neeps, myself.” Savoy was feeling quite out of sorts as if his roots and absorbed some heavy metal salts. He hailed the bottom of the field. “Hey, down there, Neeps. What’s this about EU planting legumes in our field.
“Och aye,” came the reply, “It’s tha truth. I . . .”
“You can’t believe all that those grains in the next field tell you.”
“A donna. Will ye no lissen tae me?”
“Well, what have you got to say.”
“He’s got canes ready to support them stringy legumes, and there’s seed – Haricot Vert, Mung Beans and. . .”
“Mung Beans!” Savoy exclaimed, “We don’t want them foreigners in our great Brassica field.”
“Well, ye ain’t goin ta have much choice are ye,” Neeps replied.
“This is preposterous,” Savoy said. “We must take action and stop this invasion.”
“I heard that legumes can be quite an asset,” Cauli said quietly, “They’ve got these nodules on their roots that fertilise the soil.”
“I’ll have none of that talk from you, Cauli,” Savoy said, “You can’t be a brassica and be in favour of legumes infiltrating our land.”
A sprout piped up “I think it would be a nice change from that stinking slurry, he uses to fertilise our field.”
“Ve prefer artificial fertiliser,” Kohlrabi said, “Clean and efficient.”
“You can keep out of this,” Savoy said. “You may be a brassica and we’re happy for you to stay but you haven’t been here as long as us cabbages.”
“What are you suggesting then, Savoy?” Cauli asked.
“We have to take back control,” Savoy said, thrusting out his leaves, “Strengthen our borders and keep out these leguminous interlopers before they grow up their canes and steal our light. What do you say Neeps?”
“A dinnae gonna do what tha say you stuffed green. We Neeps will stay part of the farm.”
Savoy blustered “You, you Neeps, you’re just root vegetables, barely brassicas at all. How about you, Red? You’ve been keeping quiet.”
The Red cabbage considered his reply, “We must ensure that the will of the brassicas is respected.”
“What sort of baloney is that?” Cauli called.
“Are you going to support our action or not Red?” Savoy asked.
“I shall put our proposals to the field when the opportunity arises,” Red replied keeping low to the ground.
Cauli had something to ask. “How are you going to withdraw the field from the farm, Savoy?”
Savoy puffed out his leaves. “We shall refuse to take new crops and make new deals for drainage, pesticides and fertiliser.”
“You won’t get a better deal than what the farm provides now,” Cauli replied.
“What do you know?” Savoy retorted.
“As much as you, you snooty cabbage. We’ll be the ones that are harmed by this.”
“The farm needs us more than we need them,” Savoy said.
“I’m not so sure about that. A bit of crop rotation will do us good. Anyway, why should you decide what we do?”
“Over half of us are cabbages. We know what we want.”
A sprout who had been listening and getting worried spoke, “Actually I think you cabbages make up less than a quarter of the whole field.”
“The will of the brassicas hasn’t changed,” Savoy responded furiously. “The field will leave the farm.”

The rains came and the sun shone but the brassicas wilted and withered. Soon there were just decayed roots and rotting leaves. The tractors arrived and ploughed the field. Eric Unwin shrugged. Sometimes crops fail; perhaps the seed was old or had been spoiled or maybe it was a strain that required too much attention. It was time to start over.

………………………….

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 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 at rest

IMGP5962I’ve been on holiday and had a thoroughly relaxing time. So relaxed in fact that I have not done any writing, which is unusual when I am holiday. There’s been lot’s to do like reading and walking and gazing at the glorious views and lying on the sand with my eyes closed listening to the waves and watching the sunset (not the sunrise – haven’t been up early enough). It has been lovely just being. We have kept up to date with the news and there have been plenty of emails to delete every day but for once we have just not felt like bothering. I know that getting home will change all that but perhaps this feeling of “let it be” will continue. We have decided one thing – that I must do more to market Jasmine but how remains to be seen.

To fill in the gap, here is another of my older short stories. This one is fairly recent. I wrote it as a test to see if I could write an SF story based on an article in a random edition of New Scientist. The trouble is I am not sure how fictional it is or how far into the future it is set..

Potential for Evil

The room I was shown into reflected the contradictions of the British Security Service. An antique comfy sofa and dark wood panelling denoting the history of the service while the holographic projector on the mahogany desk signalled that technologically it was up to date. The projection blinked off as I entered like a bubble bursting and the figure behind the desk rose to greet me.
‘Ah, Professor Isabella Boyle.’ He pronounced each syllable of my title and name as if making sure he wouldn’t forget it. He was tall and dark and, I suppose, handsome in a 2020s sort of way. It looked rather dated today, like the pale blue summer suit he was wearing. He indicated the sofa and invited me to sit.
I settled into the soft, low cushions, thankful that I had chosen to wear trousers rather than a skirt despite the continuing summer heatwave.
‘You know who I am but I do not know your name,’ I said, perhaps showing a bit of irritation in my voice.  I had been summoned by my comm implant which let it be known that I couldn’t really refuse but with no information whatsoever about why my presence was required.
‘We don’t go in for identities here,’ he said lowering himself onto the sofa beside me, ‘It’s an historical thing I suppose. You can call me N if you like.’
‘N?’
‘It comes after M. Now Professor I want you to watch this.’
He wiggled his fingers and the projection formed in the air in front of us. ‘Resume, rewind, start,’ he said.
I saw a planar view of some dusty middle-eastern town. There were lots of people, men, women, children going about what seemed to be their normal business. They were surrounded by a cloud of buzzing insects which seemed to hover over or near each person.  As the picture moved I realised we were following one particular character, a young man. He seemed to know where he was going as he strode through the awning-covered streets until he came to the steps of a white concrete building. It appeared to me to be a meeting place where people got out of the extreme heat to eat, drink, chat, play games and do business.  The man we were pursuing stopped, took the bag he had been carrying off his shoulder and drew out a compact automatic firearm, bigger than a pistol. He held it in one hand and started firing.  Immediately people fell to the ground, bleeding, dying. Some fled but he shot them in the back. He turned, shooting continuously, spraying fire into every corner of the building, the gun automatically selecting targets, aiming and firing without any likelihood of missing. The assassin stepped forward and our viewpoint moved with him deeper into the shadows. Many people had no escape because the exits were blocked by those who had the time to start to flee. He carried on shooting, mercilessly cutting down everyone in line of sight.
He reached the far end of the building and paused. Now as well as the cries of the dying and the incessant chatter of his gun there was another noise – answering fire from outside the building. He stopped shooting, held up his hands and exploded. The image disappeared.
‘So?’ I said looking at N, ‘an act of terrorism in some foreign town. I can see plenty of those on newsfeeds if I wish – many closer to home.’
‘Of course,’ N said, a thin smile playing across his lips. ‘Didn’t you notice anything unusual?’
I thought for a moment, ‘The point of view followed the killer. You had a surveillance drone on him. Why couldn’t he be stopped?’
N smiled. ‘It wasn’t one of ours. We hacked it after the incident. The state follows everyone over the age of twelve with flybots but while it stores the uploads it doesn’t have the AI power to analyse them in real time so they’re only good for reviewing events not influencing them. The incident happened three days ago but what was interesting was who committed the atrocity.’
I was surprised at his use of the word “atrocity”.  It reminded me of my childhood when events like we had watched were not daily events. What had happened to make an atrocity an everyday occurrence?
‘A member of a rival faction?’ I suggested.
‘Could have been. There are plenty of jihadi groups vying for the reputation of being the most barbarous. Not that this was any more deadly than many others – just a hundred dead. No he wasn’t with one of them. His home was one of our supposed allies.’  He seemed particularly gleeful by that revelation.
‘How do you know? Whichever country he originated from he could have been a radicalised member of one of these terrorist organisations.’
‘Ah, that’s where you are wrong. You see we have accessed his i.d. He worked for one of our “friends”.’
‘How did you find out?’
N smiled broadly. He was enjoying showing off. ‘We’re not as out of touch as the public sometime think. We have agents in the field. One of them managed to get hold of the bomber’s body, well, his head actually. It arrived here yesterday.’
‘So you were able to read his implant.’
‘Yes, we know exactly who he is, what he’s been doing, what porn he’s accessed, everything. Except we don’t know what this is.’  N reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small, clear plastic bag. He handed it to me.
The bag appeared empty until I held it up to examine closely. Inside was a bundle of fine wires, each much thinner than a human hair, almost too thin to see. Attached to the wires were slightly larger nodes.
‘Where was this found?’ I asked although I was beginning to get ideas.
‘I think it is called his prefrontal cortex – the PFC? Separate to his comm implant anyway.’
‘Why are you showing this to me?’ I asked although I was pretty sure of the answer now.
‘You’re a top neuroscientist, Professor,’ N said, beaming at me and taking care to look at my face and not my breasts. ‘We think you can explain what this was doing in the agent’s brain and what it has got to do with his actions on behalf of our “ally”.’
I took a deep breath. ‘I suppose you realise that it was connecting to the neurones in the part of the brain that you named. The PFC is responsible for our higher functions – rational thought, decision-making, that sort of thing.’ I dangled the packet in front of me. ‘This is a behaviour modification device.’
‘I guessed that. But what is it doing exactly?’
‘Ah. I would need to know exactly where it was situated.’
‘I can help you there,’ N said, and began waving his hands in the air again. A new image appeared in front of me, 3D this time, – a full colour scan of the brain. ‘You can manipulate it,’ N said.
I raised my hands and fingers to hold the image of the brain, turn it, expand it. I reached in to grasp the piece I wanted to examine more closely.  The silver neural modifier stood out from the grey brain cells.
It was as I thought. ‘It’s made him evil,’ I said.
‘Really?’ N said as if I had confirmed his own guesses.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘A couple of decades ago it was discovered that a part of the PFC was involved in giving the person the potential for evil. That is the ability to perform violent acts frequently and without emotion and be willing to follow orders and adopt the belief system of the group which they have joined. It’s called Syndrome E.’
‘Your typical jihadi,’ N said nodding.
I pointed to the image that hung in the air. ‘This part of the PFC was found to be active in suppressing the moderate, altruistic, risk-averse instincts of other parts of the brain.  It seems that someone has engineered this implant to control the function – turn the evil on and perhaps off.’
‘So it seems. Thank you Professor. I suspected as much but needed your opinion as proof. You see N stands for Neurological Section Leader.’
I was confused. ‘But why would someone do that? Why put that thing in someone’s brain?’
N smiled again. ‘It seems that our ally has decided that trying to bomb our enemies into submission isn’t working. It isn’t. We’ve known that for decades but there hasn’t been any acceptable alternative. So they’ve decided to copy the enemy’s tactic of indiscriminate brutality.  Give them back the terror. But they needed a single minded, evil assassin happy to blow himself to bits if it killed enough innocent bystanders.’
‘Would they be able to find such a person?’ I asked realising immediately that I was being naïve.
‘Of course they could. Think of the Nazis, Irish IRA and protestant militia, Serbians in Bosnia, numerous American college boys.  Every nation has its reservoir of easily led, homicidal maniacs. The problem is controlling them.  With this device the guys in charge, like me, can turn anyone, or almost anyone, into a multi-murderer whenever we wish.’
I suddenly felt cold. ‘You said “we”.’
He gave me that broad grin again, like the cat that not only had the cream but a tasty dead bird as a side dish. ‘You don’t think we’re going to let our “friends” go on with this on their own do you? The Prime Minister wants our own Syndrome E Squad a.s.a.p. and as the leading authority on neural implants you are the person we are relying on to provide it, Professor.’
‘But how will releasing our own programmed killers end the war on terror?’ I asked.
‘It won’t,’ N replied.
‘Then, why?’
‘Because it will be a damn sight cheaper than operating the current fleet of drone bombers. Now, Professor, you’re not getting moralistic qualms about this are you? Not after developing the neural implant that has connected the whole population to the internet and allowed governments and corporations into everyone’s heads.
My uncertainty surfaced as an ‘Umm.’
‘I am sure I don’t have to remind you that under the state of emergency that has existed for the last twenty years your citizenship is dependent on you carrying out your government’s, that is my, wishes.’
I had no choice, unless I wanted to be deported from my own country. Any other that took me would make the same demands on my knowledge and skills. It appeared that from now on I would be harnessing the evil present in most, if not all minds, but perhaps I would also be able to insert an off switch.
‘When do I start?’

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Inspired by Roots of brutality, Laura Spinney, New Scientist p.40, no.3047, 14/11/15

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