The Lovelorn Lawn – a flash scifi story

I loved my house. It had the perfect combination of rustic chic and high tech gadgets, like the wood burning stove that I could light remotely during my commute. Anti-static surfaces meant I never had to dust and the front garden was host to a parasite that kept the lawn neat. Low effort, high style, and total comfort. Go me!

Then came Valentine’s Day, when I walked out the front door to find a heart-shaped bald patch on the lawn. I pulled out my phone and called my most recent ex.

“What the hell have you done, Matt?” I yelled into the receiver.

“What?” he mumbled sleepily.

“My lawn, you dickhead. What have you done?”

“Whatever you’re screaming about, save it for someone who cares.”

The line went dead.

I was about to dial again when the lawn started moving. Blades of grass writhed and twitched, turning the heart shape into a number four, then the letter U. Finally, a cluster of buttercups came squirming across the grass then dropped at my feet like a tiny bouquet.

I rubbed my eyes as I tried to work out if I was even awake.

“Lawn?” I asked. “Did you just bring me flowers?”

The grass shifted and the bald patch became a smiling face.

“Thanks, I guess.”

I picked up the flowers. I could talk to the parasite’s manufacturers later and check if it was meant to act like this. For now, it would be nice to arrive at the office with flowers on Valentines Day.

*

At first, I didn’t mind that the company wouldn’t replace the parasite. It was sweet watching my lawn rearrange itself into smiley faces and delivering tiny clusters of flowers, all while keeping itself neatly trimmed. The night it delivered a pile of worms to my doorstep was a messy one, but what boy really understands romantic gifts?

Then I started seeing Jamie and things got weird. Every time he came over, a clump of the lawn died. He caught me out there in the morning talking to the grass, stroking its leaves and trying to reassure it that it still had a place in my life. One night we came home to find a pile of earth in the shape of Jamie’s face, the top caved in with a dirt axe.

“Either that lawn goes or I go,” he said.

I sighed. For all his flaws, Jamie was passable in bed and responded well to suggestions. But…

“The lawn completes my garden.”

“It’s a parasite!”

“Says the twenty-eight-year-old still living in his mum’s spare room.”

“You bitch.”

And that was that.

*

The next morning, I sat down with the lawn.

“You’re an important part of my life,” I said. “But this has to stop.”

A sad face appeared in the grass.

“I’m a woman, you’re a dirt-based parasite,” I explained. “It would never work out.”

The sad face turned into a Disney logo.

“Yes, I know about Beauty and the Beast,” I said. “But that’s different.”

Now a question mark and then, just as I was about to lose my temper, a winky face.

“Fine,” I said with a laugh. “One date. And if it doesn’t work out, you drop this. Agreed?”

The smiley face came back. That would have to count for a yes.

*

After a decade of dating men, I wasn’t surprised that my lawn arranged a better first date than most. It greeted me with roses from the flower bed, escorted me to a cushioned patch of moss under a tree, and used its own cold dirt to chill the bottle of wine I’d brought to see me through this. Even communicating in pictograms, it was a better conversationalist than Jamie or Trevor, the scrum-half I’d dated during my rugby fan phase. I laughed, I sighed, I brushed my fingers across the impeccably trimmed grass. It was as close to perfect as a date with a parasitic swarm intelligence could be.

“This has been lovely,” I said at last. “I have to go now.”

“WAIT.” The letters appeared amid the grass.

“Sorry, but it’s getting late.”

A sad face with a single tear.

“Really, this has been nice, but I have work tomorrow.”

The response was a series of images – the letter “I”, a heart shape, then a “U”.

“Seriously, you’re making this weird,” I said. “It’s only been one date.”

It was the first time I’d seen grass form animated images of a calendar counting away the months. Perhaps I should have been impressed, but instead I was getting annoyed.

“Look, it’s not you, it’s me. I’m a human and that’s not what a lawn parasite needs.”

The Disney logo appeared again.

“Enough with the Beauty and the Beast crap! This is real life.”

Frowny face.

I took a deep breath and forced a smile as Mrs Copperwheat from number twenty-two walked by with her dog.

“We’ve had the date,” I said once the coast was clear. “And I’m sorry, but there’s not going to be another. You said you would drop this if that happened, so are we OK?”

A sad face again, then a slowly emerging thumbs up.

“Alright,” I said. “Thank you for a lovely evening. Goodnight.”

*

I loved my house, but the company who provided the lawn parasite wouldn’t get rid of it. They didn’t care that it made inappropriate messages for months – first passive aggressive pleas for another date, then angry signs and images, then just patches of dead grass to punish me when I didn’t respond. According to them, it wasn’t their fault that I was living with an angry ex on the doorstep. After all, what sort of woman dates a parasite? Never mind that they’d made it what it was.

Reluctantly, I put my perfect house on the market. Someone else could deal with the lawn. I was going to find a new one, and this time I would buy a mower.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now as a Kindle ebook via Amazon.

The Power Plant Paradox – a flash scifi story

By the light of a small torch, Claudine set her explosives against the base of the generator. She glanced around but there was no sign of the power plant’s guards, only Philippe staring vacantly at the machines.

She shook her head and pulled out a fuse. If they relied on Philippe, then France would be occupied by the Nazis forever. But the British agents who supplied their explosives expected to talk to a man, and so…

A light flickered and she looked up in alarm. A man in denim trousers and a t-shirt stood beside her, behind him a bearded figure wearing chainmail and carrying an axe. The one in the t-shirt touched her shoulder, there was a flash, and the world spun away.

Suddenly, it was daylight. The three of them were in a jungle clearing, the air thick with the smell of flowers and the calls of birds. Claudine dropped her fuse and leapt to her feet.

“What the hell?” she asked, staring at the two men.

“Hi.” The one in the t-shirt waved a hand. “My name’s Joel. I’m from the future. This is Durwin. I borrowed him from Kent in 1064.”

Durwin’s mouth hung open as he watched a pair of parrots fly past.

“Take me back,” Claudine demanded. “I have a mission.”

“It’s OK,” Joel said. He looked down at a gadget in his hand and started playing with its dials. “I just need you for a few hours for my art installation. Once I’m done, I’ll take you back to the moment I borrowed you from. You won’t even remember any of this.”

“My country has been occupied by the Nazis.” Claudine grabbed Joel by the scruff of his neck. “I don’t have time for your damned art project.”

“It’s OK.” Joel smiled and put on a calming voice, like he was trying to sooth a toddler. “I couldn’t have picked you out of the time stream if your actions mattered. All the records show that Philippe Blanc destroys the power plant at Grandville.”

“The only thing that pretty boy could destroy is a baguette. Now take me back!”

“I just need to pick up one more-”

Durwin tapped Joel on the shoulder and said something Claudine couldn’t understand.

“Seriously,” Joel said, looking back and forth between them. “Neither of you matters to history. This is your chance to contribute to the world of art.”

“To hell with art.”

Claudine snatched the device out of Joel’s hands. It had clearly been adapted, with electronic components spilling out of its original casing. Joel stared at her aghast.

“Give that back.” He grabbed the device but Claudine wouldn’t let go. They tussled over it while Durwin’s protests grew in volume. Joel twisted, jerked, and wrenched the device from Claudine’s grip, leaving her with a handful of loose components.

“Oh fu-” Joel began, staring in horror at the dangling wires.

The world seemed to ripple around them. One minute they were standing in the jungle, the next on a snowy mountainside overlooking a herd of mammoths. More ripples and they were in a city of glass and chrome, a sandstone fortress, a cluster of tents in a desert oasis. Claudine’s stomach churned. Durwin stared, mouth hanging open again.

“Shit shit shit.” Joel worked frantically at the device, twisting wires together, clipping components onto each other, prodding at buttons. At last the world went still, leaving them on a hillside at night, listening to the rumble of traffic on a multi-lane road below.

Claudine wanted to scream for a dozen different reasons. Instead, she held her wonder and her frustration inside, as she always had to.

“Send me home,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“Fine.” Joel rolled his eyes. “But you could have been part of something special.”

“I already am.”

Durwin spoke, the sounds low and guttural.

“Yes yes, you’re part of something special too,” Joel said, patting the baffled looking warrior on his shoulder.

Joel pulled a card from his pocket, slid it into the side of the device, and turned a dial. Suddenly they were back in the factory, right where Claudine had been planting her bomb.

She glanced around. Still no guards or soldiers. Down the machine hall, Philippe was frowning as he pushed too many wires into his bomb.

“Happy now?” Joel whispered.

“Piss of now,” Claudine replied. “I have work to do.”

“Your loss,” Joel said. “Not that you’ll remember.”

The world rippled and Joel and Durwin were gone.

Claudine looked down at the bomb she had been planting. Why was she standing up? And why hadn’t she put the fuse in yet? Time was of the essence. If the Nazis caught them it would mean disaster.

She opened her hand, revealing a fistful of electrical components she didn’t recognise. No fuse.

Well, she would just have to improvise. With a few of these wires, her watch, and the batteries from the torch, she could make something work. There was still time before the guards came round again. Just enough time.

* * *

Over on Twitter, I often talk about what I’m writing today. Sometimes this leads to weird combinations that leave you wondering what sort of story they’d make, and sometimes friends challenge me to write that story. Which is how I ended up with a time travel story involving a Saxon warrior, a 20th-century saboteur, and a jungle trek (alright, I left out most of the trekking, but I think this still counts). I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please share it with friends and maybe sign up to my mailing list to receive weekly bursts of fiction.

The Good Trip Getaway – a flash sci-fi story

We took our last spare cash to a street pharmacist, a guy in a stained coat selling hard drugs and soft lies down in the scrap district. Light and sound blazed from every building, music cascading into the streets from a thousand new year parties. In the heart of the city, you could always lose yourself if you needed to.

“I want to escape all this.” I pointed to one of the rockets towering over us, a remnant of the years when humanity had flown to the stars, when there had been a brighter hope. “I want to feel like I’m flying, to know what it was like in the old days.”

“History offers no take backs,” the guy said, pulling a pill from his pocket. “But I can offer this. You’ll fly and so much more.”

Pill for cash, deal done in the moment between the beats of the music. I swallowed the pill dry and twitched my arms, eager to take off.

“And you?” the pharmacist asked Ailene.

“Just something to relax.”

Another payment, another pill, another quick swallow on the road to relief.
Muscles spasmed between my shoulder blades. I felt as though I was bursting. Then suddenly I had wings and they were flapping, carrying me into the air.

“Check it out!” I shouted to Ailene. “I can fly!”

“Check out a mirror,” she shouted back.

I looked in the window of one of the buildings, saw myself reflected back in the glass. I didn’t just have wings. I had claws, feathers, a beak. I was a bird.

Laughter shook my fragile avian body. This was some serious shit. I really did feel like I’d taken flight, like those feathers were mine.

Another spasm. I fell to the ground and found myself legless, writhing in the body of a snake. Then I was on all fours, furred and panting. I let my tongue hang out while I looked around for a stick.

“Wow, man,” Ailene said staring at me. “How’d you do that?”

“Quantum, see?” the dealer said. “Becoming different lives he could have been. In the end, he’ll come back to whatever he most wants.”

Ailene ruffled my fur and laughed. I barked happily.

“He’ll be back soon enough. He wants to be with me, don’t you?”

I barked again. I was a good boy and I was with Ailene. How could the world get any better?

* * *

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Out Now – All the Beautiful Sunsets

My latest book, All the Beautiful Sunsets, is out today. Collecting 52 flash stories I published on the blog this year, it covers a wide range of settings, from ancient history to the far future.

A fairy noble hunting for spies. A soldier digging for his life beneath a battlefield. A man learning the cost of renting out his brain. Meet all these characters and more in fifty-two short stories set in worlds beyond our own.

All the Beautiful Sunsets is available as an e-book from all good stores.

My Top Reads of 2018 – Non-Fiction

Continuing my review of the year in books, here are some of my favourite non-fiction reads from 2018. They didn’t necessarily come out this year, but now is when I found and enjoyed them. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a non-ficiton book this year, tell me about it in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for more.

Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini

To say that modern society faces problems with gender and sexuality would be an understatement up there with “King John seems a little bit off.” As half of society tries to adopt a more nuanced, egalitarian attitude, the other half kicks back, desperately clinging to binary divisions and patriarchal structures. Movements like gamergate and the sad puppies have turned geek culture into a battleground on gender issues, spewing angry invectives and threats of violence at people who question the status quo. “How dare they fill speculative fiction with gays and women?” the trolls cry out. “It was fine being all about straight white men!”

In that environment, it was particularly pleasing to see a British Fantasy Award go to Luna Press’s excellent collection of articles on gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. Articles in this book cover a wide range of topics, from the myth of meritocracy in publishing to the remarkable improvement in gender representation in the Magic the Gathering card game. These thought-provoking pieces by smart writers address both the content of our fiction and the process surrounding it, encouraging readers to look at gender and sexuality in geek culture from a dozen different angles.

This is academic writing of a relatively accessible type, aimed at wider readers with an interest in the field. It takes some effort, but if you’re interested in issues of social justice or the state of sf+f then it’s well worth a look. It’s a book whose existence and well-earned plaudits will help shift our culture in a more positive direction.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Speaking of gender, I wrote back in June about Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Six months later, it still haunts me, one of the most remarkable history books I’ve read in my life, never mind this year.

Researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this book details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. It reveals a side of the war that fitted poorly with official accounts and heroic re-tellings, showing the vital place of women on the Eastern Front and the awful realities they faced. Despite its huge significance, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war, it’s a powerful testimony to the experiences of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. But it’s not just about the moments of violent struggle. It’s also about the transformation of civilians into warriors, of women into men’s roles, how that changed them and how it affected their lives once the war ended. It’s also an account of Alexievich’s own mission to uncover these hidden stories, the way she related to the women she interviewed, and the way they viewed the war decades later.

The phrase “we have always fought” has become a rallying cry for the re-examination of women’s place in history and in the fiction influenced by it. The Unwomanly Face of War provides the ultimate evidence of how tragically true that phrase is.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

Another unconventional look at the Second World War, Milton’s book delves into Britain’s covert operations. When Churchill called out for Europe to be set ablaze in resistance to the Nazis, these were the people who built him a bigger match and worked out where best to light it.

The book covers three aspects of their work. First, there were the mad inventors of the weapon’s making division, men like Cecil Clarke and Stuart Macrae who invented the limpet mine using condoms and aniseed balls. Then there were the trainers, men like Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, the professional sharp-shooter and former police commander who taught men to kill with their bare hands. And finally, there were the operatives themselves, sent on dangerous missions deep in occupied Europe, committing acts of sabotage and assassination in the name of freedom.

Unlike The Unwomanly Face of WarChurchill’s Ministry sometimes glamourises its subjects, both the people and the missions. There’s a sense of boy’s own adventure in places that’s at odds with the true ugliness of events. But the overall tone is one of exploring the extraordinary, from the ingenuity of inventors to the courage and determination of undercover operatives. It’s an unexpected and seldom discussed niche within much larger events, compelling as much for the odd characters as for what they achieved.

My Top Reads of 2018 – Fiction

As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to look back on what’s been good in 2018. I’m going to start with fiction – not necessarily books that came out this year, but ones I’ve read and enjoyed over the past twelve months.

The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy by RJ Barker

This year saw the release of volumes two and three of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy – Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. Age of Assassins was one of my favourite books of 2017, so I had high hopes, and RJ absolutely lived up to them.

Girton Clubfoot is an assassin, his skills all about killing. When he and his master are called upon to save a life instead of ending one, they become drawn into the politics of a court at war with itself in a country ravaged by dark magic. Everybody has their secrets, from the king down to the stable hands. Some of them are willing to kill to keep those secrets safe, and it won’t be long before Girton finds himself on the sharp end of a blade.

This series consists of three murder mystery political thrillers set in a medieval fantasy world. There’s war, magic, crime, and intrigue aplenty. But what makes it stand out is the characters. With the books set years apart, we get to see them maturing and their relationships changing. They both shape and are shaped by the kingdom around them. Villains become heroes while heroes lose their way. The protagonist goes from a fumbling apprentice to a master of his craft. And through it all, there’s an exploration of family – what it is, what it means, and how it shapes us.

I don’t want to say much more, for fear of spoiling the series’ splendid twists and turns. While the first book was compelling, it’s the finale that makes it powerful. These are smartly written, compelling novels. If you enjoy fantasy at all, you should give them a go.

Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rex is a good dog. All he wants is to do what his masters tell him and be rewarded with their love and gratitude. Unfortunately, Rex is also a seven foot tall muscled monstrosity, genetically engineered as one of the world’s deadliest killing machines. So when things start to get confusing for Rex, when the boundary between enemies and innocents becomes unclear, there’s trouble coming.

Dogs of War is a stand-alone sci-fi novel about the abuse of power and what it means to be a person. In Rex, it has one of the most perfectly written, perfectly heartbreaking viewpoint characters I’ve ever experienced. The difference between his innocent worldview and reality is skillfully implied from the very start, making for a really emotional read. And as the story shifts, digging deeper into the fate of creatures like Rex, it raises intriguing questions about how humans cope with the consequences of what we create.

I’ve been reading a lot of Adrain Tchaikovsky’s work recently. So far this is the standout story, a great book from a great writer.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

Years behind my friends’ recommendations, I’ve finally got started on Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy and it was well worth it.

Another fantasy series, the Copper Cat trilogy follows a band of mercenaries whose attempts to make a living drag them into saving the world. What starts as a gritty story of lowlives in scummy taverns slowly escalates into an epic of gods and monsters in which mortals struggle to save the innocent from destruction.

Like all the best stories, the characters are what drive these books along. There conflicting motives and personalities ensure that there’s always trouble brewing, but their friendship pulls them together in battles against the odds. Sharp dialogue and lively action scenes become a conduit for those characters, not a distraction from them.

I haven’t yet read the last book in the series, but based on the first two, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. And I can definitely recommend the first two, starting with The Copper Promise.

The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

Imagine the early 19th century but with magical art that crafts illusions. That’s the world of the Glamourist Histories.

At the heart of this series is Jane, the narrator and protagonist. A young woman born into the English gentry, she starts out looking for all the things we expect from a Jane Austen character – love, marriage, a secure future. But Jane is also a skilled glamourist, able to use her art to bring beauty from thin air. If she can find a way to pursue her art, then life promises much more for Jane, even if she can’t see it.

Though character is the consistent thread of these books, it’s the variety of settings within them that I particularly love. One is a Jane Austen pastiche, the next a Napoleonic espionage thriller. We spend time with the reformers of London, the glassblowers of Venice, and the slaves of the Caribbean plantations. A lot of the themes of real 19th-century history are explored in the space of five fantasy novels.

I finished this series this year on audible, where the books are wonderfully narrated by the author. They’re a very different take on fantasy from most of what I read, drawing on different threads of history and society, rich with social tensions and the challenge of change.

 

So those were my top reads this year. What were yours?

The Doctor Will See You Now – a flash scifi story

The shutters were down across the door of the clinic and however hard I tried my key wouldn’t open the padlock. It was too early in the morning to call anyone else in, but not too early for patients to need a doctor. Fortunately, I had bolt cutters amid the jumble of tools in the boot of my car. We could buy a new padlock. Not everybody could buy time.

Inside, I was greeted by a waft of trance music and the smell of lemons. Someone had left a computer on overnight, pumping out sounds, smells, and a light show that brightened the peeling paint of the ceiling. I switched it off, opened up an examination room, and waited for patients to arrive.

It didn’t take long. First was a woman in overalls and steel-toed boots, her face pale.

“Think I’ve got the flu, doc,” she croaked, pausing to blow her nose. “Need signing off work.”

“Are you feeling any aches or fever?” I asked.

She nodded.

“When did it start?”

“This morning.”

“This seems pretty advanced for such a short time.” I peered at her pupils. Sure enough, there was a telltale wideness to them. “Did you know that there are sickness simulators on the web, sites that will bring on symptoms without giving you the illness?”

She looked away. “Why would someone make that?”

“Why indeed.”

“You know, maybe it’s just a cold. I’ll get some medicine, see if I can cope with work.”

“You do that,” I said.

Four more patients came in before the receptionist arrived. Two of them had simulated symptoms – one on purpose, the other thanks to malware. They both got the same instructions – turn off the internet for three hours, then come back if they were still sick.

I wouldn’t be seeing them again.

“You’re not Dr Rowe,” the receptionist said as she peered in at me.

“Dr Rowe couldn’t make it,” I said, stifling a yawn. I hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, hadn’t planned on being here today. It was going to be a long shift.

“Waiting room’s almost full.”

I nodded. “I’m trying, but you know how it is. Too many sick people, not enough doctors.”

“Hm.” She gave me a quizzical look, then headed out of the room. I could hear her starting a phone call as the next patient came in.

“I think I’ve for the flu,” the man said.

We went through the motions, but I could already tell that it was another simulation. He was too lively for a man on the edge of collapse.

I was just about to send him away with his no-internet prescription when something caught my eye – a scratch on his forearm, swollen and red.

“Did you get that recently?” I asked.

“Couple of days ago.”

I peered at it more closely. Clearly infected. This guy was probably running a real fever beneath the fake one and I’d almost sent him away without treatment. What sort of doctor was I?

“You’ll need a tetanus booster,” I said. “And something to fight the infection.”

I opened a cupboard and realised that I had no idea where anything was. This was the first patient who’d needed more than painkillers or my signature on a renewed prescription. I hadn’t had to find anything else.

Everything was so unfamiliar. Had I not worked here before? I thought I had, but clinics all looked alike after a while.

I found a drawer of bottles and started looking at them, trying to find one with the right label.

What was the right label again? What would deal with this sort of infection? The tiredness was making it hard to think straight.

“Are you alright, doc?” the patient asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Just give me a minute.”

I flung open cupboards and drawers, waiting for anything to jog my memory. Doors banged open as I became more frantic.

There was a knocking and the door to the room opened. A man stood in the hallway, a stethoscope around his neck.

“Yes?” I snapped.

“I’m Dr Rowe,” he said. “I’m on duty here this morning. Who are you?”

“I’m doctor… doctor…” Somehow it didn’t seem right, putting my name after that word. It didn’t quite fit.

The patient looked nervously between us.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Could you just give us a minute?” Dr Rowe said.

The man hurried out and Rowe shut the door behind him.

“I presume you read The Lancet?” he said.

“Of course,” I replied.

“Did you see the article last month about computer-simulated illnesses?”

“Must have missed it.”

“Apparently they can simulate symptoms of mental as well as physical illness now. Hyperactivity, depression, even delusions.”

“Shocking,” I said. Somewhere in the back of my head, a thought was screaming for attention, but I couldn’t make it out.

“You look tired,” Rowe said. “Let’s get you away from computers for a bit, see how you feel in a few hours.”

* * *

 

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like my science fiction collection, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves. And if you want even more, you can sign up to my mailing list to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.

Special Delivery – a flash science fiction story

“You can’t do this!” I screamed at the phone screen. “We need those meds!”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Mendoza, but we don’t deliver to your region any more.” The man from Aldercon kept his face neutral, but I could hear the disdain in his voice. It wasn’t the region that was the problem.

“This is prejudice,” I said, lowering my tone to an angry growl. “You’re refusing to sell to spacers.”

“It’s just business,” he said. “The electric storms around the mountains have worsened, so our drones can’t get through. If you lived somewhere else then-”

“We can’t afford to live somewhere else!”

“Then Aldercon can’t deliver to you.”

“Please. No-one else makes these meds.”

“Rightly so. The governor gave us the exclusive contract.”

I took a deep breath.

“I read the contract. It says that you have to deliver everywhere in the colony.”

“Everywhere we safely can. And that does not include storm-struck mountains. Good day, Ms. Mendoza.”

The screen went blank. For a long time I just sat staring at it. Finally, I found the will to force myself up from my chair, out of my room, and down the clear plastic tunnel to the communal dining hall. Through the walls, I could see dust swirling and lightning flashing as the storms bounced ceaselessly between the mountains. Maybe one day we would understand what caused them, but only if we lived long enough to finish the work.

With every step, I felt an ache deep in the muscles of my legs. That pain was reflected in the faces of my neighbours as I joined them in the hall. After generations living in space, our people’s bodies weren’t used to being planetside. But our old home was gone and this colony was our only hope.

I didn’t have to speak. They could see from my face how the call had gone.

“Sorry, Nita,” Jacko said, reaching out to squeeze my hand. “And thank you for trying.”

In a corner of the room, a child started crying. Her mother joined in with a low, broken sob.

“Fuck trying,” I said. “You’re a chemist, right? Could we make this stuff ourselves, with what we have out here?”

“Maybe,” Jacko said, tilting his head to one side. “If we can find the right elements in the soil. But we’d have to be real lucky.”

“Good enough,” I said. “Let’s get to work.”

It took a month to get things set up. By then, several of the kids were bedridden, their bodies unable to cope. I’d taken to using a walking stick to make trips around the habitat bearable. But we had what we needed.

I was careful about how I phrased the sales page. Nothing directly saying that we’d replicated Aldercon’s Groundease pills, just talk of medicine to make a spacer’s life on the ground bearable. I offered to sell it to people in the mountains at cost and to others at half the price of Groundease. The page said that sales would start in two weeks, once the first batch was ready.

Within two hours, the call came through. It was the same Aldercon executive I’d argued with before.

“You’re breaking the law,” he said. “Infringing upon our exclusive contract.”

“I’m just trying to help people,” I said.

“We’ve obtained a cease and desist order.” That was fast. But then, big companies usually had judges in their pockets.

“I’m not doing anything illegal.”

“Like hell you aren’t!”

“I used to be a lawyer,” I said. “On this colony, a cease and desist order has to be delivered in a physical, printed form. So until I see that-”

“You’ll see it alright.”

“Packages can get lost so easily…”

“Ha! Try pretending you don’t see the order when it’s delivered by a dozen drones, all with cameras. And if you don’t follow it, we’ll sue you for whatever crap you space-head losers-”

I killed the call. The blank screen that followed was the most satisfying thing I’d ever seen.

When I called him back the next day, he looked as smug as only a corporate executive could.

“I got your cease and desist orders,” I said. “All dozen of them, ordering us to stop making your drugs.”

“And?”

“And we can’t stop because we’ve never made them. Do you know how lucky we’d have had to be to find the ingredients?”
I heard knocking on a door. He looked up, irritated, towards someone beyond the camera.

“Who the hell are you?” he snapped.

“Probably an officer of the court,” I said. “Come to collect footage from a dozen drones, all proving that you can safely deliver through the electric storms.”

To his credit, he held back whatever insult he wanted to throw at me. He forced a smile and I smiled smugly back at him.

“The contract,” he said. “Of course. No need to go to court, Ms. Mendoza. Let me arrange a delivery for you now.”

* * *

 

This story was inspired by some interesting coverage of the intersection between commerce and politics – see this article on Amazon deliveries and this Twitter thread. I’m sure there’s something deeper to be written on the subject, but I only had a thousand words, so deeper can wait.

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Age’s Terrible Toll – a flash scifi story

Sarah sat back in her armchair, eyes closed. She turned an old zippo lighter over in her hand, its familiar shape a comforting distraction.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” the nurse from AlderCon said as he rolled up Sarah’s sleeve. “You’re never too old to get lung cancer.”

“I quit decades ago,” Sarah said. “I keep this around to remember why.”

“Fair enough. You ready?”

Sarah nodded, eyes shut tight. The needle wasn’t big but she still flinched as it pricked her arm. She squeezed the lighter and forced herself to sit still.

She trusted AlderCon and their staff. Thanks to their security division, there were no more teen gangs roaming the city’s streets. And thanks to their treatment, she’d barely aged since she hit fifty. These injections were adding decades to her lifespan.

Still, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the needle going in.

“How does it work?” she asked, as the nurse put the syringe away.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“I was a research chemist for forty years. I think I’ll understand.”

The nurse blushed and looked away. “Alright, you’ve got me. I don’t know how it works.”

“Not even how it’s made? Your office is on the same site as the factory.”

The nurse glanced around, then leaned in close and lowered his voice.

“Let’s just say there’s a reason you don’t see many teenage troublemakers around here.”

Sarah squeezed the lighter again. As a student, she’d campaigned against child labour in China. Was this young man saying that it was now on her doorstep? Or was he just making up wild stories to impress clients?

If there was one thing she’d learnt in her career, it was that you had to have evidence before you tackled a problem.

“Thank you,” she said, rolling her sleeve back down. “Same time next month?”

*

The electronic lock on the factory door clicked open, letting Sarah slide inside. In her forties she’d dated a corporate spy, a wild-eyed Australian by the name of Shona. It hadn’t ended well, but she’d learnt a lot along the way, including techniques for tackling security systems. Given the ache in her hip, avoiding the guards had been tricker than getting through the doors.

She crept along the corridor, past offices and storerooms, towards the main processing plant. The factory kept working at night but its clerical staff didn’t, making this the easiest way in.

She’d brought a better camera than the one on her phone. Hopefully she wouldn’t need it. She’d just find young people on apprenticeship schemes, making pharmaceuticals instead of hanging out on street corners. But if she saw school age children, or if conditions here weren’t good, then she would want leverage to make the company improve. Life was long and she didn’t want to spend it carrying around a weight of guilt.

The next lock was easier, as internal security measures often were. She opened the door just enough to slide through into the shadows at the edge of the factory floor.

She froze, one hand still holding the door.

There were young people here alright. Hundreds of them, sitting in orange boiler suits on plastic chairs. Many were in their late teens, while some were too small and smooth-faced to be more than twelve years old. All were strapped into their seats, staring glassy-eyed into the distance. Plastic tubes ran from strange machines to the needles in the young people’s arms.

So many needles.

Sarah slid her hand into her pocket and squeezed the familiar shape of her lighter.

*

“What I don’t get is why you burned the place down,” the detective said, looking across the desk at Sarah. Beside him, a light blinked on the police station’s digital recorder. “I mean, that’s where you get your drugs from, right? Other people in your neighbourhood too. Are you so sick that you want to hurt your own community?”

“My client has not admitted to any act of arson,” Sarah’s lawyer said for the third time.

“She was found watching the place burn, holding a lighter and a bottle of home-made accelerant.” The detective shook his head. “How stupid do you think we are?”

“Surely AlderCon’s security tapes will show you what happened inside the factory?” the lawyer said.

The detective frowned. His partner snorted.

“For victims, they’re surprisingly uncooperative,” he said.

“Perhaps they’re just incompetent,” the lawyer replied. “They did just misplace a hundred young offenders from one of their secure facilities,”

“They told me to ask you about that too.” The detective gave Sarah a puzzled look. “Any idea why?”

Sarah shifted in her seat. The ache in her hip was growing. It would only get worse without her injections, as would the other symptoms of age. The next few years would be cruel ones.

She squeezed her hand tight, but there was no lighter there. Just the memory of how it felt, and of a flame bursting from it for the first time in years, blazing in the shadows of the factory.

“I have an old friend who’s a journalist,” she said. “Watch the news tomorrow and I think you’ll find some answers.”

The detectives looked at each other, then back at her.

“What are you on about?” one asked.

“These days, I never really know,” Sarah said, smiling and tapping the side of her head. “Age is taking its toll.”

* * *

 

I don’t remember exactly where this idea came from. I found it in an old notebook, among various scribblings from last year. I think it might have been influenced by a body horror piece by Steve Toase, about people being used by medical business. Judging by the orange boiler suits, I also had Misfits on my mind, but then I often do.

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Elite Versus Community: The Nature of Sci-fi

In his 1994 book Science Fiction in the 20th Century, Edward James cites Farah Mendelsohn as suggesting that science fiction could be viewed as a form of elite fiction, written for a technocratic elite rather than the literary one that a certain strain of high-brow fiction aims for.

I can see where she was coming from. Most sci-fi is written for a particular audience, one that’s often tech-savvy and which has the experience to decode science fiction’s tropes and assumptions. What makes a thrilling story to an experienced sci-fi reader, with the skills to wrap their head around sci-fi writing, would be bewildering to some other readers.

But I don’t think that elite is the right description for this group. I think it’s better viewed as a community, a selection of people with shared tastes and interests. Some do regard themselves as an elite, made superior by their grasp of the genre, but that doesn’t make them better sci-fi fans, it just makes them snobs.

Sci-fi might aspire to be for an elite because that’s how literary fiction presents itself. But again, I call bullshit on that. The ability to appreciate literary fiction means you have a particular set of skills that most people don’t. So does the ability to build a dry stone wall, plumb a boiler, or play the violin. Those skills are awesome but they don’t make you better than other people, as the word elite implies.

Sci-fi is for a particular community, one that can choose to elitist or inclusive. I know which I prefer.