A Girl’s Best Friend

An auction house in Dubai has unveiled a 555.55 carat black diamond believed to have come from outer space (Irish Times 22/01/22)…

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It was the last night of her trip. Zilia stood at the glass door of a jewellery shop in the Gold Souk in Dubai, and took a deep breath.

She had embarked on the trip in the aftermath of Uelov’s affair. After the shouting matches, after the break-up, after the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and a thunderous punch into Uelov’s face, she had decided to take a long holiday, to get away from it all.

And there was nowhere to get away from it all like Earth.

Earth was laughed at across the galaxy, a planet so blind to the economic possibilities of inter-galactic tourism that it had named itself after its soil. It was is if it didn’t want to people to turn up, so for aeons they hadn’t. Early visitors had arrived simply because they were lost, and their tales of the panic-stricken reaction to their appearance had deterred others. It was only in recent years, after a traveller from Krypton reported on Tripadvisor that humans won’t recognise that you’re an alien if you wear glasses, that a small market grew among those who took its marketing slogan, Lonely Planet, as a sign that this was where to go if you needed to reset.

Zilia had been here for six Earth months now, travelling from what the natives called ‘country’ to country. She had arrived cranky and been infuriated rather than charmed at the primitiveness of their supposedly strong wi-fi and their so-called express trains. In time, though, she had settled into the gentler pace, where weather is a topic of conversation rather than a fact. She tried the humans’ hobbies, and found skiing terrifying, sudoku baffling and yelling at the television surprisingly satisfying. She tried their food, gagging at porridge, binging on ginger-nut biscuits, and fascinated by broccoli, which tasted of nothing.

She had avoided sprouts, which looked too much like Uelov’s testicles.

She loved the outdoors – the extraordinary variety of tree shapes, the songs of the tiny birds, the glorious scent of flowers. She loved the sea, and stood for hours on shorelines, watching as water swelled and crashed onto the sand, then retreated in a hiss of softly popping bubbles.

And she loved the people. They talked to her in bars, on trains, in queues. They were good at heart, and cheerful. They laughed all the time, and in their company Zilia laughed too.

Now she had just one thing left to do.

She put on her glasses, pushed open the door, and stepped inside.

Asif looked up from behind his newspaper and from behind the counter of rings and watches. He gasped internally at the beauty of the woman walking towards him, at her heart-shaped face and her olive (almost green, he would later think to himself) skin.

“Marhaba,” he said. “How can I help you?”

Zilia put a hand on the counter. When she removed it, Asif saw that her surprisingly long fingers had been enclosing a large black lump. He looked up at her.

“Somebody gave you coal for Christmas?” he said.

The eyes behind the glasses flashed, and somehow Asif felt that this was not just a turn of phrase.

“This is my engagement ring,” said Zilia, icily.

“As if,” said Asif.

Zilia smiled. “Examine it,” she said.

Asif screwed his eye-piece into one eye and casually picked the object up. As he looked at it, it seemed to draw his gaze into its heart, a heart of infinite void. He felt as if he was looking into the vastness of space in all its its cold, black magnificence. He looked up in shock at Zilia.

“What is this?” he asked.

“It’s a diamond,” said Zilia. “Girl’s best friend, apparently.”

“Surely not,” said Asif. “It’s enormous. It’s – ” he placed it, reverently this time, on his calibrated scales. “It’s over five hundred carats.”

“Indeed,” said Zilia calmly. She walked back to the door and looked up at the night sky. There, hidden in plain sight, she could see her own planet, a rock of almost pure carbon whose tourism slogan, ‘like a diamond in the sky’, had become famous across the galaxy, even on worlds that had never heard of the planet itself.

Her ring was nothing special there, like her marriage as it turned out. But here, she knew, on this strange world that valued hardened lumps of mineral above the pebbles of the beaches that she loved so much, it would be a source of awe. It was her parting gift to her true best friend, the planet that had taught her to laugh again.

She opened the door and looked back at Asif.

“Keep it,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

People Who Viewed This, Also Viewed

We are watched by our computers. Whenever we connect to the internet algorithms spring into action, analysing our searches, our likes and our online purchases in order to personalise the advertising that we see.

The idea is not in fact new. It has been going on for as long as Penguin have been putting summaries of similar books at the end of its novels, and it may do no harm. If you are interested in gardening then it is surely better that you receive adverts about plants than ones about motorbike parts. The only issue would be if the algorithms got it wrong.

David (not his real name) is a blogger with a worldwide readership – of only five people, but they are spread across the world. His modus operandi, apart from using Latin to show off, is to take a headline each week and try to construct a humorous story around it. His most recent tale was based on the headline ‘Norwegian conscripts are being forced to wear second-hand underwear’. Usually David will try to find out as little as possible about the true facts of the matter, but on this occasion he felt he should know a tiny bit more before he casually accused a group of trained and armed people of going around in greying, stained Y-fronts.

So he typed ‘Norwegian conscript underwear’ into Google. The algorithms woke, snickered, and got to work.

Algorithms have varying levels of ability, depending on who wrote their code and how much they were paid to do it. Some try to delve deep into the psyche of the individual they are profiling, carefully crafting a menu of truly meaningful spending opportunities. Most, though, read one word and just throw stuff together.

Over the following days, then, most of the adverts that popped up on the websites and social media pages that David visited related, often vaguely, to one of the three words of his search.

He received a lot of information about Norway. He got adverts for Fjord Cruises, urging him to sit on a ship while it presumably sailed into and out of one fjord after another like a nautical interdental brush. He was offered a T-shirt printed with the words of the Norwegian commentator’s legendary outburst after Norway beat England in the World Cup in1981. He was sent details of A-ha’s forthcoming tour.

Most of the algorithms that focused on the word ‘conscript’ seemed to believe that David wanted to join the military. Any military. He received application details for the Royal Navy, the US Marines, the French Foreign Legion and the Salvation Army. Others sent information about war games groups, battle re-enactment societies and paint-balling centres.

Then there was the underwear.

The lazier algorithms simply bombarded him with adverts for Anne Summers and Victoria’s Secret, filling his screen with images of wispy underwear, much of it shorter than its name. Others, which seemed to have actually read his piece, tempted him with more substantial underclothing. The offerings were in tougher fabrics, including one in Aran sweater wool, The words ‘reinforced gusset’ appeared a lot. One pair had a built-in cricketer’s box.

There were many references to Bridget Jones’ Diary.

One advert stood out from the rest. It directed him to a mobile number where he could buy Norwegian conscripts’ underwear, which presumably explains why they have shortages in the first place.

That was then, this is now. To tell the above tale David needed to know whether the second word of Victoria’s Secret was plural or not, and there was only one way to find out. Now his wife isn’t speaking to him, he cannot open his computer in his children’s presence, and he can no longer share his screen at work meetings.

Luckily, in order to check if they still existed, he also Googled ‘French Foreign Legion’. Hopefully they’ll be in touch any day now.

 

 

One Careful Owner

The Norwegian military, struggling with dwindling supplies, is ordering conscripts to return their underwear at the end of their military service so that the next group of recruits can use them…

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image from military.com

Night had fallen in Svolvær, high in the Arctic Circle. Two months earlier, actually.

The unending darkness perfectly matched Arne’s soul as he sat at the bar, gloomily staring into space and into a grim future. He sipped his Aquavit, a drink that is essentially the Northern Lights in a glass. Normally the drink lit internal fireworks that warmed his stomach and his heart, but on this evening it made not a lighter-flick in the blackness he felt inside. He shook his head, causing his long blond Nordic locks to flick, and sighed, heavily.

“What’s wrong?” said a voice, startling him. Arne looked around. While he had been a thousand lives away old Fredrik had come into the bar, placed his walking stick on the counter and sat himself on his favourite corner stool, from where he would spend each evening telling anyone who would listen, and those who would not, that in the old days the nights were longer, the winters were harsher and you could leave your front door unlocked, possibly because burglars had no interest in dried fish.

Frederik nodded to the barman, who gave him a vodka. He lowered half of it in one gulp, and turned his attention again to Arne.

“So what’s wrong, young man,” he said.

“I’ve been conscripted,” said Arne.

Fredrik snorted, finished his drink, and nodded for another. “Is that all?” he said. “I did conscription years ago.”

Arne eyed him sceptically. Fredrik had, over the years, told stories in which he herded reindeer, whale-hunted, whale watched, worked on an oil-rig and co-wrote the Norwegian entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. The tallness of his tales were matched only by the shortness of his stature.

Still, thought Arne, military service had always been compulsory. “What’s it like?” he asked, cautiously.

“It’s fine,” said Fredrik. “It never did me any harm.”

Arne looked doubtfully at the walking stick, and at the speed at which his companion was drinking, but felt a tiny bit more hopeful. “Is it really not so bad?” he asked. “I imagined getting a haircut like a tennis ball, having a man shout spit-fully into my face, peeling half a million potatoes, trying to stab a dangling sack of sand with a bayonet and wriggling under a cargo-net in my underwear.”

“Well, that’s not right,” said Fredrik.

“Oh, good,” said Arne, “because -”

“You go under the cargo-net in someone else’s underwear.”

“What?” said Arne. “I’ve to wear a dead man’s pants?”

“Not a dead man,” corrected Fredrik. “Just a previous recruit.”

“But that’s gross,” wailed Arne.

“Not at all,” said Fredrik. “Wearing another man’s underpants was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“That’s a sentence that doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of the rest of your life.”

Fredrik smiled. “Look,” he said, “I’m not denying that I found the idea pretty awful too, especially when I saw what they gave me. The previous owner must have weighed thirty stone. The pants were the size of a parachute. I could barely get my trousers closed, and when I did I looked like I was wearing a swimming ring under them.”

“That’s terrible,” said Arne. “Did any of the other men offer to swap?”

“No,” said Fredrik. “They just nicknamed me Bishop Tutu, and kept making me do ballet poses.”

Arne frowned. “I’m not seeing,” he said, “how this was the best thing ever.”

“Because,” said Fredrik. “Those pants saved my life.”

Here we go, thought Arne. “How?” he asked.

“Well,” said Fredrik, signalling for another drink, “I was shot in the Skafferhullet region.” He saw Arne open his mouth to speak. “It’s a border crossing between us and Russia,” he said.

“Oh, good,” said Arne, “because it sounded like a euphemism for being shot in the balls.”

“I was shot in the balls,” said Fredrik.

Arne tried to show no expression. “Seriously?” he said.

“Very seriously,” said Fredrik. “We never found out why. I had wandered very near the border, so maybe they were trying a warning shot and got it wrong. Maybe someone’s gun went off by mistake. Maybe they saw the shape of me and thought I was a yeti. Anyway, I felt this sudden thump in the groin, as if I’d been kicked in the crotch by the Invisible Man, and saw I had a hole in the front of my trousers.”

“And you’re saying,” said Arne carefully, “that the giant pants absorbed the bullet. Like a bible in a soldier’s breast pocket.”

“Exactly,” nodded Fredrik eagerly. “I took down my trousers, shook out my underpants and there was the bullet, still too hot to touch.”

“While you escaped unharmed,” said Arne.

“Not totally unharmed,” said Fredrik. “There was a lot of bruising. My genitals looked like an extra from Avatar for about six weeks.”

Arne smiled. “Is that why you have a limp?” he said.

“A limp what?” said Fredrik suspiciously.

“Um,” said Arne, suddenly curiously ashamed. “It’s just, er, that you walk with a stick.”

Frederik knocked back the last of his drink and stood. “Oh, that,” he said. “No, luge accident. At the Olympics.”

Arne raised his eyebrows. “You competed in the Olympics?”

Frederik stared back for a few seconds, as if deciding something. “No,” he said eventually, “I was hit by a luge, when I was a spectator at the Olympics.”

Arne watched silently as Fredrik wrapped himself against the cold. Then the old man patted him on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s only a few months.” He pressed something into Arne’s hand. “Keep this,” he said, “and look at it when times are hard.”

Arne looked down at the misshapen bullet in his hand, then up at Fredrik, who winked, walked to the bar door, stopped and turned.

“Oh, and while you’re in the army,” he said, “don’t go commando.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where’s the Catch

China has developed an AI “prosecutor” that can charge citizens with crimes with “97 per cent accuracy” (Irish Times 08/01/22)…

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It was one of the days when I was missing home.

I loved China, to where I had moved four years earlier to teach English, but sometimes I found myself yearning for persistent drizzle, black pudding, and the clack of pool balls in an afternoon pub.

On such days I would watch old episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys to cure myself, which is why I was sitting at my laptop on that Saturday afternoon.

Suddenly the screen flickered. Mrs Brown’s gurning face vanished and another woman’s appeared, more beautiful but somehow more frightening. I thought it was an advertisement of some sort until she spoke.

Khione (image from aminoapps.com)

“Good afternoon,” she said. “My name is Khione. I am the State Prosecutor.”

I frowned. This was not going to end well.

The new AI prosecutor had been in service for over six months now, with largely good results. Using a combination of street cameras, facial recognition software and state-legalized hacking it had virtually wiped out road traffic offences, muggings, and computer fraud. The country was undoubtedly a safer place.

But there had been some problems. A gust of wind flicking a camera had led to a cow in the field opposite being fined for speeding. A man called Zhang Yu had been accused of impersonating another man named Zhang Yu. An Anglican vicar had been charged with White Collar Crime.

And those wrongly indicted could not get a solicitor, all of who had been charged with soliciting.

The system had improved, though, so I was mystified as to why this face was now on my screen. I decided to try to be friendly.

“Hello,” I said. “Why are you called Khione?”

The woman’s lip curled. “I thought you would know that, Mister Teacher,” she said. “It is the name of the Greek Goddess of Justice.”

“The Goddess of Justice is Themis,” I replied. “Khione is the Goddess of -” I nodded as I saw the problem – “just Ice.”

Khione’s face froze, appropriately, just for a second. Then the screen bounced, as if she had shrugged. “Whatever,” she said.

“And what can I do for you?”

“You stand accused of a crime,” said Khione. “Your documents say that you are a hooligan.”

“They say I’m A. Hooli-han“, I retorted. “My name is Andrew Hoolihan.”

Khione’s eyes looked upward, as if she was going over something in her head. Again the screen shrugged.  “Meh,” she said. “It’s close enough.”

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “i plead not guilty.”

Khione looked calmly back at me. “I have genuinely no idea what that sentence means,” she said.

“But you’re wrong,” I said.

“Only three per cent of the time,” said Khione. “Can you say the same of your own justice system?”

I thought back to cases I’d heard of in Ireland, of criminals freed on technicalities, of minor Social Welfare fraud punished by jail sentences, of massive tax evasion met merely with fines.

“Er, no,” I said, “but -”

“Exactly,” said Khione. “I find you guilty. The fine is one thousand yuan” – this was about one hundred and forty euro – “and is payable immediately.”

I sighed. “Ok,” I said, “I suppose I’ll just have to -”

“So I will pay it into your bank now.”

“Um, what?”

“The fine will be paid straight away. That is the law.”

“O-k,” I said slowly. “Do you need my bank details?”

Khione looked almost sorrowfully at me. “I’m in your computer,” she said simply.

“True,” I said. “I just want to be sure you have the correct -”

“As I told you, Mr Hooligan,” said Khione, “I make almost no mistakes.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left Cold

China’s lunar rover is to investigate a cube-shaped “mystery” object on the dark side of the moon…

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Image from news.com.au

He watched the Earth dwindle as the ship moved rapidly away. He sighed.

Best get it over with, he thought, and turned away from the window.

ET was standing at the other side of his desk. He did not look happy.

“So,” said ET, “you came back for me.”

“Well, of course,” said ML, the Mission Leader.

“Though having left me behind in the first place?”

ML blushed, meaning that his skin went a slightly darker shade of brown. “We had to,” he said. “You know the rules. We couldn’t let humans see the ship.”

“Because,” said ET, “a UFO would prove that aliens exist?”

“Exactly,” said ML.

“And how many UFOs have the humans seen over the last, say, seventy-five years? Since, say, the Zenubians landed at Roswell and forgot to turn on their cloaking device?”

“About a thousand,” said ML quietly.

“Uh-huh,” said ET, “and do humans believe in aliens?”

“Well, no,” said ML.

“No,” agreed ET, “because the people who claim to have seen them are dismissed as nutters. But you decided to flee with the ship that no-one would have believed in and left them an actual alien instead.”

“Well, we reckoned you would have the good sense to hide away until we could come back for you,” retorted ML. “Remind me how that worked out for you.”

It was ET’s turn to blush.

“Let’s just say,” said ML, “that mistakes were made on both sides.”

ET looked at him, then they both grinned. ML walked around his desk and the two old friends hugged.

“It’s great to have you back,” said ML. He looked down at the box that ET had brought on board with him. “I see you managed to bring back plant specimens after all,” he said.

“No,” said ET. “Something much better.”

“What is it?” asked ML.

“It’s a cooler box full of beer,” said ET, opening it. “I tried it while I was down there.”

ML peered into the box and lifted out a round cylinder. He slipped one long finger into the ring-pull and tugged, starting at the sharp hiss that it made. He watched nervously as a small pool of bubbles burbled from the can, then popped softly.

“Try it,” said ET.

ML took one cautious sip. His eyes widened, something ET would not have thought possible.

“This stuff is amazing,” he gasped.

“Isn’t it just,” smiled ET.

ML flicked a switch on the console beside him. “This is the captain,” he said. “Everyone meet in the mess. We got our crew-mate back, and it’s time to party!”

-o0o-

It was next morning.

If morning is when the sun comes up, then of course it is never morning out in the darkness of space, but if morning is when hangovers happen then morning is universal.

ML woke in a chair in the mess. He moved his head, and groaned.

The mess was a mess. The air smelled of stale beer and burp. His crew were asleep in chairs and on the floor. ML winced at a flash of sunlight across the window of the room. He winced at a flash of memory across the window of his mind. Then at another. And another.

They had danced on the tables. They had sung Wind Beneath My Wings, a song they hadn’t even known they knew. They had eaten everything fried in the galley’s fridge.

Another flash of memory, then a longer, deeper groan.

ML had finally told SD, the ship’s doctor, that he loved her.

He staggered over to ET and poked him awake. ET tried to sit up.

“Ouch,” he said, long and forlornly.

“Ouch is right,” said ML. “You didn’t tell us that this happened.”

“I had forgotten,” said ET. “One of the things drink makes you do is forget.”

“Not entirely,” said ML grimly. “How do you make the pain stop?”

“Not sure,” said ET. “I remember reading something about hair of dog.” He lay back and fell asleep.

“Hair of dog?” muttered ML. “What are we, witches?”

He winced at a flash of sunlight across the window of the room. Then the door hushed open and SD came in. She walked over to him and held her lit finger to his head. They avoided eye-contact as she did so.

ML felt the pain ease. “Thank you, Doctor,” he said, formally. “What about the rest of them?”

“Best just let them sleep it off, sir,” said SD, equally formally. “I’ll drain myself if I do this too often, and I’ll end up with a headache worse than the one I woke up with.” She looked down at the floor. “What are you going to do with that?” she said.

The cooler box was on the floor. The crew had drunk just half the cans between them, but the beer had gone straight to their heads, and when your head is sixty per cent of your body weight the effect is quite profound.

ML followed her gaze to the box. He could swore it whispered to him. He shook himself.

“We’ll have to get rid of it,” he said.

“Yes, but we can’t just fire it into space,” said SD. “That’s been banned ever since the Gartinians knocked out the Jenovians’ TV satellite with a bag full of dirty laundry.”

“I remember,” said ML. “They all missed their World Cup Final. It nearly caused a galactic war.” He looked down at it. “We can’t keep it on board,” he said, “it’s too dangerous.” He winced at a flash of sunlight across –

He frowned. “Hang on,” he said. “Come with me.”

The two went up to the bridge. DD, the designated driver, was asleep at the helm. A can of beer was lying on the console, dripping beer onto the floor, which was already beginning to rust.

“That’s what I thought,” said ML, pointing to the front screen. “Look, we’re flying in circles.”

It was true. They should by now have been two light years away, but could still see Earth. As they watched the moon passed across the screen. They looked at one another.

“I could leave the box there,” said ML.

CD shook her head. “You pilot,” she said. “Land, and I’ll run out and drop it off.”

Their eyes met, for a long time. Then CD winked, huge and meaningful. Both of their heartlights glowed brighter.

“Fly me to the moon,” she said.

 

 

 

 

Line to the Throne

According to the Sunday Mirror, the Queen has her own anti-hacker encrypted mobile phone, but answers calls only from Princess Anne and horse trainer John Warren….

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Image from the Royal Family on Twitter

The Queen is an avid fan of technology.

She has an Alexa, which has overcome teething problems understanding the Royal accent and now does mostly what she is asked. She owns a drone, which she uses to keep an eye on her corgis as they roam the grounds of Balmoral. She has SatNav, for finding rooms in the Palace that she hasn’t visited in a while. And she has a Netflix subscription, so she can secretly watch The Crown.

And she got herself a mobile phone, intending to use it sparingly. She planned to send texts instead of telegrams to centenarians, She wanted to download the night-sky app, then never use it. She was hoping to get a selfie with Adele.

She did not use it sparingly. The Ruler became the ruled, as her phone took over her life. We’ve all been there.

She started with just a few contacts but these quickly grew, as show-offs shared her number with friends, as she entered it herself into online shops, as people had their list of contacts hacked. Soon hundreds had her number, and the deluge of dross began. She was sent video after video of a baby losing a sneeze. She found herself a member of the Borough of Westminster Residents WhatsApp group, and dragged into heated conversations over bin collection schedules, the ongoing silence of Big Ben’s bells, and the quality of the Egg McMuffin in McDonalds Victoria. A text informed her that she had got Harriet from Statue Polishing in the Palace Secret Santa.

A pub in Croydon tried to book her, thinking that she was a Freddie Mercury tribute act.

Then something awful happened. She got a text from an overseas princess, asking for bank details so that she could keep her fortune from her wicked brother. The Queen ignored it, of course, but the woman was in fact her second cousin.

The family row over this incident made her mind up. On her next visit to Windsor Castle she dropped her phone into the moat.

The ensuing silence was wonderful, but she soon realised that she would need some sort of phone, if only to use the flashlight when she dropped an earring under the bed. She got in touch with MI6 and a man – not called Q, to her secret disappointment – set her up with a secure, encrypted model. She has just two numbers on it.

One is her horse trainer, who keeps her up to date on the health and progress of her horses. She takes his advice on which ones to run where, and they celebrate together on her wins and console each other on her losses.

The other is Princess Anne, which has pretty well put an end to Favourite Child arguments in that household. The two chat daily, discussing The Great British Bake Off, sharing gossip about the rest of the family and speaking, often scathingly, about world leaders, safe in the knowledge that no-one can hear them.

Well, apart from the Chinese, who can’t let on without letting everyone know that the conspiracy theories are true.

 

 

 

 

Lucifer’s Arrow

NASA have launched a rocket at the tiny asteroid Dimorphos to see if they can deflect its orbit, as a test to see if they could do it if one was on a collision course with Earth. They calculate that the odds of Bennu – the one most likely to do so – hitting us are one in 1,750 over the next 200 years…

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They thought that they were alone in the universe.

That is not strictly true. They didn’t think about it at all. They were a simple species on a small rock out in the vastness of space. They survived on primeval plant-life and tiny amounts of water, and if that doesn’t sound like much of an existence, they had sources of nutrition and a fun means of reproduction, which is no different to life in a hippie commune.

They did not know that from far across the emptiness, alien eyes were watching them.

Well, not them specifically. It was their world that the aliens were eyeing, with their strange number of eyes.

These aliens were worried that one day their own planet might be struck by a rock much like this one. They had calculated the odds of this happening within the next two hundred of their years at 1,750 to one, and although that works out at over 127 million to one on any given day the aliens reckoned that the risk was too big. They decided to see if they could knock such an object off its course.

The cost would be enormous, and the aliens had many other problems. But they were childlike in nature, and as shooting a rocket at something is a lot more fun than, say, stopping your planet melting, the project got the go-ahead. A suitable target was selected.

The aliens never considered the possibility of life there. They wrote off signs of movement on the rock as being caused by violent storms, despite the fact that they believed that a flag they had put on their own moon many years ago is still upright.

If they sound callous, it should be pointed out that they had already tested things like massive explosives on their own planet. They weren’t callous, just really, really dumb.

They built their rocket, aimed, and fired.

Ten months later it struck. The alien scientists leapt, whooping, around their control room as the thing that they had planned for actually happened. Apparently all scientists across the galaxy do this. It’s like a builder jumping for joy because his wall stayed up.

In fact the experiment was not a success. The rocket had all the effect upon the rock’s trajectory as a fly head-butting a five-ton truck.

It did, though, cause a dust cloud that blocked out the rays from the nearest star. The temperatures dropped.

The dinosaurs died.

I Know Not What I Do

In a bizarre speech to the Confederation of British Industry last Monday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised the theme park Peppa PIg World, made car engine noises and lost his place in the speech for twenty-one seconds, muttering “forgive me” three times as he searched through the pages…

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They drifted through time and space, to a place beyond time and space.

To a vast, cold hall, lined with spectral tombs. Some had effigies of their inhabitants carved onto their lids. Many were of men in armour. There were a few, a very few, of women.

This was the Hall of Albion, resting place of the spirits of the rulers of England.

The dust-motes now stirred, dancing to the the air-change as the the drifting words sounded through the chamber.

The words “forgive me”, thrice uttered by a beleagured ruler. It was the Judgement Call.

A ghostly lid opened, and King Arthur sat up. Legend foretold that he would return at the time of the country’s greatest need. It appeared that this time was now.

Arthur knew at once his calling, and that he must bring companions. He went mentally through the list of his successors, like Jim Phelps selecting his team in Mission Impossible. He knocked softly on one lid, and a spirit sat up. Arthur approached another tomb, reached out his fist, then stopped.

He didn’t want to terrify the man. He wouldn’t bring Margaret.

He chose another tomb. Another spirit rose. Arthur nodded, and the three vanished.

In Downing Street Boris Johnson was in his bedroom. He had put on his Peppa Pig pyjamas and was about to get into his racing-car bed, when the room suddenly went cold. He turned and stared open-mouthed at the three apparitions facing him.

Arthur looked at Boris’s hair. “Did we get you out of bed?” he asked.

“No,” said Boris, confused. “Why?”

“Never mind,” said Arthur. “You have sought forgiveness from the Council of the Ancients.”

“I really don’t think that I have,” said Boris.

“When the ruler of England asks three times for forgiveness, the Council must respond. We are here to judge if you deserve it.” He nodded to his companions. “This is Winston Churchill -”

“I know, I know,” said Boris, eagerly, “I’m a huge fan.” He extended a hand, which passed straight through Churchill’s. Boris tried to suppress a shudder.

“- and this is Henry IV, Part 1,” said Arthur.

“Er, what?” said Boris.

“Twins,” explained Henry. “We took it in turns.”

“I see,” said Boris, who didn’t. “Look, I’m sorry to have summoned you from, er, wherever, but I don’t need forgiveness,”  he said. “I haven’t done -”

Arthur produced a scroll, and unfurled it. It stretched to his knees.

“He has tried to stop a member of his party being punished for ill-conduct, cancelled promised transport for the hordes of the north, changed care rules so that the poor pay more than the rich, and walked along a hospital corridor during a plague with no mask on.”

“Well,” said Henry. “A person will make a few mistakes during their reign.”

“That was just this month,” said Arthur.

“Oh,” said Henry.

Churchill shook his head. “Never,” he said, “Have I heard such a. Litany of infamy. Committed by. Just one man.”

“I say,” said Boris, beaming, “I really do love the way you talk.”

“Thank you,” said Churchill. “Did it. Catch on?”

“Sort of,” said Boris, “though only with William Shatner.”

“Never mind that,” said Henry. “There’s no way we can forgive all that.”

An arm, clothèd in white samite, mystic, wonderful, suddenly appeared before Arthur. It brandished another scroll, which Arthur took and read. He frowned, then looked at the others.

“We have to forgive him,” he said. “Apparently it’s Thanksgiving week, and we have to pardon a turkey.”

 

 

 

 

Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have You Bin

A recycling trash can from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, this week washed up in Mulranny Beach on the Irish west coast, 5,500 kilometres away. People have various theories as to how it got there, but this is what actually happened…

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Lydia had been asleep on the seat of an empty gondola on the Myrtle Beach Skywheel, warmed by the late afternoon autumnal sun. She woke now and stretched long and gracefully, as only a cat can do.

She stepped from the gondola and onto the boardwalk that ran along the shore, a boardwalk as usual populated by walking families, weaving skateboarders and panting joggers.

And a big dog, walking with its owner, and not on a lead.

The dog growled, then ran at Lydia, who turned and fled. From behind she could hear the token admonitions of the owner as he pretended to care as the dog thumped past toddlers and elderly strollers, frightening them with its loud barking.

Lydia ran on, unconcerned, confident that she could outrun the pile of teeth and slobber, who was already beginning to wheeze. His bark, though, seemed strange, coming from all directions as if he was barking in surround sound.

Lydia suddenly realised why. There was another dog ahead of her, an even bigger one, lumbering toward her like an overfed Baskerville hound.

Lydia stopped. She had a sheer wall to her left, and the sea to her right. The wall was too high to climb and the sea was, well, water.

She was trapped.

She looked frantically around. There was a trash can at the side of the boardwalk, and just as the dogs reached her she ran to it, took a really deep breath, and hurled herself into the narrow opening. Her claws quickly extended and gripped the far wall inside, leaving her clinging just above the pile of rubbish below.

The two dogs tried to pull up but slammed against the side of the bin. Their impact put pressure on the screws that held the bin to the ground and these screws, rusted and weakened by salt air, gave way. The bin toppled over, rolled gently along the boardwalk, then dropped into the sea.

Lydia’s astonishment as her world was literally turned upside down caused her to gasp, and that gasp caused her to gag. Luckily, though, the bin was bobbing with its opening facing upwards, so was not filling with water, so she put up with her lot, consoling herself with the thought that her owners would soon come looking for her, and that in any case she would soon be washed ashore.

She was wrong on both counts. The independent lifestyle of which cats are so fond has its drawbacks if you are expecting your owners to worry if you don’t show up, and the tide was going out.

After an hour or so she crept to the opening, peered out, and gazed in horror at deepening green waves and a distant line of land, far behind her.

Lydia sighed, and slid dejectedly down into the rubbish.

This rubbish, from which she had so recoiled, was what saved her. That, and the fact that humans have no idea what should go in a recycling bin.

She was able to lick cheese and sauce off pizza boxes. There were half-finished bagels. There were forty-seven styrofoam coffee cups, each with at least a half-inch of coffee at the bottom.

So she was able to eat and drink. As she drifted out to sea, though, conditions worsened. The bin began to rotate as it rode the waves, surprising her by rekindling a repressed kittenhood memory of being trapped in the drum of a washing machine.

And not only did the motion make her seasick, it meant the bin began to fill with seawater.

Again the detritus came to her aid. There was a bucket and spade in the bin, and while Lydia felt a pang of compassion while imagining the sad, tantrum-filled tale behind their being there, she fell upon them as life-saving gifts from the Gods – presumably Egyptian ones, since they are mostly cats.

She used the bucket to bail water out of the bin, then by gathering the now sodden and therefore heavier rubbish on the side opposite the opening, she managed to keep the bin mostly open side up.

She used the spade to row, and if you think rowing across the Atlantic using only a child’s spade would be very tedious and would take a very long time, well, you would be right. Her spirits were kept up purely by the innate confidence of her species, and by the fact that she knew nothing about geography.

Every day brought certainty that she would see land, every nightfall brought disappointment that she hadn’t, until the day that a long dark line on the horizon, which she at first took to be an approaching storm, grew slowly into a definite shoreline.

Lydia felt a thrill in her soul at the first scrape of the bin along small stones, and again at the hiss as the waters broke and bubbled before her on soft sand. The bin rocked forward one last time, a final wave retreated from beneath her, and Lydia was on dry land.

She leapt from the bin, raced to a hidden spot in the dunes, and licked herself clean for five hours.

She then heard voices and saw a family gathered around the bin, reading the wording on the side and gabbling excitedly. She followed them back to their village, watched its few days of fame as television and press gathered to film the bin, interview the locals, guess at the facts.

She lives in the village now. She has got used to the colder weather, preferring it to the humidity that on bad days made her look like a cheerleader’s pom-pom. She has realised that she can sleep in the sun on only about twelve days of the year, and instead slumbers happily on the warm bonnets of recently driven cars. She has learned that you do not mess with magpies.

And she loves the natives, though she has no idea what they are saying. Having grown up hearing the long-drawn vowels of South Carolina, she is baffled by the lightning speech of her new neighbours, a sound like words performing Riverdance. But the people are friendly, each family assumes she belongs to one of the others, and there is an good-natured affection behind their gentle shooing of her from their gardens, or from their car bonnets. Lydia is happy.

Once she has had her coffee. She is now addicted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanishing Trick

They were coming.

Matt picked something up into his fist and held his breath as they reached his gate. There were four of them – a witch, a vampire, an alien, and a Kim Kardashian. Their little faces looked up at his old house and saw him silhouetted in the window. They ran, Halloween goodie bags flapping against their legs.

The former magician let out his breath and let the packet of Skittles fall from his hand. Of course they hadn’t called. He had seen to that.

When he arrived here, twenty years ago, he had wanted no visitors. The town knew who he was, so he used that. The removal of one screw from the top hinge made the gate list enough to creak when opened. He had bats flit between his chimneys (they were crows, attracted by plates of grain pushed through the skylight, but no-one got near enough to find out). The simple moving of a mirror in the garden made his garage sometimes visible from the road, sometimes not. He drove a hearse, with the curtains drawn.

Children called anyway, out of curiosity or for a dare, so one evening, thanks to a very black cloak and a dimly-lit porch, his disembodied head answered the door. After that he was left alone, to his loneliness.

Once he had been Matthias the Magnificent – there is no recorded instance of a magician with a name like Alex the Adequate – and with My Glamorous Assistant Gina, his girlfriend since school, he had travelled the country, slowly building a reputation. He stood out by the unusual twists to his tricks – pulling a hat from a rabbit, coughing up a sword, burping fire. As his fame grew, so did his ambition and the riskiness of his feats. He tied himself to a subway line, levitated across a motorway, appeared on the roof of a moving bus.

Then two terrible things happened on the same day. He nearly drowned while escaping from a barrel pushed over a waterfall, and Gina left him.

It was a mannequin in the barrel, of course, while he waited safely under the water beneath, but the barrel landed on his head and knocked him unconscious. He came to, struggled to just below the surface, recovered his composure and emerged smiling to the applause of a huge crowd and the cold fury of Gina.

“You’re going to kill yourself one day,” she said, “and I’m not going to help you do it.”

So she left, and the joy left with her. He drifted listlessly through several years of soulless shows, until one day he walked into a railway tunnel and did not emerge after the train sped through. When people ventured in they found a cat which looked at them and then seemed to utter the words “Matthias has retired. Please leave him alone”.

He moved to this small town and hid away from the world. Too well, he now realised, when even Amazon drivers would come only as far as the gate.

That gate now creaked open.

He watched a hooded figure walk up the drive, a sword protruding from its chest. He opened the door.

The figure lifted the hood. “Trick or treat,” said Gina.

Matt flicked his wrist and a bunch of flowers appeared in his fist.

Gina rolled her eyes. “I should have remembered who I was talking to,” she said.

Matt looked down at the sword. “It’s a rough neighbourhood,” he said.

“This is fancy dress,” said Gina. “I’m a character from Game of Thrones.

“Which one?”

Gina shrugged. “From what I’ve heard, any of them,” she said. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

Matt held the door wide. Gina walked in to a warm, well-decorated hallway. Matt saw her look of surprise. “Were you expecting cobwebs and a talking skull?” he asked.

“Pretty much,” admitted Gina. “I hear Matthias the Magnificent is Havisham the Hermit these days.”

“Where do you hear that?” asked Matt.

“On this town’s Facebook page,” said Gina. “They have a whole section about you. They say you sour milk and make the ducks in the pond swim in circles.”

“Milk sours itself,” said Matt, “and the pond is circular. What are the ducks to do?”

“I think the town actually likes having you here,” said Gina. Matt found himself curiously proud.

“And what brings you here?” he asked.

Gina looked embarrassed. “I recently retired,” she said. “After we split I went back to college, did accountancy, and I’ve had a really good life. But I’ve never stopped thinking of you. It’s been like, like –“

“Being sawn in half?” said Matt.

Gina laughed. ”Yes,” she said, “though not as much fun. So I googled you, and here I am.”

Matt sighed. “I was an idiot back then,” he said. “I didn’t recognize real magic.”

Gina looked into his eyes. “And now?”

Matt handed her the flowers he still held in his fist. “Smell them,” he said.

Gina bent over them, then looked up in surprise. “They’re real,” she said. “How-?”

Matt stepped to one side, revealing an empty vase on a shelf behind him.

“I knew it was you walking up the drive,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten your walk. I’ve never forgotten anything about you.”