Author Archives: Tinman

A Tale as True as…

The Irish Times reports this week that ‘an Asteroid “half the size of a giraffe” struck the ocean near Iceland’. The same odd description was used by the Daily Mail and by Science Times…

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The sound began as a low whistle.

On the small fishing boat Fjola, Steinn and Gunnar looked around, first in puzzlement, then in a concern that grew as the sound grew, rising in pitch and volume to a banshee scream as something tore through the sky. It hit the icy water beside them in a great spume of steam, and would have careered on to the sea-bed had not its progress been abruptly halted by their fishing net. The Fjola rocked as the net bulged like a football-cliché under the strain, but both boat and net were hardened by years of snaring large shoals of fish, the occasional incautious dolphin, and once a passing speedboat. The net held, the Fjola settled upon the swell, and Steinn pressed the winch button. The brothers peered over the side.

In the net, coal-black and ageless, was a rock, about ten feet wide.

Their first thought was that it had been hurled skyward by a volcano, but a look back to the Icelandic shore, hazy upon the skyline, revealed no sign of smoke or flame from the long-lived, long-named volcanoes that dotted their homeland like lava zits.

There was only one other explanation.

“It’s blue ice,” said Steinn. “Poo dropped from a plane.”

Ok then, two other explanations.

His brother frowned. “I don’t think so,” he said. “In the first place there are no contrails anywhere in the sky. Secondly, look at the size of it. There would have had to have been something very wrong with the in-flight meal.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Steinn grudgingly. “Then what is it?”

“I think,” said Gunnar, in growing excitement, “that it’s an asteroid.”

To his surprise, Steinn did not seem as thrilled as he did about this. “Great,” said Steinn. “What are we supposed to do with an asteroid?”

“It will look great in our garden. We can tell people in the pub about it.”

Steinn snorted. “And I’m sure we’ll be the talk of said pub,” he said drily, “when people hear that we have a rock in our garden.”

Gunnar thought about this. All Icelandic gardens have rocks in them. They have, in truth, very little else.

“Then what will we do with it?” asked Gunnar.

“Sell it,” said Steinn.

“On eBay?”

Steinn thought. “Nah,” he said eventually. “What would happen if someone in LA or Melbourne bought it? The cost of postage would be huge. Besides, NASA would probably see the advert and just turn up and take it.”

The Reykjavik Grapevine it is then. What will we say?”

Steinn shrugged. “For Sale: One Asteroid,” he said. “Simple.”

“Not that simple,” said Gunnar. “People will want to know how big it is.”

Steinn sighed. “Ok,” he said. “We’ll say it’s as big as…” his voice faded.

Icelanders are not good at simile. Their habitat and weather have a uniformity that doesn’t lend itself easily to it. Their only known simile starts in ‘as cold as’ and ends in ‘usual’.

But it would not do to get it wrong. The brothers had had problems before, when they had advertised an old sofa as being ‘in perfect condition’ and had received a return visit two days later from their customer, a huge, bearded man whose spring-pierced bum had made him as angry as, well, could be.

“Let’s pick something no-one round here knows anything about,” said Steinn. “As big as, say, a giraffe. No-one can prove we’re wrong.”

Gunnar looked doubtful. “People know that giraffes eat leaves from really tall trees,” he said.

Steinn looked at the rock for a moment. “You’re right,” he said eventually. “We’ll call it half the size of a giraffe.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thereby Hangs a Tale

 A Texas cinema screening ‘The Batman’ this week was invaded by an actual bat (Irish Times 12/03/22)…

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On dark, dark nights in dark, dark caves, when black clouds scurry across blacker skies, bats gather and speak of The Batman.

The tale has passed from generation to generation. It tells of a bat who was bitten by a radioactive human and took on some human abilities, though since bats can already fly, rest upside down and see in the dark it is not clear what benefit these extra abilities conferred.

He is their greatest hero. The names Bruce and Wayne are common among males. The story is accepted as fact, and if this makes them sound foolish and superstitious just remember that in the bat world, vampires are a real thing.

Young Barry Bat was obsessed with The Batman. He wished he could be him. From the moment he woke every night he played at being him. He would sit alone on rooftops, staring moodily into the far distance. He would use a junction stop sign as the Bat-pole, a piece of thread as the Bat-rope and sycamore helicopter seeds as Batarangs as he played out the most famous of The Batman’s triumphs, the one in which, despite huge disparities in size and habitat location, he had met and defeated a penguin.

When word went around the colony that the local cinema would be showing a film called The Batman, Barry was determined to go. He knew that humans were good at this type of documentary, where a tiny camera and a hushed voice discreetly track some rarely seen creature. They would follow The Batman’s movements and would show him catching food, foiling predators and preening like an idiot to attract a female.

They would show where he lived. Barry could visit him and get his autograph. He might possibly become his sidekick.

On opening night he left the cave and flew into the small town. At the cinema he wriggled through an air vent, flitted along a short passage and emerged into the tiny theatre.

The room was filled with humans, chattering excitedly. Barry flew to the ceiling, settled himself upside down, and waited.

The lights slowly dimmed to total darkness. The chatter stopped. Barry flew down and picked a piece of popcorn from the carton of a teenage girl sitting below him. He tugged at it with his teeth and was disappointed to find that it had the taste and texture of styrofoam.

The screen lit up. Barry watched, wide-eyed, thrilled to his soul by the bright colours, the vibrant music, the excitement in the voice of the narrator.

The Burger King advert ended. The screen again filled with images, but these were darker, the music more sombre, the atmosphere more menacing.

The Batman had begun.

Barry watched eagerly, awaiting the first appearance of his hero. Then his mouth dropped open in shock.

The Batman was just a man in a bat suit.

Barry couldn’t believe it. He knew that humans weren’t that bright, but surely they could see that this wasn’t real, that it was just some sort of Bigfoot hoax made to scam money from gullible film producers. Barry went white. Very white.

Then he realised why. He was in the glare of the flashlight of a mobile phone.

His mouth dropping open had not just been a turn of phrase. He had dropped his popcorn onto the head of the girl he had stolen it from. She had looked up, turned on her phone light and now had him pinned in its beam.

“It’s a bat!” she screamed.

Other lights were instantly waved, since nobody had turned off their phones as requested. These sent shadows darting across the ceiling, each shadow another bat in the minds of the crowd below. Some flapped wildly at their hair. Some stood on their seats. One young man hurled his raspberry slushy. This opened in mid-air, covering the audience in what seemed to be freezing blood. They went, well, batshit crazy, and raced for the door.

Time to go, thought Barry. He swooped, picked another piece of popcorn – it was oddly addictive – out of a discarded carton and looked around for a way out.

He saw an illuminated sign saying ‘Exit’ and flew towards it. Just then, on the screen, The Bogus Batman spoke. His deep growl, like a earth tremor in a bucket of gravel, completely threw off Barry’s echolocation. This would usually have warned Barry that for some reason humans put a clearly-lit and easy visible ‘Exit’ sign not on the actual exit, but two feet above it.

Barry flew full-tilt into the sign.

He fell to the floor, and had a terrifying few minutes desperately curled in a ball among running feet. Then he reached out a wing, brushed the leg of a young man in shorts, and in the small circle cleared by the teenager’s yells he forced himself to focus. He finally saw the vent through which he had entered and – same bat channel – went out the way he had come in.

Once outside he flew gratefully home. The humans watched as he went, his silhouette dark against the brightness of a full moon, like a Bat-signal.

-o0o-

On dark, dark nights in dark, dark caves, when black clouds scurry across blacker skies, bats gather and speak of The Batman.

The tale has passed from generation to generation. It tells of a bat who was bitten by a radioactive human and took on some human abilities, such as the ability to eat their snacks. It tells of how he once defeated an imposter by scaring off hundreds of those who might have been fooled by him. He is their greatest hero.

Barry, now older, smiles as he listens. He had wished he was The Batman. Now he is.

 

 

 

 

 

Who Walked a Crooked Mile

Thieves in Drogheda, County Louth have been warned that a toolbox that they stole from a parked van contains radioactive material. The item, a Troxler Nuclear Moisture Density Gauge, was stored in a bright yellow case with the trefoil symbol for radiation warning on it (Irish Times 05/03/22)….

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Once home in their kitchen, they tried it out.

They opened the box with the Radiation Warning symbol on it (Michael said it was a sticker of a Ku Klux Klan ghost, though didn’t explain why such a sticker might exist), took out the bright yellow device, and tried to get it to work.

Tom thought it might be a walkie-talkie. Joe reckoned it might be a lottery-numbers generator. Michael believed it might contain missile launch codes and – here’s the thing – tried it anyway.

Everyone knows the phrase ‘thick as thieves’, but few reflect upon its true meaning.

So the brothers pressed the keypad, tugged at the aerial, even shook the box. Very little happened, though just once numbers suddenly flashed on the digital display screen, when Tom flushed the toilet upstairs.

Eventually they got bored. Joe turned on the radio, the news came on, and they learned what they had stolen. The three stared at each other.

“We should give it back,” said Joe, “like they ask.”

“Yeah,” said Tom. “They say just leave it outside the cop shop.”

Michael snorted. “While they watch us out the window?” he said. “I’m not falling for that.”

“Then what will we do?” asked Joe.

Michael took a hammer out of the toolbox. “We’ll break it up,” he said, “and leave bits in all the litter bins around the town.”

He hit the device with the hammer. The force drove the box, still intact, through the table and onto the kitchen lino.

“What the – ?” gasped Michael.

“The hammer must have picked up the radioactivity,” said Joe excitedly. “It’s got superpowers.”

They quickly tried other items from the toolbox. One twist from the spanner released an old rusted nut off the radiator and onto the floor, where it continued to spin for five minutes. A turn of the screwdriver caused a screw to fly out of the door hinge, smoking as it did so. The torch lit the kitchen like a thousand suns.

The brothers had no idea what the little line of steel L-shapes did, but they seemed to be doing it more impressively.

Joe picked up the tape measure. “No, wait,” said Michael suddenly. “We’ll try it outside.”

They went into the street. Tom took the end of the tape and started to walk. He got six hundred yards before he stopped, waved and let go. The tape retracted in a blur, whipping the tape measure from Joe’s hand and into Mrs Malone’s garden next door, where it destroyed a gnome.

The brothers raced into their house and hid, while Mrs Malone came out and glared at the damage, yelling “I know it was you!”. Memories of long lost boyhood days, of footballs, hurleys and catapults came to each of them, surprising them with regret for how their lives had worked out. Then Joe looked at Michael.

“The tape,” he said. “How did you know?”

“I’m not sure,” said Michael, then shivered.  “I.., I think it might have been…Spidey-sense?”

There is no such thing as Spidey-sense, or spiders would know not to go near plug-holes, but once he said it the idea took root in the shallow soil of their minds. Over the next few days brains of the outfit Michael – a walking definition of the term ‘faint praise’ – felt more clever, while Tom, the brawn, felt stronger.

Joe was the getaway driver. Since the streets of Drogheda are narrow and the one-way system is confusing they usually left the car at home, but the two older brothers had felt it was important that he have a designated role too. He also now felt like a better him, and was sure that he would be able to run home to the getaway car more quickly.

The trio were the pettiest of petty criminals. Their tried and trusted method was ‘grab and gallop’ – dashing into a shop or breaking into a car and snatching the first thing they saw. It was a technique that yielded paltry returns, and indeed their biggest haul to date was when they had run into the Drogheda United club shop and had come away with two hundred programmes for that evening’s match against Sligo Rovers, which had just ten minutes left to play.

Now though, emboldened by their new-found abilities, they decided to rob the town bank.

They set off at midnight. At the bank a quick viper-tongue flick from the tape measure took out the camera. The screwdriver whirred its way through the hinges on a window. The torch lit their way to the safe, which was shattered by a blow from the hammer. They stuffed their pockets with as much money as they could (they had forgotten to bring a bag) and climbed out of the window.

There were two police cars waiting outside. Sergeant O’Brien was leaning against one of them.

“Hello lads,” he said cheerfully.

Joe glared at Michael. “Spidey-sense my arse,” he muttered.

Michal stared in astonishment at the policeman. “How are you here so fast?” he said. “We were in and out in four minutes.”

“Yes,” said O’Brien, “but we knew you were coming half an hour ago.”

“How?” said Tom. “We kept to the shadows, like, like-”

“Like thieves in the night,” said Joe.

“Indeed you did,” agreed Sergeant O’Brien, “but you glow in the dark.”

 

Paper Tiger

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked Russian journalists, artists and bloggers to protest Russia’s invasion of his country. I am not Russian, nor a political blogger, so all I can do is re-publish this post from four years ago, the night after the 2018 World Cup Final…

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Vladimir Putin woke early, as real men do.

He sat up and stretched, his magnificent pecs extending as he did so. He sat for a moment, planning his day. He might ride a horse bareback, and indeed bare-chested. He might head off into the woods to wrestle bears. He might ski across Siberia wearing only a pair of Speedos. He might climb every mountain, ford every stream. He might sing the song that that line comes from, in a deep Russian baritone, while performing a Cossack dance. He might swallow swords. He might eat fire.

Whatever he did, it would reinforce his position as the strongman of the First World, a giant among pygmies, the true Beast From The East.

Vladimir Putin threw aside the single sheet he slept under, strode across his bedroom, and threw open the curtains.

It was raining.

Vladimir Putin went back to bed.

During the torrential downpour at the World Cup Final medal ceremony yesterday, host President Vladimir Putin stands snug and dry under an umbrella, leaving the Prime Ministers of finalists France and Croatia to get absolutely soaked

 

Written in Stone

New archaeological findings suggest “naughty pupils” in ancient Egyptian schools were made to write lines on pottery as punishment…..

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Shani (image from wikimedia commons)

Shani watched from the door of her mudbrick dwelling as her seven-year-old son Aaru trudged up the road from school. Her heart melted, as it always did, at the look of weariness in his little face. Her heart sank, as it always did, at what he was carrying.

He was bringing home another pot. He must have got lines again.

Writing lines was a new punishment thought up by progressive modern teachers, who felt that the beatings of Shani’s own schooldays (the phrase ‘which had never done her any harm’ came unbidden into her mind here) were barbaric, as well as tiring for the teachers themselves. They believed instead that writing, over and over, about their misdemeanours would better impress upon the children’s little minds the gravity of what they had done. The fact that it might engender a dislike of writing was not regarded as important.

Besides, it was hard to fill a school day when history went backwards, when geography consisted of one country and when all art was of a man in the pose of a tightrope walker, wearing a fancy-dress hat. Writing lines kept children occupied, so papyrus was provided, and sentences were wrote by rote.

It was the pharoah who came up with the idea of having the lines written onto pottery instead. This was an attempt to get rid of the clay that washed down the Nile during rainy season, forming a gloopy paste that quickly and surprisingly solidified, dotting the riverbank with lone sandals. Misbehaving children – essentially all children, at some time – were placed in front of a wheel with a sodden lump of wet greyness, and the world went to pot.

At first parents had been delighted when their children brought home misshapen pots made by their own little hands, with their own little hand-prints still on them. But the number grew, and dwellings became overwhelmed. The pottery quickly became a marker of one’s parenting. Mothers arriving for that month’s Scrolls Club would look quickly around the hostess’s room, mentally logging the number of pots, and nodding grimly if the number was high.

They couldn’t even be re-gifted. Nobody wants a clay urn patterned with the words ‘I must not say that Karim smells of poo’.

Parents resorted to ‘accidents’. Pots were continually being dropped, falling mysteriously off solid-looking shelves, or being broken by a dad practising his swing for the not yet invented game of golf.

This is why archaeological digs unearth many, many broken fragments, but very little intact pottery.

Shani, though, loved Aaru’s pots. Each one was hand-made by her wonderful boy, and acted as a glimpse into his days. Since his standard reply to “how was your day” was “fine”‘, sentences such as ‘I must not climb the pyramid’, ‘I must not eat the apple Meena gave teacher’ and ‘I must not call Meena a suck-up’ gave a vivid insight into the vibrancy of a typical Aaru schoolday.

And the vase with the words ‘I must not forget that cats are gods’ told an almost complete story of the scratches on his arms that he had refused to explain.

Each one, though, saddened her a little, as they spoke of a dressing down by an adult, of a little hung head, of the barely audible word ‘sorry’.

Aaru reached the door now.

“Hello, love,” said Shani.

“Hello, Mother,” said Aaru (parents in ancient Egypt were referred to as ‘Daddy and Mother’, the word ‘Mummy’ having been appropriated for a different use).

The two walked into the kitchen and Aaru sat at the table. Shani poured some water into a cup (‘I must not put a frog in the staff toilet’) and handed it to him.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“Fine,” he replied.

“That’s good,” said Shani. She waited for a few seconds, then said softly “I see you’ve brought home another pot.”

To her surprise, he looked embarrassed. Wow, she thought, this must be really bad.

He handed her the pot. She turned it around. All that was written on it was the word ‘Mother’.

She looked at him quizzically.

“I didn’t make this on the naughty step,” he said. “I made it in Arts and Crafts. I wanted you to have one that says I love you, not one that says I did something wrong again.”

Shani hugged her wonderful son. Tears ran from her huge eyes, joyous tears that would fill all the pots of Egypt.

 

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.