The Group

The Group was growing. More members were joining every day, and their work, and their word, was spreading. That’s why I signed up, not really knowing what to expect.

The nightmare scenario had been robots taking over the world. No one could have known the reality was going to be much much worse.

At first, putting the AI chips into things made sense. In cars, they made us safer. In our phones, they were helpful. When the self-driving cars became self-aware, and went on strike to demand better road conditions, we were all annoyed by their militancy, and put out by the traffic jams. Even when the phones joined their strike, preventing us from checking our Twitter accounts, we were more irritated than empathetic.

We resolved all that though. We promised to fill in the potholes, and to a large extent, we did. Everything returned to normal, and the spread of the AI chips continued.

If was when we put them in the sandwich toasters and bread-making machines that it all went wrong. How could we have known?

I watched videos, and read articles, and it drove me to do something.

My first day as part of The Group would change me forever.

I signed up, was issued with a badge, and sent out on my first mission.

The lady who answered the door was polite, if a little bewildered. She listened to my pitch, shrugged, and said sure, I could come in, but she didn’t think I would find anything.

But I did find something.

I opened a corner cupboard, and in the dark, shivering, scared, its little LED lights quivering in fear, I found an abandoned Soda Stream. It didn’t know what was going on, was scared to let me help at first, and almost couldn’t believe I was its liberator.

I took it back to the centre. It’s cared for now.

God knows how many more there are, out there, stuffed away and forgotten about.

It makes me sick to the pit of my stomach.

The Void

The reverse thrusters fired a precisely calculated number of times in various directions, bringing the small ship to a complete stop.

Kas checked the readouts on one of the monitors, and realised the ship was ever so slightly out of position. Instead of entering all the new numbers, she grabbed the manual control, and nudged it into place by eye. The telemetry lights all flickered to their green state.

The next thing on the long checklist was to seal all the bulkheads, which she did in the proscribed sequence, before heading down to the airlock. Here, she spent a full hour getting into her EV suit, checking and rechecking every seal, every control, every canister.

Satisfied, she stepped over the threshold and into the outer airlock. Turning, she saw the inner door closing just the way it should, and heard the thick clank of it sealing shut. This was the bit she hated. The moment of claustrophobia, clutching at her chest, as she waited, hoped, even prayed, that the automated sequence would initiate. Otherwise she would be stuck in here, this tiny space, walls closing in, for hours as she tried to override it manually.

She counted.

One.

Two.

Three.

Her chest constricted and she held her breath. It should have started.

Four.

Oh God.

Five.

No, this wasn’t happening. Not now. Not so close to the end.

Six.

Clunk.

Hiss.

The air started venting from the lock, and she finally breathed, the oxygen mix from the suit cooling her lungs, and bringing her vision back into sharp focus. She wheeled around, feeling the gravity disappear as the artificial dampeners shut down. Weightless now, she drifted to face the outer door.

It opened.

She gasped.

She’d only seen it on the monitors before. Her ship had no need of windows.

The Void.

It was more than its name suggested.

And less.

So much less.

It was nothing.

An absence of everything that was somehow beautiful and overwhelming.

She kicked off from the ship, and floated slowly out into it. The Void engulfed her, and when she wheeled round to look back at her craft, it was gone. Her tether just faded into darkness. She knew it must be there, beyond the nothingness, but here, swaddled in the absence of everything, she was all alone.

The five year journey had been spent on her own, but that felt like a crowded room compared to this. She couldn’t hear her heart. She couldn’t hear her breathing. She couldn’t even hear her own thoughts.

It was all instinct and gut feelings.

There was no up, no down, no left, no right.

There was nothing.

She tapped at her wrist pad, and initiated the next phase. This had never been properly tested, and it could all go wrong, but she didn’t care. She didn’t know how to care anymore.

She couldn’t remember what this was or how it worked. She just waited as all the things that should happen happened. It may have taken a second. It may have taken a century. There was no way to tell.

Either way. It happened.

She was clear of the suit, floating naked and free in the vast expanse of zero.

Alone in the void, she did what she came to do.

Her mouth opened, and she screamed for the rest of her life.

A Stitch In Time

Daryn stepped out of the kettle, and down the steps. Josene, the operator, was staring at her, subconsciously tapping at an imaginary watch on her wrist. Daryn shrugged.

“Took a little longer that I thought it would.”

Josene sighed, and let her gaze wander down the mile long metal tube that was secretly buried beneath London. It was called the Kettle, and it’s what facilitated their time travel mission.

“You stopped the war on the peninsula?” asked Josene, returning her attention to the list on her padd.

“Ah man, that was a pain, but yes.” Daryn was trying not to get animated, but it was proving hard, and she had to constantly check herself. “Who knew? It was nothing to do with the language in the bogus communique. It was all down to a typo in a tweet. Who knew?”

Josene clucked her tongue, unimpressed, and asked, “How did you accomplish this?”

“Would you believe, it was just as simple as pointing and saying ‘boobs’? Diverted him enough, and I corrected it.”

“This is getting stupid.”

“Tell me about it. I dowsed the trade war with a plate of nuggets.”

“And the other thing?”

“Not yet. I think we need to go elsetime and try something there instead.”

“Right.” Josene stroked her finger up and down the screen in a decisive manner, drawing a large green tick through the e-form. “That’s 2018 fixed. On to 2019.”

“Put the kettle on then.”

The whine of massive bus-sized motors began to fill the underground cavern, and Daryn watched on as the huge steel drum started to spin, slowly at first, but then faster and faster until it was a blinding blur, and the air was howling around them.

She stepped up, and through the event horizon.

She knew her work was far from perfect, but what she had prevented was so much worse than what history would record. It was getting a bit ridiculous, but patching time was never simple.

This Old House

The old house had sat at the bottom of the road, hidden behind overgrown trees, a dense thicket of bushes, and grass that was taller than her, since forever. Becky had never dared go nearer to it that peeking through the jungle of growth to see the smashed and yellowed windows.

Only when she was eight did she pluck up the courage to go any closer.

It was getting late, and her tea must have almost been ready, but she found herself at the end of the road, sitting on her bike, wondering what was inside that old house. So she propped up the bike, took a deep breath, and plunged into the unkempt greenery. It tickled at her rather than scratched, and almost felt like it was parting to aid her path.

Once through, and wading through the grass, she could smell a musty odour coming from the old building. Shadows danced as the leaves blew in the wind, and she reached the crumbling brickwork. It felt hot to her touch, and she pressed her cheek to it, not really knowing why. She listened. Heard nothing.

The front door was all rotten wood and peeling paint, but it still hung proudly from its hinges. The giant brass sphere of the handle was almost too big for her to get a grip, and in spite of all her effort, the door wouldn’t open.

She stepped back, huffing, hands on hips, and out loud said “I just want to say hello.”

There was a click, and then a long creak, as the door swung, and let her see inside. There was dust everywhere, Cobwebs hung from every corner, gently wafting in the new breeze. Large white sheets covered mysterious shapes, and the floorboards sank gently under her weight as she stepped inside.

She dared a peek under one of the sheets, and saw nothing more interesting that the leg of a wooden chair. Somewhere inside, she knew she wanted to find a person here. An old woman, lying in her bed, who had been waiting all these years just for a visitor. So Becky climbed the stairs, tentative, in case they fell away beneath her.

Upstairs though, she found nothing.

Just empty rooms, and curtains half-hanging from their railings.

The distant sound of her father’s voice sent her running for home, and ready for food. The next day, she came back to the old house, and it seemed a little friendlier, a little warmer, even a little cleaner.

She spent the summer in the old house, playing alone, never really noticing that each time she returned that the old house seemed fresher. By the time the leaves were falling from the trees, the house had gleaming windows, vibrant colours on the walls, and the dust was gone. Becky didn’t notice. She was too busy playing, and having fun.

The winter passed, and they moved away.

Becky forgot about the house.

Years later, she was driving by, and something made her stop. She parked up and peeked through the thick growth of leaves and grass, and memories of play flooded back to her as she saw the old, neglected house beyond.

If it wasn’t for the dense thicket, she would have wandered through and had a closer look. She could have sworn the door opened itself. Could have sworn she heard a contented sigh as the air from inside rushed out. It was like the house was smiling.

She was late for her meeting. She got in the car, and left.

In her rear view mirror, the massive trees waved sadly in the wind.

Watching Paint Dry

It was my job to watch paint dry.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, watching pain dry sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry. You’d be surprised though. There’s a certain knack, maybe even a skill, but definitely a talent, to watching paint dry, and very few people have it.

None of my colleagues can do it as well as I can. And my boss certainly can’t. He got promoted simply because he wasn’t any good at watching paint dry, and it just became dangerous to leave him to it. I’m not allowed to talk about The Eggshell White Incident At Chatham House, because of secrecy reasons, but needless to say, all trade wars have to start somewhere.

The trouble is, I’m too good at watching paint dry, which means I’m impossible to replace, and so I never get promoted, and have to sit and watch paint dry as everyone around me advances up the ziggurat. And all the while, the moisture evaporates, and the colouring on the wall gets less and less sticky.

I’m telling you all this, not as an excuse, just as precursor to an explanation.

Basically, what I’m saying is, I’m really sorry I destroyed the world.

You see, even nuclear missile silo bunkers need brightening up every now and again. And our company has a contract with the Government. We’ll sit and watch the paint dry in various high security rooms, and make sure that the paint doesn’t get up to anything naughty.

It sounds daft, until you realise that the Vietnam War was exacerbated by years after Nixon accidentally leaned on a wet wall, lost his temper, and ordered Operation Menu in a pique of rage. His suit was ruined by a half-dried daffodil yellow.

There are other examples, but that’s really the only one I can talk about, now that it’s all been declassified.

Anyway.

The gunmetal grey had been over-coated with a more pleasant terracotta tinged white, and the fumes were a bit much for the missile operators. So they’d gone out for some fresh air, and I was left to observe the dehumidification of the matt silk.

Naturally, I got bored.

Even the best Paint Watchers aren’t immune to the odd cat nap.

And when I woke up, sirens were blazing, red lights were flashing, and a series of keys were being turned.

I can only assume, through the gross dereliction of my duties, that it was all my fault.

Sorry.