Jack

Ah Jack, my old friend…

I pour the nectar into a cold glass and watch condensation form on the outside. I never use ice; dilutes it too much. A glass from the freezer gives it a nice cold bite on the tongue. Yes, even a simple shot of whiskey has a well thought out scientific process behind it. What’s not scientific is knowing exactly when I will need one of these cool compresses for the mouth and soul, so I always keep a couple of short glasses in the freezer, just in case.

I leave the glass on the side to let the booze cool, feed the cat and smile at the appreciative rumbles, then put some Mike Oldfield on. Usually when I’m stressed I like to sing but tonight, although I’m tense, I just want to sit, sip and let the music roll over me in waves. I wonder if they can wash away this gritty sand of uncertainty. I know I am doing the right thing. I just don’t know if I’m doing it for the right reasons. I want to help Moriarty. I also very much want to keep my job. I can do both. I’m sure of it. But every little victory for Moriarty just leaves me wanting more. Not that I’ve managed much. If James is as much of a blabber mouth as I remember, no one will be “borrowing” the “ABP” for a while. Though James won’t implicate himself he won’t pass up on a juicy story about the power hungry Reen. I giggle to myself as I flop into my recliner, narrowly avoiding sloshing bourbon over myself.
I close my eyes as the story of the music unfolds. I’ve gone for tubular bells, the original. It’s part of my universal melody list; the songs I return to again and again when I am faced with confusion or uncertainty. I am sure they all have a connection, some quality that has an actual harmonic resonance with the human soul, that connects us to the rest of the universe. How amazing, to think that part of you is vibrating at the same frequency as part of the centre of the sun. Or could be, if manipulated by the same sound waves.
This is soothing, this train of thought. My musical pseudo science, something I would never dare send to funding application. Behavioural sciences would probably snap it up but I’m too proud: it’s not simply about how humans react to the music, but about how music is at the heart of everything. If I’m right. I wonder what Moriarty would make of my bizarre hypothesis. I wonder why I care. I wonder if I should tell him. I need another drink.

Later I jerk awake after a sickening feeling of falling. At first I don’t know where I am and I start to panic. Shit, I haven’t felt like this since I was a kid. I recognise my apartment and calm down. Right, yes, fell asleep in the chair. Idiot. How many did I have? The bottle is on the side, lid next to it, but surprisingly still fairly full. Maybe three glasses. No damp patch on my waist where the glass was resting so I obviously didn’t waste any. I need to get to bed. The cat is pawing at the window so I let her out; it’s an apartment but it’s on the ground floor. I spent a whole bonus cheque soundproofing the place so I don’t get bothered by the neighbours. By them complaining about my loud music that is.

I’m not drunk, just foul mouthed and exhausted, but the bourbon has done its job; my mind has quieted and I am focused on simple things like “brush teeth”, “clean face” and “flush loo”. As I slip between cool, flat sheets and close my tired eyes, another pair seems to appear for a second on the inside of my eyelids. I’m already falling back to sleep though, and the silvery orbs melt in to my dreams, as I murmur my way to oblivion.

Testing Time

I walk into the lab, grab a coat and a pair of goggles and head over to the console where James is working. James is a fantastic lab technician; courteous, fastidious and very skilled. He was my personal lab tech for a while but was mysteriously reassigned. All my assistants get reassigned. Or leave. Or file grievances. It’s not that I don’t play well with others. I just have my own way of doing things and when it’s my research, it really is my way or the highway. Plus my working environment is not to everyone’s taste.

“Hey James.” I smile at the technician, just about succeeding in hiding my rising bile. Moriarty is visible through the viewing window, in the quarantine chamber. He is strapped to a bench and shaking. Currently nothing is happening. I know I should have arrived here sooner though as there are burn marks on his, for want of a better word, skin.
James smiles and turns from the console.
“Hey Reen. Just doing some testing for the new nano tech trials.”
“Run me through the pre lims.”
“Nothing concrete as yet. We want to utilise the same nano tech in the ABP here” he gestures to the shivering humanoid “to craft a self healing armour. His skin heals over time, but how much time and after what damage isn’t clear, so we’re running a few tests against different levels and types of damage and monitoring the results. If they’re encouraging, we’re hoping to get funding to go ahead and build some armour with the nano tech incorporated and test it in the field.”
I nod slowly.
“Wow. Sounds promising. Strange though. No one ran this idea past me. I know I’m new in charge, but I do expect to get sign off on all major testing.”
James knows me too well and is tugging at his shirt cuffs nervously.
“Er, it’s the ABP Reen. No one even knows he’s here, so it’s not usually a problem…”
“No problem James. Don’t you have a skin graft on your back from that burn incident a few years back?”
James’ eyes widen and he twitches his head back in surprise. He has no idea where I am going with this. He swallows and responds
“Er, yes. I allowed myself to be treated with the new experimental cells that accelerate the skin re-growth. But they canned the project because some of the subjects rejected. I was lucky. What’s this got to do…”
“Thanks James, good to know. I’m re-opening the project with a view to testing the resilience of the new skin. I’ll be calling you in for testing of course.”
James’ eyes are bugging out of his head at this point.
“Testing?”
“James as part of that project you are bound to participate in any follow up experimentation. I can provide the signed documents if you want. I’m sure any tests you’re put through will only be a fraction as stressful or painful as what we’re doing to the ABP here…”

And that’s when it clicks for James. I don’t care if he thinks I’m angry because he went behind my back.
I don’t care if he thinks I’m going soft. I particularly don’t care if he thinks I have a personal vendetta against him for getting himself reassigned. What’s important is the look on his face and the sweat and the frantic nodding tells me this is one guy who will never take Moriarty without checking with me first.

“Miss Hadley…I’m sorry, of course all testing will be checked through you first. I guess I just hadn’t adjusted to the new chain of command.”

I sigh and purposefully soften my expression.

“James, it’s nothing personal. But I am in charge and I plan to stay that way. If I have to spend all my time looking over my shoulder to check what my staff are doing I will never get anything done. You’re a great lab tech and a good man. Don’t get yourself into trouble eh?”
“Thank you…thank you Miss Hadley.”

He thinks this is our little secret. Of course it is, but for my benefit, not his.

“Don’t worry James. Now get the ABP back to his room, gently please, no point damaging him further for no benefit.”

Out of the corner of my eye I can see Moriarty grinning and I have to bite my cheek to prevent my sympathetic response. Then I remember the burn marks on his skin and suddenly the humour drains away; I think my dark expression alarms James who backs away and frantically starts dismantling the test room.

Copyright Mabh Savage February 2013

Storm Moon

Storm moon coming
Beating at the door
Tempers are a raising
Mood drop through the floor
Hard times over
Starvation ain’t the kill
Hearts running hungry
Stagnant water standing still
Voices louder
No one asking why
Anger comes from the gut
Emptiness from the sky
Flowers drowning
Crimping o’er with frost
Tiny reminders
Of just what you have lost

Trees still bare
Under February air
But they need no help to get there
To the green and to the fair

Storm moon coming
Washing your tears clean
Starting you over
Knows what all your sighs mean
Storm moon hanging
Laughing in the cloud
Mocking your ego
Did you have to be so proud?
Storm moon over
Lightening burnt away
Blackened stump of life
The beating goes away.

Surveillance

So this is our “black op”. He looks like a man. Different though, odd in the way he moves. And he is moving. I expected to see him sat perfectly still, waiting for input, or dejected with how long he has been in this place, but he is stretching, joints moving in a slow and supple way, limbs moving a little further than a normal human structure would allow. He is very well balanced. He moves from one foot to the other without seeming to shift his weight at all and I wonder if he is making himself rigid or if he is simply so strong he can support his frame in any position.

As I ponder this, he slowly brings his fingers to his toes. I watch in astonishment as his legs curve back and up until he is standing on the tips of his fingers, head facing forward. He lifts each finger up, one at a time, as if he is testing them. Without any change to his facial expression he continues the movement of his legs in a perfect curve back to the floor, so he is in a crab position. His head looks unnatural now, as he is still looking at his toes.
I have to ask:
“Why is he doing that?”
“The freak? Who knows. It gets bored, I guess.”
“The freak? That’s what you call him?”
“Well what would you call it? It’s not a man, not an animal, not even a robot really. Creeps me out. I’m only on surveillance but lemme tell you, that’s enough. Dunno why we don’t just get rid and have done. The project got shut down you know?”
“I know Stan.”
“Oh that’s right, you’re in charge downstairs now, congrats. I guess this is the first time you’ve seen our “guest” then.”
“Yeah, I’d heard rumours of course but when they handed me the files I just had to see for myself.”
“The files. Yeah, they kinda don’t tell the full story.”

I wrinkle my nose at him and raise my eyebrows.

“You mean someone here did a shoddy report?”
“Hey, no one’s getting nobody into trouble! Not that anyone cares, those reports are so old.”
“Yeah, I can’t believe he’s been hidden away up here for 35 years. Crazy.”
“Can’t let it go; can’t put it down- well the big brass thinks it still has stuff to offer us. Me, I think it’s a waste of a good room.”
“The files…”
“Oh yeah, what is it they say-emotional acclimatisation failure?”
“Big words for you Stan.”
“Hey!”
“I jest. I didn’t know what the hell it was going on about to be honest. I checked all the figures on his responses and they looked human enough, in so much as you can make comparisons between the two.”

Stan sighs but obviously takes pleasure in being the bearer of bad gossip.

“What the files don’t tell you is that his emotional responses were off the scale. Yeah, it reacted to all the right stuff- in a way. But it reacted too much. There’s no way we could send it in as an operative, because as soon as it figured out what we wanted it to do, it was disgusted.”

I ponder this and ask
“Surely though “it” could be manipulated, convinced that what it was doing was for the greater good?”
“Too smart. Like I said, it figured shit out. We gave it the best AI possible but it was totally inhuman. Then we gave it feelings and it cared too much. For weeks after switching the emotions on it just screamed at any input. Did our heads in. We were all sat here with earmuffs on taking bets as to when it would shut the hell up!”

I wonder if the horror is showing on my face. I hope not. I don’t want Stan to think I’m some bleeding heart who will chew him out for treating something this way. Am I? Science is my life, but I’m starting to feel a bit sick watching this beautiful being, and listening to the smoke hoarse voice of a man who wishes it were dead explain its life story.

“So it made its own decision not to cooperate.”
“Yeah, what a waste of effort. That’s why the program got canned. An artificial being is only useful if it can be controlled, and we made this one too good and we can’t figure out how to take it back. I mean, we can turn the feelings off, but then it’s just a robot again; anyone can make a robot, right?”

Yes Stan, any Tom, Dick or Harry with coat hangers and a bit of string can make a robot. I hope I’m hiding my contempt.

“So essentially you built a hippy robot.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don’t underestimate it. Yeah, it feels and it cares more than the rest of us can or want to, but it can do what it was designed to. It’s shitting deadly. If it thinks it’s in danger or something it cares about, it goes bat shit crazy. It ain’t just the lovey fluffy emotions that are off the scale. Trust me when I say you do not want to see this thing have a tantrum.”
“What do you mean, ‘something it cares about’?”
“Well, um, off the record?”
“Sure Stan.”
“Well it is on record but nowhere you’ll ever read it. It took a shine to one of the lab assistants whose job it was to ask questions, do tests- kind of a psycho analyst whatsit? Anyhow this kid was sweet by all accounts, fresh out of college, bit naive. He and the freak seemed pretty pally. Then the kid started getting harassed by one of the senior technicians. Really below the belt stuff; would never happen these days. Anyway, this kid was totally miserable, and confided in stretch Armstrong over there. Next time the three of them were in the room- the kid, freak and the bully- freak confronts the big shot about the harassment. Guy laughs. Big mistake. Freak flips out and grabs him. Tells the kid to leave. Looks straight at the camera and says “not acceptable” then snaps the guys neck, easy as me snapping a match.”

Copyright Mabh Savage February 2012

The Chapel

The chapel is beautiful, ethereal. Called square, it’s actually longer along the east and west walls which are entirely made of saints and apostles, sculpted straight out of the sandstone, and lit with tiny lights making each of them glow; a heavenly luminescence that from a distance makes the whole building seem other worldly.

It’s a hot night. I drive up with the roof down, veil fluttering in the speed crafted wind as I find the car park for the gorgeous, holy building. I reverse into a space, one arm on the wheel, the other draped over the leather seat back as I look over my shoulder to make sure I don’t destroy anything with my oversized vehicle.

Once parked, I sit for a moment. Fingers rest on the smooth material of the seat, heat inducing a slick sweat between the two skins; one alive, one dead. I let the liquid fail friction and my fingertips glide over the gloss of the-

What am I doing?

Procrastinating.

No I mean, what is this that I am doing here?

Ignoring the voice of sanity I open the door and step carefully out of the car. The dress I have gone for tonight is stunning; I’ve really outdone myself. The material is thin to suit the heat of the night. I am wrapped in white from neck to ankle with the tiniest burst of tulle emulating a train. Can’t go overboard on the train when your driving. My arms are simply laced with white ribbon, as is my head; hair totally bound to my head in a cap of the slinky material. The tiny veil is as reduced as the train; covering features only, it moves only with my breath in this still, potent night.

I’m out of town. I have to be. I’m too recognisable in my own area to be doing this. But I need to do this. Well “I” is a worried pronoun here. I no longer know what is “me” and what is the creature I am creating by my indecision. The bottom line is, if someone sees a mad woman skulking round churches in a wedding dress, there’s no reason they will tie it back to me: head of research at the corporation that started all this…this debacle.

I walk into the church through the main entrance at the south. Despite the ancient look of the sculptures, very modern artificial cool air flows around me as I step over the threshold. I stop behind the first row of wooden benches, and as always, start to try and picture what could be. What could happen if I truly removed myself from the situation I am in. I imagine the bouquet between my grasping fingers; the adoring, approving friends cheering. My nostrils flare; no, that’s not part of my fantasy. He is here. Amazing. I don’t even need to look around. He is perfectly silent when he wants to be. But his smell is unique; subtle, but absolute.

I wonder if he is simply going to watch me then leave. I haven’t seen him for weeks; the weeks that I have been travelling these backwater towns, trying on churches for size like the dresses I hire under a range of pseudonyms.

I turn and sit on the back of the pew and start flicking my fingers over the spines of CDs, stacked in two piles next to a small player attached to the church’s sound system. I still don’t look up at him. I can’t decide if I’m embarrassed or not. He doesn’t exactly think about things in the way a human does. There’s no point guessing what is happening behind those unique eyes. I’ve learnt over time that being direct is the only way.

“So, pretty certifiable huh…” I try, still not looking up to where I know he is standing by the door. His reaction, as usual, surprises me. He laughs warmly and comes to sit at the other end of the bench’s back. 
“You, my dear, are off your rocker. That’s my certified opinion.”
I finally raise my eyes, and see he is already looking at me, twist of a smile at one corner of his perfect mouth and body matching my position perched on the cold wooden bench. I can’t help it, his lack of mockery and acceptance of my ridiculous actions lift a weight I didn’t even know was there and laughter bubbles up inside me. Before I know it I am giggling and not in a crazy way; simply laughing with delight at his presence and not having to explain myself or worry that he is going to have me committed. At the sound of my laughter his smile changes to fill his eyes, and I know he has as little regard for my insanity as he does for most other things regarded as “human failings”. He’s simply happy to have found me, safe and not falling to pieces. Not quite. We sit and smile at each other; a warm, strange moment.

Copyright Mabh Savage February 2013

Sorrow

Sometimes sadness is so profound, it almost becomes a physical object. When it has a weight to it, and carrying it is not only emotionally tiring, but bodily exhausting. The backpack of sorrow, dragging shoulders and chin down, and straining the back; straps of shattered dreams scoring deep marks in skin so tough yet so fragile. Words becoming meaningless mumbles. Eyes of pity only draw more tears. Kindness is welcome but fruitless; this sadness cannot be broken, only weathered until the stone of time dulls its edge and the cut of the sorrowful dagger causes a little less hurt every time it is unsheathed from the scabbard of memory. Time. Friends. Family. Kind words; candles in the darkness, each a beacon to the passing pain, drawing it out little by little like a poultice on a stale wound. Each one by itself may make no difference, but put them all together and you may just make it through.

Thinking of friends.

Holly

Another excerpt from my upcoming book, A Modern Celt, which goes to the publisher in 6 days! Eek! Worryingly, I only just wrote this bit today…

The holly is an evergreen tree with leaves ranging from dark green to bright yellow and gorgeous red berries. We very quickly think of Christmas or Yule when holly is mentioned, and there is a long tradition of bringing greenery into the house at the coldest time of the year. Holly is one of the more beautiful examples of this as it really needs no trimmings or enhancements; it is the decoration. Holly is usually sharp and prickly; a full tree of the thorny leaves can be quite dangerous. The Irish hero Cú Chulainn was forced to fight one of his foster brothers, Fer Báeth, and not wanting to kill his kin, tried desperately to talk Fer Báeth out of the fight. Fer Báeth refused to back down, and Cú Chulainn stormed off. Not looking where he was going, he stepped in a holly so sharp it cut him to the bone. He uprooted the bush in a rage and cast it over his shoulder, killing the unfortunate Fer Báeth. In the same text (Táin Bó Cúailnge) our hero comes across a charioteer cutting holly branches to make chariot poles, and later Medb’s warrior Nath Crantail attacks Cú Chulainn with nine spits of charred and sharpened holly. Cú Chulainn simply hops along the tips of the spits as they are thrown at him then runs off to find his evening meal! Suibhne, in Suibhne’s Frenzy (Buile Suibhne) refers to the holly tree several times in his story as a sheltering tree, and at one point he is surviving only on water, acorns and holly berries. It’s no wonder he was in a frenzy; the berries have a similar effect to caffeine, and eventually become very toxic. In The Wooing of Etain Midir’s eye was taken out with a spit of holly, so it seems safe to assume that holly was widely cut for weapons, vehicles and a variety of other uses by the Celts. Holly today is still common all over the British Isles and very hardy, and is one half of the dual king of the year for those pagans that follow this belief (the other half being the Oak King). The Holly King is born at midsummer, the Summer Solstice, but does not start to really rule supreme until after the autumn equinox, when night outweighs the light. I always felt that the Holly King had a bit of an unfair advantage, because he is green and lush all year around, whereas the Oak King loses his green mantle by October, not to retrieve it until well into Spring. But how could we have a green lord of the wild, wintry wood, without turning to the magic of the evergreens?