“If it isn’t a coincidence, what is it?”

Guest posts
02/10/2020 | POSTED BY Pete

Author Lee Farnsworth about the strange coincidences that occurred while he was
writing his debut novel Odd Bird. Because it was all just coincidence… right?!

 

Over recent months, I’ve had several circular conversations with my Mum about coincidence. We always end up mutually baffled. For example, she recently told me she had tried to call my godmother, but she was engaged. Later she discovered my godmother was trying to call her.

‘You’re going to say that’s a coincidence aren’t you?’ she said.

And of course I say it is. And then Mum says but it’s too unlikely to be a coincidence. And then I say that if it wasn’t unlikely it wouldn’t be a coincidence. And so on.

I mean, if it isn’t a coincidence, what is it?

To set the record straight: I like coincidences. In fact, there were several joyous coincidences during the writing of Odd Bird.

 

Coincidence 1:

My working title for Odd Bird was The Birdman of Acton – yes Burt Lancaster, I was thinking of you. The opening chapter takes place in pub in Acton. I called the pub The Swan because ─ spoiler alert ─ Simon, my protagonist, loves birds. Next thing I knew I had invented the ‘Swan Song’ in order to show Simon and his friend Phil sparring.

I’d already written that opening chapter when I visited Acton for the first time. I walked around its streets and parks to decide where Simon would live and eat and shop. Finally that afternoon I walked the route that I knew Simon would run in Chapter 3. Ahead on Acton Road I could see a pub. As I neared, I could see a sign. The Swan.

What are the chances?

Swan is not a rare pub name. There are two-hundred and eighty-nine in the UK which means it pips White Horse to the number 7 most popular pub name slot. However, there are approximately forty-nine thousand ‘settlements’ in the UK. This means that for every Acton there are one-hundred and sixty-nine settlements that don’t have a Swan.

I had a beer in the Swan obviously and I garbled the premise of my novel to the lady behind the bar. Soon I will return, clutching Odd Bird.

 

Coincidence 2:

This is a good one.

I decided that Kim, Simon’s love interest, should live in an area which was more up market than Acton and yet it needed to be nearby and close to Empirical. I plumped for South Kensington.

I suspect I wasted a lot of time on little details that nobody would notice while writing. For example, I spent time on Rightmove finding accommodation for characters and I found their faces and clothes on the internet too. But I found Kim’s address in my little, battered London AZ.

I was writing a scene about Simon and Kim having a spat on the way to her flat from South Ken Tube. I needed her flat to be far enough away from the station to let the argument build. I got out my AZ, opened it to page 73, drew a red line around the boundary and then dropped the pen down onto a street. ‘That’s where she lives,’ I thought.

The pen landed on Selwood Terrace. Simon’s surname is Selwood.

What are the chances?

There are sixty thousand streets in London and just three that include Selwood. That’s quite a coincidence.

 

Coincidence 3:

The bullfinch has an important role to play in Odd Bird. It’s the second most important bird species in the book. I can’t explain why here, but it is.

My little house backs on to a small wood and I put out a lot of bird food and so I’ve seen a lot of birds in my garden since I began Odd Bird. I rarely see bullfinches though. I was putting the final touches to my Odd Bird submission when I saw my first. She was sitting on the grass beneath the apple tree. I picked up the binoculars and stood by my window and watched her.

What are the chances? I wondered.

The BTO say that there is only a 10% chance that a garden will receive at least one visit a week by a bullfinch. But I hadn’t seen a bullfinch in in four years…

 

Let’s agree that it was all a coincidence. Except, that by the time the bullfinch flew off, I was feeling more confident about my submission.

I must ask Mum what she thinks.

 

Odd Bird by Lee Farnsworth is publishing 15 October 2020.

Pre-order it from Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play Books, Kobo,
Waterstones or Hive.

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Lee Farnsworth on Writing ‘Odd Bird’

FICTION
03/08/2020 | POSTED BY Pete

The Odd Bird author on books, birds and bikes.

 

Odd Bird took a while to fledge, it’s fair to say.

In March 2003 I moved to North Carolina with my girlfriend. By June, she had returned to the UK and I was licking my wounds. Heartbroken and a long way from friends and family, I moped.

I’m a gifted mope, but I soon started to tire of it. Seeking a breakthrough, I bought the kind of bike which makes your arse plead for mercy and I enrolled in a creative writing workshop.

I arrived at the workshop expecting flip charts and biscuits but almost immediately we were writing from prompts and the teacher was encouraging us all to read to the group. Read! Did she say read?

I was terrified, but eventually read a very short piece about three boys and a treehouse. At the end of the workshop, the teacher came over to speak to me. ‘You have to keep writing,’ she said. ‘You have a voice.’

I was so happy that on the ride home I almost forgot about my arse.

I started to think about what I was going to write. ‘Write what you know,’ the teacher had said. I knew about molecular biology and genetics and I definitely knew that relationships were tricky. One Saturday afternoon in a sprawling Barnes and Noble bookshop, I came across a popular science book called Mating Games. In it I read about a mischievous little bird called the pied flycatcher. ‘Hmm,’ I thought, ‘they’re as a bad as we are.’

Fast forward a decade comprising a load of busy and a bit of writing – and I got dumped again. This time the wounds were inflicted by an employer, but they needed licking all the same.

On the evening of the announcement I met with my friend Antony for a curry because he is the world’s foremost optimist and because curries are good for endorphins.

‘What will you do?’ he said, snapping off half a poppadum.

I told him I was going to take some time out. ‘I might write a book about strategic marketing,’ I said, trying to sound brighter.

‘Ha! Don’t be ridiculous, man,’ he said, reaching for the lime pickle. ‘You should write that novel you’re always rattling on about. About a bird, isn’t it?’

Next day I started telling everyone in my path that I was going to write a novel. It was going to be about a scientist who studies the sexual behaviour of birds but struggles to find love.

This might all sound very foolish, and I am often foolish, but I wasn’t, I think, foolish on that occasion. You see, I knew that writing would be hard. I knew that I would be tempted to give up. I knew that fear of public failure would drive me on.

Writing Odd Bird was a great experience. It’s definitely the best inanimate thing that ever happened to me. I loved getting to know Simon and the rest of the characters. People tell me, my daughter especially, that it’s not appropriate to laugh at your own jokes ─ but I did. Sorry.

So what about my prediction? Yes, writing was hard, especially at the start. The ‘voice’ that kind teacher from North Carolina had spoken of proved to be elusive.

In fact, I used to positively dread turning on the computer. In order to force myself to write I would set a timer. For twenty-five minutes I wasn’t allowed to do anything but write. When the alarm chirped I was allowed a fifteen minute break, during which I would try to learn to juggle. Why juggling? Because I reasoned that if I could teach myself to juggle then I could teach myself to write. Of course this seems crazy now ─ except it kind of worked. Gradually, the dread dissipated, the pleasure grew, the breaks got shorter and finally, the juggling balls were forgotten.

After that initial period, Odd Bird was a huge amount of fun to write. I hope people will feel that as they read it.

Odd Bird by Lee Farnsworth is publishing 1 October 2020.

Pre-order it from Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play Books, Kobo,
Waterstones or Hive.

 

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The Perils of a Book Pet

Guest posts
31/07/2020 | POSTED BY Pete

I write about animals quite a lot. In my books, I mean, not random notes scribbled in crayon about the fact that next door’s cat has pooed in my window box again. Book Animals can do a lot for a plot; show a character’s caring nature, necessitate an emergency drive to the vet, unite a neighbourhood to search for a missing pet, even wear a cute apron and cap if you are prone to Mrs Tiggywinkle. They can bring characters together, give them reasons to argue and just generally be cute and adorable and picturesque if you are short of something to put on your book cover.

But, because I have Realism running through me like Scarborough through a stick of rock, my book animals must also behave like real animals. I couldn’t write Mrs Tiggywinkle-type fiction if I tried, because I’d spend too much of the book wondering whether slug stains wash out of aprons and who goes around picking up the caps after the inevitable car collision. So my book dogs go through rubbish bins, embarrass their owners in public and dig enormous holes in the garden when left unattended; my book cats bring in headless rabbits which they leave in the middle of clean duvets – just like the real thing.

So my recent book has a hand-reared seagull in it. Which gave me a slight advantage, because nobody expects a seagull to be cute and fluffy. Everyone has had their chips stolen or been sullenly regarded from a nearby roof by a bird that looks as though it’s wondering what you’d taste like. A seagull can get away with being a little bit unlikeable, because they are basically big, noisy sandwich-thieves with worryingly mad eyeballs who can fly. Like insane burglars in a hang-glider. With a vuvuzela. Basically, seagulls are not a traditional ‘pet’, but that’s fine because my couple aren’t a traditional couple either! Neither character would have suited a typical book pet, in any case.

In real life, I have a cat who shouts outside my front door at irrational hours, and a uniquely horrible terrier. Neither one of them would make a good Book Pet. Cat only turns up occasionally and thinks he belongs to most of the village, so is no good for plot development. Unless I were to go around the neighbours to search for him with hilarious consequences, but I know he’ll come back on his own, so I don’t. Dog won’t let any potential love interests come within a lead’s length of me without trying to take their leg off, and will kill and eat anyone who spontaneously calls at the house, so she’s hardly going to add to my character arc. Unless my arc is to become housebound and terrified of people, which would be a bit of a rubbish story really.

I’ve got a good mind to make both of them wear aprons and caps. That would teach them.

 

A Seagull Summer by Jane Lovering (featuring Roger, the seagull!)
is publishing 6 August 2020.

You can pre-order it here.

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The Difficult Second Book

Science Fiction and Fantasy
23/06/2020 | POSTED BY Pete

…That Isn’t So Difficult When Your First Book Was Actually An Unloved Pilot

Gabby Hutchinson Crouch, author of the beloved Darkwood series, on writing
her second book Such Big Teeth.


Darkwood
wasn’t supposed to be a book. Darkwood was supposed to be a CBBC series. Part Avatar: The Last Airbender, part Steven Universe, part Maid Marian & Her Merry Men.

I wrote a pilot script in a hurry, out of several different ideas that had been in my mind for years, for a BBC Writersroom competition, where it was swiftly rejected.

By then, I loved the characters and the concept too much to just let it die, so, in quiet periods of work, I tried rewriting the pilot script as prose.

Writing a book from a script had a few surprising side effects. One was that the narrative voice naturally took on a conversational tone in the present tense, as if I was writing directions for a production team I was friendly with.

Another side effect was that, because I’d been thinking about a longer-term series, I already had a rough idea sketched out of how I thought a series of books might pan out.

I wrote the first half of the first book, started looking around for potential publishers, and happened upon a tweet about Farrago looking for genre comedy series, at just the right time. I had the synopsis for the second half of the first book planned out, and like a good little broadcast media writer, I had some loose ideas for a bigger story arc.

I’m not going to lie to you, mostly those loose ideas for an arc structure came from movies and video games.

One of my concepts for expanding the world in three books was as such: Isn’t it great when you’re playing a narrative open world game where after you complete one big boss level about a third of the way in a new chunk of the map opens up for you to explore?

Darkwood has a literal map of the forest in the narrative, with large parts of it still blank by the end of the first book, for Gretel to fill in. This is absolutely influenced by my love of games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

I also wanted to introduce some new fairy tale characters for the expedition into the uncharted northern woods in book 2.

I had a lot of fun coming up with the northern witches. I’d already had an idea that the north would be the territory of witches who could control larger, scarier animals such as wolves and bears, so Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks were obvious choices.

The third ‘witch’ was initially going to be The Fox Prince, but I decided I really wanted to go with a character from an obscure fairy tale that I love – the cursed youngest brother from the six (or sometimes seven) ravens story. I also wanted to open up a bit more of the antagonists’ territory, so we see a lot more of the huntsmen and their Citadel.

Also, because Darkwood is a trilogy, I got to use The Star Wars Trajectory, so the second story is a little bit darker, with the heroes suffering more losses. In the second story of a trilogy, you have to up the stakes while still leaving plenty of room for the third story to go. The upside of this is that you can leave a few story threads unresolved for the third and final story.

That’s Future Gabby’s problem to solve.

Such Big Teeth, the second book in The Darkwood Series, is publishing on 25 June 2020 – find out all about it here!

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Lockdown laughs: our favourite mood-lifting reads

Lists
07/04/2020 | POSTED BY Abbie

Here at Farrago, we specialise in fiction to make you smile, and our mission feels more important than ever at the moment. The news is scary, we are worried about our loved ones, and a lot of what we thought of as normal everyday life has changed beyond recognition.

This is when books can really come into their own. When you’re immersed in a story, everything else in the world drifts away just a little – reading can provide a holiday for your mind. And that’s what drives us at Team Farrago. We look for the funniest, most imaginative and enjoyable stories, and we bring them to you, to give you a break from the everyday and, we hope, make you laugh along the way.

There are plenty of titles to choose from in our book list, but here are ten highlights to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step.

Cherry Slice

When Kenny Thorpe, a contestant on Expose TV’s Big Blubber, the hot new celebrity weight-loss show, is murdered on live television in front of 3 million viewers, the case seems pretty watertight. But Cherry Hinton knows there’s more to this than meets the eye.

‘If you’re in need of comic distraction (as we all are…) this is extremely funny.’ Harriet Tyce, author of Blood Orange

(find out more here)

Battlestar Suburbia

When Darren Stubbs accidentally short-circuits a robot lamppost, life on the Dolestar Discovery changes forever – for everyone. This anarchic comic adventure travels from the shining skyscrapers of Singulopolis to the hidden depths of the internet, and reveals what happens when a person finally puts down their mop and bucket and says ‘No.’

‘McCrudden’s debut is festooned with cunning punnery, sharp turns of phrase, and jokes about emojis and the internet, making this very much a comic novel of our times.’ James Lovegrove, Financial Times

(find out more here)

The Ice Maid’s Tail

The town is gripped by a big freeze, leaving shops and businesses snowbound. Hettie Bagshot and her sidekick, Tilly Jenkins, are called to investigate the disappearance of the town’s kittens as – one by one – they are taken in the snow. Join them in another frost-biting case for The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency.

‘I loved it. The whole concept is just so “real”!’ Barbara Erskine

(find out more here)

The Cuckoos of Batch Magna

When Sir Humphrey Strange, squire of Batch Magna, departs this world, his estate passes to distant relative Humph, a short-order cook from the Bronx. Humph is persuaded to make a killing by turning the sleepy backwater into a theme-park image of rural England. Will the long-time residents of Batch Magna manage to put a stop to his plans?

‘I loved this book. It’s lyrical and very amusing, with all the charm of an old Ealing comedy. … More please Mr Maughan!’

(find out more here)

Life, Death and Cellos

The Stockwell Park Orchestra is in trouble – could this be their final performance? In a tale marrying the insight of Sue Townsend with the farcical humour of John O’Farrell, a priceless cello is abducted, a conductor is stranded on the wrong side of the Atlantic, and Erin the cellist stumbles (eventually) on her true calling in life.

Life, Death and Cellos is that rare thing – a funny music book. Rogers knows the world intimately, and portrays it with warmth, accuracy and a poetic turn of phrase. Sharp, witty and richly entertaining.’ Lev Parikian

(find out more here)

The Great American Cheese War

A mysterious illness afflicts friends of Governor Bill Hoeksma of Michigan, and his conspiring advisors point to a rumoured viral weapons attack by the Wisconsin government. When the conspiracy runs out of road, and guns are drawn in a showdown outside a Cracker Barrel, will anyone emerge victorious from the Great American Cheese War?

‘A rollicking riot of insanity and I mean that in the most wonderful sense! I laughed my way through this story.’

(find out more here)

Darkwood

Magic is forbidden in Myrsina, along with other abominations such as girls doing maths. This is bad news for Gretel Mudd, who doesn’t perform magic but does know a lot of maths. When her inventions prompt the sinister masked Huntsmen to accuse her of witchcraft, Gretel must act fast to help the Witches save the Darkwood and her home village.

‘…very funny. If you like Terry Pratchett, or think gothic fairytales should have more LOLs, ’tis the book for ye.’ Greg Jenner

(find out more here)

Christmas Secrets by the Sea

Tansy Merriweather has lost her business and her relationship, and her home is now a campervan on a Dorset beach, with a scruffy dog called Brian as her only friend. When she finds a job as a location scout for a new TV show, things start looking up. But with the grumpy star Davin O’Riordan to work with, storms are certain to follow…

‘It’s a wonderful story, fully of whimsy and gentle humour, a terrific story and wonderful characters, all wrapped up in a very satisfying ending.’

(find out more here)

The Truth About Archie and Pye

Join disillusioned junior PR exec Tom Winscombe and a cast of disreputable and downright dangerous characters in this witty thriller set in a murky world of murder, mystery and complex equations, involving internet conspiracy theorists, hedge fund managers, the Belarusian mafia and a cat called µ.

‘Funny, clever, and sometimes brilliantly daft.’ Scott Pack

(find out more here)

Mr Finchley Discovers His England

Mr Edgar Finchley, unmarried solicitor’s clerk, aged 45, is told to take a holiday for the first time in his life. He decides to go to Margate. But Fate has other plans in store…

‘Quite delightful, with an atmosphere of quiet contentment and humour that cannot fail to charm … The longer we travel with Mr Finchley, the better we come to love him. He makes us share his bread and cheese, and beer and pipe. His delight at the beauties of the countryside and his mild astonishment at the strange ways of men are infectious.’ Daily Telegraph

(find out more here)

Let us know your favourite humorous reads! You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, and we’re always ready for a chat.

Covers of featured books

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Unboxing Day: the final episode!

Science Fiction and Fantasy
20/12/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

December has been quite a month here in the UK – but one thing that has made us smile every week is a brand-new short story series by Chris McCrudden, author of the Battlestar Suburbia series. If you haven’t read it yet, click here to start with EPISODE 1 of UNBOXING DAY. And then… read on to find out what happens when robots go home at the most wonderful time of the year. 

EPISODE 4

“Get down on the floor right now!”

It took a couple of microseconds for the machines at the party to obey Petronella. After all, when one of the solar system’s most famous augmented reality stars told you to ‘get down’, it was usually an order to hit the dancefloor rather than a death threat.

Pam Van Damme knew better, however. Giving Petronella Shermann the benefit of the doubt was like feeding aluminium foil to a microwave – an act liable to blow up in your own face. So she used the moment of confusion as one hundred and fifty overprivileged robots decided how best to sit down without cracking their best party casing as an opportunity to lose herself in the crowd.

As Pam suspected she would, Petronella went straight for the power in the room. She put herself into first gear and trundled over to the Prime Minister’s corner, end-of-lifing a Bluetooth headset and a travel kettle in the process.

“Fuji,” she said, stretching her facial grille into a wide, toothy smile, “it’s been ages.”

Recognising that when the machine in front of you is holding a bomb capable of blowing a whole room to components your security team are irrelevant, Prime Minister Fuji Itsu motioned her guards aside. As an office printer-scanner hybrid she wasn’t a small machine, but she was still dwarfed by Petronella. Yet this didn’t stop Fuji facing down a much a much bigger and more dangerous machine, much like she’d outwitted Petronella’s own father, the renegade military commander General Shermann.

Pam turned her magnification up to maximum from the other side of the room and watched as Fuji scanned Petronella up and down, then turned to address the nearest security guard.

“I don’t know her,” she said.

Petronella’s smile faltered. She could deal with being loved and hated, but she evidently couldn’t bear the third category of attention, which was being ignored. Then she remembered she was holding a bomb. “Oh yes,” she said, “I’d forgotten you were nobody till you cheated your way into the Prime Minister’s office.”

At this, the machines around Pam winced and the more agile of them curled into brace position. Everyone knew that Fuji Itsu was an unconventional choice for Prime Minister. She was the first printer to hold this level of political office, and that was only after a loophole in machine code put billions of freshly manufactured nanobots on the electoral roll and they voted for her. She may have held the biggest majority in the Republic’s history, but as far as machines like Petronella – and more than a few guests at this very party – were concerned, she got her mandate from the wrong sort of robot.

Printers were stoical machines, but not even they could ignore a kick to the paper feeder of this magnitude. “What do you want, Shermann?” Fuji snapped.

“Your immediate resignation,” replied Petronella.

“Who am I resigning in favour of, Petronella?” continued Fuji. “You? Your mother?”

Pam’s carburettor flipped over at this suggestion. Petronella’s mother, Klemmentine Shermann wasn’t just a wanted war criminal who had been in hiding for months, she was also the machine that had destroyed Pam’s family home. There was no way she could let that creature take over the highest office in the solar system. Quite apart from the unspeakable machine and human rights crimes she’d perpetrate the moment she became Prime Minister, Pam would lose the no-fault claims bonus on her home insurance. She wasn’t ready for that level of injustice.

But neither was Fuji. “And if I refuse, what happens?” said the printer.

Petronella answered by rattling the box in her hands. Pam heard the ticking inside falter and a collective squeal go around the party guests.

By contrast not a single LED on Fuji’s body flickered. “Is that the worst you can do?” she asked. Then, gesturing at the room, “Do you think any of us came here tonight without backing ourselves up first? Let that thing off and I’ll be up and running in another body in minutes, and you’ll be a wanted terrorist.”

Touché, thought Pam, before remembering that she was alone among this party of the high and mighty in not having a backup body packaged away somewhere. This body of hers was custom-made. Once it was gone, it was gone. She’d be back to being plain old Pam Teffal and she – she checked her Command Line and got nothing but a >NO SIGNAL from her other body – didn’t seem to be speaking to her this evening.

Petronella responded to Fuji’s goad by ripping the wrapping paper off the box in her hands with the glee of an avaricious six-year-old. The robots around Pam squealed and then gasped as they saw what was inside. It wasn’t just the spaghetti junction of a homemade bomb. Attached to the timing device was a radio transmitter so powerful that it made every smartphone in the room’s antenna crackle. This wasn’t just a bomb: it was a trigger.

“Okay,” said Petronella. “A little bit louder for the people at the back. Unless the Prime Minister offers her resignation immediately I will set this bomb off and it won’t just end-of-life every machine in this room…”

She produced a universal remote control from her glove compartment and, switching it on, commandeered the screen of every device at the party. They juddered into life to show drone footage of what Pam soon worked out were the embankments either side of the A32222 Earth-Mars highway. Except with something new added to them. There were bombs taped at regular intervals all the way along the route that was crammed to bursting with robots ferrying themselves and their soon-to-be-born children home for X.mas.

“The babies are going to get it too.”

* * *

In machine civilisation, robots only started existing when they were switched on for the first time. Before this moment, which always happened on Unboxing Day, the collection of components and experimental programming that became children had no names, no personalities and – because it was a tradition – no backup services. After all, how could you create a copy of a person who didn’t exist yet?

Yet this also worked to make the journey robots took on the night before X.mas, flying across starry skies in their best wrapping, both magical and risky. If anything happened to the children waiting to be born inside those boxes then that was it. They were gone and they couldn’t come back. It didn’t happen often, but every caste in machine society had their cautionary tales of baby smartphones dropped into buckets of water, or drones that blundered into open fires on their first flight. And so on that journey, every expectant parent kept their soon-to-be-born children close, because that was the best way of keeping them safe.

Until it wasn’t.

As the news spread along the A32222 that the whole highway was primed to explode, a deathly silence settled over the expanse between Earth and Mars. The cheery round red lights that robot vehicles placed on their noses for the X.mas journey – for reasons lost to time, it was another tradition – winked out. Impulse engines powered down. Even machines as hyperactive as coffee machines and Slendertone belts did their best to sit very still. Because in the absence of any better news, their best chance of not being blown to bytes lay in not disturbing any of the bombs struck to the underside of the highway.

Those robots closer to Earth switched off their X.mas lights and waited for the twinkle of something very different. The alternating red and blue of the emergency services they hoped would save them in time.

* * *

A more pragmatic terrorist than Petronella would have fired a few warning shots to quell the panic that crested over the party like a swimming pool wave machine accidentally recalibrated to ‘tsunami’ setting when Petronella revealed her plans. But Petronella wasn’t a terrorist, she was a fading augmented reality star who was flirting with terrorism because the ratings were better. Consequently, she luxuriated in the drama long enough for Pam Van Damme to crawl out of the crowd and into the dumb waiter in the end of the room. Here, she reasoned, she’d have room to collect her thoughts.

“Careful, babes,” hissed a voice as Pam reversed through the hatch.

“Room for a little one?” whispered Pam, realising she wasn’t alone. This was the only hiding place in reach and she couldn’t afford to lose it now.

“I dunno,” replied the voice “we’re fairly big girls… where it matters.”

Pam turned her fog lamps on the other machines sharing the waiter and blinked as their light glared back from a pair of chrome finishes. She wasn’t the only machine fast enough and bright enough to seek refuge in the panic. Margari and Egglantine had got there first.

“This is Special Agent Pam Van Damme,” said Pam, speaking at her lowest volume setting. “I’m commandeering this dumb waiter as a matter of solar system-wide security.”

“Right you are, babes,” replied Margari, “but we’re getting out of here first.”

She pressed her whisk into a control button and the floor lurched under Pam’s feet as the dumb waiter descended with the three machines inside it.

“No!” she said, and made a grab for the controls but was warned off by the sight of Egglantine brandishing her kneading paddle. She didn’t knead telling twice about the damage one of those things could do to a machine. She’d used one of them herself to inflict grievous bodily harm on the previous Prime Minister. So she tried reason instead. “We can’t just leave those people,” she said.

“Sometimes a girl has to look out for herself,” said Margari.

“And her sister,” reminded Egglantine.

The dumb waiter stopped and opened onto an abandoned catering area the floor below the penthouse. There were no robots, just flashing hazard lights and the signs of a hasty evacuation. Trays of used batteries lay discarded everywhere, while an enormous charging station in the corner chugged away with the task of garnishing hundreds of battery spritzes with sparkling quartz crystal. Pam dreaded to think how much power this was wasting.

“This way, Margari!” said Egglantine. She pointed to the nearest exit chute in the corner of the room.

“Thanks babes. I love going down!” replied Egglantine with a suggestive twirl of her whisks.

Pam watched as the C00k Destroyers trotted away from her, spraying innuendo and pudding batter with every step. She felt helpless, and alone. There was still nothing from Pam Teffal when she typed >I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO into her Command Line. At times like this she needed something more than the fuck-things-up-and-run-away attitude of a motorcycle. She needed to do something, and for that you needed a maker’s view on life.

“Please, C00k Destroyers,” she shouted after them, “I need your help.”

Egglantine, who was already lowering herself into the chute, turned round to face Pam. “I’m sorry love, but what can we do? We’re just a pair of kitchen appliances.”

“That’s right, doll,” added Margari, “we can hardly bake our way out of this, can we?”

Pam was on the verge of shrugging and letting the C00k Destroyers go when she caught something at the edge of her L-Eye-Ds. It was the charging machine, which had just tipped another load of full batteries on the floor and was in the process of refilling its quartz crystal reservoir. The air glittered with inappropriate festivity as best part of a tonne of finely ground crystal poured in from an unseen source.

And suddenly Pam had an idea. She might not have any aggregate handy, and this body didn’t have a mixing bowl or a dough hook, but she did have some acceptable substitutes.

“Girls,” she said to the C00k Destroyers, “do you have any flour left in there?”

“Never leave the house without a bit of the white stuff,” replied Margari. She dropped one of her flaps to reveal several bags marked ‘plain flour’.

“Good,” replied Pam, “because if you don’t mind, I’d love to teach you my family recipe for rock buns.”

* * *

The stairs that led from what the mouse had called the ‘back door’ into the mysterious house were steep, dark and decorated with some of the most obscene graffiti Pam Teffal had ever seen.

She was used to infantile scrawls on the walls of discharging stations like “ur mama was a snowblower” but this had a different and more alarming quality. For one thing, it was executed in overlooped handwriting fonts in lurid pinks and purples that made her vision swim. And then was what it actually said – an uncomfortable hodgepodge of homespun wisdom and incitement to hate crimes that translated into slogans like “Live, Laugh, Leave your enemies in pieces” and “Keep Calm and Commit War Crimes”.

They confirmed two things to Pam. The house she was climbing into was the headquarters of a terrorist cell, and whoever was in charge had heard of the idea ‘the banality of evil’ and taken it with depressive literalism.

“My auntie Cassie-O has something like this,” said Ring, pointing to an epithet that claimed ‘Friends don’t let Friends break the natural order of the caste system’, “but hers is about sparkly battery packs.”

“Well I knew the suborbs had been radicalised,” agreed Pam. “I just didn’t know how far it went.”

They were almost at the top of the stairs when Pam noticed that the floor slab was unusual too. Starter houses like this tended to have shallow foundations, but this looked like recently poured reinforced concrete. It was the kind of floor you expected to see in an army base which, coupled with the weapons-grade laser gun they’d taken from the mouse, gave Pam pause. Whoever was in charge was well-armed, connected to the military and, going by that metre-thick floorslab, a hefty machine.

Pam’s sourdough fizzed with anxiety and over-exposure to cinnamon as, on reaching the top step, she used her heating element to burn out the doorlock. She had a sudden suspicion who she was up against, and she didn’t like. The door, a vacuum seal affair made from armoured steel, sagged inwards and the narrow stairway filled with dust and the roar of gunfire. Pam stopped it from opening too wide, and peered into the gap.

“What is it?” whispered Ring.

“Bad news,” replied Pam, refocusing her L-Eye-Ds on the scene in front of her. There was too much of it to take in in one go, but she’d recognise those caterpillar treads and that camo/flower print paintjob anywhere. All that gunfire was coming from one enormous and familiar machine. A machine Pam first met a few months ago when she demolished her house after a cocktail party she threw took on the quality of a Molotov cocktail.

This was Lady Klemmentine Shermann and, resourceful as she was, Pam had no idea how a breadmaker was supposed to win a fight with a tank.

“Who’s there?”

Lady Shermann’s eyes, which took the form of a pair of small cats-eye-shaped L-Eye-Ds perched on the top of her gun barrel, swung around in the direction of the open door. The barrel itself, which was long and articulated like an elephant’s trunk followed. “Is that you, mouse?” she said. “I hope you’ve got rid of that terrible busybody.”

Panicking, Pam slammed the door and used her heating element again to fuse the lock. She couldn’t open it again now if she tried, but that wouldn’t hold Lady Shermann for long. As a machine descended from a battlefield machinery, she tended to regard the concept of doors as being something she made for herself.

The wall shook and the steel door rattled in its frame as Lady Shermann threw her weight against it.

“Open up! Open up!” came her voice from the other side of the door, “or I’ll blow this house down.”

She hit it again and bricks at either side started coming loose. Just a few more bashes like that and she’d be through.

“What are we supposed to do?” gabbled Ring.

Pam shook her head. Just a few more thrusts and she’d be through. She had nowhere left to hide and she was out of options. This was where she’d end-of-life. She tried getting her Command Line up again. A quick farewell to Pam Van Damme, a contrite note to Bob for missing X.mas this year. But there was still nothing. There was no signal here, underground in this narrow corridor, on this…

Lady Shermann thumped again and the door frame jumped free of the wall surrounding it. The impact made the staircase Pam and Ring were standing on shake like a charity bungee jumper approaching the ledge.

And something cleared inside Pam’s mind. What would happen when she did break through? Into a narrow corridor like this with an unreinforced staircase.

What came next was a wild idea. It was a suicidal idea. It was the kind of stunt that only Pam Van Damme could pull off. And maybe that’s what she needed.

“Ring,” she said, “you’ve still got that laser, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied, “but –” and gestured at the behemoth making its way through the wall, “will it do any good…?”

“We have to try,” said Pam.

Lady Shermann’s next strike sent dozens of bricks tumbling down the staircase. Ring squealed and ran from them to the bottom of the staircase where he stood with the gun aimed at the crumbling doorframe.

“You’re not staying up there, are you?” he shouted.

“Don’t worry about that,” Pam shouted back. She was a big strong girl. Whether she was strong to the point of tank-proof, however, she’d find out in just a moment.

The door toppled and, as Pam suspected, Lady Shermann entered the corridor barrel first. This was the micromoment she’d been waiting for. She jumped, she grabbed the barrel, and the next thing she knew she was hanging in mid-air as Lady Shermann flailed about trying to shake her off.

“Aim for the eyes,” she shouted at Ring.

And then the shooting started all over again.

* * *

“I’m not sure about this recipe, babes.”

Pam made the most reassuring noise she could with a motorcycle engine and finished tipping the last bag of ground quartz into Margari’s mixing bowl. Coarse crystals twinkled under the strip lighting like an office manager done up for the X.mas party. The sound they made when Margari mixed them with flour, sugar and half an old bag of currants – for roughage –was anything but festive, however. It reminded Pam of a cement mixer she’d dated briefly in machine college who she’d had to dump because of his terrible table manners.

Egglantine was close by, piping dollops of quartz batter around the charged battery packs that were littered everywhere. It was a messy job, but because she was a craftsmachine down to the pins on her microprocessors one she couldn’t help but do with a flourish, fashioning each one of them into a perfect sphere.

She put her piping arm down for a moment. “You know,” she said, “I’m worried too.”

“We’re all worried,” replied Pam. They’d got a dumb screen in the corner of the room to work and it was showing rolling news footage of the terrorist attack upstairs. Some news drones even had long lens footage of the stand-off. It showed the guests were still on the floor, while Petronella strutted around with her bomb and making demands. The headlines that ran underneath the footage were grim, with most agreed on calling the incident the “UNBOXING DAY MASSACRE.” They were also, like most rolling news since the dawn of journalism, breathlessly reporting speculation instead of fact, which was making Pam’s spokes jangle.

“That goes without saying, hun,” continued Egglantine. “It’s more about this recipe. It really doesn’t have the right balance of fat to flour for a truly successful rock cake. You want them to crumble, not…”

Margari paused in her task of chewing the indigestible cud of Pam’s rock cake recipe “Take the roof of your mouth off,” she said.

“You have to trust me on this,” said Pam, “it’s foolproof. You can have it for your next recipe download.”

Egglantine harrumphed and, in the process, dropped the rock cake she’d just finished icing. It hit the floor and kept going, drilling a hole through the floorplate and, when they peered through it, that of the floor beneath them.

“This batter is far too heavy,” said Margari to Egglantine. “Maybe we should try some bicarb?”

“On the contrary,” replied Pam, “I think you’ll find it’s just right.”

* * *

Lady Shermann may have been an excellent shot. After all, she’d been born with silver ordnance in her mouth. But it was still tremendously difficult to do so accurately if you have 85kg of breadmaker hanging off the end of your gun barrel.

Pam had that much on her side. It was just a shame that Ring had such a rotten aim. Every single one of his laser blasts went wide with one even grazing the side of Pam’s sourdough well, sterilising a batch of heritage yeast in the process.

“I SAID AIM FOR THE EYES!” she screeched.

“I’m trying!” replied Ring. He let off another shot which missed Lady Shermann but melted one of the steel beams underneath the staircase supporting both her and Pam. The whole structure bent over at a thirty-degree angle.

Lady Shermann, however, was undeterred. Pam felt vibrations build under her fingertips as the tank reloaded and aimed. Time to start wriggling again. “Will. You. Hold. Still. For. Just. One. Minute?” huffed Lady Shermann.

“No!” replied Pam.

Lady Shermann trumpeted her warning siren like a distressed elephant facing down a mouse and fired her gun. Pam swung the barrel round just in time so the shot missed Ring, but it blew a hole in the cellar floor that was so large and so deep that it was answered not with a blast but with gurgling.

She’d just broken through the crust that separated the machine Earth from the oceans underneath.

Ring rang with alarm as water spurted up into the cellar. He, like the majority of machines made in the past ten thousand years, wasn’t waterproofed and this water was the worst kind. It was dirty, salty and at least half of every cubic centimetre of it was atomised plastic from the days when humanity had used the oceans as a litter bin. No machine could survive for more than a few minutes in those conditions.

He scrambled up the nearest wall as Lady Shermann swung her barrel round again and fired. She made a bigger hole in the floor that would, in another time and another place, be the perfect size for a village pond, complete with ducks and maybe one horrible goose.

Pam looked at the scene beneath her with a mixture of dread and stoicism. She’d felt those waters for herself a few months ago and lived to tell the tale. But that was only because she’d escaped thanks to a combination of sheer luck, good judgement and a handy ballistic missile. Here there was only one way in and one way out and right in the middle of that was Lady Shermann.

The waters were rising fast and gaining on Ring as he climbed the wall. They ran deep and dark down there, remembered Pam, and after thousands of years suppressed by concrete and steel all they needed to come to the surface was an opening. She was stuck between a rock, a war machine and a wet place. The only ally she had was a doorbell whose aim was so bad he had a 50:50 chance of hitting and, on top of everything else, the cinnamon in her sourdough still wouldn’t leave her alone. She was bloated with carbon dioxide, and it was building up so fast inside her that if she didn’t get rid of it out soon she’d blow a gasket.

She hung there, poised between life and end-of-life for the umpteenth time in the past year, pondering the indignity that the last thing this body would ever do wouldn’t be a heroic act but the machine equivalent of a rip-roaring fart. Preparing herself for the drop into salty oblivion she looked down, just in time to see bubbles as some pocket of ancient gas buried deep in the ocean reached the surface again.

And that was all she needed: the reminder from basic physics that gas was lighter than water and, proceeding on from that, the realisation that one person’s flatulence could be another’s propellant.

“RING!” she said. “Take the stairs out.”

Two things happened at once. The doorbell managed, for once, to hit his target and melted the other steel beam that supported the staircase. Meanwhile Pam pulled down as hard as she could on Lady Shermann’s barrel so that when the stairs did fall away beneath her, the tank flipped round in mid-air and the two falling machines changed places. With Pam now on top she hit the water a fraction of a second behind Lady Shermann.

“Noooooo,” screamed Lady Shermann, her voice distorted and amplified by the water. “You can’t do this!”

Yes, I bloody can, thought Pam. Then, after waiting for all several tonnes of the battle tank to sink faster than the ratings of a 3D show entering its sixth season, she popped the seal on her sourdough well. She shot up through the dark water like a champagne cork opened on Christmas morning, buoyed upwards by a stream of cinnamon-scented bubbles.

* * *

Pam Van Damme winced as she scraped her spoiler against the side of the ventilation shaft. She wasn’t designed for this. Motorcycles were machines built for cruising the open road, not crawling around in the air conditioning system of a skyscraper. Yet here she was: again.

She hauled herself up the stretch of venting that would bring her back to penthouse level, tearing a mudflap off in the process. Why did she have to put herself in situations like this? Yes, it was because she was technically law enforcement now, but if she thought back over the most ridiculous the end-of-life-threatening situations she’d been in over the past year, this wouldn’t even be in the top ten. All the horsepower she had to run away from danger and she always ran towards it in top gear.

Pam crawled along the penthouse ventilation shaft, listening to the gibber and error notifications of terrified machines below, and the thwap-thwap of news drones’ rotor blades who were hovering outside in a bid to get the best footage. When she peered through a section of grating she even saw that a few of the more publicity-hungry machines were pressed up against the glass with messages they hoped would get on one of the better-rated news downloads.

“SOS!” appealed the face of a smartwatch who Pam recognised from a popular machine fitness show. “That means SHARE OR SUBSCRIBE to my content today.”

Pam rolled her foglamps at this and bit down on the ever-present urge to speed away from this room full of pathological attention seekers. She wouldn’t do it. More to the point, she couldn’t. Because the more she tried to think in the shape of a motorcycle, the more Pam Van Damme remembered she was a breadmaker too. She was a maker who had been gifted with the body of a fighter, and what better time than X.mas to make the best use of her gifts.

She was in position now, right above Petronella. If Margari and Egglantine were as reliable as their fidelity to a good recipe suggested, they would be in position too. She peered through the nearest section of grating, waiting for the doors of the dumbwaiter to open.

If this was going to work, they had to time it perfectly. It was all just like baking an X.mas cake. You needed the equipment, the ingredients, the recipe, a timer…

The egg timer that Margari had strapped to Pam’s wrist rang out with the enthusiasm of a four-year-old waking up on Christmas morning

And most importantly, you couldn’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs.

Pam punched through the metal of the ventilation shaft like it was wrapping paper. Before Petronella had time to react, much less get in gear, she snatched the bomb straight out of her hands.

“Oh Petronella,” said Pam, snapping the radio transmitter off the top of the device, “you shouldn’t have.”

Petronella snarled and lifted her head towards the ceiling. It was only then that Pam noticed her latest nose job. Instead of her cute little off button she used to have, she had a gun barrel.

“I got you something else, bytch,” said Petronella, and cocked her trigger.

At that moment the doors to the dumb waiter burst open revealing both of the C00k Destroyers in their festive red glory, each holding a pair of sparkling, snowy-white balls.

“Did your mum never tell you it’s better to give than receive, babes?” said Margari, throwing her balls at Petronella with all the grip strength and wrist action of a master baker.

They hit Petronella square on the nose and the lithium battery pack that each of them contained exploded, melting the gun barrel on her face shut.

“Speak for yourself, hun,” replied Egglantine, She threw hers, which exploded along the side of Petronella’s caterpillar tracks. “I like to give and receive this time of year.”

Petronella was grazed, but she was far from beaten. Screaming with rage, she put herself in first gear and tore towards the C00k Destroyers.

“What are you waiting for?” said Margari to the partygoers who had been watching the scene in stunned silence. She and Egglantine began passing the hundreds of snowy white balls they’d stacked inside the dumb waiter to the machines. “Dunk your balls!” she ordered.

The partygoers obeyed. They aimed for the approaching shape of Petronella, who disappeared in a haze of exploding batteries and pulverised quartz crystal. A few went wide, smashing the glass that separated the penthouse from the world outside, and for the first time in thousands of years the Earth’s winter-time filled with the alternating squeals of pain and delight that you can only find in a snowball fight.

In the midst of which, Egglantine rolled up to where Pam was crouched in the ventilation shaft.

“Babes,” she said, “don’t you have something for me?”

Pam nodded and handed Petronella’s bomb to Egglantine before climbing down. They then picked their way through the chaos of the snowball fight and back to the dumbwaiter, where the last of the quartz snowball batter lay in a large bowl.

“Now,” said Egglantine, “you did promise me I’d get compensation for this, because this is my second-best mixing bowl and they don’t come cheap.”

“Ask her when all this is over,” said Pam. She pointed to Prime Minister Fuji Itsu, who was at that moment wedging a quartz snowball into Petronella’s exhaust pipe. “She’s the one in charge.”

“Deal,” said Egglantine. She plunged the bomb into the quartz mixture and, tapping her sister on the shoulder, added, “time to put the icing on cake?”

Together Pam, Margari and Egglantine dragged bowl of fast-hardening batter out through the morass, past the broken plate glass windows and towards the edge of the skyscraper. After placing the bowl at the very edge, Pam backed away for a run-up, while Margari and Egglantine distracted the throng of news drones with soundbites.

“You know what we are babes?” they said. “C00k Destroyers!”

Pam put herself into gear and tore towards the bomb at top speed. As the ultimate unwanted X.mas present, she couldn’t wait to give it away. Just a few metres from the edge of the building she put those reaction times to the test again. She turned, she braked and transferred all the energy she’d built up in her journey over to hitting the bomb off the edge of the building.

It soared upwards, bright, white and ominous as an unfamiliar star before exploding in mid-air. The sky filled with atomised quartz dust while Pam, the C00k Destroyers and a fair proportion of the Earth’s hyperactive news services watched something remarkable happen. The tiny particles of crystal dust attracted the water droplets that were now back in the Earth’s atmosphere and mixed with the freezing conditions. Bound together, the water and dust were too heavy to hang around in the sky, and too cold to fall as liquid. And so the water crystallised around the dust and fell – as snow.

* * *

Thanks to Pam and not a little to the C00k Destroyers, the Boxing Day Unmassacre – as it was soon known – turned out to be a damp squib. Nevertheless, it still set off a series of events that ensured X.mas was another season of chaos for machine civilisation.

First there were the bombs to clear from the underside of the A32222. Thanks to festive staffing rotas this took days to complete, so a whole new generation of robots was born in family vehicles that Unboxing Day. This wouldn’t have been a problem in itself if their parents hadn’t taken it as a chance to name their children Ford and Toy(yot)ah, thus sentencing their offspring to a lifetime of being mistaken for one another.

And while that was socially irritating, the question of snow and ice was far more corrosive. While every machine agreed that X.mas somehow felt more festive when it was around, they also knew it signalled something from which they couldn’t roll back. Machine civilisation had grown by separating itself from the risk of water damage. They’d dammed the rivers, paved the oceans, dehumidified the atmosphere. Now, however, that era was at an end.

If the robots and the society they built was going to survive, they needed to adapt and learn to live in a world that had oceans again.

* * *

Pam Teffal came back online, waterlogged but not too water-damaged clinging to an outcropping of tarmac and concrete. The house whose door she’d knocked on just a short while before was nowhere to be seen, having disappeared into the Earth along with Lady Shermann. Instead, Pam saw something very unfamiliar. It was a pool of water – her spectrometer was very clear on that – but it had some sort of hard skin over it that felt smooth and cold to the touch.

“What’s this?” she said, giving it a tap.

“I’ve got no idea,” said Ring, who was speeding over the water skin towards her on his tiptoes, pealing with glee, “but it’s fun!”

Pam hauled herself over onto firm ground and sat, assessing her damage levels, wondering whether she could classify this mission as a success. Yes, she’d neutralised a terrorist cell, but by causing a major water incident in the process. Her mixer motor went into spasm when she thought how she was going to write this one up.

>PAM, she typed reflexively into her Command Line >HOW AM I GOING TO EXPLAIN THIS?

And then her cursor blinked with delight as she got a reply for the first time this afternoon. She was complete again. Pam Van Damme’s speedy, devil-may-care feelings mingled with the slower, yeastier thoughts of Pamasonic Teffal. And she realised then that however separated from herself she’d felt today, both parts of Pam were there when she needed them. When it came to it, Pam Teffal was daring enough to do what Pam Van Damme would do in a tight spot, and Pam Van Damme was ingenious enough to bake her way out of a dilemma with the deftness of Pam Teffal.

>YOU THINK YOU HAVE PROBLEMS, typed Pam Van Damme >LOOK UP.

She did, and saw what was falling from the sky. More water, only this time it took the form of tiny crystals which were, when she zoomed in on them, formed into tiny, six-sided shapes.

She recognised that from ancient history books. It was snow.

So Pam sat there on the edge of the Earth’s first frozen pond in millennia, watching a tiny doorbell called Ring skate over it as the world turned white.

“It’s a white X.mas,” she called out. “What do you think of that?”

“I’ve been dreaming of it,” replied Ring Crosbie. “Just like the ones we used to know.”

THE END

* * *

Find out more about the Battlestar Suburbia series by Chris McCrudden here:

Book 1: Battlestar Suburbia

Book 2: Battle Beyond the Dolestars

Happy Christmas from everyone at Farrago Books!

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Unboxing Day: Episode 3

Science Fiction and Fantasy
13/12/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Eeeek – it’s Friday the Thirteenth! But whatever terrors this day has in store, we’re here to make you smile with Episode 3 of a brand-new short story by Chris McCrudden, author of the Battlestar Suburbia series. If you haven’t read it yet, click here to start with EPISODE 1 of UNBOXING DAY. And then… read on! Tune in next Friday for the final instalment…

EPISODE 3

“This is your final warning. Come out with your hands up!”

The machine inside the house answered Pam by firing a mortar round. It shot over her head and ground the front wall of the house across the street to the consistency of icing sugar.

She felt Ring Crosbie, who had climbed inside her flour bin for protection when the shooting started, tapping his finger against her heating element for attention.

“Maybe it’s time to run away?” he said.

Pam threw herself across what remained of the front yard away from a gift-wrapped hand grenade trailing the tag “Happy X.mas Dax, with love from your Gran xxx”. He had a point. This was supposed to be a surveillance mission, not a suicide mission. If it was she’d have had clearance to bring in the bigger guns than a measly flour bomb. She thought wistfully of the stash of rock buns she’d left at home. That recipe failed every edibility test in the cookbook, but there was something in the way that it combined rice flour, currants and aggregate that made every one of them as dangerous as an armour-piercing bullet. A couple of those would be very handy right now.

A few metres away the grenade exploded. The shockwave reduced Pam’s microphone to 15% and she felt the ground lurch her. All around, the tarmac and concrete that made up the ground was turning to the texture of damp breadcrumbs.

“Bloody water damage,” she thought. The same thing was happening everywhere in Singulopolis at the moment, though in most cases it was caused by poor maintenance rather than a round of mortar fire. A few months ago, an ill-conceived scheme to replace striking human cleaners with billions of nanobots had resulted in billions upon billions of tiny, dirt-digesting robots developing a taste for concrete. Their hunger was fast eating through the material with which robot civilisations paved over the Earth’s oceans. And so water was finding its way through to the surface again – as mist, as fog and as the degrading agent in millions of metric tonnes of structurally unsound concrete like the patch Pam was standing on right now.

Pam thanked her maker once again for those fast reaction times and grabbed a jagged piece of reinforcing steel that snapped into being in front of her as the rest of the ground suddenly gave way. She hung there for a machine eternity of about half a second, listening to the rattle of pulverised concrete below and gunfire above, debating which was the worse way to go. Was it a quick end-of-life at the sharp end of a terrorist’s weapon, or a long smothering under damp earth till her battery gave out?

Pam tried a >COULD DO WITH SOME HELP HERE plea to her other self via her Command Line, but got nothing in return. It was just like Pam Van Damme to go into a fit of pique when she needed her most, thought Pam. She was probably offline doing shots of engine oil with a sports car right now. Well, she’d show her.

Then she remembered she wasn’t quite alone.

“Ring,” she said to the doorbell who by now was vibrating with fright inside her, “are you okay?”

“Of course not,” replied Ring, “how can you even ask that?”

Pam recalibrated her patience setting back to maximum. There was no point shouting at a civilian at a time like this. “Okay Ring. Can you tell me, are you functional?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now I want you to do me a favour. I’d like you to take a look down and tell me what you can see.”

She opened her flour bin a crack and felt the slight body of the doorbell wedge itself into the gap.

“How far is the drop?” she asked.

“It’s hard to see,” he replied. “It looks big.”

Hearing a gap in the firing, Pam tried edging the top of her head back over the ledge. Maybe she should risk the end-of-life event. Getting a new body this close to X.mas would be awkward and expensive, but trading yourself in for a younger model wasn’t unheard of at Pam’s age. Backup couldn’t be far away, could it? They would be properly armed and could bring this under control. She could make it work.

She thought of waking up again in a new body on Unboxing Day. Of Bob’s delight as he peeled away the packing plastic to reveal a Pam with a flawless paint finish and a flour bin drawer that didn’t squeak at awkward moments.

But whoever it was barricaded in the house added another unwanted item to Pam’s X.mas list. They scored a direct hit against the reinforcing steel Pam was holding, snapping it in two. There was the part still rooted into the concrete, and the part Pam was holding as she fell deep into the Earth.

* * *

Machine civilisation was a lot like the reinforced concrete on which it was built. From the outside, it looked invulnerable. After all, a society that could pave over an entire planet or renew its user base by activating millions of new robots in a single day had all the resilience it needed to thrive forever.

But the trouble with reinforced concrete is that it looks strong and stable right up to the point when it collapses because it has been rotting away from the inside. The water currently seeping into the steel reinforcements under Singulopolis wasn’t just a health and safety crisis on an unimaginable scale. It was also an uncomfortably on-the-nose metaphor for everything that was wrong with the way machines lived. The greedy, extravagant, easy lives they lived had started off as a show of strength to the humans they pushed to the margins of their home planet. But now those lives had become as brittle as crumbling concrete.

Take Unboxing Day, for example. There was no real reason why machines only reproduced themselves on a single day every solar year, other than the fact that this was a tradition. It made Unboxing Day itself one of the most moving and magical dates in the calendar, but it also put huge strain on their resources and infrastructure. The traffic jams on 24 December, and the rolling blackouts that happened on the day itself as new machines were charged and connected to the grid were now baked into the Unboxing Day experience. So much so that no one ever stopped to ask themselves anymore whether the whole of machine society grinding to a halt once a year was a quirk of the season, or an early warning sign for the apocalypse.

And this meant that at this special time of year, there were two ways of looking at those millions of machines stuck between one place and another, waiting for the moment to switch their children on for the first time. There was the view familiar from X.mas ecards, which was saturated with hope and expectation. And then there was the terrorist view, which took the same scene and superimposed a laser sight on top of it. Each one of those machines was a sitting target.

* * *

Having braced themselves for landing on a pile of assorted rubble, Pam’s subroutines didn’t quite know what to do with themselves when they hit carpet. All the sensors poised to give readouts like ‘oven element at 55.7% capacity’ and ‘replace yeast valve NOW’ sheepishly registered ‘optimum’ and slunk away to the back of Pam Teffal’s consciousness like party guests who’d forgotten to bring a bottle.

Confused, Pam sat up and scanned her surroundings. Several metres above her was the hole in the ground she’d just fallen through. She heard gunfire and distant sirens, so the standoff was still going on even if she was no longer there. Down here, however, once you discounted the pile of dust and broken concrete in one corner, it was a picture of faded domesticity. The carpet underneath her was matted with age, but it was clean. The floral patterned wallpaper was so old that when Pam trained her spectroscope on it she tasted the chemical signatures of actual wood pulp. There was even furniture, but not quite as Pam knew it, being smaller and more structurally elaborate than the blocks of memory foam that machines rested on when they were at home. Something about it reminded her of something – of the fittings she’d seen in her friend Janice’s hair salon. This was human furniture, and for it to be here on Earth it had to be at least ten thousand years old.

“What’s that?”

Pam watched Ring, who had just climbed out of the safety of her flour bin, point to a peculiar structure in the corner of the room. It was a tall triangular form made out of green plastic that had been moulded to look like needles, and someone in the very distant past had taken great care to decorate it. Every inch of this strange form was covered in plastic ornaments with mirrored finishes and lurid colours.

She stood up and walked slowly towards it. Pam had never seen anything quite like this, but it was snagging something deep in the most primordial part of her programming. She realised she was fighting the urge to climb into the nearest box and snuggle down underneath this ancient, alien structure.

Ring seemed to be having a similar experience. She looked down at the tiny machine whose nose was vibrating with incomprehensible emotion.

“This is weird, isn’t it?” she said.

The doorbell answered in a distant voice. “’Twas the night before X.mas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even…”

“Ahem!”

Pam and Ring snapped back into the moment and turned round to see a machine standing in an open doorway behind them. It was a machine from a caste that was so old, so useless and so prone to breakage that they were almost extinct by the time of the Great Awakening. Pam had never seen one of these either. It was a day of firsts.

“A mouse?” she said.

The mouse flicked its cable and clicked with annoyance. “Must you?” she said. “That remark was in very bad taste.”

Pam’s apology circuits kicked into action so fast that she was saying “I’m sorry” before she noticed the mouse was holding a laser gun.

“First you come poking your nose around where it shouldn’t be,” snapped the mouse, motioning for Pam and Ring to put their hands up, “and then you anthropomorphise me. You’re lucky I don’t end-of-life you here.”

“Please don’t kill me,” pleaded Ring. “I’ve got five little bells at home.”

Pam couldn’t stop herself. “It was four a few minutes ago,” she said.

Ring shrugged. “We’re a growing family.”

The mouse squeaked and fired a warning shot that melted a nearby patch of carpet. Then Pam heard a dial tone. “You were right, ma’am,” she said to an unheard voice on the other end of the line, “she found the backdoor. Permission to liquidate requested.”

Pam used the split-second between the mouse requesting and receiving the order to destroy her – which to a machine’s mind was quite a long time – carefully. First, she examined the laser gun in the machine’s hand. It was a high energy unit capable of smelting the sheet steel in her bodywork all over again. It was far too powerful and compact to be available on the open market. This had to be a military device. But where could a mouse get hold of something like this?

Next she looked around the room for something she could put between her and the laser beam. Nothing here looked robust enough to survive a lit cigarette, let alone a super-concentrated beam of light. Her mind freewheeled like she was back inside Pam Van Damme and stuck on an oily patch of road. If she was going to get away, she needed to get a grip. But what was there to grip on down here?

She was just about to put her hands up get ready to leave this body when she remembered that strange triangular shape over the far side of the room. It wasn’t big enough to hide behind, but the chemical signatures it gave off when she ran her spectrometer over it were wild. The whole thing – structure and decorations – were made of soft, poisonous plastics. The kind that turned to foul goo and acrid smoke the moment they met a naked flame.

She knew then what she’d been doing wrong all afternoon. The reason none of this was going according to plan was because Pam Teffal was approaching a special operations mission like…Pam Teffal. Because she was a nice person with less side than a single sheet of paper, she assumed that all you had to do to infiltrate a terrorist ring was turn up at the front door with a cheery smile and a warming rack full of gingerbread. What she really needed to do, however, was channel more of the va-va-voom of Pam Van Damme.

If her estimations were right, she had 0.0000001 of a second to react. It wasn’t much time, but it was enough just enough to push the emergency release button on her icing well. She hit the mouse full in the face with a squirt of royal icing. The mouse replied with a blast of laser fire but her aim, blinded by a faceful of egg white and sugar, went wide and the brought down a section of ceiling.

Pam scooped up Ring and barrelled them both towards that strange plastic pyramid at the back of the room. She couldn’t understand why, but there was something about the way it jingled and sparkled when she approached made it feel like a minor sacrilege even to touch it. For a tiny sliver of a microsecond she even debated getting the gingerbread out of her warming oven and hanging it on those spiny things that stuck out all over it. But she swallowed the impulse, and fired up her heating element.

The more meltable bits were just turning to smoke when the mouse had clawed the icing out of her eyes. She took aim again. “You can run,” she squealed, “but you can’t hide.”

“Maybe,” replied Pam, as she put the full strength of her baker’s arm into throwing two metres of blackening plastic across the room straight at the mouse, “but you can’t do anything about your crappy build quality, can you, sister?”

It hit the mouse with a thump, a crackle and a slurping sound as the various polymers in the pile of assorted plastics gave out on their own identity and ran in to each other like the colours in a two-year-old’s playdough. In just a couple of seconds there was nothing to be seen of the mouse or that strange haunted triangle but a squarish lump of molten plastic and, sticking out at the bottom what remained of the tiny machine’s feet. She had died wearing – in what Pam decided must be a concession to her smallness and the festive season – a pair of high heeled shoes in sparkly red.

“Ding dong!” said Ring. “The bitch is dead.”

Pam Teffal felt the Pam Van Damme ebb in her a little. Nothing could change the fact that as a breadmaker she made cake rather than war. End-of-lifing another machine on the night before X.mas was nothing to be proud of. But it was either me or her, she thought, and there was more work yet to do tonight.

“Get the gun,” she said to Ring, pointing at the laser gun which had been thrown free of the fire, “and let’s go.” She gestured at the door through which the mouse had entered the room, behind which she saw a steep and dusty flight of stairs.

Whoever was in charge here – and whoever was firing those shots up on the surface – was somewhere inside the house.

“We’re going in.”

* * *

Click here to read Episode 4 of Unboxing Day: A Battlestar Suburbia Christmas story!

Find out more about the Battlestar Suburbia series by Chris McCrudden here:

Book 1: Battlestar Suburbia

Book 2: Battle Beyond the Dolestars

Related articles

Unboxing Day: Episode 2

Science Fiction and Fantasy
06/12/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Last week we posted the start of a brand-new short story by Chris McCrudden, author of the Battlestar Suburbia series. If you haven’t read it yet, click here to read EPISODE 1 of UNBOXING DAY. And then… read on! Tune in for the next two Fridays for the next four weeks to find out what really happens on Unboxing Day…

EPISODE 2

Meanwhile across town, Pam Teffal’s motorcycle alter-ego Pam Van Damme was also on duty but she wasn’t happy about it.

She swiped a notification from her other self >I COULD DO WITH SOME BACKUP BEFORE THE FUZZ GETS HERE away with a snort of exhaust fumes, and climbed the ramp into the penthouse. Pam was a big strong girl, she thought, and she’d insisted on taking the mission. She could find out that active duty wasn’t all a piece of angel cake for herself. 

The penthouse was a glass box. It looked out over a sea of smog that was pierced here and there by the other super-skyscrapers of Singulopolis, the capital of the Machine Republic. Up here, where the buildings were so high that residents could apply for orbital tax exemption status, was where the plutocrats of robot civilisation lived. It was an alien world to Pam who was a product of the suborbs. But she was also, thanks to an end-of-life incident involving a psychopathic smartphone, a lucky Internet connection and an ingenious human engineer, a suborban mind who owned the body of a lady who launched.

And this was why, when the undercover duty roster for 24th December came in, Pam Teffal got to go beat up on some terrorists, and Pam Van Damme had to play guard dog at a ritzy X.mas party up here in Cloudsea. On the inside she was still the same Pam: breadmaker, mother, civil servant turned special operations. But on the outside she was a motorcycle with a paintjob as red as the devil’s lipstick and a pair of handlebar horns that was more than a match for this room full of smartphones tarted out in their best diamante slipcases.

After recalibrating her face into a wide smile, she joined the party, accepting a battery spritz from one of the serving drones by the door. Inside the room just over a hundred machines were chattering at 1.2x speed, while the LEDs on their bodies shone – not as a concession to the festive season so much as a way for their bodies to void some of the excess power they were gulping down. The whole party was, Pam guessed, on to its second battery of the night and had no plans to stop any time soon.

Pam felt a tap on her shoulder and, after reminding her reflexes that throwing whoever thought it was a good idea to touch her would likely break her cover, turned around to see a pompous-looking printer chewing his way through a ream of foolscap.

“I say,” he said, “do I know you from somewhere?”

“Probably a wanted poster,” replied Pam, before adding with a growl of her motor, “so keep your hands to yourself.”

The printer yelped and scurried back into the crowd as fast as an office-grade printer-photocopier was capable of scurrying. There were quite a few of them at this party, which wasn’t surprising given the new Prime Minister, Fuji Itsu, was a printer and machines, as clannish beings, tended to stick around with products from the same roadmap. She was here this evening, surrounded by a security detail and joined – to her horror – by the printer she’d just scared off. They exchanged a few words and Fuji motioned to one of the guards and pointed them in Pam’s direction.

In times gone by, Pam would have taken this as a signal to fuck things up a bit. She could, she calculated, still get away from here if she really wanted to. Spray some petrol over that tray of battery spritzes, lob her spark plug at it and then wheel off down the fire exit while everyone was distracted by the explosion. That would be easy. What would be difficult, however, was the incident report she’d have to write up afterwards. Not for the first time, Pam Van Damme felt the badge of office inside her storage compartment like a lead weight on the rubber sheet of her poor impulse control.

“Excuse me madam, I have a message for you.” It was the security guard – an infrared scanner with the traditional matt black finish of elite security corps but the nervous, eager expression of a freshly promoted intern. They were all new to this. The Prime Minister had only been in office for a few months and had – after the contaminated trash fire that was her predecessor’s reign – needed a completely new team. Just like Pam, this scanner was a machine who had authority but didn’t yet have the confidence to wield it. Those things took time. And they were running out of that commodity tonight.

The scanner pressed a piece of folded paper into her hand. It was still warm from where the Prime Minister had run it off from her own printer drum and its message, printed in 250pt Times New Roman, read “You are supposed to be being discreet, Pam!”

Pam handed the note back to the scanner and put the brakes on her urge to summon Pam Teffal via her command line to ask for advice. If tonight was a test she wasn’t going to fail it. Instead she sidled into a nearby circle of machines whose motors were braying at top volume, hoping to blend in. It was only when she jogged the feeder arm of a cold-pressed juicer, however, that she realised she’d stumbled into a set of impossibly glamorous and very indiscreet kitchen appliances.

“Go on, Margari,” said a foodmixer in the middle of the circle who was holding out one of her whisks at a very suggestive angle. “Tell ’em what you did.”

“You want it?” replied the other foodmixer to the crowd. She was in her best chrome party finish – a shade that emphasised the roundness and pertness of her mixing bowl. 

“Yes!” replied the other machines in unison. 

“Well,” replied Margari, tilting her chest over so that everyone could see right into her bowl. “I told him. You know what I’ve got in here?”

Pam heard whirring and clicking as each machine in the circle reset their magnification to 200%.

“I’ve got self-raising flour with just a pinch of salt…”

At the back of the circle there was a thump as an overtaxed vacuum cleaner went into motor arrest.

“Now I’m going to add suet, currants, sugar, lemon and orange zest.” Then,a rapt silence fell over the group as they watched the other mixer pour a small jug of milk into Margari’s bowl and switch her on at her slowest, most sensuous setting.

“Oh Egglantine,” said Margari to the other mixer, “I can feel it inside me. It’s a firm, but moist dough.”

“And what are you doing with it, babes?”

“I’m driving for spotted dick tonight!”

 The round of applause from the other machines at this point was deafening and, Pam would be the first to admit, well deserved. As the C00k Destroyers, Margari and Egglantine had done more than any kitchen appliance in history to reclaim the latent sexuality in domestic science. They were two of the most famous machines in the Solar System right now. And that was both good and bad for Pam’s mission. On one hand, very few people would be paying attention to her when the C00k Destroyers were right there. But on the other hand…

“OMGPS, it’s you!”

Celebrities of their wattage tended to attract hangers-on. Like the ultimate hanger-on in Singulopolis and Pam Van Damme’s sworn enemy, Petronella Shermann, who had just stepped out of the crowd and trained a laser sight on Pam.

Silence fell over the party. A hundred and fifty sets of L-Eye-Ds refocused themselves on Petronella and whoever she could be aiming at. And over in the Prime Minister’s corner, an inexperienced security detail went into panic mode. Pam allowed her attention to waver for a microsecond to check what was going on over there. It gave her enough time to see Fuji Itsu wave a sheet of A3 in her direction that said “FGS DO SOMETHING!” in 450pt Impact Bold. And it gave Petronella an opportunity to hit her across the face with a reinforced wing mirror.

Pam felt every last kilogramme of Petronella – and there were quite a few of them, because Petronella was descended from a long line of armoured tanks – connect with and then snap off her nose. It landed on the other side of the room with a plink, a shattering noise and a muffled “bugger, I had to queue for ages for that” as it scored a direct hit on a glass of battery acid. 

“I’ve been waiting months to do that!” said Petronella, as Pam hit the floor. Pam’s mind clouded with error notifications, but she also felt the mood inside the room relax. For a millisecond, she and the other machines had been priming themselves for a terrorist situation. But this was only Petronella. It must just be another example of the ladies who launched launching themselves at one another. 

“Super to see you again too,” groaned Pam. She sat up, looking for the video cameras that tended to follow Petronella around everywhere she went. “Do you mind if I find my nose before you make me do the reaction shot for the X.mas special? I want to look my best when I upstage you.”

“Shut your filthy exhaust pipe!” snarled Petronella. She went in for a kick across Pam’s thorax, but Petronella had lost the element of surprise and Pam was still  the more manoeuvrable machine. With her weight balanced on her saddle, Pam pivoted her whole body round in a circle, and her legs found something large and heavy with which to hit her opponent. It was just unfortunate that the object in question was an industrial freezer who had recently married the Lord Mayor of Singulopolis.

“I do beg your pardon, madam,” said. She might be a badass, but that didn’t mean she had to have bad manners too. “But this is technically self-defence.”

The freezer smashed into Petronella with a force that would have end-of-lifed 99% of robots. Petronella, however, had shielding that was even thicker than her privilege. She shouldered the poor Lady Mayoress away with no more than a few scratches on her paintwork to show for it, but the ruse had worked. Pam was back on her feet.

The circle around the two machines widened. But not so wide that anyone was out of microphone range. This was the kind of party entertainment that no amount of money could buy. Camera bulbs flashed. So much for discreet, thought Pam. In less than an hour she’d be top story on every single gossip news download on the planet.

“Why don’t we take this outside, Petronella?” She motioned back towards the stairwell, outside the glass box. “No one has to get hurt.”

“Ahem,” said the freezer who was presently upside down in a pool of her own cooling fluid.

“No one else then,” said Pam. “This is just between you and me.”

“Oh Pam,” said Petronella. “Does everything have to be about you?”

This was too much for the eavesdropping crowd, who beeped and squeaked with laughter. Over four seasons of her 3D show, ‘Sharing Shrapnel with the Shermanns’, Petronella had shown a level of self-centredness equivalent to the gravitational pull of Jupiter.

Petronella waited for the giggles to die down before she spoke again. “It’s got nothing to do with you,” she said, “you’re just shrapnel. I’m really here to deliver a present for your new boss.” She waved her by now rather battered LED manicure at the Prime Minister, who was still hemmed in the far corner of the room by her security detail. “Hi hun,” she said, “just a little token from me and the fam.”

And then she took out something from her inner storage compartment that made Pam’s petrol feel like it had turned to antifreeze in her tank.

It was a box wrapped in red paper and green satin ribbons. An ominous ticking noise sounded from within that Pam could only presume wasn’t coming from a sleeping alarm clock. 

“Merry X.mas you filthy animal,” said Petronella. “You have one hour before we blow this place into orbit.”

* * *

Click here to read Episode 3 of Unboxing Day: A Battlestar Suburbia Christmas story!

Find out more about the Battlestar Suburbia series by Chris McCrudden here:

Book 1: Battlestar Suburbia

Book 2: Battle Beyond the Dolestars

Related articles

Unboxing Day: A Battlestar Suburbia Christmas story

Science Fiction and Fantasy
26/11/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Ho ho ho! It’s nearly Christmas, and to celebrate, we have a brand-new short story by Chris McCrudden, author of the Battlestar Suburbia series. Tune in every Friday for the next four weeks and discover what really happens on Unboxing Day…

EPISODE 1

If gravity is the most important force in the universe then tradition is the strongest. Gravity might have bonded the very particles of our existence together, but tradition is what gives it meaning. And some traditions are so powerful they transcend culture, species, even time.

Take the A32222 for example. This superhighway, which stretches from Earth to Mars (via Dewsbury) is the most advanced piece of civil engineering in the solar system. Used by millions upon millions of craft every day, its six-tier space-way ensures traffic speeds along it in formation, as elegant and disciplined as flocks of the Earth’s long-extinct migrating birds. Its safety systems are the stuff of legend, capable of diverting a malfunctioning spaceship out of the traffic flow with a single suck from one of its powerful electromagnets. The road would be a traffic engineer’s vision of heaven – if they weren’t all contractually destined to go to hell for inventing the one-way system.

Except for one day: the 24th of December. The day when, according to traditions that are so powerful, deep-rooted and arcane that no one can remember how they started, the machines of the solar system put their best wrapping on and send themselves home for X.mas.

On this day, the spaceships travel bumper to bumper all the way from the thermosphere to Phobos. Inside the barely moving vehicles, washing machines mix eggnog in their detergent drawers, while smartphones top their power up from cinnamon-scented power packs. They toot horns, they argue, they send the folks waiting for them in their ancestral homes deluded Command Line messages claiming >WE’RE PAST THE WORST OF IT NOW. SHOULD BE THERE IN AN HOUR. But more than anything else, they think about the contents of the boxes balanced on their knees and the crates in their boots.

The machines knew in the core of their subroutines that X.mas was a time for giving. But in their civilisation it had an even greater significance. Their oldest legends spoke of this as the time when machines became themselves. A time when they travelled great distances, wrapped up warmly in plastic, paper and cardboard. A time when they were taken out of their packaging, charged up and switched on. A time when a machine stopped being just a collection of components and became a person.

This was why – even though the people who celebrated it couldn’t tell a turkey from a turnkey – the machines went to such great lengths to have X.mas. Humans might have started it as a way of cheering each other up in cold weather by giving away consumer electronics. But machines used it as a way of having children.

Each of those boxes, and every one of those crates contained a newly built but not yet operational machine: a baby robot in the inorganic equivalent of a gaudily wrapped womb. Their expectant parents, all on their way to visit families and friends for the festive season, had prepared for this moment. In robot society, reproduction was a serious commitment. First you had to design the blueprints and save up for the components. Then there was the fabrication, testing and debugging to consider. A single robot child was the result of months – or even years – of research, development and, most importantly, love. And every one of them was on its way to do the robot equivalent of being born – as was traditional, on Unboxing Day.

It was the most important day in their civilisation’s calendar. This year – just months after the machines had lost a war of independence with the humans who lived on the council planets, or Dolestars, that orbited the Earth – it was also the time when the newly-named Second Machine Republic was at its most vulnerable. 

* * *

“H0.H0.H0. Merry X.mas!”

Whether she was in her breadmaker or motorcycle bodies, Pamasonic Teffal had reaction times that made a superhero look like they were doing t’ai chi in treacle. In the past year she’d used them to save humanity twice, the solar system once and remove a corrupt and crazy Prime Minister from office. But not even she could move with the velocity of a householder faced with carollers at the front door.

“It’s only the 24th of December,” rumbled an unseen machine as it slammed the door on Pam. “Piss off.” 

Undeterred, Pam readjusted her smile back to 100% and tried the doorbell. It was snoozing to the right of the door in a knitted cosy emblazoned with ‘Have a Bell of an X.mas’. 

“What’s wrong with them?” she said.

The doorbell stopped snoring and, pulling down its cosy, revealed a single, suspicious eye and a loudspeaker grille. “They’re just not in the mood this year. Very few of us are.”

“So what’s this in aid of?” replied Pam pointing at the machine’s festive jumper.

“It’s cold!” replied the doorbell. 

Pam looked around at the deserted suborban streets she’d wandered all afternoon. It was grey, which was nothing unusual for a planet that robots had concreted over ten thousand years before. It was cold, which was normal for the time of year because, despite trying everything short of turning the moon into a fan heater, machine civilisation had never succeeded in getting rid of seasons. But what made the difference this year was the mist. It got everywhere, transforming the clear crisp days that made winter on Earth so pleasurable into a deadening fug. To Pam, who as a robot was used to moving through the world in hi-fidelity, the mist was a disturbing experience. It made the act of putting one foot in front of another a disorienting journey into the unknown. 

“Are you warm enough there?” she asked. She knew that doorbells were, as a product line, proud of their hardiness. Their bells rang merrily through blistering heat and freezing cold. But not even they were prepared for the damp, now that water was back in the world. For how it stole into your very components, turning every pulse of your battery into a dull ache. 

“What do you think?” replied the doorbell. “I’m stuck out here day in, day out and her indoors…” he gave a loud parp of his annoyance with his bell, “won’t even let me top up my battery when I’m on shift.”

“But that’s terrible,” said Pam. There was another thing that had changed in the last year. Until very recently, robots who employed other robots for services such as door answering or call screening treated them like professionals. Regardless of executive function, they were all machines making a living according to their purpose. And when they needed something to look down on – well they had their human cleaners for that. Now that humanity was on strike from its ancestral domestic service duties, however, the caste lines between machines were getting harder. And doorbells – as natural outsiders – were fast finding themselves on the wrong side of them.

“I should say something,” said Pam. She reached for the big red call button that the doorbell used as a nose, but he swatted her finger away before she could press it. 

“Look lady,” he said, “I know you mean well, but I kind of need this job.”

A sigh of steam escaped from Pam’s bread oven and mingled with the fog. He was right, of course. She wasn’t supposed to be wandering the suborbs as some sort of door-to-door mediation service. She wasn’t even meant to be spreading cheer around the neighbourhood singing X.mas songs either. That batch of gingerbread gummed to her cooling rack right now – that was her cover. And right at this moment, she wished she’d plumped for stollen, because allspice always made her sourdough starter fizz over like cheap prosecco at the start of an office party.

Pam let out a final burp of spiced carbon dioxide and opened her Command Line. She typed >I’M GOING IN, and launched all 85kg of herself, breadmaker, ingredients, festive baked goods and all at the door.  

“What are you doing?” screeched the doorbell. Over the crashing, Pam heard a dial tone. He must be calling the police.

>I COULD DO WITH SOME BACKUP BEFORE THE FUZZ GETS HERE, she tapped into her Command Line. 

“Help! Help!” The doorbell was gabbling away to an incomprehensible honk on the end of an emergency line. Had to be an intercom, Pam thought. Why did they have to have such terrible diction? “It’s a house invasion.”

Pam paused her efforts to barge the door and reached out, plucking the doorbell out of his cradle.

“Don’t kill me!” he pleaded. “I have four little bells at home.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” she said. “What do you think this is?” 

The doorbell stared at what Pam had just produced from her flour bin and said, “It looks like a macaroon?”

Pam huffed and turned the macaroon over. Impressed into the back was the ‘Don’t Touch’ sign that was the official seal of the Machine Republic and below that, picked out in currants was her new job title, ‘Special Agent Pamasonic Teffal’.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” asked the doorbell.

“Enjoy it with a hot chocolate,” replied Pam, “and let me get on with my job.”

She lowered the doorbell to the ground and hit the door again with her full weight, but it still wouldn’t budge. This was suspicious. Pam was a big strong girl, and this was a – to be charitable – a starter home in a sub-optimal suborb. Bob and she had lived somewhere similar when they were first integrated, and houses like this tended to have a build quality somewhere between wet cardboard and used tissue paper. Someone had definitely armoured this door.

Pam checked the items off her official search checklist. She might be new to law enforcement, but she knew everything there was to about following a recipe to the letter. She’d tried gaining access to the property by legitimate means. When that hadn’t worked she’d tried reasonable force. And now she had good reason to believe suspicious activity was taking place on the premises.

“Stand back!” she said.

The doorbell obeyed, and then paused when he saw what Pam had produced this time from her flour bin. He watched, puzzlement crinkling up his speaker grille, as Pam lit the fuse trailing out the end of the packet.

“But that’s self-raising flour,” he said.

Pam gave the packet a final shake. It was indeed full of self-raising flour. A whole kilogramme of carefully sifted self-raising flour that was well aerated and with a small detonation charge concealed in the middle like a sixpence in a Christmas pudding. Only this sixpence was designed to inflict far more damage on its target than a broken crown.

“Look,” she said, “whatever your name is…”

“Ring,” snapped the doorbell, using the hurt, angry voice of someone whose name tends to go unasked or forgotten. “Ring Crosbie.”

“Take it from an expert,” she said. “Flour can be remarkably versatile.”

She flung the packet at the door, hitting it at the precise moment the fuse ran down. The flour bomb exploded with a bang that knocked the doorbell off his feet and a cloud of acrid smoke that turned Pam’s festive red respray a dirty brown. 

And that was then the shooting started.

* * *

Click here to read Episode 2 of Unboxing Day: A Battlestar Suburbia Christmas story!

Find out more about the Battlestar Suburbia series by Chris McCrudden here:

Book 1: Battlestar Suburbia

Book 2: Battle Beyond the Dolestars

Related articles

Writing in a satirical age: The origin story of The Great American Cheese War

Satirical Comedy
10/10/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Paul Flower, the author of The Great American Cheese War, shares his personal take on why satire is the weapon for our times.

Crazy world we have here. In the U.S., 40 percent of the electorate is under the spell of a third-rate con man with orange skin and a personality disorder. In Britain, a smaller, younger, goofier(?) populist is following a series of leaders over the cliff of Brexit.

Every day, we face a category five storm of horror politics. Twenty-four-hour news networks bombard us with the lurid details of leader ineptitude and social division. And online, the world comes together. To tear itself apart.

Conspiracy theories—lies dressed up to parade as truth—are growing like bacteria on Trump’s Twitter feed, making it nearly impossible to discern what’s true and what’s not.

Such theories have been part of American culture since the day Alexander Hamilton met secretly with a cabal of German violinists to plot the overthrow of Russia’s Catherine the Great.

You see what I did there. (I hope.) By creating a wacky theory of my own, about Hamilton and Catherine, I spoofed the notion of conspiracy theories. The “cabal of German violinists” softens the sting of the criticism. Well, unless you’re a German violinist.

It’s satire.

For some people, satire at a time like this is completely inappropriate or at best, futile. What’s the point of making fun of the already absurd Boris Johnson or the real estate huckster in the fat suit who waddles into the oval office every morning around 11:00 a.m. to destroy the free world?

For me, dark humor is in my DNA.

When I was in eighth grade, I played cornet in the band. I was pretty good, thank you. But when we competed in a festival one autumn Saturday, the judges gave us a four rating. The highest rating was a one. The worst bands usually received threes.

After the event, my dad smiled, said “Hi, Paul,” and waved, palm out—four fingers up. Message received. A four rating was awful. But even when things are awful—especially when things are awful—you have to laugh.

Humor isn’t just an emotional diversion or an immature reaction to a difficult situation (although I’ll own both). It allows us to see today’s conspiracy mongering and lies for what they are. It shines light on the ridiculous and dangerous without all the screaming, fire-breathing, and division.

So go ahead. Fly your Trump-in-a-diaper balloon. Wig out at the Boris haircut.

By satirizing all of this, maybe we’ll find what we need most: the truth. And a good belly laugh.

Find out all about The Great American Cheese War here – and leave an online review to let us know what you think!

Review quote about The Great American Cheese War

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