Origins of The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency

Humorous Mystery and Crime
12/01/2021 | POSTED BY Pete

This March 2021, A Pocket Full of Pie will be published: the fourth book in my No. 2 Feline Detective Agency series. With the new year underway, I took time to reflect on the series’ origins.

 

Mandy Morton

Author of the wonderful No. 2 Feline Detective Agency series

No.2-Feline-Detective-Agency-series


 

The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency series was never meant to be a series at all.
It was born out of boredom and an idea to raise money for my local cat rescue centre, but as soon as the first book was written, I found myself wanting to carry on the lives of the characters I had created; now, with The Ice Maid’s Tail as the latest book in the series and another one to be published in March, I’m amazed to be planning book ten for 2022.

 

“I found myself wanting to carry on the lives of the characters I had created”.

I had previously spent twenty six years as a BBC arts journalist, and the first winter of my retirement delivered me the inspiration to create a micro world inhabited only by cats. Crime was an obvious choice, as cats are naturally inquisitive, but they can also be cruel, unpredictable and calculating, the perfect mix for a detective series.

My two feline sleuths, Hettie Bagshot and Tilly Jenkins, are personal to me, as they were much loved rescue cats in real life; bringing them back in these books is a joyous thing for me to be able to do, and – in a strange way – their adventures channel bits of my own life.

Lovers of cats will, I hope, find much to enjoy in these books, but once the adventures begin, it’s easy to accept the characters as people, and I leave that decision entirely up to my readers.

 

“…their adventures channel bits of my own life.”

My characters wear cardigans, play guitars, drive motorbikes, smoke pipes of catnip and commit vicious murders on occasions. They have voracious appetites for anything wrapped in pastry, and go about their business in a high street somewhere in the 1970s that includes a post office, a bakery, hardware store, dry cleaners, a four floor department store, an undertakers and a fish and chip shop.

Just outside the town is a stately home, an aristocratic pile where The Ice Maid’s Tail is set amid a dark, atmospheric fairy tale. At this point you may question my sanity, but the world I’ve created makes much more sense to me than the one I actually live in.

 

“…cats are naturally inquisitive, but they can also be cruel, unpredictable and calculating, the perfect mix for a detective series.”

As a journalist, I was taught to become a magpie, a collector of many facts but master of none; researching for my radio shows has taken me into many areas that have become vital in telling these stories, projects on psychics, executioners, cooks and gardeners have proved invaluable, and the fact that my own life has included being a professional musician and a radio presenter offers even more scope for my characters.

My new book, A Pocket Full of Pie, soon to be published, lays bear the competitive world of broadcasting with tongue firmly in cheek, but the essence of all the books has to be to make my readers laugh and cry in equal measure, and there’s a puzzle to solve along the way. They’re playful, and – I hope – thought-provoking.

 

A-Pocket-Full-of-Pie

A Pocket Full of Pie

 

“…the world I’ve created makes much more sense to me than the one I actually live in”.

I love dolls houses, and have always enjoyed collecting tiny miniatures – and that’s exactly what I do when I write my books: I play with my characters, placing them in different rooms, surrounding them with the chattels of everyday life, and I wait to see how they will react.

I have been delighted that so many readers have chosen my series during lockdown, at a time when we would all like to live in a different world.

 

Mandy Morton

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The Stockwell Park Orchestra Interviews: One

Social comedy
06/01/2021 | POSTED BY Pete

This month, Continental Riff is published: the third novel in my Stockwell Park Orchestra series. Over the summer I had a chance to interview some characters from the series, before their tour.

 

Isabel Rogers

Author of the fabulous Stockwell Park Orchestra series

Stockwell-Park-series-banner-2


 

Interview One – Eliot Yarrow

 

Eliot opened the door of his Victorian terrace and led me to his first floor flat, then went to make coffee. Never leave an interviewer alone in a room if you don’t want prying. Is what I might have said to him.

It was a conductor’s room: upright piano, piles of music; gateleg table covered in scores, lots of pencils and empty mugs. I was pleased he didn’t put hot drinks on the piano, no matter how haphazard his tidying. Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony lay open, with one particular bar circled heavily in pencil.

Eliot returned, his hair boyishly tousled, just like his publicity pictures. Don’t flirt, I told myself. He grinned. He makes very good coffee, by the way. And has excellent chocolate biscuits.

I pressed record.

 

IR:        Tour preparations going OK?

 

EY:       Think so. David does the worrying. I stick to the music. Biscuit?

 

IR:        Will Mrs Ford-Hughes be singing? She always livens things up.

 

EY:       [sound of coughing] Not singing, no. But I think she might fly out for a concert. As our sponsor, you know.

 

IR:        Ah, yes. Tell me about your programme. I saw the Bruckner score. What’s with that bar you circled?

 

EY:       Bruckner 7, yes. We’ll be joining Cologne’s Bruckner Festival, so we have to include some. Which is excellent. Some say he’s just. Mahler who goes on a bit, but they’re wrong.

 

IR:        And that particular bar?

 

EY:       Let’s just say there’s a percussion moment we are finessing our way round, logistically. I’m sure everything will be fine.

 

IR:        What’s the one thing you’re afraid might go wrong?

 

EY:       Just one? [laughs] This is Stockwell Park. As long as we play brilliantly I’ll be happy. Orchestral tours are a bit of a party. One day maybe Ann will spill the beans about the Trevi Fountain and that thong, but she’ll have to get more drunk than I’ve ever seen her. And I’ve seen her pretty drunk.

 

IR:       Do you prefer orchestras or choirs?

 

EY:      I can’t possibly … anyone could be reading this.

 

IR:       Such a diplomat. But you sing, yourself?

 

EY:      Did you come to my recent –? We did some lovely Baroque stuff. And Spem.

 

IR:       No, but I heard it went down well.

 

EY:      [inaudible snorting]

 

IR:       Sorry. Questions. Pianoforte or fortepiano?

 

EY:      Crikey. I do have a soft spot for a fortepiano. Is that pretentious? But then no modern stuff! This is hard.

 

IR:       Chips or salad?

 

EY:      Cold Friday after rehearsal? Chips. Sunny day by the sea? Well, maybe chips too. But I do eat salad, honest.

 

IR:       Mrs Ford-Hughes or Florence Foster Jenkins?

 

EY:      Mrs Ford-Hughes every time. She’s a trouper.

 

IR:       Which player do you wish would leave?

 

EY:      Let the tape note I’m drinking coffee very deliberately. Not avoiding the question.

 

IR:       Damn, you are good at this. Heard anything of Joshua since you nabbed his job?

 

EY:      Nabbed ..? No. He’s not conducted anything since. Maybe he’s emigrated. We can hope.

 

IR:       Ambitions?

 

EY:      Obviously to take Stockwell Park to the Albert Hall, land a recording deal with Gareth Malone and fund kids’ school music lessons. Dunno. I just love making music. Corny, but true.

 

IR:       Don’t apologise. I’m sure the orchestra would follow you anywhere.

 

EY:      Fools. Another biscuit?

 

So I drank coffee and ate more biscuits but, since I’d forgotten to charge my phone, the rest of our conversation has evaporated into myth and rumour.

_________________

 

If you have a question for any other Stockwell Park Orchestra musician, please send it to me and I’ll ask on your behalf. Find me on Twitter @Isabelwriter, or drop me a line using the contact page on my site isabelrogers.org.

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NEW: Your online Farrago shop!


10/12/2020 | POSTED BY Pete

 

2020. What a year. Unprecedented challenges, difficult moments, and lots of Zoom calls: everyone has had to adapt in one way or another, including us at Farrago…

 

It is therefore with a beaming smile (and a giggle of excited trepidation) that we introduce you to a new chapter in the Farrago story:

 

Your online Farrago shop!

Farrago-shop-logo

(CLICK TO EXPLORE)

 

Here you will be able to purchase our reads at exclusive offers found nowhere else. By buying with us directly, not only will you be saving but you will be supporting our mission to make the world a more smiley place.

Features:

  • Ebooks for both Kindle and Non-Kindle readers
  • Exclusive offers and savings for Farrago titles and series, found nowhere else online
  • Farrago’s famous series are now available to buy as brand-new bundles, at greatly discounted prices
  • Weekly promotions, featuring unique, themed bundles and more
  • Easy checkout process, with short and clear instructions of how to upload your purchase to your specific reading device

The online shop is a new adventure for us too, and so there may be some snags here and there. If you come across any issues, please do let us know. We want to hear your honest feedback so we can make the shop as user-friendly as possible for you. You will certainly notice changes and enhancements throughout the next six months as we continue to optimise, improve and adapt.

Thank you for all your support this year. We hope we have brought you many smiles, and we aspire to bring you many more.

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“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

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