The Cutesy-Pie Snow-People were the craze of the century that Christmas. Their sweet little faces and animated features melted the hardest of hearts, and by mid-December every garden, balcony and complex had their own little Cutesy-Pie.
Everyone feared what would happen to the cute little creatures come the thaw. People cleared spaces in their freezers and banded together to rented chill-rooms to accommodate them for the warmer months.
But as the snow melted the Snow-People hardened. They began to grow taller and slimmer. They lost their sweet expressions and threw off their quirky hats. People stared out at them with a new fear. Were their cute little Snow-People going to turn on them?
Then one morning as the sun rose and cast its strengthening rays over the land, the Snow-People took to the air, rising up, glinting in the sunlight like so many ice angels.
They banded together and flew north.
Satellites tracked the angels’ progress; the feed was live-streamed into every home. People watched and waited. Then, as the first light dawned over the northern pole, the angels descended. Their bodies merged with the melting glaciers and re-froze the recent permafrost.
Together the Snow-People undid the damage of decades.
Great Being Five had been twiddling her thumbs for too long at the Academy for Wisdom¹. Over the decades she’d re-educated many recalcitrant Great Beings and re-engineered their wrong-doings. She’d set them all back on the straight and narrow, repentant of their misdeeds in the management of their planets. But now she was bored.
True, she still retained responsibility for two planets, but one was still at the ‘rocks and slime stage’ and the other, Orea, the one she used to love so much, with its pretty pastel colours and cute, fluffy life-forms, was… well, just a little bit dull.
Five was missing her beautiful blue planet. Planet Earth, which she’d finally decided to delete² back in Earth Year 2033, before the greedy, selfish little humans destroyed it themselves and took off to infect another planet.
She missed those fallible little creatures. Back in the day, before they had too many technical toys at their disposal, they were such fun. So creative! Five sighed as a wave of nostalgia broke over her desk and splashed off her Universal Viewing Screen.
Back in the day. The thought crossed and re-crossed her mind.
It lingered while a plan formed.
She’d done it before, and she could do it again. As a top official in the Academy, she had both the authority and the autonomy. All she needed to do was turn back Time in that small solar system on the edge of the Milky Way.
Once before she’d re-set Planet Earth, but sadly it hadn’t had much effect; soon the arrogant little inhabitants were back on the road to their inevitable existential fate. This time needed to be different. A planet-wide change of mind-set must be effected.
She knew just the Being to help her.
Five dropped a mind message to her first re-education subject, the one she knew best and her greatest success. She immediately sensed his enthusiasm for the project. He was primed and ready for action. She would take care of the Time-Grid and he would set up the means for a mind-set change.
He warned her it would be radical. He warned her it would be tough. He warned her it would take time.
Five aligned the Time-Grid: 01.01.2020. A nice round number; not long before The Total Tipping Point.
She sat back. Watched and waited.
Planet Earth reappeared in its old position. The little humans had ceased their scurrying. They’d hunkered down and huddled in their homes. Five was saddened at the sickness and the suffering; the deaths of the elderly, the poorly and the poor.
The Earth turned and turned again day after day month after month.
Skies cleared. Rivers ran clean. Nature thrived and re-asserted itself.
The planet cooled down a little.
When the scourge passed, the little humans emerged. They had changed and the change came from within; a new understanding of their beautiful blue planet.
Five mind-melded with her colleague: thanks, Nineteen.
She hoped her little humans would get it right now.
And now there was nothing left of what had been her beautiful blue planet. Great Big Five sighed. She had given them chance after chance. She had very nearly deleted the entire human race in Earth Year 2018. Only that little message which flashed up after she had hit the big red button had given her pause.
Do you really want to DELETE?
No, she hadn’t. She’d cancelled the request. Sat back and watched and waited for fifteen Earth Years more. She’d watched the greedy, selfish humans squander more and more of the precious resources of her pretty planet. Barren soil blew away, the oceans turned to acid, the very atmosphere was toxic. Some of the little humans had tried to avert the crisis. They’d spoken out. Even important, influential ones had acted, added their voices. There were protests, social media campaigns, new policies agreed and implemented; the planet had staggered on, but it was all too little, too late.
Meanwhile others had been working on a plan. Done with the Earth, they would move on. Move to another planet. Their neighbour: the red planet. Clever little humans!
Never mind what they’d done to the animals and birds, the trees and flowers, the mountains and lakes. All her best work they’d left in tatters.
She had mind-melded with Great Being Nineteen. The red planet was under his jurisdiction. She had suspected he had plans. With Earth out of the way, he could move his smaller red planet nearer to its sun, into what her imaginative earthlings called the Goldilocks Zone, after one of their sweet little stories. Allow something new to evolve. He’d even let her collaborate on his project.
You have activated Planet Total Destruction. Are you sure you want to do this?
They couldn’t be allowed to spread their wicked ways.
Johannes was sitting in his usual seat by the edge of the harbour. He reached out to pet a scruffy little dog as it trotted up to him. The little dog didn’t seem to have an owner or a home, but all the same it seemed to do all right. The dog sat down in front of Johannes and raised one paw, looking up at him. Johannes smiled, reaching into his pockets and turning them inside out to reveal nothing but holes. “Sorry for you, my little brother,” he said to the dog. “I have nothing for you today.” The dog put its head on one side, continuing to look up at Johannes, then it stood up, shook itself, and gave a little bark before trotting away. Johannes watched the little dog’s progress, snuffling here and there along the edge of the harbour buildings.
A door opened to reveal a slim, grey-haired man in a red shirt. Andreas nodded in Johannes’s direction and raised a hand in greeting before turning his attention to the little dog. Andreas muttered something, then disappeared back inside the building. The little dog sat patiently by the open door until Andreas returned with a small plate of scraps which he set down on the ground; he gave the little dog’s head an affectionate rub as it bent to devour the food.
Johannes chuckled to himself and returned his gaze to the waterfront. The fishing boats had already returned to sea, but there was a big old cargo boat which was still undergoing repairs in the dry dock. The sound of drilling and hammering rattled around the buildings.
Just as Johannes was wondering what had happened to his young friend Sam for the second morning running, he heard the unmistakable putt-putt sound of Porcupine’s engine as Sam’s little fishing boat rounded the harbour wall. He rose from his seat and strolled over to meet the little boat. Porcupine slowed, then gently nudged the harbour wall. Sam cut the engine and threw the stern rope to Johannes who slipped it through the mooring ring before tossing it back to him. Sam jumped onto the quayside holding the other rope which he quickly tied off.
Johannes noticed the troubled look on Sam’s face. “What’s the matter with you, Sam?”
Sam raised his eyebrows and gestured for Johannes to follow him back onto Porcupine. Once on board, Sam opened the door to the little cabin. “Come,” he said flapping his hand over his shoulder to his friend. The two men crowded inside the tiny room. Sam shut the cabin door and crouched down to pull a large plastic bucket from under his narrow bunk-bed. He took the edge of the old blanket which was covering the bucket and pulled it back theatrically, revealing what was inside.
Johannes’s brown eyes widened and his mouth formed a big round ‘O’. After a moment’s silence, he let out a long, low whistle. “What have we here?” He squatted down in front of the bucket. “A pot of gold,” he said, admiring the mountain of gold coins which glowed in the dim light of the cabin. He reached out to take one. Sam grabbed his hand, snatching it away from the bucket and almost knocking Johannes over. Johannes stared up at him. “Wha…”
“Careful!” Sam held his right hand out to Johannes. “Look.” Johannes saw the imprint of a coin which marked Sam’s thumb and first two fingers like an angry burn. Gingerly Johannes reached towards the edge of one of the coins touching it lightly with his forefinger. As soon as he made contact with the coin, he jumped up, pulling his hand away. A blister was already beginning to form on his calloused digit.
Sam put his head on one side. “It’s a fortune, but you can’t touch it with your bare hands.” He shook his head and reached up to the shelf above his bunk, taking down a folded rag. He laid it on the blanket and opened carefully, revealing one of the coins. “So what can we do, my friend? I’ll gladly share all of this with you, if we can find a way to spend the treasure you can’t touch.”
Johannes leant on the cabin wall and rubbed his chin. “There must be a way, my brother.” He stared down at the coins. “But where did you find all of this? It didn’t just appear in your fishing bucket did it?”
“Would you believe me if I said it did?”
Johannes shrugged. “I didn’t believe something I saw with my very own eyes yesterday morning,” he said. “I tell you Sam, there are some strange things happening in this town, and no mistake.” He put his hands on his hips. “We’ll find a way, Sam.” He nodded slowly. “Yes, we’ll find a way.”
Johannes stretched out his legs and breathed in the warm sea air which mingled with the smell of freshly-landed fish and diesel. He smiled to himself. This is the life, he thought, far away from all his cares and responsibilities. It had been a stroke of luck that Robert, his brother, who had landed a two month contract working up-country, had asked him if he would like to come and mind his little house on the coast while he was away. Robert, a long-time widower, lived alone now that his family had grown up and moved to Cape Town, and he didn’t want to leave his house unoccupied. People were for the most part honest, but with such high unemployment and poverty, no-one’s property was safe for long.
Johannes had his own problems back home. Much as he loved his extended family, it was all becoming too much. What with his own grown up children, their children and assorted aunties, nephews and nieces who were constantly calling upon him for help, he’d really had enough. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t manage without him. It would be good for them, especially his four sons, to stand on their own two feet for a change. He’d even gone to the extent of switching his cell phone off.
He cast his eyes over the small harbour, looking out for Sam in his little fishing boat, Porcupine, which he’d helped him repair over a week or two when he first arrived. Johannes liked to keep busy, and was pleased to be able to use the skills he’d gained during his fifteen years at sea. But there was no sign of Sam or little Porcupine. Perhaps they’d gone further up the coast for a while. There were other harbours on the West Coast where Sam might turn a better profit for his catch.
Johannes chuckled to himself and closed his eyes, remembering the past. He’d run away to sea with his friend when they were just twelve years old. Carrying a little bag of warm clothes, he’d snuck out of his mother’s shack while she was sleeping and met his older sister up by the highway. She had a job in a bar next to Cape Town harbour, and she knew an officer on one of the deep sea fishing boats who would help them once they were on board. Johannes recalled standing in the almost pitch black on the quayside, his body swaying, thinking it was the ground under him which was moving, when in fact it was the looming steel hull of the ship in front of him. And oh, they had been so sick once the ship was underway…
Shouts and running feet jolted Johannes back to the present. The harbour master, jamming his peaked cap on his head, rushed past Johannes towards the southern end of the harbour where a small group of people had gathered. Johannes stood up and shook himself, then hurried after the harbour master to join the gathering crowd, jumping up onto the harbour wall to get a better view of what had caught their interest.
A tall, slender woman in long skirts was standing on the edge of the headland across the estuary. Her arms were held out in a welcoming gesture as dozens of whales were breaking the surface of the waves before her. She lifted her head skywards, spreading her arms out widely, in a pose which reminded Johannes of the statue of he’d so admired long ago in Rio de Janeiro.
The woman opened her mouth and a loud, ululating song resonated across the ocean. Suddenly the whales took to the air; wave upon wave of them. Johannes blinked and shook his head. What was going on? The woman’s song grew louder. The whales were flying! Johannes pinched himself.
The sky darkened, filled with the huge creatures. Then the song stopped.
A close up of the woman’s face appeared before Johannes’s eyes. She smiled, revealing a row of pointed teeth. A selkie! He’d seen one before when his ship had been in far northern waters. Johannes felt the harbour wall ripple beneath his feet.
Her face disappeared and back on the headland he watched her dive into the ocean. Her silver seal tail flapped once above the waves, and then she was gone.
Johannes looked around. He was alone on the harbour wall. Behind him, people were going about their business as usual. He sat down and rubbed his eyes. The headland was deserted. Far out in the ocean he saw a solitary whale breaching.
This little story was inspired partly by many conversations I’ve had over the years with my friend Johannes, and partly by the photo of the artwork above posted earlier this week byJason H Abbott, the Aetheral Engineer. It also linksanother storyof mine from a couple of weeks ago. I hope you enjoy!
Sam cast off from the jetty in his little fishing boat, Porcupine. The last orange and gold sunset slivers disappeared behind the blue-grey hills on the far horizon as his pushed the throttle forward and eased little Porcupine out into the broad Breede river.
Gulls wheeled noisily overhead, their keening cries eerie in the twilight. The twin lighthouses blinked on either side of the bay. Sam pushed the throttle forward another notch against the growing sea swell. He ran his work-roughened hands around the little boat’s steering wheel and set his course along the coast, inhaling the sharp sea air.
Sam had grown up in Manenberg on the Cape Flats. Life had been hard there; it still was. But he’d escaped. He’d had to. On the run from members of an opposing gang, he’d got on the road and hitched up the West Coast. He’d slept rough; got work, casual stuff; then things started to look up. He’d found a broken-down little boat one day when he was exploring the shoreline for salvage. Slowly he’d fixed it up with the help of a retired engineer called Johannes, who spent his days giving advice and watching the activity in Laaiplek harbour.
Sam and Porcupine made a great team. He’d brought the little boat back to life and now she gave him safe shelter and a means to make a living from the bounty of the ocean. Tonight he was fishing for octopus, which is best done at night with a lamp and a little can of vegetable oil to make a window in the waves. He rounded the coast to his favourite cove and dropped anchor.
Night came quickly, and within half an hour Sam had two good-sized octopuses in his bucket. He shifted a little on the makeshift perch of his old sleeping blanket, propping his back against the wheelhouse. Sam had been busy helping out in the harbour all day and he was tired. Lulled by the bobbing boat, he slipped away into a glorious slumber.
Sam was startled by the sound of voices. Someone was on the boat.
‘Concentrate,’ said the first.
‘I am concentrating,’ said the second.
Sam held up the lamp. ‘Who’s there?’ He turned around sharply. He walked around the deck, peering out into the inky ocean. He heard them again.
‘Over he-re,’ the voice said in a sing-song voice.
‘Over he-re,’ joined in the second voice in a deeper tone.
Sam spun around. Where were the voices coming from?
‘Coo-e,” the first voice called out.
Suddenly a jet of water spurted out of the bucket wetting Sam’s feet. A tentacle waved at him. ‘Coo-e.’ It waved again.
Sam crouched down by the bucket. The two octopus heads bobbed up, their eyes fastened upon his. ‘What the…?’ Each of them winked at him. ‘No!” Sam stood up and took a step backwards. More tentacles appeared, waving at him. Sam shook his head.
‘Let us go!’
‘Please, mister fisherman!’
Sam approached the bucket again. He squatted down. ‘No man. Fish don’t talk.’
‘We’re not fish,’ said the first voice indignantly.
Sam rubbed his eyes; he pinched himself.
‘You’re not dreaming, you know.’ A tentacle extended towards Sam’s arm and prodded him gently.
‘Tip us out and let us go,’ sang the first voice.
‘And lots of treasure you will know,’ sang the second.
Very slowly Sam picked up the bucket and stepped over to the side of the boat. As the two octopuses slid into the sea, a huge wave broke over the boat, knocking Sam flat on the deck. The bucket landed next to him with a clatter. Porcupine bobbed about like a cork, and suddenly dozens of octopuses appeared above the waves. As Sam tried to find his feet, a vast tentacle reached onto the deck and grabbed the bucket, swiping Sam across the head and knocking him out cold.
When Sam awoke the sun was shining. His head ached. Gingerly he felt the back of his skull. He’d obviously had a nasty knock, but what had happened? He sat up slowly, trying to remember. He’d heard voices; someone on the boat? Sam’s brow furrowed. Something glinting in the sunlight caught his eye.
His fishing bucket was full of shiny objects. He reached out and dragged it over towards him. The bucket was brimming over with gold coins like a hoard of pirate treasure.
We’d heard rumours of strange reptilian creatures stalking the lands beyond our borders. We’d not paid much attention. Similarly, we’d dismissed the reports which were sent back from the Palace Guard’s intelligence team who patrolled the perimeter of our kingdom. Men, far away from home are prone to flights of fancy and over-exaggeration. However, when the creatures did appear they were quite beyond imagination.
One spring morning they came, floating down from the fluffy white clouds under little canopies of sky-blue silk. We watched from our roof tops and our high city walls as they landed, then marched upon us, fanning out around the entire circumference of the city. We’d closed the heavy outer gates, pulled up the drawbridge and manned the battlements. But it was not enough. They were too large, too strong, too determined. And there were so many of them.
Our archers fired on them, but the arrows bounced off their patterned breast plates and scaly bodies. Within the hour they had peeled back our gates and smashed down our ramparts with their huge taloned paws. Our swords and spears were no match for them either. Once they had entered the city, they unslung their weapons and fired beams of sound and light which turned men to dust.
People scattered before them. Those who were too old or too slow were scooped up in their great scaly arms and flung aside with a force that snapped necks and broke bones. One of the creatures pulled a bleating goat from its tether and bit the poor animal’s head off. Then it split the body in two and tossed each half to its comrades who marched on either side.
What was left of the Palace Guard formed a ring around the entrance to the Sanctum where our queen and her council were gathered. The creatures filled the main square; row upon row of them. They stood in their ranks, facing our guards. Silence fell, punctuated only by the groans of the injured and the laments of the bereaved.
Then one of the creatures stepped forward; the symbols on its breastplate finer and more intricate than the rest. It advanced up the steps to face the Commander of the Palace Guard. Bringing a huge, scaly paw down on the Commander’s left shoulder it leant forward, forked tongue flickering.
At that moment, there was a strange roaring noise and suddenly, out of thin air a mysterious object appeared. A huge, great storage vessel, rather like the ones we use to store oil or wine, but much larger and made of a dull, grey metal. A door in the side of the object slid open and a tall, willowy figure dressed in a flowing silver gown appeared. The creatures in the square turned towards her, low whistling sounds emanating from their nostrils. They cowed their heads. She raised a shiny black staff and pointed it at their leader. She spoke and although her words were incomprehensible to us, we knew they were full of power. The lizard leader muttered something. She said a single, potent word and it vanished in a puff of smoke. Then she turned her shiny black staff on the massed ranks of creatures. Pop, pop, pop. They all disappeared. Then without a word, she returned to the vessel and the door closed behind her. The roaring noise sounded and the vessel was gone.
The old man finished his story and stared into the distance. Someone asked him a question.
“True? You ask me if my story’s true? Evidence?” He paused. “Well, if you look carefully there are some scorch marks near the entrance to the Sanctum.” The old man held up his finger. “And, I believe, fine sky-blue silk underwear is still worn here by women of a certain age.”
Things might not have turned out the way they did had it not been for the arrival of the new science teacher, Mr Wilde. Keen to engage his Year 8 class at the start of the new term, he had set up a series of elaborate experiments which had resulted in some rather dramatic indoor fireworks. At least no-one had been hurt.
Jimmy was definitely engaged. He was even moved to pursue his interest outside the classroom. Guided by some useful websites he created some modest but interesting explosions in the kitchen until his mother got fed up of cleaning up the resultant debris. He even produced a miniature volcano, much to the delight of Miss Johnson, the young geography teacher; even though it did erupt all over her desk and make a disgusting smell which lingered in her classroom for days.
A few days later during morning break, Jimmy had been searching the school grounds for discarded plastic bottles for his latest experiment. As he scoured the side of lane between the school and the rugby club, he overheard two of the teachers discussing the future of the school while enjoying a surreptitious cigarette.
‘If the club sells to the local authority, we’ll be able extend the school on the site here. If not, the school will close and then who knows what will happen.’ Jimmy recognised the voice of the Deputy Head, Mr Staines.
‘But surely they’ll sell. It’s only a pitch and a tatty old pavilion. How much are they offering?’ The second voice belonged to Mr Davis, his History teacher.
‘It’s not a question of the money. Apparently the rugby captain’s great grandfather founded the club here and his ashes were scattered over the foundations of the new pavilion when it was built in 1956.’
‘So our school has to close, just because of some old rugger bugger’s ashes?’
‘I know, still, one good storm and there won’t be a pavilion for the rugby captain to be sentimental about.’ Jimmy heard Mr Staines reply. He ducked back into the hedge as the Deputy Head stalked past him back towards the school building.
Mr Davidson lit another cigarette and stared glumly at the offending pavilion. ‘Well,’ he muttered to himself, ‘climate change might solve the problem.’
Jimmy found what he’d heard very disturbing. He liked his school. He liked the kids in his class and he even liked most of the teachers. He had never been fond of rugby.
That afternoon during double Maths, Jimmy had an idea. The more he pondered on it, the better it became. It was just a matter of getting hold of the right stuff from Mr Wilde’s chemicals cupboard.
On his way to school on the morning of Tuesday’s science class, he dropped into Mr Khalid’s shop. Proffering a crisp £5 note from his savings, he grasped a large handful of his friend Mattie’s preferred chocolate bars.
Matthew Albright was the class clown. Plump and good-natured, if sometimes a little slow on the uptake, he was quite happy to rise to the challenge when Jimmy suggested he should test out his acting skills in Chemistry in return for favourite chocolates.
Mr Wilde was starting to explain the procedure for setting up an experiment to grow copper sulphate crystals when suddenly Mattie clutched his ample stomach and let out a loud groan. Pulling a series of dreadful grimaces, he slid off his chair onto the floor, where he proceeded to writhe and moan. As Mr Wilde raced to Mattie’s side, Jimmy stole across the room to the teacher’s desk and extracted the key to the chemicals cupboard. While the rest of the class gathered round to watch Mattie’s performance, Jimmy quietly slipped the key into the lock, and let himself into the cupboard. He swiftly grabbed what he needed. Within a moments Jimmy was safely back in his seat, the key was back in the drawer and Mattie had made a miraculous recovery.
Acquiring the step ladder from Stan the Caretaker had been easy. As it happened Jimmy didn’t even need to create a diversion. He had been hanging around by his workshop when Stan had been summoned to go to the boys’ toilets on the first floor to deal with a flood. Stan stomped off muttering about paper towels and where he’d like to stick them, leaving the workshop door ajar. The step ladder crucial to Jimmy’s plan was swiftly liberated and stashed out of sight in the bushes behind the bike shed.
On a moonless November evening, Jimmy started to make his way towards the old wooden pavilion. He was carrying a torch and a small step ladder, and his duffle bag was slung over his shoulder. Propping the ladder against the side of the building, he climbed onto the flat roof of the shower block. He carefully dragged the ladder up beside him and crept across the roof. Jimmy prised open the skylight, gently manoeuvred the step ladder through the opening and lowered himself after it as it clattered to the floor. Jimmy took a deep breath. He opened the shower block door and stepped purposefully into the main part of the building.
Jimmy surveyed the interior by the light of his torch. Apart from some old plastic chairs stacked in the far corner and a few cardboard boxes piled up near the door there was nothing much inside. Jimmy dragged one of the larger boxes into the middle of the room. It had some writing on the side which looked like French; not one of his favourite subjects. He reached into his duffle bag and took out two containers. He shook out the contents of the first, making a small pile of reddish-brown powder on the top of the box. Then he carefully opened the second and gently added a white crystalline powder to the pile.
Next he took a large ball of thick twine to which he had tied a 1kg weight, taken from his mother’s kitchen. Using the step ladder, he reached up and hooked the twine over one of the beams which supported the asbestos sheet roof. Lowering the weight gently, he placed it on the floor. Returning to the shower block he positioned the step ladder under the roof light. Back in the main room he hoisted the weight up as high as he could, positioning it directly over the box. Grasping the ball of twine tightly he carefully paid out the thread as he climbed back up onto the roof. The twine was just long enough to allow him to reach the ground behind the wall of the shower block.
Jimmy paused, according to what he’d read, the two chemicals would be ignited by the percussive action of the falling weight. The resulting explosion should be sufficient to blow off part of the roof, a bit like a storm might. The sort of damage his teachers had been talking about.
He took a deep breath and released the twine. For a moment nothing happened, then there was a loud pop. Jimmy ran. Behind him there was a series of explosions. From the cover of the bushes, Jimmy saw the roof of the pavilion shatter and a succession of rockets explode into the night sky.
Had Jimmy been as keen at French as he was at Chemistry, he might have understood that the words on the box: ‘feux d’artifice’ meant fireworks.
The little bear remained awake long after Emily had gone to sleep. He stared up at the ceiling wishing he could stay in this moment of perfect peace, wrapped in the arms of a dreaming little girl. “Merry Christmas, Benji,’ he whispered to himself.
The county news station is reporting from the town of Gingerbread.
Recent storms have caused extensive damage to a large number of houses in the area. When interviewed the mayor commented: ‘We have run out of the sugar, corn syrup and ginger, and consequently rebuilding efforts have had to be halted. We have declared the situation a catastrophe.’