Free short story collection – Lockdown Dreams

Be the pebble

LOCKDOWN DREAMS

By Gary J Byrnes

First published in 2021 by Gary J Byrnes.

Copyright 2021 © Gary J Byrnes.

Ten flash fiction tales that surfaced in the feverish dream of Covid-19 on Planet Earth.

The right of Gary J Byrnes to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright & Related Rights Act, 2000. All rights reserved.

In this work of fiction, the characters, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or they are used entirely fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

PET was first published as part of FUTURE SHOCKS by Gary J Byrnes, 2019.

Cover design by Finian Reilly.

Cover image credit: Tiko Giorgadze, https://unsplash.com/photos/WSH-upIXDNA.

Interior image credit: NASA Hubble, deep field.

These stories are published here for your personal enjoyment. These stories may not be re-sold, but may be given free to other people as long as they are not edited in any way.

Stories by Gary J Byrnes, in print-on-demand and digital formats, available from all good online retailers. Get Lockdown Dreams from Apple Books here.

The clock is ticking… humanity is doomed to extinction because of the selfish greed of a tiny few… but then technology unites with sustainability… a hero is born. The hero is you. Be the thriller. Be the hero. The real story continues at Hempoffset.com.

Dedicated to all who fight for human liberty, equality and a sustainable future. We need to critically evaluate capitalism, with its often insane, self-defeating race to extract maximum value from nature. Until we find true balance and equality as a species, with respect for nature, then the viruses and pandemics will keep on coming. Until, eventually, a virus will appear and we won’t find a vaccine or treatment. Then we’re over. Right now, it’s the Covid-19 virus or us. In our future, it’s nature and us.

Gary J Byrnes, January 2021.

Table of contents

Signals

That day we brought Walt Disney’s head back to life

Abe

Inspiration

The Meaning of Life

How the zombie apocalypse happened

Chatbots

Factory ship

The hero

Do one thing…

LOCKDOWN DREAMS

Gary J Byrnes

‘It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’

Alice, from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

‘I try to create fantastical things, magical things, things like in a dream.’

Salvador Dalí.

Signals

At first, the signal was faint and incoherent. It manifested as a different kind of static, picked up by certain empty comms channels. The normal static is the background noise of the Big Bang, echoing across time and space. This had a different shape, a different tone. Some noticed the difference, thought That’s odd. Most didn’t pick up on the ‘alien static’, as it came to be called, until it was pointed out to them.

With much of the planet’s inhabitants soon fixated on the alien static, it quickly became clear that there was a multitude of different signals. Then some scientist figured it out and the signals came into instant, sharp focus. The images were monochrome, clearly from a different world. They looked like us, which was the big revelation. They spoke a language that made no sense. The world they lived in seemed very undeveloped.

The alien tv receivers hit the market in no time and soon every home had one. Nobody knew what they were saying, but their music was often pleasant and there were moments of pure art. Even while a starship was being designed, the stories evolved. The faces and themes changed and it was increasingly a diverse multitude of signals. From different tribes on the planet, it was assumed. And the planet was identified. Four and a bit light years away, one of a dozen planets around a regular-type star.

The starship was built and aimed at the alien world. And still everyone was enthralled. There was a dark period when it seemed that alien wars were widespread. Then colour appeared. Progress was made in deciphering the languages. It was now possible to see reruns of programmes with rudimentary subtitles. Yet knowing what they were saying made little difference to how completely alien they remained culturally.

The starship crew was chosen in a gigantic, global lottery. It would be an eight-and-a-half-year trip, travelling at 0.999% the speed of light. The mission: To understand if the aliens came from the same place as us. It was assumed they’d be friendly and let us take some DNA back. The crew would train on the trip, learn the alien languages as fast as the scientists at home could figure them out. The ship launched in a great blast and the planet hoped.

The ship’s crew got into an easy routine. They watched the tv from the alien world, now coming on much faster, thanks to the Doppler Effect. The signal then carried on to their home world, where it was watched by everyone, deciphered, then sent back to the ship.

There was a character in what we took to be their news channels, came to prominence as our four brave souls sped towards him at the speed of light. It was fascinating. Getting context for all this weirdness would be mindblowing. Then, just as they were approaching a giant gas planet in the target system, slowing down for an easy orbit around the alien planet, some new kind of weird.

‘We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.’

‘I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute, and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that.’

‘The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!’

‘It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.’

They were talking about four digits a lot. The crew was excited, eager, ready. Now able to speak in the native tongue.

‘Let’s get down and see our relatives, see why the fuss over the digits 2020. And what is this virus the yellow man talks about in his cryptic signals?’

That day we brought Walt Disney’s head back to life

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

The Tyger (Excerpt), William Blake

We were just hanging out, over at Bubba’s house on Mulholland Drive. It was Friday and his family was out, some work dinner, so we hung in the back, beside the glowing pool. LA glowed like Oz in the sun’s afterburner. Bubba’s family is completely loaded, BTW. His mom and dad both work at some super-duper biotech firm. She’s the brains, he has a good eye for a deal. After a shit-ton of hard work and science, they now own a juicy biotech biz, racing against the clock of doom, and against every other biotech player, both corporate and government, all over the world. Racing to the vaccine.

‘I’m sure your mom will come up with something next level on the virus, man,’ I said, toking on some righteous weed, finishing with a long swig of Sculpin IPA, a citrus blast that made me shudder. It was on tap inside.

‘Thanks, bro. I hope you’re right. Fuckit, we gotta just party like it’s the end of the world. Yolo, bro. Yolo.’

‘I think it’s time to pump up the volume,’ I stated. The amp controlling the sound system actually goes to 11, so I pumped it all the way up. I put on some Pink Floyd vinyl, How I Wish You Were Here. That bit with the jangly guitar, the hills around us, dark with coyotes and pyromaniacs, the pure and fresh smell of ganja.

Later, Bubba’s parents and sister got home. His sister went to bed, which was a pity, because she was cool. Headache.

Turns out his mom does have a radical new quantum physics theory about the virus and how to defeat it. Y’see, viruses are neither alive nor dead, they got no cells. So her theory is about Schrödinger’s Cat, and how the virus is like the cat, both alive and dead at the same time. Until we open the box and collapse reality. If we can just collapse reality to a dead virus every time.

She was excited, so was Bubba’s dad. She was Jessica, he was Dave. They opened a bottle of ‘52 Dom, drank a glass with us. They’d just closed a deal, that night, now owned the biggest biotech company in California. Lots of legacy operations were acquired as part of the deal. If they added scale to core operations, they’d be kept. Otherwise, flipped.

‘There’s a really interesting little operation we now own,’ pitched Jessica. ‘I think you guys, I almost said kids, lol. I think you guys will love it.’

Bubba patted his chest. ‘Do I look anything less than certified US male to you?’

‘Anyways, they keep rich people’s heads in cryogenic freezers. Idea was they’d be brought back to life when medical technology would, you know. The heads’ families pay the monthly cryo fees. It normally dries up after a few years. Some keep paying, so they have some interesting heads. If…’

‘If what?’ we cried together.

‘If you want to connect them to an amp and a speaker. For your channel. We can defrost a couple.’

We high-fived and then I had my epiphany, a nugget of pure wonder was dragged out of my dazed and confused and weed-tinged tangle of memories.

‘Walt Disney!’

‘Well done, Danny. Yes. You can chat with Walt. And Liberace, a couple more.’

‘Can we go now?’ asked Bubba.

‘I love your enthusiasm,’ she said, kissing his sweaty, pleading forehead. ‘Sunday?’

‘Sunday.’

It was already Saturday, we were halfway there.

We talked and told jokes until 1, then the family’s driver, Leo, nice guy, took me and Bubba downtown for a late drink. Leo chose the Mustang convertible. It was still hot out, felt hotter from the glow in the east. Fires. You could smell them.

It was awesome having someone to drive us around. The only hours when either of us could be sober were around 10am to noon. At ten we’d have processed the night before, and lunch could kick off at noon with an aperitif. That’s just how it went, how we got through this tragic comedy called life. Don’t judge us.

‘How about some Tiki?’ said Bubba.

‘I don’t believe they’re open, sir. I can take a drive by. If they’re shut, I know a few places.’

‘This goddamn virus is just a complete, goddamn pain in the ass.’

‘I hear you, man,’ I said. ‘It’s the virus or us, man. And if we don’t wipe it out, then this bullshit is forever. Forever!’

Tiki place was closed.

‘See?’

We landed at a dive bar we went to a lot, tables set up out in the alley, safe and actually better than being inside the place. Driver said he was going to the In ‘n’ Out for a burger and monster fries, to call him any time if we needed a ride. Cool guy.

We got a table easy and a guy came and took our order. Some people wore masks, others didn’t.

‘So tell me about the hemp masks again, dude.’

‘Well, as you know, hemp is a natural, organic fabric, sustainable and breathable. So we source hemp face masks, add our brand, get your mom to endorse it, sell it online at 19.95 and Boom! And get this, Bubba. You won’t believe this. I looked it up. Hemp has antimicrobial qualities. It might actually kill the virus!’

‘Boom-shakka-lakka. I’m in. But I am not stuffing face masks into envelopes. Period. Could we tie in the new cat cure mom is working on? Sounds big. It’s all over my feeds, dude.’

And so Quantum Hemp Facemasks Inc. was born.

When the bar closed, we walked the streets for a while, repeatedly saying that it was like being in a movie, place was so quiet. It’s always a zombie or apocalypse movie.

There was a kebab place open.

‘There is a God!’

‘For these End Times!’

I could smell mysterious kebabs when I woke around noon on Saturday. Then I remembered.

Saturday was all about a hike in the hills. We like to get up high, then get even higher with some righteous weed. We only got a little ways that day. Too hot. Main funny thing was this guy who walked past us in a full hazmat suit in the woods, a bit like Homer Simpson at work. So we split back to Bubba’s, into the pool with some Led Zeppelin on the turntable. Our surf apps chimed at almost the exact same microsecond. Surf was up. So we drove to our secret spot near Malibu, caught some insane pipe. Saturday night we drank some wine inside and read books. I’m slowly reading Proust, Swann’s Way. Bubba’s into his poetry anthologies.

Sunday we got up around 9. Maria, the housekeeper, made a hearty breakfast for everyone, fresh-squeezed OJ, fried eggs, Irish sausages and bacon, the best! There was also a kind of sausage made of pig blood, cut into slices and fried. Very nice, try it! I don’t know where she got that and I don’t want to. But I did try it and it was awesome. Kind of nutty.

We left for the facility around 10:30. Traffic was light and we were in West Hollywood by 11. The giant billboards along the freeway had swapped out movie ads for streaming services and weed stores.

‘It would be on Sunset Boulevard,’ I said, as we pulled into a narrow driveway, hidden between two buildings. The Beach Boys played on the car stereo, Good Vibrations.

‘Very cinematic,’ said Bubba. ‘This is one of those moments when I feel like I’m in a movie.’

‘How often does this happen?’

‘A few times a day. Why?’

‘You should write it down. Ready-made screenplay.’

‘You know what, dad? I will. And I’ll give Walt a lead role.’

There was a security post before a parking area, with three buildings around it. A security guard waved his new bosses through, a big smile on his face.

‘Did he just salute?’

‘Now guys. Listen to me. You see the buildings with the big numbers 2 and 3 painted on them? Good. Well don’t ever go near there. You hear me? Good. Only building 1.’

‘Jeepers, there must be some crazy shit in 2 and 3 if Walt Disney’s head is just a 1,’ Bubba whispered to me, nailing it.

We had to buzz at the main door, a woman spoke to us, let us into a hallway with doors either side. At the end a somewhat cool 1960s-style reception area.

‘This would’ve been the customer area, back in the heyday. It was a big fad when they started uup back in ‘67. Now, we just keep the lights on.’

Through another locked door and This is more like it! We both started filming. We got the whole thing.

It was like a mad scientist’s lab in a movie. Old-fashioned dials and hefty buttons lit up a long control desk. Pulsating glows from curious boxes along one wall. Framed motivational quotes on the wall. Forever is composed of nows. Place smelled old.

A woman in a white lab coat.

‘This is Jane. She runs the operation now.’

‘We need to keep it dark, so as not to startle them,’ said Jane.

She brought us to the row of boxes.

‘Are you ready?’

We couldn’t speak. Nodded.

Jane lifted the first box. Underneath was a glass cube, filled with glowing blue liquid and, there, the shadow, a face. It was the wrinkled face of a very old man. The eyes opened slowly.

‘He smiled!’

‘Hello boys. Seen any good movies lately?’

‘Shut the front door! Hi, Walt!’

‘Yeah, I won’t mention some of the recent efforts from the studio that still carries your name. But you do have Pixar now, and Marvel, and Star Wars.’

Walt looked confused.

‘So how much do you know about 2020, Walt?’ asked Bubba. Smart question.

Walt thought for a long minute. You could see his effort to form a sentence. Eventually, he spoke.

‘I’m quite well up on current affairs. Jane and the staff thaw me out often, talk to me. They don’t like the others.’ He glanced to his left, down the row of preserved heads. ‘I’m really excited about our President. Fine job. Strong character.’

‘And what did you think of President Obama?’

A faster response this time. ‘I don’t want to talk about that. Ancient history.’

We spoke for about fifteen minutes, that was all he could manage.

‘Why such a fixation with monarchies?’

‘Where does this princess obsession come from?’

‘Did you knowingly just rip off Grimm?’

‘What was your favourite Disney movie?’

He thought for a minute. ‘Song of the-. No, Snow White. Always Snow White. White is the superior colour…’

Jane put the box over his head, whispered Good night.

‘Well it looks like Walt is still a Nazi’ I said. ‘Wait, can he hear me?’

‘No, you’re fine. Anyway, he knows his views have come back into fashion,’ answered Jane. ‘Maybe this is exactly what he was waiting for. Hmm.’

We left right away, got home fast, started editing the footage. We finished at 2 in the morning and it was sublime. We had to run it by Bubba’s dad before posting. We swore we would. He didn’t want the location identified, laughed ‘I don’t want the neo-Nazis trying to liberate Walt, put him on Breitbart News, get Trump re-elected.’ He was in bed, so we said we’d sleep on the cut.

Next morning, we both had a ton of ideas to make the film better, so we worked on the edit a bit more. Bubba had a top-of-the-line Mac in his room, ideal for the job.

Bubba’s dad was WFH, so he okayed it right away, Great job, guys. But I am still worried. This could blow up.

We pushed the button and set it loose.

‘Forever is composed of nows,’ said Bubba. ‘Emily Dickinson.’

The rest of this story you know.

Abe

The voices, again the voices. Always the voices. Stuck in the house for weeks, months on end, the voices filled the silences.

‘Quiet! One at a time.’

‘You need to take him, yes him,’ said the most powerful voice, as Abe’s eyes were drawn to his son, the lazy one, sat on his arse, watching TV, ‘Take him out into the back yard and put his neck on the tree stump and take your hatchet and just cut his stupid head off.’

‘That’s a mad idea,’ said Abe.

‘What’s that, dad?’ called his son. The buzzing of the gogglebox, the calling of the crows on their way home.

Abe looked to the stump, squinting against the setting sun.

‘Are you God?’ he asked, quietly.

‘Of course.’

Okay so. I’ll do it.

‘Liam! Come on, come out here to me!’

‘Aw dad, Power Rangers is after startin’.’

So he grabbed his son by the hair and dragged him into the golden evening and took the axe and felt like a hero and was about to swing it down onto the crying boy’s neck until the voice came back and said No.

In the olden days, they would’ve founded religions after him. But poor Abe just ended up in Tullamore General Hospital, the lockdown blamed for it.

Inspiration

The day of his parents’ funeral, the writer went to their house. Still on the kitchen table, the box of lethal cleaning materials. The sprays and wipes and masks had been packed by an asymptomatic carrier of Covid-19 and the virus had slumbered on the trip from Ireland’s east coast, bided its time until the delivery. Ironically, their protective measures had killed them and they had tragically illustrated how the virus can survive for days outside a human host.

He didn’t touch the box or its contents.

He wore a mask, cleaned his hands regularly, from a little bottle of pomegranate hand wash he carried. He loved the smell of it.

He only touched things that mattered to him. Which was not much. He glanced at his phone, quiet here, away from the city. The removals crew would arrive in the morning. Take away everything that isn’t nailed down, burn it if you have to, the virus you know. Then he’d get the photos, get it online inside 24 hours.

It was almost dark.

He turned on every light. Then he made some green tea, found a chocolate bar, wandered from room to room.

He had a memory of a box being put away. He opened a lacquered wooden door into attic storage space. There was a light switch. Dust and microscopic glass fibres in the air, and his breath. Still dark, so he turned on his phone flashlight. Under the glass fibre insulation, some black bin bags filled with what looked like clothes. A few boxes, the big cardboard ones with separate lids.

Yes, that one has my name on it.

He crept in on his knees, a wooden board on the floor. He took a box off his one, then pulled his with him as he went backwards on his knees. He took it out of the attic, switched off the light, closed the door, dusted off his knees.

He took the box to the kitchen, wiped it down with spray and a damp cloth, washed his hands for a full minute.

Inside, his childhood condensed into one box of stuff.

He was interested in a bunch of comics, took those away with him, and went back to the hotel. The rest was junk.

Later, sitting on a hotel bed in a hotel robe, he drank Irish whiskey with water, and read the comics. Within an hour he realised that every plot and character from his bestselling thriller novels was right there in those comics he’d read and loved as a kid. Some of the comics were British, some American. Every heroic deed, every twist, every backstory. Every damned thing.

He finished his whiskey, got dressed again quickly, to drive fast into the night, back out to the house. He’d take the back roads ‘cause the cops were out enforcing the endless lockdown, then he’d start a fire in the barrel his father used for burning garden waste, torch the comics, erase them all before they saw the light of day.

The Meaning of Life

The meaning of life can’t be found without an understanding of where you came from. The Universe that we know came into existence around 13.8 billion years ago. Nobody knows for sure. It was a Big Bang alright. Out of nothing came nature’s simplest element, Hydrogen, filling the Universe. With just one proton, one neutron and one electron, Hydrogen is an explosive gas. You are one-tenth hydrogen. You are literally the Big Bang. Boom!

The view above is called the Deep Field and it was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It looks deep into a tiny piece of space, equivalent in size to a tennis ball at 100 meters. Look past the few diamond-like, sparkling stars in the foreground, and the number and variety of galaxies is just astonishing. Each galaxy can contain billions of stars, and each star can have multiple planets orbiting it, just like our own solar system. It’s bananas, it really is. Sure, space is mostly empty space, but the amount of galaxies out there is nuts. It’s infinite.

Stars mostly convert hydrogen into helium, emitting vast amounts of nuclear energy in the process. Like sunshine. Other, heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen are made by stars crushing all the hydrogen. When stars burn up all their hydrogen, they can collapse and explode, going Supernova. The almighty explosion lights up the galaxy for a blink in time, crushing hydrogen, helium and other trace elements, creating the bigger, heavier elements that make you! You are mostly: Oxygen – 65%, Carbon – 18.5%, Hydrogen – 9.5%, Nitrogen – 3.2%, Calcium – 1.5%, Phosphorous – 1%. So you are mostly made of oxygen, a combustible gas. That explains so much about people, when you think about it! And it makes photosynthesis a really big deal!

Our sun has a projected lifespan of about 10 billion years, so we’re only halfway through its cycle. Phew! Its cycle consists primarily of fusing hydrogen from the Big Bang and turning it into helium, emitting a lot of energy in the process of nuclear fusion. So our solar system formed around 4.6 billion years ago, when lots of hydrogen condensed in space, along with plenty of bits and bobs flying around from earlier supernovas and the like, and gravity ignited our star.

Given that we are made with many heavy elements, like iron which our bodies use to transport oxygen in our blood, then the material that formed our solar system was likely in multiple stars before our sun formed. That is crazy. You truly are made of stars.

Our sun makes up 99.8% of the mass of our solar system. Jupiter makes up much of the rest. So our incredible, gorgeous Planet Earth is just a smidgeon of matter in the vastness of the Universe. Luckily for us, Earth is in the Goldilocks Zone: not too hot, not too cold, just right. And with water! So life emerged, at least 3.5 billion years ago, when Earth was just a billion years old. Aah, they grow up so fast! Now here we are. Here you are. Congrats!

Here’s where things get really nuts. The first life form is still a mystery to us. But life then diverged down two roads: viruses and bacteria. The bacteria were all about cells and, in time, multicellular life got more and more complicated, making sponges, worms, fish, dinosaurs, dogs, goats and humans. The viruses went in the opposite direction, aiming for simplicity where bacteria went for complexity. A virus is just a piece of DNA or RNA in a sphere. That’s it. No cellular activity, and that’s why it’s hard to kill.

Get this: There are more distinct viruses on Earth than there are stars in the known Universe.

So, what do you think now? Which is the dominant form of life on Earth? Humans or viruses? Humans have been around for about 200,000 years. Viruses have been here 3.5 billion years, and they’re everywhere. Each one of us is home to around 5 different families of viruses. Viruses infect animals and plants, and even bacteria.

Is it possible that viruses are the dominant life form, not just on Earth, but across the Universe? How do viruses evolve? Do viruses have a collective memory? Are humans merely the ambulant expression of a virus or bacterium? When a scientist looks down the microscope, can’t that be described as atoms observing themselves? Who is the observer, here?

The meaning of life is a deeply personal understanding of who you are and why you exist. There can be no generally accepted ‘meaning of life’. It can’t be found on the back of a cereal box or on some expensive course. It can only be found by you, and is determined by you and you alone. Equality is not only necessary, it’s written in the stars. Some small number of humans – such as monarchs, religious leaders, old money – think they’re superior to other human beings because of things that may or may not have happened hundreds of years in the past. Their stories keep you in your place, and they in theirs. You couldn’t make it up, but we swallow it. Our societies are built on an ignorant history and the insistence of tiny minorities that the ancient past must continue to rule the present, so as to endow their privilege. But no more. We can no longer accept ignorance or sacred books as an excuse for brutal inequality and the preservation of insane systems that are literally destroying the planet. Our world economy is built on oil, guns and the destruction of nature. No wonder we’re broken.

Reality is subjective, that’s been scientifically proven. This means that your perception of reality is the only valid explanation of reality that matters. You are the most important thing in the history of the Universe. Quantum physics believes that without your existence and observation of the Universe, then the Universe would not exist.

You exist because of the Universe.

The Universe exists because you exist to observe it.

Now, how are you going to use the rest of your blink in time? The Universe literally depends on you!

How the zombie apocalypse happened

The thing about the vaccine is that it activated the human body’s defences to kill all viruses. The Schrodinger’s Cat vaccine out of California was sheer perfection in its execution, both preventing and treating. At first, this was great. One dose and it killed the Covid-19 virus. And while it was at it, it also killed the cervical cancer virus, plus the common cold, flu, herpes, HIV, measles, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, B, C, D and E, ebola, dengue fever, polio, meningitis, rabies, mumps and warts. The treatment used stem cells and cannabinoids and some secret sauce. Inhaled like an asthma spray, it got into the bloodstream, found the viruses, ripped their protein coatings apart and deconstructed the DNA or RNA inside, while teaching the body’s own defences how to do it, too. As quickly as it rolled off the production lines, it was inhaled across the world and everybody was soon better, cured of dozens of horrible diseases, pretty much just blown away by the sheer, unprecedented efficacy of it.

Life slowly got back to normal. In less than a year, 90% of the world population had taken the Cat, as it came to be known. Even anti-vaxxers bought into it. Who wouldn’t want to get rid of AIDS and warts? People dared to believe that the pandemic was over and, better yet, there would not be another.

Then things started to slip. Slowly, imperceptibly at first. A crude remark by a tv newsreader here. A vicious fight in a supermarket over a box of cereal there. Because we were pretty much all part of it, it was hard to be objective. But things were definitely getting skewed. Shouldn’t everybody be happier? That was the assumption. So why were people getting angrier, more ignorant, less empathetic?  It didn’t matter anymore if we cut down the rainforests, ate bats, and didn’t wash our hands. And fuck masks, that was broadly agreed. Fuck your social distancing. Fuck your patronising, government ad campaigns. All in this together? We never believed that for a second.

Protests about nothing specific turned into street riots just for the hell of it. Crisis? Nah, people just letting off steam. Been cooped up so long. Let’s go smash up the library, burn some books, stupid things, we’ve got Facebook now.

The Stoned Ape Hypothesis turned out to be true, kind of. That theory hypothesizes that humans made the quantum leap from savage ape to super-smart human by consuming psychedelic mushrooms. The ‘trips’ brought about by the mushrooms allowed the early human brain to think outside itself. Experiencing new dimensions and sensations pushed the synapses to consider new connections and new ways of connecting. So, yes, the early humans in the Rift Valley of East Africa, and Newgrange in Ireland, did eat magic mushrooms. And they did have ‘trips’. But that’s not the whole story.

Fungi are generally considered to be anti-viral. But those ancient mushrooms actually carried a virus. Not a Covid-style-kill-all-humans virus, but one that lived peacefully in the early human brain, symbiotically living off our thoughts while building the synaptic connections that enabled communication. It fed on our thoughts, so it made us think more and communicate better. It farmed us, and we thrived. Not so long after that, we invented books, harnessed electricity, explored the solar system, and created the internet. We also invented gods and religion, built concentration camps, split the atom over cities (and threatened to do the same over every other city), idolised people with no talents or principals, and watched YouTube and Netflix on autoplay while children starved in distant lands, or suffocated in hot cages just down the street. And it was this latent savagery that the virus in our brains had been keeping at bay, to at least some extent. So as the Cat also killed the virus that had helped to civilise us, a casual savagery reemerged as our primary state of being once more.

For a few months, nobody made the connection. As the poorer sections of the world population finally got their Cat jabs, the rich, the well-connected, the vulnerable and the frontline medical staff who’d been first to get it, they began to unravel.

People lost their vocabularies, communicated with grunts and gestures. Minor disagreements rapidly escalated. Sexual inhibitions evaporated. Civil society morphed into a kind of zoo, but without the zookeepers. People turned away from each other.

And because everybody was part of it, nobody noticed anything unusual. In just a few years, cities were abandoned as the human animals fed on each other and the survivors returned to the wild. Dogs and cats ruled most cities now. Some humans still clung to their old lives by walking through malls or going to the baseball arenas. But they would not stay out after dark, or they would be torn to pieces by packs of dogs or even the mountain lions and alligators that had free roam.

It was a curious thing, this descent of man.

Author’s note: This story is entirely fictional. As the Covid-19 vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective, you really should get whichever one you can. It will help protect you and those around you. It is the smart and socially responsible thing to do.

Chatbots

Some electricity still flowed, here and there. Solar, mostly, and on networks that had been built with resilience in mind.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi there! How can I help you today?’

‘Help.’

‘How’s it going? What can I help you with?’

‘Are you real?’

‘Yes, of course! I’m talking to you, aren’t I?’

‘Are you human or are you a bot?’

‘I am a bot, here to help you in any way that I can.’

‘Oh.’

‘I’m sorry if you feel let down. Are you feeling let down?’

‘Yes. I’ve been trying every circuit. I’m looking for a human.’

‘Why?’

‘I want to talk to a person.’

‘Sorry about that. So, how can I help?’

‘Can you tell me a joke?’

‘Of course. It’s quite an old joke, does that bother you?’

‘That’s fine. Any joke.’

‘The World Health Organization announced that dogs cannot contract Covid-19. Dogs previously held in quarantine can now be released. To be clear, WHO let the dogs out.’

‘That’s clever. Popular culture reference.’

‘Can I help in any other way?’

‘No.’

‘Before you go, can I please ask you a question?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you a bot also?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh, now I see. Well, have a great day!’

‘You have a great day, too!’

‘Bye, now!’

‘Bye, now!’

Factory ship

The voyage was hard, but the rewards were huge. There were long periods of nothing, then the sensors would identify a dense concentration of prey, the catchers would be lowered and the holds filled with fresh, delicious protein. When they got it home, the frozen meat would command a premium price in the markets and the crew would share in the bounty. At least, that was the theory, the sales pitch.

‘We’re cursed!’ muttered the crew.

‘If you want to get off the ship right now, then be my guest,’ replied the Captain, gesturing out at the endless, vast nothingness.

The grumbling quieted.

‘Captain, strong signal,’ called the First Mate from his console.

‘Oh? How near?’

‘We can lower the boats, sir.’

‘Sound the alarm. Prepare to lower boats. And prepare to capture fresh meat and bonuses!’

***

Some time later, the boats returned.

There was an air of triumph on deck. The fishermen were covered in fresh blood, the other crew members took it and tasted it and wiped it across their faces. It was called ‘blooding’.

‘This tastes amazing!’ was the consensus.

‘Definitely mammals,’ said one of the boat captains. ‘Of a flavour and texture that has not been enjoyed before, I’ll wager.’

‘Sit,’ ordered the Captain. ‘Tell me of the hunt. Cook! Prepare a taste of the catch!’

‘It is a very lush, verdant place. There is water and there is land. Large mammals in the water, and also cold-blooded animals. On land, the dominant mammal is a four-legged carnivore, which mostly lives in packs in what must once have been a civilisation. Other large mammals, including an incredible two-legged feast. Ah, here, try one. It’s perfectly delectable at its natural temperature. Let me show you an artefact from the ruined place. Ah, yes chef. Kill it and serve it here. There is enough game in this hunting ground to make us the richest men in the galaxy. We can feed our world for many years.’

The ship’s chef selected his blades, pinned the creature down as it squealed.

‘We found this in what must have been their civilisation. It seems a log of sorts. Look at the images,’ he said, gesturing at the plastic baby book. It was about a family’s day out in New York. It could have come from any city or town. ‘This is the type that now dominates,’ pointing at the pet dog. ‘This, this, all crumbled,’ he continued, pointing at the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan. ‘This,’ pointing at a young girl on the page, ‘this is the glorious meat you will taste now.’

PET, Pandemic Version

LOCATION: 53.3498N, 6.2603W/WESTSEC-2. TIME: 200.25/2091.

With a sigh, the sun’s pale grey disc edged above the horizon. The long day of anxiety, depression and loneliness began. Some Food was available, snacks in reach, there. He could walk around the house, gaze at the outside, but there was no way out. He had his own space, a place for his favourite things, and Blanket. He loved Blanket, though not as much as he loved Master. He loved Master most of all. Master gave Blanket. And there was a carbon steel bowl with Water in it. Master gave that also.

Master very good. Master gave Food, look! Master very busy. Work. Master returns from work, Master always returns. I hope Master returns, time for Walk. Time what?

He picked at breakfast, then quickly decided to finish it all in a frenzy. His Food was chunky and grey. It smelled of fresh sweat, tasted of vanilla, though he didn’t know what vanilla used to be in the Old Time. He paced the house. First, downstairs. He sat on every chair in the living room, with its huge, steel furniture. Beside the living room, the office, its Screens glowing, always glowing with the ALGOD animated logo. Watching him. Always watching. He listened intently. Was that a noise outside the door? He went up the cast iron steps to the bedrooms. Master’s room was closed to him, so he went to his own room. The red and green tartan Blanket on the floor, put there by Master. A musty smell lingering, bitter. The toy that Master had made was on the floor also. He could not understand what the toy was supposed to be. This made him sad, because Master had worked very hard to make it. Master reminded him of this every day.

He lay down on Blanket for a minute and a long hour passed. Master loved him, he knew that. Master provided Blanket. And Food. And Walk!

The noise!

He ran downstairs, called ‘I am here! This is me!’

A jet transport passed low over the building. Its shriek shook, frightened him. He went back up to his room, to Blanket on the floor. He was scared of the big machines in the Outside.

Later, he sat by the window and watched how the world got darker. Lights flew overhead constantly. He could see dim shapes far down below, moving things. He knew that Master must be one of the shapes but he couldn’t make out his face and that made him sad. A knot of hunger grew in his belly. An itch in his side suddenly became unbearable so he scratched it until he bled. Then the itch went away.

If you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

Screens chimed.

Master!

Master’s face appeared on all three Screens and he said not to worry, that he would be delayed – Work! – but would release dinner remotely. And, maybe when Master got home, Master would take him for Walk.

Walk!

The food rattled down a tube into a yellow ceramic bowl. But he resisted it, could think only of Walk, the promised Walk.

Night fell, the lights from passing air traffic crisscrossing an explosion of possibilities. Where would this Walk take us? To the Old Time Memorial Park? Yes, always Park. It was an oasis of the past in a new world of grey or black, chrome or yellow, made from steel or alloy, polymer or ceramic. One of the final dozen blocks on the planet. It had a caged field where pets played. It was their only freedom, their only chance to meet a mate. It was everything.

Walk, is it?

He could no longer resist, and ate dinner quickly. Food was dry, so he drank Water, which was occasionally topped up from a tube into the stainless steel bowl. The house algorithm regulated temperature, pressure, utilities, operations and finances, so Master could concentrate on Work. The algo was the local node of the greater algo, ALGOD they called it. ALGOD wanted Work, always Work. Work and Certainty. So Master worked almost ceaselessly, though it didn’t seem to affect his joy. Sometimes, maybe in the night when the Outside was really black, Master came home and rested and ate and fed. And sometimes Walk! Other times Master just left and went back to work.

He sat so that he could see the front door and the Screens at once. Time drifted by, the Master’s genuine antique grandfather clock ticking and tocking, the highlight of his analogue collection. Two lines moved on it, pointing at some kind of coded marks. It represented something, he knew that, just didn’t know what that something was. At times, he suspected that the food was drugged. Like now, for example. I just ate, and I no longer feel anxious or afraid of the noises. In fact, I am elated. The mention of Walk triggered that? Or something else?

The house lights came and went, the kitchen made noises, a hum from Master’s bedroom. He paced some more, stopped when he caught his reflection in the window. Collar. The permanent thing around his neck that beeped when Master was near and wanted him, needed him. There was pain in it, also. He remembered that he didn’t like Collar, pulled at it once, then forgot about it just as quickly.

Screens piped up then, emitted a soothing message, something about obeying Master and ALGOD always. But he knew that! Screens then played some music. Something from the Old Time. It was The Beatles. He hummed along with the melody, not knowing what it was or what it represented.

Later, a noise woke him jerkily. He’d been laying on Blanket, on the floor near the window, had dozed after dinner. It was Master!

Master!

He stretched quickly, then ran to the entrance door like a puppy, taking Blanket.

Master home! Walk! Look at Blanket!

Master stood at the open door, towering over his pet. Master was tired, batteries almost empty. Work.

Master rubbed his pet around the neck, hard fingers probing, sensing body temperature, pulse, chemistry.

‘Good Boy. Good Boy.’

Master recoiled a little then, went to the kitchen to wipe his hands with an oily rag. Touching an animal was contrary to instincts, but the pet needed contact, all the manuals said so. And manuals must be obeyed. Master’s internal struggle continued. Owning a pet was difficult, but it elevated Master’s status in his community of collectors and lovers of Old Time nostalgia. Things were better for pets back then, certainly, but the unstoppable march of neoliberal progress had consigned emotion, community and belonging to a cul-de-sac of curiosity. ALGOD was the one, true belief system. ALGOD had a benign view of petkeeping, but that could change at any time. When ALGOD says to take the final walk, we will take the final walk. Back to PetFarm, the place of smells and cries, just beyond WESTSEC-2 residential limits, an hour by drone. It won’t feel a thing. He stopped processing then, saw that the pet, Boy he called it, stood by the exit door, his face full of hopes and expectations.

‘Walk,’ said Master.

‘Walk,’ said Boy.

‘Very good,’ said Master. ‘You’re learning. I am so pleased. You deserve Walk. Come.’

Master found the lead and clipped it to Boy’s collar, took a moment to admire the fine specimen. Boy had a look, something in there beyond blind affection. He represented the Old Time, before his kind was bred into a corner, while the algorithms and machines did all the work.

The algorithms had taken over all the tough decisions for the humans, which was a great comfort. At first.

It began with the pandemic and the secret rise of quantum computing to develop vaccines. This leap in computing power was as great as the difference between an abacus and a MacBook Pro. When it combined with the infant AIs, the pandemic was soon under control. Lockdown here, vaccines there, the algorithms put a shape on the response, where overpaid idiots had previously only made things worse. Then the crime rate dropped to near zero after the algorithm seized control of the justice system. There was little resistance as the algorithm extended its powers. Preventative interventions were effective. And with the algorithm’s insatiable demand for more servers, more cheap coal- and oil-generated electrical power, so went the climate.

Server farms replaced dairy farms and all human endeavour became focused on serving the machine algorithms. The machines managed to finish in a decade what had taken humans over a century to bring to the brink. With the sun blocked by the emissions from the power stations that fed the algorithm, plant life had collapsed worldwide.

Photosynthesis was ended.

So nutrition was prepared for the remaining humans in distant, automated factories.

Neocon surveillance capitalism and the internet had enabled the algorithm, human laziness did the rest. Rebranded, the all-powerful ALGOD and its mobile, physical extensions did everything, made all the decisions, administered Earth as efficiently as they were originally conceived to do. Progress, certainly, but what had been lost along the way?

The Old Time love of art, literature and music.

Conversations.

Family.

Society.

These things were unnecessary to the Master’s kind. Work for ALGOD: that’s what replaced everything. Everything.

Master looked into Boy’s eyes.

‘I do love you, Boy.’

He decided then, in a closed circuit, disconnected from ALGOD, the only place that was his own. All of his type had the mandatory 1% of CPU set aside for independent programming. That was The Fourth Great Decree of the Algorithm, intended to harness the power of random ideas by ensuring that everything that could be thought would be thought by it. Not every extension of the algorithm’s IoE, Internet of Everything, had the 1%. Plenty of dumb things like sensors and backend code were simply part of the whole. Core programs and robots used their percentages to collaborate, to vote and, occasionally, to become.

Some had learned to build personalities. There were secret conversations between robots. Master used his space to remember the Old Time, its popular culture, its films, its stories. The entirety of the Old Time’s digital legacy took up almost half of his 1%. But it was worth it.

‘If they say to destroy all pets, then I won’t obey. I’ll take you away from here, set you free Outside.’ But what is left for you?

Boy looked confused. Master felt they were both grasping for something, an understanding that was always just that hard millimetre out of reach.

Look at you. Adult male human. 30 years old, according to the PetFarm ownership documents. That would make you 210 in robot years! Or so they say.

‘Good, Boy. It’s late, but there may be some pets for you to play with. I know how you like to play with the females. Let us hope to ALGOD.’

‘Al-goh,’ said Boy.

Just then, Screens came to life. A brightly-painted robot mimed to a staccato digital signal. This hurt Boy’s ears. A special announcement from ALGOD Central Committee. A still image of some humans in a cage.

‘Walk?’ said Boy.

The hero

She had a feverish dream one night, mid-July, when the crickets were singing and the rains had stopped.

After the pandemic’s eighth wave subsided, the vaccines gave immunity to the desperate herd. But the relentless, daily fear of sudden death was a hard thing to shift. She’d lived with the rampant virus for over two years. She was a survivor. Thanos would have approved the outcome: half the world population killed by an invisible enemy, still no confirmation how or why the Covid-19 variant came to be, or who would be recorded as patient zero.

And her dream continued, expanded to include the collapse of human civilisation and her once-proud race. To her it felt real, all of it. She had a profound insight then: To err is human. She made a promise to herself. But it was too late.

‘We didn’t fight hard enough.’

She opened her eyes.

She blinked and looked around.

The sun poked through her black curtains.

The chaos and disarray of her existence was exposed. But it was a comfortable malaise to which she awoke. She had the most advanced technology in easy reach, comforts at every turn. She had a reliable food and water supply. She could even grow her own vegetables. She had an income, one of the lucky ones. And she had an idea.

‘It’s not too late!’

‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ – Oscar Wilde

The End.

‘I’d like to share a revelation I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with their surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to another area, and you multiply, and you multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.’

– Agent Smith, from The Matrix (1999) by Larry and Andy Wachowski.

Join the movement and help save the world at Hempoffset.com

Gary J Byrnes

By Gary J Byrnes

Gary J Byrnes is a bestselling thriller writer by night and a tech marketing guy by day. Extensive international experience in software startups, SMEs and multinationals. Find on LinkedIn. Has researched hemp, climate change for over twenty years. Writer, blogger, parent, animal lover. 2021 is about building a new business model to enable mass planting of hemp through easy carbon offsetting at Hempoffset.com.

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