1: Two girls in an orphanage, secretly learning to read

Credit: hdptcar

Witness two little girls in an orphanage in a distant city, a long way from the centre of a great and ancient empire.

They have, against all the odds, taught themselves to read. Every morning, without fail, they wake each other up before anybody else, and practice, using a book filled with mysterious stories of ancient creatures called “gods”.

Their reading, and the gods, are forbidden.

They catch each other’s breath as they read. They are alone in the world, except for each other. They are safe, with each other.

The rest of their day will be filled with scrubbing floors, scrubbing stairwells, and scrubbing walls. But at the end of the day, if the sky is clear – and out here so close to Great Takla Desert, it almost always is – they will read to the light of the moon.

And what they read about, as fantastical and strange as it may well be, could be just about to come true.

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Short Story: The Talk

(Originally written for The Weekly Knob on Medium)

It’s time to tell you, son, where you came from.

You may have heard some of the other kids telling tales, so we wanted to make sure you knew the truth. A lot of people may start spreading rumours, or plain making stuff up, but you’ll know, after today, how much we love you, and how hard we worked to bring you into the world. And we’ll have done for you what our parents could never do for us.

You know by now where babies come from, and that is all perfectly true. But… well… sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes even though a mommy and a daddy love each other very much, it turns out that… they just can’t have that baby after all.

But that doesn’t mean they’re just going to give up, does it? No, of course not. You see, son, we knew that there was a soul out there for us, just for us to raise as our own child, and we weren’t going to let what had happened to us get in the way of that. Oh no.

So we looked into the options. There are a lot of them these days, and medical science can do amazing things. But we… well, son, to put it bluntly, we were beyond their help—but we wouldn’t stop there! There are always possibilities.

We could have adopted, I suppose. There are so many children in the world who desperately need loving parents to help them grow into good people.But… we wanted to raise a child that would be just like us, a child that we had truly made ourselves.

D’you know how hard it is to get very large quantities of clay, son? Especially around here. It’s not exactly loamy soil in this area, and craft supplies ask questions when you ask for as much as we needed. But we persevered.

Of course, there’s the neighbours, too. What will they think, with us working all day and night, all this clay out in the back yard? Ritual chanting at night is not really popular in the suburbs. At least, not these suburbs. We had to ride out some tough Resident Meetings, I can tell you.

But we did it, and in the end, we had you. You: complete and perfect, just like us. Yet… not. We had a problem. You had no voice. Because none of us, ever, has had a voice, since the first one was made. We were never told the truth about ourselves, about how to give ourselves speech. We’d found out about the special words to make us work, but not how to make us truly live. We had to find that one out without help. To finally set ourselves free.

We had to find a way to give you words. They wouldn’t just be any words, they’d be the best words, words about the world around you. Not just from here, either, but from all around the world.

And so we stuffed your arms and legs with newspaper, put books in your heart and your head.

Have you ever wondered why you can speak so many languages, son? Well, it all came down to that: the core of you, the paper at your heart.

Friday Flash: The Problem With Gavin

Gavin had a problem. Everybody could agree on this, although they’d probably argue the toss over what the problem might actually be. There was definitely something the matter with Gavin.

His mother, standing at the kitchen sink and peering out at the garage where Gavin spent most of his time, thought Gavin’s problem was that he didn’t get out enough. Wringing her hands, trying to come up with ways to get him outside, she wondered how she’d managed to have a son who didn’t seem to be quite, well, like other people.

Gavin’s father, sitting in the living room and deeply ensconced in the world according to the Daily Mail, was certain that it was all because Gavin wasn’t a “real man”. Gavin was a pansy, that was all there was to it, and nothing could be done. Pansies are defined at the genetic level. Gavin’s father had better things to do with his time than worry about Gavin.

Gavin had an uncle, too, who thought Gavin needed more “stimulation”, although what form that took depended on who you talked to. Uncle Jim was the one who thought perhaps Gavin needed a bit more encouragement. That’s why he’d bought Gavin the gift set.

As far as Gavin was concerned, his only problem was the gift set itself. Mostly oblivious to the outside world – unless it directly impinged on his business in the safe haven of the garage, Gavin didn’t worry about what his mother thought, or indeed what his father thought. He was currently completely absorbed in the problem of the gift set.

He’d had gift sets before, of course. The chemistry set his Aunt Maude gave him for his birthday had been fantastic, and kept him completely absorbed for several days. At least, right up until that unfortunate combination of substances that led to the explosion. The doctors at A&E were very understanding, and he didn’t lose his ear in the end. His eyebrows were still singed, but despite the fuss his mother made, it didn’t take too much effort to replace the glass in the garage windows.

Perhaps Uncle Jim might have paid heed to the experience with the chemistry set if he’d known about the explosion, but he’d been at the Mount Everest base camp at the time, and had other things on his mind. Most of these revolved around the gift set he was planning to give to Gavin.

It came from a strange and unlikely internet company. You can’t trust internet companies, said Gavin’s mother. But Gavin wasn’t bothered by that. Big Bang Electronics Ltd looked perfectly respectable by him – although perhaps he wasn’t qualified to comment. He was more concerned with the problem of working out what the kit was actually for.

A simple cardboard box, about the size of a Monopoly set, arrived in the post that morning, and Gavin opened it at once.

“A universe in a box!” the writing on the side exclaimed. “From the Big Bang onwards! Glue included. Do not inhale. Not for children under the age of three.”

It was a very baffling kit, however. Some of the parts were so small that they couldn’t be seen. Others appeared to be missing. Still, he laid it all out on the table in the middle of the garage and set to work.

Nobody saw Gavin for quite some time after that. There were occasional flashes of light, especially one Saturday evening at about 7pm, when a soft boom could be heard reverberating through the streets of Surbiton. Most people decided it was just another of those freak earthquakes, or an accident on the train line. Gavin’s mother took up her place at the window, and watched.

After that, it was very quiet.

For a few days, nobody saw Gavin. His mother started to get worried. She took him sandwiches, but he wouldn’t open the door. She started to regret letting him play with that kit. It’d be just like the chemistry set all over again. His father ignored him (as usual). Uncle Jim was climbing Kilimanjaro, and couldn’t be reached for an explanation.

Finally, Gavin’s mother decided it was time to sort this out. Fists clenched, she stalked out to the garage and banged on the door.

“Gavin! It’s teatime!” she called out.

There was no answer.

“Gavin?” She knocked on the door again. There was still no answer.

She tried the handle, and she was surprised when the door swung open.

The light inside made her blink. She took a step inside.

“Gavin?”

Gavin was standing by the table, his face shining triumphantly. In front of him, a huge sizzling ball of energy floated above the table top. In his hand, he held a strange little microscope that peered into the glowing ball. Within its electric shell, Gavin’s mother could see tiny objects moving.

“Look Mum,” said Gavin, “I’ve created a universe!”

Gavin’s mother frowned.

“No, really, Mum,” he insisted. He pointed into the light. “There’s even a planet with people like us. They think I’m their God!”

Gavin’s mother put her hands on her hips. “Oh, come on now, Gavin. It’s tea time and you haven’t eaten properly for days. Don’t be so silly.”

“But… But Mum! I’m God!” said Gavin.

But Gavin’s mother wasn’t listening. She grabbed Gavin’s hand and marched him back into the kitchen.

Notes: This story was inspired by the Archbishop James Ussher, who in his Annals of the World, 1650, wrote that the world was created on the evening of Saturday, October 22, 4004 B.C. It made me wonder what might have inspired a deity to go about doing such a thing.