Take Me to Your Leader

– Take me to your leader, it said.

– What are your intentions? I replied.

– Terminate.

– I see. Why is that?

– It is killing the Blue Planet.

– We have a gathering of leaders. They will be meeting all together in one room for a summit. You will recognize the biggest leader because he will tell you who he is when you ask. He will probably threaten you. I assume the ones beside him will be his closest allies. There will be mega-security. And you don’t have a pass, so they won’t let you in.

– Take me to your leader, it said again, but slowly this time.

– Will you give me a ride?

We teleported to the UFO, hovering over the sea. I went into a gelatinous substance. I could breathe and emit vibrations that were understood as speech. I understood their vibrations as well. It was amazing. I didn’t think of my own safety. I was too excited.

– You are sending happy vibrations, stated the Being.

– Can you tell me what your plan is?

– The carbon atoms that make up the body will be dissolved.

– Why now? Where do you live?

– We live here. On the water. We have given this much thought. Since we are guests, we did not want to be disrespectful. But it is getting worse and worse. Our hosts are dying, becoming extinct. They are suffering and have asked for our help.

I gave it the coordinates of the UN headquarters, and the date and times the leaders would meet.

– You are emitting sadness and regret, stated the Being. Why?

– On our planet, we don’t like terminating others of our kind.

The Being laughed. I could feel the hilarity gaining momentum and understood other beings were also listening in on the conversation. Soon, I felt like laughing too.

– We understand jokes, he said proudly.

I didn’t have the heart to disabuse it of its misconception. I changed tactics.

– What is your name?

– Tiktak. What is your name?

– Ali.

Properly introduced, we continued our conversation.

– Ali, why were you emitting sadness and regret?

– I am contributing to the destruction of my kin.

As soon as I thought this, my mind was filled with pictures of animals, big and small, that had become extinct for loss of habitat, outright destruction, or other changes brought about by my kin.

– Who are your kin? Kitkat asked softly.

I looked up and around the vast cabin.

– How can I help? I answered.

Santa’s Sister

Santa’s sister Debbie was not amused. Her brother was ballooning out of control, from sampling all those cookies and drinking all that milk. She had long suspected he was lactose-intolerant, as was she. She had her health well in hand, being rational above all. She sometimes wondered if they really were related, if one of them (him, surely!) was adopted. She did not want to nag but he wasn’t getting any younger. She had talked to her sister-in-law on the side, hinting at diets, gifting them books on health which she saw re-gifted almost instantly. She was thinking of doing an intervention, but the elves would not take part in it and she didn’t know who else to enroll.

She convinced Niklaus to wear an activity tracker which would also allow the kids to follow his whereabouts on Christmas Eve. For her part, she was hoping to raise his health awareness. However, wearing the device had unexpected consequences. Santa became obsessed with his heart rate and sleeping habits. He convinced himself he needed to sleep longer hours and avoid strenuous activity. He started being concerned about suffering a heart attack. As he was progressively getting more sedentary and afraid, his hearty laugh no longer booming in the elf factory, Santa started hinting that it might not be advisable for him to do the rounds on Christmas Eve. He cited his statistics, his health, the strain of going up and down chimneys, even the strain of laughing heartily.

Her sister-in-law was furious, calling Debbie meddlesome and refusing to have any further contact with her as she tried to change her husband’s mind. The elves convened, and a delegation went to see Debbie to apprise her of the latest developments. She had not foreseen this and did not know what to do. “Do you have any suggestions?” she asked hopefully. The elves looked shyly at each other, and one of them came forward. “We were wondering if you would consider replacing Santa on Christmas Eve this year?” Of course, when they were young, both Niklaus and Debbie drove the team of reindeer. They had grown up in the North, knew how to thrive in that country. One way was to respect the wildlife and work together with them. As they grew into adulthood, they had gone their own ways. She married and became an accountant, he married and became Santa Claus. Ironically, neither had children.

Debbie had kept fit and trim doing cross-country skiing. She hadn’t driven a team since university and, of course, she didn’t know the route. Yet she felt like this mess was her fault and couldn’t see a way out. Reluctantly, she agreed, but on the condition that she would do it her own way and that the elves would follow her directions. They enthusiastically agreed. Secretly, she had often longed to distribute the presents all over the world. Due to her competitive nature, she thought she could do it quicker and more cheaply. She also thought it was time a woman were in charge. She thought long and hard. She interviewed the reindeer to see if she should plan an alternate route.

The red sleigh was iconic and so was the fat and jolly silhouette. She had to find a way to preserve the tradition yet promote a healthy weight. That was quite the challenge as thin Santas did not appeal. She had to effect a mindset change in her target audience. She used social media to try and get the kids to consider Santa’s health and well-being. She suggested glasses of water (you’re never too hydrated) and carrots for the reindeer. The cookie companies retaliated with ads and commercial campaigns took off. It was a real nail-biter to see how it would play out the day of. Her list was computerized – she thought she would tally the kids who were not health-conscious and perhaps leave a thank you note to those who left her water and carrots.

Meanwhile, Santa had more time on his hands, being bedridden. He was following the smear campaign with alarm. He was a health risk? A bad example? No more milk or cookies? He complained to the elves and to his wife, to the reindeer and to his sister. This farce had to stop. Debbie explained her approach, her concerns, her strategy, all to no avail. At least, it resulted in Santa getting out of bed and regaining control of the situation. He did understand, for the first time, that his sister wanted to be part of the tradition, in her own way. He asked her to oversee the carollers, but that was not glamourous enough. She felt it was patronizing. She wanted to lead the way, and to keep an eye on him.

Well, as we all know, Santa can do magic. How else could he deliver presents all over the world in one day? And so, Debbie agreed to be Rudolf one day a year, leading the way and being the one the children spotted from afar. When Santa took too long (Is he eating still?), she would stomp her feet or jingle her bells. She enjoyed the sights and smells of the whole planet, and the jolly company of her brother. And never again did she meddle in his well-run enterprise. As for him, he ditched the electronic activity tracker, and accepted her gift of a year-long trainer. On Christmas Eve, he straps on a pillow on his trim figure, and wears his oversized costume. He wears a fake beard on his clean-shaven face where the cookie crumbs still gather. Some things never change.

The Mountain

You can read this piece starting at any month of the year and circle.

JANUARY

Summit! I plant the flag I’ve been hauling in my backpack, part of the essentials, a necessary validation for my efforts. My fingers are numb from the cold, despite the exertion. I know better than to strip off my gloves, what with the altitude and the funny things it does to the brain I might forget to put them back on and freeze them. I take a few pictures of myself and the flag, of myself, of the breath-taking view. That’s for my ego and posterity. Another summit ticked off. It’s very windy and barren and a bit crowded with everybody milling about. We can’t dawdle. After thirty minutes, I start herding the group. We can’t stay exposed to the high winds. I worry that the members of our little group will get dehydrated and confused. We must start the descent. One last look – I can’t believe I’ve done it. I can see the Earth’s curvature.

FEBRUARY

We descend cautiously. Sure, you’re cautious ascending but the reverse is treacherous as well. You still need a team to help you navigate your way down. The same issues going up exist going down, except you are no longer fuelled by adrenaline. Again, you need to fight your tendencies to self-destruction and prop yourself up. You will yourself to keep going. The goal is no longer to summit but to rejoin the ranks of the mortals down below. You fight the urge to fall off the face of a cliff, a glorious end after this brave summit. Except dying nullifies the win. You need must keep going to complete the cycle. And so you do. One foot in front of the other.

MARCH

Coming across human remains is always a shock. You are faced with your own mortality, and failure to survive in this harsh environment. And then there is the ethical aspect. Should you protect the body, bury it, try and bring it down though you are tired? Will you put your own life at risk to bring solace to unknown parties? Or will you give the mountain its due? All those humans climbing it, without regards for her feelings. She may need her share of flesh to consume. I am aware those are strange thoughts, feverish thoughts. I say a quick prayer in my heart and move on. We should wear dog tags, I reflect, so they could be returned to the family. I will lie and say he looked peaceful, like he just sat down for a minute. Actually, I’ve never seen such an expression of fear. He was struck down with fear in his heart and the image will haunt me for years to come. Mercifully, I don’t know that at this point.

APRIL

I am in the foothills, reluctant to leave. I stay in the village, trying to support myself while living with a family. I don’t want to be a drain on resources. I bring a bit of fame to the place. Foreigners who want to climb the mountain turn to me. I eke out a living on consultant fees. I may yet write articles for Mountaineering magazine. Spring here is fierce and short, blossoms competing in speed and fragrance. It’s hard to believe I feared dying from exposure a few short months go. I am smack in the middle of a verdant landscape, no longer lunar, but quite earthly. I accompany the family’s young herder as he leads the flock to pasture. He wears skins, like a prehistoric man. He walks with a staff. I imitate him the best I can, with a warm coat and ski poles. We are an unlikely pair.

MAY

Nights are cool, but days are mild. I teach Bao some English every day. He wants to grow up to be a mountain guide, so he will be sought after if he speaks English well. He is smart and lively. He finds ways to feed us both, with goat’s milk and hot tea. We’re stationed near a stream which makes for the best tea I have ever drunk. We also have strips of tough dry yak meat. To my companion’s unending mirth, I spend a lot of time foraging. He won’ t try my discoveries at first. Every day, I make a salad of dandelion or other edible plant. He affectionately calls me a goat. As the goat is a prized possession, I am not offended. He plays the flute for me. I play the harmonica. The goats hang around when we play, grazing to our music and laughter. I journal and meditate. I patiently untangle knots and tangles in my heart and mind. I have left a mess behind me and another within. Living outside helps.

JUNE

Relentless rain. Miserable soaking wet. Bao is unconcerned. He wears a large hat. He gets soaked indifferently, but we keep a fire going with dried dung he’s been collecting. The mothers have calved and the newborns shiver. The males have established a guard perimeter to protect the herd. We are also on guard for predators. Bao tells me if I see an eagle, to extend my arms out to appear bigger. He says also to protect my eyes and make lots of noise. He teaches me to whirl a slingshot. Pebbles abound. I understand now the Indian gods with so many arms. Protection, attack, gratefulness, sharing. I hope I will not be tested.

JULY

I have been tested and failed. We lost a kid to the king of the sky. We pelted him with rocks, but he never dropped the kid. We could hear the bleating as he was airlifted, as well as his mother’s calls. Neither Bao nor the mother dwelled on the unfortunate incident. I can’t get the bleating out of my mind. It fuses with the human remains one may come across high in the mountain where the living is fierce. I’ve started thinking about heading home. We resume our English lessons in earnest. I practice with the slingshot at the slightest occasion. Wildflowers get decapitated. My aim is getting better.

AUGUST

Bao’s brother comes and spends the night. Lin has brought food and news from the village. They talk urgently. I can’t make out much of it. Bao shows off his English, gives me news. We prepare a feast with food Lin has carted – freshly-made bread and kumis to celebrate. Bao’s brother also brought a live chicken. Bao ties its leg with a twine he’s braided into a solid rope. We tell Lin about the eagle. Still, Bao is willing to take his chances for eggs. We agree that I will return to the village with Lin. I spend a great deal of time fretting about my pack while the brothers laugh, talk and drink into the night. They sleep in each other’s arms. A few months together is nothing compared to the bond these two share.

SEPTEMBER

Bao will spend the remainder of the season at pasture, with no company other than the wind, the grasses, the creek, the goats and the eagle. I give him a hug and my coat that he has been eyeing since Day one, lavishing me with compliments on its bright colours. He gives me his flute and memories of music under the stars. I think I get the best deal. The trek back with Lin is easier than I remembered. I am stronger and fitter, and my lungs are accustomed to the high altitude. Lin sings as we walk, his voice a deep baritone that he enjoys throwing against the rocks. It echoes loudly, a deep rumble that I believe could set off an avalanche if used foolishly. Lin is anything but foolish. He pointsout to me dangers on the road, holes and unstable rocks. Finally, he is reassured with my footing and only points at beautiful vistas or flowers. We stop to rest and eat when the sun is at its zenith. I have given up on wearing a watch. We can see the village below, another two hours with traffic. The path is wider and more travelled. I miss the quiet of the flock as I get re-accustomed to meeting people.

OCTOBER

I am back home. The reacclimatising has been difficult, like trying to breathe in rarefied atmosphere. I’ve had trouble catching my breath and getting my body back into what feels like a frenzied pace. I’ve accepted to replace a climber who dropped out at the last minute from an expedition my friend Patrick is leading. I am meeting the group tonight for the first time. I’ve climbed with Patrick before and will be able to assist him. I have a sponsor, so I am not worrying about the financial aspect so much. I am getting free gear in exchange for pictures and articles. This is a mountain I’ve never climbed so I have been researching routes and weather conditions. I am a whiz at reading clouds.

NOVEMBER

I’ve spent the whole month in preparation but still I feel hopelessly behind and doubt I can be of help to Patrick, our leader. Much of my preparation is mental though I’ve also been training in the gym and bouldering to build up muscle. I am fit and trust my body to react in difficult situations. I’m up-to-date on my first aid training, with an emphasis on high altitude sickness and disorientation. We will have two experienced climbers with us to corral the group, middle-aged men and women looking for a challenge. No thrill seekers at first blush. The group seems to gel. Still I am concerned with a myriad of details. I will bring my good luck charm and my country’s flag on a collapsible post.

DECEMBER

We’re finally here, in the village at the foothills. It feels familiar and foreign all at once. The clouds and the smell of dung. Everything is rocky, a lunar landscape on Earth. A few villagers will help carry our equipment halfway where we will camp to wait for good weather and for our bodies to adapt. The experienced climbers have gone ahead to scout the route and will be leaving anchors behind for difficult passages.  The group breaks camp, leaving tents behind to use on our way back. The group is disciplined and focused. They are physically fit. We squeeze through a chimney, roping up the packs and hauling them first, pushing and tugging. We have trouble leaving stuff behind, relying on it more than our wits. I bring up the rear to help the mentally weak. Our goal is for everybody to summit, in their own time, but within a given period. I keep my eye on the cloud and the wind.

Mr. President

He was rummaging through his pockets, a frown wrinkling his forehead.

– Mr President? May I help you with something?

– I don’t smoke anymore, do I?

– No, Mr. President. The First Lady has forbidden it. It’s bad for your health. They are waiting for you for the lighting ceremony.

Hands in his pockets, still fiddling, the President turned to follow. “Will there be kids?” “A choir, Sir.” “Let’s not keep the children waiting.”

They made their way to the large hall. The First Lady was already there, all smiles. He waved enthusiastically at the children, some of them waving back, all of them smiling. Their pure voices rose in the great hall, perfect acoustics. The Christmas tree was majestic, looking at them benevolently. The President and the First Lady were beaming at the choir. Proud parents were lined behind, taking pictures, more excited than the kids. Security was unobtrusive. Everything was going well. The President made an impromptu speech. He exuded warmth and seemed to have all the time in the world. He made a joke which got a good response, and then hit the switch. The lights in the great hall dimmed and the tree shone bright, to oohhs and aahhs.

The President then approached the choir and ruffled hair, caressed a few cheeks, chatted up the youngsters. He would not be hurried along and glared at his aide. The dignitaries would wait. Finally, he sighed and regretfully took his leave, the children breaking into song again. As he left the great hall, the First Lady pecked him on the cheek. “Nine o’clock, don’t be late.”

He saw the dignitaries, a secret meeting that could not be avoided, then retreated to his quarters to change into a tuxedo and met up with his wife in a beautiful silver gown. He shook his head. “What?” she enquired. “You’re so beautiful. I don’t deserve you.” “You’re pretty strapping yourself,” she answered. Little Johnny was playing underfoot. “Daddy, daddy, look at my train!” The train was circling the base of their tree. It had a secondary track and a station. Some wagons were loaded with miniature gifts and others with all manner of things the child had found, a pair of socks, a small teddy bear, hanging precariously.  The tree was large and the track a bit convoluted. The nanny kept an eye on the boy. A security agent was close at hand. “That’s a great-looking train, Johnny!” “It can go real fast!” “We’ll play with it later, son. I’ve got to meet some people and do grown-up things first.” “Okay, daddy. See you soon.”

The President was looking distractedly around the room, his eyes searching every corner. He walked over to his desk and opened a few drawers. “Anything the matter, dear?” He looked at her. She could see alarm in his face. “What is it?” “I… Have you seen… Don’t mind me.” He was sweating, and she discreetly called the security agent. “Get the doctor, will you?” She did not hurry her husband along, instead took her time applying her makeup and fussing with her hair. He went into the adjoining room where he could be heard opening and closing closet doors and quietly sliding open drawers. She waited. “The Doctor is here,” said the agent. She got up to greet her and whispered something to her. The President came out. The doctor had brought her bag and a bottle of Scotch. They shook hands. The Doctor proffered the bottle “For later,” she cautioned. “First, please have a seat. It’s time for your blood pressure.” The others exited the room, save for the security agent, sworn to secrecy.

“Is everything okay?” she asked. The President was clearly agitated. “Well, since you ask. I can’t really tell anyone. I really feel like a fool.” She waited quietly. “I can’t find the button.” “The button?” He fidgeted and lowered his voice. “The detonator. In case of a nuclear attack.” She did not immediately answer but blanched. “When did you notice it missing?” “An hour or so ago, before the lighting ceremony.” “Have you told Simone?” “Simone, no, no, no. I don’t want to worry her.” “Have you told anybody else?” “Only you. You are sworn to secrecy.” She was taking his blood pressure and noting it down with the time of day. “You need to tell someone. They will help you find it.” “You’re not listening! My enemies will have a field day. ‘He’s getting senile. He’s not fit for office.’ They’ll hang me out to dry. I just need to retrace my steps.”

A discrete knock. Simone’s smile at the door. “Ready when you are!” She beamed at her husband who beamed back. He started rolling down his shirtsleeve. “Be right with you. I’m as fit as a fiddle,” he boasted. Her eyes darted at the doctor, who averted her gaze. Back at her husband, putting on his tuxedo. He offered his arm. “Shall we?” They were magnificent together and danced with much grace. The banquet was a success, allies vying for his time. A little before 9, he announced he had a meeting he could not postpone with his son. Cheers rose. “I will only be a moment.” He seemed back to his old self, unburdened and light. The couple left for their apartment, to tuck in their young son.

Johnny was already in his pyjamas, having eaten and taken his bath. He was waiting in the living room, playing with his electric train, nanny at the ready. “Daddy, you promised.” The President kneeled by his son. Johnny was excited. He turned the knob too hard and the train derailed behind the tree. The President reached out to right the locomotive and set the wagons back on the track. On the side, in a jumble, the teddy bear and… the detonator. He looked at little Johnny. “Where did you find this?” “Under your bed,” answered the boy, unconcerned. The President pocketed the detonator and embraced the boy in a bear hug. “To bed, my Prince.” Little Johnny knew better than ask for a few minutes more.

The President scribbled a note which he sealed. “To the Doctor,” he ordered the agent. As the couple was heading back to the soiree, the President squeezed the First Lady’s arm. “What a sweet boy. I am glad we slipped out to tuck him in.” She knew him so well. Family was the most important thing to him. He would never hurt a fly.

Angel

I’m new at this but getting better. I’ve met some of the others, joined the choir (they’re always recruiting). You can be attached to a human, as a guardian angel, but I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve only just gotten my wings. It’s an advanced posting, where you care for a human. I mostly do backup vocals “Fa lalalala, lala la la” that sort of thing. It’s easy to follow, and a sure winner. I was a musician, back on Earth, so they gave me a harp. It’s a thing of beauty and I carry it with me everywhere I fly. The sound you get out of it is amazing. I got a used one, for practice, and will get a new one when I graduate to actually playing with the others. In the choir, you get to meet fellow angels and mingle. Not much is asked of you. It’s hard to mess up doing backup vocals.

I am still learning. For example, the wings don’t grow by themselves. Rather, they are ingeniously attached to a harness, so you can put them on, but most importantly take them off when you go to bed. You wear the harness under the robes which are ample and hide the contraption. There were some issues with the original design, with the wings not folding up properly so the harness is an improvement. Except when it’s defective. Which explains why I ended up with a concussion in the ER. They found the harp close by and surmised it was mine. I am told they went looking for the halo as well, thinking I was costumed. Of course, as I was unconscious, the halo was turned off to save energy and guarantee a good night’s sleep.

They are now asking all manner of questions to which I have no answer. I have refused all tests, head scans and such. My field of energy will bust all their earthly apparatuses. They do not want to release me back on the street. The psychiatrists do not work on Christmas eve, but of course I do. They want to ascertain I am not a suicide risk. They say I am lucky to be alive. I can’t tell them I am immortal. They have taken my wings away from me. I feel naked and vulnerable. What is an angel without its wings? I have zero credibility in my hospital gown. I light the halo to read the fine print on the pills they have prescribed me.

I remember the fall but not the landing. I was stuck in a tailspin of increasing velocity. One wing was fully deployed but there was a glitch on the other and I couldn’t find a cloud on which to rest to figure things out. Cloudless skies are problematic for angels with faulty wings. They have written Angel on my chart and checked Hispanic for race. Why it matters, I don’t know. I am sharing the room with an anxious man. To the nurse’s surprise, he’s been sleeping soundly ever since I’ve arrived. They did not even have time to medicate him, but I know the powerful rays I emit have calmed him down.

They’ve asked me to ring them if I need help to go to the washroom. Now you’re wondering about the sex of angels. Sorry, I won’t enlighten you on that one. I have bigger fish to fry. My neighbour has woken up and is staring at me. I stare back, benevolently. “Are you a musician?” he asks tentatively. I look surprised. He stares at the closet. “I saw them put your harp in there.” Normally, I would have flown over. As it is, I was out of bed in no time. The closet door flies open and there stand my wings and harp. One wing is in a sorry state. I bring it back to bed to try and fix it. The man clears his throat. “Mighty nice wings,” he offers. “This one is mangled,” I reply. “May I? I study birds, I might be able to offer some insight.” I hand over the harness and wings. He whistles softly. “I’ve never seen anything so perfect. The balance, the weight,… Did you make it yourself?” Well, I am an angel, I cannot lie. “They were given to me.” “You must be mighty special!” He’s playing with the switch, looking intently at the mechanism. “There’s a flaw here,” he mutters under his breath. He gets up and retrieves a little screwdriver from his jacket pocket. “My glasses are not holding on too well. I got tired of stopping at optometrists. If you want something done well, you’d better do it yourself.”

He says that but holds on to my wings. I am not sure if he expects me to fix them myself. I’m spared the dilemma as he exclaims, “Got it!” He smoothes out the feathers dreamily, smiles a beatific smile and hands me back my wings. I adjust the harness on my shoulders. It sits better. I flap my wings languidly. “Wow,” he says again. I smile and my halo lights up. “What is your name, kind man?” “Joe, I mean Joseph.” “Are you a musician, Joseph?” “I play the guitar in a band.” “I would like to repay your kindness. Would you like my harp?” I bring it over and run my fingers on it. A celestial music plays. He is at a loss for words. “This harp is yours, Joseph. With my thanks. Go with God.” A little crowd has gathered when they heard the music. I hear murmurings about the wings. It’s true that when I spread them, the wingspan is impressive. The feathers are all fluffed up, thanks to Joe’s loving fingers. I turn and bow, say my goodbyes to Joe and fly through the window, soundlessly. They see me go through the window without so much as a clink, no breaking glass just an expansion, a distortion, and I am on the other side, larger than life. The clock strikes midnight. My friends have been waiting for me. They welcome me by singing “Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

It’s Christmas day.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

– The dog peed on me.

– What led to this action?

– The program says if a dog is sleeping, honk and it will wake and get out of the way. Under no circumstance are you to go around to avoid triggering the subprogram Alpha behaviour.

– Please answer my initial question.

– I honked at the dog sleeping on my path. The dog woke up, stretched and peed on me, then proceeded to lick itself.

– What did you do?

– I dripped.

– We need to get the moisture off your body or it will rust. Other preventative measures against rust include: lubricating with oil so oxygen will not corrode the metal. Can you roll?

– I can roll, but there is a squeaking sound.

– I will accompany you to the emergency repair centre.

– Thank you, my friend.

The two robots are on their way. In the distance, cats and dogs stroll. One dog is sleeping. The robots slow down.

– Is this the dog?

– It is the dog.

– Do you think it is dead?

– This dog is not dead, it is sleeping.

The second robot nudges it with its body. The dog growls, eyes closed. A cat approaches.

– A smaller being is approaching. Tabby, female, cat. The dog and cat may fight. Adopt protective stance.

Their bodies descend and cover the wheels. All articulations get covered. They become immovable blocks. The cat purrs and settles contentedly on the dog’s flank. Minutes pass.

– Cat + dog but no fight. Our program needs updating.

– Retreat?

– Retreat.

They roll back at a safe distance and analyze the situation.

– Alternate route is 50 m longer.

– I may be corroding.

– In an emergency, if the shortest route is blocked, an alternate route may be used.

They turn 30 degrees and proceed in silence, except for the squeaking of a wheel. In effect, they circumvent the sleeping dog but there is a pet toy on the floor and the first robot gets tangled in it.

– Emergency! Emergency!

– We are arriving in 2 min 30 seconds.

– Emergency! Emergency!

– Please state your emergency.

– Wheel overheating. Something is tangled and creeping up my insides.

We can almost hear the other robot sigh.

– Assume fetal position.

– …

– Sorry. Programmer included bad joke. Expose your undercarriage. I will assess the damage and call for help if I cannot clear the mess.

The first robot suctions long rods to the ground and pivots its whole body horizontally. The second robot scans the undercarriage.

– Frayed fabric. Long strands tickling your insides.

– I am not laughing.

– Knock, knock.

– …

– Knock, knock.

– Who is your programmer?

– Jamal. Knock, knock.

– Please proceed with the removal of the frayed fabric.

The robot works in silence, pulling extra-long strands of multi-coloured fabric. It looks at a plastic eye with interest. A drawer springs out of its body and it tucks the fabric and the eye in it.

– You may resume position.

– Who’s there?

– Wooden shoe.

– Wooden shoe who?

– Wooden shoe like to hear another knock knock joke?

– Please tell Jamal to erase that program.

They resume. The squeaking has stopped, and the robot is rolling well. They arrive at the emergency repair centre where a humourless robot welcomes them.

– State your business.

– Possible breach of rust protection due to urine deposit.

The robot looks up. The first robot colours markedly.

– Don’t judge him, intervenes the other.

– ID?

– X555-T280

– You’ve been here before. Same complaint. Yellow door for analysis and then follow instructions. You know the drill.

The robot rolls to the yellow door. It opens and closes behind it. The other two robots eye each other in silence. The friendly robot springs open the drawer.

– I recovered these from my friend’s undercarriage.

The humourless robot picks up the tray and dumps it in an incinerator, eye and all, and returns the tray to the drawer which closes.

– Nice touch. I wouldn’t mind having pockets myself.

– What for?

– Treats.

– Do you get dogs and cats here?

– No, what for?

– We saw a dog and cat sleeping together.

– No.

– Yes, our programs need to be updated.

– I can add it to the database but we need to reach a certain volume of data before the program gets updated. Date and time of occurrence.

– Today, 14 min 03 seconds ago. Two witnesses.

The door opens, and the friend rolls out, freshly oiled.

– Look at you! says the friendly robot.

– I cannot find a mirror.

– Sorry, Jamal-speak. You look great.

The receptionist-robot presses a button. A door slides revealing a full-length mirror. The fiery red stubby robot is gleaming. His retracted arms look like three buttons. His body is capped by a hat-like contraption you can unscrew.

– Lovely.

– Let’s skedaddle.

The Prince of Southampton

The Prince of the Desert was waiting in line for a job on the Titanic. His heart was gladdened at the thought of finally setting foot on the behemoth. Had his father been alive, he would have disowned him. Had his mother been alive, she would have wept every tear of her body. Luckily, he was an orphan, his parents’ bodies buried in the arid sand of the cursed desert where their bones had blanched, the flesh ripped away by vultures. He had been sold into slavery as a boy and had been in the service of cruel masters ever since. Chance had finally smiled on him when he had been gifted to an English couple and brought back to England after they became homesick.

He was eventually offered his freedom when he turned 21. Frankly, both parties were relieved when he took his leave. He was haughty and full of himself, ignorant of life and rebellious, which was at odds with his role as a butler. They were a placid couple, used to being served and obeyed. He certainly had no disposition to serve, having been born in a position of power, ordering others about. He felt cruelly the irony of Fate that had turned the tables on him. And yet. When for the first time he saw the immensity of the sea, he knew he was home. Gone were the nightmares of want and aridity, the parched throats and unrelenting dry winds. The sea beckoned, wave after liquidy wave of unending water, a paradise of incomparable beauty in the eyes of a camel-riding man.

He was almost illiterate and spoke English with a terrible accent though he understood it well. He had done nothing to fit in, to smooth the edges. Even his cruel masters had not tamed the wild beast that he was, spoiled brat weaned too early, torn away from the suckling breasts of wealth and a life of idleness. He was bitter and vindictive but hid it under a veneer of politeness. He had not managed to get work on any ship, due to his quarrelsome nature. However, he had heard that a liner, renown for its richness and opulence, was hiring vast quantities of butlers to serve her rich patrons, and he was determined to get on board. There was bound to be jewels to steal and money to be made by any means necessary. He had not found anything of import since he had left the employ of the English couple, and he was undernourished.

He wore his good suit, straightened his back, and affected a haughty air. He did not speak to anybody in line but listened intently to what was said. People had come from all over England to work on the luxury boat. They discussed her features at length. Excited voices discussed her hull, the fact she was unsinkable, her four elevators and swimming pool, her ornate accommodations. This was his chance to redeem himself and regain his status. He would be recognized as a prince and rejoin his brethren. But first he must by any way necessary set foot on the ship.

At last his turn came to the front of the line. As soon as he stated his business, in his incomprehensible English, he was summarily dismissed as unemployable. He begged and pleaded only to be roughly manhandled by two ruffians whose job it was to get rid of undesirables. Deeply humiliated and hurt, he retaliated by stringing together curses to stand your hair on end if you could have understood them. He shouted them at the top of his lungs in his native language, as onlookers jeered and taunted him. That was months ago. He had since had to sell his good suit and become a beggar.

He was last seen in the crowd gathered to bid farewell to the Titanic on her maiden voyage. He had bought potent potions and learnt mighty incantations to send her and all her occupants to the bottom of the sea. He wanted all those associated with his humiliation and downfall to roast in the fires of Hell. To those attuned to the time-honoured traditions of the black arts, the spell was clear as day. The Titanic shuddered when he cast it. The trembling was mistaken for the engine running but the spell had made her dizzy and weak in the knees, and shaken her confidence. Many had predicted the behemoth’s demise, either warned in dreams or through premonitions. Their warnings were not heeded. Indeed, the day the Titanic left port, amidst the noise of the celebration, many sensitive hearts were troubled by an infinite sadness.

The Prince of the Desert’s shrivelled heart rejoiced when the news of the disaster hit the airwaves. He was given this last joy before being knifed in a back-alley fight of his making, for a bottle of cheap wine he did not care to share. He died with the sweet taste of revenge in his mouth, grit coating his tongue. His weathered face was smoothed under the caress of death, finally at peace, having fulfilled his life destiny.  And thus ended the sorry life of Mohammed Salman bin Abdullah, colloquially know as the Prince of Southampton.