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This Is, Of Course, Impossible: Chapter 3

(This is a fan-fiction set in the universe of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. All elements from Hitch Hiker’s are copyright to the estate of Douglas Adams. If you enjoy it, consider donating to Comic Relief, a charity keenly supported by Adams in his lifetime. New readers can find Chapter 1 here.)


The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was a wholly remarkable book. We say ‘was’ because it hasn’t been a book for quite some time now. The last edition that in any way resembled a book was published by Focus & Baffle Textuals, who picked up the rights from Infinidim Enterprises, who had earlier bought out Megadodo Publications, who remain synonymous with the Guide even though the Megadodo brand has changed hands several times and these days is actually a cattle feed company.

Focus & Baffle acquired the Guide from Infinidim when one of its rights agents dropped by their offices on a whim and discovered the company was not only winding down, it was trying to go back in time and erase its own existence from history as a means of covering up its involvement in several serious fraud cases. When the agent from Focus & Baffle enquired about the availability of Infinidim’s legacy brands, she was sold them all as a package for the knock-down price of one hundred and seventy Altarian dollars plus the hoverbike she rode in on. When she looked through the list of properties she was astonished to discover she had bought the rights to the best-selling book of all time: a book which dispensed indispensable advice and information for anyone travelling through space on a tight budget.

Focus & Baffle published the Guide in a variety of collectible formats (and also some disposable ones), the most popular of which was a retro edition that precisely recreated the pleasingly clunky interface, charmingly simple graphics and endearingly legally-actionable factual errors of the original. It was long out of date, of course, but this was part of its appeal, enabling the reader to immerse themselves in a simpler era, when the universe made sense, or at least was nonsensical in a less worrying way. Focus & Baffle also published an edition on paper, which was available on subscription in 3,409 volumes: when it was eventually remaindered an entire village was built using the unwanted books as bricks. But the company’s target markets were never going to use it as an actual guide for hitch-hiking, what with being far too old to even consider travelling without bookings and a clear itinerary, and so Focus & Baffle employed no field researchers, no writers and no editors.

This changed when Focus & Baffle became a sentient being for tax reasons and promptly had a midlife crisis, abandoning most of its publishing line to focus on books about extreme sports. The rights to the Guide were sold on to a company called Dataclot, who have updated the book for the modern market. It works like this: instead of publishing the Guide in a readable form, it’s now issued as software capable of running on an organic processor – in other words, your brain. Once you install the Guide, it manifests as a calm, authoritative voice in your head. You only have to ask it a question and it will start reading the entry until you tell it to stop. It’s quicker, you don’t have to carry anything, and if you’re bored during a dull dinner party or a staff bonding exercise, you can pretend to be listening to the people around you while actually listening to the Guide in your head. It is perfectly possible to uninstall the Guide from your brain, but Dataclot deliberately make it slightly tricky to do so, and so most people opt to pay the small annual update charge. If you don’t, the voice will repeatedly remind you to update until you do.

For this all-new Guide aimed at a hip, modern, sexy, desperately disorientated audience, Dataclot need a continuous stream of new content – more content than they are willing to pay for. So, wherever possible, they try not to pay for it.

‘So,’ says Daniel as he sits opposite Charlotte in a 19th-century Japanese lacquer cabinet that has been loaded into the cargo bay of a Sasofriskun salvage ship, ‘you don’t get any money for doing this?’

‘Well,’ Charlotte replies, taking another chocolate digestive from the pack she stole from Tesco barely an hour ago, ‘not up front, no. But there is a royalty scheme.’

‘Oh, good.’

‘Yes, for every billion plays of one of my articles, I get eight point seven Altarian dollars.’

‘And how much have you earned so far?’

‘Almost three hundred.’

‘In four years.’

‘Yes.’

‘But three hundred Altarian dollars is worth much more than, say, three hundred pounds, yeah?’

‘No, by a remarkable coincidence it’s almost exactly the same. I admit, I probably shouldn’t have chosen Earth, I mean nobody comes here much, but some people said it was the galaxy’s best-kept secret, you know, an unspoiled and authentic cultural experience et cetera, not like all those other planets which have exactly the same shops and restaurants you get back home, and I thought Earth was bound to be the next big thing.’ She sighs and bites into another biscuit. ‘Not going to be now, is it?’

‘But why? Why do this for no money?’

‘Why did you do your job for no money?’

‘Well. Because they promised they’d pay me later.’

‘Exactly,’ says Charlotte, gesturing at him with her biscuit, ‘and Dataclot do sometimes offer staff jobs to the most popular writers and in the meantime it’s all good exposure…’ She shrugs. ‘Anyway, I just always wanted to write for the Guide.’

In fact, when she interviewed to become a Guide contributor, Charlotte told the editor all about how she’d grown up reading her mother’s old copy, had read it before going to bed every night, how she could still recite dozens of entries from memory, how she’d cried when it finally broke, how she collected bootleg copies of rejected entries and unedited drafts, how she’d bought the Focus & Baffle retro edition the day it came out, and even owned the first few hundred volumes of the paper edition, which were still stored at her mother’s house, even though they got in the way and her mother was keen to turn them into a small garage. Telling the editor all this was a terrible mistake on Charlotte’s part. If she had simply presented herself as a professional writer with no particular interest in the Guide she might have had a chance of getting one of the paid staff jobs, but unfortunately she had made it clear she had a deep and abiding love for the publication.

For the past four years Charlotte (her real name is Zic, but she’s never liked it) has been living on Earth, faithfully submitting her material – more than the Guide needed, really – and doing other work on the side to support her main job which she barely gets paid for. ‘Medical trials, that sort of thing. Pharma companies think if their drugs can ward off human diseases they can ward off anything, so I get quite a bit of work there.’

‘But what’s this got to do with Earth being repossessed?’

‘Nothing,’ says Charlotte, ‘I’m explaining how we escaped. My editor at the Guide tipped me off about the repossession, but I don’t have a ship of my own and there were none passing for at least another week – well except VV, and there was no chance of getting a lift from them. I knew there’d be scavengers, but they’d have asked for money to take us away. So I wrote a glowing entry for the Guide about this cabinet, they read it, and here we are.’ She beamed. ‘I thought that was rather clever.’

‘Yes,’ says Daniel, ‘but what next?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it all worked out. If they open the cabinet, let me do the talking. Have another biscuit.’

Daniel takes the biscuit. ‘You don’t look like you’re from another planet.’

‘Nor do you.’

‘I suppose not.’ Despite what he’s seen so far, Daniel is not convinced about any of this yet, because he’s inside an antique cabinet eating biscuits with his girlfriend and while that is not exactly normal, it’s not unusual enough to warrant a comprehensive shift in his understanding of the universe. Yes, he overheard the scavengers chatting to each other in an unfathomable language. He felt the cabinet being lifted by some device that strangely made him feel lighter: he and Charlotte had to brace themselves against the walls to keep from floating upwards. And he had heard the clunking mechanism of the cargo bay doors as they opened and the cabinet was dumped inside. But he hasn’t seen the aliens yet, or the spaceship, and having all this earnestly explained to him by Charlotte feels a little bit, well, Scientology.

‘Do you want me to add you to my Guide plan?’ she says.

‘Plan?’

‘Yeah, as a contributor I get a free subscription and I can add up to eleven people,’ she says, checking something on her phone which Daniel suspects might be something more than just a phone. ‘My family are using six of them, and I’ve still got an ex on here who I really should delete off…’

‘I dunno…’

‘I don’t think it’s been tested on a human brain before, but the software’s supposed to be self-adapting, as long as you’re above the intelligence threshold. Which you are, don’t worry.’

‘Thanks but –’

Charlotte gives him a pitying look. ‘Daniel, you’ve never been off Earth before. What if I die and you’re left wandering alone in space without the first idea of what to do?’

Daniel has no answer to this, and he says ‘Well, I suppose…’

Charlotte smiles and activates something on her phone. ‘Earth’s in a bit of a sub-etha blackspot, but the download ought to start once we get outside the atmosphere.’

Daniel starts making a concerted effort to get his head around the fact he’s actually going into space; that he’s leaving Earth because humans are no longer allowed to live there; that he may never be able to go back. His family, his friends, his colleagues – all of them are probably in this limbo Charlotte talked about, and he may never see them again. There’s no-one out there now, every street is empty, every office deserted. Have all the planes crashed into the sea, empty of passengers? What if someone had a dog in the hold? The dogs haven’t been evicted, have they? Surely it was just the humans? So what about all the other pets? All those cats who’d been shut in? What was going to happen to all those hamsters in cages?

Just as Daniel starts to really, really worry about the hamsters, the spaceship takes off.


The Sasofriskun salvage ship is quite a cheap one and certainly doesn’t have the sort of gravometric stabilisers you get on the high end models, which stop you falling over when the ship takes off. The cabinet has been firmly strapped to the wall so it doesn’t get thrown around the cargo hold, but Daniel and Charlotte haven’t been strapped to anything at all, so they’re flung around inside the cabinet, colliding with the walls and each other, and when the ship finally settles down they’re both quite bruised and a lot of biscuits have been broken.

Charlotte asks Daniel if he’s OK.

‘No,’ says Daniel, who wants to ask about the hamsters but feels there are much bigger questions right now, he just can’t get his mind to focus on them.

‘Sorry,’ says Charlotte. ‘But this is great news – the Sasofriskuns haven’t found us yet, so whatever happens next, they’re not going to just throw us off and leave us behind on Earth.’

‘But… they could just throw us off and leave us floating in the vacuum of space.’

Charlotte laughs. ‘They wouldn’t do that, don’t worry.’

‘Oh good.’

‘No, they’d much rather sell us into slavery.’

Daniel sighs.

Charlotte turns, runs a hand through Daniel’s hair and smiles. ‘I’m glad you didn’t get left behind. The circumstances aren’t ideal, I know, but it’s always bugged me, not being able to tell you about these things.’

Daniel realises he hasn’t even thanked Charlotte for saving him. He does so now, and she tells him he’s welcome and is about to kiss him when the doors of the cabinet are opened and three deeply unimpressed Sasofriskuns glare at them.

The Sasofriskuns are short, pale, vaguely spherical beings: Daniel realises the mental picture he’s built up of them from hearing their muffled voices is completely wrong. It hits home that he’s completely unequipped for this – not just this specific situation but also for being cast away from his home planet, into a vast universe where none of his knowledge or experience is relevant, and he has absolutely no chance of coping with anything that comes his way.

And then a voice in his head says: Don’t Panic!


A reminder that my new novel, HEARTS OF OAK, is published on 17th March. You can order it here.

Categories
fiction

This Is, Of Course, Impossible: Chapter 2

(This is a fan-fiction set in the universe of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. All elements from Hitch Hiker’s are copyright to the estate of Douglas Adams. If you enjoy it, consider donating to Comic Relief, a charity keenly supported by Adams in his lifetime. New readers can find Chapter 1 here.)


As Daniel falls into the impossibly dark hole which has impossibly opened beneath his feet, he has no idea at all that his girlfriend is the only person on Earth who was expecting this to happen. This is because he has no idea at all that she is not from Wolverhampton as she has always claimed. Nor is she studying for a PhD in Mathematics. Most people don’t have the first clue what people who are studying for a PhD in Mathematics actually do all day, which makes it a convenient catch-all cover story for whatever Charlotte happens to be doing. Her name isn’t even Charlotte Sometimes: that’s just a clever alias she chose to blend in.

And Daniel abruptly stops falling through the impossibly dark hole because his girlfriend is the only person on Earth who was expecting this to happen, and she’s holding his hand.

Ordinarily it would take considerable strength to pull Daniel back out of the hole, strength Charlotte does not possess. But Charlotte has prepared for the appearance of the holes by adapting the speaker on her phone so it generates a pulse that causes a reflux in the hole. She already has the phone in her hand, primed and ready to use against her own hole when it appears, and she activates it against Daniel’s.

The pulse causes the hole to vomit Daniel back out. As Charlotte is holding his hand, she is dragged along with him, which usefully throws her clear of the hole which is just opening beneath her own feet. Daniel and Charlotte fly sideways, directly into the road, where cars are careering around, out of control, their drivers vanished down the holes that appeared suddenly in the car seat a few moments ago and sucked them in. Daniel and Charlotte scramble to their feet and dash for the safety of the pavement, where they sit for a moment, catching their breath and watching the cars collide with lamp posts, buildings, each other, et cetera.

This bewildering display is over in a few moments, at which point silence falls.

The silence, to Daniel, is terrifying. London is not supposed to be like this.

‘We made it,’ Charlotte says, and Daniel realises she’s embracing him. ‘It’s over. For now, anyway.’

‘You saved me,’ he remarks.

‘You’re welcome.’

‘What did you save me from?’

‘A hole,’ says Charlotte, getting to her feet.

‘I know it was a hole –’

Charlotte is looking up and down the road, straining to hear something. ‘I don’t know where the hole led. I have my suspicions, but –’

‘Are they dead?’

‘Are who dead?’

‘The people who just fell down all those holes.’

‘I hope not. Sorry, but can I answer questions on the way?’

‘On the way where?’

‘To the Victoria and Albert Museum.’


Minutes later Charlotte is driving them to Kensington in a bus they found outside Baker Street station with its engine running and its doors open. She’s plainly enjoying driving the bus, though it occurs to Daniel that she probably isn’t qualified to drive it, and in fact may not be qualified to drive anything, since he’s never known her to drive anything before.

To take his mind off Charlotte’s driving, Daniel returns to his questions, though it strikes him this may take her mind off her driving too, which may not be wise.

‘Is this to do with that message?’ he asks.

‘Of course it is. Be quite a coincidence if you got a notice of eviction on the same day you got evicted and they weren’t in any way connected.’

‘Evicted?’

‘Yep. Entire human race, booted off the Earth.’

‘Who by?’

‘One of the collection agencies, I don’t know which.’

‘Collection agencies?’

‘Yes, as the message said. You failed to keep up the payments on Earth so it’s been repossessed.’

‘I wasn’t making any payments – This doesn’t make any sense.’

Charlotte holds up a finger. ‘It does make some sense, actually. But not enough, that’s the thing.’

‘But what’s happened to everyone? Where are they?’

‘Don’t know, sorry. But I’m pretty sure they’ll either have been re-homed on a planet no-one needs, or put in limbo until a planet like that comes free.’

‘Comes free?’

‘Yes, you know – populations die out, or wipe themselves out, or whatever. So you might get lucky. Probably won’t be much in the way of natural resources, but –’

‘So wait – you’re saying the entire population of Earth has –’

‘Look, right now the important thing is you and I get out of here, and to do that we need to go to the V&A and hide inside a 19th-century Japanese lacquer cabinet.’


The eviction of humanity from their home planet has been outsourced, as these things usually are, to a company called Vaxillion Vacate Ltd, whose specialised ships are currently in orbit around the planet, methodically removing every living being who fits the parameters in their brief. When they’re done they’ll sweep the planet again to pick up any stragglers. Charlotte knows this, and is aware they have maybe an hour to get off Earth via some other means.

Charlotte also knows that, wherever Vaxllion Vacate Ltd go, scavengers will follow. In small ships that go under VV’s radar (it’s not really a radar, that’s just a figure of speech to save explaining to you how the complex detection systems employed by VV’s ships actually work, which would be cumbersome and not add anything of significance), they are zipping through the atmosphere right now. Like Charlotte and Daniel, they have a brief window in which to grab anything of value and get out before VV compile their inventory of what’s here.

In order to not get in each other’s way and risk getting caught, the various scavenger parties met up last night and agreed what each of them would steal. This morning a group of Sasofriskuns are feeling very pleased with themselves, because by using a combination of sly horse-trading, bluff and intimidation, they are on their way to pick up the item everyone wanted above all other things: a 19th-century Japanese lacquer cabinet, housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Sasofriskuns land on the lawn outside the Natural History Museum, cross Exhibition Road and walk into the V&A. They translate the museum guide and locate the lacquer cabinet, which is on a mezzanine level near the cafeteria. They don’t stop to admire it – they attach a gravity clamp to it, lift it as if it weighs almost nothing, and make their way to the exit. With their primary objective secured, they can move on to grabbing as much stuff as they dare before the second sweep begins.

The Sasofriskuns don’t really know why this cabinet is so sought after. It’s not really their aesthetic. All they know is that it’s acknowledged to be one of Earth’s greatest treasures, and they know this because it says so in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Go to Chapter 3

Categories
fiction

This Is, Of Course, Impossible: Chapter 1

(This is a fan-fiction set in the universe of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. All elements from Hitch Hiker’s are copyright to the estate of Douglas Adams. If you enjoy it, consider donating to Comic Relief, a charity keenly supported by Adams in his lifetime.)


The creatures who have, over the past few million years, become more or less the dominant species on the planet Earth have developed many constructs in their ongoing and largely futile attempt to make sense of things. One of these constructs is called ‘Thursday’, which is designated a working day for most humans. Until yesterday this category of ‘most humans’ included a human by the name of Daniel Ajayi. But Daniel Ajayi is not working on this particular Thursday. He is sitting on his own in a small café in Rickmansworth with a cup of hot tea, waiting for a bacon and egg sandwich to arrive.

The café and Rickmansworth are also constructs developed by humans in an effort to make sense of things. If humans collectively decided they no longer needed either of them, they could simply be done away with – demolished to make way for something else. The same is not true of Daniel’s hangover. He does not need it, but it is not a construct, and cannot simply be done away with. Unfortunately.

The hangover and Daniel’s presence in the café are linked in more ways than one. He is in the café because his hangover demands a bacon and egg sandwich. He has a hangover because he was out drinking last night, and he was out drinking last night because he no longer has a workplace to go to – which is why he is in a café and not a workplace. There are three other customers in the café. Daniel wonders why they’re not at work. They are wondering the same about him.

Daniel’s sandwich arrives: he moves his phone, which is on the table in front of him, to one side and he asks the waitress for ketchup.

Daniel’s phone buzzes, rattling the table-top: he has a text message. He picks up his phone – and as he does so notices the three other customers are all doing the same thing. The waitress, too, reaches into the pocket of her apron and brings out her phone.

The first line of the text on Daniel’s phone reads: NOTICE OF EVICTION.


Yesterday Daniel had a workplace, but not a job. This is a crucial distinction. For the past two months he has been interning at a digital startup based in Old Street. Their project is an app that draws on a personalised feed of your social media sites, favourite news sources and so on and uses speech software to generate a podcast tailored to your interests. The app’s originator, Gerard Gauke, has explained to Daniel that this is just the beginning. Ultimately he wants to create software that can create a whole range of podcasts by pulling text from the internet for free and turning it into speech. Why go to all the effort of creating a discussion show, booking a studio, hiring guests et cetera, when you can just grab someone’s argument from Facebook and put it through the speech program?

Gerard’s dream is that this will entirely supplant both conventional podcasting and speech radio. It will not be as good as either of those things, but to Gerard it is better because it will make him money.

The more that Daniel has learned about this project, the less he likes it. But unfortunately it’s very well suited to his particular skillset and he wants a job that makes use of this, and Gerard promised that when he secured enough investment he would give such a job to Daniel. He made the same promise to Claudia, who has the desk next to Daniel’s and has been interning slightly longer than him.

Yesterday Gerard announced that he’d been in discussions with Raymond Blackwell (here he paused, hoping they would all be impressed he’d got one of the richest men in the world to entertain the idea of giving him some money). He had secured the investment he was looking for and the great news was that this meant he could give a job to Daniel or Claudia.

Strange how a word as small as or can ruin an entire sentence.

Gerard enthusiastically invited both Daniel and Claudia to apply for the new position, which would involve an interview, a presentation and a test of how quickly they could work.

At this point Daniel took an early lunch. He didn’t usually go outside the office for lunch: he brought lunch from home, because he couldn’t afford to buy lunch at any of the places near the office. But today he took his lunch to a bench across the street, where he sat and felt too angry to eat it. Instead he took out his phone and called his girlfriend, whose name was Charlotte Sometimes.

There was an irritable note in Charlotte’s voice as she said ‘Hello?’ as if he’d interrupted her in the middle of something important, which he had.

‘Sorry, is this a bad time?’ Daniel said.

‘No,’ Charlotte lied. ‘What’s the matter?’

Daniel explained to Charlotte the situation with the job.

Charlotte listened to it all, then she said ‘What an incredible load of arse.’

‘What should I do?’ said Daniel.

Charlotte told him precisely what he should do.

‘Yeah, but I might still get the job,’ said Daniel. ‘And I sunk most of the money I inherited from Gran into doing this internship. This is sort of my only chance.’

‘Daniel, trust me,’ said Charlotte, and he could tell she wanted to get back to whatever it was she’d been doing. ‘Don’t worry about this job. I promise that you will not regret doing this.’

Daniel ended the call, picked up his lunch and walked back into the office. He spent the next hour making a PowerPoint presentation on the subject of how Gerard could take his internship, roll it in rat shit and shove it all the way into his ear, accompanied by diagrams. He hoped the result did justice to Charlotte’s concept.


All of this brings us back to Daniel being hungover in a cafe, staring at a text message. The last thing he needs at this point is to be thrown out of his flat. It’s not a particularly big or nice flat – it’s above the shops across the road from the café – but it is very convenient for the station and, as Daniel cannot afford to live in London itself, this is important to him.

The message, however, does not mention his flat at all.

NOTICE OF EVICTION

You have failed to keep up payments on your property (named in the contract as ‘Earth’) and, as per our agreement, you are hereby served notice to leave it forthwith. Failure to comply with this notice will result in your forcible removal.

At the bottom of the notice is a series of characters Daniel doesn’t recognise and didn’t even know his phone could display. He notices that the same message has been delivered via email, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and a toneless, androgynous voice has left it on his voicemail.

Daniel looks up. Everyone else in the cafe is looking at their phones with similar puzzlement. Is it a prank, they ask? It must be a prank. But how could anyone send this kind of message to everyone simultaneously, over every channel?

Daniel decides this question can wait until after he has eaten his sandwich, but then his phone rings. It’s Charlotte. He answers the call.

‘Did you get the message?’ she says before he can even say hello.

‘Yeah. Did you?’

‘Of course, everyone’s got it. Didn’t you realise?’ Charlotte often leaves Daniel feeling like he’s struggling to catch up. When she first asked him out, almost a year ago now, she did so after referring to him to a third party as my boyfriend, and seemed surprised he wanted to go through the formality of being asked. He’s got used to the feeling now.

‘What does it mean?’

‘It means what it says it means, I’m afraid. Where are you?’

‘In a café.’

Where is the café?’

‘Rickmansworth.’

‘OK. Go to the station and get on a train. I’ll meet you at Baker Street. Quickly as you can.’

‘Wait,’ says Daniel. ‘I did what you said yesterday –’

‘Yes, I got your text about it. I’m very proud of you. Sorry I couldn’t join you at the pub last night, I got caught up with work.’

‘It’s fine,’ says Daniel, not meaning it at all.

‘I bet you feel good though.’

‘No, I’ve got a vile hangover.’

‘I mean about telling Gerard where he could shove his job.’

‘Also no.’

‘You will. Don’t worry.’

‘I am worried.’

‘I told you not to.’

‘I can’t just switch off worrying. What am I going to do?’

‘I told you, you’re going to get on a train and meet me at Baker Street.’

‘I mean in a broader sense of –’

‘I know what you meant. You need to get on the train. Have you got a bag?’

‘Yes.’ By his feet is a retro Pan Am flight bag which he takes everywhere with him. In fact he’s used it so much it no longer looks retro and just looks old. ‘Why?’

‘And a towel?’

‘What? Why would I have a towel?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve got a spare – just get here. I have to go. Love you.’ And she hangs up.

The waitress is busy talking to her daughter on the phone about what the message means, but eventually Daniel manages to attract her attention for long enough to pay for his tea and sandwich and then he leaves for the station.


Daniel waits outside Baker Street station, trying to put his finger on what is different about London this morning. Perhaps the streets are slightly quieter than they usually would be on a Thursday mid-morning in March. Perhaps the attitude of the people who walk past him is different: a little hesitant, unable to relax, even as they go about their usual business. Perhaps there are more people staring at their phones. It’s hard to tell because there are always lots of people staring at their phones, but this morning it does seem to be more than usual.

In an effort to distract himself, Daniel stares at his phone. Nobody on social media is talking about anything other than the eviction message.

Daniel doesn’t realise that he has subconsciously picked up on a threat in his immediate environment that he can’t even comprehend. He is unsettled, but has no way of knowing why.

While waiting for Charlotte to arrive, Daniel passes the time by going into a small supermarket: guided by his hangover he picks up a bag of Frazzles, a box of Tunnock’s teacakes and a bottle of Irn-Bru and takes them to the till. People in the queue are discussing the message. They’re saying it must be ‘hackers’. Daniel can tell they know nothing about ‘hacking’ and are just casting around for an explanation. He doesn’t understand how it can be done. Not simultaneously, to everyone, on every network, on every platform.

‘What are you doing in here?’ says Charlotte, who is standing just behind him. Daniel nearly drops his shopping.

Charlotte Sometimes is no taller than Daniel but she has a way of looming, getting in your personal space, that makes her seem taller than she is. When she’s not looming she often stares at the ground and bites her lower lip. If he asks her what she’s thinking about, she usually launches into something to do with the PhD in Mathematics she’s currently working on. Daniel then plays his private game of ‘how long can I hold this in my head before I completely lose track of what she’s saying?’ His current record is one minute and fifty-two seconds. He’s determined to break the two-minute barrier before she submits her thesis.

Daniel is about to point out that he arrived at Baker Street ten minutes ago and she wasn’t here, but she grabs him by the upper arm and pulls him towards the exit. ‘This isn’t a good place to be,’ she says. ‘We should get outside.’

‘I haven’t paid yet,’ Daniel protests.

‘Doesn’t matter.’

‘I think it matters to Tesco.’

‘It won’t in a few minutes.’

Members of staff have registered Daniel leaving the queue. He has to turn back before he leaves the shop. He pulls his arm free of Charlotte’s grasp –

And she turns and fixes him with a look of utter conviction and more than a little irritation, and Daniel feels like he ought to put his upper arm back into her hand. She turns back and heads for the door and Daniel follows her.


As Daniel and Charlotte stride down the pavement, away from the shop, it occurs to Daniel that he didn’t have to steal the food, he could have just thrown it onto the nearest shelf on his way out, but the part of his brain that was dealing with his hangover told his hands to keep hold of it and the rest of his brain was preoccupied with following Charlotte.

Oh god, he’s shoplifting. He’s a shoplifter. His career is in ruins and he’s a shoplifter. And they will press charges, he’s not going to be able to talk his way out of it like –

‘Hey!’ says a voice from behind them, and Daniel turns to see a member of the supermarket staff pursuing them down the road. ‘Stop!’

‘I should give this stuff back,’ Daniel tells Charlotte.

‘What?’ says Charlotte. ‘No, hang onto it. Provisions could be useful. I took some myself.’ She holds up a double-pack of chocolate digestive biscuits which he didn’t notice her stealing.

‘We can’t do this. I’m giving it back –’

As he pulls away from Charlotte, she urgently tells him he has to stay close to her but he ignores this, makes eye contact with the pursuing shop assistant and prepares to explain away his behaviour as best he can –

And then a hole appears in the pavement underneath the shop assistant. A round, dark hole – pitch black, like the holes Wile E. Coyote falls into. But unlike Wile E. Coyote, who would be granted a moment’s reprieve to look down at the hole, process his fate and possibly hold up a sign expressing his feelings about it, the shop assistant is gone before Daniel has fully realised what’s happening. He just about has time to notice that the shop assistant is not an isolated victim, that all up and down Baker Street people are simply dropping through the ground, before a hole opens below him too.

Go to Chapter 2

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Bob

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Under construction

Hello. This is a new site I’m putting together with samples of my work and links to help you buy it. I’m in the middle of building it because I am a BUSY MAN but there’s still some stuff that may interest you, so look around. Mind you don’t trip on the carpet, I haven’t nailed it down yet.