do you think squirrels like coffee, Ed?

First published in the ‘Time’ edition of Materiality, a fantastic publication from Pinknantucket Press. Go read it, even though it’s not exclusively about squirrel people.

It looked as though this time it would be squirrel people.

hey there, [Ed]! Truly Enormous Coffees™ customers who liked squirrels also liked [insert related product titles here]!

Ed watched as they scurried around their simple shelters. It was a more purposeful scurry, a more deliberate scurry than the scurries he thought he might remember. Squirrels, in his memory, although he barely remembered the word memory now, scurried. They scurried away from
 things like cats, eagles and luxury sports utility vehicles. They scurried towards things like nuts, unattended hot dogs and other, pheromonically winsome, squirrels. They followed instincts, like the other simple animals.

follow your instincts, [Ed]. To your nearest Truly Enormous Coffees™ MegaCafe™, where the Family Latte Bucket is now only [special offer price]!

This is what Ed remembered. What he didn’t remember was squirrels scurrying around little bark huts, making minor alterations with a sharpened rock.

Ed peered over the little hill again. It was definitely going to be squirrel people. He looked up at the sun. No change. There was plenty of time. Ed sighed, walked on soft-skinned feet back across the continent to the distant desert and gently lay his head under his favourite unstable boulder. He pulled out the wedge and almost managed a curious thought about squirrel people before the usual squishy pop.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

Ed woke up.

morning is the perfect time for a truly enormous Truly Enormous Coffees™ coffee, [Ed]!

He lay still for a while. The windy desert ravine in which he lay grew a little deeper. Wind and rain came, eroding the land around his flawless skin. His boulder millimetred its way downhill, fetching up, after a handful of epochal floods, against a bluff.

who’s up for a treat? Anyone? How about you, [Ed]? You look like a guy who deserves a Truly Enormous Coffee™!

Ed remembered the squirrel people. He remembered the purposeful scurry. He got up and walked through what was now a coolish, grassy plain. A thousand or so miles away he stopped. Below him the savannah dropped into a newish river delta, with a shimmering ribbon of sea on the horizon.

The entire vista, he could see, was striped with green and yellow in rectangular patches. He thought he could make out artificial ponds and cataracts in the rivers. In several places, clusters of structures stood. They were very tall and narrow, pocked with neat holes. As he approached one he saw long, furry-tailed figures, almost his size, moving amongst them with a purpose and intelligence that had millennia ago discarded any association with the word ‘scurry’.

Ed was right. It was squirrel people this time.

Hooray, [Ed]! Let’s celebrate! Guess how!

He stepped behind a tree. It was very important that the squirrel people did not see him. Not after everything that had happened with the Octomeleons.

those Octomeleons were really keen, weren’t they, [Ed]? As keen as we are on our new range of Long Machiatotalitarians™!

Thinking of the Octomeleons made Ed pause for a few days. The memories he thought he remembered about the Octomeleons were unpleasantly bloody, and sparked even more ancient memories. Worse memories. Memories of the Aftermen.

Ed cast about himself anxiously, and seeing no more convenient option, quickly strangled himself with a hanging vine.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

On waking, Ed’s first reaction was nostalgia, as it had been such a long time since he had seen metal or felt panic.

He was strapped to a table in a high-walled, narrow metal room. Above him loomed several tall, furry figures, their toothy faces partly obscured by what appeared to be shiny, blinking instruments hooked over their cute little ears.

at times of stress, [Ed], treat yourself with a Massive Mocha™!

Ed almost struggled, but by the time the impulse had even begun to form one of the squirrel people had clambered up the wall to one of several neatly constructed niches, fussed inside for a moment, then returned head-first with several larger instruments in its arms.

The squirrel people began to move about Ed fast, far too fast. Ed had not directly experienced action faster than a glacier in a very long time. The sudden lurch of temporal perspective dizzied him. He thought he might vomit, but he couldn’t remember having eaten in several million years, so he stopped, on the grounds it would seem unnecessarily theatrical.

The squirrels were communicating with each other in slow, measured squeaks and nuanced grunts across Ed’s prone figure. Ed’s consciousness oscillated as his brain hurtled back to a speed he had chosen to abandon. As he began to black out, a squirrel person wiggled its nose decisively, leaned over Ed and placed a single, simple apparatus onto his face.

Ed gasped. He felt his mind open, accelerate, spread out and reveal itself. Wizened pathways unfurled; old knowledge leapt back to life.

All his memories rose up from the grave.

He remembered the Octomeleons first. It had only been a hundred or so million years ago. Ed had been excited to observe the Octomeleons, had hardly been able to wait as he watched them evolve from the ocean to the land, using their problem-solving brains and unsurpassed pattern- matching chromatophores to quickly establish a dominant position in their environment.

He remembered anonymously, silently abetting their progress towards a uniquely Octomeleonic form of civilisation. A model bark hut here; a subtly scratched example of arithmetical notation there. They rapidly developed language, culture, domestication, social and political stability. A highly honed form of etiquette based on strategically replicating fashionable wallpaper patterns on the skin.

Then he remembered the day when, finally convinced they were ready, he revealed himself to the Octomeleons: their invisible benefactor, multimillennial all-father, god.

About two thirds of them died in the ensuing global religious war before it occurred them to kill their god. They killed him and killed him, but Ed always, increasingly sheepishly, rose on the third day.

The surviving Octomeleons who didn’t die of theological despair eventually starved themselves by mutual agreement.

Ed watched as the squirrel people scanned, read and processed these memories. The tall room was silent. Without discussion, they adjusted the instrument on Ed’s beautiful, perfectly symmetrical face. It dug further into his brain.

wow, you’re the victim of horrible medical experiments, [Ed]! Buy a coffee!

Ed didn’t feel pain, because that was taken care of, and it was taken care of now, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

He remembered his life. His first life, among his own species. He was respected, a scientist, a healer, a searcher. He fought death, the great encompassing anxiety of his species. He dreamed of a world in which death had been defeated, suffering eliminated, decay and imperfection banished.

A world in which people would continue forever, their perfected physical forms unchanging, finally free to fulfil their grand, spiritual and material potential.

He remembered his breakthrough. Developing it in secret so it could be free for everyone, not monopolised by the powerful. Ingesting it first, in the noble tradition of self-experimentation. Sending the machines into himself, the tiny machines that would repair any damage, correct any flaw, prevent all decay, perfectly preserve the body at an atomic level.

And they worked.

hey, [Ed]! Yay, we work! You work hard too, and that’s why you deserve a Truly Enormous Coffee™!

It had perhaps been a mistake to make up a fake sponsor at the last minute to test the machines’ social media advertising system. It probably wouldn’t even be needed, once the liberated super- species transcended economies and money, but what the hell. He could tweak that later.

Plenty of time.

He told no one at first. He had to be sure it was safe. Humans died, died for decades and centuries, while he lived discreetly, the secret next step in human development. He slipped through society undiscovered, undying and undecided. He watched them bicker and war. Maybe humanity wasn’t ready quite yet.

And then time passed, and his attention span began to slip. One day, jolted from a dream into action, he came forward. But his species had moved on. Generations had passed. Thousands of generations. It had been much longer than he had thought. Had he slept? Why was everyone so tall now?

Ed, the perfect specimen, the fulfilled man, immortal, had been superseded.

The Aftermen cast him out, an unfashionable throwback. He wandered the emptier spaces while they warred, explored, evolved and then, unexpectedly, left. He saw traces of them across the sky, long clouds disappearing up. But by then he’d stopped thinking so quickly.

It was terribly silent after that. He died. Ed died frequently. He tried very hard to die. He bathed in lava. He leapt from cliffs onto carefully prepared spikes. He weighted himself and dove into the sea. His body broke, burned, bubbled. But always:

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

And then the Octomeleons, and then long silence again. And now squirrel people. Ed looked up at them. He knew he was seeing a brand new squirrel person facial expression, because no squirrel person had ever learned what these squirrel people had just learned.

He knew what they must do.

do you think squirrels like coffee, [Ed]?

Ed flexed his perfect, toned muscles. The bindings were strong. The squirrel people clambered back up the wall to gather more instruments.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

For a while, events moved faster than Ed was able to follow.

In time, things settled down again. Ed avoided the immortal squirrel scientists. They haunted the remains of the long-abandoned squirrel people civilisation, bashing in their perfectly furry little heads, screaming for coffee, scurrying shamefully like their far-distant ancestor species, their descent from which they never discovered before bringing it to a halt.

Ed couldn’t remember anymore what had happened with the rest of the squirrel people. They’d got awfully tall.

There were more people after that. A kind of vast hive-sentience developed among giant wasps. The fungi were doing interesting things. Things got into and out of oceans, trees, the sky and in one case an acid lake. Ed observed it all from a careful distance, never appearing in their cultures as anything more than a blurry, crypto-zoological myth.

Then it grew hotter, and nothing else was alive.
Ed watched the sun. It was close now, he knew it.
It grew hotter still. Much of the surface of the planet liquidised. The air turned to sulphuric acid.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

Through constantly reconstituted eyeballs Ed saw it happen. The sun reached out, reached further, kissed the surface of the planet and Ed’s grateful, shiny skin.

His last thought, before he melted into the solar wind, was ‘this had better work.’

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

boy, [Ed], the dead interstellar void is cold! You know what you need?


The at least fourteen horsemen of the Bookpocalypse

On the highest hill of a lifeless, leafless, endless moor, the Four gathered on their spectral horses. They watched impassively as a vast green line traced its way from one horizon across the troubled sky and almost, but not quite, to the other.

‘The Hour is nearly come,’ crackled Fire, his eternally burning robes casting strange shadows over his ancient, bearded visage.

‘It is Time,’ Water agreed through the constant drizzle obscuring his cowl.

‘The era of paper is at an end,’ beamed Light, calmly fading a random patch of ground to colourless nothing.

‘All of ——- will see its ——– and final —-,’ hissed Censorship.

There was a brief silence.

‘Sorry?’ said Fire.

‘Nothing important,’ said Censorship.

‘Well, alright,’ said Fire. He raised himself in his saddle. ‘The portents and the omens have all come to pass. The End Of Times And Times New Roman is here. See how the Destroyer approaches!’

As he spoke the green streak edged almost imperceptibly closer to the horizon.

‘We shall sweep down into the world of the real and destroy all physical records of human culture. Come, horsemen, we ride!’

‘We ride!’ cried Light.

‘We —-!’ cried Censorship.

‘Hang on a sec,’ said Water.

The others reined in their horses. ‘What?’ said Fire.

Water wriggled awkwardly on his horse, dislodging a large, furry lump from the back of his sodden plastic mac. The lump fell, expanded and became a fifth figure on a horse. A pungent smell drifted across the hill.

‘Hi,’ said Mould and sneezed a cloud of spores. ‘I also do cheese, but that can go either way.’ A fringe of something unpleasantly biological hung low over its brow.

‘Have you brought your kid along?’ demanded Fire.

‘I’m dividing up the work, aren’t I?’ said Water. ‘It’s easy for you three, all you’ve got to do is burn, snip and very gradually fade your way through all that paper and ink. Meanwhile I’ve got everything from baths and misplaced gin and tonics to facilitating the growth of moulds, mildews and fungi via the inherent hygroscopic properties of lignocellulosic materials! If you think I’m handling that lot alone you’re taking the piss, which I also have to cover, although I’ll grant that’s a rare one.’

Fire glowered around the group. ‘Well, alright, but that makes five of us. Four is more … usual. And traditionally one horseman does the job lot, regardless of scale.’

‘Welcome to the twenty-first century, mate. Remember when we got called in for Work Choices?’
Fire shifted uneasily. ‘Yes, well, I’d prefer we didn’t talk about that. Still waiting on the call to do that cremation.’

‘You’re lucky I’m letting you get away with horsemen, too. Since when did the materialisation of allegorical agents of ultimate entropy require slapping outie tackle on them all?’

‘Look, I’m letting you get away with Bring A Child To Work Day, aren’t I? Or don’t you think dads should be allowed to mix work and parenting?’

Water shuffled crossly but chose the path of least resistance. ‘Five we are, then.’

‘Right. On, we Five —’

‘Six, I think,’ beamed Light.


‘Well, I’ve been thinking about it. Fire, Water, Light, Censorship. Leaves a lot unattended, doesn’t it? There’s loads of other stuff. Basic entropy, for a start. What happens if it’s just badly bound, or the paper is crap, or it’s got, I dunno, dodgy staples in it or something? Basically asking to fall apart. Who handles that?’

‘You mean inherent vice?’ Fire thought for a moment. ‘I suppose, but I really had hoped to clean this whole thing up with minimal fuss. Clock’s ticking and all.’

The green line ticked closer to the horizon. Fire waved an impatient flaming hand and Inherent Vice appeared among them, fiddling with his horse’s tack.

‘I dunno, I reckon there’s something wrong with this stirrup. Maybe I can just —’

There was a series of tense metallic pings and he fell off his horse, followed quickly by the saddle, bridle and reins. He tried to reassemble the equipment but it rapidly disintegrated, and then his horse died.

‘Stupid, broken bastard why isn’t you I mean aren’t you who even made this arse I can’t where’s the —’

‘Ahem,’ said Fire discreetly.

Inherent Vice spun round. ‘Oh, hello,’ he said. ‘Are we off out apocalypsing again? What’s it this time? Haven’t been called since Internet Explorer. Lovely to see you all. Can I walk? Only my horse is ill.’

His trousers fell down.

‘That’s … the tailor was supposed to … sorry,’ said Inherent Vice.

‘Oh f—— H—,’ said Censorship.

‘If we are all satisfied,’ crackled Fire, gesturing up at the green line almost touching the plain, ‘the Destroyer is almost here.’

‘Actually …’ said Mould.

‘What?’ exploded Fire.

‘Well,’ said Water, ‘once you start thinking about it, it’s quite complex, isn’t it? What about careless children? What about bugs and rats and snails and stuff? What about just doing something silly like leaving it on the train?’

There was a rumble of hooves as three more horsemen crested the hill.

‘Oh, give me a break,’ said Fire.

Careless Children leapt from their horse and ran straight for Fire. ‘Hello!’ they cried. ‘Can we have a cuddle?’

‘What? No, get off — Jesus, what is that? Is that jam on your fingers?’

‘Can I turn the pages? Pleeeeeeease?’

‘Oh, it’s all in my beard now!’

Bugs And Rats And Snails And Stuff oozed curiously over to Water on its frankly unhappy horse.

‘One millimetre closer,’ said Water, ‘and I summon Inadequately Secured Packets Of Green Pellets.’

The writhing, verminomorphic mess hissed and oozed away again.

‘What’s your big thing?’ said Light to Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train. ‘Forget your flaming sword, did you? Oh go on, do the act, I love this kind of thing.’

‘Oh no,’ said Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train, ‘I’m just a freelancer, you know. I get called in for these things, but I don’t really have the budget for the whole song and dance. Got to keep time for my novel, you see.’

‘Oh, that’s really interesting,’ said Light. ‘I must talk to you more about that after the what-have-you. Wait …’ Light suddenly cast about, patting his pockets and saddlebags. ‘Hey, have you seen my big torch? I need it to — I was a bit distracted and I … I’m sure I had it when I left home.’

But Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train had already gone to engage Mould in a distracting conversation about shower grates.

‘Oh, that was BRILLIANT!’ said Light. ‘Let’s get more! Hey Water, let’s do more!’

‘No, wait, stop!’ said Fire, but a steady stream of mounted harbingers of very specific doom began to mount the hill.

‘Greetings,’ said Bending The Corners Down, bowing low.

‘Hello!’ said People In General. ‘Bit pessimistic, I would have thought, but there you go.’

‘Hi,’ gasped A Big Texta With The Lid Off drily. ‘Sorry I’m late, lost my hat.’

‘How are you even sitting on that horse?’ said Light.

‘ENOUGH’ commanded Fire, and silence echoed across the plain. He thrust a burning finger upwards, where the green bar had traced its course across the entire sky. ‘The Destroyer is come!’

The sky briefly flashed the message 100% DOWNLOAD COMPLETE, there was a sort of colourful windmill effect and then before them stood one final horseman, the bringer of the Bookpocalypse, the Destroyer.

‘Hello,’ said ebooks.

‘Ooo, controversial,’ said Light.

Fire drew himself up and boosted his flame. ‘We welcome you O great Destroyer of books, corrupter of paper, enemy of the physical —’

‘Whoa whoa whoa, hold up there big feller,’ said ebooks. ‘What’s this now about the destroying of physical books?’

Fire’s flame flickered a little.

‘Um,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you here to bring about the end of, of paper and the crushing doom of the … the Bookpocalypse?’

‘Oh my no,’ said ebooks.

The wind whistled awkwardly across the hill.

‘It’s just, you know, we’re all here,’ said Fire.

‘I know, and look at you all!’ ebooks cast an iEye over the hill where Leaving It Folded Open Because You Couldn’t Be Arsed To Find A Bookmark was arriving, summoned by Light and Mould, who hadn’t been paying attention. ‘But I think there’s been a bit of a mix-up in the wires, [swipe]. You see, I’m not here to destroy physical books. I don’t think I could [swipe] do that if I wanted! No, I’m what’s called a complementary technology. People are [swipe] going to find a million new uses for me, but they’ll never forget physical books, [tap for next chapter].

‘And anyway, I’m physical too! I’m made of plastic and a different kind of plastic and wires and rare metals they [swipe] dig up from under a forest in the Congo, just like physical books are! There’s really no such thing as a non-material book [swipe]. I’m really just here to add a new level of materiality to every story you love to [swipe] read, [return to table of contents].’

‘Wow,’ said the collected horsemen. ‘You’re great, ebooks, and really shiny! Now that we don’t have to worry about the end of physical books any more, let’s all hang around exclusively with you in complete confidence that everything will be fine.’

So ebooks led the at least fourteen horsemen of the Bookpocalypse off the plain and shouted each one to a pint at the epub.

Pursued, at a stealthy distance, by A Really Big Solar Flare.

Originally published in Materiality Number 1: BOOK by Pinknantucket Press.