A Grim Fairy Tale

Famous Emma Watson lookalike Richard Dawkins made some comments this week on the subject of children being told fairy tales at a young age, remarking that it is “pernicious…to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism.” Dawkins believes that children should be taught the importance of rational thought and scientific rigour, though he later clarified that such stories probably encourage critical thinking, and thus aren’t particularly harmful.

The idea of a fairy tale bereft of its supernatural elements, and instead rooted in boring old everyday life, is an intriguing one. Have you ever wondered how some of our most beloved fantasy characters would cope within the stringent boundaries of our existential reality? Me neither, but sure we’re here now so let’s find out…

~

The following account is transcribed from the official report of a detective, who has asked to remain anonymous. It is believed that the author of these extracts retired shortly after the experience, due to the traumatic nature of the events and the psychological repercussions that were suffered in the aftermath.

It was early that morning that I received a tip-off from an anonymous caller about the house deep in the woods. It was an old woman’s voice, harsh and raspy. She kept referring to the cottage as a ‘den of vice’, insisting that her step-daughter was involved in some ‘weird shit’ over there. It was hard to make out anything else amongst the maniacal cackling. I thought she sounded unhinged but protocol dictated that I had to check it out anyway, so off I went.

As I drove through the woods I recalled that there had been a number of unusual incidents there in recent years that I had heard about from colleagues: the simpleton who was convinced his goose was laying golden eggs; the poor young schizophrenic kid who broke his neck climbing a beanstalk; and of course the awful episode of the brother and sister being lured to that pervert’s house made entirely of sweets.

I pulled up in front of the house and got out to have a look around. It looked dilapidated and gloomy, as if it was deserted. The windows were blacked out on the inside, which filled me with an odd sense of dread. I went back to the car and took my revolver out of the glove compartment, holstering it at my side. I knocked a few times on the front door but there was no answer. When I tried the handle it gave way with an eerie, drawn-out creak.

The sordid scene that greeted me upon entering the cottage is still burnt into my mind. The acrid smell of filth and squalor was almost overpowering. There were seven small cages lined up against the wall, filled with soiled rags and torn bedding. In the middle of the floor was a giant trough, with a few morsels of foul-smelling food lying rotting in the dank heat of the room. There was a bucket in one corner that I dared not approach due to the hideous odour emanating from it.

This pig-pen, as it appeared to me to be, took up the entire ground floor of the cottage, with a rickety staircase in one corner leading upstairs. I went up the stairs and opened the door at the top, and stood in shock at what I found there. It was an opulently furnished bedroom, clean and in perfect order. The giant four-poster bed took up most of the room, and a giant chest stood at the foot of the bed. I pulled the lid open to find that it was full almost to the brim with gleaming white diamonds.

It was at this point that I heard a commotion from outside the house, and dashed downstairs to see what it was. When I looked out the front door I saw seven small figures walking towards the house. Their faces and clothes were filthy and their feet were chained together as they marched in unison. They carried tools and chanted sombrely, over and over again,

“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s home from work we go.”

When the lead figure saw me he stopped dead, dropping his spade and the bag he was carrying. Great chunks of white diamond spilled out of the bag and onto the ground in front of his grimy bare feet. They began to shriek in horror as they scrambled to gather the precious gems. They cried out in anguished voices,

“Her diamonds, her diamonds. We must bring her diamonds. She is the fairest of them all.”

I approached them and told them I just wanted to help, but after collecting the diamonds they dashed into the house. When I went in I found them cowering in a corner. I’ve never seen such a collection of obviously traumatised and troubled individuals. One had a manic grin fixed on his face even as he trembled with fear; another hid his face from me completely and appeared on the verge of a panic attack; one of them even suffered a violent bout of sneezing and lay convulsing on the floor as his friend, obviously suffering stress-induced narcolepsy, collapsed and began to snore loudly.

Only one of them appeared to have his mental faculties intact, and I began to question him. He told me that he was a doctor who had happened upon the cottage one day on his way to give a young girl in a coma her monthly check-up. The one all the papers were calling Sleeping Beauty. He said he had been taken in by “her”, but wouldn’t give me a name. When I asked who she was, the others began to screech in panicked voices,

“She is the fairest of them all.”

Just then I heard the creak of the front door as a shadow passed over the quivering figures crouched before me. I turned to see a striking young woman standing in the doorway, wearing an immaculate blue and yellow dress, and covered in swathes of sparkling jewellery. The dwarfs shielded their eyes and continued to shriek their sorrowful refrain. The woman fixed me with a steely glare, and before I could say anything, took something out of her pocket and held it up.

“A visitor,” she said in a flat tone, “isn’t that nice. Would you like an apple…detective?”

Her eyes had flitted down to see the badge on my belt, and the last word was delivered with an icy venom. In her outstretched hand was a shiny red apple, and fixed on her porcelain face was a wide smile.

“No thank you, miss. I need to know just what the hell is going on here. These men are clearly being mistreated and…”

“It’s a shame,” she interrupted me as she looked me up and down, “that you’re so tall, detective. You’re not really to my taste.”

A fleeting look of disgust crossed her face as she spoke.

“I’m afraid I don’t have time for this detective. It’s getting near their bedtime.”

At this the dwarfs scrambled to their feet and began to strip off their dirty rags as they climbed the stairs. They chanted sadly,

“Bedtime. Bedtime. She is the fairest of them all. Diamonds…”

I turned around to the woman as I reached for my gun.

“Just what kind of sick shit are you…”

Before I could finish I was struck in the face with the canvas bag of diamonds and my legs buckled beneath me. She moved quickly and kicked the gun out of my hand. I grabbed her ankle and pulled her to the ground. Warm blood gushed from my temple and clouded my vision as we struggled on the wooden floor. She bit and clawed at me, and I could hear the frenzied jabbering of the dwarfs from the staircase. Suddenly a loud click echoed through the room and we both stopped wrestling to turn to the staircase.

The doctor stood at the foot of the stairs, half-naked and covered in grime, still chained to his fellow slaves. His hands trembled as he held the gun pointed squarely at the head of the young woman. The others continued to recite their twisted lament.

“She is the fairest of them all. She is the fairest of them all. She is the fair-”

A deafening bang brought the chanting to an abrupt halt as the dead weight of the woman landed on my chest, her glassy eye staring into mine as blood spurted from where the other had been.

“Not anymore she’s fucking not,” whispered the doctor as he dropped the gun. It clattered to the floor and he collapsed in a sobbing heap among the others.

I pushed the corpse off me and stumbled to my feet, taking out my phone to call for backup. I sat on the stairs with them and waited with them for what seemed like an eternity, until eventually I heard the sirens and saw the lights seeping in through the blackened windows. I sat there with them as they whimpered and screamed, and I held them. Just held them. I didn’t know what else to do.

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Abridged Too Far

It emerged this week that student organisations at American colleges have been requesting ‘trigger warnings’ to appear on books that may have the capacity to offend or traumatise those who read them.

Trapped somewhere within this, approximately the seven hundred millionth example of Americans eschewing common sense for reactionary political correctness in their own inimitably shameless fashion, is an important and not altogether insensible point attempting to be heard, whereby sufferers of certain distressing events may wish to be forewarned of any work of literature that may elicit unpleasant memories.

This concession notwithstanding, I will not attempt to address such a point here, as to do so would result in an interminably boring and saccharine dirge of well-meaning rhetoric, better suited to a sanctimonious Upworthy article or a particularly downbeat episode of Oprah.

Instead I’m going to imagine what would happen to our canon of literature if its disquieting elements were expunged, in order to accommodate the delicate dispositions of our puritanical complainants. Let’s have a look at how some of our most treasured books would fare if anything liable to offend were removed…

~

American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

Nothing is going right for our protagonist Patrick Bateman in this delightful ‘80s romp. Join our hero as he negotiates through one disaster after another: misprinted business cards, video store fines, and troublesome cran-apple juice stains on his best bed linen. Will he make it to Dorsia in time for dinner with his Wall Street chums? The fun never stops in this riotously entertaining farce. New version includes bonus CD packed with ‘80s floor-fillers from the likes of Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Join Humbert Humbert and his precocious step-daughter Lolita on this picaresque adventure across America, during which nothing untoward happens between the pair whatsoever. The New York Times called it ‘a monumentally uneventful tale of separate bedrooms, platonic hair-ruffling, and dull car conversations about whether taupe and beige are really just the same colour.’

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

It is testament to McCarthy’s skill as a writer that the atmosphere of this lyrical masterpiece remains intact within the twenty-seven words that make up the redacted version. Words like ‘boy’, ‘man’ and ‘road’ evoke powerful images of a boy and a man on a road, possibly travelling towards some sort of merry picnic or familial get-together. The magnificent Quentin Blake illustrations only add to the cheerful whimsy of this thoroughly enjoyable read. The ultimate holiday book.

The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss

Sally and her brother are home alone, bored and restless, when there is a knock at the door. Sally opens it to find a mysterious stranger, a Cat in a Hat.

‘Good afternoon, Miss,’ he begins, ‘I’m here today to talk to you about the one true God.’

Sally invites the courteous stranger inside for tea and biscuits, and the trio exchange philosophical chit-chat and bland witticisms for the next six hours. Eventually the Cat politely excuses himself and returns to his suburban bungalow. He tucks his children in, pours himself some warm milk, and settles in for the evening with the Times crossword.

Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

What started as a drunken dare between Jack and Tyler develops into a worldwide phenomenon, as their white collar boxing promotion earns millions for various charities and worthy causes. The philanthropic pair also moonlight as Project Sunshine, a clandestine force for good that commits mischievous but well-intentioned acts, such as painting comic book characters on orphanage walls, building houses for victims of natural disasters, and breaking into hospitals to fill the child cancer wards with thousands of multicoloured balloons. A life-affirming novel to be cherished by all.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

Meet Alex, a happy-go-lucky droog who enjoys milk, Beethoven and going to bed early. He and his rapscallion chums get up to all sorts of high jinks, like pressing strangers’ doorbells and running away, kicking empty cans along the road, and making prank telephone calls. This amusing vision of the future shows us that even though language and technology may change, the innocence and playfulness of youth are timeless.

Complete Works, William Shakespeare

This monumental volume completely transforms the Bard’s classic tales for a contemporary audience. The brave decision to completely erase all of the text and replace it with pictures of laughing children, and adorable animals that have got their heads stuck in things, is a masterstroke of modernisation. For as the great man himself once wrote, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some…Ha! That squirrel has a flowerpot on his head. He can’t get it off!

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker is one of London’s top estate agents, but he’s about to meet his most demanding client yet – a curmudgeonly Count from Transylvania. Join Jonathan as he weaves his way through a logistical labyrinth of paperwork, deals with fastidious customs officials, and attempts to meet the exacting requirements of the mysterious Count. More of a technical treatise on relocation than a novel, this is sure to set hearts racing among accountants, school principals and high-functioning autistic savants the world over.

It, Stephen King

Pennywise the Dancing Clown is down on his luck, and things are looking bleak. Until he meets a gang of special children, who through their kindness reignite his love of performing and help him get back on his feet. A marvellous novel dealing with themes of love, companionship and redemption. The first five hundred copies come with a free Pennywise action figure, with real dancing feet!

The Bible, God (citation needed)

This new version of the Good Book foregoes the barbaric apocryphal stories of old and instead concentrates only on the parts that contain cogent, sensible advice for living well. As such it comes in at just under a third of one page, a large part of which is footnotes explaining that most of the text was probably mistranslated anyway and should be ignored. Readers are encouraged to fill the remaining seven hundred and ninety-nine pages with drawings of the Baby Jesus and lists of people who they don’t think belong in heaven.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne

Bruno’s father is a very important man. He runs an enormous leisure camp, where people can avail of fun activities all day, every day. Bruno is sad because he wants to make friends, but isn’t allowed in. One day he decides to sneak in and have an adventure. This story of one boy’s daring day out in the camp is heart-warming fare, and is sure to rekindle memories of going to camp as a child, or at the very least of going to see the film Ernest Goes to Camp.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

Winston Smith is all alone in the world, and even a fulfilling factory job can’t ease his disquiet. That is, until he meets his new friend from the Big Brother programme. Winston’s fraternal surrogate takes him out on day-trips to the circus, buys him ice-cream, and playfully grabs him in headlocks and nuzzles his head. A wonderful novel about life, friendship and the unspoken obligation to humour those weaker than us out of pity. A triumph.

Iliad, Homer

Paris and Helen are throwing the wedding of the century, and you’ve been invited! Join the madcap cast of characters for this matrimonial misadventure: Menelaus, the surly ex-husband with a heart of gold; Patroclus, the flamboyant life partner of Achilles who always says what’s on his mind; Odysseus, whose equine-themed wedding present you’ll have to see to believe! (or read about to believe in this case). Will Helen get cold feet on the big day? Who will win the Achilles-Hector dance off? How do you play 500 Miles with just a lyre and a pan flute? Answer these questions and more by picking up your copy today!


Kanye West: The Being Kanye West Years

Sue Townsend, the author of the hugely popular Adrian Mole series of books, passed away this week. From the early 1980s onwards, her creation provided the faltering, socially awkward voice of a generation, reflecting the experiences of millions in dealing with life, love, Margaret Thatcher and everything in between.

One wonders how a contemporary teenager’s diary might differ from Adrian’s, some thirty years on. Keeping a diary was once a private act of reflection; a healthy, cathartic practice for the individual, but kept secret from prying eyes. This personal reticence has been inverted with the advent of social media, with Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses consumed with indulgent over-sharing and detailed pictorial logs of people going about their everyday business.

In searching for a modern voice to act as a paragon for these shamelessly garrulous masses, one needn’t look further than the inimitable Kanye West, whose wisdom shines like a beacon through the mist of Tweeted trivialities and cuts  right to the core of the human condition.

Philosopher. Warrior. Polemicist. Educator. Preacher. Kanye is none of these things. Nonetheless, his digital diary acts as a veritable canon of life lessons for his legions of followers. Perception and sagacity drip from his brilliant mind like melted cheese and runny ketchup from a giant hamburger of profound understanding. Here is just a taste of his boundless insight…

 ~

– I just deleted the word ‘failure’ from my Dictionary app. Cos I don’t even know what that word means. Also, did you know that ‘fain’ is an Old English word that means pleased or willing under the circumstances? Because I did.

– How come paparazzi always come into the garden when I leave the gate open? Can’t a man and his wife do some gardening in their matching mink coats in peace? I feel like John Lennon, yo. After he got shot.

– Kim asked me today, How come you never sing about me, and I was like, cos your crazy name don’t rhyme with shit.

– Someone tried to hand me a pamphlet on the street today about African babies, and I was like I don’t believe in paper, it’s just dead trees. Would you put dead trees on your shelf? I don’t wanna be looking at no dead trees with babies on. They had nothing to say to me cos they knew I was right.

– Pretty sure I just invented a new colour playing around with North’s pencils. I’mma call some people and I’ll keep you posted.

– They name stars after people but they never name people after stars. But the stars were there first, so I’mma call my next child Alpha Centauri. Then when I want to reach for the stars I can just reach out and touch him. I’mma get him some tiny Timberlands too, just cos.

– Gandhi said that there is more to life than simply increasing its speed. But he ain’t never heard ‘Gold Digger’.

– I brought North to the MTV awards, and he wore a tuxedo and I wore some Spiderman pyjamas. That’s why I’m Kanye West and you’re not. ‘Cept for that one guy in Kansas but my lawyers are making him change his name to Dave or some shit.

– When I arrive at a crossroads in life I don’t choose which road to take, I turn around and go home. Cos I live in a big-ass apartment and I got a 3D TV, yo.

– I don’t allow animals in my apartment because then they think that they’re people, and they get all haughty, and they look at you like, Yeah I could make a record too. But I’m like, no you couldn’t, you’re a dog, you don’t got no thumbs. A chimp could maybe make a record, but it wouldn’t go platinum like Yeezus did.

– People ask me what my lucky number is and I say they haven’t invented it yet. Then I just drive away in my Benz while they thinking on it.

– Listening to old records trying to find samples for the new album. Can’t find anything better than my last album so I think I’ll just sample myself. I’ll call the album Kanye Squared, and instead of a circle, the disc will be a square. I like to play with conventions.

– Dr. Seuss once said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” But 2Pac said, “Thug Life is dead”, so I don’t know what to think.

– I was lying on my bearskin rug looking through abstract nouns for the name of my next fragrance. Kim was all like, you should call it ‘Talent’. I told her you can’t bottle that. If you could then I’d be twice as rich as I am today. Then we made love on the rug.

– People say nothing rhymes with orange or purple, but Shakespeare invented, like, a hundred thousand words, including ‘England’, ‘William’ and ‘ho’. So I’mma invent the word ‘morange’, and it’s gonna mean that feeling you get when you wake up from a dream, and you’re in bed next to Kim Kardashian, and you realise that you’re Kanye West. That’s why I don’t need to dream. I just morange, yo.

– If I could be a god I would be the one from Asia with eight arms, cos then I could write three times as many albums, and just make pasta all day with the other two.

– Sometimes old people be like, you young folks got it easy, we had world wars and disease and unemployment and all that, and I’m like yeah, but we got to put up with Miley Cyrus so it’s about even.

– I would like to win an Oscar one day, but I feel like I should already have one just for living my life. My life is every genre, even those crazy Japanese ones, and I’m the best actor in my life. But the Academy wouldn’t do that. Cos it’s full of white dudes.

– People ask me why I never smile, then I say maybe if you tell a joke I’ll smile. Then they say, You wanna hear a joke? Then I say no, I don’t like jokes.

– Kim thought we should bring some wine to Brad and Angelina’s dinner party, but I was like, that’s a cliché. So I took a picture of some wine and I gave Brad the picture. He didn’t say anything but I could tell he was thinking, There’s a genius in my house. And his name is Kanye West. Then later we ran out of wine and Angelina had to drive down to the store.

– I was playing Wordfeud with Johnny Depp and he was like, Influenticize ain’t a word. And I was like, well I’ll call up Webster and make him put that shit in. I know Webster and he thought Yeezus was dope. He owe me one.

– If at first you don’t succeed, then you should probably just give up. ‘Less your name is Kanye West.

– I ain’t scared of dying cos I believe in reincarnation. But I wanna come back as the stupidest animal there is, like a cow, cos if I come back smart I’ll be sad that I ain’t Kanye no more. If I’m a cow I’mma be like, alright, where the grass at? That’s my philosophy.


She, Robot

“I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”

Samantha the Operating System, ‘Her’, Spike Jonze, 2013

“Boomer was a good MARCBOT. Those goddamn Mahdi Army scum took him from this world far too early.”

red_one_foxtrot commenting on Reddit, 2013

~

Mike Powell awoke blurry-eyed to a dimly lit room that was almost unbearably hot. Grunting disagreeably, he rolled over and peeled the sheet from his torso. It was heavy with sweat.

“Jesus, how fucking hot is it?” he asked hoarsely of the dark room.

“It is thirty-seven degrees Celsius. Good morning Mike.”

It was a female voice, soft yet remote. He glanced at the figure seated by his bed.

“Kate, I thought we agreed to speak in American. And you know it creeps me out when you watch me sleep.”

“You’re not asleep, Mike. You’re awake. And the United States adopted the Celsius scale in late 2017 after a…”

Mike cut her short with a flapping palm as he wiped his eyes with his other hand.

“Yeah, yeah, alright. Quit your yapping.”

After showering Mike returned to his bunk to get dressed. Most of the others were up and about, the room now buzzing with a muted chatter. As he laced his boots his eyes fell on the bed next to his, its sheets fresh and crisp, undisturbed by sleep. He had liked Murphy. Not the brightest, but a good kid. There were rumours he hadn’t come out too badly from the raid, just a nick in the shoulder. That he was discharged due to what the docs called ‘emotional distress’. That his bot had taken one in the head and that was why he charged the outpost like a lunatic. Just rumours, Powell thought to himself as he made his way to the canteen. Kate followed behind him.

“How are you feeling Mike?”

“I’m just fine Kate. I’m eating.”

There was a short pause.

“You’re not worried about today’s mission? It’s perfectly…”

He cut her off, “I’ve been on plenty of ‘em Kate, and I’m still here. Like I said, I’m fine.”

Another pause.

“Okay Mike. I’m going to go for my tune-up before we leave. I’ll be back shortly.”

He didn’t respond. Kate got up and walked towards the exit. A few other bots were heading that way too. Mike finished his meagre breakfast and left the table.

There were approximately two thousand troops in Camp Obama, the largest US navy camp in Djibouti, and one of the largest in Eastern Africa. Three hundred of these were classed as special operations servicemen. The other two hundred and ninety-nine of these had bots just like Kate. The Synthetic Humanoid Engine had been in service for three years now. It was listed in official Armed Forces literature as ‘equipment’, and in its current incarnation took the form of a female android. The men responded better to female bots. It was equipped with an array of weapons, and its AI was unlike anything that had been seen before. President Winfrey had described the SHE as ‘the greatest military breakthrough since the AK-47.’

Kate was Mike’s second. He had only had his first for a month when a roadside bomb in Kandahar had hit the jeep he was travelling in. It had taken eight hours of surgery to remove the shrapnel from his back and arms. He hadn’t named his first, but by the time he was back in service and was issued a second, the directive was to assign your bot a name. The psychs had informed the top brass that it was ‘conducive to developing a trust system’. Mike had a soft spot for Katharine Hepburn movies, and when he was greeted upon his arrival for duty at Camp Obama by his very own ‘African Queen’ protectress, he thought it was appropriate.

Mike left the camp at midday with his unit, each man flanked in the back of the truck by his bot. Some chatted idly to them: checked on the weather and the sports results back home, had e-mails and Facebook posts read out, that kind of thing. Mike sat quietly, sweating through his fatigues under the Kevlar vest. He winced as the bumps in the road jarred his lower back. The dull pain that had been with him since Kandahar was worse than usual today. He closed his eyes and blocked out the fluttering voices of the bots. His mind drifted back to a training exercise from the academy. They had been split into teams and had to disassemble a live bot. It was supposed to convey the idea to the men that the SHE was just nuts and bolts. Just a machine.

The Captain calmly recapped the orders as the truck neared its objective. There was a camp a few miles to the east. Satellites had picked up possible insurgent activity there, but this had to be confirmed by ground troops before a strike could be authorised. The plan was to head to a nearby ridge and scope out the camp from afar. All fairly routine. The truck slowed to a crawl as it climbed the hill leading to the ridge.

The Cap turned to his bot,

“Satellite pick up anything new, Lucy?”

The bot hesitated as its neural pathways shimmered behind its faceplate.

“Nothing new from HQ, Sir. We are a go for mission.”

The Captain nodded as the truck slowed to a stop.

“Alright ladies, let’s make this quick. In and out and home in time fo-”

A deafening explosion ripped through the truck before he could finish. Mike was thrown to the floor as gleaming rays of sunshine flooded in through a smoking hole where the Captain had been sitting. Wiping his face, Mike’s hand came away soaked in the Cap’s blood. Lucy’s limp, headless body lay writhing and twitching across his legs. The rocket had turned the front half of the truck into a mangled wreck of body parts and circuitry. Gunfire sprayed the panels of the truck, filling the air with miniscule cylinders of sunlight. Mike felt a flashing pain in his leg, and as he turned to crawl towards the back of the truck he felt himself being lifted off the floor. A split second later he was barrelled out of the back and thrown roughly behind a jagged rock, the dense air loaded with the sound of bullets striking metal.

Before he had time to register what had happened, a figure landed with a thud beside him, its back to the rock. He turned to see Kate’s half-melted faceplate, her eyes as still and lifeless as ever. Her body was covered with dents and small holes.

“I can’t walk. My leg…” he started to say. Kate said nothing, but stood and lifted him over her shoulder. She sprinted away from the truck, a hail of bullets shadowing her down the hill that they had rolled up just moments before. Mike, his leg bleeding freely and his head being jolted violently, just had time to look back and survey the scene of the wrecked, flaming truck and the scattered bodies of his comrades, before he lost consciousness.

When Mike woke up the first thing he was aware of was how much his leg, and his head, hurt. The second thing he realised was that he was outside, and it was dark. Clusters of brilliant white stars came slowly into view as he blinked groggily.

“Where am I?” he just about managed to whisper, his own voice barely recognisable.

A soft reply came from above his head,

“You are seventeen point three miles from Camp Obama, Mike. It is currently ten thirty-one p.m.”

He looked up to see a twisted face in the moonlight, its blinking lights now clearly visible, its body leaking fluid.

“What happened to the rest…”

“Mike, we don’t have much time. I’ve done what I can with your leg but you’ll bleed out before long. There are still insurgents looking for us, and I’m too badly damaged to carry you back.”

He glanced down at his thigh to see a blood-soaked shirt wrapped tightly around it. His head felt light and he was having difficulty focusing his eyes.

“Can you call…get a chopper…”

“My communication system has been damaged, I can’t contact the base.”

Mike laughed softly to himself, delirious with pain and fatigue.

“Well that’s that, then. We can’t be taken alive, so you know what to…”

“Mike, I’m going back alone. They’ll send a chopper.”

Mike’s vision was becoming blurry again.

“It’s too far. You’ll never…” he trailed off.

Kate crouched beside him and put her hand on his chest.

“The chopper will be here, Mike. Just stay alive.”

His breath was shallow as he looked up at her.

“I never told you about my first.”

“No, you didn’t. But I’ve read the file.”

Mike stared at the crescent moon that lit the arid landscape, his eyelids quivering.

“Docs said she saved me. Rolled herself right around me in a millisecond and took the brunt of the blast.”

“She did her job, Mike.”

He reached out and took her hand, riddled with bullet holes and covered in an oily residue.

“I blamed her” he said, and laughed again. He fixed his eyes on the flickering lights that shone from beneath her gnarled visage. His grip became limp as his eyes began to close.

“I blamed her” he whispered again, but Kate didn’t hear him. She was sprinting noiselessly across the sand, her feet kicking up mounds of gold that shimmered under the light of the waxing moon.

~

When Mike woke he couldn’t open his eyes to the white light that seemed to envelop him. He felt as if he were floating through the air. Slowly he came to his senses, as a white-coated figure approached him.

“Good afternoon, Lieutenant. Good to have you back.”

Mike looked down at his leg, relieved to find it was still there.

“Chopper got to you just in time Sir. You were pretty close.”

Mike’s throat burned as he tried to speak, his voice a harsh croak, “Kate?”

The doctor looked puzzled for a moment, then smiled.

“Ah yes, your bot. We couldn’t believe she made it to the base. Nearly twenty miles, and most of her systems had completely crashed. It’s a miracle she made it.”

Mike shifted in the bed and lifted his head, his body still lethargic and weak.

“She…she made it?” he asked breathlessly.

The doctor’s smile faltered a little.

“Well, she made it here with your co-ordinates, but the damage was…well, you know…” he trailed off.

Mike lay back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling.

“Can I…see her?”

The doctor fidgeted with his clipboard.

“Well, I’m afraid she’s been…dismantled at this stage Lieutenant.”

He offered a weak smile.

“Well, you get some rest Sir. You’ve earned it. You’ll be issued with a new bot when you’re up and about, don’t you worry.”

As the doctor floated away across the room, Mike slowly turned his head to stare out the window. The midday sun shone down remorselessly from a cloudless sky, the dunes in the distance obscured by the shimmering haze of the desert heat. As his heavy eyelids closed and he drifted into a deep sleep, Mike wondered to himself exactly how hot it was today.


New Year’s Devolutions

As another year draws to a close we are left to look back on the events of the last twelve months, and assess their impact on our lives. Unfortunately, however, due to my reliance on modern technology, I have no memory whatsoever of anything that happened before yesterday. Therefore, until we manage to invent some sort of collated, easily accessible database of news through which we can record our history as it unfolds, any attempt at such reflection is pointless.

Instead, I will attempt to predict what may lie in store for the duration of our next revolution around the sun, which conveniently gives me even more scope for absurd exaggeration and crude humour. To that end, here follows a synopsis of what we can expect in the year 2014…

To domestic affairs first, as Ireland continues its upward trajectory out of the doldrums of recession. Normality returns in increments as shoddily built apartments are bought by the thousand, helicopters are dusted off to head down to the Galway Races, and solicitors start snorting cocaine before midday again.

In politics, Enda Kenny finally gives in to pressure to reform the Seanad, and appoints David Norris to take charge of the transition. Unfortunately, Norris chooses to make no changes whatsoever to the political structures or powers of the upper house, deciding instead to use millions of euro of taxpayers’ money to build an exact replica of an Ancient Roman Senate chamber, complete with annexed bath house, and opulently furnished in marble and gold leaf. The Taoiseach defends the developments by arguing that attendance in the house is at a record high average of 11%, a vast improvement on previous years.

Unfortunately for many of our émigrés, next year will also see Australia suffer a severe economic crash akin to the one that sent them there. Thousands of young Irish people are left floundering in a sweltering, barren wasteland, with no employment and no money to get home. As the last remaining Aussies leave their shores en masse to seek bar work in London, our hapless emigrants are left to fend for themselves in the desolate wilderness. Rule of law breaks down and society devolves into a post-apocalyptic nightmare, like Mad Max with more swearing and Offaly jerseys.

In the US, troublesome Republicans once again force a shutdown of the government, which lasts for over six months. The leadership claims it is due to Obama’s wish to implement stricter gun laws, but House insiders maintain it is predominantly a backlash to the dryness of the muffins in the Congress cafeteria. The country is thrown into chaos as millions are denied access to essential services. A deal is eventually brokered after military cutbacks contribute to a worrying breach in security in an army base in Kandahar, in which an enemy missile lands inside the perimeter. After eliminating the insurgents responsible, the missile turns out to be a football that had come from a nearby playing field, but military intelligence verifies that the deceased 12-year old boys were ‘a lot more terrorist-y than they looked.’

More revelations are forthcoming in 2014 from Edward Snowden regarding NSA monitoring of internet communications. In a somewhat tragic twist, it emerges that an entire subsection of intelligence operatives, who had been tasked with examining comments on YouTube to seek potential terrorists, take their own lives in what seems like a ritual mass suicide by self-immolation. NSA chiefs announce their grief and shock over the lost lives, especially since the group had just started their first day on the project.

In Britain, police continue to crack down on abusive behaviour on social networking sites. This policy reaches its zenith when a student is imprisoned for three months for calling Harry Styles a ‘gobshite’ on Twitter. When the presiding magistrate orders everyone who retweeted the offending message to be given the same sentence, thousands of hardened criminals are released onto the streets to make room for the hordes of potty-mouthed youngsters. This results in an unprecedented crime wave sweeping across the country, which the government announces is ‘probably something to do with immigrants.’ The Daily Mail takes a different approach and blames the situation on Ed Miliband’s dad.

In international news, North Korea follows China’s example by expanding their space program. They spend months ferrying men and supplies to the moon, much to the concern of the international community. When it is revealed that Kim Jong-un has built an enormous moonbase, fears grow over what kind of terrible weapon he might unleash. This alarm is soon allayed, however, when it transpires that Kim was simply remaking the movie Moonraker, starring himself as James Bond, and featuring Dennis Rodman as Jaws.

The winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, take place in February under the shadow of a decree from President Putin that absolutely no gay behaviour will be tolerated. Secret police are stationed around the ground to enforce the law, with security particularly heavy in the figure skating arena for some reason. Putin himself projects his usual uber-macho image by appearing at the games naked, save for the pelt of a bear that he had killed that morning, which he had come upon in the wild and hadn’t been tranquilised in any way, shape or form.

However, events take an unexpected turn at the speed skating track, when Putin’s attention is turned to a young Finnish athlete named Matthias. The Russian premier feels a strange sensation stirring in him as he watches the young man glide over the ice, his golden hair radiant, his enormous quadriceps rippling with every stride. To the alarm of his aides, Putin suddenly rushes onto the track, but trips on his bear suit and falls crashing to the ice. As he rises to his knees, a strong arm appears to help him up, and he finds himself gazing upon a set of chiselled Nordic features. Matthias lifts him into his arms and embraces him, and as the strains of Up Where We Belong begin to play over the PA system, the pair exit the arena to the cacophonous cheers of the assembled masses, and disappear into the setting sun.

Technology giant Apple’s reputation takes a hit next year after it is discovered that its iPhone 6, and its iPad Extra Mini Micro, are in fact the same device. Their PR troubles continue later in the year as a 16-year old worker in one of the company’s Beijing factories hacks the official Apple Twitter account. His strongly worded criticisms of working practices and his uploaded selfie of the effects of an unfortunate smelting accident are Tweeted for the world to see. Unfortunately for him, his revelations are overshadowed by the release of the iPad Pico, a tablet roughly the same size as a postage stamp, which is later revealed to be simply an actual stamp designed to look like a tablet.

Social media continues in the new year in its quest to rid the world of unuttered thoughts, comfortable silences and the last remaining semblances of privacy. Google introduces a controversial new app in which a drone follows the user’s daily movements and updates their Facebook status and Twitter feed accordingly, with observations like ‘Sarah has just been dumped and appears inconsolable’, ‘Paul is masturbating over a fire he just started’, and ‘Sally is bleeding profusely from a head wound caused by my malfunctioning gears’.

As collective attention spans continue to plummet, the fad of six-second long Vines becomes passé. They are replaced by Stems, videos lasting just one second. The most popular of the year is of a 2-year old child from Kansas saying the word ‘jam’ in an adorable fashion, which is shared by millions. The child is later mentioned in Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which prompts knowing laughter and warm applause from the crowd, followed by an eighteen-minute chant of ‘USA, USA’.

New varieties of the ubiquitous selfie become popular with the babbling, androgynous masses that populate the trendiest corners of the internet, where they smear digital pictograms of the tedious minutiae of their lives across social networking sites, and heap scorn on those of us born before 1994 that still use words like ‘trendiest’. These include the ‘elfie’, a festive self-portrait, the ‘farewellfie’, an inappropriate picture taken at the service of a deceased relative, and the ‘continental shelfie’, photos taken in the shallow waters of the glacially eroded coastal plains of continental land masses. Okay, that last one doesn’t really become that popular.

In Hollywood news, the most anticipated film of the year, the third instalment of The Hobbit, is delayed as director Peter Jackson falls ill during filming. The only director available to take the reins at short notice is Michael Bay, who selflessly offers his services. Upon its release, many critics question the wisdom of Bay’s changes to the original script, including casting Samuel L. Jackson as Gandalf, replacing the eagles with a fleet of Chinook helicopters, and even contriving an entirely new female elven character called Tauriel to spice up proceedings. Well actually, that was Jackson, but it was Bay who decided she should be played by Eddie Murphy in drag as the film’s comic relief.

Most of the criticism, however, centres on the movie’s antagonist, Smaug Mohammed Smaug, who is portrayed as an Islamic oligarch who uses his obscene wealth to arm a sinister band of Yemeni terrorists. The film’s denouement sees the dragon and his insurgent colleagues consumed in the hellfires of US Army drones remotely piloted by a ragtag bunch of wisecracking dwarf grunts, who are all played by Robert Downey Jr. Empire magazine gives the film five stars, their review simply consisting of the words ‘high-octane action’ repeated seven hundred times, followed by an exclamation mark.

In the world of music, Miley Cyrus continues her crusade against subtlety with her new single, Dark Room Full of Middle-Aged Men. The raunchy video becomes a viral phenomenon, and gives rise to a new dance craze among adolescent girls the world over, affectionately called ‘the Miley’. This is much like the Macarena, except with less smiling, and more penetration using household objects. Twitter is abuzz for months with trending topics like ‘doing the Miley’, ‘My tongue is a feminist too’, and ‘late night emergency room visit’.

In hip-hop news, Kanye West releases an experimental 3-hour long album featuring the sounds of his infant child’s bowel movements, set to a snappy bassline from a little-known 1970s adult movie about a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon who falls in love with a sassy waitress named LaQuanza. It sells eighteen million copies, and is hailed by music critics as ‘the seminal post-racial artwork of this, or any, millennium’.

So ends my forecast for the year 2014. Some of these things may come to pass; some will not; some may even look tame when reflected in the reality that comes to meet us. The future is a puzzling thing; no less a man than George Orwell had a great fear of it, which manifested itself in his works. This sense of foreboding is nowhere better illustrated than in an achingly bleak line from 1984: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’

While I don’t think I’ve quite reached the depths of Orwellian cynicism just yet, it must be said that the pain in my face seems to be increasing exponentially with each passing year. Happy New Year you shower of bastards.


Ode to Osama

In the wake of the recent Kenyan shopping centre attack, much opprobrium centred on the alleged role of a 29-year old British woman, Samantha Lewthwaite, or ‘The White Widow’, the somewhat derivative but admittedly catchy sobriquet bestowed on her. Lewthwaite was married to 7 July 2005 suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay, and is currently wanted by Interpol in relation to suspected terrorist activity.

After raiding her house in Mombasa, Kenya recently, detectives found a laptop that betrayed a long history of research into chemicals and bomb making. They also found a 34-line elegiac poem to the deceased al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the full text of which can be found here.

This fulsome ode in honour of a murderous terrorist has, unsurprisingly, outraged Britain’s conservative media. As a response, and in order to evoke the average Briton’s take on such an unpalatable affair, the Daily Mail recently organised its own poetry compilation, accepting submissions from ordinary people around the country on the subjects of bin Laden, religious extremism, and modern, multicultural Britain.

Below is an extract from the collection of poems, with observations by the renowned Mail columnist Richard LittleEngland, an effusive, outspoken commentator known for his traditional values and moral fortitude.

~

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural Daily Mail poetry compendium. We’ve been inundated with responses from people who love their country and their way of life. Reading your entries has made me even prouder than usual to be British. Below is just a small flavour of the poems we’ve received, with brief analysis from yours truly, Richard LittleEngland.

(P.S. Don’t forget, my new book, No Thanks, We’re Full: The Real ‘Big Issue’ of Our Time is available to buy in all good bookshops from next Monday.)

~

There once was a menacing sheikh
Who had the inordinate cheek
To proclaim his disdain
With a couple of planes
But the Yanks put an end to his clique

Trevor, Middlesex

Excellent work, Trevor. He was a cheeky old sod alright, wasn’t he? I always think of limericks as the lost art form.

~

Go home ragheads,
We don’t want you here
20 quid to the airport?
I’ll get a white driver next time
But I still like curry

John, Barnsley

Well…that’s a courageous use of the free verse technique John, I’ll give you that. Moving on…

~

The fire of Islam
Hot embers slip through the grate
It’s smoky in here

Quentin, Cambridge

Nice haiku, Quentin. A bit highbrow though, don’t you think? Try not to show off so much.

~

The boy from Riyadh, a gun in his hand,
Knew no other course but that of martyr
The infidel had raped his land,
From ancient Maghreb to modern Jakarta

Armed by those he wished to destroy,
He held his hand and played their pawn
Within him burned a latent ploy,
He would enact before the dawn

And on young minds his words did prey,
His lecture holding them in thrall
Until he sent them on their way,
As New York summer turned to fall

But monsters thus are never born,
And not for nothing was his scorn

Rob, Edinburgh

Eh, I think you’ve missed the point here Rob. Don’t you love your country? Or are you a Communist? Come on people, let’s get back on message…

~

Muslims in my corner shop,
Muslims on my street
Muslims wearing silly dresses,
Muslims in bare feet
Muslims taking all our jobs,
Muslims on the social,
Muslims fucking everywhere,
Muslims by the bowlful,
Muslims.

Lee, Bradford

Great stuff Lee, that’s more like it. I especially liked the part about the Muslims.

~

Whence this veiled threat?
Kabul? Khartoum? Or simply Kaboom?

East, West, Yin or Yang?
Josiah, Sharia, Qu’ran or Kerrang?

We offend the effendi,
A jihad he had

Fat chance a fatwa
From distant Islamabad

Will Allah wither
Or whither Allah?

Sunni or Sunnah
In sunny Caliphornia?

Stephen, London

Eh…it’s a bit esoteric, isn’t it Steve? That’s not even how you spell California. You bloody public schoolboys are too clever for your own good. 

~

An angel’s smile is what you sell
You promised me Heaven, then put me through Hell
Chains of love got a hold on me
When passion’s a prison, you can’t break free

Osama, you’re a loaded gun
Osama, there’s nowhere to run
No one can save you
The damage is done

Shot through the heart
And you’re to blame
You gave Islam a bad name (bad name)
I played my part and you played your game
You gave Islam a bad name (bad name)
Yeah, you gave Islam, a bad name

Deborah, Swansea

Bravo Deborah, a tour de force. Although it seems slightly familiar to me, I hope it’s all your own work?

~

And so ends our poetic celebration of Britain. Let this stand as a testament of our resolve in the face of political correctness and multiculturalism gone mad. Join us next week in the Arts and Culture section, when we’ll be seeking submissions of paintings and sculptures that capture the failings of the NHS.


The Bruce and Clark Expedition

The last decade or so has seen comic book culture pervade Hollywood’s every intimate crevice, in a fashion not unlike a sentient mass of locusts that take it upon themselves to permeate a cornfield, an allegorical biblical tale, or a locust convention. It is as if the town were bitten by a giant spider, which instead of bestowing super powers upon it, instead infused it with an irrepressible zeal for explosions, sequels, repetition, explosions, and sequels. And repetition. With the subtlety of the hammer of Thor himself, and all the panache of a Chris Hemsworth facial expression, Disney and Warner Brothers have taken turns to beat us over the head with their revamped versions of comic book superheroes.

Some of these films have been fantastic; the best of them usually combining a darker, more contemporary spin on the original character, with a self-effacing sense of humour that gives due respect to the source material – a sort of referential reverence that never strays into outright parody. Unfortunately though, for every Dark Knight there is a Daredevil lurking in the shadows. Or perhaps in plain sight; it’s not as if he’d know the difference. And in recent years, the balance in the comic book movie multiverse has definitively shifted not towards Christopher Nolan’s Yin, but rather headfirst into Ben Affleck’s Yang (ooh, matron).

Like any creature in the midst of its death throes, this leviathan is currently preoccupied with firing desperate parting salvos in a brave attempt to delay the inevitable. The latest of these is a mooted sequel to the recent commercially successful but much- (and somewhat unfairly) maligned Man of Steel, set for a 2015 release. The big news is that it will see Henry Cavill’s Superman cross paths with DC’s other marquee attraction, Batman. With anticipation already feverishly high, one does not envy the burden placed on the shoulders of Zack Snyder to revitalise an ailing mini-industry with his impending blockbuster.

What kind of dynamic can we expect between the two heroes? Will they overcome their moral, political and sartorial differences and become fast friends? Will Lex Luthor loudly ridicule them for being a pair of tights-wearing orphan homosexuals? Well, two years is too long to wait to answer these questions, so here’s an account of what we might expect to see…

~

Bruce Wayne closed his eyes as he lay back into the luxurious bubble bath Alfred had drawn for him. His body was bruised from his night’s work, and he could not remember the last time he took some time to himself to unwind. As the soothing tones of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus overture filled Wayne Manor’s opulent bathroom, Bruce felt himself drifting off to sleep.

The sound of the doorbell woke Wayne from his snooze with a jolt. As he wondered who could be calling at this late hour, he tentatively lifted himself out of the bath and wrapped a towel around his waist. When he reached the landing he looked down to find Alfred inside the front door, accompanied by a gigantic figure that Bruce had no difficulty recognising.

‘Mister Kent to see you, Sir.’

‘Thank you Alfred,’ he replied after a pause. The butler headed for the kitchen, leaving the two men staring fixedly at each other in silence. Bruce’s visitor narrowed his eyes as he looked up the staircase.

‘Is that a bat on your towel?’

Bruce clenched his teeth and replied with a snarl,

‘Is that a giant S on your suitcase?’

‘It’s not an S,’ Clark retorted. ‘It means hope.’

‘Funny way of spelling hope,’ Bruce muttered to himself as he walked down the stairs towards his guest.

‘You know I have super hearing?’

‘Yeah I found that out at Wonder Woman’s Christmas party.’

‘It’s not my fault I couldn’t sleep with you and her going at-’

‘Okay, I’m not having this conversation again. Come on, I need a drink.’

The two sat by the fire in the study, Clark sipping from a glass of lemonade as Bruce nursed a tumbler of whiskey. Kent squirmed as he tried to fit his giant torso comfortably into the armchair.

‘Will you be careful you big lump?’

‘This chair is impossibly small.’

‘Just take it easy, everything in here is an antique.’

‘What about that Nintendo Wii?’

‘That’s…Alfred’s,’ Bruce replied curtly.

‘That must be his Wii dance mat in the cupboard then.’

‘Look, did you just come here to show off your silly little powers or is there a point to this visit?’

Clark set down his glass and sighed deeply,

‘Look, I’m sorry to bother you so late Bruce but…I was wondering if I could stay for a few days. I…kind of got evicted today.’

‘Evicted? Don’t you live in some giant igloo somewhere? The Fortress of Platitude or something?’

‘Solitude. Yeah…that melted. You know, climate change and all that. I’ve been living in an apartment for a few months now.’

‘What did you do, break all their antique armchairs?’

Clark glowered at him, ‘No, I…burnt the building down.’

‘You did what?’

‘I know, I know. I was tired, my microwave was broken, I tried to cook one of those ready meal things with my heat vision…next thing I know the place is covered in goose fat and the walls are on fire.’

‘Christ, Clark.’

‘The worst part is I was supposed to be doing Celebrity Masterchef next week. Fat chance now.’

Bruce drained his glass and rose from his chair.

‘You can stay as long as you need to Clark. Come on, you can sleep in Robin’s room.’

‘He’s not here?’

‘No, he’s off following One Direction on their tour around Europe.’

Kent looked at him quizzically.

‘Yeah, I know. Don’t get me started.’

‘Thanks, Bruce.’

Wayne grunted in response and walked towards the door.

‘Oh and don’t touch his mineral collection. When people touch his minerals he goes-‘

‘Batshit crazy?’ interjected Clark with a wry smile.

‘You know I could think of a few other things that S could stand for.’

~

When Bruce entered the kitchen the next morning he found Clark preparing an omelette for breakfast.

‘Morning roomie,’ Kent chimed.

‘Don’t call me that,’ Bruce replied flatly as he sat at the table.

‘You break those eggs yourself? I’m surprised the house is still standing.’

Clark cast him a withering look.

‘Silly me, I thought the Joker was behind bars, but here he is in the flesh.’

‘Christ, don’t talk to me about that maniac. He still writes, you know. Last week he sent me one of his shits in the post.’

‘Good lord.’

‘I know. Not to mention all the other crazies he brought crawling out of the woodwork.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘This card was left at a crime scene last week, have a look and see what you think.’

Clark peered down at the card Bruce slid across the table. It had a question mark on one side, and an almost unintelligible scrawl on the other. Clark read the words aloud, ‘What grows smaller every time you use it?’

‘That’s a bit vague, isn’t it?’

‘Tell me about it. The last few nights I’ve gone to soap producers, pencil manufacturers, tyre yards, candlemakers…’

‘Not to mention pretty much all liquids,’ added Clark. ‘And foods. Cosmetics, toiletries, I mean it could be nearly anything.’

‘Yeah I know. It really is a terrible riddle. Still, it’s the only lead I have. I’m going out tonight to check out the giant eraser factory downtown.’

‘I’ll go with you Bruce, I’m dying for a bit of action. It seems like all I’ve been doing recently is rescuing kittens, freeing people handcuffed to radiators, that kind of thing. I could do with a bit of supervillainy for a change.’

‘What about Luthor?’

‘He disappeared a few months ago after that failed attempt to steal the Taj Mahal.’

‘He’s nothing if not ambitious, that man.’

After nightfall the two heroes made their way to the Batcave. They changed into their suits, Clark waiting impatiently as Bruce put the finishing touches to his black eye shadow. Moments later the roar of the Batmobile’s engine shattered the silence of the still evening, as the pair sped towards town.

‘It’s a bit cramped in here isn’t it?’

‘We don’t all have the luxury of flight, Clark.’

Kent frowned pensively.

‘Why is your symbol a bat then? Surely it should be something a bit more sedentary. How about a panda? You’ve got the eyes down already.’

Wayne ignored Clark, who continued to fidget distractedly.

‘What does this button do?’

‘Don’t!’

Clark looked on in amazement as the entire back seat of the vehicle was transformed. A plush velvet couch revolved into view, accompanied by an ice-bucket and an expensive-looking bottle of champagne. The lights dimmed to a soft, golden hue, and the unmistakeably smooth voice of Al Green reverberated around the car’s interior.

‘Eh…you know Bruce, I like you as a friend and fellow superhero, but…’

‘Don’t even start,’ growled a seething Wayne, pressing the button again as the car reverted to its original layout.

‘This is where I have to do most of my…entertaining. Alfred doesn’t like me bringing girls home since those two hookers stole the Caravaggios from the drawing room last year.’

A few minutes later they arrived at the entrance to the factory, and got out to have a look around.

‘I’ll fly around and see if anything’s happening,’ said Clark.

‘Right, I’ll see if I can get inside.’

Bruce made his way to the back entrance, a rusty door that was bolted and padlocked. It only took him seconds to unpick the lock, and he pulled the door back to reveal the pitch black interior of the building. Just as he stepped inside, a cloud of gas appeared with a hiss and enveloped him. Bruce slumped to the ground, trying to call for help, but to no avail. His head hit the cold concrete floor, and he faded into unconsciousness.

~

When Bruce opened his eyes his vision was blurred. His head was pounding and it took a moment to regain his bearings. He looked down to see that he had been chained to the inner wall of the building. He pulled at his shackles with all his strength, but to no avail. To his right he noticed Clark, who had been similarly fastened. He appeared to be conscious, though his head was bowed, and he looked groggy.

‘Clark,’ he whispered. ‘Come on, break your chains.’

Kent was unresponsive. It was then that Bruce noticed a small green crystal hung on the wall just above his friend’s head. His heart sank as he realised what it was.

‘Well, I see you finally solved my riddle,’ came a high-pitched voice from the darkness, as a tall, gangly figure loomed into view.

Bruce surveyed the madman with contempt.

‘Yeah, it was a real head-scratcher. So you’ve just been sitting around here all week waiting fo-’

‘Silence!’ he shrieked, a look of anguish contorting his sunken features.

‘Let’s strike a deal, fellas,’ he continued, a frenzied smile crossing his lips.

‘Solve my next riddle, and I’ll let you walk away right now.’

Wayne glanced warily at Clark as the Riddler spoke in verse,

‘This two-headed beast is black and blue,

Its night of sleuthing gone askew.’

Bruce responded immediately.

‘Well…that’s us obviously.’

The Riddler’s manic grin slipped from his face.

‘So we can go now?’

‘I’m afraid not,’ boomed a voice from the shadows.

A hunched figure stepped forward into the light, his hairless dome gleaming above the evil visage that was twisted with malevolence. He turned to the Riddler,

‘Edward, we really need to talk about your villain persona. These riddles are just ridiculous.’

‘Oh really, Lex?’ he responded, his voice becoming louder and more agitated.

‘I suppose I’ll just tell my mother I don’t want the question mark onesie that she spent a whole weekend making for me?’

Lex sighed in frustration and turned to his prisoners.

Bruce calmly met his sinister gaze.

‘Cute pet,’ he quipped.

Lex smiled scornfully in response.

‘Simply a means to an end. And now that I have you two under control, that end is looking pretty close.’

Lex retreated to a control panel and flipped some switches. The building lit up instantly, revealing an enormous contraption that looked like a giant antenna of some kind. It began to emit a powerful humming noise, as if it was powering up.

‘You see,’ Lex continued, ‘I’ve been dabbling in software development. A week ago I released an app so fiendishly addictive that every smartphone user in the world has downloaded it. And now I’ll activate the signal I hid in the coding, rendering every one of them a mindless automaton, ready to do my bidding.’

Wayne scoffed at this declaration.

‘You can’t possibly have created something that addictive.’

‘Oh no? I used the most complex algorithm known to man to calculate each variable. It uses data from every meme on the internet to ensure maximum effectiveness.’

‘So what is it?’ asked Bruce.

‘Well, it’s basically just Angry Birds. Except instead of birds and pigs, you throw tiny Nicolas Cage heads at those minions from Despicable Me.’

Wayne’s eyes widened in shock as he imagined the millions of people enthralled by such a prospect.

The Riddler perked up. ‘Ooh, that sounds like fun. Can I play?

Lex ignored him and went on.

‘I’ll have an army at my disposal to…’

‘To overthrow the world’s governments,’ finished Bruce, shaking his head disconsolately.

‘What? No, I don’t want some stuffy office job ruling over billions of cretins. I’m going to have them steal the Taj Mahal for me.’

Bruce stared at him in disbelief.

‘You really have your heart set on that, don’t you?’

Lex cackled to himself as he moved his hand over the console and prepared to turn on the antenna.

A deafening crash echoed throughout the building, as suddenly scores of men in FBI jackets streamed in through the entrances, and rappelled down from the ceiling. Within an instant dozens of guns were trained on Lex. His face etched with fury as he raised his hands, Luthor turned to his accomplice.

‘You idiot. Did you send the feds one of your stupid little non-riddles?’

‘No, I swear I didn’t. I was going to, but I couldn’t think of anything that rhymes with Taj Mahal.’

An officer stepped forward from the crowd and addressed Lex,

‘It’s the NSA you have to thank, Luthor. They intercepted an e-mail sent by you to your mother, in which you explained your plot in painstaking detail.’

‘You damned tyrants!’ Lex screamed as he and the Riddler were taken away. ‘Don’t you see what you’ve become? All I wanted was the Taj Mahal!’

The officer turned to Bruce and Clark as they were being cut from their chains.

‘Well, another terrorist cell safely disposed of. Thanks for your help, guys.’

Bruce frowned. ‘Eh, well I don’t think they really qualify as a terr-’

‘Yep,’ the officer continued as he walked away, ‘a good day for freedom.’

~

Bruce opened the door to Robin’s room to see Clark sitting up in bed, looking like his usual self again. He sat by the bedside.

‘Feeling better?’

‘Yeah, thanks.’

‘Well, take your time. With those two off the streets, I don’t think we’ll have to deal with any more supervillains for quite a while.’

There was a knock at the door, and Alfred entered with a parcel.

‘Excuse me sirs, but this just arrived. The postmark says Arkham Asylum.’

‘Christ,’ exclaimed Bruce, ‘what the hell is that smell?’

‘Give that here, Alfred,’ said Clark, who stood up and took the package. He went to the window, opened it, and pulled his arm back over his shoulder.

~

The astronauts on the International Space Station were going through their daily systems check. A voice crackled in the ear of Lieutenant Chris Johnson as he inspected the communications array.

‘Uh, Chris, radar is showing an unidentified bogey passing by. It should be visible from the east viewing panel. Can you check it out?’

‘Roger, I’m here now, I’ll have a look. Oh Jesus…’

‘What is it?’

‘Well, it’s…hard to say.’

‘Well come on Chris, what the hell is it?’ laughed the astronaut.

‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane?’

‘It’s a box of shit, Frank.’

‘Well I know that Chris, but for the next five months it’s home, so get used to it.’