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Your New Year peek at "Orbital Spam"



I KEEP HAVING BLACKOU—

‘I had another blackout yesterday, Mi Duck.’

Pekin-Cayuga – as I call her – sniffed, ‘Shush, Emmerdale’s just starting.’

‘I keep having’em. Getting more frequent. Yesterday, I was watching some programme by that Attenborough feller, about wild cats, and I thought I must have dozed off. So I rewound it, and I’d completely missed about two minutes.’

She wasn’t listening; she was off with the Dingles.

‘Then it happened again today.’ I don’t give up easily, though Emmerdale or Coro always win in the end. ‘I was in the garden,’ I told her, ‘and I suddenly had no recollection of pruning that ginkgo in the corner. But I’d trimmed back a dozen overlong shoots. They’re underlong now.’

Tuesday morning, the same. I had another dead spell, standing at the bus stop. I missed the 7.50 and the 8.05. Made me twenty minutes late to work. ‘You’re going to have to watch out for this, Harold,’ my boss warned me. ‘Can’t have this getting to be a habit.’

Course, the doc hadn’t got an appointment for three days. ‘Now, that’s a touch worrying,’ I told Jerimiah The Cat. ‘I worry about the NHS sometimes.’

Then again – One minute I was chatting with Pete Next Door, and I shook my head and had no idea what he’d just been saying. Something boring. Probably about their yappy dog. Next minute, he’s asking if I’m alright. ‘You stood there motionless for a minute or more. Gone, you were. I kept waving a hand in front of you, and calling you. Then you came back… It was as if somebody pinched your mind for a minute,’ he told me. ‘Totally gone. You sure weren’t here.’

So I rang 111 – the non-emergency-but-bloody-worrying number and they told me to ring 112. They practically laughed and said I was a time waster and should go to A&E if I was worried. I said, ‘I daren’t drive.’

And they said it didn’t warrant an ambulance and I should go to my GP.

And I said, ‘He doesn’t have any appointments until Friday.’

So on Friday, I was sitting in the waiting room – half an hour behind on appointments as usual, and the next thing I knew some woman was tapping me and saying ‘Is that you? Your name on the screen? That’s twice they’ve called you.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ The doc smugly informed me before he even started on the blood pressure, pulse rate, height and weight, lung capacity, then got on to abdominal tightening, on the spot exercises, and some quick mental questions, before repeating, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, but if you’re still worried, I’ll take some blood for testing. You can go for an EEG scan this afternoon at the Walker Street Clinic. It’ll take ten days to get the results back, so make an app…’

That was the last thing I heard. That surprised him, except he thought I was acting the fool, and was pretty irritated with me by the time I came round. ‘I might have epilepsy or psychogenic somethings, Doctor. I’m clearly not drunk, and my blood looks well oxygenated, and you just told me I’m not on any contra-medications.’

So I was at Walker Crescent at 3.00 p.m. and they rigged me up with wires and sticky bits everywhere. Half an hour later, they checked the readings. There was a dead four-minute patch in the middle. ‘This is the reading we’d get off a corpse,’ the technician told me, really supportively.

So, with nothing better to do, and dying to play with their new £8,000 toy plus extra software they decided to experiment with possible causes – bright lights, flickering lights, high-pitched squeaks, squawks, low drones, needle pricks, electric contacts… Nothing. I told’em, ‘You should try me on blue cheese, chocolate and alcohol. They might be the trigger.’

‘Interesting,’ they said, and kept me on the bed for another hour, and a nurse sat and watched me while I’m wired up to another dozen monitors – pulse, BP, ECG… But the nurse fell asleep and didn’t see what I was doing when my cut-off happened again. Six minutes dead.

They got me back into the monitoring suite next day. I was half an hour late – doesn’t time fly sometimes? And they had me on some kind of MRI scanner. ‘Functional magnetic resonance,’ White-Coat One said, very sagely. ‘Plus a pair of cameras. We don’t want people dying in here and coming back to life. Not without us understanding it, anyway. Do you mind if we get a group of students in? You’ll be a good little study for them.’

Five minutes later there were thirteen of us in there. With me answering a few dim-student questions whilst they checked me over and fitted me up. And, ‘Yes, I think I had a couple more episodes during the night at home – once eating my supper. It was gone without me noticing anything. I thought my wife took it away, but I didn’t know if I ate any of it.’ They all looked at me like I was Hair-brain Harold. ‘And the other one, judging from the cat’s wide-eyed and ears-back yowling, had been when we’d gone to bed. Sometime in the night, I woke on top of the covers. Stark naked, so I must have walked round in my sleep.’

After an enthusiastic initial interest, the students went off the boil and half of them were texting or surfing. Until one of the technicians manning the apparatus, started tapping the equipment and adjusting the wiring, and his colleague was poking at me, as if making sure I was still there. Muttering and puzzling in jargon about I had an adiabatic fast passage and resonance inversion combined with zero-filling interpolations. Something like that.

‘The contrast dropped around four percent, on the cameras.’ White-coat One explained.

‘But we don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the gear, or the readings.’ WC2 was still poking at the dials. ‘We’re re-checking all the calibrations.’

‘We thought it was you who faded,’ one of the spotty students piped up, and was promptly hushed.

‘We pretended that was why we were poking at you.’ The cheeky-faced little blonde one sniggered.

‘The EEG showed all your brain activity suddenly stopped,’ White-coat Two re-joined the discussion, ‘for forty-eight seconds, exactly when you seemed to have partially faded away. ‘Readings show your blood pressure had frozen still, heart stopped, no breathing.’

‘You were dead. Forty-eight seconds. It’s as though your mind had gone – total absence of activity.’

‘Not much change there, according to my missus – and it’s her who watched Emmerdale.’

‘And some of your body had gone with it.’

‘Precisely 4.1016 percent.’ WC2 rechecked his figures.

‘It was as if you’d gone a bit see-through,’ a quite-dishy studenty lass said.

‘All my mind, and part of my body? It’s a proper mystery, isn’t it?’ I sort of goaded them for self-entertainment.

‘Not a part of you… more accurately, a percentage of you.’

‘You had sort of… er, thinned out.’

‘Become less substantial.’

‘Are you an alien?’

‘Aren’t students wonderful?’ I said to White-coats One and Two.

The registrar led them in a discussion of what they would need to know and observe to determine whether or not I was an alien… or if a proportion of me really had miraculously vanished for a moment. She can’t be taking the idea seriously!

The main thing she needed, it was astutely decided, would be more tests. And my complete medical history, ‘If you have one?’

‘Course I have.’ I was affronted at that. ‘Cheeky moo. I was born a mile away, been registered at the Church Avenue Medical Centre ever since. They’ll have all my records – plus my mum’s and dad’s. I’m as normal as you lot.’ I looked round the students. ‘More than most of you.’

Then they sent for The Consultant. ‘He’s exceptionally erudite,’ they said. But he had no more idea than anybody else, although he asked the students and his registrar all sorts of questions to guide their wonderings. I’m lying on the bed in a theatre gown and—

—and they’re all agog and gabbling away and got their phones out taking pics of me – lying there naked. ‘Ay-up,’ I said, ‘Put’em away. I’m starkers.’

My gown had gone. It was underneath me. The wires and pads were off, too. I was lying on them. ‘What happened? Did all of me vanish for a second?’ I’m trying not to be too obvious about covering myself up, but it’s not easy when you are actually stark bollock and they’re all snappy-happy.

‘No, not one second,’ they delightedly informed me. ‘Four minutes.’

‘And you were gone, body and mind. Total.’

‘You disappeared, and your gown just flopped down, like it was deflated.’ Blondie demonstrated with puffy cheeks and falling hands.

‘I don’t know where you’ve been, but you weren’t here…’ The consultant informed me; rather haughtily, I thought.

‘Doctor Kota was feeling all over the bed; she didn’t believe it. Just as well she’d taken her hands away when you popped back…’

‘I was holding my breath… almost counting, expecting you back any second.’

‘You sure you’re not an alien trying to Go Home?’

‘Y’ pack of silly sods.’ I told’em. ‘Bloody students.’

They were all laughing, sort of nervously, and keeping a bit further back. So I pulled the gown out from under me and dragged it back on while the students debated and disbelieved and reviewed the evidence on their mobiles; and the consultant and registrar mumbled about late for lunch; and White-coats One and Two poked and re-calibrated and mentioned phase encoding gradients while they replayed their squiggles.

I mean, I felt fine, except it was a bit worrying. ‘Do you really suppose I could be an ET type – bright green, with great big eyes, long neck and no dick?’ I asked the consultant, and peeked inside the gown to re-check.

They managed to rewind the room-cam, and – ‘Yep, see. The cameras don’t lie.’ They replayed the whole thing. ‘See? You weren’t there. The whole of that time.’ It was a bit scary, actually. I really had just vanished off the padding, with my gown and wires flopping flat.

‘We need to get the weight monitors under you. The sort we use to keep a check on long-term bed-bound cases.’

They were easing even further away from me, as if they’d catch something. ‘We need to analyse all the data we’ve gathered… consult together.’

‘In private.’

That was obviously so they could admit they were baffled and not show themselves up in front of me, the nurses and the two radiologist-technician-white-coat bods.

They trooped out and left the nurses to find a patient-in-bed weigher. Back in two minutes flat, the nurses were cackling, ‘We nicked the Detecto from GW stores,’ they said, and rolled me on one side, laid a mat under me, and rolled me back the other way to get it straight. Checking the calibration to zero, they eventually left it to the technicians, who happily busied themselves refitting my wires and sticky pads.

Right, I’m thinking: First, this is getting more frequent; second, they haven’t got a clue; third, they’re imagining I’m playing tricks on them – their own mass hysteria or something; and fourthly: that last time, I had a vague impression of something occurring during those four minutes.

‘I think I saw face-like things,’ I told the nurses. ‘They might have been big-eyed, or perhaps got goggles on. Wiggly mouths.’

‘You’ve been listening to too many alien-minded students,’ the nurses dismissed me. They clearly weren’t going to pay attention to such newly-invented drivel from me, so I addressed the two technicians, ‘What is this? Have you transferred me to some experimental lab in Area 51 while I was away with the… fairies? I was seeing something bright, all shifting, as though I was seeing it through swirling water. And there were some sounds, Japanese –type music, all weird and ghastly… or ghostly, similar to some Gagaku stuff in a NipponHK travel doc I was watching the other week.’

They looked at each other and stepped a little further away, ‘The cameras are still on,’ they warned me. ‘Mind what you say, or they’ll have you in the looney bin.’

Buggerit, I was in deep do-dos here. The more I strained to recall anything, the more I was getting an impression of… someone. Something had been looming over me. Weird Close Encounters-type faces. Perhaps trying to touch me, feel at me. The weirdo Jap sounds might have been made by them, not just floating in the air. Fruckerty-foo – if you had a voice that sounded like drifting flutes and a banjo being plucked at a tenth the usual rate. Soddit, this’s getting creepy. I’m definitely not dreaming. I resisted the urge to pinch myself – I never could imagine what good that would do.


The nurses and apparatus duo kept popping back and assuring me, while they wandered round with coffees and sheets, coils of wire and headsets. ‘You’re okay, you’re definitely alive; all the readings are fine…’

‘You’re looking good; healthy…’

White-coat One peered up from his readings. ‘Apart from keeping vanishing, of course.’

‘What do you mean,’ I sat up. ‘“keeping vanishing”? It’s only happened the once.’

‘Er, no. Twice more in the past half-hour. We’ve messaged Mr Clitheroe, but he and his firm are holding one their review-lunches. They can take some time. We just laid the covers over you, and slotted the main headset on. We thought, if you’re going to keep doing it, we’d better keep a spare sheet handy...’

‘I don’t keep doing it – it keeps doing it to me. I’m not long for this world, then?’

They looked shocked that I would say such a thing, but then realised I meant it literally… and sort of laughed. Glanced at each other. Seemed a tad nervous.

‘And the Detecto shows twelve-stone-six lighter for each period. That’s the whole of you.’

‘All the readings all zeroed out, too.’

‘Away with the fairies again, was I?’


It’s happened another time now, and I was ready for it, almost. Mostly surprised that it had come just about when I was expecting it – a dream waiting for me. I just knew I’d be in that dream place again. And the little buggers in the dream seemed very real. They were ready for me, too, trying to speak directly to me in that fluty-banjo noise. I got the impression they were desperate to get something over to me. Mentally pressuring me. I thought, and poking fingery things into me, the same as the students had been doing. They’re after something… wanting something from me… seemed very eager…

I could see the readout on the Detecto weighing screen – little green digits – “12st: 2lb.” Eh? That means I’ve lost five pounds in the past half-hour. Maybe I didn’t all come back? I’m thinning out. White-coats were puzzling over the accuracy of the readouts, not what they meant, and only grunted without hearing when I asked about it.

‘Something in their weird sounds seemed familiar,’ I was telling the nurses. ‘Almost conveyed some meaning to me. I think I must be getting used to it.’ But I don’t think these two nurses care all that much. They never looked up from their texting, anyway. Perhaps they’d understand if I talked in Japanese Gagaku tones? Or adopt a silly high-pitched voice and sing the “Ying Tong” song?

Well, I’m lying here with these four, plus the cameras, ‘Not going to offer me anything to eat or drink?’ I asked, ages ago. I’m sure they don’t understand English… Unless it’s me who’s not speaking English any longer?

‘Hey, that’s a worrying thought…’ But I checked – I said a silly tongue-twister about Mrs Hunt – it could never be translated into Weirdo Nipponese, so I must still be speaking English.

Anyway, I reckon I’ve had two more in the last ten minutes. It’s not as though the machine beeps or anything, and the two techies have gone off for a break… the nurses are nattering and texting… and I saw the weight readout – 11st: 1lb. ‘That’s more than another stone! They’re getting better at keeping bits of me.’ But they weren’t going to look up from their phones.

The way things have been going, a couple more decent blackouts should do it. So the docs and students won’t have anybody to gawp at when they get back from lunch.

That’ll really give’em something to think abou—

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