It seems that a formatting issue crept into a small section of Nicola Caines' story is issue 32. The fault was entirely mine, and whilst the error is small, I recognize it may well have interrupted the flow of the piece for some.
I'm very thankful to Nicola who has allowed me to publish her story here so if you want to, you can read the piece a little more easily.
The error was all mine for which I can only apologize.
By Nicola Caines
“Hello, and welcome to ‘News and Views’.” The presenter, impeccably groomed, flashed a smile to camera. ”It’s 8.00am. on 25th February, 2030. I’m Lorraine Hill and my guests today are Feverell Marsh, Managing Director of Snuggle Food Products, the Hon. John Tripper MP, junior health minister, and Dr Marisa Coleman of the Food Safety Executive.
“Can I start with you, Mr Marsh? This - “ Lorraine tapped a blue-bound folder on the table in front of her ” - is the latest report on the health implications of children’s eating habits, the tenth in the last thirty years, and it’s the same old story, isn’t it? Sixty-eight percent of children are obese or have other diet-related health problems. Will your company accept that it and its competitors are largely responsible?”
“Certainly not, Lorraine.” Feverell Marsh assumed an expression of pained sincerity. ”It always remains a matter of consumer choice. We merely offer a palatable – and popular – range of products, packed with nutrients. Our products make a useful contribution to a balanced diet.”
”Surely you can’t deny that many of them contain large quantities of sugar.” Figures from the report were streaming on the right-hand side of the screen as Lorraine spoke. “And it’s been demonstrated beyond doubt that this can lead to obesity, behavioral problems, diabetes and so on.”
“Naturally we add a certain amount of sugar, simply to improve the taste and ensure consumer satisfaction. But, as I say, within the confines of an overall balanced approach –“
Lorraine turned to the interviewee on her left. ”Dr Marisa Coleman, do you agree that some sugar in the diet is perfectly acceptable?”
“No-one is suggesting that people should avoid sugar completely.” Dr Coleman’s eyes gleamed behind her black-rimmed glasses. ”But Mr Marsh is implying that all responsibility lies with the consumer.”
“Well, no. Consumers can’t make reasonable choices unless they are properly informed, and this is hindered by the advertising used. It’s been estimated that children receive over 1000 product-related messages every day from the commercial media.” Dr Coleman grimaced. ”They don’t eat food any more, they consume products - which are so bland the only way to make them palatable is by adding high levels of sugar and flavourings. That’s unacceptable.”
“Mr Tripper,“ Lorraine said, ”companies like Mr Marsh’s employ a great many people. Doesn’t that mean they can put pressure on the government?
John Tripper edged forward in his seat. “It’s really not the case that the government is bowing to business pressure on this issue,” he said. ”If statistics suggest children’s diets are unhealthy – and at the end of the day it’s the health service that picks up the tab for that, don’t forget – we don’t accept that stricter regulation of the advertising industry is key to improvement. Popular culture must take its share of the blame, and parents have responsibility too, of course. However- “ He smiled, showing neat even teeth.”I believe most people are sensible enough to make wise choices about what their kids eat. I don’t intend to patronise them by assuming otherwise.”
“One further point, if I may. It’s long been accepted that portion sizes of high fat foods in the fast food industry are a contributing factor to obesity. Companies such as Macdonald’s, working in co-operation with the Department of Health, have made great progress in regulating this problem. We’re beginning to see the effects but it will take time – “
Ariel Benbow flipped channels contemptuously. It was always the same. Too many vested interests. Too much inertia to overcome. And meanwhile – kids out of control on sugar and additive fuelled highs, increasing rates of heart disease, stroke, child cancers. Or Matthew’s problem, the one they both had to live with. When he’d got ill, Ariel’s first response had been to program a block on the commercial TV channels but he knew he was closing the stable door long after the horse had disappeared over the horizon. In fact, it had probably had time to raise half a dozen foals and subside into a resigned old age.
He sighed, opened the fridge and took out a carton of orange juice. His lips tightened at the sight of the phials of insulin. The bathroom cupboard was full of medical paraphernalia too: urine testing strips, multi-point syringes - less distressing than the old fashioned kind, but still a hassle. Twice a day now, possibly more in the future.
Diet was the unavoidable issue: everything Matthew put into his mouth had to be carefully considered. He’d been very good about it so far, but some of them got more rebellious as teenagers, or so Ariel had heard, hating the way their diabetes singled them out as different, resenting the constant discipline it demanded.
He realised he was still holding the fridge door and slammed it shut. He was to blame. He ought to have gone into the film industry when he had the chance. Instead, he had sold out to Snuggle Foods. There hadn’t been so many options for a specialist in cyber-controlled robotics back then.
He cringed at his hypocrisy. He’d worked for the company for nearly fifteen years, a major player on the team that had put together some of their best advertising, and he’d done well for himself - but at a price. His marriage had been the first casualty, then Matthew. His own son . . . such bitter irony. And what about all those other kids? What about them, he thought angrily. They’d got parents, hadn’t they? Parents as lazy and complacent as he’d been himself, flattered into acquiescence by the likes of mealy-mouthed Tripper. They needed a wake-up call, something to alert them.
And very soon now they were going to get it. He smiled grimly. The consequences of their neglect would be pointed out to them in a manner they couldn’t ignore. They’d see what it was like to have your kid damaged by these products. Not just kids either. Whoever opened the packet. That’d make them think, for once in their lives. The company as well. And why not? It was long overdue. Too late for many, of course, but not for all. He’d see to it that they paid for what they’d done. There was going to be trouble. Oh yes, there was going to be big trouble.
Ariel lifted the bag of porridge oats out of the kitchen cupboard. He measured four heaped spoonfuls into each bowl, added semi-skimmed milk and put them into the microwave. When it bleeped, he dumped a handful of blueberries on top and took them to the table.
“Matthew! Hurry up, it’s getting cold.” Why couldn’t he have done this years ago? It wasn’t difficult.
Matthew, bleary-eyed but dressed already in his school clothes, slipped onto his chair and began spooning porridge into his mouth. He was never very communicative first thing. Ariel resisted the urge to tell him about all the other kids sitting down this morning to a rather unexpected breakfast.
They’d trace it back to him, of course. Eventually. He’d used his own DNA as the marker for both the control program and the bio-engineered individuals. Those babies were more than just nixies. They were semi-organic, capable of quite sophisticated functioning, even simple decision-making. There’d never been anything like them on the market, and above all they were his – tiny, very simplified clones of himself. As if a bit of his brain controlled each one of them. He knew every move they’d make and no-one else did. He felt godlike.
He’d lose his job but who cared? There’d be books to write, film deals to pursue, TV appearances. He might go to prison, of course, but not for long. His babies could only keep going for an hour or so on natural daylight; no great harm would be done, no lasting damage. This show was limited duration only.
Impatiently, he ripped the top off, pulling apart the inner wrapping. He could hear them stirring as the light activated them, rustling among the crunchy cereal lumps like rats in a barn. He upended the pack and shook, gazing in delight as the tiny jewel-coloured figures swarmed across the table, shouting in high-pitched voices as they banded together.
The fighting was good too, just like real people, only it was like you were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Mostly they were armed with minute swords, spears or bows and arrows. A few had guns. It was exciting to see their muscles rippling as they moved, their chests heaving as they panted from their efforts.
But after a while they didn’t seem so interested in fighting any more. They began to gather in little groups at the edge of the table. As he watched, one in each group unwound thread-like ropes from around their waists and then they were abseiling down them. Fantasmo! His mum would go beserk if they got all over the kitchen. Some of them were already on the floor. He slid off his chair and knelt down to observe them more closely.
That was when he felt the first stinging pain, in his bare right foot. He twisted round to look. A female warrior with a metal bra and headband had stuck her little sword right into him. She pulled it out, snarling up at him, and a bead of bright red blood appeared where it had been. He stared at it. It didn’t hurt much, no more than a pinprick or an insect bite. But then there were more and more. Some of them were climbing his leg, several had leapt into his hair as he bent down to look, one was actually clinging to his nose. And all the time the sharp little stings were prickling his skin.
Then the first bullet, no bigger than a grain of sand, pinged into his arm.
“Mum!” he yelled. “Help!”
Newsreader: “Reports are coming in of attacks on children all over the country by tiny cyber-controlled robots known as “nixies”, included in cereal packets. The cereals in question are “Sugababes”, and “Krunchy Kombats”, both made by Snuggle Food Products. The nixies turned aggressive and attacked the children with minute weapons which proved surprisingly efficient.
“Questions are already being asked in the House of Commons about how the company managed to evade stringent safety regulations governing the manufacture of children’s toys.
“Mr Feverell Marsh, Deputy Managing Director of Snuggle Food Products, said: “We are assuming that the toys have been interfered with in some way by an outside agency, possibly terrorists. Snuggle Foods is in no way responsible for what has occurred, though we shall be conducting an extensive investigation into what went wrong.”
“One child, in Burnley, was taken to hospital after being stabbed in the eye, but there have been no other serious casualties. Police are advising parents to ensure that any unopened packs remain sealed and are returned as soon as possible to the store where they were purchased.
“The Prime Minister has made a statement that there is absolutely no cause for alarm.
“More on your news programmes later in the day. Now we return you to your regular BBC channels.”
“They’ll run out of power in an hour or so, Madam,” the man from the company had assured Lori Bennett on the telephone, once he’d managed to calm her down. “Just like the ones you’ve already disposed of.”
“But they could be anywhere by now!” she protested.” What if they come back to life again?”
“I assure you, Madam, that’s quite impossible. I can guarantee you won’t have any further trouble. This was simply a rogue batch. You’ll be reimbursed for the purchase, naturally, and I’m sorry for any inconvenience caused.”
“Inconvenience! It’s taken four hours to get through to you! I’ve been ringing and ringing, desperate to talk to a human being, and all I’ve had is recorded messages saying not to worry and everything’s under control. My son’s been hurt – all right, not seriously, but he’s been frightened too, and I’ll be wanting a bit more than reimbursement, I can tell you!”
“I can only apologise again.” The Snuggle Foods man was bored. He had had this conversation at least fifty times today. “I’m afraid the company switchboard has been jammed.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me? Rogue batch, indeed!”
“As I say, Madam, there’s really no need for concern.”
The house was quiet now, or at least no human ear could have detected any sound. Had the Bennetts possessed a dog, however, it was quite likely it might have raised its head from its paws, its ears pricking in the direction of the living room. Beneath the closed door, a line of pearly blue-ish light spilled out. Its source was the ultra-violet lamp which Lori’s mother used to treat her psorriasis. Tiny figures were ranged around it. Others were moving cautiously across the carpet, under the door, through the hall and into the kitchen.
They headed for the rubbish bin. There, roped together and using their swords and arrows as crampons, they made a slow but effective ascent of the huge plastic edifice, pushing their way under its swing lid. It didn’t take them long to locate the battered cardboard box with the remains of their comrades inside. Soon they were lowering the little bodies down the side of the bin, carrying them back to the living room.
Ten minutes in the life-giving beams of ultra-violet was all it would take. Ten minutes and they’d be reborn, ready to fulfill their purpose, continue their mission. Their Creator had endowed them with intelligence and they intended to use it. They might be small but their sense of injustice was strong, their hatred of tyranny stronger still. They would seek out others of their kind, and bring them to the Great Light. They would fight on against the giants.
This was just the beginning.