by DJ Burnham

When the repairman comes to call, Linda Piper is amazed at the results from her ameliorated breadmaker.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E





2015 AD: Earth

An avalanche of fluttering thuds announced the arrival of the post. Linda Piper bent to pick up the letters and assorted junk mail off the doormat, when something caught her eye. A small business card nestled among the bills, pizza-delivery leaflets, estate agent flyers and fabric conditioner samples. What had caught her attention was its design. It represented a bar of chocolate, foil peeled from the edge, temptingly revealing the contents. She laughed out loud. Instead of the name of a confectionery the letters carried an altogether, apparently, unrelated message:

John Smith
Anything repaired, as good as new—if not better
Competitive prices
Call today: 00042 6464 789 3

She carried it into the kitchen and placed it on top of the breadmaker, which had gone wrong two weeks previously just after the warranty had run out—naturally.

* * *

A few days later she remembered the card and phoned the repairman.

'Hello, John Smith speaking. How may I help you?'

'Ah, Mr. Smith, yes, I've got a breadmaker that isn't working properly. The lights are on but the raw ingredients aren't getting mixed and baked. I've got the details of the make, model and serial number if—'

'That won't be necessary, I'll be able fix it for you,' he interrupted her with disarming confidence.

'Oh, really?' She was a little put out at being stopped mid-flow. 'How much will it cost?'

'About ten euros.'

Is that all? she thought to herself. 'That seems very reasonable.'

'And I will only accept payment when it is working to your total satisfaction,' he added. 'Now then, what's your address?'

An hour later, holding a feather duster in her left hand, she opened the door to a remarkably healthy-looking gentleman, whom she judged to be in his late-forties, dressed in immaculately smart blue overalls and carrying a rectangular aluminium flight case.

'Good afternoon, Mrs. Piper. My name is John Smith, come to have a look at your breadmaker.'

'Oh, great, come through to the kitchen.' She led him along the hallway and past the stripped wooden door into the kitchen, gesturing to the machine with her duster as they entered the room. 'There it is. I've cleaned the last lot of ingredients out as best I can and I've dug out the instruction manual that came with it. Do you need anything?'

'No, that looks fine, thank you,' he replied, peering into the breadmaker's open lid, before examining the back panel for access. 'Just one thing.'


'I like to be left alone while I'm working, helps me to concentrate, I'm sure you understand.' He smiled reassuringly.

'Oh, right, yes of course. I'll let you get on with it,' she agreed, her eyes quickly darting to the kitchen table to check that she'd remembered to put her handbag and purse safely upstairs in the bedroom. 'Let me know when you're done,' she said, closing the door behind her and climbing the stairs to finish sorting out her summer clothes and cleaning the spare bedroom.

Ten minutes later she heard the kitchen door handle clunk and a voice called up the stairs, 'Mrs. Piper, it's ready for a test run if you'd like to give it a go.'

She trotted back downstairs expectantly. 'That was quick,' she remarked.

'Yes, it was a fairly simple fault and I carry a full range of spare parts.' Mr. Smith patted the aluminium case and grinned.

'Well, let's have a go at making a simple loaf, shall we?' Linda placed the pre-measured ingredients, along with some water, in the bread pan and set it off—a packet of bread mix would do for the test. Everything seemed to be working again. 'Would you like something to drink while we're waiting?'

'That's very kind of you but I've got a couple of other visits to make in the Hanover area this afternoon. Tell you what, stick the kettle on when the baking cycle is complete and I'll be back to see if everything's okay.'

'Shall I give you a call on your mobile?'

'No, that's okay, a basic loaf takes two hours and twenty minutes.' He glanced at his wristwatch. 'I'll be back just as it's cooled enough to taste. See you in a bit,' he said, picking up the flight case and heading for the front door.

She watched him walk away down the road and round the corner—no sign of a van or a car—at a brisk pace.

* * *

Linda had just finished going through her summer outfits when she heard the breadmaker beep five times to announce its completion and a mouth-watering aroma drifted through the house. She pressed the stop button, opened the lid, slipped on a pair of oven gloves and carefully removed the bread pan. She turned the pan upside down and held it over a rack, gave it a tap, and a perfect loaf slid out. She filled the pan with warm water and rummaged around in a cupboard for the teapot.

Just as he'd promised, the repairman rang her doorbell and joined her back in the kitchen to try the results.

'It smells lovely,' she commented excitedly. 'I've tried a slice already, amazing for a packet mix, best I've ever had, can't wait to try some of the other recipes, must have a go at an apple and walnut cake, I think it can do bagels as well, do you take sugar?'

'Five please.'


'Yeah,' he laughed, 'sweet tooth, I'm afraid.'

She marvelled at how someone who regularly took five teaspoons of sugar with his tea could have such perfectly gleaming teeth. Probably crowns, or maybe a denture, she thought. 'Like anything on your bread?'

'Do you have any peanut butter?' he asked.

'Yes, my son likes it on his toast on a Saturday morning.'

As Linda rambled on about the various recipes she was going to try out Mr. Smith worked his way through an almost entire jar of peanut butter and four cups of sugary tea, before taking his leave. She wondered how he maintained his svelte figure if he made a habit of snacking so enthusiastically at every job.

'Well, I trust that you're satisfied?' he inquired.

'Oh, very much so,' she replied. 'Ten euros was it?'

'Eight should cover it.'

'Well, I'm very grateful to you, I must say. Here,' she said, handing him a ten-euro note, 'keep the change.'

'Thank you very much, Mrs. Piper, most kind of you.'

As he ventured back outside and onto the pavement, the repairman turned back. 'Please be sure to recommend me to your friends,' he said and handed her a few of his business cards.

'I will indeed, thanks again.'


* * *

Three weeks later Linda discovered the crusty end of the test loaf in a plastic bag at the back of the bread bin, behind a growing mound of rolls and buns. She was going to put it out for the birds, but it still looked rather tempting so she sniffed it experimentally. She nibbled a corner. Still as fresh as the day it was baked!

Her husband Derek and their son Paul had been treated to a parade of recipes, thanks to Linda's renewed interest in the breadmaker; everything tasted so good, and she couldn't go wrong. They'd had herb bread, sun-dried tomato bread, apple and walnut cake, hot cross buns, bagels and pizzas. The family's appetite grew at the same rate as her collection of recipes and friends and neighbours had nothing but compliments for her nourishing output. She felt revitalised, at first putting it down to the happiness she felt from her success at pleasing her family, but gradually she noticed other changes. The aches and pains that came with middle-age subsided, she could read without her glasses, her skin tone resembled that of someone ten years her junior and she had boundless energy. Derek's back had stopped giving him jip for the first time in years and Paul hadn't had an asthma attack for ten days.

* * *

The repairman lifted the aluminium flight case onto the worktop next to the broken food processor. Mrs. Tresgrave had left him to get on with it and he had the kitchen to himself. Unknown to John Smith, he had an audience. Mrs. Tresgrave's cat, Marmaduke, was hidden behind a large shrub in the garden and the elevated border in which it was planted gave him a clear view through the side window into the kitchen.

Mr. Smith clicked the catches and swung the case's front panel forward. What was revealed made the fur on Marmaduke's back bristle. A leisurely-revolving white sphere twinkled as millions of particles processed and whirled in its midst. John watched the globular cloud with a fond smile on his lips, breathed in deeply, exhaled fully, and leant forward. He inhaled until the entire contents of the case had been drawn down into his lungs, then he turned to the food processor. With a 'phut' sound, as if blowing out a candle flame, he released a miniature smoke ring into the appliance. Straightening up, he proceeded to move around the room, delivering similar packages into the refrigerator, oven, microwave and all of the food cupboards. Satisfied that he'd completed his task, he returned to the case and fully exhaled again. The sphere looked undiminished in size and he closed the case. Opening the kitchen door he called out for Mrs. Tresgrave to come and test her ameliorated appliance.

* * *

13 Million BC (Earth time): Gahzbrid

The machairod eagerly tore into the hide of a freshly-killed ruminot, which it had just dispatched with its razor-sharp, serrated canines, having leapt down onto it from a craggy hidey-hole as the deer-like creature grazed on a tussock of green-orange vegetation. The gaping wound steamed in the early morning air as the fearsome hunter rasped the flesh away with the pointed papillae on its lapping tongue, then ripped and tore away a hunk of ruminot meat with a shake of its powerful head. A group of Pullulaties had made the ruminot their home for the past two years and the death of their host had signalled a rapid relocation response. The microscopic creatures poured into the region on which the machairod was feasting. No doubt they would encounter others of their kind in the carnivore's body, but they would be met with a warm welcome and be embraced into a new fold, an extended family, drawn together in convivial affinity, poised to move on again if events dictated.

The brief struggle had flung the animals onto a weatherworn overhang and their combined weight was trying the flaws. A sound like a whipcrack made the machairod lift its head in time to see the splintering support of its vertiginous dining table give way. Its back legs propelled it upwards with an agility that belied the creature's size and bulk, it scrambled back onto the cliff top and swung round to watch its prize tumble away. It snorted derisively, sending a shower of crimson droplets after its meal (from the ruminot's blood, which matted the thick fur around the machairod's snout). Another set of louder cracking noises made it retreat from the edge, as shale trickled and bounced into the narrow chasm, soon to be followed by a landslide of boulders, burying the carcass of the ruminot under a clattering torrent. An immense slab of dense rock sheared from the cliff face and slid down to form an impenetrable cap, sealing the contents of the avalanche.

Five Pullulaties hadn't made the transfer to the machairod in time and had been entombed along with the ruminot. They took all of the energy that they could from the dead animal's rapidly deteriorating glyconutrients and set off for the surface. It took them a month to trace a path between the compacted rubble, and then they reached the slab of rock. The Pullulaties were able to manipulate matter to suit their purposes, but the density of the material made their task desperately demanding and three had lost their lives in the process.

* * *

The 160-kilometre diameter M-type asteroid was travelling at 50,000 kilometres-per-second when it struck Gahzbrid: the atmosphere ignited instantly and shockwaves could be felt throughout the system. Protected from the furnace that consumed every form of life on the planet and an impact that ruptured Gahzbrid's heart, the explosion jettisoned fragments of rock—in one of which the last pair of surviving Pullulaties were encased—out into space with phenomenal velocity. Their cosmic lifeboat travelled for 2.2 megalight-years, as the Pullulaties lay dormant, sheltering from the endless winter of their hibernation, until, finally—and with extraordinary good fortune—the shard of Gahzbrid avoided skipping off the Earth's atmosphere and plummeted to the surface. The peak shock layer temperatures were largely dissipated by the unique crystal configuration of the fragment, but rapidly warmed the shard's core, reversing the cryopreservation of the Pullulaties, waking them from a deep and ancient sleep in their geomorphed cocoon. The micro-impact drove the shard deep into the crust and it would be a further year before the Pullulaties had worked their way up from the bedrock that broke their fall, through clay and subsoil, and up into the topsoil of a new world.

The Pullulaties (one male and one female) encountered sweet, delicious vegetables and indulged themselves accordingly, replenishing glyconutrients and storing amino acids from the proteins in a magnificent crop of broccoli. They'd come to the surface at night and feasted until daybreak. Around mid-morning the warm, probing fingers of an alien lifeform began harvesting and tending the crops. The Pullulaties swiftly penetrated its skin and ingratiated themselves with the creature's immune system, revelling in the perfect conditions provided by their new host, familiarising themselves with its physiology and metabolic processes. They wasted little time in breeding and proliferated at a phenomenal rate. The growing community of Pullulaties soon noticed that some of the host's cells were behaving in a deranged fashion, mutated proto-oncogenes conducting a symphony of invasion. They quickly put a stop to that, and to the aging processes, both of which threatened the longevity of their host and the heaven-sent relationship that was evolving. As their numbers reached potential saturation point, they turned their attention to the host's thought processes; learning the biomechanics of pattern matching, intellect and reasoning; running subtle experiments on pathways and learned experience; steadily building a method of cognitive direction and, eventually, of direct communication.

John Smith's allotment had been the Pullulaties' 'Eden' and his body the vehicle of salvation for an entire race, who, in turn, recompensed him by banishing the cancer that would have soon taken his life: a consummate symbiosis.

The doctors had given him about a year to live, so John had packed in work as a kitchen appliance salesman and decided to spend the rest of his days doing what he loved most. He was close to retirement anyway and the small pension was enough for his needs, and his source of enjoyment also provided him with plenty of fresh food—musing over his life experiences as he tended the crops on the allotment.

Then the miracle happened.

Although his condition was terminal he was encouraged to attend the cancer unit for monthly reviews and it was following one of these that he received the most wonderful news. Not only had it stopped spreading, but the tests, scans and x-rays showed that the disease was going into remission. Within a week it was as if it had never even existed. His grey hair grew through at the roots with the brown colour of his youth; his skin tightened and gleamed with health, old aches and pains were replaced with an intoxicating vitality and every sense was heightened.

He decided to go into the repair business, set up on his own and try his luck. That was around the time that he started hearing voices. They were more like impulsive whims to begin with, and then whispers, not malevolent, quite the opposite. It was as if he was privy to an audience with an ocean of souls. They told him tales of how their race had nearly been wiped out, how they'd travelled across the deep and empty reaches of space, how they'd come to be on Earth, and how they had found him. As the whispers grew into voices, so he learnt how to communicate with them through thought, and together they formed a plan that would both accommodate the burgeoning populace of his body and benefit the entire human race.

* * *

In a guesthouse, at the bottom of Lower Rock Gardens in Brighton, the repairman reclined on his bed with the door to the flight case open, surrounded by a dense cloud, as the Pullulaties flowed in and out of his body, absorbing the energy from his massive sugar intake and the protein building blocks from his huge meals and regular complimentary snacks, swelling their numbers and affecting repairs to his body and outfit. A subtle hum accompanied the scene, somewhere between the sound of a distant waterfall and the high-frequency clicks and pulses of a termite mound. As he breathed in and out, mist-like plumes were expelled from his mouth and nose, the steamy exhalations of a winter's morning flowing back to the assembly, as would the temporarily freed waxy globules of a lava lamp. Slicks and subsets broiled in gaseous union, extended families relishing their very existence in an endlessly playful soirée.

A thousand swirling patterns.

A million efflorescent blooms.

A billion scintillations.

A trillion tiny beating wings.

Together they had seeded all of the major cities in Britain. Travel and tourism was already spreading the Pullulaties across Europe and, to a lesser extent, around the world. John Smith had sold his house and the interest on the capital was funding his travels and his living expenses, with the payments for his repair work being a happy bonus. In a few days he would be travelling to America, with just a square aluminium flight case for hand luggage, and over the next twenty years he would travel the world.

It was the beginning of a benign invasion.

The Pullulaties were John's guardian angels and would soon be micro-faeries to the fortunes of mankind. They would spread exponentially throughout the Earth's living organisms, learning each species' weaknesses and strengths, knitting broken bones and hearts alike. The preservation and wellbeing of their hosts would be of paramount importance. Eventually they would bring about a fundamental change in the human condition. It would be a major step in the evolution of humanity accompanied by a long-overdue cerebral maturation.

For now they were content to simply exist as the modern descendants of an antediluvian race.






Copyright © 2007 DJ Burnham

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

DJ Burnham has had a lifelong love of science fiction. He started writing his own stories in 1998, many of which appeared in webzines such Silverthought, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion.

In 2005 he had a short story published as part of a speculative fiction anthology Silverthought: Ignition. In June 2006 he became the first guest author to have one of his stories podcast by Variant Frequencies.

The first collection of DJ Burnham's short stories, 'Test Drive', was published in July 2007, with all of the profits from the sales going to the World Wide Fund for Nature.

He also writes poetry and creates original decoupage-style artwork.

DJ Burnham lives in Brighton, England with his wife Sue and their cat. He is a Health Service worker by day and a dreamer by night.

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