Every Hume Needs a Gafflebet by Andrew Darlington

We start out at dawn. In a four-strong line.

I was bred not only for brainpower, of which I’m inordinately proud, but physical strength too. As befits my place. Every human needs a Gafflebet, and I’ve been fortunate. I feel the reassuring weight as she sits around my shoulders, the comforting warmth that communicates the security she ensures, the neural connections that allow control, taking away the awkward necessity of choice, the need for decisions.

We take the coastal path that undulates in steep climbs and steady falls around the wide silver expanse of the bay. The tide is out. Expanses of wet sand glisten, forked by trapped deltas of rivulets that pause in rock pools where clusters of bright weed splash green. The overcast sky where gulls glide on the chill breeze is reflected in the lap of distant sea, beautifully dark. The gull cries peck and gnaw at the rim of sky.

‘This is a beautiful world,’ she whispers in the ear of my mind. ‘Its every detail is an equilibrium.’

The path is uneven, carved out only by the passage of ramblers, but we are sure-footed. We do not stumble, slap-slap-slap bare-foot on beaten earth. And all the while, she’s talking in my head. Things I don’t always understand. But her voice is a continual soothing ululation that speaks directly to my subconscious. I am content. I am fortunate. Every hume needs a Gafflebet, but my teaming was a good one.

We rest at midmorning. We four mounts sit on what was once a low stone wall while our riders talk between themselves. Their elevated conversations are above us, in every sense, although – if we care to, we catch a drift of their meaning. I am Fabian, teamed with Krauss. She had a previous Fabian. I simply assumed the designation when she selected me. I sit beside Cathar who is teamed with Priam. Our legs almost brush. She glances at me with sharp dark eyes that have an unsettling effect. I hope Priam is as considerate to Cathar as Krauss is to me. My breathing is shallow as I gather my energies from our exertion. I watch a single tear of sweat trickle down the soft skin of her body and feel an irrational desire to lick it away. The more I concentrate on her, the less I focus on our Gafflebets. And there is a difference of opinion arising between our masters.

The sun shifts the sky sideways. We resume. Reaching the crest of the next rise, we can see different. The coastal path continues in a curl along the shingle shore. While a stretch of overgrown ruins extends a day’s pacing inland, its masonry visible beneath shrubs and an overgrowth of nettled briars. Krauss wishes to investigate. She has a curiosity for days past. Priam prefers to continue. He says the ruins could be dangerous, and what’s the point anyway? Yesterdays have gone, and good riddance. Todays are better. He is correct, of course.

They talk. We patiently wait. I smile at Cathar. She smiles back at me. I was bred not only for brainpower, of which I’m inordinately proud, but physical strength, too. She is good breeding stock. But I doubt we’ll be mated. Yet.

Krauss leads us this way. The other three continue along the coastal path. I glance wistfully at Cathar. Then turn as directed. I’m reluctant to enter the drowned ruins. Krauss overrides my misgivings. What was once a settlement has been split asunder, there are pits and sinkholes where the tide sucks and slurps hungrily beneath an overhang of ruptured beams where flights of birds shriek their anger before lifting off into storms of feathers.

‘This is why,’ she susurrates in my mind. ‘The days past were deadly with hazards. The rad levels are low here. But that is not everywhere so. It lingers in pockets. Together, we evolve a better world-balance. That is why.’

I hesitate, wary of danger. I shy back. She urges me forward. There are slates and shattered glass underfoot threaded with weed and slime. A drip-drip-drip of water falling from somewhere into somewhere else. A sound of scurrying deep in the tangle. We emerge into what might have been a thoroughfare leading a gentle incline up from the shore. We enter a mustiness of stale twilight where fungus thrives. We enter a flooded chamber where a scramble of rats precede us. Tall dandelions explode into a spiralling drift of seeds.

There is spoor. Animals live here.

‘Ah,’ she breathes in my mind, ‘a factory.’

We enter a place of dead machines, twisted into corroded figures. I fear to go further. She overrides my fear. The floor is unpleasant under my bare feet. I pace carefully. She pauses to examine stilled wheels and frozen pistons, guessing at functions. Phrases drift between our minds. She’s thinking words that resemble ‘ingenious’, ‘fascinating’, ‘resourceful’. There are rungs ascending. I’m thinking ‘no’. She forces me ahead and up onto a high gantry. It groans with the application of our combined weight. She takes us across towards a glassed-in section that she thinks ‘control centre’.

We get halfway towards it when the plating that supports us groans, grinds, trembles… there are harsh detonations that rip rusty brackets from ageing walls. I go to take a step back, she makes me step forward. There are conflicting intentions, which she dominates. Another step towards the control door, and the whole structure collapses, tilts, up-ends, bucks crazily, and we fall. We impact, knocking breath from me, we get tossed aside, in ricochet, and down into the mesh of machinery below. I hit. Smashing and smashing in explosions of white-hot needles. The blinding wrenching pain is terrifying. As though the roof of my head is tearing off. I see nothing. Black blackness swamps and glares.

I lie still. Dust still settles in a slow silt. A rasping tongue slithers my face. I jerk myself up into awareness, and cringe away. A dog. A huge feral Alsatian dog with a glow of yellow eyes. I draw back. Something is wrong. An emptiness that I can’t touch. An aloneness that frightens me more than anything has ever frightened me. I look out from my eyes. The dog is panting and watching. What can I do? I need guidance. I need instruction. But there’s no answering voice.

Krauss is there. Beside me. Skewered on a system of levers that my plumet barely missed. She’s dead. I see the shell-curve of her carapace is shattered, oozing green fluid. Her big saucer eyes closed on each side of her curved beak. The neural links that connected us twitch and wriggle like severed worms. Then squirm to stillness. Was I screaming? I can’t recall, I’m certain that I scream and can’t stop screaming. In a terror of isolation. I shock myself into a foetal crouch and scream-scream-scream until my throat is raw with panic.

‘You are free,’ says the dog. ‘Your parasite is dead. Consider your freedom.’

I startle aware. ‘You talk?’

‘Of course I talk. Your gift. Follow me.’ Its jaws move awkwardly to shape the words.

Never one to persist or persuade, and used to being instructed, used to doing as I’m told, I can only acquiesce. Standing and stretching, there’s an unfamiliar lightness to my step. As though I can leap greater distances. But glancing back at Krauss as though leaving her there is a crime, a betrayal. I’m naked in every sense. Alone. Empty. I follow the dog because there’s no other option open to me. There are other dogs who lie and watch me pass. A pack of dogs. Inside a side-room. The glass in green. It makes everything appear green. The talking dog is green. My skin is green. There are pulses of blood on my shoulder, and holes in my shaved cranium where there should be connections. I feel her ghost-weight on my shoulders. I am amputated. Bereaved. Lobotomised. Brain-dead.

The Alsatian nuzzles in a corner mound, drawing cloth back so I can see. There’s a nest of warm pups all wrapped up into each other, wriggling in soft ecstasy. When she licks them with the long red tongue that she licked my face back to awareness, they squirm in a responsive pleasure that is delightful to see, despite the pain I’m feeling.

‘Each new generation speak less. We are losing the ability,’ she says regretfully. ‘This brood will never speak. But I like to speak. I seldom get the opportunity. But the aging hounds speak the wistful stories their grandparents told them about the days of the great alliance between dogs and humans.’

My curiosity came close to overwhelming my grief.

‘Collectively, people are stupid. They built all of this, then they destroyed it all,’ she says with deep intelligent eyes. ‘But individually, largely, we got on fine. People were lonely. We were companions for them. Humans did the gene-surgery necessary for us to converse and fill your loneliness. Then they went away and left us.’

‘I am alone,’ I say, barely able to utter the words for heartbreak sobbing.

‘You are free. Free for the first time in your life. Once, after the war, when humans were lost and in shocked confusion, the Gafflebet came down and assumed their new partnership. They came from the moons of Saturn… or maybe it was from the planet Mercury, I even heard tell they came from a drifting alien asteroid that wandered into the solar system, I’ve never been quite sure about that. But they are here and you are enslaved…’

‘No. No. It is not enslavement. We are symbiotes. Krauss cared for me. She spoke into my head and shared things with me.’

‘I have heard there are tribes of free humans out there. We can help you reach them. If you seek them, you could join them?’ She worries her way down in around her puppies which wriggle in towards her full teats and begin suckling. She licks at them in proud attentiveness.

Can the things she tells me be true? Is it possible for a hume to survive without an intelligence to guide and decide on their behalf? Could I do that? The idea of freedom is frightening.

I hear sounds. A commotion coming from outside. I’m caught in indecision.

I look at the nest of dogs. Then I stand unsteadily. Not used to making decisions. I step back out into the hall of machines. I see the smashed body of Krauss crawling with ants. I circle around cautiously, respectfully. The other dogs watch me with big sad eyes. Then I’m back out in the thoroughfare that runs the length of the ruins.

Priam in there, with his two fellows. They’ve come searching for Krauss. They are concerned for us.

There’s a rightness about them, a symmetry, the slightly stooped human crossed with the straps of the support harness, surmounted by the curved pearlescent sheen of the guiding rider snug across shoulders and enveloping the cranium.

I do not hesitate for a single moment. I run as fast as I can towards them, waving my arms. I fall at the feet of Priam’s mount. ‘Please. Please help me. I am so alone…’

For very hume needs a Gafflebet.


About the Author

ANDREW DARLINGTON is a hack writer, a self-educated acrobat juggling words. Jefferson Airplane musician Grace Slick once politely declined his offer of marriage. His latest poetry collection is ‘Tweak Vision: The Word-Play Solution To Modern-Angst Confusion’ and his Scientifiction Novel ‘In The Time Of The Breaking’ are both from Alien Buddha Press, USA. He’s also written a biography of Beatles PR Derek Taylor called ‘For Your Radioactive Children: Days In The Life Of The Beatles Spin-Doctor’, published by SonicBond, who also publish his 2021 book ‘The Hollies: Every Album, Every Song’.

His writing can be found at ‘Eight Miles Higher’: http://andrewdarlington.blogspot.co.uk/ Twitter (X): @darlingtonandy https://www.facebook.com/andrew.darlington.14/


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