Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Puppet Dance

The Puppet Dance

A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.

Max stirred. He could hear the soft fluttering of someone moving in his room. Eyes heavy, he opened them a crack, peered out. The world was bleary, and white—harsh lights; he closed them again. The someone moved closer, he smelt almonds, felt a machine on his neck.

It whirred and hummed as it measured his temperature, heartbeat, fluid levels. Then another prick, sharp, in his thigh.

“Another bee,” he thought, “way too many insects. . .” He floated back to sleep.


Mel4 was back in her office. She sipped the bitter coffee in her hand, stared at the screen. She could see Midra leaving his underground garage, the car flanked by two others. The glass was black but she knew he was inside, accompanied by a human guard, with a bot fastened to the ceiling. The bot would be monitoring all passing traffic, anything unusual. The human guard would be armed. She switched to an inside monitor; all was as expected.

All human guards carried firearms, tiny guns that could shoot either instant tranquillisers or, more rarely, lethal bullets designed to kill. Neither guaranteed the immediate removal of danger as it depended on the aim of the marksman when the target was hit—which meant there had been calls for the rearming of bots. Mel4 hoped that would never happen. She remembered too well the mistakes of the past, the malfunctioning bots who had killed innocent bystanders, the over-diligent bots who had removed enemies they would rather have interviewed. It was still too difficult to write code that tempered absolute obedience, code that would enable bots to balance more than the physical elements of the situations they were in. Humans, though unreliable, were still considered more reliable than bots when it came to weapons. They were still able to weigh up situations and vary their decisions accordingly. There were fewer absolutes in the human mind, more variables. For ten years now, security bots had been armed only with sedatives, ones that worked fairly instantly but were never fatal.

Mel4 shook her head; she was day-dreaming, and there was no time for that today. She took another sip, then rested her cup on the desk. She would need to move that if her boss came, the roaming bot that floated around the corridors checking workers, sending instructions to her terminal. Liquids and machines were not a good mix, despite all the manufacturer’s assurances that computers were watertight. She would be careful. It had been a long week; she needed the caffeine. She read through the data that had arrived so far. The holy place was secure; the delegates were on their way. They would be met by Midra at 9am, they would nod, smile, make meaningless speeches, then Midra could return to his safe bunker and the delegates could leave, knowing their importance had been acknowledged.

Her next job would be to make a decision on the boy from the island.


Lena was standing in an inspection room with the nurse. He had locked the door, moved the trolley bed to under a hatch in the ceiling and smoothly climbed onto it. He was now unscrewing the clips, lowering the metal plate. Lena was watching. Did he really expect her to climb up there? To shuffle through tunnels? She fingered the borrowed barcode clipped onto her borrowed uniform. She felt her feet, pinched by the borrowed shoes. She wondered if she would need to use the toilet before she got back. Heroes in stories never used toilets, she had noticed that. Women with children did though, and the nurse had made her drink a lot, watched her swallow every drop of the sweet liquid, told her the fluids and sugar would do her good.

She glanced down at the map in her hand. She had nearly forgotten to bring it, had left it in the side pocket of her bag. He had reminded her, raised that eyebrow again, suggested it might be useful unless she had committed it to memory. His sarcasm was irritating, made her want to slap him.

The nurse finished removing the hatch and he sat on the bed, holding it, looking at her. He reached into a pocket and took out a cloth bag attached to a thin belt.

“Put the vials in here. There’s not much room up there so you would do better to wear them at your side, there isn’t enough space to have them at the back, and you’ll need to shuffle on your stomach. You don’t want to break them. Do you know how to administer them?”

Lena shook her head. She had no medical training, how would she know such a thing? He stood and crossed to a cupboard, pulled out a small tube.

“They look like this inside,” he told her, his voice full of forced patience as he explained. “Slide them out of the holding tubes and you will see two buttons.” He held it so she could see. “The first one,” he depressed it, “extends the needle”.

Lena looked at the long point as it shone in the light. It looked sharp and cruel. She swallowed.

“You insert it, a thigh or arm will do, or the neck if that’s quickest, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s in a good centimetre.”

Lena shuddered. She didn’t much like injections, though had given them to the children when necessary, when the drones had brought them from the pharmacy after an online medical examination. This looked much the same, though was slimmer and had no instructions attached.

“Then you just press the button at the end,” the nurse was telling her, “just like a normal injection. The chemical will be pushed out, count to five, that will be long enough. Then inject the next clone. We think there are three but we have given you five, just in case”.

“In case of what?” wondered Lena. “In case there are more clones? In case I drop one? In case I decide to murder someone extra on my way out?” She kept quiet. He didn’t look like he would appreciate her thoughts.

The nurse was standing again, climbing back up onto the trolley bed. He clearly had no time left, needed to send her on her way. He passed her the screw remover, watched her add it to the cloth bag, managing to remain silent, to not tell her to hurry up, but every muscle in his face tense. He reached out a hand to help her up.

For a moment Lena stood, stared at his hand, did not move. After a pause, she took hold of it, her own small hand swallowed up in the mass of his, let him help her onto the bed. She stood next to him, peering upwards, not at all sure she was strong enough to climb up, the gap was very small, very high. Then, with no time to think, the nurse hoisted her upwards as easily as he would have lifted a child. She swung her legs into the space and peered forwards. There was a long white tunnel leading away from the entrance shaft. It was lower further on but she had room to sit here, to remain upright. Below her, the nurse was raising the hatch back into place.

“Wait, what are you doing? How will I get out?”

“Don’t panic,” he told her, his voice rough now, in a hurry. “I’m just putting in place, so no one notices. I won’t secure it. When you get back, listen. If the room is empty, stamp hard, and it will fall down. Then you can get out. Go back to the washroom. You remember the way?”

Lena nodded. Realised he couldn’t see her, said, “Yes”. Her voice sounded strange, hollow and hoarse.

He paused, lowered the tile again so he could see her.

“Good, then go there—to the same washroom. At ten o’clock I will come. I will have Max. You can both leave. There will be a car waiting, it will be ordered with a different barcode, make sure you disable the on-board camera. It will take you to the port. Someone will meet you. That’s all I know.”

He did not tell her to trust him. She had no choice. He did not tell her it would all be fine. He doubted that it would be. He looked up at this woman, saw her exhaustion, her acceptance that she had no options, her determination to find her son. In his mind he wished her well, prayed she would have the strength she needed. He nodded, fixed the tile in place, and left. He did not expect to see her again.

Lena wanted to call after him, to tell him to stay, she couldn’t do this, it was stupid to even try. Through the small grill in the ceiling, she watched the top of his head go towards the door, then he disappeared from her view. She tied the belt around her waist, hearing the vials jangle against each other. She hoped they were stronger than they looked. Then she leaned forwards into a crouch and began to half crawl, half shuffle, along the narrow vent. She held the map in her left hand. It was folded so that her current position was showing. She needed to go forward past three more vents, then turn right. She felt like a marker in a computer game, wondered if she glowed red.

Crawling was uncomfortable but not difficult. Every so often, she lifted her head and looked ahead. She could hear nothing from below, hoped her own shuffling was unheard. She crawled along the narrow space, a fat black cable lying beside her. She tried to not touch it, there was something threatening about that cable. She arrived at the first vent and peered down.

She was looking into a room. There was a nurse in the corner and a bed with a tray next to it. She strained to see around the edge of the vent, to discover who was in the bed. If it was Max, she would abandon her mission in an instant, would find a way to get to him.

It was not Max. It was an old lady, her white hair flowing over her shoulders, her head resting on a pillow. She was very thin, with paper-thin skin and when she lifted her arm, Lena saw bones with flesh hanging, the movements shaky and slow. The woman appeared barely alive. Lena shuffled on.

The tunnel had no discerning features, a long dust-filled hollow stretching before her. Lena used her elbows to propel herself forwards, her stomach dragging along the floor, the unsecured sections of hair hanging in her face, the air dry.

The next vent was over a corridor. People passed beneath her, she paused for a moment and watched their heads. Snippets of conversation floated up, none discernible, a general babble of sound. That helped her relax a little, to think that she herself was unlikely to be heard unless she coughed or shouted when above a vent. Whatever the ceiling was made of, it was clearly well insulated, containing both heat and sound. She continued.

At the next vent there was a crossing of routes. She checked the map again, took the fork to the right. Her arms were beginning to tire now and her throat was dry. The tunnels were dusty, dry, uncomfortably hot. She wondered what her uniform must look like now, imagined it was far from the pristine white it had been a few minutes ago. That would be a problem when she came to leave. There was nothing she could do now, so she continued, taking her weight on her arms, shuffling with her legs. An uncoordinated caterpillar.


Mel4 was watching her screen closely. She could see that Midra had arrived at the holy place. He had left the car and was moving into position, walking through the clapping public, through the arched doorway and along the aisle. All seemed to be going to plan. She watched the live feed, switching between monitors until he was in his seat at the front. He would be introduced, then would stand and make a speech.

She reached for her keyboard and turned her second screen on. It flashed blue, then she called the island reports back into view. She had made her decision. They could not alter the boy, that was too severe, held too many risks. She thought it was an unreliable method of control, disliked the number of ‘failures’ her department had been forced to cover up. No, she would not sanction that.

However, her bot had given her three options and the second, the decision to wipe a part of his medium-term memory, seemed sensible. He was young, he would have many more years to build new memories. A few gaps wouldn’t matter.

She entered the codes, sent her decision. They could do it this morning. He could then be returned to the island; she saw no reason to remove him permanently from his family. Her understanding was that they were planning to leave soon anyway, they could be reunited and go. Then they wouldn’t be her problem anymore. It was not as if they were a security threat, they held illegal views, that was all. Mel4 did not agree with the law as it stood, but her job was not to make judgements about that, it was to ensure it was upheld. She finished writing and sent her conclusion. Then she turned back to watch Midra.


Lena reached the next vent. She sat up, easing her back, stretching the muscles. This was physically very tough, she wondered if it was going to be possible, she would be tired when she eventually arrived. She peered down, adjusting her position so she could see through the gaps in the vent, squinting her eyes, looking for her son.

She seemed to be over a cafeteria, she could see heads moving, smell something spicy. It made her feel nauseous. A tendril of hair was tickling her nose. She pushed it back, swept all the escaped hair together, hooking it back into the hairband—it didn’t matter what she looked like now. She noticed her hands were dusty, dry, she wished she had gloves. Wished a lot of things.

Lena checked her map, refolding it so her current position was at the top. The exit shaft, the one near the clones, was now on the same square of paper. She was getting closer. That was good, she told herself, nearly there, nearly at the right place. She stopped there—not wanting to consider what came next, what she must do when she arrived and the myriad of things that might go wrong. She had no sense of time but she felt she had been crawling for hours. She checked the vials were still in place, moved them slightly so they didn’t knock against her leg, then leaned forwards, continued moving.

“I can do this,” she told herself, willing her arms to keep moving, clawing her way forwards, heaving her body through the vent. “I can do this, I can save Max. . . ”



On the island, John’s computer beeped. A message. He opened it. It was sent in code, talked about monitors being fixed, awaiting collection. He smiled, they had located the boy. He checked the time, rubbing his hands together, the slightest smile flickering on his mouth. This was all going to plan.

John rose and went to find Den, to tell him to pack, he and Lucy would be leaving on a boat before nightfall. Whatever happened, it would not be safe for them to stay now. Too much was going to change.

To be continued on Sunday

Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. Amazon Link Here

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.

The Puppeteer


Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. UK Link Here!

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Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.


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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Journey

Chapter Two

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

The Journey Continues


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Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.


If you would like to read the whole story, or perhaps buy a copy for a friend, it is available from an Amazon near you. The link is below:



Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Altered

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .


Lena walked slowly to the kitchen. That conversation had not gone well at all. The children had announced that they wanted to keep their barcodes, like everyone else, and what would happen to them anyway now they had left? They didn’t even have their computers, had left them in the guesthouse. How could they contact their friends, what about schooling? Why had she brought them here?

It was Max really, Lucy would have agreed to anything. He was only being difficult because he was tired and found new things disturbing, Lena knew this but it did nothing to make her own task easier. She wound her way back to the kitchen, past the vegetable patch and the neat flower beds, over the lawn and along the small stone path that curved under trees and led to the kitchen door.

Agnes was in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. She smiled when Lena walked in. Lena picked up a knife and sat next to her. She watched as Agnes held the vegetables firmly with one hand on a wooden board, slicing quickly with the other. Lena had never cut vegetables before, and she watched Agnes, wondering if it was difficult. Lena ordered all her meals, like everyone else, scheduling them all to arrive at set times throughout the week. She had a coded cold storage box next to the door and, if she happened to be out, the food was left there for her to collect when she got home. It arrived ready to microwave or reheat, unless she ordered ready-eat food, which arrived hot. That didn’t happen very often, not on their budget.

“Do you want to help?” asked Agnes.

“Yes, but, not entirely sure I’ll be much use,” admitted Lena. “Cooking was never really a hobby.”

“No, I was lucky, I learned to cook when I was young,” said Agnes, resting her knife on the table. “Most people still did at least some cooking then, even if it was only for special occasions. Now people only really cook for fun, if that’s what they enjoy doing.

“We don’t get deliveries on the island, obviously. Since we’ve been here I’ve had to do all the cooking. John grows most of the vegetables and we have some fishermen who will deliver orders for us, keep our stores topped up—tea, coffee, that sort of thing. I don’t really enjoy it, but needs must. We don’t use drones for deliveries because of the cameras.

“Here, why don’t you peel these carrots? Like this, you just run the peeler along the edge. That’s it.” She moved the onions to a large pot and put a pile of carrots next to Lena, placing an old bowl below to catch the peelings.

“I never learned to sew though,” Agnes continued, pulling potatoes from a large sack, showering dirt on the tiled floor. They sat on the table, muddy and smelling of earth. Agnes began to slice off the peel, exposing their moist white insides.

“My Grandmother sewed a little, when she was young,” explained Agnes, “but by the time I was born everyone bought all their clothes. It was a bit like cooking is now, a few people still sewed, for fun or to save money, but very few. It was so much easier to order them online.

“So, I’m afraid we’ll have to order you and the children some clothes,” she said, looking at Lena. “We can give a list to the next fisherman that stops here, ask him to send some. They won’t mind. We never go to the mainland now, obviously.”

“Do they know that you’re here?” asked Lena, thinking that actually, it wasn’t obvious, but not liking to say. She was not sure how much information she should ask for. Not sure how much she wanted.

“Oh yes, of course; you can’t hide a whole island. They seem to have decided to leave us alone though, as long as we don’t cause them any trouble. To be honest, I think they are relieved in a way, it solves a problem for them when the altering doesn’t work. It doesn’t sometimes, you know. Not that they like to advertise that.”

She pulled another potato from the bag. It was soft and smelly so she threw it in with the peelings and selected a new one.

“What do you mean?” asked Lena. She had stopped peeling and was staring at Agnes, not sure if she would cry or be sick. Or maybe this would be good news—so long since she had heard any of that.

Agnes looked up from the potato, paused, put it down and reached for Lena’s hand.

“Oh, my poor girl. You don’t have a clue, do you.” She stood, brushing specks of dirt from her apron. “Let’s have some tea and a proper chat. We need to sort out what’s going to happen anyway, but maybe you need to understand a few things first. Information on the mainland is so very controlled. Are you feeling up to it?”

Lena nodded. Better to know, to stop guessing, wondering, being lost in a maze of confusion. You could prepare for what you knew, fight back if needed. Not knowing left you helpless, in a chasm.

Agnes filled the kettle and set it to boil. She pulled two china cups from the cupboard, added tea, sat back down.

“You know why you were sent to the hospital? What they were looking for?”

Lena nodded.

“You know about the alterations?”

“A little. Only what has been announced. And rumours, lots of rumours. I’m not really sure what’s true.”

She felt nearer to tears now, not sure if she could have this conversation. She had spent so much energy not thinking, not letting herself consider possibilities. Was it really better to know?

Agnes stood and made the tea, put a steaming cup in front of Lena, then sipped her own, as if ordering her thoughts, deciding what to say.

“I’ll start with a little history. Bear with me, you’ll know some of it but maybe not all.

“Before the Global Council, before we got properly organised, if there was trouble of any kind: crime, terrorism, that sort of thing, society used to lock away the culprits. If you go back long enough of course, people were executed—they still were until quite recently in some countries; but in England that had finished a long, long time ago. Obviously, people who were a danger to society needed to be removed, but the only real option was to lock them in a secure place, a prison. Before my time, of course, but I heard talk of it when I was small.

“It didn’t work terribly well, there was not the funding for them to be very nice places, people were sometimes crowded together more than they should have been, and people who had committed minor offences were sometimes put with more serious criminals. It also didn’t work. Most people, when they were let out, continued to commit crimes.”

Lena nodded, she knew all this, had heard it at school during history lessons, and seen pictures of grim buildings that had served as prisons. She even knew someone who had toured a disused prison on the moors, during a holiday. A few were still preserved, a physical reminder of the past, museums. Especially those that had been in remote places, where the Council had decided to conserve the area, away from towns and cities.

Agnes swallowed her tea and continued.

“Now, a quick change of subject but it’s related. Alongside all the other developments we’ve seen recently, is an understanding of how the brain works.

“Brain surgery always came far behind all the other medical disciplines you know. Long after surgeons were operating on hearts, kidneys, things like that, they did not even begin to look at the brain, it was considered too difficult. So, when they did finally start to open up the skull and examine what was inside, it took them a little while to properly master what they could do. They learnt which different parts of the brain did what pretty quickly, and began to do surgery when it was necessary; but the technology to actually alter what was inside, to change the way a person thinks, is fairly recent.

“Of course, once they worked out how to start altering what was happening in the brain, to start changing a person’s reactions to things, the opportunities seemed boundless. The first thing they did was alter the way a criminal thinks. I don’t understand it, you’ll have to ask someone better educated than me, but they managed to change the way a person responds to certain things. They can basically take away a person’s desire to commit certain crimes.

“In many ways this was good, took away the need for all those awful prisons. But of course, they couldn’t always be sure what else might get altered. There have been a few sad cases, people being left with not much ability to decide anything. The part of the brain that controls decisions and desires is so close to the part that stores memory. Some people even lost the ability to speak, by the time they decided what they wanted to say, they forgot the beginning; they couldn’t hold the words in their head for long enough to say them. Though these mistakes are becoming rarer as the technology improves.

“The trouble is, who decides what needs to be altered? The Global Council have written some pretty strong guidelines but things get changed, individual countries’ governments decide how to implement the new policies. That’s where we’ve got to now; if someone is considered a threat to the peace of society, they get altered. We think that’s what has happened to your husband.”

Agnes paused, waiting for Lena to respond.

There, it had been said now. All those hidden worries had escaped, been let out in the real world. Lena breathed. She looked at the carrot lying forgotten on the table. She looked at the tea going cold in her hand. She heard the children, playing noisily outside, arguing about whose turn it was. The world was the same yet everything was different. She could not speak, did not trust her mouth to form words. So she nodded. She wanted Agnes to continue, needed to hear this, to know if there was any hope. Otherwise she might as well go back to the mainland, let them alter her. Maybe she would be happy that way.

Agnes glanced at her, and Lena nodded, a slight dipping of her head, indicating that she was ready—able—to hear more.

Agnes spoke quietly, her voice matter-of-fact, as though trying to normalise the immensity of her words.

“We were already living on the island when they changed who could be altered, when it became used not just for criminals, and so we stayed. There are a few routes here, the one you used but mainly the fishermen drop people off. We usually know when people are coming so can welcome them properly. Most people only stay a few hours and then we get them on a boat, send them off to Asia.”

“Asia?” Lena frowned. Why Asia? Was that any better?

“I think that’s enough for now, why don’t we talk again later?” said Agnes. Her tone conveyed that this was not a suggestion.

“Now, you write down the clothes sizes you need and we’ll see if we can get some things for you. Your little family will be different to most of our guests, because of your husband. We need to find out if we can get him here, and that may take a few days, so you’ll need to stay.”

Lena started, and she felt her eyes widen as the words began to register.

Agnes tilted her head, her expression kind.

“It may not be possible dear. We need to find out some information first, and that takes time. It won’t be easy—you will need to wait and see. If there’s anything that can be done, we will try. It may be too late.

“Now, I need to get this soup boiling and you need to spend some time settling those children. Why don’t you take them for a walk around the island? Everyone is friendly,” she paused, wanting to reassure,

“It’s safe here, no need to be afraid of people here. Everyone is on your side now.”

To be continued on Wednesday.

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What do you think will happen next?

What will happen next?

Whenever there’s another terrorist attack, I wonder, what will happen next? Where is the world heading? I find books like ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, written in 1985 (and recently on television) fascinating. What will happen to our society in the future?

With this in mind, I wrote a dystopian novel, Counting Stars. If religious extremism continues to result in terrorist attacks, how will society respond? Is it possible that governments will ban certain religious beliefs or behaviours – and what might society look like if that happened? How will the dawn of driverless cars affect those employed in transport? What will health care and education look like? Is there a way for poverty and famine to be eradicated? Yet people, in whatever society evolves, will be the same. Children will continue to be funny and naughty, teenagers will always rebel, parents will always love them. People will love, and laugh and have their own opinions about everything.

I listened to lots of views about how the near future might look, and the novel became something of a joint family venture. My premise was that everything had to be possible, even if it wasn’t probable.

I created an imaginary family, and began to write about them. Max is going to save his father. But it needs to be a secret, because the adults would disapprove – and it’s not very easy without his mother there to provide food and things.
When Max himself needs to be rescued, it falls to Lena to save him. But she’s no super-woman, and she’s worried she might need to use the toilet before she gets back.

Along the way, I became rather sidetracked by Lamarckian Theory – the idea that we can inherit memory. Lamarck did lots of experiments to show that this was possible, which I find a fascinating idea, so I included something of that in the book too. As I was recovering from a craniotomy, I also used my personal experiences when describing a character who is recovering from brain surgery, showing some of the weird physical affects (like everyone sounds like a Dalek when they speak) and the problems of being mentally exhausted when all you’ve done is watch telly for an hour.

I then wrote Counting Stars. Initially, it was a serial, posted each week on my blog, way back in 2015. It was popular, so I rewrote it as a whole book, sent it off to be edited, and rewrote it again. I put it on Amazon as a Kindle book. Recently, I have become aware of the Kindle paperback service – Amazon will print a real book version of a Kindle book. I have now published the book in this format too. The only problem is that many of our predictions are now taking place, so you need to read it soon or it will be historical fiction!

Counting Stars was terrific fun to write – everyone has an opinion as to ‘what will happen next’ in society. Why not buy a copy, and enjoy an action packed thriller about ‘the world around the corner’?