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Englebert

Gareth is from the UK where he works in hazardous waste management and writes science fiction fueled by copious amounts of tea. His stories have been translated into 26 languages and published on every continent, except Antarctica. He's still working on that one.
It wasn't his fault, and nobody blamed him for what happened, but Englebert felt the loss of his friend keenly and guilt weighed heavily on him. He tried to get back to some kind of normality, working with the other analysts, but everything felt hollow, meaningless. The nanomachines were still confusing his brain. He told Bakkar he was going away for a while, that they shouldn't try to contact him. Then he went out into the desert, alone, with no supplies or equipment. That's the last he was seen.
Wait. That's the end. Go back to the beginning.
"I don't understand," Englebert said. "Why can't they just leave me alone?" He chewed rhythmically, thoughtfully, as he looked around the yard, as though the answer were somewhere in his mouthful of food.
"They won't leave you alone," Yusef said, "because you're too interesting." He was short and stocky, his jet-black hair matched by a generous moustache.
"I suppose that's a compliment."
Englebert strolled around the barren yard, Yusef at his side. There were wire fences on two sides, low white buildings on the other two. It was hot and dusty, and beyond the fence the bleak landscape stretched to the distant heat haze.
"We could leave," Yusef said, "if you're really that fed up."
"Maybe." The camel looked at the fences and the sagging gate. They weren't designed to be especially secure. The yard belonged to a research center, not a prison.
"Or tell them you need a break."
"And do what?" Englebert spat noisily on the parched, packed earth. "I'll be followed by journalists, or cranks, or rogue scientists, or government agents who want me for their own evil ends."
"That's a bit melodramatic." Yusef shook his head slowly and smiled. "You really think you're that important?"
"Of course I am. I'm unique."
Yusef crossed to the only shaded corner of the yard and stooped down, leaning against the wall. They probably had the rest of the afternoon to themselves, while the analysts pored over the latest data obtained from Englebert as they tried to measure the capabilities of his nanoprocessor-enhanced mind and the nanomachine-improved physiology. Englebert loomed over him, still chewing.
"We'll go," Yusef said after a few moments' silence. He stood suddenly, resolutely. He was only a small man, but he had quite a presence when his mind was set on a course.
"Now?" Englebert said.
"Now." Yusef strode towards the gate. He undid the coded padlock and pulled one half of the gate stiffly open, wide enough for Englebert to follow.
"Where are you going?" The voice came from one of the analysts, Bakkar, leaning out of a blacked-out window. His loosely knotted tie hung limply over the window frame.
"Getting some fresh air!" Yusef called. He closed the gate carefully behind them and they headed down the pitted road.
It did not take long for Englebert's dire prophecies to come true. As they neared the small town that straddled the road a mile away, a group of gawkers began to congregate. They poked at Englebert's flank and pushed Yusef; shouted out obscenities calling into question both of their parentage; demanded that Englebert perform for them like a trained animal; cursed him as an insult to nature.
They came to a halt eventually, the way forward becoming more onerous by the step. A policeman appeared, khaki uniform faded in the sun, holstered gun prominent on his hip, supercilious smile on his face.
"Why are you causing trouble?" he demanded.
"We should go back," Englebert said, trying to turn against the increasingly noisy crowd.
"We are not the trouble," Yusef said. "You should do something about these people." He gestured angrily at the belligerent townsfolk. They growled ominously in return. A scuffle broke out, though who were involved was difficult to tell.
"Go back to your cage," the policeman said.
Somebody lurched into the back of the policeman, pushed by the crowd. He pulled his gun and waved it around threateningly.
The crowd thinned enough for Yusef and Englebert to turn and take several steps back the way they had come. Then the fighting broke out.
Englebert surged forward against the crowd, batting people aside with his huge head. Yusef struggled at his side. The policeman's gun barked, firing into the air. People shoved and ran and yelled and cursed. Somebody punched Yusef hard in the face. He staggered back, rebounded from Englebert and reeled into another pair of angry locals. One of them shoved him to the ground and he fell, hard. His head hit a rock and he lay still.
Englebert stood protectively over his friend and the mob vanished as quickly as it had formed. The policeman glared at Englebert and holstered his pistol. He stooped beside Yusef and looked at the gash on his head, the blood pooling on the thirsty ground. He felt his pulse and checked for breath.
"He is dead," he said.
Wait. That still wasn't the beginning. There was something before that, something before the yard.
Englebert was confused a lot of the time at first. Bioengineered and granted increased cognitive power by the injection of nanoprocessors into his brain, his life changed from a simple existence of eating and enjoying long walks, to the celebrity of being unique--the world's first and only sentient camel. The rich Sheikh who had bankrolled the transformation had several conversations with Englebert, but quickly became impatient when it was obvious that his creation was having difficulty adjusting to his new state of being.
Several months after the world had abruptly changed around him, Englebert moved to the research center. Here the world was much smaller and less confusing. A yard, a lab, a stable, and Yusef. The man became his first and only friend. He treated Englebert like a person rather than a freak. He helped him cope with the world.
That's right. That's what happened first. There's something else, though.
"He can't be dead," Englebert said.
"Look, camel, I know dead when I see it. I've seen dead people before. He's dead." The policeman stood slowly and glared at the camel, then turned his back and pulled out a radio. He talked into it rapidly and quietly.
"What happened?" Rushing down the road from the center, Bakkar, tie flapping over his shoulder. He came to a stop several feet away and stared at the body on the floor. "Yusef? Is he--"
"Dead." The policeman slid the radio into its holster. "They're sending a truck for him." He wandered across the road to sit on a stone bench.
The analysts knelt beside Yusef.
"I can save him," Englebert said. "My nanomachines can."
Bakkar looked up. "You may be right. But they are programmed for camel physiology, not human."
"Human physiology is one of the subjects I have learned in great depth," Englebert said. "My nanoprocessors have already started reprogramming."
"You can't do that in vivo," Bakkar protested. "We need to create a separate batch at the lab."
"No time for that," Englebert said. "We only have a couple of minutes before the damage is irreversible."
"The nanomachines are an integral part of your bodily process now. You can't survive without them in their correct configuration. They're supporting your life functions."
"I know." Englebert spat a huge gobbet of spittle onto Yusef's face.
"What?" the analysts jumped to his feet.
"Most efficient delivery method," Englebert said, and sank to his knees as his biological process lost the crutch they had been forced to rely on.
Yusef shook and spluttered and his eyes sprang open. He looked up, unfocused, then his eyes closed again and he relaxed, unconscious but alive.
Bakkar knelt again. "It worked," he said.
"Good." Englebert's neck drooped. "I have one request for you to pass on. I don't have any possessions. I don't have a will. The only thing I have is my name."
Yusef's eyes flickered open. He was in his own bunk in the research center. Bakkar was there beside him.
"Englebert saved you," he said quietly.
"Is he okay?" Yusef asked.
Bakkar shook his head slowly.
Despite Bakkar's protests, Yusef insisted on getting up and walking to the lab where Englebert's body lay in repose. Everything seemed familiar, but his memory was confused. Déjà vu came in flashes.
"He wanted you to take his name," Bakkar said.
"Who?" Yusef stared at the body of a camel. He didn't remember ever being in this building before.
"Englebert."
"Do I know him?"
"Yes. He was your friend."
"Of course he was." Yusef looked around at the familiar lab. "I remember going for a walk.
"It will all come back to you. The nanomachines are rewiring your brain."
"I can remember things," Englebert said, "but they don't seem to be in the right order."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 7th, 2015


I like stories that follow non-traditional narrative courses, and I've experimented with several different formats in my fiction. I came up with the opening sentence one night just after going to bed, and lay awake for ages as I worked out the unchronological plot. Then I fell asleep. Luckily, the central character of Englebert was memorable enough that I could recall the whole thing the next day.

- Gareth D Jones

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