Pixelated Wheels: Another Short Story.

The hardest thing about being unemployed, other than the crippling financial pressures and the constant need to fend off a myriad of questions from various family members, is trying to find a way to meaningfully occupy time. As such, video games quickly became my preferred form of escapism. In video games I could run and jump as if my legs were perfectly normal, and the only things I had to fend off were whatever enemies were opposing me. I spent so long immersed in these fictional worlds that it almost seemed to be more real to me than reality itself. Then one day, that was exactly what happened.

I had downloaded a retro game app onto my console and had been playing on it for a few hours when a notification appeared in the corner of my screen saying that my controller needed to be charged. I moved around the coffee table towards the TV, picked up the charging cable, and leant forward to connect the wire to the console. As it slid into the port there was a spark quickly followed by a blue flash of light, and then darkness.

Slowly my eyes became accustomed to the lack of light and I looked around. On either side of me were two tall walls coloured dark blue, seemingly made in solid panels not bricks or wood. I could see a break in the wall a few metres ahead of me on the left and another on the right, and the passage I was in seemed to turn a corner after this junction. The floor was lined with small, white dots in single-file, like the reflective cats-eyes they use on roads.

Before I could take in any more of my surroundings, electronic sounding music filled the air. I recognised it instantly as the iconic Pac-man music and now I realised that my setting was highly reminiscent of the Pac-man maze itself, but I continued to believe this was impossible until a giant, red ghost appeared around the corner ahead of me.

I turned my wheelchair on the spot, my feet scraping along the walls of the narrow corridor, and made sure that my wheelchair was set to the top speed. As I moved along the passage the white dots disappeared as if consumed by Pac-man himself, accompanied by the traditional sound. Turning at right angles was difficult in the wheelchair but I managed to stay just ahead of the red ghost. I had lost count of the number of corners I had fought my way around in an effort to escape my pursuer when a large, brightly shining dot appeared in front of me. I hurried towards it with renewed enthusiasm, followed closely by the red ghost. To my horror the blue ghost appeared ahead of me at the other end of the passage, and started moving towards me. There were no breaks in the wall by which I could escape. Whichever way I turned I would encounter a ghost. My only hope was to reach the giant white spot before either ghost reached me. Wishing that my wheelchair would carry me faster, I glided towards the blue ghost.

The blue ghost was so close that I was sure I could not reach the special dot in time, and I closed my eyes in fear. The music changed. I opened my eyes. Ahead of me a dark blue ghost was moving away from me as fast as it could, and I set off in pursuit. Within a few seconds I had reached him and one touch of my finger burst him like bubble. I turned around and did the same to the ghost behind me, presumably what had been the red one. Then the music returned to normal and this time I was being chased by both the pink and orange ghosts.

I steered down passages still lined with dots, weaving in and out of each passageway in a desperate attempt to collect all the dots. Once again I reached a large, white dot, but this time I did not manage to catch any of the ghosts. I continued on my task and soon I had found all four large dots, and was left to collect the remaining few small ones. With three ghosts hot on my tail I made it to the final dot and everything went black.

I was hopeful that this would be enough to take me away from whatever had happened when I plugged in my controller and back to the comfort of my home, but I was out of luck. I appeared in the same place where I had arrived, the map filled with dots as before. I was trapped.

I was so preoccupied with my pessimistic thoughts that I wasn’t aware of the approaching ghost. It was only as his pink glow illuminated my surroundings that I looked up. I tried to turn away but was stopped by a deep voice.

“Hello,” it said.

I looked around but could not see where the voice was coming from. It took me a moment to realise that the pink ghost had stopped in its tracks and was looking at me.

“Hello?” I uttered back.

“Don’t run away,” the ghost said.

“I’ve not done any running away in a long while, mate,” the ironic sentiment came out of my mouth automatically. The ghosts’ expression was extremely difficult to read, but it seemed to be upset by my sarcasm.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude,” I added.

“We just want to be your friend,” the pink ghost blurted out, “Pac-man always runs away too and sometimes he eats us, but we just want to be friends.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I uttered nervously as the other three ghosts came to join their companion.

“Why are you scared of us?” the blue one added.

“Well I play a game where the instant you touch me, I die,” I replied.

“Is that why Pac-man is scared of us too?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“But we don’t want to kill you,” the orange ghost chipped in.

“I understand that now,” I replied.

“Why do you have wheels?” the red one blurted out.

“You can’t just ask that, Blinky!” the pink one retorted.

“No, no, it’s OK. I can’t walk so this wheelchair carries me around,” I tried to reassure them that I didn’t mind at all; I was as curious about them as they were about me. Without thinking it through I reached out to give them a handshake and introduce myself, but the second I touched the pink ghost everything started to fade.

“Oh no, our new friend!” one of the ghosts shouted. It was the last thing I heard before being smothered by darkness once again.

I was no longer in the Pac-man maze. I was beneath a lime green arch, and ahead of me I could see some kind of gun moving back and forth in a line, firing white bullets into the black sky. I could hear music, electronic like in Pac-man, gradually getting faster. It was instantly recognisable; I was in Space Invaders.

Cautiously I moved out from beneath the shield and looked up, expecting to see the classic grid of pixelated aliens waddling across the sky. However, what I saw bore almost no resemblance to the aliens I was familiar with and it took me longer than I would care to admit to realise that the white lines, lengthening and shortening in time with the music, were how the aliens looked from beneath.

As I gazed upwards a horrifying realisation crossed my mind. Being directly underneath the aliens meant I was in the perfect position to have a bomb dropped on my head. Upon realising this fact I immediately moved back underneath the shield, only to see the gun on the ground moving towards me at a fast pace. There was no way for it to get past me and it barrelled into me, pushing me out into the open while it sheltered in relative safety. Almost immediately I heard a faint whistle crescendo into a scream and I felt a wave of electrical static wash over me. Instinctively I raised my arms to protect my head and screwed my eyes shut tightly. I couldn’t hear a sound.

I looked up as a warm light illuminated my new surroundings. I was in a large room with metal gangways spread across it all the way up to the ceiling. A bank of computers was tucked into one corner but like everything else in the room they appeared to be damaged. There were shards of broken metal littering the floor and everything was covered in a strange, orange dust.

In the far corner of the room was a glowing, red orb, balanced on a strange, lumpy mass. I started to make my way towards it and heard something crunch beneath my wheels. I looked down to see a decaying, dismembered hand, with scaly skin clung to the brittle bones. It took a momentous effort not to vomit at the horrifying sight. This was no retro game; the graphics were too good.

Suddenly I heard an angry roar from behind the glowing orb and the ground shook beneath me. A huge creature lumbered into my line of sight, at least 10 feet tall, it’s thick skin barely able to contain the bulging muscles beneath. It moved towards me with surprising speed for something so large but I could see nowhere to hide.

I heard movement behind me before a stream of purple bubbles of energy rushed over my head and within seconds the giant monster was dead. I turned around, and from the shadows someone in a battered, armoured spacesuit emerged.

Image description: a black and white pencil sketch of the demon, as a ray from the plasma gun hits his chest.

“Jesus, I didn’t think there was anyone else down here. What the hell were you doing facing off with that monster without even a chainsaw?” a voice came from inside the suit.

“Are we on Mars? Sourcing renewable energy? Like in Doom?” I asked.

“We’re on Saturn, and this is a research plant into the afterlife, not energy. More like a nature reserve gone wrong,” the voice replied. I was too scared to smile.

“Listen, I’ll get you up to see Professor Hollister and he can sort you out, but we ain’t going nowhere until I’ve dealt with that nest,” a gun was waved in the direction of the orb, “because this area is on lockdown until I’ve done just that.”

The person inside the suit seemed to be looking around the room.

“I’m not gonna be able to get you to high ground; I’m strong but I ain’t lifting that wheelchair anytime soon. Right, shelter under those steps. I’ll build a barricade around you and take this.”

A bulky machine gun and boxes of ammunition were placed on my knees.

“Anything gets too close, shoot it. I’ll hear and get to you as fast as I can. Anything big gets close, there’s the mini-rockets. Got it?”

I nodded mutely and backed into the corner beneath the stairs while a barricade was built around me. After a few minutes my new companion disappeared and I heard a loud screeching noise as the nest was destroyed. Almost immediately the room was filled with demons of all shapes and sizes. Some were not much bigger than the average human and some dwarfed the first monster. They all seemed far more interested in my companion and I could hear bullets flying around the room as demons fell. On the odd occasion I caught sight of my new friend, who seemed well practiced at handling guns and was an excellent fighter.

I was so distracted with watching the fight that I hadn’t noticed one of the smaller demons running straight towards me, ugly teeth bared in a hideous grin. Reflexively I squeezed the trigger and the gun jumped around in my hands, so much so that it was impossible for me to maintain my grip on i, and to my horror it fell to the floor beside me. I ducked down desperate to reach the gun, but as usual the side panels of my wheelchair prevented me from bending down far enough to reach the ground. I could brush the gun with my fingertips but no more. My legs were tucked behind the barricade so tightly that I couldn’t even kick the gun around to where I could reach it.

There was a loud bang as a shotgun was fired, and I was splattered with the blood of the demon who had tried to attack me. The room had gone quiet.

“Done,” my companion said as if the task were a minor inconvenience. The barricade was moved and I was given a pistol in place of the machine gun, “This way.”

We headed down metal passageways littered with bodies and broken weapons, the artificial atmosphere howling down the damaged air vents. We moved as quickly and as quietly as we could although the electric whine of my wheelchair seemed to echo around the corridors at an unbearable volume. Finally we reached a lift.

“Glad this place is accessible,” I said, awkwardly trying to make polite conversation.

“Considering some crazy scientist woman let a load of those demons escape and run riot around here, I suppose so,” came the reply. We remained in silence until reaching our destination; the office of Professor Hollister.

The professor was tall and gangly with wire framed glasses perched on a thin nose, and what little hair he had left was plastered to his skull. Both of his arms appeared to have been amputated from the elbow down but the false replacements seemed to move just like normal hands, leaving him able to do things normally.

He seemed surprised to see my friend at his office and even more so to have a companion in addition, as far as I could tell from his expressionless face. He ushered us towards his desk, closing the door firmly behind him. My companion pulled the chair in front of his desk to one side and sat down, allowing me to pull up next to them. They put down their weapons, reached up, and removed their helmet.

Brunette curls tumbled around a pale, thin face, with eyes so dark they appeared to be almost black. The surprise at seeing a woman within the suit must have shown on my face, because she tutted and rolled her eyes.

“Now, I believe you owe me an explanation,” Professor Hollister sat down, robotic fingers clasped before him on the desk.

I took my time to explain what had happened in great detail and I wasn’t interrupted once. When I had finished Professor Hollister sat back in thought.

“So, are you suggesting that we are a video game like the others you mentioned?”

“I, well, I thought perhaps that this resembled a game I have on my console called Doom, but the details are all different. So, I guess I don’t really know,” I had to restrain myself from adding sir.

“Hmm, how interesting. This isn’t a recognisable game but we are certainly not from the same world.”

“Not really,” I responded.

“Now, getting hit by this pink ghost or an alien “bomb” caused you to transition between games?”

“Yes,” I nodded.

“If gently touching the ghost only took you to another retro game but getting hit by the aliens caused you to transition to an entirely different genre, maybe the harder you are hit the further you travel.”

“I suppose that would be logical,” I did not like the sound of where this was going.

“So maybe if you were hit really, really hard, you’d return to your home,” Professor Hollister seemed very pleased with himself for suggesting this solution.

“Maybe,” I said.

The professor stood up suddenly and opened a cupboard behind his desk. Inside was a huge chunk of gleaming metal, with pipes and wires twisting around each other in intricate patterns.

“You’re going to shoot her with the Humongo Gun?” the woman in the suit said in disbelief.

“No,” the professor said, “You’re going to do it.” He held out the gun towards her. Slowly, with obvious reluctance, she took the weapon from him.

“What if it doesn’t work?” she asked.

“Then he’ll be stuck with us in this demon compound for the rest of her life. Even being dead is better than that,” Professor Hollister almost seemed to have no concept of the finality of death, “It’s the only chance he has.”

The woman walked behind the desk and levelled the gun at me. I could see down the barrel of the gun into a seemingly endless abyss.

“I truly hope this works,” she said. Before I had a chance to respond or even to think about what was happening, the trigger was pulled. A bolt of bright, white energy flew towards me at an enormous speed, hurling itself into my chest with the force of a tsunami, overturning my wheelchair. When the residual image of the bright light had cleared from my eyes I realised that I was lying on my back in front of the TV, with my controller on the floor next to me. There were no dark blue corridors, lime green arches, or strange glowing orbs. I was home.

I sat up slowly and with great effort I righted my wheelchair. Once I had hauled myself back into it I grabbed my phone from the table to check my notifications. I noticed something about video games on my news feed and with curiosity I clicked it.

“Retro games app recalled due to copyright issues over content; blocked on all major consoles,” screamed the headline. I couldn’t help thinking that there were more important issues that the app should be recalled for but I doubted I would be believed. I decided it didn’t matter; I was home and the app wasn’t in use any more.

That was when I heard a noise from my kitchen. I glided down the corridor and poked my head around the door frame, only to find a demon trying to climb into the snacks cupboard.

Wheelchairs Are Forever: A Short Story.

“Carol, I need you to file these papers for me by tonight,” Don Evans dumped a large stack of paper in the middle of his personal assistants’ desk, disrupting the paperwork she was already in the process of dealing with. Carol waited until he had marched out of her office, if the small box-room barely able to contain the desk could be called that, and slammed the door without a single pleasantry before sighing and muttering an unpleasant comment about her boss. She glanced up at the clock and seeing the time, resigned herself to another unpaid late night at the office.

As she set to work filing the papers she reminisced about how different her job was to how she had imagined it would be when she started working for MI5. She had honestly believed that her work would take her across the globe, meeting new people and encountering new cultures, with the odd spell of action in between. Yet here she was, stuck in a tiny, over-heated office, filing paperwork and reporting her findings to her superiors at MI5, and guarding the various bugs installed around the office. She couldn’t decide whether this assignment was passed to her because she was a woman, or because she used a wheelchair.

The evening dragged on and Carol watched as the offices around her slowly emptied. As always Don Evans was one of the first to leave; Carol had never seen him stay late under any circumstances, even by just a few seconds. Lights were turned off and chairs were pushed under desks, but Carol remained dutifully in her place, focussed on the task at hand.

By the time Carol came to the final piece of paperwork in need of filing she was so tired and hungry that she could barely concentrate, so much so that she almost missed the importance of the letter she held in her hands. As she was placing it in a folder she noticed the initials printed across the bottom of the last page. I.C.P. They were the initials of an as yet unknown drug lord who MI5 had suspected Don Evans of having an involvement with, but had no evidence up to that point to confirm this.

Carol looked around but no one was nearby, and she leant back in her chair to read the letter. It was utter gibberish. The words were not strung together in coherent sentences, and many were spelt incorrectly. Clearly this was some kind of code.

She placed the letter on her lap with some additional papers and left her office, heading towards the scanner. The bulky machine was sat atop a desk and from the wheelchair it was impossible to see or reach the buttons to operate it. She put the papers down on the desk and hauled herself shakily to her feet, leaning against the desk for support. Carol scanned in all the papers she had brought from her office and switched off the machine. As she went to sit down in her chair, she somehow managed to trip over the footplate and ended up sprawled across the floor, while the now disordered papers fluttered to the ground beside her. She cursed loudly as she sat up, and visibly jumped when the doors to the office slammed open behind her. A security guard came running across the room to her, and for one terrible minute Carol thought he knew that she was a spy.

“Oh god love, I saw your fall on camera, are you alright?” the security guard crouched down to her level, puffing slightly as this was clearly the first exercise he had done in a while.

“I’m fine,” Carol said, trying not to sound audibly relieved, “I’m sorry I’m such a klutz.” She began to gather up the fallen papers as surreptitiously as she could, and before she could protest the guard started to do the same. She wasn’t able to reach the all-important letter in time and the guard remarked on it’s nonsensical nature.

“What the heck are you doing with this?” he asked, perplexed.

“Sending it to my boss so he can see it immediately and inform me on how to proceed,” Carol said calmly, hoping to maintain her cover as the feeble personal assistant.

“Oh,” the guard sounded unconvinced.

“May I have some help getting back into my chair?” Carol asked. She knew full well that she could manage it herself, but was desperate to change topics.

With much huffing and puffing, the security guard lifted Carol back into her wheelchair and handed her the messy stack of papers while asking for the thousandth time whether she needed any medical attention. After politely but firmly declining the offer, Carol returned to her office and closed the door behind her, relieved that the ordeal was over. As soon as she had downloaded all the scans onto her high security data drive and had finally completed filing all the papers away, Carol left the office.

Carol waited in the torrential rain for a disabled taxi and when one finally arrived that could accommodate her wheelchair, she had to endure a further five minutes out in the open while the inexperienced driver figured out how to load the wheelchair into his cab. She bore the predictable comments about working late, the terrible whether, and how exactly she came to be in a wheelchair with an air of indifference, impatient to reach her destination.

Eventually the taxi pulled up to the address she had given, and once again began the merry dance of getting the wheelchair back out of the car. Once she had paid him his fare and received her change, the taxi driver refusing to accept a tip from a disabled woman, she watched him drive around the corner before setting off for the inconspicuous building two streets away. No one was on the street to watch her enter the building and only the bored-looking security guard saw her.

She swiftly made her way up to her real office, relishing in the rare joy of an empty lift, and set to retrieving the data from her data drive on her computer. Within ten minutes she had obtained the necessary data and sent it as an encrypted file to her superiors. Then, as discreetly as she had arrived, she left again.

***

Carols’ alarm clock woke her up as always at 6 am. Tired, having had very little sleep after a late night at work, Carol wanted nothing more than to pull the duvet over her head and go back to sleep, but she knew that this was no longer an option now that she needed to see her superiors before appearing as normal as Don Evans’ assistant.

As she left her apartment she was glad to see that the rain had stopped, although the heavy clouds seemed to suggest that more was on the way. The moment she got through the door of the secret MI5 office she was whisked up to the director’s office, where she found all of her superiors waiting for her, perusing the evidence she had provided.

“Well Holly, I must say I’m suitably impressed,” the director said as she entered the crowded room, inwardly cursing himself for addressing an agent so casually in front of a large group of staff.

“Thank you sir,” she said calmly, wondering to herself why he would be so impressed when she had been merely doing her job. If anything she had been expecting to be reprimanded for not having provided evidence sooner, but then she remembered that the wheelchair excused her from the standards applied to other employees.

“This evidence is being decoded as we speak and soon we should have more intel to work with. Once we have the contents of the letter we will be able to decide what course of action we need to take, and then we will contact you. For the time being I need you to remain as Carol Holmes to keep up appearances if nothing else. Is that understood, Ms Steadman?”

“Yes sir,” Holly replied.

“Dismissed,” the director said.

Since she could hardly turn on her heels as was customary for the director Holly had to content herself with swiftly turning her wheelchair around on the spot, a difficult trick which had taken a lot of practice, and many mishaps, to perfect.

Half an hour later Holly entered Don Evans’ office to resume the role of Carol, and tried not to show her surprise when she saw the security guard from the night before in conversation Don. She quickly rolled through his spacious office into her own, and began the complicated business of closing the door and parking her wheelchair at her desk in the confined space she had been given. She was aware that their conversation had stopped abruptly when she entered and could feel both pairs of eyes on her back, leaving her in little doubt about the topic of conversation. Remaining calm, careful to maintain her charade as a simple assistant, she set to working on some more paperwork from the day before. She had only settled into the task for five minutes at the very most when her door opened and Don asked her to come through to his office.

Carol immediately complied with his request, placing herself on the opposing side of the desk to her boss after she had moved a chair out of the way. She was nervous and could feel herself instinctively tensing up, but desperately tried to remain calm, in appearance at least.

“That security guard tells me you were scanning some of my papers last night, including a nonsensical letter that he suspects is encrypted. Is this true?”

Aware that there was security camera footage of her doing so making any attempted denial futile, Carol confirmed this.

“I had not, as I recall, asked you to scan any paperwork last night.”

“No sir,” Carol practically whispered, her heart hammering against her rib cage.

“Then it won’t surprise you that when security called me last night after you had gone home to tell me of your actions, I asked them to thoroughly search your office. This morning, it has been reported to me that there was a bug in your office. Did you know that there was a bug in your office?” Don raised one eyebrow.

“No sir,” Carol replied, trying to look suitably appalled.

“So, the bug in your office has nothing to do with your suspicious actions last night?”

“No sir.”

“Then I’m sure you will be happy to explain your actions to me.”

“Yes sir,” Carol said, “I noticed the encoded letter and grew suspicious that someone was perhaps trying to harm you, kill you even, and that this letter was a warning from an unwilling accomplice. I wanted to study it further after filing it last night, so I scanned it in and sent it to my home computer. I scanned in the other things so as not to arouse undue concern.”

“Why did you not pass it on to security if you thought I may have been in danger?”

“I was shocked, sir, and a bit scared. I guess I panicked.”

“Well, Carol, it pains me to say this because not only are you an excellent assistant, you are also perfectly likeable, but I have no option other than to suspend you indefinitely. I expect your office cleared by the end of the day, and you will need to have your home computer inspected and cleansed of any the data concerned in this matter. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” Carol said for what felt like the fiftieth time that morning. In less than an hour all trace of her, bar the wheelchair ruts on the cheap carpet, had been removed from the office. Her home computer was inspected that afternoon and when nothing was found, she simply said that she had taken it upon herself to remove the data already. The two security officers sent to her home also had a quick inspection of her apartment, conscious not to overstep the mark in terms of privacy rights, and she was grateful that MI5 had had the initiative to provide Carol with a false degree certificate to hang on the wall as confirmation of her identity.

She waited a couple of hours after they left before heading into the MI5 office, and was admitted to see the director straight away.

“Come in, take a seat,” as soon as the words had left his mouth the director realised his mistake, and was greatly relieved when Holly simply laughed.

“I know I was supposed to wait for you to get in contact but-“

“There is no need to worry, I was just about to call you in anyway because I wanted to tell you personally how impressed I have been with your performance. Finding that letter was one thing, but the way you handled this mornings’ situation without letting them access the copied letter was exemplary,” the director smiled kindly. Holly was grateful that at least the director was pleasant to work for.

“The letter has been cracked and has confirmed our suspicions. Now that we have hard evidence of his affiliation with I.C.P. he will be arrested promptly,” the director said.

“But won’t that alert I.C.P. that we’re onto him?” Holly asked.

“Unfortunately you being caught has done that already, but we have a few leads from the letter itself.”

“So, what is it exactly that you now need me for?”

“For the arrest,” the director said levelly.

“The arrest?” Holly asked incredulously.

“Yes, the bit where they put handcuffs on him and throw his sorry butthole in jail,” the director grinned cheekily, “It will shake the staff in the office up to see their former colleague involved in his arrest, and may prompt other members of staff to give us any relevant information. Besides, Don Evans’ arrest is going to be huge; the press are going to be all over it. I think the public ought to see the central role played by someone with a disability in catching a criminal like Don Evans.”

Holly smiled, “I didn’t realise you took such an interest in the representation of disability in the media, sir.”

“My wife has cerebral palsy. I think she would divorce me if I wasn’t a bit of an activist every now and then.”

“Well then, count me in for Dons’ arrest,” Holly laughed, “I can’t wait to see his smug face.”

***

It was nearing the end of the working day and rush hour traffic was beginning to accumulate when the MI5 vehicles screeched to a halt outside Evans & Co., and at least fifteen agents headed into the building. Holly had a slower, more conspicuous decent to the road via a noisy lift, and had time to observe the growing interest of the commuters around them. The pavement was already filling up with the press, who had been given an “anonymous” tip-off about the arrest, and Holly had a little difficulty weaving through the tangle of wires and camera tripods as she went to the door of the building. She waited just inside the doorway and within a minute had the pleasure of watching Don Evans being escorted down the stairs in handcuffs. She mused that this was the only time she had ever seen him use the stairs.

Don was trying to keep his face to the floor in a futile attempt to mask his identity, but when he glimpsed “Carol” out of the corner of his eye he stopped in his tracks and looked up.

“Hello Don,” she said lightly, as if they had merely bumped into each other in a pleasant coffee shop.

“Carol?”

“Holly Steadman, MI5,” she said, extending a hand as a formal greeting before feigning an apology for wanting the shake the hand of a man in handcuffs.

“But, but-“ Don spluttered, “But you’re just a PA. A PA in a wheelchair.”

“Actually I was an undercover MI5 agent, but thanks to you I’m sure I’ll be receiving a promotion soon,” Holly smiled brightly, “It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”

With that Don was pushed out onto the street, where the press hounded him like a pack of hungry hyenas as he was loaded into a van and the doors were slammed shut behind him.

***

The next day, on the way to her new office as captain of a squad of MI5 agents, Holly picked up a newspaper. The front page had a large photo of a surprised Don Evans being pushed into a van, and behind him a woman in a wheelchair could be seen smiling brightly. For the most part the article described the evidence against Evans and how he was arrested, but Holly was intensely pleased to find that in the very last paragraph, the promotion of disabled agent Holly Steadman was mentioned as an example and inspiration for other disabled people. She decided that she would cut out and keep that article to remind herself every time someone doubted her ability to do a task simply because she was disabled and not for a genuine reason, that she had proved the doubters wrong once before.

Wheels by Night: A Short Story.

The setting sun cast a blood red glow around the room, awakening Rusev. Slowly he pushed away his coffin lid and sat upright, watching the last of the light fade into darkness. He reached out to where he had parked his wheelchair the night before, only to find that having left the brakes off it rolled away from his grasp. Rusev sighed, he was never at his best in an evening, and crawled inelegantly out of his coffin towards his wheelchair. Once he was seated in his chair he wheeled across to the fridge and helped himself to leftovers from the night before. He wiped his mouth a habit he had developed since he could no longer rely on mirrors to determine if he had smears of blood around his lips, and then pulled his cloak off the sofa. As he draped the thick fabric around his shoulders it got caught on one of his wheels, and he had to struggle for several minutes to free it. He sighed when he saw yet another tear in the cloak that would need stitching up but that would have to wait. He needed to restock his fridge.

Rusev exited his apartment, locking the door behind him before heading towards the lift. The gothic castles of Transylvania, appealing as they were to any vampire, were not renowned for their accessibility. The closest Rusev had been able to emulate was to live in an apartment block in the shadow of a ruined castle on a hilltop in the centre of England. As he waited for the lift arrive he watched a bat flit past the window, intent on catching the myriad of insects that appeared just after sunset.

When the lift finally arrived the doors scraped open to reveal that it was packed with the large family from the floor above, presumably heading home after a day at the castle. Those that acknowledged Rusev smiled apologetically making no attempt to accommodate him, and Rusev resigned himself to another wait.

Eventually Rusev made it out on to the street and rolled along the uneven pavements, trying to avoid both potholes and people. To make matters more difficult he was travelling up a rather steep slope, and soon his arms burned with lactic acid. He was heading towards the castle which had a dense cluster of trees outside of the walls surrounding the gardens, the perfect place to wait for unsuspecting passers-by, able to see anyone approaching from a great distance due to his keen night-vision. Admittedly the soft soil and partially exposed tree roots made navigating this region particularly difficult, but Rusev had practised such manoeuvres for almost seventy years.

Rusev had to wait an unusually long time before a pair of drunken teenagers stumbled into the woodlands, hoping for a little privacy. He had to prevent himself from tutting and contented himself with thinking “kids these days”. The pair stumbled to the ground, using their coats as a mattress on this chilly evening. Rusev tried to make his move but to his horror realised that he had been waiting so long for someone to arrive that his wheels had sunk into the ground, and he was completely stuck. The commotion as he tried to free himself was enough to alert the teenagers of his presence, who quickly pulled on their half-removed clothes and headed in his direction carrying fallen branches to defend themselves.

“Oh deary me,” Rusev said in the most stereotypically English voice he could, “I’m afraid I’m stuck. I could do with a little assistance if you please.”

The teenagers were momentarily stunned, then dropped their branches, horrified at the thought of beating up a disabled man.

“Oh my god I’m so sorry,” one slurred, “I thought you were like, a pervert, or something.”

“No, no, deary me, no,” Rusev continued, “an ecologist. Not the best choice of career for a wheelchair user, admittedly.”

“So you’re doing some kind of study?” the other teen asked.

“Yes, I’m studying wildlife in managed woodlands close to urban areas at night. You’re not the first people I’ve scared doing this,” Rusev replied.

“Do you need help?”

“Ah, yes, if that isn’t too much bother.”

It took perhaps ten minutes of pushing and pulling, which was difficult to coordinate given the state of the teenagers, before Rusev was finally free.

“Thank you, ladies,” he said, spinning around and heading in the opposite direction, stopping to inspect a particularly interesting tree root along the way.

Rusev found another convenient hiding spot where the ground was firmer so he could avoid any further embarrassments. He was becoming increasingly hungry but he had no choice other than to wait before a late-night dog-walker appeared. This was perfect. The man was clearly tired so would make for an easy catch, and the dog could be used to lure the man into the woods. In fact, the dog had already picked up his sent and was tugging at the leash, eager to explore the woodland. As they approached Rusev snapped a twig and the dog went into a frenzy, dragging its’ owner into the woods. At the right moment Rusev made his move, tripping the man up using his wheels and then hauling him onto his lap in order to reach the jugular.

He took a deep drink and then filled an empty bottle to put in his fridge for later, but was careful not to kill the man. Instead he made a small incision on his little finger, which was scarred from repeatedly doing just that, and wiped his own blood over the wound in the mans’ neck. He watched the bite mark heal, disappearing completely, and let the man fall to the floor unconscious. After reaching down to give the dog a quick pet, he placed a garlic clove in the mans’ hand and rolled away. The man would wake up within ten minutes unable to remember a thing, merely feeling a little light-headed. He would have an inexplicable and intense craving for garlic, and just one small bite of the clove would rid him of vampirism.

Rusev still had another empty bottle to fill, and desired a second, fresh drink, which was when the blood was at it’s best. Now that it was late at night his best bet would be to wait in the shadows of an old oak tree outside the local pub, which he had never seen the inside of due to the step in the doorway.

It took Rusev longer than he had anticipated to reach the shelter of the oak tree, as he had to take long detours on three separate occasions due to the lowered kerbs being blocked by badly parked cars and a set of roadworks. Once he had made it he waited again, his dark cloak camouflaging him in the shadows, and he was grateful when his patience paid off. Three middle-aged men, all talking loudly about a recent football match, wandered out of the pub straight towards Rusev. Half way across the car park two of the men peeled off towards the bus stop while the third one continued in the same direction. Rusev rolled back, careful to remain hidden, and pulled a cigarette from a pocket within his cloak despite the fact that he couldn’t stand the smoke.

“You got a light, mate?” Rusev said as the man walked past.

“Christ, man, you can’t go round scarin’ people like that,” the man tried to recover from the shock.

“Sorry pal, I didn’t mean to scare you that bad,” Rusev replied, “Serious though, ‘ave you got a light?”

“Yeah, yeah, lemme gerrit out me pocket.”

As the man tugged his cigarette lighter out of the inside pocket of his well-worn jacket, Rusev noticed his two compatriots boarding a bus. He held out his hand for the lighter, intentionally fumbling and dropping it as it was passed to him.

“Ah sh-,” Rusev said.

“I got it,” the man bent down, his neck now level with Rusev’s mouth. Rusev made his move and soon he was feeling content, with two full bottles of blood ready to go in his fridge. He healed the mans’ wound and left him a garlic clove, tucked the bottled blood inside his cloak, and set off for home.

Going back down the sloped streets was, if anything, harder than climbing up them. The wheels constantly strained beneath his hands wanting to go faster, and it took most of his strength not to lose control. He was concentrating so hard on not speeding down the hill like an uncontrollable rollercoaster that he didn’t see the gaping pothole in the pavement. Before he had even realised what was going on, his wheels entered the pothole and he was flung forwards. His seatbelt kept him in the chair, but couldn’t stop Rusev’s head clashing hard with his left wheel.

Shaken but not hurt, Rusev slowly sat upright. Nothing appeared to be broken and he could see no obvious injuries. He was, however, perplexed to hear a soft hissing side on his left. Puzzled he looked around, but could see nothing that could be the source of the noise. Shrugging it off as a strange aftereffect of the pothole Rusev tried to move off, but found that where before his wheelchair was like an eager cheetah, now it was more akin to a sluggish elephant. He looked down to inspect the cause of the problem and found to his dismay that his left tire had punctured when his fangs collided with it, complete with a small blood stain surrounding the hole in the rubber.

The wheelchair wasn’t impossible to move, but it took great strength to maintain even the slowest of paces. It now leaned to the left and was inclined to head in that direction; steering it was nigh on impossible. Rusev was just grateful that he had eaten before the tire had punctured, frustrating as it was.

It took him over an hour of slow grunting and sweating along dark and empty streets before he reached his apartment building, by which time the earliest signs of the summer sun were already apparent. As he pushed through the shiny glass doors of the ugly, modern building, the sun began to appear. Hurriedly Rusev pressed the lift button, and cursed it for being so slow. Again and again he pressed it, finding what shelter he could under his cloak. When the lift did arrive it contained a toned man in running gear, with a large sports bag by his side. Rusev couldn’t help but think that if someone was willing to get up at a ridiculous hour to go for a run surely they could manage the stairs, but said nothing.

The man bent to pick up his bag, looking a little curiously at the pale wheelchair user who appeared to be cowering from the sun. As he lifted his bag one of the seams split, and a mess of clothes and sport equipment tumbled out. He smiled apologetically to Rusev, who he had concluded was simply suffering from a particularly terrible hangover, and slowly gathered his things together. Each second felt like a year to Rusev as his skin tingled and then burned under the fierce light of the sun. Even wrapped in his cloak he could feel his skin roasting, and knew he would have some lovely blisters for the next week or so.

Once the man had gathered all his things and exited the lift the doors began to close, and Rusev had to stick his arm between the doors to stop them closing completely. As quickly as he could, which wasn’t at any great speed at all, he pulled into the lift, relieved to have a brief respite from the sun. There were no interruptions as he ascended to his floor, but the progress along the corridor to his flat was hampered by both the flat tire and his burning skin. His trembling hands could barely fit the key in the lock and he struggled to pick up the newspaper from the day before left outside his door by the one neighbour he ever spoke to. He swung the door open and entered his apartment, cursing the fact that he hadn’t put up the new set of blackout curtains yet leaving him once again exposed to sunlight.

He didn’t bother putting the brakes on the wheelchair or taking off his cloak but instead practically fell into his coffin, hauling on the lid after him and relishing in the welcoming darkness. He was perusing the pages of his paper when he remembered that the bottles of blood were still in his pocket, and not in the fridge. Cursing vehemently with every cell in his body Rusev threw the lid off of his coffin, crawled to the fridge and put the bottles inside, before returning to his coffin. His hands and wrists had black scorch-marks etched across them and he had no doubt that his face would too. In one last monumental effort, he clambered inside and replaced the lid of the coffin, and was asleep before he had even picked up his newspaper.

Spaced Out: A Short Story.

“Well, you are more than qualified to take the job Mr Benson, but as I’m sure you are aware your case is a little…,” the interviewer paused to find the right word, “…unusual. We have a few questions about how this might affect your ability to undertake the role that under other circumstances would be deemed insensitive perhaps, but we mean no harm in asking these questions, I assure you.” The middle-aged, balding man in the overly tight grey suit was sat bolt upright, his interlinked hands resting on the desk before him.

“I had expected as much,” Tom said in reply. He had been wondering for the entirety of the interview when the elephant in the room would become a topic of discussion.

“Then you will forgive me for asking why exactly you use a wheelchair?”

“I was involved in a land mine accident while serving as an electrical engineer in the army, and the damage to the spine has resulted in paralysis from the waist downwards,” Tom did not to like to brood on the accident, which still gave him horrific and very realistic nightmares almost five years on.

“Your upper body is in no way affected?”

“Bar some rather nasty scarring, no. I believe myself to be rather lucky is this regard.”

“And your intellect?”

“Pardon?” Tom was shocked and a little incredulous. He had anticipated questions about his physical abilities, but to query his mental capacities was simply insulting.

“Your intellect. Your ability to think rapidly in stressful situations and to solve complex problems. Were they in any way impaired by the accident?”

“Of course not, my brain is in my head, not my legs,” as soon as the words had slipped out of his mouth Tom regretted them, fearing they made him sound arrogant and insolent.

“I apologise profusely if I have caused any offense,” the interviewer did not look in the least bit sorry.

“My impairment is physical only,” Tom replied more calmly.

“Indeed. So, how would you move around the space station?”

“Propelling myself with my arms, just like I do every day on Earth. That will not be a problem.”

“OK. And can you give me a reason why we should risk sending someone disabled into space instead of someone able-bodied please?”

Tom smirked, “You won’t have to worry about the effects of microgravity on my leg muscles, which have atrophied anyway.” He was pleased to observe the flicker of a smile flit across the interviewers’ face.

“Well, thank you for coming My Benson. We’ll be in touch,” the interviewer stood up and leant over the desk to shake Toms’ hand, before crossing the room to hold open the door for him.

“Thank you,” Tom said as he wheeled out of the room.

***

Nine months later Tom followed his crewmates, Helena and Ulrik, as they crossed the gangway to the relatively small rocket, with the crowd staring up at them from a distance. Only detectable by the flashes of light emitting from their cameras Tom knew that the focus of the photographers would be on him, the first disabled astronaut ever. Helena and Ulrik clambered into the shuttle before him, and then helped Tom shuffle inelegantly from his wheelchair onto his seat, which currently faced the sky. This feeling was not entirely alien to Tom, who had on several occasions over-turned his wheelchair in an encounter with a small step, usually while inebriated.

The doors were closed and as he strapped himself in, Tom watched as a technician rolled his wheelchair back along the gangway; it was strange to think that he would not see it for three months. He almost missed it.

The intercom crackled into life and ground control confirmed that all was ready for take-off. As the countdown began the engines rumbled into life, the vibrations causing Toms’ legs to bounce gently against the seat in a comical manner. Finally the Earth moved away, and as the smoke cleared they got one last look at the ground control centre beneath them before the Earth started to shrink at an alarming rate.

“Strange to think that outer space will be more accessible than my local pub,” Tom said.

It was several hours before the rocket got into orbit, and the sudden loss of gravity as this happened caused Tom’s legs to start flailing uncontrollably while his upper body was still strapped in. Tom unfastened his seat belt faster than Helena and Ulrik, perhaps because they were merely fancier versions of his wheelchair belt. He drifted away from his seat, and almost immediately managed to kick a button on one of the many control panels around him by accident. Thankfully it was just the stereo, and the sounds of David Bowie filled the room.

“Alright, very funny, who put Space Oddity in the CD player?” Tom asked, turning round to face Helena and Ulrik, who were now floating in the tin can, far above the world. Ulrik had a grin spreading from ear to ear plastered across his face, while Helena was managing to propel herself around the cabin by laughter alone.

A few hours later the rocket docked with the International Space Station, a complicated process requiring extensive communication between those already on the station, ground control, and Tom, Helena, and Ulrik themselves. Eventually, after dealing with an uncooperative airlock that had to be switched off and on again, they entered the ISS. As they moved through the doorway Tom got his ankle caught on the hatch and Ulrik had to rescue him, but Tom could be independent in everything else he did. For the first time since the accident he was no different from anyone else.

***

Two months into his time at the ISS, Tom was woken with a start by loud alarms and flashing red lights. Helena and Ulrik were already at the central control panel trying to assess what had gone wrong, and he joined them as soon as he had disentangled himself from the sleeping bag strapped to the wall. Dave, another member of the crew, was already trying to hold a discussion with ground control, who’s panicked voices could only just be heard over the alarm.

“We hit some unexpected debris out of nowhere and it’s damaged the cooling system, the station needs immediate attention!” Dave yelled, “Ulrik, Tom, get into your spacesuits, you’re going to have to do a space-walk!”

“Really, a space-walk?” Tom raised one eyebrow.

“This isn’t the time for jokes,” Dave said sharply, as Helena managed to silence the alarm, “Helena will help operate the air locks. I will stay on communications. Tom, you’re in charge of the electronics. Move!”

Tom didn’t need to be told twice. Getting into his suit was rather difficult given that not only were the trousers floating around aimlessly, but so were his legs. With a little help from Ulrik he managed to get dressed, and then made his way over to the airlock where Helena was waiting. Safety lines and hooks were put into place and the tools needed for the repair job were fastened to them by another safety line. Then they were in the airlock as it depressurised, and finally moved out onto the side of the station.

“The site of impact is behind the nearest solar panel on your left,” Dave’s voice sounded tinny over the earpieces in the space-suits.

Hand-over-hand, always having a least one line tethered to the station for safety, Ulrik and Tom made their painfully slow progress towards the damaged area. The sensation of his legs weightlessly drifting outwards made Tom a little uncomfortable, but it wasn’t until his leg got caught on the solar panel that he had any real issues. Unable to move his leg to wriggle free, he had to call Ulrik over to help, but this time it was not as simple as when he got his leg stuck when entering the space station. This time they had less than half an hour before the sun re-appeared, when they would want to be back inside the station unable to do any more repairs until the sun disappeared again. In the rush Toms’ safety line became entangled with Ulriks’, which took a further minute to sort out.

Eventually they made it to the impact site, which essentially looked like a bowl containing a salad of shards of metal and plastic. Wires poked through broken casing, some even releasing the odd spark. Both men began to tinker, trying to make sense of the mess before them while listening to Dave’s instructions. It hardly seemed like a couple of minutes since they had begun this task than Helena was calling them back into the airlock as the sunrise approached.

Once they were back inside the station Tom took his helmet off to have a better discussion with Dave.

“How the hell are we going to fix that?” he asked.

“The stations’ sensors are providing ground control with some data, so we’ll get better intel from them shortly. It looks stable for the time being, but it’s going to get really hot in here after a while in the sun. If I were you, I’d get ready to leave the airlock the second the sun disappears again.”

“Yes, sir,” Tom said without thinking, feeling almost as if he was back in the army.

At sunset Tom and Ulrik once again headed for the damaged area, a little quicker this time now that they knew exactly where it was. Dave fed them information piece by piece as he talked with ground control, while Tom worked on the wiring and Ulrik tried to repair the exterior of the ship. The gloves they wore were incredibly cumbersome, and Tom found himself growing increasingly frustrated that his hands felt as disabled as the rest of him.

As he fumbled with the delicate electronics he managed to reconnect the damaged circuits, and he heard Dave’s voice in his ear; “The cooling system is functioning again. I’m sending out some spare casing via the airlock; I don’t think you’ll be able to repair the damaged casing. Collect it for Ulrik.”

Awkwardly Tom made his way back towards the airlock, continually trapping his legs between himself and the space station until he looked like a human pretzel. He cursed under his breath, unable to fathom why exactly Dave thought he would be happy to fetch and carry items on command when his legs would quite literally have been more useful had they not been present. Helena had already placed the casing in the airlock ready for him to reach as soon as the door opened, which was a relief, and then he had to crawl over the ship back to where Ulrik was still at work.

“It’s flat-pack but there’s no Allen key,” Tom said as he handed it over, a futile attempt at lightening the atmosphere despite the fact that there wasn’t one.

Eventually the replacement panel had been screwed into place and the only sign of an impact with space debris was a collection of scratches surrounding the repaired section. Ground control confirmed that the sensors were now producing perfectly normal readings, and Tom and Ulrik made their way back to the airlock. In less of a rush, Tom was able to keep his legs from becoming as cumbersome as they had been before, and even managed to avoid getting caught on any protruding elements of the station. A few minutes after re-entering the ISS, the sun re-appeared from behind the Earth, and a soft orange light flooded the room.

***

The return trip to Earth was mostly uneventful. Tom was now used to the lack of gravity and was less prone to knocking things over accidentally; in fact, he made the most of his last few hours of not needing a wheelchair. Just before they were due to feel the full force of gravity once more, he made his way to his seat and strapped himself in as ordered. Ground control had warned all the astronauts on the dangers of not being seated when gravity kicked in, including blacking out due the sudden draining of blood from the brain, or injuries from colliding with the floor. The story of how one unfortunate astronaut had broken his leg had been repeated often enough, but Tom remained adamant that stepping on a land-mine was still far more risky.

The fall to Earth was broken by the deployment of parachutes, but the capsule containing Tom and his colleagues still landed in the sea with enough force to plunge it underwater before bobbing back up to the surface. All of them, Tom included, were feeling the effects of gravity now. Tom could feel his heart beating harder to push blood up to the brain against gravity, something it hadn’t had to deal with for three months, and he felt dazed and tired as his brain tried to deal with the slower provision of oxygen.

It did not take long for the rescue team to arrive, hauling them onto a boat and taking them to shore. As they approached the harbour they could see a crowd gathering on the harbour wall, and when they were closer still, they could hear them cheering and clapping. Once the boat had docked, Helena Ulrik, and Tom were all placed in wheelchairs since standing upright with gravity sickness could result in fainting, and made their way to the jetty where members of ground control awaited them. Tom had no issue controlling his chair, reuniting with it as if it were an old friend, but both Helena and Ulrik required some help manoeuvring their wheelchairs along the gangway, with Ulrik getting stuck on the railings at least twice.

“Is this what it’s like for you all the time?” Helena called after Tom.

“Pretty much,” he responded, “you wait until we get among the crowd and have a child’s point of view.”

As they moved forward, pushing through the crowd that engulfed them, Ulrik and Helena ran over several people and eventually resorted to following Tom in single file through the crowd, akin to a mother duck and her offspring. It amused Tom that in this scenario his disability was actually to his benefit, something that before had only ever been true of discounted concert tickets when people felt sorry for him.

They headed towards a coach that awaited them and in doing so passed a newspaper stand in the midst of the crowd with a teenage boy trying to sell papers to the passers-by, probably earning less than a single paper cost. Tom picked one up and as he made his awkward way onto the coach via a very slow and noisy lift, he began to read. He had a lot to catch up on.

Agent 48: A Short Story.

The woman looked completely out of place as she entered the pub. She had tried her best to dress inconspicuously but her crease-less blouse and plain jeans tucked into knee-high leather boots made her stand out like a sore thumb among the crowd. She kept her head down as she hurried across the room, relying on her hair to obscure her features. As promised to her by her advisor there was a wooden door hidden in a dark recess at the back of the pub which she gently knocked on. She turned and looked over her shoulder, but everyone seemed to have lost interest in her and were focusing on their drinks instead.

A panel in the door at eye-level opened and the woman found herself looking at a pair of bright blue eyes before the panel was slammed shut again. She heard the sound of locks and bolts being us  and then the door opened. She stepped through wordlessly into a plain, simple room containing a desk and two chairs, before the door was shut firmly behind her by the man who had opened it.

“Take a seat, ma’am,” the man said, “he will be here soon.”

“Thank you,” the lady said politely before perching on the edge of a chair, clearly agitated.

To the right of the desk was another wooden door, which promptly opened.

“Ah, Lady Mansfield-Hope, I was wondering when you would arrive,” a man in a smart tuxedo seated in a wheelchair tried to glide elegantly through the doorway but caught one wheel on the narrow door-frame, and had to reverse to free himself. He positioned himself opposite her and apologised for his ungainly entrance.

“You’ve been expecting me?” Lady Mansfield-Hope asked, clearly perturbed by his statement, having accepted his apology.

“A woman of your intelligence and beauty would not marry a man like Lord Mansfield unless there was something to be gained by the marriage, or more specifically, his death. I am only surprised that you did not come sooner” the man replied.

“I thought it would be suspicious should he die too soon after the wedding,” the woman had regained her composure. “I would prefer to discuss this matter further with Agent 48 himself, if you please.”

“Madam, I am Agent 48,” came the reply.

“But-“ she uncomfortably gestured towards the wheelchair.

“I charge extra for ableism,” Agent 48 retaliated. “Speaking of which, let us first discuss prices.”

“Money is no object here, I will pay what you ask.”

“In that case then I will ask about the job at hand,” the man leant back in his chair, calm and composed as if planning a murder was nothing to him.

Half an hour later Lady Mansfield-Hope exited the pub, and went to find the chauffeur in a nearby café.

***

Agent 48 waited on the platform for his train, getting soaked by the incessant rain while he waited for the ramp he had booked the week before to be brought to him. It was on his third visit to the coffee machine that he asked a member of staff about the ramp, who proceeded to inform him in a patronising manner the process of booking a ramp for future occasions. Agent 48 informed the staff that he knew the procedure well enough having used it many times before, and that he was concerned with how to access the ramp he had already booked, not how to book one. It was bad enough that he had to book a ramp in advance, which prevented spontaneous travel altogether, but to yet again face the lack of a ramp at the train station made Agent 48 snap.

“It may surprise you that wheelchairs aren’t made with the ability to levitate, but I’m afraid to inform you that this is the case. So if you could find someone with a functioning body to put out a ramp, allowing my dysfunctional body to ascend the insane foot-long gap between the platform and the train, I’d be grateful. What exactly is the point of going to the trouble of booking a ramp, which by the way is more complicated than a power outage at an electricians’ convention, if a ramp never appears?”

Eventually, after much more detailed and heated discussion, a porter with a ramp showed up mere minutes before the train was due to leave.

“Sorry,” he shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, clearly not concerned about his lack of punctuality, “I was on a fag break and saw an old friend.”

Once Agent 48 had been reprimanded for making a fuss about nothing, he boarded the train and manoeuvred through the tight doorway and into the carriage, only to find a pram in the one wheelchair space in the carriage. The porter left him to deal with the angry mother alone, who refused to move her pram despite notices saying that in the case of wheelchair users she was obliged to do so. Agent 48 decided to sit outside the dingy bathroom in the space between carriages, having people clamber over his feet as they went past. He noticed that it was always him who received the tuts and looks of disapproval for blocking the way, particularly when the snack trolley was brought through, but being used to this it didn’t bother him too much. He was merely glad that when the train pulled into his station, a porter was ready with a ramp on the platform for him, a rare occurrence.

After this, Agent 48 had to wait for an accessible taxi, watching people climb in and out of inaccessible cars while he waited. Eventually a wheelchair taxi pulled up and, once he had managed to convince the able-bodied people trying to climb in that he needed the adapted car, he was strapped into the vehicle. As inevitable as it was to ask the taxi driver what time his shift finished, the taxi driver asked why he used a wheelchair.

“I kicked the last person who questioned my disability,” Agent 48 said in a deadpan voice. The rest of the journey was spent in silence bar the exchange of money at the end of the trip.

Once Agent 48 had found the ramp, he entered the hotel and checked in at an overly tall desk before being told that his room was on the top floor. He went to the lifts and waited with his luggage in a heavy sports bag balanced precariously across his knees. He was glad that he had allowed extra time for all the hold-ups, as was his standard protocol.

Eventually the old lift reached the ground floor, and a wave of pompous businessmen in expensive suits pushed passed him without so much as a glance. Once again Agent 48 thanked his lucky stars for the benefit of anonymity that came with a wheelchair.

The lift moved slowly up the building, occasionally scraping in a very disconcerting manner as it travelled up the lift shaft. It stopped at almost every floor, sometimes for people who didn’t want to walk up one flight of stairs, and sometimes opening the doors to find no one there, as whoever had called the lift had clearly got bored and decided to walk anyway.

Finally Agent 48 reached the top floor of the hotel, and he laboured across the thick, woollen carpet to reach his room. He struggled to reach over his bag to insert the key-card into the scanner, which was placed so far up the wall an orangutan would have struggled to reach it. After stretching and straining Agent 48 finally entered the room. His wheelchair only just fit between the bed and the wall, leaving muddy streaks down the crisp, white bedding. With no room to turn around he had to reverse to shut the door behind him, and then he heaved his bag onto the bed.

After sorting out the contents of his bag he went to the window with his sniper rifle, and watched many important political figures being questioned by journalists as they entered an environmental policy conference across the road. The clasp to open the window was at the top of the frame, so Agent 48 had to use his rifle to undo the clasp before forcing the window open the fraction it could without allowing people to throw themselves, or someone else, out. Finally, Agent 48 set up the rifle so that he was ready to take the shot before covering it with a curtain, giving the appearance that the curtain had been pushed back by a careless guest.

Inevitably the several cups of coffee drunk in the train station while waiting for a ramp to make an appearance had their effect, and Agent 48 had to use the bathroom. He reversed, leaving more muddy marks on the bedding, and stopped by the bathroom door. This he opened with relative ease, although the door now blocked his route to the window, and with some mishaps he negotiated his way into the bathroom. Once inside he stretched up to reach the light switch, and then began the struggle of trying not to fall over his own wheelchair while he manoeuvred himself around the room. After about ten minutes Agent 48 made it back to the window, just in time to see Lord Mansfield’s car approaching slowly down the crowded street. He positioned himself carefully, took hold of the rifle, and exhaled. As Lord Mansfield climbed the steps, hindered by over-zealous photographers, Agent 48’s finger hovered over the trigger. He took the shot and Mansfield fell forwards onto the stairs while the crowd ran panicking in all directions. Another shot sealed Mansfield’s fate and then Agent 48 fired some more shots to hide the fact that this was a targeted attack, giving non-lethal injuries to two more politicians and one journalist.

Quickly Agent 48 wiped the rifle to remove any fingerprints, and grabbed a pair of balled-up socks from his open, semi-unpacked bag. He shoved them in his mouth and then in one swift, well-practised movement, over-turned his wheelchair. He lay sprawled on the floor and only had to wait a matter of minutes before policemen were hammering at the hotel door, having figured out where the shots were fired from. When the door was not answered it was kicked down, and three policemen practically fell into the room, where they were horrified to discover that a poor disabled man had been attacked by the sniper before he escaped.

Agent 48 was helped back into his wheelchair before being taken to the police station to submit a witness statement, describing how the sniper had followed him to his room and attacked him, gagged him, and had fired the rifle several times before fleeing. He recounted that the sniper had been wearing a mask to disguise his identity, and hadn’t spoken a word. While he gave a statement his luggage was collected from the hotel on his behalf. The following morning he left the police station having given all the evidence he could to aid the capture of this fiendish villain, and made his way to the train station which was only round the corner. He was predictably hampered by a few journalists who wanted to hear his version of events directly from him, rather than the edited witness statement released by the police. As requested Agent 48 remained silent, only breaking his silence to ask a photographer to step aside as she blocked the road crossing.

At the train station Agent 48 had once again to wait for a ramp, and so he decided to visit the newsagents as a newspaper would be helpful for him to remain discrete from the public’s eager eyes. He expected the headlines to scream of Lord Mansfield’s terrible assassination but was surprised to find that actually, the majority of the headlines were far more concerned with the attack on the heroic disabled man than the cold-blooded murder of an important political figure. He bought one of the papers and settled down to read the article on the assassination while he waited for a ramp. The article gave a brief discussion of the previous days’ events, including the fact that no suspects had as yet been apprehended, and a small mention of what all this would mean for Lady Mansfield-Hope was made. However, far longer than Agent 48 deemed necessary was spent focusing on the diabolical nature of a man who would physically attack someone deemed weak and defenseless.

As he finished reading the article a porter arrived with a ramp tucked under his arm, and finally Agent 48 could board the train. It did not surprise him that once again a pram had been placed in the wheelchair space, but this time the mortified mother was more than welcome to accommodate him. Smiling and relaxed Agent 48 buried himself in the pages of the newspaper, reading the latest about global politics and new scientific discoveries. He had never known such a pleasant commute as this.

Captain Wheels: A Short Story.

The pub door swung open and a tall, muscular woman entered and looked around the room. Finally her eyes settled on the man she wished to speak to, perched precariously on a bar stool with his wheelchair directly to his right. She marched across the room to him and tapped him lightly on the shoulder causing him to swivel round.

“Captain Wheels?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “want to take a selfie?”

“No. Actually I’d like to speak with you in relative privacy, perhaps in one of those booths?” she pointed to the opposite wall which was lined with tall, secluded booths.

“Oh OK, sure. Give me a minute.” Captain Wheels shifted into his wheelchair, stretched up for the half-drunk pint still on the bar and followed the woman across the room to the booth in the far corner. He manoeuvred himself from his wheelchair, which couldn’t fit in the booth, onto one of the high-backed, cushioned seats.

“My name is Nicola Rage and I’m recruiting people with special abilities to form a team,” Nicola began, “In searching the newspapers for reports of such people I came across several articles discussing your activities, and I decided that you might be exactly what I’m searching for.”

Captain Wheels raised one eyebrow slightly, “And what exactly is this team for?”

“Government intelligence services have found evidence of a criminal organisation that is in ownership of multiple significant threats that have the potential to destroy entire cities. What these threats are is as yet unknown but when those threats present themselves, as appears to be inevitable, we need someone to protect us.”

“And that’s me?”

“Potentially as part of a team of like-minded individuals,” Nicola said calmly, “but first I need to talk to you to discuss what exactly these abilities are without the exaggeration of excitable journalists.” She flipped open a notepad on which were scrawled a handful of questions and before Captain Wheels had the chance to say anything else, she began questioning him.

“How did you obtain your powers?”

“Well personally I don’t especially like recounting that experience-“ Captain Wheels began but was interrupted by Nicola.

“Captain, I realise that asking someone how they obtained their special abilities is a sensitive question but I am not asking this to satisfy my own personal curiosity. I need to hear it from you.”

“7 years ago doctors found a tumour in my brain. A cancerous one. The operation to remove it went wrong, severely limiting my mobility and putting me in a wheelchair, but while I lost control of my own body I gained the ability to control other physical objects. I can move things with my mind, get things to levitate very briefly, and can even influence the actions of those around me to some extent.”

“So you’re telekinetic?” Nicola asked in a matter-of-fact voice, almost sounding bored.

“Yeah, I guess so,” came Captain Wheels’ reply.

“And how do you use these powers?”

“Probably my most frequent job is to move extremely heavy objects if someone is trapped say in a building fire or a collapsed building following an earthquake. I’ve also been able to prevent car accidents and the like and I can move objects to block and trap criminals. allowing them to be caught by the police before they cause any more harm,” Captain Wheels said.

“So you could perhaps trap terrorists allowing them to be apprehended, or move a bomb to a safe distance away from inhabited buildings and businesses. And you could help anyone stuck within the wreckage if we weren’t fast enough,” Nicola proceeded.

“Yes.”

“Could you get them to change their minds about their intentions?”

“It’s possible but not certain, I’m afraid. I may be able to slow them down by making them question their actions, but once an idea is imprinted firmly in someone’s mind I can do very little to change it,” Captain Wheels explained.

Nicola Rage sat back against her seat in thought before continuing.

“Would you be willing to be a member of an elite team, all of whom have their own special abilities, to help reduce the threat to our society on an international scale?” she asked.

“If my powers are useful to you then yes, absolutely,” Captain Wheels said with sincerity.

“Then welcome to the Protection Squad.”

***

Captain Wheels slowly seated himself in his new wheelchair. Instead of the cold, grey lump of metal he was used to this was warm and comfortable, more like an armchair on wheels. Like his old wheelchair it was powered but here the similarities stopped. The batteries had an extra-long life and could be charged using solar power as well as the charger. The control panel was cluttered with a myriad of buttons which Nicola guided him through.

“The top one is for stealth mode. It silences the motors and dims the lights on the control panel, activates the chameleon panels which help you blend into the background just like the ones on your uniform, and switches off the horn so you have no chance of alerting someone to your presence accidentally.

“That one is for the jet pack which will help you levitate your own wheelchair at great heights for longer so you can focus your powers elsewhere. This one here is for the parachute should something go wrong.

“This one is for the gun incorporated into your left arm rest, and will reload automatically from the magazine of bullets under the seat. We’ve added special receptors that can enhance the effects of your telekinesis, allowing you to aim the gun hands-free.

“Obviously all of these things take some power from the battery so should be used carefully, but with these batteries I can’t imagine you’ll have to worry about it too much.”

“Wow,” Captain Wheels said slowly, “just wow.”

Nicola smiled, “I had an inkling that you might like it. Are you ready to meet the other team members?”

Captain Wheels nodded and followed her into the next room. In the centre of the room was an oval-shaped mahogany table with three men and two women in the same uniform already seated around it, as if they were attending the worlds’ most unusual board meeting. Captain Wheels manoeuvred into the space left for him at the table while Nicola took her seat at the end of the table.

“Welcome, all of you,” she said, “you were hand-picked because of your special abilities and together you are the Protection Squad. I advise that you get to know each other quickly; the latest government intelligence suggests that the first threat is imminent and we will need you to defend us. Now if you will excuse me I have a strategy meeting with my superiors to attend, after which you may well be called upon.” She stood up and left.

There was a short, awkward pause before the darker-haired woman introduced herself as Dominique, her power being the ability to shape-shift. The second woman, known only as the Blood Assassin, briefly described the genetic and surgical enhancements she had been subjected to against her will that had turned her into a super-warrior. Doctor Raven described himself as a super-intelligent telepath and Jerry Lightning introduced his ability to run faster than the speed of sound. Finally there was Thoron, affectionately nicknamed for his strength and odd resemblance to the Nordic God of thunder. The last person to introduce himself was Captain Wheels.

“I’m Dave Heyton, otherwise known as Captain Wheels,” he said as all eyes turned to face him, “and I’m telekinetic. My wheelchair also has special stealth settings and a jet pack.”

“So what are you without the wheelchair?” Thoron scoffed.

“A telekinetic, cancer-surviving badass,” Captain Wheels kept a straight face as he said this, while Dominique struggled to supress her smile. Before anything else could be said the door opened and Nicola Rage entered.

“We have a situation,” she said.

***

Tactics were discussed in the helicopter while they headed to their destination, an allegedly disused block of offices in the financial district of London. It had been reported that a gas-emitting bomb was to be hidden there by the criminal organisation shortly before rush hour when it would be set off, releasing poisonous gases that would result in horrific widespread disease, essentially turning people into mindless zombies.

“This weapon is designed to cause mass panic on a national scale as much as it is to harm people,” Nicola Rage said, “if it goes off not only will we have a horrific disease to manage, but the country will be in uproar. The mistrust of governmental departments is bad enough as it is; something like this would push the country into disrepair and self-destruction. And that means that someone new can barge in and take control, because in that situation the public simply want a leader to follow and they won’t give a damn who that will be.

“You will be dropped off here,” Nicola pointed to a location on the map, “and will make your way through this series of back alleys to the office block in question. Raven; we want you on the top floor of the building providing us with information as to the whereabouts of the criminals in the office. Dominique; follow the gang through the building by blending into the environment, providing us with further intel by thinking it for Doctor Raven, and joining in the fighting when we apprehend the gang. Assassin and Thoron; using the intel provided we will guide you through the building until the right moment when you will start your attack. Lightning and Wheels; you will use your speed and levitation powers in combination to quickly transport the bomb to our bomb-disposal team in their secret base in the most remote part of the Scottish highlands. Understood?”

Everyone nodded and soon the helipad where they were to land came into view. Instead of waiting for the lift to arrive to carry him down to ground level, which was taking far too long, Captain Wheels decided to use the jet-pack and go down the stairs, which proved trickier to control than he had anticipated. Quite how the scorch-marks left behind him would be explained to the cleaning staff he didn’t know.

Once they were on the street they moved swiftly through the back alleys until they arrived at the office block. As expected there was no evidence of activity yet, so they slipped into the building unnoticed. Doctor Raven checked with his telepathic powers that the building was indeed empty and then set off for the top floor. Dominique disguised herself as a small spider spinning a web in the corner, ready to follow the criminals when they arrived. The rest tucked themselves in the dark underneath the stairs, activated their chameleon suits, and waited for further instructions to be fed to them through their ear pieces.

A short later their earpieces crackled into life and Nicola Rage’s disembodied voice confirmed sighting of the gang headed towards the office disguised as delivery men, driving an unmarked white van. About two minutes after this Doctor Raven said he could detect ten people, all men, approaching in a white van. While nine of the men were highly anxious that some sort of suspicious activity was going on, only one seemed to actually know what was being delivered. Doctor Raven tracked the men as they entered the building; two stayed on the ground floor, two outside the first floor, and two more stayed outside the door into the second floor while the remaining four entered the offices. Dominique was completely unnoticed as she scuttled into the office underneath the closed door.

At this point Blood Assassin crept out from beneath the stairs and stealthily made her way towards the two men in the reception area. Silently, she knocked them both unconscious simultaneously and gently placed their bodies on the floor. When she returned she clambered onto Lightnings’ back and in a flash she was up the stairs, having knocked out both sets of guards. Captain Wheels and Thoron could now make their way up to the second floor, where they grouped together.

Doctor Raven said that the package containing the bomb had been put down, and that the three men who didn’t know what was in it were making their way back towards the stair well. Everyone pressed themselves back against the wall on each side of the door, something Captain Wheels found particularly difficult, blending into the dull grey walls almost perfectly. The three men left the second floor in silence, and once the door had closed behind them Blood Assassin knocked them all unconscious, propping them up against the wall.

As they were about to enter the office to apprehend the one remaining man, Nicola Rage reported that a helicopter was progressing towards them. Once Doctor Raven found the relevant vehicle he said that there were four men in the helicopter, all in the know. They were planning to kill all the other men involved in the operation, acting as security until the bomb went off, when they would succumb to the disease just like the man already in the building. Thinking quickly Nicola ordered them to enter the room and apprehend the one man there, telling Lightning and Captain Wheels to remove the bomb while only one man was present, leaving the rest to fight the approaching criminals.

Captain Wheels deactivated stealth mode and violently kicked the door open, which promptly swung back and slammed his legs. Thoron leant across him and pushed the door so hard the hinges snapped. Dominque transformed into her human form, blocking the doors on the other side of the room. The criminal screamed that he was under attack into his own walkie-talkie before firing his gun at his attackers. Only two bullets had been fired before Blood Assassin had disarmed him, both of which missed their target, at which point Captain Wheels levitated the bomb towards himself. Thoron kept the enemy in place while the two women headed up the building to deal with the helicopter that had just landed, and Captain Wheels was propelled out of the building at super speed by Lightning.

Once outside Captain Wheels activated his jet pack, flying close to the buildings so that Lightning could run along them, continuing to push the wheelchair at speed. Within seconds they were out of the city, running along buildings and hilltops, flying in between, and in only a couple of minutes they were approaching the bomb disposal unit. Travelling at such a speed through the cold, wet Scottish highlands was not the most enjoyable experience nor was it good for slick hair styles, but both men were far more concerned with the bomb than they were about their own discomfort. It was only as they landed, soaked to the skin, that they even noticed just how cold they were. The bomb disposal team took the bomb from them as soon as they had landed and almost immediately Captain Wheels and Lightning embarked on the return trip.

As they arrived at the office block they were informed by Doctor Raven that the fighting was already over. Dominque and Blood Assassin had rapidly disarmed the men from the helicopter and he himself had hacked into the still-working security system to lock the doors of the room they were in once the women had escaped. A police squad were on their way to pick up all the men, and in the meantime the Protection Squad were to wait on the roof of the building for further orders, bar Thoron who was still occupied detaining the apparent mastermind behind the scheme.

From the roof the Protection Squad had a reasonable view of the police arriving in vans and dragging out the unconscious men, before finally putting the rest of the men into high-security vans with the aid of Thoron. As this progressed a crowd gathered and soon extra police had to be called in for crowd control. Soon enough the police were escorting their prisoners to the nearest station and the Protection Squad worked their way down the building to meet the enthusiastic people outside, who were particularly interested in Captain Wheels’ chair. Camera’s flashed and journalist yelled questions at the top of their lungs, all trying to find out what exactly had happened. Nicola Rage reminded them not to say a word as she sent a van to pick them up.

The following morning all of the newspapers headlines were as predictable as a B-movie science fiction film; all of them were desperate to know just who the Protection Squad were. Captain Wheels smiled at the photograph plastered across every front page; only the very top of his head could be seen as he sat beside his standing compatriots. He didn’t have long to relax however, before Nicola Rage called upon him again.

Wheels of Fortune: A Short Story.

As soon as I arrived home I rang my mum, who I knew would be waiting my call. She answered almost immediately.

“Hi mum,” I said.

“Hey sweetie, how did it go?” mum never did like small talk.

“Not well,” I replied, “They turned down the appeal; I’ll only get the lower rate of mobility payments and nothing at all for care costs. According to the doctor in charge of my case I could choose to use crutches to move around and a manual wheelchair on bad days.”

“That’s ridiculous,” mum exclaimed, “You did explain that you can’t walk very far on crutches and that you can’t push yourself any distance in a wheelchair, yes?”

“Of course, mum. They just said I would have to have someone to push a wheelchair on bad days.”

“But they haven’t given you any money for care,” mum sounded as exasperated as I felt.

“Apparently it should be such a rare event that I can simply rely on friends and family.”

“How utterly ridiculous. If they had to live with a disability-“

“I know, mum, I know,” I interrupted her before a long rant ensued.

“So now what?” she asked.

“Well I can no longer afford payments on my powered wheelchair, so they’ll be coming to collect that in less than a month.”

“Can you try and push for a pay rise?”

“Mum, without a wheelchair how am I even supposed to get to work, let alone get a pay rise? There’s no chance of me being physically able to walk around the office on crutches all day and my colleagues have work of their own to do; they can’t be my carers.”

“Oh Susie, I wish your father and I could help you out, I really do, but he’s still hunting for a job and his redundancy pay has run out.”

“That’s OK,” I said. There was a short pause, before I asked, “Any ideas as to what I should do?”

“Short of robbing a bank, Susie, I don’t know.”

***

Dave was driving an adapted mini-van hired especially for the occasion with Sam sat beside him. I was sat in my wheelchair in the back, with the wheelchair steadied on the floor by series of straps more convoluted than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We pulled up outside the bank and Dave craned his neck round to face me.

“You don’t need to do this, you know,” he said, “I’ll do it.”

“Are you saying that because I have boobs or wheels?” I retaliated.

“Fine, fine, it’s your money. Got your mask?” he asked.

“I’m in a wheelchair,” I said levelly, “that’s a pretty damn obvious clue towards my identity.”

Dave looked horrified but Sam was grinning from ear-to-ear, his balaclava pushed back to look like a normal hat.

“Everyone knows that wheelchair users are invisible,” he pitched in.

“Yep,” I agreed.

Dave rolled his eyes and climbed out of the drivers’ seat. He opened the back door, put out the ramp, and released my wheelchair. I reversed down the ramp with ease, a practiced manoeuvre I was very used to.

“I’ll be here when you get back,” Dave leant casually against the open boot of the car and crossed his arms, clearly not happy about my lack of a mask.

Sam and I moved towards the platform lift provided for wheelchair users to traverse the flight of steps into the bank. A piece of paper with the words “Out of Order” was pinned to it, waving in the breeze. Clearly the lift had been out of order for some time as the paper was dirty, crumpled, and damp.

“Right,” I said to Sam, “the actual disabled entrance is round the side.”

“Sure,” Sam replied.

I traversed up the narrow ramp which had a tight hair-pin bend half-way up, and hit the button for the automatic door to open. As usual the mechanism wasn’t switched on.

“I’ll get it,” Sam heaved the door open which, due to the rather pointless automation, was incredibly heavy and cumbersome.

Once inside the bank we joined the back of the queue and slowly we moved towards the cashiers’ desk. Aside from getting caught in the tightly weaving line set out by flimsy barriers, this was uneventful and even boring. After what seemed like an eternity we reached the head of the queue.

“Next,” a bored assistant said in a monotonous voice, “How can I help?”

“This is a stick-up,” I said to the marble panels lining the front of a desk so high I would have needed a periscope to see over it.

“Pardon me but I can’t hear you,” the assistant said.

“This is a stick-up,” I said loudly. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned towards me, a stunned silence sweeping the room. I was used to being a spectacle so this did not perturb me. Sam turned to face the crowd, his balaclava obscuring his face and pulled the most realistic-looking toy gun we could find out of his back pocket.

“I need £6,000 in cash in this bag now,” I said, “and nobody gets run over.” I gave the bag to Sam who put it on the counter for me.

“Very funny,” the assistant didn’t laugh, “now what are you really here for.”

“Gimme the money!” I shouted in my most gangster voice.

It dawned on the assistant that we weren’t actually joking and she must have hit the emergency button underneath the desk. Red lights started flashing as the alarm screamed and the doors locked themselves. Everyone started running around like madmen, trying to cram themselves into the offices lining the walls of the bank for safety.

“The money, in the bag, now!” Sam yelled, turning to face the assistant and pointing the toy gun at her.

“That is not real,” she said.

“Wanna risk a bet?” Sam levelled it at her head.

“Yeah I would be since the armed response team will have real guns to shoot you with on the off-chance that yours is real,” she retorted, “so I suggest you put it down and take a comfy seat until the police arrive.”

“C’mon Sam, let’s just go,” I was disappointed but I knew when I was beaten.

I put my wheelchair on the highest speed setting and rushed towards the disabled exit. Since the automatic mechanism wasn’t switched on the door hadn’t locked. I hurled myself through the door and down the ramp and headed towards the car, only to find another car parked over the space where the pavement levelled with the road. I could see that Dave was already arguing with him.

“I’ll only be here a minute, what’s the rush?” the driver was saying, dangling his cigarette out of the window and dropping ash onto the road.

“Move or I scratch your precious car,” I said from the pavement. The driver saw Sam behind me, toy gun in hand, and looked as if he had had an accident that didn’t involve cars.

“OK, alright man, chill,” the driver reversed his car the two feet necessary and I hurried towards our mini-van.

The ramp was already down so I could drive straight into the vehicle but then began the complicated business of strapping the chair to the floor. It was a full minute before this was complete and as Dave pushed the ramp in behind me, three police cars screeched around the corner. Almost before they had stopped moving the officers were out of their cars and running towards us and were quickly joined by a van-load of officers with viciously barking dogs.

“Stop right there!” an officer yelled.

“The armed response team is only minutes away so I suggest you cooperate,” he continued, “Now let the hostage go and nobody gets hurt.”

It took me a second to realise that by “hostage” they meant me. As this sunk in Sam threw his head back and laughed loudly, sending the dogs into a burst of loud barking and growling. The officer who had spoken looked stunned.

“She ain’t no hostage,” our cashier hurried down the steps towards us, almost stumbling in her ridiculous heels as she did so, “She’s one of the robbers.”

The officer opened his mouth to speak but she told him that it was her who had sounded the alarm before he could ask how she was involved.

“I have no doubt that they were using this poor woman as some kind of protection, almost like a human shield,” the officer raised one eyebrow and glanced over at me.

“She was one of the robbers alright,” customers were now filing slowly out of the bank, and among them was the middle-aged man who spoke. A few officers were occupying themselves by stopping them from leaving the scene as they were all valuable witnesses.

“Are you?” the officer gaped at me. I figured there wasn’t much point lying as every witness would testify otherwise, so I told the truth.

“Arrest them all,” he ordered his subordinates. Quickly Dave and Sam were cuffed and placed in the back of separate police cars while being given the usual spiel about having the right to remain silent. However, I presented a problem; none of their own vehicles were accessible. Even when the armed response team came screeching around the corner a minute later, there were no facilities capable of transporting me in my wheelchair. Thinking on his feet the officer ordered that I was cuffed, and that a couple of officers drove our van to the police station.

The ride back to the police station took no longer than five minutes as we followed the cars containing Sam and Dave, but upon arriving at our destination my case presented yet more problems. It took ten minutes for the police officers to figure out how to release my wheelchair from all the safety measures, and then they realised that while cuffed driving my wheelchair would be rather difficult.  They tried to push my wheelchair, but it wasn’t designed to be pushed by others and it was extremely heavy. Eventually they had to settle for my slow and shaky driving as they escorted me into the police station.

The reception desk in the police station was as high as the one in the bank and yet again I found myself taking to a wall, wishing I had a periscope. After signing in I was escorted to a holding cell down a corridor so narrow it was virtually impossible to fit the wheelchair through. What the people already in a cell must have thought when they heard an electronic whine combined with the scraping of metal on whitewashed walls I do not know. The door of the cell was too small to allow the wheelchair through, and so I had to hobble over to the bench on the far side of the cell bracing the walls, and my wheelchair was taken somewhere where I was told it would be safe. Once the door had been slammed shut, I was amused to hear the sounds of the policemen struggling to drive my wheelchair to said safe place.

That evening mum and dad came to see me just as I was swallowing the last of something that barely qualified as food. Dad looked bemused and a little concerned but mum had a face like thunder.

“They’re releasing you on bail until the trial comes round since you didn’t actually hurt anyone or steal any money,” dad said calmly, “but only if you live with us until then with a curfew, and if you go out alone you’ll be arrested again. Count yourself lucky that this is some kind of wheelchair perk.”

“Oh and surprisingly enough, you’ve been fired. So now you really are out of money,” mum snapped.

I heard the barrage of whining and scraping that signified the re-appearance of my wheelchair and an hour later I was lying on a flimsy camp-bed in my parents’ cluttered lounge, trying to get to sleep while being licked by their dog Ringo.

***

The day before the trial I sat on the kitchen floor and scrubbed my wheelchair clean; they do say that appearance is everything in court. I picked out a matching dress and jacket combination, and made sure that my leather boots had been polished. Outside a group of photographers and journalists lounged on my parents’ garden fence which was scuffed and dented thanks to all their attention over the past months, much to my mothers’ dismay. I was actually grateful for their media coverage as my motives soon came to light and public pressure had forced the reinstatement of my disability benefits, allowing me to keep my wheelchair. It seemed that even after my little escapade, most people felt sorry for me because of my wheels.

For most of the introductory speeches at the start of the trial I remained lost in my own thoughts rather than listening to what was being said, all the while trying to maintain the appearance of being riveted for the benefit of the jury. The state-provided defense lawyer had advised all three of us to plead guilty to charges of attempted robbery, since there was an overwhelming amount of evidence in the form of witnesses and security camera footage against us.

Once Sam and Dave had been called, pleaded guilty, and been sentenced to a short stint in jail followed by many hours of community service I went to take my place opposite the witness stand. There was, however, one minor inconvenience. Despite the excessive media attention having taken great pains to emphasise my disability, turning me into the victim of the piece, between me and the microphone where I would confess my guilt there was a step. When the press saw my plight, uproar ensued as photographers leant dangerously far over banisters to take pictures of the court stupid enough not to provide accessible facilities.

The following day while lounging in my prison cell I was given a newspaper by a guard who had finished reading it. On the front page was a birds-eye view photograph of me seated in my wheelchair looking at the step in the court room. The focus of the article was not the fact that I had attempted to rob a bank but the fact that blatant discrimination still existed in a court of law. The scathing headline summed it up perfectly; “COURT NEEDS TO STEP-UP THEIR GAME.”