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The Hunter in the Stacks

There’s something of the tribal to academia, each group living within its own distinct territory and obscure language. And having talked with academics, there’s something of the hunter-gatherer to the way they’re funded too, desperately scrabbling for the low-hanging fruit of a withered public funding tree. My lastest story, The Hunter in the Stacks, is a riff on this theme, as the young academic goes forth to face the fearsome beasts of learning. It’s in the new issue of Flash Me Magazine, available free from their website.

So Cold It Burns

Cousin Charlie and I sat outside Lifetime Labs, waiting for Grandpa Jo. Vast granite faces loomed over us, radiating stern authority. Battered and worn by time, their frowns remained constant, gazing in scorn upon our lively youth. Fragments of ancient Egypt, dragged across the globe by McKenzie to give history to his post-modern folly of a house. The place now jutted with shining outlet pipes and rusting vents, put there by Life Systems, whose owner so loved the building that he moved his noisy, steaming processing plant inside.

Charlie strummed his guitar with calloused fingertips, filthily serenading the beauty of a long-dead actress. Across the road, willows were weeping into the Tyne, where a dog, tired, tottered to the ground and bent to lap desperately at the murky waters.

***

Inside the building, Grandpa Jo’s breath frosted against the shell of a softly humming sarcophagus. His fingers pressed against thick blue-tinted glass as he squinted tearfully at Grandma Joe’s face. Her cold purple beauty cut to his unsteady heart. The face of forty years ago, a vision that had carried him sane through long decades of prison camps, untouched by time’s unstoppable march.

‘Your wife’s contract specifies her revival should you be found alive,’ said the sharp young doctor. ‘Legally, however, the choice is yours. You can have her revived, leave her here, or even join her, saving yourself for the day when even age can be undone.’

To the medic, the words were business, an official mantra repeated daily.

Jo took his wrinkled hand from the glass, leaving behind five thin patches of frosted skin.

‘I need time to think,’ he said.

***

Grandpa Jo wanted to sit beneath the trees, so Charlie and I helped him across the street and onto a bench beneath the willows. He smiled as he gazed up into the branches.

‘We used to do this when we first met,’ he murmured. His eyes filled with joy, and then tears, as memory rode him hard through his past. ‘Just sit by the river, beneath the trees, and watch them blow in the wind.’ Wincing, he reached out and touched a leaf, blighted by the first yellow scars of Porrit’s Disease. ‘Everywhere I look, the trees are sick.’

‘A lot has changed while you were away, Grandpa,’ I said.

‘Of course it has,’ he said. ‘What bothers me is the things that haven’t.’

Beneath the willows, the river still drifted along, carrying its oily sheen down to the sea.

‘What happened to the trees?’ Grandpa Jo asked.

‘They tried to save them from the war,’ I explained. ‘So many were being lost during bombing raids and tank battles, someone was afraid we might lose all that fine greenery. So they built a special disease, a beautiful, benevolent bug that would make the trees grow quicker. Because if they grew up and reproduced faster, maybe they could replace themselves quicker than we were killing them. We could live in a green and pleasant land, even if it echoed with gunshots and screams.’

Grandpa looked up at the willow and the rust-like stains spreading through its fragile leaves, like cold autumn come in late spring. The wind, rushing past, lifted some leaves from the branches and they burst into dust before our eyes.

‘But a virus is still a virus,’ I continued. ‘It evolved, corrupted, grew beyond its purpose. The trees didn’t just grow faster. They died faster too. The war ended and people stopped dying, but not the trees.’

Grandpa’s gaze still drifted up through the branches, watching the thin memories of leaves scatter into nothingness.

‘So sad to see,’ he said. ‘A life on fast-forward, run to its end and crumbling away in a blink of an eye.’

He looked at me, or perhaps at my father, the two of us muddled sometimes in his mind – the son he had lost and the grandson he had met full-grown. Time stretched out as the wind caressed the river and Charlie sang folksongs to the listless dog. Eventually, Grandpa reached out a hand.

‘Help me up,’ he said. ‘I’ve left her waiting long enough.’

***

Grandpa Jo stood again in front of Grandma’s cryogenic tank. The scar tissue of his cheeks twitched uncontrollably in the damp, chill room. He felt every ache and tremor left by a lifetime of horror and hope. Liver-spotted fingers clenched arthritically at the head of a cane that kept a thrice-broken leg from giving way.

‘Look at me,’ Grandpa Jo said to the bemused young doctor. ‘I have longed for my wife, desperately, unceasingly. Here she is, so much like my memories that I cannot bare to see her face. How could such an angel want me? Or missing me still, could she embrace what I have become?

‘I am too old for her now, and too world-weary to believe in renewed youth. She will wait for the future alone, and I will dream of her in my lonely decay.’

He turned slowly from the tank, a tear welling in his eye.

***

As we walked away from Lifetime Labs, we passed the mongrel dog, still lying at the river’s edge. Its head dangled loosely now, trailing in the water as grease soaked up into its fur, tongue lapping lifeless in the tainted current.

This story was first published in Alienskin Magazine, February 2007.

Digits

Victor watched his master getting into the car, observed his five-fingered hands about this daily task. Twisting keys in the lock. Lifting the handle. Spreading for balance as he leant across the seat. Flicking delicately across the buttons of the stereo, and tapping a rhythm to echo the music. Finally they gripped the wheel as the black Mercedes crunched off down the gravel drive.

Victor looked down at his own hands. Two wide, metal digits faced each other across a motorised palm, padded in case he clenched too tight. A hand to grip and prod. Open and closed, nothing more. A binary hand for a servant of silicon and tin.

Victor rolled into the kitchen, rubber tracks silent on the polished floor. He carried plates and mugs to the dishwasher, gripping and releasing each in turn, then prodded a button. As the machine rattled mindlessly into action Victor fetched the vacuum from a cupboard, pressing the on switch and gripping the nozzle as he dragged it round the floor, chasing down dust. Later he carried his mistress’s shopping in from the car, a long succession of plastic bags gripped and released safely back in the house.

Left alone in the late afternoon, he went to the breakfast table and reached out toward a slender vase of roses. Twin fingers spread wide, then closed gently round the bottom of the vase.

Grip.

Release.

Grip.

Release.

Lift, and turn so slightly, holding the delicate tube up to the light as he had seen his master do.

The vase swung down between his two flat fingers, petals and water cascading across the table.

* * *

At night, Victor plugged into the security system, overseeing the house through its hidden cameras. In the bedroom his master and mistress slept with hands entwined, fingers meshed.

The master enjoyed coin tricks. Victor replayed a memory, watching a circle of copper dance across those hands, fingers twitching and turning, making the metal flit back and forth, dart into the air, and disappear, only to reappear between two outstretched digits. Five such delicate, flexible instruments – what joy to be human.

Victor wanted to see the fingers up close. He unplugged himself from the security net and quietly rolled down the corridor. Gripping the handle, he pushed open the bedroom door and approached the humans as they slept.

His mistress turned in the moonlight, fingers stretching out and running through the sheets, pulling them tight. Victor leaned forward, reaching out, trying to sense what each finger was doing, how such a marvel worked. The master shifted, disturbed by the mistress’s movement. Eyes opened slightly, then widened, staring up at Victor with an expression the robot had never seen before.

* * *

After de-bugging, Victor was sold to a shop. He gripped and released, fetching and carrying all day. When the till opened, he would turn away, unable to look at the change being counted, unable to understand why.

This story was previously published in issue 17 of Carillon and issue 20 of Flash Me Magazine.

Coming soon – Holy Water

I’ve just had a story, Holy Water, accepted for the first issue of a new magazine, Alt Hist. Not sure when it’s out yet – will post details nearer the time.

I’m really pleased with this sale. Of course I’m really pleased any time I place a story, but as someone who spent six years studying history and now spends their spare time writing fantasy, it’s great to find an outlet that combines the two. I often draw on my historical knowledge for stories, and this can lead to things that aren’t quite fantastical enough for most magazines, but which aren’t quite historically focussed enough to get into the very small number of magazines for historical fiction. So if someone had said to me ‘what magazine would you like to exist?’, I’d have described something a lot like Alt Hist. And now it’s there, and I’m in it from the start. I’d call that a win.

The Suspicions of Shadowvalt / The Essence of Man

Yet again, I have two flash fiction stories in the latest issue of Alienskin. Both fantasy pieces this time.

The Essence of Man is about the power of art. I’ve used a Renaissance-style setting, plundering the era that saw the emergence of the artist as a celebrated individual, and a humanism that justified beautiful art and horrific politics. Da Vinci and Machiavelli have more in common than place and time. There’s a unifying assumption of man’s importance that we now take for granted, but was once radical.
The other story is The Suspicions of Shadowvalt, a demonic detective story. A thousand words isn’t much space for a mystery, investigation and resolution. I enjoyed the challenge, but will leave it to you to judge the results.

This is the last edition of Alienskin. It’s a shame. They’ve published a lot of good little stories, even if their clip-art aesthetic sometimes set my teeth on edge. But eight years is a long to dedicate to something like that, especially when it’s just your hobby. Here’s hoping that the editors go on to even better things.

Urban Drift

Dragged into daylight on crankshafts and giant fanbelts comes Urban Drift, my latest published story, appearing in issue 56 of the British Fantasy Society’s journal Dark Horizons. It’s steampunk in the tradition of alternative technological futures, not the airship Victoriana style.

It’s a heist story about art, beauty and addiction. It’s a chase to the rhythm of giant gearwheels and crackling tezlas. It’s fragments of the folk myths of industrial Britain, pounded to a fine grit and scattered over something more American. And it’s inspired by the very real fact that they used to move entire buildings in nineteenth century Chicago.

Steampunk

One of the first stories I had published, The Cast-Iron Kid, is going to be reprinted in October in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s splendid looking Steampunk II anthology. The whole book looks awesome, from the picture of a mechanical ostrich to the obscure 19th century Danish story in translation for the first time.

My story’s a steam western, one of two I’ve had published in Alienskin. The world should have more steam westerns. The tension of frontier existence, the lawlessness, idealism and ambition that flourish in that environment, are great drivers for a story. So much steampunk is rooted in the civilised centre of society, but it’s a genre about people pushing the boundaries of their technology. Combining that with those racing towards the boundaries of society, to me that’s a perfect fit.