The Extra Mile

Geordie offered up a brief prayer to anyone who might listen and wrenched into a sharp left. Engine roaring, he skidded around the muddy corner. Ahead of him four other cars remained, long-haul rough racers with armoured bodywork and sturdy suspension. To have endured this far, half a continent from their starting point, guaranteed prize money. Now it was all about pride.

Nerves buzzed with sharp current as he sent signals down the wires meshed into his brain. Pistons flexed and pipes vented as he used these precise controls, eking every last ounce of power from Number Five’s engine. With a burst of speed he darted past the first car. Momentum building, he swiped his next opponent on a wide bend, sending him into a spin. Brakes squealed, mud flew, and Number Twenty-Two was left crumpled in a roadside ditch.

But Number Five was slipping too. Geordie felt the momentum as the car skidded across the track, wheels desperately scrabbling at the slippery road, threatening to send him into a spin. He hit the gas for all it was worth, nerves tingling with tension, and with a lurch Number Five shot forwards, seconds before they would have smashed sidelong into the trees.

Third place and gaining as they entered Dead Man’s Mile. Geordie’s eyes twitched, tiredness battling adrenaline and racing drugs. Ahead lay the finale of a sleepless week.

The lead pair were neck and neck, tightly focused on each other. Number Sixteen veered left, trying to force Nine off the road. Geordie seized his chance, drawing level on the wide-open right as the others ground flank against flank, splinters of paint and chassis armour flying. There was a crash as Nine’s worn tires lost their grip on the road, sending him skidding off into the undergrowth. Scents of pine needles and burning rubber drifted up through the air-con.

Sixteen looked up with a start, shocked that he still had competition. This close, Geordie could see sweat running down his opponent’s face, bloodshot eyes locked onto his own. The other driver glared malevolently at Geordie and revved his engine into a last dash, pulling ahead with a sneer of triumph.

Geordie felt Number Five’s strain, feeding up the wires and into his mind. Sick tinglings and raw aches pressed in on every side. Gears span as fast as they could endure. Pistons pounded their fiercest rhythm. Still it was not enough –Sixteen held the lead as they entered the final mile. One last reserve remained, a desperate measure built for this moment.

He triggered the red button.

With a series of dull thumps Number Five tore itself open. Tiny explosive bolts blew chunks of hardened chassis off into the trees. Fresh trauma crashed through Geordie’s nerves, physical jolts crossing with the agonising feed-back from the dismembered car.

Freed of weight and drag, Number Five gave a final, desperate surge. Engine screaming, wheels spinning, it leapt forward. Sixteen swung heavily over, set to crush Five’s sleek, vulnerable flank, but now it was too late. Number Five shot on, passing his opponent and, seconds later, the finish line. As crowds around the world went wild, Geordie slammed on the brakes and yelled with tension and delight. The fans surged forwards as Marios, his manager, yanked open Number Five’s door and hauled Geordie out into the light, holding him aloft for all to see, a naked brain and thin, boneless face in a clear, lightweight jar that dangled with wires and electronic sensors.

A reporter stepped forwards and pressed her microphone against the vessel’s foil speaker.

‘Geordie, do you ever miss your body?’ she asked.

Geordie stared down at the reporter’s long, wavy hair, her supple fingers curled around the microphone. He paused for a moment, then broke into a hearty grin.

‘What, that old thing?’ he said. ‘No, it was just holding me back.’

 

Originally published in Alienskin, October 2007

One Minute of Beauty

The sounds of rioting outside the window were almost drowned by the clatter of machinery within. Monsieur Duval’s power-looms pumped and pounded, steam spurting from pressurised pipes as warp and weft were bound together, meshing into one exquisite whole, a tapestry of the immaterial. Where spools of cotton should have been stood the medium, Madam Jaurès, and young Christos the Greek, his face suffused with the energy of genius as he drew swift, exotic melodies from his violin.

‘They’ve set fire to the bank,’ Henri said, fingering his dog collar as he glanced nervously out the window.

‘Good for them,’ Edouard replied, sipping from a crystal-cut glass of absinthe. ‘The old structures must be smashed, the boundaries torn down, for truth and beauty to triumph. Let Paris burn, as long as Christos fiddles.’

‘Will it work if he cannot be heard?’ Duval asked. The industrialist stood apart from the young artists, as if fearful of being consumed by the charisma that had lured him into their plans.

‘Of course!’ Edouard exclaimed, waving his glass. ‘Why would we need to hear his music when we can see it?’

He pointed to the cage that surrounded the musician, a funnel of precisely focused wires. From its mouth, a near-invisible strand stretched out, vibrating, towards the loom, like a slither of hot air sliced from a summer’s day. Another thread, glowing moonlight white, joined it from the glass bottle that encased Madam Jaurès, becoming weft to the music’s warp. Where they met, in the rattling heart of the loom, a sheet was forming. It gleamed like quick-silver as it rode into the air, twisting and soaring on a wind no-one could feel.

A whiff of smoke drifted in through a loose window. Edouard breathed deeply, feeling freedom fill his lungs, the joy and determination of the unrestrained mob. He poured more absinthe, passed Duval a glass.

‘It is almost time,’ he said. ‘Let the borders fall. Let art and industry become one. Let our souls touch the beyond.’ Knocking back his drink, he cast the glass to the floor, watching it shatter into shards of light. Then he was running down rusted iron steps, across the factory floor, Henri in his wake. They grabbed the end of the shining cloth. It was almost impossible to hold, writhing in and through their hands. It felt like sunrise and birdsong on their fingertips, too pure and wonderful to contain. But they dragged it across the room, more cloth emerging behind them as Christos played and the medium twitched and frothed, channeling the will of the spirits.

They bound the corners to the brass pipe-organ that loomed against the east wall. At once, the pipes began to hum, a sweet harmony that rose to the rafters, scattering dust into the air.

‘Pray!’ Edouard exclaimed. ‘Pray like you mean it!’

Henri sank to his knees, rosary in one hand, a half-empty bottle clutched in the other for comfort, his lips twitching. His breath seemed to coallesce into tiny spots of light, settling like dew on the sheet. Edouard grabbed a brush and tray of paints, this miracle becoming his canvas as he sketched graceful curves of soothing colour across its surface, even as it began to fade.

Above their heads, a fog was forming, seeping from the apertures of the pipes.

Maxine, Duval’s assistant, burst into the room.

‘The King,’ she exclaimed, ‘The King has fled, and…’

Her words trailed off as she stared at the thing emerging from the fog, its wings fluttering and face radiant. It soared down onto the canvas, became at one with it as the machinery ceased clattering, all eyes turning to gaze in wonder.

Edouard felt as though his soul had been kissed.

‘Please,’ he whispered, ‘Just one minute of beauty. For everyone.’

The angel smiled and lifted into the air, rising through the roof. The noise outside the window stopped, and for sixty seconds no sound was heard in Paris but the ticking of pocket watches.

Then Edouard felt the moment of rapture fade. Outside, the shrieks and smashing began once more as cavalry charged the barricades.

He took a long pull on the bottle of absinthe and lit a cigarette.

‘I grant them the purest epiphany, and still they return to old habits. What must an artist do to shake men from their rut?’

He shook his head.

‘What now?’ Henri asked.

Edouard shrugged. ‘How can my art ever again match this moment? We have created serenity in the heart of the human storm, and seen that our public does not care. What point in continuing? I shall become a baker instead, or maybe a carpenter, work out my remaining decades in fruitful labour.’

He paused, staring at the burning tip of the cigarette, the smoke coiling from its fiery point.

‘Unless…’ he murmured, glancing down at his paint pots, empty of soft blues and greens. There was still plenty of red. A grin split his face. ‘Tell me, Henri, what do you know about demons?’

 

This story was previously published in Alienskin Magazine, August 2008

 

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.