Science fiction under the sea

It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again. There’s some awesome sci-fi to be had under the sea.

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The future is singing crabs

If you, like me, mostly read the news for cool story ideas, then you may have noticed a couple of recent pieces about underwater resources. First came the UN’s announcement of plans to manage seabed minerals. Then came the discovery of new antibiotics off the coast of California. This is exciting stuff. Not only are we as humanity starting to pull bad-ass scientific breakthroughs out of the ocean, but we’re also trying to prevent this turning into an ugly free-for-all. I’m not saying we’ll get it right, but we’re trying, and things like that make me proud to be human.

This is my proud face. Well done mankind.
This is my proud face. Well done mankind.

But like I said, I was mostly reading this for the story ideas, and others have been there before me. There’s a small but tasty selection of sci-fi that substitutes the ocean depths for space as the place where humanity meets its future. From John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, monsters have been emerging from the deep for decades. Then there’s the more hopeful stuff, like Seaquest DSV. Remember that show? It was Star Trek with a dolphin, and yet somehow it sank without a trace.

Sometimes space and seas have even been combined, for an ultimate combo of sci-fi mystery, as in Warren Ellis and Chris Sprouse’s Ocean. In this a team of scientists discover something beneath the ice of a moon of Jupiter. It’s a Warren Ellis comic, so of course that something isn’t friendly, and the humans involved don’t handle it well. But as a Warren Ellis comic it’s also exciting and scattered with good dialogue.

Because lets face it, our approach to the ocean isn’t always that innovative. Wyndham used it as the source of his latest disaster, because that was his shtick. Ellis crammed it with crazy concepts and snarky dialogue, because that’s his. Del Toro filled it with old Japanese monster movies because, though that may not be his particular shtick, crazy visual genius is, and visuals don’t get much crazier than a robot hitting a monster with a cargo ship.

'Don't make me take this bridge upside your head'
‘Don’t make me take this bridge upside your head’

This isn’t to say that we can’t get something new out of exploring the oceans. Most creativity comes from taking existing things and fusing them together like atoms in a literary reactor. And as real science dives deeper into the depths, it’ll bring back a rich haul of ideas for us to misunderstand, misrepresent and wildly speculate about.

More powerfully, as the seas start to fill our headlines, sci-fi set in them will feel more real. With the space race dead, the concept of men exploring the universe feels less immediate, less connected to our reality. Sci-fi set there loses some of its ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy. Maybe the sea can fill that gap.

I’ve rambled all around this topic, so now over to you. What do you think? Are you excited by the prospect of deep sea sci-fi? Have you seen it appearing in fantasy or horror? Can you think of cool examples I haven’t mentioned, either from the news or from popular culture? Go explore the depths, and bring back riches to the comments below.

Watching Despicable Me 2 – genre in kids films

I went to see Despicable Me 2 at the weekend, and loved every moment of it. It’s one of those great fun kids movies that, like Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, takes elements from sci-fi and fantasy and plays with them in completely unexpected ways. It got me thinking – why do these genre films for kids work so well for me?

One part is definitely the over-the-top characters. Anyone who’s seen me do drama or roleplay could tell you that I don’t go for subtle. I like characters who are wild and flamboyant and comically exaggerated. But I like them to be grounded just slightly in reality too. My character might be having absurd conversations with a corn dolly, but deep down he’ll be doing it to escape the horrors of war. The same thing happens in these films. Gru might be a cartoon super-villain, and Lucy an over-excited high-kicking secret agent, but beneath it are characters with relatable feelings, going through familiar story arcs. We get to enjoy the cartoonish absurdity, freed from the limits of reasonable behaviour, without it feeling so distant and unreal as Tom and Jerry.

There’s a playfulness in the use of fantastic elements as well. These films worry less about making any kind of sense, and so the villain can plan to steal the moon, or the hero can turn rainclouds into food. It’s still following the genre logic of mad science, but casting aside the real world logic of science, economics, cause and effect. It frees up the ‘what ifs’ to allow things like Gru’s army of minions. See that in a grown-up film and you’d start asking why he hires these idiots, or how he pays them. Watch them in something like this and you’re just laughing at their antics.

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That highlights an overall theme – because it’s created for kids, we’ll forgive it its plot holes. Something happened near the end of Despicable Me 2 that made me go ‘oh come on, you’ve not earned that’. But only for a moment. Then I shrugged, recognised it as inevitable, and got on with enjoying the film. I would not have been so forgiving for George Lucas.

Maybe as readers and viewers we should sometimes take this approach to other stories. Consistent story and realistic characters have their place, but letting those constraints go allows for the wild, the colourful, the new. If we’ll flock in our thousands to see that in kids’ films, why not in ‘grown-up’ works too?

Oh, and if you haven’t already, watch Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs – it’s a wonderful example of this stuff at work.

Regeneration as a plot device

As a British sci-fi fan, I can hardly let this week’s Dr Who hullaballoo go by without some sort of comment. So today I’m going to write about regeneration, and some of its implications as a story-telling trick in Dr Who.

I grew up watching Dr Who. My earliest television memory is the fifth Doctor, horribly injured in The Caves of Androzani, regenerating into the sixth Doctor. Looking back, the combination of horror and hope that comes from that scene did a lot to shape my taste in stories. For me, as a six-year-old, it was a unique and compelling moment, far more powerful than any death they could show in a Saturday evening family adventure.

Six more goes and I get to be Malcolm Tucker
Six more goes and I get to be Malcolm Tucker

In one sense, the Doctor’s regeneration is just a way around a limitation of television production. Actors get bored or dissatisfied or ambitious. They want to move on. So if you want to keep a show about one character going then you need a way to overcome that. The BBC couldn’t use million pound pay deals, and they care enough about their audience not to fob them off with a lookalike. So instead they came up with regeneration. They looked at the limitations they had and worked within them to create something new – it’s that boundaries business all over again.

But like the best responses to limitations, regeneration has helped them to achieve something more.

First there’s the most obvious thing. By introducing the new actor at a climax for the previous one, just as the audience’s emotions are up, they ensure that you’ll care about the new guy. You’re excited about whatever great thing the last Doctor ‘died’ doing. You’re relieved that this beloved character has survived. You see the new doctor and you are filled with positive emotions. Roll credits before he has time to mess it up. Now you’re all excited for the next series.

Excited, terrified, it's all the same thing, right?
Excited, terrified, it’s all the same thing, right?

It’s also a way to change the highest stakes for the character. Death isn’t always the worst thing you can do to a character. It certainly isn’t the most interesting, as if the character dies then you stop seeing their journey. But if there’s something they fear more than death – loss of control, a loved one suffering, being dishonoured – then the writer can put them through the wringer and still keep going. Regeneration has a similar effect. It actually reduces the risk of death, but introduces another risk instead – the risk of losing one’s self, of becoming an entirely different person.

Think about that for a minute. What if you took a knock to the head and woke up dark and traumatised (Dr Ecclestone) or flippant and erratic (Dr Smith)? Sure, you might still be alive, but the person you were is gone. Worse yet, you probably don’t care. How harsh is that on the person you were? Or on the people around you? By taking death out of the equation, regeneration doesn’t soften what’s at stake – we never believe that our Saturday TV heroes are going to die – it actually makes things more emotionally hazardous.

Wait, are you saying I'm immortal?
Wait, are you saying I’m immortal?

All that’s what you get with any decent writer using this plot tool. Throw in someone as tricksy as Moffat and he’ll take the consequences one step further. He’ll look at that structure and see the implications others haven’t explored. Like a magician watching another’s trick, he notices the difference between what the audience think they’ve seen and what’s actually visible. And like some kind of crazy script-writing David Blaine, he’ll stick a trick into the gap. At the end of the last series, it was a new Doctor in a space between regenerations (or at least that’s what we’re meant to believe for now). Who knows what he’ll come up with next?

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That’s never been more true than in the case of the Doctor’s regenerations. And I can’t wait to see this next one.

Here’s hoping for a real Tucker-style Capaldi performance.

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Meanwhile, what do you think? Do you enjoy the regenerations? Do you have fond memories of a particular one? Are you as sick of this weekend’s hype as I am, and as excited about the new Doctor as I am (seriously, Capaldi, that’s awesome!)? Let me know.

Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long Earth

Yesterday, I finished reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. I’m a huge Pratchett fan, and was really looking forward to reading this, but it’s left me with mixed feelings. I don’t know how much that stems from my experience of writing, or how much I just understand it better because of that.

First up, all the good stuff. This is a great piece of world building. Or worlds building, given that it’s a story about travel across multiple worlds. We get flashes of exotic settings, chases with boar-riding chimps, forests as vast as the imagination. The social and economic consequences are well thought through – of course large parts of England would become depopulated if you could just step into another world. Who’d choose Hackney over Eden?

There are some interesting characters – Lobsang the computer reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist being the stand-out example. The writing is clear and un-fussy, really letting the story flow, though that does make the occasional Pratchettism feel out of place.

But the bit I struggled with was the plot. After the initial set-up, not a huge amount seemed to change. Different worlds and places were introduced, but they didn’t significantly shape events. The main character, Joshua, went along for the ride with Lobsang but lacked any sense of purpose himself. They seldom seemed in real danger of being thwarted in their mission of exploration.

Meanwhile small sub-plots popped up in the background, almost entirely detached from the main story. And while they came together in the end it was in a fairly token way, with the three strands not affecting each others’ outcomes.

The end result was a pleasant read, but one that left me feeling dissatisfied. This is clearly set-up for a series, but 350 pages is a long time to spend on set-up. I enjoyed it, and will probably read the sequel that’s out this year, but I wouldn’t re-read it, unlike most of Pratchett’s other books.

What I don’t know is how much my response to this is shaped by writing plot. If I’d read this five years ago would I have thought it was brilliant? Or would I have had the same feeling of dissatisfaction, but been unable to articulate where it came from? I don’t know, and I’m curious about that.

So if you’re reading this, and you’ve also read The Long Earth, let me know what you think. It may help me disentangle my own thoughts.

Great speculative cities

Writing about why I like cities as settings led me to think about some of my favourite examples. Obviously, cities play a large part in urban fantasy – the clue’s in the name – but my choices lie elsewhere.

The most obvious one is Terry Pratchett‘s Ankh-Morpork. It’s a classic example of a city as a place full of the extreme and the unexpected, giving the author a massive sand pit to play in. Pratchett uses Ankh-Morpork to draw comparisons between his fantasy world and our real one, with endless metaphores for the way we live. Whatever you think of his increasing focus on these parallels, there’s no denying that they allow fantasy to comment on reality. But for me the most exciting thing about Discworld’s first city is something more than that. Over the course of many novels, Pratchett has shown us a city as a site of change, a place of accelerating social, cultural and economic upheaval. This is what cities are like, constantly shifting places which act as catalysts for wider social change, and Pratchett’s shifting focus means that his own changing interests are reflected in, and breath life into, the city. Personally, I liked Ankh-Morpork’s city watch best when they were a faltering, run-down institution failing to battle their own irrelevance, but watching their transformation has still been more interesting than if they had stood still.

While Ankh-Morpork shows a city changing over time, the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, described in China Miéville‘s The City & the City, reflect divisions within a city as it stands. Miéville examines the fractured nature of urban communities, where people ignore each other in the street and different ethnic communities can exist in adjacent buildings yet barely interact. By feeding this through the fantastic machine of his mind, he creates something extreme and fascinating, exploring the absurdity and the necessity of the social conventions by which people live. The idea that two cities can exist in the same space just by ignoring each other sounds ridiculous, but Miéville makes it work, and that risk of the ridiculous makes it all the darker and more tragic, while his academic knowledge of the mechanisms of politics and society ensures a convincing extrapolation of this mad idea.

Less removed from our reality than either of these, but all the more terrible for it, is Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s depiction of a war-ravaged New York in DMZ. They use the city as a microcosm for an American civil war taking place minutes into our future. The choice of New York, a place widely shown across our culture, gives it a sense of familiarity even to someone like me who has never set foot in the big apple. The use of a single city gives their story focus and heart by limiting its scale, while also allowing them to show a variety of responses to the war. While it lacks the small town intimacy of Jericho, the nearest parallel on TV, it makes real the speculative elements of the story, and brings home the reality of millions of people already living in warzones like this.

There are many, many more great depictions of cities in speculative fiction. If you’re reading this, and have favourites of your own, please leave a comment – I’d love some more fantastic cities to explore.

How We Fall – out now

One of the few pieces of creative writing I managed to get done this summer was a sci-fi short called How We Fall, published now by Redstone Science Fiction. It’s a story of soldiers put in a difficult situation, and the clash between their personalities. It’s also about how the same thing, or in this case the same person, can have very different meanings for different people.

For me, there’s something particularly powerful about the image of angels. I don’t know where this comes from. The religious part of my up-bringing didn’t feature a lot of traditional iconography. I’ve never had a grand vision or vivid dream in which the heavenly choirs descended on me in blinding light and close harmony singing. And yet the lure is there. A large part of what I love about Ennis and Dillon’s Preacher is the use, mostly subversively and occasionally reverentially, of that sort of Christian iconography. So when an ad campaign involving angels appeared across bus shelters around Manchester, it caught my eye. What for the ad-men was a gimmicky tagline, for me became the heart of my story. I’ve not delved deep into the spiritual implications of a winged messenger, but I like to think I’ve at least got more depth out of this than the guys selling deodorant.

The Bomb

Shoppers shuffled to market beneath the tall concrete buildings of Century Square. The towers reached to the dizzying light of heaven, blocking out the sun. Each one was a masterpiece of functionalist architecture, cold, dismal and empty. Companies needing office space looked outwards instead to the redbrick suburbs, and the Ministry of Appropriations, forced to occupy one of the grey blocks, was notorious for inefficiency. But from the rooftops the air-raid sirens could be heard for miles, a distorted melody backed by the percussion of distant artillery.

In the square figures shuffled from stall to stall, huddling round products even the war had not consumed. Old ladies in shawls prodded vigorously at wrinkled apples then complained that they were bruised. A mother berated a penniless stallholder, demanding a refund for cleaning fluids that left greasy smears across her windows. Another fretted around her screeching daughter, offering dollies and candy canes if she would be quiet. Outside the Ministry of Appropriations a street sweeping van belched black exhaust soot. All of them ignored the siren’s wail, made indifferent to its warning by countless practices and false alarms.

A bomber buzzed low and angry over the rooftops, onlookers gawping upwards as it hurled its load into the heart of the square. A thought bomb burst open, showering the place with lettered casing and infectious memes. Concepts hurtled through the air, embedding themselves in shoppers and stallholders. There was panic as the victims found their minds invaded by new and outrageous ideas, confusing and contradicting the reality to which they held. Raw, unexpected perspectives overwhelmed a decade’s dogged resistance, stubborn habits receding in the face of reality’s shifting front line. Some victims, startled into panic by their own discordant thoughts, ran off through the monotone grid of streets, spreading the word in their wake. The rest simply sat down, stunned into surrender by the unending, bloodthirsty futility of violence. The bomb had riddled them with doubts, shown its victims the self-defeating horror of war, the pointlessness of resistance.

The idea spread through town like a contagion, carrying its symptom of silence. Homes, offices, schools, all fell quiet. The handles of sirens ceased to turn, radios hissed with static as local stations gave up educating the indifferent masses. Cars sat dormant in the street, their drivers gazing at each other in stillness. By dusk the distant guns of the front line had ceased their brutal barking. For the first time in years, an owl could be heard.

* * *

Two days later the tanks rolled into town, a grime-streaked victory parade as the opposition sealed their success. Scouts ran ahead of them, darting from one doorway to the next as they watched warily for signs of resistance. Not a finger was lifted against them, citizens watching passively as gunmen stormed their homes and stole their food.

The whole town had an eerie, ghostlike feel, draped in a quiet made not of calm or comfort but of hopelessness and inertia. The invaders initially prowled the streets with a wary determination, rifles at the ready, eyes darting back and forth as they swept through silent buildings or patrolled the deserted, wind-swept roads. The locals went wordlessly about their work, heads bowed, shoulders hunched, as though bent low by a great weight. They went outside only when necessary, and talked in hushed whispers when it became necessary to buy their bread and milk. The soldiers watched them nervously, at first afraid that they might rise into armed revolt, then wary of the unnerving, lifeless silence. But fed, sheltered and safe from any sign of resistance, the war-weary troopers began to relax.

The soldiers’ orders were clear – no fraternising. But set a rule and you set someone a challenge.

‘It’s not fraternising if we don’t talk, right?’ a private said, watching a pretty blonde walk by, long green dress swaying enticingly with each step. His comrades smirked knowingly to each other as he followed the girl down an alley and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Doesn’t seem safe,’ he said, ‘pretty thing like you out on your own.’

He leaned in close, stubble rasping at her cheek, hands reaching round her unresisting waist, fingertips caressing her curves. She reached up, tilted his helmet aside and began to whisper in his ear. He ceased his fumbling. Arms fell slack by his sides. At last she fell silent, gazing into his eyes. He nodded, turned, and walked numbly back towards his companions, rifle trailing in the gutter. The squad huddled around him, eyes flitting back and forth, glancing warily at their friend then nervously over their shoulders. He spoke, and one by one the camouflaged huddle ceased to twitch their heads, sinking into apathy or setting off in determination, spreading the word through their unit and beyond.

Silence crept along the war’s front line. The sharp chatter of small-arms gave way to crickets chirping on the breeze. Bombers idled on disused runways and tanks gathered dust. All across the continent owls could be heard.

This story was originally published in Atomjack magazine, November 2007.

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

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.