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Yesterday, the day he died, every screen in every rail station turned black, emptiness blanking the listings of the trains to-and-fro, times of arrival replaced by a pair of dates bookending ninety-one years. Everywhere were the sharp white letters telling you to remember his name.

Today is the second day of national mourning and the memorial has grown, every screen in every rail station now displaying his picture, oddly gentle, radiating paternal gentility instead of sternness. Even the day’s date and time are gone from the screen. None of it matters, none of it is as important as remembering.

Tomorrow, improbably, the picture will spill beyond the confines of the screen and cover whole pillars, every one in every station. Growing in size every successive day, like the mass of bodies piling up at the Parliament House to pay their respects, creeping across the floor and along escalators and up to the edge of the platforms.

By Sunday, the day of the funeral, the portrait will have swallowed the entire station, every single one of them. Commuters speak in hushed whispers and tiptoe over ground sanctified by the pixels of his visage, creeping along the edges of his face for fear of stepping on it. To sully his picture would be to show disrespect, to spit on the clay bones of the country he had welded together. The trains fall silent. Still the photo of the old man swells, grows and grows, flooding over rail lines and over the hard ground like buckets and buckets of white paint, until the unrecognisable vectors of his face, visible from the stratosphere, reach the infinitely long borders of the country and begin to sink into the sea.

Writing Exercise IV: Character, Event, Setting

On the final day of the workshop we did an exercise that was almost like a party game in its randomness: Each of us wrote down a character, an event and a setting on separate pieces of paper. As expected, these were then randomly distributed around the class. When all the dust had settled, I had been given the plot of LOST: A caring nurse, at the end of the world, on an island.

I decided to write a piece set in a story world I’m sort of working on (tentatively called The Plague Wards). The evaluation piece I’d submitted for the workshop was actually set in this world, and the consistent feedback I’d gotten was that the main character was pretty flat. Part of fleshing her out involves working out her background, so I decided to write this piece about her mother.



Before her shift starts Mary goes to the washroom and washes her hands twice: Once after she exits the cubicle, and once after she’s fixed her hair. When she first started work here, she found she liked the smell of the hospital soap. It had floral notes that reminded her of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Something happy.

She pulls blue latex over her freshly-scented fingers as her shift partner preps the charts & meds. Even with the frown distorting her face Su comes off as so young, so pretty. Mary catches herself thinking about what groceries to buy for dinner. She forgot. She forgot about the quarantine.

Su draws in a sharp breath and her lips compress. “What happened?” Mary asks, although from the lines building up around Su’s eyes she can guess at what it is.

“We have one less patient today.”

“Oh? Which one?” This, she can’t guess, since so many of them are on the brink.

She leans over to look at the screen on the pushcart, but Su answers before she can read it. “The old man in ward 57.”

The old man in Ward 57, Mr Lim, is Patient Zero’s father. She will wake from her coma – if she wakes from her coma – to find her father dead. Mary exhales.

Su’s face crumples, suddenly: It’s like tissue paper tearing through, these breakdowns. Mary has become used to them, so much that whenever she feels her own face form those same shapes, she knows what to do to force everything back in. She hugs Su, gripping her heaving shoulders with her flower-scented, latex-wrapped fingers.

“There’s no cure,” Su says. “The Government can’t help us. Everybody here is going to die.” Her words rise and fall, like fish struggling against a stream’s current.

Mary keeps her shoulders straight and her voice firm as she looks Su in the eye. “No, the cure is coming,” she says. “Listen, Su: Listen. Don’t worry. My daughter, you know Yann? She works for the Government, she’s in Buona Vista, and she says they’re going to find it. They’re already halfway there. It’s only a matter of time. It’s coming.”

“Not in time for Mr Lim.”

Mary tightens her grip on Su’s shoulders. “But we can still save other people.” A trite statement, but maybe one she needed to hear.

“Yeah, ok,” Su says. She’s already drying her eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m just so tired.”

“We’re all tired. It’s normal, don’t blame yourself.”

Su gives her a watery smile. She looks like a washcloth that’s been rinsed too many times. Mary wonders if Yann’s tired too, staying up in her lab with its lights & petri dishes and rows of chemicals, trying to make sense of what they are saying.

“I’m ok,” Su says. “Let’s go.”

They walk down the corridor towards the wards. Here, there and everywhere, everything smells like antiseptic, sprayed madly on to cover a stench.

Writing Exercise III: Time & Narrative

We were working on issues of time in a narrative, and how to handle it. The task was to think of an event, and then pick one time point – 2 days before, 10 minutes before, 10 minutes after, 1 day after, or 1 year after – and expand on it.

I had originally wanted to write about a car accident or a plane crash or something equally disastrous, but then I realised I still wanted some sort of human conflict to play with, in which case would my event be the disaster or the thing which happened between the people? In the end I went with something completely different. I picked the timepoint of the day after.

She can’t find a dry bench to sit on and she isn’t wasting tissue to do the public service of wiping them dry, so she squats on one of them to eat breakfast. She keeps her knees together so she doesn’t look like a coolie; still, she feels the shaming gazes of passing joggers trained on her, all too apparent in the way their legs slow, measured gaits stumbling, as they pass her by.

She’s barely halfway through the McDonald’s meal when the burning in her thighs becomes unbearable. Still, she chews as slowly as she possibly can. Because finishing breakfast would mean having to put the wrappers away and crumpling the plastic bags and then finding a dustbin to put them in, and then– and then what? Maybe she can take a shower again but she doesn’t want to, and her towel will take ages to dry, she knows that now. She could get on a bus and go to town. Stay in air-conditioning, find a library, read a book. Her heart soars at the thought: It’s free, it’s all free. The 200 dollars in her wallet no longer feels like a stone weighing in her pocket, her conscience– more like a shallow dish of water she has to hold on to carefully, so carefully.

The moment she takes the last bite of her hashbrown her phone rings in her pocket and she nearly jumps off the bench. She lets it vibrate for several rings while her heart pounds. She wants to believe it’s Jo, regretting her freakout of the night before, saying it’s ok, you can stay with me, you can sleep on the floor. She doesn’t want to think it’s her mother, trying to say, Look, we’ll talk about this later, please just come home.

The phone goes silent before she can pick it up and she lets out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. The phone, too, would be out of battery soon. She crushes the hashbrown wrapper in her hands and puts it in the plastic bag. Gathering them up like they are the most precious things in the world, she hops off the bench drying in the rising sun.

Writing Exercise II: POV

So we did another writing exercise for class. We were playing with POV this time – first persson, third person etc. The exercise was to tell someone else in the class about a neighbour we had, and listening to their story in turn. Then we’d go away to write a story about the neighbour we’d just heard about. My attempt, to tell the story of Rebecca’s neighbour (whom she hardly ever sees  and has never spoken to, so this is all made up.)

The car had belonged to the old man. It was a Nissan Sunny, bought back in a year when Nissan was content to be seen as that plain and reliable friend you had, the one who could be relied on to get enough sleep and file all their taxes on time. It was a particularly ugly shade of green. The old man had personally handpicked it from the lineup of muddy coloured squares in the showroom.

His mother used to nag him about it. The car, you haven’t washed it yet, right? The engine oil needs to be changed, must send for inspection soon, right? The car, it hasn’t been moved in a long time, right? And he would nod, nod, nod, take the car out for short drives like a pet dog, water it with the hose along with the drooping plants that passed for a garden in their house. He used to wonder why they didn’t sell it after his father died. After all, it was his father’s car. Maybe no-one wanted to buy it.

These days the car sits silent in the driveway, collecting a coat of dust for itself. He doubts he can move it anymore, the wheels sagging over spotty rims one sharp kick away from crumbling. He can see its silhouette where he sits in the darkened living room, slowly breathing air circulated by an uninterested ceiling fan, where the TV yammers on and on with its constant stream of light and sound. He imagines the unkempt garden growing up around the car, tendrils of grass pulling it into an embrace until it vanishes into the foundations of the house.

And then we had to write the same story from another character’s perspective. I chose a different point of view for this one, as well.

The house opposite is always very quiet. Other houses on this road, they always have people coming in and out. But this house nobody visits. Not even during Chinese New Year. Ma’am says that last time, when the old man was still around, people would still come, his nephews or something like that. But now, nobody. When I started working here, there was the old woman and her son, but then the old woman died. That’s what my ma’am says. Very strange, you know — there was no funeral. But you don’t see the old woman around any more, so I think she died. Then the son never leaves the house. I think he has no job. Last time, he will still take the car out, but now, no more. No wife, no girlfriend, I think his life is very sad. I don’t know why he doesn’t sell his house and buy a HDB flat. His house is so big, it’s too big for only one person– if it’s me, I will go crazy.

Writing exercise I: Observation

At the moment I’m attending a three-day novel-writing masterclass organised by the local branch of the British Council. Yesterday our themed writing exercise was to make observations of people at lunch, something about what Chekhov wrote in his notebook. It was an exercise in detail, except that it being lunch I found more interest in the detail of my food…


Heavy-waisted and large-bottomed, she stood fixing her hair while her baby played at her feet with dusty hands and knees.

The old man hadn’t bought any food. He sat at the table in the furthest corner of the alfresco terrace, thumbing through a dog-eared newspaper.

She had on a slinky dress monogrammed in gold, and her dark glasses hid half her face. But her gait meandered across the courtyard and her voice piped up and down as she spoke over the phone.

#fridayflash: Google Car At The End Of The World

Photo: Google/AP

Photo: Google/AP

I am Car #2357. I am a good car.

I am on my route. I do it every day, like my masters programmed me to. Sometimes they change the route, but it has been the same route for the past 567 days. I do not mind. I do my route.

I turn left down Oxford Street in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. A double decker bus blocks half the street, so I drive around it. I am good at navigating around things. My sensors tell me everything. I am also good at telling where all the cracks and the holes in the ground are, so I do not drive into them. If one of my wheels gets stuck, I will be in trouble because this route is not accessible to the rescue units.

I carry 17 cameras capturing video and stills, 4 infrared sensors, an x-ray scanner, a barometer, a thermometer, a Geiger counter, a biofilter mat and six accelerometers. They record everything. Today the atmosphere is a shade of iron red, matching pictures NASA collected of Mars.

I have to drive on the pavement past Selfridges because the tarmac is too cracked there. The infrared sensors, which scan for heat sources, continue to return a null result. I drive extra slowly here because the pavement is very narrow and there are many skeletons on the ground. Trapped bone shards have damaged my transmission in the past.

I have a lot of colleagues in cities all over the world. We do not talk to each other because we only talk with Home Server. But I know they function because I sometimes receive data that they collect in my updates. For example, I know that Car #0012 (Yamagata Prefecture, Japan) has been on the same route for 1,027 days now.

The sky above Piccadilly Circus is free of birds and clouds. It is very warm, much warmer than the average temperature of London over the last 100 years. I drive around rusting cars and buses while the x-ray records the calcium density of the discarded bones that fill them. The only sounds are my engine running, the equipment recording, and debris dissolving into dust under my wheels.

Soon, I will have to return to Base. There the robots will collect the data, clean the sensors, and recharge my batteries. Tomorrow, I will go out and do my route again.

Maybe my masters will send me a new route this time.

I am Car #2357. Today has been a good day.

Crash Out

Nico Rosberg is pulling out of the pit lane in Sepang when it happens: He sees. The fabric of reality hiccups and tears, a glitch lifting the curtain. Suddenly, he is a billion Nico Rosbergs in a billion different configurations in a billion different races. He is on the first lap, on the last, on the grid waiting for the lights to go off; in Monaco, SpA, Silverstone, Singapore; he drives for Mercedes, he drives for Sauber, he drives for Red Bull, he drives for Ferrari.

In the split second the cloud rends his consciousness with the force of a billion horses. Instinct drives the brake to the floor, but something must have gone wrong because the wheels lock up the wrong way, sliding the rear end into the path of the race leaders. The millisecond before collision everything is hyper-clear, and his billion eyes see that Alonso, in this incarnation, is not Alonso as he thought. In his place sits an empty shell, a puppet, algorithms open and waiting for input. Then: Impact, and he is pixels scattering as he fades into haze, into big flashing words descending in a sequence that reads G A M E  O V E R.

The Thin Layer Over The World

The sun sets over the sea, painting leisurely apricot stripes over the sloping hills covered in dark green. White brick houses cluster easily in loose groups, their peaked roofs poking through the foliage like pictures I’ve seen of wild mushrooms. I try to ignore everything else: the signs to the best restaurants in town, pointing and towering over their targets; the minute-by-minute traffic reports (no congestions—surprise); the sea telling me that the temperature is just right for swimming, but remember to put on sunscreen. I’ve never realized how artificial the permanent AR layer over the world looks. The lights had fit snugly like locking bricks in between the glass and metal and gloss of the cities I’m used to, but out here in the wilds of human existence, where you can walk openly down a main road after midnight and people grow their own strawberries in gardens, the AR streams look absurdly fake. Like camera tricks, like badly done computer graphics from the last century.

Excerpt from my story Carrier Signal, published by Crossed Genres in 2010. Here’s how I described it, when I sent an excerpt in my application to a writing programme run by the local chapter of The British Council:

…this cyberpunk story follows a young man named Joseph as he attempts to get his fugitive younger brother “off the grid” in a not-too-distant future where use of augmented reality with biological implants has become as ubiquitous as smartphone use today.

The story was written for a competition that said “include REAL SCIENCE into your science fiction!” and I ran with an article about a man who became the first person to be infected with a computer virus– he deliberately infected an implant he was wearing just because. (Scientists. I should know — I used to be one.)

Funny enough, it seems as though a different aspect of the story is about to cross over into reality first, instead. Google Glass? I’m lookin’ at you.

The War Going On Beneath Us

Ice was a train runner, the first I’d ever known. She’d picked her own name. We dated for a while, and that was when she showed me the wars.

It was because I asked her about the train disruptions.  Because- it’s not like they’re overseeing the bloody London Underground, so how hard can it be? Okay, maybe one major disruption is okay, but three in a month? Seriously? What were you guys doing, I asked.

And her response was, “Do you want to see?”

Like the fool I was, I said yes. Hindsight, 20/20, all that jazz.

There was a hazmat suit involved, markings from the SCDF still on it. “Borrowed,” she said, and insisted I put it on before we reached the tunnels.

Marching. I remember the sound of marching. She held my hand in the darkness of the empty-station-at-3AM as we stepped over the yellow line and she touched the glass of the barrier doors. The entire row vanished, all down the length of the station, hundreds of metres of it. I looked into the cavern that opened in front of me, over the lip of the chasm, and held back a breath.

Faces hidden, clad in battle-scarred armour and purple livery, they trooped past in columns. Measured, almost mechanical movements, like CGI from one of the Star Wars movies–almost convincing enough to be real, but not quite, hovering at the edge of uncanny valley, about to tip over. I looked down the platform, and saw nothing but endless lines of soldiers coming towards us, marching down the tunnel and out of the station. “Who are they?” I asked.

“Soldiers of the purple line,” she said.

“Soldiers of the purple line,” I repeated, as if that would magically give it meaning.  Continue reading