Memorial

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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.

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#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 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

The Ayam Curtain: A Prologue

Birds talk, you know, of the places they go, visited in this world and in others.

You see, they sometimes travel through the thin wall between universes, into alternate pasts and presents and futures, to see the fantastic things none of us can. This they tell each other.

Old men in parks speak of vanished times as birdtales soar over them, suspended from wire loops, song unencumbered by cages;

Orchard Road evenings drown out the sound of cars with the cacophony of fantasy crashing overhead, what-ifs and maybes accordioning into a joyful band of toneless noise;

What do birds dream of, in cages and in coops, their little avian brains winging to places their bodies cannot?

An old man walks down the path, slowly now, in one branchlike hand a cage, draped in a soft brown-and-beige pattern recalling sarong hammocks. He hangs it on the perch, and the storyteller within chirrups in anticipation, barely holding back its song.

The curtain lifts.

 

The Ayam Curtain is an anthology of very short Singaporean speculative fiction that Joyce Chng (@jolantru) and I are editing, to be published with Math Paper Press in the second half of 2012. We are looking for stories! Go here for more information on the open call. Submissions close 31st May 2012.

http://speculativesingapore.wordpress.com/ayamcurtain/

#fridayflash: The Siege Of Katong

The buses are running ragged. She feels it in the heat that rises from the floor of her aging Scania and smothers her legs, in the stuttering whine of its engine as it struggles over the pitted surface of the Causeway. The refugees are grimly quiet, white-knuckled on the handgrips and railings. The crying has petered out to the occasional sniffle of a child’s still-running nose.

The first thing she does once they hit the disembarkation terminal is to run for a washroom break, threading between the murmuring, empty-eyed refugees weighed down by possessions and grime and shell-shock. Then a cup of kopi, tasteless and scalding hot, while the Scania’s engine cooled in a series of pinging noises. A twenty minute break, and then they’d be back, across the closed border and into the beseiged East. Her shift doesn’t end until eight hours later.

In the crush of bodies filling the terminal she nearly knocked over one of the new drivers-John? Jacob? She can’t remember all their names. In the past weeks there had been a boom of drivers turning up with buses in tow. Many were kids, not even old enough to make the legal driving age, back when those things still mattered. Some of them showed up just days after their ride had came to them, before they had even properly bonded with the passenger vehicles.

Funny. Back in the day riders had mostly had fast flashy rides, million-dollar cars they otherwise would never have dreamt of owning. These days, it was all about the buses, the heavy vehicles, the big movers. And armoured vehicles. There were rumours, she heard, of a girl who had bonded with a Soviet-era T-34. A Russian tank? Why not, she had thought, when she heard. Why not? Yesterday she had seen the remains of a HDB block of flats in southern Mountbatten, a charred gutted wreck with a few fragments of glass clinging to twisted windowframes. An old schoolfriend had lived there once, she thought, or maybe she was remembering wrongly. She wondered if the interim Town Council had managed to evacuate the block before it was shelled.

Why not?

The worst part, she thinks, is having to close the doors, having to drive away with the lucky last few on the steps plastered against the doors, while those left behind run after her, slapping on the sides of the bus, screaming. Her Scania knows not to run over the ones who jump in front, trying to stop it from leaving, but she still sees their desperate, pleading faces when she closes her eyes at night. Once a mother pushed her young son into the last gap just as the doors were closing, and the boy screamed for her all the way back to the terminal until he had no tears left, just empty, hoarse sobbing. One of the terminal staff took him to the shelter; she didn’t know what happened to him after that.

Her Scania has a war-wound down its side, a big grey gouge left by the angry paw of a roadside mine. It worries her deeply because spirit-rides are supposed to be immune to that. It’s the only way they can get in and out of the blockade, and across the closed border to Malaysia, through metres’ worth of solid concrete walls. But having to fend off the constant attacks have been wearing them thin. She knows the qi holding these things together is not inexhaustible, and she doesn’t know what will happen when that runs out. Her baby is becoming mortal, just like the rest of them.

She drains the last of the flat, torrid coffee and swallows away the bitter aftertaste. Time’s up. She gets in, turns the ignition key, and prepares to head back into the hell she once called home.

London Bridge

Jen Yong looked left and right at the thready reams of traffic and balled her hands into fists inside her jumper. “Do I have to do this?”

“Come on man, a promise is a promise. Don’t pull out on me like this,” Jay said.

She blew out a breath, and then sighed, shrugging into the massiveness of her outer clothes. Whatever.

They jogged across the bridge. Not because they were in any particular hurry, but because it was 3AM and it was cold, breaths almost-but-not-quite fogging in the damp air. Tarmac-hugging traffic occasionally made its way across, and the roll of its wheels sent tremors across the entire bridge structure. It looked like proper pavement under their feet, nice solid and grained, but wear and tear at the places they joined betrayed the wooden paneling underneath. Like onionskin, peeling the surface away to uncover the reality underneath. The world under us is much less solid than we’d like to believe, she thought.

Jay crouched over the fissure where the bridge split in half, and looked downwards, right down the sandwich of wood and metal beams, to where the Thames rushed below. “This is it,” he said, and pulled the small pouch out of his jacket pocket. Penny. Penknife.

She looked over her shoulder at the guardpost, where she imagined strange men in uniforms were closely monitoring their every move from hidden CCTV cameras that were undoubtedly hidden all over the bridge. “Don’t you worry,” he said, without looking up.

“I don’t want to get deported from this country,” she said. “It’d be a bit hard to finish my degree, if I get deported.”

Continue reading

All Of The Lights

Chase had to stop for breath at the mouth of the subway exit, sucking in air as though he had forgotten how to do it automatically. Breathe in. Breathe out. His heart felt like some untameable thing in his chest, struggling for its own freedom, but he knew it wasn’t because he had very nearly run all the way here.

He had come by train, underground, and it had emptied into a station liberally and shockingly coated with advertising over every available surface, bodies darting between walls, pillars, seats and floors plastered with printed vinyl, screaming pictures of fast cars and superstars and all of the lights. A thousand insects singing in his ears. Skin itching, he had hurried upwards, towards station control, opting to leap the stairs three at a time to get away from the melee. He would not have felt more soiled if they had spread out pictures of naked women instead.

Then, at the moment he’d crossed the ticket gantries, he’d been hit in the shoulder by an irate guardian spirit.

The City Hall Interchange was always sharply dressed, pressed shirt and pressed pants and shiny shoes, yet for all the decorum there always seemed to be something off-kilter with him: The pants not fitted right, the shirt too loose and dots of perspiration beginning to betray themselves through the back. He kept his hair trendy, always in the latest style, and if you passed him by while commuting—if you could actually see him—you might have bought into his lie and thought he was a fresh graduate. But in actual association he looked like those men who would dress young and act hip but ended up looking exactly what they were: forty year olds who had smoked one cigarette too many.

Chase could not have avoided him. It would have been absolutely impossible to avoid him. So he had let himself be stopped.

“Well? What are you guys going to do about it?” A question, without pre-empt. But Chase knew exactly what he was talking about. Even someone like him—who had spent a great deal of effort to keep out of the loop without actually resorting to blocking calls and unsubscribing from feeds—knew about it, fragmentarily: in pieces of alerts and newsflashes that somehow stuck in his head. Guardian missing, unexplained, geomancic pancaking, unprecedented, possible peril, unknown. He should have paid more attention, but he didn’t.

He had shrugged in response. “Don’t know. That’s beyond my pay grade.”

“Don’t lie. You all are such a small group. You must have heard something.”

“Not me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t hang around the others much.” A girl had passed him by, then, and they had made a brief, fleeting moment of eye contact.

The City Hall Interchange made a sound that could have been mistaken for a laugh. “Yeah, we all noticed. Still cannot get over the break-up, huh?”

He had wondered, then, what the passing girl had seen, a crazy guy talking to himself and shuffling his feet in the middle of the MRT station, and he had felt a sudden stab of anger. “Shut up,” he had said, and stepped around the City Hall Interchange. “Don’t you have a job to do?”

He had hurried off into the depths of the mall, and behind him the City Hall Interchange had laughed and called out, “So you try avoid everybody, but the moment your boss calls you come running back, huh? Like a little bitch.”

“Shut up,” he had mumbled and threaded his way through the Friday lunch crowds, down subterranean mall corridors that twisted like coils of intestines, infested with storefronts like insect hives, everything blending into one anonymous eye-burning smear of places that he no longer recognised. Fast cars, superstars. All of the lights.

Continue reading

Captain Bells & The Oppression Of Vocabulary

“Bells”, Howie said in exasperation, “These printed plates are full of nonsense.”

“They are not,” the captain replied, not even looking up from the starchart he was annotating.

“I beg to differ!” The first mate stormed towards his captain’s table, and dropped half a dozen printouts onto it with a clatter. “Have a look: ‘MUCH PLEASED TO HEAR NEWS REVERT PLEASE’.” He pointed, triumphantly, to the offending word. “What does this mean? I do not think there is supposed to be a word there, it does not make any sense.” He grabbed another plate. “Here, an inexplicable interjection of the word ‘input’, and it is in the plural form. I had not known that input was a countable object. Very surprising indeed. Look at this, ‘synergy’. I’ve have never heard of such a word. Might it be a mis-spelling of ‘energy’, perhaps?”

“Escapees”, Bells said.

“It is a mis-spelling of ‘escapees’?”

“No, I mean that the words themselves are escapees. I do collect them, if you haven’t noticed. I keep them in a spare pocket, here,” he said and patted his coat. Then his face crumpled into a frown. “It is not a happy place, though, as I fear that ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ has become rather a bully as of late. I can only assume that those words escaped to flee the persecution they faced.”

Howie, rendered speechless, merely stared at him.

100 Word Fiction #15: Taxi Fare

“Call a cab,” the woman said.

He looked. It was a number on a scrap of paper. “That’s it? You’re not going to help me?”

The witch patiently rubbed her papery fingers together. “Taxis are my eyes and ears. They prowl the streets everywhere, all the time, even in the night when the buses are asleep and the trains rest in their lairs. And they’re cheap, too: they don’t require much in return. Just the occasional sacrifice, the passenger who boards and is never seen again. I handle that, you don’t have to do anything. Much easier than cats.” She gestured at the piece of paper. “You want to find the girl? They’re your best bet.”