#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.

#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.

#fridayflash: Pulling The Puzzles Apart

He kept a black box on his desk, a small cube hooked to a large beeping monitor like an ECG, as though it were keeping alive a tiny and fragile animal. “What’s that?” she had asked, a visiting niece from another faculty, gesturing at the box and its attendant jumble of machinery.

“It’s a micro black hole,” her uncle had said. “It’s not very stable, and takes effort to keep it in place.” He tapped on something that looked like the unhappy union of a fire extinguisher and a pressure gauge. “This is the injector. It feeds the black hole matter so that it doesn’t evaporate away into nothing.”

“Black holes evaporate? You make them sound like puddles of rainwater.”

“They are surprisingly fragile when you get to know them better.”

So she’d asked him the question any normal person would have: why do you keep a black hole on your desk, even a miniature one?

“It’s a memorial. The Hawking radiation, see.” When she’d given him a blank look he’d just shrugged and said, “It’s a physics thing.”

She went home and looked up “Hawking radiation” on the Internet. On the fourth page of Google results she found notes for a lecture he’d presented to his first-year Astrophysics class. According to her uncle’s notes, black holes were not entirely radio-black as their name suggested, and actually emitted particles from time to time, losing mass in the process. He explained how it happened:

“Sometimes little miracles of nature happen, in the spontaneous generation of a particle-antiparticle pair. These particle pairs, irrevocably linked, are usually left to their twinned destinies.

But sometimes, at the event horizon of a black hole, disaster happens. One of the pair is pulled in and is lost, leaving its partner without a counterpart to annihilate with. The remaining particle, bereft, is left to wander the galaxy forever, doomed to its singular existence. And the black hole, having apparently emitted the lonely particle, must lose mass to preserve the laws of thermodynamics.

My wife, who is an English major, calls it the Shakespearean tragedy of particle physics. I can’t say I disagree.”

She remembered the way he looked at her aunt’s funeral, somehow smaller and sadder and greyer as he stood alone, away from the crowd.  She remembered the way he spoke about his dead wife, the lively artsy girl to his quiet physics nerd, the extrovert to his introvert, the chaotic warmth to his aloof logic. She remembered what he said about opposites attracting. And that was when she realized that what he had said was wrong. It really wasn’t a physics thing at all.

#fridayflash: Fast Food Romance

They had dinner dates in fast food restaurants at opposite ends of the world. It was his idea. He’d call the day before, or at some point during what passed for her morning, and make arrangements. It was a cute conceit, shared gastronomic experience separated by the miles and li between them. The easy availability of franchised foodchains was their helper, their happy medium: McDonalds on Monday, Wendy’s on Wednesday, Subway on Saturdays. They picked the same items from the menu and took photos with the food that they sent to each other over Twitter. I miss you, he’d add to the pictures sometimes. “Stop that,” she’d say every time, embarrassed by the sentiment.

Then one day she rocked the boat, her phone tucked between shoulder and ear as she folded the laundry. “I want to try the new seaweed shaker fries from McDonalds.”

He paused. “We don’t have that here.”

“That’s sad. It’s really good. And it comes free with every Extra Value Meal when you upsize it.” She tossed aside a shirt whose color had faded to unwearability. “Maybe I’ll have the seaweed shaker fries and you can have the regular ones.”

He pursed his lips, not that she could see it. “But that’s not the point of why we’re doing this.”

“What does it matter? It’s not like we’re even eating the same meal. You’re having an early lunch and I’m having late supper.” She sent him a picture of the shaker fries later, showing him what he was missing out on.

A couple of weeks later she said, “I don’t really feel like having fast food today.”

“But we’re supposed to do this. That was our deal.”

“I’m sick of fast food. And Tony says I’ve been putting on weight. It’s all the junk food I’ve been shoveling down.”

“Who’s Tony?” he asked.

“We’re going to try a new Japanese restaurant that just opened recently,” she said, and hung up.

He stared at the dead and silent phone. “Fuck globalization,” he said.

 

 

#fridayflash: Look For Me When You Turn Aside

Phew! Managed to get this one out of the door in time for #fridayflash. Not much else to say except– enjoy! (And I really need to get back to writing sci-fi at some point in time. That time, however, is apparently not right now. Oh well!)

***

Look For Me When You Turn Aside

Her father, at the time of his death, had been at the height of his career. Rockstar, actor and son of a well-loved politician (as far as politicians can be well-loved), he made the pages of respectable broadsheets often, with his trademark sunglasses and cheeky, lopsided smile. On a Friday morning he kissed his wife of six months goodbye and boarded his private jet, bound for the Maldives for a photoshoot with his band. He never arrived. There was one garbled distress signal, and the eight-seater vanished off the radar over the deep waters of the Pacific. Rescuers searched the area for six weeks and only turned up pieces of the fuselage. The cause of the crash was never determined.

Two months after the crash the grief-stricken widow found out she was pregnant with her first, last and only child. She named her unborn daughter Laila, after a writer her late husband had admired when he was alive.
***

Laila grew up steeped in her absent father’s presence. Her mother put his music videos on the television for her, and taught her to read from a book of his quotes. At night she would sing her daughter to sleep with “Look For Me When You Turn Aside”, the hit that had first propelled his band to international fame. “He was an amazing person,” she would tell the attentive girl, as they snuggled together on rainy days. “He shone with his own light.”

By the time Laila was five she knew by heart all the lyrics to his songs and the all lines from the two movies he had starred in. She greeted the large poster of him over her bed when she woke in the morning, and said goodnight before she went to bed. She wrote letters to him, which she kept in a box under her bed. Sometimes she would stand in front of the mirrors, mapping the features of her face to his. She introduced herself to others as the daughter of that famous dead guy, and only gave her name upon prompting.

It was during the 13th summer that she saw him, spending a couple of months in Rio de Janeiro with old friends of her mother. They were on their way to get an ice cream in a trendy part of town when she saw the strange man with his face entirely hidden a dark hoodie, coming their way at a brisk clip despite the thickness of the crowd on the sidewalk. He kept his gaze to the ground as he came towards them, and she didn’t pay very much attention to him except to note his presence in the back of her mind, just in case he was a kidnapper. As he passed by right next to the group of girls she was embedded in, he turned his head, and she caught the flash of round, piercing eyes from within the darkness of thick cotton fabric.

Her world crashed to a halt. She knew those eyes better than anyone else’s. She could not be mistaken.

“Daddy,” she shouted, spinning on her heel. “Daddy!”

The man kept walking. She ran after him. “Daddy, wait! Daddy, it’s me.”

He picked up the pace without turning around, weaving through the crowd with practiced ease. She elbowed and shoved through clumps of passerbys frantically, leaving a trail of profanity and dirty looks in her way. “Wait,” she shouted. “Don’t go!”

The man ducked into a white van parked at the end of the street. She managed to slap her hand once on the dusty surface before the engine reved up and the van drove off. She ran after it, shouting, chasing it down the tarmac as it grew steadily smaller and smaller in her vision until she was left standing, breathless with her hands on her knees, cars honking irately as they passed by on either side.

She had seen her father. She was sure of it.

***

She kicked up such a huge fuss about it the local police force has no choice but to open an investigation at her mother’s behest, tracking down the owner of the van based on the licence plate number Laila remembered. The chief superintendent himself brought them to the small windowless room, bare except for a table and a couple of steel chairs.

They brought a man into the room. “This is the man who owned the van you saw,” the superintendent said.s

The man they’d brought in was thin and scruffy with eyes that stared endlessly at you. He looked a lot like her father. But he wasn’t the man she’d seen on the sidewalk that day. Laila’s sobbing mother had to hold her back as she screamed and tried to throw her mug of water at the superintendent. “That’s not him! Where is he? What have you done to him?” She refused to listen to anyone else.

***

The counselor was very gentle with her mother. “I know you miss your late husband,” she said, “but dwelling on his life is leaving a negative impact on your daughter.”

“She’s his daughter too,” her mother insisted. “She needs to know who he was.”

“And I agree. But it’s become an obsession in her life. Can’t you see how unhealthy that is for her?”

Her mother cried.

“You love her, don’t you?”

“Yes,” her mother said, and Laila reached over to touch her hand. “She’s the most important thing in the world to me.”

“Your husband is gone, but your daughter is still here. And she needs you. You need to led him go.”

Her mother nodded. She understood.

***

The agent sits across the table from his charge. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am,” he says.

The vanished man clenches his fists. “That girl is my daughter. You have to understand what it feels like.”

“A daughter who only exists because you pleaded to have her created so your wife would have something left to go on with after you vanished. You knew the consequences.”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I didn’t realize what it would be like.”

The agent let out a noise that might have been a sigh, or the verbalization of a suppressed urge to drive a fist into something wet and organic. He took the slim manila folder that had been sitting at the edge of the desk, flipped it over, and slid it over to his charge. “I want to show you something.”

Inside there was a stack of pictures of another family–a middle-aged man, strong-jawed, fairly good shape, with his young smiling wife, and two children under the age of five. The pictures were ordinary, seemingly taken candidly: they were out grocery shopping. Having a barbeque in their backyard. Going to the beach. “What is this?” the vanished man asked. “Who are these people?”

“That man was one of our best,” the agent said. “He was deep undercover in with the families, so deep that he retired from the business without any of them realizing he was one of ours. Bought himself a nice property out on Long Island, started a family, the whole nine yards. ”

“Now,” the agent said, leaning forward, “he was the one who was tasked to carry out your assassination. If the family found out that you were alive–if you were accidentally seen cavorting around with your daughter, for example–then it wouldn’t take them much to realize that you were under our protection, instead of being dead. Then they would realize that their man lied to them about having completed the job. And there would be… consequences for him. Do you understand?”

The vanished man’s hands were shaking.

“Do you understand?” the agent repeated.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

***

It had taken her a year, but Laila had finally allowed her mother’s new boyfriend to put his arm around her shoulder when they went out together, all three of them, like a little family. His name was Mark and he couldn’t play an instrument, but he had written some pretty good books and his jokes made them laugh. Last year, he bought her that phone she had always wanted, in red. She supposed he was all right, considering.

“Who wants some ice cream?” Mark asked.

“You know I always want ice cream,” Laila said, and her mother smiled at her.

As she turned to go into the store with them, she stopped short. She thought she’d seen something at the edge of her vision– something that looked like a man in a dark hoodie, watching her. She turned back and stared at the spot in the park across the road where she thought she’d seen him.

There was nothing there. Laila shrugged, and followed her mother into the shop.

***

#fridayflash: Groundskeepers

Finally, finally I get around to finishing a story in time  for #fridayflash! This one is specially dedicated to @jolantru, fellow urban fantasy geek– this was the story I was telling you about.

Comments, critiques and RTs very welcome. I love you too.

Groundskeepers

“Are you in charge of this building?” my boss asks.

The woman we’re interviewing responds with a roll of the shoulders, mouth busily working on gum, heavily-mascaraed eyelids opening, shutting, opening, shutting. She suits the building she guards perfectly, a stolid thing laid down in the seventies and slowly taken over by cheap hole-in-the-wall boutiques and tattoo parlors that draw chainsmoking teenagers in droves. Tobacco-stained and grime-encrusted, her clothes are a bewildering mishmash of torn lycra, faded tie-dyes and cheap faux leather.

My boss holds up her documentation. “I’m Inspector Lee. I come from the Locations department of the police force. You know what that is?”

She nods.

“I have a few questions I’d like to ask you.”

I hold my pen at the ready, waiting to take her statement.

“Did anything unusual happen in the building the night of the twenty-seventh July?”

“Twenty-seventh July.” I start scribbling as she recounts. “Let’s see… first floor. Kids fighting like dogs. Third floor ladies’. Girl and another girl. Her first time. Girl, not other girl.”

“Any disturbances?”

“They’re all disturbances.”

My boss shows her a photo of the victim. “Do you recognize this woman?”

She shakes her head. “Never seen her. Never been inside.”

“I see.”

The set line of my boss’ mouth means that she believes we’ve hit a dead end here. Another half hour wasted.

The girl spits out the gum she’s been chewing and I suddenly realize that it hasn’t been gum all along, but bones. Tiny little rat bones. She, catching my reaction, smirks. “New one?” she asks my boss.

My boss waves me towards her. “Come on, Hot Soup, we’re done here.”

__

It’s like this, every day, spending the days trawling through casefiles hoping a clue will come in, and spending the nights trawling the streets with our summonses, praying for a lead. I’m not sure if my boss even sleeps. She’s always in the office when I arrive and still in the office when I leave.

Right now she’s chewing pensively on a mouthful of bubble tea pearls. We’d covered all the buildings in the area with no luck. “They must be hiding something,” she says. “It’s not possible that no-one knows anything.”

“I thought you said they couldn’t lie.”

“They can’t.”

The standing-space tables around the bubble tea stall are crammed with loud pushy teens enjoying the Friday night. My boss puts the last vacuum-sealed summons packet on the table. “We haven’t spoken to the Parklane building yet.”

“Wasn’t there was a raid on the night of the murder? Wouldn’t Enforcement have seen something?”

“Enforcement? They wouldn’t notice an elephant’s ghost if it was shitting in front of them.” She puts down her drink resolutely. “No. We must talk to the Parklane building.”

“He knows nothing,” a whispery voice interjects, and when we turn there is a thin girl with round eyes, who doesn’t introduce herself even as our mouths start to gape.

“What are you doing here?” my boss demands to know. “You’re not supposed to leave your domicile.”

“I was summoned,” she says quietly. “By a dead spirit.”  I recognize her, I think: she’s from at least six blocks away. A brief memory of a diminutive building barely four storeys high, with one small convenience store on the ground floor.  What was her name? Stamford Court–?

“It’s the murder victim,” she says. “There’s something you need to know.”

Holy shit, I think. This has never happened to me before.

My boss glances quickly around as if we were about to do something illegal, and leans forward. “What is it?”

“She was killed someplace else and brought to where your people found her,” Stamford Court says. “Her killer was one of the shophouses in Chinatown.”

“A building guardian?” my boss asks at the same moment I blurt out “You’re joking!”

“We don’t joke,” she says.

“And you don’t kill people either,” I rebut. “Boss, this girl’s just taking us for a ride.”

My boss is silent for a long moment. “Guardians can go rogue,” she says, finally. “And they’ve killed before. Do you remember the Hotel New World collapse? No, you’re probably too young for that. It’s a bit extreme, for sure. But that is the extent of what a guardian can do.”

“But that was due to shoddy construction…”

“It was ruled as due to shoddy construction. Back then there was no Metaphysics Dept, no Locations, and even if there was the verdict would have been the same anyway. Nobody likes to think of the supernatural world as having that much power.” She shrugs. “Even if it’s true.”

Stamford Court unfolds her tightly-laced fingers. “That’s all she knows. She apologizes.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” my boss says, speaking to the air on the left side of the building guardian. “This is very helpful.” I realize she’s talking to the spirit of the dead woman, and the idea of there being a dead person standing there gives me the chills. Yes, I am new to this job.

My boss picks up the last summons package and holds it out to Stamford Court. “For your trouble,” she says.

The guardian shakes her head. “I don’t need your offerings. I was summoned by someone else, and I am also doing this for my own purposes. And I don’t really like the taste of mice.”

“Then I’ll just offer you my thanks.” She turns back to the space where the spirit should be. “I’m sorry, Alicia. I hope you find peace.”

Then they are both gone.

“A shophouse in Chinatown, that would be an Elder,” my boss muses, her forehead working as she speaks. How she can handle these things so fast, I have no idea– but then she’s been doing it for a lot longer than I have. “This goes much deeper than we thought.”

I don’t even know what to say.

“I think, Hot Stuff, that we are seeing the beginning of a war between the guardians.”