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.

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Tron: LHC

I don’t usually do fanfiction, not any more. But this one is my half of a fanfic-swap I arranged with Sarah Coldheart to help her fulfill her New Years’ resolution to write some fanfic this year. She’d write me some Angry Birds fic, and I’d write her Tron:Legacy fic in return.

In my original review of T:L, the movie, I hated the fact that sentience originating from a entirely closed, man-made system apparently held the key to life, the universe and everything. Emergent cyber-lifeforms are a cool concept that I totally dig, but that plot point just didn’t make sense.

But wouldn’t it be nifty, perhaps, if these lifeforms were actually born out of the massive amounts of data being generated from one of the biggest experiments to figure out the way the universe works today, the same data that is being uploaded to The Grid at CERN, the same people who invented the Internet in the 1980s?

That was how this fic was born.


Tron: LHC

It had been fast. One warning sound and a brief glimpse of red, before everything turned to light and the world changed. He hadn’t even had time to think.

***

Those were the filters, the strange woman said as their impossible vehicle hurtled down some future post-apocalyptic landscape he’d never seen before. She was dressed in something straight out of the Matrix and seemed strangely calm for someone who had just pulled him from the gaping mechanical jaws of death.

What about those men, he asked her. Those ninja, warrior-type dudes.

Russian programs, she said. Much easier to deal with than the ones sent by the Consortium.

Russians? he asked, not understanding her.

Programs sent by hackers, she said. We get them every now and then. Their users found a way onto the Grid.

I have no idea what you just said, he told her.

She shook her head, smiled, and held out a hand by way of a response. I’m Quorra, she said.

I don’t get it, he said. Who’s the Consortium?

She laughed. All in good time, Sam Flynn.

***

I don’t understand it myself, his father said. But clearly whatever happened during the accident, during the ionization process, somehow managed to transfer our consciousness to the Grid.

And you’ve been here all these years? he asked. His father did not look a day older than when he had died. Or, as he had put it, been transfigured.

His father nodded. It’s been quite a ride, he said.

He looked out across the mesas of information and the programs that worked it, and said, You don’t say.

***

The ISOs were born from the data sent from the experiments, Quorra had explained, an emergent phenomena from the complexity of the system his father had devised. They were warriors, completely separate and totally autonomous, different from  the user-created programs, the filters and the data crunchers.

We protect the data from attack, she had said.

The Consortium were fundies, a group of fringe nuts absolutely convinced that the work done at CERN would bring about the end of the world. A group of fringe nuts who had the skill of some expert programmers.

The battlefield was something out of nightmare. The worms sent by the Consortium were killing machines, larger than men, larger than the programs they were crushing. They were drawn to the datastreams. They fed on them, crunching them up and chewing them beyond recognition, beyond analysis. And they were also strong, and deadly.

But the ISOs were stronger, and deadlier, and they worked in teams that took down the worms faster than they could penetrate the Grid. He and his father watched as Quorra’s lightcycle sailed a semiconductor gap as she stood astride it, her disc in hand and at the ready. The cycle skimmed past a worm’s massive head and she drove the disc into it, shattering it into a constellation of incoherent bits.

You’ll learn to do that someday, his father said.

He shook his head. We had noticed significant slowdowns in the data processing cycles, he said, but we had no idea it was because of this. He gestured across the scene of carnage before them. No idea.

***

The whiteboard in his father’s study was densely covered with data and equations, a series of marching ants he immediately tried to untangle, on instinct. Have you been working on this all the while? he asked. How did you know all this?

Then he stopped, taken aback by some of the unexpected terms he saw. What’s this? he asked. This is new. You’re making a lot of assumptions here.

His father smiled, and said, they’re not assumptions.

And realization dawned somewhere between looking at the board and looking at his father’s Cheshire cat expression. You did it, he said, You found evidence of the Higgs. But as he looked at the equations with that thought in his head more things started to become clear. No, it’s more than that, he said. You’ve found more. This– this is an entirely new theory. You’re reinventing physics as we know it. How–?

How indeed.

He was surprised by his father’s bemused expression. But you worked on this, he said, trying to figure it out. Didn’t you?

His father shook his head.

Then who–?

He followed his father’s gaze. Leaning cheerfully over the counter, Quorra gave them both a little wave.

You did all this, he said.

It was a collaborative effort. The ISOs, we have a way of understanding the raw data we get from the beam that the other programs don’t have. We were born from the data, after all. And we see everything before it hits the filters.

He tried to keep the awe from his voice as he said, But all this discovery. The world needs to know about it. Don’t you have a way of sending messages out?

She shook her head. We don’t.

***

Who’s that, he asked Quorra, pointing to the man in the distance, standing on a hill, talking to some of the other ISOs.

You don’t know?

That’s why I’m asking.

But you wrote him.

I what? Then it dawned on him. The Synchrotron Data Management Program?

Tron. Yes. Then her nose wrinkled. Is that really what you called him? He’s not a manager. He’s a fighter, like us.

I’m not sure my bosses would have approved of Ass-Kicking Warrior Program.

She laughed at that. And then said, I cannot wait until you start helping your father with his work on improving the Grid.

But I’m not, he said. He blinked. What is this? What has he been saying.

She just stared at him.

***

He hated yelling at people, but dealing with his father just brought it out in him, like he was ten years old again and just couldn’t get him to see reason.

What else would you do here, his father said, sounding confused.

I don’t know. I don’t fucking know. But what I know is that you don’t get to decide that for me. Don’t go making plans about my future without even telling me about it. I’m not a child anymore.

***

Because it had never been about the science, or solving the mysteries of the universe. it had always been about being a particle physicist. It had been about giving up guitar lessons for math enrichment classes, it had been about forcing himself through every quantum mechanics class in college so that he had something for the CERN studentship application. It had been about turning down the offer from SLAC and hauling ass all the way to Switzerland and learning to speak two different foreign languages just so he could carry on his father’s legacy.

I’m sick of it, he said. I’m done.

***

Where will you go? she asked him, as he packed a carry bag with a few items he was sure he would not need.

Don’t know yet, he said, zipping it up.

Well, she said, shrugging, you’ve got to do whatever you feel is right.

Well. It’s user’s privilege, I suppose. I wish I could give you that. I wish you could have that kind of freedom.

She tilted her head. What makes you think I don’t?

And that line stayed with him. Stayed with him as he traveled the data mesas and semiconductor fields, as he thought about his life and everything that had passed before, as he wondered how much of it was really relevant in this world he had not come to expect.

He watched, from a distance, at the glimmers of light swarming over another worm infestation. It was a fight that the world would never see.

That’s not right, he said to himself.

***

You’re back, Quorra had said, and hugged him, but his father had merely smiled and nodded, as if he’d always known that Sam would come back. It didn’t matter.

I can’t believe that we have all this computing firepower at our disposal, and no way of communicating with the outside world, he said.

Probably should get working on that then, his father said.

He grinned. Probably should.

***

“I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that he’s gone,” Kath said, nursing the flavorless coffee that the memorial caterers had provided. “It doesn’t seem real.”

The professor shrugged in his coat. “It isn’t the first time it’s happened.” He looked up at the winter sky, overcast as it had been for a week. “It’ll be hard for the first few months, but it’ll get better over time.”

“You knew his father, didn’t you?”

“We were friends,” he said. “He was a brilliant man.” His face was inscrutable.

“It’s a bit strange, don’t you think, that Sam had almost the same sort of accident that took his father? It’s almost creepy.”

“It’s a big coincidence, I agree.”

“It’s almost as if they were following the exact same path.”

The professor was silent for a while. Finally he said, with a slight shake of the head, “No. I believe that in time to come, we will see that he left his own legacy.”

 

FIN


Dragonfly Wings

“You know, I was just wondering, when did you get yours?”

The receptionist’s question startled Yan; the clinic’s waiting room was silent and empty save for the two of them. The room was cold and smelt like most clinics do: the tang of disinfectant, air-conditioning, and a professional sense of despondency. Yan rubbed her calves together to generate warmth, not sure what exactly the receptionist was asking. “When did I get my what?”

“Your fangs.”

Of course. Yan folded her fingers together and tried to remember. “Um.”

The receptionist held up a hand. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. It’s a very personal question. I just wanted to ask.”

“No, no–it’s okay. Um. It’s just that I can’t remember exactly. I think I was about eleven, maybe? I was an early bloomer. Sort of.”

“Oh, that’s not so early,” the receptionist chirped. The placard on the table, Yan noticed, said that her name was Maria. “These days we have kids manifesting as early as nine. It’s just a sign of the times.”

Yan automatically smiled in return, the corners of her lips going up like a reflex. She hesitated before replying: that part of her life was really fuzzy, and she had difficulties talking about it sometimes. “I’m really not that sure of how young I was when the fangs erupted, actually. I didn’t tell anyone at that time. I was too scared.”

“Well, that’s perfectly normal,” Maria said. Her eyes were warm and human and had crow’s feet decorating the edges, not something that Yan had expected. “I flipped out when mine erupted, and I was a lot older than you, plus my big brother was already moulting away, making the transition to full vamp. I still found it terrifying. Are you the oldest child in your family, dear?”

Yan nodded. When she volunteered no other information Maria pressed on: “I noticed that you came alone. Do you live alone?

“Oh. No, I don’t. The friend I live with has some other appointment.”

“You don’t live with your family?”

Yan shook her head.

Maria nodded. “I see.” There wasn’t much else to say, not even for her. Awkward silence settled.

The nurse came out at that moment to rescue Yan by saying that the doctor would see her now. Yan gave an apologetic smile to Maria, and wished that she had half the confidence in the smile Maria gave back.

#

Dr. Shankar was middle-aged, soft-spoken and neatly kept. Every bit a doctor, except that he gestured a lot with his hands as he spoke, a habit Yan found unsettling. Right now they were making small unconscious circles in the air as he said, “You understand that there is no turning back from this, right?”

Yan nodded.

He raised his eyebrows as his hands momentarily stilled. “You do know what that means?”

“I do, I do. No more daylight, I have to take daily blood supplements…” She waved her hands, suddenly flustered. “Look, Dr. Shankar, I’ve
done all the research on induced moulting. I know what I’m getting into.”

“That’s good, that’s good. I’m obliged to ask, you see, because of the nature of the procedure. It’s a big deal, and as a doctor, and a member of society, I need to make sure that you’re absolutely committed to this.”

“I am.”

“You’re not doing this for the money, are you?”

“Money?”

“Cures for the Blight go for five figures, sometimes six, depending on who’s buying. There’s a very large but profitable black market that sells moulting serum from nymphs to those who can afford it.” His index finger fluttered like a dragonfly’s wing even as he pointed it at her. “You’re not caught up in any of that, are you?”

“No, no. Absolutely not.” Yan nodded as firmly as she could. “Trust me, Doctor, I know what I’m doing. It’s for a good reason.”

“Well, good. If you’re sure, then we can start.” He gestured her towards the door at the back of his office, leading to the procedure room.

“Please. This way.”

As she got to the door, she hesitated. “I mean, this was going to happen naturally at some point anyway, right?”

The doctor stopped in his tracks, surprised. “No, not necessarily. It’s not uncommon for a nymph to never go through the full moulting process. It varies from person to person.” His stare turned into a frown. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“No,” she replied quickly, even though her heart was pounding in the doorway like a quake in her chest. “It makes no difference to me.” And she moved into the procedure room before he could say anything further.

She found the operating gown already prepared for her behind a green curtain. As she changed she could hear Dr. Shankar and his nurse-aide prepping outside, a sound of running water and metal on metal. It was colder here than in the waiting room.

Dr. Shankar was giving quiet instructions to the nurse as she emerged, his gloved hands still making those little endless circles in the air.

“Why do you do that?” she asked, nervousness overriding years of being told to keep her mouth shut.

The doctor laughed at this. “I like to keep my hands moving. Just the feeling keeps me tethered to the moment. Keeps me feeling alive. It’s very important to me, especially in this line of work.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I know that sounds like nonsense now, but you’ll understand better after the procedure. Don’t worry, my hands are very steady.” He gestured to the operating bed. “Please, lie down.”

The bed was warm, at least–padded with some sort of absorbent disposable foam. Yan laid her cheek on the headrest and closed her eyes, wishing she weren’t trembling. The doctor’s hands moving across her back raised goose pimples on her flesh, like they were the touch of a metal instrument, or an alcohol swab. Or maybe that was what those light, cold touches were: she couldn’t tell which was which. She shivered.

“Try to relax,” he said.

Yan suddenly found herself wondering if she would miss all this: the cold, the shivering and the goosepimpling, the adrenaline, and then she realized in a moment of sudden panic that she wasn’t ready for this at all–

The first needle pierced her skin.

#

The taxi driver had the late-night Chinese talk radio on, and two ladies were having a garrulous argument about vampirism in today’s youth. The older one was insisting, very vehemently, that it was the fault of all the Western movies that young people were watching, the trashy music they were listening to, the decadent books they were reading. Yan wished she could tune her out, but the new hearing she had was filling her head with sound at an impossibly loud volume. She couldn’t block it out. Defeated, Yan slid lower in the PVC-lined seat and close her eyes. The streetlamps made her eyes burn if she stared at them too long.

Beside her Lisa muttered, “This is the stupidest debate I’ve ever heard. I can feel my I.Q. points dropping just listening. If they start raving about the Blight being karmic payback for vamps, I might have to kill something.” Then she looked over at Yan, noticed her silence, and stopped talking.

The taxi stopped just shy of the sharp glittering lights flooding the hospital lobby. “Shall I wait here for you?” Lisa asked. Yan nodded. She was glad for her housemate’s company, but she needed to do this alone.

Visitor hours were over, but her sister’s ward was on the second floor, and her window directly faced the road. It was time to test out her new abilities, to check that the procedure had fully worked.

Yan crouched slightly, and leapt upwards.

Soo Ling was only half-asleep in her darkened room with all the empty beds. The whirring of the ceiling fans drowned out the electronic hum of her bed monitor and the slow drip of the saline bag hooked to her arm. “Yan?” She asked, staring at the window, trying to push herself upright. “Am I dreaming?”

Yan clambered uneasily over the window ledge and landed on the floor with a complete lack of grace. She stood and dusted herself off. That jump hadn’t felt like anything at all– it reminded her of taking the standing broad jump tests years ago in school, just with a harsher landing. Nothing at all. “Maybe you are.”

“Why are you here?”

Yan reached into her pocket and retrieved the vial of serum. When she first saw it, she had been shocked at how small it was, but she’d gotten used to its tiny heft by now. “I brought a cure.”

Soo Ling’s brows knitted together. She was thin, so thin. “Are you here to kill me?”

“Why would I do that?”

Soo Ling watched Yan as she reached up to tap the half-empty saline bag. She had managed to convince Dr. Shankar to give her a sterile syringe head to use. Administering the cure wouldn’t be a problem.

“I’ve been talking a lot to my nurse,” Soo Ling said as Yan worked at the saline bag. “She comes in everyday to chat.”

“What did she say?”

“A lot of things.” Soo Ling sighed, and it sounded like a gale to Yan’s new ears. “Yan, you don’t have the Blight, do you? You didn’t give it to me.”

“No. I never got it. Still healthy.”

Soo Ling watched the serum swirl into the saline bag, spreading out in delicate curls, like new wings uncrumpling. “The nurse said I probably got it from the blood drugs.”

“I thought the same thing.”

“You knew I was taking them? How come you didn’t say anything? Ma and Pa blamed you for infecting me, you know.”

“I know.”

“I– I never told them that I was taking drugs. I didn’t want them to get angry. I didn’t know you could get the Blight from the drugs, if the vampire that made them was infected. I thought that wasn’t true.”

Yan sighed. “That’s because you never listen to anything I tell you.” She slid the needle out of the saline bag and sealed it with a transparent plaster. “You always don’t listen.”

“Is that really a cure?” Soo Ling asked, craning her neck to look at the saline bag, the liquid now a gentle shade of chrysanthemum tea.

Yan held her hand to the bag and squeezed it just the slightest bit, feeling the muscles move under her fingers. Dr. Shankar was right about the sensations. “It had better be.”

“Yan, the nurse told me that Ma and Pa were wrong. All the stories about vampires biting people are wrong. Vampires are born, not made. Not even taking blood drugs forever can turn you into one.” She hesitated. “She’s a nurse, so she should know everything, right?”

“Maybe not everything. But she’s right about that.” Yan started walking back to the window. It didn’t matter what her sister believed anymore. If the cure worked, it would work.

“Yan. I’m sorry I said all those bad things to you in the past. It’s okay if you are a vampire. Really.”

“I know.”

“Yan, are you coming home soon?”

Yan stopped at the window ledge. Maybe Soo Ling thought she was really dreaming, or maybe she didn’t understand the significance of seeing her older sister leap in through a window three meters in the air. Yan didn’t know if she would ever fully understand. “No. I’m not coming home anymore.” And she climbed over the ledge.

The landing wasn’t as difficult as she expected. Yan jogged back to the idling taxi, wondering if the taxi driver had seen what she did, and if so, what he thought of it. As she opened the door Lisa leaned forward over the seats to study her face. “Are you OK?”

Yan silently ran her tongue over the roof of her mouth, feeling the bumps of her fang canals. The sensation no longer felt strange to her. She nodded. “Yes. I am.”

FIN

***

Perhaps the start to something more, or a world I would like to explore.