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.

PSA

I figured I’d better update this thing, since I realised this week, to my horror, that I actually linked the blog in the bio I sent in to Ceriph several months back. And its been published.

So, if you’re here because you followed a link from the back of Ceriph, hello and welcome. This blog is not… entirely dead. I just haven’t had the time to write much since I moved into a new job (with the local media) a couple of months back.

I should probably fix that.

Anyway, do feel free to hang around and riffle through the few stories that I do have in here. Some of them are better than the others, but for me the important thing is that I keep writing and sharing my stories, no matter how good/bad they are. Which is why I’m making it a new resolution of mine to continue writing–even the tiniest little stories–despite how busy I’ve come to be since my new job started.

STAY TUNED

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.”

#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.

 

 

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