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Microcosms

From Eric Brown’s introduction…

THIS VOLUME CAME ABOUT ONE summer a few years ago when Tony came up to Scotland with his family. We were wandering around the pretty seaside town of North Berwick and talking about recent short stories we’d written. Tony happened to mention that he was working on some short- shorts, which he hoped to place with Nature, and I mentioned a short-short market that I’d recently sold to, Daily SF. I then suggested that, when we had enough tales to form a volume, we should gather them all together and attempt to find a publisher. Years passed; we wrote short-shorts between bigger projects, and Keith Brooke who runs Infinity Plus Books expressed an interest in publishing Microcosms.

Microcosms: 42 pieces of flash fiction by Eric Brown and Tony Ballantyne

Published by Infinity Plus

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Dream Paris

Dream ParisMidAnna Sinfield marched into the parks, when Angel Tower burned and Dream London fell.  She marched to free the city, to end the madness, to find her mother and father.  The day was won, but her parents – and thousands like them – are still missing, lost to the Dream World.

And now she has a chance to get them back. A man with gem like eyes has walked into her life, wearing a bespoke suit and bearing a terrible scroll.  Mr Twelvetrees claims to know where the missing Londoners are; but to find them, Anna has to give up a life she’s started to rebuild and go into the Dream World itself.  Into another Paris, where history has been repeating itself for two hundred years.

Vive La Révolution!

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Extract

Silver: The Social Worker

The sky was the colour of an unpolished euphonium, tuned to a dead key.

I paused. It didn’t do to let odd thoughts pass by uVive La Révolution!nexamined. Dream London may have passed away months ago, I may have been living in plain old London once more, but strange thoughts still curled into the mind and tried to take root. If you wanted to stay sane, then those thoughts had to be examined, checked and classified. A dead key I thought. Exactly what colour is that?

The colour of this January evening, when there is no life to the world. When it’s cold, but not winter cold. When the air doesn’t burn the cheeks or fill thExtracte lungs with icy excitement, when the streets hold a chilly dampness that can’t commit itself to rain. That’s the colour.

I resumed my walk home. Beneath my duffel I wore a vest, a thick shirt and jumper. Hot sweaty air puffed from the neck and cuffs as I walked, but I didn’t unbutton my coat. They may have been relaying the gas pipes, but they’d yet to make it to Hayling Street and so it didn’t do to waste warmth.

The workmen had dug a service trench across the entrance to my road some weeks ago and had then, typically, forgotten about it. Yellow pipes lay curled up at the bottom, wrapped around piles of gravel, half submerged in puddles of dirty water. NothingSilver
The Social Worker unusual in that, the whole of London was being reconnected to the rest of the world, pipe by pipe, wire by wire. I used the narrow plank bridge to cross, jumping over the sickly puddle that covered one end, my heavy carrier bag banging my leg as I landed.

In Dream London, one of the many thoughts that had taken root in people’s minds and flourished was that females were incapable of looking after themselves. Many of the people living in Hayling Street no doubt still imagined I needed a man looking after me. I could see the curtains twitch as I made my way down the street. Funny that, all that concern about my moral wellbeing, whilst other neighbours were left to go hungry.

I rang Mr Hiatt’s bell.

“Corned beef,” I said, holding up the carrier bag as he opened the door. “I tried for some milk but there was none left.”

“Maybe next time,” he said, pulling out his wallet. I could hear music playing softly in the background, and I shuddered. Mr Hiatt handed across a couple of Dream London dollars, the once bright patterns faded to dull mustard.

“You’re a good girl, Anna. How’s your Mum and Dad?”

“Still missing.”

“I heard that they found another whale skeleton under Cooper Street. That makes four.”

“I heard that, too.”

The sound of violins playing on the radio wove their way through the house. Violins weren’t so bad, I told myself. Still, I felt myself trembling.

“I wonder what’s buried beneath our houses?”

“Best not to think about it, Mr Hiatt. Look, I’ve got to be off.”

“Thank you for the food. Goodbye, Anna.”

“See you, Mr Hiatt.”

He closed the door, gently. I crumpled the worthless Dream London dollars and dropped them on the pile of rubbish overflowing from the dustbin, making a mental note to take some of his waste to the communal tip down on Katherine Street.

I continued home, turning to pass beneath the dark yews guarding the garden. The house was still too tall, just like all the others in the street. Workmen had been through and erected scaffolding a few months ago, making things safe: propping up a wall here, throwing polythene sheets over the spaces where the tiles had separated on the roof there. They’d even gone to the trouble of placing braces beneath the bedrooms that had grown outwards. One of the workmen had taken a shine to me, he kept asking if I wanted to go for a coffee after I’d finished school. His gaffer had told him to leave me alone, said he wouldn’t like to think of one of his daughters living by herself. He took offence when I asked him how he’d feel if it were one of his sons, and I pointed out that there were lots of people worse off than me in London. At least I had somewhere to live.

The evening shadows made my home look as if it were dying. In the middle of this scene of unchanging stillness, the sudden movement of the woman waiting by my door made me start. She was drinking tea from a plastic cup. Something about that relaxed me a little. When she saw me, she drained the cup and quickly screwed it onto the top of a thermos flask.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Anna Margaret Louise Sinfield?” She pushed the flask into a large bag, speaking all the time in a broad Brummie accent. “I’m Petrina. I’ve come to check that everything’s okay.”
She fumbled in her pocket and produced a laminated card bearing her name and photograph.

“Social Services,” I read out loud. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Petrina was back in her bag again. That irritated me. It’s not so difficult to keep things organised. Perhaps if she’d got herself a briefcase with separators instead of that impractical handknitted ethnic bag…

“Sorry to take so long, but as you can imagine we’ve been very busy! Oh, where is that… ah, got it! You know, I haven’t had a moments rest since I was – bloody pen’s leaked everywhere – seconded here last week. Ah!”

She looked up and smiled, a pad and pen in hand. “Shall we go inside?”

“I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m perfectly okay, thank you. I don’t need any help.”
Petrina made a show of looking up at the crooked house. It was dim in the shade of the yew trees, the scaffolding further enfolding us as the January evening descended.

“I saw from that notice at the end of the road that this house isn’t back on the grid yet.”

“It will be in March. In the meantime there’s plenty of candles at the distribution centre. And we’re fortunate enough to have fireplaces and chimneys here…”

Petrina scribbled in her pad. She was going to patronise me, I just knew it.

“Anna, I don’t think anyone would say that you’ve not been doing a fantastic job of looking after yourself. You don’t need to tell me – oh, is it too much to ask for a pen that works? Ah, that’s it – tell me about how brave you’ve been. But you’re – how old, I had it written down here – sixteen, was it?”

“I’m seventeen. I’ll be eighteen in two months’ time.”

In other words, old enough to be legally responsible for myself.

Petrina pushed her pad under her arm and fumbled some more in her bag

“Seventeen!” she mumbled, pen clasped between her teeth. “Sorry, this is bloody ridiculous! They expect us to do all this extra work without bothering to update the records…”

I tried being polite. “I can see that you’re busy. Why don’t you just skip me and go on to your next client? There must be far more urgent cases than mine.”
It didn’t work. Petrina gave me that look that some adults give when they think they’re cleverer than you.

“Everyone is important, Anna.” She turned her attention back to her bag. “Now, I’ve got your school records in here somewhere. According to them, your parents are missing…”

“They got sent to the workhouse on the last day of Dream London. They were marched into the parks…”

Petrina glanced up from her search.

“Marched into the parks? You’re the third person today to say that. Is that some kind of euphemism? Are you saying that they’re dead?”

“No. I’m saying they were marched into the parks. Didn’t they brief you about how Dream London ended?”

Even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered. If you weren’t here, if you didn’t live through the changes, if you didn’t experience how the streets moved around at night or how people’s personalities were subtly altered, if you didn’t see the casual cruelty, the cheapening of human life, the way that easy stereotypes took hold of people… If you weren’t there, you’re never going to understand what it was like.

Petrina adopted her experienced persona. Didn’t she realise it would have had more credibility if she was dressed in a suit and not a baggy tie-dyed skirt?

“I’m from Birmingham Social Services. I was seconded here to help sort out the mess. Look, this would be a lot easier if we went inside…”

I was tired of standing in the cold, and she clearly wasn’t going away. I opened my duffel coat and pulled out the heavy door key that I wore around my neck on a piece of string. Dream London had turned the door into a gothic arched portal of dark timber. There’s a knack to opening the door: pull on the handle, a half twist and then push with your shoulder as you turn the key the rest of the way.

I tumbled into the hallway.

“Wait there, while I get some light.”

Petrina wrote something on her pad as I felt for the box of matches on the shelf by the door. She really began to scribble as I struck the match and began to light the candles. Yellow pools of light sprang up one by one, illuminating a hallway that was slowly creaking its way back to its walnut-panelled glory.

Petrina followed me gingerly inside, careful where she trod. A line of orange Le Creuset pans marched down one side of the hall, ready to catch the drips from where the room above was separating from the rest of the house. Drips plip plip plipped into the pans at random, in A-flat, a quarter tone above E, a little too flat for middle C.

“It smells so damp.” Petrina wrinkled her nose.

“That’s because the house is leaking. It’s okay in the kitchen.”

I led her there. The warmth from the Rayburn smelled so good.

“I’ve always wanted one of those,” said Petrina, crossing to take a closer look at the oven.

Her face glowed orange, and I saw that she was really quite pretty when you stripped away the worry. I thought I knew her type: she’d spread her compassion wide and shallow, rather than engage on the specifics. Or maybe I was being too harsh. She was here, after all. She was trying to do the job.

“Where do you get the fuel from?” she asked.

“There’s a bunch of sheds in the back garden. I’ve been pulling them apart.”

“Why did your parents have a bunch of sheds in the back garden?”

“They didn’t. The sheds turned up when Dream London was dying. You really don’t understand what it was like, do you?”

Petrina didn’t like that. She didn’t like being told that she didn’t understand. She placed her bag on the table and took a careful look around the kitchen, noting the unopened cans arranged in a line, the clean plates on the drainer by the sink, the opened cookery book on one of the counters.

“You’re feeding yourself properly?”

“I get free lunch and dinner at school as part of the Emergency Support Grant. I also get a food ration twice a week from the distribution centre.” I didn’t mention that I shared some of it with Mr Hiatt. She was here to see me, Mr Hiatt was someone else’s problem. Actually, Mr Hiatt was no one’s problem. That was the problem.

“What about water?”

“The water still runs. The downstairs toilet is working.” The upstairs toilet had been blocked with mackerel. I’d scooped out as many of them as I could and buried them in the back garden. The section of the pipe that I couldn’t reach was now filled with rotting fish, but I didn’t feel the need to share that information.

Petrina seemed to remember something at that point. She was back in her bag, rummaging. I can’t begin to tell you how irritating that was.

“Always too many – what’s that doing there – got it!”

She pulled out an orange plastic folder and began to flick through it. I read the words on the front: London Disaster Zone Protocols, Ver 1.1

“I’m sure I saw it in here… prostitution, dog attacks, native and non-native birds… Ah! Here it is. Water supplies… I see. Thought so. It says here that not all water supplies can be trusted. Do you know if yours has been verified?”

“I always boil the water before drinking.”

“It might be better if you were to get your water from somewhere else.” She paused to suck her bottom lip, to look concerned. “To be honest, Anna, I’m not that happy with you living here on your own. What if someone were to break in?”

“Did you see the door? I’m safer in here than I would be in most places in London.”

“What happens if you get ill? What if you need help?”

“My boyfriend’s family makes sure I’m alright. I go round there sometimes.”

Petrina perked up at that. I could almost see her thoughts, her excitement at the thought of teenage sex.

“And does your boyfriend ever stay the night?”

“No, his parents won’t allow it.”

“But you’d like him to?” she prompted, a little too eagerly.

“What? So I can have unprotected sex in a damp house followed by the possibility of pregnancy and a delivery at what used to be Dream London Hospital? Yeah, now you mention it, that would be a far better choice than studying Physics at university. Thank you Petrina, I think I’ll give him a call right now and get him round here.”

Petrina smiled.

“I can see you’re a sensible young woman.”

“Don’t patronise me.”

“I’m sorry… but you say this is a damp house?”

“Of course it’s damp! All the houses in London are damp. The buildings are slowly shifting back to their normal form and now nothing fits properly. This house is as dry as anywhere else.”

She shook her head.

“It isn’t, Anna. There are places that have been fixed up.” She was looking thoughtful now. She was solving a problem. I felt my stomach tighten. “To be honest, Anna, you shouldn’t be living here on your own. I think you’d be happier in a teen hostel amongst people of your own age.”

“I can look after myself.”

“Even so, that’s what I’m going to recommend.”

“Why?” I was struggling to remain calm. Start shouting and she’d mark me down as a hysterical little girl. I had to remain calm. “Why? I’ve managed on my own for nine months. I’ll be eighteen in March; in eight months’ time I’ll be at University. Don’t you have more deserving clients to visit?”

Petrina’s mouth became a hard line. She wasn’t listening. I ploughed on.

“But I suppose they don’t have such nice houses. I’m sure you’d rather be sitting here in this kitchen than in one of those flats on the Broomfield estate with the druggies downstairs and two drunk parents spoiling for a fight in the room with you.”

“Anna, I think…”

“You don’t want me to be able to look after myself, Petrina. You’d rather that you could help me, because that’s how you validate yourself. Well, I’ll tell you when I needed help: back when Dream London ended. Tell me, where were you then? Back home in Birmingham, no doubt. You know where I was? Marching into the parks! Whilst people like you just sat at home, I was marching into the parks!”

I could see by Petrina’s face that she didn’t understand what I was talking about, but it didn’t matter, I was angry now. Angry at Petrina, angry at all the people like her…

“You’re all here now, all the people who were nowhere to be seen at the end. You weren’t there when we were fighting in Snakes and Ladders Square. But you’re here now, and guess what? You all know what to do! You’re all here with your advice about how we should have done things! All the politicians, all the bankers, all the parasites. All the people who allowed Dream London to happen in the first place and then ran off to hide when it was spiralling out of control. It’s always the same, isn’t it?”

“Anna, I think you’re getting a little emotional. I’m only here to help.”

“But you don’t get it, because you weren’t here! And if you were, I know where you would have been. You wouldn’t have been marching, you’d have been getting pissed or fucking or fighting, or writing letters to the Dream London newspapers. Well, I was out there trying to make a difference. I saw half my band killed. I walked in another world. Then I came back here only to see the same old people taking control again. It makes me sick!”

I was shouting now. I was red in the face. I couldn’t help it. You hold in the anger as long as you can, and then suddenly it all comes spilling out.

“You saw people killed?” said Petrina, flicking through her folder once more. “… Trauma, trauma… here it is…”

She read the passage, nodding as she did so. “I realise it isn’t nice to get so angry, Anna. I realise that later on you’ll feel bad for shouting at me like that, and I want you to know that I don’t blame you. No, I don’t blame you. It’s just a reaction to the stress that you’ve been under. Perfectly normal, nothing to be ashamed of. But you need help, Anna. That’s why I must insist that you go to live in a hostel. Somewhere you can be looked after properly.”
I folded my arms.

“No. I don’t see how you can, anyway. I’m over sixteen.”

“That was before the Emergency Act. Anyone under eighteen living alone is our responsibility.”

“Of course they are,” I scoffed. “And what happens to the properties they vacate? Who takes control of them?”

“That’s nothing to do with me, Anna.”

“I bet it isn’t. They wouldn’t let do-gooders like you know what’s really going on. You’ll go home thinking you’ve done a good job and meanwhile some shyster will have taken control of my house.”

She became indignant.

“No, Anna, it’s not like that…”

“Are you going to drag me away?”

“I could return here with someone to escort you…”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.”

We both jumped at that. Neither of us had noticed the tall, dark stranger who had slipped into the house. The stranger who now stood in the doorway to the kitchen. Not looking at us.

Petrina’s eyes widened in terror as she gazed at the intruder. Petrina hadn’t been in London for very long, after all. No wonder she found him so… unusual.

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Read about Dream London

Dream London

Captain Jim Wedderburn has looks, style and courage by the bucketful. He’s adored by women, respected by men and feared by his enemies. He’s the man to find out who has twisted London into this strange new world.

But in Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day. The towers are growing taller, the parks have hidden themselves away and the streets form themselves into strange new patterns. There are people sailing in from new lands down the river, new criminals emerging in the East End and a path spiralling down to another world.

Everyone is changing, no one is who they seem to be.

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Extract

Crunch crunch crunch. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch crunch crunch.

There was someone in my room, someone crouching at the bottom of the bed eating something. Enjoying it too, by the sound of it.

Mmmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch, crunch.

What time was it?

My mobile had stopped working months ago; I hadn’t bothered getting a clock. The threadbare curtains were lit by the yellow gas glow of the street lamps. I held my breath and listened for the knocking of the heating: the prehistoric machine that slumbered in the cellar woke me every morning, no matter how warm the night had been.

Silence. It could be any time between 10pm and dawn.

Mmmmm.

The bedroom door was locked, but things change in Dream London. I scanned the dim room through half closed eyes. The ceiling was a little taller, the room a little narrower then when I went to sleep. Ever so slowly, I slipped my hand under the pillow and found my knife, still the same knife, still in the same place.

The city changed a little every night, the people changed a little everyday. Christine had gone, and not one of the succession of women who crept into my bed had ever stayed more than one night.

Had I brought someone back to my room last night? Some woman drawn to the supposedly dangerous charm of Captain James Wedderburn? I had made some increasingly strange conquests in the past months, some I hadn’t always remembered making upon waking. Was one of those women now curled up at the bottom of my bed, crunching and slurping with every sign of enjoyment? I wasn’t going to find out by pretending to be asleep.

“Who’s that?” I said to the room.

The crunching paused, just for a moment, and then the lazy consumption resumed.

Mmmmmmm…

“Who’s there?” I raised my head and looked to the foot of the bed. I saw no one. I crept forward, the springs creaking beneath me, took hold of the brass rail and peeped over.

Two salamanders crouched on the floor, their bodies glowing red and gold with their own internal light. They’d got hold of a green beetle the size of a dinner plate and split it in two to lap at the yellow custard inside. One of them looked up at me with little jewelled eyes, licked its lips with a purple tongue and smiled in evident satisfaction.

Mmmmmm.

Two salamanders were worth a fair sum of money. I was just wondering if I could move fast enough to catch them both when someone spoke up behind me.

“Good evening, Captain Wedderburn.”

Startled, I turned to see the fat man lean from the shadows near the wall. He was balanced precariously on a little camping chair, the velvet clad expanse of his ample backside spilling over the sides. He unfolded a handkerchief and mopped at the sweat on his forehead.

“Luke Pennies,” I said. “How did you get in here?”

As I spoke a wave of nausea that had been building almost unnoticed in my stomach rose to overwhelm me. I swallowed hard against the bile that rose in my throat.

Luke Pennies held out a hand. We both looked down to the glass vial in his pudgy palm.

“Two salamanders, one antidote,” he said, and he turned to look at the red stain on the bed where I had been lying. I pressed a finger to my left shoulder and felt the sticky wetness of blood.

The fat man smiled. “One thousand sovereigns and it’s yours.”

“I don’t have a thousand sovereigns. I don’t even have a thousand dollars.”

Luke closed his hand over the vial. He waved a finger at me.

“We both know that isn’t true, Captain. They say you’ve got an interest in every young woman this side of the city.” He winked. “Aye, and a straight twenty percent from every transaction they make.”

“Nothing like so much as that.”

“You don’t deny you have money, though. It’s said that you can find a shop that will sell you anything in this city, Captain Wedderburn. I doubt you’ll find one in time to sell you the antidote you need. May I suggest that now would be the perfect time to start spending some of your ill-earned?”

I felt hot. Hot and sick. My nightshirt stuck to my body with sweat and blood, I had to fight not to throw up.

“Give that to me,” I said, reaching for the vial.

“Careful!” he warned. “This glass is thin. Any sudden shocks and I might accidentally break it.”

Slowly, I lowered my hand.

“This isn’t your style, Luke,” I said.

“Maybe not.” A spasm of anger on his face. “But you really pissed me off the other night, Jim. You crossed a line there.”

“Is there any point me telling you it wasn’t me?” I shook my groggy head. “Probably not,” I murmured. “Especially seeing as you’ve poisoned me.”

“I can see you understand,” said Luke Pennies, coldly. “So, which is it to be? One thousand sovereigns, or a slow death?”

He had a thin smile, a smile weighed out in ounces; it balanced a favour exactly with no warmth to spare. “That fire took half my property, Captain Wedderburn. It took three of my whores.”

“What fire?”

The rent on the smile had expired. He leant forward, little eyes hard.

“Don’t play dumb with me, Jim. You could see the blaze clear to the docks.”

“My name is used a lot in this city,” I replied. “Used a lot by a certain sort of person anyway. Everybody knows that I would have chased the whores from the building first. You must know that, Luke.”

My vision was blurring now. I felt my hands starting to shake; the bite at my shoulder was throbbing.

“People change,” said Pennies, but I could hear the edge of uncertainty in his voice.

“People change,” I agreed. “This city makes people change. But not that quickly.”

Again the bile rose. This time I could not choke it down. I spat something yellow onto the bed.

Luke Pennies stared at the spreading stain. Red blood and yellow bile. His voice was cold.

“Time to pay up, Jim.”

“I don’t think so,” I said, my head spinning. “People don’t change that fast. Not even you, Luke. You wouldn’t come to my room to murder me. That’s not your style. You want me murdered; you’d get one of your men to do it. That way, if the police caught up with you, made you read the truth script, you could honestly say it wasn’t you.”

I retched again, caught the vomit in my mouth, gulped it down.

“No, not your style at all. But if you could get your victim to commit suicide? That would be far more poetic. What if you got them to swallow a vial of poison? What a laugh that would be. And much safer, should the police come calling.”

My head pounded, the sweat was cold on my skin. My tongue was thick and coated in bitter bile. Even so, I strove to speak normally.

“I think that the effect off this bite will be wearing off soon. In fact, I’m willing to bet my life on it. So I’m going to give you a choice. You see my jacket hanging on the rack there?”

Through blurred eyes, I saw him turn his head. My jacket hung there in green and gold glory.

“There’s a pistol in the pocket.” I said. “You want me dead so much, take the pistol and shoot me. Otherwise, I suggest you take your camp chair and your vial of poison and you get out of here, right now. Because if you wait too long, I’ll shoot you myself. What do you say?”

Luke Pennies didn’t say anything. Or if he did, I didn’t hear it. My stomach was rising once more and I dropped to the floor and scrabbled under the bed, looking for the chamber pot. I pulled it out and vomited, all in one movement. Curled up over the china pot, stomach heaving, I was only vaguely aware of his leaving, of him trudging past, camp chair in hand. I didn’t care, each spasm brought up more rainbow vomit. I felt as if I was dying.

Eventually there was nothing left in my stomach. Still I retched into the full bowl, until eventually this too ceased. I lay on the floor, waiting for the spinning to stop, lost in the middle of the night.

I forced myself up, looked at the blood stained bed, looked at the two salamanders now sleeping upon it, curled up around each other for warmth.

I needed to get outside. I needed some fresh air.

 

There used to be an underground station opposite my building. Over the past year it had metamorphosed twice: first into a railway station, and then into an inn. I remember the landlord holding court with his customers, telling us about the staircase leading down from his cellar into the tunnels through which trains had once travelled. The tunnels had shrunk, he said, tightened like sphincters. What remained of those narrowed, fat filled arteries was choked with black and green beetles, walking back and forth in long lines beneath the city, preyed on by silver snakes and cock rats.

“What about the railway lines?” I had asked. “Are they still there?”

That had been a quiet night, the few customers of the Recursive Lion had pressed up to the bar, glasses of gin and porter in hand. One of the other customers, a thin man with a huge red handlebar moustache, had laughed at my question.

“Haven’t you heard?” he said, his moustache dipped in white foam. “The railway lines have surfaced three streets south of here. They’re sliding sideways, heading towards the river. All the tracks in the city are moving!”

That must have been some time ago, I thought. Back when the changes were first taking effect and I was freshly returned from Afghanistan, a relative unknown. No one in that inn would laugh in the face of Captain Jim Wedderburn today.

Standing in the sallow street, gazing at repeated figures on the sign of the Recursive Lion opposite, I felt the nausea receding in the cold night air. I still had no idea of the time. The life of the inn gave no clue.

What is it that gives a building the feeling of life? There were people in there, I could tell, but that meant nothing. In the morning the place is packed with porters from the flower markets and the beery air is heavy with the scent of pollen. In the evenings the clerks and accountants line the tables in neat black velvet rows. The owners of the workhouse round the corner follow them in at about nine o’clock, propping up the bar as they raise a glass to other people’s industry. After midnight the ladies and gentlemen appear, slumming it after the opera or the ballet. Later come the stevedores and the butchers, hooks and cleavers tucked in their jackets, ready for trouble. And at any time there could be sailors and matelots, making the most of their time on land and looking for the sort of produce that Captain Wedderburn supplies.

There was a clock in the bar that hadn’t stopped working, despite the changes. A big white face with black Roman numerals and the name of its maker written on the front in curly script. I could stick my head around the door and see the time. I began to make my way forwards when a triangle of light swept into being across the road.

The door to the inn opened and Christine stepped out into the street. She saw me right away and gave me a tight little smile.

“Hello, Jim,” she said.

“Not you, too, Christine.” I said, tiredly. “Please, call me James.”

We looked each other up and down, checking out how the other looked. She won that battle. Her tailored suit was well made, her dark silk stocking tops visible just beneath her too short skirt. Her makeup was immaculate: bright red lips and highlighted eyes stood out against her smooth, almost imperceptible foundation. And there I stood in my frayed grey trousers, my leaking black brogues and my gaudy military jacket.

“Found a husband yet?” I asked.

“Not yet,” she said brusquely. “But I keep working my way through the list. Still giving candy away?”

“Do you want some?” I asked. “I have some in my pocket.”

I meant the offer kindly, but she gave me a withering stare.

At that point my stomach rumbled, and I realised that I didn’t want her to see me like this.

“Do you know what to do about salamanders?” I asked. “There are two on my bed.”

“Speak to Fran,” she said. “She’s got a shop down on Holcomb street. She’s good with pests and vermin.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a velvet purse.

“Here, I got you something.” she said. “I was going to leave it with Second Eddie, but as you’re here…”

“I don’t need any money,” I said.

“I wasn’t offering you any.”

She looked so smart and confident, dressed like that with her little piece of parchment in her pocket, ticking her way through the items on the list of men she had purchased, searching for her ideal husband.

She had bought the thing as a joke, back when the little shops were just beginning to appear here and there around the old city. Back when James Wedderburn was trying to live an honest life and had decided that he needed the love of a good woman to save him. Christine had been that woman, an old flame that had reignited.

Back then it was almost a joke to push your way from the summer streets into the dark, poky interior of one of the quirky little shops that seemed to grow in the glass and concrete façades of the city. I remember the little woman sitting in the armchair by the counter, how overdressed she had seemed, with her petticoats, her grubby skirt, her knitted gloves. The effect was exaggerated when viewed next to Christine in her shorts and crop top, her sliver flip-flops; all tanned flesh and confidence. Christine had handed across the money, all in coins, and the woman had given her a sheet of yellow parchment. We pushed our way back into the sunshine and Christine unrolled her purchase.

I remember the look on her face when she realised that my name wasn’t on her list. I was expecting shock, disappointment, annoyance. Instead, she just smiled, rolled up the parchment and slipped it into her shoulder bag. She’d looked at it over the next few weeks, always when she thought I wasn’t watching. I didn’t realise she was taking it seriously, but, little by little, she had been changing even then. We all were: we just didn’t realise it.

Now, one year later, and look at us all.

“What happened to you, Christine?” I said, softly. “You were training to be an actuary. What are you now?” I didn’t say what I thought: more honest than a gold digger, less honest than a whore.

She paused, one hand in her purse, and looked down at herself, her smart suit, her silk stockings.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said, and then she shook her head. “But what about you? What’s happening to you, Jim?”

“I told you, it’s James.”

She shook her head. “James, Jim, whatever. I heard what you were doing now. It isn’t… nice.”

Christine always knew how to push my buttons. If her aim was to lock me up in sullen silence, then she succeeded.

“See?” she said quietly. “Who are you to tell me how to behave?”

“Things have been hard since I left the army,” I said. “I have to earn a living somehow.”

“You could be better than that, James.” She spoke the words softly, and for a moment there was some of the old affection in her gaze.

“I used to feel as if I was, when we were together,” I murmured.

We both stood in silence for a moment.

Then she remembered her purse. She pulled out my gift. A tiny roll of parchment.

“Here,” she said. “This is for you. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. It cost me a lot of money.”

“What is it?”

“Your fortune.”

Something about this gesture hit my like a blow to the stomach.

“Christine,” I said, sadly. “Why did you waste your money on this? You know I don’t believe in that nonsense.”

“Just take it,” she said. She couldn’t meet my gaze.

“Is your name on it?” I asked.

“No,” she said, looking at the ground.

I took the fortune and unrolled it just enough to read the first line.

You will meet a Stranger…

Just as I suspected. People were still preying on Christine’s gullibility.

“It’s so vague, Christine. Of course I’ll meet strangers. This is a city.”

“This Stranger will be special.”

“Can’t you see, Christine? This is all made up. You’ve been going downhill ever since you bought that stupid parchment. Why did you bother? We had everything we needed.”

She looked at me with real pity then.

“James,” she said, sadly. “Don’t you see? I didn’t buy the parchment to confirm that you were going to be my husband. I bought it to confirm that you weren’t.”

“Oh.”

I couldn’t meet her eye. I felt sick and lost and detached from everything. She folded her hands over the parchment in my own.

“Promise me you’ll read it, Jim. It will help you. I still worry about you.”

“The parchment is just stories. It doesn’t mean anything!”

She fixed me with a gaze. Memory imposed the blue of her eyes over the dim light.

“Please, James. Promise me you’ll read it.”

“I promise,” I said. Not that a promise from Jim Wedderburn means anything.

She gave me a brittle little smile.

“I have to be off,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”

I watched her walk off up the street, leaving me alone and lost in the middle of the city, uncertain even of the time of night and, now that the poison was sweating from my system, with an empty stomach that was telling me just how hungry it was.

It growled at a changing world, one which was moulding me into someone I didn’t want to be.

I took another look at the top line of the parchment.

You will meet a Stranger.

I shook my head sadly at the words, and pushed the parchment into my pocket.

Just then the door of the inn opened once more, and the stranger who was to change my life stepped out into the night.

The man was unmistakably a Molly. Framed by the light of the door I could see his dark red velvet suit, the striped golden shirt and tie. His red top hat was tilted at a rakish angle, but it was the foundation, the hint of eyeliner and lipstick that confirmed it. He was a good looking man, in an effeminate sort of way. And he was gazing right at me.

“Captain Jim Wedderburn, I believe!” he said, holding out a hand for me to shake.

“It’s James Wedderburn,” I replied, but I took his hand anyway. It was warm and smooth.

“Jim, James, what’s a name to a Jolly Japer like you, eh? Jim, I’d like to invite you to dinner. What do you say? A little convivial company and conversation over comestibles?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was thinking of heading for bed.”

My stomach rumbled, making its own views known.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “In fact I know that you weren’t. I’ve been watching you, my Jolly Jim. Seven nights now, I’ve come to this pub, sat in the seat by the door through the lost hours, looking through the glass, just waiting to see if you would step into the night. Six whores have come and gone from your room, but no sign of the gallant captain in the night hours. Then finally, this very evening, I saw Luke Pennies enter your building, half hidden by a glamour, and I knew that this night would be make or break. I had a bet with myself that you would survive his dreadful attempts upon your person, and look if I wasn’t right!”

“What do you want with me?”

“I want your help,” he said.

“Help with what?”

The Molly waved a hand around the elongated buildings of Dream London, stretched out thin and sharp against the deep purple sky, the moon an over-large crescent that threatened to impale its horns on the city itself.

“Look at this place,” he said. “I want you to help me to find out what happened to us.”

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Stories from the Northern Road (Penrose 2.5)

StryNthRdMidThe first ever collection from one of the UK’s finest SF authors: Tony Ballantyne, who has been a finalist for the Philip K Dick award and whose short fiction has featured regularly in Years Best SF anthologies.

A quartet of brand new stories set on the world of Penrose (introduced in the novels Twisted Metal and Blood and Iron) join five stories set in the Recursion universe to produce Stories from the Northern Road. This is Tony Ballantyne at his best.

 

Released September 2012, and as a Signed Hardback Edition, limited to 125 copies: £19.99

  Contents:

  1. Introduction

Stories from the Northern Road

  1. A Note from the Author
  2. Four Blind Horses
  3. Janet Verdigris
  4. Isabel and the Outlandish Robots
  5. The Robot Behind Me

Recursive Tales

  1. LDA ADD STA JMP JIZ END
  2. Restoring the Balance 1
  3. Restoring the Balance 2
  4. Seeds
  5. The Sixth VNM

 

Blood and Iron

Appointed Commander of the Emperor’s Army of Sangrel, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do of Ko tries to establish relations between the existing robot population and the humans who have recently arrived on Yukawa.

On the continent of Shull, Kavan finds himself embroiled with the Uncertain Army and marching towards Artemis City.  But does he march as the army’s prisoner, or as its leader?  And will his arrival result in the City’s destruction, or his own?

Meanwhile, Karel is heading South, hoping to be reunited with Susan, his wife.  As he walks, he hears more of the stories of the robots and begins to understand something about his place on the world of Penrose.

But, with limited resources and tensions growing between robot and human, it’s only a matter of time before problems arise.  And it ‘s becoming more and more apparent that the humans are a lot more powerful than the robots first expected…

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Extract

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do

How beautiful stand the plants in the Emperor’s garden.

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, self built robot; warrior of Ko of the state of Ekrano in the High Spires; one of the Eleven, displayed none of the wonder he felt at standing here in the heart of the Silent City. His expression was still, for the mothers of Ko believed in this as they knelt to twist the wire that would form the minds of the next generation: that a robot should have the aspect of a warrior, but the soul of a poet.

So Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s body was still and silent. Unlike the other robots here in the Silent City, his panelling was painted. The metal had been dipped in scarlet paint and then left to dry smooth. Gloss paint, polished to a shine, easy to chip, easily damaged in a fight. Did the robots of the Silent City understand that? Did they understand that the chrome beading around the eyes, the mouth, the joints in his arms and legs would easily mark? That keeping himself unscratched was an advertisement of his skill?

The red joints of his fingers and feet would move like beetle backs, but for now he was motionless, blending into brightly coloured surroundings. Seen from a distance he was a collection of fragments sharp amidst the dappled sunlight, hard blades and glossy red painted metal; mind fixed in contemplation of the poetry arranged before him.

Poems written in the medium of organic life: a folio compiled by the robots who the Emperor had sent out across the planet Penrose, commanding them to seek beauty in every form, whether it be the glow of iron, pulled hot from the forge, or the curve of the body of some young robot in her newly built adult form.

But the Emperor’s vision was wider than this, for he also commanded that his robots look for poetry amongst the lewd profusion of organic life that flourishes in the most unlikely corners of the continents of Yukawa: maybe in the curl of a plant or the arrangement of petals on a flower or the spreading canopy of a tree.

And so those robots, those poets of another age, had travelled the length and breadth of the continent, taking an insect or a seed here, a piece of plating or a cutting there, and had brought them back to be placed in the garden of the Emperor.

And, oh, what vision the Emperor had displayed when he had his stately garden decreed.

A pit, three miles across, long mined of porphyry copper, had been filled with gravel and soil and then surrounded by a wall of burnished iron, bound in brass, inlaid with copper. Stone paths had been laid through the virgin soil, along which robot gardeners walked, sowing seeds, planting roots, watering and weeding, pruning and tending, raising the plants and trees and ferns that were brought to them. Silver insects scuttled across the floor, metal shells flashing brightly. Larger animals paced their gilded cages or pulled disconsolately at feet welded to metal platforms.

In the midst of this, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do finally collected his thoughts and began to walk towards the Silver Circle, the heart of the garden. His iron feet pressed dents into the green turf, his polished scarlet body danced in yellow and gold, the reflections of the cloud of butterflies that burst from the grass with each step. Pollen fell from the scarlet flowers that sprouted in obscene profusion amongst the canopy of the fuchsia trees, it dusted his body, worked its way into his joints and seams to be trapped in the delicate thread of his electromuscle. White pom-poms nodded their heads in the breeze, a stream of pink blossom wound its lazy way down from the tree tops, it wound its way through the golden butterflies, a widening stream of blossom, a river, a wave of pink petals, a tsunami…

From the swirl of colour, a figure materialised. A tall robot, clad in intricately worked metal. He had no arms.

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do lowered his head in submission.

The tall robot spoke.

“When you meet the Emperor, don’t speak of the world outside of the Garden.”

“I thought you were the Emperor,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, looking up.

“No, I am O, his spokesrobot. The Emperor is too busy to attend to all the details of the State of Yukawa. Your audience, however brief, will be sufficient to grant the seal of approval on your mission.”

“So I am still to see the Emperor?” Wa-Ka-Mo-Do could not quite conceal the edge of hope in his voice.

“Yes. The importance of your mission is such that an audience is necessary. Now, it would be appropriate to remain silent until we are within the Silver Circle. A wise robot would enjoy the delights of the garden.”

And indeed now they were passing two tall trees that seemed to have lifted themselves from the ground, their roots standing in a lily pond, the trunks well clear of the water. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do eyed the two creatures trapped in the cages of roots. One of them reached out a metal hand in supplication, eyes glowing pale green, and Wa-Ka-Mo-Do looked away.

They approached the Silver Circle. A loop of silver filigree that wove its way through the garden in a circle half a mile across. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do could cut easily through it with one of the blades in his hands, but he knew he would be dead even as he approached it. The loop of silver rose up in an arch, flanked by two more robots without arms.

They gazed straight ahead as O led Wa-Ka-Mo-Do past them, into the garden beyond, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do struggling not to betray the excitement he felt at being here.

O turned to him. “Now we are within the Silver Circle, I will speak freely. You will have heard that Yukawa has been visited by creatures from beyond our shores?”

“I had heard that they come from beyond even our world, my master.”

“You would do well not to speak of such things to the Emperor,” replied the armless robot dryly. “You may also have heard that the visitors are not robots?”

Wa-Ka –Mo-Do said nothing.

“You are wise to remain silent. You learn quickly. So I will tell you that the rumours are true.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do paced on. The sound of birds singing from tiny barbed cages covered the increased hum of current in his electromuscles.

“The visitors are animals,” continued O. “Naturally, this does not worry the Emperor. The Emperor is wise and all powerful, and his rule of the continent of Yukawa is just and proper. Those who perpetuate the myth of the Book of Robots are hunted down and destroyed, because it is beyond doubt that Robots evolved here on Penrose. There is no possibility that they were originally constructed by others, for whatever reason. Certainly, we could not have been constructed by animals such as those that are now visiting us.”

“Indeed,” agreed Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, his face devoid of expression.

“Your silence speaks volumes, Wa-Ka –Mo-Do. There are many within the Emperor’s court who would feel it odd that one such as yourself, a half-caste from the far North, a near Tokvah should be welcomed at court…”

“Ekrano has long been a part of the Empire,” answered Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, “the right to send eleven warriors to serve the Emperor is a long cherished tradition.”

“The eleven have a duty to replace the Emperor if he fails the Empire,” observed O drily. “They warriors of Ko have done so in the past.”

“A responsibility that has long been remembered in tradition, though rarely in practice,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. “I hope, rather, that it is remembered here in the Silent City how well the eleven have served the Emperor.”

“Indeed. And today you will have the chance to prove yourself equal to your predecessors.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do felt unnerved by the armless robot. It was known by all that the Emperor had no arms, this way others must serve him. But Wa-Ka-Mo-Do hadn’t realised that others within the Silent City also went armless. Oddly, even though he was trained in the arts of war, even though his arms and legs contained tempered blades, hard and sharp, it was he who felt at a disadvantage. But what could this robot do to harm him?

“It pleases the Emperor to deal with the animals, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do,” continued O. “He has established trading areas in designated areas of the Empire. Whilst, naturally, the animals do not have the same grasp of culture or society as the Empire, it amuses the Emperor to speak with them, to trade examples of their technology and thus to educate them in our ways.”

“The Emperor is indeed generous.”

“He is indeed. He has established an Embassy for the animals in the city of Sangrel. You are to travel there as his Special Commander.”

“Commander of Sangrel? That is indeed an honour!”

“A warrior may rejoice at such an honour, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, for in Sangrel he may prove himself worthy of the Emperor’s trust in upholding the ways of the Empire. For the Emperor could not lose face by having his subjects attack the animals through a mistaken sense of grievance. A feeling that, perhaps, the interests of the Emperor’s subjects have been placed below those of the animals.

Now Wa-Ka –Mo-Do began to understand the nature of his mission. He needed to be diplomatic in his questioning.

“I’m sure that it is inconceivable that the Emperor’s subjects would shame him so. But, my Master, suppose that such a circumstance was to arise?”

“Then I am sure that the Commander of Sangrel would make it plain that, in the long run, all favours granted to the animals would be repaid tenfold by them to the Empire.”

The armless robot smiled as he spoke these words.

“Of course,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. “But suppose, for example, that some robots found themselves driven from land that they and their family had occupied for many generations. Suppose that they found themselves in the grip of an unreasonable desire for reparations and found themselves, unjustly of course, in conflict with the Emperor’s appointed officials. What course would the commander of Sangrel be wise to adopt in such a case?”

O smiled.

“You are wise in the manners of court, Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, despite your origin. You ask my advice, as is right in these circumstances. I would say that it would be appropriate, if not desirable, for the commander to destroy all those robots, and their families, and their villages, as an expression of the sorrow of the Emperor, and his wish to demonstrate his authority.”

“I understand,” replied Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, and, true to his mother’s weave, his face betrayed no expression of the discomfort he felt at these words.

“And let me say furthermore, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do ,” continued O, “that I’m sure the Emperor would wish the same attention to be paid to those who were to perpetuate the myth that our creators have returned to rule us. The idea is, of course, ridiculous. “

“Of course.”

“Now, silence. We are approaching the Emperor.”

The Emperor wore no metal panelling: his body was plated with sheets of nephrite jade, carved in exquisite shells that encased him in a creamy green that contrasted with the emerald of the sunlight glade in which he stood. Four members of the Imperial Guard stood to the north, south, east and west of him, their bodies thin and curved, built of katana metal. They looked like living blades, curved under tension, ready to spring out in one slicing movement.

None of them wore ears or eyes. At need, they would pull them from their bodies and push them into place.

“Emperor , this is Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do found himself standing in the middle of the sunny glade just inches from his Emperor. He lowered his eyes and found himself gazing at the carvings on his jade feet, pale and exquisite.

The Emperor spoke.

“Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, warrior of Ekrano. It pleases us to speak to you.”

“Thank you, oh my Emperor.”

“The High Spires are a long way from the Silent City, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.”

“Indeed,” he replied, thinking on how O had told him not mention the world beyond the garden.

“The land of the Sirens. Did you ever see those fortunate robots, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do?”

“No man may see the Sirens and live, my Emperor.”

There was a long silence.

“Do you mean to correct your Emperor? Are you suggesting that we were unaware of the nature of the Sirens?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do looked at the Emperor, and in a sudden moment of clarity, saw how ridiculous his armless body was. The thought was treachery. Unconsciously he shifted to a fighting position. Surely the guards would know what he was thinking? Surely even now they would be attacking?

But nothing happened. The Emperor was waiting for an answer.

“My Emperor, not for a moment would I think such a thing. The wisdom of the Emperor is known by all his subjects.”

“Our wisdom is respected, you would say? Yet you come before me still standing?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do fell to his knees at this point. Nobody had mentioned this to him. He was under the impression that subjects remained standing in the presence of the Emperor, ready to serve him.

“You kneel before us?”

Now Wa-Ka-Mo-Do fell forward, the grass all around his metal face

He heard a thin keening above him. Gradually it occurred to him that the Emperor was laughing.

“It would appear that ignorance is still the norm in Ekrano! No one kneels before the Emperor, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. We are not barbarians in Yukawa!”

He climbed to his feet.

“Wa-Ka-Mo-Do,” said the Emperor. “You will have heard of the Book of Robots?”

Again, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, remembered the words of the aide that had led him here. “No, my master.”

“We think you are lying. It is well known that the heresy of the Book of Robots is woven deep into the metal of those of the High Spires. We would expect that you, too, have this heresy woven into your mind.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s gaze was still, his current was calm, and yet the Emperor’s words were accurate. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do believed in the Book. Of course he did.

The Emperor spoke.

“Even so, it must be understood that there are conventions for the lesser subjects, and there are conventions for those who follow a higher calling. We know of the Book of Robots.”

“Have you read the book, my Emperor?”

That same thin keening laughter.

“Our subject is as lacking in guile as he is in intelligence, for not only does he forget that he has claimed not to have heard of the book, but he has also forgotten that no robot is known to have read it, if indeed the book ever existed.”

“My Emperor is indeed wise to point this out to me,” answered Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, and again the treacherous thoughts arose inside him. Did the Emperor, wise above all, think himself clever by employing tricks that were only effective when others could not answer back?

“Your Emperor is wise indeed. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, in Sangrel you will meet the animals that have travelled to our world. And you will look at them and you will wonder how any robot could believe that creatures such as they could claim to have had us built. And yet some do. We trust that our subject will remember his duty, should he encounter such robots.”

“You may be sure that he will, my Emperor.”

“Good, good.”

The Emperor smiled. “We are pleased with our subject. Now, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, we do not need to mention that our people place great faith in the Empire. It has stood unchanging for centuries, built on the rule of the Emperor and its queens. It has met new ideas in the past, and woven them into the rich tapestry that is the Empire. Is my garden not eloquent testament to this?”

A golden butterfly fluttered by, as if to confirm this.

“Indeed, my master,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.

“And yet some ideas are not to be completed. They throw the weave out of balance, and so they shall not be tolerated. Does our subject understand this?”

“I do, my Emperor.”

“So our subject will be thankful that Vestal Virgins are already in Sangrel. They will watch our subject, and ensure that his mind is on his task. Do you understand, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do felt his gyros spinning just a little faster. He forced them to slow.

“I understand, my master.”

Something caught his attention: the butterfly. It fluttered past Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s face, turned to the right, and then changed direction again, heading to settle on the Emperor himself.

There was a flicker of silver, and the butterfly fell to the ground in two parts. An Imperial Guard slowly replaced her sword in her sheath. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do was impressed to note she had not inserted her eyes.

The Emperor did not seem to notice.

“Very well,” he said. “The audience is at an end. We wish you every luck in your endeavour. You may leave by the Road of Reflection.” He turned to indicate the path that Wa-Ka-Mo-Do had entered by.

For the first time, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do noticed the remains of two robots lying at the edge of the clearing, the metal of their minds twisted around their bodies in blue filigree. He saw the lifeforce flickering around them, and realised the warped creatures were still alive, frozen there in agony. The Vestal Virgins, he thought, as he walked by. The Vestal Virgins did that.

He wondered if someday his body would lie there too.

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Twisted Metal

TwistedMetalMidOn a world of intelligent robots who seem to have forgotten their own distant past, ailment it is a time of war as the soldiers of Artemis City set out to conquer everything within range on the continent of Shull, viagra sale killing or converting every robot they capture to their philosophy, see while viewing their own wire-based minds as nothing but metal to be used or recycled for the cause.

Elsewhere, the more individualistic robots of Turing City believe they are something more than metal, but when the Artemisian robot Kavan sets out on a determined crusade to prove himself, even Turing City can’t stand against him.

Increasingly tied up with Kavan’s destiny is Karel, a Turing robot with elements of Artemis’ philosophy already woven into his mind …as well as Karel’s wife Susan, and their recently created child. Following the inevitable violence and destruction, Artemisian ambition focuses elsewhere and a journey begins towards the frozen kingdoms of the north …and towards the truth about the legendary “Book of Robots”, a text which may finally explain the real history of this strange world.

In a completely alien but brilliantly realized landscape, here is a powerful story of superb action, barbaric cruelty and intense emotional impact.

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Background to Twisted Metal…

Extract

Liza

Two robots were making love in the middle of an electrical storm. Crouching in an old shell hole, searing white lightning arcing above them as the charged night sought release, Liza paused in the act of twisting wire and gazed up at her husband.

‘Is everything all right?’ Kurtz asked. The sky flared, and gravel tipped from the rim and rolled to the base of their shelter. It was a night of changes: far across the dark plain, Artemis was on the march; attacking the distant city state of Stark.

‘Are you worried by the fighting?’ pressed Kurtz. ‘Shall we go back to Turing City?’

‘No,’ she smiled at him. ‘Stark is a long way from here. What sort of a child would we make if we were to run at the slightest disturbance?’

His eyes glowed soft yellow, a gentle contrast to the raw power tearing the night apart above them. As she spoke again, her voice crackled with the static of the storm. ‘I have reached the point. Have you decided?’

‘Yes,’ whispered Kurtz. ‘A boy.’

Liza nodded and returned to her work, her hands moving in the feminine manner as she wove a mind from the twisted wire that Kurtz made for her.

‘Thank you,’ said Kurtz, watching her movements with fascination.

‘Thank you for what?’

‘For giving me the choice.’

Buy on Amazon UK | Buy on Amazon US‘It’s tradition,’ Liza replied simply, her hands ever moving.

‘Thank you,’ she murmured.

‘For what?’

‘For trusting me. For not asking if I am really weaving what you asked for.’

‘It’s tradition,’ said Kurtz.

There was a sizzling crash, and several lightning bolts arced down, earthing themselves through crude plugs of raw iron that had thrust themselves up from the stone plain. Glowing plasma formed an arch in the sky, burning its way into the electrocells of Kurtz’s and Liza’s eyes.

‘That came from Stark,’ observed Kurtz, the purple lines of lightning slowly fading from their vision. ‘Their Tesla towers are too powerful. Artemis won’t defeat them tonight.’

‘Good,’ murmured Liza, still weaving busily. ‘Good.’

‘It only means that they’ll attack again,’ said Kurtz despondently.

‘And they’ll keep attacking until they have defeated Stark, and then Segre, and then Bethe. And then it will be our turn.’

‘Shhh . . .’ said Liza. ‘Not tonight. Let them sort out their own problems. Just concentrate on us . . .’

‘Yes,’ said Kurtz, and he relaxed, allowed his electromuscles to discharge a little.

Liza worked carefully on, twisting Kurtz’s wire into a mind. The little body that would house that mind lay at their feet. A smart little body, lovingly built by Kurtz out of steel and brass, the whole then painted in black and gold stripes by Liza. A beautiful little body, its skull gaping open, ready for the mind she was twisting to be inserted. It already had a name: Liza and Kurtz’s little boy would be called Karel. Karel. A lovely name for a lovely child, due to be born in the midst of less than lovely times.

Liza and Kurtz crouched together in an old shell hole, the remnant of a long-spent war, making their own little expression of peace while electric bolts fanned across the sky, painting themselves on the canvas provided by Zuse, the night moon.

Meanwhile, a low rumbling spread across the stone plain. Artemis machinery being destroyed: they had attacked Stark too soon. The rhythm of Liza’s movements had changed.

‘What are you weaving now?’ asked Kurtz.

‘His sense of self,’ said Liza. ‘His sense of otherness. Isn’t it obvious?’

‘No, I see your hands move and all I see is twisting. It has no order or meaning to me.’

Liza smiled. ‘Now I am giving him your stubbornness.’ Her hands danced lightly, tweaking, turning, teasing.

‘I’m not stubborn,’ he protested.

‘You’ll stand your ground, even when you suspect you’re wrong. You’d rather see a bad argument through to the end than change your opinion. It’s not your most attractive characteristic, but,’ she shrugged, ‘there are worse things to be ashamed of.’

‘But I don’t want my child to be stubborn. Take it out!’

‘The weave must balance.’

Kurtz said nothing, and Liza knew he understood. He would have seen children who walked and talked and performed simple tasks and nothing more, seen the way other mothers would look at them with sympathy or disapproval. The mother tried too hard, they would say. The weave doesn’t balance.

The electrical storm was rising in intensity: an incredible tearing sound ripping across the world. White light poured down from the sky to the east, a waterfall of light increasing in flux. A curtain of electricity was fast being drawn across the horizon, a flood of light that blasted the plain; the squat iron plugs firing ultra-black shadows westwards. The reddish stones kicked across the plain by the metal feet of so many robots drew long lines of darkness towards Turing City itself.

‘What is going on out there?’ wondered Kurtz aloud. ‘Is that the battle or the elements?’

‘Shhh,’ said Liza. ‘Let the rest of the world take care of itself. We have our own child to attend to.’

‘Artemis,’ reflected Kurtz. ‘If we were Artemisians, we would be making this child very differently . . .’

‘Do you want that?’ teased Liza. ‘I could make Karel think only of the glory of the Artemisian state. Is that really what you want?’

To her surprise, Kurtz did not answer straight away.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, slowly. ‘There’s no denying how successful Artemis is. Their forges grow larger every month.’ He lowered his voice.

‘Is that what you really want?’ asked Liza, soft yellow eyes glowing, hands never ceasing their manipulation of the warm, pliable metal. ‘Tell me now, Kurtz. We are of Turing City State. We can make our child share its values, respect itself and others as individuals, or we can make our child strong and empty, just like an Artemisian. What do you really believe in?’

‘Liza, I don’t know. I know we agreed, but are we sure we are right to do this? Turing City will only succeed if all the children really believe in what we stand for. If just a few of them turn and run, the rest of us will fall. All it takes is a few children. Do we want to condemn our own child to be the one remaining while others are running?’

‘But if we all stand together we will have a better life. After all, we want what’s best for our boy.’

‘But which is the best?’

Liza couldn’t stop moving her hands: she couldn’t allow the pliable wire to set.

‘You choose,’ urged Kurtz.

‘No. You choose.’

‘But it’s such a huge responsibility. Choices like this could change the world.’

‘Never mind the rest of the world,’ said Liza. ‘This is just about us. Come on, individual or drone, which is it to be? Turing City or Artemis?’

The world seemed to pause. The wall of lightning held its breath, just hanging in the air in a blaze of white. The rumble of explosions to the east ceased. In that moment of stillness, Kurtz told her, and she nodded, and began the final part of the weave.

‘Almost done,’ she said.

The tearing noise stopped abruptly. The storm died, the wash of light fading, the stones and iron plugs of the plain inhaling their long shadows. And the world changed.

Kurtz groaned, and Liza looked up, saw the green glow fading from his eyes.

‘Kurtz?’ she said. Slowly his body rocked forward and fell to the ground, just a collection of jointed metal.

‘Kurtz!’ called Liza. ‘Oh Zuse no.’ She stood up, the blue wire trailing from her hands to where it emerged from Kurtz’s body.

She looked around, barely comprehending what had happened. Had it been the lightning, she wondered; had it hit her husband? But the sky was now so still and dark. Then she heard the sound of metal on bare rock. Footsteps? Someone loomed out of the darkness. A metal body, dented and scarred. Red eyes glowing in infrared, iron hands gripping a projectile weapon. The dull grey paintwork of an Artemisian soldier. He walked easily towards her, rifle pointing loosely in her direction.

‘You killed him,’ said Liza.

‘I killed him.’ The soldier looked down at the warm wire, still being twisted in Liza’s hands.

‘You can let go now,’ he said. ‘There isn’t enough metal left there to complete your child.’

‘How do you know?’ asked Liza. ‘What would any man know about that?’

The soldier ignored her question. ‘I heard you both talking,’ he said. ‘Even through the storm.’ He tapped one of the overlarge directional microphones on the side of his head. Then he pointed at poor Kurtz’s dead body. ‘Do you really think he made the right choice?’

‘Of course I do.’ she said quietly. She was looking at the remaining length of wire, calculating.

The Artemisian robot shrugged. ‘You would say that, I suppose.’

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Liza. ‘Why are Artemis trespassing into Turing City State?’

‘Haven’t you heard? Bethe has just fallen. Artemis is the largest forge on this plain now.’

‘Bethe?’ said Liza. ‘I thought you were attacking Stark!’

‘Stark?’ laughed the robot. ‘Not likely. Not with their Tesla towers to defend them. No, that was just a little misdirection. Bethe first, then Segre. Then we’ll be right on Stark’s doorstep. And then we’ll see.’

Liza wasn’t listening. Kurtz lay dead at her feet, his wire still twisted around her hands, cooling, dying. She felt as if something was dying within herself too, leaving nothing but a cold emptiness inside her metal shell.

‘Kurtz,’ she whispered. ‘Kurtz, what am I to do?’

There was no reply. She was on her own now. A cold determination began to rise up within her. ‘Kurtz made his choice,’ she murmured to herself. ‘Kurtz was right.’

She had forgotten about those overlarge ears on the Artemisian robot. He picked up what she had muttered. He laughed.

‘That’s easy for you to say now,’ he said, ‘not that you will ever know. I saved you the choice. There is not enough wire for the child to be born.’

Again, Liza looked at the wire that trailed from her hands, recalculating.

‘There is just enough,’ she decided.

The dull grey robot’s hands tightened around his rifle. ‘I should dash that wire from your hands now; make you lose your place.’

Liza’s voice trembled. ‘But you haven’t.’ She clutched the wire tighter.

‘Go on,’ said the soldier. ‘Finish the mind. Finish it the way he said.’

Liza did nothing. With a low whirr, the soldier brought his gun to bear on her.

‘Do it, or, so help me, I will shoot you too. I have one charge left.’ He laughed.

‘Hey, you can be just like Nyro. You’ve heard of Nyro, haven’t you?’

The lightning flared again, and, just for a moment, Liza could have sworn that the robot flinched and looked up to the sky.

‘Yes, I’ve heard of Nyro,’ she said.

Liza began to twist wire once more. She rolled her eyes up to meet those of the soldier, her metal face taking on an odd expression.

‘You’re doing it,’ said the soldier, in surprise. ‘Or are you? I find it hard to believe you’re really making that child his way. Not after I killed him. Not with me standing here with a gun like this, raping you. You don’t really believe that he made the right choice, do you? I can’t believe you would really do what he said.’

Liza continued weaving. She was almost done.

‘Well?’ said the soldier.

‘I’m not telling you,’ said Liza. ‘You’ll never know.’

It was so quiet on the plain now, so quiet and dark. The climax of the battle had passed, and Bethe had fallen. Even now Artemisian soldiers would be penetrating its streets, ripping it apart, remaking it in the image of Artemis itself.

And look what’s happening here, thought Liza, staring at the red eyes of the man opposite, the dark aperture of his rifle’s muzzle fixed upon her head. She concentrated again on the wire. There was life in that forming mind already. She could feel it begin to pulse. All that remained was to tie it off and bring the mind into existence. She made to start the knot, and hesitated, remembering what her mother had told her: it wasn’t until this point that you truly understood what life was about.

Liza had never really understood until now, but here it was, staring her in the face. Should Liza now tie the knot as a seal and wake a simple, mechanical mind that would live indefinitely? Or should she tie it the other way, in the fuse, to create a living, thinking being, and, in doing so, condemn it to death in thirty or forty years’ time?

In the end she did as her mother had done, and her mother before her. She tied the fuse. Something came to life.

‘Hello Karel,’ she murmured. She looked over at the dead body of her husband. ‘Here he is, Kurtz. We did it. Here’s our little boy.’

Carefully she placed the mind into the tiny body and snicked the skull shut.

‘All finished,’ she said to the soldier.

The soldier looked from her to the child. ‘Did you really do it?’ he asked.

‘I’m not telling you,’ replied Liza.

‘Then I shall say goodbye, Tokvah.’

He raised his rifle once more, pointing it at her head. Her gyros were wobbling, but she held herself steady.

‘Then shoot me,’ she said. ‘But you’ll never know.’

The robot stared at her, his red eyes glowing. Liza held his gaze, determined not to flinch, even here at the end. She was ready to die.

And then the robot lowered his gun.

‘There is a way to find out . . .’ he said.

 

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Divergence

DivergenceMidThe robot Constantine notices an Artificial Intelligence spontaneously coming into being on a distant planet…and watches helplessly as it is destroyed.

In deep space, far from Earth, Judy senses a change of mood aboard the passenger ship she travels on…and a quick investigation reveals that the craft is succumbing to a mysterious alien infestation.  Just as hope seems lost, a group of combat drones appears to rescue all the passengers, except Judy – who is told she is the property of a forgotten mega-corporation based on Earth.

Returned against her wishes to an Earth under constant assault from the same alien infestation, Judy begins to learn her place in a conspiracy billions of years old.  But is she ready to take on the benign, omnipotent, all-seeing Watcher who guides human destiny?

And destroy it?

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Extract

Edward sat in the conference room, his hands covering his face, his feet on his chair so that his knees were drawn up to his chest.

“I don’t like them,” he said.

“Don’t be silly,” snapped Saskia, striding into the room.

“That’s not going to calm him down, is it?” said Judy, quite reasonably. She placed a reassuring hand on the big man’s shoulder, and said something softly that Maurice couldn’t hear.

The cause of Edward’s distress could be seen floating in a viewing field above the black shiny table.

“What are they?” asked Maurice.

“We don’t know,” admitted Judy. “Nor does Aleph.”

She pointed to a viewing field, where the system-repair robot they had picked up from the Petersburg could be seen clinging to the hull of their ship. Aleph gave Maurice a cheery wave.

Maurice gave a half-hearted wave in return as he moved closer to the images. They reminded him of flowers: they were all the same size and shape, roughly spherical. Their surfaces were spectacularly coloured, bursts of yellow and red and orange tangled around each other in fractally entwined patterns that deepened to a dark rose at a focus. Maurice understood why Edward seemed so frightened. The patterns on those flowers were unnerving: they gave the impression that they were looking straight at you.

To conceal his uneasiness, Maurice pulled out his console and brought up a scale reading. The flowers registered as just over thirty centimetres in diameter. He called up a topographical mapping.

“The readings suggest that they are not completely spherical,” he announced. “There is an indentation at the other side of these objects. They’re hollow. So what’s inside?”

“We don’t know,” said Saskia. “They’re turning so as to face us as we travel. It’s like they are always keeping their back to us, not letting us see what they’re hiding.”

Maurice rubbed his chin. “Oh. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”

“Nor has Aleph,” said Judy.

“I don’t like them,” repeated Edward. He noted Saskia’s glare. “They’re not right,” he whined. “They’re alien!”

Judy rubbed his arm gently and spoke to him in a voice learned from Social Care.

“Edward, they’re not alien. Aleph says so.”

“Aleph is an alien himself! Why should we believe him?”

“There are no such things as aliens,” snapped Saskia, looking painfully thin and bristling with nerves. “I already told you that. We have never found aliens on any of the planets we’ve visited, and humans have travelled a very long way. Aleph is just a system-repair robot.”

“Easy, Saskia,” said Maurice. “Hmm, has there been any sign of the Bailero yet?”

“Of course not.” Saskia was scathing. “We got stiffed again.”

Maurice tapped at his console. “We’re in the middle of empty space,” he said thoughtfully. “The closest star is over three parsecs away. Hmmm, if I were an AI escaping from Earth on a warp ship, this would be just the place I would choose to hide. Right where no one ever comes.”

“Hide maybe,” said Saskia irritably, “but not a very good place to build an empire from. There are no raw materials out here. The Free Enterprise said it was manufactured by the Bailero. Out of what, though?”

“I don’t know,” said Maurice. He gestured at the orange-red eyes of the flowers. “Maybe out of those things. Are there any more of them around?”

“Not that we know of.”

Maurice concentrated on his console. The space flowers- or whatever they were- were about 200 kilometres distant. The Eva Rye was currently at rest relative to them. He checked back on the search pattern that he had programmed: a three-dimensional spiral that swept out a path through a volume of space that was covered by the limits of the ship’s senses. Long-distance senses had picked up the flowers from nine hundred kilometres back, and had watched them closely as the ship slowed to a halt. And the flowers had turned to watch the Eva Rye right back.

“Odd,” said Maurice. “I wonder what they are hiding inside? Let’s try and catch them out. Aleph?”

“Hi, Maurice.”

“I’m going to take the Eva Rye up and over to the other side of those things. Why don’t you let go of our hull and just stay floating here? If they turn to follow us, you might then get a look at what they’re concealing.”

“Maurice,” said reprovingly, “that wasn’t part of our contract.”

“Aleph, there should be an antique Warp Ship waiting here for us, payment for taking Judy to Earth. Instead we have found space flowers. Look at it this way, Aleph, if there is no ship, there is no contract, so we will not be going to Earth.”

“There’ll be a ship,” said Judy resignedly.

Saskia glared at her. Maurice ignored them.

“Help us, Aleph, and we’ll soon be on our way.”

“Oh, very well,” said Aleph. “I’m letting go of your hull. Off you go now.”

Maurice’s fingers danced across his console. “Where’s Miss Rose?” he asked, casually.

“In her room, of course,” said Saskia. “This is just wasting fuel, you know.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” asked Maurice. “Should we just ignore those things and sit here waiting for the Bailero to turn up of its own accord?”

Saskia said nothing to that.

“Fuel?” said Judy suddenly, her head tilted to the side. “The Eva Rye uses fuel?”

“Oh yes,” said Saskia bitterly. “That’s part of the FE deal. Apparently use of such things as AIs and VNMs and unlimited engine range only gives us the idea that we can get something for nothing. That’s contrary to the FE philosophy. Though, of course, in our case we seem to get nothing for something every time we do a deal…”

Saskia sensed that she had lost her audience’s interest. She took a green apple from the white bowl in the centre of the table, and bit into it. She crunched on it noisily as the Eva Rye began to move.

“I don’t like this,” moaned Edward. “I don’t like this!”

“Shh,” said Judy.

“The Petersburg did warn us,” complained Saskia, but Maurice tuned her out.

They watched the flowers intently. The red and yellow and orange blooms hung there, apparently motionless.

“…which means they are turning to follow us,” said Maurice. “They are still trying to conceal their contents. Aleph, what can you see?”

“Nothing as yet,” said Aleph. “Keep going. I can see them turning. They are… Oh damn!”

The crew of the Eva Rye saw it happening at the same time. The flowers seemed to move together, their hidden mouths joining together to kiss and conceal.

“Now what?” said Saskia.

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Capacity

CapacityMidWelcome to the year 2252—and congratulations! You’re now a personality construct. We know that can be a daunting stage of personal development,especially if you don’t remember making this life-changing decision. But we’re here to help….

Helen is waking to a dark new reality—one that she’s certain she didn’t choose. In this borrowed existence, she finds an unexpected guide in Judy, a geisha-faced virgin who’s on a mission of her own. Together, the two of them begin a dangerous run through dozens of imagined worlds in an attempt to trap a psychopath haunting the shadowed areas of virtual space—a killer who brutally murdered an earlier version of Helen and who plans to kill again. Meanwhile, Justinian is investigating a peculiar rash of AI suicides on far-off planets—and finds that not only is there more to these “deaths” than he thought, but that they may be linked to his wife Anya’s mysterious coma.

In a future where AIs have taken over human life and the Environment Agency runs everything for our own good, the fact that we can live on after physical death as sentient digital beings should have been a good thing. Instead, as Helen and Justinian are about to discover, it just means there are more ways to die.

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Extract

The AI pod rested in a little indentation in the bank. It seemed almost unchanged from its dormant state: a smooth fluorescent green kidney bean the size of Justinian, had he taken it into his head to curl up in the foetus position there in the stinking mud. Three BVBs had wrapped themselves around its surface, a few Schrödinger boxes were scattered across the mud before it.

“Hello,” said the pod.

“Hello, I’m Justinian.”

“Hello, Justinian.” The pod’s voice was eager, like a child, fascinated by the world.

“Have you seen these little boxes? As soon as you take your eye off any of them, they jump to another position. But as long as you are looking at them, they stay put.”

“I’ve seen them,” said Justinian, feeling fed up with this pod already. He had been conducting interviews all over the planet, asking the same questions over and over again, and each time receiving exactly the same answers. It was getting tedious beyond belief. For this pod, of course, it was all new.

“Do you know what they are?” it asked. “They’re amazing!”

“They’re called Schrödinger boxes,” said Justinian, carefully. The pod wasn’t fooled.

“Ah! So you don’t actually know what they are either. Maybe you can tell me about these bands wrapped around my shell. Do you know what they are, or do you simply have a name for them?”

Justinian was too tired to be insulted. Besides, it was all part of the script.

“We call them BVBs,” he replied. “Look, I’ve got one in here.”

He pulled the plastic rod from the thigh pocket of his passive suit, and waited a moment for the pod to scan it.

“Very interesting,” it said. “Where did you find it?”

“The plastic rod is a table leg. One of the other colonists found the BVB wrapped around it as they were sitting down to breakfast one morning.”

“One of the other colonists? How many are there now on Gateway?”

“Still just a hundred. And me, of course.”

Justinian gave an involuntary shiver as he said these words. It reminded him how far he was from home, and Justinian felt doubly alone. Here he was, standing on a remote mud slick, lost on a planet that floated between galaxies, and yet he felt himself an outsider to the only group of humans for millions of light years. The bright blue belt of M32 rose into the dark sky behind the pod. The Milky Way was a monochrome rainbow in the other direction.

Justinian rubbed a finger across the fuzzy surface of the BVB and wondered at the strangeness of this place. As far as he was concerned, reality was a force that diminished the further one travelled from home: the hundred colonists were treading in a place of dreams where nothing worked as it should. Nor should it be expected to.

The pod spoke in a thoughtful tone.

“I don’t remember anything about BVBs. I wonder why that is?”

“Probably because they weren’t known about when you were conceived. They were only discovered on this planet.”

Justinian crouched down before the pod, looking for external sense cluster formations. There seemed to be nothing. That implied the pod was still operating on internals. Just like all the other pods, in fact.

“BVBs are similar to the Schrödinger boxes,” he continued, his hands glowing fluorescent green as he felt the rubbery surface of the pod. Red mud squelched under his feet and he grabbed onto the pod to maintain his balance. “BVBs only form in spaces that are not being observed, and then they immediately begin to contract.”

“How do you know?” interrupted the pod.

“How do I know what?”

“How do you know that they begin to contract immediately if the space in which they form is not being observed?”

Justinian gave a tired smile

“Good point,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of that before.” He was struck by how much like children the AIs here on Gateway had become. Innocent, but with a sharp eye for detail.

“Someone probably did, they just didn’t explain that part to you.”

Justinian gazed coolly at the pod. And like a child, he thought, they could be incredibly tactless. They quickly figured out that Justinian wasn’t part of the scientific survey team, and then equally quickly lost all respect for him.

His legs were getting tired from crouching, so he straightened up and began to circle the pod, treading carefully on the slippery mud. One careless step and he could end up rolling down the slope into the dark water below.

“Anyway,” he said. “BVBs form in empty spaces. We believe they begin to contract immediately. Sometimes they get tangled around an object; like a pipe or a tree branch. The slightest touch on their inside surface stops them contracting; nothing can make them expand again. And they’re unbreakable. Nothing can cut through them.”

“Oh…” the pod’s voice was almost wistful. “What does BVB stand for?”

“Black Velvet Band. Named after an old song, apparently.”

Justinian rested a hand on the warm surface of the pod. He looked at the three BVBs that had formed on its supple skin. “If you rearrange your external structure to make your skin frictionless they’ll slip right off.”

There was a moment’s pause before the pod spoke.

“…I can’t,”

“You can,” said Justinian. “All AI pods have multiform integuments. Yours is just set to dormant mode at the moment. Wake it up.”

“I can’t,” said the pod. It sounded embarrassed. “I don’t understand how to work the mechanism. I can see the potentials arranged before me, but I don’t understand how to achieve them.”

Justinian yawned again; looking out across the water. A pale glow had appeared over there as dawn approached. He wondered if he could make out the shape of another mud bank, slowly materialising from the blackness.

“You’ve heard all this before, haven’t you?” said the pod shrewdly. “Who are you? Why are you here? You’re obviously not one of the regular surveyors.”

There it was again: all the pods so far had figured this out. They might be acting like children, but they still had intelligence at least equal to his own. And, stripped down though their intelligences were, they still had access to vast libraries of data. Data that covered many, many subjects. How to read body language would be just one of them.

Justinian played it straight. “My name is Justinian. I’m a counsellor. I’ve been brought to Gateway to try and figure out why AIs aren’t thriving here.”

“A counsellor?” said the pod. “What sort of a counsellor? MTPH?”

“Originally. I work mainly with personality constructs nowadays.”

“Personality constructs? Does that make a difference?”

“It shouldn’t do. You have to retrain in the use of MTPH….”

“I suppose that’s one reason for sending you here to speak to me,” said the pod thoughtfully. “Still, I would have thought the reasons for my failure would be beyond human intelligence. I would have thought the investigation would be a job for an AI.”

Justinian spoke in his most sarcastic voice.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The trouble is, AIs don’t seem to want to work on Gateway. So far I’ve interviewed fourteen of the thirty two pods that were seeded here. All of them have been exactly like you: drastically reduced versions of their former selves. Virtual suicides.”

The pod seemed unbothered by his tone.

“Really? So it wasn’t just me, then…”

The pod was silent for a moment. When it spoke, Justinian thought that there was an edge of fear to its voice. That was silly, of course. The pod could make its voice sound however it wanted it to sound.

“So that’s why they sent a human. But why you, I wonder? There’s more, isn’t there, Justinian? There’s a reason why they chose you in particular.”

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Recursion

RecursionMidIt is the twenty-third century. Herb, sickness a young entrepreneur, returns to the isolated planet on which he has illegally been trying to build a city–and finds it destroyed by a swarming nightmare of self-replicating machinery. Worse, the all-seeing Environment Agency has been watching him the entire time. His punishment? A nearly hopeless battle in the farthest reaches of the universe against enemy machines twice as fast, and twice as deadly, as his own–in the company of a disarmingly confident AI who may not be exactly what he claims…

Little does Herb know that this war of machines was set in motion nearly two hundred years ago–by mankind itself. For it was then that a not-quite-chance encounter brought a confused young girl and a nearly omnipotent AI together in one fateful moment that may have changed the course of humanity forever

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Extract

Herb 1: 2210

Herb looked at the viewing field and felt his stomach tighten in horror.  He had been expecting to see a neat cityscape: line after line of silver needles linked by lacy bridges, cool silver skyscrapers shot through with pink tinted crystal windows; artfully designed to resemble the spread of colours on a petal.  Instead he saw… bleak nothingness.  Cold, featureless, gently undulating wasteland spreading in all directions.

Something had gone badly wrong.  Suddenly the cosy white leather and polished yellow wood lounge of his spaceship was not the safe cocoon he had grown used to over the past few months.  Now they would be coming to prise him from this warm, cushioned shell to cast him shivering into the real world, all because he had made one tiny mistake.

Somehow he had made a mess of the code that should have told the Von Neumann Machines to stop reproducing and start building.

Herb’s machines had eaten up an entire planet.

 

But there was nothing to be gained now by crying about it.  Herb had known he was on his own when he embarked upon this project. It was up to him to figure out what had gone wrong, and then to extract himself from the situation.

He opened a second viewing field next to the first and called up an image of his prototype Von Neumann Machine.  A cylinder, nine centimetres long, with eight silver legs spaced along its body giving it an insectile appearance. Six months ago Herb had dropped out of warp right over this planet, opened the hatch of his spaceship, and stood in solemn silence for a moment before dropping that same machine onto the desolate, rocky surface below.

What had happened next?

Herb liked to pace when he was thinking, and he had arranged his spaceship lounge to allow him room to do so. Two white sofas facing each other occupied the centre of the room.  A wide moat of parquet flooring filled the space between the sofas and the surrounding furniture that lined the walls of the room. The smell of beeswax polish and fresh coffee filled the cabin.   Herb closed his eyes as he ran through the order of events after he had released the Von Neumann Machine- a mental dry run to try and isolate the problem.

He imagined that first VNM turning on six of its spindly legs, lifting them in a high stepping motion as it sought to orientate itself.  The remaining two legs would be extended forward, acting as antennae, vibrating slightly as they read the little machine’s surroundings.  It would have walked a few paces, tiny grains of sand sticking to its silver grey limbs, then maybe changed direction and moved again, executing a random path until it found a patch of rock of just the right composition and then settled itself down, folding its legs around itself to bring its Osmotic shell in contact with the surface.

His thoughts on track, Herb began to pace in a circle around one sofa, soft ships’ slippers padding on the wooden floor.  He was naked except for a pair of paper shorts.  Two hairs grew from his sunken chest; whose pallor had caused the ship’s computer to steadily increase the UV content of the lighting over the past two days, in order to stimulate vitamin D production.  Okay, what next?

In his imagination he saw that first machine, absorbing matter, converting it, working it, and sending it around that half twisted loop that no human mind could comprehend.  Soon there would be two identical machines standing on the rock, their legs waving in an explorative fashion. And then four of them, then eight…

The program was perfect, or so the simulations had told him. When they reached the optimum number the machines should have begun constructing his city out of their own bodies.  Clambering on top of each other using the sticky pads on the ends of their feet.  Herb was proud of the design of those pads: each seemingly smooth foot ended in a chaotic branching of millions upon millions of tiny strands.  Press one foot down and the hairs would spread out, reaching down and around to follow the contours of the surface beneath them so perfectly that they were attracted to it at a molecular level.

Not that any of that mattered now. This was the point where the error lay.  The machines hadn’t paused to build his city.  They’d just gone on reproducing, continued eating up the planet to make copies of themselves until there was nothing left. He opened his eyes again to look at the view field.  Maybe he had only imagined it.

No way.  Herb groaned as the view zoomed in on the cold grey shifting sea beneath.  He could make out the busy motion of thousands, millions of VNMs walking over and under each other, struggling to climb upwards to the surface only to be trodden on and forced down by other VNMs, each equally determined about seeking the light.  Wasn’t that part of the end program?  City spires, growing upwards, seeking the light in the manner of plants?  Herb groaned again at the endless perpetual motion beneath his ship. Everywhere he looked, everywhere the ship’s senses could reach; out to the horizon, down to the submerged layers of machines; it was the same:  frenzied pointless activity.

He paused and felt a sudden thrill of horror. That wasn’t quite true.  Something was happening directly below.  He could see a wave building beneath him: a swelling in the grey, rolling surface.  Thousands of pairs of tiny silver antennae were now waving in his direction.  They sensed the ship hanging there.  They sensed raw materials that could be converted into yet more silver VNMs.  Herb felt a peculiar mix of horror and betrayal.

He croaked out a command. “Ship. Up one hundred metres!”

The ship smoothly gained altitude and Herb began to pace again.   He needed to think, to isolate the error; but he couldn’t concentrate because one thought kept jumping in front of all the others.

He was in serious trouble.  The EA would have been upset enough by the thought of a private city being built on an unapproved planet.  Never mind the fact that the planet was sterile and uninhabited, they would still point out the fact that a city wasn’t part of this planet’s natural environmental vectors.

“We are uniquely placed to manipulate not only our environment, but also that of other races as yet unborn.  It is our responsibility not to abuse that privilege.”

The message was as much part of Herb’s childhood as the smell of damp grass, the dull brown tedium of Cultural Appreciation lessons and the gentle but growing certainty that whatever he wanted was his for the asking.   Everything, that is, but this.  Everyone knew the EA’s philosophy.

So what would the EA think when they discovered that in failing to build his illegal city he had accidentally destroyed an entire planet instead?

Herb didn’t remember setting out a bottle of vanilla whiskey on the carved glass slab that served as a side table.  Nonetheless, he poured a drink and felt himself relax a little. His next moves began to fall into place.

First he had to try and destroy any evidence linking this planet with himself.

Next he had to get away from here undetected.

Then he had to slot back into normal life as if nothing had happened.

Then, and only then, could pause to think about what had gone wrong with his prototype.

The first objective should be quite straightforward.  The original VNM had been designed with anonymity in mind: standard parts, modular pieces of code taken from public libraries.  The thought that someone might accidentally stumble across his planet had always been at the back of his mind. He gulped down some more whiskey and an idea seemed to crystallise from the concentrated alcohol. He prodded it gently.

Of course, so far as Herb knew, no one else even knew that this planet existed.  He had jumped across space at random and set his ships senses wide to find a suitable location.  What if this planet were just to disappear?  What if he dropped a second VNM onto it- one with a warp drive and access to a supply of exotic matter?  Set it loose converting all the original machines, and then, when that work was done, just jump them all into the heart of a star?

Could he do it?

Getting hold of enough exotic matter to build the warp drives of the modified VNMs would be a problem; but his father had contacts, so that could come later.  He had to get away first.

He could do that.  A random series of jumps around the galaxy, eventually returning to Earth.  Enough jumps, executed quickly enough and nothing would be able to retrace his course.

Good.  Now, how about slotting back into normal life?  Would anyone suspect him?  More to the point, would the EA suspect anything?  Their senses were everywhere.  They said the EA could look into someone’s soul and weigh the good and evil contained therein to twenty decimal places, and yet… and yet…

Herb was different.  He had known it since he was a child.  Sometimes it was as if he was merely a silhouette.  Like he was there in outline, but they couldn’t fill in any of the specific details.

If anyone could get away with it, it was Herb.

A gentle breeze brushed his face and he felt his spirits lift. He took another gulp of whiskey and felt its reassuring warmth as he swallowed.  Alcohol and the flooding sense of relief made the lounge resume its feeling of comfort and security.  The plan was good.  He could get away with it.

“I can get away with it,” he whispered to himself, his confidence growing. Another drink of whiskey and that familiar sense of his own invulnerability swung slowly back into place.  Get back home, and he would be able to examine the design of his VNM and discover what had gone wrong with it. He drained the glass and began to stride around the room, feet padding on the wooden floor, energy suddenly bubbling inside him.

“I’m going to get away with it!” he said out loud, punching at the air with a fist, whiskey slopping from the glass held in his other hand. And then, once he was home, once he had found the error in his design, he could find himself another planet.  Build his city there instead.

“I will get away with it!” he cried triumphantly.

“No you won’t.”

The glass slipped from Herb’s fingers.  He spun around and fell into a crouch position; ready to run or fight, though where he would run to in a three room spaceship his body hadn’t yet decided.

A slight, dark haired man with a wide, white, beaming smile and midnight black skin stood on the sheepskin rug between the facing sofas. He wore an immaculately tailored suit in dark cloth with a pearl grey pin stripe.  Snowy white cuffs peeped from the edge of his sleeves; gleaming patent leather shoes were half hidden by the razor sharp creases of trousers. The man raised his hat, a dark fedora with a spearmint green band, to Herb.

“Good Afternoon, Henry Jeremiah Kirkham.  My name is Robert Johnston. I work for the Environment Agency.”

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