I wrote this short story sometime in 1992, before becoming a student. At the time, I was heavily into the Cyberpunk genre and particularly, a game called ShadowRun, loosely based on Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and mixed in with some gene-mangled non-human races and mysticism ala Lord of the Rings.
This infatuation passed on to much darker, Gothic themes after reading Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, but during my stint as a Cyberpunk fan, I managed to crank out some short stories.
This was the first short story I wrote as part of a series of speculative science fiction pieces on AI taking its place alongside humans in a cold, corporation dominated, post-meltdown future.
I hope you can take a few minutes, then, to enjoy this blast from the past, written 16 years ago, when Amstrad was a reputable British company, Amigas still roamed the land, the Atari ST was a household name and the mainstay of many a band. A time when Macs ruled, PCs were still 16 bit and 1MB of RAM was “pretty damn cool”.
More that that, I was still young and enthusiastic enough to believe that tech would answer all our needs and a bright, clean, shiny and well oiled future awaited us.
A SHARP EXIT
“Where was the Crew?” she thought as she took a quick downwards glance at her watch. Its luminous display proclaimed 14:02. Two minutes late.
As if this wasn’t bad enough she’d chabbed her fix on the security system of the robotics complex and now it seemed that the whole of Gold Star Security were now after her. This was not how she’d planned it!
She ducked and ran as fast as she could behind the low, gleaming concrete wall, which was all that stood between her and the advancing guards. Her breath was coming shorter and shorter as she exerted herself, not usually having to run to save her life.
She risked taking a peek over the slabs back towards her pursuers.
“Shit!” she hissed and dived into the waiting storm drain as a hail of SMG rounds skimmed the top of the culvert. That was close.
There were four guards bearing down upon her at seven o’clock. The walls wouldn’t offer cover when they jumped into the drainage channel with her.
A flash and a resounding crack signified a guard’s shot, accompanied by a spray of stone chips scattering themselves noisily around the duct. Too close.
Trying not to loose her footing, she unhooked a miniature thermos flask type affair from her belt and hastily withdrew the safety tag.
“Hope the thing works!” she prayed; the grenade was a home-wired, plastique charge pressed inside a piece of steel piping welded shut at one end and stoppered with a steel end cap at the other.
It was set for proximity after five seconds priming. Hopefully they wouldn’t see it until it was too late – or even better – see it at all.
She tossed it behind her and it rolled off to one side to nestle snugly amongst the assorted bits of foam and plastic shards which littered the duct; its little LED flashing proudly to itself.
She started to giggle as she careened along the grey stone, feeling an edgy, ecstatic hysteria start to take hold of her. A bullet whanged in a spray of sparks as it hit the wall to her right and she was sure the glittering blue beam of an Aries laser pistol had just singed her hair!
She was laughing now and couldn’t stop herself even though she knew they must be nearly in the channel by now. Foolishly, she peered back down the duct, the guards were piling over the wall.
“Come on you pansies…” she shouted, running for all she was worth towards the corner up ahead that promised escape from view and just a little further – out of sight – was the grating: The outlet to the sewers, which had let her into the compound in the first place. “Nearly there!”
WHOOM! The guards were involved in a bit of involuntary landscape editing as the hundred gramme charge of home-brew went up.
The blast carried down the channel like a runaway tube-train. It slammed into her back and lifted her clean off her feet. Dazed, she sailed through the air and hardly felt herself hit the end of the channel some ten metres away and slide roughly to the ground in a heap.
A hundred Christmas choirboys were singing different Christmas Carols simultaneously and waving sparklers before her eyes.
“I’ll try fifty grams next time,” she thought, “if there is one.”
She braced her arms and started to straighten them. But she couldn’t.
Only half way up, something stopped her. She was about to turn her head to see what it was when she was roughly hoisted into the air.
Through the afterimages of the explosion, she could make out a tall and muscular creature dressed in Gold Star combats holding her clear off the floor by the back of her plated jacket’s collar, choking her. He waved a pistol in her face and was shouting into a receiver on the back of his right hand; his voice unheard through the chorus.
Still, she thought, it didn’t take much imagination to guess what he was doing. There would be more guards here soon.
He started to carry her towards the end of the channel, where a set of stairs lead up to the tarmac. She struggled, but his wired arms were far too strong for her.
She gave up and let herself be dragged away.
“Where was the Crew?” A glance at her wrist showed 14:05:21.
She looked up at the roughly shaven underside of the creature’s face, sallow skin beaded with salty sweat that stained his combat’s collar. As he grinned down at her balefully, huge irregular teeth stuck haphazardly from raw gums and the smell of fish flooded her nostrils.
Noticing her discomfort, his eyes flashed with pleasure in the light of the one neon strip-light at the end of the duct that was still lit. The thing gave her a complementary blood-stopping squeeze round the neck and guffawed.
He rounded the last corner.
Slam! So quickly, before she knew what was happening! A huge metal-clad fist flashed out from around the corner, catching the burley guard in the midriff before he could let go of her and ready himself.
Not unduly phased, the creature tossed her aside like a child with a forgotten rag doll where she collapsed, exhausted against the wall. She watched in fascination as his wires kicked in; the technology never failed to amaze her. The meshing of flesh and machine creating a faster, stronger being was an astounding feat of modern science. And his wires were good: Accelerating his movements far beyond what mere flesh could muster, especially considering the creature’s size and mass.
The creature’s movements were a blur as he moved to find a strategic location in the rubble strewn drainage channel.
He stood, still now and she watched in awe and a little disgust as from the knuckles of his leathery hands slid two sets of long, titanium spurs.
Seeing nothing forthcoming, the thing took on a casual battle pose and grinned, beckoning.
It was then that the Crew stepped round the corner, all three metres and 950 gleaming, chromed kilos of it. She watched as the creature blinked twice in utter disbelief. His wired flesh was no match for the speed and deathly steel precision of the The Crew: It’s nearly-one-tonne contained not a gramme of, soft, vulnerable flesh.
“I knew you wouldn’t let me down,” she said, hugging the Crew’s warm tungsten-clad neck and kissing it as it tenderly lifted its bruised companion onto its back and carried her off into the pipes and away, a flash of silver against the night.
Even in death, the grin never left the creature’s face.
This serialised book is released under copyright 2008, Craig Lloyd. All rights reserved. No permission is granted to duplicate, retransmit or repurpose this work in part or in full without the express permission of the copyright holder. Any excerpts or quotes should include the name of the Author and this URL or that of the Author’s Home Page, http://lloydie.homeip.net
Carmine sat in the Headmaster’s office, the smell of musty leather and what she assumed was port wafting past her nostrils.
It was bright and warm outside, in contrast to the cold, dark interior of the office, and as she sat there, feeling a little forlorn and lost, she wondered why it was these old buildings were always so cold and dark, no matter the weather or season.
The light streamed in from the window, in such contrast that it left afterimages on the insides of her eyelids and she found herself having to squint in order to see anything. It also made the dull, thumping pain in the side of her head worse. She rubbed at her left temple and frowned.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” the Headmaster stated levelly, with the back of his overstuffed chair facing her, an imposing black shadow against the window.
“I beg your pardon?” Carmine asked.
“I said,” repeated the Headmaster, “you’re not supposed to be here. Not yet, at any rate.”
“Well, where am I supposed to be?” Carmine was a little confused. She looked around herself as if she expected to find the answer to her own question behind one of the brass framed images of Headmasters past, or in the dusty trophy cabinet that sat prominently against one wall.
For a moment the Headmaster said nothing, instead he stood up and walked to the window, placing both hands on the bottom edge of the frame. He appeared to be asking the wood for support. Carmine realised offhand that this was the first time she’d seen him stand up in his office and she was so accustomed to seeing him sitting that it took her a little by surprise.
“You’re in here, Carmine, because you’ve escaped your responsibilities.”
Before she could stop herself she retorted. “What the hell are you talking about?” Carmine bit her tongue and froze with shock at her own outburst. It was after all, the Headmaster she was talking to. She held her breath and waited for the howling protest that was bound to come. The Headmaster wasn’t one for blasphemy or out of context biblical references.
Yet to her utter surprise, he completely ignored her, instead saying “I think you need a drink.”
She saw his hand, or rather, the shadowed outline of his hand gesture at a posh, crystal glass which she’d failed to notice sitting in front of her on his vast mahogany desk.
Carmine blinked a couple of times, as if the dust motes that lazily drifted through the room and sprang into brief life in the harsh rays of the incoming light, were getting in her eyes. She shuffled in her chair and felt completely at a loss for words. All she could do was reach out for the glass, finding no suitable way to refuse it.
“Carmine,” the Headmaster said earnestly, “I simply can’t afford having you come in here whenever you have a problem.”
Was the Headmaster giving her some of his famous prize port that he was known to stoke himself up with before his morning speeches?
She was recently eighteen after all, but this was very, very strange and it made her feel nervous and a little uncomfortable: A rather unusual feeling for her, it must be said.
Carmine lifted the glass towards her nose and sniffed at it gingerly. She didn’t know what actual port smelt like, but she’d imagined that it would smell a little more like wine than this did.
“As I said, you aren’t supposed to be here. You’re not the type that comes running for help.”
Carmine looked back up from the drink and apologized. “I’m sorry, but I think I’ve lost the thread of this conversation.”
She wasn’t really paying him much attention, letting his voice flow over her like background music in a supermarket. She was more confused and bemused at having been offered a drink by an educational figure.
Always one to let curiosity get the better of her, she found herself taking a tentative sip. It tasted odd, like wine but thicker. A heavier liquid than she’d imagined. It was rich, with a heady bouquet. She took another sip and felt a slight thrill tingle through her body.
Since turning eighteen a few months earlier, Carmine had drunk on only a handful of occasions, usually at weekends with her motley crew of friends. But she hated the way it made her feel the next day, so she largely left it alone.
This drink was in a different class. It was subtle, refined and seemed to fill her with energy. She felt the pounding in the side of her head subside a little.
“Carmine, you have a long road ahead of you. Untrodden paths await. Now is not the time to lie down and give in. You have to get outside again and face up to facts.”
The Headmaster continued and gestured at Carmine’s glass.
“Drink, please. Don’t let such a fine drink go to waste.”
“You are brave,” he continued, “but too headstrong. You need to think a little more before getting yourself into this kind of trouble and having me bail you out.”
“I was trying to clean things up. The mess I’d caused, I mean, trying to set things straight.”
“Carmine, the world is more complex than that. There is more here than just black and white, cause and effect. Even the slightest changes at the beginning can wreak great havoc later on down the road. Also, some changes just seem to happen by themselves, without apparent cause.”
“But it was my fault. I caused it, didn’t I?”
“Carmine,” the Headmaster said her name again, laughing ever so slightly. Not out of irony, malice or condescension, but more out of a feeling of empathy; an acute recollection that he, too, had been in such a situation and had asked the very same question. He knew that such matters are complex and difficult to explain and somehow, that was all expressed as a slight release of air from the nostrils and simultaneous tightening of the vocal chords.
“Are we so egocentric as to believe that when an event happens directly in the wake of another, especially after an action we ourselves performed, we assume that the former was the direct cause of the latter, that we alone should take full responsibility and blame?”
Carmine didn’t quite know whether to nod or shake her head.
He nodded for her.
“It appears that we are… Yet cause does not start with your own, singular action, no matter how great, outrageous or world-shaking. Cause has its roots in the distant, inscrutable past. Cause is present in every fibre, every particle and in the limitless spaces between. Cause was there, a long, long time before we insignificant beings showed up and proclaimed, ‘I think therefore I am’.
The Headmaster sat down and folded his hands before him on the desk. He was no more than a ghostly shadow, outlined against the window, but somehow, she could feel his eyes on her, feel that he was watching her intently.
“It is so very complex. The interactions of physics, metaphysics and psychology run too deep to ever quantify.
“One can much less understand the whole world today, let alone the whole world taken over a period of millennia leading into a dead, unchangeable past.”
Carmine, now rapt in what the Headmaster was saying remembered the glass she was holding. She went to drink more and was momentarily surprised to see the cup was still nearly full, although she was certain she’d been sipping at it.
He turned the chair away and seemed to study something outside, beyond the dazzling window.
“Luckily, sentient beings have an innate understanding of the insurmountable divide between the confines of their flesh and the infinity that surrounds them and have crated a metaphysical concept to handle this limitless pool of possibility.
“And with the advent of language they have thus created a word for the concept… a word, which finite beings in an effectively infinite space taken over practically infinite time use for the concept of cause and effect which cannot possibly be traced back to a root event.
“It simplifies the mathematics whilst maintaining the possibilities and scope.”
Swinging the heavy chair around in a heavy motion, the Headmaster suddenly asked her, “Do you know what that word is, Carmine?”
Carmine caught her breath and whispered her response, “Fate.”
“Fate,” he confirmed in tones that managed to reverberate, loosening dust from the tops of the ornate picture frames, causing the glasses in the display cabinet to resonate slightly. Even in the over-decorated and padded confines of the musty office, his voice appeared to echo slightly, such was its presence.
“Yet fate is itself bodiless and directionless. It no more understands the concept of cause and effect than water does the concept of a river…”
Carmine was listening intently to his speech. Of course she’d heard his dreary morning talks at Assembly and she’d seen him talking to tired parents at the Parent’s Evenings. But this particular facet was something entirely new.
Somehow, what he said was resonating with something inside of her, she felt as if her core were vibrating in time to what he was saying. She could feel herself getting caught up in his words, in the rise and fall of his voice. Her heart beat in time to his words and her breathing punctuated his sentences.
“…A river, Carmine, along which we all travel. It is this river that gives us the impression that cause and effect is a conveniently closed system. We, trapped in this current, ourselves become the current; remove us all and the current loses its momentum; the river dries up.
“Twisting and turning as instinct prescribes, without volition until sentience allows one to make a decision to turn one way or another. This of course disturbs those around us, has an effect.”
Carmine suddenly spoke, her own voice sounded small and feeble coming as it did after his oration.
“Then we do have free will! We can cause something to happen and our actions do have meaning!”
“Yes, Carmine, but our actions are shaped by what lies around us, by what made us and by the currents that came together from the beginnings of everything to put us here, at this exact point in space and time.
“It is known to physics that every action causes an equal and opposite reaction. We know the immediate, shallow hows and whats of it. Yet what we need to understand, to really understand if we want to ride fate to the mouth of the river, is to know the whys.”
Carmine’s head and heart were starting to sing with the sound of his voice, caught up in currents of her own.
“The whys are the boundaries of the river, the mud that lines the banks of the river and makes itself home to hordes of tiny creatures, the sharp little stones in the riverbed that snag the unwary and disturb the currents, the giant, jagged rocks that protrude from the water, causing the flow to divide, to eddy and come together in great whirlpools of events and consequence.
“It is this complex boundary that guides and ultimately limits the current. Once we know the whys, we can trace the currents and make a guess as to where future currents will carry us.”
Then his voice lowered to an intense whisper, drawing Carmine in. She hung, with bated breath, on his every word.
“And the souls are caught in the current, are the current.
“Some are destined to drown, others to get washed up forlornly on the banks, discarded. Yet others obliterate themselves on the rocks or get sucked down into the depths and are unable to free themselves.
“Others, Carmine, what some might call lucky, float down the smoothest, deepest and fastest parts of the river, without a ripple, carried for miles, unaware of the turbulence at the edges.
“Then, there are those who make a difference, those who carve a part of the bank out to a shape of their own liking and let the currents pass by them or those whose strength allows them to cross great tracts of water, pulling the weak and powerless in their wake.”
The Headmaster finally took a breath.
“You, Carmine,” he said, stabbing a finger in her direction, “have just hit one of these rocks which jut sharply from the surface of the water. However, far from being smashed against it, you have managed to use it to pull yourself up and out of the water.
“When you leave here and dive back in, things will be significantly different; you will rejoin a new and uncharted current. In essence, a new fate awaits you.”
“You’re sounding like Yaida-sensei,” Carmine said at length, “and if what you say is true, I will understand what your words mean, when the time is right.”
The Headmaster laughed uncharacteristically and added, “He’s a wise one, that Mr. Yaida. He understands the meaning of many things. You shouldn’t have run away from him like that.”
Carmine looked down at her lap, ashamed.
The Headmaster leant forwards and squeezed her hand as she remembered he had done some time ago. This time she was surprised to notice that it was as cold as the room he inhabited; not a hint of warmth.
Speaking more quickly now, he said simply and in a voice that Carmine realised for the first time was not that of the Headmaster at all.
“It’s time to swim again.”
Carmine was suddenly filled with confusion. Her head began to throb and hear heart felt heavy and laboured beneath a breath becoming steadily more ragged. Not the Headmaster! Then who, who was he?
She found that her eyesight was blurring at the edges, and she was crying.
“I…” Carmine started but the Headmaster who wasn’t, was no longer in front of her.
Her eyesight was darkening and her thinking was becoming progressively fuzzier and more illogical. Pain was starting to seep in through cracks in her consciousness from behind the old pictures on the walls, then faster: The seep became a trickle and the trickle a flood of pain. From under the antique furniture it flowed, in from the blinding window and from between the very cushion and chair on which she sat. The current filled the room, washing it away, as if it were nothing more than a veneer coated facade.
“Carmine,” she heard her mother’s call coming unexpectedly from outside the door to the Headmaster’s office. She turned groggily, vaguely wondering if she’d been poisoned by the drink. The drink she was still holding tightly to her breast.
“Carmine,” came her mother’s voice again. The door was ajar and appeared just as dazzlingly bright against the darkness of the room as the windows did.
Pain was flowing out of the room, out through the door, causing the currents to beckon Carmine towards it. For a moment, among the scintillating reflections of her tears she thought she caught a glimpse of the man’s face as he stood, in the shadow of the door, holding it open. It was not the face of the Headmaster.
Carmine found herself being dragged away from the desk, which itself seemed to be dissolving. She placed the empty glass down on the arm of her chair and turned towards the door. The currents were now so strong that she felt she was now without volition, subservient to their power.
“It’s time to rejoin the river,” the quiet voice that was not the Headmaster’s came as he let her out.
Carmine flowed through the door and stepped into pure blinding whiteness and intense pain.
“Carmine,” her mother’s voice called from somewhere close by.
The blinding whiteness resolved itself into the sterile glare of two banks of fluorescent lights that seared the backs of her eyes, making her head split with pain. Before she shut her eyes to block out the light, she realised that she was lying down.
“Mum,” Carmine said and tried to sit up, but the pain that racked her body stopped her. Instead she lay still and moaned quietly.
“Oh love, don’t try and speak… we were so worried about you,” said her mother, with a placating hand on her shoulder that prevented her from moving. She was crying tears of joy, Carmine tears of pain.
Then she heard Jessica’s gentle voice calling her name.
At the sound of her younger sister’s voice, the remaining strength left her and fell into an uneasy slumber of raging, stormy water and deep, crimson liqueur.