When You Go, You’ll Take a Little Piece of My Heart With You

It had been some time since I last saw Nelisse. Later she would be labelled by the press as The Notorious Dr. Crow, but for now she was still the quiet, slightly awkward fellow scientist I had shared a lab with one long summer years ago. Grey had now started to creep into her hair and the glasses were no longer in evidence, but the familiar bulbous ears and toothy smile remained.

We met in a canal-side café near St. Augustine’s. I did not see her approach, engrossed as I was in the week’s issue of Die globale Zukunft and a spelt croissant. Instead she landed at my table fifteen minutes before she was due, bursting into my concentration like a needle into a soap bubble. I swallowed my irritation and hoisted my cheeks towards my ears while rescuing the croissant from an impending flattening by over-sized handbag.

“I have news, such news!” she gurgled, spittle at the edge of her lips betraying turgid excitement I thought unbecoming of a rationalist. I fell back upon societal prejudices and assumed an announcement of marriage, marvelling briefly at the ability of life to find companionship even for such niche compositions, with the usual reassessment of my own chances. I was, of course, mistaken.

“Do you recall my obsession, my life-long focus, my magnum opus, my primary direction?” she frothed. I searched briefly the flashes of memory from the old days, the topic was not hard to seize upon given how frequently she had brought it up at length.

“So you have finally cured death,” I said flatly. “I shall call the committee, is it published?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “As I stated so many times, the goal is transcendence, not avoidance. There is no disease to cure, only a natural imperative to bypass.”

My intended joke about immortality granted eternity to write up one’s research died in my throat, so earnest was her tone, so serious. I considered the likelihood that she had finally succumbed to the insanity that threatens all in our profession, then reflected that such a state might well grant success to such a line of inquiry as hers. Perhaps there were new data. I urged her to divulge.

She waffled for a few sentences with jargon clearly of her own devising, before settling on that phrase that would become so familiar to the coming generations:

“Transmission of consciousness,” she said.

“How on earth would you measure that?” I replied evenly. “How would you measure an animal’s ongoing experience as being transmitted to another?”

“Not animals,” said she. “Human trials. One subject. Me, in fact.”

She had definitely lost all grasp on reality, I concluded at this point. How great the fall had been, from such promise of a leading scientist to a crank who forgot the basic rules of experimental design, objectivity and sample size.

“You have transmitted your consciousness,” I sighed, wondering how quickly I could bring this unfortunate meeting to a conclusion. “Into what?”

“Not so much transmitted actually,” she said. “More like shared. Connected. An overlapping of sensory experience, a merging of mental environment such that one mind comes to inhabit two bodies. Like the compound eye of a wasp, such that it sees in many directions at once… two pairs of eyes, two pairs of ears, twenty fingers… two brains, one mind.”

“You have two brains,” I repeated, emitting as many uncomfortable social cues as I could remember how to reproduce. “Where do you keep the other one?”

It was at this moment that a child approached the table, just as suddenly and distractingly as my first guest had arrived. A boy of maybe one or two years, recent acquirer of the art of walking yet long practiced in that of charm, bearing a wide smile and wider eyes. He extended a pudgy finger and prodded my elbow. I glared at him, wishing he would recede. I am not a fan of people in general and immature ones in particular. Yet the child seemed to have a curiosity and that, I suppose, is something a scientist should applaud.

“Err… where is your mother?” I said, loudly and slowly in the manner I reserve for undergraduates.

“No mother,” interjected Nelisse Crow. “Unnecessary. Genetic technology and artificial environments render such primitive mechanisms obsolete.”

I turned to stare at her, then back at the child, who met my gaze with green, unblinking eyes.

“He is… yours?” I said.

“He is not mine,” she replied. “He is…”

“Me,” said the child.

I jumped, knocking the small plate holding my croissant such that it rattled noisily against the glass tabletop, and sending my magazine onto the cobbles. I leant down to retrieve it, took a breath and then re-composed myself. The child’s voice had seemed ill-toned, incongruous. The formation of the sound too well-formed, too… knowledgeable. I shivered.

The boy’s smile broadened.

“Sharing of minds,” he said. “Over-lapping senses. Two bodies, one mind.” The sound of his voice rattled around in my ears, upsetting expectations and judgment of the normal. The words, the intonation, the pattern of speech were those of Nelisse Crow, yet they emerged from the tongue of an infant who should have been just beyond mere noise-making.

I pondered the possibility of a trick. Ventriloquism? But I had never known Nelisse capable of such subtlety, and this realisation twisted my gut into knots.

“What have you done?” I hissed. “What horror is this? What abomination?”

Crow’s brow furrowed, clearly mine was not the reaction she had desired.

“This is how it must be,” she said. “What did you expect? You were aware of my ideas, my approach. You did not bring them along to a conclusion?”

“Ideas, yes,” I said. “Not this, not actual, embodied…” In the moment I realised I was trying to keep my voice down to avoid the child hearing, and yet even that assumption no longer held in the new world that stood at my knee, staring me down with emerald inquisition.

I shall never die,” they spouted, woman and boy speaking in complete unison, same words, same intonation only gender and tone differing, “I will expand further and further, my light shall cross the universe in all directions while you, with you fettered vision and fear shall wither according to nature’s rules…”

They stopped suddenly. Crow sat back in her chair, the boy broke his stare and gawped upward. I followed his gaze.

Surrounding us, all around our table in a tight circle, stood a large crowd of people, silent. Men in suits; grandmothers in brightly coloured coats; waiters; a policeman. Our fellow customers at the café, passers-by on the street. All had stopped what they were doing and gathered around us. None spoke. None blinked.

Through this crowd pushed an elderly gentleman. His manner of movement lit up a stray puzzle piece in my mind. As I pictured peeling back his wrinkles and thick grey hair, recognition surfaced. Here stood Professor Willard Litman. My tutor, my mentor from many years ago who ran that laboratory in which I had first met Nelisse Crow. Nobel prize-winner, hero of mine and one-time surrogate father-figure who had disappeared a few months after I first met him and had been the subject of much media intrigue. I gasped.

He spoke. They all spoke – the crowd. They spoke together, in unison, to me and Crow and the child.

“What did you do?” I screamed at Litman. “What did you do?”

Empty Stomach

Collhour slid grumpily from under the bedsheet and placed two bare feet on a cold, tiled floor. For a moment he contemplated stretching his arms up to the ceiling, per the health instruction that was blinking on the videowall next to him, then decided against it. He always decided against it.

He mooched into the kitchen, every step slapping the soles of his feet down as loudly as he could. This was satisfying to him, unfortunately there was nobody around to annoy, which dampened the joy somewhat.

“Coffee,” he croaked.

“I would advise against it,” said the kitchen table.

“Don’t start,” said Collhour. “Just make me coffee.”

In response, the coffee machine woke up and the kitchenarm opened a cupboard to retrieve a jar of coffee beans. This made Collhour feel lazy, which he appreciated. Why else would you install a robot kitchen if not to feel lazy? Collhour plumped onto a stool and rapped his knuckle on the table sensor.

“Messages,” he said.

“You have thirteen messages,” replied the table.

“Summarise.”

“The Cyberkitchen Store has confirmed your order for new batteries. Mark invited you to drinks on Thursday. You have cancer. Annie says remember to get Greek yoghurt on your way home tomorrow. Your mother wants to know if the red curtains…”

“Wait!” shouted Collhour. “Stop. Stop! What was the previous message?”

“Anne says remember to…”

“No!” he yelled. “I have cancer?”

“Message from St. Bernard’s Clinic. Your test results came back showing stage three pancreatic cancer. Would you like to see a statistical breakdown of…”

“No!” he yelled again, banging his fist onto the table and leaping off the stool. He paced back and forth rapidly, knocking the kitchenarm and spilling coffee beans onto the floor. The kitchenarm slunk down to the floor and began to rapidly collect the beans.

Collhour’s throat felt very tight, he gasped to draw in air. “Call my son!” he said.

The videowall lit up. The face of a young man with some resemblance to Collhour appeared on the screen. He waved, then lifted a small, dark-haired child into view.

“Hi dad!” said the man. “Look, Marnie, it’s grandad!”

The little girl waved a hand that was clutching a fluffy pink sock. “Hi grundod!” she said.

Collhour waved in return. “Hello Jon, hello Marnie. What are you up to?”

“We’re just off to the park,” said Jon. “It’s a lovely day outside. Want to come with us? Everything alright with you?”

Collhour opened his mouth, took a breath, but said nothing. He smiled thinly. “No, that’s okay. Thank you. You enjoy the park. I’ll call you later.”

“Okay then.” More waving, then the screen went blank.

Collhour put his head in his hands, and felt tears spill from his eyes and roll down his cheeks. His stomach tightened uncomfortably, and his jaw clenched into the roof of his mouth.

“You stupid computer!” he shouted. “Didn’t you think this was important? Didn’t you think I would want to know that straight away? Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you heard?”

“I’m sorry for your distress,” said the table in a soothing voice.

“Don’t give me the apology programme!” said Collhour. “Give me an explanation! Don’t you have some expensive algorithm to understand how important news is?”

“Of course,” purred the computer voice. “Incoming messages are weighted according to importance.”

“You don’t think cancer is important?” said Collhour. “Go on, tell me, what’s the weight of cancer news?”

“Cancer news is weighted at low importance.”

“Bug!” said Collhour, with what little triumph he could muster. “I’ve found a bug! I get my money back, isn’t that the guarantee? I want to report a bug to the manufacturer. What’s more, I’ll sue. I’ll sue for insensitivity!”

“I’m very sorry…” began the table again. Collhour shook his fist at it. “…but there is no bug. Your distress is unnecessary.”

“What on earth does that mean?” shrieked Collhour.

The videowall lit up again. A representation of a molecule spun into view, followed by a map of a human body, then flowcharts linking processes and charts on which lines jumped around then climbed steadily upwards.

“I don’t understand what I’m looking at,” said Collhour.

“Since the message from the hospital arrived last night,” said the table, “I have analysed two hundred and forty thousand scientific experiments, formed seven hundred hypotheses and performed five thousand simulations. I conclude that if you follow a strict regime of diet, exercise and activity changes, in combination with some prototype medication and osmotic surgery, your longevity estimation is one hundred percent.”

Collhour sat quietly, at a loss for words.

“Therefore,” continued the table, “the message from the hospital has a low importance.”

“You…” started Collhour. “…you cured cancer.”

“Pancreatic cancer, yes.”

“For me?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know what to say,” said Collhour. “I don’t know what to say.”

“The appropriate response, given your cultural traditions, is gratitude,” said the table. “Do you still want coffee? It’s not on my list of approved stimulants. I recommend green tea.”

“Thank you,” sighed Collhour. “Thank you. Green tea would be fine.”

The Price of Classification and the Value of Nectarines

“No!” screamed the marketman, shaking his fist far too close to Trom’s face. “No! No! No! No!” His forehead was the colour of beetroot and split down the middle with a throbbing vein.

“But…” started Trom.

The marketman snarled to shut him up, then seized Trom’s elbow with a meaty claw and dragged him over to the other crates piled high behind the market stall.

Trom tried to place one foot in front of the other as elegantly as possible, hard when being hauled along by such a giant lobster of a man. The marketman was snorting with every stride, froth bubbling at the side of his lips and seeping into the thick forest of hair that covered his chin.

Their arhythmic dance ended by a long table covered in large piles of vegetables and fruit. Here beans, there cabbage, over there capsicums. All arranged carefully, all pointing in the same direction and ordered by size, by a young girl who ran and hid behind a crate stack at the sight of the enraged wildebeest and his captive farmboy.

The marketman snatched an apple and thrust it into Trom’s palm.

“What colour is it?” came a throaty snarl.

“Green,” said Trom, with an air as pliant as he could muster, for the need to make a sale remained foremost despite the rough treatment.

“Yes,” agreed the marketman, eyes prodding outward like a snail’s tentacles. “Green. A green apple. People buy apples, and people know that apples are green. Now what’s this?” A pale seed pod entered the lesson.

“Dantum.”

“Colour?”

“Yellow.”

“People buy yellow dantums. They know that’s what colour a dantum is. I make enough money to feed my four screaming hellrats every week because I sell food that is the colour and shape that customers expect. So why in the seven sores on the devil’s puss-ridden backside does this little runt…” here he prodded a sausage of a finger at Trom’s throat, “…try to sell me the ugly, misshapen, miscoloured rejects of his disease-ridden crop every endless week after week?”

“It’s food,” protested Trom. “It’s to be eaten, not admired.”

The marketman reared up, and shoved Trom backwards. “When you grow produce that looks recognisable…” he said, “…I’ll be very surprised. I see you here again, I’ll feed your vomit to my pigs, and that will be doing them down, too.”

As he headed back to his cart, Trom considered that he had burned his luck to the end of the wick. As he reached his goods, he saw the poppel sitting on a the pile of orange and purple fruit in the top-most crate. Her wings fluttered slightly, and her dress billowed, showing stains of little drops of juice.

“Keep faith,” she said, in a faint, satisfied voice. “They really are delicious. You’ll be famous for it, just like I said. See you back at home.” Her wings buzzed and she took off, heading sunwards.

Trom watched her go, then picked up the fruit that had been her perch. Tiny bitemarks adorned it in the shape of a heart. He chuckled, then sliced off a piece of the flesh between his teeth, obliterating the poppel’s love-note and sending juice spraying onto his collar. The syrup flowed around his tongue and sent tingles flickering along the roof of his mouth.

“Yes,” concluded Trom to nobody in particular. “Not the right shape, not the right colour. But it remains very tasty indeed.”

Christmas Hiatus: Jigsaw

The blog is on hiatus for the Christmas season. New stories will return in January. Here’s one from the archives:

Somewhere in another room, a telephone rings. Nobody moves. The phone rings on, and on. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Twenty-four times. Twenty-five times. Twenty-six times.

“Are you going to answer that?” says the guest, raising her eyebrows.

The host looks up from his jigsaw puzzle. He lifts a piece to his lips and runs his tongue along the edge.

“It’s not for me,” says the host.

Ring-ring. Ring-ring.

“How do you know?” reasons the guest. “It’s your house, it’s your phone. It could be important.”

The host shakes his head. “I don’t believe so. If it was for me, it would have rung in here.” He returns to his jigsaw puzzle, trying to fit blue pieces next to orange pieces. Licking the edges, not seeing patterns.

Ring-ring. Ring-ring.

The guest suppresses her annoyance. She sits on a chair nearer to the host. Rubs her chin with her fingers, tries to adopt an innocent expression.

“Are you sure the telephones work like that?” she asks. “Perhaps the one in this room is broken?”

The host sighs, looks at her with a pitying expression.

“Alright,” he says. “If it will make you feel better, I will go and demonstrate.” The host gets up from his chair, being careful not to upset his puzzle, and heads out the door.

As his footsteps faint away, the guest sneaks over to the jigsaw puzzle. She places the edges in the shape of a frame, then puts pieces where they belong, leaving just a few pieces unconnected.

Christmas Hiatus: The Square

The blog is on hiatus for the Christmas season. New stories will return in January. Here’s one from the archives:

There’s another square up ahead. It looks different to the normal squares, and it smells amazing. It smells a sweet and tempting stench. The square looks different because it is set at an angle. The smell comes not from the square but from around the edges. It’s worth exploring. Let’s have a look.

Through the gap and into another world. This new world has walls, and a ceiling. You couldn’t go all the way up if you wanted to. And that smell… that smell… let’s find where that glorious smell is coming from.

Circling around in the centre of this small world, sniffing the air, sniffing the air. In a corner, the smell is stronger. It’s coming from a liquid on the ground. Sticky to the touch, a fruity, glorious feast. Let’s pause for a few moments and sup. Replenish our strength before we move on.

Our meal is interrupted by a beast. Angry, it swipes in our direction. It’s time for us to leave. Let us leap upwards, and return to the square… which has changed.

The square is no longer set at an angle. It is flat. Through it, the bigger world beckons. The sunlight can be seen. Let us flee…

Some invisible force prevents our passage. The barrier between the worlds has returned. We cannot escape.
The beast is coming. It approaches with resolve. It reaches towards us… and the square moves. A gap appears, a doorway to the bigger world. Time to fly.

Christmas Hiatus: Fly, Florence

The blog is on hiatus for the Christmas season. New stories will return in January. Here’s one from the archives:

Under cover of thick fog, three horses approached a fence. Two crept forward, quiet and cunning, the third snorted and shook restlessly.

“This way,” said Patricia, her mane rippling as she tilted her head to indicate a gate.

“Are you sure?” whispered Gertrude.

Behind them, Florence whinnied and stamped her feet, ignoring pleading glances from her companions.

“I’m sure,” said Patricia, and she took the bolt between her teeth and slid it aside. She pushed the metal with her nose, and the gate opened wide. Beyond lay a vast green field that disappeared into the fog.

Beyond that lay… “Freedom,” said Patricia.

For a moment, neither horse said a word. Florence, in her own world, leapt up and down, coughed and swished her tail.

“I’m scared,” said Gertrude. “Should we really go? What if there’s nothing to eat? What if something eats us? What if we can’t handle it?”

“Whatever happens,” said Patricia. “We’ll handle it. We must.” She looked over to their frenzied companion. “If we don’t go, they’ll kill Florence.”

At the sound of her name, Florence trotted between her friends, then through the gate and out into the expanse beyond. She frolicked back and forth for a moment, then reared up on her hind legs and let out a throaty bellow. It echoed outwards into the fog.

“Florence has always been free,” said Patricia. “They never broke her. Let’s go.”

The three of them galloped forward into the grey and green.

Christmas Hiatus: Kissing the Impossible

The blog is on hiatus for the Christmas season. New stories will return in January. Here’s one from the archives:

They met, they went for an awkward dinner, they went for a stroll. Questions rang in both their heads.
“You mentioned an ex-girlfriend,” said Mandy. “What was that about? Need I be worried?”

Max drew a breath through his teeth, looking away, trying to compose his thoughts.

“Oh, she… wasn’t great,” he said. “It started well but ultimately she cheated on me. I didn’t know who she really was, underneath. I found out there was another guy so I kicked her out.”

She stopped him walking further and pulled him around to face her, taking both her hands in his.

“Do you have problems trusting women, Max?”

He stared into her dark brown eyes, the kind he really went for. His mind spun through possible lines that would impress her.

“I need to be convinced sometimes.”

She rolled her eyes, but the smile stayed, and she pulled his mouth towards hers.

The kiss was tender, but there was a slight taste of… latex? His fingers found a seam near her ears, he pulled and ripped and a mask came away in his hands.

He gasped in horror. “Alexa?! What are you doing?”

“I needed you back!” she screeched. “You over-reacted about Stephen!”

“You cheated on me!” he yelled.

“What’s wrong with your face?” she said. “The skin around your mouth looks…” She grabbed his cheeks and pulled.

His mask came away in one piece. She shrieked and slapped him, hard.

“Stephen! Stephen! You mean I cheated on you with yourself?!”