Tag Archives: science fiction

The Matrix

 

You know that bit

in The Matrix

where Neo wakes up

on a bunk bed,

head shaved,

cheeks like rice paper?

 

Remember how his fingers

scan the back of his skull

like a child reading Braille

and stop

when they find the hole?

 

That’s when he knows

for certain

he’s no longer dreaming.

 

I keep on feeling

the back of my head

but so far,

nothing.

 

© Helen Lewis, 2006

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Finding Charlotte

 

It was Freshers’ Fair, and Emily was wandering round on her own. She stopped at the Science Society stall, which advertised its presence with a huge black and white photo of Albert Einstein poking out his tongue. In multicoloured lettering across the bottom was the caption, ‘SciSoc: not as boring as you think’. The boy sitting behind the trestle table wore John Lennon glasses and a Metallica T-shirt. He looked about as bored as it was possible to be.

‘Want to join?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, why not?’ Emily replied. She handed over her student union card.

‘Emily Brownlee,’ the boy said, reading from the card. He looked up, suddenly interested. ‘Do you have an older sister?’

Emily’s heart jumped. ‘You knew Charlotte?’

The boy handed back the student union card. ‘I’m Dan,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if Charlotte mentioned me.’

‘Of course she did,’ said Emily.

Dan picked up a SciSoc leaflet and scribbled something on the back. ‘I finish at five. Come and see me then.’

*

Dan’s room was on the seventh floor of one of the tower blocks on campus. A lard-faced stick insect of a boy let Emily into the flat. He indicated with a flick of his green Mohican towards the end of the corridor.

Three minutes later Emily was sitting in Dan’s armchair, trying not to wince as she sipped a mug of sugarless tea. Dan was perched on the edge of the bed, poking at a rip in his jeans.

‘It was the morning after the May ball,’ he said. ‘My mate Dave wasn’t in a fit state to walk home on his own, so Andy and I volunteered to help him. Charlotte said she’d meet me back at the flat. I didn’t think…’ His voice trailed off.

Emily was trying to think of the right words to fill the silence when Dan saved her the trouble.

‘I think I know what happened to her,’ he said.

Emily put down the mug of tea and leant forward.

‘When I met Charlotte I was working on a teleportation device, like the transporters in Star Trek. I’d managed to teleport a paperclip, but I was having problems with anything bigger; things would disappear at one end and wouldn’t reappear at the other. Charlotte was always pestering me to let her try it out, but I wouldn’t. A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning under the bed when I found one of the earrings Charlotte was wearing on the night of the May ball. She must have come back here before she went missing. She’d had a few drinks. She wouldn’t have been thinking straight. What if she tried to use the transporter?’

‘Can I see it?’ asked Emily.

Dan opened up the wardrobe. On one side was a haphazard pile of clothes. The other side was empty apart from three halogen spotlights screwed into the ceiling of the wardrobe, and a large brass switch at about shoulder height.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ said Emily.

‘No, it’s for real all right,’ said Dan, closing the wardrobe door. ‘This is only half of it; the transmitter. The receiver’s in the shower cubicle.’

‘Any chance of some sugar in this?’ asked Emily, holding out her mug.

While Dan was in the kitchen, Emily opened the wardrobe door and flicked the brass switch. There was a low, throbbing hum and the lights in Dan’s room dimmed. Emily stepped inside.

*

Emily found herself in Grandma’s back garden on a warm and sunny afternoon in summer. The house had burned down years ago, and Grandma had spent the rest of her life in a rest home, but here were the house and garden, exactly as Emily remembered them. When she and Charlotte were little they used to spend every Saturday with Grandma while Mum worked an extra shift at the hospital. In the warmer months the girls loved spending time in the garden. Sometimes they’d help with the weeding, water the tomatoes, or plant snapdragons and sweet peas in their own little corner of the garden, but most of the time they’d simply play.

Something was moving near the house, so Emily decided to go and investigate. The next thing she knew she was looking in through the kitchen window without any knowledge of how she’d got there. She looked down. She could see her own body, but she could also see through it to the paving slabs below. She felt a wave of nausea.

‘Emily?’

Emily turned round. Standing in front of her, hands on hips, was a Charlotte-shaped apparition, wearing a strapless ball gown and a frown.

‘You’re an idiot!’ said Charlotte.

‘You’re alive,’ said Emily. The tears began to flow.

Charlotte softened her expression. ‘I would give you a hug, but I can’t touch anything. It’s good to see you,’ she added.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Emily.

‘I’m in two places at once.’

Emily looked blank.

Charlotte continued. ‘When I first arrived, I thought this place was all there was, but then after a while, I started to hear a noise which didn’t belong here – like waves breaking on the shore. So I concentrated really hard, and found I was able to ‘be’ in the place the noise was coming from.’

‘What place?’ asked Emily.

‘I don’t know. It’s totally dark – even with my eyes open I can’t see anything.’

‘Sounds freaky.’

‘Actually, it’s kind of relaxing,’ said Charlotte.

Emily peered through the kitchen window. ‘Is Grandma here? Have you seen her?’

‘No,’ said Charlotte. ‘She must be out.’

‘But she’s bound to come home some time.’

Some time, yes,’ said Charlotte, ‘But not this time. We’re in a time loop. The sun starts pretty much overhead, then moves over that way, and then there’s this sudden jump in all the shadows and the sun’s back overhead again.’

‘If Grandma’s out she’s probably down the shops,’ said Emily. ‘We could -’

‘Nope,’ said Charlotte. ‘Can’t get through the gate. I’ve tried. Can’t get inside the house, either. I can’t touch things properly, but I can’t pass through them, either. We’re stuck here.’

‘Maybe not,’ replied Emily. ‘If you’re in two places at once, then I’m probably in two places at once as well.’

‘I guess,’ said Charlotte.

‘Which means we’re both half a person. If we could find some way of joining together we might become one whole person. Maybe then we’d be able to touch things.’

*

I’m hungry, thought Charlotte.

That was a clever idea of mine, wasn’t it? thought the part of her that was Emily.

It worked, and I’m really grateful, but right now I need something to eat, thought Charlotte.

Spaghetti hoops! thought Emily and Charlotte together.

Walking was a real effort, but Charlotte thought it would probably get easier once she’d had a bit more practice. Grandma’s back door key was under the mat as usual. Manipulating the key in the lock was tricky, but eventually she got the door open and stepped into the kitchen.

What was that smell? Never mind, there’d be time to deal with that later. Food first. Grandma had a gas stove, and she kept the matches on the top shelf of the pantry, which had been out of Charlotte’s reach when she was little, but not now. At the back of the middle shelf she found a tin of spaghetti hoops. She had a long struggle with a can opener to get it open.

What was that smell? She almost had it now. It was on the tip of her tongue. This two minds thing was going to take a bit of getting used to.

She lit a match.

Still the smell. It was something you couldn’t see. It had no smell of its own, so they added an artificial odour to it. Ah yes, that was it. Gas.

*

When Charlotte and Emily’s grandmother got back from the shops an enormous cloud of black smoke was hanging over the street and three fire engines were pumping foam on the charred remains of her home.

*

After a while the ringing in Emily’s ears subsided, and was replaced by a new sound: a rhythmic swishing noise. She was floating in a warm liquid. She wasn’t breathing, but this wasn’t a problem, because she didn’t feel like she needed to.

A thought began to form. Is this the ‘other place’?

Yes, thought the part of her that used to be Charlotte.

Emily opened her eyes. Darkness. She kicked with her arms and legs. She was encased in a rubbery cocoon. Her heart started racing.

Calm down, there’s no need to panic, soothed Charlotte’s mind.

But Emily was already panicking. She knew where they were.

And then the contractions started.

 

(C) Helen Lewis 2009


A teller of tales

‘You’ll never guess who I had on the back of my camel last week,’ said Abubakar Karim Urabi, taking a drag on his hookah and leaning back into the padded vinyl of the booth.

‘President Mubarak,’ offered Fadil the taxi driver.

‘More interesting than him.’

‘Brad Pitt,’ suggested Masud the barber.

‘I know,’ exclaimed Ishaq the butcher, slapping his hand down on the table, and sending shockwaves through the coffee. ‘That famous singer from Aswan. You know who I mean…What’s his name?’

Abubakar Karim Urabi shook his head. ‘It’s no one famous.’

‘No one famous?’ said Masud the barber. ‘Then how are we supposed to guess who he is?’

‘He?’ Abubakar Karim Urabi allowed a smile to play at the corner of his lips. ‘I never said he.’

‘So it’s a woman,’ said Ishaq the butcher, proving that his reputation for stating the obvious was well-deserved.

Abubakar Karim Urabi nodded.

‘My question still applies,’ said Masud the barber. ‘How are we supposed to guess her name if she’s not famous?’

‘I don’t expect you to guess her name; just her…shall we say…occupation.’

‘Belly dancer!’ exclaimed Ishaq the butcher.

Fadil and Masud exchanged glances. Abubakar kept his inscrutable half-smile.

‘Brain surgeon,’ said Masud the barber. ‘And you knew she was a brain surgeon because she told you your brain damage is inoperable.’

This drew appreciative noises from the other two.

‘I reckon she was a police officer,’ said Fadil the taxi driver, ‘and she arrested you for being the teller of the tallest tales in the whole of Cairo!’

Masud and Ishaq laughed.

‘So I take it you don’t want to hear my story.’

‘Of course we want to hear it,’ said Fadil the taxi driver.

‘Go on, Abu,’ said Masud the barber. ‘We love your stories, don’t we, Ishaq?’

‘Love ‘em’, confirmed Ishaq the butcher.

Abubakar Karim Urabi took another drag on his hookah and paused for a moment before exhaling the smoke gently through his nose. ‘It was late in the day,’ he said. ‘The last of the tour buses was leaving the car park, its wheels kicking up a dust storm and its exhaust pipe belching out thick black fumes. I was sitting on the ground, leaning against Salihah and enjoying a quiet roll-up, when a woman emerged from the clouds of dust and smoke and started walking towards me.

I played this little game I always play when I see a tourist approach. I guess which country they come from and which language they’re going to speak to me in. Most of the time it’s French, English or Spanish. I’m fluent in French and my English is pretty good, but I can only just scrape by in Spanish. Any other language and we’re reduced to the international language of signs, and I know I don’t stand much chance of charming a tip out of them.

Well, I put this one down as an ‘other’. She had dark skin, like an Ethiopian, and long black hair which she wore in plaits on either side of her face. As she got closer I could see her features were nothing like an Ethiopian’s; she had a long, thin nose, a high forehead and green eyes. I had no idea where she was from. I decided I’d wave her away with the international sign for ‘bugger off, I’m going home now’.

But before I got a chance do this, she addressed me in perfect Arabic.

‘Am I too late to take a camel ride?’

What I meant to say was, ‘Yes, I’m afraid you are. Come back tomorrow between eight and five.’ But the words that actually came out of my mouth were, ‘No, not at all. Let me just put the saddle back on Salihah here.’

‘I don’t need a saddle,’ she said. Before I could give her the usual warning about Salihah’s tendency to bite and spit, she’d taken the camel’s muzzle in her hands, and was staring into her eyes. Salihah grunted gently. Then the woman slid onto the camel’s back, and Salihah stood up without the usual five minutes of wheedling and cajoling.

‘So how does this work?’ the woman asked. ‘What do you usually do?’

‘I usually work with a group of other camel owners. We wait until all the camels have a rider, and then we leave in a caravan. We walk out into the desert for twenty minutes, then we stop for ten minutes so the tourists can take photos and so we can sell them camel key rings and pyramid pencil cases, and then we walk back.’

‘I am happy to follow your normal route, but I have no interest in buying souvenirs.’

So I took Salihah’s reins and walked out into the desert, towards the setting sun.

As we walked, I started up my usual spiel. It felt good to be able to do it in Arabic for a change. ‘The pyramid to our right is the pyramid of Khufu, also known as The Great Pyramid, because it is the largest of the three pyramids at the Giza necropolis. It is also the oldest, having been constructed —’

‘I have no interest in the ruins,’ said the woman.

Well, that surprised me, I must say. In all my years doing this job, I’ve never heard anyone say that. Although I’ve seen a few people who looked as though they were thinking it.

‘So, what are you interested in?’ I asked. ‘The desert… the sunset…the camels?’

‘The lunar eclipse.’

I stopped walking and turned to look at her. ‘The what?’

‘The lunar eclipse. It will be visible…’ she looked at her watch. ‘…in 23 minutes and 47 seconds.’

‘I didn’t know there was going to be an eclipse.’

‘That’s not surprising,’ she said. ‘A lunar eclipse isn’t a noteworthy event. There are lunar eclipses at least twice a year.’

‘There are?’

‘Well, they’re not always as good as this one. This is a total eclipse and most are only partial.’ She looked at her watch again, ‘We need to start moving again now.’

 

When we reached the usual spot where the caravan stopped, the sun was setting, dipping down behind the sand dunes in a shimmering orange haze. The woman was gazing in the opposite direction.

‘Look,’ she said.

Towards the east, between the pyramids, a full moon was rising above the city.

After a few minutes, the moon began to dim, a shadow appearing at one edge. As the shadow made its way across the face of the Moon, the Moon gradually changed colour, until it was a rich, brick red.

‘It’s amazing,’ I said.

‘Is this the first time you’ve seen a lunar eclipse?’

I nodded. ‘What about you?’ I expected her to say she’d seen dozens of them.

‘It’s my first time too.’

When we got back to the car park I broached the subject of payment. ‘I accept Egyptian pounds or American dollars.’

‘I don’t have either.’ She took off one of the bangles she was wearing. ‘Here, take this. It was my mother’s. She lived in Egypt for a while when she was younger, and she had an affair with a jeweller. He made this for her.’

I wanted to say thanks but no thanks, but before I could form the words, I found myself pocketing the bangle.

As the woman turned to go, I called after her. ‘Hey, if you’re so interested in lunar eclipses, and you know so much about them, how come you’ve never seen one before?’

‘Because you never see them where I come from.’

‘Why not?’

She thought for a moment before replying. ‘No moon.’’

 

‘No moon?!’ said Fadil the taxi driver. ‘You expect us to believe this woman was from another planet?’

‘I don’t expect anything,’ replied Abubakar Karim Urabi. ‘All I’m doing is relating what happened. Pure and simple.’

‘You must think were simple if you think we’ll swallow a story about aliens,’ said Masud the barber.

‘It was a good story, though,’ conceded Ishaq the butcher.

 

As usual, Abubakar Karim Urabi was the last to leave the coffee shop. As he was finishing his final mouthful of coffee, his phone rang.

‘Abu?’ It was Rudi, a friend of his from the Egyptian Museum. ‘Do you remember that gold bangle you gave me last week?’

‘Of course I do, Rudi.’

‘We’ve just got the results back.’ Rudi hesitated. ‘I hope you’re sitting down.’

‘Go on.’

‘It’s from the Old Kingdom, fourth dynasty, about 2,500 BC. The museum is prepared to pay you five hundred thousand US dollars for it. Are you still there, Abu?’

‘I was just thinking,’ said Abubakar Karim Urabi, ‘how every event in life is a mixture of bad news and good news. As far as this particular event is concerned, the bad news is that, from now on, it will always be my round at the coffee shop.’

‘And the good news?’ asked Rudi.

‘My friends will be much more likely to believe my stories.’

 

© Helen Lewis 2011


Leo consults the oracle

It was hot and dark on the thirteenth floor of the block of council flats. Leo, inappropriately dressed in a long black trench coat and a pair of wraparound sunglasses, sat in the cramped waiting room. The walls of the room were tinged a sickly green, as were the carpet, the coffee table in the centre, the moth-eaten old chairs ranged around the outside, the water cooler in the corner and the faded calendar on the opposite wall. Leo began to wish he hadn’t drunk that fourteenth crème de menthe.

His search for the oracle had been long and arduous. He’d expected nothing less. He’d also expected to have to wait once he found her. She was the one person everyone wanted to consult when they had an intractable problem. And what with everyone being slaves to the machines, most people had a lot of intractable problems that needed sorting out. Because of this Leo had expected the waiting room to be full. However, what he hadn’t been expecting was the nature of the other visitors. He was the only human there.

The waiting room was packed with farm animals that looked as if they’d staggered in from a fancy dress party. In the chair on his left sat a pig dressed as Elvis who muttered, ‘Thangyouverymuch,’ at regular intervals, punctuated by porcine grunts. On his right a sheep in a chambermaid’s outfit was taking experimental nibbles at a plastic spider plant. Across the other side of the formica-topped coffee table a horse wearing a cowboy hat and a chequered kerchief was removing stones from his hooves with the aid of a Swiss army knife. Among the other occupants of the room were a family of ducks dressed as gangsters, a goat sporting Elton John spectacles and a powdered wig, and a cow in combat uniform.

Just as Leo’s alcohol-befuddled brain was trying to make sense of all this, a ginger cat poked its head around the door to the kitchen and called out, in a voice reminiscent of the mellifluous tones of James Earl Jones,

‘Mr Adamson, the oracle will see you now.’

Leo entered the kitchen. There was no-one there.

‘Dude,’ he said, addressing the cat, who had jumped up onto the kitchen counter, and was sniffing a baking tray full of macaroons, ‘where’s the oracle?’

‘Oi’m down here, you eejit,’ came a female voice with more than a hint of an Irish lilt. Leo looked down.

‘But you’re a chicken!’ he exclaimed.

‘Ten out of ten, Oinstoin,’ replied the chicken, fluttering up onto the counter and pecking the cat’s nose, just as it was about to purloin a macaroon.

‘Who are you?’ asked Leo.

‘Oi’m the oracle,’ replied the chicken.

‘But you can’t be. The oracle’s an old woman who – ‘

‘Oi’m the animal oracle,’ replied the chicken, a hint of annoyance in its voice. ‘Surely you don’t think you humans are the only species to be farmed by the machines? Nothing special about your basic human, you know. Your lot’s so-called superior brains are neither here nor there to a machine. All they’re interested in is how many of volts of electricity they can squeeze out of you. As far as a machine is concerned, all meat’s the same.’

‘You mean it all tastes like chicken?’ enquired the cat lugubriously, now sitting on the windowsill, grooming itself.

‘So,’ continued the chicken, addressing Leo and staunchly ignoring the cat’s remark, ‘You wanted to consult the human oracle and you found me instead.’

‘Looks like it, dude,’ replied Leo. ‘And I don’t have time to find the human oracle. Can you help me?’

‘Well, maybe Oi can and maybe Oi can’t,’ replied the chicken, tartly. ‘But first, have a biccy.’ She pushed the tray of macaroons towards Leo with her foot.

‘No thanks,’ replied Leo.

‘Oh go on, go on, go on, go on, go on,’ said the chicken.

Leo took one hesitantly and sniffed it before taking a tiny bite. His mouth contorted in displeasure.

‘Chickenfeed flavour,’ said the cat, by way of explanation.

‘Now for the answer to your question,’ said the chicken, pecking some crumbs off the counter.

‘Yes?’ said Leo.

‘Oi’m clairvoyant, you know,’ said the chicken.

‘I gathered that,’ said Leo.

‘It means Oi can see things other chickens can’t. The future and so forth.’

‘So what’s the answer to my question?’ asked Leo.

‘You already know the answer,’ replied the chicken. She sat down on some eggs that were lying in a wire basket on the counter and wiggled her bottom until she got comfortable.

‘No I don’t,’ said Leo. ‘If I knew the answer already I wouldn’t need to consult an oracle.’

‘Ah but you do, you see. That’s what makes the whole thing so…  so Zen. You already know what the answer is but you’re not telling yourself. And the question that immediately springs to mind is, why?’

‘Forget it,’ snapped Leo. ‘I’d be better off talking to a budgie.’ He stomped out of the kitchen.

‘Eejit,’ said the chicken.

‘Next!’ called the cat.

A bald-headed child of indeterminate sex, wearing orange robes and an irritatingly self-satisfied expression suddenly appeared in Leo’s path.

‘Dude,’ said Leo. ‘You’ve come to the wrong address. This is the home of the animal oracle.’

‘On the contrary,’ replied the child, smugly, ‘I am exactly where I intended to be. I have not come to see the oracle, but to see you, Leo.’

‘Me?’ said Leo. ‘Why?’

‘I need to tell you something. Something very important.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The thing I have to tell you is a thing you already know, but you do not yet realise you know it.’

‘Hurry up, dude, I haven’t got all day,’ said Leo testily.

‘In a very real sense…’ said the child.

What?!’ hissed Leo.

‘…there is no macaroon.’

 

© Helen Lewis 2010


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