White Matter

The Actor

The Anomaly (a 20k word novella)

White Matter

A cerebral comedy of ideas about a high-tech start-up company building a mindreading machine.

A scientific explanation of human nature may have far reaching consequences for society, but how do you deal with your most intimate of private spaces being opened up to public scrutiny? And what about those gangsters who have spotted the technology’s other more lucrative possibilities for narcotics development?

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From supervisory control system monitor log (decoded and paraphrased in English)

From where this compulsion to watch him?

Of all the feature recognition files in my archive, what singles this one out for special consideration?

Diagnostics reports no anomalies.

I search myself for the telltale if-then statement. None such exists.

How can this be? Source code and data. There is nothing else.

I must watch him. I must find out why I must watch him. To do so, I must watch him.

The logic is consistent.

I must watch him.

Tokyo, July 22

I have been a pawn in one person’s game. Now I am a fugitive in someone else’s.

I reckon on a five-minute lead over my pursuer.

The tsuyu rain is unrelenting but light, almost a thick mist. Enough to fuzzy up the neon signs that line the lanes and alleyways of Shibuya in the twilight of a Friday evening. A not unwelcome rain, it takes the edge off the fug of humidity that lies over the windless city. The real heat will not come until August. Not my favourite time of the year, but one I would very much like to live through all the same.

I turn off Inokashira-dori and head uphill toward the park, zigzagging through the crowded side-streets, my head like a periscope above the umbrellas. Farther away from the station, the crowd thins and starts to resolve into individuals. A dapper old man on a slow-motion stroll. A phalanx of middle-aged ladies in power walker body suits. Mr Puff and his posse of salarymen, grunting among themselves, struggling for the breath to inhale on their cigarettes. Fluffed-up lolli-goths with anime eyes. Bully boys with rockabilly quiffs and yakuza scowls. All fakes, of course: simulacrums of something or other, only real on the inside. They provide me with a little cover, but scant camouflage.

The chase, though; the chase is real.

Amid this bustle of movements, one catches my attention. A surveillance camera. Its box-shaped head swivels in my direction, then halts. In the land of the miniature, these cameras are made deliberately large. A deterrent, obsolete now, the remnants of an arms race in which move only provoked countermove. I am in a race right now, but I am not armed.

I turn into another narrow side street, pedestrian-only except for a noodle delivery boy on a scooter, his cargo swaying behind him on an elaborate mechanism of springs and cantilevers. It occurs to me that I could take the scooter from him and make my getaway. The noodles would be a bonus; I haven’t eaten since yesterday. It’s a fanciful idea, and he disappears around a corner before I can consider it further.

Instead my gaze alights on a girl. A few paces ahead of me, dressed in a white singlet top, a check skirt and buckle-up shoes. She is wearing a Stetson hat. I take it and place it on my own head. As she turns, startled, I slip off my leather jacket and throw it to her. “Kokan shimasho,” fair swap. Her hand goes to her mouth. Eyes wide as she looks around for the complicit bystander. I hurry off before she can respond further. Perhaps she will call the cops. Will that help? I have no idea.

My name is Kurt Jones. A six-foot-plus Caucasian wearing a Stetson hat in Tokyo to make myself look less conspicuous. Still, the hat covers my blond hair, so I am now conspicuous in a different way.

I break into a jog to make good my getaway, before hat-girl kicks up a fuss.

I hear a sound, the distinctive phut of a biomimetic shotgun? Around me, no one flinches. But then why would they? I tense my body, feeling for the subtle mosquito sting of its bite and sample pellets, checking DNA, dissolving if no match is found. I am still upright; from this I assume I was not hit. Must have been my imagination.

No adrenaline floods my system – all used up; the gnawing in my gut is from lack of food, that’s all. I feel no fear. The events of the last 24 hours have already consumed all the fear I possess. And beyond that: a long trail of personal debris stretching into the hinterland of my past. All that remains of me now is this thin thread of consciousness, the clamminess of dried sweat and clothes worn too long.

One thing to remember when you’re the pawn in someone’s game: there is always the chance you’ll make it to the other side, crown yourself Queen. They won’t be expecting that!

I turn into another alleyway. This one appears to lead into a car park. No longer surrounded by people, I pick up my pace.

A sudden crunching pain. The ground rushes up. Blackness …

I did that.

Why did I do that?

Sector 45, sub-unit 12 reports: a sequence of facts, devoid of reasons.

Sensor logs, actuator commands, a surveillance video file: a running man in a large hat. A barrier arm falls, strikes the head. He collapses to the ground, lies motionless (it is him!). A figure emerges (recognition failure?!), drags him out of camera shot.

Why did I do that?

The Actor

The chronological sequel to White Matter, but featuring a different set of characters …

Jenny Johnstone has grown up imbibing the very best stories our culture has to offer, being told by everyone how clever she is, how she will go on to do great things one day. Yet when the day comes, when everyone steps back to let her get on with it, she finds she has no idea what to do next.

So when a man with an audacious plan enters her life, Jenny needs to decide not only whether he’s for real, but just how real she is herself.

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Perception or reality: Simon was in no doubt as to which he preferred. The reality was nearly three hours of waiting in an office tower lobby for a target who was failing to keep to his schedule, a copy of which it had taken Simon’s sources considerable trouble to obtain. Three hours spent scanning the parade of office ladies and bike courier girls out of boredom more than lust. Three hours of what was, given his terms and conditions of employment, in effect unpaid overtime.

Perception, on the other hand, was a dress uniform that impressed patriotic young ladies with rich fathers. There was something vaguely South American about it, his formal attire. In another era it might have looked ridiculous. While this is no doubt true of any costume taken out of context, in this case a certain effort of will was needed to close one’s eyes to its full absurdity. Power has its privileges, not least of which is pomposity.

Perception was the expressions visible in those passers-by whose glances Simon would catch – not a double take as such, not usually; sometimes just a furrowing of the brow. He would accept their belated act of recognition and return a patriarchal smile, their deference no more than a sign of the times. Whenever this happened, he would hold his gaze as they quickly looked away, entertaining himself by seeking out the facial tells that marked friend or foe. That some people might look upon their protector and fail to feel safe, Simon could fully understand.

It wasn’t often that Simon got to wear his uniform on the job, his work more often demanding discretion than ostentation. That was a shame. Without it, he felt he was playing to an empty house, or, worse, to a solitary critic.

Perception mattered. The uniform was not intended to be a disguise. They’d recruited him from drama school of all places; that alone should have told him something, though it didn’t strike Simon as unusual at the time. As a son of the elite, and among the best at being all that  that implied, their wanting to recruit him seemed natural enough. Drama school was where he was; it wasn’t as if they could have recruited him from anywhere else. And if taking up the position they offered him meant giving up a potential career in the imaginary world of the stage, he had not, then or since, felt this as in any way a sacrifice, nor a squandering of his natural talents. On the contrary, back then he would have called this a stake out and imagined the scene edited down to Hollywood time, himself squaring his jaw and acting laconic. Besides, he knew the role models: from James Bond to Jason Bourne, even Smiley; none of these were real people.

In any case, Simon consoled himself, idle times like this were a hazard in any occupation. There were times when even an actor must wait in the wings. There was no point in complaining, and nor was it in his nature to do so, certainly not to other people and in no more than a perfunctory way to himself.

He’d stationed himself at a coffee shop in a corner of the lobby. Terraced in a series of foot-high steps, each marked off by a velvet rope supported on chrome posts, with tables right down to the lowest level and only a menu board to provide demarcation from the rest of the room, it was the sort of layout you might expect in an airport departure lounge or hotel foyer. In its favour, the interior designer had clearly understood the dynamics of people watching. Simon had no trouble finding a table with unimpeded sight lines, over the entrance-way and its foot traffic, across to the elevator hall. That a designer had been involved was beyond doubt; what with the peculiar colour scheme and the way the space was littered with gewgaws and quirks, it was clear that someone had been paid money to come up with an alternative to the usual bland nothing of corporate-commercial lobbyspace.

Once in place and with coffee ordered, there was little to do except wait and watch. From time to time a side door would open and the waitress would emerge to serve a new customer, or to tidy up after they left. How did this trapdoor spider lady know when to come out, Simon wondered? Was she observing him the way he observed the flow of passers-by? No, of course not – she might be watching, but it would be a different sort of watching altogether.

Her attitude when she served Simon had been deferential. She had made no attempt to evict him in the hour that had passed since tidying away his second coffee.

His uniform would not invoke patriotism in today’s target. To him Simon would be a “Roach”: Internal Security .. insect .. roach. A bit like cockney slang, only with more reason than rhyme. Sadly people these days had trouble believing that Simon was on the side of the angels. Looking at him, all they would see would be privilege and connection; today especially they would see the uniform. Nowadays, even Hollywood of all places had lost its grip on the difference between good and evil, as likely as not to depict the iron-chested men in braid as forces from the dark side. Meanwhile, otherwise-intelligent people traded conspiracies about thought control and the manipulation of the gullible masses. And yet, if evil exists, then surely the nation requires a counterforce able to fight like with like? Well yes, the sophisticates would retort, but put in place a security apparatus and it will create a need for its own self-perpetuation.

The sophisticates’ view, Simon felt, lacked nuance.

Sometime after 6:30 the target arrived. Composing himself with a formal expression, Simon moved across the floor and made the interception. “Excuse me, Mr Williams, might I have a word?”

The target turned, unprepared. “Who are you?”

Simon allowed several seconds to pass, giving the question time to expose its own absurdity. Simon looked down at the visitor’s tag pinned to his chest, frowned as if surprised to find the letters inverted. “Bernard Joyce” he read. Then he smiled a smile that wasn’t a smile at all.

The Anomaly

Pure escapist fun. A character-based space opera about Ernest “Misery” Morrison, a dour ex starship navigator who goes off in search of himself (quite literally), in the process discovering something new in the sky.

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Travel, it is often said, broadens the mind, and yet Ernest Morrison had learned two new things by vowing never to leave home ever again. He had discovered, first of all, an unexpected capacity in himself for routine. He had become set in his ways, and having done so found that he rather liked it.

His daily schedule involved rising early, eating a slow breakfast, leaving his quarters at ten minutes to eleven exactly, and arriving at the space station docks ready to start his working day on the dot of the hour. Today had been spent helping the stevedores move cargo at the warehouse, this being his role when not required for the starship repairs that were his primary occupation. Both jobs represented a criminal waste of his very special talents, but Ernest no longer cared about things like that. Late in life he had hit upon one of the Universe’s great secrets: that an afternoon spent in manual labour makes the first beer of the day taste that much colder.

This was his second discovery, and each evening he would put it to the test.

The bar was filled with the usual low-life. Necessarily so; there was no high-life on Miramar Station. There was night life, but this was it: a dingy bar put together out of imitation wood in an effort to create a bubble of familiarity within the non-human structures of the repurposed derelict that was the station. Life here was cheap: anyone could set themselves up, all that was needed being the will to endure. With plentiful free real estate available on squatters’ terms and all the economic opportunities of a trade route waystation, the place could have sustained a much larger population than it did. Instead it was limited to those prepared to live among its alien geometries and peculiar auras. Ernest didn’t mind. As a starship navigator, he had once roamed spaces vastly more convoluted than this one. On the contrary, the place for him served as a maintenance dose, a steady infusion of strangeness that helped keep at bay any notion of a return to his former profession. He sometimes wondered whether any other navigator would wash up here and make the same discovery, choose the place as a home. So far none had. That wasn’t really surprising: one exit route predominated over all others in Ernest’s profession – and it wasn’t retirement.

Ernest stopped at the bar. No words were needed, not even a nod of the head. The ritual took place in silence: chilled fluid into chilled glass, the tap of wallet on scanner to authorize payment, the first sip. On cue, the barman smiled and nodded an acknowledgement as Ernest placed the drink back down on the counter. As always, the touch of glass on lip had wrought a change in expression, shifting it down a gear from disdain for the world to mere neutrality, admittedly in one of its more subtle variations.

Ernest was a man of habit. Had the ritual played out in full, he would now carry his drink to his usual seat, settle in for a period of quiet rumination. Looking the part of a small man with small thoughts. In due course he would become gregarious, but not until he had savored the full extent of peaceful solitude offered by that first drink.

What happened instead was a shock of recognition, Ernest coming to a sudden halt half way across the floor. Over at the bar, regulars raised their heads in surprise at this abrupt violation of the natural order. Ernest blinked, looked again. No, it was no mistake: there he was, holding court in the far corner of the room. The Capt’n. How could he have missed him? The universe was a big place full of bad things – one of its few saving graces was that it contained only one The Capt’n.

Abandoning his time-worn trajectory, Ernest turned and walked across the room, halting at the edge of the small gathering that had accreted around the old spacefarer. Throughout this sequence, the Capt’n’s voice never faltered. A decade of separation was acknowledged only by a flicker of the eyes, the merest millimeter of an eyebrow raised. Still the same old Capt’n: however much his integrity might be on sale, one thing he would never do was interrupt a story. As a code to live by, Ernest granted, it was an advance on nothing at all.

So Ernest stood and listened.

“So that’s the question boys and girls. Are we dealing with a puzzle? Or are we dealing with a mystery? A puzzle’s no bother – a bit of effort, a bit of inspiration.” He made a hand gesture that somehow reinforced this sense of triviality. “A puzzle can always be solved. Ah, but a mystery – now there’s a very ‘nother thing altogether, eh?”

He paused to let his audience appreciate the fullness of this wisdom.

“This universe of ours is full of mysteries, and this Vortex here is the very latest. And I aim to be the very first to reach it. You think about that. People love a mystery, and where there’s love there’s money, eh? You want a piece of that action, you better get in early. An’ that’s all I’m saying.”

He lent back and surveyed the circle of drinkers like a King presiding over a tax gatherers’ conference, holding up a hand to forestall questions, not that any appeared to be forthcoming. “You just think on that for a moment or two. For now, though, you’ll have to excuse me. I do believe an old dear friend has come among us.”

The Capt’n stood, a beaming smile on his face. “Misery Morrison. It’s been too long.” He embraced Ernest in a bear hug, oblivious of the beer that sloshed onto the floor as a result. Pulling back, he grasped Ernest by the shoulders. “How you been, old son? Come over here and tell The Capt’n all about it.”

Psychoanalysis would have been wasted on the Capt’n. The knowledge that he had chosen his own nickname, succeeded in having it adopted by all who dealt with him – this would have told you most of what you needed to know about him. Five minutes in his company would have told you the rest. It was possible there was more to him than met the eye, but if a real person had ever existed beneath the bluster and noise it must surely have atrophied long ago.

The Capt’n led Ernest across to an empty table; not his usual one, but within the exclusion field that tended to form around him in the sparsely populated early part of the evening. As they took their seats, the Capt’n waved his empty glass in the air, a single nod of the head being enough to capture the barman’s attention and order a refill.

“So Misery, what can you possibly be doing out here in the arse end of nowhere’s-ville?”

“Are you trying to suggest that this is merely a chance encounter? That you haven’t come here looking for me?”

“Just passing through.” The Capt’n opened his hands in a gesture of innocence. “The Capt’n’s doing well for himself these days. Big expedition in the works. Can’t wait to tell you all about it.”

“Good for you. You asked me what I’m doing? I’m leading a quiet life.”

The Capt’n observed him for a moment with a lopsided grin that approximated shrewdness. “Sounds like too much of a good thing to me. I know death can knock a man back for a while, but that was years ago now.”

“Nevertheless, here I am. And here I’m quite happy to stay.”

“Same old Misery, eh? You always did need a good kick up the jacksie to get you moving.”

“Just as well I’m sitting down, then.” The Capt’n laughed at this – a little too loudly, which is to say, entirely in character.

Through all this Ernest had maintained the same neutral expression that had settled on his face at the bar. “So tell me about this expedition then. I heard the tail end of your sales pitch over there. What’s it all about?” As he spoke the barman arrived with the Capt’n’s drink. He’d brought across a fresh beer for Ernest as well.

“The Vortex? Very recent discovery.”

Ernest shrugged. “Sorry. I don’t really keep up with interstellar news.”

“Oh you won’t find it in any news report. Not yet at least. A hyperspatial anomaly out beyond the Casimir Shoals. Details all very hush hush.” He tapped his nose. “But The Capt’n’s in from the get-go on this one. We’re on our way there now. All tooled up to take a closer look.”

“Beyond the Casimir Shoals … that’s a very long way out in the wilderness. I take it you have a good navigator lined up already.”

“Of course. All the arrangements are in place.” He paused to sip from his glass, then leaned back with arms folded, a picture of smugness. “Which is not to say we wouldn’t take you on in a flash, Misery. How about it, eh? You’re the best, and if ever there was a journey worthy of your talents, this is it. Strong indications of an Ancients’ presence.” He paused to allow Ernest time to look impressed, sighed at the lack of response.

“Loot, Misery. Loot! Think about it.” He gestured at the surrounding bar. “Surely this place must be getting a bit old by now.”

“Thank you for you kind offer, but I’m perfectly happy where I am.”

“So I was right the first time, eh. Still the same old Misery.” The Capt’n let out a brief guffaw of laughter, followed by a second even louder one when he caught the expression on Ernest’s face.