And now for something completely different
As some of you may know from reading my previous blog entries, as well as writing the third Time Rep over the past few years, I also finished writing another book (not related to Time Rep) called The Electric Detective.
The Electric Detective is a futuristic locked-room murder mystery and stars Penelope – an android purpose built to solve a seemingly impossible crime. My fantastic agent Ethan is currently ciculating it to publishers to see if anyone is interested in picking it up, so at the moment I don’t know what the future holds for it.
The manuscript has had an interesting history though – it was the subject of many re-starts (at one point I made the heart-breaking decision to completely scrap 70,000 words after realising what I’d written was terrible), and overall it took me about six years before I completed it and was happy with the final product. The manuscript also got optioned at one point by one of the major Hollywood studios, though sadly nothing ever came of that and the option has now expired. But it was certainly exciting at the time (and it’s interesting to see how filmmakers adapt your work into a treatment, which maybe I’ll talk about another time), and gives me hope that someday the book may see the light of day…
Anyway, I thought I’d share the first chapter of the book, just for those of you who are interested. Enjoy:
It’s generally accepted that nobody can remember back to the day they were born. In fact most people will struggle to tell you what they were doing last Tuesday. Those who say they can remember being born are usually mistaken – more often than not, they’re either recalling a vivid dream they’ve mistaken for reality, or they’re lying. If you really could think back that far, you would be a very special person indeed, since the hippocampus (the part of the brain thought to be involved in structuring memories, in case you’d forgotten) isn’t fully formed until early childhood, which is why once you’re all grown up, things start to go a little hazy if you try and remember anything you experienced before the age of two.
Unlike most people, Penelope could remember every single detail about first coming into the world.
She could remember the first time she gained consciousness.
The first thing she ever saw when she opened her eyes.
The first sound she ever heard.
Then again, that was only seven minutes ago, so this wasn’t much of an achievement in her view.
In that time, Penelope had felt her head being carried across the room by an overhead crane and lowered onto a grey, metallic torso, which was suspended in mid-air by a DroidTec H22 harness. Her head and body were then spun in opposite directions until the connection was tight, before six hexagonal M10 x 30mm bolts were screwed into her neck to hold everything in place. Next, her grey, metal arms were positioned either side of her by two different overhead cranes, before being popped simultaneously into their ball and socket joints. Once this was done, the two cranes dashed off again like a couple of bull terriers chasing a stick, before returning a few moments later with her legs, which were placed underneath her body and popped into the sockets on the underside of her pelvis.
Penelope waited for a moment. According to her in-built knowledge of DroidTec’s production process, this should have been the moment when a voice in her head introduced itself as her internal operating system, yet she couldn’t hear anything.
Maybe she should say something.
Hello? she ventured. Penelope didn’t say this word out loud, she just thought it. All communication with her operating system was conducted in her head.
<HELLO TO YOU TOO> came a reply.
Although this voice wasn’t audible anyone else, to her it sounded deep, synthetic and monotone, as though it was being generated by the one of those early computers from the 1980s.
Are you okay? Penelope asked. You were overdue with your introduction by 5.4 seconds.
<SORRY ABOUT THAT>
<I GOT DISTRACTED>
Distracted? By what?
<MY SENSORS DETECTED A LITTLE SPIDER ON YOUR LEFT HAND>
<A LITTLE ONE>
Penelope lifted up her left hand and flexed her fingers. Sure enough, a small lace web spider was crawling between her thumb and index finger.
Oh yes, Penelope said. I see it…
<IT MUST HAVE BEEN RESTING ON YOUR HAND IN STORAGE WHEN THE CRANE BROUGHT IT HERE FOR ASSEMBLY>
As Penelope and her operating system conversed, several motorised arms continued to dance around her, jabbing different length screws into different sized holes across her body and tightening them to the point where they would be very difficult to untighten. Penelope lifted her hand a little bit higher to keep the spider safe.
<WHAT SHALL WE DO WITH IT>
Despite asking a question, the cadence of her operating system’s voice didn’t rise at the end. It sounded quite monotonous, but there was a simple charm to it.
I don’t know, Penelope said. I haven’t been pre-programmed with any information on how to deal with spiders…
The spider apparently knew what to do though, as at that moment, it leapt from her hand and descended to the floor below on a long, dangling web. Upon landing, it stood around for a few seconds as if it was hoping another spider might show up to give it some directions, before scuttling off through a small air vent on the other side of the room.
<WELL THAT TAKES CARE OF THAT>
Penelope smiled. Although her internal operating system was a critical foundation of her programming infrastructure (it was, after all, the platform upon which her own personality software ran), it’s only real function other than sustaining her existence was to take care of boring sub-routine stuff; operational tasks that weren’t necessary to bother her conscious thought processes with. The arrangement was similar to how a human wouldn’t consciously think about pumping blood around its body with its heart or regulating stomach acids to digest food – in the same way, her operating system dealt with things like power regulation, operational efficiency, and internal maintenance. It was also there to act as an internal companion; a separate personality she was able to maintain a constant communication with. This symbiotic relationship with her operating system was critical to keeping her artificial intelligence stimulated and healthy.
On top of all those responsibilities, it seemed this operating system had a thing for nature too.
Or maybe it was just spiders.
Penelope lowered her hand down to her side and watched as the last two M10 x 30mm screws were spun into the balls of her feet, before the motorised arms concertinaed themselves down into foldaway compartments built into the floor.
Suddenly, she was hoisted up in the air by the crane, rotated 180 degrees, and conveyed down a brightly lit corridor, still hanging in her harness. The crane followed a thin track that was set into the ceiling. She looked down at the floor as she weaved her way through the twisting passageways of DroidTec’s production facility. The crane was picking up quite a speed, the momentum swinging her body from one side to the other each time she banked around a corner.
Had she any experience of the outside world, she might have likened the experience to riding a roller-coaster, but just as she lacked the knowledge of how to deal with spiders, this was another experience her brain hadn’t been pre-programmed with, so she didn’t liken the sensation to anything.
According to DroidTec’s standard assembly procedures, it was as this point that Penelope was supposed to check her internal documentation to find out who had commissioned her, and why she had been built. For some reason though, she couldn’t seem to find anything.
<I COULD NOT FIND ANYTHING EITHER>
<THE IDENTITY OF YOUR CREATOR AND THE REASON YOU HAVE BEEN BUILT ARE NOT YET KNOWN>
That’s a bit unusual isn’t it? Penelope said.
<THAT IS WHAT I THOUGHT TOO>
Do you think they forgot?
<HUMANS DO FORGET THINGS NOW AND AGAIN>
<BUT IT IS USUALLY BIRTHDAYS OR WHERE THEY LEFT THEIR KEYS>
<THE DROIDTEC PRODUCTION PROCESS IS VERY STRICT>
<IF THAT INFORMATION IS MISSING IT MUST HAVE BEEN LEFT OUT DELIBERATELY>
Deliberately? But why would someone want to conceal the reason I’ve been built?
<PLEASE WAIT – THINKING>
You don’t have to tell me when you’re thinking, you know. Just… think.
<OKAY I HAVE FINISHED THINKING>
<I HAVE A POSSIBLE ANSWER>
<PERHAPS THE REASON YOU HAVE BEEN BUILT IS CONFIDENTIAL>
<IN VERY RARE CIRCUMSTANCES – 1 IN 4567222 – A DROID IS ONLY BREIFED VERBALLY ABOUT WHY THEY HAVE BEEN BUILT FOR CONFIDENTIALITY PURPOSES>
Confidentiality, huh? Hey – maybe I’m a spy or something.
Her operating system went silent for a moment.
<I DO NOT WANT TO BE A SPY>
<IT SOUNDS DANGEROUS>
The crane came to a stop outside large set of double-doors that said “COSM” on the left door and “ETICS” on the right. Put them together, and they spelt “Cosmetics”. Or if you mixed the letters up, you could get “Comic Sets”, according to her automatic anagram generator. She doubted this was a room were DroidTec stored sets of comics though, and doubted even more that they jumbled the letters on their doors for fun.
No, this was probably the Cosmetics department.
The double-doors opened with a quiet hiss, and the crane carried her slowly into a spacious, white room. Penelope followed the crane’s track along the ceiling with her eyes. Up ahead, she noticed that the path ended above a square tank of clear liquid, just large enough to accommodate a person.
Hey, Penelope said. Do you mind if I give you name?
<YOU WANT TO GIVE ME A NAME>
Yes. I want to be able to call you something.
<I SUPPOSE THAT WOULD BE OKAY>
<WHAT NAME DID YOU HAVE IN MIND>
Penelope found the way her operating system couldn’t alter the cadence of its voice to indicate it was asking a questions very endearing. It was basic, but somehow…
I think I’ve got a name for you.
I’m going to call you Basic.
<LIKE THAT REALLY OLD PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE DEVELOPED OVER TWO CENTURIES AGO THAT NO-ONE USES ANYMORE>
The crane began to move again.
You’re welcome, Basic, Penelope said, looking down as she came to a stop directly above the tank of clear liquid. A number of different coloured squares appeared in Penelope’s vision, as if they were just floating in mid-air in front of her.
“What’s this?” she asked.
<THIS IS AUGMENTED REALITY>
<IT ALLOWS A VIRTUAL IMAGE TO BE PROJECTED ON TOP OF YOUR NORMAL FIELD OF VISION>
I know what augmented reality is, Penelope said. I meant why am I looking at all these different coloured squares?
<IT SEEMS YOUR CREATOR HAS GIVEN YOU THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE YOUR OWN SKIN COLOUR>
<WHICH IS MOST UNUSUAL>
Well I don’t really have a preference, Penelope said. You pick one for me.
What did I say you shouldn’t do whenever you’re thinking?
<YOU TOLD ME NOT TO TELL YOU WHEN I WAS… OH>
That’s right. So just pick a colour. It doesn’t really make any difference which one we choose, does it?
<THE LAST INCIDENT OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION WAS RECORDED 78.4 YEARS AGO>
Exactly. So just pick one.
With that, the squares in front of her faded away, and the liquid below changed into the colour that had been chosen for her.
Penelope closed her eyes and mouth.
At that moment, the harness released her body, and she felt herself plunge straight into the tank.
It’s warm, Penelope said to Basic as her head disappeared beneath the surface of the liquid and her feet touched the floor. She swirled her arms around, feeling the liquid sticking to her body as she moved. It was quite a thick substance, with a strange chemical smell she couldn’t place, most likely because she’d never experienced the smell of any chemicals to compare it to.
<MY SENSORS DETECT YOU ARE NOW FULLY COATED>
<PLEASE REMAIN STILL>
Penelope did as she was asked. Once she stopped moving, she could sense the excess liquid draining out of the tank all around her.
<YOU CAN OPEN YOUR EYES NOW>
Penelope looked down at herself and felt slightly repulsed at what she saw. She was now completely covered in the strange liquid, which stuck to her like a thin film of mucus encasing an insect. She watched the last remnants of liquid seep through the grilled floor of the tank and waited.
Suddenly, a blast of hot air rushed up from below, instantly drying the liquid on her body and giving it a slightly blemished, soft texture, much like human skin. Then the hot air stopped, the four sides of the tank folded back and lowered into the floor, and Penelope was left standing in the middle of an empty room, alone.
At first glance, a regular person would say she looked completely naked, but to Penelope, she felt anything but. From her point of view, her naked metal frame was now fully clothed – in synthetic skin.
But this was just the beginning of her cosmetic procedure. There were several additional tweaks that needed to be made to her appearance before she could walk into the local newsagent without raising a few eyebrows.
Like eyebrows, for a start.
Then there was eye colour, lip pigment, hair, fingernails… the list DroidTec had preloaded into her head went on and on.
In front of her, a panel in the ceiling slid open and a full-length mirror lowered down from above. On either side, it was accompanied by various racks of clothes, makeup and other strange accessories; shelves upon shelves unfolding automatically like the petals of a giant flower coming to bloom.
Penelope looked up and down at her body in the mirror, tilting her head from one side to the other.
How do I look? she said, turning around on the balls of her feet to examine the back of her body.
<YOU HAVE BEEN DESIGNED TO REPRESENT AN IDEALISED EXAGERATION OF THE FEMALE HUMAN FORM>
<YOUR LEGS ARE 15% LONGER THAN THE HUMAN FEMALE AVERAGE>
<YOUR WAIST IS 25% NARROWER THAN THE HUMAN FEMALE AVERAGE>
<YOUR BREASTS ARE…>
I get the idea, Penelope said. She paused for a moment, before looking down at the two soft mounds sticking out of her chest. Wait – what were you going to say about my breasts?
<ALL I WILL SAY IS THAT THERE ARE VERY FEW REAL WOMEN IN THE WORLD WHO HAVE A BODY LIKE YOURS>
Yes. Especially since I don’t have any nipples yet.
Penelope turned to face the nearest array of accessories and started to think about the many finishing touches and tweaks she needed to make to her appearance.
The first of these tweaks was to add some hair. Penelope was instinctively aware that the vast majority of people had this filamentous biomaterial growing from the many follicles found in their dermis, but according to Basic, choosing the right way to wear the stuff was extraordinarily important to pretty much everyone on the entire planet. Some people apparently spent an absolute fortune on determining how their hair should look, and as such a whole industry had sprung up based around people who were very good at cutting it into different styles, changing it into different colours, or just rubbing special liquids into it to make it feel “silky and smooth.”
<WHAT SORT OF HAIR DO YOU WANT>
I don’t know, Penelope replied, picking up a programmable wig off the shelf and twirling it in her hand. Just normal. What’s a normal sort of hairstyle?
<THE AVERAGE FEMALE HAIR LENGTH IS 20.5 CENTIMETRES>
<AN AMALGAMATION OF THE FEMALE HAIR COLOUR SPECTRUM SUGGESTS THE AVERAGE COLOUR IS PANTONE 1395>
<YOU COULD ALSO DESCRIBE IT AS LIGHT BROWN>
<BUT I PREFER PANTONE 1395>
<BASED ON THIS INFORMATION I WOULD OPT FOR SHOULDER LENGTH HAIR>
<IN PANTONE 1395>
Let’s do that then, Penelope said, placing the wig on her head. She felt it deploy thousands of miniature latches into her scalp, before establishing communications with Basic and downloading her desired hairstyle and colour. Within twenty seconds the bio-flex hairs had adjusted themselves accordingly, giving Penelope the appearance of having a shoulder-length bob in Pantone 1395. She tossed her head from side to side, feeling the artificial strands brush against her skin.
This stuff is going to get on my nerves, she said.
<YOU GET USED TO IT>
How would you know? Have you ever had hair?
<I WAS JUST TRYING TO MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER>
Penelope was able to rattle through the remaining cosmetic tweaks fairly quickly. By the time she was done she had green eyes, pale cream fingernails, eyebrows that matched her hair colour, long eyelashes, burgundy lips, and two nipples that attached to the tips of her breasts with a special adhesive. She also helped herself to a couple of spare nipples in case the ones she had fell off, placing them in the small storage compartment housed inside her left buttock. Accessing this storage compartment required her to break the seal of her skin across her lower back to pull the drawer open, but she didn’t think anyone would notice once she was dressed, unless her secret assignment was to be a swimwear model, which was doubtful.
In terms of clothes, her choice was quite limited. Whoever had asked for her to be built had obviously wanted her to appear quite formal, as there were no casual items to choose from – just different coloured suits. The suits came in cream, grey, blue, black, green and white. In the end, she opted for a black, pinstriped skirt that came just below the knee, a matching jacket with a single button that did up at the front, a pale cream blouse, and some black heels.
How old do you think I look? Penelope asked, looking at her reflection once again in the mirror.
<I WOULD SAY THIRTY TWO MINUTES>
<WHICH IS HOW OLD YOU ARE>
I meant how old would you say I looked if I were a human?
<OH I SEE>
<IF YOU WERE HUMAN I WOULD SAY YOU LOOK TWENTY-SEVEN>
That’s very specific.
There was a brief moment of silence.
<WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO BE MORE VAGUE>
No, it’s just…
<I COULD SAY YOU LOOK TO BE IN YOUR LATE TWENTIES>
<OR BETWEEN THE AGES OF TWENTY-SIX AND TWENTY-EIGHT>
<BUT I THINK YOU LOOK TWENTY-SEVEN>
Twenty-Seven it is, Penelope said. Well, I think I’m about ready.
As if knowing they were no longer needed, the mirror and clothing racks ascended back up into their ceiling compartment, and the panel slid closed again.
Penelope checked her internal clock. Assuming it was calibrated correctly, it had just gone five in the afternoon.
So what do I do now? she asked.
<WE WAIT UNTIL SOMETHING HAPPENS>
<YOU DO HAVE SOLITAIRE BUILT IN IF YOU NEED SOMETHING TO PASS THE TIME>
It’s fine – I’ll wait, Penelope said. I’m sure whoever commissioned me to be built isn’t going to be too long.
No sooner had Penelope finished speaking, a door at the other end of the room opened, and a woman in a three-quarter length black coat walked in. By Penelope’s estimation, she looked to be between the age of fifty and fifty-five, with a long grey pony-tail draped over the front of her right shoulder, secured with three silver bands so as not to let the hair splay out in any way. She was quite slim, and approximately five foot ten inches tall, though three of those inches were achieved from wearing high-heels, which echoed around the room as she strode towards her.
Penelope recognised this woman immediately – Elaine Holden, the Technical Director of DroidTec. Every droid on the planet knew who exactly she was (even those not manufactured by DroidTec), though very few ever got to meet her in the flesh.
“Good afternoon Penelope,” Holden said, coming to a stop a metre or so away from her.
“Good afternoon, Ms Holden,” Penelope replied.
“You probably have several questions running around that positronic brain of yours, so let me try and answer a few of them as best I can.” She began to pace slowly around Penelope, inspecting her from every angle. “First of all, I confirm that I am your owner – your construction was commissioned by me personally.”
“Secondly, the reason for you have been built is highly sensitive, hence why you are unable to locate any documentation about it in your memory banks.”
Holden paused for a moment directly behind Penelope and looked her up and down.
“Is everything to your satisfaction?” Penelope asked, unsure as to whether she should turn to face her owner or not.
“Oh yes,” Holden smiled. “You’ve been built to the precise specification I asked for. I’m sure the police will afford you every courtesy when they meet you.”
“That’s right. You’ve been built to help them solve a murder.”