Meat Machines

Chapter 3

There's a saying that things always come in threes. So two weeks after I get hauled in by the cops for knowing something about nanomachines, two more things happen. The first is I see that there's a TV documentary about the damn things. Actually it was on last night and I missed it, but Rick and I catch up now on iplayer. They've got a couple of quotes from the great man himself, Naismith, the bloke I met in the pub, now dead. Then they show another guy, tall and thin, short hair, early thirties. When I first see him he's writing some complicated maths stuff on a whiteboard. Too much like school. Then he turns round and I wonder why he looks familiar. At last I realise he's the guy in the photo Penney showed me, the one not wearing glasses. But even then, even the first time I saw the photo, I thought I'd seen him before somewhere. Maybe he's on telly a lot.

The next thing, while Rick's working on some code, I check the forum for Nanogold. I set this up a while ago to get the hype started, but there's not many people posting on there yet. So I'm pleased to see I've just got a new member, who goes by the name of Red Squirrel. I notice the gender given is female.

"I've just finished Dead Man's Mark, loved the game, and I can't wait for Nanogold. The story sounds amazing and the artwork is truly awesome. It's very cool that you're using a science as new as nanotechnology. I work in the field and would be proud to help if you need a hand with keeping it real."

Dead Man's Mark was our first game. We released it about six months ago. It's a very good sign if someone's played it and is looking for more of the same kind of thing. I type a message back.

"Would love some help with the nanomachines. Whole science thing a bit over my head, to be honest."

She must be still on the forum as after a few seconds I get a message back.

"What do you need to know?"

"For a start, how do you make the things? What does the equipment look like? If the nanomachines are so small, how can you see them working?"

The answer comes back almost at once.

"You're based in London, aren't you? Would you like a tour of our lab? Not at all busy right now, but you'll still see enough to give you an idea of the basic equipment."

"You're on," I answer. "Here's my personal email. Send me the address and I'll be right over. That's if today's a good day for you? Thanks, you're amazing."

"No problem," she types back, and seconds later the address of the nanomachines lab is in my mailbox. The email is signed Rose.

I get to the Drexler Institute building about an hour later. It's part of an enormous University campus. There's a man behind a desk who's half receptionist, half security guard. He makes me sign in and gives me a visitor's badge. I say I've come to see Rose and he picks up his phone.

"Dr Bowden, your visitor is in reception."

A few minutes later a girl walks up to me. She's got ginger hair, a bit untidy, pale skin with freckles, round framed glasses and a serious look on her face. Then she smiles and her whole face changes. I can't help smiling back.

"Nate? I'm Rose. Did you have trouble finding us?"

"Did I! I walked round the campus twice. Thanks for letting me visit."

We get the lift up to the lab where she works which is on the third floor. She takes me into a large white room which is not quite what I had expected. There's none of those flasks overflowing with smoking froth and they're missing the device with the blue sparks flying from one side to the other. Looks like it's a good thing I came here, I mean, I don't want it to look like the only research I did was to watch an old horror film. It's all very clean and tidy and sterile, the surfaces all smooth and white, with orange and yellow biohazard signs here and there for a touch of colour. Even the three people working here are all wearing white coats like doctors. The one nearest to the door is not exactly working; he's sitting on a counter top with his back to the door, talking loudly to a guy sitting at a computer at the other end of the room. When he pauses for breath, Rose says, "Hey, everyone, this is Nate Lively, the games man I told you about." He turns round, and it's the man I was watching on the program this morning.

"What games man?" he demands with a frown.

"Oh, Karl, you weren't here then. Nate is from a company that's making a computer game that uses nanomachines as part of the concept. Isn't that cool?"

He looks at me from under lowered brows. If he had glasses he'd be peering over the top of them. "Did you have to bring him here, Rose? How do you know he isn't a reporter?"

"I'm not a reporter," I say.

Rose adds, "Karl, really! Ever since poor Gilbert died, you've been so paranoid. I got in touch with Nate through his games website. He worked on that game I've been playing for the last month."

"That weird one with the ghosts?" Karl asks. Somehow it doesn't sound like he's a fan. Still, that's a pretty good description of Dead Man's Mark.

"Do you mean this is the lab where Gilbert Naismith worked?" I ask.

"Yes, of course. There is only one lab in London working in our field," Rose tells me.

Karl rolls up his eyes at my ignorance. "All right, Rose, no harm done. Obviously he's not a reporter. I suppose he can take a look around. But check with me next time, ok, sweetheart?"

"I would have done, but you weren't here earlier. In fact I wondered where you'd got to."

"Oh, such a nuisance. The police called me in for questioning. Again."

"I'm not surprised," I say. "They questioned me because I'd met Professor Naismith in a pub once. Was it a bloke called Vincent Penney?"

"It was him the first time. Today it was someone else; a policewoman."

The one guy who's actually been doing some work now decides to join in. He's been injecting something into a machine that looks like some kind of futuristic multifunction toaster, using a syringe and a long shiny needle. I'm glad I'm not here to get a jab. "Hey, that Vincent Penney! He questioned me three times, can you believe it? The same things over and over again!" He throws up his hands, waving the needle dangerously. Luckily no-one's close enough to get stabbed. "Just because I was the last one to see Gilbert alive! You'd have thought I'd killed him myself, the way he went on. What did he want to ask you, Karl?"

"He was talking about Louise. How well did I know her, what was her relationship with Gilbert, that kind of thing. He asked me what her state of mind was after Gilbert's death."

"He asked me if she was depressed. I suppose that means they must think she killed herself."

The guy over at the computer, the youngest of the lot, now asks a question. "You don't think she really was having an affair with Naismith, do you? If not, why would she have been so upset by his death?"

Rose interrupts. "Guys, can we not talk about this right now? Nate doesn't want to hear it all, I'm sure. And it's just so horrible, two of us dying within a week of each other. It's scary. I know it's hard to concentrate on work with all this going on, but don't you think we should at least try?"

"I'm working," the guy with the syringe points out. He drops the syringe and needle into a yellow box.

"Yes, I know you're working, Tom," she says.

"I'm working," the young guy says as his eyes go back to the screen and his fingers start to move rapidly over the keyboard.

"It's what Gilbert would have wanted," Karl agrees, though he just goes on sitting there, not doing anything.

Rose takes me round the lab, telling me the names of the gadgets that are dotted about the ice-white benches. I note them down. Polymerase chain reactor, nanoarray scanner, ultrasonic bath, centrifuge. Rose has to help me a bit with the spelling. From the outside they all look like white boxes. Tom explains his machine to me. It's the polymerase chain reactor. Put a tiny piece of DNA in it and it will copy it again and again until you've got enough to clone an army. Though that's probably not what they need it for. Rose opens the centrifuge and shows me the mechanism which spins tubes of nanostuff round and round. She shows me her project which all happens inside a glass box with long black gloves fixed to the front, so she can get her hands inside without letting out any of the tiny living machines she's making. As we go round she introduces me to her colleagues. Karl Steiner, the tall one sitting on the bench, came over from Germany two years ago to work with Naismith. Tom Young and Andy Gifford are two postgraduate students, hoping to end up with PhDs. I guess that's why, even after everything that's been going on, they're actually doing some work.

"How did you get the idea for Dead Man's Mark?" Rose asks me after a while.

"A friend was telling us about the plot of a book she wanted to write. Rick and I thought it would make a great game, so in the end she wrote it for us. She's the writer for Nanogold as well."

"It's a great story. There's some really scary scenes in there. When those ghosts came through the wall in the cellar, that gave me such a shock! And when the mark appears on Alice's skin — that was the most horrifying thing I've seen in a game, ever."

"Thanks. It was fun to make, too. Didn't really feel like work."

"Do you believe there are such things as ghosts?"

"Well, no. Though I did have a strange experience when we were working on the game."

"Oh? What was that?"

Tom turns round to look at me and Andy stops typing. Karl's trying to look bored but I can tell he's listening. So I tell them the story.

"To get the setting right, our team went to Cornwall for a weekend. We looked at old castles, explored smuggler's caves — you've played the game, Rose, you'll know the kind of thing we were looking for. Well, one night we were walking on a beach in a cove, surrounded by tall, rugged cliffs. The tide was in and this stretch of beach was cut off from the rest of the world. The only way down was a narrow footpath that twisted between black rocks as high as my head on both sides. The others went back to the car but I'd gone right to the far end of the beach, and I was some way behind them. I heard a noise behind me, a splash, as if someone had thrown a large stone into the water. I turned round but there was nothing there, not even a shadow. A cloud blew across the moon and it became even darker. I heard the splash again, twice, once in front of me and once behind. I didn't move; I just stood there. Then the moon came out from behind the cloud and I could see there was no-one there. The beach was empty. Only my footprints on the sand. I got back to the car as quick as I could."

Karl's dropped his pretence of not listening. "Maybe your friends were playing a trick on you."

"I don't think so. They couldn't see me from where they were. And if they had, they would have said something. You see, I never told them about this. If it was a joke, I can't believe they would have kept quiet."

"Something happened to me in Cornwall," Tom says. "I was there on holiday once, staying in a little harbour town. It was a beautiful moonlit night and I went for a walk on the pier. I heard something and I looked over the railing. There was a man trying to climb up the sheer stones of the pier. I reached out a hand and pulled him up. His hand was clammy and sticky with slime. He thanked me. Of course he was dripping wet and he stank of dead fish. Did you fall in, I asked him. He told me he had gone to the pier with a friend. They had argued about a girl they both liked. Maddened with jealousy, the man had pushed him over the railing and into the sea. I thought that was strange as I hadn't seen anyone else on the pier that night. How long were you in there, I asked. A year and a day, he answered. Then he reached for me and I knew he wanted to grab me and throw me over the railing. I've never run so fast in my life."

"Wow! That's some story," Andy says. "The only thing that's ever happened to me was when I had a holiday job doing boring office work. My boss, Marcia, told me to file some reports. They had to go in this big old grey filing cabinet with five huge drawers. When I'd finished, I pushed the middle drawer closed and went back to my desk. I heard a creaking, groaning sound and turned just in time to see the top three drawers slide open slowly, though no one was even close to the filing cabinet. Then the cabinet rocked back and forth, back and forth as the drawers slid open, then shut, then open again. Marcia saw it too. "Oh, my God. Oh, my God," she whispered over and over. Just when I thought the whole thing would fall crashing to the floor it stopped and settled back into its place."

Rose smiled. "I've got a story I could tell. I was on my way home just after midnight. The wind was blowing my scarf back into my face. I took a short cut to my bus stop across one of those London squares. I was a little bit nervous about going that way, but I didn't want to miss my bus. I followed the path that led diagonally across from one corner to the other. The fallen leaves rustled in the wind and crackled under my feet. In the middle of the square was a tall oak, almost bare of leaves. It must have stood there in that square for hundreds of years. As I came near to the thick trunk someone stepped out from behind the tree to stand on the path in front of me. It was a woman with dark hair piled up on her head in an elaborate coil. Her face was almost as white as her dress, which flowed down to her ankles from a high waist. She wore no coat. She stepped up to me and seized my wrist in her cold hand.

Can you tell me, she said, how to get home? I can't find my way any more. It's all changed.

Where do you live, I asked her.

Northanger Road, she said. It's near Woodland Gardens.

I'm sorry, I said, I've never heard of it. I don't live around here myself. I'm a South Londoner.

And I pulled my hand free and walked on.

But the next day I was talking to someone, and I told him about this. And he said, well now, that's very strange. All the houses in Northanger Road were torn down many years ago. It's the Northwood Shopping Centre now."

Karl had to have the last word. "This happened to me a few years ago, when I lived in Germany. I was on my way to a conference. I'd been offered a lift, but at the last minute my friend had to change his plans, and in the end I had to travel on my own, by train. It was not the most convenient journey. The train was delayed due to work on the line and I was worried about missing my connection. I had to change trains at a small town, and by the time I got there it was already dark. I got off at the dreary station. No one was there except the man selling tickets. He told me I'd just missed my train, and there wouldn't be another one for two hours. To make the time pass I decided to go out and find a bar or café, get a drink and something to eat. The ticket seller told me there was a bar close to the station.

I went out and found the bar quite easily. Dim light shone from its dusty windows. I peered through to a dismal scene. Three old men with mugs of beer, and none of them talking to each other. I decided to walk a bit farther and see if I couldn't find somewhere more cheerful. So I walked on down the road and soon I saw a brightly lit window ahead of me. It was a café, set on a corner at a crossroads, and I looked in at the big bright window. At once I saw I had found a good place. Two waitresses, pretty girls in checked uniforms and little aprons, were bustling about with plates heaped with food. I saw steaks, sausages, potatoes, noodles; just the sight of the food made me suddenly hungry. I almost thought I could smell the food through the glass. And I saw desserts — ice creams, profiteroles, cakes. It all looked delicious. They were bringing tall glasses of beer to some of the customers, and dark red wine to the others. Everybody in the place seemed to be having a good time, talking and laughing in between mouthfuls of tasty food. The only problem I could see was, there wasn't a free table in the place. But as I watched, a man called for his bill, paid with a note and gave a coin to the pretty waitress who rewarded him with a smile. I saw him go out of the door which was round the corner from where I stood. I hurried round to the door. This side of the café seemed drab and dirty compared with the pleasant scene just round the corner. To my surprise, a faded sign on the door read Closed. I pulled the handle, I pushed the door, but I could not get it to open. I looked around me. There was no sign at all of the man who I had just seen walk out of that door. How did he get away so quickly? Again I tried the door, but it seemed firmly locked. Perhaps it had accidentally locked itself behind the man who had just left. There was no window on this side. I went back round the corner to the big window and tapped on the glass. The waitress would see me and open the door, I thought. But however loudly I rapped on the window, no-one even glanced in my direction. Even the couple whose table was next to the window took absolutely no notice of me. At one point they looked out at the street and didn't seem to see me at all. It was as if they could see right through me; as if I was a ghost.

I started to feel uneasy. Soon I thought that even if they opened the door to me I no longer wanted to go in. I hastened back to the first bar and ordered a double whisky."

They all look at me. "That's amazing," I say. "We've all had something weird happen to us. It's hard to dismiss all that as just coincidence — or imagination. But I still don't believe in ghosts."

"Neither do we," says Rose, solemnly. Then of course they all start laughing.

Rose takes me down to the reception desk where I sign myself out. But before I go I say to her, "Rose, if you'd like to see how a game is made, you're very welcome to visit us at work. It's the least I can do, after you've shown me your lab at such short notice. Thanks."

"That's all right," Rose says, "I enjoyed showing you round. To be honest, I didn't feel much like working today. I'd love to see your studio, if you're sure I won't be in the way."

"Good! Here's the address. Come round any time you like. I'm there pretty much every day. Tomorrow, if you like." I give her one of our business cards.

"I'd better get some work done tomorrow. What about Saturday? Will you be there?"

"I'm always there. Game developing doesn't stop just because it's the weekend. Saturday's good."

"If you're sure I won't be a nuisance..."

"Not at all. Rose, you've been a help. I owe you. See you Saturday."

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