A collection of fifteen short stories by Trevor Hopkins, author of the Lyndesfarne Bridge series of magical fantasy novels.
These short stories are all linked in various ways; can you work out the puzzle? An explanation of the connections between the stories can be found at the end of the Ebook.
Do you get an itch you can’t scratch? No, not that kind of itch!
You know how it is. You get an itching, tickling sensation, somewhere in the middle of your back, and you can’t quite reach to just the right place. Perhaps it’s between your shoulder-blades, or just below, or to one side. Or if you think you can reach, it’s never entirely satisfactory wherever you scrape or rub. Do you want to know what causes that itch, the one you just can’t seem to scratch?
I know the reason why you itch. If you’re sure you want to know too, read on.
I’m working as a Research Assistant. You know, one of those underpaid and overworked kids with lank hair and poor complexions to be found in some numbers in their natural environment – the quieter and darker corners of the science faculty buildings. The faculty itself is part of one of those red-brick Universities which was instituted in an act of Victorian philanthropy, and which has grown over time almost organically. The Uni has gradually displaced the back-to-back terraces and narrow alleys that surrounded it with newer buildings which were probably supposed to be soaring white edifices of glass and stone, but seem to have ended up as irregular piles of water-stained grey concrete.
Like Mycroft, my life runs on rails. During the day, I try to find enough time to make a dent in the seemingly endless task of completing my PhD thesis, between bouts of sleeping and eating from the nearby takeaway kebab shop known affectionately as the ‘Armpit’. I spend the minimum possible amount of time in my room in a rented house I share with several other postgrads – which is just as well, since it is cold, squalid and damp.
At night, I’m working on computer models of brain function – a task as large and complex as the Human Genome project, although we’re a long way off that kind of successful completion. This is one of those crossover subject areas between AI and Robotics (which has been the Wave of the Future for more decades than I’ve been alive) and Bio-informatics (sponsorship home of the big pharmaceutical and healthcare companies). Basically, some of us have finally realised that we really don’t know enough about creating smart systems – we need to know more about existing intelligences before it makes sense to attempt to build artificial ones.
Of course, brain function mapping has all sorts of potential spin-offs, which is why Big Pharma and the healthcare consortia are interested in what we do. So much of human behaviour is determined by our hard-to-predict reactions to external stimuli, and there’s so much we could do with a deterministic model of the machine between our ears – everything from improved anti-depressants (which is a pretty big market these days) or even a better contraceptive with no side-effects. Yes, ladies, you might just be able to think yourself not pregnant!
Selling these big ideas to the big companies, and gathering in the resulting big research grants, is of course the responsibility of my university supervisor and his professor, leaving me the menial task of actually making the technology work.