Monday, 27 April 2009

First Chapter

Daniel Smith was a sickly-looking boy. His pasty complexion suggested he was more likely related to a family of mushrooms than to his own parents, to whom he bore no resemblance whatsoever. He had even questioned his parentage on one occasion during a particular row.

Oddly enough he had never seen his mother as panicked before or since. She had even gone to the trouble of digging out the recording made of him being born, forcing Daniel to sit through the whole thing.

By the time it ended, Daniel was left knowing more about childbirth than he had ever wanted. He had also been left in no doubt that not only had his mother given birth to him, but that it had been one of the most unpleasant events of her life, judging by the screaming and cursing during the event and her complete disinterest in her newborn baby when the nurses tried to show it to her.

In a way it was a shame: while he had been uncertain about being related to them, he had held onto the hope that someday his true parents would come along and take him away from his life with the Smiths.

Unfortunately there would be no such fairy tale endings for him.
Despite his sickly-looking complexion, Daniel actually suffered from unusually good health. The term suffered was appropriate because it seemed the reasons for his good health could potentially kill him. Daniel’s immune system was capable of fighting off all illnesses and ailments at the drop of a hat. No sooner had he sniffled the first sniffle of a cold than it was over.

This unusual resistance to ill-health, according to the family physician, Dr Largo, was due to an excess of white blood cells being created by Daniel's body. Left unchecked, this would prove fatal, so every month Dr Largo would insert his thick needle into a vein and remove the excess blood.

Daniel often wondered if Dr Largo took too much blood. He usually felt weak for several days after the blood-letting and he was sure that his unusually pale complexion was no coincidence. However, Dr Largo said it was perfectly safe and, as far as Daniel's parents were concerned, what Dr Largo said was the end to all debate.

The one time Daniel had meekly suggested that a second opinion might be useful was the time his parents decided he could go without food for a couple of days for his impertinence.

It was not the first time they had imposed such a punishment, unfortunately this time it coincided with one of his bleeding sessions and before Dr Largo had finished, Daniel collapsed.

The doctor fixed up a glucose drip and, assuming Daniel was still asleep, rounded on his parents. However, Daniel had regained a hazy form of consciousness when the drip had been inserted, and heard every word.

“Do you have any idea how close you idiots came to jeopardising everything?”

Daniel’s father raised his voice, indignant in his response. “He was asking for a second opinion. He doesn’t trust yours any longer. We couldn’t just let that go.”

“Let him have his second opinion,” Dr Largo replied. “If it will put his mind at rest.”

Daniel wondered how he could have doubted Dr Largo. While he was thinking the doctor’s medical practices might be less than sound, here Dr Largo was demonstrating that he only had his patient's best interests at heart. Daniel made up his mind that he didn’t need another doctor’s opinion.

What he heard next though completely reversed his decision.

“How can we let him see another doctor?” his mother asked. “They’d know there was something wrong.”

Daniel felt his heart quicken. What did she mean?

“They certainly didn’t pick you two for your intelligence,” Dr Largo said.

Daniel almost laughed at that, but instead found himself wondering what his parents had been picked to do.

“If he sees another doctor,” Dr Largo continued. “It will be someone we set up. Not just the first name picked out of the telephone directory.”

Daniel’s heart was pounding so hard now that he wondered how they could possibly avoid hearing it on the other side of the curtain separating the recovery bed from the rest of the surgery.

“He is asleep, isn’t he?” Daniel’s father suddenly asked.

Daniel shut his eyes and willed himself to relax.

Go to sleep. Go to sleep, he repeated over and over to himself.

Strangely enough, despite his sense of panic, the instant Dr Largo’s hand twitched open the curtain, Daniel fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The following day, with Daniel well on his way to recovery, his parents insisted on taking him to see a doctor in the neighbouring town of Merchester. Despite telling them that he had changed his mind, Daniel still found himself in the back of the family’s aging Citroen as his parents and he made the ten-mile trip.
Dr Dafur, an elderly Indian man with a thick accent, asked Daniel to sit up on a table as he performed his examination.

“How old are you, Daniel?” he asked as he held one end of a cold stethoscope to Daniel’s chest.

“Fourteen,” Daniel replied.

He knew he was smaller than average for his age: he had looked up the figures on the Internet. His parents had all sorts of filters on their computers, supposedly to prevent Daniel looking at age inappropriate material. In reality they seemed more interested in preventing him from accessing any site where he could do anything more than play kids’ games.

Unknown to his parents, Daniel had been able to bypass the filters since he was ten. He probably would have managed to do so long before then, but it had only been after his tenth birthday that he was finally left alone in the same room as the computer long enough to reprogram it.

Dr Dafur nodded, making no mention of Daniel’s physical development.

“And you’ve had this condition ...?”

“Since he was born,” Daniel’s mother answered.

Dr Dafur consulted the medical file on his desk.

“And your doctor had been taking blood every month?”

“That’s right.” Daniel’s father answered this time.

“Hmm,” Dr Dafur pondered, flipping through the pages. Daniel wondered how long he would keep up the pretence before announcing that he completely agreed with Dr Largo’s diagnosis.

“I’m not sure I quite agree with this treatment,” Dr Dafur said.

Daniel almost fell off his chair in astonishment. This was not how he expected the session to go. Dr Dafur should have been dismissing Daniel’s concerns, not agreeing with them. He wondered if his parents had somehow taken him to the wrong doctor.

“Dr Largo appears to be a little more aggressive in his therapy than I think is warranted,” Dr Dafur told Daniel‘s parents. “My recommendation would be to reduce the exsanguination sessions to period of one every six weeks. Of course you would also need to keep close watch on him.”

Daniel pondered the result of the visit to Dr Dafur on the journey home. His parents had agreed to the revised timetable for his treatments. However, it wasn’t exactly as if Dr Dafur had been in violent disagreement with Dr Largo. Daniel was sure it was a ruse to placate him.

It was possible the reduction in the frequency of the treatments was a response to his earlier collapse. Whatever else, he was certain that his visit to Dr Dafur had gone exactly according to the plan formulated by his parents and Dr Largo.

At the next opportunity, Daniel logged onto the Internet to look up blood disorders. He wondered why it had taken him so long. Perhaps, he admitted to himself, he had not wanted to believe that he was being lied to by his parents.

Although he hated them most of the time, although they rarely had a kind word to say to him, although they often treated him cruelly, they were still his parents. He had to believe that despite appearances, they had his best interests at heart. That belief was rapidly being eroded.

The information he found on the Internet completely demolished any remainder of his belief in them. He found his symptoms on line: the production of excess white blood cells. He had even heard of the illness before, although he hadn’t ever known to put the symptoms and the name together. If what he was reading was correct, he was suffering from leukaemia.

It didn’t make sense to him. For a start the treatment for leukaemia was radiation therapy. Taking blood was used to treat other diseases, not leukaemia. Also, although white blood cells did play a role in combating illness, the over-production of them would not have the effect of making Daniel the most disease-resistant boy in the world.

Which left Daniel with two questions: if he did have leukaemia then why was he receiving the wrong treatment? If he didn’t have it then what exactly was he being treated for?

As a consequence of his condition, whatever it might be, Daniel’s schooling had been decidedly erratic. Up until his tenth birthday he had been bussed to a school in Merchester. Then his illness had been discovered, or invented, effectively putting an end to his time at school.

On the days following his treatment sessions, he was often too weak to leave his bed, let alone go to school. It had been agreed between the school, Daniel’s parents and Dr Largo, that Daniel would be home educated.

At first Daniel had dreaded the idea of spending more time with his parents. However, it seemed that in their eyes, home education meant giving him a book and telling him to get on with it. Grudgingly they had even given him access to the Internet, albeit with all the filters preventing him seeing ... well, almost anything.

He soon discovered that his parents hands-off approach to education gave him unparalleled freedom. He spent much of his time in the local library, a ramshackle affair of a couple of dozen bookcases holding books that were all at least ten years out of print.

Somehow it had been overlooked by the local council when it came to shutting down services. It was probably only the library’s isolated location that had enabled it to survive the periodic cull of such establishments, given that most councillors probably didn’t realise it existed, let alone that they could close it down.
It was barely used by the other villagers; often the whole day would go by and the only other person Daniel would see in there was the librarian, Miss Dryleaf. She was an elderly spinster, with a penchant for beige cardigans, who wandered aimlessly around the shelves in a cloud of what smelled like eau-de-cat-wee.

Despite the olfactory challenges Miss Dryleaf presented, which Daniel solved by never inhaling when he was downwind of her, the library remained one of Daniel’s favourite refuges.

The only days he would not be found there were Sundays, when it wasn’t open; the three days a month when he was recovering from his blood letting; or those sunny days of the year when he decided to take a walk in the woods.

Daniel had the perfect excuse when it came to hiking off into the woods. “It’s for biology,” he would tell his parents. He even suggested that they might want to come with him while he hunted for woodland fungi to draw. Unsurprisingly they both declined and left him alone to wander the woods by himself.

“Just don’t get up to anything dangerous,” his father instructed him in a rare moment of parental concern.

Daniel sometimes wondered if his parents didn’t see him so much as a son than as some form of resource that needed to be guarded from accidental damage. Occasionally he would imagine that the blood extracted from him was being used to solve the global energy crisis, somehow being used as an ecologically-friendly replacement for oil.

Certainly they must have taken enough from him over the last few years to keep his parents’ car running for a good length of time.

It had been raining for a week before, and three days following, Daniel’s appointment with Dr Dafur. On the fourth day Daniel woke up to a face full of sunshine and decided to go for a walk.

There was a freshness in the air born of the previous days’ rainfall. In places untouched by the direct sunlight, the soil was still sodden, threatening to suck down Daniel’s shoes. For the most part though, the heat of the sun had dried out the woods, making it pleasant going.

Daniel had no real purpose in the woods. He had long ago catalogued all the different species of flora, having exercise books full of drawings, as well as pressed samples of many of the plants. Today was just about enjoying nature.

It was not long before fate put a crimp in his plans when he trod on a patch of slippery mud untouched by the sun’s rays. His foot skidded out from under him, threatening to spill him over. His arms windmilled as he tried to keep himself upright. His efforts had almost succeeded, when his heel caught against an errant tree root.

He came crashing down onto his back.

Daniel lay there for a couple of moments, his body tensed as he refused to accept the pain. Unable to hold it off any longer, he opened himself up to receiving sensations once more.

To his surprise it didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. It was more a dull ache spread across the bottom of his back rather than the sharp pain he had been expecting.

He stared up at the overhead tree branches, wondering if he should remain where he was for the rest of the day, or get back up and chance something else going wrong. While on the face of it remaining still seemed the preferable choice, he wasn’t sure that it was sustainable in the long term.

He put out his hands to push up from the ground. His right hand came into contact with something hard, something made of metal. He pulled his hand back sharply, an instinctive reaction to feeling something that shouldn‘t have been there.
Rolling onto one side and ignoring any protests from his bruised back, he took a look at the metal object.

It was mostly covered by vegetation that had grown up around it, but there was enough of the object showing for Daniel to be able to tell what it was supposed to be. It was a hand.

Daniel scrambled to his feet, completely forgetting that he had injured his back. In the process of forgetting his injury, he also failed to realise that it no longer hurt at all.

He pulled away the plants surrounding the hand to reveal an arm attached to it. Further inspection revealed the arm to be protruding from an old tree stump, so overgrown with plant-life that Daniel had taken it for a bush.

Daniel tore away the plants with his hands. He made short work of them, releasing the tree stump from its green bondage. The find was better than Daniel could have ever hoped. He recognised what he had discovered straight away.

Tucked into the hollow tree stump was an honest-to-goodness robot.

Perhaps if he had been a normal boy with normal parents, Daniel might have run home to tell them exactly what he had found in the woods. However, with Daniel’s family being far from normal, he instead did the next best thing: he looked for an on-switch.

He had done no more than touch the robot’s metal body when its eyes began to glow a faint green. Daniel snatched his hand back, dangerously close to falling over again as he overbalanced with the sudden movement.

The robot shifted its head, its dimly lit eyes unseeing. A sound, like a metal coughing, emanated from the robot’s head. Daniel backed away, ready to run if the machine looked as if it might be dangerous.

The robot’s metal cough barked once more, then it was silent. Daniel wondered if the machine had been running an automatic response, the final vestiges of power being spent.

The robot moved again, its eyes brightening.

“Memory error,” it said. “Corrupted sectors. Recommend reinstallation of operating system.”

Daniel blinked, not sure what to make of this.

The robot swivelled its head, its green flowing eyes focusing on him.

“I must complete my mission,” it told him.

Daniel gaped, unsure of how he should respond. His mind had been racing through the possibilities of where this robot had come from. Three options seemed more likely to him than any others: a research laboratory, the military, or an alien planet. The use of the word mission suggested it was not a laboratory.

Daniel screwed up his face. “You’re not from outer-space are you?” he asked, just to make sure.

He was almost certain that a confused alien robot would not be talking English, no matter what the old science fiction films might have taught him.

“No,” the robot replied. It paused for a moment. Daniel almost expected to hear its hard drive whirring. “At least I don’t think so. My memory doesn’t contain those details.”

The robot’s voice had softened, becoming less mechanical and more ... human.
A nasty thought occurred to Daniel. “This isn’t some kind of wind-up, is it?”

The robot tilted its head at a slight angle, considering Daniel’s words.

“No,” it finally answered. “I do not believe that it is. My memory may not be fully functional, but there is no data to suggest that I am part of a ‘wind-up’. I am on a mission and ...” The robot tried to move. It lifted an arm, but that was as much as it could manage. “... I am unable to proceed.”

“What’s your mission?” Daniel asked.

“I am to retrieve a canister and return it to .. The robot paused.

“Return it where?”

“That memory sector is unavailable,” the robot answered.

“How can you complete your mission if you don’t know what it is?”

The robot moved its still-operative arm. “That matter is irrelevant. I cannot complete my mission until I am functional again. Priority is to become mobile first. Recovery of the damaged memory sectors is secondary.”

The robot looked away for a moment before refocusing its attention on Daniel.

“Perhaps you can assist me with repairs.”

Daniel thought about it for a while. The idea of working to repair the robot was a tempting one. It would be the type of science project that would make other kids jealous ... well, at least those kids who appreciated the inherent coolness in owning their very own robot.

On the other hand, Daniel wasn’t completely naive. He knew enough about the world to know that people had all sorts of hidden agendas and if people did then so could robots.

“What’ll happen if I repair you?” he asked.

“I will seek to complete my mission,” the robot replied. “I will retrieve the stolen container and attempt to restore the memory sectors that hide the rest of my mission data.”

“Will you hurt anyone?” Daniel asked. “As part of your mission I mean?”

The robot considered the question, presumably searching among the corrupted sectors of its memory to see if the answer was retrievable. Finally, it answered.

“I am to carry out the mission with minimal contact with any people. However, should I be in a position where I am required to defend myself, I am allowed the use of non-lethal force.”

The robot may have been lying, but Daniel was reassured to a large extent by the completeness of the answer.

“What do you need for repairs?” he asked.


Uncommon Jen said...

I remember this story. I am so glad you are still working with it.

Iain Gibson said...

Thanks. Been rewriting it - taking quite a few of your comments into consideration. The ending is considerably different to how it used to be.

Uncommon Jen said...

I'd love to see the revised version. This story stuck with me.