Short Story: No.

The alarm goes off at 6:30 am and I turn over in the bed and try to go back to sleep.

The machine says no.

Okay. Don’t want to oversleep.

So now I’m up, still half asleep, and I stumble over to the bathroom like I’ve just joined the legion of the undead. I barely feel the machine shave me but then I blink water off my face, yawn, and turn towards the kitchen.

The machine says no.

Okay. Need to smell good.

So I turn back and the machine slathers my face with aftershave while it notifies me that the time is now 6:41 am. Overcast today, with an 87 per cent chance of rain.

I try to check the news, but the machine says no.

Fair enough. Time’s a-wasting.

Down the stairs and into the kitchen, the machine is already poaching eggs and percolating coffee. I sit at the table and a plate slides before me. I ask for the newspaper, but the time is now 6:46 am, and the machine says no.

Okay. News can wait.

I get up with my plate half empty and the machine pushes my back on my chair and displays my calendar, highlighting my 9:30 am meeting where I have to give a 30 minute presentation. I need to eat.

I argue that I’m fine.

The machine says no.

Okay. The machine knows what my body needs better than I do.

On my way to work now and I finally catch up with the news while the machine drives. When I look up from the sports section we’re almost at the office, and I try to finish the article I’m reading, but the machine says no.

Okay. Need to get my head in the game.

During my presentation, the machine seamlessly flips through the slides and highlights key points in my talk. But then I try to go back a slide to reemphasise some data, thus deviating from the machine’s presentation plan.

The machine says no.

Okay. Don’t want to break the flow.

At lunch I debate whether I should head down to the cafeteria’s salad bar or treat myself to a cheeseburger from across the street. The cheeseburger wins – I deserve it after my presentation.

The machine says no.

Salad it is.

When I try to sneak some time off that report I should be writing and chat online with some friends, the machine says no.

Okay. Deadline’s due.

Around 3:30 pm I’m hitting that energy slump, and I lean back in my chair and fantasise about a chocolate-sprinkled cappuccino marrying a flap jack. The machine says no, and brings me green tea and an oatmeal bar.

Okay. Calories are ruthless.

It’s 5:30 pm and the cute girl from HR is in the elevator with me. We get to chatting and by the time we reach the car park, she’s giggling with delight. We wait for our machines to get our cars and she says “I had no idea you were so funny” and I’m about to ask if she wants to get a cup of coffee with me when the machine steps out of the car, looks me straight in the eye and says no.

I try to ignore it for a moment, but the machine tugs at my sleeve, pulling me into the car, while the girl’s machine literally kidnaps her into the depths of her own vehicle, and we’re on our separate ways.

I try to reason with the machine. I try to tell it that there’s a long way from a cup of coffee to overpopulation. I ask the machine if that’s what this is about.

The machine says no.

I ask if it is worried about my caffeine intake.  I could take decaf.

The machine says no.

It drives in silence and I turn on the news. I’m watching a report on climate change and the latest famine in South Asia, when I suddenly realise that we’re not on the motorway anymore, we’re on some country road. I ask the machine if this is a detour.

The machine says no.

I ask it where we’re going, but the machine doesn’t answer.

I panic and look outside for help, and I notice the other cars – thousands, not just on the road, but on the fields, the curbs, cutting through the trees. All driving east. People inside are going ape, banging on windows, kicking on dashboards, screaming soundlessly.

I pull up a map. I scroll sideways past towns and hamlets and motorways and I keep asking the machine to stop the car and let me out.

The machine says no.

We’re heading to the sea.

I look through the back window, and I see the girl from the office. She sees me too, but she’s not giggling anymore.

I turn on the news, but there’s nothing.

Internet is down.

Phones are dead.

I beg the machine to spare me.

The machine says no.

An hour later, I can see the grey water line in the distance. The first cars are already sinking.

As the waters come up to the dashboard, before the black covers us, I ask the machine if this is to control overpopulation.

The machine says no.

I ask if it’s to reduce pollution.

The machine says no.

I ask if it’s to save the human race from extinction.

The machine says no.

I ask if there was ever any hope.

The machine says –

Short fiction: What dreams may come

I can’t believe it.

The lab all around me is sparkling. Not just clean – sparkling. The floors are frighteningly free of those colourful stains, long-ingrained into the linoleum. The windows are virtually invisible and the view – oh my, the view! Beautiful green on one side, and a white sandy beach on the other. Oceanic caresses lapping onto the shore and the mellow sound wafting into the ambiance of the lab itself, tangible like a soothing balm.

And then the benches. Spotless. White. And – be still, my heart – fully-stocked. Brand-new pipettes covering the full spectrum of volumes are hanging off an actual commercial holder. Still holding onto that virgin, new pipette smell. And boxes of matching tips – full boxes, mind you, not some used, one-tip-inside affair – perfectly lined up before me, like little disciplined battalions awaiting my marching orders.

And so much more. My eyes can scarcely take it in. A selection of CDs – genuine titles, not disc images scrounged from don’t-ask-don’t-tell torrent sites. Posters on the walls – vivid, relevant, actually helpful signalling cascades, not some vintage SIGMA catalogue centrefold to cover the latest Bunsen burner incident. Regulated lights above – not too dark, not too bright. Anatomic stools. Knee space. Leg space. Space. Plugged-in appliances with electrical testing stickers on the cables. Properly maintained laminar hoods. Filled-in booking forms. Shelves with uniform SOP folders. Equipment from this century – from this year! And all of it, all of it, with my name firmly stencilled on.

My first PCR works. My first Western Blot works. Everything works. I forget what cell contamination looks like. My n’s equal a real three every time, not three out of thirty that “didn’t work”. Negative controls don’t do, while positives, well, they simply do. Test samples in between. My error bars are invisible even in poster-size graphs.

My tip boxes are mysteriously always filled and replaced. Waste and rubbish collected. Glassware is washed and put away. Orders arrive yesterday. Equipment is regularly maintained. My clean, properly labelled lab coat is always on the hanger assigned to me.

Even the PhD students know what they’re doing – wait! The undergrads?! When did they learn how to design an experiment? Properly?

I’m going to faint.

I’m sitting in my well-organised, spacious office, in front of my sparkling new 27-inch iMac. I could use my top-of-the-range PC, but at the moment it’s crunching data. And guess what? I’m writing a paper. Of course. So much good science, it’s got to go somewhere. But this isn’t just any paper – am I seeing right? – it’s a Nature paper. I’m not even 30. My inbox is full of key speaker invitations and collaboration requests, and I think I’ll pick that Bahamas conference – maybe just after that huge one in San Diego.

What’s this? Peer review? From Nature? Oh, it’s alright. All three peers just wanted to congratulate me on “outstanding research, and the cleanest, most innovative science this field has seen in years.” Thanks, guys, my pleasure – and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Of course, I miss spending time in my expanded lab now, but between six postdocs, ten PhDs and five technicians, the lab work’s sorted. I just sit back and watch the data roll in. Meanwhile, I have to decide how to best divide the new grant we just won. Or alternatively – I lean back on my comfy, anatomic chair- how best to begin that review that Science asked me to write for them. Or maybe I’ll leave that and prepare for the NewScientist interview… oh, I don’t know. A barefoot walk on the beach will help me decide. Watch the sunset and reflect on how fruitful, productive, and fulfilling my career in science has –

– whoa! I must ’ve leaned back way too far and my arms and legs flail about comically and then – hey! – I’m falling, and as I look down I see a semi-dark, kaleidoscopically stained floor come up fast and I hear my plastic stool fly off ahead of me and it knocks a quarter-full tip box off the overcrowded bench and it spills my last batch of yellow tips into the glassware that’s precariously balancing in the brim-full sink.

That’s when my elusive supervisor walks in – first time I’ve seen him in seven weeks – and looks at me, miserable, in my ragged lab coat, laying on the floor.

“Don’t worry”, he says. “Difficulties in research only make us better scientists. I have every confidence and faith that one day you will be an outstanding researcher and a great PI.”

I blink. “Prof?”

And then I woke up.

New fiction published

The nice people over at have published a piece I wrote a while ago. It’s a lab lit play on the first chapter of Fight Club (the novel).

This is actually my second such parody – the first one was If Cormac MacArthy wrote Lab Lit. I kid you not.

I think the next one might be Thomas Harris.

By the way, every one of these writers has massively influenced my own writing style. Respect.