Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Companion - my story from Short Trips: Christmas Around The World

My first published short story appeared in Short Trips: Transmissions. I wrote another story for Short Trips: Christmas Around the World, which  also came out in 2008. Sadly, the Short Trips books are now out of print, and used copies are going for silly prices on Amazon and eBay. But I've got permission to post both of mine here, for free - treat them as fan fiction, not for profit, etc etc. Please don't repost, just link if you want to share them.

The first story, Breadcrumbs, is available here. The second one is below, in time for Christmas.

Thank you to Big Finish and the BBC for letting me put them on here. By the way, I've pasted the story from my final text copy, to save myself hours of formatting, so any grammatical errors are my fault and not the editor's.

Story notes: this sprang into my head almost fully formed when working on Primeval. The brilliant script editor, Katie Newman, mentioned her niece who loved animals but couldn't have a pet because they made her ill. It's not often a story just appears in your head, but I'm glad this one did. It made me cry when writing it, and still does now when I re-read it. It's a rare warm and fuzzy tale, with no serial killers or baby slaughter, and one of my favourite things I've done.

Doctor Who original series broadcast on BBC Television. Format copyright © BBC 1963. Story originally published by Big Finish 2008, reproduced with permission from BBC Worldwide.


An adventure of the Eighth Doctor

By James Moran

 My name is Yarah de Silva. Yarah means "water lady". My teacher told me that at school, but my dad always said that it means "Amazonian warrior". I think my dad was making that up. But it sounds cooler, so I've decided to believe him and not my teacher.

I live in a small town called Avelar, in Brazil. It is the year 2672. I am 11 years, 4 months and 2 days old. I am a girl. When I grow up, I am going to be a famous astronaut, and I will fly into space and meet aliens and make friends with them. When I was very small, a boy pushed me over at school and said that girls were too stupid to be astronauts. When my dad found out, he told me that girls were not stupid at all, and that the only people who were really stupid were the ones who went around pushing people over and making them feel bad. Then my dad went to the school, found the boy, and told him that if he ever hurt me again, he'd put him into a very small bottle. Like a ship in a bottle. And then he'd put that bottle in his shed, along with all the other bottles full of all the other naughty kids he'd done the same thing to. The boy never came near me again. He was too scared to even look at me. He was silly. My dad doesn't even have a shed.

I am allergic to animals. That means that if I go near any kind of animal, I get really sick. One time I saw a cat in the garden, so I went out and petted it. I felt okay for an hour, but then I couldn't breathe, and woke up in hospital. I can't touch animals, I can't go near them, and I definitely can't have a pet. Not even a goldfish. We tried one of those, but it made me just as sick as the cat. Some people are allergic to cats, but not fish. I'm allergic to all of them. The doctors don't know why. They say I'll be fine, I'll have a perfectly normal life, as long as I stay away from animals.

But I really, really, really want a little puppy dog.

Every Christmas I ask for a puppy. Every Christmas, my dad tells me that I can't have one, and he gets me another stuffed toy, and some other games and sweets and books. I love the presents he gets me. He always knows what I like. But he can never get me the thing that I want more than anything, because it'll make me sick.

Instead, I draw lots of pictures of puppies, which is as close as I can get to the real thing. Most of my drawings are the same. I'm trying to figure out what the perfect puppy would look like. I would call him Patch. He should be black and white, with a sort of pale patch on one side of his nose, and two white paws, like socks. He should have one wonky ear and one normal one.  He should be a bit messy, a bit clumsy, the sort of clumsy dog that sits in his own water bowl by accident, then can't figure out what happened, but he doesn't care cause he's having such a brilliant time just being here. And most importantly, he should love me. That would be the most perfect puppy in the world. I draw lots of pictures of him. Sometimes I take the pictures for a walk. People laugh at me, but I don't care.

My mother went away when I was 4. I don't remember her much. My dad says she is a superspy for the government, and had to go off on a really important, top secret mission, maybe for years and years. He says we should both be really proud of her. I can tell he is very proud, he always gets really quiet when he talks about her. I hope she finishes her secret mission one day, then she can come back home.

* * *

The news people keep saying there's going to be a war with Russia. Or maybe it's China. I'm not sure. Some big country, anyway. I get scared when they go on about it, but my dad says not to worry. He'll keep me safe. He should know, because he works for Positron Incorporated, and they make the robot soldiers that the army uses. He says our robot soldiers are better than theirs, so there's nothing to worry about. I trust him. He's the cleverest person in the whole wide world, and is the head of robotics at the company, so he must know what he's talking about. He's been very busy lately, because of all the talk about war, so they've been making more robot soldiers than usual. Bigger and better ones, and not just soldiers - robot guns and robot planes, and special thinking machines that can work out how to beat the other side properly. My dad explained how it worked one time, but I didn't really understand. Something about fuzzy pathways and organic chess. Or maybe it was organic pathways and fuzzy chess? I don't know. Something was fuzzy, anyway.

One time, he brought me to work to show me how they made everything, it was really good fun. We saw the machine that makes the robot soldiers, and they showed me the little brains before they went in their heads. Funny how something so small can have your whole mind inside. My dad said that it was the same for people - we have a small lump of grey stuff in our heads, and that does all the thinking. Only ours is called a brain, and the robot soldier brain is called... something else. It was five or six really, really long words. I just call them robot brains. He said they'd made a big breakthrough in how they think about thinking, and how robots think, and it meant they could make them even more clever. One day, he said, they'd be even cleverer than us. Not him, obviously. Nobody's as clever as my dad.

When he showed me around, there were some tourists there too, in a big group. I wasn't with them, I was getting the special tour from my dad. But they all looked at us when the tour guide pointed out my dad. He told them what his job was and they all went "ooooh", because my dad is very important at the factory. They all stared at him, except for one man in the group. He looked at me instead, and smiled and waved. I waved back. He seemed nice, and looked quite funny. He had long hair, and a waistcoat, and a really strange jacket. The tour guide started going on about the metals they use in the robots, and the funny man looked at me again and pretended to yawn. The tour guide was annoyed, because he was in the middle of his little speech. The funny man gave him an innocent look, and pointed at someone else, which made me giggle. When the tour guide turned around again, the funny man looked back at me, and winked. The group kept moving, and he went with them. Then my dad took me for ice cream, and we went home.

* * *

At Christmas, I asked for a puppy again, as usual. My dad said that he couldn't do that - but that he was planning a surprise for me. A really cool surprise. He had been working late at the factory every day for weeks, and I thought maybe it was something to do with the war and the soldiers. But it wasn't. On Christmas morning, I ran downstairs, and in the middle of the other presents, was a box. My dad looked at me and his voice became very serious.

'Now you have to promise me something,' he said. 'You have to promise not to tell anyone where it came from, or I might get in a lot of trouble. And you have to promise to be very careful with it, because it cost a lot of money.'

'I promise,' I said. I was excited and scared at the same time, and I ran over to the box and opened it.

Inside, was a puppy.

But not a normal puppy, not one that would make me sick. It was a little robot puppy. It was about half my size, like one those big dogs that look like horses. It was shiny and silver. And when I said hello, it made a robotic barking noise, like those joke doorbells you can get. It jumped out, ran over to me, and lifted up its front paw to shake hands. I couldn't believe it - it was the best present ever, and exactly what I wanted. I grabbed my dad and hugged him really tightly, nearly knocking him over. He laughed, and I realised that I hadn't seen him laugh like that for ages. He's such a serious man, sometimes. He watches the news every day, if you can believe that.

The robot puppy ran to the door, and barked again.

'What's it doing?' I asked.

'Well, I'm no dog expert,' said my dad. 'But I'd say it wants to go for a walk.'

So I took it for a walk around the garden. My dad followed us closely, making notes on a clipboard and keeping an eye on it.

'It's based on something new we've been working on,' he said. 'Robot scouts, that crawl over battlefields checking for mines.'

'Oh,' I said. 'What do they do when they find a mine?'

He thought for a minute. 'Well, they... they make the mine safe.'

'That's nice of them,' I said. 'How did you make it?'

'I adapted one of the scouts, made it more or less dog-shaped, then I installed some dog-programming. We scan human brain patterns so the robot soldiers can think more like us. This was a similar process. I scanned the brain patterns of a dog, and made the robot think like a real one. Mostly. Some things it can't do, obviously.'

'Like eat,' I said.

'That's right, it can't eat.'

'Or do a wee.'

'That's right.'

'Or fall in love with another puppy.'

'No, it can't do those things. But it can run around, it can fetch, and it can protect you. Just like a real dog. But it will never make you sick. It's got our latest AI chip, and is the cleverest robot we've made so far. It can learn what you like to do, and adapt its behaviour accordingly. I've programmed it to be loyal to you, so it will always be your friend.'

'But can it run faster than me?'

And I ran off, shouting at the robot puppy to come with me. My dad laughed as we ran around and around the gardens, but then suddenly I tripped over a rose bush and fell over. I cut my knee a little bit, and had to have a plaster. It didn't hurt that much. And the whole time, the robot puppy stayed with me, making sure I was safe, and walking in front of me in case there was anything else to trip over.

After I'd had a rest, I came downstairs and found my dad on the phone to the garden centre. The robot puppy had gone out and stamped on the rose bush that tripped me up. Then it dug it out of the ground, and stuffed it in the bin. It was just trying to protect me, I suppose. But my dad had to get a new rose bush delivered, so he was quite annoyed. It was funny though.

The next morning, we woke up and found that the robot puppy had dug up all of the flowers and plants in the whole garden, and put them out by the bin. Just in case they tripped me up.

So I decided to call him Digger.

* * *

Over the next few weeks, me and Digger went for lots of walks, and a lot of plants got dug up in the garden. My dad gave up trying to replant them. As long as I was happy, he didn't mind too much. Although he wasn't too pleased with the mess. He said it looked like their minefield testing ground. I asked why their minefield ground looked like that if the robot scouts made the mines all safe? He sort of coughed into his tea, and said he just meant it was a very messy place. Then he changed the subject. I hope he's not fibbing about the robot scouts. I hope they don't get exploded in the minefields. I would have Something To Say about that.

The week after that, my dad got people in to concrete all over the gardens, because he said it was an 'eyesore'. I don't blame him. It was a great big dirty mess. Me and Digger watched from the upstairs window as they laid the concrete, and flattened it out. Once it was ready, they fused it dry with their special electrical thingy, and it was ready to walk on right away.

Me and Digger ran out to go for another walk. Digger loved going for walks. We ended up chasing each other again, around and around until I got dizzy. Digger never got dizzy, he probably had some special robot  anti-dizzifying thing built in. Which I think is cheating, really. While we were running around, I slipped on the concrete, and fell over again, hurting my elbow. It wasn't too bad, just a scrape from the concrete. But Digger ran to the part of the garden where I'd fallen, and stamped on it, trying to dig it up. It was solid concrete though, so he couldn't do it. He seemed a bit upset about that, and was quiet for the rest of the day. He must have been sad that he couldn't make it safe for me. But then, you can't make the whole world safe for everyone, unless you wrapped all the dangerous bits in bubble wrap, and that would probably hurt your ears with the popping noises everywhere you went. Anyway, you wouldn't be able to bubble wrap over the sea. Unless you had a really, really, really big roll of bubble wrap.

* * *

That night, I woke up, and Digger was gone. I panicked, and worried that something might have happened to him, and went to tell my dad. His hair was sticking up all weird, and he wasn't really awake yet.

'Go back to sleep,' he said. 'He's probably just gone for a walk. I programmed him to be loyal to you, he would never leave you.'

'But what if he's hurt? He might be trapped somewhere.'

'He can't be hurt, he's made of reinforced Rigidium. Which I invented. Remember I told you how strong that was?'


'Well, there you are then.'

And he would have gone back to sleep, if the siren hadn't gone off. That was the siren which meant something Very Bad was happening at work. He looked at me. I looked at him. And somehow we both knew that Digger was involved.

* * *

We got to the factory and heard all sorts of strange noises. I had made dad bring me along, because I was worried, and said it would be quicker just to bring me, rather than stand around wasting time trying to convince me not to come.

The main gate at the factory had a large hole in it, and people were scrambling around panicking. We went into the main factory assembly area, and one of the workers came running over to my dad.

'It's broken into the mobile weaponry section,' he said. 'What does it want?'

My dad sighed, and looked at me. 'It wants to dig up our garden.'

'It what?' asked the worker, but my dad didn't answer, and kept walking further inside. I followed him, scared but excited by all the noise and madness.

We stopped outside a large doorway marked "Advanced Weaponry Prototypes". There was another big hole in the door, and next to it was an abandoned JCB, one of those big yellow truck things with a metal bucket arm. Digger must have tried to get in the main factory gates, but wasn't strong enough. So Digger got himself a digger.

'I didn't know Digger could drive,' I said.

'He's not supposed to be able to,' said my dad, looking worried.

'Yes, but he's clever, isn't he? He can learn things. You told me that, silly.'

I was hoping he'd laugh, but he just frowned, and paced up and down for a bit. He made me wait outside the gate, while he went inside to see what was going on. I waited for a few minutes. But when I heard explosions and screaming, I ran inside. I didn't want anything bad to happen to my dad.

It took me a while to find him. He was sheltering behind a blast testing shield, while Digger threw things around. There was a row of robot soldiers stacked up like toys, and down one end was a special cage with a really big robot soldier inside. It was the size of a house, and looked a bit like a frog standing up. Only a really, really, really big frog. Made of metal. With guns and missiles on its arms. Digger was trying to break open the cage, using one of the robot soldier guns, and that's what was causing the explosions and sparks. My dad saw me come in.

'Yarah! I told you not to come in here, get out, it's not safe!'

'I wanted to make sure you were okay.'

'Oh sweetheart, that's very good of you, but it's too dangerous. Digger's trying to get to our new prototype, we have to figure out how to stop him before he does.'

'Why does he want to do that?'

'I don't know. At first, I thought he just wanted to dig up the concrete in the garden, to make it safe for you. But this is something else, he's gone mad.'

And that's when the funny man suddenly ran over to us. He was the man with the strange jacket that I'd seen in the tour group a while ago. He winked at me, and waved at my dad. We couldn't see where he had come from, he must have been there the whole time.

'Not mad, exactly,' said the funny man. 'He's still got that military programming, hasn't he?'

My dad looked at him. The funny man was so friendly looking, you couldn't help but just answer him. 'Yes,' said my dad. 'But only a very basic version. Self protection, loyalty, checking for safety, watching over its owners, and so on.'

'Ah, well, there's your problem. It's so obsessed with protecting its owner, it's making sure that it can protect you against anything and everything. It's those new AI brains you developed, they're where the trouble starts. I mean, brilliant design, they do exactly what you intended, learning faster than any other brain before - but it's too much for them.'

He unscrewed the control panel behind the blast shield, and pulled out about a million multicoloured wires. He peeled the plastic off some, and started crossing them all over, so quickly I could barely make out what he was doing. And he kept talking while he did it.

'That's the inherent flaw, you see. These brains, they learn so fast, they can't process the knowledge quickly enough, they can't see both sides of the story, and it all goes..."

I'm not sure quite what the next bit was, but it was very long and complicated. I borrowed the security tape from that night, so I could write down what he said properly, but it still sounded like gobbledegook. My dad explained it to me, which confused me even more, so I had to look it up. It means they just go a bit funny in the head. I don't know why they couldn't have just said that in the first place.

'Which is why,' continued the funny man, 'It wants to fuse itself to that heavily armed combat chassis. That way, it can eliminate any and all threats to young Yarah, here. Unfortunately, everything in the world except Yarah might be a threat to her, so it'll have to destroy it all. Everything in the world. Bit by bit.'

My dad looked at him, and only then seemed to realise how strange the whole situation was. 'Who are you?'

'Oh, I'm so sorry, I'm the Doctor. Always forgetting that part. I usually turn up when things are going a bit haywire. Hello!'

'So how do we stop it?'

The Doctor kept fiddling with the wires, and some of the circuits. 'I need to send out a shutdown signal, a complex looped instruction that will lock the brain into one single thought, sort of a paradox, a riddle, which it can't think its way out of. You know, which came first, the chicken or the egg, that sort of thing, but more complex obviously. Then it'll overload, and short itself out.'

'It'll kill him?' I said.

The Doctor looked sad. 'I'm afraid so,' he said. 'Otherwise it's going to kill everyone.'

'What about the other AI brains in the building?' said my dad.

'Sorry,' said the Doctor. 'They'll be taken out too. Has to be done, I'm afraid. Don't worry about the war - the same thing just happened to the other side, they must have been working along similar lines. Luckily I got to them before anything went wrong. Well, before anything went too badly wrong. I mean, that whole area of the city needed rebuilding anyway... There, that should do it!'

And suddenly, he jammed two more wires together. There was a really loud hum, and a blinding flash, and all the robots in the factory stopped what they were doing, including Digger. They staggered around for a bit, and then sat down, their brains whirring and grinding slowly down.

I ran over to Digger. He wasn't dangerous anymore, just a silly looking robot puppy who was about to die. I sat with him until the end. The Doctor told me he wouldn't feel any pain, that it was just like a machine being switched off.

But that just made it worse. I started crying then. I know Digger tore the factory apart - and killed several people - but he was just trying to be a good puppy and protect me. For a while, anyway, he was my friend.

* * *

After it was all over, I asked my dad if we could bury Digger in the back garden. We gave him a proper send off, and got a really nice little memorial statue to mark where he was. That way he could always watch over me.

A few weeks went by, and I was starting to get used to the idea that I could never, ever have a real pet. I was upset about it, but it could have been a lot worse. Like my granny always said, at least I had a home, and a family, and my health. Well, most of my health. Unless I went near an animal.

One day, the Doctor came back.

He talked to my dad for a long time, explaining something or other, but they seemed to come to some sort of agreement. Then the Doctor came out to talk to me. He had a small box with him.

'Hello Yarah,' he said. 'I've got a little present for you. I'm not really supposed to do this, but I reckon this is a special case. Now, you have to keep this a secret, okay? Can you do that for me?'

'Okay,' I said, shrugging.

He handed the box to me. I opened it, and inside was a glowing, pinkish ball of fluff, like cotton wool but moving around slowly. I took it out. It tickled, felt like sunlight and jam mixed together.

The Doctor crouched down to talk to me. 'Now Yarah. This is an alien shapeshifting pet, from a long way away. It's not from Earth, so there won't be any problem with your allergies. You wanted a real pet, didn't you?'

I looked at the glowing pink fluff. 'Yes, but what is it?'

'You tell me,' he said, his eyes twinkling. I must have looked confused, because then he smiled, and it was such a big, silly smile, it made me smile too. 'It takes the form of whatever animal you want, anything, no matter how exotic. All you need to do is close your eyes, and let it read your mind for a few moments. Then it will shape itself into whatever creature you want. Go on, give it a try.'

I closed my eyes. And felt the pink fluff washing over my mind, could see the pink glowing inside my head, very gently, reading my thoughts, sensing my mood, seeking out my heart's desire.

I opened my eyes.

The Doctor smiled again. 'Are you sure?' he said.

'Yes,' I said. 'That's exactly what I wanted. What I've always wanted.'

'Good,' he said. 'I'm very glad to hear it. Merry Christmas. Sorry it's a bit late. But better late than never, that's what I always say.'

With that, he walked away quickly, around the corner, and was gone. I never knew where he came from, or where he went. And I never saw him again. But I never forgot his big, silly smile.

* * *

My name is Yarah de Silva. My puppy's name is Patch. He is black and white, with a sort of pale patch on one side of his nose, and two white paws, like socks. He has one wonky ear and one normal one.  He is a bit messy, a bit clumsy, and keeps sitting in his own water bowl by accident, but he doesn't care cause he's having such a brilliant time just being here.

He loves me, and I love him. And he's the most perfect puppy in the whole, wide world.

The End