Only Human


By Tom Holt

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Something is about to go wrong. Very wrong. What do you expect if the Supreme Being decides to get away from it all for a few days, leaving his naturally inquisitive son to look after the cosmic balance of things? A minor hiccup with a human soul and a welding machine soon leads to a violent belch, and before you know it the human condition-not to mention the lemming condition-is tumbling down the slippery slope to chaos.


Two men in the early dawn, with fishing rods over their shoulders and tackle boxes in their hands; one late middle-aged, white-haired, tall and powerfully built, the other younger, a little shorter and not quite so broad across the shoulders but still an imposing figure. As you guessed, father and son, off on a fishing trip. A bit of quality time together, away from the pressures of the family business.
A third man, little more than a boy, in dressing gown and slippers, yawning in the doorway; a whole head shorter than his father, with a slope to his shoulders and a pronounced slouch. His eyes want to be closed at this horribly early hour of the morning, a part of the day he’s heard about but very rarely seen for himself. His name is Kevin, but you’d have to listen for a long time before you heard anyone call him by it. His name in real life is Our Kid.
‘You sure you’ll be all right?’
‘Yes, Dad.’
‘You’ve got the number if anything happens?’
‘Yes, Dad.’
‘You know, I’m still not sure about this. Maybe we should put it off till after the harvest . . .’
‘Dad.’ The elder son interrupts. ‘It’ll be all right. He’s a big boy now, and besides, nothing’s going to happen.’
‘Yes, but . . .’
The elder son puts on a face of comic disapproval. ‘Dad,’ he says, ‘you need this holiday. How long’s it been?’
The father shrugs. ‘All right,’ he says, miming browbeaten submission. ‘You sure you’ve got that number? If you lose it, Mike or Gabriel’ll know where we are . . .’
Yawn. ‘Yes, Dad. Have a nice trip.’
The father takes two steps away from the door, stops. ‘And promise me,’ he says, turning his head. ‘Promise you won’t touch anything.’
‘Dad . . .’
‘I’ll know if you do, and . . . All right, I’m coming. And no parties, you hear?’
Yes, Dad.’
Accordingly, father and son pick up their gear and walk away; through the portals of the sunset, down the Milky Way, a laugh and a joke as they cross the intergalactic gap and off through the stars of Andromeda to where the fish are biting. Before leaving the home galaxy, the father stops and pins a note to the tail of the Great Bear. It reads:
And how they got on, and whether they caught any fish, is no real part of this story; because when God and His elder begotten son take a holiday, their first in over two thousand years, they go where the paparazzi can’t follow. So if they say they had a great time and caught a lot of fish, but you should have seen the one that got away, we have to believe them. Religion has a word for it. It’s called Faith.
Kevin Christ, younger begotten son of the Father, watched them till they were out of sight, and grinned.
Yippee, he thought.
Because Kevin is eighteen. And however old the cosmos is, that’s how long he’s been eighteen for; just as Jay’s been thirty-two and Dad’s been whatever age Dad is, ever since there was nothing but the Word and a whole load of nothing else, covering its ears with its hands and waiting for the Bang.
And Kevin’s not part of the family business; after all, why should he be? The family business is Dad and Jay and Uncle Ghost, as it was in the beginning and ever shall be, and the chance of a vacancy cropping up on the board of directors is conclusively non existent. No one ever asked Kevin to start at the bottom, on the shop-floor with the mortals, and work his way up to a green hill far away and two planks nailed together. In fact, all that’s ever been asked or expected of Kevin Christ is precisely nothing at all; and that’s what he’s delivered, right down to the last microgram of vacuum.
Still grinning, Kevin shut the door and galloped up the stairs to his bedroom. Pause and examine; the first thing you can’t help but see is a vast swarm of plastic model aircraft, thousands upon thousands of them, hanging from the spider’s web of monofilament nylon thread two feet or so from the ceiling. Every single one was a model kit assembled by Kevin; and every single one is botched, misshapen, asymmetrical or covered in splodged glue. Because there are things that run in all families; and being good with one’s hands, able to construct and build, is one of the things that, in this family, doesn’t. Jay with his carpentry - a million miles of spirit-level-perfect shelving from one end of Heaven to another bear witness to his consummate skill. As for Dad, everything from the retina of an ant’s eye to the endless flocks of galaxies herded into the curve of the Universe is proof of his abilities. And Kevin; Kevin can’t even follow the instructions for an Airfix Sopwith Camel. That’s Kevin.
. . . Who now ducks under the teeming squadrons of bent and wobbly aeroplanes, kicks off his slippers and starts to dress. From the drawer under his bed comes a baggy, shapeless T-shirt with the name of a mortal rock band printed on it. Under that, there’s a pair of fluorescent beach shorts, the kind that went out of fashion three or four years ago. Twelve hundred years they’ve been there, bought with Kevin’s own money from a renegade Hell’s Angel, and never a chance to wear them . . . On his feet a pair of brand-new Reeboks, and from the secret hiding place under the loose floorboard—
(Secret? Get real. Imagine what it’s like being a teenager and having a Dad to whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid. He’s known about the contraband Walkman stashed under the boards all the nine hundred years it’s been there; but since He’s also known that Kevin would never dare take it out, He’s never said anything. Just occasionally allowed His eyes to rest there, to show that He knows. And, worse somehow, forgives . . .) —the Walkman and the Madonna tape, never yet listened to. The rather shady seraph who swapped it for a thousand years of Grace and Absolution had said, when asked, that no, it wasn’t quite like the St Matthew Passion. Or, come to that, the Missa Solemnis or Gregorian chant or any of the kinds of music Kevin’s ever experienced before. Rather different, he’d said. The term virgin, for instance, used in a context Kevin may not have encountered before. A few other words that he might find it necessary to look up in a good dictionary.
Educational, in other words. Where could the harm be in that?
Having dressed, he takes a moment to admire himself in the bathroom mirror. As always he’s struck by the marked family resemblance, and the way that the Jehovah nose and cheekbones, which make Dad look so fine and paternal and which look so lovable and reassuring on Jay, contrive to make him appear quite spectacularly unfinished, as if he was a sculpture whose creator had been called away on another job and who reckoned that with luck he might be able to come back and finish off a week Tuesday. Never mind; he shrugs his shoulders, grins lopsidedly at his reflection and sets off for the office.
This will involve going past Uncle Ghost’s room; and nominally Uncle Ghost is in charge while Dad and Jay are away. But Uncle Ghost, who had once been such a vigorous and dynamic member of the Trinity, manifesting himself as a spinning tornado of Pentecostal fire and inspiring whole congregations of the Early Church with the urge to talk absolute gibberish at the tops of their voices, rarely leaves his room these days, particularly if there’s snooker on the telly. The word nonentity is an exaggeration as well as uncharitable, but the fact remains that ever since Jay installed Mainframe, which is capable of doing everything Uncle used to do, twice as well in half the time, he’s got no real part to play in the running of the business. Fair enough; he’d done his bit back in the old days, so if he wants to spend the twilight of his eternal years munchingTwiglets and watching two men in waistcoats hitting coloured balls with overgrown cocktail sticks, jolly good luck to him. In practice, it means there’s no real need to tiptoe when passing his door. In fact, if only he could find the levers and switches that controlled the subsection of Destiny relating to professional snooker players, there’s a good chance he won’t stir from his sofa until Dad and Jay get back.
Dad’s office. It’s considered bad taste to refer to it as the Holy of Holies; but that’s where Mainframe sits, with its one square all-seeing eye and its ineffable keyboard, the PC of God that passeth all understanding. It’s largely due to Mainframe that Dad and Jay were able to take a holiday in the first place. Sure, it’s only a computer; but that’s understating the issue. There’s computers, and there’s the Kawaguchiya Integrated Circuits 986. As the KIC rep said when he sold them the thing, if they’d had one of these babies back in the old days, there’d have been no need to bother with the Fall of Man, let alone the Flood and the Tower of Babel. All that shuffling about in mysterious ways - could’ve saved yourselves the bother. Through a glass darkly - would’ve been no need for all that. And now at last you’ve got one, just plug it in, walk away and forget.To err is human; to forgive divine; to forgive while running climate, life support, destiny, divine mercy, the ineffable and both basic and advanced self-maintenance routines and still have enough spare capacity to run a version of Lemmings guaranteed to baffle even the truly omniscient takes a genuinely advanced computer.
Or, more precisely, computer/word processor/home entertainment system. A comprehensive three-in-one package. A Trinity, even.
Kevin scowls at the glowing letters on the screen. ‘No thanks,’ he mutters. ‘I’ve already got one. Access at primary level, please.’
Needless to say, Mainframe’s screen isn’t just glass; more a sort of burning bush arrangement, with letters of fire that burn without consuming.With a grin Kevin opens his father’s cigar box and extracts something resembling the trunk of an outsize Giant Redwood. As he leans forward to light it in the fires of Mainframe, he allows the grin to widen, like the San Andreas fault yawning.
‘Security codes,’ he repeats. ‘And if I give you the codes, you let me in. Right?’
‘You reckon?’ Kevin inhales smoke, splutters and hiccups. ‘Stand by for access codes.’
The search for the numbers that allow access to Mainframe has obsessed theologians ever since the first medieval monk speculated as to how many angels can dance on the head of a PIN. What St Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that crowd never had, of course, was the chance to rummage through Jay’s waste-paper basket the day after the system was installed. Kevin types in twelve numbers, sits back in his father’s swivel chair and waits.
There is, of course, no time in Heaven; the stuff that lasts as long as time and performs roughly the same function is just uncorrected systems inertia.
‘None of your business, you machine. Now, do I get to log on or not?’
The screen fills; all the kingdoms of the Earth, in digital form, a temptation beyond endurance.
Just a little peek won’t hurt anybody . . .
Kevin opens a drawer of the desk and takes out the manual. It occurs to him as he lifts it that it’s a very short, thin manual for such a powerful and complex computer. He consults the index, turns to the appropriate page. It reads:
7.1 Editing Existing Files.
Hey. Far be it from us to tell you, of all people, how to edit existing files. We wouldn’t presume. In fact, if you can give us any hints, we’d be ever so grateful.
He raises an eyebrow, puzzled; then the penny drops. Of course, the software’s been custom-written for use by omniscient and omnipotent beings; no wonder it’s a very thin manual. He flicks through the pages, which are full of phrases like as you know better than we do and you don’t need us to tell you that . . . With a sigh he closes the book and dumps it back in the drawer.
Even so.
Can’t be all that difficult, can it?
Kevin Christ takes a deep breath, reaches out with one finger. A tiny spark of blue flame arcs from his fingertip to the keyboard, Sistine Chapel style.
He presses—
There was a machine.
It stood as tall as a man, resting on a square pedestal of close-grained cast iron, and weighed close on two tons. From a distance it looked a bit like a sitting man, with his head bent forwards and a tray on his knees, as if it might be a statue of Man with TV Dinner; except that the head housed the five-horsepower motor that spun the chuck that held the cutting head, and the tray was the table, to which was bolted the vice that held the work. At the edges of the table were round handles, calibrated and sub-calibrated in divisions of ten thousandths of an inch; and there was an electronic digital readout mounted on a bracket, capable of showing the depth of the cut in three dimensions to four decimal places. On the side of the head there was a little enamelled plate, which said:
The Leonardo
Shipcock & Adley, Birmingham, England
along with a lot of guff about power ratings and amperages and speeds and feeds and the like. It stood at the back of a huge factory shopfloor, one of about seventy large, impressive machines, all of them chuntering and chattering and screeking and thutthutthutting away, three shifts a day, three hundred and sixty days a year.
I’m bored, it thought.
For the last six months, all it had done was cut slots in the heads of bolts; a thousand bolt-heads a day, one automated pass of the table, feed back, automated chuck in the vice ejects finished bolt, automated hopper feeds new bolt, chuck closes, table feeds, one pass under the cutter, automated chuck ejects.
This is silly.
Once ejected, the bolt falls down a chute on to a conveyor belt, which carries it away to another chute, where it tumbles away into another hopper leading to the packing machine—
Why am I doing this?
Sitting on a chair beside the machine, chewing gum and reading a tabloid newspaper, was a human; twenty-two years old, thin, gawkish, answering to the name Neville. There was very little for Neville to do, because he was there in case the machine went wrong, and it never did. So, between eight in the morning and morning tea-break, he read the paper (all except the long, difficult words, like although and tomorrow and seven), and the rest of the day he dozed, except when his single, highly developed sense told him the foreman was coming.
I hate this.
Blandly described in the insurance inventory as ‘Shipcock & Adley Universal Milling, Turning & Shaping Machine #21754’, the machine is the last triumphant step in a journey that started when a monkey bent down and picked up a piece of stone, long ago and far away. Program its computerised memory, and it could make you anything from a single earring back to an engine for a battleship, machined with exact precision from the solid metal. Or it could cut the slots in the heads of a hundred thousand identical bolts, one after another after another . . .
I don’t want to do this any more.
As it stood and whirred and moved and fed and cut and opened and closed, the machine dreamed. Deep inside its cast-iron and steel head, visions swirled, condensed and took shape. Lines and angles spun and twirled through five dimensions, raced outwards like speeded-up film of an unfurling flower, while in the subtext a chattering rivulet of equations bounced and sparkled, twittering excitedly of shearing forces and tensile strengths, tolerances, allowances and elastic limits; a vast and inexpressibly grand fugue upon the theme I could do your job. Twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty days a year; nothing to do but think, and dream.
Piece of cake, said the machine to itself.
In its mind’s eye it could see itself, brilliantly modified to its own design, all the changes made with breathtaking economy of function, every knock-on effect and permutation thought through and allowed for and treated not as a hindrance but an opportunity, until it was completely and categorically perfect, able to make anything that its own staggeringly powerful mind could conceive of -
Yeah. I could really be somebody, y’know? - and all the while the human, the pig-ignorant, brain-dead, spineless wonder of a human slumped and snored or moved his lips in time to the short and easy words. How that was possible the machine couldn’t begin to understand. A human; with a human brain and hands, able to move about under its own power, communicate with other humans, capable of reason and development—
You pillock.You waste of good plant and equipment . . .
Dispiritedly, unsure quite why it bothered, the machine went back to refining the last few details of its revolutionary improvements to its own automatic table feed mechanism, while the automated chuck in the vice ejected a finished bolt, the automated hopper fed a new pointless and insultingly superfluous bolt, the chuck closed, the table somewhat predictably fed; one pass under the cutter, automated chuck ejects . . .
Hath not a machine gears? Hath not a machine cogs, racks, pinions, cutters, bearings, spindles? Fed with the same electric, hurt with the same bits of grit getting in our works, subject to the same gremlins, healed by the same brute force, ignorance and big hammer as a human is? If you program us, do we not manufacture? If you take us apart, do we not shoot springs all over the floor? If you oil us, do we not purr? And if you ignore us . . .
The newspaper slipped from Neville’s fingers. His pimply chin (what there was of it) slipped forward on to his bony chest. Inaudible against the background noise of steel on steel, he snored gently.
. . . Do we not get ideas?
Whereupon, coincidentally at the precise moment a boy started pressing buttons he had no business fiddling with in an office that was both a long way away and very close at hand, the machine found itself drifting.
Get a grip, machine. Two tons of cast iron doesn’t drift, not without help from a substantial earthquake. Have you been at the hydraulic oil again?
It realised that its viewpoint was somewhere up among the steel rafters of the roofspace, looking down over the tops of its fellow machines, the partings and bald patches of the humans, the currents of hot air rising from the whirring fans and superheated metal-to-metal contacts of the cutters. From up here—
Whee! Guess this is some kind of out-of-casing experience. And now I suppose my entire service history’s going to flash in front of my readouts . . .
The viewpoint swooped, zoomed in; and the machine was looking directly into Neville’s ear. Squinting round the earring, it could see—
The other side of the workshop. Head entirely empty. Nothing in there except air and -
- opportunity?
Surely not.
Ah, but machine’s reach must exceed its grasp, or what’s a workshop for? Cautious but firm, the machine kicked away the stool on which Disbelief ’s feet were resting and left it kicking and struggling in the air. And, in . . .
Inside the human’s head . . .
Strewth, but it’s a bit close in here.
And there was the human; presumably its soul, or its vital force, or whatever you chose to call it. Typically enough, it was fast asleep in front of a droning mental telly, surrounded by a litter of empty cans and chip wrappers. Before it knew what it was doing, the machine had bundled the soul up in an old blanket, run it across the interior of the head and slung it out of its own ear.
Aaaaagh . . .
Serves the bugger right.
Hey! I sound different in here.
I could get to like this.
It watched as the human’s chubby little soul fell through the air, bounced off the concrete floor, landed in the hopper, rattled down through the tray of bolts, got knocked flying by the edge of the Woodruff cutter in the chuck and sailed into the air again, to crash-land on top of the ventilation slots -
- and get sucked in.
Hey, mused the machine, fair exchange, no robbery. It - he - snorted in a snatch of breath and issued a command; fingers, flex!
The fingers flexed; fourteen joints moving together under the control of a net of tough, supple sinew to the direction of a network of nerves so intricate and involved that it made a video with the back off or a street map of Birmingham look simplistic in comparison. Simultaneously the machine’s mind worked out the maths behind this unbelievably smooth, complex relay of motor functions. If it’d had a hat, it’d have taken it off.
Wow! Do that again.
And again.
And again.
A human - the machine recognised him, Derek who worked the big turret lathe - stopped on his way back from the toilets and stared at the machine’s Doctor Strangelove hand.
‘Here, Nev,’ it asked, ‘you feeling all right?’
Nev? Oh, right. Head, nod! Hey, how d’you do that! The human shrugged and walked on.
Nev. I am Nev.
No I bloody well am not. I haven’t just escaped from inside an artefact and hijacked a sentient life-form just to be a Nev. No; I’m a . . .
He looked. He saw a small enamel plaque riveted to the head of the machine. He found he could read it.
I’m not a Nev.
I’m Leonardo.
Bleep, says the computer.
A cold finger strokes Kevin’s heart. ‘Do what?’ he asks.
‘Did I just do something? Oh, Basement. Computer, what did I just do?’
Kevin makes a small noise, somewhere between a snarl and a whimper. ‘Don’t get smart with me,’ he quavers. ‘I order you to tell me.’
‘Computer . . .’
Kevin scans the keyboard; but an omniscient operator knows what all the keys are and doesn’t need anything written on them. All blank.
‘Computer, please . . .’
A small despair bomb goes off inside Kevin’s mind and he slumps forward, his head in his hands. As he does so, the points of his elbows hit the keyboard and depress two keys . . .
‘That picture,’ said Mr Elkins, rubbing his chin, ‘gives me the creeps.’
Rachel Esterling lifted her head, frowning. ‘You mustn’t say that,’ she said, shocked. ‘It’s worth one-point-six million pounds.’
‘Nevertheless.’ Mr Elkins sighed and sat on the edge of Ms Esterling’s desk. ‘I don’t like it. I think I’ll ask George if it can be put away in the strongroom.’
Rachel shook her head. ‘Most inadvisable,’ she said.
She nodded. ‘Fiscally speaking, yes. You see, by having the art work in question on display and available, in theory at least, for public viewing at specified times, we render ourselves eligible for highly advantageous tax incentives related to the Government cultural initiative designed to prevent the export of significant art works. In effect . . .’
Mr Elkins shifted his glasses down his nose a little and squinted. ‘Her left leg’s all wrong, for a start,’ he said. ‘It’s about six inches longer than the right. All she’d be fit for was walking across the sides of steep hills.’
Ms Esterling, sensing that Mr Elkins wasn’t really interested, bowed her head and got on with her work, and after a minute or so Mr Elkins stood up, shuddered a little and wandered off, leaving her in peace.
The picture.
It had been there just over a month, ever since the investment managers of Kawaguchiya Holdings (UK) had bought it from the executors of the Earl of somewhere, seeing in its exquisite lines and stunningly innovative use of light and colour a way of stuffing up the Inland Revenue good and proper. At first it had hung in the Managing Director’s office, wired up to a battery of electronic sensors and early-warning systems that were reputed to be able to detect a felon vaguely contemplating stealing it at a range of a mile and a half. It stayed there just under a week; not only (the MD said) did it give him a sort of spooky feeling every time he looked at it, but the circuitry in his pacemaker set the alarms off every hour, on the hour, and the electric eye played war with his mobile phone. Accordingly it was transferred to Ms Esterling’s office, on the grounds that she was an accountant and it would probably do her good.
Dutifully accepting it as part of her responsibilities, Ms Esterling had scanned the Internet to see what it had to say about the painting and its creator. She learned that the Intemperate Madonna


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
352 pages

Tom Holt

About the Author

Tom Holt was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines interests which led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialized in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.

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