The Skug

by Rudy Rucker


Story Copyright (C) 2010, Rudy Rucker.
Images Copyright (C) 2010, Rudy Rucker.
4,200 Words.



When Alan Turing reached Tangier in June, 1954, the city’s whitewashed lanes and towers seemed a maze of joy. He was elated with his escape from the shadowy agents who’d tried to assassinate him. And it was also a relief to leave the tedious and pawky computing machines of Manchester.

Alan was free to do as he pleased—perhaps to idle, perhaps to delve deeper into the chemical mysteries of biological morphogenesis. If he could fathom how Nature grows her knobby, gnarly forms, then he could mayhap progress on his lifelong quest to build a mind, to create a purely logical sentience by whom he could, at last, be understood.

He found that he loved Tangier on a visceral level. Every morning, Alan would take a long run on the empty beaches—the locals had little interest in the seaside. The quality of the light was uplifting, and the muezzin calls to prayer were like wonderfully encrypted signals from some higher mind. And, by no means least of all, the ever-willing street-boys of Tangier were a steady delight. For Alan, the Casbah was a holiday fair with sweets at every turn.

Seeking out fellow expatriates for company, he encountered the louche international café society of Tangier. At home, he’d rarely hit it off with mannered aesthetes, but in this odd backwater, everyone was hungry for companionship.

In his first month, Alan often spent the evenings with the Café Central circle in the Socco Chico square, enjoying the free-wheeling euphoria, the cognac, the mint tea and the kief. A dissipated Oxford poet named Brian Howard would hold forth on beauty, and then Burroughs, a devil-may-care young American, would send the group into gales of laughter with his scandalous routines. Amid the expatriates’ merry intimacy there was no stigma in being homosexual.

One night the camaraderie loosened Alan’s tongue to the point where he bragged to his raffish companions that he wasn’t really the man whose name stood in his Greek passport­.

“I’m not Zeno Metakides,” Alan announced to the ring of smirking expats, his halting speech smoothed by kief. “I only wear his face. In reality I’m a top-drawer Cambridge mathematician who’d cracked the German military’s cryptographic codes. No names please. But I played a vital part in winning the war.”

The next morning Alan awoke with a start of horror. He must be suicidal, to be spilling his secrets to foppish wastrels who’d cut him cold, were they all back in London. He avoided the cafés from then on, running on the beach in the morning, visiting the market, and otherwise staying mostly in his rented room, starting a fresh round of chemical experiments.

Adhering to his desert island ideal of science, Alan’s preference was to create most of his experimental chemicals from whatever came to hand—things like foods or even the offal that he found in the street.

“What you look for?” asked a boy standing next to him at the market one afternoon.

“Elixirs,” said Alan, eying the youth. “Strong flavors.”

“I am Driss,” said the boy. One of his eyes was black, the other was hazel. “I can help you.” He walked around Alan, studying him from every side. And then he puckered his lips and clucked, as if calling a chicken. Alan’s heart fluttered within his chest.

Driss helped Alan pick out cardamom seeds, ginger root, pickled lemons, saffron, olives, couscous, lamb, three kinds of incense, a small block of hashish and a bunch of odd-shaped vegetables. When they got back to Alan’s room, Driss smoked some of the hashish, and, growing coquettish, let Alan make love to him. As the afternoon waned, Driss showed Alan how to cook a Moroccan couscous with lamb stew.

“Wonderful,” said Alan after the meal, feeling a rare moment of calm. Driss had already appropriated his bedroom slippers and his extra shirt. No matter. With evening falling, the walls outside were amber with shadows of lavender. A cool dry breeze wafted in, and the muezzin chanted from his minaret. Alan was rid of England for good.

“You are doctor?” asked Driss, gesturing at the spot where Alan’s chemical concoctions sat. “You are rich?”

“I’m lonely. You might say I’m trying to grow a friend.”

Driss laughed merrily. “I am your friend. I am here.”

“But perhaps I need to grow an extra copy of you,” said Alan, getting to his feet with a spoon in hand. “Let me take a sample. Open your mouth.”

Driss coyly opened his mouth, and Alan ran the edge of the spoon along the smooth pink lining of the boy’s cheek, surely gathering up a few loose cells. Alan smeared the spoon against a layer of jellied beef stock that sat in one of his flat pots.

Over the coming weeks, Driss became a regular visitor. He’d run errands for Alan or guide him around the town. And every so often, Driss would spend a morning or an afternoon in Alan’s bed.

Alan soon noticed that Driss had a nimble mind. The youth had picked up a fair amount of English on his own, and he seemed to have a flair for abstract reasoning. Whenever the two of them had an idle half hour, Alan liked to feed Driss a fresh tidbit of mathematics. One day, for instance, he showed him a visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem—the figure involved a smaller square inscribed at an angle within a larger one. Another day he pasted-together a paper Mobius strip, and got the youth to cut the strip down the middle with Alan’s nail scissors.

“How many pieces will we get?” asked Alan in his role of maths master.

“Cut makes two,” said Driss.

“Aha,” said Alan. “Mother Mathematics is more playful than you expect. Cut and see.”

“Only one piece!” marveled Driss when he was done. “All twisted.”

“Like you and me,” said Alan.

Fondly watching the youth’s comings and goings from his balcony, Alan sometimes scanned for signs of a security breach, vaguely strategizing his plans for retreat. But so far, nothing he did in Tangier seemed to have real consequences. Apparently he’d shed Her Majesty’s agents for good.

Meanwhile Alan pressed forward on his morphogenesis research. This was to some extent practically motivated, for Alan’s layered-on Zeno-face was slowly losing its ability to integrate with his metabolism. But Alan was also interested in morphogenesis for broader reasons.

After his years of cryptanalytic and computer architectural work, he’d grown weary of gears, wires, relays, electronic valves—and of the politics of getting these unwieldy devices made. The smooth, fluid, self-generating mechanisms of biology fascinated him now. If a brute machine could act as a universal emulator, then why couldn’t a cultured tissue become a programmable life form? Building an artificial brain from biological tissues would be no less a miracle than building one from metal and glass.



To escape from his would-be assassins, Alan had persuaded flecks of skin to regenerate copies of his and Zeno’s faces. He'd put his face on Zeno’s corpse, and had donned Zeno’s face as a disguise. But now he wanted to coax some of his cells into a more primitive and Edenic state. The human body was known to have some two hundred distinct types of cells, all of them descended from the original cells of the early embryo. These universal kinds of cells might have greater powers. It might be possible to interact with them and train them to behave in desirable ways.

Alan used the cells from Driss’s mouth as his subjects. He set them to growing upon a jelled pool of consommé in a glazed earthenware dish. Over the weeks, he treated the burgeoning colony with delicate amounts of promising catalysts that he found around Tangier. As well as the market spices, he drew venom from the jaws of a centipede he’d crushed, squeezed a drop of liquid resin from Driss’s hashish, and even contributed a few drops of his own semen.

Eventually he seemed to have coaxed the little culture towards a primordial state. The undifferentiated cells were theoretically capable of becoming any kind of cell at all—skin, blood, bone, neuron, muscle—whatever. But Alan wasn’t sure what the cells might do in practice.

“Look what I have,” he told Driss, when next the youth appeared. “Your little brother. A Driss slug.” Alan held up the dish, with the consommé supporting a thumb-sized glob of bright pink cells. The dish itself was glazed in labyrinthine patterns of blue and white.

“Skug?” said Driss, unfamiliar with the word.

Alan laughed, liking the sound. “A skug, yes. The official name for my creation from here on in.”

“This grows from my cheek?” said Driss, peering down.

“And therefore he’s powerful,” said Alan. “Plenipotent. I talk to him.” He leaned over the bowl. “Do you hear me, little skug?”

Possibly the surface of the pink skug wriggled. Alan wasn’t quite sure about this yet. He’d been talking to the tissue culture quite a bit. His feeling was that he’d need to communicate with his undifferentiated tissue, if he was to guide its behavior. And trying to teach it like a child or a pet seemed to make sense.

“What can my brother skug do?” asked Driss.

“Let’s test,” said Alan. “Catch that lizard on the balcony railing.”

Driss was fast, and he had the lizard in a flash. Alan used the tip of a knife to smear a bit of the pink jelly onto the wriggling creature. The lizard hissed and sprouted a pair of membranous wings. Surprised, Driss dropped it. The lizard sped across the shadowed room, leapt off the bright balcony, and plummeted to the street. When Driss ran down to check on the lizard, he found it dead. They flicked some slug-flesh onto a cockroach—and the insect melted into a brown puddle.

“Vicious skug,” said Driss.

Although Alan’s travel money went quite a long way, by October of 1954, he was in financial embarrassment. In order to continue paying his rent and tipping Driss, he found a job in a repair shop run by an opéra bouffe fat man named Pierre Prudhomme. As if driven by theatrical clockwork, Pierre’s treacly wife Marie flirted heavily with Alan, completely blind to his complete lack of interest.

“I hope I’m not in your way,” she might say, brushing her bosom and buttocks against Alan’s lean frame.

“I hope so too,” Alan would reply, leaning over his bench of malfunctioning radios. “Dodgy work, this.”

Prudhomme took in all manner of appliances, but the radios were Alan’s specialty. He liked the heft of the electronic valves­—the vacuum tubes—he was quite familiar with the devices from working on the Manchester computer. Unable to bear the advances of the ruttish wife, he took to bringing the radios home to work on.

Fixing wireless sets in a rented room might be called a demotion from designing electro-mechanical circuits to search out astronomically large prime numbers. But Alan took his life as it came, scanning the days one by one. If regarded in a certain way, everything was of equal interest. Universal computation lay within the humblest things.

By working at home, Alan was also free to continue his research with his skug. His feeling was that he might halt the ongoing necrosis of his Zeno face with an application of the undifferentiated tissue, assuming the stuff were properly coached. If all went well, the canny undifferentiated cells might migrate inward and replace the dying cells—like fresh players entering a game of rounders.

But for now he hesitated, unwilling to chance some brutal malfeasance on the part of the skug. At present, a touch of the skug was lethal for the insects and lizards that Alan tested it on. But then one afternoon he had the idea of using radio waves.

He disassembled the two wireless sets on his workbench and repurposed the parts, creating an inductor-capacitor oscillator circuit with a feedback loop keyed to the outputs of a microphone that he’d abstracted from Prudhomme’s cluttered work area. Alan’s system was not unlike an analog voice-encryption system that he’d cobbled together after the War.



Hoping that his jackleg maze of electronic valves might open a channel into the putative mind of his little skug, Alan had equipped his transmitter with a dish. This item was fashioned from a hammered-tin tray that he’d picked up for a few pence at the market—a faded label on the tray’s underside indicated that the metal had been salvaged from a gallon-sized olive oil can. Crimped and bent into a roughly parabolic shape, the flimsy tray seemed to function tolerably well.

“Hello,” said Alan, beaming his output directly at the skug. “Hello, hello, hello.” As he talked, he rotated a pair of control knobs, adjusting his broadcast’s phase shift and frequency, searching out the sweet spot, listening for a response from his radios’ speakers.

And then, eureka! A faint crackle sounded. Delicately tweaking the knobs, Alan teased the sound into a musical hum. “Hello, I’m Alan,” he repeated. “Hello, hello, hello.”

The culture rippled and formed sprouts like little snail-antennae, like the horns of tiny pink cows, dozens of tiny purple-tipped tendrils feeling the air. And the musical tone sweetened into a warbling skirl, as of distant bagpipes heard across a heath.

“Encrypted,” muttered Alan. “Of course. Any audible language involves a coding routine. I’ll crack it soon enough...”

He set to work with pencil and paper, feeding test inputs into the skug and recording the responses. The progress was less rapid than he might have hoped, and the next morning he returned to Prudhomme’s shop to pick up two more broken radios that he could cannibalize for further refinements of his communication system.

Driss appeared that noon when slanting sun lay on Alan’s floor like a heavy slab of iron. The smell from Alan’s decomposing face had been keeping the boy away of late, and Alan was quick to make the most of this rare visit. He plied Driss with sweetmeats and the bit of cash that he still had. Soon Alan was lying naked on his bed with the youth, their pleasure spent.

Hoping to prolong the pleasant intimacy, Alan opened his lab notebook, wanting to tell the boy how he’d been code-breaking the skug’s radio-frequency signals. But today Driss didn’t even pretend an interest in the symbols and diagrams.

“Never mind the theory,” said Alan, leading Driss over to the corner of his stone room where the skug sat amid his chemicals and radio equipment. “See how your little brother has progressed.”

“He has wrinkles?” said Driss, leaning over the geometrically patterned bowl.

Today the culture of undifferentiated tissue was alive with slowly migrating ridges, that tended to form paired spirals. These were, Alan speculated, the skug’s biochemical memory storage system­—brought into visibility by the electromagnetic stimulation of his radio waves. The culture had gone a bit luminous, the edges of the shifting furrows glowed in shades of mauve and lime.

“Talk to the skug,” said Alan, handing Driss the microphone.

“Hello, skug,” said Driss indifferently. Evidently he was beginning to find Alan too impecunious, too eccentric, too diseased.

Responding to the harmonics of Driss’s voice or perhaps to the spice of his breath, the culture rippled and formed sprouts once again, a carpet of tiny snouts, writhing towards the jittering dust motes of the sun-struck air. A skirling came from the radio, more like a language than before.

“The skug likes you!” exclaimed Alan. “Speak well of me, Driss. I need to trust the skug before he repairs my face.”

Driss held the bowl in both hands, crooning over it, intrigued by this new game. The undifferentiated tissue rippled, seeming to enjoy the proximity of Driss’s taut, tan face. Aroused by the moment and still nude, Alan stepped closer to the youth­—

A volley of knocks sounded. Alan and Driss stood in silence—the noise turned to pounding. Alan’s door shook in its frame, on the point of giving way.

“Calm down!” yelled Alan. He pulled on his pants and shirt and opened the door.



“I’m Pratt,” said the man standing there. His body was wobbly and a bit amorphous, like some dissipated rugby player gone to seed. His skin was sandy with freckles, his eyes were colorless and bleached. He flashed what appeared to be a British passport, without opening it. “My credentials. I understand you’re registered with the locals as Zeno Metakides.”

“I no Brit,” grated Alan, staging a Greek accent. “You go.”

Pratt sniffed the air, and his nose actually seemed to stretch and flare. He was savoring the odors. “You’re a bit unwell, sir.” He slumped his head to one side, and peered past Alan at the half-clad Driss. “I’d like to make you two a proposition. This has to do with—Alan Turing?”

“Not Turing,” said Alan, feeling weak in the knees.

“Zeno Metakides was with Professor Turing when he died,” intoned the odd personage, wedging his doughy foot into Alan’s doorway. “I’m intrigued by the circumstances.” Pratt stared hard into Alan’s eyes.

Silently Alan shook his head. It felt like being back at school, cornered by some bullying, unsavory master.

“If it was Turing’s end,” added Pratt, and split his face in a disturbing grin. “I understand the authorities had some a problem with the dental records don’t you know. There was a secret autopsy. The face on the body—it was artificially grown.”

“No know,” said Alan hoarsely.

Pratt leaned closer, his broad face wobbling. He was trying to look pleasant, but it wasn’t working at all. “I’m thinking Turing is very clever. I tracked down one of his papers. ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.’ I’d be wanting some help from the man who wrote that. I’d be prepared to advance him a handsome sum.”

“I see Pratt pay boys in the Socco Chico!” warned Driss. “He behave very raucous. The boys disappear.”

Suddenly impatient, Pratt reached under his loose shirt, and produced what appeared to be a shiny nickel revolver. “You’d better help me, or I’ll arrest you.”

“Don’t be an ass,” burst out Alan, dropping his Greek accent. “You’ve no legal standing, you fool.”

“I could march you to the MI5 men at the British embassy,” said Pratt. Driss was standing right behind Alan now, with the bowl of undifferentiated tissue in his hands. “You have no choice but to work with me—Professor Turing.”

“Oh, very well, come in then,” said Alan, moving to a new branch of his choice tree. His mind had cleared, he was thinking logically again. A conversation was really a kind of chess game. He stood to one side and made an inviting gesture.

As Pratt undulated into Alan’s room, Driss made a flipping gesture with the tessellated pottery bowl. The skug thinned itself, gliding through the air—and alit upon the character’s face.

“Eat him, little brother!” sang Driss.

Pratt staggered and hoarsely bellowed, clutching his face with his free hand. Driss wrested the shiny revolver from the being’s other hand and danced across the room, watching to see what would happen.

“Turing!” croaked Pratt, ineffectually clawing at the writhing leech of undifferentiated tissue. Tendrils of the pink stuff were growing from his face onto his hands. “This is destabilizing me, Alan. Pushing me out of shape. But I’ll be back. I have a plan for you. Meet up with William Burroughs and get his papers. You’ll go to America, then, and—” Pratt broke off in a gurgle.

Pratt’s mouth and indeed his entire head was covered with the glowing slime, crazily bedecked with spinning pink and purple spirals. The undifferentiated tissue was spreading across Pratt’s skin as rapidly as the water in an ocean wave. For whatever reason, this strange being’s flesh was a highly fecund incubation medium for the skug.

Pratt made as if to embrace Alan, but he fell on his side, quite helpless. He bucked his pelvis in a liquid, sexual rhythm.

Driss giggled, standing over the felled bully, imitating the motions of his hips. He made macho, overbearing gestures with Pratt’s appropriated gun. But now the gun turned oddly flexible and deliquesced into a gout of slime that dribbled onto the interloper’s melting body.

A last glistening bubble formed over the spot where Pratt’s mouth had been. He was quite still. Slowly the agent’s contours smoothed over, grew serene. He was a mound of clear protoplasm, faintly filigreed with folds and lacy tubes. He’d turned ctenophoric, protozoan, universal. He was a seventy-kilogram skug. The jelly twitched, excreting the wadded rags of Pratt’s clothes and shoes.

Probing carefully with his pocket knife, Driss extracted Pratt’s passport and wallet from the damp bolus that had been the man’s pants. The passport was a crude fake—a counterfeited cover with nothing inside. But billfold indeed held a nice sheaf of high-denomination pound notes. Wordlessly Driss gave Alan a portion of the money—and then the youth was gone, insubstantial as a shadow.

On his own now, Alan studied the skug that had replaced Pratt. Sensing Alan’s proximity, the skug set a forest of tendrils to waving upon its surface. A chorus of tiny whistles emanated directly from the mound. Listening to the wavering rhythms, Alan felt full-formed thoughts taking shape in his sensitive mind. The skug was picking up on Alan’s electromagnetic vibrations, and sending signals in return. Alan and skug were in telepathic contact.

Mouth open in a lopsided grin, Alan turned a triumphant pirouette, awed by the strange beauty of this tableau. But, revel though he might, he kept a careful distance from the flesh of the Pratt-skug.

More thoughts flowed in. The skug was grateful to Alan for their interactions. He’d come in the form of Pratt because he needed Alan’s help in returning to his homeland. Details would come later. But for now, would Alan be so kind as to bathe the skug’s tissues in the healthful programmatic rays that emanated from his magical device?

Alan laughed with delight at encountering a mind as outré as his own. He aimed his disk antenna towards the mound, and cranked his transmitter to full power. By way of exercising a truly beneficent influence upon the skug, he gave it a mental science lecture on computational morphogenesis and then, as the skug seemed eager for more, Alan thought rapidly through the details of his epochal result on the unsolvability of the machine-halting problem. The skug absorbed this arcane knowledge with tremulous pleasure.

And now the heavy skug elongated its body and slid across the floor. Alan stepped lively, keeping clear.

“See you in America,” said the skug in a lisping chorus that emanated from the myriad of snouts upon the thing’s surface. The creature let out a giggle, sounding a bit like Pratt. “I’ll sniff you out.”

“Wait,” said Alan, his voice harsh in the dim room. “I need a sample for my work. I still need to fix my face.”

The Pratt-skug tweaked off a nugget of his clear flesh and now, flowing like lava, the skug progressed to the back of Alan’s room and flowed directly up the wall, pouring itself out of Alan’s small rear window and dropping into the offal-strewn back alley below.

“Don’t forget to visit Burroughs now,” were the skug’s last words. “He’s our best bet.”

The voice in Alan’s head faded. This phase was done. Using tongs, he maneuvered the remaining bit of skug into a test tube, tightly corked it, and shoved the tube in his pocket. Looking around, he gathered his wits. He had to get out of here. He’d need fresh papers. And he’d have to replace his rotting Zeno face.

Alan bundled a sampling of his home-brewed chemicals into a pillow case. He cut his Zeno Metakides passport into pieces and burned them. And he thumbed through the bills that Driss had given him from Pratt’s wallet.

Certainly he had enough money to rent another room. But he needed a human ally. Someone louche, low-down, seedy. Driss had probably decamped for good.

The Pratt-skug had been rather insistent about William Burroughs—the oddball writer chap whom Alan had met at the Cafe Central this summer. A Harvard man and a morphinist, Burroughs purported to be depicting Tangier as a science fiction folly.

If anyone could sympathize with Alan’s plight, Burroughs was the man. He’d move in on Burroughs, and marvelous things might result.


About the Author


Rudy Rucker is a writer and a mathematician who worked for twenty years as a Silicon Valley computer science professor.  He is regarded as contemporary master of science-fiction, and received Philip K. Dick awards for his novels Software and Wetware, which were recently reissued as part of a Ware Tetralogy ominbus.

Rucker is presently planning a novel with the working title, The Turing Chronicles. The first chapter will derive from “The Imitation Game,” (which appeared in Interzone and in the Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories), the second chapter is “The Skug,” and the third derives from his story “Tangier Routines.” There’s a link to an audio of Rucker reading “The Imitation Game,” on his Gigadial pages, and “Tangier Routines” can be found in issue #5 of Flurb.

The original idea for a novel or series of stories featuring a hidden or alternate history of Alan Turing stems from an email that computer scientist Peter Norvig sent Rucker in May, 2006, in which Norvig mentions a discussion of this idea with Eugene Miya.

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