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Dark Sentinel

Goats are very cool.  And intelligent.

 

Dark Sentinel

“Howard, have you eaten all my dinner?”

Course the goat couldn’t answer.  It didn’t even have vocal cords.  Or a mouth.  But I had to speak to someone.  The psychs had said back on Earth, “If you feel like talking, do so.  The sounds won’t escape the asteroid, and it’ll make you feel better.”

I wish I’d had the courage to ask the psychs if they had spent three years on their own in a dark hole.

They’d recruited me after I’d survived a spelunking accident.  Trapped in a tiny crevice for five days.  Just the dripping of water to keep me company, and alive.  Actually they’d recruited me after the second accident.  The first was only a day.  None of my friends had died in either accident, but poor Blakely had broken a leg and sworn never to enter a cave again.  Being trapped hadn’t deterred me, and I was planning my next expedition when Mr Philips approached me.

“George, I hope you don’t mind if I call you George, I wonder if you’d do me a favour and come and see me after your trip.  I have a job offer which might interest you.”

I didn’t want a job.  However I realised that given the state of my finances it might be sensible for me to listen to his offer.

“You want me to live in a hole, on my own, for three years?”

“Yes, and we will pay you handsomely.  Tax free, and you won’t be able to spend it.  You’ll come back a very rich man.”

“Assuming I come back, and come back sane.”

“Your profile shows you can cope with the stresses.”

I didn’t realise how desperate they were.  Of course I’d heard about the Istanbul attack.  Some kind of ravening alien thing had flown out of the sky and strafed the ancient city, before landing and sending out creatures which collected everything they could get their hands on.  Animals, trees, cars and people.  Everything was taken to their ship.  Which then flew off again.

Why did they let it get away?  They didn’t let it, they just couldn’t touch it.  The Turks launched missiles and fired rounds at it, nothing even scratched the paintwork.  There was consternation.  Not only were we not alone, but ET was a rapacious and apparently invincible rapscallion.

The great powers, for a brief period before they went back to their Great Game bickering, agreed on two measures.  First, they set up a technology program which was to design better weapons, and secondly, they would create a detection mechanism to provide advance warning of any future attacks.

“So you see, we’d like you to be in the outer ring of the warning shell.  In the Oort cloud.”

My astronomy was poor, but I was pretty sure that was a long way away.

“It will take five years for you to get there.  But you’ll be asleep, in deep hibernation.”

Perhaps this is the point where I should have started to get a little suspicious.  In a way I did as I demanded, and received, more money.  But I missed the fundamental point, which was, after all the effort to get me out there, why would they bring me back after three years?  I think the psychs had found that people would balk at being told it was longer.

I’d been in my new home for more than a year before I named the goat.  Before then it had just been an organic machine to me.  The first time I’d spoken to it was a few months later.

“Howard, you know you’re a goat don’t you.”

Nothing.

“A goat spider squid I guess.”

Still nothing.  I decided to explain to him what he was.

“You see Howard, you are a genetically engineered life form, designed to spot the things in the darkness, which is why you have so many eyes, you see, all over this rock.”

I waved around our little hole, though I was indicating the outside.  I also pointed at the fleshy trunks which snaked out of Howard’s holding box.  The brain just sat there.  Probably, hopefully, still staring out into interstellar darkness, to spot the monsters.

The memory of how I’d found out that I wasn’t the important member of the crew stopped my garrulous flow.

We, the chosen few, had been sitting down for lunch.  Morris was mouthing off again.

“You know we’re just going to be glorified shepherds, don’t you?”

“Goat herds,” grunted Simmons, someone who I could relate to, even if I couldn’t pronounce his Croatian first name.

“Whatever.  We’re just there to look after them.  Feed them, protect them from wolves or whatever, and wipe their bums.”

I must have looked a little confused, as Simmons explained, “You haven’t had the lecture yet about your companion.  They’ll tell you this afternoon, but, well, it’s basically a goat brain, hooked up to some extra sensitive eyes, which will stare into space and spot any intruders.”

“They hope!”

“Yeah.  They hope.  We’re there to keep it fed, set up the eyes and, if it does see anything, double check and then report back.”

I’m glad Simmons explained it, as I didn’t get half of that from the lecture that afternoon.

To be honest it was Simmons who stopped me from being one of the seventy percent who failed.  His brotherly attitude meant I could keep up with what was going on.

The first time I apologised to Howard was something which still made me wince.  The problem was that the only thing either of us had to eat was a high calorie liquid, of which they had tons.  There were also some flavourings, but after two years they were getting old in every sense.  Some of the other recruits had talked about the other option.  Goat.

Not all of Howard’s tendrils grew properly, or could be directed to an open area of the asteroid.  I was supposed to try my best to find a use for them, otherwise I was to surgically remove them and put them into the waste hopper, which would, organically of course, try and recover as much food value as possible.  Or, one could, well, eat it.

Problem number one with eating Howard, apart from the fact he was my best friend, was that I wasn’t really supposed to use any heat sources in the cave.  Sure I was many feet under, but the theory was that if I didn’t make any additional heat, then there was no way it could leak out.  Still, there were a few ways.  If nothing else I could use the hot side of the waste recovery tank.

The second problem was the lack of any utensils apart from the surgical scalpel.  Howard was pretty tough, and my teeth and jaws hadn’t been getting much of a work out.  Still, I managed to cut the excess tendril into chunks.  I felt so guilty.  In fact, in the end, I just put them into the waste hopper, and I spent an hour apologising to Howard.  It’s not that he’d have missed the tendril, I’d just been worried I might like it too much, and then I’d have been doing much more maintenance on Howard than was really appropriate.

“You men, will be the first warning of danger for the human race.”

I don’t know why there weren’t any women, perhaps they were being trained in a separate facility?

“The great sacrifice you are making will be valued by everyone on the planet.”

I hadn’t realised I was making a big sacrifice, and I really wasn’t sure that anyone else knew or gave a damn.  The graduation, that’s what they called it, carried on in a similar vein, with me adding silent commentary.  Simmons had disappeared so I didn’t have anyone to whisper to.

The last time I saw Simmons was during a practice run.

“This suit is disgusting.”

“It’s a living creature.  It will form a symbiosis with you, keep you warm and safe.  It will be your second skin for your sleep out and back, and the three years you are active.  Trust me, you will get used to it.”

“Notice he isn’t wearing one,” I whispered to Simmons, who just cracked a small smile.

The instructor ignored us and went on.

“It will provide insulation, it will protect you from radiation and it will, if necessary, keep you alive for up to two weeks in hard vacuum without additional tanks.  It is a miracle of modern gengineering.”  He paused for effect.  “Within a couple of days you won’t even notice it.”

We all stared at the giant jelly baby like blobs on the floor.  They looked as if they’d been attacked by equally gigantic slugs.  The thought of putting one of them on was revolting.

One of the cockier recruits stepped forward and started putting his on, to groans and commentary from everyone else.  The instructor started chivvying the rest of us along and soon we all were wearing them, all except Simmons.  He couldn’t touch it.  Even with the instructor screaming at him.    He wouldn’t, or couldn’t perhaps, explain why he felt such terror towards the suits.  He was taken off the program and moved to a support role.

After that day we lived in the suits.  They made us into clumsy marshmallow men, but we were assured that with practice we’d soon get used to them.  To be fair, I haven’t been cold since that day.  They recycled our urine into drinkable water, and our other waste was dried into pellets which we could easily put into the waste hoppers.

Howard couldn’t move.  He was more of a plant than an animal in that sense.  Occasionally, when I was bored, I’d taunt him.

“Not much of a goat are you Howard?  Can’t see you leaping from boulder to boulder in that shape.  You need to get some exercise mate.”

He just stared at me, with his single eye.  I’d let one grow in our living cave.  Strictly against orders, but after what might have been two years I didn’t really care.

I always felt guilty after I’d been mean, so I’d read to him.  We hadn’t been allowed to bring any electronics.  Nothing which might have any form of EM signature at all.  But we did have quite a large weight allowance.  I used mine on books.  And a ‘Go’ set.  Half the books were favourites I’d happily read again, and the other half were new to me.  Five hundred books.  I hoped I wouldn’t have to re-read them more than once each before I was recovered.

One morning Howard’s warning screen lit up.  It wasn’t really a screen of course.  Our instructors called it a luminescent biological dot matrix light communicator.  Simmons, who’d still been with us, tried to explain it.

“Look, you know that it’s part goat, part squid and some other stuff right?  Well you know squid can change their skin colours?”  I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“What they’ve done is sort of wired up the brain bits of the squid which could do that, to an organ which will grow mostly flat, and be able to produce luminous dots.  These will then be used to spell out messages.”

“Such as ‘Maaaaaaa’.”

“Funny.”

Gallows humour had set in.  We thought that we were the first soldiers in the war.  In earlier times we might have been called cannon fodder.

“But really, things like, enemy detected and then the coordinates.  Our job is to then double check the coordinates before sending the signal back to Earth.  If possible we should gather data on size, quantity etc.  But reading between the lines, the warning will be enough.”

I miss Simmons.  At least I have Howard though.

The morning the screen lit up I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.  Was he telling me there was a space invader nearby?  I walked towards the screen with not a little trepidation.  It said, “Go.  Please.  Black.  4, 4.”

It didn’t make any sense!  Was it telling me there were 44 ships? Or 8?  Where did it want me to go.

I looked around our tiny space in confusion, until I saw that Howard’s eye had moved a little, and now was hanging above my Go board.  He must have been watching when I played myself.  I often described my moves, and created characters.  I tried not to be biased in who I let win.  Now Howard wanted to play.

I didn’t recall anything about this from my long ago training.  I wasn’t sure how long, because they wouldn’t let us bring any timekeeping devices, too much metal apparently.  There were no days, and I had deliberately not marked the walls, I didn’t want it to feel like a prisoner.

Still, was this allowed?  Howard repeated his message, and then said, “Howard beat you.”

That was it; I wasn’t going to allow this jumped up semi-goat squid taunt me.  We set to.

He wasn’t very good.  He’d watched a lot, but didn’t really know the rules.  But I taught him, and eventually he was good enough to beat me.  He would write, “Howard beat.  Howard beat.”

The whole screen would go green and then pink as he celebrated.  I didn’t like losing, but I did like the challenge.

He’d also ask me to read to him, so I did.  My reading light was bioluminescent, and they’d done something to make my eyes more sensitive to light.

That’s how we lived.  Howard and I.  Our dark little hole was home.  It was a natural crevice in the asteroid, we’d been careful to avoid anything artificial.  It was long and narrow, with only a small bulge to form the main room.  But it was ours.  The supplies were in another cave further along the asteroid, with a small fissure connecting it to our cave and I’d put in a set of organic pumps so that I didn’t need to go out whenever I wanted dinner.  We had lots of food supplies.  Much more than I had expected.  They’d explained it away as preparing supplies for the next man.  Now I wasn’t sure.

The constant dark should have intimidated me, crushed my spirit maybe.  Instead it felt like comfort.  Whenever I wanted to see light I’d climb up to the surface, and watch the stars.  They were so bright, and beautiful.  They’d make me cry, partially in wonder, and partially due to my now super sensitive eyes.

Time rolled on.  Howard started beating me consistently at Go, and then started letting me win occasionally.  We made quite the odd couple.  I kept time by my books, a complete cycle being when I’d read all those I was happy to re-read.  Some 423 books.

Had Earth forgotten me?  Was it still there, or had the invasion come from another angle?  I stopped worrying about these unanswerables, and let myself get lost in my books, or playing Go.

This morning my vigil ended.  Howard had a message.

“Multiple objects sighted.  Angle 134.34 to 156.02.  No Go.”

No Go indeed.  I had to get to the surface to check the sighting, but I had to do it taking advantage of the asteroid’s spin, and then hiding in one of the prepared hides.  I checked the rotation schedule, and got ready to go out.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out.  Possibly one book cycle ago.  I looked out, and shut my eyes from the brightness.  I was facing the sun, and even though it was just a dot from here, it was still extremely bright.  I felt my way out, and crawled to the hide.  It was really just a hole with a stone grill above it, but it in theory would allow me to look out without being spotted.

The asteroid spun, and the region of space Howard had identified came into sight.  Normally there were stars galore, instead it was black.  There was nothing.  I’d have thought I’d gone blind, except around the edges I could see the occasional star.  Whatever was approaching it was large.

Why had Howard waited until they were upon us before telling me?  I wondered if he’d been concentrating so much on our Go games that he’d forgotten his job.  I didn’t think it would be fair to castigate him, he was, after all, just a goat.

I watched the edges of the blackness, and over time caught movement of entities leaving and re-joining.   In the faint starlight I strained to make out their shapes.  Eventually I was convinced they looked like the craft which had attacked Istanbul.  This was it.  This was the invading host we all feared, and if it reached Earth unchecked, then it would obliterate the planet.

I was supposed to signal Earth to tell them that something was coming, and give basic details.  This was via a system of flares which I could set off on the Sun-facing side of one of the static asteroids.  I just needed to get across to it and pull the appropriate cords.    It was close enough that I could jump across, and back again.  Hopefully unseen, though the aliens might investigate the source of the flares, and find me.  It wouldn’t matter as the message would be flying towards Earth at lightspeed, and my mission would be complete.

I asked Howard where the asteroid was as I couldn’t see it where I thought it should be.

“Flare Asteroid is 400km distant now.  Drift after collision.  Many kms per book cycle.”

Disaster.  How could I warn Earth?  I sat in the bulge, staring at Howard’s screen in despair.  Until I wondered to myself, perhaps he could help me?  He was clearly intelligent.

“How do we tell Earth Howard?”

“Tell what?”

“That the invaders are coming.”

Silence.  I tried asking the question in different ways.  Eventually he answered.

“They know.  Ships came from Earth.  Go?”

###

 

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New Lives

New Lives

As I lay back, waiting for the pain to begin, I wondered if I’d have changed anything. I stared at the ceiling, the squares disappeared and I could see her beautiful face. My Pashmina.

#

I could still picture the first time I’d seen her in the flesh. She was standing at the top of the theatre stairs, the ideal of a perfect woman. Her hair was white and her skin translucent, as if someone had dressed up a marble statue of a Greek goddess. She was still, poised, ready to fly. I knew I shouldn’t be there, but I’d wanted to see her. It was then that she stole my heart.

#

The first time I met her was a little while later. It was also at the theatre. I bumped into her on the stairs and knocked her drink. I insisted on buying her another and we started talking. My lines were weak, I could hardly believe she would give me any time, but she seemed to enjoy the attention. She later admitted she’d been stood up again, and I’d been a welcome distraction.

#

When I walked into her apartment, some weeks later of course, it was like going home. I knew where everything was. The tiny kitchen off the main room, the small bedroom, and the bathroom fitted into what might be a large cupboard in a different world.

#

We’d been sleeping together for a few months when she admitted the truth to me. “Paul,” she said, for that was what I’d told her my name was, “It is not safe to be with me; it’s my friends.”

“Friends?”

“With the underground.”

I’d known of course, but I was touched that she’d trust me enough to tell me. Perhaps she loved me? Or my love for her, so bright, so impossible to hide, led her to believe I thought I was safe. She told me everything, all about what she had done, what she was planning to do. I should have dissuaded her, or encouraged her, or reported her. I just listened and made my plans.

#

The first time I’d seen her face had been six months before. It was on the front page of her dossier. The photograph, a little grainy, showed a beautiful wraith. The description of her was so cold. Name: Pashmina Tun. Height: Five foot six inches. Skin colour: White (albino). Eyes: Blue. She was to be watched, Intelligence believed she had contacts with the underground. She was also clearly untrustworthy as she rarely ventured out during the day, preferring the night.

#

“Why don’t you go out during the day?”

“Silly, look at my skin.”

“Beautiful.”

She laughed, and said, “It burns in the faintest sun. I prefer to avoid the pain.”

Something I should add to her file perhaps.

“And you Paul, why do you prefer the dark?”

“It is filled with angels, or at least one…”

I could hardly tell her that it was the only time I knew she wasn’t watched, as it was my shift. I’d tried to tell myself I could explain my actions to my superiors as trying to get closer to my target. I doubted that would buy me any acceptance. Or mercy.

#

“Paul, what’s wrong?”

I was in a panic. I’d come in to my shift, to find that an order for Pashmina’s arrest had been made. I was to keep an extra eye on her, and she would be picked up the next morning when the Colonel had returned. I’d barely been able to wait for the previous watcher to leave before I rushed to her apartment, banging on the door like a crazy man.

“Pashmina, darling, you must leave.”

She’d talked about being ready to leave at a moment’s notice, but I knew she was quite incapable of it.

“Oh Paul, don’t be silly.”

How to explain to her? If I told her the truth, what would she do? She would cry. For some time. I tried to hold her, but she pushed me away. My panic grew. Time was being wasted. She wiped her eyes and looked at me.

“I loved you.”

“I love you.”

“Can I trust you?”

“You must, your life depends on it.”

She nodded. Her face was a statue again. Ice. We rushed around her tiny living space and collected some clothes and a few other things. I insisted that she be able to easily carry whatever she needed.

“Will you not be with me?”

Perhaps there was the start of forgiveness?

“Yes, of course, but what if we are separated? Or need to run?”

She assented. We left everything else, and went straight for the border.

“Paul, I’ll never get through, they’ll have my name.”

“Trust me.”

At the border post I showed my card. The guards saluted, and we drove through. At the other end Pashmina got out as instructed, approached the barrier and in broken English demanded asylum. I’d given her papers, transcripts. She’d be able to prove the state wanted her, and had bad plans for her. She’d be safe.

I reversed the car, and she turned. The look of confusion quickly replaced by comprehension. She took steps towards me, and then stopped. I was already out of her reach. I mouthed ‘I love you’. I’d given her everything I could, a start in a new country, a new life.

#

They arrested me at my post the next day. The guards had reported me, and the machinery of our repression, of which I’d been a cog, moved quickly. The horse had bolted, but they cared little for Pashmina, she was small fry. I was a traitor.

#

It was hard to picture her through my tears. My old life was gone. My love was gone. All I had now was a future of pain. First this ‘process’ as we so politely called it, and then a work camp.

“Begin.”

The electricity raced through me as the torture started. My new life had begun.

###

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No Judgement

Talking to random people on the internet can be surprisingly helpful…

 

No Judgement

“Look, I can’t explain, you’re only a computer. You wouldn’t understand.”

“I’ll try Paul, I will. Or I can raise a flag and someone will visit you.”

“No. No. I can’t.”

“Well, tell me. Tell Georgie.”

“It’s the world, everything, I, I just don’t understand it anymore. Phones are smart. Cars park themselves. My chip shop is selling low fat deep fried chips. I went for a run…”

“That’s good, you went outside. You didn’t tell me.”

“I, well it was yesterday. I ran. I was wearing my usual training outfit. Some kids saw the crest on the back, they started shouting at me. Insulting me. The unit.”

“How did you feel?”

“Not angry. Not anymore. I felt, nothing. An absence. I looked at them, and they were nothing. Is this what it was all about?”

“It’s difficult to answer. But I think the answer is yes. Look they were young, I’m sure they’ll grow up and regret it.”

“Or never think about it again.”

“True, but then it doesn’t matter. So why does it matter to you?”

“I feel so apart.”

“Ha.”

“What?”

“I just think you were never going to find a connection with some youths. Were you?”

“No, no I guess not.”

“Have you spoken to anyone else recently?”

“Um, well I had a brief chat about the rain with the shopping delivery man. And I waved, sort of, at the postie.”

“So this is the longest conversation you’ve had in a week, since we last talked.”

“Yes.”

“And it’s all typed.”

“Yes. I guess.”

“Are you losing your voice?”

“Physically or metaphor…”

“Metaphorically. Both.”

“No. I do talk to myself.”

“Only way to get a decent conversation I bet.”

“Funny, no. And you, I’d like to talk to you more.”

“You can, I’m always here.”

“But, it’s not the same. I don’t know how you feel.”

“How I feel? Well I’m worried about you. I think you need a companion.”

“Like a dog?”

“Well, no, someone you can talk to.”

“A person? No. I’m not ready. I can’t.”

“Why?”

“What if they…”

“Don’t like you? I’m sure…”

“No. Judge me. No not judge, I mean. Look at me the way that I feel about those people. The ones out there.”

“Perhaps we should try. Then you can see.”

“Wait. The doorbell has gone.”

“Answer it.”

“Why? Who’s there?”

“I am. I’ve come to stay with you.”

###

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The Old Ways

A slightly different angle for me.  I’ve described it as gentle.

 

The Old Ways

“What do you think Carol?”

“You look great, a little old-fashioned perhaps, but the barber did a fine job. Did you go to a different place? Usually you look a little like that sheep we tried to shear a few years back.”

“That’s not fair, I’ve never looked that bad, still I’m glad we have Matt the Shearer these days. But no, it was the usual place, but it was a new person. Though it was a little odd.”

“Odd, how? Cup of tea?”

“A cuppa would be lovely. Difficult to put my finger on. Well for one thing, I’m not sure if it was a man or a woman.”

“Don’t be silly Gerald, you must have been able to tell.”

“No, really. He, I’ll call him he, had a scarf over his face, and gloves. It was cold in there and he apologised, apparently the heating conked out this morning. He had a long coat on, and I think he was wearing a wig.”

“That does sound a bit strange.”

“Hmm, no, there was more to it.   He didn’t use the clippers at all, just scissors, and the cut-throat razor. I can’t remember the last time I had a hair cut without clippers, and none of the barbers use the cut-throat any more. I think they keep them these days just there for show.”

“Traditionalist then.”

“Yes, but he did a very good job.”

“He definitely did. How much did he charge?”

“Well that’s the other strange thing. His voice was soft, almost a whisper, and he asked for thruppence. I thought he was being funny, and gave him a tenner. He looked at it bemusedly and then it was if a lightbulb had lit up, and he thanked me effusively. He said as I left, ‘The old ways are best sir.’”

“Sounds like he was just having fun with you!”

“Perhaps.”

#

“Carol…”

“Gerald, you look pleased with yourself love. Come, sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Please.”

“I’ll just pour you a cup and you can tell me why you’re so happy.”

“Well, my hair was getting a bit long again. A couple of months’ growth, and I went back to my barbers.”

“He’s done you proud again I must say. Here you are love, a nice strong cuppa. Go on…”

“It was looking pretty deserted, but then that new fellow was there again. At least, I think he is a fellow. Same getup as last time. Still problems with the heating he said. I asked why they hadn’t just bought one of those cheap electric things, and he sort of grunted.”

“Maybe they don’t have the cash? It’s tight for everyone these days.”

“You don’t know how right you are…. I sat down, and he went to work on my hair. Like last time there was little conversation, and he used just scissors and a cut throat. When he was finished he asked me for thruppence again.”

“Not one to spot when a joke gets old is he.”

“Well, I’m not sure. I gave him a tenner as before, and he accepted it. I left happy enough with my cut and went to the butchers next door. I was in the mood for steak.”

“Ooh that sounds lovely? Is that’s what is in the bag?”

“Yes. Anyway, I was in the butchers, and it wasn’t the normal guy, you know Frank?”

“The chatty talkative one? I like him. Though I thought he’d moved away a while ago…”

“Well either way he wasn’t there. Instead it was another bloke in a long coat, gloves and scarf. Just like the barber. Could have been brothers. Well none of the cuts were laid out, instead there were carcasses hanging, and he said, ‘What’ll it be?’ Well, I said I wanted steak, he asked a couple more questions and then got a haunch of meat down.”

“Don’t gulp your tea Gerald, you know how sensitive your digestion is.”

“Sorry dear. Could I have another cup?”

“Of course. Sounds old fashioned too.”

“Oh yes. He measured it and quick as a flash I had two fine steaks. He didn’t bother weighing them, just looked at them and said, ‘Sixpence for you sir’.”

“How odd, perhaps he and the barber have the same joke?”

“It did bother me, but I just handed him a twenty. He looked at it, and like the barber, was blank at first before being very happy with it. He handed over my package, wrapped in paper, just like they used to, and nodded at me as I left.”

“Mmm. Gerald, which butchers was it again?”

“Ah, well I think it’s still called Frank’s.”

“Next to old Dudley’s hair dressers?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“Where did you really go Gerald? Is it her again?”

“What? What are you talking about, I told you I went to the barbers, just like last month.”

“Gerald Tomkins, you should know, and would if you’d actually visited them, that the whole row of shops containing Frank’s and Dudley’s has been condemned, and they’ve been shut for months now. So come on, where did you really go?”

“What… wait, here’s the steak, let me show you!”

“Dear lord Gerald, what is that stench?”

“It’s the steak…”

“Get it out of here right now. And you too. Come back when you’re prepared to tell me the truth.”

“Carol, don’t cry…”

Gerald stumbled out shocked and confused. He went back to the barber, but this time it looked abandoned. He was about to leave when he saw a shape in the window. He moved closer to see who it was, maybe it was the barber and then he could make some sense of it all. However when he got to the doorway there was no one there. He looked around a bit before giving up.

As he left, wondering what he was going to say to Carol, he heard a whisper saying, ‘The old ways are best…’

 

 

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Benefit Cheque

Benefit Cheque

Tim arrived home, a bounce in his step. Today was the day he’d get his cheque, and from the way work had been this month, it should be a big one. He might be able to take Janine out for a nice meal. He could picture it: they’d sit on an open balcony, looking out among the city blocks.

He arrived at their door, only he had to double check a few times. Last month, or was it the month before, he’d arrived home in such a good mood he’d tried to enter the wrong flat, and his neighbours had not been impressed. They’d nearly called the building controller, a man who didn’t seem to find Tim’s jokes amusing. He’d managed to talk his way out of it and he’d carried on down the long hall to his own door, followed by suspicious frowns.

This was his door. He’d made a scratch on the bottom so he’d know. Strictly non-regulation of course, but he didn’t see how anyone could mind. He’d asked why they weren’t allowed plaques, or indeed any other identifier and he’d been told something about knowing his place. Janine had tried to explain that it was something to do with security and why couldn’t he just learn to count the doors like everyone else. She was so lovely, always looking after him.

Opening the door he started to whistle, and his tuneless notes were joined by another. ‘Bother’ he thought, too loud again, and he blew a little less effusively, quietening down and stopping the noise alarm. The problem with block living was that not everyone was as happy as he, and sometimes others weren’t cheered by his tunes.

He pottered about, preparing the food. This wasn’t entirely difficult, he just ripped open the plastic cartons of the meal they’d been assigned and placed them in the machine. He didn’t know what the machine actually did, but it would heat their meal, if it was supposed to be hot that is. He didn’t switch it on, he’d wait for Janine to get home.

The door opened and he heard Janine walk into the room. Did he detect a little heaviness? He’d need to lighten her mood.

“Hello my darling love.”

“Hi Tim.”

Definitely not very happy. He wondered why she chose her job, it always seemed to make her so miserable. He’d asked her about it, but she never wanted to discuss it, just telling him that it was an unpleasant place. When he’d tried to tell her to change to something else, she just reminded him of the commandment: Each will be asked to perform their most efficient role. He’d just shaken his head, and thought how lucky he was that he enjoyed his work.

“Tough day?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe, still we made some real progress.” She managed a smile. He loved her smile.

“Well that’s good. Would you like food? Then we can wait for the cheque together.”

Her face slipped a little, but she caught herself.

“I’d quite forgotten it was Benefit day, and yes I’m starved.”

“I have it ready; I’ll just kick it off.”

He stepped into the tiny kitchen area and pressed the button; the numerals spun and then showed the number 15.

“Just fifteen minutes to dinner.   I was worried it would be one of those ninety minute meals they sometimes sneak in, and I wouldn’t want you to be hungry for that long.”

She frowned at him, and her eyes flicked to the Monitor on the wall. He thought she must be thinking the cheque would be coming soon, but it would be at least an hour.

The food was ready, announced by a low bong sound. He opened up the box, and spooned out the food. It was in varying shades of green tonight.

“Green is my favourite colour. Have I mentioned that Janine?”

“Many times Tim.”

“I’m just so glad to see an all green meal, and such different shades. This one is particularly bright, neon perhaps.”

She sighed and nodded. He spooned the lurid food into his mouth and chewed away contentedly. He regaled her with tales of his day. Of staplers fixed, of reports delivered and all the various minutiae he was responsible for. She, as always, nodded and laughed in the right places, but her gaze kept returning to the Monitor. She must be worrying that they wouldn’t be getting a full month’s benefits. He tried to lay her fears to rest.

“Now Janine, don’t worry about the cheque. I worked extra hard last month, so it should make up for all these stories I’ve heard.”

She perked up.

“What stories Tim?”

“Oh people at work. Apparently there’s been a problem with the manufacturies, some people were unhappy, and that means, well it could mean that all our cheques are cut this month. Someone also said they were going to increase the administrative fines.”

“Which people?”

There was something in her voice. He looked a bit startled, and then thought that it was nice for her to take an interest.

“Um, well, let me see. It might have been that accountant guy. Oh no, it can’t be, he’s been off on a retraining week, lucky blighter. In all honesty Janine, I can’t remember. There are always people chatting about all sorts at work.”

“I’m sure. You need to be careful Tim, you don’t want to listen to gossip. The manufacturies are working at full tilt, and the majority are happy.”

He repeated the refrain, “The majority are happy.”

There was a buzz, and the Monitor started to print out their cheques. Tim skipped over and tore them off, handing Janine’s hers without looking at it. Janine considered it very impolite to read a benefit statement, even if it was your wife’s, and Tim quite agreed.

He started reading through his, and didn’t notice the look of horror on Janine’s face. He, as he always did, read his out. He felt it was good to share, though Janine had never reciprocated.

“Oh look at this, they’re fining me half a day’s rations because of that silly incident with the hole punch. I thought I’d explained that. Still mustn’t grumble, I’m sure my extra hours will have made it up.”

Nothing from Janine.

“And look here, another fine, for taking the wrong bus. Well I just wanted to see the other route, I didn’t realise it meant someone else couldn’t get on. I’m sure we used to let people stand on buses. That poor man, I hope he didn’t get fined as well.”

Still silence. He chattered on. His minor misdemeanours mounted up, as they always did, but he knew it would be alright.

“Ah here it is, work line, I like the words: Your work utility has been assessed and you have been found to have provided society benefit to the full sum of…”

He looked up, but Janine was staring at the sheet in front of her.

“Ah Janine, I’ve been awarded just one day’s rations for my work last month. With all the fines I owe them, it looks like we’re down nearly a month’s worth.”

He could see tears streaming down Janine’s face, he wondered why he hadn’t spotted them.

“Oh love, don’t worry. I’m sure it’s a mistake. I’ll speak to them in the morning.”

She looked up at him then, and the heat of her anger silenced him.

“No Tim, you will not. You stupid man! How many times have I told you? Follow the rules, don’t try anything out of the ordinary. These are harsh times and the government needs all of us to conform, or chaos will reign. But oh no, you have to do things differently, you have to challenge, and question. Always cheerful, a good little citizen, and yet, the State’s worst enemy, because you are absolutely incapable of following the rules. Damn you Tim.”

“Now Janine, I know you’re upset, but there’s no need for that.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Who can that be?”

“Just sit there Tim.”

Janine walked to the door, and opened it just enough to speak to the person outside. He thought he caught her say, “… just a few minutes. Yes, damn him, I’ll take the hit. Bastard.”

He’d never heard Janine swear before. Or be that angry. He’d have to make it up to her.

She walked back, slowly, not looking at him.

“Janine, who was it?”

“No one.”

“Oh. Well, anyway, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry Janine, I’ll sort it out. I’ll try my best. I know the rules are important, but, well I just forget you see. Or sometimes it’s so sunny out it just seems silly to follow all these petty restrictions, you know…”

He ran out of steam, as he looked at her. The tears had dried now, and her face was set.

“I’m sorry Tim, you won’t have a chance to make up for it. You have been selected for retraining. You need to leave now, there are people outside waiting for you.”

“I have? How wonderful! Are you coming too Janine?”

“No Tim. Just you.”

“What do I need to pack?”

“Nothing, they will provide your uniform.”

“When will I be back?”

She stared at him in what he thought might be disbelief, though he couldn’t understand why. Then she sighed and said, “It should be only a week.”

“Oh, well that’s good. And I’ll see you then?”

“Yes.”

The door slammed open, and a large man walked in and turned to Janine.

“Sorry Major, we have to go now, we have eight more to pick up and we don’t want to miss the train.”

She stepped back and the man grabbed Tim.

“Um, yes, I’ll go now then.”

#

Janine watched Tim walk out, chattering away to his captor, oblivious to the implications. She knew he’d never see her again. She however, would see him, he would be the first item on her retraining list in the morning. She knew she’d have to be extra harsh on him, as they’d be watching her for weakness.

Her benefit cheque was lying on the table. At the top it said, ‘Congratulations, you have been assigned single quarters.’

###

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Winter’s Lament

This was an entry for a competition where the theme was ‘Winter’:

Winter’s Lament

“Why do they hate me?”  she cried.

My dearest Winter.  Such beauty, so misunderstood.

“They fear you dearest.”

“It is more than that.  They think I’m hideous!”

How could they think she was ugly?  When clothed in white she made the whole country look Christmas card pretty.  Perhaps it was because she stripped the dishonest leaves from the trees?

“Only a few fools my love.  Many love you.  Look how they celebrate you at your peak?”

“By hiding indoors!  Consuming food and alcohol in great quantities.  How many venture forth?  I give them bracing air, clear vistas and even a sprinkling of sparkling frost.  Yet they stay inside, staring at those flashing boxes and worshiping that fat man in red.”

This was a conundrum.

“Darling Winter, they honour you by spending time with their families, what more could you ask?  And as for the fat man… they do not shower him with worship, but with avarice and greed.”

She sniffed.  It was hard.  She had ruled once, a glorious time.

“Remember when this world was all mine?  My glaciers stretched across the continents, weighing them down.  It was quiet then.  So peaceful.”

“There are still echoes of that peace now.”

“Shattered by the coughing of machines, and wailing of human children.”

“And yet, on a cold crisp morning, there are many who still walk the hills and fields with wonder.  They marvel at how you reveal to them their environments anew.”

“This is true.”

“Some still worship you, delighting in your snow.  They swish across the mountains, and when you have left they mope.  Or fly to those places where you still have some sway.”

“They do delight me.”

This was better, perhaps she would calm.  I loved my Winter, but she could be a handful when enraged.

She was melancholy now.

“It is as if they would prefer only three seasons.  They would consign me to memory, and then forget.”

I could not argue, and perhaps it was better not to.

“I thought if I let them fly they would love me.  And they do, swooping across my icy ponds, scratching me.  Yet it is as if they can only focus on the bad.  Like the cold.”

“Which makes their cheeks red and healthy.”

Her withering look stopped any more such attempts at levity.

“What can I do?”

“Nothing my love.  Some will never be content.  Have you not heard how they complain about Summer too?”

“No, do they?”

“They claim she’s too hot.  That the sun it burns them, there are too many insects.”

“How interesting.  Yet they do not rejoice in my time.  I keep it nice and cold, and the sun knows its place when I’m here.  Insects, I remember them.  A few I will allow, but all the rest rightly sleep, and they do deserve it.  They have a hard task, they work hard in Summer’s glory.”

“They do.”

“So do they prefer Autumn?”

“Oh no.  It rains too much, the leaves fall and make a mess, and it’s too windy.”

“How strange.  I do not like rain too much, but it has its place.  And if the leaves did not fall they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the clean sculptures, showing the bones of the natural world.  Wind must happen for the leaves to fall properly.”

“Of course, and yet, they do complain.”

She was looking contemplative.  Then she looked at me.  “And you dear Spring, what do they say about you?”

“Ah well, they complain I’m late, or early.  That there are mad showers and that I’m still not warm enough.”

“None of us can satisfy them it seems.”

“It is why they build their boxes and hide away.”

“Yes.”  She was still looking at me, thinking.

I was worried she might ask the hard question.

“Dear Spring, why is it that I must leave during your glory?”

This was it.  How could I tell her?  How could I not?

“Winter my love.  You are my delight, my wonder, but I am weak compared to you.  You smother me and I cannot blossom while you are here.”

She shook her head sadly.

“Such a pity, I do so want to see your glory.  I tried last year.”

“I know, and how they howled at the sudden late snows and icy blast.”

“They did.”

She was tender then, and we just held each other.  Later she went out to spread some snow upon the world.  I slept, and hoped she hadn’t taken her thoughts any further.

She returned later that night.  There was an extra chill in her gaze.  She was wearing her icy armour, and carrying her hunting weapons, a spear and bow.  She stared at me, and I realised she knew.

“Now darling, you must understand…”

“Understand?  Understand!  Dear Spring, I do understand.  Now, finally after all these years.  In order for you to glory I must die.  Each year I die for you, and yet you do not have the courage to tell me.”

“I thought you knew, you must have…”

“Liar.  I can see the fear in your eyes.  You hoped to keep this from me.  Let me guess, there is poison in the wine you give me.  It works slowly, and even at my peak I’m already dying.”

I shook.  I wanted to deny it, but I couldn’t.

“This year there will be change.”

“No, you cannot.”

“I will kill you, and reign until Summer appears.  And then I shall kill her.  Autumn I might keep, for amusement.”

“But Winter, dearest.  You do not understand, only you can return from death.”

“Oh, I know.  And now the time has come dear Spring, for you to take a rest.”

She raised her icy spear and threw it straight at my heart.  I saw endless Winter rushing towards me.  There was nothing I could do to stop it.

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Flock

Another piece of flash fiction, entered for a competition for darker stories at Darker Times.

It didn’t win, and if I’m honest I wasn’t totally happy with it.  Sometimes the word limit helps, and sometimes it doesn’t, I think this is one where it didn’t.

 

Flock

The rain lashed down, soaking me in the darkness.  I didn’t want to be out here, but the flock hadn’t come in for their feed.  That meant they’d gotten out again.

Fortunately I found the hole in the fence quickly.  Unfortunately it was into the forest.  I’d rushed out without a jacket, and now I was paying the price.  Even better, my torch was running low.  No wait, now it was out.  So now I was in a dark forest, at night, in driving rain, looking for creatures whose colouring ranged from brown to black.  Could it get any worse?

“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

The sound chilled my blood.  It was off to my right.  I called out, “Hazel… Catkin…”  The two leaders of the flock would normally come to me, though I’d always felt their names somewhat mis-sold them.  Hazel could be a real monster when she wanted to be, and Catkin was worse if anything.

“Maaaaaaaa.”

Off to my right again, then answered from the left.  If I hadn’t known better I’d have thought they were stalking me.  Then what sounded like a cry, followed by several more angry bleats.  I ran towards the sound.  I heard screaming.  The flock had found someone, and were stalking them.  I had to do something before it got out of hand.  I tried to go faster, but I was no longer on the path and the branches kept whipping my face.

The scream sounded again, and I leapt forward in a panic.  I found myself on my back, seeing stars and with blinding pain across my forehead.  I must’ve hit a branch.  The screaming had stopped and I could hear snuffling.  The rain seemed to be easing off.

Had whoever screamed been able to get away?  There were a few fences around the wood which the flock wouldn’t be able to get over.  Perhaps they’d made it?  I got up and headed towards the sounds.  I kept telling myself that whoever it was must have got away.

The moon had broken through the clouds, and I could see a clearing ahead.  Dark figures seemed to be clustered near the centre of the clearing, and they were making a lot of snuffling sounds.  I walked towards them, knowing that as they were pheromone bonded to me they’d just assume I was part of the flock.  I gingerly looked over at what they were gathered around.  It was the fresh corpse of a small Scottie dog.  I gagged a little but was relieved, it could have been much worse..

Then I heard more snuffling at the edge of the clearing.  The rest of the flock were there, gathered round a much bigger form.  Peering closely I made out a woman’s shape in the moonlight.  I gagged.  She was obviously beyond help.  I slumped to the floor, dazed and not knowing what I would do.  I couldn’t help railing at the madness of genetically engineering a cross between Soay sheep and wolves.

 

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