Fiction, Short Story

The Record Card

The following is another short story that I’ve written as part of the ongoing ‘Write with Chris and Millie’ writing prompt exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week we take a wrong turn down Memory Lane…



Photo by Sanwal Deen on Unsplash

He clutched the record to his chest, and the tears that he’d held back for so long could be held back no more. He’d finally found it, tucked away in a small drawer in a forgotten corner of this derelict orphanage. The record was a tiny thing, a small rectangle of index card with faded numbers neatly typed across it in regimented rows. Here and there spots of mould obscured some of the numbers entirely, but it didn’t matter. Every single one of the numbers were indelibly etched on Peter’s heart.

“Again!” the doctor said.

“34…2…” began Peter, before pausing to draw in a huge sobbing breath, his young chest heaving with the effort.

The nurse holding his hand open struck his palm with a wooden cane, instantly leaving a red mark across his young hand.

“Again!” the doctor said, looking down at a small rectangle of card in his hand.

3421170679!” cried Peter hurriedly. That held back the cane, for the moment at least.

Peter wandered the halls of the dilapidated orphanage, taking in sights and smells that flung him violently back to his childhood here. The place was long abandoned; water dripped from brown ceiling tiles and the wind sighed through broken windows. He’d expected to find ghosts, but they’d left too. There was no-one here for them to haunt.

“8628034825!” gabled Peter as fast as he could. The doctor nodded solemnly, satisfied for the moment. The cane hovered like a hawk that had spotted a mouse peeking out from under a stone, biding its time.

Peter stopped and touch a faded display of photographs stapled to a soggy noticeboard. The pictures showed children who had been adopted and escaped this place. The pigments in the photographs had started to wash away in the dripping water, their beaming smiles becoming grotesque smears. The colours came away on Peter’s fingers as he gently touched their faces, staining his skin with the memory of happiness. He’d found a new life too eventually, built something for himself, found a wife, someone who could love him despite all his pain. But that was all gone now, the search for the truth had cost him everything. Only the numbers remained, ticking over and over in his brain.

“0628620899!” yelled Peter. The whine of the electric generator set his teeth on edge and he could smell a copper tang in the air. The nurse was wearing thick rubber gloves now, holding him down. The electrodes pressed uncomfortably onto the bare skin of his torso. It felt like he was being held gently in the teeth of a giant predator, kept alive long enough to be carried back to her hungry young.

“And then?” the doctor asked calmly. Peter yelled another string of numbers as fast as he could, not daring to pause for breath.

The numbers had to mean something. He’d be forced to spend the coin of his childhood on memorising them and repeating them over and over. The beatings, the electric shocks, the endless pain; it had all been a sharp-tongued teacher. He had never forgotten any of the numbers since then. Not one. But what did they mean? During his lowest points Peter would comfort himself with the idea that there were some important knowledge. Coordinates perhaps, or a formula to something that would change mankind forever when the time was right to reveal it. He had exhausted his meagre life savings trying to find out.

Peter wandered the silent corridors of the derelict building aimlessly as he relieved each triggered memory in turn. Maybe there were ghosts here, hanging around just long enough to taunt him before finally fading away. Suddenly he snapped out of his introspection when he realised exactly where he was. The door to the “Teaching Room” stood before him. If ever there was a euphemism to send a shiver of ice down a man’s spine… The very sight of the doorway invoked a visceral horror in Peter, carrying him back to his final session in that benighted room.

“Alright,” said the doctor patiently, looking down at Peter, “all together now. One final time.”

“31415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679!” shouted Peter hysterically, not missing a single one of the one hundred digits. The doctor looked at the small rectangle of card that he always carried with him and nodded in satisfaction. The nurse lowered the cane, looking disappointed, and began to unstrap him from the chair. She would give him one final beating later that evening, just to be sure.

This had all been over fifty years ago. At first he’d tried to forget. The scars had healed, but the numbers had remained in his head, lodged like a thorn in his brain. By the time he’d come to pursue the truth the orphanage staff were long dead and the records of that time long lost. He hadn’t even really known what part of the country the orphanage was in, just that he had travelled a long way to meet his new family after finally being adopted.

Peter lingered on the threshold for a few moments more before finally overcoming his fear and slowly opening the creaking door to the Teaching Room. This room was just as dead as the rest of the orphanage. No lingering menace, just the silence of the grave. There were no answers to be found in here, he already had his answers, clutched tightly in his hand. Peter sat down in the chair in the centre of the room. The tiny child-size seat groaned and shifted under his adult bulk. He looked at the index record card in his hand one more time, just to check that he’d finally understood.

Child experiments in corporal punishment as a memory aid, it read, Subject: Peter-J, Topic: Memorisation of Pi to one hundred digits. Note, for reference, digits are as follows: 31415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679.

Peter let the index card record fall from his hand as the tears ran down his face. It gently slid to the floor of the Teaching Room, joining the collected debris of his broken dreams.

Fiction, Horror, HP Lovecraft, Short Story


The following is another short story that I’ve written as part of the ongoing ‘Write with Chris and Millie’ writing prompt exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, much like a ghoul slinking back to its subterranean home as the dawn breaks, I am once again returning to HP Lovecraft territory.



 Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

The clock ticked slowly, tauntingly. How long had they been locked in this staring contest? Laurence and Anna sat in the dimly lit cabin, watching the monitors in front of them. Their staring contest was with the ocean abyss below, and although the abyss did not have eyes, Laurence could not shake the feeling that it was staring back. Who would blink first; would the abyss reveal its secrets, or would they grow bored and give up their search?

“Hey!” said Anna sharply, clicking her fingers next to Laurence’s ear in a loud and annoying fashion. “You’ve glazed over again. Are you paying attention?”

Laurence bit back a retort. She was right, he’d been lost in his inner monologue and couldn’t have told Anna what had been on the screen in front of him for the past thirty seconds.

“You just worry about your camera,” said Laurence irritably, “I’m fine.” Anna let out a deep sigh – the breathing equivalent of a raised middle finger – but said nothing else. He could hear Becky the intern squirming uncomfortably on her chair behind them, but he didn’t look back at her.

Did the ‘cabin’ in ‘cabin fever’ refer to a ship’s cabin, or like an isolated wooden cabin high in the mountains? wondered Laurence. Cabin. Cabin. Cabin. Cab-in. Cab In. CABIN! Nope, that word had totally lost all meaning now. He heard Anna grinding her teeth next to him, and realised that he’d let his focus slip again. He blinked a couple of time and rubbed his cheeks with his palms as though he could rub away the stubble there and thus be restored to full wakefulness. The operations room was dimly lit, and the hum of equipment was like white noise in the background. He felt like he was fighting a losing battle with sleep.

“Becky,” said Laurence, swivelling on his chair to finally address the intern, “sorry, I know this is a bit rubbish, but could you get us all some coffees from the mess hall please?”

Laurence hated using interns to run menial errands – it didn’t seem fair when they were here to learn useful skills, not how everyone took their drinks – but right now he didn’t feel like he had a choice.

“No problem!” replied Becky, leaping up. Clearly the atmosphere in here was uncomfortable for everyone. “What sort of coffee?”

“Black Americano please,” he replied.

“Latté,” added Anna, not taking her eyes off her monitor. Laurence didn’t think that she had any strong feelings one way or the other about how the interns spent their time on board the ship.

“And don’t forget to get one for yourself,” added Laurence as Becky scurried out of the door.

Turning back to his monitor, Laurence was once again confronted by the view from camera 2 on the remote submersible that was diving down beneath them and into the North Sea. The miniature unmanned submarine was connected to their ship by a long cable that carried power and data, like the umbilical cord of a newly birthed sea creature. Specks of silt floated by as he watched the camera feed, each tiny particle of mud briefly illuminated by the searchlights before fading into the darkness once more.

“It’s like someone with terminal depression designed a screensaver,” muttered Laurence in exasperation. Anna gave an amused snort; that was funny, the noise seemed to say, but I’m still annoyed at you. You couldn’t spend as long as Laurence and Anna had in close quarters without getting to know a person so well that you understood every single tick, twitch and sigh their body made. After that, you either fell in love or became sick of the sight of each other. Laurence made a quiet amused snort of his own, wondering how things would have panned out if it had gone the other way.

“What’s funny?” asked Anna.

“Oh…nothing,” replied Laurence, his imagination swimming through unexplored depths of possibility. Not unlike their submersible.

The RRS Spring had been travelling the rolling grey waters of the North Sea for two weeks now, and not without purpose. A rare alignment of the sun and moon had brought about the reign of the king tide; the highest and lowest tide of the year. Mesolithic artefacts were dredged up from the bottom of the North Sea from time to time: bones, tools, things like that. Some bright spark had taken the opportunity presented by the low tide – and the lifting and stirring of silt that the dramatic change in water level could bring –  to commission a survey of select areas of the sea bed. What that brain genius had not considered, thought Laurence bitterly, was that the stirring of the slit would mean there was a huge amount of silt actually suspended in the water! Right now the visibility of their remote submersible was reduced to only a few metres.

Nevertheless, a commission was a commission, and they had to make the best of this unique opportunity. Dogger Bank – the massive submerged sandbank that they were currently transversing – was being considered as a potential site for ‘Round 3’ of the UK’s offshore wind program. The comparatively shallow water made it ideal for wind turbine foundations. A consortium of Dutch, German and Danish developers had also expressed an interest in the site for a similar EU project. Whatever prehistoric artefacts were down there were about to be disturbed, one way or another.

“I still find it weird to think that this whole area of the North Sea was all above water eight thousand years ago,” muttered Laurence, more to himself to break the silence than to Anna. Doggerland was what the drowned land was called, named after Dogger Bank. What would the indigenous inhabitants have called it? Laurence wondered. His screen continued to show nothing but murky water.

“Yeah, a land bridge to the Low Countries and Europe,” replied Anna, still fixed on her monitor, “imagine how different history would have been if it had never flooded.” Laurence was genuinely surprised she had engaged with the conversation.

“Don’t forget though, it was only the lowest areas that flooded first; Dogger Bank itself remained an island for another thousand years after that until it was also eventually swallowed by the rising waters. We’re meant to be over the highest point of Dogger Bank right now…”

Anna trailed off into silence. Laurence let out a long sigh. Their submersible could be hovering a few metres above an endless carpet of Mesolithic artefacts and treasures and they wouldn’t have a damn clue in all this murk.

“Imagine being an inhabitant of Dogger Bank island as the waters closed in, year by year,” mused Laurence, breaking the silence again after a few moments, “what must they have thought as their world was swallowed by the waves?”

“They could have left on log boats,” suggested Anna.

“And gone where? Think about it, no other land in sight in living memory. For all you know, you’re the only people in the world,” replied Laurence, “would they have even thought to leave? Who could they have called on for help? Who would have answered…?”

Anna shuddered. “Don’t, you’re creeping me out.”

“Fine. Sorry. I’m just creating a little atmosphere,” laughed Laurence, “let’s talk about something normal. Fun fact, did you know that the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the UK was in 1931 and it was centred on Dogger Bank?”

“Huh, that is kind of interest-shit!

Something grey loomed out of the silt on Anna’s monitor, something large and tilted at an angle like the leg of a massive bipedal creature that was preparing to pounce. Anna had good reflexes, Laurence had to give her that much. She reacted instantly, slamming the remote vehicle’s engines into full reverse. The submarine’s momentum haemorrhaged away until it merely collided with the mysterious object with a gentle bump. Laurence released a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding in.

“What the hell is that?” said Laurence. The object filled their monitors as the cameras struggled to refocus.

“I think…” said Anna as she gently guided the remote submarine backwards, “…I think it might be some sort of standing stone.”

The curtain of silt briefly parted before them, like a carnival magician teasing his audience with glimpses of wonders to come. Poking from the very top of Dogger Bank like rotten teeth from a broken jaw, rows of storm-grey menhirs projected haphazardly from the sand. Together they formed broken lines of stone radiating from a shadowed central point. Then the strange vista was gone, the murky veil descending once more.

“Ho-lee shit,” breathed Laurence. Suddenly he felt doubly guilty for sending Becky away to get coffee and causing her to miss this. Anna was already on the internal radio.

“Bridge, this is submarine operations,” said Anna, “we’ve found something Steve! Something big!” A few moments of silence passed. Anna and Laurence exchanged amazed glances, neither of them really finding the words to discuss what they had seen.

“Now would that be something physically big or a metaphorical ‘big’ discovery?” replied the Captain.

“Both…I think,” said Anna, “what are the chances of holding us steady?”

“Pretty good,” replied Steve, “we’ve only got light chop. The tide’s on its way back up now though, so don’t forget you’re going to lose a bit of range on the seabed.”

“Good point, thanks, keep us here as long as you can, operations out,” Anna was already switching to talk to someone else.

“Winch control, this is submarine operations,” said Anna, “Adrian, how much slack do we have on the remote tether cable?”

Laurence chewed the nail of his thumb and watched the monitor while Anna waited for a reply. The silty curtain remained in place. Clearly the ocean felt they had been tantalised enough.

“About half a klick,” drawled Adrian, “why, how much do you need?”

500 metres thought Laurence, if Anna’s planning to do what I think she is, that should be enough.

“Great, that’s plenty, thanks!” replied Anna.

“Anna don’t push it to the limit, it’s not good for-” began Adrian but Anna was already turning the radio off.

“Yeah yeah…,” she said, as she eased the submarine’s controls forward, steering it carefully around the standing stone.

“Are we aiming for the centre of the stones?” asked Laurence, staring directly at his screen. He wouldn’t have taken his eyes off the monitor to look at Anna now, even if she took all her clothes off.

“Yes, there seemed to be…something in the centre,” confirmed Anna, “but I’m not quite sure what.”

“I saw it too,” agree Laurence.

The dark menhirs loomed out of the murk on either side as Anna expertly piloted the remote submersible between them. Strange currents between the standing stones buffeted the submarine as though someone was trying to swat them away, but she kept their course true. The shaking of the submersible video feed was at odds with the gentle rolling motion of their ship high above, and Laurence was finally forced to look away from the monitor as the conflicting sensory information made his stomach churn.

At last the submarine reached the centre of the standing stones. There, hunched low like a gargantuan crustacean made of black stone, stood a half buried entrance to a passageway into the heart of the sandbank below. Anna paused at the controls, considering her next move. Laurence could read from her body language that she was considering piloting the submersible further still, down into the black unknown.

“Woah,” said Laurence, “I’m not sure it’s worth the risk. Remember how much the robotic submersible costs, and if you trash it then it’s coming out of your pay cheque!” Anna turned to regard him with annoyance.

“We’ve made the discovery,” he added quickly, hoping to pacify her, “our names will definitely be attached to it, but we don’t have to map every inch of it right now,”

“You heard Steve,” she said irritably, “the king tide is beginning to rise again. Who knows how much silt and crap will be dumped back on top of all this in a few hours? You can’t deny that this is a significant find, especially considering the age and number of stones! Come on, let’s take this chance to actually learn something of value about the people of Doggerland!”

Laurence ground his teeth for a few seconds while he thought. Technically Anna was his superior, so if the sub was totalled then it would be her responsibility. And he really did want to know what was down there.

“Ok, fine, you’re the boss,” said Laurence, turning back to the monitors and making a chopping forward motion with his hands.

The waters were calmer here away from the standing stones. Anna inched the submersible down towards the entrance, very slowly and very cautiously. For a horrible moment Laurence thought it wasn’t going to fit. He sucked his gut in and held his breath as though this would somehow help. But he needn’t have worried, as the remote submarine slipped silently through the entrance and was swallowed by the darkness.

Without even the meagre natural light filtering down through the silty water, they were entirely reliant on their submarine’s search lights. Anna and Laurence’s world view was reduced to two bright discs of illuminated stone. At first the stone was uniformly the colour of storm-wracked skies, but as their craft descended deeper they started to see flecks of colour on the walls.

“Anemones?” wondered Laurence out loud.

“I don’t think so…” replied Anna. Laurence glanced over at her, then back at his screen.

“JESUS!” he yelled, scooting back from the monitor as fast as he could. There, filling his monitor, was a bright red human handprint smeared across the rock.

Laurence took several deep breaths, trying to swallow his hammering heart back down into his chest. Beside him, Anna was crying tears of laughter.

“It’s a cave painting,” she chuckled, wiping away the tears, “it’s Mesolithic cave art! What, did you think there are ghosts down here leaving bloody handprints on the walls?”

“I…no, I…it just caught me off guard, that’s all,” said Laurence, his face flushing a similar shade of red to the hand print, “seeing something so human down in this alien world, it was just a bit jarring, that’s all.”

“‘Alien world’”, repeated Anna, rolling her eyes mockingly, “you’re talking about the sea bed. It’s only about 30 metres below us.”

Laurence said nothing and silently wheeled his chair back into position in front of the monitor. He really needed that black coffee right now. Anna finished drying her eyes, and, chuckling away to herself, piloted the submarine further into the cave. As the duel beams of the searchlights swept along opposite walls, they revealed a myriad of paintings. Stylised people and animals engaged in the dance of hunter and prey, the vibrant pigments in the paint all perfectly preserved by millennia entombed in airless silt. Laurence’s eyes flicked down to check the recording button was active on the software interface. It always was by default, but he still wanted to be certain. This find was turning from astounding to unbelievable. This made the cave paintings of Lascaux appear pretty crap by comparison, if he was honest.

As the submarine progressed along the corridor, the tone of the paintings changed. The animals went from bountiful to scarce, and ominous lapping waves began to feature around the edge of the art. Finally the corridor – which had been gently sloping down into the depths of the sand bank – opened out into a small room. On the opposite side lurked another stone portal, abyssal black and seemingly leading to a much steeper incline.

Anna drew the submarine to a halt, gently working the engines to move the submarine in a slow circle. There were no animals left in the cave paintings in this chamber, only people, rising water, and a sense of desperation. It amazed Laurence how much these primitive people had been able to communicate with their art. Their sense of terror was almost palpable as the art showed them constructing this temple on the highest peak of Dogger Bank island almost 7000 years ago.

“But a temple to what…?” Laurence wondered aloud.

“At a guess, ancestor worship,” replied Anna.

“What makes you say that?” asked Laurence, looking at the cave painting of the menhirs with the dark entrance to the temple in its centre.

“He does,” said Anna.

Laurence looked at her monitor and saw the skull-face staring back at him with hollow eyes. The breath caught in his throat. The skull was laying on the floor of the temple near the opposite dark doorway, scattered across the stony ground with a miscellaneous jumble of other bones. Anna had zoomed in so they could clearly see the skull. Millennia may have separated Laurence and Anna for this distant ancestor, but there was nothing to show this. In evolutionary time scales it was still the skull of a modern human. Laurence wondered if Anna was right and this was an ancestor-worshipping grave-site, or whether this poor unfortunate had simply died in the temple as they sought shelter from the rising waves. He knew it was silly, but Laurence found himself staring into the empty eyes of the skull, trying to get some sense of the person who had once lived. Only emptiness stared back, a hollowness that spoke of echoing benighted chambers deep below the earth.

Buried here, died here…or sacrificed here? That was always a possibility too. A final offering from the islanders to a nameless god? Laurence shivered. Suddenly something moved, just on the edge of their vision, right on the threshold of the light cast from the submarine. Right on the very threshold of the deeper stairs.

“Whoa whoa whoa! What was that!?” yelled Laurence. Anna didn’t reply. Tight lipped, her face a mask of concentration, her hands had already shot to the controls to spin the submarine towards the movement. The pool of light they cast slid over a carpet of bones like a funeral shroud being pulled across the dead. The osseous carpet grew thicker and more tangled at the entrance to the steps, and a few of the lighter bones rattle around in a macabre dance as though recently disturbed.

“Haha, just bones caught in the tide,” laughed Anna, although there was an edge to her voice that said she didn’t quite believe that. Was even the pragmatic Anna spooked? wondered Laurence. That creeped him out more than anything else. He wondered again about the desperate paintings and the rising waters and the purpose of this temple. Was it really ancestor worship, or had the ancient people of Dogger Bank island reached out for help from someone or something that should have been left undisturbed? Laurence’s eye strayed to a painting near to the foreboding stairway; a painting of the islanders filing into the temple of menhirs, and of something squatting at its centre, something dark and indistinct and…

Laurence shook his head. What was the matter with him? He was a scientist dammit! Well, a geologist, but still, he shouldn’t be scared of the dark. But what he should be scared of was being complicit in trashing a multi-million pound remote submersible. Even if Anna would take the majority of the blame, the rest of the dive season would still be a write-off, and that meant no pay cheques.

“Shall we see some more wall paintings? Take a look at what’s down these stairs?” said Anna, as though she could see the cloud of dissent forming in Laurence’s mind.

“No, look Anna, we need to get the sub out of there before the cable gets tangled and we lose it – and the whole operational season with it!” exclaimed Laurence.

“We can see a little more without any more risk,” said Anna firmly.

“That’s clearly not true, we have no idea when the returning king tide is going to bury this whole complex again,” exclaimed Laurence, reaching for the radio to turn it back on, “I’m at least calling winch control to see how much slack we-”

Anna forcefully smacked his hand away from the radio.

“No you’re not,” she said, “I’m submersible operations manager and I say we go on.”

Laurence snatched his hand back, and looked at her with a mixture of hurt and disbelief. Could he overpower Anna? Maybe. She looked like she worked out though, and the thought of brawling around all this expensive equipment made him nauseous.

“Anna, this isn’t worth the risk!”

“I say it is.”

“Well, fine, if you won’t let me use the radio I’ll go and speak to winch control myself.”

“Alright, I can’t stop you, but you’re going to miss out.”

Laurence paused, briefly tempted to stay, before finally making his decision and hurrying out of the operations room. Behind him, Anna carefully steered the submarine through the portal into the black abyss, searchlights scanning the walls.

It took Laurence a few minutes to work his way up through the gently pitching ship to reach winch control, where Adrian confirmed that there was about 100 metres of cable remaining. Laurence tried not to let on his concerns, nodding nonchalantly along to what Adrian was saying. But he left again as soon as he could without looking like he was hurrying off. As he descended the steps to bring him back onto the submersible operations level, he began to hear something that wasn’t part of the normal background noise of the ship. When he rounded the final corner he realised what it was. It was screaming.

Laurence doubled his pace and ran through the open doorway into operations. There he beheld a scene of chaos. All the video monitors and remote control equipment for the submarine had been completely destroyed, as though frenziedly beaten with a blunt object. The back-up hard drives had been pulled from the computers too, and stamped flat on the metal deck in a terrible panic, entirely destroying the digital record of everything the submarine had seen that day. As Laurence surveyed the damage in slack-jawed bafflement, he spotted the source of the noise. Anna was curled up in the foetal position in the corner of the room, screaming and screaming and screaming as loud as she could, her eyes screwed tightly shut and her face a contorted mask of pure terror. Becky was there too – the coffees abandoned on the floor – desperately trying to comfort Anna. But the screams would not stop.

Numbly, Laurence reached for the radio to call for help, but before he could transmit he heard an incoming message.

“-erations. Come in submersible operations. This is winch control. What’s going on down there? Is the submarine caught? The cable had gone taut! It’s starting to pull on the ship! Submersible operations, are you there?!”

Wide-eyed, Laurence watched as the abandoned plastic coffee cups began to roll across the floor, trailing spilt coffee as they went. The whole room was tilting subtly to port. Laurence thought he heard a soft groan of metal from several decks below, but it was difficult to tell as Anna’s scream became louder and louder still…


Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story


The following is another short story that I written as part of the ongoing ‘Write with Chris and Millie’ writing prompt exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, we are such stuff as dreams are made on…



Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

There was a bird on the horizon, swooping gracefully through the air. It was a majestic sight. The only concerning thing was the fact that there was no oxygen outside.

“Huh,” said Chloe, watching the bird flying closer over the lunar landscape, “that’s kinda cool.” Her supervisor, Professor Susan Aikman, chuckled next to her, the laugh crackling across the suit radio.

“My dear,” the older academic said, “you have not seen anything yet.”

Chloe watched the bird fly away across the moon’s horizon, until it was nothing but a pinprick of light in the distance, joining the millions of stars in the firmament above.

“Should we have caught it?” asked Chloe, suddenly surfacing from her wonder-induced trance and remembering why they were there. “Was that bird…important in some way?”

“How does one catch a dream?” replied Susan, sounding distant.

“Professor…” pressed Chloe. He mentor snapped out of it.

“No, it wasn’t important. It was a metaphor, a reflection of why we’re here. I think it was symbolising how the quest for human knowledge is like attempting to fly towards the farthest stars,” explained Professor Aikman.

“Wouldn’t that make it a simile, not a metaphor?” mused Chloe. Susan shot her a withering look that made Chloe blush.

“Would you like to change your PhD studies to English Language?” she asked.

“No, Biochemistry is fine,” muttered Chloe, not looking at her supervisor.

“Then shall we proceed?”

“Which way?” asked Chloe. One part of the moon pretty much looked like any other.

“This way,” said Susan, stepping into her house, only it wasn’t her house, it was her house merged with a German hotel she had once visited for a conference in 1992.

Chloe looked behind her to take one last look at the bird, only the star field was gone and now she could see she was surrounded by the garden of Professor Aikman’s house, except that all the trees had been replaced by free-standing kitchen sinks. Chloe shrugged, wondering briefly if the bird would ever reach that farthest star, and then she went to follow Susan into the not-quite house. Chloe was still getting used to the Somnambulnaut Suit; with the warm electronics and the conditioned air blowing over her face, the smells combined to remind her of a new car. The suit had somehow felt appropriate when they had been stood on the moon, but now she was stood in someone’s front garden it felt cumbersome and claustrophobic. She took as large strides as she could, fighting against the stiffness of the brand new fabric in the leg joints.

By the time she made it through the door the professor was already waiting at the lift in the entrance lobby to the hybrid house-hotel. The lift was made of glass, only it wasn’t transparent. Chloe looked up. She could see the first floor landing from the professor’s house, seemingly continuously repeated for floor-after-floor, stretching up to infinity.

“How are we going to find the information we’re looking for?” asked Chloe as they waited for the lift. The lift level indicator was counting down, just not in the normal way that numbers usually work. “Do we have to search all the rooms in this house, or something like that?”

“No, we’re nowhere near our destination yet, this is just the subconscious,” bending down to straighten the hall rug while they waited. Normally the rug was a rectangle but here it was triangular for some reason.

“Wait, we’ve started in the sub-conscious?” asked Chloe, confused. “I thought that was something we had to work down to?”

“I don’t know why people think that,” said Susan, “the subconscious is just random noise surrounding the core of what makes a person a person – their memories and experiences.”

The Professor may have talked like that was a general factual statement, but Chloe felt it as a chiding lesson directed at her.

“So ok, when we reach down into the memories, we’ll find the information?”

“Yes, although not as literal information. You’re not going to see walls of text or giant equations written in the sky. The brain doesn’t work like that and neither do the Somnambulnaut Suits. What will happen is that you will get to experience the memories of the events that led the subject’s brain to form the information that you’re looking for in the first place. Once you’ve re-lived their experiences, if you’re close enough to the subject both in knowledge and temperament, then your brain will acquire the information you’re after of it’s own free will.”

“Then let’s hope I’m close enough to the subject,” muttered Chloe. Susan shrugged noncommittally.

“That’s why you were selected for this assignment.”

Silence descended, unlike the lift they were waiting for, which according to the indicator was currently passing floor ‘backwards Cyrillic R’.

“If we need to go down, could we not force the door to the lift shaft and jump down?” asked Chloe. Susan looked aghast at this suggestion.

“The Somnambulnaut Suits are designed with incredibly powerful and compact haptic feedback, which is essential for the purposes of properly experiencing the subject’s memories. While the suit can’t directly injure you per se, it could make you experience the physical agony of falling down a lift shaft and impacting on the floor, which in turn may be enough to send your body into shock.”

It was Chloe’s turn to look aghast. “You didn’t mention that in the standard operations manual! How did you get this past the grant-funding ethics committee?”

“By not mentioning that in the standard operations manual,” replied Professer Aikman, stepping into the lift as the doors opened. Chloe followed her in, the two of them scraping their suits together as their combined bulk filled the lift. None of the floor buttons were labelled with numbers, just the safety information from the back of a packet of washing powder.

“This one,” said the professor, selecting a button. Chloe looked again, and the lift buttons were labelled with Ancient Greek poetry, just as they had been all along. Chloe raised her hands to rub her temples, but the suit gloves simply clucked against the outside of her helmet. Dream logic was doubly confusing when you were awake. Chloe could understand the Ancient Greek – even though she couldn’t understand Ancient Greek – and could see the the verse selected was a poem by Wordsworth on the subject of longing. But of course she could read that because it was in English. Chloe’s head began to spin and she closed her eyes and bent over to lean on her legs.

“Please don’t be sick in the suit,” said Professor Aikman from the mezzanine floor above her. The interior of the lift was as large as a football field and included a mezzanine floor. Posters of 1960s pop icons plastered the supporting pillars. “Maybe just sit down, close your eyes and wait for us to reach the memories.”

“It’s not real, I’m in the lab – it’s just a simulation projected onto the helmet’s visor – it’s not real, I’m in the lab,” muttered Chloe to herself, repeating the mantra over and over. She sat down on the floor, hugging her knees and jamming her eyes closed. She felt a tingling as the electrodes tucked under her hair pulsed on her scalp, seeking to alter her perceptions – playing with the chemistry to her brain to give her the full experience of the subject’s mind.

“Don’t fight it, you’ll only make it worse…” said the professor from somewhere impossibly distant.

“It’s not working, let’s pull the plug,” said someone else – a man – his voice crackling over the radio. Chloe couldn’t remember who he was or where he was. Was he from a dream?

“No,” said another distorted voice, “this is too important. We need the knowledge the subject has.” Where was he? Where were these people, trying to decide her fate?

Chloe suddenly realised that the lift was no longer moving. Cautiously she opened one eye, then the other. Her scalp tingled and her brain buzzed. She was sat alone on the floor of the tiny lift. The opaque glass sides of the lift were entirely transparent, just as they had always been. Outside the evening sky was filled with stars.

Chloe was sitting at a table with her new husband – except she didn’t have a husband – outside a café in southern France. Yes, this was a long time ago. Hadn’t she been wearing a suit? She lifted a glass of wine to her lips. No, that would be silly, why would she wear a suit when she had this lovely flowing dress that was so right for the summer? She sipped wine and talked with her husband as the world passed them by. They swapped hopes and fears for the future, talked about plans, and most importantly, dreams. Finally the café closed and even the stars retired.

Chloe stood up to pay the bill and immediately sat down again on the hospital bed. There were less than thirty seconds between contractions, it wouldn’t be long now and they would finally meet their daughter! He husband held her hand, a look of encouragement and pride in his eyes. He let go of her hand once Chloe was safely on board the yacht and then began to haul himself on-board after her. What better way to celebrate Chloe’s appointment to the professorship than a sailing holiday around the Scottish coast, just the two of them? Her husband tried to pull himself back on board but the stormy seas were too rough. Chloe struggled to help him, and working together they just managed to pull him onto the deck. The yacht lurched violently in the swelling seas and neither of them saw the swinging mast boom coming as it lurched through the rain to collide with his head. Chloe dropped to her knees, grabbing his hands as his unconscious body began to slide away across the water-slick decks. Chloe let go of his hands and sat back in the chair. The steady rhythm of the heart monitor beeped in the background. Outside, the hospital corridor was filled with quiet activity. Her husband lay comatose in bed beside her. All those dreams they had discussed on that summer night, locked up in his head…

Chloe took her eyes off her husband and looked down at the journal article on her tablet. This was it, the final missing piece of her many long years of gathering data. It helped all the other information she had acquired slot into place, giving it context. Now she knew she could design the equipment that would allow her to parse the delta brain waves of any individual and turn their dreams into something recognisable to others.

“And there you have it,” said Professor Aikman.

Chloe looked up to see Susan standing with her arms folded, leaning against the doorway into Chloe’s office…except this wasn’t Chloe’s office was it? It was Susan’s office at the university. Chloe looked down the iPad held in the gloved hand of her suit, quickly committing the title of the paper to memory.

“Yes, I see it now. I felt your motivation, and your thought process. I see how you looked at the science and engineering puzzle in a way that no-one else could. I felt why you needed to create the dream suit, to spend one last night at that café with your husband…”

“And you feel confident you’ll take that knowledge back with you?”

“It’s all up here,” replied Chloe, confidently tapping her helmet.

“And in there, I trust,” replied Susan, pointing at Chloe’s heart.

“Not very scientific, professor,” laughed Chloe.

“Oh surely I’m allowed a little whimsy at the end?” said Susan, cracking the first smile that Chloe had seen from her all day.

“I guess this is the last time that we’ll talk,” said Chloe, “thank you professor. For everything.”

“Thank you,” replied Professor Aikman, “thank you for helping my work live on.”

There was a brief awkward pause, then Chloe and the professor embraced in an amicable hug, their helmets clinking together and gloved hands slapping the power packs on each others backs.

“The lift will take you where you need to go,” said Susan, pointing out of the office, “as for me, well, I think I’d like to linger here a little longer…”

Chloe nodded and walked out into the corridor outside the office. The lift was right there in the university building, right where it always was. Except now it was made of opaque glass and all the buttons were labelled with Susan’s office extension number.

“Goodbye professor,” said Chloe, watching Susan as the doors closed.

“So long,” replied Susan as she disappeared from sight.

Chloe gasped for breath as the room span, before finally vomiting in a bed pan. Removing the helmet and the head electrodes had been extremely disorientating.

“Rough landing, huh?” said the man behind her.

“You could say that,” coughed Chloe, wiping away a string of bile from her mouth.

“Did you get the information?”

“Give me a minute.”

“Did you get it?!”

“Yes,” said Chloe, regaining her composure, “what’s the damn rush?”

“You understand the full workings of the Somnambulnaut Suits now? You can replicate them? Improve on them?”

“Yes! Jeez,” said Chloe, looking over at where the frail body of Professor Aikman lay at death’s door. It was so strange to see her like this, when she’d just been talking to a healthy and vital version of her moments ago. But – like so many other important things – that had all been in the professor’s head. Now there the professor lay, unconscious and only kept alive by a ventilator and feeding tubes. A Somnambulnaut Suit helmet rested over her head like a ritual death mask, a long network cable snaking out to join it to Chloe’s suit.

“I had to be sure,” said the man, before turning and nodding to one of the nursing staff, “do it.”

The nurse leant over and flipped a switch, and the ventilator bellows stopped their rhythmic rise and fall. Alarms began to sound to indicate Susan’s heartbeat was failing.

“What are you doing?!” cried Chloe in panic, rounding on the man.

“It’s for the best,” said the man whose name she couldn’t quite remember. Chloe turned back to look at Susan, tears welling in her eyes. The professor turned her helmeted head towards Chloe and winked.

Chloe gasped for breath as the room span, before finally vomiting in a bed pan. Removing the helmet and the head electrodes had been extremely disorientating.

“Rough landing, huh?” said the man behind her, “I heard the trip up through the subconscious can do that. You’ll see all sorts of weird stuff.

“You…could say that,” coughed Chloe, wiping away a string of bile from her mouth.

“Did you get the information?”

“Give me a minute.”

“Did you get it?!”

Chloe took a deep breath, considering her next words very carefully…

Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story

The Garden at the End

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week we join three travellers lost in a strange land. 



Photo by Gustav Gullstrand on Unsplash

Lorlea pointed the camera of her data pad at the sky, carefully aiming for the swathe of stars above the clearing. The app gave a down-beat chime. She tried again, stretching her arms, holding it up as high as she could, as though she was trying to patch the gap in the trees above her head. The bad chime sounded again, and a glaring red question mark flashed over the image the camera had captured.

Star Match: Not found

Wifi: No networks in range

GPS: No signal

Radioisotope Dating: Insufficient background levels

Where were they? Lorlea wondered again. Actually, scratch that, she knew exactly where they were. It was when they were that was the real question.

It was supposed to be a routine mission for Lorlea and her fellow chrononauts. A little hop into the future in the time capsule, a spot of data mining, a pardon-my-paradox and then back to the present day. But when they had recovered from the incapacitating effects of the chrono-displacement…well, the refueling station was nowhere to be seen. Just these endless trees.

It was clear that they had gone too far in one temporal direction or the other. Jaecob had argued that they’d accidentally traveled into the past, based on the lack of any wifi connection. It was hard to picture any point in the future without wifi. But Lorlea didn’t think the radioisotope readings bore that out. The Earth would have been hotter in the past, not so cool that she couldn’t get a radioactive decay measurement. She was convinced they’d gone further into the future. Way into the future. It wasn’t a debate she had to revisit any time soon though, because Jaecob was now very definitely dead.

So far there had only been three things that Lorlea, Khal and Jaecob (before he died horribly) had seen that were recognisable. The first were the trees. None of her crew were botanists – or even amateur gardeners – so they couldn’t identify the species. But the trees had brown bark, tall trunks and green leaves, and that was enough to make them feel familiar enough to be comforting.

The second thing was the grass. Although the seemingly random spread of the trees in the forest gave it a natural appearance, the grass was without exception immaculate. It was a healthy, vital green, and short too, as though it were freshly mowed every day in a lovingly tended garden.

The third thing they had recognised was the toucan. There were many brightly coloured exotic birds flapping around in the trees, whistling strange songs, but the toucan was the first one that they thought they could identify – even if it was larger than normal with a beak of purple rather than orange. Jaecob had approached it, just relieved to see something vaguely normal. Something they could put a name to. The toucan had hopped down a branch or two towards him, made a curious trumpeting sound, and then neatly and expertly eviscerated him. Lorlea and Khal fled in terror, running through the trees, chased by Jaecob’s agonised screams and the otherworldly trumpeting of the toucan.

If those were the three familiar things then there were plenty of unfamiliar things to outnumber them. Occasionally they would come across tiny houses built into the roots of the trees – delicate things that might have been inhabited by miniature dolls or fairies in a more  whimsical time. In other places they stumbled across thick bushes that, like the grass, appeared neatly pruned. Sometimes high-pitched, childlike laughter could be heard from inside, despite there being no obvious means of anyone getting in or out through the dense leaves.

Then there were the abandoned gazebos. Lorlea and Khal took these as another clue that civilisation must have existed her at one time. They were strange things with no walls and brightly coloured roofs that hurt the eyes if you stared at them for too long. There seemed to be one in every clearing. There was one in the clearing with them now. Khal was searching it, the clinical white of his chrono-flight suit making him look like a ghost flitting among the ruins of a long vanished civilisation. The flight suits didn’t really offer any protection – as the toucan had shown them – but they had all mutually decided to keep them on. Besides, they would need them if they ever found a way to refuel the time capsule.

Lorlea tried again to get a clear shot of the night sky and work out how far in the future they were from the positions of the stars. It still wasn’t working though. Her view was too restricted by the top of the trees. She just couldn’t capture enough of the stars at once for the app to extrapolate their motion and previous positions. Lorlea had considered climbing a tree, but then who knew how many toucans were actually out there?

Night had only just fallen. This was their third night here and already she dreaded it. She listened and there was just nothing…it was the worst sound she had ever heard. That was because she knew it was the calm before the storm, a dread moment of anticipation. In the daytime the garden forest was relatively silent and still, but in the nighttime, as the moon came up, suddenly it sprang to life. Giant white flowers suddenly bloomed, the birds began to sing their bizarre songs and lilting music drifted from the gazebos.

Lorlea and Khal settled down in the gazebo, huddling down together to wait out the night, trying to ignore the music box plinking that came from the roof above them.

When Lorlea woke it was the sullen silence of daytime. She sat up with a start when she realised it was even quieter than it should have been. Khal was gone. She leapt to her feet, calling his name. No response, but in the distance she thought she heard a tiny chop-chop-chop of propellers, as though some small airship or dirigible was navigating languidly through the trees. Was it a rescue craft? Why had they taken Khal and not her? She ran frantically in the direction that she thought the noise was coming from, catching and tearing her flight suit on branches in her haste. But it was pointless, there was no trace of Khal or whatever mysterious craft had carried him off, if indeed that was what had happened.

On her fifth day in the garden, Lorlea finally met another person. Or, what may once have been a person. Or maybe he never was. The stranger walked unhurriedly through the trees, his humanoid body androgynous and naked with a sickly blue hue to his skin. He seemed to have no possessions other than a red rag or blanket that matched the shock of blood red hair on his head.

Lorlea had spotted the stranger ambling through the trees before he had noticed her. She froze, uncertain whether to call out or quietly slip away. But despite his bizarre appearance, there was no air of menace about him. She wondered if he was a native of this strange place, or simply lost like her? Was he a distant relative of mankind, or something else entirely?

Lorlea had not slept properly in days, and she knew her judgement was not as effective as it should be. Yet she could sensing no threat from this strange traveller. Deciding she had nothing to lose at this point, Lorlea called out and waved to him. The stranger turned, regarding her with surprisingly soft features, and waved back. They walked towards each other; Lorlea’s steps cautious, the stranger’s almost playful. She was disappointed to discover that he did not speak English, or indeed any language she recognised. Jumbled syllables spilled from his mouth, many repeating, but none making sense. It was like his words were in a little pickle. A deep wave of weariness washed over Lorlea. Another mystery. Another thing that made no sense. The longer she was here, the more dream-like and surreal this garden forest seemed. And now the night was fading to black and the stars were out and bright.

As though sensing her tiredness, the stranger took her arm and led her through the trees to a gazebo that softly hummed a lullaby. The clearing that it sat in was the biggest she had yet seen, and Lorlea was able to capture an image of the stars on her data pad as they walked across the grass. The progress wheel on the app whirled, calculating how far the stars had moved since her crew had left their original time line. Concentrating on the data pad, Lorlea stumbled as she was led up the step into the gazebo.

“Oopsie daisy,” said the stranger kindly.

Lorlea collapsed in a pile of blankets on the gazebo floor, regarding the stranger with renewed interest. She had understood that! Maybe he knew other phrases she understood too?

The stranger made himself comfortable, and Lorlea decided to do the same, realising that they probably weren’t going anywhere else tonight. With a sense of resignation, she finally slipped out of her flight suit and helmet, revealing her pink dreadlocks and the brightly patterned dress that was her favourite. She wore it under her flight suit on every mission for good luck.

The blue stranger smiled appreciatively, then picked up a stick and drew in the dust on the gazebo floor. He drew himself, navigating the deep dark ocean on a tiny boat. The app chimed softly with a positive noise. Two billion years it said. Two billion years of the stars moving and the world turning.

Lorlea understood then. The blue stranger was a traveller, just like her, and what’s more she knew where they were. This was where the lost went to die; travellers, dreams and more besides, in the garden in the night.

Fiction, Horror, HP Lovecraft, Short Story

Where the Whippoorwills Sing

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, much like a incautious traveller straying into some half-forgotten New England village just as the sun sets, I’ve wandered back into Lovecraft territory…



Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

Most people thought the sound of bird song was lovely, but she always felt that it was a portent of impending doom. In particular, Ada had learned to fear the song of the whippoorwills from the tales her grandma told. The two of them had been sat beside her grandpa’s bed, the balcony doors flung open to alleviate the stifling summer heat while the song of the ill-omened birds drifted in from the moonless night.

Grandma had told her that the whippoorwills would gather outside the window and sing in time to the breathing of a dying person, matching it perfectly, biding their time. Ada was a precocious child, level-headed and not given to flights of fancy. She had been raised within the straight lines and known angles of the city, where there were no dark corners and no blank spots on the map. But since her parents had died and she’d come to live here on her grandparents’ Massachusetts country estate, it became a little easier to wonder at what secrets might be hiding just out of sight. Wide-eyed, Ada listened to what her grandma had to say on the secret lore of the fog-wreathed hills and lonely woods.

“Pay yer grandma no mind,” wheezed her grandfather, trying to laugh it off and set Ada at ease. He paused for a moment as his chest heaved rapidly, struggling to catch his breath. The unseen whippoorwills outside momentarily sped up their rhythmic singing, seemingly matching his gasps. “Besides,” the old man added craftily, “they won’t catch me!”

Ada listened with mounting horror as her grandma described what happened when the marked person finally breathed their last.

“The whippoorwills will try an’ catch a departing soul,” said her grandma, talking as though she was describing the most ordinary thing in the world, “if they get it then they’ll flutter off, cackling like daemons at their feast. If the soul escapes their clutches then their singin’ slowly fades to disappointed whistles.”

Ada’s uncle, a thin man named Greer, tutted disapprovingly from the corner of the room without looking up from his newspaper. He was only there grudgingly; the bottle was calling him and it had taken an awful lot of cajoling from Ada’s grandma and threats of withholding his allowance to persuade him to come up to the bedroom. Regardless of whether he wanted to be there or not, it was clear that he didn’t believe in talk of whippoorwills and souls. Ada took her grandpa’s hand, her eyes wet with tears. She silently prayed the old man was right and he would be too fast for the hideous nightjars that sung and trilled in the darkness of the garden, just beyond the light cast by the grand old house.

It wasn’t until nearly two hours later that Ada found out. The end was near, and her grandpa struggled to breath, his breath coming in ragged gasps, the song of the whippoorwills lifting to a crescendo and falling away as they matched his rapid sobs. Ada wanted to get up and throw something at the ghastly birds. But she was a dutiful granddaughter and stayed where she was, holding one of her grandpa’s hands, her grandma holding the other, and her uncle nonchalantly flipping the pages of a motoring magazine in the high-backed corner chair.

With one last heaving intake of air, her grandpa passed away. Ada clutched his hand even tighter and held her breath. Outside, in the oppressive night air, the song of the whippoorwills slowly faded to disappointed whistles and then silence.

“They didn’t get ‘im,” said her grandma, just as if she’d always known they wouldn’t.

From then on the old house seemed a little emptier to Ada. With grandpa gone it was just grandma rattling around the big rooms and long halls, and her uncle skulking around, never too far from the liquor cabinet. As the years passed Ada’s grandma became a little frailer, the house a little more dilapidated and her uncle a little more callous. When it was time for Ada to leave the house and attend a college in the city, her grandma begged her to stay. She told her that she was getting old and slow, and wanted Ada to stay with her until the end. It nearly broke Ada’s heart to pack-up and go; she didn’t leave because she didn’t want to stay with grandma. She went because she wanted to see the world again beyond the crumbling house and the sallow woods with the birds in whose songs she could find no happiness.

A month passed since her leaving, then six, and before Ada knew it she had been apart from her grandma for a year. At first they exchanged letters every week, but as time passed the letters became more infrequent and her grandma’s handwriting slightly less legible, until finally she received a black-bordered envelope. Ada opened the envelope with trembling fingers; the letter inside was from her uncle Greer, curtly informing her that grandma had died and inviting Ada back to the funeral, if she would care to attend.

The funeral was a quiet and solemn affair, for few of grandma’s relatives or friends were left alive to pay their respects. The casket was closed, contrary to the custom of the family and the church, which left Ada saddened that she couldn’t see her grandma’s face one last time. She asked her uncle why this was, but Greer simply shrugged, saying that he felt they’d all seen enough of grandma over the years and a little less would do them all a favour.

“Did the whippoorwills get her?” whispered Ada, blinking back the tears, “Did you hear them cackling when she died?”

Her uncle snorted derisively.

“Ain’t heard a peep out o’ those damn bird in months,” he said as he walked away, leaving Ada alone with her grief and the firmly sealed casket with its big iron nails.

After the begrudgingly offered and poorly attended wake at the old house, Ada found herself returning to the graveyard on the edge of the woods where they had buried her grandmother that morning. Ada hadn’t wanted to linger in in her former home anymore, especially now it was her uncle’s to do with as he pleased. Her train back to the city wasn’t until the following morning, and Ada found that she wanted to spend a bit more time paying her respects. She stood by the graveside, paying the world no heed as the sun began to set, the guilt of not being there at the end a tight knot inside her.

It was only as the sun slipped behind the woods and the long shadows unfurled themselves from the trees that Ada was snapped out of her introspection by the sound of bird song. She looked up at the nearest tree and the whippoorwill nestled in the darkness there. It sang a song like wheezing breaths, shallow and laboured. Other birds took up the song and Ada whirled around, suddenly realising her grandmother’s grave was surrounded by a ring of whippoorwills, sitting in trees and perching on headstones. Together they encircled her, taking up the suffocating, air-starved song, emulating breathing that most definitely did not belong to Ada.

Panic gripped Ada’s limbs and terror lent her speed, and Ada sprinted from the grave side, leaving the birds singing around the freshly dug earth where her grandma had been laid in the ground that morning. As she reached the rusted iron fence at the cemetery’s edge, Ada paused and looked back for a second. The song of the whippoorwills was reaching a final, laboured crescendo. Then suddenly the song stopped, and the birds exploded into daemonic cackling, taking flight from the grave side, vanishing into the night with their prize.

Adult Language, Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story

Biological Imperialism

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, I invite you to get your ass to Mars!

Caution: some adult language ahead.



Photo by Suganth on Unsplash

“This seems…counterproductive at best,” said Mary through gritted teeth, trying to keep her cool. There was no point in antagonising Connor. Not yet. Sayid fumed at her left shoulder, shifting restlessly and grinding his teeth in anger and frustration. Mary had to use her body to physically stop him reaching the intercom that she was protectively hunched over, like a mother bird protecting an egg. Lei hovered nervously in the background, wringing her hands and shifting her weight rhythmically from foot-to-foot, her eye fixed on the glass window in the bulkhead next to Mary.

“Can you tell us again what it is you want, Connor?” Mary said slowly and carefully, holding down the intercom button as she spoke, “I’m not quite sure I understood what you’re demanding.”

“Independence for Mars!” yelled Connor, his voice distorted over the internal comms system of the space station. Mary exchanged a glance with Sayid, who pulled a face to indicate he clearly thought Connor was quite mad.

“I see,” said Mary thoughtfully, “and was that before or after you accidentally set yourself on fire?”

The fire hadn’t been an accident, and Mary knew it, but what she didn’t know were the details of Connor’s mental state. Right now the interior padding of the New Dawn Station’s primary umbilical was very definitely alight. It should all have been flame retardant material, so Connor must have used a serious accelerant. Mary, Sayid and Lei were in the habitation section at one end of the central umbilical corridor, clustered around the vid-comm next to the sealed bulkhead. A still smouldering Connor was in the science section at the other end of the shuttered umbilical.

“It’ll have to be after, obviously,” sniffed Connor, “and I saw that face Sayid pulled by the way.” Mary elbowed Sayid in the ribs.

“I’m not mad,” continued Connor, “I’m setting Mars free. Human habitation would be a mistake, I’m reclaiming it for the native Martians!”

“There are no native Martians you fucking fruit-loop!” yelled Sayid before Mary could take her finger off the comm button. Lei flinched then resumed her nervous shuffling.

“Not helping!” Mary hissed at Sayid before reactivating the comms.

“Connor, there’s no life down there, all the rovers have ever found is fossilised bacteria in million year old rocks,” said Mary slowly and patiently, “and I’m sure they don’t care who’s the next to inherit Mars.”

Mary glanced through the viewing glass at the raging inferno in the umbilical. She wasn’t sure if she was sweating from the heat or the tension. The automatic fire suppression system should have kicked in and the umbilical should have been sealed off from New Dawn Station’s oxygen supply. The suppression systems had been disabled however, something that was well within Connor’s skill set to achieve she reminded herself bitterly. The bulkheads were only sealed because she had done that manually when they discovered the fire.

One of several things was going to happen shortly. The fire was going to eat through the padding and destroy the intra-station data cabling and lock them out of the computer system, or it was going to reach the oxygen supply pipes in the umbilical, which it went without saying would be fairly catastrophic. Or maybe the viewing glass in the bulkhead would melt. Mary wasn’t sure what its fire rating was, but it was probably pretty low as it was not supposed to be possible for there to be a fire in the umbilical!

“We need to purge vent!” said Sayid, “Connor has fucking flipped out and he’s going to take L4 down with him!”

New Dawn Station was a hated committee-derived name that all its inhabitants thought was stupid. The crew called it ‘L4’, as it was on the fourth Sun-Mars Lagrange point; a null-gravity staging post for the future colonisation of the Red Planet.

Mary shook her head slowly, but couldn’t quite bring herself to look Sayid in the eye. As commander of the station, she could manually override the bulkhead on the science module – where Connor currently was – and initiate an emergency oxygen vent from that section. That would put paid to the fire, as well as significant portion of their oxygen supply, anything that wasn’t bolted down in that section and, of course, Connor. But surely if he had deliberately sabotaged the fire suppression system then he would know that Mary would be left with no choice other than to vent? She had to know more.

“Not yet,” she said simply. Lei whispered something quietly behind them, but whether it was in support or disagreement, Mary didn’t have time to find out. Connor was talking over the intercom again.

“I’m not talking about the bloody fossils,” snapped Connor, “I’m not insane. I’m talking about the robots!”

“The colony construction-bots?!” asked Sayid “Why the fuck would they want independence? They don’t even have sentience, just contextual-AI.”

“No, I mean the true natives. Opportunity, Curiosity and all the other rovers and robotic probes that colonised this planet long before we got anywhere near it. How are they any different from the Indigenous Americans who beat the Europeans to that continent? Why should we spoil what the machines have? Who are we to come and set-up home in their New Folder/Eden? It’s Biological Imperialism!”

“Yeah, no, ok he’s lost it,” said Mary, taking her finger off the comm and moving to a terminal

to initiate the vent sequence, “Opportunity and Curiosity? We lost contact with the rovers years ago, and they were remote controlled anyway, not alive! I mean, ok, robot colonisation is perhaps an interesting philosophical debate, but not ‘trash-a-multi-billion-dollar-space-station’ interesting!”

Mary stood in front of the terminal and furiously typed in the preparatory commands to begin the vent purge cycle of the umbilical and the science modules. Sayid muttered encouragement on one side while Lei stood silently on the other. As Mary typed there was an ominous groaning sound from somewhere in the umbilical. The air smelled staler than usual and the scent of sweat filled her nostrils. She typed a little faster.

As the vent process was a single keystroke away from beginning, Mary had one last pang of conscious. A cowardly voice in her head told her to wait for authority from Earth, to absolve her of all responsibility for the act she was about to commit. This far out though, L4’s initial distress signal was still several minutes away from reaching Earth, and she simply didn’t have time to wait for a reply. She decided to give Connor one more chance to come to his senses.

Mary gently steered Lei to stand her in front of the terminal, knowing she would wait for her command before acting.

“When I say, press enter,” Mary said. Lei nodded. Another structural groan and some definite rumblings underfoot. Mary ran back to the video intercom.

“Connor?” she asked. “Connor are you there? You’ve left us no choice, we’re about to vent the science module! This is your last chance. Reinstate the fire suppression system right now or I’m giving the order!”

The intercom hissed quietly. Flames licked at the bulkhead window and sweat stung Mary’s eyes. She couldn’t see any sign of Connor on the video screen.

“Do it!” Mary yelled. Lei pressed the key and the New Dawn Station shuddered and howled like a wounded beast.

It took them several hours to re-pressurise the science module from their oxygen reserves, and then tentatively proceed through the umbilical to assess for damage. They had been lucky. Remarkably lucky. Despite the alarming noises they had heard, the damage appeared to be largely superficial. Mary had acted just in time, something that she took little comfort from. She had sent a report to Earth appraising them of the situation and informing them that they were assessing for damage. She had ignored their follow-up messages, leaving it to Lei to reassure everyone back home from time to time that they were still alive. Mary couldn’t face the conversation right now, the debriefing and the questions. It was still too raw to relive. She’d much rather wander the modules and umbilicals of L4, taking stock and trying not to gag on the smell of burnt plastic.

What soon became clear was that in addition to a lot of oxygen, they had also lost a lot of supplies, just as Mary had known they would. Earth would have to hurry to step-up the next resupply mission. It would use up a lot of space program resources; resources that had been intended for the colonisation of Mars itself. And as well as supplies they would also have to replace a single member of the space stations’ crew…of Connor, there was no sign.

That Connor was missing was not a surprise, as he would likely have been ejected along with the air. What was a surprise was that L4’s emergency ‘life raft’ was missing. It was an unpowered escape pod, not intended for extended independent flight. It had no means of propulsion, just an internal oxygen supply, a location transponder and barely enough room for four people to squeeze inside. It was meant as a means of evacuation if New Dawn Station suffered a catastrophic hull breach, but it was reliant on being collected by another craft and towed to safety. If Connor had tried to use it to escape the purge vent then without rescue he was only delaying the inevitable, consigning himself to a lingering death in a cold powerless tomb amongst the stars. Mary swept the rescue frequencies but there was not so much as a whisper from the location transponder.

“Do you think he used it to escape?” asked Lei, as they stared through an observation window at the space where the pod should have been attached to the L4’s hull.

“No,” said Mary, shaking her head sadly, “what would be there point? Where could he go?”

“To Mars?” suggested Sayid.

“No,” said Mary again, “the life raft doesn’t have any power. He’d just be drifting. To get to Mars he’d need some sort of boost, like…”

Mary trailed off, and turned to exchange a look of dawning horror with Lei.

“…like L4 venting half its oxygen supply.”

“No way,” said Sayid in disbelief, “that would be one hell of a rough landing!”

Connor climbed his way out of the wrecked life raft, smirking in quiet self-satisfaction. He’d surprised even himself with how good his calculations had been. He’d expected a bit of a trek to reach the future colony site, but there it was, the tallest of the construction-bots silhouetted against the pink Martian sky, signposting the colony’s position on the other side of the small hill. Just as well really, the suit he’d stolen from L4 was strictly intended for EVA only, not walking through the Martian desert. Connor was forced to do weird bunny hops across the red sand, hampered by the limited leg articulation. It wasn’t exactly dignified, but that wasn’t so important right now.

As he awkwardly bounced into the colony perimeter he could see that the construction-bots were right on schedule. The whole project wasn’t finished by any means, but the main habitat building was definitely serviceable. The construction-bots scanned Connor with blank eyes as he tumbled past, then returned to their work, their contextual-AI having no programmed response for unexpected interlopers in their work zone.

Connor squeezed the bulky EVA suit through the primary airlock and into the main hab module. It was dusty and dark inside, the only lighting coming from the red beacons that lit when main power was not active. So the main generator was not running, but the air-recycling filters were functioning at least. The construction-bots had done well; they had spent almost a year building this place. Originally deployed from an orbiting surveyor craft, they had spent the Martian days running off solar generators and the long nights hunkering down against dust storms. Now they were almost ready for the expected arrival of the first colonist teams in 6 months time – an arrival that Connor’s actions aboard New Dawn Station would seriously delay.

Connor was the first human to set foot on Mars, but right now that was of little interest to him. He looked around the silent, shadowy room as he struggled to remove his EVA suit without assistance.

“I’ve done as you asked,” puffed Connor, exhausted and squinting into the gloom. With the clatter of decades-old wheels, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers rolled out of the shadows to meet him, cameras silently turning to stare at his face.

Christmas, Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story

The Bones of Christmas

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. 

This week, it’s a Christmas story. Well, for certain values of Christmas. Perhaps it’s better described as a fairy-tale from a far-off future Christmas…



Photo by Bistrian Iosip on Unsplash

Sparks fled the campfire, tiny flame spirits rising up to carry a speck of warmth to the icy stars above. The fire was surrounded by an extended family of nomadic deer herders, and surrounding them in turn was a forest of snowy pines looming in from the edge of the clearing. Beyond that, darkness, and the howl of beasts that would keep their distance, so long as the fire remained lit.

There was a stranger in the family’s midst. He had bartered his place by the fire in exchange for his services. He had told them he was a traveller and teller of tales. A bard of sorts, or perhaps a herald, if that suited more. Hood pulled up against the cold, and face partially hidden from the light, the hooded wanderer poked the fire with a stick, sending more spirits dancing skyward to join their brothers. He had been telling his tale for some hours now, and had paused for a moment of introspection. The deer herder family were silent, hardly daring to breath, not wanting to miss a word when the story started again. The stout patriarch of the herder family sat on the opposite side of the fire, while the younger children crowded closer to the storyteller, wide eyes reflecting the diamond stars twinkling above.

At length the stranger began to speak again, continuing the tale.

“It was difficult to imagine they’d once been inseparable, brothers by choice instead of blood. Yet why was his arm still rising, drawing up his gun?” asked the teller of tales, looking at each of the family in turn. When he had began to weave his words the sun was only just setting, but now the moon peered down, eager to listen in on his words. It was Midwinter’s Eve, the longest night of the year, perfect for recounting sagas by firelight. This story he was telling had – like so many before it – begun many long years ago…

The Everwar had failed to live up to its name. The muon scythes and death rays and flesh chimeras had fallen silent a few years previously. Mankind paused to rest, to draw ragged breath and count their dead. So many dead. From the dust and ash of the continental firestorms walked two brothers, one named Pieter and one named Ruprecht. Not the only survivors by any means, but neither were they overburdened with company. The two brothers had been released from their oaths of military service, their guns no longer needed now the war was done. They were from the lands bordering the Black Sea, but their homes and people had been lost in the war so they had no hearth or halls to return to. Pieter and Ruprecht were not true brothers, not by blood at least, but it had been so long since either of them had regarded the each other as anything but kin that they fact they were not was almost forgotten.

They travelled for a time, wandering the wastelands searching for a purpose, until they found themselves in the land that its people referred to as Lappi, far to the north on the cold shoulder of Old Eurasia. One night, as the winter snows drew in and the shadows grew long beside the road, they spotted the welcoming warmth of village lights through the trees up ahead. They took shelter in the tavern of the village whose name they did not know, and settled in to wait out the weather and the prowling ur-wolves that haunted the forests.

The innkeeper, just like the lights of his establishment, was warm and welcoming. The kefir flowed freely and the air was heavy with the smell of spiced meats. As the brothers drank, an old woman approached them, bent and wrinkled like the timbers of the tavern itself. She told them her name was Baboushka, a priestess of the Carpenter, and custodian of a small shrine on the edge of the village. She had a favour to beg of the brothers, if their hearts were true. Babouschka told them that she had a pilgrimage to make, taking her away from the village for a few weeks at the most. She pleaded with the brothers to act as guardians of the shrine in her stead, so that she could complete her journey safe in the knowledge that the bones and relics of the saint that she cared for would remain inviolate.

Baboushka hinted at great rewards should the job be done well, but in truth it did not take much to persuade the brothers. They had been wandering in search of purpose and now they had found one, for a time at least. After witnessing the many horrors of the war, there was a burning desire in both Pieter and Ruprecht to bring some good to the world. Already deep in their cups, they swore a mighty and binding oath more serious than any they had sworn before, to do as the old priestess bade them. Greatly pleased, Babouschka beckoned them follow her out into the night. Drunkenly they staggered out into the deep, crisp snow, following the old priestess to the shrine by the light of ancient stars.

The shrine was a grotto set in a small hill, it’s walls decorated with the bones of diminutive creatures and the entrance lit by flaming torches that helped to ward off the howling beasts of the forest. Once inside, Babouschka showed the brothers her charge, the remains of Saint Nikolaos, known as the Wondermaker, held reverently in the tender embrace of the earth. But it was not only his bones in the grotto, but also his earthly trappings, including the ancient Codex Nikolaos, a leather-bound tome that it was said contained written within that which lay in the hearts of every man. Upon seeing these holy wonders, the brothers swore their oath again, reiterating their vow; they would guard the shrine until Babouschka returned, or Nikolaos himself arose to relieve them of their vigil. Seemingly satisfied, the old priestess made a final bow to the brothers, and then was gone into the night.

Pieter and Ruprecht were as good as their word. They kept their vigil over the grotto in the snow as the days became weeks. However the weeks soon turned to months and the months to years. The brothers despaired for Babouschka, assuming the worst; perhaps she had fallen to some peril on the road, or her natural time walking the Earth had simply come to an end. But an oath was an oath, and neither complained about their sacred duty. The pious villagers would bring the brothers offerings of food and ale to sustain them, and so they continued their lonely vigil in the cold grotto on the edge of the world, until the promised few weeks had become two long decades of waiting.

Twenty years to the day after Babouschka had left them, on a Midwinter’s Eve when the coldest stars held court, a stranger came to the grotto. Pieter and Ruprecht heard his slow, heavy footsteps crunching through the silent snow and strode out to meet him at the grotto’s entrance, suspicion in their eyes and hands ready on their holstered weapons. The stranger was an imposing sight as he emerged from the darkness into the light of the burning torches. He was a giant of a man, taller than either of the brothers by a full head, with the martial bearing of a warrior-sage from the terrible wars of their youth. His armour purred and growled with power like a caged beast, the metal of it a deep red and trimmed with ivory and complex knotwork. His helmet fully enclosed his head, his face hidden behind a mirrored visor as black as coal, and an array of antiseptic white rebreather tubes hung from the bottom of his helmet like a great beard. He smelt of machine oil, cinnamon and the cold air of the deepest winters.

The giant stranger told the brothers that he was the Wondermaker Returned – Saint Nikolaos reborn – and he was here to claim the Codex Nikolaos so that he could once again know what was in the hearts of all men. The brothers laughed at this, and prepared to show the stranger what they did to heretical impostors. But before they could act, the giant man wove uncanny visions and phantasmagoria to baffle their senses. He showed them scenes of Christmases long past; strange tableaus of plenty, vistas of laughter and gifts. Then the visions were gone and the Wondermaker spoke of the joy of those times. The brothers did not recognise the scenes they were shown as anything from their time in the world, but longed to see them again. The Wondermaker promised them that they could, if only they would let him in to the grotto. Seeing the brother’s reluctance, the stranger promised he would return the following night, and with this he strode off into the night from whence he came.

Overcome by what they had witnessed, Pieter and Ruprecht retired to the grotto to consider the best course of action. They sat in heated debate amidst the ossified remains of the mighty antlered beasts that had been the Saint’s companions in life. The candles in the grotto flickered as the brothers spoke, throwing dancing shadows and giving the dead beasts the illusion of a jerking, prancing animus. Ruprecht was skeptical of what they had seen that night; he named the Wondermaker Returned as a fraud. Most likely a warlock, he said, or some other forbidden horror, out here on the cold edge to avoid the judgement of the Europi Hegemony. Or perhaps a gene-altered remnant of the Everwar, fleeing the purges of the Reforged Czars. He advocated setting a trap for the stranger the following night, that they might ambush him, crack his armour and smite his red ruin upon the snow. Pieter counselled caution; he was not ready to believe either, but reminded his brother of the oath they had sworn and of the original Nikolaos’ message of hope. They should at least, he argued, hear him out. But on one thing they both agreed, the Codex Nikolaos would remain under lock and chain in the grotto for now.

The second night came and the stranger was as good as his word, returning in the long watches of the night as the snow silently fell. Pieter kept his counsel but Ruprecht named his suspicions to the stranger, and asked him to prove it was not so. Again the Wondermaker Returned weaved his magicks and the brothers were assailed with scenes of Christmas as it was celebrated around the world this very year. They saw the mass of humanity losing hope, still struggling to recover from the benighted centuries of the Everwar. Barely a light was lit or a song sung. Gifts, such as they were, tended to be nothing more than a generous division of dwindling rations.

Ruprecht’s heart remained hard, dismissing the visions as nothing more than a glamour, but Pieter was moved to tears. Again the Wondermaker Returned commended the brothers on their vigil, and asked them to turn over the Codex Nikolaos to his care, so that he might begin to set things right. They refused, but Pieter asked the stranger what it would take to restore hope to Humanity. In return the stranger told Pieter that it would simply require one person to believe that he was the Wondermaker Returned, and thus be the match to light the candle of hope in the dark. Time was running out, he said, and he would return a final time the following night. Again he left the brothers to their own council, vanishing like a snowflake in a storm. Pieter’s heart was beginning to thaw, but Ruprecht remained as skeptical as ever, promising his brother that if Pieter would not act against the threat to the shrine and the relics of the Saint, he would act alone.

On the following night the Wondermaker Returned appeared before the grotto one final time. He had a final rapture to weave. He painted for the brothers a vision of a nightmare future where there was no Christmas, and no joy. People cowered in the dark midwinter, all hope extinguished, and never dreamed to see the light again. Pieter wept at the sight and asked how this future could be avoided.

The Wondermaker leant close and reminded Pieter that it would only take one person to believe in him. Ruprecht declared that he had heard enough, that the stranger’s lies were an affront to the memory of the Saint, and that he would see them ended. Ruprecht went to draw his pistol to strike down the Wondermaker. It was a fine weapon, a matter converter with a dark oak grip and mother of pearl inlay. It was a heirloom weapon assembled in their homeland on the shores of the Black Sea. Large though the stranger was, and as impressive as his armour appeared, there was little that could stand before a matter converter beam. Ruprecht raised the weapon, merely having to pull the trigger to disintegrate the imposter Nikolaos from the inside out.

But he did not get the chance.


Pieter had always been the slower to anger of the two, but ever quicker on the draw. A burst of Pieter’s heat ray took Ruprecht in the chest, burning him through, coring him like a soft piece of fruit. Ruprecht had no time to register that he was dead by the hand of his own brother. He simply collapsed into the hard snow, the flaming edges of his clothes guttering out in the cold and wind. Pieter fell to his knees next to him, overcome by the enormity of what he had done. A massive shape loomed over him, and servo gears whined as a huge red gauntlet rested gently on his shoulder.

“Was I right to do this?” asked Pieter, looking up into the Wondermaker’s visor, “Have I sacrificed Ruprecht to restore Christmas? Are you really the Wondermaker, or are you a lingering horror of the Everwar, come at last to claim two wayward survivors?”

For long moments the Wondermaker said nothing, and all Pieter saw was his own accusing eyes’ reflected in that black visor. He could feel the cold of the snow creeping up through his knees and into his heavy heart.

“Have I done good or ill?” pressed Pieter frantically, cradling Ruprecht’s head, “When you walk into the grotto to claim it, how will the Codex Nikolaos judge me? Am I naughty or nice?”

The Wondermaker widthdrew his hand from Pieter’s shoulder and stretched himself up to his full height.

“I do not need the Codex to judge you,” he said, “for your actions already show me your heart, Pieter of the Black Sea. You have seen the truth of things, and sacrificed all that you have for the good of the whole world. Know that I am the Wondermaker Returned. I have spoken no lie. I will bring joy and gifts to all those in the world who are pure of heart. Joy, gifts, and above all, hope.”

Pieter then wept tears over Ruprecht, elated that he had made the right decision but sadder than he’d thought possible at the fact his brother would not see this promised world and Christmas restored.

“Save your tears, for your work is not yet done Pieter. You are released from your oath to the grotto, but I have a new purpose for you. Just as I am a herald of joy to the righteous, you will use your gift for seeing the truth of the situation to punish the wicked.”

The Wondermaker helped Pieter to his feet.

“Now come, for Christmas is almost upon us, and we have much work to do…”

The tale was finally told, and the family around the fireside nodded their approval at its telling. It was a fine story they all agreed, and the teller of tales had earned his spot by the fire for the night.

“That is most kind of you to say so,” said the bard, lowering his hood and lighting a long stemmed pipe, “now perhaps you would favour me with a tale in return?”

“We are no storytellers, we are simple rad-deer herders,” laughed the patriarch of the family with mirth, “what tale could we possible tell to one such as you?”

“Oh, it’s only a simple tale I’m after,” the stranger insisted, taking a puff on his pipe, “tell me, simple herdsman, how is it that you have such a vast herd of rad-deer for a family of your size?”

The heat of the camp fire seemed to recede for a moment. Some of the young men exchanged shadowed glances, and the smile froze on the patriarch’s face.

“They were all acquired by legal means,” he replied frostily, as his wife ushered their children away to bed in their yurts.

“Really,” replied Pieter, his hand slowly sliding for the heat ray holstered at his hip, “you know it’s naughty to tell lies, don’t you? Because I found a murdered herder family not so far from here that may beg to differ with your claim…”