Fiction, Short Story

Four Digit Number

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 text is in bold.

***

All his life he had been able to see how old people were in years, the numbers loomed over them. Each year at the exact  second they were born the number changed with startling precision. He had learned to ignore them by now. But today was the first time he saw a four digit number.

For many years Myles had wondered what the purpose of his “power” was. It was certainly difficult to use it to fight crime, unless it some sort of age-based fraud. He had mused on the idea of becoming a nightclub bouncer; but other than the fool-proof ability to spot underage people with fake IDs, he had none of the prerequisite skills.

Although Myles ‘used’ his power every day – in the sense that it was always active – it had still taken him many years to puzzle out the fine details of how it worked. On the eve of his 16th birthday he had eagerly stayed up late looking in a mirror – his pale face and blue eyes bright with excitement – at the number over his own head. Midnight came and went, and the number stubbornly remained stuck on 15. He went to bed disappointed, wondering if his “power” was broken, wondering if he’d been celebrating the wrong birthday all these years. But the next morning sure enough there it was, a number ‘16’ floating above his short blonde hair. It wasn’t until 2am on the morning of his 18th birthday that he realised the digits changed at the literal moment of birth.

Myles had spent a lot of time looking at the numbers. It was hard not to. The weird thing about them was that the closer he stared and the more he concentrated on the numbers over someone’s head, the more indistinct they became. It was actually quite difficult to study them like this too often, as people tended to become unsettled or alarmed if Myles spent a lot of time staring intently at the space just above their head.

It was also hard to tell what the numbers were actually made of. There were a sort of bluish-green, and semi-transparent, like a hologram or an augmented reality display. Myles had wondered if they were literally there, or if it was just his brain interpreting some other stimulus like…like pheromones? Biological cell clocks? Was he detecting age via some other means and his brain was adding a visual interpretation to help him understand what he was sensing? Myles couldn’t see ages for people on television or in films, so this added weight to the idea he was sensing a physical stimulus. Plus when he looked at his reflection his own number showed up the correct way around – not mirrored – which again led him to believe the numbers were not a literally physical object with a real presence that only he could see.

Myles had seen his first three-digit number when he was a teenager, visiting his elderly Nan in a care home. One of the other care home residents had a ‘102’ floating over his head; a fascinating distraction that had led his mum to chastise him after they left for daydreaming and not paying more attention to his poor Nan during the visit.

He had seen his second three-digit number when he started University. He had met the person during Freshers Week; a student in his halls had a three-digit number floating over his head that both fascinated and horrified Myles…’018’.

That had been a moment of bitter and frightening revelation in a number of ways. He’d seen plenty of other numbers starting with a zero before – every child under ten that he could recall meeting had a zero before their single-digit age. But Myles realised that because he had seen it so much when he was young he had never questioned why it was one zero, and not two or three or more. Looking at this fellow student, he had a sickening realisation that was two-fold; firstly it was logical that people must only have a third digit if they were going to live to be at least one hundred years old. Secondly, Myles only had a two digit number over his own head…

It was a weirdly sickening thing, to know that, whatever happened, he would be dead before he reached his one hundredth birthday. Statistically, he knew that was pretty much a given anyway, but to be told it definitely in no uncertain terms…Myles found that oddly deflating.

That revelation had been five years ago, and now, with a ‘22’ over his own head, Myles had seen his first four-digit number. He had been sitting in a coffee shop on Saturday, just watching the world go by. At first he didn’t register it – well, he did, but it took a few seconds to digest it. A dark haired girl was walking past the shop window, minding her own business, with a ‘0021’ floating over her head, plain as day.

Myles gawped open-mouthed for a few long seconds, before she reached the end of the window and disappeared from view. He hurriedly took one last gulp of coffee and rushed out of the door, oblivious to the mutterings of people he pushed past in his haste. He easily spotted her again as soon as he reached the street. He began to run to catch up with her, and then slowed down. What would he say to her? What could he say to her? He settled for following her at a borderline-creepy distance, transfixed by the four-digits that wavered just above her long, straight, dark brown hair.

At last, was this it? Myles wondered to himself. Was this the point of his “power”; to find four-digit people? Perhaps he was supposed to protect her and ensure that she reached her thousandth year? Or was she some sort of near-immortal monster that he was supposed to fight? Was this advancing technology or creeping magic? Was she aware of the unimaginable lifetime ahead of her, or blissfully oblivious? What was special about her, and if he found out what it was, would it allow him to finally understand his own “power”?

Whatever the correct question, and whatever the mysterious answer might be, Myles didn’t really care. He just wanted to know what it was. He trailed behind her, hypnotised and desperate for any sort of an answer.

Fiction, Short Story

The Glass House

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of a writing prompt exercise. This is an ongoing project with a fellow writer that gives both of us a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

***

Chink!

Chink!

Karl looked up, just in time to see the the third stone arcing through the air. Chink!

“Stop throwing stones at my house, it’s made of glass!” yelled Karl in a flash of anger, rising from his plastic chair. The teenagers in the street laughed and threw another stone.

Chink!

Hold on, why do I care, it’s not like I even want to be here? thought Karl with a sudden sense of clarity. Even though that was the case, he was still annoyed by the attack. It felt like a violation of his personal space. Karl snorted quietly to himself in faint amusement; the irony of that last sentiment not lost on him. Still, the teenagers were here for a show, and if he gave them one by getting angry then they’d just hang around. If he just ignored them, then hopefully they’d get bored and wander off.

“You know what, that’s fine,” Karl yelled loudly, picking his book up and sitting back down. He wasn’t sure if they’d heard him; they seemed to be laughing and he couldn’t hear that, so probably not. There were no windows for him to open and shout through; you didn’t need them on a glass house, and you definitely didn’t need them on a prison.

Chink!

Chink!

Karl read and re-read the same sentence in his book six times, not really taking it in.

Chink!

The silence lengthened after the seventh impact; moments became seconds became minutes. Karl was finally able to proceed to the next sentence. The next sentence in his book that is, not the next prison sentence.

Karl was a convicted criminal. His crime was voyeurism. He’d taken advantage of his job at the local leisure centre to install hidden webcams in the changing rooms. Five years and countless terabytes of video files later, and he had finally been caught. The long years of successful filming had made him blasé. He could never imagine getting caught – until he was. Then suddenly he was staring down the barrel of fifteen years, and a lifetime on the sex offenders register.

Except…except then he had been offered another option. The current government was slipping and sliding dangerously to the right and were keen to answer media charges that prison sentences weren’t tough enough and criminals weren’t visibly seen to be punished.

Well, you can’t get much more visible than this, mused Karl, looking up through his roof at the grey sky. Karl had been offered an alternative to his lengthy sentence; take part in this pilot scheme for high-profile punishments and he’d only have to serve five years, with another five years on the register after release. All he had to do was spend those years under house arrest…in a house made entirely of glass.

Was this justice or irony? After the first week Karl had decided it could be both. The shorter prison term had seemed like the no-brainer choice at the time and he had seized the opportunity with both hands. But now he wished he’d thought about it for a moment or two longer, then he might have chosen the fifteen years of privacy instead.

There were some good bits to his situation, like when there was a storm. Karl could watch uninhibited as the lightning danced across the sky and the rain made mesmerising patterns in the transparent guttering. But mostly it was bad. Like transparent-bathroom-wall bad. Like plastic-bed-sheets-bad. Like being-woken-up-at-4:30am-on-a-sunny-summer-morning bad. Like only-allowed-three-small-books-a-week-so-he-couldn’t-build-a-wall-with-them bad.

Sometimes people came by to jeer and throw stones – like today – but mostly they just came to stare. Karl often wondered if any of the people he’d secretly filmed over the years came to watch him. He knew he would have done, had the situation been reversed. But then again, that was kind of his thing.

Karl stopped reading and looked down at the barely visible notches he’d carved into the arm of his transparent plastic chair; 72 weeks down, 168 to go. Karl groaned quietly to himself. That was still a hell of a lot of early sunrises and fast-as-humanly-possible showers…

Adult Language, Fiction, Horror, Short Story

Unless He Got The Lights Working…

The following is a short story that I wrote recently as part of a writing prompt exercise. I was fairly pleased with how it turned out, so thought it was worth sharing. I may revisit this story again at some point in the future. Caution: some adult language ahead!

***

No wordplay intended, but unless he got these lights working his future was looking pretty dim. Ryan had no idea where the Occluded had come from. Not the ones currently trampling the flower beds in his garden; they had crawled from the sewer, or the storm drains, or under a compost heap, or from some other dark, shitty place.

No, no-one knew where they had come from originally. People just started vanishing, in ones or two at first. Then it wasn’t long before someone caught one of the Occluded on video, and then suddenly they were everywhere and it just became a thing that you had to sleep with your lights on in your bedroom at night. Because if you didn’t, the Occulded crept into your house and ate your fucking eyes or some shit and turned you into one of them. I mean, Jesus Christ! It was bizarre how readily everyone had accepted this. Just getting on with their lives as though the world hadn’t gone insane.

As Ryan fumbled his way to the circuit breaker in the dark he could already hear the creepy things scratching at his front door, testing the handle, whispering their dark secrets through the letterbox. He shivered in fear and redoubled his efforts, the thin torch beam dancing wildly over the breaker box as his hands shook with adrenaline. Then, his fingers found the switch.

Click.

Nothing.

Shit!

Click-Shit!-Click-Shit!-Click-Shit!-Click-Shit!

He frantically flicked the circuit breaker again and again, the rattling of his front door increasing in tempo in time with his panic. Any second now he’d feel them breathing down his neck and then-

Click-Fizz-Pop!

With a surge of electricity and a surge of relief, the lights came back on inside his house, and the porch security lights outside too. The front door fell silent instantly. It sounded like a bulb had blown here and there around the house, but it wasn’t enough to stop the building from once again being extremely well lit.

Ryan walked slowly around the house, checking all the the doors and windows were still locked, and then even slower up the stairs, pausing on every creak to listen. Checking that was the hammering of his heart that he could hear, and not something trying a door handle.

Finally he reached his bedroom and, after a brief pause to gather some courage, opened the curtains. He could see them there – just – at the end of his garden, lurking in the shadows between the street lights. They were called the Occluded, but he preferred to call them the Eyeless. It rolled off the tongue easier when yelling a warning to your friend who was about to be dragged off into the shadows. Plus it was literally what they were – people without eyes. Just two bloody holes in their faces. How they got around and did their thing, he had no idea. That was probably what made them all the more terrifying.

Ryans house lights were on, but they were still there, outside. Why were they still there? The Occluded never entered a well lit area. It wasn’t that the light hurt them, it was just that they had a total advantage in the dark and they were loathe to give it up.

But his lights were on, and they were still there.

Getting annoyed now, he threw open his window.

“You suck!” he yelled down into the darkness.

“I think you’ll find it is you who sucks!” one of them hissed back from the shadows.

“Pretty touchy for a fucking sewer mutant!” Ryan yelled back.

There was some laughter from outside, then silence. That was especially creepy.

They were still there.

Ryan turned on his extra bedside lights, left his torch switched on on his nightstand and wound-up his clockwork lamp. He laid down, closing his eyes and trying not to think about how some of the Occluded outside were likely once people he knew.

It’s was going to be a long night.

Fiction, Flash Fiction, Short Story

Flash Fiction

Today I entered the flash fiction contest at reflexfiction.com and I’d encourage others to do the same. Flash fiction is an excellent format when you have the kernel of a great story that you’d love to see the light of day, but that might not have enough substance to it to flesh out a full novel or even a regular short story.

I can see flash fiction becoming a habit; it’s the only way I’m going to get through every item on my ‘Story Ideas’ list in this lifetime.

And yes, cash prizes and free entry help too.

Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story, WH40K

On Red Sands

This is a short piece I wrote for a WH40K Horus Heresy era themed writing challenge. The writing prompt was “Birdsong drifted through the bars of the prison cell”.

##TIMESTAMP: 22:05 Sidereal Standard [Live]

Birdsong drifted through the bars of his prison cell, or so it seemed. But Albor Tholus knew it was a lie. The code embedded in the audio file was subtle – elegant even – and it was designed to pick the data-locks on his machine memory engrams, making him susceptible to the data probes of the Mechanicum interrogators.

He countered as best he could. Code-phrase dogrel poured from his ruined lips and mnemonic firewalls blazed, but slivers of data slipped through. The song was starting to play with his perceptions. Memories from earlier that day were popping to the surface of his thoughts like corks in water. If he could just concen-

##TIMESTAMP: 07:34 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“This vista possesses a 93% visual match with Sacred Mars,” observed Albor Tholus as he surveyed the red sands of Twenty Nine Six, “I can see why our ancestors chose this sphere over this system’s alternative habitable worlds.”

His colleagues signalled their assent.

Orbital scans from the 29th Expedition had revealed the faded signatures of a Mechanicum presence, so the fleet’s Martian contingent had been assigned to make first planetfall. But even as they descended in their shuttles and bulk landers they could see that disappointment awaited.

It was not unheard of amongst the Expeditions to encounter a failed Mechanicum colony. The Priesthood of Mars had dispatched numerous Explorator Fleets into the turbulent warp during Old Night. Many had thrived and founded new Forge Worlds, but many more had been lost.

Behind Albor his superiors were supervising construction of a temporary base while a pair of Warhound Titans stood sentinel, giant heads warily scanning the horizon. In front of him lay a broken mirror image. The gutted rib cage of the first Mechanicum building on this planet, two Warhounds smashed into the dust on either side. This was where he was to lead his recon team.

##TIMESTAMP: 20:01 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“Why did you kill them, Albor?” demanded the interrogator. Sparks flew, damage sensors saturated and Albor Tholus screamed.

##TIMESTAMP: 09:15 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“That such a thing can be so fills me with sorrow,” said Albor.

“Enquiry: Sorrow?” his colleague asked.

“Clarification: Dismay.”

The scouting party stood before the original expedition’s Altar of Knowledge. It was dark and lifeless. Time worn and dead.

“Come, let us see what can be salvaged.”

##TIMESTAMP: 21:19 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“What was in the vault, Albor?” hissed the interrogator. Albor tried to close down his pain nodes but harsh overrides kept them jammed open.

##TIMESTAMP: 10:55 Sidereal Standard [Engram]

“Considerable effort has been made to keep us out. Reconsideration would be prudent.”

The words of the Tech Priest echoed away into darkness.

“Effort was expended to ward off the xenos and the unworthy, of which we are neither,” replied Albor, “we proceed.”

The entrance to the vault had been well concealed beneath the Altar of Knowledge. The locks and electromagnetic dampers were of Mechanicum origin, but the door and the vault that lay beneath were plainly not. The hand of Man was evident in their construction, but the artifice belonged to a time before Old Night. These silent halls were a long buried relic from the Dark Age of Technology. Lubricant dripped from Albor’s mouth as his flesh-spare face twisted in a parody of a smile. Wonders awaited deep down in the dark, of that he was sure.

A staircase of cyclopean scale led them into the depths, easily wide enough to accommodate a marching army. Down and down they travelled. One kilometre. Two. Five. Whatever secrets lay beneath them were buried deep in the bedrock of the planet.

Finally the stairs ended on a solid platform above a vast chamber of darkness. A data terminal stood sentinel in the gloom, the silver pillar and single data socket regarding them like a judgmental eye. Albor strode forwards, unflinchingly meeting its gaze, micro-mechadendrites uncoiling from his wrist.

“Hold, brother…” said a voice behind him, ladened with apprehension. Albor ignored it. The mechadendrites connected to the socket with a clunk of finality.

Data was sent, but so much more was received.

Lights slowly winked to life in the chamber beyond, illuminating the darkness. Not lights. Eyes. Thousands and thousands of glowing blue eyes.

Time seemed to slow for Albor Tholus. One of his colleagues was screaming about blasphemy, another was charging his volkite lancer. Albus calmly put a hot-shot las round through each of their heads.

##TIMESTAMP: 22:12 Sidereal Standard [Live]

The birdsong stopped abruptly as the walls of Albor’s cell buckled. The Men of Iron from the vault were here to rescue him, pure machine intelligences created by Man’s hubris in the Dark Age of Technology. Cold blue eyes scanned the cell. Albor’s interrogators turned to defend themselves but were smashed aside by brutal blows.

Metal arms lifted Albor Tholus from the excruciation slate, the command and control algorithm uploaded to his memory engrams from the data terminal in the vault far too precious to lose. Moving in unison, the Men of Iron carried him from the building.

Outside battle was raging, giant dust clouds were being churned up as the full range of horrors at the disposal of the Men of Iron were being brought to bear. Giant shapes moved through the red haze and metal tendrals whipped out to ensnare the Warhounds. In a shriek of metal the were cast down on red sands.

Suddenly drop pods thundered into the ground like a god’s hammer upon the forge. Sand fused to glass in the heat and then shattered under Astartes boots. Disciplined bolter fire crashed into the ranks of the Men of Iron as they marched from the vault. The Expedition’s contingent of Space Marines had arrived.

“No!” cried Albor “Do not harm the Men of Iron! They are a gift to Humanity and the Great Crusade!”

Albor Tholus realised he had no choice. These Astartes must be destroyed.

Horror, Humour, Novel, Short Story, Theatre

Blackshaw New Writing Night TONIGHT

Just a reminder that if you enjoy the writing on this blog and you’d like to hear more of  my work then you may want to drop by the Blackshaw New Writing Night TONIGHT at the Horse Bar, near London Waterloo.

Along with the many other fine examples of new writing being performed you’ll hear a short extract from my new novel-in-progress “Ancient Things”.

Hope to see you there!