Modern Fears

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’re all putting down our smartphones…

***

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Photo by Yucel on Unsplash

And so, rather than acknowledge his terrible circumstances, he decided to do some dusting. Yes, thought Seth, he’d been so busy at work these past few weeks that he’d let his living room get into a terrible state.There was dust everywhere. This was his number one priority, way more important than anything else. The rash on his arm – admittedly a common symptom of the virus he worked with at the Biotex company laboratory – well, that rash could have come from anywhere or anything. It definitely wasn’t the virus. He definitely wasn’t infected with a highly contagious virus. And this was absolutely not denial, the first of the five stages of grief.

Seth hummed loudly to himself as he dusted, trying to block out the thoughts bubbling in his head. But his eyes were repeatedly drawn to the rash and his mind kept darting back to the lab. He’d followed standard decontamination procedure hadn’t he? He’d removed all his lab clothing, he’d not washed his hands because the highly complicated automated soap dispenser had scared him, and then he’d gone through the airlock-

Seth’s thoughts jerked back suddenly. He hadn’t washed his hands because the automatic soap dispenser had scared him. Seth dropped the duster, eyes wide. He couldn’t lie to himself any longer, he was in serious trouble and had to take action.

Seth reached for the smartphone in his pocket. He had to call the lab and let them know. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to put his hand into his pocket and actually touch his phone. Seth took a deep breath and slowly slid his fingers in. His palms were clammy and his heart was hammering. The instant one of his fingers touched the phone he whipped his hand away again. It was no good, he couldn’t do it, which was kind of the point, he reminded himself. If only he’d kept the landline!

Seth turned and looked at the television and suddenly felt extremely nauseous. The effects of the virus must be more advanced than he’d realised. There was only one hope left, the emergency notification equipment that every worker at the lab had been issued with. It was in his attic, under the skylight. He just had to get to it.

Seth staggered out of the living room, giving the television a wide berth, and dragged himself up the stairs. Intense fear gripped him and the nausea didn’t abate. The virus itself wasn’t fatal, that had never been the intent. The potential side effects though…

Standing at the top of the stairs, Seth reached up for the cord that would open the attic hatch and bring the ladder down. The ladder. With its complex sliding mechanism and carefully crafted rungs… Again, Seth found himself frozen to the spot. He tried to reach up one final time, but the thought of the precision engineered sections of the ladder neatly sliding down and all slotting into place sent a wave of terror crashing over him. Seth fell to his knees, sobbing. It was too late, the emergency system would have to stay in the attic, there’s was no way he could reach it now. His only chances was to go downstairs and get outside…go downstairs using the mass produced stairs and exit through the front door, with its double glazing and Yale locking mechanism… Seth lay down on the landing, circled into a ball and wept helpless tears into the wooden floor.

***

Dr Nicolas Bryant walked into the Biotex board room and sat down in the only vacant chair, feeling somewhat small against its large leather back. Ten pairs of eyes burned into him, and he didn’t need to meet their gazes to know that there wasn’t a single friendly smile waiting for him. He sat in silence, awaiting the judgement of the Executive Board.

Rex Astor, the CEO of Biotex, dropped a file on the table. The thud of the interim report echoed loudly in the silent board room. Dr Dr Bryant flinched, despite himself.

“Jesus, Nick,” sighed Rex, “one employee dead and a full HSE investigation in progress. What a damned mess! I don’t even know where to begin…”

Dr Bryant pushed his glasses back up to the top of his nose, but remained silent. He hadn’t been asked a question, and he didn’t know how to answer that statement.

“Do you have anything to say about any of this?” asked Rex, guestering towards the report file.

“I’m just as distraught as the rest of you that Seth passed away,” replied Dr Bryant carefully, “I knew him socially outside the lab. He’ll be keenly missed. But I don’t feel that the fault lies with any of my control systems. Seth apparently chose not to use automatic soap dispenser on leaving the lab. I can’t be held accountable for that.”

There was some muttering and tutting from the board members. Rex Astor raised an eyebrow.

“Seth made that decision after being exposed to your engineered virus,” said Rex, leaning forward, “and you don’t feel accountable?”

“As I’ve said, safety controls were in-” began Dr Bryant, but Rex interrupted him.

“Initial reports indicate that Seth had been dead for about a week when he was found,” said Rex, reading from the file in front of him, “thank God that the virus needs a living host, otherwise the police who broke into his home and discovered his body could have easily become infected and spread the outbreak further. As far as we can tell, the artificially induced technophobia in the virus became so severe that Seth couldn’t bring himself to use devices as complicated as taps to rehydrate himself or even the ladder to access the company-owned emergency homing pigeon that lived under the skylight in his attic.”

Rex Astor finally looked up from the report, and locked eyes with Dr Bryant.

“This engineered virus was only supposed to cure smartphone addiction, Dr Bryant. Induce a mild revulsion in prolonged contact with advanced technology. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be make people terrified of taps, ladders and bloody soap dispensers! And it most definitely wasn’t supposed to induce a fatal paralytic fear!”

“Admittedly, this initial strain has exceeded our expectations,” replied Dr Bryant slowly, shifting uncomfortably in the chair and absent mindedly scratching at his forearm, “but that doesn’t mean it is not recoverable. Might I take this opportunity to remind everyone that you personally approved this project, Mr Astor?”

“That’s true,” said Rex Astor, holding up a hand, “but I had your assurances that the highest safety standards would be adhered to. As you haven’t upheld your end of the bargain, I will no longer be upholding mine. We’ll wait until the conclusion of the investigation and pray that Biotex isn’t fined out of existence. But regardless of the outcome, this project is terminated.”

Dr Bryant sighed quietly to himself. He was disappointed that all his work would be wasted, but he knew this would be the outcome before he walked in here.

“That is of course the board’s prerogative,” said Dr Bryant, nervously scratching at his arm.

“I don’t want any trace of this project to remain,” continued Rex Astor, “we’ll get a full decontamination team, autoclave all your samples, shred the files and disinfect every square inch of that laboratory.”

Dr Bryant pictured the decontamination team walking through his lab with their high-tech rebreathers and disinfectant kits and shuddered involuntarily.

“I don’t know, Mr Astor,” said Dr Bryant, breaking out in a light sweat as he scratched at his arm again, “that all sounds a bit too technical. Can’t we just throw some buckets of hot water up the walls or something?”

Snowbound

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’re heading to the hills for a “fun” weekend away…

***

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Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

Henry looked out of the window. The sky was the colour of his bruised ego. The blizzard was drawing nearer; a decision had to be made, and soon.

“I say we wait it out,” he said, turning back to the other three people in the cabin, “as a team. That’s literally why we’re here!”

“No, we’re here for team building, not a suicide pact,” said Linda grumpily. She was already stood up with her coat on.

“If choosing a career in accountancy isn’t implicit agreement to a suicide pact, I don’t know what is,” muttered Mark. Everyone ignored him. No one liked Mark.

“Please, this is all part of the fun!” pleaded Henry, trying to sound jovial. Underneath he was fuming. He was team leader of the accounts department and he’d assumed that the modicum of respect the others paid him in the workplace would carry over to this team building weekend. Unfortunately for Henry, any deference they might have paid him back in the civilised world seemed to have been left at the snowline as they’d climbed the mountain. But he was going to be damned if his team was the only one that had any team members quit mid-way through. He could already see Steve-from-Marketing’s smug face on Monday morning, gloating about how well his own team had performed.

“Spending our weekend freezing in a wooden cabin halfway up the mountain is supposed to be fun?!” asked Linda as she made for the door. Henry moved to block her path and stop her from leaving, but in a respectful way that wouldn’t mean the HR team had to leave their cabin and come and investigate.

“Please…,” begged Henry, “Steve from Marketing-” He was cut off by a chorus of groans and a thrown book.

“You and Steve need to get a room!” yelled Mark, “Or better yet, a snowbound cabin.”

“You do talk about Steve a lot mate,” added Jeremy, who had been silent up to now.

“THAT’S BECAUSE I’M FED-UP WITH HIM WINNING ALL THESE STUPID INTERDEPARTMENTAL COMPETITIONS!” yelled Henry in frustration.

“So you admit they’re stupid?” grinned Mark.

“Look,” said Henry, ignoring Mark and pointing at the window, “the snow has arrived. It’s just not safe to try and head down the mountain now, we might as well wait it out in here with the log fire and make the best of it.”

Outside, the sky was darker still and a regular flurry of flakes were settling on the windowsill.

“Alright alright,” conceded Linda grumpily, taking her coat off and sitting down again at the table with Mark and Jeremy.

“Thank you,” said Henry, “look, I know you’re not all keen on these activity weekends, but they’re only twice a year, and I do truly believe they bring us closer. I’m sorry, but standing up for team building exercises is the moral hill that I’m willing to die on.”

“Spectacularly poor choice of words, given our current situation,” sighed Jeremy. They all exchanged glances. Outside the snow covered more and more of the window like sand filling an hourglass.

“Shall we play a game?” asked Henry breezily. The others shrugged. Mark checked for phone reception for the hundredth time since they’d arrived, but there was still no service. Henry took the lack of thrown objects as a ‘yes’ and moved to the small cupboard in the corner where he had been told there would be some entertainment. Inside he found Monopoly, Ker-plunk (minus the marbles) and a 1000-piece puzzle of a snowy mountain scene.

“Monopoly it is!” Henry exclaimed. The others groaned again.

“Isn’t there something that won’t remind me I’m an accountant?” asked Mark, his head slumped in his hands.

“You can either be reminded you’re an accountant or reminded you’re stuck up a mountain,” said Henry irritably, waving the snow puzzle at the others.

“Yeah alright, good call,” admitted Mark.

They set the game up on the table. Miraculously all the pieces were there, as far as they could tell. Linda and Jeremy set about a quick audit of the cash totals, while Mark made sure he found and immediately took the racing car playing piece. It briefly crossed Henry’s mind to tell Mark that it was company policy that middle managers should always have the race car, but decided against it. Henry took the top hat instead, lying to himself that it was just as good.

“Any chance of some food before we start?” asked Jeremy, his stomach audibly growling.

“They do say that human civilisation is only ever four missed meals away from barbarism,” added Linda with a laugh.

“Good idea,” agreed Henry. He was hungry too.

“So, how many meals do we have to fend off barbarism with?” asked Linda as Henry opened and then stared into the food cupboard.

“One…” replied Henry, “assuming you count a packet of Monster Munch as a meal….”

“Ooo, I do!” exclaimed Mark, rushing over to grab the pickled onion flavour.

With nothing else to do, and the prospect of quitting the game not actually offering any respite from it in the tiny cabin room, Monopoly lasted long into the night. They rolled the dice and moved their respective pieces, illuminated by only candles and the flickering light from the wood burning stove. Mark was winning, and winning rather thoroughly. Henry stared down in disbelief at his re-mortgaged Old Kent Road and Whitechapel, wondering where it had all gone wrong.

“I thought you hated being an accountant,” said Linda, either unable to keep the bitter edge from her voice, or simply not bothering to try.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’m not way more awesome at it than all you losers,” smirked Mark, counting his money. The others exchanged shadowed glances in the low light.

“The fire’s getting low,” said Jeremy, changing the subject, “and I think we’re out of logs.”

“Let’s burn the Monopoly money!” said Linda.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Mark responded angrily, “you’re just saying that because I have it all!”

“To be fair, it is probably the most flammable thing in the cabin that will give off the least toxic fumes when burned,” said Henry, trying his best to meditate between them while ignoring his own rage-twitching eye, “why don’t you just hand it over, Mark?”

“Here,” answered Mark, throwing a £5 Monopoly note at Henry, “I’ll give you this. Use it to buy Steve-from-Marketing something pretty…”

The next morning was a bright sunny day. The cabin occupants had their breakfast interrupted by Neil Burton, Director of HR, striding through the entirely unblocked cabin door, accompanied by a pair of lackeys.

“Excellent work, accountancy team,” said Neil with a broad smile, “you’ve made it through this weekend’s team building exercise of simulated snowbound conditions. We’ve turned the artificial snow machines off now, so you’re all free to go home!”

“Ah…” said Henry, exchanging looks with Linda and Jeremy and slowly moving Mark’s chewed femur behind his back.

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…

***

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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.

Doggerland

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.

***

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 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…

 

Somnambulnauts

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…

***

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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…

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. 

***

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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.

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…

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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.