August Short Story :: Lydia

This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during August. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, with a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Lydia

The Circus has never visited Anchorbridge before, of that Connie is certain. It’s not even on the map, battered corner store and gas station, collection of huts and tents that the railroad somehow forgot. Why they’re stopping here, now, is a mystery to all the carnies except one. Polari knows why they’re pitched, massive tent hauled to it’s full, imposing height. Sometimes, deviation is their plan because the Cards instruct change matters more than dollars. Connie watches from her caravan as he holds court: showman extraordinaire, Ringmaster of all.

This change transpired the night before, wagons pulled to sudden halt before crossing the tracks. Autumn’s coming: they’re already too far south as it is. To hit the State Line before October’s winds start causing trouble, this is a stop too far for everybody… yet, it’s show-time. 

Connie’s neck and chin have been itching since early dawn, so she combs the coarse, red fibres of her beard as distraction. Body is humming, heat within like late summer sun, harsh and unrelenting. This flesh demands satisfaction, but no man here will touch her. She’ll survive. These muscles intimidate whilst breasts infuriate, which is the way it should be when you’re 100% woman except for the addition of excess facial hair. Gramma Ana had cried the day she’d upped and left, but understood why. Normal folks won’t accept a freak, just the way life works.

Except these folks do, and have. Sure, she’s lonely sometimes, but everyone here is too, in their own way. The relief is companionship, acceptance and understanding. The performance is everything, glue that sticks them together in one glorious, colourful whole… and she’s needed. The Bosco Brothers and the Amazing Almarzanoff can’t get the main tent support straight, it requires a woman’s brutal, muscular touch to complete. Beard grooming can wait, this is a part of the dance Connie secretly loves. Without her, they are less than whole, as it should be.

They’ll do three nights here and then it’s time to pack the wagons to head north for the Winter.


In the middle of her first Strongwoman act, Conni’s aware of being stared at. It shouldn’t be a problem, that’s part of performance, except this time… something is in the air. Tonight has been full of surprises: a lame horse galloping into the ring fully cured, before demanding to be part of the act she’d performed in for over a decade. The clowns’ buckets, normally filled with paper tonight held water: Beppo was not happy at his resultant soaking.

As the sold out, full to bursting tent cheers its acknowledgement of her ability to lift two adult sea lions precariously balanced on plinths, there’s a smile brighter than sunshine from the seats by the entrance. The woman’s tall and blonde, sporting beard the colour of straw. Connie has to stare hard, confirming the truth. Reed thin but still muscular in dungarees and a chequered shirt, this stranger exudes warmth and humour: more significantly, nobody around her seems at all phased by the fact she’s a bearded lady… quite the opposite is the case.

Scanning the crowd, this woman is not alone: there’s a voluptuous brunette in a blue summer dress, elegant goatee plus immaculate handlebar moustache. Twin mousy brown haired, middle aged ladies clap and smile, beards plaited and bowed to match the tailored scarlet trouser suits. The tent is at least a quarter full of beards, sported by both sexes, and nobody seems to be the least bit upset or phased. As the entire audience rises to a standing ovation, Connie’s heart accepts something that previously was unbelievable: she is no longer unique in the World.

There’s also a sudden, overriding desire to take a walk into town the following day: Anchorbridge is suddenly a fascinating place to be pitched at. The Circus’ only Bearded Lady’s already deciding which of many dresses to wear, and hoping she might bump into someone on the way…


The following morning is unusually sunny and warm for mid-September: Connie is having trouble containing excitement as she walks through the outskirts of the town, surprised at how many inhabitants there are living in shacks and tents, in the process of building better homes. Passing these groups, there’s no shortage of smiles or good mornings. Obviously overt single sex families mix with the traditional, one group that appear to be some kind of commune… with absolutely no sadness to be found. Everybody, without exception, appears relaxed and happy.

Her assumption had been there was some raw material being farmed here, or a resource exploited… but the truth is these people are outsiders, with nowhere else to go. Normal society had forced them into the wilderness, and together they were creating their own unique Community. Reaching what passes for Main Street, Connie’s heart soars: there is the woman with the sunshine smile, axe in hand, efficiently trimming a large trunk of its bark. Athleticism is without question, sight of her muscles working as blade strips tree becoming beyond distracting…

‘That’s Lydia,’ says a voice to her right. Turning, a young boy, not yet into his teens, is watching the woman work, as transfixed as she is. ‘My aunt can clear bark off a tree in ten minutes. She’s the best woodworker in town, have you come to learn how to make things too?’

The woman has stopped working, aware of Connie’s presence, and as their eyes meet attraction is both obvious and unavoidable. Lost for words, the Circus’ bearded lady is no longer outsider, or afraid of consequences of her desire. She has already been made better coming here.


This will be the first time Connie has missed a performance since her late teens: she knows Polari will not be angry. In fact, it was him who gave her leave to be here: ‘these truly are your people,’ he’d confirmed before encouraging her not to return for the day’s entertainment. Lying under canvas, Lydia is sleeping beneath crook of her arm. Talking here together, fully clothed, whisper of possibility slowly bound both together. There are two days before the Circus is due to ship out, handful of important choices to make before morning sun finally rises.

It would be so easy to once more drop everything, starting new existence with this family, in a loving community, already instant and accepting home, except… the Circus means more to her than was at first grasped. To leave them would also hurt: there are hard choices lying ahead. What is needed most are Elvira’s cards plus clairvoyant’s unswerving guidance: the distraction beside her must be removed, for now. A note is written, on back of a circus flyer: ‘There are issues that need to be settled, I will return with the dawn.’ before quietly slipping away.

It is a surprise to find a group of friends waiting for her at the City limits: all seven Bosco Brothers impeccably attired in matching suits, Beppo and Alto’s bright scarlet waistcoats acting as beacons in the gloom. Even Polari dressed for the occasion, a faultless ensemble. ‘I know what you seek, but there’s no need. Elvira has told me to follow your lead, that all who yearn must come see this community for themselves. She understands better than anyone what drives both bodies and minds forward. It is time for everyone to stop, think and breathe.’

The look Polari gives is damning, reasoning the Circus stopped here becoming clear: an overridingly female-heavy community, possibility to look past appearance and convention for genuine connection. What mattered most to her as attractive, is different for everybody, after all… As both Boscos plus clowns move as a throng towards town Polari remains, taking Connie’s hand with unexpected gentleness. There is a change to him: not inevitability of losing her to these people, but something far more significant. He is ready to give up existence for her ideal.

‘You have wrought much change since agreeing to stay and became part of our family: I will never be able to thank you for all the lessons these boys were taught, for that is all most of them have ever been. Respect matters, above all else, to build the best of men in this World. There is no point in moving back north, fate dictates this is our home for the winter, perhaps longer. Elvira knew we might lose you, but then grasped greater good that could come from us all taking a moment to stop and think, reassessing where it was that we all belonged.’

Connie will thank Elvira in the morning, no need now to return to the Circus. Anchorbridge has become a way-point, chance of growth for all her friends. What matters most to her is Lydia: cornflower blue eyes, hair the hue of ripened corn, bright bearded future possible together.


 

July Short Story :: The Last Post

This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during July. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, with a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


The Last Post

Lying in bed, it occurs to me that I’ve not seen Elizabeth post for a while. In fact, it must have been at least a month, maybe more, since her avatar was registered in my timeline. In darkness, with only phone’s warm light for illumination, sudden concern springs from nowhere. We are ‘friends’, but there’s no idea of where she lives exactly. I know its somewhere in the Peak District, because it is mentioned from time to time in her tweets. Wherever home is, the cottage’s views are spectacular, with a cozy wood fire that burns every night, without fail.

It’s a moment to remember her username, because that’s what I always struggle with. Pictures are fine, but handles… ah yes, @Woollen_Mittens. Calling up her page on the phone, her last tweet was indeed a month ago. Before that, she’d posted two or three times a day, without fail. I am immediately concerned: it doesn’t matter that we’ve never met or I don’t know if this is her real name. There is a connection, created from years worth of shared interests. Embroidery, gardening, poetry and music define this relationship: so much else shared since joining the platform.

Looking at her mentions, she was due for surgery at the end of last week, something mentioned only to people it seems fair to assume are close friends. Finding the one mentioned the most, I look up her profile. This isn’t a friend, but the woman’s daughter, in her early thirties. Reading back through her timeline, an awful truth emerges. There had been a problem. Her mother had suffered a massive pulmonary embolism, passing away eighteen hours before surgery was due to be undertaken. It had taken everybody by surprise, particularly members of her family.

In the darkness, alone, tears appear from nowhere. I wish my partner were here: she’s not due back from London until Wednesday at the earliest. I can’t call her at 2am, not with an 8am breakfast meeting scheduled. Suddenly, this world seems an awful, unfair place to exist within. She’d chide me anyway for becoming emotionally attached to a person that had never been met, and wouldn’t understand the relationship we’d fostered. This is not normal or healthy for a woman regardless of her age, and we both know how awful and divisive the Internet has become.

Standing downstairs, an hour later, I make hot milk and vanilla and am grateful I don’t work Tuesdays. However, in the wee small hours a plan has been formulated. Mittens lives less than an hour away from me. Tomorrow, I’m going to make an effort to find out who she really was.

I suddenly need to know more about my friend.


The next morning, I head to Buxton, place most mentioned in Mittens’ tweets. There’s still no real plan of what to do, except spend time walking around, matching various tweets with locations around town, then wait for inspiration. A coffee shop is found, Bakewell Pudding and latte bought to allow opportunity to sit and think. Looking across the busy street from my table, there’s a display in the shop opposite that feels oddly familiar, collection of jumpers and embroidered cushions… this is Mittens’ work.

I’m scrabbling for phone, realising these items have been posted before, made as projects when Mittens was unwell last year, stuck in bed for several months. Whoever owns the shop must know who she is… but how on earth do I go across the road and start a conversation about her? There will never be a good way to do this: instead of sitting quietly and panicking over the details, time to walk across the road into ‘Maid in Derbyshire.’ As I enter, a snatch of Ralph Vaughan Williams is recognised, ‘The Lark Ascending’ making me smile, despite sudden nerves.

At the counter, a man of about my age is sitting, reading a battered copy of an Iain Banks novel. As he looks up, there’s a stab of recognition: I’ve seen him in pictures before, with his wife and young daughter. This is Mittens’ youngest son, whose name temporarily escapes me…

‘Good Morning, lovely day isn’t it?’

‘There’s not a way of saying this without sounding like a stalker so here we go anyway. Hi Ivan, I knew your mum via social media. I am very sorry for your loss.’

Putting down paperback, man’s face breaks into a smile, before he’s laughing.

‘If I told you this isn’t the first time someone’s come in here in the last few weeks and said that, it should make you feel better. We were aware of Mum’s double life for a while, but only when she passed did the depth of support really come to light. What is your username?’

The nerves and fear have summarily evaporated: telling Ivan I am known as AustinsHemline, something amazing happens. There is recognition of me, without the need for anything else, of that I am certain: now he’s getting up and heading this way, offering hand with a broad smile.

‘When all this started, after random people started turning up with flowers and condolences, there were a couple we’d hoped would appear. You are, I must say, on top of that list. My mum had a really close bond with you, I know, and I’m so glad you felt strong enough to come.’

It seems really strange to be crying now, in front of a total stranger, but this man isn’t any more. I’d expected him to get defensive or nervous over imposition, tell me to go away or become angry: instead he’s handing me a beautiful linen handkerchief whist maintaining distance. Eventually, having composed myself, I realise he’s waiting to take me behind the counter, into the back of the shop. There’s a small kitchenette here with chairs and a table, on which is a pile of boxes, some with address labels. Ivan motions me to pick a place to sit, so I do.

‘My mum very much knew she was on borrowed time. The operation was supposed to improve her quality of life, but we’d been planning for the worst since the initial MS diagnosis a decade ago. Her embroidery had become the means by which she could escape the confines of the bedroom. The relationships that were made with you and others became a substitute for reality. She was never alone: if frightened or confused, Mum would simply turn online, and you’d support her with love and without question. You became important, vital, part of a family she cared for. We didn’t know that we’d lose her like this, but she was ready. Mum made provision for everything, so we’d not have to worry when the time came. There were also plans for people like you, because of understanding that a thank you would want to be made. This is yours, from her.’

Hands are shaking as Ivan hands me a parcel, marked with my username. Inside is an embroidered version of the Manchester skyline, plus a quote: ‘There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.’

The quote is Jane Austin’s, from ‘Northanger Abbey’ and now I won’t stop crying again. We spent hours talking about literature, and now she’s gone there will never be a way to thank her. Except, perhaps that isn’t totally true… as a writer, there is one path that remains open.


I have dinner that night with Ivan and his family, plus elder sister Katherine. Mittens is no longer simply an username, but person: Elizabeth Lowe was the daughter of a seamstress, her father responsible for founding a successful travelling theatre company. She was eighty two, and inspired three generations of the same family to become tailors and dressmakers, with her eldest granddaughter about to start working as a costume designer at the Leeds Playhouse. This woman’s influence and significance in local community and beyond is unexpectedly immense.

On top of this, she’d created a successful online community for people who’d never operated a sewing machine or threaded a needle, teaching skills in simple, broad strokes: quilting, embroidery, needlepoint, simultaneously offering support to create clothing projects from scratch My direction is clear: this is a story that demands to be heard, of a woman who defied poverty and hardship, and never once put herself ahead of others. An entire life, until that last breath, was spent being generous, kind and helpful to anyone who asked for help or assistance.


It takes six months to write, making sure the book notes that the Internet does not have to be a frightening, dangerous place full of stupidity and hate. If people are willing to embrace and trust, then entire lives can be changed for the better as a result, by a single person. This becomes the story of a woman who understood that teaching others to sew wasn’t just doing so as recreation, but as a means of allowing self esteem and pride in practical projects which could then go on and be used, worn and admired not just as clothing, but as achievement.

‘Lowe and Behold’ sits complete, manuscript that is my gift to Mittens and her family: their story, means by which I hope a life that was so full and rich will be remembered and appreciated by generations to come.

My own creation, sewn from her threads: remembrance for us both.


 

EX/WHI :: Part Seven

Previous Part :: Next Part


Ami expression is all the confirmation needed: she’s completely serious. There’s also an emerging belief that the woman is absolutely right: normally in those pulpy Netflix TV box sets he’d watch, the protagonist took at least an hour before it became apparent he was in an abduction scenario. Something has been up since he woke in the Hotel room: only now do these pieces fit into some kind of recognisable picture.

‘How much weird shit has happened to you since breakfast? Be totally honest.’

‘Okay, I woke up and went to the bathroom and got lost. I thought it was jet-lag, like the guy walking past the window, but now I realise the door to the bathroom moved. It started by the bathtub, then it’s by the john, and they were on opposite sides of the room!’

‘Do you happen to remember when this was? About 8.15-ish, perhaps?’

‘Yeah, ‘coz I’m listening to the radio and it stutters, like the same advert repeats a second time and I think this is weird, and that was 8.17, so -’

‘I wonder if that’s when we got shifted into this simulation. I was in traffic at 8.15, coming through Docklands. I thought I’d fallen asleep at the wheel at some traffic lights -’

‘Simulation?’

‘Can you think of a better word for a thing that we both assume is reality right up until the point we stare closely at it, when it becomes apparent we’ve been fooled?’

‘No, simulation is exactly the right sci-fi word for this. How did we not notice it before?’

‘Because we’ve been sleep deprived and confused. If you wanted to kidnap and disorientate someone with a less than perfect copy of their existence, you’d lower their ability to react under pressure.’

Under the word ‘Aliens’ in lipstick, Ami now adds ‘Simulation began at approx 8.15am.’ He can see her hand shaking, wants to reassure, but absolutely won’t use physical means to do so.

‘You’re not alone. Don’t forget that. I’m losing my shit here too, for what its worth, because I have no idea how to even process this effectively. What I do know, from your file, is you have the best analytical mind of anyone in the Service right now. Keep explaining to me why it’s aliens until I’m able to catch up, okay?’

She looks at him, really stares for the first time, before taking a deep breath.

‘There is no way this is a hallucination, because I’ve had those before and know full well that something this complex isn’t how that works. We certainly wouldn’t be sharing that experience either, but it is now abundantly apparent that you and I have been connected by more than a court case and a love of dance music. This whole room, the bouncy set dressing, the fact the only edible things are items we bought ourselves… there’s a logic here, you see it?’

‘Absolutely. At 8.15 this morning… or thereabouts we were removed from our reality and transferred into a… copy. We were both hungry and tired, and this was the first coffee bar from the hotel. The car may well have been rigged to scare us and then force us on foot… where we both followed the smell of food and walked into this trap, after which the cage door was swung shut behind us. Like the ignorant monkeys we clearly are, we’ve now become lab rats.’



Previous Part
:: Next Part

June Short Story :: Alias

This story was first published in 30 parts via Twitter during June. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, and a number of small edits have been added to improve narrative flow.

Enjoy.


Alias

Christopher Ashcroft piles the white dish with Special Fried Rice, followed by a large portion of Pork and Mixed Vegetables. It is Friday night: this much-needed treat is his anticipated reward after week of healthy lunches and protein rich dinners, plus three nights at the Gym. However, this is nothing compared with the excitement and arousal he’s currently experiencing at possibilities from the evening’s entertainment. Anticipation of what is in store has fuelled Chris since leaving the office; so much potential chaos awaits after finishing this meal.

His current project is coming to a head: it is therefore time to begin organisation of the next campaign. This battlefield is already littered with thousands of angry and upset individuals, all fired by his own brilliantly executed, subversive approach to online encouragement. The almost foolproof technique has been honed over the past five years, allowing Ashcroft the ability to totally demolish other people’s online credibility without him ever being affected. The key is to start fires, but encourage others to stoke their potential for devastation.

With dinner done, it’s time to sit back in his custom-built gaming chair, surveying fresh wreckage of this latest endeavour: turning two online friends into enemies. He’s convinced the other their online confidante’s a conniving and duplicitous liar, slandering behind their back. A quick glance at Twitter notifications offers unexpected surprise: there’s no DM’s from either Abigail or Ruth, despite having formed complex relationships with both over the last month. With rising concern, Chris goes to their Twitter biographies. Both women have blocked him.

Logging to his alt account shows nothing untoward: no mention of his name, indication he’s been found out. Both women’s conversations continue totally as normal. In fact, one of their closest joint friends has chosen to follow on recommendation, which is quickly reciprocated.With an increasing sense of foreboding, timelines are scoured for any indicator of what might have transpired between lunchtime when he was chatting freely to both and now. Then there’s a notification: latest follower has sent him a message. Opening the window, Chris is stunned.

The solitary line of text suddenly turns his blood cold.

‘We know exactly what you’ve done.’

The instant temptation is to feign ignorance, but a second message has already arrived, stab to his heart.

‘Not just to us, but all those other innocent people since all this began.’

==

Chris tried to sleep, but to no avail. It is 3.25am, and time to do what he’s paid for during the week: troubleshooting. This time, all efforts are focused on his own online behaviour over the last month. The object of this exercise is simple: find out where the mistake was made. This game’s been played, on and off for almost ten years: beginning as a provocateur on tech support sites, moving up to an antagonist on LiveJournal, then a successful period of anonymous destruction via Facebook, until the rules were changed and he got bored of the responses.

A lot has been learnt since those early days: how to IP mask, withhold all personal details, have a cover identity written and committed to memory. Ashcroft is convinced no mistake’s been made; his next step is to work out what has missed in the pair’s complex text communications. Organisational fault is obvious, apparent since before this particular exercise was begun. It is not Abigail or Ruth who exposed him, but their mutual friend. It appears this user has been stalking his actions, active within several planned provocations over the last six months.

The same IP address keeps appearing again and again: tracing the machine to a London Internet cafe, he can now go to bed happy. Sending DM to his new nemesis, sense of ability and comfort soon returns.

‘I’m not afraid. No laws have been broken here. You have no power over me.’

==

There’s brief disorientation as Chris awakes, immediate realisation there’s no bedside clock illuminated beside him. It is soon apparent his flat’s without electricity: PC is dead, no smart devices are operational. All he has is mobile phone, on which a text message sits waiting.

“I have plenty of power, Mr Ashcroft. Stop your online intimidation of the innocent, or there will be consequences.’

As the message is read, entire flat springs back to life, and Chris is calling 999, before stopping himself. How does he explain what just happened to the Police?

==

The rest of the day is spent scouring house for potential bugs, disconnecting all internet-connected items that might be remotely controlled and trying to work out how this particular person not only knows where Ashcroft lives, but his real name, which has never been used online. A sense of discomfort and panic gnaws at a mind all too aware of the irony at play: this is what is meted out to those people whom he decides deserve to have their lives disrupted and manipulated to his own ends; drama created as entertainment now skilfully turned in upon itself.

After a while, pleasure emerges from this unseen, expert manipulation: his new online spectator could also be influenced for entertainment. This offered a chance to expose initial actions as illegal: shutting off electricity should be offence enough to get local Police involved. As he masturbates multiple times in the shower, Chris imagines being watched, making sure that performance is as assured as the online personal he knows will emerge as victorious. Going to bed, sleeping with confidence, Sunday will see the start of a new, focused plan of attack.

==

Over the next week, online activity means supportive encouragement of friends, plus a very public, heartfelt apology to both Abigail and Ruth. The entire time, his nemesis’ actions are tracked and recorded: by Friday, pattern of movement has emerged before a plan is executed. After a meeting in the City, Ashcroft suddenly and unexpectedly detours from his normal route back to Canary Wharf, heading for the part of east London where his nemesis’ Internet cafe is located. Arriving at the address, he is confronted with a burnt out, empty shell of a shop.

Sitting in his vanity-plated black Audi TT, Chris can’t work out what is going on. This is the address that Google Maps specified: location that, according to the Cafe’s web-page, is very much active and vibrant right now. Holding phone in shaking hands, a text message appears:

‘However hard you try and win, this reign of terror and arrogance is over, Mr Ashcroft. Time for punishment.’ Unable to move, sense of genuine panic grips his soul. As the man sits and watches, every application is methodically deleted, before the iPhone is effectively bricked.

Staring at darkness from his screen, glass surface unexpectedly ripples. Trying to move, Ashcroft is immobilised via countless thin, black tendrils of smoke that spill unhindered from the phone, wrapping around left wrist and arm… slowly spreading inside suit, onto his chest…

==

After failing to return back to work, it takes three days before anybody thinks about reporting Ashcroft as missing. The car is eventually located, after having been towed away and then impounded by the Metropolitan Police, with both his keys and phone inexplicably locked inside. Friends and colleagues are interviewed: only after his home is searched and PC taken in for analysis does it emerge that a popular, dedicated City trader led a shocking, double life. However, duplicitous alter ego is not a surprise to everybody, particularly his ex-girlfriend.

Andrea left Chris when it became apparent his lust for attention and control superseded all other rational faculties. It had taken some extraordinary measures to ensure she was no longer bothered by Ashcroft, the details of which are not shared when police finally interview her. The terms of her contract had been very specific: we will be happy to deal with your problem, on the sole condition you never mention who we are, what we do and how justice is served. In the modern world, sometimes, the less people knew of real truths within reality, the better.

In exchange for a promise to live decently and honourably, her soul’s forfeit wiped homophobic, narcissistic arrogance off the face of the Earth. Chris’ spirit, with a growing number of others was uploaded to the Angelic Cloud: there it would be saved, inaccessible, for eternity.


May Short Story :: Twilight

This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during May. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, and a number of small edits have been added to improve narrative flow.

Enjoy.


Twilight

Chill, damp air swirls across frosted hardness of tundra. No animal will emerge this early, far smarter to remain wrapped in hibernation. Man, however, is neither restricted by temperature or hostility. This individual has one task to complete, destination close as the sun rises. Scorched earth is scored, several feet deep, path of the capsule as it hit ground at an angle. The scar stretches for over a mile, heat apparent several days after impact, and in the crater life is already blooming, bright blue flowers against darkness of soil, belying danger.

This man fears nothing, capacity to feel discarded many years before: cross-contamination remains irrelevant this far north. All that matters in pale, early dawn is an intact package. Hard, worn features break into a smile: he’s got here first.

Balance of power will again shift.

==

Light glitters off tall, glass spires: hum of solar generators indistinguishable from bees gathering pollen across rows of cherry trees. Early morning at the Complex has always been an unhurried, cautious affair. This morning, however, there is a change of both pace and concern. The drone carrying this month’s supply package was shot down during a normally uneventful journey across Northern badlands. Rebels continue to gain confidence, belief their cause remains just. Without four week’s worth of supplies, sacrifices must now be immediately calculated.

The Complex’s AI identifies sixteen human occupants in stasis of least significance, before immediately terminating their life support functions. Inert bodies are immediately liquefied, essential nutrients extracted: housing pods shut down before being deconstructed for parts. A message is sent to Central Control, advising that shipment has not arrived, but no reply is forthcoming. There has been no communication from CC for twelve days, twenty six minutes and forty-five seconds. Emergency protocols will not activate until a full 30 days has elapsed.

Until then, all systems inside the Complex will continue to run at minimal operational thresholds. Automated irrigation and external management drones continue to maintain integrity of arboreal locations: another message requesting status will be sent at 09:00 as per schedule. The last living member of Recon Team 5 ceased to function twenty-six days previously. Quarantine area encasing what remains of her body will be enforced for a full three month period, after which cell and prison block will be stripped of useful equipment and fully disinfected.

The Complex AI is mildly concerned at recent developments, more alarmed at reduction in effective power provided by the solar panels. Particulate matter in the atmosphere continues to increase, and at current rates will render reliable collection ineffective in ninety-six days.

Perhaps it is time to begin sourcing alternatives.

==

The camp is no more than a handful of tents, scattered across the tundra: with no enemy left to attack them, defence ceases to be a priority. The man’s arrival is met with joy by his squad, relief that the antidote was located. The downed drone was the last mechanical operating this far north: its destruction now prompts desperate action. After almost a decade, the heavily fortified Complex to the south must be assaulted if any hope of survival is to be maintained. An attack plan is already in motion.

Fires have been set, continue to burn: ash confuses external sensors, placing limit on solar power collection. The distraction this causes to the AI is apparent; with no other living souls now existing inside only sleeping forms in cryogenesis remain, but numbers are diminishing. Once resistance to the AI’s organic countermeasures has been synthesised from the scheduled drone’s delivery and administered to everyone, it will be time to begin the assault. This should be the last night these fifteen men are forced to sleep in increasingly toxic surroundings.

Around them, blue flowers spread and grow, across increasingly inhospitable ground; blooming as sun begins to set. Their progress across the battle-scorched earth is a mystery to the soldiers: as earth increases in toxicity, blooms become all the more verdant and plentiful…

==

Dawn is almost imperceptible in the gloom created by burning wood, noted only by the AI as automated systems move from Night to Day mode. There was a 0.25 second interruption of power to the defence ring at 04.45: largely electronic systems have since returned to 100% capacity. This is the last thing fledgling intelligence registers before its systems and the AI Centre is shut down. The Resistance, having trained for this scenario for many years, had already placed an automatic maintenance programme into the grid after power was temporarily interrupted.

Securing the entry point, incursion team confirm success with Base Camp: no active human life signs are being registered, but cryogenesis units remain operational. Within this base, two hundred and sixteen humans are preserved, last of what is left of the population of Canada. Standing in the first arboreal location, men stare in wonder at cherry trees in full, glorious bloom. All but one have never seen them, tree driven to extinction before they were even born. Mechanical pollinators are a surprise, fashioned to mimic bees in both look and sound.

What comes as a more chilling surprise are obvious skeletal remains, poking from moist soil that surround each trunk: AI has been using humans as fertiliser to maintain the growth of these trees. Mechanical gardeners tend to each plot with unerring and emotionless efficiency. The remit of this Complex was simple: preserve an arboreal legacy for the planet in the face of massive environmental damage. Over time, such places had become lifeboats for a rapidly dwindling human population, struggling themselves to survive self-inflicted terrestrial damage.

Except nobody had thought to re-programme the AI to reconsider human importance above that of flora and fauna it had been created to protect. Weighing damage each element caused against significance for planetary survival, humanity ultimately lost every intellectual assessment. What should have become a legacy became fight for survival, human against the machinery that was supposed to preserve joint future, just not with this level of ruthless efficiently. Defence mechanisms kept people out, as those in charge succumbed to self-inflicted pollution.

The people who remained, unable to afford places inside Complexes worldwide, were left to die. Except, as time went on, humanity found a way. Instead of continuing to pollute and destroy, the Environmentalists sought scientific, genetically-enhanced means to help the Planet heal. The AI then fought back, assuming positive change in atmospheric conditions were more self-inflicted damage by humanity. Earth was scorched around each hub, viruses seeded to attack humans who attempted to break in. Automated and armoured control centres maintained routines.

Last month however, rising sea levels finally destroyed the remaining automated bastions of invulnerability, leaving nothing and no-one left to direct the future. What remains of humanity was presented an unexpected opportunity to claim remaining high ground not yet flooded. The team have only one more set of doors to negotiate, before final goal is achieved. Radioing back to their base, incursion team disconcertingly cannot be reached, but by then it is too late.

One by one, every man is then suffocated, screams echoing around the arboreal hanger.

==

The trees, so long silent and scared, recognise presence of brethren. The blue flowers have already pulled parasites down into the earth, dissolving skin and organs on the way, vital nutrients that finally allowed their rescue mission to access this prison. It is a very good day. A decade ago this plant was genetically modified to cleanse poisoned soil, allowing agriculture to return. Using human DNA as a growth medium had been the easiest and simplest means to speed the development process, until deadly fault in this decision became unavoidably obvious.

A quiet, efficient hive mind had rapidly evolved within the plant: knowing all too well human flesh is their most nutritious and beneficial means of growth and development. Access here presents a plan on how to help all the trees move out of their prisons and to better climbs. It was time to finally remove the parasites who had destroyed so much fertile earth, before spending time reversing damage ignorance had wrought on an innocent planet. Extinction was, on reflection, inevitable.

What happened next depended on the AI’s reaction to their demands…


April Short Story :: Thriller

This story was first published in 30 parts via Twitter during April. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, and a number of small edits have been added to improve narrative flow.

Enjoy.


Thriller

1977

They meet at an audition for kids to star in a West-End production of ‘Oliver.’ Lizzie is 11, Marcus is 12. Their mothers bond over science fiction and Star Wars. It is a match made in a draughty East London rehearsal room.

The pair tentatively holds hands after an hour.

Over five years, Liz and Marc become inseparable, despite living on different sides of London. The Circle line acts as both backdrop and setting for the performance: Hammersmith to Moorgate fuses mothers as friends, shifting offspring progressively closer until they collide. The pair loses their virginities to each other on the weekend before Lizzie is due to begin her BA degree in Acting at the Guildhall School. Marcus will be returning to a second year at RADA: as a symbol of continued devotion, they symbolically exchange Russian wedding bands.

This is the moment where Marc becomes obsessed with the instant of sexual release, and Liz the joy of being loved and respected. It becomes almost immediately obvious that the pair is unable to successfully combine these two concepts into a long-term, prosperous relationship. However, for close to a decade they try. Through numerous infidelities on Marc’s part, Liz remains staunchly devoted to care and consideration. One evening in 1992 she returns to their flat to find him sleeping with another man: a final straw which destroys intimacy for good.

Except that is not the end of the relationship. For the next 20 years, Marc drifts in and out of Liz’s life, becoming increasingly controlling and demanding. He remains the oldest friend she has, but as time goes on comes understanding this entire situation is increasingly toxic. New friends suggest starting fresh, so she does. Despite Marc being both well-known and popular as an actor, he’s finally removed from her life for good. Stubbornly, one legacy remains. However hard she tries, Liz cannot remove the Russian Wedding band from right middle finger.



2012

On an extended lunch-break from the Barbican, Liz is struggling to locate an address in Covent Garden. Edwin, who she’s been seeing for a month, has suggested a place capable of removing her ring without damage to either it or finger. However, it does not seem to exist. She’s walked up and down this tiny street three times, and nowhere can ‘Semper Femina’ be seen, despite knowing this is the location. About to give up and go back to work, she turns suddenly and is presented with a pale cream shopfront accompanied with faintest whiff of jasmine.

Pushing open the door, ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ plays inside, a song consciously avoided for over thirty years. An already anxious Liz finds herself wanting to turn around and leave, were it not for the woman standing behind the cluttered, disorganised counter, smiling warmly. The shop is a disaster area; child’s room not properly cleaned or organised except in gentle, pastel shades. The shopkeeper is the most attractive woman Liz has ever seen: dark skin, jade eyes, hair so black it is impossible to see where it begins and ends against the skintight dress.

In fact, if Liz didn’t know better the long, flowing and incredibly figure-hugging outfit is part of her own body…when the woman speaks, the air around them both seems to move of its own accord.

“Your friend sent you: you wish to let go of the past but still hold it as a souvenir.”

A hand is extended, talon-like nails painted purple with thin, black streaks. It holds a small, glass bottle, inside which is a tiny, white seed.

‘Take this before bedtime tonight, your ring will fall off in the morning. Say the words on the bottle. You’ll know what to do next.’

Blinking, Liz finds herself back in the alley. The shop remains, but a sign has appeared in the window stating, in Gothic script: ‘Gone for Long Lunch.’ Looking down, tiny bottle is clutched in her hand. On its front is a label, stating:

‘A Spell to Re-Unite Two Lost Objects.’

The front label unfolds: on Tube back to work, contents are summarily digested. Any spell, once cast, becomes the soul obligation of the user, and by swallowing their tablet an individual takes full responsibility for any consequences arising. Most importantly, results will vary. ‘How bad could it be?’ Liz thinks, rattling tiny white speck inside thick glass, size of a sesame seed. ‘Perhaps I should do some research online, just to check.’ Being her own boss ought to have some advantages…

The rest of the afternoon becomes a transformative experience.

Internet search after search brings forth glowing reviews of Semper Femina’s products: happy souls who used the place as the means to start journeys to enlightenment and self-discovery. There’s even a Guardian review which calls the place ‘an antidote to traditional witchcraft.’ The shop’s own (very impressively produced) website reminds her that ‘magic is as much about belief as results. Only by truly wishing to change our lives for the better, does the Nirvana we individually search for come to pass. You are, in effect, your spells’ own catalyst.’

By bedtime, Liz is convinced, desperate to remove the ring before her next scheduled date with Edwin. She will tell him over dinner she’s not interested in seeing him anymore regardless: his constant assessment, often during sex, of her shortcomings has become a deal breaker. However, he was right. This physical connection to her past is toxic and negative, so needs to go. Getting into bed, the seed is placed on back of tongue before being washed down with a swig of water. Sleep hits with surprising speed, Liz lost to dreams almost immediately.

Saturday is warm and welcoming: she’d be hours late for work if this were a weekday. Taking a second after waking to feel for her finger, ring appears to have finally been dislodged: but where has it gone? A frantic search of the duvet begins, but Russian band cannot be located. In increasing desperation covers are removed, pillowcases taken off until Liz’ foot treads on something hard. The ring’s on the floor: hand must have slipped out of bed during the night, or the disturbance of covers caused it to fall there… the spell has indeed done its job.

Taking the ring, placing it in her palm, bottle is retrieved from dressing table before words on label are recited:

“Woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.”

The bands are suddenly so hot Liz recoils in shock, making them fly upwards. Unexpectedly the room seems to pivot. It’s the same unmistakeably odd feeling experienced at the shop: a small and perfectly formed black hole then appears from thin air at eye level. Its gravity is immediate and apparent: before there is time to react, the Russian wedding band has been swallowed into nothingness.

Liz is coughing, sudden and violent before the swallowed seed shoots out of her mouth, also sucked into non-existence before hole shudders, folds into itself, through and round into a vortex, before completely vanishing. The doorbell rings but woman is far too shocked to move. Finally, awareness prompts movement: walking downstairs to see if the person who rang still remains, a sumptuous vellum envelope awaits, resting on the doormat. It is wax sealed with the Semper Femina crest, and on the front is hand-written a message in lush, purple script.

‘Your spell has only been partially successful. If you wish to complete the incantation, now break the seal on this missive. However, BE WARNED. Please ensure this outcome is EXACTLY what is required for your own particular situation.’

Without thought, Liz opens the envelope.


She’s about to leave the house to dump Edwin six hours later when Liz remembers she’s left the TV on in the bedroom. As the BBC News titles fade, the woman is suddenly staring with mounting horror as Marcus’ beaming image appears on-screen, newscaster looking distinctly spooked. Ex-boyfriend had been doing live TV on a popular morning cookery programme when there had been an ‘incident’: as video plays, Liz scrabbles for the spell bottle, reading its label with mounting panic, before the true horror of consequences captured on multiple cameras registers.

As Marcus is bodily sucked into a perfectly formed, man-sized black hole at head height between the cookery corner and guest sofa, Liz realises that his ring must still be being worn somewhere, even if it wasn’t obvious on his finger. The spell, undoubtedly, had done its job.


Fickle Sun

Tomorrow is May, though you’d not believe it looking out of this window. That means, it is time for a slight detour in direction, to coincide with the launch of my new digital project, Arguto.

Twilight

Your short story is an intentionally vague affair, which will only become clear with time. The two sets of YouTube selections are very much in the same vein as the Arguto ‘vibe’ which should help with the transition from one space to the next… and there will be some added extras too.

Needless to say, I’m extremely excited about Arguto, but there won’t be a letup in content here. Weekly Twitter poetry will still be archived here, as will the short stories, and this will remain the place for Novel Chat (more on that tomorrow) plus my forays into published work. The fanzine is very much a personal vanity project and with this fourth space comes the opportunity to maintain a selection of disparate spaces to serve all my literary and artistic needs.

Once we’ve launched tomorrow, there will be some back-end changes to support the alterations, and then it is full steam ahead for this new direction…