In May 2013 as part of SCI-FI-LONDON 12, in association with UrbanFantasist.com, we ran a short fiction challenge.
Writers were asked to create a short scifi story, in just 24 hours, from a randomly chosen TITLE, line of DIALOGUE and an optional THEME.
Here are some of the results.
FORGETTING – by Rebecca Innes
Zachary rests his head against a metallic wall, humming to himself as he picks at a scab on his temple. He moves his head and inspects the patch of condensation he’s created, watching it disappear with childlike fascination.
The year is 2048 and Zachary is scheduled to die. His cell is one of hundreds in an endless infantry, all standing to attention with three walls of dull armour, one of strengthened glass. Each is scarred with a projection of a digital clock across its floor. Zachary’s time reads two days, twenty-three hours and fourteen minutes. He looks down at it and smiles. A moment later, his neighbour begins shouting and repeatedly throwing himself against the glass, until he eventually falls to the ground unconscious. Zachary is unfazed. The guards are unfazed. The clocks are unfazed. Zachary’s neighbour’s time reads one hour and four minutes.
Two days, nine hours and six minutes. The cells are still. Zachary breathes onto his wall and traces shapes in the dew with his finger. He wonders about his insides. He thinks about all his different organs pumping and slaving away, never a moments rest, as he just sits back and relaxes. He appreciates them. A woman’s heeled shoes click down the corridor toward him. The sound stops outside his cell. The woman, Yei, consults a clipboard and looks through the glass at Zachary. He looks back at her, still thinking about his insides.
‘3459?’ Her words cut the air.
Zachary nods. Yei nods to a guard. The guard taps a series of symbols into a luminous panel beneath the skin of his forearm and Zachary’s glass wall retreats into the floor.
‘Please come with me.’
Zachary stands slowly, curious. He looks at his clock as Yei turns on her heel and clicks back down the corridor from the direction she came, the echo reversing.
‘You will only speak when spoken to 3459.’
Zachary, followed by the guard, follows Yei. They enter an interrogation room with a recording device awaiting them.
Zachary obeys. Yei takes a seat opposite him. The guard takes a seat away from them and folds his thick arms.
‘3459, you have been called here today as part of a psychological study.’
Zachary smiles warmly. Yei is unnerved by this. She coughs.
‘You have shown some unusual results for one who has been... extracted. All four-thousand and sixty-eight inmates here have been extracted. You, in fact, have been extracted twice, yet you are the only one in the history of this medicine to have resisted the treatment.’
A long pause. Yei looks at her clipboard. Her notes are written in symbols Zachary doesn’t understand. He notices two tiny patches of dry skin on Yei’s temples. He looks away before she meets his eyes again.
‘Each inmate is allocated an allowance of fifteen memories. You appear to have several memories that we find... impenetrable. Leaving you with a total of thirty-four. We want to know why.’
Yei is defiant. Zachary clears his throat; the noise is uncomfortable. ‘How far back should I go? The story started in one place but now... I’m not sure what I believe.’
‘We will decide what there is to believe. Please start at where you suppose is the beginning.’
Zachary is several years younger. He wears a lab coat and looks down at Yei, also several years younger, his comatose patient. He thinks she is attractive. He feels remorse. Zachary picks up an instrument and fits it onto Yei’s temples. He powers on a machine that causes the instrument to glow. He secures Yei with a few straps and leaves the room as her body begins to convulse. He enters a storeroom and closes the door behind him. He stands in darkness, looking at his feet. He thinks about his wife and newborn daughter. He wonders if they will ever choose to forget him. He appreciates them. Zachary composes himself and exits the storeroom. He smiles to passers by.
Yei is now at rest, the instrument on her temples still aglow. Zachary powers off the machine. He checks Yei’s eyes, finds them grey and clouded. He removes the instrument and applies a cream with the utmost care to her newly wounded temples. He sits by her and waits exactly one hour and thirty-seven minutes until she awakes. He knew it would take exactly that long. Yei’s eyes open and are no longer grey and clouded, they are as black as coal and sharp, intuitive. She looks at Zachary curiously.
‘You admitted yourself for extraction. It’s normal for you to feel... um, confused.’ Says Zachary.
‘Oh, yes, of course...’
‘You will be able to leave in a few hours.’ Zachary smiles, unnerving her.
‘Why were you watching me?’
A long pause. Zachary shifts his weight.
‘Look, I’m not supposed to say this but... why did you do it?’
‘Why does anyone? I suppose it must have been a bad memory.’
‘Well that’s just it! I, I watched it and-’
‘You... watched it?’ Yei is furious.
‘I, I’m sorry-’
‘How dare you. Get out!’
Zachary and Yei are older once more and back in the interrogation room. A long pause. Yei remains perfectly blank. A longer pause still. The silence is almighty. The guard’s broad jaw tenses. Zachary looks at his fingers and touches the scar above his right temple. He thinks about his organs, beating and working away inside of him. They have brought him this far. He thinks about his wife and newborn, both now much older. He wonders what they are doing at this very moment in time.
‘Why do you still show hope 3459?’
One minute, thirty-two seconds. Zachary lies in a termination chamber that has seen many deaths before his. He closes his eyes and thinks about his organs. He thinks about his wife and newborn. He smiles.
‘Because you remember me.’
Equal Creations by Julian Gyll-Murray
Sabrina’s stone skimmed the top of the water, bouncing five times before being sucked into the ocean. She sighed, looking at the lapping waves gargle the pebbles, and then turned to the man sitting on her right. He was calm, as still as if he had been paused by remote. It was his way, Sabrina decided. He was a man who never moved, never smiled- a man who acted as if old age and wisdom burned behind his still eyes.
“So…how long have you been here?” She asked.
“Years,” he replied.
“Years?!” She exclaimed. “I didn’t know this place had been open that long. How long are we going to be in this city, waiting?”
“Who knows. Could be forever,” he said mechanically. They were old responses, recalled from older conversations.
“Then why are we here?” she demanded. “I thought that the only reason this had been converted into a prison city at all was because a tsunami would come and wipe us out?”
“So they said. Maybe they were lying. Maybe their predictions were wrong.”
The abandoned city behind them glowered in the sun, mostly empty. A few inmates seemed to be pitching rocks at windows somewhere far off in the distance, a tingle to rhyme with the birdsong.
The silence made Sabrina shift restlessly, and she picked up another pebble to throw.
“How have you managed to stay here, not dying, not going insane?” she asked.
“I’m not sure I have,” he stated. “You know, I come here to the beach every day. And every day I see my end. It’s a hallucination, a dream. We all do it. We constantly hallucinate, deep within; the effects of sight, sound, and other stimuli recalibrate the natural hallucinations our brains create. I sit here on this beach, and I see a towering, giant wave, ready to fall upon me and banish this place to the heart of Atlantis. But it’s never true. I’m still here, waiting for the day when it is not a dream. When it all ends.”
Sabrina snarled suddenly, and instead of casting the rock into the sea, turned and flung it at a dusty car on the empty street behind them. “So why don’t you just kill yourself then?”
The man’s head turned slowly, until his gaze was fixed directly onto her. “What are you in here for?” he asked.
“Mind your own business,” she said, and made as if to depart.
Who am I kidding? she thought, slowing her pace. Who else am I going to talk to?
“I ask,” he said, “because it sounds like you’re from London. I heard something happened there.”
She turned. “You don’t know any more than that- that something happened?”
“Well, not much news from the outside world gets in here. But see, I did hear about how the warhead craze hit Great Britain. Us Americans have been happy to democratise violence for as long as I can remember-but you guys really went in for the warheads, didn’t you? Everyone having one, so much that it became a token to be kept on their mantelpieces? Something like that?”
“Something like that.”
The man nodded. “And how was it, having pieces of destruction as ornaments?”
“Not everyone had it at first. First it was just the rich, or the people who wanted to look rich. Then it went everywhere. Everywhere you went, there was that thing sitting in the corner. Everyone wants to be equal, even if it means equally stupid.”
“See, now it seems to me that all it takes is for a single, unstable person, a person fascinated, maybe, with the casual way in which we can have annihilation in our living rooms, to…upset the balance. Ignore the deterrent.”
Sabrina stepped back in front of him so she could meet his gaze. “And it seems to me that the more you talk, the fouler you smell. You want something from me. What is it?”
The man slowly got to his feet. “Come,” he said, and immediately left the beach behind and entered the city behind them. Sabrina, for a moment, refused to follow him, but didn’t want to be left alone, not with that silence around; she picked up her satchel, and caught up with him. They walked across the deserted city without speaking a word, the afternoon sunlight casting a metropolis of shadows underneath their feet. Hours later, the man dove into a small house, pushing a groaning door open after unlocking it with a rusty key on a string.
“What’s in here?” Sabrina demanded.
“I’ll show you,” the man said, stepping inside. And so, yet again, Sabrina felt the pull, the gentle invitation not to leave the man’s company. She followed him go down steps into a basement, pitch black after the light from outside, and it took her eyes a few moments to adjust. Then she saw it. There it was, in a corner, dusty and old, but still working, beeping cheerfully.
“A warhead,” she breathed.
“That’s right. Just for you.”
“But…they were all taken out. There aren’t supposed to be any weapons in prison cities.”
“Well, they missed this one. It took me years to find it. And now…it’s yours.”
Sabrina dropped to her knees, panic taking over her, her hands and fingers starting to shake. “You don’t understand,” she gasped. “I can’t control myself around those things. I obliterated the whole of London, turned it all into a scar on the Earth, just because I couldn’t stop tinkering, couldn’t stop messing…”
“A pyromaniac with the button to a thousand flames,” the man said, his eyes wide with excitement. His voice and tone were finally changing, morphing out of his mechanic, resigned whisper.
Sabrina cried out, anger and fear taking over her completely. “I-I’ll take us all down- please, just take it away from my sight-”
And, for the first time, the man smiled, eyes glinting.
“Never,” he said, dangling the key.
Unsettled by Anthony D’Auria
We loom, they languor below, in their candid splendor. The distance leaves them near dimensionless: points in space that pinwheel around each other in lazy circles. They ebb, swarm and flow while we sway and creak and slowly drift from their memory. Melancholy? No. At these altitudes there is no room for melancholy. It just doesn’t happen. Something to do with the atmospheric pressure.
Once every three months he climbs the six hundred thousand steps and the twelve ladder rungs to the cognition level where winds can tear the rubber right out of weather balloons and the sunlight beams, undiluted by neither cloud nor vapor. His respirator, a sleek swish of silicon jostling the upper lip and nose, echoes his breaths back to him as if he were underwater.
They know about us, of course. It’s hard not to notice a haphazard snaggle of skyscraping teeth lurching across the horizon and fading into the clouds. We are the sore thumb and the other digits. We were big in the 70’s. When they built us we speckled the headlines. “what will they say”? questioned the eager. “What CAN they say”? -the skeptics. And the Catholics spat and moaned about Babel but construction went ahead on schedule.
After twenty thousand feet we began to blink. “As tall as a mountain”, they said. After thirty we did sums and traded the numbers sent on gusts of wind. By fifty, the first rumblings of speech poured like molasses through our vents and cavities.
“You build anything that tall and its bound to get aware”, he recalled his father rasping one night in front of the news. This wasn’t true of course. The scientists had found some kind of special self organizing alloy that only thrived at high elevations, but nonetheless, he associated altitude to a particular level of mental clarity.
They found out we were no good. An expensive and spindly mistake. We did speak of course. That’s what they wanted, I suppose. Someone to tell them what it’s like to be so high. Contact dragged. PR men yawned into their briefcases and cameras clicked and clattered to a halt as we groaned our first sentences like the kick of an organ stop.
He was a radioman, likely the last of a breed already sparse fifty years ago. He climbed through the altitude sickness, his bag a bracken of twisted antennas and dragging wire. During Contact he had sat in the back and listened. Their first words he could not recall; it was just the laugh he remembered.
He only half-heard the midsection of an off joke, spat from the jagged jaw of security “day-by-day, moment by endless fucking moment… they’ll survive, we’ll live…” the punch line was bitter in its humor.
Speech came as a burden. To articulate and give cadence to the filaments of our concrete, the thinness of our air, was unbearable at first. The words were ponderous and sharp and they cut the ducts and mains like the tread of a vulture. They yearned for it but we remained reticent and meager with our diction.
The laugh was barely audible. Almost engulfed by the wind. The others missed it, wrapped up in their notebooks and acetazolamide tinctures. He heard it though: that soft sigh of a laugh sifting through the rebar and steel. It left him upturned, unsettled as if the winds had picked him up and scattered his parts across the low places sixty thousand feet beneath him.
Abandoned to the dryness and the stiletto cold, we stitch together the hours one by one, titillated by but the slightest change in barometric pressure. Contact, tepid as it was, left in us a fondness for jest and the lightest parts of speech and despite ourselves recollections become yearnings.
At sixty thousand feet, every three months, he would unravel his tangled cables and scrape the hoarfrost from between the rivets of the transmitters. Split and shorn, the wires would clip into their apertures and static would crack up from the earpiece. Microphone in hand, dials aligned, he would begin his broadcast; his voice, reeling from the wind, would bound through the aerials like a howl or an interjection. Then, gradually, below the bass of the gale, it would be met with a creaking, a slow sauntering laughter leaking from across the horizon, lost in the wind to those below.
Familiarity by Ariel Tan
He promised her they’d leave when there was nothing left to burn.
“I’m Han Solo, obviously.”
“First dibs gets Han Solo,” he repeated. “Everyone knows that. You almost don't even have to say it. If you are first, you're Han Solo. End of story.”
She nodded. The word “end” hung in the air like a flickering neon sign.
After he’d finished the anecdote, she racked her brains for something to contribute.
They’d had very different childhoods.
“Star Wars,” she muttered. “I always loved the bit when Leia tells Han Solo she loves him, and he says-“
“Babe, it’s late,” he interrupted, yawning.
She found it vaguely disgusting that he had no trouble sleeping. On the first few nights they’d chattered for hours, sweating and shaking in the little bed as they deliberated every possible aspect of the situation. But now, when she tried to speculate about the future he’d groan, burying his face into her hair.
“Enough,” he’d murmur. “Sleep.”
A crash of glass downstairs.
Their bodies became tense, alert, electric.
“What was that?”
“What if it’s one of them?”
“Get the leg.”
She didn’t need to say it. He’d already grabbed the sharpened chair leg.
“Hide,” he hissed, brandishing the leg towards the wardrobe.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Please, just get in.”
“Whatever it is, you and the leg could use my help.”
They stared at his hand. The whites of his knuckles shone as he gripped the stick of wood.
After fifteen minutes of unbroken silence, they relaxed. But waiting inside the tiny flat all day made her restless. She passed the sleepless nights building barricades to keep intruders out, and then deconstructing them in case a quick escape was necessary. He lit a cigarette. The gas in the lighter was running low. To make the most of every spark, they chain-smoked as a team, each lighting the other’s next cigarette with the dying tip of the last. She inspected the muscles in his arms. Yes, he was stronger than her, but she knew how to drive. When they finally left the flat, it was her who would have to get them through the streets. It gave her the uneasy sense that she would die second. How could he snore while the world was ending? It was both touching and horrifying.
She pushed his shoulder a few times.
He rolled over.
“Fred. Wake up.”
He grunted an incoherent objection.
“The incense,” she said. “It’s run out.”
He lifted himself onto an elbow. Her face was a twisted mask. The last wisps of smoke faded in the air.
“No,” he groaned.
She was whispering, as if the putrid stench would overhear them. Without the incense, there was nothing to cover the smell of death emanating from next door.
“We’ll deal with it in the morning.”
“The lighter’s dead too. No more scented candles. We’re leaving tonight.”
“In the dark?” He shook his head. “Tomorrow, babe. Please.”
“You know it’s safer at night.”
“There’s never anyone around!”
“We’ve discussed this. We always come to the same conclusion. At least we know why the streets are empty in the daytime.”
They both paused to consider the carnage they’d seen on the streets below.
“There’s a dead person next door,” she said flatly.
They fell silent. She’d invoked the irreversible. The corpse’s stench was an inescapable reminder of what lay beyond the flat.
“Fine.” His voice was unbelievably weary. “Let’s talk.”
She collapsed onto the bed with a victorious exclamation. He couldn’t help but smile. He tried to pull her into his arms. She pushed away, frustrated, but somehow the shove turned into an embrace. They enjoyed one last moment, her hands in his hair, his head between her legs. And then the door burst open.
He’d had time to grab the chair leg. He raised the wood like a torch, his other arm jerking forward as if to protect her. No getting thrown back like in the films. He just fell. Somehow, he managed to hit himself in the head with the chair leg as he crumpled. It would’ve been comic if he hadn’t already been dead.
The intruder pulled off his balaclava and lowered the gun. He had a thin, non-descript face, shadows beneath his bloodshot eyes. He was wearing the kind of suit a businessman might wear. On his feet was a pair of bright leather cowboy boots. “Jesus, I thought he was eating you,” the intruder said. “Was he your boyfriend?”
She glanced sideways at blood soaking into the sheets.
“No,” she said, as if awakening from a trance. It’d been casual sex until the apocalypse. But unreserved intimacy had seemed the only reasonable way for two strangers to weather out the apocalypse. Now his guts were spilled all over her duvet. Figuratively, and literally.
“Well.” The intruder ran his hand over his close-shaven head. “Sorry anyway.”
“Are you... going to kill me now?”
The intruder considered whilst looking her up and down, unhurriedly.
“We have to go,” he concluded. She assumed he’d decided not to shoot her. “Or the suckers will come in.”
He eyed the closed windows.
“They come out at night,” he said. “Tiny buggers. Crawl into your mouth or ears or any broken skin.”
She absorbed this new horror stoically.
“Probably. Can’t say I go exploring too often.”
“And the smell?”
“Yeah. You start stinking like that near the end.”
She glanced at the wall. “So they might not be dead?”
He turned and left. There was a loud crash, a gunshot, followed by a faint gurgling.
“They are now.”
She dug her nails into her cheeks.
“Let’s go,” he said suddenly. “I have a spare balaclava. There’s a place near here.”
Silently, she scraped her nails downwards, like tears.
“Are you done?” he said when she reached her jawline.
“Then put some clothes on,” he grinned, averting his gaze. “It’s not a good year to be naked.”
All these stories are copyright of each writer and SCI-FI-LONDON. All rights reserved 2013.