Hindsight

[Written on a flight to Glasgow last weekend and heavily (almost too much so?) inspired by recent Hollywood hit Passengers (would recommend, but not ahead of Arrival), and dedicated to my new friend Aisling who I finally met properly. Enjoy!]

It was the distress signal that alerted them to the ship, but no one answered any of their attempts to contact it.

A dark mass floating through dark space, engines burned out and cold.

They checked the ship code – nothing initially, then the Archivist chimed in that it was a New Dawn class – RIS Foresight – destined for a colony planet in a neighbouring solar system.

They pulled alongside. The Foresight’s docking bay was an antiquated design so they sent a pod rather than connecting the ships’ bays directly. Lieutenants Burgess and McNeill went with two squaddies, Shaw and Lindsay, though they expected a lifeless vessel to greet them.

Far from it. From the first glimpse of tendrils wound around the bay doors, the Foresight teemed with life. Trees and vines twisted through the corridors, giving the air a rich, lush feel – once their monitors had told them it was safe to breathe, of course.

In the main atrium, mosses covered the walls and birdsong filled the air.

Burgess laughed, Shaw wept.

They comm’d in to report, barely able to keep their voices level.

“There’s life everywhere!” McNeill reported in a giddy voice.

Command asked for visuals and Lindsay beamed some back from his suitcam. There were cheers aboard the ship. They moved through the atrium, following signs for cabins.

They quickly wished they hadn’t.

After forcing open the door to A01, it was clear the exuberant life hadn’t reached this far. Passenger Jaq Hughes lay in his pod, preservation mechanics long since failed, his skin pale and lifeless.

Burgess turned to McNeill, aware her colleague had lost his brother on a colonial mission last year. His face was stoic but Burgess could see his hands trembling.

They found the control room and Lindsay managed to reboot the system with a power pack. Cortana informed them that 700 passengers, 40 crew and 80 assorted animals had been on board. Analytics suggested a solar flare had knocked out the whole array of starboard engines, leaving the Foresight unable to continue or safely attempt an autopilot landing.

As for why the crew hadn’t been revived for a manual landing, there was no indication.

Burgess made sure to lead them out via the atrium once more, but even the sound of birdsong could not lift the faces of her team.

Under Control [Drabble]

noradnorth-portal

“Evening, Lopez.”

“Evening, Jon. Alright?”

“All good, Lopez. Off soon?”

“Fifteen. DK’s running late.”

“Fair enough. Once more round the loop?”

“Aye.”

Lopez set off again, heading northwest along the fence. Gravel crunched underfoot. His breath hung in the air. He imagined his lounge, warming his feet by the fire, sipping a coffee while he watched the snooker.

He turned into Compound C, boots rapping on the metal floor. A door ahead opened; these doors never opened. Two men hurried out, keyed in the lock codes behind them. Lopez sped up.

A roar shook the earth. Blinding light. Then nothing.

[100 words]

All Jobs Considered

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Paul parked the van and stepped out into the drive. It was a grand old house, several stories, each cluttered with small, fragile windows. ‘A specialist job,’ he thought. ‘Good money.’

He rang the doorbell – an intricate gnarled gargoyle – and heard a voice call faintly, “Come in.” The hall was richly carpeted, with plush furnishings visible in all the rooms offshooting from it. Bouquets of flowers were strewn everywhere, messages of condolences attached to the stems. ‘Poor dear,’ Paul thought, ‘The husband probably used to clean the windows’. There was no one in sight.

“Hello?” he called. “Upstairs,” came the reply. After a moment’s consideration he climbed the stairs. She’d sounded frail on the phone. Paul remembered her creaking voice: “I saw your advertisement in the Yellow Pages. I could so use your services.” The ad was brand new, and already it was paying off. On the landing, he called again and received another reply, from an open door ahead of him. He stepped into the doorway –

The woman lay sprawled in a clawfoot bathtub in the middle of the room, a thin layer of bubbles preserving only bits and pieces of her modesty. Wrinkles, whether caused by age or the water, traced lattices across her skin. There was a wild, sorrowful look in her eyes.

“I…uh,” Paul stuttered, lost for words. Was this some sort of joke? A trap set up by his estranged wife to hasten the divorce? He held up his hands as if to protect himself from her unashamed nakedness.

“You came, didn’t you!” the woman snapped. “What are you waiting for? If you’re going to advertise…”

Paul ran from the doorway, down the stairs. The woman shrieked.

“But your advert – come back here you horrible man!” As he skidded round the corner at the stairs’ base, he collided with a low table and sent a vase of drooping lilies crashing to the ground.

“Vandal!” the deranged bat screamed from upstairs. Paul heard thudded footsteps – she was coming for him! He staggered back to his feet, blood dripping from where he’d caught his hand on the broken vase, and heaved the front door open.

“You lied!” he heard the woman shout, shrill with rage. “Your advert!”

Paul jumped into the van, slammed it into reverse and spun round in the expansive drive. Gravel flew up from beneath his tyres as he left the house behind with a roar of the engine…

Ten minutes later, Paul pulled into a layby. He had been driving without thinking, on autopilot, and now realised he had been heading towards his old school, in totally the wrong direction for home. The woman’s voice still echoed in his head. What had just happened?

The advert. He pulled out a copy of the Yellow Pages, flipped to W, found ‘Window Cleaning’… his ad wasn’t there. Confused, he turned back a page, maybe it had run over two…

There it was, with the smiling picture of him in front of his van, just above where ‘Window Cleaning’ was listed in bold. The ad read normally, it seemed:

“Paul Scott: Widow Cleaner. All jobs considered at hours to suit you. Friendly chap open to any assignment. Call now”

What was the woman –

Ah damn. That missing n.

Paul sat for a moment in reflection, then shrugged and threw the van into gear. Turned back towards the woman’s house.

‘All jobs considered…’

Abandoned Shipping Vessel – Feb 2034

It took two weeks to make it back there, but it was worth it. We arrived under cover of darkness, eyes peeled for other signs of life. Scavengers had been but only cracked the most basic locks – several inner rooms remained intact. We set up the equipment quickly: well rehearsed.

Fifteen minutes and four rooms: two of tools, one tinned food, the last ‘valuables’ – no use in this new world. We took all we could carry and never returned. Hunters will soon watch a place like that. Society is beyond recognition, and all we can remember.

This is no life.

[100 words]

Burning Alexandria

I watched all night from the hilltop
as flames rose, roared, fell to embers
Saw the old men rush to the doors
gaze in aghast, helpless

nothing could be saved

I watched one man try
wrapping his robes tightly around him
striding bravely into the inferno
eyes filled with maniacal zeal
old fool
he never came out

The acrid smoke carried scraps
like fireflies
to rest far from their home, their hive
no longer now
burnt to the ground

I turned my eyes,
from the charred parchment that landed beside me,
the start of a letter in an unfamiliar tongue,
to the tinder and flint still gripped in my hand
as the flames glinted in my eyes
savouring knowledge only I possessed.

[Spot the post this is ‘twinned’ with. Yes, you are correct.]

Wishes (Part Six)

[If this doesn’t immediately make sense, you may not have read the previous five parts! That, or you’d like a quick refresh (it has been a while since Part Five) or perhaps you’d like to read my other flash fiction series. In all these cases, click here]

“She plays with an effortless grace doubtless honed by ballet lessons in her formative years,” I read aloud.

Vix sniggered. “They’ll have got that from talking to Mum. She dragged me there every week for a year. I refused to wear pink so I was the only one in the class in blue.”

“That wasn’t a major influence on your playing style then?”

“Well, I still won’t wear pink…”

I laughed and scanned the rest of the article – it moved onto me and so I refrained from reading it. The pressure of our burgeoning reputations was getting to me. We’d trained with the England squad last week, and after an uncharacteristic miss I’d had a panic attack and gone to the physio’s room to calm down. My stats were near perfect and every error had a significant impact. I led Vix in half a dozen categories and trailed her in six others. My soon-to-be international teammate ‒ we were expected to make our international debuts next month, a fact I still couldn’t believe –  Alan was having his hamstring tended to.

“Turned inside out by that girl of yours,” he’d said to me with a wry grin. “You’ll take my place in the next squad I expect.”

I had smiled and offered my condolences, but my heart had skipped a joyous beat with his words.

We were sat in my flat, relaxing the evening before the Championship game, and I was reading the preview online. The article barely mentioned the opposition; instead it was being billed as ‘the pinnacle of a golden year for a golden couple’ – a celebration of Vix and me. Everyone seemed to know we would win, but we had to go out and wow. We couldn’t have put any more work in than we had, yet I wasn’t confident at all.

‘There’s something you’ve forgotten,’ my brain kept whispering to me. ‘Something you’ve forgotten all this time.’

I lay awake that night, the voice whispering to me again and again as a wrinkled face I didn’t know swam through my head. I was just drifting off to sleep when Vix grabbed my arm.

Fear 101: In Conversation with To-Khash, Devourer of Souls

The ceiling is the best, just above the bed. Especially good if they’ve a big headboard – gives you some scuttling space. It works like this: get in as soon as possible.

Usually, the first dose of fear is when they push open the door and the lights are off. Take that chance and materialise on the ceiling. I like above the door as people rarely walk in looking straight up. If they’ve high ceilings (kudos, classy haunting!) then there may be some space above the door on the wall itself.

I expect most of you know my philosophy already, but just in case, I will always advocate building mass with your first dose. Clever positioning early on should mean you’re rarely seen in this stage, so get a good canvas to paint when dose two hits.

When the main light goes out, pay attention to shadow placement. Often wonderfully deep shadows aren’t exploited fully enough. Humans see more than they consciously realise and if you are just beyond the edges of their sight, you’re almost guaranteed a good shiver. Again, high ceilings are great for this but the far side of large furniture works too.

When developing features, bear in mind your method of scare. A lot of people have great visual techniques but is a grotesque face necessary when you end up going for an ankle grab from beneath the bed? I like to accentuate eyes, teeth and protruding features for when I make my descent from the ceiling.

Timing is everything here. An appearance immediately after lights out will get a reaction, sure, but remember the fear ‘differential’ is important. Lull them into safe dozing and then strike. I will wait for the human to turn off the light, check the room, lie down alert and then eventually shift into their ‘safe’ position (usually foetal, or holding a stuffed animal) before I let out a gruff, cold breath.

Be loud enough that they know it’s real, and close. This means they’ll turn slowly in the bed, daring themselves to look upwards towards the ceiling whence the noise came. I’m not there. Confusion: they look left, right, and then back up, into my slavering jaws…

A classic scare!