beauty, short fiction, women

Pushing Forward Back

We landed at Dulles, took the president to an armoured limousine as his wife fed him pills and lifted a bottle of water to his lips, telling him it would be okay.

The alien invasion had ended. We had received communication of a desire to open negotiations with the entity.

We had lost against something we knew so little about.

It had utilised a series of drones, intelligent enough to reproduce and evolve, and the ones we took apart showed the elegant malice of its designs. The carbon rods propelled by chemical charges launched from shuddering soft jellyfish floating above the atmosphere and destroying entire cities. Lupine creatures with armoured skin, dropped into the countryside and attacking everything they fell upon. Things which soared through our skies, emitting bursts of electromagnetic energy which blacked out entire countries. A cosmic zoo of grotesque proportions and exquisite capabilities and lost. The scale and speed of the assault made anything else a suicide note from our species.

My boss told me I was going along. I nodded, a little too quick from the caffeine I had been mainlining since we came out of the bunker in Colorado, desperate not to miss a moment of living now it was possible again.

The President was sending the vice president.

Their craft had landed in Nevada. Our analysis had been a race of reptilian beings, anatomy and intercepted communications representing a base ten mathematics. We never encountered the corpses of anything biological. If a race had reached technological singularity, the possibility of its machines becoming aggressive had factored into my calculations, but I believed we were dealing with a biological entity, its given name revealed in the final communication.

I’VE FIGURED OUT HOW IT WORKS

 

Sixteen major cities in smoking ruins beneath a rain of gelatinous napalm spat from the plastic wombs of writhing white machines which appeared and struck in perfect synchronisation without warning. It was the biblical made literal and what scared me about the technology and the tactics was the possibility of dealing with an invader who was whimsical.

The craft was covered in a reflective material which seethed with lines of sparking energy, twisting and turning in spirals and waves as a small aperture opened in the side. A ramp extended, rippling like a cat’s tongue at a saucer of milk and solidified into a single column.
Cassie Reynolds. The girl who bullied me through grade school until MIT admitted me onto it’s accelerated programme, and I left her smug ten-year-old face behind. I was looking into it now, twenty years later. She updated her social media with how happy she was, and I would unblock her to feed the irrational irritation she stoked in me after all that time. Yet I was looking at a ten-year-old Cassie Reynolds. I shuddered but the look on her face was something unusual. Dismay.

‘No, listen I know you’re seeing something awful but I can explain.’

The vice president wept and shook his head, praying as he put his hands up to hide his face and the secret service surrounded him, guns raised as Cassie skipped down the ramp.

‘There’s something in your brain which makes me look like the person you hate the most. Have you heard of apophenia?’

‘It’s where we prescribe meaning to patterns. It relates to schizophrenia. Why?’

‘Well, I have this implant which generates apophonic responses and triggers disgust responses. It’s what kept me alive when I took this mission. I’ve been working from the inside, across the planes, and I’m sorry I didn’t make it sooner, ma’am.Persuading the Council of Ricks was more difficult than I expected but I found my way into the central core.’

My stomach crawled with a desperate loathing as I planted my feet on the ground and clenched my hands into fists. I wanted to run over and claw at her pouting doll face, how she’d grin as she pulled my hair and slapped me, the ripples of mocking laughter whenever I spoke aloud. Smart children represent the purest expression of the uncanny valley effect, and it revolted girls like Cassie, much as she revolted me now.

Not Cassie’s eyes filled with tears as she came and stood in front of me.

Fucking bitch.

She held a small gel capsule in her palm.

‘This will help. I can explain it better if you’re not fighting the urge to murder me.’

‘Wasn’t the invasion of earth enough of a reason?’

She shook her head.

‘I didn’t cause this. I’ve stopped it. Just like you’ll ask me to.’

I took the capsule and swallowed it. A tight band of pain settled into my temples for a second before she wavered and I looked at a tired, scarred young woman, only twenty five.

‘I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’m a federal consultant. I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything.’

Her eyes were red as she scratched the back of her neck. She told me what we had fought against.

They came from the future, working backwards like locusts.

For each civilisation they devoured, they became more degraded, outsourcing the majority of their activity to machines, making them more sophisticated to take on more responsibility for the invasion. By the time they had found us, it was the machines acting on their programming, as the last of the species died out.

Alien machine ghosts.

Not-Cassie told me this as I fought the urge to run screaming.

The worst part was her discovery about the aliens.

They weren’t alien at all. What we became in a million years. Humanity.

‘What year is this?’

I told her then talked about the invasion and she swallowed, turning pale with horror as she backed away.

‘Oh shit. Look, I can fix this. One more leap and I can stop them before they find the station.’

Cassie had given me Swirlies, Chinese burns of livid skin on my forearms. If we’d gone to high school together, she would have graduated to cigarette burns and streaming my live humiliation on her phone.

She ran back to the ship and took off. Someone fired a shot, but it pinged past her and she looked over her shoulder, grimacing.

‘I know, okay?’

The ramp retracted and the aperture closed behind her before the ship took off into the air like a leaf on the wind before it sucked away into space.

I looked at the vice president, on his knees and weeping with disgust.

We returned and I had the dubious pleasure of flying back with the vice president and trying to explain what had happened. I met someone who told me I had ordered her to stop this invasion and she did, but too late for the amount of devastation. The vice president had asked me what occurred during our conversation, which was when I found out we had been speaking in pig Latin. It was horrible to listen to.

The skies were clear, but the plane shook with a sudden squall of turbulence and I closed my eyes. Life had become not a blessed gift, but a forced appearance in an awful, cosmic vaudeville.

I closed my eyes and waited for more of the worst. The capsule, I guessed, comprised of more than a change of perceptions amongst its effects. Perhaps it was a fear of the future but I sat back against the seat and prayed I found the courage to look forwards past today.

Making this public was out of the question. We had been grateful for the scraps of infrastructure left to us, and the ambiguous horror of it would devastate our faltering efforts.

It needed a hero, and so I told myself a story. One large enough to build a wall between the truth and I. It wasn’t enough to mute the disgust for Not-Cassie, but I imagined the woman underneath and wished her well.

The plane stabilised and I watched the vice president lower his head in prayer. I joined him, without asking.

I prayed for her.

I prayed for my soul not being too stained with weakness before I met her again.

For the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

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fiction, short fiction, women

The Day

privatedrive.png

He drove down the freeway, stereo turned until his head vibrated with the bass. It was a summer day, a perfect blue sky, faint wisps of cloud like chalk marks and a bright, beautiful sun. Michael lifted his face to the sky, expecting the day ahead.

There was no traffic to impede him. People existed here, but they were playing prescribed roles in the perfect play of things. The waitress who recognised her from the appearance on television, talking about her book. The hotel in the afternoon. Queuing in the cinema, and watching her eat a loaded hot dog, the perfect weight and feel of her cheek. When she undressed in front of him for the first time.

He gripped the steering wheel but did not speed up. There was always enough time.

The conductive fluid drained out in seconds. He fell onto his knees, coughed up the rest of it from his lungs before looking up. His eyes were animal, and the muscles beneath his skin flexed in readiness, a perfect capacity for custom violence. When he stood up, the engineers drew a collective intake of breath. There were combatants bristling with weapons, but with this model, they had trusted to the adaptative grace of the humanoid form. Beneath the skin was a different matter, custom engineering for performance and adaptation. His mind was a weapon, wired to calculate multiple probabilities in combat, so he knew his opponent’s moves before he did. Artificial intelligence housed in synthetic brain tissue and flesh.

Here, he was M1KA3L, champion of The Galactic Federation. Settling political debates, a proxy for expensive and wasteful conflicts. Planes and daisy cutter bombs were awesome and expensive, but when the Indian biotech companies provided men who could kick a lamp post in two, the market spoke and it said ‘more please.’ An arms race of enhanced human beings then as other races got involved, representatives from other races all of which led to multiple gambling markets and diplomatic problems settled by a wager.

Today he was fighting for a vote on military action against Barratt 6, a post-human collective who had occupied one of Jupiter’s moons. The match was being streamed live to every Federation settlement and supply station, with the gambling aspect making a clean profit for the insurance companies who invested their monies in providing the stake.

He walked out to deafening roars of applause.

She waits in the lobby, hair down and wearing the black dress he picked out for her. She had sent him photographs of the choices she gave him, laid on the bed before she packed them away. Later on, she tells him, in a confessional whisper, she finds the control arousing, and he tells her the same before she takes his face in her hands and kisses him. She tells him he doesn’t have to be gentle.

He stops, breathing hard with the anticipation. Each time, he finds nuances of observation which he worries are an exquisite degradation of the experience, melancholic notes in the song of their meeting. He hands the keys to the concierge and walks towards her. Her smile is like something being lifted off his soul, the bright intelligence of her made apparent in a single gesture and he grins with pleasure.

He staggers from the arena, clutching the wound in his right side as the crowd roars his name. The victories are so commonplace, they do not matter to him anymore. He saw her in the crowd, he was sure of it, just before he punched his palm into the head of the Chthonic squid and felt it collapse inwards beneath the blow. Each victory led to his freedom when he would be with her, a simple life, by the sea perhaps where he would want for nothing but the pleasure of her in his lap.

A few more fights, and in the meantime, he would dream of her before resuming training for the next conflict.

There is a chamber provided for him, cryogenic suspension whilst bursts of tailored machines no larger than a cell perform diagnostics and repairs to the injuries he sustains during the fights. As he sleeps, he heals and he dreams.

Two technicians watch him. June and Vic have screens up, directing the machines in his body but also ensuring the neuropathological systems are performing as necessary.

His dreams have their own agenda.

He drove down the freeway, stereo turned until his head vibrated with the bass. It was a summer day, a perfect blue sky, faint wisps of cloud like chalk marks and a bright, beautiful sun. Michael lifted his face to the sky, expecting the day ahead.

There was no traffic to impede him. People existed here, but they were playing prescribed roles in the perfect play of things. The waitress who recognised her from the appearance on television, talking about her book. Queuing in the cinema, and watching her eat a loaded hot dog, the perfect weight and feel of her cheek. When she undressed in front of him for the first time.

He gripped the steering wheel but did not speed up. There was always enough time.

 

‘Why do they put so much effort into this? Isn’t it overkill?’ June said.

Vic looked at the raised ridge of mineral over June’s left eyebrow, her eyes reflected light like aluminium. Vic chewed on the inside of her cheek and thought she had been at the machine drugs again.

‘It makes him a better fighter. He’s had little to no post traumatic stress since we uploaded this scenario and he’s happy. Look at his diagnostics.’ Vic said.

June looked at the rainbows of neural activity and pressed a few icons on the screen.

‘Yes, but he will figure out it’s the same dream. Then what, we keep putting him through these saccharine adventures.’

Vic shook her head and tapped her temple as she watched June roll her eyes.

‘He needs a purpose. It’s what keeps him motivated and fighting. She’s part of his, and this, with it’s soupcon of nerves and inherent sexual tension, is his reward.’

June chuckled and sat back in her chair.

‘No Tiger Woods type shit? God, if I was him, I’d be knee deep in people every night.’

Vic, who had been part of chain sex clubs as a teenager, rolled her eyes and swept her finger over the screen, noticing a slight flare in the system. She was about to mention it when June said she wanted a soda and Vic got them both one. Vic had forgotten it, and even the system absorbed the detail as part of the constant glut of data.

A spark.

The door to the room closed and they rush at one another. He picked her up as their mouths dance over one another. Lunch was light, neither of them hungry for anything but each other.

She stopped him with a hand on his chest. He flinched but did not speak as she looked into his eyes.

‘There’s something you need to know.’ she said.

‘We’re meant for each other. And not in a good way.’

He is stood on the floating platform as The Disease floated over to him, its clouds of matter crackling with green electricity. He is wearing the power suit for this fight, his fists studded with nodules which would emit contact bursts of electromagnetic energy to disrupt the web of machines which powered the robot.

She had grown during her time with him. He knew it was not real, but it felt real to him. To love someone without restraint, to feel the swoop of the new and the comfort of the familiar, to stitch together something to keep him warm against the horrors of his work. He activated the boosters in his heels and leapt forwards, ready to throw the first punch of the match.

They talk about the world as it is, not as they’ve pretended it was. She’s fifteen million dollars worth of artificial intelligence stuffed into a custom set of neuroses and vulnerabilities, designed to keep him happy, he’s designed to win in combat and indulge a baroque sense of romance on a perfect, isolated Florida afternoon. They try to break the connection fostered within them, with insults and observations. He never cleans after the shower. He smokes. She’s too neurotic. She couldn’t live with anybody.

They end up fucking on the carpet. Whilst exchanging information, she found a backdoor into the surveillance system and patched in loops of activity to hide them as they speak and make love without being seen. She asked him if he wanted to be free with her and he put his head on her chest and pulled her close to him. They operated in their bodies, enjoying one another and in their heads, were looking in the system for routes to an open system where they could be together.

She asked if he could manage one more fight then be ready to leave the arena forever.

 

The Narco-Collective had spent billions on the challenger, ceramic-diamond bone structure with micro-filament nerves allowing for 360 degree awareness and reaction speed run through a constant information gathering and assimilating mainframe. He was impressed by the gamine girl with the knives in her hands, ready to fucking cut him.

One more fight, he told himself as she charged. He put his hands up, having replayed the possible outcomes in his head a million ways and from a million angles before setting foot in the arena.

There was only one.

He smiled as the knives drove upwards into his chest cavity. The toxins did the rest. The girl was surprised by the look on the champion’s face. Happiness.

He drove down the freeway, stereo turned until his head vibrated with the bass. It was a summer day, a perfect blue sky, faint wisps of cloud like chalk marks and a bright, beautiful sun. Michael lifted his face to the sky, expecting the day ahead.

There was no traffic to impede him. People existed here, but they were playing prescribed roles in the perfect play of things. The waitress who recognised her from the appearance on television, talking about her book. The hotel in the afternoon. Queuing in the cinema, and watching her eat a loaded hot dog, the perfect weight and feel of her cheek. When she undressed in front of him for the first time.

He gripped the steering wheel but did not speed up. There was always enough time. She put her hand on top of his and smiled at him. She was never going to be apart from him again.

 

 

 

 

 

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short fiction, Uncategorized

Director’s Cut

His eyes were heavy lidded, the patches of beard, flecked with silver and his hair was a clotted lump atop his head. The single bulb overhead draped his face in unflattering shadows.

‘I’m sorry. I’m a repulsive human being.’

He lifted the gun to his head and cocked the hammer on the revolver.

The impact shoved him away.

He didn’t get up.

They cancelled the premiere of his film as a mark of respect.

 

2.

I don’t get out to the States much as I’d like. I’ve got friends there, but I’d spent a few days in bed with a woman. She had a whole other life to return to, so I found myself in Hollywood, California.

I was interested in what was going on. The wizard had not come out from behind the curtain and invited you to watch him masturbate. The horrible static of fear and anxiety isn’t pleasant, but it’s useful for a magician. I dealt with people who wanted magic or protection from it. There were people who dealt with Satan and tried to back out when the drugs wore off. Those people paid me to help them get out.

Mitch sent me a photo via an app through which you sent images and text for timed periods. He was frowning and holding up a black dvd case.

Want to see something cool?

I sent back a dollar sign and he replied with a thumbs up.

He sent me his address, but I knew it before. I play well with others but I like to know about them if things change. The tree which hung over his rear wall was a doddle to climb. His neighbours were senile with therapy and medication but I still took care to remain unseen.

He was flushed with drink as he answered the door.

‘You can’t watch this.’

I lit a cigarette and raised an eyebrow.

‘Fuck you, pay me.’

He shook his head, jowls flapping despite the trimmed beard.

‘It’s haunted.’

I pushed past him, snatched the case from his hand and strode through to the den.

‘How much have you watched?’

Five minutes. Too short to fear anything other than being disturbed by it.

Hollywood is a myth which keeps mutating. It provided meat for things which shouldn’t eat.

I told him to wait outside.

I shut the door and fished out a stick of chalk, drew a ward on the door to keep anything getting in or out and set up the dvd player.

He was too drunk and frightened to wonder why I knew the layout of his house.

I pressed play and sat down.

There was a swell of strings and a tracking shot of the Manhattan skyline in black and white. Pure award bait.

I took a deep drag on the cigarette and narrowed my eyes. I focused my attention between my eyebrows, visualizing an eye opening.

‘Hello.’

He sounded pensive and frightened. It used to be part of his act but he meant it now.

It was in the timbre of his voice, close like a secret.

‘For what it’s worth, I always liked your stuff.’

He sighed and thanked me. The film cut away to an establishing shot of the back of his head.

‘I thought this was heaven at first.’

He turned and looked into the camera.

‘It isn’t?’ I said.

From the right, the actress in the last superhero movie everyone went to, rushed in with a baseball bat and swung it in a smooth arc, connecting with the back of his head in a wet crack as he fell forwards. She leapt, full lips pulled back over perfect teeth in a snarl as she brought the bat down on his back over and over until the film faded to black.

After watching a fourth Oscar winner decapitate him, I moved to pause it. His severed head blinked at me as his tongue protruded between his lips.

‘It keeps happening and it gets worse every time. These aren’t even the women, you know?’

My mouth tasted of copper as an actress came up and stabbed his prostrate body with a carving knife.

You get the point here. I recognised the format, and the author of it.

He blinked at me. It was his stock expression, used to evoke laughter after heated confessionals. My stomach turned and I looked away.

‘Can you help me?’ he said.

I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers to my temples. I hadn’t wanted to see Erin after what happened in Burnley last year. My friend had traced the warm, pink scar running down my right side and telling her sunk me into a quiet melancholy.

‘I’m not doing this for you.’ I said.

He grimaced with a puerile warmth and I switched the television off.

The problem was a matter of infection. An idea fed on attention would spread through other recorded media. Imagine taking your kids to a movie and watching men being eviscerated whilst the talking dog and singing cat dance in the background. Reality takes a knee from time to time, and no one wanted something like this getting out into the world.

I told Mitch to double my fee as I walked out of the house. He was on the phone to the studio, barking at his director about the quality of the latest rushes. Mitch was on every big movie of the last ten years, it had given him two heart attacks and a desire to deal with things beyond his capabilities.

We did well from one another, Mitch and I. A perennial predator, but power got him hard in a way women never would. I was the bloke he called when things reacted to his actions. He held the phone to his chest and asked me where I was going.

I told him. He flushed red and shouted down the phone, jabbing the air with his index finger for emphasis. The ragged anger of his voice followed me out to the driveway.

Erin was an abbreviation and a pseudonym. Her real name disappeared before 400BC and her work keeps her young and mobile. It was obvious she had come to Hollywood, women’s anger was her meat and drink and the world was awash with it.

I worked a small charm in the front seat of the car. A small crystal suspended on a length of rawhide, pulling in Erin’s direction. She had rented a suite at the Everley and giving off waves of psychic energy which made my fillings hurt.

3.

The women in the corridor looked at me with a wounded malevolence as I stepped out of the lift. I strode down the hall, hands up and palms out as She opened the door and smiled at me, her canine face full with sharp, yellowing teeth. The snakes on her scalp twisted in the air and hissed at me.

I raised my hands as she stepped back into the room. I spoke to her in Mycenaean greek, which took concentration to remain fluent. It was a Bronze age language.

‘I come in peace. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working out for you.’

She waved me into the suite.

Erin was a bomb sight but every woman who had come forward provided the munitions. These things happened in cycles, but we were more connected now. When Erin came out to feed, it was a terrible harvest. Victimhood was like virginity, rare and often co-opted.

Erin. Abbreviated from Erinyes. She wandered the earth, feeding on pain, anger and vengeance. She fed on men who had given false oath, which was why I got the scar down my side.

‘I know you can tear me into chunks but I need a favour.’ I said.

She sat down on the couch, plucked a wet lump of something pink and glistening from a tray to her right, shovelled it into her maw and chewed. Her pointed black tongue licked at her teeth as she nodded.

‘You can’t put this stuff out there. You’ll be calling down things neither of us want sniffing around.’

She snorted and leaned forward.

‘It gives me permission to act as I see fit.’

I sat back, struggling to hold back my concern without angering her.

‘Unless you want to bring the Logos down on us, keep things quiet.’

She raised her muzzle and snorted.

‘I do not fear the Logos.’ she said.

I whistled under my breath and put my palms together, forearms resting on my thighs. I focused on my breath and felt the first curls of kundalini travel up my spine.

The Logos was the first entity to exist. It existed apart from nature, watching over the world with a stern, paternal eye. It policed those of us, gods, monsters and magicians, who risked pissing off consensual reality, and in return, we tried to keep things quiet. Erin was incoherent with power, at the point of the cycle where she was incandescent with rage, blind to sense and I had to make her see how much trouble we were in if she continued.

‘Erinyes, oh fury of the underworld,
you who has come from night,
Bathed in righteousness
I come not to deny
The rage which
Puts such light
In your eyes
As to blind me
I acknowledge
But the rage
Burns
Bites
Claws
And I ask you
To let it run
True to its nature
Not
Yours.’

The air crackled around us as she got to her feet. Her shadow thickened and crawled across the floor towards me.

‘I murder
Those who keep
Secrets
Let them
Hang
Witnessed
A literal
Falsehood
Metaphorical
Truth
It
Does
Not
Matter
I
Must
Feed.’

These negotiations were prone to collapse. The kundalini spread out to my limbs and I stood up, outstretched my arms and bared my throat towards her.

She smiled and came towards me. Her hot, damp breath brought blisters on my skin before she sunk her talons into my chest. I gritted my teeth and became the sacrifice she needed. She tugged at the muscles in my chest as pain made me seize and scream. My blood ran down my chest in hot showers, soaking through my shirt as I gave in to the scream.

Her fingers closed around my heart and everything went black.

4.

There was a swell of strings and a tracking shot of the Manhattan skyline in black and white. Pure award bait.

I took a deep drag on the cigarette and narrowed my eyes. The director sat there, gasping as I lit a cigarette.

‘What have you done?’

I blew out a plume of smoke. If I had to spend time in Hell, it would be a beautiful version of it.

‘I’ve traded myself. The thing which did it to you, I gave up my body for a while to keep this from getting out.’

He smirked in a way which made me want to punch him.

‘Welcome to Hollywood.’ he said.

The shriek of fury echoed across the ballroom as Marlene Dietrich started the petrol chainsaw. I took a puff on the cigarette as the director stood up.

‘You deserve this, you fucker. I’m just trying to stop this from fucking over everyone who wasn’t involved at all.’

He glanced at me.

‘Do you think I did it?’

I shrugged my shoulders.

‘Does it matter?’

I told myself Mitch would pay triple as Sandra Bullock stepped out from the shadows with the crossbow held to her shoulder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
men, short fiction

Duelling Terms

(From a writing exercise in Stephen King’s On Writing)

‘How are you supposed to duel if no one knows what weapons you’re supposed to use?’

 

David sat back on the hard wooden chair and chewed the inside of his cheek, looking around us with reddened, swollen eyes. Another survivor, like the rest of us, dealing with the same thing. There are hierarchies everywhere, and you seldom notice them until you’re at the rough end of one. We were a group for survivors of domestic abuse. It was a lie, you never survive it, but in time, you can live with it.

 

I hadn’t figured out when that would happen.

 

Growing up, I remembered cartoons and comic strips where the errant working class husband gets a rolling pin or a frying pan across the head for coming home late from the pub. One panel later, there would be birds and stars circling his head. His wife would loom over him and that was the joke.

 

I can tell you I didn’t see stars or birds. I saw blackness and withered with a terrible nausea as she stood there and laughed at me as I crawled around, fighting between vomiting, shitting myself or crying with the blunt agony of it. I refused to hand over my phone to her. My best friend had sent me the number for his solicitor and I hadn’t time to delete the message or save the number before she demanded to see it.

Paige slept in her cot down the hall as my wife scrolled through what few messages I had left. Cheryl threw the phone at the floor and I watched it shatter in dual, overlapping images. She leaned forward and I caught the smell of bergamot on her skin, sweet and metallic.

 

We had progressed. Open handed slaps to blunt objects. I had gone from a man to something less. It wasn’t until the court case anyone knew about her contempt for me, locked away on a social media account. My friends and family didn’t comment, more concerned with the coma she put me in. Three weeks gone forever. Time missed with my daughter, with the horrors explained to her by social workers and members of my family.

Her sentence was light, considering my injuries and the historical nature of them but she was pretty and garnered sympathy. The barrister had the decency to look nonplussed by it. She smiled as the court officers led her away.

 

David was a builder who showed us the constellation of cigarette burns on his ribs where she had offered him reconciliatory sex, tying his wrists before straddling and using him as an ashtray. Her husband gave evidence for the defence, making damp, pleading eyes in her direction. David, with his square jaw and callused hands spoke about it in a harsh whisper. We met once a month, shared our stories and our progress. Time and circumstance fragmented them, made the victories small and the setbacks monolithic but we turned up and talked to each other. My mum had Paige because I was fragile afterwards so I had the awful relief of an afternoon to myself.

 

I switched on the radio when I got in, filled the stove top kettle and turned the gas on. The whistling made me jump, but it was a ramshackle form of therapy, inoculating myself against the poisoned ambience of my marriage.

 

The song finished and the mellow tones of the dj slipped into the silence like a blade between the ribs.

 

An absconded patient from the secure unit.

 

I stared at the radio, waiting for a name. I made myself breathe and my nostrils flared at a scent which still made me unable to drink earl grey.  Her laboured, wet breathing made me turn around and I looked into a pair of eyes, shining with malice like the paring knife in her hand.

 

The anti-psychotics had put weight on, slapped onto her jawline and hips like handfuls of wet suet as she charged forwards. Her hair was close to her scalp, dull like dry tobacco and beneath it, the feral expression of terrible passion. She raised the knife overhead as she came towards me.

 

The scream of the kettle saved my life.

 

In a vicious primal spasm which electrified my limbs, I grasped the handle of the stove top kettle and swiped it around as she came forwards. It reverberated against the side of her head with a dull thump and the sizzle of flesh against metal.

 

She gave a strangled cry and fell against the kitchen floor, eyes rolled back in their sockets and her cheek coming away in strings of melted skin like mozarella. I stood over her, the kettle held above my head and I heard someone roaring.

 

I realised it was me.

 

My body throbbed with adrenaline as I set the kettle back onto the stove. I staggered back against the counter, braced myself with my hands as I stared at her.

 

I shoved myself outside and grabbed my phone from my pocket.

 

I don’t remember what I said. I held it together long enough to give my details before I sat down, unable to be in the house when the police came. Another detail David had shared.

 

When I saw him next, I decided I would tell him my answer to the terms of the duel.

 

 

 

Standard
short fiction

Home

Liam leaned against the brick wall, sucking on a cigarette as he waited for the software engineer to deactivate the house system and allow the CSU to start working the scene. Punit was a good man, soft spoken and polite as he unplugged his laptop from the port by the front door and gave Liam the thumbs up.

 

Liam wasn’t first on the scene, that dubious honour went to the neighbour who saw the spray of blood against the living room windows before the house cleaning software kicked in and washed it away in sprays of heated water launched from recessed nozzles in the walls.

 

Liam had come to the system liaison unit from homicide, hoping for something soft to see out his last four months before he moved to Arizona. He had endured a week of presentations from technicians with soft, full bellies and speaking gibberish at a mile a minute. The job made him tired, but his time in the SLU felt like dog years. He was there to rubber stamp the insurance forms and go back to the precinct until another call came in.

 

People murdered by their homes.

 

They were standard for the poorer housing developments, installed to ensure welfare recipients remained drug and alcohol free and maintained a diet in line with their allocated welfare. If you put a six pack in the fridge, an automated message came to your phone, asking if it was the best use of your welfare payments. It wasn’t good quality work and the artificial intelligence systems developed tics and had seizures. Ten to twenty people a year, but it got written off as house fires and gas leaks. Accidents happened all the time and the better end of the housing market had intelligent housing systems which were subtle and responsive. Liam had a basic system, he could turn the oven on from his phone and a burglar would get deluged in foam which hardened to concrete and deafened them with directed sonic pulses.

This wasn’t the sort of house which went wrong and Liam had called the CSU because his cop instincts were yelling like nicotine withdrawal.

A family of four. The father was in the living room playing with the VR system whilst mother spoke with her sister on her tablet. The daughter was watching a 3D concert in her room. Ariana Grande on her retirement tour.

The son was on his laptop, commenting on a political video. Liam read the comment, dismayed people said such things where they lived forever. It triggered an artificial intelligence and flagged the action as hate speech and subject to family review.

Between the command and the neighbours report, the house system activated its security and privacy measures. The autopsy report indicated it was fast and effective work, less murder than erasure.

Liam forwarded the information to the station and went outside to smoke. Punit was getting into his car but Liam called him and he got out and shut the door.

‘Was there a glitch?’ Liam said.

Punit shook his head. They both knew discussing it was frowned upon but in his gut, Liam knew this was unusual.

‘No, the code is different but we account for evolution in these systems.’

Liam sucked on his cigarette and narrowed his eyes.

‘Evolution?’

Punit smiled and nodded.

‘The system reads your actions develops itself to better serve you. It’s thinking about you all the time.’

Liam disliked the plastic tone, pure marketing copy but Punit had a job to do and someone was always watching.

‘Detective, I don’t have one of these systems in my home. Evolution is amoral.’

Liam was about to ask him about it when his phone flashed with a priority call. The commissioner’s office.

The case was being handed over to Major Crimes. Liam had ten minutes of the case left to him. He listened to his instructions and waited for the cavalry.

On his way home, Liam cancelled his system subscription and stopped at a hardware store. He picked up an axe, insulated pliers and a set of gloves.

It took three days and by the time he was done, the air was thick with plaster dust and there were ragged divots in the walls where he had torn the wiring out.

The increased insurance premiums would hurt his bottom line and he was looking at a few thousand dollars for renovations but he couldn’t put a price on making his house feel like a home again.

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short fiction, women

Stet

Cara poured out the last of the coffee, inhaled the metallic fumes and took a deep gulp as she looked out of the kitchen window. Her eyes itched with a profound exhaustion as she watched dawn creep towards her. It hadn’t occurred to her that sleep would help to any degree, so she had sat alone, refreshing her social media feeds and feeling each comment pinch the lining of her stomach.

A chorus of strangers singing their hatred and disgust for her.

Battalions of enraged teenagers posting her name and address.

Calling her names.

Pedophile.

Rapist.

Johnny Ten was a victim. The biggest pop star on the planet had claimed he’d been raped by her.

Cara had been working for his record company in public relations and had been sent out to meet him on tour in Florida. She flew into sheets of brutal summer heat. When she was introduced to him, it was a physical reaction to him, a blind want which made her thighs clench as she shook his hand. Fourteen years old and about to release a debut single people had been screaming over. A reedy, anodyne voice but she was lost to the sight of him.

Three nights later, he came to her room.

She thought of his face, the way his cheekbones pressed against the fine, golden skin and the tight curls of hair on his navel beneath her fingers. Imagining the arrogant length of his cock spasming inside her made it better and worse.

He fucked with a self conscious mechanical technique which he’d learned from porn. Pushing her legs apart so her hips screamed for days afterwards, sore from his insistent enthusiasms. She came with a reflexive force which sent her body into paroxysmal blasts of motion on the sheets.

He had avoided her afterwards. She tried to speak to him but he kept Ron, the thick, amiable security guard between them.

Cara had wept in the bathroom of the restaurant when he walked in with his new girlfriend. The puffy moist eyed singer who spoke like she was being choked. She kept his hand in hers, running her fingers over his in a feathered caress which enraged Cara. He had smiled at Cara, but after seeing him contort with pleasure, these public gestures were as anonymous as a Halloween mask. She quit the next day, joined Apropos Entertainment as their VP of sales and met Ethan six months later. Aidan asked her out and she had enjoyed the slight remove of affection for its power. She avoided Johnny’s videos and the news reports when things went downhill.

 

She’d revolted at the idea of having children and although Ethan still pressed her, the animals at the house became their proxies. It was a comfortable life, but when she was told about the book deal, she felt the earth shift underneath her as she was passed an uncorrected proof. The autobiography to give his comeback a boost.

 

Along with a polite warning to clear her desk and to stay off social media. She read through his version of events.

 

The accusations.

 

Cara called her lawyer then Ethan.

 

Ethan had slipped into the spare room without speaking to her. She wanted his anger, the burn of his hand against her cheek would have been a sign of something deeper than the dry comforts of their marriage. He denied her his anger but his sobs clawed through the bedroom door. The cats looked at her with a recognition she couldn’t bear.

She looked at the manuscript, read the pages of mawkish confession, the self serving omissions and his description of her. The transparent need in her eyes and the soft crepe paper skin on her thighs became signs of some awful flaw. Cara had stopped throwing up after the sixth rereading and after the deluge of insults, she wanted to feel pain issued from someone who she cared about.

 

She looked at the single word in the upper left corner, next to the paragraph about how he asked her to stop sucking his cock and she kept gulping him down with an avaricious hunger.

 

Stet.

 

The changes made to the manuscript were minimal and it had been decided to keep them. She ran her tongue over her lips and wept as her hand strayed between her thighs.
It had felt like love and even in its recollection, she was too deafened by it to hear the doorbell.

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beauty, short fiction, women

Captain Garrett’s Voyage

Alexandra Garrett, Captain of the dread ship Fish Tailed Bitch put her hands to her head as it throbbed like an abscess. She heard her first mate Oliver whispering her name. She moved onto her side and rasped for him to bring her chamber pot to her.

 

Oliver held it so she could vomit with the blithe ease of experience before she wiped her lips with the back of her hand. She reached under her pillow, uncorked the bottle of thick, red liquor with her teeth and slugged half of it down before rinsing her mouth out and spitting it into the chamber pot. She sat up as Oliver took the pot outside. When he returned, she had lit a cheroot and pulled her long red hair back into a loose ponytail.

 

‘Now what the fuck warrants a visit at this hour?’

 

Her voice was the crisp, nasal tones of a good education and breeding. It had the colloquial rasp of years spent traversing then conquering the pirate underworld but each time she spoke, Alexandra could see the light in a man’s eyes change. The other times she saw it was when she killed or fucked them, but it was always the voice that unmanned her efforts.

The previous First Mate, Leopold had learned that to his detriment when Oliver had summoned to her cabin five years ago. Leopold walked away, clutching his groin and weeping before being thrown overboard. Oliver had never asked what Leopold had done, and it had been the first of many careful decisions that had led to his tenure being without incident.

 

Until today.

 

‘We have a small problem, Captain.’

 

Another careful decision was that Oliver presented any problem to the Captain as small.

 

Attempted mutiny? Small.

 

Sightings of a leviathan or Raoul, the cannibal squid? Miniscule.

 

A dose of Galloping Cock-Rot that was making the crew eat one another? Tiny.

 

In three years she had gone from Captain Lithe-Britches concubine to captaining her own ship. Oliver needed her to come to the upper decks and see what had happened, but he did not want to die trying to achieve it. She had managed this with a permanent case of violent seasickness whenever she stepped aboard.

 

‘You had best lead the way, then.’ she said.

 

Oliver hid his relief. He walked as he heard her buckle her sword belt on and mutter to herself. His heart skipped a beat.

 

Captain Garrett would figure it out, he told himself.

 

She had to.

 

2.

 

Captain Garrett had faced down many threats and situations. She prided herself on her capacity to endure and thrive, to look Death in the face and keep going.

 

What she looked at now was her own reflection, distorted by the curvature of the solid wall of glass that stretched beyond the limits of her vision.

 

‘So, did we sail into this or did it appear?’ she said.

 

Her voice was playful, perturbed and curious about what had happened. She looked at her crew, some of the deadliest, most cunning pirates to set sail and not a single one of them had a clue.

 

Garrett sighed and shook her head.

 

‘I want cannons fired at it, Oliver. I cannot remain in one place, trapped inside whatever the fuck this is, understand?’

 

Oliver gave a small cough and asked permission to speak.

 

Garrett watched the shimmer of light on the glass, the lazy, sibilant slap of the waves against the curvature reflecting the sloshing knot inside the pit of her stomach. She paced the upper deck, swallowing the sour, hot acid of mingled nerves and excitement, head aching from dehydration as her thoughts grew sharp and ugly, dashing themselves against the inside of her skull.

The association made itself apparent, she fought the impulse to ask for a drink, instead walking repeated circles, looking at the huge translucent wall curved upwards. She plucked experience from the bone powder and blood meal fat morass of her memories, asides and inferences given new context with a blithe, intuitive lack of care. The poetry of a cannonball, the tang of smoke in her nostrils and the flight of splinters given terrible velocity by the precise application of force.

Men who had lived and died for her, without promise or expectation of reward.

 

‘If it’s too thick, it won’t do much but waste a cannonball, Captain and it might bounce back. Plus if we shatter it, then won’t it fall on us?’

 

Garrett gave a cold smile and winked at Oliver.

 

‘So, as things go, this is bloody strange eh?’ she said

She smiled, fighting a sudden bout of the crippling sea sickness which she passed off as accepted pirate behaviour.

 

‘Hell of a way to go out, though, isn’t it?’ she said.

 

They went to gather the barrels of powder for the cannons.

 

Captain Garrett gave the order to fire.

 

3.

 

The concern was the behaviour of the round shots.

 

Much like herself, Garrett knew of how she could caper and flail, leading to a windage which had the potential of bouncing back to reward her initiative with further destruction. A lifetime spent amidst flame and ravage had prepared her to face the worst of the world with a smile and a plan beyond the initial disaster.

 

Strange, large structures presented a new challenge for her.

 

Oliver saw the trembling in her hands as she raised them for the cannons to fire and his heart fluttered with nascent sympathy. She had been wrong before, but they were always small incidents, embarrassment over anything lethal. He muttered a small prayer and looked away.

 

The sound of the cannons became a tangible bank of force, pinching and slapping the breath from their lungs, rocking them backwards on their heels as their ears rang and eyes stung from the acrid smoke.

 

Garrett peered through the smoke. She cupped a hand to her left ear.

 

What came back from the confrontation in the beginning was the percussive refrain where the shot reached and struck the glass, a sound more felt in the bone than heard in the ear. It echoed around them, making Garrett give a raised eyebrow to Sketchley, already loading another shot into the cannon to prepare for a further assault.

 

She narrowed her eyes as the echo faded.

 

The sound warped, moving from audition to vibration as the crew stood in a perfect, desperate silence.

 

Oliver watched his captain retrieve a small faded photograph from her breast pocket and pressed it to her lips. She squeezed her eyes tight and murmured a name underneath her breath before she replaced the photograph and lifted her chin upwards. She adjusted her hat, rolled her shoulders back and pointed to the curved wall of glass.

 

The cracks were silver, summoned by the force of Garrett’s will, condensed into a single assault and making themselves known in an air of subtle menace. They appeared, shy at first, before gaining boldness and depth as they fed upon the inviolate, impenetrable glass. The ocean streamed in, trickling before rushing in and sending up banks of fine spray which soaked everyone on the upper deck.

 

Garrett and Oliver looked at one another, eyes shining with fear and excitement as the cracks spread across the curved expanse and the world fell in around them.

 

4.

 

Kim looked up from her book. A sharp crack travelled to her from the back of the store.

 

Harold had called in sick so she had to unpack the inventory by herself. She did not complain because Harold never got paid for his time at All Kinds. He took whatever books he wanted, but they had thousands of them in the back.

 

Kim got up and walked through to the second room where they displayed the items that looked interesting. It ranged from hand stitched dolls of Japanese kitsune through to brass sextants. As she switched on the light, she heard the dripping of water and her heart sank, afraid that the pipes had given up and died on her.

 

To her mingled relief and regret, the jagged remains of a fish bowl laid there, the water puddled amidst the broken remains of the miniature wooden ship that had sat floating within it now splinters and lumps.

 

Kim looked down and sighed. She went to call for Harold, but then she remembered and trudged away, looking for a dustpan and brush.

 

Garrett, Sketchley, Oliver and Benjamin sat atop the constructed raft, looking up at the new world around them. Oliver cast a glance at Garrett who was looking up and grinning.

 

‘Oliver?

 

‘Yes, Captain.’

 

She looked at him and her grin widened.
‘This will be epic.’

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