A Lesson Learned – Short Story

A Lesson Learned – Short Story

“He’s sleeping,” the nurse said.

Emma paused with her hand on the doorknob though it was not for fear of awakening her grandfather but more for the fear the care home’s staff. Turning to face the attending nurse Emma steeled herself behind a business-like face.

“He’ll be expecting me,” she replied firmly “it’s three o’clock.”

The nurse did not back down.

“All the same I’d rather you waited for him to wake up.”

Emma eyed the single chair against the near wall and then looked back to the nurse. Her mind reeled with conspiracy but she sat and watched the door impatiently. Minutes of rustling paperwork offered no distraction and when, at last, the gatekeeper moved to check on her resting charge Emma was quick to move behind her, crowding the woman’s back.

“See!” Emma declared triumphantly “he’s fine.”

Her grandfather beamed at her as he struggled to rise from the bed and Emma dumped her bag on the floor so that she could help him, pushing the nurse aside when she would have moved to do the same. Holding up her hands in defeat the nurse left the room, though Emma could hear her mumbling to the other nurses at the nearby station.

“How are you?” she asked him and though she didn’t expect a reply she busied herself with inane chatter as she helped him into his armchair.

“I still can’t get passed those issues,” Emma continued and placed his slippers on his feet.

“So, are you going to help me? Can we try this again?”

Her grandfather tapped the arms of his chair playfully and Emma stared at the well-worn fabric beneath his fingertips. Grabbing for her bag she ignored the fidgeting and hoped that today would be the day for answers.

“Ok,” she began “we’re still having issues with test subjects E through H. They’re complaining of migraines when using the Interface. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern in the timings between the onset of pain and the start of the testing protocol and neither Petri nor I can pinpoint it. Petri himself has started experiencing these now so I’m really eager to fix it since he’s determined not to let it halt his progress.”

Emma flicked through her notebook for the supporting data and finding the scans she placed them before her Grandfather.

“See these?” she asked him “these are the scans before or after the session. There’s just no difference so the pain certainly isn’t causing any long term damage. What I’d really like to do is to get scans during, but since the process still isn’t wireless I don’t see it happening.”

Emma held her breath as he lifted the scans before the light of the window and though her heart beat wildly she tried not to get her hopes up. A few moments later he replaced them on the table and then stared back at her as if waiting for her to continue.

“Well next we have the more worrying of the two really. Test user L has tied himself in a loop? His programme was running correctly but when the Interface proposed an answer that he couldn’t answer he was unable to proceed. We’re worried about forcing a disconnect in the programming in case we cause full brain damage but I don’t know how long we can leave him that way.”

Emma looked through file belonging to test subject L and though she was comforted by the protection of the release form he had signed upon entering the study she couldn’t assuage the guilt that bloomed inside her. Casting it aside she looked once again to her grandfather who had slowed his tapping to stare at her. Waiting for something though she didn’t know what. Banishing the tears from her eyes she shook herself and replaced the file in her bag.

“That’s all for today really. So what do you think?” she asked hopefully and took his hand in hers so that she could draw his attention.

“23, 14, 19, 6, 20, 19,” he said and for a moment Emma did nothing but stare at him. It was the first thing he had said to her in months and in in her shock she at first absorbed only the sound of his voice and wallowed in how she had missed it.

“What did you say?” she asked quietly.

“23, 14, 19, 6, 20, 19,” he repeated.

Quickly she scribbled the numbers down in her notebook.

“And what do those numbers mean granddad?” she asked and looked to him for more information.

“23, 14, 19, 6, 20, 19.”

Emma sighed.

“23, 14, 19, 6, 20, 19.”

“Its ok granddad,” she said and patted his hand, returning it to the arm of his chair with a deflated disappointment that she couldn’t quite hide. Slowly she packed away her things.

“I’ll see you tomorrow ok?” she replied.

“You should stop it now,” he said quietly and Emma dropped her things to return to him.

“What did you say?”

“It brings out the worst in people,” he continued and Emma stroked the side of his face as she watched the moment of lucidity fade away into daydreams. Her shoulders slumped and she kissed him on the forehead as she rose. When she closed his bedroom door behind her she sank against the cheap wood.

“It’s unfair of you to use him this way,” the nurse said from behind her station and though Emma couldn’t see her she quickly marched towards the desk for the confrontation that was sure to distract her from her disappointment.

“I’m sorry?” she asked hotly.

“I said that it’s unfair of you to use him this way,” the nurse carried on and stood to go eye to eye with Emma. “You don’t come to see him, you only come to talk about your work. That man has been through enough without you using him this way.”

“You don’t know anything about me!” Emma responded aghast.

“This isn’t about you,” the nurse replied calmly “if you’ve nothing to offer him than why do you come?”

Emma shrugged sadly and shook her head at the nurse. She knew that this was not a battle she would easily win.

“You don’t know him,” she replied at last “you only know what’s left of him.”

Distracted, she did not dwell on the words of her grandfather but rather on her duel with the nurse. Emma was troubled by the conversation in the way that the guilty replay events to assure themselves of their righteousness and it stayed with her long into the evening. The soft release of the lab-door indicated that the last subject had left their work station and she afforded Petri a weary smile as he entered their flat.

“Are you as tired as you look?” he asked her as he approached the kitchen table at which she sat. Removing her feet from the chair opposite he sat and replaced them in his lap.

“I have had a very trying day,” she replied.

“You didn’t get anywhere with your grandfather?” he asked.

Emma shook her head.

“Not that I truly expected to,” she confessed “though it would have been a welcome break.”

“Indeed.”

“Well?” Emma asked, steering them aware from her lack of progress “have you made any in roads?”

“Not as such,” he replied “though the headaches have been less today.”

“And in the other subjects?” she asked.

“Still no move with L,” he replied knowing that she was primarily interested in one.

Emma sighed “I don’t see how we can possibly hand over the project to the client in this state.”

Petri rubbed her feet soothingly.

“We’ll get there. I’m sorry you didn’t get anything from your grandfather.”

Emma rubbed her weary eyes and spoken into her hands.

“Well he did say something,” she mumbled and reaching across to her Petri pulled her hands away from her face. The movement was slow, as if what she had to say was of the upmost importance.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said “you put too much pressure on me.”

“Then tell me what was said and put me out of my misery,” he hurried.

“Honestly it was nearly nothing,” Emma replied moving away from him “just a random bunch of numbers.”

Petri got up to follow her and though she hurried away from him to her study she felt his fast approach. Rummaging through her bag she produced the numbers and showed them to him.

“In our line of work how can you think anything random?”

“He’s a very old man Petri,” she explained “his mind is almost completely gone.”

Petri scanned the numbers over and over again and as he did she lost herself in thoughts of her grandfather, revisiting the fear that she would one day face the same fate.

“I mean, how much can he really remember from that time anymore?” she asked quietly.

“Well you obviously hope that he can remember something or you wouldn’t continue to see him.”

“Hmm,” she replied and wondered if she should confess her fears to Petri. If she couldn’t tell him then who was she to trust?

“Petri I-

“You know when I was younger my brother and I would pass notes to each other using numbers. It was always through a book we shared and the receiving brother would have to guess the book.”

Emma sighed.

“That sounds impossible.”

“We didn’t have many books,” he confessed “but the game made them useful even after they had been read over and over again.”

Emma listened to him patiently though she didn’t hold much hope for the suggestion.

“Do you really think that this could be the same thing?” she asked him though her voice was flat and unoptimistic.

“It’s worth a try,” he said “what books does your grandfather have on his shelf?”

She cast a glance at her own bookshelf and back at Petri.

“I don’t think he has many,” she replied “a handful at best.”

“Let’s phone the nursing home and ask them,” Petri suggested gleefully and Emma winced at the memory of her argument which had laid dormant until then.

“I’d rather not,” she confessed “I had a bit of a run in with a nurse there today.”

Petri smiled.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” he replied smiling “I’ll call instead then, I have no problem with facing your dragon if you’re afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” she replied indignantly “I’m just not doing it.”

Petri huffed and walked out of the study. Thinking that it would be the end of their discussion she returned to her work but moments later Petri returned.

“Well that’s the end of that then,” he replied and replaced the phone to the charging cradle.

“You didn’t call?” she asked aghast.

“Yes I did but it was no use,” he replied “the nurse on duty said that patients tend only to have one book in their rooms,”

“The Bible,” they said at once. As Petri voiced it his voice was deflated. As Emma said it her voice was filled with excitement.

“I don’t know what you’re so excited about,” he grumbled.

“We have the book!” she exclaimed “we can figure it out!”

“No one reads the Bible Emma,” he muttered “it’s like having it in a hotel room.”

Emma stared at him mouth open.

“You’re continuing the man’s work and you really know nothing about him?” she asked.

“I know everything there is to know about the work,” he replied defensively “I don’t see why that means I should have to know everything that there is to be known about the man himself.”

“His father was a vicar,” Emma said impatiently as she rummaged around her office.

“Do we even have a Bible?” Petri asked as she about the room.

Frustrated at her fruitless search Emma shook her head.

“Maybe somewhere?”

“Well then let’s look it up,” he said and reached for the tablet on her desk.

“Read the figures to me again,”

“23, 14-

“Stop,” he halted her as he read the search results.

“Ok 23:14 says ‘You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell’,” he read slowly “Christ Emma what did you ask him?”

Affronted, Emma picked up her notes.

“I only mentioned the pain and the subject L?” she replied questioningly.

“Well I don’t see how that fits?” he replied “what’s the next one?”

“19 and 6?”

“’Many seek the favour of a generous man, and everyone is a friend to a man who gives gifts’,”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” she huffed out.

“Maybe he wants you to bring him a gift or he won’t tell you anything useful?” Petri offered lightly.

“This isn’t working,” Emma complained.

“Now, now. Let’s try the last one.”

“20 and 19,” she read.

“Ok,” he said “this might work ‘whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets: therefore do not associate with a simple babbler’.”

“How does that help anything?” she asked and through her hands in the air “what version of the bible are you using?”

“I hardly see how that matters,” he replied “the general tone will be the same even if there’s some variation on the styling.”

Emma re-read the text and flickered between the different results, begrudgingly she admitted that Petri was right.

“Then we have the wrong book,” she replied and returned the tablet to Petri.

“Give it a chance,” he said “you asked him about L, yes?”

“How can that possibly pertain to L?” she asked angrily.

“Maybe he was going to reveal secrets?” he offered weakly.

“Interface doesn’t work like that,” she replied.

“Well then maybe he was trying to hide a secret?” Petri replied.

Emma reached for the file they had on L. Admittedly he was one of the candidates that she was unsure of but Petri had assured her of his brilliance and that he had a wide and varied history. He was a good subject for Interface to interact with and she had learnt a lot from studying him.

“That would mean that L did this to himself,” she said quietly.

“Maybe he did?” Petri said softly though the words themselves were heavy and damning.

“Why would anyone do that to themselves?” she asked.

“I think that was rather the point; that we not know,” Petri replied “and it’s done now.”

“Why would Interface allow someone to do that to themselves?”

“Well I rather think that L manipulated the programming as opposed to the other way around.”

“That’s not much comfort,” she replied “we’ll have to go back to the basics and figure out how to stop it from happening again,” she muttered.

Petri’s eyes widened.

“You can’t do that!” he exclaimed “it’d take us months to get back here!”

Emma waved him away dismissively.

“Why would my grandfather build something like this into the framework?” she muttered “it doesn’t make any sense.”

Petri approached her angrily.

“Emma are you listening to me?” he asked “we cannot go back to the basics on this! We’re too close to completion.”

“Petri you can’t be serious?” she replied “how could we possibly release this if it causes this many issues?”

“It’s one subject!” he shouted.

“It’s not one subject,” she defended “what about the headaches? Your headaches?”

“That’s just settling pain,” he replied “it will go away.”

“I don’t think it will,” she replied and looked back to the tablet “maybe that’s the first one? What was it again? Something about beating someone to deliver them?”

Petri watched as she searched through the previous pages though his blood began to boil at her need to absolute perfection. His limit was close.

“Yes,” she said at last “it was ‘You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell’.”

Slowly he moved so that he stood behind her and read the text over her shoulder, pleased that her absorption in the puzzle hadn’t alerted her to the maliciousness of his intentions.

“That seems a bit harsh,” she replied “what could you possibly have been thinking that would make it want to hurt you?”

He loosed a heavy breath and reached to grab the letter opener from her desk. Distracted as she was Emma missed the action and continued to scan through the other possible associations.

“That this never should have been your study to begin with,” he replied viciously “and I’ll be damned it I let you take it away from me now.”

As she turned she saw the glint of the metal racing down to her body and she lunged to be free of it. Not quick enough in her flight the blade thrust into her skin with a heavy weight that told of the strength behind the action. It lodged there, between her shoulder and her neck, and she knew that her movement had taken it off course from the near artery. As she fell to the floor in pain Emma knew that it would take a long time for her to die this way.

Ignoring her Petri picked up the tablet and browsed through the recent entries.

“You know I think I understand the second one now,” he said “this information probably would have been a gift. You were just too close to see it.”

A Leaf On The Family Tree – Short Story

A Leaf On The Family Tree – Short Story

This is a piece I wrote a few years ago whilst researching my family tree. Not very far into the history on my mother’s side I came across a man who’s parentage was difficult to trace due to his varied addresses over a thirty year period. Therefore when I found a common ancestry link with another user I was keen to reach out to them for more information:

Hello,

I’m wondering if you can help me. I’m trying to trace the parents of William Smith (1840) on my mother’s side of the family however I’m having very little luck. I’ve come across your family tree and I can see that you’ve come to some very interesting conclusions with regards to William’s parentage. Would you be able to tell me any more about it?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Philippa Robinson

Hi Philippa,

I was wondering when someone else would stumble upon this. You are, I think, referring to his mother Ann Smith whom I have spent some time researching. Ann Smith was born on the 14th of June 1817 and led a very interesting and tragic life. She was born in Kirby where she lived with her parents until her mother’s death in 1823 and gave birth to her first son, Matthew Smith, out of wedlock in 1837. His father, William Beasley, seems to have had very little to do with him other than his name on the birth certificate.

In 1840 she gave birth to William, again out of wedlock, his father was Edward Woods whom I found on the next census as married to a Sarah Woods, I don’t know if they were married at the time of William’s conception. The same year she married a man called Jonathan Lawrenson at St Chad’s Church in Kirkby. Jonathan took in both Matthew and William and the family went to live in Eccleston in 1841 where they remained until Jonathan’s death in 1881. At this point Ann must have gone to live with her son William in Barrownook.

In 1890 she was admitted to Lancaster Moor Asylum with dementia. She died at the asylum on the 16th of September in 1898 of bronchitis and was buried at the local graveyard at Quernmore Road in Lancaster. She had no money and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Later the paupers were buried deeper as the plots were sold. I have been in touch with the burials at Lancaster who were kind enough to give me details of her burial site and have since helped me find the plot; I still have the map if you are interested. I also have a copy of her medical records that came with a picture of Ann; she is the double of my late grandmother.

I hope this has been helpful to you and if you have any more questions please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely

Margaret

Even as I re-read this years later I am saddened by this woman’s story. Sadly the Ancestry user didn’t come back to me with details of the plot or photographs of Ann, but the events did prompt the following series of short writing extracts. I used these to make sense of her story and tried to imagine what she would had gone through in her tumultuous and tragic life.

“That’s not how it happened,” she said quietly and the attending nurse paused in her note taking to look up at her patient.

“What did you say Mrs Lawrenson?” she asked as she continued to tuck in the new sheets to the patient’s bed.

“I said, that’s not how it happened.”

“That’s not how what happened?”

Ann touched her aging hand to the bedroom window. The cold glass heated instantly to her touch, surrounding her hand in a warm outline of condensation. She deflated and let out a sigh.

“You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said.”

******

The strained sound of violins was beginning to overwhelm her. Dancing couples had come too close on more than one occasion and even though the night was supposed to be about enjoying herself she was regretting her decision to attend. Clusters of merriment occupied the town hall but Ann was not privy to their frivolity. Wearily she let out the sigh she had been holding in her pretence. She was, at least, thankful to be eclipsed by the merriment of the party-goers and from the stares of the women she pretended weren’t talking about her.

Finding no safe place to rest her eyes Ann turned her attention back to her drink. Orange juice, no alcohol as she had promised her father.

“You should be dancing,” John said from behind her. He stood closely enough that she could feel the warmth from his body and so that no one else had heard his words.

“You know I can’t dance with you,” she replied and looked downward, drawing attention to the heavily pregnant stomach which her hand circled lazily.

“I remember that you used to dance.”

“Well, not anymore. It wouldn’t be right,” she said sadly.

“Just one dance Ann,” he said and held out his hand expectantly. Ann followed the line of his arm up to the smile on his face. She noted the new wrinkles on his brow and the tidiness of his hair that he had combed back for the occasion.

“Are you trying to put your poor mother in an early grave?” she asked him and took his hand. The eyes on his back threatened to overthrow his temerity, but gingerly John helped her up from the table and took advantage of her slow movement to search the room for his mother’s face. He found it quickly and soon after regretted looking for it at all. The sour face that scowled upon him was a growing deterrent and before he lost his nerve he led Ann out on the dance floor.

John rearranged her hand in his and pulled her as close to him as her pregnancy would allow, his deep set eyes latched on to hers and held her there so that she might block out the dozens of onlookers that had honed in on them.

“You’re still the prettiest one here Ann,” he said to her. She gave him a watery smile and turned her face away from the intensity of the moment.

He began to move them in time with the music, taking care to go slowly with her as if she were even more fragile than she looked. John kissed the side of her face very gently.

“You’re still my girl.”

******

A cold hand touched her shoulder making her jump. “Don’t do that, I’m old, you’re likely to kill me if you keep doing that,” she told the nurse sternly.

“I did call your name Mrs Lawrenson,’ the nurse offered ‘come and sit down over here so that I can brush your hair.”

“I can brush my own hair,” Ann muttered and made no move to acquiesce.

“Still, it’s on my list so I have to do it,” the nurse replied and then sat beside her on the bed.

“You wouldn’t want to get me in trouble now would you?” she coaxed.

“No,” Ann replied “no I suppose not.”

******

“Mum, it’s time to go.”

“No. I can’t,” Ann replied quietly “I’m not ready yet.”

“We have to mum, they need to take him.”

“They can’t,” she said in the sternest voice she could muster “I haven’t said goodbye.”

“You’ve had plenty of time to say goodbye already mum,” William said softly.

“His mother hasn’t come to see him yet,” she reasoned.

William paused in his response.

“She won’t come mum, you know that.”

“Not even now that he’s died?” she asked quietly, as much to herself as to her son. William remained silent, acknowledging his mother’s disbelief served no purpose. Instead he stared at the clock on the wall and wished to be anywhere else.

“Mum,” he begged again “please?”

Ann curled her hands around Jonathan’s still, left hand and fiddled with the wedding band that wouldn’t turn as playfully as it used to.

“No,” she said resolutely and straightened in her chair “I won’t leave him.”

William looked for support from his brother and, finding none, turned to the men from the funeral parlour who stood patiently in the hall. He nodded his head sombrely at them and they moved with practiced efficiency, careful to move around her so as not to spook her.

As they took him Ann let out a keening wail. Her clammy fingers slipped from her husband’s and they fell away from her own easily. Ann moved to follow them and Matthew took his mother in an awkward hug to tame her as she cried.

“Let me go,” she pleaded through her sobbing but William held her fast, quiet even as his own grief fell from his eye and into her hair.

******

“It’s cold in here Mag. Bring me my shawl won’t you?” Ann asked as she shivered against the chair.

“I’m not Margaret, Mrs Lawrenson, its nurse Simpson, remember?” the nurse replied. Ann looked confused for a moment but recovered quickly.

“Yes, that’s right,” she nodded with conviction as she accepted the shawl that the nurse had gone to fetch.

“Will my sons be coming to see me today?”

The nurse did not reply and there was a heaviness to their joint silence that answered more than either woman could word.  

These Are Things That I No Longer Wish To Understand

These Are Things That I No Longer Wish To Understand

I see a lot of writers using writing prompts to help with their work and as I read the material they’ve inspired I am often impressed, check out this blog if you want to see it done well. Indeed there are countless Twitter pages devoted to this very purpose and though I found them helpful I’ll confess that what the exercise spawned in my own writing was a bit malformed if not entirely depressing. So here it is…I promise not to do this to you again.

His name is Adam and before the sunrise he is free. The chilled air does little to sooth his nerves as he walks. The path is a long one, his journey clearly marked in the uniformity of the trees that please him in their clean, straight lines. He takes his time, enjoying the quiet dawn and the dewy air not yet settled and he regularly stops to make the most of his solitude. He kicks the metal at the base of the trees. The grates keep the roots firmly imprisoned and displacing them makes him feel as if he has freed them for a time. The metal and the perfectly placed foliage are evidence of man’s dominion over nature but in his old age he has come to realise that modern will has only a transient control.

Somewhere within the grounds there is a house. He came regularly as a visitor until the time he could not leave and painfully he remembers a smaller hand clasped in his own, keeping it safe as it anchored him. He stares at his palms. Perhaps it was his own hands that were smaller as the weathered skin that he stares at seems not his own. A throbbing begins at his temples and he clutches at it as if it were a physical thing that he could rip away but instead he takes the memory and it is gone. Forgotten images of little fingers are just one of the things that he misses now that he is banished.

Onward he walks, out of the symmetry of the trees and past a discoloured swing set that struggles to move against the rust that holds it together. As he crests the hill he sees the picturesque manor house, though the windows are dark and uninviting. It looks so much different than the pictures in the brochure for the angles seem sharper in the reality of the present. The white house is grand but there is a wrongness to it that he can place one moment, a prickling on the back of his neck, but it is quickly gone again in the next. It has not warmed to him now that it is his home.

Adam sneaks around the edges of the building, past the regulation fire-escapes that dispel the façade of period grandeur. When he comes to his window he finds that the pane has slipped almost closed and he works his numbed fingers into the gap to force it wider. The progress is slow for he worries about the noise and as he clambers back inside, he does so with silent but broken movement. The warmer air is both a comfort and a prickling pain that crackles as his skin warms up. There are no floorboards to creak but a cheap carpet muffles his footsteps. He slips back into bed and rubs his feet together beneath the blankets to warm them up again and as he slips further down the headboard he smiles smugly to himself. He is pleased with the success of his clandestine jaunt. But then the smile slips. He wonders if it is because no one cares to look for him. These are the things that he no longer wishes to understand.

Fleeting Thought – Short Story [Graphic Content]

Fleeting Thought – Short Story [Graphic Content]

Dene flexed his wrists upwards, barely an inch of movement and certainly not enough to scratch his nose. He eyed the door again. Although he could see movement from the short shadows on the floor, the lack of windows offered no hint as to when their owners would enter the room. Thanks to the strap across his forehead he could barely move his head to either side and the slightly squat position put too much pressure on his spine. Dene knew that the moment he was released he would be in agony. He was pretty sure his detainment was against his civil rights, let alone the physical restraints and the moment someone came for him he was going to tell them.

What he could do was tap his foot and he did so impatiently. The soft beat was his only stimulation and he clung to it desperately, losing himself in the tempo. The door handle twitched and drew his eye to the doorway but as the lights were turned on, the sharp change shattered his reception and he closed his eyes against the torment. The sharp scrapes of a cheap chair on linoleum forced him to look upon the intruder and as Dene beheld the other man he was almost offended by the unprofessional look of him. A stain of smeared mustard stared offensively from a portly stomach wrapped in a faded cream shirt and as the officer sat Dene could not take his eyes off it.

“This is against my civil rights,” Dene blurted at him and then regretted his outburst.

“Is it now Mr Barker?” the officer asked.

“Yes,” he replied plainly knowing that now he had voiced his anger he had better see it through.

“I wasn’t aware that murderers as prolific as you believed in civil rights?”

Dene recoiled as much as he was able though his repulsion was more aptly put across in his skewed facial expression.

“I haven’t murdered anyone!” he cried.

The fat officer released a sighing breath and made a few taps on his hand held computer.

“Mr Barker,” he began “legally I have to inform you that you are hooked up to a thought processing machine. This technology will allow us to access your thoughts for the period of this interview and no longer without further consent. All information gathered will be documented for you to sign at the end of this interview and will replace your written statement. Do you understand?”

“Do I understand?” he bellowed “No I don’t bloody understand! What is this? Where am I? And what right do you have to do this to me?”

“We are on the lower ground floor of the Meadows Policing Building. You were transferred here from sixth after you were brought in for questioning this morning.”

Dene thought back to the moment he had answered his door and began to regret his easy cooperation. Yet, the previous floor had not been able to do anything with him and he’d felt sure of his imminent release. The officer looked past the top of Dene’s head to the mystery behind him and looked back to his computer.

“Mr Barker I really need you to sign this before we go any further,” the fat man began and offered him the device.

“Of course officer,” Dene replied cattily “if you’ll just untie my hands I’ll get right on that.”

“Funny,” the officer muttered and manoeuvred the computer beneath Dene’s hand.

“A thumb print will do just fine.”

“Am I under arrest?” Dene asked speculatively.

“Not as such,” the officer admitted.

“Then let me go,” he demanded “I want to leave.”

“You have been selected for an alternative line of questioning Mr Barker,” he replied “it’s quite above board, I assure you, and pending the result you can leave as soon as completed.”

Dene assessed the officer who did not seem in any way threatening as the previous interviewer had. If anything this man seemed to want to be rid of him as much as he wanted to go. Not seeing any way out of his predicament he pressed his thumb onto the screen  though the angle was on the edge of painful.

“Excellent, I’m officer Gibbons. I’d shake your hand but…” the officer trailed off with an unapologetic shrug for his poor humour. “Do you know why you’ve been arrested?”

Dene thought back and officer Gibbons began to take note of the fuzzy images that transmitted to the screen behind his suspect, thinking himself lucky that Dene thought in images and not text. With text he had no hope of making notes and in truth, he thought lamely, it was almost useless as an interviewing technique if the speed of thought was faster than he could read.

“The men at my door said something about the murder of Anne something or other,” Dene replied and wondered why he couldn’t recall her name. He could picture her the pink cardigan with the little pink flowers on it but not the name. If he hadn’t seen her picture again he probably wouldn’t even have known who he was being accused of killing. He stared at officer Gibbons who was smirking at him.

“It’s hard to control your thoughts isn’t it?” Gibbons asked mockingly.

Dene blanched and wondered how much the officer had seen.

“Even if I knew her it doesn’t mean I killed her,” he hedged.

“So you did know Anne-Marie Leyland?”

“I suppose I must have seen her around.”

“And where would that have been?” Gibbons enquired.

“I don’t know,” Dene replied “the supermarket or something?”

“If I thought for a second you did your own supermarket shopping Mr Barker I’d give it credit,” Gibbons replied “even so, it’s unlikely that a young mother would have ventured so far into your neighbourhood to do her food shopping.”

Dene wanted to roll his eyes but resisted.

“Don’t waste your time trying to spare my feelings,” Gibbons said “the screen will show all of that anyway. So let’s try this again. Where do you think you might have seen Anne-Marie Leyland ‘around’?”

“I have no idea!” he spat but his thoughts strayed back to that pink cardigan and how easily it tore. Panicking, Dene tried to think of something else though his mind struggled to find anything sufficiently distracting to carry him away. Gibbons sighed and slumped back in his chair as he watched the quick paced images begin to blur on the screen behind Mr Barker’s head. This was new, but not entirely unexpected. The technology was still in its infancy and the data was still compiling. In a year or so the trial would be handed on to someone who had the drive to see it excel. In the meantime he had to deal with wild goose chases like the Art History professor in front of him. He needed a break or a breakthrough and he didn’t care which.

Gibbons pushed back the chair and Dene paid attention long enough to feel relieved. The officer opened the door slightly to poke his head into the corridor and Dene took a moment to revel in the privacy of his thoughts. He thought about stabbing him through the navel. Then he thought of the stench of forty years worth of fat and decided that officer Gibbons was better suited to a quick slit across the throat. Seconds later a tall stick-insect of a man re-entered the room with Gibbons. With him he carried an insubstantial file and Dene almost felt relieved to see it, was this all they had on him?

“No,” said the skinny man “these are just the photographs.”

The thin officer began to place graphic images of slaughtered female bodies on the table in front of him but Dene paid no attention to any of them. He had seen the second officer somewhere before and the thought of placing his face consumed his thoughts. On screen a catalogue of possible matches flickered like a portfolio.

“You know a lot of people,” Gibbons remarked as he watched them continue to flicker by.

“What’s your name?” Dene asked.

“I’m officer Crewe,” he replied “what can you tell me about these women?”

“I know you from somewhere…” Dene replied and then like lightening it struck him and images of a beautiful blond kissing the side of the man’s face flashed before him. He revelled in the kind of satisfaction that comes from a small victory but it was short lived.

“How do you know that picture?” Crewe asked. His shaking hand scattered the pictures across the table and he made no effort to correct their placement.

“What picture?” Dene asked and as soon the words left his mouth the images on the screen behind him began to scatter again.

“You saw that, right?” Crewe asked Gibbons “you saw that picture of Jane?”

“I-

“That picture’s on my God damn mantelpiece Gibbons!” he continued “how could he have seen it?”

“Maybe you were mistaken?”

“Like hell I was,” Crewe replied and walked around the back of the suspect to search amongst the wires.

“Make it rewind or something,” he snapped at Gibbons.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Gibbons replied and shot Dene a filthy look which he met with a satisfied smile. Crewe walked away from the cables and turned the suspect around to face him. The chair was cumbersome with the machinery and the rigid body sat in it and it groaned as it fought against the flooring.

“Tell me how you know that picture!” he yelled.

“What picture?” Dene asked innocently.

“You said you knew me,” he spat “how?”

“I must have been mistaken,” Dene replied “you look a bit like my cousin.”

Crewe reared back his fist but thought the better of it at the last second and turned to smash his hand into the wall. He had dropped all protocol now and Gibbons as quick to follow.

“Calm down,” he tried to comfort him “where’s Jane now?”

“At her sister’s,” Crewe replied.

“Call her there,” Gibbons suggested “put your mind at ease.”

“Yeah I think that’s a good idea Crewe,” Dene offered “go and call your wife.”

Crewe shot him a fierce look but left the room before he could act on his aggression.

“You’re playing a dangerous game Mr Barker,” Gibbons said when his partner had left.

“If you release me I’ll have no need to play it.”

“You think that’s going to happen now?”

Dene shrugged in reply and let his mind drift again.

“Do you know any of the women in these photographs?” Gibbons asked though in truth he didn’t expect an answer.

“Not anymore,” Dene replied. Gibbons physically shifted closer, not to the suspect but to the screen behind him where the blur began to slow before bleeding to red.

“Did you know them then?” he asked cautiously, knowing that the wrong question would jeopardise the recording.

“No.”

The answer was so flat that the screen flashed black for a second and Gibbons was almost frightened by the reaction. The sound of pounding footsteps echoed down the corridor and Gibbons was up from his seat and marching towards the door before he had had the chance to assess his actions. Too late he reached it and as the door was thrown wide his partner pushed him out of the way.

“She’s not there,” he said angrily “they haven’t seen her all day.”

Crewe leapt towards the suspect with an unexpected agility and Gibbons didn’t even have the chance to stop him even if he had the inclination.

“Where is she?!” he yelled in Dene’s face. When the suspect offered no reply Crewe punched him hard in the face and his cheek slammed to the side even with the tight bindings.

“Where is she?!”

Dene began to laugh but it was unlike any sound that Gibbons had ever heard. The man sounded crazy and high at the same time. Euphoric from a punch in the face. For Gibbons it was unnerving and his mind chased after the why of it all. Crewe had stopped moving and it took Gibbons a moment to think to look past him to the screen. Gone was the blur and instead a vision of bloodied mess filled the wall. It was almost too gory to make out but the occasional flash of limbs, a bra strap and wide lips soon became apparent through the bloodlust. Gibbons was grateful that there was no sound to accompany the images but it didn’t stop him from imagining it. He could hear the mixed voices of all of the women he had ever known twisted into pain and placed before him.

So consumed was he by the bloodbath on screen that he missed Crewe’s rash decision to pounce upon the suspect and push him and the chair to the floor. Gibbons recoiled from the desk as it flipped and the pictures that scattered around the room caused him to slip as he rushed to pull his partner from the suspect. Crewe punched Dene over and over again in the face and still the man laughed as if he were enjoying it. Gibbons thought that he was enjoying it but the cause eluded him.

“The statement!” he shouted at Crewe and the sharp exclamation was enough to permeate the man’s rage.

“He hasn’t signed the statement,” he continued “we can’t use any of this if he doesn’t.”

His partner stilled and he began to relax into a slow relief that at least he wasn’t going to lose his badge over this. He thought that Crewe might lose his, but on their forgotten floor there would be no one but Gibbons himself to stop him and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to.

The images on screen lightened from red to focused colour that showed Jane running down a black corridor, her blonde hair a beacon on the otherwise darkened screen. She was followed slowly, her pursuer content that she would not get far. Neither of the officers could drag their eyes off the screen and Dene let the memory play with sick satisfaction.

“I licked the blood from her neck,” he said slowly and Crewe looked down to where he still lay on the floor “she didn’t even really scream. I think she liked it.”

Crewe began to beat on him in earnest and Gibbons ran to the door to call for help. He shouted for backup but they were alone in their department. Two aging officers with no prospects working on a trial that nobody else had wanted. Behind him he could hear Crewe’s fists pounding into Mr Barker’s face and when he turned to look neither man seemed recognisable. Crewe for the splatter than marked his neatly pressed shirt and face. The suspect for the soft pulp that was slowly taking over his features. Dene should have been either dead or unconscious with the level of aggression Crewe wreaked upon him but still the images played on a loop as if stuck. Gibbons couldn’t bear to look at it anymore and sank against the wall in the corridor. Help was coming, he could hear the footsteps, but it was going to be too late to save any of them.

Criteria – Short Story [Explicit Content]

The room was cold but her skin prickled with the clammy sweat of nervousness. Amari’s eyes traced the lines between the ceiling tiles and though they offered nothing new in their design she found that the uniformity did not comfort her as it usually did. Flynn’s warm hand grazed her cheek, she rolled over to face him but his eyes were still closed. He groaned in mock exasperation and buried his face into the pillow. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” she apologised softly in the darkness.

“Are you worried about tomorrow?” he asked, concern and sleepiness showed in his voice. Seeking comfort she moved into him and he folded her into his arms.

“Yes,” she mumbled into his shoulder.

“Hmm?”

“Yes,” Amari said again “I’m worried about tomorrow.”

Withdrawing so that he could look at her he fought against the tiredness that sought to reclaim him.

“Everyone has to do it,” he replied “this is just another stage in your training.”

“I know,” she affirmed “I just wish they’d tell us more about it.”

“Have you considered that that’s part of it?”

She huffed out an impatient breath.

“I wish you would just tell me what it’s all about.”

He tucked her back into his body and winced as her cold fingers touched his chest.

“Then how would you learn?”

She replayed the words until the angry sound of their alarm woke her. Amari was unsure if she had slept at all, her head was groggy and heavy from the restless night. The sheets had already cooled on the other side of the bed though she could still scent him in the bedding and with effort she forced herself to rise. Her uniform waited for her inside of the wardrobe and she shimmied into it with jittered hands that betrayed her calmness.

The Simulation Suite was a short walk away and the fresh morning air soothed her en route. The inside of the building had the falsely clean scent of a medical unit and the white coated doctors matched the walls. Their presence did not cool her nerves and she relied heavily upon her training to help her compartmentalise and stow them away for later. Glass doors parted automatically as she neared them and the waiting room within revealed the other candidates all awaiting their turn. They each sat in silence, some of them hiding their nervousness better than others. One man fidgeted with his papers obviously, the rustling was loud in the otherwise quiet room. Another man hunched forward, his elbows resting upon his knees whilst he bounced in time with his temperament. Though they drew her eye she said nothing to them as they said nothing to one another. Amari approached the reception table and handed over her papers. The receptionist was a slight woman who did not look so much younger than she and she cast a warm aura about her that was aided by her civilian dress. Overall she was unthreatening though it did little to ease the tension in the room. The receptionist appraised her documents and as she bent to look at them her soft gold hair shimmered healthily in the artificial light.

“Thank you Miss Ree,” she said and raised her head to meet her eye “you can go through.”

Amari was surprised not to have been sat with the others and as she turned around to look at them she could tell that they too were wondering why she had been allowed expedited entry.

“Through there?” Amari asked, indicating to the door that would lead her further into the clinic.

“Yes Miss Ree,” she replied “just through there.”

She felt hesitant though she opened the door with confidence. A tall technician awaited her within and though her bright smile was warm her demeanour did not put her at ease as the receptionist had. Her skin was a dark coffee and her hair was cropped short, highlighting sharp cheekbones. She was beautiful but there was a cool distance to her that separated them.

“Good Morning Miss Ree,” she said “take a seat.”

The technician indicated to the chair behind her and she approached it cautiously. It was curved and almost horizontal like a dentist’s chair and as Amari sat she looked around for familiar equipment to ground her. As she lay flat she felt vulnerable.

“My name is Emma,” the technician offered though she did not proffer her hand in the usual greeting “I will be watching over your simulation today.”

Amari nodded and tried to stifle the nerves that she felt might betray her. The technician appraised the chart in front of her.

“As is standard Miss Ree candidates are offered no information pertaining to the stages before they are tested. I see that this will be your first military simulation?”

“Yes,” Amari agreed “that’s right.”

The technician nodded.

“Then this simulation will not be like those that you’ve previously encountered.”

“Why?” Amari asked and Emma looked up from her chart with a forced patience.

“In this environment the simulation will not end until all of the criteria have been met.”

“I can’t leave?”

“No,” she replied after a pause “the situation will run as long as it takes you to complete the exercise. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” she replied reluctantly and when Emma began to attach the sensors her heart rate spiked angrily on the screen.

“Calm down,” the technician instructed. The words were not mean to comfort, they were an order.

“Sorry.”

“Open your eyes wider,” Emma instructed and expertly dropped milky drops into them. Amari blinked away the excess though her hands remained glued to the armrests.

“In a few moments your implant will activate and the simulation will begin.”

Amari watched nervously as Emma tapped a few quick commands into the interface.

“What if I want to get out?” she asked but Emma was no longer there. Gone was the cleanliness of the Simulation Suite and instead she lay on a hard and dusty floor. Though the monitoring wires were now absent, her limbs were heavy and sluggishly she rose and moved to explore the simulation. Burnt tones of rusted metal and rot were the only features she was able to distinguish in the false and yellow strip lighting. She ran her hand along the nearest wall and rubbed the loosened flakes between her fingertips. Untroubled she continued to feel along the wall until her she groped around the doorframe, her hand swallowed by the open void. With quick tug she was grabbed and pulled into the corridor and unable to slow her momentum Amari slammed headfirst into the wall opposite. Her face crunched against the surprisingly sturdy concrete and Amari clutched at her forehead and certainly broken nose and leaked downwards and into her mouth. The metallic taste coated her tongue at the in time with the cold lick of pain sliced that into her abdomen. On a gasp she fell to the floor and soon her hands were wet with blood that rushed quickly out of her, in surrender she sank into the warmth.

Amari awoke on the debris ridden floor and quickly scuttled backwards, away from the open doorway. Not daring to remove her eyes from the doorway Amari grabbed at handfuls of dirt and clutter until her hands coiled around a cold metal pipe. Though her heart beat wildly she walked towards the doorway with aggressive determination and bolstered with the weapon in her hand she marched forwards into the blackness. She was quickly grabbed by her lurking opponent and outmanoeuvred swiftly. The attacker used Amari’s momentum to fling her towards the opposite wall but she remembered to spin so that her back took the brunt of the hit. The blunt pain near winded her with the force of it and she had barely recovered from the hit before a brutal blow was delivered to her temple. Before she hit the ground she was swallowed by darkness.

Careful not to make any noise, Amari forced herself completely upright before backing slowly away from the door. More confident in the positioning she reached to her feet and picked up the metal pipe and then with silent steps she moved around the edges of the room. Though her heart beat wildly and her breathing was laboured she made not a sound as she waited for what seemed minutes rather than seconds. As she hoped he would, her assailant cautiously entered the room. Luckily he began his sweep of the room from the other direction and, without waiting for a better opportunity, she brought down the pipe onto his head with a great show of strength. He fell to the floor heavily and Amari retreated out of his grasp. She waited for him to regain consciousness but as the blood slowly trickled out of his head wound she knew that he would not. “Fucker,” she hissed and hit him again to be sure that he would catch her unawares. Whilst she waited for the simulation to end she became near hypnotised by the oozing wound that grew tacky in his hair. The blood looked near black in the bad lighting. When the simulation did not end she looked back towards the doorway and eyed it as if it were a dog that might bite her.

“The criteria are not yet met, huh?” she asked of her imaged spectators and, though she was fearful of a further attack, she felt around the body of her assailant for a better weapon than her pipe. His body was warm to the touch and as she felt about him the reality of her actions made her feel nauseous. Despite searching him completely she could find no better weapon than the knife in his hand and she palmed it contemplatively, comforted by the slight weight. The smooth blade was short and she winced at the memory of how it felt slicing into her. Dispelling the imagery she moved out of the room. She was careful to scan the hallway and though it was much darker than the room she was exiting her eyes quickly adjusted to the lack of light. The corridor was not wide and she moved quickly onwards. Arriving at a blind corner she peaked around it cautiously but found no further assailant awaiting her around the next corridor. Instead she saw before her a brightly lit and inviting staircase that seemed to ascend to freedom itself. Amari approached it at an eager pace, constantly checking the open doorways she passed, each time relieved to not be attacked from within.

She ascended the stairs backwards, careful to scan every darkened direction with each cautious step. Her combat boots were not quiet on the metal steps and she winced with ever groaning movement of the stairway. Though she could not feel the detail of the grasp Amari felt the strength behind the yank as it circled and pulled at her ankle. Her stomach lurched in freefall as she fell headfirst into the serrated steel that rose up to meet her face. Every rising barb pierced her skin and she settled heavily into the pain of it. She blacked out quickly and as she succumbed to her unconsciousness she was grateful of it.

Amari jumped up from the basement floor and marched quickly towards the rear of the room, grabbing the metal pipe as she walked. “Come on your bastard, come and get me,” she called and, accepting the taunt, her attacked entered the room. The sharp blade in his hand winked at her from across the room and she noticed his grimace though she could make out very little of his look through the camouflage paint that blurred his features. They circled to asses each other, drawing out their collision that came when he launched towards her, confident in his skills and physical advantage. When he was nearly upon her she reared the metal pole back from her though she was fearful of her exposed side and the weapon in his hand. She was rewarded by the crunch of bone as she brought it down on his defending arm but it was too late to slow his momentum the blade entered into her fleshy abdomen a bare inch. She yelped at the intrusion and swept his feet out from underneath him. Amari smashed the pipe into his face repeatedly until the adrenaline swept her pain away but the mess at her feet ensured that he would not be following her and she snatched at the fallen knife before leaving the room. She did not scan the hallway as thoroughly as she had previously and she marched towards the end of the corridor with steely determination.

The stairway beckoned her with ethereal light and though she was tempted to make a quick run towards it instead she kept to the shadows. Her back clung more closely to the wall than the crumbling plaster as she swept along it, the soft scraping sound of her clothing the only noise as she circled around the staircase. From her new vantage point she noticed the moment that he entered the room, creeping soundlessly from the doorway and she knew that she felt vindicated in her decision to hurry from the previous room. He watched the opening of the corridor she has just vacated and Amari approached him silently from behind, hoping to catch him unawares. As she approached him the sly glint of lengthy steel glinted in his hand and she near gasped at the sight of it. Stifling the noise she forced herself to close the distance between them and throwing herself at his back she slit his throat with a quick drag of her blade. She had aimed her incision too high and the sharp edge caught against the cartilage of his Adam’s apple, forcing her to dig in deep to free it. The wound was a deep and gruesome hole as he sagged against her hand and in disgust she released him and the blade along with it. Amari snatched at his sword before she lost her nerve.

The steel was heavy in her hand and she toyed with the weight of it as she waited for further attack. When nothing happened she grew impatient though she was fearful of what awaited at her at the top of the stairs. Amari hoped beyond all reason that the light above her signalled the end of the simulation but the weapon in her hand hinted otherwise. She ascended the staircase slowly, holding the sharp edge of the blade high and forward facing as she moved. The light that had seemed so inviting mere moments ago now blinded her with the contrast and no sooner had she found her feet on the platform than she was knocked back down again. The wind on the platform was strong and quiet and pulled at her hair as she fell. The blow to her back ached up her spine and forced her down on to all fours and even from her sturdy vantage point the un-railed rooftop made her stomach lurch. Not wanting to start all over again she stood quickly and turned in the direction of her attacker but as her vision adjusted she backed slowly away from him, dropping the knife in fearful wonderment. “Flynn?”

Instead of replying he kicked the hilt of her fallen sword so that it span towards her, catching the tow of her boot with a slight thud.

“Pick up the sword Amari,” he instructed and twirled his own weapon, testing his grip.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head accusingly.

“Pick up the damn sword.”

“I won’t kill you.”

He huffed out an impatient breath and closed the distance between them. With the hilt of his own sword he knocked her hard on the temple and the blow sent her to the floor beside her weapon. She landed dangerously close to the edge.

“Pick up the fucking sword Amari,” he hissed and reluctantly she grasped at the handle. As he walked away from her he turned his back and though she knew that she could rush towards him and end their torment quickly, she hesitated. He clicked the kinks in his neck and she watched his muscles tense as he rolled his shoulders.

“I don’t want to do this,” she said softly and without replying he rushed towards her with his blade held high. The sound of clashing metal reached her ears before she realised that she had had the sense to fight back and with a satisfied glint in his eye Flynn withdrew only long enough to attack her again from a different angle. Several times he left openings where she could have taken advantage and her training screamed the weakened spots to her with each pass. Still, she ignored them and then, impatiently he forced her to raise her blade high to meet his. With her opened stance he grabbed at her waist and thrust his thumb into her open wound.

“Ahh!” she yelped and crumpled quickly to the floor.

He fell upon her, though neither of them dropped their blades. He could easily have finished her off but instead he opened slightly and allowed her a quick advantage which she took to ease the pain at her side. Throwing him off her body she followed quickly and put her sword to his throat.

“Finish it!” he spat.

“I can’t kill you,” she sobbed at him and before she could control the weakness tears rolled down her cheeks.

“The simulation won’t end until you do.”

“This is cruel,” she said.

“Do you want to get stuck here forever?” he asked her.

“That wouldn’t happen, they wouldn’t allow it.”

“Are you so certain of that?”

She hiccupped a soft sob and the motion dragged her blade along his skin, a small red line formed at the wound. She focussed on the blood.

“I can’t do it,” she cried and dropped the blade.

Flynn threw her body away as she had done her sword and when she made no move to recover he stood over her, his own weapon reclaimed. Angrily he stood upon her dominant hand, the crunching of her bones against the platform heard as much as felt.

“Is it because you think I won’t hurt you back?” he asked and pressed more firmly into the pain.

“Stop!” she yelped and he crouched down to her level.

“If you won’t fight then why don’t you start again?” he asked and though she wanted to reach for her blade he kicked her off the platform with an uncaring shove. The freefall was bliss.

The waking was hell. She made no sound as she killed the first man and snatched his knife with venom. The next death was delivered with swift efficiency, a clean sweep across the throat that betrayed no sound of her passing as the life left him. She took the sword from his still, warm hands and tucked the knife at her belt as an extra precaution. As Amari ascended, determination was in her stride and she lingered in the void between the two levels as she waited for her eyes to adjust. She launched herself onto the platform and Flynn regarded her silently. He seemed to be waiting for her to make a move and as they appraised each other in their silent stand-off she moved towards him, frightened that she would change her mind. “Did you enjoy the basement?” he asked mockingly.

“Shut up Flynn,” she replied and as she brought down her blade upon him she chanted inner words of encouragement to herself. He was quick to fight back and his face displayed an enjoyment in their engagement that she could not match. Again Flynn left the same weak spots open in his parries and when she had spotted the pattern she took swift advantage. As he twisted to meet her blade she split her strength and met his sword with her right hand as her left reached for the sword at her belt. Without a second though she forced the blade into his side and the shock on his face was a perplexing mask of pleasure and betrayal. He fell away from her and she dropped the blades at once to cradle him.

“It isn’t real, right Flynn?” she asked him between sobs. Caringly he reached up a hand to stroke her cheek.

“No Amari,” he said comfortingly “none of this is real.”

She awoke in her own bed but the relief she felt at having completed the exercise was overshadowed by the need to find Flynn. He was not in their room and as if drawn by a pull she walked back towards the Simulation Suite with a determined stride. The soldiers who had been waiting earlier were now noticeably absent and so too was the receptionist though she did not pause to think on it. Instead she saw Emma, the technician herself, in the young woman’s place.

“Miss Ree,” she greeted her “what can I do for you?”

“Hello Emma,” she replied.

“May I enquire as to the progress of the other simulations today?”

Emma looked at her questioningly.

“Yours was the only simulation today Miss Ree.”

“Oh,” Amari puzzled “then where are the other participants from earlier?”

“Just part of the simulation,” she responded offhandedly and continued in her tasks.

“Ok,” she said slowly “could you just tell Flynn that I was looking for him then?”

“Flynn?” Emma asked.

“Yes,” she replied “Lieutenant Thompson?”

Emma sighed and put aside her work.

“Miss Ree,” she said impatiently “did you not read your debriefing papers?”

“No,” Amari replied “I came straight here.”

“Flynn Thompson isn’t real Miss Ree,” she replied “he’s part of the simulation. You would have known this if you had read your summary pack.”

Amari reeled and felt for a moment and thought to question the technician. Instead she walked towards the exit slowly.

“Oh and Miss Ree?” Emma called after her “congratulations; you passed.”

Resetting Tim Walker – Short Story

“What number should finish the following sequence? 23, 14, 19, 6 and 20?”

“19.”

“State the probability of the visual occurrence.”

“72%”

“What is the date of birth of the female Alice Walker?”

“The 21st of August 2057.”

“Three playing cards are missing from this deck. Please state only the missing red cards,”

“The seven of diamonds and the jack of hearts.”

“Please state your Operative ID.”

“A746211-D.”

“If the female Alice Walker was born on the 21st of August 2057 how old will she be on the 30th of October 2073?”

“16 years, 2 months and 9 days old.”

“Repeat the mission M47295.”

“To decode the data recovered from the mission M37356.”

“What was recovered?”

“Data was inconclusive.”

“Where are the files relating to mission M37356?”

Silence. Inhuman disappointment began to settle heavily in the space around him.

“Operative should state the whereabouts of the files relating to mission M37356.”

“I don’t know.”

“Interface confirms.”

He drew in a laboured breath and rubbed at his face, stubble grating his palms. “Ok,” he said at last “Interface to reset.”

“Interface resetting.”

Interface powered down and Tim felt a moment’s peace at the darkness in the room. The illuminated walls went dark in standby before blinking on again in a single blast that spoke of more power than mere halogen lights.

“Debriefing exercise for mission M47295,” Interface chimed in. Her voice was lyrical and near life-like aside from the rigidity. Operative A746211-D sat cross legged on the floor of Interface, seemingly calm, yet alert.

“Presentation 411. Is the Operative reading to commence?”

“Operative ready,” Tim replied and coughed to clear his throat, thinking that it was unusually dry considering that he hadn’t been awake for long.

“Please state Operative ID.”

“A746211-D.”

The far wall of the Interface flickered in waiting and flashed to the familiar documents that formed the majority of his daily tasks. He rose and approached them, the white numbers on black comforting in his alien environment.

“Please select the prime numbers.”

Tim did so with quick accuracy and stepped away from the wall.

“Please select all multiples of 17.”

He pressed the numbers displayed by Interface and watched them disappear from the wall, the screen somewhat threadbare when he was done. Interface’s screen flashed white and he was momentarily blinded from the next task. Tim reflexively backed away from the screen, his clammy feet sticking to the spongy floor. He wished they’d let Operatives bring socks into the Interface rooms. It was always cold within the debriefing suite though nothing more than the white working overalls in which he stood were permitted.

“A ball is dropped from the height shown and proceeds to bounce in the following pattern. How many bounces before it reaches 25% of the height from which it was dropped?”

“7.”

The screen returned to white and Tim leant against the adjoining wall as he waited, wrapping his hands in the too long white sleeves of his loosely fitted clothing.

“What number should finish this sequence? 23, 14, 19, 6 and 20.”

“19.”

“State the probability of the visual occurrence,” Interface asked as the opposite wall presented him with a building leaning at a precarious angle and as he watched the image slowly began to fall over.

“72%.”

“What is the date of birth of the female Alice Walker?”

“The 21st of August 2057.”

“Three playing cards are missing from the deck. Please state only the missing red cards.”

His eyes scanned the deck “the seven of diamonds and the jack of hearts.”

“Please state Operative ID.”

“A746211-D.”

“If the female Alice Walker was born on the 21st of August 2057 how old will she be on the 30th of October 2073?”

His chest constricted with his answer “16 years, 2 months and 9 days old.”

“Repeat the mission M47295.”

“To decode the data recovered from mission M37356.”

“What was recovered?”

“The data was inconclusive,” he replied blankly.

“Where are the files relating to mission M37356?”

Tim opened his mouth to speak and shut it just as quickly. He stood up straight and puzzled over his lack of data. Blank. He was drawing a blank.

“Operative should state the whereabouts of the files relating to the mission M37356,”

He paused, toying with his answer. Could he tell it he didn’t know?

“I don’t know,” he replied at last and he felt afraid not only by his lack of memory but also of his confession to Interface. The whirring noises signalled to him that the computer was calculating his response and he eyed the door behind him nervously.

“Interface confirms.”

He huffed and rubbed at his face in relief; Command had obviously Ok’d the erase. He continued to rub at his eyes for longer than necessary, they were sore from Interface’s bright lights and as he pressed into them his closed eyes showed him dancing waves of colour.

“Ok,” he conceded after a moment’s pause. “Interface to reset.”

“Interface resetting.”

The lights went out and Tim wandered over to what he calculated to be the middle of the room, sitting down comfortably as he awaited the reset and whilst he waited he rubbed at his stubble wondering when he would be allowed to shave.

“Debriefing exercise for mission M47295,” Interface began and Tim thought that her voice could be beautiful if it were a little more human.

“Presentation 412. Is the Operative ready to commence?”

“Operative ready,” Tim croaked, his voice snagging on the higher syllable of ‘ready’. He was thirsty but he reasoned that it was probably just nerves; he’d never liked debriefings.

“Please state Operative ID.”

“A746211-D.”

The screen started and Tim watched it fill with numbers before he rose to approach it.

“Please select the prime numbers.”

Tim did so quickly, excelling in the well-practiced task.

“A ball is dropped from the height shown and proceeds to bounce in the following pattern. How man bounces before it reaches 25% of the height from which it was originally dropped?”

He watched the ball bounce. “7.”

“What number should finish the sequence? 23, 14, 19, 6 and 20.”

“19.”

“State the probability of the visual occurrence.”

“72%”

“What is the date of birth of the female Alice Walker?”

Tim recited the information though the feelings that surfaced through association with her name threatened to unhinge his ability to answer the more logical questions.

“Three playing cards are missing from the deck. Please state only the missing red cards.”

“The seven of diamonds and the jack of hearts,”

“Please state Operative ID.”

“A746211-D.”

“If the female Alice Walker was born on the 21st of August 2057 how old will she be on the 30th of August 2073?”

“If she was born?” he asked incredulously suddenly hating the tone of her voice. The fact that she had to involve his family in the debriefing wasn’t lost on him. He could sense the threat in the flat voice of Interface.

“The Operative should answer the question.”

Tim rubbed at his stubble and wondered when he would be allowed to shave.

“16 years, 2 months and 9 days old,” he replied finally.

“Repeat the mission M47295.”

“To decode the data recovered from mission M37356.”

“What was recovered?”

“Data was inconclusive.”

“Where are the files relating to mission M37356?”

Tim tried to remember but his usually swift mind returned nothing.

“Operative should state the whereabouts of the files relating to the mission M37356.”

“I don’t know,” he replied and the hair on the back of his neck rose in warning. He couldn’t remember the data pertaining to the case and he felt sure that he would be terminated because of it.

“Interface confirms.”

“Ok,” he said and breathed out a sigh of relief “Interface to reset.”

“Interface resetting.”

“Debriefing exercise for mission M47295. Presentation 413. Is the Operative ready to commence?”

“Operative ready,” Tim replied, his voice growing unfathomably hoarse with the bitter taste of bile somewhere in the offing.

“Please state Operative ID.”

“A746211-D.”

“Please select the prime numbers.”

Tim hurried over and clicked off the numbers impatiently, his fingers jabbing at the screen with undirected anger. He wondered if Interface could feel pain, he wondered if this minor aggressive action hurt her in some way.

“Please select all multiples of 17.”

Jab, jab, jab he tapped impatiently. He wondered how long it would be before he could leave.

“A ball is dropped from the height shown and proceeds to bounce in the following pattern. How many bounces before it reaches 25% of the height from which it was originally dropped?”

“7.”

“What number should finish this sequence? 23, 14, 19, 6 and 20.”

“19.”

“State the probability of the visual occurrence.”

“Hang on – is there a child under there?” he asked in a disbelieving voice as he approached the screen.

“Operative should answer the question.”

“Interface to replay last visual.”

“Replaying. Please state the probability of the visual occurrence.”

Tim watched again as the structure fell and was mollified by the fact that there was nothing beneath it, though he could have sworn that there was just moments before. His mind flashed back to flyaway blonde hair blowing in an unfelt breeze.

“72%,” he replied eventually though he traced his finger along the broken line of the building as he did. The image disappeared and he felt bereft.

“What is the date of birth of the female Alice Walker?”

“Why?” he asked incredulously.

“Operative should answer the question.”

“21st of August 2057.”

“Three playing cards are missing from this deck. Please state only the missing red cards.”

“The seven of diamonds and the jack of hearts.”

“Please state Operative ID.”

“A746211-D.”

“If the female Alice Walker was born on the 21st of August 2057 how old will she be on the 30th of October 2073?”

“She’ll be 16 years, 2 months and 9 days old,” he replied though the thought of her tugged at his heart strings. How long had it been since he had last seen her? He was buoyed with the urge to finish his debriefing and get home to his family.

“Repeat the mission M47295.”

“To decode the data recovered from mission M37356.”

“What was recovered?”

“Data was inconclusive.”

“Where are the files relating to M37356?”

“I don’t know,” he replied reflexively and he was frightened by his confession. He looked to the door behind him fearfully.

“Interface confirms.”

Tim frowned.

“Interface why does subject not know?” he asked.

“Data pertaining to mission M37356 has been erased,” Interface replied.

Tim went cold. He puzzled around her answer and was sure that his own inner workings were on this occasion louder that the components that powered Interface. He needed to ask though he paused in the question, rocking back and forth on his cold feet as he did so, the soft sticking sound the only accompaniment to his racing heartbeat. Tim licked his dry lips and though alarm bells were ringing in some unknown sector of his mind he asked “Interface who erased data pertaining to mission M37356?”

“Operative A746211-D erased data pertaining to M37356.”

Tim’s blood pounded throughout his system. A loud and panicked war drum in his ears. The sound was so encompassing that he nearly missed the hammering on the entrance panel behind him.

“Interface to reset!” he shouted.

“Interface resetting.”

“Good God, forgive me Alice,” he said as he hurried to the centre of the room milliseconds before the lights went out. He grew impatient as Interface began the restart sequence, the conscious death of his memories seemingly absolute in the emptiness of the cuboid room. The sounds behind him stopped gently as if they had simply ran out of steam and his shoulders sagged forward in a thankful surrender.

“Debriefing exercise for mission M47295. Presentation 414. Is the Operative ready to commence?” Interface chimed in with her accustomed flash of white.

Tim took a steadying breath. He felt frightened though he reasoned that debriefing had always unnerved him. “Operative ready.”

Awake – Short Story

“I’m awake.” She said the words quietly lest they be overheard. The words were hers, they belonged only to her. The concrete blurred through unshed tears that welled but stayed stubbornly put, pooling and collecting until the final swell tipped them over the threshold and they poured free, a single droplet and then more, and then more. She wiped at them and was almost broken from her reverie by how warm they were when the rest of her was so chilled. Yet the contact stung, the build-up of grime along her sensitive eyelid burning as it leaked past the barrier. The tears trickled along her face, settling in the line of her lips before rolling away gracefully down her chin, dripping softly off of her and on to the floor, or her or wherever they saw fit to land. She licked them from her broken skin, tasting the saltiness and savouring the feeling of life fleshing back to her dehydrated tongue and mouth and face. Sniffing she shifted her leg closer towards her body and the brittle flooring scraped along her calf and pulled at the skin, snagging through layers of filth and grease that had somehow accumulated over days or weeks of captivity, however long it had been.

A gargling rattle sounded from the opposite corner of her space and she flinched away from the sound as if it might chase her. Though rational thought was hard to grasp she reasoned that it was only the air conditioning coming to life just as it always did, though she was never warm enough to need it. The unit burbled noisily and she watched as the air steadied and carried ribbons of unclean plastic along the breeze. Mottled strips of brown tied there long ago and forgotten, perhaps as she had been for it seemed such a long time since she had seen anyone. The water in the corner was getting low, and what was left was polluted both from her and their environment that slowly reduced everything in it to matted, grey gunk, to something that had once been but no longer was. The food was pulpy and rotten and she was sick from eating eat it. Even the light above her flickered annoying, harsh fluorescence made less only by the build-up of careless insects from inside the tube. Their carcasses eroded slowly, gunging over time until they were one thick layer of tar that coated the plastic like marmite. She shifted until her back was to the outer wall and she was as far away from the fencing as she could be, in the direct centre of her prison so that no one could touch her unaware. The sound of electricity grew steady and she felt tired again, thinking as she slipped that it was funny how her cage had transformed her.

She drew in a sharp breath that dragged down her parched throat as if the very sound was embodied with claws and teeth that fought the swallow. Throwing herself upright she clutched at her head, her nails digging into her fleshy scalp in sweet torture that reminded the body of the difference between waking and sleeping. Pulling in a few more breaths she began to calm down, each successive gulp hurting less and less, getting shallower as if wading upwards from the deep end of a swimming pool. Her eyes were wide open and alert in a way that they would not have been if she awoken naturally and she looked around the room to convince herself of the difference.

This is real she thought.

“I am awake.”

Yet waking brought with it its own set of trepidations and she looked about the light bedroom warily though it was so different from the dirty cell. The white, clean walls were oddly bereft of pictures, though the fresh paint left no hint that they were missing any adornment. Instead they were solid in their colour as if awaiting a decision. She leaned forward towards her knees so that they were huddled more closely to her body and then stared through the window to the summer morning to which she had awoken. The sky was a clear, rich blue the likes of which were usually reserved for holidays to far off places and for moments she was comforted by memories of shorelines and the low level sounds of wildlife that accompanied it. She longed to hear it again and though her secluded home offered its own set of sweet sounds the birdsong was oddly muted through the glazing. Instead of moving to open the window she tried to picture them, to imagine their little feet clawing at the roof, or the trees, or the fence just out of sight. She used the imagined scenery to calm herself and as she did so she accepted her surroundings, her breathing slowly beginning to settle into a rhythm, her lungs filling and collapsing though it was still contrived, still unnatural.

She swung from the bed and approached the window, feeling that perhaps if she could really see the reality of her world then she would perhaps feel more settled, more concrete in the house. Though as she neared her destination the solidity she so desperately needed to see somehow eluded her and she felt herself pausing as her mind clutched at it and it continued to slip further and further out of her reach. Frowning she continued towards the window regardless, hoping that the morning beyond the glass would prompt the fleeing memory to return. Yet upon opening the window she was simultaneously disappointed and frightened for there was no sound out there, not breeze or chirruping wildlife awaited her but rather a muteness that hungered for something more. Once the window was released from its frame the lack of sound pulled at her like a vacuum, stealing her gasp as if it coveted the sound before rebounding back on itself to halt the motion. Released, she recoiled and backed away from the window, not closing it, not furthering the contact or disturbing the already tenuous equilibrium that had just settled between the two spaces and then left the room. Her feet caught on the thin strip of metal that separated the two rooms and it bit into her bare soles as she passed, causing her to spin awkwardly and catch herself on the door jam. The change in angle, though unfortunate for her aching instep, steadied her mind as it unhinged her body and she found herself more calmed than before. Feeling suddenly foolish she rubbed at the sore skin and looked upwards towards the window that had been so threatening only moments before. She shook her head to break the tension and expelled an exasperated breath though she was only annoyed at herself and as she stepped more calmly over the threshold she felt that there was perhaps something about the air conditioning unit the felt threatening.

Loosening the taps on the shower she watched as the cool waves of water poured down and she let run between her fingers until it was warm enough to allow her to enter. Once damp, the shower curtain clung to her legs and in her current mood it felt lecherous and intimidating and she kicked it away every time it neared. The water pooling at her feet was unwelcome and she frowned at the speckled water that leached away from her body as if she were dirty. The colour reminded her of the time she had dyed her hair a rich brown colour that nobody had approved of, though it was mottled with flecks that were inconsistent with the memory. She withdrew from the sight of it, scuttling away from the spray to the cold end of the shower and watched as the dirt continued to vanish down the plug hole, a small trail leading to her huddled form against the tile.

A shrill beeping made her jump and she quickly pushed the shower curtain to one side as she sought out the sound of her mobile ringing somewhere in the near vicinity, finding it on the edge of the sink where she did not remember leaving it. Perplexed she answered it and for seconds was frightened by the responded static that fizzled in response “Alison?” a voice said at last though it was distant and softer than usual.

“Frank?” she asked the rattled line “Frank is that you?”

“Yes it’s me,” he replied “have I caught you at a bad time?”

She paused.

“Um…yes…I’m in the shower can I call you back?”

“Yes of course, it’s nothing important. Call me when you’re free.”

“Ok, bye,” she replied and whilst frowning she replaced the phone on the sink. She wondered if she should continue with her shower but the way her mind was overreacting to everything in the empty house she thought it would be best to leave it and turned off the water even knowing that her hair would be knotty from the left over shampoo and lack of conditioner. Still, even though she did not finish the shower, she checked the water with mixed emotions and watched the stream of clear water finish and roll down towards the plughole.

She dressed quickly and to the rear of the room, away from the bare window though there was no nearby neighbour to see her state of undress and then walked to the kitchen to call Frank. The phone lay out of place on the kitchen counter, plugged in though not yet in its permanent home, sitting in a tangle of untidy wires and she dialled his number quickly as if from memory though she couldn’t recall the number before she began to type it into the keypad. He answered on the second ring and she imagined that he had been sat beside the phone, waiting for her to call him though he had told her to call him back at any time. She wondered if he was one of those people who carried their phones around in their hand as if it were too important to sit in a pocket or a bag, as if they could not live without it.

“I’m glad you called me back,” he said as he answered and she frowned a little bit at the tone of his voice that seemed overly eager.

Silence lay between them and it felt awkward as if he were standing in front of her waiting for her to speak.

“Is everything ok?” she asked eventually though she had expected him to speak, to explain what it is that he wanted.

“Yes everything’s fine,” he replied and she could tell from the tone of his voice that he was smiling.

“What was it that you wanted?” she asked, eager to push the conversation forward so that she could be free of it.

“Yes of course,” he replied as if he too had forgotten “I wondered if you’d had a chance to think about that drink?” he asked.

She held back a grimace, certain that she had already told him no.

“I’m sorry Frank I just don’t think that it would be appropriate,” she replied and she felt his smile drop though the sigh he tried to stifle.

“Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?” he asked but she had already stopped listening looking instead to her property line and the fence that encircled it. It drew her and as if responding to her time at the window her gasp came back out of her and she touched her fingers to the cool glass.

“Alison, are you ok?” Frank asked from the end of the line.

“I’m going to have to call you back,” she replied and then, not waiting for his response, hung up the phone as she leaned closer the window, trying to get a better look at the chained fencing that bordered the property. She placed the phone on the counter, not really bothered to aim it at the waiting cradle as she ought to but instead walking towards the front door and out into the yard in strides that matched her curiosity. Her uncovered feet waded through the too long grass and it caught between her toes as she walked. Arriving at the fence she coiled her fingers into the wire and frowned at the magnetism that had drawn her to it. She thought it an odd choice for such a pretty house, industrial where residential was required and she vowed there and then to have it replaced.

The corner by her left foot was loose and abused where some animal had burrowed beneath it, treating the overgrown yard like a shortcut, it’s fur snagging on the unfiled ends of the chicken wire. Then, as if embodying the very animal that had used her house as shelter, her ears pricked up in awareness and she looked about to pinpoint the source of her wariness. Though her eyes found no purchase still she felt unsettled and although she was not normally prone to fits of paranoia she allowed it to blossom inside her and she fled towards the house on nimble feet that did not feel the earth beneath them put merely synchronised with her mind as she flew passed the front door and bolted it behind her.

As if perfectly timed no sooner had she slid the lock into place then the vicious pounding began and she wondered if the door would hold. She turned from it and as if it could protect her she huddled into the alcove beneath the stairs and waited for the sound to end, the relentless banging that seemed to growl as it became more urgent and in response she whimpered.

She opened her eyes but the pounding continued and she looked up weakly to the air conditioning unit. One of the ribbons had tangled between the slats and clucked noisily above her head, she stared at it and frowned, knowing that she would never be able to reach it and make it stop. Her mouth felt dry from her dream, sticky as it did if she slept in the afternoon and she crawled towards the water in the left corner of the room. The liquid was dirty but cool on her lips as she drank. She stopped well before she was had quenched her thirst, not knowing how much longer the sparse fluid was going to last her. She curled into the wall by the water and looked through the wire to the room beyond, too dark really to make out anything other than the fuzzy shapes of stored furniture, climate controlled to protect it, perfect for wood but not for people. She had grown tired of waiting for someone to come and check on their forgotten goods.

Normally frightened of approaching the fencing she watched it curiously now, wondering what else she had to lose, what else she had to fear from the darkness and she crawled ever closer towards it until her hands coiled through the wire experimentally to see if anything bit them off. The metal felt more pliable then she remembered and she rocked on it to find it bowing to her slight weight there in the weak corner where it met the wall.

She traced it to the corner and rocked again, feeling it sag and bend with her.

Angrily she yanked at the wire and it came with her, encouraging her to pull and heave at it with what little she had left to give. She sobbed, wasting the tears and the water she couldn’t spare and before long she was warm with exertion, warmer than she had been in days or weeks, or however long it had been. Soon she had a gap that was barely big enough for animal and she knew then that she would not have been able to fit through if she had found the weakness when she still had the strength. She lay flat to her stomach so that she might slither out into the darkness like a snake. The edges snagged on her hair and she cried out as it caught her but she forced herself to carry on and except the damage, too afraid to stop now that she had started. As she moved the metal scraped along her back, pulling at her tattered clothing as if trying to grab her. Like nails it pulled against the skin of her thighs, onwards and downwards until at last she was free.

Away from the space she curled her legs towards her and for a minute stayed there so that she could look into the brighter light of her prison. It seemed much bigger than it had now that she was no longer trapped in it but she knew that she could not stop there and she crawled further, her legs scraping against the concrete as she heaved herself along. She felt her knees grazing along the porous surface as she passed, felt the speckle with blood begin along her shins and she thought of the pattern as a trail of breadcrumbs, a bloody path that would lead her back to her cage if she were lost. As she distanced herself from the cages the automatic lights came on overhead, illuminating each stage of her journey slowly and shutting down behind her. She feared that the lights were screaming out her location to anyone who would bother to look for her and panicked she searched the walls for cameras. The CCTV was quick to find and bore down at her unashamedly. She felt ashamed to be viewed as she was and frightened for having not looked for them before, she did not implore the silent watcher for help but rather she viewed them as an accomplice to imprisonment and as she crawled further along they moved to watch her journey.

Before the path ran out the final light settled upon her only life line, a phone. A phone that seemed impossibly high on the wall and, as her tired frame couldn’t hope to stand and retrieve the handset, she snatched at the wire and pulled at it repeatedly until the receiver came loose. She felt triumphant as the dial tone reached her ears and she dialled the only number she knew with weakened digits though she hadn’t know it before she dialled it. She hit the last figure with finality and it didn’t ring for long as it was answered on the second ring. The only greeting sound she heard was the fluctuating and excited sound of breathing and she too felt the sensation ripple. She paused and licked her lips in anticipatory fear and her voice, when it sounded, was light and croaking. She had thought to ask for help but she wasn’t sure that it was help that she needed instead she spoke words of triumph and accomplishment and she said them as the last light died out in idleness.

“I’m awake.”