I have decided to publish a number of my short stories in an anthology entitled XLP#304. It's named after one of my favourite characters. It is also my first foray into self-publishing - not, I hasten to add something of which I am a fan. But life is there to have adventures and take chances, right? So why not! All this is to explain why there are so few short stories on the website!
I began writing short stories as an exercise in deadlines with my 'Running the Bathwater' stories. I then discovered the Writers Write 12 Short Stories in 12 Months Challenge. I've done it for two years now. It's where XLP#304 made his first appearance, not to mention his second and third!
So, what with short stories scattered all over the place, I think I should have enough for a decent sized little book!
A stinking, suppurating tramp falls in front of you. You turn on the oxygen mask so you don’t have to smell him.
How did this get on the ship anyhow?
You key the refuse code into the instrument panel on the wall. The panel sides open and the trash collector robot crawls out, clamps onto the tramp and drags him off towards the garbage disposal air-lock. You switch off the oxygen. It’s too precious to waste out here in space. You key in another code. Along the corridor you hear the familiar hum of the housekeeping robot trundling towards you. It will be here in a few seconds.
Thank goodness. We can have this spot disinfected quickly.
The communication signal chirps in your ear. You press the intra-audio unit on your collar, “Dr Franklin.”
“Good morning, Dr Franklin,” responds the communication android. “Your presence is requested by Commander Hyde on the observation deck.”
“Thank you, I’ll be there momentarily.” You like the word ‘momentarily’. You say it again to yourself after you have disengaged the unit. You saunter along the corridor, pausing to talk to one or two people, deliberately keeping the Commander waiting. It’s one of your little pleasures.
You arrive at the observation deck doorway. At the press of a brass button the panel hisses, groans and with a hard clank the gears above the door pull up the panel. You glance around the room, it’s nearly empty. The waitress androids are cleaning the tables, wiping down the counters and serving the two officers leaning against the bar, talking quietly to each other. You recognise them, but you’re not sure from where. They have the look of those government types you see every now and then, usually strolling around in a towel in the men’s locker room. You’ve never seen them work out, but with bodies that muscular they must do. They seldom come into the surgery. You don’t like them. They have a code you’ve never fully understood; some ‘all for one and one for all' crap. You smile pleasantly at them as you pass.
The Commander is on the platform, at the far end of the walkway that stretches off into the 360Observatory. You like this place. You designed it; not bad for a space-medic, especially as it won an award for Spatial Concept Excellence at the Universal Fair ten years ago. You walk up to the Commander, you don’t stroll but you don’t stride either. You keep it professional. He’d only see insolence if he looked for it.
“John,” you say. You don’t salute and you don’t call him ‘Sir’. You and Commander Hyde were at flight school together. He married your sister. You’ve known each other too long for all that nonsense. You like to remind him of that.
“I’ve asked you before to salute me when there are others in the room.” It’s not a request. You snap out a salute, he gives a brief wave in response. You stand at ease, but not relaxed – something is wrong.
Bastard. Your bald spot’s growing. Bet you can’t keep it up any more either.
“Have you been able to find out anything on that matter we discussed two weeks ago?” He’s fiddling with his chronometer, not looking at you. Your mind goes blank.
He glances up at you. “The disappearing crew?”
You breathe a sigh of relief. Of course you know what happened to them. “I’ve made enquirIes and, for the most part, those that had gone missing have been found. Thank goodness,” you add quickly.
“Yes,” He clearly wants an explanation but you’re going to make him wait. The hum of the housekeeping robot travels backwards and forwards across the room behind you.
“Anywhere in particular?” he asks politely.
“I don’t have the list with me,” you retort as if he’s being unreasonable. He nods and pulls down his cuffs to make his sleeves fit a bit better. He has arms like an orangutan so that won’t help. You try not to smirk.
“Do you remember Burke and Willis?” he asks.
You frown as if trying to remember. “No, not off hand. Engine room aren’t they?” Not bad, the engine room is ten stories down from where you are now.
Like I care who they are.
“Something like that.” He reaches out quickly and slaps you on the shoulder, gripping you hard. “We’ve known each other a long time.”
Too long ape-man.
“Yes, we have,” you reply.
But not much longer, if you only knew. Prat.
He nods and then leaves the room, his short, bowed legs crossing the carpet in tight measurements. You look out the 360Observatory window and feel like you’re suspended in space. That’s the way you designed it. The tramp, or what’s left of him, rags mostly, float past on their way to the outer reaches of darkness. You try not to laugh. No one will ever find the missing crew members. You’ve made sure of that. Amazing what can go out the garbage air-lock. Soon this ship will be free of vermin.
Hearing a sound behind you, you turn. It’s the garbage disposal and housekeeping robots.
They look like they’re waiting for orders. Droids, the best invention since the air-lock. Clean, efficient, unemotional and obedient. Nice little bots.
There is a click, a whirr. A blue light beams out of each of the robots’ heads. The lights coalesce and holograms appear in front of you. In spite of the chill you feel creeping up your spine, you’re impressed with the work.
These are quite good.
It should be, this is technology beyond the standard HoloG3MarkII version. The holograph moves from the standard 4:3 size to 19:6 and you find you’re looking into your own eyes. A faint feeling of queasiness stirs in the pit of your stomach. This cannot be good.
Who fitted the droids with CaptureGraphic3 units? And when?
The image moves and you see every clean-up you’ve done over the last two months replay in front of you. The signal is so strong the image doesn’t waver; it’s absolutely clear. In front of each image is the gel-chron time-and-date render bar. It’s correct to the nanosecond. As you watch, the transmission ends with the tramp disappearing around the corner.
“Dr Franklin?” It’s the two government types.
His lips twitch at the corners. It’s not there, but you can sense the grin behind his tightly controlled slash of a mouth. The big man indicates himself and his partner. “Burke, Willis.”
“That’s ridiculous,” you say. “Burke and Willis were the…” You realise your mistake. You’re stunned it took you so long to remember.
“Body snatchers. Yes,” he replies. “The Council has a sense of humour.”
The other man speaks. “Dr Franklin, you legally have thirty seconds to make a choice. If you fail to make a choice, one will be made for you. You can choose to come quietly with us now and face a trial by jury once we reach Beta Selcius, or you may take the Gentleman’s Choice – the air-lock.”
“What! This can’t be right!” you splutter.
“Those are your rights.” He looks at you for a moment. You don’t know what to say; you need time to think.
“I want to talk to Commander Hyde!”
He takes his watch out of his waistcoat pocket and engages the countdown mechanism. To your horror, the face of the chronometer is captured by the androids and spat out as a three dimensional, pale blue, transparent image in front of you, as tall as you. Its hand clicks mesmerizingly from one mark to another as it moves towards your oblivion. You hear a sigh and the holograph disappears.
Burke steps forward.
“That’s not enough time!”
“That’s justice,” says the snatcher. Willis puts the watch away. They reach for you; twist your arms viciously behind you, snapping the handcuffs on as tightly as they can. With their iron-like hands clamped on your arms, they march you off between them, deaf to your protests.
As you pass through the doorway you see a man leaning against the corridor wall. He gives you a brief salute and a grim, ironic smile. Your stomach drops. It’s the tramp.
The housekeeping robot follows behind you vacuuming the floor with a satisfied hum.
Nice little bot.
I’m dying. I’m sick and I’m dying. Not the best way to start a relationship I admit, but then I don’t even know if you’re real. It’s part of the illness. They say it takes people different ways. Me, I see people that aren’t. Sometimes, I think they’re stealing from me. Sometimes, I think they’re someone else. In my most lucid moments I can see the frustration on people’s faces. I can see the fear, the pain, the unbearable sorrow. That’s when I know those people…they’re real. The ones that aren’t, they never cry.
Those lucid moments don’t last long so if I drift off, please forgive me.
Somehow I got lost. I can’t remember when or how, but I don’t know where I am now. I seldom know who I am. She was here again. Wherever here is. She keeps coming, I think. I like her. She smells nice. She calls me Mum. But that can’t be right. I woke up this morning so excited. It’s my tenth birthday. But that nice Jamaican boy says my birthday’s not ‘til next week. Does he cry? I can’t remember. I hope he does, because then he’d be real. I like him. I hope he’s real.
Today, she made me go with her. I might not know where here is but it sure isn’t there. I don’t like going there. It’s never the same there I remember. I’m so scared she’ll leave me there. It smells funny. Like sour soap. It burns my nose. If she leaves me there the sour soap will burn me all over. I know it will. They’ll make me bathe with it. Do they know there are dead people in the water? All burnt by the sour soap. I can see them. I want to go home to...here. There is…I don’t know. It’s not here. I want to see that nice Jamaican boy, then I’ll know I’m here again.
Such a nice young man came to sit with us. He shouldn’t have though; we were waiting for the doctor. He had a nice white coat and he hugged me. He smelled like the forest behind my home. I told her I wanted to have my birthday party in the forest.
“Sounds like a great idea,” the nice young man smiled.
“You should marry him,” I told her. “Such a nice young man.”
She talked to him for a while and then he started to talk to me. He said I had something that belonged to Al. I don’t know any Al. I knew a Jay once. I told him, the nice young man. I told him I knew a Jay. He smiled. She started to cry. I’m not sure why. I just patted her hand. People pat my hand so I patted hers.
She gave me an ice-cream in a cone and we sat in the sun for a bit. “I can’t eat this.” I said. I was so sorry. She seemed so sad when I said it. But then she smiled, “That’s OK, Mum. I wanted two anyway.”
She’s got a lovely voice. It reminds me of someone. I can’t remember who. I had a daughter once. She was lovely. I really did want to eat the ice-cream but it wasn’t my birthday. That’s next week. I’ll be ten. Jay said so. I can eat it then.
We’d finally passed the four mile mark in the Mponeng Mine. The date was October 1, the year of our Lord, 2018. Old fashioned? Perhaps.
But as only He can save us now, it seems appropriate.
It started as soon as they broke through into the Chamber. The miners who’d been in the excavation team, those still alive, had erupted out of the shaft lift, trampling each other in their screaming haste to escape. Terror wasn’t a strong enough word. Of the one hundred miners that had gone down, only ten returned. And most of those had lost their mind.
Moses Batlhako, the shift foreman, was the biggest, angriest man I’d ever met. Now, even he shook and wept uncontrollably. He rocked backwards and forwards, babbling. What we could get out of him made no sense. He wailed hysterically about disturbing the badimo, the ancestors. Whatever he’d seen, it was tall. Eight feet at least, its flesh covered in scales, damp like a fish and pale. So pale he said, you could see through their skin. See their blood pulsing through the veins, their organs beating, their intestines devouring whatever was inside.
As the CEO listened, all the colour drained out of his face. He made us swear never to repeat anything we’d heard. If word got out it would be catastrophic. The politics of mine safety, the bad press, the gold price – we couldn’t afford it.
Would anyone have believed us? It sounded like science fiction, some pale, great-eyed aliens hiding in the dark.
Our oath made no difference. It was the miners who talked. Ancient superstitions came alive. Even if they hadn’t, we couldn’t deny the fact that ninety men were dead. The survivors never returned to the mine. Most died within two days. The doctor said they’d died of fright. The rest hanged themselves.
We had to employ an entirely new crew. Nigerians and Congolese. We had to fly them in and keep them apart from the other men.
When their first shift was over, a crowd including senior management, gathered at the shaft head and waited for the lift. It clunked, rattling to a stop and the gates swung back. It was empty. Wet, dripping and sticky, but empty. The CEO reached out and touched it. It was blood. He started to scream. I don’t think he ever stopped.
I can still hear him when I try to sleep.
We don’t get much now. It’s too dangerous. If you want to live, you have to stay awake.
After that we couldn’t get anyone else to go down that shaft. Eventually, they sent the army. The first recon team never came back either. The second took down flame throwers. The soldiers were also rigged with microphones, so we could hear everything. They made it into the Chamber before the fight broke out. The microphones were a bad idea. So were the flame throwers. The recon team died to a man. But the aliens, the bodimo, whatever they were, they were very much alive and wanted revenge. Once they reached the surface, survival was all we could hope for.
We decided to destroy the Chamber; bury them for good, destroy their burrows, their nurseries. We went in through an ancient, abandoned shaft that began far from Mponeng. The bodimo had left it unguarded. We made it to the Chamber undetected. What we discovered there was unbelievable. It was clearly a spaceship. They were aliens after all!
But something was very wrong. The ship had been there so long it was almost completely encased in stalactites, its form distended, as if melted with age. One side of the ship was open, giving us a way in.
Leaving two men on guard, the rest of us explored the hollow, empty vessel. There was one door that refused to open. It took the combined efforts of four men to budge it.
I wish we hadn’t.
Steel drawers lined the room. We broke the airlock on one and slid it open. Inside was a sealed, temperature-controlled, cryogenic life-resuscitation capsule. The naked, perfectly preserved body lay on its back. Female. Pregnant.
We had it all wrong.
They weren’t the aliens.
You can hear the doctor’s footsteps. I know because I can hear them as well. They have a confidence in them mine didn’t when I arrived earlier. I stand at the door and watch you listen. When I don’t come in you tilt your head a little.
“Billy?” you ask.
I clear my throat. “Yes. It’s me.”
“What are you doing?”
“Why?” You smile, knowing what I’m going to say.
“I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful.” I say it because it’s true.
Your face softens. “I can smell lilacs,” your nose twitches a little.
“Yes,” I put them into your hands. You bury your face in the blooms and breathe in deeply. “I wanted them to be the first thing you see when…” I can’t go on. You touch the edges of the bandages around your head.
“I want to see you. I want the first thing I see to be you.” You lean forward eagerly, your hand searching for me. Mine curls into a fist and then, almost desperately, I clutch your fingers.
“Your pulse is racing.” You turn my hand over, running your fingers down the inside of my wrist. Even I can see the blood pumping beneath the skin.
“Guess I’m nervous.”
You give a soft laugh. “I’m the one who should be nervous.”
I nod, even though I know you can’t see it. Your fingers touch my face, gently exploring the line of my jaw and across my lips. They pause as I kiss them. Your lips curve in a smile that sets my heart racing erratically. I kiss each of your fingers, then lay a soft one in your palm. You sigh with happiness.
“I like this,” I say quietly. At least I’m being honest.
“I like this too. But I’m going to like it even more later.” You lean in. You want me to kiss you. Your lips are soft beneath mine. Eager and full of promise. I pull back.
“Nothing,” but I say it badly.
I have to say something, but I leave it too late.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you don’t want me to see again, William Black,” you laugh. The silence stretches out between us. “Billy?” I feel the cold sweat between my shoulder blades. I pull my hands away. I hate the question, the hurt that lies in your voice. “You don’t want me to see again?” You sit back a little. I rub my face. “Won’t you tell me why?” you ask. I notice for the first time how cold the room is. “Oh, Billy.” You lean forward, searching for my hand. I let it lie between yours. I can feel the fragile, delicate bones of your fingers. You think I’m a good man. I’m not. I could so easily break you. I’ve already done it once.
I’ve had plenty of women. The kind that like bad men. Men like me. I used them, didn’t love any of them. But you, you’re ‘the one’. I fell in love with you the first moment I saw your face.
The moon was full that night, flooding the room. You stood in the doorway and looked right at me.
“Ruthie.” It was a gargle. His throat was full of blood. He lay in a thick, sticky pool of it. Your eyes widened when you saw him. I pulled the knife out of your father’s chest. Then Donny hit you from behind, hard. The light died in your eyes as you fell. I checked your pulse. It was weak.
“Come on!” Donny hissed.
“I’m calling an ambulance.”
“What? She saw you!”
“We don’t know that.”
“You’re on your own, pal.” Donny took off. I haven’t seen him since.
I stand up. The bed gives a slight sigh. I walk to the window. The trees in the parking lot are choking with dying leaves. It won’t be long before they start to fall. Eventually I say, “I’m afraid of you seeing me.”
You laugh. “I’ve felt your face. I know your heart. You’re a beautiful man, Billy. I love you.”
Turning around I see the doctor is at the nurses’ station. He’s talking to a cop. The cop frowns and then writes something in his little book. He glances up, at me. My stomach churns. The cop flips through his book, looking for something. They talk some more. The doc nods and heads towards your room.
“Good morning,” he says as he walks in. He takes your hand and gives it a slight squeeze, patting it gently. “Are you ready, Ruthie?”
Your face below the bandages has a kind of glow. Your breathing is tight, nervous and excited.
“I can’t wait!” you say eagerly.
He begins to unwind the bandages. “I know we’ve talked about this. The optical nerve was badly damaged. We won’t know till we have the bandages off if you have your sight back. You know that, right, Ruthie?”
“Billy?” You stretch out your hand towards me. I glance back at the cop. He’s on his cell phone. He keeps looking towards your room. I need to get out of sight. He looks at his wristwatch. I step towards your bed and take your hand.
“Wait,” you say quickly.
“Ruthie? Are you scared?” The doctor is one of those gentle types. The kind of man you should be with. Not the kind with tattoos. Or a rap sheet. Probably never even had a parking ticket.
“Oh, no,” you say, smiling. “But I want Billy to take them off. Can he?”
The doctor smiles and steps away from your bed. “Of course.”
My hands are shaking as I slowly loosen the last of the wrappings around your eyes.
“Sorry, doc.” It’s the cop. He’s in the room. My eyes are locked on you. You’re smiling. You open your eyes slowly. They’re greener than I remember. The cop carries on talking. “Just one more thing–” he stops. “Is everything alright?”
I couldn't see her anymore. The powerful steam from the engine flooded the platform and she was gone in its thick, pungent clouds. The steel scream of the train’s wheels ripped along every nerve. I wanted to rage, beat my fists against the window, make her stop the train. But there were four other soldiers in the carriage watching me, with their eager eyes and bright smiles. Their laughter was high, intense. They were scared. Excited, but scared. I could see her eyes, her mouth, her stubborn chin and her long fingers in each of the young men.
They changed the law after this battle, the one we were heading towards. It was the last time brothers ever served in the same unit.
If I could return, back to that time before I was conscious, before I understood the recruitment officer had lied about glory and honour, before I left my family for the war, I would change every decision I made that day. But I couldn't. And here I was, a man of no special talents. Except one. I was their captain. It was my job to lead these men to their deaths.
And I did my job well.