Story Time Part 2

Further to my post a couple of weeks’ back, here, as promised is my shortlisted sci-fi story from Writing Magazine. I have to admit sci-fi would never be my chosen genre to read, or to write, but that’s the wonder of writing competition prompts, they can take you off into another world!

Voyage into the Unknown

There were reports of riots in the emigration lines. Brad said it wasn’t worth taking the risk. We’d left it too late anyway. A family who’d been waiting two weeks were turned back when they reached the departure gate because one of the children was sick. The next day the family reappeared minus one. Rumour had it the father had sacrificed the poorly child to ensure the others’ safe passage. That’s how desperate people were.

We’d been on emergency rations for the last six months. There was no hope of replenishing supplies. Even the black market had dried up. We’d been forewarned this would happen. Back in my parents’ day prophets had predicted a catastrophe on a global scale. The politicians had taken no notice. The wheels of industry would not be stopped. When one resource became depleted, another was harnessed. Technological advances sucked the goodness from the soil, the sea and from the atmosphere.

The oceans had dried up; the earth was parched and barren, vegetation and livestock dead. Only the very elderly could remember the days of fresh food. As a child I’d been repulsed by my grandfather’s salivating lips as he described the taste and texture of cooked meat. I couldn’t imagine consuming anything that hadn’t been cultivated in a petri-dish, but even laboratory manufactured foodstuffs needed water.  We’d been too greedy. Our planet could no longer sustain life.

There had been a cull to reduce the population. I’m surprised the family with the sick child made it through the rigorous screening process.  The majority of diseases had been eradicated. Medicine was one area in which scientists excelled. Cures existed for all but the rarest of cancers, and for those incurable conditions, euthanasia was encouraged.  As a race we were supposedly the fittest and strongest we’d ever been. We just hadn’t developed a way of adjusting our lungs to cope with the polluted air that smothered our planet. A few more years of research and we might have conquered it.

Brad had worked on some of the initial investigations into the sustainability of the satellite colonies. In theory, we should have been first in line for one of the emigration ships but it seemed such a drastic step. If we could survive a few months, I was convinced the rains would come. There had been droughts before – the longest on record was five years.  We were currently in our seventh.

Old fashioned words such as frugality, restraint and recycling were being bandied about by the told-you-so brigade; those smug academics who took great delight in witnessing the planet’s demise. They would stay to the bitter end, whatever. They stood chanting on street corners in ethereal white gowns, although we all wore white by then, to reflect the brutal heat of the sun.

Brad said there was talk of a new exploratory space expedition. ‘We know there are other solar systems out there,’ he said. ‘We know there is another planet just like ours.’

Sometimes I took the snippets of information Brad brought home from work with a pinch of salt. He liked to tease me with sound-bites picked up eavesdropping on his superior’s conversations. However, there was something about his manner that made me think this time he genuinely knew more than he was letting on.

I made discreet enquiries amongst our friends, or at least the small group of acquaintances we had left. You couldn’t blame those who had already chosen to evacuate.

‘What do you want to leave for?’ Our neighbour Meritt asked. ‘We were expecting you guys to host our end of the world party.’ Our apartment was double the size of Meritt’s, one of the advantages of working for the Space Agency.  Merrit had stockpiled alcohol and now lived on a diet of home-brewed Vapour Juice. Vapour Juice had been outlawed long ago. It had become too precious a commodity to be left in the public domain. Battery packs could run on Vapour Juice.

‘As far as I see it, you have two clear choices,’ my cousin, Rico, said. Rico was a chemist who had devised a best-selling over the counter euthanasia pill. ‘You stay until the bitter end and swallow one of my little smarties, or you take the risk and head off into the unknown. Either way you’re going to die. Do it now, or do it later.’

He offered me a couple of his pills at a knock-down price and I told Brad to find out more about the expedition. It turned out I was right. Brad knew an awful lot more than he’d first divulged.

‘I didn’t want you to get too excited,’ he said, ‘in case I failed the vetting procedure. I’ve applied to be the onboard technician. We’d get co-habitee status. This could be our chance to escape.’

Escape to where? The more Brad talked about light years of space travel, of algorithms of probability and worse case scenarios, the less I listened. It could well be this talk of a planet, so similar in make-up to ours, was nothing but a myth. Why would anyone sign up for a once in a lifetime jaunt to nowhere?

As the days went on, the idea became more of a reality. News began to filter back from the satellite stations. There were food shortages and fighting amongst the immigrants.  Security personnel were losing control.

Brad confirmed the rumours. ‘They’ll last six months at the most,’ he said, his face grim. Everyone was grim these days, apart from those like Merrit who were comatose. ‘The satellites will never sustain permanent settlement. We knew that all along.’

I thought of the father who had abandoned his sick child only to lead the others to death on a remote space station.  No wonder the immigrants were up in arms.

Brad said there had already been a reconnaissance mission to seek out the new planet. It had all been kept under-wraps because communication with the exploratory ships had been lost. However, the task-force crew had been fitted with embedded transmitters which sent signals processed from their thoughts. I didn’t know such technology existed, but Brad assured me it did, although it was still very much in its infancy. Experts were working around the clock to decipher the readings which were still being received.

‘We’ll have to be induced into an advanced state of stasis,’ Brad explained. ‘It’s the only way to travel for so far and for so long. An electrical surcharge will be programmed to wake us when we reach our designated orbit.’

‘And you are convinced this planet really exists?’ I asked.

‘I’m convinced it’s worth taking the risk,’ he replied.

So we set off, a crew of ten adventurers; a mixed bag of technicians and scientists, including Brad’s colleague, Jarvis, a communications expert. We each shared the conviction that doing something was better than doing nothing, although being in stasis was hardly a pro-active state.

We woke as we broke through atmospheric layers charged with meteor debris and radioactive gases. I stared in amazement out of the narrow cockpit window. There beneath us was the mythical planet, as blue as ours had once been.

‘Recognise those white swirls?’ Brad said, his green eyes ablaze with excitement. ‘Remember them? Clouds.  Not full of toxic waste and chemicals, but water. There’s a whole eco-system down there. We can start from the beginning, and this time, we can do it right.’

‘What if life here already exists?’ I asked. ‘Do you think we’ll be made welcome?’

Brad smiled. ‘We’re a party of ten refugees, hardly an invasion force. In any case, this planet is new compared to ours. Whatever life-form exists, it won’t be very advanced.’

We landed in a desert, so similar in appearance to the dying landscape we’d left behind I momentarily wondered if the vivid blue ocean we’d witnessed from above was nothing but an optical illusion. But then the life-forms approached, sitting astride mechanical vehicles.

‘What do they look like?’ Jarvis asked, joining us in the cockpit. He craned his stubby neck to peer over my shoulder.

It was impossible to tell whether we shared any characteristics apart from the obvious four limbs and upright stature. ‘Tall,’ I replied, watching the aliens dismount. ‘Bubble heads.  I think they’re wearing some sort of protective breathing suits. Maybe the air isn’t as fresh as we think. Perhaps this planet isn’t habitable after all.’

Brad frowned. ‘I’m sure these co-ordinates correlate with the landing site of the exploratory vessels. Jarvis, are the transmitters up and running? Can you check the external probes?’

The communication network had been spewing out light years’ of technical information since we broke orbit.

‘Oh it’s habitable all right,’ Jarvis replied, studying his network screen and scratching his bald head. ‘At least for now, but there appears to have been some sort of terrible mistake.’

A message from the Space Agency had come through just hours after we slipped into stasis. The code-breakers had at last unscrambled the garbled thought processes from the task-force crew. The order had been very specific.

‘Mission to be aborted. Change course immediately and head to nearest satellite colony. Do not proceed to planet known as Earth. Dominant species hostile and aggressive. Repeat. Abort mission.’

We discovered too late what had happened to that earlier delegation. As the aliens marched us to their headquarters we saw the task-force vessels moored in a vast warehouse, and we found the crew, or at least parts of them, dissected on the aliens’ operating slabs. We tried to tell them, those tall, small-headed creatures (the breathing bubbles were apparently just to avoid contamination – as if we would contaminate anybody) about the climatic disaster that had obliterated our own planet, but they either didn’t understand, despite Jarvis’ attempts at translation, or they simply didn’t want to know.

I knew I should have stayed at home and drunk myself stupid on Vapour Juice. It would have been a far more pleasant way to end it all.

You can check out my flash fiction web page here

Story Time Part 1

At the end of 2017, before I had my publishing contract and when I had a bit of time on my hands, I submitted a couple of stories to competitions in Writing Magazine.  Writing competitions are a good exercise in disciplined writing, a tight word count does wonders for eliminating waffle. They can also provide inspiration during periods of writers’ block and the opportunity to diversify into different genres.  I’d entered Writing Magazine competitions before without success, but persistence pays off because to my great surprise this time, in both cases, I was shortlisted. Shortlisted stories don’t get published, or featured on the magazine’s website, they just fade into obscurity. So I thought why not give them the light of day.

This first entry had to include the words ‘without that it all falls apart‘ mid-story, and the second, which I’ll post up in a few weeks’ time is a science fiction piece (yes really!)

Today of All Days

The boy was back again.

Simon’s heart fell as he stepped through the front door and heard the soft murmur of voices from the kitchen. Not today. Not today, of all days.

Julia looked up. He’d got used to seeing the shadow of sadness in her eyes but her mouth smiled, as welcoming as always. She rose from the table, kissed his cheek, slipped across the room to refill the kettle.

‘I’ll make us all another tea,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it good of Zak to come today, today of all days.’

The boy turned. Simon was glad to see the flush of embarrassment on his face. The boy had wormed his way into Julia’s heart but Simon was not fooled by that mask of civility.

‘Hello, Mr Crouch.’

They’d never been on first name terms and they never would be. Some acts were unforgiveable, despite Julia’s insistence to the contrary. The counselling had given Julia a sense of stoic resignation Simon totally failed to comprehend. Thinking about what might have been doesn’t help, Julia had told him. Negativity solved nothing. We can’t spend the rest of our lives thinking about what ifs.

Simon could.

What if they hadn’t given in to Hayley’s demands to transfer to the local sixth form college? What if he’d had his own way and Hayley had stayed at private school to take her A levels?  Because then Hayley would have never met the boy. She’d never have started dating.

What if they’d said no when she’d asked about the trip to the festival? At least she asked, Julia had pointed out. Some kids would just go. How could they have said no?

What if she’d never got into the boy’s car?

She’d still be here. That’s what if.

‘Biscuit?’ Julia said, breaking open a packet of shortbread. They were Simon’s favourites, a deliberate ploy to force him to be sociable.

The boy’s once handsome face was pitted with scars. Simon was glad the boy would bear permanent evidence of his crime. Simon and Julia’s scars went unseen. Souls destroyed by grief. No visible signs. You just carried on, you had to.

Come to counselling with me, Julia had said. But he couldn’t because he didn’t want to sit in a circle with other bereaved parents and confess to a psychologist that he didn’t know how to come to terms with the death of his only child; how to re-assess, re-build, move-on. He didn’t want to talk about the hurt, and the hate, that consumed him. He found solace in work. Accounts, investments and taxation schemes still made sense when nothing else did. His clients needed him. He couldn’t just close up shop.

Everybody coped differently, Julia soothed, as if she understood, as if she didn’t mind his absence from the sessions. He immersed himself in his job while Julia poured out her heart and made friends with the enemy.

It was the ultimate betrayal. He couldn’t think of it in any other terms. The boy had killed their daughter and Julia had invited him into their house.

‘I could hardly leave him on the doorstep, could I?’ she said, the first time Simon came home to find the boy in their kitchen. ‘That’s not what Hayley would have wanted. I couldn’t turn him away.’

‘Yes you could,’ Simon argued. ‘He had no business to come here, upsetting you.’

‘He was far more upset than me,’ Julia insisted. ‘He was distraught. I didn’t know what else to do. He’s lost someone too, remember.’

The boy’s loss would never be as great as theirs. He’d barely known Hayley. What was a year, eighteen months, compared to a lifetime?

‘Don’t you see how important it is for him to maintain contact with people who knew her?’ Julia was on a crusade, almost as if she’d found solace in the boy’s visit. ‘We’re that link, however tenuous. We represent some part of Hayley, something tangible. Without that, it all falls apart.’

Let it all fall apart, Simon thought, let the boy suffer and shatter into fragments as they had done. Why should Julia become the boy’s conscience saver?

‘Hayley had lots of friends,’ Simon pointed out. ‘Why can’t he go and have cosy chats with them instead?’

Julia had an answer for everything. ‘You of all people should understand how difficult it is to find someone you can open up to, someone you can trust.’

He didn’t like the inference that he and the boy shared anything in common. Simon had chosen not to open up. He didn’t want to delve into the chasm, because once he started, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop. One of them had to stay strong.

‘He thinks he’s to blame,’ Julia said. ‘He holds himself responsible.’

‘But he is responsible,’ Simon replied. Back to all those what ifs again.

‘No,’ Julia said. ‘The van driver was entirely at fault. Zak did everything he could to avoid the crash. Didn’t you listen to a word at the inquest?’

Julia was too generous, too kind. Too forgiving.

‘I don’t want him here again,’ he’d said.

Yet here he was. Again.

Simon noticed the flowers in the sink, the type of cheap bouquet picked up at a service station or corner shop. Now he felt guilty. Guilty he hadn’t thought to buy flowers on the way home from work. Guilty that he’d dismissed his doubts that really he should have taken the day off.

She’d said she didn’t want to do anything that made the date significant. She’d insisted it would make matters worse, not better.  Sometimes Julia spoke in unfathomable riddles. How was he supposed to know what was the right thing to do?

The house phone rang. It had probably been ringing all day; Julia’s mother; his mother, friends, the bereavement group, that closed-circle who gave Julia her strength and from whom Simon felt so alienated. Whoever was ringing now would be offering sympathy and platitudes, talking of time being a great healer, the old clichés about the first anniversaries always being the worse, and how everything would get better from now on.

‘I’ll get it,’ Julia said.

The boy shuffled on his seat.

‘You’re not to come here again,’ Simon said as soon as Julia was out of the room. ‘It upsets my wife.’

‘I only came to bring the flowers,’ the boy muttered. ‘I couldn’t not do anything, not today.’

‘My wife is very gullible. This has gone on long enough. You coming here just makes everything ten times worse.’

‘I’m sorry.’ The boy kept his eyes downcast. ‘I never meant any harm. She should have said if she didn’t want to see me.’

‘Well, I’m saying it now.’

He thought the boy would get up, make a swift exit while Julia was still on the phone, but instead of making a move to leave the boy slumped further into his chair. He hung his head, ran his fingers through his shaggy hair, revealing more scar tissue. Simon recoiled at the intensity of the criss-cross of lines, seeing them close-up for the first time. He reminded himself the boy had walked away from the wreckage of his car, walked away, while Hayley had to be cut free. His attempt to stem the flow of blood from Hayley’s wounds had been admirable but amateurish, the coroner had said. If the ambulance had arrived five minutes earlier, if the van driver hadn’t stopped for a second drink, hadn’t been on medication…

What ifs.

‘I think about her all the time,’ the boy said. ‘Hayley was the best thing that ever happened me. I’d never met anyone like her. She was full of fun, so beautiful, generous, and I find it so hard to remember that, because all I see now when I think about Hayley are the headlights of the van coming towards us. I slam my foot on the brake but it’s all too late.  I hear her screams.  It’s a nightmare that won’t go away, that recurs day after day, and sometimes I wake up, and I think that’s all it is, just a nightmare, I’ll see Hayley at college today, and then I look in the mirror, and I can’t escape. I’ll never escape. It’s all my fault. I killed her.’

The boy sobbed as if his heart was breaking, sobs that came from somewhere deep within the pit of his thin, lanky frame, sobs that reverberated around the kitchen. The boy sobbed as Simon had wanted to sob when Hayley’s life-support was switched off.

‘Julia, your wife, Mrs Crouch, she understands,’ the boy mumbled on through his tears. ‘She listens to me. That’s why I come. Nobody else wants to know. They tell me it’s a year now, and I should be moving on, go back to college. Julia says I should go back to college too, it’s what Hayley would have wanted, but she doesn’t say it like they say it. She understands.’

Envy was an irrational reaction, yet it stabbed at Simon like a knife, gauging into his shame.  He wanted to tell the boy to get a grip, to pull himself together, because that was the advice he gave himself, but that advice hadn’t worked. This boy provided Julia with the comfort and the empathy he could not. They had consoled each other and he had remained deliberately aloof.

He wasn’t aware of Julia coming to stand in the doorway, phone in her hand. He was just aware of the boy at the table who had been injured in the car crash that had taken his daughter’s life, a boy who shared his nightmares, his fears, his grief, his loss.

He tried to think of something he could say that would make it better, something Julia might say when the boy came here, seeking refuge. Really, there was nothing.

He reached out and put his hand on the boy’s shaking shoulder.

‘We don’t blame you. It wasn’t your fault.’

Perhaps it was the right thing, the only thing to say, today of all days.


The End

© Rosie Travers


You can check out some of my flash fiction here