Into the Dark

Once upon a time there was a website called Authonomy, where writers would gather and spruik their wares to the Great God Harper-Collins, who owned the site, hoping to have their opus selected for publication. Many tried, many failed, many made long lasting friendships. During my time there, one of our number floated the idea of an anthology of short stories, each written to match a randomly selected song. I joined in the fun and was  allocated (I will follow you) Into the Dark by Death Cab for Cutie. You’ll find the song with lyrics on Youtube via that link. I’d never heard of the band, or the song. But I had a listen, and enjoyed the lilting tune.

Now something interesting happened. I wrote a story a long time before, for a contest or something. It wasn’t selected. But that story really fitted the song. Deja vu? Who knows?

I’ve modified the story very slightly from the version in the anthology titled Words to Music. It wasn’t ever a best-seller. We donated any earnings to charity. As so often happens in the publishing game, it’s not about the money. Anyway, here’s my contribution. Enjoy.

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Richard Newby put the razor back down on the wash stand. There didn’t seem much point in shaving, really. It wouldn’t matter anymore. Not where he was going.

He sidled out of the ensuite, taking care not to disturb Mary. He paused and looked down at her as he passed the bed. They’d been married for fifty-four years; she’d been his companion, his soul mate. Perhaps he should tell her what he was about to do? He shook his head. He’d been through this, agonised over the decision. Best he kept it to himself.

Richard moved on, closed the bedroom door softly behind him and went into his study. He spent most of his time here, sitting in front of his computer, surfing the net or fiddling. Mary told him he should walk or play golf, and she was probably right. But he’d been in IT all his life, and the doctors told you to keep your brain active, didn’t they? Find something you love and do it. That’s what he’d done

He eased himself into his chair and turned the machine on, a slight smile playing around his mouth as the operating system loaded. He licked his lips, a tremor of anticipation… or maybe apprehension… running through his body. One way or another his life would never be the same again.

He loaded the song and listened one more time. It had been his inspiration, gentle and lilting. He smiled. Heaven and Hell displaying a ‘no vacancy’ sign.

The helmet was on a stand next to him, already plugged in. Richard slipped it over his head and pulled the visor down over his eyes. It fitted exactly, which was understandable. That was how he’d built it.

“Into the Dark,” he said.

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 Mary came in an hour later with his cup of tea and two biscuits.

“Here’s your tea, dear,” she said, putting the cup on the desk. “Are you going to take that thing off your head?” She shook his shoulder.

His body slumped sideways in the chair, the left arm dangling almost to the floor, the right on his lap.

Mary’s hands flew to her face. “Richard?”

She lifted his right hand, her fingers slipping around his wrist to feel for a pulse.

“Mary? Mary, over here.”

Mary frowned and peered at the helmet. “Where?”

“The computer, hunbun. Behind you.”

Mary peered at the screen, her expression wary. “Is this a joke?” she whispered. “Because it isn’t funny.”

“No, it’s me.” Richard, pointed at his chest. “That thing there,” he pointed at the body in the chair, “that’s just a hulk. I’m not there anymore.”

Mary gasped, her fingers flying to her mouth. “You’re dead?”

“It depends what you mean, hunbun. The body out there doesn’t work anymore because the operating system has turned off. But I’m fine here, in the cyber world.”

Her eyes widened. “You’re in the computer?”

“You might say that. Sort of. See that helmet on my—its—head? I worked out a way to transfer myself—my thoughts, my memories, my mind—into data sets. I’ve loaded all of that into this.” His hands swept down his sides to indicate himself, the being she could see on the screen. “What do you think?”

He was young again, of course. But better looking, fitter, more athletic, like one of those lifesavers at the beach. No need for the glasses he’d worn all his life. And he’d given himself a nose job and wavy, dark brown hair. And of course the tumour, that malignant thing in his chest, sapping his strength, turning his lungs to mash, that was gone, too.

“You look wonderful,” murmured Mary. “But… what about us? Why didn’t you say? When are you coming back?”

“I’m not coming back, darling. This was a one way trip. And I didn’t want to say anything in case it didn’t work. But it has and I want you to come, too.”

Another avatar appeared next to him. Mary at twenty five. Only with bigger breasts and thinner thighs. He’d given her thicker, longer hair and full, luscious lips.

“Remember her, hunbun? Wouldn’t you like to be her again?”

Hope and longing shone in her eyes. Of course she’d want to be twenty-five again.

“How? What do I have to do?”

“Put on the helmet and pull the visor down over your eyes.”

Mary frowned. “Will I die?”

“Only your body. You will be here, with me.”

“But what if somebody turns off the computer? They will, you know.”

“Won’t matter.” Richard waved his hand. “We’ll be out there in cyberspace, riding the net. There’s always a server switched on somewhere.”

“What about food and… and going to the bathroom and such?”

Richard dismissed it with a snort. “All bodily things. They won’t concern you anymore. Neither will arthritis and bad knees. We’ll live forever and never grow old.”

She chewed her lip. “What about the children? They’ll be upset.”

“They’re hardly children anymore. They’ve got their own lives. And really, we’ll be saving them a lot of pain. The doctor said the lump was getting bigger. He gave me six, eight months.”

“Oh.” Her gaze lingered on the corpse in the chair and then lifted back to the screen. “The lump’s gone?”

“Of course. And here, it can’t come back. Go on, Mary, take the helmet off the body. There’s a clip under my—its—chin.”

She hesitated, staring at the computer screen as if trying to see inside, beyond the glass. “I’m frightened, Richard.”

“Mary… hun… we’ve talked about this. You don’t believe in heaven or in hell.”

She almost smiled. “No. Of course not.”

“So the option is… darkness. One day, the operating system fails and it’s over. For all eternity.”

She rubbed her hand across her mouth. She always did that when she was nervous. “And then I’d be…” She sighed. “Alone.”

“And so would I, Mary. Come on. Darkness isn’t the only option.”

She stood a little straighter, head cocked to one side, considering. “What will we do?”

“Anything you like. You’d be amazed at the sorts of things you can find in cyberspace. Visit anywhere in the world, sample all sorts of places, do…” He sniggered. “Do some things we haven’t done for a long time.”

She blushed and smiled. A series of expressions flitted across her face. He knew what she was thinking; the things she’d be giving up. The children, the bowls club and her friends. He crossed his fingers. Please, Mary, please.

Mary sucked in a deep breath. “All right.”

Richard watched her take the helmet off the… his body. There was a smile on its face and its eyes were open. Mary closed them with her fingers. She stood for a moment with the helmet in her hands, pressing her lips together.

“Come on, hun,” he whispered. “Push the… me… out of the chair and sit down.”

Mary reached out with a tentative left hand. A push, little more than a tap on the shoulder. Richard’s bodily remains slumped a little more, but remained in the chair. Mary sucked in a deep breath, swallowed, and pushed harder. The body slid sideways out of the chair and collapsed into an untidy heap on the floor. She sat down, gripped the helmet in her hands and placed it firmly over her head. It was a little bit loose, but that was all right. She fastened the clip and stared at him, a sparkle in her dark eyes.

“Now put down the visor and say ‘Into the Dark.’”

A nervous flick of her tongue across her lips and then she slid the visor down over her face. “Into the Dark.”

Richard saw her body stiffen and then relax and sag, almost as if it was deflating.

Beside him, Mary’s avatar looked down at her new body and laughed. “How about a kiss, big boy?”

Short fiction – Lucky Chance

I haven’t written much lately. But I did write this. It’s for you. For free. And it won’t cost much of your time.

kitten held in human handsChristie stepped aside as a few more laughing workers bounced down the steps into the freedom of a Friday night. She looked at her phone and checked the time. Quarter past. It wasn’t like Darren to be late. Maybe she should call him.

She’d found his number and was about to press ‘call’ when he appeared, glowering. “Sorry,” he said, clattering down the steps. “Hanson went on and on and on.”

Christie knew what that was like. The boss in full spate was hard to shut up.

Darren grasped Christie’s arm. “Let’s go. I don’t want to be late for this party. There might be a job opportunity in it for me.”

Christie fell into step beside him, hurrying along the footpath. Stopped by the traffic lights Darren dithered, bouncing on his heels as the cars went by, throwing up a fine spray from the wet road.

A tiny wail caught Christie’s attention. “That sounded like a kitten.” She gazed around. Nothing but wet pavement. But there it was again, somewhere low down. Staring around she spotted a storm water drain, still gurgling with the last of the shower’s runoff. Crouched down she peered between the bars of the grid and made out a bundle in the corner, the light reflecting from huge eyes. “We’ve got to get it out.”

“What are you talking about?” Darren grated. “We have to go.”

“It’s a kitten. It’s trapped. It’ll drown.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s just a bloody cat. Thousands of the things are put down every day.”

Christie stared up at his scowling face. He wasn’t quite so cute and handsome from this angle. Heartless bastard. “Go. I might see you later.”

“Sure.” He stormed off across the road. Ignoring the fading thud of boots, Christie pulled at the bars.

“What’s up?”

Christie peered up at the man standing beside her. Pete, the senior software engineer where she worked, a nice enough guy, but quiet, a bit stand-offish. His hair flopped into his face as usual. Just as well he wore glasses. “There’s a kitten trapped down here.” As she spoke the tiny creature meowed again.

Frowning, Pete pushed his hair aside and crouched beside her, inspecting the grille. “If I can get my fingers under here…” He reached between the bars and heaved. Once. Twice. With a squelch the grid lifted and slid aside. Together they peered down into the darkness, while the kitten yowled again, its voice barely audible above the drip of water and the sound of passing cars. The pit was deep, Christie judged deeper than she was tall.

Pete stood. “I’ll go. You’ll get dirty.”

Before Pete could climb into the pit Christie grabbed his leg. “I’ll go. I’m lighter than you. I won’t be able to pull you up.”

He chewed his lip for a moment, then nodded. “Get yourself over. I’ll lower you down.”

Holding her wrists he lowered her until her feet sank into ooze that made her flesh crawl. The kitten crouched in the corner, all wet fur and huge, frightened eyes. Her heart melting, Christie picked up the tiny body, cradling it in both hands. Poor little thing, wet and trembling. She wondered how long it had been there.

“Hand it up here, Christie.” Pete’s face was a dark oval, silhouetted against the evening sky.

She placed the kitten into his waiting hands.

“Poor little puss,” he murmured as he put the little creature in his jacket pocket. That done, he reached down for her hands and dragged her, muddy and bedraggled, out of the drain. “Okay?” he asked as he steadied her with a hand on her hip.

She nodded. “Kitten?”

Pete lifted the kitten out of his pocket, stroking its head with one finger. She could hear the purr from here. The look on the man’s face hit Christie right in the heart.

“I think you’re one life down, little fella, one very lucky little cat.” The grin on his face morphed into something else she couldn’t quite pick. “Do you mind if I keep him?” he asked. “I mean, if you want him…”

Grinning, she blinked away the incipient tears. “No. I’d like to, but I can’t.” She’d been afraid he was going to suggest the council pound.

Pete looked her up and down, making her aware of her damp, filthy clothes. “Um… I can give you a lift home. If you don’t mind stopping at the supermarket so I can pick up some kitty litter and food?”

Pete had lovely blue eyes behind his glasses. Wiping her nose with her grubby hand, she said, “We’d better stop at the pizza joint, too. Looks like I won’t be going out to dinner, after all.”

“I’m a good cook. If pasta and a salad would suit?”

“I’d like that. Then I can help you clean up Lucky.”

He had a lovely smile. “Lucky it is.”