Yesterday I posted a flash fiction story that involves a fair amount of historical background. I think it’s better if you read the story first without knowing what inspired it, so click here to read it. (It’s really short.)
When Stories Die
Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die. It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.
Last month, the Economic Security Project had a contest to write a short story about Universal Basic Income. I tried my hand at it, but didn’t get far. I thought readers might be interested in seeing an example of a story that died.
A 4th of July Story
Johnathan found himself feeling rather down. It was the zeitgeist; for everywhere there was corruption and vice. Decency, civility, industriousness and all the other virtues had gone out of the world. Decadence and rot, from the upper echelons of society down to Johnathan’s own place of business, had worked their worst.
And so as he walked through the dingy back-alleys to his gloomy little apartment, his mood was understandably grim. As he approached the stained white door, the faded American flag next to it caught the breeze and hit him in the face. He cursed and, in the imprudent fury that occasionally possesses a frustrated person, tore the banner, pole and all, from its fixture beside the door.
Grumbling profanities, he opened the door and went inside the dark apartment, flag and pole tucked under his arm. He set down his briefcase and entered his kitchen to make himself a meager dinner. The kitchen was dark; barely illuminated by the dim light that filtered through the window by the stove. He fumbled for the light switch and finally found it. But on turning on the light, he found he was not alone.
Seated at his kitchen table was a tall, olive-skinned woman, dressed in a style that Johnathan would have described as “Victorian”, though in fact that was not the correct period. She wore a full-length red and white striped dress, with a shiny blue caraco, with golden epaulettes at the shoulder.
After dropping the flag and recoiling in surprise, Johnathan managed to blurt out, “Who are you? What are you doing? I’ll call the police!”
The woman smiled slightly. “No need for that, my friend,” she said coolly. “Although I request that you pick up that lovely flag you have rather unceremoniously left lying on the floor.”
“What, this?” said Johnathan stupidly. “It’s old and faded. I may as well pitch it.”
“Please don’t,” said the woman, in a tone of annoyance that told Johnathan he had better pick up the flag already. Having done so, he returned to his line of questioning: “What are you doing in my apartment, ma’am?” he asked, and then added, “I did not invite you. Please leave before I call the police.”
“I have not, and will not, steal any of your belongings, nor harm you in any way.” she said calmly. “I only want to talk to you.”
“About what?” Johnathan said, with ill-concealed irritation. “I don’t even know who you are!”
“Columbia is my name,” she answered. “And I want to talk to you about America.”
“You want… what?” he said in confusion. “Well, I don’t know why you want to talk about that, but if you want to know what I think: America’s going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a disaster. The government is nothing but criminals and liars, out to make a buck.”
“Ah, but that is politics,” she replied. “That is not America.”
“Well, call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is nobody has a clue what they’re doing. They can’t hold anyone accountable, they can’t do their own jobs right–it’s chaos everywhere; people are out of work, they can’t afford decent food or a decent place to live, and criminals are all over the place–killing people, stealing stuff, and, and–and breaking into people’s houses in the middle of the night!” (He concluded this speech by pointing towards Columbia.)
“Can you really think of nothing good about the country?” she queried.
“Oh, it used to be better, back in the old days. People weren’t perfect, but at least they tried,” he muttered. “It was a great country once, but it’s all ruined because people are too stupid or too afraid to try to fix things anymore.”
“And what was it that made it great?” she asked.
He shook his head, “I… I don’t know. Do you think if I knew that I would be here?”
She folded her hands. “Let me tell you something about America: it does not have as much history as other parts of the world do. People who come here are looking to build something new–without all the baggage of the old world weighing them down.”
“Well, what of it?” said Johnathan. He tried to sound as disinterested as possible, and yet he found himself sitting down to listen to her all the same. “It’s all failed now, anyway.”
She replied crisply: “I believe it’s not about ‘success’ or ‘failure’–those are things that only apply in a contest with a clearly defined end. The beauty of creating something new is that it is a risk. You do not know how it will turn out–but there is courage in trying.”
“That is what really matters, you see,’ she continued. “When anything–a life, a country, anything–begins, there is no guarantee of ‘success’. And yet, if no one were ever willing to run that risk…”
She trailed off, and Johnathan now found himself mesmerized by her speech. He stared at her for a few moments. Her brown eyes had a strange calming effect upon him, and he felt like he was becoming hypnotized as he studied her dark, angular face.
“But what’s the use of any of it now?” he asked, forcing himself back to reality. “There’s nothing new here–it’s old and rotten and falling apart!”
Columbia closed her eyes for a moment and smiled patiently, as though she had expected this from him. She opened her eyes, looked directly into his, and said: “And don’t you think that in the past, others have felt just as frustrated and lost as you do now?”
“Yes,” he admitted, after a pause.
“And what did they do?”
“They… created something new.” he answered quietly.
“That’s right,” she said with a satisfied nod. “They faced their challenges, assessed them, and overcame them through courage and ingenuity. That is America.”
The two of them sat in silence after that. Columbia leaned back in her chair and glanced around the room with an expression of mild interest. Johnathan simply stared at her, the strange feeling of hypnosis growing stronger all the time.
A loud bang from outside jolted him to his feet. For an instant, he thought it was a gunshot, but when he rushed to the window, he saw glittering white sparks in the air and realized it was a firework display.
“Look at that,” he said with a smile, as more bright showers of light exploded in the darkness overhead. “Columbia, come and see–”
He turned to beckon her to the window, but she was gone. The chair was empty. Johnathan looked around in confusion. He ran back through the kitchen and out the front door on to the porch, looking around for her as he went.
She was nowhere to be seen. Johnathan stood on the porch in a daze, listening to the crackle of the pyrotechnic display building to its climax.
He looked around and caught sight of the empty metal bracket beside the door. The flag and pole, he realized, were still under his arm. He hurriedly unfurled the flag and restored it to its place.
This is what they call a “mood piece”.
I’m sitting here eating crackers,
I dip ‘em in something bad for my liver.
The branches outside move in the wind;
And I reach for my sword when they quiver.
The Xboxes whir in the night-time
As I wait for the red ring of death.
I don’t suppose anyone knows
How long I can go without breath?
The creatures all over the mansion
Hide in the shadows when I look around.
But I feel their presence upon me,
And twitch upon hearing their mockery sound.
I don’t think the lights will stay on in the storm—
I don’t think we can get pressure on Brady—
I don’t like the fact that there’s ground on the snow—
I’m losing my mind for the love of a lady.
My paranoia has gone to extremes;
I think Wikipedia’s telling the truth.
I think that some monarchist penguin
Is judging me for the sins of my youth.
Mister or Miss, don’t misjudge or dismiss
This missive of awful inanity.
For as bad as it is living like this,
I’ve found I prefer it to sanity!
In a Deserted Cabin
In this forest, each night seemeth haunted and dark;
The cold Autumn landscape relentlessly stark;
While the beasts of the night snarl and bark–
As in legends of Devils and Ghosts.
I can hear the melancholy wind as it moans,
Swirling around the trees and the stones,
Making the branches to rattle like bones,
As night birds cry out from their posts.
In the dying orange light of the fire
The shadows a-dancing begin to inspire
Shimmering shapes all dreadful and dire
Surrounding me here in my room.
I glance at the door, to be sure of the lock,
Another wind gust makes the cabin walls rock.
And I fancy I hear an inhuman voice talk
And whisper of pain and of doom.
THE FINAL HOURS OF RESEARCH STATION A-57
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m still working on my next book. In the meantime, enjoy this little flash-fiction sci-fi/horror tale, written in the Lovecraftian/Alien vein.]
It is with sadness and trepidation that I present for the first time since the shocking events of May 24th, 2077, the final transmissions between the on-site Tech Specialist and myself during that fateful expedition aboard the A-57 Research Station.
Everyone is pretty familiar with the station’s sad state prior to that day—how it was gradually developing minor flaws and breakdowns in key systems. It was these breakdowns which ultimately led to the Board’s decision to defund the station. Had it not been for the untimely failure of the station’s onboard data transmission system, it would not have been necessary to send a specialist up to the station to manually retrieve its last recorded findings.
The specialist was equipped with standard space exploration suit, a typical array of nano-machine tools and networked data collection devices for such a mission. It was, all in all, a completely routine assignment, and as his handler I was not expecting to deal with some of the situations which we ultimately confronted. What follows is the transcript of our communications, up to the point at which I lost contact with him:
“My systems show you’re at the docking bay entrance now. Confirm?”
“That’s right. Looks like most of the power must be gone from the place—there’s only emergency lighting. There’s a viewport here—I can see the earth. Wave so I can see you.”
“Heh. Can you open the door?”
“Roger that.” [Sound of hissing, buzzing as he apparently rewired the door.]
“Okay, I’m inside now.”
“What can you see?”
“Not much. Main corridor seems even darker than the last one, can barely see in here. Looks like it’s… decaying. What the…, is that rust?”
“No, it couldn’t be—it’s not made of metal. It’s strange that it’s only emergency power—the readings show full energy levels. In any case, the layout says you’re a couple corridors away from the data lab. Go down the main corridor and go left.”
[Clanking of his magnetic gravity boots on the stations floor.]
“It’s so damn dark, and—there’s some kind of… goo or something coating the floors. Like oil.”
“That’s really weird. Might explain the weird auto-transmissions we’ve received. The energy signatures suggested it was overloaded, but I don’t…”
[Distant crashing and hissing sounds.]
“What was that? Hang on a minute.”
[Heavy breathing, more clanking. Sound of hiss as door opens.]
“I went through this door at the end of the hall. Where should I be now?”
“You should be in the observation room. Should be a big window.”
“Well, it’s closed. Emergency light here too, and—[expletive]!”
[Sound of fighting, then heavy breathing.]
“I just saw a head—it was flying around the room! I—I didn’t know what I was seeing. “
“A head? A human head!?”
“No—a, uh, animal or something. Did they run animal experiments up here?”
“I think so—maybe they forgot to throw out their trash or something.”
[More clanking, heavy breathing]
“What would have caused the windows to all seal?”
“Some kind of emergency warning might have gone off—again, could be tied into why we got those signals.”
“Too dark—no emergency lights even. I’ve got my flashlight and—whoa!”
“This area’s demagnetized or something—I’m floating.”
“There should be two doors—try to reach the one on the left.”
[Long silence, followed by hiss of doors opening and a metallic clang]
“Ok, this area seems better lit, although it’s… flickering. I can’t, uh, I can’t see the source of it…”
[Slow clanking of his footsteps. Strange hissing or growling noise heard. A few seconds of silence]
[Weird scrabbling or scratching sound]
[Sound of metal screeching]
“What’s going on up there?”
“Answer me, man! What’s happening?”
(whispered): “Be quiet. They might hear you.”
[A minute’s silence. Distant scratching or hissing heard. Grunting or yelling; inaudible words, and then a howl.]
“Are you there?”
[More hissing and growling, ending in a final, metallic grinding or crunching sound.]
That was the last of the transmissions received from him. I cannot speculate as to the meaning of his final words. We can only conjecture whether this bizarre and abrupt ending had any connection with the sudden degradation of the station’s orbit, and its furious plunge into the Pacific ocean, many weeks ahead of its scheduled destruction. Most of the station’s wreckage was incinerated of course, but among the few pieces recovered, one unusually large section of its hull survived relatively intact. The research team sent to recover the debris found it had a strange hole torn in it. Obviously, all debris is expected to be badly damaged, but the hole bore the appearance of having been torn deliberately from within.
Perhaps it is only a strange coincidence, but the specialist’s final words lead me to wonder if there is some unknown sentient force at work. In connection with the new reports of deep-sea divers glimpsing bizarre creatures lurking beneath the sea, and the sudden decimation of the whale shark population that has recently occurred in that part of the ocean, it leads me to feel it necessary to urge caution when exploring that region, and I think sending Naval forces to the area is advisable. Some may argue that it seems unlikely anything dangerous may lurk down there, but while it is certainly true that the darkest depths of the sea are very inhospitable to life, I contend that something which had once resided in the blackness of space itself could easily survive the extreme conditions of the ocean floor.