Memories of Innocence – a flash science fiction story

Inspector Jane Pilgrim sipped at her coffee. It was cold, but it was here as a prop, not a refreshment. Something to give her time to think.

Across the table of the interview room, Brian Diggle sat next to his lawyer, an odious man in a pinstripe suit named Jack Oliver.

“You didn’t hack the neural game factory?” Pilgrim asked. “You’re not the reason all those people’s implants hijacked their brains?”

“No,” Diggle repeated. “Do you have to keep asking?”

His expression was so innocent, his responses so unrehearsed. Both his story, and his emotional reactions were perfect. After this long, nobody could put on a show this good.

Yet she knew it had to be Diggle. The evidence excluded every other possibility. That sleaze ball Oliver might be able to make it inadmissible, but they all knew what the trail showed.

All except the man behind it.

Then it struck her. If Diggle could hijack other people’s brains, could he hijack his own too?

“Time’s almost up, detective,” Oliver said, grinning like a lizard in the sunshine. “Unless you have something else, you’re going to have to let my client go.”

Pilgrim took a deep breath. She had been trying to break through the shell of a guilty Diggle. Maybe instead she needed to work with an innocent man.

“Mister Diggle,” she said, leaning forwards. “Do you know what a neural overlay is?”

“That’s what you say I did to those people,” Diggle said. “Turning them into some sort of zombies.”

“That’s one option, yes,” Pilgrim said. “But there are other uses too. Overlays based on real memories help veterans in trauma counselling. There are stories of spies using them. Laying a fake personality over their real one to get through interrogation.

“Those spies set a pre-arranged fault in the programming. Afterwards, they read a code word or experience an event that triggers a real memory. The fake personality vanishes, taking its memories with it, leaving the true person behind.”

“You’re saying I’m using an overlay?” Diggle laughed angrily. “This is absurd. You’re making things up now.”

“I’m not saying that you’re using an overlay, Mister Diggle. I’m saying that you are one. And underneath it all, the real Brian Diggle, the man who destroyed all those lives, is hiding.”

Oliver shifted uncomfortably in his seat. There was a faint whir from the video camera in the corner.

“No,” Diggle said. “I remember my life. I remember my past. I’m a real person.”

“Do you remember what you had for breakfast yesterday?” Pilgrim asked. “What your favourite toy was as a child? Who your first crush was? These are the details that make us human, Mister Diggle, but there’s seldom time to include them in an overlay.”

Diggle’s eyes went wide. His lips parted as if he was about to speak, but instead he just sat, mouth agape, horror freezing his expression.

“Enough,” Oliver said. “This is absurd. My client is leaving.”

He got up and tried to haul Diggle to his feet. But Diggle shook him off and sat staring at Pilgrim.

“I don’t want to not be real,” he whispered. “I don’t want to be wiped away.”

“Don’t say anything more,” Oliver snapped. “You have to come with me.”

“You don’t have to go anywhere,” Pilgrim said.

“I don’t get to live, do I?” Diggle asked, eyes watering. He really was an innocent. “Once this is over, he’ll come back.”

“There will be a signal,” Pilgrim said. “Something you know you want to do after the interview. That will trigger the change.”

“A cigarette,” Diggle whispered. He pulled a packet out of his pocket and dropped it on the table. “I don’t smoke, but I want to have a cigarette when I leave.”

He looked at the packet sadly, rotating it on the tabetop with one thin finger.

“If I don’t ever smoke it, will he never come back?” he asked.

“Sooner or later, the overlay will collapse,” Pilgrim said. “Maybe you’ll smell someone else’s cigarette and that will be enough. Maybe the programming will just fade. Either way, you don’t have long.”

“Fuck.” He wiped a tear from his cheek. “So what do I do?”

“Help me catch the man who did this,” Pilgrim said. “If the overlay drops here, on record, I might do something with that.”

“No!” Oliver exclaimed. “We’re leaving. Now.”

“Fuck you,” Diggle snapped. “You’re fired.”

“You can’t fire me! You’re not even-” Oliver froze. “Ah.”

Pilgrim stood, opened the door, and glared at the lawyer.

“Your client just fired you,” she said. “You have no right to be here.”

Shoulders slumping, Oliver slunk out. Pilgrim slammed the door behind him.

“Ready?” she asked.

“No,” Diggle said, placing a cigarette between his lips. “But I’m still doing it.”

As he raised a lighter, Pilgrim went to stand behind him, out of sight. There was a click, the sound of a deep breath, and then a cloud of smoke.

Brian Diggle’s shoulders shifted, his legs stretched out, and he leaned back.

“Wicked,” he said. Then he glanced around. “Wait, why am I still here?” He raised his voice. “Oliver, where are you, you wanker?”

“What were we just talking about, Mister Diggle?” Pilgrim asked.

He jumped at the sound of her voice. Angry eyes turned to glare at the detective.

“Who the fuck are you?” he asked. “Where’s my fucking lawyer?”

“You don’t remember?” she asked.

“No, I don’t fucking remember,” Diggle snarled. “Lawyer. Now.”

“Brian Diggle,” Inspector Pilgrim said, “you are under arrest for attempting to obstruct the police in the course of their investigations through the use of a memory overlay…”

For the second time, she began reading him his rights.

Except that it wasn’t the second time, and the man she had met before was sadly gone.

* * *


Sometimes story comes from theme. I was reading a bunch of articles, looking for inspiration. Stories about robots in disguise, lizards with sheddable skin, dark web versions of normal websites. Then I noticed a theme in the things that had interested me. They were all about things with hidden natures. So rather than write about one of those specific ideas, I decided to riff on that theme, and here’s the result.

If you enjoyed this story then please share it, and consider checking out my collection of sci-fi stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

I’ve Written a Little Code – a flash science fiction story

The rebel ship Small Necessity hurtled through the hollow sea of space, engines constantly accelerating as she ran from the Imperial pursuit ship. Somewhere in the darkness, missiles were hurtling past, their guidance systems foiled by the Necessity’s shield of countermeasures – programs that jammed targeting systems, misdirected rockets, and preemptively detonated warheads.

Russ’s fingers darted across the keyboard. The pursuit ship’s e-war team had locked frequencies with receptors in the Necessity’s computing network. Their hacking codes were worming into the system, trying to bring down the shields, while he fought to repair, rebuild, and fend them off.

A few unprotected seconds were all it would take for a missile to hit.

“How are we doing?” Captain Tuer stood at his shoulder, peering at his system admin screen as if she could understand what was happening. Maybe she could – they’d been here plenty of times before.

“They’re good,” Russ said. “They got through the first firewall. But I’ve written a little code to-”

“Last time you wrote a little code it was to diagnose our systems,” Tuer said. “It brought everything to a halt.”

“That’s because it was missing an iteration limit,” Russ said distractedly, trying to code while monitors showed how close the missiles were coming. “This time – shit!”

A brute force attack had carried the hackers into the guidance-baffling software. The ship shook as a missile hit the port bow.

Strapped into his seat, Russ hit the key to lock off that part of the mainframe. A back-up guidance-baffling program stirred into life.

He’d known that this would happen. He’d just hoped it would take longer.

Sirens screamed. So did a voice over the intercom. People were dying in engineering, but there was nothing he could do about that. All he could do was to stop more missiles hitting.

Somebody swore on the other side of the bridge. The hackers had broken into the navigation system. Two crews were now fighting over the ship’s course. Even as Russ countered that, weapons control went down, then the program for detonating pursuing missiles.

Every time he fixed a glitch in the code, two more popped up. The hackers were all the way in.

He wanted to fix the beautiful, broken programs he’d written to run the ship. But as he kept fighting fires, more were springing up. He needed to put out the dragon lighting them.

“I’m going into their systems,” he said.

“What?” Tuer asked with a frown. “Couldn’t you have done that before?”

“Not while maintaining ours,” Russ said.

It was easy to reach the pursuit ship’s network. He just piggybacked the two-way signal they were using. Moments later, his screen was full of data as his console got to grips with what it was seeing.

The Necessity shook as another missile hit. Across the room, the rear gunner bellowed an obscenity as his targeting system went blank.

“Do something,” Tuer said, pointing at the furious gunner.

“Can’t,” Russ said. “Not while I’m doing this.”

“Then stop doing that and do your job! This is your stupid little code all over again.”

Russ grinned. She was more right than she knew.

The pursuit crew were busy attacking. They’d only just realised that he was in their system. He opened their diagnostic software and dropped in something of his own – a copy of the little code he’d tried to use on the Necessity.

The one with the unending iterations.

On his screen, data usage stats soared. The other ship’s systems started grinding to a halt.

He flicked back to his own network and reactivated the rear gun systems, then the targeting bafflers, then the code that detonated pursuing missiles.

“They’ve stopped accelerating,” the helmsman said.

“They’ve stopped firing,” someone else announced.

“We’re losing them,” Captain Tuer announced, gazing in incredulity at a monitor.

Russ grinned. He imagined the fury of the pursuit ship’s system administrators as they tried to work out what was wrong. They would be looking for hostile worms, not a friendly little diagnostic program. By the time they found it, the Small Necessity would be well away.

The crew cheered. Tuer patted Russ on the shoulder. The Small Necessity hurtled on through the hollow sea of space.

* * *


This story exists in large part as a thank you. My friend and fellow writer Russell Phillips is always helping me out with website problems, as well as offering other IT help. His catchphrase, “I’ve written a little code…”, symbolises the casual calm with which he can do things with computers far beyond my ken. Thanks Russ. I hope you like the story.

And if you, dear reader, enjoyed this, then please share it, and consider checking out my collection of sci-fi stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

Taking Time – a steampunk flash story

Mud and Brass blog header

The engine’s gears rattled around me, spindles turning and ratchets clattering. The finest calculating machine in the capital, it should have been an honour to examine it. But this was the creation of Miss Honoria Venk, a source of deep frustration.

By the light of a narrow beamed lantern, I reached through the equation racks, three tiny wedges of magnetised metal between my fingers. I attached them to the third gearwheel down, filling spaces between its teeth. That would throw out the digits and accelerate the calculations, along with hundreds of other minute changes I had made over the past hour. The coins glued to axle seventeen would stop the machine at my chosen point. One adjustment remained.

I crept towards the central hub, contemplating the decade of bitter professional rivalry that had led to this. It was indignity enough that I had not been chosen the construct the City Exchange’s difference engine. But that the job should be given to Miss Venk…
My feelings had reached the point of vexatious. This had to end.

A row of balance levers sat atop the brass machinery of the hub, the baseline for all of its calculations. From inside my tailcoat I drew one of the short, sharp-teethed hacksaws from which difference engine saboteurs took their name. Balancing on a steaming pipe, I reached out towards one of the levers.

I was halfway through cutting when the heat from the pipe became unbearable. On instinct I yanked my foot away. The hacksaw tumbled from my hand into the depths of the machine, and my cuff caught on one of the great gears. My other foot, now bearing all my weight and all the heat, began to burn with pain.

Heart hammering like a steam train, I reached through the gap, desperately trying to grasp the hacksaw. My fingers merely brushed against its teeth, blood running from the tips. I ground my jaw, trying to ignore the pain in my foot and the gears dragging my arm around. Grabbing the end of the half cut lever, I finally gave in and jumped off the pipe.

There was a groan and then a snap. The cuff of my coat gave way with a loud rip, and three pearl buttons disappeared into the depths of the machine. As I crashed to the floor, half a lever in my hand, my lantern smashed, split oil bursting into flames.

Wrenching off my coat, I frantically beat out the fire. If I burnt this place down then Miss Venk’s would never see the results of my cunning.

Plunged into darkness, I slid back into my coat and fumbled around until I found the handle of the main door. The tone of the engine was changing around me.

Favouring my unburned foot, I entered the service corridor and closed the door behind me. A minute later I was walking out of the Exchange’s main hall. Even with my bleeding fingers hidden in my pocket, I drew several curious stares with my torn sleeve, my limp and the smell of smoke. I tried to avoid catching anyone’s eye, fearful of bursting into excited laughter at it all.

At last I reached the main doors. It was almost noon and, as always, Miss Venk stood in the middle of the square outside. Today she wore a green dress that complemented the blonde of her hair. In one lace gloved hand she held a pocket watch.

“Mr Chandler.” Her lip curled as I approached. “Never a pleasure.”

“Miss Venk.” I gave the smallest of bows, still trying to stifle my excitement. “Come to check on your machine?”

We both glanced up at the clock on the front of the hall, comparing the time as calculated by the difference engine with that showing on her watch. The two were in perfect accord.

“A craftswoman never neglects her-” She froze as the clock’s minute hand took a step back, and then another. It accelerated in its backwards sweep, taking the hour hand with it, and then the date shown on shutters beneath the clock. Days rolled back faster and faster, then weeks, months, years. Soon nearly a decade had been erased from the clock’s count, and suddenly its hands froze in place.

“You did this!” Miss Venk turned a look of absolute hatred upon me. But my course was now set upon a track as unalterable as that of an express train. “I shall have you arrested. Police! Police!”

“Miss Venk.” I held up my hand and she stared in bewilderment at the blood upon it. “Do you not recognise the hour struck?”
She looked up at the clock, then back at me. Her eyes flickered, as they always did when she was calculating.

“Was that when we met?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Miss Venk, you are the most exasperating woman I have ever known,” I said. “And the most extraordinary. I have long wished that I could turn back the years to our first encounter, so that I might have the time over again from a more favourable beginning. This was as close as I could get.”

“You colossal ass,” she said. “You ruined my finest work for what – some mad love note?”

I shrugged. “I am not good with words. Machines are my only medium.”

A policeman approached.

“Do you need help, ma’am?” he asked, looking at my dishevelled appearance with deepest suspicion.

Miss Venk hesitated, then shook her head.

“No, officer, and I am afraid I must be going. I have a machine to mend.” As she strode away she turned back once to point at me. “Next time just bring flowers. If you touch my machine again I will end you.”

“She said next time.” I scratched my head and turned to look at the baffled policeman. “Does that mean it worked?”


* * *

The idea for this story came from Dan Aitken, who suggested the idea of a difference engine hacker, and how that might work. Thanks Dan! If anyone else has a story idea then leave it in the comments.

I have finally collected together my flash stories up to the end of 2015 in a Kindle e-book. A Mosaic of Stars is available now for pre-order and will be out next Thursday, 3 March. If you enjoyed this story and want more like it, or fancy having a bunch of these stories together in a single handy collection, then why not order a copy? It’s only 99c for the first week – not bad for 59 stories, even if I do say so myself.