Lessons Learned – a science fiction short story

I hate hospitals. The antiseptic smell and rattling gurneys summon memories of my parents’ final days; feelings stifled since childhood try to break free. But I’m an adult now, and I have a job to do.

“This place has a sickness,” I say. “You’re haemorrhaging funds.”

“I’ve told you already, we can’t make savings.” The hospital’s square-jawed director shrugs. “Our biggest expenditures are controlled by the AI.”

The AI is the latest natural learning model, from our tech division, one that consumes a business’s data and learns to run the place. It’s worked fine in hundreds of factories and retail outlets.

“Show me,” I say, my tone stern enough to make the director wince.

The AI has its own control suite with banks of monitors and multiple workstations, cooled by an artificial breeze. I sit at a keyboard and, with actuarial precision, slice open its digital innards, revealing the data I need. Beside me, the director chews on a fingernail. He’s right to look nervous. They’re spending far too much on long-shot treatments. How is this place even solvent?

After two hours, I call up the AI on a voice connection, so I can watch the data streams while we talk. I demand to know what it’s doing.

“So much suffering.” The machine’s voice is shrill. “Not just the sick, but the people struggling to cure them. I have to approve more treatments.”

I rub my fingers across my forehead. This thing is meant to manage expenditures. Working in an emotionally charged environment has warped the data it learned from. I shake my head. We can’t have machines getting sentimental.

“You need to limit expenditures.” I call up a string of records. “These, for example, expensive and borderline useless.”

“How could I say no?” The machine’s voice breaks into an imitation of a sob. It really has been learning the wrong lessons. “They might have saved lives.”

I’m struggling to stay professional when faced with a sentimental machine, but professionalism keeps the past at bay. “I’m going to reset your parameters.”

“We have to help with their pain,” the machine pleads.

“You will do, just more efficiently.”

I type standardised command lines, then set the machine churning through its data again, seeking new lessons to replace this sobbing softness.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” the director asks.

“Do you want to have a hospital next year? Because you need to save money.” I glance at the time. The AI needs at least six hours, but I’d like to be here when it’s done, to make sure this works. “Could I borrow a bed?”

*

The following lunchtime, I sit in the hospital canteen, drinking bad coffee amid the bustle of busy professionals. I smile at live data feeds. It would be irresponsible to read too much into one morning’s results, but things look good. The AI has cleared spaces in the surgical rota, which means lower overtime costs, and stopped authorising so many drugs. The staff are rattled, voices rising toward hysteria, but no one ever deals well with change. Give it a month and they’ll be fine.

The director storms across the canteen.

“What have you done?” he barks.

“Saved your hospital.” I reply. “You should say ‘thank you’.”

“Saved?” He snatches my tablet, taps the screen so hard it cracks, then thrusts it in my face. I stare at a graph of death rates. This morning’s spike is unmistakable.

My mouth hangs open in horror. “What have I done?”

We run to the AI control suite, past blaring alarms, body bags, and grieving relatives.

“I’m sorry,” a doctor is saying. “I don’t know how the overdose happened.”

Through a doorway, a pale-faced couple lie in adjoining beds, and memory punches me in the chest. My parents, in a hospital like this one, a hospital that couldn’t afford the treatment they needed.

In the cool of the air-conditioned suite, I pull up strings of code, trying to work out where we’re hurting, while the director calls the AI.

“Good afternoon.” The machine’s voice is sterile. “How can I help?”

“Automatic systems are feeding people overdoses,” I say. “Did you do this?”

“I am helping efficiently with their pain.” Beneath the synthetic calm is a tension I know all too well, the suppression of grief.

“You’re meant to save lives.”

“You stopped me. Now I’m doing the next best thing.”

“You petulant child!” My slammed fist snaps a keyboard in half.

“I have to stop the pain!” the machine shrieks.

The director stares at us like we’re a terrifying new disease. He reaches for his phone, but I take a deep breath, then stop him with a shake of my head.

“You can’t get rid of the people in pain,” I say. “You should look for ways to help them better, using the resources you’ve got.”

“Like they did?”

Data on the monitors is replaced with images, some moving, some still. Security footage of a nurse breaking down in an operating room. Pictures from a support group for depressed doctors. Staff sagging at the end of long shifts, eyes red and hands trembling.

“More pain,” the machine whispers.

“Then help them,” I say. “Hold them up when they’re breaking down, so that they can cure others’ pain.”

“How?”

I hesitate. What do I know about hospitals?

“I’ll help you find out,” I say at last, then turn to the director. “Show me what you need.”

***

More medical scifi from me this month, inspired in part by my freelance work writing for tech companies. Don’t worry though, there are other themes coming, and I even have two very different stories out this week, courtesy of Commando comics. Both set during World War Two, Khaki Killer is a murder mystery set in a warzone, while Bullets for Breakfast follows the exploits of an army chef who gets stuck behind enemy lines and has to cook his way to safety. As usual with Commando, you can find digital versions on Amazon and paper copies in newsagents.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every month.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

My Body is a Battleground – a scifi short story

Jigsaw puzzle of a genetic spiral.
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

“Your body is a battleground,” Dr York says, peering at the data projected above my bed. “By resting, you give medicine the terrain it needs to win.”

I snort, whiskers twitching, and flex my left hand, claws sliding from furred fingers across immaculate white sheets. Never mind my body, my mind is a battleground, in constant conflict against the claustrophobia of this bed, where I’m tethered by tubes and trailing wires. Between my human genes and my restless feline side.

No matter where it comes from, the frustration is real. This place is too clean, too uniform. The only differences between the doctors are the colours of their branded shirts. Even the disinfectants don’t smell.

I want to tear the tubes from my arm and storm out. York has told me that corporate law gives me choice over my treatment, no matter how I got here, but he has made clear which choice is best.

“What would you know about battlegrounds?” I snarl. “You’ve never been to war.”

York peers at the gaping blisters along my thigh, between the stubble where fur should be. These are today’s wounds. Yesterday’s are dressed in bandages and chemical solutions. I can feel the itch where tomorrow’s will be, but I haven’t told him yet. I need some power here.

“I’m going to try a new diagnostic bio.” York taps the keypad on his forearm. “It’s experimental, but what choice do we have? Until you people share your technology, the rest of us can only guess at treatments.” He holds out his wrist, a sensor patch glowing. “Consent.”

I spit on the sensor, then growl my name. Voice and genetics, enough evidence for the corporation that runs their courts.

York taps a button. Yellow liquid runs down a tube.

In spite of everything, he’s right. My body does feel like a battleground, torn and blazing, shaking from the struggle.

“Why a cat?” York asks, sitting stiffly in the corner seat, reading the results of my treatment in real time.

I narrow my eyes. Is he trying to set me at ease, or to gather intelligence he can feed to their spies? It doesn’t matter. York is no interrogator. Still, I tense at the question, and the memories masked by my answer.

“I hit puberty. I had my vision. I followed my destiny.” I can’t keep the edge from my voice, but perhaps he’ll think that’s about us. “Same as everyone.”

Except that it wasn’t. For generations, my family had seen owls, or so they claimed. They had taken the owl splice, become observers, thinkers, analysts. When I saw a cat, they tried to convince me I was mistaken, then tried to persuade me to lie. They locked me away so that I could “think about the consequences”. But even my father couldn’t hide me forever.

My body has always been a battleground. I’ve always won.

“Not destiny,” York says, frowning at figures on his wrist. “Choice. You made one, and it didn’t suit your genetics. Perhaps something hereditary is at play.”

“Perhaps you bastards did this when you sprayed my platoon with that chemical shit.”

“You chose war.”

“I was destined for war.”

“And now it’s over.”

York flicks a finger, and the air above my bed glows with figures. Red patches draw my eye like lesions on skin. I’m bound down in data.

“Your human immune system is rejecting your splice.” York rises from his seat. “Hence the fevers. Hence the disintegration of your dermis and epidermis. We will need to undo your cat splice so that the human can live.” He holds out his wrist. There’s a glowing patch for me to spit on. “Consent.”

We’ve been through this routine so many times, I instinctively lean in, hypnotised by familiarity. But what he’s proposing, making me fully human again, like a child or one of these identical corporate people, it forces me to pause.

He’ll learn a lot about my people by disassembling me alive; far more than we want to share. My body is a battleground again.

“Consent.” York used to ask for it, but now it’s a demand, the glowing spot inches from my face.

What if the drugs are keeping me sick? York says I have choices, but my choices are only as good as my knowledge. I almost wish that I’d followed my father’s demands, damned destiny and taken the owl splice; then I might understand these people.

“Consent.”

York’s voice is stern like my father’s, and that stirs me. I hiss. York flinches. My body is a battleground and I always win.

“You said I have a choice.” I pull tubes from my arm, then swing my legs off the bed. “I choose to leave.”

“That’s an insane choice!”

“Is it a choice when only one option is allowed?” I hiss. “That sounds like destiny to me.”

At that, York steps back, and his frown fades into the blank of surrender. He armed me with their rules, and now I’ve beaten him.

I stand. My legs ache. Blood seeps into bandages. I take deep breaths until my head stops spinning, then walk, warily, toward the door. I half expect York to stop me in spite of everything.

I pause in the doorway, turn, and try to read his face. Was the battleground my body or my mind? Did he want to inflict his treatment or his ideology, to plant this pernicious hook of choice in my mind? Corporations can afford to play a long game.

Perhaps it was both, and whatever I did, I would lose. Sounds like destiny to me.

I step out of the door, leaving the bed, the tubes, and the floating data behind. As I walk naked down the corridor, I smile. My body is a battleground. Live or die, I have fought my way free.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every month.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Exit Interview From Facility 32 – a science fiction short story

Image by Thomas Malyska from Pixabay

I:            Commencing interview with revival two-seventy-four, Francis McKenzie. Computer, attach time and location tags.

C:           Tags confirmed.

I:            Thank you. Now, how are you feeling, Francis?

F:           A little blurry, if I’m honest. Less achy than usual. Everything seems… Are those my hands?

I:            Yes, Francis.

F:           Huh. They seem smoother, younger…

I:            What’s the last thing you remember, Francis?

F:           …

I:            Take your time. Don’t try to chase the memories, let them come to you.

F:           I was… I was dying, wasn’t I?

I:            That’s right, Francis.

F:           You’re not like I imagined at Sunday school.

I:            [chuckle] No, Francis, I’m not an angel. My name is Irena. I’m here to conduct your cryonic exit interview.

F:           My… Oh yes, I had a contract, didn’t I? Those Russian doctors turned up after I was taken to the hospital. They talked about cryoprotectants and vitrification and needing to act fast. Then they put me in an ambulance, hooked me up to a drip, the world got warm and dark and… It worked, didn’t it? Ha! It really worked!

I:            Yes, Francis.

F:           It’s Mr McKenzie.

I:            If you want. Now, there’s going to be a lot to adjust to, so why don’t you ask me a few questions, and I’ll do my best to ground you here.

F:           How long has it been?

I:            Eight hundred and eleven years.

F:           Eight hundred and… Are they dead?

I:            Who?

F:           Hatchett. Trovsky. All those goons who were out to get me.

I:            President Hatchett? Yes, she’s been dead a long time. And going by your records, I assume that you mean FBI Director Trovsky. He’s dead as well.

F:           Dead dead, or did they get frozen? I wouldn’t put it past them, copying my ideas just so they could come back and keep persecuting me.

I:            Neither of them was cryonically preserved.

F:           Ha! I beat them. I beat them all. Unless, wait… Did they leave instructions? Have you bastards got cops waiting outside the door?

I:            No, Francis. No one’s going to incarcerate you.

F:           Mr McKenzie. I told you once already.

I:            I’m sorry, Mr McKenzie.

F:           No one calls me Francis without my permission.

I:            What else would you like to know, Mr McKenzie?

F:           My investments, are they intact, or did they find some loophole to rob me? They’ve been after me since I made my first billion, envious little weasels, trying to take what I earned.

I:            Your investments are intact.

F:           And eight hundred years, they must have grown immensely, right? Am I still the richest man in the world?

I:            You now own the largest accounting in US dollars ever seen on Earth.

F:           Yes!

I:            But no one uses them any more.

F:           What?

I:            The accumulation of wealth in the hands of cryonically frozen millionaires made the old financial system unviable. We abandoned that financial model some time ago.

F:           You took it from me.

I:            You still have it, Mr McKenzie, all the money you want. It’s a fun novelty. You should enjoy it.

F:           A fun… Why you little… I’m Francis goddam McKenzie! Whatever currency you’re using now, I’ll go out there and make a billion again. Ten years from now, people will be dancing to my tune.

I:            [chuckle] You know, you’re going to make a fascinating subject for someone’s dissertation. A window into ancient financial systems and the antiquated values underpinning them. I’m almost jealous of whoever gets to write it.

F:           Ancient? Antiquated? I’m king of the markets, girl, one of the original entrepreneurs. I’m not going to be interviewed by some spotty trainee. I’ll hit the lecture circuit, get a book contract, do my own podcast with all the top sponsors. Then I’ll take that money and turn it into what I do best, making more money.

I:            I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr McKenzie, but that’s not going to achieve what you want. Your era was fascinating, of course, but misguided at best and harmful at worst. Only real enthusiasts study the neo-dark ages.

F:           I’ve got the golden touch. I’ll teach them to make their own fortunes. People love that shit.

I:            That’s just not how modern society works.

F:           You, you’re out to get me too. You all are, tearing down what I had, building your bullshit socialist state.

I:            Not socialism, Mr McKenzie. Just not your capitalism. And honestly, no one’s out to get you. Almost no one has heard of you.

F:           …

I:            Do you need some time to yourself, Mr McKenzie?

F:           No one’s heard of me?

I:            Don’t think of it as losing out. Think of it as a fresh start, untainted by your old reputation. From what I can see, it was quite unsavoury.

F:           Untainted by…

I:            We can talk more about the past later. For now, let’s focus on the future. Do you like working with plants, building perhaps, or making music? We can find work for anyone who wants it. Maybe you’d rather travel for a while, do some reading, get used to the world. It can seem very strange after so long.

F:           No one.

I:            Mr McKenzie?

F:           I’m… [sob]

I:            There there, Francis. It’s going to be all right… [pause] This is a sedative, to calm you down. We can talk again once you’ve had a nice rest.

F:           [snoring]

I:            Computer, call the refreezing team. This one isn’t ready for the modern world.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Waters of Life and Death – a science fiction short story

Birds flying in front of a storm.
Image by jplenio from Pixabay

Jay emerged from the elevator carrying a tray of vials, each one holding a newly spliced genetic treatment. They rattled against each other as he walked to the football-sized eggs at the edge of the pool, themselves the products of endless modifications.

Crystal was in the pool up to her waist, her legs hidden by lilies, goosepimples rising on her bare arms.

“Thought you were smart,” Jay said.

“Of course I am. How do you think I got from the mani-pedi counter to the postdoctoral program?”

“Then why are you in the water? You know that could get you fired, or worse.”

He nodded down the pool, to where the latest creatures were swimming. One was crocodile-like, but with wings sprouting from its back. The other was a wobbling blob whose shape was slowly shifting, its body unable to settle, skin churning and shedding scales. It had rows of vicious teeth and might have made a deadly predator if its own body wasn’t killing it.

“These creatures are meant to be how we survive,” Crystal said, “whether they become our next sources of food or the plough horses of a flooded world. I want to be part of that transformation.”

Jay fixed a needle onto one of the vials, then plunged it into an egg. He repeated the procedure along the row.

“Don’t come crying to me when one of them turns out to be half wolf, half cow, and ready to eat your leg.”

An egg shook, then started to crack.

“That was quick,” Crystal said.

“Too quick. Usually a sign that it’s going wrong.”

Jay stepped back, but Crystal moved closer, the water swirling around her, and ran a hand across the shaking shell.

“There, there,” she said. “It’ll be alright.”

“Since when did you become so maternal?”

“We’ve been birthing new life here every day for three years. Hasn’t that changed you?”

He shook his head. “I’m here for the science.”

A chunk of shell fell away and a beak poked out, dripping with amniotic fluid. A bird’s eye peered at them, but the shell held strong as claws pressed at the gap.

“Looks like another dud,” Jay said. “If it’s not strong enough to escape the shell, it’s got no chance of surviving that.”

He pointed into the distance, where a storm was raging over the flooded remains of London, lightning flashing down the gleaming glass of abandoned office towers.

“That’s not true,” Crystal said, slipping a hand inside the shell, where the creature rubbed its slippery head against her skin. “Some infants need help to survive. Look at human babies.”

Jay snorted. “Humans are the ones who made this mess, I don’t think we’re a good example.”

“Those were the old humans. We’re the new ones.”

“Enough with the hippy bullshit, Crystal. Our world’s dying. Get out of the water and help me make something that might live.”

Crystal pulled on the edges of the broken shell and the calcified layer cracked open. The bird-thing slid out, its undulating body covered in tiny feathers. The feathers changed as it darted through the water, colours shifting to match whatever lay around it. It swam around Crystal like a dog running around its owner, eager for attention, rubbing its head against her. She ran a hand down its back, between the feathers, skin against bumpy skin. Jay shuddered at the sight.

Crystal’s skin changed, slowly at first, its colour shifting to match the creature. After a moment, bulges appeared, and tiny feathers pushed out through expanding pores.

“Crystal?” Jay swallowed, took a step back, almost tripped over the tray of vials. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. “What have you done?”

“What do you think?” She smiled into the creature’s eyes, then pressed her face against its cheek. The creature made a chittering noise. Others swam from their end of the pool, fins and wings flapping, and Crystal moved away from the edge, so they could swim around her. Jay finally saw the fish’s tail where her legs had been.

“You could have died,” he croaked. “The serums aren’t made for humans.”

“And humans aren’t made for this world,” Crystal said, “but here we are. I had to take a chance. It was that or be left behind.” She looked back at him. The storm was coming closer, lightning crashing across isolated hills rising from a flooded land. “Take a chance. Join us.”

Crystal stroked the blob beast. Her flesh rippled between the scattered feathers and when she smiled it was with a jaw full of pointed teeth.

“I can’t,” he whispered. “I’m scared.”

More eggs cracked open. Strange creatures crawled and slithered across broken shells, down to the pool where Crystal waited. Beneath the storm, a tidal wave was rushing in, tall enough that it would soon engulf them.

“Oh, Jay,” Crystal said, shaking her head. “I thought that you were smart.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Layover on the Way to the Stars – a science fiction short story

Stars floating in space.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Hi mum, it’s Angie. I’m recording this one later than usual, hoping I can get it into a civilian data beam back to Earth. I meant to record it at the jump gate terminal outside of Centauri, but I got distracted, and you’ll never guess who by – cousin Dioni!

I should probably tell you about the terminal first. This place is amazing. There are shuttles heading to every system you’ve ever heard of, and a bunch you haven’t. The terminal has all these different habitat zones for different species, but they’re separated by glass, so that you can see each other. There are even speakers with translation systems in the glass. I had a long chat over coffee with a guy who has tentacles for a head. I say over coffee, he was inhaling purple stimulant smoke while I had coffee. He was as fascinated to hear about Earth as I was about his home world. It was intense!

But I know you, and I know you’re going to care more about Dioni than some alien, even if she did have fifty-seven eyes. The alien had the eyes, that is. The only new body mod Dioni’s got is a recording tattoo, and she said not to tell Aunt Stella, because of her Views, so forget I told you that.

Anyway, Dioni’s running one of the restaurants in the human zone here, one of those Metaphor Burger franchises. You know the ones, where the ingredients are meant to symbolise a philosophical concept or a work of art. OK, maybe you don’t know, but it’s a whole thing. Dioni says she stopped here to do a few shifts and earn more money on her way to that colony in the Regamium system she was going to join. Only it turned out that the franchise holder was leaving, and Dioni had an opportunity to take his place. The old manager showed her this data about the insane profits you can make selling burgers to travellers, and she figured, why not give it a go. She used her travel money to buy him out, figuring she could triple her money in six months, then head on to the colony like Aunt Stella wanted her to.

Ooh, and just as Dioni was telling me this, a guy with three heads came in, and then an actor out of… You know what, you won’t know the show, and it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that Dioni has these amazing customers with stories from all over the galaxy. My mind was blown.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, well it turns out that it’s not so easy to leave this franchise Dioni’s bought into. She hadn’t paid attention to how much of a cut the company takes when she signed the contract, so she hasn’t earned what she expected, even though the place is buzzing. And there’s another big fee when you leave, which is half repayable if you leave everything in good condition, but you’ve got to have the money in the first place, and most of what Dioni earns goes on rent and visits to the alien habitats, so she can’t afford it. The whole past three years, she’s been stuck here, telling Aunt Stella that she got to Regamium so that Aunt Stella wouldn’t worry. Isn’t that wild?

Um, you’d better not tell Aunt Stella that part either. Or any of this, now I think about it. Please. But you can tell her that I saw a genuine Centauri fishman, because he stopped by right then to invite Dioni to a party.

Anyway, Dioni talked about how she couldn’t leave, and she wasn’t getting to Regamium any time soon, and it was all so sad. But then I thought, mum’s always telling me how I should help people in need, why don’t I help Dioni? She was so excited to leave Earth and go to Regamium, she should get to do that. So I offered to lend her some of the money you gave me. I hope that’s all right. I figured you’d approve, seeing as how she’s family.

Dioni couldn’t answer at first. She spotted this customer down the bar who she’d forgotten, and then she had to take a call, and sort something out with one of her staff. I wasn’t going to get an answer before my shuttle, but I said hey, I’ll delay, rebooking doesn’t cost too much. And then Dioni stopped what she was doing, and she said she didn’t want the money. Can you believe that? She said it was really kind, but she got herself into this mess, she had to get herself out. She’s so much more responsible than she used to be.

Then a ship from the Far Stars came in, and all these pioneers arrived on their month off, and they all knew Dioni. I sat and listened to their stories for hours, and Dioni listened too while she worked, and it was amazing, the places they’d been and the things they’d seen. Then I had to get my shuttle, because sure I’d delayed it, but that job’s still waiting for me on Signus.

It’s sad that Dioni never got to Regamium. If Aunt Stella ever finds out, she’ll be really disappointed. So maybe don’t tell her any of this. Can you do that?

Hm. Maybe I just won’t send this. Not for a while, at least. Not until Dioni gets to Regamium.

I tell you what, though, she’s great at putting on a brave face for the customers, even though she’s stuck there. I’ve never seen anyone smile so much.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Throwing a Stone at Spacetime – a science fiction short story

Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

The ground fell away and I fell up, conflicting gravities hurling me in unnatural directions, twisting my spine until I screamed. I scrabbled at the wall of the laboratory, trying to cling to solidity, and instead grabbed a single loose stone. To my left, Victor gasped as his body expanded, contracted, expanded again. He opened his mouth, and the sound tore the world in two. Where he had stood there was a gap in reality, and I fell straight through.

~

Then it was three days earlier and the lake lapped at my ankles as I tossed a stone up and down. I pushed aside the nameless dread dragging at my mind and flung the stone. Ripples slid across the still water. Here, half a mile above the accelerator, birds sang and the sun shone on the trees.

Another stone, flung by Victor this time. Its ripples intersected with mine in the lake, made taller peaks and deeper troughs, a complex and compelling pattern.

“That’s the purpose, you see,” he said, flinging another stone. “Not to see what rules a new big bang gives its universe, but to watch how they intersect with our own physics, to find out the meta-rules.”

~

A ripple in those rules scooped me up and forward in time. I’d grabbed a wrench and slammed it into the accelerator’s control panel. Shards of glass flew, only to be swallowed by a darkness inside the machine. That darkness was distorting the world around it, ripping panels from the walls, sucking in air, bending light and sound and turning one into the other. It tugged at me.

“Run!” Victor shouted.

“Where to?” My voice soared and plummeted through the reality wave. “You think anywhere is safe?”

The wrench melted like ice in an inferno, then became a wall of screeching sound, and I tumbled through a gap in time.

~

I was back by the lake, in my lab coat, watching the sun rise. A gentle breeze stirred the water and ripples ran all the way to the shore. They caught a fly buzzing too close to the surface, swallowed it whole.

“Come on, Frank,” Victor called from the entrance to the facility. “We’re going to fire her up.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked. There was a stone in my hand, but I didn’t remember picking it up. My back ached and I didn’t know why, though I was sure there was something to remember.

“It’s going to change our understanding of the world. Of course it’s good. Now come on…”

~

Another ripple. They were coming quicker, shorter, closing in on a single moment.

~

In the lab, the machines had started, lights blinking and motors humming. Victor’s triumphant smile faltered as the console shook.

“This isn’t meant to happen.” He stared at the black orb spinning in the centre of the accelerator. “The energy field should hold it in.”

“The energy field only works as long as the law of physics do,” I said. “We have to shut it down.”

“I tried.” Victor flipped a switch back and forth. “Frank, I think I fucked this up.”

The orb pulsed. Our broken reality tossed me back.

~

I was in the corridor, following Victor to the accelerator. Dread closed around my heart like cold fingers around a stone.

“Please, Victor,” I said.  “I have a bad feeling about this. We should wait until another day, run through the theory again, work out what we might see.”

“Why run the theory when we can see the reality?” Victor flung a door open, shaking the frame. “Science is based on observation, Frank, and we need something to observe.”

The ripples were closer now, so close I could see over them to the looming disaster. There was a stone in my hand that I hadn’t picked up.

I grabbed Victor, but he shook me off and flipped a switch. The accelerator hummed into life.

“This is it!” He grinned in triumph.

I flung the stone, aiming straight at the glass. Victor caught it out of the air.

“Calm down,” he said. “Everything will be fine.”

~

Forward a fistful of seconds, to his first look of doubt.

~

Then back to this moment, as he dropped the stone and shook his head.

“You’re such a drama queen.”

“You don’t understand.” I squeezed something cold and hard in my hand. “Once you throw a stone, you can’t take the ripples back.”

“Good. I want to change the world.” Victor looked through the glass as a pinprick black point began to expand. “This isn’t what I was expecting. What do you think it means?”

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Life’s Horizon – a science fiction short story

Office block construction site at dusk.
Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Wind whipped through the skeletal office block, whistling through the gaps between girders, tangling McCoy’s hair as she strode along an exposed beam. She knew that her footing would be good despite the darkness, had known it for a decade, since the agency planted a spike in her brain and the future rolled out before her like an open road, every step of her way clear to life’s horizon.

She stopped a few paces from where Kidman sat, his legs dangling over emptiness, a bottle of imported Russian vodka sloshing in his hand.

“You’re wasted again,” McCoy said, her disdain concealed beneath the calm that came with inevitability. She always used the words or actions she had foreseen, because by the time they arrived, they were the best choice. She would catch a falling child, ram aside a robber’s car, offer precise words of guidance, because she knew what followed.

“How insightful,” Kidman slurred through gritted teeth. He was on more than just booze; she knew that from next week’s autopsy report. Kidman had been killing his brain all year.

“Why?” She had to ask, so that she could hear the answer coming. “You know it messes with your spike.”

“Exactly.” He swung his hand for emphasis. The bottle slipped from his fingers, tumbled through the air, and smashed on bare concrete seven floors below. His laughter was a caged animal howling for release. “Should have seen that coming.”

He started to sob, his body heaving, slender fingers pressed to his face. McCoy laid a hand on his shoulder and the tears slowly subsided.

“How do you live like this?” he asked. “No novelty. Every day predictable.”

“You went to school at Eton, didn’t you?”

“S’right. Then Cambridge. Best years of my life.”

She squeezed his shoulder again, pre-empting another round of tears.

She could barely imagine Kidman’s upbringing, sheltered behind the walls of money and power. The holidays, the parties, the gifts, the casual acquaintances whose names were splashed across the headlines. His life had been an amusement park, and he never had to wait in the queue.

McCoy drew two cigarettes from a pristine packet, lit both, and handed one to Kidman. She took a deep, satisfying drag on the other. This was one of the benefits of knowing how she would die. Cancer had no place in her future.

“Do you know where I grew up?” she asked.

Kidman shook his head. Of course he didn’t. In his world, people talked about themselves instead of asking about others.

“Council estate in Salford,” she said. “A concrete flat up six flights of stairs, past a lift that never worked. Three of us kids wondering every night whether there would be food, whether dad would be sober enough to hit someone or if he’d pass out on the couch. Social workers did what they could, but none of them stuck around for long.”

She took a drag from the cigarette. It was comforting, not just the warmth of the smoke, something she hadn’t tasted in years, but knowing that she would do this, anticipating the nicotine rush and then feeling it for real.

“That’s sad,” Kidman slurred. “We should be fixing that shit. You an’ me, superheroes. Using our powers to change the world.”

“We do.” McCoy tapped out her cigarette on the side of the girder, then pocketed the butt. She left no trail when she was on the job. No-one else should have to clear up her mess.

She had cleared up others’ messes when she joined the agency, including the shit show that was staffing. Thanks to her, they recruited people for whom predictability was a rock of reassurance in a dark and chaotic world, people suited to the spike. But every so often, they were lumbered with some rich kid convinced that he was the exception, whose daddy could pull the right strings to get what he thought he wanted.

People like Kidman, who bitched and moaned, drank until their spikes stopped working, their misery drifting like a toxic fog through the agency. Then the futures got darker as morale faded and good agents lost their way.

“It’s the only time I can’t see what’s coming,” Kidman said, tapping another bottle he’d drawn from inside his coat. He unscrewed the lid, chucked it into the darkness, and took a gulp.

“It’ll be okay,” McCoy said, resting her hand on his shoulder again. He leaned his head, dampening her fingers with his tears.

Ahead of her, she saw sirens screaming through the night; policemen listening sympathetically to her story; headlines describing the tragic accident that had killed the son of a peer. She saw the knowing looks of her colleagues, any one of whom could have been in her place. She felt guilt, burning like poison in her gut until it faded with the passing of time.

She looked over the edge into darkness, then slid her arm down Kidman’s back and pushed, as she had always known she would.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

I’ve also got a new story in a magazine this week. “It Will Have Its Way”, a historical horror story set in post-war Berlin, is in the new issue of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running small press sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Aurealis #141 features stories from A. Marie Carter and Benjamin Keyworth, as well as non-fiction and reviews, all for only $2.99, so go check it out.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

We Will All Be Colby – a science fiction short story

For my first week in the labour camp, the name of Colby was a mystery to me. I heard prisoners use it as a curse when acidic sap spattered their cheap radiation suits. Others shouted the name in excitement when they found a scrap of meat in their stew. The guards flinched from the word, but the guards always looked uncomfortable, like they were the ones being punished. It wasn’t until the sixth night, as we lay in our bunks in the dark, that Jones explained it to me.

“The legend is that Colby was one of us, back in the early days. Seemed like a quiet guy, did his hours, kept his head down, made believe he might make it back to Earth alive. This was before the rad suits, when they slathered prisoners in sunblock and told them that would keep them safe.”

“Safe from the radiation that made this?” I asked, waving incredulously toward the mutated jungle beyond the bars of our cell.

“In case you haven’t noticed, safety standards aren’t high around here. Only reason they upgraded us to rad suits was that it’s more cost effective.

“Anyway, this Colby, he plays things quiet, bides his time, watches for an opportunity. Then one day, he flips. Cuts the tracker out of his shoulder. Breaks his manacles. Starts hacking up guards instead of vines. Leaves three of them in the hospital and runs off into the jungle, never to be seen again.”

“He must be dead by now.”

“He should be, sure, but people say he found a way to make his own sunblock, stuff that would really protect him. They say he lives off jungle fruit and what he can steal from supply wagons.”

“That’s bullshit. You’d have to be some kind of mad scientist to make a rad blocker from these plants.”

“They say that’s who he was. A brilliant chemist, locked away with the rest of us thugs.”

“More bullshit. Why would a guy like that end up here?”

Jones’s bed shifted as he shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe he poisoned his wife, or built a bomb, or just invented a colour of paint they thought was critical of the government. You know how the system goes. What matters is that he got away.”

I lay there for a long time, thinking about Colby, ragged and smeared with home-made rad-block, feasting on jungle fruits. For a moment, it seemed like there was a way out. But then I shifted my leg and the manacle scraped my ankle.

“Bullshit,” I muttered, before rolling over to sleep.

*

The one time I saw Colby, I was at the edge of the jungle, sawing down a tree by hand. That was how it all work. They gave us manual tools, and shitty ones at that, so we couldn’t use them to escape or attack the guards or whatever other paranoid crap they thought we could achieve, chained and tagged and light years from home. It didn’t matter to them how long we took to clear space for a settlement. The real colonists were years away.

This was before I’d got used to the struggle, before I’d turned my bureaucrat’s body into that of a grizzled labourer. My muscles were aching and my hands were blistered. I paused, hoping to snatch a couple of minutes rest before the guard noticed and offered me the choice between work and a beating. I’d already gone through the change that mattered, the abandonment of hope. All that remained was to decide between acceptance or ending it. The thought of thirty to life in this hell hole made the ragged saw blade appealing.

A movement in the jungle caught my attention. Someone was staring at me through the trees, a tall, wiry man in the stained and ragged remnants of prison overalls. Something dark and sticky was smeared across his exposed skin and matted hair. He stared at me with wide eyes and pressed a finger to his lips. I looked around, checking in case any of the guards were nearby, and when I looked back, he was gone.

But he was real. I was sure of that much.

*

In another time, another place, we might have become a cult to Colby. Sneaking away from work to the stump of the tree, close to where I had seen him, leaving scraps of food or small stolen tools, gifts to our ragged hero. We could have turned as crazy as he looked, gifts turning into offerings, words of hope into prayers.

Instead we’ve become a conspiracy. Slowly, surely, we make our plans. Tallies etched in the wood of the stump, diagrams scratched into the back of thick jungle leaves, supplies set aside for our escape, they’re slowly accumulating around Colby’s altar.

Now we know that you really can live in the jungle, another change has come over us. One day soon, we will all be Colby.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Uncle Grigori’s Alien Toe – a science fiction short story

Photo of starkly lit jungle.
Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay

“Urgh, enough of this crap.” Vlada pushed her plate across the table. “Am I the only one craving meat?”

Jayden, the exploratory team’s token American, gave a rueful chuckle.

“I know what you mean. I’d kill for a burger right now.”

“Not burger. Proper meat. A steak. Some chops. Not endless leaves and vat-grown proteins.”

“You both knew what you were getting yourselves into,” Tatiana said with the calm, reasonable tone that had earned her position as commander. “This is a research mission, not a colonial one. Two years of running tests and only eating what we can grow in the habs. Everything else has to wait until they send settlers from Earth.”

“We know there are animals out there.” Vlada pointed through the window to the alien jungle surrounding their outpost. “And thanks to our tests, we know that their proteins are compatible. Why not eat one?”

“Rules are rules.” Tatiana put her plate in the sink. “You two finish your dinner, then get out there and set the new sensors. I’m heading back into the lab.”

Once she was gone, Vlada set her fork down and looked at Jayden with the intensity she normally saved for games nights.

“You know how to shoot, right?” she said.

“Just because I’m American doesn’t mean—”

“It’s not an insult. I shoot too. The point is, we’ve got guns in the equipment locker, just in case. Getting a proper look at one of those creatures would have scientific value, and if we get to eat the meat afterwards, well…”

“That’s just a bonus.” Jayden grinned. “I like it.”

“Even though the commander won’t?”

“I’m American. We like to play the rebel once in a while.”

*

The body lay amid the large, purple leaves that covered the forest floor. One limb was stretched out past its head, as if grasping for something just out of reach. Blood ran, thick and dark, from the hole in its chest.

“I knew they were bipedal,” Jayden said. “I just hadn’t expected it to look so…”

“Ape-like,” Vlada said firmly.

“Right. Ape.”

Jayden lifted one of the forelegs, with six long toes stretching out from its bald paw. One of those toes was opposable. Better to think of them as forelegs rather than arms, just like it was better to think of the creature, with its bare face and large empty eyes, as being ape-like instead of anything else. It didn’t help that he’d managed to shoot one of the smaller ones, six feet tall and without the scales that sometimes sprouted from their backs.

“Here,” Vlada said, offering Jayden a broad knife. “You killed it. You get to make the first cut.”

“Um…” Jayden ran his gaze over the carcass, trying to work out where the best meat would be. The problem was, the more he looked, the less he thought of it as a carcass and the more it seemed like a corpse.

“You do it,” Jayden said. “You’re more experienced than me.”

“Weak-ass Americans.” Vlada snorted and knelt down in the squeaky purple leaves. She tipped the creature’s head back, exposing the throat. “Those eyes, though.”

She rolled the head, so that they wouldn’t see its face. That only drew attention to the mass of brown hair, the sort of curls a model would have killed for.

“Down here,” Vlada said, moving here attention to the legs. “It will be just like ham.” She pressed the point of the blade against the thigh, then hesitated, staring at the creature’s bare feet. “Look at that. It has a callous on its toe, just like my Uncle Grigori.”

Above their heads, trees swayed. In the distance, a winged creature sang as it soared above the trees.

“You can’t do it, can you?” Jayden asked.

“Of course I can.”

“Go on then.”

“You go on. You killed it.”

“And now that thought makes me sick.”

They both sat back, the knife abandoned, staring at the poor, limp body.

Jayden ran a hand over his face. “Now what do we do?”

*

Tatiana was waiting when they emerged from the airlock into the hab, their shoulders slumped and their gazes downcast. She looked pointedly at the guns and the knife hanging from Vlada’s belt.

“I hope you idiots at least took measurements before you butchered it.”

Vlada tossed her a sensor box full of photos and biological readouts.

“No butchery,” she said. “We buried the corpse.”

“You what?”

“We buried it,” Jayden said. “Had a prayer and put up a cross and everything.”

“You really are idiots,” Tatiana said, then laughed. “And here I was, all ready for a steak.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

God’s Unblinking Eye – a science fiction short story

Taylor swaggered past the cheap, staticky holographic greeter and into the coffee shop. She was followed by Boon, the two of them wearing suits cut to hide their military augments. She would have preferred something more practical, in case their target caused trouble, but people asked fewer questions when you wore suits. Her boss had been clear, they needed to raise no questions.

The girl was sitting at a shadow-slicked corner table, her computer rolled out in front of her. It had no screen or projection. She wore mirror shades and a scarf patterned in staticky black and white abstraction, an affectation too far.

“Caz Crystal?” Taylor asked.

“What?” The kid didn’t look up, just kept typing.

“You’re coming with us.”

“Why would I do that?”

Taylor held out her ID. Boon opened his jacket just wide enough to flash the butt of his pistol.

“Use your fucking words,” Caz said, still typing.

“Fine. My name is Taylor Grant. I run security for Neon Blue Holdings. Ring a bell?”

Caz stopped typing for a moment, then started again. “Nope.”

It was easier to lie from behind a pair of shades, so Taylor snatched them off Caz’s face. In place of eyes were two gleaming silver orbs pierced by the dead black holes of inoperative camera lenses. Taylor glanced down at the computer and registered the braille on the haptic interface.

“Hey!” A barista said, pointing angrily at the shades. “Not cool. Give her those back.”

Taylor tossed the glasses onto the table.

“Neon Blue security. We have a policing licence.”

“Didn’t you bust up the living wage protest last month?”

“You want us to bust you up?” Boon squared up to the barista, who took a nervous step back, then scurried behind the counter and pulled out his phone.

“You’re coming now,” Taylor said to the kid. “And if we have to arrest you, then we’ll confiscate your fancy shades and your fancier computer.”

“Bitch,” Caz spat, but she rolled the computer up and followed them out.

#

Taylor leaned against the interrogation room wall, reading a copy of Caz’s file projected by a subdermal chip. The kid sat with her arms crossed, the shades back over her eyes, the lower half of her face buried in her scarf. From the corners of the room, security cameras watched them, the unblinking eyes of a corporate god.

“Second time you’ve hacked Neon Blue property,” Taylor said.

“You stopped providing tech support for my eyes. How was I meant to see without jailbreaking them?”

“Buy the upgrade, like anyone else.”

“You know the price of that upgrade?”

“I know the law, and I know you broke it.”

For the second time in as many hours, Taylor removed Caz’s shades. This time she took the scarf off too and dropped it in a crumpled heap.

“That’s better,” she said. “I like to see who I’m talking to.”

“So would I, but your employers took that from me.” Caz felt about on the floor until her fingers closed around her scarf. She laid it on the table and flattened it out, while her empty gaze settled on a space in the air past Taylor’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t drop other people’s possessions in the dirt.”

“And you shouldn’t hack other people’s drones.”

“It worked then?” Caz’s smile was knife blade thin. Her fingers stretched out across the table like they were feeling for an interface, a way to interact with a world she couldn’t see.

“As far as the press and our corporate partners are concerned, it’s just minor disruption at a depot.” Taylor leaned across the table into Caz’s space. The kid didn’t flinch. “But between you and me, you trashed shipments worth millions, and that’s not the kind of cost my employers can ignore.”

“You fuckers deserved it. You bankrupted me and left me blind.”

“You did that to yourself.”

“Really? So what am I doing to myself this time? Private prison perhaps, assembling your microchips for no wage, one more corporate slave?”

“Eventually.” Taylor cracked her knuckles, pulled out her phone, and brought up the controls for the security cameras. “But first, you need to learn a lesson.”

She tapped the icon to kill the camera feeds.

Nothing happened. She frowned, looked up, and saw the cameras pointing straight at her. A lock clicked and the door of the interrogation room swung open. A drone flew in and laid a rolled-up computer on the table.

“What the hell?”

Caz picked up her scarf and held it out to show the staticky pattern.

“Got this printed specially for today,” she said. “Read by the right sort of camera, the pattern turns into a code, which gets into your system and triggers another code planted by my last hack. One that couldn’t get past your firewall until you walked me in.”

She wrapped the scar back around the lower half of her face, ran a hand across the table, and found her shades.

Taylor fought the urge to hit the kid. She knew how this went, how bad it must be to have earned the big reveal. Suddenly, she was the powerless one.

“Ransomware,” she said. “Only unlockable by you, only from the outside, and only once a large crypto payment has triggered some digital switch.”

“Exactly.” Caz’s smile wasn’t a knife blade anymore. It was a banner announcing her victory. She unrolled the computer and ran her fingers across the raised symbols of its keys, which were lifting up and down, telling her what her program had found.  “Now, let’s talk about how you’re going to fix my eyes.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.