February Short Story: Motion

This story was first serialised in 29 daily parts during February 2020 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Motion

In murky darkness, illuminated only by pale headlights from a teen’s car, a long-dead body is tied to railway tracks. It began as desperate action covering a terrible accident. Three decades later, the next twenty-four hours will finally provide her story’s most suitable ending.

I know Elizabeth loved us both in some small part of that battered heart, affection-starved long before we were considered a possibility. There had never been any ill-will towards either of us, no hand raised or dreams dismissed. She was, for many years, only ally we possessed. We rarely saw Ian: never referred to as ‘Dad’ even during childhood. His biological contribution all that had ever been willingly given: they’d loved each other until arrival of twins broke a brittle heart. No sons, just daughters. Both, twice unconscionable: man never recovered.

The night he tried to kill Mum began as a singularly uninspiring visit, feigning interest at our upcoming eighteenth birthdays. For the first time ever, money was demanded: something clearly very wrong in his life at that moment. It took over a year to uncover true motivation. Nobody expected bread knife as first choice of weapon: that gash took three months to heal. Both of us were enough, just, holding him back as Mum kicked first to balls, then neck as body hit kitchen floor. Two of us trailed his escape as far as the northbound bypass; both cried.

That should have been the end, except a different story was written. Guilt pushed us both go find him, insist he stayed away: dark monster never again welcome under our roof. If we’d ignored our disquiet, it would never have emerged that Mum accidentality managed to end his life. We saw the car, parked inside old garage on dirty land he called home, just far enough away from civilization to remain anonymous. He died where he fell, into a bush: we should have left, right there and then, turned around and never looked back. Hindsight’s a bitch; so were we.

We wanted a statement. It took all weekend, covered under beautifully crafted alibis: no-one even thought collusion a possibility. Such a good job that even three decades on, the whole truth only emerged by accident. Mum would go her grave, blissfully ignorant of any culpability. Leaving body on the tracks without tying hands and feet would prove him already dead. He wouldn’t just sacrifice himself, after all. This was a man who lived life very large; we made this a mob hit, local gang’s well-known ringleader finally punished by rivals for gambling debts.

On day his demise made national news Mum just sat with the paper, stroking remains of scar on her left arm. She cried, yes, but never came forward as his wife, because it transpired they were never married in the first place. On our Birth certificates, that space remained blank. Local Police cited numerous inconsistencies at their crime scene, yet nobody objected over sentences for three men of murder who’d already been arrested for other crimes. Ian became the convenient truth, wrapped in somebody else’s dreadful mistake. Only Harri and I knew better.

For the next twenty-five years, that verity slowly destroyed our familial bond.


This isn’t revenge. Penance is difficult, painful work. Everybody suffers as a result. You get to hurt most of all. The path Harri chose to walk, away from me and towards pointless redemption…

Harriet’s ambition was obvious, early on. It was how Mum would tell us apart: she crawled first, walked first, spoke before I’d even thought about communication. It was if two people’s motivation and drive had been shoved into one stocky body, without thought of the consequences. Except, she couldn’t do anything with Dad’s circumstance but stare. I was one who suggested a plan, wrapped a by now very dead weight in tarpaulin. At exact moment when courage demanded action, Harri sublimated, suddenly submissive to a sister who previously always went second.

We’d both deferred University entry that year, already planning extensive trip across Europe; six months later she’d moved out to live with friends. Mum didn’t seem that surprised, even less so when I decided not to bother with education either, accepting solid offer at the Echo. Photography had become my saving grace; sure, I could have followed Harri to London and more money, but these aspirations weren’t wrapped in pretence and perceived glory. It didn’t matter anyway: ability would eventually lead to recognition. We were undoubtedly precocious talents.

The year I won a national photography contest was the same she was hired by the BBC as a trainee reporter. Mum had double reason to be proud: attention made people begin to ask questions that should have been raised years previously. Where was their father, after all this time? Truth, in the beginning, was enough: he’d ‘passed away’ was line all three of us would recite, emotionally free of details or context. Every year, easier to place events into someone else’s context, creating fiction from fact. Eventually, fear and anguish would finally diminish.

Except, they never did. Excuses would be made, time and again, never to go home, Mum becoming increasingly distant. Her heart had been broken; first by Dad, and then us. My move to Manchester was the last straw: both daughters now financially independent, ties to home redundant. There was a period in my 30’s when lies did not exist: my partner helped enormously. They knew something was being withheld; intimacy far more important than any misdemeanour in the collective past. A week before my 40th birthday however, everything known was summarily trashed.

Harri collapsed literally mid-shift, famously caught on camera during a BBC News broadcast; twenty four hours later she was dead. The brain haemorrhage that killed her, coroner concluded, probably began as a low bleed. She’d fallen off a bike the weekend before, without a helmet. Mum never showed for her funeral, nor indeed did anyone else. It was just me, a couple of onlookers and the funeral staff. Harri was neither popular nor cared about such things as important. Even the Corporation played down her demise; I knew better. Something vital was missing.

I’d moved to London the year before, not told my sister what I’d learnt. Mum hadn’t killed Dad by accident; it had been contrived all along, fight convenient means of scaring us into silence. Cancer would have killed him in months, nullifying a hastily arranged insurance policy. They colluded together: enough cash on his death remained to pay off all debts, providing more than enough to cover mortgage on our family home. After that, Mum sold up and moved, before repeating same morbid dance twice more. Both ‘natural’ deaths, very much to plan… until this.

Wedded twice, both low key. Two men dead before a year of marriage was done, both owning substantive insurance policies. My sister might have been paid for smart, investigative journalism: yet she overlooked significant information. Key evidence, finally, damning and inescapable. Last missing piece, crucially, was motive. Why was this happening, time and again, plus pivotally where did the money vanish to? Hundreds of thousands of pounds, previously untraceable… that last puzzle piece fell into place this week. No longer the victim; I, Isabel am evidence.

DNA is my inescapable, constant companion. When it comes to identical twins, however, using it as identifying evidence in court becomes a little more complex. Genetics have a different part to play; simple fingerprints remain empirical, damning confirmation of absolute identity. Twins are far more likely to occur on my father’s side. Once part of a pair, I’m alone. My father’s twin was responsible for that death, believing my sister was who’d discovered their unexpected collusion with my mother. He shoved Harri off her bike, attempted an assault, failed.

Two people appear in court today, charged with multiple counts of murder. My mum, her lover, dead father’s identical, more deadly half. This isn’t revenge any more. Penance is difficult, painful work: I am ready to send both to Hell.

It’s the least I can do for Harriet and me…

January Short Story: Detach

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during January 2020 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Detach

I’m conscious, but sideways. This isn’t my bed either, but that’s less of a worry than the fact a red frog on my left foot is laughing, really shaking with unrestrained, uncontrolled mirth.

I’m glad somebody’s having a good time. Friday was disturbing, yesterday too… but this? It takes far too long to work out why I’m horizontal and not vertical. My body is affixed to some kind of wooden plank… not one, but many. A miniature rope bridge beneath my body; moving as I do, except hands and feet are tied.

The frog’s been joined by a mate, but he’s blue.

Red and blue are default safety colours. An entire simulation’s attempting to push me out of it, knowing heart-rate will have exceeded the safe limits for immersion but truthfully, at this point, being panicked ‘in here’ is far preferable that anything ‘out there’ could provide. Except this is the calmest I’ve felt since my employers insisted a break was needed. It’s because of their insistence that negative energy was emanating from both mind and body that I’m here, lying inside a VR Detox Unit… which means it’s returned to the starting position…

I should be vertical, was before consciousness was lost… as everything prior to now comes back, literal slap to the head. My VR helmet detaches without warning, reality suddenly replacing the Amazon rainforest. This unit’s door swings open, power suddenly cut. Something’s wrong. Part of my brain wonders if this is another simulation; maybe I’m being tested by concerned employers. Was that drop in productivity last month real, not an attempt to slack off…? Yup, body still aches in a way that I doubt any virtual application could ever grasp or reproduce.

I’m not fooled by visual stimulus. There’s time taken to understand what is truly felt and understood, without invasive influence from other opinions or circumstance. Everybody else in my department swallowed their lies and deceptions, but not me. That’s the real reason I’m here. Being told every day you’re not working hard enough, that targets are not being made when you know that’s not true is doublespeak, misdirection. My productivity steadily increased in six months, and I’m exhausted as a result; top of the outputters by quite some distance, but at a price.

In the distance there’s an alarm, muted but insistent. That, unmistakably, remains the smell of burning electrical wiring and it is high time to ignore operating protocols; releasing myself from the unit, it’s time to work out what the actual fuck has happened since I came here. The technician that should be outside is absent: nobody in the reception area either, and I’m suddenly reminded of the zombie apocalypse media that was so popular at the start of this century.

If those people had only known it wasn’t humanity that would become contaminated first.

Billions of tonnes of plastics, dragged down by currents into the oceans where nobody had ever explored: science knew more about the Moon than had ever been collected in those trenches or continental shelves. Far beneath us, ancient species began to evolve at frightening rates… That thought extinct, fuelled by fallen bodies of their ancestors began to rise, consuming everything else in the oceans. Humanity almost didn’t work out what was going on until it was too late: suddenly global warming and pollution were the least of our issues. We’d become food.

The Behemoth War altered everything, redefining middle of the 21st century before placing humanity on a far less destructive path. Forty years on, I wonder if this is the same, visceral fear my grandfather would have experienced when he registered everything had changed, forever. He’d been on first passenger ferry to be attacked by a Behemoth in British waters: one of only six survivors. He’d played dead in the water; perhaps I should do the same. Except the temperature’s increasing in here, smell of burning now considerably more pronounced. Time to go.

There’s an emergency door, behind the VR Suite, opposite pods. Normally this place would be packed on a Saturday, kids and adults lining up to play and indulge. I’d come here because an ultimatum had been delivered: recover from last blood donation. You’re giving again on Monday. With tensions so high across the country, automated facilities were being avoided for quite sensible reasons. My employers are 95% AI, continue to believe they’re no part of this issue, especially as their unique branch of medicine remains vital to humanity’s continued survival.

There is no need to panic: locate the exit, use ID to open it. Sorted. What I’m not expecting is to emerge outside: this cuboid structure is housed in a giant warehouse estate: half the other units have smoke issuing from somewhere, one clearly on fire. But where are the people? I’d expected a ‘Revolution’ to have far more noise and anger: where are the human beings wielding planks and metal poles, systematically destroying technology they say obliterates Humanity’s way of life? If the AI had seized power, setting fire to these places made perfect sense.

Maybe my employers decided to test fealty and this remains a simulation: trying not to run down the fire escape, this all seems worryingly real. There are ways to check, of course, but not until I’m at ground level and 100% confident I can make it out of the estate with ease… Swiping across left arm brings up nothing, pressing fingers to temples results in no heads up display. There’s a health chip in my wrist, accessed with a press, bringing up emergency contact details when adjacent to a terminal…

“I have been sent here as assistance, Alex Bishop.”

The Biped Rover stands as I turn around, holding something in upper grips that it takes me a moment to recognise, before clothes are shed without a thought. I should be bothered being naked in front of a robot, but as it’s here to save my life pointless embarrassment is forgotten.

Emergency HazMat suit self seals, oxygen immediately flooding a helmet that’s quickly taking stock of all my vital signs as left wrist sensor vibrates into life. Definitely no longer a simulation, Alex. This, whatever it is, became extremely real incredibly fast. Now, I’m scared.

“Your adrenaline levels indicate increased stress, which under current circumstances is understandable. This LLE has been programmed, offering transport to a place of safety. Please board the unit as soon as possible as area is increasingly dangerous for tissue-based lifeforms.”

As I climb into the LLE’s only seat, am belted into place, I think maybe the AI got attacked here by something a little more sophisticated than wood and metal. I’m a tissue-based life form. This Unit’s a Low Level Electronic life form capable of basic, autonomous decision-making. Somewhere in the last year it stopped being woman and machine. Now everything created equal is deemed sacred; inevitable consequence of humanity needing to skip some ethical questions, in order to defeat giant monsters our own arrogance with chemical compounds initially created.

If Grandad had not survived the Holyhead Massacre, he’d have never been DNA tested for water-borne pathogen resistance. They’d never have discovered that 5% of the modified population had natural immunity to poisonous, petroleum derived substances all Behemoths spewed as weapons. Massive ingestion of plastics altered them just as it played about with genetically modified DNA. Grandad Pete didn’t drop dead from a congenital heart defect, and those early Genetic Engineers didn’t factor in how petroleum might spontaneously mutate tissue across generations.

‘Take a break,’ they said. ‘Get away from it all,’ they said. This is absolutely NOT what I had in mind, but suddenly complaint seems… well, missing the point of my experience… this wasn’t about relaxation, in the end, but enlightenment, personal importance suitably reinforced. Emerging from the warehouse dome, Sheffield is on fire. Waiting for us are a dozen Rovers, all armed, and I’m rerunning a news broadcast from yesterday in my head. Paris in flames, humans attacking robots which didn’t fight back but yet might. It wasn’t just an isolated incident.

I choose to take a side, protected by AI employers, not humans who begged me to ignore them. I finally detach emotion from the question of what ‘life’ really means.

Beneath this skin, fused to bone beats a 100% artificial heart they provided to save my life: making us the same.