Over on Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, he posted a challenge: “You have 1000 words to write a short story that prominently features death.” Here is my entry, which also fits into my The Only City Left universe.
The Brief Afterlife of David Sinclair
“You’re sure this is the only body?”
“We did a full scan, Chief Inspector. There’s no one else in here, dead or alive.”
“The other 1,500 residents? Any leads on where they’ve gone?”
Malcolm stood in the shattered doorway. He had the good grace to look sheepish as he answered, “Vanished, Chief. Or as good as. All the security footage inside the hab has been wiped, and there are no records of anyone leaving the sector.”
I swiveled in the victim’s chair, turning my back on Detective Malcolm, and drummed my fingers against the suicide note on his desk.
“They got out of here somehow. All of them except for…” I re-read the signature. “David Sinclair, here. There must be another exit that’s not on the books. Find it.”
Malcolm left me alone with the late David Sinclair, the only remaining resident of Habitat Two-Two-One Xerxes.
His suicide note was brief: “The Ascension is upon us. They all followed Him. I choose my own way.”
“Thanks for clearing that up for me, pal,” I thought out loud.
I stood up to leave when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. With the ease born of long practice I spun around and scanned the room, gun held before me, but it remained empty save for me and Sinclair’s corpse.
No doubt about it, an empty hab was spooky; it even had me jumping at ghosts.
I slowly holstered my piece and hailed Malcolm on the two-way, “I’m almost done in here but I forgot one thing. Stop what you’re doing and bring me the Dee-Gee.”
Silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds. Then: “Chief, you got a—”
“Just bring it. Now.”
I eased myself back into the chair and waited. To his credit, Malcolm arrived within a minute and stood silently in the doorway, holding a bulky, specialized pistol. I nodded to him and he nodded back to show he was ready.
“Mr. Sinclair, you have three seconds to show yourself before my associate here degausses the room.”
Malcolm lifted the gun into position and clicked off the safety. An electric hum filled the air.
Two seconds later, a blue vapor poured forth from an air vent, hit the floor, and coalesced into a familiar form from the shoes on up.
“Don’t, please don’t. It’s not my fault!”
The ghost of David Sinclair stood before us. Well, not a ghost exactly, but a swarm of self-replicating nanobots imprinted with his consciousness upon death. It was the latest way for those who could afford it to prolong their lives.
“Spill it, Sinclair, or Malcolm’ll pull the trigger and end your afterlife here and now. Where is everyone else from 221-Xerxes?”
“Dead, they’re all dead,” Sinclair wailed. “I couldn’t stop them and they wouldn’t let me leave. It was all I could do to smuggle in the swarm and…” He looked down at his corpse. “Imprint myself.”
“I don’t buy it,” I told him. “If they’re dead, where’re the bodies? Where’re their things? Looks to me like they packed up and left.”
“The fools, they believed His promises. They packed their belongings as if they were going on a trip. But it was lies, all lies!”
“Slow down, Sinclair. Who promised what now?”
“The stranger, the man with the dead eyes. He arrived one day to speak out against the wretched conditions in the habs, the overcrowding, the forced blackouts, rationing. He claimed there was a better place and that soon the day of Ascension would be upon us.”
Sinclair paced nervously as he told his tale.
“He started to win converts, and soon everyone was preparing for Ascension. I didn’t buy a word of it, but when I tried to leave the hab, I found it sealed against me. Since I couldn’t get out, I sold all of my investments and had the nano-swarm smuggled in.
“On the day of the Ascension, everyone in the hab gathered in the central commissary, bags packed, ready to go. I hid in my office but that wasn’t good enough for the stranger. He wanted everyone to go with him.”
Sinclair bowed his head and sobbed spectral tears into his hands.
“I triggered the swarm and shot myself just as they broke in to the office. When I reformed, they were gone, every one of them. And I’d rather be a ghost than be wherever the man with dead eyes led them.”
I sighed, no closer to knowing what happened than before Sinclair’s stories. Obviously something had gone wrong with his imprinting; the man was around the bend.
“That’s an … unlikely tale, Mr. Sinclair.”
“But true, I assure you.”
The voice came from Sinclair’s ghost, but it was deeper, colder somehow. Sinclair raised his head and his eyes were dead inside.
“It’s not too late to join them, Chief Inspector. Detective? I am the End, I am the path to Salvation. Look into my eyes, follow me. Ascend.”
I looked into his eyes, I couldn’t help it. And damned if I didn’t see Sinclair, the real Sinclair, somewhere inside of them, begging for release.
“Malcolm, hit it,” I commanded, my voice rising.
He was already on it. The whine of released energy was matched in intensity by the enraged scream of whatever it was that had possessed the ghost of David Sinclair. With all the information in the nano-swarm suddenly erased, the ghost lost cohesion and ended up as a smattering of blue dust on the floor.
“Good work, Malcolm. Now let’s grab our team, get the hell out of here and seal this place up. The damned cats can have it for all I care.”
“Chief, what just happened?”
“A fate worse than death, I think.”
“What about the others? Where did they go?”
“Pray we never find out.”