Flash Fiction Challenge: Death


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.”

“Yes, sir!”

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.

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.”

The Only City Left: Part Eight

Read Part Seven first if you need to. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Eight

I locked eyes with the ghost for a moment. This was the best look I had gotten of him since my flight began. He was humanoid but not human. In fact he looked like nothing less than a giant dog, his snout full of wicked-looking teeth that snapped at me in frustration as he fought to force himself into the shaft. He had one arm raised above his head and I could see the claws at the ends of his fingers dripping spectral blood. His other arm was pinned to his body as he struggled to push himself further up.

Great. Giant monstrous corporeal ghosts chasing me around aren’t bad enough, mine had to be a werewolf, too. I kicked out again and my foot caught the ladder, so I shifted my weight to my feet and let go of the wheel lock.

The sound of straining metal filled the air and I looked down to see the spectral werewolf pulling himself up the shaft on the ladder, one-handed, each rung bending downward under the pressure. Time to go.

I reached up and turned the now-loose wheel lock until it clunked to a stop again and then pushed on the hatch. It resisted at first but then the seal broke and I was able to push it open. One hand on the hatch, the other on the lip, I climbed out of the shaft and tumbled onto a dust-covered floor, inside of some sort of shelf-lined maintenance room that was lit only by the glow of my lantern coil.

I lay there panting and shaking for a few seconds before I could convince my body to move again. Something was wrong, it was too quiet. Rolling over onto my stomach, I got my knees under me and leaned over the open hatch to check the progress of my pursuer.

“I smell your father on you, boy,” said the now-human ghost who was looking up at me from only a few rungs down.

My heart slammed against my rib cage like it was trying to break free and my vision darkened for a moment. The translucent blue hand rising up over the lip of the open hatchway brought me back to myself.

“What’s your name, cub? We’ve never been properly introduced?”

I stood up and looked down at the ghost who was now poised just inside the open hatch, one arm over the edge, pulling himself up.

“Go to hell,” I stuttered as I slammed the weighty hatch down.

As the hatch fell, the ghost transformed, one second a man, the next a ravening beast. The hatch door was unimpressed. It nestled into place with a ringing gong, neatly slicing through the fur and muscle of the ghost’s extended arm.

I threw myself onto the hatch and turned the wheel lock until it jammed to a stop. Beside me, the ghost arm fizzled away into wisps of smoke which flowed, not up, but around the hatch itself, trying to find an opening to reunite with the rest of its body.

Even through the thick hatch I could hear the roar of the ghost beast, and the hatch started to buck below me. I knew I couldn’t stay here forever holding the wheel, so I jumped up and ran to the nearest set of shelves. They were metal and free-standing, and with some effort, I was able to pull them down onto the top of the hatch. One after the other I collapsed the shelves onto the floor, creating a jumbled pile of heavy debris above and around the hatch.

Satisfied that I had done all I could, I found the door out of the maintenance room, opened it, and ran for my life. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, I just knew I needed to get as far away as possible. I barely saw my surroundings. Instead, the same picture kept replaying in my mind. The ghost’s face as I slammed the hatch shut. His anger, his transformation into werewolf form. And how, as a human, he looked uncannily like my own father.

* * *

Some time later, I was well and truly lost, which was fine by me. Lost is my normal state of affairs. Lost means I have never been somewhere before. If I recognized my surroundings, it might have meant that I had doubled back, and since I hadn’t heard from the big bad wolf-ghost in a while, doubling back toward the site of our last encounter would not be good. Maybe my attempts to cover up the hatch had kept him at bay, maybe not. For now I just needed to stay ahead, stay alive.

So this is how Mom and Dad must have felt. Dangerous people, dangerous things, always on their tail. Maybe the same one who was pursuing me, since he seemed to know Dad. Hell, he looked like Dad. What was that about?

So many questions but no one around to answer them. Welcome to my life.

With the adrenaline of my flight leeched out of my system, I realized that I was in just as much danger from freezing as from the ghost, maybe more. My wet clothes had not warmed up in the cool, stale air of the complex I ended up in. Where had I ended up, anyway? Another residential block, from the looks of it, but not as packed in as the one I had started out in, some unknown number of stories further up. Up. That reminded me of my failure once again to ascend through the city. Sometimes it seemed like there was a barrier between the lower and upper portions of the city, like maybe the undercity was buried and forgotten at some point, and I could try for a hundred years and never find a crack in the armor between the two. Maybe I should have a new goal instead: head down. At least that way I’d be succeeding.

* * *

Achieve your own success by reading Part Nine (or stick around and read my commentary below first.)

4/8/2012 News: This week I wrote more words of notes and backstory than words for this post, which is due to the fact that now that I have put some pieces in place, I am starting to see connections I had no idea about when I started writing the story. I know some writers have intricate world-building and plotting done before they write one word of their story, and I think that is great, but it can get boring for me as a writer to do that. I like discovering the world as I write. The flip side is the danger that I could write myself into a corner. I think writing the story and the backstory in parallel from now on will help me prevent that from happening.

On another note, as you may have noticed, some fantasy seems to have fallen into my science fiction. There are ghosts, werewolves, and more to come. This was the plan from the start. I want a big, jumbled-up, throw-in-everything fantasy adventure story set in a sci-fi, planet-sized, run-down city. (Whew, I’m almost out of hyphens now.) I may be able to “explain” the fantasy elements in a pseudo-scientific manner (that’s my last hyphen, I promise), but I’m not sure if it really matters to me so long as it is fun.

If you enjoyed this post, please click the image below to give The Only City Left a vote on Top Web Fiction. (One vote allowed per week.)

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The Only City Left: Part Seven

Read Part Six first if you need to. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Seven

We trudged through utility corridors for at least half an hour before I worked up the courage to ask my parents, “What did you mean earlier? About someone being on to us. Did you do something bad?”

Without stopping or looking back, Dad replied, “Never mind, Allin. It’s none of your concern.”

“I think it is,” I surprised myself by saying. It must have surprised Dad, too, because he stopped in his tracks and swung around to face me.

His face looked angrier than I had ever seen it before. Instinctively I flinched and stepped back, expecting to be hit even though Dad had never and would never do such a thing. Mom put a hand on his arm, lightly, and he seemed to deflate a little bit. I took that as an opening.

“I have friends back in Glin’s Rising,” I said. “If you stole something from them….”

I trailed off as Dad’s face changed from angry to weary. He looked to Mom, they shared some of that telepathic adult-speak that was all glances and subtle nods, and he turned back to me.

“Let’s sit down, we’ll talk about it.”

We loosened our packs and sat uncomfortably against the assorted pipes that ran along both walls.

“First, we didn’t do anything to the folks back at Glin’s Rising, okay? That’s not who your mother and I are concerned about.”

I nodded, already relieved, but eager to hear where this was going.

“I’m sure you’ve wondered why we keep moving, why we can’t settle down someplace like Glin’s and just live out our days farming. Fact is, even though there’s not a lot of people left in the city, there’s still people out there who just want to destroy life when they find it. We, we got on the bad side of some of those people and now they won’t leave us alone.”

“So why can’t we fight them, pick a place, set up some traps, and take ’em down?” I asked.

“It’s not that easy, Allin,” Mom cut in. “They’re dangerous. Very. And there’s more of them than there are of us. Your father and I know what we’re doing. Trust us.”

“Dangerous?” I squeaked. “So you’re saying these very dangerous people are following us, and we’re leading them through town after town? What happens after we leave? Did you even warn the Glinites?”

My voice rose higher and higher as realization set in. In my mind’s eye I saw Tyena running toward me, waving. Was she running toward me, or away from someone else? I jumped up and slung my backpack over my shoulders, and Mom and Dad stood up, too.

“Allin, we have to focus on our family. Everyone else is on their own.”

His words were like an icy knife in my heart. This was a side to Dad I had never seen before, and instead of refuting him, Mom stood at his side in silent agreement.

“Tyena’s back there. She’s in danger. I’m going back to help her.”

“Allin, you can’t. Our family—”

“Screw our family!” I yelled, and in the shocked quiet after that, the only sound that could be heard was my hurried footfalls as I ran back the way we had come. Back to Glin’s Rising. Back to Tyena. Back, back.

* * *

I came back to consciousness with a coughing sputter and found that I was slipping off the ladder back into the water-filled tunnel below. As I struggled to get my bearings I slipped under and swallowed a mouthful of that cold, foul brew before I shot back up and latched on to the ladder again.

Needless to say, I spent the next minute coughing and retching, trying uselessly to get every bit of the water out of my system. As it was, if I made it out of these ducts alive, I would need some Restorit if I didn’t want to catch some nasty disease.

Satisfied that I had done as much as I could, I let out a huge sigh and forced my tired muscles to pull my sodden mass up the ladder. It was only a couple of stories later that I hit the top of the circular shaft, which was closed with a hatch secured by a wheel lock. By the light of my coil, I could see writing on the hatch, “HAB-221-X” something or other. The rest was obscured, but it didn’t matter. HAB would hopefully mean habitat, and somewhere I could rest and dry off.

Then I heard something that sent a new shiver up my already shaking spine. Deep, booming sounds coming from below, and getting closer.

I looked down and although I couldn’t see him yet, the water below was lit by big and ghosty’s blue glow.

“Doesn’t this guy ever give up?” I asked through shivering lips, and then turned my attention to the hatch above me.

Keeping my legs on the ladder, I grabbed on to the wheel lock and tried to turn it. I could barely feel my hands after my swim through the icy water, and the lock probably hadn’t been turned in ages, so I wasn’t surprised when it refused to budge. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t start to panic. A lot.

I could hear the thum-thum-thum of the monstrous ghost bashing his way through too-tight ducts, and the circle of water below me started to brighten noticeably. All I could think to do was try harder. I knew I had to open that hatch or say goodbye.

I held on to the wheel and walked my feet up the ladder to the second-from-top rung, so I was scrunched up nearly sideways at the top of the shaft. With all my might, I pulled on the wheel and pushed against the ladder with my feet.

Nothing happened.

The light grew brighter.

I gave it one last try.

The wheel spun suddenly and my legs slipped, leaving me hanging from the wheel over a two-story drop to a few feet of water. As I kicked my legs to grab at the ladder, I saw the ghost rise out of the water below me and squeeze himself into the shaft.

* * *

Go straight to Part Eight (or read my comments below first if you can stand the suspense).

4/1/2012 News: Two things: I hope you don’t think I’m being too cruel, returning from the flashback without resolving what happened to Tyena and the rest of Glin’s Rising? Rest assured, I know what happens there and you will find out, but now is not the time. The second is, I feel a little bad about ending another post with Allin running from the big blue ghost. In the final version of this story, these posts will all be part of larger chapters, so instead of cliffhanger-cliffhanger-cliffhanger, Allin’s flight from the ghost will be one long chase scene with a flashback in the middle. I promise you that we are almost done with big, blue, and ghosty for the time being.

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