Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Project

‘Anyone seen Rudy?’ Helen wandered into the staff canteen in search of her boyfriend. His shift had already finished and they had a date.

‘In his tower.’

‘Thanks, Pete.’ This time, she was determined to get him away from his experiments and out to the holo-gig in time for the start. Anticipation moved her swiftly along. Tonight’s band was called Led Zeppelin. Not everyone approved of primitive music being played in this way, but Helen loved it. A scrap of a tune popped into her head, the image of the band flashed across her inner vision; Helen’s breath caught in her throat and she felt her heart rate pick up and her cheeks flush. There were times when she could understand how the primitives had become so obsessed. With their inferior intellect and suggestibility, they were easy prey.

Rudy’s job fascinated Helen. He told her things, showed her things, that someone of her grade should not be exposed to. It made her ambitious. She wanted to work on the Project, be Rudy’s lieutenant, help him with the big experiment.

The Watchers would never let her within a mile of the Project if they thought she could be affected by the subjects; it was essential that staff cultivate a professional detachment. She deliberately slowed her breathing, focused on the company song and Rudy’s face. The implanted sensors picked up the slightest change; best that they think she was keen only on the company and on Rudy.

Billy Brown’s life was shit. He kicked a stone along the pavement, hands in his pockets, head down, wondering how it had all gone wrong. A year ago, things had been perfect. He had a good home, great parents, big brother, kid sister… Then his mum and little Emily were killed in a hit and run. Drunk kid in a stolen car. The police scraped him off the road a couple of miles on from where he’d ploughed into Billy’s family, after he ran the Ford Capri Ghia head on into a lorry. Billy’s mum died straight away. She had tried to save her daughter, but had succeeded only in giving her a few more pain-filled weeks of life. Watching her die had been the hardest thing Billy had ever done.

The men of the family each reacted differently to the tragedy. Big brother Rob joined the police force. Billy’s dad hit the bottle. Billy tried to hold things together, but with his brother working away, he was left with his father and Jack Daniel’s, and the house seemed uncomfortably full with the three of them. Tommy at school had offered him some grass to help him chill out, but he didn’t want it. He wanted his life back. His lovely, settled life, with mum nagging him to tidy his room, Emily pestering him for an aeroplane swing, Rob shouting at him for borrowing his records without asking, and dad thinking he was Pele when they had a kick-about in the back garden. You couldn’t kick a ball around in there if you tried now, it was so overgrown.

Normally he coped better than this. He had found he could control his pain and that a little could go a long way, but just at the moment, all he could think about was oblivion. He was struggling to see the point of his existence. It really didn’t seem worthwhile any more.


Helen called the lift that would take her up to the lab at the top of the tower.

Billy went up to his room and got his kit from under the mattress.

Helen stepped out of the lift and tapped on the door, peered through the glass window.

Billy took out the razor blade and rolled up his sleeve.

‘Helen!’ Rudy looked at his watch. ‘Sorry, love, just didn’t notice the time.’

Billy looked at his arm. It was covered in scars of varying age and depth.

‘Come on in. I’ll just finish off.’

Billy gripped the razor blade in his fingers. It didn’t seem enough any more just to cut superficially. He felt like cutting deeply, wanted to see his blood flow, feel it warm against his skin, perhaps for the last time.

‘What are you working on?’

‘Oh, we’re looking into stress and despair. Billy here is the subject. I gave him a happy life, then destroyed it to see how he would cope. He resisted addiction, but took up self-harm. Control freak. I’m suggesting suicide to him. He seems susceptible.’

Helen looked at the boy on the screen. He was sitting on his bed, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, long, shaggy hair hanging in his eyes. ‘He’s just a kid.’

Rudy smiled. ‘They’re not like us, love. They aren’t people, just components in a computer programme, elements in an experiment.’

Billy stroked the blade across his wrist. Not to cut, not yet, just to imagine.


‘Lab rats, I know. It’s just…’

‘Don’t forget they have a choice. We change their environment to see how they cope, put suggestions to them and see how they react. But everything they do, they choose to.’

Billy steeled himself.

‘Tell you what, I’ll leave this for now. I can finish off tomorrow.’ Rudy tapped on his keyboard.

Billy stopped. He looked and saw the blade as if for the first time, shook his head as if to clear it. He stared wide-eyed at his kit. Then he put the blade away, zipped the case up and put it back under the mattress.

‘If you want to work on the Project, you’ll have to get used to this kind of thing. There’s more to it than just holo-gigs, you know!’

‘I know.’ Helen smiled. She knew she was being silly. They were things, they meant nothing. And she really did want to work on the Project.


***

This is an oldie that was first up at Jim Stitzel's site, Flashes of Speculation, back in July 2006. I keep coming back to it. I think there's a bigger story here, but probably novella rather than novel, and I'm just not sure what to do with it!

Monday, 24 January 2011

Preditors & Editors poll

A brief interlude ...

Those fine people over at Preditors & Editors are conducting their annual Readers Poll. Col Bury, Thrillers, Killer 'n' Chillers, Paul Brazill - they're all up for awards, along with a bunch of other talented and deserving folk. Col has it all covered, links and everything, at his place, so why not pop on over and have a read, then nip off to the P&E poll and cast a vote or three? Go on - you know it makes sense!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

In honour of my recent insomnia...

Johnny was wired. He’d been awake for five days, couldn’t seem to switch off. He’d had pills and potions and powders, washed it all down with a little drink of vodka. Or two. This past day or so, everything seemed to have moved into a different dimension. It was all so vivid, like a kid’s drawing when the trees and the sun have been outlined in black to make them stand out. People seemed to come and go at odd times: he knew some of them. It was dark outside, but he wasn’t tired. If he could just switch his fucking brain off, he’d be fine, he knew. Think, Johnny, think. What makes you sleep? He smoked a joint he found in his shirt pocket, didn’t share it, no-one else around.

He pushed at his hair to get it out of his eyes. It hung in sweaty clumps around his face. His skin was covered in a greasy sheen. He sniffed, wrinkled his nose at the sour odour. Something smelled bad, and it seemed to be following him around. He looked under the chair, behind the sofa. He could smell it, but it was nowhere to be seen. Sleep. He needed sleep. He was going bugshit. He would have sold his soul for a good night’s sleep and a sweet dream.

Nicci could have helped him get to sleep. Nicci always soothed him. But Nicci’s gone. Faithless fucking witch.

Being driven. That used to work. He used to nod off in the van sometimes in the early days, when they were touring, lulled by the murmur of the engine and the rhythm of the road as they ate up the miles to the next town, the next gig. There was a sleek, black car on the drive. He knew it was his. You needed keys to drive it; he remembered that. There were keys in the house. Odds on one of them would fit the car. He jumped up and rummaged for keys. Found some! Magic!

He bounded outside, tried the car door. It was open, so that was a good start. He climbed in, sniffed, grimaced. Fucking stinky thing had sneaked in with him. Fuck it. He didn’t care, he had other things on his mind. Now for the keys. He tried his front door key: it didn’t fit. He put it back in the pile on the passenger seat and enjoyed a moment of relative clarity: ‘If I keep putting the keys back in the same place, I’ll just keep trying the same ones over and over’. He cracked the car door open. Next key he tried would have fitted the back door to the house, but not the car ignition. He dumped it onto the drive. He was smiling, now. He just had to try all the keys, one by one, until one fitted.

Eventually, a key did fit. As he slid it into the ignition, Johnny put his feet on the pedals. He remembered that there was one ‘go’ pedal and one ‘stop’. He reckoned he would only want to do one or the other,  not both together. Oh oh, he thought, too many feet. Then he remembered; the car was an automatic. He put his left foot on the rest at the side, which was handy, because now there was just one foot left to press the pedals with, and that was all he needed. Great stuff; he was ready to go just as soon as he started the car. The engine fired first time. So it should, he thought. It cost e-fucking-nough. Picture of a little horse on the front. He’d always liked that little horse. Johnny revved the tits off his motor. Nothing happened. It should be moving, he thought, I’m stamping on the ‘go’ pedal. Then he remembered: even though it’s automatic, you have to put the little stick in the right place before you can go anywhere.

Johnny moved the little stick, tried ‘drive’. That’s what he wanted to do, after all, drive the thing so it would rock him to sleep. He roared up the driveway, hanging onto the steering wheel and scattering gravel, waking up most of the occupants of his house as he went. He tore up the road, having fun negotiating all those little bends …. follow the white line, that’s the way. Stick to the middle of the road. Follow the line all the way to the village, race round the village green, then follow the line all the way home again. He just had to follow the white line, go where it led, and he would finally get some sleep.

A wee extract from an oldie. BTW, I don't advocate this kind of behaviour. Personally I settle for staring at the wall. Then the ceiling. Then the wall again. Then dropping off just before the alarm goes off to wake me.... hey ho! Sweet dreams! :)