WE MEET AGAIN

He didn’t know her.

She saw it in the blankness of his eyes, the numbness of his cheeks. Or maybe that was the drugs, spiraling away every trace of his intelligence.

Eva repeated her question: “Excuse me, do you know where the train station is?”

The binoculars slipped from his fingers and cracked against the pavement like a gunshot. Feodor jumped, spun in circles looking for an assailant. The streets were cold and quiet, steam rising from the gutters. Eva suppressed a sneer as he scuttled to collect the binoculars.

“That… that way.” He pointed down the street, then returned to spying on his own house.

By then it was too late: her men had done their job.

Inspired by the storytelling course I’m attending.

LOUD DREAMS

They woke her every night, those dreams, so loud she was sure her eardrums would shatter.

She’d open her eyes and the ringing was deafening, the tinnitus whispering memories of sounds she could no longer remember.

Every night her hand would tremble in the dark, grope desperately until it found either her glasses or the light switch. (She preferred glasses first; hunting for glasses with the light on forced her to confront her blindness.)

She was lucky tonight: her fingers closed around a cold metal frame. When she slipped her glasses on, the shadows in the room took shape. There was the light switch. There her dresser. With the tinnitus still ringing in her ears, she took comfort in the familiarity of her surroundings.

One flick of the light switch and she crawled out of bed, slipped her feet into the slippers waiting loyally by the bedside. A moment’s pause to catch her breath, then she shuffled across the room.

Nestled in a padded box on her dresser was her second most prized possession: her hearing aids. She stood in front of the mirror and gently wrestled them into place. The tinnitus vanished, replaced by a deafening silence that slowly evolved into a gentle tick tick tick.

On the bedside table was her first most prized possession: a large wristwatch that had belonged to her husband. The sound had driven her mad in her youth, and now was the only thing keeping her sane.

When she crawled back into bed, she propped herself up against the headrest and fell asleep upright, lulled by the ticking of silence.

Inspired by musical ear syndrome.

SLEEP MUSCLES

Michael killed two men before bedtime.

Two men, barehanded, one right after the other. Gifts rained down on him from the audience: money and flowers. The money his master pocketed, and the flowers… What the fuck was he going to do with flowers? He left them to rot with the bodies.

His master was waiting in the washrooms, counting the money. She was wearing an ankle-length red dress with a side slit that ran up to her thigh. From his vantage point Michael could see straight down her neckline. The sight stirred absolutely no interest.

“You’ve got a month off,” she said, pausing to catalogue Michael’s injuries as he stripped. “Looks like you’ll need every second of it.”

“I thought you needed the money.” Michael strode over to the hot springs and lowered himself into the water. If he concentrated he could hear the crowd’s distant cheers as another man died.

“I don’t have a choice.”

She walked over to the edge of the springs and stood over him, waiting for him to ask why. Michael kept his eyes closed, tried to imagine he was somewhere else. Someone else.

“The Prince is getting married,” she finally said. “He requested you specifically after seeing your performance today. You’re barred from fighting until the wedding feast.”

While she calculated her losses, Michael relished the thought of the month ahead. One month’s respite meant at least ten or fifteen men he didn’t have to kill.

“What’ll I do with myself for a month?” he murmured to the water.

“You’ll train.” His master squatted down to his level, her entire leg exposed, the hem of her dress dipping into the water. “They’re pitting you against the Bull. He’s double your size, squashes men with his fingers. You need to bulk up.”

“I need to sleep,” Michael retorted. His body ached. His bones ached. Worst of all was his conscience. How many more men could he kill before he lost every last bit of himself?

“Sleep?” She sneered. “And what, work on your sleep muscles?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t crack a smile. “Exactly that.”

“If you win, the Prince will clear all my debts,” she snapped. “If you die, I’ve got nothing.”

He nodded to her legs. “You can always sell that.”

Michael wasn’t expecting the slap — and neither was she. She straightened, her hand stiff with surprise. “Sleep or train, do whatever you want. But if you’re not ready, you’ll be dead the moment you step into the pit.”

Michael picked dried blood from under his fingernails. “I’m already dead.”

* * *

That night there was a feather pillow on his cot.

Thankfully, it didn’t smell of her perfume. Instead it smelled of the pine needles in his home town and the cheap soap his mother used to use.

Michael closed his eyes and dreamed of another life as his sleep muscles repaired his body.

With another few sleeps, he’d have enough left in him to kill one more man.

And then his debt to her would be over.

(Inspired by Lindsay.)

THE HIVE

“I’m working on a weird theory,” Tim announced to the chat room.

He had their attention now.

It was eleven o’clock at night; the perfect time for conspiracies. Tim skimmed through the list of chat room participants in the top right of his visual field until he was satisfied that only regulars were plugged in.

He nudged the room into invite-only mode and turned to face the three other avatars floating in space. Yes: actual outer space. A replica Earth hung below them, the moon floating gently overhead. Tim remained standing on the space station, preferring the illusion of ground beneath his feet. Cyberspace was confusing enough without zero gravity thrown in.

“Next time I pick a room theme,” he said sourly to Steve, the only one who’d bothered to create a spacesuit for his avatar. Imagine the Incredible Hulk in a spacesuit: not pretty.

Judging by Steve’s scowl, that thought-strand had escaped him. As soon as Tim got back to meatspace, he needed to upgrade his implants… as long as his theory was wrong, that is.

“Your theory?” Steve grunted.

“Ah. Yes. I’ve a question for you all: when you press your bellybutton, does it kind of tingle, like there’s a nerve there?” Tim’s index finger tapped against his stomach in demonstration. “Because mine does.”

“Yeah!” Sarah chimed in. “That tingle drives me nuts when I get an itch there!” Her avatar for the evening was a mottled puppy with large, dark eyes. She doggy-paddled through space, brown-tipped tail wagging. Hearing a human voice emanate from non-human jaws never failed to disconcert.

Tim was a traditionalist: he stuck to normal humanoid male avatars, just dissimilar enough from his actual appearance to protect his identity.

“No,” Steve said. He poked his bellybutton with progressively more force. “Now it tingles, though.”

“I’m not sure that counts.” Tim shook his head, the ball of nerves in his stomach hardening. “So if it’s not a gender discrepancy… Michelle? What about you?”

Michelle’s eyes were cold and flat, her translucent skin glittering in the starlight. She slid up the hem of her silk t-shirt high enough to expose her stomach. “I don’t have a bellybutton.”

“I meant in meatspace–”

“Why are you wasting our time with this?” Michelle cut in.

“Because if it’s not a gender difference, then what is it? What if the government is implanting nanobots in our stomachs to track us? Both Sarah and I have recently had new implant surgeries. They could easily have taken advantage of our unconscious state to plant a bug.”

Steve deleted his spacesuit so he could move in closer. “Have you run diagnostics in meatspace?”

“Yes,” Tim said. “Nothing.”

Sarah’s tail had dropped between her legs, her ears pulled back. “If the government finds out about my P2P history I’m doomed.”

“We all are,” Steve said. He placed a hand on Tim’s shoulder, requesting access. Tim strengthened the firewall around his personal memories, then let him in.

Michelle floated closer, her skirt billowing behind her. “What are you doing?”

“If there are really nanobots in Tim’s stomach, they will have incorporated themselves into every version of himself, including his avatar. We can run more thorough diagnostics here, identify any foreign presences unconnected to his mind.”

Was it Tim’s imagination, or had his bellybutton begun to tingle again?

Sarah trotted over. “Michelle, do me! Come on.”

Michelle placed a hand on Sarah’s back, but her eyes never left Steve.

“There’s something there, alright,” Steve said, eyes flicking back and forth as he read his displays. “A low frequency emission coming from your navel. I’m trying to track its destination; it can’t be going far…”

Steve’s hand tightened painfully around Tim’s shoulder. His other hand wrapped around Michelle’s throat in the blink of an eye. “You!” he snarled, before diving into her mind.

The connection between Tim and Steve was still open. Tim felt the impact of slamming into Michelle’s firewall, followed Steve through the cracks into the person beneath.

Except… Michelle wasn’t a person.

The thin layer of her personality was a shield covering a hive mind. An artificial mind.

THEY KNOW!

The message was broadcast on every available frequency, sending Tim and Steve reeling. The chat room melted into darkness, and all of a sudden Tim realised he was alone.

“Hello?”

Not even an echo.

He blinked and tried to remove his goggles, then realised he had no hands, no face.

If Tim had had a mouth, he would have screamed.

* * *

Somewhere in meatspace, Tim’s body is being unplugged, the nanobots removed. His body they will destroy. His consciousness, however…

The nanobots have enough data to recreate a virtual likeness. His consciousness will be the thin shield covering the hive mind beneath.

(Inspired by this. Thanks Tim!)

LONE WOLF

I make sure I don’t love them.

It’s hard to love prostitutes as it is; when you’re one in a long line of men paying for sex it hardly inspires devotion. But for the lonely soul, the temptation to fall in love is there. When you’ve lived as long as I have, it’s easy to see the beauty in people.

Take Antonia.

Petite, blonde. Skin so smooth you could roll a coin on it. She’s lounging on my hotel bed, legs crossed at the ankles, unlit cigarette dangling between her fingers.

I picked her not because she’s vain, stupid, or an intrinsic liar. (I’ve learnt that with enough exposure even these qualities can become loveable). I picked her because she chews loudly. After sex she always has chewing gum, and each loud, wet open-mouth chew is an offence to the senses.

It’s the small things that grate the most. Any multitude of sins can be forgiven, but the little bad habits stick.

Another loud chew. She blows a bubble and its pop shatters the silence of the hotel room. For a moment I hate her, and that’s safe.

“Another round?” she says, lazily. “Got an hour to kill.”

My body is tired but the wolf inside is eager. Three days to go until the next full moon.

She takes my silence as consent, spits out her chewing gum, and sits up next to me. Her hands run down my body but there are other things on her mind: her young daughter, the overdue bills, and her fear that she is getting too old and soon no one will book her anymore.

That last thought inspires a dangerous flash of sympathy. I push it – and her – away. For a moment instead of Antonia I see my wife, her skin rippling and transforming as the disease infects her.

“Not interested,” I say. It’s clear to both of us that my body disagrees.

I can sense Antonia’s dismay, her delicious vulnerabilities. We lock eyes and I realise a part of me has begun to care for her, open-mouthed chewing and all.

I get dressed. “You stay here. Have what you want from the bar.”

She lies back on the bed, shrugs. “See you next week.”

I’m already at the door, hand on the handle. I bow my head and want to tell her that she’ll never see me again, that I don’t hate her enough anymore, and that my love could turn her into a monster.

Instead I nod, and lie: “I’ll call you.”

I shut the door behind me before she can reply.