Sunday, April 27, 2014

More Nightmares

OK, it's been a looong time since the last instalment of my Hundred Nightmares, the hundred "Daisy Duke" (or short-short!) horror stories that I wrote a few years ago. But here are some more!

New readers, please note that with my Hundred Nightmares I was really trying to write a lot of different horror stories, not just variations on a theme. That is why there are supernatural stories, non-supernatural stories, attemptedly quirky stories, very dark stories, gentle stories, stories set in the future, stories set on fantasy worlds, and so forth. So, if you come across a story that you think is particularly bad, I hope it's at least bad in a different way from any of the others.

One of the stories in this trio I wrote very consciously in the style of a 'family magazine' story, like the very gentle stories I'd always liked in Ireland's Own. I don't think you'll have any difficulty telling which.

Oh, and one of them is an incredibly cheap shot, kind of a shaggy dog story. I think I like writing those the most! If you groan at the end, I've achieved my goal!

Breaking the Barrier

“What’s all that noise, anyway?”, asked Patterson, wincing a little.

“It’s Stockhausen”, said Dimitri. “Another ground-breaker.”

The two men almost had to shout to be heard over the music. They were walking through a huge, darkened warehouse.

“Does it have to be so loud?”, asked Patterson. He was a small, thin man dressed in a neat grey suit. His lazy saunter and his slouched shoulders spoke of extreme self-assurance.

The man walking beside him might have been in his early forties. He wore a tight black t-shirt and black jeans. He had a wolfish look about him. He called himself Dimitri, but his real name was Danny Rooney, and he spoke with a Cockney accent.

“And none of this costs me anything?”, asked Patterson. He liked to be candid about money, especially when it was bad form. It gave him a kick.

“Nada”, said Dimitri. “You’ve bought enough of my pieces already. This is a treat for my most loyal patrons”

“I’m not sure I like it”, said Patterson, looking around.

Dimitri smiled. “I love your honesty, Mr. Patterson”.

“I never pulled my punches”, said Patterson, with a complacent smile. “Just like you. That collage of a baby you made from newspaper obits…” He chuckled. “I love showing that to pompous VIPs.”

“I think this is my masterpiece, though”, said Dimitri. “In fact, it’s my last work.”

“Your last work?”, asked Patterson, staring at the artist, disapproval plain on his face. “What are you going to do now? Swim in a pool all day?”

Dimitri shrugged. “God knows”, he said. “I’ve done all I wanted and I don’t care what happens now. Besids, I’m tired of all the jealousies and pettiness of the art world.”

“Man, don’t let them get to you”, said Patterson, energetically. “I never did. I’ve had death threats from the age of twenty-six, you know. I’ve had journalists calling me the poor relation of pond scum. And Joe Collier…”

Dimitri’s statuesque features were touched by a faint smile. “Didn’t he say he would like to see you in the debris of a plane crash?”

“He did”, said Patterson, scowling. “That doesn’t bother me, though. I wiped my ass with his apologies. What bothers me is him claiming that I stole his poxy marketing ideas. I’ve never stolen an idea in my life. I’m an original, just like you.” Suddenly a dark expression came over Patterson’s face. “He hasn’t been invited to this, has he?”

Dimitri shrugged again. “He’s bought a lot of my stuff, too.”

Patterson growled to himself. By this time they had come to the first display. It was a cardboard cut-out, lit by a spotlight.

“Is that the Wright Brothers?”, asked Patterson. “Or a pair of drag queens?”

“It’s the Wright Brothers as a pair of drag queens”, said Dimitri.

“Why is it all punctured and hacked?”, asked Patterson.

Dimitri gave a delighted grin. “Because my guests have vandalised it, that’s why”, he said. “At my invitation. I’m tired of art with a capital A. I’m tired of pedestals. I’m tired of posterity. I wish art was devoured and excreted like a pepperoni pizza.”

He drew a small knife from his pocket, and held it out towards Patterson. “Enjoy yourself”, he said. “Do your worst.”

Patterson did his worst with a schoolboyish glee.

After that they moved on to the clay model of a porn star Einstein; the photo-montage of the Rat Pack morphed to look like actual rats; and a chocolate Martin Luther King.

“What’s this one?”, asked Patterson, grinning and panting from his destructive labours, peering at a banner hung between two carboard walls.

“That’s Sylvia Pankhurst as a Catholic priest”, said Dimitri, who had dropped behind a little. He was tapping a text into his mobile phone as he spoke. “Don’t you recognise Sylvia Pankhurst?”

“Put that damned thing away and come here”, said Patterson, glaring at the phone. “If you were working for me, I’d sack you for that.”

“Like you sacked my father?”, asked Dimitri, still not looking up.

Patterson raised his eyebrows in surprise. He was opening his mouth when gunshots rang through the warehouse and he slumped to the floor.

Slowly, the banner—now studded with bullet holes—rose. Behind it stood a fat, bald man with a gun still pointed where Patterson had been standing. He looked utterly stunned. A beautiful woman stood by his side, smiling serenely.

“Oh Mr. Collier”, said Dimitri, shaking his head regretfully. “That’s altogether too enthusiastic. That’s called murder, isn’t it, Julie? You said you wanted to see him die violently, but did you have to do it yourself?"

The Ghost in the Exam Hall

Leanne was only twenty minutes through English, her first exam, when it hit her. The blank. The blinding glare. It had been her greatest fear for three years, and now it was here.

She stared down at the words that she had already written. They swam before her. She realised she was trembling and sweating. Just like before, but even worse.

She heard Sister Moloney’s voice, calm, reassuring, eminently sane. It was a phase, Leanne, she’d say. A phase.

Sister Moloney had believed in her. Sister Moloney, on the basis of one history esssay—- only a half page long, at that—- had told her that she had outstanding ability. Her grades had gone from Cs and Ds to Bs and As, and then they stuck at As. She was the star of the year, a contender for every scholarship that was going.

Sister Moloney had taught in St. Finbarr’s for thirty years. She told Leanne she was the most promising student she’d ever had.

“Along with one another, maybe”, she’d said, once, with a strange look of regret. “But she…she never…” Then, quickly, she’d gone back to discussing the subjunctive mood of German verbs.

Sister Moloney gave her private tuition. She made her take test after test after test. “Till it’s an instinct, Leanne”, she’d said, in the broad country accent that she’d never managed to make genteel, despite decades of effort. “Like a cowboy pulling his guns. We’re going to make you the fastest brain in the Midlands.”

And you’re not going to blank like you used to, was the unspoken promise.

Except now she was blanking. The white page seemed like a sheer cliff to her, with no grip for hand or foot. She felt like screaming in despair. She couldn’t even bring the words of Keats’s ode to mind, and she had known it by heart.

“It’s Thou still unravished bride of quietness, though foster-child of silence and slow time…”

Leanne looked up with a shock. A girl was standing before her in the brown and cream uniform of St. Finbarr’s. She was a pretty girl with a freckled face and reddish hair. There was something...studious about her face. Leanne recognised a studious face from looking at her own in the mirror.

She looked around, expecting the invigilator to appear with a face like thunder.

“Nobody can see me but you, Leanne”, said the girl. “Nobody can hear me but you.”

Leanne only stared at the girl, trying to look a question.

“You know who I am”, said the girl, with the shadow of a smile. “I’m the other one, Leanne. I’m Gillian. I started to sit my final exams here twenty-five years ago. An idiot behind a steering-wheel stopped me from finishing them.”

Leanne looked at the clock at the front of the hall. There were forty minutes left of the exam.

“Let me help you, Leanne”, said Gillian, leaning over her. “I’ve been waiting twenty-five years for someone who can finish these exams for me. I lived for them for three years, just like you. We need each other.”

The two girl, the living and the dead, stared at each other for a few moments. Leanne felt a vague, dark foreboding.

“The clock is ticking, Leanne”, said Gillian. “Start writing: In this ode, Keats contrasts the permanence of art and poetry…”

Leanne began to write at the ghost’s dictation. What else was there to do?

* * *

“Leanne”, said Sister Moloney, “why have you been avoiding me?”

The nun spoke softly, but Leanne looked away as though she had shouted at her. She gazed out the window of the café into the summer sky.

“I’m so proud of you, Leanne”, said Sister Moloney, reaching her hand out to grasp the girl’s. “The best marks of any girl in the school, ever! And it takes me three days to track you down and congratulate you! Oh, Leanne!”

Leanne forced herself to look at the nun. When she did—- when she saw the proud joy in her mild eyes—- she could no longer hold back the tears.

She confessed everything. She told Sister Moloney about Gillian, how she had been responsible for every word and figure in her exam scripts, except for half of one English test. All the honour belonged to her teacher’s first prodigy.

When she had finished, the nun stared at her for a long time, wordlessly.

Then she said: “Listen to me, Leanne. The girl I told you about never sat a single exam. She got a job in an auctioneer’s at seventeen."

Leanne said nothing, dumbfounded.

Sister Moloney smiled. "The mind has wondrous ways to deal with pressure, dear. Don’t you see? Gillian was you. Gillian was you all along!”

A moment later, Leanne had risen from her chair, and the woman and girl were locked in a hug. This time, Leanne’s tears were tears of joy.

The Pilot

They just kept coming.

Jexu looked down at his controls. His fuel had dropped to almost fifteen per cent. His sensors were picking up a Haven Ship, perhaps twenty minutes away. If only he could reach that, he would be safe.

But there was the small matter of a dozen or so Furies to deal with first.

How many had he shot down now? A hundred? Two hundred? They had destroyed all his comrades, one by one...there had been twenty or so Upholders flying alongside him, about two hours ago.

Or had there been? He had been fighting so long, he could barely remember. Was that this battle? Or was it the one before it? In this infinite blackness between the stars, time was little more than a concept.

He swerved to his right just in time to avoid a torpedo from the nearest Fury. The others were regrouping, preparing for another sally.

They think they have me now, he thought, and his hands gripped the power-clutches eagerly. Man, he was exhausted, but he was trained to fight through exhaustion. He would still be wasting Furies to the very moment he collapsed through fatigue. And his fuel would run out long before that happened.

He performed a sudden loop-the-loop—- nothing like a bit of bravado to put the wind up your enemies-— and hurtled towards the Furies.

His vacuum-cannons let rip, and three of the Furies exploded. He knew them at this stage, could guess how they were going to move. He knew they were going to swerve in just the way that they had. Conscious thought had nothing to with it.

As he broke away—- he thought of this as his “come-on” manouvre—- he wondered how many Furies he had destroyed. Hundreds, for sure. Thousands? Almost certainly. A hundred thousand? It was possible. Who was counting, when all your attention was needed for survival?

But he still found moments to wonder about the Furies. Did their pilots have wives, kids, homes? He had never seen one of their pilots. He had never heard one. Did they look human? Did they look at all humanoid? He had no idea.

What did they believe they were fighting for? Why had they attacked the Alliance in the first place?

Jexu knew what he was fighting for. The Amber Alliance. It had been so long since he had set foot on on a planet, he could barely remember the civilisation he was defending. Every respite from battle was spent on a Haven ship, waiting for his Upholder to be recharged and repaired.

Was the war anywhere near over? Were they winning? Jexu had no idea. He imagined himself getting out of this damned cockpit, finding a woman to love, raising a family. He was still young, though he felt like an old man. Old, and tired, and—

His craft shook. Goddammit, one of the Furies had caught him on his blindside! That was Jexu’s favourite trick, and it had been used against him.

Rage filled him. He spun, and hit the Fury with all he had, glorying in the orange fireball that spread before him. He dodged the torpedoes of the attendant Furies, and swooped below the range of their weapons. He could keep this up forever.

Except he couldn’t. He looked down at his controls. His fuel was at twelve per cent. It fell alarmingly once you dropped past ten, he knew. The torpedo that had nicked his hull had done only trivial damage, but he’d have to polish off these Furies pretty quickly if he wanted to reach that Haven ship.

He launched himself at them, firing all weapons. He called this his Demented Dance. There was no way it should have worked, but it always had. There was no time for anything resembling conscious thought now. Every action happened within the smallest fraction of a second, every shot and brake and turn.

Fury after Fury exploded, two of them even colliding with each other. He loved it when that happened.

He launched a smart missile at the last survivor—- he could afford it now—- and it blew apart in a glorious shower of fire.

And then, something extraordinary happened. A sudden ecstasy overtook him, a physical thrill that shot through his body, giving him goosebumps. That’s it, he thought, I’ve made it. Music rang in his ears, and filled his soul. He had reached…he had reached….what had he reached?

He looked down at his controls. His fuel was back to maximum. His ship was in perfect condition. And his sensors were picking up twenty-four other Upholders, just behind him. But ahead of him, there was--

He looked back up, and his heart almost stopped.

There were dozens upon dozens of Furies closing on him. They had appeared out of nowhere. And they were moving so fast. He had shot down thousands of Furies, but none of them had ever moved this fast. He gripped his power-clutches, and prepared to engage.

I’ve reached the next level, he realised. The game gets tougher now.

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