I am a detective who investigates the coldest of missing person cases. Families who are desperate to find lost relatives petition me for answers when others have found none. However, I feel as though I can never meet their expectations. If I find the missing person dead all I can give is an account of what might have happened. The worst cases are those where something inexplicable has occurred. An incomplete chronology can be devised, but after the facts run out (and they always do) there is a void.
Take one of my current cases as an example: on October 31st, Student 1 finished attending lectures and returned to their Rawson Street accommodation; later Student 2 finished their lectures and joined Student 1 in their flat; a mutual friend of the two students also received an invitation to watch films (Ringu & Videodrome) that night, but did not attend; a neighbour of Student 1 reported being woken by singing of songs from A Nightmare Before Christmas later that night. Neither two students attended classes the next day, and have not been seen since. No signs of struggle or intent to disappear were found.
Even if I confine myself to the realistic, the plausible, there are many gaps where extra events & motives can be inserted. If I wander into the fantastic for an explanation, then what? Were they both consumed by the television set? I think not, but I have no evidence that gives me the authority to rule that out completely.
Any account I give families may by chance describe what happened, and coincidences do happen, but my scenarios, correct or not, are still gross simplifications. For me and these families there are only hollow conclusions. Even if they are reunited with their loved one, there is still an emptiness. People always want to know more than can be told. How can we know exactly what has happened to someone else? Maybe we can learn enough to feel an empathy, but not everything about an experience can be shared.
So, what I do when I meet each new family is sit with them at the table in my office. I make them a drink and put a paper copy of their relative’s file between us. Then I assure them that I will do the best I can to find them, but the chances of success are low. At this point they tend thank me for my honesty. After this, to tease out additional information, we talk about the missing person. At the end of the meeting I say that while there seem to be three possible outcomes (I find them dead, alive, or I fail to find any trace) there is really only one. No matter what the outcome of my investigation is, any of the stories that I tell to these families will never be substitutes for lost time with loved ones.
My “success rate” compared to my colleagues is said to be unusually high.
Stephen Ellwood stood amongst the cinders of the protest camp. Twisted metal branches grew out of the square’s concrete floor without skins. No one knew the cause of the night’s inferno, although several theories had all ready been put forward. A CCTV camera filmed a suited passer-by throwing a cigarette stub towards an overflowing bin. Doubts existed in many that had seen the footage if the fire started in the bin, or if the end landed next to a nylon groundsheet waiting to be caught. Stephen suspect that this narrative of accident without deliberate malice would be the official story.
Another theory, voiced by a hostile media, said that the blaze started inside a tent with the careless use of a camping stove. They always mentioned after the accusation it could have malfunctioned. Survivors refuted this, although Stephen kept it open as a possibility.
Police intelligence possessed evidence that a group within the camp might have attempted to martyr themselves as a human sacrifice on the doorstep of the stock exchange. This, in Stephen’s estimation, remained on the far edge of probability until more evidence could be sifted from the ashes.
Stephen walked around the outlines of tents. The screen erected around the square flapped with the gentle breeze. He held his face mask tighter against his mouth, aware that the grains blowing against his skin might be human. His own theory, unvoiced and without anything more than anecdotal evidence, was that like the economic system the camp once fought, they had grown too big, too fast. Because social systems grew like forests the probability of destructive ruination increased over time. Stephen did not like his theory, it kept him awake at nights. When he made the correlation between markets and protesters on the drive into London he nearly crashed his BMW into the motorway’s central reservation.
A charred arm outstretched and trapped in the instant its owner tried to escape from their burning home crunched underfoot. Stephen’s insides inverted. He removed his leather shoe from the broken radius and ulna, and searched for an exit from the barbecued camp site.
The only comfort he drew from his theory was that after fires well managed forests regrew quickly.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Yes. Good. This won’t take long. :)
Then allow the two of us, William Ellwood and Calliope Den Ouden, to present a short Transrealist fantasy comic called “How I Became A Fox”.
In the introduction above I mentioned that “How I Became a Fox” is a intended to be a Transrealist fantasy, this warrants, I think, some explaining. Transrealism is an approach to speculative fiction used by many, but formalized by the mad genius Rudy Rucker in his 1983 Transrealist Manifesto. It’s an approach to writing that I am sympathetic to and I have adopted many of its ideas as my own. The quick and easy definition of Transrealism provided by Rudy is: “… the notion of basing SF on real ideas and real emotions that I personally have, and using immediate reality-based perceptions.”
So what’s real in this Transrealist fantasy? Once, way back in Feburary 2010, I was walking from a friend’s house, past the train station and towards the bus station in Leicester, feeling rather sorry for myself for all the usual reasons, when a fox ran out in front of me and across a dual carriageway. This comic is an attempt to blend that image of the urban fox and the self-pity with the idea that transformation into a wild animal could be a form of magical palliative care.
William Ellwood is a speculative fiction writer from Leicester, England who writes short fiction which comments on contemporary politics and hacker culture. He occasionally writes for the strange culture blog Ectoplasmosis. His personal website is located at www.will-ellwood.com
Calliope den Ouden is an illustrator from Utrecht, the Netherlands who draws and shapes illustrations. Annually she kick-starts the nanographicmo an international event that challenges creatives to create an 48 page black and white graphic novel in under a month. Her portfolio website is located at www.inktspatten.nl
A conversation I had on Sunday was about future sports in fiction. I’ve quickly invented a rather obvious one and written about it here. I may develop the concept further into a proper short story. This idea amuses me.
The nightly highlight show had just ended and Gaz was sat at a table watching the end credits on the pub’s TV. His best friend Mark came back into the Pub reeking of smoke. “How far did they get while I was out?”
“Not much further. Three guys managed to break out of the Death Mine though.”
“Did any of them reach the ice?” asked Mark.
“All three, just. The one guy left from Kent got kicked to death by the other two. They were wearing crampons. It was a bit sick.”
“Well you can’t fake violence like that, can you? It just happens. I’m going to the bar, do want anything?”
“Same as before,” Gaz said, draining the final dregs of beer from his glass.
Most of this was written very quickly before Short Fuse earlier tonight. Just sounding out a scene for something.
They had been following the instructions they had been given. They were leaving the zone broken and defeated by the siege. He had given her his old army gas mask to stop the tear gas from blinding her. He used a scarf and said nothing about the stinging pain as they ran towards the edge of the rebel zone. They held their hands above their heads.
The sniper started to shoot on the hour of the deadline. This sniper was clearing the streets before the rolling forced removal of resistance went in.
His leg collapsed under him. A large caliber bullet in the thigh. She noticed only when she felt him grab her leg as he fell to the ground.
The sniper fired a second time as the echo of the first bullet faded away. She turned her head and he was waving to her to get away as he was hit in the stomach. To get to cover. He wanted her to get to safety. He wanted her to stay alive and to continue the fight for freedom.
She stopped and screamed. The sniper’s third shot impacted the ground next to her. The bullet shattered on the road. He told her to run as the sniper’s gaze turned to her and severed her spine.
You banged your head this morning and ignored it.
After arriving at work, and turning on your computer, you go to the break room for your first coffee of the day. On returning to your desk you see Toby in the corridor. You say, “hello,” to him, and he says something back. You don’t catch what he says. Toby mumbles a lot.
You shut the door to your office, and start to perform triage on the emails that have arrived over the weekend. A task that normally takes all morning, and everyone here knows that you need to be left alone for this. It is an hour before Mark, the intern, interrupts you. He starts to speak to you, but all you hear is gibberish. It is as if he has started speaking another language.
“Excuse me. Can you say that again?” you ask.
Mark repeats himself. All you hear is the same nonsense.
“I can’t help you right now.” You start to panic. “Can you please get Chetan for me? It’s important.”
Mark closes the door behind him. At least he understood you. Your emails are all legible; no problems there, but you could not understand what Mark was saying to you. Chetan pushes the door open slightly and taps on it. He says something. A different nonsense this time.
You explain that you don’t understand what he’s saying and that he’ll have to write down his half of the conversation on the whiteboard. “Have you hit your head?”
“I think so. The side of my head hurts,” you answer.
“Go to the hospital. I’ll drive you there now. Do you want me to phone Cassie?”
Cassie, your girlfriend, is at home. A day off from work. “Leave it. I’d better find out what’s wrong first.”
You are driven to the hospital. At the reception desk for A&E he explains the problem you have as he understands it. The receptionist looks skeptical, but a nurse does come to see you eventually. He tries to talk to you. You tell him that you really can’t understand what he is saying. He takes a pen out of his pocket, and he scribbles a message on the corner of a free newspaper. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The nurse returns with a doctor after ten minutes. This doctor is carrying a spiral bound notebook. He opens it and writes very slowly. “My name is Dr. Neale. I’m a neurologist here. Follow me.”
You follow him through the hospital. The nurse stays behind. You become lost in the white floored white walled maze, and are totally disoriented. After ten minutes of walking you arrive at an office. The doctor leads you inside, and he sits down behind his tidy desk. On the notepad he writes, “I don’t know what is wrong with you yet, but we are going to get you an MRI. And then, from there, we’ll try and see what we can do.”
You get an answer to what your condition that never goes away is. It is called pure word deafness. Six months later and you are at home on sick leave. The prognosis is vague; the problem might go away, but the problem is more than likely not going to. There are the weekly treatment sessions, a condition of your paid sick leave, but their effect has been minimal; even if they have helped you develop coping strategies.
You are still in love with Cassie, although your relationship is strained. She comes home from work one day, and you ask how her day was. A habitual tick that you’ve not gotten rid of. A habit that you think has helped you both. She replies, “good,” and you hear that.
“What was that? I just caught something you said.”
Cassie answers, and it is all word salad apart from the fact that she’d had a good day. “Wait I just heard you had a good day. Maybe I’m getting better.”
She smiles at you, and she shrugs. “Coffee?” you asked. She nods.
While making the coffee Cassie comes in to watch you in silence. You wish she’d talk to you more often. You don’t quite know how to tell her, but just hearing the sound of her voice makes you feel better. It makes you feel as though one day you’ll understand the babble. Besides there are only three words you want to hear again. You know that presently you wouldn’t understand them as words if she said them. But the meaning would be clear to you if she said them. It’d still be those three words.
You know when people lie, even the small innocent everyday lies, because you hear them. That is all you hear coherently. When you are watching the news if a politician is talking you hear a tangle of half sentences.
You tell your neurologist about this at your next meeting. He laughs, and then he writes down his reply which tells you that what you’ve told him is impossible. You ask him to say this aloud. You can’t trust the written word anymore.
“Two plus two is five,” he says, testing you with a confident smile.
You correct him. “Two plus two is four.”
When you arrive home after that session with Dr Neale you find Cassie in the bedroom crying. You sit next to her, and you wrap an arm around her to comfort her. You whisper in her ear, “what’s wrong love?”
She replies “I love you.”
This was written for the Short Fuse event this month based on the theme of Metropolis. It didn’t quite make the cut; although I will very likely be reading this story at a future event.
On that note, unlike my story, “Three Words” I have no problems publishing it to the Internet prior to the reading. So here enjoy.
Natasha Roth’s Statement, Bartender at the Heart Machine
Louis was new at the Heart Machine, but he was a good bartender. He was popular with the girls as well.
I was tending the front bar with him last night. Louis had been on a packed front bar for two hours, so I sent him out to get some fresh air when some cover arrived.
That’s the last I saw of him.
He didn’t come back after ten minutes, more than enough time for a fag and a piss, so I sent Simon out to look for him. He found the body. I wasn’t able to leave the bar, because we were swamped with loads of Red Faction last night celebrating the release of some members from jail.
Thomas threw the empty bottle away. It hit gravel laid over the roof and broke. “What am I going to do?” He opened a second beer and started to drink it.
Twenty-three floors below him people were returning to their flats from nights out. Aggressive shouts from a fight echo upwards from the street.
“I don’t know. Sitting on this roof and getting drunk seems good,” Russell said, draining his beer bottle, and then throwing it away.
“It’s so sudden.”
“Isn’t it always?”
“But it is part of the plan,” admitted Thomas.
This was actually written before the essay on Social Realist SF, but then so was Ivana’s Heart; the two stories feed into that essay. I like this story a lot, but then I happen to think that it works really well for such a short vignette. It was published on Weaponizer on the 9th of March 2010.
The blurb that was posted on the Weaponizer Blog to introduce this story makes me very happy as well.
She looked at her watch. “Are you going to make the pie soon?” she asked him. He was sitting next to her on the battered old sofa reading a book.
“Are you sure you are ready?”
She nodded. “Very sure.”
He got up from the sofa and left for the kitchen. Laid out on the marble counter top were the ingredients for the pie. Pre-weighed. Pecans, Kahlua, instant coffee and chocolate. The recipe she’d printed earlier that afternoon and stuck onto the fridge with a strawberry shaped magnet.
He loved her deeply. He even believed in the cause she was fighting. And he understood that her method, her weapon even, was a well tried method of resistance. But he loved her, so didn’t want to see her harmed. Still he was compelled to follow her wishes, and a compromise had been agreed on.
With the pecans, he made the pie’s crust and put it in the fridge. She walked in just as he was closing the white door. Walked over to him and gave him a hug. “How is it going?”
“Well. I’m just about to make the filling. Want to watch?”
She smiled. “Yes. Do you mind if I put the radio on?”
“Go for it,” he said.
She turned the radio next to the sink on. It was tuned to BBC Radio 4. The clean English accent of the woman presenter was reading the news. “Members of the group Save the NHS have pledged to go on hunger strike in response to David Cameron’s recent announcement that major cuts in all sectors of the National Health Service.”
“I don’t need to hear this love. Can you change the station? Planet Rock?”
“I understand. Too close.”
He nodded and carried on mixing the filling. When it was finished he spread it on top of the crust and put it in the fridge to set. “Two hours minimum until it is ready. What do you want to do?”
Outside it was raining slowly from the grey sky. “I don’t know. I’ve already updated the Save the NHS blog and twitter feed. I don’t really want to deal with it for a while. A film maybe?”
“Did you finish watching Six Feet Under?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “We could watch a few episodes of that.”
They returned to the living room. She put in a DVD of Six Feet Under and hit play all on the menu. While she was setting up the TV he took his boots off, and then leaned back into the sofa and took out the hair tie he’d put on while making the pie. She cuddled up to him as the HBO static started.
“It looks good,” she said to him, as he took the pie out of the fridge after the DVD had ended. He put it on the kitchen table and grabbed a sharp knife from the drawer.
She hadn’t wanted any ritual with her last meal. She just wanted the best pie she’d ever had. No cameras. No record. Just memories. “Can you get a plate?” he asked. He hadn’t dried the dishes so they were all on the rack drying next to her.
The ceramic plate clunked on the wooden table. He was cutting a generous slice from the pie onto her plate.
“Eat,” he said, while hoping that she’d eat again in a few days.