Short story: Of ropes and balances

It was the rope. That’s what he was thinking while the car tumbled down the hill like a tossed coin, the night sky going in circles with the ground over the dashboard.

The rope.

Someone ‘d told him that just before you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes – well, all he could see was the sky and the ground spinning, the cold air sucking and hurling through the broken windows, and he was pretty sure he was about to buy it – so no, scratch that theory. Too bad he wouldn’t be going back to tell them.

It was a long drop down the hill, a long drop to the rocks with the frothy waves, a long drop until the car filled up with water, a long till it sank to the bottom. A long drop and too much time to think about it, too much time to work it out, analyse it, whatever, too much time to change his mind.

But he had changed his mind, hadn’t he? Yeah, just like a second ago. Or not? Everything happened so fast that he hadn’t had any time to play catch up – but that thought got lodged there inside his mind that was tumbling like the car, it got stuck and, well, it wasn’t his whole life but it would have to do.

So his brain hit one of those rewind buttons and started flying back fast, fast enough to match the car’s fall, fast enough to play catch-up.

And there he was, he saw himself some half an hour ago, on his way out of “The Peel”, the last local bar that’d let him in for happy hour. He’d drank his twelve shots one after the other and he remembered thinking that Stoli didn’t do it for him anymore – well, nothing seemed to do it for him anymore; not Stoli, not pot, not sex, not gambling, not even that smack he’d scored from the French guy yesterday. And that’s when he’d figured it out. That’s how he knew.

See, he wasn’t no great philosopher or anything, but the way he saw it, life was like a rope; a stretched rope you held on to walk through the dark – that line always turned the ladies soft. And he believed it too, which made selling it easier. Anyway, you walked along in the dark, holding onto the rope, and either of two things happened: Sometimes you got all the way to end of it, and sometimes the rope broke, snap! and you were left standing in the dark with a loose end. Now if that happened, you could do three things: First, you could sit there like an idiot. Second, you could stumble along in the dark and try to find your way out. Or, three, you could try to find the other end, and tie the pieces back together.

As far as he could tell, he’d tried the first two.

The car came to a sudden stop on the rocks at the bottom, on its side like a dying animal. It stood there for a while, and he could hear the angry waves lapping on the hood, the wind hurling and making it teeter on the rocks like a cradle, pushing it to the sea, the sea pushing it towards the shore. Teeter-totter, between life and death.

One, two, three…

…four, five, si-

– the wind won.

The car tilted, metal screeching on the rocks, some more glass shattering, and it began to turn – to pivot, so that instead of the deafening splash he had expected, the car just slid quietly into the water, trunk first. Anticlimax. He laughed a little – story of my life.

… so when he’d finished throwing up after doing the Frenchman’s smack, he sat there with his face hung over the toilet, staring into his yellow thin vomit – hadn’t eaten anything real in weeks – and that’s when it first hit him, although his first thought had been that he needed his twelve shots to make it through the night.

So there he was, at “The Peel”, staring into his twelfth empty glass and it might as well have been the toilet, and that’s when he knew that his rope had come one way or the other to the end. It was like Harry the barman told him, all the booze in the world isn’t going to bring her back.

Darkness covered him, cold and salty, and then the water – icy, January, Atlantic black wet killer, it started from his back as the car sank backwards and slowly moved over his shoulders, his waist and started up his chest. He shivered and swore – had to be dramatic about it; a bullet through the brain wasn’t enough, had to be a tough guy. Too bad the Stoli was keeping him from freezing to death.

Won’t be long now, he thought, and that thought from before came back, colder than the water.

Had he changed his mind?

Did it matter?

He didn’t know if it did, but it beat watching reruns of his entire life.

He’d sat outside the bar, behind the steering wheel, his stomach doing hula-hoops from the smack, the vomiting, the Stoli and now from the idea he’d just gotten.

It wasn’t hard; for once there was something simple and easy. Just turn the engine on, head off toward the coast, up that turn that overlooks the ocean, build up some speed – his Ford could probably make sixty-seventy if he pushed it – and dive. Fly over the hill, clear the rocks below, hit the water and just let nature take its course.

So why’d he tumble down the hill instead?

In the cold water, he remembered something. Because at the last moment, heading at fifty-seven for the cliff, he’d baulked. His body kind of took over, his foot hit the break, his arms turned the wheel, and his right hand pulled on the handbrake.

He’d stopped, right on the edge.

Why?

Now, under the creeping black waters, shivers running through his body, he knew: It was what Harry had said, that short phrase he’d spat out at him like he’d done to hordes of other deadbeats, burnouts and screwups that came to “The Peel” to drink the pain away, it was that little cliché he’d said, all the booze in the world isn’t going to bring her back.

Somewhere between racing up the road and the cliff, maybe somewhere there the Stoli gave him a break and he’d realised the thin little wisdom of those words, he’d realised that if booze wasn’t going to bring his wife back, well, drowning in the Atlantic sure wasn’t going to do the trick either. And then he got another little zen thing, one that cleared his brain up.

Dying is bad enough, but dying for nothing, well, that really sucks.

His left hand groping for the door handle, his right for the seatbelt buckle – why’d he put that on anyway? – they both found their targets together, but only the belt came loose. The car had almost completely sunk beneath the surface and the water pressed on the door – equilibrium, they called it – and now that the icy wetness covered his nostrils, he began to feel the first pangs of panic. Given that he hadn’t felt anything except misery since his wife’s funeral, the sensation cut him like broken glass –

Glass. The window.

For a moment his heart calmed, though it could just be hypothermia.

Get out the window.

Huh.

Easier thought than done, but it wasn’t like he had many options – or time. He couldn’t see the stars above anymore; hell, he couldn’t see anything anymore except the narrow white light from the headlights ahead, and that didn’t seem to go very far, it couldn’t penetrate the darkness of –

– that’s what got him going. That idea of the car sunk and stuck at bottom of the pitch-black, and him trapped inside, freezing, drowning, gasping his last bubble breaths at the bottom, alone in the dark, only the crabs and fish and whatever else lived down there feasting on his bloated corpse – all that send a jolt through his spine and his faculties all came to life, Stoli and smack be damned.

Pushing with his legs, he managed to lift his body against the crushing weight of the water just as he sucked the last inches of air that’d gotten trapped underneath the roof. Pushing and pushing – his foot hit the gas and he heard the engine rev, even down here – he finally got off the seat, hit his head on the sealing, re-positioned himself, forcing down his breath so much that it made his lungs hurt, and he slid out the window.

Out of the car now, he felt disoriented. His chest hurt, his body demanding oxygen for all the muscle work he’d put in and he knew he wasn’t exactly a fit Coast Guard anymore – if he got out of this alive, he swore he’d quit smoking and hit the gym like a pop star. But he knew that sea water will lift you up – elevation, they called it – and half-instinctively he kicked and kicked like a frog, feeling like he was going to explode any moment.

All around him darkness and – his oxygen-starved brain still registered – an awful silence. Just a hum and a thump, probably the water and his heart.

The trapped air from his lungs began to push upwards now, filling up his cheeks, struggling to come out from his clenched lips. As he continued to kick, he knew that the carbon dioxide build-up from his exercising muscles would just keep on growing and growing until he wouldn’t be able to hold it down any more. And once it came out, it’d be a split second before passive inhalation caused him to suck in and drown. A vicious circle: The faster he swam to the surface, the faster his body would kill him.

All this was academic of course – training remnants of a lifetime in the Coast Guard.

He just kept kicking and kicking, and now he managed to put his arms into it. Upwards, always upwards, that haunting sensation of drowning like cement in his lungs, his chest heavy, his cheeks about to rip, his sight blurring – he felt like his eyes were going to pop out – just as his lips parted and he blew froth up his face, the water suddenly got thinner, lighter, and that split second before sucking in was enough to let him stick his face out in the air.

He’d never drawn breath like that before; he felt like he would never stop. But the powerful intake filled his lungs so fast that it almost seemed unfair compared to how long he’d held his breath for. His chest still hurt, and some salt water got in there and caused him to cough hard, breathing in, coughing out, he twitched like that on the surface for a while until his own equilibrium set it.

When it did, he felt exhausted. Hardly any strength to do anything now. But he got his bearings and he realised that he had drifted away from the rocks, so he pulled up what strength he had left and began to swim.

It felt like a small eternity until he covered the hundred yards to the rocks – the same sharp rocks that seemed so dangerous before now welcomed him like a mother… well, maybe not exactly, but his intoxicated, drug-struck, air-starved brain couldn’t come up with a better metaphor. Who cared? The balance was tipped again, death was now life and blah blah blah.

Get to the rocks. His shoulders ached, his back ached, his chest was on fire – but he still found it in there to laugh at himself, Mr Suicide, Mr Broken Down, Mr Stoli paddling for dear life like a sewage rat. And if anyone ’d seen the whole charade, that’s what they’d think, they’d think he’d chickened out, not enough booze, not enough smack – hell, not enough pain to carry through. Maybe check to see if he was leaving a brown trail behind him… but he knew. He knew, and he didn’t care what anyone ’d think of him and his pathetic Attempt To End It All.

Maybe it was a second chance – didn’t much feel like it, but maybe he’d just been delivered from himself. Heck, he could have hit those rocks on the way down – engine was still running, could have lit up the night sky. Or the car could’ve gone down head first. The seatbelt could have stuck. It could have been deeper; his lungs might’ve given in; a shark could’ve chewed a piece off his ass for all he knew, but no, he was still there, half dead but half alive too, and he could see the rocks a couple of yards ahead, and one, two, three, he was riding the waves like a surfer and he let them ease him onto a smooth flat top at the bottom of the hill, and he grabbed hold and wasn’t going to let go, no sir, not after he’d seen what was on the deep end of the abyss.

And as he clung there, breathing, laughing, thanking, crying – that’s when it hit him. It was the question he’d left unanswered on account of trying to save his life. But it was still there, and it was still foggy and as if his mortal coil didn’t have another thousand natural shocks to deal with, it began to gnaw on the back of his mind, call it professional instinct, call it crazy, call it whatever, but it was still there:

Why had his car gone down?

He’d stopped at the top of the hill. He’d hit the breaks hard and pulled the handbrake. He’d had second thoughts – he was clear on that. So what, (ha ha), pushed him over the edge?

The answer came to him as the headlights of the other car, the car that had crashed into his own shone on him from the top of the hill. The lights teetered there for a while and he looked at them dumbly, like a frog staring into a flashlight.

And then the lights moved.

It wasn’t that though, it was the sound of gravel that made him jump. The headlights began moving now, faster and faster towards him, and suddenly something surged through his veins and his aching muscles came back to life. Panic and irony biting at him, he looked around quickly but there wasn’t much space – or time – so three seconds before the car hit him, he just kind of stood up and jumped backwards into the water and swam away as fast he could.

He saw the whole thing: The car cleared the rocks and went seamlessly into the water, the driver’s head bobbing along unconsciously – or dead. But the passenger, a woman, suddenly sprang to life – must’ve been the water, and started to struggle as the car sank, she banged on the glass, tugged on the seatbelt, screamed and then disappeared beneath the surface.

In the moment of silence that followed, he only had one thought: The rope. The damn rope that gets cut and tangled and broken and whatever, his rope that he couldn’t find the other end, well, his thought was that maybe he – he, a drunk, burnout, wasted – well, maybe he could hold someone else’s rope together, keep it from snapping. Maybe that was his own lost end.

He was already swimming underwater, kicking hard, following the sinking headlights. Maybe he could get there in time. Maybe he could get her out in time. Maybe he could save her and himself. Maybe he could tip the balance.

He didn’t see it, but above him, dawn began to break.

Short fiction: What dreams may come

I can’t believe it.

The lab all around me is sparkling. Not just clean – sparkling. The floors are frighteningly free of those colourful stains, long-ingrained into the linoleum. The windows are virtually invisible and the view – oh my, the view! Beautiful green on one side, and a white sandy beach on the other. Oceanic caresses lapping onto the shore and the mellow sound wafting into the ambiance of the lab itself, tangible like a soothing balm.

And then the benches. Spotless. White. And – be still, my heart – fully-stocked. Brand-new pipettes covering the full spectrum of volumes are hanging off an actual commercial holder. Still holding onto that virgin, new pipette smell. And boxes of matching tips – full boxes, mind you, not some used, one-tip-inside affair – perfectly lined up before me, like little disciplined battalions awaiting my marching orders.

And so much more. My eyes can scarcely take it in. A selection of CDs – genuine titles, not disc images scrounged from don’t-ask-don’t-tell torrent sites. Posters on the walls – vivid, relevant, actually helpful signalling cascades, not some vintage SIGMA catalogue centrefold to cover the latest Bunsen burner incident. Regulated lights above – not too dark, not too bright. Anatomic stools. Knee space. Leg space. Space. Plugged-in appliances with electrical testing stickers on the cables. Properly maintained laminar hoods. Filled-in booking forms. Shelves with uniform SOP folders. Equipment from this century – from this year! And all of it, all of it, with my name firmly stencilled on.

My first PCR works. My first Western Blot works. Everything works. I forget what cell contamination looks like. My n’s equal a real three every time, not three out of thirty that “didn’t work”. Negative controls don’t do, while positives, well, they simply do. Test samples in between. My error bars are invisible even in poster-size graphs.

My tip boxes are mysteriously always filled and replaced. Waste and rubbish collected. Glassware is washed and put away. Orders arrive yesterday. Equipment is regularly maintained. My clean, properly labelled lab coat is always on the hanger assigned to me.

Even the PhD students know what they’re doing – wait! The undergrads?! When did they learn how to design an experiment? Properly?

I’m going to faint.

I’m sitting in my well-organised, spacious office, in front of my sparkling new 27-inch iMac. I could use my top-of-the-range PC, but at the moment it’s crunching data. And guess what? I’m writing a paper. Of course. So much good science, it’s got to go somewhere. But this isn’t just any paper – am I seeing right? – it’s a Nature paper. I’m not even 30. My inbox is full of key speaker invitations and collaboration requests, and I think I’ll pick that Bahamas conference – maybe just after that huge one in San Diego.

What’s this? Peer review? From Nature? Oh, it’s alright. All three peers just wanted to congratulate me on “outstanding research, and the cleanest, most innovative science this field has seen in years.” Thanks, guys, my pleasure – and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Of course, I miss spending time in my expanded lab now, but between six postdocs, ten PhDs and five technicians, the lab work’s sorted. I just sit back and watch the data roll in. Meanwhile, I have to decide how to best divide the new grant we just won. Or alternatively – I lean back on my comfy, anatomic chair- how best to begin that review that Science asked me to write for them. Or maybe I’ll leave that and prepare for the NewScientist interview… oh, I don’t know. A barefoot walk on the beach will help me decide. Watch the sunset and reflect on how fruitful, productive, and fulfilling my career in science has –

– whoa! I must ’ve leaned back way too far and my arms and legs flail about comically and then – hey! – I’m falling, and as I look down I see a semi-dark, kaleidoscopically stained floor come up fast and I hear my plastic stool fly off ahead of me and it knocks a quarter-full tip box off the overcrowded bench and it spills my last batch of yellow tips into the glassware that’s precariously balancing in the brim-full sink.

That’s when my elusive supervisor walks in – first time I’ve seen him in seven weeks – and looks at me, miserable, in my ragged lab coat, laying on the floor.

“Don’t worry”, he says. “Difficulties in research only make us better scientists. I have every confidence and faith that one day you will be an outstanding researcher and a great PI.”

I blink. “Prof?”

And then I woke up.

New fiction at Lablit.com!

Hallo aus Österreich!

(I think that’s “Hello from Austria)

Just tuning in to let you know that the good people at Lablit.com have published another one of my short stories: Road’s End (link).

Always keen to hear your comments and feedback for anything I put out there (soon to include a novel on Kindle). In fact, you can even use the Lablit.com forums to do so – if you can manage to stop browsing all the fascinating stuff that’s on them already.

What Lablit is NOT

Some of you may have noticed that I often write for Lablit.com. But as Lablit is a fairly new genre, people often wonder what it is. Well, this article by Lablit.com editor Jennifer Rohn explains much. The cartoon below probably doesn’t.

(Click on image for full size)

See more comics

How I started writing

In 2003, I completed my first ever novel, The War. It followed me from my Masters to my first ever placement and all the way to the Army. It took me exactly 3 years to finish the first draft and I almost cried when I wrote THE END. That first draft was a beast; an ambitious fantasy/sci-fi epic full of theological/philosophical symbolism and metaphor that stood at a monstrous 180,000 words (about 400 double-spaced Word pages). A no-no in publishing terms.

The second draft came a lot later, around 2007. It dramatically rearranged the structure, trimmed a lot of fat, introduced some new stuff, and took out much of that first-timer pretension in language and style. Result: 167,000 words. Still too long for a debut. Shelved until further notice.

The War taught me a lot. It taught me the difference between wanting to write a novel and actually doing it. It taught me that I absolutely loved writing and it taught me that, although I loved reading it, fantasy was not my genre. I couldn’t write characters saying “Sire” and “Highness” and take them seriously. And I need to take my characters very seriously.

Fact was, I discovered that I preferred the style and genre-blend that I do now. Sci-fi. Psych-thriller. Crime-thriller. Hard-boiled. Redemption themes. Some madness. Symbolism. Ambiguity. Weird scenes. Fourth-wall smashing. Four novels later, I’m still doing it.

So, what of The War? After a few failed attempts to find an agent (I’m still looking, hint-hint), I shelved it, hoping that one day I’ll be popular enough to get a publisher interested. But since that day seems less and less likely, I thought that I could at least share a small excerpt from it with you. It might not make much sense in a vacuum, but it’s meant to be evocative rather than informative. I hope you enjoy it, and, as always, if you’d like to read the whole novel (I dare you), let me know.

This is from the end of the PROLOGUE, the first of the four parts of the book. The chapter is called The Flood. This is Michael, survivor of the crashed starcraft Pegasus.

The day came when he decided that it was time to leave the mountain. It was easy, since he didn’t need food or supplies. The things that once belonged to the people of the Pegasus he left in the cave, which he would visit it repeatedly in the future to ponder on the writings of the books he had salvaged.

But that was yet to happen; now it was time to leave. On the eve of that first departure, Michael stood once more on the mountaintop where snow had begun to fall once more, and looked at the sunset.

It was a majestic site. The Sun was a crimson plate to the west, and the last rays of the day exploded in gold on the earthy carpet below. Michael watched it as the cold wind tousled his hair, the orange light painting his face with the colours of renaissance, and for the first time in his existence, he felt it.

He felt human.

It was the feeling that would lead Michael in his journeys during the coming years. It was the feeling that would make him that which he was to become.

As Michael looked on, he felt that he was not seeing the birth of a new world, but just the death of an old one. He did not see the dawn of a new era, but just the evening of an old one. It was not a Genesis – it was a Revelation.

For the first time in his short life, Michael wept.

He was human.

The Sun dropped slowly behind the rugged horizon, dragging the peplum of night behind it; the stars found their place in the crystal dome and time galloped along his lengthy path ahead.

The light faded and gave its place to the shadows of the world.

And darkness covered the land.

Thanks for reading. I don’t write like that anymore. Next time, I’ll show you how I write now.