Chimera and the Shrubbery – Part 1 – Chapter 6

Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics

Chapter 6

Sasha waved her hand around her face in annoyance, cutting through swarms of buzzing insects. The academy had taught her to master her various gizmos for gauging her surroundings, but they had never taught her about just how varied her environments could actually be. They had simulated icy, snow-peaked mountains, and crusted sandy terrain, but nothing had prepared her for the dense, humid atmosphere of the forest. She was receiving so much incoming data about constant movement and sounds in amongst the bush, but none of it told her anything concrete. Was it one large animal moving or a hundred tiny ones? Like Jeremy had suggested, it was her visual data that she should be focussing on.

How was she supposed to know which creatures were hostile, and which weren’t? She didn’t have any instincts yet, not like her much older partner.

She slowed down her pace, stricken with glumness. At the academy she had been top of her class, and had received praise from her teachers, and awe from her peers. Out here, in the thick of the forest, she had none of that. She was bottom rank. Rookies like her died in the war every single day, and were fast forgotten. All she had out here to protect her was Jeremy.

“Jeremy?” she whispered.

He spun around with his fingers to his lips, frowning.

Sasha didn’t recognise the gesture. “I need to know what to be looking out for.”

“You’ll know when you see it.” They continued edging forward.

A crack pierced through the hum of the living forest, loud and clear. Jeremy leapt up, aimed his rifle, and stared into the distance. “Just like before..” he muttered.

“What’s that?” asked Sasha, on her feet with her pistol drawn too now.

“We’ve been spotted,” he said grimly. “Sasha- keep an eye on our rear. They might try to circle around us. They’re devious.”

Sasha shouted, “Yes, sir!” and faced backwards, and thrust her gun in front of her. There was so much sound, and so many tiny creatures flitting about. Would she be able to shoot fast enough? Come on, Sasha, she thought to herself. You are trained for this. Top of your class, remember?

Jeremy strode forward. He no longer cared about keeping quiet, and conversely much of the background noise had died down. “Come out!” he yelled into the greenery. “I just want to talk with you.” He could see everything in the daylight. They wouldn’t get the drop on him. He knew their tricks now.

There was a shuffle. Leaves cascaded from trees. A squeaky, bodiless voice sung out, “Help me!”

“Denver!” shouted Jeremy, and plummeted forward, bounding over a log, pushing aside long sharp blades.

“Slow down!” Sasha yelled to him, awkwardly trying to keep up whilst also checking nothing was going to ambush them from behind. “Jeremy, I said wait!”
But Jeremy didn’t, he was tearing through the foliage searching for the source of the voice, hoping beyond hope-

He slipped and grabbed out into thin air. The ground below him disappeared, and opened a wide black mouth to swallow him up. He tumbled down into it, plunged into pitch darkness. He landed with a thump, and some internal circuits bleeped in disgust at the damage he was doing to them. He looked upwards, but the sky far above was gone from his vision, and with it all light. He felt around and found his hand moving through slimy dirt.

“Jeremy?!” Sasha’s voice echoed from far up high. “God, you’re careless! Don’t you look where you’re going?” There was pause. “Can you hear me, you silly lump?”

Jeremy groaned as he stood up, and his head hit the ceiling of whatever underground hovel he was trapped in. He tried to shout up a reply to her, but no sound came out. Great, he thought, now that’s not working.

There was a gurgle from the darkness. Jeremy spun around, and stared blindly. Then, deep breathing, like a huge vacuum sucking in and expelling tonnes of air. A guttural growl followed.

Jeremy felt his limbs shaking. He grabbed for his gun, but he had let go of it during his fall, and now it was lost. He quickly switched on his head-mounted torch, praying that it wasn’t damaged..

A bristling object swung from the darkness and knocked him against the cavern’s wall with a thud. His torch beam blinked and fluttered, illuminating images of a ravenous beast, with a grin five metres wide, lined with rows upon rows of white needle teeth. The monster bellowed, filling the small space with a putrid stench and making Jeremy clutch his ears.

Before Jeremy could get a good look at the thing, it was on him. Pinning him down with its hard belly, and snapping its jaws in his face.

Sasha yelled from up above, “Are you okay down there, partner? What’s with the commotion?”

Jeremy poured all of his energy into his arms and lifted the beast up, just enough for him to slide out from under it. It swung its paws at him again, knocking him left, then right, like a ragdoll. It reared itself up on two legs, roaring, and Jeremy got his first good look at it. It had no eyes on its head, just sharp brown furs slicked back by mud and its gaping mouth, grinning, relishing the fight. Its round head sat on a fat belly with flab that hung off it, that swung and jiggled as the beast danced left and right.

It slammed its front paws down and waited, listening intently, and sniffing into its singular chasmal nostril.

Snickering echoed throughout hidden tunnels, the sound of the Guardians somewhere nearby, observing the fight.

“Jeremy.. I think there’s something up here with me,” Sasha called shrilly.

Jeremy lay still as a corpse, waiting for the beast’s next move. He couldn’t beat it on strength alone; its thick muscles and heavy body could twist and bend his rusty arms. He had no rifle. His only weapons down here were grenades, and the space was far too confined for that: he would be incinerated too in the blast.

The beast had no eyes, but by smell alone it approached Jeremy’s vicinity until it was almost on top of him again. Jeremy dodged up and over the next two swipes and landed in the mud, and slipped over. The next swipe revealed protruding knife-like claws, that cut three shiny horizontal holes in Jeremy’s side. He pulled his face from the dirt and rolled away as the beast leapt at him, landing inches away with a crash that caused the whole room to shake.

Jeremy’s torchbeam was spattered with dirt now, and became a dull burnt amber, making it harder for him to see. Something glinted, barely visibly, but he noticed it: the handle of his rifle, sticking upwards out of the mud.

The beast roared with frustration, opened its mouth wide, and moved in for the kill, storming forward with saliva gushing down its slimy black lips.

Jeremy grabbed for the rifle and fired, almost blindly, holding down the trigger and filling the room with fire. His torch beam spluttered and died. The cavern filled with a new stench; that of burning flesh. He heard one final long exhalation of breath, and then all was quiet.

Jeremy tapped his head gently and the light returned. It confirmed what he had hoped: the beast was dead. He lowered his head and glanced down at his body. Matted with dirt again, and this time he had suffered some real damage. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to go beyond the surface, and most of his internal systems seemed unharmed. His voice modulator even flicked back to life after a bit of poking and rewiring.

He watched the dead beast with disgust. Another enemy of this forest, attacking him for absolutely no reason. But wait-

“Who’s there?” Jeremy called into the maze of dark tunnels, after hearing some distinct footsteps approaching. They didn’t respond, but they kept coming. “I’ve defeated your monster! What else have you to throw at me?”

Jeremy raised his rifle, ready.

A tiny creature, no bigger than Jeremy’s foot, emerged and waddled over slowly, on two feet. It was grey and fluffy, with pink paws and feet, and from its minute mouth two front teeth stuck out. It let out a soft whimper, and began butting the lying beast with its small dome of a head. It pushed the hulking body with all its might, seeming confused at why the larger creature was not responding. It whined and cuddled up close, its pinhole nostril sniffling.

Jeremy sighed as he watched. Family ties.. something that robots did not have to be concerned about, ever. But still, he knew exactly what it was like to lose a loved one. He reached over and patted the young one’s head.

“I’m sorry, little guy. Come on. Let’s go find Sasha.”

The mole creature bounded up onto his shoulder and began rubbing his head against Jeremy’s facial fur.

Jeremy, with some difficulty, climbed directly up the sheer vertical hole that he had fallen down. It was easy enough to dig his hands into the earth, but more difficult to do so whilst balancing his new furry friend on his shoulder. They made it to the top.

“Sasha?” Jeremy shouted into the deathly silent trees.

But there was no sign of her.

Chimera and the Shrubbery – Part 1 – Chapter 4

Chimera and the Shrubbery

Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics

Chapter 4

Jeremy stood in the steam room and was sprayed with abrasive fumes that disintegrated the grime from his plating whilst leaving his metal parts uncorroded. As he waited for the cleaning process to finish, he pondered. As painful as it was, he kept on dredging up the image of Denver’s removed rabbit head in his memory, and examining it closely. It was slightly blackened in the mud and the grey eyes stared blindly on forever. The head had been torn off violently; something that would require a large amount of brute strength. These living trees, whatever they were, did not mess about.

But other than the break at the neck, the head was not damaged in any other way. It was a clean cut. The forehead was not even scratched. Not an indentation, not a hole. And that was exactly where the central unit was.

He felt his power usage suddenly spike, and his cold blue veins filled with electric energy in excitement. If Denver’s brain was still intact, then there was still hope..

“Oi!” came a hollow voice from the walls. “Your clean finished thirty seconds ago. Stop standing around. We’ve got a line of construction bots out here. Move it!”

Jeremy smiled and waved at the walls as he exited.

Out in the courtyard there was a commotion. Many of the soldiers had abandoned their posts and formed a big circle around something Jeremy couldn’t see. He pushed a few men aside impatiently. In the centre of the group were ten sleek robots performing skilled acrobatics. These were the reinforcements.

Not asked for, Vato had told Jeremy, but certainly very welcome. The United Front’s high council had sent ten of their best models, the absolute cream of the crop, to aid in the war effort.

The new arrivals were showing off, flinging each other into the air, performing a hundred fast spins, then landing on a single toe atop another’s outstretched finger. Next they formed into a large pyramid.. and to impress even further they dismantled it and then formed the same pyramid, this time upside down.

Jeremy rolled his eyes (a process he’d taken a long time to master) and stepped into the middle of the vainglorious acrobats. He reached up and grabbed one by the foot in mid air, bringing him crashing to the ground, and ending their performance unceremoniously. The crowd went quiet.

Jeremy stamped his foot. “If Vato caught you all standing around like this, heads would roll. Literally.”

The gathering quickly dissipated.

Jeremy turned back to the new arrivals to find one of them, hardly distinguishable from any of the others, standing in front of him, chest pointed out proudly. It was an ugly robot, with a head that was a blend of semi-circle and a cube, with stylish smoothed edge and a long thin visor instead of eyes. The body consisted of a tiny torso and overlong arms and legs. Perfect for moving nimbly, Jeremy bet, and the acrobatics would come handy in combat. He didn’t voice these thoughts: the robots seemed to have egos big enough already.

“You’re Jeremy, right?” The robot hunched her shoulders in anticipation, her voice giddy with glee.

“Right.” Jeremy waved vaguely, and turned to leave.

“I’m Sasha!” she squealed, and for a second it looked like she was going to hug him. Instead she extended her hand; an archaic gesture of friendliness. “It’s really such an honour to meet you, partner! I just know I’m gonna learn so much from you. This is so exciting!”

Jeremy stared at her, analysing her speech pattern and posture. From what he could tell, she was not exaggerating for effect; she was actually genuinely this over-the-top. He could guess why Vato had assigned him her as a partner. Another female, supposedly to take his mind off Denver, to suppress any grief he felt. Well, it was stupid to suppose he would find Sasha an adequate replacement: you couldn’t replace friends. Plus, if there was a single thing he could do about it, then he would recover Denver and find her a new body.

He shrugged at Sasha, who was staring at him expectantly, and walked away.

She trotted after him, bouncing from one foot to the other excitedly. “Sorry about the show back there!” she stuttered nervously, awkwardly trying to maintain eye contact whilst walking with him. “We didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”

“It was all very impressive,” replied Jeremy dourly.

“Well, it’s just the way we’re built, partner! Our fibre optics are state of the art – they transfer data at ten million standard packets per second. We can collate environmental data like air pressure, sonic activity, humidity, wind patterns, so that we have a highly increased understanding of our immediate surroundings. We have touch sensitive nerve endings over ninety percent of our bodies, unlike some older models that only have sensors on their hands and feet.” She paused. “No offence meant, partner!”

He grimaced. “None taken.” He looked her up and down. “So how’s your combat performance?” he asked with a sly grin.

“Our reflexes are just perfectly honed. We can react to threats in under a microsecond- not to mention our joints allow for fluidity of movement that-”

Got you!” shouted Jeremy, as he flung a fist with no warning directly into her face, to catch her off guard.

Sasha stood calmly, ready, braced for combat, with his fist caught comfortably in the palm of her hand, five or so inches away from her face. The breeze whistled around them.

He gasped, and Sasha let go, returning to a more social posture. “Got you, actually, partner.”

Jeremy winced and tried to hide his discomfort. He rubbed his wrist gently.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Jeremy: I cheated slightly. Your friend Beetlebum over there warned me that you would try and catch me off guard like that.”

“Oh, him.” Jeremy groaned.

Sasha pointed at Beetlebum, manning the walls. He waved back to them and chuckled. He was Jeremy’s second closest friend here on the base after Denver. Now she was potentially gone, Jeremy felt a pain that he was only left with Beetlebum as his confidant.

He was a lazy, untrustworthy friend who stunk of incompetence, but kept his high rank nonetheless, simply from his years of experience. Sure, he would pull through for Jeremy on a rare occasion, but far more often he would be too worried about keeping his own parts intact. He took next to no care of his body, was combat shy, and kept a secret about as well as a sieve kept water. Somehow over decades, he and Jeremy had grown close, and now they were kind of stuck together.

“To quote him, you are ‘extremely predictable’-”

“Okay, thank you, Sasha-”

“-and you have ‘a lot to prove.’”

“Right. First things first-”

“‘Slow,’ he also said. And ‘thinks he’s a far better fighter than he actually is.’”

Jeremy stopped and glared at her through slit eyes.

“Oh.. but he said lots of nice things about you, too!”

Jeremy waited for a few seconds to ensure she wasn’t going to dig herself into a deeper hole. When she was silent, he said, “Sasha. You’re my protege now. I trust you can follow orders?”

“Of course!” She beamed.

Her combat performance was impressive to say the least, Jeremy admitted to himself. If Vato wasn’t going to supply him with a set of troops, then she would just have to do. “You said you are pleased to be working with me, Sasha?”

“Absolutely, partner!”

“Well, how am I supposed to tell that when your head looks like a breeze block?”

Sasha shrunk back, clasping her head defensively. He’d hurt her more with words than he ever could do in a fight.

“Let’s get you a facemask, to start with,” Jeremy said. “If you’re going to learn from me, then I need to be able to read your expressions.”

Sasha hesitated for a second as Jeremy began walking towards a supply store, but she quickly started following. “Sure thing, partner.”

The doors of the supply store slid open to reveal tightly packed shelves filled with spare parts, some rusted beyond repair, others tragically looking as if their owners only died yesterday. Such was the war.

“Why do you keep calling me ‘partner’?” asked Jeremy, as they stepped inside.

“Because you’re my partner,” Sasha responded.

“Right. Makes sense.”

The bot in charge of the store ambled over to them, walking straight past Jeremy and right up to Sasha. “The faces are right at the back, right side, miss. Call me if you need help.”

“Why, thanks, partner!” Sasha bowed down to him in gratitude.

They walked through the shelves, past chipped circuit boards, lengths of frayed wiring and hollow, heavy feet.

“Well, why did you call him ‘partner’?” Jeremy asked.

“Term of endearment,”

“Right. Makes sense.”

Sasha sat on a stool as Jeremy perused through the various different masks, from kittens to rhinoceroses, from paper bags to phantoms. Each one when worn would plug into its user’s core, and then emotions could transfer themselves into facial expressions.

Jeremy passed Sasha one to try on for fit. “Let’s start with the basics, then. Where are you from? What clan?”

“Me and my brethren were constructed in Town Shou-watch. Clan Dragomir, just like you.” She tapped the insignia on her chest proudly.

“Your body is brand new, I see. Is it your first?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Combat experience?” asked Jeremy hesitantly, watching her attempt to put the face on backwards.

“None, sir. I’m fresh out of academy. We received extensive training, ran countless simulated modules that are indistinguishable from real combat.” She pulled at a wrong wire on the mask and sparks shot out, causing her arm to jerk back. She caressed her thumb gently, letting out a soft whine.

“Never fought? How long since you were built?”

“Thirteen years, mister.”

“Thirteen?” Jeremy threw his hands up in the air. “You’re thirteen? I didn’t even hold a weapon until I was twenty. They really sent you to the frontlines? Come on! Bots as young as you should have to wear a badge, or something.” Jeremy crossed his arms moodily.

“I do wear a badge.” She pointed to her chest.

“Not that, I meant-”

“I wear my badge with great honour. I am of the Dragomir clan of the UFFJAH, and no-one could be more proud of it than me.” Her slender finger underlined the words inscribed on her body: ‘United Front For Justice And Honour’. She got to her feet and threw down the mask. “I may lack combat experience, but I embody the ideals of the United Front in my very core. The very construction of me and my model was rumoured to be commissioned by the High Council themselves.”

“Very well,” replied Jeremy, regretting offending her. “You’ll have plenty of time to prove your metal, like the rest of us. Now calm your circuits and pick a face mask.”

In the end they settled on a fairly blank, loose, white mask, with enough requisite moving parts that Jeremy was satisfied that Sasha would learn to express herself. It had ginger eyebrows, a hole cut for her visor, and an expressive line where her voice modulator was. It wasn’t a bunny; but it would do.

“Why is this so important, anyway? Half the soldiers around here don’t wear faces.”

“Consider this my first lesson to you then.” Jeremy sat down opposite her, and pulled her stool close. He began plugging in the portions of her face to her skin. “Emotions are things that all robots have. We gain them more and more as we grow older. You are young, but if you don’t feel them strongly yet then you will once you get a taste of war.” Her eyebrows, when connected, began to rapidly shoot up and down. “You won’t have been taught about emotions in the academy. Because even today they are a taboo subject. Most soldiers believe them to be unimportant, even derogatory to our profession. But I think they should be embraced.”

“From what I hear, they are just errors in programming that are unavoidable at our level of complexity. They make your body sometimes act against the will of your central unit. You want to do one thing, but your body does another.. how can that possibly be a positive thing?”

“As you mature, you will learn to appreciate the good that comes with them,” Jeremy explained softly, leaning in close to massage the area underneath her eye. “That’s the real reason that me and Den- that I wear this bunny mask. You can learn a lot by studying another bot’s emotions. It will help me get to know you. Understood?”

“I guess..” She nodded.

“I can guarantee you that the High Council who continually send soldiers to fight this war, this great war against the Chimera, do so on an emotional basis. They feel love for their own kind, and hate for the enemy. You can’t fight a war with no emotion. Even the Chimera must feel.. to some extent.” He lost himself in his own thoughts for a moment. Then he pushed a finger into Sasha’s eye.

Ouch!” she squealed.

“Good! If that hurt, then everything is connected up right. How does that feel?”

“Like I’ve just been poked in the eye, to be honest,” she said, pouting. She got to her feet. “So, what’s next?”

“Now,” Jeremy said, taking her hand and leading them back into daylight, “our first mission.”

“I don’t recall seeing anything on the manifest. What kind of mission?”

“A rescue mission.”

FictionPress, why I love it

Ever heard of FictionPress? It’s a website where you can post your writing and people will review it for you. If you are halfway towards being a decent citizen (like me!) then you will also go around reviewing other people’s work.

There’s a hell of a lot of bad stuff, but also a hell of a lot of good stuff. If anyone has a FictionPress account and ten minutes to spare, I would be honoured if you could go on and give my story a review. http://www.fictionpress.com/s/3048737/1/Chimera_and_the_Shrubbery

It is the same story that I am posting here on my blog, word for word, so you don’t need to check it out if you’re already reading the story on here.

Anyway, whilst I keep telling myself the true value of negative feedback- and that’s what FictionPress is about, after all- and how it can help you improve as a writer, I also cannot deny the plethora of good feelings I get inside myself when I get a wholly positive review. I know this is a bit big headed of me, and I really hope you can forgive me, but I wanted to share a very positive review I had from a complete stranger over at FictionPress.

Here it is:

I had to read this after reading the summary! I love epic fantasy.

And I must say the writing doesn’t disappoint, I might be slightly biased in this review, because you’ve pushed all the right buttons to get me interested.

Denver has really distinct characterisation. I think her form and her words speak volumes for themselves. You have some very nice imagery, but what is most impressive about your story are the constant hints that open the reader’s eyes to your creativity. Denver is not ordinary, and neither is Jeremy. In fact, they may be something the fantasy world has never seen before. At the same time, you deliberately tease the reader by not reviewing more of their image than that which comes naturally, and you do the same for the mysterious guardians. Despite the sudden drop into a new world, it is clear that this story has both a past and a future.

You’ve mastered the essentials of imagery, character development and pacing, and this is a very well polished start.

I got a very nice understanding of the father and Hilda relationship, because its very clear how much the father cares about the daughter and the land, and also how much Hilda looks up to her father and depends on him for support. At the same time, the fighting style of the guardians of the forest is truly terrifying, especially when placed in their home element. not least because hilda seems more than a little malicious, and apparently delights in causing fear in her prey. Of course, when the forest burns from the incendiary grenade, she ends up weeping in fear, a sudden childish response which is jarring to the reader, and serves to make the guardians even less human.

One more of the many things I liked about this extract was the similarities in the way the different sides viewed each other. I loved how both the guardians and the machines viewed each other with contempt, and how each of them were proved wrong. ‘Papa’ said the machines were nonliving and unfeeling, yet Jeremy’s actions clearly contradict that. Similarly, Denver believes herself invulnerable to the creatures of the wild, yet she got literally taken apart. You used the change of perspective masterfully in this manner, highlighting the contrasts, the false prejudices and likenesses of the two sides in bold.

Like this story, please write more.

If any of you have a story at FictionPress you’d like me to review, please say so in the comments 🙂

-Vera!

Interlude

Although it feels wrong making a post which doesn’t include some new writing (that is the point of this blog, after all!) I just wanted to quickly mention an idea I have had.

I don’t want to stop with the novel that I have just begun work on, but perhaps alongside that (at a much slower pace) I have had the idea of creating a serialised story.

Serialised as in, every couple of weeks or so, I will try and post an extra chapter of it, here, on this blog. It will be the first time I’ve tried anything like that, but it feels more suited to this blog that to post little excerpts of my main novel that I’m working on. If this idea becomes a reality, I will try and post the first chapter in the next few days.

Thanks all, for reading

-Vera!

A chapter of my new book..

As requested by many of my friends, I will get this blog started with an early chapter from my new book. I have edited it slightly so that it doesn’t require any explanation, and works fine as a standalone story.

Enjoy- and comment away.

——————————————-

Rain pattered down onto Cherry’s grey top, causing black spots all across the fabric. She pulled her leather jacket tightly across her breast, and felt her initial excitement about the whole situation fast waning. She jogged around and through deep puddles, dampening the hem of her short skirt. “Richie.. can we slow down?”

“Of course!” bellowed Rich, accommodating her and instantly halting. He turned back to face her, and smiled a sharklike grin. “But you’re the one who wanted to get back to the party so bad. That’s why I was hurrying.”

“How sweet,” Cherry muttered, unsure if he was joking. She caught up to him and clasped his hand. “So why don’t we just go back now?” She cast her eyes over to where his electric blue station wagon was parked, half a mile away, and just visible still in the harsh moonlight. She tugged on his sleeve slightly.

“You don’t want to your surprise, then?” he raised an eyebrow at her, his smile disappearing. The downpour increased, and his style her became flat and matted.

“Of course I do. Just; does it have to be right now? Daisy is at the party alone, and she’ll be missing me. And this rain!” She held out her hands, indicating the thick lines drawn across the dark blue sky, and giggled slightly at how wet they both getting.

“It has to be right now. If you don’t like the rain, you can go back and wait in the car.” He offered her the keys, bluntly.

She felt a burst of anger at herself, that she was being such a buzzkill. She was always up for an adventure. She disregarded the foreboding feeling in her gut, and cursed herself for being so silly. She smiled at her Rich and pouted her light pink lips at him. “Come on, hunk. I’m all yours.”

He grinned and electric smile, and in the moment became dazzled by the droplets of rain that were trickling down her curved nose and over her soft lips. His licked his lips, and clutched her hand tightly.

They leapt and bounded over the slick concrete and finally found shelter. Before she’d caught her breath his hands clasped her back and brought her in for a long, wet kiss, one she didn’t want to end.

When he drew back, Cherry placed a hand on his chest. “You know, if you just wanted to find a place to .. uhm..” She coughed, embarrassed. “Surely you could’ve found somewhere nearer.”

“That’s not why we’re here.”

“What is this place?” She looked at the looming building that stood in front of them now, silhouetted against the pale sky, its rim illuminated by the white light of the moon. No lights were on in any of the windows.

“Preston High,” Rich answered, and promptly scaled a chain-link fence, landing with a splash on the school grounds.

Cherry took a hold of the fence cautiously, the fear returning. “A high school? Why on earth did you bring us here? Won’t there be kids around?”

Rich rolled his eyes. “Eleven at night? It’s school holidays anyway. No-one will be here.”

“Why are we here, then?” she asked, completely unsure of her boyfriend’s motives.

“Climb the fence and I’ll tell you.”

“That’s what you said at the party. And in the car. At this rate we’ll be halfway to China before you reveal anything.”

“Don’t you trust me?” he asked, simply.

And, naive as it may be, she did. Trust was the one trump card he could always play. He’d taken care of her so far, ever since they’d hooked up. He’d never been unfaithful, she staked her life on it; not like most other guys his age. After college one day, he had strolled into Mary’s Cake Shop, where she worked, and instantly noticed her. Don’t we do Spanish together? he had asked with a cute grin. She had got chatting to him in her cute pink apron, wrapped tightly against her tall figure- which he quickly commented how good it looked on her. He was openly flirty, but she couldn’t resist his charm. Not then, and not now.

She struggled her way up the fence. As she clambered over the top, the wires digging into her thigh, she lost her grip and came tumbling down. Rich was right there to catch her, and she gripped her hands around his neck tightly. A lock of hair fell across her face. She felt his strong body pressed up against hers and her breathing increased. Their lips moved closer and closer together..

“I’m here to sell my soul,” he whispered, and went for the kiss.

She stopped dead, and clumsily pushed away from him, a few steps back. “You what?” she asked, her tone serious.

“You heard.”

“Elaborate,” she demanded, eying him very carefully.

He shrugged, and blushed slightly, as if the story was embarrassing. “A guy approached me, and said, do I want to sell my soul for a thousand dollars? I thought he was joking, but hey, what do I have to lose? I don’t believe in souls.”

“You don’t..” She stared at him, incredulously. The story was hard to believe, but he spoke with sincerity. She could see now why he’d delayed his explanation until they were so far away from the safety and warmth of the party. Right now, outside this hollow high school, they were so close to his goal that he hoped she would agree not to turn back.

She shook her head, half to shake the moisture from her hair, plastered against her white neck, and half to clear her hazy mind, slightly tipsy from the party. “That’s why you brought me here? To meet some guy you met- where did you meet him?”

“Just in the street!”

“Like, a homeless?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Did you choose to meet at a high school, or him?”

“Him. He was very specific.” Rich walked up to a door that entered into the lightless, barren corridors.

She laughed, harshly. “A guy in the street tells you to meet him here, and he’ll give you a thousand dollars for your soul? You are really that dumb? Have you ever heard of crazy people? No way he’ll show.”

He looked genuinely hurt at her scathing tone. He pushed at the door, and it swung open without a sound: it was not even locked. “That’s the thing, Cherry.” He stepped inside and beckoned her to follow. “He already paid me the money.” He disappeared into the blackness.

The corridor stank of dust, having been unoccupied for weeks since the school broke up for summer. Cherry carefully stepped inside, her squeaky sneakers squelching against the slippery floor. She strained her eyes, but even then the only parts of the hall that she could make out was an eery white pathway cast by the soft moonlight through the windows. Even that was darkened by long strips of black caused by the shadows of the closed blinds. She took a few more steps. She could hear nothing but the hum of torrential rain from outside. Somehow, she felt more scared inside here in the dry.

“Richie?” she spoke, her voice a bold statement in the quiet.

A flicker of yellow light appeared just a few feet away from her: her boyfriend’s lighter. First, the lightly carefully moved to illuminate a thick wad of cash, one hundred dollar bills, fanned out like a desk of cards. After she’d gawped at that for a few seconds, the lighter moved up to make visible Rich’s face. He smiled at her. But it wasn’t the cocky smile that drove her crazy for him. There was a slight quiver that he tried to mask. Even he, her great white knight, was scared.

“Okay, I believe you” she said soothingly. She moved forward until she was touching his damp T-shirt.

“This way. Stay close to me. Hold onto my jacket if you need to. It’s really dark.”

“I noticed..” Before she could question him, he started walking, leading them along the ominous corridor. She didn’t need to struggle to keep up anymore. He was walking carefully, fearfully.

“I don’t suppose you know exactly what this.. procedure.. consists of?” she asked tentatively. “I mean, if this guy is here, and he gets out a scalpel or something; then I’m calling the police. Like, instantly.”

Richie shook his head, then remembered that she wouldn’t be able to see that. “No. He didn’t say anything. He just made me promise to show up, and then he paid me.”

“Richie- if this man already gave you the thousand dollars- then why even come?”

“Because. I may not believe in souls, but I do believe in promises.”

“That’s an awfully strong principal you have, Richie. I mean, your sense of honour is dragging us down a dark corridor to god knows where. Are you totally sure this is safe?”

“It’s this door, on the left. I’ll meet the guy, and if things get weird, we split. No harm done. Right?”

“Right..” Cherry wished she shared his brazen confidence at this point.

“And I’m gonna dress you up in something stunning with this money, you know. I mean, already half my buddies can’t take their eyes off you. But I’m gonna make you into a living, breathing, diamond, sweetheart. People will think you’re a model.”

“Or, like, an actress? Like, what I want to be?”

“Sure. That as well.”

She found herself smiling.

“We’re here.”

“And about your buddies- that oaf Charlie tries every other day to get me to go for drinks with him. ‘Just as friends’ he insists. But I’m pretty sure that’d change once I got drunk.”

The door creaked open, and the yellow flame shot inside the room. With a jolt, Cherry lost her grip on Rich’s jacket. She stumbled back, regained composure, and felt her way inside the room. The light had gone out. There were no windows in here, and she could see nothing but a veil, as if her eyes were closed shut.

“Rich?” she spoke into the blackness, and found her own voice a croaky whisper. She glanced back into the corridor, where the path of moonlight offered her an easy exit, if she wished to take it. The rain had died down to nothing now, and the only ambient noise was her own struggled breathing. “Richie?” she called again, trying to make herself louder.

There came a whisper in response, but she didn’t catch the words. Sick to her stomach, she grabbed for her own lighter- no, she’d left her purse in the car. She felt her way along the wall, her arm shivering from the cold, and from panic. She could barely control her own movements. Yes! She found the light switch, felt the cold plastic square, and pushed hard on the switch.

She blinked. Nothing had changed. She pushed the switch again, back and forth, with no effect. Power was off.

“Richie!” she screamed as loud as she could muster, a wave of nausea overcoming her, causing her bones to rattle.

The whisper came in reply again, just louder this time, a monotone, emotionless drawl, speaking words she still couldn’t make out. She paused in the darkness, tears trickling down her face, causing the illusion that somebody was touching her, dragging soft fingerprints over her skin.

And again, this time no longer a whisper, but the words were of no tongue she could recognise, not a language spoken by humans, nor a sound made by any creature from nature. The words, if words they were, pervaded into her mind through her ears, eyes and nose, and filled her mind with images, soft violets that spilt like paint over the black curtain that sat still before her. She knew there was someone else in the room speaking to her, but the voice was more foreign than Mars, and though before she had agreed with Rich that there was no such thing as a soul: this voice disproved could only be described as utterly barren of a soul, and thus it inadvertently disproved her belief.

She felt a tugging sensation of self preservation, an urge to run, to convert her pounding heart and the adrenaline in her brain into movement, to flee as fast and as far as her body would hold out.

With a clink, the lighter flicked back on in front of her, a beacon of orange light floating like a ghost in the centre of the room, revealing absolutely nothing of its surroundings, or its bearer. Rich, she thought, but she lacked now even enough control to make her mouth speak the word. She stepped forward, reaching out as far as her arm extended, her fingers trembling, the stinging tears in her eyes clouding her vision of the singular entity she could see, the stationary orange glimmer. With each step she shortened the distance between her and it, and whatever unmoving thing, person, creature, holding it so steadily, and she prayed that this whole trip was simply a horrible prank, a terribly judged joke from her brash boyfriend.

With her next step there was a crunch and an exhalation of breath. She had stepped not on the stiff carpet, but on something jutting from the ground, something her foot almost sank into, something soft. She shrieked and instantly drew back. A cold and wet grasp encircled her ankle. She fell backwards. Her sneaker was torn off her foot and swallowed by blackness. “Let go,” she pleaded with a wail.

“Cherry,” came the answer, gurgling, pitiful cry of pain. The thing on the floor was her Rich, her Richie, paralysed by someone or something, grasping at her desperately, begging for help. She took his hand gently, a hand she recognised so well, put her arm around his shoulder, cradling his head, crying all the while.

Her eyes slowly rose up to stare at the lighter still being held far above her head, not by her, nor by her boyfriend, but by the third entity in the room, who grinned and watched them both. For just a second she caught the shiny wet reflection of the burning flame in two giant ovals peering at her from the flood of blackness, holding her stare.

The creature belched a soft snigger, and the light went out, the door slammed shut, sealing them in a tomb of darkness, and eliminating any hope of escape.

Hey fans!

Hello!

Following a lot of pressure from friends and fellow writers, I have decided to start blogging about my writing. I’m not sure why I put off it off for so long. But here it is. I will keep all of my followers up to date with my writing, and occasionally post snippets of chapters, as well as what I’m up to.

My first piece of news is that I am hopefully shortly going to begin work on my first full length novel It’s been a long time coming, but I have had so much support that it was just bound to happen eventually.

Vera out!