A big thank you to my fellow jury members Zoe Margolis and Robert Grant and I'm pleased to announce we have our winners for the SCI-FI-LONDON + Urban Fantasist 48 Hour Flash Fiction Challenge 2015.
The 1st Place Winner is: Baxter & Baxter by Neil Murton (London) – when Steampunk meets time travel in a hard-boiled detective setting
2nd Place Runner-up: Grab Hold by Daniel Noall (London) – a tale of hacking and scavenging in a post-apocalyptic world
3rd Place Runner-up: The Transit by Andrea Tran (London) - in the Mexico of the future, a taxi driver learns of a mathematical paradox
You can read the winning entries below...
1st: Baxter & Baxter
by Neil Murton
When I wake, the world has changed again. I didn’t fall asleep in this bed. I perform my checks. Male. Small beard. Limbs: four. I added that last one a few flips ago, having swung myself out of bed onto legs that didn’t exist. I take a deep breath, and look to one side. No. The rest of the bed is empty.
The wardrobe is full of linen shirts, waistcoats and breeches, so I look out the window to check for zeppelins, but the view is obscured by fog.
I adjust my tie pin, put on my topper and leave to find Jennifer waiting outside, next to her idling Steam Rocket. She’s wearing a tailsuit, clutching a smouldering cigar between her teeth and sporting what I can only describe as battle cleavage.
Right. One of those worlds.
“Morning Squire,” she says. “Need a lift?”
“As always, Jennifer.”
We take off at a speed most would associate with artillery shells, and I find myself clinging to the handrail so fast it can only be muscle memory. Jennifer is making extremely enthusiastic use of the central overtaking lane, and it occurs to me she might be showing off.
“Do you think,” I venture, “it might be worth decelerating a tad, given the inclement weather?”
“Fog makes it even harder,” Jennifer admits, veering out of the path of an oncoming juggernaut, “cos you’re dodging things you can’t even see. But I ain’t been killed yet, and therefore by iteration, I never will.”
We pull up next to an office with ‘Baxter & Baxter’ over the door. My heart leaps a little faster, something I had heretofore thought impossible after Jennifer’s driving.
Would I find Sarah here?
I turn around to thank Jennifer for the lift, but she’s no longer there. Nor is the city. Instead, I’m wearing hiking boots and standing halfway up a mountain, surrounded by fragrant heather.
OK. Here we go again.
It hasn’t always been this way.
I first found myself in a new world after spending a night drinking through a bottle of scotch. Good stuff; I thought if I spent more cash than I should, I wouldn’t get through it so fast.
Wrong. That bottle should have had racing stripes.
Then, it had been four months since Sarah left. She’d kept my name, and in exchange I got the flat.
I thought we were both happy. We never tried for kids; neither of us wanted them. But we both had good jobs, we took holidays, we laughed, and we drank wine in Roman cafes. We were Stephen and Sarah. Baxter and Baxter. I saw a future of us growing old together. Growing old, as she said, but never growing up. I gave her flowers, and books, and rings. I would have given her anything she wanted.
And then one day, she came home and said, “I want a divorce.”
So I gave her that, too.
I’m Baxter. She’s Baxter. Together we fight crime.
At least we did. That was before she turned, got sucked in by the promises of a dashing goatee’d thief and a zip-bag full of diamonds. Now she’s the flame-haired master criminal that the tabloids hate to love.
I don’t know if it’s actually true about the dashing goatee. I hope it is. If it wasn’t, it feels like something I should have seen coming.
But she’ll be here tonight. This exhibition is the first time the Star of Zanzibar has been outside its safe for 35 years. She’ll never be able to resist a gem this big.
There are laser beams wired to alarms, blast doors and a reinforced steel cage. But that won’t stop her. She’s one of the best.
But I’m THE best, and it won’t stop me either.
“Any sign?” I mutter into my lapel mic.
“Nothing.” Jenny, on the roof. “Sure she’s here?”
I slip into the exhibition hall.
Behind the laser beams wired to alarms, the blast doors, and the reinforced steel cage, there’s a note taped to the Star’s glass case.
‘Sorry Steve. We’re hitting De Beers tonight.’
I’m walking through the park with Jenny. She’s wrapped up against the autumn chill, and her perfume reminds me of spring.
“What did you say?”
I shake my head. “Nothing.” Switching worlds mid-thought is disconcerting.
The path splits around a pond. We turn right and wander about half-way round. The sun’s casting long shadows, so we’ll be kicked out soon. But for now, we can watch the ducks scull across the glassy water. On the far bank, a heron is standing so still I wonder if it’s an ornament, but then a turn of the head brings it to life.
Jenny takes one of my hands, her fingers warm beneath the woollen glove.
“Steve, I’m getting worried about you. It’s been close to a year now.”
“I’m fine. Really. I’m just not ready to go looking for someone else yet.”
She doesn’t look convinced, and I wonder if my breath still smells of whisky. Or maybe my clothes. But I am getting better. I don’t go on so many walks now. For months, I spent every night walking all over the city, always finding my way to the rough, dangerous streets. As if willing something to happen.
Now I don’t do that. Not every night.
“You know if you want to talk about it that I’m here, right?”
“Yeah, I know. You’re always here.” It strikes me even as I say it how true that is. Every world I visit, Jenny’s always here.
But then the thought’s cut off, because on the opposite path there’s a slim woman with red hair. Is it her? She’s wearing a coat like Sarah used to own.
“Just… just a minute.”
And I drop her hand and start after the woman with red hair. She’s some distance away and I’m going to lose her, so I break into a run –
And then I’m still running but I’m running through a tube station, because Sarah’s on her way to the airport but I know I can still catch her, so I leap the barriers but then I’m checking into a hotel because she has a book signing in this city tomorrow, and maybe I can make out like I didn’t know and just happened to be in the bookstore, and the clerk hands me my keycard just as I’m flicking the safety off my gun and kicking down the door, and Sarah’s there, jewel thief Sarah, and she looks at me in shock. And then she raises her own gun and shoots me in the heart.
Well, that was Freudian.
The dark fades away, like I’m waking from a sleep I never fell into. I’m in a small cabin, lit by candles. Outside, the wind howls like a dying wolf, blowing across empty, irradiated dust.
“So,” Sarah says, pouring wine into two glasses, “here we are.”
I blink at her. “Is this real?”
“Yep. Infinite spins of the wheel, babe. You had to pick right eventually.”
“I’ve missed you.”
“But here we are. Baxter and Baxter.”
She smiled, shook her head. “No. You’re Baxter. I’m Baxter. There’s no ‘and’. There hadn’t been for a while before I left.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“We could fix that.”
“No we couldn’t.” She waves her arm around the cabin. “You’ve found the world where we’re still together. Literally the last two people left alive. That says something about the state of our relationship, methinks.”
She pushes the wine toward me.
“This wasn’t the future I imagined.”
Sarah raises an eyebrow. You think?
“Not just this. All of them. I mean, I knew things were never going to be perfect. There were always going to be things thrown at us. But every time I thought about the future you were there. We were there. It was clear. And now…”
“Now the future’s made of fog.”
“And fog makes it even harder,” I say, slowly. “Because you’re dodging things you can’t even see.”
“Nothing. Something I was told once.”
She wrinkles her nose. I loved it when she did that. Melted me right down. “Well, they’re right. But it’s good to have a bit of fog you know? Otherwise, you know exactly what’s going to happen, and where’s the fun in that?”
And then I’m not in the cabin, and Sarah’s not there. I’m on Hampstead Heath with Jenny, and we’re sat on the hill watching a zeppelin dock to the top of the Shard.
And I remember that she had plans today, but dropped them to spend time with me.
She points at the zeppelin.
“We should go for a ride. And then maybe get some dinner.”
“Yeah,” I say. “We should do that.”
2nd: Grab Hold
by Daniel Noall
It was sunset and their shadows were long in the sand before them like extensions of their own internal compasses making psychical impressions on the earth, reaching ahead through the desolation towards some invisible waypoint. It had been two weeks since their last find of tech and three days since stocking up on water and food, both of which were now gone. Still though they treaded forward without pause over the desert; the sun, their unbroken tracks and their warping silhouettes the only things of bearing. Words had escaped them long ago and the two walked side by side in unbroken silence.
With the last crescent of light before nightfall a small mountain range appeared to their right out of the distorting heat rising from the earth which had cloaked it throughout the day and without query or even deciding glances between them the man and the women veered towards it. By dark they had found shelter under a cliff and made camp, leaning against their rucksacks and staring into the sky. Finally the man looked over to her.
“Any fuel left?”
“Quarter of a bottle,” said the woman.
“That’d be enough for half an hour.”
“The processor burnt up. I left the laptop behind this morning.”
“Goddammit. What about the software?”
“I have it on a memory stick.”
In the morning they set off before the sun was fully up to survey the landscape better. On the horizon a tall silver antenna stood upright against the vast flatness mounted on top of a brown platform. By midday they had reached it and upon arriving closer they could see that the platform was the roof of a tower block poking above the sand like a man buried up to his head. The woman toed the floor against the wall and dug away sand to reveal more of the building sinking down through the earth to the lost town below, like a passageway to the dead. Had the sand never reached this high or had this building excavated itself out of the taxidermied settlement beneath?
She stood on his shoulders to reach the roof and entered through the fire escape to the floor below. Sand filled up the stairwell and compacted into an impenetrable bed allowing no further descent than the top floor. She found a hallway window and pried it open to let the man duck and squeeze his way in. They searched each of the five apartments along the corridor, finding little but dust covered furniture too big to be carried. The place had already been overturned and each cupboard they opened was empty save for some piles of dried rotten sludge. They went through bedroom draws looking for any spare parts but there were none. In one of the apartments she found an opened pack of bottled water on the top shelf of a pantry and the two of them drank two bottles straight, each without pause.
“You find any tech?” Asked the man when he had finished.
The woman shook her head. “This place has already been had.”
The final apartment had a padlock fastened shut across the door from the outside. They each in turn tried picking it with a piece of wire but they could not and so the man kicked in the door and broke off the piece of wood holding up the metal hasp. As the door swung open and revealed the inside both of them stood without expression or movement for some time, each expecting the vision to vanish as some deluded incarnation of their very lowest and least anticipated dreams.
Against the far wall amongst a bricolage of salvaged and torn furniture stood a small chipped desk with a laptop sat atop of it. Its charger cable lead to a dubious tangle of black wiring which in turn ran out along the wall to a small generator sat dormant in the corner. Two red petrol cans stood to the side.
“Holy…” The man said.
The woman did not say anything. They treaded over the threshold with caution, still holding the possibility of it disappearing into some cruel mirage and that their slow movements would somehow leave it undisturbed like a skittish animal approached upon without its knowing. The man stood in front of the desk. He lifted the lid of the laptop and picked the machine up at its base, weighing it and looking it over. The woman knelt over the generator.
“Battery’s dead but looks fine,” the man smiled. “I think we struck the mother load.”
“Plenty of fuel,” the woman said. “Someone might come back though.”
“Let’s just get it up and running.”
She got the generator going and the laptop started with a low whir of its fan that eventually lit the screen up with blue. Several inactive minutes went by before a scrambled mess of pixels appeared.
“Shit,” the man said. “Is it broken?”
“It’s encrypted,” the woman said. She held shift, right clicked and opened the command prompt, sliding into the wooden chair under the desk. “I might be able to break it though.”
While she typed the man went into the back room and found a journal on the bedside table of the man who had been there before. The last entry was dated over a year previous and simply read: “Going out for supplies.” The man read from the beginning to see if this person had been here since the great sand storms but there was no mention of it. He read through the whole thing and when he walked back into the living room the woman was still sat hunched over as before.
“I've been trying for hours but I can't get passed the first level of encryption.”
“Well whoevers place this is isn’t coming back.”
Night fell and there was nothing to illuminate the room but the dull beacon of the laptop screen. The man lay on the sofa and was near sleep when she turned around to face him.
“Seems to be. Let’s get it hooked up.”
The man pulled the headset out of his rucksack and plugged it into the machine. She in turn pulled from her bag a slim USB stick and inserted it into the port at the side. She navigated to the folder containing the simulator’s .exe and ran it. She took the headset from him and strapped the goggles over her eyes.
“My turn in an hour?” The man asked.
“Which one do you want?”
He loaded up her simulation. Inside the headset were two screens feeding slightly varying images into each eye. A digital rendering of a pristine road with short clipped grass and tall white houses appeared before the woman. She was stood in the shade of a blossoming blackthorn tree and as her head moved inside the goggles the image on screen moved too. She was low down, the height of a child, and next to her a tall maternal woman smiled back down at her.
“Shall we go to the park?” The mother asked. The woman nodded in response.
The mother stretched out her hand towards her. “Grab my hand.”
She controlled her movement inside the simulation with the keyboard. She took hold of the hand and the two crossed the street together and over a junction towards an open green area at the end. The man left her alone and for a blissful hour she walked through a digital museum of a past age, watching insects perch themselves on leaves and planes flying overhead to destinations unknown. She flew a kite and played hide and seek with the mother. Sat there in darkness succumbing to sensory deprivation of the world around her, she melted into her provisional reality and for a time forgot about the sand and arid nothingness which awaited her on return.
When the man came back she handed the headset over to him and loaded up a simulation of a wedding ceremony where he was the groom. She left him and went into the bedroom and fell into dreamless sleep on the stained and broken mattress.
When she woke the man was gone along with the laptop and the generator. He had taken as much fuel as he could carry but not all of it. For a moment she stood in the sunken emptiness of the apartment listening to nothing and then ran wild and crazed to the roof. His footprints dotted in a straight line out into the distance, clear as they had first been made, but the maker was long gone since the dawn and no figure however small could be made out on the horizon.
She shouted as loud as her lungs would let her and then collapsed to her knees weeping, the rising sun already warming her back and no echo from her voice returning to her.
3rd: The Transit
by Andrea Tan
Docked at the busy terminal, Mag watches the tall man walking towards her cab. He wears an oldfashioned black long coat. Strange, she thinks, I would have sworn there were at least twelve people in front of him in the Tcab queue. Never mind: she opens the side hatch.
‘Hello, I’m Magdalena and I will be your pilot for this drop to Mexico City’, she tells him as he climbs aboard with his
suitcase. His weight makes her Tcab dip slightly, then settle as the engines compensate for the extra load. She glances at him in the mirror. Sixtysomething, pale. Prominent cheekbones, a stern, narrow mouth: humourless. Dark sunglasses. Expensive clothing. Possible healthy tip. Better be jovial, she decides.
‘You can call me Mag. Are you ready for the transit?’ she asks.
The man nods. Mag checks that her glasses are synced to the cab controls, cycling through the predrop checks on the inside of the lenses. All systems good, passenger credit chip green and verified. ‘Vamos’ , she says, maneuvering the Tcab off the terminal dock and into the cobalt blue of the troposphere.
‘Rather remarkable’, the man says looking at the Pilar del Cielo towering outside the windows. Mag smiles. The colossal column elevating the New Juarez Airport to its staggering 6 km from the surface never fails to impress. A smooth leviathan of tensostructures, hangars, advertisements and massive elevators, surrounded by an artificially controlled radius of stabilised weather. Forty years before, the development of tropospheric takeoff aircrafts and of new ultra resistant flexopolymeric compounds had made it possible to create these gargantuan towers all over the world, changing the entire civilian aviation system.
‘You can say that again, Mister. First time here?’ she asks.
‘Yes. Do you ever get any collisions?’ he says, pointing at the dozens of Tcabs like hers dropping all around them, seemingly at random. His voice is deep, a little raucous.
‘Not if the pilots are Defeños – we are locos , but we know our stuff,’ she jokes. ‘You know... born and bred here’, she adds, seeing the passenger’s puzzlement.
‘I see. That’s reassuring’, he replies in that hoarse detached tone of his. She cannot place his accent, despite being quite good at that. She glances at his small suitcase in the mirror. No clues there. She calls his credit details on her lenses. Strange, a glitch. The name field reads blank.
‘I remember my mom telling me about the old airport, when planes took off from the ground’, she says when the silence becomes uncomfortable.
His dark lenses turn to look at her in the mirror. ‘Yes, I am sure Señora Jimenez would remember that’.
She freezes. How? Of course. The surname on her pilot’s badge. Still, pretty observant guy. And creepy. The way he said the name, as if...
She focuses on the flight, to shake off her unease. As the thin clouds fade and the enormous urban sprawl of Mexico City comes into view, she checks the readings and adjusts the asset of the cab with expert fingers. The vertical trajectory softens, the vehicle shifting from free drop to controlled flight with a whirr of the powerful engines.
’On behalf of all 32 millions of us, welcome to Chilangolandia, Mister. The IMECA index is almost acceptable today, you might even survive our pollution’.
In the afternoon light the sky is alive with countless vehicles, flying through and around the plethora of massive holographic projections owned by corporations competing to brand the very air with their gaudy insignia.
The vast ground changes perspective below them, crisscrossed by a thousand lights. The downtown skyscrapers slowly revolve upwards like the fiery fingers of a mighty god who just scattered the peripheral barrios with a capricious gesture: a chaos of unwanted fragments stretching as far as the eye can see.
The passenger removes his sunglasses, takes a handkerchief from his coat pocket and starts cleaning the lenses, without looking away from the spectacle of the megalopolis below. His eyes are a deep brown, with an ironic twinkle at odds with the severity of his mouth.
‘You haven’t given me an address, Mister’, she tells him.
‘Let us just fly over the city for now, Magdalena’, he says folding his glasses neatly in his coat’s breast pocket.
‘You got it’, she says. Something is tingling within her, telling her to be cautious. Maybe it’s nothing, she thinks, just
old habits resurfacing. She decreases the cab speed a little.
‘So, Magdalena. How does a born and bred... Defeña gets to afford one of these cabs?’ the passenger asks moments later. ‘You own this toy, right?’
She glances at him in the mirror. Is that a slight humorous wrinkle, at the corner of his mouth? ‘I took out a loan, Mister, like the rest of us’, she replies.
‘Hmmm. A loan. Naturally. Very entrepreneurial. And tell me, are the healthy tips helping with the instalments?’
She frowns. This is weird. He used that phrase by coincidence. Must have. Shrug it off. ‘Can’t complain, Mister’.
A definite half smile, now. ‘Let’s play a game, Magdalena: let’s pretend, for an instant’
‘I don’t like games’, she cuts him short. She feels her palms sweaty. Who is this guy? Even without looking, she feels his eyes staring at her in the mirror.
‘Pray humour an old man, Mag . Let’s imagine... a story, if you prefer. In our story, the bright young student of a prestigious South American University gets herself noticed for her brilliant but... unorthodox ideas on Physics’.
What is this? She thinks. How can this?
‘Alas, our student soon gets on the nerves of the academic establishment: too bright, too revolutionary. Until the conflict leads to her leaving academia. Let’s say she… accepts an offer to join a big research Corporation in dire need of fresh ideas’.
His eyes in the mirror, unblinking. It cannot be. Think fast, Mag. She scans the live map in her glasses, slows down further.
His raucous voice continues: ‘it turns out so our story goesthat her ideas are too wild even for research, and the
Corporation decides to abandon her several ambitious and expensive projects...’
Mag feels the hair at the back of her head stand on end, as the voice carries on, as if stuck in a nightmare from which she cannot wake.
‘But our heroine is bright. She sees it coming, and decides it is time to disappear in a puff of smoke. But before she does, she... borrows a few selected papers. Confidential papers that would undoubtedly be worth a generous offer from the Corporation’s competitors. At least enough to buy a toy like this and start a new life...’
The autopilot obediently makes a sharp turn in the narrow gap between two buildings and halts to a hover. In a flash, Mag lifts her knees to her chest and swivels her seat 180 degrees. As soon as she is facing the man, she kicks with both legs on his chest, her boots pinning him to the back seat and cutting his breath. In a moment, she is pointing a mini semiautomatic to his head, adrenaline rushing through her veins.
‘Now, pendejo , I call the shots. Who the fuck are you?’
The man smiles, even in his constrained predicament. ‘I take it... you didn’t enjoy... our story?’ he croaks.
‘CUT THE CRAP! What do you want? Why am I not already dead?’ she shouts, her hands shaking.
‘That would be an... unthinkable waste, Mag I mean... Claudia Guzman ’ .
Hearing her real name after all that time is like a punch in the stomach. She kicks again, tears marking her cheeks.
The man coughs. ‘Your Paradox, Claudia. It, it works... ’
‘WWhat? Impossible’, she stiffens, decreasing the pressure on the man’s chest. ‘I tried the core equations a million times. The maths was wrong’.
‘Mathematics is the construct of a finite mind’, the man whispers, ‘what your model is unlocking... is infinity. The
impossible, within our grasp...’
Claudia is confused. She shakes her head. ‘What are you saying? How?’
The man closes his eyes, briefly. Claudia feels a tremor in her hand. The semiautomatic simply comes apart, each component neatly detaching from its neighbour. She gasps, withdraws her hand and feet. The gun stays there for a moment, dismantled in midair like an exploded view of itself. Then it falls.
‘This this is not real...’ she pants.
The man leans forward, looks at her intensely. ‘With the Paradox we can do things like this. And so much more, if you help us understand it fully...’
‘I... I... ’ she stutters, looking wideeyed at the gun scattered in pieces on the floor.
‘We are talking about moving the human race to the next step of evolution’, he says calmly.
He gently takes her shaking hands in his: ‘the next step, Claudia. Are you ready for the transit?’
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Charles Christian was an English barrister, Reuters correspondent-turned editor, author, blogger, podcaster, award-winning tech journalist, storyteller, and sometime werewolf hunter, who sadly passed away in 2022.
Prior to his sudden death he completed one of his largest works to date: The Witches Almanac, the definitive guide on the history of magic and folklore, including 359 of the most important witches and sorcerers in history.
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