Yes, I still have a novel to finish revising. And yes, I have a novella I’m working on releasing myself (more on that later). And yes, the monthly Flash Fiction Challenge run by Cait Gordon is due on Monday.
So what am I doing? Writing another story for a different challenge.
I never said my choices make sense.
In this case, it’s a challenge called Writer in Motion that I found out about via Dan Koboldt on Twitter. He’s the author of Putting the Science in Fiction and also founder of the #SFFpit event. The goal of this is to write and revise a 1,000-word story over the course of a month and document your process. Along the way, you read and share feedback on others’ stories.
The story is based on a photo prompt, which is below:
I wound up writing a story that is a sequel of sorts to another story… which I also haven’t quite finished yet. Do you sense a pattern emerging?
Anyway, without further ado, below is the completely unedited very rough draft. It’s also about twice as long as it’s supposed to be.
Go away, Doyle’s cabin practically shouts at Matt as he tramples through the brush and the weeds. He’s been walking for hours; he figured landing his flyer right outside Doyle’s front door wouldn’t be received well. Besides, it’s a rental; if Doyle’s still packing the same kind of heat he had when they met, Matt can’t afford to pay for damages.
Once he gets to the top of the hill, Matt stops, taking in the view. It’s really beautiful. The sky is just beginning to go purple with dusk, and the green mountains in the distance are misty. If he didn’t know the cabin’s sole occupant was a half-cyborg secret agent from a parallel universe, he might even say it looks peaceful.
He can’t see a door, but as he pauses to take in the view, his attention is drawn to a window. A light is on somewhere in the cabin, and he sees someone moving inside.
Doyle’s grown a beard. Or maybe he’s just let his personal grooming go. Matt likes it, though, and for a moment lets himself imagine how it would feel against his cheek, or maybe his belly.
He shakes his head. Not what he’s here for.
It becomes obvious from his motions that Doyle’s cutting something with a knife; maybe he’s making dinner. He can’t tell for sure, but Matt guesses there’s a sink in front of the window. Doyle’s rinsing something off when he looks up.
There’s one, maybe two seconds when they just stare at each other. Matt sees the flash from the blaster’s barrel a millisecond before the bolt zings past his left ear. By then he’s dropping flat to the ground and stays there while another volley of shots sizzles the air over his head. In the silence that follows, he cranes his neck toward the cabin and shouts.
“Doyle, Doyle. It’s me. Matt.” Maybe Doyle shot at him because he recognized him.
It occurs to him that Doyle may just keep shooting. What he hears next is a door creak open. Heavy footsteps plod rhythmically through the grass. When Matt looks up, a type B worker bot towers above him. It reaches one of its three spindly arms toward him and grabs him by the wrist.
“I have been instructed to bring you to the cabin,” it says, which surprises Matt. They talk? “I have also been instructed not to harm you unless you refuse to comply. Please comply.”
“Okay, I’m complying.” Matt gets to his feet and allows the bot to lead him by the hand toward the cabin. It would look almost motherly if the thing weren’t capable of ripping him in half.
Matt was expecting rustic—okay, squalid—but the inside of the cabin is clean, bright even. The bed in the corner is made, and the sheets and blanket look clean. There’s a couch with a low table in front of it. A kitchen area runs along the back wall where Matt saw Doyle through the window. Steam curls up from a pot on the stove. There’s a small table with four chairs. Doyle sits in one of them, a bottle and two short glasses in front of him.
“You can let him go now, B,” Doyle says. His voice sounds scratchy; from disuse? The bot’s fingers retract, and Matt shakes out his wrist. Doyle nods toward a chair. “Have a seat.”
Matt glances behind him. The bot is staring off into the distance. He wonders what would happen if he bolted for the door, though he’s not about to. He’s been trying to get to this moment for well over a year.
Why is it no surprise that it’s not going like he’d expected?
After Matt sits, Doyle uncaps the bottle and pours them each a drink. He taps his glass against Matt’s where it sits on the table and takes a sip before Matt even picks up his own. It smells like bourbon. Matt lets it wet his lips but doesn’t actually take a drink.
“You’re a hard man to find,” Matt says.
Doyle smirks, as if to say gotcha. He downs the rest of his drink, starts pouring another. “You rented that flyer three days ago. Arrived planetside five days before that. Traveled to each of the three major cities before finally meeting someone who said they knew me. Spent two months on Azati before that, doing not much of anything. Want me to outline your movements for the thirteen months prior to that?”
Matt shakes his head. “I was there, thanks.” He takes a real sip from his glass, his eyes flicking to the bot, which still stands in the middle of the room. “Is it just going to stand there all night?”
“B, go sit down on the couch and enter standby mode.”
The bot’s head swivels toward Doyle and nods almost imperceptibly. “Yes, Mister Doyle.”
“Nice friend you have there,” Matt says once the bot is situated in the middle of the couch and its eyes dim. “Where did you pick him up?”
Doyle shakes his head, as if to say that’s the wrong question. “Why are you here? I thought you didn’t want anything to do with me.”
Matt looks down at the table, turns the glass and pretends to think, but his mind is a blank. He’s rehearsed all the different ways he could explain himself, try to outline why he was wrong and why he should be given another chance, and he can’t remember a single damn one of them.
Something smells acrid. He looks up.
“Your dinner’s burning.”
Doyle glances behind. The pot on the stove is bubbling over, the liquid sizzles and burns as it hits the hot surface. Cursing, Doyle shoves his chair back and lurches to his feet. That’s when Matt notices his hand. Or rather, his arm. Doyle’s left hand is gone.
“Doyle.” Matt moves toward him, only to find Doyle’s right hand at his neck. Matt doesn’t move, tries not to even blink. He’s seen what Doyle’s hands can do.
“Don’t move up like that on a man who’s been trained like me.”
“Sorry.” Matt tries to swallow but Doyle’s grip is too hard for that. “For everything, Doyle. I’m sorry.”
The hard set of Doyle’s mouth doesn’t change—but the eyes, they tell a different story. Doyle lets him go and turns back to the stove.
“Let me clean this up.”
He moves the pot to a back burner and turns off the front element. Once the flames die out, he takes a rag and runs it under the faucet, then wipes up the mess.
“Are you hungry? I made plenty.”
“No, I’m—what happened to your hand?”
Doyle looks down as if he’s just noticed that his left arm ends in an empty sleeve. “It’s over there.” He cocks his head in the general direction of the bed, but Matt doesn’t see it lying out in plain sight. “I fell a couple months ago. Hasn’t worked right since. It was interfering with all my touch sensors so I took it off. I’d get it fixed, but you may have noticed there aren’t a lot of cybertechs around here.”
“Doyle,” Matt says, softly, “what are you doing here?”
Doyle laughs. “Other than falling apart? Not much.”
He puts one bowl of stew on the table, then another. Grabs two spoons from a drawer and they both sit. Matt eats a little—it’s gamey, a layer of grease floating on top—before setting his spoon down.
“I don’t see how you go from me reacting badly to turning your life into a hermit’s existence on this nowhere planet with a whopping three major cities in the entire world.”
Doyle has been working through his bowl with workmanlike dedication. Not gusto, just something he has to do in order to get on to the next thing. Now, he looks up his spoon hovering above the bowl. He takes the bite before dropping the spoon in the bowl with a splat.
“Oh, I see. You think all this,” he waves his hand around the cabin, “is just about you and your reaction to finding out I was half machine from a parallel universe and the little fact that you have the same face as my ex-husband’s?”
He waits long enough for the silence to get uncomfortable. In the face of Matt’s silence, he goes on.
“You’d think the universe would be big enough that I’d be safe from running into anyone who looks like people I knew or cared about from back home, right? But it kept happening, one right after the other. It was like, like I was some kind of magnet drawing them to me. And I got sick of seeing ghosts every time I turned around. So don’t criticize my choices. Don’t. D-don’t. Don’t—”
Doyle’s head twitches, his eyes go a little blank, and his arm thumps against the table. Electricity arcs around his forearm. Soon, all of Doyle is twitching. He slides off his seat and collapses to the floor, his body shaking and jerking.
Matt’s chair topples when he leaps from it. It takes conscious effort to back away from Doyle when he really wants to hold him still and stop the seizure. He turns toward the couch.
“Maintenance bot, activate!” He’s not even sure it will respond to his voice commands, so it’s a relief when its eyes light up and it rises to its feet.
“Ready to receive—oh.” It looks toward its owner, convulsing on the floor, and moves toward him. It stands motionless over him for one, maybe two seconds. Matt wants to scream do something. Before he can, the bot bends over and grasps Doyle’s forearm. The electrical current slithers up the bot’s own arm and then abruptly stops. Doyle’s convulsions stop, like flipping a switch. Gingerly, the bot lifts Doyle from the floor and carries him to the bed, where it lays him down before sitting on the edge of the bed itself. The mattress sags precipitously under its weight.
“Has this happened before?” Matt asks.
“It has not,” the bot replies. “It appears to be the same malfunction that occurred in Mister Doyle’s hand approximately one month ago.”
“Can you repair him?”
“I am a model SC class B maintenance bot. I am designed to conduct maintenance and repair on heavy FTL drive cooling systems. Repairing cybernetic implants is not part of my program.”
“B’s aren’t supposed to be able to talk, either, but apparently your program’s been augmented.”
“That is correct. I am still unable to repair him.”
Matt gets up. “I have a flyer about a mile from here. We can take him—”
“Mister Doyle has expressed a desire not to leave this place.”
“Did he command you to make sure he stayed here?”
The bot looks up. “He did not.”
“What is your command protocol?”
It looks back toward the figure lying on the bed. “I am to look after Mister Doyle.”
“Are his injuries life threatening?”
“Probability of fatal outcome if left unrepaired is approximately seventy-four point two percent.”
“Is letting him die looking after him?”
The bot looks up at Matt, then back at Doyle. If Doyle were conscious, Matt is almost certain he would order the bot to leave him there and let him die.
The bot gets up, leans over the bed, and picks up Doyle again. “There is a cybernetic technician in Callanish. I will carry Mister Doyle to your flyer.”
Matt follows the bot to the door, where it turns the knob with its third arm. “If he wakes up before we get to the flyer, he might want you to bring him back here.”
“The likelihood of that is approximately ninety-nine percent,” the bot says. “Let us move quickly.”