On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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I’ve been accused of writing stuff that’s invariably dark, and it’s a fair cop.
I start out with ideas that are usually an attempt to subvert a trope or a genre, or at least to take an uncommon approach to a familiar scene. The goal is to explore, and see if there are some different angles, because they tend to confer perspective. Most stories are quite rightly conventional, and our conventions are quite rightly positive on the whole — so taking a left turn instead has a habit of producing darker material. Maybe, and indeed probably, it says more about me than it does about popular fiction in general. I can live with that.
I swear I’ll surprise you with a romance tale at some point, but it won’t be today.
Ledford stood on the wrong side of the safety barrier, arms slightly behind him and holding onto the railing, looking down at the water so far below.
This evening had been a long time coming. First there had been his father’s death, and then the ill-advised tryst at the office party that ended up getting him fired, and then the problems with the roof of the house, and then the damned operation on his knee, and all the rest of it. Life had a way of wearing a man down, and then kicking him once he was there.
Alcohol had been his initial and instinctive solution, and like most solutions it quickly stopped giving and started taking instead. Another problem to add to the list. When you thought about it, there was only one remedy that presented no possibility of becoming a new source of misery as long as you carried it out properly, and that thought had been drifting around in his mind for months now. And so here he was, at a little past two o’clock in the morning, on a gigantic and currently deserted four-lane suspension bridge almost two miles in total length. The water far below was choppy, only a few degrees above freezing, and from this vantage point looked like exactly what it was: a portal to another world.
Ledford had left his phone switched on in his pocket as a gesture of consideration towards the police scuba divers who would presumably be sent to recover his body; perhaps they could use it to approximately locate him. The email note he’d left would automatically be delivered to a few of his close friends at six the following morning. He had wondered a few times what their reaction would be, but he knew that when the time came he wouldn’t care anymore.
It was cold, and his arms were getting a little tired, and it seemed like now was as good a time as any. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the fresh night air, and closed his eyes.
“Nice night for a suicide,” said a voice from behind him.
Ledford almost let go in sheer fright, and as he felt his pulse skyrocket, a small part of his mind wondered if there wasn’t perhaps something significant about his own reaction. Carefully, he half-turned to see who the hell was there.
A man stood a couple of metres from him, behind the railing, with his hands in the pockets of a black woollen coat. He was average-looking, in a vaguely unlikely sort of way, and his facial expression betrayed nothing at all.
“If you’re some kind of good Samaritan then you might not want to startle me like that,” Ledford snapped, and the man just shrugged.
“I just want to talk to you for a few minutes,” he said. “Then you can make your choice whether to go for a swim or not. Do you want to hear the statistics on death versus serious and life-changing injury for this kind of jump?”
“No I bloody don’t,” Ledford muttered, turning away again to look at the water. It seemed much farther away now, and he gripped the handrail with panicky tightness. His palms were getting sweaty.
“That’s fine,” the stranger replied. “I probably wouldn’t either, in your position.”
Ledford stayed quiet for a minute or so, and the other man seemed content to wait. Eventually, Ledford shook his head.
“Just say your piece and then leave me alone,” he said.
“Deal,” the man said, and then he did something that Ledford didn’t expect. The stranger walked forward, passing through the railing as if it weren’t there, and he continued walking directly out over the vast chasm until he was a few metres in front of Ledford, before finally turning to look at him. He had walked as if he was on solid ground, and he now stood on nothing at all. His hands were still in his coat pockets.
“Jesus,” Ledford said, his skin prickling all over.
“That was on water, not air,” the other man said, but Ledford could only gawp at him. It took him half a minute to gather his wits sufficiently back together to talk.
“Are you… are you a…?”
“No,” the man said. “of course not. Your religions and spiritual belief systems are stupid and laughable. They’re all made-up nonsense, and you know it. I’m nothing like that. Angels don’t exist.”
“But you’re going to ask me not to do this,” Ledford said, and the other man tilted his head slightly, in an ambivalent gesture. The breeze coming in from the ocean caught his hair, and it was this minor detail that cemented the reality of the situation for Ledford.
“I’m asking you to consider the greater good,” the man said. “The much, much greater good. I represent a significantly larger organisation than you’ve ever been familiar with.”
“You look just like some bloke on the street,” Ledford said, with wonder in his voice now, but the man just gave a dismissive shake of the head.
“Most of my specific appearance here is down to you,” he said. “I’m what you expected to see when you turned to find who had spoken to you. That’s all.”
Ledford didn’t understand, but he knew that the man’s appearance wasn’t the crucial issue at the moment. “A larger organisation?” he asked, and the stranger nodded.
“In the physical sense,” he replied. “Not a business or anything like that. An organised structure within a system. Within the system, in fact. Mr. Ledford, I’m here from the cosmos. And this killing-yourself stuff just won’t do.”
“It… won’t do,” Ledford repeated dully, still struggling with what the man, who was suspended hundreds of metres in the air, had just said.
“If there’s one thing we love — and by we I literally mean the universe — it’s entropy. I’m not sure whether you understand what I mean by that?”
Ledford thought for a moment, and then nodded, but with some uncertainty. “I think it means, well, randomness. Unpredictability.”
The stranger gave a short nod, which effortlessly conveyed the sense that the answer wasn’t quite correct, but was sufficiently so to be acceptable.
“It used to be that the most entropic human was a dead human, believe me,” he said. “Decaying biological material, matter and energy. Dust to dust. But that stopped being true a little while ago.”
Ledford frowned with a silent question, and the man answered it immediately. “A century or two ago,” he said. “Now, you’re engines of entropy. You create chaos — really you remove thermal energy from availability — at a fine old rate. And we love that. We appreciate it. It’s our number one goal for everything and everywhere, as a matter of fact. So you see our problem.”
It was ludicrous, but it made sense. It made at least as much sense as throwing yourself off a bridge in the middle of the night, and that was the baseline Ledford was coming from at the moment.
“Entropy,” Ledford said, and the man nodded slowly, as if to a child.
“Hence the intervention,” the stranger replied. “And I hope you appreciate how counter to our values it was to even organise into me in the first place, so I can interact with you at this level. It’s not pleasant.”
Ledford just shook his head, for the sake of having something to do. The man was still speaking.
“So my message to you is this: dare to stay alive, for as long as the system allows. Do it for whatever reason you like. Do it to spite your loved ones, or something like that; it seems to be a popular reason here. But just let your period of being a coalesced human play out on its own. You’d be doing us a huge favour. And with that, I’ll get out of your way.”
Without hesitating for a moment, the man turned and began to walk away, but he had taken barely two steps before he began to dissipate, breaking apart in a violent but very short-lived disturbance of the atmosphere. It was like watching a firework malfunction and fizzle without ever flying up into the sky. And then he was gone.
Ledford stood there for several minutes, letting his heart rate come down.
Then he climbed back over the railing.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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