Monday, 15 September 2014

Sci Fi Short: Boundary

You Shall Not Pass

“John, what have you found?” Ann asked, running up the sandy path between the dunes.

“I don't know.” John replied.

He stood just staring at the view across the dunes as the wind whipped up his blond hair and billowed his knee-length khaki shorts. She caught up with him and stopped a few steps behind.

“So why have you stopped?”

“Because I had to. I can't go any further.”


“Not really. It's strange, there's some kind of invisible barrier.”

“Invisible what?” she said, peeling some stray hairs away from her eyes.

“Look at this.”

She watched him bend over and scoop a handful of sand from the dune underfoot. Loose, dry sand ran between his fingers and blew away in the strong sea breeze. He closed his fingers around the sand, raised it up and tossed it quickly at the path ahead of them. Some blew away but much of it flew in a loose cloud for a couple of feet and then simply vanished, in mid air.

Ann stared in disbelief. It looked for all the world as if the sand had just spontaneously ceased to exist. John walked back a few feet and picked up a dried out stick that was embedded in the dune. He moved back to where he was standing before and flung the stick into the air. Again, after a couple feet, it just blinked off.

“That's crazy!” she said.

“Look at this then.” he replied and leapt forwards with as much force as he could muster.

Ann shrieked and reached out for him, expecting him to vanish too, but instead he just seemed to hit a soft barrier, stopping him gently and then letting him drop vertically back to the ground. He turned around to face her and shrugged.

“What the hell is it?” she asked.

“I haven't got the faintest, but we can't continue in this direction.”

“Do they have technology to do this now?”

“It's been 180 years since we were frozen. Who knows what technology they have?” he replied.

He walked back to stand beside her.

“So what do we do now?” she asked.

“I think exploring in this direction is strictly off the menu. Maybe if we head down to the water's edge again and head along that way? I can't imagine this barrier extends over the water.”

“Excuse me!” called a voice from a distance down the path behind them, “Excuse me!”

They turned to see who was calling, surprised to find a weasely-looking man, dressed in what looked just like a lab coat. He was stumbling over uneven sand wearing inappropriate black leather shoes. He trudged closer to them and then tried to shake the sand off his shoes.

“Who are you?” asked John.

“I'm not. At least...don't worry about that. I won't be here long.”

“Where did you come from?” asked Ann, visually sweeping the beach for his footprints, but they appeared to simply start from where he first called to them.

“You shouldn't be here.” the odd man said.

“Why? Is it private property?” asked John.

“I don't see any signs.” added Ann.

“Look, just turn round, head back down to the beach and don't come this way again. Just forget about it.”

“Forget about it?! You've got an invisible barrier – how can we forget about that?”

“I really don't want to have to explain this.” said the man.

He looked extremely stressed, and rubbed the sides of his face while looking back at the beach and then back to them.

“This isn't supposed to happen. You two have walked almost twenty kilometres from the nearest settlement. There's nothing here at all! What made you walk this far?”

“The scenery.” replied Ann, “Look at the view. The peace. Nobody else around for kilometres. Getting to walk where no-one has set foot, possibly for years.”

“Or ever, in this case.” replied the odd man.

“Ever!” she exclaimed.

“How can you possibly know that.” laughed John, “You know that things thrown towards this barrier just vanish without trace?”

“Yes, yes, but that's not important. I'm corrupting the program just being here, but we need to persuade you to leave here and go back the other way. Come back in a few days then there will be somewhere to go.”

“A few days?” said Ann, “Are you switching off the barrier then?”

“No. Yes. Not really. It's not a barrier as such.”

“Well it stops us passing this point.” said John, “I want to walk over there and it won't let me. That sounds like a barrier to me.

“No. You can't walk over there because there is no over there.”

“No over there!? I can see over there!” said John.

“No, there isn't.” replied the man beginning to sound irritated. “It just looks like there is an over there. It's necessary to maintain the illusion.”

“What illusion?” asked Ann.

“Is there actually something here, being hidden by stealth technology?” asked John.

“No, there's really nothing there at all. It does not exist.”

“How can it not exist?” laughed John.

“Now I'm saying much more than I should. Can't you just move away from there, set off in the other direction along the beach and simply forget about this. It will be much easier for all involved.”

“You're serious, aren't you?” asked John.

“Yes. It's the end of my shift in less than twenty minutes and I'm going to get in trouble for this. You ignored all the cues and now it's a problem.”

“What do you mean by cues?” asked Ann.

“The temperature dropping, the wind picking up. We made it look like it was about to rain.”

“You made it?”

“I'm really making a mess of this. I am going to get into so much trouble. I'm not even supposed to be in here.”

“In here?” said John.

“There I go again. I think we're going to have to extract you, adapt your memories and put you back somewhere better.”

“What are you talking about? I want to know just what is going on.”

“Okay, if I show you, will you agree to make no fuss when we put this right.”

“No fuss? I'm not going to agree to anything before I know who and what you are.” replied John.

“I've really messed this up.” said the odd man.

“So who are you?”

“Okay. Don't freak out on me or anything. My name is Brak, I work for Cryonics International Inc.”

“The company we had our death insurance with.” said John.

“The same. After your death we had your head on ice for 179 years.”

“Yes, I know that. You defrosted me and sorted out a new body last year.”

“Yes. Well, no. We didn't. That wasn't deemed ethical or practical.” replied Brak.

“So what's this?” asked John, jabbing his own chest with his fingertips.

“That is the same as everything else around here. It's a simulation within a powerful computer network in the basement of our head office building.” He pulled a small tablet computer out of one of his pockets and tapped on the screen several times. To their utter amazement the vista behind them of rolling dunes giving way to darker, greener hills just blinked off, leaving a flat, pink blank area.

“Simulation?” said Ann.

“Yes. Earth, the Moon and Mars all have too many people already. It was deemed unethical to add thousands more people to the population just because they paid to be preserved. The last thing we need is more people.”

“So this isn't real?” said John.

“No, we could bring you back, grow you a new body and insert your consciousness into it, but too many people objected. CII thought it was unethical to just keep you frozen indefinitely and it was hardly cost effective to keep 123,000 heads and bodies near absolute zero for no purpose than complying with a contract signed almost two centuries ago.”

“So what did you do?” asked John, beginning to feel sick.

“Scanned all the brains, recreated the minds and put them into a simulated world. That way you can all live out your natural life-span without adding any more people to the real population. It was a solution that kept everyone happy.”

“Except me!” said Ann, “I'm not real! And none of this is real?! That's not what I wanted at all. This isn't how I want to live.”

“You're just as real as the world around you.” replied Brak.

“But I know it's not real at all.” she said.

“Don't worry about that. You won't know that once we've extracted you.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Sorry, no time to explain. Shift change-over is coming up soon and I've got to get this problem sorted out before then. I'll do my best changing your memories, but I apologise in advance if I leave any glitches.”

“Glitches?” said John.

“You know, things that don't tie up, bits you can't remember. I'll do as neat a job as I can, but there isn't much time. Now let's extract you first.”

- - -

John awoke suddenly, feeling uncomfortably warm in the full-strength of the afternoon sun. He opened his eyes and squinted at the scene around him. Everything seemed normal. He was lying on one of the hotel's sun loungers, on the beach. He looked across at Ann. She was still asleep.

“You awake?” he said.

She groaned.

“You awake?” he repeated.


“Just wondering if you are awake?”

“I am now.” she replied, “I was having the weirdest dream about a stick disappearing in mid air.”

“Did we plan anything for this afternoon?”

“No, but I'm fed up of just lying around.”

“What do you want to do?” he asked.

“Let's go for a walk."


  1. Signing in from G+, I had to make sure you wanted edits. Some people get narked. I've replaced with my suggestions.
    1) she asked, running ... since it is the first time she is speaking, 'she' should be replaced by her name (Elmore Leonard said this first)
    2) “I don't know,” he replied. ... there's another instance of that.
    3) John stared at the view across the dunes. The wind whipped up his blond hair and billowed his knee-length khaki shorts.
    4) She stopped a few steps behind him. (Also should be tacked onto end of previous paragraph. It's all her action and speech.)
    5) She watched him bend over and scoop a handful ... this sentence changes to her POV. You could say, She watched as he bent ...
    6) Ann stared in disbelief. It looked for all the world as if the sand had just spontaneously ceased to exist. ... again in her POV. Because this happens only a couple of times it is not possible to read this as an omniscient POV story. And anyway a short story is too short for proper unfolding of the omniscient voice. Makes for a stronger story to keep it in third person limited, IE one POV. (This is of course only my opinion)
    7) picked up a dried out stick that was embedded ... picked up suggests it is lying on the sand
    8) then.” he replied = then,” he said ... 'said' is held to be invisible to readers, 'replied' trips them up
    9) the Hell is it?” she = hell
    10) black, leather = black leather
    11) here.” the odd ... as above, and another 14 instances of it.
    12) centuries ago”. = centuries ago."
    13) change in coming = is coming

  2. Thanks for taking the time to go through it like that. I always value constructive feedback.

    I agree with most of your points.

    9) is interesting. I was always taught to use a capital as it is a name. The BBC website often gives it a capital but the Observer style guide (the reference guide that most places here refer to) says it should always be lower-case, agreeing with you. I'm wondering if the accepted norm has changed in the last couple of decades?

    8) For me 'said' is only invisible if not used too much. If you get 6-8 of them in a row the pattern begins to jar badly. I've always seen "replied" as being almost on a par with "said", both are used frequently and are unobtrusively bland.

    4) 10), 12) and 13) Agree unreservedly and have changed.

    7) It is lying on the sand, but embedded, NOT buried or under the surface. Using "pick up" seems perfectly natural to me in that situation. If he had to dig it out I agree it would be wrong.

    5) I'm coming to the conclusion I don't understand POV at all (in the prose sense). I thought that was still his point of view as he can see her do that, it's not giving any knowledge that he doesn't already have access to and doesn't expose her thoughts or emotions. I think your suggestion works ("She watched as..."), but I don't get how it changes (or doesn't change) the POV? I've also been trying to get away from using "pronoun verb as pronoun verb" because I've been told I use it far too much.

    1), 2) and 3) I agree. It's his POV so he'll know his own name and his partner's. If I give Brak's name before he tells them, it will break the POV.

    Thanks again for your comments. I've made most of the changes now.