Exploring morality in fiction- or why Catherine is great

I’m on the brink of exhaustion as you can probably imagine.

Getting married in a matter of weeks, preparing to move to London, starting a new job, still trying to meet my writing schedule. It’s as if a giant pair of hands have grabbed me, squeezed and won’t let go.

Each evening and weekend is jampacked with activities and usually they are not fun ones. Updating the spreadsheet on wedding invites, financially planning the first few months in London so we don’t go beyond our means, checking the duties of my new role, proving more documentation to the letting agency. Not fun.

I don’t have the energy to do very much. Probably the best example of that is my eating habits of late. I love my food, my meals are the highlight of the day. The good company of my fiancée and just enjoying the food, lovely. We have a bit of a duty roster, she makes the amazing meals, I do the cleaning and keep the flat in good order, we’re happy with that arrangement. Lately though, we have been ordering food in from pretty meh take away places and I have equally dropped the ball and need to give the flat a serious tidy. We are too tired.

I took a long weekend off work to try and gather myself and decompress after the whirlwind of changes. My better half is visiting her mother, so it was a chance for some time to sleep, relax, catch up on a few things. It’s Sunday and I do feel like I am getting my breath back now, got tomorrow off as well.

Given how exhausted I am, it would be pretty hard for a story to properly catch my attention through the haze.

One did however.

Catherine, the game.

The main premise of this romantic horror is you play a young man, Vincent, who has had a one night stand. How you handle the situation, and other people in general, goes on to form the main narrative of the game, giving you plenty of choices throughout. Worst of all, there is a rumour going around of a curse, “The Woman’s Wrath,” cheating men are being found dead all across the city. There is an eerie supernatural edge to the story which I loved, no surprise there.

I idly gave it a go and got totally absorbed in the exploration of morality. I was tired, I didn’t really want an interactive medium per se but I was fascinated by the story and moral choices presented. I played on and couldn’t put it down.

I enjoy playing games, especially role playing games. Most explore morality but in a fairly cartoonish way. You can be a deranged dark lord or a saint, with little in the middle. In these kinds of stories, I almost always go the evil route. It’s true, I end up the moustache twirling villain, whether it is Mass Effect, KOTOR, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout. Part of the fun in choosing the evil option is the outrageous results that can come from it.

Here are some of the most sadistic decision I made in gaming

  • I flooded a mine in Baldur’s Gate, damaging the enemy yes, but I made no effort to evacuate the slave workers.
  • In Fallout, I entered a plague into the new water supply to ensure that it would be undrinkable for mutants.
  • In The Wolf Among Us, I killed the villain of the game on the spot rather than take him back for a fair trial.

Given my brutality in these games, you would expect that playing this game, I would go the jerk option. Cheat on your girlfriend, be a total scumbag, gleefully be hooking up with the girl on the side, being a terrible friend.

However, I wasn’t.

The choices felt so real, so relatable, I was really in the shoes of the character. The same guy who mercilessly crushed the Galactic Republic and established an evil empire, killing countless millions, couldn’t bring himself to lie in a text to the girl.

A lesson I took from this is when we deal with moral issues that are relatable, it can have more of an impact and be more interesting. I can’t imagine what it is like to be an all powerful hero and having to make a moral decision that will determine the fate of an empire. Not really. It can still be fun, a bit of a power fantasy I suppose, but I don’t really understand it. However, Vincent in Catherine, trying to salvage a relationship, I get that, I understand that in a very real sense.

When it comes to morality in fiction, bigger isn’t always better. The fate of nations and the universe can be less interesting than Vincent trying to deal with the fact he had a one night stand.

It is certainly something I will keep in mind for my own fiction writing.

Short Story: Spore

Monday is a tough day, treat yourself to this horror short story for free. Part of the soon to be released Vermin Anthology.

***

SPORE

“Stop. Look will you just to stop and talk to me. Please, stop.”

She powered on past me, through the crowd, speed walking as quickly as she could. She was barefoot and dressed only in cheese and sauce stained pyjamas, drawing some amused looks from the people on the busy street, but she didn’t even give them a second glance.

“Will you stop,” I shouted again, but to her I was a phantom.

Angelica was only five foot and part of me thought I could physically throw her over my shoulder and march back to the house, but I was too taken aback by the bizarre behaviour. What on earth was she doing?

Only an hour ago we were sitting together on the couch, Netflix on, munching our way through an inhumanly large pizza that really should have served four. Four people with serious appetites at that. I had to hand it to Angelica, she was keeping up with me which was unusual. Normally, being the glutton I am, I would devour the pizza, delighted as a pig rolling in mud. She would nibble her way through a slice, maybe two if she was feeling especially hungry.

I suppose it was to do with our different jobs. I worked in human resources, so being a slightly rotund, jovial sort, wasn’t a deal breaker. On the contrary, it seemed to put people at ease. I’ve read all these studies about how attractive people are perceived as more confident and put people at ease. I haven’t found that to be true at all. People feel intimated by overtly attractive people, it makes them hesitant to open up, the guards are raised immediately. So not being a striking Adonis can actually be beneficial, I’m not just saying that bitterly because I’m fat and prematurely balding either.

Angelica (never Angie or An, always Angelica, and we have been married for five years) was the embodiment of fitness. No wonder, she was a personal trainer.

Recently though, she had been facing a dilemma. I’m forty and she is thirty five, although in my opinion she still looks twenty, When I tell her that, she rolls her eyes in mock annoyance but gives a little smile to herself.

The issue was that, god forbid, she was getting older.

You didn’t see many fifty year old personal fitness trainers. She told me when people met their personal trainer, you should resemble what they want to be, an ideal version of female fitness and beauty. Crow’s feet and wrinkles weren’t part of the package. People could be shallow.

For the first time, she began to really think about her future and it worried her. She would toss and turn all night while I pretended to be asleep- if she knew she was keeping me awake, she would feel guilty and I didn’t want that.

Both futures looming ahead of her were equally horrible. She would be some broken down, exhausted physical trainer who got the pity assignments and made the other young, nubile trainers look better. Or she would end up in an office. To me, that might not sound so bad, but we aren’t talking about me (heck, I like offices). At every point in her life, she had made choices to keep her away from a desk and working 9-5. Takes all kinds to make the world turn, I like that stability and routine, she doesn’t. Fair enough.

The thing about being a personal trainer, there aren’t really a lot of transferable skills to be honest. It’s a pretty specific skillset you have there.

Angelica felt trapped and I hated seeing her like that, it was driving her to distraction.

We had a bit of luck though, just when we felt things would never get better.

I was meeting one of the company’s employees, soon to be ex-employees, in order to ensure a smooth transition. He was a good guy, friendly, and it wasn’t contentious, he just had a better job lined up. Good for him.

“What’s next?” I asked him, conversationally while we got all his documents signed in my private office. I don’t get a private office because I’m important by the way, I’m a tiny, tiny cog. It’s only because HR stuff needs some privacy to function. Hard to say your boss is bullying you when he is two chairs away.

“The government is hiring forest rangers, get some fresh air, bit of fun, stretch my legs.”

“Rangers? Huh. What qualifications do you need for that?”

He looked over at my gut, bulging over the table, “No offence…but you need to be fit.”
“Funny smartass, it’s for my wife and she gets a big tick in that box.”

“That’s really it. Ability to work independently is a big bonus as we spend a lot of time by ourselves.”

“What is it you do?”

“Catalogue all the various animals we find evidence of. Sometimes they ask us to try and find a specific kind if they believe maybe it has went extinct. Usually bugs, nothing big.”

“Hmm interesting. Any more openings?”

“Dozens man, they can’t fill them all.”

I told Angelica about it. She wouldn’t be at a desk, her fitness would be an asset, her ability to fill her own roster of clients as a personal trained would be seen as effective self-management. She would walk into that job.

She applied, nailed the interview and after a few tense days, got the job.

She explained to me that the Scottish Government was obsessed with the environment for a few reasons, some good, some selfish. They wanted to preserve the countryside because it was one of the main draws for tourists to Scotland which made the country money. That’s good. It was also a way to keep the Green Party quiet, who the government needed to keep on their side given the amount of seats they hold in Holyrood. That’s a bit more selfish.

She loved her new job and it made me happy to see her sleeping soundly. Angelica was excited to go to work in the mornings, sometimes she had to stay overnight for a few days cataloguing the insects that lurked in the Scottish countryside.

I did feel a pang of jealously when I saw some of her photos. She was the only woman in the group as far as I could see and was spending her days surrounded by chiselled, handsome guys who looked like they stepped out of a Calvin Klein advert. It wasn’t hard to imagine some of them creeping into her sleeping bag.

It wasn’t serious doubts, she would never do that, but your mind is a sadistic monster.

Her routine was always the same, she would get home, normally in the evening, flop down on the couch next to me. I would have started dinner for her getting home. No offence to Angelica, she wasn’t much of a cook. After we ate, straight to bed (sex being reserved for weekday evenings).

We settled into our new, happier routine.

The only blip was one weekend when she was sent to find some possible extinct caterpillar. She hadn’t found any of the creepy crawlies and ticked the big extinct box on her iPad. When she came home though, she was a bit ill, as if she had a touch of the flu. I assured her it was psychological, she was stressed at having failed to find the insect, the first time she hadn’t managed to do so. She should take it easy for a few days and she would be right as rain.

She agreed and had a few days well-earned holiday.

Then the night came that changed everything.

As I was saying, we were getting tucked into an insanely large and greasy pizza. Angelica had insisted we order it to my surprise. A pleasant surprise, she normally forced me to eat healthy.

She almost ripped the delivery guy’s hand off and plopped it on the table.

Angelica ate the first slice in a single bite almost, while it was still piping hot.

“Slow down babe, enough pizza to go around,” I laughed.

She shovelled a second into her mouth.

Then a third.

I wasn’t laughing anymore.

“Stop,” I said firmly, having no idea what was going on.

She ate another slice, almost choking as she forced it down her throat.

“Stop it right now,” I shouted.

She did stop, looking at me with utter confusion. I didn’t know what to say, so I tried to put on my HR smile and gave a fake laugh, “you will give yourself a tummy ache, don’t want that.”

She continued, paying no attention to my objections.

“How about I run you a bath babe?”

Don’t ask me why, that is always my solution when a problem comes up. Running a bath does tend to relax her in my defence, very few things put Angelica at ease but that is one of them.

She stood up, ramrod straight, eyes wide.

Then she began walking to the door, with forced, almost comical exaggeration. Her trembling hand tugged at the door several times before she undid the lock. She opened it and stepped out into the flat corridor, making her way down the stairs. I threw on my jacket and a pair of shoes, running after her as fast as I could.

Here we are now, she walked down the high street and was now heading to the top of the shopping centre, where the open air carpark overlooked the streets.

She pushed by anyone in her way, eliciting a group of teenage girls to shout, “watch where you’re going, you stupid bitch.”

“And get a pair of fucking shoes,” one of them added, giggling.

Like everything else, she didn’t give the girls a second thought, marching on over all obstacles. Soon enough she was climbing the stairwell as if her life depended on it.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed her arm and pulled, this foolishness was over. I had no idea what she was trying to prove but it had gone too far. She resisted, a toned arm elbowed me brutally in the chest. She hadn’t held back, that was with every ounce of strength. Wheezing, I buckled on the floor and wretched up blood. I think she broke one of my ribs.

She wouldn’t turn round to see if I was okay, she kept that unstoppable march, heading up the stairs towards the top level of the carpark. It was about eight floors up, one of the tallest buildings in Edinburgh, but she was bounding up them.

Despite the agony, the fire in my lungs, I hauled my bulk up and went after her. I managed to keep pace with her, pleading with Angelica to stop.

“Please, talk to me, what’s happening?”

Now I realised how much of a trance she was in. Her eyes were wide, watering, tears pouring although her jaw was locked and her legs never stopped marching forward.  A patch of urine had formed on her crotch and was running down her leg and she whimpered pitifully to herself. She was terrified.

Even if she couldn’t make a peep her eyes were screaming.

She walked across the car park without a second thought, ignoring angry honking drivers. My own steps were becoming more laboured, I think she really did break a rib. My imagination turned a simple stich from over exertion into a splintered bone rubbing at my insides.

She reached the edge, climbed up on the rail.

For a brief moment, I was afraid she was going to hurl herself from the top of the carpark to the streets below. We were so high up, no way she would survive that, they would be scraping her off the pavement. My beautiful Angelica, a broken corpse, I couldn’t bear the thought.

“Don’t, don’t Angelica,” I howled, so hoarse with desperation everyone in the vicinity turned to look, “for god’s sake, please don’t.”

She stood perfect still, holding her arms open wide, as if she was waiting for something.

There was an eruption of colour from her head, a bang that was as loud as a hand grenade. The brightly coloured particles, reds, purples, yellows, like a gruesome rainbow were caught in the wind and blew down over the crowded streets below.

The particles poured out of her as her skin she crumpled. Her burst, limp body collapsed in a heap, like an empty garbage bag.

I didn’t even know I had witnessed the beginning of the end of the world…

FACT

In the summer of 2017, a phenomena in the UK was witnessed in Lancashire and brought to public awareness by Dr Chris Miller of the Lancashire Wilderness Trust. Caterpillars had become infected with the baculovirus. This meant the mad caterpillars they would eat until they were full to bursting, climb up as high as they could get in the sunlight (bizarre behaviour for the ground dwelling insects) and then explode, showering others with the virus on the ground below.

Experts said this virus poses no threat to humans.

 

Problems with modern fantasy writing- and solutions

If it wasn’t for Dungeons and Dragons, I wouldn’t be a writer today. One of my earliest memories is sitting with my friends, knee deep in our most recent campaign. It would normally be at my house on the weekend as my parents would be happy to sacrifice the living room, even if they didn’t quite understand how our game worked.

There would be dozens of cans of coke, sweets like strawberry laces, mars bars, snickers (my teeth hurt now thinking about how much sugar we devoured). We would all be joking and laughing, then I would clear my throat when it was time to start the adventure.

Silence would fall over the group as the adventure started. Seeing the genuine enjoyment on my friends faces as they cut their way through my admittedly remedial stories was a thrill for me, I felt so proud. In terms of the stories being totally by the numbers fantasy, cut me some slack, I was sixteen! Dark Lords, orc legions, a small group of prophesied heroes, it was great fun even if the stories were an unoriginal mix of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Baldur’s Gate.

As we grew older, the stories became more nuanced. Now, in our late twenties, we still find time for the occasional campaign, which we do over skype since we have been scattered across the country. Our most recent campaign is set in a Greek themed fantasy world where there is a clash between mortals who want to be masters of their own fates and those who believe mortals should serve the pantheon of gods led by Zeus. What began as debate has devolved into violence and hatred on both sides. The players are sent back in time by a Chronomancer to prevent this turning into a full-blown war between the two agitated factions. How they tackle this is up to them. Do they simply murder the most violent members of each side? Do they try to find genuine understanding and common ground between the two factions? Do they take a side and ensure the war never happens because one side attains crushing victory during the opening shots? Time travel, morally grey sides, problem solving at a society wide level. Quite a move away from “ye olde town is under siege by orcs, we need your help brave heroes!”

I owe a lot to D&D. Through it, I realised that the one of my greatest joys is someone getting pleasure from a story I have written. At first I thought this might be limited only to D&D but I progressed to Star Wars, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th fan-fics which people online seemed to really enjoy as well. I still remember some of them, most were pretty bad but the rise of Jabba’s criminal empire was well received. Then, with some encouragement from my fiancée,  I hit out with my original works, North Sea Nightmare, Bad Credit, The Shape in the Sky. I’ve made some decent sales, had good feedback, and am pressing on with my fourth book.

None of it would have happened without D&D.

So, you can tell, I like fantasy as a genre, my writing originated from writing these sorts of stories.

That doesn’t mean though that the genre, and especially its most recent incarnations, don’t have some major problems that really put me off, problems endemic to the whole section of fiction rather than one or two isolated works. I wanted to discuss a few of these and possible solutions.

  • Book one of fifty in the blah blah saga

The elephant in the room, there seems to be some unspoken covenant between fantasy writers that every story should really be a dozen or so books. I’m being jocular, but you know what I mean. Part of it is no doubt because the giants of fantasy all have vast sagas, and it is normal to want to emulate the greats of your field (I’m sure I do that in my horror).

It can be off putting to see that. I’m in Waterstones, looking for a new book as I am pushing through my Goodreads 2017 goal. A novel catches my eye and I see on the cover “book five of….” Really? Most the time I put it back down and see what else is on the shelf. Don’t get me wrong, there are some sagas I really enjoy, Dune is my favourite book series of all time, but I am struggling to find many fantasy stories that are one story, self-contained and lean.

A gut reaction can be that it sometimes feels a bit self-indulgent, the author wanting to spend book after book talking about how fascinating their world is without much concern for the reader. Indeed, many of these sagas have pretty flat characters. There are writers who can do a whole compelling character arc in one book, then there you get a series ten books long where almost everyone is exactly the same at the end as they were at the start. If not self-indulgent, these extended sagas can come across as a very shrewd commercial decision. I was disturbed how many writing guides I read that suggested a saga is a great way to maximise sales rather than a one shot story. The fact that might not suit the story you are writing seemed irrelevant. I have rejected that advice needless to say.

We need more stand alone fantasy novels, self-contained stories that you can pick up and finish. Jonathan Strange comes to mind, as does The War of the Flowers. The genre is in danger of drowning in an ocean of needlessly long sagas.

  • Generic vibe

In fantasy, anything can happen. A city that is actually the crown of a benevolent giant? Sure, no problem. A castle that stands at the intersection of all parallel universes? Can do that. How about a literally two faced royal court, where the venomous courtiers have two faces constantly arguing and undermining each other? Yeah, you can put that in your story.

Despite the unlimited possibility, so many fantasy settings feel the same. To look at gaming, Dragon Age, Neverwinter and Skyrim/Oblivion all feel very similar to me. They might as well be the same world, they are almost indistinguishable. If I saw Neverwinter on the horizon when trudging through Skyrim, I wouldn’t think “What on earth!?” Rather, it would fit perfectly with the setting despite being two totally different works.

Fantasy novels, games, films should feel different, unique, there is unlimited possibility, use it.

  • Too lazy to write historical fiction?

David Gemmell was a fantastic writer. Legend was the book that got me into his writing, the same for many others I’m sure. His fantasy world has very muted magic, generally is only populated by humans and has a lot of similarities with real world history. In numerous interviews, Gemmell admitted that he would have written historical fiction but felt the burden of researching the period and making sure it is all accurate was too much. He opted to write fantasy that feels very familiar to real world history. George R.R. Martin has made similar comments.

If you a going to write FANTASY, I think it is better to making a running jump into it, really submerge yourself into it. If I was going to write a fantasy story, I wouldn’t want to copy a historical battle with one or two tweaks.

BAD EXAMPLE

I’m a history buff and I have always thought the Bishops War was an interesting flash point in the pretty violent history of Scotland, where I live. In an attempt to standardise religious worship, the King Charles 1st wanted to impose Bishops in Scotland. There were Bishops across England but in Scotland, there was the Kirk, a far less formal, less hierarchal church, more a loose gathering of religiously motivated people. As the King of Scotland and England, Charles 1st decided there would be Bishops in Scotland as well and all these Bishops would answer to his friend and colleague Arch-Bishop Laud, who in turn, answered to the King. Long story short, the Church in Scotland would have a hierarchy and he was going to be at the top of it.

When the Bishops arrive, Scotland erupted in revolution. The King marched his army up to enforce this but it was massacred. Most the English troops didn’t even understand the conflict (think the typical GI in Vietnam) whereas the Scots were fighting for their very way of life. Awkwardly, after the string of military defeats, Charles 1st said Scotland could keep the Kirk, there would be no Bishops. In order to placate the Scots, the UK Parliament demanded the execution of Archbishop Laud, who had suggested the whole plan to the King in the first place. Despite being the King’s good friend, the man was indeed executed, the pleas of the King ignored. This was laying the seeds for the English civil war.

So, I could write a story set during all that. Hmmm, that would be tough though. I would need to research key battles, understand what society was like back then. I might even need to make the people speak differently. No…I’m not liking that.

I know!

In the fantasy world of Scoloand, conflict looms. The evil Emperor Caharles 1st is imposing his own religion on the land, using High Clerics to stamp out the native religious practices. However, when the people rise up, a hero shall lead them to victory.

By A. Hack.

It will follow all the same beats but I don’t need to bother with all that research or realism.

GOOD EXAMPLE

I recently read the War of the Spider Queen series. The Drow are dark elves who are ruled by a violent, tyrannical priestess class. They gain their magic from their fickle goddess Lloth, a chaotic evil spider like being. She falls silent though, stops granting her followers magic, and suddenly the whole Drow Matriarchy is in the midst of violent revolution from the lower classes, non-Drow slaves, Drow men and female non-priests and foreign powers keen to destroy them. It’s fascinating, I read all six books in a matter of days. This is fantasy done well, it isn’t just our history rehashed. We need more of this, fantasy that really uses the genre it is in, not rehashed real world history.

If it wasn’t for fantasy, I wouldn’t be a writer. I owe the genre, and D&D in particular, everything. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some big problems though. 

Short Story: Tough Shift

Soon to be released, my next book the Vermin Anthology is a collection of short stories featuring rats, insects and other monsters to make your skin crawl.

Enjoy one of the stories for free, read it before bed at your own peril!

***

Tough Shift

 

You can get used to anything.

Cameron had always considered that the mantra that made the world keep on spinning. You can get used to anything. He was becoming an old man now but that one lesson proved itself true again and again.

When people would say “how could that happen?” or “how could people live like that?” he knew the answer. You can get used to anything.

Even the guards at Auschwitz probably got bored, he reasoned. They would be in bed at the bunkhouse, shiny black uniforms on the coat hanger by the bed, the alarm clock would buzz and would groan about having to get up for another to at work. The guards would have become accustomed to the pain and misery around them and had the same chats by the watercooler most office workers did. They got use to the nightmare around them, now it was banal and boring.

Professional hitmen, like the one who took an axe to Big Bobby, the Glasgow crack kingpin, probably had days where they were tempted to look on a recruitment website and see if there was anything else. Murdering people for money would probably get boring after a while as well surely.

Cameron wasn’t bored at work but he was ceartinly use to it. If the public had known about it, they would have asked him “how can you do that?”

“You can get used to anything,” he would have replied in the hypothetical conversation.

He felt at home in the dark tunnels beneath the city of Edinburgh, he knew them as well as others might know their war around the Royal Mile or the pubs on Rose Street. The tunnels were devoid of any decoration, the same narrow corridors and hanging pipes repeated again and again. Those imposing overhead pipes carried the refuse of an entire city, numbering five hundred thousand.

The darkness didn’t bother him, neither did the silence. He felt himself missing the silence as his compatriot blabbed on and on. Maybe it was nerves but the man, some youngster called Nick, wouldn’t shut up.

“I mean, when an opportunity comes up, you need to grab it with both hands, right? Won’t lie, I was scared but sometimes you need to take the plunge.”

Cameron said nothing but Nick continued, “The way I see it, twelve months of hard work, then I can put my feet up for the rest of my days. Maybe take up a few hobbies, I’ve always wanted to try golf. Feels like the national sport, you know? If I can afford it I mean.”

It wasn’t like that scene from Armageddon where the drillers turned astronauts could all demand millions of dollars from the government, a tax free life and other luxuries. The men, and it was mostly men, who volunteered for this job in the sewers would never need to work again and could enjoy a steady, middle of the way income that would see them into old age. Not glamorous lifestyles but comfortable. For a lot of people in post-recession Scotland with a flat economy, it was a damn good offer.

Fatalities did happen but were pretty rare, these new recruits weren’t being marched into the Somme.

Cameron had seen a grand total of four deaths in his time.

The two men marched on, “don’t talk much, do you?”

Cameron used his hand held industrial torch to cut a swathe of light in the ever present darkness. Most the lights in these parts got smashed out because of the inhabitants and the council saw no point trying to replace them, now they armed the teams with their portable torches.

“Think we will see any action? I’m four months in and haven’t seen a damn thing.”

Cameron could feel the weight of his heavy back pack starting to take its toll. His joints ached, that was the curse of old age, even his rubber suit felt like it was made of lead these days. Nick seemed able to handle his own large metal pack with ease although he held the sprayer gun awkwardly and kept getting the tube that connected pack to gun tangled.

“Don’t get your tube tangled,” Cameron said to him, the first words he had said since patrol began. Four out of the four fatalities he had seen, that was the cause. There would be danger, panic, the adrenaline rush and some idiot would try to spray the acid in their backpack with the tube not going anywhere. Nothing would happen, no burst of sizzling acid, and they would be torn to shreds. All over in a few seconds normally.

“Ten years, I’ve seen four deaths, all because of the damn tube getting tangled. Keep your eye on it or you will be number five I’ve seen. That’s more paperwork for me.”

Silence again as the two men trudged onwards through the labyrinth of tunnels.

Hesitantly, Nick spoke, “I thought you only had to do this for a year.”

“You only have to do it for a year.”

“Wait, so you choose to do this? You could have quit by now?”

Cameron growled at Nick, ending the conversation.

He wasn’t going to justify himself to some kid. This wasn’t about bowing out to some middle of the way life. Unlike the rest of these punks, Cameron saw a point in what he was doing. It made him feel satisfied, happy even. They did important work here, work that kept the entire city safe.

Not that any of these clowns or the idiots in charge really appreciated it. Not really, not like he did. He had served on the frontlines and would continue to do so, at least for another year or two, when he felt like this could be left in half way decent hands. Succession planning, that’s what the bigwigs called it, he needed someone in place to take over when he was gone. That would keep the fatalities low and the job done to the highest standards. So far, no one decent had caught his eye. They all wanted to cash in their chips and walk away from the blackjack table.

“Wouldn’t you rather be home? Wife, girlfriend, even just some pals? I can think of a million better things to do than this.”

Cameron didn’t really have anything to go home to but that wasn’t the point, even if he had, he was sure he would rather be in these dark tunnels. This is where he was needed, this was where he mattered.

“Shut. Up.”

Cameron was quickly losing his temper with this idiot. Next shift he was asking for a change in his support. The north-west tunnels were even more maze like and prone to bother than the rest, that was why he asked for it and the higher ups wanted a veteran to take point. It was the best of the best that should be serving here, not people like Nick. Other part of the tunnels, like the eastern ones, had gone years without a single sitting. Not so in the north-west, they knew real trouble. Cameron regretted that a part of the secrecy clause in their contacts forbade contact after the job was over. He remembered Darren who had worked in the tunnels a few months ago, good guy, dependable, knew his stuff. Quiet as well unlike Nick.

“We probably won’t see anything today either,” mumbled Nick to himself.

Idiot.

They rounded the bend and bingo, exactly what Cameron was looking for.

It was a chair sized mound of flesh and dark brown, matted fur, reeking of damp and sewage. Swarms of rats were crawling over and around the creature, a teeming, living carpet.

Pink, thin tentacles, resembling extended rat tails whipped in the air and the shapeless lump emitted a high-pitched screech from somewhere deep inside it. Despite the fact it didn’t have a face, a dozen misshapen and diseased eyes narrowed in what could be perceived as anger.

Rats flowed forward, as if ordered by their general into action, desperate to sink their teeth into the interlopers. Rats were aggressive creatures at the best of times but these ones were practically salivating at the thought of violence.

Nick screamed.

Cameron would have turned to look at him in utter disdain but he couldn’t afford it.

When the city council approached the people to work in the sewers exterminating these things, they made sure they were well prepared. It was explained to the new starts the purpose of the job, how they were keeping the city safe from these creatures that seemed to live in the sewers and spawned through some unknown process. Secrecy was vital to prevent panic from the general populace.

The new inductees were shown footage of the monsters, nicknamed rat kings but with the official designation the sterile and bland hostile lifeforms. They got pictures, they could even see recordings that they had managed to get.

Despite all this preparation, most of them buckled at the first sight of a rat king. Dozens, hundreds of rats fused together in a twisted single entity and leading the lesser kind. It was nightmarish, no way around that, but they should have been ready. Cameron bad been ready all those years ago when he killed his first rat king because he did the prep.

He became obsessed with understanding those creatures but there was so little information on them. He didn’t know if other cities had this problem, if they were naturally occurring or some bizarre experiment. Left to their own devices though, they would breed, and soon the entire undercity would be brimming with the foul monsters. Worst of all, they would meet and fuse together. All of Edinburgh being seated on one colossal creature would keep Cameron awake at night. That was why what they did matter, that was why he refused to take the cash and bow out like so many others.

Cameron knew most of the new recruits wouldn’t care about grandiose missions, they wanted money. The were pouring over the employment information the council gave them. How much they would be paid. The guarantee of a monthly salary until they reached sixty-five, more than enough to live on. The secrecy clauses in their contracts. They memorised all that and tossed the monster information to one side as useless junk.

Nick probably wished he had spent more time on that.

Cameron sprung into action despite his age, spraying the approaching rat hordes with the acidic goo, reducing them to little more than puddles. Step one, take out the smaller rats, step two, get rid of the rat king.

Nick fumbled with his own gun, spraying the good harmlessly onto the wall and not catching a single rat. Had he fired the thing before? Pathetic. He was moving forward and continuing to spray, getting ten out of ten for enthusiasm but little else.

“Go easy on it Nick,” shouted Cameron.

He was actually starting to cut into the hissing rats.

Click.

The spray suddenly stopped from Nick’s gun, the arc lessening until nothing came out the gun.

He frantically squeezed the trigger.

Click. Click.

Nothing.

Cameron realised the idiot had used up almost all the pack during his wild attack and had ran dry. Like it was in the training, controlled, short bursts not trying to do a Rambo impersonation. The packs could only hold so much of the lethal acid.

A rat leapt and clamped its jaws down on Nick’s arm. He gave out a cry of pain and tried to pull the hairy ball off him but the rat had locked its jaws down onto his tender flesh. Rubber clothing could stop the smaller, younger rat’s teeth but not the mature adults. Others took advantage and began leaping onto him in droves, biting, scratching, clawing. Nick fell to the ground, rolling wildly and trying to get them off.

Cameron dare not spray him, the acid would eat through Nick as easily as a rat, he had to focus on wiping out the swarm and keeping his distance from the rat king as best as he could.

The rat king rolled over and a large segment of it cracked open, revealing an oversized mouth with at least seven rows of broken, jagged teeth. Pink, rat tail tentacles coiled round Nicks neck and pulled him closer, inch by agonising inch. He wailed pitifully for help. Then it clamped down, Nick screaming from inside the rat kings mouth as it awkwardly chewed, shredding him into bloody chunks, blood spraying like a fountain.

Cameron knew Nick was a goner now, and directed his fire to the rat king, dousing the foul creature in thick, viscous acid. It wailed in pain and started to dissolve into itself, pausing only to burp out what looked like Nicks left cheek.

There was the sizzling for several minutes and then nothing.

Silence.

Back to the normal silence.

Nick was missing the top quarter of his body, gone in the pile of discoloured slime that was the rat king. Five fatalities Cameron had seen now. Four from a tangled hose. One from excessive overuse of pack acid. He would make a note of that in his report and suggest it be included in future training.

Per procedure, he removed the equipment and doused Nicks body in the acid. It was easier that his head was missing, spraying a recruit in the face with acid wasn’t a pleasant activity. Within in a few minutes, there would be no evidence he ever existed. The formerly chatty young man would be brown goo soon enough and Cameron would meet his replacement tomorrow, not breathing a word about his predecessor.

Time to head home before the shift tomorrow. Home, glass of milky tea, biscuit, and then lie in bed with the tv on.

You could get used to anything.

***

I hope you enjoyed that, it was fun writing it as always.

If they even make it into a film, I would insists the rat king be animatronic or a puppet and not CGI haha.

The Power of Nightmares

We spend a lot of time thinking about our hopes and dreams for the future. It’s natural, we want to be positive and it is fun to daydream about where we want to be.

It is easy for my mind to drift over to what I want to happen. I want to be a successful writer and blogger, success being defined by myself as widely read and the writing having an impact of some kind on the reader (scaring them with my horror stories for example). In my day dreams, I can see myself reaching the upper echelons of the banking world and being well respected in the field. I want my upcoming marriage to be long and happy, full of romantic times and fun.

Dreams are useful, they give us comfort.

Nightmares are important as well though, just as important as dreams. It doesn’t seem that way, whenever we dwell on nightmares, we are often told to bury it or be more positive. I don’t think that is the best way to look at our darker thoughts.

What we are afraid of and what makes us feel uncomfortable defines us as much as what we want. It can drive us to action, help us discover more about ourselves and face some of our problems.

I want to give some examples of how my nightmares and fears have driven me to positive actions.

Example 1 The Scottish Referendum

I didn’t want the Scottish Referendum to happen and was filled with dread when it was officially announced by the First Minister at the time. As it went into full swing, this feeling only grew.

My nightmare was in a mindless nationalist fervour, we would break away from the UK, not considering the consequences. Working in banking, I knew how fragile our economy was, I could see it totally collapsing like a house of cards. We would go from the strongman of Europe to another Greece, an economic basket case people would avoid like the plague. Our extensive public services would fail, from free universities to the national health service which were barely balancing even before the referendum. A besieged political leadership, the ones who promised utopia, would blame some group or another for the failures. Given the toxic debate, friendly relations with England would be difficult. Spain had vowed not to allow an independent Scotland into the EU and seemed hell bent on making things as hard as possible for us (in order to stifle Catalan and Basque separatists in their own country).

The country I love and live in would be destroyed. Would I be part of a doomed generation trying to cobble it together so maybe the next generation could have an easier time? Would I leave for Canada or the US to try my luck there?

I decided that, driven by this nightmare vision of the future, I was going to get stuck into the political debate. I went door knocking and delivered leaflets for Better Together, the Unionists’ body in Scotland. I signed up to various newsletters to ensure I was fully aware of how the referendum was progressing. On the night of the election, my fiancée and I stayed up all night as each result was coming in.

When victory was announced, we majority of Scots breathed a sigh of relief. I went to the nearby supermarket and bought a big magnum bottle of prosecco, my fiancée and I had a toast to the United Kingdom surviving.

I wouldn’t have joined the fight if I didn’t want to address some of the darker, worrying thoughts I had about the future of the country.

If the separatists at the time had tried to tackle the nightmares and worst thoughts of the voters, they could have won. If they acknowledged how difficult this was going to be, an uphill struggle, industries would be damaged or even destroyed. If they set out their plans to address this, tapped into the nightmares and tried to deal with it, they probably would have won. Instead they simply glossed over it. Separating from the UK would lead to a golden age, we would all be rich and happy, crime would end, there would be an economic boom and unemployment would end, Scotland would be invited to all the most important tables in world politics, rubbing shoulders with the US, China, Russia.

If you didn’t buy into it, if you were worried or concerned about any of these assertations or wanted proof, you were a fearmonger, a traitor, not-Scottish.

The separatist SNP government tried to rely totally on dreams and not address the flip side- and lost, pretty badly. They then proceeded to lose a majority in the Scottish Parliament for the same reason. And then lost a bunch of MPs in the UK parliament again.

Whether you support them or not, you have to admit, not addressing concerns people had has backfired horribly on them.

Compare that with the recent Brexit vote. I thought whatever happened, the UK would survive and be okay. I wasn’t as interested or concerned, I was positive that no matter what happened, we would push through it and as such I took less action. If we stayed in the EU, I could see advantages to that. If we left, fair enough, I can see why. I was disengaged though.

Example 2 Body Horror

As you can tell from the fact I write hard core horror stories in my free time, I don’t scare easy. I can sit comfortably through horror films and read entire horror sagas, enjoy them but not really feel to creeped out or scares.

The Blob 1988, the remake.

That movie, freaks me out.

Now if I was all positive thoughts and great dreams, I would avoid it and movies like it, and never really grow. Instead I wanted to know why I was so freaked out by it. I realised that when the Blob eats people, it painfully dissolves them, mutating them and they feel every agonizing moment.

This led me to realise that the subgenre of body horror is what taps a nerve with me and watched similar films to it. The Thing, The Fly, The Stuff.

I realised that these films scared me in part because the idea of my own body failing was so frightening to me. My nightmare was my body could fail. I don’t have any physical disabilities and take it for granted how easy it is for me to do what I want. The idea of being unable to do what I want does scare me, and part of that is vanity, I wouldn’t like the idea of having to be dependent on someone else to help me if it was an extreme disability or the like.

I wouldn’t say I have conquered that fear but I understand it as part of my psychological make up.  If I had glossed over my nightmare, something that makes me uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have realised this about myself.

Example 3 Relationships

I was recently at a steak restaurant in Edinburgh, Millar and Carter, with my fiancée. It is a great restaurant with amazing food. We were laughing, chatting, having a great time. We have been together six years but sitting down to a dinner together is still one of my favourite things to do. The waiting staff were friendly and very well informed, happy to give advice on steak/wine pairings.

Right next to us was an older couple who looked totally miserable. They ordered a steak, barking they wanted it well done despite the pleading waiter suggesting at most the steak should be medium. They picked the “house red” not caring what was in it, wanting a drink and nothing more. They barely said a word over the whole dinner. If you think it can be distracting having a noisy couple near you, try a totally silent one. It’s even worse.

My dream is to have a happy marriage, that is important to me. However my nightmare is ending up like one of those couples. Those negative thoughts drive positive actions. If we have a problem, we discuss it. I go out my way to make romantic gestures even after all these years and at the same time we can just laze around too.

If I was all positive, ignored all negative thoughts, I would dream of my happy marriage and expect everything to fall into place. The voice saying I shouldn’t take my partner for granted is born of nightmares but leads to positive actions. I embrace it rather than ignore it or refuse it even exists.

****

Stay focused on your dreams but don’t ignore your nightmares, they might be trying to drive some positive actions out of you.