Flash-fiction. I'd be interested in your thoughts

Sun, Feb 11 2018 10:17pm GMT 1
JimB
JimB
10 Posts
Hello people.
I just posted and deleted this because I realised it wasn't the latest version. Anyway, here's a flash fiction I wrote for a website that has weekly writing prompts. I failed to finish it in time so I couldn't submit it. I'm just starting to get into writing after many years of assuming that I knew how to write fiction without actually doing any, and thought I'd try my hand at flash fiction to get some practice. I know the title isn't right, but apart from that, let me know what you think.

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Stairs

By Jim Barker

Putting down the phone and getting up from my desk, I walked across the office and into the stairwell. I needed to get a bit of exercise and had decided to walk up and down the stairs for a while. I had planned on spending fifteen minutes max on the stairs, but as I got up to the 20th floor, the lights went out.

In a second, I was plunged into a real thick and frightening darkness. It was 8pm, two hours into my shift, and the sun had gone down before I even got to work. The small windows in the stairwell gave me no light, but I knew that the spiral concrete steps that snaked up from the first floor to the 25rd floor were above and below me, inviting me to take a misstep in the darkness and fall to certain injury. I’d never thought of this happening before, but apparently it turned out that this was one of the scariest things I could have imagined happening, I just hadn’t had the imagination to think about it.

I was half way up one of the flights between floors when the lights blinked out, and gingerly continued upwards. I soon reached the small landing and sat on the floor to figure out what to do next. I took my phone out of my pocket and clicked it on. At least, I pressed the button to turn it on, but nothing happened. That’s weird, I thought. Really bloody weird. It’s one thing for the lights in the building to go out, but for my phone to die as well? I was sure it had been charged up, but phone batteries can be unpredictable. Sometimes you find that 60% had turned to 3% in an hour, just because your phone was a bit old. It could be a coincidence, but no, it couldn’t be the phone. Before putting the phone in my back pocket I’d unplugged it from the desk charger. This phone should be 100%.

I stood up and looked out of the small window; there was one on every other landing. I saw the moon, and the moonlight on the roofs of the buildings in the rest of the small business district. I saw the moonlight, but I didn’t see the street lights, or the lights of the other buildings, or the lights of cars on the road that passed by on the part of the freeway that went right by the building. It made sense that maybe some circuit had gone and had impacted all the office buildings, but surely the street lights would be on a different circuit. Wouldn’t they? I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know. It looked like there had been a major outage, potentially affecting the whole town.

I looked again, and I couldn’t see any lights at all. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed the sky was darker than usual, missing the lights from the town, the sodium lights that usually made the sky a dirty orange. The stars were suddenly brighter than I’d ever seen them. No, not quite. They had looked like that when we went to Canada and stayed in a cabin in the mountains. The Milky Way had spread out above us as we sat on the cabin’s front porch, looking up at the majesty of it all. Sometimes I wished there was a way to see the stars every night, but we couldn’t live at that cabin.

Had something big happened? Was this one of those attacks they’d talked about in the papers? An EMP attack? Some kind of Russian or North Korean cyber-attack where an electronic bomb sent out a massive electrical charge that fried all the circuits in all the electrical equipment? Was this the beginning of a massive attack that could destroy the country? A big leap, I admit, but when you’re in a darkened stairwell, and everything has gone black, it’s easy to leap. As easy to leap as it is to fall.

I could see nothing; the darkness was so complete. So, I waited. I knew that the moonlight, from the almost full moon, would soon grant me an amount of night vision, perhaps enough to get me back to the floor below, and into an office where there might be working phones, where Tony might have come back from his patrol. Then I remembered that Tony was at the building across the park. We were the night IT support for the company, ensuring that wherever one of our users was, anywhere in the world, there would be someone at the end of a phone to help them with their lost files or dropped connection. Tony had been assigned to Building 2 this week, to look after the installation and initiation of a new server. He was over there with Sammy, the new guy. In Building 1 it was only me, Sunil, and Ted the security guard. I had no idea where Sunil was. I’d only seen him at the beginning of my shift, but he’d gone somewhere to have one of those three-hour conversations he often had with his wife, who he only saw at weekends. Ted was on the ground floor, watching what I expected would now be blank screens, and wondering what the hell was going on.

I was on my own. The nearest person was 20 floors away. The lifts wouldn’t be working, and neither would many of the security doors. I’d have to go down the stairs. It usually took about 10 minutes to walk down from the 25th floor, which was the top. I’d walked up to 25 a couple of times, but it had taken a lot out of me, so I didn’t do it again. That had taken at least half an hour. A ten-minute walk down to street level. How hard could it be? 10 minutes in a well-lit stairwell. How long in pitch darkness; an hour? Two? Three? Until morning? It was January, so that was about 8 hours away. I didn’t much fancy the idea of sitting on this cold concrete floor for 8 hours. The cold was also an issue. It was about minus five outside, and the heating barely touched the stairwell, so it would soon be below zero here. I only had a t-shirt with a thin sweater, jeans and sneakers. I wasn’t going to die, but I would be bloody cold.

I decided to take my chances and walk down the stairs. I looked again at my phone. Still dead. Looked out of the window again, and still no lights. Now I could see cars on the roadway. There was smoke spiralling up from somewhere, but I couldn’t make it out exactly. Obviously, the lights going out had caused accidents. I could see movement. Motorists must be milling about, trying to understand what had happened.

I stood up. My night vision was as good as it would get, and I could just about see the top of the stairs. I couldn’t see the stairs themselves, but the moonlight from the landing window below was casting a pale light on the next landing. I was only 16 stairs in each flight. 16 steps to the next landing, then 32 more to the next floor. Downwards to the ground floor and then out through the delivery entrance, which had an internal manual override for the security door. Would that work without electrics? I really had no idea, but I had to chance it.

Then before I took another step, I started to worry about mum and dad. They would be at home, no longer watching TV, wondering what was happening. Hopefully they wouldn’t be too frightened. Dad was pretty level-headed, and mom was very calm in an emergency, although she did have an almost paralysing fear of the dark. Something had happened when she was a kid, locked in the basement for a day or something. She would probably be going to pieces. There were candles in the house though, so that was good. At least candles couldn’t be affected by an EMP. Could they? No, of course not.

The moonlight showed me the edge of the rail that ran along the left-hand side of the stairs. If I got hold of that I could keep hold of it and go around the central stairwell. The rail didn’t break off until the end of the stairs. A perfect plan. I just had to count the stairs as I walked down to avoid falling onto one of the concrete landings. I felt quite proud of myself, even as much as I was scared about going headfirst onto hard concrete.

I have to admit that although I was worried about what was going on with the possible world-wide disaster scenario, part of me was feeling detached and unreal, and was starting to see this as some kind of role in a computer game. Making your way down multiple flights of stairs in the dark, in a world gone wrong. Pretty exciting. This part of my brain didn’t stay excited long. The first thing I did was walk down five steps, and lose my footing on the smooth concrete.

I went down hard on the step, and although I didn’t think anything was broken, it hurt like hell and made me swear a lot. I sat on the step for a while, then gently slid down the remaining stairs to the landing, and sat a while sweating and swearing. I waited a while for the all-clear from my body, eventually standing up gingerly and leaning against the door of the 19th floor, which started to move behind me. Giving up on the stairs for a moment, I elected to move into the lift lobby and sit down on one of the chairs. That felt nice. My back was throbbing, but I could still move. I tested by standing up and sitting down a few times. I wasn’t broken, but I still didn’t fancy going back out on those stairs, the worn surface of which was clearly treacherous. I decided to go out onto floor 19 and see what I could see.

Moonlight and silence told me that the floor was deserted. The silence was eerie. Usually, even at night, these floors hummed with the sound of a hundred PCs, printers, servers, monitors. Now the sound of my breathing was all I could hear. This was the sound of the end of technology, not a world without technology, but a world with dead technology. It sounded so final. I had no idea what to do next, so I sat in a chair by one of the large windows that lined the floor. I looked out at the city, or at least the business district, and I saw no light but the moon.

The fear finally reached me. My brain ran in a million different directions. Here I was in an office block, trapped in an office block probably, until such time as the sun came up or the lights came back on again. I had no idea what was happening to my family, to my friends, to my colleagues, to the country. To be cut off from the internet was awful, no way to see what was going on. Normally if there was a traffic delay I’d look on twitter and find out something, see a better way to get home, but now? I was as unaware of what was happening as a caveman looking at some mountains and thinking about whether there was something on the other side. It was horrible. Not liberating. Maybe that would come later, but right now, this was terrifying.

And I hadn’t even dealt with anyone else yet. Would I eventually get out of here and find the streets full of looters, or vigilantes? Never mind zombies or vampires, real people were scary enough. What was going to happen? I panicked and started crying and shouting, just to make a sound. Snot and tears ran down my face. 23 years old and crying like a baby in a thunderstorm. After a while I realised that my crying and carrying on was making no difference, so I sat back down in the chair. Spinning around I looked at the PC on the desk. The screen was dark and the box was quiet. Just to see, I leant down and pressed the power button on the PC box. To my surprise, the green light came on. I was shocked and relieved. I clicked on the lamp on the desk. Nothing happened. Weird.

I sat for a while looking at the blank screen in front of me. I turned it on. The screen started up and shone black, waiting for the computer to talk to it. Still staring at this weird miracle, I took my phone out and clicked it on. Nothing. How could one computer and its screen work, when nothing else did? I touched the mouse, and a message popped up:

MULTIPLE SYSTEMIC CULTURAL, TECHNOLOGICAL AND ETHICAL FAILURES HAVE BEEN DETECTED. YOUR NETWORK HAS BEEN SUSPENDED PENDING A REBOOT
PRESS ctrl + alt + delete TO RESTART

I pressed the three buttons. After a few seconds another message came up, with a series of options below.

Planet Earth 2.0.18/Humanity 12.2.11 BIOS needs to be repaired. Do you want to restart? Please choose one of the following options. After you have indicated your choice, repairs will begin:

  1. Restart in Safe Mode – Reinstall Planet Earth 1.0 and Humanity 1.0.1 (Recommended)

  2. Restart in Normal Mode – Restart without changes/Do not repair (not recommended)

  3. Restart in Admin Mode – Custom mode (Password protected. Sys Admin only)

I thought about the stars I’d seen in Canada.

I chose A.

Mon, Feb 12 2018 08:43am GMT 2
L.
L.
187 Posts
Hi Jim,

You are absolute right, flash fiction is a great way to practise your writing. I enjoyed your story and the idea behind it and the ending, but I have to admit I skimmed getting to the end. I think it could be a lot tighter and shorter. The trick with flash fiction is be economical and make every word count.

For example, I don't think the first paragraph is needed. It is just explanation and delay the start of the action, so I would just do without and start straight with paragraph 2 and the lights going out. Then you have action and something to interest the reader (why have the lights gone out). Such as: "I had one foot down on the first step when the lights went out, leaving the stairwell plunged in complete darkness. Shit, I really chose the right time to exercise."

You are writing in 1st POV, which means we should be straight into the character's head but you are using too much filtering words. Those are putting a distance between your reader and the MC. Words such as: look, see, think, notice, feel, etc... Try to take those out

For example: I stood up and looked out of the small window; there was one on every other landing. I saw the moon, and the moonlight on the roofs of the buildings in the rest of the small business district. I saw the moonlight, but I didn’t see the street lights, or the lights of the other buildings, or the lights of cars on the road that passed by on the part of the freeway that went right by the building.

That can become: I hauled myself to the window. Outisde the pale glow of the moonlight reflected on rooftops and windows. That's when it hit me, apart from that light the city was plunged in complete darkness, no artificial lighting, not a single building, not even the highway nearby that's normally a garland of lights. Shit.

I think you could make it a lot shorter and tighter. At the moment the tension seems to be dilluted because there is too much. Maybe, after the lights go out have maybe 4 or 5 paragraphs, each paragraph could represents a floor level achieve and up the tension and the MC worries at each paragraphs.

I think you've got a good story here that you can improve through editing. I hope this helps and as usual feel free to use or ignore as you see fit (it's your story at the end of the day.)
Mon, Feb 12 2018 11:48am GMT 3
JimB
JimB
10 Posts
Hi L. (are you one of the forgotten James Bond characters?)

Thanks for the feedback. I agree that the story is uneconomical, also I think the biggest problem is that the story and the ending aren't connected enough. I have to confess that I started without an ending, and it came to me after a while. I don't think it's embedded in the story enough.

I'm just learning about things like filter words, so thanks for pointing that out, although I have to say that I like the rhythm of the bit about the moonlight. I guess like you say, it's very personal stuff.

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