Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a pageabout it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire upfront, or by revealing a surprising motivation.
A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
The sun beat down relentlessly on the hilltop, this was not the desert, but even England can occasionally throw a scorching tantrum of a day at its residents. The small corpses of trees on the hilltop offered little in the way of shade and more in the way of a home for seemingly millions of biting insects that perpetually seemed to attack the prone form lying there. From a distance, he looked like nothing more than another browning bush amongst the trees. It would take a seasoned expert in the woods and a very close range to pick out the inconsistencies that marked his presence. He would appear if one saw his face as hardened to the sun as to the hardships that swarmed around him.
A rifle was laid out before him, the long barrel covered and intertwined with underbrush, it’s matt finish doesn’t allow the sunlight to reflect off into the distance and dark draped fabric hid the lens for the same reason. Despite the stifling conditions, the bugs and distractions. The man has his eyes locked on the tiny scope gently adjusting his position in incremental tiny movements his deep steady breathing was relaxed as if he were dozing on a beach in Bali.
On the other end of the lens, the young boy playing in the garden appeared as the complete opposite to the hard lines of the craggy onlooker. He beamed a beatific smile while running around the garden in ever-increasing circles, at this range any sound is impossible, yet the man can see the mouth opening and closing, a one-sided rapid-fire diatribe from the boy at his mother lying nearby on the recliner. He holds out his arms like a plane and seems to glide across the garden like a fighter jet across a green lawn sky.
The steady breath hitches a fraction. The rifleman’s concentration falters at the image before him, his steady movements jerk. But he brings his focus back, forces his breathing to return to its steady cadence. Tracking the boy, back and forth, back and forth across the lawn. He’s never felt conflicted about the missions he’s been on, the things he’s been asked to do but lying here, staring at this child he feels a cold knot forming in his guts. What if they were wrong, what if this wasn’t the time or the place. The sweat trickling down his face made him blink furiously for a moment. He slowly brought down the fabric bandana cinching it over his eye ensuring that no more perspiration could distract him. Sloppy, he chastises himself. His eyes flick to the digital readout in the soil near him. Only 20 seconds remaining until death.
The child has stopped running and is now lying on the grass alternately making angel wings in the grass and reaching his hand out to the clouds as if he could grasp them from the sky. The rifleman listens attentively to the AI spotter in his ear, his entire mind and body completely focussed. His hands smoothly guide the rifle up and to the left, counting down to 11 he expels his breath slowly and at the exact moment of emptiness gently squeezes the trigger. The rifle coughs, the projectile rocketing out from the magnetically charged rails at a specially calibrated speed so that it doesn’t set the air on fire by its passage.
The scope snaps back immediately to the boy who remains in place, lying on his back considering the clouds, but now the scene has started to change, the smile slowly fades and a confused started to erase his smile. His face twitching, eyes blinking. A look of startled pain crossing across his face. The rifleman holds his breath tension locking his body in place, waiting to see if he has succeeded or failed. The boy starts to convulse, arms and legs starting to thrash. The countdown in the man’s head drops down lower 5, 4, 3…
The projectile slices through the distance shedding its ablative layers, the advanced materials inside using its adaptive surface to produce rudimentary aerofoils micro-adjusting to the target. The house, garden and child approach at an unimaginable speed. At a distance of fewer than 10 meters, the projectile’s internal mechanism activates unwrapping its outer skin like a flower slowing the whole thing down exponentially before allowing the more delicate internals of the device to be exposed to the air. The petals are angled so that the force of air rotates the device into a perfectly aimed corkscrew motion before plunging itself through the boy’s skin and delivering its internal payload into his bloodstream.
The boy’s convulsing slows, the man notes the splash of red appears on the right upper thigh and feels his chest tightening from lack of breath. He waits, hands gripping the rifle stock until metal creaks. Then the boy’s mouth opens in silent wail unheard by the man but his breath explodes out at the same moment. The sobbing child runs, limping to his mother, the conversation can’t be heard no more than the dead bee that the child had been lying on could be seen from here. But that was irrelevant. He checked the timer -8 seconds from death time.
He takes his time to ensure that the mission has succeeded and sent a single message via his implant. “Adrenaline delivered on schedule, target alive, awaiting new instructions.”
Authors note: I started this with no clear idea of where I was going and found it nearly impossible to write. I’ve only just started trying to learn to write fiction and I was following the Niel Gaiman masterclass along with suggested reading. But the lockdown gave way to work and trying to save my business. The story of a boy meeting his house monsters seemed such a simple story but quickly became so hard and unwieldy that I’ve kind of written the opening chapter to something completely unexpected. Maybe I’ll return to Dean one day. Either way, this has taught me a lot aboutwhat not to do when writing. Which is good as well. Basically don’t expect much from this one. I just put it up here to show I’m doing something.
The noise just wouldn’t stop. For the first few weeks, they had been patient enough, but over time the noise had just gotten steadily louder, more strident and more obnoxious until after 30 days had passed. The patience of the youngest of them finally snapped.
“This,” he lamented, “is simply unacceptable!”
“Kraig, it’s not even summer! They aren’t meant to be here during the longer nights, do they even know the shifts we pull?!”
“Dennis,” Kraig sighed, “we’ve talked about this, they don’t even know we exist… That’s kind of the point.”
“Well it’s just rude,” Dennis folded his arms in a sulk, “should let the Woodies in one night just to show em’ how lucky they are.”
“Do you ‘really’ want one of ‘them’ inside the threshold?”
“Maybe only a small one..”
“Fine. F-i-n-e, so what do we do? Any bright ideas? It’s nearly noon and I haven’t slept a wink. Did you know they are currently playing Cowboys & Indians, one of them hid next to me under the bed!” Dennis’s voice ended in a bit of a squeak.
“That must be very tough..”
“Under the bed! Kraig, where I was sleeping!”
An uncomfortable silence had just settled on the two when it was savagely broken by the warbling cry of a child swinging a plastic tomahawk and chasing another larger child wearing a stetson. The whirlwind of tiny forms flew through and around the speakers, as the children jumped from sofa to arm chair-throwing themselves under the dining room table and throwing various epitaphs at each other. To add to the din throughout the incursion, Barnabus, the German Shepherd, gamely kept pace barking overexcited encouragement to the tempest that was the “boys”.
Finally, after much yelling the Stetson-wearing cowboy Ben, decided that he was not in fact “dead” and was not going to play any more. With which he marched out the room with a horrified and apologising Dean chasing after him promising he would let him come back to life but he had to at least lose a limb. Barnabus made to follow them but paused at the door and glanced back
“Dennis,” he huffed cheerily, “Kraig… “ he said with less enthusiasm
“Barnabus” the two chorused back.
“Sorry about all the noise lads, this lockdown has got them going crazy.”
Kraig cleared his throats gently, “Any uh… News on that front?”
Barabus flopped his ears back and forth.
“Nothing concrete, maybe late June, or July?”
The tiniest wail could be heard from Dennis as the sound of smashing glass drifted to them from somewhere down the hall and Barnabus’s tail drooped in response,
“Well duty calls!” he barked, “Good luck tonight Lads!” and with that Barnabus barrelled off after the children, barking manically, leaving a crystal delicate silence between the speakers.
Dennis began to make little weeping, snuffling noises from his principal mouths.
“Okay,” Kraig said slowly, “ Yeah, maybe we need to do something.”
“ .. Maybe,”
“No. No “woodies” in the building, you can forget about it, Nah, there’s only one way, we’re gonna sort all this out…”
“Well, murder seems a little extreme tho…’”
“No you moron, we’re not murdering the wards; Nah, we’re going to av’ to monster-up, pierce the veil and talk to ‘em!”
“Oh.. “ Dennis dragged out the word carefully “Shit.”
“Yeah,” Kraig sighed “, this is gonna suck.”
It was late in the evening and the sun was low and bloated red on the horizon when Dean finally stomped into the bedroom he shared with his idiot, unfair brother. The X-box had been taken over and Ben was too far into his game to allow Dean to mess it all up. The final argument has sent Dean off to find refuge in their room biting back hot tears that certainly were NOT due to the parting shots Ben made. Also, he wanted to read, not play that dumb game anyhow.
Dean made straight for his bed and reached out for his copy of the Famous 5, not even looking at the customary spot next to his pillow where such things were always carefully placed by Mum. Confusion hit when his hand struck bed covers and sheet. Squinting in the twilight he stared dumbly as the empty spot patting his hand around as if the book would pop back into existence, eyes darting around frantically he finally noticed it peeking out from just under the bed, frowning he reached down to scoop it off the floor and then froze solid, while his fingers were still inches above the cover, he watched it smoothly and silently slide out of view. Slipping into the shadows under the bed frame.
Pulled, it had been pulled beneath the bed! Dean leapt onto the mattress making sure his ankles were far from the black slot of space where his book had been taken. He panted, mouth dry staring at the edge of the bed. He tried to squeak out a cry for help but his body betrayed him and all that came out was a high pitched squeak of panic. There was something under his bed. Just as he came to this conclusion the last lingering rays of sun faded and the room was left in shadows.
“I told you this was a terrible plan.”
Dean paused on the edge of screaming. Had he just heard…?
“Well excuuuuse me for not being an exact expert on this”
“Look we just need something of his to form a connection right?”
“Well, it’s the famous 5, I’ve been reading it over his shoulder I mean, I prefer Tolstoy personally, but…”
“No, I mean, that’s all we need? No spell, no candles or incantations?”
“Right, just a thing in hand.”
“… so… It’s in your hand Kraig.”
“Yeah, and now… Now we.. oh.”
Dean had moved past terrified at this point, as curiosity had completely overloaded any built-in instinct to be afraid of the things under the bed. He now lay flat out on the bed craning his head over the side of the mattress to try and listen. He heard a deep and long sigh, a lot like his dad had made when he’d heard about the broken vase. But this sounded… different more like a crowd of people sighing at once?
Dean didn’t respond, his heart was pounding like a drum. Another voice seemed to cut in.
“Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3, can you hear us?”
“Shut up! Dennis.”
Dean bit his fist in incredulity, he hadn’t meant to speak at all, it had just sort of popped out. He was about to leap off the bed to the safety of the hall when he heard the voice again.
“Ahem, Dean?” the voice sounded deep, gravely, like two large rocks grinding around
Dean didn’t want to reply his fist between his teeth was meant to stop it but still, words poured forth.
“Yeff, y cun ea u?”
“Did you catch that?” a stage whisper filtered across.
“Dennis, I swear to all the gods and the spirit of the house if you speak one more time, I’m gonna’”
“I can hear you!”
Dean squeaked and stared at his traitorous hand which had unplugged his mouth without his permission. He was just preparing to replace the plug when he heard the gentle cough.
“Dean? I know this must be strange for you…”
“Strange? There are voices under his bed Kraig, I’d be shitting bricks if I were,”
“Mhm,” … “shutting up.”
“Who,” Dean’s voice quivered more than normal “who are you?”
There was a whispered debate that Dean couldn’t make out. Followed by a throat clearing.
“We,” Said the first voice, trying to inject some real majesty into his words ”are your guardian angels Dean.”
“.. and your names are Dennis and Craig?”
This pause continued for a considerable time before a long-drawn-out and tentative affirmative came back from the two voices.
Dean thought this through. He wasn’t a baby anymore, but he also wasn’t completely sure what guardian angels were meant to be, he was pretty sure they had grander names than Dennis, and he was also almost certain that they came through windows and didn’t steal books beneath beds.
“I don’t believe you.”
Dean tried to sound firm like his dad when ‘laying down the law’, but his voice sounded a lot more like a squeaky than he liked. He heard some desperate whispering moving around under the bed. Finally, it seemed to settle up under the bottom half. So he scuttled over and hung his body over the footboard craning to listen.
“… what if we offer him something shiny and interesting?”
“We have that Viking axe just lying around, he’d LOVE it.”
“We aren’t giving Dean an axe.”
“Well we’ve got to do something, they’re going to start coming out of the forest soon and we can’t hang around here, we need to man the defences.”
“… Fine, just leave the book here and we’ll try again tomorrow night.”
“We, err… Should we say something though?”
“Dennis, you say something, I am leaving, and “I” will sort this out tomorrow.”
There was the sound of large crunching footfalls moving off into the distance, then a kind of long whistling rustling sounds that Dean realised what Dennis sighing.
“Dennis?” Dean asked meekly.
“Sorry, did I scare you.”
“Nnnnhh… House gods do NOT get scared Dean!”
“Sorry, you just sounded like Jenny at school when she saw that spider.”
“I was startled, Dean… Startled, not scared!”
“Oh, and what’s a house god? Why did you lie about being angels.”
Another long sigh,
“We’ve got no time tonight, Dean. Look, we’re really busy, we’re busy every night, and we’re just looking for you and Ben too, you know, keep it down during the day.”
“Well Ben is an idiot so I’m sure he’ll just do what he wants”
“Dean, we’ll speak tomorrow, I’m leaving your book here near the foot of the bed.”
“Look, we don’t normally do any of this, we’re just…”
Then Dean heard it, a distant bell, the clang of a deep giant chime like that time he’d been in London and heard Big Ben ring. He heard a curse from under the bed.
“Dean, we’ll speak tomorrow,” an urgent serious quality filled the voice, “I’ve got to man my post.”
Dean heard more crunches, like hundreds of tiny toddler feet stumbling along. The sound conjured up an image of his little sister Imogen, Just like every time she randomly came to him, it left him feeling cold and clammy, The pit of his stomach-churning in time to the clattering of rocks and footfalls beneath his bed. Finally silence thick and deep settled onto Dean’s room. The last rays of twilight just touch the edge of the ceiling.
Dean counted to 10, taking deep breaths like his Dad had told him to do before something seemed scary then heart in mouth he jumped from the bed and rose up facing the black slot beneath his bed in his best ninja pose. He managed to hold the fierce kung-fu stance for about 3 seconds before overbalancing and falling slowly over to his left. After untangling his limbs he jumped back up to a newer, more stable, stance.
Nothing moved, the space beneath the bed remained dark, quiet and empty. After his body started to really protest and he started to hear his own heartbeat Dean finally let out a huge breath that he didn’t even know he was holding. But even then he found he still was panting a bit like he’d been running after Ben for the last 10 minutes. The darkness under the bed remained impossible to pierce even with Dean straining them to the point of bursting. He took 3 slow steps up to the bed and felt a tangy acid taste in his mouth as he forced himself to look under the mattress.
From here, it wasn’t a solid black, he could make out shapes, but he wasn’t able to work out exactly what they were. It wasn’t his box of Lego he was sure, it looked more like, more like leaves or a bush, or brambles like something out in the garden at least. He started to turn, deciding he’d be happy enough watching his brother play Xbox for a while. Not because he was afraid, he just had read enough of his book… His book! He could see it! It was just under the edge of the bed.
Dean shimmied closer, then backed up, then closer, chewing his lip, it had been so quiet for so long. He was sure nothing was around anymore. But it wasn’t just the silence, it was the lack of feeling anyone was there. His body was as sure as he was that the room was empty. Whatever was under the bed had run away. 10 deep breaths, he moved before he thought about it too much.
His hand snapped out impulsively and grabbed the book, then instantly tugged it to his chest to reclaim it, but somewhere along the way, something felt wrong. As his fingers grasped the book back it felt, wrong, like it was glued to the floor. Instead of pulling the book out to his chest, he found himself pulling down towards the book. He noticed with horror that he hadn’t even “grabbed” the book as such, his fingers had sunk into it like it was playdough or thick clay. He watched in growing horror as the book seemed to topple backwards as if down a slope. The weight of it pulled him slowly but surely down.
He managed to let out the start of a wail to his brother before he was sucked under the bed through the cobwebs and branches sliding down the hillside of small rocks head over heels. Bouncing and rolling to a stop in a huge pile of dead leaves.
Silence surrounded Dean, he heard nothing but his heavy breathing, a muffled voice far off seemed to be calling his name, sounding concerned. He sat up wanting to stare angrily at his treacherous book, it was gone, his hand was now coated black with dirt and grime. Getting on his knees Dean stood and for the first time took in his surroundings and froze. The wind gave him goosebumps, the trees surrounded and encased him, the stone hillside ran out in both directions for what seemed like miles. No house, no room, no bed. Dean felt a cold heavy feeling in his stomach as he tried to find something, anything familiar. The muffled voice of Ben slowly faded away leaving only echos. Dean felt the realisation in waves, he was lost in a forest that was under his bed and nobody knew where he was or would believe he could be there.
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”
“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”
“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”
“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”
“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”
“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”
“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“So … what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”
“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”
“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.”
“Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?”
“First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual.”
“We’re supposed to talk to meat.”
“That’s the idea. That’s the message they’re sending out by radio. ‘Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.’ That sort of thing.”
“They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?” ”Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”
“I thought you just told me they used radio.”
“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”
“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”
“Officially or unofficially?”
“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”
“I was hoping you would say that.”
“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”
“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say? ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’ But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?”
“Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can’t live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact.”
“So we just pretend there’s no one home in the Universe.”
“Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?”
“They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”
“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”
“And we marked the entire sector unoccupied.”
“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”
“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”
“They always come around.”
“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”
Brief update on some exciting progress on #AlphaFold! We’ve been heads down working flat out on our full methods paper (currently under review) with accompanying open source code and on providing broad free access to AlphaFold for the scientific community. More very soon!
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