I wrote a short story for the Sci-Fi London Festival 48 hour flash fiction challenge. I was given a title and a line of dialogue and had to come up with a 2000 word limit. Below is what I wrote – I haven’t edited it since I submitted it, so I know there are some mistakes in it. Though go read the competition winners, as they’re much better than my story! And the films are also really good (there is a 48 hour film competition running at the same time.
I found the challenge of writing something so fast really interesting. I went with the first idea I came up with and didn’t change it. Maybe I could have come up with something more exciting, but I only had limited time – especially once you throw children into the mix! I quite like the story I cam up with and I’ll definitely look into doing the challenge again next year.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.
In the box
No-one knew quite how it got there, or when it had come. It was at least a week before they starting searching for its owner. But no-one owned up to knowing anything about it, or even seeing it arrive.
The box was a perfect cube, although that wasn’t remarked on til later. And it was hard to look at for too long. No-one could fully explain it; it was if your eyes slid off it after a while. So it sat there, ignored by nearly everyone, behind the door to the office.
“I’m sure it’s getting bigger,” Pallavi said.
“Don’t be crazy.” Rufus turned to look at her and the box. Their desks each faced the side walls of their office, so they sat back to back. There was a large window between then, looking out over the campus.
“Last week there was a gap between it and the chair there, now they’re touching.” Pallavi pushed her glasses back up her nose and stared at him with her dark brown eyes. Her black hair was half tied back in a clip.
Rufus squinted at the cube, trying to look for as long as he could. He shrugged. “Someone must have bumped the chair over a bit.”
He turned back to his work on the computer, but Pallavi wasn’t convinced.
None of the other PhD students would believe her either, until the box grew enough that the door banged on it. Then they all knew they had a problem. They gathered round and watched it. But they couldn’t for very long, before their eyes slid off it. Though no-one could agree what colour it was. And it didn’t seem to be doing anything anyway.
Pallavi went to the departmental office, but they didn’t care. Her professor wasn’t interested and no-one else in the office had any idea what to do about it.
“It’s going to take over the whole building Rufus, I know it.” She frowned at it.
He laughed. She always had such outlandish ideas. Ever since they’d started their PhDs together a year ago the two of them had paired up.
“I’m sure it will…eventually.” She flicked her hair round, angrily. “Don’t laugh at me. I’m being serious.”
Rufus pursed his lips together. “Sorry, just I can’t help it.” He pointed at it. “Look, it’s a box. What can it possibly do?”
Pallavi grabbed the air in front of her face, her fingers tensed into claw shapes as she shook them back and forth. “I don’t know. I just have a nasty feeling about it.”
Rufus scooted his chair over to her and stroked her shoulder. “Of course I’ll help you, but what can I do?”
Pallavi rested her head on his shoulder and sighed.
He patted her back. “Come on, let’s keep working. I have a ton of stuff to do before the weekend, and I know you have too. Once that’s done we can go get a drink with the others and work out what we can do.”
Pallavi nodded and they went back to their computers. An hour and a half an hour later there was a clunk behind them. They both turned and saw that the box had increased dramatically, and the chair had fallen over blocking the door.
Pallavi quickly took her phone off the desk, took a photo of the box and sent it to the department mailing list. They both crept up towards the box, though neither of them dared to touch it. Rufus grabbed her hand and they stood there, barely daring to breathe. Soon there were noises from the corridor outside.
“Are you OK?” someone shouted, though they couldn’t recognise whose voice it was.
Pallavi and Rufus looked at each other. “Yes, we’re fine.” Rufus shouted back.
There was a banging of the door against the chair, trying to open the door. And the box turned darker, and slightly red. The colour of dried blood.
“Um, I would stop that if I were you. I don’t think it likes it.” Pallavi said slowly.
The door stilled. “What do you mean?” The sharp voice cut through the pandemonium outside.
“It changed colour.” Pallavi looked at Rufus. “Now it’s going back to normal…normalish anyway…” She took her glasses off and cleaned the lenses as she turned to Rufus. “Does it seem to be pulsating to you?”
“Now do you see why I was worried?”
He put his head to one side. “Well, I’m still not sure what it could do.”
She glowered at him.
“I don’t deny it’s worrying, just the reason behind it eludes me.”
There was the sound of lots of people talking outside in the corridor, but neither Pallavi nor Rufus could hear what was said. As it was the only door into their office no-one could come in or out til it was gone.
Rufus sat down again and leant back against his chair. “Oh well, I’d rather be in here, than have to live with what’s going on out there.” He nodded towards the door.
“They can only imagine what’s going on…”
“Yeah, whereas we can see it growing.” Pallavi’s voice got higher and she waved towards the cube. Everytime they looked at it it had grown again. Enough to notice, but not enough to see changing.
“Exactly.” He leant forward with a smile and winked. “We can see the show.” He reached into his desk drawer. “Twix?”
Pallavi laughed. “Trust you to have something stashed down there.” She shook her head. “How many do you have? Enough for us to survive on?” She peered round his chair towards him.
“Maybe. For a few hours anyway, given the speed you eat them at. Do you want it?” He continued to wave the Twix at her.
She took one finger and they ate in silence watching the box. Or at least, not the box but the steady progress of the chair across the floor towards the other wall. Eventually the chair reached the wall. It could go no further.
Pallavi jumped up and pointed towards it. “Look!”
Rufus’ face went white. The chair was being absorbed by the box. Now it could no longer move out of the way it was being enveloped.
“I’m not sure I want to be in here anymore. “ Rufus said. “In fact I’m not sure I want to be anywhere near that thing.”
Pallavi stepped forward and watched with interest as it creeped over the chair. “It’s seamless. I can’t see any change in it.”
She got out her phone again and took some photos and a video of it. By now it was a couple of metres each way, and there was almost no space to get round it without touching it. Now they’d seen it soaking up the chair there was no way they wanted to risk touching it. Pallavi sent the photos to the mailing list again and there was more noise outside.
“We’re gonna get you out. Don’t panic.”
Rushing feet went off again. It was difficult to gauge how many people were still out there. Or what they were trying to do.
Pallavi walked up to Rufus and he held her tight. He wanted to protect her, but how what could he do? They both looked to the side, watching the box progress towards them.
Pallavi took a deep breath. “We’re scientists. We should be experimenting, not standing here like idiots.” She thrust her phone at Rufus. “You’re in charge of filming.”
She picked up a scrap sheet of paper from her desk and strode towards the box. Carefully she held the paper over the cube and dropped it onto the top surface. The paper disappeared quickly, though an impression of the writing that had been on the paper flared on the surface of the cube before fading as well.
She frowned at it. Turning back to her desk she pulled up a leaf from the aloe vera plant she had there. That also was dropped onto the cube. This wasn’t absorbed so quickly, as if it was testing it first. Lastly she picked up a glass of water, which she poured slowly on the top. The water ran down the sides and pooled on the floor. As she watched that was also sucked into the cube. It was still growing all the time, and now the ends of their desks were being absorbed too.
Rufus grabbed her hand. “What now? We’ll run out of space soon.”
“We could try a Twix. Do you have another one?”
He stared at her. “Are you serious? What will that do? We’re learning nothing from this.” He waved the phone towards her, but more forcefully than he intended. She stepped backwards and her foot made contact with the cube. There was a moment of stillness before she fell to her knees, her head flung back and her mouth wide open in a silent scream. The cube seemed to melt and all of it flowed over her skin, covering her from head to foot, til there was no cube left anymore. Even her eyes and mouth were covered, and every strand of hair. The colours on it swirled, up and down her body.
“Pallavi!” Rufus screamed. He sat down next to her, but a pace or two back, as he didn’t want to be sucked into it too. He picked up her phone and started filming again as tears ran down his face. Why had he doubted her? Why had he insisted that they stayed in the office with it?
There was a bump as Pallavi’s glasses dropped to the floor. She stood and walked joltingly out of the door. Rufus ran to keep up. As they went down the corridor everyone who saw them stopped to stare and many of them joined Rufus in following her out of the building. She walked straight to the largest open area on campus – outside the library. Once there she held her hands to the sky and wailed. Her voice went up and down, over and over again, far beyond the normal range of a human voice. The crowd stood round her, unsure of what they could do. Or what was happening.
Then the mysterious coating over her seemed to dissolve and Pallavi started to fall. Rufus stepped forward to catch her and laid her gently on the grass. After ten minutes or so her eyelids flickered open. She saw Rufus and gripped his hand hard.
“Shhh, it’s ok. It’s over now. I’m here. It will all be alright” Rufus stroked the hair out of her eyes.
She sat up and looked around, then reached up to push her glasses up her nose, but they weren’t there.
“Where…” She shook her head. “What happened? Why am I here?”
“You remember the mysterious box?” Rufus kept his voice low and calm.
“Well, you touched it. It brought you here, before disappearing.” Rufus couldn’t explain the rest without feeling sick.
“Yes. That’s right.” She looked up into the sky, a silver gleam in her eyes, and smiled. “They wanted to check up on how we were doing.”