Pandora’s Box

This story was written during my third year studying Creative Writing at Kingston University for my Narrative Techniques in Popular Fiction module in early 2018.

Pandora’s Box
by Richard Holliday

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Sirens called out in the distance, but they were not for him. He ran, quickly, through the alleyways that led between buildings. Forgotten thoroughfares of filth between decrepit buildings of the old world.

The crick in Bray’s neck would take a while to subside, he thought to himself. He rounded another corner in the maze of passageways, continually looking over his shoulder. Every turn, every jump, he looked. Flecks of artificial light seemed to follow him, but they never caught up. The quick glances didn’t give time for analysis; they were from the barrel-light of a trooper’s armament or from the perpetual twilight elicited from the deck lighting.

Rounding one of the smooth metal supports that held up an artificial sky made of steel that punctured the old brick and cement buildings like a giant’s hammer, Bray looked up. He stopped for a moment, bending to collect his breath. He’d never seen real night. That was for the new world, not this old one.

Voices came, and they were close. They sounded restless. Fighting the stitch in his abdomen, Bray ran again, around an upset dumpster and its occupants.

“Hey, man, quit it!” the addicts wheezed. Bray ignored them. They had no idea what was going on. Bray stopped again. Every noise these silent and deserted alleyways made pricked his ears. He looked up again, through a gap in the buildings that had been so densely packed together. He was in the industrial district of the city.

“Perfect,” Bray mused wryly. “Just perfect.”

His pocket vibrated. Quickly, Bray fished out a phone and put it to his ear. He hummed only, the communication warranting no more, then put it away. Then he started looking for the entrance. They knew where he was. He moved quickly, to the right, down some cement steps. They crumbled underfoot with age.

Stepping quickly into the fluorescent night, Bray found the street was deserted. He breathed heavily, emerging from the darkness of the alley. He took a furtive glance over his shoulder. No lights behind him, the alley remaining cold and dark. A good start, he thought, smiling. Looking up, toward the floodlights suspended from the decking that covered the street, he let his lungs refill a couple of times. Maybe he’d lost them, he thought, sighing heavily.

Deep in his heavy jacket he felt a ping and a vibration. A hand delved in, retrieving a phone. No battery. The screen was cracked and broken into shards held together with plastic film. Not tonight, Bray thought, and he finally walked into the wide, empty avenue, lined with metallic trees that shone more artificial light to dispel the darkness. He walked along, rolling his shoulders. The light-posts stood at juxtaposition to the tired, brown brick of the shopfronts, all closed and dark, shutters down, dormant. The crowds that had so often jostled down this thoroughfare were here no longer.

“Hello? Pick up, Christ!” Bray absent-mindedly hissed into his dead phone. He pulled it away from his face and saw the screen was now completely black under the spider-web of cracks that festooned it. No battery. No good, he thought.

Mindlessly, he thumbed the data chip from the dead phone, discarding the body to the gutter below. The plexiglass front shattered with a quiet tinkle that managed to fill the space, from the worn stones of the street to the walls of the shops to the decking above that blotted out the sky. His gaze rose to the darkened shopfronts and he bared his teeth in a wry smile as he stopped outside one.

Silicon Dreams, the darkened lettering said. Bray looked around, but the streets had been cleared, the rubbish taken away, almost fearful to return. A static feeling in the air pickled the hairs on the back of the Bray’s neck. There was no-one here, which was odd considering the date; regardless, as a force of habit, Bray gave a look over his shoulder. Cracking his knuckles, he squared up to the door, and rattled the handle. It was loose-fitting. Helpful. He wouldn’t take long, glancing back along the street. The discarded phone in the gutter glimmered with the motion of his head, and he winced. Not tonight. It was like losing a limb at the best of times but… not tonight. Turning back to the door, Bray examined it. Flimsy. Cheap. Two panes of plexiglass in a wooden frame that was once white, now just a mess of ancient handprints. Easy.

The glass shattered with one kick, shattering the unnatural silence of the street. Quickly the slender man slinked through the shattered pane at the bottom of the door and into the shop. His eyes winced, but after a second they opened again, adjusting to the gloom. No alarm. No surprise. Made life easier. He walked to the back of the shop, his face falling. The place was threadbare, stripped almost back to the fixtures. Business was hard in times like this. His face fell, pitying the owner. A life’s work, this would’ve been, Bray knew, looking in the darkness at the shelves. All assembled by hand, with the hallmarks of craftsmanship that imbued the sense that it was done personally by whoever owned it, not out of a catalogue, or by a robotic servant of a faceless corporation. Brushstrokes in the worn paint that shouted mom and pop. Along the fronts of the particleboard shelves. Walking along, taking furtive and slow steps, Bray drew a finger along, feeling the unique imperfections that came with do-it-yourself finishings.

Behind the counter was a doorway. It formed a portal into a darkness behind that no light, even the artificial moonlight outside, could penetrate. Bray stepped forward, tapping the inside wall for a light switch, finding it and pressing it. With a hum and flicker a feeble imitation of the fluorescent vista outside lit up the back room.

Quickly Bray summed up the contents. A pair of locked cabinets, detritus and a broken stool. He nodded his head and walked back into the main room of the shop. He found one of the shelves, and carefully rubbed his finger across the worn, love-soaked woodwork. He smiled wistfully before his hand quickly moved to the metal arm and pulled it with a thud and a clatter from the wall. It would make a perfunctory equal of a crowbar, Bray thought. The shop fixture made short work of the soft metal of the cabinet door before clanging on the backroom linoleum, discarded, its new use transient and fleeting.

The cupboards were locked for good reason. Bray grinned and put his hand into the Aladdin’s cave, pulling out one of the wrapped boxes.

“Be something good,” he hummed, his fingers ripping the grey plastic wrap. Underneath there was a white, glossy box. Bray’s eyes widened as the wrapper fell away. The colourful ink of the box was iridescent, even under the fluorescent light. The light glinted on Bray’s teeth as he smiled. “Fucking Christ! A Candysoft!”

He held up the box containing and examined the holographic seal. It was real. He took a deep breath, hardly daring to breathe. Looking back to the cupboard, he counted two dozen. Then a pang of guilt passed over him. This was a nest egg he was helping himself to. Bray looked down, feeling strangely dirty, but the feeling passed as he slid his data-chip into the phone and it began to glow instantly. Notifications popped up in an instant, the handset buzzing.

“Hey, hey stop!” a cry came from outside, cutting through the miasma of silence like a shotgun shell. Then the sound of a struggle. Bray leapt to his feet and toward the front door of the shop. He saw the young woman – a vagrant, a drifter, her shawl fluttering with the motion and the breeze, stagger out in front of the shop. Bray ducked behind the low window ledge just as three clad troopers, their armour dark and angular, stepped into view. One brandished what looked like a weapon at the woman, who fell to the floor in a pile of rags.

Bray knew it was worse than a weapon and saw the beams of iridescent light spray from the tip of the device, illuminating the woman’s face. She squinted and held her hand up to block the light, but this just provoked one of the troops who span her round, grabbing her arms.

“We said resistance was futile and we meant it!” the trooper with the device growled. “Now let me ask you again, and think about your answer carefully this time: do you submit for scanning?

The woman was sobbing at this point, her voice staccato and the words almost intelligible. “Please tell me what to say to make this all go away, please!”

“Do. You. Submit. For. Scanning?” he asked again, emphasising each word. Bray thought back, realising the wording had changed. Consent for submit, as if there was any real choice.

Bray breathed, hardly daring to move. He peered sneakily around the back door of the storeroom. The woman he had heard was pinned inside the alcove containing the storefront door… which he saw moved subtly.

“Hey, is that…” he breathed virtually silently. The woman gave a fleeting glance as she was wrestled by the troopers, her eyes meeting Bray’s with just a flicker of an eyelid. It was enough; the connection was made.

Bray took an involuntary breath again, seeing the two troopers outside flashing lights around the alcove. They were close, the beams of light shaking with organic motion until they stopped, solidly, on the broken piece of glass in the door.

No. Freaking. Way. Bray thought. He held his arms close to his sides. He reached down into his pocket for his phone but stopped. He’d have to get out before he said anything.

One of the troopers gestured to his comrade. “Take her away, I’ll investigate this,” the trooper said. His voice crackled through a radio affixed to the faceplate of the all-encompassing helmet he wore. The shadow of the doorway enveloped the moulded eye-pieces, the glossy plexi material turning matte as it went undercover. A gloved hand moved toward the broken glass, the flashlight following inquisitively. It illuminated the scuffed glass of the lower panel, then the painted wood of the doorframe, then the broken patch in the glass. The helmeted head turned. A gloved hand touched the headpiece’s temple.

Bray moved back, hoping his motion had gone undetected.

“Report, we’ve a possible heat signature inside the store,” the voice crackled again.

Bray held his breath and rolled back around into the storeroom and breathed out. Then he looked up.

The light.

His eyes widened with horror.

The storeroom light. The glowing fluorescent strip that shone photons from its recess onto the concrete floor.

It was still switched on.

He reached for the light switch but pulled his hand back. It didn’t matter. Bray recalled the fragment of speech he’d just head. Heat-signatures. Standard issue body-scanners… of course , they registered body heat. Bray cursed. Schoolboy error.

The wall he was hiding behind might as well have been made of translucent film.

Glass crunched underfoot very close. Then the voice returned. “Suspected breaking and entering on the old side of the city,” it rasped electronically. A popper undid, breaking the silence. The door clicked and quickly fell away.

The bootsteps approached Bray’s position tucked inside the doorway to the storeroom. Inside, he counted in his head the bootsteps. Not many needed to traverse the shop, walk around the counter, perhaps less if the trooper decided to vault it.

Make no sudden movements, Bray thought but corrected the statement on his second mental recitation: make no sudden movements unless they’re the ones you plan to make.

The bootsteps were coming closer now, but slowly. Bray breathed steadily and noiselessly. The trooper was investigating the shop, he knew without looking. Hopefully he’d notice that nothing was untoward or disturbed, maybe he’d write off the light as a forgetful proprietor, not a clumsy intruder…

He didn’t.

The steps got closer. Bray’s breaths got closer. The moment got closer.

He saw the gloved hand, black and dark against the light of the storeroom come around the door. Then the head followed, the light reflecting off the once-matte-now-shiny eyepiece.

“Hey! You’re not supposed to be-“

Bray forced the door closed with all his might and the hollow wood quickly caved in around the trooper. The trooper fell back, dazed, but quickly recovered. The light extinguished as a burst of gunfire shattered the fluorescent tube, and sparks of ricochet pinged in the instant darkness.

“Intruder alert!” the trooper called loudly. Frantically. With panic under the electronic filtering.

Noise came from upstairs. The disoriented trooper faced the wraparound stairwell.

“Hey, whoever’s… hey!”

Bray darted around and plunged through the window, spraying glass everywhere with a crash. A burst of gunfire followed.

“Shit, shit, shit!” he swore, feeling a bruise in his leg from the fall. The alleyway outside the shop was slightly recessed into the ground. Picking himself up, he ran, looking over his shoulder with a wince.

A burst of yellow gunfire filled the window. Ducking, Bray ran. He felt impacts but hoped it was just his heartbeat, and that it wasn’t pumping the lifeforce out of him as he ran.

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