Collaborative Story

Follow us each week as we post one or more ‘episodes’ of our collaborative story written by ten writers from this year’s MA Creative Writing cohort. This will build each week so eventually by the end of October or thereabouts, the whole complete story can be seen on our website.
‘Round Robin’ novels were invented in the 19th century, and later became a tradition particularly in science fiction.  We have followed in the footsteps of this tradition by writing our own ‘Round Robin’ short story.
This has been undertaken as a fun writing exercise which we have arranged between ourselves.  Each of us has taken a turn to write a piece of the story (up to 100 words at a time).  One of us began the story and then sent it on to the next person to write the next section and so on.  Once it had gone through the group, we did another round and wrote up to another 100 words each, completing a story that was a little over 2,000 words in length.
We had no idea how this story would develop but it has Nottingham references, a touch of fantasy sci fi, and a protagonist called Harmony Horatia.
We hope you enjoy reading it each week. Maybe you’d like to have a go with your friends and family?  You never know where that first sentence will lead.

Here’s some suggested openings to get you going.

It was on a hot sunny day that I met the dog running backwards.
I didn’t mean to do it, it just happened.
On Monday morning the sky turned blood red.
The eyes in the photograph were following me again.
Twenty-four hours and seven seconds is a long time at the bottom of the ocean especially when….

Uncertain Truths

NTU 2021 Cohort of the MA in Creative Writing
A Collaborative Work, edited by Alison Goodchild

It was a bright cold day in October and the clocks had gone forward instead of back. Inside grey walled Room 13, Pendulum Apartments in Nottingham, Person 13666 (formerly Harmony Horatia) heard her doppelganger arrive home from the office and snatch up a crumpled ashen envelope from the doormat. Everyone had a doppelganger now and only they were permitted to leave their homes. Doppelganger 1752 had been created in a lab and one week ago Person 13666 had been forced to sign for her. [AC] 

1752 entered the room clutching the envelope, the number 13666 clearly written on it.  Harmony (as she still preferred to call herself) hadn’t got used to living with someone who looked like her – well almost. They had somehow missed the scar under the chin. She also hadn’t got used to her doppelganger reading her post. 1752 flopped onto the sofa. Harmony leant over and tapped the envelope.

‘Aren’t you going to open it?’ 

On the sideboard the gold clock left to Harmony by her grandfather started to strike. One, two, three, four, five, seven. It had stopped striking six when her grandfather died. Her grandfather had been clever at mending clocks when he was alive. He was also clever at designing AI programmes and teaching her to sing. [AG]

1752 studied the envelope, turning it over and over as if it were a coin to be flipped. After a sly glance at Harmony’s face, 1752 began to peel the flap open. Excruciatingly slowly.

From within, 1752 drew a purple sheet of paper. It enclosed a small, pressed flower which Harmony recognised as a blue forget-me-not. 1752 shrugged and passed the envelope and its contents to Harmony as she rose from the sofa.

‘Boring,’ it scowled and went into the kitchen.

Harmony opened the paper with shaking hands. Just a single line of handwritten script.

‘Beware of the woman bearing gifts.’ [CR]

‘It’s right. It is boring,’ Harmony thought before tossing the paper and envelope onto the sideboard.

She’d give the sender some points for presentation but nothing more than that. Anyone could cook up a fancy looking letter but if they wanted to get her attention, they needed to try harder than a flower and a single random sentence.

Some part of her had hoped her ‘friends’ had finally come through, but the reality turned out to be disappointing. If this is all they could come up with then she’d been wasting her time from the start. [DO]

The sirens bellowed. Though Harmony’s grandfather had set the clock two minutes fast to prepare, the marking of the daily roll call was no less torturous. The doppelgangers would line the streets in numerical order to verify that their person was in their apartment. Harmony heard 1752 opening the door.

‘You have to get them here,’ her grandfather had told her, jabbing at his neck. ‘Quickly.  Precisely.’

Harmony ran into the hallway. ‘Need to go,’ said 1752. Harmony took a breath and elbowed it in the throat. Its eyes flickered from side-to-side. She elbowed it again and the doppelganger was still. [JC]

In the time it was still, Harmony was outside. She closed the door behind her. She kept her eyes forward, staring ahead as the patrol came marching down Upper Parliament Street. An Official sat in an open topped car at the centre of the parade, calling out to each doppelganger in turn. Harmony listened to their responses, preparing to copy the standard reply. She could only hope that 1752 would stay inside. [JP]

Harmony crossed her fingers behind her back, not confident she had copied the cadence precisely. The Official paused and glared at her, its probing eyes scanning her up and down. Then it called to 1753 and moved on. After the call, Harmony found herself moving down the street alongside the other doubles, silent except for the sound of gravel underfoot, heading for the buses parked nearby.

‘Wait, stop her!’

The doubles turned back towards the street. 1752 was stumbling out of Pendulum Apartments, its hand rubbing its bruised throat.

‘Don’t let her get away!’ (KW)

The doppelgangers turned to face Harmony with haunting synchronicity. 1752 approached with arms outstretched. Harmony pushed it to the ground and barged through the others to clamber onto the bus, kicking at the clawing hands trapped in the doors as they tried to close.  With the bus secure, she climbed up off the floor and knelt on a seat to stare out of the window.  A sea of unblinking eyes stared back at her. Harmony moved slightly to the right and all eyes followed in uniformity. They appeared to be sharing one consciousness or perhaps controlled, but by who? (LS)

The bus growled into life, sending vibrations thrumming through her forehead. Inside, silent doppelgangers faced forwards, hands on knees as though braced for an air crash. Despite the press of watching doubles outside, Harmony knew no good would come of remaining on board. Stumbling to her feet she swore as she caught her knee in the aisle. The driver looked up into the rear-view mirror, her eyes a striking forget-me-not blue.

‘Open the doors!’

But the driver shook her head and spoke quietly, forcefully; the bus was already moving away.

‘You’re safer here,’ she said. ‘Sit down. I have something for you.’ (LG)

Harmony sat. The energy drained from her.

‘For me?’ she said and gave the driver a suspicious look. Outside, the doppelgangers seemed to be in the same trance-like state as those on the bus. The driver steered around them and accelerated.

‘Yes, information. We don’t have much time.’

‘What do you mean? Who are you?’

‘We’ve learnt how to hack them,’ the driver said, hands gripping the wheel.

‘Hack them? I…I don’t understand.’

‘The flesh suits. What you call doppelgangers. We can disconnect them from the AI that controls them and take them over ourselves. But we can only do it for a few minutes before the computer re-asserts itself.’

‘Who’s we?’

‘The resistance, the insurgency. Whatever you want to call us. My name’s Major Devere. I’m in charge in this district.’ The driver slammed her foot on the brake and the bus skidded to a halt as the doors opened. ‘The AI is taking back control of this flesh suit. Get to the fountain in the square. We need your expertise. I’ll explain more then. Now run.’  The woman went rigid, and her eyes faded from forget-me-not blue to brown. Then it reached towards Harmony with clawing hands. (MB)

Harmony threw herself off the bus, then dashed through the maze of once-familiar streets. They were now empty as the doppelgangers were marching elsewhere. Maid Marian Way, Friar Lane… She didn’t stop sprinting until she met the great white walls of Nottingham Council House, with its two resurrected fountains (yep, tinkering with time causes strange twists). Colours sparkled through the rampage of glistening water and through one fountain Harmony glimpsed a young dark-haired woman clothed in a medieval blood-red gown. She was handing out bunches of forget-me-not flowers as gifts to stray doppelgangers. ‘Beware of the woman bearing gifts.’ Above them, a metallic grinding and whirring screeched around the building’s dome, as a computer prepared to re-assert itself. [AC]

Take them,’ the woman said. ‘They’re for you.’  She began to hum, a sleepy and rhythmical sound and despite the noise of the computer, Harmony could not help but listen. [JC]

A blue haze enveloped her. She was no longer in the Market Square, but in her childhood garden. Clumps of forget-me-nots thrust through the warm spring soil, their sweet scent stupefying. Through the haze she saw her doppelganger, 1752 marching towards her. She could feel herself being drawn towards it, merging; she was no longer Harmony. Far away the Council House clock was striking. One, two, three, four, five, seven. She came to with a jolt. Six, it hadn’t struck six! She remembered her grandfather’s clock and that forget-me-nots don’t have a scent. She reached up and felt for the scar under her chin. She was not a doppelganger. She was not person 13666 or 1752. She was Harmony Horatia and she had to get away from her doppelganger. [AG]

Harmony ran through the streets, ducking between families heading out to the cinema and couples holding hands. Reaching Angel Row, she ran towards a bicycle rack on the pavement. Between an Evening Post newspaper shop and Barnardo’s charity shop she saw the wooden, out of place door of Bromley House Library. Above the door were numbers carved in sandstone – 1752 the date Bromley House was built. Harmony approached the door, but before she touched the aged wood it was swinging open. She went inside the darkened space and the door closed firmly behind her with a click. (LG)

Before she could get her bearings, a sudden change in illumination caught her even more off guard.  Blinking, she gazed upon the now too-bright interior; every visible space was covered with screens, each one showing marching doppelgangers.  

One screen caught her eye. It was like a mirror, showing her own surprised face looking back at her. Before she could consider what she was looking at, her image suddenly began to speak.

‘Harmony Horatia.’

Its voice was like a group of warbling crows trying to imitate human speech. The sound of it seemed to cause something in her skull to squirm.

‘Who…what are you?’ she said, clutching her head in discomfort.

‘You know who I am, Harmony Horatia.’ Its expression turned haughty. ‘I am what you mongrels call ‘Overmind’. The perfect programme.’ [DO]

Something about the name ‘Overmind’ caused her to pause. She knew that name, but from where? As seconds dragged past, and Harmony tried to piece together the memory eluding her, the face on the monitor became more and more irritated. [JP]

She stared for a moment at the screen, then summoning up all her courage, she began to sing ‘Ave Maria’. She began quietly, defying ‘Overmind’. As she sang louder, she could hear other voices joining in. The doppelgangers began to sway to the rhythm and mouth the words.

Harmony then remembered. She knew the way to disengage ‘Overmind’. Her grandfather had designed the programme ‘Overmind’ with a safety key. Not a code, nor a password, but a musical key. She changed her song to ‘Nowhere Man’ by the Beatles and sang louder. In the key of D Major. (CR)

The singing was broken by an attack from behind. A cloaked figure slammed her into the wall, her head smashing into a monitor. Harmony fell to the floor with shards of glass raining from the smashed screen. Harmony snatched up a piece of glass from the ground and climbed to her feet, attempting to stab the attacker in the throat, she missed and caught the attacker’s chin. The hood fell and revealed her sixteen-year-old self.  (LS)

‘Harm,’ this was the name Harmony’s grandfather used to call her at that age. ‘I’m here to stop a mistake. I’m from the future, from a timeline where ‘Overmind’ has taken over the world.’

Harm looked confused, her eyes wet with tears.

‘I don’t understand. ‘Overmind’ is just going to create a doppelganger of grandfather, so he can take care of me. So, I’m not alone.’

‘It starts like that,’ Harmony placed her piece of glass on the floor, ‘but then ‘Overmind’ becomes sentient and starts creating copies of everyone. And soon there is nobody real left, only copies.’

‘How do you know this?’

‘Because I’m you, from the future. See?’

Harmony raised her chin and showed the scar. In turn Harm touched the blood welling up on the exact same spot on her chin.

‘Time travel is strange, different forms of the same person shouldn’t interact. But when they do, once the interaction is over, neither will remember it. I don’t remember any of this, but I know it must’ve happened. That I gave myself that scar. Look at this.’

Harmony pulled out a crumpled picture from her pocket of her and grandfather. Without speaking Harm pulled out the same photo, fresh and new. Harm stared at the two images, then nodded.

‘Let’s kill ‘Overmind’.’

The two Harmony’s took each other’s hands and began to sing. The voices on the screen joined them. Their twin voices melded to create the most beautiful sound. An alarm started to sound and ‘Overmind’ screamed in pain, begging to be spared. They sang louder, drowning out its voice. A blue haze started to form around them, blue forget-me-nots appearing from nowhere. It was time for Harmony to return to the future. The Harmonys stared at each other and smiled, as the fog engulfed them completely.

Harm awoke alone, in that very bed of forget-me-nots in her childhood garden. She didn’t know how or why she was there but remembered the most brilliant dream, where she had just defeated an evil AI. She dismissed the fantasy until she looked to the floor. Cushioned by the flowers were two identical photos of her and her grandfather; one new and taken only a few days ago, before he died. The other was the same shot, but the edges crumpled and worn from handling. She put her hand to her chin and felt the small cut where it was still bleeding. Who did this other photo belong to, and who cut her chin?

Already she had forgotten the strange events. But sometime in the future, on a bright cold October day when the clocks had gone forward instead of back, she would remember. (KW)


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