First 5 Words of Toujours Voir

“Folks!” the bodyguard announced. “In…”

David Brin — Toujours Voir from The River of Time

I quote only five words from this short story because as a precision short story it is only 250 words long. Quoting 50 words would therefore be quoting a disproportionate amount of the story.

David Brin describes a precision story as “a fable written to very exacting standards.”

This 250 word version is one such fable, something that can also be called flash fiction and also constrained writing. I don’t much care for flash fiction, which sometimes seems pointless, but I do like constrained writing and I might try this version someday.

Monkey Heights (Short Story)

Monkey Heights short story cover
Jurgen Frax takes people on daring adventures. Simulated adventures which are made safe for the novice adventurer.

But even a simulation climb prove to be too challenging for Sassoon and Raya Ridge when their nerve fail them halfway up a granite rock face.

Normally getting down is as easy as pressing cancel, except when the system fails. Now Jurgen is stuck on a make-belief mountain with a couple of panicking climbers.

 

Monkey Heights

By Gerhi Janse van Vuuren
A gust of wind raced across the face of the granite cliff and the three climbers shuddered on their ropes like taut sails on a championship yacht.

The top climber, Jurgen Frax, grabbed hold of his last piton with his left hand and swung away from the cliff to look down. The two ashen faces of Sassoon and Raya Ridge looked up at him with eyes wide open. Jurgen gave a hearty laugh.

“That was only a twitch folks. You have to experience twice the force of that wind, driving some sleet, before you can really say you have braved this line.”
Sassoon Ridge looked over at his wife and she shook her head, stiff lipped and very determined.

Ah hell, though Jurgen, here we go. But he kept smiling. “Ready to climb again?”
Like his wife Sassoon shook his head. “No,” he said, “I mean, birdcage.”

“Blast,” said Jurgen as he slapped the rock. “That is your safe word, right? Please tell me that is not your safe word?”

Raya and Sassoon exchanged looks again. Jurgen knew that look. The look Sassoon gave Raya was the look a man gave when he asked his wife’s forgiveness for not being the bravest man in the universe. And the look Raya gave back was a permission for the man not to be, tinged with a dash of disappointment that he wasn’t. He had seen it play out many times before and here it did again, a small drama of marital disappointment.

Ah hell, thought Jurgen, what did he care. He wasn’t married, not anymore, so all that was left for him to do was hit cancel on the simulation and take an early lunch. He just hoped they did not want to talk through the experience.

Contractually they had access to a debriefing, so that they can share their feelings. It was the worst part of the job for Jurgen, talking about touchy feely stuff. Usually this was a gush of words about how great it was but on a cancellation it ended up being a counselling session in which the session leader, Jurgen himself in this case, would have to prop up twisted egos. That would just utterly spoil a day that was already heading downhill fast. But first the official part.

“Right folks,” said Jurgen, “by your request, through using your own predetermined safe word, I am to cancel this simulation at this point. You will receive a pro-rata refund, minus service and maintenance charges. Please confirm your cancellation by repeating the safe word clearly. Mister Ridge?”

“Can’t we just stop this?” Sassoon looked tense, his jaw tensed enough so that his face started turning white.

“Have to do this the right way,” said Jurgen, “otherwise there are legal ramifications and such. Confirm your cancellation by repeating the safe word please?”

“Oh bloody hell,” said Sassoon, “birdcage. Bloody birdcage.”

“Very well,” said Jurgen, “Mrs Ridge, the safe word please?”

Raya answered too softly for Jurgen to hear. He knew that the scenario recorder would have amplified her answer and that they had already met the requirements of a cancellation, but he was not going to let them off lightly.

“Speak clearly please. The safe word?”

Raya Ridge worked her mouth but her vocal cords did not seem to be functioning properly. Tears started streaming from her eyes and she looked from Jurgen to Sassoon, her eyes now pleading. Jurgen knew he should have cared some but he was now irritated, so he just waited.

“She said it dammit,” said Sassoon.

“I need to hear it,” said Jurgen.

“Dear?” said Sassoon.

Once she found her voice again Raya screamed her answer hysterically over and over again.

“Once is enough,” said Jurgen and Raya’s wail petered out into a whimper. He gave the shivering couple one last look before he swung his arm up and pushed his left sleeve back to reveal the control unit strapped to his forearm.

Cancelling a simulation seemed like a straightforward procedure but it required a huge adjustment from the participants. The perceptual clues which maintained the simulation had to be gradually replaced with the reality of the simulation chamber to prevent a whiplash effect. Do it too fast and the body goes into shock.

Normally, at the end of a session, this is not a problem because a completed simulation dissolved around the participants, leaving them with a warm afterglow. But a cancellation was a cold interruption and any sane person had a built in resistance to the perceptual rules of the world. Because they had to be eased back into reality the system slowed the transition down. It was going to take at least another fifteen minutes before they would be off the cliff face.

“Hang on folks,” said Jurgen, “just another minute or two.” Then he tapped the cancelation sequence on the pad. He finished, his fingers hovering for the confirmation he had to enter twice. But the pad did not refresh.

“What’s taking so long?” said Sassoon. “We can’t hold on much longer.”

Now, even more irritated, Jurgen looked down. “Move over to that piton on your left and hook yourself in,” he said, “this won’t take long.” Then he took hold of his own piton with his right hand and shook his left arm. He knew there was no reason for this to make any difference. The control unit was shock resistant. You could not do an adventure simulation with equipment that wasn’t. But he had a basic mistrust in too delicate technology and preferred things he could do with basic physics and muscle. Adjusting his hands he tapped the cancelation code in again. The pad remained unresponsive.

“Just a moment folks,” he called down, “we seem to be having a slight technical problem.”

“What problem?” said Raya, her voice now piercingly clear.

Jurgen took a deep breath. He had to stay calm so that they would stay calm. But he heard the first tinges of panic in Raya’s voice.

“What’s the problem?”

“Just a delay in cancellation,” said Jurgen. “Happens sometimes when there is a lot of data to process.” It was a complete lie of course. Switching off the system was just that, tripping a switch. Without the built in delay it could be instantaneous. There was no new data to process. Jurgen slapped the control unit and tried again. He got the same results, nothing.

That meant there was two options left. And he did not know if the Ridges was up to either of the two. He sneaked a look down.

Sassoon had moved to the side, his hands clutched together and his head resting against his forearm. He was in the classic position of a frozen stiff who had given up. To get him to climb again would be difficult. No, almost impossible.

Raya was fidgeting with her equipment. It was a good thing she was clipped in because if she wasn’t, with the rapidity she was changing her hands and feet around, she could lose her grip easily. She was close to panic and would be a bigger danger than her husband, because she would climb like a maniac when given the chance.

“Right folks,” said Jurgen, “we have a glitch in the system and I cannot cancel. We have two options, climbing up to the top or climbing down.”

Sassoon gave no answer, he just moaned softly. Raya snapped her head to look up and down and then back to Jurgen.

“This is silly,” she said. “This is just a simulation. We can close our eyes and unhook ourselves. How far can we fall? Two or three metres. And there is a net, right?”

Jurgen took a deep breath to keep himself calm. “Physically yes. But your mind is convinced you are hundreds of metres up on a cliff no matter what the reality is. Mentally you will fall and the shock might kill you.”

“What do you mean might?” Raya shook the rope above her as she talked, spitting the words out in a rapid fire. “I thought, we thought this was safe. There is a guarantee.”

Jurgen steadied the rope between himself and Raya. She was shaking it about hard enough that he could feel his own weight straining on the piton above him.

“The guarantee applies if the whole system works. The cancelation protocol is not working so there is no guarantee that anything else is working.”

“This is rubbish,” shouted Raya, spit now frothing around her mouth.

“Down,” said Sassoon.

“What?” snapped Raya.

Jurgen thought that it sounded as if Sassoon was crying. When he spoke again he removed all doubt. Tears and snot was streaming down his face when he tried again, shouting at his wife in anger.

“Down, I said I can go down!”

“Just a moment folks,” said Jurgen, “down is a little bit harder than up.”

Sassoon’s hands had clutched fast on the rope and he pressed his face against the rock, his body shivering and shaking slightly. Shock, thought Jurgen. He’s done for.

“Why is down harder?” said Raya. “We covered that ground already.”

“Down is harder because you can’t see where to place your feet. And even if you could you won’t look there. Your eyes will be pulled away, staring at the drop. It is harder. Better to go up.”

Raya twitched on the rope again. “And have further to fall. We were already on our limit when—“

“Stop,” snapped Jurgen. “Stop pulling the ropes about and stop wailing. Up is better.”

A mean twist crawled across Raya’s face and for a moment Jurgen pitied Sassoon. She grabbed a rope at random and yanked it to the side. “I’ll pull whatever I want to.”

The rope she held did not go up to Jurgen but sideways to Sassoon and when she yanked it she peeled him of the cliff face so that he swung around and hung with his back against the wall.

A high pitched squeal spilled from his lips and his hands clutched for the rope above him.

Jurgen held his hand out, as if he was trying to stop a bullet train but it had about as much effect. It was as if Raya was unaware of her husband twitching beside her, her attention only focussed above on Jurgen, a crazy gleam in her eye as she grabbed hold of every available rope and shook it as if she was a monkey trapped in a birdcage.

Again the three bodies on the cliff face shuddered but this time not because of an external force but because of an internal cause, as if they were a brittle hulled dingy running aground on a rock. A shockwave snapped through the rigging and as Jurgen watched the piton on which Sassoon hung slid out of the crevice.

Time froze because he could do nothing before Sassoon dropped down and swung in a wide arc underneath them, hitting an outcrop on their right with a wet smack, and then swinging back again.

At least Raya broke off her tirade and looked down, her head slowly pivoting back and forth as she followed Sassoon’s swing. Then, calmly, she removed a cutter from her belt and hung down and cut through Sassoon’s rope just below her.

The rope snapped apart and snaked out from the cliff and Sassoon fell, too fast even for him to realise he was falling, or why. It was strange, though Jurgen, but he did not even scream, as if he was at last accepting the inevitable.

Jurgen froze in place, his hand still outstretched down, staring at Sassoon’s body disappearing out of sight. His mind knew the man only fell a few metres, but his senses told him different. Desperately he wanted to hear the body hit ground but the sound did not come. The illusion was too strong, the bottom too far down.

With a slow deliberate action Raya tucked the cutter back into her pocket and then turned her head to look up at Jurgen. Her eyes sought his out and locked in, a cold stare that spanned the space between them and filled him with a cold shudder.

Jurgen had nothing to say, his mouth frozen like the rest of his body. Until Raya started climbing, now suddenly much more sure footed than before. Not like a novice climber her husband had made both of them out to be.

Another shudder went through Jurgen when a gust of wind chased a handful of snowflakes past his face. Then he fumbled for the rung on his belt, struggling to release the catch and feeling that it took forever before he was able to release the rope between him and Raya.

She swiped the falling rope out of her face as if it was a pesky spider’s web and kept climbing at a pace that Jurgen did not know if he could beat, or even match.

But he knew that he had to stay ahead of her no matter what, because she was coming up to get him. He turned up, searched quickly for the next handhold and started climbing.

“You can climb if you want to,” Raya said, sounding much closer than what Jurgen expected. “Just remember that the higher you climb the further you fall.”

Jurgen stretched himself upwards for a difficult hold. Then on an easier stretch he took a moment to reply. “It is all in the mind,” he said, “I’m trained to ignore it.”

“Sure you are,” said Raya.

They climber further in silence for a bit and then, reaching an outcrop of rock Jurgen went the left way around. He knew this route and was almost three quarters of the way up. If he could stay ahead he could make it. But when he next looked down she was not below him and before he could stop himself he had called out.

“Mrs Ridge?”

Her voice came back, accompanied with a slight echo.

“I’m still here.”

She had to have taken the right side of the outcrop. It seemed easier for a bit but then it went sideways before going up again. Jurgen felt he had more of a chance. Even if he wasn’t climbing faster than her he was on the faster route and he could beat her. Even more so if he could distract her.

“Why are you doing this Mrs Ridge?”

His voice came back to him in a light echo and it was a while before she answered him.

“Because our marriage was merely a simulation. And I had broken through the illusion.”

There was even more of an echo when she spoke. Great, thought Jurgen, she was now climbing away from him. He will make it to the top before her and then… He did not know exactly then what. Only that he needed to get to the top before she did.

He didn’t bother talking to her anymore, he just climbed, finding his rhythm, keeping his breathing steady until he placed his hand on the last ledge, right next to a Raya Ridge’s climbing shoe.

He stopped climbing and followed the line from her shoe up her leg until he met her face, smiling down at him. It wasn’t a smile that included here eyes. No thought, Jurgen, not a smile at all, a grimace.

“Did you know that I designed this rock face?” said Raya. “Under my maiden name of course.”

Jurgen’s mind went blank for a moment and then he shook himself back to the present. “This is called Monkey Heights. Your maiden name is Monkey?”

A little bit of softness crept into Raya’s expression. “It seems unfortunate, doesn’t it. But then again, I prefer my own name for this design.”

Jurgen eased his hand over the ledge and dragged himself slowly higher. He could play for time and get up beside her. Then he had a chance. “Interesting,” he said, “and what was your name for it?”

Jurgen felt that he made it for a moment but he knew he was deluding himself when he felt the sole of her shoe on his chest. “Everything on the simulation is recorded,” he said, making a last attempt to stop her.

“Not if you designed a backdoor into the system,” said Raya before leaning forward and speaking softly.

“And I prefer to call it Monkey Falls.”

END

Monkey Heights was written at the end of 2015. It is published here free to read until it is removed for commercial publication. This story is the property of Gerhi Janse van Vuuren and copyright is reserved.