Half a Minute to Midnight

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Half a Minute to Midnight is a collection of stories that explores the question "What if technology took a step too far?"

Scifi / Horror
Age Rating:


Jo woke up, his eyes bleary and his head pounded from the night before.

The New Year’s Eve party at his sister’s house had been good enough, and Grace was the perfect host, but what was the point of it all? Drinking with strangers, making a fool of yourself, and then wasting the next day feeling sick and depressed seemed like such a waste of time. Not to mention how his constant binge drinking and bad eating habits were affecting his health. Hadn’t he eaten a cheeseburger and fries on the way home too? It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.

Aching and groaning, Jo slowly pulled himself upright. With what felt like a herculean effort, he got out of bed and stumbled slowly to the bathroom to expel as much of last night’s drink as he could. He looked down at the familiar, unattractive sight of his bulging stomach and could barely even see what was underneath it. No wonder Emma had rejected his advances at the party, he was overweight, out of shape and quite frankly, not much of a catch.

Splashing some water on his face, Jo decided to pull himself together. No more self-pity. It was the first of January after all, right? Time to make some changes. He went back into his bedroom, cleared up the half-eaten burger from his bedside table and headed off downstairs.

Heading into his home office, Jo slumped into his chair and then attempted to log onto his computer. God damn it, what was his password again? Come on brain, engage! After a few failed attempts, his familiar desktop appeared, and he decided to check his email. It was the usual nonsense; alerts that his friends had posted a holiday picture that he couldn’t care less about, and a television internet company trying to get him to spend even more money by upgrading his package. Jo was just about to close his browser down when the title of one email grabbed his attention.

New Year’s Resolution? Get fit with this free revolutionary app!

Opening the email, Jo read with curiosity and skepticism. The contents of the mail boldly stated that ‘this will be a New Year’s resolution that you will definitely stick to. Motivation guaranteed! Simply click on the link below to sign up!’ He clicked on the link. What did he have to lose anyway, apart from his huge stomach? It was free, and getting something for free had to be good, right?

The link took him to a web page called ‘Destiny Fitness,’ which Jo thought was a pretty corny name for a business. The front page listed several five-star reviews from people who were already testing the app. In one of the ‘before’ pictures, a lady looked frumpy, chubby and totally miserable but in her ‘after’ picture she beamed a confident smile, wearing a crop top and showing off her new six-pack. Her review stated ‘It only took me six weeks to gain the perfect body. You can too!’ Jo scoffed out loud, unconvinced but still decided to sign up for the free trial by giving his contact details. It was worth a shot.

Putting the kettle on, Jo reached for a cup and opened a jar of coffee. Out of the window, he could see his neighbour taking down their Christmas decorations. It was that time of year, the celebrations were over, and it was dark by 4:00 p.m. Jo sighed. The kettle finished boiling and he finished making his drink, slurping it as he headed towards the medicine cabinet to get some painkillers. Aspirin. Was that all he had? Rummaging around he found some codeine; that would hit the spot. Perhaps this afternoon he would recover on the couch and watch some Netflix. That sounded like a plan. Tomorrow he would start his new health kick; it could wait one more day.

Just as Jo was about to take the painkillers, his phone rang. Startled, he looked at the undisclosed number on the screen. Who would be ringing him today? Probably a damn PPI call. He answered the phone.

A man’s voice spoke. “Hello, is that Jo Needham?”

“Yes, who is this please?”, he responded, a little too abruptly.

“I’m Ben Harding from Destiny Fitness. Did you sign up for our free trial earlier today? I have a spare appointment at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow morning if you are interested? It shouldn’t take more than an hour of your time.”

Jo raised his eyebrows in surprise. “That was quick! Uh, sure as long as I can get back home to start work for 9:30, that works for me.”

“Fantastic! You won’t regret it. We have had some great results. I’ll email you over confirmation and how to find us. See you then.”

Jo said goodbye and disconnected the call, slightly taken aback but pleased. This was just what he needed. Hopefully, a new life was ahead of him now! Maybe he would even be able to find a relationship. Feeling more positive, he popped his codeine and browsed Netflix for a box set he could binge watch for the rest of the day.

The next morning, Jo woke up and reached out to switch off the alarm. He was still feeling slightly groggy. Putting on his jeans and a t-shirt, he thought about the appointment ahead. He wondered why he had to go in at all. If it was just an app, why couldn’t he simply download it? Rubbing his eyes, he went downstairs, grabbed his keys and headed for the door. There was no time to waste, he only had twenty minutes to get to his destination.

As he walked down Pemberton Drive, Jo struggled to find number 24b, which was the address given in the email. The fact that the street number had a 'b' in it conjured up images of a shabby back street second-floor studio flat, hardly the futuristic, high-tech building he had imagined. A small plaque on a brick alleyway labelled ‘Destiny Fitness’ pointed him in the right direction. Jo took in a deep breath and wondered, not for the first time this morning, whether he was doing the right thing.

At the end of an alleyway was a door with various intercom buttons on it. Pressing what he hoped was the right one, Jo stood awkwardly and fumbled with his keys. Suddenly a female voice exclaimed, “Mr. Needham, we were expecting you. Do come in.” The door buzzed and Jo pushed it open. A younger, pretty lady with auburn hair smiled at him from behind a desk.

“Please take a seat, Mr. Needham. Can I get you a drink?”

Jo smiled in return. “A coffee please and a sweetener, if you have it.”

The receptionist went off into a side room, and he could hear cups clinking and a kettle boiling. The room he was in was bright, modern and airy. In front of Jo, there was a monitor on the wall with a stream playing, promoting their fitness app which was called ‘Destiny.’ At least it gives the appearance of being professional, Jo thought. He looked away from the screen and muttered thanks as a hot cup of coffee was placed in front of him.

A door swung open, and a tall, grey-haired man wearing a white coat held his hand out. “Welcome Mr. Needham, I’m Doctor Ben Harding, we spoke on the phone. Would you like to come through?”

Jo walked down a narrow corridor that led through to a door on the left. The older man directed him into a room that had a bright light shining over what looked like a dentist’s chair. At the side of the chair was a metal table that had medical instruments on it, cotton wool buds and a small bowl. Jo suddenly felt apprehensive and his face tightened. Surely this was total overkill for a mere fitness app?

“I understand your concern Mr. Needham, but I assure you that the procedure is practically painless. The receiver for the app can be removed at any time; it is like a tracking device that you would insert to locate a pet. I take it you read the attachment that was sent with the email?”

Ben hadn’t but tried to cover his flustered expression. The doctor smiled at him reassuringly.

“It is a simple process. I make a small incision just near the base of your neck and insert a chip that monitors your body and generates tiny signals through your nerves. Those signals then encourage you to become more active via the schedule in the app. If you don’t get on with it, come back and we will remove it for you straight away, no questions asked.”

Dr. Harding picked up what looked like a consent form and handed it to Jo who looked at his watch. Damn, he was going to be late back to work if he didn’t hurry up! Signing on the dotted line, Jo placed the papers on the table. This had better be worth it, he thought.

It was sunny when Jo went outside. Squinting his eyes, he reached his hand towards the back of his neck which stung a little. He could feel the surgical pad that had been placed over the cut. The doctor was right, inserting the chip hadn’t been painful after all, especially with the help of a little local anaesthetic. He had an uncertain feeling and felt slightly sick. Why hadn’t he even bothered to read the small print? What on Earth was he letting himself in to here?

When he got home, Jo logged into his work laptop and answered a few emails. His eyes rested upon the white envelope on the kitchen table that contained aftercare instructions. Inside the envelope was a folder that contained login details for his training schedule. Jo browsed to the site and saw his training plan for the week and his brow furrowed. It was really heavy going; a five mile run each morning before work, and in the evening he had to do sit-ups and jumping jacks.

Jo looked around the page and clicked on the edit schedule button. There was no way he was going to be able to do all of that exercise. He was trying to get fitter, yes, but that was going to kill him! Amending the run to only three times a week and reducing the distance was a good start. Jo hit the save button and went back to work, trying to ignore the niggling feeling of dread inside his stomach.

At lunchtime, his destiny app started beeping. A strange sensation started to run down Jo’s back and he felt a curious urge to stand up and start moving. What the heck? I guess that is the chip doing its work. Jo checked his app, which was still beeping at him. On the display, it said ‘Time for your daily run!’ There was also a countdown of five minutes. “God damn it,” Jo stated out loud to himself. “I don’t want to do this now, I thought the first run was for tomorrow?” He tapped ‘cancel activity’ and the noise stopped. The curious feeling that he wanted to move also ceased. Although Jo was slightly annoyed by this unscheduled event, he gave it no more thought until the next morning.

After the slightly unsettling visit with Destiny Fitness yesterday, he felt more together after a good night’s sleep. Beating the app to it, Jo decided to get his fitness gear on before his run was due to begin. He rummaged in the back of his wardrobe, where he found some dusty running shoes that hadn’t seen the light of day in three years. Tying up his laces, he noticed it was nearly 7:00 a.m. Any second now, he thought. His app started beeping on time and the countdown to his activity began. Filling up his bottle of water and putting on some running music on his phone, he set off outside.

It was that weird sensation again. It almost felt like a combination of drinking far too many energy drinks whilst being mildly electrocuted at the same time. It didn’t hurt, mind you, it was more like an intense prickling. Either way, you certainly couldn’t sit still whilst the chip was in action. Jo began to jog slowly and then sped up into a run. He felt surprisingly good; he didn’t want to stop. This was incredible. He couldn’t even run to the bus stop but somehow, he could now run three miles continuously? It seemed impossible, but he loved it.

The week continued on, and Jo followed his exercise schedule to the letter. After fourteen days, he checked his profile in the mirror. There was a small change! His stomach seemed a little smaller, and he looked healthier. Time to up his game, Jo thought, so he logged into his online schedule. He noticed that he had a new recommended fitness plan, which he accepted without objection.

On the way back from his morning, run, Jo bumped into his neighbour, Katy. She was good-looking, and way out of his league. Katy smiled at him as he approached.

"Hey Jo, how's it going? Did you just run around the reservoir? That has to be at least five miles. Pretty impressive."

Jo threw a smile back. "I sure did, I recently started an exercise plan and I'm really enjoying it."

"It's paying off too!," The younger woman replied, cheekily looking Jo up and down.

Jo felt himself go slightly red, but the compliment felt great. Especially from someone like Katy. Could she even be interested in him?

"Thanks," Jo grinned.

"See you later then," Katy beamed, and Jo watched her for a few seconds as she walked back towards her house. If I keep this up, he thought, I might have a chance with a girl like her.

That evening, Jo tidied up his front room in preparation for the jumping jacks and stomach crunches that were planned. The app made the familiar beeping noise and through his headphones, he could hear his exercise instructions. "Let's start with twenty sit-ups and then take a small break." Jo took a moment after his first set, his body was tingling as the chip sent signals down his back. "Twenty more now, keep going, you are doing great!" Jo rested for another ten seconds, his stomach starting to get tight. "Now do seventy! you can do this!" Seventy? Jo thought. This was a bit excessive. Thirty-eight, thirty-nine....his stomach muscles were really starting to cramp now and he had to stop. Getting up of the floor, his app starting to make that beeping noise again, and 39/70 flashed up in red on the screen. He suddenly felt a large shock jolt down his back and his legs. "Jesus Christ!" Ben shouted out loud. What the hell was happening? In his ear, he could hear the words "Complete your activity!" over and over again. Ben threw off his headphones and received another larger electric shock down his back. "Okay, okay," Ben muttered, sounding rather more frightened than he had anticipated. "I'll fucking do it!" He shouted out loud to no one in particular. Ben finished off the last thirty or so sit-ups and curled up into a ball clutching his tummy. His headphones were lying next to him and he could hear a distant voice saying "Well done! Keep up the good work!"

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