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Thirty Seconds to Midnight

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Thirty Seconds to Midnight is an ongoing collection of stories that explores the question "What if technology took a step too far?"

Scifi / Horror
Maddie Heyward
5.0 1 review
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.

Walking 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 broadband 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 scepticism. 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's this?” 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.

Jo raised his eyebrows in surprise. “That was quick! Uh, sure as long as it won't take more than a few hours."

“Fantastic! You won’t regret it. We have had some great results. I’ll email you a confirmation on 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're 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 insert to locate a pet. I take it you read the attachment that was sent with the email?”

Ben hadn’t read it 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 into 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. The envelope contained login details for his training schedule. Jo browsed the site and saw his exercise 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. "Morning Jo!" The robotic female voice said. "It's time to get running." 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.

Thursday evening rolled by and 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 the familiar female voice giving exercise instructions. “Let’s start with twenty sit-ups.” 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 off the floor, his app started 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. Jo shouted out loud. What the hell was happening? In his ear, he could hear the words “Complete your activity!” over and over again. Jo threw off his headphones and received another larger electric shock down his back. “Okay, okay,” Jo muttered, sounding rather more frightened than he had anticipated. “I’ll fucking do it!” He shouted out loud to no one in particular. Jo finished off the last thirty or so sit-ups and curled up into a ball clutching his stomach. His headphones were lying next to him and he could hear a distant voice saying “Well done! Activity complete.”

Stunned, Jo wondered what was going on with the chip. Maybe the app needed resetting or upgrading? This was bullshit. He was going to ring Destiny Fitness this week to see if could get the damn thing removed. He crawled up the stairs praying that tomorrow would be a better day. He fell into bed and quickly fell asleep due to exhaustion.

The next morning he woke up and Jo's abs hurt like hell. Ignoring the pain, he pulled on his running shoes to do his scheduled run. On the way back, Jo bumped into his neighbour, Katy. She was good-looking and way out of his league. She 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 him up and down.

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

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

Suddenly, Katy called back after him. "Fancy a meal at The Lake House on Friday?"

Jo grinned. "That sounds brilliant," he said. "Seven o'clock?"

She nodded, looking flushed and smiled back. Maybe Jo's week was going to get better, after all.

The week went by and the chip behaved itself. There were no more excessive workouts and Jo figured maybe the app had just had a momentary blip. Jo’s heart raced with a mix of excitement and apprehension as he prepared for his date.

Dressed in an outfit he bought especially, Jo made his way to their meeting place. The warm ambience and soft lighting of the restaurant created an atmosphere of intimacy, an ideal setting for a romantic evening. Jo grinned as he spotted Katy who was waiting for him at a corner table.

"Hey Jo," Katy beamed. Jo responded, smiling broadly. "You look great." Shall we get some drinks?

The waiter came over. Jo scanned the wine menu and ordered a bottle of Chablis. Clinking their glasses together, Jo felt himself relax. Katy’s infectious laughter and genuine interest in his stories melted away the layers of self-doubt that had built up within him over the years. Finally, his life was going the way he wanted and he had never felt so confident.

But the fitness app had other plans. Midway through their meal, Jo felt a tingling sensation in his spine. The chip awakened, stirring with unnerving energy.

Their conversation faltered whilst Jo tried to get a grip on himself. Katy looked at him questioningly. "Are you feeling okay? You don't look too comfortable."

Jo took some deep breaths and smiled reassuringly, trying to ignore the increasing electric shocks down his spine. He checked the Destiny app. A message appeared advising him that his daily routine had been adjusted and it was adding an extra impromptu workout! He felt sick.

A subtle jolt coursed through the man's body, urging him to stand up and begin a series of exercises. His muscles responded against his will, causing Jo to rise from his seat and awkwardly perform jumping jacks in the middle of the restaurant. Eyes turned toward him, gazes filled with a mix of confusion and amusement.

Katy, initially taken aback by Jo’s sudden movements, tried to suppress a smile, attempting to understand the situation. But Jo could see the flicker of concern in her eyes, a hint of doubt creeping into her perception of him.

"Are you okay - what's happening? Now isn't the right time to complete your daily fitness goals."

The restaurant’s patrons watched, their laughter growing louder, blending with the chip’s electric currents that surged through Jo’s body. Sweat streamed down his forehead, blending with tears of frustration and embarrassment. He felt like a puppet on strings, his autonomy stripped away by the technology that controlled him.

His date's smile faded, replaced by a mix of pity and confusion. She reached out to Jo, trying to make sense of the situation, but he was too consumed by the chip’s persistent demands to respond. He couldn’t blame Katy for doubting him; he could barely believe it himself.

As the exercise routine continued unabated, Jo’s body strained and his energy waned. Finally, as Jo collapsed to the floor, breathless and defeated, the chip relented, allowing him a moment of respite. He glanced up at Katy, his eyes filled with pain.

Jo's voice contorted with pain and he stuttered “I’m - I'm sorry, I have to go.”

Katy, still struggling to comprehend the inexplicable events that had unfolded, offered a feeble smile of sympathy, her words lost in the noise of the restaurant. She looked like she was going to say something but turned away instead, looking mortified and bewildered.

Jo rose to his feet and slowly turned away, his steps heavy and burdened. The night that had begun with a glimmer of hope had descended into a nightmare, a cruel reminder of the price he paid for his New Year's resolution.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket, wracked with agony and shame. Jo’s anger burned deep within him as he dialled the number of the doctor who had implanted the insidious chip in his neck. He needed answers and an end to this torment.

After several rings, a voice finally answered on the other end. It was Ben Harding, his tone betraying a hint of surprise at Jo’s call.

“Jo, what can I do for you?” the older man's voice crackled through the line.

Frustration laced Jo’s words as he vented his anger, his voice trembling with a mix of desperation and fury. “You’ve ruined my life! This chip... it’s controlling me, forcing me to exercise, humiliating me in public! I want it out! I want my life back!”

There was a brief pause on the other end, and Jo could almost hear the cogs turning in Ben’s mind. “I understand your frustration. Meet me at the Destiny office first thing tomorrow morning. We’ll remove the chip. I promise.”

A surge of relief washed over the wretched man. Eagerly, he agreed to the meeting, gratitude tinged with scepticism.

The following morning, Jo stumbled down the quiet alleyway to Destiny's office, his breath laboured.

As Jo neared 24b, he knew something was just plain wrong. The door was ajar and letters were scattered near the entrance. It was too quiet and the reception area was empty. On the far side of the room, forgotten fitness brochures were strewn across the floor. Jo’s heart sank, and a sense of foreboding washed over him. Destiny had vanished without a trace.

A surge of panic coursed through his veins, and he frantically searched the building for any sign of the elusive Ben Harding. As Jo reached the top floor, he stumbled upon a small office. Papers were thrown across the desk, and a computer monitor hummed with a faint glow. An overwhelming sense of curiosity took hold, and Jo approached the desk cautiously. He clicked the mouse, awakening the computer from its sleep.

A cascade of files and documents flashed across the screen, revealing the sinister truth. Jo’s eyes widened as he read about the true purpose of the chip, an experiment in human manipulation. Destiny’s intentions were far from noble; they sought to control the lives of those longing for change, using pain as a weapon to ensure compliance.

Dread wrapped around Jo’s heart as he clutched his phone, trembling fingers dialling the doctor's number once more. The sound of the ringing phone echoed in his ears, but there was no answer, only silence at the other end. Panic seized his chest, suffocating his breath as he attempted call after call, leaving frantic messages and pleading for answers.

Tears streamed down Jo’s face as he sank to his knees, the weight of his shattered dreams crushing his spirit. The once-vibrant hope had withered away, replaced by darkness. As Jo finally turned away from the deserted office, a bitter taste settled in his mouth, and he felt hopeless.

Stumbling back home, Jo questioned his very existence. Was this the life he had sought? The pursuit of fitness had transformed into a nightmare, a twisted parody of his initial intentions. He yearned for release but the chip’s power held him hostage leaving him with no escape.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and Jo’s physical and mental health deteriorated. The electric shocks ravaged his nervous system, leaving him fatigued and battered. He was even forced to exercise during the night and sleep became a luxury that other people had.

Despite the continuing hold of the chip, Jo pressed on with an unwavering determination, fueled by his desperate need to break free from its grasp. “That’s enough,” he thought, a resolute voice echoing within him. “I need to find a solution.”

With a sense of urgency, Jo jumped into his car, his hands gripping the steering wheel tightly. He navigated through the bustling high street, his mind focused on reaching Accident & Emergency. The weight of the chip’s control pushed him forward, propelling him towards the hope of finding answers.

As he arrived at the hospital, Jo crawled out of his vehicle, his body weary. He dragged himself towards the reception area, a glimmer of hope mingling with the exhaustion etched across his face. The older man behind the desk greeted him with genuine concern.

“How can I help you?” the receptionist asked, his voice filled with empathy.

Aware that divulging the truth would likely result in disbelief, Jo chose to fabricate a different story. “I’ve been having unexplained seizures,” he lied, his words filled with desperation. “I think there’s something wrong with me.”

The receptionist gestured towards the waiting room, and Jo obediently took a seat, his heart pounding. Hours passed, each tick of the clock a painful reminder of the chip’s presence. Feeling the cruel electrical pulses coursing through his body, urging him to exercise, Jo quickly slipped away into the bathroom.

In the confined space, he succumbed to the app's commands, engaging in a flurry of press-ups, his body straining. Tired and dishevelled, Jo returned to his seat in the waiting room, his appearance a testament to the toll the chip had taken on his health.

Finally, a nurse called his name, breaking through his thoughts. Jo rose from his seat, weariness weighing heavily upon him. The nurse led him to the imaging department, where an MRI scan was conducted. As the procedure came to an end, Jo observed the doctor and radiologist exchanging worried glances, their concern palpable.

Ushered back into the waiting room, Jo was informed that the doctor would review the results and see him as soon as possible. Time seemed to stretch endlessly as he grappled with a mix of anxiety and anticipation. Eventually, the doctor summoned him into her office, her gaze fixed upon the image displayed on her computer screen.

Pointing to a small shadow on the scan, the doctor regarded him with a curious mixture of sympathy and pity. “I’m so sorry,” the young woman spoke, her voice heavy with regret. “Whatever this is, it has become fused with your spine and nervous system. Any attempt to remove it would result in paralysis and, potentially, even death.”

Desperation clung to Jo’s every breath as he left the hospital and contemplated the unthinkable. What the hell would he do now? It seemed like the only way to sever the connection to the chip, was to find peace from the relentless pain that consumed his existence.

Later that evening, without thinking, Jo took a walk to the local Downs and found himself standing on top of a desolate hill. The wind howled around him and tears streamed down his face, lost in the rain that ran down his exhausted body. The chip’s demands had become unbearable, and in a moment of despair, he made a decision that would shape his future, one way or another.

He started to run.

With every step, his body protested, muscles screaming in agony. He ran faster and faster, an unstoppable force hurtling him forward. Jo’s heart pounded in his chest, his breath came in ragged gasps, and the world blurred around him.

As Jo hurtled down the hill, he realised the horrifying truth—the chip had stripped him of his ability to stop. Its control over his body had become absolute, eradicating any semblance of free will. Panic surged through his veins as he tried desperately to regain control, to halt his frenzied sprint. But it was futile. The chip’s grip on him was unrelenting, driving him towards an impending disaster.

The ground rushed beneath Jo’s feet, the world a dizzying whirlwind of motion. The hill steepened, and his body pushed him forward with a force he couldn’t resist. A moment of clarity pierced through the chaos, and Jo knew his fate was sealed.

With a final surge of adrenaline, Jo’s body propelled itself off the edge of the hill, soaring through the air. Time seemed to slow as the inevitable loomed before him. In those fleeting seconds, he felt regret mingled with resignation.

And then, everything went black. For a few moments, all that could be heard were the trees swaying and rustling in the wind.

In the haunting darkness, a beeping sound broke the silence. From the lifeless pocket of Jo's still body, the Destiny Fitness app emitted its final synthetic message.

"Activity complete."

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