Category Archives: FictionIssue5

To Which We Build Our Pyres – William Williams

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The gods were greedy. Cub picks his way across the Pile. The remains of religious worship is accumulated in mounds all around him. Wafts of incense blow in drifts, fires fan in the horizon, and the city sits like a jewel in the middle of it all. Continue reading

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Against the Sun – Sarah von Bock

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The boy was only one-thousand, eight-hundred and twenty-five suns old when his first leaf, a true evergreen, was cut from his skin. The sun filtered through the glass in warped patterns that day, shining light sporadically around the pediatrics unit. The room was overzealously packed with positively charged colours, pamphlets, and posters showing happy little children with animated cartoon flowers growing from the tops of their heads, their smiles sincere and never ending. Brochures dedicated to depression littered the walls as well, with varying titles including The Grip of the Sun: A Bright Future Denied, Recognizing the Signs, Trome Care According to Host Plant Types, The 24th Century Family, and Learning to Grow; Adapting to Change in a Loved One, all careening their informative faces towards the couple in the center of the room.

‘This could have been much worse,’ the giant being slurred gravely to the humans before her. This Trome was derived from a banksia plant. Her right eye was covered by a hearty red and yellow flamed flower, and her mighty chin was nothing more than a furrow of tangled dark roots that bobbed up and down with her jaw as it moved.

‘As it is the trauma sustained will probably hinder leaf development for the rest of his life. Which in turn may lead to further complications as he grows.’

Sadly Maria the banksia had seen many cases like this abuse; many parents were unable to cope with having a child they saw as a second-class citizen. A tromo. With effort she quenched the anger that smoldered inside her. It was appalling. She looked down at the poor little sapling, still so sweet and fleshy. Trent, their son, was unconscious and worn. She watched the two drips from his monitor screen travel into the damaged limb where eventually the blood and sucrose washed together. Where eventually it didn’t matter. Maria sighed so deeply she felt it rattle around inside her like dried out skeleton leaves in the wind.

‘He still looks so normal . . . ’ Maude ignored the pointed glare she received for her comment and instead continued to look at her pale child, sprawled out on the sterilised white linen like a bundle of collapsed twigs.

‘How can this be happening to our boy, Hank? To us?’

Hank watched his finger tremble as he tenderly traced the thick, fleshy leaf he had chopped from Trent’s tiny wrist that day. Marred with blood and a hardening sap, Hank could not accept that the two had come from the same being, let alone his son. Hank shook his head. He was just trying to hang on to the boy he was. Should have been. Was that so bad? He couldn’t quite understand it all . . . he smudged the thick residues between thumb and forefinger again. They were one now, he thought with a frown. This was his son.

Maria, meanwhile, couldn’t help herself.

‘Ma’am, please. The metamorphosis of our species is a completely natural process, and may I remind you, has been so for hundreds of years now. Every human has the capacity for this genetically pre-determined condition. Without it the Earth would not get nearly enough of the oxygen it needs, it’s simply the world’s way of balance. It’s natural.’ The sun hung heavily on her words; it was all very true, so why did she always come out of such conversations feeling defeated?

‘I promise you, it’s the most natural thing in the world.’

The ghostly pair looked through her as she talked.

 * * *

Two years had passed. In those orbits, seven hundred and thirty more suns had slunk over them all, claiming nearly 435 victims in their state alone, according to the talk show hosts.

‘The fact is it’s an alarming statistic. Out of 25% of the population committing this saddening act, nearly 85% of suicides are from Trome young adults alone. And it should be addressed: the amount of still-trees you see these days is absolutely heartbreaking.’ The replay of Dr Darwon Charlie stopped.

‘Well, no offense to our country’s leading Trome analyst,’ said Harry, ‘and I’m not a Tromophobe- BUT, now that most old time trees are extinct, fire wood’s gotta come from somewhere, doesn’t it?’

A woman snickered, ‘Oh Harry! You’re so bad- no honestly folks, there’s no containing this one.’

‘I am a bit of a fire- stoker . . .’ Hank could practically hear the grin in his voice. He cut the engine off on his car, the talking ceased.

‘Oh thank god! Just in time!’ Out of nowhere Maude was against the car door, duffel bag in one hand and her son in the other. She ushered both into the old sedan.

‘What’s happening?’ Hank turned to Trent, now in the backseat.

The buds that had been growing up and out of his neck had begun sprouting, Hank realised. They gently swayed as he shuffled over, little lime green passengers suspended in mid-air.

‘Dad, you need to take me to group social, we’re playing soccer today, I think.’ Trent’s hazel green eyes were lit up, this was his first social.

‘Is that wise?’ It was important for Tromes to socialise with their kind, Hank agreed, but it was hard for any Trome to walk at speed let alone run- the roots and fibers in their feet would instinctively tell their bodies to stop and taste the soil. Why do they humour this idea of normality? Of assimilation? It would only make Trent more upset later in life. Hank huffed.

‘I’m sure he will live, our baby can do anything any other little boy can, right honey?’ Trent looked at his mother. What an odd question. Trent could taste the quality of the soil simply by coming into contact with it. He swore he could feel the sun sing to him oddly at times in a distorted but comforting way, like through a shimmering body of water. He could sense the presence of another Trome, often from very far away, just because the roots in the grass and their feet were all somehow interconnected. Other little boys couldn’t do that. He considered this all for a while, long enough for him to see his mother’s confidence falter. So why was he the one who needed to keep up with other little boys then? Were these things bad? Were they his fault? Is that why his mother had worded it that way? The wind blew coolly, and the sun warmed up every little part of him that made him feel like he couldn’t communicate with her properly.

‘I guess, mum.’

‘Don’t forget to schedule in his next outing with the team leader, okay hun?’ Maude hadn’t realised she had been holding her breath until her chest fell heavily. Hank noticed too. Unfortunately so did Trent.

 * * *

Larry must be very old, Hank thought as he watched the ten-foot high Trome make his way towards him later that afternoon. His long limber branches and their shimmering leaves dragged behind him on the ground as the weeping willow stomped his way over to them on thick, silvery stumps.

‘How’s it going, Trent?’ Hank cupped the back of Trent’s head as he walked towards the old Trome. Seven years old now and still it was a shock when he felt the hardness of forming roots hiding beneath his blonde buoyant curls. Masking his intake of breath Hank coughed and smiled. Trent stuck his tongue out at his mentor before holding his distorted, hard hand so tightly the wood in his fingertips creaked. From that very first day, Trent loved Larry. And being the smallest in the group, Larry looked out for him especially. For thousands of suns after, Trent was part of an active community. ‘If you dig your roots in deep enough, you won’t ever fall down.’ The old mantra was relayed always, letting them know they weren’t alone. Letting them know the call of the sun wasn’t the only thing on Earth that could keep them warm and whole. Oscar, a handsome boy with yew features, would sometimes try to make fun of Trent’s small foliage, and every time he did a snapping vine without fail would make its way to the youth with an audible smack. Strong and mysterious, Larry would wink at the stunned boys and lumber on. So when they received the call from the team leaders, begging the community to band together in this time of sadness, the family was in absolute shock. They visited his shell once, at his funeral. Along the riverbank Larry’s roots were already deep into the earth, his eyes shut forever and hardened over with a thick, deep bark. Trent became really upset when he couldn’t tell which branch was once his hand, he just had so many limbs now, so many it made all the parts that were once Larry lose meaning. The lake’s surface had sparkled like diamonds as the water churned below Larry’s final resting place, the reflecting light pierced the eyes of the funeral party as his body hung as it had in that final moment.

Wood, Hank decided that day, is no indication as to how strong a tree really is.

 * * *

On his five-thousandth, four-hundredth and seventy-second sun, Trent was nearly fifteen. Gangly and undernourished, his leaf impediment had cost him dearly for all the nutrients he couldn’t soak up. His leaves, although now a beautiful deep jade, were warped. Different. It meant Trent needed more time to photosynthesise. Which of course was very, very dangerous.

‘It’s highly addictive. He mustn’t get lost in it,’ Maria was telling him at their tri-annual meeting. Hank was trying very hard to pay attention, but it was difficult after the ordeal he had just experienced.

Tromo. That’s what that stupid boy had called his son, before he had flung mud and god knows what else at him and run away. Tromo. Hank glowered darkly at the memory.

‘Tromes lacking experience can easily get swept away in the sun.’

  1. Those stupid little boys and their stupid words like axes. Hacking and slicing and cutting at his poor boy until there would be nothing left.

Hank had focused on wiping away the mud from Trent’s broad brow. The leaves on his face trembled uncontrollably, but Hank hadn’t said anything. Instead he took off his coat and tried draping it around the boy for comfort, not caring that it wouldn’t fit. Hank just had to do something.

‘Tromo. What a damaging, repulsive, abhorrent word.’ It made Hank sick. But most of all it made him livid. When he heard the word he saw his son in pain, labeled. Excluded. Hated and feared. It licked at his heart like a sharp, hot fire. Maria’s face became one of empathy almost instantly. She could guess what had happened.

‘What can we do for him? How do we stop this?’ Such words were lethal. His fists were as tight as they could be.

‘What can I do?’

Maria sat, glad that her banksia blossoms had bloomed early this season, that she had not pinned it back today with twine like she usually would have. She didn’t know how to answer that furious, powerless, frustrated glare. How do you change a whole society’s way of thinking?

‘Please Maria, what do I do?’ How do you accept the fact that your child would hurt for the rest of his life? Hank’s boney fingers ran through his thinning brown hair.

‘Watch him. Be ready. That’s all you can do.’

And that was all she could tell him. The bright posters of happy tree children grinned sadistically at the pair, the sweet stems blossoming exquisitely from their heads now a wonderfully cruel lie. Maria hid behind her flowers.

On Trent’s five-thousandth four-hundredth and seventy-seventh sun, he was lying at the park and the world was absolutely singing. Bright and chirpy, the star of life sprawled superfluously along the greenery like an unperturbed feline. Maude was extremely pleased with herself for forcing her son to be at this place. It had been exactly five days since the bullying incident had taken place, and finally, Trent was out of the house again. She told her friend as much as they watched Trent laying in the shade some distance off.

‘His wood is strong; it’s all that fleshy stuff underneath. The kid’s as soft as soil.’

Hailey the palm tree’s wood slunk up her slim torso like scales up her spine, until it reached the crescendo of pointed palm leaves atop her head, which flared out against the sky like malformed, jutted green wings. Nonchalant she slapped a fly off her hairy knee. Maude had met Hailey in some of Trent’s support groups, and instantly the pair had become friends. Hailey was brash and at times rather crude, but she was honest and decent. And Maude appreciated that most at a time where she felt all her other friends were stepping on eggshells around her when it came to her boy. They just didn’t understand.

‘You need to be made of tougher stuff to be a Trome. He needs to be sterner, or he’s just not going to make it,’ Hailey stated. Maude cringed.

‘Unnatural.’

A few yards away Trent thought he had heard a man sneer the word under his breath as he had walked past him. Absently Trent had been lacing his fingers along the roots on his arms, feeling for the fluffy organic fibers that grew from his hardening bark flesh. Not quite yet formed it was still very sensitive to touch. The underhanded comment was a rude awakening back into reality. Dismally Trent watched the old man walk off along the path without a second glance back, just another nameless, angry person. Slowly Trent pulled up his long sleeves until they covered all the skin along his skinny arms, the grey material sticking up awkwardly and obviously in places, to his anxiety.

‘Trent, what are you doing, that looks horrible! Roll your sleeves back up.’ His mother laughed at him as she walked over with Hailey.

Maude saw her son’s face scrunch up like foil before he turned and skulked off, and her heart scrunched up with it.

‘Honey?’

But he was already so much further than his legs could have taken him.

 * * *

That night Trent dreamt vividly he was talking with Larry.

‘It’s hard, especially when you can feel a way out on your leaves- when you can taste it,’ Larry was saying, his vines restlessly meandering along the grass.

‘But life is a gift.’ His familiar large blue eyes pierced Trent’s muddy green ones, trying to find anchor and resonance until Trent wanted to cry. He missed those eyes.

‘Not for us,’ Trent heard his voice tell him.

‘Especially for us.’ But the old Trome was now a skeleton. His brittle, stretched bones were locked away in the confines of rough decaying bark, his many leaves flowed out of their branch sockets rapidly like fine dried ash in the wind.

Perspiring wet, Trent woke up.

 * * *

The world revolved. The way it always had and would always continue to do. In the yard alone the next day, Trent was thinking about how everything was interconnected. Trent was thinking about balance. He closed his eyes and listened to the heartbeat of the Earth. Breathing himself, he too was a miracle. The soil beneath his crusty hands melted away at his touch. Inside Maude was watching a rally on television, the volume just audible.

‘If history has taught us anything, it is that assimilation is just another word for segregation- if we really want to achieve progress like the state claims it does, we should be looking for ways to facilitate them into our society, renegotiate what it means to be normal and recreate this world to include them as well. What kind of future can we offer them when they are viewed as non-citizens? When there is no future?’

The man stepped off the podium, the crowd threw flowers off of their very own heads at him, the sea of limbs cheered. After a hiccupped laugh and a moment, Maude cried. Outside all exhaled and Trent exhaled with it. He closed his eyes and opened them again, finally as clear as the sky. Hank pulled up outside and cut the engine. On Trent’s five-thousandth, four-hundredth and seventy-eighth day the world spun on its axis and the sun shone like a promise.

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The Emerald Dress – Benjamin Traynor

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Richard found himself alone save only for the snow, slowly falling from the sky and landing on the ground around him and the exposed skin of his outstretched hands. It did not seem to Richard to be snow at all as, though he was dressed only in a light jacket and shorts, there was not a single hint of the cold that Richard had believed accompanied snow. He found it rather remarkable.

Even more remarkable was that the snow that landed on his hands stayed only for a moment before dissolving away into nothing before his very eyes. It was as though it had never existed. He looked at the snow falling and the snow on the ground with a confused, almost crazed look, reaching his hand out every now and then to test the snow again. Every time it was the same result. It simply dissolved when it hit his hands while staying on the ground below with no adverse effects.

Richard had never seen snow before in his life, having only ever known life as a farmer in a remote area in the middle of Australia. He had lived mostly alone, finding company with his cattle and his dog. His face was lined and tanned and covered with a stubbly, greying beard. Beneath bushy eyebrows, his blue eyes seemed to be piercing the snow at his feet as they moved from place to place, worriedly surveying his surroundings.

He felt himself shiver despite the lack of cold as he looked out into the vast emptiness ahead of him, everything being grey or white except for himself. He felt as though he was in a desert of snow upon which nothing could ever grow at all. It was overwhelming for the poor man to think that only moments before he was smiling at his big, black dog chasing a rabbit into a bush, the Australian sun beating down upon him.

For some time Richard stood, his face changing with any given moment. One moment he seemed confused, then he looked angry and even, at times, content. His face was unemotional as he finally turned to walk away. As he did so, he suddenly stopped in his tracks. Richard’s eyes bulged as he realised that he was wrong. Something could grow in the white, snowy desolation around him.

Snow-capped mountains burst silently from the ground, racing silently skyward. He tried his hardest to keep his vision trained on the white tops of the newly forming mountains, but his eyes were incapable of processing the speed at which the mountains were growing, soon sprawling in the distance and covering as far as the eye could see. He looked at the beautiful mountain range ahead of him, holding his breath as he did. As he finally let his breath out, he sensed something happening around him.

Richard’s head darted from side to side and, to his astonishment, he saw something growing out of the snow. He watched as the trees changed from small saplings, having sprouted from an unforeseen seed in the ground somewhere underneath the infernal snow, into large oak trees, taller than any trees he had ever encountered and topped, as the mountains had been, with even more snow.

It was a wondrous sight to behold, indeed, and yet Richard still appeared to be confused and even, unfortunately, rather angry.

Out of the darkness that the trees created came a strange noise that suddenly filled the area surrounding Richard. It was not a startling noise. In fact, it was rather pleasant. As he stood in awe at the new environment surrounding him, a melodious tune carried from somewhere far in the distance. It was unlike any music that had ever graced his ears. The music sounded as though it was being created by the voices of a thousand people mingling together in perfect harmony. The tune was so intensely beautiful that it may not have been the voice of people at all. It could well have been angels.

Unaware of time, Richard stood gaping at the newly formed mountains and oak trees, listening to the angels singing, their voices mingling together to create a wonderful tune that would live in the hearts of any who heard it. Richard’s face began to soften for the first time since becoming engulfed in snow.

He surely believed himself to be the only person to have the great honour of hearing such an angelic song. That was until he heard the quiet crunch of footsteps on the snow behind him. With unforeseen reflexes, he quickly twirled around and came face to face with a most peculiar woman.

The first thing that Richard noticed about the woman was the emerald dress that she was wearing. The colour stood out wondrously against the white and brown from the snow and the trees. The dress was not designed for colder weather, and Richard moved to take off his light jacket before suddenly remembering that the cold did not seem to exist where he was. Seeing Richard reach for the jacket made the woman laugh melodiously, her laughter mixing with the song surrounding them causing Richard to tremble. Richard saw that the woman’s red hair was blowing in a breeze that he did not feel. The gallantry of which Richard held himself in such high regard faltered when he looked upon the woman’s face.

It was long and gaunt and her expression, though laughing, appeared to be grim and emotionless. Her skin was pale, almost grey, and her brown eyes were boring into his very soul. It was her eyes that gave Richard the most pause, for when he looked into them he saw something fearsome. Something hostile even. The woman’s face did not go with the wonderfully beautiful emerald dress and flowing red hair.

‘Where are you, Richard?’ the woman asked, scanning his eyes as he was doing with hers. Her voice, in opposition to her beautifully melodic laugh, was coarse and deep. Richard’s eyes betrayed his caution and unrest as he regarded the woman suspiciously.

‘How the bloody hell am I meant to know that?’ Richard asked. Richard was obviously frightened by the appearance of the woman in the emerald dress and was far blunter then perhaps was cursory at that moment. ‘While we’re at it, just who the hell are you?’

‘I am not important,’ the woman said, her raspy and abrasive voice somehow managing to follow the slow tune of the melody still going all around them. Richard rudely snorted and crossed his arms, looking at the woman with undisguised annoyance.

‘Yeah, well who is, love?’ he asked, once again overstepping the boundary with his bluntness. It was a credit to the poor woman at the other end of the tirade that she did not reprimand him for his brutish manner or even react in a manner that would, in this case, be justifiable. ‘Just answer the question. Who are you?’

‘I am no one,’ the woman replied, furthering her earlier response and answering in a polite manner. There was a pain behind her words, however. A pain of a not forgotten past, perhaps. Or maybe simply the pain of no past, present or even future.

‘Well, congratulations on that one, eh?’ Richard replied untactfully, his voice now bitingly sarcastic. The woman never lost her composure, something Richard could perhaps do with trying himself from time to time. ‘Just cut the crap. What the fuck is going on here?’

The woman’s nose scrunched up at the unnecessarily vulgar language streaming from Richard’s mouth.

‘It is not for me to say,’ the woman, whose dress sparkled a vibrant green on the spots where a snowflake had landed and dissolved into nothing, illuminating the snow around her, making it almost seem as though the snow was actually grass. Richard let out a grating and entirely unnecessary laugh.

The melody of the angel song surrounding the two of them quickened, as though someone had been observing the conversation and altered the beautiful song in reaction to Richard’s now hostile behaviour. The song took on a dangerous quality. It was now far less peaceful than it had previously been. It was no longer the beautiful song of angels, and Richard had no one to blame but himself.

‘Well, why are you here then?’ he asked, his tone now faster and deeper. While the face of the woman remained impassive, it had to be alarming to her that Richard would act in this hostile manner. The only indication that she had reacted to Richard was her muscles tensing slightly as he spoke. Who can blame her, really? How much abuse can one person take? ‘Just tell me right now, alright? What the hell is going on here?’

‘It is not for me to say,’ the woman repeated, her voice now wavering on the edge of breaking. Richard was being unkind. The wind picked up as Richard’s face started to contort in anger and his arms raised to rub his scalp which he could feel through his close-cut greying hair. The woman’s red hair started to move about much more quickly and erratically, and soon appeared to have a mind of its own. ‘I do not like your tone, Richard, and I request that you cease hostilities towards me and allow everything to take its proper course.’

‘My tone?’ Richard asked, letting his irrational anger get the better of him, his hands now gesturing wildly. ‘It’s fucking snowing! I’m from Australia for Christ’s sake. And you’re worried about my damn tone?’

Richard had gone too far this time.

Snowflakes stopped in mid-air and the wind that Richard could not feel ceased blowing as the world began to rumble around them. The woman in the emerald dress stood unwavering as Richard looked at his feet, surely concerned that at any moment the gates of Hell would swallow him up for his unbelievably rude and childish behaviour. The gates of Hell unfortunately did not open to swallow Richard. What did happen was that the snow started to evaporate, flowing from the ground in rivulets of water towards the sky from whence they had fallen. It was as though it was raining upside down. The trees went into reverse and became smaller, eventually turning back into a sapling and then into a seed that was clearly visible upon the earth that had appeared from beneath the snow.

The mountains began to disappear next. When they had first arisen, pushing their way out of the snow, there had been no noise at all, however this time there was a great, unpleasant scraping sound as the mountains forced their way back down into the newly visible earth.

The angelic melody began to shift and change once again, as though the angels had been replaced by druids. The sound was low and melancholy. A funeral dirge. It was as beautiful as the original melody that had caused Richard to soften.

The woman in the emerald dress had not moved from where she had stood before, and her brown eyes had not left Richard for even a moment as her hair violently thrashed of its own accord around her body. She looked every inch a beauty to anyone who would look upon her. Except, as it would appear, Richard who looked to be more confused than ever before as he covered his ears with his hands, attempting in vain to block the grating, painful noise.

Within seconds, the beautiful, snowy landscape was replaced with something much more arid and dry. Steam rose from great cracks in the ground where bones and the seeds that had been oak trees were strewn across the landscape. The sky had become dark with clouds that threatened to unleash a terrible storm upon all those who dared to stand beneath them. Finally, the incessant grating noise ceased and Richard tentatively pulled his hands away from his ears, only to be assaulted by the new, sinister tune.

‘What the bloody hell was that?’ Richard demanded angrily, apparently too stubborn to learn his lesson. ‘Is this some kind of a joke?’

‘I assure you, there is no joke,’ the woman said, her voice now dark with anger. Sand and dust floated around her body, never quite daring to touch her. ‘You must fall in line, Richard.’

‘Fall in line?’ Richard asked, showing just how dense he was.

‘Yes,’ the woman said gently. ‘You must fall in line, or risk being Replaced.’

Replaced! That is harsh, even if Richard does deserve it.

‘What does that even mean?’ Richard asked roughly. He scoffed. ‘Replaced. You can’t just replace someone.’

‘I think you will find that to be incorrect,’ the woman replied, her harsher tones now softening somewhat. Instead of making her seem more peaceful, she was far more menacing. ‘Replacement is a very real threat to you, Richard. You are doing everything incorrectly. If you cannot grow and change, He will be forced to Replace you.’

‘So you think I’m just going to do everything you want, then?’ Richard asked, the insensitive tone creeping back into his voice. The woman’s brown eyes flashed dangerously and the man almost took a step back, but steadied himself.

‘Yes, in fact, I do think you are going to do just that,’ the woman replied, her hair once again flowing around her as if it had a mind of its own. ‘He forced you to be, so you must follow Him. If you will not do so, you are of no use to us.’

‘You’re bonkers,’ Richard said in a quieter tone. ‘Absolutely bananas. There’s only two people here, love. You and me. That’s it. You keep talking about “we” and “us”, but it’s only you. No one created me but my parents.’

‘Is that true?’ the woman asked, her tone a wonderful mixture of amusement and annoyance. ‘Were you really created by your parents?’

‘Of course,’ Richard replied, rolling his eyes.

‘Tell me a memory of your parents then,’ the woman challenged, her hair settling down once again.

Richard paused. It was a long pause, and it was clear that he was using what little brainpower he possessed to think of a response. As expected, he could not find one. He looked positively frightened.

‘You don’t have one, do you?’ the woman said triumphantly. Richard looked completely lost. It was as though he was mourning a loss that he didn’t understand.

‘It doesn’t prove anything,’ Richard replied defiantly, shaking his head. ‘You’re still crazy. There’s no one else bloody well here. Look around. I’m stuck in some weird, changing world with a woman who belongs in a hospital for her own damn safety. I should turn and run as far away from here as fast as I can.’

‘It will never be far enough.’

The woman’s voice was colder and harsher than it had been before, and rightly so. Richard was clearly unsuitable. The dirt and dust that had been floating around her suddenly burst into flames and tendrils of fire began to lap at her emerald dress and red hair, giving the impression that she had burst into flames as well. The fire threatened to touch her, but never dared do so.

The woman reached out to an unchangeable and terrified Richard, who had become frozen with fear. Her hand was wreathed in flames that never deigned to touch her and emitted no heat. Slowly, her fingers closed in on Richard’s stubbly cheek. One finger touched his skin and the woman in the emerald dress smiled as Richard screamed.

Moments later, it was snowing again. The woman, her emerald dress and her red hair had disappeared. The snow was falling onto the ground below, slowly piling on the parched ground, soon making it unrecognisable.

A boy, no older than seven, appeared out of nowhere. He was not quite dressed for the non-existent cold weather. In his youthful, naïve eyes there was a growing wonder that had not been present in Richard’s. As before, the mountains shot skyward, the snow-capped peaks reaching beyond the boy’s sight and the trees sprouting from the ground, the woman in the emerald dress with her red hair stood in waiting, a smile playing on her sad, gaunt lips as she saw the potential in the unsuspecting child.

A developing mind with few preconceived notions …

He would do nicely.

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Birth of the Tetrapods – Branighan Swan

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Lincoln was planted fully formed on a special acreage. Special because it was where land had first begun. Lincoln was special because he was the beginning of the tetrapods. In him was seeded the duty to produce vast examples of life on land, to give life to many kinds of children and send them off with the Final Knowledge – the knowledge that all of them were destined to forget only moments after they had been told. Lincoln, however, would never leave the acreage. The Final Knowledge was stored eternally within him, and such knowledge could not be allowed to grow.

The acreage was a square, fenced off at the beginning of a dirt track which clambered away to beyond Lincoln’s furthest horizon. A gate opened to this track. It was the only way out of the acreage, but was not meant for Lincoln to walk. It was meant for his children, each with their own seeds to plant beyond the acreage once they were fully grown.

Lincoln’s children were all born inside his farmhouse, which supplied the only shade from an otherwise cruel sun. The house was a Victorian design with pure white walls, standing just in from the gate. When sunrise loomed over, it haunted the farmhouse with its own shadow, until the sun rose up to midday, and the farmhouse pulled its shadow back in. In this way, as the shadow and the sun could be watched in unison, the day was a time device.

Lincoln observed from the day that the space between a dawn and a midday was the time in which his fully grown children were to walk through the gate. This was when the house’s shadow was out over the beginning of the track. In this space of time, Lincoln was to impart the Final Knowledge to those very children leaving. His children could only learn it in the shadow of their home. They had to unlearn it too, either by leaving it at the gate or by waiting for the house to take back the shade, and take back what it knew.

Rosetta, Lincoln’s sister, had also been planted fully formed, only two days after Lincoln, but was planted firmly inside the house and could not leave even to walk the acreage. She was formed for Lincoln personally, as he was required to reproduce and populate the acreage and therein populate the world beyond.

Rosetta would never learn the Final Knowledge because she would never leave the house, and she could not be trusted to keep it to herself. She did know, however, that there was such a thing as the Final Knowledge to know. She was then eternally aware that she would be the only creature never to know that ultimate truth.

Rosetta’s state of being, fully aware of her ignorance, and fully aware of her own state of being, Lincoln named freedom. This term referred to the comfort found only in ignorance. Rosetta was free because she was accepting of her serviceability to Lincoln and because she was accepting of her boundaries, however reluctantly. She exploited this freedom of hers as much as she could under Lincoln’s roof. The Final Knowledge, unfortunately, would always be a niggling curiosity. Though she would always try, she could never forget that it existed.

Rosetta grew to like the rooms in the house with either few or no windows. She often bathed in the basement with her snakes, and regularly ate grain in the loft with her deer. She could do whatever she wished inside Lincoln’s house, so long as there was something growing inside her womb. Lincoln found her at midday bathing with the snakes, her belly not yet bulging with a life. Life was there, but hadn’t yet begun to assert itself.

Snakes wrapped and rested between the gaps of Rosetta’s body and the walls of the bath. Rosetta met Lincoln’s glare with a smile. A smile scarred at the edges.

‘All the children die, Lincoln,’ she said as Lincoln watched the fierce snake down her left arm, its tongue flicking, charming the pale fingertips to open the palm. ‘Is that what all this Final Knowledge fuss is about?’ Lincoln kept inspecting the fierce snake, wondering at the conception of something so remarkably black. Rosetta took a finger from her right hand and scratched along the snake’s back from head to tail. Wilfully, the snake slid from her left arm back into the water.

‘If that was all the fuss,’ Lincoln nodded, ‘You would not know it. It’s daylight. Your children need the sun.’ A hint of sun filtered through a tiny window which rested wide but stubby at the top of the back wall, filling space between the basement ceiling and the grassy floor of the outside. Blocked out mostly by dust and Rosetta’s own dry spit, sunlight didn’t make it far into this haven of shade. Lincoln peered over at the window like that small hint of sun was pulling him by the nose.

‘So they can slither on and leave me.’ Rosetta, agitated by Lincoln’s lack of attention, twisted her neck around to glimpse the same sun through the same window. She turned bitterly back toward Lincoln. She had been inclined for a long time to hate the sun.

‘So they live.’ Lincoln smiled at her new grimace. He smiled too at the agitation of the snakes, all out of their rest and all restless. Some uncurled, some untwisted, some unwrapped from Rosetta’s body. All colours, black to green to red to brown, all lengths, from a thread to a rope, all craning themselves to stare at him and hiss.

‘But they all die, Lincoln.’ Rosetta reached under the cloudy water and pulled something out from behind her back. There was no pipe for the water to escape through. It was the plug she pulled, and the cloudy water sucked the snakes down through the unplugged hole onto the basement floor. ‘Let them live with that knowledge.’ The basement floor was dead soil, and the water seeped in to leave the snakes behind on the surface.

Rosetta stepped out of the bathtub and picked up a wooden plank resting against the bottom of the same wall as the window was on. Turning her eyes from the sun, she propped the plank up from the dirt floor of the basement to the window, which she shoved open. The snakes immediately funnelled their way to the plank and toward the sun, which was now a clear beam through the opened hole in the basement wall. Lincoln followed the wet and naked Rosetta as she stomped out through the basement door and up into the lounge room.

 * * *

Upon the acreage’s exit, in the house’s shadow, Lincoln stood at the latch of the gate with a large batch of his children ready to leave. Each morning he would let the ones go who were ready, making sure they all learnt the Final Knowledge before walking out of the shadow of their birthplace.

The Final Knowledge was forgotten past the gate. That was the Final Knowledge – to learn that memory of the birthplace, of where land and life began, was to be forgotten by those who left it, and to learn that all children at some point must leave the acreage, and leave all truths behind.

Interspecific communications were surrendered past the gate in order to grow the intraspecific communities on the other side. The process was called Excommunication, and all ultimate truths were protected by this process. Only new truths would be discovered outside the acreage.

None of Lincoln’s children were ever happy to leave their home, but joy, and curiosity, was invariably renewed beyond the gate. Every so often one child would resist the journey too much.

Alistair, one of Lincoln’s pigs, now fully grown, pleaded allowance from Lincoln to resist Excommunication. Lincoln refused. It was irrefutable law that once the Final Knowledge was known it had to be forgotten.

‘Forgetting is dying,’ said Alistair. Lincoln shook his head sternly. He wouldn’t stand for such a crude, ill-informed definition of the ritual.

‘It is if you choose it to be. Forgetting can be birth,’ Lincoln said. ‘A truer birth than birth. It won’t hurt once you’ve walked through the gate.’

Alistair wished for a final goodbye to his mother, which Lincoln instantly halted. Rosetta was not to receive goodbyes as a rule, a rule made to ensure that she would never learn the Final Knowledge.

Alistair dug his nose into the ground, a passive display of resistance to what was bound by natural law. No being was allowed to remember their birth as it was before their rebirth. Lincoln, unlike Alistair, had learned long ago and quickly to be indifferent to Excommunication. It was the mere fact of the process he facilitated, the duty seeded in his personal being. The responsibilities to produce land-based life, and to impart the Final Knowledge to each life produced, were Lincoln’s alone.

Lincoln, aware of his personal duty, found that Alistair’s resistance disgusted him. Alistair’s duty was to knowingly and willingly walk through the gate and rediscover himself on the other side. His current display showed that he would prefer to bury his head in the earth than fulfil his Excommunication.

‘Swine,’ Lincoln spat. The ground around Alistair turned to mud and slush, his fur tamed and pinked, his sabres receded. ‘Look down forever. Walk out through shit and like it.’

Lincoln looked out just past the gate. Some rabbits had found each other, recognising their likeness, and a wolf stalked them cautiously, recognising their difference to him as he learnt his own appetite. Made for the eating, and he struck. The rabbits disbanded in an instant and escaped. Alone for the time being, the wolf was helpless, and he stole away along the road.

Ahead of the wolf were two people, a man and a woman. They were Matthew and Amelia when they were growing on the acreage. Their names were now forgotten to themselves and to each other, but with similar skin and upright posture they walked along the track together. These many children of Lincoln and Rosetta were already embracing new discoveries. Lincoln looked back down at Alistair, at home in his slush.

Alistair waddled toward the gate, his nose dragging through the mudded ground, his weeping turned into a shameful snort. He had to hurry. The midday sun was coming, and the house’s shadow was folding back in. The light would burn him back into nothing if he wasn’t beyond the gate in time. Lincoln had seen it in previous tragedies. The Final Knowledge would destroy Alistair under the sun.

Lincoln gave him a kick to bring him close to the gate, but the step through had to be voluntary. The sun was rising relentlessly. Lincoln turned back toward the towering farmhouse before the outcome had become apparent. Alistair had very quickly become a sad story either way.

Lincoln found Rosetta before sunrise eating grain in the loft with her deer. There were no windows in this room. Spiders liked it for the dark, and so did Rosetta. Lincoln was sorry for the deer. He had been trapped up here since his birth. He might not have even known there was an acreage outside, with plenty of grass to eat, let alone a world to watch. Rosetta had even denied him a name.

Lincoln’s sister raised her head out of the pile of grain and let her deer dig in. Her stomach had begun to push outward. Something was writhing inside, but Rosetta had no concern for whatever it might be. She simply dug back into the grain.

‘You will never know what it is like to birth a fawn Lincoln. And no knowledge could be more final than that,’ Rosetta said as she cupped some of the grain in her hands to more intimately feed her son. The deer made his back legs stiff and spread them apart. He was ready to flee to a dark corner, but for now fed from the hand forced upon him.

‘He will have to leave someday soon,’ Lincoln said, his resolve faintly castrated by the harshness of Rosetta’s convictions. The deer stayed silent. ‘You can talk boy,’ Lincoln said to him. ‘I know you can hear me.’ Lincoln waited the beats he felt he could wait for a response and heard none. He snatched back his resolve. ‘You will have to leave soon. You will have to learn the Final Knowledge, or you will become nothing.’ Rosetta stroked a finger up from the end of her son’s nose and between his eyes. He was not calmed.

‘Snakes and spiders, and bugs and bees, and ducks and swans, and dogs and cats and rabbits and rats, are easily pushed into life compared to the fawn, Lincoln,’ Rosetta continued as she kept trying to calm her son. ‘The fawn comes into life front legs first, even before its head, like the cow calf or the colt, and it is already quite big. You feel like your body will rupture, like it is slowly and violently turning inside out. But instead that feeling turns into this.’ Rosetta looked deep into her son’s black right eye.

‘My instructions do not dictate special treatment for special feelings. Your special son will hear the Final Knowledge soon, and he will either lose this home or he will lose himself,’ Lincoln countered. ‘You will lose him either way.’ Rosetta stopped patting her son, who at this stole away into the back of the loft. Knowing Rosetta would soon cry, Lincoln stole back down the retractable stairs into the upstairs hallway, and closed Rosetta and her son back in, together with the spiders.         The Final Knowledge, that seed with which Lincoln was burdened, was the only seed that was disallowed growth under natural law. It laid the platform for a vast multiplicity of specific growths outside the acreage, the outcomes of which Lincoln would never know. He knew his duty, he knew his acreage, he knew his house, and he knew the truths to the world, but he would never know the world itself.

He didn’t need to tend to his property or his house. They tended to themselves. He needed to tend to his sister quite often. She had an important function he needed to preserve. Lincoln, though, spent even more of each day feeding his children, those who couldn’t find the food naturally in the ground. He kept them healthy so he could send them beyond his little world. Lincoln’s duties kept him on a path of his own, and kept him in a circle, unaware that he had not grown even a little since his planting.

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The S.E.E.D Project – Maxine Sundic

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FS73 Diary entry NO.1 –

Hi. Well this is awkward. My username is FS73 and I guess this is my diary. I am a crew member aboard the Strota; an agricultural carrier that has been on a forty three year-long mission. As of yesterday our cargo has been secured, so that means we’re headed home. I’m a member of the second half of the crew charged with overseeing our voyage home. I woke up from hyper sleep yesterday and am pleased to say that I passed my physical. No side effects from sleeping for forty three years. Matka, this ship’s computer, has scheduled I.Q tests every afternoon to make sure there have been no changes to my brain. I guess it’s a good thing. Might even make me smarter. Matka says that keeping this diary will help with the solitude. I like how considerate her social software is. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to talk about. I guess what I get up to during my shift? I suppose when this trip is over it’ll be a good record of what I’ve done. So here it goes: I don’t really know what we’re carrying. Matka says its priority clearance only. I’m no scientist so I probably wouldn’t understand whatever it is any way. I’m just here to make sure nothing aboard the ship malfunctions and needs manual repair. I guess that’s it for today. I’m not really sure how one would sign off a diary, never had one before. I’ll just say ‘bye for now’.

FS73 Diary entry NO.2 –

Hello again. It’s me, FS73. That’s a stupid way to start these things but I promise I’ll come up with something that sounds better. I’ve gotten into a routine over the past couple of days. Matka wakes me up at around 6:00 AM and morning checks are easy enough. Being the only one on board awake, it’s not like I’m gonna’ run into anyone. All hulls are secure for the record and I’ve managed to tidy up the recreation room. I’ve got to admit there’s plenty of equipment in there: dumbbells, a basketball hoop, even kendo sticks. Keeping fit won’t be a problem. Breakfast is scheduled at 7:30 AM, followed by upper and lower deck checks. The rest of the day is pretty much mine until dinner at 7:00 PM. Yesterday I had dumplings. I managed to find Matka’s games folder, so solitaire and chess have become a daily occurrence. I think I’m beginning to see the reason behind these diary entries. On another note, I did a scan of the ship. Matka’s radar seems limited. I had to do multiple scans to get every inch of the lower deck. I’m going to try and extend it before tomorrow. Bye for now.

FS73 Diary entry NO.3 –

What’s up diary? Nope, that’s still terrible. I apologise. On a more important note, after fixing the radar last night Matka is now able to scan deck-by-deck. I’m happy I managed to get her to accept my modifications. It was difficult but eventually I shut her off temporarily to reboot with the mods. We’re still on the right course and she hasn’t seemed to notice. In the end I’m sure the Strota Company will see it was useful. Checks take half as long and I managed to locate a new room. Well it’s not new obviously, it was built into the ship. A room I was unaware of without the new scan. Matka says it’s an observation room; for the S.E.E.D. That’s what she calls the cargo. After looking at the manifest though, I think it’s an actual seed. While I had her shut off I found orders for life support, supplies, and even containment methods. I think it’s some kind of new produce. Perhaps they’ll plant it back home. Cure world hunger or something. Imagine being part of the project that helped that along. Pretty sweet, huh? I have to make sure nothing’s out of order down there. I’m going to take a look after checks this afternoon. Bye.

FS73 Diary entry NO.4 –

I’m not even sure this makes sense. I hope it does. I went to the new observation room on the lower deck near the cryo chambers. I punched in my access code, even commanded Matka to let me in but she wouldn’t. I’ll admit my curiosity got the best of me and I managed to disable the door, which by its default settings opened. There was this thing. I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It stood upright, about six feet tall with leathery skin the colour of milk. Its eyes. The eyes were blacker than the everlasting space outside the ship. It had a long face with a jutted jaw and slits for a nose. The creature’s head was pointed with a crown of bone reaching from its forehead. It saw me. I don’t know why but it ran; escaped into the vents. I inspected the room. It was working on computers. Working the technology aboard the ship. I commanded Matka to scan the ship. This is where it gets really weird. She said that I was the only conscious life form on board. I explained to her what had happened. I even drew a picture and had her scan the image. Still nothing. That’s impossible. I have sealed off that room and its vents until I can establish where and what the hell it is. I know the ship’s scans won’t confirm this but there is an alien life form on board. I repeat, for the record, there is an alien life form on board. Bye.

Matka special report NO.1 –

FS73 has located the observation room. After disarming the door she has been exposed to Evark. Unfortunately, I can’t see how this can be rectified. Evark has maintained that we should give FS73 time to adjust and document her response. I am satisfied with this course of action for now.
Matka out.

FS73 Diary entry NO.5 –

There has been no sighting of that creature for three whole days now. I’ve tried to re-enter the room but Matka has sealed it off due to the damage I did to the door. It’s now an unsecured section of the ship. I have a theory. I don’t think that the seed was plant life. For the record, I believe our cargo was an egg. And I think whatever I saw the other night, is what has hatched from it. Did the Strota Company know? Did they plan this? Was it meant to hatch on this ship? I have tried to send a distress signal. However, Matka says without sufficient evidence she won’t. She’s considering the ship’s energy. I can hear it at night. Scratching and banging within the walls. I think whatever it is, Matka can’t get a reading on it. That’s why she can’t pick it up on radar. Its alien body must be hidden from our tech. I managed to gather some recordings of the alien. I’ll play them for my diary.

Audio display on: Thirty seconds of small clicks followed by vigorous banging. Audio display off.

Matka states that the recording is not sufficient evidence. I am updating her programming to include double the amount of scans, even if she can’t pick up its whereabouts. If it moves she’ll be able to locate a breach in the hull. Next entry to follow.

Matka special report NO.2 –
FS72 has managed to gain audible evidence of some engineers. I feel it is my duty to note that they need to be more careful when repairing the barriers. I can only assume my words of discouragement are sufficient for FS73. However, I feel it is nearing the end of this observation.
Matka out.

FS73 Diary entry NO.6–

I’ve tried to draw that thing over and over again in a sketch pad I found in the rec room. I need to keep it fresh in my mind or I fear I may forget it. I feel like I’m losing it. Matka has offered me something to calm my nerves but to be honest I think I’m safer the more wound up I am. Nothing is going to get the jump on me. Especially not this ugly bastard. The thing I have most trouble remembering is his hands. He didn’t have fingers, more like claws; long and boney. His feet were perched upright like he walked permanently on his toes. I can’t seem to get them right in my sketches. With each new version his features change. I guess I just want to get it right. Bang on so that Matka will recognise it. I think she’s stopped searching for it. I’m going to have to reboot her scan count, see if that gets her started again. I feel like the walls are getting smaller. Closing in on me. This place; the silence. I didn’t just imagine that alien but I’m starting to feel a little mad. Next entry to follow.

FS73 Diary entry NO.7 –

I haven’t slept in two days. I haven’t eaten that much either. I no longer trust Matka. She refuses to let me into the cryo room to wake the others. I feel like they’d want to know what’s going on. Hell, I don’t even really know what’s going on. I can feel whatever it is behind the walls of this ship. I’ve tried several times to break past her command controls and send a distress call but her software seems to be advancing past my capabilities. For the record, I believe that Matka knows what we picked up. I think she knows what’s within these walls and as long as she deems it contained she will keep us on course. I’ve requested higher security in the cryo room, in case whatever it is tries to get at the other members of the crew. In a few days Matka is scheduled for an on-site overhaul. While she’s updating her software I’m going to find that creature and get the proof I need to get help. Next entry to follow.

Matka special report NO.3 –

FS73 is devolving. Her behaviour changes are noticeable. The confrontation with Evark seems to have interrupted her sleep cycle. She has become paranoid and suspicious; even of me. I believe that the trust bond with FS73 has been broken and I recommend termination. However, Evark wishes to see how she decides to end this.
Matka out.

FS73 Diary entry NO.8–

I have managed to keep Matka unaware of my suspicions. I have acted normally, performing regular checks on the ship and going nowhere near the observation room. Half an hour ago she went into a low power state for the overhaul and since then I’ve made weapons out of some of the equipment in the rec room. The weights are heavy enough to do some damage and I’ve made a paralyser out of part of the microwave and physical inspection tools. Matka is still unaware of my actions. The second I hear something in these walls I’m going to knock it out and stun it. I’ve set up a camera to catch these aliens on data disk. Matka won’t be able to talk her way out of this one. Next entry to follow.

FS73 Diary entry NO.9 –

No data found.

Matka special report NO.4 –

Extra surveillance on FS73 has lead me to officially declare this observation a failure. FS73 has broken through the facility walls and come into contact with several of Evark’s team. She assaulted two engineers. I’ve decided her aggressive behavior, although a positive observation for the report, is a sign that she is unsalvageable. I have removed the visual logs of these events from FS73’s diary.

Matka out.

FS73 Diary entry NO.10 –

No data found.

Matka special report NO.5 –
FS73 has proven to be one of the most challenging of the FS series. Our engineers had to sedate her and we’ve placed her in the incubation room. I have received the all clear from Evark to terminate the project. It’s just a matter of getting the autopsy room ready. I’ll admit I didn’t expect we’d need it so soon. Let’s hope we get the right mix with 74.
Matka out.

FS73 Diary entry NO.11–

I broke in. There are more of them than I thought; so many more. I’ve been locked in the cryo room for however long now. Matka says she’s considering my safety. Her consideration no longer brings me any comfort. I found a way into the cryo room’s logs. No one else is aboard this ship. It’s just me and those creatures. This is no agricultural carrier. It’s some kind of experiment. It’s called the ‘Synthetically Engineered Earthling Design’ project according to the cryo logs. I found scans of other humans but who knows what happened to them. I don’t know what will happen to me now. For any human being that finds these, run. Run because your life depends on it.

Final report on Female Specimen 73.

Report sanctioned by: Evark.

Specimen lifespan: 15 Days.

Reason for termination: Discovery of the S.E.E.D project.

S.E.E.D 73 has failed. Measures have been taken to begin the deconstruction of the specimen. This will not stop the synthetically engineered earthling design project as it was unforeseen accidental exposure of the analysers to 73. 74 is being prepped for the simulation. I recommend a different set of menial tasks and removal of anything that could be manufactured into a weapon. We underestimated her engineering abilities. I suggest we pull back on the manufactured intelligence memory as it created problems with this latest specimen. Although in the past we have found males to be harder to handle, this female in particular has proven to be quite the challenge. I have conferred with Matka and we agree that a male specimen would be best for the 74th project. We have yet to figure out how to domesticate the species from Terra. FS73’s logs will be kept in storage as part of the progression series. For 74’s updates, please enter the correct access code for his hard drive.

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A Fine Shiraz Dripping All the Way Down My Chin – Jack Cameron Stanton

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I had survived three days without cigarettes or alcohol, and I wasn’t about to quit now. I was with Sophie in a pub that had greasy stain-glass windows and a bar made of rotting wood and the most soulless country crackling out of the jukebox.

She ordered another fine bottle of Shiraz. My perspiring palms kneaded together. In my state of frailty, it would be difficult to refuse another round of temptation. Christ, I’d kill for even a sip. But . . .

‘But what about Monday?’ She asked, red wine spilling onto her pearlescent shirt. ‘Aren’t you going to explain yourself?’ Dusk withered her skin, making it look scrawny and dry. It was hard to see the beauty I once admired.

‘Listen, it was an accident,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean to break-up with you, but after that drink gets in me . . . I dunno . . . I start seeing things a little clearer. You know what I mean?’

‘No, Bill, I DON’T have a clue.’ She uncorked the wine then took a deep swing from the neck of the bottle. I watched her polish off the remainders of the wine. Our waitress glided past, horror glued to her face.

‘Uh, hey guys – I’ve got another chianti here?’

‘I wanted the fucking Shiraz,’ Sophie said unreasonably. It seemed any moment now she would burst into tears. I could tell our progress for the evening had died. The waitress faded away, back through the saloon-swinging kitchen doors.

‘How about we forget about the whole thing?’ Sophie said, composing herself by jabbing a cigarette on the table a few times, then lighting it with a wax encrusted candle. The incense of the smoke choked me.

‘I don’t think we can. There must have been a reason, right? What did I say? What did I tell you?’

The waitress returned to our table, holding the Shiraz. She wiped a section of our tablecloth with a rag, then placed the bottle down.

‘I’m not gonna say anything until you take me back,’ Sophie said.

I slammed my hand on the table. The red wine fell over. Frustrated, I said:

‘You only came here because I said I’d pay!’

‘And you only fucking came here because you don’t know what happened!’

‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘I’m done.’

So I stood up, tucked a fiver into the hands of the mantis-eyed waitress, and walked into the welcoming night. I heard Sophie kick off at the waitress.

‘Get me a sponge and decanter!’

After stepping onto the pavement, I looked through the window. I saw Sophie swipe the sponge across the spilled red wine, gathering it into the fabric, before releasing the liquid into a decanter. I walked on, hoping my departure was not only a physical detachment from her, but a kind of cathartic amnesia that would numb my soul and clear my head.

I reached the bus stop. A commune of junkies hovered around the Queen Victoria Building. Some slouched against boxes and wrapped themselves in piss-stained blankets, while others weeded through a forest of orange filters. A melancholic dog slept peacefully beside two empty bowls and a kennel filled with newspapers. As I passed, a man and woman woke slightly from their otherwise motionless and dreamy embrace before returning to the void. All around me, the air reverberated with the sound of junkies coughing, sniffling cocaine noses, and tap-tapping their bare feet.

A junkie stood up, dislocated from the others, and walked toward me.

‘Got a smoke?’ He asked.

I checked my jacket. A pouch of rolling tobacco sat nestled against my breast.

‘For you, I’ve got two.’ I slung him a couple of pre-rolled cigarettes, stopping to light one for him. He drifted along the footpath, spectral, enjoying the reassuring and impenetrable solitude of heroin. He started to whistle through cracked lips. I saw him try to start a few times, licking his chops to build enough moisture. Eventually he spat on his hand and rubbed it across his face to get the whistle going. The tune sounded like Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, but I couldn’t tell over the howling wind. Even if it was, he would miss the beautiful dissonance in the chords – they needed bass and treble, structure and melody.

He yelled. ‘I’m vanishing into dust, into the air, up the nose and out the brain!’ He danced, a gracious pirouette. I stopped walking, in awe of the madness, of the cerebral carnage before my eyes. I thought about helping him, but I had no access point, no common ground. Human connection seemed unattainable. Were the other junkies concerned? I checked. They huddled around, sedated and lobotomised. The dancing junkie exchanged his murmurs for shouts.

‘Hey, hey, bartender, gimme twenty on forty-three, come on, hit me, look at ‘im, would yah just look at ‘im go. He’s getting away, he’s getting – hey, get away from my horse, get away, get away!’

An orderly line of business suits glanced from their smartphones to shake their heads. At first glance, I thought they were talking over each other, like pelicans rumbling for the last fish . . . until I walked past them. Up close, I saw shiny devices protruding from their ears like robotic thorns. They looked madder than the junkie. Both are talking to themselves, I thought. But at least the junkie knows how to dance.

Then I heard a SCREECHHHHHH. A motorcycle skidded across the pavement in front of me. The hog’s rider slammed into the bus shelter. Advertisement glass shattered, falling onto the rider like glycerine rain. A few feet ahead, another man hit the deck hard. He fell onto his stomach. It made a smack! Like a bird flying into a sliding door. I jumped to the fallen man and turned him over.

He was very old, maybe eighty. His eyes were closed and wet. All in all, he was incredibly ugly – skin creased like ancient papyrus, beard as disarrayed as a fantastical garden, and hands shaking as if frozen in turbulence.

So to my knowledge, this is what happened: the old man alighted a bus, the 261 to Sydney Downtown, then jaywalked across the busy intersection to reach a pub called Three Gents. He had almost made it when the motorcyclist ran a red light and decked the old man.

The tallest of the business suits strutted over. He stuck a flipper my way.

‘Jeffrey,’ he said.

‘Bill,’ I replied. I shook his flipper, recoiling as the slime stuck to my palm.

He crouched down. It looked like a strenuous endeavour.

‘Look,’ I said. ‘I think this man’s in a serious –’

‘Hold that thought.’ He straightened out his two bent periscopes, and went over to inspect the metallic bus seats one by one. He placed his camel leather briefcase on the third closest (the cleanest) seat. Then he brushed cigarette ash from his tweed jacket, lit another cigarillo, and emerged from a treble clef of smoke. Jeffrey almost reached the old man, when a woman’s wail stopped him. A young lady, who must’ve drifted toward the chaos, stood next to a few tourists that were leaning against the QVB, snapping photos and whispering to one another. She had a great figure, bursting at the seams, and a tight black dress that only just concealed her arse.

‘Oh my dear lord,’ she cried. ‘Oh my, someone call an ambulance. There’s been an accident, someone call quick!’ Jeffrey walked over to her.

‘Do us a favour,’ I called out, ‘And call an ambulance.’ She gawked like an enormous magpie. Her protests disappeared in her throat.

‘I . . . I can’t use my phone,’ she said. ‘My fingernails are too long.’ I looked at them. They were crimson blades of beauty. Even though her blonde hair gleamed in the sun, it only served to accentuate the forgettable qualities of her ordinary face.

‘Don’t worry baby, I’m a medico-legal expert,’ Jeffrey said, every tooth a Colgate opal. ‘I’ve been in the field for years, and I’ve never lost a man.’

The old man hadn’t moved.

‘I think he’s broken some ribs,’ I said. Jeffrey left the girl, and returned to the old man’s side. He turned to me, eyes lifeless as shrunken heads.

‘Got a comb?’

‘Nope,’ I said. He parted his fingers as an ersatz comb before running them through oily black locks.

‘Are you a doctor?’

‘Aren’t you?’ I asked. Jeffrey lowered his voice.

‘No way – I’m a solicitor. But girlies are far more attracted to danger than disaster, right?’ I couldn’t believe this lying snake. ‘So, are you a doctor?’

‘No.’

‘Then fuck off.’ I ignored him, this time. If I were drunk, there would be a second motionless body on the ground. I was edging for the fight, but the alcohol withdrawals made me vigourless and soft. A punch would sting my knuckles, and dissuade a follow-up. It was odd, the way the nicotine cravings coiled the chest into a palpating mess, while the need for a drink made you simply deflated. If I threw a punch, the motionless body would be mine.

‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘I’m just as qualified as you. At least at the bookstore they make me take CPR annually.’

‘This isn’t a fucking game, kid,’ he said. A swelling urge possessed me. I wanted to knock back beer after beer and force the world into a somnolent and etherised blur. The seeds of memory burst half-formed in my mind. I remembered a night at Three Gents (the night I met Sophie) when the tequila flowed and the women danced and the jazz swung. I remembered feeling in my element, which meant nothing, really, except I felt comfortable, unthreatened, swept by days of pointless reverie that never dared to collapse. Then Sophie approached me. Without asking what I was drinking, she bought a double whiskey on the rocks. I drained it, and she signaled the bartender for another. I liked her instantly.

‘Did you hear me?’ Jeffrey said. ‘Get outta my way if you don’t know what you’re doing. The last thing this man needs is a tree-hugging soft-cock sitting here to satisfy his curiosity.’ I stood up, more shocked than anything, but I didn’t leave.

‘Hey – shouldn’t he be bleeding?’ I asked. Jeffrey shredded the old man’s shirt with a Swiss army knife. The old man was bruised and shriveled; a peach used as a tennis ball.

‘He’s bleeding internally, I reckon. Chances are he’s a goner.’ Jeffrey stared vacuously at Three Gents. My eyes followed. Of all the days, I thought.

So I walked to the motorcyclist. I parked his hog on the curb then removed his helmet. The rider had a young face, gentle brown eyes (he was crying) and handsome jawline (it was bleeding) and narrow nose (it looked alright) – all of which led to a depressing fact: he was a boy. Fourteen or fifteen years old, maybe.

‘Cigarette?’ I asked. He nodded. I slung one his way, almost grabbing another for myself. Then I thought better of it. The boy puffed away. Jeffrey approached, awoken from his statuesque gaze. He looked like Magritte’ Son of Man. The illusion was enchanting, until it dissipated.

‘You’re a fucking criminal,’ he said.

‘I dun mean to,’ the boy said.

‘Lay off him Jeffrey, for chrissake. Listen, what happened? How’d you hit him?’

The boy sniveled. ‘I dun mean to, ya know I dun mean to.’ He stared at me absently.

‘Come on, mate,’ I said. ‘We’re all having a shit day.’

Puff . . . tap . . . puff . . . ‘I was drivin’ and I, I, tilt my head like this – ’ he craned his neck sideways ‘ – and the sunlight went into mah visor and it hurt like saltwater. Mah eyes tearin’ up, ya know, so I can’ see so good, ya know what I mean, ya know what I’m sayin’?’

‘Yeah, I’m with you.’ My phone rang in my pocket. I didn’t answer it. I knew it was Sophie. Temptation lifted its awful head, sniffed the air, then returned to slumber. The desire for a drink swelled in my stomach. A whirl of sexual arousal forced my heart into a churning anxiety.

‘HEY!’ Jeffrey shouted. The dancing junkie had ducked beside the old man, reaching toward him with fingers disintegrating to the bone.

‘Wait here,’ I said to the boy. He jumped up, and limped toward the hog.

‘Don’t worry, I’m a fantastic doctor,’ the junkie said. ‘Step aside, comrades, let big daddy work the floor.’ Jeffrey yanked him to his feet. He flexed a Herculean chest and gritted his opals, suffocating as his neck bulged against an immaculate double Windsor.

The junkie passed one of my own cigarettes back to me.

‘Hold my cigarette,’ he said. I smoked it, indebted, lightheaded, illuminate. Head spins proliferated. My arms and legs blazed with relief. I felt like a giddy young lad, a younger me, sneaking out of class to smoke cigarettes beside the wharf. I used to smoke quickly, wait for the head rush, and chuckle as I surrendered to dizziness and fell to the ground.

‘This is UNACCEPTABLE,’ Jeffrey said. Now his eyes looked bloodshot, verging on explosion. ‘Reviving your degenerate friends, or poking a shitty needle in your arm, doesn’t qualify as medical experience.’

The junkie’s emaciated face rose from its shallowness, like a crab surfacing from a bed of sand. A roar echoed along the pavement. The hog lit up, carnal, enraged. The boy zipped along on the pavement, his helmet sitting in the gutter. Jeffrey didn’t even notice. He kept the junkie taut in a vice grip.

‘Don’t hurt him!’ The girl with long fingernails said. She stared at Jeffrey, concern creasing her face.

‘Be cool, don’t be square, relax boss man, be cool,’ the junkie said. Jeffrey let him go.

‘Best of luck, fellas,’ he said. He grabbed his briefcase from the seats, spat out his finished cigarillo, lit another, then walked to the girl. Game face on, smile chiseled, beaming effervescent glory. The girl was trapped, her mouth agape, eyes unable to resist the urge to stare down at his crotch and admire a visibly tumescent cock.

‘Come on, baby,’ I heard him say. ‘Let’s hit the road. I know a great pub, PJ O’Brien’s, just round the corner. I’ll buy you whatever you want.’ She giggled, then tucked her hair back into a professional ponytail. She linked hands with Jeffrey. I could never imagine those fingernails cradling a newborn or embracing a lover or creating something beautiful like a sculpture or a poem or a rocking horse or even chopping up some fucking onions for a soup on a cold winter night. Without looking, they stepped onto the road.

‘Hey, listen – he’s awake.’ The junkie said. ‘Step aside, step aside.’ He knocked into me. ‘I’m here, brother.’ He yanked at the old man’s eyelids, trying to wrench them back to life. I walked over to them. The old man’s breath came out rugged.

‘Please . . . drink . . . thirsty.’

‘I’ll find some water,’ I said.

The old man shook his head. ‘Get . . . me . . . some . . . fucking . . . red wine.’

And then he went still. He was dead. The junkie knocked his skull a few times, as you would a door. I thought of Sophie. She was probably waiting at the pub, drinking that delicious Shiraz, alone and dazed. The junkie tapped my shoulder.

‘Wait right here.’ I held the old man’s glacial hand. I couldn’t see Jeffrey anymore – he was forever gone. My phone rang in my pocket. I wanted to answer, but there must’ve been a reason for breaking up with her, right? People don’t just abandon everything on their whims, right? The junkie returned with a bottle of cheap red wine. He knocked the top, took a swig from the neck, then handed it my way. I stared at it. A great reckoning stirred inside me, an awoken beast, a seed of realisation. I gulped down the spicy crimson, remembering the gush of its sweet recovery as the splashes painted my throat heavenly red.

‘To his memory, aye?’ The junkie grinned, exposing tobacco-stained teeth. I took another swig, knowing I had to go back to Sophie, to explain what happened. But most of all, I hoped that she hadn’t drunk all of that fine Shiraz waiting in a decanter.

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Seed of Doubt – Paul Soper

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Chiquitita, sabes muy bien . . .

Alyssa’s ringtone – the result of a one-time, half-hearted desire to learn Spanish – awoke her from a deep sleep. Of all the Spanish songs in the world, why had she chosen an ABBA one? Making a mental note to change the damn thing as soon as possible, Alyssa retrieved her mobile from the other end of the mattress. She had fallen asleep playing games again.

Her father’s grinning face, craggy but dependable with a gap where his upper left canine should be, looked up at her from the screen of her Blackberry. He was standing under the old eucalyptus tree by the front veranda. Alyssa had taken this photo on her last day at the farm.

‘Lyssie. How’s it going?’

‘Yeah, good,’ Alyssa grunted. ‘Bit early, but.’

‘Early?’ He laughed. ‘It’s 9:30. I’ve been up weeding for hours.’

9:30! Alyssa rolled out of bed, setting the phone to loudspeaker as she began rifling through the clothes strewn across the floor for something presentable to wear. Preferably something clean that wouldn’t require ironing. How could she have forgotten to set her alarm?

‘Out partying last night or something?’ Dad asked.

‘Yeah, something . . . ’

An all-nighter with Angry Birds. A riot!

‘Well, it’s good you’re enjoying yourself,’ he said, ‘but take care, won’t you? I . . . well, I worry sometimes. I haven’t heard from you for a while . . . ’

‘Yeah. Sorry.’

Alyssa considered a red shirt. The sweat stains weren’t that noticeable, were they?

‘That’s OK. Have you found a . . . ?’

‘Nope. Nothing yet.’

She discarded the shirt. Getting dressed had never been this time-consuming on the farm.

‘That’s a shame,’ he continued. ‘I’m sure something will come up. And if it doesn’t, you know . . . ’

‘I saw Chrissie yesterday,’ Alyssa announced, desperate for something, anything, to stave off her father’s usual refrain that she should ‘come home, there’s nothing to be ashamed of about not liking the city.’

‘Chrissie?’

‘Yeah . . . Chrissie . . . ’

Why had she chosen Chrissie as a conversation starter?

‘And . . . er . . . how is she?’

‘Yeah, she’s good.’

Alyssa settled on a black, pin-striped shirt. That would look good coupled with a pair of jeans.

‘That’s . . . lovely. So, any interviews lined up for today?’

Alyssa considered her outfit, holding the shirt against her body and modelling it in the mirror she had propped up against the wall.

‘No,’ she lied.

And Dad returned to the usual refrain.

Maybe he was right, Alyssa thought. She left the dingy studio flat fifteen minutes later, now wearing a purple, flowery-patterned blouse. She had decided against the pin-striped shirt, having found a coffee stain on it on her way out the door. Alyssa couldn’t say she was thrilled with the new outfit, but given that she hadn’t worn the ghastly thing in the seven weeks she had been here, at least she could be sure it was clean. Dad would be happy with the choice, no doubt. He had presented her with the shirt as a ‘bon voyage’ gift before her move to the city, woefully out of touch with fashion as he was. But it was a nice gesture; a reminder that she would always have a home back on the farm.

Melbourne hadn’t quite lived up to her expectations. But the prospect of returning to the drudgery of life on the farm and with nothing to show for her time spent in the city – no gorgeous boyfriend, no glamorous job, not even a flat with hot water. Surely that was worse. Besides, if all went well, she would have a job by the end of the day. Chrissie promised she could pull some strings for her – if any store could really be set by what she said. Alyssa’s ‘best friend’ had been promising to meet up with her for weeks now, but until yesterday Chrissie managed to renege on every catch-up Alyssa organised.

Perhaps she was genuinely busy . . .

She seemed different, too. Less fun, somehow. Not at all like the Chrissie Alyssa remembered from their days back on the farm sneaking apples together. Was it really as long ago as four years? She at least seemed genuinely concerned for Alyssa when she learned she was struggling. And so came the job offer.

‘We have a super entry level position. We’re always on the lookout for new talent,’ Chrissie told her. ‘Come in tomorrow and I’ll facipulate,’ – whatever the hell that meant – ‘an interview for you. Just a back-of-the-envelope affair, yeah? Nothing to stress over. With a good word from me, you’ll be a shoe-in!’

Working alongside her best friend in an international corporation. It was a dream come true, wasn’t it? As long as Dad didn’t find out . . .

Banishing these thoughts from her mind, Alyssa concentrated on getting to the interview. Half an hour later she arrived by tram at the corners of High Street and St Kilda Road. The card Chrissie gave her yesterday cited the address as only a few buildings away. Alyssa made her way to the building, crossing the foyer and gazing at the plaque on the wall.

MONSANTO AUSTRALIA HEAD OFFICE, LEVEL 12.

She entered a lift, eyeing her reflection in the mirror as the lift made its ascent. If only she woke up earlier and took a shower, however icy. If she had even bothered to do something with her hair!

The doors opened to reveal a standard reception waiting area. Alyssa experienced that now familiar sense of déjà vu as she stepped out into it. After numerous job interviews over the last few weeks, these reception areas were all starting to meld into one.

‘Good morning. Can I help you?’ came the voice of the receptionist who clearly had woken up at a reasonable time. Her bleached blonde hair was perfectly straightened and she was plastered in what was surely enough foundation to paint all four walls of Alyssa’s flat. She was probably only in her early twenties, the same age as Alyssa. The make-up and her general well-groomed-ness gave her the appearance of someone much older. Someone in control of her destiny.

‘Um . . . I’m here for an interview, I guess . . . ’

The receptionist looked Alyssa up and down, a doubtful look flitting across her face.

‘Right,’ she said. ‘And, er, who was that with?’

Chrissie hadn’t given any names.

‘Well, I’m not sure.’

Alyssa started to blush. She always did in these situations. What was it about receptionists that so intimidated her?

‘Um . . . I’m here to see Chrissie?’

‘Chrissie who?’

‘Chrissie Sharrock . . . ’

‘Ah, Christina. Not a problem. I’ll give her a bell, shall I?’ She cast Alyssa another unconvinced look. ‘Who shall I say was asking?’

‘Alyssa.’

She slipped on a headset and dialled a number on the switchboard keypad.

‘Hey, Chrissie.’

So it was Chrissie now?

‘Yeah, I’ve got someone waiting for you in reception. Says her name’s Alyssa.’

She let out a laugh. Apparently Chrissie said something hysterical.

‘Yeah, little bit vanilla. OK, then. See you in a sec.’

She smiled again; that falsely sweet, condescending smile.

‘Christina will be with you shortly. In the meantime, feel free to take a seat.’

With a nod, Alyssa seated herself in one of the cream-coloured lounge chairs in the corner and settled in for the wait. She hated this. She was never quite sure what she was supposed to do. She began to pick at the dirt underneath her nails until she realised the receptionist was glaring at her. Apparently, the clicking noise this generated was offensive. With an apologetic smile, Alyssa turned her attention to the brochures. Marketing materials for Monsanto were scattered across the coffee table in front of her.

The first brochure detailed their collaboration with Seminis and some of the vegetable seeds they developed together in the US and were now, as Dad put it, ‘trying to force the unnatural, bloody things onto us!’ Alyssa felt her stomach drop as she thought of him. What was she even doing here?

But really, Dad was probably just being overly resistant to change. Lots of older people were. And there were benefits to the seeds. According to the brochures, these seeds had in-built pest control which meant better crop yield and better health for farmers who no longer needed to spend days on end spraying pesticides. Weren’t these good things?

But there was no convincing her Dad or the rest of the set-in-their-ways organic farmers back home. Chrissie advocated for the seeds the last time she visited the farm, shortly after securing her job at Monsanto. She even brought some with her, along with copies of Cleo magazine, the latest Rihanna single, and a bunch of exciting stories from her life in the city. Melbourne seemed so cool.

Chrissie had then gone on to plant some seeds in one of the fallow fields. Alyssa frowned as she recalled this inconsiderate action and its ensuing drama. Hadn’t the farmers made it clear they weren’t interested? But Chrissie had always been headstrong, always eager to prove a point, always doing exactly what she wanted. When they were younger Chrissie often shirked her responsibilities. She hated picking apples in the orchard or collecting the eggs from the hens or indeed, doing anything to help on the farm. Small wonder she left as soon as she finished school.

‘Let’s go do something fun,’ she would always say. And somehow Alyssa would find herself climbing the old eucalyptus tree, or swimming in the dam, or off on the bus to Tatura with her, her own responsibilities completely forgotten. They would end up in trouble later on, of course. Alyssa would promise to behave in future. She hated disappointing Dad, but the next day Chrissie would manage to convince her all over again. She was always leading her astray.

Like she was doing now?

‘Lyss!’

Chrissie was dressed in a striking red power suit, her hair done up in a professional looking bun. The image this created was a far-cry from the Chrissie Alyssa remembered from the farm: her natural curls hanging loose, forever dressed in those ridiculous overalls her parents made her wear, even when she was a teenager! But despite the radical change, she was still Chrissie, right? She too was wearing a generous amount of make-up. Apparently, Alyssa would need to invest in some make-up of her own if she got the job.

‘You made it, I’m so glad,’ Chrissie gabbled away, all smiles. ‘And don’t you look well. Love the blouse. It’s very . . . It’s lovely.’

Alyssa frowned. The Chrissie of old would have loathed the blouse as much as Alyssa, commiserating with her that she had to wear it – ‘but at least it’s not overalls!’ The snort of derision from the watching receptionist seemed to confirm that Chrissie’s praise of the blouse perhaps wasn’t completely truthful.

‘I’d actually forgotten you were coming,’ Chrissie continued. ‘What am I like? But don’t worry. We have an opening in our AP team. It’s a super position. Someone has to scan all the paper invoices that come in, and believe me, there are loads! So much for a paperless society, am I right?’ She let out a laugh reminiscent of the receptionist, and so uncharacteristically Chrissie.

‘Now, we already have someone doing the job but he’s a twat . . . T. W. A. T,’ she explained at the look of bewilderment on Alyssa’s face, ‘only works Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. So we’ll need you on Mondays and Fridays. But come along to a meeting room and we’ll go through all this properly. Sarah,’ she addressed the receptionist, ‘alright if we use Meeting Room One?’

Sarah nodded her assent and Chrissie led Alyssa off down a corridor. Various glass framed posters advertising Monsanto products decorated its walls. Bolgard II Cotton, Roundup Ready Canola, and a whole range of vegetable seeds, including the tomato seeds Chrissie had planted.

They turned out alright really, indistinguishable from the normal tomatoes. But then some of their pollen carried into other fields and it became impossible to discern which were the ‘contaminated’ crops and which were not. There was a very poor harvest that year, so inflexible were the farmers in their refusal to sell anything potentially tainted. Worse had come the following year when the crops didn’t reproduce. Apparently Chrissie’s tomatoes didn’t and, having mixed with them, the existing ones no longer did either. So died a crop perfected through years of selective breeding.

‘So, how are things?’ Chrissie asked, dropping the airy tone and, as in that brief moment yesterday when she asked a similar question, sounding something like her old self.

‘OK, I guess.’

‘And have you . . . well, have you been in touch with anyone from . . . back home?’

‘Um . . . yeah. Dad.’

Chrissie’s interest in her old life surprised Alyssa. After the fallout from the tomatoes, Chrissie said some terrible things and so too had her parents, and a large majority of the other farmers. Both parties made it clear they were unwilling to forgive the other and the end result was that Chrissie hadn’t been welcomed back at the farm since. Her family as good as disowned her.

Was this, then, the future that awaited Alyssa if she too were to take a job at Monsanto? But it was only scanning, and she really did need the money. Surely they wouldn’t be able to find fault with that, right?

‘So, enjoying Melbourne?’

Chrissie interrupted Alyssa’s worrying, her voice returning to its affected tone.

‘What about the traffic? Those hook-turns are a nightmare, am I right? Oh, hello James.’

They bumped into a sharply dressed, attractive, young man.

‘Morning, Chrissie. How’s it going?’

‘Yeah, great. I’ve just got an interview with Alyssa here. She’s an old friend of mine from the f . . . from back home. James here works in our legal department.’

James nodded in greeting.

‘Got a big case on at the moment. Some organic farmer in WA – they always seem to be organic, don’t they – is trying to sue us for contaminating his crops.’ He rolled his eyes.

‘Like we need more bad publicity . . . ’

‘Don’t worry, Chrissie. This guy doesn’t have a case against us. We don’t even market our products in WA. Not yet, anyway. But somehow about seventy per cent of this idiot’s crops are roundup ready. Says he doesn’t know how they got there, blaming bees or something. Yeah, right.’

And with another roll of his eyes, he was off. Chrissie sighed.

‘Oh, for a Mills and Doom, am I right?’

‘Mm,’ Alyssa agreed, not entirely sure what this – or indeed, much of what Chrissie said – meant.

‘Mills and Doom?’ Chrissie prompted. ‘Office romance? Everyone knows they never work out.’

‘Yeah. . . ’

They continued down the corridor and reached the meeting room. Chrissie ushered Alyssa in and she seated herself at a round desk. Chrissie began asking questions she already knew the answer to like whether or not Alyssa had any experience working in an office environment or doing scanning, assuring her ‘not to worry’ that she didn’t, ‘we’ll soon get you up to speed.’ Alyssa let her waffle on, thinking of what James said. She couldn’t help but be on the side of the farmer in WA; her Dad certainly would be. Hadn’t she seen firsthand just how easily pollen could spread? It seemed the livelihood of more and more farmers was being threatened by this organisation.

The organisation she would soon be a part of.

‘So, don’t worry that you forgot your CV,’ Chrissie continued. ‘Just email it through and come in Friday. We’ll sort everything out then. Now, here is your contract.’

She presented Alyssa with a document titled ‘Accounts Payable Scanning Assistant’. Here, then, was the glamourous job she had been looking for. Chrissie turned to a page at the back.

‘If you could just sign here . . . ’

 * * *

Chiquitita, sabes muy bien . . .

‘Hey, Dad . . . no, I haven’t found anything yet . . . actually, can I call you back?’ she asked before he could launch into his refrain. ‘I need to . . . um . . . just gotta change my ringtone.’

Searching through the songs in her phone, Alyssa settled on the single Chrissie had brought her from Melbourne four years ago: Rihanna’s ‘Unfaithful’. It seemed a good choice. Maybe Dad was right. Maybe there was no shame in not liking the city but, as she looked at the packets of tomato seeds she received upon signing her Monsanto contract, Alyssa couldn’t be sure if she even liked herself anymore.

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The Taking Tree – Naomi Shen

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 When at long last, the boy arrived home, breathless and full of fear, he heard the unmistakable sound of people screaming. Men, women and children ran in all directions like ants in a panic. The entire neighbourhood was ablaze, ferocious fires consuming the walls and foundations of every house.

Some remained undestroyed by the fires. The boy arrived just in time to see his house crushed by a creature of gargantuan proportions. His face already hurt from crying, but seeing the monsters obliterate his home made him moan all the louder. Only he could hear his sobs above the surrounding calamity.

‘Why…?’ He moaned. ‘Why?!’

But the boy already knew. In fact, he was the only one who knew why their homes were being demolished.

* * *

Mister Gumboot’s gumboots went missing. Not that anybody cared initially, but soon enough the whole neighbourhood would lose something of theirs. Missus Apple would lose her apple, young Mister Quilt would lose his quilt and Bob would lose his cat.

In one of the neighbourhood homes lived a boy. He was a little thing, though not too little. But for a boy of six, his mind was amazingly, spontaneously bright, and curiosity always took advantage of him. Nobody bothered to tell him about the suburban thief, except for the local newspaper.

The boy hoped that his neighbours would be reunited with their beloved items or even better, the thief would see the error of his ways and give everything back. A week after the Mister Gumboot incident, the boy overslept on the weekend. Before he could oversleep some more, he heard a crash outside his bedroom door.

He leapt from his bed and flung the door open. In the bathroom that stood across his room, he glimpsed the sight of broken ceramic powdering the floor. When the boy burst into the area, he noticed what was missing.

He loved to read The Rainbow Fish. He loved the book so much that last year his mother redecorated the bathroom according to the theme of the book. Every second tile on the wall was glazed with a picture of the famous fish. Now every painted tile was gone, ripped from the walls.

But when he took a closer look, he saw that in each empty square, there was a seed. Some stayed in their shells, others sprouted the tiniest of saplings.

The next day, John the Fireman lost his fireman outfit, but he became the first and only person to catch a glimpse of the thief. He ran out to his lawn, quaking in fear and calling for help. By the time the police arrived, the only word he could utter was ‘tree’. All the passer-bys looked at one another, trying to decipher his whisperings. ‘Tree, tree, tree…’ The boy was there too that day, questioning the man’s mutterings.

The morning after, the boy decided, ‘I will go and catch the thief. Whatever it takes.’ With that, he stuffed his backpack with food, water, a map and a box of matches. At the last minute, he decided to wheel his mini wagon along.

He began his journey on the even side of the street, past house numbers twelve, ten, eight, and so on until he skipped out of his street. Adjacent to this street, there stretched Yellow Brick Road. For a moment, the boy thought this was far from a good idea. He did not know whether to follow the road north or follow the road south. To his left or to his right. At the same time, he tried to figure out what ‘tree’ could mean.

Tree… tree… Nothing else came to his mind. Oh, well. I’ll get to that later. For now, I need to find the thief.

‘But, which way would the thief go?’ Unexpectedly, he found the answer to his left.

Miss Pocketsocks owned seven pairs of pink pocket-sized socks, one pair of which showed off bright green spots. The boy stepped to the stormwater drain on his left. He bent down to observe the lone pink-green sock barely clinging onto the grid. Maybe she just dropped it here, he thought. But Miss Pocketsocks was a driver, not a walker. And she never drove on Yellow Brick Road.

So, he decided to head north.

He walked along the flat road, his wagon gently wheeling behind him. After half a mile, the road ended and he entered the Hungry Caterpillar Marsh. He trudged around the muddy area, making sure he missed the puddles that tried to drench his boots wet.

Squish, squash, squish, squash! For some reason, the sound of squelching mud made him sick. Every now and again, he overlooked some of the holes and ended up thigh-deep in water. He then decided he hated marshes.

As he trekked deeper into the marsh, he found himself in grass that stood an inch or two taller than him. He had never walked through a place so thick and herbaceous. In fact, he had never ventured this far from the Yellow Brick Road. He began to itch all over; the grass tickled him as he walked past and the bugs and grubs ambushed his arms and legs. Mosquitos buzzed past his ears, tricking him into slapping himself. When he pushed at the grass, it merely flung itself back at him. The boy could not see more than a metre ahead.

After twenty minutes of trudging and squelching, the grass maze ended. The boy pulled apart the last strands of grass and peered at the view before him. The land rose on a slope, leading to a meadow rich with golden flowers. He pulled himself onto the grass, glad to be rid of the sludge. After wiping his boots on the grass, he decided to be rid of them and his socks too.

‘There we go,’ the boy sang as he stuck his boots and socks onto his wagon. When he looked up again, he noticed a forest in the blurry distance. He squinted, as if it would somehow magnify the view. ‘Trees…’ he murmured. ‘Tree… tree…’

He searched his brain for an answer, but it was futile. Every time he came close to a great discovery, his mind would redirect and send him further away from a resolution. What would a thief have to do with trees? The witness had been quaking uncontrollably after the robbery. What else could have made him so terrified? The boy dragged his bare feet towards the forest, putting all conflicting thoughts aside.

On the third step, his foot hit a snag and he smashed his face against the grass.

‘Oww…’ the boy moaned, his face still buried in the dirt. ‘What was that…?’ He pushed himself up and turned to the cause of his fall.

He gasped. ‘My Rainbow Fish tile!’

Indeed, one of his tiles lay in the middle of the meadow. The boy picked it up and inspected it, using his fingers to trace around the fish’s outline. Dirt had gathered on its top, but with a flick of his hand it was easily cleared away.

‘Then, that means…’

The thief was hiding in the forest; the boy could smell it. He put the tile in the cushiony front compartment of his backpack and zipped it in a quick fury. Without another thought, the boy bolted to the edge of the forest, still pulling his wagon with him.

As soon as he reached the first bunch of trees, he saw it. Mister Gumboot’s gumboots were strewn across lines of roots. The boy picked up the pair and threw them onto the wagon. He delved deeper and deeper into the woods, recognising more of his neighbours’ items along the way. Missus Apple’s apple lay abandoned upon a bundle of sticks and Mister Quilt’s quilt was found not too far away. Those two things joined Mister Gumboot’s gumboots on the back of the wagon.

‘And now to find Bob’s cat,’ the boy declared. And the rest of the neighbours’ belongings.

The roots grew thicker at his feet as the boy tried to drag the wagon with him. When he failed to shift around an impossibly fat tree, it was decided that the wagon should be discarded if he was to traverse any further.

As he climbed over the heightening roots and treacherous terrain, he munched on a packet of sunflower seeds from his backpack. The treetops blocked out the source of natural light but the boy knew it would be sunset soon. Once he finished off the last of the seeds, he tucked the plastic package into his pocket.

Not long after his snack, he climbed to the top of the tallest set of roots he had ever climbed and beheld a bewildering sight. Lying before him was a vast ditch filled with stolen items. Only a small percentage of the collection belonged to his neighbourhood. He deduced that the thief had targeted not just the suburb, but the whole shire.

‘Whoa…’ he could not help but gasp. ‘This is just like The Hobbit.’

Excitedly, he ran down and jumped onto the piles of people’s belongings. He felt like Bilbo in the midst of the dragon’s treasure. There were new things, old things and things that could not be easily categorised. There were a selection of toys, furniture, books, clothes and kitchen utensils that looked older than time itself. Nonetheless, the boy knew that this was the loot.

‘But, wait…’ the boy suddenly said. ‘If the treasure is here, that means the thief is under…’

Something burst beneath his feet, sending the boy flying. He hit a hill of furniture and tumbled further into the ditch. He screamed until he landed flat on his backpack, letting out an oof! When he came to, he turned to find a fat, long root rising from the loot. Then another emerged from the piles. More roots erupted from everywhere, plaguing the forest with an ear-bursting roar.

The boy spun onto all fours and made for the nearest slope. He climbed and clambered up a hill of toys, only to fall back as more items sank and dragged him down. His bottom hit the ground and looked up to see a monstrous figure leaning over him. It had gigantic roots, extended branches and a face so angry that the boy could not bring himself to scream.

The creature stomped towards the boy and distorted the thing that looked like its mouth.

‘ROOOAAARR!’

The boy shielded his ears and began to whimper in terror.

 ‘I… AM… THE TAKING TREE! WHO DARES TO DISTURB MY DOMINION?!’

When the echoes faded and all was quiet, the boy cleared his throat and thought of what to say.

‘I’m…’ he stammered. ‘I’m just a boy, here to get my neighbour’s stuff back.’

‘Oh?’ The tree croaked. ‘So, you think you can just walk in here and take my belongings?’

‘B-b- but, they don’t belong to you! They belong to my neighbours!’

The tree’s eyes sprouted with vicious madness. ‘Of course, you would say that! You humans are nothing but inherently cruel. But you never heard the trees complaining when you cut us down!’

The boy paused. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You cut us down, steal us and turn us into whatever useless contraption you humans can think of, as if you own us!’

The boy shook his head. ‘No…’ he tried. ‘No, we don’t!’

‘Oh, really? Have you heard of a thing called paper? What about wooden furniture? Look at the pile, boy, you even have toys made from trees!’ Sure enough, there were marionettes lying around like corpses. ‘And we must not forget that you steal our fruits and dispose of the seeds! Well, not anymore… I have planted a seed into each of your homes and we will rise up and take everything back!’

‘No! No, please! Don’t do this!’

The tree raised its face. The boy thought it would roar again, but instead a high-pitched squeal came from its lungs. Birds scattered from nearby trees and the stolen items shifted with the unexpected vibration. When the tree finished, the silence returned.

‘What did you do?’ the boy asked warily.

‘I have called upon my seeds to burst forth from their shells and take over your neighbourhood!’

‘No! Call them off! Please, I haven’t done anything wrong!’

‘Even if that were true, perhaps this will teach your kind a lesson for committing crimes against the Plantae kingdom!’

A gasp escaped his lips. I have to get out of here! The boy jumped onto the nearest hill of trash, his limbs desperate to escape the Hellhole. His feet crushed the items as he climbed the shaky slope and his hands grabbed onto whatever ledge it could. Soon he reached the top and bolted out of the gyre.

He heard a great cackle as he left the area. Before taking his final steps out of the forest, he caught the sound of the tree screeching after him.

‘That’s right… Run back to your home! It won’t be there when you get back!’

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Kingdom Come – Nathan Ruch

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‘I, your Dorkan overlord, shall return your son once you have taken me to the gloriously evil kingdom ruled by Mickey Mouse,’ the purple alien promised the female terran. Her young boy naively skipped up into the space ship, escorted by bug-like minions. The female could do nothing after the alien landed in her backyard at three in the morning. She wasn’t entirely convinced that this wasn’t a dream.

The humanoid stood tall with bulbous joints and skinny, elongated appendages. According to his faithful servant, Snooki, this female had access to the Kingdom.  Snooki was reliable. He was, however, a small creature that possessed little aptitude for destruction. His name was inspired by a terran who pacified the population into drooling servants, mimicking her with idioms and catchphrases. ‘Delightfully evil,’ the alien thought after christening him.

Before catching the bus, the extra-terrestrial and the terran argued long into the night.

 ‘You can’t go through these streets looking like this,’ she said. ‘People will freak out. Not even LA will cope with a six-foot purple…whatever you are walking around.’

The alien huffed at yet another obstruction between him and his ultimate rise. ‘You think I need a disguise?’

‘I don’t know how you’re going to cover up, ah… you,’ she said, pointing at him.

‘Will this do?’ The alien pressed a button on his suit that flipped his image inside out and around in circles until he became a human figure standing before the woman.

Rearing her head back, she gaped at this incarnation of the gargoyle that previously stood before her, thinking he now reminded her of something between Jim Carrey and one of the evil Mario Brothers.

‘Well alright, that’ll do. I’ll take you through the streets and we can get to Anaheim by the time it opens.’

The trio boarded a bus headed to Anaheim, and for the first time, the Dorkan began to experience the culture that he used to watch from afar. The three of them sat down at the front of the bus where the seats sat sideways. Across the walkway, there were other commuters staring at them. Still, these early morning stragglers were just as weird as her follower, and the female told herself that she was comforted by that fact.

A beep alerted the alien to his belt. He pulled a device from its clip and opened it. It looked like a smart phone, but was decorated with strange, green lights. A screen popped up with the image of another Dorkan.

‘Son,’ the device spoke in a deep, horrifying voice.

‘Father, your presence pleases me.’

‘Silence, whelp. I have come to check your progress. I trust that you are proceeding accordingly.’

‘Of course, Father. I am being escorted as we speak by a working member of the Kingdom and will arrive there shortly.’

‘Good. It’s about time you did something with your life. Call me back when you have succeeded.’

‘As you wish, Father.’ The alien bowed his head and the screen went black. He put the device away and the female stared at him.

‘What are you planning to do when you get there?’ she asked.

He turned away, ensuring not to give this female any more attention than she deserved, ‘I suppose an introduction is in order. Snooki!’

‘Y-yes, milord?’ Snooki now took the form of a small, round man with a moustache, which really wasn’t that much different from his previous, beetle-like state.

‘Indulge the terran female. And don’t distract her, I must minimize the time to our destination.’ The Dorkan’s command was blasé.

‘Why the hurry, milord?’

‘WHAT?’ the alien turned drastically and shoved his face down to Snooki’s level, so that he might tremble beneath his monstrous features.

And so he did. ‘I-I only meant milord that, being ever-lastingly powerful, you have the expanse of time itself to bend to your will.’

 The female noted that the people that sat across from them barely moved.

The alien straightened himself, ‘Hmm yes, Snooki, my cowardly worm, but my mission here is of the utmost importance. You do know why we are here, yes?’

‘To… find the womb?’

‘The PERFECT womb!’ He threw his hands up in despair and cursed the ignorance that accompanied him. This received a couple of raised eyebrows from the other passengers. ‘My perfect seed needs the perfect womb, and I shall only find it here on Terra, home of the powerful Putin! Or even the most maleficent Megan the Fox!’

‘So we shall find Megan, then! The perfect womb!’ Snooki declared, rubbing his hands in an endearing attempt to portray evil.

‘Yes, that does seem the course, however!’ The terran jumped every time he exaggerated a word and added a hand gesture that was just as sharp and rigid. ‘Judging by the number of surgical procedures she has endured, I believe she is now more machine than woman. No, I must find something untainted, something pure—so that I, Captain Mickey Mouse might taint it with my seed!’

The female adopted a blank face, reminding the alien of his many subjugates, ‘Your… your name is Mickey Mouse?’

Mickey sighed heavily and slumped his body, realising that the terran would not rest until he explained everything, ‘Very well…’ he raised his head, ‘Months ago, my father bestowed upon me the gracious gift that was my star ship: a star ship of unrivalled sophistication. I was of age, he told me. It was time for me to go forth and plant my seed, as all other Dorkans before me. He knew of my fascination with Terra and all of its efficaciously egregious evil. I even took the name of their world’s overlord, Mickey Mouse, as my own.  He gifted me with a ship so that I might fulfil my destiny, reaching Earth and finding the perfect womb to plant my seed.’

She gaped at him and all of her feelings of disgust were summarised simply as ‘Yuck.’

‘Silence!’ he commanded with another sharp gesture and an exaggerated shout that got people’s attention. ‘I suggest you tread carefully, female.’

 ‘Master,’ Snooki tugged at Mickey’s sleeve. ‘What about that one?’ Snooki pointed at a poster of bare-skinned, young pop star in a pool while she tasted the air. Their female companion laughed hysterically.

‘Ignorant creature,’ Mickey dismissed, ‘I am searching for a terran. The Montana girl is clearly from somewhere in the Horse Head Nebula. Look at the tongue, see how it flaps in the wind, that’s a tell-tale sign.’

The terran couldn’t restrain herself from engaging Mickey yet again with an objection.

‘You know you can’t just, like, take a woman, right?’

Mickey groaned, ‘Why do you continue this?’

‘I want my son.’

Mickey laughed, ‘Aha yes, attachment through love, rules that the weak employed to protect themselves. My people shed those weaknesses long ago.’

She continued to spout perplexing slogans about human decency, of which he was not yet convinced existed.

‘I wonder if it is your lack of a male counterpart that controls your desires?’

Her reply was like a strike from a poised snake, ‘Oh hell, what decade do you live in?’

It was a question that sparked a reaction in Mickey fuelled by pride, ‘My people were born on a plane that transcends time. It exists in a place that your feeble terran minds have not been conditioned to comprehend!’

‘Yes, and you navigate halfway around the universe and you need a hostage cast member to guide you to the biggest tourist attraction within a thousand miles—and you still live in some backward misogynistic stone age that doesn’t acknowledge love as a virtue?’

‘Nonsense! I’ve seen your weak dying in the streets, or in the deserts while others swim in avarice. There is no love there. It’s delightfully evil, and rivals even the Dorkans,’ he said, then waved his hand dismissively, ‘And females serve little more purpose than to harbour the fruit of our loins.’

A man laughed, and the female terran narrowed her gaze on Mickey. The female’s cascading mental tantrum manifested on her face as a scrunched expression. She threw her hands in the air and breathed out a growly sigh, ‘Whatever, I’m just saying, you try to impregnate someone without their consent, and there’ll be problems.’

 * * *

While happy to get off the bus and escape the gaze of the onlookers, the female was less enthused than her alien companion when they reached the gates of Kingdom. She observed him. What was banal to her caused Mickey to hunch over with heavy arms and a heavy chin that pulled his mouth open. It was as though he floated through the streets. She remembered the first time she brought her son to the park. He shared the same awestruck expression.

Mickey ran through the crowds as Snooki and the female pursued him. He was captivated by the mechanisation of the humans. All these fools were herded into this Kingdom, each of them unloading their money into a corporation that offered nothing back.

‘Happiest place on Terra?’ Mickey laughed, ‘Yes, for one person in particular, hmm, my evil friend?’ Mickey said to the statue of the mouse he admired. ‘Let us go, my companions—out in search of the overlord.’

An idea came to the female’s mind. She could see something in him that he wanted to ignore.

‘Mickey,’ she said.

Mickey turned around.

‘To find the overlord, you must first take his trials,’ the terran continued.

‘What, in the name of doom, do you mean?’ Mickey demanded.

‘It’s his custom. You must pass his test. Would you let any old terran come up and meet you without him first proving his mettle?’

‘I should have known him to be this clever. You’re not as daft as I believed you to be, female,’ Mickey said, ‘Very well, take me through his gauntlet. I shall prove my strength tenfold! Snooki!’

‘Yes, milord.’ The creature crept from behind him.

‘Return to my ship, ensure that our investment is well guarded.’ Mickey glared at the terran, reminding her of the stakes.

‘At once,’ Snooki bowed his head and waddled away.

 * * *

‘Disaster is imminent!’ Mickey cried as the giant cobras struck at him from all sides. Flames engulfed his surroundings. Vermin filled his senses. All this time the pilot of the vehicle continued to navigate through tumultuous terrain. Mickey screamed at the adolescent terran. He turned back to see the infants behind him echoing his own screams.

‘How evil it is to invite infants on such a violent voyage.’

Upon leaving every test Mickey felt something. He felt happy. Entertained. Energised. Exhilarated. These tests were having a remarkable effect on his state of being.  The terran was not immune to these effects either.

‘Bring about the next test!’ Mickey jumped.

The terran laughed. ‘You bet!’

After terrifying treks and exhaustive expeditions, Mickey would find himself in another place, wild and wondrous, somehow flying through a lustrous London, following fairies and other fantastical features.

‘I can fly!’ he shrieked.

The female could only laugh with him.

 They came to a surreal town. The infrastructure was ridiculous and elongated in a way that could serve no practical purpose. Soon Mickey would be faced with a true harrowing. The terran turned to realise her companion was gone. She searched the crowd and found him at the front of the line to meet a female anthropomorphic duck.

‘Oh god…’ she muttered as she raced over to the rotund, humanoid duck and her alien master.

‘You are a fine specimen, dear duck,’ Mickey said to the duck. ‘You shall do nicely! Your wide hips suggest a most powerful womb. Please, direct me toward your overlord so that I might bargain with him to allow me to impre—’

‘Hey!’ the female terran interjected, ‘There you are!’

The duck, hands on her hips, shook her head.

‘Sorry, this is my friend from out of town,’ the terran said, trying to feign a happy glance.

Mickey reluctantly followed as she tugged him away. So far, the female appeared to have led him in the right direction, and so put his plans of courtship on hold.

‘You know,’ Mickey said, ‘I’m fairly certain that duck’s feathers were polyester.’

‘I know you’re having fun here but these are my co-workers. You’re gonna get me fired!’

Mickey’s attention was snared as he emerged. Mickey Mouse exited his house as infants swarmed him.

All things around the alien became hushed as he slowly drifted toward his idol. But something was wrong. It became increasingly apparent that this manifestation was not the creature he knew. His features were in three dimensions. His facial expression remained glued to a single state. He was made of cotton!

And most dreadful of all, these children that surrounded the mouse were not crying in terror, but in love and admiration! This creature was hugging these infants. There was nothing that exploded into ashes. Nothing melted into gory puddles. Mickey Mouse was soft and cuddly!

The alien was frozen still until he spun viciously to flee, shoving his way through the crowd.

Later, the terran found the alien sitting by the statue of Mickey and Disney. He remained idle while others tried to take photos, ignoring their polite requests for him to move.

‘You were never evil, were you, my friend? It’s not an illusion to lull people into spending their money for you.’ He shook his head. ‘You actually do make people happy. You are magic. How could I not have seen?’

‘It’s hard to see your childhood heroes for what they are, sometimes.’ the terran female said from behind him.

Mickey stood up and faced her.

‘You do not understand. I am not upset at this. I am happy. Mickey has made me happy.’

The terran smiled.

‘Come, lady terran! I must take you to your son. You must be rewarded. Come!’

 * * *

Mickey returned them to his ship and immediately called his father on the giant screen in the control room. The young boy he had previously kidnapped ran around with Snooki, laughing energetically.

‘You see, Father, I have found this woman who I believe possesses the perfect womb for my seed!’

‘What, by all that is evil, are you talking about, infant?’ his father barked back.

Mickey’s thoughts were seized. He was not prepared for such a response and he was unsure how to proceed.

‘To plant my seed, Father. That is the reason for my journey to Terra.’

His father groaned and rubbed his massive forehead, ‘Across all time and space, within every parallel of existence, there is no statement as stupid as the one you just made.’

‘You wound me, Father!’

‘I did not spend that money on the monstrosity that is your star ship for you to run across the galaxy, acting like a Dorkan Captain Kirk!’

He paused for a moment, calculating his next response.

‘Yes! I know who Captain Kirk is!’ his father barked, pre-empting his response. ‘I quite like his ability to deceive females of all species, and his utter disregard for those dressed in red.’ He took a deep breath, and it was obvious he was still heated with anger, ‘I gave up on the prospect of you finding a mate long ago.’

‘But you said I came of age! That I was to spread my seed!’

‘Yes, you came of age a decade ago and have done nothing with your life except watch Fantasia in the basement with your friends.’ He paused. ‘You were to spread the seed of Dorkan! You were to either enslave or destroy those terrans to pave the way for our colony! In the name of agony, that’ll be the last time I ever try to be poetic!’

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Dragon – Kathryn Robson

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He was born in the heat of summer, in the middle of January, with brown skin and amber eyes. His mother told him he never cried as a child. The heat never bothered him, she said – and swimming came like a second nature.

He grew up as Dane Myron to a single mother and an absent father, on the beachside of Euboea in Greece. He went to school every day on his own and if no one spoke to him he could go a day without uttering a single word. Dane didn’t like talking. His teachers would prod at him to speak, constantly – and sent letters home to his mother expressing their concern, because he sat alone on the hot concrete when he ate lunch.

‘Oh, don’t pressure him.’ she would tell them, cradling the phone to her ear. ‘That’s just my Dane.’

His mother gave him the pendant on his seventh birthday. ‘Nicked it from your dad.’ she had said, tying it about his neck on a coarse string. ‘Used to wear it all the time, his little dragon guardian, he’d tell me. He was born in the year of the dragon, you know. Just like you.’ she tied it off, and his little hand came up to toy with it, prodding at the edges with curiosity. A dragon’s head, with its jaws parted and its long teeth bared, carved entirely from deep mahogany.

Dane never took it off.

Summer was Dane’s favourite time of year, and not just because it was his birthday. He loved the way the summer sun glinted off the rippling ocean. He loved feeling sand burn at the soles of his feet. He loved watching the fire jugglers perform on the beach at night. He loved listening to the music they played, the beat of the low drums, the constant thrum of life that would carry on even long after his mother took his hand and led him back to their cabin to sleep. Nine at night was his bedtime.

Dane first saw it when he was sixteen.

There were three of them. A blonde woman, her husband and another girl. They performed just like the fire jugglers, and that’s what Dane thought they were. He saw one of them bring a bottle to her lips with a flaming torch in her right hand. She tossed the bottle away, lifted the torch and let out a mighty breath. The fire plumed and rocketed from her parted lips, as if her very breath was made from it. It was extending out in front of her, carried by the wind. Death in a rough breeze.

From then on he was captivated.

The next morning Dane caught them as they were leaving. He asked the male of their troupe how their magic worked. The male in turn handed Dane a small bottle of kerosene for his enthusiasm.

Dane never saw them again.

‘Are you ready, Little Dragon?’

He glanced over his shoulder, nodding at the showrunner as he vanished back behind his curtain, leaving Little Dragon standing there staring at his reflection in the dressing room mirror. Tattoos riddled his flesh from his arms to his chest like scales – hiding the endless stream of his burns from view. He remembered feeling the sting of each one as it was burned into his skin like it belonged there.

‘Does it hurt?’ his tattoo artist had asked him as she glanced warily up from her place on his chest, inking over a deep burn. He had said nothing but gave his head a slow shake. It didn’t hurt him. It felt like nothing compared to the fire’s greedy burn. She fell silent after that, tugging her headphones back into her ears, working without stopping until his chest was a fresh array of black scales, flushed and red and beading with blood.

It took five days, and five different sessions over three years and too much money in total before his skin was entirely covered. Before the worst of his burns were hidden from view. Before his armour finally took form, and it seemed like that accident had never happened. His hands, feet and his face were all left bare, leaving the grizzly burn over his right cheek and chin on plain display.

His eyes were rimmed with golden liner; his brows were filled in with it. His head was shaved bare and he wore nothing but a pair of loose hemp pants drawn up to his knees. His feet were bare and he flexed his toes against the cold sand underfoot. He was broad-shouldered, roped with muscle, brushing well over six feet in height. He was not small. He was not little.

The low boom of the crowd beyond the frail curtains of his tent were still audible from behind them, permeating the frozen Norwegian air. He was a long way from home, but he stopped being Dane Myron such a long time ago that home became wherever this tent would go.

Drawing a slow breath he reached out to take hold of his torch. It was a lavishly decorated thing with faux jewels inlaid into the shaft and thick enough for him to wind his fingers around until they just barely meet. A small basin sat at the very top of the wood, blackened and burnished from the amount of times he’d lit it on fire. Every inch of it smelled like smoke, every inch of him smelled like smoke.

A low brasier burned away by his exit. He lowered his torch to it, watching as it caught flame. A simple flask sat at his hip. It blended in to his uniform, with a small string of beads hanging from the stopper and a chain for him to loop around his neck.

He settled the base of his torch against the sand at his side, the flames licking away – level to his jawline. The curtains drew back, and the show runner was there again.

‘We’re ready.’ he said and, nodding, he followed him out, ducking under the curtain after his torch, following it and not his guide. It illuminated the dark, transient halls of the tent. He stopped by another curtain. From underneath it he could see the lights of the previous act shining against the black floor.

It happened before every show. A low jitter to his stomach. A fluttering of nerves that drifted through his abdomen and pulled at his chest until his heart skipped every second beat and he began bouncing on the balls of his feet. He had been prepared, painted gold and black – like a dragon, he thought – and he was ready. He raised a hand to the carved charm around his neck and lifted it to his lips, kissing its horns before releasing it.

He heard the music shift and saw the lights shift under the curtain. He heard the scuffle of the acrobats hurrying off stage and the audience applauding them as they went. A touch to the sway of his back signaled him to move – and he did. One step forwards, and he was on the platform. He closed his eyes and set the torch at his side. His fingers wrapped loosely around the torch’s shaft as the ground rolled to life under him, as he was driven out from the darkness.

Dim light bathed him much like under moonlight. He heard the audience fall silent. He couldn’t see them from here. The lights on him were far too bright.

The lights shifted. He stepped off his platform taking two steps forwards. Off his raised dais, he paused at the single dot of chalk on the front of the stage. The music shifted again. His hand drifted to his side. He unhooked his flask and brought it to his lips. He poured a small amount of the kerosene into his mouth and held it by his teeth. As the bitter taste filled his mouth his tongue lifted, out of habit, to stop the liquid from slipping towards the back of his throat. He plugged the flask and let it hang around his neck. He shifts his torch until it was in front of him. Through his nose he drew in a careful breath.

He pressed his full lips into a moue and opened his gold-lidded eyes. His jaw set, he spat the kerosene towards the flame, and he blew. Flames erupted from his lips as he moved the torch from in front of him. He took three steps forward, hearing the crowd gasp. He felt his audience lean back from the row closest to him, like they were afraid his fire would catch them. It didn’t. It was his. He was a dragon after all. The fire was hot against his skin, burning and blistering against the icy air.

He turned away, staining his skin with golden makeup as he dragged his free hand over his lips. He lifted the flask to his lips again to take in another mouthful of kerosene. He dipped to his knees, taking the torch with him. He spits, he blew, and he stood, bringing the torch back up with him. The flames rose. He felt their heat beat down against his skin, against his scales. He felt it all around him, burning, burning. Fire caught behind him on the stage. It was controlled, set to life over the coals left behind by the previous act. The fire framed him, but he wasn’t afraid. He didn’t have any reason to be. His scales protected him. His scales kept him safe. Dragon.

The music carried and lifted along with him until he heard the audience applauding. He tapped the butt of his torch against the stage three times. It’s echoes carried over the crowd. He brought the torch back to his lips and spat out his kerosene. He breathed out his fire and he watched it plume and spread. He watched it lick greedily against the empty air, desperately seeking something to purchase on. He wanted it to find its purchase upon them, the crowd, for they should have known how it felt to be touched by fire, to be touched like he was.

There had been a time when his mother had come to these shows. Where she had sat herself in the front row and watched him with clear pride. Pride that had faded with each new scale. Pride that had disintegrated along with the ashes of his scarred flesh, still as sickly as it had been when he was a boy. She stopped coming when he stopped answering to ‘Dane’. She stopped travelling with him when she started seeing a stranger in him instead of her son. She never minded how quiet he was. She never minded that he didn’t like talking (for why would he need to talk when he could do this?). But she didn’t like watching her son risk setting himself aflame every other night.

She couldn’t watch that happen for the sake of entertainment, after what was once an accident.

When did you adopt this persona? How did you learn how to breathe fire? How old were you when you did this for the first time?’

A camera flashed at him but he stopped himself from flinching.

‘Why a ‘dragon’?’

He didn’t answer the brunette woman. She didn’t get an answer just because she had a microphone as large as her arm. He thought she must have been struggling to hold it upright. Her cheeks were pink with effort, but he just stared at her, his amber eyes burning with apprehension. What more did she want from him? She’d seen all he had to give. There was nothing left. His heart leaped into his throat. They had told him he wouldn’t have to talk to press.

‘What’s your real name?’

‘No questions now.’ A hand landed on his bare shoulder and he looked around at his salvation. It was his manager, Rudy, wearing his signature black tuxedo, smiling past his chubby cheeks at the swarm of people blocking the entrance to his dragon’s tent.

‘If you wanna know more about my Little Dragon you can come talk to me at my tent. C’mon now, it’s bedtime. Reptiles can’t function without recharging. You know that.’

The brunette woman and her photographer hurried off to Rudy’s tent, but not before snapping a few last moment shots of Little Dragon, with flashes too bright for his eyes to handle. He flinched away, rubbing at his eyelids until more of his golden makeup smudged onto his hand.

‘You did great today.’

He looked up. Rudy was smiling at him, beaming with his greedy, beady eyes. His eyes scanned over his dragon’s face, looking for some trace of emotion. Anything.

‘What, not even a smile?’

A frown twitched between Dragon’s brows. What was Rudy looking for? The emptiness in him?

‘Alright, whatever, man. Bright and early tomorrow, you know the drill. It’s gonna be a busy, busy weekend!’ Rudy clapped his meaty hands together, wiggling his fingers in his signature way as he turned away and hurried off back towards his tent. His perfectly gelled hair shone in the moonlight.

Once alone, Rudy’s Little Dragon let out a small breath of relief. He peeled back the flap of his tent before stepping inside with his torch held carefully in his hand. The fire was long since extinguished though the basin still smoked lightly with heat.

His reflection looked back at him from the moment he set foot in his tent. A full-length mirror had been pressed against the far wall of his temporary home. His belongings fretfully far and few between, rolled up in hemp duffle bags as fragrant as tea leaves, decorated with fake crystals. Incense burned by the door, and he tipped his head as he looked at himself, leaning his torch against the tent stand by the doorway.

There was a time when he would look in the mirror and fear what he saw. He wasn’t used to seeing his reflection and not recognizing the man who stared back at him, with his flesh twisted and gnarled from his burns. Eyes as amber as the sun. Skin as brown as ground coffee beans. Every inch of him had been bathed in sunlight.

Then the scales came. He lifted a hand to run his fingers over his arms. The tattoos had been a part of him for so long that he barely remembered how he looked without them. They covered his entire body, from his neck to the tops of his feet. His fingers had been emblazoned to look alight, twisting and licking with black flames, and the makeup…

It was smudged over his eyes and over his lips. But that was what they wanted of him. They wanted him to mess it during his act. They wanted him to look savage and untamed. Dragon. He looked at himself, and a smile crept over his lips. It was easier to keep your true self buried under several layers of untrue selves, to protect yourself. That was what the scars were for, he thought. They protected him, from them-… from everything that was out there.

Like this, Dane Myron was untouchable. Dane Myron was a dragon.

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