Tag Archives: Endangered & Dangerous

Morgan, Kimberley Milton

Creak. I pull my blankets up to my chin and listen to the Milkman’s symphony. The gate strains as he makes his way into their front yard, trundling up the steps of their veranda to leave four glass bottles of milk. He stomps back down to close the white picket gate behind him, careful not step on the perfectly manicured lawn as he slouches over to the next house. Each time a gate is opened it reveals its squeaky hinges and I find a sense of comfort in this irritating flaw in our neighbourhood. I brace myself for the Milkman’s entrance to our neighbour’s front yard, but there is an extended silence.

My chest fills with a sudden nervous flutter and the blankets surrounding me begin to feel like a straight jacket holding me down. I fling them off and rush to my window. I slowly pull back the curtain and my vision fills with white. The domes have made it to our street.

Suddenly, a gap appears in the dome and three figures slowly emerge. I can see a man in a white suit, the black tie around his neck draws my eye to his throat and I am filled with hate. Next is a small woman, loose strands of red hair peek out from the curlers that cover her head. Her pink nightgown is pulled in at her waist by the arm holding her. My eyes move up to the tall figure beside her, his eyes the same blue as Tenille’s. I strain to look past the tall figures that are her parents, desperately searching for a sign of Tenille’s red hair and kind smile.

‘Tennile!’ I scream. I press my hand against the glass, as though I can will it to disappear. I want to run outside and rip through the dome, save Tenille from whatever horrors she is about to face. But my legs feel like they are stuck in ice, burning and stiff.

‘Wake up Nathaniel,’ I slap myself. ‘This is just a dream. Snap out of it.’ But nothing changes. My window is still filled with the white material and the gap in the dome remains sealed. But the slap has done something else and my legs are once again free.

I run to my bedroom door and fumble with the doorknob. ‘Shit,’ I scream as I punch the door. Finally, I get the door open and run down the stairs, taking two at a time, not at all concerned with falling down. With a click I unlatch the front door and am temporarily blinded by the glare from the dome.

I will my vision to clear as I seek out the two people I have questions I most need to see.

‘Who was it?’ I pause between each word. The calmness in my voice terrifies even me. Tenille’s parents just stare at me. Their stupid dumbstruck faces make me want to scream. Their slippered feet shuffle backward as I move toward them.

I repeat the question, this time a little louder. I’m close enough now to see their eyes darting around, looking for any chance of escape. This only makes them look guilty.

‘Who was it?’ I’m screaming now, shoving her dad. ‘She would never have a writing instrument and you know it. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about.’ I turn to Tenille’s mum and look straight into her eyes. Her dad seems like he’s going to make a move to stop me, but he’s abruptly taken away by a white suited man.

‘I know it was you.’ I whisper. ‘Tenille saw you with your precious diary. She told me all about how you would write in it when you thought no one was home. What did you do? Hide it in her room and call them?’ My head turns toward the men in the white suits.

My head snaps back to my arm as a sharp pain radiates down it and I see Tenille’s mum clutching my bicep, her fingernails digging into my flesh.

‘You think you’re so clever; that you know everything. You know nothing Nathaniel.’

She releases my arm, but reaches up to my sleeve and gently brushes away the creases.

‘Soon no one will remember her.’ She whispers into my ear. I clench my jaw and my hands form fists, my knuckles turning white.

‘Nathaniel?’ My mum calls. She is running across the grass of our front garden towards me. Her face is a mirror of the sadness and desperation I feel. Tenille’s mum drops my arm and backs away, moving towards her husband.

‘I’m so sorry, Nathaniel,’ she takes me in her arms and holds me against her; I can feel the steady beating of her heart. I suddenly drop to the ground, falling from her arms. She bends down and holds me whilst I weep. In the distance I can hear the Milkman’s symphony.

 

*

 

All this crying is so boring. So she’s gone, big whoop. She’s not dead. But I guess they don’t know that. I can see my big brother crying and my mum crying and Mr Smyth crying and Mrs Smyth not crying. She really needs to try harder than that if she wants to look normal.

I have had to put up with this family for eight years. It’s exhausting trying to be happy and cheerful all the time. But soon I finally get to take my Circle Standard and become a Nineling. Mrs Smyth says she has big plans for me.

Master Isaiah really knew what he was doing when he created the test. All you have to do is draw a circle. Simple right? Wrong. Draw a perfect circle and you are thrown out of Mallar because they think you are insane and dangerous. So I figured it has to look weird and not like a circle that should be enough to pass. The only problem is that they stick a big needle in you before you take the test so you go into, like, some sort of trance thing. But that’s where Mrs Smyth came in. She failed the Circle Standard, but no on ever knew because she swapped her circle with someone else and they disappeared forever. So now she steals writing implements and gets kids that she thinks are special to practice drawing imperfect circles, or sometimes gets them to sometimes just fill a whole notebook with perfect circles to get it out of their system.

I think I’m up to notebook number seven. I need lots of practice at not being perfect.

 

*

 

Two months have passed since Tenille disappeared and I seem to be the only one who remembers she existed at all. Whenever I mention her name or start talking about a memory I have of her, everyone just looks at me like I’ve gone crazy. Especially my sister Morgan, who has been acting really strange, but that could just be because she’s nervous.

In a couple of weeks she will take her Circle Standard and become a Nineling. She’s been spending a lot of time in her room with her door closed. I can hear strange scratching sounds coming from inside her room and every now and then she will let out a frustrated cry. Mum thinks that she’s just tidying her room, but I don’t think that she’s right.

People of Mallar.’ Master Isaiah’s voice booms from the speakers in our house. ‘Please make your way outside to welcome the Ninelings. Each one has successfully passed the Circle Standard. Please help me in congratulating them as they march through the streets. I look forward to their contributions to our fine city.’

The smell of springtime fills the air as we make our way out the front door. The sudden clean air and warm sunshine makes my fears seem ridiculous and they melt away.

Before long the sound of cheering and chanting can be heard. The sounds of muffled footsteps begin to build and before long the streets are filled with a new batch of Ninelings. The sound of their tiny footsteps mirrors the sound of soldiers marching towards battle.

Soon the Ninelings begin to pass by. Their little faces are beaming. Some are jumping up and down with excitement, breaking the illusion that a perfectly trained army was marching towards Mallar, but they were quickly put back in line by their parents who are all proudly watching from the crowd.

Morgan stands in front of me. I find it hard to believe that this sweet little girl, wearing a blue and white checked dress, could be anything but cute. She is waving so enthusiastically to her friends that I am afraid her arm might act as a propeller and she will take off into the air.

Suddenly, there is a slight change, almost as though a ripple passes through her. It is so subtle that I may have missed it if I hadn’t been looking directly at her. Morgan is staring straight into one of the Nineling girl’s eyes. She moves her hand to her neck and at first it looks like she is scratching, but her thumb extends out and draws a straight line across her throat, her head slightly tilted to the side, her face blank. Any remnant joy has been wiped away. Morgan moves her hand from her throat to her ear in an effort to appear inconspicuous. The joy that she had showed earlier returns to her face and she continues waving to her friends as they pass by, as though nothing has changed.

I can’t move. I am pierced by fear and my body goes into immediate fight or flight mode. The tell-tale signs of fear begin to appear. Sweat forms on my brow and my breath quickens. My heartbeat is so loud and fast in my chest; I am sure everyone around me can hear it. Clearly someone does, because in the next moment Morgan whips her head around to look at me.

‘You okay big brother?’ A huge grin spreads her lips wide. It would have seemed like a cute gesture from a little sister to a big brother, but after what I just witnessed I see it as a warning. All I can see is her mouth, full of teeth.

I reach forward and touch my mum’s arm to get her attention.

‘Mum, I’m just going inside to get a drink.’ She gives me a quick nod and then goes back to waving and smiling at the children, pulling Morgan to her and giving her a big hug. ‘This will be you next year,’ she announces to Morgan, squeezing her so tight her shoulders are forced up to her ears.

The next morning at breakfast I can’t look at Morgan the same way. The threat that she made to that little girl is still etched in my mind. It plays over and over on a loop.

‘Nathaniel?’ I am snapped back to my kitchen, where Morgan sits opposite me munching on her piece of toast with strawberry jam. ‘What are the white domes for?’

I freeze and scan the room for any signs of mum or dad. ‘Where did you hear about them Morgan?’ I whisper.

‘I just remember the look on your face when Tenille’s house was covered in that dome. Too bad she’s gone. She was nice.’ A sweet smile spreads across her lips. She pushes back her chair as she stands up. ‘You know nothing Nathaniel.’ Her voice is low and measured and it terrifies me. She turns and skips away.

Words escape me and I chase after her. How does she know?

‘Morgan! Open the door. Tell me what you know.’ There is silence behind the door. I reach down to turn the doorknob, but it’s locked. ‘Damn.’ I clench my fist and pound on her door again, over and over, calling out her name. The sound has done nothing except draw my parent’s attention.

‘Nathaniel, what are you doing?’

‘I just need to talk to Morgan.’ My mother’s face softens as she senses the desperation in my voice.

‘How about you sit down with her this afternoon? You are both going to be late for school if you don’t leave now.’ She places a hand on my shoulder and directs me to the stairs. ‘Have a good day at school sweetie.’

I grab my backpack on the way out and reluctantly start trudging off to school. I glance over my shoulder at my sister’s bedroom. She’s standing in the window, framed by two pink, chiffon curtains. Morgan doesn’t move, or smile or wave. She just stares at me. I turn around and focus on my shadow as it moves ahead of me, quickening my pace to leave the image of my sister behind.

I can’t focus on anything at school today except for what happened this morning. My teacher is droning on about algebra, but my head is swimming with questions. Should I tell Mum? Is Tenille still alive? Does Morgan know what happened to her?

The more I think about my sister’s strange behaviour, the more I begin to realise she’s behaving the same way as Mrs Smyth. Both are normally so kind and sweet, but that day when Tenille disappeared and she grabbed my arm was unlike anything that she has done before. The cruelty behind her eyes signalled her words as a threat. ‘You know nothing Nathaniel.’ Her words replayed through my mind and I freeze. Morgan said the exact same words this morning.

Suddenly, I spring from my chair and it rocks precariously on its legs, threatening to fall to the ground. Every head in the classroom turns towards me.

‘I’m not feeling well.’ I announce as I lift the lid of my desk to retrieve my backpack.

‘Okay Nathaniel, just go to…’ but I don’t hear the end of the sentence as I have already bolted from the classroom.

I run home, my feet pounding against the pathway and my backpack thumps against my back. Each perfectly manicured lawn taunts me as I run by. The perfection is too much.

1:00 pm on a Wednesday should place my sister in class, my dad at work and my mum at the grocery store. This is the only opportunity I would get to search my sister’s room.

The sound of our gate creaking no longer fills me with comfort. It only reminds me of the horror of that morning. But as soon as the door closes behind me I am overwhelmed with relief. It creates an instant barrier between Morgan and myself.

I race up the stairs, two at a time and fling open her bedroom door. Her delicate chiffon curtain sucks against the open window as I enter her room. The pink pillows are arranged on her bed in the usual way, but I can see a small white corner peeking out from underneath them. This seems too easy. I push aside the voice and rush towards the pillows. This was it, Morgan’s secret. I needed to know what she has been hiding.

I slowly open the front cover of the book, expecting to see a blank notebook, or perhaps a diary. We’d been taught that people used to keep track of their lives with forbidden pen and paper, instead of using computers like we do today.

I open to the first page and my throat goes dry. Adorning every page are circles, hundreds and hundreds of perfect circles. I drop the book and it falls flat onto the floor, opening up to the middle spread revealing even more pages, each circle mirroring the other. The breeze from the open window rifles through the pages as through they are moving by themselves; revealing their secrets to me. The sound of the turning pages mimics the sound of waves lapping at the beach and it lulls me into a false sense of security.

I pick the book up from the ground and flick through it. Every page is the same. There is barely any space left and almost all the white areas have been filled with menacing circles. I start turning the pages faster and faster.

That’s when the curtain is suddenly drawn against the window. Someone has entered the room. I slowly turn around, my breath struggling to move in and out, as if it is getting caught between my teeth. Morgan and Mrs Smyth stand in the doorway.

‘You shouldn’t be here big brother.’

 

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Isolation Stations, Benjamin Breadon

Who in sweet hell thought a mixture of steel and grey paint would make a good start to every workday? I’d always thought graffiti was supposed to be a sort of colourful revolt against dull concrete and metal, however the daily rotation on the clock tower across the road is certainly no Michelangelo. Unreadable black spray-paint is only so inspiring.
The positioning of Woy Woy’s 128-year-old train station will always count for something; a picturesque entry and exit point for the south Central Coast’s Peninsula, just 10 metres from the bay that shares the town’s name. But the structure itself has become as contradicting as the people that use it.
I walk down the ramp to where a crowd has gathered, on the Newcastle-to-Central platform. It’s a sunny yet cold Wednesday morning, and the majority have crammed under the shelter to avoid the sun’s glare – mostly men in suits and women in pencil skirts, gazes fixed upon the dark asphalt, or the darker headlines on their phone screens. Some pore over thick books with eyes that look like they will fall onto the page. A recent study from Lifeline Australia says over 80% of Aussies believe that society has become a lonelier place than it was in the past , and here it’s not hard to see why. How can so many people be so close together, yet still be so isolated? You would have better odds of a first-ever Central Coast snowstorm than seeing someone smile in this crowd.
But I suppose that’s painting the scene with a broad brush. Further down the platform, a group of elderly couples are sitting with hiking packs, chatting away. Crowds of kids in green uniforms shout and grab each other’s backpacks as they wait for the 50-minute trip to their school in Asquith. Nearby, a mum and dad try to keep a hold on four luggage bags, as well as the hands of their young children. Those interacting with somebody else seem so much happier than those standing alone.
Having skipped brekkie, I feed $5 into the Up & Go machine next to the hiking couples. It graciously returns me just a 50c coin. Awesome. But I can’t help smiling, remembering how train station vending machines have never been cooperative with me. When I was around fifteen, my mate Lewy and I used to take our bikes to visit another friend who had moved to Warnervale. We had just discovered the miracle of coffee, and decided on our way home that I would have enough time on a stopover to jump off and grab us two from the machine at Gosford Station. The vending machine didn’t appreciate our urgency and I ended up catching the next train home, arriving at Woy Woy twenty minutes later with a cold coffee in each hand, only to find Lewy holding a bike in each of his.

 

*

 

I’m headed into the city to visit friends and I need to get some Uni readings done. In one of the ‘quiet carriages’ that make up the front, back, and two centre carriages of the train’s eight, I sit next to a tiny old Asian woman. She frowns like I’ve sat on her birthday cake. The air – the only part of the train’s insides that isn’t coloured a kidney-purple – is thick with a hostility that only the twice-a-day repetition of hour-plus train trips can bring.
Then the worst happens – a phone rings. The default iPhone tone echoes throughout the carriage. Everyone looks up to glare holes through the person responsible, this abuser of our right to remain silent. In their defence, this is probably the early-morning alarm tone of 90% of the people here. The culprit – a lady with greying brown hair and a bright pink cardigan – looks around nervously, waits for the ringing to stop without taking the call, and shrinks into her seat.
I sit and watch her for a while, with my web design readings open on my lap, thinking of what the call might’ve been about. Could’ve been anything really – a neighbour calling to let her know her dog, Spud, had pulled off a great escape by leaping a two-metre fence, or a friend wishing her a happy birthday. It could have been the hospital, ringing to say that a loved one had been in a car accident. Maybe it was a bank rep, calling to ask if she was aware her credit card had been charged $400 for the purchase of 800 low-grade Yo-Yos from a shady eBay seller based in Sweden. Who knows? Who would ask?
She puts her phone back into her not-purple handbag. I look out the window at the Hawkesbury River as though playing a part in a 90’s music video. Work? The aquarium? The casino? I wonder who the woman is, and how anyone even defines that. A man with a belly forced into a light-blue shirt and tie starts snoring across the aisle. Where does he work? Is he at the bottom or top of the corporate ladder? The woman on my left shifts in her seat as I start scribbling words onto my book margins with a highlighter: TRAIN TRIPS. SILENCE. HOSTILITY. PHONE. PINK CARDIGAN. My highlighter squeaks, and she exhales loudly. Why is everyone so cranky? sunder
The word sonder comes to mind; a term I’d come across for the umpteenth time through a Facebook meme the night before. The word doesn’t seem to belong to any dictionary andI tracked its origins to a webpage that was later published as a book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig . Sonder means the realisation that every other person has their own histories, loves, hates and attitudes; their own friends, families and enemies. It means that even though in the overall scheme of things they may just be one random passenger sharing a train trip, but every stranger is just as complex as you – which also means there are thousands of reasons as to why someone might be in a bad mood.
I shove my book into my bag and stand up – it is way too quiet and it’s doing my head in.

 

*

 

The ‘quiet’ carriages mean well. They aim to make trips more bearable and ‘provide you with a quiet environment when travelling longer distances’ . And the stress that comes with commuting is by no means an imaginary thing – a direct link has been found between psychological stress and both rail and automobile commutes: longer trips tend to increase passengers’ stress levels, with crowding and noise said to be particular contributors .
But it is hard to judge whether staying quiet in a carriage crammed with people is truly helpful, or if it fosters an atmosphere that makes you worry about getting king-hit by a stranger for sneezing. If we’re all glued to our phones in silence, will that silence really be more beneficial than talking to each other? The CEO of Lifeline Australia, Pete Shmigel, summed up a recent Lifeline study on loneliness: ‘for a society that is more technologically connected than we have ever been, these [survey] results suggest we are overlooking good, old-fashioned care and compassion when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing.’i
Tiptoeing my way down the aisle, I realise that a prohibition of noise reads like something dystopian out of V for Vendetta. Especially when that silence now spans half of almost every train in NSW. We live in a time where a whole train carriage might antagonise you, simply because your phone went off. Is breeding a culture of isolation really the answer to the stresses of everyday commuting? More importantly, is this change dangerous on a wider scale? Nowadays it takes insane courage to strike up a conversation with a stranger in public, spending two days afterwards critically analysing every word you said. It’s just how it is, right? We were raised not to talk to strangers. Nobody told us to try again at an older age when we could judge our own safety. But loneliness has become rampant in modern culture: Australia’s suicide rates are at a 13-year high, with loneliness also being linked to higher instances of heart disease, stroke and generally shorter lifespans .
We are in mortal danger of falling out of touch with each other.
But how can we battle this culture of isolation? Just yesterday, as I drove 45-minutes along the M1 from work, although I was just listening to the radio on my own, I’d thought about how time seemed to pass so much quicker while listening to completely average people call in and tell stories on the Hamish and Andy show.
I’m not alone in finding pleasure in other peoples’ stories. It’s human nature. Clinical psychology theorist Miller Mair argues, ‘Stories are habitations. We live in and through stories. They conjure worlds. We do not know the world other than as story world. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart.’
Mair went on to argue something very similar to the recent term sonder: ‘We are, each of us, locations where the stories of our place and time become partially tellable.’
How can it feel lonely on a train packed with people, whilst being alone in the car listening to people sharing personal stories is inclusive and entertaining?
Paul J. Zak of the Harvard Business Review pins this on the release of our feel-good chemical: ‘Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.’
Zak says that the tension of a good story creates empathy between the teller and their audience: ‘If that story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviours of those characters.’
What if the characters Zak mentions, are ourselves? If we are in the company of others each day, full of stories that make us feel good to tell and hear, then why not take advantage? Even if they are silly stories, like someone missing a train at Gosford Station ten years ago for a crappy vending machine coffee. And of course, not everyone sitting silently on the train is sad to be doing so. Mny people would prefer to just read a book or sit on their phone. But these, like us, are just containers of stories. Encouraging ourselves to at least be open to a chat might be helpful. You never know what one conversation could do for a person. Plus, if a culture of storytelling takes off, it’s only natural that we’d all get better at it.

 

*

 

Unfortunately, it seems the culture has spilled over. I’m moving down the train through carriages that aren’t officially “quiet” but you’d still hear a pin drop. I have to walk down a few before I find one that’s comfortable. And it isn’t just one or two people talking in here – it’s the majority of the carriage, and the tension from the beginning of the train is nowhere to be found. I flop into a spare seat and soak up the noise.
Across the aisle, an elderly man with slicked brown hair talks on the phone. He is trying to jam the handset inside his earhole without realising it’son loudspeaker. He has a thick accent that makes it tough to figure out what he’s saying, and by the responses he’s getting from the speaker it seems the other guy’s struggling too: ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Righto.’
From the seat behind me, one elderly woman is trying to convince another to go to the Avoca Picture Theatre for the Melbourne Cup in a few months’ time.
‘It’s only $48 per person,’
The other woman gasps.
‘But you get to have champagne in the garden, have some fish and chips from the nice shop nearby, and you get to watch the race on the big screen. AND you get dessert! But I’m not sure whether that’s before or after the race. So it’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive if you look at what you get for it.’
The other woman doesn’t respond, likely just as confused as her friend’s last selling point.
The city’s skyline comes in view. The lady rambling about the picture theatre makes me think of the places we go. They too are just containers of stories: how many people have passed through the doors of the theatre over its’ lifetime, and what lead them to go there? All the questions in the world are answered with stories. The amount that must be held within the walls of every building here is mind-blowing. The sky-high apartment buildings, small shopfronts, the old brick factories that seem abandoned but have new Hilux’s in their parking spots.

 

*

When I exit the train at Central, the atmosphere again turns hostile. People crowd toward the exits or to other platforms to switch trains. You half expect to see a lion named Mufasa being trampled somewhere in the middle. It’s also kind of like how I’d imagine the inside of a beehive; everyone too busy to talk, and there’s a sort of buzzing hostility hardwired by efficiency.
The bees swarm past around a dozen or so people, huddled in sleeping bags on the station’s stone floor. How did they come to be here, in this position? I pause for a moment, but then keep walking. Even after reflecting on the value of being open to other people, it still seems too weird to ask and too out of place to strike up a conversation.
There’s more than just our daily commute that would benefit from hearing other people’s stories and understand deeper understanding of each other.

 

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The Ballad of Stanley Peters, Satyajeet Marar

Her eyes were murderous.

Satin sheets lay upturned as wind-whispered lamentations crept through the insidious fog into the master bedroom. For a moment there was only silence, her own breathing flowed in intermittent bursts. A stillness transfixed three bodies in their place.

The love of her life lay before her, pants down to his ankles. Completely defenceless. His bedfellow was a thin silhouette clutching the satin sheets to her full breasts. Some doe-eyed, shaven-pubed wench.

She gripped the pistol axe tighter, its sharpened edge glistened in the Monday moonlight. His eyes offered neither explanation nor remorse – only horror. The pure, crystallised 42% proof  horror that comes to those who’ve always known deep down they would end up in their present predicament. Their deaths would not be quick. The police would not arrive in time to stop her. The paramedics would be too late to breathe life into their broken bodies.

She brought down the axe with all of a scorned woman’s strength. His skull lay caved in as sinewy brain tissue splattered across the Queen-size bed. His whore’s gasp was fearful yet futile as his blood-soaked right eye flew over her shoulders. She would be next. The-

 

Timothy Coombs had read enough to get the gist of where this was going.

 

‘I’d like to talk to you about something.’

‘What do you want to know?’

He gently placed his glasses on his desk and massaged the lines streaked across his forehead, beneath the hairline that had receded in the wake of his last divorce. He had been the principal at Clearwater High for seven years.

‘Is everything ok at home?’

‘Yeah, everything’s fine.’

‘Are you sure? Nothing going on in your life you’d like to talk about?’

Stanley shook his head. A flake of dandruff landed gracefully on the desk in front of him, falling off dark curls.

‘I don’t understand why I’m here.’

‘Your teachers and I are a little concerned.’

 

‘Why, because I write dope stories? Have you seen what the muppets in Standard English write? I’d rather contract venereal disease from a dingo than read that shit.’

‘Stanley, no swearing. This is my office.’

‘Fucking bullshit, man.’ He sank into his chair and crossed his legs. ‘This school sucks.’

‘Fantasies of murder are not appropriate for a high school creative writing class.’

‘Do you think I’m going to shoot up the school?’

‘Excuse me?’

You know what this is?’ he picked up the handwritten notebook papers his principal had just thumbed through. ‘This is reality, man, what real people live every day. Not this Pythagoras theorem crap, genuine human tragedy. Karma, retribution – all that good stuff you pretend doesn’t exist.’

‘Do not raise your voice.’

‘What are you going to do, cane me? Cane me daddy, I’ve been a naughty boy!’ He massaged his nipples through a crumpled school shirt. ‘Cane me, you fat fuck.’

‘That’s it, I’m calling your parents.’

‘You want them to join in too?’

 

*

 

‘Oye, spare a ciggy?’ Moey grunted.

The detention room was tepid and reeked of boredom and boy-sweat. Stanley stared at the clock on the wall – 4 pm. His parents would arrive soon and he’d be called back into the principal’s office to be hung, drawn and quartered.

‘Nah, man. I only smoke weed.’ Stanley replied.

The ditzy substitute teacher ‘supervising’ them had wafted out the door ten minutes before. He didn’t know what was more depressing – sitting in that room with his fellow riff-raff despondents or the thought that someone would put themselves through four years of university to become the person doing her job. He wouldn’t blame her for having a cheeky ‘smoko-and-cry’ sesh in the staff toilet.

‘That shit’s haram, bro.’

‘Moey’ shook his head disapprovingly as he lit a cigarette passed to him by one of his mates. He was a burly teen of ‘middle eastern and/or Mediterranean appearance’. Peach-fuzz chest hair poked through the undone buttons of his shirt, due to grow into a majestic rug over the next few years. The faint, bassy undertones of a Tupac Shakur song about keeping bitches in line seeped through the earphone stuck in his left ear.

He passed the cigarette packet back to his compadré. It had a large-print warning about the risks of smoking accompanied by a picture of a deformed human foetus resembling a scrambled peach. Stan realised that he hadn’t eaten since 12.

‘Stanley Peters, report to Principal Coombs office immediately.’ Blared the speakers.

‘Well, gentlemen. It has been a pleasure. Unfortunately, I must be off to see the lynch mob.’

 

‘…..’

‘….Bro, who da fuck is Lynch?’

 

 

*

 

‘Hi Dad, Hi Rosie.’

They sat crossly and glared at the 17-year-old encumbrance that just walked into the principal’s office.

‘Sit down. Your parents and I are going to have a very serious conversation with you.’

‘Orgy cancelled already?’

‘Stanley, shut up.’

His father’s nostrils flared so hard, he thought steam would pour out.

‘Sorry, just thought I’d cut through the ice a little bit.’

‘Stanley…’

‘Yeah?’

‘What is this story supposed to be about?’

He pondered the question for a moment. He had been fairly baked when he wrote it and couldn’t remember exactly what had inspired him.

‘It’s actually about feminism.’

‘Feminism?’

‘Yeah. The protagonist is a strong, independent woman. She’s taking her life into her own hands.’

‘By killing people with an axe?’

‘Yeah. She’s smashing the patriarchy.’

Principal Coombs shook his head.

‘…Shaven-pubed wench’ Does that sound like feminism to you?’

‘Patriarchal beauty standards, man.’

‘I don’t think you quite understand what feminism means.’

 

*

 

‘What does feminism mean to you?’

Of all his attempts to think of a chat-up line, this was probably the worst.

A week ago, Stanley found himself next to a particularly gorgeous blonde from another school with those little dimples that light up the face when a smile strikes.

In the distance were the sights and sounds of the classic teenage house party. Broken glass, hip-hop and a mix of people chugging and people chundering. But none of that mattered because he had survived 10 minutes of conversation with a heavenly blessed angel whose beauty was divine and everlasting.

In that moment, they were the only two people in the universe. Stanley resisted the Goon-fuelled urge to make punnet squares in his head like he had in Biology class but it was futile. Blonde was a recessive gene and everyone in his family had dark hair so their kids would probably have raven hair and blue eyes since blue eyes were recessive but they both had them. They’d also have a pet Poodle and a large palatial mansion in the North Shore where they could grow old together. She was so hot. Fuck.

‘To me it’s about being treated the same as anyone else. I don’t want to be treated differently because I’m a woman. I want to be respected for who I am and what I’m capable of. We can be just as tough as men.’

‘Interesting, interesting. So you think chicks should enlist in the army?’

‘Well, yeah. The army isn’t all biceps and bravado.’

‘I’m sure you could provide that, you’re a real GI Jane.’

She blushed. Holy shit Stanley, you smooth motherfucker.

 

‘What do you do for fun, Stanley?’

Don’t ruin it by talking about weed. Don’t ruin it by talking about weed.

‘Well, I enjoy a bit of cooking. I’m all about breaking these gender stereotypes.’

‘Really? What do you cook?’

‘Brownies.’

‘What kind of brownies?’

‘Chocolate.’

‘Cool, they’re my favorite.’

‘So I know you’re a feminist and all but I’m sure you enjoy a bit of chivalry.’

‘Yeah, sure. It’s nice from time to time when someone opens the door for you.’

‘Maybe they’re doing it so they can look at your butt.’

What the fuck man that was fucking risky and random oh shit she isn’t reacting shitshitshit

‘…By the way, I think you’ve got a nice butt.’

..And she was laughing. She found it funny, maybe even a bit endearing. It worked.

‘Thanks, I guess?’

‘Just telling it like it is. So anyway, before the cops come shut this thing down, it has been a real pleasure meeting you. Let me take you out on a date some time?’

She smiled. Her dimples lit up the world around her as her golden locks swayed gently in the breeze. Those blue eyes gazed deeply into his own.

‘Aw, no. Thanks, though.’

 

*

 

‘And all this violence and sex… we’ve warned you about this before. Why do you feel the need to include so much of it in your work?’

Stanley pulled out a crumpled set of English notes and brandished it in front of Principal Coombs, his father and Rosie.

‘See this? Area of study – ‘belonging’. What is belonging? Some vague, uniting concept that makes it super easy for people who got half the ATAR scores they expect us to get when they were our age to mark our papers. Wow, such a universal concept! Everyone just wants to belong to something! Well, suck me off if that isn’t sheer genius.’

‘So you give us these ‘texts’ we’re meant to read, right? Classics like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Catcher in the Rye’. They’re great books, sure. But it’s a little hard to enjoy them when you’re too busy looking for the answers to those shitty little homework questions you chuck at us. And you wonder why so many kids stopped reading for fun after the last Harry Potter book came out. At least the girls with daddy issues have 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight and Bacardi cruisers.’

‘Ah but then, creative writing! The one chance we have of forming our own original thoughts. Not like we get a chance to do that in math class. Or history class – Write ‘Australia was settled’ and you get a free lecture on racial sensitivity from Mrs. Clarke, who’ happens to be whiter than Chandler Bing from Friends.’

‘Anyway, I’m digressing. So yeah, creative writing. It’s great. Except that instead of judging us for how well we write, we get marked on how we convey some generic, meaningless concept. Like corporate recruitment adverts flashing buzzwords like ‘Synergy’ and ‘Diversity’ that some blowjob from HR came up with. It’s a system designed to reward people with crew cuts who iron their underwear and dream of a cushy public service job where they can get paid to sniff their own farts. Our ability to use fully sick techniques like ‘imagery’ in smooth lines like ‘a lone tear cascaded down his cheek as he recognised his daddy’s face’ gets rewarded. Gee, thanks guys. Now I feel like the contents of my stomach belong in a barf bag. No one gives a fuck about that shit in real life.’

‘Stanley…’ Principal Coombs wearily interjected. ‘All this ranting is getting us nowhere. You have said nothing about why you use violence and sex.’

‘Huh?’

‘Violence. My question was about violence and sex.’

‘… Oh right, that. Violence is pretty cool and sex is edgy. It’s fun to write and keeps things gritty and exciting.’

‘..That’s it?’

‘I guess so.’

‘Alright. I’m going to suspend you for a period of two weeks. I’m also referring your parents to a child psychiatrist who might be of some assistance. I hope you learn from your mistakes today or I can tell you there will be no place for you in this school.’

 

*

 

But there would be a place for him at the school.

After being diagnosed with ADHD, Stanley went on to become one of the most prolific Ritalin dealers in the whole Inner-west school district. Stanley matured in the years to come as he realised that getting in trouble might bring his lucrative dubious and unethical side-business to an end.

After school, Stanley went on to work as an investment banker and amassed a fortune through leveraged buyouts and laundering funds using a shell company set up in the People’s Republic of Hedonistan.tm He employed a diverse and synergistic workforce of child labour strong, independent women.

 All these experiences had taught Stanley a valuable lesson – the sense of belonging he had been yearning for had been within him all along and he had rebelled against it. None of this success would have been possible without the love and support of his family and teachers. A lone tear cascaded down his cheek. 

The End.

Student id: 4258390

School: Clearwater High

HSC Creative Writing – English Paper 1 

 

 

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Live a Little, Laura Schwebel

When I stumbled upon Mr Simmons, on the office rooftop, standing on the ledge that wrapped around the building, I thought two things. Firstly, I was not convinced it was a suicide attempt and the second was, ‘Bullshit!’

‘Aha! Annabel! Glad you could make it’ Mr Simmons remarked, as if he’d been expecting me to find him like this.

‘Glad I could make it?’ I shook my head in confusion, ‘to what? Your funeral?’

My relationship with Mr Simmons was rather unconventional. I met him on my first day at Unblocked (a publishing company with its hands in every pocket – books, magazines, newspapers, and journals) and I found him to be quite the character. Noted by his orange jeans, and navy and white polka dotted shirt. While initially I’d found his uniqueness quirky, and a little bit charming, it grew tiresome quite quickly.

‘My funeral?’ He laughed, ‘don’t be daft girl. I don’t want to die.’

Could’ve fooled me, I thought. ‘Then why don’t you come down?’

This was not the first time I’d come across Mr Simmons in a compromising position. During my first week, I found him first in the female bathroom. He was taped to the end toilet, rope wrapped around his feet and hands. ‘It’s not what it looks like!’ he yelled when I had appeared. I don’t recall having thought it looked like anything except a man who was in dire need of help. I reasoned that how he’d found himself in this position was none of my business. Plus, truthfully, I didn’t want to know. So after untying and untangling him, time spent counting my blessings I had not found him, a middle-aged man, naked, I bolted. Afterwards, I tried my best to avoid him. I assumed he was caught up in something, exactly what I was unsure of and I didn’t want any involvement.

But of course, there was a second time too. I found him next when I was working back late. My fourth week in and already there had been a push to work over time. Working overtime meant more books on the shelf at the end of the year. And more books equalled more money. At around 6:30pm, when I’d assumed everyone else had left, I heard a loud BANG! Strange, I remember thinking. On shuffling out to inspect the noise, which had come from the lobby, I found Mr Simmons hanging over the glass railing that stretched across the building, connecting two sets of parallel stairs. A bungee rope tied to his ankles.

‘What are you DOING?’ I yelled, running out into the open space so he could see me.

Caught off guard, he stammered, ‘it’s not what it looks like!’ And then as an afterthought, ‘what are you doing here?’

‘Working! Because…’ I gestured with my hands, ‘…this is a work place!’

‘Ha! For some.’

Since my arrival at the company, I’d heard about an elite group who completed dangerously risky challenges. Who was in it? No one was sure. The danger of these challenges was resigned to getting caught or getting killed. Like taping someone to a toilet or bungee jumping in the lobby. And whilst I was concerned about what I was hearing, I never had any open conversations about it. I did, however, often find myself within earshot of other people’s speculations. Yet, I still kept to myself. But with each conversation I overheard, I found more of my attention turning towards Mr Simmons. I began to watch him to see what he was up to. He only ever appeared to be very engrossed and motivated by his work, however. If I had not caught him in action, I would have believed he was the perfect employee.

By chance, I had caught a glimpse of Mr Simmons sneaking into the stairwell as I emerged from a meeting. Curious, I thought. Why go up to the rooftop? I didn’t have to think – I followed him.

‘But I don’t want to get down Annabel! The view is just marvellous!’

‘I am sure it is. But I am pretty sure you can still admire it from of the ledge’ I tried reasoning to him.

His eyes suddenly lit up, ‘Come join me!’

Is he being serious? He was being serious. ‘Join you? Are you crazy?’

He looked at me inquisitively, ‘maybe a little.’

He turned away from, and began to side step along the ledge. My heart stopped, I was certain he was going to fall.

‘Get down,’ I yelled. I couldn’t handle this. I was going to witness him die.

‘Did you follow me up here?’ He asked suddenly, rotating his body so he was facing me. His face had contorted into annoyance – not a quality I had ever associated with Mr Simmons. ‘It must be the only explanation for how you found me up here…’ Realisation dawned on him, ‘you know! Don’t you!’ He was like an excited child.

‘How about this… you come in off that ledge and I’ll tell you everything I know.’

Delight. Utter delight ran across his face. At least it did before conflict appeared. He was torn between removing himself off the ledge, which could result in him plummeting to death, and finding out what I knew.

‘Seriously? You have to think about this?’ That got him. Sighing he turned towards me and, with ease, jumped down. He’s done this before, I thought. That crazy bastard has done this before.

He sauntered over to me, hands on his hips. I watched as he surveyed me, pondering what he going to say. Possibly even pondering what I was going to say. He brought his hand to his chin and stared. He was safely off the ledge. But I had a nagging feeling that if I did he would hop back up again.

‘Are you going to speak?’ My eyes narrowed in on him. ‘I came down safely…’

Somewhat safely,’ I muttered.

‘…So you would speak. And now you’re standing here not saying a word,’ he shrugged his shoulders. ‘Alright then, up I go again.’

I snapped, ‘oh stop it! Fine I’ll speak! But if you so much as take one more step I will scream so loud you won’t know what will happen. The bloody riot police could show up.’

Laughter. Does he think I’m joking? He probably did. He didn’t know much about me. And there I was, claiming I would yell and scream and make a ruckus when all he had probably examined of me was my quiet exterior. I didn’t blame him for laughing. I could be a little uptight.

There was patio furniture atop the roof I had not noticed before. Perhaps, because this was the first time I had been on the roof. Spotting the nearest seat, I took off towards it. I needed to sit down. Mr Simmons followed suit and sat down opposite me. When I didn’t speak straight away he began tapping his foot against his chair. Ignoring him, I said, ‘all I know is some of the staff challenge each other to weird and dangerous tasks – like the ones I found you doing.’

Laughter. Again. He needed to stop that soon. My patience was wearing thin.

‘Weird? Dangerous? That’s close but not really.’ I didn’t reply. He continued, ‘we push each other’s limits, we complete challenging tasks to feel a release.’ He waved his hands in the air, ‘release from the office life, from what is boring.’

‘If it’s so boring, quit. It could literally save your life.’ I deadpanned.

He considered me. I didn’t have anything to say, so I stayed quiet. It was ridiculous. Endangering your life for a release? Work wasn’t that bad. Was it?

‘You should try it.’

‘Pardon?’

‘You need to loosen up’ he seemed sincere. ‘You need to take risks.’

I didn’t answer. I did not know how to. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. Opening it, it read: 23 Cove Way, Pineville. ‘I hope to see you there.’ And with that he sauntered past me, leaving me to wonder if our encounter had really happened.

The remainder of the day I didn’t see Mr Simmons. I suspected he’d taken off early. I had a mountain of work to sift through but couldn’t concentrate enough to do it. Instead of answering phone calls, I ignored them. Instead of attending meetings, I sat imagining what could have happened if I hadn’t found him on the roof. Would he have fallen? Would he have died? Will he go up there again? And then, what will happen if I turn up at that address? Nothing. I wasn’t going.

I deliberated these questions all day, even as I walked home from work.  When I stood at my front door I needed a moment to process where I was. I had been so lost in thought I didn’t know how I’d gotten there. Turning my bag to the front I sifted through for my keys. I found them, but something was missing.

‘Where are you?’ If ever there was a night I needed to go inside and have a glass of wine, it was then. But my house key was missing. My car key was there, my gym key was there, and even the key to my parent’s house was there.  ‘Where are you?’ I asked again. I tipped everything out onto the pavement. I sifted through my mess and eventually picked each item up to inspect it and make sure my key had not fallen off and gotten lost in the mix. I hadn’t. It definitely was not there. What I did find was a note:

Missing something…

23 Cove Way, Pineville

Mr Simmons had stolen my house key. It was clear. I just didn’t know how. ‘Little snitch!’

‘I beg your pardon?’ I turned to the sound of Mrs Barker’s, my neighbour, voice. She stood a few metres away, a fence in between us, and had garden clippers in her hand.

‘Not you Mrs Barker.’ I coughed, ‘some…someone else.’

‘Alright dear.’ She was unconvinced, but went back to her business and didn’t say anything else.

Ignoring the contents of my bag at my feet, I stood staring aimlessly at my front door. I willed it to magically swing open. But it did not. This left me with one choice. ‘Alright Mr Simmons, give me your best.’

The address was further away from my house than I thought. But I made it. It was an abandoned building with no lighting and not a single person milling about. Waiting in my car seemed like the best solution.

I waited for five minutes. For ten. When twenty-five minutes ticked over I decided sleeping in my car outside my own house was the safest option. I felt I was being watched and it was not a nice feeling. I turned my car on, put it in reverse and began backing away. Until, a figure appeared at my window and began thumping on it with their palm.

‘Where the hell do you think you’re going?’ I couldn’t exactly make out his face but I knew it was Mr Simmons. His voice is rather unique – like a little boy who had not completely grown up. ‘Don’t you want your key?’

Of course I wanted my key. What a stupid bloody question. ‘Yes. Hand them over.’

Laughter. Again. ‘You’ve got to come inside first.’ And then he disappeared.

I didn’t want to do it. Whatever these people were into, I didn’t want any part of it. They’ve literally forced me into doing this, I thought. I don’t have to be here. I knew I could’ve walked away – I had every right too. But there was this nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach. I’d never experienced anything like it before. And while, for a second, I thought of bolting, I knew there was something in there I needed to face. I also knew Mr. Simmons wouldn’t have gone as far as he did to get me there if he didn’t think it too.

Sighing, I conjured up a plan. It was simple. I’d do in, suss it out. But if it was too scary, I was backing out. I’d fight him for my key instead, if I had too.

I turned my car off again and finally got out. I hadn’t exactly seen where Mr Simmons had disappeared, but I knew the general direction, so I headed in it. As the distance between the building and myself shortened, a cut out appeared on the side of the building. It was a door, with light peeking through the bottom crack. I latched onto the door handle and pulled it open. Twenty sets of eyes turned on me. Mr Simmons appeared amongst them. He looked like the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. ‘Took your time,’ he muttered, as he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the centre.

I recognised several faces. Although no one said anything so I didn’t say anything back. This must be a usual thing, I decided. They are used to new people just turning up.

‘Are you ready?’ Mr Simmons suddenly asked.

I frowned a little. No I wasn’t ready. I just wanted my key. ‘Give me my key Simmons.’

‘All you’ve got to do is jump.’

‘Jump?’ I looked around. ‘Up and down?’

He did not answer me. Instead, he looked up and pointed. My eyes followed, and began examining a tall building – with a ledge.

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘This is ridiculous. Give me my key!’

‘Just follow me.’ He didn’t leave me with a choice. I had to follow – up four flights of stairs.

I was surprised when we reached the top. It was quiet and peaceful. Well, quiet except for my hammering heart.  It was just the two of us. And unlike me, glued furthest away from the ledge, Mr Simmons walked straight over and peered down.

‘Come have a look,’ he said with his back to me.

‘I’m fine where I am thanks.’

‘”Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all…” do you know who said that?’ Nope. ‘Helen Keller.’

I snorted. ‘I’m pretty sure that doesn’t translate to jump off a tall building.’

He sighed. ‘Do you know why I got you here?’

I didn’t answer. He knew the answer was no.

‘You need to push yourself. Take a chance. Think heedlessly!’

‘If it’s not already obvious by my being content to stay as far away from the ledge as possible, I am not wired that way.’ I took a further step back to prove my point. ‘I’m sorry but you’re going to have to find someone else to take my place.’

‘What are you scared of?’ A sarcastic comment was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t think this was a surface level question.

‘I don’t think I understand what you’re asking?’ I frowned a little.

‘Do you think you’re here by accident?’

‘Are you proposing that each time I found you was a part of some master plan to help me overcome a fear – that I don’t know I have?’

He didn’t answer this question. Instead he smiled at me, his eyebrow arched. ‘I cannot confirm that.’ Who’s following whom now? ‘What I can say is you work back late, and do more for other people than you do for yourself. You need to live a little. Take more risks. Perhaps not as risqué as me, but at least something that gets your heart racing.’ When I didn’t answer he continued, ‘we’ve all done this and we’re fine. So you’ll be fine.’ He moved towards me. ‘Look, just take a look. If that’s the biggest risk you’ll take than it’s a start. Just don’t come back down for at least ten minutes. Otherwise no key.’

I took a deep breath and walked towards the ledge. I think it’s because I really wanted my key. There was no other explanation. While doing so I couldn’t help but think of the places I’d rather be – bed was the first on my list, with wine close by. Walking closer, I peered over. A black hole was in the centre. I turn to Mr Simmons, he just grinned at me. If it was a scare tactic, it was working. I was literally shaking. I hoped because I couldn’t recall any recent deaths at the office, that there was a net at the bottom. This helped me step forward. My heart rate picked up, and sweat beaded across my forehead. All I wanted in this moment was to be at home sipping wine, maybe doing some work before tomorrow. When I woke that morning, I was not expecting my day to end up like this.

Anxiety filled me. I rubbed at my neck. Tingles ran up my arms, and my stomach began to heave. How did I get myself into this mess? I didn’t. It found me. I didn’t want to do it. But that nagging feeling had grown. He was right, and I knew it. I needed to do this. I gulped – Just stop thinking. I hopped on the ledge, bent my knees and jumped.

At first, I didn’t feel anything. Then gradually I felt a slight draft as it began wailing in my ears. I could no longer feel my heart but I was certain it was thrashing hard. Then, unexpectedly, every muscle in my body began to relax. I had my eyes closed but I opened them. And instead of plummeting to the ground, I was winding through a tunnel. At first it was a tight fit, but as I wound around and around, it grew – wider and longer. I went up and down. Up and down. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. And just as I did so, a hole at the end opened and I flew out. I hit something. It was not soft but neither was it hard. It was a crash mat.

‘How was that?’ Mr Simmons was at my side instantly. He reached out his hand and helped me out. ‘Are you glad you took the plunge?’

It was loaded question. He knew it, I knew, and everyone knew it. But was I? Maybe a little… But I would admit, only to myself, that answer. ‘That’s all I am ever doing! Because that’s what you’re really asking isn’t Mr Simmons?’

‘It was only a tunnel!’

‘Mr Simmons…’

‘Tim. Call me Tim.’

‘Tim, you’ve tried to bungee jump in the lobby and you’ve almost jumped off a building… I know for a fact that next time it won’t be a tunnel.’

He smiled his usual smile; the kind of smile that always came before a laugh.

‘Now hand it over.’ He did. And I was gone.

 

 

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Portrait of a Life in Watercolour, Daniel Bingham

He wakes up to the sound of rain and grey light seeping in around the curtains. His covers have been thrown off in the night, and the wide mattress stretches away empty on all sides. He was woken by a dream, and in the moments before his alarm rings he tries to remember what it was.

Passions were bright in sleep, and colours bold, but they fade quickly in the waking air. He is left only with the sensation of movement. This, as much as the buzz of the alarm, pulls him out of bed. His bare feet sink deep into the dark carpet, and he walks naked to the bathroom where the shower drowns out the rain and the soap leaches away the last wisps of dream. He closes his eyes against the hot water and the humming fluorescent light and stands in his own darkness.

The shower stops, a few last drops pattering on his shoulders, and he steps out into the steam-filled bathroom, reaching for a towel. The fan is not working properly, and the walls are streaked with condensation. In the foggy mirror, he is only a shadow. He dries himself as best he can in the humid room, and leaves the door open.

Colours are hard to come by here; he decorates from catalogues and glossy winter collection magazines. Opening the curtains lends the bedroom no warmth; the rain has Pollocked the windows in silver streaks.

Dressing requires little thought. Today’s suit was bought only last week, shiny and charcoal, with lapels like razors. It is too dark for his complexion, its lines too harsh for his long frame, but it fills the windows of men’s outfitters and the pages of magazines, and so he will not wear anything else. His wardrobe is full of dead seasons’ fashions. There are suits here, and shirts, and ties uncounted, that have not seen daylight in years. Dust has settled deep on the shoulders and into the lapels. He tells himself they did not suit him, but keeps them anyway.

 

He leaves the apartment at eight o’clock, with plenty of time for the peak hour commute. Halfway to the elevator, he remembers seeing a tagline in Men’s Fitness – ‘Get 30% of Your Daily Exercise on the Stairs’ – and decides to walk to the garage instead. It is six flights down. His glossy black shoes click on the steel stairs and the marble landings. He strips off his blazer and, halfway, loosens his tie and is glad that it is a cold morning.

The garage is mostly empty, and his footsteps echo off the concrete walls. It smells of exhaust fumes, motor oil, and water; the rain has left a delta of tiny rivers down the exit ramp. His car, a tan Mercedes, is waiting beneath an air duct, and a slow drip of rainwater is wearing away the paint on the hood. The car’s glossy finish has faded to a satin sheen, and the once-crisp treads on the tires are beginning to blur. He wonders if it might be time to trade it in for a newer model – there have been a few new cars turning up in the office garage lately, Audis, Lexus’, BMWs. He imagines parking next to a line of brand new cars.

He’ll have to look online for a replacement; he does not trust car salesmen, but knows their pitches will work all the same.

 

There is traffic in the city – a typical Sydney traffic jam, filled with drivers who have forgotten how to cope with wet roads – and so by the time he pulls in to the parking lot at his office, he is boiling over with self-righteous road rage. Every red light, every missing indicator, every tailgater, has had a stream of vitriol directed at them – but softly, softly; he is too afraid of being heard, and so he mutters a string of recycled and stale insults to himself about female drivers; no, Asians; no, the bloody council roadwork that everyone in the office tells him is a waste of money and time. He tweets about it from his phone as he circles the parking lot. Each tweet vanishes into the ether, never to be read or retweeted. He passes a row of ‘RESERVED’ signs, each with a glossy new car crouched beneath, black and chrome and predatory. Finally, he finds an empty space, sandwiched between two hulking silver four-wheel-drives, both of them spotless; these cars have never left the city, for all that their owners dream of an outdoor life. He squeezes out of his car, his door a hair’s breadth from the neighbouring vehicle, and holds his breath, trying not to rumple or snag his new suit.

 

There is a coffee cart in the lobby, and he steps from the elevator into the queue of charcoal suits waiting for their espressos and lattes. He cannot decide what he wants; the words on the menu shift and blur into abstract chalk lines, street-art for the terminally caffeinated. Someone has drawn a tree in the corner of the menu. The tiny blob of green is the one bright spot of colour in the chrome-and-marble lobby. It grows in his eyes until he can see nothing else. Last night’s dream stirs in the back of his mind.

The barista is talking. He is at the front of the queue.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘What can I get you?’ She is dye-red hair and torn jeans, tattoos, piercings, impatience. Her shirt is smudged with coffee grounds and chalk dust, bright streaks out of place in the chrome-and-marble lobby. He blinks at her and tries to read the menu.

‘Uhm…’ It makes no sense to him. Cursive chalk letters spell out drinks he thought he knew, but now… Hoping for the best, he mutters ‘Same as the last guy, cheers.’

He walks away clutching a cup of chai-scented disappointment. Behind him, the queue moves on, and he is forgotten. He packs himself into a full elevator and tries to reach the button to take him up to the office. Too late, he realises the elevator is going down.

 

*

 

The office is filled with a busy silence, the white noise of fingers rattling on keyboards, the whir of printers, the muted mumble of his colleagues with their heads together in corners, and under it all the endless rattle of the rain against the floor-to-ceiling windows. He can see his cubicle from the door. Some of his co-workers decorate theirs, pinning up photos of their kids or the colours of their football team until Management requests their removal, but he has no pictures to share or colours to sport. Curled inside the grey felt walls, he fires up his sleek silver office computer and prepares to start the work of the day.

A knock interrupts the start-up whirr of the PC, and a suit leans over the top of the cubicle, looking much better on its owner than his own does on him.

‘G’day, mate. Sorry to interrupt, got some A1-N1’s we need you to fill out. Just drop them off with the secretary when you’re done. Cheers.’ And like that, the suit is gone, leaving behind a brick of forms in a manila folder. He sighs, and searches his desk for a pen – he wants blue, but there isn’t one, only black. He opens the folder and drags over the first of the forms.

When the office has settled down, and the last stragglers have arrived with their coffees and their excuses, he logs in to Facebook. There is nothing to see, and he watches it eagerly. Someone he vaguely remembers from high school has had a baby. Someone else has just lost their dog. A co-worker has posted a selfie of his new car – #Sydneytraffic. He ‘likes’ the picture, then realises the co-worker will know he’s on Facebook instead of working, and un-likes it before bowing his head and filling out six forms in quick succession. For the next ten minutes, every time someone walks past his cubicle he thinks it must be Human Resources coming to talk about proper use of company time.

The forms march from in-tray to out, each one requiring signing, double-signing, initialling, details, details, details. After a couple of dozen, he notices something written on the back of each:

write-only document – do not mark this page

He has filled out a dozen more before he realises what this means.

The rain patters on the windows. Outside, the sky is a sheet of dove-grey cloud and the streets are dark, though it is not yet midday. He wishes for colour, and turns again to Facebook, but there is nothing new there. He looks at the online catalogues of Armani, Hugo Boss, Yves-Saint-Laurent; the models are dark-haired pallid streaks in black and grey suits too much like his own, and looking at them makes his head ache – or perhaps only reminds him that it is aching. He clicks further afield, deeper into the internet and away from A1-N1’s, chasing travel ads of holiday destinations in bright greens, blues, and golds, as ephemeral as dreams. He rubs his forehead and pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to shake the malaise – it must be the weather, he thinks, and that’ll clear up in a day or two – but this does not help. He’ll look for a new car, he decides, and he searches the websites of Ford, Audi, Lexus, BMW, each advert promising newer, faster, bigger, better cars – but looking at the pictures, he can’t see how they differ from his own. The thought troubles him, and he throws himself back into his work.

Forms spiral across his desk, each beneath his pen for only a moment before leaping away, glistening with fresh ink. With each finished form, the words write-only document – do not mark this page stare up at him from the desk. He wonders what the forms are for, but reading them doesn’t help. Like the coffee menu earlier, words he thought he knew might as well be Aramaic now. He wants to ask someone, but he can’t remember who gave him the forms. He peeks over the top of his cubicle hoping to spot them, but all he sees are charcoal suits, charcoal suits from wall to wall, as if the entire staff had been printed out of a photocopier. His head is aching and the rain beats write-only against the windows.

He does not slam his pen down, but caps it and sets it neatly in place on top of the remaining forms. He abandons his cubicle, walks to the rain-streaked window and rests his head against the cold glass. In the street below, the headlights of passing cars flicker in the fog. Behind that pale curtain, it does not matter what make or model they are – each is only a passing shadow. He wonders if, were he to walk out into the mist, the cars would see him in time to stop; and if they did not, how long it would take the other grey suits to notice that he was missing.

He returns to his desk, grabs a fresh form, and uncaps his pen with a pop like a cracked knuckle. When his hand descends, it describes great curling swoops and gyres on the page, signing and initialling in florid cursive. He fills out the whole form in moments, then takes up another. This time, he draws a little tree in the corner of the page. On the next form, he draws a car. The next, a man in a suit. A man without a suit. A cartoon Mona Lisa. He gives her a nose piercing, and she looks a little like the barista downstairs.

He reaches for the last form, fumbles, and it slips off the bare desk. Reaching for it, he is suddenly struck by what he has done. If he is found out, he will be… what?

He fills the last form out slowly. His writing is cramped, his signatures ordinary. He reaches the end, and turns it over.

write-only document – do not mark this page

He looks at this for a long time. At last, in hurried strokes, he draws a smiley face under the bold text. Whoops, he writes. It looks tacky, forced, and all of a sudden he wishes he could take it back. He takes the forms he has scribbled on and stuffs them in with the rest, squaring the edges against his desk. With trembling fingers, he tucks the pile of forms back into its manila folder. With weak knees he carries it to the secretary’s desk. She’s on the phone, pinning it between her ear and shoulder as she flashes out a smile and an open hand to take the heavy file.

For the next twenty minutes he watches and waits. At last, she puts the phone down and takes up the stack of forms. She disappears into the head office. He swallows, wishes he hadn’t finished his chai tea so he could wet his mouth.

The door of the office opens, and the secretary slips out. He drops his head down, typing furious nonsense into a blank Word file as she returns to her desk.

He waits. Someone will come soon, he thinks. His manager, or perhaps he’ll get a call from HR, or maybe they’ll just tell him to clear his desk – which won’t take long – and throw him out. But nothing happens, and continues to happen. The office stays quiet. The only phone that rings is the secretary’s, and she answers in too low a voice for him to eavesdrop. Keyboards and the rain keep making their soothing white noise.

At lunch, he gives in, and goes home early, prepared – if anyone should ask – to claim a touch of ‘flu. No-one does. He walks through the lobby, empty except for the barista closing up her coffee cart. He drives, too fast, through the soaked and foggy streets with the rain scribbling accusations on his windshield. Home again, he leaves his suit in a crumpled mess on the floor and collapses into bed, staring at his open wardrobe. He falls asleep that night with the sound of rain washing over him.

 

He wakes up to the sound of his alarm, and lies with the covers tucked smoothly around him. He turns the noise off, and lies for a moment, remembering. Across the room, his wardrobe hangs open. Dusty wool glimmers in the early sunlight. Already yesterday feels like a dream.

In the office lobby, the barista smiles at him as he orders a cappuccino.

‘Hey, I like your suit. Blue looks good on you.’

The other workers watch him in the elevator. He can feel their eyes on him as he walks to his cubicle. A grey figure, last glimpsed behind a stack of forms, stops in the hall as he passes.

‘Looking good, mate! New suit?’

He grins, and brushes some dust from his lapel. Behind him, the sun shines through the windows, and turns the office gold.

 

 

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Black Sandman, Chelsea Ainsworth

Shadows swept across the room like wild beasts. They wound over walls and threatened to gnaw off any limb that dared protrude over the safety of the bed. Snickering, they rattled closet doors and mocked the weak ward of the nightlight’s glow. ‘Sssh…’ A hand caressed the cheek of the terrified youth, whose hair was strewn across her pillow after a fitful sleep.

‘Don’t fret precious, I’m here.’

The voice soothed the shadows still and silence fell over the bedroom. With a gloved hand, the figure drew out a pouch from within the folds of its robes. The mystical drapes shifted the shades of late twilight as tattered ends weaved into wisping smoke. ‘Lay your head down, child. I won’t let the Boogeyman come.’ A soft tug and the pouch loosened. The sandy contents were poured into its palm before a breath carried it over the child. Like starlight the sand danced and sparkled, singing songs of grand adventure. Under the growing weight of slumber, the child’s muscles slackened, eyes drifted closed.

Now a fading presence from the world the figure rose. Standing over the bedside it wiped its hand, studding stars onto its robes.

‘Goodnight, Lilian.’

*

The lurch of the tram threatened to send Lily toppling with each stop-start at the CBD’s lights. Skin paler than ivory, her skeletal fingers clung to the overhead railing as a lifeline, an anchor point in the passing tide of each station. Her fingers tapped against the railing while she fiddled with the button on her phone. Lock. Unlock. Lock. Unlock. Lock.

She could have sworn the permission sheet had read nine.
Or were they meeting earlier for roll call?

Uncertainty roused an unsettled churn in her stomach, the smell of hunger rising on her breath. It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d got it wrong. What if she had again? She could always trust herself to screw something up somewhere. She couldn’t do anything right… and she was going to get chewed out by her parents again for it. No doubt the school would call them for her being late.

A bump from a passenger’s elbow jolted Lily from her thoughts. She recoiled, running her hand over her arm as if she’d been touched by fire. Had the tram always been this small? It had become pretty crowded… Her breath began to draw short, catching sharp in her chest.

Not now. Not here. Not with all these people watching.

Lily shut her eyes tight but the overwhelming sea of voices followed her into the dark. She bid herself to breathe and focus on smaller things. But as always that was easier said than done.

‘Pay no mind to the rabble.’

The words reverberated as a distant echo, yet were distinct over the bustle of the tram in its familiarity. Lily forced a breath, her knuckles turning ghostly in a death grip on the railing. Her finger pressed the volume of her phone to amp her music to near deafening. The voice, and those of others present, were lost to the swift sound of piano and violins as L’Impeto Oscuro streamed through her headphones. ‘Headphones on. World off.’ Lily quietly reassured herself.

Despite her anxiety spiking, Lily managed to steel herself enough to focus. Answers were what she needed. She could text someone for them. That was an idea.

‘Meeting at gallery at 9?’

It took the fourth attempt for the text to send without the automated response of an inactive number. While awaiting a text back, Lily loaded the route timetable for her ETA. She was close and, thankfully, it wasn’t long before her music feed paused to the jingle of a text.

‘Yeah. Um. Who is this? How did you get my #?’
‘Lily. We had a group assignment last year.’

No sooner had she replied the tram suddenly jerked and launched Lily forward into a man, almost knocking his iPhone from his hands. She mumbled a profuse apology, the words tumbling as badly as she had. A frightened rabbit, Lily bolted through the still opening doors, onto the platform, and into the street. Unaware, she’d gotten off two stops early and forgotten to tap her Myki card.

In a mad dash, she’d managed to make it to the gallery with mere minutes to spare. Lily ignored the gathered students as she stood hunched, wheezing pained breaths, her hand pressed against the neighbouring storefront. That was stupid. Oh so stupid. She’d have scolded herself had she not felt her thoughts would be lost to the war drums pounding in her ears. But at least she’d made it. If the lacking presence of a teacher was enough to go by.

Once the pain in her chest started to subside Lily straightened, stumbling from a feeling of light-headedness. A scent of bodily tang brought a new sense of alarm. Immediately Lily folded her arms, trying not to look as gauche as she felt, and subtly patted the underarms of her school dress. Not too damp so she was probably in the clear for sweat marks. Just as well, for she met the gaze of an arriving classmate.

The two awkwardly held eye contact for a silent moment. At this point, one of them was going to have to yield and acknowledge the other.

‘Hey.’ He waved with a smile she assumed was as false as her own.
Lily hurriedly folded her arms behind her back, wiping her hands on her dress, all while trying to make the gesture look discreet.
‘Heeeeey…’
Oh god, please don’t come over. She hoped. She prayed. But of course, he did. Worse still, he drew Lily into idle chit-chat over the morning’s traffic.

‘He is only speaking with you to be polite, you know.’

Lily’s smile strained and her eyes fell. She’d planned to excuse herself yet, before she could, a nearby group of girls chimed in about how Melbourne transport sucked. Their train was late or something like that. Lily wasn’t really following, didn’t really care to. She was only eager to fade from participating since they seemed content to discuss without her.

‘You should pay no mind to what other voices say. They don’t care about you.’

The whisper brushed against her ear and along her face. It sent her body rigid, flinching, as the sensation of a cape swept over her shoulders in an embrace. An unseen weight pressed just over her shoulder as if someone were resting their head.

‘Like I do.’

Lily resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. She clenched fistfuls of the back of her dress, the fabric keeping her nails from digging into her palms. A call of her name brought her back. The conversation had fallen silent, replaced by questioning looks. ‘Just a shudder,’ Lily reassured with a forced sheepish laugh and released her grasped. ‘Somebody must’ve stepped on my grave.’ She stepped away, to stand out of earshot. No doubt there’d be talk about what just happened… The teacher finally arrived, a box of guidebooks under his arm. Keen for a distraction, Lily stepped forward to collect hers and flipped it open to the table of contents. ‘The Pantheon: A Taste of Greek Myth.’ She read aloud when one title caught her interest, her eyes falling to a photo of one of the exhibitions main draws, a painting of Persephone.

Once rollcall had been taken the students piled into the gallery. Winding figures of welded scrap-metal pillared the open space. Their metallic branches stretched skyward to crumple against the ceiling, a representation of a ‘concrete jungle’ supposedly. Or so the tour guide said. But Lily was having difficulty following, her attention lost in a thickening fog that blanketed her thoughts. She edged to the back of the group, needing to get off her feet for a moment.

It would be embarrassing – and rude to the guide – but the woozier Lily felt the less inclined she was to care.

There’d have to be a bench or chair for her to sit on. Hell, even the floor would do. She glanced across the room for one, instead spotting a familiar figure among the pillars. As always, lavish robes adorned its masculine frame. The crescent curls that hung over olive skin made it look like a painting come to life. Of course Nephron was here, it was the last thing she needed right now. ‘This is why you take your tablets, Lily,’ she muttered to herself. Nephron circled the pillar intently, confused, but curious. Its thumb tapped under-chin in interest before its eyes flicked from the artwork, sensing Lily’s gaze. Swiftly she turned away, refocusing on the tour as her frown turned harsh. If she ignored it, it’d go away eventually.

Passing minutes dug in their heels and the growing sense of exhaustion strengthened. It beckoned her to rest her eyes – if only for a moment. Vibrant colours dulled to the darkness that crept into the corners of her vision. Like a wild beast, it pounced, swallowing the world whole. Lily staggered and collapsed back towards the corner of a display. But, as she fell, Nephron caught her wrist and swung her sideways in the instant before it vanished as Lily’s consciousness slipped.

Lily woke to the frightened calls of her teacher. Reality struck, terror jolting her from her stupor and returning senses with a harsh clarity. She became all too aware of the looming wall of people that surrounded her, their eyes fixated as they towered above her. She couldn’t breathe. She pleaded for the darkness to take her back. For it to reach through the floor and drag her into the deepest pit of Hades, far away from all these eyes. Far away from everything.

The teacher waved the students back but many barely budged.

‘Are you alright?’ He pressed. The unease in his voice made it clear that it hadn’t been his first time asking since she’d awoken. Lily merely nodded in response.

‘You were lucky. You nearly cracked your head open.’

‘You should’ve,’ Interrupted one of the boys who was met with a deathly glare in response from the teacher. “No, I mean it! You didn’t see it! She was falling but before she hit the thing she swerved in mid-air… then bang!’ He finished with a clap of his hands.

It took an hour for Lily’s father to drive from work to take her home early. She battened down the hatches, knowing what was sure to follow.

‘This is what happens when you don’t eat breakfast, Lillian. I’ve told you.’ He began with eyes flicking between her and the road.

‘I know.’

‘That’s what you always say. Don’t just say “I know.” Actually do it!’

He paused.

‘Did you take your iron tablets at least?’

Lily hesitated. ‘…No.’

Her father slapped his hand atop the steering wheel and gave a frustrated groan.

‘Lily you have a deficiency. You can’t just not take them otherwise this happens!’

‘I didn’t mean to not take them!’ Lily snapped back, lifting her head from against the passenger window. ‘I was running late because I had trouble sleeping! I forgot to have breakfast so I forgot to take my tablets too!’

‘That doesn’t work if you forget to have breakfast every other day. Don’t be so…’ He paused again to point at his temple. ‘Stupid. You easily could have been hurt. You almost broke your jaw the last time you fainted. If you hadn’t been on the bloody laptop all night you wouldn’t have been running late.’

And. There. It. Was.

‘It’s not the laptop’s fault! You’re always so quick to blame it for everything but it’s not the reason I have insomnia!’
Lily threw herself back to the window, lightly banging her forehead against the glass. She wasn’t going to bother continuing. This wasn’t an argument she could win, unless she wanted to be institutionalised that is. ‘Fuckwit doesn’t know anything…’ She thought bitterly. Her fingernails dug into her arm, leaving raw tracks as she ran them back and forth. The pain distracted from the sharp sting in her eyes. She didn’t dare cry in front of him.

The remainder of the trip was made in silence. From the front door, Lily darted up the stairwell to the bathroom, taking some fresh laundry from the banister as she passed. She ran the shower hot, the water near scalding. It painted her skin in red splotches, blending in the mark of tears and silent screams. Once dry Lily slipped on a blue nightdress and threw her old clothes into the wash basket.

‘One pill makes you larger. One makes you small. And the pills that Mother gives you don’t do anything at all.’

The distinct sound of 60’s bass guitar greeted Lily in the hallway. Dad must have been playing his vinyl collection while cooking again. The melody followed her into her bedroom which, as her mother put it, was a victim of ‘flat-surface syndrome.’ Every available surface was covered in something, be it clothes, books, towers of CDs, posters or travel magazine clippings. Early afternoon light filtered through the blinds of her lone window. It cast dark bars across the opposite window, caging a bird’s silhouette as it sat upon the outside streetlight.

With a heavy sigh, Lily crashed onto her bed. Sprawled across its length, her arm rested over her face to shield against the light. She felt the mattress dip to a weight at the end of her bed, causing her to jerk upright and press herself against the backboard.

‘Nephron.’ Lily spluttered. ‘I-it’s been a while since you appeared in my room.’

Nephron gave her a half-way glance as it shifted to prop one leg over the other, arms folded ‘Oh? Are we speaking now? It’s been a while since you last spoke to me.’ It responded with feigned insult.

‘Yeah, well, it stopped being acceptable to talk to your imaginary friends at eight.’ Lily quipped defensively, unsure why she felt the need to justify herself.

‘But…’
‘But?’ Nephron prodded with a grin.
Lily swallowed, her hand running over her already bruised wrist. ‘You’re not imaginary, are you? The gallery… What are you?’

With a chuckle, Nephron rose to its feet.

‘After all these years and only now do you care to ask, flower? One name, of two, your kind has given mine is Sandman.’
‘And the other?’

For an instant something malevolent crept into the Sandman’s grin, leaving Lily thankful it hadn’t answered.
‘What do you want?’ Lily asked unnerved by the sudden turn.

‘What I’ve always wanted.’ It replied nonchalantly, pacing the small room to brush its hand over a childhood doll atop the bedding box, a white rabbit.
‘To keep you safe.’
‘Safe from –’

Nephron cut her off abruptly, appearing before her in an instant. Its hand grasped her wrist, drawing out her arm, while the other brushed over the raw streaks from the drive home.

‘Yourself. Safe from pain, and truth, and choice, and other poison devils.’

The Sandman’s voice was melodic and made Lily feel guilty as she yanked her arm free. Nephron, however, was unfazed by the gesture and simply offered out its hand. It smiled down at her as it had throughout her younger years. Lily found herself yearning for the simpler time and the reassuring presence that lingered whenever she’d grown tired.

‘You have lived in this world and have seen how cruel and unforgiving it is. Stay with me, safe and ignorant, in a realm where dreams needn’t just be dreams.

Lily stared up at the Sandman’s eyes, its most striking feature by far, as she felt herself caught in the amber gaze. Like a sunset they were calming, something to look at with admiration. Her fingertips brushed against the surface of Nephron’s hand, hesitantly withdrawing before finally taking hold.

 

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Gaymergate, James Renshaw

 

Get triggered by my bara-tiddy worship,

a can’t-unsee in your rule34 search –

the SFM McHanzo ship too stronk

for a bronze-tier tinder dudebro. Yeah

I’ll find someone like you raging on

a dell fit for CS:GO.

 

You’ve programmed me to be a lurkr,

an NPC following custom Dank Souls

rules, forever fucked in the faget spam –

teabags with the hacker’s headshot

(git gud) (deal with it), and

crackles of your e-peen playback

from a booth-babe Razer headset.

 

Are you in a monochrome cult classic

closed convention for the nerds who

grew up gains, and for those devolved

into fedora goblins – pimple neckbeards –

double-teaming G.I.R.Ls just so long

as you can common ground the cleavage

of Lara Croft’s supple poly prisms?

 

(I’ll bet you’d find them moist)

 

I can just feel your hands now: sticky –

bad handling of the pre-cream n’ tissues –

glossed over with the dirt of Doritos

and a fine Mountain Dew finish,

ready for some low-key ERP

STR8 hero fapfests in a hetero World

of Warcraft –

 

your fantasy; you know we’re living

a testosterone conundrum:

dat male blood-elf ass barrage,

all deez beefs and swole, and waves

after endless waves of orc cock

capping your daily quest logs.

 

But you’re salty. You can’t even

reality; butthurt that Bioware bitches

can warp the conversation wheels

and mod a man from your head

canon into the nope-depths

of the online dark side.

 

Welcome. Login

to the Grindr app crossover –

your sacred mancave backdoor’d

by the furfags and double rainbows;

you know what it means. ParTy up

and protect your fragile masculinity

from my emoji raids, encrypted:

1. SMiley2. Eggplant3. point4. OK

inb4 the Tumblrina cries, inb4

the Reddit downvote karma-fire,

before the 4chan trolls swarm,

doxx and DDoS with unsolicited

rootkit dick pics. GTFO

or get rekt.

 

 

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Free Love: The Death of the Artist, Louis O’Neill

My finger presses once more against the refresh button. Yep, still there. Wow, who would have thought that my writing would lead me to the big leagues? I continue staring, attempting to digest the fact that at a mere twenty years old, my dreams have finally been realised. My name has been immortalised beneath the heading of an online article. I have become a literary god.

I make myself a celebratory coffee, pull my curtains back and sit down again in front of the computer, keen to see the world through my newly-acquired eyes of a published writer. Sure, I’d run my own blog before, and wrote for some Facebook pages, but this was different. This was an established website. I had written about the issue of political correctness in today’s hyper-sensitive age, and to my surprise, people agreed.

As I soak in my own glory, the mouse beneath my fingertips makes its way onto my Facebook, where I can publicly announce the news of my latest advent into stardom. Ah, these poor plebs, I think to myself whilst scrolling through the lives of my acquaintances; stuck in their nine-to-fives, no accolades, no articles publish-… wait, what’s this? Another girl on my Facebook, the same age as myself, has just shared news of her own published article! The nerve! Doesn’t she know that I am the only writer in town?

I click on the link, and to my dismay the girl has not one, not two, but five published articles on the site. My overwhelming feelings of glory and self-satisfaction begin to dissipate. Here I was, thinking I’d made a name for myself, all the while some other shmuck had beaten me to the punch, and five times at that.

Wait a minute Louis, let’s not be selfish. There’s room aplenty in the world of writing, we can all get along, can’t we?

 

*

 

My answer to that question becomes less certain as the days go by. As I continue to look, I find that several times a week – if not daily – another person on my Facebook or Instagram will start a blog, or have an article published somewhere. Now admittedly, I don’t think anyone I’d come across was actually being paid for their work. And there was also the little known fact that I wasn’t either. But the worst part? I had to accept this wasn’t just happening near me. This was happening worldwide.

Though such is to be expected. Pretty much everyone has access to a computer with Internet now, and these are seemingly the only prerequisites needed to become a writer. Perhaps not a good writer, but a writer nonetheless. Well to that I say, power to them! No… to us! Writing is a beautiful thing, it’s only fair that everyone should have the capacity for their writing to be seen and heard. But what exactly does this mean for people who wish to make themselves a career from writing? More importantly, what does this mean for me? More writers creates more competition doesn’t it?

First one must distinguish from those who write as hobby, and those who write to pursue longevity. While Facebook has more users than there are people in China, and thousands of new blogs enter the ether daily, very few of these mediums actually lead to consistent, established writers.[i] Blogging is often used recreationally by teenagers as a form of expression, usually only temporarily, and often with no intention or aspiration towards financial gain. Though there are of course exceptions to the rule, with a wide array of occupational blogging seen in the public sphere, from ‘blawgs’ for lawyers, to blogs run by school library teachers, who explain that their use of blogging leads to a more ‘refined audience.'[ii] Blogging is an accessible medium for both writers and readers, and so undoubtedly they will come in handy for aspiring writers won’t they? Well, yes and no. In the search for hope, I interviewed Graham Young, owner of Online Opinion, a contribution-based news and opinion website, seeking direction in this new world of writing.

Graham somewhat confirmed my doubts by saying that while marketing methods such as blogging, Facebook and smaller contribution-based websites do assist in creating a  ‘sense of collective identity’ for the author, they are largely a ‘secondary way of making a name for yourself outside of getting into one of the popular, more established forums.'[iii] Blogging and other similar pathways to publication are primarily forms of advertisement, rather than an actual endpoint or financially viable career. And even when using a blog for promotional purposes, Max van Balgooy of the National Trust says that ‘maintaining a blog requires continuous activity,’ warning that ‘many blogs eventually fail when the owner stops posting frequently, most often due to time constraints,’ or ‘lack of personnel.'[iv] The Internet has pried open the floodgates of information, and as a result, both writers and media companies alike have to produce at superhuman rates just to stay in the race for readership and attention.

 

*

 

These newly opened avenues of media have led to a deterioration of previous business models, specifically in the print journalism industry which has been forced to make its way into the online arena. To their credit, this has been somewhat of a success. The readership of online journalism now exceeds that of its print predecessor, leaving newer generations wondering why anyone ever bothered with those impractical, ink-covered newspapers of the past. Though while ink-free it may be, the shift to online journalism has not been without its blemishes.

Newer generations not only expect to read the news with the touch of a fingertip, but they largely have no intentions of paying for this information. Online publications have been forced to lower their subscription costs, often ranging from between a few dollars a month, to flat-out providing their articles for free. An egregious example of this is the decision of eighty-year old Newsweek magazine to stop publishing its print edition, substituted with an online-only digital subscription. Tina Brown, editor-in chief of Newsweek, explains how the Internet affected her work. ‘When I returned to print with Newsweek, it did very quickly begin to feel to me an outmoded medium. While I still had a great romance for it, nonetheless I feel this is not the right medium any more to produce journalism.'[v] Brown continued to say that ‘Clearly, the digital revolution is fundamentally transforming news as business. So much so that while the old model is breaking down, there is no clear alternative in sight.’

The media’s free-for-all for attention has become just that: free, for all. Emerging writers now depend upon unpaid contribution work as a means for getting their foot in the door, but as late songwriter Elliott Smith once sang, ‘Got a foot in the door, god knows what for.’

Jane Singer in her essay ‘Journalism ethics amid structural change’ states that with the shift online, ‘staff cut backs mean fewer – perhaps far fewer people, with some newspapers losing half their journalists – available to handle all the tasks necessary to sustain multiple news products.'[vi] There are more avenues for writers and artists than ever before, and yet the room upon the stage seems to be dwindling.

 

*

 

This technological tidal wave has not only hit journalism, but too the industries of music, movies and literature, who are quickly losing their place upon shelves and within physical stores. Downloads and e-books have come to the fore, which may save on production costs for companies, but raise new challenges. The biggest of which, is piracy. While piracy has been possible essentially as long as print has been alive, new online programs such as BitTorrent, uTorrent, and websites like ‘The Pirate Bay’ make this process almost too easy. Users can now share and download music, videos and novels for free, instantly. Granted this process is illegal, it still remains difficult for industries to clamp down such a widespread phenomenon. An example of this is television company NBC, who upon complaints about Apple’s one-size-fits-all pricing methods, removed their products from iTunes. This attempt to reclaim profits only backfired on the company however, as piracy then increased 27% since their detachment. NBC subsequently returned to using Apple’s iTunes for their distribution.[vii]

These results provide news and media outlets with a clear message: provide a high-quality product for a few dollars, or watch as your users and consumers happily turn to pirated versions for free. From the perspective of an aspiring writer, reading things such as this can be disheartening. But from another perspective, the increasingly free media industry can be seen as a good thing.

When analysing this increase of piracy within the music industry, Professors Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard Business School and Koleman S. Strumpf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found their way to less pessimistic outcomes. The professors remarked that ‘While [illegal] downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing.'[viii] This brings up an interesting point. Whilst artists may see their products pirated more frequently, or be forced to release their work for next-to-nothing, they are also able to reach audiences who would otherwise have not paid to access it at all. Producing and consuming art is now more accessible than ever, and this can definitely be seen as a good thing. No longer are individuals limited by their paycheck when satisfying their appetite for the latest song, movie or novel.

Though free art and literature can be seen as a win for society, there remains a big decline in profit margins within creative fields. Despite their praise-worthy adaptability, these industries and artists are continually forced to innovate in order to survive in the constantly changing online marketplace. The journalism industry for example is forced to make up the lost profits of reduced physical sales and prices through advertisement, which Graham Young argues threatens the ability for news companies to maintain an objective and honest approach. ‘Advertising gives [news companies] an incentive to gravitate towards those articles that have the most views. This has led to a sensationalisation of the news with click bait tending to be much more frequent.’ These are fears commonly echoed in regards to the oligopoly of Australian media, largely held by the Murdoch press, in which concerns of corporate interests and monetary biases arise. This ethical resistance to financial intervention means that news businesses must address their own challenges, namely those brought on by the Internet. And as C.P. Chandrasekhar writes in his essay entitled ‘The Business of News in the Age of the Internet, ‘providing online content for free is not only difficult, but evidently “not viable”, and so if a company wishes to charge for content, they must ‘not only be unique but of high quality.’ [ix]

 

*

 

The demands placed upon media and creative companies have never been so high, in that they must not only produce higher quality, more unique products in an industry awash with more competition than ever, but they must also do so with dwindling profit margins. The big question now is whether or not these industries can withstand such pressures. A report written by Pew research states that 31 per cent of readers have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were ‘accustomed to getting,’ as lower profits have led to fewer reporting resources and a compromised level of journalistic expertise and content as a result.[x]

Every industry has felt the effects of the Internet, for better or for worse. For musicians, releasing records has now become simply a means of promotion, kick-starting a new tour in order to garner interest in that particular musician so that their live performances can gain bigger crowds, with live performances being one of the few elements of music which eludes piracy. Likewise within film, despite having a similar experience to concerts that cannot be captured in MP4 form, film companies have also been forced to shorten the time between their release in cinemas and in digital form, in order to keep up with ever-awaiting pirates.

The Internet has afforded everyone access to media and new means of self-expression, but this has come at a cost. Creative industries are met with an array of new challenges that at this point have largely yet to be overcome, much to the detriment of those working in the field. The clock is ticking on whether or not traditional forms of media can adapt to these changes in time to preserve themselves, or if we may be seeing the death of such industries as we’ve come to know them. As an aspiring writer myself, I have no solutions to give, being as[xi] much in the quagmire of uncertainty as anyone else. All I can do is urge those who pirate programs, songs, and literature to think for a moment about what effects this has upon the hard-working creators of our society. And if you enjoy a free subscription to a magazine with writers who spend hours of their time producing content, spare yourself the extra coffee, and instead donate those few dollars. As one day in the distant future, I might be living off them.


Works Cited

[i] https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

 

[ii] Dilsworth, Andrew I. “TECHNO ETHICS: Blogs: Online Practice Guides Or Websites?”. American Bar Association 24.8 (2016): 54-56. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

 

[iii] Young, Graham. 2016. Via Email

 

[iv] Grove, Tim. “HISTORY BYTES: To Blog Or Not To Blog”. History News 63.3 (2008): 3-6. Print.

 

[v] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 25

 

[vi] Singer, Jane B. “Journalism Ethics Amid Structural Change”. Daedalus 139.2 (2010): 90. Web.

 

[vii] Danaher, Brett et al. “Converting Pirates Without Cannibalizing Purchasers: The Impact Of Digital Distribution On Physical Sales And Internet Piracy”. Marketing Science 29.6 (2010): 1138-1151. Web.

 

[viii] Kusic, Don. “Technology And Music Piracy: Has The Recording Industry Lost Sales?”. Studies in Popular Culture 28.1 (2016): 18. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

 

[ix] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 34

 

[x] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 35

 

 

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Games for Boys: The Myth that Women ‘Don’t Play’, Kaitie Andrews

The jaws of the dragon swing open and waves of blue flame envelop the dungeon. Black scales shine, and bones protrude through the leathery skin, rippling with each slight movement of muscle.

A colossal figure emerges from a stone archway and plunges a battle-axe into the gaping mouth of the shimmering beast. The Barbarian’s chainmail coats his muscular frame and blood seeps through cloth on his arms and legs. An Elven Ranger flings a careful arrow directly into the dragon’s icy blue eye, sending it reeling. The roar shakes every inch of the stone dungeon the party had just struggled through.

From the back of the room, a tiny man, with a lute, begins to strum, empowering the efforts of the attackers before him. The dragon bares his murky yellow teeth and claws at the Bard.

At the edge of the party a tall, slender Elven Sorcerer adorned in flowing robes of navy and gold lifts her wand. Cosmic energy flows through the dungeon as the rest of the party turns and waits for the Mage to unleash her devastating power.

The Sorcerer is elegant, proud, sexy; a fourteen-year-old girl’s fantasy avatar. My fantasy avatar, actually. A deep, too-dramatic backstory involving Fae ancestry weaves in and around my head as she speaks with words that are mine.

‘I cast Burning Hands on the drag –‘

My speech is cut off as the party collectively groans. I’m sitting at a makeshift table of books, which is covered with chips, dip, soft drinks and mobile phones. Halo and rock band posters adorn the walls, and I’m resting my head on an unmade bed. Crumpled clothes are spread across the floor like the autumn leaves outside. There is a d20 clutched in my hand as my body slowly begins to deflate.

‘You can’t use Burning Hands. You’ve already used your level 1 spell slots, remember?’ The skinny boy, with a shaved head sighs. ‘Seriously, how many times do we have to go through this?’

‘Leave her alone, she’s getting it,’ my friend the Bard, sitting to my left, gives me a thumbs up. I smile back at him and look down at my cantrips instead.

‘I’ve got this.’ I nod my head and pump my fists a little, hoping that I’m assuring the group.

This was my first Dungeons and Dragons campaign. We were at Matt’s house, our Dungeon Master. I’d only been invited because the Bard wanted to get in my pants. But I’d begged to go because the idea of a group of people sitting together and tapping into our imaginations was intoxicating. At the time, it seemed worth it to put up with the pimply bag of hormones waiting eagerly for his turn to play.

I wondered if, months after starting Dungeons and Dragons, when the friend who brought me along tried to plant a sloppy kiss on my neck and grope my breast that perhaps I’d gone too far in my quest to regain entry into this magical world. I tried not to let this ruin my love of the game, but suddenly every newbie mistake I made was no longer endearing in his eyes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the seductive Sorcerer had become a liability to the party. I quit a few weeks later.

Growing up, I used to play Power Rangers with boys in my class amongst the grim concrete of our schoolyard. I would go to my next door neighbour, Steve’s house, and we would trade Pokemon cards. My friend Nick had a Nintendo 64 and sometimes Mum would let me go over after school to play Banjo Kazooie. These experiences and my sense of play and imagination were ruined so much earlier than my friends for one reason: If you’re a woman in a male-dominated space, whether it be in the corporate world, your home life or just in the hobbies you enjoy, there is a danger.

For years, I felt that sometimes I was reconciling my sense of personal safety just to be ‘one of the boys’ – innocent neighbourly visits as a young girl turned into late night walks to a friend’s place with a console with a group of guys I’d just met. Where were all the fellow women?

In 2014, The Internet Advertising Bureau published statistics that 52% of all UK gamers were women.[i]

I found this statistic only weeks after it was published. It was a hot topic on many online message boards, including Reddit. It rocked the minds of many young nerds, especially those used to the sausage fest that gaming discussions and events had become. Despite the pervasive and unavoidable belief that women are endangered in gaming culture – to some extent, they represent or are, approaching the majority.

Did the possibility of a more inclusive future of gaming where women wouldn’t have to feel at risk excite these guys? Nope – it terrified them.

Why? The myth, that women just ‘don’t play games’ or that it is a male-dominated hobby, seeps through every nook and cranny in gaming literature and representations in popular culture. Let’s be real – the first thing many people, myself included, think about, in relation to ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ are losers who drink copious amounts of Mountain Dew and don’t have girlfriends.

The idea of girls playing Dungeons and Dragons is unheard of in popular media. I had little interest most of my teen years. The image of dweebs with no social skills sitting around playing fantasy games is not enticing to a young girl. Comic book stores? According to pop culture, always run by lonely, fat men. Not flattering portrayals of people who just have shared interests.

This perception has not gone unnoticed by its participants. Men who identify themselves as gamers have gone so long being referred to as losers that when a woman finds interest in the same area, she’s often met with hostility. What gives her the right to intrude on their safe space? Why is she allowed to openly declare she loves World of Warcraft when I’ve been ostracised for it? She hasn’t earned it.

This idea sounds silly, and rightly so. But it exists. And it’s expressed through misogyny. I have a lifetime of experiences to show for this silliness. When working at EB Games, I had a customer roll his eyes and ask, ‘Okay, well, can I talk to a male that works here?’ when I admitted I was unsure about Yu-Gi-Oh cards.

It runs much deeper than just my experience playing Dungeons and Dragons. The gaming industry, as a whole, is still obsessed with producing games for boys.

You wouldn’t be wrong if you assumed that gaming is dominated by male audiences. Most forms of gaming and geek culture in media have had a heavy focus on being a male past-time, or an activity for boys. The gender bias is obvious. In a 2009 study of the 150 most popular games across nine platforms, it was found that 81% of all characters were male and 80% were white.[ii] In 2013, Variety reported that only an estimated 12% of the video game industry workforce was made up of women.[iii]

The issues with the 18% of characters who are female have been well documented. There are gallons of ink spilt over the topic. There are endless examples of troubling female representation in games: outfits and posturing for women are especially notorious. Women, such as Rydia in Final Fantasy IV, are overtly sexualised and pitiful in terms of protection, whereas main male characters, such as Cecil and Kain, are given practical protection – armour. The women in Mortal Kombat are interesting to look at, with their large breasted and barely-clothed bodies, they are expected to engage in bloody combat with heavily armoured brutes. Games such as World of Warcraft, constantly parodied for their rarest and strongest female armour, also happen to be the most revealing.

Perhaps we are reaching the crux of the reason that we assume women don’t enjoy video games. The impracticality and over-sexualisation of female bodies entrenches the idea that women are objects to satisfy the male gaze. Who cares if her ‘boob plate’ armour actually directs a blade to her heart, as long as she looks good?

Sometimes, being a woman of note, in an industry that caters to men, is dangerous. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger, runs a channel on Youtube called Feminist Frequency, which dedicates approximately one forty-minute video a fortnight to examine the harmful representations of women in video games. She has examined topics from the clothes of characters to tropes such as ‘Damsel in Distress,’ which exists in movies just as often. Pretty standard critiques. Yet, the amount of vitriol she’s received from self-professed ‘gamers’ has been horrific. Amongst public death threats, coordinated brigades to ‘downvote’ her videos and Twitter abuse, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University in 2014 due to an anonymous bomb threat called into the venue.[iv]

It goes much deeper than just the physical sexualisation of women. Cultural ideas and harmful tropes are plentiful in all facets of the game industry. Developers can conjure up elaborate fantasy worlds in realms where magic, advanced technology, and aliens exist but still, somehow, retain the barbaric gender roles of current society. The Mass Effect series includes several races of aliens, which come from various points in the Milky Way all conjoining in one place called “The Citadel”. One of these races, the Asari, are an all-female race who, implausibly, have almost identical body shapes to humans with blue skin and minor variances. And what are the Asari known as being, besides the diplomats of the galaxy with a weird mating pattern? Negatively and notoriously sexually active. And strippers. Seriously – Asari are the only species shown being strippers in the strip clubs on various planets. How is it, that in a culture we’d expect to be drastically different to our human norms, a race with feminised human bodies are considered the sexual objects of the entire galaxy?

Video games currently surpass television in terms of time spent in some populations, with approximately one in five adults playing every day or almost every day.[v] It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the troubling representation of women in these games could influence players’ impressions of social reality to some extent.

Deep investigations into the psyche of a regular video-game player aside, the most important thing that the industry can do at this point to encompass 52% of their player base is to reverse the toxic mindsets excluding women. I can’t emphasise my passion for representation enough. As a young woman who enjoys the hell out of seeing cool women represented without tiny outfits, and needlessly sexualised backstories, I want young girls experiencing this in their media as early as possible. Badass female protagonists have been kicking around in indie titles for years, and we are witnessing an emergence of critically acclaimed AAA titles such as The Last of Us, Beyond Two Souls and Life is Strange that feature interesting women who are grounded, who struggle with real problems and aren’t defined by their relationships to men. Despite the clear abundance of men in the gaming industry, amazing initiatives to encourage women to become involved in the industry are springing up. Macquarie University offers a ‘Women in Games’ panel once a year, and international groups such as WIGSIG (Women in Games Special Interest Group) in the IDGA are fighting the good fight.

But, overall, why is the game industry still stuck in the frustrating mindset that their audience is majority men? Why are 80% of these characters white and male? It all comes back to the ‘loser theory.’ Game developers know that ‘gamers’ have gone so long being perceived as non-powerful social outcasts. Young, white men want to be powerful white adults. So, fantasy is created out of these preconceived notions of gamer demographics. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle.

Gary Alan Fine wrote a book, ‘Shared Fantasy,’ that discusses role-playing games and the separation between reality and fantasy. It notes that, in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, it was common behaviour that ‘non-player male characters who have not hurt the party are executed and female non-player characters raped for sport’.[vi] There’s a separation between the game world and real life – the ‘magic circle’ if you will. But ideas and values are capable of oozing through, venomous and sticky.

In the campaign in Matt’s room, when I was 16, and because I’m a girl, my character was allocated unique tasks by the rest of the party. The party stood in front of a merchant, snow beginning to pepper their skin. They had just defeated the monstrous beast in the dungeon, and upon emerging victorious were greeted with another pressing quest on the mountaintop. The mountain in question loomed behind the rickety stall, plastered with weapons, food, clothes and survival gear. The merchant, a Dragonkin with a thirst for gold, hisses at them. ‘That’s 20 gold for a coat, and that’s the cheapest thing I can give you.’

‘Surely we can get it cheaper than that,’ the Bard pleads. Beside him, the monstrous Barbarian scoffs.

‘Look, we don’t need this. Listen dude. We have an Elven girl here. She’s top of the line. She can get us a discount right?’

The Elven Sorcerer, who had been examining a glass pendant at the stall, froze. ‘Get a discount how, exactly?’

‘You know, give him a favour. Something to remember us by. I’m sure it’ll be better than any gold.’ The Barbarian winks.

The entire party starts guffawing. The Elven Sorcerer joins in before the Bard pushes her forward with glee.

‘Make it nice and wet!’ he laughs.

At the time, I thought it was funny. I just wanted to fit in and not ruin the fun. But a part of me knew my proud Elven Sorcerer would want no part of this.

I play Dungeons and Dragons with another group now – they’re awesome. We’re guys and girls playing a patchwork of genders with no boob plates allowed.

I’m in love with my imagination again.


 

Works Cited

[i] Internet Advertising Bureau 2014, More women now play video games than men, viewed 24 August 2016, http://iabuk.net/about/press/archive/more-women-now-play-video-games-than-men?_ga=1.227578909.1233071847.1411029683, para 5.

 

[ii] Williams, D et al. 2009, ‘The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games’, New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 815-834, pg 827.

 

[iii] Graser, M 2013 ‘Videogame Biz: Women Still Very Much in the Minority’, Variety, 1 October, viewed 28 August 2016, http://variety.com/2013/digital/features/womengamers1200683299-1200683299/, para 3.

 

[iv] Wingfield, N 2014 ‘Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in “GamerGate Campaign’, The New York Times, 15 October, viewed 28 August 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/16/technology/gamergate-women-video-game-threats-anita-sarkeesian.html, para 2.

 

[v] Williams, D et al. 2009, ‘The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games’, New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 815-834, pg 816.

 

[vi] Fine, G 2002, Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds, University of Chicago Press, pg 4.

 

 

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Andromeda Bounty Crew, Rhiannon Heggie

In the year 2516, there are 389 billion galaxies in the Galactic Register. In Caldwell 5 – a dwarf galaxy just outside of the Local Group and the newly emerged Milky Way – lies a glowing emerald planet almost completely covered by water.
The planets’ most evolved inhabitants are The Eight [ѶΙΙΙ], a race of conquering cephalopod molluscs who live in hive colonies along the ocean floor. Giant, transparent pods, sit atop each other, resembling plumes of smoke. Ten different colonies inhabit Yharnams’ dark waters and all vie to be the sole governing body. To secure this position, it is common practice for a colony to invade another, replacing its residing queen with their own.

 

*

 

Sirens pierced the air.
An ѶΙΙΙ was breaching the external pressure system.
ѶΙΙΙs in the defence sector barked orders,
‘Seal off all of the exits! Switch on the circulation!’
There was a blur of cobalt blue as Mikha’el slipped through a vent in the metal wall. It took only a few minutes to swim through the small maze of vertical tunnelways before arriving at another vent. This is it! The trove of treasure his Queen had hidden away! Two of his tentacles reached ahead, popped open the passageway and pulled the young mollusc forward into a dark, murky room. Black silt blanketed the floor. Strips of long-dead algae hung to the glass like wallpaper. The ventilation unit must have been turned off for this whole area. An empty trophy room lay before him; nothing more than a memory of the expeditions his Queen had commissioned. Inky tears bubbled upwards from the corners of his eyes. He swiped at them, leaving black streaks across his sunken temples. Of course, they had found it all, and had taken it for themselves! Clasping her empty amulet – a twist of gold – tightly between his yellow suction cups, Mikha’el turned and punched the emergency release. A flat, red panel popped open with a clack, and he tapped in the code. Originally intended as a failsafe should the indoor-water circulation malfunction, it would now be his only way out and to freedom. A haunting echo wavered through the vent.
‘-y did he go?’
The boy’s breath escaped his beak as a strangled whimper. That was his brothers calling. They had been sent out to find him, to bring him to her, for punishment. He would be dead before he’d ever had the chance to look for more treasure. His tentacle clenched the amulet. The doors in front of him beeped loudly. Overriding the control system would take a few minutes. Panicking, the cephalopod’s cobalt limb slammed the release three more times. Black ink sweated from pores on the back of his bulging head. After a series of beeps, the water-lock finally hissed open – barely three inches. He slipped through and reached for a mask and suit off the wall. It was worn and mouldy but still stretched to accommodate his frame, instantly adding an internal water barrier. BEEP BEEP…. SSSSsssht. Unfiltered, murky water flooded in. It slammed Mikha’el against the internal door, lifting him up and out into the abyss.
Mikha’el flicked on the helmet’s torch. Ahead of him stood the ѶΙΙΙ’s colony home – a massive erection of cold, glass cells connected by a maze of tunnelways. But around him swarmed so much life! A small creature whipped past his mask. It disappeared in a whirl of purple tendrils that disguised knife-like spikes. As he neared the ship deck, he spotted two lone guards. Good. That meant the colony thought he was still inside. Sliding past them, he spied his ride – a blackened glass roof and misshapen double-barrel propulsion system – and climbed inside. Small and compact. Familiar with the old settings, he breathed a sigh of relief as his tentacles flicked the pod to life and received a whir in response. The guards were alerted to the sound of engines starting up. One disappeared to alert others while the second strained to open the door. Before the guard could react, he was incinerated by the pressure of the pod’s escape as it shot forward and up.
The boy’s eyes lingered on his planet. A dark green mass of rapidly swirling whirlpools appeared and disappeared instantaneously. Jagged rocks, sharpened from the force of the wind, formed the only land in sight. His head spun. They must have moved the treasure to a more central location… The only place large enough would be the old throne room. Mikha’el had no chance of knowing for sure until he returned. He pulled his gaze away to check the pod’s navigation.
SEARCHING FOR: NEAREST LIFEFORMS…
…LIFEFORMS 03 SECONDS AWAY.
‘What?!’
Before the young alien had time to react, his pod blasted through the side of an orbiting ship, ripping open a sharp, jagged hole in the hull.

The ship’s ion shield was obliterated, waking Stella from the process of repairing the internal systems.
‘Stella!’ the ship’s AI immediately recognised the baritone voice of Andromeda Dave.
AUTOMATIC REBOOT: INITIATED.
‘My ship!’ Dave’s voice shrieked with incredulous rage.
VISUAL SYSTEMS: ONLINE.
Before the ship’s central monitor stood a man sporting a tiger emblazoned, sequin jacket, and the curly orange quiff of a 1950s Rock & Roll star. Protruding from underneath Dave’s arm was the bloated head of a squid. His trailing tentacles dragged behind them the charred remnants of a space suit.
‘You wrecked my ship, you goddamn slime bag!’
Mikha’el squirmed free and scrunched up his large black eyes. Without warning, Andromeda Dave’s handsome face was covered in a violent spray of black ink.
‘My… my beautiful face!’ Dave sputtered ‘That’s it! Out he goes!’ He spun around towards the airlock, arms swinging.
‘Dave, there is an issue of higher importance to attend to…’ Stella’s automated voice crackled from the screen.
‘Yeah yeah, we can deal with it after I deal with this slimeball!’ He made for the exit. The alien curled under his grip like a kitten.
‘My name is Mikha’el!’
Andromeda Dave sneered at his hostage. ‘Squidboy then.’
‘Despite the ship’s shield preventing oxygen loss,’ Stella continued, calmly, ‘we will have to find parts in order to safely complete interstellar travel.’
Dave dropped the alien with a thud, turning on his heel to face the ships monitor. Deep in thought, he caressed the main control panel. A rusted screw snagged on the skin of his hand, causing it to bleed.
‘Okay, easy! So we go to the nearest repair station, fix my baby up and then continue on the path to fame and glory!’ Wiping his palm on his pants, he glowered at the crumpled hitchhiker.
‘Impossible.’ Stella trilled. ‘Maffei Station is the closest at just under 24,000 light years away. However, the ship’s status suggests the internal-engine-capacitor could trigger an explosion at any moment.’
Dave’s brows furrowed with frustration as he considered his options.
Timidly, Mikha’el spoke up. ‘Could you… fix it if you had the right parts?’
Andromeda Dave viewed his stow-away warily.
‘What if I told you that I have some on my planet? Old spaceship parts that you can use!’
Dave glanced briefly at the monitor, then back towards the squid.
‘Sorry kid, but don’t think I’m falling for that!’ He stepped forward.
‘There’s treasure!’ Mikha’el cowered in the corner. Tentacles raised for protection.
‘Hmm?’
‘There is a trove of treasure amassed by my Queen during her reign…’ The young alien gripped a rusty chain around his neck. Now Dave was interested.
‘If I could just grab a few pieces to remember her by… you can take as much as you can carry!’ Mikha’el continued.
‘OK.’ Andromeda Dave shrugged, turning away as he feigned nonchalance. ‘Treasure and ship parts… Just like that!’ He spun around, bending so that his nose was pressed up against the boy’s beak. ‘What’s the catch, Squidboy?’
Mikha’el’s protruding eyes darted from Dave to the monitor and back again. ‘If we make it back out – you bring me with you,’ his expression was determined.
Andromeda Dave appraised the boy with a raised brow.
‘The kid has guts!’ he turned to the monitor ‘We don’t need this slimeball, do we?’ He said conspiratorially.
A dark tentacle wrapped around Dave’s arm, anchoring him in place.
‘If they find me there, it will mean my execution!’ Desperation dripped from Mikha’el’s beak.
‘This option does leave us with the lowest possibility of malfunction. We only require metal sheet and wiring. All the tools we need are already on board.’
Dave slumped in the button-back captain’s chair with a squeak of red leather. Shaking slime off his jacket’s sleeve, he reached up to clean out the translation device that lived, at all times, snuggly in his ear. He sighed and absentmindedly probed his right nostril with a pinkie.
‘Well!’ Standing abruptly, Dave swept out his arm and with an unmistakable glint of excitement in his eye, ‘To Yharnam we go!’

 

*

 

Andromeda Dave, safe inside a fluorescent orange astronaut suit, followed Mikha’el as they sunk deeper into the icy depths of Yharnam. They were soon swallowed by a thick blackness.
‘The escape pod is unrepairable.’ Stella had explained only minutes earlier, after testing Dave’s underwater communication device. ‘You’ll have to swim down to the colony yourselves.’
A small, blue light suddenly appeared before the two, quickly increasing in size.
‘There it is!’ Mikha’el’s voice shook. ‘Stick with me and stay out of the light – we can’t be seen!’
Their descent slowed as they swum down to the sea floor. Andromeda Dave’s eyes widened. A beautiful structure lay before them – brightly lit glass pods resembling pockets of air, held in time. Light ebbed from the structure, illuminating all life that swum just outside its walls.
Mikha’el led them towards an unlit tunnelway marked by a pale green torrent of bubbles which threatened to send them tumbling backwards.
‘We’ll enter through the circulation tube.’
Dave shook his head dubiously.
‘It’s the only way you’ll fit undetected! Here.’ Mikha’el held out a strip of sticky suckers which promptly wrapped around Dave’s elbow. The boy tugged them over to the opening. Once his suckers were secured, Mikha’el pulled Dave through and together they began to infiltrate the place he had so recently referred to as ‘home.’

 

*

 

A pale-blue ѶΙΙΙ patrolled the hallway Andromeda Dave and Mikha’el had just entered. In an instant, Mikha’el had them pressed flat against the inside of a metal-grey doorway. He camouflaged his body so well that the toes of Dave’s bright orange boots were all that could be seen. Dave held his breath and the guard passed without a glance in their direction.
They set off, passing through brightly lit tunnelways and huge entryways, all finished with clean-cut glass. Mikha’el slowed and stopped, indicating for Dave to do the same, before peeking around the next corner. They had arrived at a massive hallway. At the end stood two colossal crystal doors, their glass opaque with carvings telling tales of the ѶΙΙΙ’s history. Two guards floated on either side of the installation, tentacles wrapped around glass spears.
‘We must get them away from here…’ The young alien turned to whisper a strategy.
He was greeted by an empty space.
Spinning around, he saw the horrifying image of Dave swimming, unarmed, towards two very angry inhabitants. Frozen in place with fear, he watched, useless. As though in slow motion, Dave twisted the first spear from one guard and rammed it, flat end first, into the ѶΙΙΙ’s forehead. The guard drifted to the floor like dried seaweed. Despite his agility, the second guard barely had time to react before he was whacked across the side of his midsection. Out like a light. His spear fell to the floor with a clang.
The huge doors opened silently, and cold water rushed out to greet them. They dragged the guards in with them and propped them up as doorstops. Andromeda Dave turned, dusting off his palms, and froze. His eyes widened in amazement. Piles of gold were expected but the sheer number of vessels! There were small Skyships! Sails eaten away by time, yet decks still sturdy enough to carry 15 men. Underneath precious metals and gemstones as large as apples, lay the enormous carcass of a submarine. Rusted through in several places, the faded white letters on the side were unrecognisable. As Dave rubbed the goose bumps from his arms, he spotted a ship that resembled his own, and he headed over to search for parts.

‘It must be here…’ Mikha’el’s voice echoed from the centre of the room. Dave was distracted from his task. BZZT! The wires he’d been cutting sent an electrical current pulsing through his body. He emerged from the ship with his prize, hair frizzy and hand smoking, as he added the cables to the metal sheet in his rucksack. Mikha’el knelt, tentacles hunched over a plain iron chest that sat, isolated in a clearing.
‘Here it is!’ The boy jumped up and spun around to display his prize. An iridescent purple stone rested gently on his suckers. He held up the entwined casing that hung from his neck, and carefully slipped the stone inside. His face was set with determination.
‘Before she died, my mother, the Queen would always wear this. She once said that a part of her soul was here. Now I’ll have her with me forever.’
Andromeda Dave smiled and backed away, leaving the alien to his discovery. There was one more task to complete. Hopping around the piles of gold, he gathered a few metal plates and rings – items easily melted. Handfuls of diamonds and large precious stones followed, adding to his already-bulging bag.
Andromeda Dave appraised his surroundings, a satisfied smile in place. ‘We good to go?’
Mikha’el nodded, as together they pushed open the heavy doors.
Pale blue tentacles wrapped themselves around Andromeda Dave’s legs. He twisted free and saw Mikha’el, disappearing in a cloud of ink. Alerted by the lack of guards at the door, three ѶΙΙΙ had planned an ambush.
Dave heard a strangled yelp as Mikha’el tried to free himself.
‘Squidboy!’ Dave glanced at the exit. A plan…I need a plan!
‘Dave!’
Without thinking, Dave turned back towards the cloud.
‘Cover your face kid!’ He yelled. He then began to wildly kick and punch at the ink that now curled around him. His foot came into contact first – with something soft and rubbery – then his fist.
‘Ugh!’ a guard sunk below the dispersing cloud. It parted to reveal Mikha’el, covering his head with his front two tentacles, floating between two guards. Dave reached out and pushed one to the side, grabbing Mikha’el’s arm as he somersaulted and started swimming.
“Let’s go!” he screamed inside his suit. Mikha’el’s cobalt blue head and wide eyes trailed behind, followed closely by the last guard.
‘Up ahead!’ Mikha’el located the circulation pipe they’d struggled through. They had only moments to prepare themselves before jetting up the passageway in a slurry of bubbles…
As their heads broke the waters churning’ surface, Mikha’el panicked. ‘They’re coming! We need to get away from here!!’
‘Shh,’ Dave hushed ‘Give her a second…’
Mikha’el’s flustered retort was cut off by a deafening whoosh. Skimming across the water, heading straight for them, was the burnt umber hull and blue fins of Dave’s ship.
Hovering above them, a metallic ladder unlocked from the ships rear and plunged down towards the two, screeching to a stop just above Mikha’el’s head.
Andromeda Dave grabbed it in one gloved palm and heaved himself up, out of the churning water.
‘Climb aboard,’ the ship trilled. ‘We’ll complete repairs in orbit!’
Dave turned back to the boy and paused, despite straining under the rucksack’s weight.
‘Look kid. It doesn’t look like you have much to stick around for here and you’ve got guts, so you might as well jump aboard,’ he yelled down. ‘There’s just one thing you gotta do first!’
‘Anything!’ Mikha’el replied, breathless from the adrenaline.
Grinning, Andromeda Dave turned and continued to make his way up.
‘You’ve gotta commit to the bounty hunter pledge! Do you vow to write your own destiny, hunting loot around the galaxies?’
‘Yes, I’ve always loved treasure!’ Front tentacles wrapped around the rope, Mikha’el followed.
‘Do you declare that you will always protect your shipmates, facing, if need be, the oppression of authority?’ Dave pulled himself up and into the open airlock before bending and offering a hand.
‘Of course! It’s easy!’ The boy’s suckers wrapped around Dave’s arm.
‘But, most importantly, do you promise to drink, gamble and get with the ladies?’
‘Uh…I’m not sure about the odds of that last one, but I guess… I do vow to be the best bounty hunter there ever was!’
With that, he was pulled up and over, into the belly of the ship. In front of him stood his new Captain.
‘Mikha’el,’ Dave popped his helmet and placed it underneath his arm, peering at the boy from the corners of his eyes. ‘Welcome to the Andromeda Bounty Crew!’

 

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