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The Surface of Arennah, Sebastian Sparrevohn

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Pip heaved the hatch open and stepped out of the crashed pod. She raised her hand, shielding herself from the light flooding through her irises. Stretched out before her was an ocean of sand. Golden dunes rose and fell as they stretched out towards the horizon. Her head spun and she went to lean on the side of the escape pod. Alex caught her, and helped her onto the warmth of the sand.

‘Careful, the shell’s still hot from our entry.’

Pip wasn’t looking at him. Her focus was drawn to the horizon. What had just been the Kentoro mountain range here on Arennah was now a bloody mess. Red-brown liquid oozed out of the volcanoes, drowning the mountains and scarring the horizon. Pip sat silently in the sand, taking it all in. It was hard for her to process what had happened. It didn’t feel real.

Alex watched her. Her red curls framed her face, and her head was in her hands. He decided to give her some space. She would be okay. She was their captain, and she could handle anything. In the distance, hazy from the heat, was a sandstone outcropping.

Alex turned back to the pod as Delian stepped out. Their azure robes danced in the wind.

Delian’s hands clenched and unclenched repeatedly. They darted forward, the sand not appearing to slow their step. They cartwheeled, with a grace and elegance like it had been practiced to perfection. Alex stared in wonder. Delian had been so reserved on the Orbiter. Alex turned back to Pip, running his hand through his mess of black hair.

‘I think we should find some cover in the rocks over there.’ He pointed to the outcropping. ‘Pip, can you walk? I think it’ll do you some good to get out of this heat.’

Pip looked up at him, her blue eyes focused on his furrowed brow. She forced a shaky smile and reached an arm up.

‘Is there anything you need from the pod? I’ve got our water and micro-rations.’

Pip shook her head. ‘The signal went out,’ she said. ‘If anyone’s nearby, they should be able to find us. ‘

‘We won’t stray too far from the pod then.’

*

Delian sunk to their knees and dug their hands into the sand. The top layer was sun-warmed and felt like a kiss on their skin. The sand underneath was cool and refreshing, undisturbed for millennia. Arennah was uninhabited and desolate. There was scarce else than oceans of sand, volcanoes, and rivers of bromine that ran like rusty arteries across the planet. The three-person crew of the Orbiter was a private team analysing and measuring the planet for terraforming. It was to be sold to the highest bidder as a salvation planet for a species that had squandered their resources and rotted their homeworld.

After soaking in the sun for a moment, Delian stood, and returned to their crewmates. Delian approached as Pip was rising.

‘We’re going to walk to the outcropping over there,’ Pip said. She looked a little pale, but then again they had all been stuck on the Orbiter for months.

Delian held out their hand, palm-up, in agreement.

‘Are you both all right?’ they asked.

Pip nodded. ‘Just taking a minute to acclimatise. It’s a strange feeling being planetside. Arennah looks very different from down here.’ She looked up to the sky, imagining she could see their ship in orbit.

‘Sure does,’ Alex agreed. ‘Looks like you’re adjusting well Delian?’

Delian’s hand quivered as their muscles tensed in excitement. They nodded, remembering to use the human custom.

‘Yes it is lovely here. There is always a balance to these things. We watched this place from above for months, bending it to our will. And now it is us that are subjugated.’ Delian saw Pip and Alex’s bleak expressions and hurried to amend their sentiment. ‘But it is not so bad. The sun is shining, and the ground is beneath our feet again. I know it may seem barren to you, but I promise it is not.’ They smiled in an attempt to be reassuring. ‘Come, I will show you.’ They began walking towards the rocks.

Pip wiped the sweat that had accumulated on her brow and gave a weary sigh. ‘Looks pretty barren to me.’

*

As they walked, Pip reflected on their final moments aboard the Orbiter. Her screens flashed red warnings as seismic activity spiked. Through the viewplate she watched as the Kentoro Mountains exploded in red. Force rocked the ship, and she had to brace herself in the pilot’s seat.

Alex had been working at a maintenance panel when he was knocked off his feet. He careened into the wall and jarred his shoulder.

From the floor, he called over the intercom. ‘Pip, what in space was that?’

‘Seismic activity like I’ve ever seen. Get Delian and prep the pod, this isn’t over yet.’

Pip had used every pilot’s trick in the book to try to save them, but the Orbiter was not designed to be manoueverable, and its thrusters were not enough.

‘We’ve lost orbit! The ship’s drifting away from the planet.’ Pip looked at Arennah beneath them. ‘We have to go down there,’ she said.

*

She had failed them. As a captain, and as a pilot, she had let them down. She stared at her feet as each one overtook the other. It was her fault.

‘It’s not your fault.’ Alex’s voice came from behind her. ‘I know you blame yourself, but there was nothing you could do.’

‘Thanks, Alex.’ Her words had no conviction to them. You can’t outrun responsibility. She had brought them here, to this wasteland, and had no clue how to get them home.

Silence descended as they trudged across the sand; each person absorbed by their thoughts. The silence fractured when Pip spoke up again.

‘I’ve never had a ship go down before. Never had a job that went this far sideways. Beyond correction.’

‘You can’t blame yourself Pip,’ Alex said. ‘You’re the best pilot I’ve ever worked with. A seismic event of that scale couldn’t have been predicted. The shape of the whole planet has been changed.’

Pip chuckled. ‘I guess our terraforming data is useless now.’

‘The will of the universe,’ Delian said. They were a few paces ahead of the two humans, leading the charge to the outcropping.

Pip sighed inwardly. She was growing tired of Delian’s chipper attitude. They were stranded, after all.

By the time they reached the shelter of the rocks, Alex and Pip were drenched in sweat. They had both stripped their jumpsuits down to their waists, and their white undershirts were already grimy. Alex collapsed onto his back in the shade of the small cave. He wiped the mat of hair out of his eyes. Pip’s face was as red as her hair as she sat next to him, clutching her knees to her chest. Delian looked lithe, healthier and more olive than they’d seen before. They were pacing, unable to keep still.

‘Rest here, I will go look for something to eat and to replenish our water,’ Delian said, before scaling the lip of the cave and disappearing from view.

‘You don’t actually think there’s water here, do you?’ Pip asked, gesturing at the desert before them. ‘There is literally nothing here.’

Alex shrugged, something only he could do lying down.

‘They seem to want to keep active,’ he said.

‘Yeah, what’s with that?’ A sharp edge crept into her voice.

‘With what?’ Alex climbed onto his elbows.

‘The movement, the gestures, the cartwheels? I never noticed it on the ship, but now it’s too obvious.’

‘Delian is from Axechatta,’ Alex said matter-of-factly.

‘So what?’

‘Axechattans communicate primarily through movement and gestures. Us humans tend to use a lot of words to get a point across. They use a detailed body language to provide nuance.’ He smiled at her. ‘Their happiness runs deeper than a surface smile.’

‘Don’t you find it infuriating,’ she asked, ‘to see them so happy in a situation like this? We’re stuck here, for who knows how long?’

Pip stared back out at the desert they had crossed. Their silver pod was barely perceptible. The wall of red loomed on the horizon. The liquid bromine spreading across the sand looked like a wave of red washing over a beach.

Pip stood up and began pacing in the cave. ‘This place is hell. I’ve brought us to hell.’

‘Come on, you don’t really believe in that old myth do you?’

‘Look around you Alex did you miss the lava? This is a literal hellscape.’ Alex noticed she was breathing quickly and her hands were shaking.

Pip? You okay?’ Alex stood up. His hands clasped hers and her eyes locked onto him.

‘We’re going to get through this. This is not your fault. You are the most amazing person I’ve ever met. Pip, I,’ he hesitated, half-believing he’d come this far. ‘I love you, Pip,’ he finished.

Pip let it hang there, like a feather falling slowly to the earth.

‘I love you,’ Alex said again, a weight lifting off his shoulders as he said it.

Pip looked away.

‘Alex, I…I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.’

Pip stumbled out of the cave, half-seeing, using her arms for balance.

*

Her mind swimming, Pip found Delian towards the back of the outcropping. They were on their hands and knees, reaching into a crevice between two boulders.

‘Delian, are you all right?’ she called.

‘Phillippa, good timing. I have just found some edible vegetation.’ They retrieved their hand and opened the palm to reveal three small leaves.

‘Are you joking? I’ve never seen you joke before.’

‘Quite serious. We call these revivifiers. They are densely rich in vitamins and minerals. All you have to do is put them on your tongue.’ They demonstrated.

Pip squinted. ‘No really, are you joking?’

Delian held out a leaf. Pip took it, and put it on her tongue. It tasted like a leaf. Delian clasped their hands together in gratitude.

‘Wha-ow?’ Pip asked.

Delian removed their leaf. ‘Beg your pardon?’

Pip removed hers. ‘What now?’

‘Oh you can just leave it for 20 minutes or so and you will feel much improved. I will go find some water if you will give this to Alex.’ They held up the third leaf.

‘Actually, maybe you’d better do it,’ Pip said, ‘He’s not taking this whole crash thing too well.’

‘I suppose it is to be expected,’ Delian said. ‘Arennah really is beautiful. I just wish to show you what I see in this place.’

Pip looked around her. There was another mountain range in the distance. She wondered which was going to break first, the mountain or her.

‘The beauty is not always in the big,’ Delian said, ‘sometimes, it is in the minute.’ They held out the leaf again. It was curved to look like a heart, and Pip could see the weave of thin white veins within.

‘If you say so,’ said Pip.

‘And sometimes,’ Delian said, crouching down in the sand again, ‘it is beneath the surface.’

*

Pip took a walk through the outcropping, trying to take in the tiny details of the rocks and the almost invisible life between them. Trying to focus on the most important crisis first: What happens if no one rescues us?

When she returned to the cave, Alex was sitting alone. His eyes were red. He made to speak but Pip cut him off.

‘I’m sorry Alex,’ she began with renewed conviction, ‘but my first priority is getting you and Delian off Arennah safely, and I’m going to need your help. We can talk about the other thing after. I promise.’

Alex wiped his eyes and nodded. Despite how badly today had gone, he wasn’t about to let the others down.

‘I need you to head back to the pod, and try to boost the distress signal. I’ll grab Delian and come and meet you. I’m not ready to sit back and wait to be rescued.’

*

Pip found Delian sitting cross-legged on top of a boulder. Their eyes were closed and their breathing was deep. Pip knew they meditated, but had never seen it before. She sat down as quietly as she could on the stone beside them.

After a minute of silence, Pip cleared her throat.

‘Hello,’ she said softly.

‘Hello,’ Delian said.

‘We need to get back to the pod. I think I can get us off here.’

Delian smiled ruefully. ‘You really are desperate to leave.’

‘I’m sorry Delian, but it’s my fault you’re here. I can’t rest until I get you home safely.’

‘What if I do not wish to leave?’

Pip turned to face Delian. ‘You don’t want to go?’ Why?’

‘Arennah is the closest I’ve seen to home in a very long time.’

‘This place looks like Axechatta?’

‘Almost identical. The system we are currently in is a sister to my own. Axechatta is glimmering and golden just like Arennah. But I have not laid eyes on my home for decades.’

‘Why not?’

Delian hesitated, wringing their hands.

‘I am a heretic. I rejected the traditions of Axechatta, so I was exiled. I glimpsed beauty and destruction in the universe, a terrible balance inherent in all things. Axechatta was drenched in the blood of its neighbours. I was a believer, a soldier. I fought with my commanders, begged them not to bomb Salifax. The war was won, but they couldn’t take any chances, couldn’t see the beauty of that world and its people.’ Delian closed their eyes. ‘I fled to the stars before my trial.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I never thought I would miss it so much.’ They wiped their eyes with the back of their hand.

‘That’s why you took this job?’

‘I told myself I would see home one last time. But in the process I was helping to destroy it. Balance.’

‘Well, if it’s any consolation, I think Arennah is safe from terraforming now. Even if we’re stuck here.’

Delian looked into Pip’s eyes. ‘Balance,’ they said again.

‘But not without beauty.’ Pip held up another of the leaves she had found, and smiled. ‘Do you really want to stay here, Delian? Can you survive out here?’

Delian laughed. It was a light, musical sound and Pip couldn’t help but feel its warmth spread through her body, like stepping out into a wave of sunlight. Delian embraced her in a hug so tight Pip felt her breath leave her lungs.

When Delian finally let go, they said, ‘Of all the humans to have shared in my homecoming, I am glad it was you, Phillippa. I will help you to go home.’

*

A cargo barge picked up Pip and Alex three days later. Delian remained behind, carved out a new home, and lived a life of peace.

 

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Voyager, Josef Pringle

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“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space, but the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” – Dr. Carl Sagan

I

On the fifth of September, in the year 1977, a group of scientists from the planet Earth put a message in a bottle. This bottle was an unmanned robotic spacecraft, a probe, which they named ‘Voyager 2’.  The message was etched onto a gold-plated phonograph record, and secured to the outside of the probe.

If a stylus were to be placed in the shallow groove that ran in a gentle spiral from the outer edge of the golden disc to its centre, and the record itself rotated at the appropriate speed, one would receive the message. The message was a collection of sounds and images of life on Earth, greetings in 55 different human languages, and a 90-minute selection of music from a range of cultures and traditions. In short, the message was this:

“We are here, and so are you.”

The Golden Record was protected by an aluminium cover, upon which the earthlings engraved instructions using simple diagrams and binary arithmetic. These instructions detailed how and at what speed the record should be played, as well as how the photographs and drawings encoded onto the record could be viewed.

The bottle was thrown out of the atmosphere from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The arm that threw it was an expendable launch system, a four-stage rocket. The bottle plopped into the cosmic ocean with 2,400,000 pounds of thrust and an almighty roar.

If you were to see Voyager for the first time as it emerged from its capsule, the first thing you’d notice would’ve been the large white reflector dish of its high-gain antenna, sat there atop the squat black body of the probe. At this stage, the rest of its instruments remained tucked tightly beneath the dish, but like a newborn stretching its limbs; Voyager unfolded its robotic arms and soared off into the void.

Voyager sailed through the main asteroid belt separating the inner and outer regions of the Solar System. It spent time observing the enormous gas giants – Jupiter and Saturn – and their moons, relaying data and images back to Earth.

By 1998, Voyager had travelled further from the Sun than any previous mission.

By 2012, it had left the outer limits of the Solar System and crossed into interstellar space.

By 2027, its generators could no longer supply the power needed to operate its scientific equipment. Many of its non-essential systems had already been shut down to conserve power. Its short-term mission was at an end, but its voyage had just begun.

II

Millennia slipped on by, and Voyager drifted into the domain of a young and stable yellow star. If humanity still existed, and were still counting the Earth’s revolutions the way they had been when Voyager left, the year would be 2,072,377. By sheer coincidence, it would have been the fifth of September.

Preserved in the vacuum of space, Voyager looked just as it did the day it was launched. Picture it in this moment, where it sailed along its uncertain path. The light of the nearby star playing along the white dish of its high-gain antenna, flashing like a signalling mirror off the golden record that remains secured to the body of the probe. This flash obscures vision for a split-second, and fades in time to notice the enormous metal claw closing around the probe, as if to crush it. Instead, the ‘fingers’ of the claw come to rest gingerly on the sides of its quarry, and the craft it belongs to swims into view. It is teardrop shaped, smooth and contoured. Cargo doors open—mandible-like—at the front of the ship, and with the greatest of care, the titanic pincer gently deposits Voyager inside.

*

Humanity had always wondered what life beyond their blue planet might look like, how it might behave, if it existed at all. Some even claimed to have seen space aliens up close, and that they looked like reptilian humanoids or pallid, glassy eyed spectres or little green men. That they liked to infiltrate governments, mutilate cattle or kidnap people, sticking things up them for science, or just for the hell of it. Maybe they had, and maybe they did. The people that found Voyager were not intergalactic saboteurs, sadists, or scientific sex-pests. They were however, against all odds, ‘little green men’.

They were ecstatic. These little green men, like the human beings that made Voyager, had an immense catalogue of theory and fiction about alien life. They had never found so much as an amino acid on any other planet, and being far more technologically advanced at this point than humanity was when Voyager was built, they had been to many planets.

When Voyager was first detected on their long-range scanners, the news was met with disbelief. So many of the little green men were sure that alien life simply did not exist, that if it did it would be so distant and so primitive that they would never encounter it, that they were alone in the universe and that they just had to accept that. Visual confirmation prompted system-wide celebration. A crew was promptly dispatched to retrieve the UFO and take it to a remote research facility for study, and the greatest minds of their little green civilisation clamoured for a position on the research team.

In the cargo bay of the teardrop-shaped retrieval vessel, seven green men gathered round voyager. It was primitive, to be sure, but they marvelled at its design nonetheless, carefully inspecting its scientific instruments, its antennae and its radioisotope generators. They babbled and gestured to one another, taking notes and visual recordings. A little green technician gently laid two of his hands on the unblemished aluminium cover of the golden record.

III

The research facility was a tetrahedral orbital station that hung above a small, mineral-rich dwarf planet on the outer fringes of the system. It was the deep-space surveillance team aboard this immense trigonal pyramid that had first detected Voyager’s approach. The little green scientists scanned the probe in order to construct a three-dimensional image for detailed study. After that they began to dismantle Voyager with the utmost of care, taking samples of material from every component to be analysed and catalogued.

The golden record had been removed to be studied in a lab of its own early in the process. The scientists decoded the instructions on the cover with ease and marvelled at their brilliant simplicity. The purpose of the technology was easy to understand, though the little green men had never encountered such a thing themselves. The grooves on this metal disc were recorded soundwaves, and could be played back using the stylus provided.

Little green hands, which were barely able to contain their excitement, gently lifted the record itself from its container and placed it on a spindle that had been fabricated for this purpose. They placed the stylus in the groove in the exact position, and rotated the spindle at the exact speed indicated on the record cover. The bottle was open, the message read.

It should be noted at this point that, despite certain uncanny similarities, the physiology of these little green men was very different to that of the human beings who made Voyager. They had more in common with plants than with animals, subsisting through a process similar to photosynthesis, which allowed them to synthesize all the nutrients they needed using carbon dioxide, water and ultra-violet radiation. In addition, at key points around the bodies of the green men were fine-tuned sensory organs. These small ridgelike appendages were sensitive to nearby vibrations, not unlike the lateral line of a fish. These organs gave them incredible spatial awareness, and facilitated their language of soft words and subtle gestures.

Music came as quite a shock to the little green men. At the moment that the first notes of the Brandenburg Concerto No.2 met with their sensitive ears, their world changed. These little green men, for all their sophisticated technology and know-how, had never had a culture of music. They would often relax in lounges filled with droning, carefully engineered static, designed to create a kind of sensory bliss. Melody was entirely foreign, as was complex rhythm. Bach’s Baroque instrumental was cacophonous, confusing and exciting. They were hooked.

Who were these aliens – so behind the little green men in terms of technology – that had created such divine and diabolical sequences of vibrations? Answers lay carved further towards the centre of that golden disc.

IV

Following the 90 minutes of music on the golden record was a collection of 116 images. Information on humanity’s native star system, diagrams of cell division, of human anatomy and reproduction, photographs of human beings, the planet they lived on and the animals they shared it with.

As they had been encoded as sound, they were indecipherable when played back via the spindle that the little green men had constructed. Each image was preceded by a tone, followed by the image itself, which came in the form of a harsh electrical buzz; like the whine of a band-saw, which sent shivers of discomfort through the little green listeners. Each of these signals traced a sequence of 512 vertical lines which composed a complete image.

Among those images, and likewise etched on the aluminium cover, was a diagram. Straight lines of varying lengths radiated out from a central point. It showed roughly the position of Earth in relation to nearby pulsars; celestial bodies that emitted a constant and distinct pulse of electromagnetic radiation.

The human beings that had made Voyager had attached a map. By listening in deep space for electromagnetic pulses of the same frequency and intensity as those detailed on the pulsar map provided, the little green men located a main-sequence yellow star, which lay halfway along the inside of one of the Galaxy’s long spiral arms.

With permissions granted and navigation locked, the research station began the process of relocating. Inside the pyramid, propulsion systems hummed into action. Excited voices chattered away, relaying and confirming orders. Klaxons sounded and little green men hurried to their assigned positions. In the silence of the vacuum outside, the pyramid withdrew from its current orbit and turned, angling one of its four corners towards its chosen destination. Without a sound, it hurtled off into deep space.

V

The station arrived on the fringes of its target system in a matter of hours, and drifted inexorably towards the planet which lay third from its star. This was not the shimmering blue marble of 1977. This planet was a wasteland. The carcasses of thousands of satellites hung in orbit over arid continents and dull grey seas. Could this truly be where Voyager had come from?

Judging by this planet’s difference to the photographs found on the golden record, the little green men concluded that some immense environmental upheaval had occurred. Preliminary sensor sweeps revealed structures on the planet’s surface, and a team of four was sent down in protective suits to investigate.

The team descended via landing craft to a region where hundreds upon thousands of ruined structures lay strewn across the landscape, landing near a concentration of particularly tall ruins. Plant life had reclaimed the area, but had since withered in the heat of the sun, which seemed to beat down relentlessly upon the crumbling city.

It was then they saw them, a pair of figures slinking from cover to cover, between ruined doorways and the disintegrating husks of what must have once been vehicles. They fled at any sudden movement, only to circle back around, watching curiously. They were filthy, rangy things. At last, when one of the little green men attempted to approach them, arms spread non-threateningly, they scampered off for good.

Over the course of the little green men’s stay in orbit above Earth, more attempts were made at contact with the human beings that slunk among the ruins of their fallen world. Other groups were encountered, but the results remained largely the same. Where the little green men were not met with retreat, they were met with violence. Some humans threw rocks, crude spears, even faeces at the intruders to scare them off.

After every attempt at establishing contact, the little green men returned to their pyramid in dismay. Some suggested abducting one of the humans by force, to study it or to try to create some line of communication. Such ideas were voted down. These were not the people they had come to find, not anymore.

These were human beings who had inherited a world brought to the brink of destruction. They were the descendants of the human beings who had survived the collapse of the old world, had endured the unpredictable cycle of droughts and storms that had wracked their planet for millennia. Most of all they had endured each other. As resources had diminished, competition for those resources had increased. These human beings were not the human beings who had made voyager, nor were they the human beings that had written or performed the beautiful music of the golden record.

But the record endured, thought one little green man, and made his case. The message they received from Voyager had survived into their time. It could survive a little longer, and with a reply, to boot.

So the little green men took the golden record and they copied it. They copied its cover, complete with its instructions, its stylus and its spindle. They etched their own message onto their own phonograph records. In the grooves of these new records were the sights and sounds of their own world and people, their own science, and directions to their own world.

Around the planet they built trigonal pyramids of solid stone, and inside they placed a copy of each record. The structures were then sealed, but not too tightly. It was the little green hope that in time, this world would heal, and its people with it.

 

The message had been taken from its bottle and read, and those that read it had found it worthy of reply. They sealed their reply in bottles of their own and left them on the cosmic shore for someone to find. In short, the message was this:

“We are here, and so are you.”

*

“This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.” – Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States of America.

 

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Terminal Silence, Deng-Shan Caleb Lee

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Jack Lewis was not, and had never been, a man to socialise.

Even when he had been a young boy in elementary school, people had often commented on how quiet he was, how he preferred to keep to himself, and interacted with others only when he had to. This habit had stuck with him all the way to adulthood.

Jack had an opinion of himself as a man of routine, the kind of man who had his life together. Each morning, he would be roused by his alarm clock at precisely seven thirty, eat his breakfast of toast and tea, and then catch the eight o’clock 399 bus to work. He would stay there for the day, stamping documents and filling in forms until precisely seven thirty in the evening. At this point of the day, Jack would pay a visit to the diner that was located conveniently underneath his office block and buy himself dinner. Then he would catch the same bus home, unless it was a Friday. On Fridays he would cross the street to the shopping centre near the bus stop and buy the week’s groceries. Afterwards, he would arrive back at his home in the suburbs, eat his dinner and put away the groceries, the alphabetised order of the jars soothing his soul. Then he would go to sleep.

Each day passed in an identical manner, barring the weekends. On his two days off from work, Jack would take the time to do things that he enjoyed, which mainly consisted of admiring his sizeable aquarium of exotic fish or working on his rather extensive collection of model boats and ships. His routine on the weekends did not differ much from the days on which he was expected to show up to work; he still arose seven thirty, only instead of heading off to the bus stop, he would stay indoors with one of the model ship magazines he wanted to read, or take the train to the nearby aquarium and burn a few hours there looking at the exhibits. Afterwards he would treat himself to a simple dinner of microwaved food, and then would go down to his basement workshop and spend exactly two hours working on his model ships, all the while listening to the somewhat ear-grating and wall-shaking thud thud thud of his neighbour’s music. At least, he assumed it was his neighbour’s music. It certainly came from inside the house next door. He had never been inside the neighbour’s home to confirm, nor did Jack really feel the inclination to. It wasn’t that he did not like his neighbour; Jack really couldn’t think of any reason to dislike the man. It was just that aside from a casual wave and nod to each other when they would occasionally set off for work at the same time, Jack simply felt that he didn’t know the man well enough to ask about his tastes in music. After all the years living side by side, all Jack knew about his neighbour was maybe his name, which he could not recall at the present moment, and that he had a wife and teenaged son, whom he occasionally caught a glimpse of through their windows.

And so, life went on, every day more or less a repeat of the last, just the way that Jack liked it, until one warm Sunday night. Jack settling down in his workshop with a mug of his favorite Earl Grey tea, with exactly one tablespoon of cream and two sugar cubes in it. He was adding some finishing details to the conning tower of one of his prized model aircraft carriers, one which he had just finished assembling the night before. Jack rubbed his hands together in anticipation and unscrewed the lid on a jar of cherry red paint, getting his brush ready.

It was in that moment that a pall of unease settled onto Jack like a cold, clammy mist. Jack stared at his tabletop, frowning. He sipped at his tea, hoping it would calm him down. It did not work.

Jack rose from his workbench, screwing the lid back on his jar of paint. Something was definitely wrong. He looked at his cheap digital watch, adjusting his glasses as he did so. It was three minutes past eight, which was just about the usual time he should be in his workshop, so no problems there.

Had he perhaps forgotten to do something? Jack quickly went over everything he had done that day and couldn’t find anything that he might have missed. He wasn’t wearing anything out of the ordinary: smock, t-shirt, and tracksuit pants. He dressed this way pretty much every time he set to work on his models.

Jack had never been a superstitious man, but right now he could not help but feel as though some hidden sixth sense had sprung in his head, warning him that something was not right. Had someone perhaps broken in without him hearing it?

Keeping as quiet as possible so as not to alert a possible intruder, Jack mounted the steps to the basement, keeping to the sides of the steps to avoid making any creaking noises on the wooden stairs. Once he reached the top, he slowly reached behind the umbrella stand and brought out a wooden cricket bat. Jack had won it in an office raffle, but had always meant to sell or give it away, since he didn’t play cricket. He hefted the bat, feeling its comforting weight in his hands as he tiptoed around, checking all the windows and doors, making sure they were all locked and unbroken.

After a thorough check around the house, establishing it intruder-free, Jack replaced the bat and sat down on the couch, scratching the stubble on his chin and letting the thoughts in his head grind. Something was still off, and he knew that unless he figured it out, he would be up all night bothered by it. In a way, it irritated him that he was feeling this way. Didn’t he have as much right as the next man to a peaceful weekend? He had done everything right, and if it weren’t for the neighbour’s music…

Jack’s hand paused mid-scratch. He jerked his head to the wall that blocked his neighbour’s house from view. Quiet as a grave.

Jack rushed to his front door, throwing on a jacket over his painting smock. He stormed out of his house and onto the sidewalk, making tracks for his neighbour’s own front door. It was past dusk, and therefore a little chilly, but Jack was adamant. He would let nothing stand in his way of finding out just why someone had the nerve to throw a wrench into his well-oiled machine of weekly routine. Jack’s ears grew hot; he was partially infuriated and partially concerned, though mostly for himself.

Jack arrived at his neighbour’s house and raised his hand to knock. What was his neighbour’s name again? Jules? Julien? He decided to risk the former. Jack knocked once, twice, thrice on the wooden door then took a step back, just to be polite.

He heard footsteps within the house, and after a few seconds, Jack’s neighbour was peering at him as though he couldn’t believe his eyes.

‘Jake?’

Jack inhaled, his brow furrowing. There was definitely something wrong here. He could see it in his neighbour’s bloodshot eyes and his unshaven face.

‘It’s Jack, actually,’ Jack corrected. ‘Listen, Jules,’ His neighbour didn’t say anything, so Jack assumed he had been right in guessing the man’s name. ‘I can’t help but, ah, notice, that something’s been off lately,’ Jack said almost accusingly. ‘I don’t suppose you know what?’

Jules’ eyes grew mournful, and Jack began to have second thoughts about whether this venture had been a good idea. Oh well. It was too late to turn back now.

‘I…well…you’d better come in,’ Jules said, stepping into his house and opening the door wide for Jack to enter.

Jack followed Jules into the house, taking note of all the pictures on the walls of Jules and his family, as well as a sizeable collection of strangers whom Jack assumed were friends. Most of the lights were on, and upon passing the kitchen, Jack saw Jules’ wife, a shorter woman with blonde hair, sitting at the table and staring numbly at a collection of papers.

‘It’s nice of you to come by, Jack,’ Jules said absent-mindedly. Even Jack, who did not consider himself very good at reading body language, could tell that his neighbour’s thoughts were a million miles away at the moment. ‘We haven’t told any of our family friends yet…’

‘Yeahhh…’ Jack said slowly. ‘Look. I just came by because, well, things have been, er, quiet. I wanted to know why.’

‘Quiet?’ Jules gave Jack a questioning look before understanding dawned on his face. ‘Oh, you must be talking about Calvin, I mean, our son’s music?’

‘Is that his na-‘Jack caught himself. ‘I mean, yes. The music. Of course. I was wondering where it went.’

Jules sat in silence for a whole minute. Eventually his wife came over with two cups of tea, setting them onto the living room coffee table. Jack took the tea, hoping for something to moisten his dry mouth. This was more human interaction than he’d had at his job for years. He sipped at the tea, which was definitely not Earl Grey, and steeled himself so as to not make a face at the bitter drink. Jules took a fortifying gulp of the hot liquid before continuing.

‘Jack,’ Jules said at last. ‘Calvin’s been sick. He has been for a very long time, ever since he was nine.’

Jack stared at Jules, who was gazing into his cup of tea as if it contained the secrets of the universe. Remembering that it was rude to stare, Jack looked back to his own beverage and took another sip of the horrible tea. His lip twitched as he forced it down.

‘The only thing that kept him going was his music,’ Jules said suddenly. Jack went back to staring at Jules. ‘He always was a snappy little musician. Magic on the turntables, is what his music teachers said about him. Calvin loved making music, and once he got sick, he threw himself into it, always said it made him forget about the pain.’

Jules sighed heavily, his shoulders slumped as though they held the weight of the world on them like Atlas of myth. ‘He made dozens of songs to help pay for his treatment, since he couldn’t bear to let us pay for all of it.’

Jack sat silently, feeling more than a touch irritated, but giving away nothing. He yearned to be back in his workshop painting his aircraft carrier, but no, he just had to find out why the music stopped and now he was in the metaphorical frying pan. Surreptitiously, Jack angled his left arm toward himself and sneaked a peek at his watch.

Jules didn’t seem to notice.

‘But on Saturday night, Calvin-‘ Jules broke off, stifling a sob. ‘Calvin got worse, and had to be taken to the hospital. The doctors are saying they can’t do anything, and that if Calvin g-gets worse, he could, he could…’

‘Die?’ Jack completed slowly. Obviously that was what Jules had meant to say, but Jack was shocked when Jules covered his face with his hands and let out a tearful moan. He almost dropped the cup of tea he had been holding as Jules leaned against him and sobbed into his jacket. Jack awkwardly patted his neighbour on the arm as his eyes darted all around, hoping to find anything to alleviate the situation, whether it be an exit or another topic. He found neither.

By the count of Jack’s watch, they sat like that for ten minutes and thirty-three seconds. At which point Jules’ sobbing had deteriorated into sniffles, and finally into heaving gasps.

‘I’m sorry, Jack,’ Jules sniffled. ‘I don’t mean to break down like this, but Calvin means so much to me and Sarah and I’m just not ready to let him go. No father should have to bury his son.’

Jack nodded slowly as if in agreement. ‘It…it’ll be alright,’ Jack said, remembering from a book that it was the typical thing to say to someone who was sad. He hoped the book hadn’t exaggerated its effectiveness.

Jules gave a rattling sigh and wiped the last of the tears from the corners of his eyes. ‘I hope so, Jack. I really do. Thanks for stopping by, but I need to help Sarah with the hospital forms. I don’t mean to kick you out or anything, but…’

‘Oh, no, it’s fine, it’s fine!’ Jack cajoled. ‘You’ve got a lot on your mind, I get it. I’ll just see myself out.’

Jack was just turning the doorknob on the front door when the patter of footsteps made itself known behind him.

‘Jack, wait!’

Jack inhaled, feeling indignation flare up inside him. What was it now? Jules was at his side, holding up a small silver disc in a transparent case.

‘Jack, I want you to have this. It’s one of Calvin’s albums, and I know it would mean the world to him if he knew someone was still listening to his work, even if he might not make it.’

Jack blankly accepted the disc and tucked it into his jacket pocket. With a final wave, Jack bid Jules goodbye, and he hurried back into his own house and locked the door, glad to finally be alone again.

He checked his watch again. He had wasted at least twenty-five minutes on his little field trip, but perhaps it was worth it. Jack took the disc out of his pocket, staring long and hard at it. He went back down to his basement and put the disc into his CD player. Immediately, loud bass pulses and heavy beats filled the room.

‘Ah, no!’ Jack shouted, slapping the “stop” button on the CD player’s remote control. He would never be able to concentrate on painting with that kind of ruckus. He rubbed his chin and thought. Then he unplugged the boom box and hauled it up the basement steps and into the guest room.

It was a sparsely furnished space, with a single bed, a dresser, and a wardrobe, all empty. Jack lowered the CD player into the bottom drawer of the dresser and closed it, plugging in the wire. Then he pressed “play”.

It worked; the music was now muffled, and would barely register back in his workshop, but its wall-shaking beats and bass drops still made Jack feel at ease. Just like it used to before Calvin had been moved to the hospital.

Now he could, at last, get back to his life in peace.

All was right with the world.

 

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Patrol 4, Imogen Wiggins

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Shadows stretched and strained as two cycles sped over the uneven red terrain of Teramis-IVB. Bea scanned the landscape easily, having become accustomed to the eight-hour twilight during the course of her deployment. The horizon was indistinguishable, but the ground that stretched towards it was littered with dead technological beasts, slowly being swallowed by the scarlet vegetation. In her first month on this planet, she’d marvelled at the alien landscape; by the third, her enthusiasm had ebbed from the mundane uniformity of it. Now in her eighteenth month there, she longed for the brown mud of Earth.

Bea moved her cycle with dexterity over the terrain between Sectors Two and Three. Her partner Khali kept formation behind her, matching pace. Despite any homesickness, Bea knew the area they patrolled was dangerous. There were rebels, creatures of the land, and the greedy Kaiat to watch for, so she kept her eyes keenly trained on the surroundings.

Spotting something on the horizon, Bea cut her engine and allowed her cycle to drift to the ground. Her hand slid to her handgun. Khali followed her actions, her cycle falling silent. Staring intently through the wild red forest, Bea used the control panel on her wrist to zoom her visor in on the black object in the distance.

‘See that?’ she asked Khali. Her partner reached over and pulled her rifle from the back of her hyper-stealth armour, peering through the scope into the distance.

‘Yeah,’ Khali replied. ‘No overgrowth, can’t have been there for too long.’

‘Call it in,’ Bea instructed.

While Khali switched to the communication channel, Bea kept her visor zoomed in on the object, searching for any sign of movement. Resting in a valley between the thick trunk of a tree and a derelict battle cruiser, the shape on her display showed no signs of activity. Still, the anomaly unnerved her.

‘They want us to investigate,’ reported Khali, dismounting from her cycle. ‘See if it’s worth sending out a Reclamation Unit.’

Bea nodded in acknowledgement, swinging her leg over her cycle and pulling her rifle from the magnetic clips on the back of her armour. Leaving their cycles behind, the two moved in silence, keeping low to the ground. As they closed the distance between them and the object, it began to take shape. A crashed ship. The exterior was dark and sleek, but indistinctive, meaning it could be one of theirs, or the enemy’s.

‘Cloaks up,’ commanded Bea.

One after the other, they disappeared, reaching the unidentified ship and fanning out to circle it. Confident there was nothing hiding around the perimeter but debris, Bea headed toward the gaping hole in the middle of the ship, carved out during its descent.

‘Scanners aren’t reading anything,’ Khali offered.

‘Through here.’ Bea stepped over the threshold. Her finger rested on the trigger but she remained clear-headed.

 

 

 

The interior of the ship was as dark as its exterior. Wires hung from the ceiling, sparking with electricity, but apart from that the craft felt dead.

‘Must have dropped from some height,’ muttered Bea, assessing the damage.

They moved further forward and it began to open out, revealing a large cavity that seemed to make up the majority of the ship. Two corridors branched off towards the front and back. The inside had been cannibalised, stripped down to its bare minimum and then retrofitted with all sorts of junk. It was a stark difference to the outside of the craft. Both soldiers were drawn to what had been housed in the repurposed space. Tall vats made of metal and frosted glass—with extensive tubing running from them—lined the room. Most had fallen over in the crash. Tubes were loose and glass had smashed open during impact, letting the liquid run over the floor. A few were completely open, but empty. Only two stood against the wall as they should.

Kaiat cargo ship?’ Khali suggested, approaching one of the vats.

Bea nodded. It was likely; the retrofitted interior suggested their work. Back at the base, they tended to melt down whatever they recovered. But the Kaiat were resourceful and could move through the forest and salvage the ships better than they could. A Kai could blend into the planet’s surroundings better than anyone, though they did have the advantage. Bea felt the need to keep moving.

‘Let’s finish up. You take the back.’

Khali moved quickly to clear the rear of the ship whilst Bea turned her attention towards the front. The corridor was long. Any lighting that may have once illuminated it was now dead, leaving Bea to rely on her visor’s scanner as she moved through the pitch-black interior. She cleared two storage rooms along the passage, which were empty apart from some meagre provisions.

At the end was the cockpit. The sliding door that should have sealed it off was frozen between open and closed. Bea turned and slid through the doorway before pivoting to assess the room with rifle raised. It was quite small, and the oversized console was clearly not made for the space. The thing was a relic, with more transplants than Bea could count. She was surprised it ever worked in the first place. Looking closer, she noticed a thick black sludge pooling in the controls. She stepped around and saw a body lying next to the console.

‘One Kai here,’ Bea reported.

She edged closer, inspecting the alien. Slumped on the floor it appeared almost human, if not for the length of its limbs and the translucency of its skin. The usual bright orange of its internal organs had dulled to grey.

‘Looks like the pilot, probably died in the—’

The sound of scuffling made Bea whip around. She searched for the source, but the pitch black worked against her. Keeping her gun raised and eyes ahead, she swiped the control panel on her wrist. Her visor flickered, hesitating before switching to infrared. Scanning the room, the residual heat of the dead Kai registered on the visor, along with one other heat signature. The signature, a vibrant red amongst the otherwise black of the room, sat unmoving, crouched underneath the control panel.

Khali’s voice came over the helmets communication channel. ‘Bea?’

Bea crouched down slowly, keeping her eyes on the signature. When she became level with it she waited a moment to see if it would move. Satisfied it was still, she aimed her gun and switched off her infrared. She waited one, two, three heartbeats before flicking the switch and shining her helmet’s bright light on the heat signature.

‘Beatrice? What’s going on?’

Bea stared in confusion at what she had found.

‘Nothing. Have you cleared the rest of the ship?’

‘Yeah, crew quarters but not much else back here. All clear,’ replied Khali.

‘Okay, wait for me outside.’

Keeping the light on, Bea lowered her gun and switched to project her voice outside her armour.

‘Hey,’ she said softly, ‘are you okay?’

The child turned toward Bea’s filtered voice slightly, sneaking a glance from between tiny fingers. Bea swiped another button, lifting her visor and revealing her face.

‘It’s alright. You don’t have to hide,’ she prompted, stretching out her hand.

The child watched Bea carefully, eyes moving between her hand and her face, but didn’t make any move.

‘Would you like me you show you the way outside?’ Bea offered.

The girl lowered her hands slowly. Bea wondered briefly if the girl understood any of what she was saying, but then she began to crawl out from under the console. Bea stood up from her squat, clipping her rifle to her back and allowing the girl some space to crawl out and stand up. Bea’s helmet light illuminated the dead body of the Kaiat and the girl turned to look at it, moving to take a step closer. Bea grabbed her by the arm, pulling her away from the body.

‘Come on,’ she said, facing the girl towards the door. ‘We’re going outside, remember?’

 

 

 

In the light outside the ship, Bea looked the child over more carefully. She was filthy, the only clean skin on her made by the tear tracks down her cheeks. Her red hair was matted and she wore a dress of rough fabric. Khali lifted her visor and looked down at the small girl as they approached.

‘Well, that’s not what I expected.’

The girl either didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered by the scrutiny, not even bothering to look at Khali. Khali tuned to Bea.

‘You think she’s one of the rebel’s kids?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Bea shrugged. ‘I’m going to call it in.’

She slid her visor shut and opened the communication channel on her helmet, connecting with base.

‘This is Patrol 4.’

‘Go ahead,’ came the reply.

‘The ship is Kaiat,’ she informed them. ‘Carrying unidentified cargo, one live passenger.’

The line fell silent and Bea swiped at her wrist control, calling over the cycles while she waited.

‘Understood. A Reclamation Unit has been deployed. Maintain the site until their arrival.’

The line shut off and Bea turned to Khali.

‘Rec team is on their way,’ Bea said as the cycles rolled to a stop beside them. Bea gauged their surroundings. Raised on a hill sat a battle cruiser, one of the first, crashed a few decades ago by initial Kaiat resistance. ‘Let’s wait it out up there,’ she decided.

 

 

 

The Reclamation Unit was not a subtle group. Consisting of heavy trucks that struggled to move through the dense scrub, they were often heard before they were seen. The individuals that comprised the unit matched their convoy. Heavy-set workers prepared to lift, remove and haul whatever they were tasked with. Each unit came with a director, deciding what was useful to take and what was worthless. In this case, the vats would be taken for further investigation and the ship drive and communication box would be ripped out of the console for analysis back at the base, but everything else was rubbish to be left. Bea, Khali and their charge sat and watched them get to work from atop their hill. Bea stood as the director approached them.

‘You got a passenger for me?’ the director called.

Bea nodded, gesturing toward the girl behind her, who sat cross-legged in the dirt next to Khali.

‘Huh,’ said the director, briefly amused by his unusual cargo. ‘Come on then, we’ll let these soldiers get back to work.’ He called out to the girl.

She made no effort to move, even when Khali stood up next to her. She sat still in the dirt.

The director tried again. ‘Come on kid, I’m not keen on hanging out around here. You know, trees have eyes and all that.’

Khali reached down and helped the girl to her feet, gently pushing her towards Bea and the director. Once she was close enough, the director reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Wonderful,’ he said, smiling down at his new charge. ‘You’re going to have such a good time at the mining base. The facilities are second only to Earth’s.’ He looked up and nodded at Bea and Khali before pulling the girl back down the hill. They remained perched on the hill for a while longer, surveying the area before they boarded their cycles, heading off to the next sector.

 

 
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Another Sense, Eilish Hendry

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My father once told me he knew something was wrong the moment I was born. He said I cried too loudly. They couldn’t take me anywhere: shopping malls, parks, the more people there were, the worse I became. I would scream and cry and fuss; nothing could make me relax. He said I emerged from the womb determined to spite him—that I had always hated him. But I didn’t, how could I? I was an infant. It took me years to accept that he would never love me. He’d decided against it the moment I uttered my first words because he could never understand them:

‘Too loud.’

The world was just too loud for me.

Eventually, I adjusted to larger groups of people. I didn’t really have a choice. When my kindergarten teacher said I had socialisation issues, my mother defended me. She insisted it was because I hadn’t been to preschool. If only it were that simple. It would take me a long time to learn that there were certain things I shouldn’t say out loud—things that would make people angry.

‘What do you mean you don’t like anyone, Ella? You just said you like Billy.’

‘What’s the point of silent reading if everyone’s still talking?’

‘Oh, Jeremy stole your chocolates, Miss. He’s laughing about it right now.’

My classmates called me a tattletale, my teacher labelled me a compulsive liar. But Mama refused to believe them; she pulled me from that school and found a new one. But the teacher there accused me of cheating. Soon, I was changing schools every six months. Somehow things just kept getting worse.

When I was eight, Daddy told Mama he was going to work, but he told me he was going to a hotel with Helen. I didn’t know who she was, so I asked him about her later and he got mad. He told me he didn’t know what I was talking about, but when I mentioned the name of the hotel he almost looked scared. He begged me not to tell. He told me that I wouldn’t understand, that my mother wouldn’t understand. He took me out for ice cream and that made Mama smile, so I thought it was okay.

I didn’t tell her the truth until he left us for good. Mama had no words when I finally admitted it, but by then she didn’t have any tears left either. Pretty soon after that, she told me we were going to a doctor. At first, I was happy. I thought the doctor was for her; I knew how sad she was, I knew what she smelt like, so I thought she was getting help.

‘No Sweetie, the doctor is for you.’

My father was a doctor, so I’d never been to anyone else, let alone a psychologist. I was sitting on a beanbag surrounded by stuffed animals, while Mama sat on a rickety chair, listing my problems for at least an hour.

‘She’s a very sweet girl, very smart… But I know something’s wrong. Her teachers’ say she plays games with them in class. She’ll say she can’t work out a problem but the moment they sit down with her she knows all the answers. She can’t go to school assemblies or the park. I thought it might be sensory overload, so I bought a few books. But it doesn’t seem to matter how loud a place, she just can’t handle it.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Alexandra please, we’re here to be honest with the doctor. You know you don’t like—’

‘Mama I didn’t mean what you said. I meant what he said.’

‘Excuse me?’ the doctor said, face crinkled with confusion, ‘I didn’t say anything.’

‘Yes you did,’ I told him. ‘You said it’s Asperger’s. I read Mama’s book and I don’t think I have it.’

I still remember feeling like I was the only person in that room that was making sense. Mama seemed happy when I spoke up, not because she agreed with me, but because the doctor had just witnessed what she’d never been able to explain. It took three sessions for him to finally admit I was right. After that, he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. We went to see at least twelve more doctors, and a priest, before Mama finally gave up. She used to say that there had to be an explanation. She’d say it over and over like it was the only thing binding her to this Earth. She needed something—something to make me make sense.

One doctor was convinced I was schizophrenic, another said I was an autistic savant. They threw around every personality disorder they could think of from borderline to histrionic. They tried ADD and ADHD but nothing could explain me away. One doctor said I just had a wild imagination. He said that this is what happens to children raised by single mothers. Mama didn’t hear the bad word he called her, but I did. I hit him for that and we had to leave. But she needed answers, far more than I did. Every misdiagnosis made her shatter like the glass that surrounded her.

She needed someone to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. That I wasn’t her fault. But it was too late, too quickly it was too late.

It was loud that day. I could hear her in the next room, screaming for someone to answer her. I went to check on her and she was lying in bed, dry-eyed and staring at the ceiling like she had been for days. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, but she told me she was fine, she just needed some rest. I didn’t blame her, neither of us had slept in three days. She didn’t because she couldn’t, I hadn’t because she hadn’t. She promised me everything was going to be fine, but I could still hear her pain. I couldn’t ignore it; it hammered into my skull and my heart screamed like a wounded anvil. So, I checked on her a second time, then a third. I didn’t check a fourth… I should have checked a fourth. But instead, I stuffed my ears with tissue paper and prayed to every god in existence for it to be silent.

And then it was.

Everything felt cold and for the first time, it was peaceful. I could still hear the whispers of the world, but they were so far away. I cried because all of a sudden, I could breathe. That night, I slept more serenely then I ever had in my life. And when I woke up, it was still quiet. And that was beautiful. There was a part of me that thought that this was what control was. That maybe it had finally stopped. There was something that could make the world go quiet, I could be what my mother needed me to be. A normal child who didn’t need doctors, who could make friends. A girl who couldn’t hear what no one had said.

I ran to tell my mother the good news. To my surprise, she had slept peacefully too. All she needed was a bottle of pills.

My father didn’t take me in after the funeral—he refused. He told his new wife that he didn’t want me getting into her head or their baby’s. He had a new daughter now, so he set me up in a crappy apartment and never looked back. He paid my rent remotely and wouldn’t take my calls. He told me that as soon as I turned eighteen he wouldn’t be legally responsible for me anymore. At fourteen, he was counting down the days until he could be rid of me for good.

I can’t tell you how loud that apartment was. There were fifty people just on my floor and they all just seemed so busy. My neighbours were nice to me at first, they’d bring me leftovers and offer to help me with my homework. By then I had learnt to only respond when I could see someone’s lips moving. But it’s impossible to catalogue what someone has and hasn’t told you. I started to wonder if it was even right for me to hold back. I knew their pain, their struggles, their grief. Why should I let someone suffer in silence when words might make the world a little bit quieter?

The landlord came to see me, he told me to move out. The other tenants complained, he said. I was disturbing them, he said. I had never been more desperate in my life. I knew my father wouldn’t take my calls even if I was homeless. It was like there was something buried in my chest, something alive and thrashing. Maybe it only came into being in that moment or maybe it had always been there, threatening to burst free. That was the first time I saw true fear; it burned in my landlord’s eyes and his mind descended into howling chaos.

Yet somehow, I made it go quiet.

I told him I wasn’t leaving and he agreed. I told him that the people complaining about me should be evicted and they were. Suddenly, I had someone who was incapable of turning me away—who couldn’t tell me no, who couldn’t hurt me. That was all I’d ever wanted. For the first time, I had a voice in this screaming world and now one wasn’t enough. One of my teachers was next. Then a classmate, then a neighbour, then anyone who tried to silence me. I couldn’t win anyone over with affection or kindness. I had tried loving the world and it did nothing but break me to pieces.

The very thought spread through me like wildfire because I knew its source. I knew the one who had begun it, who had stolen my voice—It was time to take it back.

‘You’re going to tell me the truth, Father. I’m tired of your lies. You knew what I was and you prayed for it to destroy me.’

He stared back at me with those big brown eyes, the one’s strangers used to tell me I’d inherited. Seeing him look so trapped was a joy I had never expected. He was so flustered, so panicked. For once, I had the upper hand and it was a power I never knew I craved.

‘Alexandra, you need to leave now,’ he tried to sound confident, but his voice shook with every word, ‘My family will be home any moment. They know to call the police if they see you.’

I could hear his mind racing at a million miles a minute, desperate for me to accept his lies. He couldn’t figure out how I’d found his home, let alone how I’d made it inside. His eyes were locked on the safe on the wall, wondering if he could make it in time.

‘Your new wife and daughter went to the Hamptons for the weekend. It’s so sweet you bought a little summer home for them. It was Mama’s favourite place, remember?’

‘No, they’re at Cassie’s dance class,’ he spluttered, suppressing a gulp, ‘They’ll be right back—’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ I snarled in a voice I didn’t recognise before I walked over to his safe and began turning the knob, ‘You don’t think I can hear it? Your mind’s in a tailspin because you know no one is coming for you.’

The safe clicked open and from it, I pulled out his gun, ‘Lexi,’ he breathed, as all hopes of escape melted in front of him, ‘Put it down, let’s talk.’

‘Okay.’ I smiled, even as I began loading it with gloved fingers. ‘How about you tell me about Uncle Michel? We never got to talk about him.’

He repeated the only thing he had ever said about him, ‘my brother was sick.’

‘Sick? Sick? He was just like me and you know it.’

I could smell his sweat as I flicked off the safety, ‘I thought that he might be, but I didn’t know for sure. He—’

‘Hung himself, in a mental hospital. Was that what you were hoping I would do? Is that why you cut me off? So I would kill myself like your brother? Like my mother?’

‘Lexi—’

‘Stop calling me that, you gave up that right when you left.’

‘…Alexandra, just because I’d seen it before, doesn’t mean I knew what to do. I couldn’t help you, I felt like a failure, so I left and I’m sorry but—’

‘You let my mother think it was her fault,’ I hissed and the gun cocked with a sickening snap. ‘It was your genetics, you’re the reason I am what I am. It had nothing to do with her but you told her “it’s the mother’s responsibility to take care of the child,” while you busied yourself with your work and your affairs and your life outside of us.’

‘I couldn’t have known she—’

‘I don’t care! You don’t get it, do you? You still haven’t figured out what I am, have you?’

He spluttered and I couldn’t help but laugh, ‘I’m not a freak, I’m not a monster. I am evolution incarnate and I’m not alone. Mama’s last gift to me was making sure I knew that. You’re a doctor, maybe you’ve heard the stories? There was this guy in Yokohama, absolute sweetheart, called his grandmother every day but she’d been dead for three years so they locked him away.’

I stepped closer and he shuddered, ‘Did you hear about that fifteen-year-old in Siena? She was living twenty years in the future, there’s no telling the good she could’ve done. But instead, she was ridiculed until she ripped her all-seeing-eyes out.’

I grabbed his chin, wrenching it upwards until he was forced to look me right in the eyes. ‘Or the six-year-old, just over in Pittsburgh. He liked to make his teddies dance, but he didn’t need his hands to do it. You remember him, Daddy?’

I was standing so close to him now, that I could see the sweat being crushed in the wrinkles of his forehead, he was silent so I spoke again, ‘He starved to death… during his fifth exorcism.’

His mind became quieter and quieter, every thought grinding to a stop as I ensured he could do nothing more than to listen to me.

‘And what about me?’ I asked, before beginning to recite the explanation he had tried to rob me of, ‘Alexandra Priam, nineteen. Hyperthymesia. Telepathy. Mind Control.’

His breath quickened, his knees quivered, and for a moment I wondered if he was going to faint. ‘Wh-what?’

‘Didn’t know that last bit, did ya? Why do you think you haven’t run away? Why you haven’t called for help?’ a laugh escaped my throat, yet I didn’t know what I found so funny. ‘It’s because I removed the idea from your head. I mean, think of the possibilities, I could cure addiction in seconds, break apart toxic relationships, rewire criminals. I could hand my father a loaded gun and tell him to pull the trigger.’

‘Please… Please don’t…’

‘It’s my people’s destiny to replace your kind. What I want you to know, is that this is just the beginning. There’s a storm coming, we won’t be silenced. We won’t let people like you control us. It’s almost a shame you won’t live to see it because let me tell you, the new era of humanity is going to be beautiful.’

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With The Deepest Regret, I Wish To Inform You…, Sarah Joseph

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Parker pushed his bike up the red dirt path to the top of the hill, panting. He turned around briefly, seeing his friend, Declan, close behind. Cole was further down the hill. The young boy struggled to push his bike up the path which had been created by the three boys’ frequent visits to the hill.

‘Come on, Cole,’ Parker shouted down to his younger brother, ‘We’re almost there!’

‘The shower should start at approximately 23:34,’ Declan panted, kicking the stand out on his bike as he and Parker reached the top.

Parker saw him push up his sleeve to check his watch.

‘We’re right on schedule! Excellent time, lads,’ Declan declared, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and walking over to their spot.

Finally, Cole reached the top of the hill and Parker ruffled his dark hair.

‘Didn’t think you were going to make it, buddy!’ he said, as Cole aggressively pushed him away.

Cole punched his brother’s arm and ran over to Declan, his bike dropping and creating a cloud of dust as it skittered to the ground. Parker meandered slowly over to the others.

‘Look! There’s one!’ Cole shouted, bouncing on the soles of his feet.

The older boys followed Cole’s finger to a large shooting star. It burnt up in the sky, casting a long tail, and skimmed across the dark, quiet town below them.

‘Another one is coming in,’ Declan said, throwing his mouth open and head back, squinting up at the sky.

Parker watched the steady stream of stars for a few minutes before he sat down against a redgum tree. He absently picked at loose threads on his old joggers as he watched Cole and Declan. Cole was still bouncing, excited because this was the first time Parker had let him sneak out with them. He always felt guilty for leaving his little brother at home, but Cole was too much of a liability. Parker watched him squealing with delight, thinking back to how long it had taken them to sneak out that night because he kept making too much noise.

‘Look at that one!’ Cole shouted, clapping his hands.

‘I’ve never seen one that bright.’ Declan squinted up at the star. ‘It must be a larger mass than the others we’ve seen.’

‘It could be Martians!’ Cole exclaimed, and Parker rolled his eyes. ‘A Martian spacecraft!’

‘This isn’t one of your comic books. There’s no such thing,’ Parker called out from his seat, crossing his arms behind his head.

‘I know that,’ Cole shot defensively back at Parker, sticking his tongue out. ‘But it could be. We don’t know what the shooting stars really are.’

‘Well, actually—’ Declan started, beginning to spill facts he had read from a textbook.

Parker immediately stopped listening. He knew Declan had spent all summer holidays with the flu, hunched over tattered old textbooks. He had heard that exact spiel many times before on that very hill. It took a few trips out there and a few spiels before Parker had calmly explained he wasn’t even slightly interested.

He looked over the small town, the few blocks that encompassed the entire thing. From the hill, he could clearly see the main street. It was deserted. It used to be full of the people in the grades above him; and those freshly graduated, driving their parent’s cars, going to the pub or just sitting in their parked cars, playing music. All the guys were gone now; most of them signed up for the war the first chance they got. The girls were all in the city, working for the war effort too. The remainders, those attached to their family or work, had been the only life left in the town. They had all been conscripted over the last three years.

The only lights were coming from the garage and the pub on the corner. Inside would be the old veterans, celebrating the good news. The Germans were defeated at last. They announced it a few weeks ago.  The war was over. That would lead them into reminiscing the Great War. Parker knew they’d be talking about how they had it hardest in Gallipoli, and those missing troops in Asia, and the rumours of the railroad through Burma. That’s all they ever talked about.

Parker’s thoughts drifted to his father, and then his eyes moved off the main street to his house. It was dark and still, his mother sleeping alone. Waiting. They hadn’t heard anything from him in months, so they were left unknowing. His mother took it as a good sign. No news is good news, she said. His grandpa had whispered conspiratorially to him a few weeks ago that maybe his father had been taken as a POW. Parker didn’t know who to listen to.

It was a story he knew too well. Sons and fathers sent to Africa, Southern Europe, Asia, and never returning. Declan’s older brother and father hadn’t come back yet. They hadn’t died like many others from their town, but they had moved on. His brother was still helping with the War Office somewhere in Germany, the last they had heard. He would probably come home soon. But his father was another story. Declan had never given Parker much of the story because he didn’t like talking about it. But from what he had heard, Declan’s father found another woman while he was away. She was an English girl, a nurse or something. And they were living together now.

Parker worried about that more than he worried about his father dying sometimes. When he was conscripted, Parker had just started high school, and Cole was too young to remember. His father told him to look after his mother and brother, to not let anything happen to them, to be the man of the house while he was gone. But how could he protect them from a broken heart, like Declan’s family?  He just wanted news. Any news.

He looked over at Cole, his brother’s brows creased into a v shape.

‘Declan,’ Parker sighed, ‘You have to explain it really dumb. He’s only six.’

‘Almost seven!’ Cole shot back.

‘Lads! Look, another one!’ Declan interrupted.

The boys fell silent and watched the star shoot across the town, lighting up the whole sky. It burnt up just above Old Man Peter’s place below their hill.

There was suddenly a loud bang and a flash of light from the house. Then silence.

‘What was that?’ Cole asked.

Parker’s heart raced, and he exchanged glances with Declan.

‘We should check if he needs help.’ Cole picked up his bike, and took off down the hill.

‘Cole!’ Parker grabbed his own bike and raced after him. Declan wasn’t far behind.

 

 

 

When they got to the old weatherboard house, the veranda was caving in on the left, and the gum tree out the front littered the ground with dried leaves. They lay spread across the scorched red dirt, so that the boy’s feet crunched as they jumped off their bikes. Parker caught Declan’s eye. His throat tightened as he looked over at Cole, who was already walking towards the front door.

‘Cole, wait!’ he called out, running after him. His bike clunked to the ground.

He grabbed Cole’s arm just as he was stepping onto the veranda.

‘We have to see if Old Man Peter is okay!’ His brother’s voice was small and worried.

Parker looked back at Declan, who was still holding onto his bike, his knuckles white. They both knew what that sound had been and what it probably meant. Old Man Peter lived out here alone since his sons went off to war. He hardly left the house anymore. Leanne from the corner store even drove supplies out here for him once a week.

He remembered overhearing his mother talking to Diane, their neighbour, over tea last week.

‘Di, don’t say that!’ his mother gasped. ‘Of course the boys will come home.’

‘I don’t have a good feeling about it. They were so young. David was how old?’

‘Nineteen?’

‘God. Nineteen. And Reggie was underage! I can’t believe he left his father to run off after David and his mates. He always idolised him.’

‘It’s devastating. It would utterly destroy Peter if they didn’t come home. Those boys are everything to him.’ His mother fanned herself with a book.

‘You’re lucky your own boys are too young.’

‘I am grateful to God every day for that,’ his mother said quietly.

‘I do worry about your husband, though. Often.’

‘Di!’ His mother slammed her hand to the table, making Parker jump behind the door.

‘What?’ Dianne shrugged. ‘You have to prepare for these things. My Stan never came back.’

‘I know. But you ought not to talk about it.’

Parker let go of Cole’s arm and stepped onto the wooden veranda. He could hear the wireless playing softly inside, the sound of piano floating out on the breeze. He looked at Cole’s wide, bright eyes and called out to Declan.

‘Cole, you stay here for a minute,’ he said, and before Cole could protest, he continued, ‘Declan and I have to make sure it’s safe.’

‘Safe? From what?’

Parker wracked his brain.

‘From Martians, of course, like you were saying before! They fly their ships down here during meteor showers as cover.’

Cole’s eyes widened, and he nodded vigorously. He walked back to the bikes and stood beside them, keeping a look-out.

Parker bit his lip and locked eyes with Declan, then reached across to open the front door. It wasn’t locked, so the boys walked right into the living area.

The lights were on, casting a soft, yellow light on everything in the room, chasing the shadows in the corners. The fire was crackling quietly, and the wireless was still playing soft piano music; it sounded like Debussy, his father’s favourite. Comfortable looking armchairs sat in front of the fire, fraying from age and use.

Parker walked across to the kitchen table. Breakfast was still placed at the table, even though it was past midnight now. The cold, half-eaten eggs and a single strip of bacon had hardened fat upon them. Two flies were buzzing atop the food, dancing around each other; a synchronised dance only they knew.

The kitchen bench was a mess. There was a half loaf of bread that had gone hard from being out all day. Dirty plates and cups lay in the sink. A pan sat on the stove with a thick layer of hardened grease from the bacon. He turned around and saw Declan looking at something on the table. He picked up an open letter that was lying next to the cold breakfast.

‘Parker,’ he whispered, shakily pushing his glasses up his nose. ‘It’s a commiseration letter.’

Parker walked back over to the table and saw the War Department header on the letter. His heart dropped.

‘Both boys,’ Declan sighed. ‘Reggie was only a few years older than us. And David…’

Parker quickly turned around and walked across the lounge to a hallway. A door at the end was ajar, more soft, yellow light spilling into the hallway. He knew what he would find down there. He walked up the hall slowly, his feet padding on the threadbare hall runner.

The walls were lined with photographs. David and Reggie grew up as he kept walking, turning from bald infants into bold, dark-haired boys on the backs of horses. There were photos of them with Parker and Declan when Parker was years younger. Reggie was in his footy club. He was always good at sport; the coaches’ pick every time. They said he would get a sports scholarship and get into university in the city. The whole town was behind him.

David was just as loved by the town. He worked on the farms, helping out wherever he could. He was a hard worker, attractive, and was sweet with the Mayor’s granddaughter in the town over. The people physically felt his loss when he was sent off. Parker heard his father say it was unjust, unnatural, to send the boys away. This community would die without them. And he was right.

Parker pushed the door at the end of the hall open, slamming his eyes shut as he did. He jumped when he heard Declan swear behind him, completely forgetting that he wasn’t alone. He very slowly opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was the red splatter on the wall behind Old Man Peter’s lifeless body. The yellow light couldn’t soften the dark shade on the white wallpaper. Then he saw the gun in the old man’s limp hand.

‘We need to get Officer Winston.’ Declan’s voice was urgent.

‘He’s not here during the week.’ Parker couldn’t drag his eyes away from where Old Man Peter’s head used to be.

‘Well… we need to get someone. Doc’s here, I saw him today. We need to report this. I need to get—’

Declan raced out of the room, coming back to grab Parker’s arm and drag him out too.

Out the front of the house, they were met by Cole’s watchful eyes.

‘What’s happening?’ he asked.

Declan grabbed his bike and sped off before Parker could do as much as protest. Cole watched him peddle away and then looked back at his older brother.

‘Where’s Old Man Peter?’

Parker gratefully knelt on the ground in front of Cole; he hadn’t realised how heavy his body was. He took Cole’s small hands in his own and stared into his eyes.

‘You were right, Cole.’

‘What?’

‘It’s Martians. They’ve taken him.’

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Peculiar Perception, Laura Treglown

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The clouds cried and the droplets poured down onto Henry’s head.

He ran across the zebra crossing to the shelter of Figtree Mall. Even inside, he could hear the bang of thunder rip the clouds apart. One… two… three… four. He counted the kilometres between each one. Jon Carver had taught his son, Henry, this trick from a young age, as a coping mechanism of sorts. To act as a comforting substitute for when he was absent. It helped calm the boy down by showing how far away the thunder was, despite how close it sounded. As a child, Henry believed they were bombs. At first it had made Jon laugh, then it became a nuisance. In the end it wasn’t the thunder that scared Henry, but the explosion that was his father. Jon liked to call himself a simple man. He believed in good old fashion business, a hard work ethic, and sound family morals. But, he just didn’t get his son, and Henry could tell.

Henry knew better now than to believe in unnatural ideas like bombs blowing up the sky and fatherly love. It was seven seconds after seeing the sky light up that he heard the bang, crackle, and pop. Once the rain dissipated, Henry was sure that the noise would too. He shook his shaggy hair slightly with his hands, attempting to spread and minimise the water clinging like a bad smell, before heading deeper into the mall.

His friend Tod had texted Henry awake from an eleven-hour coma earlier than usual this morning. His best guess was that Tod hadn’t slept all night—instead, rampaging and trolling the battlegrounds of World of Warcraft. Ordinarily, Henry wasn’t opposed to a bit of melee at Warsong Gulch under the guise of his druid night elf. Especially since a few weeks ago he had received Mythical Level 760 bracers in a drop from the boss, Grand Magistrix Elisande. But recently, he had simply replied busy to Tod. This kind of thing was becoming a common occurrence.

Due to his morning wake-up call, Henry arrived at the mall earlier than he typically did. It meant he had gotten stuck in the 9 am soccer-mum traffic at the roundabout on Gibson Road leading to the high school, primary school, and preschool. Henry’s only thought was what idiot had planned it that way? He also had to wait three two-minute cycles of the traffic lights before Pearl, his old creamy Mazda 3, could finally turn right onto The Avenue. Due to his morning escape, he arrived at Figtree Mall far too early. On the bright side, for once he didn’t have to wrestle some old lady or mum with a pram for a parking spot. The threat of just another day munching on chips, sculling soda and mashing keyboards with Tod was enough to force him out of his routine.

His mother had arrived back from her Bali cruise only several weeks ago and therefore Henry’s mall escapades had become more frequent than they ever had been. Since quitting her job and entering a premature retirement because—as she often proclaimed—she deserved it, Louise Carver had become an inescapable presence in his home. After Henry graduated from high school six months earlier and deferred from a Bachelor of Business at Wollongong University, nothing had happened. At least that was what his mother enjoyed telling him. Henry, on the other hand, knew he couldn’t stop the cogs from working hard in his mind as he tried to comprehend his future. It was only at the mall where the world stopped spinning and time was nothing more than an absent thought.

 

 

 

At 10 am, coffee was a necessity. In Henry’s mind, caffeine was better and far more important than oxygen. It somehow managed to keep him sane, at least, in his opinion. He was definitely no connoisseur, and always scooped in at least four teaspoons of sugar. Henry liked the effects of coffee more than the actual taste of it. With an ice-cold latte in hand, he looked around, hoping to find a spare seat somewhere within the vicinity of the coffee shop.

An elderly woman was precariously perched on the corner of a bench. It looked uncomfortable, but Henry guessed that she had plenty of practice at this position by sitting on the bones of young children. He imagined her settling into their bones with a satisfying crunch and a pleased and pleasant smile. He went over and she glanced sideways at Henry as he dropped down beside her. Her skin was saggy, as if trying to run away from her body as it drooped. Much like the rest of the population when they finally saw the truth about sweet old Granny. The rings shoved onto her spindly fingers seemed to be the only thing holding the skin in place. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, but she was obviously uninterested. Even if the idea of escaping life for a day tantalised Henry, he was too old to suit her taste buds. Her eyes kept scanning the area around them. Edith’s eyesight was the only thing about her that still worked perfectly fine.

She came to malls much like this all the time, he thought, because it was where the children got lost. One second they were holding Mummy’s hand and then they were nothing more than headshots on milk cartons. She never went to the same mall twice. No, she wasn’t a rookie at this—that was how you got caught. One had to stay on the move. Henry smiled at the irony of this thought, as the old lady was running nowhere, quick.

As he sat next to her—she looked like an Edith—all Henry could smell was beef. It filled his nose and choked his senses. So, he took a long swig of his coffee and instead, tried to breathe in that meaty aroma. Even after many years of awkward and potent hugs from his mother, Henry still struggled not to gag from her smell. Edith must have been cooking soup this morning. She was planning on having it for dinner. It had to stew all day because the child was not as plump as she would usually like, and muscle tends to need much longer to soften and tenderise than the fat ones. But the fat ones were much harder to get into the pot. Henry couldn’t help himself: a scoff escaped his mouth at the thought of this elderly woman, in her tiny wooden cottage hidden deep in a forest, attempting to put a child into a pot, only to realise she didn’t have one big enough. Edith looked over. She had a questioning look on her face, but Henry simply smiled, stood up and walked away. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking about him.

 

 

 

The mall was the place where people got lost. No mall in particular; it was just something about the rows upon rows of neatly organised shops that caused people to lose themselves in the sense of chaos. That was why Henry liked it. He enjoyed falling down the rabbit hole and finding himself somewhere completely different. Even though Henry liked to see the darker, purgatory side to the mall that robbed people of their souls, money, and time, he knew in reality, it was nothing more than a concrete-laden building. Yet he still loved to succumb to the mystique and wonder that it drew out of different people. He relished in exploring, not only the shops and places, but also the people it created.

That is what he decided to do today. On days like these, when the sky was crying buckets of rain, there was really no choice but to stay inside. He turned left and right, and right, and back around the way he came, only to turn left. Past the bright colours of Cotton On, the light and airiness of Swarovski, and the clatter and hubbub that was the food court. It was all at random. That was the best way to do it. He kept travelling in this labyrinth for quite a while. He couldn’t tell exactly how long. There wasn’t time to check his phone. His head had to stay up so he could see the world that existed around him instead of the pixels that plagued his phone.

On a lap past the food court, a young man stepped his New Balance trainers directly in front of Henry and blocked his path, almost as if he knew where Henry would be. The top button of his vintage collared shirt strained against his Adam’s apple as he spoke.

‘Hi mate, can I grab a minute of your time?’

Although a cap obscured his face, Henry could see the truth. He saw the dark violet bags that clung underneath his eyes. The scratchy and scruffy beard that came only from weeks of not shaving. The man’s hands clenched at his sides as he grasped a blue clipboard. It was plainly obvious, even to Henry, that it had been weeks since he had slept well at all. It wasn’t from the many assignments he had piling up though. No, he didn’t care about those at all. It was the dreams that kept him up at night. Dreams of the future, of course.

Henry knew that it all began one drunken night with his five friends, an Ouija board and the internet. It was a fun night at first, rounds of shots every time the board answered a question. Throughout the course of the night, up until 4 am, they only became cruder and cruder. It was the next day, when his hangover was ebbing, that he fell into an internet wormhole.

Henry knew far too much about internet wormholes; they started with searching tomorrow’s weather and ended five hours later on Wikipedia, looking at the breeding cycle of Fairy Penguins in Northern Tasmania. But Louis—as Henry decided he looked like—had ended up falling into a hole of Southern Louisiana dark magic. At 2 am the next morning he found himself on some questionable website overflowing with spells, pigeon in hand, and knife on the coffee table in front of him. Days later, Louis still couldn’t get the blood out from underneath his fingernails. That wasn’t the only thing he was struggling with. It had done something to him, and although most of these mall-goers couldn’t see it, Henry could see that the man in front of him had unknowingly made a blood magic trade to see the future.

Louis could see the small problems that would arise tomorrow. Like a traffic jam on the Princes Highway he would have to face on his drive to work, or that they would run out of milk in two days at 9 am. Those things used to matter to him. He would normally lay awake at night worrying what he would have for breakfast if there was no milk left. But now those worries didn’t even make him flinch because he had seen his own death.

He had barely even made it to his job handing out flyers this morning. Henry was shocked that he was actually here in one piece. Although Louis didn’t know exactly when it would happen, he knew that he would be in a car crash. Seeing your own death wasn’t exactly fun and it had shaken him to the core. Henry though, just smiled at Louis for the first, and perhaps last, time before ignoring his questions and continuing to lap the mall. It was an awkward enjoy your day and your death kind of interaction. Henry wondered what he would do if he knew what was lying in wait just around the corner. He’d probably move out and away from the iron grip of his mother for starters. At least he was safe for the time being, he concluded, as he lost himself.

 

 

 

Eventually, as always, he gave up. He found a lone silver metal chair and collapsed into it. He could feel the stiffness begin to set in as his muscles quietened. They had been screaming from the constant walking and now they were settling down, their complaints becoming less severe.

Across the café sat a young girl. Henry guessed she was eighteen, just like him. Though she seemed to be relaxing in the newly-opened Starbucks, her mind was in the dungeons, wrestling with her latest problem. She sipped coffee and stared at the book she had propped haphazardly between her jean-covered legs. Henry tried not to judge her based on her taste in coffee. He was sure that she had a no-foam-caramel-cappuccino with three sugars in her hand. It was easy not to judge her though, because she was beautiful. Henry shuffled in his silver throne, made awkward by his own creepiness. He couldn’t help but notice things about her. Her long blonde hair continually fell in front of her face and blocked her view of the book. Henry had only been there for a few minutes, and already he could tell that reading was second nature to the girl. Henry was stopping himself from going anywhere else because he enjoyed watching her unique quirks, like the way she thumbed the corner of the page with anticipation. Or how her foot tapped to the rhythm of her reading.

She was just his type. Weird enough that not many understood her, but not weird enough to fit into the Dungeons and Dragons scene with ease. She still loved board games and card games, of course. She’d spend every Friday night with her friends, laughing and eating as they threw cards down on the table. She was unusually good at cards compared to everyone else. Henry shuffled in his seat and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. On Saturday nights she would go to the casino. That was how she was paying her way through university, by counting the cards on the Black Jack table. No one knew, no one suspected her. I mean, who would? Just look at her. Even Henry could barely believe it himself.

Henry did know one thing for sure—he was intrigued by her. So, he waited until he heard the crisp flick of the page and knew it was his moment. The chair screeched against the tiles as he stood and walked over. He put his hand on the back of her metal silver throne.

‘Hi,’ was his opening line, and hers was dropping the half-full coffee cup into her lap in surprise. It was meant to be the end of the chapter—Henry had planned to make a suave literary joke. Instead, he looked down at the warzone that was her lap, at a loss for words, before mumbling something that he hoped sounded like an apology, and staggering away with his tail between his legs. He couldn’t believe it. Henry knew it was much earlier than usual, but he just couldn’t bring himself to stay at the mall. What if he saw her again? He kept walking, head down, out of there, to where the bombs were still going off in the sky, to the bomb of a life that waited for him at home.

 

 
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The Man Without A Heart, Ryan Hunter

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She had been looking at him all night. Quick, furtive glances from across the crowded bar before looking away again. Felix’s gaze jumped from patron to patron. He watched friends and co-workers laugh and chat. He spotted couples out on a date night and families coming together for a meal. But his gaze always returned to the dark-haired woman, and each time he caught her watching him.

She was about his age, and he found her intriguing. Though he wasn’t sure if that was just because of the attention she was paying him. She and five others—her friends, Felix assumed—filled a booth against the wall of the bar. Felix sat on a stool against the bar in the middle of the room, holding a drink.

It was a crowded Friday evening of city workers celebrating the end of another week. Felix sat alone, but he didn’t feel it. How could he amongst so much life? Spending time around people going about their lives was a reminder he too was alive.

His gaze moved back to the woman in the booth, and sure enough she was looking back at him. This time, however, she didn’t divert her attention when Felix’s eyes met hers. So intense was her stare that Felix wasn’t even sure she’d realised he was looking back at her. What about him was causing her to examine him so closely? Felix shrugged to himself and raised the glass in his hand toward her in greeting. The movement snapped her out of her trance, and she turned back to her friends.

Felix returned to watching the room, drinking the water in his glass—he wasn’t game enough to ever drink anything else—and picking at the salad in front of him. He turned to a movement in the corner of his eye and was surprised to see the woman walking from the booth to where he was sitting.

‘Sorry for staring, but I swear I know you from somewhere,’ she said, taking the empty seat next to him and leaning on the counter.

‘Felix Kingston,’ he introduced himself, ‘the only person in the world without a heart.’ The woman’s expression switched from surprised recognition to elation. It wasn’t the usual reaction Felix got to this statement.

‘Of course!’ sitting up straighter and moving a little closer. ‘I’ve read about you. Doctor Moretti’s famous patient. World’s first synthetic heart.’

‘It’s always nice to meet a fan,’ Felix said with a laugh.

‘I’m Sarai. Sarai Romero. Your doctor is a big inspiration, actually. His work on synthetic body parts is ground-breaking.’

‘Nice to meet you, Sarai. You’ve studied his work?’ Felix asked.

‘You could say that. The company I work at is currently developing an artificial lung, to improve the lives of people with lung diseases.’

‘I can’t say I’ve ever thought of this thing as an improvement. A regular heart doesn’t need its battery charged.’

‘I’d say being alive is an improvement to the alternative,’ Sarai smiled at Felix. She had such an energetic smile.

‘Can’t argue that,’ Felix conceded, smiling himself.

‘Hey, can I buy you a drink?’ Sarai asked.

‘Oh. Thank you, uh, I don’t really drink though. I avoid alcohol,’ Felix said, indicating his glass of water.

‘Really? But your heart should be able to handle a bit of alcohol. Enough for a single drink at least. It is designed to react to impulses from the brain, so it will respond to any effect on heart rate or blood pressure,’ Sarai trailed off. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to lecture.’

‘No, it’s fine. You probably know more about this thing in my chest than I do,’ Felix said, waving her apology away.

‘Did you know it basically makes you a cyborg?’ Sarai asked. Felix paused to think, then responded with a chuckle.

‘See, you’re teaching me already.’

 

 

 

Sarai sat in a cafe, waiting for Felix to arrive. It was their third get together since meeting in the bar two weeks ago. It had started off with her wanting to know all he could tell her about his mechanical heart. He told her about the regular check-ups, how the silicon plate—silicon so as not to restrict his movement—covering his heart had to be removed each time.

In turn, he asked her about her own work and she expressed how eager she was to move onto her own projects. Her passion lied in augmentation. One day humanity could be using machines to enhance vision, hearing, strength, and possibly even intelligence. She wanted to be at the forefront of that movement.

Somewhere along the way Sarai had started to think of them as dates, though she wasn’t sure if Felix felt the same. He was easy to talk to, and even easier to laugh with. The last time they’d met the conversation had flowed seamlessly from her questions about his heart, to her work, then to their interests, ending in a friendly debate about chocolate of all things. There was a connection, but he’d never made any moves. Sarai found herself hoping he would, but was starting to think she might have to act first.

Sarai looked out the window, spotting Felix’s black, un-brushed hair above the heads of the pedestrians passing by. He stepped into the cafe and Sarai waved at him as he approached, taking the seat opposite her. Asking how his week had been, the conversation immediately turned to his heart as he described his most recent check-up. Some pumps were getting a bit worn, so Doctor Moretti had replaced them with new parts.

‘The ventricle pumps?’ Sarai asked for clarification. Felix nodded in confirmation, before continuing his recount.

She found herself staring at his chest, where she pictured the machine driving blood around his body. Doctor Moretti, the heart’s architect, was like a modern-day clock maker. An artisan creating a finely tuned device designed to perform with absolute precision.

‘My eyes are up here,’ Felix chuckled, waving for her attention.

‘Can I see it? Your heart?’ Sarai asked, her voice soft.

‘What? Here?’ Felix asked, surprise in his voice. Sarai looked up, remembering the cafe they were sitting in.

‘No, I suppose that wouldn’t be appropriate,’ she said, then allowed a smile to curve her lips, ‘but my apartment is nearby.’

 

 

 

Felix stepped into Sarai’s apartment, as she held the door open for him. A couch sat in the middle of the room with a jacket thrown over the arm. Books were haphazardly arranged on a shelf, and an open DVD case sat next to the television. There was a wooden dining table covered in mechanical components and tools. Meals seemed to be taken at the sofa, as her breakfast bowl was still sitting on the ground.

Closing the door, Sarai stepped past Felix. She cleaned up the remains of her breakfast with an apology, and explained how she often took work home. With a smile as strong as a promise she told him to get comfortable, and she’d be right back after taking care of a few things. Felix watched her walk away, vanishing into the hallway at the other end of the room. He often found it difficult to pick up on signs, but he was beginning to think there was a slight chance she was interested in more than his heart.

Felix busied himself by looking at Sarai’s collection of books. The lower shelves had thick tomes on the human body. There were also a lesser number of texts on cybernetics. Only one text crossed both topics, and it was one Felix immediately recognised. It was authored by Doctor Moretti, and contained several chapters around Felix and the machine in his chest.

Footsteps behind him alerted Felix to Sarai’s return. She crossed the room, taking a seat on her couch and motioning for Felix to join her.

‘I could sign Doctor Moretti’s book for you. You’d be the envy of your colleagues,’ Felix joked as he took a seat beside her. Sarai shifted a little closer once he was seated.

‘Maybe not as much as you think. Most of my colleagues aren’t quite as passionate as me,’ Sarai’s eyes were focused on his while she spoke, but dropped down to his chest as she went quiet.

‘Do you want to see it now?’ Felix asked, receiving a nod from Sarai in response. He undid the buttons of his shirt, pulling it open. Felix didn’t look down. He knew what would be there: a flesh-coloured, silicon plate welded to his chest by a glue-like substance designed to hold it in place and stop skin growing over it. Instead, he watched Sarai’s reaction.

Sarai seemed like the sight of his chest had caused her to forget how to breathe. In fact, Felix thought it seemed like she wasn’t aware of anything else right now except for the machine in his chest. She reached out with a hand, stopping short of touching it. She looked up, as though suddenly remembering Felix was there.

‘May I?’ she asked, gesturing to her heart.

Felix nodded.

 

 

 

Sarai’s heart was thumping in her chest. She was expecting to feel the same from Felix as she rested her hand on his chest. The silicone was soft to the touch, yet so different to skin. But she felt no heartbeat.

She moved closer, leaning over him to press her head against his chest. She realised she hadn’t even stopped to see if Felix minded. He gave no protest. She listened to his heart, and knew she was listening to a sound unique to Felix.

It wasn’t a heartbeat, but it had rhythm. The sounds of pumps rising and lowering, pushing his blood around, entered her ears. There was a symphony of machine sounds as the various parts that kept his body functioning moved in unison. Felix was the future. He was beautiful.

Sarai placed her hand back against Felix’s chest, feeling the silicon plate give a little to her touch. There was a slight vibration travelling from his chest to her hand. His heart rate seemed to be increasing.

‘You’re nervous?’ she said, half questioning, as she looked up at him.

‘Or excited,’ Felix said with a smile. He took Sarai by surprise as he lowered his head, touching their lips together and drawing her into a kiss. Her shock was brief, and as his arms wrapped around her she returned the kiss. Her hand remained on his chest as the hum of his heart sang to her a melody.

With regret, but needing to catch her breath, Sarai pulled away from Felix. His hand came up to cover her one pressed against his chest. He clasped it tightly, pressing her hand hard against his chest. His grip was almost too strong.

‘I think my heart skipped a beat,’ he said, breathing hard.

‘Tell me about it,’ Sarai laughed, giddy at the closeness they’d just shared.

‘No, I—’ Felix cut off suddenly, his grip over her hand going limp. Sarai cried out in shock, moving out of the way as Felix crumpled to the side.

‘Felix!’ she called out. Sarai wanted to grab his shoulders and shake him, as if he was only sleeping. She ignored these instincts. Instead she laid him on his back and felt for his pulse, finding nothing. Finally, she put her hand over his chest, hoping for that distinctive, mechanical beat. The machine in his chest had stopped.

Sarai stood up, scrambling to her cluttered dining table. She knew she only had a few minutes at best. Time wasn’t on her side. As she grabbed the tools scattered over the table she gave a quiet thanks to her habit of bringing work home.

Kneeling by Felix’s side she tried to lift the silicon plate from his chest, but couldn’t budge it. The adhesive holding it in place was too strong. Taking a scalpel, she cut into the silicon. Each slice left her worried she’d cause further damage, but she couldn’t let that stop her. She might already be too late.

With a final cut, she peeled the silicon off Felix’s chest. The device sat within a metal-ceramic cavity of artificial bone, joining with his ribs. Plastic tubing connected with arteries. Sarai would have been mesmerised if the situation wasn’t so dire. Even so, she couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering.

Where the ventricles would be the machine instead had complex pumps. Like a ventricle, they were designed to pull blood from an artificial atrium, and then push the blood around the body. Sarai noticed one of them had stopped, and the other didn’t seem strong enough to move the blood on its own.

Glancing back at her table, Sarai wondered if she had a pump. She saw the prototype lung she was working on. Could that work? It didn’t have to be a permanent fix, enough to get the blood moving again. The lung was designed to act as a big pump.

Sarai hurried back to the table, grabbing the lung. She had to try.

 

 

 

Felix opened his eyes to a familiar, but unexpected ceiling. The ceiling that always greeted him after waking from check-ups on the machine in his chest. He had no memory of coming in for a check-up. It felt like his chest was still open as well. He lifted his head slightly, looking for his doctor, and an explanation.

His movement must have been noticed, as Doctor Moretti was quickly at his side. The doctor questioned how Felix was feeling, but was already checking Felix’s pulse and glancing at the mechanical heart.

‘What happened?’ Felix managed to ask. His voice felt like it hadn’t been used in days.

‘Ventricle pump jammed up, stopped the blood flowing,’ the doctor answered. ‘The second pump should have been enough to keep you on your feet until the faulty one could be replaced, but theory doesn’t always turn out in practice.’

Felix laid his head back against a pillow, taking in the doctor’s words. It was his biggest fear realised, the machine stopping without warning.

‘But,’ Doctor Moretti continued, ‘I am working on some new pumps. Should prevent this occurring again. Actually, I’ve got the young lady who brought you in assisting me. Her quick thinking saved your life. Jury-rigged an experimental lung-pump to your heart, just to get the blood flowing again. I’m impressed with her ingenuity.’

‘Sarai saved me? Is she here?’ Felix asked.

‘She’s just outside. Let me go get her,’ the doctor said, leaving Felix’s side.

The worst may have happened to Felix, but he was still here. He was still breathing and, despite his machine heart doing what he’d always feared it would, blood was still flowing through his body.

Felix heard the door to the room open, and he turned his head to the sound. Sarai stood there, framed in the doorway looking both pleased and relieved to see him. He gave her a small smile, and she hurried to his side, reaching for his hand.

Felix took Sarai’s hand in his, holding the woman who had mended his heart, and he knew he was alive.

 

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Can You See Ghosts?, Jamie Creswell

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Rio Linz was a mostly normal boy who lived a mostly normal life. He attended school and maintained average grades and was able to mostly keep himself out of trouble. He lived with his parents, both of whom worked. Everything about Rio was for the most part completely and utterly unremarkable.

Save for one titbit fact.

Rio could see ghosts.

 

 

Rio’s first ghost was his former nanny. Her name was Madalyn.

The boy used to look up to see the elderly woman’s face, when his head barely reached her waist. Wispy white hair trailed down, splitting into two halves before ending just shy of her chin.

She still looked down at him. Her gaze wandered over his features curiously as she examined him. Her weathered lips formed a thin line as they pressed together. Her eyes blinked once as he stared at her intently.

‘Rio?’

Not trusting himself to speak, Rio nodded his head sharply.

‘You can see me, sweetheart?’

Despite himself, Rio nodded a second time.

Understanding quickly dawned upon her features as her grey eyes locked with his brown ones.

Hesitantly, Rio reached out and held her hand in his grasp.

 

 

The next four months saw Madalyn developing a routine. It fit with Rio’s easily enough. She would walk alongside him on his way to school and then waited for him until he came back out after school closed for the day. They would usually discuss mundane things such as the weather and how their respective days carried out.

Sometimes they didn’t speak to each other; they just walked next to each other in silence.

Rio noticed that Madalyn always wore the same clothes; a baby blue blouse and a dark skirt. He recalled that she had worn similar clothes when she was alive. He once asked why she never changed and the ghost replied that she simply couldn’t.

Madalyn would visit Rio several times on the weekend while he was in the backyard doing his homework in the tall grass or just drawing on a piece of paper. One time she offered to help him with his work and he accepted. This continued every weekend that followed. She excelled in story writing and geography, but hated maths even more than he did.

Rio never once thought to ask Madalyn what she did when she wasn’t spending time with him.

 

 

‘Madalyn.’ The said woman perked up when Rio said her name. The two were walking next to each other.

‘Yes, angel?’

Rio paused for a moment to consider how to best phrase the question before continuing.

‘Do you know anyone else that has died?’

Madalyn frowned in confusion.

‘What is it. . . leading you to ask such a dark question?’

Rio just shook his head and shrugged.

Madalyn mulled over the question quietly for a moment before replying in a sombre tone.

‘Many hearts as a matter of fact. Colin. I guess you wouldn’t remember him… he was my husband, he fell to lung cancer several years prior to myself. Naturally, my dear parents passed long—’

‘I don’t mean that. I meant if you know any other ghosts,’ Rio cut across her.

Madalyn looked surprised. She was silent before making a noise of understanding in the back of her throat. Rio had tapped into her one sadness and though she tried not to dwell upon her loneliness, she couldn’t help at times but wonder why only she remained on Earth.

‘No, I don’t, unfortunately.’

The boy was unable to completely hide his disappointment. Madalyn easily picked up on it.

‘Rio, are we friends?’

Rio nodded.

‘Then you know that if you need someone to speak to, don’t hesitate to ask me. Some things are best kept secret, but not all things. It’s okay to share your thoughts with people that you trust. Even if we’ve lost people, its best to try and focus on who we still have.’

 

 

Rio’s primary reason for wanting an authentic camera was because of his invisible companion. He wanted to prove her existence to his parents. It had been the highlight of his eleventh birthday to receive one from them.

However, when he tried to take a picture of her, he came up short—the image of his backyard lacked a ghost. Madalyn had initially been sceptical about the idea, but her facial expression fell slightly when it had failed.

Madalyn suggested that he use his birthday gift for something else. Eventually, he decided to see what he could capture outside. Having nothing else to do, his former carer accompanied him.

That was how Rio came to meet Kane.

 

 

Their meeting was similar to the first time Rio met Madalyn, yet almost entirely different.

They stood in the park, several feet from an ice cream vendor that was selling to a line of children from the street. Rio had finished taking photos of things Madalyn liked and was moving to the skateboard park with her trailing behind him, when he noticed the man. He seemed occupied, harassing nearby pedestrians. Rio noticed that they showed no response to his presence, which was surprising if one considered his physical appearance.

Kane was a big man, easily much taller than Rio and Madalyn. Muscles beneath his skin were practically bulging under an orange jumpsuit. He was covered in tattoos of spiderwebs and foreign kanji that decorated his domed head.

Wanting a photo, Rio looked for a good position. Once in location, he looked through his lens and saw no one there.

Confused, the boy lowered the camera and saw that Kane was still before him.

Once Kane had realised he was in the presence of someone who could actually see him, he was initially quite vocal, letting off a stream of new words.

‘Fucking hell, you can see ghosts?’

The brashness caught Rio off guard. To his credit, he quickly recovered.

‘I guess? You’re my second one.’

Kane glanced at Madalyn, who squinted her eyes at him in distaste.

The giant glared.

‘Something you want to say to me, bitch?’

Once the excitement had passed, however, getting words out of him was harder than drawing blood from a stone. Despite Rio’s best efforts, his newest ghost kept his mouth firmly shut.

Eventually, time forced them to leave the park.

 

 

Rio and Madalyn went back the very next day after school, to the same spot as last time.

‘Hey… ’

‘Yes, Rio.’

‘Do you think you can walk through walls?’ he asked Madalyn

A moment of silence passed.

‘I don’t know about that darling… I’ve never tried it.’

‘Why don’t you try it?’

She paused to consider before chuckling.

‘I’m sure I would have known by now if I could do something as whimsical as that.’

A moment passed and in that beat, Rio’s breathing quickened and he felt hot. He’d always felt unsure of how to approach a particular question and if, indeed, he should.

‘How did you die, exactly?’

Madalyn glanced at him before looking away. She didn’t answer.

Her mannerisms were quite contradictory; her distant and sometimes awkward behaviour clashed with the times that she was exuberant and full of life.

Kane wasn’t there when they arrived. Rio tried to wait but was forced to take off after Madalyn when the old woman lost interest.

 

 

Rio saw Kane a second time only five days later, hovering outside of a rundown house that had most certainly seen better days.

To his surprise, Madalyn was also there. They were speaking to each other. Standing several feet apart, their appearances were a sharp contrast to each other. His interest getting the better of him, Rio decided to investigate. Thanks to his size, he was easily able to hide his small frame behind a rubbish bin.

He strained to pick up their words.

‘Moping won’t help you stand straighter, boy.’

Rio was surprised by the tone of Madalyn’s voice, possessing a sharp edge that he never before knew existed.

Kane replied angrily, sounding impatient.

‘Thanks for your fucking advice. I don’t remember asking you to give a shit.’

Madalyn was silent for a moment. Then she spat out, ‘Try to make an effort to understand your situation—our situation,’ she insisted, urgently. ‘You and I are both still here instead of completely passing on.  In a way, this second chance has—’

She was interrupted.

‘What “we” is there? Let me tell you something, you dumb bitch—hospital and fucking prison are as different as ice and cannabis. Needles don’t mean squat. Just go and leave me the hell alone.’

Fearing he might be caught, Rio fled.

 

 

One month after meeting Kane, Rio decided to take his interest in photography and art to new heights.

Armed with his trusty camera, Rio went out by himself.

He lived in a rather rundown neighbourhood full of plain colours. His family wasn’t poor, but they were very far from well off. More than a few houses showed signs of neglect and old age, a few broken windows here, some rotten wood there. The surrounding neighbourhoods possessed the same atmosphere. There were weeds showing on several front lawns, driving up from beneath the ground like untameable servants.

Frowning at the lack of potential snapshots, Rio’s young mind struggled to come up with ideas.

Rio found Madalyn sitting on the stairs of the front porch outside his house.

She was completely unprepared for his request.

‘Sorry, I must confess. . . I am not quite sure what it is you mean.’

‘Help me find stuff to take photos of.’

‘And how would this be of use to you?’ Madalyn asked.

Rio nodded.

‘I figured that if I can’t take photos of ghosts, I can use this camera in other ways to help.’ He deliberately paused for dramatic effect before continuing. ‘If you can take me to where you lived and other places that you liked when you were alive, I can retell your story through pictures of the things that meant the most to you.’

It only took two minutes to convince Madalyn of the idea.

 

 

‘Of all places, why here?’ Rio asked, holding his camera in both hands while looking around in confusion at his surroundings.

Both he and Madalyn were standing in the backyard where they did Rio’s homework together.

Madalyn smiled before she explained her reasoning.

‘Because this place has meaning to me. Here with you, on this little patch of grass, is where I now spend most of my time.’

Rio couldn’t help but blush in embarrassment.

Soon, photographs began to replace the various sport and motorcycle posters that took up the wall space in his small room.

Gradually, over thirty new images appeared.

All of them were places of significance to Madalyn. Rio’s latest one was a shot of a creek that Madalyn liked to walk alongside. Another was her favourite café in the shopping centre. They, along with several others, were all titled under Madalyn’s name.

 

 

As Rio’s photographs of Madalyn began to accumulate, the pair approached Kane and tried to rope him into the idea.

They failed.

 

 

While walking near a stream surrounded by an assortment of pebbles that lay underneath an overpass, Rio and Madalyn noticed a girl. She was young, sickly and petite, wearing torn jeans and a rainbow sweater with a woollen beanie covering her short brunette hair. She was bright and cheerful despite her pale complexion and somewhat unkempt appearance.

She approached the pair as they were about to move on, a mischievous grin betraying the general nature of her intention. He had seen it before in movies, when a person did something mischievous in exchange for attention.  From the corner of Rio’s eye, he noticed the yellow armband encircling her wrist.

She began to lean in, past what Rio considered his personal space. This merited asking her what she wanted. Madalyn beat him to it.

‘Is there something we can help you with, dear?’

She yelped and jumped back as if she had just received an electric shock. Scrambling back, she nearly tripped over.

‘You can see me?’ the girl asked him, her eyes wide. A look of understanding came over her as she stared at him. ‘You can see ghosts?’

Rio replied with a yes.

‘That’s incredibly cool,’ was her response.

 

 

The first place that Natalia, their newest companion, dragged Rio and Madalyn was to a carnival circus that took place once every June. Amongst the cacophony of noises there, including Natalia’s laughter, Rio wasn’t very sure where to point his lens.

Madalyn found herself struggling to keep up as her body ached in protest while pursing Natalia. Eventually she was forced to stop, leaning against a food stand for support.

Natalia seemed to have the knack of getting ahead of herself.

 

 

When Rio decided to ask Natalia about the places that held any sort of significant meaning to her, Natalia had taken Rio to the aquatic centre at night after closing. This led to Rio getting arrested for breaking and entering—only to get photos of himself in the water at night.

While sitting in the chair waiting for his parents to arrive, with Madalyn and a guilty-faced Natalia standing on either side of him, Rio overheard something. According to two officers who were standing outside the office, a teenager had broken into the pool eleven times over a three-year period.

Apparently, the girl ran away from the hospital at night just so that she could swim with no one else in it.

Natalia had the decency to blush as Rio turned to look at her with incredulity. They made eye contact and her skin tone practically went from a mild pink to a rich scarlet as she fiddled with her hands. It took several seconds for Rio to realise that Madalyn was also looking at Natalia, her soft eyes charged with disdain. Fortunately, the centre kindly decided to drop the charges when they realised Rio wasn’t their regular culprit.

 

 

Rio approached Kane and asked if he wanted to be a part of the project he was undertaking one last time.

The ghost refused.

 

 

After recovering from his grilling at home, the first thing Rio did was head up to his room to return to his work. Once it was done, he hung up his newest picture and stood back to admire it properly. Looking over the photos he had taken for Natalia, he allowed himself a moment to enjoy the pride swelling up in his chest like a balloon fit to burst.

Alongside the collection that he had created for Madalyn, they formed the tales of two people who had already lived out their full lives.

 

 

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The Shadow, Suzin Lee

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The first time Alex saw him, she was indifferent. In fact, if it wasn’t for the minor incident, she probably would have brushed past him. The murmur of the supermarket was monotonous in Alex’s ears; her mind was fixated on the broken wheel of her trolley. Rattle, rattle. Rattle, rattle. Alex sighed. She wondered if Dad had ever helped Mum with the shopping. Not that it mattered, now. She reached for a loaf of raisin bread, then hesitated at the thought of Mum’s tantrum the other day.

‘I’m sick of eating this crap!’ Mum had shouted as she threw the freshly buttered toast against the wall. ‘If your Dad was here—’

‘Well, he’s not. And this is all we’ve got in the pantry, so you can starve,’ Alex had snapped as she walked out of the room with the empty plate.

Her hand hovered over the beckoning bag of bread before she threw one, then another, and another, into the trolley. She smirked.

With the trolley piled high with groceries, Alex wheeled it down the health food aisle towards the checkout. Then, they collided. The details of his appearance bypassed her memory except for one small feature—his glasses. Thick-rimmed with additional shades, one side of the frames were wrapped with a Band-Aid, holding them together. They fell off his face and clattered onto the linoleum floor as Alex swerved her trolley, barely missing them.

‘Oh! Oh… I’m so sorry! Are you okay?’ Alex said as she picked up the glasses.

She handed them over to the man, who hesitated at her gesture. He took them, observing her with alarm. Slowly and silently, he walked away.

Alex noticed that other people were staring at her with the same expression on their faces. Any other day, this might have struck her as weird, but she realised the time—Mum had been home alone for longer than she should have been.

 

 

 

The plastic bags rustled as Alex treaded carefully into the dim house. She closed the door gently and when the lock clicked, turned quickly towards the hallway. Silence.

Quietly, she opened the blinds of the living room. A shrill ring broke the peace.

‘Shit!’ Alex muttered, as she clambered over the sofa reaching for the phone. ‘Hello?’

‘Alex, is that you?’ An English accent crackled through the bad reception. ‘It’s Auntie Sue. I just wanted to check in, how’s your Ma going?’

‘Oh! Hello, Auntie Sue. Mum’s alright, the same old.’ Alex fidgeted with the cord in her hand as her eyes nervously watched the hallway.

‘Would you like me to fly over?’ asked Auntie Sue.

‘Oh no! That would be such an inconvenience!’ Alex pulled a face. She couldn’t think of anything worse than to have Auntie Sue fussing around.

A door creaked open down the hallway. Alex perked her head up.

‘I better get going now. I think Mum is awake,’ Alex whispered hoarsely.

Alex watched nervously as the ghost-like figure appeared along the passage. Her hair was disheveled, eyes vacant, and her face was as pale as the silk nightgown she was wearing.

‘John?’ Her shrill voice quivered, echoing off the walls.

‘Mum, it’s just me,’ Alex called out.

Light footsteps pattered on the floorboards.

‘Oh, Alex…’ Mum’s voice was soaked in disappointment as she observed the empty living room.

‘Mum, remember Dad is—’

‘I know.’ Mum stared at the bouquet of flowers on the kitchen bench. A card with the word ‘condolences’ peeked through the leaves.

Alex watched Mum walk back into her room with her head hung low. You could see her bones protruding through her nightgown. Alex wanted nothing more than to get Mum out of her room, to open the windows and curtains and change the bed sheets. A pungent smell had started to arise from in there; a rotting stench that seemed to infiltrate Mum’s grieving body. Alex wrinkled her nose. It was getting worse.

 

 

 

A week later, Alex’s feet were crunching through the autumn leaves as she made her way to the bus stop. Three weeks felt like a very long time away from work. She missed the buzz of computers inside the busy office. A cold gush of wind sent a shiver up her spine; it felt like a breath of fresh air. Alex had never been a patient person, she knew it was only a matter of time before she would snap. She had begun to throw away the condolence cards and sometimes left the phone unplugged. But no matter how hard she tried, the memory of her Dad’s death seemed to taunt her. Even the crowd of black coats at the bus stop triggered memories of his funeral. Alex released a dramatic sigh, receiving side-glances from the people near her.

When the bus appeared around the corner, the drowsy crowd started to stir. Feet shuffled as everyone hungrily inched forward in hope of getting a seat on the bus. Alex had seated herself comfortably and was drinking coffee from her thermos when she saw the man jump onto the bus; the same man from the grocery store. Alex held her thermos in mid-air as she eyed him. He hasn’t paid for his bus fare, maybe he is poor. He took out a notepad and started scribbling. Every time she looked up, she felt him glance away. Alex felt the hairs on her arms stand on end—it was as if he knew she was watching him.

When her stop approached, she carefully made her way down the aisle, seeing him fold the piece of paper as she drew nearer. The closer she got, the more she noticed a pungent smell, and scrunched her face in disgust—it was the rotting smell that had started to infiltrate Mum’s room, and it was coming from him. She covered her nose and looked around madly, but no one else seemed to be bothered by it. Just in time, the doors opened and Alex flew out. She stared with a gaping mouth at the bus as it continued on.

 

 

 

By their third encounter, Alex felt an uneasy dread. She had organised to meet Toby for a date night, which they hadn’t done in a while, since the passing of her Dad. Waiting in line at the movies, Alex felt restless being in such a busy space. All the noise of people chattering seemed to echo in her head, and the smell of the buttery popcorn made her stomach churn.

‘You alright?’ Toby asked as he put his arm around her shoulders.

‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ Alex replied, her foot tapping impatiently.

The two of them waited in line behind a big family; a toddler wailed in a stroller and another two ran wild. Alex crinkled her nose.

‘I think that baby’s nappy needs changing,’ she whispered to Toby. ‘It’s making me feel really nauseous.’

Toby raised his eyebrows and shrugged sympathetically. Then one of the children bumped into a person waiting in the queue, making them turn around. It was him. Alex froze as the man turned in her direction. Their eyes met for a few seconds—an icy shiver ran up her spine. His face was expressionless, not a flinch nor a flicker.

‘Toby…’ whispered Alex.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Do you see that man? The one in front of the family?’ Alex’s voice trembled.

‘Where?’ Toby inclined his head.

‘There, don’t you see him?’ Alex tugged Toby’s shirt in desperation.

‘There are many men in this line, Alex. Which one are you talking about?’

The man walked away as Alex watched in horror.

‘I keep seeing the same man,’ she said.

Toby looked at her quizzically before stroking her hair. ‘Does he look like your dad?’

Alex shook her head, ‘No, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

‘You sure? I think it might be.’ Toby gave her shoulder a squeeze. ‘It’s okay, Alex. You haven’t even had a proper chance to mourn, with the way your Mum has been.’

Alex shook her head again. ‘I told you, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

Toby nodded and gave her a light kiss on the forehead, as if politely dismissing her behavior and worries as a figment of her imagination, a mourning strategy, or a cry for attention. Alex bit her lip.

Yeah, maybe I’ve gone fucking mad as well,’ she said.

‘Come on, Alex. You know that’s not what I mean.’ Toby tilted his head to the side.

‘No, I think that’s exactly what you mean,’ Alex muttered through gritted teeth as she pushed Toby away from her and started running.

Weaving through the crowd of people, Alex was determined to confront this mysterious man. I’m not crazy, she repeated in her head. Her eyes darted from left to right across the bustling food court. I’m not crazy. Sure enough, there he was standing in the far corner, staring at her as if he knew she would find him. Alex made her way through the people, drawn to his stare.

‘Alex, stop!’ Toby had grabbed her arm and turned her swiftly around, ‘Where are you going?’

‘He’s there! I need to talk to him,’ said Alex, pointing at the man.

‘Okay, where? Where is this man?’ asked Toby.

‘Just there, in the corner!’

Toby paused, staring intently, ‘Alex, I don’t see anyone standing in that corner.’

She jabbed her finger in the air, ‘Look! He’s right there!’

Toby looked again, then shook his head silently. He pulled her towards him in a tight embrace. She looked past his shoulder and watched the man walk away, slowly disappearing into the crowd.

 

 

 

That night, as Alex lay awake in her bed, she could hear her Mum’s muffled sobs in the room next door. It wouldn’t be a surprise if I was going mad too, she thought. Toby had suggested they book an in-home psychiatrist for her mum. He was worried about her condition, but Alex knew that his underlying agenda was really Alex. She hugged her pillow tightly as she listened to Mum’s whimpers softening, until there was finally silence. A soft breeze rustled the autumn leaves outside whilst a storm brewed in Alex’s mind. She imagined herself barging into Mum’s room, shaking her frail body and shouting, ‘No more, Mum! No more! I can’t handle this anymore!’ Alex’s body shuddered. She didn’t feel like herself anymore.

 

 

 

The next day, Alex received a text from Toby saying that he had booked an initial consultation for a therapy session at 6pm.

‘Just for your Mum. You can listen in if you want, up to you,’ he added.

When Alex arrived at home at exactly 5:45pm, the lights were on in the living room. Strange, Alex thought as she fumbled with her keys. She was greeted with warm air as the heater had been turned on, and she could hear her Mum’s high-pitched chuckle. The house had come alive again. Alex frowned, disturbed by the sudden change.

‘Mum?’ Alex called as she made her way to the living room.

‘Oh, Alex! We have a visitor!’ Mum called.

That smell hit her before Alex could see him. She covered her nose and froze in shock at the sight of the man. He rose onto his feet, pushing his glasses up.

‘He said he was an old friend of your Dad’s. High school friends, did you say?’ Mum looked over at him in admiration, then at Alex quizzically, ‘Why are you doing that?’

‘I… I… ’ Alex mumbled behind the hand blocking her nose.

She edged her way toward Mum. What the fuck is going on, she thought.

‘Mum… you can actually see him?’ Alex asked cautiously.

Mum frowned, ‘What do you—’

The man cleared his throat. ‘May I have a word with your lovely daughter?’

‘Oh, yes of course!’ Mum sprang to her feet. ‘I’ll just make some more tea.’

‘Sit down, Alex.’ The man gestured. His voice was low.

Alex shuddered as she sat in the furthest seat away from him, her trembling hands gathered in her lap.

‘You know me, I presume,’ he said.

‘I’ve… seen you around,’ Alex replied, avoiding eye contact.

‘Which you shouldn’t have.’ The man peered over his glasses. ‘I knew something was wrong when I first saw you at the supermarket. Normally, people like you can’t see me.’

‘What do you mean?’ Alex’s eyes were wide.

‘It means I have prolonged my stay. My job here proved to be more, well, complicated.’ The man paused for a moment. ‘You see, the fact that I am starting to be seen means that I need to leave this planet as soon as possible. But the problem is, my job is not done. I had a list of people to select from, and I selected you.’

‘Am I going to die?’ Alex whispered, her voice trembling.

‘Yes,’ the man replied, ‘because that is the fate of all humans.’

He took out a clipboard and started scribbling notes indifferently, as if he was sending off a parcel.

‘And it seems you have already become very sensitive to death,’ he said, nodding.

‘The smell…’ Alex mumbled.

‘Like a rotting corpse, or simply, the fragrance of death.’ The man shrugged. ‘It’s an acquired taste.’

‘But… I can’t die,’ Alex said. ‘What about my Mum? What about—’

‘No one gets to choose their death, Alex. Death is a natural occurrence whether it be sudden or expected,’ the man said as he peered at his clipboard, ‘and yours will be… sudden… the result of a natural cause.’ The man put down his clipboard, ‘I’m ready when you are.’

Alex felt an adrenal surge of mania rush through her blood, as if all the anger and frustration that she had contained was finally bursting. She stood up abruptly, looking around for something to aide her escape.

‘Stay away!’ she roared, her arms in front of her in defense.

‘Please, don’t resist. It never works.’ The man stood up.

Alex threw a vase of flowers at him and the glass shattered on the floor. The man shook his head. ‘You can’t cheat death, Alex.’ He halted at the sight of blood tricking down his injured arm and growled. ‘And it seems that I am really running out of time.’

Alex watched as the man threw his glasses onto the floor—the same glasses that had clattered onto the floor of the supermarket, the same glasses with the Band-Aid wrapped around the side. All of a sudden, he looked different; his eyes looked darker and his face hollower. A Grim Reaper, hungry for life.

He lurched and grabbed hold of Alex’s arm, covering her mouth with his other hand.

‘You won’t even know it’s happening,’ he whispered.

Alex’s eyes widened as she watched a golf club rise up behind the man. It hit him square on the head. He swayed on his legs, as if confused by the pain, his mouth opening and closing in silence. Alex watched in horror as her Mum swung with all her strength. Swoosh, thud. Swoosh, thud.

‘Over. My. Dead. Body,’ she growled through gritted teeth, between each forceful stroke.

It was the sight of a madwoman. She didn’t stop until the man had buckled over into a limp heap. Unconscious. Dead. Mum was panting, with sweat running down the sides of her face.

Alex was screaming.

‘Shush!’ Mum hit Alex lightly on the shoulder.

‘Mum, are you insane! Why did you do that? How did you do that?’ Alex blundered over her words.

Mum tucked her hair behind her ears as she tried to find her composure. Her chest was still heaving.

‘Whether it be a man or a ghost or some weird shit like that, I’m not losing any more people. Now get the shovel.’

 

 

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