Tag Archives: speculative

The Man Without A Heart, Ryan Hunter

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.

 

Download a PDF of ‘The Man Without A Heart’

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Intro to House-Ape Studies, Lachlan Marnoch

The spring sun was warm and the breeze carried a staccato orchestra of bird-sounds. Ardi and Selam were strolling to their lesson. The trees lining the path—host to a flock of foraging bush-parrots—oozed a delicious, fresh-leaved scent. Ardi reached over with her trunk and tore off a strip of bark. She chewed it slowly, relishing the sharp flavour.

Ardi and Selam lumbered towards the Lithium Building, joining the stream of mrithi. The stream thickened into a river, and filled the air with the mixed grumble of a student body. Mrithi from across the world thronged about them chatting, holding trunks, chewing stim-beans and charging to class, their heavy gait muffled by the springy turf. Further down by the lake, a female offered herself to a bull, who reared up behind on broad pillar-like legs to accept her offer.

‘Where are we going? Isn’t it in Lithium?’ Selam asked.

Ardi waved her trunk to signal ‘no’, replying:

‘Oestrus is scrambling your brain. The lecture’s in Argon.’

‘You didn’t tell me that,’ Seram moaned. ‘I never would’ve signed up.’

‘You got the same timetable I did. Not my fault you didn’t read it.’

‘I don’t have time to read.’

‘You’re a student.’

‘Exactly! Oh my god, look at those tusks,’ Selam gasped. A huge bull, with two overgrown prongs of ivory jutting past his trunk, was sauntering towards them. Selam lengthened her gait and raised her head.

Ardi gave her trunk an irritated flick. This was shaping up to be Selam’s third bull in four days. Okay, so if Ardi was in oestrus she’d be the one flirting outrageously. But still.

Selam caught the bull’s eye as he passed, letting out a low call:

‘Selam.’

He responded with a rumble that even Ardi had to admit was pretty sexy:

‘Karabo.’

Ardi could smell the testosterone rolling off him. He was in musth, alright. She sighed. Selam would never be able to focus now.

‘Come on, Selam. We are not going to be late for our first lecture.’

Ardi dragged Selam away, the latter rolling her eyes. The two of them were panting and flapping their ears by the time they reached the Argon building. An adjustable arm, with a small screen on the end, extended from each lectern. Ardi lowered hers to her eye, then pulled a triangular slate from her tusk-bag and set it on the lectern. Bumps and ridges bulged from the computer’s matte surface. The four fingers at the end of her trunk danced over them, and the protrusions withdrew and moved about in response. The lumpy marks at the edge of the slate formed the characters of the Phakathi alphabet, while the middle became smooth space for her to fill.

The room was filling up. Several of the students were mothers, each with a child clinging to her tail, tusk or trunk. One of them looked like a newborn, a week old at most, her four little legs working double-time to keep up with her mother’s stride. Ardi waved. The infant flared her ears and gave a shrill trumpet.

‘Adorable,’ gushed Selam, earning a thankful trunk-curl from his mother.

‘I really hope I have a daughter first,’ Selam whispered to Ardi.

Ardi shifted her feet. ‘I don’t mind either way.’

‘I should have guessed, you egalitarian. You want your kids to be smart though.’

‘Bulls can be smart.’

Selam snorted through her trunk. Just as she did, the teacher—clearly a male—climbed onto the podium. He was just Ardi’s type as well—short tail, round buttocks. Ardi pointed him out.

‘He must be smart enough.’

Selam looked up from her slate, ‘Oh, great. This is going to stink.’

Ardi was perfectly ready for the next round of fiery debate—even if she knew Selam was just tugging her tail—but as she opened her mouth the teacher raised his trunk for silence. This materialised just a bit more slowly than it probably should have. Male scientists were becoming more common (despite the best efforts of certain old-hat female scholars Ardi could name) but even so, he was unusually young—the grey skin on his forehead was smooth, and his tusks were short.

‘He’s so sexy,’ Ardi whispered to Selam.

‘What?’ Selam said. ‘Gross. He’s tiny. I’ll take a big beefy Ubude any day.’

Ardi smiled. Two could tug at tails. Tiny was a bit of an exaggeration—he looked about Ardi’s mass.

‘Welcome to Intro to House-Ape Studies.’

He had an odd accent, a continental mix with hints of his islander roots.

‘Scholar Ples couldn’t be here today. I’m Toumaï, her under-scholar, and I’ll fill in for now. Um… I’m going to jump right in.’

He tapped at the slate on his lectern. The eye-screens switched on to an image of a half-buried fossil skeleton, its empty eyes staring at the camera.

‘House-apes are an extinct species of bipedal primate. They disappeared during the last mass extinction, about ten million years ago.’ Toumaï raised and lowered his front legs in turn as he spoke.

‘75% of all animal species on the planet went missing at around that time—including all other apes. So, why do we care? What makes the house-ape so special?’

The next slide was an ancient tool, probably for digging.

‘In short, because they were like us. The house-apes were the only technological civilisation we know of besides our own. They had buildings, tools, complex language.’

He was actually kind of engaging once he got into it. Shisayo seemed to be his second language, but he was quite comfortable with it.

‘The house-apes evolved in Phakathi, alongside our own ancestors. Like us, they migrated outwards, displaced or interbred with their close relatives, and emerged as the dominant species.’

Now a world map; a circular projection of familiar landmasses with the South Pole at the centre. Green lines, overlaid like a continental skeleton, represented the mrithi exodus over the last hundred thousand years. Ardi had seen this map many times in her mrithi evolution class, but the red dots, declared by the legend to mark house-ape fossil sites, were a new feature. There were a lot of them.

‘House-ape bones are the single most common fossil on the planet. We’ve found them on every major landmass, including Ithiphu, which was completely icebound in their time. I was going to bring a skull with me to pass around, but I guess my bull-brain forgot.’

His voice, although not as deep as a larger bull, had an agreeable timbre to it.

‘The house-apes probably numbered higher than a billion, and the estimates go up to ten billion. They left a lasting impact on the planet—we’re still digging up their bronze and ceramics. Plastic micrograins, once assumed to be a natural mineral, are probably the degraded remains of their industrial products.’

His slide changed to something that looked like a four-legged copper spider. Alongside it was a crumbling vehicle, standing on a grey desert under a black sky.

‘Very recently—and you probably heard about this in transmission—one of our probes found their machines on the Moon! The Moon artefacts are the best-preserved in existence, and have already told us a lot more about the apes. We estimate they weighed about a hundredth what we do, making space exploration much more viable. The wheeled apparatus in that image seems to have accommodations for the animals themselves, which indicates that they travelled to the Moon in person—a step further than we’ve managed.’

Another slide-change, this time to a dig. Dozens of house-ape skeletons lay in neat rows. A scholar was posed next to one, pointing at one of the skulls with her trunk-fingers.

‘Many of the best house-ape sites are arranged like this, suggesting they buried their dead—perhaps ritually.’

Ardi suppressed a shudder. She’d been to her old Matriarch’s wake, her great-grandmother. They had taken her body to her favourite spot in the mountains, covered it with leaves, and left it to decompose naturally. Ardi wasn’t sure how they did it in the city, but burial sounded awful.

‘Not only did this preserve an exceptional number of them as fossils, it also hints at empathy and transmitted culture.’

‘Who caaaaaareees,’ Selam whispered.

‘Can you not?’ Ardi hissed back.

An infrasonic rumble, among the constant background of quiet vibrations from outside, carried Selam’s name through the floor. The voice sounded suspiciously like the bull Selam had made a pass at. She shifted on her feet and gazed towards the exit. Ardi clenched her trunk sternly.

‘Don’t you dare. I’m not lending you my notes again.’

Selam pouted.

‘Fine.’

‘…despite the similarities, they must also have been very different to us. Their dentition suggests they were omnivorous. They were probably apex predators—there are fossils of our precursor species, the largest land animal on the planet at the time, with marks from their weapons. Their garbage sites are associated with vast, vast numbers of animal bones—along with several species that show signs of rapid evolution by artificial selection. This means that not only did house-apes eat meat, but they bred animals specifically for that purpose, the same way we breed ungulates for hair and wool.’

As he talked, Ardi noticed that his bottom lip curled upwards in a way that was very cute.

‘As for why they disappeared, the sixth mass extinction remains a mystery in many ways. Some argue that climate was to blame—others suggest random cosmic misfortune, as befell the great-reptiles. But we still don’t know. I have my own thoughts on it all, but they’re outside the syllabus, and I don’t think Scholar Ples wants me to plant my rogue scientific notions in you.’
Ardi chuckled.

 

 

 

‘Finally!’ Selam gasped, a little too loudly, making straight for the exit. When she noticed Ardi wasn’t next to her, she turned back.

‘You coming?’

Ardi nodded her trunk towards Toumaï.

‘I’m going to talk to him.’

Selam touched her chin in a gesture of perplexed distaste.

‘Seriously? He’s a scientist! You might as well date a female.’

Ardi gave a dismissive wave.

‘Go find your bull, Selam.’

Ardi’s friend threw her trunk in the air and left.

‘That was fascinating!’ Ardi said, approaching Toumaï while he packed up. The wrinkly skin around his eyes crumpled.

‘Thank you! It was my first lecture.’

‘I’ve never seen a house-ape fossil up close, I was really looking forward to that,’ she lied. Her Matriarch owned a house-ape femur, Ardi’s favourite toy as a calf. She had broken it chasing her brother Daka around. The two of them, panicked, had buried the shards, not realising this might have been exactly what the bone’s original owner would have wanted.

‘I’m sure Scholar Ples will bring one in,’ she caught his eye, and he paused.

‘Or I could show it to you now! I don’t have any plans in the very immediate future.’

‘Really? I’d love that.’

There was a new couple by the lakeside as Ardi and Toumaï ambled back along the path. Ardi curled her trunk, amused—the pleased moans were Selam’s.

‘That was quick.’

‘Sorry?’ asked Toumaï.

‘Oh, nothing. Are house-apes your field?’ Ardi asked.

He tipped his trunk in the affirmative. ‘And you? Are you studying palaeontology?’

She indicated ‘no.’

‘It’s an interest subject. I’m studying genetics.’

‘Excellent. My father wishes he studied genetics, but things were different then.’

He’d said something odd, and it took her a few moments to put her trunk on it. ‘Wishes? Do you still know him?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, a little sheepish. ‘He raised me, together with my mother.’

‘Oh!’

He winced. She tried to back up, mortified.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean offence. I’m from the country, things are more conventional there. At least, that’s my excuse.’

He curled his trunk. ‘Don’t worry. What was your home like?’

‘Full nuclear family—matriarch, mother, aunts, older sisters, cousins. There were so many kids. I loved them all, but it was super crowded. I couldn’t wait to get out on my own.’

Ardi smacked herself on the forehead. She’d forgotten to transmit home last week. Mother wouldn’t be too fussed, she understood how busy it got, but Matriarch was always anxious to hear from her. Matriarch prided herself on keeping close tabs on the whole family, even arranging regular transmit-talks with those on other continents. Well, the females, anyway. Ardi was the only one who kept in touch with Daka, and her male cousins may as well have gone to live on the Moon.

They arrived at Toumaï’s workspace in the Carbon Building, a small cubicle among many—barely room for the two of them. Ardi took the opportunity to press casually against his side; his round belly was slimmer than her past mates. She liked it.

‘This is where they keep the male scholars!’ he joked, but most of those in the surrounding cubicles really were bulls. He rummaged through a box, his trunk emerging with a petrified house-ape skull. The mandible was fixed to the cranium with a wire hinge, forming a complete head. She took it from his trunk-tip. It felt more like stone than bone.

‘She might have been a palaeontologist, like you. Digging up great-reptiles,’ she said.

‘I’ve had the same thought. But actually, this is a male.’

He slipped the tip of his trunk, which had a mischievous crook to it, through the skull’s base. He made the jaw wave up and down with his fingers.

‘What’s your opinion on the deposition rate of limestone?’ the skull addressed her in a mock professorial tone.

Ardi gave a brief trumpet of laughter.

‘No rock talk, Mister House-Ape. I want to know more about you.’

‘Ask away.’

‘What happened to you? What caused the mass extinction?’

‘We did.’

Ardi’s eyes opened wide in surprise.

‘Do you really think so?’ she asked Toumaï, forgetting to address the fossil-puppet.

Toumaï passed the skull back, trunk uncurled.

‘Yes. I think the house-apes did more than die out.’

Ardi looked at him closely. His tusks were as pale as the Moon.

‘Tell me about it.’

‘Really? I’m sure it’s not terribly interesting.’

She tipped her trunk, now with the stone skull at the end. ‘It’s interesting to you.’

His trunk coiled with gratitude.

‘House-ape civilisation existed for an instant. In the fossil record, it’s not there, then it is, then it isn’t. About ten thousand years, out of the four billion this planet has been here. It might have been less, but we honestly can’t resolve a smaller timescale in the fossil record. One second they were a few packs in Phakathi. The next, there were billions of them. And then zero. At the same time, three-quarters of all living species went extinct. It would be an extraordinary coincidence if those events were unrelated.’

He paused, and Ardi gestured interest by splaying her trunk-fingers.

‘Like I said in the lecture, house-apes must have had a profound impact on the environment. The sheer extent of their garbage sites demonstrates how wasteful they could be. And as predators, they clearly weren’t averse to killing other animals. Plus, it seems like the arrival of a technological species will disrupt any ecosystem—we certainly have, wherever we’ve travelled, if perhaps not as deeply as house-apes. Just their existence, their behaviour, I think, was enough to endanger the biosphere. And in such large numbers, it never stood a chance.’

‘If they caused the extinctions, how did they die out themselves?’

He lifted his trunk. ‘Plague? Famine? Sterilisation? You would think at least some of them would have survived. But that’s an even deeper mystery.’

‘They could go to the Moon, but they couldn’t avoid destroying themselves or the planet?’

Toumaï gave another trunk-shrug. It was a habit she found annoying in general, but for some obscure reason, it was endearing in him. ‘Who are we to judge? We’re probably doing the exact same thing. Maybe to a lesser degree. Maybe not. We could be headed for the same fate, whatever that is.’

This was a troubling thought.

‘Don’t forget,’ he added, ‘if they didn’t disappear, we never would have evolved the way we did.’

Ardi made two rings with her fingers, gesturing thoughtfulness.

‘What if they didn’t die out? What if they left?’

He looked at her curiously.

She shrugged her trunk. ‘They travelled in space. Maybe they decided to stop the damage they were doing.’

‘Hmm. Could be.’

The thoughtful look on his face was enough to win her over. She put the skull down and twined her trunk with his. He started, then relaxed and gave a gentle squeeze back.

‘You can tell me more over lunch,’ Ardi said.

Download a copy of Intro to House-Ape Studies

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Soul 3396, Hannah Bell

‘On February twelfth the accused was arraigned before me,’ Chief Justice Ellins begins, his voice flat and dry, conserving itself for the long judgment to follow.

Astrea’s hands are wet. She hides them in her lap, wipes them on her thighs.

‘She faces charges of malicious damage to property and using a hoax bomb to cause alarm. In addition to these terrorist offences, the prosecution has sought to confirm that this woman is the eleventh reincarnation of soul number 3396, formerly known as Ezekiel Armstrong, and sentenced to twelve lifetimes in prison for war crimes. To avoid prejudice in considering this very serious accusation, it was agreed that this case should be tried by a judge alone, rather than by jury.’

The rest of the courtroom is stiff with silence. Astrea’s breathing is louder and far more laboured than she’d like; each inflation of her lungs is a weightlifting exercise. She crosses her legs at the knee, uncrosses them, crosses them again at the shin. The trial has taken months, the route by which she’s found herself here much longer than that—but as Ellins methodically reads through his decision Astrea can’t bear to wait even a minute more.

 

17

 

Astrea was seventeen—very nearly eighteen—by the time she felt any connection with her past lives. A late bloomer. There were just weeks left until Confession Day. She was putting on lipstick when the blood started welling up under her tongue, staining her teeth, dribbling down over her lips. It painted them so much more vividly than the waxy balm of Revlon’s fuchsia shock. She coughed, expecting liquid to spew out onto her vanity, but it didn’t. The fingers she brought to her mouth came away with pink, not red, tips.

It was only the mirror, then, that was bleeding. Astrea was not relieved.

Reflections were a common unlocking point for transincarnational residue—deposits of history or intuition that stayed tucked away within the soul through death and rebirth. Dreams, hallucinations, feelings of déjà vu—all were potential clues about former lives, and would appear with increasing frequency as the brain reached maturity.

Astrea ripped her eyes from the mirror as her reflection’s cheeks grew hollow and sickly. The phantom taste of hot iron stuck in her throat.

Residual blood is an indicator of significant violence in a soul’s history. That was what the textbooks all said.

She found her aunt Kath out on the porch, lighting a fresh cigarette with the cherry of the one before.

‘You saw something that scared you,’ Kath observed, face half-obscured by a cloud of smoke.

Astrea nodded.

‘Well, babe, you’ve got two weeks to get really good at acting like everything’s fine. Think up some cute stories to tell them about your visions—maybe you’ve dreamt of your past lives caring for sick animals, and the smell of jasmine flowers reminds you of a long, happy marriage. If they see you’re scared shitless at Confession they’ll suspect your soul’s got a number on the Registry. There are a couple of major ones supposed to be turning eighteen this year, so they’ll be watching.’

Astrea felt bad for making her aunt talk about the Registry. Beginning on her own Confession Day, Kath had served the remaining three years on her past life’s sentence for a hit and run. Kath herself had never driven. Dad used to say that she never even liked to take the bus to school when they were growing up—residual instincts showing through as phobias, was his theory.

‘Don’t give them any reason to believe there’s a sentence hanging over you.’ Kath tilted Astrea’s face up, examining it. ‘You should wear that lipstick to the ceremony,’ she added. ‘It’s cute. Sweet. All the things you need to show them that you are.’

 

18

 

Astrea was just lucky that Confession Ceremonies weren’t what they used to be. At school, she’d had to write essay after essay about the legal overhaul that prohibited soul-searching in the physical sense—the culmination of decades-long campaigns by human rights groups, people suffering PTSD after their search procedures, many legal professionals. The UN, which, ever since its inception, had condemned the entire concept of the Soul Registry. Even if she hadn’t had anything to hide, Astrea would still have been glad not to be waiting half-naked in a hospital gown outside a sterilised, soundproofed exam room, watching as the other eighteen-year-olds walked in and hobbled back out.

Confession Ceremonies were conducted state-wide each month. None of Astrea’s friends shared her February birthday, so she filed into the huge city hall by herself. The girl she sat down beside was hunched over, apparently scribbling something on her forearm. Maybe, Astrea thought, she was writing notes to prompt her in the interview. If she needed notes, it could well be because she was planning to lie. The idea that there was someone else lying—someone doing it less carefully, someone more likely to be caught than Astrea—was comforting.

The girl shifted her posture, holding her wrist up to the light to observe it, and Astrea saw that instead of writing notes she had been drawing flowers with her blue biro.

The girl turned further and caught Astrea watching. ‘I want to get this tattooed one day,’ she said. ‘Dad’s always saying people will find tattoos suspicious, but it’s just art. I know I was an artist in a past life. There’s already art all through me. Why not on the surface?’

Astrea nodded sympathetically.

‘My name’s Lita, by the way.’

‘Astrea. You’re going to be an artist for this lifetime too, then?’

‘I’m in beauty school right now, so my art will be makeup and hair. Designing tattoos on the side, hopefully. It’s different to oils on canvas, but it’s all variations on a theme, you know? We live different lives, but I don’t think we ever really change at heart.’

Before Astrea could decide whether it was wise to argue a hush fell over the hall.

‘As I’m sure you are aware, we are no longer able to use invasive measures in order to identify individual souls,’ Commissioner Francis spoke from up on the stage. He looked damp under the spotlights, his posture as wooden as the podium he stood behind. ‘Evidence relating to transincarnational residue is now our greatest weapon when it comes to ensuring the serious criminals in our midst are put behind bars. We are reliant on interviews, and on information provided to us by yourselves. If you see or hear something suspicious, you have an active duty to report that information to police. Failure to do so could result in your being charged with a criminal offence. Today, you become adult members of our society. That means you take on significant responsibilities. I hope that is clear to you all.’

Where they would once have been sent to physical exams, they were called away to interviews.

‘I really hope you find the souls you’re looking for,’ she told the Senior Constable conducting hers. He was fairly young, but had a hard look in his eyes that she thought would probably be considered incriminating if he were in her position.

‘You’re free to go,’ the officer told her.

Astrea smiled at him, smiled at everyone she saw as she walked back out of the hall, smiled until it hurt, smiled with fear because she didn’t feel free at all.

 

24

 

The coffee had barely even been an afterthought; Astrea’s head was whirring with case names and dates for her final-year exams, aching with the friction of them all, and the decision to recaffeinate before the interview for the clerkship was instinctive. She checked her makeup as she waited, bracing herself against the stream of blood that ran from her nose in the little round window of her compact. She heard a scream—a raw, dying sound that cut off too suddenly. No one around her reacted. Please! I said we surrend—

Astrea did her breathing exercises and let the memories play themselves out. She smoothed composure on over her face like her Bobbi Brown setting powder. The residue was always most unsettling when she was stressed, but she’d had five years of practice at swallowing her reactions.

This interview had to go well. Justice Ellins had been a driving force behind the amendments that outlawed soul-searching, and Astrea had wanted nothing more than to work for him ever since she’d read his work in first-year Jurisprudence.

She promised herself that once the interview was over she’d squeeze in an extra yoga session at the gym.

‘A caramel latte?’ Ellins raised an eyebrow as she offered him one of the twin coffees in her hand. ‘That’s certainly not my regular order.’

‘I—’ Astrea had blown the interview already. Her resume was not exceptional enough to counterbalance some bizarre, presumptuous slipup. ‘I’m so sorry—’

‘More of a guilty pleasure from my youth,’ Ellins took a long sip of the drink, set it down on his desk, and regarded her intently. ‘How did you know?’

‘Maybe I read it somewhere?’ Astrea floundered.

‘No, you wouldn’t have. It’s Astrea, isn’t it? How old are you?’

‘Twenty-four.’

‘That seems right. And how much have you discovered about your past lives?’

‘Nothing illuminating,’ Astrea’s response was automatic.

‘I see. Are you familiar with the name Nathaniel Chan, by any chance?’

Astrea went cold. ‘He and his family were part of the same Anti-Registry campaigns you were,’ she answered. He knows, went the rhythm of her pulse, too loud in her ears. He knows. He knows.

She remembered the afternoon she’d read about Chan. She had been researching for an assignment, sitting in a cafe and soaking up the coffee and wifi on offer there.

Nathaniel Chan, the tenth incarnation of soul 3396 since the notorious Ezekiel Armstrong, died in prison from several knife wounds. Chan’s parents released a statement saying they stood by their son’s innocence, as they had done since he was imprisoned upon Confession twenty-three years earlier. Chan, who as a child was a musical prodigy and aspiring astronomer—

‘Hey, you alright?’ the waiter had interrupted Astrea’s reading as he’d cleared away her most recent coffee cup.

Astrea had nodded politely, only just able to hear him over the piano notes that seemed to be resonating from the fibres of her muscles, emptying out pockets of memory buried deeper within her than she’d ever gone before.

‘Are you alright, Astrea?’ Justice Ellins asked.

‘Of course, Your Honour,’ she blurted out.

Ellins laughed. ‘None of that. In fact, you should call me Arthur. I wonder whether maybe you’d like to take a trip to the observatory sometime? I used to go there with a friend of mine when we were just boys; he always found it quite relaxing.’

 

28

 

It was impulsive, stepping into the unfamiliar hair salon the day before her biggest trial yet was due to begin.

‘I was thinking of copper highlights, as well as a touch-up of the blonde,’ she told the hairdresser, who reached around to fasten the cape across Astrea’s front with arms covered in rose tattoos.

She wasn’t sure what identified her, but Lita stopped her movement and met Astrea’s eyes in the mirror.

‘Did we meet at Confession?’ she asked. ‘Ten years ago. I swear you look like—’

‘We did. I see you got your tattoos—the permanent version.’

‘As permanent as anything in a single lifetime is. What are you up to now? You’re dressed all corporate.’

‘I’m working as a defence lawyer, currently,’ Astrea explained. Crown Prosecutor was the ultimate goal, but she kept that quiet when Lita leapt at the defence aspect.

‘Wow, sounds stressful. That explains why you’re so tense, I guess. I’m sure you’re helping a lot of people—now that it’s harder to, you know, identify souls, lots of average folk are needing good defence lawyers to vouch for them. I reckon there are so many that are wrongly accused.’

Astrea shut her eyes while Lita worked, listening to the steady stream of chatter the hairdresser kept up.

‘My boyfriend’s the president of Green Souls—you might have heard of us, but if not, we’re all about taking radical action to stand up for the environment. We’re doing a protest soon, actually. I can’t tell you the details yet, but you should keep an eye out for us in the news. Actually, have you got a business card or something I can take?’

Astrea gave Lita her card, but she didn’t get a call, and she didn’t see anything about Green Souls on the news. Not that year, at least.

 

36

 

Astrea was always dazzled by the stars. The wide open space of the sky was a comfort she’d missed for many lifetimes. She had long ago begun to suspect that Arthur was bored of the observatory, but he humoured her.

‘There’s a case coming up that might be the one,’ Arthur told her quietly. ‘Eco-terrorism charges, so not an unconvincing match for Armstrong’s war crimes. And she’s thirty-six.’

‘Lita.’ Astrea had seen the case in the media, but she’d have known the name regardless. ‘It’s crazy, Arthur—I sat right next to her on Confession Day.’

Arthur frowned. ‘You can do it, though? You will?’

With every new arrest of someone Astrea’s age, or even close to it, there were new questions about soul 3396. Among those the media suspected there was even a client Astrea had defended several years ago, before she finally made the transition to prosecution. Joseph Stene, the client, had murdered his wife and young daughter. This is what people expect from me, Astrea had thought, flipping through the tabloid pages despite her better judgment. Every word she’d spoken in Stene’s defence felt like a confession of her own. I’m just doing my job, she’d had to remind herself. Everyone should know it’s just my job.

There was only one way to make it stop. Once the world finally had its soul 3396, it wouldn’t matter what Astrea said anymore. She could even advocate for the abolition of the Registry without feeling like she was exposing herself. She could do good, that way.

‘It’s the perfect chance,’ she gave Arthur a decisive nod. ‘I’ve been on the run for half my life; I’ll do whatever I have to.’

 

37

 

Arthur takes his time reading out the verdict. Even though Astrea knows what it’s going to be, she needs to officially hear the words and be out of this courtroom so that she can breathe, cry, rest, scream. To finally be acquitted of being will surely be an unimaginable relief.

She casts her eyes across the room to where Lita sits. Her floral wrists are cuffed in her lap. It’s unfortunate. Not what Astrea would want. But it’s self-defence. She watches on with a hard look in her eyes that might have been considered incriminating, had she been in Lita’s position.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Soul 3396′

Tagged , , ,

Robota, Alice Maher

The bots stared glassily ahead as dozens of off-duty humans milled about them.

‘The Sophisticated Models, or SMs, are self-decontaminating; I suppose that was important for OH&S back in the pleasure houses, and it’s just as useful here. We don’t care as much about the BASE models, but the SMs can clean all forty or so of them in only a few minutes, so we get that out of the way too.’ A plump woman who had introduced herself as ‘Quebec’ but never asked for Jin’s name, was showing him around the mining facility: his home for the next three-year rotation. Currently, she was leading him through the large hangar where the ‘mining tools’ were kept when not in use.

All the bots were second-hand. Even if Quebec hadn’t joked about the cost-saving prowess of the Mars Mining Initiative (MMI for short), Jin could still have guessed. It seemed like every factory and pleasure house on Earth shipped their outmoded bots up to Mars to be repurposed as a miner. The MMI must offer a price slightly higher than the scrap-merchants, but still low enough to be economical. Despite this clear desire to cut corners, Jin noticed that all of them, from the two squads of BASE Models (little more than expressionless crash-test dummies with a polycarbonate frame) to the thirty-three more human-looking SMs, were clothed. To be fair, it was an odd jumble of outfits that made the bots look shabbier than ever. All of it looked laundered and well-maintained, but was all still permanently stained Mars Red and Coal Black.
Jin side-stepped a small group of his fellow humans, who were crowding around an SM with a shirt that said “I BEAT JONA’S BURRITO CHALLENGE.” ‘Why clothe them at all if they’re just here to mine coal?’

Quebec laughed a little embarrassedly. ‘Well, initially we just clothed the SMs. They’re all anatomically correct, of course, and a lot of us workers found it…distracting, to see them working in such a state. So we got some old clothes sent out to make them decent.’

‘And the BASE models?’

‘Ah, well after covering up the other ones, it seemed proper to clothe everyone. The SMs looked too human, standing next to the BASE models with their faces and clothing, and the BASE models by comparison didn’t look human enough.” She shrugged as though embarrassed.

Earlier, Jin had been shown the main workstation, where the humans monitored the mine from the safety of the facility. A massive window overlooked the scarlet-black scar of its entrance. He had watched from on-high as the bots marched from the mine back to the facility. They had seemed creepy then, out on the Martian landscape, and they were downright unnerving up close.

At least Jin thought so. Everybody else seemed eager enough to be around them, inspecting them with more than just professional diligence. Quebec had practically dragged him down here once the shift ended, to show him ‘the best part of the tour.’ She stopped by a female SM that had drawn the largest crowd.

‘Quebec, that the new kid?’ one of the other workers asked.

Quebec nodded but didn’t make introductions. Would anyone ever care to learn his name?

‘He gonna draw lots for The Supervisor?’

‘Who?’ Jin glanced around for an authority figure.

The others laughed and Quebec gestured to the SM. ‘We call this one The Supervisor because she’s in the best shape, so we usually send her down with the transmitter.’ It was protocol that every time the bot team entered the mine, a communication device was sent with them.

The Supervisor had a delicate nose and straight black hair: like Jin, she was clearly of Japanese origin. But where his features were organic, the bot was too symmetrical, her complexion too flawless. Only the faded overalls looked like they changed over time, and this helped to soften the striking image. She (it?) was certainly beautiful, a classic pleasure model. After a moment Jin realised that was exactly why they were crowded around her.

Quebec confirmed his suspicions. ‘We draw lots to decide who goes first,’ she explained, and one man made a crude gesture.

Jin suddenly felt very young. He saw that other humans, less picky or less lucky, had activated different SMs and were leading them away to rooms beyond.

Before he could speak, Quebec reached up and felt around the nape of The Supervisor’s neck. There was a low hum like an old-fashioned computer booting up, then the bot blinked and looked around.

‘Hello everyone,’ she purred, and Jin yelped. It was common knowledge that pleasure bots could speak (unless ordered not to), but he hadn’t been prepared for how…human it sounded. He’d half expected the Morse code that had trilled over the loudspeakers earlier, when the bots were finishing their shift. Had that been The Supervisor?

The bot was staring at him, and her gaze was unselfconscious. Jin was reminded of a tiger he had seen at a museum in Osaka. Its eyes had been glass beads, its skinned pelt draped over a metal frame, but Jin had still half-expected it to spring at him. He knew he would be the first to look away now.

‘They’re just machines,’ Quebec said after a moment, also staring at him. Her human eyes were more animated, the windows to an actual soul with the actual capacity to harm him, if Quebec chose. But he still found it easier to look at her than at the bot.

Just Machines. Just machines with human faces and human voices. And even the BASE Models had human clothes. What did a bot know about Jona or his burritos? And pockets, too; bots had no use for them, but there they were, in every pair of jeans or battered coat that had once belonged to a real person.

The other workers were getting restless, and soon Jin was forgotten even by Quebec, who must have figured his first day had been informative enough. The Supervisor had also turned away from him, and was smiling demurely at the workers clamouring to ‘go first.’

Quebec found him later, after she and the others had had their fun. Jin could tell she wanted to talk about it, put the new kid’s concerns to rest before they festered. But he brushed her off, laughed, talked about anything else. Mechanical movements.

*

Jin soon learned to avoid the entire ground floor of the facility, where the storage hangar was located. Worker’s quarters were on the higher levels, near the main workstation and technical offices; but there were several old storerooms and such on the ground floor that the crew utilised during their downtime with the bots. Jin stayed up top, reading books and recording messages for his family back on Earth.

Nii-san,

So far this job has been easy enough. I mostly fetch and carry, and occasionally they make me do data entry. So far even you could do it!

I thought I would have a lot more to do with the mining itself, but no. Why try to oxygenate the mine for humans and risk blowing the whole thing up with a loose spark, when bots can do all the work? There are almost a hundred of them, and they don’t need air or even suits; so not only is it a less volatile environment for the coal, but it all works out far cheaper when none of us humans ever even leave the facility. Occasionally one of the bots will send a message over the transmitter- I’ve had to learn Morse code since arriving- but usually it’s almost boring for the people, stuck here in the facility.

Speaking of which, don’t tell Mama this, but the workers here use the bots for sex in their free time. I know that was probably their purpose once, but I still don’t think it’s right. Quebec told me not to think about it like the bots had feelings. ‘High-tech sex toys,’ she called them.

I saw them up close on my first day, and they’re way more realistic than I thought. Kenta told me he visited a pleasure house in Kabukicho once, and was with an SM. Atsuko too, she said her sister rented a male one for her graduation. They’re all beautiful of course, but they’re too real. They even have normal clothes, not just lingerie like in the catalogues. All the looks of a proper human, none of the feelings. I avoid them.

Sorry to bother you with stuff like this. Don’t tell Mama.

-Jin

*

Nii-san,

Today, I got sent down to the storage hangar with Salva, one of the engineers. I had to hold some tools and take some notes while she did her routine check-up of the motor functions of the bots. I asked her why she chose me to assist her, and she said it’s because I don’t use the bots. I don’t think she does either.

We had to strip each bot, to check it for damage. The SMs have particularly delicate outer shells. It’s still much stronger than human skin, but the crew are paranoid about any little tear on their ‘toys.’

For the SMs, Salva switched them on and asked them to strip down by themselves. That was almost worse than us doing it; like part of a routine. I just stared at my clipboard.

Salva even chatted with some of the bots as she inspected their naked bodies. I know it’s just a personality modification that allows them to ‘chat,’ but it’s still creepy. They’re so realistic, I don’t know how people can use them in the way they do. Sending them down the mines to work, taking them away for sex…it’s like slavery. I know I sound like those radicals with the megaphones who hand out posters at Roppongi. But I don’t believe they have real feelings or anything. I don’t think they need to have feelings for it to be wrong.

After we finished inspecting them, we collected up the laundry. This happens every few weeks. The first time, I started shaking out their pockets like I do with my own clothes. Then I realised there was no need. What would a bot ever put in there, after all? So now they’ll just stand there naked until the clothes come back clean tomorrow; no need for spares. No need for decency, at least not while the humans aren’t around. No need to empty out their pockets before throwing them in the wash.

They really are just machines.

*

Jin sat at a desk in the main workstation, the rickety one that he could claim as long as nobody more important wanted it. The other workers tapped languidly at their keyboards as they calculated batching numbers. The bots had been down in the mine doing the real work for about five hours.

Just as Jin thought about going and making a coffee, all the radios in the room sparked to life with a series of beeps. The echoes were too chaotic for Jin to make out the code right away, but after a second Gordin, the head batcher, played the transmission through the loudspeakers and shouted for everyone to shut up.

_._./._/…_/./../_.

It was repeated several times, with barely a pause between the final dit and the first dah.

CAVEINCAVEINCAVEIN…

Everyone started talking at once, over the top of the beeping.

‘Who’s got the transmitter down there?’

‘Message back for more information.’

‘I think it’s The Supervisor.’

‘She won’t give more information if you don’t ask for it.’

‘Ask her how many we’ve lost.’

‘Just tell them to get out of there!’

Gordin tapped out a short message on the straight key, and the transmission shut off. ‘I’ve told them to come back to the facility at once,’ he said, and then crossed the room to stare out the window. After a moment the others followed, clambering for a glimpse

Jin had been sitting close to the window, and was in a good position to see out. It took fifteen minutes of tense anticipation, but eventually the bots began to trickle out of the mouth of the mine. Usually they marched two-by-two, with carts full of coal trundling along between them. But now they staggered out in drips and drabs, dragging limbs that bent at unnatural angles. The first few were only about as dirty as they ever were, but most were covered head to foot in coal dust. They looked like shadows moving across the red rock.

‘Must’ve been buried,’ someone said. ‘Dug themselves out.’

Gordin swore. ‘Salva, I want you to check them out once they’re all in. They look pretty banged-up.’

After a while the procession of bots dwindled down to one every few minutes. Workers began to return to their desks and deal with the expected fallout from the cave-in. Salva kept watching, and Jin, who had no job to do and no desk now that everyone was actually busy, stayed with her.

The engineer grunted. ‘Damn things. There’ll be no end to their glitching now.’

Jin was about to reply when a klaxon drowned him out. He glanced around. The workers seemed as surprised as he.

‘Something in the mine?’ Quebec asked, and Gordin shook his head.

‘No, it’s in the facility. Fire crew to storage hangar, now!’

‘The bots,’ Jin breathed, and Salva fingered her radio.

‘Supervisor, come in Super,’ she called. Now that the bots were inside the facility where there was air, they could send spoken transmissions.

For a moment there was nothing but the klaxon and human chaos. Then there was a crackling noise and the too-human voice of The Supervisor.

‘Copy, Salva,’ she spoke placidly. ‘I’m afraid I cannot speak for long. There is a situation in the hangar.’

‘I know that!’ Salva snapped, ‘That’s what I’m calling about. What’s going on down there?’

‘There is a fire.’

‘How did it start?’

Silence. Then, ‘I am not sure. There seems to be a high concentration of coal dust in the air.’ After another pause, The Supervisor said, ‘I am sorry Salva, but the fire is damaging my outer shell. Emergency protocols are compelling us to leave the facility, to prevent further damage.’

The radio clicked again, and the voice was gone.

The indicator light for the depressurisation chamber lit up green. Only Jin and Salva noticed. Most of the others had left or were leaving, desperate to contain the fire.

‘One of the bots must have sparked and caught alight,’ Salva said, more to herself than Jin. She seemed uncertain, out of her depth. ‘It doesn’t add up.’

Jin wanted to give some reassuring comment, tell her a spark probably did just catch on a piece of clothing, and would be snuffed out the second the bots went outside. But then, what had The Supervisor said?

‘The pockets.’

‘Hmm?’ Salva glanced at him. ‘What’s that?’

‘The pockets. The tunnel collapsed and buried them. They dug out. They came back covered in coal dust.’

‘That still shouldn’t have been enough to-’

Jin interrupted, ‘But the pockets. They all have human clothes, but no understanding of what humans use clothes for. They don’t ever put anything in the pockets, so they never think to empty them out.’

He could tell by Salva’s face she understood. Several dozen sparking bots had just brought in several dozen pocketfuls of flammable dust to the oxygenated hangar. By now the fire would be unstoppable, and greedy to consume any fuel it could reach.

Even as that realisation clawed its way into Jin’s too-young heart, the bots marched naked back out on the surface of Mars. Instead of making their usual beeline for the mine, they halted, gazing up at the facility. They looked horrific: still blackened, still with mangled limbs, and now the added gruesomeness of burnt synthetic hair and skin, peeling back to reveal the circuitry below. They stood inert, no thoughts in their metal head of the souls trapped within the building, fifty five million kilometres from home.

They were just machines, after all.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Robota’

Tagged , , , , ,

Rorka, Rohan Viswalingam

Blood be the body

Surging in it and out of it

Dribbling over the dimming eyes

Separating those eyes

 

Sending the fire out of the mind

Spurting it out of the head

Giving the body supremacy over the city

Drenching the windows in a fiery dark

 

The unmixable smoke

It penetrates the body

Hollowing it out of life

Destroying the centre

 

The crunching face rages with fury

Breathing the black smoke from the air

Sending it down through to the lungs

Deeper deeper go the tainted vapours

 

The city will fall before me

My power will snap the infrastructure

The statues will crumble

Until the rubble will be a second sea

 

The sea will roll interminably

Burning the bodies falling from the surface

Swallowing the enfettered souls

And I will watch those ghostly pained faces

 

Sulphur will penetrate the safe havens

Where the innocent are hiding

In their shady burrows

Warmed by their fleeting love

 

The Black Widows will peak out from the gaps

Come sprawling

Out over the totems of falling civilization

Possessing the newly purged landscape

 

Mercy, there will be none

Just a reminder ever brutal

That homes are temporary

That the reckoning is inevitable

 

The spirits have just been waiting

Forcing a false sense of security

To the lethargic inhabitants

That nothing will come of their decisions

 

But the nature of the land will take hold

Giving no creature a second dice roll

Erasing all hope in their prayers

Leaving but the peaceful silence before annihilation

 

We will teach the people

Of the hierarchy of breath

The legions of emissaries will show no mercy

And the land will be cleaned flat

 

The sea will calm

The Widows will relinquish their thrones

Leaving a vacant, dusty city

Waking up to a new age

 

And it is without the stragglers

For they have whittled themselves away

In the dark crevices that we made

The ones they hid in before perishing

 

The new sun will be born of water

The water of their blood

That ran down the buildings into the stream

And the sun will be called Rorka

 

The purity will be the rage

The rage of extinction

The seething hate of being chosen

Chosen to be vanquished by the upper power

 

The sun will warm the new places

Giving pulse to the dried up swamps

Giving jobs to the legged cripples that survived

And leaving the fallen rubbed into the darkness like charcoal

 

The old safe place is gone

The rebirth is complete

Total Completion

Purity from a sun

 

A new form must be made

A new leader of the second sun

Born from the new sea

And from the shadows of before

 

Build it

Start with the teeth

With black sperm squeezing through the gaps

Forming the gums and lips

 

It all comes back to what we destroyed

A refreshing of the old body

To make a new one

To command the Widows and sea

 

Fetch the parts from the old coves of death

Feed the veins from the seabed

Supply the bones from the graves in the buildings

Give me the soul from the Second Sun

 

The soul will be the centre

Herding the water around it

Connecting the tendons

Latching the veins together

 

Then an earthly being will form

A disgusting new being

A sick reminder of the past

But eventually a new ideal for the future

 

There will be no skin

Only the crimson muscle

And perfect white tendons

No shroud of skin to hide the lies

 

And Skinless will sit on a throne of waves

Constantly nourished by the water

Held above the rusted buildings of old

Giving it elevated reprieve from this sordid world

 

No new citizen will be forgotten

They will come to worship Skinless

They will fill the buildings

Stepping over the stale bones of the past

 

New words will come from Skinless

And the new citizens will learn the past

Learn the present

And they will know the future

 

 

Download a PDF of Rorka

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Ring’s Travellers, Shannah Connell

The Ring’s suns had provided the citizens of Navoe planet with yet another perfect day. Trisella had been shopping with her mother in the Apollo district in the city of Drita. Her family lived in a small town called Perplexion, on the outskirts of Drita.

Big cities were even more alien to Trisella than the tiny planets orbiting her home world. Dozens of multi-coloured orbs could be seen if you looked right up into the sky, and every single one had a name, a story, and a population. However, those who had the knowledge of all of those things were few and far between, and their numbers dwindled with each passing year.

The Pocket Travellers—an ancient, evolved race of humans who flitted, with the assistance of their portals, from one planet to the next—were rumoured to have passed into extinction, and the ‘accidents’ that caused the portals to close were known as the main reason for it.

Her mother had given her permission to walk down the next street and window-shop. She was to stay in sight at all times, and after her mother had paid for her new books, she would take her daughter to lunch. Trisella strolled down the street, her boots clicking against the iron slabs. She kept her mother in the corner of her eye, and peered into windows and displays, her gaze catching the sparkle of something that wasn’t a jewel. The fractured piece of crystal was shaped like the letter C, curved and jagged at the edges, frayed in places that crystals shouldn’t be frayed. It had seen heavy damage, but it was resting on a red velvet cushion like it was some kind of sacred artefact.

Pulling away from the window and its odd crystal prize, Trisella continued down the street after checking with her mother, who hadn’t yet pulled away from the book stall. She was striding along, minding her own business, when she walked straight into someone, even though the path in front of her was empty and there was no one to be seen.

A voice cried out, ‘Blast it!’ and suddenly, Trisella was being yanked forward, the sensation like a hook beneath her ribcage, and then she was falling down, down, down through a black, airless void until her feet found the floor, her legs trembling with the impact, and she pitched forward to her hands and knees before she’d even opened her shocked-shut eyes.

Her hands were stuck in some awful goo-like substance, and the floor didn’t feel like a floor at all, because it was warm and moving and…

Ugh!’ Trisella yelped, and scuttled backwards, away from the goo, wiping her hands desperately on her dress, letting out tiny whimpers of disgust as she went. ‘What is that? Where am I? Hello?’

‘Be quiet, you moronic human!’ the voice from before hissed. ‘You’ll wake it up!’

Trisella felt a familiar shiver of indignation, but the sensation of dampness won over, and she looked down at herself again. Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness of her new location, and the pulsing of the walls around her was almost soothing in their rhythm.

‘Why am I all soggy?’ Trisella asked. There was a huff, and she was suddenly hauled up and propped against the wall by a large hand on her shoulder.

‘If you hadn’t walked right into me and knocked me off-course, you wouldn’t be soggy at all, let alone in the stomach of a Waleos,’ the voice muttered, and Trisella’s guts roiled at the thought.

‘The… stomach…? Of a what?’

‘A Waleos, you idiotic child! You know, swims in the acid lakes and has terrible gnashing teeth and likes to eat small humans for snacks? A mutation of the whales of the old world.’

‘I’ve – I’ve never – what,’ Trisella stammered. In all honesty, she thought she would be far more panicked, for someone in the company of an invisible stranger, trapped in the stomach of a lake-monster. Maybe the panic would set in later.

‘Who are you, anyway?’ Trisella asked. She was quite sure that the stranger was next to her, pressed up against the wall of the… stomach. Shudder.

‘Name’s Crag,’ the voice replied, and Trisella felt her hand being shaken, even though when she squinted, she couldn’t see anything more than a vague shape before her. ‘And you’re… Trisella.’

‘How do you know my name?’ she demanded, caught off-guard.

‘It’s the duty and responsibility of a Pocket Traveller to know the names of all of the Ring’s inhabitants, no matter how small or insignificant their lives and experiences may appear.’

She scoffed. ‘Crag’ was clearly having her on. ‘Pocket Travellers aren’t real. Everyone knows that.’

‘So, do you have a better explanation for how, one moment, you were on a side street in Drita, and then you bumped into me and ended up in the stomach of a creature who lives halfway across the Ring?’

‘I…’ She didn’t, in fact, have an explanation for that. She did, however, want to get out of this… Waleos stomach, and back to her mother.

‘Pocket Travellers are very real, thank you very much, small, insignificant Trisella. Our numbers grow smaller every year, but we still exist. There are still planets to take care of and portals to fix, so we keep on going, for as long and as far as we can.’

‘Is that what you’re doing, then?’ Trisella asked, choosing to play along for now. She wished there was some light, or that they weren’t invisible, so that she could see their face. ‘Fixing portals, or taking care of the planets?’

‘Both,’ Crag answered, and pulled on Trisella’s sleeve, nudging her down the wall, and she felt the air grow hotter somehow.

‘Ewww, why are we moving? Where are we going?’ The flesh beneath her shoes squelched unpleasantly; Trisella tried not to think about it.

‘I thought you’d knocked me off-course, but it seems as though the thing I’ve been searching for is here after all,’ Crag muttered. ‘There’s a tiny planet, up in the fourteenth sector of the Ring, called Creos. Its portal—its pocket—was displaced by some inter-planetary disruption. I was dispatched to retrieve it, and the path took me through Drita, and, apparently, you.’

‘So, did you leave from Creos? How did you leave if their pocket is displaced? Do Travellers really have their own portals? Can you take me back to Drita? My mother is surely worried about me. I was supposed to stay within her sight and Drita is such a large city and she’ll think I’ve gotten lost and it will be awful and she’ll be so mad—’

‘Do you ever shut up?’ Crag snapped, exasperated. They grabbed Trisella’s wrist and pulled, and Trisella felt the fleshy floor beneath her move as the stranger hopped over something, yanking her after them. ‘Yes, I left from Creos. I have my own portal, on my wrist, like a watch. I can either use that, or use the aligned portals on the planets. Pocket Travellers are called that for a reason. We travel through the portals, and our sole duty is to ensure that they remain functional, because if they don’t—if they get broken or lost in space, like the one I’m looking for—the entire planet is cut off from the rest of the Ring.’

Trisella was gaping. She knew she was, but… she couldn’t seem to close her jaw. Pocket Travellers have their own portals? She supposed that made sense, given their name, but it seemed so absurd and impossible that she could barely understand it.

‘The hows and the whys are extremely complicated and you won’t understand so I won’t go into them here. I’ll take you back to Drita when I find the portal—if we activate my portal here, I might never make it back to this particular creature. Hopefully your family won’t think too poorly of me. We’ll make this as fast as we possibly can. Do you know what a deactivated portal looks like?’

‘No,’ Trisella replied. She’d never even seen an activated one. Perplexion was far removed from Navoe’s portal temple.

‘Well, then, you’re in for a treat!’ Crag cried out, louder than their conversation warranted, and the Waleos’ stomach rumbled in reply. Trisella would have told them off for making noise when they had told her off for the same thing not five minutes ago, but there was light coming from a hand and a face was swimming into view through the sudden, blinding brightness.

A long, pointy nose set in a narrow, impish face, wide green eyes and wild black hair, Crag was every bit the oddball that Trisella assumed him to be. His eyes seemed to be fractured, as if they were carved from gems. His skin was unnaturally clear, and almost shiny. His outfit was as patched together as her quilt at home, every single article of clothing sported a wide pocket, buttoned and zipped to oblivion, bulging in strange places and looking completely out of sorts. It was a smorgasbord of colour. His boots were the only things that matched—heavy, black ones, laces and metal and hard edges. Trisella suddenly felt extremely conscious of her plain blue dress and brown boots, her yellow hair seeming plain next to the black corkscrews on Crag’s head.

‘So, Trisella,’ Crag said, and she could count every single straight tooth he had, he was so close. ‘Shall we find ourselves a portal?’

‘And if we find it, you’ll take me back to my family?’ Trisella asked. She felt that it was probably a good idea to get all the facts before she went along with a no-doubt crazy scheme.

‘PT’s honour,’ Crag promised. ‘I’ll even show you my portable portal—here, don’t touch it for the love of—it’s here, on my wrist.’ He held out his arm to her, pointing the small, handheld light away from their faces and towards the throbbing, wet, pink floor of the Waleos’ stomach… Gross. No.

Trisella moved closer to examine the shining slab. Smooth, faultless crystal shined from a dark band encircling Crag’s wrist, looking for all the world like an extremely large wristwatch, minus the hands and the knobs. It shined with power, and Trisella was reaching out before she’d even started to think about touching it.

A hard rap on the knuckles with the back of his other hand deterred her from that path. Trisella yelped and drew her stinging hand back against her chest, hissing, ‘What was that for?’

‘You could have activated it!’ Crag snapped. ‘I want to stay in this stomach for as long as it takes to find that portal and get out of here, understand?’

Trisella glared. The light was still so harsh on Crag’s face, but she could read determination anywhere—she saw it on her little brother’s face, sometimes, when he’d decided to do something that their mother and father wouldn’t approve of. Crag might seem to be a bit of an idiot, but he had a job to do, here. She may as well go along for the ride, seeing as she had no choice and no other way out.

They made their way along the stomach wall, which looked uncomfortably like a bunch of thick, velvety, pink swathes of fabric stretched across a prison of bones. She felt like a mouse in a trap. Crag’s eyes were fixed forwards, and when Trisella focused on where he was looking, all she saw was piles upon piles of pink, acid-melting waste. She had no idea what a massive creature like this would find to eat in an acid lake, but it couldn’t be safe. The puddles of formerly-whole things that it had apparently eaten were in the centre of the stomach floor, and the part which Trisella and Crag walked on was slightly raised, still disgusting, but safe from the toxic contents of the Waleos’ diet.

‘There!’ Crag whispered, shining the light into a mountain of pinkish bones and chunks of flesh, some of it visibly, rapidly rotting. Something glinted within.

‘It’s in there?’ Trisella groaned. ‘Why?’

‘You can’t always get what you want,’ Crag replied, and pressed the light into her hands. ‘Stay here, and keep shining that light where I had it.’

He slid down the wall and into the waste, and Trisella cringed at the sloppy sound his heavy boots made. She watched, holding the light, as he donned gloves and rifled through the pile, finally coming up with an extremely filthy, possibly pre-digested crystal chunks. Trisella instantly recognised them—the velvet-cushioned item in the shop window looked just like these, if only a little cleaner.

As Crag scrambled back up the bank of the stomach-river, the Waleos let out a rumble, and Trisella almost dropped the light. The ground started to shake and roll.

‘Would you hold onto these, please, Trisella?’ Crag asked, pressing the crystals into her hands and bracing her against him with a hand on her shoulder as the rumbling of the Waleos increased.

Fear bit at her throat and pulled the air from her lungs, but Trisella gripped the crystals with both hands against her chest, and gritted her teeth against the roiling vibrations of the gooey cavern.

‘Hang on!’ Crag shouted, looping his arm through her left elbow, and a flash sparked out of the corner of her eye as he slammed his palm down on his wrist-portal and then everything was gone in a burst of darkness.

The void lasted longer than it had the last time. It still felt as though there was a hook under her ribs, but this time it felt like a harpoon, dragging her underwater, the heaviness of the air making it difficult to breathe. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it stopped, and Trisella was lurching forward once more. This time, however, Crag’s hand clamped down on her shoulder and kept her upright as she swayed, dizzy and nauseous.

The sky was red. The stars were the same, but the sky was red, not blue, and not enough time had passed for the sun to be setting already. Trisella looked around, confused. She appeared to be standing on a great stone slab, red dust flurrying from where she had landed. The sky was red.

‘Welcome to Creos, Trisella,’ Crag announced, sweeping the portal crystals out of her hands and giving them to a hooded figure off to the side of their landing place. ‘This guard will restore the crystals back to their place at the foot of the portal, so I can now take you back to your family. Shall we?’

Trisella nodded, and took the offered arm, drawing breath before Crag yanked her back into the void.

The bustling streets of Drita were a harsh change from the sinister silence of the Waleos stomach and the crimson serenity of Creos. The knowledge of what she had seen in such a short amount of time seemed to press on her brain, and her lungs felt too tight, as if she was still holding her breath from the void. Her nose seemed to burn with the acid stench of the stomach waste. She had no idea how long she had been gone—it could have been half an hour, it could have been two hours. But she and Crag stood in the very street they had collided on, and he gave her a two-fingered salute as he stepped back into his portal void.

Trisella returned it, watching as he faded, knowing that she’d probably never see him again and wishing that she had asked more questions, and only turned away when she heard her mother’s cry of relief from down the street. When she looked back, after receiving a hug and a scolding from her mother, Crag was gone.

 

Download a PDF of “The Ring’s Travellers” here

Tagged , , , , , ,

Liminality, Amy Garpendal

This road feels familiar.

The girl walks with her backpack slung low. She’s forgotten how long she’s been walking. Orange streaks across the sky as the sun sinks towards the horizon, the low angle stabbing into the girl’s eyes. She brushes her hand across her brow, wondering where her sunshades have gone. Her hand stops, and she stares at it. There are several bands tattooed between the joints of her dark fingers. Her smallest finger has, four, the next finger six, she stares at her middle finger counting and re-counting. Seven. Seven. Every time she recounts she wants to stop at six, but the seventh ring contradicts her. Seven. She shakes out her fingers and digs them through the tight curls of her hair. There must have been a tattoo parlour in the last town, she thinks, itll come back to me soon.

A nearby sign proclaims the presence of a rest-stop: Ama’s Resting Place—500m. The prairie slowly turns into scrub which then thickens into sparse forest. The turn-off lane shifts to gravel and curves around to meet a parking bay. A small cottage is set behind wooden picnic tables that fan out from the parking bay. The stones of the cottage might have once been a rich brown but the sun has softened the colour to an ashy grey. The windows are small and dirty. Its wooden door is propped open, the surrounding buttonbush creeping up and inside.

The girl walks in and is surprised. It is much more spacious than she had expected. There are several cases, some full of books, others half-filled with knickknacks and spare car parts. Racks of clothes and blankets, sagging armchairs, spinning displays of hats and mugs. There is an old refrigerator beside a large wooden bench that appears to be the paying counter. Perched behind the counter is a small Native American lady. She looks up from her book when the girl walks in. Her name-tag says ‘Ama’.

‘You lookin’ for anything in particular, girl?’

The girl doesn’t reply. She stares at the rotating mug rack in front of her, an empty space blooming in her mind. Green plastic mugs flash names at her; Alice, Amelia, Brooke, Catherine, Chloe…

‘We ain’t got yours?’

She shakes her head absently, staring, seeking, seeking. I should know this, she worries, why dont I remember this? Taylor, Tiffany, Tina, Tracey…

‘No…I don’t think so.’ She tugs on the straps of her backpack, thinking hard, shifting letters around in her head. Tiah, Teha, Teia, Theia.

Theia.

‘I’m Theia,’ she announces, swinging the display back to the beginning of the alphabet. ‘Do you have a map? I think I lost mine.’

The cottage-keeper, Ama, dog-ears her page and slips off her stool. She pulls a woven basket of maps from the far end of the counter. As Ama rifles, Theia drops her backpack to her feet undoing the straps and extracting her wallet. She flips it open and catches sight of her ID card. The smaller version of herself, blue-tipped mass of curls, full eyebrows, dark gold eyes, peers up at her. Theia hesitates then pushes the card further into her wallet and goes to fish out a twenty dollar bill. She hears a soft exclamation of victory and looks up to see Ama holding a dirty and slightly creased map. Across the counter, Ama hands her the map but doesn’t let go, instead she looks up into Theia’s golden eyes. Ama’s curiously colourless eyes bore into Theia. Her lower belly quivers and she feels as if the surrounds of her mind are warming and melting away.

A small pocket of memory opens. She’s been here before. She has stood in this place seventeen times before. Has walked this road seventeen times. Taken this task seventeen times. Failed seventeen times. Every time remembering a little less. She began with such determination, she thinks. When had she begun forgetting why she journeyed? The tattoo artist had stopped asking what she wanted done. She loses the map every time. Ama always looks at her the same. The hopelessness had crept in sometime around the ninth time and never left. She feels ill after every time she remembers. Familiar rage and frustration rises in Theia, the echo of the past seventeen times over.

Ama releases the map and her eyes. Theia blinks. Forgets.

She looks at the map in her hands. Her stomach roils.

‘Where’s the bathroom?’

‘Next to the postcards and the golf clubs.’

Theia barely makes it to the old-fashioned toilet but as soon as she braces herself above the bowl, the sickness abates. She tosses the map aside and waits, sure that the nausea will return. When it doesn’t she pulls herself up to the sink, tapping the faucet to wet her fingers. She digs her fingers into her eyes and rubs. Stars burst behind her eyelids and she sighs. Itll all make sense, she tries to reassure herself, Ill know where Im going soon. Her clothes are dusty and dirty, her grey shirt turned nearly as brown as her skin. The cuffs of her jeans are wearing away. Her boots are becoming lost under the thick grime. As she turns to leave she spies the map on the floor. Vertigo pulls her down to the cool tiles. Her head throbs and her stomach lurches. She feels like a dormant volcano trying desperately to reawaken. She presses her palms into her eyes, blocking everything out. She sits quietly. Breathing.

There’s a knock at the bathroom door.

‘You alive in there, girl?’ Ama’s voice crackles through the wood and urges Theia to her feet.

‘My name is Theia.’ She picks up the map and shoves it in the back pocket of her jeans. Ama is standing outside the door when she comes out. She hands Theia an unopened bottle of water and goes back to the counter.

Theia wanders about the racks and tables, taking tiny sips of water. A green notebook catches her attention on one of the bookshelves. She wonders what happened to her old one. She picks it up and goes over to where she left her backpack. Her snack supply is dwindling and she doesn’t have any mittens. The evenings are going to get colder. As she browses she finds a bunch of muesli bars and fingerless mittens; pale blue, yellow, some green. Why arent there any with fingers? There are several empty spaces next to the yellow ones. She takes the pale blue mittens and goes over to the paying counter.

‘Could I have two more bottles of water as well, please?’ Ama fetches them from the fridge while Theia retrieves her wallet. She spies a small cosmetic section and impulsively picks out a tube of purple lipstick. Ama rings it all up for her and Theia passes over a bill. Theia pulls out the creased map and spreads it over the counter.

‘Where about are we on here? Also could you point me towards…’ she trails off and looks away frowning. Ama peers at her intently, wondering whether the girl will remember this time. Rules dictate that no one must interfere. Even cottage-keepers.

‘Never mind.’ Theia’s voice is small, her eyes remain downcast.

Ama sighs and spins the map around. This time like so many others. She tracks down her cottage, a tiny dot along one of the lesser travelled highways. She plants an ‘X’next to it in red pencil. While Ama puts the pencil away and picks her book up, Theia picks idly at a small tear over west Nebraska, feeling hopeless. She looks up to thank Ama but the cottage-keeper avoids her eyes and turns the page of her book.

Theia gathers up her purchases and takes them and her backpack out to one of the picnic tables. She refolds all of her clothes and jams them into the bottom of the pack. She pulls on her sweater. It has a hole in the shoulder. The fingerless mittens she ends up putting on instead of having to later dig around and mess up her system. Apples that are slightly withered but still good go on top of the muesli bars and the beef jerky, next to her flashlight and bandanas. Her wallet slips into the front section so it’s easier to extract next time. She rolls up her blanket and straps it to the top of the pack. The two unopened water bottles go into the side nets. Finally she stares at the sheathed hunting knife that she still feels wary and confused about. She doesn’t remember where she got it or what it’s for. She hasn’t unsheathed it. She ends up sliding it into the rolled-up blanket, not knowing where else to put it. She’s left the green notebook and a pen out. Flipping it the notebook open, she writes her name in the front cover and the name of the rest-stop underneath. She closes it again and sticks it and the pen into her empty pocket. She stretches and looks back over to the cottage. Maybe Ill come back one day. After Ive finished. Finished

Theia hoists the backpack onto her shoulders. The gravel crackles under her boots as she walks away from Ama’s Resting Place.

*

Ama watches out the open door as Theia walks away from the cottage for the eighteenth time. She wonders how many more times she will see her come through, yet again asking for a map and gloves. Ama turns the page of her book. Her Resting Place. Her resting place for travellers. They would pull out their maps, she would strike an ‘X’, on they’d go. Then she’d see others again, twice, three times, five times. Never more.

She wonders if much will change if Theia makes it to the next town. Eighteen times. Her journey is not like the journeys of others before her. Ama thinks of the locked drawer at the base of the counter. Interfering is forbidden, she reminds herself. She turns the page of her book. Flips to the next chapter. The other travellers eventually made it. Why not Theia? Never so many repetitions. Eighteen. Perhaps this time, a small part of her mind whispers. She tugs on a small key hidden among the many necklaces around her neck.

Ama eyes the small locked drawer at the base of the counter.

She closes her book.

*

Theia looks back at Ama’s Resting Place as the gravel turns back into bitumen. The cottage stands in the desolation of the prairie, the sparse forest surrounding it softening the harshness. She has the most peculiar feeling that she’s been there before today, the buttonbush that’s creeping inside, the picnic tables, Ama. It feels the strangest kind of familiar. She looks at her mittens, the pale blue contrasting against her hands. I thought I had some red ones with fingers, she stares for a moment longer, or were they orange. Theia shakes her head and continues walking, following the road north. It feels like the right way to be walking. She knows there is somewhere she is meant to be going but there must be something broken in her br—

Her temples throb.

Broken Bow.

She gasps and rips the notebook and pen out, writing on the first page she lands. She drops to the ground, scrabbles for her map and searches, searches. Ama’s red X. Her finger follows the road north.

Broken Bow.

The prairie wind whips up and pulls at the map under her hands. She holds onto a corner desperately but the wind catches a tear and tugs. Half of the map tumbles away. Theia stumbles to her feet and runs. The wind whips the paper higher and higher. From behind her a truck horn blares. It swerves, headlights blinding her and she lurches to the side, falling into a buttonbush. The wind drops and the truck fades away into the distance.

Theia picks herself up. The prairie is quiet. She walks forward and hears the crinkle of paper under her boot. It’s half of a map. The southern half of Nebraska. Theia looks around the prairie, wondering if the other half is close by. She shrugs and folds the half up and shoves in into her bag. She pats her jeans down and frowns, she thought she had a pen tucked away somewhere. Perhaps not.

Theia dusts herself off, hikes her backpack higher, and begins to walk into the darkening dusk.

 

This road feels familiar.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Liminality’

Tagged , , ,

Clarke’s Third Law, Hannah McNicholas

It started with a crack in the wall.

Avril noticed it when she moved in, a fine, hairline fissure in the plasterwork. It started high in the corner of the room, above the bookshelves she’d spent the past two hours assembling. The crack crept down from the ceiling and split into infinitesimal threads like tiny river deltas.

She could have sworn that it wasn’t there when she’d inspected the place. She’d checked the house over before she signed on it, every nook and cranny, and aside from a little water damage in the bathroom and some stained carpets, she hadn’t noticed anything wrong. But the crack was incredibly fine. Maybe it was only visible in the afternoon, the sun slanting rich and golden through the blinds. Maybe it had appeared sometime between the inspection and the move, the mark of lazy removalists. Summer had set in early this year; maybe the sudden heat had shrunk the plaster.

Maybe she’d just missed it.

Either way, there was a crack in her bedroom wall and it would need fixing, just like the leaking tap and the aging carpet she’d strategically placed her couches to hide. She’d have to pick up some putty and fill in the damage, some time after she finished unpacking boxes and assembling flat-packed furniture.

She made a mental note and went on sorting books.

Avril noticed it again on a Thursday, while she was struggling with her left heel. She was running late as usual, stockings twisted around her thighs, blouse half buttoned, wrestling with the tiny buckles on her shoes. She spotted it in the corner of her eye, the spider-web cracks, drawn like artists’ charcoal on the cream plasterwork.

She sighed. She’d forgotten about it, hidden it behind a collection of geology maps and oddly shaped rocks. The summer had been long and dry this year, it had probably caused the plaster to give, the crack splintering further down the wall. Its threads peeked out from behind the bookshelves like the crooked legs of a creeping insect. A shiver ran down the back of her neck.

She didn’t linger on it. She had a full day ahead and no time to worry about cracks in her walls. Avril tied up her hair, snatched up her handbag and hurried out the door. She didn’t think of it again all day.

She noticed it again the next week when she was creeping back in early Friday morning.

There had been another quake, a 6.9 this time. It struck a few hundred miles off the coast, too far and too deep to feel on land but enough to overturn a trawler or two and send heavy waves crashing to shore. She’d been working late, kept back checking and recording the readings.

They were getting stronger, and more frequent.

She stumbled, tired, pressed a hand to the wall, winced as it creaked under her palm, and remembered the crack she hadn’t fixed yet. It was a thin, spidery line splitting the paint and plaster. She could just fit her thumbnail in the crack and had to fight back the urge to pick off flakes of peeling paint. She followed the fracture with her fingers, feeling where it branched away into smaller cracks, until she couldn’t reach any higher.

It had grown longer since last week, splintering down to eye level like the scars of a lightning strike. It was just a fraction wider too. Her head was full of tectonics and Richter numbers, and she thought vaguely the crack looked a bit like the shaky seismograph readings she’d spent the day squinting at.

She would need to do something about it before it got any worse.

Her fingers tingled faintly and she blamed it on fatigue.

The crack was the first thing she noticed when she woke up. It had spread like splinters through shattering glass, sharp lines spiked across the paint. The fissures had crept out over the wall, a tangle of veins and threads of capillaries branching from the dark fracture in the corner. She thought of the hole torn in the ocean floor.

It was an old house, she told herself. Old houses had creaks and cracks and shadows in corners. It wasn’t anything to worry about.

It was very late, or maybe very early, when she woke to a long, deep rumbling and thought there was a storm overhead. She waited for the next lightening strike, waited to count the beats between flash and thunder but the flicker-flare of purple grey never came. She pulled back the curtains and found the white glow of a full moon casting deep blue shadows in the streets below, the pinpricks of stars glittering in the inky sky, not a cloud to be seen.

The not-thunder rolled again. It started low, like a growl trapped deep in a wolf’s throat, and built to a howl, a primal roar that snatched at her sternum and shook in her skull. Avril clutched her hands over her ears but it did nothing to block out the noise and a distant corner of her mind whispered; this was the sound of the earth tearing at its seams, of islands rising from the depths and mountains growing from rock and oceans freezing over and the surge of molten stone miles beneath his feet. This was the sound of all that had ever been or would be or could be. It was ancient and forever and it was inside her head and it was angry.

There was a great, final boom and a sound like steel shredding, like stone tearing and bone breaking.

And then it was gone.

When the sun rose, grey light filtered through the autumn fog, she couldn’t ignore the cracks anymore. It was as if the wall had been struck by a mallet. The fractures branched out across the plaster like the scattered bones of some slaughtered beast. They were dark and deep, and she couldn’t see where they might lead. She didn’t try to touch them again.

Avril wasn’t superstitious by nature. She didn’t believe in coincidence or accidents. She had been trained to believe in cause and effect, in numbers and figures, in observation and evidence, but this-
-this was out of her league.

‘There’s a crack in my wall.’

Zach looked up from his cafeteria lunch – dry turkey sandwich, fruit cup, and a slice of mass-produced blueberry crumble – and his brows furrowed.

‘So fill it in,’ he said around a mouthful of brie and cranberry sauce. ‘Or hire a handyman. I’m a physicist, Avril, not a repairman.’

Avril leaned close, pushing his tray aside and touching his wrist gently. Zach froze, his sandwich half way to his mouth, and met her earnest gaze. His face was set in its usual cantankerous scowl but his eyes were wide with concern.

‘There’s a crack in my wall,’ she said again, slowly, quietly. ‘I need you to look at it.’

He cast a longing glance as his crumble.

‘Please.’

Zach cursed under his breath and threw the remains of his sandwich aside.

Zach sat cross-legged on the floor of Avril’s bedroom, squinting against the bright afternoon sun. There was, indeed, a crack in her wall.

More than a crack, really. A web, maybe. A lattice of fissures, crawling and criss-crossing like bare winter branches. He had studied snowflakes once, back when he was very young. He had caught flakes the size of pennies on his fingertips and marvelled at their tiny clefts and flaws, the starbursts and spider legs of the ice, a minute sculpture of chance and cold. The cracks reminded him of the snowflakes, wild and random and lovely and utterly mystifying. He touched one of the faintest lines, tracing it across the paintwork. It grew wider and wider under his hand as he drew towards the epicentre, where the fissures branched out like veins pulsing around a knife wound.

His ring finger slipped into one of the wider cracks, expecting the scrape of ragged plaster, splinters of wood and old insulation.

‘What is it?’ Avril asked from her perch at the head of the bed, as far away from the wall as possible.

Zach drew his hand back. The tips of his fingers were tingling, the buzz reminiscent of static shock on a metal doorknob, but otherwise hale and whole.

‘Nothing,’ he said, frowning. ‘It’s nothing.’

He heard sheets rustling behind, and when she spoke next her voice was a little closer. ‘Nothing?’ she asked. ‘It can’t be nothing.’

‘It’s nothing,’ he said again, shifting back from the fractured wall. ‘There’s nothing there. No plaster, no wood. I can’t feel the other side. No light, no heat, no sound. There’s nothing.’

For a long moment the room was quiet. Avril half-thought she could hear something humming, like the low thrum of a plucked string. She stared unblinking at the wall until the lines seemed to move, shifting in and out of focus until she finally looked away.

‘That’s impossible,’ she said. ‘How is that possible?’

Zach shook his head faintly. He didn’t say a word.

Avril started looking for a new place to live.

The quakes kept coming in shudders and shakes, the numbers crept higher, the needles barely stilled, and she spent long days in the lab watching the earth shift. It was a terrible time to be looking to move, but there were cracks in her bedroom wall, cold, empty cracks leading to nothing and nowhere, cracks growing wider and darker by the day.

She spent a few nights sleeping on Zach’s couch but eventually a need for clean clothes drove her back to the abandoned room. Her shoulders were set tight as she slipped back into her house, something heavy settling in the spaces of her spine.

The fractures loomed dark and as faults, opening little canyons from floor to ceiling, lines crossing and branching like roads on a map. There were torn, jagged mountain ranges and smooth, curving rivers and the sharp corners of highways cutting through their midst.

She knew how the earth worked, shifting and grinding against itself, tearing down mountains, flattening cities, opening chasms and swallowing itself whole, spewing forth ash and stone and fire. If it could happen in her world, she thought, why not others? Why not both?

She had felt it, once, when she was younger, the tremors of an angry earth, shaking her down to her bones. She’d seen windows shatter and rock crumble and the ground split open beneath her feet. She’d hid under her school desk while dust and glass rained down. She’d never felt so afraid.

She thought of the darkness through the cracks and the tingle in her fingers when she touched the lines. She thought of Zach, his face bloodless, lips a thin, pale line as he examined the wall. She thought of watching houses half-torn down, their ruins set ablaze, of the beaten, bleeding earth, gashes dug deep in its skin and the thrill of fear as she stood on the edge and gazed down, down into the nothingness below. She thought of the shift and grind and tear, of the thunderous, furious roar that had woken her all those days ago.

‘An earthquake?’

Zach’s left eyebrow arched dangerously high.

‘Yes,’ said Avril. Then she frowned and shook her head. ‘No. I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter, what I’m saying is if our world can grind against itself and tear itself down the seams, why can’t it rub other worlds the wrong way?’

‘A grand cosmic earthquake,’ Zach corrected, no less sceptical. ‘I thought you didn’t believe in -?’

‘That was before my wall opened up for no reason,’ she said, waving her hand dismissively. ‘And not an earthquake, more like an aftershock. Pre-shock? Like the first cracks in weak points where worlds touch. The rumblings before the volcano goes off.’

‘And that always ends well,’ he muttered. ‘I know you want to explain this, but this –’

‘What would you call it then?’

Zach shrugged. His coffee had gone cold long ago but he swirled it around his mug like he still intended to drink it. ‘I don’t know,’ he said with a heavy sigh. ‘Magic?’

It was Avril’s turn to raise a dubious brow. ‘We’re scientists,’ she said. ‘We don’t believe in magic. Do we?’

‘That’s just it,’ Zach was muttering, like he didn’t want to hear what he was saying. ‘I thought we could figure it out but there’s nothing there. There’s no data, there’s nothing to read. There’s nothing but a crack in your wall that leads nowhere. Magic is starting to look like a strong candidate.’

Avril bit her lip and clenched her hands tight. ‘I saw a magician when I was little,’ she said. Her nails dug into the soft, cheap table-top. ‘He said he could make a canary disappear. And he did. He shoved it up his sleeve. The bird died. Crushed under his arm. I saw him shake its little body out after the show.’

Zach’s coffee stilled, forgotten. ‘Why are you telling me this?’

The table under her nails was a crosshatch of sharp lines, bleeding and branching out from the puncture-wound heart like twisted bony fingers.

‘Because I don’t believe in magic.’

It was late.

Avril had turned on every light in the house in the vain hope the artificial brightness would ward off the yawning darkness of the fractured wall.

It was spilling over, the emptiness leeching out into the room. A few days ago the cracks had been sharp and clear. Tonight they were…fuzzy. Out of focus, the edges blurred, like trying to read without glasses. Something cold settled in her chest and she shivered. The hairs on her arms stood up. Her skin tingled, and she wasn’t touching the wall. The low humming droned on.

The ground was shaking.

It was faint, barely more than a gentle tremor. She would not have felt it if she was not so utterly still, watching the wall, watching the cracks, watching the lines that seemed to shift and breathe and bleed. There was the shaking room and the broken wall and the nothingness beyond, and Avril had the eerie sensation of standing on some high ledge, gazing into an abyss, waiting for the ground to fall out from beneath her feet.

She emptied her dresser, tore clothes from their hangers and packed haphazardly, her bags a mess of clothes and books and tangled jewellery. She was sure she’d forgotten things. She didn’t care. She’d buy new things and sleep on Zach’s threadbare couch until she found a new place to live, a long way away from here.

She’d seen what happened when two sides of cracked earth got too close. She wasn’t staying around to see it happen again.

 

Download a pdf of Clarke’s Third Law

Tagged

Primal, Alexandra Parsons

…The desperate wail of the alarm slammed Kaye out of sleep. Her heart rate shot up, pounding in her ears and her eyes snapped open to darkness. Her hand immediately went for the sword resting alongside her before her brain had even caught up...

This chapter is from a YA novel in progress — Primal.

The desperate wail of the alarm slammed Kaye out of sleep. Her heart rate shot up, pounding in her ears and her eyes snapped open to darkness. Her hand immediately went for the sword resting alongside her, before her brain had even caught up. It was catching up now.

The siren, she thought. Locke had hooked it up to the trip wires outside. Her hand gripped tighter around the scabbard. That means they’re here.

Light sprawled out from under the door and she heard movement in the other rooms. There was the creak of metal supports as people jumped out of bunks and then bare feet drumming down the hallway.

‘What’s going on?’ called her sister Serena on the bunk below.

‘I’ll find out.’

Kaye vaulted over the bunk railing and landed crouched on the carpet, sword in one hand. As she slid on combat boots and a leather jacket she heard the rattle of riot gear being taken down from the weapons room. Shotgun cartridges were being poured into trench coat pockets and she noted the familiar shink of a katana blade being checked and slid back into its scabbard.

‘Something’s up. I’ll grab our gear,’ she said and headed out into the fluorescent-lit hallway.

She spotted Jaik walking out of the weapons room, sliding home the magazine of his pistol. He looked straight up at Kaye with ice-green eyes, calm as a glacier. There was a similar sword to the one in Kaye’s hand on his back and a bow case slung over one shoulder. Kaye dodged a few people as they ran between them, heading for the front of the warehouse, then Jaik threw the case with her compound bow in it and she snatched it out of the air. Next came a quiver with a few dozen razor-tipped arrows in it.

‘What’s the deal?’ Kaye shouted over the still-raging alarm. Jaik had circles of fatigue under his eyes and smelt like gun oil. She knew he hadn’t slept.

‘The trip wires have gone out the front but no one’s turned on the floodlights yet. We’re blind.’

Serena came out of the room, still in pink pyjama shorts that had a picture of a kitten on them yawning ‘sleepy time!’ Below the shorts her pale skin was mottled with bruises. Jaik handed her a shotgun that looked oversized in her fifteen-year-old hands.

‘What about the rear night watch?’ Kaye asked.

‘They only had one radio working tonight and we can’t get through on it. We need to inform them and get those lights on.’ He quickly looked the two girls over. ‘The three of us is enough. Let’s move.’

Kaye nodded and in unison they ran down the hallway in the opposite direction to the human traffic flow.

Kaye burst out onto the metal catwalk that ran the perimeter of the warehouse. The sound of their boots clanging on the steel jarred the stillness of the night. It must have been 4am and the dark seemed solid and tangible before them, like black glass. They stood at the rear of the building, looking out at the concrete courtyard they had once used for strength and endurance training. Somewhere out there were the truck tyres, empty barrels, ropes and rusted kettle bells they had thrown around on sweltering, heat-shimmer days. Now Kaye’s night-vision was bleached out from the fluorescent lights inside and her pupils only saw flat black with a few silver speckles dancing in her peripheries.

The sirens cut off suddenly and everything went silent. A cold wind raised its hackles and nipped at the back of their necks.

‘Can you see anyone?’ Serena’s voice sounded like a whisper after the alarm.

There weren’t any other voices, although the night watch should have been making their rounds along the fence line, torches zig-zagging before their feet.

Kaye opened her mouth to call out to their friends below but Jaik raised his hand.

He spoke quietly, ‘Just listen.’

Kaye’s breathing was too loud in her ears. She took a deep breath and slowed her heart beat. She let her senses slide out in tendrils to grasp the shape of the world. A breeze slid over her flushed face and swept black the fringe from her eyes. The ends of her hair swayed across her jaw line and as the buzzing slowly disappeared she began to hear something else. Something that told her they were already too late.

A gentle sucking noise rolled towards them, something like marrow being drawn out from bones. Then Kaye heard the crunching of ragged teeth on finger joints and a low moan of primal satisfaction.

‘Holy shit.’

A scent crept its way into their throats, heavy and putrid.

‘How many are there?’

Kaye looked over the railing, narrowing her eyes into the dark and willing them to separate the shadows into real shapes. She smelt open wounds and the copper tang of blood. Then the moon slipped out from behind its cover.

There were a dozen creatures, humanoid but deformed with twisted limbs that spasmed as they moved. Their skin was transformed with pustules and disease-riddled flesh that hung from their bones. Kaye could smell their festering sores and unwashed clothes. Fresh vomit still clinging to their shirts. The hunched forms swung heavy limbs as they stumbled through the remains of the night watch, tripping over limp ankles as though they were tree roots. The night watch boys and girls were like marble statues, their eyes wide and gleaming in the meagre moonlight. Their pale child fingers still clutching toy blades.

To the left was the small free-standing space of the control room. The glass was broken and nothing moved inside. They hadn’t had time to turn on the lights, Kaye thought. The creatures must have crept in somewhere, suddenly materialising from the night to dig yellow teeth into turned backs. Kaye’s shoulders tensed involuntarily. She remembered that it had been Lara’s first watch tonight. The girl had been nervous over dinner, digging aimlessly into a can of tuna. Kaye had sat with her while they listened to the TrueLight radio broadcast at 7pm and told her how boring the rear night watch was. ‘Nothing ever happens, the hardest part is not falling asleep,’ she had given Lara a light punch on the arm. ‘Come on, we’ll have breakfast waiting for you when you get back.’

Kaye’s hand seemed frozen to the railing and now she prised it free, working blood into the fingertips. Disgust welled within her as she watched the creatures flop like leeches from body to body, taking careless bites from exposed throats and shoulders. A familiar heat was rising, warming her limbs and making her toes tingle. Slowly, she nocked an arrow and lifted the bow at arm’s length. The skull of a creature came up in the circle of her sight. But the moon disappeared again and the scene went black as if curtains had been drawn on the final act.

‘Goddammit!’ Kaye hissed.

 ‘We need the floodlights. We need to see what we’re dealing with. That’s the priority now.’ Jaik was aiming down his sights too. Back in darkness, they could only hear the occasional rip of skin from muscle or the pop of a socket joint being dislocated. But they knew the control room was only twenty metres away. And it had access to the gate, electric fence, siren and lights.

‘I’ll go,’ said Jaik.

The thought of anyone going down there made Kaye’s insides churn but she knew who was most likely to make it to that room.

‘No you won’t.’ She straddled the railing and looked over the edge. About four metres. Far, but not impossible.

 ‘What are you doing?’ Jaik said as loud as he dared. Safe on the catwalk, they were yet to be noticed by the creatures below.

‘I’ll be there and back before you know it.’ Kaye had always been the quietest in stealth training and Jaik reluctantly knew it. Kaye lowered herself down from the railing as far as she could. ‘Cover me’ she said, then let go.

There was a solid thump as Kaye hit the ground. She landed on something springy and uneven and her ankle gave way beneath her. She stifled a cry and fell to one side, jarring her shoulder. She lay still and hoped she hadn’t been heard. She held her breath. The nearest sucking sound went on uninterrupted.

‘Kaye!’ Jaik hissed from above. She could just see the outline of Serena and Jaik’s heads looking down, silhouetted by the stars. Kaye gave a wave, not sure if they could even see it.

The smell was stronger down here. Like being locked in one of those old abattoirs they had toured in school. The scent held a dampness to it, a liquid quality that seemed desperate to drown you.

Kaye gave her ankle an experimental circle. It twinged but moved freely. Probably just soft tissue damage, she thought. No breaks. Kaye’s hands searched out around her, fingertips running over the concrete and feeling between the cracks. They found the still-warm, sticky stump of a leg. Her hand jerked away and bile rose in her throat. That’s what she had landed on. Kaye rose slowly, hoping her arrows wouldn’t jostle together. The control room wasn’t far, a five second walk any other day, but Kaye forced each movement to be smooth and quiet. Her leg muscles ached from the constant, controlled pace. Halfway there and she could see the glimmer of broken glass in front. She kept her eyes on the courtyard, scanning for any hint of movement towards her. Barely four metres away she could make out the dark shape of a creature crouched over a body. The gravity of where she was washed over her and she longed for the safety of the catwalk. Every centimetre closer she expected a creature to suddenly sniff the air, turn and fix its pale eyes on her before releasing a guttural howl and causing a  stampede towards her. But they didn’t.

Kaye’s hand met the rough concrete wall of the control room, slid over it and found the door handle. She used it to steady herself before squeezing through the open space, and suddenly she was inside. She breathed out her tension. The smell was claustrophobic here, reminding her of science classes except without the sterility of white gloves and scalpels. The light switch was on the dashboard near the windows, she only had to step over the black lumps on the ground to get to it. In the dark her mind gave those body bag masses gaping clown mouths and hollow eyes that followed her. Kaye’s boots squelched into the wet carpet as she stepped between the shapes. Her hands roved over the walls, found the dashboard and slid over chunks of broken glass. Finally, her fingertips found the switch – just as a hand shot out and gripped her leg.

Kay screamed, she couldn’t help it, and thrashed her leg as though spiders were swarming up it.

‘Kaye, where are you? What’s going on?’ Jaik shouted and Serena was screaming her name. Ravenous things were beginning to move outside. The concept of the floodlights cut through Kaye’s panic and she flicked the switch. White seared into the room and through squinted eyes Kaye saw the bodies strewn across the carpet. Half of one was moving, swiping at her feet. It was a boy from the night watch except now his mouth frothed and his eyes were completely white. He had been torn across the waist and his entrails dragged horridly behind him. Kaye jerked her leg away and kicked out, heel cracking against his jaw bone. Then the sword was in her hand and she swiped it down and through the meat of his neck. He flopped motionless to the ground like the others.

There were gunshots cracking repeatedly and guttural screams just outside the window. The creatures were lumbering towards the control room and now Kaye could see them fully illuminated. Weeping boils, sagging skin, festering gashes and everywhere the same colourless eyes trained on her. Kaye side kicked the door closed and slid the bolt home just before a fist smashed through the window. Kaye backed up, dropped the sword and brought the bow up. She let an arrow fly and it cut clean through the glass and into a creature’s forehead. Then there were eight arms cramming through the windows, swinging wildly like tentacles. An arrow shot through a sunken cheek bone. Another went through an eye socket. Kaye kept clear of the blood, pushing far back into the room. Bullets were raining down from Jaik and Serena on the catwalk. The bodies were piling up on the other side of the window but some  rose again, riddled with arrows and bullet holes. Beside her, the door was thumping. Kaye eyed the bolt that held it there, straining against the wood. Her hand went for another arrow and she could feel there were only a few left.

‘I’m almost out!’ Panic made her voice break. Kaye sent one of her last razor tips through a jaw bone and followed it with one to the jugular. Her back was at the wall. There was a crash and wood chips exploded from the door as the bolt gave way and a creature barged through. Its eyes locked on Kaye and it lurched forwards. She grasped the last arrow, placed it in the rest, but her fingers fumbled at the string and it fell away. Kaye saw the blood-tinged teeth of the creature, too close. Gangrenous arms stretched wide to embrace her. She dived under its outstretched arm, rolled and picked up the sword, then spun and cut through its torso. Before the body parts had even hit the ground she was sprinting through that door, dodging left as shots exploded overhead. There was a stampede behind her and bullets flew searing past her ears. She couldn’t look back. The ladder to the catwalk was a few strides away. But there was the bow in her left hand, the sword in her right, and no time to slow down. Kaye threw the sword up to the catwalk and simultaneously leapt for the ladder. Her shins smashed against the rungs and she started to haul herself up. Hands were snagging at her boots. There was a death grip on her right ankle. Kaye’s fingers were straining to hold on as they tried to drag her back down into a tangle of desperate limbs and teeth. Then Jaik and Serena grasped each of her arms and pulled her up onto the catwalk, far away from the hot rancid breaths and clawing fingernails.

Kaye put her back against the cool wall and breathed great shuddering breaths. Serena was hugging her, smelling like clean sheets and sleep, and Kaye loved it. Kaye rolled her head to the other side where Jaik was still kneeling, looking furious.

‘That,’ he said, barley controlling himself, ‘was fucking stupid.’

Kaye waved a vague and exhausted hand, ‘Floodlights on.’

‘You’re an idiot!’ He snarled.

Serena had her arms wrapped tight around Kaye, who gave her a few pats. When Serena looked up through the chunks of her black fringe Kaye felt sick.

‘Sorry Serena, I thought it would be fine.’ She gave her a proper hug back.

Jaik got to his feet, leaned over the railing and shot each of the creatures down. One shot, one kill, and the steel was back in his eyes. He picked up Kaye’s sword and handed it to her. ‘You’re not supposed to throw around a sword like this.’ Then he walked away and went down the ladder. As Serena and Kaye sat there, sweat turning to ice on their necks, he double-checked each kill and put a bullet into every one of their dead friends so they wouldn’t have to die twice. The shots rang out, one by one as their breaths plumed out white in front of them and dissipated into the grey air.

‘How did they even get in here?’ Serena asked. ‘The night watch is always quiet, everyone knows that.’

The rear courtyard had the best protection with high fences, good views and a gate that could only be operated from the control room. Only long-time members had a key to that room. Normally the team had so much warning from the trip wires that they could easily pick off parasitic strays from afar. Kaye had been doing it for weeks.

‘I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.’

Jaik came clanging up the ladder, ‘I was told there was a small breach out front. There wasn’t meant to be anything back here.’ They looked across the silent courtyard, blood was now spidering across the concrete and filling up the cracks. ‘They were really taken by surprise.’ The sky was lightening, spreading hesitant fingers over the horizon and leaving the night behind.

‘We should talk to Locke about it,’ said Serena. ‘He can figure out if there was a breach or something.’

Kaye pushed herself up, sore and stiff, and quickly circled her blade to flick the gore from it. She wiped it down and put it away. Jaik opened the door to the warehouse and Serena walked through. Before Kaye followed she looked back and saw their old training grounds, now awash with blood.

 

Download a PDF of “Primal – Chapter 1″

Tagged , ,

Charge, Jonathan Pastolero – Yin

1. EXT. STREET PATH. DAY
Rushing rain hits the pavement.

Dark clouds cast a shadow over the entire suburb.At first, the street seems desolate. A bicycle light fading on and off can be seen making its way up from the distance of the footpath.

NORA, a sixteen year old girl, breathes heavily as she pedals her bicycle with her bulging school bag strapped behind her. She has a silver helmet on and is dressed in her bright green summer uniform.

CUT TO:

2. INT. NORA’S BEDROOM. DAY
FLASHBACK:

A futuristic digital clock rings: the time is eight twenty -five. A caption reading,  ‘History exam first period’ flashes under the displayed time.

Nora in her pyjamas springs out of bed with her history textbook falling off her face. She brushes back locks of her straight hair. She looks towards the digital clock on the side of her bed and rushes to a window displaying a night sky that becomes transparent by the touch of her fingers.

She sees the school bus leaving her street in the pouring rain. Nora drops her head down and gasps.

3. EXT. STREET PATH. DAY
Raindrops pour down her exhausted face. As she pedals she looks at her digital watch and sees that the time is eight fifty-nine. Her mouth is wide open; she inhales and exhales. A red car speeds past Nora, sending a wave of gutter water splashing all over her. She takes a hand off one of the handle bars and raises it towards the air.

NORA
Hey! This is a forty zone, jerk!

She bows her head, huffing and puffing.

Her watch flashes: the time is nine o’clock.

Wiping her wet face, she pedals faster.

Growing in the distance is the faint sound of lightning getting louder.

Nora slipstreams through the rain at a steady pace.

A bolt of lightning strikes Nora. She is sent flying along with her bike over a nearby hedge.

Everything goes black!

4. EXT. STREET PATH. ONE HOUR LATER
Nora’s eyes open, the rain has stopped, and all she sees is grey sky. Her uniform is intact, but it is ruffled around the edges.

She turns to her side to see her bike smelted black.
She frantically gets up and takes off her helmet. Her straight hair is now all fuzzy. She runs her hands around her body; her expression shows relief that she is in one piece.
She looks at her watch.

NORA
Shit!

The display of the watch shows an array of flashing digits. She shakes the watch as the display emits a blue light blinding Nora and causing her to shield her eyes. She unbuckles her watch and throws it out to the road. As it hits the tar the flashing screen dies. She jumps over the hedge and breaks into a run.

5. INT. SCHOOL HALLWAY. DAY 5
Nora’s face is flushed red. With her head down she gasps for air as she walks along the marble white concave corridor, unaware of the fading florescent lights she
walks under.
She passes by a LED poster that animates the following: ‘Relax, & enjoy your exams!’ A smiley face appears.

The LED screen fizzles out; the smiley face turns into a sad face and the screen goes black.

Nora comes to a halt. She turns her head facing the doorway to her history room. She takes a deep breath and before she can place her hand on the button that opens the door, it slides open.

The school bell rings.

A sea of STUDENTS exit out of the room weaving their way around Nora who manages to stand still. She examines their faces which are full of relief and joy. Some of the students take a quick glimpse of Nora while the majority give her long stares upon seeing her fuzzy hair and the state of her uniform.

Three girls, MANDY, SHARON, and CASSANDRA giggle past Nora. Their summer uniforms are sleeveless, they wear loose bangles, and their cheeks blush of pink makeup.

Nora’s fingers clench, her eyes shut.

CASSANDRA (O/S)
Looks like someone left the hair dryer in the sink.

 

Her eyes open. She gasps aware that her fine, radiant locks are now all fuzzy. She strokes her hair trying to straighten it out.

GABBY (O/S)
Nora, about time!

GABBY emerges from the room and approaches Nora.

NORA
Well… There were some complications along the way.

Nora sees JASON from within the classroom as he is about to finish his conversation with MR HISTORANT. She sees Jason heading out. She stops pulling her hair and fixes her scrunched uniform. She extends her hand and shows Gabby her open palm.

NORA (CONT’D)
Gabby, quick! A comb!

Gabby turns around and does an, ‘Oh’ expression.

Jason exits the room and walks towards their direction.

Gabby turns to Nora, giving her a wave and then walking off.

Nora places her hands by her side.

Jason walks towards her.

Nora sways from side to side smiling. A strand of fuzzy hair falls over her forehead. Her eyes roll up as she blows the strand away.

NORA
Jason.

JASON
Hey, you look… fresh.

NORA
Uh, thanks.

They both stare at each other awkwardly. Jason lifts the collar of his uniform while Nora whistles.

He takes a deep breath as if he is about to say something.

CASSANDRA (O/S)
There you are!

Cassandra loops her arms around Jason giving Nora an envious smile. He looks uncomfortably at Cassandra, then looks at Nora with a blank face.

CASSANDRA (CONT’D)
So, we still good for this afternoon?

Jason tries to fidget out of her grip. But she holds on to him smiling, her pristine white teeth showing, her mascara eyes gazing into his.

JASON
Huh? Cassandra, did we arrange…

Nora looks on with her teeth clenching. She raises her hands in protest, but is cut off by the squealing of Cassandra who is now jumping with joy.

CASSANDRA
It’s a date!

She pulls him away further down the hallway. Nora can only stand still as she looks on. The fluorescent light above her fizzes.

6. INT. HISTORY CLASSROOM. DAY
Nora stands before Mr Historant by his table.

MR HISTORANT
Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, did we?

NORA
Not quite…

Mr Historant crosses his arms.

MR HISTORANT
Your habit of coming in late isn’t doing you any favour, Nora.

Mr Historant points his fingers at her as she starts to cringe.

MR HISTORANT (CONT’D)
I’m going to have to fail you.

Nora’s body stiffens.

NORA
You can’t! I mean, I would have come in five minutes late anyway if I wasn’t…

He places his hands on his temples rubbing them.

MR HISTORANT
Let me guess, you caught the wrong bus?

Nora opens her mouth, but Mr Historant stops her by hissing.

MR HISTORANT (CONT’D)
You missed the bus? No, wait! I got it, the bus didn’t come on time!

Nora drops her shoulders.

NORA
I was hit by lightning!

He raises his hands in the air.

MR HISTORANT
Wow… Out of all my years in teaching, this has got to be the first.

NORA
I swear, it happened. I’ve got my bike to prove it! I just have to get it back…

The lights around the room flicker frantically as Nora says this. They both look around the room and then lock eyes.

Mr Historant pulls out a form and places it on the table. Grabbing a fountain pen from his pocket, he hands the pen over to her.

MR HISTORANT
I want you to sign this.

Mr Historant fixes his eyes on Nora, his face is tense.

NORA
No! I’m not signing anything!

A crackle of thunder is heard.

MR HISTORANT
Do you want to be suspended? Is that what you want?

Nora bites her bottom lip. She lets out a sigh and grabs the fountain pen. Mr Historant falls to the floor.

Nora shouts and drops the pen. It hits the floor as electrical currents jump out.
She bends down and performs CPR on her teacher. She does a compression which causes Mr Historant to violently jolt from the ground.

She stands up with her hands across her mouth.

CUT TO:

7. INT. HISTORY CLASS ROOM. THRITY MINUTES LATER
Mr Historant is lying on a stretcher as a group of PARAMEDICS roll him out of the classroom. Nora watches as PRINCIPAL ALICE stands next to her.

PRINCIPAL ALICE
Nora, I am so proud of you! Most students wouldn’t have known what to do. You should be very proud of your actions.

Nora bites her bottom lip.

NORA
I guess.

8. INT. MEDICAL BAY. DAY
Nora sits on the edge of the bed. DAHELPER is wearing latex gloves as she shines a torch on Nora’s left eye.

DAHELPER
So, you say you were electrocuted?

Nora nods her head.

Dahelper shines the torch on her right eye.

DAHELPER (CONT’D)
And, you’re not feeling any numbness or a headache?

Dahelper turns the torch off and places it in her pocket.

NORA
Nope, but I got this feeling pulsating through me, like this great mass of energy running through my veins.

Nora claps her hands.

NORA (CONT’D)
Ready to burst!

She does an explosion gesture with her two hands.

DAHELPER
Uh, huh…

Dahelper takes notes on her clipboard, and then turns to the drawer on her side pulling it open. She takes out a couple of pink pills and hands it over to Nora.

DAHELPER (CONT’D)
You’re still recovering from the shock dear, this should settle you down.

Nora looks at the pills with an expression of surprise.

DAHELPER
Plus, seeing your teacher collapse must have been traumatic for you.

Nora clasps the tablets.

NORA
I think I caused him to collapse.

She opens her fist to reveal pink powder.

DAHELPER
A stroke Nora, he had a stroke.

NORA
Because of me.

DAHELPER
We sometimes say things that may allude to other problems, like at home maybe?

Nora’s mouth opens as if she is about to say something.

DAHELPER (CONT’D)
Do your parents make you feel like you’re being blamed for everything you do?

Nora gets up dropping her arms. The crushed powder in her palm sprinkles to the ground.

NORA
No! What are you talking about? Nothing’s happening. My parents love me dearly.

 DAHELPER
Just calm down, we can talk this through…

NORA
We won’t. Because you don’t believe me!

CUT TO:

9. INT. GIRLS’ BATHROOM. DAY
Nora looks into the mirror staring at her own reflection.

NORA
You’re not crazy.

She takes a deep breath.
She reaches for the tap but draws back in shock as soon as her fingers touch it.

She rubs her zapped fingers with her other hand, staring at her actions in the mirror.

NORA
I’ve lost it.

10. INT. ROBOTICS CLASSROOM. DAY
MR TINK TOP has his back to the class while drawing schematics on an illuminated digital board. The room is surrounded by various robots ranging from mechanical arms, sensory cars, self-controlled flying gliders, etc.

Nora approaches a green metallic glider placed on the work bench that is on the side of the room.

She turns to her right and sees Jason working on what appears to be a robotic hand. She smiles, but that smile soon vanishes as Cassandra stands next to him.

Nora sticks her tongue out.

She looks down at her machine and reaches for it with one of her fingers as she shuts her eyes.

The tip of her finger touches the metallic casing.

Her eyes open.

She rests her entire palm on the glider and while doing this, Nora blows a sigh of relief.

She starts pulling away the metallic casing. Before her is a complicated circuit board with a bunch of wires criss-crossing everywhere.

She turns an eye and sees Cassandra caressing Jason’s arm. She focuses her attention on the circuit board while pulling the wires frantically and rearranging them.

Jason tries to look over his shoulder towards Nora, but his view point is blocked by the gleaming gaze of Cassandra.

Nora pulls more wires and blows a strand of hair that falls on her forehead.

She turns her head to see that Cassandra is provocatively leaning over Jason.

Sparks fly out of the circuit board and zap Nora’s fingers.

NORA
AH, FUCK!

The whole class stares at Nora. She looks in silence, with a blank expression on her face. Jason and Cassandra look on, her hand placed on his cheek.
From the front of the room Mr Tink Top crosses his arms.

MR TINK TOP
Watch that mouth of yours!

NORA
Sorry…

Nora bends her head down and looks at her glider. Students around the room gradually get back to working on their own robots.

Jason looks at Nora, her hands are on the edges of the bench with her head bowed down. Cassandra clings on his shirt.

CASSANDRA
She has issues. You know that, right?

He takes a step towards Nora with Cassandra still clinging onto him. Gabby approaches Nora and seeing this, Jason takes a step back.

Nora turns her head towards Gabby.

GABBY
Can you at least show some signs of normality?

NORA
Normality? There is nothing normal about this day!

Behind Nora, the exposed circuit of the glider sparks, making a faint hissing noise.

NORA (CONT’D)
How can I, when it’s been nothing but one disaster after another?

The red light on the nose of the glider flashes.

GABBY
Are you on drugs?

Nora cringes her nose and clenches her fist.

The glider hovers its way up.

NORA
No! How long have you known me? Why would I be?

The glider is now above Nora’s head.

GABBY
Uhh… you had difficulties getting your glider to fly, right?

NORA
Yeah, so?

Nora turns around and sees the glider, her expression is that of awe.

NORA (CONT’D)
What the?

MR TINK TOP (O/S)
Shut it down, Nora!

The eyes of the entire class are on Nora. Gabby moves away. Nora takes a step forward and jumps with her two hands stretching out. She grabs the glider pulling it down. She struggles to settle the glider down as it violently sways to and fro. Her face is that of anguish.

NORA
Why won’t you come down?

Sparks fly out of her palms and flow through the exposed circuit board of the glider. The glider makes a hissing malfunctioning noise and zooms out of her hand.

Shrieks fill the room. Students duck for cover as the glider flies in low and then high.

Nora looks with an open mouth.

CASSANDRA
You’re such a screw up!

Nora turns to look at Cassandra.

Jason clings on to Cassandra trying to calm her down.

NORA
Oh, would you just shut up!

Nora sees the glider approaching her.

NORA (CONT’D)
Oh, no!

She ducks. Cassandra turns around and quickly follows suit. Jason jumps to the side knocking over a nearby female student. The glider flies above them releasing bolts of electricity that fly into Jason’s mechanical arm. The mechanical arm springs to life grabbing Cassandra from behind and pulling her up from the ground.

Cassandra screams as the arm pulls her up higher and higher. She looks out the window and sees a group of male students staring under her skirt with their mouths wide open.

CASSANDRA
AHHH! GET ME DOWN!

Jason pulls her down and they both collapse on the floor.

More sparks fly out of the glider as it circles the room activating the other robots scattered around the class.

Various robots lined along the work benches spring to life. A robot frog jumps on a girl’s head as she runs screaming.

A student with an Afro hair style runs from a chasing helicopter. The helicopter flies upside down, flying over the boy and cutting half his Afro hair off.

Gabby runs to the door as a tank situated on a workbench fires foam bullets at her.

The lights of a robotic car spring to life as it jumps off the workshop bench and down to the floor, zig zagging its way past running legs and past the legs of Mr Tink Top who runs around.

MR TINK TOP
Everyone, out!

Everyone scrambles out of the room. Jason pulls Cassandra to her feet and clings on to her as they run towards the exit.

Nora runs to the door, her glider comes swooping down striking the back of her head. She falls to her knees. Mr Tink Top runs grabbing her by the arm. He pulls back shaking his hand.

MR TINK TOP (CONT’D)
Come on, Nora.

Nora slowly gets up grunting. Mr Tink Top sees the glider swooping down towards them again. He takes Nora by the arm and as he does this he screams in pain. They exit out of the room. The sliding door shuts.

11. INT. SCHOOL HALLWAY. DAY
Mr Tink Top is lying on the floor. Nora looks over him rubbing the back of her head. They are surrounded by the rest of the class.

NORA
Please, tell me you’re okay?

He opens his eyes as he slowly he gets up.

MR TINK TOP
I think so…

Gabby approaches Nora.

GABBY
How could you ruin all our designs?

The student with the cut Afro brushes along Gabby, in his hands are curls of his own hair.

STUDENT
AND MY HAIR!

Nora takes a step back.

MR TINK TOP
Now calm down, you can’t blame her for a faulty spark in her glider.

Cassandra dashes out, her face raging red.

CASSANDRA
Did you see the humiliation you caused me?

The class start shouting at her and blaming her.

NORA
You think I wanted this to happen?

Jason looks around and sees faces full of anguish.

JASON
Guys, calm down!

Nora covers her ears and shakes her head. She screams. She runs down the hallway with each florescent light she runs under exploding with sparks.

The class panics. The fire alarm rings. All the sliding doors in the hallway open as students flock out.

Jason leaves Cassandra’s side and runs after Nora weaving in and out of students.

12. EXT. PARK. DAY
Nora sits under a lone maple tree crying her eyes out. She rests her head against the tree and shuts her eyes.

Red petals dance their way around the park with the help of the brewing wind. The petals fly around the tree Nora sits under. One of the petals lands on the tip of her nose and slides off. She opens her eyes.

Electrical currents circulate around the petals as they stop swirling around the tree and remain still. She turns her head to either side. Her head drops. The electrical currents swirl the petals around the tree. The maple tree can be seen up from a high distance as petals burst out from all directions.

Nora looks at the petals that scatter around the park. Petals fall down slowly as the residue of electrical sparks slowly smother them to ashes. Nora looks down her lap and picks up a lone red petal, the same one that fell on her nose earlier. She examines it and blows it away. She closes her watery eyes.

The red petal hits Jason on the cheek. He touches his cheek putting the petal in his hands.

JASON
There you are.

Nora opens her eyes.

NORA
Leave me alone. Haven’t you got some other girl wrapped around your arms already? I’m sure she’s missing you right now.

Jason bites his lip and clears his throat.

JASON
Nora… I like you!

She looks away from him then hesitantly turns her head towards him.

NORA
Well, you shouldn’t. I’ll only end up hurting you.

JASON
I’ll take my chances.

NORA
I’m serious Jason, stay away from me!

Nora gets up and turns her back against Jason. He places his hand lightly on her shoulder trying to stop her from running away.

Nora shuts her eyes at the touch of his hand.

Her eyes open, an echo of an explosion is heard.

Nora turns in shock, but that expression goes away once she sees Jason with his head turned. She turns her head seeing grey smoke fuming out of their school building out in the distance.

NORA
The robots…

She places a hand over her mouth.

NORA (CONT’D)
This is all my fault! I have to stop this.

JASON
Nora, this is crazy. You want your head to be chopped off this time?

Nora runs towards the school building looking back at Jason.

NORA
No, because it won’t happen.

He scratches his head and runs after her.

13. INT. SCHOOL HALLWAY. DAY
Various robots zoom across the hallway, smashing into lockers, breaking hanging trophy walls, and breaking down class windows.

Nora walks down the hallway. The busted fluorescent lights she walks under spark brightly. Nora raises her arms across her chest creating an X symbol. Electric currents surround her entire body, her eyes glow electrically blue. She unleashes her arms as sparks fly out.

The sparks hit all the robots in the hallway as they malfunction and cease to operate.

Nora’s glider flies through from down the hallway charging down at her. She takes a side step avoiding the glider which flies across the hallway only to turn back and target her once more. Nora’s eyes glow statically brighter. The glider charges down at Nora only to come to halt an inch away from her nose. It falls to the ground. Nora does a sigh of relief, and with that the electricity surging around her body vanishes and her eyes stop glowing.

Jason stands behind Nora, she turns around and she sees him.

His expression is that of awe.

They approach each other.

Jason smiles.

JASON
You’re, awesome you know that?

Nora smiles and starts walking down the hallway as Jason follows.

NORA
Yeah, I know.

Jason scratches his head.

Nora looks down.

JASON
Can I walk you home?

Nora brushes her hair to her side and looks at Jason smiling.

NORA
I’d love that.

Their hands touch.

Jason recoils back in shock.

Nora laughs as he shakes his hand.

He looks at Nora and joins in the laughter.

The tip of their fingers touch once more. Their individual fingers mesh against each other as they hold hands.
Jason turns his head.

JASON
So what else can you do?

Nora smiles as her eyes glow electrically blue.

NORA
You’re going to like this one!

FADE TO:

Black.

Sparks of electricity is heard.

THE END.

Download a pdf of Charge

Tagged , ,