Tag Archives: (Un)Natural Selection

Patrol 4, Imogen Wiggins

 

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

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

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

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

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

‘Call it in,’ Bea instructed.

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

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

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

‘Cloaks up,’ commanded Bea.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

‘Let’s finish up. You take the back.’

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

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

‘One Kai here,’ Bea reported.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Beatrice? What’s going on?’

Bea stared in confusion at what she had found.

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

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

‘Okay, wait for me outside.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

‘Well, that’s not what I expected.’

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

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

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

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

‘This is Patrol 4.’

‘Go ahead,’ came the reply.

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

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

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

The line shut off and Bea turned to Khali.

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
Download a PDF copy of Patrol 4 by Imogen Wiggins

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Peculiar Perception, Laura Treglown

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
Download a PDF copy of Peculiar Perception by Laura Treglown

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The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus, Teresa Peni

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

When did my midlife crisis begin? Before the tears on the tiny plane, or the farewell party? Wait, no—let’s go back a bit—maybe the painful arrows and the street battle. Okay ‘battle’ is a slight overstatement. It might have been the moment my husband brought me in a breakfast tray.

He must have wanted my ‘company’. There was even a red rose in a champagne flute, which did make the breakfast look very pretty. Too bad his timing was off. I was mid-paragraph into the fresh ideas of my hero, Pacific scholar Prof Epeli Hau’ofa.i It was not time for sex, oh no, no, nooo. It was time to get angry, get organised, and save sinking Polynesia from climate change or being nuked by Kim Jong-un. The coffee was good though, he got that right. When he flopped into bed beside me I dipped the croissant into jam, turned a page, and kept reading.

He sighed, presumably about my lack of attention, and picked up a random book from the bedside table.

‘Are you going to keep wiggling that foot?’ It was vibrating back and forth as he read, making the bed wobble.

The foot stopped.

‘I might go play guitar,’ he said, strutting off. He wasn’t getting any action in here. The house was still; the kids were no doubt lazing in their beds, hooked up to YouTube. I heard the crackle and buzz of the amp being switched on, down the hall. But it wasn’t that which threatened my serene ladyspace, it was the anthropologist, author, artist, agitator, legend, Hau’ofa, that had got me all riled up.

A walk would do me good. I squeezed into my spandex tights, laced the Adidas, and cranked some electronica into my earpods to fuel my turn around the harbour.

Wind disturbed the mangroves and a black cormorant dove under the ruffled water surface. It reappeared with a tiny silver fish slung from its beak.

I mused and fumed over Epeli’s words as I strolled along. About how the Pacific Ocean, lapping almost everywhere on the planet—even right here at my feet in Sydney—was peppered with awesome Polynesian explorers for millennia before those pesky nineteenth-century colonisers arrived, divided, and dominated the vast Polynesian network—some, my motley ancestors. They carved it up with their invisible imperial boundaries into ‘tiny, needy bits,’ to be developed.ii They didn’t appreciate the wholeness of the Pacific Ocean; it was to them, the middle of bloody nowhere.

Hole in the doughnut,’ is how they saw us, warned Epeli; ‘If we do not exist for others, then we could in fact be dispensable.’iii It was as though the sea connection was worthless.

A man was jogging along toward me. Instead of staying on his side of the track, he made a sudden 180-degree turn. He jogged across my path, over my feet, as if I were invisible. He didn’t adjust his route for me one iota. A surge of outrage compelled me to curl my foot into a sneaky hook and discreetly ankle tap him as he barged through my personal space. He was quick enough to work out what was happening—adjusting his stride so he didn’t fall.

I maintained original course and bearing.

He jogged backwards, glaring at me like I blew out his birthday candles.

‘You tried to trip me!’

I death-stared him through my sunnies.

‘Watch your step,’ I said.

Jogging Man looked ready to pop a vessel.

‘You’re a bitch.’

Very slowly, I raised my two middle fingers, 1 and 2. There. You. Go. I cranked it a notch higher.

He looked me up and down with an overdone head pivot, as if his eyes couldn’t do the task themselves.

‘I hope…I hope your children get run over by a bus!’

He was seeking some part of my identity to trash. Mother, he figured.

‘Why don’t you hurry up and fuck off,’ I said.

I’m not scared of you, I thought, although I was shaking. I considered the likelihood of him thumping me—no one was around—and he was bulky. His blue eyes burned, incandescent with rage. No doubt, we both had adrenaline careening through our systems.

He stayed up in my face, trying to intimidate me, but I did not slow my step, smile, nor apologise. Do not fuck with a Maori lady when she is mad.

Then, it was as if the wind suddenly abandoned his sail; he knew words would not hurt me. He performed a theatrical manscowl and ran off, huffing.

I threw the parting punch:

‘Next time watch where you’re going, cockhead.’

 

MUTATION

Later that night, back at home; all nice and calm again, I felt very bad for Jogging Man (idiot). Of course I was proud of standing my ground, but my good shoulder-angel was more harpy than usual, making me ashamed of the way I’d done it; reaching for that familiar weapon—anger—so powerful yet so terrible. I blamed it on insightful literature, poured myself another red wine and tried to forget about it.

So I wasn’t shocked when Facebook analytics, which knows us better than our own mothers do, magically delivered this video to my feed; because it had digested and diagnosed every procrastinatory rant, preach, like, and share I’d tapped out since 2005. It submitted its sum total knowledge of me that night:

Transform Your Anger’ with Thich Nhat Hanh.iv

I hit [Play].

The Vietnamese Zen master is sitting in brown robes, beside a girl wearing a pink dress. She looks about ten. He’s holding up his fist to his own face and has a mean look.

‘You want to give that boy or girl a punch.’

Sprung bad, I thought.

He smiles as he jabs the air around his head. She smiles back.

‘Punish him or her. That is the anger in us… that anger is a kind of mud, it will smear everything.’

He’s got a strong, Vietnamese accent, so I’m grateful for the subtitles.

‘We need to be aware that the mud of anger, we must handle.’

He brings both hands together as if gripping a hefty mud marble.

‘But without the mud, you cannot grow lotus flowers.’

[Insert time-lapse video of an incredible pink lotus flower opening]

‘So the mud is useful somehow.’

The video cuts back to the monk and the girl surrounded by a luscious array of tropical flowers and candles. Cue bamboo-flute music.

‘So your anger is useful somehow, maybe you should not… let it out.’

He gently cocks his head at her. Maybe she laid into her little shit of a brother?

‘You should not throw it away. If you know how to make good use of your anger, you can grow the Lotus of Peace, of Joy, of Forgiveness. And if we look deeply, we’ll be able to understand. And when we understand, there is love. And when there is love, anger must…’

His palms open like lotus petals.

‘Transform itself.’

The girl gives a simple nod. She gets it.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard to work out how he got from mud to love.

Google: Booktopia: ‘Thich Nhat Hahn Mud Lotus’. I pulled out my credit card and ordered his book. It was obvious I needed to stop spraying mud everywhere.

 

DIVERSITY

My street-stoush with Jogging Man was a tremor that heralded a quake. He was like a small dog that had got hold of my trouser leg. I wanted to kick the fucker off to fix the problem. But seriously, what was my problem? Was it really because he was a Pale-faced Manspreader invading my Ladyspace?

The next level of my mud quest came at me via another scholar. My two majors were, like the Pacific and the Atlantic, meeting at last. The anthropology of art was meandering into creative writing territory. We read Michael Jackson’s (yep, cool name) ethnographic-poetry, which veered away from desiccated academia. I was immediately fanboyant—more so when I discovered he came from my grandparent’s sleepy seaside town (Nelson, New Zealand), which I reckoned his poem, Making it Otherwisev was about:

 

‘… silt spread on the estuary

like a map of darkness

to be read by those

journeying toward clarity of speech.’

 

A small prophecy that held no meaning, yet—but I digress.

I was intrigued by his sweet-tempered explanation of the human condition. Apparently we are plural creatures, constantly trying to balance the seesaw between ‘our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.’ We want to be our own bosses and have all the things, AND we want to share nicely with our group, for the common good. Everyone struggles with this in a myriad of individual ways.vi

We tend to employ a bunch of simplified categories to frame our battles (for resources and ideologies). You can imagine all the variations on us/them: Raging Feminist Maori Mother Abuses Misogynist Second-Australian Fitness Addict.

Jackson agrees identity labels are helpful in getting us what we want—we should definitely study how we adopt them for good effect—marginalised people can be especially ravenous for identity.vii

Jackson says good anthropology (and writing, I presumed) will shine light onto the nitty-gritty ways we struggle with these tensions, mixed feelings, and contradictions. Nuanced description can unmask, and is more meaningful than, simplistic either/ors—when we write the life we actually live.viii

This was the kicker for me: ‘Any one person embodies the potential to be any other.’ix

Wait. What? Sounded like Jackson was saying someone can simultaneously carry the worldview of an adult and (a very needy inner) child; or exhibit the prejudices of the asshole and the victim. I am actually Maori and Irish. Goddamit, it’s possible Jogging Man was a nice guy who wasn’t wearing his glasses, just being a dick that day.

Epeli Hau’ofa soothed me, too—with his messier, oceanic view of our modern regional identity. Our diverse group—including new arrivals—were clever buggers, aye, once again regularly visiting each other, via Virgin Air; taking more than bags of cava or packets of pineapple lumps across borders. We were exchanging jobs, spreading welfare dollars, swapping sporting cups, and lovers. Epeli claimed our survival could depend upon us acting in concert to protect the Pacific Ocean (and by extension, Earth) from usurping ratbags who don’t respect it, who don’t see the real value of our epic space.x His warm voice wants to reunite criss-crossing Oceanians… who are all who love her, by being more expansive and tolerant, so we can transform ourselves: from being belittled ‘islands in the sea’, back into ‘a sea of islands’.xi

Heh. I started to like myself again. A roundhouse-kickass style had helped Oceanian women survive their dunking into the realm of nowhere. But, perhaps I could venture beyond the margins of stereotypes or monoculture; maybe morph into a more genuine creature, rather than some abstract, divided identity thrust forth in order for there to be only one winner.

 

GENETIC DRIFT

Finally, the new book arrived, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.xii

It was really excellent timing because my spunky little grandmother had just died, unexpectedly.

Breathe, incanted the ninety-one-year-old Zen master.

Thích Nhất Hạnh knows his readers’ mud is not limited to swearing at joggers. He did not promise to deliver anyone from suffering, but would teach me how to suffer, properly. The first arrow of pain, he soothingly explained, is pain you initially feel: anger, rejection, failure, injury, separation. The death of someone you love.xiii

Mum asked me to speak at Nana’s farewell: ‘I am somewhere I have never been before: Nelson without you.’ There was a lot more in that speech; but for some reason losing Nana also meant losing the whole town and occupants.

After seven happy-sad days spent setting up and conducting Nana’s funeral street party (Photoshopped invites; TV slideshow; where to park the Portaloo? red or black serviettes?); as well as catching up with hordes of cousins and uncles (beer and burgers; cycling along the river; reminiscing Nana over G&T’s; weeping while weeding her chic garden), it was time to return home to my little family in Sydney.

But grief opens up a hole; it irritates any festering, untended wound, makes it weep. The death of a matriarch can get the pus up.

The wound, what was it?

Breathing in, I know suffering is there.

Breathing out, I say hello to my suffering.xiv

Nhất Hạnh dropped a magnificent truth bomb: the second arrow of pain. Usually self-inflicted, it may take the form of judgement: the crap we tell ourselves to make our suffering much worse.xv

I belong nowhere, throbbed the arrow in the wound.

I pined like a lonely dog, seeing Nelson disappear through the airplane porthole, the din of the twin propellers masked my whimpering. As it banked over glacial blue water whorling into the estuaries below, I started crying up in that lonely airspace and could not stop for four days. I leave my extended family, again, and again and again.

Nhất Hạnh writes: ‘Some of our ill-being comes from hurt and pain in our own life; but some has been transmitted to us by our ancestors… you are the continuation of your parents… your body and mind contain their suffering and their hopes as well as your own.’xvi

I’d moved away from serious Buddhism a few years back when it got a bit mystical in the reincarnation department, but this guy was making things clearer. Nhất Hạnh explained how my body transported the genes and stories and happenings of all the people who came before, who had made me. I carried in my cells all their luck and habits. I was just the next step in all our journeys.

Jackson’s poem, Pioneers,xvii seemed to acknowledge their presence:

 

‘I am theirs and of them and for them speak.

My hands have gone over the roofs and gullies

of their names.

These hills I love under are their doing.

I have been given what they got.

I am what they became.’

 

I was seven when my parents vamoosed New Zealand to explore the world. Economic migration—ah, exciting new opportunities!—meant three nations, six primary schools, and ten houses changed before I slumped into high school. Boring, lovely old Nelson remained my spiritual basecamp, where I clambered a concrete blue whale to see the beach. I posted Nana and Pop regular airmail about our adventures; they were my first readers, and always wrote back. Letters were all that anchored me to their silver-haired kindnesses.

I had lost my huge family and beautiful land, and I never had a choice.

Why must I keep denying the wound? I squinted through my murky grief and saw broken arrow heads deeply embedded beneath my lifted chest armour.

Mindfully breathe, lulled Nhất Hạnh, it will create space to recognise suffering energy, then embrace it, ‘like a mother taking care of a crying baby… in her arms, without judging or ignoring it… with the energy of tenderness.’xviii I hugged my wailing mud baby, just by breathing.

Stacked on Nana’s coffee table had been family albums stuffed with hundreds of photos. One in particular—transported from 1973—gave me pause. Dad was standing on the dock, before his soon-to-depart frigate, hugging two-year-old me; I’m wearing his sailor cap and looking très grumpy. I didn’t know then, what I know now; that he was serving aboard the HMAS Otago, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship sent to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atol. Their military attention helped send those nuclear tests underground.

Our family line of warriors, sailors, explorers, and migrants seeking harbour stretched back through time. My uncle had shown me illustrations of the nineteenth-century tall ships that carried my great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand, a late arrival after the ocean-going migration waka had brought our iwi here, the Te Arawa and Ngāi Tahu Maori. I carried inside me more cheeky-sad travellers than one person could own.

How do I connect us? How do I belong?

Remove the second arrow.

Jackson, who knows something of being a bridge between art and social science, says, ‘When we don’t have power to materially change something, one power we can use is via the work of imagination, to rethink and reconstruct our reality, “undo deeds of the past,” with forgiveness’.xix

Could I revere my conflicting moods, be a breathing paradox? Notice, I imagined Jackson whispering to me, notice it all: the ancestors within me / the daughter left on the wharf / the girl torn from Aotearoa / the Oceanian who surveyed the world / the Sydney woman who battles space invaders. I am not either/ors—these are parts of a whole, spacious Sea of Me, and she has many expressions.

All this sounds a bit like the ethereal lotus.

Jackpot. Mud into love.

 
 

Works Cited

i Hau’ofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
ii Hau’ofa (p. 38)
iii Hau’ofa (p. 46)
iv ‘Transform Your Anger with Thich Nhat Hanh’, Goalcast, Facebook, accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.facebook.com/goalcast/videos/vb.897393153671209/1536207029789815/?type=2&theater
v Jackson, Michael. 1989. ‘Making It Otherwise,’ Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988. John McIndoe, Dunedin. (p.27)
vi Jackson, Michael. 2011. ‘Not to Find One’s Way in a City,’ Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want. Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp.359-383. (p.375)
vii Jackson Michael, 1998. ‘Here/Now,’ Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 189-209. (p. 199-201)
viii Jackson, Michael. 2012. ‘On the Work and Writing of Ethnography.’ Between One and One Another. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.167-214. (p.172)
ix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 208)
x Hau’ofa (p. 42)
xi Hau’ofa’s essays: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ and ‘The Ocean in Us,’ in We Are the Ocean, express all these ideas, throughout.
xii Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2014. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
xiii No Mud, No Lotus (p.46)
xiv No Mud, No Lotus (p. 23)
xv No Mud, No Lotus (p.47-48)
xvi No Mud, No Lotus (p.33)
xvii Jackson, Duty Free (p.28)
xviii No Mud, No Lotus (p. 27)
xix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 203)

 
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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.

 

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Can You See Ghosts?, Jamie Creswell

 

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

Save for one titbit fact.

Rio could see ghosts.

 

 

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

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

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

‘Rio?’

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

‘You can see me, sweetheart?’

Despite himself, Rio nodded a second time.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

‘Yes, angel?’

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

‘Do you know anyone else that has died?’

Madalyn frowned in confusion.

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

Rio just shook his head and shrugged.

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

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

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

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

‘No, I don’t, unfortunately.’

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

‘Rio, are we friends?’

Rio nodded.

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

 

 

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

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

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

That was how Rio came to meet Kane.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fucking hell, you can see ghosts?’

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

‘I guess? You’re my second one.’

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

The giant glared.

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

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

Eventually, time forced them to leave the park.

 

 

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

‘Hey… ’

‘Yes, Rio.’

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

A moment of silence passed.

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

‘Why don’t you try it?’

She paused to consider before chuckling.

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

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

‘How did you die, exactly?’

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

He strained to pick up their words.

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

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

Kane replied angrily, sounding impatient.

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

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

She was interrupted.

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

Fearing he might be caught, Rio fled.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

She was completely unprepared for his request.

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

‘Help me find stuff to take photos of.’

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

Rio nodded.

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

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

 

 

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

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

Madalyn smiled before she explained her reasoning.

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

Rio couldn’t help but blush in embarrassment.

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

Gradually, over thirty new images appeared.

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

 

 

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

They failed.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rio replied with a yes.

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The ghost refused.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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The Shadow, Suzin Lee

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mum, it’s just me,’ Alex called out.

Light footsteps pattered on the floorboards.

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

‘Mum, remember Dad is—’

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Toby…’ whispered Alex.

‘What’s wrong?’

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

‘Where?’ Toby inclined his head.

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

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

The man walked away as Alex watched in horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Just there, in the corner!’

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mum frowned, ‘What do you—’

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

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

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

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

‘You know me, I presume,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The smell…’ Alex mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex was screaming.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Twenty Percent, Jasmine Aird

His body arcs through the air, slamming into the brick wall. I wince. The part of me that once felt pain is fairly certain that would hurt

‘Bitch,’ he says, spitting blood on the asphalt. He glares at me, something that might have been more menacing if his eyes weren’t puffy and blue.

He rises to his feet and manages—despite the state he’s in—to pull a knife from his boot. Why can’t they ever just stay down? He stumbles towards me, half falling, like the drunks I see leaving the Serpent’s Nest at 3 am. I take pity. I’ll make this quick. I bring my right fist up and pop him squarely on the nose. Metal bites bone. He slumps down, face landing in a puddle. This time he stays there.

I pull out my pistol and shoot him once in the back of the head.

He deserves this, I remind myself, as I attempt to scrape off a stray piece of brain matter, which is sticking like gum to the edge of my boot. He’s one of them—a Purist. They all deserve this.

As I stand over the man’s body, I catch my reflection in the puddle. At first, she looks almost normal: a tall woman in her twenties with choppy hair that falls to her chin. Then you notice something’s off, something’s different. Perhaps it’s the lack of pigmentation, freckles and body hair. Or maybe it’s the newly formed gash on her right arm stretching from elbow to wrist; the synthetic flesh peels away exposing the titanium alloy underneath. It’s a good thing he went for my right arm instead of my left. If he had cut my left arm then he would have drawn blood.

‘Well done Eve,’ Alfie’s voice chimes in my ear. If I turn the dial beneath my earlobe I can adjust his accent and language. Today he’s British, tomorrow he’ll probably be South African. These are the things I do for amusement.

‘Maybe this time I’ll get paid,’ I say, as I light up a smoke, a habit that Alfie disapproves of despite the fact that it cannot harm the synthetic tissue in my lungs.

‘I’m afraid that’s unlikely, as 80% of your body is composed of Genesis technology, you are only 20% human and are therefore classified by state law as property. Genesis is not in the habit of paying its property.’

‘I was being sarcastic, Alfie.’

‘I am not programmed to detect sarcasm. I do however know several jokes. Would you like to hear one?’

‘That won’t be necessary,’ I say, as I pull out a hipflask—another habit that Alfie disapproves of—and begin pouring the whisky over the body.

I close my eyes for a moment of silence. Like raising a glass or lighting a candle, this is my small way of paying tribute to the dead—whether they deserve it or not. Once, I might have crossed myself or bowed my head in prayer. But those days are over; I abandoned such beliefs shortly after my transmutation. It’s difficult to hold out for an afterlife when my current state of purgatory isn’t exactly heaven. So instead, I suck down the last draw of my cigarette, flick the lit end onto the corpse and turn away.

The alley falls behind me as I begin manoeuvring my way through a series of back streets. The night air brushes over me, raising hairs on my left arm—my human arm. There are no streetlights in this part of Eden, not that I need one. My cat eyes slip into UV vision, pouring over the alleyway, revealing its secrets, like the urine staining the vandalised brickwork and the semen spattered across the cement. I cringe. If I had a stomach it would be turning.

‘I’m sending you the coordinates for your next mission,’ Alfie says. ‘Your objective is to interrogate the merchant, Abel Zane. He’s a known Purist sympathiser. Genesis suspects he’s in league with your targets.’

‘Who’s the target?’

‘A Purist, who has recently been involved in the infiltration and destruction of a large shipment of Genesis tech. Your orders are to dispatch of the target.’

Dispatch. A small part of me, the part that’s still human, grows uneasy at these words. I swallow her down—along with a healthy nip from my flask—and nod my head.

‘And Eve, if you fail to complete this mission then according to Genesis protoc—’

‘You’ll pull my plug, I know, you tell me every time.’

I turn the corner onto the main drag. The City of Eden draws me in like a cigarette. My eyes are immersed in colour. The browns and greys of the alleyway peel away to reveal a world doused in LED light. High-rise buildings line each side of the street, their spires slice through the smog which hangs over the city like a bad cold you can’t shake. Billboards and digital signage layer the buildings like body armour. The flashing lights and whirling colours cloud even my enhanced vision. I feel a headache coming on. Yes, I still get those.

I begin walking down the street, wading my way through the sea of people. I’m not interested in what’s above, I’m interested in what lies beneath. The cacophony of the Night Bazaar cocoons me. Stall after stall is pitched on the pavement. Merchants stand to attention, exchanging goods for digits, hollering to anyone who passes. I see one woman examining a pile of crinkled silks and another man sizing up a heavy phase rifle. Illegal, yes, but who’s going to stop him? The police stroll by with their hands in their pockets; they don’t care what’s sold so long as the merchants give them their cut.

‘Eve, I urge you to take caution, recent data suggests that there is a strong presence of Purist sympathisers in this sector of Eden.’

‘You don’t say,’ I reply, as I notice a Genesis billboard above me. The fruit-bearing tree—which is Genesis’ corporate logo—has been vandalised. Splayed across the trunk, in blood-red letters, is the Purist motto:

 

 

 

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

 

 

 

Genesis will not be pleased—and neither am I. If I’m not careful, I’ll be nothing more than a burning pile of circuits and wires. I unroll my sleeves, pull my hood down over my head and continue walking.

I pass a spice merchant’s tent. The scents of sumac, saffron and garlic waft through the air. I wrinkle my nose—I still have one of those, though the sensory receptors in my nostrils more closely resemble a dog’s than they do a human. I spy a hooded pair of men standing in a darkened corner between stalls, dealing in who knows what illicit substance. The underbelly of Eden comes to life in the bazaar. Anything can be bought here—for the right price.

‘Love, who wants some love? Swallow this pill and you’ll be swooning!’ a man calls from his stall, as I turn into a quieter section of the markets. I stop and pretend to examine his goods. Bottled pills in every colour line his table, each promising a different emotion. And they say I’m the one who can’t feel.

‘How about some love for the lovely lady?’ the merchant asks, stroking his beard.

‘While I’m fresh out of love, that’s not what I’m in the market for, Abel,’ I say as I lower my hood.

‘Just as well,’ he sneers, realising what I am. His left hand disappears beneath the counter, probably in search of a weapon. ‘Your kind aren’t welcome here, mutt.’

‘Come now, that’s no way to make friends. All I want to do is talk, you have information I need.’

‘I said you’re not wel—’

‘And I said you have information.’ I reach out and wrap my fingers around his neck. If I squeeze tight enough his bones will pop. ‘Drop your weapon.’

He obeys, his left-hand reappearing above the counter.

‘Where are they?’

‘I don’t know wha—’

‘Where are they?’ I tighten my grip and his face turns red. A man from a nearby stall turns his head.

Abel’s mouth flattens into a hard line, an expression I recognise all too well. This one will be a tough nut to crack. I’ll have to try a different tactic. My eyes roll over the contents of his stall. Behind the counter—sandwiched between two bottles of neon green pills—is a picture frame.

‘She’s beautiful,’ I say, nodding towards the frame where a little girl, roughly five years of age, is spinning around in circles. ‘I bet she’s very dear to you.’

‘Okay, okay.’ He raises his palms up, pleading. I release him. That was easy.

He rubs his neck as he gives me the address. I lean in towards him, so close that I can smell his dinner on his breath. ‘Thanks for the tip-off. And remember, I know your face… and hers.’ Abel quivers as I turn away.

‘Now that I’ve given you what you want, can Genesis guarantee our safety?’ he calls after my retreating form.

‘I’m afraid not,’ I say, as I continue walking. ‘We don’t negotiate with Purists.’

I turn back onto the main drag, heading for the exit. I spot another cyborg as I’m walking. His legs move in stiff strides like a marching soldier, though he’s no fighter: his clothes are covered in plaster and dust. He’s probably a tradesman, a blue-collared worker. Maybe he injured himself once; had a bad fall or was hit by a bus. Then, some company swooped in and patched him up. Now he works for free, just like me. Though, judging by his parts—which are primitive at best—he’s no piece of Genesis tech, just a cheap knockoff. His head isn’t hooded either, so he’s easy to pick out of the crowd. And I’m not the only one who sees him.

‘Abomination!’ one woman screams.

‘Mongrel!’ another man spits.

I watch, from beneath my hood, as heads begin to turn and people start to notice him. They move forward, circling him, like a pack of wolves playing with its prey. He tries to push past them but it’s no use. They lunge at him: kicking, shoving and spitting. Even with his outdated parts he is stronger than them, not that it helps—he’s outnumbered.

I take a step forward.

‘I strongly advise against that,’ Alfie says. ‘If you were to proceed with that course of action I cannot foresee any possible outcome that would result in your survival.’

As much as I’d like to ignore this prediction, I obey, and step back, clenching my fists. I watch the cyborg struggle against the crowd; his outstretched fingers reach above them, grasping at the air as if he’s a drowning man who is trying to break the surface. Yet he only succeeds in being pulled further beneath.

‘I hate them, Alfie,’ I say, as one man draws a Hot Blade from his coat. He raises the weapon and slashes at the cyborg; the edge of the blade pulses with thermal energy as he brings it down, severing a metallic limb.

‘It would appear the feeling is mutual,’ Alfie says, as the man raises the prosthetic above his head, holding it up like a trophy.

The crowd cheers and rushes forward, following suit. They tear at the cyborg with anything they can get their hands on: knives, fingers and even teeth. Two officers stand off to the side of the rabble with their hands on their hips. They don’t move. They don’t intervene. They don’t have to. A cyborg is property, not a human. Property damage is punishable by corporate security, not the police. According to the law, no crime is being committed.

There’s nothing I can do here except stand aside and be useless, so I turn away and continue walking.

 

 

 

‘This is taking forever, Alfie,’ I say, as I drop my cigarette into the growing pile of butts that lay at my feet. ‘I should just go in.’

I’m hidden in the alcove of an old printing factory, which, like most of its kind, had shut down years before. Across the street, a number of shadows move behind a closed set of blinds. I can see them, but they can’t see me; I have the element of surprise. Now would be the perfect opportunity.

‘You overestimate your abilities, Eve. I am detecting a number of human beings present within the building. You have one target, not twenty.’

Movement stirs across from me. The doors open and a pair of men saunter out, heading for their vehicle. I recognise my target from the footage Alfie sent me; a tall man with shaggy blonde hair. The two men hop into their car, an old model that doesn’t fly. I guess Purists don’t get paid much either.

They start the engine and take off down the street. I follow their vehicle, which isn’t difficult—I had placed a tracker underneath the rear bumper while I was waiting. After several blocks, I arrive outside a dingy building, which looks—in polite terms—like a well-functioning crack house.

‘Eve, my data confirms that this property belongs to Abel Zane.’

‘The merchant?’ I say as I pull out my pistol. ‘I guess they found out we spoke.’

I cross the street and slip inside. Despite the building’s rough exterior, I’m standing in a typical family home, complete with children’s toys and school photos.

‘Please, don’t hurt us, it wasn’t my fault, they threatened my daughter!’

I race into the kitchen, where, I can see, Abel has been shot. He leans against the wall, holding his side, which is bleeding heavily. My target is standing over him, gun raised and ready for round two.

I’m about to intervene when I spot the other Purist reaching beneath the kitchen table. He yanks at the ankle of the little girl, who kicks him in the face with a fluoro pink boot. I raise my gun towards this man and shoot. He slumps down onto the tiles, leaving the girl alone.

My target’s attention snaps towards me, followed by his gun. He fires, which is a waste of time; the bullets bounce off my chest like oil from a hot pan. He fires again and again and again. I stand there and take it, like a boxer takes a punch, waiting for him to run out of ammo. He reaches the last bullet; it cuts through the air and slams into my left arm—my human arm. I cry out in pain, something I haven’t felt since I was human. I stare down at the torn flesh. That’s going to leave a mark.

I raise my gun and shoot. He hits the floor and stays there.

‘My target is dead, Alfie,’ I say, as I press down on my arm, applying pressure to the wound.

‘Genesis requires that you dispatch of all the Purists present.’

‘And the kid?’ I ask, holding my breath.

‘She is not a Purist.’

I exhale and walk across the room to stand over Abel’s slumped form. He glares at me as I raise my gun towards his head. He’s still holding his side, not that this helps—he’ll bleed out within minutes without proper medical attention. I glance at his daughter, who is peering at me from beneath the table, her face wet with tears. I could still let him go, for her sake, if not for his. Perhaps, if he somehow made it to the nearest hospital—and Genesis didn’t already have someone else there waiting for him—he might live. I would die, of course. My dear friend Alfie would have my plug pulled in seconds. But maybe this is bigger than that. Maybe this is bigger than me.

‘Damn you, mutt,’ he spits.

But then again, maybe not. A part of me screams. I swallow her down and pull the trigger.

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