Long Strange Trip, Luke Saunders

The Saguaro Cactus of the Sonoran Desert is found all the way from Arizona to Mexico. With two arms on either side, they were used for shade by outlaws and water by the Comanche. However, rumour has spread that they were once American Indians but Hochunk (the spirit of the Earth) petrified them, like Medusa, and turned them to cacti. Deserters, trespassers and transgressors alike they now lay scattered across the desert floor haunting the lonely traveller.

Alex strode down the desert line possessed by some feverish determination. The sun burned hot as it sank in honey light.

Kicking up dust and foaming at the mouth Alex’s chestnut Stallion was led to the water’s edge. She called him ‘Breeze’, and he was typically a proud horse when not a little hunched from thirst.

Now dirty and brown, his legs half gave as his head touched the water. Alex bent to fill her enormous 4L water bottle.

‘Tough day eh?’

Alex shot around.

A man pointed a gun at her.

‘We just want some water then we’ll go,’ Alex said raising her hands.

‘Ah no no. I see water and a meal here.’ He flicked his eyes towards Breeze who was now looking back at him.

‘It’s a mighty shame too. He must be one of the only horses left. Ain’t that so strange. All my cows died. I had sixty-five good Jersey cows and they all died along with my two mutts,’ a crazed look glazed his eyes as his voice rose. His twisted beard and hair were matted with mud. Alex retreated into the water as the man advanced. Breeze walked up the lake’s bank.

‘Then all my neighbour’s cattle went n’ died; horses too. It’s fucking crazy. All in one night they just fell flat on their asses and kicked the bucket.’

Alex was almost waist deep now.

‘Now I’m out here and I don’t even know how. My mind doesn’t feel like my own. My wife’s dead and… and…’ The man fixed his gaze on Alex.

‘Look why don’t I cook us up a nice horse steak. And then who knows, maybe we can have a little f…’

Breeze reared and kicked out at the man, breaking six ribs and a collarbone. The man collapsed in the sand, and his chest caved.

Alex filled her water and let the man die, taking his 42 revolver and ammunition. He would have become another casualty of the illness any way.




It was not dark yet, but it was getting there. Breeze grazed beneath the lakeside trees, and Alex started a fire. While it spat into life she removed the jerky from her saddlebags and laid them back in the sand. The jerky, thick with gristle after having baked in the sun for so long, was dry as the desert that swallowed her.

Breeze came to hang his head by the fire, and Alex lay hers back on the saddle, looking up at the night sky. It looked like a black diamond, flawed with a million stars.

Alex’s hand lay on her waist, and her thoughts branched out like tendrils in the night. She had been born with an extra rib on the left side.

‘You’re so pretty Alex. Maybe one day I can be as pretty as you.’

It’s her most favourite memory. Her mother is smiling down, brown hair touching hers.

‘Okay buckle up you two!’

Her brother Billie Ray is sitting beside her making friends with a lollipop.

The radio blares a new blues hit, ‘Truckin’ got my chips cashed in. Keep truckin’ like the Do-Da Man.’

‘HA HA, Doooo Da Man,’ said Billie.

A three-day storm is just relenting. Worst daddy has seen in years.

Snow falls softly as the car whirrs by. It keeps on falling, yet the pass is clear. Up and up and up they go along the winding road that ribbons across the mountain’s skirts. Ice clings to the road, and a sheer drop awaits a mistake.

‘Sometimes the lights all shinin’ on me. Other times I can barely see. Lately, it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.’

THUD. Dull and hollow. Time slows. The window shatters in screams. A million tiny pieces.

The car had hit a deer. And Alex’s mother’s body broke the windscreen. Forgot her seatbelt.

The memory of this trauma crystallised, in time, into a thin hardened shell around Alex. Melting down inside her chrysalis of loss she would one day emerge a butterfly. Alex was pinned by the front seat that day, and if not for the support of her extra rib, the steel frame would have broken her sternum instead of cracking it.

Alex lost her mother and brother. Her father fell into hard drinking and ended up in cuffs, huh, same old thing. Having lost the last of her family photographs to the desert Alex had even begun to forget the face of little Billie Ray, the details faded like washed out watercolour paints. But who knows, perhaps memories distorted by nostalgia are warmer at night than clear-cut reality. Alex’s eyes closed and she swam down into slumber.




As the morning light spilt into the desert and gloved the cold fingers of dawn, Sherriff E. Dennerly put out his cigar. He wasn’t sure why but he had always smoked cigars. I guess he just liked how they looked in the movies. Especially on men with beards, real men, not like the young bucks nowadays. He tipped his hat (although no one was looking), put his hand on his colt pistol and walked off, boot heels scuffing the desert floor.

The familiar weight of his pistol had become like an old friend. Although now it felt phantom, with almost everyone gone there were no criminals, no judges, no law. And of course, law was the great rational equalizer to Man’s ultimate game: war. The bossy kid to knock over your blocks and ruin the fun. Maybe this badge just deludes me, for all I know I’m the only cop left.

There was a subtle beauty to the desert, the Sherriff thought, like a woman whose laugh was more beautiful than any curves. Only you had to wait for the perfect joke to hear that laugh of gold. Desert dawns were like this. The sand had settled, the trees were greener and the red tongue of light spread across the valley as the beast awoke to meet the sun. All through the day, its jaws would lay open for unwary things to fry and die until it slept again at dusk. The desert was a beast. And there is certainly a beauty to any beast on earth.

The Sherriff’s thoughts wandered on as he glimpsed the town.

What was once a bustling trade route on the Sonoran desert line was now empty as anything. On the Arizonan border, Sherriff Dennerly had heard there was to be a small settlement of survivors here, and he was to be their law.

Every since the plague, or disease, or bloody wrath of God, law had been an empty vessel floating on the open seas. It had not wiped out all the population though, but almost all. Sinners and good folk alike just keeled over in the night. The ones that were left had to flee to drier lands to avoid the bacteria of rotting corpses that would spread like wildfire in spring.

His boot heels scraped tar as he found the roads edge and headed for town. A shiver draped him. He felt like he was being watched. Now, for a paranoid man, the Saguaro cacti were not your friends. They loomed over shoulders like the demented spectres some Comanche ritual. Sherriff Dennerly kept looking behind, memorising, making sure they weren’t changing shape or form.

The Garden Inn. It tolled like a bell in his mind. A voice had spoken of the Inn and told him to go there. He was sure his mind was becoming unhinged in the lone sands but he had to see it through, for the sake of sanity.

The Sherriff was more than a little surprised to find the Garden Inn was actually surrounded by a small garden. It was nothing spectacular but tufts of green grass burst out of the buildings skirts for a metre or so and were dotted with desert daisies.

The owner must have one deep well to keep all this green, he thought. Furthermore, hiding amongst the tussocks were little ceramic bunnies and deer, peering out so shy. Not paying it much mind he walked in under their opaque stare. A horse reigned to the building’s handrail whinnied as he entered.

Dust motes cycloned as he passed through the saloon doors. A lone wind howled in the street. Dennerly ran a finger along the bar like the trail of a snail. The floorboards creaked.


No answer.

‘Anyone home?’

Only silence.

It’s empty, he thought, I am going crazy after all.

That’s when a door gradually groaned upstairs. The squeaking slowed as he turned his head upwards.

‘I have a gun. If you make any sudden moves you’re dead.’ A slender woman with brown hair looked down at him.

‘Ok now, let’s not make any rash decisions,’ said the Sherriff. A bottle exploded behind him.

‘Shut up. The last man spoke too much. Now he is dining with the buzzards. I’m sick of this craziness. Who are you?’ She spied his badge, and her eyes widened in a blend of shock and realisation. He opened his mouth but she cut him off.

‘You’re the law,’ she said.


He touched his badge. ‘I’m the last brick in a broken wall,’ he said, eyes downcast. ‘Hardly the law.’

‘I heard you in my head, or some voice like you. It told me where to go, it told me about you. Outlaw, outlaw it said. I thought it was thirsty delusion or some sickness of the mind,’ Alex descended the stairs towards him.

‘It told me to come here to the Garden.’

‘Yes! Mine too,’ he said stunned. “Now I’m just trying to stay alive. Trying not to forget the…  the old ways.’

‘Is everyone dead?’ asked Alex.

‘Not everyone, but in the space of a week, all of Arizona went cold, every girl and boy. They thought it was some new strain of the bubonic plague.’

‘Same story back in La Jolla. It was like a hard cut. Mother Nature just lashed out.’

‘Well, somehow we are together… uh.’

‘Alex,’ she held out her hand.

‘Eric,’ they shook. Each other’s eyes turned a few shades kinder.

The couple uncorked a dusty bottle of bourbon.




With the sun having reached its zenith the two companions left the Inn. On the front deck, a cool wind eased the heat.

Heads buzzing they failed to notice four ragged men in the middle of the street. Breeze neighed and stamped his hooves and Alex scrambled for her gun.

‘Hey!’ one of them shouted. Eric’s gun was up already.

Fumbling with a broken buckle Alex forced her revolver out and brought it up, a little late to the show.

‘They’re people, they’re alive!’ one of them muttered.

Alex knew they were going to lose if things went sour.

The leader stepped forward. His eyes were shifty reminding Alex of a reptile. Cocking his head, he said, ‘Come now friendss, there ain’t no need for gunss here.’ His lisp slurred his speech.

‘Leave now. If not, you’ll lose,’ said The Sherriff.

‘But you have a horse and a mighty fine young lady,’ his eyes were hungry, ‘we can’t leave now. Let’s talk over a candlelit meal, shall we? Man to man.’ He was clearly a master of brinkmanship.

Void of volition Alex spoke up, ‘He said fuck off! Get out of here! Or I’ll put one right between those slimy eyes.’ Alex was not so bad herself. The man only smiled his greedy grin.

Before he could speak again, a faint whine reached everyone’s ears. It built in resonance like that of a cicada’s choir. Eric noticed the sand seemed to be moving towards them almost a hundred metres away.

‘That’ss no ssandstorm,’ hissed the reptilian leader.

Quickening in pace the sound reached a great scuttling that drowned out all other sounds. In the confusion, the Sherriff shot at one of the men’s back. He yelled and crumpled. The reptilian fired shattering the window behind the Sherriff. The second bullet found his gut. Alex stared wide-eyed.

In a small wave of thorny hides and scales, a colossal movement of lizards swept through the town. Bright blues and greens splashed in the surging stampede of dark browns and desert hues. The men in the street were knocked over and swallowed in the overwhelming tide, and the leader was drowned out as he screamed ‘Moloch! Moloch! Moloch!’

Even more remarkably the lizard pogrom swept entirely around the Garden Inn. Reptiles everywhere and not a claw touched it. They passed on screaming and scurrying, and Alex stood in deep shock. In the next instant, as if the lights were turned out on a sleeping child, the sun was blotted and darkness reigned. A total eclipse. It caught them a little sideways as the blackness became thicker. They were divers at the bottom of the ocean’s deepest gorge.


‘Eric!’ Alex rushed and knelt beside him. She tore open his reddening shirt. Her hand traced the blood and found the abrasion ring. She noticed a silver thin scar under his ribs and wistfully touched her own rib.

‘Am I dying?’ Eric whispered.

‘It’s a clean exit wound. You should pull through if I can stop the bleeding.’

Alex attempted patching the wound using fishing line and a rusty nail cutter found in the Inn; there was a roll of bandaging in the storage closet and a packet of aspirin above the bar as well, due to expire the very next day.

The sun and moon fell in synchronicity towards the horizon, carving out the sky like a comet. A total moving eclipse. Alex and Eric hardly noticed. The celestial miracle sat just above the horizon.

‘I think I’ve done it,’ she was now only talking to herself. Eric was pale and unconscious from blood loss.

‘It’s a crude stitching job but it’ll do with a bit of luck,’ her hands were a bright crimson and her shirt a darker scarlet.

‘Such vivid reds,’ she said staring at her hands. Eric’s heartbeat was stable, and his breathing hadn’t stopped.

‘Thank god.’

The eclipse now finally dipped below the horizon, like the closing of a tired eye.

Alex looked, and in that instant, she was once again amazed.

Brilliant incandescent light shot up from the horizon and into the sky. Burning, hot, beautiful colours. They swept over the sky and spread out. They danced and weaved like ribbons and currents above the desert land. At that moment the grass in front of the inn belched into life. It spread across the street and in its wake saplings and wildflowers curled into life.

A drop from each coloured tentacle in the sky fell to the sandy floor. So many fell it was as if it were raining, but in a million different shades and tints.

Alex felt as if she had been looking through a dirty window her entire life and it was finally clean. She thought she was dreaming.

The earth was cleansed, as the final plague was one of redemption. A million naked bodies now stood in the desert where the Saguaro cacti once were, and they looked towards the garden. It shone like a lighthouse alone in a sandy sea.

Long Strange Trip, Luke Saunders PDF

Stained Glass Window Cracks, Alexis Worthing

Katie was young when I met her. She would still be young now. She wasn’t a pretty girl, at least not by most standards. Her hair was a tangled mess, unbrushed for days, and her mouth was turned down like it had forgotten how to form a smile. Her skin was pale, and she wore baggy clothes that hid any shape to her. She was always fidgeting absently, twisting her hair, clothes, and even skin. When she was particularly anxious or uncomfortable, she would bite at her fingertips. Her eyes were always downcast, never looking at anyone directly. But when you did catch her eye, when you got the chance to look deep into them, there was a spark there. There was pain, sure, and it was washed out by the constant ghost of tears, but it was there no doubt. That relentless spark. A spark of life buried deep inside. I wanted to bring it out, to help her, but in the few short months I knew her I never did manage to work out how.

I first saw her standing in the back of the church. She was alone and seemed unsure of what she should do next. I had come in from the garden to get a glass of water. It was a scorching day and watering the plants did little for my own thirst. Standing in the light of the giant stained glass window, her skin was a canvas of colours, so beautiful, yet so cracked and broken. She crept slowly forward, each step precise and calculated, trying to make as little noise as possible on the old wooden floors. She sat down in the third row from the front and bowed her head, so her hair fell in front of her face.

Wanting to give her privacy, I quickly finished my glass and headed back towards the door. As I moved, I stepped on a loose floorboard. It creaked, not loudly, but loud enough that Katie jumped to her feet. Her eyes were wide in shock, and I could see tears streaking her cheeks. I stepped back instinctively, taken aback by her sudden movement.

‘It’s alright miss, you’re more than welcome here. I was just leaving anyway.’

She shook her head, stammered out what sounded like an apology, and backed away out a side door. The door swung shut with a gentle thud. I stood there, confused, watching where she had been just seconds before. But then I turned my attention back to the crocus flowers I had been about to plant. They would make a lovely addition to the garden, so bright and colourful when they bloomed, and I wanted to make sure I planted them in just the right spot.

I didn’t think of Katie again until the following week. This time, I was planting some Lily of the valley in the shade of the church, lost in thought about how—when they bloomed—they would spread across the dirt and make a beautiful white covering. Much better than the dead grass that had been there previously. The garden itself was quite a pretty little place. It had been built by the church community a few years back; there was a wide variety of plants, with winding gravel paths between them. I was constantly adding new plants, and caring and tending to the old ones. My goal was to ensure that no matter what season you came in, the garden was a beautiful wash of life and colour. Scattered amongst the garden beds were stones painted with an array of inscriptions—from kids’ drawings, to handprints, to bible quotes. Each one was done by a different person, and they all seemed to capture a little bit of their life and personality within them.

One of my favourite places was the rose garden, it had a lovely array of different coloured roses with a plaque in the centre that read: ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’  I was heading past there to fetch the watering can when I saw her. Sitting on the bench alone, vines creeping over the metal frame above her head, she was lost in her own world. There was a sadness to her face, not the same as I’d seen the other day with tears, but the sort that is a dull, constant ache in your very soul. I was overcome with an urge to help, to wipe that pain away.

‘You alright there miss? You seemed a little upset the other day.’

She jumped, eyes widening in shock. When she looked straight at me, up close, I was met with the full force of the emptiness on her face for the first time. It was so lifeless. Even the shock seemed not to sit properly on her. It reminded me of when a plant finally dies. Not the brown that people assume is dead, but when it is actually properly dead. No colour or moisture left. She was like that; empty and colourless. Except for her eyes, they still shone a bright blue, as though they could not be dulled.

‘Fine,’ the word was dull, a whisper that lacked any energy. She paused for a minute and then said, ‘You remembered me?’

‘Of course I did. I make a point of remembering everyone I meet.’

‘I’m not worth remembering,’ the sentence jumped from her instinctively. She looked down at her hands and blushed. Her fingers pinched the skin on her wrist.

‘Everyone is worth remembering.’

She didn’t speak, just twisted her fingers harder around her skin. The tension in the air was strong.

‘My name’s Brian.’

‘Katie.’ She looked nervous, shifting constantly in her seat. Letting go of her wrist, she bit at her fingertips instead.

‘This is my favourite part of the garden you know,’ I said, trying to engage her in conversation and make her more comfortable. ‘Did you see that there? It’s a quote from Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet actually.’

Her eyes followed where I was gesturing. She nodded slightly, acknowledging it, but saying nothing. I pressed on.

‘This couple that has been coming here for years planted the roses. Lovely couple, both English teachers. One at the high school and the other over at the university. Big fans of Shakespeare, but it is a fitting quote. Roses aren’t my favourite flower, mind you, thorns always getting in the way. What’s romantic about getting poked by a plant?’

I was hoping for a smile, but she just nodded slowly and stared at the plaque. It seemed she was not going to say anything. Maybe she wanted to be left alone? It’s not uncommon for people to come here just to think.

‘Alright then, well you enjoy the garden. I need to get back to work, I’ve got some freshly planted Lily of the valley that needs some water. Plus, the cleomes need trimming before they get too tall. If you need anything, I’ll be around.’

‘Thanks,’ she said it slowly, seeming unsure of the word.

I began to see her often after that. At first, she would just sit on the bench, staring off at nothing. I would stop and chat to her, telling her all about the flowers in the garden. It seemed to interest her, and it was in these conversations that I first began to see the spark in her eyes. That little bit of life, and hint of a smile, forcing its way through. I guess that’s why I kept coming back to her; I wanted to bring it out. It made me sad that someone so young would have so little life. So I would sit with her and talk.

After a while, she began to follow me around the garden as I worked. Not every time, but on days when she seemed just a little bit brighter. Over time, she started to ask questions. Always in the same dull whisper. She seemed intrigued by the garden and asked about how I knew which plants needed care. I told her that it was just something you learn. It was in my bones. She seemed to like my company.

One day when I was trimming the Lily of the valley, which was growing nicely and getting close to flowering, I saw her sitting on the bench like she sometimes does. She looked sadder today than normal. Putting down my secateurs, I picked up my lunch bag and went to sit with her.

‘Strawberry?’ I offered her the container. ‘I grew them myself, in my garden at home.’

She took one wearily and bit into it. For a split second, I almost saw a smile. She took another.

‘They’re much nicer homegrown, I find,’ I said.

She nodded slowly.

‘I also have apples, from my daughter’s farm. She moved away a while ago, but whenever she comes to visit she brings me a fresh box of fruit. The apples are my favourite.’

Katie took the apple I had offered her, and as she did I realised something. The spark in her eyes was the same as my daughter had had when she was Katie’s age. It was the life that had always powered her. Of course for Katie, it was masked by her pain, but maybe that’s why I wanted to keep her company. Maybe a friend would help bring out that life?

The food seems to have raised Katie’s mood slightly and she followed me as I went back to planting. I told her about the Lily of the valley, and how I loved to see it flower. She watched it for a while before she walked away again. I didn’t see her for a couple of weeks after that. The next time I did, she was sitting on the bench again, wearing a jumper despite the summer heat, and crying.

Unsure what to do, I brought her one of the crocus flowers she had admired on our last trip around the garden. They had begun to flower, so bright and beautiful. She seemed to like the purple flowers most of all. It lay in her lap, her fingers wrapped around the stem. I offered her water, but she only shook her head. Then I pulled out some strawberries and blueberries I’d picked that morning and held them out to her, but she didn’t even acknowledge them.

Not sure what else might help, I just let the silence linger for the longest time. Tears slowly ran down Katie’s cheeks and my heart broke for her. I couldn’t imagine what must be going on for her to cry so much. In hindsight, I could have asked—could have tried to investigate. But I guess I didn’t even know what to say, and she never opened up on her own. That’s part of the reason I like gardening so much. I always know what they need. I’m not so good at people. So we just sat there, together. Eventually, she turned to me and told me ‘thank you,’ in her quiet voice. Then she left. I watched her walk along the path and disappear through the gate.

That was the last time I ever saw her. A week later, her photo appeared in the back pages of the local paper, with some lines about her death. It said she’d committed suicide and we should send our prayers to her mother who had found her, and to Katie, so her soul would find peace. It was followed by the usual generic sentences, ‘she was taken too young’ and ‘she was always so full of life, she had so much potential.’ It all seemed very arbitrary to me. That wasn’t Katie at all. They didn’t know her, I don’t think anyone did. I wish I’d tried to help her more. Maybe if I had of asked her more about her life, asked her what was going on or how I could help, I could have saved her. I scrunched up the paper and threw it down on a pew. She was gone, and a few lines in a paper by someone who’d never even met her meant nothing. Nothing.

I walked out to the garden. It was that day that the Lily of the valley I’d put so much care into flowered for the first time. That seemed wrong somehow, now she was gone, it felt like the flowers should be gone too. But that’s not how nature works, in its cruel way. Katie was gone before she’d even got the chance to bloom. I sat on our bench, unable to move, unable to think about anything but picture her sitting in the same spot. She’d spent so much time there over the past two months, and never once had I asked her what was going on. All I did was talk about plants, talk about how I cared for them. I stared at the plants around me until the sun set and the garden began to fall dark.

The next morning, I came back with a fresh batch of plants, all various shades of purple, and my shovel. I began to dig in the dirt next to the church. Plant by plant, I lay them out carefully. The arrangement had to be just right. This was hers. This was how I was going to keep her alive. Once everything was planted, I took a stone and painted it for her, with her name and some of the flowers she’d liked most. I wasn’t much of an artist, but it still sits there, looking up at the beautiful array of colours in the stained-glass window. All the cracks melting away to form a complete artwork. That was more like the Katie I had known, so many cracks but still a beautiful, young girl. She is part of the garden now.


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The Back Door, Lilli de Kantzow

The group stepped out of the lift and turned the corner. They walked in pairs down the hall, two dark-suited men in front and two behind. In between was a small man of roughly thirty-five with thick brown hair and a very beautiful woman. The porter who was walking down the hall towards them jumped to the side as they passed. The two men in front stared at him menacingly, but the rest of the party barely acknowledged the porter’s existence.

The door to Room 1101 swung open as the first pair of men reached it. It had been opened by another set of men in suits. They greeted each other with a nod as the group filed in. The middle-aged man and the woman headed straight down the hall and into the suite’s sitting room. As they entered, the man sitting in the corner stood up.

‘Ah!’ he exclaimed, ‘Our guests have arrived!’

‘Sergey!’ the woman beamed, throwing her arms up and making a show of kissing the air either side of Sergey’s bald head. The woman then gestured her companion closer. He stepped forward and extended a sweating palm in greeting. Sergey looked between the pair disconcertedly.

‘Anthony, this is Sergey Popov,’ she said graciously, ‘Sergey, this is my husband, Anthony Wyatt.’ Anthony shuffled forward a few more steps and grabbed Sergey’s meaty hand. After a few seconds of awkwardness, Sergey freed his hand and gestured for the pair to sit down.

‘Tanya told you of our… knowledge?’ Sergey inquired of Anthony. Tanya tried to force her smile to widen, as Anthony attempted to take a cup of tea from a security guard. Anthony’s eyes had fixed on the Glock G43 under the security guard’s suit jacket, and his hand was grabbing at thin air. The security guard moved the cup toward Anthony’s hand, and he finally made contact with the china. The guard’s emotionless face flickered for a moment as he glanced up at Sergey’s unimpressed expression, and realised his boss was thinking the same thing he was.

Tanya had noticed the guard’s glance and kicked Anthony’s foot. Anthony jumped slightly, and then his brain seemed to switch into gear.

‘She has, but she made no mention of the type of knowledge you possess’, he said, and Sergey’s brows creased.

‘No, because she does not entirely know what knowledge I do have,’ said Sergey, nodding at another security guard. Tanya raised an eyebrow in Sergey’s direction, but he pointedly ignored her. The nominated security guard disappeared into another of the suite’s rooms for a moment before re-appearing with a thin manila folder. Tanya carefully watched Anthony’s expression as he opened it.

Anthony stared for a moment at its contents. He twisted his head side-to-side, cracking his neck and took a deep breath. After a few more seconds of contemplation, he slapped the folder down on the table.

‘How?’ he said to Tanya, his voice cracking slightly in anger. She looked at him quizzically, then picked up the folder. She looked from Sergey to her husband.

Tanya could feel her heart pounding through her fingers as she opened the folder. She had barely lifted the top before she let it drop shut. Her face turned bright red. She rounded on Sergey.

‘This is the knowledge you had?’ she growled.

Sergey smirked and nodded, clearly enjoying watching Anthony’s seething anger and Tanya’s frantic panic.

‘For seven million dollars?!’ Tanya couldn’t contain her rage as she spoke. She reached forward, pulled the photos out of the manila folder and began to rip them up.

‘They are not our only copies,’ muttered Sergey as a security guard moved forward to restrain Tanya. The guard stopped as Tanya collapsed back into the couch next to Anthony. She turned to her husband. Tanya attempted to speak, but her mouth opened and closed in frantic silence.

‘I think that was worth every cent,’ Anthony said, standing up. One of Anthony’s security guards came forward with a nondescript briefcase and handed it to Sergey. Sergey stood up in almost surprised at the speed with which Anthony recovered, and took the briefcase now being handed him.

‘The entire amount is in non-sequential hundred-dollar bills, as requested’ said Anthony. Sergey mustered a gracious smile and handed the briefcase to one of his men.

‘Perfect,’ was all Sergey could say. He looked disconcertedly from Anthony to Tanya, who was now sobbing uncontrollably on the couch. He gestured towards Tanya, trying to think of something to say.

‘Evans,’ said Anthony, ‘take my wife downstairs and out through the back entrance’. The blonde security guard who had handed Anthony the briefcase now stepped forward, whipped a handkerchief out of his pocket and ushered the sobbing Tanya out of the room.

Anthony watched Tanya leave and waited until the door had shut securely behind her and the sobs had disappeared down the hall.

‘You have another copy of the images?’ he asked, and Sergey produced another manila folder from the desk behind him.

‘Would you like to be informed of any more knowledge that I may become aware of?’ asked Sergey.

‘Yes, I think this could be a very profitable relationship,’ Anthony smiled, extending his now dry hand purposefully. Sergey smiled, shook Anthony’s hand, and handed him the new manila folder.

Anthony then turned on his heel and strode down the hall, opened the door and went out into the corridor. His security staff scurried out after him. He handed the manila folder to the shortest guard, who stowed it in his jacket. The four men then set off down the hall towards the lift.

‘That was a slightly unexpected turn of events,’ commented one guard slyly.

‘Yes, but also rather advantageous. I can kill two birds with one stone,’ Anthony replied.

There was a ding as the lift arrived at the hotel’s lobby. The men stepped out, walking straight into two porters. One jumped forward.

‘Oh my god!’ he exclaimed, ‘You’re Anthony Wyatt! I hope you win, I really do.’

‘Thank you, my friend!’ Anthony beamed, and reached out to shake the porter’s hand. The porter grabbed Anthony’s hand and shook it violently.

‘Could I get a photo?’ he asked, still not letting go of Anthony’s hand. Anthony smiled graciously, trying to subtly pull his hand out of the porter’s vice-like grip. The porter pulled out his phone and took a photo.

‘Good on you, son,’ said Anthony as the porter put his phone away. ‘Is there anything you’d like me to advocate for?’

The porter shook his head, still smiling from ear to ear. Anthony slapped him on the back and was ushered away by his security guards as a small crowd began to gather around them.

‘Who was that?’ asked the other porter.

‘That was Anthony Wyatt,’ replied the first, ‘you know… the Presidential candidate’.

The second porter shrugged, ‘Huh, I thought he’d be taller.’

The first porter laughed, and then began looking through the tickets on their desk.

Outside, a large black SUV pulled up in front of the hotel, and Anthony got in. Already inside were the blonde security guard, his hysterical wife, and Anthony’s fixer, Hector Baldwin. Hector nodded at Anthony and held out his hand. Anthony duly passed over the manila folder, and the car set off. Hector flicked it open, considered the contents and flipped it shut again.

‘How do you wish to proceed?’ he asked Anthony.

Anthony leant forward slightly and pulled a small brochure out of the driver’s seat back pocket. Hector flipped it open and began to read. It proclaimed the history, credentials, and benefits of The Wyatt Clinic, a psychiatric clinic in a remote part of Montana. It was opened by Anthony’s family after the Civil War as a hospital for shell-shocked and disabled troops, and was now run by Anthony’s older sister and her husband as a psychiatric hospital and rehabilitation centre for the rich, famous, and criminally insane. Tanya’s wails were refreshed when she glanced up to see her husband’s proposed solution. Hector gave a small, twisted smile.

‘And call Lydia. I should give her the story before someone else gets to it,’ said Anthony.

‘Already done. She’ll be waiting,’ replied Hector, pulling out his phone and dialling the number on the front of the brochure. After a few minutes of talking to a receptionist, Hector handed the phone to Anthony.

‘Samantha!’ he said, attempting to fain some enthusiasm. ‘How are you?’

‘Why are you sending me her?’ came his sister’s irritated reply.

‘Because it seems she’s been having an affair,’ responded Anthony blankly.

‘Another one? With who?’ Samantha scoffed.

‘Adam Huntington,’ said Anthony.

‘As in, the Adam Huntington? Your largest and most powerful political rival, Adam Huntington?’ asked Samantha. Anthony could hear her trying to suppress her laughter.

‘Yes,’ said Anthony, his voice turned hollow. ‘We’re going to say that the miscarriage she suffered in August caused her to fall into deep depression. She lost all self-confidence, and when Huntington heard about this, he used this knowledge to seduce her to try and weaken my position in the race to the White House.’

Samantha promptly stopped laughing, ‘Okay. Send her here, and I’ll look after the rest.’ Samantha paused for a moment, ‘I’m sorry Tony… I know this can’t be easy for you.’

‘Thanks, Sam,’ He cleared his throat and straightened up in his seat. ‘I’ll send her with Hector. There’ll be press. I’ll do my best to keep them away from the clinic,’ he said, looking at Hector for his approval. Hector nodded.

‘If the Press harass any of my patients or staff, I’ll string you up by your belt and feed your body to the pigs,’ Samantha’s voice returned to its usual abruptly stern tone.

‘Message received,’ said Anthony, nodding in compliance. Hector looked at Anthony with a bemused expression, he had clearly heard Samantha’s vivid threat.

The moment Anthony hung up and handed the phone back to Hector, Tanya flung herself on him. She began pleading with him not to send her to the Clinic. Anthony brushed her off. She quickly got angry, punching Anthony’s arms and chest.

After a few more seconds of abuse, Anthony grabbed Tanya’s wrists and held them until she stopped screaming and calmed down enough for him to speak.

‘How could you think I would not find out? I’ve found out about all the others, what possessed you to believe this one would be any different?’ Anthony’s voice was calm, even, and completely void of any emotion. Tanya stopped struggling against his grip and stared at him in shock. She slumped defeatedly back into her seat.

The car rounded a corner and pulled up out the front of the Wyatt’s townhouse. Tanya moved to get out, but Anthony put a hand on her leg to stop her. He kissed her on the forehead and quickly got out of the car. Tanya’s voice escaped her entirely as the tears poured down her face. She watched her husband walk up the steps to the front door where a tall, very beautiful young woman in a simple maroon business dress, black heels and long black coat waited for him. He opened the door and ushered Lydia into the hall. Anthony turned to close the door but avoided stealing one final glance at his wife as she was driven away.


The next morning, Anthony woke up to the breaking news of his wife’s affair. His phone was ringing off the hook. He sat down in bed with a steaming cup of coffee and switched on the TV. The photos of Tanya in a hotel room in bed with his most significant political rival, their clothes, empty bottles of French champagne, and small bags of cocaine strewn across the floor were plastered across every news channel he could find. His lead in the race was increasing exponentially as everyone was waking up to one of the biggest political scandals of the century.

The sound of the doorbell pulled Anthony’s attention away from the television screen. He wrapped himself in a dressing gown and peeked out the window. On the street below, hundreds of people were milling around, news vans, camera crews, and journalists had completely blocked off the street. He looked at the front door and saw two heads of frizzy, fiery red hair. A huge smile crossed his face as he dashed to the front door.

His niece and sister burst through the door the second he flicked open the lock. Natalie threw her arms around her brother’s neck and held on tight as the door slammed behind them. Anthony let a few tears roll down his cheeks as he hugged his sister, before turning to his niece and picking her up.

‘And how is my Princess?’ Anthony asked of the 6-year-old. She smiled and wrapped her arms around Anthony’s neck.

‘I’m very well, thank you, but Mummy says Aunty Tata is sick,’ she said, her glittering emerald eyes staring into her uncle’s hazel ones.

‘Yes, my little Harriet, she’s gone to stay with Aunty Samantha until she’s better,’ he replied, his voice cracking for the first time.

‘How will you be President then? If you don’t have a First Lady?’ she asked innocently. Anthony smiled as he set her back down and walked with her into the kitchen. Natalie too started at Anthony, clearly wanting an answer.

‘You can be my First Lady,’ he said, leaning down to kiss Harriet on the head and putting the strength back into his voice. ‘Now, who’s for pancakes?’

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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:








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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God’s Will, Hannah Pollard

My dickhead of a boss was Will, although he seemed to prefer his formal title: God. He always kept track of my work, gave me endless tasks to fulfil, and judged my every move. Though I do admit, I have seen a more relaxed side to him at his Christmas parties. After a couple of drinks, he actually seems like a pretty down-to-earth guy. Anyway, a boss is a boss.

As we all know, God created all life, therefore, it stands to reason that he created all death too. However, he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. So, he employs a Grim Reaper to carry out His gruesome bidding. This was my job for almost 17 years.

A few centuries ago I was a human. Me, my wife and two sons died on the same night in a terrible fire that enveloped our home. I can’t believe how lucky we were. I mean, the whole dying part wasn’t great, but afterwards, it meant we could all go to the ‘after world’ together. And we’ve never been happier. Basically, in our ‘new world,’ space is irrelevant. We are now ‘Unseeables’, we can travel anywhere in the universe but are invisible to the senses of the living. It’s pretty cool actually, even after all this time I sometimes have to pinch myself just to check it’s real. Anyway, I’ve done lots of odd jobs since entering this plane of existence, like social work for new souls who need help adjusting, inter-dimensional invisible rubbish collector and, for a short time, was employed by the UN (Unseeable Nations). But I never expected to become the Grim Reaper. I was very underqualified but applied nonetheless because things were getting a little mundane at the UN. Not to mention the pay was fantastic.

After a long and tedious application process, I had an interview with God, and I guess my bullshitting paid off ’cos I was offered the job the next day. Like with any job, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, you know… caught at my mates birthday when I had someone to bump off, or letting a person or two go ’cos they reminded me too much of my wife or kids. I have to say though you do become immune to the whole ‘killing’ thing after a while.

God prefers to keep a pretty low profile on Earth. He once told me (after one too many) that he finds Earth rather dirty and unimpressive. He prefers to spend time on his other planets, that are far more developed and much cleaner.

Anyway, this story isn’t about other planets. This story is about my day today, on Earth. The day I lost my job. The day I changed the course of human history forever. The day I condemned far more people to death than I ever intended. When I walk in the door, I’m gonna have to break the news to my wife. And she is absolutely going to kill me. Our eldest son starts high school next month. It’s hard to get a job with ‘The Angel of Death’ on your resume. Not to mention that I’m sure God won’t be giving me a shining reference. I feel terrible about what it means for humanity. But honestly, this could have happened to anyone, you’ve gotta believe me, cross my heart and hope to die.


It started off as your pretty average Sunday night shift. Visited a few nursing homes. Then a few gang fights. Couple of hospitals. Nothing out of the ordinary. Was just about to wrap up for the night when I looked down at my rolled up parchment. JEREMY ANDREWS. For a second I considered just crossing off the name so I could go home early (it was almost eight a.m. after all), but I’d been caught doing that a few times before. So, I decided to complete the job.

Jeremy lived in Australia, with his mother, Marie Andrews. He was a seventeen-year-old kid. No siblings, no father in the picture. Received average marks at school. Was rather plain looking, dark hair and a big nose. Had few friends. And quite frankly, was a bit of an arse. The information about him flooded into my head. This happens with whoever is next on the list. You instantly know all there is to know, including exactly where the person is at that given moment, who they are with, and what they are doing.

So, Jeremy was in the kitchen, tapping away on his phone while his mother cooked sausages and eggs for breakfast. 114 Williams Street, Sydney, NSW, 2000. I repeated the address in my head and began gliding to the house.

Next thing I knew I was in the Andrews’ kitchen. Jeremy was sitting on a tall wooden stool at the kitchen counter, texting. His mother was tossing around sizzling food on the stove. I’m guessing that she was in her late forties. She wore a very dark blue woman’s dress suit. The type with a long respectable skirt, and shiny black heels that weren’t too high. There was some kind of identification card hanging around her neck. To be honest, she looked pretty good for a singlemum approaching middleage. Anyway, I stood right between them. Listening. Invisible. Jeremy spoke as if his Mother was in a different room,


‘Yes, darling?’

‘When’s it ready?’

‘Won’t be a minute sweetheart.’

‘I’m hungry.’

She slopped a horrible looking greasy breakfast onto a plate. He picked up his cutlery and dove straight in.

‘Jerry, sweetie…’


‘Look, I know that you’ve been smoking.’

He replied with a mouthful of disgusting food, ‘Have not.’

‘You know how I feel about it.’

‘Well, I don’t smoke so you’re an idiot then.’

‘Darling, I can smell it in the house.’

‘Well you’re even stupider than I thought. I don’t smoke.’

‘Alright,’ she looked at her watch. ‘Shii…I’m going to be late for work! I’ll see you later Jerry.’

‘I hate when you call me that!’

‘Sorry. Jeremy.’

‘Bye,’ a piece of sausage fell from his mouth.

‘Bye, darling. Have a lovely day.’

I watched her scoop up her handbag from the kitchen counter and hurry out the door, her heels tapping as she went. The door clicked shut and I stayed in the kitchen with Jeremy. The way he ate honestly made me sick. He shovelled it in like a gravedigger shovels away mounds of dirt. Not a beautiful sight. Then his phone rang.

‘Yes?… Oh hi,’ he swallowed. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll be there in a second for fuck’s sake. Yeah, I know you bloody loser…’

His mother had left in such a hurry that she’d forgotten to turn the gas off on the stove. While the kid was distracted on the phone, I took the opportunity to blow out the flame and turn the gas up. He hung up and gobbled up the rest of his breakfast then, out of his pocket, the little shit took out a pack of cigarettes and placed it on the table. I looked over at the stove and could see those blurry lines wriggling above it, you know, similar to when you look at a scorching road in the middle of summer as the heat radiates from the ground. Jeremy took out a red lighter from the front pocket of his backpack and went to light up. But before he did, his phone beeped. He put the cigarette on the table and picked up his phone again. What is it with kids and technology these days?

His thumbs moved about the screen, creating that really annoying tapping noise. He sniffed in a couple of times. Pocketed his phone, picked up the cigarette, and sparked his lighter. The ripples were still curving away from the stove. He lit the cigarette. The gas lines were still there. Fuck. I must have turned it on too late.

Jeremy whipped his schoolbag over his shoulder, glanced up and said, ‘stupid bitch’ under his breath. He strolled out of the room, and the front door slammed shut. I stayed in the kitchen. Shit. Shit. Shit. What now? I’m gonna have to follow this kid. Try to get a car to hit him? Or maybe he could trip and hit his head in just the wrong way? Alcohol poisoning? I was meant to be home half an hour ago. My wife is going to kill me.

I was so exhausted by this point. But I dragged my feet out the front door. Moving slowly and calmly (The Grim Reaper can never be in a ‘rush’). Jeremy stood at his front gate. Smoke from the kid’s cigarette blew into my dark hood as I trailed behind onto a quaint suburban street. It’s funny how second-hand smoke still bothers me, even though I couldn’t be more dead.

He stood there until the cigarette was almost finished then went to cross the road. I saw a car coming. Perfect. I stared at it and it automatically sped up. Jeremy wasn’t even looking. It was getting faster and faster, I could imagine it already; Jeremy’s limp body being tossed over the roof, his cigarette flying in the air, the crunch when he would land on the solid road behind. I felt the relief of a job well done. I might be able to get home in time to see my two sons before they leave for school. Suddenly, the sound of shrieking tires on the quiet street made Jeremy leap forward. The cars wing mirror hit his schoolbag sending him into an awkward twist before he fell into the gutter with a smack. The car let out a long beep and sped off down the road, the cigarette rolling after it. Jeremy yelled,

‘You fucking bastard! Get off the fucking road you fucking idiot!’

He got himself up, brushed himself off, and was practically unharmed, apart from a long graze down his left arm. Why won’t this little shit just die already? He walked off straight ahead and let himself into the house opposite his, where his friend Dale lived. I followed.

Dale was playing Xbox in his bedroom.

‘Come on. Make it two player,’ Jeremy really was a demanding fella.

‘Hang on, let me finish this.’

Dale seemed like a pretty nice boy. After years in the occupation, you acquire a 6th sense for these things.

‘Nah mate, I wanna play,’ Jeremy snatched the controller out of Dale’s hand. Before Dale could react the game had been exited and Jeremy started setting up a new one. I stared at the power cords that connected the console to the wall. The screen went black in an instant.

‘What the hell Dale? What’s wrong with your shit?’

‘I dunno…’

Jeremy started vigorously pressing buttons on the controller. When nothing changed, he went searching through the serpent-like tangle of cords connecting the Xbox to the wall. He yanked out the plug.

‘Wai…’ Dale tried to forewarn. But Jeremy was far too stubborn to listen to anyone. He thrust the cord back into the power point. The connection sparked and a static sound zapped through the room. He pulled his arm away and fell backwards on the floor.

‘You alright mate?’ But he didn’t answer.


At bloody last, my job was done.


I felt bad for the Dale boy. I hadn’t planned on having some poor kid witness this on a Monday morning.


‘Fuck that hurt!’

You’ve gotta be kidding me!

‘You alright?’

‘Yeah, I’m fine.’

‘That looked brutal. Maybe we should call an ambulance.’

‘Nah, shut up Dale. We’re meant to have left for school remember?’


The boys went on to play a game of Xbox. I just stood, waiting, in the corner. At this point, I had to double-check my parchment. Was this definitely the soul I was meant to harvest? Yep. There it was in clear inky letters. JEREMY ANDREWS. How was I gonna off him now? I looked out of Dale’s bedroom window and could see Marie across the street, walking up the path towards the Andrews’ front door.

‘Right. I’m gonna go home,’ I heard Jeremy say.

‘Er, okay, bye.’ Dale kept his eyes on the tv screen.

Fantastic, at least he was gonna get in shit for not being at school.

‘I’m taking these right. Bye loser.’

Jeremy helped himself to a packet of crisps that were sitting on Dale’s desk and walked out. I drifted after him. He opened the packet as he headed down the hallway, stuffing a few crisps in on the way. He opened the front door, swung it shut and poured a ridiculous mound of chips into his mouth as he turned to face his house over the road. He walked a couple of steps forward when, from nowhere, a ground shuddering boom shook the street.

The gigantic bang made Jeremy gasp in fright. He tried to breathe again, with a crisp lodged throat, but little air went in. He tried again. And again. And again. His hands clutched at his neck. He stumbled forwards, his eyes were wide as he started to go blue. I watched as tiny red veins started trailing their way up from his neck and slowly into his face. Success! With all his strength he pathetically reached out towards his home and then fell forward. Smack on his face. Dead. Thank God! Across the road, clouds of flames rolled outwards from the Andrews’ kitchen.

I flew into the middle of the street in excitement. Examining my achievement for a moment before heading home after a terribly long day. That’s when God’s voice bellowed down.


‘Y… yes, Will?’

‘Do you have any idea what you have just done?’


‘YOU’RE FIRED! You hear me? FIRED.’




Turns out that Marie Andrews’ went home to collect her purse that she’d left on the kitchen counter. That wasn’t supposed to happen. The plan was for her to find Jeremy dead in the kitchen. But things obviously didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, she found the room full of gas and quickly went to turn the stove off. But, in a panic (when most humans make dire mistakes) she accidentally sparked the stove as she twisted the knob.

Killing a close relative of a name on the list is a big no,no. Sends particularly abundant ripples through the space-time continuum, or something along those lines. I have been told that it was going to be a pretty important day for Marie Andrews. Later that afternoon she was going to finally oil the creaky door to her cellar, complete her mortgage payments, find true love, recognise her self-worth and um …oh yeah, find the cure to cancer. Which is a big deal for humans.

After the discovery she was meant to make, more than a billion lives would have been saved within the next 2 generations alone. But once a life has been taken from Earth, it can’t be undone. Earth is very black and white when you think about it. So yeah. God’s furious. As much as he finds earth boring, he thought it was about time something good happened there.

You know what? If I survive breaking the bad news to my wife. I’ve always sorta wanted to work in a café. I’m pretty good with people, love a good chat. Or maybe I’ll become an inter-dimensional Uber driver. Should be able to maintain a high rating because I’m great with directions and will have plenty of interesting stories to tell, even if they are slightly grim.



GODS WILL, Hannah Pollard PDF

Dress Me, Yixin Jiang

Part I Naomi

Covered in thick brown fur, the grey gelatinous goo drips down its lumpy mouth, smelling like rotten fish. Its inch-long teeth are sharp as daggers, glinting over its rubbery yellow gums. This is truly a picture of misery and horror.

Enough!’ I tell myself, quickly covering the mirror with an old scarf. Every day for the past twenty years, this big fat ugly monster is exactly how I look in the mirror, in photos and even in the reflections of sunglasses. It grows when I grow. But I’ve worked out ways to avoid seeing myself. Here, in my own little clothing shop, I know exactly how to eliminate the chances of seeing that monster of mine; I feel safest when I’m working.

Since there’s no one in the shop yet, I take out my copy of Vogue magazine and flip through the last pages. Those models—tall and slim with high cheekbones and bee-stung lips—are beautiful, too beautiful, maybe. This red maxi dress, I put my fingers to the page, I have to have it.

Suddenly, a smell catches me off guard; a woody blend of perfume with its own unique odour, that’s refreshing, comforting and somehow seductive. It’s coming from a young woman. I wonder how she came into the shop so quietly?

I immediately close the magazine. ‘Oh hello, how are you?’

‘What’s up?’ says the young woman with electric red lips.

I can never pull off that bright lip colour; with the body of a monster, it’ll only look like I’ve been gorging on blood. But I understand why she’s so confident. Look at her, five foot ten, slim, with blonde hair that has a hint of glowy bronze. Everything about her is perfect, delicious even.

I walk up to her, inhaling the sweet alluring air that surrounds her. Gee, I really can’t stop staring at her, she’s just like those models in the magazine. She points out a black jacket while looking at me with her blue sensuous eyes. She smiles, showing off her perfectly aligned white teeth. She wonders if she could try it on. Of course she can, but why would she want that baggy old jacket? With that killer body, she should wear something short and tight. I know I would if I looked like her.

‘I’m afraid we don’t have it in your size. But I can show you some other goodies instead.’ I pout my lips without showing my slimy gums, knowing she won’t be able to resist my collection.

This collection has been sitting here for years. Until now, I haven’t found anyone gorgeous enough to wear them. If I didn’t look like a monster they would be mine already. Will she be the first one to wear them? I get a little excited. But I have to be careful how I behave. She can never know about my monstrous teeth or catch my disgusting scent.

It seems she’s quite happy with my choices as she grabs the clothes and heads to the fitting room. The sharp woody musk of her is laying down a heavy track wherever she goes. Waiting outside the fitting room, I can’t stop thinking about how she’ll look in my favourite clothes. I bite my ragged nails. Here she comes. Excitement rushes through my veins as my eyes settle on her.

How beautiful she is. Yet how fragile.

Emotionally, I walk up to her, giving her all the compliments I could ever give. I’m convinced that I’ve finally found the perfect replacement of myself. This is exactly how I’ll look when I’m beautiful.

What makes today even better is that this innocent girl gives me her number. Chloe, what a sweet name. I hope she remembers me and comes back often.




It’s been a week since I saw Chloe, the best seven days in my life since I checked in three years ago. No more electroshock, and an even prettier me? Life can be beautiful.

Even though I only saw her once, I’m already addicted. She must be thinking of me too. But I know she won’t come by the shop every day, it would be weird if I call her and ask her to come by… Right? But I can’t stop thinking about that body of hers, I wonder what it’ll look like without anything on. Is it still perfect? And those long slender legs of hers, are they just as smooth as the models’? Will it scare her if she sees mine covered in thick brown fur? As my head is working hard to put together the pieces of her image, I’m starting to feel that exhilaration, the same when I first saw her. It’s a different type of feeling to any I’ve experienced before; a frenzy that I wish could last forever. Having become so besotted with her, I know there must be something I can do to bring us closer. Then she could be my first friend, or even something more…

Look who it is! Chloe is back! Is she missing me too?

Surrounded by a bunch of average looking girls, Chloe steps into the shop, smelling like cigarettes and alcohol. Where is that her sweet scent? These bitches are no good for my Chloe. I take a closer look at them—fishnet stockings with lacy chokers—can they even afford a candle at my shop? No wonder Chloe smells cheap.

Chloe comes up to me, wearing a thick smile. ‘Hey Naomi, show them your private collection.’

I know for sure that she must’ve been forced to come here by these so-called friends, who are nothing but chubby and typical. I’ve already found the perfect replacement of myself. No one else needs to see my collection.

‘Don’t worry, I’m saving them for you,’ I whisper.

‘Wha-what do you mean?’ Chloe looks a little red. Her friends start noticing our conversation. ‘This way, let’s go,’ Chloe points at the fitting room.

Knowing this is a cue, I yell, ‘Get out! Get out before I kill you bitches!’

Stunned, Chloe and her friends quickly scamper out of my shop. Poor Chloe, she comes here just to visit me and those whores have ruined it for her. But I’ll do anything to make Chloe look amazing, I’m sure she knows it too.




The next day, my boutique clothing has arrived. They only come in size 4, perfect for a model’s figure, just like my Clo. Oh my god, I quickly realise we’re already calling each other by nicknames. What’s next?

Walking with a bounce in my step, I reach the landline and call Chloe.

Beep. Beep.

‘Hello, this is Chloe speaking, who’s this?’

What a soothing voice.

‘Hey Clo, I’m wondering if you want to pop in my shop later for some new—’


She can tell it’s my voice. Thrilled, I quickly correct her, ‘Nomes, you can call me Nomes.’

‘Listen you nutter, I’m not going anywhere near you after what happened yesterday.’ Suddenly Clo doesn’t sound so sweet.

Why? Was it something I did? I panic, biting my nails. Thinking out loud, ‘Please don’t do that, I’ll do anything you want. Just don’t say things like this please.’

Clo hangs up.

I feel my teeth gnawing on the inside of my cheek. I can taste the blood from an old wound, as it slowly starts to fill my mouth. My fingers are glued to the telephone, waiting for Clo to call me back.




A black Porsche screeches to a halt right in front of my shop. A skinny woman in black hops out of the car. As she walks through the door, I realise it’s Clo. Suddenly, I can feel every fibre of my being vibrating with excitement. Adrenaline is coursing through my body.

‘I’ll only move on from this if you promise you’ll never treat my friends like that ever again.’

I quickly nod, ‘Sure, sure, I promise. I just thought the clothes wouldn’t look nice on them.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, they’re not as skinny and pretty as you,’ I quickly respond.

Chloe freezes, looking surprised. ‘Well, thanks for the compliment. But you need to know not everyone can be as skinny and pretty as us two.’

I look her in the eye, stuttering, ‘P-pretty? Me?’

‘Mmhmm, you’re pretty… And skinny, a little too skinny, maybe.’

I feel over the moon, giddy even. This is the first time anyone has ever complimented the way I look. How could she see me like that? Does this mean my eyes—no, Clo’s eyes, are special? Overwhelmed with her comment, all sorts of thoughts start running through my mind. Am I still going to keep her? Just to appreciate her body? Or will I let her be the friend I’ve never had? Wait, do I really consider her a friend? I almost laugh out loud. Who am I kidding? I don’t even know what a friend is for. But if we do become friends, that means she’ll give me her eyes, right? That’s what friends do for each other.

Gosh, imagine if I had her eyes. How would I look? Just as pretty as her? Like the models? There are so many things I need to find out. I need to see through her eyes. I need them right now.




Finally, this moment has come.

‘Thank you Clo,’ I whisper in her ear, but I guess she doesn’t hear me as she’s still out cold. I must have hit her head too hard, but at least she didn’t feel the pain when I took her eyes out.

Those beautiful eyes are mine now.

I push Clo’s eyes securely into my own sockets, and hold my breath, as I slowly walk towards the mirror.



Part II Chloe

‘What is your name?’

‘Chloe Ann White.’ I shiver.

The officer presses the record button, ‘Miss White, can you describe for us how you and Naomi Evans met?’

‘We met in her clothing store, it was a posh joint that I’ve never been to before. I went there looking for a black bomber jacket.’

‘And what was Miss Evans like?’

‘She was petite and skinny, like a girl-next-door. Very passionate about her job, I’d say.’ I continue, ‘And her nails were overly bitten and swollen.’

The officer doesn’t seem too bothered, continuing, ‘What was she doing that day?’

‘She was reading at the desk, looking very serious, almost mad, like there was something she hated on that magazine. She tore pages from it.’

He writes this down in the notebook. ‘Then what happened?’

‘I tried to sneak into the shop without getting her attention, but that didn’t work so I went to the fitting room to try on clothes.’

He pauses his writing, looking up at me.

‘I can still remember those tiles. Bright colours arranged in jagged patterns on the floor. The curved walls were ornately carved with mosaics. So many rooms. It made that place an absolute labyrinth. There was also a massive collection of trendy designer clothing, even bigger and better than my own closet.

‘What was Miss Evans doing at that time?’

‘Waiting for me outside, I guess. But it seemed like she didn’t really know what she was doing.’

‘How so?’

‘She just stood there, staring at me, smiling. But what I really needed was a mirror. Then she led me to this little corner where the mirror was covered by a dusty scarf. I mean, surely they had to have more than one mirror.’

The officer frowns, ‘Could you explain why we found your number in Miss Evan’s mobile?’

‘I gave it to her so I could be notified when there were new arrivals.’ It then reminds me of the joke I made on Naomi that day, right after she gave me her name… The name was so silly to spell backwards. But that joke doesn’t seem funny anymore, not after what happened. I need to forget about it.

‘Would you say that Miss Evans’ demeanour was a little strange?’

‘Yeah, always. That special relationship between her and her clothes—that was just weird. She was obsessed… No wonder she looked so gaunt.’

He flips a page, ‘On July 14th, you had a two-minute phone call with Miss Evans, could you explain it?’

‘She was begging me to buy some clothes from her. I guess her business was struggling.’

‘On the exact same day, did you visit Miss Evan’s shop?’

‘That’s correct… I couldn’t resist the boutiques.’

‘Did you notice anything different with her that day?’

‘She was just even creepier than I remembered. Rubbing her eyes, licking her chapped lips and wearing a shady smile.’

‘Then what happened?’

As I’m breathing louder and louder, the officer puts down his pen. ‘You can take a break if you need to.’

‘No, I want to get this over with. This will be my last time recalling it.

I remember the ropes cutting into my wrists as I struggled, the pain was so bad it made me want to stop breathing. Lying on the cold ground, I didn’t know what had happened. Tap, tap. I could hear a set of heels tapping on the wooden floor and the sound of heavy breathing. But I couldn’t see anything, not even black. Just… Nothing.

The walking stopped, I could hear a cloth being pulled from something. There was something about it that smelled so familiar, dusty and mouldy. I panicked, realising it must have been Naomi’s scarf on the mirror. Before I had time to process this, a scream tore through me like a knife. It made my blood run cold, piercing my brain as it echoed through the room.

I could see again.

But I was still lying in the corner and my eyes… they weren’t on my body. They were somehow staring into a mirror, nowhere near my own body. Looking without my control.

My eyes could only see this thing… A demonic creature staring back at me from the mirror. It looked angry.

Covered in thick brown fur, the grey gelatinous goo dripped down its lumpy mouth, smelling like rotten fish. Its inch-long teeth were as sharp as dagger as they glinted over its rubbery yellow gums. It was truly a picture of misery and horror.’

I pause again, ‘It reached up to touch my eyes… Then everything went dark. I felt a splash on my face, wet, cold and putrid. Followed by a scream, much quieter than before. Then a whimper. Then a thud. The heavy breathing stopped. That was the last thing I remembered.’

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A Man in a Marriage, Olivia Newsome

As winter approached and the trees began to shrug off their burdens, Taron prepared to take up his.

The farmstead was overflowing with visitors and well-wishers, people that Taron had known all his life. Marriage between the blacksmith’s daughter and the son of one of the oldest farming families in the district was always going to draw attention. But, as his mother promised him, it was only one day. He could manage.

He maneuvered a path through to the parlour where his new bride was waiting for him. She was perched by the fireplace, the glowing embers casting a gentle light onto her skin. Taron thought she was pretty enough, but he’d barely spoken two words to her throughout the entire day. There was no telling if they’d suit each other. He swigged another mouthful of ale at the thought.

The girl looked up at his approach. She was surrounded by the old matrons of the village who welcomed him coyly, no doubt expecting him to give them something to gossip about. Taron took his seat and tried to think of something to say that would allow him to get the measure of this girl. But the words eluded him, and he turned back to one of the other women and asked after her son.

He hadn’t given much thought to marriage, not until one morning when his mother informed him the roof of the barn was leaking, and it was time for him to find a wife with enough of a dowry to fix it. A suitable match had then been found and a date was set. He’d hardly had any input and the whole affair felt as solid as the morning fog, disappearing in the early air.

Now he was forced to come to grips with his new reality.

‘The house is lovely.’ Her voice was small, and if Taron had not been sitting so close to her, he would not have heard it. His wife was looking down at her hands, resolute in not meeting his gaze. The matrons talked over their conversation, but he felt the women’s interested stares digging into the both of them.

Taron wanted to respond, wanted to tell her all about how his mother had swept through the entire house to make things ready for her new daughter-in-law. He wanted simply to speak, but the words would not claw their way out of his throat. She still wouldn’t look up from her hands and he was suddenly awash with anger.

This was his home. He’d spent his years exploring its depths and loving it for the shelter it provided. When his father passed, it had become his own. He had relished that duty, the chance to prove he was now a man. And now here was this woman, this child, with whom he must share everything. She had not toiled the land until calluses formed on her fingers. She had not sat all night with the cows as they brought their young into the world. She had not done anything, yet his home belonged to her.

Taron felt his heart beating faster and faster as he tried to get his temper back under control. It would break his mother’s heart if he made a scene in front of the entire district but his feet had a mind of their own, and he’d stood up and strode away before anyone could say anything. He felt the eyes of the women, all of them, stare at him as he left.

A heavy burden indeed.




Mila slammed the jug of water on the table and Taron winced at the pounding in his ears. He reached out and downed another swig, his throat protesting.. His whole body felt wrong, discombobulated, and painful.

‘I had thought to go and speak with Sara this morning,’ Mila said as she worried at the ash on the apron covering her distended belly. ‘They may be able to spare a son or two to help with clearing the barn. And those boys will be far more able to track down the cows who managed to escape.’

Taron didn’t think his burning throat would allow him to voice a single thought and he closed his eyes at his helplessness. All he could do was nod his heavy head and hope that the cattle would be found quickly.

Those beasts had already been through too much. He could still hear the cries they made from their stalls. Brutal and panicked. The flames had made him feel the same. But the creatures, summoning their strength, had managed to break free of their cage, clearing a way through the fire for him to follow.

They had saved him, and he wasn’t even strong enough to make sure the survivors were alright.


He came back to himself to find Mila’s gaze penetrating him. She had looked at him in many ways through the years, but never like that. A sad, raspy sound escaped his smoke-damaged throat.

She sat down in the chair across from him, reaching across to wrap her fingers around his bandaged hands. The pain was not as sharp as Taron’s surprise at the intimate gesture. His wife was close enough that he could see the morning’s brightness reflecting off her hair.

‘I thought you were going to die last night.’

The words were a shock to his system, a surprise he wasn’t prepared for. He tried to pull his hands back but she had a grip on them. Pain filled his senses and forced him to stop.

‘You’re not an easy man to like, Taron,’ she said. ‘I wanted my parents to find me a nice man, one I could be fond of. But they gave me to you.’ Her face was stripped of expression and it reminded him of how young she’d looked on their wedding day.

‘I thought you’d made me a widow last night. I thought my whole life had changed again.’

The urge to respond, to rage against her, was strong. He didn’t care how she’d felt. He had been more scared than any other moment of his life. And now the barn he had sold himself for was gone. Her words were the flies that buzzed around the animal’s’ arses.

She broke contact and her hands went to cradle her stomach—his baby. Taron withdrew his hands before she could change her mind.

‘I kept trying to imagine what I would tell the baby. That his father was a good man who died trying to protect his farm? Or that he was an idiot, who cared more about his animals than this family? Which is it, Taron?’

He recognised the emotion in her eyes and he couldn’t help wondering if she saw it in his. They sat opposite one another and the distance between them felt real and impenetrable.

‘You had a choice, last night. And you chose to risk everything that we have.’

Her words made it clear to him. As far as his wife was concerned, he was nothing more than a weight she was made to carry.




Taron’s stomach heaved as he drove the hoe into the earth. The soil needed to be cleared for planting or the harvest would be bleak, and that was the last thing they could afford.

It didn’t seem to matter how many hours Taron spent working in the fields, it was never enough for his family. But the mouths to feed were nothing compared to the taxes he was forced to send to the Crown. The thought of it made him strike at the ground with force.

Just a little bit more, he decided. Then he could go back to the house.

Mila was stewing meat over the kitchen fireplace by the time Taron walked through the door. Her brown eyes observed him disinterestedly before she turned back to her task. Little Micah sat near her feet, flashing his gums at the sight of his father. The boy waddled over with unsteady legs and Taron disregarded the ache in his back, picking up his son.

‘There was a letter today,’ said his wife, attention still focused on the pot.

He placed Micah back on the ground and told the boy to go to his bedroom, and then he grasped the correspondence on the bench and pried open the seal.

His knees buckled beneath him and he slumped his way into the nearest stool. His head felt so heavy and his hands came up to hold it, fingers sliding over his scalp and grasping his hair. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.

Footsteps sounded on the stone floor and Mila’s scent wafted through his nose. The paper crinkled as she picked it up, and Taron’s heart sank as she read it. When she spoke, it was with a tone of incredulousness and he knew it couldn’t be good news.

‘The King demands we go to war. All able-bodied men are hereby conscripted into the army.’

The words were like wounds, amplifying the sores and weaknesses of Taron’s body. It hurt, but he managed to lift his head out of his hands to face his wife. Mila stood, watching him and still holding the letter.

‘I’m expected to report to duty in a fortnight’s time,’ he croaked out of his dry throat. ‘I don’t know how long I’ll be away.’

‘Then we need to be practical. There are many preparations that need to be made and not very much time to make them. Micah and I will need to economise. We won’t be able to work the entire farm, only enough to ensure that we are fed. We should try and put some money away. Maybe if we sold the cows—’

Taron felt a hot energy pulse its way through his body, drawing him to his feet. He wanted to stalk towards his wife and rage about the generations of his family who had raised those very cows on this very land. The wariness in her eyes suggested to him that she knew exactly what he wished for, but Taron knew he couldn’t give in to his temper.

‘Sell them if you must,’ he said, moving past her. ‘But you won’t be the only wife looking to get rid of farm animals you can’t afford to keep. There will be plenty who’ll use your desperation to cheat you out of a good price.’

‘I’m not a simpleton, Taron.’

He turned away from her, head pounding and desperate for bed. Her voice made him pause.

‘I do hope you make it home, dearest husband.’

Her words were as soft as they were on their wedding day and though she may have fled the room without a response, Taron couldn’t help but feel hungry for more of her comfort.




Taron imagined how the women would be folding themselves around the men like scarves, their smiles bright and their dresses almost transparent.

Taron listened to the display as he sharpened his sword, ignoring the tightening in his groin and the pulses of heat that shot through him with every ostentatious moan. The knight’s tent was a few feet away, but drink and women often made men louder than they had any right to be. His mind flew to the horrified expression his mother would wear if she could hear what the men were on about, and a wry smile worked its way onto his face.

War was a breeding place for the desires of men, as he’d discovered in the weeks since he’d arrived.

He’d also learnt that there was a hierarchy to the way the camp was run, determined by skill and wealth. The best fighters were the ones with training and expensive weapons, and they were the men the king valued. Taron was young and strong, but he’d never fought in a battle, and his sword was more rust than steel. He was happy enough as a foot soldier, and if he occasionally heard something that disturbed him, he knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

Once his sword was back in its sheath, and he’d passed the whetting stone onto the next poor soul, he started to trudge his way back towards his own bedroll. His limbs ached from the brutality of the day’s drills and he was hoping to snatch a few extra minutes of sleep before dinner. He kept his head down as he passed the knight’s tent, not wanting their notice, but a voice yelled out to beckon him despite his efforts.

There were five of them, wearing their armour with wide leers. Taron could see the sharp lines and scars on their faces, unmarred by the dirt, which was more than he could say for himself. He swung his torso forward in what was supposed to be a bow, then stood at attention, waiting for the drunken lords to release him. If he felt the stirring of anger in the bowels of his stomach, he didn’t let them see it in his face.

‘Funny, huh men? Looks just like one o’ those tin soldiers that I used to play with as a lad.’ Taron couldn’t tell the speaker from his companions, as they were all long-haired and bearded. The only way he had to tell them apart were the different coloured dresses worn by the women in their laps.

‘I think he’s handsome,’ a woman said as she separated herself and walked towards Taron, circling around him like a bird of prey. She was so close he could faintly smell the sharpness of her perfume and he fought the urge to cover himself from her gaze. Her dress was lilac. She gave him one final smirk before reclaiming her place with one of the men.

‘You ever had a girl, boy?’ cried another voice. Taron couldn’t look away from the girl, who smirked back in return. When he didn’t answer, the voice laughed, ‘Not something you’d forget.’

Taron’s head snapped up at the laughter of the men, his limbs suddenly uncomfortable as the attention turned unfriendly. The anger came bubbling back and he choked out, ‘I’ve a wife. And a son. Sir.’

‘She tell you that?’ another man said, while trying to stuff as much meat as possible into his mouth. Taron’s fist clenched as he watched the cretin’s mouth form the words. Mila would have stared at the man with a look of bitter and intimidating contempt. But all he could do was stand there, longing for his bedroll and the relative quiet of sleep.

‘The boy’s got my look.’

‘Renna’ll let you have a go,’ said the man standing next to the woman in purple. He tapped her bottom and pushed her forward, back towards Taron.

But the allure of the beautiful woman had faded, and it didn’t matter how much she smiled or how many times her fingers wove their way through her long hair. She wasn’t his wife and this wasn’t the choice he wanted to make.

‘Excuse me, milords. I’m wanted elsewhere.’

His fist unclenched as the men’s laughter dissolved into the background noises of the camp. He felt free.

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Porcelain Dolls, Hannah Armstrong

They looked like shiny porcelain dolls. They walked on stiff porcelain legs down city streets, hair always perfectly coiffed and shining.They were always smiling, even when they were unhappy.

For years Willa had watched them on TV and thought about how fragile they looked, how breakable. How easy it would be to smash them to pieces.




Willa had checked the scoreboard that morning, while her roommate Lys disappeared into the modification chamber for hours. She was sitting comfortably at number two, the highest Willa had been in the months since filming began. They could use their viewscreens once every day to check,  but were then locked out until tomorrow.

Lys had spent so long away from their room that Willa had been sure she wasn’t coming back. She’d tried to convince herself that she was happy to be rid of one more competitor, but dread and fear had eaten away at her stomach until Lys returned. Her familiar brown eyes were now blue. Apparently, James preferred blue eyes.

Even though Lys’ body had been chiselled and whittled down to perfection, the voice that came from her mouth was the same.

‘I swear, if someone tells me to smile even once tonight, I’m going to neck myself,’ she said, crashing about their room. Willa watched as she glanced in their full-length mirror and touched her cheek with hesitant fingers, as though trying to make sure it was still really her.

Lys was the only one in the compound who still sounded like a real woman instead of a child. But James had said to Lucia last week that he liked sweet girls, pretty girls, girls who only opened their mouths to giggle and say, ‘Stop that, you’re so funny.’

‘Stop that,’ Lys said.


‘Stop touching it.’

Willa’s hands had been pressing at the bandages under her shirt without her realising it. She dug in a little more to feel the emptiness there, a spike of pain jabbing upwards through her body. Another rib gone. Willa wondered how many they would be able to take out before she broke in two.

She’d been keeping them in her bedside table drawer, nestled in a crushed velvet graveyard. Three white ribs neatly lined up next to one another. Sometimes at night when she was sure Lys was asleep, Willa slid open the drawer and ran her fingers over the smooth bone.

‘Stop it,’ Lys said again.

This time, Willa stopped.




The location for filming that night was beautiful, just as every other night had been beautiful.Willa and Lys stood in line beside ten other women that had entered the competition at the same time. The room was high-ceilinged and extravagant, with a deep navy carpet and a chandelier glittering overhead.

Each night was spent in a different room inside the compound, the walls outfitted with a million tiny holo-projectors creating exotic locations for the cameras. Last night they were lying on a beach somewhere warm, the room filled with the sound of crashing waves. Lys had sworn she tasted salt on the air.

‘Two, over here.’

That’s me, Willa remembered.

A blonde production assistant waved her over to one of the green velvet couches near the entrance, and watched impatiently as she lowered herself onto it. The smile she’d plastered on never once wavered.

The rest of the production team set to work draping Willa’s arm along the back of the couch, placing a wine glass in her hand to dangle elegantly from her fingers and tilting her head just so.

Willa wasn’t going to drink the wine. She had spent years watching previous contestants on TV with her family, taking notes on the many ways they had ruined their chances at love. She was prepared.

Not like some of these idiots. Valerie St Cloud sauntered past, her round doll’s eyes vacant. An assistant with freshly-bleached teeth fawned over her, arranging her cascade of golden curls down the back of the chair next to Willa. Girls like Val didn’t want love, not truly, not like Willa did. Just a silly breakable doll, hoping to end up high on a shelf, to be admired for the rest of her days.

Willa would have given anything to be sitting with Lys instead. Lys wasn’t one of the dolls; in fact, she wasn’t a volunteer at all. Though she hadn’t told Willa much, she had let slip a few times about how her family struggled, and how when she’d been born a girl they’d had no choice but to Nominate her for the competition. The rations they’d received in return were probably what saved them from complete destitution.

Willa suppressed a groan when the seat opposite her was filled by Maddie Pontier. Her sweet smile and guileless expression made Willa want to be sick. Of all the people she could have ended up with, it was fake Maddie and vacant Val.

‘I’m so glad they’ve put us three together,’ Maddie said, fluttering her unnaturally long eyelashes. ‘These things can go on for such a long time, can’t they?’

The producers left them waiting around for ages sometimes just to see if anyone would snap. And plenty of girls did. After all, fifty walked into the compound; only one walked out.

‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Willa looked over her cherry red manicure. ‘I could have laid on the beach forever.’

Maddie had been a celebrity in her own right long before the competition began. It was a huge advantage, being well-known before entering, and she had used her little sob story as ammunition in her fight to win the public’s heart. An orphan who rescued puppies from shelters, a kind heart in a cruel world, a friend to all. It was the reason she shot up to number one straight away and had maintained her position throughout the competition.

Longing burst to life in Willa’s stomach. To be number one was to be special, to be chosen. Not only by everyone outside, but by James.

She would kill for that.




The fight broke out after four hours.

It had been a while since they’d had a real fight, although Lucy had been pushed off a cliff last week and Julia’s parachute had ‘accidentally’ failed to open the week before that. Excursions outside the compound could be so dangerous.

It started with a soft sigh. Willa became aware of the way Val was shifting in her seat, fidgeting impatiently. It must have been the longest she’d gone in her life without a hit of someone’s attention.

After a moment, Val sighed even louder.

‘This is boring,’ she whined, pouting her already swollen lips.

Maddie, always looking for ways to suck up to the people around her, leaned in to brush her fingers over Val’s golden curls.

‘Gosh, you just have the prettiest hair, Val. I wish I was a blonde.’

A small smile spread over Val’s face.

‘It’s natural.’

‘It can’t be—it’s too beautiful to be natural!’

Willa nearly snorted at the heavy dose of fake amazement in Maddie’s voice. She was still combing her fingers through Val’s hair, her long, slender fingers tangling in the strands.

‘I wish I was a blonde,’ she said again.

‘Why don’t you?’ Willa cut in despite herself, losing her patience. ‘You could easily get it done.’

Maddie laughed, flashing white teeth.

‘It just wouldn’t be the same. I’m sure James loves blonde hair, but it wouldn’t suit me at all.’

‘Really? I heard he prefers dark hair.’ It was a part of Willa that revelled in the drama that said it. Lys wouldn’t have approved, but she needed something to break the monotony.

Val, who had been busy preening up until that point, looked confused.

‘Are you… lying?’ she asked Maddie. Her child’s voice wavered with the promise of a tantrum, and Willa sat back to enjoy the show.

‘Of course not.’ Maddie laughed again, but she was beginning to look uncomfortable. Her hand found its way back to her lap.

‘Why would you lie? Were you trying to sabotage me?’

Willa almost wanted to laugh too. Of course Maddie was trying to sabotage her. She was a liar, it was just what she did.

Storm clouds drifted over Val’s expression. Her mouth contorted, baring her teeth—each sharpened to a point. One moment, she was pouting like someone had taken away her favourite toy, and the next she was feral. Without any warning or hesitation, she pounced.

Maddie barely had time to let out a surprised gasp before she was being dragged to the floor by the ends of her pretty, dark hair.

A flurry went through the room as people started to take notice of the two girls rolling around on the carpet. Willa half-rose from her chair, planning on moving out of the way to watch the proceedings, when Val dug her nails into Maddie’s neck and slashed four long cuts into her bare skin.

The next moments came to Willa only in snapshots: Val’s wild eyes, the other girls gathering to watch, blood splattered across the carpet, the crunch of bone and finally Maddie, pleading for help. It went on for so long that Willa lost focus on her surroundings completely.

The rest was blissful white noise.

After some time, hands grabbed her tightly by the shoulders and Lys’ frantic expression swam into view.

‘Are you okay?’ She gave Willa a little shake. ‘Are you hurt?’

‘I’m fine,’ Willa managed.

There were flecks of something red and viscous all up the front of her dress, but that was nothing compared to the mess on the floor. Val sat in it with her head ducked and her eyes darting around, daring someone to approach her. The production team was buzzing, making frantic phone calls and trying to herd the girls back to their places.

‘I’m fine,’ Willa said again. What she meant was this is my fault.

Lys couldn’t seem to drag her gaze away from Maddie’s body now that she had made sure Willa was okay. She was shifting her weight from foot to foot and murmuring something under her breath.

‘Fuck, what are we doing?’

Willa looked closely at her friend, and saw a wildness in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. It was the look of an animal when it sensed a predator, all coiled tension and fear.

‘Why are we here? What’s the point?’ Her hands began to claw at her cheeks, her temples, as though she might be able to rip away her perfect mask to reveal her true face.

One by one, heads turned to watch Lys as the din of conversation died. Willa tried to touch her shoulder but she spun away.

The blonde production assistant from earlier was watching them from his spot by the door with a phone to his ear. Willa reached for Lys again but she slipped through her fingers. ‘You need to stop, you need to be quiet—’

‘I can’t, not anymore, I can’t. Look at her!’ Lys gestured at the floor.

Willa looked.

She had never liked Maddie Pontier. And there was only one winner. They all had to go if Willa was going to find happiness here. But then why did the guilt feel so heavy on her shoulders?

Light glinted off the cameras in the room, watching their every move. Watching her.

Lys grabbed her hand. ‘We have to leave.’


‘Right now, come on. We need to leave.’

Willa shook her head, her words drying up in her throat.

Security guards appeared either side of Lys, both bigger than the two of them put together. There was no point in fighting, Willa told herself as they took Lys by the shoulders. They pulled her away and their hands disconnected. Lys called out for her before she was dragged from the room, her eyes desperate and betrayed.

An assistant appeared in front of Willa, obscuring her view of the door. ‘One, you’ve got time with James.’

That’s me, Willa realised.




He was waiting for her in another room.

James sat amongst a nest of pillows and blankets under a canopy of twinkling stars, the sound of cicadas echoing all around them. The air smelled fresh and Willa drank it in greedily, to wash her lungs free of metallic blood.

When James smiled at her as she settled down next to him, it was almost possible to forget everything that happened earlier.

‘How are you finding things?’

He never said hello. He told her the first time they met that any social niceties would just be edited out later.

Willa wanted to giggle and flirt, and turn it on for the cameras. But instead what came out was a fractured, shaking, ‘Where is Lys?’

James opened his mouth to reply and promptly shut it. He smiled at her again, a disarming grin that had never failed to provoke butterflies every time he used it on her.

She felt nothing.

‘I want to see her.’

James gazed into the middle distance and touched a hand to his earpiece. He really wasn’t as handsome up close, Willa realised.

Panic poured into her cavernous chest like a swelling wave. It crested, roared and overwhelmed her.

‘Answer me.’

‘What am I supposed to say?’ The question wasn’t directed at her. James listened intently to whoever was instructing him for another moment before his expression cleared.

He took her hand and ran his thumb over her skin. Willa could remember when he held her hand just last week, how she had felt full to bursting with joy and hope. She tried to conjure up that same feeling, but her mind was busy replaying the look Lys had given her before she left.

‘You’ll see her when you head back to your room,’ James said. His voice was warm like melting honey even as he lied. ‘Why don’t we talk about something else for now? I want to get to know you better.’

It felt like a confirmation and Willa’s stomach dropped.

What would they do with her? Lys was strong, far stronger than Willa, and they had to know they couldn’t subdue her with bribes or manipulation. There would be only one way to keep her quiet.

And if it could happen to Lys, why couldn’t it happen to Willa?

Grief filled her empty spaces. Grief, and the longer James watched her with that frozen, vapid smile, anger.

They weren’t allowed weapons in the compound, only nails and teeth and spiteful words. But there was one thing they let Willa keep, the last part of herself—her bones.

Willa closed her eyes and lived the moment in perfect detail. The expression on James’ face when she brought the rib down, the whistle it made as it flew through the air, the sickening crack as it made contact with his skull. And then the blood that flowed down his rugged face.

When she opened her eyes, she still ached.

James was smiling, but his eyes were confused. Last week, Willa had been falling all over herself every time he so much as glanced her way, and now she couldn’t even muster up a smile in return.


Willa felt a dull, distant surprise that he even knew her name. Everything had become clear, like a fog had been lifted from her brain. There would be only one way out of this mess.

She giggled and laid a hand on James’ tanned forearm. His confusion cleared.

‘James, you’re so funny. I don’t want to talk about me, tell me more about you.’

Willa was going to be better, smarter, than the rest of them. She was going to win.




Download a PDF of ‘Porcelain Dolls’

After Life, Caitlyn Radice

Ink stared down at her exposed metallic forearm. Her eyes travelled up to the jagged scar at her wrist, and she wondered if it was still considered a scar if the skin was synthetic. Frowning, she touched her wrist, and tried to remember if it felt the same when she was human. Her blue eye zoomed in on her elbow joint, focused on the dust that had collected. She decided to clean it properly later on.

Picking up her satchel and slinging it over her shoulder, she shifted a heavy, metal vase so it sat more comfortably against her side. It clinked against a set of little, glass bowls. Today, she had been fairly successful in her search. That is what she did each day: searched the suburban ruins for anything of value. She often found frames with ruined photos. Ink would always stare at the faces in them, despite how sick it made her feel. Leaving these alone, she would collect other household belongings. If she was lucky, she would find jewellery.

Ink had managed to find a paperback today. The pages were yellowed with age and dirt, and the cover looked as though it had been heavily buffed with sandpaper. The title was barely legible: P de & re udi e. Due to the phasing out of physical books towards the start of the war, one in such good condition would be worth a lot. But Ink would not trade it for anything.

Tugging on the strap of the satchel, she decided that she had searched enough of the suburban ruins for the day, and headed back into the city. The sky behind the remaining buildings was orange with the end of the day. The small number of cyborgs who now inhabited the city had cleaned it up as best they could after the war, but they had not yet been able to rebuild. The skyline often gave Ink the impression of decay. It often felt weirdly hollow.

As she made her way through the crumbled structures of the central city, her reminder popped up in her vision: feel. Two parts of her mind argued with each other, one groaning about how stupid her reminder was, and the other reminding her that she had set it up because it was important. Stopping her walk, she let the breeze trail over her skin and through her hair. She focused on her skin, and tried to feel the heat from the setting sun. Ink thought she felt warmer, though she was unsure if she was only imagining it. She had spent plenty of time in the sun as a human, often in small hidden beaches. The oceans were now completely toxic with waste and chemicals.

Ink swiped away the reminder, feeling a longing for salt and sand. She felt a tug on her bag and immediately spun around to attack the offender. Z, expecting this, grabbed her wrist and stopped her from blowing him up.

‘Easy there, Lightning,’ he gave her a grin.

‘Why do you always do that?’

Z peered into her satchel. ‘You know, there’s no prize for finding the most stuff in one day. What happens when you find all the things there are to be found? What will you do then?’

‘Maybe I’ll make it my personal mission to annoy you all day, as you seem to do for me,’ Ink pulled the bag out of his grasp and continued her walk.

Z laughed and fell into step with her. ‘You headed to Nova’s?’

Ink nodded, and let Z ramble about the day’s happenings. Everything was always so exciting to him. She wondered what the inside of his head might look like. Ink noticed that his brown hair flopped down over his forehead, slightly obscuring his vision.

‘Why do you style your hair that way?’

Z took a second to catch on. ‘I like the way it looks. Don’t you think it looks good?’

Ink shrugged. ‘Does it matter how it looks? Doesn’t it bother you?’

‘No, and no,’ Z said with an easy smile. ‘Not everyone is as practical as you.’ He gestured to her cropped black hair. ‘And it took me ages to grow it to this length. Before, I used to have to get a haircut every fortnight.’

‘Hm,’ Ink replied, looking at him with her natural brown eye. Her right eye—the robotic one—contrasted greatly with it, glowing bright blue. Z’s eyes were both blue. The right was the same glowing blue as Ink’s, and the left was a natural sky blue. He looked almost completely human in the sunlight.

‘Don’t act like you don’t care about your appearance,’ Z said. Ink sighed. ‘If you didn’t care, why would you get your ears pierced? And don’t think I can’t see your eyeliner.’

‘I get it, Z.’

When Z spoke again, it was with a softer tone than Ink was expecting. ‘I know you’re mad about your arm being exposed like that.’

Frowning, Ink looked away.

‘Hey, I hear the scientists are getting pretty close to testing skin repairs. They’ll be able to fix it soon.’

‘Yeah, maybe.’

After a few moments of silence, Z said, ‘I like your arm the way it is. So does Nova.’

Ink did not respond to this, and they walked in silence to Nova’s shop. The shop was a tiny place, located on a narrow street deep in the central city, squashed between two destroyed buildings. Nova lived in the loft above the shop. On the left side, a makeshift food trade was set up in the remains of a restaurant. The other side was only the foundation and one wall of a building. Travellers often set up there to trade. When it rained, weeks would go by without anyone passing through, leaving all of them bored and Nova’s store packed with the valuables Ink had collected. Ink and Z were about to let themselves in before they heard a shout from above.

‘Nova?’ Ink called.

‘Up here!’ Nova was perched on the gutter above them. ‘There was a hole in my roof, I just finished patching it up.’

Nova’s store was mostly undamaged, though she had done a lot of repairs since settling in.

‘Good, come down,’ Ink said, ‘I brought you a gift.’

Despite being able to jump down from the roof, Nova climbed down slowly. ‘So, you know that hideous floral cat thing? The one that ornament guy gave me a few months back?’

Ink and Z both laughed. Once, a man with only ornamental animals to trade had stayed on the foundation for over a fortnight. He would exchange the ornaments for food. They all found him extremely odd, as he hardly blinked and thought that only prepackaged food was worth trading for, despite it being bad for their bodies.

‘Of course,’ Z said. ‘Completely unforgettable.’

‘Well,’ Nova hopped down to the ground, ‘I finally got rid of it today!’

‘Did you toss it in the trash, like I told you to?’ Ink asked.

‘No, someone actually wanted it,’ Nova shrugged.

‘I wonder what kind of nut-case…’ Ink mused, digging through her bag.

Nova peered into the bag with wide eyes, looking more childlike than usual. ‘What did you find?’

Ink held up a finger, finding the book beneath the metal vase. She presented it to Nova with false dramatics, before giving her a soft smile.

‘No way… Where did you find this?’ Nova gently leafed through the yellow pages. ‘It’s in such good condition… Thank you!’

‘It’s no big deal, Nova,’ Ink said.

Nova shushed her. ‘Yes, it is. I’ll be right back.’

Ink and Z followed Nova inside the shop, a little bell tinkled as the door opened. As she skipped down through the shelves to put the book with her collection, Ink watched her blonde head disappear into the back room.

Z chuckled. ‘It’s no big deal, Nova,’ he repeated, doing a poor imitation of Ink.

‘Shut up, Z,’ Ink glared at him.

‘You make it so easy,’ Z laughed. ‘Going all soft when you see her.’

Ink huffed in response.

‘Don’t be mad, at least you have someone.’

‘I do not have someone,’ Ink felt exasperated. ‘I just care about her.’

Z rolled his eyes. ‘You do have—’

Ink shushed him as they heard Nova shut the back door. ‘Hey! Guess what Chef brought me today! Ever since they were able to get stable crops growing, he’s been experimenting with recipes.’

She returned carrying a bowl of biscuits. ‘They’re delicious, you have to try one.’

Ink eyed the bowl suspiciously. Z immediately grabbed one, and gave her a look. ‘Oh, come on, Ink. You’re still not doing that anti-food thing, are you?’

‘I’m not anti-food,’ Ink said defensively. ‘I just don’t see the point. Just because I have a functioning digestive system doesn’t mean I have to use it.’

‘The point is,’ Z managed around a mouth full of biscuit, ‘that they’re delicious.’

‘You don’t have to have one,’ Nova said, ‘but they are really good.’

‘Come on,’ Z dragged out the words, ‘you’re gonna die of starvation.’

Ink snorted. ‘That’s literally just not going to happen. Unless those biscuits are hiding powerful explosives, none of us are going anywhere.’

Z sighed theatrically, holding out a biscuit to her. ‘Enough with the doom and gloom. Just eat the damn biscuit.’

‘Only to shut you up.’ Ink took it from him. She took a tentative bite. It was crumbly, with a citrusy flavour. Lemons. It was not really sweet nor savoury. She thought it may have been something she would have enjoyed before. Both of her friends were looking at her expectantly. Ink shrugged. ‘It’s good.’

Z cheered dramatically. Ink rolled her eyes at him. Nova caught her eye and smiled.


When the sun had long disappeared beyond the horizon, Nova was immersed in her new paperback and Z was looking through a deck of faded tarot cards. Ink, having finished stocking the shelves with her latest finds, climbed up to the loft and helped herself to another biscuit.

Z pulled himself up and stretched. ‘Time for bed.’

‘Do you want to stay here tonight?’ Nova asked.

‘Nah, don’t want my neighbours to worry.’

‘Ink? Are you going to stay?’ Nova asked both of them to stay almost every night. Ink thought that she might not like staying by herself, or that she worried for them. Either way, Ink usually declined.

‘Um, yeah,’ Ink said, ‘if that’s okay?’

‘Of course it is.’ Nova’s smile was bright, but Ink was sure she saw a glimpse of relief in her eyes.

Z raised his eyebrows at Ink from the doorway. ‘See you tomorrow.’

‘Bye, Z!’ Nova called as the door swung shut.

Ink sat by the window and watched him walk out into the quiet main street. She considered what he had said earlier, about her having someone, and wondered whether that was something he thought about often.

‘Tea?’ Nova had moved to the small kitchen.


Ink watched as Nova filled the kettle. ‘Will you be alright on the couch?’

‘Yeah, that’s fine,’ Ink nodded. She was unsure about whether she would sleep. She just knew she did not want to be alone after the nightmare she had suffered through the night before. Ink had seen herself waking up, being addressed by her code: NK653, and told that she had completed the transition from human to cyborg. The scene changed from a man thanking her for her service, to her standing in the middle of a burning city, sending buildings crumbling with blue heat from her palms. She remembered hearing a voice inside her begging her to stop. The dream ended when her attacks turned to people, and it had shocked her awake.

Ink’s system shuddered at the memory.

‘You okay?’ Nova asked, handing her a chipped mug.

Ink nodded. Silence settled between them as Nova went back to her book. After a long while, Ink decided to ask what was on her mind. ‘Do you ever… feel bad?’

Nova gave her a questioning look.

‘Like, guilty? For things you did?’

Nova thought for a moment, then closed the book. ‘Sometimes, but it’s not our fault.’

‘Isn’t it?’ Ink asked. ‘We signed up for it.’

‘We did,’ Nova nodded, ‘but we couldn’t have known it would end up like this.’

Ink shook her head. ‘We should have known. There was no other way.’

‘The humans set off the En-X, not us. They destroyed themselves, and we were under their control. We didn’t know what we were doing.’

‘But we did,’ Ink argued. ‘I knew when I signed up. Just because I, personally, didn’t set off the gas doesn’t mean I didn’t play a part in it. I can’t sleep without seeing the horrible things I did. The faces of people…’

‘You can’t blame yourself for the whole war. Everyone thought they were doing what was right. Just because it turned out like this doesn’t mean it couldn’t have turned out differently.’

Ink started to feel irritated. ‘But it didn’t turn out differently. We helped cause Earth-wide human extinction. We are responsible for that. I can’t just pretend to be a human when I killed them.’ Ink looked down at her metal forearm. ‘I’m not even human. None of us are.’

‘Okay, so we’re responsible for it,’ Nova said. ‘There’s nothing we can do about it now. We were human. Before this. Part of that is still in you.’

Ink did not have a response to this. Nova got up and sat next to her. Grabbing one of Ink’s hands, Nova held it tight and looked her in the eyes. Ink ignored the glowing blue on the right and looked into Nova’s hazel eye.

‘I know you don’t see the point,’ Nova said, ‘but we’re what’s left. It’s not all bad, so why shouldn’t we try to make a life? We can’t die, we can’t have children, it’s just us. Unless a meteor hits the earth and destroys us.’ Ink cracked a smile at that. ‘Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to feel a certain way.’

Ink nodded. Its not all bad. She mulled over this, wondering if it were true, and let the silence settle for a few long moments before breaking it. ‘Do you remember much about being human?’

‘Some things,’ Nova paused for a moment. ‘I remember collecting stuff. Books. Candles. I had so many candles. I used to have this one that smelled like cherries and flowers and sunset. I never burned it because I wanted to save it for a special occasion.’ Nova cuddled herself closer to Ink. ‘Do you remember anything?’

‘Some things,’ Ink repeated. ‘I used to love soaps. And lotions. Anything that made my skin smell nice. And I never wanted kids. Just pets.’

‘That sounds nice,’ Nova smiled.

Nova made more tea, and they spoke until the sun started to rise. Ink found herself pulled into Nova’s arms, her head resting against Nova’s shoulder. Nova eventually fell asleep with her empty mug in her lap. As Ink planned where she would go that day, the sinking feeling of guilt washed over her. She would have to see their destruction. Possibly her own destruction.

Placing her empty mug on the window sill, she found a rag and started to clean her exposed elbow joint. As she polished it, she contemplated not going out to the ruins, and doing something different with her time. Ink gazed out the window as the sun climbed into the sky, and thought that maybe Nova was right: it might not be all bad.


Download a PDF copy of After Life.