Tag Archives: dystopia

Afterlight, J. A. Phelan

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

WELCOME TO THE RiteWell!™ DATABANK
> You have selected the following transmissions for mass erasure
> CONTINUE?

TIME: 3.2MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7      USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > journalism > press releases for work
TITLE: Kion and Estian Peace&Prosper Alliance Announcement


BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

…okay… so… I’m running, my throat is raw… from the thick smoke… blanketing the city. My chest is just… ridiculously tight, feels like a giant hand… is clutching my chest, trying to squeeze… the life out of me. I’m coming from the Institute Cent-centre… we were all waiting for a…an announcement from the Kion when all… chaos just erupted. And now… obviously have my RiteWell!™ with me, copy… copying this into the databank, maybe… not sure if it’s still standing. I’m… wait, hold on a sec *unable to transcribe audio*

\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\
recovering…

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Right, okay. Hopefully… I’m whispering now, hopefully loud enough… for it to be picked up. Found…an-an abandoned drone store and… it’s rank in here, so rank. The walls are furry with mould, and I’m pretty sure I’m sitting in a puddle. It’s ridic outside, people are running everywhere, I don’t know if the audio is picking it up but I can still hear them screaming. And the smell. One second we were standing around waiting for it to start, and the next there was a massive crack and the fire came from everywhere. Five minutes earlier and I would’ve been burning too, I’d already started to push to the front and prepare my RiteWell!™ for the announcement. I guess… I guess the explosion was the announcement? I’m not sure what even happened. I think ours was the first though, then more erupted, like a distant, booming echo.

My father always used to say it was never going to happen to us. We are too well-behaved, too quiet, too grateful to the Kion. But there have been whispers for some time, that the Kion were going to take over, and that they already have been, patiently and out of the spotlight. Whispers about their true reasons for bringing our planet back from the brink of destruction. I- the screaming is starting to fade now; it’s becoming quite distant. Ah, I can hear glass crunching outside. I…hey! Stop. Venris?

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.2MPTS     DATE: 980.76.34.7     USER: Venris Netion
RACE: Kion (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > Afterlight shit
TITLE: turns out I’m right, ha!


BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Well I don’t want to say I told you so, but, you know, I told you so. I told you, Navka, if you’re reading this, I TOLD YOU. And you thought I was crazy. I think my last Afterlight update was that story about my father telling me to cut you out of my life, Navka, while I still can. He said the Afterlight was coming, and it was best I had no Estian friends, we were going to help you all see a better way of life, help you progress as a people, or whatever the damn he said. Sounds like bullshit to me though, not that I told him that.

Anyway, I’m coming to find you Navka, shit is going down and we need to go somewhere far away. You better not be lying dead somewhere near that stupid Centre or I’ll kill you myself. Imagine you dying over some shit news story? Not if I can help it.
Wow my father is about to kick my bedroom door down, he’s gonna kill me for sneaking out. I gotta go.

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.4MPTS     DATE: 980.76.34.7     USER: Venris Netion
RACE: Kion (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > Afterlight shit
TITLE: Navka lives!


BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Update! I found him! Navka will you stop struggling, I’m not going to hurt you, you stu- *unable to transcribe audio*


\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\\[-multiple voices detected-]
formatting…
owner detected [VENRIS NETION]
formatting…
unknown user detected [UN]
formatting…

UN: Venris how did you even find me?

VN: I pinged your RiteWell!™, I figured you’d hide somewhere where you could record on that stupid thing.

UN: Stupid? What do you think you’re holding? How ab-

VN: You can yell at me later, you really need to get out of here.

UN: Me? Why? What about you?

VN: Those were Kion bombs! The Afterlight is coming! I told you my father wasn’t just some loner with a saviour complex. This thing is big, so big. Like, planet-wide big.

UN: But why? Your people have spent so long helping us, teaching us better ways, why destroy it all? It makes no sense.

VN: Look you really need to go, we can argue the reasoning of the invaders later, once you’re safe.

UN: Go where? And why does it sound like you’re not coming?

VN: They’re rounding up Estians out there, and if I’m seen helping you, I’ll be in just as much danger. I’ll meet you in the Willow Wood at 4.0MPTS, where we used to play vinyo, and we’ll figure this shit out from there.

UN: Venris, I really think we should stick together!

VN: Stay safe, I’ll see you soon!

UN: Venris!

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.6MPTS    DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > I don’t even know
TITLE: running for my life, I guess

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

I am… already… so sick… of running. I’ve just stopped in… in an empty shop. Front windows… smashed in. Estians are fighting back out there, but we’re hopelessly outnumbered by the Kion. And I think… I think they have synthasium weapons, which is definitely against our P&P Alliance. They’re only supposed to be helping us replenish our natural resources, not use them to make weapons.

Venris found me before, when I was in the drone store, said the explosions were bombs from the Kion. Synthasium bombs. If only my father could see this now. He was always wary of those green bastards, as he used to say.

I still don’t believe this is really happening. I wish Venris was still with me. We’re always better together. He said his father had spoken of something called the Afterlight, and that we would soon be introduced to it and enlightened, or some such nonsense. I thought it was some religious business, or a new galactic policy, not a literal invasion. I don’t think anyone realised how deep this runs, it’s ridic.

Briefly the Estian news was on, confirming the bombs, but then the power cut. Now there’s a Kion on there, demanding everyone remain calm, don’t resist, this is all for our benefit. They’re going to show us the way to a New World.

Well, they’re certainly showing us something. Reminds me of gazing at Estia as a child, it’s image broadcast from a neutral space station during the first meeting of Estians and the Kion. Patches of green and blue scattered on its pink surface, three of our four moons just visible over the curve. That image is what our planet could look like, instead of the blackened, dying thing it was, but only if we accepted the Kion technology that would allow it to thrive again. And so we did, and it was wonderful and prosperous, until now.

Now, they’re just reducing it back to how it was. What a waste. This chaos, it all makes no sense. Fires are raging everywhere outside, the smoke has turned to a thick haze, making it difficult to see more than a few steps in front. The screams are constant, and I can hear a child crying, somewhere.

I’ve seen… I’ve seen dead bodies in the street, purple skin like mine fading as souls left their bodies for the stars, with no stone to hold them.

I want my mother.

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.7MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7      USER: Venris Netion
RACE: Kion (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > Afterlight shit
TITLE: a mistake I have made

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

I don’t think I should have left Navka alone. I could see he was scared, but, I figured it be easier for him to hide on his own. And… maybe I’m a coward. I didn’t want to have to see him get hurt, if we were caught. Shit. What if… no. That won’t happen. I should have pretended I was escorting him somewhere, or something like that. Shit. Actually… he’ll definitely have gone back home. Damn it all. Shit, shit, shit. I need to go there. He’ll be getting his mother’s soul stone. We should have stayed together.

Oh f- *unable to transcribe audio*


\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\
recovering…

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

…are you doing! Get your hands off me! I’m not gonna hurt you, stop! I’m one of the good ones! Stop this, wh-

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.9MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > I don’t even know
TITLE: still running

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Okay so I decided to quickly dart home and grab something. It’s on the way to the Wood anyway. And I couldn’t leave my mother behind. I’m almost there. The fire is spreading quickly though, I hope Venris is already there.

I’m walking now, thank the stars, and whispering again. Not sure if the audio is picking them up, but the emergency sirens have finally started. Better late than never I suppose. Enforcers are out patrolling, rounding us up, all of them Kion. I saw a group of them collaring some Estians and chaining their wrists. The Kion have established control quickly. Too quickly. Plans must have been in place for a long time. Maybe my father had the right idea after all…

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 4.1MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7      USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > I don’t even know
TITLE: at the Wood

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Venris is late. Which is not unusual. But in this circumstance, it makes me nervous. It’s well and truly dark now. The fires have sputtered into smouldering spreads. I’ve hidden in a hollow tree trunk. It’s much nicer than the drone store.

I know he wouldn’t have gotten lost. He wouldn’t have stopped anywhere either. Unless maybe… maybe someone stopped him. Maybe his father found him. Or some Estians did. Maybe I should go look for him…but then what if he turns up here? Argh. Venris. Please be okay.

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 4.1MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Venris Netion
RACE: Kion (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > Afterlight shit
TITLE: ——-

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Navka… help me…


Do you want to send a RiteWell!™ emergency ping beacon?
All nearby RiteWell!™ users will be alerted

>yes< no
< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 4.3MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > I don’t even know
TITLE: Venris pinged me

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Well… at… least… he’s alive… right? Although… it was… an emergency… ping. Oh no. Oh… I see him. He pinged every nearby RiteWell!™ user, the idiot. He’s surrounded by Kion. Oh no no no no. Now what- *unable to transcribe audio*


\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\\[-multiple voices detected-]
formatting…
owner detected [NAVKA TORLAND]
formatting…
unknown user detected [UN]
formatting…

UN: Hey you! Get back here!

NT: F-*unable to transcribe audio*

UN: I’m not going to hurt you! We just want to-

NT: Get off me!

UN: We just want to help you See. We want to teach you our ways, and help your people progress and prosper. We mean no harm, you’ll see. Come along now. Come and join your friends in the New World.

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 4.4MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > ——-
TITLE: ——-

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

I… I don’t feel so good. I feel like I’m floating. Where was I? The… the Wood. That’s right. But it’s not important anymore. I needed to tell you… something. I needed to tell you something? But I can’t remember what. I was just… in the Wood. Yeah, and… and someone… and then… yes, I was bathed, bathed in the glow… of the Afterlight.

And it burned. It’s burning me. I can’t remember.

Hey, please don’t take that… please don’t take that out of my hand. I’m talking to someone. Who… V… Vvvv… someone. I need that. Don’t take it. I need it. I need it- *unable to transcribe audio*


\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\
\ERROR\
\ERROR\


< / END TRANSMISSION

RESTART?     >ERASE<

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The Hosts, Selin Aydogar

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Mask on, spray, wipe, repeat.

The television on the wall sits above me playing the News. It’s always the same old thing and I prefer not to watch it, but the customers always rather watch the news than some random movie.

‘Another fifteen people from Shadow Falls in Sydney taken to ‘The Island’ today. That makes a total of thirty-six hosts this week. Authorities at ‘The Island’ are still refusing to provide any information on this matter. In other news…’

Shaking my head, the itch in my nose makes me play with my mask. Fifteen people have gone to ‘The Island’. Every day it just keeps increasing— I wonder what those poor people are doing there. How are they surviving without any sort of communication? Shaking my head again, I continue wiping the excess water off the cups before I put them into the sterilising machine with my clear latex gloves. A customer leaves the table, her cash payment in a clear plastic sleeve, winking at me. I walk towards her seat, hospital grade disinfectant spray and wipe in hand, ready to sanitise the table and chair. Focusing on my task at hand, I make sure that everything is thoroughly cleaned for the next person. I take the cash back to the register and ring it up. Finally having a moment to myself, I take a sip of my water bottle and regard the customers. Plain black mask, plain white mask, floral pattern, skulls. There is something so familiar about the way these people behave. Everyone is acting the same yet adding their own version to it. The guy in the back cleans his AirPods with wipes before putting them in his ear, he puts his mask on a tissue before sanitising his hands and taking a sip of his coffee—which he insisted be placed in his reusable cup. An older woman behind him wipes the table first, sanitises and then puts the mask in her bag. My eyes stray from her and follow the sight of Leon, my co-worker as he takes the temperature of the people waiting at the door.

I spent a few days of the week here at the Café and some days at the Lab where I intern. My interest in science only grew as the pandemic continued and my working at the Lab only heightened my love for it. A few months back, I discovered a new organism which could potentially cure many diseases. It was a big breakthrough and my work was headlined. Tomorrow I had a meeting with my supervisor, and I was itching for it to come.

As I observe the café once more, the reality of our situation hits me again. It’s utterly disappointing and sad that we have to accept this as our new normal. I like to think that this is a big test from God. From Him to the world. Perhaps to treat each other better, perhaps to learn to be hygienic. Or maybe it’s to understand how much freedom we have compared to others. Because truly we don’t know the value of freedom until it is taken from us.

I remember the day that I found out. In all honesty, I didn’t think anything of it. In fact, I had made a joke about it. Lena, my cousin in Melbourne called me as I was walking into work to tell me. She was laughing, ‘They found a new disease, it’s on its way to Sydney.’

I had responded with giggles of my own, ‘I’m sure it’s fine.’

I feel like the world had personally jinxed me. I mean, I know that logically I wouldn’t have been the only one to underestimate it but sometimes logic flies away.

I have never seen anything as eerie as this. The streets were empty, with a stray person walking their dog here and there. The shops were filled with people in masks, rushing to buy their essentials before they rushed back home to change their clothes and disinfect their food. Toilet paper was gone as were any other perishables. We were in lockdown, barely allowed to leave our homes. Each suburb looked different, some civilians in certain areas were more cautious. Always with a mask and gloves on. In others, some were more laid back. No concept of social distancing or masks. The suicide rate was higher than ever. Some people had hope and others didn’t. It’s as if this big grey cloud has just been hovering over the earth. I could taste the sadness in the air. If I thought my anxiety was bad before the pandemic, then I don’t know what I was thinking at all. I was worse than ever. But it was nice having my family home.

Oh, how I missed the freedom to sit at a café with my mum without the fear of getting ill. Or even having the opportunity to reluctantly go to the gym. My family; aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents… we didn’t see each other for about three months. I never thought I would miss the smell of my Grandma’s house or her yelling at me to stop being lazy and help cook. Things got better, and then they got worse. There were so many theories floating around the world. Was this a manmade virus?

Society started to change, the hope of going back to normal was long gone and we all had to accept our fate, that our world had been altered forever. There was no adequate vaccine so when things started to get really bad the authorities took the infected and placed them on an Island. Completely isolated from the world, with no way to communicate. The streets were filled with paraphernalia about ‘The Island’, a constant reminder of so many people’s fate. But I think the world started to relax, until they realised that it would be their family, their friends who would be there, with no way to see or talk to them. Soon, so many people were sent there that the world felt quiet. There was barely a hustle on the streets, some people liked the quiet and others didn’t. I didn’t really mind but there were some moments when I would be in the shopping centre and something as simple as a tranquil food court would make me upset.

The virus mutated, impacting people in different ways. First the signs were minor: fever and a cough. But this virus evolved into something scarier— more distinctive. The biggest impact of the virus then became physical appearance. Faces would become distorted with features morphing into one another, hair would fall out. Some people died and some didn’t. Most didn’t, but they were changed forever anyway. Things started to go awry, it became more than just about a virus. The authorities believed that we should live in a ‘clean society’. Meaning; aesthetic. They didn’t want the ‘deformed’ around us, claiming that it will cause mass hysteria and panic. So they sent them away. Unfortunately, most of civilisation also supported this idea. Their minds and souls were still working the same; they were merely a host. The virus would come and spread its wings around us like some sort of dark fairy and sprinkle us with its dust. The world felt eerie in its presence.

The world changed, for the better or worse I’m not sure. That answer will depend on the person. The virus didn’t care for status; the rich and the powerful were also sent to the Island. I remember reading somewhere that this was a whole scheme to start a new civilisation. A new world, with new concepts blooming from fresh soil. Thousands of people went to the Island first as volunteers, with the intention of not coming back. This was the first bad sign to me. Would thousands of people really leave everything behind for the sake of society? From what the authorities told us, those people didn’t receive any rewards either.

Interesting.

‘Hera!’ I come out of my stupor and look at Leon.

‘Sorry! I was just day dreaming.’ I give him a small smile as I place my bottle back down on the bench.

‘No worries. But I think your shift is over.’ I look outside after his words and notice it’s nightfall. The dark sky is bare, only with a few glittering stars and moonlight to illuminate us.

‘It is too. Today went by so fast,’ I say to Leon as I untie my apron and hang it up on the hook. After bidding farewell, I grab my bag, sanitise my hands and leave the café. Just as I’m fixing my bag on my shoulder and grabbing my keys, I hear soft footsteps behind me.

‘Hera.’ I turn around and see Leila, an old friend of mine. A friend who the last time I spoke to was being sent off to the Island because she was a host. She didn’t look much different than before. Only a slight difference in her nose and lips. If anything, it just looked like she’d had bad plastic surgery.

‘Leila… What are you doing here? Weren’t you on the Island?’ I take a step back from shock. My heart pounds as I try to register exactly what I’m seeing. Her hair is the same light brown and her eyes the same dark brown. Seeing her in front of me for the first time in years brings back all the memories we had together. Leila and I were always close but in the last year before the virus hit, things were quite tense between us and we were just never as close as we had been before. She reached out to me when she got infected, saying she was leaving for the Island as soon as possible. I knew that we had both changed and our friendship would never be the same as it once was, but I would have never wished that on her. The thought of not seeing her really upset me and I mourned for her. I mourned for her family. But there was just nothing I could do. Now, seeing her across from me is something I wasn’t expecting. In fact, it’s illegal.

‘Hera, I escaped.’ She walks towards me. ‘There is so much I need to tell you.’

I look up to the night sky for some clarity and the stars wink at me mockingly.

‘I’m not sick, don’t worry. But we need to talk right now.’

‘Um, okay okay. Get in the car.’ I shuffle nervously towards my old Wrangler, my scruffy black and white converses squeezing my feet after my long day at work.

I drive to the lookout my friends and I always used to go and on occasion for a breath of fresh air I would go alone. Opening the door, I stretch my legs and face forward. I’m not sure I want to hear what she has to say.

‘What are you doing here?’ I fiddle with my evil eye necklace as I wait for her to speak up.

‘I escaped. Hera, life there is different. They’re starting things from scratch. All the powerful people came together to build something new.’ She rushes out.

‘Wait, what? I don’t really understand what you’re saying.’ I continue to fiddle with my necklace.

‘Okay, okay. Look, when I got there, things were peaceful. It wasn’t some place where there were doctors everywhere. Everyone was friendly, acting like they weren’t infected. There were restaurants and fields, farms and animals. Isn’t that weird for some place that was meant to be an isolated, deserted island? Because that’s what they told us, that it was an isolated, deserted place. It was the start of a civilisation and the Island was rich too. All these big, powerful people bought their money and built. Hera, they built. There are buildings, businesses, currency, everything is there.’

I stare at her, unable to form words. It’s one thing to see someone who I never thought I’d see again, and it’s another to hear what she’s saying. I guess what I read about is true. But I still have questions. What is she doing here? How did she get here? I feel a small sting on my palm and look down. Blood trickles down my hand, caressing my skin maliciously. I watch it fall— as if in slow motion— down my finger and onto my shoes. In my hand lay pieces of my necklace. The royal blue stones winking at me, the silver stones tainted by my blood. I didn’t realise I was putting that much pressure on the pendant. Leila knows me well enough to realise I’m too stunned to speak. So, she continues talking. I wish she hadn’t.

‘I met someone there. He’s the son of one of the powerful men. He told me everything. Hera, there is a cure to this virus on the Island but they’re keeping it to themselves until the time is right, they’re going to sell it but there is no virus left. They’re cutting off communication with the world. This is like a selection. After most people died, they made a list of all the next people to depart. One or two from every family that’s left. Mainly people with important skills or jobs, but random people as well. Our physical effects are something else. Somehow, they’ve given us something to change our appearance, I’m not sure how and Titus doesn’t know either. But they’re saying that we’re positive, that we’re hosts when we’re not. Titus has connections here, that’s how I was able to come back. I left illegally.’

‘Leila, why are you here? Why are you telling me this and not the rest of the world?’ I place my hand with the broken pendant on my heart, trying to stop myself from hyperventilating.

‘Titus has been helping me keep track of my family. No one is left. I have no one but you. H-Hera,’ she stutters, her eyes a brutal mix of emotion and fierceness. ‘I saw the list. They saw the news about your new discovery in the Labs. They want you and you’re next.’ She blinks at me, ‘this is your warning call.’

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Until the Light, Thomas Dennis

Photo by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash

A bleak morning shadow loomed over the city; countless sleepless lights lost within silence. Once, every candle and streetlight would dance in a warm blaze; twirling to a jumbled, disruptive symphony… But that was a long time ago.

‘That time again?’

Darren snapped up from his boots, smiling slightly at the young woman standing over him. ‘Amelia…’

‘I know. You gotta do what you gotta do, right?’

Darren scoffed. ‘Doesn’t make it any easier.’ He sighed as he tied the last knot firmly. ‘Maybe I can bring something nice back this time? You want anything?’

Amelia gave a smile and shook her head. ‘Just some bread.’

Darren watched as she walked away, past the dining table. He glanced sadly at the vase that sat in the centre; a tall, beautifully crafted piece that had been empty for almost a year. She always asked for something simple. Something necessary. Never anything for pleasure’s sake.

‘Alright, I’m off!’ No sooner had his hand touched the knob did a tap grace his shoulder.

‘Here, you can’t forget these.’ A dull sensation reawakened in Darren’s temple as he took the objects out of Amelia’s hands. Indeed, he could not. Not the small grey cloth that wrenched across his mouth, the cords that dug into his hair as they fastened tightly together. Not the thick, clear gloves that dragged his fingers in and squeezed his hand.

With content, he sank into Amelia’s arms. He trembled and smiled behind his mask as her soft lips brushed his cheek. He gave one final wave before closing the door. The tremendous, dull bang of the mahogany clashing against the doorframe echoed through his head as he floated down the stairs. Each flight felt hours long until he reached the basement car park.

The old girl sputtered and fumbled before roaring to life, her heavy tyres screaming as they crawled out onto the road. On most days, the drive to work felt like cruising through a ghost town. But not today. Darren’s eyes widened as he pulled up to the lights, car after car rushing past him as the light turned green. Although glad to see them, his mind was consumed by a disturbing thought.

When was the last time there was this many cars out at once?

Darren shook his head as he turned on the highway. No time for that, let’s move!

However, a long, terrible screech caused him to flinch, slowing to a crawl as the car ahead of him suddenly stopped. He groaned as he rolled up to join the long queue of cars waiting for their turn – the most irritating obstacle on this trip.

The Checkpoint.

A long concrete blockade that affirmed the district border, barely enough space for one car on either side to come through at once. Stationed on each side was a small company of officers, some in black and blue, others in green and brown. All noticeably armed.

Darren’s grip on the wheel tightened, knuckles whitened as he watched car after car pass through. The sun’s barely up and already these people have decided NOW was a good time to try their luck?! A queue that usually lasted ten minutes slowly rolled into thirty.

No. Settle, Darren. Settle. Remember: 1, 2, 3. 1. 2. 3. 1… 2… 3.

‘Identification, please.’

Darren smiled at the officer in black, reached down for his wallet, which was sitting on the passenger-side seat.

He fished out and handed over both his licences. First, his standard NSW driver’s licence. Then, and more importantly, his Sanctioned licence. A small, blue card with his photo, name, and a bar code that spanned the bottom edge.

The officer eyed him sceptically. ‘Sanctioned Code, please.’

‘Sanctioned Code T26-N19570.’ Darren replied robotically. ‘Designation: Food storage and procession.’

Every Sanctioned licensee was expected to memorise their code. Precautions to distinguish the safe from the scum, as general opinion had it. The officer handed the licence to his partner, who swiped it through a mobile scanner. A few seconds later, both officers nodded, and Darren got both his licences back.

‘Alright, you’re good to go.’

‘Thank you, officer.’

‘Be careful out there. Don’t go causing trouble.’ Darren nodded as the gates slowly swung upwards.

Once through, the world once again passed him by, except now, cars were fewer and farther. Every McDonalds, every KFC, every car repair and everyday shop – they all flew by, utterly invisible. The cries of car horns, a distant memory. Time was ticking and there was road to burn.

It took ten more minutes to reach his destination: what was once a grand shopping centre, full of life, was now as cold and dead as its walls. Darren hurried into the carpark, only to face another Checkpoint, where a grouchy-looking guard shook his head.

٭

‘You’re late.’

Darren rolled his eyes at his manager, Mr. McCann, who didn’t even bother to glance up from his desk.

‘Only by a few minutes, sir. Sorry. Traffic was… surprisingly hectic today.’

‘Yes, I noticed. It’s been like that since 5.’

It’s been like that for three hours? The hell’s going on?

‘Cormac!’ McCann snapped. ‘Listen. Today’s the same old, understand? Some disturbing rumours are going around, and I don’t want them to continue.’ Darren nodded before leaving the office.

He busied himself with his work routine, inspecting the produce in the stock storage to ensure the fruits and vegetables were satisfactory for purchase. The new kid, Ryan, ran over.

‘Hey, did you hear? There’s gonna be a big gathering in the streets today.’

Darren held back a sigh. He had always liked Ryan. The kid always brought a smile to his face, his sheer energy was something this world dearly missed. Every day they were rostered together, the pair would spend their breaks discussing video games or making the most absurd theories about the strangest television shows.

Like Darren, Ryan had good reason for joining the Sanctioned. Every shift, he would come out in place of his parents. If he was not discussing the weirdest, nerdiest topics, then you could never get him to shut up about his sister. A little girl, no older than six, with her big brothers’ golden hair, blue eyes and bright smile.

‘Where did you hear about this?’ Darren muttered as he started counting the fruit boxes.

‘In chatrooms. On Twitter. You know, everywhere.’

Darren shook his head. ‘Ryan…’

‘Look, hear me out, yeah? Most people are tired of all the restrictions the bloody government’s putting on them. I mean, only one person per household once every two weeks for food and meds? It’s ridiculous.’

Darren didn’t respond, the taste of iron in his mouth. He had heard these arguments countless times over the last year. In video after video, people would spam all social platforms to rant and rave. Faces creased like prunes, screaming about the ‘Injustice of Isolation’. After a while, watching paint dry didn’t sound so bad.

‘Hey, maybe we should join it too.’

Darren stared blankly into those eyes, those young wide eyes, trembling, pleading, before turning back to his checklist. He heard Ryan’s fading footsteps as he scanned the boxes of potatoes, making sure his counts were correct.

He smiled as he filled the last spot on the checklist. Everything was under control. Now it was just about checking to see which tables needed filling and which could wait. However, his smile became a frown when he stepped back onto the floor. The quiet, empty floor.

Darren narrowed his eyes as he checked each untouched table. Barely anything had been taken, but the shop had been open for at least an hour. He left the produce section and took a lap past each of the aisles. Virtually nothing on the shelves had been taken, at least not compared to every other day. Every co-worker he passed looked just as confused and concerned as him. Even the few customers in the aisles, who should be rushing to get supplies as fast as they could, were perplexed by how… easy that day was.

Suddenly, there was shouting outside. Without a second thought, he raced towards the front registers, where McCann was talking to a lone security guard amidst the thundering shouts that echoed in from outside.

The shopping centre hallways seemed like a tomb. All the other grocery shops were dark behind shutter doors, and those few clothes and accessory shops that were still open had employees standing out at their entrances, waiting for that first wave of customers while trying to make sense of the shouts.

‘Your whole team’s outside right now?’ McCann asked the guard.

‘Yes. Only a few of us stayed behind to watch the store entrances.’

‘What’s going on?’ Darren said, walking up to the pair. ‘What’s all that noise about? Where is everyone?’

McCann sighed, rubbing his temple. ‘The rumours…’

Darren’s eyes widened. He turned to find the rest of the staff had gathered at the front, some confused, others curious, all trying to work out what was going on. All but one…

‘Where’s the kid? Anybody seen Ryan?!’

‘What about Ry– HEY!’ Darren ignored his boss’ question as he bolted down the empty hallways. Profane thoughts cleaved through Darren’s head as he ran; the echo of each of his footsteps was quickly drowned out as the centre front door got closer.
Before he even opened the door, he could hear them. Countless booming voices clocked his ears as he stepped outside, bearing witness to the vast but burgeoning parade of people standing in the street in front of the centre. If not for his hanging mouth, Darren would have rolled his eyes at the countless voices, screaming and shouting over each other to the point where he could not even understand them. Slogans like ‘Bring down the Walls’, ‘#FoodForChildren’, and ‘This is a Government Scam’ seemed to be the more tactful slogans that were sprawled across the signs.

HONK!

Oh no…

The blaring car horn seemed to calm the crowd, at least enough for Darren to find the source. A red two-seater sat in the middle of the street, surrounded by a ring of similarly sized cars. Each one had a young person, mid 20’s at most, standing on the roof. They had small black boxes at their feet, faced out towards the crowd.

And there, standing on the roof of the centre car, was Ryan.

Ryan raised a hand, lifted it to his face, and tore off his mask. Seconds of silence rippled out over the street, before an old but familiar sound came faintly over the crowd. Sirens.

‘Listen to them!’ Ryan’s voice roared into the streets like thunder, ‘The cops are on their way!’

Murmurings began to rise. Looks of anger, worry and even panic came across the face of the protestors as the wails grew louder and louder. ‘People! Listen!’ Ryan called their eyes back to himself. ‘This is what we came here for. The cops, the army, they just want to bully us, to push us into our homes. To keep all the food for themselves. All in the name of some ‘pandemic’?’

The murmurs began shifting towards agreement. ‘We cannot let this stand! They can’t keep us away from the world! My little sis, she…’ Ryan paused for a bit, taking a moment to breathe before he spoke again. ‘She can’t even go to school. She can’t see her friends unless I pay for her to ‘see’ them through a screen!’

The murmurings grew louder as the signs began rising. Darren shook his head, staring in disbelief at this boy who would use his position as a Sanctioned, and his own kid sister, to rile these people up. A loud beep cut through the noise. The signs lowered just enough for Darren to see one of the boys standing on the cars holding up a card. A card that was flashing red.

Every non-Sanctioned family gets one civilian card, a card that only lasts three hours. Three hours to get whatever rations you can for two weeks.

He turned to Ryan, who nodded back. With a defiant roar, the boy threw the card toward his feet and smashed it beneath his heel. The cheers were slower this time, but louder as people began to follow suit, lifting their cards and throwing them onto the pavement.

‘Yes! Yes! No more restrictions! The government would only Sanction a few of us, enough for them to monitor and enslave while everyone else waits for scraps! NO MORE!’

‘NO MORE!’ The first unanimous cheer.

For two long minutes, Darren watched the parade, shaking his head at everyone who looked back at him. He sighed as countless cars flooded the surrounding roads, dazzled in a red and blue disco. Within moments, thunderous footsteps shook the streets as lines of uniforms marched towards the crowd, the morning light gleaming off their riot shields.

‘Attention, citizens! Attention! This will be your only warning. Complete your shopping or return to your homes now! Failure to comply will result in the use of force!’

Darren could barely hear the announcement. The crowd just kept getting louder as Ryan and his friends called for them to march against enemy lines. As the crowd between them thinned out, Ryan finally met Darren’s eyes. A joyous look came across Ryan’s face as he called out – called out to his friend, his mentor.

But Darren gave no response. Only turned around slowly and headed back inside, closing the door as he heard the first bang.

*

Darren sighed as he wandered to the near-barren bakery. Silence had plagued the rest of the day. Even when the afternoon bustle began, smiling still seemed taboo.

It was always difficult to find a good loaf by closing time, but, just as he found one, something caught his eye. Bouquets of roses, rich as scarlet, radiating from the flower stands.

Darren’s mask hid his wide grin; he knew who loved red roses. They always reminded her of her favourite childhood film.

‘Not quite our anniversary… but just one can’t be too selfish, right?’

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Wonder Boy, James Melham

Photo by Gursimrat Ganda on Unsplash

Tom waited impatiently at the metal doors for the countdown to reach zero. The lights had all been turned down in anticipation, as if for fireworks, or for a comet to pass, and the numbers above the doors glowed red. From here, Tom and his roommate had listened to the riots on the streets below. They had opened up the curtains to watch through the large clean windows the first flecks of ash fall from air as the bushfires began. They had looked on with increasing misery as the ash piled up like snow on the disused cars and the broken down brick walls, and the hours turned to days and then into months. Tom’s heart beat against his ribcage with increasing vigour, but he wasn’t scared, at least he didn’t think he was. For the first time in a very long time, they were going outside.

Tom kicked the door.

‘Hey man,” his roommate began, ‘are you okay?’

Tom could see the blurry reflection of his roommate behind him. He could also hear him sucking in air through his mask noisily.

‘Yeah Wonder Boy, just mind your own business, okay?’

If the door didn’t open up soon, Tom thought he would throttle his roommate. Not that he could. Wonder Boy would definitely kick his ass again.

Hurry up.

 

– One minute to go –

 

Wonder Boy had arrived the week before the fifth lockdown and things had started out well enough. Tom remembered how they had played board games, watched re-runs of soccer matches, talked all night about anything and everything.

Wonder Boy would spend hours telling Tom about all the trophies he had won, back when there were trophies to win. He described in vivid detail the glamorous parties he had gone to, the nights he had spent with beautiful women.

It hadn’t bothered Tom that he had never won any trophies; he had never been on any dates either. He used to imagine it was him in the stories, winning those trophies, going on dates, having parties thrown in his honour. Not spending what should have been his high school years looking after his mother, cleaning up the puke from the hallway, hiding his money in the oven, or listening to his mother retching into the toilet in the middle of the night. The stories were a welcome distraction from the memories of repeatedly collecting his mother from rehab, and mere weeks later, returning her again like an unwanted Christmas pet.

In the end it wasn’t the booze that had killed her, she drowned.

In the last few weeks, the weeks following the announcement that they would be let outside, things had begun to go wrong. The stories had become different somehow. They had grown stale, but even more than that, they had become offensive: a never-ending list of things that Tom never had, and never would have. At least Wonder Boy had had glory days. What had Tom had?

Two weeks prior there had been an argument over what to watch on television that had descended, as many drunken arguments do, into something personal. At its conclusion, Wonder Boy had wanted an explanation of why Tom ‘had been such a dick lately’ and Tom had been happy to tell him. The problem, Tom had said, badly slurring, was not the TV, not the stories, it was that Wonder Boy snored so fucking noisily, breathed noisily, ate noisily, showered noisily, exercised noisily, masturbated noisily, he lived too noisily. There was not enough of the grey room for both of them… Wonder Boy needed to go.

Tom had tried to hit Wonder Boy with an empty bottle. Had he meant to kill him? No, just to concuss him a little bit. To have just a few small hours of peace and quiet. But it was Tom that went sprawling over a footstool, shattering the glass bottle on the floor and slicing a hole in his elbow that bled sticky red wine on the carpet.

Tom kicked the door again.

On the security monitor, Anne and her roommate from 6C appeared in the corridor, returning to the room opposite. Her hair was windswept and covered in ash like confetti. She was beautiful in a way that rewired things in Tom’s brain and stopped him from doing simple things such as talking.

‘Hey man, look it’s the girls,’ Wonder Boy said, abruptly interrupting Tom’s daydream. He reached over Tom to bang on the door and smacked against Toms shoulder repeatedly in the process.

The two girls smiled at the camera and waved before quickly disappearing into their room.

 

– BEEP –

 

The locks on either side of the door shot back into the walls and the door sprang open automatically, sending a gust of air and residual ash into the clean room.

‘Go-Go-Go!’ Wonder Boy shouted excitedly, shoving Tom out into the corridor.

Tom tripped and staggered forward, falling in a heap against the door of 6C. Tom could feel the girls watching on their monitor.

‘You fucking asshole,’ he said, ‘what was that for?’

‘Sorry man,’ Wonder Boy replied with a shrug.

Tom pushed away Wonder Boy’s attempts to help him up and got to his feet. It was the second time that Wonder Boy had laid him out in as many weeks and Tom could feel his face and his fists throbbing with embarrassment and anger.

If it had been the other way around Tom wouldn’t have shoved Wonder Boy, he would’ve warned him that the countdown was nearly up, he would’ve given him a subtle poke that said ‘hey buddy, let’s go.’ He wouldn’t have made his roommate look like an asshole was the point. Next time it was Wonder Boys turn. That fucker was in for it next time, yes sir.

Tom walked through the lobby and swung open the heavy doors that led outside, rattling the thick glass panels set into the frames.

A strong wind sent hot flecks of ash and dust into his face that, despite his goggles and mask, made Tom turn away from their approach. Only a bland white light now penetrated through the veil of swirling ash and smoke and the image of desolation that greeted him was more painful than he had imagined it to be.

‘Hey man,’ Wonder Boy called. ‘Sorry I pushed you.’

‘What!?’ Tom could barely hear him in the gusting wind.

‘I said I am sorry I pushed you!’

Tom wished he would stop being so fucking nice. But then again, he did just apologise. And perhaps a little shove was better than missing the exit window because he had zoned out.

That would have looked even worse.

Right?

High above the ash clouds two water bombers zoomed overhead, returning from dousing the endless bush fires, to refill and refuel. Later that afternoon one of the bombers would hit a tall red brick tower in the eastern suburbs that had been hiding in the ash storm all these months, waiting to kill everyone on board.

The HyperMart was Tom’s destination, mostly because it was the only building, shop, or anything else still open now. It was an old-fashioned shopping mall with all but one of the entrances blocked and all of the windows shuttered against the ash storm, which became worse as they drew near.

At the entryway, Tom placed his Vax Cert and ID face down on the scanners and the machine vomited out a little slip of paper with the words ENTER printed on it in blurry red lettering.

‘What do we need to get?’ Wonder Boy asked as he emerged from the doorway.
He had removed his mask and gloves and smiled at Tom with his oh-so-perfect white teeth. He knew exactly what they needed. They had already discussed how far their credits would go and what they would be spent on at least a million times.

‘We need milk, bread, eggs, chocolate, whisky, cigarettes and replacement filters for the masks,’ Tom replied.

‘Great, can you get those?’ Wonder Boy said, handing over his wallet.

‘I’m going to take a look around.’

‘What?’ Tom was on one hand relieved he didn’t have to do all of the shopping with Wonder Boy, but he was also equally pissed off that Wonder Boy expected him to do all the work.

‘Don’t worry man,’ Wonder Boy said, ‘I’ve got my phone in case I see anything good.’

Tom stood speechless for a moment. He could feel the vein in his temple bulging and sweat beginning to prick his forehead. He wanted to look around too, but they only had an hour and it took twenty minutes to get to the HyperMart. If he went gallivanting off like some sort of doomsday tourist, they would be stuck with goddamn Government beans until the next countdown. Why was he always the one left holding the bag? Why did he have to do the shit work? That fucking asshole was going to get it one of these days all right, Wonder Boy my ass.

After a brief search, Tom found a filter dispenser beside a disused cola vending machine near the old cinema. Tom pressed the button for a pack of twenty-five filters and inserted Wonder Boy’s credit card. If he was doing the shopping, he wasn’t doing the paying. He noticed that the plastic frontage of the cola machine was smashed in and where Santa’s jolly face had once been was a black hole.

Tom put the filters in his pocket and returned the card to Wonder Boy’s wallet, noticing his Vax Cert and ID were still both inside. Tom removed the Vax Cert, newly printed that morning on one of those horrible cheap pieces of paper that doctors used to use for prescriptions, and without thinking tore it in half and dropped the two pieces onto the floor. One half landed in a puddle of coolant seeping out of the Cola machine and began to coil up.

After Tom had bought the groceries, he walked back to the entrance thinking about the Vax Cert. If anything, he thought, Wonder Boy deserved to lose his Vax Cert by not keeping it with him at all times, like you were supposed to.

But there was that thought again, was he actually that bad? Did he deserve to have his Vax Cert torn in half? He did play shitty music, and he did jerk off three times a night. But it could’ve been worse right?

Fuck fuckety fuck.

Wonder Boy was definitely NOT going to get through the security checkpoint, and he would know exactly who was to blame. Tom could picture it. Wonder Boy would be all like ‘Hey man, where’s my certificate?’ And Tom would be all like ‘what certificate?’ and then Wonder Boy would say ‘it was in my wallet that you had,’ and then the shit would hit the fan.

Tom wondered if it would be worse if Wonder Boy hit him, or if Wonder Boy was arrested.

Being hit, duh.

And right on cue, there was Wonder Boy coming down the strip of boarded up shops at a jog.

Fuck fuck fuck.

‘Hey man,’ Wonder Boy said, ‘how’d you go?’

‘Yeah fine,’ Tom replied, ‘here’s your stupid wallet. Let’s go.’

Tom went through the security door, scanned his Vax Cert and ID, prompting the machine to vomit out another little ticket that said EXIT, but this time the red letters were smeared across the length of the cheap paper.

Tom considered for a moment that maybe he could just go back to the room and forget all about Wonder Boy. He wouldn’t have to see him get arrested. He wouldn’t be accused of anything.

The silence of the room sang to him in the same way that booze had sung his mother’s name for so many years. He could read the news without listening to Wonder Boy’s goddamned breathing, or his goddamned music. Tom decided to go.

‘Hey Tom!’

After a few minutes, Tom heard his name on the wind.

‘Hey Tommy!’

Was he going fucking crazy?

‘Tom!’

There it was again, this time louder. Tom wasn’t imagining it. He turned towards the HyperMart, and there was Wonder Boy coming once more at a jog.

‘Hey,’ Wonder Boy said as he caught up, ‘sorry I couldn’t find my Vax Cert, but the guy there let me through anyway.’

Tom clenched his teeth behind his mask. He felt angry, although he wasn’t sure why. Was it because he hadn’t been found out? Or was it because Wonder Boy was still going to be there when he got back? How nice would it have been if Wonder Boy had been stopped at the gate, how good?

Tom suddenly felt like he was driving his mother home from the hospital again, knowing that tonight would be another night of listening to her coughing and laughing and puking.

‘Anyway, I guess I will have to get a new one,’ Wonder Boy said. ‘No biggie.’

Wonder Boy began walking quickly through the storm and Tom followed. He was thinking about Wonder Boy, thinking about his mother.

Fucker.

Tom could hear himself breathing audibly through his mask now; it was difficult to keep up with Wonder Boy.

That smug fuck.

Tom’s heart raced as images of the previously empty apartment were filled with Wonder Boy’s presence, his noise, his smell, his mere being was surely enough to drive anyone insane. It wasn’t Tom’s fault, it was completely understandable to feel this way. Tom remembered how he had been pushed over, how he had been thrown through the doorway. That noise every night. He needed the room to himself. He needed quiet. He needed Wonder Boy to go away. Like he had needed his mother to go away.

Yet all it had taken then was to run her a warm bath and hold her under, was this so different?

Tom bent down and retrieved a brick from beneath the smooth blanket of ash.

Tom reached the apartment with seconds to spare. The previously clean grey room had a layer of dust and ash on the carpet and Tom trod dark footprints across the floor to the basin. His sleeve was warm and wet and ash clung to the deep red stain that had appeared there. Tom’s face was colourless in the mirror aside from two dark grey ash streaks that ran down his cheeks. It was quiet at last, aside from the sound of a siren wailing in the distance.

 

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Lost Things, Izabel Smythe

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

Kathy heard Ted’s voice on the loud speaker as he drove past their front yard. He sounded proud to be a crier, reminding the residents of Asquith to switch on the TV at 11 o’clock for the yearly announcement of the winners under the Resettlement Scheme by the Interim Prime Minister.

Kathy sunk into the bathtub of milky water to muffle the sound of Ted’s grating voice. She had met Ted once, a year ago, in front of Woolies, after buying a can of Spam as he handed out voting pamphlets. “Vote for Ted, to stop the spread”, not that anyone was interested in what he was preaching. But now here he was, having won the contract for the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai community as the Town Crier. She wondered whether he had any competitors, now that Bridgette was gone. This wasn’t a 9 to 5 job just for anybody.

Bridgette, his predecessor, held that position for five years, before passing away. It was Ted who found Bridgette, soaking in the bathtub covered in blood, supposedly from a tremendous amount of coughing after being infected with the Virus. Kathy couldn’t believe Bridgette would have been that careless. If anyone was expected to survive this pandemic, it was Bridgette. She always greeted people by gesturing with her hands, chanting “Clean clean clean. Wash, wash wash”. She sent out compulsory monthly Zoom meetings to practise good hygiene, as mandated by the new law. The last physical meeting Bridgette organised was at Ted’s house, where she instructed on the etiquette and hygiene of purchasing fruits and vegetables from local home growers. Ted lived in Hornsby, the neighbouring town, which allowed her to introduce the intricacies of logistics.

Kathy held her breath under the water as Ted’s voice became distant. She lethargically came up for air as she slowly brushed away the Dettol water from her face, squeezing out the excess from her hair. Everything felt pointless, but she had to carry on. It was Bridgette who kept the town spirit going during the outbreak, who blissfully celebrated and engaged the community through emails, phone calls and chats. This would be the first year without Bridgette.

Kathy could hear Daniel stirring in bed next door. She quickly got up, covering her thin frame in a kimono wrap.

‘Daniel, you better hurry. The water is still warm.’

She opened the cupboard to put away the Dettol bottle that had been sitting open. Only a few drops were left, but they had to last several days. With quivering hands, she decided to angle the bottle, just a little, spilling a couple of drops into the bathtub. It would be a homage to Bridgette’s “Clean, clean, clean”, to make up for the recycled water Daniel would be stewing in.

‘Is it clean? No petals or eucalyptus leaves nonsense?’ he called out.

‘Only my period broth to rejuvenate the skin.’ She smirked, bending over to dry her hair with a towel. ‘Kidding okay, don’t waste it. Get in. I’ll make our breakfast soon.’

Daniel walked in shivering and naked, moving towards the bath.

‘What’s for breakfast this time?’ he asked as he slid into the tub. ‘It’s cold.’

‘It’ll be a surprise.’ She kissed Daniel on his wet forehead before walking away. ‘And clean up after you finish please.’

*

‘Here you go. The morning special. Baked beans with caramelised bananas.’

‘Fancy,’ Daniel said, sitting up straight on the sofa to take his plate. Kathy walked back into the kitchen to get water to share. She crumbled a couple of mints into a large glass, topping it with water from the urn.

She remembered someone once telling her that mint would become a weed, unless contained. Thankfully Kathy hadn’t listened, because it was now a source of food. Mint had managed to survive the frost of winter and the dreaded summer heat, unlike their parsleys and leeks which relied on water. Water was now too scarce to waste on gardens. The water looked so silky. Kathy caressed the glass against her face, brushing it across her lips, tempted to steal a sip. She heard Daniel calling, almost losing her grasp.

‘No need to wait for me, put it on. Let’s see the show before the Interim Prime Minister gives his speech for the deserving hopefuls.’ Taking her plate and water, she walked briskly back into the lounge. She sat down on the carpet, her legs stretched out in front of the TV.

The show used thousands of remote controlled drones to project 3D visual effects. Sometimes the Government allowed a solo performer to fill in 60 minutes of air time, like now. A young singer was setting up to sit alone with her guitar. She began to play as a blue spotlight shone above her head. Kathy recognised it straight away. It was called Our Town and Iris DeMent’s lyrics suited the young singer’s voice. It was so haunting. Kathy felt her heart tighten and the hairs on her slim arms spike. She reached out for Daniel’s hands, only to find his knee. Kathy placed her hands over the knee, resting her head on them, just listening to the voice wash over her. She felt the nostalgia for simple things as the singer’s voice echoed.

The song was playing in the background the night Daniel had surprised her by slipping a daisy diamond ring onto her finger and proposing. Kathy hadn’t suspected a thing earlier that morning, when Daniel had telephoned her at work. He wanted to go out for drinks at the Glenmore Hotel, to celebrate his win. A case he tirelessly worked on, including weekends, on behalf of a migrant family whose application for Australian citizenship was rejected by the Department of Immigration. She couldn’t be more proud of him then or now. It was what was left of his savings that was keeping them afloat, allowing for rations at Woolies when it was essential to go outside.

She missed going out, seeing places and going to the galleries. She missed hearing the background buzz that accompanied the drinking culture at Australia Square. Particularly when unwinding from sitting behind a glowing screen, like she used to, clattering words across a page, as the dictation filled her ears.

The music ended and the blue light once crowning the singer shifted and began to follow the footsteps of a figure walking towards the microphone. The face of the Interim Prime Minister filled their TV screen as he began to speak. Kathy had recalled him being much younger. She could tell in his voice, and see in his eyes, the tiredness which weighed heavily on his face, making it sag with dense lines. How quickly he had aged! He had only been in this position for less than a year. He thanked the two models who pushed the Lottery Machine onto the stage beside him. The machine started rolling, the envelopes inside ruffling theatrically like clothes in a washing machine. Kathy heard the names being announced one by one.

‘Daniel, you know, before, when the Resettlement Scheme began, you helped people with their application forms, to be in the draw to win the vaccine lottery. Were those cases difficult?’

‘Shhh! Shhh! I’m trying to listen.’ Daniel said as he tried to ignore her.

‘But I want to know. How is it decided? Who and when? I wonder what our chances are?’ she asked him inquisitively.

Daniel glanced at her impatiently, but said nothing and turned back to watch the lottery draw. Kathy stared at him angrily for a minute before erupting.

‘You never share anything with me. We never talk anymore.’

Daniel continued to sit silently as a smile crept across his face.

‘Didn’t you hear? We won baby! He picked our envelope, the Johnsons in Asquith from New South Wales. Did you not hear what he said?’

‘It’s been too long, I have forgotten what our surname sounds like,’ she replied as she stood up and headed towards the kitchen with their empty plates. Daniel followed her, standing by the kitchen bench with his arms folded, watching her irritably.

‘What’s wrong now?’

‘Nothing. I was merely curious. Aren’t you? Regardless of how many deaths, there are still millions of Australians. Where will we live? It’s been six or eight years now, and not a word from any of our friends or neighbours who have made it. Remember the Watsons next door?’

Kathy had wondered what happened to the Watson family after they were relocated across the border. She had asked them to check in via Zoom once settled into their place, to let her know everything was fine. Bridgette had texted her a month later about the Watsons because she hadn’t heard from them either. Soon afterwards, Bridgette set up a Zoom call with members of the community forum, to figure out why there was radio silence from all our relocated friends.

Bridgette had a nickname for the lottery after the second year, she called it “Border Feud”. It became a popular game played on Zoom, state against state, instead of footy. That was until The Project brought up the problematic Resettlement Scheme and the ongoing mockery. Both were seen as insults to Australia Day, scarring not only the Indigenous community but excluded families due to their refugee status.

Houses were graffitied with “L” when people were identified as winners. Then someone had the idea to call it “Will you accept this envelope?”, to reflect the ignorance of the Government in its failure to recognise the diversity of multiculturalism in Australia. If you don’t look white, you don’t qualify to win a vaccine.

A few years later, someone leaked live footage of elderly citizens being pushed and shoved into metal cages by military officials, because the nurses weren’t able to tick all the boxes to present the elderly with a vaccine.

As a distraction, Bridgette had set up a closed Zoom chat for the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai community, playing Dingo got my Vaccine. Kathy threw her name into the pool and Bridgette would call out player names randomly, until someone shouted “Dingo got my vaccine.”

Kathy remembered that it was around this time that the Prime Minister restructured the Government and altered some of the policies. Everything was to be locally owned and produced to support local communities and industries for economical regrowth.

The Police’s role also changed. They now worked at checkouts in stores, because not only was the Virus killing people at a faster rate, it was also contributing to people committing crimes.

The Prime Minister then remodelled the system, introducing heavy fines and strict curfews, but was swiftly voted out of parliament. People rallied for a system that would let them be free, allowing them to go back to jobs, holidays and the movies. They wanted a people’s Prime Minister.

That same year, Bridgette was appointed as the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Town Crier. Kathy had then asked Bridgette what does this mean? Would she be allowed to finally catch a bus to a beach, to press her toes in the sand?

Bridgette could never keep a straight face, it wasn’t in her nature.

‘Oh you crack me up sometimes Kathy,’ Bridgette answered. One could only imagine that Bridgette’s house shook as she laughed at these types of questions. ‘Essentials only! Like shopping for food or medical needs.’ She reminded everyone.

Kathy felt that Bridgette’s laughter was more contagious than the Virus. Watching her laugh on screen was enough to make anyone laugh with hysteria. And she gives the best virtual hugs that smelt like hot chocolate dripped in churros. Kathy would kill for a hug or some churros right now.

Daniel’s stern voice rang in her ears.

‘We won’t be able to survive here Kathy. It’s not going to be enough. Give or take a couple of years, the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai community will become a cemetery. We have to keep moving forward. This is our last chance to live. A couple more hurdles, then we can truly start living again, like the old days.’

‘Maybe I want something different.’

‘I did it for us. A few years back before I lost the job. I wanted it to be a surprise. I thought you would be happy.’

‘I…I am. I’m grateful. It’s just people on Zoom have heard rumours about the other side. Bridgette didn’t believe that the Government is doing what they claim to – protecting people of Australia. She believed it to be a hoax. A ruse to lock us up in a facility, conduct a test and to study us like guinea pigs.’

‘Ridiculous! Stop misinterpreting things. This is not like any other virus scientists have previously encountered. There is no one vaccine for everyone. Remember Patient 1 in the UK who had an adverse reaction? This is the only solution the scientists have arrived at. Tailor a vaccine for each individual biochemistry. I don’t think that either of us would be of value if we developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome.’

‘So, what’s next for us then?’ she asked, worryingly looking up at him.

‘We wait for the knock on our door,’ he replied, stepping closer, gently placing a kiss on her head.

‘When will that be?’

‘Could be today, tomorrow, weeks, months. I really don’t know. We have to be ready, read books, do some practise questions from previous years and start building strength. They may show up anytime.’

She pushed away from him, picking up the notepad and pen from the kitchen bench.

‘I need to do our inventory,’ said Kathy as she opened the pantry.

Daniel strode back into the living room, leaving her alone in the kitchen.

She stood contemplating, staring blankly at the empty shelf. A few cans of baked beans, Spam and jelly mixes. What could she possibly make with that? Every morning, that jelly screamed at her. But it was just another non-essential item in her cupboard. The fridge had been turned off like their other electrical appliances, except for the TV and their laptop. These were occasionally turned on for essential updates and Zoom. Daniel was right. They couldn’t possibly continue living off herbs, bananas, mulberries and sour figs. They had used up almost all of their water supply in the tank, and with the start of summer, it would only become scarcer.

Her skin suddenly felt moist as tears rolled down her cheeks. She felt herself crumbling. Yes, Daniel was right. Being this close to hope was only playing on her fears. Kathy was frightened, uncertain about what their lottery win meant. They weren’t fit enough to pass any physical examination. Their bones were too weak and fragile. Being indoors also probably stunted their brains from lack of stimulation. They wouldn’t be able to comprehend any of the general questions in the quiz. How could they contribute to New Australis? What could she, a simple clerk, possibly give back to society in this new place? Daniel would be fine. He was a lawyer, then a resettlement adviser, and he could easily reinvent himself across the border, perhaps as a teacher. That’s an essential worker. But she, she knew, would become another one of those lost things. A part of the old world that doesn’t exist anymore. Unable to recognise who she once was.

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Hollow Love, Brianna Sawyer

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, sticky droplets dribbled off stalactites, freezing to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones.

 

 

 

12 hours earlier

Love knocked on the wooden door and twisted the handle. Stepping inside, the smell of stale bread and mouldy cheese made her scrunch her face. Her mother sat in bed, staring at the ceiling. The moth-bitten blanket engulfed her petite frame. Spider webs clung to the closed curtain and tittering squeaks could be heard in the walls. Love swallowed, and lifted a tray of goat milk and crusty bread.

‘Mum, you have to eat something,’ Love said, glancing at her mother’s chest bones, which protruded against her veiny skin.

Hollow rolled away, tufts of brown-silvering hair spotting her head. Love straightened her spine and placed the tray on the side table. Breathing through her mouth, she pulled the ratty blanket up and tucked it under her mother’s chin. Turning away, Love walked to the door, but stopped to glance over her shoulder.

‘I’ll be back soon,’ she paused, looking at the flaking citrine wallpaper, once a vibrant yellow. She cleared a lump in her throat.

‘I love you, mum.’ Love held her breath, waiting.

Her mother’s body language gave no indication of hearing her, though Love knew her hearing was fine. Love squeezed her eyes shut then reopened them, nodding sadly as she let the door click softly behind her.

 

 

 

The breeze from the ocean slipped around the three huddled figures along the edge of the sandy cliff-face. They shivered in their black bearskin coats. The sun peeked over the horizon, bathing their bodies in an orange warmth which did nothing to rid the chill in their hearts. After all, today was another funeral.

‘Why would Cliff venture up onto the cliffs? His deathname was plain enough, why would he go anywhere near them? Doesn’t make a lick of sense.’ Love questioned, shaking her head. Arrow’s pale blue gaze flitted over to her.

‘Why am I an archer’s apprentice, when my deathname is Arrow?’ Arrow quirked an eyebrow, combing her fingers through her wind-woven red tresses. ‘Old-man Cliff didn’t want his deathname to control his life no more. Suppose he wandered up to the cliffs to see what he’d been missing during his cliff exile.’

‘Exile? Deathnames aren’t punishment, Row. They’re precaution,’ Love said automatically, staring down at the funeral procession happening below them on the sand-bed.

Arrow scoffed. ‘What a load of mud. You’ve seen the self-barricaded townhouses. That’s not precaution, Lo, that’s paranoia.’

Love mumbled noncommittally, her attention snagging on the gaping black mouth of the Calling Caves, where every newborn received their deathname from the oracle within. The villagers called him The Caller. As Love stared, the black hole seemed to widen, revealing a cloaked figure by the entrance. She shivered, the wind tearing through her coat and making her eyes stream.

‘This makes nine funerals in five days, don’t it?’ Arrow clicked her tongue against her teeth. Love wiped at her watery eyes, fixing her attention back on the grey body atop the funeral pyre.

‘It’s unheard of,’ Love agreed.

‘What’s unheard of?’ Trip piped up, sweeping a tangled strand of black hair out of his preoccupied eyes. He was heavily involved with the making of a sandcastle. Conversations never excited Trip; they never shaped into anything with gritty substance.

‘Your complete and utter lack of attention,’ Arrow shot back, pointedly looking at his sand abomination. Trip shrugged and Arrow huffed out a breath of smoky air. Love sat between Arrow and Trip, and she felt her heart ache in response to their bickering.

Love knew there were different versions of love you could have for someone. She made a hobby out of identifying them in the people she encountered. The bakers’ cherub-faced daughter twirling on her toes so her baby brother stopped crying. Arrow’s mentor shooting her proud smiles when an arrow hit its mark. Trip stealing glances of Arrow when she was busy detangling her red mane. Seeing these gestures, Love had also become an expert in spotting a lack of love. After all, she dealt with the absence of it every day of her life. The wide berth the other villagers gave her. An ever-expanding detachment between herself and her friends. Including her own mother. But Love understood why.

No one wanted her to die.

It didn’t stop Love, however, from craving that which would kill her.

‘I should get back, my mum…’ Love trailed off. Arrow’s frown softened considerably. Trip had even stopped moulding sand into a misshapen castle, which was then quickly conquered by the whistling wind.

‘My mum, she—she’s refusing to eat anything now. I try feeding her dense foods and warm liquids, but it’s not working. Her body is shutting down. She—she’s just giving up.’ On me, was the add-on both her friends knew lingered there, unspoken. Arrow squeezed her shoulder a moment, then let go.

‘Her deathname is Hollow,’ Arrow said quietly, and bit her tongue when she saw Love wince, ‘do you think an outer-region disease is emptying her out?’

Love breathed in the crisp cool wind, looking out to where the ocean caressed the sky. Love was half convinced she was the disease.

‘I’ve tried the medication we had in storage, but with no food in her stomach, the meds just make her sicker. I don’t know what else to do.’

‘Talk to her,’ Trip murmured, accompanied by a solemn head nod. Arrow’s mouth twitched.

‘This advice coming from the man-of-few-words himself. Surprise after surprise, it is with you,’ Arrow replied. Love laughed as Trip mimed an arrow plunging through his heart. Arrows twitching mouth stretched into a smile.

Then the pyre sparked a blaze and their smiles melted away. They all looked on as licking flames engulfed the lifeless body. Moisture gathered in the corner of Trip’s usually untroubled brown eyes. Arrow shuffled behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. Love shut her eyelids but couldn’t shut out the images of her mother, bedridden and helpless, morphing into a pale corpse surrounded by hissing flames as her skin peeled off her bones. She kept shaking her head but the image kept searing her brain, like a branding iron. A shake to the shoulder made her eyes fly open. Love gulped down cold air to settle her laboured breathing.

‘Trip’s right, talk to your mum, Lo,’ Arrow whispered, her head resting against Trip’s shoulder blade.

‘If she can stand to look at me,’ Love snorted, tearing her attention away from the fire. The Caller was hovering by the entrance of the Calling Caves. She blinked—despite the roaring wind, his cloak remained completely still.

 

 

 

Hurrying through the main courtyard, Love could smell fresh garlic and sizzling meats in the brisk air. Drawn to the stand by the sweet fragrance, Love exchanged her pouch of four chicken eggs for a slab of caramelized lamb and rosemary sprigs. To her left, she saw the closed sign on the door of Cliff’s Carrot Cakes. Now there was no one left to tend to the fireplace inside, allowing the front window to gather a thin skin of ice. Turning away, her eyes travelled to the boarded-up houses and businesses lining the cobbled courtyard. Wooden slats were secured over windows and doorways, dozens of nails sticking out haphazardly.

Every so often, Love caught flickers of light between the wooden beams when a person moved behind them. Collision, a mother of twin sons, Arti and Choke, had locked her family behind the walls of their home. A widower named Rod had closed his metalwork shop and disappeared when he lost his wife, Bee, to an unidentified infection. Taking a deep breath, Love could taste the salty ocean air and the tang of fear lingering along the skin of everyone she passed. Scratching at her arm, she looked up. Love stood before an unlit townhouse. Trudging forward, she pulled the key which hung around her neck and opened the front door. Letting it swing shut behind her, she was greeted by a wave of rotting flesh.

 

 

 

Rinsing her hands at the sink, Love reached for the ragged towel. Atop the tray, she tossed the caramelized lamb with rosemary sprigs and set a chipped limestone jug of water next to the platter. Walking down the dimly lit hallway, she paused before entering her mother’s bedroom. Her hands were trembling, making the contents of the jug slop over the side. She needed to talk to her mother; Arrow and Trip were right. Without knocking, she turned the door handle and entered. Love kept her eyes on the tray, but could hear her mother’s shallow breaths.

‘It’s lamb, your favourite,’ she said, setting the tray on her mother’s lap. Love picked up the jug of water and lifted it to her mother’s lips. Tilting her head back, Love managed to get the water into her mouth without it pouring down her chin, unlike the times before. Setting the water down, she looked at her mother’s sunken cheeks and the purple discolouring under her cloudy, brown eyes.

‘You’re killing yourself,’ she said, moving the tray onto the side table. Her mother continued to stare upwards, her gaze unfocused. But her mouth tightened slightly, Love noticed.

‘Say something. Talk to me.’

The silence was a crushing weight.

Love sprung from her perch on the lumpy mattress and paced the room. Glancing at the corner, she watched a black beetle scuttle under the bed. Love couldn’t even muster disgust at the sight, more revolted by the sickly creature lying on top.

‘I don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to help,’ Love began, twisting her hands together. ‘I’ve fed you, bathed you, cared for you. All for nothing? Is that it? You’re happy to waste away? I know death haunts us here, in this paranoid village. It lies on the end of every breath. But I’m haunted by your death every time I shut my eyes. The house is falling apart. I’m falling apart. Because you’re giving up. You’re giving up…’ Love bit her lip, hard. A metallic taste flooded her mouth.

‘You’re my mother,’ her voice cracked, ‘why don’t you love me?’

From the gloom, a scratchy voice spoke.

‘You know why.’

Love looked away.

‘Do you think I’m selfish because I want to be loved?’

‘I think you’re foolish,’ her mother coughed, sputtering. Her unfocused gaze, however, remained fixated on the ceiling.

‘Because being loved is how I’m going to die?’

‘Yes,’ croaked Hollow.

‘You think I have a death wish?’

‘Yes.’

‘I get it from my mother, apparently,’ Love snapped.

Hollow’s face seemed to cave inwards. Her eyes closed, then fluttered open and rested on Love’s face. Love thought they resembled the eyes of funeral goers: pained and resigned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Love bowed her head. Her mother opened her mouth but no sound came out. She tried again.

‘Not loving you kills me,’ Hollow said, barely above a whisper. ‘It eats me up inside.’

The quaver in her mother’s tone made something quaver inside Love. She dropped to her knees beside her mother, feeling the confession settle like a weight on her chest. Her mother’s face broke apart, knowing Love had come to the realisation Hollow had known for some time. Tears began spilling down Love’s cheeks and Hollow reached out a trembling hand to wipe them away. It made Love cry harder. She gathered her mother’s hand in both of her own and pressed her lips to it. Love could feel the thin bones pushing against her mother’s cold, rubbery skin. She thought back to Cliff’s Carrot Cakes, cold, abandoned. Love couldn’t help but feel as if her mother had lost her fire too.

Suddenly, the hand she held went limp.

Releasing a shaky breath, she placed the arm across her mother’s stomach, then stood. Her knees wobbled. Looking down, Love saw her mother’s gaunt face and half-open eyes, staring blankly. She backed up until she collided with the wall, flakes of teal raining down on her. Unable to support her weight, she collapsed on the carpet matted with stains.

Love, herself, felt like a stain for existing. For on the bed, her mother lay utterly still. Her chest did not rise, as her heart, devoid of love, could no longer beat.

 

 

 

In a daze, Love raced down the sandstone stairs. The ocean tides at the bottom were flooding the stretch of sand between the staircase and the Calling Caves. Plunging forward, Love waded through the freezing water which climbed to her waist. Hoisting herself free from the seawater, Love stood facing the black mouth of the Calling Caves. Inside, the cave walls were coated with moisture. A ping ping ping of falling water echoed throughout the chamber.

Where are you?’ she screamed, breathless.

‘Where I’ve always been,’ came the reply.

‘Bring her back. You can save her. You have a direct connection to the Fates.’

The Caller didn’t respond.

‘Please, just bring her back.’ A black-robed figure seemed to detach itself from the darkness. Love lurched back a step. The Caller tilted its mouth. The smile looked slightly unhinged. Love shook, her lips turning purple.

‘What’s dead, stays dead,’ said The Caller.

Love squeezed her eyes shut. Behind her eyelids, she saw her mother’s body, still and lifeless. Hollow.

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, stalactites dribbled sticky droplets which froze to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones. Her breath turned to puffs of cloud in front of her.

‘You wish to die,’ The Caller stated. Love shook with silent tears, nodding. A hissing rose from The Caller. Love froze, realising the oracle was laughing. Something cold snaked down her spine. She heaved herself onto her shaking feet.

‘Are you my people’s oracle?’

The figure grinned, shifting into the dark recesses of the Calling Cave.

‘What are you?’ she breathed.

‘Impatient,’ it teased, a clicking reverberating against the cave walls. ‘Want to know a secret, Little Love?’ The voice twisted around the caves, coming from every direction. Love flipped around, certain the creature was behind her.

‘You were never going to die from love.’

Love flinched.

‘It was all for nothing?’ She saw her mother’s motionless body behind her eyelids, pale and cold. ‘You’re lying,’ she spat.

The creature bared its pointed teeth. ‘Insulting a God? Little Love, I could squash you into the Earth where you belong and watch you wriggle like all the other worms. Nothing but insectile, pink flesh rolling in your own filth.’ It hissed, spittle flying from its mouth. ‘But you do secrete tasty treats.’ The creature breathed in deeply, nostrils flaring as its eyelids fluttered closed.

‘Why are you here?’ she panted, her voice trembling. The creature opened its bulbous black eyes and smiled sharply.

‘To call and collect.’

Why?’

Why?’ the guttural voice mimicked, ‘Mmmm. I like to toy with my food, Little Love, before I feast. And your mother was my favourite. Playing with a second generation to manipulate the first. The sweet patience it took. The sweetest reward. There’s nothing more delicious than a sacrifice.’ The creature whetted its pale, flaky lips.

She faced the creature as it loomed closer. Her eyes welled with pain and resignation.

And the Death God welled with satisfaction. It bared needle-like teeth, saliva slipping down its jaw.

Love closed her eyes and let her guilt swallow her whole.

 

 

 

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Morgan, Kimberley Milton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nathaniel, what are you doing?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You shouldn’t be here big brother.’

 

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Vainthrow, Nicolas Fuentes

The takeover was swift and precise. It only took three days for the Liberstats government to impose their rule over the citizens of Vainthrow. All it took was a firing of flares and the power fetish of one man, the ruthless dictator President Kithgo. October 28th of 2057 marked day one, the beginning of a new period for the city’s citizens. Vainthrow – a city marked by its obsession with technology, where street signs are holographic, and goods are distributed through self-service kiosks. Fronted by Kithgo, once a Lieutenant of the tactics division within the military, the Liberstats announced their plans for the city’s future. To ensure civility and compliance with the new regime, Kithgo deployed the disciplinarians to patrol the streets. They represented the regime’s most faithful adherents and were to occupy their thoughts with one sole aim – guard Kithgo’s revolution. Equipped with a precision rifle, Vainthrow’s citizens were coerced into compliance by the disciplinarians.

On the large digital screen attached to the skyscraper of Titan Industries, the pale face of the President appeared. In a repressed compliance, those being held captive in the plaza looked upward at the screen with looks of horror. Drones filmed the central plaza address to ensure that viewers at home would not miss this pivotal moment in Vainthrow’s history.

 

‘People of Vainthrow,

What you just witnessed was my fireworks display to you. A heartfelt welcome to you and the new era of civilisation we are about to embark on. In close alliance with science giant Titan Industries, we have developed a new system of living. It will alter you both physically and psychologically in a way that is, simply – better. Remain calm and follow the instructions. Let the disciplinarians be your guide…’

 

*

 

Richard is an elderly man. He lives life on his lonesome after his wife fell victim to a deadly brain tumour. Richard longed for an extension of his life, for he felt that his time had been misspent. He devoted his entire life to working as a risk analyst inthe finance department of Titan Industries. He would often clock sixty-hour working weeks, spending too much of his time inside the office at the expense of seeing his grandchildren grow up. On the day of the takeover, Richard was at home pruning the weeds of his home’s garden bed. The violent explosion startled him and caused him to drop his hedge clippers and turn his attention to the smoke trail rising in the distance. Grabbing his cane, Richard hobbled his way into their modest sized home and switched on the daily news on his television. On the screen, Richard set his eyes on the following address by Kithgow:

 

‘… A turn of events, my people of Vainthrow. The Liberstats have partnered with Titan Industries, the forerunner in scientific innovation. As we both only want to advance human welfare, we created a dual-system of sorts…’

 

Richard had a vague idea what this was about. During his employment at Titan, he had overheard conversations about controversial tests being conducted in the Labyrinth. While biological ethicists had expressed their concerns, the financial and political might of the Liberstats was far too strong for the dissenters.

 

‘…The transfiguration pods – these capsules give you the power to control your physical appearance. They are also designed to add anywhere between sixteen and nineteen years to your life. For your convenience, we have organised courtesy trams to the GRIDS, the sites where these pods are placed. Upon completing this mandatory transfiguration, all citizens will be distributed an iD-Chip, a handheld device that must be possessed at all times. Please proceed to the GRIDS immediately. Failure to do so will result in forced evacuation.’

– K

 

Richard stared at the television screen in disbelief. What had his city become? He had several questions, yet the state of limbo he was in delivered him no answers. He knew of the atrocities that Kithgo had committed in the past. Whether it was the Grand Massacre that took place during the War of 2042, or experimentation on the debilitated at the close of the war, stories of Kithgo’s war crimes were common folklore in Vainthrow. Staring on, Richard observed the imagery captured by the flying drones. The plaza was unidentifiable. The fountain which once rhythmically spurted out water at the plaza’s centre had been covered by smog. He vaguely made out faces of desperation as they stood helplessly at the behest of individuals dressed in a khaki green. To Richard, this entire event resembled a military coup. He looked onward at the screen to see the disciplinarians holding necks in headlocks and small children being dragged without care. Bodies were being ushered into semi-trailers and driven to a place unknown to him. The media outlets reported the following:

 

‘MASSACRE AT VAINTHROW: LIBERSTATS RULE BY FORCE’

 

*

 

Richard’s eyes awoke to see the GRID site. He had been smothered and taken there after a disciplinarian knocked at his home’s door. Surrounding him were people seemingly embracing the idea of transfiguration by the pod. The CPU, on the pod’s exterior, allowed people to choose their new appearance. Each veiled by a thick white tarp and manned by a Liberstats disciplinarian. Those that waited their turn were not permitted to see their neighbours during the process. They would wait in confinement bays, fed glug and water by the authorities and instructed to wait patiently, sometimes days. Upon leaving the pod, people were given their handheld iD-Chip and sent back to their homes via the trams. From there, citizens had to follow the instructions on the iD-Chip’s screen and continue living their days.

Richard was called to one of the pods. ‘Richard… Alright, old man, you get one shot. What’s it going to be?’ Dressed in the khaki colours and proudly displaying the freedom stars of the Liberstats, the disciplinarian talked down at Richard’s frail stature. Richard fixed his eyes on the CPU screen and attempted to make sense of the prompts. ‘Just press the features you want, old mutt. You telling me you don’t know tech?’ Ignoring the reproaches, Richard perused through the list of features he could select for himself. A large part of him was curious about the process, reasoning that at last there was some excitement in his otherwise empty life. HAIR: luscious golden locks, or perhaps a simple, slick back? His hair was silver and thinning so he could do with a younger look. TORSO: a broad set of athletic shoulders, that ought to do it. After finalising all the essentials, Richard arrived at the most important consideration – AGE LIKENESS. ‘Hurry up old timer! We’re on a tight schedule here, and you ain’t got any special privileges to be taking longer just because your hair is falling out’.

With caution, Richard typed 3-5 into the CPU and waited for the avatar of him to emerge on the screen. Projected on the CPU screen was a digital Richard, five decades younger and sporting a neat, slicked back hairdo. The squiggly indents on his forehead had disappeared, and his frame appeared reasonably muscled. While Richard felt deeply anguished by the political state of Vainthrow, a tiny fragment of his was thrilled with the prospect of added years. At this point, his curiosity had taken over, for he had not yet seen how people were emerging on the southern side. Standing behind a thick steel slab, Richard stripped himself of his clothes and placed them in a bucket labelled “CLOTHING DEPOSITS”. He lethargically carried his bony frame into the confined space of the pod. Numerous suction pads attached to dangling wires hung from the pod’s ceiling. On the pod’s back wall were fastened platinum shackles, one at the neckline and two presumably for the wrists. Lastly, there was a heavy leather belt that appeared to belong to the waist line. ‘Alright old man, you ready yet?’ Called the disciplinarian. Richard responded with a croaky affirmation. Richard was ordered to stand at the back wall. The disciplinarian affixed each suction pad to his body, one at each of his droopy nipples and one at the sternum. The belt was fastened tightly around his waist and, at disciplinarian’s press of a button, the neck shackle loosely pulled his throat to the wall. It wasn’t far off from a strangle hold. ‘We will meet again on the southern side, old man.’

 

*

 

‘Greetings, #471, welcome to your new life, a world of possibility. All you need to rememb — or – shall I say, do, is to follow the prompts on your viewfinder. Here is your ID-Chip, with compliments from President Kithgo and the Liberstats’. Richard was handed a handheld device with a screen. He noticed that the digits “471” were etched onto the plastic. He ignored a prompt on the screen to follow an introductory video, putting it aside for later. These GRID encampments were on the desolate outskirts of Vainthrow and all that Richard could see was the barren land on the horizon. They were a one-hour tram ride from the city centre which allowed for enough secrecy and continual surveillance. A faint call was heard in the distance to return to the tram station. Richard sluggishly followed the marked signs and returned to the arrival point, an area which he had no recollection of. Confusion immediately overcame him as he tried to make sense of his surroundings in a trance-like state. He felt blank, and it seemed that, at this point, that was all he was capable of feeling. As he entered the tram, he was met by the stares of unfamiliar people. Fellow human beings, but he had no label for them. It was as if he was processing information for the first time.

On the way back to the city centre, an announcement began to play through the loudspeaker inside the tram. Richard perplexed alongside the convoy of bodies left in waiting, listened attentively to the words spoken. ‘It is normal to feel dazed. This is new territory for you. Once you arrive home, get some rest. The turn of tomorrow will come and a new day awaits. Further instructions will appear on your iD-Chip.’ Richard looked down at his iD-Chip with its confusing list of functions and operations. The tram moved at its forty kilometres an hour as Richard sat idly staring out the tram window into nothingness. It seemed that everyone in the tram shared his confusion.

 

*

 

The tram re-entered the residential district of Vainthrow and began to disembark the Vainthrow citizens. Each seated passenger looked out the glass window as the disciplinarian led each passenger back into their home. The return journey from GRID was made in complete silence. In between curious glances at the unfamiliar outside, passengers fixed their sights on screens of their iD-Chips. Recurring footage of turmoil and suffering met them. There were moving images of yelping mothers crying out for their infants, as well as a frame of an elderly woman trapped in the firm grip of a disciplinarian. It was difficult to bear the images of these people squirming for their survival. The subtext reeled at the bottom of the viewfinder screen:

‘THE EMANCIPATION: LIBERSTATS’ FIGHT TO VICTORY’

Richard mused over the tragedy of it all. He could only hope that he would never have to encounter anything like it in his lifetime.

 

*

 

The tram pulled up on Richard’s Street. He was led back inside his family home by a Liberstats disciplinarian. He opened the front gate and walked down the narrow strip of asphalt that led to the front door. Still rattled by his surroundings, Richard asked the disciplinarian ‘Where are we and what are we doing here?’ The Liberstats guide told him not to worry and commanded him to enter the dwelling. He explained that the only thing that Richard ought to worry about is following the instructions on the iD-Chip’s viewfinder. ‘This is a prosperous time. Consider yourself fortunate, #471.’ Richard could not understand why he should feel this gratitude and, more importantly, what this iD-Chip even was. He entered the home and scanned the first room. His eyes met an impressive mahogany bookshelf positioned in the far left corner. Richard sluggishly moved over to the bookshelf to examine it. ‘#471, we recommend you rest your body. You ought to lie down and shut your eyes.’ The digits 4-7-1 echoed in Richard’s mind.

Images faced him as he approached the bookshelf. On the upper timber shelf lay a bundle of photos. Richard perused through them, processing the information contained therein. An image of an elegant lady, approximately in her mid-thirties, wearing a silky white gown. The silken fabric left a trail and extended behind her. It was the most beautiful image he had seen in his lifetime. She was clenching a bundle of flowers; a feature he had observed while walking into his home only moments ago. He wondered why she would pluck them from his front lawn. Beneath the image of the elegant figure lay another. He saw a man and a woman standing side by side, one with its arm extended around the shoulder of the other. They stared back at him with a joyful expression. Flipping the image on its back, its reverse side read:

 

Wilma and Richard – 50 Year Wedding Anniversary at Vainthrow Cottage

21st February 2057

 

Richard put both photos into his trouser pockets without the disciplinarian noticing him. His eyelids had become heavy and were beginning to close in on themselves. He determined the carpet to be a suitable resting spot and so without hesitation; #471 dozed off.

 

*

 

Awoken by the sound of the iD-Chip, #471 rose from a deep sleep cycle. An announcement came through the viewfinder and the face of President Kithgo propped up on the screen. ‘As you have hopefully read by now, it is government policy that you maintain a faithful record of the places you visit and the people you interact with. Use the camera inbuilt to the iD-Chip. Data collection makes us better.

An hour later, #471 ventured out of the unknown dwelling. The sun shone brightly, and the streets filled with others walking with their eyes immersed in their viewfinder. #471 remembered Kithgo’s instruction and took out the iD-Chip. The two photos he snatched earlier emerged as well. #471 withdrew them and curiously studied them. His eyes gazed at the two figures dressed in their formal attire, a male wearing a suit and tie with his arm around the shoulder of what appeared to be his wife. Something seemed strange in these images. Upon leaving the front walkway, as instructed, he switched on the iD-Chip’s camera to record his daily events. #471 pondered the photograph again. Wife…

He aimed the lens at the street and took a snapshot of the holographic street sign. Instantaneously, the iD-Chip assigned a default label to the photo:

 

No. 471: Memory #1

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Day Dreaming, Kendall King

December 31st 2099

The world had been reduced to filth and sickness; the streets contaminated by debris and smog. A putrid odour lingered in the air as if the sewer lines had burst out onto the streets. The cities had become too immense to handle. There was a disease called Rasnac that plagued human existence, which had significantly condensed the population due to malignant tumor growths that formed inside the body—driving the remaining population of North America to a colony in Utah. People were sanctioned into housing estates, providing the survivors with an improved quality of life.

Unit 489-W housed an elderly couple near the outskirts of town. Rodney had worked in the coal mines for twenty years while his wife Daphne raised their son Jack. They had eaten through their life savings, with only enough left to survive for a few more months.

Rodney was very sick; every breath he took sounded like he was sucking air through a whistle. Such a significant amount of physical exertion would go into each breath that it triggered a deep bubbling cough emanating from the bowels of his chest. As a result of the fierce cough, thick hunks of dark phlegm spattered against his red checkered handkerchief—a handkerchief that he received as a gift from his wife Daphne many years ago. It was made of silk and was once used as a pocket square when Rodney and his wife would host dinner parties.

Now, the greater part of Rodney’s dinner would end up regurgitated in the bucket by the side of his bed. Rodney folded his handkerchief in half, concealing the substance he had just expelled. He observed the handkerchief, fixated on the navy checks, remembering how they used to stand out against the red silk. Now it was nothing more than a filthy rag that he held onto for sentimentality.

 *

June 28th 2050

>>> Rodney wiped away the sweat dripping from his brow and placed the handkerchief in his back pocket. As he reached for his pickaxe a searing pain tore through his lower back, bringing him to his knees.

‘Forty-Seven. Get back to work, you lazy fuck!’ his supervising officer bellowed.

Rodney was almost at the end of a fourteen-hour shift; he just needed to push through the next half hour. He placed his hand firmly on top of his axe and pushed down in the hope of being able to continue.

‘Ah, shit!’ Rodney screeched. ‘I can’t do it!’

‘Take your things and go home, Forty-Seven. You’re slowing down the rest of the crew,’ the officer commanded.

Rodney stood there shaking. He couldn’t afford to go home early today. The supervising officer walked closer toward Rodney and stared him straight in the eyes.

‘Could I please receive pay for the hours I worked, sir?’ Rodney asked timidly.

‘If you don’t finish your shift, you don’t get paid.’

‘But please, it’s my son’s birthday,” Rodney begged.

‘I couldn’t give a shit about you or your son’s birthday. No work, no pay!’ the officer shouted. >>>

 *

‘Rodney!’ called Daphne.

Rodney snapped out of his daydream and was jolted back into reality. He realized the memories his handkerchief rediscovered and quickly stuffed it back into his pocket.

‘Do you want tea?’ Daphne asked.

‘Oh, um… yeah, sure,’ replied Rodney.

Daphne walked back into the kitchen, leant against the counter and waited for the kettle to boil. The kettle was an antique from 2015, a simplistic design from the golden age of technology. How things have turned to shit, she thought. Before she could begin to brood over her current situation, she was startled by a gurgling sound that arose from Rodney’s lungs.

‘Oh sh- shit. Blood. Again.’ The gunk still stuck in Rodney’s throat made it hard for him to speak.

He looked at the blood, dark against the brighter red silk of the handkerchief. It reminded him of the horror.

 *

June 29th 2050

>>> The cavern jolted with malicious force. The wooden pillars shuddered, causing the roof to crack, forming boulders that thundered to the ground. Shards of rock began showering Rodney; he could feel them slicing into his flesh. The blood began to seep through his clothes. His white undershirt looked as if it had been smothered with ketchup for a Halloween costume. The cheap wash of the fluorescent lights beat down upon Rodney—the glare was making it hard to think.

A haunting roar echoed throughout the caverns, like a lion asserting its dominance over its competitors. As the tunnels crumbled, debris sprinkled from the ceiling. Rodney could not distinguish where the blast had emanated from—he only hoped that is was from one of the lower tunnels, otherwise there would be no way for him to escape. He began to sprint toward the east end of the tunnel. As he began to exert himself, his breathing deepened. As his diaphragm shovelled oxygen into his lungs he began to taste a burning chemical in the back of his throat. Hydrogen Sulfide. Rodney knew exactly what it was, and he knew it would choke him to death if he didn’t act fast.

Pools of blood were spattered against the dirt floor, forming a wet paste. It reminded him of his grandmother dispensing a hot mug of rosy rooibos tea on a cold winter’s night. Unfortunately for Rodney the sensation was not the same; instead of ingesting a calm and relaxing liquid, it felt like twenty sheets of sandpaper were scraping away at his insides. >>>

 *

‘Hungry?’ Daphne asked.

Rodney quickly tried to conceal the handkerchief once more, but it was too late. Daphne had seen the colour of the cloth.

‘Damn it Rodney! You’ve gone and gotten it all filthy again,’ she exclaimed.

Daphne took the handkerchief into the laundry and began rinsing it under the warm flow of the tap. She had done this countless times before; she was surprised the tattered piece of silk still existed after everything it had been through.

 *

>>> Back in the time when television still existed, Daphne’s eyes were glued to the television set. Journalist Jeff Daniels had called the disaster ‘The Coal Mining Blunder’. The broadcaster was more concerned with ratings than the lives of the miners and families affected by the disaster. Five of the lower tunnels had been obliterated thus far, and it was slowly causing a chain reaction of higher tunnels to cave in.

‘I can’t sit idly by and watch this shit!’ Jack shouted, as he paced furiously up and down the lounge room.

‘Please Jack, sit down,’ Daphne pleaded.

‘No. I’m going, and that’s final!’ Jack said as he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. >>>

 *

The water became too hot for Daphne and it slightly scalded her hand, snapping her back to reality. The handkerchief was quick to dry due to the nature of its fabric. She waddled into the lounge room and slipped the handkerchief back into Rodney’s breast pocket.

‘Try not to get it dirty this time,’ she said.

Rodney waited until she had left the room and gone back into the kitchen before he removed the handkerchief.

 *

>>> Rodney had his handkerchief wrapped around his nose and mouth. It was definitely slowing down the flow of chemicals into his lungs, but not enough. The other miners were not as fortunate as him, trying to cover their nostrils with their bare hands. They were unsuccessful in their efforts at preventing the lethal gas from intoxicating their bodies. It was only a matter of time before Rodney collapsed like the rest of them. He heard the thundering force of rubble seal the path behind him.

‘Help me Forty-Seven!’ a voice screamed.

It was the supervising officer. He was trapped on the other side of the debris that had now sealed his tomb.

‘No pay, no work!’ he shouted back. ‘And my name is Rodney!’

He knew nothing could be done to save the man, especially if Rodney wanted to make it out of the tunnels alive himself. He ran as fast as he could. He saw a rope ladder hanging from the roof ahead. He was going to make it. He could feel the coarse texture of the rope against his hands, what a wonderful feeling…

The tunnel lurched. More violently this time—Rodney heard the sound of bone cracking in two. A staggering pain arose throughout his whole body. He couldn’t bear to look down. He could feel his bone protruding through the skin, just like a chicken drumstick. A fragment of the ceiling had broken off and collided with his leg. There’s no way I can hoist myself up now, he thought. >>>

*

‘It was my fault,’ Rodney sobbed.

He used the handkerchief to wipe the tears from his cheeks. The explosion was caused by coal dust being present in the air. Before Rodney finished his shift each day he was in charge of replenishing the limestone rock dust, ensuring it mixed with the coal dust to act as a heat sink. However, on the day prior to the explosion, Rodney was distressed about being sent home with no pay and completely forgot.

 *

>>> Rodney was stranded with a compound fracture. He tried to clamber up the ladder, but he could not get a solid grip. Not without a functional leg. Just as he was about to let go of the rope and give up, two hands gripped his forearm and yanked him through the manhole.

‘Gotcha!’ a manly voice shouted.

His face was coated with a veneer of dust making him indistinguishable—the only unique feature this man possessed was the number 213 on his helmet.

‘We’ve got a compound break over here!’ 213 shouted at another miner.

They lifted Rodney into one of the mine carts; Rodney could feel the flaking rust from the cart scrape against his skin as he descended into the containment area. The cart trembled as 213 flicked the switch that sent them flying down the track at full speed. The wind was gushing past his face, his head throbbing in pain. The bright lights only intensified the ache as his stomach churned over and over again.

Another explosion resonated, this time much louder. >>>

 *

Uhh,’ Rodney grunted as he threw the handkerchief to the floor.

Daphne picked up the handkerchief and sat down on the lounge next to Rodney.

‘I remember that day too, you know,’ she said as she stared at the cloth.

 *

>>> Daphne saw her son on the television as he arrived at the scene. The television crew had a barricade in place to allow prime real estate for filming their reports. Jack was pressed up against the front of the barricade in amongst a swarm of people, shouting towards the camera. >>>

 *

‘Stop,’ Rodney insisted.

Rodney snatched the handkerchief from Daphne and stuffed it back into his pocket. Daphne swooped in and recovered it. They both held the piece of fabric together in their hands.

 *

>>> While Daphne was sitting safely on the lounge at home in front of the television, Rodney was being evacuated from the mine. As he was brought outside and into the light, he could hear the voice of his son in the distance. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the harsh light of the sun. He heard Jack’s voice again, but couldn’t tell where was it coming from. He could see a swarm of people in the distance. He saw the silhouette of a man jump over the barricade and run towards him. Rodney tried to clamber out of the mine cart but he was unsuccessful.

The signal went black on the television set. Minutes passed. Daphne was pacing around the room in the same fashion her son had been doing less than an hour before. Nothing. The hum of the television crackled dissonantly in the corner of the room, and Daphne felt an impending sense of doom as the screen started to flicker. She quickly rushed back to her seat, with the remote control clenched in her hand.

This time, there was no sign of Jeff Daniels, which was very odd for the narcissistic journalist. Instead, the footage was being shot from an emergency broadcast drone. The remote Daphne was holding fractured against the wooden floorboards as she dropped to her knees. She saw the figure of a man sprinting across the barren ground. Running for his life. The flock of people had disappeared; in their place was a void that appeared to travel miles down into the earth.

Jack was the only one who seemed to notice. It was hard to tell at first over the squawking voices of the crowd, but he heard a muffled rumble echo beneath his feet as the earth began to shake. He quickly leapt over the barricade and managed to swindle one of the security guards with some fancy footwork his father had taught him playing football in the front yard. The ground collapsed behind him. There was no need to look back—he knew what had happened. He could hear the screams of people plummeting to their deaths.

The ground began to dissolve behind Jack.

Run!’ Daphne screamed at the television.

The gaping hole in the earth made him look like an ant running away from a gardener shovelling holes in the soil.

Jack could see his father in the distance, concealed inside a mine cart; he looked like a steak slumped inside a frying pan. He waved his arms frantically to attract his father’s attention.

Rodney was not hallucinating. A silhouette was racing straight towards him. His stomach stopped churning. He felt nothing. The earth was disappearing behind the figure, and it was vanishing fast. Before he could process the series of events that lay before him, he was seized by two men and placed on a stretcher. 213 had attached him to a helicopter for emergency evacuation. As Rodney’s stretcher swayed from side to side beneath the helicopter he bore witness to the sight of the cartoon-like figure being swallowed by the earth.

‘Dad!’ Jack screamed as his limbs flailed in the air, a useless attempt at keeping him airborne.

Son?’ Rodney yelled.

He could see the distraught look on his son’s face as he slowly disappeared into the devastation—the devastation that Rodney had created. >>>

 *

If only Rodney stayed at work that day, maybe the lives lost could have been spared. Maybe he could have seen his son flourish into a man. It was a burden he could no longer bear. He placed the handkerchief into Daphne’s pocket, closed his eyes and slowly slipped away.

 

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Playing Catch-up, Kylie Nealon

…Scout was standing in a crackly, dry space that she didn’t recognise. For as far as her eyes could see, there were tall, sparse eucalypts undulating gently, stretching upwards to a cerulean-blue sky…This was home, but definitely no home that she recognised…

‘Playing Catch Up’ is part of a novel-length YA work, set in the not-too-distant future.  Incorporating elements of dystopian and steam-punk fiction, the novel follows the journey of Scout, an Australian girl plucked from an ordinary life to attend the Dorsay Academy. The Academy is part of a global company involved in researching and harnessing ‘extra’ mental capabilities that have been emerging around the world.  Scout, along with her friends Lily and Conor, are part of this new generation where their talents could be used for good – or for darker reasons yet to be discovered.

 

Scout was standing in a crackly, dry space that she didn’t recognise. For as far as her eyes could see, there were tall, sparse eucalypts undulating gently, stretching upwards to a cerulean-blue sky. Blackened stubby grass mounds pushed up from the dusty ground. There was a slight breeze picking up the scent of eucalyptus and hot earth, making her stomach contort with homesickness. In the distance, she heard the faint sounds of cockatoos screeching in the trees. This was home, but definitely no home that she recognised.

The sun was beating down, searing the crown of her head. She tried to shield her eyes to get a better look at where she was, but found one of her hands being held by a small child. Not just any small child – her.  A much smaller version of herself with a confident grin plastered across her face. Scout dropped her hand and stared. Okay, this was weird.

‘Uh, hey,’ Scout said to her.

‘Hey,’ Mini-Scout replied, squizzing one eye up to better look at her in the bright sunlight. She was dressed in what Scout remembered as being her favourite outfit – jeans and a red Elmo t-shirt. She’d loved Sesame Street when she was a kid and that t-shirt was a prized possession. Seeing her smaller self was bizarrely strange and familiar all at the same time.

‘Why are we – you – here?’ Scout asked the small version of herself.

‘I’ve got a message.’ The little girl drew out the last word.

‘Yeah, ok,’ Scout drawled, ‘course you do. Because why else would we be standing in the middle of nowhere?’ She fought off an overwhelming urge to laugh.

‘I have!’ Mini-Scout scowled at her.

‘Ok, keep your knickers on. So, who’s it from?’ Scout was definitely finding this amusing. A small part of her brain registered regret at not having a smaller sibling to do this to in real life.

‘Who do you think? Mum, of course,’ the little girl shrugged, looking around.

‘Sure it is,’ Scout said. Of course, she thought to herself sarcastically. Who else would it be from?

Mini-Scout peered closely at Scout, not quite sure what to make of the eye rolling that this statement induced.

‘I can’t tell you here,’ she said. ‘Come on.’ She tugged at Scout’s hand, urging her forward.

‘Where are we going?’ Scout asked her. The small hand holding hers was hot and dry. The simple touch brought back long-forgotten summer afternoons of carefree bike rides around neighbouring streets, along with the dawning realisation of her ability to see the world in a different way to everybody else.

‘You’ll see,’ Mini-Scout said and kept walking. The ground between Scout’s toes began to change to a sandy texture, and she saw the tip of a sand dune rear up out of nowhere.

Scout followed her up the incline, puffing slightly. She watched as the little girl laughed joyfully as she ran down the other side, legs and arms akimbo and she found herself laughing as well by the time she’d reached the bottom. Her small doppelganger was waiting impatiently for her, feet twitching on the hot sand.

‘Hurry up!’ She grabbed Scout’s hand again, and headed towards the water. The tide was coming in and the shining water hurt her already sun-sore eyes.

They came to a stop near the shoreline, littered with seaweed and shells dumped in piles after a recent storm. Scout glanced around, seeing nothing and no one in either direction. The sea’s mercurial surface slithered around her feet, flashing fleeting images at her. She stared at them closely, only to see them disappear as quickly as they’d appeared. Frustrated, Scout turned her attention to the little girl in front of her.

‘So, how old are you?’ Scout asked her, crouching down to make eye contact with her, ignoring the silvery water around them. Mini-Scout was humming happily as she scooped shells together in the wet sand.

She looked up at Scout steadily. ‘I’m seven,’ she said. ‘You don’t remember being seven, do you?’

‘I guess not,’ Scout shrugged. ‘I don’t remember a lot of things. But that’s okay, I mean, who’d want to remember everything anyway?’

‘I do,’ the little girl announced importantly. ‘And I know why you have to remember now,’ she told Scout.

‘Why? Is that why Mum sent you?’ It’s just a dream, she told herself, dreams are meant to be weird. But if it was just a dream, why did everything feel so real?

Mini-Scout shook her head at the older girl’s stupidity.

‘Mum says you need to remember who you are,’ she said, suddenly sounding much older than seven. ‘She said to tell you that you’re going to have to be ready.’ Mini-Scout looked pleased, as though she’d remembered the message word for word.

‘Ready for what?’ Scout had no idea what the little girl was talking about.

‘You know.’ Mini-Scout scowled at her. ‘But you have to be careful.’ She sat back on her haunches, jeans soaking into the sand and waited expectantly. Scout couldn’t find anything to say, her mind racing to try and figure out what she meant.

‘You’re such a scaredy cat,’ she said derisively, dismissing her older self. From the distance came a sharp clap of thunder. The sky on the horizon had become dark, with clouds that resembled grey waves slowly waiting to crash down. The sparkly sea had turned a bleak grey, a waiting mass of menace.

‘I have to go now,’ Mini-Scout announced.

‘Wait,’ Scout scrambled to get up, tripping over piles of shells and tangling her feet up in seaweed.

‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘But you’ve got to promise that you’ll try to remember and go back to being us. Do you promise?’ she asked fiercely, holding out her pinky for Scout to shake.

‘I promise,’ Scout said solemnly.

‘Okay then,’ she said. ‘Bye,’ and began walking away, up over the crest of the dune. She waved once from the top before disappearing behind it.

‘Wait!’ Scout called out but she didn’t hear. The clouds had crept in closer, forming a dark ring hovering above her. The waves rose up and ropes of seaweed tightened around her ankles with a swirling tug, pulling her out into the cold water.

Quickly losing her footing, she fought back with flailing arms, reaching for the surface, only to be pulled down further into the dark depths.

Entangled in the malevolent swirls, Scout gulped salt water into her protesting lungs, choking. Panic started to set in, and her lungs burned.

Scout kicked hard, freeing herself of the seaweed, reaching the surface when another giant tug pulled her even further down. She was drowning. And there wasn’t a damn thing that she could do about it.

Come on, she screamed at herself, just keep kicking! Every muscle screamed for mercy. Not yet, dammit, she swore to herself, I’m not going to die yet.

Scout woke up gasping, trying to draw in deep lungfuls of air. The blissful realisation that she could breathe again helped to slow her panic. Her damp hair was mashed to her head and she hastily pulled her wet pyjamas away from her, trying to rid her body of the clammy, wet feeling that they were swaddling her. Come on, she told herself, you’re okay. Breathe in, breathe out. Swinging her legs over the edge of her bed, she rested her throbbing feet on the floor, enjoying the coolness of the concrete.

Glancing a little more closely, she noticed sand stuck crusted to her toes. What the hell? Before her brain could start processing this latest detail, there was a knock at the door, startling her. Shit! She caught sight of herself in the mirror opposite her bed.  Disaster zone didn’t even begin to cover what she saw reflected back at her. She grabbed a hoodie and pulled it over the saturated pyjama top, her skin crawling at the feel of the clammy cotton fabric plastering her body.

‘Hey, Hambleton.’ A muffled voice came loudly through the door, accompanied by another set of heavy bangs on the flimsy wood. ‘Come on,’ she thought she heard the voice mutter impatiently. Hunter, by the sounds of it. Great. The last person she wanted to see.

She swung it open, embarrassed, partially hiding behind the door.

‘Wow, you’re not really a morning person, are you?’ Hunter’s eyes ran a quick scan over her, taking in the full effect of her bedraggled, literally just-washed-up look.

‘I didn’t pick you for one, either,’ Scout replied, pulling the sweatshirt closer around her. ‘What do you want?’ He was taking way too much interest in how she looked.

‘We’ve been called in to some big-deal early meeting before breakfast. Everybody’s been called in to it – students, staff, pretty much everyone in Dorsay, I think. I’m just letting people know,’ he replied.

‘Wow, that’s weird. Okay, uh, thanks. I didn’t pick you to be the messenger type. Not really your thing, is it?’ She bit her tongue. Don’t keep him talking, she scolded herself. Just shut the damn door! She suspected that there was more to this seemingly altruistic act than met the eye.

‘Yeah, sure, whatever.’ It appeared that her curiosity had got his attention in some unexpected way, given the amused look on his face. He looked at her more closely, a slight smile ghosting across his face.

‘You might want to rethink the showering with clothes on, though.’ He gestured at her with a casual sweep of his hand. ‘I’m guessing that even in places like Australia, being fully clothed isn’t what most people do – but that’s just a guess. And maybe try to ditch the sand.’ He looked pointedly at her hands, wrapped around the door.

Remnants of the sand that she’d hastily wiped off her feet had clung to her fingertips.  Scout went scarlet and opened her mouth, but before she could reply, he got there first.

‘We’re in the Atrium in half an hour.’ He walked off down the hall and she shut the door with a sigh. This day was getting weirder by the minute and she hadn’t even made it to breakfast yet.

Half an hour later, Scout was standing at the back of the Atrium, Dorsay’s central meeting hall, properly showered and stomach grumbling. She caught sight of Lily and Conor sitting near the front and made her way over to them, plonking herself gratefully on the seat that Lily had saved for her.

‘So, what’s up?’ she asked them.

‘Dunno,’ shrugged Conor, ‘but whatever it is, it won’t be good.’ His gloominess reminded Scout of Eyore, always slightly down about the world around him, regardless of the time of day or situation.

‘Maybe it’s something awesome, like an overseas field trip?’ Lily suggested, her perkiness a deliberate contrast to Conor’s phlegmatic gloom. She looked perfectly groomed in her uniform, as always. Lily always made Scout feel slightly untidy and she found herself smoothing her hair surreptitiously in response.

‘Maybe they’ve flown in our parents for an early parent-teacher conference,’ Scout suggested. After this morning’s nightmare and visit from Hunter, a bit of positive news would be a welcome relief. Conor’s face darkened and he looked away. She glanced at Lily who shook her head very slightly. What had she said?

Stealing a glance back at Conor, he’d already begun picking viciously at the edge of a nail already battered, ignoring them both.

Boys, she sighed to herself. They were so bloody complicated sometimes.

The buzz in the Atrium was beginning to pick up. Glancing around, Scout saw that it had filled up with hundreds of the company’s employees from the surrounding compound. Though Scout and the other students had seen the elegant structure many times from their wing, this was the first time that they’d actually been inside it.

Everyone in the atrium was wearing differently coloured uniforms, the Dorsay logo displayed prominently over the top left sleeve. Scout felt pretty drab in her grey uniform, compared to some of the other uniforms clustered in the large conference hall, which ranged from dark blue to red, green and black. Somehow even though the style was exactly the same on everyone, the colours made them look exotic and vibrant by comparison to the students.

Her attention was brought back to the front of the room by a judiciously placed poke in the side from Lily. Before Scout could register a protest, Lily tilted her head to the front of the room.

‘Ladies and gentleman.’ It was Cerys Westwood-Jones, CEO, Dorsay’s equivalent of the Emperor in Oz’s Emerald City. Wow, that was unexpected, Scout thought. A huge rumour mill surrounded her and, though they’d gotten a brief overview about her when they’d arrived at Dorsay as part of their orientation program, she’d remained pretty much a mystery.

Westwood-Jones stood confidently up on the podium, calmly surveying them all. A woman of relative youth, she appeared to be a woman of tight control and confidence. Her uniform, unlike everyone else’s, was white. More Glinda the good fairy than Oz, Scout thought, wondering if that she could really be that obvious in her choice of colour.

‘Thank you for coming,’ she continued when the noise had settled down. Her voice was smooth with a slight huskiness to it, as though she’d been talking or arguing for ages before she’d gotten up to address them. She had that quality that made people sit forward and take notice of her, despite her relative slightness of build.  The energy seemed to flow off her and Scout found herself leaning forward, straining to not miss a word.

Westwood-Jones swept a smile over the assembled crowd below her. The weak English sun streamed in, bathing the room in light if not warmth.

‘As we all know,’ she began, ‘Dorsay has been at the forefront of scientific and technological advancements for over forty years. The best scientists in the world have undertaken our research and experimentation in human evolution and genetics. The next generation is here, ensuring that these advancements continue.’ At this, she swept a glance at Scout and the students who were sitting near her, lingering for a millisecond longer on Scout. ‘The progress that we have made in the last few years has shown us that we are on the brink of something spectacular.’ Looking at them all, she paused and took a breath. Scout couldn’t help but feel the defiance leaking out of Cerys’ mind, underpinned by a feeling of adrenaline, despite the tight clamp she was keeping on her thoughts.

‘The purpose of calling this meeting is to prepare you for our next step. The ultimate step for Dorsay. We will be launching Stage One of the Alpha Project.’

A collective gasp rose up from the hundreds of people gathered in the atrium.  Scout glanced at Conor who shrugged, looking as baffled has she felt. Lily, on the other hand, sat as though she’d expected every word of what she’d just been told. The pitying look she gave Scout told her that she and Conor were seriously behind the eight ball on this one. Just once, Scout thought, irritated, just once I’d like to feel as like I’ve got some idea of what the hell is going on around me.

‘I know that you will have many questions. Rest assured that the Corporation values your contribution to our shared vision.’ At this, Westwood-Jones shot a lightning-quick look in the direction of what appeared to be the Dorsay board, all wearing purple. Not a flattering colour for most of them, Scout noted, especially the short, sweaty man standing closest to the podium.

‘The next phase of Dorsay’s history will not only be challenging but immensely rewarding. For now, I will leave you in the capable hands of our Director of Strategic Planning, Will Taylor. He will be outlining our program over the next few days and weeks as we work towards the most important step that humanity will take.’ With that, she stepped down, nodded to a podgy, purple-encased man and exited through a side door, leaving behind her an increasingly excited crowd of people.

Before Scout could discuss any of this with Lily and Conor, Will Taylor stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. The sudden silence that fell in the room spoke volumes about him. His expression was harder and more watchful than his CEO’s had been, and his tight collar made his florid face bulge even more, pushing his eye sockets into ever-smaller slits.

‘Good morning.’ His softly accented voice was at odds with the solidity of his frame.

‘Each company sector will have a follow-up briefing, immediately following this meeting. Your sector leaders will be able to answer any immediate questions that you have. This process will be taking place using clear guidelines designed to minimise disruption.’ He glanced around the massive room, enunciating his next words precisely. ‘This information must not leave the compound. Any leaks to the media or other organisations will result in swift consequences for the responsible parties.’

‘That’s all for now. I would ask that you now make your way to your sector meeting rooms.’ At that, the barely-held back murmuring broke into a surge of heated talk. Waves of palpable anticipation bounced off the walls.

‘Um, what the hell?’ Conor leaned forward to voice what Scout was also thinking.

‘I’ve got no idea.’ Scout confessed. Lily started to say something but was interrupted by the sound of mocking laughter coming from behind them.

Conor stiffened and Scout turned around to see her early morning wakeup call sitting with his elbows balanced on his knees, chuckling to himself as though amused beyond all measure by their ignorance.

‘What’s so funny?’ Scout leaned over the back of the chair and eyeballed him. What was this guy’s problem, anyway? She just couldn’t get a handle on his erratic mood swings and superior attitude.

‘I’m just not sure how you two made it in here. She,’ Hunter nodded towards Lily, ‘knows what’s going on. Didn’t you two do any research into the place that you were given a scholarship before coming? For two supposed ‘geniuses’, his fingers twitched in the air around that last word, ‘you’re working the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ angle pretty well. I’m really looking forward to seeing the pair of you get to grips with this.’ Still chuckling, he unfolded his lean frame and slipped casually out into the departing. Scout sat, dumbstruck. Did he really just say that?

‘Man, I thought I had problems, but that guy has some serious social issues,’ Conor said. ‘What’s with him anyway?’ Lily patted him on the shoulder.

‘Who knows?’ she said, dismissively. ‘Don’t listen to him, okay? He gets his kicks out of being an asshole.’ Scout and Conor burst out laughing, both shocked that something so crude could come out of someone who looked so perfect. Conor looked over at Lily, still smiling at her assessment of Hunter.

‘So, Lil, help out an imbecile. What’s Alpha One?’ he asked.

Lily sighed.

‘Please don’t call me ‘Lil.’ It makes me sound like I work in an East End chip shop,’ but Conor just shrugged.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I think it kind of suits you.’ Lily grimaced.

‘I’ll explain what I know as we head back. But could we please not be there late and get shamed again by the mentors?’ Her plea was interrupted by Scout’s stomach rumbling loudly.

‘I’m going to need some breakfast if I’m going to get through these next few hours,’ Scout looked pleadingly at Lily.

‘Yeah, me too,’ Conor nodded vigorously.

‘Fine,’ Lily sighed, ‘but if we’re late, then you two can explain why to Chewy.’ Conor snorted in disgust.

‘We’ve been here three months and the guy still hates me,’ he said.

‘Yeah, might have something to do with the fact that you give him shit every time you see him,’ Scout said wryly.

Conor launched into his best Star Wars impression and the girls cracked up.  Scout realized that Conor wasn’t bad looking, once he relaxed a bit. Catching Lily’s eye, she blushed and shook her head. Lily laughed and stood up.

‘Enough drama for one morning, please! Come on.’ She pushed Conor to get him moving. ‘Let’s get out of here. You two are making me more nervous by the minute.’ They left the almost empty hall in search of something to eat, Scout heaving a sigh of relief. She didn’t think that she’d have a very good answer if Lily asked her about Conor. Come to think of it, she didn’t have a great one for herself, either.

 

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