The Words in the Walls

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Over the last week I’ve been writing a story on twitter with the help of friends and strangers.  You might remember this from the last time I did one, but basically it’s a collaborative effort where I provide the ongoing story and the aforementioned friends and strangers vote on what direction it goes.

I genuinely really enjoy doing these. One, because it means I’m ensuring I write every day, even if it is just in two hundred and eighty character bursts. And, two, because it also makes the writing process a lot less isolated. It’s amazing to me that the writers room for this little story was spread out over who knows how many spaces and countries. It truly shows the brighter side of the internet. So, to everyone who voted and followed along, thank you.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve also started a new twitter page where I can continue these stories indefinitely.  Feel free to click the previous link to follow along and participate, the more voters the better as that will ensure the story doesn’t stop.

In the meantime you can also click the link below to read the twitter story; The Words in the Walls.

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Remember, we live in a time where at any point you can type ‘red panda’ into google then see a bunch of pictures of them, and if that’s not magic I don’t know what is.

Talk soon,

Damian

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Miss Penelope Mary Armitage Jones (Part 2)

Penelope 1

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

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The spaceship was not what she’d expected. It turned out the resemblance to a terrarium was more true than she’d realised. The large glass ball that made up the cockpit and cabin was also full of plant life. Potted trees stood alongside small shrubs, and mingled in amongst them all were small beds of herbs, flowers, and grasses. A makeshift walkway of cleared floor area led between them all, but even that was narrow. Penelope almost knocked over two trees and stood on some grasses before she was able to sit on one of the dull metal outcrops that worked as seats. She sat down with a wince, the mushroom shape belied the actual hardness of the furniture. Grace sat down on one across from her, and the beige man seated himself near what Penelope considered must be the front of the vessel. It was hard to tell, the whole thing was largely symmetrical, and there seemed to be no controls of any kind.

Grace smiled, looking around at the makeshift glasshouse. ‘I love what you’ve done in here. I have a number of indoor plants at my house too. They really make the room, don’t they?’

The beige man turned his globular head. ‘These are not decorative. They are samples, collected from your world.’

‘Oh, right, of course,’ Grace said, as through this was a perfectly normal statement to have made, as though this was a perfectly normal situation to be in. Her calm acceptance was for some reason infuriating to Penelope. ‘Do you not have trees then where you’re from?’

‘No,’ the beige man said as he turned back to look out of the glass dome. ‘Vegetation is very scarce, and mostly feeds on our own biological matter. Your worlds flora’s ability to synthesise energy from light is truly remarkable.’

‘Isn’t that funny,’ Grace said, looking at Penelope. ‘That’s what Pen’s been studying, isn’t it, Dear?’

‘Yes,’ Penelope said, not interested in telling this alien of her research. In fact she felt she should be the one asking questions here. ‘Tell me, how long have you been on our planet?’

‘I have only been here for the past five months, but other members of my race have been aware of your world since your nineteen eighties. We surveilled this planet for decades, but only started manned missions around three years ago. We have learned a lot in that time.’

‘How to speak our language, for one,’ Penelope said.

‘That is correct. Noise frequencies are mostly used on my planet during communication as a way to emphasise a point. What your species has done with it is exceptional.’

‘How do you communicate otherwise?’

‘Light displays, of course.’ His bulb lit up with ribbons of light. They moved and danced and exploded within the casing. Patterns flowing into other patterns, dripping molten light in a vivid display.

‘What did you just say then?’ Grace asked, awe and delight on her face.

‘That we are ready to leave,’ he intoned. A tendril of light extended from his head to reach down towards the interior of the ship. As it did the vessel began to move forward. The doors of the airplane hanger opened and they passed through them and up into the sky.

Penelope reached out to brace herself but realised she needn’t have bothered. There was little movement from within the ball. She could see the metal exterior moving around the globe, but they stayed perfectly stabilised.

Another tendril left the beige man’s dome and Penelope saw a shimmer of light pass over the ship. It made the fuselage look like light dappled water, wavering in and out of view. ‘Are we invisible now?’ she asked the beige man.

‘Correct,’ he told her.

‘How does that work?’

‘Light refraction,’ was all he said.

‘Hm, you know we have scientists working on the same technology,’ she told him.

‘Yes,’ he said, his bulb lighting up with flares of light accompanied by an odd vibration.

Penelope looked at him, confused for a moment before deciphering the action. ‘Are you laughing at us?’ she asked with her most haughty inflection.

‘Yes. Your race has achieved interesting things, but when it comes to manipulation of light you are like…’ he let the sentence hang for a moment, then asked, ‘what’s something that is less than a baby?’

Penelope decided not to answer the question. Instead she looked out at the land passing below. It rushed by, details only becoming apparent if she really focused on them. She wondered just how fast they were going. Fast enough to get to make her meeting, she thought with a small smile. Why, at this rate, they’d probably beat the plane they were supposed to be on. She’d might even have a bit of extra time up her sleeve, which she could use to go over her presentation one more time.

She couldn’t believe she was so close to giving it. Well, she couldn’t believe a lot about this day, but still, the thought made her tremble. Seven years of research, late nights and early mornings, so much time given to learning, exploring, expanding, and now she was about to stand in front of some of the greatest minds on renewable energy and tell them she’d cracked photosynthesis. Not only that but she had discovered out a cheap, easy, way to store its products, solved the energy crisis. If today went well, if it went the way she hoped, the world would be changed. Energy would turn from a commodity into a simple staple of life, endlessly accessible. No different to air. Which in itself was fantastic, but the further implications were what really excited her. Yes, people would no longer have to pay electricity bills, but with endless amounts of energy, human beings as a whole could achieve so much more. Supercomputers, that until now were limited by the amount of power they required, would no longer have those limitations. So what if some amazing machine needed the energy it usually took to run a country for a day? They could have it, and more. Desalination plants could be set up around the globe, and drinkable water could be delivered to every person on the planet all for the cost of the energy to run it, which would now be nothing. And with unlimited energy common space travel would become not only achievable, but inevitable. So much could be done, the next step of human existence, and it all fell on this presentation going well.

Penelope thought it was good. Mostly. At the very least it wasn’t bad…she hoped. She knew she wasn’t always the best communicator. In fact, she was usually terrible. Grace had told her the presentation was good, she thought, but then she would have to say that wouldn’t she, being her grandmother and all. Still, she had encouraged her through every iteration of the presentation Penelope had practiced on her, had even played out every time like she’d never heard it before. And she had offered some useful edits, mostly on the delivery, and it had helped.

Penelope looked at her grandmother sitting across from her. She had her big Grace smile on as she watched the world go by, and Penelope knew she deserved an apology. Yes, she’d been late, but that was Grace, as was endless support, and Penelope knew she wouldn’t be even a fraction this close to her goal without her.

Penelope rose and wove her way through the plants to sit beside her grandmother. Grace looked at her, her smile as big as ever. ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Pen?’ she said.

‘Yes, Grandma, it is.’ Penelope paused, never good at being open. ‘I, um, I just wanted to say sorry.’

‘Did you? Well that’s nice. What are you sorry for, dear?’

Penelope rolled her eyes. Ever since she’d been a child it had been the same. It wasn’t enough to just say sorry, you had to say what you were sorry for. It had infuriated her as a child, and admittedly still did, but she could see the point. Sorry’s were easy, it’s just a word, stating the way you’d hurt someone was different, that ensured you wouldn’t do it again.

‘Sorry for yelling at you,’ Penelope said.

Grace looked into her eyes and gave a soft smile. ‘I don’t even remember it.’

Penelope smiled back and was about to thank her for the offer to put the argument behind them, when she saw the confusion on her grandmothers face. ‘Are you joking?’ She asked instead.

‘About what, dear?’ Grace replied.

Penelope’s stomach sank. Grace looked out the window again and smiled once more. ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Pen?’ she asked. Penelope’s stomach sank further.

‘Yes, Grandma, it is,’ she said, her voice hollow.

‘Have you ever seen so many stars?’ Grace asked, but Penelope didn’t hear her, she was too busy tracking back through recent memories, connecting dots to reveal an image she hadn’t seen before. How her grandma couldn’t remember if the presentation was in the morning or the evening, how she’d forgot to set an alarm, how she often “faked” senility. Except, now she saw that there was nothing fake about it.

Her grandmother’s words made it through to her. Stars?

Penelope looked up and rather than seeing land and sky instead saw the vast field of space go whizzing by them. Earth, Brisbane, and any hope of giving her presentation became an ever decreasing dot of blue and green.

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‘I won’t ask you again,’ Penelope shrieked. ‘Turn around.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t do that,’ the beige man replied in his filament voice.

‘You can and you will,’ Penelope said. ‘Or, or…’ A proper threat failed to come to her, and her words trailed off.

‘Or we’ll smash every one of these plants!’ Grace yelled. She immediately followed through on her threat and lifted one of the small shrubs into the air, throwing it against one of the bare patches of ground. The pot shattered, and Grace ground her foot into the roots of the plant for good measure. She then gave Penelope a wink.

Penelope could have cried. Instead she kicked over one of the larger bushes and once more yelled, ‘turn this ship around!’

‘The plants, while regrettable, are not the main reason I was sent to your planet,’ the beige man said. ‘Others have already collected a number of flora samples, and doubtless others will collect more. I can deal with their loss’

‘Then why did you come here?’ Penelope asked.

‘For you. For Miss Penelope Mary Armitage Jones. I was tasked to find you and bring you to our home.’

Penelope half sat, half fell back onto the chair.

It was over. She wasn’t just going to be late, she was going to be absent.

Her stomach curled and she thought she might throw up. Then she looked at Grace and felt a numbness wash over her anxiety, a sense of inevitable helplessness. She would never master time. How could she? It was too big. Too mighty. She might try and parcel it up into bite size portions in order to give her a sense of control over it, drop in some deadlines and events on a calendar and force relevance on them. But time just ticked on endlessly, uncaring to the wants and needs of the people stuck in its flow. Just look at her grandmother, time was already wearing her away.

And that was when Penelope began to cry. Heart weary sobs that constricted her throat and made her feel light headed. She felt her grandmother’s arms around her. Heard the same soft comforting words she heard whenever she’d been upset as a child, which only made her cry more.

When all her tears had ran dry and she’d managed to regain her composure she sat with her grandmother, arms around the older woman. Together they watched space pass them by.

After some time Grace fell asleep. Penelope could hardly blame her. Space might be vast and endless but it was also very empty. Watch it for long enough and it all begins to feel very same-same.

Penelope stood and began to move around the small ship. She studied a number of the plants. They were all fairly common, she saw. All good growers. Weeds as often as not. Then she looked to the beige man. He hadn’t said or done anything since she started crying. Not one word of regret or apology. She approached him and sat looking forward as space and time flew by.

After a moment he spoke.

‘I’m sorry about your grandmother.’

Penelope stared at him in shock.  ‘Excuse me?’ she said.

‘Something similar happens to my people over time. The electric signals weaken, causing them to become confused and disorientated.’

Penelope didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.

‘Of course, it’s all very treatable.’

She looked at the beige man sternly, not sure she’d heard him right.

‘Did you say treatable?’

‘Yes. It’s just a matter of strengthening the electrical pulses. A small matter for our race, and despite appearances your grey matter is not so different. I strongly expect the same treatment would have similar results on Grace.’

‘You’re saying you’ve solved dementia?’

The beige man looked across at her, and then back out to the front of the ship, before answering with a simple, ‘yes.’

Penelope didn’t know what to say. The implications of that simple statement were huge and amazing. ‘And you could do it for Grace? Once we arrived at your planet?’

‘Of course.’

‘Thank you,’ she said, her throat swelling with emotion once more. ‘If you can really do that, then I don’t even care that I didn’t make it to my presentation.’ Despite those words, and despite how much she meant them, there was still a part of her that felt a loss at giving up her life’s work. ‘Will we ever be able to return to Earth?’ she asked.

The beige man thought, and then answered. ‘That depends on you,’ he said.

‘What does that mean?’

‘My planet has used up all its resources, depleted all its energy. For my people this means disaster. We will starve and die. I was sent to your planet to find a solution, even though it meant using a large chunk of our final supply. We believe you and your studies are that solution. If you’re able to solve our energy crisis, then we will have enough power to return you and your grandmother to earth.’

Penelope thought on that for a moment, the practical part of her brain pushing down the emotional.

‘Okay, deal. But, you should know my work is currently all theoretical. I believe it can be made practical but I can’t do it on my own.’

‘That is fine. Waiting for us when we land are a collection of the greatest scientific minds on our planet, they are waiting to hear from you.’

‘They want me to do a presentation’

‘Correct,’ the beige man said.

‘Well, can we go any faster then?’ she said, smiling. ‘We don’t want to be late.’

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Thanks for reading,

Damian

Miss Penelope Mary Armitage Jones (Part 1)

Penelope 2

Miss Penelope Mary Armitage Jones was nothing if not punctual. At thirty five she had yet to be late to a single event, occasion, meeting, or flight. There was nothing in this world that gave her the toxic combination of anxiety and frustration like the prospect of being tardy.

Her grandmother, unfortunately, did not feel the same way.

She, the older of the Jones women, found deadlines to be a fluid concept, one that could be altered through negotiation, pleasantness, or, when previous methods failed, faking senility.

This, as I’m sure you can imagine, created some friction between the two women. As a child, Penelope would throw herself to the floor and scream as loud as she could for as long as she could whenever her grandmother’s tardiness threatened to impeach her own punctuality. Now, as an adult, her aggression was a lot more passive, which is why she was refusing to talk to her grandmother as they sat together in the airport terminal.

‘I still can’t believe that man wouldn’t let us on the fight,’ her grandmother, Mrs Grace Juliet Jones, said for the third time. ‘They’d barely started down the runway. It would have taken us only a minute to catch up.’

Penelope readjusted the bag on her lap, swallowing back the accusatory words she craved to let forth. She was not a child anymore, she reminded herself, as the anxiety and frustration curdled her stomach, she couldn’t scream her way out of this one. At least not externally. Internally she was really letting her grandmother have it.

An airport attendant approached them. ‘Excuse me, Miss Jones?’

‘Yes,’ Penelope and her grandmother said in unison.

‘He said Miss Jones,’ Penelope hissed out of the side of her mouth, then turned back towards the attendant. ‘Yes?’

‘I’m afraid the next flight to Brisbane isn’t for another three hours. The one I was hoping to squeeze you onto is fully booked, so your next option is the twelve o’clock with Tiger Airways.’

‘I see,’ Penelope said in the calmest voice she could manage. ‘Thank you.’

The man nodded and walked away.

‘Oh, well, that’s not too bad,’ Grace said with a small smile.

‘It’s late!’ Penelope snapped. ‘It’s three hours late, is what it is! It’s me being late for the first time in my life, for the most important event in my life. And you say it’s not too bad? Maybe you really are going senile!’

Penelope’s voice had risen to a regrettable volume during the short tirade, drawing a lot of looks from the other waiting passengers. She’d also stood, she realised, and so slowly returned to her seat.

‘Next time I’ll set an alarm,’ her grandmother said, unperturbed by the explosion. ‘Chocolate?’ she asked, thrusting the small bag of chocolate covered peanuts toward her.

Penelope bit back another burst of yelling, one that included the words YOU DIDN’T SET AN ALARM? and instead said in short clipped syllables, ‘I am not talking to you.’

Grace simply shrugged and popped a chocolate covered peanut into her mouth.

Penelope knew she shouldn’t have agreed to let her grandmother accompany her on this trip. She’d done so for two reasons. The first was that, and this was something Penelope wouldn’t admit to her grandmother, she was scared, and so wanted the older woman around for support. The second was that she loved her. Most of the time. Today, not so much.

‘Hello, sorry to interrupt you both, but I think I may be able to help you out.’ Penelope turned in her seat to see a thin, forty something asian man, dressed in beige pants and a beige short sleeved shirt. His shoes were white sneakers, one shade away from being beige.

Penelope smiled thinly, not sure what this man’s deal was and not all that interested in finding out. ‘Thank you, but I’m sure we’ll be okay,’ she said.

‘What are you talking about!’ her grandmother cried in true Grace fashion, which was louder than necessary and with a jangle of earrings. ‘We’ll happily take you up on your offer, young man. As you might have heard, my granddaughter has an event to be at in Brisbane later this afternoon-’

‘Morning!’ Penelope said, horrified at her grandmother’s laissez-faire attitude towards even remembering deadlines, let alone meeting them.

‘-morning,’ Grace continued without dropping a beat, ‘so any help you could give would be greatly appreciated.’ She followed this up by giving the beige man the widest smile she could. The one that used her lips, cheeks, and, most importantly, eyes, and the one weapon she could always rely on to win over even the most hardened of foes.

The beige man simply blinked once, raised the corners of his mouth ever so slightly, and said, ‘great, come with me.’ He turned and begun to walk back down the long corridor.

Penelope watched Grace gather her bag in shock. She grabbed the sleeve of her grandmother’s mustard yellow coat and said, ‘what are you doing?’

‘I’m following the nice man,’ Grave told her.

‘We don’t know that he’s nice. We don’t even know that he’s not a serial killer.’ Penelope said with just a tinge of hysteria.

The beige man had stopped midway down the corridor and was looking back at them, blanked faced.

Grace looked down at Penelope and raised her eyebrows. ‘Who was it that was just yelling at me in the middle of an airport because she didn’t want to be late? This man said he may have a solution for us, I would think you would be grateful. He probably works for the airport and has figured out a way to get us on some flight or something.’

‘But he’s not wearing a uniform. He doesn’t even have a lanyard!’ Penelope said. ‘And why is he wearing all beige? That has to be how serial killers dress.’

‘It’s probably a cultural thing. And serial killers don’t hang out in airports. Well, maybe at arrivals, but not in departure. It just makes no sense, dear.’

‘What doesn’t make sense is how he can help us when we know all flights heading to Brisbane are full.’

‘I don’t know,’ Grace said, putting on her rarely used Grandma voice. ‘But ask yourself this, are you more afraid of finding out this man’s plan, or are you more afraid of being late?’

Penelope let the question sink in. Death or tardiness?

She grabbed her things and stood.

Grace gave the man a consolidating wave as they trotted over to him. He didn’t say anything about the delay, just stated, ‘this way,’ in an emotionless voice and then began walking again.

Grace chatted away at the beige man as he led them first through the artificially lit interior of the airport, and then down into its bowels, through corridors and passageways more commonly used by cleaners and baggage handlers. Penelope hadn’t liked the way the man had looked around first before leading them through the nondescript door that led into the airports backstage. Grace hadn’t seemed to notice. Nor had she seemed to notice that for all her talk the man wasn’t responding to any of her conversation. The only motion he made other than marching forward determinately was to look behind him now and again to ensure Penelope was still there.

‘Excuse me,’ Penelope said after ten minutes of walking and an ever increasing sense of frustration and danger. ‘Where are we going?’

The beige man stopped in front of a door, one no different to the the dozen or so they had already passed. ‘Right here,’ he said, and opened the door to reveal an empty airplane hanger.

Empty was the main thing Penelope noticed about it. Devoid of both people and any mode of transport that would allow them to get to Brisbane in time for her meeting with the university board members. ‘Yep. Okay. Grandma, I think it’s time we went back somewhere public,’ Penelope said.

‘Wait,’ the beige man cried in anguish, his face not matching the emotion in his voice. ‘It’s not what it seems. Please.’

‘Pen, dear. Let’s hear him out.’

Penelope gave her grandmother a look that said,  are-you-kidding-he’s-obviously-a-serial-killer. You know the look.

‘He did say please,’ Grace said in reply.

Then the beige man did something neither Grace nor Penelope could have possibly predicted. He pulled his face off.

No, Penelope realised, that wasn’t entirely true. He still had a face, it was just unlike any face she’d ever seen before. In his hand he held the fleshy mask that had served as his face up until a moment ago. Penelope alternated between looking at the floppy mass of non-skin to the beige man’s non-face. What it most reminded Penelope of was a lumpy light bulb. A bubbled mass of translucent flesh. As she stared numerous small points of lights moved behind the flesh, shifting in random patterns, flaring and dimming.

‘Well,’ Grace said, ‘that’s interesting.’

Penelope experienced a feeling she had never experienced before, something between a scream and a faint. She then surprised herself completely by taking a third option and punching the beige man in his non-face. It felt squishy against her fist, as if she were punching a jellyfish.

‘Penelope!’ her grandmother cried, but Penelope wasn’t listening, she grabbed the older woman by the mustard coloured sleeve and began to run.

She didn’t get far.

The beige man was around and in front of them like a bolt of lightning. ‘No. It’s okay,’ the lumpy globe said with a non-existent mouth. Penelope swung a fist at him again–she really was quite impressed with herself, who knew she had such a fighting spirit–and turned her and Grace around, only to realise they were now trapped between him and the empty airplane hanger. Penelope turned back to him. She pushed Grace behind her and raised her fist again. He moved, a blur of light, and then he was holding her wrist, his luminous face only an inch from her own.

‘Please,’ he said, his grip unmovable. ‘You need to see this.’

Penelope felt a breeze and a pull and realised the three of them were now in the centre of the hanger. Grace let out a small, ‘well…’ and the beige man spun in front of them.

‘Look,’ he said. He pointed a finger out in front of him. His hand, Penelope saw, had the same see through texture his head did. A thin pale tendril stretched out from his finger tip and a bead of light ran down it. It escaped the end of the tendril and landed on an invisible surface which became visible as the bead of light stretched itself over it. The light kept growing, flowing over the invisible objects contours. It then dimmed to reveal something that looked like the combination of a terrarium and a fighter jet. It didn’t take much for Penelope to figure out what it really was.

A spaceship.

The beige man turned to face both of them. ‘Get on, please.’

Knowing that both running and fighting had failed, Penelope instead tried a different tact. ‘Why?’ she asked.

‘I can take you to your meeting,’ he replied.

‘Yes, but why? Why would you want to help me? Why would I trust you? I don’t even know who you are, let alone what you are. So, why?’

The beige man’s blobby head lowered, and Penelope got the sense that he was looking for an answer. Or perhaps he had one and was looking for the best way to share it. The head came back up again. If it had eyes Penelope figured she’d be staring right at them.

‘You are very important where I come from,’ he said. Which of course only brought the question of why back to Penelope’s lips.

‘That I can not tell you,’ his said.

‘Well, you’ll have to tell me something. I’m not going to just climb on some spacecraft without some kind of explanation. You may be an alien, but that doesn’t mean you’re still not a serial killer.’

‘I can’t tell you any more. Not yet. But I can tell you if we don’t leave soon, you won’t make it to your meeting.’

Penelope was torn. She could feel her mind pinballing between the two terrible outcomes.

‘Oh, just get on the damn spaceship, Pen’ Grace cried out. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’

Penelope decided she didn’t want to know the answer to that question.

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Part 2 of this story can be found here.

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Thanks for reading.

Damian

The Stars Were There

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The stars were there the night she was born.
          They shined above the highway as her Dad searched frantically in the trunk of the car for a picnic blanket he was sure had been floating around back there since the summer before, and her Mum laughed from the backseat of the car with just a tinge of hysteria in her voice as she repeatedly said, ‘she must be a keen one, just can’t wait to meet us.’
          The stars watched as in the field beside the highway she entered the world, red and wrinkly and perfect, on the old tartan picnic blanket. They heard as she let out her first cries, which were loud and high pitched, and her Dad whispered to her Mum what a great job she’d done, how proud he was, and how they’d be telling this story for years to come, and her Mum just laughed and sobbed, relieved and happy.
          On that night, the stars were there.

The stars were there when the thought first formed itself.
          They looked down at her, as she looked back at them and thought about what she wanted to do with her life — a young age to be making that kind of a decision, but then she had already proven herself not to be a usual six year old. It was the presence of the stars that sparked the thought, the one that would change the world.  As she looked at their bright burning bodies, it came upon her that if she stared at a single star for long enough it would disappear, only to then reappear if she turned her gaze ever so slightly to the side. Nothing other than an optical illusion, caused by the microscopic mechanisms of the eye, as she would later learn, but at six she couldn’t help but wonder where those stars went when they disappeared.

The stars were there when her parents took her out to celebrate.
          It was a clear summer night, the family took a table outdoors, ordered food, and raised a glass to toast her many achievements. Doctorate degrees in theoretical physics and astronomy, the publishing of her first scientific paper; The existence and breaching of alternate universes, and the multitude of grants she had received off the back of that paper.
           They clinked their glasses, and sipped. The wine ran down her throat, making her feel giddy and warm. She may have been only fifteen but her Mum had said she was allowed the drink because it was such a special occasion. Because they had so much to celebrate.
           Her father made a toast and they clinked glasses again, the crystalline sound waves traveled out and away from them.
           Out towards the stars.

The stars were there the day she first breached the divide.
          They hung in space, unseen behind the light of the sun and the walls of the building, as she stood, surrounded by grad students, most older than her, all dressed in gowns of white. They burned, light years away, as she turned on the machine. A mouse, dressed in its own coat of white, looked at her with eyes as black as space and gave a twitch of its whiskers. She smiled at it, hopeful, and pressed the space bar.
          The machine, known colloquially throughout the lab as the WHB (or wormhole box), hummed gently as it drew in power. A lot of power. So much power that the humming turned to a drumming vibration. The mouse and his cage shook, and the little animal ran to hide, but it had nowhere to go. The machine sounded a DING, like a microwave announcing the popcorn was ready, and the mouse was gone. The machine’s humming slowed, then stopped, until a charged silence filled the room; then the scientists began to cheer.
          She didn’t. She knew the job was only half done.

The stars were there the day it all went wrong.
          In the years since that first breach more mice had been sent through the WHB, which was now into its twelfth model. Hundreds of mice had heard the hum, then the shake. Each time she had been the one to press the space bar, and each time they’d ran to hide, and each time it had done little to keep them in this universe.
Now she knew how to bring them back.
          The stars, once more hidden behind a blanket of sunlight and atmosphere, were nevertheless where they had always been as she approached the lectern. She looked out at the crowded theater, at the representatives of the government agencies and independent research organisations, all the people who had provided her with money and equipment and support over the years. She looked to the cameras, where she knew people from all over the globe watched her on their laptops and tablets and phones. She looked to her parents, smiling in the front row.
         She introduced herself, although there were few who didn’t know her name, and told them what they were there to see.
          The chimp was brought out. It climbed into her arms, and she laughed as it kissed her on the cheek. With gentle hands she placed the humanoid animal into the exterior chamber of the WHB, stoked its head, and wished it luck.
           She pressed the space bar, and the machine began to hum.
           It continued to hum until it met an error in the machines programming. A section of code that should have contained a decimal instead contained a comma. A simple mistake, and one which caused the machine to draw in energy like a black hole drawing in gravity.
          The machine was well made and did what it was commanded to do.
          The stars were there when the world disappeared.

The stars were there when the earth came back.
          One moment their rays of light passed effortlessly through the dark of the universe, the next they were rebounding back off of the face of the world.
For twenty one days the stars had been alone. Twenty one days for her to rework the math, rewrite the code, and use the WHB to bring them all back.
          At first, people hadn’t believed.
          Then they saw that the stars were wrong.
          Then there had been panic.
          Days were shorter, nights longer, and without a moon the seas were eerily still.                  Energy remained, but with the satellites left behind, communication had been lost. Twenty one days of fear and quiet and waiting.
          Now, they were back, and the rebuilding was already well under way. Soon they would be reminiscing about the time the earth had become the largest transport vessel in existence. The three weeks they spent in an alternate universe. A story to tell the grand kids.
          She looked at the stars, all in their usual places, and breathed a sigh of relief; ignorant to the fact that something had come back with them.

The stars were there when the entity was first discovered.
          The spore, native to that other universe, had adhered itself to the ground in the middle of some rarely visited bush land in Western Australia. There it had grown, it’s tendrils rushing through the rich soil like a swarm of eels through water, spreading further and further. Then it sprouted. Giant strings of fungus burst from the ground for miles in every direction from where the spore had first landed. Heavy fruit quickly grew from the strings, then burst, letting out an a sea of spores to be taken by the wind.
          The owner of the land saw the white and spindly stalks on the horizon just as the first stars were appearing in the sky. News vans rushed to the site to be the first to capture the alien entity.
          They needn’t have bothered. By the morning, the spores had spread and sprouted across most of the state.

The stars were there when the fight began.
          Under their light she watched the footage on her phone. The alien flora tearing through the country had already started appearing in other parts of the globe. She didn’t need to guess where it had come from.
          She put out a call to the best and brightest from every field, and they’d come, through satellite beams and fiber optic cables, to help her form the plan of attack.
She’d talked with them through the night, as the stars twinkled above. They spoke of plant physiology and structure, ecology and genetics, life cycles and distribution models. They talked and she listened, collating it all.
          Then she spoke. She told each party what she wanted them to do. Where to marshal their attack. How to lay the specific type of defensive groundwork. What types of new bio-weaponry to create.
          For herself, she got on a plane and headed to where it all started. She wanted to meet the enemy head on.

The stars were there when she lost all hope.
           She wept under their distant light with no idea what to do next for the first time in her life.
          It had taken only weeks for the fungus to cripple the planet. It’s feather light spores had ridden slipstreams across oceans, finding their way to every part of the globe. At each point the fungus had spread and sucked the land dry. It’s growth rate was unheard of. It was growing still.
          As it grew it destroyed. It absorbed every drop of water, every mineral, every scrap of unwary life. The native flora either shriveled away to nothing or were simply smothered under the weight of the fungal growth. Herds of animals dropped dead due to starvation or dehydration. Now there were reports of the fungus making its way down to the ocean floor.
          She’d done everything she could think of. Attacked it with every form of chemical weaponry known to man. Invented new ones. Tore kilometers of the hungry infestation from the ground. Then, when nothing else had worked, set the country ablaze in an effort to eradicate it.
          Still it grew.
          It’s level of indestructibility would mean their destruction, she knew this now. It was only a matter of time.
          So, she wept. Alone, in a field, with the fungal stalks around her, and the stars overhead.

The stars were there when the new earth was born.
          She looked up at them as she stood beside the WHB, the device drawing in life from one of the few remaining power sources. She hadn’t slept for days. She’d been coding non stop since the answer had come to her; rewriting the settings so the WHB would only transport matter from within a very specific set of parameters.
          The stars watched as the humming turned to shaking, and the few remaining artificial lights went out. She looked at the stars, taking them in for the very last time.
The machine dinged and a new earth was born; green, and lush, and perfect.
          Technically, it wasn’t a new earth at all, simply an alternate one, but it was new to her, and to the rest of the previous earth’s inhabitants that had unknowingly made the journey with her. Through the new starlight she saw a flock of birds cross the sky. An insect buzzed by her ear. Good signs. They would have to rebuild everything. Start again from nothing.
But that was tomorrow’s problem. For now she fell to the ground, laughed and sobbed, relieved and happy.
          On that night, the stars were there.

++++

Thanks for reading,

Damian

Riding to Mars (Part 2)

1930864_1
IMAGE CREDIT: BAMBALICK DESIGN

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

++++

Justice woke, disorientated and in pain.

She hadn’t meant to sleep, but, buried in a hole, there was little else to do. She took a second to take note of the situation. It was quiet, and dark; both the day and the dust storm having moved on while she slept. With a grunt she pushed the bike and coat off her self. Cold rushed in. She inhaled with the sudden chill and rushed to wrap the coat around herself.

The cold now having woken her properly, she thought about what to do next. There was only really one option, try to get back to the city. She let out a heavy sigh, and looked down at her broken leg. She was just going to have to do her best.

Justice knew she should wrap the leg, but with no bandages on hand, and the cold settling in for the night, she was hesitant to rid herself of any additional clothing. Finally, she decided that she would likely warm up on the walk back, and that she could perhaps bare to lose her singlet top, which would still leave her with a shirt and coat.

She stripped down, then hurriedly re-clothed, minus the singlet. She used her teeth to tear through the hem and then tore it as best she could down the middle, doubling its length. With gritted teeth she wrapped the fabric around her leg; starting at the bottom and moving upwards. A guttural moan pushed up her throat as the fabric wound around the point of skin barely holding back her broken bone. Her teeth clamped so tight they felt like they might shatter from the force, and tears welled in the corners of her eyes. She pushed on, continuing the wrapping and tying it off.

She allowed herself a few deep calming breaths and then moved onto the next challenge. A crutch.

There were no trees out this far from the city, so branches were out of the question. It would have to be the bike. She looked across at the mangled wreck and tried to pick out the most likely parts that would suit her purposes. Both the top tube and bottom tube of the frame were bent, but perhaps not too bent. The ends were twisted and pressed, but that might actually help with the situation as she would have to try and separate them from the rest of the frame anyway.

She got to work. The frame was made of a metal alloy that made it extremely light, and only semi durable. This was why it had crumpled so easily from a basic fall, it would take most of the brunt of any accident, but wouldn’t get up again to face another one. It also meant she could bent and twist the frame using just her hands. She started on the wheels, pushing them out of the way so she could get to frame behind. Then it was just a matter of bending the metal one way, then back the other, over and over again until it finally weakened enough to snap. With both her hands heavily grazed, the already hard job was made even more difficult. But what other choice did she have? Nothing was ever easy, she thought.

By the time she had both metal tubes free she was covered in sweat, and her hands were bleeding. The cold was doing little to cool her down and she considered ditching her coat. Then it dawned on her that even with her recent labor she really shouldn’t be so hot. The temperature was likely single digits out here, meaning any heat she worked up should be whipped away in an instant.

A fever then, it had to be. Which meant infection. She doubted, and hoped, it wasn’t her leg. Likely it was her hands and face. Best keep her coat on then, she thought. She was probably colder than she thought she was, meaning if she stripped down she could freeze while still feeling like a human furnace.

She pushed the end of the top tube into the bottom, bending until they were as straight as she could make them. After all her manipulations the stick of metal was twisted and dented, making it look like as if were a toothpick that had been used by a giant mecha.

It only needed one more addition.

She freed the bike seat from its bearing and reattached it to the top of her stick. It was wobbly, but with her weight on it she assumed it wouldn’t be so noticeable. Only one way to know for sure, she thought.

Using the newly made crutch for balance she managed to draw herself up onto her good leg. It hurt, a lot. Once up, she placed the cruth into her armpit. It wasn’t perfect. The wobbiliness of the seat was more annoying than she had hoped for, and it was short, making her tilt to one side, but it would do. It would have to.

She left the rest of the bike where it was — seeing no need to carry additional scrap metal with her — and began, slowly, to walk.

She kept her eyes firmly fixed on the distant lights of the city as she made her way through the dark, refusing to bow her head or look at her injuries. Sweat continued to drip from her, but the cold of the night did work to cool the liquid, which added some relief.

Every step was accompanied by a jolt of pain. She did her best to keep as much weight as possible off of her left leg, but it wasn’t easy, and occasionally she would give it just an inch too much and scream as the pain spiked into white hot territory.

She tried not to think about the broken bone jostling within her skin, the shattered ends rubbing against each other with every move she made. She didn’t have much luck. The image kept flashing in her mind with every step she took.

Still, she stepped on wards, forcing herself to focus on the fact that with every step she was a little bit closer to her goal, rather than all the steps she still had to take.

After what she guessed was about a kilometer, she stopped. She didn’t sit, worried that it she did she might not be able to get back up again, just got her breath back, and tried to ease her legs as best she could. Her right one was already tired, overcompensating as it was for her left. Knowing it wasn’t likely to feel better any time soon, she carried on.

One hour passed, and then another.

The pain had reduced to a dull roar, as though covered with a thick blanket that muffled the bulk of it. Justice knew that wasn’t a good sign. She had started feeling woozy too. Now edging up to giddy, as the fever raged through her.

She thought she kept hearing noises out in the dark, but the saner part of her mind knew that should be impossible. While there were animals that lived on Mars, they were mostly livestock, kept to the immediate outskirts of the city, not out here in the flatlands. Still, the noises came at her, some familiar.

They’re video game noises, she thought with a moment of clarity. The pings and pops signifying achievements within a game, specifically the one she’d played as a kid. She hadn’t played it for years.

Then she heard a rising bbbbrrraaa-ding!

It was the noise that sounded whenever a new section of land was discovered. She began to giggle. She supposed she was uncovering new land, although it wasn’t lighting up like it did in the game, darkness still pervaded her senses. Every ten steps or so her mind would once more form the noise, bbbbrrraaa-ding! Oddly, it helped, she found herself pushing forward, wanting to hear the noise and hit the next imagined check-mark.

Then she fell.

Her leg just went out from underneath her. No warning. No tremor. Just her face hitting the hard dirt as her leg ignited into agony. She lay there for a second trying to figure out what had happened. Had her body just given up? All it’s resources gone. She started giggling again, and found couldn’t stop. Saliva dribbled from her mouth to mix with the dust, which puffed with ever gasping exhale she let out. Still, she couldn’t stop laughing. Or was it crying? Both, she decided.

‘What’s so funny, squirt?’ A voice asked.

She turned her head to see a small cartoon bird flying above her. Willow was its name. She knew this because it too came from the video game. It was the main characters sidekick, and only ever referred to them as squirt.

Justice let out a whine. That’s really not good, she thought.

‘I said, what’s so funny, squirt?’ Willow said again.

‘Just that I’m going crazy, and probably dying.’

‘Hm,’ Willow said in a confused voice, ‘that doesn’t sound funny at all.’

‘It’s not,’ Justice told her.

‘You should probably get up then, shouldn’t you?’

Justice thought about this. Wondered if she could, physically, stand. She wasn’t sure. She felt disconnected from her body. Felt as if she were somehow floating just outside of it.

The rational part of her mind screamed at her that this was bad, that if she was hallucinating, and hearing things, and no longer able to feel her body then she was likely on the brink of death, and all she needed to tip over it was to stop.

‘C’mon, squirt, time to go.’ Willow said with a flap of her wings. ‘Lot more land to discover yet, can’t be giving up now.’

Her voice, now sounding very much like Justice’s own, was sincere and urgent.

And so, Justice stood. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick, but she managed to get herself back upright once more, and place the crutch under her arm. She took a shaky step forward, then another, and then eight more. Bbbbrrraaa-ding!

+

They found her just as the sun was beginning to rise, she had made it all the way to the edge of the city. She was rushed to the closest hospital where she was treated for dehydration, fever, and of course, a broken leg.

Justice was not on the first leap out to Europa, but she was on the second. The higher ups from the institute, Serena Shaw amongst them, were impressed at the way she’d coped and survived after the accident, and at her test scores once she’d retaken the exam. It hadn’t seemed as stressful the second time.

As she’d walked onto the enormous space craft, her homemade crutch in hand, she thought about all the land she would discover. All the lights she would turn on.

++++

Thanks for reading,

Damian

Riding to Mars (Part 1)

1930864_1Image Credit: Bambalick Design

Sweat streamed down her face as she rode. It glowed red, burning with both exertion and shame.

The heat of the sun shimmered against the red earth, as though she were riding headlong towards a portal to another world. Justice eyed that shimmer, wanting the fictional escape. Her legs pumped against the pedals, each footfall drawing another bead of sweat, each cycle pushing her forward, but the new world never came.

The temperature would drop soon, she knew. The weather lately had been alternating between extreme heat and chilling cold, as though the the city itself were running a fever. Between each change came the wind, rushing in to sweep the previous elements away.

The weather had been temperamental since the day Mars was terraformed, but it had increased recently. She didn’t know what that meant, if it meant anything, but she didn’t care. She wanted off this red rock anyway.

As she’d predicted the wind came gusting across the barren landscape, blowing first with her, then against. She growled against the added strain.

When her parents had first told her they would be moving to Mars she had been happy, then sad, then happy again. Bittersweet was the word, but at ten years old she was unfamiliar with the term.

The bitter came from the idea of leaving everything she knew behind. Her small town in southern Australia had encompassed almost her entire world–the odd trip to Melbourne the only exception. She saw it like an online role playing game, where most of the terrain stays in black, lighting up and revealing itself only when your avatar braved forward into the dark. Her world was mostly black, but soon she would be on a rocket to another planet, and she knew you would be hard pressed to find a way that lit up more terrain than that. That was where the sweet half of the equation came from, the chance to explore, and the fact that Mars was the best place to achieve her desired career. She was going to be an astronaut, she just knew it.

Her first year on Mars hadn’t lived up to expectations. The infrastructure in place when she had arrived with her family had been the barest necessary to allow human habitation, meaning all her usual comforts were non existent. Mars might have been terraformed and now habitable for humans, but it would take decades yet before anything resembling an ecosystem would start to appear. Each seed of that ecosystem, not to mention all the tools and materials that would allow it to flourish, would have to be shipped over on expensive cargo shuttles from Earth. Even basic comforts, such as indoor toilets and showers, had yet to make their way to Mars.

In the time since, Mars had flourished, and so had she.

Space travel advanced, becoming cheaper, and more and more shuttles began arriving every day. Her small outpost grew to became a city. Not like the ones she’d known back on Earth perhaps, but something new, and, eventually, familiar. The desert still remained, but the Earth-brought vegetation was beginning to establish itself, advancing outwards from the city like the world’s slowest moving army.

She had studied and trained. Every day. She had ran made up drills out on the red flats, pushing herself to become stronger, and asked her parents to supply her with books on every topic, to be brought over by the incoming fleets. She had discovered that knowledge was also like the terrain in a role playing game, and so she had sought to dispel the dark there as well.

Then, at fifteen, she had joined the institute. They had pushed her even harder than she’d pushed herself. She made the decision to move into the barracks a year early, at seventeen, a decision her parents questioned, but she knew she had to give her all if she had even a chance of making it. The next leap, out to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, was scheduled for just over eight years away, and she had a lot of ladder to climb if she wanted to ensure she would be on that mission.

She wouldn’t.

What she would do is suffer a panic attack during the final examination, brought on by lack of sleep and a general over exhaustion. This would lead to her hyperventilating and passing out only to then vomit on her personal hero and admiral of the fleet, Serena Shaw, when she tried to rouse her. They had taken her to a medical room to lie down, but as soon as she was alone she’d left, jumped on a bike, and rode for the distant horizon; a location that, much like her future career as an astronaut, seemed to move further away the harder she pushed herself toward it.

She leaned over the front of the bike, forcing her aching legs to pedal faster, then faster still. She screamed into the whipping wind, at the planet, at the situation, at herself, a guttural scream that tore at her throat and left her breathless.

Then the bike’s front tyre found a rock and the next thing she knew she was flying through the air. She hit red dirt, compacted and hard. Lights flashed in her head and she passed out for the second time that day.

She woke hours later; bleeding, bruised, and broken.

Justice lifted her head, and squinted against the still whipping wind. A groan dribbled out of her as she pulled herself into a sitting position to assess the damage. She felt sore all over. Whatever muscles weren’t bruised felt stiff from their prolonged awkward position on the hard ground. Her hands and elbows were heavily grazed, and, judging from the hot pain on her cheek, she assumed the same was true for the left side of her face.

Worse though, were her legs. The right one was okay; okay meaning cut and bleeding but otherwise functional. The left was broken. It’d been trapped between the ground and the bike as she hit, and had snapped like a candy cane from the combined pressures.

The bike was a mess of twisted metal. The front end in particular, as it has hit the ground hard and head on, probably saving her own helmet-less head from cracking. She freed herself from the tangle of bike, whimpering as she was forced to lift her broken leg, then drew her pant leg up with a hiss of pain.

The break wasn’t a compound fracture, but she could see the bone jutting against her skin from the inside. She bit down an urge to gag and took a deep breath; using her training to calm herself. She needed hospilisation, except the closest one was now kilometers away. She hadn’t ridden with any direction or destination in mind, merely wanting to create distance between her and her failure. Back the way she had came, she could just make out the outline of the city, hidden by the blowing dust.

They would come looking for her, given enough time, but how long would that take? Hours? Days? She would need to make her own way back, somehow. First, though, she needed shelter. The wind was becoming worse, and she knew a dust storm couldn’t be that far away. Except there was no shelter. There was no vegetation this far out from the city, and no outcrops to hide behind in the immediate vicinity.

With a sigh, she reached over to the bike and unscrewed the mud guard. It wasn’t much in the way of spades, but it would have to do. She began to dig.

The hole was far from perfect, she could only just fit into it by pulling her legs up into a fetal position, an act that caused tears to rush to her eyes as she jostled her broken limb. She then pulled her cloak over herself, and dragged the damaged bike on top to weigh it down.

As she lay there, knees pressed up against herself, the weight of the bike pushing down uncomfortably on top of her, wind and dust howling overhead, she considered just how shitty a day she’d had.

++++

Part 2 of this story can be found here

++++

Thanks for reading,

Damian

 

Fortune Delivered

cookie

There was a knock at the door.

Alan rose from the couch and waited outside the hallway for just a second before entering. He didn’t want the delivery driver to think he’d been sitting there, just waiting for his food to arrive. He had been, but he didn’t want them to think that.

Through the glass of the front door he saw a bored looking asian man. He was young, around his age, and wore a bright puffy jacket with the delivery company’s logo on the front — black to the jacket’s garish yellow — and a motorcycle helmet still on his head, only the top half of his face visible through the lifted visor.

Most importantly though, his hands held food.

Well, they held a brown paper bag, but inside that bag was food.

Alan had been dreaming about this meal. All. Week.

His diet had started two weeks ago. It had meant to be three weeks ago, but then on that first tuesday someone had left a pack of biscuits in the break room and he’d eaten one before remembering he was supposed to be on a diet, and so after that he’d decided it would be best to just wait to the following Monday to start the diet again. More complete that way.

Other than that one deviation though, he’d done quite well. A whole fortnight of sticking to his meal plans, limiting his snacking to only the healthiest options, and denying himself of sugar all together. He felt great. Well, he felt withdrawn and tired, but he was also very proud of himself.

Naturally, that sort of self discipline deserved a reward.

He opened the door and forcibly stopped himself from reaching for the bag. He didn’t want to seem like a food starved crazy person. Best to let the delivery driver hand it to him. These things had a protocol.

‘Hello,’ he said, and the delivery driver turned to look at him.

He did reach for the bag then, but the driver pulled it away from his reach to read the docket stapled to the side.

‘Prawn toast, spring rolls, combination black bean, and a twelve pack of wontons?’ he said with a muffled voice as he held the bag hostage.

‘Yep. That’s what we ordered,’ Alan said, reaching again for the food, wanting the interaction to be over, now self conscious of the solo order.

The driver gave over the bag, and Alan started to close the door.

‘Wait,’ the driver said. ‘Orders of this size come with a serve of fortune cookies.’ The driver reached into his backpack and pulled out the complementary dessert.

‘Thank you,’ Alan said, taking them, but not entirely sure if he wanted them, not having factored the cookies into his calculated reward.

‘Have a good night,’ the driver said.

Alan thought he was smiling at him, the edges of his eyes had crinkled upwards, but he couldn’t be sure since he was unable to see his mouth. He thought it best to presume he was, gave him a smile of his own, and said, ‘you too.’

He closed the door behind him and carried the brown paper bag and fortune cookies into the lounge room. Alan smiled. He and the food were finally alone.

He quickly changed out of his jeans and shirt and into sweatpants and a tee — he’d only been wearing the clothes until the interaction with the delivery driver was over — settled himself onto the couch, turned on the tv, and pulled the food into his lap.

+

The meal was everything he’d hoped it would be.

The prawn toast was the perfect combination of crunchy and soft, the wontons squishy and savoury, the spring rolls flaky and flavoursome, and the black bean sauce ran dark rivers across his taste buds that he drank down like a man who hadn’t eaten for a week. Or a fortnight.

He leaned back against the couch at the end of the meal, a picture of satisfaction. He laid his hand across his belly which felt full, but a comfortable full. He didn’t need another bite.

But still…

His eyes moved to the plastic bag and the fortune cookies within.

One would be okay. Surely. They were so thin and light. Yes, just one.

He reached across the coffee table and lifted the bag to him. It had one of those sticky tags around the top that he could never quite open and so he ripped a hole in the plastic. The smell of the cookies wafted towards him. He breathed it in. They were far from his favourite dessert, but after two weeks without sugar the smell triggered all the right receptors in his brain. He looked in and and grabbed the biggest one.

The pastry snapped easily in his grip, causing bits of crumb to fall back down onto his lap. His mouth watered in anticipation. Then he saw the strip of paper hanging from the side of the cookie. He’d almost forgotten about the generic bit of fortune that the sweets were named for. Might as well read it, he thought.

He took up the small bit of paper and read:

You will discover you are not alone.

Alan stared at the words, printed a faded grey on the cheap paper, and chuckled. Yes, it was the usual nonsense. A sweet platitude but ultimately meaningless. Besides, he was happy to be alone.

A noise sounded from the other end of the house.

A thud, then a scurry.

Alan looked towards the sound and listened, waiting to hear if there would be a repeat. There wasn’t, so he decided it best to ignore it, and turned his attention back to the cookie. He put both halves into his mouth and chomped down. His eyes closed with bliss as he crunched the bits into smaller bits, delighting as the sweetness activated the corresponding taste buds.

The noise came again. Thud, then scurry.

Alan turned, mid chew, to once more look towards the other end of the house. He couldn’t ignore it now, could he? No. He decided. He sighed and rose, placed the rest of the cookies onto the coffee table and brushed the crumbs off his lap.

The house was mostly a single hallway, with the kitchen and lounge room at one end, a spare bedroom at the other, and in between his bedroom and the bathroom. He assumed the noise must be some kind of animal that had gotten into the house, a possum perhaps.

He stopped outside his bedroom door, gave it a quick look but saw no sign of disturbance.

That settled it then, the possum must be in the spare room.

He pushed open the door. The room was silent, the thudding and scurrying paused for the moment, but there was a smell present. Musty. Not like an animal exactly, more like…aged. He stepped one foot into the room, shielded the rest of his body behind the door, then reached out and flicked on the switch. Warm light enveloped the room, which grew brighter as the halogen bulb became hotter.

Something was definitely in there. The room, which served as a spare bedroom/study/storage room was crowded. Plenty of places for a critter to hide. The desk chair was down, knocked over, as was a stack of his old textbooks. The explained the two thumps, but not the scurrys.

Alan bent to pick up one of the fallen textbooks. As he did he heard a noise come from under the bed. A snuffle, was probably the best way to describe it. Did possum’s snuffle? He wondered.

He got on all fours, holding the textbook as a shield, and peered under the bed.

He thought he saw movement, but it was black moving on black so it was hard to be definitive. He considered crawling under the bed with a broom or something, but quickly dismissed the idea. No, better he take the hands off approach.

He stood up, moved back to the safety of the doorway, and flicked the light switch off and on a number of times.

Amazingly, it worked.

Alan heard a snuffle, saw movement, and so left the light on.

What came out from under the bed was not a possum, or a rat, or any animal Alan had ever seen or heard of. It was round, it’s body an oblong cylinder, off of which came two pairs of feathered wings, and three sets of legs.

And that was it.

No head, no eyes, no ears. Just the single piece of flesh with wings and legs attached. At least Alan thought they were legs. They somewhat resembled chickens feet, but had the same covering of pink flesh the rest of the body had, making them also look like hands.

Whatever definition you chose, the creature used them to walk itself out from under the bed, emitting more snuffles as it went. Alan wondered how it could snuffle when it had no mouth. He wondered a lot of things in that moment, at least in the recesses of his mind; the front part was panicking. Alan let out a sound, a sort of questioning groan, and the creature spun towards him. He stepped backwards out of the room and slammed the door.

Something like, what the hell was that? ran through his head on repeat, although it was less coherent, and more like a swarm of general confusion and horror.

Alan paced down the hallway trying to think of what to do. Should he call animal control? Did they handle…monsters. Which was the only word he could think of to describe the thing. What was he going to say to them? Hello, some creature crawled out from under my spare bed that looks like a headless pig, with wings and an extra set of legs.

They’d think he was crazy.

He’d think he was crazy if it wasn’t for the fact that he could still hear the beast snuffling around in the other room.

His pacing took him back to the lounge room where the remaining fortune cookies drew him like steel to a magnet. He wasn’t hungry, but he was a nervous eater, and now seemed like a good time to be nervous. Alan drew out a cookie and had already cracked it when he saw the previous fortune.

You will discover you are not alone.

That had certainly proven to be true, he thought, first with panicked amusement and then growing horror. The cookies? Surely not. No. No. That was insane. Right?

He remembered back. He had first heard the sound after he’d snapped the first cookie. But, if that were the case…

The walls shook as a thump sounded from the other end of the house. Alan ran towards the noise, bile rising in his throat as he moved down the hallway. He swallowed it and swung the door open.

The creature filled the room. It’s huge bulk leaned heavily against one wall and its six legs scrambled as it tried to find space for the extra mass it now carried. The bed was a pile of splinters and linens, and the rest of the rooms clutter was in a state of further disarray.

Alan slammed the door shut and fell back against the hallway wall. He looked down at his hands, which were balled into fists, and forced himself to unclench them. One still held the second fortune cookie, now shattered, his sweat mingling to make it a sticky mess of broken biscuit, a small strip of paper at the center. Seven words told him his second fortune.

Ignore your problems and they will grow.

The bile came back with a vengeance, and this time Alan couldn’t keep it down.

+

He waited two hours before he opened the next fortune cookie.

That time was spent thinking through the problem while routinely checking in on the creature. It had calmed down after it had destroyed the room. Now it lay in the rubble of his possessions like a dog in its bed.

Here are the solutions Alan came up with and dismissed in those two hours:

  1. Starve it out – Except it had no mouth, so who’s to say the thing is even capable of starving
  2. Kill it – Problematic due to its size and the fact that it seems to have an awareness of his presence despite a lack of eyes. Basically, it might kill him before he can kill it
  3. Call the police – It seemed likely that they would do able to do something — although Alan didn’t know what exactly — but it also seemed likely that they’d have a lot of questions for him, questions he couldn’t answer. He also wondered how much prison time exotic animal dealers got these days
  4. Keep it indefinitely – Too many negatives; hard to explain to visitors, lose a whole room of his house, not really at the point in his life where he can commit to keeping a monster
  5. Give the chinese restaurant a bad review online and complain that their fortune cookies were enchanted – satisfying, but wouldn’t solve the actual problem

Which left him with option number six: open the rest of the fortune cookies and see what happens. It was a problematic option. It had the potential for greater disaster, almost a guarantee really, and by no means did it seem definite that it would offer a solution.

But it might.

That ‘but’ was what he was working with. Out of all the options this seemed like the only one that had even a chance of getting rid of the beast, however small that chance was.

There were two left in the bag. Two seemingly harmless clam shaped wafers with his future written inside. He wondered if it mattered which one he broke next, or, if like the fortunes themselves, all of this was preordained. It didn’t really matter, he supposed. He picked up the one on the left and snapped it in two.

Opportunities to climb high will come your way.

What could that-

A crash. A tear. Plaster and roof tiles and footsteps. From above.

The thing was on the roof.

Alan rushed into his spare room and saw exactly what he feared he would. A hole where a ceiling should be. He ran back down the hallway and towards the front door. Once outside he looked up. On the rooftop, it’s silhouette visible through the moonlight, was the beast. It snuffled, then let out a muffled and ragged caw.

Lights were turning on in his neighbours houses, and through the windows he could see people peering out.

‘Shit. Shit. Shit,’ Alan said, taking the last fortune cookie from his pocket. He really hoped it would have a solution. It cracked under the pressure of his shaking fingers, and with more than a little trepidation he freed the off-white slip of paper from it’s sugary shell.

Open up the senses, and all that bothers you shall disappear.

What the hell did that mean?

No, don’t freak out, Alan told himself. Disappear, that’s a good thing, right? He just had to solve the riddle. Open up his senses. He could figure this out. Sure.

The beast paced across the rooftop, each step cracking tiles and breaking wood.

C’mon, Alan, he thought. Open up his senses? What could that mean? No, he was reading it wrong. It was open up the senses, and the only thing without senses around here was…

Oh no. Alan really hoped he was wrong, but he had a sickly feeling that he wasn’t.

He looked up at the faceless monster, who had stopped its pacing and was now perched on the edge of the roof. It’s posture suggested it was looking down at him.

Alan, feeling miserable, put both halves of the fortune cookie in his mouth and chewed.

+

The tiles slid under his feet as Alan made his way across the rooftop. The rain had started while he’d been searching through the shed which only made his already dangerous task even more so. He didn’t have a ladder so he’d had to climb up the wheelie bin and then scramble his way over the guttering. Not an easy thing to do when you were carrying a drill in one hand.

He’d almost forgotten he had the thing. He’d received it as a present a few years ago when he’d gone through a handyman phase. Once that’d passed he’d left the drill in the shed with his few other tools to collect dust. It still had some battery though. He hoped it was enough.

He was about a meter from the beast when he slipped. He fell face first down onto the already cracked tiles, which cracked further under his weight. His chin bounced but he managed to keep hold of the drill. He carefully got onto his knees, wiped the blood from his chin, and looked up at the monster who had stepped forward to loom over him.

Alan swallowed his fear, which tasted of bile and fortune cookies, and leapt into action. He jumped onto the monsters back, used one hand to steady himself, gripping its wings, and with the other he turned the drill on. It let out a terrible mechanic whine that was followed with a rumble of thunder from above.

Alan screamed out an apology and forced the drill into the left side of the beasts “head”. The drill took and pushed forward. There was little resistance and he was surprised to see no blood escape the wound. It was as if the monster was made of cork rather than flesh. The creature bucked and scrambled across the roof, but Alan held on. He removed and reinserted the drill to create a similar hole on the right side.

Good. Ears done. Only five more holes to go.

Alan leaned forward and with two quick whirs, gave the beast its nostrils. It reared up in retaliation, it’s two front feet leaving the ground. He gripped tight to the wings, and felt his stomach rise up in his throat.

Lightning cracked.

The beast dropped down and Alan went back to work. He forced the drill into the area where he figured its right eye should be. The thing bucked again, forward this time, causing Alan, already off balance, to slip. He flipped mid air and landed hard on his back, which forced the air out of his lungs.

Alan gasped as he struggled to pull oxygen back into his body. Feeling sore and light headed, he nevertheless managed to draw himself up, drill still in hand.

Thunder boomed again.

Alan wiped the rain from his eyes and charged.

The monster swung its weight towards him but Alan leapt at the last second and brought the drill down to its left, creating a second eye in the creatures front. Alan smiled, he was doing well. Which was when the beast kicked him. He went down for a third time. The drill bounced out of his hands, slide across the roof, and fell to the ground with a smash.

Alan looked from the broken drill to the monster. The two eye holes he had given it stared back at him. It pawed the ground, ready for a charge, then came; one big ball of muscle.

Alan grabbed the closest thing to him, a broken piece of tile, and slashed out as he simultaneously rolled to the side.

The monster, unable to stop its momentum, skidded and toppled over the edge of the roof.

Alan pulled himself up onto all fours, and looked down. Where he expected to see the body of the beast, smashed on the ground alongside his drill, he instead saw it hovering, it’s four wings flapping to keep it in place.

It flew up, drawing eye level with Alan. Lightning cracked and through the sudden light he saw the beast now wore a ragged smile, compliments of the broken tile.

The creature bowed, and Alan met its smile with one of his own.

The monster’s body began to disintegrate, particles of it moving to land on the broken roof, and through the hole it had made.

Where every particle fell, wreckage was restored.

Alan stood in wonder as all around him his roof repaired itself, then looked up to see the last of the beast, it’s newly acquired face, fall to pieces and disappear.

Then he was alone, standing on his roof in the rain.

Alan climbed down and went back inside. He made his way towards the spare room, now completely restored, and checked under the bed to be sure, but there was nothing there. He went back into the lounge room and flopped his sodden body down onto the couch. The discarded packaging of his dinner lay before him.

He wondered if he would ever order take away again.

++++

This creature in this story was influenced by one from chinese mythology, the Hundun. In the mythology the Hundun was the personification of chaos, and lived before the world was really the world. It lived with the gods of the north and south seas, Shu and Hu, who one day decided to grant the Hundun its senses, and so drilled seven holes in its head. On the completion of the final hole the Hundun died, and from its body the universe was created.

The Hundun is a symbol of the undivided beginning, the embodiment of primordial chaos. His lack of senses highlights the complete darkness that exists in the beginning of time, and which ended with the death.

It is also the mandarin name for a wonton.

hundun

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Thanks for reading,

Damian

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Image and information from:

https://steemit.com/mythology/@natord/world-mythology-fantastic-beasts-of-chinese-legends

https://aminoapps.com/c/mythology/page/blog/zhong-guo-shen-hua-story-of-hundun-the-chaos/zmvQ_macxuDrnMBeNqQw4zLje5lDNNB1ew

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundun