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

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.

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Thanks for reading,

Damian