The Words in the Walls

old-1538755_1280

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.

++++

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

Advertisements

Miss Penelope Mary Armitage Jones (Part 2)

Penelope 1

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

++++

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.

+

‘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.’

++++

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.

++++

Part 2 of this story can be found here.

++++

Thanks for reading.

Damian

Wall Mounted

Octapus-tentacles-red

The wall mounted tentacles dominated the wood panelled room. Not just with their size–which was immense, groping their way through the space above his head–but also their appearance; alien and wrong. They hung, a trophy, extending out from above the wide fireplace, it’s crackling inferno causing shadows to flicker and twitch against the ceiling. The way the shadows moved made him feel as if they were a moment away from reaching down and pulling him into the lightless realm from where the creature had been spawned.

He sat in a lush chair in the centre of the room, facing the fireplace; the perfect vantage point for viewing the horrible appendages. He’d never liked this room. Not when he’d been a child, back when the walls had been lined with antlers and rhino heads and other pieces of creatures unfortunate enough to find themselves here, and certainly not now. His grandfather knew this. No doubt the reason he’d kept Denis waiting so long.

The heavy door opened soundlessly as the old man entered. He marched, straight backed despite his age, his body upright and rigid. An unlit cigar was clamped tightly between his teeth. He’d been all but forbidden from smoking the foul smelling things after having half a lung removed a decade before, but that hadn’t stopped him from chewing on them; gnawing away at the dense logs until piece by piece he ingested them. His lips had discoloured, small lumps sprouting from them, behind them teeth as rotten as the old man’s soul.

He stopped in front of the tentacles, looked up at them. The pride that radiated from him was suffocating. He took the sodden cigar from his mouth. ‘Do you know why our family succeeds where so many others fail?’ Denis stayed silent. The old man’s ego ensured he needed no encouragement. ‘Fortitude,’ he concluded.

Denis bit back the snide remark that burned at the tip of his tongue. He’d been hearing this speech since he’d first learnt to put on pants. It had impressed him at one point, back before he saw the old man for the narcissistic monster he was. Now it was hot breath from a stale corpse.

He turned to Denis, eyes piercing eyes, a typical turn in the speech, so much so that Denis could mimic the movements and intonations himself. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes in response. It was always best to give the old man nothing, not a scrap of reaction, positive or negative; he’d find some way to use it against you.

‘Courage in pain or adversity,’ he continued, moving on to the definition portion of the speech. Denis let his vision lose focus and blur. It was as bad to stare at the old man’s mouth as it was to look upon the monstrous tentacles. Worse, even. His eyes drifted upwards, taking in the finer details of the thick cephalopod limbs, while his grandfather droned on about how he expected more from a member of his family. How disgusted he was at Denis’s own lack of fortitude.

The first time he’d heard this edition to the speech it had torn the then twelve year old Denis in half. His grandfather had been his hero then, or close enough to. His only male role model and the dominant presence in his life. When he’d said those words, that he’d lacked the all so precious fortitude, Denis had felt his gut fall away, accompanied by a presence in his chest like a vice trying it’s best to squeeze the life out of him. He’d held back the tears for as long as he could, and when they’d come his grandfather had given him that look that Denis would come to know well over the years, the one that said he’d managed to find a new bottom to the pit of disappointment his grandfather saw whenever he looked at him. The ugly sneer had rolled up the left side of the old man’s face and he’d told twelve year old Denis to stop crying or he’d give him something to cry about. He waited a second, then, when Denis’s tears didn’t immediately stop, followed through on his promise, using his gnarled knuckles to crack Denis against the side of the head.

Now the words elicited no emotion in him, or so he told himself.

He let his eyes refocus and took in the length of the longest tentacle. They were hideous, to be sure. Pocked at parts with grids of miniature craters, bubbled at others with mutant suckers of all sizes bunched up against each other, and in between ribbons of ropey twisted muscle. There was something beautiful about the things as well, however. The colours. An oily mix of a dark shimmering rainbow. Used for camouflage, he suspected, now frozen in place, a stunning kaleidoscope of colour.

He ran his eyes towards it’s tip and found it almost impossible to follow the lines of the thing. They twisted up and around on themselves, looking like an M C Escher drawing, where one edge become another, creating an infinite loop. Trying to make sense of those images could drive someone mad. He suspected the same were true of the tentacles and the creature that owned them. More than one person had lost their mind when they’d come up against the beast, either taking their own lives immediately, or doing nothing as the creature did it for them. Not his grandfather, though. Not Frances Haigh.

Denis saw something move from within one of the tentacles craters. Something small and orange.

‘Are you listening?’ the old man barked. Denis looked back to see his grandfather’s diseased mouth curl up into its trademark sneer. ‘I demand your attention, Lieutenant.’

Denis had joined the military in an attempt to gain the old man’s approval, back before he’d learned such a task was impossible. He’d fought at the ocean floor with the rest of the grunts, taking out swarths of the pale, needle toothed monsters they’d come to call Anglers, due to the resemblance of their facial features to that of the angler fish. Their bodies were humanoid, which in many ways Denis found more horrific than their faces. He hated seeing a twisted version of his own species reflected back at him, albeit a human who’d spent a lifetime in the lightless depths of an oceanic trench. While they were terrifying to look at, they were also stupid, and completely undisciplined without the command of their godhead; who’s limbs now decorated the very study he currently sat in. The work had been slaughter, plan and simple, and after four years of service and a promotion to Lieutenant, Denis had left, much to the displeasure of the army, and the disgust of his grandfather.

‘I was saying they are organising again,’ the old man said, gifting a hate filled glare to the tentacles above him.

‘Who are?’ Denis asked.

‘Who? It’s pawns. Keep up, boy.’

‘The anglers? But, how is that possible? That would mean…’ Denis followed the old man’s gaze, and saw another flash of orange.

‘Exactly. It’s still alive, somehow. Or there’s a second one. Either way it’s time for you to stop lazing about and get back to work. I’ve told your old commander to expect you tomorrow.’

Denis looked into his grandfather’s penetrating stare. ‘No.’

‘It wasn’t a question, Lieutenant.’

‘I’m not a Lieutenant.’

The old man strode forward, quick despite his age. He stopped, a step from Denis, and leaned down to glare into his eyes. ‘You have a duty, grandson. To both this family and your country. And you will fulfill it. Am I clear?’

His fetid breath assaulted Denis’s nostrils, not helped by the close up view of his diseased mouth. Denis ignored them both, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the old man’s.

‘No,’ he said again. ‘Any duty I had is gone now, whether you acknowledge it or not. You don’t care about this country, and you definitely don’t care about our family.’ Denis thought of his grandmother, dead five years passed. She had been a victim of the old man for most of her life. She’d worn a constant smile on her face, sure, but it had been strained, and belied by the torment that never quite seemed to leave her eyes. Denis was sure the strain of being the old man’s wife for so many years had lead to her early grave. His grandfather had barely seemed to acknowledge her passing. And that wasn’t even counting for Denis’s own mother, the old man’s daughter.

‘You care about yourself. You want me in this fight because it gives you more leverage to have a grandson at the front of the action. Well I’m not interested in fighting, let them have the sea for all I care, and I’m not interested in being your instrument, not anymore. The only reason I came here today was to see the look in your eye as I told you so.’ Denis permitted himself a smile then, a small quirk of his mouth. It had the desired result.

The old man’s eyes bulged with rage as angry as any sea, as both sides of his lips curled upwards, baring his rotten teeth. Denis moved to rise from the seat. ‘Sit down!’ Francis spat, literally. Denis wiped the drops of spittle from his cheek. ‘You think you can defy me? You can’t. You’ll do as I say or I’ll have your limbs hung up on my wall alongside the monsters, do I make myself clear?’

‘Fuck you,’ Denis said. It may not have been eloquent, but damn did he enjoy saying it.

The old man raised his fist to deliver his patented backhand, as a drop of orange fell from the tentacle above, landing perfectly in between his discolored lips. He flinched back, and Denis saw him swallow instinctively as he looked up at the tentacles with confusion.

A shudder rocked the old man’s body. He turned back to Denis, who, for the first time in his life, saw fear on the old man’s face. Then his pupils dilated until his eyes were almost all black, and his face went slack.

The hand that a moment ago was raised to hit Denis moved to the old man’s cheek. Yellow fingernails dug into flesh and tore a strip off. The old man looked at it curiously with his too wide eyes, then smiled as he put the flesh in his mouth.

Denis stood, kicking the chair behind him as he did so. His grandfather looked back at him. An alien sound came from his throat, a rumble, wavering and watery. Denis took two steps backs and eyed the room for an escape. The old man was between him and the door, and Denis wasn’t sure if the curtained windows even opened. The sound changed, rising and falling as his grandfather’s mouth and tongue moved, struggling to work together. It changed again, almost becoming words. ‘D…D…D…’ he mumbled.

‘Denis?’ Denis asked, thinking the old man was trying to call to him. ‘I’m here. I’m right here, grandfather.’

‘Drown,’ the old man finished in a voice not his own. ‘You shall all drown.’ He blinked wet eyes and looked around the room, examining it as if for the first time. The wide pupils turned skyward and followed the tentacles to where they were mounted above the fireplace. ‘Proud fool,’ he rumbled, a wet laugh echoing from his throat.

Denis watched as the old man looked down at his hands. ‘Expiring,’ he said, picking at the flesh on the back of his hand. He turned to look at Denis, stepped towards him, eyeing him from top to bottom. ‘A poor replacement,’ he said, regretful, ‘but it’ll do.’

Denis didn’t wait. He attacked. He swept low, seeking to knock the old man from his feet. His grandfather’s leg squished sickeningly against the kick, bending inwards as though filled with jelly instead of sinew and bone. Denis looked to his grandfather’s face, his eyes now closed, then back down where he saw a yellowish liquid leak from the spot he had struck.

Whatever had taken over his grandfather curled in on itself, pulling his neck in and shoulders forward. The old man’s face began to swell and turn yellow. It bulged outward in waves, lumps rising and falling, disfiguring him almost beyond recognition. Not just his face, Denis realised, the old man’s whole body was roiling with some horrid internal flux.

Denis scrambled backwards.

The old man’s body mushroomed and exploded, releasing a sea of small orange pods. They rained down on Denis, an unavoidable and disastrous hail that smelt of salt and meat and age.

Any that found skin first burned then melted against his flesh. Denis screamed. They were inside of him before he could even attempt to sweep them away.

What was left of his grandfather fell to the floor.

The thing that was inside Denis opened his eyes. It breathed and coughed, and lost somewhere within, Denis could feel it’s thoughts squirm around his own. The thing found the idea of breathing air repulsive. It craved a dark and never ending pressure, a world made of water. It craved destruction and worship.

Denis tried to speak, and failed. He was a whisper, lost in a cyclone. Trapped forever in the lightless realm of his own mind.

The thing now in control of Denis’s body stood, stepped through the old man’s remains and out the door.

++++

Thanks for reading,

Damian

Nemesis

depositphotos_33247949-stock-photo-classified-ad copy

The ad read:

Looking for: A nemesis. Preferably villainous. Happy to meet at your convenience. Call: 0431 684 229.

I had seen it last week in The Gazette, in the tiny half page section they still reserved for classifieds. I’d read it over a coffee from my usual seat in the cafe after completing my morning run. Something I did every Sunday. It had caused me to emit a small laugh–nothing more than a barely audible exhalation out of my nose–and to wonder at the weirdness of people, before turning the page and forgetting about it completely; or so I had thought.

I walked over to the adjacent supermarket and, while dawdling past the fluorescent lit shelves with a shopping basket in one hand and a shopping list in the other, the words of the ad came back to me.

It had to be a kid, I thought as I passed the shelf full of a seemingly endless variety of packaged water. But then, a mobile number was attached, and how would a kid know how to post a classified anyway? Why would they bother? Surly they’d just throw something like that up on their social media or on a forum somewhere. The medium of the advertisement alone signified an adult, as did the language. Which only raised more questions in my mind.

As I perused the vegetables I wondered who this person was. Where they male or female? At a guess, probably male. But then you never knew. I mean, I’m female and I’ve been reading comic books since I was eight. The poster of the ad had to be a superhero aficionado, surely. Who else would put a call out for a villainous nemesis if not a lonely comic book obsessed viglianti wannabe?

I saw my reflection in the glass of the supermarket freezers and realised I could be describing myself. Well, I wasn’t obsessed obsessed. I had my collection, sure, but I didn’t turn my apartment into a shrine to the genre like some people did. At the very least I knew the difference between fiction and reality, unlike the poster of the ad.

I told myself to stop thinking about it and focused on my shopping list. I had already walked past half a dozen items I needed while lost in thought.

+

That night as I sat in front of the television I caught myself thinking about who would answer an ad like that. Someone similar to the person who posted it no doubt. Two nerds, likely out of shape, running around the city at night, pretending to play good guy versus bad guy. Not that all nerds were out of shape, of course. Look at me, I completed an iron woman last year and I still consider myself a nerd. Not that I would answer the ad, of course.

Which made me wonder if anyone had answered it yet. Unlikely. Right? Surely not. Not that it mattered. Not that I cared. It was silly. I was wasting my time wondering about it, and had missed most of what had happened on my show. I focused on the programming and let the thoughts about the ad slip from my mind.

+

At work the next day I managed to forget about the ad. There was a warehouse to run, stock to load, people to talk to. I didn’t have time to think about a stupid bit of frivolity from the local paper. It was probably a joke anyway.

‘What’s that your whispering?’ Marcus had asked me while I was checking over the mornings order; some two hundred drums of gasoline to be shipped overseas somewhere, but which had none of the right permits.

‘Sorry?’ I responded, not realising I had been whispering anything.

‘That thing you’ve been whispering? Something about villainous, and convenience. You’ve been doing it for the last hour. It’s driving me nuts.’

I froze, thinking back. I had been saying the words of the ad. In fact, they’d been playing over and over in my head, like a song stuck on repeat. They were playing right now.

Looking for: A nemesis. Preferably villainous. Happy to meet at your convenience. Call: 0431 684 229.

‘Ah, it’s just an ad jingle,’ I said, covering. ‘Sorry, didn’t even realise I was singing it.’

‘Yeah? Haven’t heard that one. What’s it an ad for anyway?’

‘Um, you know. I don’t remember,’ I said. Marcus gave me an odd look, one I probably deserved, one I probably would have given myself had our positions been reversed. They were used to given me odd looks around here anyway. I knew they had jokes about me. I was the loner. The weird chick who worked out too much. The one to avoid unless you wanted to hear about comics for two hours straight. I didn’t mind, mostly.

‘Sorry. I’ll stop,’ I said, telling myself as much as him.

But I didn’t stop, at least not internally. The words kept swimming round my head for the rest of the day.

+

A day passed, and then another, and I had mostly managed not to think about the ad. Occasionally it would pop up in my mind, but I would squash the thought whenever it presented itself and get on with whatever I was doing. By Friday I think I had genuinely forgotten about it, losing myself in the usual routines of the week. On Saturday, I had busied myself with a triathlon, a trip to the movies, and then a dinner out by myself.

Then Sunday had come and with it my trip to the cafe to treat myself to breakfast.

It was raining again, the scene all but identical to the week before. As soon as I sat down in my regular spot the memory of the ad returned. I couldn’t not check. I went to the counter and got that days copy of The Gazette, then returned to my seat and turned immediately to the classifieds. There it was, slightly altered from last week. Today it read:

Looking for: A nemesis. Preferably villainous. Happy to meet at your convenience. Call: 0431 684 229. Serious enquiries ONLY.

So, they’d got some interest, but only by people who were looking to make fun. None by anyone who took it sincerely. Not like me, a small part of me thought. I quieted that part, and turned instead to the front page of the paper to distract myself. It didn’t work.

I turned the pages but I wasn’t taking any of it in. Instead I was asking questions I knew I shouldn’t be asking. Things like: what would make a good nemesis? Or, what would my first crime be? I knew the answer to the former. Decades of reading comics had instilled in me an appreciation when it came to a well defined villain. They were usually broken in some way. Whether by a unresolvable loss, or just worn down by the monotony of life. They were people with skills, often overlooked. Accomplished, but only to themselves. Unappreciated by anybody else. They were, if done right, real people with real goals. Mirrors of the hero, who just went about things in a different way. Often in a way that made more sense. They were, arguably, heros in their own right. Just, misguided.

As for the second question, I had no answer. Or, at least, I didn’t allow myself one.

I tore out the ad and put it in my pocket.

+

The next day at work I had planned to catch up on some paperwork. Instead I locked myself into my small office at the back of the warehouse and drew. I’m not an excellent illustrator, but I’m passable. Helped by years of tracing characters from the colourful pages of my favourite comics.

What I drew were outfits. Costumes. What I would wear, hypothetically, were I to become a super villain. I went with a charcoal colour spectrum. I had never liked villains that were as flashy as the hero. Plus, it couldn’t be too cartoonish. Something I could wear through a crowd without getting any odd looks. Something tight that billowed at the edges a little, with a hood that could be slipped on quickly. I’m willing to admit some bias, but I thought it looked quite good. Menacing. I decided to even have an attempt at making it, just to see what it would look like.

It was even better than expected.

+

That Sunday the ad was still there.

+

It became a mental puzzle for me; If I were to commit a crime, how would I do it?

The warehouse would be the ideal location, I thought the follow Monday while doing my early morning inspections. I knew the space, the schedules, the flaws. I still didn’t know what the crime would be, but that was less important than that it be explosive, a real performance. Something to draw the media, give them a story. A story about me. I mean, my alter ego.

I would need an alibi, of course, as my intimate knowledge of the place would also make me a suspect, but that wouldn’t be too hard. I had set up a camera outside my apartment over a year ago, and I knew how to edit the metadata. I could simply tell anyone asking that I had been home all night, and then show them footage from a different evening. I had plenty of nights where I had stayed home alone.

Probably best if I tell a few of my coworkers and neighbours that I was feeling unwell beforehand too. Perhaps store my costume at work, change when I get there. The fire escape to my apartment was rarely used. It would be easy enough to get down and up it without anyone seeing me. I could then ride a bike out here. It wouldn’t be very heroic but it would be discreet.

All the pieces were coming together. For the puzzle, of course.

+

I wouldn’t give myself a name, I decided as I was working out the following evening. Let the news outlets decide that. I wondered what they would chose.

+

I bought a burner phone the next day, just in case.

+

I called the number two nights later, just to see what the person’s voice was like. It was close to three am, but I couldn’t sleep. I placed the ad in front of me, although I knew the phone number off by heart. I had set the burner phone to private, and then slowly dialled each number, my heart racing. He picked up on the fourth ring. It was a he, as I’d expected. ‘Hello,’ he said.

My adrenaline spiked and I hung up the phone and dropped it to the counter.

My hands were shaking, and something like a giggle was coming from my mouth. I put one of my shaking hands over it to quiet myself.

The burner phone began to ring.

I stared at it, frozen, until it rang out.

Then it began to ring again.

I slowly lifted it off the counter and looked at the screen. The number was private, but I was confident I knew who it was. I told myself not to answer. To turn off the phone and destroy it, along my costume, and plans, and all the other steps I had already put in place. But my finger moved almost against my will.

Or perhaps with it. Could I really still deny my motivation? My desire?

‘Hello,’ he said again. His speech was deep, with a slight accent, perhaps Indian? I had expected the weasley voice of a stereotypical dweep. This wasn’t that.

‘I’ll be your nemesis,’ I heard myself say in a voice that was out of breath.

There was a pause. I could hear him breathing.

‘You’re responding to my ad?’ he said, and I let out an exhale, only then realising I had been holding my breath.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes, I am.’

‘And, this isn’t a joke? Because if it is I-’

‘No! No, I am very serious. Very. I already have a costume, and a plan, and, and I’ll be your nemesis. I want to be. I…I need to be.’

Another pause.

‘Okay. Okay. That’s…this is great.’ I could hear the smile in his voice, hear the excitement I felt in myself reflected back from him. ‘When are you-’

‘Thursday week. A warehouse down near the docks. On Grattan Street. Around midnight.’

‘Okay. I’ll see you then.’

The line went dead, and I smiled.

+

The footage had gone viral.

We had fought hand to hand as the gasoline and warehouse burned behind us. He had been beautiful. A pure white outfit, stark against his brown skin. The strong brooding ghost-of-the-night type. I had slipped in a monologue about how I was going to save this city by destroying it. Not very original perhaps, but I’ll do better next time.

They’d called me the grey moth.

He, my nemesis, had said I’d deserved something more sinister.

I said I didn’t mind. I’ll make them fear it.

++++

Thanks for reading,

Damian

The Stars Were There

earth_1-jpg

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