Wall Mounted

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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

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Nemesis

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

Thanks for reading,

Damian

Riding to Mars (Part 2)

1930864_1
IMAGE CREDIT: BAMBALICK DESIGN

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

++++

Justice woke, disorientated and in pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It only needed one more addition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One hour passed, and then another.

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

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

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

Then she heard a rising bbbbrrraaa-ding!

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

Then she fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s not,’ Justice told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+

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

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

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

++++

Thanks for reading,

Damian

Riding to Mars (Part 1)

1930864_1Image Credit: Bambalick Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wouldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

Part 2 of this story can be found here

++++

Thanks for reading,

Damian

 

Fortune Delivered

cookie

There was a knock at the door.

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

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

Most importantly though, his hands held food.

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

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

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

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

Naturally, that sort of self discipline deserved a reward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Have a good night,’ the driver said.

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

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

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

+

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

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

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

But still…

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

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

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

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

He took up the small bit of paper and read:

You will discover you are not alone.

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

A noise sounded from the other end of the house.

A thud, then a scurry.

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

The noise came again. Thud, then scurry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazingly, it worked.

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

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

And that was it.

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

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

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

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

They’d think he was crazy.

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

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

You will discover you are not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

Ignore your problems and they will grow.

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

+

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

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

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

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

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

But it might.

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

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

Opportunities to climb high will come your way.

What could that-

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

The thing was on the roof.

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

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

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

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

What the hell did that mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightning cracked.

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

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

Thunder boomed again.

Alan wiped the rain from his eyes and charged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where every particle fell, wreckage was restored.

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

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

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

He wondered if he would ever order take away again.

++++

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

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

It is also the mandarin name for a wonton.

hundun

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Thanks for reading,

Damian

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Image and information from:

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

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

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

The Chalk Man

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I write this in a dimly lit room, stark walls surround me, no windows. If my script is large or chaotic it is because I have left my glasses in the room next door. I allow not even a mug of water in my presence. I have discovered a myth, or something more, perhaps, and I do not want the subject of my study to see me; not yet.

Lost legends have him as the Chalk Man, less a name but a descriptor; given for his white and ashen skin. Which is wrong, as it’s not skin, but bone. Bone so old that it crumbles, leaving a fine powder of dust, akin to chalk dust, on whatever he touches. Man is also wrong, as he is of no gender, nor even human, but, for lack of appropriate terminology, we will use the pronouns referring to the masculine throughout this text.

The lost legends — that are now found, if only to myself — are, by a human understanding, ancient, as the Chalk Man hasn’t been spoken of, written of, or likely even thought of, for centuries. His existence slowly being lost from the collective consciousness one life at a time. By the Chalk Man’s point of view, however, they are practically modern, having been written within the last millenium.

His purpose, in those legends, is ill defined, if simply not mentioned at all, which is a shame because his purpose is a very important one, that contains many roles. He is a king to some, a servant to others, sometimes a friend, sometimes an enemy, an angel, or a demon. His job, as it were, is to appear as the honest reflection of us all. A confusing, if not mysterious, job description I am aware. Let me try and make more sense of it.

Have you ever caught your own reflection and for a moment thought someone else was looking back at you? Perhaps you saw a monster, or a stranger, or a royal, or a saint. Just for a second. That was the Chalk Man. Or at least, that is the Chalk Man at work, and he has been doing this work for a very long time.

It is presumed that the Chalk Man was present when we were still walking around on all fours. Indeed, it is likely he was there when our ameba ancestors were first beginning to divide. He watched us, they say, the legends that are both ancient and modern, from his reflective surfaces, waiting for the day when we would gain a level of sentience that could recognise our own image.

Some of the legends, that I have hunted down in hidden cities that no longer have names, argue that the Chalk Man did more than watch; that he, just once, stretched out a bony arm from his reflective kingdom and altered the course of man; that it is due to him that we are so different from the rest of the animals that we share this planet with. What it is the Chalk Man did to achieve this is not written, and so this theory is to be taken with a pinch of salt…or chalk dust, as it were.

The first recorded encounter with the Chalk Man came some time after, when one of the ancient civilisations, the residents of one of those cities without names, first started writing things down. One such text wrote of an encounter whereby a local woman went to drink from the underground river that fueled the city, peered into the inky water, and saw the Chalk Man staring back at her. The woman, a weaver by the name of Oma, cried out, but did not flee. Instead, once her breath and heart were once more under her control, she crawled back to look at the water. Once more she saw the Chalk Man, bony and white, her own reflection nowhere to be seen. He did naught but watch young Oma, who, after deeming him not a threat, went to gather others to show them the chalk figure in the water. By the time she brought the crowd to the water’s edge, he was gone; her own reflection returned to her. It would only be later, after multiple appearances, that Oma’s story would be believed.

The reason why the Chalk Man simply watched Oma, and especially why he watched her in his own form, has been much argued over the many years by the forgotten scholars that once studied the Chalk Man. Some claimed that by seeing the Chalk Man as he truly is allowed Oma some gaining of knowledge outside of our understanding, and caused some great shift in her life, and on mankind as a whole; and indeed Oma did go on to live a remarkable life. Some claimed that he fell in love with Oma, and stole her reflection for those few short minutes to take as his Queen, only to find a reflection was no substitute for the real thing; this too, may well be the case. For myself, I think the Chalk Man was simply studying, seeing some final aspect of mankind’s heart so he could then go on to do his true work.

The work, as one of the old texts described it, was: “Purveyor of understanding and dealer of truths”. This is the most accurate description I have found. Simply, the Chalk Man shows you what you need to see. If you be good, but lacking in courage, you may see yourself momentarily in a reflective surface as a hero. If you be evil, but lacking in morals, you may see yourself as a monster. You may see an angel when you need hope. You may see a devil when you need fear. You may see your mother when she needs you to visit. And on it goes. The Chalk Man knows what you need to see and shows it to you. Often, after a viewing, you may find some of his bone dust on a shoe, or you shirt. This is the way to know if was a true showing. Or, so the texts say.

One text, the latest I’ve found, goes one step further. It claims that behind every reflective surface lies a kingdom, his kingdom, and if you do not heed the truth he offers you that he will reach out and take you there, never to return.

The next question, and the one most pressing to my own research, is why was knowledge of the Chalk Man lost? Why has he left our collective consciousness? Many of the the legends I’ve found barely describe the Chalk Man whenever they reference him, so sure were they that the reader knew of whom they spoke. So how is it that he is not even a mythological figure today? I do not know, but I expect to find out soon for I think he watches me.

Twice now I have had a glimpse of something else in my mirror. First, I am sure it was his own figure, white and silent, then the second time I saw myself, only with unbroken skin where my mouth should be. After both instances I searched the area for dust, and both times found it.

I have collected the dust and added it to a small vial, to be sent to the university along with this manuscript. I hope to send it this very afternoon. This will of course require me to leave my matte room and pass my own reflection, be it in a window or pool of water. I am ready. I have my questions. If I see him again I will not look away, but will instead ask why he withdrew from our world — as I am sure now the lost knowledge of his person was at his own design — and if he is likely to return. I hope he does, this world could do with a good hard look at itself.

One final note. It occurs to me that perhaps I have been…foolhardy, cataloging this history, if indeed the Chalk Man does want to stay hidden. So if you are reading this, it might be best to steer clear of mirrors for a while. You never know when he might be watching.

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Thanks for reading,

Damian