The Last Man on Mars – Guest Post from Saffron Bryant

 

I have the pleasure today of welcoming the wonderful Saffron Bryant to Cairns Writes. She’s adding to the trove of stories here with a sobering tale of loneliness and disease. Cheery Stuff :)

Keep reading afterwards for the blurb and details on her fantastic new release, Survivor.

Survivorsml

The Last Man on Mars

Randor stood, his entire body rigid, one hand raised in salute. He saluted for half an hour, just as he had done every morning for his entire life. He stood on the observation deck. The starlit sky spread out before him. The cold emptiness of space greeted him. He stared out past the thick glass, past the metal tunnels, past the red dusty planet and into the great beyond.

The mechanical alarm sounded once and he allowed his hand to lower back to his side. He stepped away from the observation deck and walked through the narrow metal corridors.

There were so many of them, it was like a rabbit warren spreading out in all directions. Of course the designers had expected the tunnels to be filled with people. The plan was for a brand new human colony. How that dream had died.

In his free time Randor had gone back over the news headlines and the reports from half a century before. There had been a lot of hope in those reports, a lot of dreams.

MARS COLONY PLANTS FIRST SEEDS

BOLD EXPLORERS SET FOOT ON MARS

FIRST MARTIAN BORN, ONE YEAR AFTER COLONISATION

Even fifteen years ago the outlook had been bright. Communications with Earth came in every day, albeit delayed by a few minutes depending on the time of year. But that was before.

Randor jogged down the corridor and ducked into the main communications room. Seven chairs sat empty alongside the equipment. They spun in circles as Randor walked past. He sat down on the only chair not covered in a thin layer of dust.

He held down the red communicate button and spoke into the microphone. “This is Randor of Mars Colony One, calling Earth Force Major.”

He waited for a few moments. Static beat at his ears.

“Repeat, this is Randor of Mars Colony One. Earth Force Major do you read?”

He fiddled with the dials and held down the speech button again.

“This is Randor of Mars Colony One, calling Moon Colony Alpha, do you read?”

Randor repeated the ritual five times, just as the protocol dictated. He had gone through the same routine every morning for the last seven years and in that whole time he hadn’t gotten a single response.

Next on his schedule was breakfast. He walked into the mess hall. Rows and rows of empty tables and chairs soldiered across the room. Each setting was an exact replica of the one before. The only thing which distinguished them now was the layers of dust.

Randor walked across the room and pushed his way into the kitchen through the swinging doors. A faded sign read ‘authorised personnel only’, but hey, who was going to stop him? He went straight to the frozen rations. He took the time to look over his options. There wasn’t really any point, he knew the stock by heart, but it was part of the ritual.

“Bacon,” Randor said. He often spoke out loud to himself. It helped remind him he was alive and not some lonely ghost. He grabbed hold of the packet and threw it into the auto-cooker. The machine whirred into life and internal lights flashed on.

Bing.

Randor reached in and took out the well-cooked bacon. He carried it with his cutlery into the mess hall and sat down at his favourite chair, the only one not covered in dust. It was in the corner of the hall, backed against the wall with a full view of the rest of the room. He only ever felt safe if his back was covered.

He breathed deeply and the smell of the meat wafted up his nostrils. He smiled at the sensation. He took out his knife and fork and went to work.

“It is recommended that vegetable matter is added to your diet,” the mechanical voice piped up from Randor’s wrist. The monitor kept track of his health, eating habits and exercise. It hadn’t saved any of the others.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going to the garden after this,” Randor said.

He scoffed down the rest of the bacon and took his plate into the kitchen. He flicked on the water and washed the single plate before laying it on a rack to dry, alone.

Randor walked out of the mess hall and down another set of corridors which eventually opened into a garden. Glass panels faced the sky allowing the sun to light up the plants. They were descended from the original stock taken from Earth fifty years before when the colony was first begun. Carrots, potatoes, lettuce, all grew in the Martian garden. Of course they’d been modified, allowing them to thrive with less sunlight and drier soils.

“Water on,” Randor said as he walked down the aisles of garden beds. In response the irrigation system jumped to life and water trickled onto the plants. His eyes ran over each section, ensuring each tiny pump was still working. He leaned over and plucked a carrot from the ground. He chewed on it as he walked the rest of the garden.

Everything was in order, which meant it was time for his daily exercise. He went to the gym and jogged around the running track. His legs felt good as they pumped in time and carried him around the large trail. It circled most of the colony and had open windows looking out on the planet.

Randor sucked in a deep breath and enjoyed the burn in his lungs and muscles as he pushed his body to go faster and faster. Without the pain it was too easy to think while exercising. Too easy to reminisce and remember days gone by. Much better to push to the very extremes and keep his brain occupied.

Randor’s feet pounded on the track. Sweat dribbled down his face and the blood pumped through his veins. The outside planet blurred past as he ran. His human muscles, adapted over millennia for Earth, carried him at extreme speed in the lower gravity. People said (when there were people to speculate on such things), that a person returning to Earth from Mars would be bedridden with the sudden fatigue of higher gravity.

He sprinted around the track for an hour, the exact recommended daily dose of high intensity exercise. Once finished he headed to the showers. The warm water trickled down his face and back. It splashed over his muscles and washed the sweat away.

He felt good after the shower, invigorated. According to the colony’s schedule he had free time. He hated free-time. What was a man supposed to do for fun when he was trapped all alone? The only living thing on the planet? Possibly in the galaxy? His face tightened as he pictured the next two hours. They were completely empty; no way to distract himself from the loneliness. He would rather chew on rusted nails than face the haunting solitude that was free-time.

Still, ritual dictated that he follow the routine and the routine said it was free-time. Randor walked through the hollow colony until he came to the common room. There were chairs and couches set up around tables. There were games and shelves of books. He walked over to the bookshelves and scanned the titles. They were the same as yesterday.

“Read it, read it, read it,” he said as he moved his finger along the spines.

He gave up and walked over to the games cupboard. There were chess boards and decks of cards, Monopoly- Mars Edition and all manner of other games. The computers had games on them too but he’d already beaten them all… twice.

He could have listened to music but he hated the way it sounded like other people, other voices. It reminded him of an old riddle; if music plays in a Mars Colony and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?…

He pulled out a deck of cards and took a seat by the window. He gazed out of the glass at the red surface of the planet as he shuffled.

Randor dealt two piles of five cards, placing the second pile in front of the empty seat opposite him.

“How was your run today Eiran?” Randor said as he picked up his cards and looked them over. His voice echoed around the empty room.

“Mine was good too,” Randor said.

There was silence for a while as Randor considered his cards and then laid a queen of diamonds face-up on the table. He waited for a few moments, staring at the empty seat opposite him.

“It’s your turn Eiran, I wish you wouldn’t get so distracted.”

Randor got up and walked around the table. He sat in the empty seat and picked up the second hand of cards. He studied them for a while.

“I’m not distracted, I’m thinking,” he said. “Besides, you’re one to talk; I saw Hera staring at you earlier.”

Randor placed a seven of spades on the table, laid the cards down and returned to his original seat. He picked up his hand and his eyebrows drew together.

“There’s nothing going on between me and Hera. I don’t know why you always think there is.”

Randor ran his hand over the cards before finally laying down a ten of clubs. He sat back in his chair and glared at the empty space in front of him. The corners of his mouth turned down in a frown. His foot rapped on the floor and his finger tapped on the arm of his chair. It felt like hours.

“Goddamit Eiran, it’s your turn!” he said and shot to his feet. He threw his hand of cards at the empty chair and stormed away.

Randor was still fuming as he exited the common room and headed for his sleeping pod. His ears and cheeks were burning with the heat and anger flowing through them. Eiran could be so frustrating! The way he never had his turn, the way he always talked about Hera… the way he was imaginary.

He slumped down onto his bed. Another hour of free-time and then it was dinner. According to the roster he was on star-watch tonight. He let his eyes drop shut and drifted to sleep.

 

***

 

When Randor woke and had dinner he went to the observation deck and sat on the hard floor. He gazed out at the stars. They were so cold. They taunted him from the safety of the sky.

He hated sitting here by himself, it made it too easy to think, to remember, but it was part of the routine.

Everything had gone wrong seven years ago.

He’d been down in the deep, patrolling the under-colonies. At the end of the shift he’d gone up into the colony proper and he’d found nothing. No one walked the corridors; no-one was in the mess hall or common room. There were no voices, no communicators. He’d run from room to room calling out but no one replied. The only sign of habitation were piles of clothes scattered through the rooms and hallways.

Initially he’d thought it was a practical joke, at least for the first hour. After the first day he was pretty sure it wasn’t a joke but he held some hope. After the first week he was curled into a corner of the mess-hall. He chewed his fingernails down until they bled. Tattered pieces of skin hung from the ends of his fingers. He’d taken to pulling out his hair, one strand at a time.

Then he’d found the routine.

The routine was pinned to every wall, handed out to every citizen; it was what had kept the Mars Colony running through famine and despair. It helped him survive. He clung to the strict, logical instructions like a lifeline.

Two weeks after finding the colony abandoned Randor tried to communicate with Earth and with the Moon Colony. All he received was silence. Neither of them responded. It was like the entire galaxy had gone away and left him behind.

He’d tried to access the video feed, to watch what happened, but it required a security password. He’d spent days typing combinations into the terminal screen. So far he hadn’t found the right one.

So here he was, seven years later, following the same routine and staring up into the same empty sky.

***

 

The next morning Randor stood to attention on the observation deck for thirty minutes with his hand raised in a salute. The time used to be spent on daily updates, the Human Anthem, a message from the President. Now all that was left was Randor with his lonely gesture.

Afterwards he went to the communications room, brushing past the empty chairs.

“This is Randor of Mars Colony One, calling Earth Force Major,” Randor said, his finger pressed firmly on the communicate button. He paused and listened for a response. Static met his ears. He opened his mouth to repeat the call when a crackling voice replied.

“Mars Colony One this is Earth Force Major. Urgent code red, Halucin Acute Virus outbreak. Millions dead. Isolation methods failed. Infected persons frozen en route. Do not o-” the airway went dead.

Randor’s heart was beating a hundred times a second. His ribs vibrated with the force of it and he felt his chest rising up to his throat. His face and neck were hot and blood surged around his body. He sucked in lungfuls of air but he couldn’t get enough.

“Earth Force Major! Earth Force Major! Do you receive?” Randor spoke furiously, his finger pushing so hard on the button it threatened to sink straight through the metal desk.

“Mars Colony One this is Earth Force Major. Urgent code red, Halucin Acute Virus outbreak. Millions dead. Isolation methods failed. Infected persons frozen en route. Do not o-”

“Computer, make contact with that speaker. I want him to hear me now!” Randor said and looked up at the main console which ran the colony.

“Error, communication impossible. Temporal impairment.”

“What does that mean?” Randor said, he gripped the arm of his chair; his knuckles were white.

“Message dated seven years ago, temporally impossible to regain contact,” the computer’s voice replied.

“Seven years,” Randor whispered.

This was it; this was what had happened all those years ago.

For seven years he had been left in complete silence without a single explanation. Until today.

“… Millions dead. Isolation meth-”

“Silence it unless another message plays,” Randor said.

The panicked voice cut off and Randor was plunged back into silence.

The Halucin Acute Virus. But that was just a lab experiment… All the nations and the independent colonies had sworn never to use it.

Someone had used it.

Randor wracked his brain, trying to remember everything he could about the virus. His mind was completely blank.

“Computer, give me a summary on the Halucin Acute Virus.”

“The Halucin Acute Virus or HAV is a synthetic disease designed to destroy human life. It was designed in 2035, the new alternative to nuclear war, but was banned by the United Nations and the United Colonies. The virus travels from host to host through the air and dies within minutes without a living host. Victims are vaporized due to extreme replication of the virus.”

Randor held his head in his hands. It was all so clear now. The Halucin Acute Virus was released. It spread through Earth and got into the frozen humans being sent to Mars. The cryo-chambers would have slowed the viral replication until they were defrosted and then BANG. The entire colony is wiped out in less than five minutes; leaving nothing behind but piles of dirty clothes.

The cargo ship arrived while he was down in the deeper tunnels. It was carrying the infected cryo-stasis bodies. A-tissue, A-tissue we all fall down.

Randor slid from his chair to the floor. He stared at the air in front of his face. His mouth hung open and a trail of saliva slid out of the corner and ran down his chin.

If the virus already wiped out Earth then it would have taken the Moon Colony. That meant one thing; he was the last human. His neck tingled. The sensation spread down his spine. The silence of the Colony grew louder until it was pressing in on him like a physical force.

He imagined the sheer infinitely of space. He pictured himself as the only human left amongst all the emptiness. He couldn’t breathe. His throat closed and he heaved to get air. He coughed and hacked, the force of it sending speckles of blood out onto the floor.

He fell into heaving sobs. His tears joined the blood. He would be alone for the rest of his life. He would never find love, he would never have friendship. He would never have a family of his own and when he died the entire of human history would die with him.

“No, no, no,” Randor whispered. He stared at the legs of his chair. His eyes glazed over and another line of spittle slid out of the corner of his mouth and dropped to the floor.

He collapsed to the ground. His cheek landed in a pool of blood, spit, and tears. He lay still, catatonic. It could have been for a minute, it could have been an hour, it could have been a day; time didn’t matter anymore.

By the time he swam back to consciousness his limbs and back were stiff and the cold had seeped through into his bones. His eyes stung with the tears he’d been shedding and his empty stomach growled.

He pushed himself to his feet and looked around the communications room. For the first time he saw the dirt and dust collected on the machinery. He saw the broken light which flickered in one corner of the room. He noticed the captain’s chair which had been empty for so long that the leather was peeling away.

Randor stumbled away from the empty room. He couldn’t think straight. He clung desperately to a single idea. He had to get away. There was nothing left for him here. He had to move, had to leave.

He went to the loading bay.

It was a massive room which extended out in all directions with a high ceiling. There were several ships pulled up in the bays, each a different size. Closest to the main door was a ship he hadn’t seen before. It was dark grey with the Earth Fleet symbol stamped onto the back. The door to the ship was still open, a gaping dark hole which beckoned to him.

Randor turned away from the ship and walked down the rest of the bays. He counted the ships as he went along. Four in total. Four ships abandoned in the Mars Colony Hangar.

“Four,” Randor whispered and his eyebrows drew together. “There should have been five.”

He wrapped his consciousness around the idea. He forced himself to focus on it; it was the only string still holding him to his sanity. He strode over to the nearest computer terminal and searched the hanger log. The entry door marked each ship as they came and went.

“Five,” Randor said, his eyes scanning down the list of names and times. “Come on, five.”

The second last entry was The Herald, which was the Earth ship, the one carrying the infected bodies. But then there was another. A ship left the hangar after The Herald arrived, five minutes after.

“The Beacon,” Randor said.

The Beacon had left the hanger after The Herald arrived. What if they were safe inside their ship at the time and they saw the disease spreading? What if they got out in time?

“They could still be alive,” Randor whispered.

His fingers feverishly tapped against the screen to find the calling code of the ship. He sent the call and leant against the wall. His heart was beating furiously and his head ached with hope.

“Please. Please be alive,” he whispered.

“Please!” He clenched his fists at his sides and desperate tears squeezed out of the corners of his eyes.

We all fall down.

 END

 

If you enjoyed The Last Man on Mars then you’ll love Survivor:

When everyone runs, who will stand?

Nova is a new recruit to the Jagged Maw: an elite bounty hunter guild.

During a routine collection, she finds herself dragged into the middle of an alien uprising.

The Ancients, merciless beings set on reclaiming the universe, have only one person left to stop them: Nova.

She must battle the Ancients, time, and her sanity, in order to stop the annihilation of the human race.

Fear the hero who has nothing left to lose.

 

Limited time, special offer price of $0.99 at http://www.amazon.com

 

SaffronPic

 

Saffron is an author, artist, and scientist who loves all things science and science-fiction. She especially enjoys writing thought-provoking stories that stay with people long after they’ve finished reading. You can learn more about Saffron at www.saffronbryant.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Survivorsml

The Climb

 

I’m not sure what to call this story. It doesn’t really fit into any of my normal genres, but I quite like it. I hope you enjoy it and have a fabulous Christmas :)

 

There is a place, high in the mountains, where the women don’t go. The men claim no woman has been there for a millennia. They boast of their place to anyone who will listen. They speak of it in hushed, prideful tones, ignoring, as men are wont to do, the lack of dust filling the corners and the fresh, cool water that awaits them when they finish the climb.

But the women of the tribe are clever as well as industrious, so Histat remains a man’s place.

The mountains in which the tribe lives are vast places, of angry grey rock and trees that grow tall and majestic. On their slopes, the mountains are dark, the sun kept at bay by the forest. But climb above the tree line, and you find the rock.

The rock sprouts like another plant, stabbing fiercely skywards and challenging all but the most brave of the tribe. More sons than the women like to remember have fallen from those awkward slopes to their death. Edges sharp as razors await the unknowing hands and crumbling shelves invite climbers only to toss them to their doom.

The mountains are not friendly places. But the tribe has lived here since the moon was young and it knows no other place. And Histat is here also.

On this morning, the sun is bright enough to pierce the canopy and wake the paddock of goats. Their bleating drags Terril from his bed and he stumbles out into the cold air. He scoops his stick up from beside his parents’ front door and smacks it against the edge of the paddock. The goats quieten and cast their weary, grumpy eyes his way.

It is a look to which he is well used and so ignores it, marching past them to the edge of the village. It is a short walk. A path winds away, heading up the mountain and, as he has done every morning for the past six months, he peers up it and tries to still the twisting in his gut.

Today, it is worse that usual. But today, at least and at last, the waiting will be over. He thinks of going now, before the rest of the village is gathered to watch, but without the blessing of the headman, his journey would be wasted. So he returns to his goats, gives them water from the gourds hanging high in the trees, then kindles the fire pit.

The village creeps into life as the sun warms the earth. Down here beneath the canopy, the people feel little of it. The shade is constant and the smell of damp and mulch clings to the air. Terril’s mother emerges, ruffles his hair and strolls away towards the women’s place. He wonders, as he has often done, why the women’s place is only a few short steps from the village and not at all dangerous to get to.

His mother is the strongest person he knows, yet she has only to travel to the end of a short path and she arrives. He has seen the women’s place. It is almost as much a rite of passage as what he will do today. It isn’t much, not at all what he has been told of Histat, but the canopy is missing there and his mother will even now be stepping into sunlight and letting it bathe her skin.

There are some in the tribe who climb to Histat on days like these. The warriors of the tribe, for whom the climb means nothing and who know the secret ways up the mountain, go there and lie in the sunshine until their skin warms like an oven and the cool of the shade is stripped from them.

Soon, he will be able to do that too.

One by one, the men of the village emerge from their houses and gather around the God’s tree. They haven’t begun chanting yet, but they will soon. It will take Terril all day, on his first trip, and the sooner he begins, the sooner he is a man.

He scampers back into his house and eats breakfast as quickly as he can. The aching in his stomach makes every mouthful a chore, but he will need strength. He feasts on seeds and berries and the remains of the previous night’s bird, until he knows if he takes another morsel he will be sick.

The chanting begins. Terril looks longingly at his loin cloth, wishing he could feel the familiar security around his waist. Everyone will be out to watch him climb. Aliya will be out to watch him climb and his manhood will be on display. It hangs between his legs for all to see and his face begins to warm, sun or no. It looks pathetic and small.

When he returns to the village, he will be a man and no longer pathetic. He will claim her then. But right now, he is a boy and he doesn’t want to leave the tent naked. He has seen others come out with their cloths on and every time, the elder rips it from them and the village laughs as they try to cover themselves.

So Terril takes a deep breath and marches from the tent wearing only what his mother gave him when he came into the world. That and the stains of berries on his fingers and lips. He notes the nods as he strides to the God’s tree. With a simple gesture, he has won his first respect. Aliya is there and her cheeks colour as she sees him, but she doesn’t look away and when he meets her eyes, she smiles.

He is looking forward to the claiming.

The elder speaks, daubing his forehead in ashes from mother’s fire pit. He has heard the ritual more times than he can remember, but now every word strikes him as a spear, plunged into his flesh. Every word prepares him for what lies ahead, even though he knows every day spent scrambling up the mountain has been preparation, even though there is no real way to be ready for today.

In what feels a far shorter time that usual, the elder puts a hand into the small of his back and pushes him from the circle. Terril glances back at his mother and father and sees only pride in their eyes. He has been a good son and a useful part of the tribe. When he returns this night, his parents will have completed their duty and become part of the elder circle. His pride will mingle with theirs when he sees that.

He strides from the clearing to the beginning of the path and pauses. He will not look back, but he wants to. He wants to see the faces that are his world one last time. He sniffs and walks from the clearing.

 

The path sidles back and forth, moving ever upwards, but taking its sweet time about it. Terril is satisfied. So far, the climb is far easier than he has been led to expect. Indeed, it is no climb at all, but rather a stroll like he might take any day with his goats.

The path steepens and his skin is covered in a light layer of sweat. The sweat draws flies. This is no different from any other day, and his hand settles into its easy pattern of swatting and flicking, over and over. Terril begins to recognise the tiny creatures that assail him, giving them names as they take off and land, take off and land.

The paths steepens further still and he is no longer with his goats. By now they would be bleating a harsh complaint and turning away. But he goes on.

The sun is higher. Not yet above him, but moving closer. Even in the shade, the temperature is rising. His palms are slick with sweat.

The path steepens and he finds it easier to use his hands as well, hauling himself up, digging into the dirt. His toes stick in and his nails are ingrained with the dark soil that forms this part of the mountain. Now he is climbing. Now he is truly on the man’s trail and he can feel it, like a sickness climbing up from his stomach.

There is no turning back. Some have. Some boys reappear in the village by midmorning, shaking their bowed heads and trying to hide the tears streaming down them. Their parents do little to hide their own tears as their son is clothed and driven from the village.

There are other villages further down the mountain. The valley is filled with weak people and it is to those the banished will go. Some find succour, others their end on the tips of spears. Their names are remembered, but as people who were once of the tribe. They are not mourned, except, perhaps, by their parents, who will never join the elder circle.

Something catches Terril’s hand and he is pulled back to the present. He stares at what he knew he was going to meet, yet is still shocked by. Before him lies rock. It emerges from the soil like it’s trying to escape. And it climbs skywards like the trees that now lie behind him.

The shadow still falls here, but as Terril stares up at the face, he sees the sun and knows he will soon be in it. From here, to his left and his right and before him, he can see only solid rock, like the wall of the Elder’s hut.

Terril has asked questions. He has pried and prodded and queried and listened, but none speak of the secret ways. Those ways are known only to those who have climbed to Histat. And so he will climb.

He runs a hand over an outcrop of rock and feels the spikes and sharp edges. He is prepared for this, also. Six months ago, he left his shoes in his house and hasn’t worn them since. The soles of his feet are leather, worn hard by the roots of the great trees. But they twitch and curl up now as he feels the rock.

Rock cuts leather.

He finds his first handhold and pulls himself up. His feet follow suit and as they leave the soil, he gasps. He is climbing. He is climbing for Histat.

Slowly but surely, Terril moves up the face. It is sheer, but the rock offers more handholds than he could possibly need and the ascent is simple. He moves from the shade into the sun and with the glorious warmth, his childhood begins to slough away.

He quickens his pace, energy racing through him at the thought of what lies ahead. They told him the climb was difficult. They told him it would be the hardest thing he had ever done, but it isn’t. He wonders, for a moment, whether they were lying. Is it all a deception to convince the women of their worthiness?

A grin splits his face in half and he climbs even faster. His hand reaches up, but there is no rock. He has reached the top. He hauls himself up to the plateau and over the edge. And stops.

Before him lies a shelf of rock, a hundred metres deep and covered in razor sharp rocks. And beyond it lies another rock face, climbing skywards so far it blocks out the blue. He has not reached the top.

He sucks in the warm air and wipes sweat from his forehead. It is a meaningless gesture, for as soon as it is gone, more appears.

His foot splits moments later. He rests it too hard on one of the rocks before him and it cuts through the skin. He hisses and sits, but the rock is just as unforgiving to his naked buttocks and warm blood trickles down the backs of his legs. When he stands, he feels the light touch of the flies as they gather around his arse and his feet, sucking greedily at his blood.

He takes a breath, closing his eyes and shutting out the yellow sun and the blue sky and the grey rock. But the red blood refuses to go and his breath quickens. This is nothing. He has sustained wounds like this many times over.

He opens his eyes and takes his next step. He finds a gap in the rock and rests on his good foot, giving the wound a chance to relax. But the face is getting no closer. He could spend a day crossing the razor field, but night would throw him from the face as surely as if he threw himself. And he must be home before nightfall, if he is to become a man.

So Terril marches across the razors like they are the soil on which he has spent his childhood. His skin splits again and again and behind him he leaves a trail of crimson footprints. The pain subsides soon enough, though he thinks it might be numbness rather than strength on his part. His feet feel huge and cumbersome, like the wooden mallets they use in the village to drive stakes into the ground.

He is almost at the face when his left leg gives up and he stumbles and falls. His knee strikes the rock and the skin comes apart like the skin of an orange thrown to the floor. He shouts, finally giving voice to his pain as the flies find a new place to settle. He watches absently as the bloody mess of his knee turns black with buzzing insects. He swats at them and they scatter, only to return moments later.

He is sitting, and though putting weight on his arse makes tears spring up in his eyes, he takes a moment to inspect his feet. His leather skin looks like a tomato that has been left too long to ripen, ripped open in strips. The blood has tried to scab, but his movement keeps the wounds open.

He can’t feel much beneath his knees, and he knows that to climb again he will need to. But he has no choice. The sun is high above and beats down on him like an angry mother. But when it is gone, the cold will use scorn and shame instead, and he would always rather the beatings.

Terril stands and approaches the face, looking for his first hand holds. But there are none. This cliff is as flat and featureless as the last was rugged. As his eyes acclimatise, he finds tiny ledges, no wider than his fingers, and it is to these that he goes.

The first lift is the hardest. He sets his toes on a ledge low down and pushes up and every wound splits apart. He screams and finds no shame in it. Inch by inch, he lifts himself off the floor until he is holding himself up with arms and legs. He raises a hand to the next ledge and pushes again. This one is easier, if only by the tiniest margin. He looks down and realises he could have jumped this far from the floor.

A sob escapes him, so he puts his hand up and pulls once again.

The ground slides away beneath him, but it is like watching the sun move in the sky. It happens, but the movement is so slow and so torturous, that at times he doesn’t believe it is happening. But he has seen something that gives him hope.

Terril has found blood, caked into the ledges. The others came this way. Perhaps, mingled in the dusty red mixture, is his father’s blood, from his ascent twenty years ago. It is this thought that sustains him.

He speeds up. He can do this. The pain is now a dull ache that has reached his thighs. Of his toes, he knows nothing, but somehow they cling to the rock and propel him upwards when he asks them to. The sweat runs in tiny streams, down the small of his back and pooling in the holes made where his arms meet his shoulder blades.

He longs for the shade. He longs for his bed. He longs for Aliya’s eyes, gazing into his as they promise one another all the things they will do once he returns from Histat.

His foot slips and in that moment, all the promises are tossed into the wind to fly away down the mountain. His body jerks as his weight slams through his wrists to his fingers.

He is going to fall.

The wind tugs at him, as greedy as the mountain for his blood. The razor rocks wait below, patient as ever. He didn’t see the blood on them, but then his eyes were trained upwards. Time stops.

He knows the blood is there. He isn’t the first who won’t return. The mothers break, some of them, and their husbands send them away to the lower villages. But the fathers are broken sometimes too.

He will not see his parents break.

He will not have to sit above, in heaven, with the failed warriors of his tribe, and watch them crumble. His fingers are iron, locked into the rock and his feet are once more finding holds. He pushes up and somehow, he is moving again.

One hold after another. The wind fades into the background. Aliya fades into the background. The world fades, until it is just Terril and the rock, in a battle that has existed since his people first climbed.

His hands are bleeding now. He didn’t notice when the skin first split, but the sweat is red and caught beneath his finger nails. He holds on with one and shakes the other. Tiny drops of himself flutter away and are caught by the wind. He is sharing himself with the mountain, but it will not take him.

One hold after another. The sun is turning his back to leather and the salt is drying on his shoulders, cracking anew with each foot he rises.

One hold after another.

His hand lands on air and the shock almost sends him tumbling down. Then it strikes flat rock and his fingers find a hold. He pulls and his belly slides across the edge of the rock face. Then he is lying flat, the sun welcoming him to the summit. He cannot let go.

The laughter builds inside him and peals out, snatched away by the wind. He does not miss it, it carries more than a hint of madness. He cannot let go, despite being flat on the ground. He will not fall if he lets go, but still his fingers cling to the rough stone.

He is at the top. He blinks and stares at his hand. One by one, his fingers release their hold. It is harder than the whole climb, but finally he takes his hand away and waits to fall.

Gradually, like an old man rising from his death bed to greet his final day, Terril stands. The wind buffets him, but he will not fall. He is a man now.

He stands atop a plateau, far larger than he’d have believed. To both sides lie rock, but straight ahead of him is a building. His first thought is to wonder how they got the materials up here to build it. His second is that there might be water in there.

He starts to run and his legs laugh at him and send him tumbling to the ground. He picks himself up, oblivious to the blood running down his knees, and stumbles into the building. It is small, made of the same yellow brick as his home, and within is one simple room.

In the centre of the room is a table and upon it is a jug and a wooden cup. Terril fills the cup and drinks deeply. The laughter that bubbles up is far saner and he lets it comes, bathing in it until his mind is washed clean. A cloth sits behind the jug and he uses it to wash his knees and then, with eyes slitted closed against the pain, his feet.

Eventually, he drops the blood-soaked cloth to the table, takes a final sip of water and steps from the building. The sun is well past the roof of the sky and looking to its bed. He nods. He has time. He is a man, now, but his village will not know, if he is not back before the sun sets. His father promised him an easier route down. Now he must find it.

There is dust up here that the wind, despite its best efforts, has failed to scour from the rock. His feet are soon caked in it and the blood is soaked up. By the time he finds the path down, they are barely bleeding at all.

 

I’m taking a few days off from the blog, but will return on January 1st with a video and my exciting plans for 2015. It’s going to be an amazing and busy year. Watch this space. :)

Protection Racket – An Urban Fantasy tale

This one came courtesy of the Pickle, my 3 1/2 year old daughter. Considering that she’s made me change Jack and the Beanstalk so there’s no meany stealing from the giant involved, I’m not sure she’d be too happy with how this turned out. Fortunately, she’s not reading blogs yet. :)

 

Natasha had a secret. She kept it hidden beneath her pillow, along with Raggedy Ann and the tiny scrap of her brother’s pajamas she’d clung onto when they took his stuff away. Every night, she’d curl up in the tightest ball she could and put her hand under the pillow. She’d grab a hold of Raggedy, the cotton, and the secret, and if she was really lucky, she’d sleep through the whole night without dreaming about her brother.

Those nights were few and far between though. This night was no exception. She woke, cold sweat in the gaps between her toes, and sat up. Raggedy remained in her hand and it took her a moment in the dim glow of her night light to realise the cotton scrap wasn’t there.

A moment’s feverish hunting turned it up and she held it to her chest until her breathing subsided. The dreams always came when she let it go. Resolving to sleep with it resting on her, she lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling. Her eyes closed slowly, but sleep took a while to come.

It was during those in-between moments when the voice spoke to her.

‘Natasha?’

‘I’m here.’ She mouthed the words to her silent bedroom, but in her head they were loud and clear.

‘Natasha, when can we come and see you?’

‘Soon. You don’t need to come now, it’s alright at the moment.’

The voice was silent, but she could feel it lurking behind her eyes, in the dim recesses of her brain. It was greedy. She didn’t mind. She was greedy to see them as well. Life was always better when they were around. But she’d told them the truth, there was no need for them right now. And they always knew when she was telling the truth.

 

Time passed. Natasha could no longer curl up in a ball, though she often wanted to. Raggedy was tatty and embarrassing and stayed beneath her pillow. But her nightly ritual hadn’t changed one bit. The tiny piece of Jason’s pajamas was now sewn into a larger blanket, which meant she lost it less. If that was the reason for the dwindling nightmares, she didn’t know, but she clung to it anyway.

Mum and Dad were better. Not well, but better. They didn’t shout at one another anymore and Mum didn’t cry so much. At least, she still cried, but did it behind the bedroom door instead of at the breakfast table. And the lunch table. And the dinner table.

She moved around the house like a woman much older than she was. Natasha was fourteen and Mum had been pretty young when she had her, but she stooped like she was sixty. Her hair was grey and her face covered in lines. Natasha preferred it when Dad came to the school concerts and things. He at least looked like he was still living. She wasn’t sure he was, but she could overlook that so long as her friends didn’t know.

The voices were still there and on this particular morning that saw Natasha humming her way through breakfast, they were greedier than ever. Imagine the genie in the lamp, only they were stuck not inside a potentially infinite vessel, but the mind of a depressed fourteen year old who had done her best in the last couple of years to pretend they weren’t there.

Every night they spoke to her. On some nights, she answered, responding with curt, one word answers and tears. On others, she simply pressed her lips together and thought nothing until sleep claimed her and drove them away.

School meandered. It meandered most days, like the huge rivers they were learning about in geography. She fancied herself one of those skiffs from Thailand, the sort that drifted aimlessly down the river, poled by a thin man with a wide round hat upon his head. As the skiff, she drifted down the lazy wide river of life, never touching the sides and earning no more than the occasional glance from the others that used the river.

She was halfway through maths when something struck her on the ear. She yelped, earning a glare from the teacher, and turned around. A girl with a nose piercing and her tie halfway down stuck her fingers up at her. Natasha ducked her head and returned to her work. She tried to write an answer and realised her fingers were shaking too hard to grip the pen. What did she want? Who was she?

She endured four more elastic bands before the bell rescued her. She dashed from the classroom and raced to the security of the library. She was most of the way there when a hand gripped her arm and she found herself being dragged across the hallway and into one of the locker nooks.

Lockers covered three sides of the tiny space, with the fourth open to the corridor. There should have been students in here retrieving things for lunch, but there was nobody. The girl from maths gave her the sort of smile she’d seen a hundred times at night, but never during the day.

‘You’re Natasha, right?’

‘Yes.’ She wanted her voice to sound louder, but her fear made the word stick in her throat, so it came out barely more than a croak.

‘You’re the mad bitch that killed her brother, ain’t you?’

Natasha’s mouth fell open. Inside her, a number of walls that had been painstakingly built over many years, trembled. Brick dust rained down from some as she searched around in there for something to say. The girl spared her the trouble.

‘What you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in a special school or something?’

‘I didn’t kill Jason.’

‘Really? Not what I heard. I heard when they found him there wasn’t much left. ‘Cept you were there, smiling away.’

A couple of the walls came down like a bulldozer had taken a mighty great swipe at them. The first thing to happen was Natasha yanking her arm free of the girl’s grip and sliding down the lockers. When she reached the floor, she curled up in a ball and tucked her head in.

It was dark in here, and safe. Something struck her in the ribs and she screamed. It was a pitiful wail, but she couldn’t make it without her head jerking up. She stared at the girl’s broad smile and realised she’d drawn her leg back for another blow.

‘Please, why?’

‘You’re a sicko, ain’t you? Don’t want you around.’

‘But I’m not, I’m n—’

Her boot caught Natasha on the hip and tears appeared like cherry tree blossom in her eyes. She put her head back down and went inside. They’d had a cherry tree in the back garden. She couldn’t remember much of Jason, but she had an image of him lying on his blanket, gurgling happily up at the tree that had, overnight, become covered in tiny white flowers.

She clung to the image, clenching her legs and pressing her forehead into the space between her knees. She could kick her all she wanted, she was safe in here.

A foot struck her in the stomach and she gasped. Her breath took too long to come and spots appeared before her eyes. The next blow was aimed for her shins and she felt the skin split apart. Warmth flooded her trouser leg as blood crept silently from the wound.

Why was bleeding so silent? All her life she’d watched her parents bleed and, aside from Mum’s crying, it had always been silent. Bleeding should be accompanied by a siren, or maybe a screeching sound, like seagulls after chips.

They’d gone to the seaside not long after it happened. She’d wolfed her chips down because the seagulls had been gathering. Dad had tossed most of his on the beach and they’d watched the gulls feast. Mum stayed in the car.

The next kick struck her hand and she whimpered as something in it shifted. She wasn’t sure if it was broken, but the pain took her memory, screwed it up and tossed it in the bin. When the next kick landed, the rest of the walls came down. Her fists clenched and she bit her leg as darkness flooded in.

‘Natasha, we’re coming.’ The voice was louder now. She whimpered again, pressing her face into her knees. They couldn’t come. She wanted them to come, but they couldn’t. Not here. Not anywhere.

‘We’re coming.’

‘You can’t.’ She shouted, and if it came out loud, she wasn’t aware, but in her head it sounded like thunder.

‘But we must. She’s hurting you, Natasha, you can’t let her hurt you.’

‘But you’ll hurt her.’

‘Is that any less than she deserves?’

Natasha chewed her lip. ‘Please don’t hurt her.’

The voice was silent for a moment. ‘Perhaps we’ll just scare her.’

Natasha nodded vigorously into the shelter of her lap. ‘Yes, just that, just scare her.’

Another silence, when she felt it welling up inside her, like the voices would climb up her throat and burst out into the school.

‘Natasha, we’re here.’

She gasped and her head came up from her lap. The girl was still glaring at her, lip curled in a sneer. Her foot was drawn back but something had stopped her. Then Natasha saw it too. Black smoke drifted from the lockers, squeezing out through the key holes and hinges.

The smoke was dense, and she knew if she reached for it, it would stick to her hands like treacle. She shrank away, tucking her fingers into the warm spaces beneath her knees. The smoke billowed up until the locker nook was filled with it, save the space between the two of them.

A figure stepped from the smoke and despite her shivers, Natasha put her hands up. He lifted her from the floor, held her in his arms for a moment, then placed her on her feet. He held her like she was made of fine china.

He was just as she remembered. His chin was strong and masculine. His nose was just a tiny bit smaller than it should have been, but the lips beneath it were full and smiling. And his eyes were the same as Dad’s had been, before Jason went.

‘It’s been too long, Natasha.’

‘I’m sorry, I’ve been happy.’

He frowned and put his head to one side. ‘Happy, or coping?’

She shrugged and inspected her hands. He patted her shoulder. ‘Don’t worry. We’re here now.’

From the smoke stepped two more people. The woman to her right was dressed in black. Her hair was black and her eyes glittered so dark they may as well have been forged from the night. Her dark lips split apart and the teeth behind them were shocking in their whiteness.

She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Natasha. ‘It is good to see you.’

Natasha buried her head in her shoulder, not expecting the lump that formed in her throat. Night had been her greatest friend. How had she kept her away for so long?

The third man, shorter that the other two, and rounder as well, gave her a beaming grin and followed with a hug of his own. He wore a suit, but it was crumpled and rumpled like he’d just spent a week in the office.

‘Estridge.’

‘My lady.’ He spoke in an off-key American accent, like he thought he knew how they sounded, but didn’t really. It made her smile, just as it always had. His face was the same as his voice. All the necessary pieces were there, but they didn’t quite fit together properly.

She looked back to Alfred. His perfectly pressed slacks and trim white shirt were as perfect as ever. He was perfect. And he hadn’t aged a bit.

He turned away from her to where the girl still stood, staring open mouthed at the three people who had appeared before her. ‘Who the hell are you?’

Estridge took a step forward. ‘We’re Natasha’s friends. And you haven’t been very nice to her. Do you think that was a good thing to do?’

The girl tried to sneer, but she was way too freaked out. ‘I didn’t, I don’t, I mean…’

‘What do you mean?’

‘She killed her brother. She’s a freak.’

Alfred pushed past Estridge until he stood only a few inches from the girl. ‘That isn’t true. I ask that you rescind that comment right now.’

‘What?’

‘Take it back.’

‘How the hell do you know?’

‘We’ve known Natasha all her life. Trust me, we know. She didn’t kill Jason.’

Natasha watched it all through disbelieving eyes. They’d spoken to her every day of her life, but she hadn’t truly believed in them. It had been such a long time ago, she didn’t think for a second they’d actually come back. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and stared at Night. She’d always wanted to be like her. She was beautiful and graceful and smart. Seeing her again after so long only made her want it more.

‘Fine, whatever, she didn’t do it.’

‘I think an apology might be called for as well, don’t you?’ Alfred’s voice hadn’t risen one notch from its calm state, but he leant even closer. The girl was trying to back away, but she was pressed up against the lockers and Alfred wasn’t giving her any chance to move. He held his hand up before her eyes and a flicker of green flame burst into life and raced down each of his fingers.

The girl from maths went paler still and her lips began to twitch, like she was seconds away from tears. She nodded, her voice coming out cracked. ‘I’m sorry, really, I am, sorry, Natasha.’

Natasha nodded and Alfred stepped back. The girl dashed out of the locker nook and Natasha let out a long breath. She turned back to her friends. ‘Thanks for coming.’

They gathered around her, assuring her it was no trouble at all. She sighed. She was safe. She’d known she was safe, but it had been so long. Knowing was very different from believing. She hugged them all, then the black smoke returned and the three of them melted away.

The rest of school was like some wondrous dream. She was floating on cloud nine and if some of the girls were talking about her, it didn’t matter. They knew she was protected now and that was all that mattered.

The last bell went and she skipped out of the school gate, smile playing on her lips. As she drew nearer home, her good feeling began to ebb away, like the sea drawing back from the half eaten chips. Mum would be there, ghosting around the house and then Dad would come in. They’d eat dinner in silence and watch crappy TV till bedtime.

She turned away from her street and stomped, paying no attention to where she was going. So it was with something close to surprise that she looked around and found herself at the end of an alleyway. She didn’t know how she knew it was the right one, but she did.

She stepped into the shadows and the transformation began. Her nails tore from their beds as they grew and the creaking that accompanied the growth was met by a gentle patter of blood on the concrete. Her leg muscles tightened and expanded until her school uniform tore up to her hips. Her teeth came last, as they always did, extending and sharpening.

She was ‘protected’, but they could only come once every twenty-four hours. Why did she remember that? Oh yeah. She smiled as the girl who’d attacked her entered the other end of the alleyway.

Five Minutes – A Sci-Fi short story part 2 of 2

 

Jimmy stalked from his apartment, went down three floors in the lift and out into the Hov park. Rows and rows of Hovers were parked up, each with its own signature flash or embellishments. Jimmy’s was black. Entirely black. It matched his clothes and was easy to find in a line of Hovers, which was the point.

He pulled out, dropped into the low lane, and settled back. He’d ask nicely and if things didn’t go to plan, he’d introduce the gun. Five minutes was all he needed, surely Sutton would see that.

A few minutes later, he dropped out of the Loop and into the Undercity. The streets were slick with grease and he drove closer to Sutton’s place this time. The evening traffic was building above and he didn’t fancy finding out if the rumours of rain were true. There was a chance it would feel like real rain, but he doubted it. He wouldn’t know one way or the other, and it would feel like a betrayal of Grandpa even pretending.

He stomped until he found himself outside Sutton’s door and took a deep breath. It opened to his touch and he crept down the corridor. He didn’t know why he was sneaking, the two flashing red lights made it quite clear he was being watched the entire way, but it didn’t feel right being brazen.

He knocked on the door, realised he was holding his breath and let it out. He took another and held it long enough to decide Mr Sutton had left the office. He raised his fist to thump again and the door opened.

‘Jimmy.’ He’d never heard his name used as an insult. He sucked air in between his teeth and pulled a smile up from somewhere.

‘Mr Sutton, I know it’s late, but I was hoping we could talk.’

‘I thought I had made it quite clear what my conditions were for further conversation, Jimmy. Do you have the cash?’

‘Not as such, I—’

The door slammed closed. At least, it tried to, but somehow Jimmy’s boot was in the way. It bounced open and Jimmy followed it in. Mr Sutton glanced over his shoulder as he paced across the room and sighed. ‘Jimmy, this really isn’t the right way to be going about things.’

He made his way behind his desk and sat. Jimmy didn’t need to see his fingers to know he’d pressed the panic button. He located the hidden door moment’s before it burst open. He was already moving and the first guard was met with three stiffened fingers in the throat.

The man went down, flapping like the netted birds the street kids caught, and Jimmy put his boot on his face as he stepped over him. The second guard was only slightly more prepared and his gun was halfway out of his holster. Jimmy caught his arm, pulled it and the gun out, then snapped the wrist so the gun was pointing straight at the man’s gut.

‘Fire away, please.’

He was relieved when the man made the wise choice to drop his pistol. He pulled the arm back out, drawing a whimper of pain from his assailant, then spun him round and rammed him face first into the wall. He dropped beside his fellow and Jimmy finished it with a kick to the head.

He turned back to Sutton, cracked his knuckles and pressed his hands flat against the desk as he leaned over it. ‘Five minutes. That’s all.’

‘You know, you do your squad a great disservice.’

Jimmy clamped his teeth together as his breath hissed in and out of his nose. Arrogant, stupid son of a bitch. ‘You don’t know anything about my squad.’

‘I know you served. I know they won’t be proud of you.’

‘My men can’t be anything. They’re dead. Which is what happens to you if you speak about them again.’

Something in his tone drew what he thought was the first genuine response from the prick the other side of the desk. Mr Sutton rose, fanning his face with one hand, and indicated that Jimmy should follow him.

A narrow door behind his desk slid open and Jimmy paced behind him into the darkness that lay beyond. The tunnel was long and lit only by the occasional red light sunk into the wall. ‘What’s with the dingy lighting?’

‘The children don’t like it.’

‘Children?’

Mr Sutton stopped and Jimmy only just stopped himself from bumping into him. ‘What do you actually know about my machine, Jimmy?’

He hated the way he kept using his name. No one used your name that much, but this guy couldn’t get enough of it. ‘It allows me to see the future, whenever I choose, wherever I choose. Right?’

‘Almost right. But yes, that’s close enough. What do you know of how it works?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Well, you are aware no doubt that I operate slightly separately from the law. In part, that is because time travel has been banned and despite this not actually being time travel, it is close enough to cause concern in certain areas.’

‘Yeah, doesn’t bother me.’

‘Good. The other reason I remain underground is that power for my machine comes from Loopers.’

Jimmy sucked in a breath that suddenly tasted stale. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘Yes, it gets most people that way. Loopers. The government uses them up and tosses them away.’

‘It doesn’t toss them away. It gives them retirement and believe me, I’ve seen the films. I wouldn’t mind retiring where they go.’

Mr Sutton barked a laugh that somehow managed to sound posh. ‘You believe them? You fought in the wars, how can you believe anything anymore?’

There was something in the way he said it that gave Jimmy pause. It almost sounded like Sutton had been there as well. Jimmy sniffed and decided to play along. ‘What do they do, then?’

‘Once they have extracted all their wonderful, mysterious power, they dump them in sink estates down here, in the Undercity. Trust me, I’ve visited them. They are as far removed from the retirement homes you’ve seen on the videos as you can imagine.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘Believe what you want, Jimmy, I don’t particularly care.’ He carried on, gesturing to the walls around them. ‘Most Loopers leave the service with enough power to carry themselves along. Very occasionally one may be able to handle a Hoved. They can’t be used in the big Loops anymore, but they have power. Most just want something to do.’

‘So you use them?’

‘Of course. Why do you think it is so expensive, Jimmy? For every trip my machine makes, I have fifteen or twenty brain dead Loopers on my hands needing somewhere to live after I’ve burnt their sorry little brains out.’

Jimmy raised his clenched fist in the darkness, preparing to smash it down on Sutton’s head. But if he brained him, he wouldn’t get to see the future. The snooty bastard was relying on that and calling his bluff was almost motivation enough to do it. But he shoved his hand deep in his pocket and took a deep breath.

Mr Sutton nodded slightly, just the silhouette of his head visible. ‘So you see, I give them meaning, if only for a short while. And afterwards, they don’t know any better. They don’t know anything, really.’ He chuckled as he came to a halt before a door. His hand fit snugly on the pad and it swung open. In the light that came from within, Jimmy glanced back down the corridor.

Through the glass walls, he saw shapes. Kids, some barely out of nappies, crammed into beds. Loopers, every last one of them dumped by the government, used up and spat out. Was Sutton telling the truth? It was hard to know one from the other, these days.

He turned his eyes forward and followed Sutton in. His soul was curling up inside him, but it was already burnt and battered, so what difference would this make?

Inside stood the machine. It reminded him of the flight packs they’d used in the first war. This was smaller, but it still had the massive wings stretching to either side and what it lacked in rockets, it made up for in wires and blinking lights. It was made of metal struts, clamped together with black plasticam bands.

Sutton turned to him. ‘You do understand, you won’t get away with this?’

Coming from anyone else, it would have sounded like a cliche. From Sutton, it sounded like fact. ‘I may operate outside of the law, but I have plenty of support from people in power. If you go through with this pathetic action, you will owe me fifty credits and I will take them from your flesh.’

Jimmy thumbed his nose. ‘Yeah, well, maybe you will and maybe you won’t. What happens now?’

Sutton raised his eyebrows and gestured to the machine. ‘Please, get comfortable. I will need the date and place.’

Jimmy settled himself on the seat and stretched his arms out to either side. Straps emerged from the wings and wrapped around his arms, clamping him in place. He would have felt vulnerable, but his feet were still free and Sutton had retreated to a console on the other side of the room.

‘June 17th, 2213, Apartment 1274, Blue Sector.’

Sutton nodded, humming as he tapped in the information. ‘This may hurt a little. Most people come back with a slight headache, but nothing major. I also need you to read and agree to this small disclaimer.’

Jimmy looked at the pad in his hand and shook his head. ‘Give me the headlines.’

‘Very well. It says that any actions you may take following your trip are in no way the responsibility of myself or my machine and that any attempt to blame me for anything will result in you getting sued all the way to the Undercity.’

‘Yeah, fine, whatever. Just do it.’

Mr Sutton was smiling as he pressed the button. In the next instance, he was gone. His head felt like it was being put through a press, every hair being dragged out and his cheeks pressed so hard against his teeth they stung. Then the world slammed back into focus and he was staring at himself sat in his apartment. He was alone, watching some inane football game on the Screen.

He watched himself watching and waited. Nothing happened. His future self leant forward, shouted at the Screen for his team to sort it out, then slumped back again. More nothing happened.

Where was Malisa?

He realised with a sinking feeling that she could be anywhere. She could be out at work. She could be in the bedroom. She could be in the frigging kitchen. She could be anywhere.

‘SUTTON?’

There was no answer. The clock above the Screen read 10:04. Late for football, but it was June, they started late some nights. He watched, eyes flicking back and forth between his future self and the clock.

10:07

10:09

‘SUTTON!?’

It was more than five minutes. A movement to his right made him turn and stare. All he saw was his apartment, just a little more tatty than before. Another movement behind made him spin around. A shape, larger than he, vanished into the wall. The wall rippled and swam before his eyes. He took a deep breath and rubbed his temples.

On the Screen, the other team had just scored. His future self pulled himself out of the sofa, flicked the screen off and wandered towards the bedroom. Jimmy held his breath as the door opened. Malisa’s voice floated out. ‘You coming to bed now, sweetheart?’

Jimmy beamed as his future self replied in the affirmative and took his first step into the bedroom. Then he stopped, and for a brief moment, flickered, like a hologram when the battery stops working.

‘SUTTON? Come on, you bastard, take me back, I’ve seen enough.’

Silence. His future self flickered again and winked out of existence. He heard a gasp from the bedroom, but a movement behind made him spin. This time, the shape came with claws.

 

The next story, Protection Racket, will be here Thursday 18th December

 

Five Minutes – A Sci-Fi short story, Part 1 of 2

 

This is a fun little two-part story about the choices people make when faced with their fears. It explores time travel just a little bit, something I normally steer well clear of, because, let’s be honest, you’re never going to do it better than Back to the Future. :)

 

‘Come on, Mr Sutton, just five years, please?’

‘Five years, Jimmy, is a very long time. What makes you think I’d be the least bit interested in letting you use my machine?’

Jimmy scratched his shaved head, feeling the scars beneath the stubble, and sniffed. His cold was getting worse. ‘You know I’m good for the funds.’

‘I know nothing of the sort.’

‘I am, I swear it. Just one look. I gotta know.’

‘That’s what they all say. ‘I have to know if it’s going to work.’ ‘I have to see if I win the lottery.’ ‘I have to know if she’s cheating on me.’ Why don’t you just go and ask her?’

‘I can’t do that, you know that.’

‘Why ever not? My wife and I talk about everything.’

Jimmy laughed. It sounded more like a snort, mostly because he tried to catch it on the way out. Mr Sutton’s smooth dark eyebrows rose and he leaned forward until his chin almost touched his desk. ‘Please enlighten me as to what’s so funny?’

‘Just trying to imagine you with a wife. It doesn’t seem likely, that’s all.’

‘I see. About as likely as a woman remaining faithful to you for the next five years, I imagine.’

Jimmy scowled and dug his shoes into the floor. ‘I only need a peek, literally, give me five minutes in the future, that’s all.’

‘That’s all you ever get and you know it. Any more and the walls start to buckle.’

‘But…’ Jimmy tailed off, staring at the polished oak top of Mr Sutton’s desk. It was only the second piece of wood he’d ever seen in his life. The last had been a matchstick grandpa had saved up since before the droughts. He remembered sitting around the kitchen table with his brothers and mum, staring at the matchstick and deciding what to do with it now Grandpa was dead. It could feed them for a month, but the thought of striking it was deeply tempting.

He shook his head, returning to the present. This desk was something else. It was huge and looked to weigh about as much as a Hovee and was worth considerably more. If he could afford a desk like this, Malisa would never cheat on him. But he couldn’t, and she was.

He ducked his head and stared at his feet. He felt his cheeks reddening even though Mr Sutton couldn’t know what was in his head, despite the rumours. He was blushing because he could deal with it if she was cheating, just so long as she stayed with him. How pathetic that made him, he didn’t like to think, but she was the best thing that had ever happened and he couldn’t face life if she buggered off.

Mr Sutton cleared his throat and stared at Jimmy down his unfeasibly long nose. ‘I am sorry, Jimmy, but I must decline. My machine is a highly delicate piece of equipment. I can’t go using it for everyone who promises me money in some distant future.’ He smiled, like the joke was actually funny. ‘Return with cash and we can talk again. Until then…’

He stared pointedly at the door and Jimmy rose slowly from his chair. He turned as he grabbed the handle. He could beg. Sutton had already said no, so what harm was there in trying? He bit his lip and hauled the door open. He wasn’t that bad, not yet. He should mention his service. That had helped before. They saw his scrawny face and narrow shoulders and had him down as street trash. When he told them he led a squad in all three wars, their expressions soon changed.

But Mr Sutton didn’t care. Jimmy knew that without asking.

He tramped down the long corridor to the exit and stepped out onto the street. The door was unmarked and faded into the buildings on either side the moment it closed. Jimmy sniffed and stepped into the street. The howl of horns made him leap back as a Hoved raced past. Four kids clung to the spokes thrusting out from the central platform, laughing as he shook his fist at them.

What the hell were kids that young doing with one of them? They’d been military issue when they were first invented, a quick way for generals to get around the battlefields. Why did everything they have start with the wars?

He looked back at the dark brown doorway and rubbed his nose. Not everything came with the wars. If what he’d been told about Mr Sutton’s machine was true, it came from before the wars and even the droughts! He hoped it was true. Jenna hadn’t actually used it, but a friend of her’s sister’s friend used it and swore it worked. Five minutes at any time in the future or past, to see whatever it was you cared most about.

Jimmy didn’t know how reliable the friend was, but since she’d won the lottery a week later, he reckoned that counted for something. He stomped down the narrow winding road, keeping his eyes on the darkest corners. Most of the shops down here were boarded up and covered in a thin layer of grease. In fact, everything was covered in it. They said on busy days, it rained down here, rain that stuck to your clothes and hair and skin and took a scalding hot shower to get rid of.

He reached his hover and slid into the driver’s seat. The engine rumbled and he shot straight up forty feet into the low lane. The brains engaged and he sat back as the Loop took over, already drumming his fingers against the armrest. That woman had gone forward, found the lottery numbers and changed her life. He was going forward to find out whether his girlfriend was still with him in five years time.

The machine cost fifty creds, which was more money than he’d seen in a year. He wouldn’t have thought twice about it if he hadn’t spotted the condoms in her bag, but that had been enough. She was out making time with someone else and the thought made his guts clench like he’d eaten two week old chickpig.

The buildings rushed past, too fast to see the details, and he let them blur further as his eyes slid closed. He had to get on that machine. He had to.

Work passed in a flash and he headed home, unsure whether to feel triumphant or depressed. He always felt triumphant on the way home, because she was waiting for him. But the joy was absent today. He couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d been up to. Had she seen him again? Was there anyone at all or was it all in his head?

Jimmy snorted as he laid his hand against the pad and his front door hissed open. Of course there was someone. There was no way he could satisfy someone like Malisa.

‘Hey, honey, I’m home.’

The flat said nothing in reply so he wandered into the kitchen. The Screen lit up, telling him the time, when dinner could be ready, and that he had one message.

‘Show me the message.’

Malisa appeared on the screen. She was wearing that tight top again, the one that showed off her fabulous tits. Her full lips curled into the lopsided smile that had his heart racing and she cocked her head to one side. He swallowed and gave his trousers a quick shuffle to ease the sudden tightness.

‘Hey, sweetheart, I’m working late tonight, sorry, I’ll wake you when I get in.’

That was it. No kisses, no explanations as to why. Just ‘I’m working late’. He growled at the Screen and froze it, then threw himself into the sofa. The foot rest slid out, lifting his aching legs and pushing his body back. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. He needed that machine.

He looked around the apartment. He could sell the Screen, it was a pretty nice model. His hover would get twenty creds. With savings, that put him near thirty. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t anywhere near enough. Maybe Sutton would take thirty as a down payment. He groaned. Sutton didn’t want him, with or without the money. The snooty bastard catered to a higher class of clientele than Jimmy.

So he wasn’t going to get in there with money. Maybe there was another way. It wasn’t the right way, but he was well past that now.

He sauntered into the bedroom. Beneath the bed was a box and as he raised the lid, a light sweat sprang up on the back of his neck. The blaster caught the light and gleamed. He hadn’t used this in years.

As he plucked it from the box, a host of memories flashed through his mind. He saw the fields, covered in bones that cracked beneath his boots. He saw the bodies that would soon be bones as the winds stripped them clean. He heard the screams. And he felt the gun kick in his hands, again and again, as his enemies died.

He laid the gun on the bed and pressed his face into the sheet beside it. They weren’t his enemies. They never had been. They’d lied to him, the same way they lied to everyone. He picked up the blaster and stared at it. Malisa was the one good thing in a life used up and spat out by the wars.

He had to know. This was his chance. He could wait a year and scrimp and save and maybe get enough money, but there were no guarantees.

What if they raised the tax again? Last time they’d emptied his bank account, just like that. What if he saved it all and they took it away? He opened the wardrobe and took out his flak vest. Pulling it on felt like stepping back in time. At least on the fields, he’d known what he was doing. Nowadays, he barely knew, not when she wasn’t with him.

He tucked the blaster into the holster and strapped it on, before stepping to the door. Malisa’s face was still on the Screen, frozen in place and five feet high. She was beautiful. She was more than beautiful, but he didn’t have many words left, not the good ones anyway. The war had burnt them away.

 

The second part will be out Monday 15th December

Lana Visits the Shadowlands pt 3 of 3

 

The sunlight took longer to come this time, and the moment she saw it, she raced towards it. She burst out and stared in wonder at the colours before her. Mountains the colour of the sun rose into the sky on all sides. Snow clung to their peaks and rich greenery rested heavy on their flanks.

She was looking along a trail made of yellow stone, with waist high walls on either side. Her shadow was tromping along and she bobbed with it, gazing around her in wonder. This place was beautiful.

She saw no one for the next few hours, hearing only her bearer’s breathing and the calls of birds high in the ocean-blue sky. With lunch time came other trekkers and she listened to their conversations. They spoke all sorts of languages and from the snippets of English she could hear, she worked out she was on the Inca trail. Wherever that was.

She waited for the emotions to kick in, but she got nothing. So she went searching. She found she could detach herself from the shadow and slip inside her bearer. She felt the steady thump of her heart and the churning of her organs. And she felt the secret she was keeping stuffed deep inside.

Her bearer was running away. She was scared, petrified even and every step she took she thought took her further from her fear. Lana wished she could speak to her and tell her she was wrong. She wasn’t running away from it because it was inside her. Lana could almost see it, this dark, grubby colour that stained her thoughts. She thought it was something to do with love, or maybe sex. It felt rude and illicit and made her want to leave before the sun went down.

It also made her think about mum and dad. She’d avoided it before now, but she was doing just the same as her bearer. She was running from something that lived inside her. Mum and dad. She tried to imagine life without them. She tried to imagine what it would be like if they actually did get a divorce. Shauna saw her dad once a month.

The sun dipped early behind the mountains and stole the heat from the day. She knew because her bearer grumbled and put her jacket on. Lana grew tired, yawning until her face ached. The cat came earlier this time. It rubbed against her back, more forcefully this time, and she could feel the low rumble of its purr. She couldn’t see it. She couldn’t turn, but she could feel it. It hung around for a while and this time, she didn’t mind so much.

When it appeared, she’d been scared, but the longer it stayed, the more it felt right. It wasn’t here to hurt her. She didn’t know how she knew, but it stopped the shivering that started in her whenever the sun went down. Weird how she’d assumed it was out to get her.

She yawned again and Wilson’s hand fell on her shoulder. It wasn’t a gentle tap this time. This time she wasn’t sure he was going to remove it. She span round and gave him a look.

‘Well, what do you think?’

‘It’s nice. Where are we?’

‘South America. You can stay if you like.’

‘Nah. It’s nice, but it’s not home.’

‘Well, young lady, I must say you’re being quite picky.’

‘Sorry, I didn’t know there was a time limit.’

Wilson smiled and she saw it again. Where his teeth parted, the ends were filed into points. ‘Of course there isn’t, not at all. Come on, let’s find another place.’

He led her into the darkness and the cat returned. She didn’t mention it to Wilson. Instead she turned to stare at it and it stared right back. Its yellow eyes told her nothing. It stalked closer and before she knew what it was doing, its mouth settled around her arm. The teeth were gentle but she felt them through her jacket. She tried to pull away and it gave her a tug, but it didn’t feel threatening. It wanted to take her somewhere, not hurt her.

Wilson appeared at her side and waved a hand. The cat vanished and he patted her arm. ‘I am sorry, I’ll make sure he doesn’t come again.’

She wanted to argue and say she wanted it to stay, but remained silent. She wasn’t sure Wilson would like it. She wasn’t sure what Wilson did like, but she decided she preferred the cat. She sniffed and caught a scent of the man beside her. He smelled of the soil after dad had been digging in the garden. She’d used to help him, pulling up potatoes and getting filthy. That had been back in town, on the allotment. They’d tried to get it going again in the garden, but it hadn’t been the same. Her eyes were suddenly wet.

She stepped away from Wilson and stared into the darkness where the cat had been trying to take her. Was there something there? She thought she could see trees, waving in a slow wind. Tall, thin trees that cast long shadows across the grass.

‘Here we are.’

The lantern went out and the sunlight came bursting in. She blinked a few times and stared about her. The rock beneath her was orange, like Fanta without the additives. In every direction she could see desert. It was covered in scrubby bushes and stunted trees, not at all like the desert she’d read about in books. But she couldn’t imagine anyone living there, so it had to be desert.

The rock upon which she sat sloped away in every direction and as her perception shifted, she felt a wave of nausea. They were high up, higher than she was happy to be, and her stomach lurched. Then her bearer padded along the rock and she settled down.

They passed people coming in both directions. Every one of them stared at her bearer, like he was different than them and she became desperate to see him. Some even frowned at him and she wondered what was so wrong about him. She went searching, just as she had done before and soon found his sadness. It poured from him in waves and she dived into it. It wasn’t a sadness of which she was afraid. It was too big for that.

It was a sadness of an entire people and it made her throat close up and her eyes wet. This man loved the rock upon which he walked and coming up here was a rare and wonderful thing. He had asked… no, that wasn’t right. His people had asked that others not walk on the rock, yet still they did it. And both he and his people saw their most precious thing being slowly ground down beneath the boots of others.

He had children. His love for them cut through the sadness and she got just a glimpse of how much they meant to him. Did dad feel the same about her. It didn’t feel like it when they talked, but maybe she wasn’t seeing everything. This guy didn’t talk about it, but she could feel it, like she had a window to his soul.

He settled himself on his haunches and she looked around. The sky was clear and endless and she felt expansive and breathless. She could see the whole world from up here. It made her wonder what she wanted to be. She’d been asked that a lot since she’d started senior school.

What do you want to be?

Away from you? Away from here? Away from mum and dad? She always got the feeling they didn’t want to hear that, so she said things like an astronaut or a doctor. They seemed to like those answers, even if they were rubbish. But up here, with the sun bouncing off the rock, she wondered what the real answer was.

Her friends at school talked about family holidays and Christmas, like they were things they enjoyed. She always smiled and found a way to change the conversation if it looked like they were going to ask her about them.

She wanted to enjoy Christmas. She wanted to enjoy dinner, let alone a bloody holiday. One day without arguing or shouting. That would do. After that, she’d figure something out. Maybe she could travel. She didn’t know how, but maybe if she clung to the feeling this man on the rock gave her, she could remember what it was like before it all went wrong.

They reached a steep slope heading down the rock and her stomach flipped over again. Her bearer ambled down as though on flat rock and she did her best to enjoy it. The cat was waiting for her at the bottom. It butted her with its nose and closed its huge jaws around her arm.

He began to pull her away from her bearer and somehow she tore free. Light vanished and they were plunged into darkness, but the cat’s teeth stayed firm around her arm. She put her other hand on its nose and let it lead her along. Ahead of her, the darkness was fading, like someone was slowly turning up a light.

There were trees. They were definitely trees and she knew which ones they were. ‘Can you take me home?’

She whispered it to the cat, but Wilson must have heard. A hand clapped down hard on her shoulder and a voice, quiet different than one he’d used previously whispered in her ear. ‘He’s at it again, I see. I am sorry, young lady—’

‘Stop calling me that, my name’s Lana.’

‘Well, Lana, I am sorry.’ He waved a hand and the cat disappeared. Lana cried out and reached into the darkness, but it was gone.

‘What is it? I mean, who is he?’

‘He is… nothing to worry yourself about.’

‘He was my friend.’

‘He is no one’s friend. He is my servant to do with as I wish. And he is being most disobedient.’

She bristled, playing with the ends of her sleeves as she stared at her feet. Dad never called her disobedient, but if he did, she’d be pissed.

‘I think I want to go home now.’

‘Home? But young lady, you’ve just been to Ayers Rock, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Didn’t you like it?’

‘Yeah, it’s alright, but it’s not home. And it made me sad.’

‘You shouldn’t be feeli—’ He cut himself off and cleared his throat. The abrupt change in volume made her jump.

She imagined she could hear him sighing, but it might have been the wind. ‘Well, I’m terribly sorry about this, but you’re out of time. So it’s either here or the Inbetween.’

‘What?’

‘You know, I do believe I mentioned your use of that word before—’

‘I mean, I thought I could go home.’

‘Well, yes, you could when you asked. But a shadow is always hungry. Anywhere there is light, the shadow will steal it. And you, my young, sweet thing, are very light indeed.’ He chuckled and she could see his teeth.

‘I want to go home.’

‘Are you sure? Because the last time I looked, you were running away.’

Lana squeezed her eyes shut. This was a dream. She knew it was. She just needed to wake up. Where had the cat gone. If she could just find the cat, he would help her. Where had he been trying to lead her?

She squinted through the darkness and as though he knew what she was doing, Wilson opened his lamp and splashed her with light. The darkness around her became absolute and whatever she thought she had seen, was gone.

She looked at him. She saw the perfectly pressed suit and the old world lantern. And she saw his shadow. She didn’t know how she did it, but she imagined she was there, inside it, and just like that, she leapt. She was staring out into the darkness, only it wasn’t darkness. She could see the fields and the river and the trees.

She could see home. It was right here. But she couldn’t go there yet. She was in Wilson’s shadow, so she went searching. She found it soon enough. He was scared, just like the lady in South America. He was scared of her. It was a cold, clinging fear that made him sick and worried and she felt it like oil on her skin. Why was he scared of her? Was it the cat? Or was it because of this, because of what she could feel?

She imagined herself before him and just like that, she stepped back out of his shadow.

‘Where did you go?’ He thundered at her, sharpened teeth clashing together and she managed to smile beneath the onslaught.

‘I’ve been in your shadow. Why are you scared of me?’

‘You been in…? How? What are you, child?’

A growl sounded behind her and the cat crept around, his long tail flicking her hair up. A voice like darkness itself spoke in her mind. ‘You are his replacement. Not today, but soon.’

She laughed and Wilson shrank away from her. The cat came around in front of her and nudged her with its head towards the trees and the river. She began to walk and Wilson screamed. ‘No, come back, come ba—’

She glanced back, but her guide was trapped in the cat’s jaws. It shook him back and forth, but she turned away before she saw any more. She broke into a run

Light burst over her, and with it, the cold. The sun was behind the trees and a chill wind was blowing off the river, but it felt like spring. She burst out laughing as the ground beneath her feet became soft and the leaves crunched under her shoes.

Mum and dad were standing on the river bank, clinging to one another. Mum looked older. They saw her at the same moment she saw them and mum burst into tears. Dad burst into a jog. She’d never seen him run.

Then his arms were open before her and she dived into them, clinging to him as his warmth wrapped her up.

The End

 

“Time To Spare” begins Thursday 11th December