Jeremiad

Somewhere in the depths of the bureau, two researchers lurched through a graveyard shift. Tara flicked through screen after screen, feeding data to a tired brain that did not appreciate the gift. Management kept the room, and the screens, in a state of perpetual dimness, making everything just slightly too taxing for a pair of drowsy eyes. The smell of coffee and ozone covered the whole scene like a blanket. This room never smelled any other way. A few metres away, Carlos rotated slowly on his chair. He had been doing that for ten minutes.

“So, I’ve been thinking.” He said. She gave a nondescript mumble, which he was happy enough to take as dialogue. “You have all these stories, right? Or myths, or whatever. Where humans, or sentient things that are basically humans, are made out of something fantastical.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Like dust, or clay, or ants, or bones, or…”

“I get the idea.”

“Right. So then, all through history, there’s this constantly evolving story about how you can ‘make a man’, and what he’d be like, and whether he’d be truly human, and so on. And that’s all still going. People are still reading Frankenstein. The guys over in bio are still arguing about cloning and all that philosophy bullshit. Then you’ve got the exact same conversations with androids, and people are still reading Dick.”

“Yes.”

“And then you look at what we’re doing.”

“Sure. What’s your point?”

“Oh, nothing really. Just thinking out loud. I guess, like… truth is stranger than fiction? Plus ca change? Dunno. I think the boredom’s getting to me.”

“It’s been getting to you for the last five hours.”

“Try months.”

“Count your blessings. You weren’t around for version one of this. That was one tenth the speed, and ten times the oversight.”

“Congratulations on your suffering.”

“Thanks.”

Carlos resumed his spinning. She resumed her sifting. Some arbitrarily long, arbitrarily short length of time passed, before something caught her eye.

“Well, this one’s gone to shit.”  She sighed, eyes fixed on the monitor.

“Which one? 17e?” He looked worried.

“No. Well, give it an hour. It’s mid-cycle. But 14h right now.”

“You’re kidding. El Dorado?”

“Yup.”

“Jesus.”

“If you say so.”

“How long have B-group been in there?”

“Four cycles.”

“I’ll buzz Mr. Douglas. He was interested in that one. Get them up on the main display.”

The wall-sized array of screens hummed into life, dousing the office in over-bright, electric light. With a few keystrokes, Tara magnified the scene in question. It was in the heart of their palace, the centre of the small but dazzling world that had been built for them.  A leader stood, mid-speech, draped in the fullest and most luxuriant regalia that his people knew. The crowd watched in rapt attention, jubilance and anger painting their faces. They were dressed in almost equal opulence, this occasion calling for their culture’s highest grade of luxury (although even the lowest was a gilded extravagance by most standards). Behind the orator, a bare, limp body swung, its lifeless form in grim contrast to the animation of the crowd. Tara turned on the audio, and the fire of rhetoric rushed into their dim little office.

“And so, my friends, I say to you that we must act now, or our downfall is at hand. The brightest days live on only in the memories of our fathers, and the darkest will be all we leave for our sons. These newcomers, these aberrations, they stain and blemish all around them. They do not know the art of our prosperity, and in their crude imitations will topple even the greatest of our works. There was a time, not so long ago, that we were perfect. A time when every man, woman and child was wealthy, resplendent and content. That time is sinking further and further into the deep, and we must have the courage to dive in and grasp it, before it is blackened and drowned. No act is truly ugly when performed in the defence of beauty, and the beauty of our city is absolute. Better to bloody our gold than to let in tarnish in strange hands…”

“Alright, that’s enough. Turn that off.” Carlos rubbed his brow.

“Did you really think that wouldn’t happen?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not. I mean… we gave them so much. It looked like a joke, on paper. Way more of every resource than they could ever need. Then four cycles of B-group and they’re burning themselves down?”

“You wait. There’s trouble brewing in 14i. I’d bet my paycheque that within the next two cycles they’re killing each other over the choice between emeralds and jade.”

“So, a ‘no’ on the whole 14 series?”

“Negative results are still results.”

“You tell that to management. They’re getting shirty.”

“Oh, I’ll them something alright. These things take time. We’ll get there.”

Carlos did not seem convinced. He turned back to his station and began poring over something, presumably the 14h data. He wasn’t seeing the big picture. They would find something that works. But they’d have to wade through a lot of defective scenarios, then defective combinations of defective scenarios. One day, they’d have the good fortune to start on defective combinations of viable scenarios. But that was a way off. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Rome fell. They needed something much more robust.

Still, it was hard not to feel a little disheartened. With nothing to do until Mr. Douglas rolled out of bed and made his way down, she found herself combing absent-mindedly through past failures. There wasn’t much to be gained from this kind of rumination, and she knew it, but it had been a long night. A little guilty displeasure wouldn’t hurt.

In 11d, the people starved. The conflict over a common but miserly source of food had left both groups with nothing to eat. In 15b, the doomsday clock was all but spent. No agreement had been reached – for stopping it, or on its veracity as a doomsday clock. In 18a, the C-group was all dead, and the A- and B-groups were both starting to look like hammers in search of nails. Easy enough to see what was coming. Across the board, they failed. They failed quickly in the harshest scenarios, slowly in the most generous. Given a problem to solve, they refused to solve it. Given a helping hand, they refused to take it. No matter what world she made for them, it was only a question of time until the battle lines were drawn, and then, eventually, the last breath. It was easy, if only for a moment, to feel that the endeavour was hopeless.

But she would press on. This was still the basic stuff. They had reams of reams of future tests, each just waiting for the limits on extremity and complexity to rise. Parameters that were totally implausible in the real world, but that could yet bear fruit. The possibilities were vast beyond consideration, and somewhere in that haystack lay a needle. They would find it, even if it meant taking the whole thing apart, one straw at a time. They had to, after all. There she sat, part of her own much larger, much more intricate scenario. One that, much like all these little simulacra, was well on its way to shit. And, although vast and inscrutable, the universe was what it was. No more, no less. The options available were predetermined, even if they could only command the utter rudiments at present. Through some unseen combination, some undreamt application of those instruments, the course could be averted. That was a matter of faith. Hers were the tools of insight and inquiry, the lenses and the mirrors, and she would operate them dutifully.

Mr. Douglas would arrive soon. He’d grind his teeth, fret, talk politics and funding. The segregationists would have a field day with 14h (surely peace could be achieved by simply keeping A and B apart?). Their opponents would argue that, had the two groups been present from the start, the scenario would have been a roadmap to utopia. The cult of austerity would point to the luxury and abundance of 14h’s culture, a harbinger of moral decay and atrocity – their scenario was too easy, and so it was too difficult. On and on it would go, each voice taking the result as their own, just another weapon for the proselytisers to point at each other. And, in each case, there would be completed trials just waiting to disprove them, all going ignored and unheard over the din of battle. Ultimately, the downfall of 14h’s people didn’t mean anything much. Right now, downfall was the only constant.

That was just a matter of time, or so she’d tell them. And that was just a matter of faith. Management was caught between those who believed in pushing projects, and those who believed in ending them. It was strange. All agreed that they were heading for a fall, one way or another, and yet so many insisted on not trying to change it. Well, maybe that wasn’t her problem. She had her hands full with all those tools of inquiry and insight. That had to be enough, even if it didn’t always feel like it.

On her screen, the flames were rising in 17e. She watched the numbers run down to zero, took a sip of coffee, and started writing the report.

 

 

The End

Preta

It was getting late. He was in that clumsy window of the evening, too early for sleep but late enough that no desire remained to stay awake. So, he was settling into an hour or so of cosy, drowsy boredom to cap off the day. Circumstance had conspired to offer him some idle time, and he was happy to accept it. There is a rare sort of comfort in having nothing to do and a healthy chunk of time in which to do it. Life is not inclined to reward laziness, but it will sometimes demand it. He intended to oblige, and savour the moment.

Then came a knock on the door.

An unexpected guest was never the start of anything good. In the daytime, it meant salesmen, activists, fussy neighbours, and so on. After dark, it meant nothing, and therefore anything that one’s mind might like to conjure. That was much worse. The sun, in his view, had a sanitising effect on the world. Its rays made everything nicer, safer. It marked the better half of the human experience, the half in which routine and normalcy held sway. Chaos and all its unsavoury cohorts were strictly nocturnal beasts. Their presence changed everything. Harmless strangers by daylight were dangerous by night, and likewise for their activities. Violence and depravity could not tolerate sunlight. This was their time. And now, with this knock, they were looking to invade. He had no line of salt, no black tourmaline. If somebody truly wished to do him harm, they would succeed.

He sank deeper into the sofa and made an attempt at perfect silence. If he could ignore a phone call, he could ignore someone at the door. It was gone ten. The rules were different. He was, he told himself, under no obligation to respond. It was probably a drunk, or somebody of similarly loose conduct, looking for a free phone, or the money for another round. If anything, the onus was on him to spare them both the trouble. That said, he had also heard of an old trick whereby thieves would knock on their victims’ doors. If there was no answer, they would assume that the house was empty, and have their way with it. In that case, he’d be better off responding. Still, it seemed less likely than his first assumption, and it was generally preferable to succumb to the paralysing fear rather than the galvanising one.

Another knock. He would weather the storm. Even a canvasser knocks twice. This product of an indecent night could hardly be expected to exercise greater consideration. He would stay the course, and it would pass.

Then came a neat, rhythmic sequence, an ordered tune composed entirely from the quiet, harsh clacking of metal on metal. The invader persisted with this for some time. As he listened, he found his mind changing. If this stranger had the discipline for such an appeal, then perhaps they were sober. That being the case, perhaps they were looking for help of some kind, in all good faith and for a perfectly respectable problem. It would hardly be proper of him to deny them of it, or at least of the chance to ask. In uncertain relation to his better judgement, he stood, adjusted his glasses, and made his way to the door.

Fully expecting to come face-to-face with some knife-wielding vision of bacchic horror, he unbolted the bolt and unchained the chain. This symbolic wooden slab was his armour, and he was moving to denude himself to the night – or perhaps he was blowing things out of proportion. Still, there was a lump in his throat as he turned the handle.

On the doorstep, half-glowing in the streetlight, a young woman stood expectantly. He had, unconsciously, been expecting a man, and was immediately put at ease. The scenarios he had feared remained entirely possible, but that fear had lost its bite. It now had to be reconciled with an element that he did not associate with threat, and his psyche was not in the business of reconciling unless absolutely necessary. He had gone from a place of exaggerated danger to one of exaggerated safety, and that transition suited him just fine. And she was perfectly unthreatening. She wore a very sensible-looking coat, with her (undyed) hair tied back in a very sensible-looking style. She was pretty, but not in a way that made him overly conscious of sex. All things told, she looked composed, if cold, and quite disconnected from whatever other debauchery might be occurring out there.

“Hi.” She said.

“Hello.”

“I had a good feeling about this door. Been trying all around this part of town. Um… I need some help. Something fell through, and now I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight.”

“… so you’d like to sleep here?”

“Yes, if at all possible. Just until the early trains. I know it’s a lot to ask. But, you know… the houses around here are nice and the people are decent. I just felt like I’d be able to stay out of the way in a spare bed, and stay safe for the night. I really don’t want to risk a cheap hostel or anything like that.”

Well, he could hardly argue with that reasoning. This was indeed a nice, safe area, and his house was probably the nicest, safest part of it. Anywhere still offering beds for a reasonable price at this time would surely be exactly the sorts of places where an honest young woman would have the most cause for concern.

“Oh, well. Um… of course. I have a spare bedroom that you’re welcome to use. That’s what it’s there for, I suppose.”

“You’re sure?”

“Absolutely. It’s not the sort of thing I’d normally do, but I can hardly turn you away in good conscience.”

She let out a charming sigh, and formed an equally charming smile.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have no idea how much of a help this is. You may well be a literal life-saver, you know.”

“Erm… no problem. Happy to help.”

“So, can I come in?”

“By all means.”

He stepped aside, clearing the way for her to enter. This she did with visible relief, bustling through the front hallway and into the kitchen as if to solidify her presence in the house, putting at least one room between her and the outside. He took a second to collect himself before joining her.

“It feels so good to be out of the cold.” She beamed, removing her coat to reveal another eminently sensible ensemble underneath.

“I imagine.”

“Look, I don’t want to get in your way. If you were doing something before, or just going to bed, you can carry on as you were. I’ll be as quiet as possible, and wake up nice and early. Probably be on my way before you’re even awake.

“No, no, that won’t do. Hospitality is a virtue that I don’t want to see lost. Make yourself at home.”

“You’re very kind.”

“Not at all. It’s basic human decency.” Internally, of course, he was congratulating himself profusely.

There was a brief pause as she sat down and untied her hair. Realising that he was now obliged actually to offer some of the virtuous hospitality he had promised, he appealed to the universal emblem thereof.

“Cup of tea?”

“Oh, no thanks. A glass of water would be nice, though.”

“Certainly. I hope you’re not one of those mineral water people.”

“Tap is fine.”

He filled a glass and handed it over. Her eyes seemed to light up as she touched it, and she rubbed the outside with what seemed to him to be a slightly indecent fascination. She was entirely too enthusiastic about it, in short, and was barely attempting to hide the fact. There was, he felt, something decidedly off about that. But he could hardly begrudge her a quirk or two. Nobody’s perfect, or perfectly normal.

“Um…” She paused for a second. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to bed? I don’t want to keep you. It’s late.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m not too old to stay up a little longer than usual.”

“Are you sure? I’m very grateful to you, but really, I can take things from here.”

At this point, a touch of mistrust was starting to creep back in. Perhaps he had been too quick to judge. Perhaps he was repeating that mistake.  Either way, that was not the sort of dilemma he wanted to have on a Friday evening, and he had brought it on himself. He resolved to be more careful with his kindness in future, regardless of how this turned out.

“I’m sure.”

She took a deep, strained sort of breath. Her stomach growled. It sounded desperate.

“I really… could use the privacy. Really. Just go to sleep. Please. It will be easier for both of us.”

“Alright, that does it. What’s going on here? Are you going to rob me? Because that’s not going to happen. I hardly think you’re going to be able to overpower me.”

“No. That’s not it.” She twitched. “That’s not it. I just have to… sort some things out on my own, alright? Call it a woman’s business.”

“Well, I don’t know how much woman’s business I’d like going on in my home in any case, but that ship has sailed. You’re going to have to be straight with me, or I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

She sat, drumming her feet against the floor, blinking erratically. Both hands were wrapped around the glass, massaging it with increasing agitation.

“… fuck it. Sorry.”

At once, the windows cracked through. The lightbulbs began to splinter, flickering wildly. Her mouth opened wide (much too wide, he felt), and she put the entire glass in, crunching down into it with a look of utter satisfaction. He watched, aghast, as she swallowed, the outlines of shards clearly visible as they pulsed down her neck.

She stood just as he took a step towards her, freezing him in place with an admonishing finger.

“Don’t.”

Blood tumbled out of her mouth when she spoke. His head was spinning, his legs were shaking, and he obeyed, watching silently as she picked apart his windows and ate mouthful after jagged mouthful. With that done, she fixed him with another warning gaze, climbed onto the table, and plucked the lightbulb. That was one bite, little more than dessert. She stood there in the dark, a silhouette of sticky, bloodied lunacy standing tall over him. Then her stomach growled again, and she jumped down, prowling off deeper into the house.

This act of further invasion gave him back a little bit of fighting spirit. He collected himself and went off in pursuit, which was not difficult – a thick, red trail was soaking into the carpet. She was in the living room, hunched over the remnants of a coffee table.

“Stop!” He cried. “Stop it, stop it, stop it. I don’t know what you are or what you’re doing, but please. You’ve got to go, now, or I’m going to have to get violent.”

The threat had just sort of… flopped out, and was about as convincing as could be expected from a man who was visibly trembling. She stood, and walked slowly to him, stopping just inches in front.

“A person.” She said, removing his glasses. “Has got to eat. And it’s not easy when your appetites are all wrong.” She popped out the lenses and ate them like after-dinner mints. “But it is what it is. Nothing I can do. I can hardly just starve, can I?”

“No… but, this… this is…”

“Broken eggs. Can’t make an omelette, and so on.”

He looked down at the bloody, glass-seeded rug, felt the night air blowing in through a now-vacant window, and found the comparison wanting.

“Please.” He could feel his throat catch, and was actively resisting tears. “Tell me you’re done.”

“All full up, thank you. It really was sweet of you to let me in.”

She hugged him, trapping him momentarily in a warm, sodden embrace. It was not pleasant.

“I am grateful.” She continued. “And hey, if I ever win the lottery, I’ll make it up to you. But I figure you must be doing pretty well for yourself, right? Single guy, in a house like this, in this part of town. I tried. I’m not perfect, but I tried.”

He didn’t know to what extent he was angry, or to what extent he could blame her. He wasn’t thinking about it. He wasn’t thinking about the damage to his property, or the violation of his rights, or her situation, or what he might do in it, or how any of this was even possible. Thought was a lost cause. He just wanted it not to have happened. Failing that, he just wanted it to be done.

“I’m… I don’t… I’m done. Can you just go? Just leave, and that can be that.”

“Of course. But, erm… I’m going to have to use your shower first.”

He slumped to the floor, failing miserably in his attempts not to cry. With a voice of total defeat, he offered to show her to the spare bedroom.

He never did tell anybody about what happened that night. The clean-up was long, expensive, and full of awkward questions, but he took it on the chin and moved on – another of those virtues he was keen to preserve. All things told (and with selective ignorance of a few items) he was rather proud of his composure throughout the whole ordeal. She had been right about his finances. Barely a dent’s worth of damage caused, in the grand scheme of things. One year later, and the whole ghastly business was behind him.  Or so he told himself. Whether he knew it or not, he was a changed man. For the rest of his days, he felt a strange discomfort about unthreatening young women. And, needless to say, he never answered the door again.

The End

Second Chance

In the days since her diagnosis, she had found herself preoccupied with one idea, one strand of thought. That life, or at least the experience of it, was not a matter of facts, but one of possibilities. It was defined not by the path currently walked, but by the upcoming forks, and then the forks after that, and so on and so on into some infinitely dense, vaguely fractal mess of potential. Whilst individual circumstance was comprised almost solely of present and observable aspects, it was possibility, no matter how infinitesimally small, that fuelled the whole device. The poorest among us could suddenly find wealth, the loneliest suddenly find love, the most oppressed suddenly find a voice. Likewise, any amount of happiness, fortune or influence could just as soon be undone by a single twist of fate, a single blind turn in the wrong direction. All it took was the wrong objects to do the wrong things, and you were done. Almost no matter who you were, no matter the facts of your life, a total reversal of fortunes was always just a couple of readily-conceivable steps away.

These tiny, vastly improbable kernels of potential change were all that it took to keep people trudging apprehensively through life’s maze. This was the normal state of affairs – ‘sanity’. Insanity was the delusion of certainty. At least, that was one of its more intoxicating offerings. The conviction that a situation is entirely hopeless, or else totally untouchable. The knowledge that a given action would, without fail, lead to a given result. The transmutation of that labyrinth of forked roads into a straight line, and so freedom from the tyranny of choice.

That was how she saw it. Indeed, looking back, it was how she had lived most of her life. But of course, anything could change. Even in a life driven by the omnipotence of chance, a certainty (or close enough to one for human purposes) was always just one room over, one turning away. In the diagnosis of an acutely fatal, untreatable condition, for example, one might be faced with the certainty of imminent death. And so, in arriving at this cul-de-sac, one stops to consider the true nature of the maze, and finds that its twisty little passages were, in fact, all alike, whether they were paved with gold or with dirt. Or perhaps those were just a scared mind’s attempts at comfort.

Lost in these thoughts, she went to sleep, and died.

She found herself in a small, dark room. The only light came from an audience of unusually tall candles, which flickered down at her in intense curiosity. Across from her was a figure (which can sustain no further description), or perhaps many.

“Our apologies.” It sighed. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Understandably, she said nothing.

“Oh, don’t be like that. We all make mistakes. It’s a complicated world, you know. Impossible to keep track of every little thing.”

Again, she said nothing.

“Besides, do you really need that many moving parts? A handful of cells break rank while I’m fixing something else, and suddenly you’re dead? Come on! How am I supposed to work under these conditions?”

“I… really don’t know.”

“This whole set-up is ridiculous. And don’t you go acting all blameless! You had one little task on the cosmic itinerary and you couldn’t even get that done before your body went rogue. Even Jesus got through most of his list, and some genius decided to put him in before the internet. This is a fucking shambles.”

“I’m… sorry for being worse than Jesus?”

“Good! You should be. Well, at least contrition is a start. Listen, I’m sending you back in. We’re going to try the whole thing again, and you’re just going to have to really hustle this time. And try not to get cancer, or fall off a bridge, or be born in a warzone. Common sense, really. Sort yourself out, or I’m bumping your part onto someone else.”

“I don’t follow. I’m not dead?”

“Of course you’re dead, you moron. But we’re going to have to fix that, because you’re also woefully inefficient. Please try harder this time.”

“At what?”

“Oh, for… look, I don’t have time for this. Get out of here. Go.”

Later that same night, a child was born. It was mostly a blank slate, as infants tend to be. Still, it knew some things, after its own ignorant fashion. It would know, for example, if it were too hungry or too cold. It would react in different ways to different sounds, be tuned even at this early stage to the voice of its mother and the language of its birth. This child in particular knew more than most, although its mind was perhaps not yet structured enough truly to receive the information. It knew that even the surest of worldly things was still uncertain, it knew that it had some unknown part to play, and it knew that it was already dead. This was the beginning, or the mid-point, of a highly unusual life.

The End

On a Train

I was huddled up at the back of the carriage, trying to look as small and unassuming as possible. My bags were firmly planted on the aisle seat, presenting a wall that I hoped would deter my fellow travellers. There was always the danger of a particularly gregarious assailant resolving to topple, sap, or otherwise overcome my defences, but there’s no sense in planning against such pure psychopathy. In general, I felt that my position was as secure as could be expected. I was all set to people-watch happily for the duration of the journey, untroubled and unmolested until I reached wherever it was I was going.

At a nearby table, a young man was striking up a conversation with the young woman sitting across from him. She was being as politely uncooperative as she could, but he didn’t seem too discouraged. Their stop-and-start patter continued as we rolled on. I was paying half-attention. He’d apparently been let out of prison recently (that did little to ease her discomfort). She was coming back from visiting her granddad. His had died last year. Hers was recovering from a minor infarction. Et cetera. The whole thing was affable enough, I suppose, but awkward in far greater measure. Never sit at a table. The risks are simply too high.

I was drowsy, flirting with sleep but never quite making the connection. Still, there were times when I was sloughing gently from the world, far enough gone to have no awareness apart from the rumbling of the train and the spritzes of colour sailing across my eyelids. It must have been during one of these intervals that he showed up. Drifting reluctantly back into an approximation of wakefulness, I saw a man across the aisle who looked exactly like me. He caught my gaze, a knowing glint in his eye, and I snapped back to staring out of the window. Curiosity proved stronger than aversion, and I took a series of furtive, skittish glances at my doppelganger. Sure enough, it was me, in nigh-perfect facsimile. He was dressed a little sharper, he looked a little less muggy than I must have, perhaps a little graver, but that was it. He’d even erected the same luggage-fort I had. I tried my hardest not to focus on it. These things can happen. Well, clearly. It just had. Still, it was eerie, oppressively so. I was tingling with the impulse to look again, but held in check by the fear of once again meeting his eye.

Distraction, eminently welcome, came in the form of a hen party claiming the front half of the carriage. The event was clearly already mid-flight, its participants being fairly drunk already and bedecked in luridly pink regalia to match their luridly blue conversation. The situation with my double went more or less forgotten as I hunkered down and took shelter, both from the torrents of jubilant innuendo and from the groundswell of finger-wagging complaint stirring among the other passengers. Attempts from the staff to resolve these tensions proved effective only in the most ephemeral sense. The true cure, as ever, was time and absence. The group left after two stops, presumably to besiege a nearby restaurant. As the chorus of satisfied tutting petered out, I unthinkingly looked over to my mystery twin. A mistake. He was crying, quietly and without much outward motion, but clearly enough. For whatever reason, I sat and watched. This window into another’s misery felt somehow acceptable, given our resemblance. There was no logic to that, and yet I allowed myself to indulge in this naked voyeurism, unafraid of being caught, fascinated by each rolling tear and each twitch of distress.

This transfixion was broken only when physical circumstances forced the matter – my line of sight was interrupted by a mother and child, a boy of maybe seven or eight years. Realising what I had been doing, I jumped ship and instead focused on these new arrivals. The other me deserved his privacy. Besides, the boy was in the throes of a creative fervour, a prolonged flight of slightly over-loud, slightly over-agitated artistry that I supposed had been going on for the entirety of their journey. The mother certainly seemed to have gotten tired of the concept a long, long time ago, and was now offering only the most perfunctory of responses as her son charged on. He was writing aloud, working on what seemed to be a rather optimistic spacefaring epic. The scene at hand called for a fleet of invading spacecraft, the description of which was… comprehensive. Having exhausted every type and category of vessel known to him, and apparently to humanity at large, he was now interrogating his mother for further suggestions. Many were forthcoming, but all fell short. Frigates, dreadnaughts, corvettes, brigantines, monitors, and so on… all had already been included in this obsessively thorough armada (wasn’t she listening?). With admirable grit, the mother battled on in a seemingly endless cycle. For somebody not directly involved, it was surprisingly soothing. I drifted off, as the train and the conversation trundled down their rigid courses.

The sun had set by the time I woke up, so I suppose I must have been asleep for at least an hour. It was near pitch black outside, the country offering only fleeting, misshapen silhouettes of hedgerows and trees. These were almost entirely walled over by the reflections from inside the train. The lights felt garish in their intensity, insensitive to the empty quiet of the carriage and the gentle night. There was nobody there but me, my double, and a dozing passenger much further up. Perhaps it was just an excuse for morbid curiosity, but it seemed to me that there was nowhere else to look at that point in time. The doppelganger had cast his bags to the floor, and was now lying, foetal, across both seats. He was mostly still, except for the occasional sob, and his clothing was crumpled, flecked with bits of dust and other dishevelment. Clearly our similarities did not extend to the willingness to make a scene. I felt awful, but nonetheless compelled to watch. And so I did, vaguely hypnotised both by the display of sorrow and by the fascinating discomfort of one’s own reflection. After some time, long enough to draw me in without my habitual defences, he moved his head and looked at me. There was a sense of vicious accusation in this glance that put me to flight at once (to say nothing of the inherent panic of unexpected eye contact). I pushed myself hard into the corner, turned my head and tried with all my might to become a world unto myself. An island, totally unassailable by the likes of this distressed mirror-image, or anyone else for that matter. It didn’t work. I tried to deny the outside, to focus only on safe thoughts and scenes of my own construction, but few were forthcoming, and those that were did not survive for long. No method of self-absorption, no matter how desperate, was able to isolate me to the desired extent. The other’s presence could still be felt, a tickling of stinging nettles that I was unable to soothe.

Clearly, my own mind was incapable of mustering up a functional distraction. Trapped within my fortress, with only two other people in the carriage, there was but one remaining straw at which to grasp. Pouring my every drop of effort into the endeavour, I listened to the old woman sleeping. It proved remarkably effective. There was a certain tranquillity to her snoring and muttering, and I was happily subsumed.  I imagined her to be totally free of all concerns, both in this slumber and in all things. Just a perfectly contented person, leading a perfectly untroubled life, her struggles being all behind her. It was a fantasy, of course, but a comforting one. My heartbeat slowed, and I was calmed. If I needed an imagined, vicarious peace to achieve that, so be it.

There was a chime, and the driver announced that we would soon be arriving at the terminus. Stirring back into attention, I felt a breath on my cheek. Fighting every impulse to somehow shrink yet further into my seat, I turned to look. The doppelganger loomed, inches away, perfectly still, staring straight into me with wide, vacant eyes. He was pale, intense and motionless, projecting an aura of such pure, cold absence that all the drowsy warmth of this long journey was at once dispelled. Were he not still breathing, anybody would have thought this was a corpse. I loosed a (mostly) internal scream, sprang to my feet and pushed him down into the aisle. He simply lay as he fell, crumpled and unmoving while I rushed to the door. I made it just as the train came into the platform, pounding against the ‘open’ button with a shaking hand.

I sprinted out into the station, taking a few random turns before stopping for breath. It was unlit, silent, and empty. In a confusion of fear and relief, I slumped to ground, the sound of my fall echoing out into oblivion. Still overwhelmed, still uncertain of what to do next, I lay down and drank in the blankness of the hall. Here, if nothing else, there was safety.

The End

Priestess

It was late afternoon, and she was tired. Her robes, damp from the rain, rested heavy on her back. They were thick and plain, but festooned with countless wooden idols and talismans, such that each movement was set to a trancelike clattering of symbols. Beneath the hood, a pair of stark young eyes stared out from behind a veil of chimes. What they saw, what they had seen on these months of travel, was exactly as she had been told. Her elders had not deceived her. The world was old. It was greying, slowing down. Dying. The signs were myriad and inauspicious. All roads were less travelled, all dawns less bright. Clouds ripened and burst in ceaseless, languid cycles, leaving the sun with precious little of his former glory. Her travels had been a tapestry of ill omens, each new vista feeding thread to the loom. This newest path was no exception.

Winding down the hillside, she cast her focus out onto the fields below. Even through the fog, she could see that most of the crop had gone to rot. Clouds of wingworms fluttered idly above the still-living patches. In her mind’s eye, the scrolls of long-dead prophets unfurled. She had memorised them all, as all of her order must.

“Many plagues will issue forth from their submerged gaols. In blindness and folly, they will sense the end, and believe that they may yet flee, and they will run rampant across the land.”

The ground would be crawling, too. This was a fresh and vital pestilence, one that still had food on which to chew. It would kill the field and its dependents, but it was no danger to her. The wards along her robe would screen her, and the herbs in her inner pockets could heal her if needed. She glanced upwards.  A storm would likely break in earnest shortly after sunset. A roof would be needed. The horizon was throttled by haze, but she could make out the crests of buildings. Perhaps there would be people. She was in need of a flock. A vain hope, most likely. The able among them would certainly all be gone, and it was only a matter of time before the rest would follow.

“Men and beasts will exchange homes, such that no creature’s lair will suit it, and there will be great uproar.”

Wild dogs and rats did not suit her, but there was little choice in the matter. The open air was not a safe choice tonight, and a town’s ghost still offers shelter. Now at the foot of the hill, she started in that direction. It was good to be on flat ground again, but that was more a mercy than a true blessing. The plain was squalid. Wet, infested and stinking. She extracted a paste of blossoms and smeared it across her face. It had its ritual properties, but it would serve her better as a competitor to the stench. The rattling of her strides and the sanctity of her being would drive away lesser vermin. The passage was without incident, and she made it to the town by sunset.

It was as expected. Silent and still, but for the obscured shuffling of unknown creatures. The new residents were giving her a wide berth, although their curiosity laced the air. This place had been abandoned some time ago, and its new residents were well established. Most likely something had driven the people away even before the blight set in. A cursory search of the buildings revealed nothing of use to her. No food or suitable tools. There were still some dead, infants and the infirm. People who would have burdened the exodus.

“The strong will outpace the weak, but find their own strength to be wanting. The shrewd will outwit the foolish, but find that not all trials are of the mind.”

She resolved to cleanse the town tomorrow. Her mission could not afford to be slowed too frequently, but this was a wound that required dressing. She was not willing to let it fester any longer. It was a knowingly palliative gesture. That was the nature of the beast, at times. In all their tutelage, the elders had never made it clear whether their task was to heal the world or merely ti ease its passage. An easy enough mystery for their generation to bear. Less so for hers, now that the time was at hand.

The sun was down, and the storm was mustering up the opening sobs of the nightlong wailing to come. She settled on an old shrine, although the local faith was wholly alien to her. It was a matter of practicality. Such places tended to be built well, and at times some virtue still lingered in them. She turned her eyes to the night sky before entering. There was no clear sign there.

“The heavens are a page upon which an elder script is written. When earthly knowledge fails, the people will look to them, and find themselves illiterate.”

Indeed, the scripture was of little help in reading the stars and the moon. It warned of the most brazen omens, but the prevailing message was one of ignorance.

The shrine was small, and its contents had been taken. It would do nicely. There was a firepit in the centre of the room, presumably intended for the burning of offerings. It would serve her just as well for warmth. Some stonelice had taken up residence in the cracks, no doubt delighted by the unchecked moss, but that looked to be the extent of the place’s corruption. Certainly, it had not yet fallen so far as the rest of the town. Happy with this relative safety, she kindled a fire and began the nightly chant.

She raised her arms, forming two wings of rattling pendants, and began to circle the spluttering light. Her voice emerged in a sinewy contralto, shaping strange and unknown words with a lifelong confidence. This was a song said to have preceded them all, to have somehow passed through the death of a previous age into the birth of theirs, and fated to survive yet again until such a time as fate itself dies. Whether that was true or not, it was certainly old. Older than melody, and so the singer must fight against her instinct to put tune to the sound. Older than sequence, and so she must know each of its morae as a phrase unto itself. No two performances could be alike, but each must be perfect. With a dramatic sweep, she cast a vial of incense from within her sleeve onto the fire. The flame quivered, and plumes of defiant, bitter odour filled the room. The final note trailed off into the quiet outside. The rite was done.

Curling up into the folds of her robe, she began to sleep.

It was some hours later when she awoke. The storm and the night now held this little shrine tightly in their grasp. Rain beat wildly against the walls, and the winds forced their way through gaps in the stonework, spreading icy fingers across the warmth that she had invoked there. The fire was mewling, keeping its vigil but waning fast. Bleary-eyed, she watched it struggle for a while, listened to the shrieks and percussion of the weather. Then, slowly and yet somehow suddenly, a change came over the room. The light dimmed to an ember, darkness swallowing all but a tiny pool of hot, stifling orange.  The sound from outside seemed to withdraw, becoming distant and muted, as though submerged. In response, all stimuli from inside the room bristled with renewed focus. The scent of cool stone and smoke, the patter of lice, the quiet clacking of wood as she shuffled to attention.

“That was a nice song.”

The words came from somewhere beyond the firelight, or indeed everywhere. The voice was deep, silky and formless. It betrayed no gender, no intent, no aspect of the speaker’s nature. She did not reply.

“No need to be afraid, my dear. I am simply extending a greeting, from a wise old thing to a wise young one.”

“… old?”

“Oh, yes. There has been nothing for so long, in all this life and vigour. You and I have no place in a young world. But now the leaves fall, the rabble clears, and the stage is readied for its true actors.”

A passage emerged from the corners of her mind.

There will be voices in the dark, and voices in the light, and voices in all the grey between, and all will ask fealty, and all will be deceivers.”

She had not expected so literal a realisation of the scripture. Something was reaching out to her, hoping to ensnare her, or perhaps simply to entertain itself while its power grew. This place had been a land without a master, and this entity a master without a land. No void goes unfilled for long. It was as her elders had taught, and as the voice boasted. Man’s dominion withered, and older, stranger, neglected things emerged to take his place. The cities and the towns were fairweather friends to this world, its carers and companions only in good health. Now, in its twilight years, it fell to the voyeurs, the carrion-eaters, and the sworn custodians. To those who knew that the end was not a storm, but a season. She had not been deceived. It was good that she had chosen this shrine. It was likely the one place in this town where the voice would not be too strong to resist.

“Come now, relax. We are of a kind. We can find a flock for your taking, if that is what you desire. It only gets worse from here… you will need help, I assure you. Why do you hide behind your robe and your icons? I am a friend to you. Do you not see how I preserve your flame, how I address you in your own tongue? You are young, too young to be alone in this coming season. I have been here many times before. I have seen the mistakes that you will make and the suffering that you will endure. Do not waste your pleas on vacant thrones, and do not think yourself strong enough unaided. You are naïve, and you are flesh, and the age for such things is ending…”

The voice went on, the words coming out in woven strands, coursing throughout the dark of the room in attempts to constrict her. She could not move. This was not the same place she had entered. A new and malicious law held sway, and she was strong enough only to exert freedom over her tongue. It would be enough. She had been fortunate, to encounter this ­­thing while it was still weak. It was dependent on the breaking of her will, but it was not strong enough to force the matter. In crescendoing whispers, she uttered a mantra. It was not something she had been taught, nor did it hold any particular meaning. It was merely something that was of herself, and not of this voice in the dark, and that, she hoped, was all that would be needed.

It resisted, of course. It buried the room beneath a wall of abject menace, until air and stone alike trembled in their fear and desire to placate it. It crushed the flame, completing the blackness of the scene, and so bringing itself all around her. She was steeped almost to the skin in its coercion. Still her mantra persisted. She became one sound only, a language unto herself in which no fear, acquiescence or defeat could be expressed. With a final hiss of resentment, it was gone. The rain, wind and cold came rushing back. A welcome return.

She curled back up, but could not find the courage to sleep. It was worse than she had been told, worse than she had seen thus far. Omens are one thing, but to glimpse the end of the path they mark is another. And it had been just a glimpse, a pale reflection of a pale reflection. This encounter had been no victory. It was but a single, exhausting feat of survival, one of countlessly many on her journey to come, a journey into the bowels of ever deeper despair with no promise of success. For the first time since setting out, she was afraid. Not merely cautious, or uncertain in her decisions, or doubtful in her purpose, but afraid. In that respect, she supposed, the voice had won her over.

She left at the break of dawn, not stopping to cleanse the town. There was no time. She needed a flock, and somewhere, there was a flock that needed her. As it was, both she and they were floundering, half-blind and alone. Neither would survive much longer without the other. She knew now to fear the sunset, but it would not be long before the sunrise held no reprieve.

 

 

The End