Mischief (i) – Cold Open

It was the middle of winter term, and the weather was out to prove it. Snow besieged the Hermann Academy, smothering the grounds, bombarding the walls, and lashing into anybody unfortunate enough to be outside. Even in the summer, the Academy was a model of faux-gothic isolation. Now, it all but disappeared into the blizzard and the valley. At this time of year, it became a world unto itself. Of course, that was largely the point of a boarding school. The headmaster (and all his predecessors) felt that a contained environment, far from the homes of the students, was necessary for a proper education. ‘Home’ was a byword for chaos, a state of pandemonium into which a teacher’s hands could scarcely reach. Better to eliminate it. He would gladly have relocated to an island in the sky, or the city of Atlantis. Given the failure of those options, a snowbound valley in the highlands was as good as it got. Staff and students alike were now imprisoned by the elements, sentenced to a long winter of study, community, and personal growth. At least, that was the idea. And since it had been the idea for a couple of centuries at this point, things were going to stay that way.

Another advantage of all that distance from society was that it made any unsavoury business much, much easier to contain. Adolescence tended to invoke trouble, and even the teachers were only human. Over the Academy’s history, it had become quite clear that concepts such as ‘crime’, ‘reckless endangerment’ and ‘horror’ existed only in the eye of the beholder. Right now, any beholders would have a hard time even seeing the building, let alone anything that was going on inside. In other words, the wilderness was also an impenetrable defence against scandal. It was an advantage that the institution had leveraged generously over its metropolitan rivals. In education, as in all things, some measure of disaster is inevitable. A shrewd leader ensured that such things were resolved in private rather than in public.

The shrewd leader of the age, their Headmaster, had just stormed in and out of Ms. Solomon’s office like some kind of fusty berserker. ‘There’s been an incident’, he had said. ‘Get on it.’ It was a parsimonious sort of leadership. She rubbed her temples, having been interrupted from her reading. It seemed the task of resolution had fallen to her on this occasion. Some practical joke or act of petty vandalism, presumably. The students never seemed to get bored of those. She would just have to locate and slap the relevant wrists. Not the most elucidating use of her evening, but not too difficult.

She heard the headmaster barking in the corridor. This was swiftly followed by a rather flustered member of the custodial staff stumbling through the door – one Mr. Randall. This meant that the incident probably occurred in the boys’ dormitories (Ms. Solomon happened to have memorised the janitors’ schedule). He was in a cold sweat, looking like he’d seen one or more ghosts, with a small vomit-stain on his jacket. Either he’d already caught his death of the cold, or it was a particularly lurid one this time. Teenage boys did have a peculiar fondness for excreta. Randall ushered her to the scene, remaining silent as they barrelled down the halls. It was past curfew, and so the students were all neatly sequestered away with their assigned peers. Still, there was always a certain static in the air whenever something like this happened. Even from behind locked doors, they had an unnatural sense for trouble.

Randall stopped in front of one of the empty rooms, on the extremities of the building. He gestured mildly at the door, and insisted that she do the honours of opening it.

The first thing she noticed was the blood, which was everywhere except the ceiling. Then, the carcass of what looked to be a feral goat, minus the head and hooves, split open down the middle. Then, the smell of those two things – fresh and disgusting, like raw steak, tripe, and hair. She turned to Randall, whose face conveyed some unique combination of solidarity and residual panic. There was a timely shriek from the wind outside.

“Jesus.” She said.

“Yup.”

She looked back at the room. It was still there.

“So… what do you think?” Asked Randall.

“I don’t know.” She replied. “I’m just a history teacher.”

End (i)

Argus

The Argus was, to date, the greatest piece of engineering in human history. That was a long, long history, full of fantastic and improbable feats of science, each more wondrous than the last. Each stretching the film of scepticism closer and closer to its breaking point, ripping holes that ushered in age after age of creative and intellectual passion. Still, even the giddiest march of progress will one day meet its crowning moment, and consequently its end. Whispers in high society (which, by this point, was all of society) were making that claim about the Argus.

It was an achievement so outlandish that it naturally invited such pessimism – learned, cramped minds could scarcely conceive a more impressive technology (that retained some degree of plausibility), and so reached the conclusion that no more would be forthcoming. This naysaying began in the same places it always began. In cohorts of the supremely old, people whose fear of death had proved more enduring than their love of life, and who now sat all but idle through bitter, cynical, grossly prolonged years. Some of these people had been living since as far back as the 40th Renaissance, and they were all but spent. Little more than databases with the ability to express disapproval. Most were not quite so old, but few retained any meaningful vitality. And so they clustered together, and declared to one another that whatever had most recently been done was pointless, and that there was nothing left to do. Those declarations were always proven wrong, and almost never left the circles in which they started. This time, however, they had leaked out. There was a numbing sense blanketing the whole culture. A sense, however small, that they had all been outdone, and all that remained was to observe the emptiness of defeat. It was a spectacularly busy emptiness, with an incalculable number of things to see, but that was all that it would be – seeing. Some of the flightier critics had already declared that anybody not involved with the Argus was now as good as useless, doomed only to consume the wonders it had to show them and never again to create their own. That was particularly hurtful, since the group behind it were widely known to be talentless malcontents. For their part, its creators disagreed, having already declared their project to mark the beginning of the 48th Renaissance (the chroniclers in charge of that designation would not be so quick). Then there were the claims of fraudulence. Certainly, the scientific possibilities of the time lent themselves just as well to trickery as to genuine progress, and the tight lips that surrounded the Argus did little to preach its legitimacy. In still other corners, people were beginning to consider the old taboos, those areas of endeavour deemed too dangerous or immoral to undertake. For now, these thoughts were contained safely within the brains of their conductors. But the fact of their existence represented a ripple in a pond that had been still for some time.

The source of all this discomfort lay somewhere out in space – at least, a tiny part of it did. The Argus was an inestimably complex structure, with a size to match. But that vastness was totally irrelevant. All but a doorway, a foothold, was contained within a pocket of space created for that express purpose. As its impresario billed it, it was the first object to have stepped outside of the universe. From that nebulous vantage point, its instruments could perceive an arbitrarily large number of other universes (albeit only those with a sufficient structural similarity to this one), presumably running the gamut from utterly dull to utterly wondrous. Critics had suggested that taking only a handful of sand from an infinite shore would prove infinitely unsatisfying. The response had been that any number is infinitely preferable to zero. Others had asked how the creator knew not only that a multiverse of this nature existed, but that this device (of decidedly monoversal construction) would be able to interact with it in any way. To this, they offered only the explanation of a lucky guess. That was not considered particularly satisfactory. And so these myriad threads of debate and discontent continued to unwind.

There was, however, one person on whom all of this was lost. Somebody who had not been subjected to none of this quiet uproar. Alone in their control centre, swallowed entirely by their apparatus, the operator of the Argus was at work. The discourse of the time was a whole universe away, and communication between the Argus and its birthplace had yet to be established. The machine could look backward into its own universe or outwards into others, but not both at once. This operator had become the ultimate recluse, a lone observer hidden within a planet-sized hermitage, gifted with infinite data and their own spacetime in which to peruse it (indeed, no real answer had been given to the question of time and its relativity as it applied to this endeavour). They were willing to believe that this was a happy state of affairs. In a world of constant relation, they had been granted the one exemption. The world had not been kind. It was good, briefly, to be apart from it.

The machine’s sensory organs flicked through the endless catalogue of worlds available to it. They were looking for complex life. It was the natural choice for the maiden voyage. There was no sense in being systematic, given the infinity of stimuli available. Besides, that philosophy belonged to the past – progress in this epoch was a matter of bangs, not whimpers. The search was for the most striking phenomenon, not the most elucidating. Intelligent life would be a fine showpiece, even if the only possible interactions were voyeuristic.

The Argus was quick to flex its muscles. Its systems were not especially fast (understandably, given what was asked of them), but they were expert. It took about half an hour before the first match was found. With the operator’s consent, a reconstruction found its way down the wires and into their brain.

This universe was tiny. It was much smaller than a planet, smaller than a continent, smaller even than some buildings. The operator’s first instinct was one of doubt. Either the system was glitching, or there was some algorithm buried in its process that had cut down a whole cosmos into one point of interest, or the whole thing was a fabrication. They pushed this doubt aside in the interests of professionalism. For now, it would be best simply to trust the machine. So, they accepted what they saw. A minute world of graphite and diamond, whose spires and caverns played host to solid clumps of unspecified, barely mobile biomass. This diorama played host to all of two sentient beings. They were startlingly humanoid (again, the operator supressed a note of scepticism). The scenario seemed rather poetic – a world of only two people, a culture dictated entirely by a single dyad. The operator was immensely glad not to have to share this with Earth, at least not yet. The moment they sent news back, the Argus would become host to a travelling circus of artists, poets, sociologists, anthropologists, and (worst of all) linguists, to say nothing of the physical sciences. The world from which they were currently so pleasantly extricated would come flooding back. This seemed intolerable. They resolved to spend some with this place and its two inhabitants before doing anything else. It was only right that the Argus’ first discovery be given the fullest patience and scrutiny.

So, the operator sank deep into their role as observer. They marvelled at the familiar yet alien forms of this world, where light and matter abided by known laws, but presented through unknown filters. They pondered the limitless other possibilities of limitless other places, although soon shied away from the thought. Mostly, though, they fixated on the two. Time ran unnoticed as they became immersed in this bipartite society, drinking in their routines, their quirks both human and inhuman, their rituals of conflict and reconciliation, of calm and festivity, of courtship, mating, eating, crafting…

The operator scarcely noticed as the veneer of curiosity peeled away. Indeed, it was not long before the eyes of the beholder came to coloured more by envy (and its close complement, bitterness) than by any more intellectual sentiment. How fortunate these two were, to have such a small and harmonious existence. They had a peaceful world that provided for them, they had one another, and that was the sum of it. How wretched was the vastness of Earth, where such simple pleasures were so readily denied by tricks of zeitgeist and politics, by star-crossed dynamics of personal temperament and cultural preference. Ruminating on the perceived injustices of their own past, the operator indulged in a wistful self-insertion. For a while, if only vicariously, they were able to partake in the idyll they perceived before them.

It left a sour taste. The operator cursed the misfortune of their place and time. For all the wonders of the age, the basics of happiness had yet to be guaranteed. Indeed, they had yet even to be identified in a convincing manner. The 47th Renaissance was, by the official chronicle, the acme of human accomplishment. An era of such genius and wisdom as to erase all misgivings, all yearnings for the past, all fears for the future. And yet the operator, relatively young for the standards of the time, could not help but feel their better place in history had already passed. Would it not have suited them more to have been forced into exile with the Luddites of the 44th, to have seceded with the Hedonists of the 40th, even to have fought in the noble wars of the 35th? Whatever the chroniclers had to say, the past was a taunting expanse of greener pastures, all unreachable. That was the danger of history, and hindsight. It was a predator whose nose was particularly tuned to the scent of those feeling left behind, and one that such stragglers had great difficulty escaping. It was, however, a threat native to the human mind. The Argus was an invasive species, an unstoppable devourer against which there was little to no natural defence. Its greener pastures belonged to the present. No need to reach through the fog of time and memory, no need to speculate or to imagine. Here was an anglerfish with infinite lures, each as captivating as the last. The operator swam deeper and deeper.

The Argus reached out into the unending reality beyond, its vast inquisitive powers tuned not for the edification of its master, but for their bittersweet satisfaction.

Back on Earth, the great minds of the time watched with morbid relief as their fears were punted some distance into the future. A freak surge of energy had destroyed the Argus’ anchor in real space, leaving it severed, adrift in its own puddle of existence. It was gone before it could prove itself, before it could exert any significant upheaval. Consigned by unanimous decree into a small and rather disparaging footnote. The agitation it had provoked was written off as a cautionary tale on the dangers of wild claims. This version of history proved highly successful. It became fashionable in the following decades to construct “New Arguses”, machines designed to provide an entertaining facsimile of something scientifically impossible. These effigies were enjoyed, then ceremonially obliterated, all in raucous humour. Quietly, the multiverse was added to the list of ‘taboos’. Just as quietly, the mind behind the Argus disappeared into the shadows, perhaps in disgrace, in defeat, or perhaps simply in wait.

For their part, the operator never noticed.

The Eye of Silence, 1943 - by Max Ernst

The End

 

Civil Disobedience

Mr. Church had few pleasures in life. He spent his days grinding through a job that bored him and everyone around him. He spent his days off huddled up in a capsule apartment, clicking through webpages, consuming approved content, and occasionally finding some of that approved content stimulating enough to experience a vague sense of enjoyment. A perennial bachelor with no hobbies to speak of and no opinions on which to speak out, he was more or less a model citizen.

Still, there were a pair of little weaknesses that were keeping him on the ‘less’ side of that expression. Firstly, he had a disquieting fondness for travel. Any administrator worth their salt would look twice at somebody with a propensity for international holidaymaking, but Mr. Church’s pattern of behaviour was even more noteworthy. He would horde vacation time, stockpiling it for months on end before spending it all in one extravagant binge overseas. There was a time, not so long ago, when this fact alone would have been enough to condemn him to a permanent leave of absence somewhere off the grid. But the administration was more enlightened now than in years past, more lenient. As a result of this lenience, Mr. Church’s wandering feet were presently unshackled. A citizen of his grade was free to travel, true, but there was an unsubtle preference for that travel to remain within the state. The newer, kinder administration wouldn’t bare its fangs on matters of preference. But it would turn its gaze. Hundreds upon hundreds of patient, unblinking watchers, hiding in plain sight behind screens, wires and lenses. At their most attentive, they collected every act and every pattern, tracked every step of a foot or stroke of a key. This information, once digested, was regurgitated before a human overseer, a trigger man who would comb through the data, just looking for a reason to shoot.

That is where Mr. Church’s second indiscretion became relevant. He was a poor voter. The same dull, unopinionated rigor that made him such a steady payer of taxes, such a punctual reporter of metrics, also made it very difficult for him to engage in the voting process. It seemed he simply didn’t care. He had no interest in matters of policy, nor could he be riled up by appeals to emotion. In general terms, these were both ideal qualities from the administration’s standpoint. The dizzying breadth and penetration of the current voting system was designed largely to placate the public’s appetites in this regard – to provide a constant outlet for their intellectual and moral panics, to drip-feed them with the opiate of apparent self-direction. It was a chew toy, a pacifier for an electorate prone to bawling. And chew they did. Even a citizen of the lowest grade could expect to be casting a vote on the hour, rendering numerical their views on trade, tax, borders, justice, civil rights… anything that could reasonably mobilise them, but not too much. Keep them feeling happy and powerful, and so alleviate the need to actually provide happiness or power. The view from the top was that it was better to let the masses paralyze themselves than to go through the trouble of crippling them. The despots of past generations had lacked both the imagination and the tools of distraction needed to prevent rebellion, and so had found false solace in autocracy. The present view was that democracy was one of the finest and most loyal servants of any budding autarch.

Mr. Church, however, was not playing with the toy that had been so kindly provided to him. In fact, he was barely even meeting his minimum quota for votes cast and petitions signed. To say nothing of the quality – he engaged with his sacred, democratic duty as little more than a chore, often spending less time on the voting system in a month than most spent in a day, throwing votes away without care or consistency. All this, of course, was being recorded. Such admirable passivity was a growing chink in his armour. The administration would not act on matters of preference, but it would feast on matters of technicality. Failure to engage with the state’s democratic process was, technically, illegal. It just so happened that this hazily-defined law was only ever levied against those with nonpreferable traits. Which was all fair game, as far as the general public was concerned. At least, they never seemed to vote on the matter.

So, as Mr. Church returned to his capsule apartment one night, still flush with foreign adventure, he was in tremendous danger. Unbeknownst to him, he was walking on a well-slicked precipice. His dalliances abroad had left him with a voting backlog that would have to be cleared, tonight, and cleared in a fashion that left no room for doubt. What appeared to be a quiet evening at the computer was in fact a matter of life and (eventual) death. In a surveillance office, somewhere in the depths of a nameless bureau, an executioner watched on. This man was under strict instructions, of which he wholeheartedly approved, to authorise Mr. Church’s disappearance at the first hint of democratic indolence.

His name was Mr. Collins, a veteran of his post and a hardliner of the oldest possible school. To him, all people were either patriots or deviants. The former adhered to the will and values of the state, whatever those happened to be on the given date. The latter, well… whatever went on in those off-the-grid locations was too good for them. He was not especially competent, but he was attentive beyond measure, and that was far preferable. He carried out his assignments to the letter and without hesitation. His citizenship record was impeccable. He took what praise and material reward he was offered with clear pride and warmth, but never pursued any beyond his station. Needless to say, his higher-ups were quite content with their pit bull.

Certainly, Mr. Collins was feeling rather muzzled. He’d been at this long enough to remember the good old days, when scum like Church would be whisked away without a second thought. Now he had to wait, watch as this shameful excuse for a citizen continued to enjoy the freedoms of a state he so clearly did not appreciate. He’d read the dossier, seen the data, and he hated him. He hated him even before having to spend months of dedicated, intimate surveillance on the man. That exacerbated things. Anybody spending that much time abroad was up to something. Anybody turning away from their civic privileges was a false citizen. In Collins’ mind, Church was almost certainly a spy, a terrorist, a covert theist, or something equally grotesque. But he was wily enough to tread water. The data alone was never enough to indict him – merely to indicate the form that such an indictment might take. Thus the need for some more discerning, more human eyes. They’d gotten soft, upstairs. Putting checks on their own powers when simple common sense would suffice. But rules were rules.

Church would be voting tonight, a hundred times or more. He had to, if he wanted to make his quota. Collins was secretly hoping that he’d just fall asleep. Let the clock run and find himself waking up somewhere entirely unfamiliar. Sadly, Church wasn’t quite that stupid. He would reach the bare minimum. This, Collins knew, was all a part of his treasonous design. He did not even entertain the thought that Church’s minimal participation was a result of minimal interest. Innocent apathy would necessitate innocence, and that idea was off the table as far as Collins was concerned. Guilt was a matter of fact – the trick lay in proving it. His aging skin formed into a snarl as he leaned back in his chair.

Church shed his outdoor clothing and put down a hefty batch of souvenirs. The computer assured Collins that these items had all been vetted in transit, and were perfectly above board. He rejected this conclusion, but followed along with the clemency it required. There was, for some reason, and in spite of his best efforts, no law against souvenirs. The bag of bomb components, biological agents and outlandish foreign pornography would have to stand. Church then shuffled over to his desk, booted up his laptop, and logged in to the voting system. He yawned audibly. Collins surged forward towards the monitor, then sat back again, deflated. Had he sighed, or swore, or otherwise demonstrated explicit displeasure towards the task… well, that might have been good enough. Yawning, according to the powers that be, was not conclusively disrespectful. It would be Collins’ neck on the line if he jumped the gun. A perverse state of affairs, as he saw it. But he knew the rules inside and out. He’d get something.

He had until midnight to meet his quota. Easy enough to crank out a hundred or so clicks in that time – that was all the computers looked for. But beneath that flat turf lay a pitfall just bristling with technicalities, all sharpened and ready to pierce the veneer of citizenship that Mr. Church had so artfully constructed. Proper engagement, by the letter of the law, demanded that votes be cast across a ‘full spectrum of policy areas’, show ‘internal consistency’, be free from ‘demonstrably seditious or ulterior motivation’… all open to Mr. Collins’ interpretation. These were the tricks that the long arm of the administration kept up its sleeve. Overuse would lead to outrage – apparently, it would be imprudent to go stomping out beloved figures on these grounds.  Mr. Church, however, was a boil of the sort they were most often used to lance. Somebody unwanted, but not particularly criminal, who would not be missed. He was barely even known, let alone beloved.

Mr. Church began to make his civic voice heard. Over the course of hours, Collins’ expression changed. He began with a look of contented malice, that of a trophy hunter who knows that the prey will walk into his sights, sooner or later. Over time, that face wilted, drooped into embittered belligerence. The grimace of an easy task turned sour, part surprise, part anger, all dug-in heels and rekindled enmity. By the end, all that remained were two of the more volatile components – incredulity, and anger. In short, it was a bravura performance. Church fluttered untouchably through the democratic process, casting votes with the generosity of confetti and the precision of scalpels. He tickled the keys with all the skill and elegance of the pianists of old, each click and press serving as one particle in a tune that was sweeping, cogent and (to Collins’ ear) utterly maddening. It was grotesque, an irreverent composition, the work of a rogue Shostakovich who did not fear censure, because he knew the rules and the rules were too soft. A liberalising, ‘humanitarian’ platform across all areas, from court cases to tax code. Utterly distasteful, but undeniably consistent, and undeniably thorough. Collins could feel his muzzle tighten, feel the ties on his hands. He watched, impotent, as Church returned for an encore performance, surpassing his legal minimum by a healthy amount. That, he felt, was a slap in the face.

Collins clenched his teeth so hard they felt close to breaking. Somebody must have coached this prick, some foreign spymaster or domestic traitor. There was no way he could have designed so complex a scheme on his own. But there was nothing ‘demonstrable’ about any of it. By the letter of the law, he was looking at a perfect citizen. And he was a slave to that letter, an increasingly cruel and temperamental master that now stayed his hand from wiping away the smug, hateful stain on his screen. He had lost in this invisible duel.

That instant, that thought of defeat, was the moment when something clicked. Hot rage transitioned into cold, and a strange sort of smile found its way back to Collins’ lips. Yes, Mr. Church (or least the Mr. Church in his mind) was very clever. He had held Collins in check, danced mockingly over very tripwire, exploited the clemency of his home all in an effort to undermine it.  A master of technicality, an enemy of the state, and completely devoid of any rigor or virtue save for this power of gamesmanship. And there, he had failed. Games are comprised of players and rules, and Mr. Church had mastered only one of those things. He had not considered that a human administrator, for being human, might break rank. He had not considered that an angered, vindictive man with a bomb might detonate it regardless of his own proximity. He was prepared only for an opponent who was as clever and dispassionate as he was. He had not considered the inverse.

With a flash of intense satisfaction, Collins issued the order.

It took a couple of days for Collin’s arrest to go through. He had been planning on killing himself in that time, but never mustered up the will to pull the trigger twice in such quick succession. Somewhere, in his heart of hearts, he still believed in the administration. Believed that his handlers would stay true to him, that his ardour and loyalty would be recognized, that they would overlook this minor indiscretion and focus on the humble, willing servant behind it. He did not put up a fight. Perhaps this tiny, paralysing speck of faith did not waver even as he was beaten, bagged, and ushered away.

In a dim and frigid room, somewhere in the depths of a nameless prison, Mr. Collins found himself shackled, starved, and lost in some muddled borderland between despair and elation. Across from him, now pale and bruised, was a familiar face.

The End

 

Sleepless (ii)

Al was a good talker. He seemed genuinely pleased to be able to air his views, albeit only to a camera that was not particularly sympathetic towards them. That was a lucky state of affairs, because Lois was far from her usual conversational dexterity. Her questioning was languid, flopping out of her mouth without thought or planning. She caught herself drifting off frequently during the answers. Had she been awake enough to care, she would have been furious at herself. An agile, slightly malicious interview was part of the show’s winning formula. She needed to be taking everything in, laying traps, leading the guest along whilst fanning the viewer’s incredulity. She was going to hate cutting this one together.

Fortunately, Al was able to carry the segment on his own. He spoke at length on his hatred for sleep, the softness of his voice gaining a little heat as he did. He talked about how it disgusted him in all ways. It was physically repulsive, a sweaty, snoring, drooling monument to the failings of the human form. He detested being caged in a body that required hours of inactivity before yielding control to its owner – a profitless tax on his time and liberty. He railed against dreams, sickened by the thought of having to submit, powerless, to the whims of the subconscious, an uncaring master that would just as soon trap its subjects in nightmare as gift to them a pleasant fantasy (only to take it away when the eyes crawled open). He described how, as a child, he would try many and varied methods to escape the horror of sleep. Each defeat along the way remained a scar in his mind, a point of shame and anger to be ruminated over but never discussed. It was in his early adolescence that he found a way, but that was all he would share on the matter. Thus liberated by this unknown method, he claimed (with open pride) that he had not slept in the decades since. In living free from an otherwise universal tyranny, he believed that he had in some small way transcended the general squalor of the human condition, being thereby free to delve into hitherto unexplored realms of art and intellect. Sleep was the shackle, the limiter, a flaw propagated by the powers-that-be, through methods however mundane or however mystical. On this point he presented a dizzying array of competing theories, all apparently of his own construction. Be it psychological indoctrination at the hands of the illuminati or genetic seeding at the hand-like appendages of cosmic interlopers, the gist was consistent throughout.

It was, in many ways, the same old shit. Another lonely, imbalanced person who’d ‘found the truth’. Seen through the lies of some oppressive force, attained a rarefied state of knowledge, and so lost his place in society at large – just as that force would like it. There was a vague but massively powerful enemy, there was a hidden truth, and there was the superior, rogue mind who had found it. She had interviewed hundreds of conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, cultists. Most of them were quite forthcoming with their secret lore, and so she’d been led down the same roads many, many times. Al was giving her a whirlwind tour of familiar territory (although, mercifully, not stopping to point out the synagogue). Still, she felt that something was different. He was better spoken than most, more charismatic once in full, lunatic motion. At the same time, his rhetoric did not feel rhetorical – it lacked the stink of artifice that so often lingered about these people. She wasn’t buying in, of course, but she did find herself believing two things. Firstly, that Al was probably too compos mentis to be a hoodwinked believer, roped into the crackpot fold by the words of others. Secondly, that he was also not in the hoodwinking business. His belief was sincere. It was extremely rare for somebody this far afield to fall into neither category.

Or perhaps that was just the fatigue talking. And talk it did, veering from murmurs to outright roars with little regard for the fact that she was trying to work. She had moved beyond heavy limbs into light ones – fuzzy, tingling shapes in freefall that allegedly belonged to her. It was thus with no small measure of joy that she brought the interview to a close, once it seemed that they had enough to work with. Al met the end with a mixture of disappointment and condescension, presumably upset at losing his audience to something so petty as nightfall.

Al refused to have sleep anywhere within his house, but gave grudging permission for it to occur in his back yard. They pitched a tent. He was entirely happy for them to film more during the night, giving them explicit license to come and go as they please. It wouldn’t affect him too much, after all. He’d just be painting, reading, communing with the world serpent – whatever it was he did in all those privileged hours. The brevity of their time here did mean that they were unlikely to get the money shot of him sleeping. All he had to do was tough out one night, which was hardly a spectacular feat of wakefulness. A shame, but the episode would be functional without it.

With the blinding speed of the truly exhausted, she set an alarm, cocooned herself in a sleeping bag, and prepared to claim her well-earned rest.

It didn’t work.

Perhaps she had dragged herself into a thoroughly unwanted second wind. Maybe the depth of the rural night was too much, too heavy and stifling a blanket for her flimsy urban sensibilities. Certainly, there was a disquieting sense of place. There was also a disquieting sense of grime and nasality coming from Tom’s end of the tent. Al had not been entirely wrong in his contempt for the less savoury aspects of sleep. Whatever the cause, she was awake, and she lay awake for some time. No amount of internal screaming, scrunched eyelids or deep breaths had any effect. The battle was lost. She had no choice but to continue, against all common sense, to wade through the fatigue.

Cursing all the while, she rustled up a flashlight, a camcorder, and a semblance of composure.

She took a moment to appreciate the sheer darkness of the outside – then it was back to work. Shining the light beneath her face, she recorded what amounted to the introduction to a low-rate found footage film. Some whispered nonsense about going back in to get a better look at Al’s life by night. It wasn’t a fantastic piece of improv, but that didn’t matter much. Her viewers were hardly expecting the Upright Citizens Brigade. She did a good enough job of selling the atmosphere, and the footage would do the rest. Everybody was a sucker for infrared.

The walk to the house felt longer than it should have. Part of that was dramatic timing, of course. And part of it was the night. Everything feels bigger after sunset.

It was pitch black inside, too. A true nightmare of a place, all creaking and crawling, air writhing with dust. Enough for a lick of sweat and to feel your heart beat, even for a seasoned veteran of this kind of nonsense. She took a few more ‘creepy house’ shots for good measure. The door to the basement looked picture-perfect in grayscale, complete with the yawning of distant floorboards. That would definitely make the final edit.

There hadn’t been any human stirring from the floor above – any noise would have shot right through this quiet. Whatever Al was doing, he wasn’t moving much. She’d need to get some candid footage (or, more likely, stage some). She moved as lightly as she could, and painfully slowly. Not that there was any need for stealth. Her footsteps simply felt intrusive, a vibrant invasion into this otherwise moribund soundscape. They didn’t fit.

She found him, as expected, in the ‘bedroom’. A muffled oil lamp in one corner cast warm, amber splashes into the air, providing enough light for shapes but not for details. He was at the easel, dabbing away at a piece of canvas almost entirely covered by shadow.

“No more light, please. You’ll ruin the painting.”

He spoke with the calm and patience of somebody ticking off a social box, reciting a line he had known was coming. She obliged, placing the flashlight on the floor before entering.

“Mind if I film?”

“Be my guest.”

“Alright.” She yawned. “Good.”

He went back to his brushes. She leant against the wall, gingerly, for fear that it might collapse, or groan, or be host to something unsavoury. The footage was dull, tremendously so. A man slowly applying paint to canvas is not compelling viewing, even if that man is insane. Still, she kept the camera trained on him for far, far longer than needed. Drowsiness was overtaking her again. Having missed its cue in the tent, it was now hurrying, flustered, back into position. Her eyelids were floating downwards, her brain drifting feebly in and out of pre-dream kaleidoscopes.

“I suppose you’re tired?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you sleep in the tent?”

“Couldn’t.”

“Funny. I suppose you see that as a bad thing?”

“The worst.”

“So, you must see what I mean? Wouldn’t it be better not to need it?”

“Sure. Having to sleep is bullshit. Not sure why you care so much about the act itself, though. Bit odd.”

He frowned, the creases on his face gaining cavernous depth in the dim light.

“Maybe. It always seemed obvious to me.”

“Well, I should probably make another attempt at it. Any last stuff you want to get on camera?”

Al paced, muttering below his breath with increasing speed and (hushed) intensity.

“You alright?” She asked.

“Turn the camera off. I have something to show you, but you mustn’t film it.”

There was a compellingly demented strand in his tone, some prosodic turn that promised something interesting if followed. She put the camera down. You didn’t have to get a shot of everything – sometimes, a little mystery was just the twist you needed. Her viewers wanted to gawk at the strange and the spurious, but they also each harboured a secret little kernel of belief, of suppressed deviance. The trick was to reach out and touch it without them noticing.

“Alright.” She said. “Let’s see it.”

She boarded the return flight the next night. Another red-eye. Familiar tortures resumed their operations – sterile in-flight air to parch her lungs, screens to scorch her eyes, long hours to test her sanity. This time, at least, she was wide awake. Her mind buzzing with ideas, she reached for the laptop. Her life was about to get much, much more interesting.

Sleepless (i)

Lois Barnum sat, bleary and uncomfortable, within the voluntary prison of a red-eye flight. She hated flying, but it was a necessary evil. Flying overnight, in this grotesque, screen-lit limbo, was not. It was either the sign of an intensely well-managed schedule, or of a botched one. This, of course, was the latter. But there she was, not quite half-asleep in a metal box trundling through the night sky. All for the reward of rushing out another episode of the bullshit TV show she hosted.

She adjusted her eye mask and pillow for the thousandth time, and began to grumble for the hundredth over how this had happened. Season five of the euphemistically titled “Out of the Ordinary” was all cut, spliced, and ready to go, and she was ready for a holiday. Then some fucker in the network decided that three of the episodes would be ‘problematic’ given the ‘current climate’. So, she had to say bye-bye to the man who thought that Jews invented Africa, the man who thought that space was a myth perpetuated by Jews, and the man who… well. It involved a certain ethnoreligious group. All quality stuff, in the sense that it possessed the show’s most saleable quality in being reckless, exploitative and tacky. But apparently it was a little close to the bone. That was the problem in dealing with a network that was morally bankrupt, but not yet close to being actually bankrupt. PR.

So, she had to dip into the files and find three more lunatics to present to her viewers, as quickly as possible. Preferably people who weren’t going to say anything racially inflammatory – at least, not so much that it couldn’t be edited out. Sadly, most of the quick hits were already covered for the season. They had reptilian shape-shifters, they had gruesome dietary habits, they had an embarrassment of outlandish fetishes. They had flat earth, hollow earth, pyramidal earth – any shape but spherical, basically. That was a bumper episode. Still, she wasn’t allowed any raging anti-Semites. In short, she had the bearded lady, the tattooed man, and the conjoined twins, but her freak show had just been robbed of all its growth disorders. To the bottom of the barrel she went.

She managed perhaps two hours of sleep before being rudely ejected into a harsh airport morning. Tom, the camera guy, had the misfortune of already living in Georgia and would be meeting her there. He was loitering outside as planned, twirling the keys to a beat-up SUV.

“Hey.” He said. “You look like shit.”

“Very astute. Fortunately, there are people willing to take my money in exchange for a solution to this problem.”

“Mine is to stand on the correct end of the camera. You can have that one for free.”

She made a vulgar hand gesture and climbed into the passenger seat. They were on the road, which was better than being in the air, but still pretty miserable.

“You know where this guy lives?” She asked.

“Yeah. Never heard of him, though. What’s his deal?”

“Claims not to have slept in the past forty-odd years. He’s had a few local news articles to his name. I guess he thinks that sleep is some kind of engineered flaw in humans that he’s managed to overcome. Like a test from our space-alien overlords, or whatever.”

“Or a magical Jewish curse.”

“Don’t get me started. Anyway, we’ve got to bust this out quick, so hopefully a day and a night should do it for footage.”

“Not exactly going to leap off the screen, is it? We gave the viewers somebody who was willing to fuck a box of old socks, and now we’re asking them to settle for somebody who’s just quite tired?”

“Well, he probably lives in a total pigsty. That’s always good for a start. Then I’m hoping he’s a good talker, basically. Maybe­ he has some mysticism stuff going on. If we’re lucky we can get a shot of him sleeping.”

“Right. That’s always good stuff.”

“Get a sequence of him explaining that he wasn’t actually sleeping, just communing with the world serpent. You know how it goes.”

“Yeah. Should be an easy gig for me, anyway. All hinging on the interview this time.”

“Nothing new there. How far out are we going? I should get some shut-eye.”

“Middle of nowhere. Rest up.”

Sleep proved to be more of a technicality. She was able to flicker in and out, but only at a rate that made the whole endeavour rather fruitless. It was enough to remind her of how punishingly tired she was, but not enough to provide even the most perfunctory relief. The internal grumbling began anew.

It was deep into the afternoon when they arrived. Even so, it was hotter than hell and many times more humid. They’d gone some way off the beaten track, taking dirt roads and detours (Tom was not a fantastic navigator), before finally arriving at an old farmhouse. She rubbed her eyes, clenched her forehead, and winced her way out of the car. First impressions were good. It was always a boon when things played exactly to stereotype, and this place was putting on a virtuoso performance. Dilapidated, tucked away in an overgrown pastiche of rural isolation, pocked with the shoddy repairs and contraptions of a man who clearly had little connection to modern life. Inside would likely be even better.

“Alright.” She yawned. “Let’s get some shots before the family of cannibals that so clearly live here decide to greet us.”

“Sounds good. Might as well die doing what we love. Producing crap.”

“There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, but I am far too tired to reach for it.”

She was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the misery of being sleepless and exhausted on a plane was handily outmatched by that of being sleepless and exhausted in the depths of Georgia. Her head was spinning in the heat, she felt like she’d been sweating for two days straight, and any kind of complex thought was rapidly fleeing the scene in a doomed hunt for cooler pastures. In theory, this was her time to prep some interview questions. This was a rushed shoot, so every stray little window of time was important. Wasn’t going to happen, though. A yawn and a grimace was the most she could get done.

It didn’t take long before Tom felt satisfied with his collection of ‘spooky countryside’ footage (a technical term). It was time to go and meet their man. The house was even more flamboyantly decrepit up close. Strips of bare wood rubbed shoulders with three or four different paint jobs. A motor flecked in seven different shades of rust puttered away to one side, serving as vanguard to a liquor still of equally ruddy complexion. This house was an old, forgotten pauper that never got the help they needed, all trauma, isolation and decay. It was perfect.

“Right, let’s get this over with.” She said. “You good to go?”

“Yeah.”

His name was Al – that was all he was willing to give. He certainly looked the part. Long, tangled salt-and-pepper hair. A pair of coarse red eyes presided over cavernous dark circles. He wore a hodgepodge of thick, greasy fabrics beneath a leather jacket, seemingly unperturbed by the heat. He stank, enough that she was confident it would come across on film. Some smells can reach the eyes. For all that, he was quite affable.

“You the TV guys?” That was the greeting. He had a soft, educated sort of voice. “Want to start with the tour? I expect you’re going to want to get some footage of the mess.”

She could hardly argue with that. It was a pleasant surprise to be working with someone who recognized the conceit of the exercise. You normally had to spend some time convincing the star that you were offering them a serious platform (then deal with the hate mail later, if it came to it). Al seemed happy enough to go along with the demands of the show from the outset. He ushered them merrily about the place, which was palatial, albeit for a particularly undemanding definition of ‘palace’ – a creaking labyrinth of dust, splinters, and strata upon strata of discarded knickknacks. He pointed out areas that might be of particular interest. The cupboard whose sole purpose was to play host to an improbable array of spiders. The bathroom that could only be described as ‘disconcertingly brown’. The flight of steps rolling down to a cellar that even Al had never found the stomach to enter. He was also a painter (of sorts), and his work was nailed up all over the house, unframed. The prodigious volume of the work was probably to be expected, as was its nature – a melange of abstract and minimal styles, slathered onto canvas with titles scrawled illegibly above.

Then, of course, there was the bedroom. For an episode about a man who never slept, that was naturally going to be the centre of attention. ‘Bedroom’ was something of a misnomer, even if that was what Al called it. There was no bed, for one thing. A slightly grimy-looking armchair squatted in the centre of the room, flanked by heaps of books. The walls here were smothered in paintings, some applied directly to the wood. An easel stood in one corner, a padlocked old chest in another.

“This is where I spend the nights, mostly.”

“In the chair?”

“That’s right. Or painting. I like working in poor light. Means you can’t really see the finished product until dawn.”

“Sure. You happy to shoot some interview stuff here?”

“I am.” He looked over to Tom. “Have you filmed enough of the house? Don’t be shy about it.”

“Oh, more than enough.”

She let out a prolonged yawn. The house’s charms had kept her stimulated, but that spell of alertness was fading quickly. The fuzz and the fog were rushing back in. She had forgotten how hot it was, how heavy her limbs and eyelids were, how nice an imaginary bed felt.

“Are you tired?” Asked Al. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No, no. Maybe later. Let’s just press on.”

Well, that was probably a bad decision, but she was sticking to it. Time to let the madman say his piece.

The End (i)

Reunion

It was shortly gone dawn when he left the village. He hadn’t been able to sleep, and he wanted to be one of the first to get there. As such, he was a little disappointed to see the temple already flooded with hopefuls. He shouldn’t really have been surprised. This was their chance, same as it was his. For most, this was all they would get. It took a shrewd and dedicated pilgrim to attend this event twice. Any more than that was a life’s work, the resort of the inescapably obsessed or desperate. This was the asking, and it was the most extraordinary event to which many among this growing throng of the ordinary would ever be party. It was their blue moon, their black swan, an event that could well define them for years to come.

Purple and gold banners flapped wistfully, their rows marking a path down into the valley and the mouth of the temple. An old, stony maw into the rock, a landmark seldom visited and a threshold seldom crossed. It was uncanny to see the crowd stirring about it. The people of this county feared this place, respected it, and so neglected it. But the arrival of a noble swept away old suspicions. They were the new gods, the new power, a face of sovereignty that could be both seen and touched – but only when they allowed it.  And so, on this sacred occasion, the people would defy their reverence for the old in pursuit of a glimpse at the new. He was already privileged, in that respect. He had seen a princess when he was stationed in the northwest, and the mark of even that briefest of encounters had not been erased by all the blood and trauma that followed. That was a trade that many would be glad to make. For him, it was not enough. And so he was here, at the asking. For those lucky enough to step inside, this would be more than a glance, more than a chance and passing visit. It was a meeting, one to one, with greatness. Am opportunity to make one’s pleas to a different class of ear, to show one’s troubles to a better class of eye.

Down among the masses, he starting inching forward, brushing past the idle and the lackadaisical until he was within a dozen or so yards of the temple door. Here, the valley was thick with the hopeful. Bodies pushed up against him from all directions, the smell of humanity filled his nostrils. The rumble of conversation, loud in its own right, was peppered with shouting and hysterics. It was not dissimilar to times past. Had he closed his eyes, he would have been back in two feet of snow, trapped in formation, hearing the violence drawing closer and closer. So he kept them open. Peering out over the assembled heads, he could see the noble’s personal guard – disquietingly tall figures wrapped in iron-grey robes, their faces hidden beneath hoods and behind masks. A true devotee would perhaps have been able to read into their garb, their weaponry, their positioning. Nobles were seen so infrequently that they came to be identified by the events and the people that surrounded them. It was likely that nobody in the crowd had ever seen the face that awaited them inside the temple, but some would have seen or heard of their silent, towering custodians.

“What will you ask for?” The woman next to him sounded giddy. “I’ve come all the way from a frontier town. I’m going to ask him to drive the clans off our land.”

He didn’t reply. Even if he had wanted to, the moment was stolen by the sound of a gong, whose rippling was immediately outmatched by the fervour it incited. At once, a hundred pairs of hands reached out towards the door just as a hundred voices cried out to be chosen. The mass swelled forward, stopping short of the guard, and becoming somehow even tighter. He was carried along in that vice-grip, clearly powerless to resist the motion of the group, swallowed up in a rush that was at once kinetic and claustrophobic. It was, again, familiar.

Then the choosing began. One at a time, the guard plucked members from the waiting mass and escorted them through the door, into the innards of the temple and their moment of asking. He stood and watched as a series of awestruck, nerve-wracked, euphoric faces were ushered inside. Some returned, flushed with tears, to a hero’s welcome. Others did not. There would be other ways out of that place, little hidden doors tucked away in the hills. Some would want to be alone. This went on and on, all through sunset. By evening, the periphery had left. Those who were only there for the spectacle, whose need to go inside had been less than their need for food and warmth that night. Let them go, he thought. They had no place here to begin with. He still stood, locked in place with the rest of the desperate, holding on to this opportunity until the very last.

That was when he was chosen. In a blur, a surreality, he was taken from the crowd, through the maw, down many generations of stairways and corridors, to a doorway bordered in purple and gold. There, he was left alone. His breath caught. His skin shook. This was the first moment of trepidation, of new fear, that he had felt since those days beyond the frontier. The fright and powerlessness of war were soaked deep in his skin. This was new, a peaceful terror, in this moment of self-determination. It is one thing to spend long years in the pursuit of a chance, another entirely to receive one. Gathering himself, he stepped through.

The noble sat on a throne carved out from the rock, now draped in silk. He wore a garment, impeccably tailored, the likes of which he had never seen, something that spoke of sex, sovereignty and military all at once. An iron circlet separated hair and visage, both immaculate. He glowed, even in the sombre light of this buried chamber. He was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

The noble raised an eyebrow, or curled a lip, or twinkled an eye – it was impossible to tell. He fell to his knees, bowed his head, and kissed the floor.

“Your name?” The noble’s voice was quiet, soft, but all-consuming.

“Hughes, my lord.”

“That is not your birthname.”

“No, my lord. It is my peace-name.”

“Then you have fought for us.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“You may raise your head.”

He did, feeling both shame and excitement at the chance to look once more upon his benefactor.

“What is your asking, Hughes?”

“There is… someone I want back.”

It was a thought that had driven him this far, put wind in his tattered, fraying old sails for this long. Now, in the light of such glory, it seemed ridiculous. Why want anybody, anything when one such as this exists? In that moment, he understood the pilgrims, the unhinged devotees who would chase the ghost of a noble to the ends of the world. To meet one in such intimate circumstances was to lose something. A moment’s basking in this man’s presence, and he could feel the hooks digging in, the exquisite barbs that would prise some vital part of him away in the inevitable parting. It was possible that nothing would be worth anything after this. But still, he had come for a reason, and he would see it through.

“A soldier.”

“Yes.”

“From death?”

“No, my lord. At least, not that I know. Just from somewhere far away.”

The noble fixed him with a perfect, prying gaze.

“They are beyond our borders.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“It is a difficult thing that you ask. You would put such an onus on me, in the pursuit of your own satisfaction?”

“… yes, my lord.” This response had to be forced from his throat. He hated himself. What measure was his petty, impossible wish and the finite joy it might bring him? Certainly, any beauty therein was less than the ugliness of imposing it upon the god before him. He began to cry.

“Stop your tears.”

The tears stopped.

“I will do this for you. But there will be a price.”

“Yes, my lord. Any price that you name.”

“This person will find their way to you, and you will spend a decade together. Then, you will be taken, and you will serve me.”

“You are too generous, my lord. It is hardly a price.”

“But do not have false hope. You will serve me, but you will not see me, or hear me. When we part today, we are severed. You will have a decade of warmth, from my benevolence, and then a lifetime of cold in my debt.”

A lifetime of cold at the noble’s behest was infinitely preferable to a comfortable life with no connection to him.

“Do you accept?”

“I do.”

“Then leave. It is done.”

He rose slowly, on weak legs. This was his last chance to see this beauty, to share in its light and air. If he was slow in leaving, he might yet be graced with another syllable. He lingered, but not another word was spoken.

He walked alone through another lineage of corridors and stairways. Joy, sorrow, fear and anticipation ran messily together into a numb frenzy – it was unbearable. He emerged from a hidden little door, tucked away in the hills.

Some years later, he found himself at a port on the eastern seaboard. He was wrapped in an embrace, touching cheeks with a familiar, beloved face that had been lost to him for so long. As a tear ran, he closed his eyes. There, behind his eyelids, was an image of beauty that would never be seen again.­­­

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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