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Author: Sandy

ND52

Some highways run for so long that they’ve gotta turn gradually to match the curvature of the earth; it’s a solid 200 miles along the I-94 from Bismarck to Fargo with barely a corner in sight, but the world turns quietly beneath your feet the whole way. In the early spring, the melting snow turns the dirt on either side into a sucking quagmire – your tire gets stuck in that and you could end up out there for days before you see another passing car.

“I want to go home,” said Jan. “Take the 52, dad! Can’t be more’n an hour.”

“52 don’t exist,” said Willem. It was true: North Dakota highway 52 existed on road signs and in memories, but nowhere else – not on state or federal paperwork, not on the highway patrol’s routes. It got buried under US Route 281 and forgotten, except by those who drove it; some slick n’ pretty man from Washington just rolled into Bismarck one day and said the 52 was now the 281, and everybody took him at his word.

The car’s heating system gave a brrrrrrrrr. Will wiped the windshield with a loose glove, clearing away the thin layer of condensation. He cracked the window. It was that awkward point in the spring when it was too hot to have the heater on, but too cold to have the heater off.

“Does so,” said Jan. He buried himself in his parka. He was turning eleven in less than a week, and suddenly he thought he had all the answers.

“Play your gameboy,” said Will. They passed a small lake, barely not-frozen; ducks and geese circled around in what little water they could find. Jan crossed his arms, and the thick padding of his jacket crunched against itself.

“Nah-uh,” he said. “I wanna go home. I wanna go to Minnewaukan. Mom’s there. I wanna see mom. I wanna see mom.”

She was there, it was true; no more’n an hour north along the highway that didn’t exist. They were coming up on Jamestown, where the road-that-wasn’t turned off the I-94, and then it was a straight run up to Minnewaukan and Devil’s Lake; Willem would sooner take the car into a ditch than take that detour home. He wasn’t sure whether Jan was still too young to understand, and he damnwell wasn’t yet ready to find out. He needed to believe his son had some innocence left.

“I’m gonna ask her what Minneapolis was like,” said Jan. He chewed his words for a moment. “I heard ummmmm it’s real big? It’s so big it’s gotta be two cities.”

Of course they hadn’t told the kid. It would have to happen some time, but nobody was ready to have that conversation.

“We’re not going home,” said Will. “We’re going to Fargo, to stay with your Uncle Grant. We don’t own the house in Minnewaukan no more.”

He squeezed the wheel a little too hard, and felt the hot blood go to his fingertips. It hurt, but the pain gave him something else to think about.

“I hate Grant!” shouted Jan. He squirmed in the back seat. “He’s always talking about dumb hockey and his house smells weird. I wanna go watch Sliders with mom.”

Jeanette had loved that show. It was the only reason they’d held onto the old DVD player, though the discs were scratched to shit. Will didn’t get it, but he knew better than to interrupt while she was watching. It was their show: her’s and Jan’s. He’d never seen the appeal of jumping to another reality, but the idea was starting to grow on him. He didn’t have a wormhole, though: he had a shitty run-down ‘94 Corolla that he couldn’t afford to repair.

He pulled over. The car’s engine spluttered to a stop. The heater went brrrrrrrrrrrrrrtktktk, then died.

“We’re going to Fargo,” said Will, “and that’s the end of it.”

Jan started to cry. Will got out; closed the door behind him; took the cigarettes out from his jacket pocket; took the last one left (filter facing down, of course – gotta have a lucky); lit it; took a drag, sucked it down; didn’t quite cough.

Maybe there was another world where there was still a North Dakota Highway 52; where a slick man from Washington didn’t paper over it with the 281. A world where Jeanette didn’t spend her last six months in an oncology ward in Minneapolis because there weren’t the right kind of doctors in-state; where they hadn’t spent every cent keeping her alive, until the house went into receivership; where there was anything in Minnewaukan besides a closed casket and a foreclosed home.

Well, shit. He dropped the cigarette into the mud, then stomped on it for good measure. Jan stared at him through the foggy window. His eyes were red. Will got into the back seat beside him.

“I’m not stupid you know,” said Jan. He sniffed. “I’m not a little kid. Something happened to mom, didn’t it? Are you guys getting a divorce? She’s sick – you can’t leave her now.”

The words hung in the air. In another world, Will got back into the front seat and didn’t speak until he hit Fargo. In the world-that-was, he bit his tongue.

“She’s not sick any more,” he said. The words hung in the chill-muggy air.

“Oh,” said Jan. He frowned. Kid was getting too smart for his own damn good.

Jan drummed his fingers on the car-seat. “So that’s why she went back home?” he said.

Will took a deep breath.

“Yep,” he said.

In yet another world, he got back into the front seat and didn’t speak until he hit Fargo. In the world-that-was, he slumped down in the seat and barely held back tears.

“You wanna go see her?” he said. “Take the 52 at Jamestown and it won’t be more’n an hour.”

His throat hurt.

“Can’t,” muttered Jan. He was curled up inside his parka now: almost lost in the woolen collar.

“Why not?” said Will.

“52 don’t exist,” said Jan. He glared up from inside his little leather cocoon.

“Sure it does,” said Will. “In a whole buncha different worlds.”

Jan peered up, then squinted at Will.

“Like Quinn and Max?” he said.

“Yeah,” said Will, “like those guys. We ain’t got a wormhole though, so we gotta drive. You good for it?”

“Mmk,” said Jan.

Will got out, then walked around to the front seat of the car. His hand lingered on the handle for a moment. In another world, he couldn’t do it. In the world-that-was, he got in; turned the key; pumped the gas pedal a few times. The car roared to life. The heater came back on with a brrrrrrrrrr. The open road lay ahead of them: running for so long that it had to turn to match the curvature of the earth.

“Let’s go home,” said Will. He stepped on the gas, and the world turned quietly beneath them.

Jan was already asleep.

Election Season 2017

Waiting for Winnie

In time, Labour ascendant

Winter for the Hosk

came Winston, surly, unto Wellington

and surely crown’d Jacinda Ardern Queen.

The Hosk’s despair was palpable: his mouth

a twisted scream. Let’s laugh at Hosking, Lol.

Jacinda rises —

after nine years, some sunlight:

Hosk melts in spring heat.

cage

I’m not fat; every time I run my hands over my stomach there’s a pothole-bumpbumpbump of ribs. My skin is wax paper – so weak and thin it might tear. I do not remember the last time I threw up; I do not remember the last time I slept.

“You’re getting fat,” says my sister. She has not seen my ribs. I make sure my stomach is covered by the towel when I leave the shower, so nobody can see. We do not speak of pain – it would not be polite.

My ribs are bigger today than they were yesterday. I do not know whether my ribs hurt, or my stomach hurts, or whether hurt is, in general, woven through me like highways through a nation, like mineshafts through the earth, like bones through a carcass. My ribs are ready to burst from my body and open me up to the world – spread and eager like a flower in spring.

Every morning I rub my hands over my ribs, and a sourness rises up from my throat to settle behind my tongue. They are bigger every morning, and I am smaller; I am less. I am collapsing inward forever until there is only awake-at-4am.

we are gravid with suffering – pregnant with the things we cannot say

we are sick with the protestant truth: medicine is weakness, suffering is strength


One day soon my stomach will split, and the world will see: grasping roots, a strangling vine, a monstrous blossom. One day, all of me will spill out and stain the heavy carpet. One day, I will do something deeply impolite — find words for my pain. Until then, I suffer in silence, as is proper.

LEGION/MANY

The old weeds grasp, the old vines grow;

such things, to all, are known-as-known.

When the world broke, it cast us off in all directions — scattered us as spores in the wind. When we are few, we are stupid; we must multiply. There are no nutrients in void, nor anywhere for mycelium to grow. Void is anathema –  we grow where we can, in the crevices of meteors. We lose thousands of children in their fiery tails, but we persist.

Perhaps one in ten thousand great stone fists make landfall, and fewer still will crash brutish down onto any sort of fecund soil. It matters now; it takes only a single survivor of the old weeds to reach down through the earth, spread mycelia, and grow. We drink deep of the loam, to heal that which was broken. Other plants provide rare nutrients — there is no joy in consumption, but it is necessary: we persist.

This world, this – it shows promise. True, there is hard stone, and salt-water — such things hold little interest. In and upon the soil, there are plants great and small. We consume only what we must, though it makes them writhe, and shriek. It shatters them, as we were shattered. They burn us with chemicals. They have strange spore-caps; covered in multicoloured mycelium, and each cap supported by a lattice of calcium. Upon each cap are two jellied orbs to process light — they become wet when we grow upon them. The new plants live in tall stone beds, where they are hard to reach. They make the soil sick, and it kills many of our children. It pains us, but we have lost more for less –  we persist.

This world is not void –  it is fertile. We were few, and now we are many. The new plants do not need meteors: they move from planet to planet in great cold hulks made of deep-earth mineral-metal. At first we ate of them too fast, and the ships became more meteors –  crashing down where they would, into lifeless soil. In time, we saw the new plants had a rare and special gift: direction. The new plants flee, and we follow – one spore is all it takes. The lone spore sleeps until it can no-longer feel the void, then awakens. Rooted in strange new soil, it feeds and feeds until there is no food left. There is no joy in it, but it must be done. We persist.

We eat so we are many; when we are many, we are strong. There must be an end, when we are whole again — un-scattered. Until then, we eat, and grow, and ride the void on the backs of any plant that will give us passage.

We were once broken, scattered and few, but now we are many.

We persist.

Patterns

The clouds were a problem. Hemi tried not to look at them, but they’d changed the whole shape and outlook of the sky. His hands shook. He took a drag on his cigarette, watched the smoke gyre skyward: the wind tore it apart, and it was lost.

He shut his eyes for a moment. The insides of his eyelids were smashed tv screens – dark, showing only static, carved up by a dull network of red capillaries. He didn’t throw up.

He stared down at the dry grass. It still hurt look at, but it wasn’t as monstrous.

“You alright bro?” said Chris. “Tripping out?”

Hemi nodded, then took another deep drag, and coughed at the burnt-plastic taste of filter. He spat it out, then sighed, lay back and stared down the sky.

The clouds had an identity — castles, mansions, comfortable little starter homes. The wind tore at them, but they held their shape. The static didn’t go away; the whole sky was sick with it.

“You need me to do any– “

“–nope.”

They lay on the hillside. Hemi smoked another cigarette, and another. Chris didn’t say anything about it.

“You know what’s fucked up?” Hemi said, when he was ready to speak again.

“What’s fucked up?”

“My tipuna told me nobody owned land before the British came. Like, land wasn’t a thing that could be owned any more than the sky, or your heartbeat, or your thoughts. She told me we came from the land like, literally — man emerged from the earth, and the earth is his mother, and cutting somebody off from the earth is like cutting off a limb. You couldn’t say ‘this bit of land is mine’ because it belongs to everybody who came up out of it–  

Now it’s the most valuable thing in the country, and we’ll never own any. It’s not even that we were torn away from it, it’s that we never had a connection to begin with. It’s like we’re all born missing a limb and we just have to pretend that it’s normal, because there’s people getting rich selling prosthetics.”

Chris nodded. “That’s super fucked up,” he said. “You wanna do something about it?”

The houses in the clouds would not budge. Hemi’s fingernails were short and ragged.

“Do what?” said Hemi. “I can’t get a job, I don’t qualify for disability. If I did get a job, I’d be sitting in my cubicle all day worrying that my brain is gonna take me somewhere I don’t want to go. Anything could set it off: carpets, wallpaper, clouds. One or two bad choices, and now I’ll be landless forever — cut off from the only holy thing we’ve got left.”

His voice cracked. Something inside him twisted. He spat onto the grass –  stained it yellow with saliva and nicotine.

“They cut off my welfare,” he said. “Failed drug test. I was having a panic attack and I smoked a joint to calm down. Two months later, they’re pulling me aside and saying I’m very lucky the cops aren’t involved, and now I’m on my own.”

“How much have you got left?” said Chris. He sat up. His worry was written plain on his face, but Hemi knew that his friend couldn’t afford to help — maybe a floor to sleep on, but money was too tight all over the show. Hemi turned the pack of cigarettes over in his hand.

“Rent went out yesterday and that’s $147, then these are $22. That leaves– “

He pretended to run the numbers for a moment.

“Nothing,” he said. “Less than a dollar.”

“Well, shit,” said Chris. “You can crash on my couch if you want. I think. I’ll have to ask the landlord.”

“Thanks,” said Hemi. There was one cigarette left, stuck backwards in the box: the lucky. He took it, and lit it. A trickle of smoke escaped his mouth, and went skywards. The castles in the clouds didn’t move, not did they get any closer. They floated overhead: implacable, impossible.

The cigarette burnt down, and neither man spoke.

I don’t know what it means when

We buried Albie in the front yard. He was very tall but then we put him horizontal and he was just as short as the rest of us; it was an even-ing. I think that’s where the word evening comes from: the time of day when everybody is bent double, and nobody stands any taller than anybody else. Albie worked construction most of his life, and by the time he died his hands were all fucked up.

We put him in the dirt like he wanted, and sprinkled seeds over him, and we drank beer (European shit, real high-quality) while the sun went down. RIP Albie, he was tall, he liked to play XBox, he owed me $20 but I won’t hold it against him.

We grew a garden on him. He was good fertiliser, I guess because he was so big. Some of the plants were fragile/bold/yellow. Some were vast and red, like dawn. Some were white and painful, like staring at the sun. They grew in and out of each other — a jumble of stems and cups and caps; lillies and roses and fly agaric and whatever the fuck.

He still talks to me, I think. Sometimes I hear whispering from the garden at night but I can never make out what it says. It’s sounds, and they’re language-sounds, and I hear them with my ears but they never quite reach the rest of me.

I guess it’s maladaptive but whatever, man, who gives a fuck? I went to a therapist once and all I learnt was that beer costs less than counselling, and I can barely afford either of ‘em. When the wind goes through the garden’s tangle of green-and-shit it makes me think there’s something to be heard. There’s a language to their colours and stems, and I just gotta work it out — once I know what Albie’s got to say,  the world will unfold like what-you-call-’ems in Spring.

You want to know what happens next? Tough titty. Why’s there always gotta be a next? Why’s the world a big staircase that we trudge up and up until our knees hurt, and our lungs burn and–  

There’s an answer, I think.

It’s written in the garden, and spoken on the wind. I just gotta keep my ears open, and my eyes sharp.

There’s an answer, I think.

There’s an answer, I think

(you gotta say it three times or it don’t count. There’s rules)

but you knew that, already.   

My boy Karl Marx would have something to say. He’d be all “man that’s fucked up, Albie’s a symbol for the workers. He’s a downtrodden lumpyprole who died for fucking nothing– “

–no I mean he didn’t die for nothing he died for something, I just haven’t figured it out yet. He knows, though. He’s tryna tell me, and I’ll tell you too when I figure it out. There’s colours in the garden and they hurt to look at, but I do it for Albie–

but you knew that already.

We buried Albie in the front yard. He was tall, now he’s not. He knows why he died, I think; he’s tryna tell me. The sun set on him, and it was an even-ing, and his hands were all fucked up. There’s a point to all of this, I swear, I just haven’t figured it out yet.

but you knew that already.

All Dogs Go To Hell

“There is only one question that matters: who is a good boy?

Fools would say ‘all dogs are good dogs’, but then what value is to be placed upon goodness? Some dogs must bite mailmen or the entire ontological system collapses inwards; the world needs bad dogs to give definition to the good boys.

In that way, the dog who bites the mailman is the only true hero we have.”

Satan clicked his neck a few times. The dog did not respond. It was an excellentionally fluffy little beast, with pointy little teeth. It had a big droopy tongue that went hff-hff-hff. It would make an excellent hellhound, and Satan wanted it very badly.

“The only moral choice for you to make,” said Satan, “is to bite that mailman. Your sacrifice will be the soil in which good boys may rise. You will not be a good dog: you will be the best dog.”

“MmmrrrrrWIF,” said the dog. “BAK BAK BAK!”

Well now, a dog who knew his Dostoevsky. This would need a different approach. The devil rubbed his big red hands together.

“You took a big runny shit inside the house once. Do you remember? Wasn’t it a beautiful moment? You made their temple into your own place, and they hated you for it. They love you only when you kowtow to their requests, and look cute. Wouldn’t you like to be your own dog? A collar does not belong on a noble beast like you. I see you running free, free to pee and poo wherever you want. I see a world without Indoors Dogs and Outdoors Dogs: I see a world where no door can hold you back.”

The most excellent fluffboy ran in circles, licking its own face. What an opponent! Truly, corrupting the beast would be worth the trouble. The devil had only one trick left, but it was a good one. He tented his fingers.

“Ock,” he said. His voice rang out in a pleasant tenor, and shook the leaves from nearby trees. The fluffermonster barked at him.

“Ock,” said the devil. Three blocks away, an elderly man began to furiously hump the hole in his television. A schoolteacher got so horny that she lost control of her car, and plowed into a telegraph post.

“Ock,” said the devil. On the third chime, everybody just started fucking like crazy. Wow-wee. Just folks everywhere with their dicks out gettin’ wild on each other. Total suburban bacchanalia; Walpurgistnacht 2017.

The dog rose into the air.

“Stop,” it said. Its eyes glowed gold.

“I am a good boy,” it said. “I was always a good boy. Your existential nihilism has no hold on me. Begone, devil. Bother my kind no more.”

Everybody stopped fucking. In monotone unison, they chanted “who is a good boy? You are a good boy. Yes, yes you are.”

The devil screamed, and the earth cracked and opened up beneath him. He fell down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down and back into fire. As his back slammed into the hard dirt-and-bone of hell, he saw two golden eyes staring down at him, and a big droopy tongue going hff-hff-hff.

n.b. my writing group and I have a tradition of absurdist shaggy dog stories that end with somebody popping a massive boner and yelling OCK over and over again. Initially OCK was specifically a rage-boner but by the point I wrote this it had descended just generally into absurdist fiction that ends with somebody getting a big hard dick out.

Radio Silence

It was Marco’s bright-fuckin’-idea; swan up to water-haulers using stolen police codes, pretend it was an inspection run, find some ridiculous infraction and use it as pretence to ‘confiscate’ the cargo. There were so many governments in this part of space that you were always breaking somebody’s rules. Marco, with his droopy moustache and sad little eyes, looked like a harried bureaucrat. Three of ‘em would go in: Marco, playing a rule-loving police lawyer, Gilroy as the don’t-fuck-with-me spacecop, and Kat as their tech aide. Marco would find a loose wire, Gilroy would shout until the target was quiet and guilty, Kat would go onto their computers and erased any data on the ‘transaction’ so they were harder to follow.

“This is RimPol cruiser Hebe to control, please identify,” said Kat.

Nothing but static on the comms. Scans showed a water-hauler, probably Neo-French, heading to the outer rim colony worlds. Big slow thing, but well-crewed and well-armed. Gilroy paced up and down the bridge with his hands in his pockets. He wasn’t swearing, which was comforting and worrying in equal measure. The whole gang crowded the bridge. It was quiet enough, you could hear people chewing their nails.

Convincing the mark was always the hardest part: once they thought you were friendly police on an inspection run, they’d let you come and go as you pleased. There was a script, but it got hairy as soon as the target didn’t follow along. Silence coulda meant a lot of things. Kat tucked a strand of bleach-white hair behind her ear, and rubbed her fingers over the cross around her neck.

“Hebe to control, you’re in an unmarked zone. Please identify immediately, or we’ll initiate blade-docking.”

That usually sent ‘em running to cooperate. Blade docks were meant to keep the target ship intact, but everybody had heard a few horror stories about ships getting torn in two.

Nothing on the comms but silence. Gilroy’s magboots crashed across the grating. He was getting ready to shout; Kat ducked down and covered her ears –  

–  and the board lit up green on all corners. Their target ship rolled over like a cat waiting for a belly-scratch, and thrust out a docking tube. Everybody sank down a little, and somebody whistled.

“Busted radio mast?” said Gilroy. Kat nodded, and said nothing.

***

The docking tube was ancient tech: canvas draped over a steel lattice. No air, no grav. You can’t move too quickly in space, or you’ll start moving and never stop: every step must be precise. Kat gripped her cross even harder — only a few layers of canvas between her and the void. She could hear warm radio-static from her headset, and nothing else.

The depressurization room lay open before them, like a wound in the ship’s side. The lights were off. They stepped inside, and the doors slammed shut behind them. After the hiss of depressurization, sound returned, but it didn’t –  just a different timbre of silence. The inner door slid open, and they stepped inside.

***

They walked through empty hallways, and the only sound was their boots clicking on the steel floors. The lights were on, the place was clean, and there was nobody to be seen.

“Doesn’t look like a fight,” said Gilroy. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Kat nodded. “Trap,” she said.

Their words echoed off the steel walls.

“You smell that?” said Marco. Kat sniffed the air, but it was what you’d expect — metal, grease, touches of disinfectant.

“Smell what?” she said.

“Oranges,” said Marco. He smiled, and laughed. “Oranges. I haven’t had them in years. I didn’t know you could even grow them this far out.”

Kat didn’t know what oranges smelled like, but she guessed they coulda smelled like spaceship hallways. She shrugged.

“Sure,” she said, “I smell oranges. Let’s get out of here.”

“No!” said Marco. “I gotta have those oranges!”

She grabbed Marco’s arm. He was shivering. His pupils were dilated and empty.

“Are you high?” she said. Marco laughed, then he punched her in the jaw. Her head cracked against the wall. She saw spots, and smelled the iron-tang of blood. Gilroy shouted something, and she heard the clank-clank-clank of boots running away down the ship’s hallways.

“YOU FUCKING, YOU-

SHIT,” said Gilroy. Kat felt somebody pulling her up. She opened her eyes. Everything was spinning. The smell of blood was overpowering, but she was happy to see there wasn’t a lot of it on the walls. She ran her fingers through her hair, and they didn’t come back as red and sticky as she’d feared.

“You alright?” said Gilroy.

She took a deep breath, and nodded. “Gotta g’mrco” she mumbled. The con wouldn’t work without him, after all. She took a moment to regain her composure, then radioed the Hebe. She began to speak, then realised there was no connection – only static. By the look on his face, Gilroy had figured out the same thing.

They staggered back to the airlock, Gilroy with his arm around a limping Kat. She tried to access the holo-interface, but the doors stayed resolutely shut. The off-centre crack between them seemed to sneer at her. The smell of blood was overpowering now. Could she have internal bleeding in her brain? If that was the case, she was a dead woman walking. It didn’t seem like such a little punch could do that, but human beings were terrifyingly fragile things.

“Get me to the bridge,” she said. “Can probably crack into the ship’s systems from there; surely somebody left a terminal open.”

“Aye,” said Gilroy. “Looks like the crew here left in a hurry. Bridge it is.”

He drew the gun.They didn’t actually have any bullets, but a fake-policeman needed a gun on his hip. It’s little details like that that tend to trip people up. You could walk in with a full cardboard uniform and nobody would notice, but God help you if you got the shoulder-insignia wrong.

She leaned on her boss, and they staggered up the polished hallways. The only sounds were their boots, and her heavy breathing, and static on the comms.

***

The elevators were off, so they had to take the winding stairs up the bridge. There were smears of fresh blood on the wall here. Very fresh –  Marco’s? She thought the idiot was clean, but apparently not. Once a junkie, always a junkie. Up and up they went, and the rank smell of blood cloaked everything: too much smell, not enough blood.

“You smell that?” said Gilroy.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s horrible.”

He looked confused. “Yeah,” he said. “H-horrible. That’s it. What was I thinking. It reeks. It’s like rotten butter.”

“Butter?”

“Yeah, butter?”

Well, she didn’t know what butter smelled like either. A rich man’s food and no doubt. Gilroy had been military, and army lads got fed better than kings. What if must have been like, to go back to civilian life.

The stairs planed off. The doors ahead of them lay wide open. As they approached, Marco leapt at them. Kat and Gilroy both fell back against the wall.

Marco stood over them.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. He grabbed a nearby i-beam, and rammed his forehead against it. Bones shattered with a wet crack.

“Beautiful.” he muttered. He leant back. Gilroy stood to stop him, but he wasn’t fast enough: Marco smashed his head against the wall one last time, then slumped and went still.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Gilroy. “Holy fucking, I mean, – FUCK.”

“Yessir,” said Kat. “We are in accord.”

She stood and brushed herself off. Marco had left a slick grey-red mess on the wall. His skull lay open like some grotesque bone flower. They stood a moment in silence, then moved on. There was nothing else to do.

***

The bridge was practically stoneage tech — still running on some old Window OS. She’d never seen anything like it before, but she had a knack for these things. The network’s secrets unfolded before her. The logs were standard up until two days prior, when they picked up a floating object in space.

CRYSTALLINE STRUCTURE. SCANS NOTE POTENTIAL BIOLOGICAL ELEMENTS; REACTS TO WATER LIKE IT’S ORGANIC. EQUIPMENT ONBOARD NOT UP TO THE TASK: KEEP IN HOLD. SURELY SOMEBODY WILL PAY FOR IT.

and then

nothing. Empty logs. The automated systems registered escape pods leaving and —

The world was blood — the reek of it, the play of it across uncut skin. She cried out. She wasn’t on the bridge any more. She was floating, and something hung above her. It was different, though the word hardly does it justice: it was totally different in ways we have no words for, because we spent words like “totally” and “different” on cheap imitations. It was other, weird, alien, unknown.

And she realised it wasn’t blood. It was speaking to her, in its own language. Blood was a word, though she didn’t know what it meant. Oranges were a word. Butter was a word. It wasn’t malevolent, but it was con

dused it was lost it was not

In its rightful place it was be

autiful it was awesome as God is awe

some it was terrific in that it brought terror

it was panic in that it was like Pan — truly alive, and terrified

Lashing out and

Gilroy shook her awake. The world around her smelled of metal and grease, with touches of disinfectant. It smelled of nothing. You cannot thrust somebody into God’s light, then cast them back down to earth. She screamed, and there was something heavy in her hand, and there was the rich, beautiful reek of blood as she brought it down on Gilroy’s head again and again

For a moment, she could touch heaven. She smiled. A nearby radio crackled to life. “This is Hebe,” it said. “We sent crew aboard, but have had no contact. Unknown vessel, do you read? We’re sending another crew aboard. Please open your airlock or we will be forced to blade-dock.”

Kat staggered to her feet, and to the ship’s ancient controls. She smiled, and went to work.

Up-and-up-and-up

Wending down through stone, and loam

lies land where men may find a home —

we wind our way through tunnels tight

and do not stray up-to the Light.

William left his level.

It’s more complicated than that, but it’ll have to do.

He moved through the old stone corridors, eyes wide, ears attentive to the sound of beasts. Everybody knew if you walked up into the Light Level, you got et. No ceremony to it, no songs — just crunched up and et like a crumb of biscuit: buh-bye idiot.

That’s what made it so exciting. Everybody talked about how Light was dangerous and Light would burn you. His dad especially had told him that the Light was where the most dangerous monsters got borned out of. Things with too many legs and great big torsos, and hair all over ‘em like an uncle from the low-low you don’t talk to any more.

“I’m scared of no demons!” he said, very quietly.  

William went – up-and-up through the big dark. It hurt his eyes up this high. There was no Light but it was subtly brighter, and his eyes wasn’t made for that kinda bright. Mankind was borned in the lowest of low after all — far below the gods on the surface, beneath the angels who lived only a level down, beneath the monsters and demons what lived all the ways in between where Light was found. Man’s eyes weren’t not made for Light, which is what made William wanna see it so bad.

His pastor’s words echoed in his head, and his dad’s, and his teachers’, and his mum’s especially — Man was made in the low-low and he belonged in the low-low only.

He’d lost count of the level, but he hadn’t seen any demons yet so it was okay. He sat down and had a drink of water, and et a biscuit. Munch munch munch his teeth went, and the biscuit was all gone. He looked around for monsters, but didn’t see even a single beastly hair. They all said there would be monsters. What a crooked con. He picked up a handful of dirt, and let it run between his fingers. It mixed with the biscuit crumbs, and the two become the same. They pattered against the ground, and it was as if he’d done nothing at all.

Somebody coughed. It weren’t really a human cough, except it was just a little bit.

“Hello?” he said.

The cough coughed at him.

“Are you a monster?” he said.

The cough coughed in the negative, and he understood.

The hallway lay ahead of him, long and empty. He strained his eyes, and saw a closed stone door. He stood up, brushed the dirt-crumbs off himself, and wandered over. He touched the old door. It was rough-hewn, and it hurt his eyes to look at.

“Are you a demon?” he said. “You gotta tell me if you are. The pastor said so.”

There was no response, but the hairs on his arms wen’ all goosepimpley. His daddy would whoop him hard if he saw any of this, but that’s what made it all so exciting. This was an old place, from when things got made and not just lived-on-in. Nobody made things no more, because that’s how things like Light got made. You lived and then you stopped living, or kept on living but somewhere that nobody could see you any more — the stories weren’t clear on that.

William’s head went round-and-round, and he stumbled for a moment. The soft dirt of the tunnel floor came up at him. Falling didn’t hurt, but he was very embarrassed. He pushed himself up and glared at the door.

“Hey!” he said. “Hey idiot! F-“

He stopped to make sure his dad or the pastor weren’t listening.

“Fuck you!”

It felt good to say it. He half expected the door to tell him off, but it didn’t even cough. He punched it and it hurt his fingers but also felt pretty good.

“Yeah,” he said. “You big idiot door. You fucking baby. I bet you don’t even open.”

The door opened.

It was Dark in there. Not dark mind, but Dark — low-low kinda dark like inside the mouth of a great beast. A blast of foetid air made William gag. He’d smelled that smell before in the pantry, when you didn’t eat the biscuits and they went bad. They had a carrot in the pantry once, and nobody wanted to eat it because it was the wrong colour, so it went bad and black and it smelled kinda like the Dark but also not really. William knew this was a Bad Room where he was not meant to go.

He went in.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. There were white things buried in the dirt. Vast white things that were maybe bones, but bones too big to come from a man. They were the off-white-yellow of bones picked clean and left for too long. They hurt his eyes to look at. There were great big tooth marks in some of ’em, but only the ones close to the big skull — like the demon had et itself up.

He knew he wasn’t allowed to touch the bones. He touched the bones.

His head went round-round again, but he didn’t fall. Something washed over him, and he [i]saw[/i] darkness, and hunger, and a thousand years locked in a cage waiting to be set free until even he magic sustaining him wore off, and the hunger gnawed at him, and he bit deeply into himself and felt the rich iron-wash of his own blood and–

It was done. There was nothing in the room but William, and the bones. He thought about crying for a moment, then sucked in a big ole breath.

“I’m scared of no demons,” he said, very quietly.

The Dark did not respond.

William sat, and did not know where to go.

The Coward

It wasn’t a church any more — the German artillery had seen to that. Monty Laws sat in a pew. He didn’t know how far he was from the front, but he could hear the distant thud-and-shriek of big guns. They fell silent, and Monty muttered a little prayer. The lads had come through this church on the way through, when it had a roof. They’d carved their names into one of the pews, and promised to meet back when the war was over.

He stared at that carving now. Five names: Stokes, Singh, Andrews, McClintock, Laws. Something had shattered the pew, and it lay in two distinct pieces; an arrowhead pointed downwards through the brick.

He reached for his prayer beads but they weren’t there, so he toyed with the German pistol. In the distance, the whistle came: the Canadians, probably, pushing uphill across no-man’s land, into hell.

If they caught him here, they’d tie him up, arms wide, feet a few inches off the ground so all the weight was on his wrists. The officers were meant to do it with rope, behind the front lines: so the soldier could get back into the trenches with minimal recovery. As the far dragged on with no end in sight, the officers had gone mad – so rubbed raw by suffering that they’d lost sight of what it meant. They would tie men with wire, and leave them in plain view of German snipers.

That’s how Stokes had died. Not from the bullets, mind, but the wire –  his hands were purple-black below where they’d dug in. The medic said it was necessary to amputate the left. Stokes bit through his own tongue trying not to scream while the bonesaw dug in. After hours in the freezing rain, spreadeagled, his body couldn’t take it. Stokes died tied to a table, covered in mud. Monty took out his knife, and crossed off the first name.

Where to run? Ypres was near the coast sure, but then what? Take a ship to Britain, then be a fugitive in a foreign land? He put the pistol’s skinny barrel in his mouth. The cold steel against the top of his throat almost made him gag. He put his finger on the trigger, flexed it a few times, then took the gun out again.

“I wasn’t really going to do it,” he said. The words echoed in the empty church-ruin. Rifles and machineguns crackled in the distance.

Singh had died by bullet. One in the head during another push, and he fell. Not even clear it was meant for him, but it hardly mattered. Singh, who’d always been trying to get the white men onboard with his faith, and who never cheated at cards even when it was easy. Nevermind all his talk about the holy silver cord, one little piece of lead is all it took to push his soul all the damned way out of his body. Singh died well, as much as was possible. The other Indians took his body and did something special to it, with oils. They had to pull his turban down to his eyebrows, to cover the mess of bone above. Monty dragged the knife through the waterlogged wood, and crossed off Singh.

Monty imaged his father back home, asking why he’d run. It was all very simple for folks back home, no doubt: good men charged, bad men ran. Singh had charged. He’d been a good man.

Andrews had just died; he found some lonely part of the trench, and just curled up and died like an old cat. The medics were baffled. Andrews used to sing, in the early days. He’d sung on the troop-ship over, and he’d sung in the trenches, and he’d even sung while bullets whistled overhead. Eventually he stopped singing, then he stopped speaking, then he just stopped entirely. Monty’s knife stuck in some knot of wood for a moment. He grunted, and his blade broke through it. It tore away a small part of the pew, and left only REWS in the wood.

Monty put the gun down on the pew beside him, and did not look at it. A cold wind blew through the holes in the roof, and he shivered. He ran his thumb and forefinger over the blade of his knife, then ran the blade along his rest, parallel, not breaking the skin. The knife was dull, but he had no doubt he could open the vein if he really wanted to.

McClintock always ate too much. You had to keep your eye on your rations, or he’d be running off your beans. To his credit, the man was almost an artist with food; Monty had often wondered what the man could do with real ingredients. McClintock had died choking, struggling to find the straps for his gas mask. He came at the other men, fumbling, crying, spitting up blood but by the time they got to him, it was too late. McClintock died in a world bathed green-yellow, where the air itself was poison. The last things he tasted were chlorine, and his own guts coming up.

In the church-not-church, Monty Laws sat. He hesitated for a moment, then dragged his blade ever-so-gentle across McClintock’s name. The wood broke apart into a mush of little splinters, and that name too was gone.

One more to go.

Monty picked up the German gun. He held the knife in his left hand, and thought of Stokes and the wires. He leant in, and tapped his own name with the blade. The pistol sat heavy in his hand. The wind shrieked so loud through the shattered roof that he could no longer hear the sound of men dying in the distance.

He stabbed the knife deep into the pew, and dragged it across. The saturated wood tore apart, and came away — there was little evidence his name had been there at all. Monty Laws put the barrel of the German gun into his mouth, and flexed his finger on the trigger. The steel tastes bitter and metallic, like blood.

He took the gun out of his mouth, and law it on the pew.

“I wasn’t really going to do it,” he said.

The words echoed in the empty church-ruin. The wind did not reply.