Doli’s Lament

This story was rejected, but I rather like it. Flash fiction is really fucking hard! March on and whatnot… 😉

Doli’s Lament

Jek’s hide wrapped boots crunched in the snow on the ascent trail of Doli’s Peak.

“Do we really have to do this?” Loric said.

“To lead the clan you must earn Doli’s respect, little brother. Visiting the mountain god’s shrine is tradition.”

“I hate that word.”

Jek smiled. “My time readying you is almost past. You will wed Orla and then tradition will mean other things.”

“Babies.”

“Securing the future,” Jek said.

“Sleepless nights.”

“Warm fires and a child’s heartbeat.”

“The end of Orla’s hunting and my hidework,” Loric countered.

“You’ll change your song soon enough.”

“Spoken like a true priest with vows,” Loric muttered, kicking a clump of snow.

Jek grinned.

The wooded trail ended and Doli’s ascent path tread carefully alongside a great drop, a smattering of trees and drifts to their left, and a sheer fall to their right. The way was safe, marked with dyed yellow strips of cloth around poles, and Jek believed in the mountain god.

The wind suddenly screamed and hammered into Jek. He stumbled as his foot punched through the snow packed trail, burying his leg up to mid thigh. Jek hid his face against the lashing snow.

The gust vanished as quickly as it had come, the blowing snow swirling away. Jek twisted around and blinked.

Loric was gone, only dark hole in the snow. and

“Loric!”

Jek wrenched himself free and crawled over. He pawed at the edge of the gap in the trail. This wasn’t possible, the trail had been marked, sanctified by the priesthood. This was Doli’s path, his path, Loric’s path.

And it had crumbled.

#

The base camp of Euphoria was half a league up the Darkfrost Mountains built under an overhanging outcrop of black granite. Jek leaned against the snow dusted wood railing outside the hut. Loric had vanished through the snow drift without a sound and Jek flinched as he imagined Loric’s face frozen in agony, buried in a tomb of snow.

“Jek,” Orla said.

Jek watched dark plumes of cook smoke from his village rise like thin, blackened fingers above the wintergreen trees in the valley below.

Orla moved beside him. “The hawk will have reached them. Your father will have read the message by now.”

Jek swallowed. “When do you leave?”

We leave in half a bell.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“ The Firstborn guides the Second. I have lived my life by that tenet and now…”

Jek stared across the snow bound slopes below, the wind swirling and playing. Doli’s Breath washed across the mountain, completely uncaring, roving with absolute indifference. Jek  felt a bittersweet, rotten darkness grow in his chest and his heart beat wildly.

Doli had done this.

Jek snarled. “I will spit in Doli’s face before I leave. Burn the shrine and piss on it.”

There was a moment of silence between them.

“I’m coming with you then.”

“I must go alone,” he croaked.

Orla grabbed Jek by the shoulder and yanked him away from the railing. “You do not get to decide for me, priest,” she hissed.

Jek’s face burned as he met her bloodshot eyes and saw her tear crusted cheeks. The cold wind swirled snow around Jek’s numb legs and he sucked in a breath of harsh air.

“Doli might destroy us,” Jek whispered.

“What Doli can or cannot do is no concern of mine,” she rasped. “You’ll lead us there?”

“Get your sword,” he said.

#

The shrine was an old cave at the end of a thin path off Euphoria’s ascent trail. Frozen ropes bound snowy, patched hide, barring the entrance. Frostpine trees bowed on either side of the hole in the slope, ice and snow fused to their bark in great clumps, the burden forcing the branches low.

Jek watched Orla draw her sword. She launched at the door, hacking and slashing. Her steel slid through sinew and sliced the frozen sheets of hide until it was in splinters and shards at her feet.

“You have the flint?” Jek said.

“Yes, and the oilcloth,” Orla said.

Jek started down the rocky slope, left hand out for balance as his boots slid and squeaked on slick stone.

The passage descended until it opened into a small cave lit by ice tinted light from a shaft above their heads. In the centre was the shrine. Atop of a raised platform of leaning shale, frozen bones bound by cord had been worked into the form of a bear mid lunge, maw split wide, a desiccated paw raised to strike.

The wind rushed with a guttural growl around them like a guard dog showing its teeth. The tattered hide draped over the dirty white rib cage flapped.

Orla raised her sword and Jek’s stomach roiled, was Doli going to strike them down?

The wind dropped away.

“Jek,” Orla said, and held out a strip of oil soaked cloth.

Jek grabbed the other end. Together they began to wrap Doli’s shrine.

As Jek’s numb fingers unrolled the cloth he felt hot tears leak on his cheeks. He should have been able to wrap Loric’s body in last rites. There was their southern expedition to Volryr in the spring. The future as an uncle, to watch Loric and Orla’s children grow and teach them as his duty as Second son.

Jek jerked as the cloth pulled tight and slipped out of his hands. “I’m out,” he said.

“So am I,” Orla whispered.

“Let’s burn it.”

Sour black smoke puffed from the wrapped shrine as it caught fire. Jek and Orla retreated up the passage, Jek’s lungs burning and his eyes watering. Orla coughed and cursed.

Jek burst from the jaws of the cave, the fresh air blasting the gumminess from his face. He sank to his knees, breathing deep and then felt Orla’s hand on his shoulder.

“Will you return to the monastery?” She said in a quiet voice.

Jek stared at the ice shackled trees and frozen ground. “I’m not Doli’s priest anymore.”

 

 

Talk of the Town

Oak leaned back against the dusty brick wall with his eyes shut. Fire in the hearth popped and cracked. His nephew Jeffery sat beside him and across sat Maria.

“Let’s have the story, then,” the woman said.

Oak grunted.

Maria had strong hands. Rumour said she could peel kindling off a log like she was husking corn. Her leathery skin was toughened by wind and work, and ske kept her long, grey hair tied in a bun with a thick, abrasive cord of rope. 

Oak opened his eyes. The mug of ale in front of Maria remained untouched. He’d heard she had a religion that forbid public consumption of drink, wary of judgment from long-dead ancestors. No wonder she’s still widowed, he thought.

Maria sighed and arched one of her thick, fuzzy grey eyebrows. The hairy mole under her left eye twitching. “I lost some investment in this, Oak. I want to know what happened. All kinds of talk going ‘round. You’re the town Teller,” she said, her voice scratchy like rough burlap.

Oak coughed and wiped his bald, sweating scalp. People in various stages of intoxication at nearby tables quieted. Oak nodded, sat up straighter, making a good show of clearing his throat. He eyed his nephew, praying to any gods, even Maria’s, that the damn fool would keep his mouth shut.

Jeffery stared at the ale between his hands and belched. Maria sniffed.

“Manners, boy,” Oak said. Jeffery blinked, his watery blue eyes bloodshot from alcohol. His shag of light brown hair clumped and sweaty. An angry pimple happily displayed itself on his nose. A pale yellow glob of pus perpetually about to burst from underneath a thin, tight layer of reddened skin.  

Oak reached behind his chair, dimming the large, curved iron lantern. At this, a serving girl locked eyes with him, nodded, and began to dim others around the room. Oak leaned forward, clasping his fingers, looking Maria in the eyes.

“Jeffery is lucky to be sitting here,” Oak said, and then strengthend his voice. “An ancient and deadly spirit possessed your herd of pigs, Maria. And in an otherworldly frenzy, it ran them so hard their hearts burst.”

The patrons sitting nearby muttered. One pot-bellied man clutched a feathered charm around his neck, his lip twisting in revulsion.

Jeffery fidgeted. “No,” he began, “that’s not wha-”

“A ghost?” Maria said, her voice high.

“A wronged ancestor,” Oak said, he stared at her and did not blink. Maria shifted in her seat, her grey eyebrows furrowed and her lips forming a thin line. Oak clapped a hand on Jeffery’s shoulder. “On the eve of summer solstice, Jeffery was nobly herding the swine into the rolling hills with no idea what awaited him.”

“Last Thursday,” Jeffery said, nodding around to everyone.

Oak coughed, smiling apologetically. “No interruptions, m’boy.”

Jeffery’s face reddened. “Right, sorry, Unc. Summer Solsmice, Maria.” He burped.

“Anyways, on that grave night when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest. Jef-”

“I thnk I just left here actually,” Jeffery said, brightnening. “We was playin sink the copper in the tankard and I was winnin.”

Oak felt a vein twitch on his temple, he stepped hard on Jeffery’s foot.

“Ow. Oh.”

Oak raised his voice. “On this harrowing night, the pigs were ruffled, Maria. Animals have a sense about them. They know things like we can’t.”

“Hang on,” Maria said.

“You don’t believeme ,” Oak said, leaning back.

People hushed suddenly and Maria glanced around. Oak smiled inwardly, interrupting a Teller was expected, but questioning them was taboo. The pot-bellied man with the charm glared at Maria. Even Jeffery managed to look shocked.

“I do believe you. Keep going please. It’s just the pigs, well they prize-winning. Meant everything to me.” Maria swallowed, looking down at her callused hands.

“What about your kids?” Jeffery said.

Maria’s face went red like a beet and Oak chuckled. A few more people laughed and finally a smile broke across Maria’s face.

Oak grinned, indicating his forgiveness. “So. Jeffery was bringing your pigs to feed near the oldest tree in Old Hallow in Old Valley. For that’s where the best mushrooms grow. The pigs started to feed. Not knowing, not daring to imagine the gristly fate.”

Oak leaned back again and swept his eyes around the room. “Now that tree. Why anyone can feel there’s something off about it. The branches twist like a crone’s age-warped hands. The bark smells foul, and even in spring, no leaves grow upon it.” He heard muttered agreements and saw rapt stares.

“Jeffery laid down a small distance away while the pigs crowded around the tree, feasting on the mushrooms.”

“Passed out,” Jeffery said in a low voice.

Oak ignored him. “Something in the tree, feeling the heat of living animals, began to remember what it was like to be alive. And it got jealous. The branches shook, not with wind, but with the spirit of one of our murdered forefathers!”

People gasped. A serving girl clapped a hand over her mouth. Maria gripped the table, knobbly knuckles white. Oak saw her lips murmur a silent prayer.

“Curdles the blood of virgins it does,” Oak said. “But the worst had yet to come.” He gave Jeffery a warning glance. “The spirit, sensing the pigs gnawing, snorting, and snuffling the mushrooms howled. A cry sharper than the cut of winter wind. Jeffery, terrified, like any one of us would be, tried to get the pigs away. But it was too late.”

“What happened?” Maria said, her eyes wide.

“The spirit possessed the pigs. Bloating them swamp green and veiny blue. Swelling them like rotten fruit.”

“Then what?” Maria said.

“The spirit wanted to run.”

“Run?” Maria said.

“Yes, but after being trapped in a tree for decades it was too eager. We’re all lucky that the spirit pushed the pigs so hard their hearts began to pop and rupture with the unnatural strain. As they died, the spirit had no vessel, and disappeared into the underworld.” Oak paused, staring right at Jeffery. “Our swineherd was lucky to get out alive.”

People clapped.

Jeffery rose and gave a teetering bow. “It was a close call, true,” he said. Noise of relief and agreement filled the room and Jeffery beamed. “Only left with a hangover,” he said proudly. “Almost ate a glowcap too, they’ll make you dead sick.” Jeffery began to speak solemnly, trying to sound like Oak. “You’ll turn green like a frog and blue as the sky.”

Oak stared at Jeffery as if he’d tried to pet a rabid, foaming dog. Maria’s face flushed, her eyes narrowed, looking up at Jeffery with glinting, steely eyes. She cracked her knuckles.

About Dog

 

Grief like a spring seed,

weak and wet, a damp paper breath in my ear.

And then shaking

As bulls,

Snorting and eyes blackened crimson,

Hides steaming with sweat and thighs bunching.

 

My dead dog lying on the table euthanized.  Golden fur cold like

A wig and tongue drying out.  

 

It settles like acrid smog.  And I miss the stampede and

The drumming I danced naked to like a wild thing.

 

A warm hand on my trembling shoulder .

You beside me quiet, and aware that I play

With bulls, locking horns and that I’m covered in smog with dripping, wet ears. 

You cut a clip of my dog’s hair and put it in my hand.

Rubbing the fibers between my fingers I recall

Nights on the couch with him curled up beside me.

Brown eyes like chocolate.  So sweet.

 

Grief may be a seed, planting itself inside.  

Like a stitch sliding through flesh.

Bringing palls of choking air.

And anger that dances like fever in your veins and soul.

 

My hand is gripping the cup of it, 

Holding it up in front of my face like a holy book 

Breathing in the scent of ink and salvation.

 

Pour it out you say and put it down.  

And remember it as it was, and as it will always be

In your heart,

As full.

Bring in the Neighbours

Chapters 2-4!

Link to first chapter here: https://jordansharpe.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/bring-in-the-neighbours/

Chapter 2

         Her suit started beeping. Eysa muted it, let me have peace, she thought, shutting her eyes. Lights began flashing across her visor.

“Just let me die,” she said, her voice hoarse from gnawing hunger, she shut the message off. Then her suit began rapidly warming and cooling. Sensory alerts.

Sighing, Eysa thought of Kay. The older woman”s lined face, beautiful blonde hair falling around her shoulders. Kay had installed these sensors, was proud of them and waiting on a commission from the Fleet.

“For you Kay,” Eysa said. Open radar.” Her vision of the nebula returned. Her suit firing thrusters it reoriented her. She gasped.

There was a ship. Elongated like an egg and mottled brown with streaks of blue running in starburst patterns across its hull.

“Incoming transmission,” her suit said.

Eysa stared, black hair floating across her face. Not believing her eyes.

“Receive,” she said, stumbling over the command.

Silence. “Hello? This is Commander Eysa Ryan. My ship is gone. Please assist.”

Her vision blurring from hunger she swallowed, her dry tongue feeling like a sponge in her throat. “Please.” She said. Her suit’s communication status flashing blue for connected transmission. “Is. Is anyone there?”

Her head aching and lips dry, Eysa repeated her question. The ship began moving towards her. Slowly wheeling until, what she guessed was the front, was coming at her. There was a burst of light, a cone shining through her. Eysa cried out shutting her eyes.

“Power restored,” the A.I said.

“What?” Eysa said. The cone of light disappeared. The ship was beside her. Blue patterns swirling, expanding, filling her vision. Eysa shut her eyes, cerulean light blinding. Her stomach dropped. Light extrapolated to energy, she thought, Emern would have loved this. Her body felt like it was in free-fall. Eysa’s stomach protested, bile rising in her throat.

“Axis rotating,” her A.I said. “Unclassified environment detected.”

Blinking, Eysa focused. Unclassified. What?

“Oh god” she said, placing her hands on the floor. There”s a floor, she thought. It gave under her weight and then springing up as she raised her arms. Reminding her of the stiff trampoline at the community centre back home.

“Where am I?” She said, querying her suit, but she knew. She was on the ship. Pale emerald light shining out from an unseen source, coloured the mist around her. She could barely see. It was silent.

“Oxygen levels breathable,” her suit said.

Pounding heart filling her ears Eysa hesitated. Emern would be teasing her. Kay’s mask would be off already and recording everything on that annoying device of hers. Jones would have his weapon out. Him and his damn guns, Eysa thought.

She hesitated and then bypassing the suit’s warning system she deactivated her mask. Eysa took the deepest breath she could, filling her lungs with alien air. Her heart rushing she shuddered and laughed. She was breathing.

Looking around all she could see was rolling white mist. As if she sat inside a cloud.

”Is anyone there? My name is Eysa Ryan, Commander of,” She faltered. “Former Commander of the Fireside Explorer. I owe you my life.”

The mist began swirling around her feet and Eysa leapt back. Did it hear her?

It followed her, rushing at her, funnelling like water down a drain. Something began wrapping around her legs, so cold even her exo-suit couldn’t deal with it. Eysa crushed her panic. What did it matter? Eysa held her arms out, closing her eyes.

A blasting wail suddenly cut through the air. Eysa fell to a knee, grabbing her head. It sounded like a crowd of torture victims crying out in a cacophony of pain. Eysa collapsed as images began filling her mind.

She became an observer of a dying race.

A city, a planet, all crumbling. A last gathering of elongated, back skinned creatures with yellow eyes and large hands. They walked on all fours, standing upright like humans at intervals.

She saw a fleet of grounded ships just like this one, readying for launch. Blue and patterned and surrounded by the creatures, they prostrated before it. Rising onto two legs and back to four. In the distant sky, ships of other colours were launching, streaking across the honey yellow sky.

All of a sudden the creatures turned, facing the same direction. Their unified motions broke down and they scattered like frightened animals.

Something was coming, the end of their race.

Devourer.

Black clouds. Swarms like locusts, a darkness arcing through the planet’s amber sky like a whip. They surrounded the ships, wrapping around, constricting, crushing. Wails rose up from the yellow-eyed creatures, a keening louder than anything Eysa had ever heard. All falling. Darkness killing.

Pity welling in her chest and tears on her cheeks, Eysa watched a planet burn.

One of the yellow-eyed creatures was standing over a stone basin. Surrounded by hundreds of others they were all staring at the rock edifice.

Eysa knew that body language, remembering the posture of her grandmother in church. It was reverence. Dipping elongated arms into the basin the creature, wearing a headdress of sorts with long, clear tubes coming out and curling down its back like hair, took hold of something.                   Spindly arms raised a seed up.

It then turned and looked at her, projecting powerful emotions of hope, need and want. It sees me, she thought, her mind buckling under the assault. There was a keening wail and it’s meaning stretched across time, space and race.

Grief.

The vision faded.

All of a sudden waves of energy rippling the air like a storm hit her. The blue light around her flashing violet and pink like a sunset. She pictured the basin and the egg, and them looking right at her.

Eysa nearly wept. Kay and Jones were trying to have a baby. Jones’s haggard look during flight checks balanced against Kay’s determined smile. Eysa thought about their little jokes.

Gathering suddenly the mist took the form of a pillar, drifting past. Eysa followed. The mist-form stopped by a pulsating wall the colour of flesh. Eysa got close and the wall retracted like a membrane, sliding away like an opening eyelid.

The golden glow of the nebula poured inside, bathing her face in its light. Eysa closed her eyes, pretending she was on her front porch back on X35.

“What are you trying to show me?”

She searched the deepness, seeing a tumbling asteroid like the one that had destroyed her ship. A tendril of blue mist shot out from the ship, moving like a snake around the asteroid.

A crack. Shimmering of pale blue light all around her. Eysa heard a thump. She spun.

Emern lay prone on the ground, his deep brown eyes blinking behind his suit’s clear mask.

#

Chapter 3

         “Em!”

She rushed over throwing her arms around him, tears on his sister’s cheeks. He stared at her strangely, suit beeping in his ears.

“Ice!” He hugged her, burying his head in her shoulder. “Where?” He said, voice hoarse and raw.

“Ship,” Eysa said. “Alien.”

“Yeah,” and then raising an eyebrow he said, “never seen you cry before.”

“Shut up,” grinning she sat beside him, her hand on arm.

“Why did they save us? And who, or what are they?”

Eysa’s eyes looked over his shoulder, focusing on something distant.

“I saw them die,” Eysa said.

“What?” Air is breathable his exo-suit said. Emern acknowledged and kept his mask on. Eysa frowned, eyebrows furrowing like she was working out a math problem. She suddenly turned, meeting his eyes, and told him about the vision. “Why do they want you?”

“Where are Kay and Jones?” She said.

“I don”t know.”  He said quietly. He started scanning, gathering information. Streams of numbers and stats flickering on the inside of his helmet, building a report.

Eysa suddenly clapped her head, moaning.

“What is it?” He grabbed her arm, his suit taking her readings. Her temperature was high, heart-rate normal. She got a green on the scale. What’s happening to her?

“Eysa.”

“They want me to do something.”

“What?”

Just then another wall slid open and a different view into space was revealed. Emern whipped his head around. He got and ran over.

“There’s blue arms leaving the ship.”

“That”s what it did when it brought you on. Oh my god, do you think-” A flash, a purposeful mist gusting around them, the wall slid closed with a faint sucking sound. Warm turquoise light filled the room.

Kay and Jones appearing a few feet above the floor. Jones dropped immediately and Emern rushed to his side.

“Jones, can you hear me? We’re ok.”

“Emern look at Kay.”

Kay remained floating. Writhing sapphire arms were running over her body. The arms pulsed and then she was lowered gently.

Kay and Jones’s exo-suits retracted. Kay sat up first. Her face wet and eyes unfocused she looked at Emern and Eysa, lips moving.

“Where are? I. Oh,” she said, dirty blonde hair damp and sticking to her face. Kay’s green eyes widened. “What happened? The hull breach, the noise and-” She quickly put her hand over her stomach, face going white. Jones had sat up and had his arm around her, holding his wife close.

“How far along?” Eysa said.

Jones’s bald head glistened with sweat. A razor burn rash on his neck angry and vivid. H

“Four weeks in,” he said without looking at Eysa, eyes on Kay.

Emern was quiet, thinking about the way the alien presence lingered over Kay. She’s pregnant, why did that matter? Did it?

“Why did they save us?” Jones said. The viewport was still open and light from the nebula coloured the mist a warm yellow.

The flesh wall beside them suddenly began moving. The four shuffled back. Sliding up it revealed a pod. The capsule was twice the size of a man and the surface of it was pulsing.

“I think there’s something in there,” Emern said. He opened a channel to his suit, readying the built-in weapons now that his suit didn’t need to give him oxygen.

Jones leaned in. The pod unfolded like a flower and he jumped back.

“I think these are our hosts,” he said.

The creatures in the pod had ebony skin and yellow eyes, their flesh cracked and lined with brown like tiger stripes. Their eyes were bulbous and close together. Emern saw Eysa studying them, she was the only one who didn’t look surprised.

“Why preserve these?” Jones said. “And if they’re dead, who rescued us? Have you looked for any other rooms?”

“No. By the time I woke, this window has opened and I saw Emern getting picked up. The mist is so thick like the oceans back home,” Eysa said.

The three looked at her. There were no oceans on X35.

“Right,” Emern said, laying a hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Jones suddenly gasped. “Are all your suit’s full power too?” They checked and they were.

Emern went to the still open viewport and poked the clear, viscous membrane. He rubbed his fingers, feeling the strange substance clinging to them.

“I don’t think the how matters, Jones. We have a chance now. Exo-sleep,” Emern said.

“Not enough food to last the trip,” Kay said.

Emern smiled. “If the suit doesn’t have to keep us warm or give oxygen, it could last long enough. We just need to find sealed containers, maybe there’s a storage bay. Let’s go.” Without waiting, Emern took off down the corridor, boots squelching on the fleshy floor.

#

         Walking beside Kay, Eysa activated her med readouts. Her body’s chemistry was altering.

Her skin cool and damp like a reptiles. Eysa made the suit retract from her hands and saw veins raised out and hard. She thought she could see her blood sliding along like cold jelly. She could see the heat outlines of the ship’s sleeping hosts pulsating softly. Jones was wrong, they weren’t dead. Dreaming of the devouring darkness and saviour. Just waiting. Waiting for her.

“All our research is gone,” Kay said, breaking the silence. Jones put his arm around her.

Eysa stopped herself from laughing. Research? What did that matter now? The readouts in her helmet began listing her biological changes. Her respiratory system could now absorb oxygen from water. A memory of the Fireside Explorer, sleek and silver among the stars made her frown. Another readout flashed, interrupting her. Eysa’s pigment was darkening. Remembering her father she thought his eyes so small and his skin so pale, not like hers. Not any more.

Eysa halted. Mist began running up her body, her exo-suit falling off like light robes. Shutting her eyes she threw back her head, feeling her blood suffusing with properties and nutrients alien to her. She held out her arm, mesmerized by the glittering she saw, her pigment a dark shade like a banana ripening. Her eyes felt hot and she knew they were golden.

Emern yelped. “Eysa!” He reached an arm out towards his who had disappeared into a column of thick mist.

“No, don’t touch her,” Jones said, grabbing Emern. “We don’t know what’s happening.”

“We won’t be devoured.” Eysa’s voice issued from the mist, tenor and inhuman.

Emern took a step back.

The mist fell away and Eysa Ryan smiled. Her eyes enormous and blinking, skin black like obsidian. She was a cross between the creatures in the walls and the woman they’d known.                Her frog-like face glowing, wet with moisture she spoke softly.

“I”m going to save us,” she said, walking through the mist which began solidifying under her feet, forming a staircase upwards.

#

Chapter 4

         Kay and Jones were gripping Emern by the arms. He strained against them, heart banging.

“Eysa!” He screamed. “What have you done to her, you bastards?” Kay looked at Jones, her face white. He grabbed Emern.

“We can still get out of here. You said our suits could get us home if we found a capsule.” Shaking his friend’s arm, Jone’s face darkened and he backhanded Emern across the face.          “Emern look at me goddamn it.”

Emern staggered, broke free of Jones’s grip, eyes bloodshot and wide. He spate blood and primed the physical enhancers on his exo-suit. He could punch a hole through the ship. A beep. His suit finished calculating the probability of the storage bay. Emern beamed the map co-ordinates.

“It’s half a kilometre to the bay,” he said, not taking his eyes off the mist stairway where Eysa had gone.

“You aren”t coming,” Jones said.

“I can’t leave her.”

Jones looked at Kay. The older woman balled her fists and looked down at her belly, uncertainty on her face. The years bound all of them. The Fireside Explorer had been more than vessel, it had been a home.

Above them translucent pink light was shining down. They began climbing the mist stairway.

#

         The steps forming under Eysa’s feet were grey and hard like cement. Around her the dark red walls began lighting up at her presence, sensing one of their kind. She thought of the pink skins below her, listening to their shouts echo up to her. They were like far off lights glimmering in the distance, unreadable and familiar.

The ship hummed. Eysa understood that it was alive. Latching onto her desperate, final moments like a homing beacon the ship reacted as it was designed to do; it was a saviour. But it was still a ship, and ships need pilots. She needed help, it was given, now she can repay it. Why can’t the other’s see?

The staircase ended, the mist pooling, hardening, and forming into a large circular platform. Command deck. The Fireside Explorer had one. We aren’t that different. Holding her hands out Eysa looked at her skin finding it ordinary.

#

         Emern, Jones and Kay reached the top of the strange staircase in minutes. Their suits enlarging their lung capacity, changing the difficult climb into a smooth walk.

Emern saw Eysa stepping towards the clear membrane that held the vacuum of space back. The weapons on his suit were still full charge. A drop of sweat ran down his face.

A circle suddenly materialized on the membrane. It was light blue and showed clusters of stars.

“I am going to guide us,” Eysa said. Waving her arm like an illusionist a scene began forming. A darkness rushing, eating, consuming the creature’s world, what happened to it? Would it follow them? He couldn’t take that risk, millions could die, and for what?

“I promised father I would look out for you,” Emern said. He opened private channels to Kay and Jones.

“Commander Ryan is sick. I’m in charge as second officer. Is my authority recognized?” Jones and Kay sent back affirmatives. Breathing hard, Emern flicked his wrist, disarming energy weapons and activating tranq darts.

“Target. Eysa Ryan. One hundred and forty-two pounds. No heart conditions or allergies. Prepare salvo.” His suit thrumming in response he held out his arm, hoping her physical change hadn’t affected her biochemistry yet.

“I can’t let you do this,” He said. And shot.

Eysa cried out, crumpling, the mist sheathing her body vanished.

Jones rushed to her kneeling down. “Vitals are ok. Suit detects foreign agent, but it’s retreating. Look.” He said, holding up her head and Emern saw the black skin starting to fade to pin. “She must have to be conscious for the ship to affect her.”

“We need to get out. Now,” Kay said.

Emern nodded. “Aft. There is a power source and pods of some kind. We can supercharge our suits, rig the escape pods, set a course for home.” Grabbing Eysa’s feet. Jones’s lifted her by her armpits. “Move,” Emern said. “Down and south.”

Red, ugly light pulsated overhead. The deck of the ship became unsteady, shaking beneath their feet. With Eysa’s collapse the mist had cleared and he could see the floor. It was ribbed and sticky. The walls were curving, bowing out at the middle and thin at the top like a tube, as if they were running down an intestine.

“Go, go,” Emern said. The three began running back down the mist stairway, each hoping it wouldn’t disintegrate under their feet.

They made it to the bottom.

“Oh, shit,” Kay said.

Lights began illuminating the walls and Emern saw eerie black elongated creatures with dead golden eyes staring out at them.

One of creatures blinked. The eyes opened.

“Fuck,” Jones said. A walnut shaped head turning towards him its mouth opened, a forest of black teeth shining. It screamed and burst from the wall, sending chunks of flesh coloured debris spraying.

“Run!” Emern screamed. His suit aiding his strength he pulled Eysa from Jones’s grasp, hauling her over his shoulder, legs pumping.

The creature landed on two feet shaped like a frog’s. Huddling, shivering, it bleated weakly. The mist came pouring down, surrounding the creature, buoying it up, wrapping and encasing it like armour. The mist hardened into a contoured, moulded bone-like exo-skeleton. Wicked looking claws hanging from it’s large hands it opened its mouth, hissing at them.

Jones lifted his arm. Energy gathering in a miniature storm around his fist, crackling like a tempest. He fired.

The blast took the creature in the chest, sending it spinning through the air to land in a heap. Its smoking flesh stunk like sulphur.

Eysa suddenly cried out. Emern checked her monitor. She was supposed to be out cold.

Another creature emerged from the wall, wet and dripping with sticky fluid. The mist started to gather. Jones shot again, blowing this one’s head apart, yellow gore splattering the walls.

Eysa’s body began to seizure, rejecting the anaesthetic.

“Eysa!” Emern said, setting her down, he administered an agent to wake her up. Blinking, she sat up and immediately looked at the bits of the creatures cooling on the red floor.

“What have you done,” she whispered, Emern saw gold beginning to fill her eyes like water pouring into a cup.

“Eysa. We can escape, there’s pods aft, I think our suits can interface and set a course for home. Eysa, are you listening?”

Eysa rose. Mist leaking out of the floor gathered around her feet and legs, encasing her once more. Fluid and hypnotic.

“I’m going preserve the race,” she said.

“Preserve?” Kay said.

“Yes.” Eysa put an ebony hand on her stomach and looking at it with a smile. Kay’s eyes widened.

“Fight it, Eysa,” Emern said, clasping her arm.

“You are going to retro the pods and go home, but I am staying. I”m going to find a new world for them,” Eysa said.

“Please,” Emern said. “I can”t lose you.”

Eysa said nothing. She let go, walking away, her dark form shrouded in mist. They followed. The ship silent, the walls undulating and dark. Eysa paused, holding out her hand, the wall moved, opening like an eye, revealing a dark room.

“Here,” Eysa said.

The pods were log shaped, pink membranes with blue, purple and red vein looking lines crisscrossing the outside.

Kay and Jones began calibrating their suits. Emern stood in front of his.

“I can’t leave you, Ice” he said, using his childhood nickname for her. He got into his pod, wanting to reach out and yank her in.

“I’m exploring like we dreamed of,” Eysa said, resting a black hand on the fleshy pod. She stared down at Emern’s ruddy, tear streaked face.

“Say I died among the stars.”

Bring in the Neighbours

Chapter 1

         Clanging alarms jarred Eysa Ryan awake.

“Warning. Multiple kinetic impacts. Shields failing. Calculating position, please hold.”

Eysa leapt out of bed, blinking sleep from her eyes. The Fireside Explorer’s emergency siren wailed like a wounded animal, hammering her skull. What the hell is happening?

Eysa held out her arms and her exo-suit detached itself from the wall. Uncoiling like a snake it slithered over her body and sealing at her neck with a hiss. Opening her door she went running down the steel hall to the bridge.

She activated her comm to her crew.

“I’m going to the bridge Emern, get to the engines,” she said.

An impact shuddered the corridor, Eysa fell, head slamming off the wall. She grunted,  sight blooming crimson and purple like a nebula, her slipsuit’s medical responder injected painkillers.

Getting up Eysa checked her comm, the red blips of her crew members were passing the engine room. Kay and Jones following closely behind her brother.

“Roger, Ice,” Emern said. “Almost there. Engines are shot, I was able to get us a bit of power. Not sure how long it will last. Jones and Kay are checking life support on med deck. Something isn’t right. The damage down here is-”

A massive shudder cut his voice off.

“Emern!” Eysa shouted. Her suit beeped and she held up her arm. A three dimensional holograph of her ship popped up from the comm on her wrist, red lines illuminating the engine section. Or where it had been. It was gone.

Eysa stared dumbly, not moving.

Her wrist comm bleeped again. Jones. Eysa declined it, leaning against the bulkhead. The deck shuddered under her feet. The three dimensional holograph of her ship was floating above arm, blinking ugly red. Her comm started vibrating her wrist. Eysa pushed every thought of Emern out, she had a ship to save. Eysa let Jones’s call through.

“Commander, against my recommendation Kay’s working on deck one fixing life support. I’m on deck two. There’s hull breaches everywhere, can’t close em quick enough. Where the hell were our shields? What happened?”

“Don’t know. Emern is dead, shit. I, no, hold on, I’m going to the bridge. Long-range sensors are down, need to get a visual,” Eysa said.

Kay’s soft voice emerged from the comm. “Eysa, I’m sorry about Emern.”

“Just tell me you can get life support back up,” she said, gritting her teeth. Idiot brother, she thought, why did you go and leave me alone?

Jones’s voice crackled through. “Kay, get out. The escape pods are fused shut. If those get hit again the entire deck will go. Think of yourself for once, and the baby.”

The ship’s deck wide comm clicked on. “Approaching end of field. Two minutes until clearance.”

Eysa punched the air. “Emern got us enough thrust. Stay in med section, if we get the life support back up we have a chance.” We can do it, she thought. Eysa continued towards the bridge, she ran a hand along the wall of her ship. Come on baby, keep it together a little longer. A shrieking tear suddenly reverberated, metal grinding on metal, Eysa flinched.

“Aye,” Kay said. “It’s a damned mess down here, but I think we can-”

Another bone crunching impact shook the corridor. Panicking, Eysa checked her readouts.

Med decks one through three gone.

Eysa reeled. They’re dead. I’ve failed. Her father’s stern voice in her head, a Commander puts the lives of the crew of above their own. But what about this? You never told me about this, Eysa thought, the universe snatched them from me.

A pleasant A.I voice issued from her comm.

“Engines gone, residual life support will fail in two point five minutes. Gravity offline.” Tears leaked out of her eyes, floating away in a river. Nothing felt real to her, Eysa stared at the gleaming steel corridor.

Wiping her face she gripped an anti-grav manoeuvring bar and shot herself forward to the bridge. Emern, Kay, Jones. Her crew. Gone.

The door hissed open. Eysa flew into the bridge. Through viewport she saw millions of asteroids. They were in a belt.

An asteroid larger her ship was heading for the bridge. Eysa went to the Commander”s chair. The navigation system was fried. Not malfunction, the damage was too focused. Something had attacked them. Eysa felt a strange relief, it wasn’t her fault, she didn’t plot the route wrong.

The bridge could detach itself as a shuttle. She still had a chance to get out and go after what killed her crew. Damned if I’m returning home without finding out what it was, she thought. I won’t fail their memories.

Clamping a gloved hand on the chair she tapped for the command panel.

“Reroute all power to bridge. Shuttle protocol five, enga-“

Another impact shook the bridge. Alarms blaring hull breach screamed into Eysa’s ears and a ripping sound louder than a sonic boom blasted her ears. The vacuum of space roared, Eysa began heading head first out. She screamed. Her suit responded, covering her face with an exo-shell. The suit calculated an escape, thrusters shooting her out into space. Spinning wildly, Eysa watched helpless as a massive asteroid crushed the Fireside Explorer. All went black.

#

         Beeping woke Eysa. Stars rotated around her like the planetarium’s back home. Her breath condensed the synthetic glass of her suit’s helmet. Temperature regulators are gone, she thought. Not long before she’d freeze, becoming a hunk of space debris. Alone. Drifting. Dead.

“Comm. Stabilize and clear view,” Eysa said.

“This will reduce available power by thirty percent, reducing your remaining air,” the suit’s A.I said.

“Do it.”

Stunning purple, gold and red colours flooded in, sparkling and shining like miniature suns. Tubes of space gas writhing like serpents, moving in patterns and the random intent of natural phenomena.

Eysa stared in awe, tears streaking her cheeks.

Her father had longed for space, but their family was too poor for a flight. She thought of him in the early days of her childhood, staring at the stars, wistful and dreamy.

I’ll join him soon, she thought, We’ll be stardust. Eysa shut off the timer displaying her remaining air.

Time passed and Eysa floated through the nebula like a cloud. Before putting away her grief she drew one more conversation.

Her and Emern alone on the bridge. They’d gotten a priority message from home. Their father was dead.

Eysa had wiped her eyes, removing tears.

“Thought he’d had a heart attack when you got chosen,” Emern said. Sitting beside his sister as they stared at the infinite black outside the viewport. “The first Ryan in space,” Emern said, sweeping his hand out in a grand gesture.

“Not the last though,” Eysa said, nudging her brother.

“Couldn’t let you make all the family history.”

Eysa snorted and put an arm around her brother.

She sniffed. “Yeah, well, you’re a pain in the ass sometimes.”

“So are you, can’t believe you’re my commanding officer. Little sis with twigs in her hair telling me what to do, it’s a joke.” Emern laughed. He replayed the message again. A three dimensional image of their father in a hospital bed looking up at them one last time, his eyes bright and alert.

“I think he was happy in the end, knowing we’re out here,” Eysa said.

Emern was silent. His head nodded slowly. “I think so too.”

Clockwork

Clockwork

 

Quiet drips in my dark room.

The last whir of clockwork has stopped,

and I am resting my nose on the floor.  Aware

of the silent machined devilry.

 

But we must go back to when all the lights were on and the rainbow painted walls were flashing like a circus.

There was a lamp in the corner, and

I had cut shapes into the shade,

I cranked it and around it went.  At a simple speed.

 

I grabbed a metal soldier.

Tick, tick. Wound tight.

I pushed my finger into the point of his little rifle, lifting it up until he was aiming.

The catch released and his gun fired puffs of smoke.  His feet began marching.

I spied a princess, I assume, with a rivulet dress and wire hair.

I set her opposite and,

Tick, tick.  Wound tight.

When I let go she did not dance, but sang a whirring drone and walked

And her head rotated, looking at me a little.

 

The shapes on the wall were fast now and I wound more

Tick. Tick. Tick.

A train chugging in a circle.

A mechanical dog barking.

I saw a gramophone in the corner so I got it singing too.

 

All were rushing madly.  Their gears singing mechanical agony, each Tick a

Count to death.

And I sat in the middle.  The orchestrator.  Watching my circus.

I stood and began capering with them.  The coloured walls morphing into stories.  And then the barking slowed.

 

I ran to the dog and wound him.  Tick, tight.

The princess stopped singing.  I wound her.

The soldier ceased marching.  I fumbled with his turnkey.

 

The lamp stopped and the light died.

Time played,

And left.

 

I kicked the toys, hissing at pointy metal, and I laid down and cried.

 

Quiet drips in my room.

 

 

 

 

 

Tomato learning.

A car ran a red and Christian Arthur’s legs had cracked like china plate.  His head had bounced off the road like a rubber ball and the doctors said if the impact was any harder he might be in a coma.  He was outside his apartment for first time since the accident, hunching on his crutches like a scarecrow and stared at the busy street, the whiz of traffic making his hands sweat.  He remembered the screech of tire, pain and air and hard asphalt.  He closed his eyes and let out a long shaky breath, his head ached and he stuck a finger under the dressing around his forehead trying to relieve the pressure.

Christian’s pocket began vibrating.  He frowned, that’d be nine times now, he thought.  He’d got a call from his boss in the hospital wanting to know when he’d be back to work.  Something about schedules.  Sighing he moved his hand to answer it, but a boom of thunder cracked and it started raining like the clouds had burst open, he cursed and turned up his collar.  The air was warm but the rain was like needs of ice and it chilled his scalp as it seeped through his short, trimmed, black hair and into his bandage.  He turned to go back inside.

‘Excuse me, sorry.  I’m looking for seventeen hundred Elsie street.’  A loud musical voice half shouted over the drumming clamour.

Christian flinched and saw a young woman with a blue hat, freckled nose and thick glasses.  She met his eyes and didn’t look at his crutches.  Her umbrella was big and sunflower yellow and she raised it over his head and sidled beside him.  Her brown hair was pinned under her hat and wispy strands fell across her neck.

‘Sorry, I’m looking for-‘

‘Seventeen hundred Elsie, yeah.  That’s two blocks up.’

Her eyes were a clear blue, and as she noddedher lips Christian noticed a single dimple on her left cheek.  He tucked a crutch in his arm pit and pointed in the direction of the address.  His phone began vibrating.  Eleven calls.

‘Thanks,’ she smiled.

‘Yeah, you’re welcome’ he said and flicked his eyes at her umbrella.

She raised an eyebrow.

‘Where’s yours?’

‘What? Oh, It’s fine, I live here,’ he said and gestured with his head over his shoulder at the building.

Her eyes lingered on the opulent lobby and then looked back at him.  ‘So you just really like rain?’  She asked, squinting.

‘No, I-I was in an accident.  First time home.’  He pointed to his bandage and her face turned red.  His phone rumbled.  Twelve.

She winced and bit her lip and then stuck out her hand and put the umbrella above them.

‘Haley.’

Christian managed to free his hand, grimaced, and shook hers.

‘Christian.  I’m not used to these things yet.’  His laugh was swallowed by the traffic.  The rain drummed evenly above their heads and Christian raised his voice leaning in.  ‘Never broken a bone before.  I used to tell people that.’  Haley smiled.

‘Now you get to tell them something new.’

‘Yeah, have to figure that out. What’s at seventeen hundred Elsie?’ He said.

‘A meeting for a job interview I don’t want.’

‘Ah,’ said Christian.

She chuckled and shuffled closer to him, frowning as a gust sprayed droplets across her glasses.  ‘I’m kidding.  I do want it.  Sort of.’  She took off her glasses and wiped them.  ‘A girl gotta eat.’  She put them back on.  Christian’s pocket vibrated again.  He wanted to keep talking to her.

‘I’d walk you, er, limp with you there, but you’ll be late’ he said.  She bit her lip and paused for half a second glacning at his crutches.  Christian began to turn towards his building.

‘Sure.  Let’s go.’

*

Christian entered Haley’s apartment and saw a black and white photo of a bearded man dressed in a poncho taped on the wall.  He was standing in front of a whaling ship with a sign, his face blank and staring.

‘That’s a friend.  He’s with Greenpeace.’

Christian nodded and told her about a beach cleanup he’d scheduled once, and laughing said he still wore the t-shirt to the gym sometimes.  She smiled and said, ‘I’ll show you around.  Pardon the mess, I like to call it the lived in feel.’  He chuckled and leaned his single crutch against the wall and walked forward gingerly.

‘I can manage,’ he said, seeing her concerned look.  She took his hand, and led him like a child into her living room.  Her arm quivered, but held his weight.

There was a dusty television on a movable cupboard angled like a half open door and a futon covered with quilts facing a window.

‘You have a great view,’ he said.

She shrugged, ‘If you like skyscrapers.’

Christian grinned, ‘I live in one.  That’s where we met.’  He limped in front of the dirty glass and pointed.

‘Right there.  There’s even a garden on the roof.’

‘I’ve got one in my backyard.’

‘Really?’

She pulled him outside, the air was wet and he heard a wind-chime.

‘It was my grandmother’s, it’s been making music for a long time,’ she said.  ‘She passed awhile go.’  Haley was still, and then she crouched like a child and pushed her fingers in the dirt and smiling, ‘I’ve got tomatoes here.’  Christian put his hands on his knees and bent over, careful to keep his shoes clean.

‘How long does it take before you can eat them?’

’Three and half months.’

Christian’s eyebrows rose but he said nothing and looked out into the street at the looming skyscrapers and he tried to see his but the night was dark.  Had he ever waited three months for anything?

‘You can buy them from plants and that only takes two.’

He looked down at her, her fingernails were black and she held up a sprout and its roots blowing in the breeze.

‘Ah.’

Haley gestured and Christian went back inside.  She slid the wooden screen door shut and told him to sit.  She began rifling her cupboards for food.

‘We can go out if you want, I know some great places.’

Haley waved him off, ‘I’ll make something.’

Christian sat at the table and smiled.

Two and a half months later they ate a fresh tomato salad and Christian swore it was the best thing he ever ate.

*

They laid in her bed and he was dead still, his breathing was shallow, as if a single bit louder would suddenly wake her.  He looked at the nightstand for his phone and then remembered he’d left it at home unplugged.  He was smiling as her head moved up and down on his chest.

*

Seventeen seconds to the elevator, sixty-three to the penthouse, and twenty seconds to the door.  That’s what sold Christian on the apartment.  Not the top floor, the marble sinks with motion sensors, or the floor to ceiling windows that made you feel like Zeus.

‘One hundred and nine’ he said, slouching and fished for his keys.  He stopped and rested his forehead on the smooth metal, hands slick with sweat.  Fumbling he dropped his black graphite keycard.

‘Damn.’

He was drunk and his intestines felt like they were being pulled through a pin hole.  He stumbled inside, shoes squeaking on the hardwood floor and he bumped in a large cardboard box.  The new espresso machine he’d ordered.  Why had he forgotten about it, he’d called UPS seven times about it being late.  Blinking he burped and laughed at it.  Christian flopped on his leather couch and a cream white memorial card slipped out of his suit jacket and fell on the floor.  Someone had pushed it into his hand when he’d got there, and he’d stuffed it away because he didn’t need it.  Looking down at the card he saw a wrinkle through a picture of Haley and he moaned and reached it but he slid off the couch and hit his head on the coffee table.

‘Damn.’

His electric fireplace flickered and the light played with his eyes and frowning at the dancing flames he blinked rapidly.  Why should they get to be alive?  His phone suddenly rang.  The dial tone piercing his skull like a laser. Christian staggered to his feet and groaned at the weight of alcohol and pain from his bump, he stumbled towards the phone and answered it before the second ring.