Alliance ch 31: Welcome Home
The emperor of all headaches built his palace within Ject’s skull. At the command of this cruel dictator, mallets pounded drums of bone, and everything—air, light, blood—became an instrument for pain.
The outside world sat across a wide chasm, and nothing made it across intact. When they—faces he thought he should know but didn’t recognize—noticed his open eyes, they spoke to him, but it was only sound, no meaning. Mouths moved funny when people talked.
He laughed, and the drummers hastened their efforts. The light became spears, and the room’s bitter scent stuck him like a pincushion. It lingered on his tongue, metallic and acerbic.
Disinfectant. This was a med-center.
He closed his eyes and focused on untying his muscles. The doctors would overthrow the headache, and things would go back to normal.
He waited, trying to count the drumbeats, but numbers were banned in this domain. He counted anyway—an act of defiance riding random integers. Sometimes six came after eight. Sometimes six came after six. Sometimes the number didn’t have a word, only measure, and it was all there was.
A giggle broke through the palace wall, and more followed through the rubble: a rebuke to be quiet. An apology. Two voices, both with a feminine chime and the elongated Zalerit cadence.
One had the rasp of age, and he knew that one. Her name sat behind a barred door. Names, like numbers, were a danger to the crown and forbidden. Yet, he wasn’t loyal to the fake emperor—not in the wider universe and definitely not in here. If he could see this woman’s face…
He set his will upon the pulley that controlled his eyelids and heaved.
A sting met his elbow. Ice flooded his veins, then warmth. He lost the pulley, and it took him some time to find it again. By then, the drums had slowed, though they remained as loud as ever.
The light was a horde of arrows this time, but he squinted past them. A teen with a Zalerit’s luminous skin and four dark eyes cradled his arm with an unfelt touch, head bent over a multi-tool picking at his scabs. He didn’t feel that either.
As if footsteps heralded his stare, she looked up. “Estiga, he sees.”
He did. Between a sitting and lying position, he saw her return to her ghostly work with hands unsteadied by his gaze, so he shifted his eyes elsewhere. The onyx-beaded sash at her hips marked her as a doctor’s slave, but the nostril ring that would have told him to whom she belonged hid in its own shine.
The answer was forthcoming anyway. A burden lifted from his head, allowing the drums to resurge. His eyes tracked the missing weight—a compress in a familiar hand. It discarded the used packet, then returned to cup his chin and forced him to look at her.
He whispered her name. “Auntie Uriet.”
“Your fevers always were the worst.” A package crinkled, and she slid a fresh compress into his grasp. “Are you with it enough to find your own forehead?”
His nod fought her grip, and she straightened, charcoal robe open over her lacy shirt, flowing pants, and clunky shoes. He closed his eyes against the onslaught of her platinum doctor’s beads.
Other sights just as unwelcome played on the inside of his eyelids: Sažka scooped up by the mykuro. The crowd whispering his name. Ateki held by his father’s men while an Ier gulped a path to his heart. No one listened to Ject, not until he made them in the worst way.
“Where are my Zalerits?”
“In the hallway. Now, open those lovely eyes of yours and don’t blink.”
He released a sigh as he complied, and she shined a pin light at either pupil. He rolled the compress to give his hand something to do. Chemicals mixed within, and it became soft ice.
Don’t touch the Zalerits. They’re mine, he had said, the only protection he could offer them at the moment. They had survived at least, and they were nearby.
“Your father had a terrible time getting the truth from them, and what he ended up with is ridiculous, though not half as ridiculous as you.”
“I’m not in a mood for insults, Auntie, even in jest.”
“I’m never in the mood to have to bring you from death’s door.” She stepped back, fists on her hips. She was an aged replica of Aalee, down to her holier-then-thou stance and unruly hair, though hers was dark like his mother’s. Not as dark as his. “Really, Ject, a shout suggestion in a frenzied crowd. What were you thinking?”
Arguments like insects swarmed up his throat and over his tongue, but before he let any of them fly, the curtain at the foot of his bed flapped aside. There stood his father, High Defender Qem Sirvette, tall, broad, coloring middle-gray, features round and soft and curved in a jagged frown.
‘Everyone thought you were dead.’
‘From a shout—’ The whisper wilted beneath a burst of pain, and his head sunk to his hand, finding the compress.
His father huffed. “Your aunt wouldn’t let you die from that foolishness.”
Of course not. A Ravi was too valuable. Even if the brain he had left equated to vegetable stew, she would bring him back and keep him breathing, just as she had when he was born too soon.
His eyes caught on the arm he still couldn’t feel and the glowing hands dabbing salve onto a row of tidy stitches.
“Because I disappeared,” he said, and the word had two faces. He had abandoned his duty as Protector of Lakol District to serve a greater duty to the empire—rescuing the First Ravi, Xlack Ekymé. To those who would—could—never know that reason, he had fled. When they needed him to maintain their daily norm, he disappeared.
He watched the slave’s hands lift and lower the swab in overlapping circles. Zalerits could be invisible. Ateki had rendered Ject invisible on multiple occasions. A deep, stupid, hungry part of him wanted that ability for himself.
“You disappeared,” his father repeated with a pinched sigh, “after an explosion in your district, your blood and skin and hair found in the rubble, your emblem there with it.”
Ject looked up and met his father’s frown, offering an open window into his intentions. “I had to—”
“I would like nothing more than to be enthralled by your reasons, but one higher than me wishes the honor of hearing them first. Dr. Remkiren, can he stand?”
Auntie Uriet grinned. “With effort, like with most tasks.”
“Then he’ll follow me.”
Ject obeyed the indirect command with a mountain’s worth of winces and hitched breaths. Walking gave the drummers in his skull something to compete with. The compress wasn’t doing anything, so he stripped it off and squeezed it in a fist.
The iconic art of Threnian Station’s wire-woven walls hummed the melody of distant conversations and unseen machines. Threnian was a place he associated with family, with vacations spent teasing younger siblings and letting his mother spoil him. It was not a place those who outranked his father frequented.
Yet, someone on that short list had tied his father’s tongue, and the headache wouldn’t give him peace enough to unravel who. Ject’s Mental defenses were walls of wet paper. His father’s worry howled like a summer storm, and frustration crackled like thunder, interlaced with an undefined sizzle. These took the drummer’s mallets and taught them how to hit harder.
The hallway stretched and narrowed, and Ject was a giant, his head stories above his toes. A fall would be fatal, but no chair offered to catch him, and he wasn’t supposed to touch the walls. He’d been told that often enough as a child.
Wait. The hallway.
He stopped. “Where are my Zalerits?”
His father didn’t turn or slow, and the distance between them grew. “Interesting that they were wearing Adapt and yet nothing to mark them as yours.”
“I needed the stealth the Adapt provided, and they’re recent acquisitions.” Ject grimaced. His word had saved Ateki and Sažka two-fold then. Something as small as a stud through a nostril stamped with his clan pattern could save them when he couldn’t say anything. “I’ll need a piercing for them both.”
“What you need is to keep walking.”
Like a pet on a leash, Ject complied. Despite the headache, despite the jumble of emotions—his, his father’s, and distant others’—truth gleamed in the sentiment, wrapped in the promise of more unsaid. Someone important—the Lead Protector, an Elder Watcher, or even Refraction Leader Mohk Ekymé—waited at their destination, and so did Ateki and Sažka.
The crowd’s fickle, fleeting thoughts found Ject long before they entered the station’s lobby. He tried to patch his paper walls before stepping through the final door, but broken bones only healed so fast, and broken defenses healed no faster.
All traffic to and from the station funneled through this room, and all were curious of today’s guest. Those who could lingered. For some this meant slowed steps and rubber necks. Others lounged on couches around low tables spread with refreshments.
As he entered, shoulders straight and chin level, their recognition formed a barbed fence. He walked through it, limbs tangled in its wire, eyes on his father’s flailing cape, blurring now. How he wished for his mask and hood, for the brief security of anonymity.
Was he still walking? He couldn’t feel his feet.
Solid arms embraced him, and a deep, aged voice spilled syllables he barely pieced together. “Welcome home.”
* * *
Home had always been a fluid notion for Anku Phy. If a con required he be from the fields and karsts of Azlano District, then that was home, regardless of if he had ever been there. More often, it referred to a place to temporarily return to—a bed in a rented room under a false name or guest quarters lent to little-known relatives.
Per his great uncle’s tutoring, Phy had never stayed anywhere longer than a month. Until now. This was the greatest gambit of his career—of his whole family’s career. As the days and weeks had passed, he knew he needed to get out. The trap would close, but pride weighted his feet.
He wanted to see Great Uncle’s face twist as Phy told him he had not swiped the famed Fountain of Conquerors from the center of Kizmet District as challenged. That he had instead stolen the entire city and lived as its king for two months, then three, then six.
He lingered in the doorway of the bedroom he had most recently called home, jaw attracted to his toes. No matter how many times he blinked, light continued to slant through the wall of windows. The drawers and closet remained tucked away. The round chair and small table in the corner waited as always for him to wind down in the evening with a cup of tea. Per usual, the thin sheet tucked at the corners of the mattress centered across from the door, but a body beneath that blanket gave contour to what should have been a flat plain. It was no one he had invited.
He stammered soundlessly as a large feline form grazed his knees and spun tightening circles on the bed, then settled on the intruder’s chest. With the familiar face hidden beneath the beastling’s spotted scales, Phy could pretend the legs were mere wrinkles in the sheet. That the mess of ashen curls on the pillow was something the animal had dragged in.
“Rell, down! You’re too big for that.” Lady Aliara Yayin shoved past Phy just as she had an hour ago when she barged into the apartment, hair blowing in the breeze of her own haste. A team of men had poured in after her, carrying the body now on the bed, and she’d had a terrible time since keeping the beastling away.
A low, popping growl filled the room.
The Lady’s stance shifted from authoritative to placating, hands outstretched. “Rell, your master can’t breathe like that.”
Phy clung to the doorframe. He wouldn’t mind if Protector Xlack Ekymé suffocated. Then no one would know he hadn’t chosen Phy to play acting Protector six months ago.
It was time to go. His jelly legs carried him backward down the hall toward the main room as he fumbled in his pocket for his datapad. It unfolded, the emergency departure app shimmering in the corner of the screen.
His thumb hovered. At the touch of this button, Anku Phy, trusted administrator, would cease to exist. He would surface in another city, his name scrambled in an anagram. The things he wanted to keep from this life would make circuitous journeys to a planned cache. He would continue the game.
Yet, he liked playing this role. As acting Protector, others fell all over themselves to fulfill his every request. When scribes accepted gifts in exchange for biased services, he looked away, and they did the same for him. This was a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes gig, and he mourned its end.
A door near the end of the hallway opened, and Phy stopped short of crashing into a doctor in a black robe and platinum beads. The man, unsteady on his feet, didn’t acknowledge him or his mumbled apology, a hand raking through his mess of mid-gray hair.
“Is Dr. Kitza on his way yet?” the Lady called from the bedroom door, arms crossed.
“He’s been conscripted to serve exclusively at the capital, Lady Aliara. He can’t come no matter how many times you ask.” The present doctor’s words slurred with his swaying steps, and his shoulder thumped the wall. A hung frame displaying some certificate of achievement rattled.
With the slowest of backward steps, Phy retreated toward the main room and the exit like prey hoping the slightest movement wouldn’t attract the attention of powerful beings.
The Lady sighed. “I’m just worried that Ravi Ekymé hasn’t woken up yet, and you seem so...indisposed.”
“Felere insanity is like an acidic venom. I have to draw it out carefully and hold it isolated in my mind while I sew up the holes it leaves, in both the patient and myself.”
The word picture called to Phy too strongly, and he swallowed his curiosity before it lugged him down undesirably dark paths. If being a doctor didn’t work out, the man could be a poet.
The Lady stretched a smile that was compassionate if thin at the edges. “I understand the drive to handle this on your own as a dutiful apprentice, but Dr. Kitza needs—”
“Dr. Kitza doesn’t have Mind Talents and would rely on me for this anyway.” He sighed, rubbing his temples.
With as much nonchalance as he could summon, Phy swiveled to the door.
“It would help,” the doctor continued, “if there were someone I could dump the dregs into. A slave that the Protector wouldn’t mind losing?”
Phy stiffened, sure the Lady had just volunteered him. He was no one Ravi Ekymé would miss. If he ran, how far would he get?
“Go to the market at the edge of the district and acquire a Zalerit. Tell the administrator that the one chosen is not likely to survive what we have in mind.”
Phy’s chest shrunk in relief as he pivoted to her in a bow. His thumb pressed the app that would sever his ties here, and the datapad folded, secreted into a sleeve behind his back. “Right away, Milady. I shall return with unmatched haste.”
He should have known better than to lie in front of the doctor, impaired or not. The Mind Aylata’s eyes narrowed with the faintest flickering swirl of chrysolite, and the fine lines around his mouth deepened.
As one final turn brought Phy to the door, the doctor clamped his wrist.
Phy was a rigid tree, not fighting, simply being, his voice as hoarse and squeaky as two scraping branches. “Excuse me, I cannot fulfill the Lady’s request if—”
“You have no intention of fulfilling the Lady’s request.”
“No, I mean, I do. I will. I…” He tried to convince himself of this truth. On his way out of the city, he could purchase a slave and have them sent here. As long as he believed it, the Aylata should have seen sincerity, but it wasn’t working.
A new tactic came to him. He pictured the most disgusting things he had witnessed and added on anything that would make them worse until he gagged. With his Mental defenses weakened, the doctor swayed, then vomited, but his grip remained. Phy added the new material to his arsenal—the sharp, meaty stench, the warmth seeping through his sleeve and shirt and cloth boots.
The Aylata would not fall for the trick twice. He gripped Phy’s jaw with fingers as cold and firm as steel and met his gaze. Phy tried to cinch his eyes, but it was too late. Sensation fell into that distant storm of chrysolite, then whipped back to him three-fold.
The Aylata’s hands released him, but something far worse took their place. Thoughts wove wires and laced his muscles, their curved ends hooking through his feet. His leg jerked in one step, then two, continuing despite how he internally screamed for them to stop.
These halting paces carried him to the bedroom, where he knelt alongside the headboard, useless hands in his lap. Protector Xlack Ekymé lay shivering, skin damp and breaths shallow. Bursts of heat had rendered the sheet’s edge dark and crisp.
Phy’s eyes widened, but his feet ignored all commands to flee. This man would have killed him a dozen horrid ways six months ago if Phy hadn’t appealed to the Mercy of the Judges. At that trial, this man, had he bothered to show up, would have condemned him to death for petty theft.
The irony formed a dull blade digging into Phy’s gut.
The doctor knelt across him and placed a palm on the Protector’s forehead. Images led, then sound and pain. Flashes of teeth and talons, screeches, muscles punctured and ripped. Softer organs oozing from the holes in his body, the tang of blood welling in his mouth, drowning in it. Loss and failure. Guilt.
“Estiga, please,” he sobbed.
The wire within his jaw tightened and sewed his lips shut.
* * *
On the inside of Xlack’s closed eyelids, a deft hand sewed thoughts of peace, safety, and calm. With this constant repetition, the boiling murk of the felere whispers subsided.
Cleanup was slow, that same hand scooping up fistfuls at a time, then returning to address the damage. Once he worked his inner self free, Xlack helped, but he was no surgeon. The repairs he attempted were lumpy at best, and when he couldn’t dissolve an intrusive thought fast enough, he stashed it somewhere out of sight.
Awareness of his body returned, bringing control with it. He didn’t have enough air, but when he ordered a deeper breath, it wouldn’t come. Weight pressed on his chest. He squirmed, arms pinned by the same bulk.
It stirred, set to a series of low, rapid pops. Smooth scales rubbed his chin, then again in the opposite direction with enough force to rattle his brain. He opened his mouth to shout but didn’t have the breath for anything beyond a wheeze.
Scent came into focus first—the warm salt fragrance of home, and much closer, a stinging tang more metallic than fish and coarser than basalt. Elitbeast, he recognized, just as he would recognize one’s silhouette. But this one had a familiar twinge, stretched and changed but finding a match in his memory same as the nudge against his chin.
“Rell,” he croaked.
The beastling stood over him, a question in the rising pitch of his purr. Sleeping on Xlack’s chest and greeting him by running his side against Xlack’s jaw had been fine when Rell was smaller than his shoe, but the beastling had grown. He pawed at Xlack’s collar, and it hurt.
Xlack wrapped his arms around the beastling’s neck and wrestled him off his feet into a hug. “Rell, I missed you, too, but you weigh more than me now.”
Rell yipped in agreement and nuzzled in closer, belly upturned in a plea to be scratched. Xlack complied, and all four paws rose into the air, toes and claws extended. Those paws were larger than Xlack’s hands, legs corded in lean muscle. Only a thin line along each forearm marked where his baby fins had been.
As the beastling wiggled in appreciation, his pewter scales glistened in the horizontal light of sunset streaming through the wall of windows. Xlack stilled. This was his room, his apartment in Kizmet District. The last news he’d had of Rell came from Lady Aliara, and that was before—
He was on his feet, bare heels sinking into the mattress as he scanned his surroundings.
“You’re safe, Great Cousin,” Aliara said from the chair in the corner. “I’ve brought you home.”
He didn’t want to be home, not this home. “My team? Twi? And don’t make me bargain for your answers.”
With a twisted grin, she set her steaming drink down on the small table. “Life is a bargain. If you want anything, especially a thing as valuable as information, you have to trade for it.”
He trained his crooked glare on her. “Tell me where my team is.”
Her face slackened, and the answer fell from her as a monotone rush. “The two Tala you left behind asked to be taken to the emperor. I brought them as far as the border of Reiceilako and gave them directions to my contacts there.”
“Reiceilako.” Xlack shook his head. Kobolast was the capital, but Aliara had said something about it being moved. Rifo and Lanox must have chosen to carry on the mission.
How brave and loyal of them.
Was it selfish if he wanted a part of that loyalty for himself? They assumed he was dead and kept moving.
They did what they had to. It’s commendable.
Rell, determining that his pose was not going to get him more belly rub, rolled to his feet and stretched.
Aliara stood with a humph. “You will not invade my mind again.”
Xlack’s attention leapt back to her, a second suggestion already on his tongue, but she turned and packed away her emotions before he could snatch them. They remained as a corona along her edges, an intangible glow, faint like a datapad’s screen.
“I’ll win my answers with guesses, then.” His ready stance waned until he stood on his knees, then sat on the end of the mattress, feet on the floor. “Your Messenger, the one skilled in stealing secrets from people’s pockets, also has a knack for adding tracers to the things he returns.”
Without word or movement, she confirmed it was true.
“Your tracer logs show Twi and I underwent a series of teleportations before ending up in Zaranik’s palace.”
“You brought me here. What did you do with her?”
At the growl in his master’s voice, Rell looked up, long, slender tail swaying.
“Lady Aliara.” Xlack rose, feet soundless on the wood floor. “I will use another suggestion.”
“Then you’ll throw away our friendship for nothing, because I don’t know where she is.”
He didn’t touch her. Sereh were never to be touched in violence. But he slipped between her in the wall. “You have the tra—”
“The tracer is on her weapon, not herself, and I wasn’t the first to find you.”
The natural follow-ups, “Who did then?” and, “How did I end up here with you?” thundered in his skull, but he refused to voice them.
Squinting, he leaned back against the door frame. “I’ve never been good at haggling, so tell me what you want from me.”
“Let me tell your father you’re here.”
“Because you want to trade that info to him?”
She lifted her chin. “No, because it’s what’s right, for him, for you, and for the empire.”
“For the empire.” With a scoff, he folded his arms. “You don’t even really know what happened six months ago.” Silence beat an unheard drum. He blinked, straightened. “Will you give me what you know about Twi’s whereabouts if I trade you that story?”
Aliara caught and released a slow breath.
Rell sat between them, tail swaying opposite his head as he looked from one to the other. His master had woken up, so it was time for breakfast.
With a gurgle, Xlack’s empty stomach agreed. He swiveled off the doorframe and sauntered down the hall toward the kitchen, Kinetically fixing the crooked frames along the way out of habit. Where was his over-picky live-in teacher anyway?
Rell followed, tongue lolling out the side of his rounded snout. Most of his molars remained baby-sized with large gaps between them.
“Several historical coalitions have petitioned to turn Zaranik’s palace into a museum,” Aliara called, steps loud behind him. “A survey group found you and didn’t know what to do with a missing Ravi. They were frightened and grateful when I offered to take you. And Defender Lorm Spycykle.”
Xlack stopped, stomach in his toes. Both hands curled into fists. “He was there? And unconscious?”
“The place is infested with felere, so the group carried scrambler lamps. They had protective equipment, of course, but anyone not appropriately goggled who saw the flashes—”
“Would have been knocked out,” Xlack finished. “They didn’t mention Twi at all?”
Aliara’s lips pursed in the thinnest line, infant flames dancing across her polished nails and licking at the hem of her short dress. “I have reason to believe the coalition is a front for a rebellion.”
“Rebels have Twi.” The statement was air and no voice. He couldn’t believe it, yet he could believe nothing else. Had she awakened? What did they want with her?
To the slave at the soup stand, she had identified herself as a follower of Vozin Nar, the original traitor. Six months ago, Revel K’alaqk claimed she was as dangerous as a lightcurver—not because she could cut down armies—but because of her potential to be a symbol.
His throat burned. “You knew she was with me. You never give up, Aliara. You never just let something go. So why...” He trailed off, wanting to run, but his heels remained glued to the floor at the end of the hallway.
Aliara didn’t press for more information on Twi because she wanted the rebels to keep her. Or at the very least, she wanted Twi away from Xlack.
“Are you with the rebels?”
She propped a hand on her hip, and the line of her lips followed the same tilt. “Of course not, but as if I would admit it.”
He no longer wanted breakfast. With a dry heave, he caught the back of his favorite lounge chair. Rell’s nudge at his thigh didn’t help. The stench of vomit clogged his nose, mixed with the sting of antiseptic.
That wasn’t in his head. Someone had been sick in this room, and it had been cleaned. This nausea, this tumult of emotion, wasn’t all his own either. He grabbed that distraction and searched.
There shouldn’t have been a life-signature that size in the coolbox. He stepped toward it.
“How loyal are you to the empire, Xlack Ekymé?”
He paused, and Aliara placed herself between him and the kitchen.
“Why not use your title’s authority, do what your uncle did and make it known you want this foreign Magni delivered to you?” She shrugged. “Safely, in this case.”
Because he wasn’t sure he had any authority left and was even less sure those who did would back him. Deeper than that, his insides shriveled at the possibility of his father’s disappointment. It was better not to know than to confirm that the one person he most wanted to be proud of him thought him a fool.
“You didn’t leave on an approved mission. That’s why you left Rell behind,” Aliara guessed. “You ran away. You had to leave right then, and you didn’t expect to ever come back.”
“I didn’t think that far ahead.” With a sigh, he raked his fingers through his hair, focus bouncing between his cousin and the coolbox beyond her. Either there was a person in there or disturbingly sapient mold. Either theory was ridiculous. A hallucination. “I’ve learned things since then. About how life can be more fair. And I’m selfish.”
“Then use it.” She caught his wrist with a gentle touch, cradling it as it dropped from his head. “You, First Ravi, are in a position to change things.”
“You mean collect power so I can distribute it more evenly?”
“I mean, the Buqo tree of the Antarctic is the symbol of selfishness because it would rather burn than provide shelter through the long winter. Yet, without that fire, there would be no light when the Daystar doesn’t rise. Their heat keeps the ground from freezing solid and allows the seeds of their neighbors to germinate. Without the Buqo tree, there would be no southern Atetu forests.”
“They’re not selfish, they’re martyrs?” He snorted.
“I’ve told you often enough, Great Cousin, if fire doesn’t improve your situation, it at least makes things more interesting.” She upturned their palms, a flame growing in their shared grasp. “Perhaps it is time for the empire to burn.”
Continued in chapter 32
Thank you for reading!
Anomaly: the fourth chapter
Deke Jones led his guest into his office. It wasn’t until he saw Esme and Roman that he remembered he had left his wife, Rosemary, in Chō Morishita’s office. Events of this bizarre day were unfolding so quickly, Deke was struggling to keep track.
Roman appeared to have calmed down since seeing William Bradshaw vanish in an instant, but he still looked pale and shaken. Esme’s eyes widened when she saw Deke’s escort, and Deke knew she had immediately recognised him as the prime suspect in the recent murder spree.
Before she could react, Deke informed her: ‘This is Vaughn Lynton. He came into the university because he saw Marika.’
‘How…’ Esme started. Deke understood why she did not finish the question.
It was useless to ask how this man, whom they had never met before, could see the spirit of a woman who had never existed in this world. The question may be impossible to answer, but his presence might help them understand why Deke and Roman were the only other people to remember the receptionist and to have seen her ghost.
‘Can you please go to Chō’s office and bring her and Rosemary here?’ Deke asked Esme. His colleague nodded and left without a word. The more minds they had working on this conundrum, the better their chances of finding an explanation.
Directing Vaughn to a chair, Deke filled him in with the morning’s strangeness, telling him how he had first seen Marika’s spirit when he had entered the university and later discovered that Roman could also see the ghost. He added than both he and Roman remembered Marika as a living person who had worked in the reception for the past few years but that everyone else seemed to think Gareth had been there the whole time.
Deke purposefully left out the fact that he recalled his wife’s death a week earlier but had awoken that morning to her beside him, alive and unharmed. One impossibility at a time, he thought.
‘I suspect,’ Deke said, ‘that you share the same memories of the past as Roman and me. I’d like to ask you some questions to see if we can prove that.’
For all the oddness of the story, Vaughn seemed to accept it readily.
‘I just want to know why everything’s different,’ he said with a sense of desperation. ‘And why I’m suspected of murder. I’ll do anything if you can end this nightmare.’
Remembering Bradshaw’s plan, Deke switched on his computer and loaded up a news site. The first story to fill the screen was the recent murders. The photofit image rotated slowly, an uncanny copy of the man in front of him.
‘I didn’t do it,’ Vaughn said. ‘I didn’t do any of it. Why would they lie?’
‘These deaths didn’t occur in the past I remember,’ Deke told him. ‘If you and I come from the same place, I believe you.’
Moving through the website, Deke pulled up an item covering the aftermath of the tsunami that had devastated southern California ten days ago.
‘Do you remember this happening?’
‘Yes, it was dreadful,’ Vaughn answered. ‘Do you think this has anything to do with us?’
‘I remember that,’ Roman said quietly. He seemed to be recovering quickly, ready to join the discussions again.
‘So do I,’ Deke said. ‘At least that confirms we all remember similar things.’
The next news article reported how the Welsh government had been rocked by the sudden resignation of the Prif Weinidog on Wednesday. Cerridwen Owens, leader of Plaid Genedlaetholgar Gymreig, had decided to stand down following the recent scandal her husband had been embroiled in.
‘Cerridwen Owens was never Prime Minister,’ Vaughn said.
‘Not in my past, either,’ Deke agreed. ‘Roman?’
‘I don’t follow politics,’ Roman said, ‘but I’m sure I would have remembered such a major story.’
‘How about this?’ Deke asked, moving to a report on the children’s novels which had recently been deemed as unsuitable for modern times. The works of Enid Blyton and Lewis Carol were destined to follow Grimm’s and Hans Christian Anderson’s.
‘Bigoted tripe,’ Vaughn said. While Deke was not sure if he was referring to the last century’s authors or the media’s claim that their stories were sexist, racist and classist, he understood that Vaughn remembered the ongoing debate.
‘It seems that, whatever has occurred,’ Deke said with growing confidence ‘the three of us-’
He stopped when the text on the holoscreen was replaced by a video. Large, red words scrolling across the bottom of the screen declared BREAKING NEWS. The grainy image displayed a starfield, a vague sense of movement near the centre.
‘…live pictures from the International Space Station,’ a commentator announced, ‘showing the approaching object, first thought to be a previously undiscovered comet. Spokespeople for the ESA and CNSA have yet to comment, but an early statement from Roscosmos reveals that the Russian government believe this to be an envoy from intelligent life in the galaxy.’
The item in the middle of the picture grew steadily larger is it travelled nearer to Earth. To Deke, it resembled a silver teardrop. The trajectory changed and the camera moved fluidly to keep the mysterious craft in frame.
‘It appears to have changed course for the third time now,’ the news reporter continued, ‘which some believe is a sign that the object is being controlled by a sentient being. Estimations say the object will now enter our atmosphere somewhere over northern Europe.’
Deke stared in fascination at the screen. Ever since he had been a boy, he had wondered if intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe. Why did they have to choose today of all days to finally show up? Or maybe they could only arrive in this reality, he thought. Perhaps back in my world, when last week had seven days and my wife was waiting to be put in the ground, this UFO would never have come.
The craft slowed as it entered the stratosphere and turned until its wider end was facing the planet. Beside the image being broadcast from the ISS, a second picture appeared on the holoscreen, taken from a drone high up in the sky beneath the interstellar mystery. A powerful zoom focused on the object, showing the transformation it was undergoing.
In a movement which Deke could only describe as ‘melting’, a small piece of the craft broke away and plummeted down. The ISS video showed the teardrop-shaped craft meld into a conical tube, the narrow end pointing into space, while the drone footage followed the descending piece. As it dropped through the atmosphere, it became clear that this part was ring-shaped. It hurtled through the sky at an incredible speed. The drone worked hard to keep up, often losing its quarry from frame for a half-second.
Eventually, somewhere over the North Sea, the ring slowed and the drone was able to catch up. The craft flew at a steady altitude for several hundred miles then suddenly veered down. As the drone’s camera followed the descent, Deke saw buildings in the object’s path. Though shot from an unusual angle, he recognised the area.
‘Oh my God,’ Roman yelled. ‘That’s the university.’
On the video shot from the pursuing drone, they watched the ring-shaped craft drop closer to the building they were in. It slowed as it drew closer, and turned to its left. It seemed to be being drawn, or directed, to a specific location.
Deke felt his stomach churn and his throat go dry. Vaughn made a wordless noise and pointed to the window.
Outside, the object was moving directly toward them. Though it was now travelling at a much slower speed, perhaps a jogging pace, it did not stop as it approached the glass.
Too awestruck to cover his face, Deke watched as the craft entered the office. It did not burst through the window, did not cause damage or destruction. Instead, with movement that was difficult to focus on, it passed through the glass.
Deke knew it was not possible for two solid bodies to cross paths without at least one of the bodies yielding. He also knew that all solid matter was made of atoms and that the distance between the atoms, though infinitesimally small, was more than large enough for a number of atoms to fill. Could it be that this alien technology had entered the building by slipping through the atomic gaps?
The ring hovered in the middle of the office, rotating slowly in silence. Close up, it appeared to be constructed of a smooth, white material. Stranges markings around the circumference glowed a deep green. Through the centre of the ring, a circle about four feet in width, the background shimmered like the air over a fire.
Roman, closest of the men to the object, emitted a gargled cry and drifted closer to it. Then Vaughn, though his limbs remained rigid, moved forward. Deke took an involuntary step backwards, but it was no good. He felt himself being pulled toward the ring. Some invisible force was dragging the three of them toward the floating artefact.
Being the furthest away, Deke watched as Roman was pulled through the centre of the ring – but did not appear from the other side. When Vaughn followed suit and also vanished, Deke knew his fate. His thoughts turned to Rosemary as he felt himself lifted from the floor.
And then things turned weird.
Deke found himself underwater. Panic filled his brain as he realised he may drown. He looked around frantically but could not see the surface. The only sense of direction he had came from the taste of the ground below him.
Movement a small way ahead of him caught his attention and he stared in horror as a terrifying beast lifted itself up. A bulbous sac rose above two bulging eyes. Where there should have been a nose and a mouth, the monster split into multiple strips of equal length. It stood on these eight appendages, lifting and flexing them in a seemingly random pattern. Somehow, Deke knew the creature meant no harm.
Around him he saw two smaller specimens of the thing before him.
He wanted to ask where he was, but of course could not speak being underwater. In his field of vision, he saw two tentacles, much closer than those attached to the beast before him, raise and move.
The beast responded, curving its arms and contracting its head. Deke fathomed that he was on the home planet of this creature, a being he was to call Queen.
How can I call you Queen, Deke thought, when I can’t even breathe?
The closer tentacles – there were more of then he now saw – moved again and Deke felt his own head change shape. He wondered if the feeling was a symptom of drowning.
Queen moved again, lowering her body, extending three arms, rising again and changing the colour of her skin. Deke understood that his consciousness had been transmitted across space into the body of a host octopus so that Queen could have this audience with him.
Looking down at the tentacles near him, Deke realised they were attached to his body. No, not his body – the body of a cephalopod. He was looking at the world, an alien world, through the eyes of another living entity.
Queen changed colour again, waggled more arms. You will be returned.
What do you want from me? Deke thought. The tentacles of the body he currently occupied flurried as the question was conveyed to Queen.
I’m communicating with an alien, Deke realised. His tentacles flexed and moved. No, don’t communicate that. More movement from his host’s body.
Queen’s head expanded, contracted, limbs flipped about. You were summoned to explain why you have stolen time.
One of the smaller octopuses waggled its arms. We haven’t stolen time.
The past is fractured, Queen relayed.
We know, Deke ‘said’, but we don’t know why. Or how.
Through movement and several changes of hue, Queen said, Three of my subjects have reported a different history to that which the rest of us recall. Our stargazers determined the source of the problem originated on your planet.
We contemplated the possibility of a dimensional collision, Deke’s host body told Queen.
An avenue our stargazers also considered until our historians proved the stolen time theory. Segments of the past are disappearing, altering the present.
Altering the present for some, the smaller octopus said, not all. Why are we, and those subjects of yours, not affected?
We had hoped you could explain.
The smaller octopus raised the top of two tentacles, close to where they attached to the head. It seemed that a shrug was a universal gesture.
You must discover this thief, Queen said, and stop them before they steal all our pasts.
Your technology is far superior to ours, Deke said. Surely you are more suited to this task.
The miscreant is from your world. My subjects do not fare well on alien land. I will permit their consciousness to join you, to ensure my command is completed.
Queen lifted herself from the seabed, and prepared to swim away. Before she left, she gave one final message:
It is not only our pasts at risk. You must stop the thief before they steal the time in which the universe began.
Sans Sober Slumber
Whatever it was. Made my brain buzz. It was sublime wherever I went after ingesting it. Any angst or ills I’d had minutes before ceased. Not as if their will was spent. More so that my own recognized a good time to get bent.
Elated my lungs outpaced any shortness of breath. Which minimized the many reminders of our imminent deaths. Though the edge of the bluff that my toes caressed had promised death. It didn’t crumble but stood the test.
So from here I’d leap. Out of my shoes. And keep on keeping on doing what’s best to forget any bad news. As I lifted off on a star bound trajectory. Something tickling my tender toes, ran up my leg, thru my body, and out my nose. The sneeze propelled me into incomprehensible prose.
Which ferried me to Mars. Where I set out and rounded me up a Gift or Gag dose. And ended up having a heart to heart, swapping swear words with a handsy blue blooded Martian. In its alien split thrice tongue.
It wasn’t long before I’d learned the worst curses. And fast friends we had become. Finally bringing the whole encounter to a stand still? Bong quotes i.e. coughing up a green lung. But something tells me the fat lady hasn’t yet sung.
And breathlessly we emerged from the clouds of smoke our lungs displaced. Floating well above what’s normal. Spell bound by smiles no face would be ashamed to grace.
Queen Martina many hands finding this first experience with a marijuana wielding monkey quite enjoyable. Is dancing a jig. While I’m content whistling a tune. Floating on a cloud of lazy hopes & dreams. Digging this gig.
I’d heard there exists such a pleasing and pampering place. But not until my imagination replaced reality as hero of the day. Had I felt something as pleasurable as napping in a pile of hot laundry. Mesh & Lace.
Puff Pass & Prose.
"Hey Martina you alright? Your white as a ghost.
"Indubitable this is good shit for brains. You American bastards are the most generous of hosts. But I’ve only been in town one night. And it’s obvious to me. Things round here go much better for me if I turned myself white"
They arrived suddenly.
They appeared overnight. They say evolution progresses in cycles and macroevolution can make great, paradigm- shifting leaps when powered by the energy cycles of the sun and the alignment of Saturn. That’s why it seemed so sudden to us on land, but beneath the dark depths of the world’s oceans, giant octopuses had been silently growing ,mutating and evolving for thousands of years, veiled by the murky microcosms of the seas.
Until one day, they surfaced.
It was a Tuesday, I remember, and I was leaving the house early to head off to work. It was a rainy, dull and dreary day but the sun had just peaked over the horizon of the Bristol harbour casting a warm orange glow and I started the car in its dim light.
I drove along the main road which ran parallel along the shore, enjoying the early morning view.
But then I saw them and I just stopped the car dead, right there in the left-hand lane.
I couldn’t process what I was seeing at first. I sat frozen in the driver’s seat, with the windscreen wipers squeaking back and forth, believing I must still be sleeping and any minute now I’d wake up with the startling realization that it was all a dream.
But it wasn’t. Instead a new, weird reality played out and I got out of the car enraptured in awe.
A giant octopus had risen out of the inky waters and started to walk , eerily up to the beach. It was upright. It was roughly ten feet tall. Its eight, long, jelly-like legs, supported its huge dome-like body and it looked more like a monolithic alien creature from the outer rims of space than anything from earth. It moved silently. Floating almost, as its tentacles gracefully stepped along the sand, in a crab-like motion.
More followed, one by one they inched out of the sea.
Their eyes were black, their skin a translucent grey, and the suckers on each leg were the size of plates. The sight was both horrifying and beautiful. I was mesmerized. I was witnessing the genesis of a new species; the result of millions of years of unfolding nature, a terrifying demonstration of the power of change.
Passing cars slowed and pulled up, some crashing in shock. People came out of their homes, mouths agape, to watch- many filming on their phones as hundreds of huge walking octopuses filled the Bristol shoreline.
Then, a rustling sound. The waters got more and more agitated as something even larger emerged from the murky depths: The Queen.
She was double the size. Gigantic in proportions. Her grey and pink body glistened in the morning light. Her legs stretched out , as her stature towered against the gloomy seascape.
Suddenly, a watery high-pitched roar filled the cold morning air and they all joined in unison.
I had never heard a sound like it before:
a cacophony of piercing aquatic cries.
That’s when they started to run...
In a Distant Galaxy.
READING WARNING CONTENT
POST CONTAINS MATURE
The knight bent down on one knee, bowing before Her Royal Highness. The Queen smiled with a sparkle in her eye. Her heart beat faster at seeing the knight ready to do all that she requested.
The Knight stood before the Queen and spoke softly: ‘‘My dear lady, how may I serve you today? Also, just wanted to let you know your people of Tarinh all wish you good health & a productive rest of the year.’’
The Queen rose from her throne & winked at the dashing young knight, and said in a voice that commanded authority: ‘‘Come lie down with me, O, brave & valiant knight.’’
The knight walked right behind the Queen, following her to her royal chamber. There the Queen took off her crown from her head & placed it on the small table by her Queen sized bed.
She moved her tentacles toward the knight & helped him take off his armour. The knight slowly walked closer to the Queen and gazed into her eyes. Her eyes reminded him of the Milky Way galaxy— he could stare into them all day and night long.
A bit further away from the two lovers, the moonlight shone through the curtains in the Queen’s room- giving the lovebirds the perfect ambience for their time together.
The Queen wrapped her tentacles around the knight as they shared a long kiss. She let go after that & sighed in glee.
The knight placed his arms around the Queen and lifted her toward his body. She sighed once more & whispered in the knight’s ear: ‘‘How I’ve missed you, my darling knight!’’
In the Queen’s room, there they stayed all night making love & declaring their unconditonal care ‘n’ love for one another. Maybe next time she would request for the knight to stay within the Tarinh galaxy & not head to explore the Milky Way. The Queen could not bare to only be with the knight a quarter of a year.
The knight stared at the Queen and pondered~ ‘What was going through her beautiful mind?’ She laughed and said to the knight upon seeing his puzzled facial expression: ‘‘My beloved, I hope you won’t mind if I order you to stay much longer this time.’’ The knight shook his head & replied: ‘‘I do not mind at all.’’
3001: Design of Doom
Written on November 25, 2020
“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.” —Carl Jung
SHE TOOK A DEEP BREATH and sighed. In a gentle and steady manner, she brushed her hair with her fingers.
The engineer nodded her head at the design of doom. It moved itself closer to the engineer’s main network. From there it was able to collect all data on her boss.
She bent down when she spotted a few shadows walk past the kaleidoscopic glass. She sighed. That was close.
She typed away on the glass keyboard. The system recognized her finger prints. She smiled. She had to make sure her plan did not fail.
After all her efforts in providing her boss, Bob, with the ICE (International Connective Engineering) systems, he had taken advantage of her works and used them to build his own company.
Then he ended up hiring her as one of the other group of engineers. He would regret ever treating her like garbage.
With her latest creation, she was going to face Bob. Well, it was going to do most, or all, of the work on her behalf. She transferred all the necessary details and a collection of all the company’s data to the design of doom’s memory.
It had infinite storage and picked up new set of skills in a nanosecond.
She quietly clapped her hands. She clasped her hands and smiled. Bob was not going to get his hands on her design of doom. This was something she definitely would not let him grab from her.
The design of doom blinked at its creator. It watched her every movement and listened to her voice, too. The calm and soothing tone.
Meanwhile, Bob was pacing back and forth in his office. His security team walked in and he turned his body to face them.
‘‘Tell me you managed to get rid of her.’’
The leader of the team shook his head. Bob screamed.
‘‘That’s not what I wanted to hear. You better find out where she is...before I release my hellhounds on you!’’
The security team shuddered. None of them wanted to face the mechanical beasts. They felt as if they were working for Lucifer.
Later at the end of the day, Bob had left his office and was in his car on his way home. His car was another one of the engineer’s creation. It did not require a person to manage it.
As long as it could register the sound of the car owner’s voice, it would be able to be turned on and from there once a route was selected it was capable of automatically getting to the final destination on its own.
Bob leaned his head to check the map. He was almost home. As soon as they arrived at the gate, the car was scanned and the gate opened.
The car moved slowly down the driveway and quickly stopped. Bob went flying out of his seat and hit the dashboard.
‘What’s going on with this car?’ He shook his head as he wondered what could have made the car suddenly stop just as they had arrived near his place.
Several minutes passed by and the car still remained in park. Bob hit the dashboard and told the car to continue to drive. There was no response.
He decided to kick the door and head to his place on foot. The car would not allow him to step foot outside. Bob heard a whistle from the back of his seat.
He turned to see who was in his car. The moment he saw it, he screamed. It stretched its arms and moved its hands across Bob’s neck.
The car then moved slowly and increased its speed. It went flying off the ground and then landed in the lake near Bob’s place.
The design of doom saw Bob gasp for air. He looked at the thing and wanted to scream. But his neck had been twisted by its hands and he could not even breathe quite well anymore.
He squinted his eyes as if to say, ‘I will not let you win.’ The design of doom smiled and said, “The engineer told me to tell you that you do not need to worry about the company. It is in great hands.” Bob choked on his blood and took his final breath.
The engineer watched Bob take his last breath from the monitors in her lab. The design of doom sent her the live footage of Bob’s last moment on earth in the 31st century.
I know they exist.
I didn't believe they exist.
Here in the depths, silent black, eerie. We use atomic fusion power to provide infinte energy for our needs, and we regulate day and night in a precise cycle, exact to the second.
At one mile below the surface, and close to the mid Pacific volcanic vents, the study of the shifting plates of our earth as it continually bubbles new land into being is fascinating. Rich lodes of minerals line these new mountains as they heave into being. Nothing but a few heat resistant microbes.
Or so I thought.
We should have listened to the dolphins. And the whales and every other intelligent mammal swimming in the sea. They tried to warn us. There are places none of them would go, even if they were just passing through.
I have to admit she was magnificent. Her eight suction cup lined arms undulating in the rising hot salt water. Her simple request, and I'm sure my brain will never forget, stop dumping your garbage into the sea.
The words echoed, booming inside my head, and her tentacles wrapped themselves around our living dome, squeezing until we heard the creaking groan of stressed transparent titanium crystals. Her strength immense, her length, greater than the submarine building ship which created the community we call home.
I am certain, we are the garbage she refers to, and I don't think we will survive until the next supply submarine arrives.
I will shoot this pressure vessel to the surface and hope a sailor stumbles on its signal. Heed the warning. She's on a clean up mission. She's had it with our miserable track record and she wants her world back. Clean and pristine.
Captain's Log 2093/03/21 Pacific Rift Colony
OAQ Charm Offensive Falls Flat as Killings Continue
OAQ was widely derided by right-wing media, both by those who disagreed with her progressive policies and those who had lost loved ones and even pets due to her voracious appetite.
“Its not like I eat children...all that often,” she said in a disaster of a 60 Minutes interview. At the end the camera crew and their assistants had to run for their lives and yet there was poor old Tom. Tom Jenkins was a sound technician who thankfully didn’t have a family. He will be missed.
When asked for a comment about the incident, OAQ didn’t help matters any when she said, “Well everyone needs to die someday, am I right?”
But deep down OAQ is lonely. She never intended to crash land on earth after her spaceship suffered a hull breach, but now she’s here, running an underground repair facility teeming with workers who are working tirelessly to repair her ship. These workers have been known to work non-stop without food, water or rest until they fall over dead and burst into flames. Authorities have been dismissive so far about allegations that OAQ is injecting innocent workers with a venom that turns them into exploding zombies. And fueling the speculation is the fact that many of the investigators involved have been strangely silent, and some have disappeared altogether.
Today OAQ is sponsoring a bring your child to work day at the repair facility. According to the press release on her official website, she believes that young people should be an integral part of a healthy and balanced workforce.