The cassette arrived in a small, brown jiffy bag on Tuesday morning, perhaps ten seconds before Helen was due to leave for work. Michael, damp haired and blotchy, fresh out of the shower, swept the package up off the doormat, examined the address and postmark - "at last, thank God" - then whipped it behind his back and crept towards the living room.
He stopped, winced, turned slightly. "What's what?"
Helen, his wife, bounded into view; too much make-up, hands on hips. "That!" she exclaimed, her enormous eyes widening as she nodded at his waist. "Have you been ordering pornographic magazines?"
"Don't be silly," said Michael, blushing slightly - more with anger than embarrassment. His wife scanned him up and down through two narrow slits before producing a what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-you kind of sigh. "God, you're so unevolved," she said. "All you ever think about is the physical."
"All you ever think about is telling me off for always thinking about the physical," Michael retorted. It was the most cunning thing he'd said to his wife for weeks, and he felt his body quiver with a sort of rebellious excitement.
Helen's hands came up in the air. "Alright," she said flatly. "I'm not going to argue. Just make the hell sure you dust my treasures - careful around the cottage clock - and cook me a decent meal tonight. If I get the same inedible shit as last night..." She paused as if to think up some horrendous punishment. "You'll be in trouble," she concluded lazily.
And then, like a bloated fairy with its wings snipped off, she lumbered down the hallway, slid her keys off the kitchen table and slammed herself out of the front door.
As soon as she'd gone, Michael tore open the package and slid out the tape. It was a C90, black and unblemished, and came without any form of instructions or advertisements. Shocked and slightly irritated, especially considering he'd paid 17.95, Michael turned the package upside down and gave it short, rapid shake. No; that was it. Just one, single C90. "Oh well," he said, pocketing the item with a sigh as he walked into kitchen. "Another week's dole down the toilet."
He cracked a couple of eggs into a jug, added a splash of milk, gave the mixture a good seeing-to with his wife's favourite fork, then poured it carefully into a pan. `What did you dream about last night?' he contemplated as he struggled to ignite the gas. `Some kind of castle... Grey bricks, a huge court-yard, knights on horses... Shouting and screaming...' He turned the heat down and started gathering bread, butter, tomatoes, cucumber; letting his body run on automatic whilst he poked around in his subconscious. `It was the same old scenario yet again wasn't it... Running across the wastelands, being taken in by that horrible, green-eyed witch and brutally tortured...'
Ironically, Helen had been the one to initiate this obsession with dreams and their meanings. For the past three years she'd been collecting books on the New Age, astrology, numerology, and the Occult, and reading aloud lengthy, philosophical snippets when they were tucked up at night, or over breakfast, when, according to Michael, smalltalk should comprise of the state of the weather, the news headlines and how delicious the marmalade is, not the symbolism behind the Age of Pisces and the prophetic messages encrypted in the Bible.
Michael's dreams, however, over the years, had risen to meet Helen's `mystical' phase by becoming more frequent, surreal and symbolic not to mention oddly similar and stuffed to bursting point with recurring characters and settings. It was as if his wife's interests had crept into his brain via the intuitive, right-hand side; had begun to manifest as vivid nightmares about which he could do very little but beg for an explanation; had thus nudged open cracks of open-minded light - narrow doorways through which Michael was willing to peep, listen and nod or shake his head. "You're so irritatingly sceptical," Helen would announce, even to this day, in her superior, I-know-lots-of-things-you-don't voice. She'd be wearing her blue-rimmed, NHS glasses, the ones she'd never worn when they'd first met, but which now seemed permanently glued to her face. "But then again you've got Taurus Rising and the Moon in Virgo, so you're bound to be a bit narrow-minded."
Michael smiled to himself as he inserted two slices of bread into the toaster and lowered them down. Helen had learnt a lot over the years - a hell of a lot - but, as far as Michael was aware, knew hardly a whisker about past-life `flashbacks'. This was where Michael's `secret' and painstakingly thorough research came into the picture - as did the cassette. His initial intentions had of course been to obliterate his wife's arguments via scientific evidence; a remarkably difficult task which he had given up on after just eight days of furious page-flicking. Plan B had involved studying his wife's subject matter and from there on disproving it with a mixture of light-research and plain common-sense; another deceptively strenuous job, which, again, he'd found himself having to scribble off the hit-list.
And so he'd concentrated on the single area his wife had touched upon in which he too shared an intrigued interest: dreams. Dreams and their possible connections to previously-lived lives.
Now, Michael didn't believe in reincarnation in the same way his wife believed in it. Some would argue that that is impossible, for surely if you are willing to accept the concept of life-after-death, you are also, simultaneously, pulling open the doors to divination, spirituality and religion. Not so. Michael was able to comprehend reincarnation on the basis that if you're absolutely nothing before you're born, and then you're absolutely nothing again when you're dead, what's stopping the entire process from repeating itself? Admittedly, this very logically-worked-out hypothesis fails to tackle the arena of the human `soul' or indeed to give a point to existence, yet at the same time, in Michael's brain, it made a sort of incredulous sense, especially if you took into consideration the paradox of why we are who we are; why we happen to be experiencing this current life and not the life of the man next door - or indeed the man next door's dog's. Michael could certainly entertain the idea of `becoming something out of nothing' - coldly un-spiritual or not - far more than he could get his head around the concept of evolving through various apparently significant incarnations, to become One with the Divine Wholeness, Ultimate Power, Great God of All Things and various other Cocky-Sounding Names with Capital Letters, about which Helen constantly preached.
The two elements that were to make up Michael's breakfast came to a smoking conclusion; he snatched out the toast, buttered it, threw it on to a plate, dumped a very large portion of scrambled egg on top of it, then settled down at the kitchen table to eat, fart and study the crack in the opposite wall. Soon, he was swinging the tape between finger and thumb, wondering if it might confirm his suspicions that he was neither fantasising about nor living too far away from the hideously cruel woman of his dreams.
`There are many similarities,' Michael inwardly-admitted as he plugged in the stereo-system and inserted the tape. `Between my recurring dream and the state of this present reality. Okay, so Helen doesn't chain me, naked, to a hard wooden board (hell, I half-wish she would) nor does she insert hot knives into my feet or force me to scoff bowls of mud-coloured slop. But these are different times. She has metaphorically imprisoned, tortured and humiliated me; there has been enough pain in this relationship to match any form of medieval punishment.' He pressed PLAY, crawled over to the settee and climbed onto it. He then lay still - one hand on his forehead, eyes closed - listening tiredly to the hypnotic hiss of the speakers. `God if only it were true.' he thought. `If only I had an understanding. A purpose. Maybe then I could escape this horrific marriage.'
He saw himself strolling into the job-centre for the thousandth time, looking down at his hands, joining the queue, wondering if this was all his existence would ever amount to. Then the tape started, and, almost immediately, his visions began to change.
The first side - delicately recited by the voice of a softly-spoken woman - was a condensed introduction to the techniques of visualisation, hypnosis and the history of past-life recollection. It was not quite what Michael was hoping for - he had, after all, already learnt a lot of it from books - but a few of the case-histories held his attention particularly strongly. The one about the three-year-old Indian girl, for instance, who, in 1929, told her parents that she'd been married with four kids and a year later filled in this apparent `fantasy' with incredible and hugely accurate details. In the end, she'd led astonished parents and reporters to the house in which her husband and some of the children from her previous life were still living, to confirm names, locations and events. Also of interest to Michael was the lengthy section regarding karma, learning-cycles and spiritual advancement. Here, the tape delved into astrological synastry, soul-partners and the possibility of `growing up', as it were, through several lifetimes surrounded by the same human entities.
It was not until the woman's voice evaporated into silence and the PLAY button on the stereo-system snapped up that Michael realised how relaxed and clear-headed he was becoming. Reluctantly, he slid off the settee, waded dizzily across the carpet and turned the tape over. Side B, the woman had informed him, was the do-it-yourself past-life regression. This was what Michael had paid for.
he finds himself strapped down, naked, in a cold stone room, a hunch-backed woman with mottled hair flashing silver blades in a dark corner.
red spiders are trickling out of a crack in the brick-work, a crack he's seen before somewhere but cannot place. the woman-creature, aroused by his sudden movements, turns slightly, so that one huge emerald-eye is peeping through filthy tassles of hair.
'you're so unevolved,' she whispers.
Michael awoke, bolted up off the settee and produced a half-stifled wail of agony. The tape had stopped. The house was a hissing silence. "Christ," he murmured. He was red hot, sticky, aching, and could recall his dream/flashback with terrifying clarity, as if he'd just watched it on television. "It's true," he whispered. "My God it's not bullshit, it's all true." Although these words were spoken with some conviction, his thoughts were scrambled. He walked over to the window... "Damnit, God damnit," - Turned, walked back towards the fire-place... "Jesus Christ," - Turned and headed towards the window again; itching, fidgeting, restless; caged, locked-up, captured; spinning on a karmic round-about; stumped, out of fuel, going nowhere. "It's true," he said again, this time slowly, so that he might actually believe what he was saying. "It just all fits, it has to be true..."
Indeed, the quirks in his personality - originally stapled by common sense to the time of his birth or glued by psychology to random events from his childhood - were already developing fresh new meanings. Everything which had been allowed to pass, unanswered, through his confused mind was now sharpening into focus; becoming apparently explainable, significant. Childhood and birth were merely the trunk and base of the tree; his previous life - or lives - were the deeply-buried roots.
God knows how many hundreds of years it had been going on - how many scores of centuries his wife had been taking advantage of his weak and uninitiated soul... At this thought, he ripped the cushions off the settee and threw them all over the floor. Raked his arm along the side-board; sent everything flying off the right-hand end. Books, cups, pictures, ornaments were smashed, mangled and stamped-on. "Not this time," he chanted, standing breathless in the middle of what used to be the livingroom. "Not this time you clever bitch."
"Michael?" His wife nudged open the front door. "Michael there's a scratch on the left-hand side of my car, how the hell did it get there? It wasn't there yesterday. If you've been sneaking out whilst I..." Helen caught sight of the Windsor cottage clock she'd purchased in York last year lying upsidedown on the carpet, and bulldozed into the house in slow-motion, mouth hung open, rage bubbling.
"What the hell..."
The domestic carnage, she realised as she turned and looked down the hall towards the bathroom, merely began with the cottage clock. The entire carpet from here to its end was a solid sea of smashed-up treasures; a savage battlefield where every crushed or mutilated corpse invoked a white hot sting of pure hatred.
"Oh are you going to die," she whispered, entranced. Her handbag slipped off her shoulder, landed with a clink on shattered porcelain. "Oh are you going to feel pain for this."
And then it came to her like some powerful feeling of deja vu that she should next go into the kitchen, so she turned, shoes crunching on bits of her once-valued possessions, and began to walk, as if summoned, towards the door.
Michael, naked and bruised, as she had previously known him, was standing in the middle of the lino - washing machine, cooker, microwave his audience - legs slightly apart, arms by his sides, a large knife protruding from one hand.
The harder Helen stared the clearer she saw the chains; the cuts seeping blood; the bruises ripening; the life-times of terror now flashing as wrath in his eyes.
And as she extracted the blade she'd kept behind the fridge for this day, red spiders trickled from the crack in the kitchen wall.
A computer programmer/graphic artist turned writer of the weird and fantastique, Andy J. Campbell has written over 150 short stories, many of which have been featured on the cover-mounted disks of international computing magazines. His work has also appeared in the glossy and small press (Implosion, Beneath the Surface, Outsider, Raw Nerve, Auslander, The Squealer, Axiom, Beware and The New Science Fiction Times; plus cyberzines such as Dreams and Dragons, Gearheads, Raise the Dead, Stitch and Cross-Connect).
I watched placidly out of the schoolbus window as it wound its way up the thin mountain road and came to a stop at the dirt driveway where my Mom and my sister Jessica stood waiting for me. There was a slight chill in the Autumn air and the gloomy, overcast sky reflected my dark mood as I stepped off the bus.
"See you tomorrow freak!" A blond haired fat boy yelled out the window when the bus driver finally found the right gear and made the yellow bus lurch forward, leaving me in a cloud of black smoke. Typical, I thought. Just typical.
"Who was that boy?" Jessica asked, genuinely concerned. "I can take care of him if you want."
"Jessica!...What did I tell you about using your magic to hurt people?" Mom said and took me by the hand.
"Moo-om!" I protested, a little embarrassed that she wanted to hold my hand. I mean I was thirteen and not a baby anymore. She smiled knowingly but didn't let go until we stood in front of our trailer.
"Can I go fishing out by the pond?" I asked.
"OK Joey...just be home in time for supper."
"Alright Mom." I said and ran off into the woods.
I didn't really want to go fishing, but lately I spent as much time outside as I could. Since Grandma died a few months ago, Mom and Jessica scared me. Mom was always reading from Grandma's big brown book that she'd left to us and saying things that didn't make any sense. Sometimes when she was in her bedroom, I could hear her talking to people; even though I knew no one was in there. Jessica tried to do the things that Mom did, but she didn't seem nearly as dark as Mom did sometimes. Besides, Jessica was always there for me and made sure that none of the 'big kids' in school picked on me.
I picked up a handful of rocks and started chunking them in the pond like I always did. When I ran out of rocks, I sat down on an old wooden bench and watched a water snake as it skimmed its way across the pond.
"Joey! help me catch that snake!" Jessica yelled scaring me half to death. She must have snuck up behind me. She was always doing junk like that.
"What for?" I asked.
"You don't want people at school calling you names do you?"
"What does that have to do with the snake Jessica?"
"Come on!" She yelled and ran to the other side of the pond where the snake had slithered up on the bank.
I went around the other way and cut off it's path so it couldn't get back in the water. Jessica crept silently up to it. The snake saw her and started to squirm away.
"Freeze serpent!" She said loudly. Her voice echoed through the woods and came back three times before it faded away. I watched in disbelief as the snake lay as still as at tree branch. She bent over and picked it up; smiling as it it gently wrapped around her arm.
"What are you going to do with it?" I asked.
"You'll see tomorrow...Don't tell Mom." She said and put the snake in a rusty coffee can, carefully poking holes in the lid so it could breathe.
I knew she meant well, but I didn't want her to hurt anyone. Since she had learned to use Grandma's book, bad things seemed happen to anyone who made her mad.
"Jess" I protested. "You know how Ricky Kramer is...he's just a big bully. I don't think you should hurt him."
She stood directly in front of me and looked right in my eyes. Her eyes sparkled with that familiar evil glow that I'd come to hate. I loved her a lot, but when she got like this, she really scared me. I knew she planned on using her magic on Ricky. Suddenly I felt sorry for him and wished she hadn't heard him call me a freak.
"Joey." She said, smiling softly, "I promise I won't hurt him...Okay?"
"You promise you won't?"
"I promise I won't."
"Okay," I said, feeling a little better. "Let's get home before we're late for supper."
That night, before I went to sleep, I said a little prayer for Ricky. I asked God not to let him go to school tomorrow. I don't know why I felt sorry for him. I mean, he'd been mean to me all year, calling me freak, stickboy, hillbilly, all kinds of names; but they were just names and didn't really mean anything. I knew he picked on me because he was afraid of Jessica. Everybody was, except for her friend Marsha Teek. If you asked me, she was the only freak I knew.
The next morning I went to homeroom and looked for Ricky Kramer. To my relief, I didn't see him. Maybe God answered my prayer I thought.
Later that day, I saw Jessica and Marsha standing in the hall, laughing.
"Hi Joey." Marsha said.
I didn't like her much so I started to walk away, but Jessica grabbed my arm. "Joey...have you seen Ricky Kramer yet?" She asked. That evil glow was back in her eyes.
"No," I answered and got a sick feeling in my stomach. She let go of my arm and I went to science class. To my surprise, the water snake from the pond was in a glass aquarium at the front of the classroom.
"Class...Today we are going to disect a water snake graciously donated by Jessica Harper," Mr Hollis, the science teacher announced. He smiled and handed me a scalpel. "Joey...since it was your sister who caught the snake, I'm gonna let you do the honors."
Cautiously, I reached in and pulled the twisting snake out as the class watched. My stomach jumped up to my throat when I heard its tiny scream, "JOEY!...NO! It's me!...Ricky Kramer!"
The invasion was over before most people had even realised it had begun. It was during the night of the 23rd/24th of November that the things floated down from the sky in metal pods, red hot and steaming from their unbidden passage through the atmosphere. If you were outside at the time, or looking out of a window, you'd have been able to see dozens of them coming down to Earth.
The ones that my brother and I saw were pretty typical, so the news reports said. At first a twinkling in the heavens, imperceptible from a star until it grew closer, nearer, became large and glowing, and developed a short sharp trail behind it which ended abruptly as if physically cut off. They came down not at an angle as comets or meteorites would, but just down; straight down, horizontally, wavering occasionally in an unsteady flight-path.
The nearest one to our house fell in the field behind the estate just down from Oakman's Wood. We - James and me - saw them from the bedroom, and went outside for a better look. We watched that particular one land a couple of streets and a field away.
Before long we were up there watching it cool down from the top of the field, sitting behind the fence like schoolkids waiting for conkers to fall.
James gave a worried laugh at one point and told me that he expected it to screw itself open like the Martian vessel did in `The War of the Worlds'. James is young. He believes that that could really happen.
Still, I wouldn't have been totally surprised if something /had/ crawled out of it; perhaps a creature from the Id, maybe a green man, or even a tiny globule of amorphous jelly. I'd seen the movies, I knew the drill. If something popped its ugly head (tentacle? jelly? probing one-lobed eye?) out of the cannister, you had to rush off to the police, and their job was to ridicule you and lock you up for the night. So my thoughts were going as James interrupted my flow, excitedly pointing out another of the things heading straight for us.
"Paul, it's going to hit us."
"Not if we get out of the way it isn't."
"What if it's a heat-seeker? What if it's a pod-person going to suck in our bodies and replicate us?"
I looked at him for a moment, instead of at the oncoming menace.
James's gaze never moved from the descending object. "I don't know about shutting up," he said, "but I'm off." He then did as he had portended, rushing up into the outskirts of the dark woodland. It was creepy in there, but, I had to agree, an ideal place to hide. I looked up again, slackened my jaw, then followed suit, twice as quick as he had done.
We'd just reached the supposed safety of the trees when it came crashing down into the fenceposts, merely ten feet from where we had previously been sitting. It made a slight hiss - like an oversteaming kettle - while it descended, but that stopped sharply and was replaced with an explosion of crushed, clanging and twisted metal as the object plunged with great velocity into the solid concrete menhirs.
There were no flames at all. A few sparks, sure, and initially there was a lot of smoke, but when this had cleared, the carnage was suitably arranged around the dented henge for us to get a good look at the make-up and structure of the, as James had called them, `Invaders from Outer Space'.
"There's nothing in 'em." said James, sounding disappointed. "Where's the slime?"
He was absolutely correct in his obversations. Where /was/ the slime? Where was the pilot, the crew, the whatever-it-was that was supposed to be inside the thing...?
"There's nothing in there!" he repeated, this time with a mild curse thrown in.
All we could see was wreckage; twisted, uncharred, wrangled metal, plus a few other elements: something that looked like glass, a piece of what seemed to be foil of some description, a smashed but still recognisable phial containing nothing whatsoever, and with no apparent leakage. Then James spotted the cannister.
We had to wait a while - quite a long while, maybe three hours - until the metal had cooled down enough to be touched. When we did eventually get around to picking some of the pieces up, I remember noting that the other pod, the one at the bottom of the field, was still mildly steaming, cooling down. I figured that because this pod had smashed open it must have therefore cooled down quicker. I didn't really know, I'm no scientist.
While I was meandering on this observation James picked the cannister up.
"Maybe it's a message from the Martians," he said, coming towards me. "Perhaps they don't want to wipe us out, after all." I saw him hold the cannister up to his ear. "It's not ticking, Paul."
"So it's not an invasion of three-fingered blood-sucking hermaphrodites, and it's not a bomb, so what is it?" I said.
James looked at me, puzzled.
"Which movie was that?"
"The three-fingered blood-sucking hermawotsits?"
Understanding that I was older than him, and that he was simply my protege, he handed me his prize, which was still warm. It was about the size of a normal insulating flask, and pretty much the same shape. The comparison was followed even further, with a lid-like cap at one end, which presumably screwed off.
"Are you going to open it?" inquired James, honestly expecting perhaps a dead alien feotus, or some grand recorded tape bearing an invasion ultimatum or a formula for world peace.
"I don't know," I said, "perhaps we should give it to the police or something."
"Or NASA? Maybe we'd get a reward, or a mention on the news." His eyes glimmered. "Paul, we could be famous!"
"I suppose if we do hand it in, it wouldn't hurt to take a little peek first."
"Aw, yes. Cool. C'mon then, open it up."
I nodded and took a deep breath. This was exhilarating, the kind of thing that every boy dreams about; finding a crashed spaceship and rummaging around in its wreckage. But it still felt wrong. Part of me, standing in the cool field that night, cradling this artefact from the stars, wanted simply to do my duty to humanity and hand it in to the authorities, getting praised in the process. Also, I thought, it could be /dangerous/. James was a bit obsessed with his ideas from monsters and ray-guns from Outer Space, but in a way he was right; we had no idea whatsoever as to what could be lurking in that metal container, and I especially felt a tinge of that older-brother responsibility for him, even more so now that Dad had died.
"What would Dad do, do you thimk?" I said.
"Dad would open it and see what was inside," said James. "You know what Dad was like. Anyway, he'd probably say that there were plenty other pods that had come down, and the Government or whoever could find their own. C'mon, Paul, take the lid off." That last bit sounded like a schoolboy plead, but what he'd said actually made sense. There /were/ plenty of other pods falling all over the place, and if we'd found one crashed and wrecked, then certainly there should be others that had had a less than perfect landing somewhere else.
I held the cannister under my left arm, while with my right hand I gripped the lid and tried twisting it. Clockwise, first and it wouldn't budge.
"Try it the other way." James said. I did, but still no joy.
"It's on too tight," I tried both directions again, twisting a little harder than before, but still nothing moved. Then James had a brainwave.
"Try pushing down on it as well, you know, like those stupid tablet bottles."
I gave him a knowing look - with perhaps a touch of jealousy because I, the older brother, hadn't thought of it myself - and set the container down on the grass - cap up - bending over it and pressing all my upper weight through my right hand. I felt it move, underneath my hand, imperceptibly, but it definitely slid a fraction. James must have seen my arm jerk a little.
"You've got it!" he shouted, in the high-pitched rapid voice he usually saved for Christmas.
"No, not yet, it moved a touch, I think, that's all. I'll have to try and -" I cut myself off, mid-sentence, as my twistings this way and that had produced a metallic click from inside. "Ahah. Now I think I've got it."
James crouched down next to the standing cannister, me still putting my weight on it, and twisting slowly clockwise. It was moving, and even if James couldn't really see the casing slowly revolving, he could certainly hear the occasional click, every time the cap made a half-turn.
James watched critically in wonder while I continued to twist off the cap, getting looser with every revolution.
"Can't you hurry it up a bit?" I nearly asked him if he wanted to put in all the effort, but just in time I reminded myself that he would just rush into it, taking the cap off like it was wrapping-paper on a new chemistry set.
"I'm just being careful. Be patient, alright."
Then at last when I turned it there was no click, and we both knew that the cap was ready to lift off.
"Can I do it?" asked James, enthusiasm over-riding common-sense.
"Just leave it to me, okay? We still don't know what's in there."
"Why didn't it hiss and steam come out when you loosened the top?"
I thought about that one for a while. "I don't know, James." I said, and I didn't. Maybe steam should've come out, or maybe not. It always did in the movies. I sighed, heavily, and swallowed my fear down with my saliva. "Right. Let's do it."
"Yay!" Slowly, with my right hand, I lifted the cap off. At first it didn't seem to want to leave, and it took me a while to realise that something was connected to the cap. An isotope, or something, I thought. I lifted the cap up horizontally, and the metallic cylinder came into view.
James looked puzzled; he'd no doubt expected jelly-monsters.
"What is it?" he asked. I didn't answer but scrutinised the cylinder closely, fancying that in the moonlight I could just make out some markings written - or more likely carved - into the metal surface.
"Is there anything else in there?" I asked James, nodding towards the cannister. He held it up to the light the best he could, peered in, and then, to make sure, held it upside down. Nothing fell out.
"Nope. Looks like we've already got first prize." He put the cannister down now, having lost interest in it. I handed him the cylinder-wielding lid, which he looked at, carefully.
"Hey, there's some writing on here. We should take it home and have a proper look."
"That's what I intend to do. Now that I've broken in, I at least want to see what I've nicked." I lowered the cap back on but didn't screw it back into place. Then we left the field, James with wonder and excitement in his eyes, and me with a metal tea-flask under my arm. In the distance, we could still see the pods falling.
It took us only five minutes to reach home. Unsurprisingly considering the time of night - 1.17AM - we didn't encounter anyone else on our way back. We did meet a dog, though, wandering around, whimpering, perhaps afraid of the things falling from the sky. James patted it a little when we went past and immediately regretted it, as the animal latched onto us, following us all the way home, despite several shoo's and loud claps to scare it off.
When we reached our empty house, we found the back door left wantonly unlocked. It was a good job Mum was away. She'd have killed us both.
After locking the door behind us we headed straight for the kitchen where there was a clean chest-height bench to conduct our observations on. Carefully, I stood the cannister on the shelf, while James flicked the light switch, brightly illuminating the room from its former moonlit glow.
"Come on then," said James, "Let's have a look." I grabbed a glass and turned the cold tap on, "Hold up a minute, will you. Just getting a drink."
"C'mon, Paul, hurry up!" Patience never was one of his best points.
I swallowed down the cool fresh water, placed the glass in the sink and said, "C'mon then. Let's see what we've got."
Slowly, as before, I lifted the cap and the attached cylinder out of the cannister and held it up to the light.
"What's it say? Is it English?"
I examined it, seeing seven digits, each one about an inch square in size.
"Just some numbers, I think. Oh and two letters, too." I examined it some more; the digits were familiar but the meaning wasn't.
"Well?" screeched James, sounding a tad left-out, "what's it say? what's it say?"
I read directly from the cylinder, spaking them aloud for my benefit as much as his. "One Zero Three Seven Four Haitch Zed. What d'you make of that?"
James was non-plussed, like me. "I dunno, you're the clever one. Is that all there is?"
Fair question, so I checked. "Yup, that's it." I read them out again, "One Zero Three Seven Four Haitch Z-. Wait a minute, haitch zed, that means hertz!"
"That means what?"
I grinned, having conquered the first puzzle. "Hertz. You know, like on the radio, what Dad told us."
"Oh. Right. Yeah." He looked as confused as ever.
"C'mon." I told him, and rushed for the back door.
James followed me to the wash-house outside with the usual round of questions like where was I going? What was I going to do? While I unlocked the wash-house door I tried to explain.
"Remember what Dad used to do in the Army?"
"Of course, he was a radio operator. Why?"
The key seemed to be stuck. I kept on twiddling. "Well, he used to tell us stuff, didn't he, about radio and things, and he showed us how to pick up the police on his WRR. Remember."
"Yeah, so what?" At last the door clicked and I stumbled in, switching the light on as I passed. "So, we can use his radio to tune into the frequency on that cylinder."
"Oh." he said, probably still in the dark.
Dad had been in the Army, the Communication Corps, for about seven years, I think, before he died. It was their fault, and they admitted it; something about unchecked valves on the helicopter engine, so Mum said. She also told me that the pretty hefty compensation and pension they gave us was nothing compared to having him around the place. She was right. Dad was great. Sure, he went away a lot with his job, he had to, but when he was home he was brilliant, and was just learning me how to use and fix radios when he went off on that fated helicopter trip to Somerset, eight months ago. That was the last time we saw him.
I hadn't been in the wash-house since just after the funeral. Dad used to call it his Radio Room. He bought a lot of equipment from the Army stores, special stuff what you can't buy in the shops. Most of it was broken or damaged when he brought it home; that's how he got it so cheap. All the time I was growing up I would watch him in his little den fixing wires, soldering and fitting things together.
He managed to fix up a WRR - that's a Wide Range Radio - with so many little extra features and extra capacity that it was in better condition than it would have been when it was new. I'm not sure why he built in really; I think he enjoyed constructing the things more than he did using them, but he sometimes let us in to listen to American Radio stations or the police helicopter band, and occasionally even private CB communications. He even fitted a CD player to it and used to listen to Little Richard while he fixed up new things.
Anyway, he'd taught me how to use it, and how to digitally tune in to distant and faraway signals, and that was what I was planning to try now. See if I could tune in to 10,374 Hz and see if there was any thing there.
I switched it on at the wall and waited for the familiar droning buzz which meant that all systems were operative. Then you had to press the two stand-by buttons and wait for the LED's to flash. This done, I studied the dials and the buttons, trying to remember what to do.
"Right. 10,374 Hertz. That'll be, er, long wave, I think." I checked the long-wave dial at the bottom. Sure enough, there it was, the nearest to it at least: 10,350 Hz. It was almost at the end of the long wave band. Ordinary recievers couldn't get anywhere near it, they didn't need to as there were no commercial stations that far out.
I flicked the switch that said LW, and waited for the red dial marker to appear.
"D'you think you'll be able to get something?" James asked.
"Well, yeah. I mean I should be able to find the frequency, I'll use the digital tuning, but I don't know if there'll be anything broadcasting. I think that it's mostly static and natural waves up that far." The red marker had appeared now, and I had to turn the LW tuner several times before the marker shone in between the 10,350 and 10,400 Hz barriers. I couldn't hear anything at all, not even static.
"Don't you have to turn the volume up or something?" suggested James.
Another irritatingly bright idea. I checked the volume dial. "No. It seems OK. We should be able to hear something at least." I saw the socket-switch. "Er, unless it's on headphones of course." I slipped the headphone plug out, and flipped the appropriate switch to `Direct Audio'. At last, I heard static.
"Right, and now for the magic part." I flicked another switch, the one that said `Digital Tuning System' and several dozen more LED's flashed on at me, as well as two flashing stars on the readout panel.
"What's it doing, now?"
"It's just locating the frequency that it's at at the moment. It should be in roughly the right place." The stars disappeared and the digits came up. 10,368 Hz. Not far out. There were two little buttons directly beneath the readout, one with a - sign and one with a +, just like cursor buttons on a TV remote. I pressed the + button, and the number changed to 10,369 Hz. I pressed it again. 10,370 Hz. Four more presses. 10,374 Hz. Our golden number.
At first there was nothing, just a clear airwave, although the static had died. I noticed that the signal hadn't faded in either like most of them do, but was only broadcasting strictly on that one miniscule frequency. Dad had said that you needed a digital transmitter to do that, and that only the military used them.
"Is there anything there?"
I gave James a best-I-can-do smile. "Can you hear anything?"
"Ditto." And then, as if to prove us wrong, a voice with a London accent filtered through, very clearly.
"In," it said, "Beacon XX8A, three repeat three containment units down and out, remaining unreleased, phase four takeover. Request new cyclic e-number for further unit replacements. Passcode V41 X26 Beacon. ID XX8A. Zero One Twenty-Six Hours. Out." Then silence again.
"What was that?" asked James.
"I don't know." I said, although secretly I was getting a little worried. Whoever it was, they'd said something about three containment units down - meaning, I assumed, the things which were falling from the sky. Did the message mean that three of them had landed? If that was the case then why would he mention wanting replacements? And what the hell did `takeover' mean?
"James, will you go in the house and get me some paper and a pen, please." He must have caught on to what I was going to do because he answered `Yep.' and rushed off. Just after he came back with a little notebook and attached pen the voice returned, saying exactly the same thing. I tried to write some of it down but only caught the last part. James looked at my scribbled efforts.
"Maybe it'll come on again."
"Yeah, I hope so."
We sat in silence for a while, maybe three minutes, until the voice returned once again and uttered the exact same words. This time I got all of it down, but I'd still have appreciated it one more time just to check that everything was accurate.
"What d'you think `remaining unreleased' means?" James asked.
"I don't know, but `down and out' usually means broken or destroyed. You know, like a plane or something."
"And he's asking for replacements?"
I thought about it. "Yes, it seems so, maybe because they're unreleased, whatever that means."
"So the pods are supposed to release something?"
"Apparently." Something rather sinister was beginning to take shape in my mind. James interrupted it.
"So what's a ssseye... Cyclic... E-number, then?"
I didn't get a chance to answer; the same voice broke the radio silence yet again. As he spoke, I checked through what I'd written and made a few digit and number corrections.
"Do you think he's waiting for an answer, then?"
"I suppose he must be." I said. "We'll just have to wait and keep listening." Silence dawned between us then, while we waited, and the insidious gnawings of that sinister notion came back into my mind. I tried to think about other things. Pretty soon the speaker returned, beginning to sound rather impatient. After about thirty seconds a reply - a womans voice - came through.
"London HQ in. Beacon XX8A. E-number you require is as follows; 0021-64-652-137452. Repeating, 0021-64-652-137452. You have fourteen minutes left before the new cycle number. Will repeat in 30 seconds. Please keep frequency clear. London HQ out." Then more silence. On the radio, at least.
"Somebody answered!" said James sounding refreshed and newly excited, "Did you write what she said down?"
"No, I didn't get it. But she's going to repeat. She said so."
"Why can't you tape it?"
This was yet another stunning brainwave on his part, albeit a bit on the late side.
"Great idea, but we haven't got time now. She'll be back any second."
"I'll go find a tape anyway. You write it all down." He looked happy, having contributed a worthwhile idea.
"Yes boss." I said, and mimicked a salute. Then, abruptly, the woman came back on, and I wrote down most of it, taking special care with the number. This time she said that it would be repeated only once more, in thirty seconds. James didn't get back in time with the tape, so I had to check the number on my paper. I'd gotten it right, anyway.
James rushed back in, waving a blank audio tape in the air. "I couldn't get the wrapping off," He panted. "Has she been back on? Has she said anything else?"
"Yeah. No. Look, I think I got the number. Stick the tape in the deck, quick." He did so and depressed the `Record' button, only seconds before the voice returned for the final time. I checked my number again just to be sure it was right; it was. Just as well I'd wrote it down, too, because when we played it back the tape had only started recording properly half-way through the message, getting only half of the number.
"What does it mean, do you think?"
"It looks like a telephone number to me." I said, "Probably International, too."
"Should we ring it?" he asked, lowering his voice slightly as if to keep the secret from marauding ears.
"If it's international, it'll cost a fair bit." I was being cautious, as usual. But James was being rather clever.
"But if it's such a special number, it'll probably not show up on the bill." said James. I have to admit, he had a point. If they - whoever they might be - had gone to all the trouble of secret digital radio broadcasts and constantly alternating telephone numbers then I don't think they'd let the calls appear on the bills. In fact, I'd be surprised if these calls even went through the telephone companies; they could be freephone numbers, too.
"You know what, James?"
He looked at me expectantly. "What?"
"You're absolutely right. Let's see who's there."
At this, James failed miserably to hide a two-mile wide smile on his face. "Yes!" he jumped around. "I'll leave the tape running, eh?" Another thing I hadn't thought of. Little brothers really are useful at times.
While we walked in the house my mind didn't know what to feel. Part of it was afraid for what we were about to do, guilty. Part of it was intensely curious. Most of all though, it was worried, for all the little snippets of things were converging together in my head, forming into an idea I didn't much like the sound of.
Going in the living-room, I picked up the phone and put it down on the coffee table, next to the pad with the numbers. I sat down at the end of the couch, and James sat opposite on the chair. After clicking the appropriate button so that James could hear too, I breathed deeply, said, "Right. Here we go. Be quiet." and picked up the reciever. Carefully, I tapped the numbers.
Zero. Zero. Two. One. Six. Four. Six. Five. Two. One. Three. Seven. Four. Five. Two. Then a sudden panic hit me, and I slammed down the phone before it connected.
"What?" asked James.
I sighed then, not realising I had been holding my breath. When I spoke, it came out shaky, nervous. "They can trace the number, can't they! The 1471 thing! God, that was close."
"Oh aye yeh! God... It's a good job you thought of it, Paul."
There then followed a minute of silence, both of us breathing dramatically.
"Can't you hide your number? I think you can, can't you?"
"Yeah, by dialing 141."
"So do that then. And hurry up, the number'll be changing soon." I'd forgotten about that. One more deep breath, and I dialed again, carefully putting a One Four One before all the rest. While it connected I cleared my throat, ready for words.
It rang. Once. Twice. Thr-
"Quote clearance ID and passcode please." said a female American voice. I held up the pad and read the garbage from it, doing my best to sound deep and steady.
"ID XX8A. Passcode V41 X26 Beacon." I heard keys being tapped at the other end.
"One moment, sir."
I winked to James who raised his thumb at me. Then, I heard several connecting beeps at the other end of the line, followed by a voice -female but different.
"Beacon division, US Defence HQ, Denver. Operation Takedown Infection. Presidency bypass code 652. Where can I patch you, sir?"
I didn't need any more. Suddenly everything made sense. My macabre nightmare scenario jigsaw was complete. I put the phone down and looked across at James. His expression told me that he'd probably worked it out, too. He was a pretty clever kid.
Operation Takedown. Operation Infection.
They'd dropped a virus on us. A worldwide epidemic. Our own governments.
And there are still a dozen questions that need an answer, the most prominent probably being `Why?', but the more immediate queries have to be; what does this virus do to people? Are there any symptoms? How long until it takes effect?
I stood up to find that my legs had gone numb, and had to wait a few seconds to regain the feeling. Then I walked over to the front door, opened it and stood in the porch, letting the cool night air caress my sweat-laden brow.
"What'll happen?" asked James sullenly. I never answered. I was looking at the sky to see if the pods were still falling. They were, in the distance. I followed one down as it fell to Earth, over by Potter's Field. That's when I noticed the dog that had followed us home. It was lying on its side on the other side of the road in the stark all-revealing neon of the street-light and was convulsing violently, soundlessly, its limbs and head juddering in untrained unison. Within ten seconds it was dead, and when I walked over to investigate, its skin was decaying in front of me and its wide-open, lifeless eyes were bloodshot and bulging.
"...and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp..."
- The Revelation of St John, 8:10
When the skies opened, the fires from the heavens rained down on the earth, cleansing everything with their rage; the world died in some awful man-made judgement, brought on by the touch of one little button. Only the politicians and the leaders should be left, the ones rich or corrupt enough to by salvation; all of them huddled away in their shelters, waiting for the time to emerge again and rule over the wasteland they'd created.
How wrong I was.
Myself and some of my congregation had survived too.
They had come to say a final prayer for the world, to pray to God to stop it all. But nothing could change what was going to happen. No amount of faith in the world could stop the end coming. In those last few seconds, before the light and the deafening noise, I saw the world as it really is, I finally saw the truth.
But somehow we survived...
And I became the focal point for all their questions: Was this a miracle? Had they been chosen? They wanted the impossible from me; I had no answers to give them. I couldn't bring myself to tell them what they so desperately wanted to hear.
I plucked my collar from my neck and dropped it and my Bible on the church floor. The looks of those people as I did, the accusing stares as if I had commited some act of heresy, blasphemy, as if I were the devil himself, walking amongst them.
But I had just woken up to the world.
The shields had at last been stripped from my eyes.
One of them spat at me and began to quote scripture. Something from Galations or The Revelation, I was never sure. My ears were closed to those things now.
"How can you still believe?" I asked them. "You're aware of what happened! If there was a god do you think he'd let something like this happen?"
But the quoting continued, growing deliberately louder as I spoke.
I had no option but to leave them to their blindness.
None of them could see I was right.
I realise now they didn't want to see.
The next few days were hell for me.
Every part of the church I went to, they looked at me with hatred in their eyes. The woman who had recited the passages at me, Polly, had poisoned their minds, filled them with the lies I had once believed in. Slowly, she was convincing them, that she was right, that they had actually been saved by God.
They truly believed they were chosen. All twelve of them. And that number only helped to reinforce their wild...fantasies. To them I had become Judas, the traitor. The thirteenth disciple.
They still found it in their hearts to share with me what little food they had, and in return I helped with the salvage operation they had begun, but they never spoke to me. Polly had silenced them all, shut me out of their lives for good. Shut out the voice of reason.
I even jumped onto the altar once and shouted out to them, trying to make them listen, but I knew it was useless. They shouted me down, drowned me out, calling me what I was. A heretic. A non-believer. A blasphemer.
Every day I damned them for their blind stupidity.
And I damned myself for still caring about them.
We found more survivors.
The building next to the church had collapsed onto the west wall, making a sort of partition between the two. Somehow the people on the other side had managed to dig through, hoping to find salvation.
Instead, they found madness.
It didn't take Polly long to brainwash them all. It wasn't that difficult. They were survivors of a nuclear holocaust, of course they were going to believe they had been singled out by God Himself, for some divine task he wished to impart.
And I couldn't make any of them see the insanity that bred there.
Now there was an army to follow Polly, almost a hundred, all believing in some sick idea that they were being spared for something only God could bestow on them. They learned to hate me, and slowly, I learned to hate them back.
I met him the third night after the others had joined our band; I couldn't remember seeing him before, I was sure he didn't come with the others, but there too many to keep track of. He was the only one to extend the hand of friendship to me, the only other one who seemed to see the truth.
He was tall, with a pale face, and dressed in and old style black preachers coat; he came over to me as I watched one of the many sermons Polly gave to her followers. He crossed his legs and laid his staff between us; he rested his elbows on his knees, then rested his head on his hands and watched with me. Every one of his movements was slow, deliberate, as if he wanted me to take notice of him.
"Madness," was the first thing he ever said.
"I know," I replied.
"I don't know if I can take much more of this."
"Then say something."
"What's the point?"
I stood up then and headed toward the partition (I don't know why, maybe a whim); I had taken to exploring the building over the last two days, to see if I could find some answers as to why we had survived -maybe some scientific conclusion, or, at the very least, some form of rational explanation. Of course, I found nothing, I knew it was a useless task, but at least it gave me something to do, to keep my mind off everything. It got me away from Polly and her group.
The building was a gigantic apartment block, which made the church look dwarfish in comparison; I found several corpses all burned beyond recognition, and as a mark of respect, I tried to leave their belongings as I had found them - I had no desire to rob from the dead.
"Anything interesting?" the man asked me. I turned to look at him, pondering why he had taken it upon himself to follow me here. At the time, I thought he may attack me as some form of appeasement to Polly.
And then I noticed something: a large bed, on its side and leaning against the wall; a human hand was poking out from the gap - a childs hand, with a little plastic ring. I hurried over and pulled the bed back from the wall and clambered over it to find a little girl of five or six, badly wounded and in desperate need of medical attention. I knew I could do nothing - I scooped her up, hoping someone in the group may be a doctor; the man held my shoulder firmly and said, "Don't." I just pulled free and hurried as fast as I could to the church with her tiny little frame cradled in my arms.
I...I remember how small and helpless...
As I came through the concourse, they parted like the Red sea, watching me, looking at the girl. I pushed past Polly and laid the child on the altar. I called for a doctor, but as I turned to the crowd, I saw them staring at Polly, waiting for her to tell them what to do.
"Help her!" I screamed. "Help her, you bastards! HELP HER!!"
But they didn't.
They just watched Polly and waited, like the obedient sheep they were.
In...those few minutes that came...I...I knew why the man hadn't wanted me to help the child.
That little girl...died in my arms.
Over the next few days, I couldn't bring myself to look at any one of them without feeling sick to my stomach, without an ugly rage boiling away inside my soul, threatening to consume me and take it's wrath on the followers. But what happened next sickened me even more.
It was discovered one of the new members of the band was gay and thus deemed impure by Polly. He was brought before her and stripped naked, so she could cast her judgement on him. I questioned her about it, or at least tried to. As soon as I spoke I was shouted down.
"His...kind," she said, hatred dripping from her every word "Cannot be allowed to be with us! He must be purified! For does it not say `Go forth and multiply'?"
"It also says `love thy neighbour!'" I bellowed at the top of my lungs. She looked at me with the disdain she thought I deserved. "`Thou shalt not kill!' It says that too! Remember?"
"We're not going to kill him. Just purge him of his imperfections!"
Two followers took the mans arms and held him fast. A third came forward brandishing a flaming torch. I tried to move forward, but two more grabbed me and held me to watch. The man hung limply between them, tears streaming down his cheeks, begging them not to do it. I had to close my eyes to stop myself crying.
But those screams...will stay with me until the day I die.
He looked at me, trying to find the answers in my eyes...
...answers I couldn't give...
When they eventually stopped I reluctantly opened my eyes, dreading what I would see. I tried to move forward to help him, but I was held fast; I couldn't tear my gaze from the mass of burned flesh that was now his back. And I couldn't stop the tears from flowing.
I couldn't allow this to continue.
I couldn't be a part of this any longer.
Again, I was the subject of one of Polly's morning sermons. Apparently, I was the test to their faith, I was there to see how strong their beliefs really were. I stood at the back and listened to it all, feeling more sickened by the second. I wanted to ask them why, if they were chosen, did God need to test their faith - I wanted to ask them a lot of questions.
Suddenly the man was there, standing next to me. I wasn't aware of him until he spoke to me; hadn't seen or heard him walk over, almost as if he'd just appeared out of thin air - I couldn't even hear him breathing. Maybe it was because I was so caught up in the sermon...
"Makes you wonder," he said. "If there isn't some truth in it all. What she's been saying. Maybe we all have a destiny to fulfill here. Maybe they have been chosen by a higher force."
"They're insane!" I snapped. "All of them."
"I know, but it does make you wonder."
"How did you know?"
"About the little girl? How did you know that would happen?"
"It was pretty obvious, wasn't it?"
"Haven't you thought about trying to go outside?"
"Why? I'd die from the radiation."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Think about it. You crossed the partition without any effects. If you've survived this long in here, then you should be able to survive outside. There's nothing here to protect you."
I thought about that and it made perfect sense.
In some twisted way, it all made sense...
The sermon came to an end; they brought out the new chapter to the Bible that had been written over the last few days and lay it atop the altar, with such care and precision...
I saw my chance.
I looked around for something, finally deciding on the torch hanging on the wall. "I wouldn't," the man warned. But I knew I was going to anyway; I grabbed the torch and ran for the altar - they didn't know what I was doing until it was too late. I slammed the torch down on the book, and watched their pages burn.
And I laughed louder than I can ever remember.
I felt hands on me, dragging me to the floor.
Blow after blow rained down on me, until I lapsed into the warm embrace of nothingness.
I remember waking up some considerable time later, on the other side of the partition, lying in a pool of murky water. I would have smiled, but it hurt too much.
"I told you," the man said to me. I looked up and saw him crouching next to me. "Come on." He lifted me up with such ease, and together we hobbled into the apartment block to rest.
"There is another way to destroy her," he said.
"I'll help you do it."
We stopped at a door; he pushed it open and we went inside. He sat me down on a couch that seemed to be just ready and waiting, and began to tend to my wounds with an icy touch that chilled me through to the bone. To this day, I still have no idea where the bandages came from.
"I told you everything before," he said. "You can walk outside. Polly believes we should wait here for whoever it is that's supposed to come. She says they have to wait here, or they'll die."
"And her power over them will be lost."
"Exactly. She always was a control freak."
"How do you know that?"
"Same way as I know there's no one coming for us."
"What? Who exactly are you?"
"Me? I'm just a traveller.
"A traveller, eh? Tell me: do you believe in God?"
"Me? I don't have a choice."
"What does that mean?"
"Look, do you want to do this or not?"
"Anything to stop this madness."
"Then, come on. We'll do it together."
He helped me back across the partition, just in time for another sermon (morning or afternoon, I was never sure); the traveller let go of me and I limped forward, through the pews and up to the renewed pulpit where Polly stood, feeling the venomous stares etching themselves into me. She looked at me with pure and utter contempt, the sort that only her...kind can justify.
"I must be allowed to speak," I said "Please."
She threw back her head and laughed, but she granted me my wish. Pushing past me, she moved to the side and slowly I climbed into her position; she held up her hands to silence the crowd.
I looked into their eyes, knowing what poison lay behind them, wondering what these words would do to their faith in her. I made them wait for it, casting a glance to the back to try and see my only friend, but he was gone. As I watched them, a sudden thought flashed through my mind: what if everything that was happening to me was my own personal hell? My punishment for renouncing my faith? But how could I be punished by something that does not exist?
"You make me sick!" I shouted "All of you! You're like sheep! You hide behind some shield, hoping it will make the truth go away, because you can't face it! Any of you! You're too cowardly to face up to the reality of the world!
"There is no god! It's a concept created by people like Polly to make you do what they want! I can see that truth now! Why can't any of you? What happened wasn't Judgement Day! We weren't chosen! We were lucky to survive a man-made disaster!"
I didn't even make a dent.
They weren't fazed, any of them.
"I have something to show you!" I said. "All of you! I climbed down and moved as fast as I can to the church doors, fighting back the pains. With an almighty effort, I managed to open them and stepped over the threshold, into the wilderness. In those few seconds, I couldn't have cared less if I lived or died, if the radiation had burned out my lungs, I wouldn't have minded at all. Because then I could be free of that place forever...
But the looks on their faces as I came back in!
The seeds of doubt were sown.
I could see the look of desperation on Polly's face as she tried to concoct some explanation to it all. And I just laughed; the majority turned back to wait for her to tell them what to do. The others still stared at me in disbelief.
And I knew I had lost.
There was a time when I doubted my own faith. I wondered if I was right. I wondered if all the advice I'd handed out, all the sermons I'd given, all the studying I'd done, was all worth it. I wondered if I really did help people who needed me, or was I just as blind as Polly and her followers.
And I still wonder if I made the right decisions.
The things I said, about there being no god, I wonder if I really meant it, or if it was just a heat of the moment thing. To be honest, I'm not sure anymore; maybe there is a higher power guiding us all, or maybe it is all just something that was made up to control people.
But there was one thing I was sure of, and that was that I would never return to that damned church and those...people. I vowed never to return to that world of perversion and hatred again, leaving myself to wander through the vast bleakness of the world, or what was left of it.
I have no idea why we survived.
I don't think I have any real desire to know.
Now, I wander, not knowing what I'm looking for or where to find it. Maybe I'll find salvation. Maybe I'll find my destiny. Or maybe I'll find the answers they wanted that first day.
I may even find something to believe in again.
She found she could scarcely draw breath, as she heard the sound of his parting. What was this feeling surging over her? Surely some magic was being used against her, though of what nature, she could not tell. She could feel it slide against her skin, like a lover's hand, and trembled in response, frightened.
Her intrigue mounted, as she glanced about the room, searching for answers...answers to unnamable questions; questions she dare not ask, or face an unknown possibility of fulfillment, of long-hidden dark desires...desires forbidden only unto her. She turns her gaze inward, and his form begins to take shape. Drawing from her great imaginings, she enfolds him in a full-sleeved shirt of the softest feel, the color of freshly skimmed cream. She layers him with a deep, midnight blue velvet vest and breeches, highly polished black boots and plumed hat. She adds a finely crafted foil and white kid gloves, to complete her illusion. He doffs his hat to her in a sweeping bow, and she then turns her gaze upon herself. She dresses herself as befits the theme, in a long, dark rose, satin brocade, with slitted sleeves, and lace beneath. She cuts the gown's front to a daring level, allowing the pink tips to be seen peeking above. She adds a bit of lace for modesty's sake, and long, lace cuffs to complete the sleeves. A bustle falls delicately in back, to add to her grateful figure. She dons small white gloves, a pearl choker and ear-bobs, and takes up a lace fan. Her hair is piled high upon her head, with ringlets falling to the small of her back. They sit in a garden of blood-red roses, their scent intoxicating. As she watches him from behind her fan, he plucks the most perfect bloom, and hands it to her, saying it is a symbol of his heart he gives, and begs her to accept it. She takes the bloom almost reverently, and presses its scent to her lips. She then lifts her eyes to his, and falls into pools of a beautiful, emerald-green. She is held captive there, unable to look away. He longs to taste the rose upon her lips, and leans toward her, with only a whisper of a kiss in mind. Once his lips touch hers, he is lost though, and sweeps her up against him, deepening the kiss hungrily. She feels her whole body sway against him, and his arms tighten in response. She is lost, knowing no way of breaking this spell, nor wanting to. He senses no resistance from her, and so parts her wine-colored lips with his tongue, exploring her mouth. She gasps, taking his breath deep inside her, and a strange warmth begins to spread through her. She becomes frightened, but does not break his kiss. Her arms go around his neck instead, to bring him closer still. He is emboldened by this, and brushes his hand across the lace barely concealing her breasts. She begins to feel faint, and grasps him tighter. The warmth has spread through her completely, and she imagines it to be a fire, running through dry grass, consuming her in its flames. A nightbird begins his song, somewhere in the garden, but the lovers barely hear him. The rasping of their breaths, and pounding of their hearts, the only song they hear. Their passion is born not only of physical need, but of a profound joining; a merging of souls. They are helpless against it, drowning within its tides. There are soon lying upon the soft bed of grass, desperately trying to rid the barriers of clothing between them. Hasty hands are clumsy, and a bit of lace is torn away, as he slides the dress from her body, and then removes his vest and shirt. She reaches out shyly, and draws off his breeches, knowing only of her need. Petticoats, chemise and stockings fall away. Finally, they are free of their restrictions, and able to explore each other's bodies, lying under an August moon.
His hands and mouth explore the length of her, leaving her trembling - her breasts heaving with her ragged breaths. When he can wait no longer, he takes her, making her his forever. He delights in her whimpering sounds, in how she arches to meet him. He loves her slowly; teasing her to a fevered pitch. When she is writhing beneath him, tossing her head and raking her nails down his back, he begins to plunge deeply into her - his rhythm quickening in response to her demands. Soon, she cries out, arching her back at an impossible angle, her body shuddering. He then allows his own agony to end in a burst of fireworks, and pillowing his head upon her breasts, they sleep...
She shakes her head slightly, as the image begins to fade from her mind. A smile forms upon her lips. Soon, she thinks, soon...she will not need imaginings anymore.
In the black void of boredom rose a silent scream, gripping the threshold of naked terror inflicted upon the queen. She lay dry and empty on top the silk sheets of solitude, exposed in a palace that to her, had never possessed a value. A world at your feet can contain horror beyond the limits of the imagination, and feed a lie that becomes the truth, like immortality craves its own death. That's when the days become a hammer beating on a stone that never breaks, just a perfect monotonous rhythm.
Who's to say where the idea was formed, but escape to the inside was then the only road from Rome. The thought was deep and powerful as the night. It grew more malignant with each passing moment, spreading like a dark stain through her day.
She was afraid to do it, afraid to leave the safety of her routine, and even afraid to pass the boundaries of her own tattered morality. The fear was sharp, crisp, and hot, and only added to the anticipation.
She would go down to the stables to watch him every day: a sleek and powerful beast that seemed to waste no movement, nor pass time in activity that had no meaning. He had horns protruding from his head (she thought they were twin signs of his virility), his eyes were cloudy and brooding, mystic like a god. Sometimes she could feel the hot breath which prowled through his nostrils, and bid her tired heartbeat to quicken. He was a caged animal who cared for nothing, except to propagate his bloodlines. This was his weakness, and this is what she would prey upon.
The queen had the workers killed for disobedience the moment they were done. She had some others move the thing to the stable, then had them killed as well. The wooden cow was perfect, though it took quite some time to disrobe and place herself inside. The position was uncomfortable, even painful, yet she knew this was the only form he would accept. Quietly she waited in blind exultation, enthralled by the sheer length of the frozen seconds. She prayed that he would arise and claim her before the morning light of Apollo gave way the ruse.
Then, as though the last few days of planning were but lightning, she felt his short, hard breath on the opening behind her. For an instant she feared his intelligence would see through her disguise and her efforts would be in vain. In a quick, solid, motion he took the bait, plunging far too deep into her organs. In a voice from her far away childhood, she screamed, and blacked out.
In the morning she awoke beneath the shell; somehow she had managed to operate the latch and crawl out the door in the belly. She surveyed the damaged done between her legs, and the mass of semi-coagulating blood mingled with dirt and manure. For awhile she lay there, not caring whether she lived or died. She had found no escape, no adventure, only a new existence more pitiful and worthless than the last, as is the journey of life.
Some men she thought she'd killed arrived, and took her to the physician, who pronounced her pregnant. At length she recovered from her injuries, and then became my mother.
I am the Minotaur, and this is my labyrinth you've entered.
121 New Rat Calendar
A deep red shadow screamed downwards at a mind-wrenching speed. Fraint Tannerson instinctively jerked his head in the direction of the sudden cry: "Look out!"
The shape plummeted downwards through the foliage of the incredibly large tree he was standing by and showed no sign of slowing. After falling for a few more seconds, it reached out and grabbed a branch, pivoting its whole body on this one hold. It swung round once, twice, then dropped to land on its rear paws not a few decs away from him. It walked over to him, apparently unaffected by the impact of its fall, held out its fore paw and said: "Hi, I'm going to be your guide while you're visiting the city of Oaksvurgh. My name's Maika Jhokey, and you are?
"Oh, Fraint Tannerson, orbital engineer," said Fraint, coming to terms with the manner of his companion's arrival, "I was called here to discuss a possible contract with - he brought out a well-worn DataSlab and found the name he was looking for - Lassa Netrum, Chair of the administrative council. Can you take me to nim?" he asked politely, the neutral pronoun asking the obvious question for him.
"Certainly," replied Maika, "and it's �her'. Come on, elevator this way.
Fraint blinked in astonishment. "There's an elevator, and you jumped down?"
"Oh, yes, said Maika, as if this should be obvious, "I didn't want to waste time you see."
As he led towards the elevator, Fraint followed, gently shaking his head in bewilderment.
The elevator was quite roomy and had a mirror on one wall, presumably for visitors to smarten themselves up before they encountered the Chair. Fraint availed himself of this facility and had the first good look at his face since he left the tubeport three hours earlier. He was a fairly average rat, his fur a nondescript black. His single unusual feature was a lightish tuft of fur on his head which he had cultivated over the years. His light blue jerkin and trousers were a little shabby but otherwise none the worse for his long journey. He brought his tail closer in so he could check it for dirt and grime, but found it to be acceptable, at least until he had a few minutes. After his cursory attempt at improving his appearance, he turned to inspect his colleague. He was wearing the shiny blue plastic sleeveless jacket and matching trousers that were currently a fad among Squirrel youth. His fur was an admirable shade of deep red, and Fraint noted with some amusement that he wore the golden eartag which also seemed to be in vogue with all the Red Squirrels he had met, and wondered if he knew the true significance of the tag. Not that he had met all that many. You didn't see them about as much now, not since the war - The sound of the elevator reaching its destination pulled him out of his silent reverie. He turned to what were presumably the doors and tried to strike an appropriate pose. He failed utterly, as he couldn't find anything to do with his tail.
The doors started to open with a whoosh which said ultra modern and continued with a clunk which said three years ago. They seemed to sort themselves out eventually, but Fraint decided to step out immediately lest they change their mind. Maika watched until he had got a few steps away from the elevator before starting to go down again, probably, thought Fraint, so I'm not sucked down after it. He walked to the middle of the room in which he found himself and coughed, quietly. The person sitting at the only piece of furniture in the room, a large mahogany desk, looked up in surprise. Recognition dawned, and she - Fraint assumed it was Lassa - spoke to him.
"Ah, you must be the engineer, what was it?" she asked, his name obviously escaping her. "Oh, yes, Fraint Tannerson. Sit down, won't you."
He sat down in the large chair she had indicated.
"Can I offer you a drink?" she asked, reaching over and picking up a large bottle of leaf alcohol.
"No, thanks, but please go ahead if you want one," he replied.
"Thanks. Now, Mr Fraint, I understand that you are considered to be one of the best in engineering circles. Just how good are you?"
She put down the bottle and picked up her now full glass. Lassa put the glass to her lips and threw it back, evidently intending to drain it in one go. At the last moment her grasp slipped, and the glass's contents spilled over her clothing.
"Damn!" she exclaimed, obviously a little put out. "And on the one day I choose to wear non-synthetics."
Fraint could sympathise with the problem, as he had himself discovered, they stained. Still, there may be a way to impress the punters here. He reached into his pocket and extracted a roughly cylindrical tool with a button at one end.
"Hang on a moment," he said, vaguely, "I think - yes."
He pushed the button forwards and pointed the device at the rapidly appearing green patch, which suddenly ran down to the table of its own accord. He pushed the button backwards and extended two fingers into the stain. With a complicated manoeuvring of his fingers he managed to lever it up until he was holding it between finger and thumb, and then he held it up, uncertain of what to do with it.
"However did you do that?" asked Lassa, obviously a little bemused. Then, regaining her composure: "Yes, you are quite good, aren't you.
Fraint smiled slightly, evidently pleased with the impression he had made.
"A little ion manipulation," he remarked, "I won't bore you with the physics of it. And as to your second question, yes, I am moderately skilled."
"You might as well put that in the bin," she said, gesturing to the metallic container. "Might we get down to business?"
"I would prefer a few hours to adjust," he asked politely, "I think I may have some jet-lag due."
Lassa seemed to think about this for a few seconds before nodding. "OK. I have a private table in the restaurant on the top floor, I shall see you there at eight. Try to stay awake."
Fraint looked around the room the porter had shown him to. It was reasonably large, but seemed bereft of all but the most basic of furniture. Not that he minded, he'd never been one for accessories. He put his bag down on the bed and decided that he might as well put his scarce few possessions on the shelves, if only to make the place look lived in. Unsealing his carry-all, he removed what personal effects he'd thought to bring. Firstly, his antique Coke bottle, perfectly preserved. He'd bought it one day when he was on holiday, passing a quaint little curiosity shop in Olympus Mons. He'd been really into Human artifacts at the time, some friend of his had bought him a book, with pictures in.
"Good job they didn't make these out of biodegradable plastics," he said to himself. "There'd be nothing left of them by now."
As he brought out his travel clock and DataSlab, his mind began to wander. He thought about Humans. Fraint had seen a film in history class, when he was around six. It had described, very graphically in places, what had happened to the Humans, about the nuclear war, and the pattern of devastation they had left behind them. He had been quite upset when he found out that there weren't any left. It was like when he discovered his parents bought the presents for the third feast of Medhulbiis, only a hundred times worse.
Too tired to think much further, he set his clock for half seven, giving him time to wash up, and collapsed on the bed. It was probably quite comfortable, but he didn't have time to tell.
He jumped up with a start as the shrill tones of his travel clock filled the room, jarring his mind back to consciousness. Throwing off the covers he wandered blearily over to the door and flicked on the luminates. He rubbed the crust out of his eyes, looked around, and walked over to the bath room, and prepared to settle down for some serious ablutions.
Lassa was already sitting down at a table when he arrived in the restaurant.
"Have you been waiting long?" asked Fraint, out of politeness but also curiosity; his clock had said he wasn't late and it was kept accurate by radio signals from the atomic clock at Grensch.
"No, I'm usually up here about now in any case," she replied, casually. "especially since the war."
He nodded sympathetically. The war had affected the lives of people of every species, but obviously none more so than the two who were occupied fighting it.
"Getting to the point," he said, perhaps a little bluntly, "What actually do you want me to do?"
"Ever curious towards the job in hand, I see," she said, with a trace of concealed sardonism. "Very well. You more than anyone need to know what we wish you to construct. Are you familiar with the idea of artificial worlds?"
Fraint looked at her for a moment then burst out laughing. "It's been thought about for years. They'd need to use up all the material in the solar system. We can't do it. We're nowhere near matter transmutation. Besides, where would we all live in the meantime?"
He stopped and chortled for a minute then continued. "Dyson spheres, Niven rings, they don't work."
"I see you are familiar with Human science fiction, as I believe they called that particular branch of literature. But no. We briefly considered that area of construction before our engineers pointed out, as you did, that it would not work. We are think more along the lines of an orbital space station, approximately one quarter the size of the moon. Can you do it?
She handed him the plans which he unrolled and perused. He looked at it for a moment an handed it back.
"Wonderful," he exclaimed, "First it's Orbitsville, now the Deathstar."
"You have proved to me your interest in that area. There is no need to do so repeatedly."
"Okay, what about the inside?"
"It will be made of wood, kept alive with the gene-tailored sap we use to keep the inside of this tree alive. Have you not noticed that despite all these rooms and machinery inside it, the tree is still alive?"
He hadn't, as it happened. He sat there for a moment, weighing up the possibilities and then decided.
"Yes. On one condition, given that the pay is what was agreed before I came here."
"If I catch anyone making a single remark about running around in wheels I shall leave immediately." She smiled, then nodded.
Deep underground, Fraint examined the piece of the station currently under construction. It was just like all the other two hundred and thirty pieces made, and just like the remaining nineteen. A hexagon, curved slightly, made out of hull metal. Some of the pieces had features on them, airlock doors, several which made up the docking port and so on, but all were basically the same.
"Okay, just apply the final coating of KRP and we can send it up to be joined to the rest of them," he instructed the squirrel who was supervising the workers. He nodded his head in affirmation and walked off to transmit the message.
Fraint was left behind, with the last few squirrels coating the piece and the machines shutting some circuits down and activating others to make the piece ready to be sent into space. He sighed and made his way out of the room to where his transport was. The night was cold, and he wouldn't be paid for being stuck in the medical facilities.
"You wanted to see me?" asked Fraint as he slid himself into a chair opposite Lassa.
"Yes," she replied, pouring a hefty measure of something into her glass and waving the bottle at him slightly. He shook his head gently and looked at her enquiringly. "We have reason to believe the Greys are about to attack."
She sighed heavily, then tried to cover up any sign of stress. "The filthy tree rats!"
He looked at her with an aggrieved expression until she realized what she had said.
"Sorry. But the uncivilized vermin have no idea! I mean, you must know...?"
"I try to stay out of politics."
"Fine. The point is, they could attack at any time and when they do we expect you to get to cover. I'll have someone show you what to do in the event."
"Right," he replied, feeling worried for the first time. What had started out as a simple construction assignment was getting more and more complicated by the day.
It happened at eight AM, when he was still half asleep.
He'd been out of bed about half an hour, washing his face, filing and brushing his teeth, when the squeal of the klaxons brought him to an alert state. His door opened and two of the Squirrel guards, bulky in moulded KRP body suits and carrying some kind of weapon, ushered him out and to the main elevator. This would take him down to the secure bunker, which was some distance beneath the tree. He had been present for several security drills and knew how long the descendence would take, so he settled down to wait.
"It's them," spat Lassa from a chair opposite the large VeeScreen which dominated one wall of the room.
"Well I didn't think it was the Dolphins," said Fraint, stepping into the room as the elevator doors disgorged him and the others in that trip.
"I regret involving you in this, Fraint," said Lassa, "They would be unlikely to hurt you, but they do not know you are here, and they never listen to our messages.
"I think we'll be safe. But can the same be said for the construction facility?"
"As far as we can tell, they don't know about it. We've made sure it's thoroughly protected, in any case."
"Are there no defences?" asked Fraint, a little perplexed, "There are a lot of people here, and it is one of your main cities. How do you usually protect them?"
"There are a few defences, and I'm sorry to say you'll be one of the few that has seen them in action. On screen."
The subordinate working the controls of the VeeScreen changed the view.
Fraint leaned forward slightly to get a better view. Dots appeared, barely visible but coming closer.
"The Grey's airforce? Yes," replied Lassa.
He watched fascinated as the Greys skilfully manoeuvred their vehicles, dodging the missiles sent up to stop them. Lassa gestured and the scene changed to show more defences being activated. A hole opened up in the ground. A large weapon. Fraint thought it looked like a guided laser battery, moved to the surface than swivelled around until it was pointed at the incoming fighters. Then it opened fire. One after another the fighters dropped out of the sky, flaming wrecks when they hit the ground. The pilots managed to eject and Fraint craned his neck, contorting himself even further to get a good look at the attackers. They were antisocial in the first place, but since the war there had been none seen in any of the rat cities. They resembled in some ways the Reds, for obvious reasons, but they would claim superiority and, of course right to hold the land.
The Grey Squirrels were pretty violent.
They watched as the laser batteries took out most of the fighters but one got through. It got on a straight course, obviously locking on, and then the missile lowered. The pilot brought his craft round, targeted the tree and fired. He pulled away steeply as the missile sped towards the trunk. Fire filled the screen.
"Get me a view of that!" screamed Lassa.
A technician pressed various buttons desperately and finally brought up a view of the affected area. The whole top section of the tree had been practically blown off, leaving only a few blackened stumps to show where the branches had been.
"By Roffriis," murmured Fraint softly, his mind slowly adjusting to the facts.
Lassa sat stock still, staring at the screen with an expression composed of horror, disbelief and vengeance resting on her face.
"Ah, Fraint," said Lassa pleasantly as he walked into her office. "How is progress on the station?
"The last segment goes up today," he replied, the relief in his features obvious. "You Squirrels are superstitious though. They spent half an hour trying to convince me that the world would crumble around us if you didn't name the sodding thing soon. Have you decided on a name yet?"
"As if it could be called anything else. It has to be �T'reigh ov Liiegh', of course."
He sat there for a moment, trying to remember his schoolboy Sciurian, then grinned. "Tree of Life?"
Lassa smiled. "Yes, I shall be holding the naming ceremony this afternoon. Will you be attending?"
"Me? No. From what I've heard about your customs it wouldn't be right. If you'll excuse me, I'll be on my way."
She nodded, handed him the DataSlot which contained his references and watched as he left the room.
He hit the ground floor button in the elevator and tried to forget about the grinding sounds by thinking that this would be the last time he'd have to use the misbegotten piece of junk. He stepped out quickly as the doors opened and walked on. He went back to the factory to retrieve a few tools and such and to say good bye to all the workers.
Fraint took a last look around, reached out towards the power switch then stopped, suddenly. A flicker caught his eye. He stared at the screen in disbelief.
The Greys had returned. He knew there was little he could do, so he sat there and watched, comforting himself with the fact that all the Reds were in their station by now, and were quite safe.
Fraint got out of his car and stared openly at the remains of the great tree. It was hundreds of years old, but that hadn't stopped them. The Greys had, he knew, come back to finish of the act of devastation they had started. They had come in their fighters and blasted the tree a few times. It had caught fire quickly enough, and then they had left. He looked upwards, pointlessly.
A drop of water hit him in the face. It had started to rain. As he watched the fire being quenched, something drew his attention. Something shiny, having the soot washed off it by the rain. He walked over to examine it. It was an acorn, that had miraculously escaped the blaze.
He held it up in one hand, the course base of it filling his cupped palm, the broken stalk which had been its lifeline to the tree cutting into him. He looked up towards the full moon and thought that, just for an instant, he saw a very small star orbiting along side it.
Fraint thought for a moment and then, with great ceremony, dug a small hole and buried the acorn in the center of the burnt area. Probably where another acorn had landed several hundred years ago.
He turned round and walked back to his vehicle, not looking back.
High above, something twinkled.