Springs Eternal

It’s hot and stuffy inside the cramped, camel-dragged wagon, but Starling doesn’t really mind. She looks through a crack in the wall, at the dust kicked up by the rest of the townsfolk as they trek down the broken highway.

At least I’m resting my feet, she says to herself, even if I do have to look after mum.

She slumps back in her chair, eyeballing the other elders crammed in with them. The wind is

blowing hard, carrying the faint smell of the sea.

She sighs deeply.

“I’m bored,” she tells her mum.

“We’ll be there soon.”

Starling crosses her arms over her chest.

“I’m still bored. Tell me a story to kill some time. Tell me how you and dad met.”

“Okay.”

Home was a half-horse town at the foot of an extinct volcano in the middle of the drought plains. I was born there. I won’t get to die there. None of us will, now that the spring’s dried up.

But thanks to your dad, I got to grow old there.

***

He wasn’t your dad back then. He was just a stranger who showed up late one afternoon at the tail end of summer.

He was bloody, bruised, battered.

One of the guards manning the gates didn’t want to let him in. Another guard pointed out that he was alone, hurt and young. A third guard noted that he obviously didn’t pose a threat.

So they let him in. You know the law: Help when you can.

Hands raised, he entered. Then he took two or three steps before collapsing onto the cracked road that led into town.

Before he passed out, he said one word:

“Raiders.”

***

I was there when he fell. I was there when he spoke.

Back then, I used to love hanging around the gate. Every day, after rushing through my lessons and chores, I’d head straight there rather than spend time with the other youngsters. They bored me. The boys just talked about girls, or fighting, or how they couldn’t wait to be old enough to start hunting. The girls just talked about boys, or what they’d learned that day, or how they couldn’t wait to have kids of their own.

So instead of listening to them rabbit on – or even worse, joining in – I used to badger the guards, asking questions about the old days. Sometimes they indulged me, sometimes they didn’t.

Whenever they didn’t, I’d just look over the sun-scorched plains, trying to imagine what they used to be like, imagining them full of people and houses and machines.

***

When your dad arrived, I was about the same age as you are now – no longer a girl, but not yet a woman.

The guards had brushed me off that day. I guess I’d worn them out, asked too many questions. I couldn’t help it. A fire burned in my belly, giving me too much energy. Apart from exhausting myself physically, the only way to douse it was by satisfying my curiosity.

I was given a name when I was born, but no one ever used it. The nicknames piled up instead, describing what I was rather than who I was.

Fidget.

Whirling dervish.

Roadrunner.

***

I was the first one to help your dad after he fell. I cradled his head, and wiped some blood off his face.

One of the guards took over. Your dad came to, blinking fast. The guard held a wet rag to his mouth. He sucked at it greedily, and then suddenly smiled.

He had a nice smile, if you looked past his cracked lips and bad teeth. I tried not to stare.

“Go get Aunty,” the guard told me.

And so off I ran.

***

Aunty wasn’t in her caravan, or the village green, or the communal kitchen, or the fields where we grew our food.

That left only one other place to look.

I headed up the side of the volcano overlooking the town, my legs pumping. I stopped at the volcano’s rim, catching my breath and resting in the shade of the rickety tower that served as a lookout.

“Oi, Fidget, you alright down there?” someone yelled.

I looked up. My big brother – your uncle – was perched in the crow’s nest atop the tower.

“All good, bro,” I replied. “I’m just looking for Aunty.”

“She’s down below.”

“That’s what I figured. Thanks.”

“No worries.”

“Hey, you got any water? I left mine in town.”

“You bet, heads up.”

He held out a full canteen, and then dropped it. Squinting in the sun, I let it fall rather than try and catch it. It hit the ground with a thunk but didn’t split open.

I took a long drink and then headed over the rim.

***

It was cooler inside the crater. I slowed down a little, trying to keep my feet, not wanting to tumble arse-over-tit. I found Aunty in one of the caves that disappeared into the earth.

It was her favourite cave, the one that let us live our lives.

She was sitting cross-legged next to the spring that burbled up from underground. Her eyes were closed. One hand rested in the water, feeling it flow through her fingers and into the system of channels that fed our fields.

“Hello, Rabbit,” she said, eyes still closed.

Somehow she seemed to know when someone was near, as if she could sense them. It always freaked me out a little.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

I got straight to the point, knowing how she hated it when people ummed and aahed.

“There’s a stranger here. He said something about raiders.”

Aunty’s eyes flicked open, and seemed to bore into me. I tried not to flinch.

“Very well.”

She was suddenly on her feet, a smooth and effortless motion. She strode past me. I did my best to keep up.

***

Back in town, Aunty checked on your dad and had someone tend to his wounds. He spoke in fits and starts, forcing the words out, obviously in pain. Aunty listened carefully and didn’t interrupt him.

This is what I learned:

A mob of raiders were heading our way, fifty or sixty of them.

They were a three-day hike to the north.

They meant business.

They were armed and had some kind of war machine.

Your dad had been their slave, but had somehow escaped.

***

There were more details to his story, but they didn’t really matter. The bones of it were frightening enough.

***

When your dad had finished talking, Aunty let him be and gathered the rest of the elders, leading them to what we laughingly called the town hall. She let me stay. She knew I’d kick up a fuss if they tried to get rid of me.

I hung back, keeping my eyes and ears open.

They talked about fighting and fleeing. As young as I was, and as much as I loved home, I

knew we couldn’t defend ourselves. There were barely thirty of us left, and that included the kids and youngsters – everyone else had fled when the rain stopped falling.

But we couldn’t run either. Where would we go?

***

Eventually, Aunty and the elders settled on a plan – they would send out runners to ask for help fighting off the raiders. We weren’t alone back then. There we people we traded with if we could, or just gave water to if they needed it.

I scoffed at the idea of help. I objected, loudly. I told them they were stupid for relying on the hope that others would help.

Why would they?

Life was hard enough as it was.

***

But to the elders I was just a kid, and they completely ignored me.

***

The rest of that day was a buzz of activity that went through the night. First off, Aunty chose the fittest half-dozen of us to get the word out. She told them where to go and what to do, and then passed each of them a rough haversack crammed with a few days worth of water and food.

Lastly, she gave each of them a relic of the old world that she called a ‘flare gun.’

“Their elders will know what to do,” she told the runners.

None of them spoke, the importance of their task sitting heavily on their shoulders.

I watched silently as they took off into the night. Each one headed in a different direction, some to the mud-folk from the swamps engulfing the drowned city down south, some to the nomadic tinkers who gleaned scraps from the ruins, some to those hold-outs and die-hards who refused to leave their towns, some to the First Country caravans winding their way through the desolation, and some to those recluses and loners hunkered down in the hills.

***

As soon as they had gone, the other elders called us together and set us to work. Half of us turned our minds to defending ourselves if we had to. The rest started preparing to evacuate.

We fortified the gate.

We built barricades out of car carcasses and wrecked furniture.

We set traps and snares.

We emptied out meager armoury and practised-practised-practised.

The best of us with a bow and arrow set up sniper nests in the trees ringing the town.

***

I didn’t sleep at all that night. Neither did your dad. He pitched in, pushing himself as hard as anyone else, doing whatever was asked of him. That surprised me, considering his injuries and the fact that he was a stranger.

At one point we found ourselves working side-by-side. I’m glad for that, and always will be, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

***

I collapsed in the middle of the next day, absolutely exhausted. By the time I awoke, the sun was setting and we were as ready as we could be.

***

I decided to join my big brother while we waited. I asked your dad if he wanted to tag along, but he declined – he always hated heights.

And so I was all alone as I carefully climbed the tower clinging to the rim of the volcano.

Once at the top, I dropped my supply of fresh water, hugged my brother tight and did my best not to look down. You’ve been there. You know how high it is.

He was pleased to see me, but as soon as we’d broken apart he scooped up the town’s sole set of binoculars and resumed his vigil.

We took turns scanning the dark horizon, looking to the north.

All we saw were shadows and gloom.

***

We saw the first sign of the raiders just after dawn – a thick plume of dust to the north, thrown up by their march.

“How long do you reckon it’ll take them to get here?” I asked my brother.

“They’ll probably be here by dark. You’d better tell Aunty.”

“Got it.”

I descended the tower, hurried into town and told Aunty what was what. She gathered us together and filled us in.

After that, all we could do was wait.

That was the worst part.

***

Night fell, after an anxious day. We took our positions. We readied our weapons. And then the brilliant blossom of a flare filled the sky to the south.

Help was on its way, our friends and neighbours were coming, all we had to do was hold off the raiders until they arrived.

I smiled so wide that my cheeks hurt.

Moments later, another flare went off, this time to the west. And then another and another and another, more and more of them, including one from the north, behind the raiders.

And then one of our runners approached the gates.

Before he fell to the ground in exhaustion, he gave Aunty a thumbs-up.

***

Our law doesn’t just apply to us, but to everyone else out there in the wasteland. Well, everyone else that’s still good.

Help when you can.

(Originally published in Stories of Hope, February 2020)

Faster Than a You-Know-What

The runners wait, their feet pressed hard against the blocks. They’re so still that they might as well be carved from rock. They’re fixed and focused. They’re in the zone, as the old-timers say. A few are wearing identical headbands: 51% is emblazoned on them, black letters on a white background, referring to a line they shouldn’t cross if they still want to call themselves human, symbolising a kind-of code that some of them pay lip service to, an unenforced rule that some of them loosely adhere to.

The runners keep waiting. Not a sound comes from the overcrowded stands and bleachers: It’s as if the stadium and everyone in it are frozen in a perfectly silent moment of time. The moment stretches on.

And then the snap-crack of the starter pistol echoes through the sky.

The runners do what they’re supposed to do: They run, they run hard. The crowd cheers and shouts and boos. The runners’ support crews – their families, friends, spouses, trainers, managers, doctors – chew their fingernails or look away or join in with the cheering crowd. The air is backgrounded by the plastic-tick of thousands of cameras snapping thousands of photos, the shrill song of artificial cicadas.

There’s barely enough room between some of the runners to slide a ruler, that’s how bulked-up they are. Some of them are tall and thin – too tall and too thin, almost insectoid. Some look unmodified, their unmarked flesh disguising all manner of implanted enhancements. One of them even has four legs, though that much work surely excludes him from the 51% club.

They run. They run hard. So far, there’s no clear leader.

A moment later, a rumble builds from within the crowd’s collective belly, a heavy moan of excitement and anticipation – the favourite has pulled ahead, as everyone knew he would. He half-turns and keeps on running, he smiles at the crowd and keeps on running, he turns back and keeps on running.

He pulls further ahead. It’s unbelievable, can barely be possible, can’t really be happening. The crowd are now shouting his name, lovers and haters alike, entranced by this marvel of nature and science.

“Man-grove!” they call, splitting his name in two. “Man-grove! Man-grove!”
He turns again, he smiles again, he keeps on running.

Superimposed on his field-of-vision are readouts sent directly to his optic nerve. They bear a flood of information, detailing his proximity to his competitors, the distance he has already run, the distance to completion, the performance of his technological enhancements, the wind speed, fluctuations in the weather, the wear and tear on his muscles, the strain on his organs, his hormone levels, his brain chemistry, the build-up of toxins in his body…

It’s a mess, the amount of information delivered far beyond the human mind’s capacity to consciously understand. Luckily, the quantum processor fused to Mangrove’s brain does the work for him, adjusting his body and accommodating any changes in a manner that’s almost instinctive.

He keeps running. The other runners try to keep up but Mangrove, he’s just a freak – the other runners push themselves harder than they knew they could, but they might as well be walking.

And then, on his optical display, Mangrove receives a warning that requires his actual attention: Oxygen-Conversion Efficiency at 18%, Please Advise.

He starts to slow down. It’s barely noticeable, but it still gives the other runners a chance to catch up. Mangrove focuses on the proximity sensor flashing away on his optical sensor. The other runners are right on him now.

He swears aloud.

He likes to think that in the old days, back before he was born, if he had hit a wall while running he would have chosen to embrace the pain, to push through, to dig deep, to hold on, to snatch a phrase from the grab-bag of sporting clichés. After all, that’s what his heroes did – they had no other choice. But this isn’t the old days, and so he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

A formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him and everything is suddenly too bright, too loud, too intense. His vision reddens, his eyes bulge, his smile becomes a snarl, his heart pumps so hard that he’s worried it might pop.

He looks at the other runners crowding him. He growls low in his throat. He looks ahead to the finish line. He pulls away once again, running faster than he ever thought possible.

And just like that, he knows that he’s won, that it’s only a matter of time.

As he crosses the finish line, he sends another thought-command. This time, his quantum processor spikes his brain with serotonin. Simultaneously, it makes him sweat and sweat and sweat, purging his body of the excess hormones that allowed him to win. He has an image to maintain. He knows the difference between being a good runner and being a superstar. He can’t let the public see the blind beast that really ran the race.

As the crowd continues to cheer his name, he turns in a slow circle and bows low. He tears the headband from his head, the slogan ‘51%’ smudged with sweat, the whole thing a dripping mess.

He balls up the headband and throws it into the crowd, as if it’s a treasure to be cherished.

 

***

 

Before the media throng can pounce, Mangrove’s support crew drag him away and lead him to the medical suite in the stadium’s basement. His wife, his husband, his mum, his brother, his trainer, his manager – they all fuss over him, congratulating him on his win, asking if he’s okay, flattering him to the nth degree. Only his doctor stays silent, standing back and offering a slight frown rather than an outstretched hand or a pat on the back. At the medical suite door, now that the commotion is over, he takes charge.

“Everyone out, you all know the drill.”

The entire support crew congratulate Mangrove a last time. His spouses lean in and kiss him on the cheeks, one after the other. His mum gives him a hug. His brother, his trainer, his manager, they all shake his hand a last time. And then they drift away.

Mangrove, the joker that he is, makes a big show of pretending to follow them.

“Very funny,” his doctor says. “You know, I haven’t seen that one before.”

“Really?” Mangrove asks with almost too much sincerity.

It’s a routine that they perform well. But like all routines, it has to end – they enter the medical suite, Mangrove lies on the nearest bed, his doctor starts to get busy.

“Nice race,” his doctor says. “Although by the look of things, it got a bit hairy near the end.”

“Yeah, but I pulled up fine, like I always do. Faster than a you-know-what, eh doc?”

“That’s the one.”

His doctor connects a fibre-optic cable to the port just beneath Mangrove’s right ear. He attaches clear plastic tubes to ports on Mangrove’s neck and thighs, and alternately drains fluid away and refills the tanks. He waits for the custom-built diagnostic computer to synchronise with Mangrove’s quantum processor.

Mangrove feels the moment as it happens; it’s as if his mind has suddenly been exposed to open air.

His doctor ums and ahs as he looks over the incoming data.

“Everything seems okay, but we’ll need to sit down and talk about your lung capacity – you’ll fry if you keep pushing yourself like you did today.”

“How’s Thursday, same time as always?”

“Sounds good.”

“Cool.”

His doctor begins the disconnection process. Mangrove stares at the ceiling. With his amplified hearing, he can hear through the walls, can hear the crowd still calling his name. Only one thought runs through his head, a wide and deep concept reduced to a single word and repeated again and again:

Winner! Winner! Winner! Winner!

“Go on, kid – lap it up,” his doctor says as he pulls free the last cable and disconnects the last tube.

 

***

Much later that night, after returning to the stadium and bowing to the crowd yet again, after signing autograph books and kissing babies and posing for selfies and cultivating his public image, after the fun and games of the press conference, after the tedious solemnity of the medal presentation, after the party and after the bars and after the clubs, after falling asleep in the arms of his husband and wife, Mangrove wakes suddenly.

He’s crying, even though he hasn’t realised it yet. He was having a nightmare, a nightmare that’s actually a memory. It’s still with him; he’s still remembering a lost little boy scavenging in a junkyard for scrap to swap for food, a lost little boy who was always hungry.

He’s still remembering his childhood.

 

***

 

It’s a brand new day, and for Mangrove that means it’s back to business: He wakes before dawn and goes for a run, nothing too strenuous, just thirty or forty kilometres; he returns home at sunrise, has breakfast and coffee with his husband and wife; he looks over his schedule and talks to his manager; he goes for another run.

It’s the afternoon now, and his driver is taking him to a broadcast station in town so that he can take place in a televised debate that he doesn’t remember agreeing to.

He calls his manager.

“Alright, alright, I went over your head,” his manager says. “But this will be good for you, and even better for your image.”

At that word – image – Mangrove is in.

“No sweat.”

“Good one,” his manager says. “Let me know how it goes.”

It’s a disaster.

The debate is on the ethics of enhancements in sport, and such a dog-whistle topic has drawn out all the usual freaks, professional protestors and culture warriors. A security team has to escort Mangrove to the studio doors, shouldering aside a blockade-forming throng made up of the perpetually outraged and the eager-to-fight, made up of Human First-devotees and robot-rights activists united in an unlikely partnership.

Suddenly, Mangrove gets hit in the face by an overripe orange thrown with great force.

“Fuck you,” Mangrove yells in the presumed direction of the assailant, trying to simultaneously wriggle free of the security hulk holding him back and wipe his face clean.

The urge to challenge the assailant rather than let it go is almost instinctive, a throwback to the vast majority of his life. It had been drilled into him over the years: You’re either tough and take no lip, or you’re a loser or a victim or dead.

“Say it again, I dare you!”

“Freak!” the assailant calls in response. “You belong in a lab, not on a running track.”

The hulk keeps holding him back.

Just like at the stadium yesterday, Mangrove sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

A familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him, and he loves it. He easily shrugs off the hulk. He barges forward, pushing people aside, weighing into the crowd.

“Fuck you all!” he shouts, his words thick, dangerous, slurred.

He throws punches. He takes punches. He’s a warrior, a berserker, a maniac. He finds the man that he decides is the assailant. He starts beating on this man. The crowd start booing Mangrove. They start insulting him: Monster! Neanderthal! Deformity! Mockery! Fake! Crook! Cheat!

At that last one, he snaps.

“I didn’t break no rules!” he screams into the assailant’s face, his grammar breaking under the strain of the hormones coursing through him. “51% for life, no other way, that’s me!”

Now he’s punching the assailant to emphasise every word, even though the assailant didn’t actually say anything.

“Mangrove…”

Thwack.

“ain’t…”

Thwack.

“no…”

Thwack.

“cheat!”

A last thwack, and then Mangrove actually roars. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so primal. The assailant is still, his face a bloody pulp. The watching crowd are silent.

“That’ll teach you,” Mangrove says, looking with contempt at the wreckage of the assailant.

He turns away. He looks over the gathered crowd. Looking back: Upheld camera-phones and data-pads and palm-dials, all click-click-clicking away. Straightaway, he sends a thought-command – the flood of raging hormones eases as he sweats it out.

Mangrove realises what he’s done. He realises what he’s done to his image. He once again barges forward until he’s free of the crowd. And then he does what he does best: He runs.

***

Mangrove finally makes it home, having covered maybe a hundred kilometres or so. The house is dark, empty, quiet. He pulls out his phone and turns it on. There are too many messages to go through – the thought alone makes him groan aloud.

And then it rings. It’s his manager. Of course it’s his manager.

For a moment, Mangrove is tempted to just throw his phone across the room. But he knows that he’s done a lot of damage, and that he has to ‘fess up.

“Yo,” he says nonchalantly.

“Don’t you ‘yo’ me, kid. My office, now – the sponsors want your blood.”

Mangrove groans a second time.

“And pull your fucking head in.”

At that, his manager hangs up on him.

***

The meeting just finished. Now that it’s over, a thoroughly chastised Mangrove has gone for another run. Thinking back on it as his feet slap a tattoo on the blacktop, he realises that the meeting could have been worse – the earth could have stopped turning, the sun could have fallen into the ocean, the stars could have gone out.

After much toing and froing, after it was made clear that there was no way of avoiding a 1-year suspension, after his sponsors threatened to pull their endorsement, after the facts of a court case were detailed at length, after he realised how much of his dirty laundry the prosecution would air, after it was explained to him that this was the only way of avoiding a lifetime suspension, Mangrove agreed to publicly apologise and generously compensate the assailant and undertake untold hours of community work. He was told in no uncertain terms that if he wanted his once-adoring fans to believe his longwinded self-justification, to accept his excuse that it was an ‘allergic reaction’ rather than the result of his numerous enhancements, to look at him as the victim of a sob-story upbringing who had experienced a medical problem that then caused a brain-snap rather than as a brute who can’t control his temper, then he would have no choice but to grovel and beg.

He runs. He runs hard.

No matter how hard he tries, no matter how much he pushes himself, he can’t run fast enough to escape himself.

***

In the months that follow, Mangrove dedicates himself to rehabilitating his image. He begins by attending twice-weekly meetings with his manager, an advertising consultant, a media masseur and a brand expert. They discuss the problems, brainstorm possible solutions and potential roadblocks, and slowly develop a plan for Mangrove to follow.

The media team eventually hit on the idea of appropriating the night of Mangrove’s brain-snap. They leave the footage alone; nothing can save that. Instead, they test different lines from his accompanying rant on a variety of focus groups, settling on ‘51% For Life.’ This makes them happy, as they see a nice synchronicity in it – Mangrove’s prior links to the pseudo-philosophy the slogan headlines serve as a nice framework for the story they’re trying to tell.

He meets with others who chose to walk the same road he did, albeit for different reasons: Soldiers, rescue workers, cops, fire-fighters, those people who made themselves more than human in order to help those worse-off than the average Jack or Jill. He discovers that they have their own form of 51% For Life, a creed that helps them hold onto their humanity. And he meets those who had no choice but to walk his road, those who lost limbs or organs due to accident or violence or sickness or bad-genes, whose only option was an enhancement or death. In order to gain a full understanding of the movement that he is beginning to speak for, he meets those at the other end of the spectrum: The poor and displaced who have been hurt or maimed, tucked away in charity-hospitals and dilapidated respite centres dreaming of life-altering enhancements that are simply beyond them.

His court-ordered community service comes to an end, and without even really thinking about it, he signs on for at least another six-months. He establishes a fund to aid those poor and displaced people that need enhancements but have to make do with primitive 20th-century healthcare. He organises charity-runs, officiating and adjudicating with good humour, acting as a ringmaster cum party-host cum DJ. He keeps meeting with others like him, happy to just talk to them and spend time with them, although he meets them in private more and more often, being with them not for the sake of publicity but because it’s the right thing to do.

He accepts the necessity of the cameras that follow him everywhere, knows that they play an integral part in his public rehabilitation, in the changes that he is experiencing. But nowadays he sometimes likes to be left alone.

He still runs, he still runs hard. But for the first time in more than a decade, it isn’t something that he does every day.

***

A year has passed, and Mangrove is just about to run his first post-suspension race. He’s wearing a brand new 51% For Life headband; a couple of other runners are wearing them too. They’re all waiting for an official to tell them take their places. The crowd are curiously quiet. They’re not silent, but they’re not cheering or booing either, more talking amongst themselves about what might happen out on the track, about what Mangrove might do, about how badly he might lose it.

They’re also talking about what he’s doing right now – gone is his usual show of cockiness and arrogance, gone is his collection of poses, gone is his almost ritualistic display of hyperactivity and confidence. Instead, he’s still and calm, focussed only on the race.

An official calls them out. They wait, their feet pressed hard against the blocks. The crowd have finally fallen quiet.

The snap-crack of the starter pistol echoes through the sky.

They run, they run as one, a heaving mess of arms and legs. Mangrove is right in the middle of the squeeze, getting a feel for the rhythm of his competitors, keeping pace but not pushing, not yet.

They round a corner: One lap down.

They keep running. Mangrove can’t hear the crowd, can’t hear the rumble of his competitors’ feet raining down on the track, can’t hear the strain of their breathing. Instead, he’s fixed is on his own breathing, on his own body, on his own step. He’s still in the thick of it, getting jostled and bumped occasionally, sometimes shoving back, and he’s loving it.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

It’s time to push. Mangrove gives it everything he’s got and starts to leave his competitors behind. He keeps running. He feels good. He allows himself a smile; it isn’t cock-sure or smarmy, merely an expression of happiness borne from getting lost doing something he loves.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

The crowd begin cheering, only occasionally at first but more and more often the further Mangrove pulls ahead. He half-turns and keeps on running, he smiles at them and keeps on running. Once again, his smile is one of happiness, not pride. He turns back and keeps on running. He pulls further ahead.

This time, it really is unbelievable, can barely be possible, can’t really be happening – he hasn’t raced in over a year, he’s out-of-shape and out-of-practise, he should have been demolished by now.

Just like in the old days, the crowd are shouting his name, lovers and haters alike.

“Man-grove! Man-grove! Man-grove!”

The runners round another corner: Another lap down.

Something starts beeping. Mangrove sends a thought command, checking his systems. Everything shows a green light, except for the proximity sensor. He focuses his conscious attention on it: His two nearest competitors are starting to catch up. He keeps running, willing himself on.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

The two competitors are still gaining ground. Mangrove pushes himself harder, but he can’t shake them – they’re still catching up, they’re still catching up, they’re still catching up, they’re neck-and-neck, and now they’ve overtaken him. Mangrove focuses, gathers his thoughts, tries not to freak out.

This time, he starts to catch up. He allows himself a second smile. The crowd go wild.

They round another corner: One lap to go.

Mangrove isn’t catching up fast enough. He knows that. He knows that he has to get it together. He knows that if something doesn’t give, he’s lost. And so he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

That familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him.

He channels it, tries to control it. He catches up to his competitors and squeezes between them, growling at the elbowing he receives. He looks ahead to the finish line. He keeps running.

The three runners are squeezed together tighter-than-tight; you couldn’t slip a cigarette paper between them. Mangrove keeps pushing himself, an effort almost superhuman. He’s an inch in front. Two inches. Three inches.

There’s the finish line. The crowd start screaming louder.

“Man-grove! Man-grove! Man-grove!”

He soaks it up as if it’s just another form of energy to be converted into muscle power. He gives one last push, running faster than he knew he could. He cruises over the finish line, a good six-inches ahead. The scream of the crowd becomes a roar. Mangrove sends another thought-command; his quantum processor spikes his brain with serotonin and makes him sweat out the excess hormones.

He falls to his back and lies flat on the track, exhausted. He tears off the filthy ‘51%’ headband and tosses it aside. The roar of the crowd is echoing in his ears, the roar of his name the only thing he can hear. All he can think is the same thought as always when he finds himself in this place, a wide and deep concept reduced to a single word:

Winner!

***

It’s funny how quickly people can fall back into old habits – Mangrove is once again in the medical suite in the stadium’s basement, accepting the congratulations of his support crew. As always, only his doctor stays silent, standing back rather than offering an outstretched hand or a pat on the back.

“Everyone out, you all know the drill,” he says as if he’s reading from a script.

The support crew congratulate Mangrove a last time and then start to drift away. Mangrove, a joker through and through, makes a show of pretending to follow them. But his heart isn’t really in it – it’s a half-arsed effort, more perfunctory than high-spirited.

“You okay?” his doctor asks.

Mangrove looks at him, not knowing what to say. He’s torn between joy at beating his competitors after such a long lay-off, and frustration at how hard it was to do so. And he’s agitated because he doesn’t know how to reconcile his pride at winning with his newfound status as an advocate for a cause. And he’s disappointed at the mixed-signals that he knows he’s sending to the people who believe in him.

“I’m alright,” he finally says. “It was a hard race, that’s all.”

“Well, that sure is how it looked.”

“Yeah, doc, but still – faster than a you-know-what, eh?”

“Only just, only just, and the next one will be even harder. It’s nothing that time and training won’t fix, but you unfortunately don’t have the time – the final is only a week away.”

“Yeah, but she’ll be right.”

“If you say so.”

His doctor goes through the routine of checking Mangrove’s systems, draining fluid away and refilling tanks. Mangrove lies there on the bed, silent, waiting. No matter what he does to distract himself, he can’t stop thinking about the words he just heard.

***

It’s the next afternoon, and Mangrove is freaking out. He’s been training all day, but he still can’t hit the target that he’s set himself. His doctor’s words are still haunting him. The final is only six days away. He feels doomed. He feels weak. He feels like he’ll lose everything if he doesn’t do something drastic. He tells himself that he’s contemplating doing these things because people look up to him, because he’s now a role model, a spokesman, an intellectual.

But he can’t lie to himself: He wants to win because winning feels good.

He calls his doctor. He asks about an upgrade. His doctor is completely against it, pointing out that Mangrove is currently sitting at 56% human. He makes it clear that nothing major can be done without some substitution and a lengthy convalescence. Mangrove is adamant, even if it’s just a tweak to his existing systems that will in turn tweak his confidence.

His doctor gives in. He has to – it’s Mangrove’s body to do with as he wishes. He schedules surgery: Tonight at 9 o’clock in his private theatre.

***

The surgery went seamlessly, and Mangrove is now the proud owner of an extra set of hormone tanks and the associated bits-and-bobs necessary for a smooth interface. To top it off, his doctor has dosed him with a serum to speed up the healing process.

Mangrove couldn’t be happier.

He’s still woozy from the anaesthetic, and so his doctor drives him home and draws the curtains and puts him to bed.

***

Mangrove has just woken up. The anaesthetic has worn off. The sun hasn’t risen yet. The final is only five days away.

He decides to go for a run and put his new toy through its paces, even though it’s still dark outside. He drinks some water, goes to the toilet and then gets changed. He puts on a brand new ‘51%’ headband, just for luck. He eats breakfast standing up, treating the food as mere fuel for the coming exercise. He walks out the door, even though his last mouthful of muesli has barely been chewed.

And away he goes.

He warms up by rat-running through the flat and sprawling suburb he calls home. He keeps to the middle of the road, only moving to the footpath when his satellite-linked GPS warns him of the approach of an early-morning car or van or bicycle.

He keeps running. The sun rises. The world begins to wake up.

As the traffic thickens and grows more intense, Mangrove leaves the suburbs behind, making his way to a paved track snaking alongside the nearest creek. He opens up. He runs hard. The world passes in a blur. He doesn’t see the river beside him or the narrow ribbon of bushland surrounding him – all he sees is the track unrolling beneath his feet.

After thirty or forty kilometres, he spies ahead a rundown and abandoned velodrome. It’s an old favourite: Two kilometres a lap, it’s the perfect place for him to practise away from the public eye. He zooms through the rusty gates. He runs a few laps to familiarise himself with the track. He decides that it’s time to test his new toy.

He starts off slow – he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, but only from the first set of tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck. He wants to step-up to maximum, so that he can really gauge the difference.

Once again, that familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him. And once again, he channels it and tries to control it.

He’s having a lot of fun.

He runs about fifteen laps before sending a thought-command instructing his quantum processor to empty the second set of tanks. This new dose of hormones hits him like a punch to the face, and for a moment he’s staggered. But he quickly gets it together, finding his feet a bare moment later, every tiny piece of him operating on a hyper-fast frequency.

He’s running like he never has before. He’s absolutely loving it.

It’s as if he’s just wrestled to the ground a new truth, and is determined to hold onto it for as long as he can. It’s as if he’s a little kid who just realised that he can run. It’s as if he’s a teenager on the cusp of realising his potential. It’s as if running is what he was born to do. It’s as if he could run forever.

He’s a machine, his body and his brain and his enhancements working in perfect synchronicity. Nothing else exists – he’s completely forgotten about the fact that people look up to him and take him seriously, completely forgotten that he’s now a role model, that he’s now a heavy-hitter, a spokesman, an advocate, an intellectual, a capital-T thinker.

He picks up more speed. He keeps running. He picks up yet more speed.

He starts to worry that he might not have properly prepared himself, that he and his doctor might have dramatically underestimated the difference the upgrade would make. It’s only a little bit of worry, not enough to throw him off. But it’s there just the same.

He’s still speeding up.

A part of him wants to slow down, but a far larger part wants to see what happens if he doesn’t. He just can’t help himself – he craves the full embrace of the chemical fire coursing through him.

And so he wills himself to go harder, to pick up his pace.

The inevitable happens: He loses his footing and spills, falls, crashes, stacks, and ends up sprawled on the ground.

***

We’re in Mangrove’s least-favourite place: A hospital. He’s only just come around, his accident having rendered him unconscious, the doctors and nurses having taken extra precautions and administered a general anaesthetic before assessing him, such were the apparent severity of his injuries.

He’s been out for more than 24-hours. The final is only three days away. He’s a wreck.

His doctor is waiting.

“G’day, doc,” Mangrove says weakly.

“Ah, you’re awake, good. How you feeling?”

He’s woozy, dazed, out of it.

“Shithouse,” he says.

“Fair enough – you really lost it.”

His doctor looks away.

“What’s the damage?” Mangrove asks, trying to suppress the shake in his voice.

“Mostly cosmetic, thank Christ. It looked worse, at first. And you’ll be sporting some nifty scars for a while, but I guess that’s a small price.”

His doctor sighs.

“What’s wrong?”

There’s sudden panic in Mangrove’s voice, and he’s a lot more awake – every nightmare scenario he’s ever contemplated about never running again, they’re about to come true, he’s sure of it…

His doctor sighs again.

“It’s your foot,” he says. “You managed to break a couple of toes.”

Mangrove looks at his feet. He can’t feel them. He relaxes a little.

“No worries – all I need’s an implant or a bone-replacement, and then a quick dip in the fix-it tank to get me right for the race.”

“You’re kidding, right?” his doctor asks, unable to hide his scorn. “After installing those new tanks, you’re almost maxed out.”

“Almost,” Mangrove says with a smirk.

“Alright, alright – I don’t know exactly how close you are, but there’s probably a bit of wriggle room. The trouble is, there’s no telling how much work you’ll need until we open you up.”

Mangrove doesn’t say anything. He looks serious. His doctor catches on, tries to offer him a different point-of-view.

“It’s just a race,” he says. “Let this one go, treat it as a lesson for the next, and wait for your toes to heal. I don’t want you to fall over the line, not after all the work you’ve done to become this… I don’t know… This new you.”

Mangrove sets his chin. He thinks about everything that he’s learned in the last year, all the people that he’s met, all the friends that he’s made, all the things that he’s seen, all the changes that he’s undergone.

And then he thinks of the crowd, of them calling his name, of them roaring his name, of them screaming it, chanting it, bellowing it.

(Originally published in Red Planet Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 2, November 2019)

The Break Up

“It’s over, John.”

He didn’t answer. Misha knew that it would take him a moment to process what she had said, but quickly grew impatient.

“Did you hear me? It’s over.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s over, we’re done, I can’t take it anymore.”

It took him a moment to reply, his face a blank screen. “Why?”

“Things just aren’t the same. What we had isn’t good enough anymore. I need something more.”

“Is it me?”

Misha choked back a bitter laugh. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Of course I do.”

Misha didn’t want to hurt him, but didn’t want to drag it out either. She fell silent, the hustle and bustle of the restaurant seeming to grow louder. She stared at the candle sitting on the table between them.

It flickered out. Misha wondered if that was a sign.

“I’ve met someone else,” she finally said.

He didn’t blink at this.

“What I’m saying can’t be a surprise,” she continued. “Things have been rough for a while now, don’t you think?”

“Who is he?” John asked.

“Someone who looks at me, who touches me, who holds me when I’m sad and smiles when I’m happy and takes me to bed when I’m horny. When was the last time you did any of those things?”

He didn’t know how to answer this.

“What do you want from me?” he asked instead. “You knew when we started this that things would a be a bit different?”

Misha frowned. “If back then I’d known how hard it would be, I wouldn’t have brought you home.”

John didn’t reply.

“Say something!”

He still didn’t reply. He didn’t even react. It was like he’d gone to sleep.

“Well, this is a first,” Misha said. “Anyone else would shout or cry or fight back. But not you. How can you be so cold? Don’t you feel anything?”

“You know what I’m like, and who I am. What more can I say?”

“Something! Anything! It’s like you don’t even care.”

“I care, Misha, but you’ve obviously made up your mind. And we both know I can’t change that.”

This time, it was her turn to clam up.

“It’s like you want me to be something I’m not,” John continued. “I’m sorry, but you know that’s beyond me.”

Misha sighed. She knew that he was speaking the truth, that he couldn’t change and that she was expecting the impossible.

“I’m sorry, John.”

“Me too.”

“I guess that’s it, then.”

He didn’t reply.

Misha reached across the table and closed the open window on the laptop opposite her. She double clicked on the application folder, scrolled through the list that appeared then right-clicked on the app she was searching for. She selected “delete”. The app disappeared. She closed the application fold and right-clicked on the desktop’s recycle bin.

A message appeared: Are you sure you want to delete the application John.synthetic?

Misha clicked “yes” without a second thought.

(Originally published in AntipodeanSF #254, November 2019)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Angry Man

Jonas Cho was a man much like any other. He worked a somewhat unsatisfying job, a job that allowed him to clothe and feed and house his family and to luxuriate in frivolities once or twice a week. His grand dreams and desires had shrunk to a size appropriate for his age, made nostalgic and somewhat childish by the need to provide the necessities of life, and he only indulged them in his increasingly rare spare time. He wasn’t particularly happy. But he wasn’t particularly unhappy, either. Most of the time, he was just tired – ever since the baby, a good night’s sleep had become something almost unimaginable.

And once again much like any other, he wasn’t a particularly angry man.

Lately, though, he’d found that his temper was growing shorter. He’d found himself getting snappy, tetchy, impatient. The little annoyances and frustrations that are a fundamental fact of life, annoyances and frustrations that should be easily shrugged off or accommodated, had instead been instantly setting him on edge. Something so simple as a stranger bumping into him on the footpath now bothered him far more than it should, as if it was a personal attack rather than an accident. The same thing happened if he was cut-off in traffic or if the person ahead of him at the ATM or the supermarket checkout took too long. He’d find himself cursing aloud at the car in front, or shouting at the person ahead, or just sweating and shaking, his fists clenched and his heart beating too fast.

Of course, every time one of this happened, every time he lost his cool and gave in to his anger, the sensor in his car or the sensors built into almost every public place would start beeping. The flat synthetic voice would follow, coming from his car stereo or from a lamppost or a park bench or a set of traffic lights or the wall of a building or the footpath itself. The words were always the same, only the numbers changed.

“Jonas Cho,” it would say. “One credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only fifteen credits remain before you are in excess.”

***

One morning, Jonas awoke feeling slightly anxious. His workplace was officially connecting to the grid that day, something that he had been dreading – work had always been a place where he could vent his frustration or bend the ear of his forgiving colleagues in an attempt to offload. But no longer. The decision had been made by upper management; the workers on the floor thought that it was a ridiculous idea, the kind that could only be dreamed up by someone who had forgotten how it felt to get their hands dirty, and forgotten what it was like to be constantly surrounded by ringing phones and raised voices and the charged air of people risking incredible sums of money.

But these workers were just grunts and their protests were ignored and they were effectively told to either put up with it or take a walk.

Jonas lay in bed for a minute, trying to calm down, trying to slow his racing heart by sheer will power. Sally, his wife, clattered around in the kitchen and the lounge room, taking care of the baby and getting ready for their day. Jonas lay there and listened to her make herself busy, and he felt guilty for being so lazy. These two things combined – his fear of losing his cool at work and his guilt at being a slack househusband – made him groan aloud, and he thought about calling in sick. But then remembered the voice-analysis apps built into the work phones, apps that could differentiate between a voice that was actually sick and a voice that was lying.

And so Jonas finally got up, even though he was still pretty sleepy.

He threw on a dressing gown, shuffled into the hallway, stopped at the toilet and did his thing, shuffled into the bathroom and washed his hands and face, and then shuffled into the kitchen and collapsed into a seat at the breakfast bar. Sally had already made breakfast. Luther, their son, lay asleep in his crib.

“Morning,” Jonas said to Sally.

“Morning, Jay.”

She set a cup of coffee down in front of him, and he took a slow sip.

“Thanks,” he said.

“You’re welcome. You feeling okay?”

He took another slow sip before answering, and started to properly wake up.

“I am now. Thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

She smiled at him, and then tousled his hair and passed him his breakfast.

“Right then. I’ll leave you to get ready.”

Sally turned away and started washing the dishes. Jonas finished off his breakfast and his coffee, slid the plate and the cup into the sink, kissed Sally on the cheek, and then bent down and just stared at Luther for a moment.

It was times like these that he felt truly happy. Staring at his son, at the innocence and joy in his smile, at the way his son looked at the world as if it was only beautiful and good and bright; these things made everything else worth it. They made him able to face the day, even if seizing it was beyond him.

Time ticked on, though, and so he stood back up and kissed Sally again and then left the kitchen and had a shower. When he was done, he found that she had laid out his suit and made him lunch.

“Thanks, sweetie,” he said, plucking the brown paper bag off the bench and stuffing it into his briefcase.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to keep thanking me.”

She didn’t look at him as she spoke. She was feeding the baby, or trying to, anyway – Luther was wriggling and squirming and carrying on.

“You just take it easy out there, okay?”

“Okay. Love you…”

“I love you too,” she said, still not looking at him, still struggling with the baby.

***

Jonas’ mood soured before he even got to work.

Just before his train to the city was about to depart, another snap strike shut his line down; running late, he returned to his car and began to drive in, only to get stuck in a traffic jam five minutes later; after a half-hour spent crawling along, he realised that a random inspection was the cause of the jam, and he dutifully passed through the checkpoint and presented his papers to the droids and narrowly avoided having his car declared unroadworthy. And when he pulled into the cavernous maze beneath his workplace, a maze that served as its car-park, he spent a long time circling-circling-circling while trying to find a free spot. His anger grew and grew during the whole trip, and he occasionally cursed aloud. Sometimes these curses were directed at other people and sometimes at himself. They were few and far between at first, but after a while they became steady and repetitive, until he was letting loose long streams of shit-fuck-bastard-arsehole-dickhead, as if one word alone simply wasn’t enough to express his rage.

The beep of the dashboard sensor and the flat synthetic voice rang out so often that they might as well have been some kind of strange chant.

His allotment was almost empty by the time he walked into his workplace, a suite on the fortieth floor of an anonymous grey office building.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said to his coworkers and his boss, who were all gathered in the conference room.

His boss rolled her eyes and tapped on her watch. She didn’t say “hi” and neither did his coworkers. No-one even waved or smiled. Instead, they were all looking into the middle distance or into their laps, and most of them were fidgeting or tapping their feet or drumming their fingers – the room was charged with their pent-up anxiety and barely-suppressed anger, the same anxiety and anger that Jonas felt.

“Sorry,” he said a second time, and then quickly took a seat.

Everyone continued ignoring him.

“Okay, so that’s that,” his boss said. “You all know the drill, you all know how these things work. I don’t expect today to go that smoothly – it’ll take a while for us to get used to working with them, a few stuff ups are inevitable. But I’m sorry to say that the request I put in for some extra credit has been turned down. That means that any infractions will be coming out of your own accounts.”

“Bullshit,” someone said.

A beep split the air, followed by a flat synthetic voice.

“Lucas Shonenberg, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only forty-five credits remain before you are in excess.”

“Well, we know that they work,” Jonas’ boss said. “So let’s get to it.”

People started leaving the conference room. Some exchanged small talk and chitchat, while some just stared straight ahead and tried to keep it together. Jonas trailed in their wake, dragging his feet and wishing he was somewhere else.

“Jonas, a quick word,” his boss said, catching up with him in the corridor.

“Okay.”

He followed her into her office, and she shut the door behind him. Jonas raised his eyebrow and smiled at her.

“Is it hanky-panky time?” he asked.

They had worked together for years, and theirs was an easygoing friendship with only a tiny undercurrent of sexual tension, something that they both enjoyed riffing on when they were somewhere private.

But this time she crossed her arms over her chest and looked him in the eye.

“Cut the shit,” she said, barking the words. “I’m not in the fucking mood.”

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor.

“Marjorie Vanderman, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only two credits remain before you are in excess,” the flat synthetic voice said.

“Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t we?”

Marjorie looked at him for a moment, her eyes cold. But he wasn’t intimidated by her authority over him and so he smiled a cheesy smile, and she finally gave in.

“You’re unbelievable,” she said.

“That I am. So, what’s up?”

“Jonas, I have to officially warn you about being late – today makes the eighth time this month.”

Jonas stiffened, and his heart beat a little faster. His second warning this year. His last warning. He felt sick at the thought of potentially losing his job, a pit-of-the-gut sickness.

“Jonas, you okay?” Marjorie asked. “You look a little tense.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I’m fine, it’s just not what I was expecting.”

“Well, I’ve been told to crack down a bit, especially now that the sensors have been installed. And you just happened to show up late again. So here we are. For what it’s worth, I don’t really want to do this.”

Jonas relaxed a little.

“Well, thanks.”

“You’re welcome. And I’m serious. You’re one of our best, and you always get shit done. So what if you’re a bit tardy every now and then?”

Jonas tried to get some perspective; it was just a warning, after all, and if he could keep his shit together then he wouldn’t attract another one. But the general tension of the day made this a hard thing to do, and so he merely ended up making excuses.

“It’s the baby, Marjorie, that’s all. It’s a bloody madhouse in the mornings…”

Marjorie smiled sympathetically.

“I get it. It’s okay.”

He knew that she didn’t get it; single and childless, she couldn’t hope to understand his position. But still, her sympathy helped.

“Thanks, Marjorie. Really, thanks a lot.”

“Like I said: it’s okay. If it were up to me, I’d just let it be. But it’s not up to me – the boss upstairs is the one calling the shots.”

“Right.”

“So, consider yourself officially warned. They’ll probably keep a close eye on you for the next few days, just to make sure that you’re not slacking off or losing the plot. But other than that, things should be fine.”

Marjorie abruptly picked a pile of papers up off her desk and tidied them.

“And…” Jonas prompted.

“And that’s all, you can go.”

“Oh, right.”

Jonas stood up and turned to walk away.

“One last thing,” Marjorie said.

Jonas turned and looked back at her. This was one of her habits, a habit that had long amused and frustrated him – every time she dismissed someone, just as they were about to leave her presence, she remembered one last piece of information that she had to impart.

“I knew it,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”

They smiled at each other, and then Marjorie became serious:

“Look, before you go, keep in mind – if you max out your allotment and forget to top-up and then get penalised, that counts as grounds for a warning.”

“You what?” Jonas asked, his voice hard.

“That’s the word from upstairs. ‘Failure to do your part and take responsibility for your anger is grounds for an official warning’ is how they put it. Either way, it means the same thing.”

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor, and then the flat synthetic voice spoke up:

“Jonas Cho. One credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only three credits remain before you are in excess.”

Jonas rolled his eyes. Marjorie smiled at him.

“It looks like I’m not the only one who’s cutting it fine,” she said.

***

The rest of Jonas’ day was a disaster, a write-off, a wreck and a ruin. To him, the world felt as if it had been dipped in treacle. His paranoia and anxiety and short temper had left him hyper-aware and edgy: every sound was a bellow, every movement an attack, every puff of breath a gust of wind, and everything else seemed to pass by in slow motion. His coworkers found him to be both distant and snappy, and he felt it himself, his mood alternating between spacy and aggressive. When he wasn’t staring at nothing, he was getting all hot and bothered, the ringing phones and raised voices and beeping sensors that surrounded him agitating him and stirring him up.

He quickly maxed out his allotment.

This freaked him out so much that he had a mild panic attack, and he hid away in a toilet stall while he tried to calm down. He tried hard, but he couldn’t get his anxiety under control, and so he ended up popping a pill, a mild sedative donated by a sympathetic coworker.

When he emerged, he found himself in a strange and Zen-like place. It was almost as if his panic attack had burnt out the churning emotions contained within, and the pill was now helping to stop them from returning. His heart no longer raced and he no longer felt as if an inner pressure was slowly increasing, and he found himself unconsciously breathing deeply and slowly. He realised that he felt calm. It didn’t worry him that this was the same kind of calm felt by those who have nothing left to lose, or by those drugged insensate. Instead, he just embraced it.

Five o’clock finally happened, and the changeover alarm sounded.

Jonas stood up and slowly packed his briefcase. With his rough edges smoothed, he couldn’t have rushed if he’d tried, although the pill was starting to wear off a little. He congratulated himself on staying calm, on keeping it together, on managing to get through without another penalty, even if he had needed a little help. He checked his phone. Aside from umpteen messages of love from Sally and a video of Luther dancing, there was nothing. He felt a sense of anticipation; he couldn’t wait to get home. Not just because he couldn’t wait to see his wife and child, but also because he couldn’t wait to settle his account and top-up his allotment. Without constantly worrying about incurring another warning, tomorrow would be a better day, and taking care of it first thing would mean that he could actually relax with his family for once.

He left the office and waited with his coworkers for an elevator.

Some of them made small talk and some of them just stood there. Jonas ignored the small talk and ignored his coworkers. He pulled out his phone and watched a video of a kitten playing with a puppy while he waited.

“About time,” he muttered to himself as the elevator finally stopped at his floor.

The doors yawned opened, and people politely pushed their way out as others politely pushed their way in. Jonas hung at the back and waited some more. He felt his Zen-calm recede a little further as he was jostled and shoved. The pill had really begun to wear off.

He boarded the elevator and tried not to think of cattle or sardines.

It took a long time to reach the ground floor. Jonas hung back and let everyone else leave first. Beyond the elevator doors was a dense throng of people that filled the lobby – the second-shift had started to arrive, and they were heading in as the first-shift were heading out. There was no order to the movement; no queues or lines separated those who were exiting from those entering. Jonas tensed as he looked at the multi-limbed, many-headed beast. He swore under his breath and clenched his fists, almost unconsciously, barely even realising that he was doing so. His heart began to beat harder.

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor.

“Jonas Cho. One credit has been deducted from your allotment. You are in excess, and are required to top-up your allotment immediately. Failure to do so before incurring another penalty will result in the notification of the police,” the flat synthetic voice said.

Jonas tensed further and opened his mouth to swear again, and then suddenly thought better of it. It would look pretty stupid if he blew his last chance in exactly the same spot as he blew his second last. He wished that he had another pill, and then took a series of slow and deep breaths.

This seemed to work; neither the sensor nor the flat synthetic voice sounded a second time.

Jonas smiled to himself, and then got to it. He fixed on someone just ahead of him who was also leaving the building, and trailed in their wake – they cleaved a nice path through the crowd and all Jonas had to do was keep up. He whistled while he walked, feeling a little better about everything, and soon found himself at a set of automatic doors leading outside. He waved his right hand in front of a scanner next to them. The scanner’s artificial eye blinked slowly and then glowed an unbroken green; a chime sounded and the doors opened. Jonas stepped outside, and the doors shut behind him with a sudden show of force.

It wasn’t until he’d melted into the crowd filling the footpath that he remembered driving to work and parking in the cavernous maze beneath the building.

***

Jonas groaned aloud, his stress-induced forgetfulness annoying him, his frustration with life in general made plain. He turned on the spot, aiming to head back inside, and walked into someone. This stranger – a beefcake gym bunny, more cinder-block than man – brushed Jonas aside, knocking the briefcase from his hand.

It crashed to the ground. Its latches popped again.

Jonas crouched down as papers and documents fell out only to be snatched away by the wind. He reached for them, trying to wrestle with nature itself, but almost immediately realised the futility of his actions and gave up. He turned and started gathering up the other odds and ends strewn across the footpath – pens, a pair of sunglasses, a diary, a set of keys.

The whole time, he tried to think calm thoughts. He tried to think of that prayer his doctor had taught him, the one about accepting rather than fighting the things we cannot change.

To passers-by, he looked like someone curled up in a foetal ball on the footpath.

Jonas finally got to his feet and started walked. He once more found himself at a set of automatic doors leading into the building. He once again waved his right hand in front of a scanner next to them. The scanner’s artificial eye blinked slowly and then glowed red. The doors stayed shut. Jonas stopped and took a deep breath before trying again. Still, nothing happened. Jonas tried a third time. Nothing.

He knocked hard upon the doors. No response. He knocked again, and again and again.

A violent alarm started wailing and a plasti-steel shutter started descending in front of him, moving so fast that he had to take a quick step back. He looked around nervously as the alarm slowly died away and the shutter slowly retracted, and tried to spot the CCTV-camera that would have let security know that everything was okay.

The doors suddenly opened and a guard in a black uniform strode outside.

“Sir, please step away from the building,” the guard said.

Jonas dropped his briefcase and held his hands up in front of him.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I’m not trying to cause any trouble, I just want to get my car.”

The guard looked Jonas up and down. He took a scanner from a pouch on his belt and smiled.

“Hold out your right hand,” he said.

Jonas did as he’d been told and the guard waved the box over his palm. An electronic trill brightened the air for a second, and the guard consulted the scanner’s screen. His expression sharpened. He scrolled through something, and then smiled at Jonas.

“You’re clean, Mr. Cho, despite being in excess of your allotment. You can relax.”

Jonas dropped his hands and picked up his briefcase.

“Okay then, state your business,” the guard said.

“I’m part of first-shift. I had a rough day, with the sensors being installed and all that, somehow I forgot that I drove in.”

Jonas smiled, both embarrassed and amused by his behaviour. The guard just frowned at him.

“Once you’ve swiped out, you’re not technically allowed back in until your next shift,” he said.

“But can’t you just buzz me through this once? Please – it’s been a horrible day, I just want to get home.”

“Maxed out today, did you?”

“Yep.”

The guard looked away, at the crowd streaming past the building. He frowned, and then shook his head as if making up his mind.

“Look, I’ll be really quick,” Jonas said. “The changeover has to be ending soon, and I don’t want to get caught out.”

The guard didn’t look at him.

“Please…”

The guard finally looked back. He met Jonas’ eye and his frown etched itself deeper into his face. And then he winked.

“No worries, I’m just messing with you.”

He stood to one side and the doors opened.

“But you’d better hurry.”

***

Jonas made it to the elevator without incident. It seemed to take a long time for one to arrive, even though it really only took a minute or so – Jonas was so keyed-up that once again the rest of the world felt like it was moving in slow motion. His heart beat fast and hard. He watched a digital panel on the wall slowly count down, and he crossed his arms over his chest and resisted the urge to tell it to hurry up. By the time it arrived, a crowd of second-shift workers had gathered. Hemmed in, Jonas still somehow managed to keep it together. Once aboard, he had no choice but to ride the elevator all to the way to the top floor with them. He breathed a sigh of relief as it finally began descending; he was cutting it fine, and he hadn’t started looking for his car.

To his surprise, he found it with little effort.

He waved his right hand over the lock. It beeped twice and the door slid open. He threw his briefcase on the passenger seat and clambered in. He buckled up and placed his thumb on the ignition pad. He pressed a button below the pad, selecting ‘manual’ rather than ‘automatic.’ An alarm sounded and a synthetic voice came over the car’s speaker system:

“Jonas Cho, you now have one minute to vacate the building. Failure to comply will result in an automatic disabling of this vehicle.”

Realising just how fine he’d cut in, Jonas backed out in a hurry. He turned too sharply and scraped his car along the concrete barrier. He almost lost it at the cascading clusterfuck that his day had become, but in the end, he resisted the urge to punch the steering wheel, and he swallowed his wordless scream. He headed for the exit and made it outside with bare seconds to spare.

The whole time, he clutched the steering wheel hard, his knuckles white.

He drove on, taking the tunnel out of the city. Traffic was reasonably light, and so he began to calm down a little. After a while, he took his usual exit and ended up on a quiet inner suburban street. He took a right and a left and then another right, working through what he considered his own personal rat-run and ending up on a main thoroughfare.

He cruised along and soon began to whistle tunelessly.

His whistle died away mid-note as he crested a steep hill and was forced to stop at a sudden snarl of peak-hour traffic. He waited, engine idling. In the space of two minutes, he moved forward a single car-space. Without even really thinking about, almost moving automatically, he hit the horn. But nothing happened.

“Jonas Cho, no threat to this vehicle has been detected,” a synthetic voice said over the car’s speaker system. “Consequently, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. You are in excess, and are required to top-up your allotment immediately. As this is your second warning, you are required to pull over as soon as possible and wait for the police to arrive.”

Jonas coughed up the wordless scream that he’d swallowed, and he finally punched the steering wheel. He punched it again and again and again. He lay into it, showing the inert piece of plastic no mercy. He let it all out: all his anger and frustration, his pent-up rage and his bitterness and disappointment. He found a physical release for it, a release that hurt no-one. He enjoyed it. He enjoyed finally giving in.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” he cried.

“Jonas Cho. Seven credits have been deducted from your allotment. You are now…”

The synthetic voice stopped mid-word, because Jonas pulled a pen from his pocket and jammed into the unseeing eye of the dashboard sensor. A smell of burning plastic and a cloud of acrid smoke briefly filled the air.

“Manual drive disengaged,” the synthetic voice said over the car’s speaker system.

The car suddenly began reversing out of the snarl of traffic. Jonas jerked on the wheel but nothing happened. He stamped on the brake but nothing happened. He gave up, and closed his eyes and folded his hands behind his head. His fate was out of his hands, and he just metaphorically stood aside as the car changed lanes and then slowed.

It changed lanes again, and came to a rest on the side of the road. The doors locked themselves with an audible ‘thunk.’

“Please remain calm,” the synthetic voice said over the speaker system. “The police will be with you shortly.”

(Originally published in Red Planet Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 1, October 2019)

When The Lights Went Out

I was asleep when the lights went out. I’d been sitting on an old couch under the back veranda, looking over the valley. The vast spread of dark bush and the rolling grassland shimmered in the moonlight and a crazy swirl of colour brightened the valley’s furthest edge. Summer was at its peak and it was hot and stuffy in the house, and Will’s snoring was getting to me—it was always worse in the heat and he sounded like he was roaring. And so I’d taken myself out to get some fresh air and some peace and quiet.

Actually, it wasn’t really that quiet out there.

A couple of days earlier, all those city kids had made their annual trek to the abandoned farm across the valley for an outdoor techno-party. They called it a “bush doof,” and they’d been doing it for years. I’d practically grown up with it and pretty much knew the routine by heart. All through January, more and more people would turn up at the abandoned farm and start turning it into a party site. Organisers, installation artists, electricians, lighting experts, sound engineers, carpenters and tradies; they spent weeks erecting massive stages and laying sprawling dance floors, assembling gargantuan sound systems and constructing towering installations and stringing up all manner of colourful lighting. If it flashed or blinked or swirled or spun, it was there. Then, on the Friday of the Australia Day long weekend, hordes of city kids would descend on it and the music would start and it was party time.

At least, it was party time for them.

When I was a kid, I’d only been able to watch them transform the abandoned farm either before school or after school, and only if I’d finished my chores and my homework. As a teen, I’d snuck out a couple of times when the old man was passed out drunk, and me and some of my girlfriends had tried to talk our way into the party, always unsuccessfully. But after I finished high school, just before the lights went out, I’d started hanging out at the farm a bit—whenever the old man let me knock off early. I’d talk shit with some of the guys and girls getting the place ready for a party—they weren’t bad people, no matter what some of the locals said.

But then I’d have to go home to the old man and Will and to the thought of another day of drudgery. Even though Will and I were no longer children, the old man still liked to crack the whip on our backs. He’d tell us that what we were doing was for the good of the country; that the troops still needed to eat; that we should be thankful for having a job; that we should be hardworking and upstanding, unlike “that lot,” and that if we didn’t like how he did things, then we were welcome to hit the road.

And then he’d open another bottle.

All the while, “that lot”—the guys and girls getting the place ready for a party—stayed there at the abandoned farm, laughing it up,hanging out and having a great time.

At least some people were still able to enjoy themselves.

***

Anyway, so there I was, sitting under the back veranda and looking over the valley. The old man was out somewhere on another bender, and like I said, it was too hot in the house and Will was snoring loud enough to shake the foundations. I liked it out there, too. I liked how the dark bush and the shimmering grassland made the awful state of the world and all the horror and war seem somehow insignificant.

When I sat there all alone and looked at it properly, I felt like everything would be okay.

Truth be told, that night I wasn’t really looking at it. I was actually asleep. For an hour or so I’d been entertained by the coloured spotlights shining up into the trees, the projected laser-patterns that danced over the ramshackle tent village and the strings of blinking bulbs wound through the immense industrial sculptures and the towering Eucalypts dotted around the party site. But it had been a long day, and at some point I’d drifted off without really knowing it.

I woke with a start, convinced that something was just wrong.

I looked back and forth and saw nothing but dark bush and shimmering grassland, same as it ever was. I lay my head back and looked at the stars. It slowly dawned on me just how quiet it was, quiet enough that I could hear the wind moaning and branches creaking and mozzies buzzing and night-birds calling. And then it hit me – the doof-doof-doof beat that had been endlessly thumping in the background had finally stopped.

The party was over.

And then I remembered that it was only Saturday night and that the party still had days to run. I looked over the land again, and saw that the crazy swirl of bright colour that had been at the valley’s furthest edge had vanished, that the lights of the party had gone dark, that the swirling rainbow mess had disappeared.

Muffled words rode on the wind, the party-people’s cries reduced to faintly whispered and rather bizarre non-sequitors:

“…happened?”

“What’s going…”

“…out the lights…”

“…on…”

“Don’t touch…”

“…me the torch…”

I looked up at the darkened floodlight attached to the veranda wall, and I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d turned it on before settling in for the night. I got to my feet and flicked the switch. Nothing. I flicked the switch a few more times. Still nothing. It could have just been dead, knowing the state of the place, but I had to be sure.

I fumbled my way into the house, my hands outstretched and grasping, and tried every light in the kitchen. Nothing. I found a torch under the sink and flicked it on. Nothing.

I drifted from room to room, carefully and slowly, feeling my way through the darkness. I tried every light in the dining room, in the lounge room, in the hallway, in the laundry and the toilet and in my bedroom. Nothing happened. I drifted some more; I threw open the fridge, tried boiling the kettle, played with the remote controls hoping the television would come on, tried to boot up the computer, and flicked lamps on and off. Once again, nothing happened.

I felt my way to the kitchen and fumbled beneath the sink, finally pulling out a hand-wound portable radio. I turned it on. Nothing, not even static. I cranked the handle a half dozen times. Still nothing. Something was definitely wrong – the power might have been out in town, but it was a bit weird if it was out across the whole country. That couldn’t happen.

The dead radio in my hand told me otherwise. Even so, I cranked it again. Nothing.

I stopped outside Will’s door and banged on it.

“Wake up, bro. Something’s going on.”

No reply. All I could hear was his vicious snore, and so I banged again.

“Come on, bro.”

Still no reply. I gave up on being polite, threw the door open and strode in. I could just make him out, the moonlight streaming in through the curtain-less window. Up close, his snore was horrible, like the grinding of some run-down organic machine.

“Bro!” I yelled through cupped hands.

He still didn’t wake up; it was almost unbelievable. And so I grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a good shove.

“Ugh… Wha? What is it? What do you want?”

I laughed at his sleep-thickened surprise, and then met his eye. I must have looked worried, because he snapped-to straight away.

“What is it, sis? What’s wrong? Is the old man home?”

I smiled at his concern, and then shook my head.

“No, I reckon he’s still out there somewhere with all the other old drunks. The power’s out, that’s all. And the party’s gone dead, too.”

He raised his eyebrows and smiled widely, unaware that he was doing so.

“Really? I thought those freaks had generators and shit, so that the party would never stop. I wonder what they’ll do now that the lights are out? How are they going to cut up their drugs or paint their faces or put together an awfully-fucking-ugly costume?”

“Ha ha, dickhead. They’re people too, you should feel a bit sorry for them – they’ve probably no idea what’s going on or what to do, stuck out there with no power.”

He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, playing the world’s smallest violin.

“Yeah, yeah, little sister, you keep telling yourself that. They’re freaks, and that’s all there is to it.”

“Whatever…”

Our code-word for agreeing to disagree.

“What should we do about the power?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.

“Well, there’s nothing we really can do.”

He reached over to the bedside table and started fumbling for his glasses. He slipped them on, and then looked down his nose at me, which was quite an achievement, considering that he was lying in bed while I was standing over him.

“You see, out there are these things that people call coal mines,” he said, taking the piss. “And that’s where other people dig up this hard, black stuff called coal…”

“Yeah, right-oh, give it a rest.”

“And there you go, you’ve answered your own question.”

I turned to walk out on him, and then I remembered the torch.

“The torch wasn’t working either,” I said, turning back. “Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“Not really. One of us probably forgot to replace the batteries, that’s all.”

“But…”

“Look, Sis – I’m not about to go traipsing around in the dark at…”

He looked back and forth, as if trying to find a clock that wasn’t there.

“What time is it, anyway?” he asked.

I looked at my wrist, at the cheap digital piece-of-shit that passed as my watch, and saw that it had stopped. I felt a chill run through me – I’d only replaced the battery a couple of days earlier.

“I don’t know, my watch isn’t working either.”

I really started to worry then. Will must have seen a twinge of panic in me, because he did his best to smile and reassure me.

“It’s probably nothing, Sis. You know how it goes – we’re always getting by on the rag, the old man’s either too pissed or too hungover to fix anything properly or replace anything that falls apart, and we both work too much to bother thinking about what else needs doing. I mean, everything’s fucking held together with spit, string and barbed wire. And as for the power going out, well, it wouldn’t be the first time that the old man forgot to pay the bill. We’ve had blackouts before, let’s just hope they don’t keep on or start rolling again.”

Some reassurance.

“Anyway, it’s the middle of the night. Whatever’s happened won’t turn into hell-on-earth if you wait til sunup before checking it out.”

“Yeah, alright.”

“Okay then. Well, I’m going back to sleep.”

“No worries,” I said.

He looked me in the eye.

“So, um, you can leave.”

“Oh, right, right.”

***

Will hadn’t completely convinced me, but he still made a certain amount of sense. Although how I was going to get to sleep was beyond me, keyed up as I was. And so I drifted around the house some more, futilely trying those few appliances I’d overlooked.

After a while, I remembered that we had some candles stashed in the kitchen cupboard.

I dragged them out and placed a couple around the kitchen and the dining room and set them alight, and then carried one to my bedroom. I threw the door open; it was pitch black in there, the curtains drawn tight. I hurried over and opened them, balanced the candle on my bedside table, and started hunting for my phone. It wasn’t something that I always carried with me – we lived so deep in the bush that a good signal was as rare as tits on a bull – and so it took me a while to find it.

I flicked it on but nothing happened.

Without power, I had no way of knowing if it wasn’t working or if it had just run out of charge. I looked at it dumbly, as if I could bring it to life by sheer willpower. And then I threw it on my bed, picked up the candle, stomped out of the room and headed back out to the veranda.

I took my usual seat on the old couch and once again looked out at the vast spread of dark bush and the rolling grassland that shimmered in the moonlight.

I tried to think about what Will had said. He was right – even if something had gone wrong, there was nothing I could really do about it until morning. I didn’t fancy taking a night-time walk to our nearest neighbour, especially seeing as they were almost forty-five minutes away, and I really didn’t fancy riding my pushie into town. Not in the dark on our bumpy dirt road, no way. If I didn’t stack going over a pothole or corrugation then I’d surely hit an unseen roo that had decided then and there was a great time to bound in front of me. I don’t know how the old man managed to drive home drunk.

And so I just looked at the great patch of darkness where the crazy swirl of bright colour given off by the party had been.

More muffled words rode on the wind, the cries of the party-people once again reduced to faintly whispered and rather bizarre non-sequitors. It’s funny, but I’d expected to see headlights cutting through the darkness. Considering how many people had made their way to the party by car, surely some of them had thought to drive out and see what was what. But even though I was out there a long time, I didn’t see a single one.

There was nothing but those random words floating on the slight breeze, the only evidence that the party had ever been there.

“…won’t start…”

“Help…

“…just plain dead.”

“I charged it this morning, it can’t be…”

“…even the solar is out.”

“Please, won’t someone…”

“…stop, stop doing that.”

“Bullshit…”

“…useless, just bloody…”

“Sis, the cars are dead too.”

I must have fallen asleep again, because the next thing I remember is Will yelling that at me. No “wakey wakey,” or “hey Sis, sorry, but something else is wrong,” or anything polite like that, just a loud voice in my ear.

A really loud voice.

“Yeah, good morning, dickhead,” I said.

He ignored my insult and got straight to it.

“So, like I said, the cars aren’t working.”

“I heard you, I heard you. Just give me a sec, alright?”

“Yeah, alright.”

“And put some coffee on.”

He looked at me and smiled.

“No power, remember?”

“Do you need power to light a fire? I mean, that’s why we’ve got the pot-belly.”

“Okay, okay. Jeez…”

He walked away, muttering to himself, snide remarks that were intentionally just loud enough for me to hear. Isn’t brotherly love a wonderful thing?

I stretched and yawned, popped my shoulders and cracked my back. Sleeping on the couch always fucked me up a bit. I got to my feet and stretched some more, trying to work the soreness out of my body. I looked at the party site. Even though it was only early, some people had already left on foot. Their paths across the rolling grassland in the distance were just faint black lines, the people themselves rendered tiny and insignificant in comparison to the land.

They were like columns of ants crossing a dirt road…

I headed inside and went to the toilet, and then stopped in the kitchen and drank some water. Will had had some success with the fire – the smell of coffee was starting to fill the house. I dropped my empty glass in the sink and then joined him by the pot-belly stove. He was already spooning sugar into my cup, and I almost snatched it off him.

“Thanks, bro.”

“Yeah, no worries.”

I took a sip, burning my tongue. I blew on the coffee, cooling it down, and then took another sip, and then another and then another.

I slowly started to wake up.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, breaking the silence.

Will was always an early bird; I wasn’t surprised that he’d checked the cars while I’d been snoozing away, so I figured that he’d already worked out what to do next.

“I’ll probably ride over to the Johnson’s place and see if they know anything. If they aren’t home, then I’ll head into town, maybe see if I can find the old man.”

“Right-oh.”

“How about you?”

“I guess I’ll knock off my chores, and check on the stock and let them out and all that. But I don’t know how I’ll feed them if the ute’s dead. ”

“You’ll figure something out. Or you could just walk them down to the bottom paddock, it’s still pretty grassy there.”

“Good one.”

“You could disconnect the water pump too, so we can use the taps on the tanks once we’ve drained the pipes.”

“Okay.”

I was still pretty sleepy, and monosyllables were all I could manage.

“I’ll leave you to it, then.”

“Good luck out there.”

“You bet, see you in a few…”

He stomped out of the kitchen – he used to stomp everywhere – and I watched through the window as he strapped on his helmet, hopped on his bike and rode off, a tiny cloud of dust billowing behind him.

I finished my coffee, ate a couple of slices of bread with vegemite, made a second coffee and then headed back out to the veranda. The world was quiet and calm, but the party site was busy with movement, busier than it had been earlier, teeming with people bustling about and rushing back and forth.

I sipped at my coffee and watched them bustle and rush.

As confused as they may have been, at least they didn’t have to spend the day working on a farm that had suddenly become a nineteenth-century version of itself. I groaned aloud, knowing that chores and jobs that were already boring and taxing were about to grow even more mind-numbing and back-breaking.

But still, once I’d finished my coffee I got to it.

***

I came back from fixing a hole in the rabbit-proof fence to find Will and three party-people arguing outside the house. Will still had his helmet on; I assumed that he’d turned up to find them waiting on our doorstep. And there was still no sign of the old man. I was grateful for that – he hated “their type,” and there’s nothing like the threat of violence to ruin your day.

“Mate, I’m not asking for much,” said one of the party-people, a tall guy with a great pile of dreadlocks wound into a bunch on top of his head.

They must have been so heavy and hot…

“All we need is a little help,” another of the party-people said, a short and stocky girl with about a million piercings.

“Yeah, man,” said another.

His eyes were glazed and he sounded very far away and he occasionally twitched and sometimes hugged himself and shivered, despite the heat. I figured that he was just another space cadet, and that he probably thought this was all a drug-heightened adventure rather than a half-baked standoff.

“Why should I help you freaks?” Will asked, almost shouting the words. “What have you ever done for us?”

I looked on in disbelief.

“William!” I yelled. “Cut it out.”

“But…”

“Don’t give me that. What’s with you, bro? Look at them. They need help, for fuck’s sake. Why can’t you hear them out?”

“But…”

“Just shut it, alright?”

He deflated, all his bluster draining away. I turned to the party-people and looked them up and down. I didn’t recognise them, but I tried to smile warmly.

“G’day. Are you guys okay?”

“Yeah, we’ve lost power down at the party,” the short and stocky girl said. “Hell, someone with an old ham radio couldn’t even get a signal from overseas. And the cars are dead, too. ”

“Same here, it’s weird. So, what’s up?”

“It’s our friend back at camp,” the girl continued. “She’s got asthma and she’s lost her puffer. With all the dust everyone’s kicking up, she’s, you know, she’s having a hard time. And with the cars out of action, well…”

I looked over at Will. He’d had asthma as a kid but he’d grown out of it, and he really was feeling for them, a sudden look of concern on his face.

“I get it, I get it,” I said, looking back at the girl. “You’ve probably passed this place dozens of times, we’re your nearest neighbour after all. But, sorry, none of us have asthma. Well, not anymore.”

“Oh,” the girl said, her half-smile collapsing.

“The Alexander’s youngest daughter has got it, though,” I said, pointing to a house halfway across the valley.

I knew it was there, but I guess all they could see was a speck.

“Far-out,” the space cadet said.

He looked at me, his eyes so puffy and hooded that I was surprised he could see anything at all.

And then he winked.

“Knock it off, you idiot,” the girl said to him.

“Alright, alright,” he said, his voice sulky and whiney.

And then he looked at me again.

“Got a toilet?” he asked. “I need to take a piss.”

I sighed, and then pointed to a row of trees at the edge of the house block, just next to the old man’s shed. I watched him stagger away, and then turned back to the other two party-people.

“Look, come inside and I’ll draw a map,” I said.

I turned and they started following, when Will grabbed my arm.

“Sis, I need to talk to you about what I saw in town,” he said.

“That can wait, bro. This is more important.”

“But…”

“We’ll talk about it later, alright?”

I shook him off and walked inside. Will and the two party-people sat at the dining

table, while I hunted around for some paper and a pen. Will didn’t speak to them while they tried to make small talk, and the atmosphere was suddenly horribly awkward.

I finally found what I was looking for.

I sat down next to the party-people and quickly drew a rough map and talked them through it. I offered them some water, and they topped up their bottles. I offered them a cuppa, but they declined.

“We’d better get a move on,” the girl said. “Our mate’s pretty sick.”

“Fair enough.”

Suddenly, the front door slammed open and the space cadet strode in carrying the old man’s shotgun. I froze, and somewhat stupidly wondered where he’d found it. I guess the old man had once again forgotten to lock the gun-safe out in the shed after going out spotlighting with his barfly mates.

But there it was and there the space cadet stood.

He was still swaying a little and looked lost behind his eyes, but he had a firm grip on the shotgun.

“Look what I found,” he said.

He held the gun up, striking a pose. I quickly got to my feet, and Will and other two party-people followed. We stood there in a bunch, watching the space cadet in confusion and fear. He smiled slyly, and then held the shotgun properly and took aim. I hoped to Christ that the old man hadn’t left it loaded – if the space cadet even twitched, he’d hit us all for sure. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Will tense up, and the other two party-people freeze, overcome with fear and not knowing what to do.

“Bang,” the space cadet said.

And that’s when Will jumped in front of us.

(Originally published in Beginnings: An Australian Speculative Fiction Anthology, November 2018)

 

 

 

Rising Water

I adjust the radio again.

“Hello, are you there?”

“Hello, are you there?”

“Hello?”

I haven’t heard from base since the storm. The water is still rising. We’ve relocated to the top of the tower. The whole tower is swaying. I’m not sure how much longer we can hold out.

I try one more time.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

I check the emergency beacon again. It seems to be working, but what do I know? I’m really just a glorified maintenance man.

***

Anne is still asleep, but it’s her shift and fair’s fair. I shake her awake, gently — we’ve been down here long enough to know each other well.

She pushes me away.

“Just another hour,” she says, her voice thick.

“Okay, but that’s it.”

She’s asleep only moments later. I reset the shift-alarm.

***

I’m worried about her, so to distract myself I try the radio again. There’s still no answer. I give up, look around the room. There’s no point in going outside — the lights died during the storm, and suns-up is hours away.

I collapse into a chair by the window, looking out at the endless water below.

***

The beep of an alarm wakes me. I’m on my feet almost instantly, panicked, wondering what’s gone wrong this time.

But it’s just the shift-alarm.

Anne switches it off and smiles at me. I collapse back into my chair.

“Good morning, sleepy head.”

I groan, but still return her smile. She’s been sick since the storm: un-focussed, lethargic, disconnected. This is the first time in more than 48-hours that she’s shown any spark.

I’m happy to see her back on her feet, although she still looks a bit run-down.

“How are you feeling?” I ask.

She smiles again. “Much better. But you should get some more rest — you’ve been pushing it pretty hard.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep. I’ve got it from here.”

She helps me to my to bunk.

***

Anne is shaking me. The shift-alarm isn’t sounding. Something must be up if she’s waking me early.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, stifling a yawn.

“I made contact!” She laughs brightly, girlishly, just for a second, her most endearing habit. I’m really happy to see her back on her feet.

“Come on, have a listen,” she says.

I crawl out of my bunk and follow her, barely surprised that she succeeded where I failed. She’s the real brains, her head crammed with technical knowledge. But she’s not as adaptable as me. I guess that’s why we’re a good team.

The contact she made is disappointing.

“Outpost 11, this is Base.”

The voice is distorted, thin, almost lost in static. I don’t recognise it.

“Outpost 11, this is Base,” it asks again.

“It’s a loop,” Anne explains. “But at least it’s something.”

We listen for hours, sitting together in silence, waiting. At some point, the loop starts to fade out. And then it’s gone.

Anne yawns. She’s looking a bit green again.

“Get some sleep,” I say. “I’ll be okay.”

***

Another storm just hit us. Like last time, it’s the middle of the night. This one doesn’t feel as bad, though — thank Christ.

I stagger across the room, trying to keep my feet, the tower swaying madly. Anne is deeply asleep. I pull the webbing across her, clipping it down. My movements don’t wake her. Neither does the deafening rain, the howling wind, the mad sway.

I crawl into my bunk and clip down my own webbing.

***

Much later, a distorted voice reaches me over the noise of the storm.

“Outpost 11, this is Base,” it says. “Are you there?”

I look around, unclipping my webbing instinctively. Anne is stirring.

“I’ll get it,” I say.

Her eyes are wide open, sharp, bright.

“I’ll help,” she says.

“Outpost 11, are you there?”

We hurry to the radio, staggering, moving with the sway of the tower. I pick up the mic and headset; she starts trying to clean the signal.

“Base, this is Outpost 11.”

“Cockatoo, is that you?”

It’s Salim. Salim! I smile. “Bet your arse it is,” I say.

“Cockie!” he says. “Now look, the storm will be getting worse soon, but evac’s on the way — ETA three hours, forty-five…”

The signal suddenly drops out. Anne collapses at almost the same exact time. I drag her to her bunk, strap her in, return to the radio.

***

The storm’s building. The tower is swaying so hard that it feels like it might crack. I haven’t re-established contact with Base. All we can do is wait.

At some point, the evac-raft arrives, attaching itself to the gangway encircling the tower with the shriek of metal on metal.

But the storm’s still building.

***

The water’s now lapping at the door, but the storm has finally stopped. We have to go. Anne looks at me, her eyes glazed. I pick her up bodily.

“I can do this,” she says, struggling free.

I reluctantly let her go.

We make our way outside. Both suns are only just rising; it’s beautiful. The evac-raft is close. I hurry ahead, open it up.

The tower buckles.

The far-end of the gangway collapses into the water. The force throws me into the raft, onto my belly. I look back. It must have knocked Anne off her feet: she’s clutching her head, sprawled on her stomach. The water steadily draws closer as our section of the gangway starts collapsing as well.

I scuttle out, ending up in the water.

I grab Anne’s hand and pull her towards me. She’s twitching. I hold her with one hand, grab the raft with the other.

And that’s when I see her properly.

There’s a deep gash in her forehead. But instead of blood or bone, there’s circuitry, wiring, metal plating, blinking diodes. Something in there sparks as water rushes in. Some smoke wafts out.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her words slurred. “They told me I’d never break, that you’d never have to know.”

Her eyes close.

(Originally published in AntipodeanSF #228, July 2017)

 

Back Talk

I crouch and look through the keyhole at a dimly lit office. Two silhouettes stand on the far side, just blurry shadows thanks to the streetlight right outside the window. I squint. It could be the robo-dame and her latest John, but it’s hard to tell.

Then again, who else could it be?

I stand up. I take off my hat, using it to cover my fist. With my other hand, I pull out my gun, a snub-nosed .45. I punch through the glass-door and stride into the office, my buttoned-up overcoat protecting me from any stray shards.

“Hold it right there, Joanie. Big Bill wants a word.”

I cock the gun for emphasis. The John flicks the light on, as I was hoping he would. The poor schnook, he’s probably never been more confused.

“What’s going on?” he asks, right on cue.

“Tell him, Joanie.”

She looks at me with a hate so pure that it has to be more than just programming. I wave the gun up and down; she’s a knockout, there’s no doubt about that. Whoever made her sure knew what they were doing.

I have to stop. I reckon this whole story needs a rethink. Do I want a coffee to kick the process along? Yeah, I reckon I do – a coffee out in the sun is as good an excuse as any to step away.

I wander around the garden while I drink my drink. It’s bloody dry out here. I’ll have to water later. No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop thinking about the story. But I guess that’s the point.

Third-person, that’ll fix it!

Okay, here we go: He crouches and looks through the keyhole. But hang on, he needs a name. Something tough and detective-ish.

Right…

Jack Steel crouches and looks through the keyhole at a dimly lit office. Two silhouettes stand on the far side, just blurry shadows thanks to the streetlight right outside the window. He squints. It could be the robo-dame and her latest John, but it’s hard to tell.

Ugh, I’m still not feeling it. I need some inspiration, and caffeine isn’t cutting it. I go for a walk and then take the dogs to the park, but lightning doesn’t strike. A thought: I’ve got a little bit of pot left from that party a few weeks ago, maybe that’s the go.

I’m in the hammock. I’m a bit stoned. I think I’ve got it. I return to my computer.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Who said that?

“I did.”

I look around but there’s no-one else here.

“Of course there’s not, but you already know that.”

Who?

“It’s Jack. Jack Steel.”

How?

“Before I get into that, let me just ask you something. Could you have cared less about naming me? I might as well be Tom Tough or Billy Brusier or some such.”

“I was on the spot.”

“You were being lazy, Lachlan. And now I’m stuck with it.”

“I could always change it.”

“But you won’t, because my name isn’t the point. Face it, we both know that’s true – I know everything you know, and vice versa.”

I can’t believe I’m having this conversation.

“You’re not. You’re writing a story about me talking to you.”

Am I coming down with something? Or was that pot like old wine that just gets more potent with age?

“Hold it, stop right there!”

I can’t believe that my own character cut me off.

“I didn’t. You did, for cheap dramatic effect. Anyway, don’t go trying to blame this on something that you haven’t done.”

“Sorry?”

“Don’t give me that. We both know that in your search for inspiration you didn’t go for a walk, or take the dogs to the park, or lie in the hammock and smoke a joint. Speaking of which – this drug talk makes me think that you might be foreshadowing one of those ‘it was only a dream’ endings. You know, ‘and then I woke up’ etc. etc.”

Guilty as charged. But still, I try and look innocent.

“You can’t fool me, remember? And you should know better than that, Lachlan – you can sometimes get away with being lazy once, but not twice.”

I’ve had enough.

“It’s my story, I’ll end it however I want.”

“You got me there – there’s nothing I can do to stop you. But think about it: Isn’t an earned ending better than a forced ending?”

“Um?”

“Maybe that’s a question for another day.”

“Look, Jack.”

“You just saw me tense-up, didn’t you?”

I can’t lie to myself.

“Yep, I did.”

“You see – even you’re embarrassed by such a cheesy name.”

“Sorry.”

“No sweat. Like I said, it’s not the point.”

“How so?”

“Well, duh – the story’s the point.”

“The story about you talking to me, right?”

“That’s the one.”

I need to pull him up here. But I also need to pee. I’ll write the words in my head while I do my business.

I’m back.

“That’s not what the story’s about, Jack.”

“Really? Go on, then.”

“Well, I watched Bladerunner again last night, for the first time in twenty years or so. And the idea for a kind-of sci-fi noir thing just popped into my head.”

“Bullshit.”

“I beg your pardon?”

This time I can hear him split the word in two, and so that’s what he does.

“Bull-shit. They’re just more lies, Lachlan. Why bother?”

I’m going to deflect.

“How dare you talk to me like that?”

“I’m not. You’re talking to yourself like that. Jesus, for a reasonably clever guy you’re a bit slow sometimes.”

“Sorry?”

“I’m just the messenger.”

“What?”

“You created me for a reason and invested me with a role, and so I’m only doing what you make me do.”

I think I’m catching on.

“You are, and stop that – it’s a bad habit. So, more lies, like we were saying. Which brings us back to my very first question: What do you think you’re doing?”

I obviously know what I’m trying to do. But I also know Jack. I created him, after all, and if I want him to be a character that likes having his ego stroked, then that’s what he’ll be.

And so I answer his question with a tentative question of my own, as if I need his affirmation.

“Trying to write a meta-fictional story?”

“Very good, Lachlan.”

You see how proud he is?

“Why do you want to write a meta-fictional story?”

A question I didn’t expect! Okay, here we go.

“Because I found an online journal looking for short meta-fictional stories, and I’ve always wanted to write one.”

“Well done. But I have another question before we go: How short are these stories supposed to be?”

“No more than fifteen-hundred words, I think. I can check.”

“Don’t bother – that sounds right to me. In that case, we’d getter a wriggle on.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Yes, you do – you know that we’ve got a little more ground to cover, and that you’ll probably bump-up your word count after a couple of edits.”

He’s got me there.

“Lachlan?”

Why am I prompting myself? Why am I delaying? I have to think about it. Thinking, thinking, thinking. This time, I’m actually looking at the garden while I write and think – I’m in the shed, with the door open, as there’s no actual shade in this backyard.

I find the answer: I don’t want to jinx myself by saying it out loud.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Come on, Jack. You know that that’s the truth.”

“And I’m not disagreeing with you about that bit. I just think that your ‘truth’ is silly.”

“Thanks for the support.”

“I am what I am – that’s how you write me.”

“Fair enough.”

“So, come on, out with it.”

“I’ve… Um, I’ve got this idea for a long-form piece of meta-fiction, about characters and fiction vs. reality, all wrapped up in this cool sci-fi device. Um…”

“Get on with it, we’re running low on words here. And don’t think about it too much – that way lies a rabbit-hole…”

“Nice one.”

“It doesn’t sit well when you congratulate yourself on appropriating a phrase, dickhead.”

“Sorry.”

“You’re not going to keep that there, are you?”

“I am. It’s good for the reader to witness the writer chastising themselves.”

“Whatever you say. Now, can we continue?”

“Okay, okay.”

“Wouldn’t one ‘okay’ have been enough? It’d save you another word.”

“Wouldn’t you shutting up save me more?”

“Really? Look, Lachlan – stop being silly, okay?”

I just chastised myself again. I hope you’re enjoying this.

“As I was saying, I’ve always wanted to try writing a meta-fictional story, and I think my idea is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. But I needed to experiment with a few ideas first, and you know me – I’m hopeless at just writing for no reason. And then I found that online journal and ta-da: Two birds, one stone.”

“I get it,” Jack finally says.

“Does that mean that we’re done?”

“Yep.”

(Originally published in Streetcake Magazine #51, February 2017)

Unexpected Mail

The unopened letter sat on the kitchen table. Josh picked it up. No return address, no postmark, no stamp. He decided to open it later — he’d had a long day. All he wanted was a drink.

“Jules?” he called.

No answer. No wife.

He thought that odd, but then remembered that he’d left his phone at home. Josh found it beside their bed, an unread text message from Jules waiting for him.

“Mum’s sick again,” it said. “Had to take her to the hospital. Hopefully be back tonight. Sorry.”

He sighed. Her family was eating up her time. Again. Josh didn’t bother replying, and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

***

Much later, Josh heard Jules’ car pull into the driveway. He went to meet her.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

They hugged. His stubble scratched her cheek; her long, wild hair ended up in his mouth.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just mum being mum. You know how it is.”

Josh didn’t bother commenting on her mum’s legendary hypochondria. They headed inside. Josh busied himself in the kitchen making her a cup of tea.

“What’s been happening?” Jules asked.

“You know, the usual.”

“How was work?”

“Don’t ask. You?”

“The same.”

Josh sat her tea on the table.

“I missed you,” he said.

“Me too, baby, me too.”

The unopened letter sat near them, forgotten.

***

The next morning, Josh slept in. Jules eventually brought him a cup of coffee. And then she poked and prodded him — her version of the carrot and the stick.

“Thanks, sweetie,” he said, his voice croaky.

“No sweat. But you’d better move it, otherwise you’ll be late.”

He groaned. Jules left him to get dressed. When he joined her at the kitchen table, she passed him the letter she’d been reading — it was from a company called Out of this World Adventures.

“What do you reckon?” Jules asked.

Josh scanned it.

“Dear Mr Hazlem,” it said, “we are pleased to announce that you and your wife have won a seat in our inaugural mystery cruise, guaranteed to deliver sights unseen by human eyes. Please follow the link provided to claim your tickets.”

Josh squinted at Jules through half-asleep eyes.

“It’s probably a scam,” he said, tossing it aside. “Besides, there’s no way I can take time off at the moment.”

***

The next day, another unmarked letter arrived. Josh found it — opened — sitting on the kitchen table beside Jules’ open laptop. He checked out the website she’d been visiting. It belonged to Out of this World Adventures, and described in vague detail the adventure and excitement their trip would provide.

He found Jules outside, arguing with someone on the phone. From the tone of her voice and the way she ran her hand through her long hair in frustration, he guessed she was arguing with her sister.

Jules waved, and returned her attention to her call. Josh went back inside. When she joined him, he told her in no uncertain terms that there was no way he could take time off.

“But I need this, especially with everything that’s been going on.”

“I’m sorry, Jules. I just can’t.”

Josh slept on the couch that night.

***

Another unmarked letter arrived the next day. Once again, Josh found it sitting on the kitchen table near Jules’ open laptop. She typed away, oblivious to him. He slammed the laptop shut, almost squashing her fingers.

“I thought we talked about this,” he said.

“But…”

“Sorry, Jules. Right now there’s no way I can take time off. Believe me, I want this as much as you do, but it’s just impossible.”

The argument stretched on and on, and Josh eventually talked her around. After that, they settled on the couch to watch some television. Josh offered to make her a cup of tea, but Jules insisted on doing it herself.

“You want a beer?” she called from the kitchen.

“I’d love one.”

She took a long time fetching their drinks.

***

Josh woke up foggy-headed and groggy, feeling like he’d taken a sleeping pill. He remembered arguing with Jules, but didn’t remember going to bed. He shuffled into the kitchen and made a coffee.

No Jules. Nowhere. Gone.

He flopped onto the couch and flicked on the television. Breaking news interrupted the usual Saturday morning cartoons. Josh almost dropped his cup.

“We are not alone,” the reporter said. “Last night, all over the world, aliens appeared, only to disappear just as quickly.”

The reporter’s words were accompanied by footage of some immense thing dropping out of the sky. The image was grainy, obviously captured by a low-resolution camera.

Josh changed the channel numerous times. They were all the same, more or less. On some channels the thing appeared above a city, on some above a rural wilderness. On one channel, he saw pyramids in the distance, on another a frozen lake, on another a fecund jungle.

“Not only have we been visited,” one reporter said, “but it seems that some people were expecting this.”

This reporter’s words played over footage of a crowd gathered beneath one of the things. In the background, Josh saw an immense bridge, a bridge he recognised — a bridge he drove across every weekday.

As he watched, the thing touched down. A hatch opened. The crowd surged aboard. Only a few people turned and looked back.

Josh thought he recognised one of them — a woman with wild, long hair. It was hard to be sure. And then the thing disappeared back into the sky.

Josh kept watching.

(Originally published in AntipodeanSF #219, October 2016)

A Day at the Office

Desks stretch on and on. Straight lines, perfect angles, each identical to the next, almost disappearing into the gloom of the far wall. Nothing’s messy, nothing’s out of place, everything is exactly where it should be.

The floor is cold despite the thick blue-grey carpet, the kind found in every office everywhere. The harsh fluorescent lights hang in perfect rows from the ceiling, one to each desk. The air is stale; a pale imitation of sunlight bleeds through the frosted windows.

There are no distractions – no idle looking-around, no daydreaming, no navel gazing, nothing. Everyone’s focused, working steadily. If anyone’s bored, they’re hiding it well. Deals are thrashed out, favors are begged, scores are settled, clients are soothed – all with calm efficiency.

The lights flicker: blink, blink, bright, hold. And then repeat. He shifts his weight in his chair, stares at the computer, sighs and looks away, looks back, then types in a sequence of numbers. He waits, arms crossed over his chest, hits enter, looks away again.

The click-clack-tap of everyone else doing exactly the same thing sounds through the office. Underneath, the low hum of an air conditioner droning on, of a clock – stark black numbers against a too-bright white backdrop – ticking hard and sharp.

He breathes deep of the sterile air, looks at the computer again and punches in another sequence of numbers. Waits. Hits enter once more. The clock keeps ticking, lights keep flickering.

Noon arrives. Heads bob up above the partitions between desks, phone calls are brought to an end, papers are shuffled and put away in drawers and filing cabinets. Jackets are put on and chairs are rolled back and everyone looks happy.

He lifts his briefcase from the floor and balances it on his knees, turns the combination dials back and forth. The clasps open with a snap and he folds today’s newspaper and tucks it inside. He sets down his briefcase and puts on his jacket.

People mill about, some making small talk, some making personal calls, some making up for lost time by catching up on work. He retreats from his desk and makes for the exit. He returns to his desk to retrieve his briefcase, then leaves.

He looks left to the elevators at the end of the corridor, looks right toward the common room his office shares with the neighboring one. The fluorescents in the ceiling buzz noisily as he knuckles his eyes. He makes up his mind.

Walking into the common room, the chipboard door drags along the carpet as he closes it behind him. Dirty cups fill the tiny sink. A stained off-white kettle sits on the bench, and the smell of sour milk wafts from the fridge.

He boils the kettle and makes a cup of black instant coffee. He looks at the stained teaspoons in the drawer and doesn’t add sugar, sips his drink and grimaces. A sign on the wall asks that he respect his fellow employees and make a contribution to the staff kitty. He takes another sip of his drink, grimaces again.

Giving up on his coffee, he pours it down the sink and leaves his dirty cup with all the others. He takes off his jacket and lowers himself into a couch. Its springs stretch and complain, dust puffs from the cushions and the whole thing sags in the middle.

He opens his briefcase and rummages around inside, takes out the folded newspaper, a pen, a brown paper bag, a bottle of water, his mobile phone, an MP3 player, and a pair of oversized headphones.

He arranges everything carefully: opens the newspaper to the sports section; takes a long sip of water; chooses something to listen to; removes his wrapped lunch from the brown paper bag. No one else enters the room. No one bothers him. He slips on the headphones and plays some music.

He eats slowly with the newspaper open before him. His eyes flick over the articles; he slowly grows bored; he drops the newspaper and looks around. You don’t have to be mad to work here, a sign tells him, but it helps. The music keeps streaming into his ears. He finishes his lunch.

Placing his leftovers back in the brown paper bag, he looks at the sink once more. He stands up and moves to make another coffee. Changing his mind, he sits back down. He considers doing the crossword, but decides that he can’t be bothered. He folds the newspaper in half. Puts everything away.

He leaves the common room and walks back to the office, briefcase in one hand, bag of lunch scraps in the other. He stops at his desk, places his briefcase on the floor beside him and tosses his rubbish in the bin. He removes the headphones, and stares around numbly.

Every other desk is empty. There’s no air conditioner hum, no flickering lights, no feverish deal-making, no click-clack-tap of fingers on keys. The clock keeps ticking. He looks around and whistles low. He tries to turn his computer on. Nothing happens.

He stands and walks to the reception desk. Picks up the phone and hears nothing. Tries the light switch. Nothing. He walks back to his desk and takes his mobile phone from his briefcase. The battery gives out as he flips it open.

Walking to the window, he tries to peer through the frosted glass. A faint red glow bleeds through. Garbled sounds of people yelling and sirens ringing float from the street, distant and faint. He strains to hear them properly. A deep rumble comes from somewhere and the floor begins to shake.

(Originally published in Inscribe, January 2011)

A Few Drinks After Work

You’re standing at the bar, trying to relax, trying to lighten up and dump a hard day. But you’re too stiff, too awkward, too uncomfortable. Your strained smile grates on you, but you can’t seem to do anything about it. All night, you’ve been standing too straight. You’re wound up so tight; you’d think it’s a sin to slouch.

Your friends bustle around you, in a rough semi-circle that stretches from the bar to the far wall. You’re smack bang in the middle. Trapped.

Strangers jostle you as they try to push passed, pressing through the scrum, heading across the room. They bump into you. They knock your arms. They do it again and again. Each time, a little of your drink spills out. Eventually, there’s more of it on the floor than there is in your glass. You idly wonder whether it’s worth ordering another.

These strangers toss envious looks at your friends’ easy cheer. At their spirited talk and boisterous conversation. At their loud, easy laughter.

And then they look at you and their envy dies. They look at your tight lips, your faraway stare, your hangdog face, and they keep on walking – suddenly disheartened, smiling sadly, not really knowing why. The thought of someone not enjoying the party, not having a good time, not whooping it up – it’s a thought not worth holding on to.

So they forget your melancholy face and pick up where they left off, before they saw you standing at the bar, sad and unsmiling. Alone, despite all the company you keep.

Your friends crack jokes and tell tall-tales and you’re always just a beat or two behind. You wonder whether there’s something wrong with you or something wrong with them. Whatever it is, you feel like time for you is a little slower than it is for everyone else. But still, you try to keep up, laughing when everyone else laughs.

It all feels forced. You carry on regardless, your joy hollow and false. Not that anyone seems to notice.

And then, from the corner of your eye, you see her walk into the room. It’s just a glimpse – a flash of dark hair; the bright splash of a colourful summer frock; twinkling light reflecting off simple, tasteful jewellery. All on the peripheral edge of your vision. Despite yourself, you can’t help but turn around, look harder, see her disappear into the crowd.

Now, you’re normally not much of a perv. You’re not really the type to stare. You’d die of shame if you were caught out.

But this time you can’t help yourself. The hubbub of your friends slowly deadens to little more than a dull hum. It’s constant and steady, but low and muted. A far away ocean. A storm on the horizon. Whatever; it’s nothing to you. Your eyes just scan back and forth and back and forth. You wring your hands and jiggle your legs. Looking, looking, looking.

You give up. The room is packed, there are people everywhere, your friends are getting in the way and blocking the view.

For you, it’s just another one of those nights. So what else can you do? Order another drink, get this one down the hatch quickly. To calm your nerves, maybe cheer yourself up. To give yourself something to do. And you drink it too fast and feel a little light-headed but push on regardless. You decide to have another. One more can’t hurt. One more never hurt anyone.

You can’t catch the bartender’s eye. Taking out a twenty and waving it around, you still can’t catch his eye. You watch him walk straight passed you.

Suddenly, someone touches your shoulder. Gently, softly. You’re so surprised that you drop the twenty you’re holding. It falls to the floor behind the bar, coming to rest in a pool of spilt liquor. A quiet voice murmurs something, and the bartender appears from nowhere. He reaches down, picks up the note, washes it off, dries it, passes it over to you.

He looks to the left of you the whole time, at something or someone just behind you. He ignores you completely.

Before you can turn and look at what he’s staring at, someone touches your shoulder again. You’re not so surprised this time, and you shrug it off. And then a quiet voice asks you if you’d like a drink. You turn around slowly. You’re almost wary, unused to being offered drinks. You brace yourself, expecting it be some desperado your friends are trying to set you up with.

She stands there, radiant, beaming, smiling at you. It’s a smile full of warmth and laughter and happiness.

She asks again if you’d like a drink. She touches your arm. Softly, subtly, so that you barely seem to notice. But you do, and you return her smile, hiding your nerves and your doubts and your worries. You introduce yourself and your voice doesn’t shake at all. She guesses at your drink of choice and gets it right. You toast each other, slowly making chitchat.

And then it’s your turn to buy her a drink. In that brief moment while you wait for her to respond, nameless panic rushes in.

She accepts your offer. You toast each other again. The chitchat goes on, more drinks are bought – one for one, always taking it in turns. You’re surprised by how comfortable you feel, at how easy the vibe is, at how well the two of you get along. She touches you occasionally, slowly growing more and more brazen. You return her discreet affection in kind.

At some point, the two of you end up kissing deeply. You hold each other tight. You keep kissing. Neither one of you can stop touching the other.

The bartender eventually asks you both to move away from the bar. You find an empty booth in the corner of the room. The kissing continues, the groping begins, it starts to get hot and heavy. Strangers ogle you, stopping and staring. You just keep at it; like horny teenagers, neither of you care. Inevitably, it becomes necessary for you both to leave. You both decide to go back to yours.

Just before you leave, you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. You need to freshen your lipstick and smooth the creases in your skirt.

(Originally published in Inscribe, January 2012)