Short Stories

The Mirrorlings of Kepler 442b

‘THE MIRRORLINGS’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

It had taken some time for the mirrorlings of Kepler 442b to willingly reveal themselves to Kelly and the rest of landing party, though their hesitation wasn’t entirely unexpected. They were a shy and reclusive species after all, and although they eventually warmed to the strange and ungainly group of explorers that touched down unannounced one morning nearby their village, it was with the greatest reluctance that they first dared to venture out from the shadows of the forest wall to greet them.

Of course, the travellers hadn’t been blind to clues that there was some sort of sentient species living somewhere on the surface. Even from orbit, they could easily discern the clear evidence of large, ruined structures scattered across the two major continents of the planet and the telltale signs of a primitive agriculture that had more recently developed on their outskirts. Despite knowing however, there were certain guidelines that had been put in place which limited potential human relations with alien life forms, and at their core was the basic premise that every newly discovered species retained the right to simply be left alone, should they choose to be. It was a subsequent relief then when the first of the natives poked its funny little head out from the mire and approached them, and all the explorers could do to keep from cheering loudly and frightening him away again.

Not unlike many periods in Earth’s own history, whatever dominant culture once existed on Kepler 442b appeared to be undergoing a dramatic shift of sorts, a period of slow renewal following some kind of long and apparently destructive upheaval in its most recent history. It presented an exciting opportunity for the enthusiastic traveler to come face-to-face with an actual developing alien civilisation, and a once in a lifetime experience for the anthropologically or archeologically inclined that might well make them the envy of their friends and peers back home. Despite advancements in the ease with which interstellar expeditions could now be undertaken, their mission was the first that had actually promised to introduce the crew to a living, breathing alien life form. Understandably, each and every one of them was simply brimming with excitement at the prospect.

There had been a handful of similar missions organised before their own, too many unsuccessful attempts sent forth by the new world government to find and establish contact with civilised life among the many thousands of exoplanets orbiting Earth’s nearest neighbouring stars, however none had been remotely successful until now, and the public budget was stretched far beyond measure when the first clear images and comprehensive data from the surface of Kepler 442b was finally beamed back home. It seemed prudent then that funding for this particular mission be shared amongst both public and private interests, which also opened the door to a number of lucrative advertising investments and even the participation of a small filmmaking crew from one of the world’s largest media networks that joined them to document the expedition. Ultimately it was a somewhat ragtag assortment that had been selected to made the journey, but not an entirely unreasonable representation of terrestrial society at its supposed peak.

Upon arrival, the group of diplomats, potential settlers and hopeful missionaries that had set out from Earth’s Lunar Station several months earlier found themselves to be largely disappointed. For starters, the half-government sponsored and half-privatised First Contact program had boasted ambitiously to deliver to them an “exhilarating, action-packed adventure into the unknown.” The many courses, seminars and rigorous training exercises that the crew had been forced to undertake leading up to it seemed to have all been building toward an advertised climax whereby they would be among the first human beings to either a) discover, interact with and learn from a completely new species, b) plant the terrestrial flag of discovery into the virgin soil of a new world, or c) at least be able to enjoy strange, untainted tropical wildernesses and alien delights beneath the gorgeous warmth of a scorching white sun (a spurious claim, to say the least. Kepler 442b actually orbited an orange dwarf star, and the irritating hue of its resulting daylight made many of them feel quite nauseous for the first few hours until their senses adjusted to the unfamiliar environment).

What the group had found, however, was that space travel was not at all the glamorous and intrepid experience that they had been sold. The journey had ended up taking almost three terrestrial months, even though they travelled at the fastest speeds their ship’s new gravity drive would allow and with a limited supply of power, food and fluids, those last few cramped and filthy days’ travel could not have passed them all by soon enough. Everyone aboard, whether scientist, student or military personnel almost fell headlong from the airlock once the massive landing pod had settled safely on the planet’s surface, and even the most irreverent among them gave thanks to whatever higher power came to mind when the first fresh breath of air that wasn’t mechanically stale and recycled finally filled their thirsty lungs.

To make matters worse, it didn’t appear that any kind of intelligent speculation had taken place prior to the selection process with regards to the inevitable culture clash that might occur when those of a military persuasion and training are thrown in close confinement with the idealistic diplomat, disobedient youth and a crew of snap-happy filmmakers that seemed not to stop shooting for even a moment’s peace. Throw a handful of religious zealots into the mix, and before you know it you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb of human extremes. Somehow though, if not by the grace of someone’s gods, those aboard the Endeavour reached their destination in one piece before the ship’s captain, a gruff veteran by the name of Kelly Miller and his men were forced to revert to their own brand of conflict resolution, much to his private disappointment.

Once on the surface, the landing party established a small encampment in a level clearing on the banks of a narrow stream nearby the pod and Kelly ordered a number of his crew to quickly set about foraging through the strange, tropical vegetation for samples of what best resembled comparatively terrestrial looking fruits and vegetables for analysis. Despite the wicked heat from above, there thankfully seemed to be a cool and constant breeze that rolled off from the massive oceans surrounding the small island continent and so once a makeshift base of operations had been established, many spent their first few hours doing little more than just lolling about lazily in the shade and taking stock of their surroundings.

Local fauna on the surface seemed at first glance to be surprisingly shy and scarce despite the rich and fertile environment, however a family of wealthy tourists that had bought their way in to the experience couldn’t resist filling drive after drive of film and picture recordings as a great flock of what could only be described as giant, wingless amoebas floated by on the first morning against the brilliance of the planet’s sun, bathing the travellers in a strange purple glow as daylight passed through their shapeless, bilious bodies. Where encountered, plant and animal life on the planet were unlike anything any of them had ever seen, and for some that experience alone had seemed to make the journey worthwhile.

The dense forests surrounding their camp were comprised primarily of different varieties of tall, whip-like scrub interspersed with the wide, imposing forms of massive birch-like trees that were completely smooth and featureless along the length of their trunks until they burst to life some two hundred feet above them creating a flawless, jagged canopy which allowed only the palest haze of sunlight through. What most closely resembled giant, sallow pitcher plants also littered the forest floor in places and attracted clouds of small, transparent insects that looked something like tiny flying jellyfish, and it almost began to seem to the travellers as though no vertebrates had managed at all to evolve in the planet’s strange and eclectic ecosystem. Until Dahl came forth to greet them, that is.

Kelly and his officers had just returned from a morning spent atop a nearby hill some several kilometers from base camp, where they combed through the rubble of what appeared to have at one time been a massive, ancient temple complex of some kind that would have towered in antiquity over the thick forest surrounding their clearing. It had taken the small party several hours to safely navigate their way into the heart of the ruins, where he’d noted and made sure to document an avenue of weird and almost frightening carved statues in a state of advanced decay that seemed to glorify a somehow familiar looking worm-like creature, most likely either another benign and airborne invertebrate or perhaps another unseen native that occupied the shallow waters of the nearby stream which babbled softly away in the distance.

It wasn’t unusual even on Earth to come across similar such tributes and monuments from a bygone era, erected in reverence to wild creatures and beasts of burden that might have been crucial to the day-to-day survival of the creative culture and so he’d decided to think little more of them other than making sure to take plenty of pictures to send back to their government and the other assorted financiers of his mission. Kelly and his men had been tasked to collect a certain quota of reports and data that he was obliged to archive during their month-long projected stay on the new world, data that might very well decide whether future missions and colonies would be sent forth and established on the surface of Kepler 442b. “We really are privileged to be here,” he thought, pausing among the monoliths momentarily to drink in his surroundings. And so far, they were lucky that not a single plant or animal appeared to be any cause for immediate concern. In spite of this, the tall, ancient statues that still remained standing caused him to feel just a little bit uneasy.

What made Kelly feel most uncomfortable about the likenesses lay in the detail. Those responsible for chiselling the creatures from the dark, blood-red rock of the hillside had paid careful attention to honour several marked features which might, to most soft-bodied animals, seem somewhat odd; twin sets of tiny pincers, deep set, slanted eyes sat far on either side of their pointed heads and wide mouths in which rows of savage and jagged teeth deeply lined their gullets like awful needles. In the back of his mind, he quietly hoped that this was one creature that wasn’t depicted to scale, and one that his crew didn’t happen to stumble upon unprepared during their stay.

When he and the rest of his men finally returned to the clearing later that day, they entered the camp to find the other members of the landing party standing staggered in a wide, close ring around something at the centre of the encampment, and could see the tops of several telescopic boom stands that the documentary crew had set up to record what he supposed was just another in a long line of crew interviews taking place. “Huh, well I guess these guys are finally ready to kick-off the circus out here,” he thought distastefully as he pushed his way through the crowd, who were all just intently staring for some reason at whoever it was the crew were filming. Everyone included in the mission, regardless of their role and standing were charged with a long list of chores and assignments to complete on a daily basis, and although it might have seemed at times that he was fighting a losing battle, it was ultimately still his job to make sure that they were carried out to a one.

“Alright, alright – guys, we need to pull together and start collecting supplies,” he started, approaching the centre of the circle, “What stores are left on the ship are strictly for the return journey, and I’ll be damned if anyone thinks I’m settling for another sodding ration pack for tonight’s dinner.” The mission had been supplied for the most part by a prominent global ‘New Foods’ group with an abundant supply of freeze-dried, powdered meals for the crew to enjoy, however despite repeated claims that they “wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” not a single option on the menu had even remotely lived up to promises made on the packaging. “We all have a fair idea of what we can and can’t make a meal out of. Now, who can help me..” He trailed off in surprise all of a sudden as his line of sight dropped to Dahl, who turned to the sound of Kelly’s voice and looked up at him with a curious smile (he since learned that this must have been a universal trait).

The creature, which could only be most closely described as a short, cat-like animal that stood almost three feet tall on its hind haunches and was covered almost entirely in a glistening deep blue fur was standing upright in the middle of the group, paws crossed over its pot belly and regarding the landing party with a quizzical look resembling that a young child might make when coming face-to-face with a big cat, gorilla or some other large beast that they had only seen in picture books before. Immediately taken aback, Kelly’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped a little as his mind wrestled for a way to relate the mirrorling to something, anything else that he’d seen on Earth.

The creature cocked its furry head to one side when he stopped short, and let out a momentary gasp that caused the rest of the group around them to fawn and sigh (and though he kept his own reaction in check, it was all he himself could do not to let out an “Aww..” of his own). Dahl’s two round, black eyes were as big as saucers, and widened even further when Kelly instinctively reached his right hand down to clasp the handle of the rifle that hung loosely to one side, prompting him to raise both hands and crouch slightly, remarking, “Hey, hey little guy, don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” Standing completely still now, he turned to face Joseph Alvarez, the head of the documentary crew and whispered, “Joey, hey..! What on Earth is that thing, and how long has it been here..?”

Joseph replied with a wide smile, “Your guess is as good as mine, Captain, and about ten minutes now. The little fellow must have wandered in out of the forest somewhere while we were setting out the wind breakers, before we knew it one of the settlers called out and well – there he was, just standing there like a big ol’ technicolour cat, sniffing the air. Can’t speak a lick of English, but he’s a talkative little fellow nonetheless. Go on – say something to him.. it.” Kelly rolled his eyes and then mused for a moment, stroking his red, mottled beard as the rest of the crew looked on, expecting him to take charge of the situation. He turned back to Dahl, starting, “Hey there, little guy.” The mirrorling said nothing, only tilting his head to the left now and making the occasional low, cooing noise. Kelly went on, gesturing with his right hand to his chest, “I.. am Kelly,” he offered slowly, “What’s your name..? You, can you speak..? Do you understand me..?” He pointed to Dahl, and the pause in conversation seemed to prompt it to reply.

The creature raised a small, three-toed paw to its own chest and with clear and reasoned emulation, responded as best it could. In a high and delicate voice which almost resembled a child singing, it replied, “Am Dahl,” and bowed its head slightly forward as it did. Some among the landing party immediately erupted into cheers, and the rest started chattering amongst themselves as the cameras edged closer and continued to roll. This sudden flurry of activity seemed to spook Dahl who tweaked his head around nervously, his eyes flitting from human to human as he clearly searched his surrounds for the quickest way out of what was already a threatening and delicate situation. Kelly immediately knew that if he didn’t restore order right away that the creature would have no choice but to flee to safety, or otherwise do something even more drastic. He called for quiet and the rest of his officers followed suit, putting a finger to their lips and shushing the settlers until all eyes rested silently on the tiny visitor once more.

Kelly was extremely curious now, and wanted to know whether there were more creatures like this ‘Dahl’ nearby. To satisfy his own speculation and to get a better understanding of what else might be lurking in the dense vegetation around them, he spoke once more to the creature. He gestured carefully around to the rest of the group, asking, “We are human, from Earth.” He pointed skyward, a gesture he immediately realised to be a foolish one as Dahl merely followed his raised finger with both eyes and again cocked his head in confusion. “We,” he indicated once more to his fellow travellers, “are many, and are the same. Are there more, like you..?” He pointed at Dahl, and allowed the creature a moment to attempt to comprehend what he was trying to ask.

The small creature furrowed its furry brow, gave a calculating squeak and with its right paw seemed to tease a patch of long whiskers which grew the corner of each chubby cheek. A moment later, it appeared to have reached some sort of interpretation of what Kelly was asking of it, and wide-eyed responded, pointing with one paw to its face and another to the jungle behind Kelly, “You.. you..! Mrpla dazou shu’a, zug-zul a’sha – you..!” It then nodded excitedly, bounded quickly and unexpectedly past Kelly and beckoned them to follow as the circle broke and he hopped away speedily toward an opening in the forest wall.

The entire camp shared excited glances and straight away turned as one to follow, however Kelly quickly surmised that no good could come from the lot of them simply up and abandoning their settlement to take off blindly into the forest in pursuit. He was fast to order a majority of them reluctantly back to work, and singled out Alvarez and another filmmaker, a single missionary (he had little time for them under normal circumstances) and a handful of the ship’s science detail and asked that they join him in following the strange creature out of the clearing, it chirping, bubbling and excitedly pointing out assorted scrub and rocks to its human guests as they went. It all seemed to happen so spontaneously, but Kelly though to himself, “This is why we’re here, after all. Goodness knows I’m going to need to fill out these reports with something, the sooner I’ve got what they need, the sooner I can take a breather myself.” He reasoned that as he was already growing tired of mapping terrain and sampling the ruins and vegetation around the campsite, at least this new visitor might provide a little excitement to lift his spirits.

Once within the dank forest and with the humans in tow the mirrorling quickly picked up its pace, vaulting dextrously over piles of broken stone and clumps of strange, spider-like bushes as it raced through the undergrowth. The humans, already having worked for most of the morning soon began to tire as it led them all further and further into the thick jungle and after almost an hour’s hike Kelly decided that they needed to take a breather if they were going to go the distance. He sharply whistled ahead and indicated to Dahl that they needed to stop for a short time and rest. “We’re tired, buddy,” he gesticulated to the creature, rubbing his thighs and exaggerating the motion that they were in pain, “Our legs hurt, we need to stop.” Dahl responded with an obviously disapproving frown, and if Kelly didn’t know any better he could have sworn the creature was pouting as he searched the forest trail for a suitable place to stop and sit. Joseph and his cameraman were quick to thank Kelly for the opportunity to finally set their heavy recording gear down for a moment, and the head of the ship’s mission, a young reverend by the name of Michael Flaherty took it upon himself to minister to the lot of them, much to the obvious contempt of the party’s scientific contingent.

Sitting on a wide stone by the path and apart from the rest of the group, Kelly unclipped a small canteen from his belt and raised it to his lips taking a much needed gulp of purified water replenished from the ship’s humidifier. As he went to lower the vessel once more from his face, he quickly spat the mouthful back out into the ground in surprise. Dahl had silently crept up to where he rested and was now just staring at him with a curious expression, his dark and circular face only a foot or so away from his own. Kelly’s reaction startled the creature, causing him to bound away again quickly to safety and peer back at him from behind a nearby boulder, clearly rattled by the other’s reaction.

“Hey, hey – it’s alright,” Kelly said with a laugh to the frightened creature, dropping his container and raising his hands in a gesture of peace, “You just startled me is all. Come here and let me get a better look at you. Come on – I won’t bite.” After taking a moment to calm down, Dahl slowly and gingerly left his hiding place and came once more toward Kelly (he was strangely drawn to the leader of the group, intrigued perhaps by his obvious standing among the others). He cautiously approached to within arm’s reach of the commander before eventually dropping down on his haunches and carefully resting his tiny head on the captain’s knee. Kelly quickly glanced over towards Alvarez, Flaherty and the others to see if they were watching, only to find them facing away in the other direction, eyes glazed as the reverend launched into yet another tirade in which he reinforced the need to acknowledge their debt to the almighty by treating the new world with respect, and thanking his god for the bounty of the strange and alien environment in which they found themselves.

Kelly shook his head and turned back to Dahl, who had closed both of his dark eyes and was now making gentle cooing noises as he too recovered from the effort of the journey so far. Deciding that this might also be a universally acceptable gesture, and partly because he couldn’t help himself, he began stroking the tuft of thick hair on top of the mirrorling’s head which caused it to purr and coo even louder. “Well, you are a friendly little thing, aren’t you..?” he smiled. Kelly looked around again, gazing into the heavy shadows which bridged the thick, misshapen trunks of the trees and added, “Let’s just hope for all of our sakes you’re about the most threatening thing out here. I’m not sure how much farther you’re going to take us here fella, and it’s quite a way back now. We can’t afford to be apart from the others for too much longer.” He reckoned by the position of the planet’s sun that they had at least another few hours of good light before they would need to turn back, and was himself still quite keen to see what sort of society the strange little creatures had established so deep in the alien wilderness.

After another few minutes, and when Reverend Flaherty had finally finished his sermon (to the quiet celebration of his audience), the group rose and continued on their way. At several places on their journey they passed close to a number of the wide, pungent pitcher plants Kelly had noticed earlier that seemed to grow in groups of two or three in hollows by the wayside. He found it odd that whenever the party approached one of these plants, the creature Dahl seemed to grow visibly nervous and would chatter quickly and quietly to itself before then leading the group obviously away from and around them, even if it meant crossing into the denser forest by the path. He found this curious, but not knowing quite how to pick the creature’s brain on the matter just yet, decided to think nothing more of it for the time being. “For all I know,” he mused, “some of his own tribe have fallen into those weird things at one point or another. God knows the little guys would have a hard time getting out again, not to mention that smell..”

Dahl seemed now to be growing more and more excited with every step they took, as the forest trail began to widen and the ascent level-out which caused Kelly to believe that they were finally getting close to where the rest of his community or family (he wasn’t quite sure what to expect) lived. Soon enough, after another twenty minutes of hiking they began to hear the excited chattering of dozens of small voices carried on the wind from somewhere up ahead, and within moments they found that they had left the forest wall once more and were entering another larger clearing, not so different in many ways from the one that they had landed in.

Kelly and his men were surprised to be greeted in the open by a wide ring of small, simple huts that had been built by the mirrorlings over the top of a series of shallow dugouts which appeared to have been painstakingly clawed from the earth by many tiny paws. It was difficult to say how long they had been standing there, however the same thick, dark moss that grew over most of the rocks and fallen logs in the forest seemed to cover a large portion of the exterior of the dwellings which indicated that theirs was a settlement that had remained in that place and as it was for some time.

The brilliant light of the sun that shone once more through the break in the canopy above blinded the group momentarily, but as soon as their eyes adjusted they could also make out the forms of many more dozens of tiny heads and wide, curious eyes peeking out from the darkness of the pits and from behind the huts ahead of them. The humans stood cautious for a minute, looking to Dahl for a go-ahead before daring to progress any further into his village. Despite the apparent docile nature of the creatures, all of them knew better than to assume that nothing on the planet was without the ability to defend itself, and so Kelly chose to take caution. As far as he was concerned it was down to their furry friend now, and so they simply stood as still as possible on the outskirts and waited.

After regarding Kelly for a brief moment, Dahl hopped away excitedly into the middle of the ring of houses and began chirping and chattering loudly to the rest of his kin, none of whom yet dared to venture from the safety of their hiding places. After a minute or so of indistinguishable back and forth with several of his own, the group watched on as a lone mirrorling, much older and shaggier than the others crept out from the largest hut at the far end of the clearing and approached Dahl where he crouched. The two then proceeded to chatter loudly (and at some points heatedly) between themselves for a short while, which made Kelly and the rest of the human travellers just a little confused and uncomfortable.

Lieutenant Jim Tannock, a career soldier and one of three other military personnel among the group leaned in close to Kelly and whispered, “Captain, do you really think we ought to be here..? Clearly these things are a little freaked out, and I’ve counted at least thirty of the little guys myself hiding out behind those huts. Maybe we should just head back, give them some time to get used to the idea that we’re out here first. We don’t have the firepower to look after everyone if, you know, things go south..” Several others in the party heard this and became clearly agitated at the possibility that they might somehow come to harm, however Kelly merely mulled his suggestion over for a second and then replied, “No, I’m not convinced any of us are in any danger just yet. Let’s just wait here a little longer. Whatever this one’s saying,” he indicated toward Dahl with the butt of his rifle, “the rest now seem to be listening. Take a look – some of the others are coming out. Let’s give him another minute or two.”

Sure enough, several of the other natives had now begun to creep out from behind the rocks and shelters in the clearing and were now moving cautiously toward Dahl while also keeping their gaze fixed firmly on the intruders. Clearly the first mirrorling to approach Dahl had been regarded as some sort of leader among the others, and it appeared that he had needed quite some convincing that the humans posed no immediate threat before allowing them to come any closer. After several more minutes, conversation ground to a halt between the two creatures and the more authoritative of the mirrorlings broke away from Dahl, carefully approaching a nervous Kelly and his men to stand about a half a dozen yards away before it gave a curious bow, and speaking as much to them as the rest of his village, proclaimed ceremoniously, “Zada, dorpa kuda – thurli’a a’sha zun-zura m’ath.” Immediately as though prompted, the rest of the villagers wandered out from their hiding places, some walking upright and others hopping along on their hind and forelegs and gathered behind Dahl and their leader, before pointing at the visitors and talking quickly and excitedly amongst themselves in their strange and musical dialect.

Dahl wandered back to the humans and, chattering excitedly, tugged at the cuff of Kelly’s fatigues beckoning him to join them. “Well, I guess that’s as close to an invitation as we’ll get boys,” he remarked to the others, and gestured for the rest of them to follow him into the settlement. The other mirrorlings crowded the group as they were led by Dahl and the village leader, who they found to identify as A’thal Worl (A’thal, they decided, was some sort of title bestowed upon him as each of the tribe only appeared otherwise to have a single name) into the largest of the rustic dwellings wherein they were politely sat down and offered an assortment of strange plants and roots which most of the party tried with the greatest grace and dignity to decline. The next hour saw the two groups gesticulating amongst themselves and trying as best they could to understand and find out more about each other, which proved in some moments to be enlightening and others, nothing short of frustrating.

From what the humans were able to gather, there were around fifty or sixty of the little blue creatures that lived together as some sort of tribal arrangement in the village. The mirrorlings were mostly herbivores, much to the visitors’ relief save for a measure of fist-sized gelatinous globs that the creatures had offered to them which turned their stomachs as they wriggled and writhed over the flat wooden dish they were served on. The small creatures hungrily devoured the glistening insects by the pawful when they were politely passed back, much to Kelly’s disgust, as though they were some sort of strange delicacy reserved only for special guests or to be enjoyed on the most important of occasions.

They learned that the males among the tribe were only slightly larger than the females, and both were otherwise almost indistinguishable to the humans save for a series of half a dozen paler blue rings which ran along the length of the long and playful tails of the females. All in all, they found the natives to be a very simple and largely pleasant race, not at all threatening to the humans though their ability to imitate the gestures and speech of their visitors despite their lack of understanding was quite astonishing, and a factor that eventually led to the expedition’s science detail’s decision to refer to them as mirrorlings.

The two groups sat and attempted to engage for some time before Kelly finally decided that they had best return to their camp before the sun set. All in all it had proved to be an educational, if not impromptu expedition, but he had not forgotten about the rest of his crew and travellers back at the pod and knew that there were still quite a few chores that needed to be completed before they would be able to safely settle-in for the night. The group motioned that they needed to leave and the creatures showed an obvious sadness at the prospect, their leader immediately calling for several of the others to bring a small supply of plants and roots to their visitors for the return journey, to which they again tried their best to show an obvious gratitude. In return for the gesture, Reverend Flaherty removed a small gilded crucifix from around his neck, and ever so gently motioned to A’thal Worl to take it. The leader of the mirrorlings soberly regarded the strange object for a moment, first cautiously sniffing and then tasting it before gingerly placing the icon around its own neck and smiling awkwardly, to the laughter of the rest of Kelly’s group. Both mirrorling and human alike rose and bowed, and Dahl conversed with his leader for a brief moment alone before finally leading the humans from the dwelling and back out into the clearing once more.

It quickly became clear to them that Dahl had sought permission to take leave of the village and lead Kelly and his group back to where they first met, and so after waving goodbye to the strange inhabitants of the clearing (a gesture they clearly neither understood nor reciprocated), they re-entered the forest and started back along the way they had come. By the time they finally returned to what could only scarcely be called a path, the planet’s sun was already beginning its slow descent below the canopy above them. The growing darkness quickly brought the strange and ancient forest to life, and for all of the primitive wildlife they had already seen there must have still been thousands of new and hidden creatures obscured in the shadows that began to chirp and whistle all around them as they went. Though their hike had been quite gruelling at times, the buzz of the native fauna and the sudden drop in temperature caused spirits among the group to soar, and many almost skipped along as they took in the unique and enriching experience of simply being there.

All of a sudden, when direct sunlight completely ceased to filter down through the trees, Kelly and the group noticed that Dahl was starting to grow more and more tense and began nervously peering into the blackness between the boughs, and chattering lowly and unintelligibly once more to himself as he went. For whatever reason, the growing dark seemed to make the creature uneasy which in turn caused Kelly and his men to hold their weapons closer and raise their own awareness for anything around them that seemed out of place, or which might resemble a threat. They had no way of knowing exactly what else might lurk in the unexplored corners of the strange new world, and decided that they would take no chances, particularly if nightfall had caused a native inhabitant like Dahl to grow wary.

Eventually they reached the lower foothills leading into their encampment just as darkness closed in completely, and the group allowed themselves to finally breathe easy as the way ahead became wanly lit by the powerful halogen lamps of their camp that penetrated the forest in front of them. As they neared their destination, Kelly began to take notice of several of the large pitcher plants at the edge of his line of sight resting quietly and ominously on either side of the path like clandestine sentinels. He wasn’t quite sure if it was a trick of the changing light, but he could have sworn that several of their dark silhouettes appeared to have broken apart since they last passed them earlier that afternoon, as though they had somehow opened out and bloomed with the setting of the sun. “I must be seeing things,” he mumbled quietly, rubbing his eyes and decided to leave it until morning to return for a closer look knowing full well that there was no way he would be able to draw Dahl, who was for some reason growing still more nervous despite being so close to camp, anywhere near them.

Eventually however, curiosity got the better of him and he picked up his pace to draw alongside the mirrorling, pointing to the dim forms in the shadows. “Dahl, what are those things..?” he asked, not entirely confident he would be rewarded with an intelligible response. “What do those plants do, to make you so afraid – what happens here when the light goes away..?” Dahl’s eyes darted from the path only momentarily before he picked up speed himself, and after searching his mind for a moment for an appropriate human term, managed to reply with only a single word he’d heard the captain utter earlier that afternoon:

“Hurt.”

Kelly was confused by Dahl’s response and understandably rattled, and he too picked up his pace, calling back to the others to follow suit. Within moments, the group entered the clearing with a sigh of relief and began fanning-out to rejoin the rest of their expedition. Despite there having been much still left to do before they could settle in for the night, Lieutenant Tannock, Kelly and the rest of the group were a little surprised not to see a single member of their landing party either at work in the camp, milling about the clearing nor approaching them to welcome them back and ask about their journey into the wild. Instead, it seemed eerily quiet in the clearing. Although all lamps had been lit and the windbreaks erected as their captain had requested, the encampment was deathly silent and not a single soul appeared to be present, at least not out in the open. They noticed also that there were now a number of strange shells of a dry, organic nature that weren’t there when they left and which littered the ground in several places throughout the camp, causing Dahl to whimper softly for some reason as he passed them by.

Kelly instinctively bent down to pick one of the strange casings up as they walked but as he reached to take it, Dahl suddenly rushed forward and let out a piercing yelp, slapping his hand and causing him to immediately draw back. The mirrorling then regarded Kelly momentarily with a look of unmistakable fear and admonition before bounding away to safety and cowering behind Reverend Flaherty’s legs, trembling in fright. Kelly rose to his full height and simply stared down at the casing, which he now came to realise appeared less benign and more closely reminiscent of a sort of short and thick discarded snake skin. He turned to the others, ordering them to “Keep your eyes peeled for anything suspicious, and don’t any of you touch these things for any reason.. at least until we know exactly what they are. Something’s got the little guy spooked,” he looked warily around the camp, “I don’t want to take any chances.”

Jim approached Kelly as the group stood near the edge of the clearing, and asked, “Captain, where in the world is everyone..? We were the only group supposed to leave the camp today. If I didn’t know any better I’d say something’s up.” “Yeah, you might be right” he replied, “I’ve got a funny feeling myself – it’s a little too quiet.” He called softly to the rest of his men, “Get the reverend and the rest behind you, Coates and Daniels,” he addressed his two junior officers, “take flank and follow us around the clearing. Let’s head for the pod, and try not to draw attention to ourselves.” The group quickly assembled in a formation with Dahl and the reverend at their centre and slowly made their way around the camp, keeping close to the shadows and straining their ears for any sort of sound from the settlers they’d left behind.

After clearing thirty or forty yards unchallenged and upon reaching the pod, Kelly slid the access card that hung loosely around his neck into the receiver to the right of the hatch and punched-in his entry code. The door slid softly open with a low hiss, and at once the small craft lit up and beckoned the group inside. Kelly ordered his two junior officers to remain with Dahl (who was by now almost inconsolable) and the rest of the party outside the gangway and motioned for Jim to join him in cautiously entering the ship, its pale white interior lights pulsating as they drew on energy cells now set to a lower output in order to conserve what little power was stored for the return journey to the orbiter. They tiptoed aboard, holding their weapons high and nodded to each other to indicate that the pod was empty. Kelly lowered his weapon and crossed the entryway to approach the doors to the bridge that had for some reason been closed and secured. This in of itself was strange, as entry into the cockpit of the craft was strictly open only to his officers, and as a rule only ever sealed from the inside.

Raising their weapons aloft once more, the pair stood at attention and ready for anything as Kelly once more swiped the access panel for the heavy automated doors and the entry to the cockpit slowly slid open. Immediately they could detect movement from within the bridge and the pair didn’t waste a second, rushing in with their rifles drawn and yelling loudly for the occupants to “Freeze..! Drop whatever you’re doing and put your hands where we can see them..!” Two of the company’s settlers, a young man and woman were found to be sitting at the controls to the vessel and as the soldiers entered they both immediately swung around in their chairs in unison and without warning leapt towards them, fists flailing and both uttering a deep and unsettling growl that neither of the men had ever heard another human being make before.

Quick as a flash, their training took over and they each thrust the butts of their rifles directly at the settlers’ heads with a precision strike, successfully knocking both of them completely out cold before either could land a blow. Both bodies slumped to the floor of the pod with an almighty crash, and once again the ship fell silent. In that moment, Jim and Kelly could do little more then just stare at each other in astonishment, neither of them expecting to be met with aggression nor understanding what on Earth could have made the two react so violently, or for that matter what two unskilled settlers with zero flight experience could have possibly been doing at the ship’s computer. “What the hell..!” Jim started, “Since when are civilians given access to the pod, and what was with that noise..?!” he asked in exasperation. “I don’t know,” Kelly panted, “but I’ll promise you, I’m going to find out.” They then both knelt low toward the inert bodies on the floor for a closer look as Daniels, still guarding the entryway to the ship called in from outside:

“Hey, guys,” his voice could be heard echoing through the pod, “what the hell was that commotion..? Is everything alright in there..?” Kelly responded, “Yeah, yeah.. just a couple of civilians, dicking around at the console. Probably drunk or something. Just keep an eye out for more out there, will you..?” He reached down and clasped the shoulder of the female settler who was lying face down beside the captain’s chair, but as he was about to turn her body over to ascertain an identity, his stomach flipped as he noticed something strange and unusual resting at the base of her skull. “What in the weird..? Hey Jim,” he pressed two fingers gently into a sizeable bulge that had formed under the skin, roughly the size and shape of a small toy football, “get a load of this.” “What is that, is it some kind of tumour..?” Jim replied. Before Kelly could answer, the dark growth beneath his fingers suddenly moved and his hand immediately drew back like a shot.

“Holy shit..!” Jim exclaimed, as the bulge continued to writhe and shiver beneath her skin, appearing to bury itself deeper into the settler’s neck. Her body twitched slightly as it did, and then the same reaction began to suddenly occur in the male settler as though the two were somehow linked. “What is it, is there some kind of THING in there..?” Jim asked, incredulously. Before either of them could articulate a guess, the sound of a loud round of rifle fire split the air inside the cabin and the pair heard the panicked shouts of both Coates and Daniels as they hollered and argued with someone or something outside the pod. “Quickly – cuff these two and let’s get the hell out of here, now..!” Like a flash, they drew restraints from their utility belts and swiftly fastened them around the wrists of the two unconscious settlers before racing out of the pod and down the gangway to join the rest of the team who they found to now be either crouching against the hull of the pod or else firing erratically into the shadows around the encampment.

As soon as they left the rear doors, Jim and Kelly were confronted by a deep and familiar growl that gurgled from the throats of nearly two dozen of the other remaining settlers who had rushed from the forest moments earlier and were now surrounding the ship in a wide circle, staring coldly at the two privates who were firing sporadically at the feet of any that dared to try and approach them. “Captain, captain..!” screamed Daniels, “They just appeared like a swarm out of nowhere and rushed right through us. Three of them, they just grabbed the reverend and dragged him out into the trees, we’re holding the rest off but they’ve gone completely out of their minds..!” The settlers growled and gargled menacingly in the blinding light, but didn’t dare to come any closer while the officers had their weapons trained on them. Several of the science detail were cowering with their faces buried in their hands, simply refusing to acknowledge the situation and although Kelly strained his eyes against the glare searching the clearing for any sign of Dahl, the strange little creature was now nowhere to be seen.

As his sight readjusted to the bright light of the external lamps, Kelly was able to distinguish the same misshapen growth on the necks of each and every one of the settlers that their counterparts within the pod had shared and the same cold and lifeless look in their eyes. A number foamed at the mouth and all were absolutely filthy, their clothing torn in places and their arms and faces caked with mud and some sort of thick sap-like resin from somewhere, as though they had been tearing at the vegetation of the forest with their bare hands, or pulling open the stems of those bulbous, foul smelling..

“The pitchers..!”

Kelly could now detect the same heavy, rotting odour from the plants that wafted across from the settlers and immediately realised that whatever it was that had caused them to behave this way, those strange, evil looking plants had something to do with it. He addressed the defending detail, ordering Tannock to join the other two in threatening fire and called out to their attackers in the vain hope of appealing to whatever reason remained and perhaps negotiating a way out of a what had become a quickly escalating situation.

“Hey..! It’s me, Miller. What is it you want..?” he yelled, “What’s come over you all..? What happened here while we were gone..?” No answer came from the group, who seemed only to be shuffling ever so slowly toward them, testing the limits of the humanity of his officers who were still reluctant to fire directly at them. Unexpectedly, at Kelly’s questioning a lone member of the film crew that had been forced to stay behind with the others stepped boldly forward from the throng and extended his right arm toward him, as though pointing. For several seconds, no-one on either side moved a muscle until the cameraman replied, speaking with the same thick and uncomfortable gargle that the rest of the group had made:

“We want.. the ship. Give us the ship.”

The hairs on the back of Kelly’s neck bristled as a wave of fear coursed through his body. “What does he mean, give us the ship.” Tannock asked, “None of these civilians even knows how to start the engines, what the hell is he talking about..?” “I don’t know,” Kelly stammered, “but I do know that there are far more of them than there are of us, and if they decide to rush us – we’re done for.” Kelly, who was himself a tall and imposing figure arched his back and stood at full height, replying defiantly, “The ship is ours, you can’t have it. What’s the matter with you people, come to your senses. Tell me what happened here, what can we do to make you stop with this, this insanity..?” He asked in a last appeal to whatever or whoever he was addressing, now realising that somehow it wasn’t only the same meek civilian he had landed with so many hours earlier who now stood in front of him. “We can help you, all of you.. just back away from the pod.”

“The ship is OURS,” came a last gargle from the other man, “You can only submit..

.. you can only DIE.”

At this, the settlers all threw their arms wide as one and with a horrifying, inhuman shriek which cut them to the core burst into a full sprint, running straight toward the pod and those defending it. Kelly screamed at his officers to “Open fire now, take them out – as many as you can..!” His crew immediately let loose a volley of rifle fire at the group, seemingly killing a half dozen in seconds as the rest rushed forward undeterred. Some had even taken direct shots to the legs and torso from the volley, but somehow incredibly still scrambled ahead, almost baying for blood as they closed distance with the officers. Kelly knew they didn’t stand a chance – there were simply too many, and they seemed to be behaving with an almost animalistic frenzy. He was done for.. they were done for. For the first time in his life he prayed quietly to himself, hoping that whatever was about to happen to them would happen quickly and painlessly.

Suddenly, just as the mass of flailing bodies were about to reach them, everyone was stopped dead in their tracks by a loud and sudden blast of noise from the far off in the forest behind them. From beyond the shadows, the piercing, dissonant sound of a loud and mighty trumpet split the night and brought the settlers to a complete standstill, as though they somehow recognised the shrill and discordant noise. Kelly searched the darkness for the source of the sound as his officers held their weapons still, shaking with adrenaline and fear but couldn’t make out anything for the silhouettes of the trees surrounding them. Only a moment later, the high and musical voices of what must have been hundreds of diminutive mirrorlings erupted from the edge of the clearing as a veritable army of the small creatures flooded into the light of the camp and rushed towards the settlers brandishing all manner of fashioned clubs, rocks and other strange and unfamiliar weapons.

The invading mirrorlings quickly overran and toppled their assailants in seconds, throwing the settlers roughly to the ground and holding them prone in the dirt, several of the small creatures to a man. It took the weight of two or three of them to secure each flailing limb as the settlers growled and violently thrashed about, however in a few short minutes, each and every one of them had been pinned face down and held secure. Jim, Kelly and the rest could simply not believe it. They couldn’t have been followed, and there was no way for the tribes to have anticipated what was unfolding – unless somehow they knew. Somehow, the mirrorlings had understood what was to take place that night, and they had been assembled to protect their new friends from harm. From the rear of their number, what must have been several villages worth in all, Dahl suddenly emerged once more and approached Kelly, a grave look of concern crossing his small and cat-like face. Kelly was dumbfounded and couldn’t contain himself, and quickly moved forward to thank him.

“Dahl,” he started with a gasp, “What happened to these people, and how.. how did you know..?” He remembered his manners, and thanked the small creature a hundred times over as he looked down at the rest of his companions who were still writhing violently and trying unsuccessfully to free themselves. Dahl only nodded in reply, still looking extremely worried and deftly raised a small and curious metal blade he held at one side, which Kelly had only just noticed was there. It was stranger still that the thin weapon appeared to be extremely old and intricately fashioned, and apparently far beyond the technological capabilities of a tribe of creatures that he regarded as little more than hunter-gatherers with no discernible ability to have forged. Before Kelly could attempt to form another question, his eyes bulged in shock as Dahl reached down suddenly and in one swift move, cut a long and precise slit across the base of the nearest prone settler’s neck and in almost the same motion yanked a thick, dark and worm-like parasite from the open wound.

Coates and Daniels retched and Jim could only articulate the words, “Christ, I’m going to be sick,” as the long, savage looking parasite wriggled and writhed in Dahl’s tightly-clenched paw, its two small, dark eyes flitting around menacingly as its pincers sliced the air either side of a wide mouth that supported row upon row of thin, needle-like teeth. “The statues..!” remembered Kelly, as he finally recognised the same sinister features that adorned the monstrous architecture that lined the esplanade of the temple complex atop the hill. Dahl understood Kelly’s expression at once, and nodded solemnly before raising the relic once more and dispatching the cold creature with one fell strike before casting its lifeless and disgusting body to the ground.

Dahl then turned to Kelly without so much as a pause, and with a tiny paw reached out and clasped the captain’s hand. All of a sudden, Kelly felt his subconscious yanked sharply in a direction he didn’t know existed and through an ability miles beyond his own comprehension which left him completely helpless, the mirrorling somehow connected with his new friend through a power that can only closely be likened to telekinesis. In the space of a few short seconds that felt like a lifetime, Dahl showed to Kelly the true nature of his people, flooding his mind with their history; the rise and fall of a once advanced and civilised empire that spanned the entirety of the planet, their own hubris and the usurping of their leaders to the sinister cunning of the pitcher worms and their hateful, twisted desires.

He learnt that the mirrorlings were once the gentle and diligent caretakers of Kepler 442b, having evolved in the beginning in harmony with the lush environment of their world and the multitude of strange and docile creatures with which they shared their version of paradise. As generations passed however, and is sadly the want of much intelligent life their mastery over the land and its native life excelled to a point where they risked losing it all to their own desire to create and destroy, much as Kelly’s own people had done in the great wars of Earth in the twentieth century.

One fateful night many generations ago, the skies above their world grew light as day and rained down fire across the continents as many thousands of great and terrible meteors bombarded their towns and cities, destroying much of what they had taken centuries to create. It was soon after this catastrophic event that the first of those awful pitchers took root, and the worms crawled forth to overcome their people and enforce their evil will just as they must have done many times to countless planets before. Theirs was an alien plague that sought to conquer world after world, moving on as a swarm of spores when all the wealth and beauty of a host world had been usurped. Through their cunning and the knowledge of past hosts, they would manufacture a dystopia wherever they landed and once their appetite had been sated, find a way to depart the ruin they left in their wake.

After a great civil war in which the lives of a great majority of the mirrorlings were tragically extinguished as the invaders took control, a dark age of oppression which lasted centuries soon followed as the worms took their best and brightest as hosts, forcing the defeated population to toil restlessly to create those same monuments and temples that Kelly had visited shortly upon arrival. The aliens ruled their world as gods for an age, cruelly working the mirrorlings to satisfy their every need and conspiring among themselves to develop a means by which to leave the planet’s surface and return once more to the stars, and to their next conquest. It wasn’t until one day, by the sheer force of will and the greatest secrecy, that a rebellion was formed.

As the sun set on another hot Summer’s eve in which more of the pitcher worms’ young would crawl forth from the plants to take hosts, every last free mirrorling took up arms and slew their oppressors, tearing down the temples their kin had been worked to death to create and defiantly burning every one of those sinister plants that they could find. Unfortunately, their own numbers by then had declined drastically and although they returned to the forests wiser than to ever again become an attractive host for the evil seedlings, by now they lacked the force and technology to do away with them completely. From out of those dark and frightful days, an uncomfortable and ever vigilant coexistence was established that lasted from then until Kelly and his group arrived, and the ambitions of the pitcher worms was reawakened.

After only a moment, the pain and sheer flood of emotion became too much for his own primitive mind to bear, and Kelly was forced to disconnect from the experience, falling to his knees in shock as the sheer enormity of their misunderstanding finally dawned on him.

The strange translucent larvae that Kelly and his men had been offered earlier that afternoon he realised were nothing other than the infant form of the same pitcher worms that had swarmed the remaining settlers shortly after his party had left the camp, harvested by the safe light of day by the mirrorlings and devoured ceremoniously as a symbol of their undying hatred toward their former oppressors. They were apparently of little danger in that state, lacking the strength to break the tough skin of a mirrorling until fully matured and otherwise harmlessly digested en masse as a final act of rebellion.

The monuments that Kelly had stumbled upon that morning had been erected at the height of the enslavement of Dahl’s people, and were it not for their technological unreadiness to carry the worms off from the planet’s surface and towards the stars the rebellion that freed the mirrorlings from the grip of terror and slavery so many generations earlier might never have taken place. The mirrorlings knew, and had learnt through the harshest of lessons in the most brutal of ways that what might well be the paradise of Kepler 442b to some hid in its deepest shadows a far darker reality that few had the experience with which to coexist.

A’thal, Dahl and the rest of their kin quickly set about extracting the remaining parasites from the settlers and an already freed Reverend Flaherty was brought forward from the throng to rejoin the rest of his fellow humans, still mostly in deep shock and yet to fully regain control of their senses. The stress of being made vessels for the sinister and highly intelligent will of the worms had taken a heavy toll on many of them, and despite assurances that they would be fine again in time, Kelly ordered his officers to watch over them for the remainder of the night and for every man, woman and child to remain vigilant for any more of the small parasites that might attempt to infiltrate the camp. After making sure that the area was indeed clear, the mirrorlings made it known that they would now need to return once more to the watch and safety of their own villages, and Kelly promised them that he would make arrangements at first light to take his people off of the planet’s surface and back to the skies from whence they had come.

Now lucid and beyond gratitude, Reverend Flaherty thanked A’thal at length, who in turn attempted politely to return the small crucifix that he had been gifted earlier that day. The action was met with only a smile, as Michael responded; “No, that’s yours my friend. Keep it safe as a reminder that today, as on all others, someone out there is watching over you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and God bless. Until we meet again.” A’thal bowed low, and waved awkwardly before rejoining his brethren and slowly marching them back into the surrounding woods and to their respective homes. After several long moments only Dahl remained among them, and when everyone in his party was accounted for Kelly knelt low and addressed the mirrorling one last time.

“Dahl, my friend. We can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for us this day. The people of Earth, and I daresay others that might have suffered if those creatures had once more found their way off of this strange world and out into the stars are indebted to you.” He was tired, and tried his best not to appear too emotional in spite of himself. “I’m not sure how we can ever repay you, other than to ensure that none of our kind return before we are able to find a way ourselves to best those devils that your kind have once beaten. Thank you, for everything.” He reached down to clasp the creatures paw, and although the gesture was foreign to him, Dahl reciprocated and bowed his own head in acknowledgement, closing both his saucer eyes as he did.

Moments later, the first of the mirrorlings to greet the travellers turned and rejoined his tribe in the forest, leaving Kelly and his officers to attend to their wounded and take stock of their situation. Although they all remained safely locked in the pod throughout the remainder of the night, scarce few words were exchanged and not a single one of them dared to sleep a wink for fear of what might happen if, somehow, one of those strange and awful worms managed to find a way on-board the craft.

Early the next morning, the pod’s engines fired and the human travellers left the surface of Kepler 442b, soaring swiftly through the planet’s atmosphere before finally docking once more with the waiting Endeavour. Before commanding her gravity drive be primed for the fastest possible speed out of orbit, Kelly was obliged to send a single brief preceding message back to the Lunar Station to be forwarded to the World Government’s Space Association. His message read:

“20860309 – WGSA Off-World Communication. Origin Kepler 442b. Despite all indications the planet is void of life and geologically unstable. Uninhabitable, and an extreme danger to human life. Avoid at all costs.

We’re coming home.

End transmission.”

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Here’s a Real Short One, to Break up the Week..

‘THE VISITOR’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

“Open your mouth and take your medicine, or I’ll have no choice but to use force,” promised Stanley as he struggled to keep his patient still. He was doing his very best to administer a carefully prescribed dose of the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine to a particularly troubled inmate, Lyall Murphy, so that he could send the rest of his patients off to sleep without incident. Unfortunately, Lyall had been a disruptive force among the rest of the hospital population for the entirety of that day, kicking and hollering, thrashing about and just generally stirring up dissent among the other patients. Now refusing to swallow his pills, Stanley had taken it upon himself to isolate him in the recreation room in the hope that he might cool off after a little time spent separated from the others, however this had somehow only seemed to fire him up even more.

As much as Stanley tried to be patient, if he was being honest he had taken just about all he could handle from one individual in a day. He was himself a tall and extremely well built man, known amongst the others as something of a gentle giant but he would often warn them that he’d one day lose his temper and there’d be hell to pay, if he was ever pushed too far. As yet it had never come to that – he was a professional, after all.

He firmly gripped Lyall’s nostrils, and after a minute the other man was forced to open his mouth once more to breathe. Stanley threw a small plastic cup’s worth of brightly coloured pills down his throat and held his other hand over his mouth until he was confident they had been ingested. Leaning in close, he whispered to Lyall as he rose to leave, “One more outburst like that, and it’s restraints for you – do you understand..?” Lyall suddenly went as white as a sheet, nodded and lay placidly on the floor muttering all manner of delirious nonsense to himself, leaving Stanley free to continue on with his rounds.

The staff and detainees at Flagstaff Asylum had always shared a tenuous relationship. Local media on several occasions had chosen to run exposés on the treatment of the population, putting the arguably questionable methods of the hospital’s new management under a microscope, but they had always insisted that their treatment of the inmates would stand up to any scrutiny. “Tabloid journalism, at its most pathetic,” was their response, and without any legitimate cases of malpractice making their way into the public domain, interest in the facility eventually faded from the spotlight altogether. The tough love approach seemed to work, and even if there were complaints to be made, the mentally ill were in no position to make them. For most of the staff there, the end well and truly seemed to justify the means.

Just as Stanley turned out the lights and was about to lock the solid wooden doors once more, Lyall suddenly sat bolt upright, eyes glazed and frothing at the mouth and screamed at the top of his lungs, “You can’t keep us here forever, don’t you see that..? They’re coming for us Stanley – they’ll be here any minute..! They’re coming..!” He then leapt to his feet and rushed to the far end of the room, still screaming, and pounded his fists repeatedly against the concrete walls and barred windows. Stanley could only shake his head and continue on his way down the main corridor of the facility. “It’s a shame that after so long, he still won’t trust me with even the most routine activities.” He sighed, conceding that the job was a thankless one but that he could only do what he could do.

He spotted another colleague as he walked, a pretty young woman by the name of Wendy Lee who herself had spent the afternoon looking after a different group of patients at the far end of the facility. She winked at Stanley as he passed, and he immediately went bright red. “How are the others doing, Wendy..?” he stopped to ask, his voice almost breaking. “Sleeping like babies, I think we’re in for a quiet one, Stan – touch wood.” she laughed. He had always taken a liking to Wendy, for as long as he could remember. She had such a kind face, and a cute, almost musical laugh that had become contagious among the other workers at the asylum. “Maybe after tonight I should finally go ahead and ask her out for a drink,” he though optimistically to himself. “You never know, right..?”

Lyall was still belting the walls and windows of the recreation room down the hall and screaming as loud as he could. “Well, almost quiet,” Wendy added, “what’s the matter with that one..?” She gestured with a thumb, to which Stanley gave another sigh, “He’s been like that all afternoon. Won’t sit still, flat-out refuses to take his meds or cooperate. I’m beginning to think we might need to get a little tougher with him. I’ve tried just about every other method that we’ve used with the others, but for some reason he just won’t quit. Sometimes I think in his mind, he runs the place,” he laughed, and so did she. “Well, if he still has the energy in the morning, I’m sure we can look at other options – we’re not licked yet,” she offered. He smiled again, and turned to let her get back to what she was doing.

No sooner had he left her and was about to turn the key on another cell, a deeper and more ominous noise suddenly boomed throughout the main corridor, quite different to Lyall’s protests. Out of the near-darkness of the far end of the building a loud, low rumble seemed to have come from the direction of the front doors to the eastern wing, which housed most of the more troublesome inmates and in which Stanley now worked. It was well past 9pm, and they had already locked and bolted all of the main entrances and exits to the building in preparation for another long night’s shift. He stopped still for a minute, the hairs on the back of his neck at attention and just stared ahead, ears cocked and straining to discern if the noise continued.

After a while, the moment seemed to pass and he decided that he must have been hearing things, perhaps just the central heating system firing up (it was a cold August night, after all). There had been no checks scheduled for that night or visitors ever allowed into Flagstaff past sundown, and no reason for that to change. “Pull yourself together, Stanley,” he thought to himself, “It’s not like it’s your first night in the looney bin.” He had been at the facility for nearly four years now, long enough to know when his imagination was getting the better of him. He shrugged his shoulders and continued on his way, whistling nervously.

Long nights at the asylum often had a way of taking their toll on even the hardiest of the men and women that worked there. It wasn’t uncommon for new staff and nurses to call it quits after only a few weeks on the job as the lengthy shadows, loneliness and strange sounds of the facility got the better of them. It took a special kind of mental fortitude to deal with that environment, and Stanley felt that he was a unique sort of character in his ability to simply shrug it off and keep a cool head, focusing only on the task at hand. The asylum was filled with men and women that needed to be taken care of, simple people with complex problems, but all of them capable of being rehabilitated given the right treatment. It was a difficult calling, but he was more than qualified to handle it.

Mind back on the job, he finished medicating his next inmate who had also frustratingly chosen to resist, and had only taken a half a dozen steps or so from the cell when he heard the same strange sound again, much louder than before and this time persisting for almost half a minute; Boom! Boom! Boom! He froze dead in his tracks. He could feel the floor under his feet tremble slightly with each loud crash, and several of his colleagues must have also heard it as they too left the cells they were attending to and joined him in the corridor, all looking around uneasily at each other. This time from where he was standing he could clearly see the two solid doors in the distance shake and buckle violently against the force from whatever it was that was on the other side.

Wendy was suddenly right beside him once more, and was the first of them to speak, “Stanley, did you.. did you hear that too..?” she asked, her voice quivering “What’s making that awful noise – what’s out there?” Most of the power to the facility had already been shut off for the night, and so the common areas were now only bathed in a wan and eerie fluorescent half-light which made things seem all the more hazy and surreal. Before Stanley was able to respond, a familiar shrill and mocking laughter erupted from the hallway behind them and split the uncomfortable pause:

“They’re here..! Hahaha, I told you they’d come..! They’ve heard me calling, you can’t stop them now. I told you – you’re all finished! Hahaha..!” It was Lyall, who had given up pounding on the walls and now pressed his face against the thick glass of the recreation room doors, calling out through the gap in between. His almost frenzied delivery chilled them to their cores, and they all turned and stared nervously toward Stanley for any sort of direction. On any other night he might have simply ignored Lyall’s warning, but something about tonight felt different. Somehow the shadows cast by the after-hours tubes along the corridor wall seemed somewhat longer than usual, and a little darker. Earlier that afternoon, he could have sworn he’d heard a strange, far-off wail on the wind as he had locked the doors, and he just couldn’t shake a deep and uncomfortable feeling that he was constantly being watched from somewhere, by someone..

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The crashing came again from down the hall, almost deafening this time and was accompanied by the unmistakeable sound of strange, muffled voices and splintering wood. Whoever or whatever was on the other side of those doors, it was only a matter of time before the hinges gave way to their relentless pounding, leaving both the staff and inmates at the facility largely unarmed and with nowhere to hide. “What the hell is going on..?” Stanley thought, finally calling out, “Hey..! Who’s there..? Nobody’s allowed in here at after dark – NOBODY, do you hear..?!” He started to panic as the noise continued unabated and reached into his long white coat, unclipping his baton and desperately issuing instructions to the rest of the group. “Travis, Simon – lock the cells and go and get the torches. Wendy, stay close to me, the everyone else go and get out of sight. Hurry, I don’t know how those doors are going to hold..”

Before he could finish the thought, the front entrance suddenly burst open with a tremendous crash, and a dozen heavily armed special response officers flooded the corridor, weapons drawn and shouting loudly for everyone to “Drop what you’re carrying and get on the floor..!” Wendy threw her arms into the air and laughed an insane, piercing cackle as Stanley immediately charged at the officers, swinging a heavy black baton and screaming madly as he rushed towards them. Dr. Lyall Murphy remained lucid just long enough to cry out desperately from the recreation room, “In here, officers – they’ve locked the staff in the cells and have been force-feeding us their medication all day. Some of them have stopped breathing. Oh god, please – you have to hurry..!”

A Seven Letter Word for Divine Intervention..

‘DEGREE OF SEPARATION’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

“A seven letter word for divine intervention,” Kylie mused aloud over the daily crossword in the Thursday edition of Porter County’s Post-Tribune. She had stopped in to a cafe during her lunch break to meet up with an old friend who had just moved back home to Indiana after having spent almost four years working her way around Europe – a dream she’d had since they both skipped classes together in high school. Carmen was late. Kylie had already been waiting ten minutes and was beginning to assess the time it would take to walk back to her office, but this was not entirely unusual behaviour for her friend who had always operated on a slightly different plane of existence than those around her. Carmen was something like the Porter County police; rarely around for the little things but always there when you really needed them.

“Tequila!” sang a familiar voice from behind her, causing Kylie to spit a mouthful of hot macchiato out all over the newspaper. She spun around quickly in her chair and was greeted by the smiling face of Carmen who had been reading over her shoulder for almost a minute. Kylie got up out of her chair and squealed in delight, the two embracing in a scene that raised several eyebrows amongst the other diners before they sat down to order. “I can’t believe it’s really you..!” Kylie started, “It’s been such a long time – how was your trip, and when did you get in..? Where are you staying..?” She suddenly had so many questions that her friend’s Facebook updates just hadn’t covered, and found herself gushing almost like a school girl once again. The joy at seeing such a familiar face had almost made her forget entirely about her own problems that she had been mulling over before she arrived.

“The trip was fabulous!” Carmen replied, “Absolutely everything about it, from the hostels and bars to the nightlife, the places and people and the men – don’t even get me started!” She gave a knowing wink. Having been the sensible one of their group in college, Kylie had always lived somewhat vicariously through her friend who was, let’s just say something of a free spirit in her younger years. It seemed as though little had changed either, as she launched into the first of many sordid stories detailing boozed up nights in back-alley bars, a stint hitchhiking across Spain and a week-long cruise in the Mediterranean. Kylie had jumped straight into a degree after graduation before her marriage to husband Dominic last year, and couldn’t help but feel as though she had missed out a little on what it might have been like to take a breather before getting her ducks in a row. Eventually Carmen ran out of steam, asking, “Enough about me though, surely you’re tired of hearing about my childish antics. Tell me about you and that gorgeous husband of yours, I can’t believe I wasn’t here for the wedding..!”

Kylie smiled awkwardly, “Dominic and I are doing well. The proposal was a big surprise, we’d traveled to Chicago for a weekend to see his parents, and one night he took me up to the roof of our condo where a table, wine and wait staff were already waiting for us. I was a complete mess when he got down on one knee. The view, the night air – it was just surreal. He’s been amazing, and we’ve got our little place in Portage, well I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, which Carmen immediately picked up on, “What is it, honey..? Is everything alright..?” She took Kylie’s hand and leaned in with a look of concern. Kylie hesitated, and then continued:

“Well, until about a month or so ago everything was fine. Just amazing, really. I’d just started on at Findlays and he was on the road less often, we finally had more time than ever to spend together. Lately though,” she paused to best articulate herself, “He’s been a little distant and working a lot of long hours, he says to meet with clients and the like. Despite having him around more, it somehow seems as though we’re spending less and less time together, just the two of us.” She sighed and collected herself, “But enough about that, you didn’t come here to hear about my paranoia. I’m sure I’m just blowing things out of proportion, which I’ve never done before, right..?” She laughed and Carmen smiled, replying; “Well I’m sure it’s just nothing, but you have always been good at reading people. Sometimes maybe a little too good – remember Jordy..?” Kylie laughed, “Well, in my defence he WAS a shady character. How was I to know he had a sister..?” The two spent the rest of the hour catching up, Kylie filling her in on the exciting world of business accountancy and Carmen telling her all about her little sister Nadine and the new mystery man she’d been seeing. “Chin up, honey,” she said as they eventually called for the cheque and left the cafe, “It’s like we used to say – some days you’re the pigeon, other days the statue. But if anyone can smell a rat, it’s Kylie Tavares. Kylie Tavares.. that just sounds weird to say..!”

They parted ways, promising to get together that weekend for a decent drink and to hear more about each other’s busy lives and plans for the future. Despite the momentary respite, Kylie couldn’t help but feel rattled at having finally voiced her concerns out in the open. Dominic had been her only real long term relationship, and they had married relatively quickly despite her usual caution in getting close to people. She spent the remainder of the afternoon with her head in the company books, trying hard to keep her mind off of anything other than her work.

Across town, Carmen’s sister Nadine was working absent-mindedly at another bar and cafe where she trained as a barista most afternoons. She was only nineteen, and had decided to take a leaf out of her big sister’s book, working straight out of school to save for a long trip abroad before then deciding on which college to apply for. It seemed like the sensible choice, and given her own active social life she felt quite a way off from being ready to knuckle down and focus on building a career. Slinging drinks and coffee was easy, and the hours suited her perfectly. Today, even more than usual her thoughts were miles away from the task at hand. She had been seeing an older man, Sebastian, for several months and unlike any other boyfriends she’d had in high school, this just felt different. He was mature, grounded.. he made her feel safe and seemed genuinely happy to see her, as often as his schedule allowed. Sebastian worked often, but every time he was able to get away and the two of them could head out for dinner or drinks in the city, he would shower her with affection. They couldn’t get enough of each other, and it made her feel special.

He had texted her that morning to say that he would have the evening free to share a meal and a couple of drinks, and the smile she couldn’t shake had become contagious among her co-workers. “So, Nadine,” Lauren, another barista teased, “I’m guessing by the stupid look on your face you’ll be seeing your mystery man again tonight..? What will it be this time – dinner at the Mayfair, or maybe cocktails and a private show on his yacht..?” She laughed, and Nadine responded by flicking water playfully at her. “For your information, smart ass, we’re meeting at the Mexican place on fifth. Just dinner, and anything else is for me to know and you to only dream about.” She cocked her head toward the counter, “Make yourself useful for once and fill up the machine.” She was used to this, as she had been unable from the outset to keep her new relationship to herself. Things were going well, and she saw no reason to be worried that it wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, she was quietly hoping that that night he would ask her in to spend the night, and had come to work made up and wearing her best, prepared for whatever might happen.

Soon enough, the doors closed and everything had been cleaned, stacked and swept away from the day’s trade. Nadine quickly changed out of her apron in the back office, put on a fresh coat of lipstick and allowed the two other girls working her shift to attend to her hair and give their opinion on how she looked. Lauren finished preening and took a step back to size her up, “You’ll owe us one for tonight,” she boasted, “If he passes up a knockout like you, you’ll have much bigger things to worry about than whether he’s into you. Get out there and do us proud.” She winked, and slapped Nadine on the behind as they giggled and went to turn out the lights before going their separate ways. Nadine turned the corner and made her way to the restaurant that she had settled on, lighting up a cigarette while she waited outside. It was 7pm exactly, which his text had specified and it was unusual that he hadn’t arrived yet. She tried her best to act casual as she glanced left and right, and then stared ahead indifferently so as not to appear nervous or desperate. She hadn’t been worried that he would stand her up, as he’d always been waiting for her whenever they’d met up before but as a soft, cool breeze picked up and she began to shiver, her mind started to wander.

All of a sudden, she felt a tap on her right shoulder and a gentle voice in her ear which said, “Excuse me, young lady – I’m looking for a pretty woman I’m meant to be meeting here. Have you seen any walk by..?” She turned without hesitating and threw both arms around him, saying, “Don’t ever sneak up on a girl like that..! I might have slapped you on instinct.” “What, with these..?” he replied, holding up her tiny hands in front of his face, “Why, these couldn’t hurt a fly!” She scrunched up her nose and punched Sebastian playfully in the stomach, to which he almost doubled over laughing. “Come on, gorgeous. Let’s get in out of the cold. How was your day – did you miss me..?” The two walked hand in hand into the building, and Nadine was almost skipping out of happiness to once again be walking alongside her handsome stranger.

Sebastian led her past the counter and into the annex in the far corner of the restaurant, which confused Nadine, prompting her to ask, “Where are we going, I thought we were stopping here to eat..?” “Oh, plans have changed,” he replied, “Didn’t you get the memo..?” She scowled, “Ha-ha, smarty pants. Where are you taking me then..? There’s nothing else in this building, I’m sure of it.” “That’s why we’re not staying in the building,” he responded cryptically as he pressed the button for the elevator and they went inside. “Now, I’m taking you up to somewhere special, a place only I know about. But I can’t let you see where so you’re going to have to trust me here,” She was confused and excited, but eager to know what it was he had in store. He pulled her close, and rested her chin on his shoulder. She suddenly felt so warm all over as she wrapped herself in the folds of his coat, and the smell of his cologne caused her to fight her impulse to pull away and ask a million questions. She instead held him tight and closed her eyes as the elevator whirred and travelled skyward, and couldn’t recall a time she’d ever felt so safe.

After what seemed like hours, the elevator dinged and the doors opened with a rush of cool air which indicated that they were no longer inside the building. He looked down into her big blue eyes, and said, “Okay, you can turn around now.” Nadine detached herself and spun around to see that they were now on the roof of the tower, which must have stood some forty floors high. They stepped out from the doorway and as they did, she stopped and raised both hands to her mouth. Across the rooftop, Sebastian had arranged for a dining table and two chairs to be set up adjacent to the far ledge, and even from where she was she could make out a bottle of champagne chilling in a bucket of ice and a full crockery spread set out beneath two tall gas heaters that had been fired up to chase away the chill night air. She squeaked in delight and clasped his hand tightly and he smiled, leading her across the roof before pulling out her chair and beckoning her to sit. “After you,” he said with a bow, and they both sat down to take it all in.

“This is AMAZING,” She said, after taking a minute to make sure she could stay composed, “How did they let you do this..? Is this even allowed..?” “I have friends in building management here,” he replied with a grin, “and in a few of the other buildings in the area. I know you were keen to grab a bite downstairs, so I thought I’d make our date a little more exclusive. One of the staff will be up in a minute to take our order, which they’ll bring straight up. How do you like the view..?” he asked, looking out over the cityscape below them. She turned herself to admire the lights and windows illuminated in the other office towers in the city center, and replied, “It’s breathtaking. This is so nice – you’re so nice. Thank you.” She smiled and took his hand across the table, and they continued talking long after their meal, well into the evening. Despite her expectations, and after sharing a long and passionate kiss when they were done, Sebastian dropped her outside of her home in the suburbs just before midnight, promising that they “would have a lot more time to spend together over the weekend, as I’m completely free then.” Nadine quietly crept into her parent’s house and once he had driven away, sat down with her back against the front door with an unshakeable smile and let out a long, wistful sigh.

The next morning, Kylie rose early to shower and get ready for another day at the office. Dominic was still sleeping soundly at 8am when she left the house. He had been forced once again to work late at the firm in order to connect with a representative from a big Japanese conglomerate that his corporate legal team had been working tirelessly to satisfy as far as reaching a resolution in an ongoing labour dispute, or so he said. She wasn’t an idiot however, and despite marinating in cologne she could still smell the faint traces of cheap perfume on a ruffled shirt he’d stuffed deep into the washing machine. Her heart had sunk as she ran a cycle before leaving, but as usual she stopped to take several deep breaths, closed her eyes and pushed the situation out of her mind before getting in her car and taking to the freeway. “Keep going,” she thought to herself as she battled the peak hour traffic leading into town, “The world doesn’t stop turning just for this.”

The day dragged on, and in spite of the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach she immersed herself in her day to day tasks. It was easy to embrace the monotony of accountancy compared to the complex and uncontrollable speculation of the state of her marriage, and although she knew the situation would still be waiting for her when the day was through, it was all she could do to keep from standing up and screaming at the top of her voice at nothing and everything. “How could he do this to me..?” she thought to herself, over and over. “I’ve given back one hundred percent. Every stress and hurdle, every opportunity to try my best to make him happy, to show him just how much I care I’ve been there. Everything we’ve talked and dreamed about, and all of the promises he’s made. Why would he do this..? What did I fail to do to make him look elsewhere..?”

It felt like the longest day of her life when the hands on the office clock finally found their way around to 5pm, but despite the working day having drawn to a close, Kylie still dreaded walking out the door and returning home. When she eventually did, she was approached nervously by her supervisor who asked if she might be interested in working a few hours the next day, Saturday. “I know it’s the weekend, but if we can finalise month’s end before Monday, we’ll all be able to breathe easier come next week.” Without hesitating and to his surprise, she accepted the offer almost immediately. “Any chance to take my mind off Dominic,” she conceded, texting him briefly and drily as a courtesy to let him know.

Across town, Carmen’s sister Nadine had taken the Friday off from work to spend researching options for her eventual trip overseas. She had been torn between following her sister’s recommendation to travel around Europe and spending a couple of months in South America, backpacking across the continent. She had decided finally on the latter, feeling that she would find more value on the road less travelled, and was excitedly bookmarking pages and hostels online for most of the afternoon. Eventually as it approached the evening, she closed her laptop and reached excitedly for her phone that buzzed loudly on the dresser beside her bed. It was Sebastian, and her heart skipped a beat as she opened his text to see that he was again free for the evening, and wanted to catch up for a quick drink in a short window that had opened up in his schedule. She leapt up and jumped in the shower, throwing on her favourite jeans and what was a seriously inadequate tank top for the time of year, and raced out the door to catch the next bus into town.

Sebastian and Nadine met up at a wine bar in the heart of the city, just a few blocks east of where he claimed to work. He had been reluctant to talk too often or at length about what it was he did for a living, only saying that he was a practising lawyer for a medium sized firm, and that while he enjoyed what he did (and was more than adequately compensated for doing), he wished that the hours were a little less intense. She didn’t mind that he wasn’t open to talking more about his personal life, and was happy enough at being able to rub it in the faces of her equally young friends and co-workers that she was “dating a lawyer, an older man who has his act together.” Nor did she mind that he was able to cover the bill for most of their nights out together. While she was happy with the pace and flexibility of her job at the cafe, the pay didn’t leave much wiggle room after the essentials (hair appointments, clothes and makeup etc.) for much of anything else. Sebastian also seemed greatly satisfied at being able to take care of her in this way, and so the relationship seemed like a win-win, as far as she was concerned.

The two enjoyed a few quick drinks at the bar and then Sebastian suggested they take a drive out to the lake to sit and share a bite to eat before he dropped her off. As they sat together on a bench by the foreshore, his arm wrapped around her he turned and said, “As much as I’d love to just stay here with you all night, I’ll have to head back into the office to take an important conference call with a client in Asia tonight.. I hope you understand. Given the time difference, unfortunately we don’t have many options if we’re to talk face-to-face, is that alright..?” “Of course,” she beamed, although she was beginning to wonder if she would ever get him alone to spend a full evening (and morning) together, but he quickly followed-up, “I’ll have tomorrow free, though – all of it. I know it might be a little soon, but I wonder if you might want to come around to my place in the morning..? I was hoping we could spend the day together, just you and me.” Heart pounding, she replied through a smile, “Yes! I’m not working until late in the afternoon, I could come by early, definitely – yes.” He smiled back, and they sat and watched the waves lap gently at the sand below, and the moonlight reflect softly off the surface of the lake.

The next morning, Kylie was operating on auto-pilot as she quietly rose from beside her sleeping husband once again, crept out of the bedroom and went through the motions of her daily routine. She couldn’t stomach the thought of breakfast, and didn’t bother with any chores – washing the dishes that sat in the sink from yet another meal Dominic had missed or running laundry, and stopped in to wake him momentarily and let him know that she was leaving. “I’m heading in to the office for a few hours, can you take care of the washing and what’s in the sink while I’m gone..?” she asked softly as he groaned and rolled over.

“I’m not sure I’ll have time,” he mumbled. “What do you mean you won’t have time..?” She asked, “What are you doing today..?” “No plans whatsoever,” came his reply. “The guys are finalising the project from Chicago, I’m taking a personal day. Can I get back to sleep..?” he muttered rudely. “Yeah, right. Whatever you need, honey.” she replied sarcastically, frustrated and suspicious that he’d waste an entire Saturday lying in bed. Despite recent events, she still believed she knew him better than to buy into the idea that Dominic would ever waste an entire day lazing around the house. She slung her handbag over one shoulder with a sigh, locked the front door and started out to the car.

For some reason, perhaps a lapse in thought or for the gnawing doubt in the back of her mind, she started the engine and backed out into the street where she drove only thirty or forty meters down the road and parked on the far side of it, letting the engine idle. All of a sudden, she found her breathing to grow short and quick, and that her heart was beating at a million miles an hour, like it could burst out of her chest. “What am I doing..?” She said quietly to herself, as she merely sat and gazed intently into the rear vision mirror at their house behind her. “This is crazy, Kylie. Just take it out of park and get moving.” She couldn’t though, despite knowing that she would soon be late for work. First for five minutes, and then ten she stayed perfectly still, the engine running and her not taking her eyes off the front of their house in the distance for even a moment. Eventually fifteen minutes went by, and then twenty. “You’re a fool,” she said aloud, reaching for the handbrake as she prepared to move, but still keeping her sight fixed firmly on the house.

It was just as she was about to take off that she saw her round the corner.

Kylie’s heart sank as a young, blonde and flighty looking woman approached the front door to the house, HER house that she and her husband shared and knocked on the door. From the distance where she was she could only make out that she was a small girl, who couldn’t be much older than twenty to twenty-five years old, dressed in tight jeans and an immodest and colourful singlet, the sort of thing no-one her age would dare to be seen wearing out in public anymore. After the unknown woman had waited on the porch for about a minute, Kylie saw the door open and Dominic move out from within the house to greet her.

Without looking around he stepped out and embraced the woman, planting a long and passionate kiss on her lips, the sort of kiss that he and Kylie shared so long ago and that she had longed for in recent months, before they both went inside and the door clicked shut. She could not believe what had happened, despite knowing without a doubt. In shock and without thinking, Kylie turned her eyes to the road, took the car out of park and slowly merged into traffic, bound for Findlays. Not a single thought or emotion entered her mind for the entire commute.

She was still stony-faced as she navigated her way through the open plan office and found her station, and immediately she immersed herself once more in her work. Before she knew it, she looked up at the clock on the wall and realised that it was already well past noon, and so took herself out of the bullpen and to the break room where she reheated leftovers from another meal that Dominic had missed and just sat there expressionless, barely touching it. After several minutes Bradley Johnson, the company’s weekend accountant wandered in and sat down to join her, immediately and frustratingly making small talk. He was one of those painful co-workers that somehow just couldn’t function in silence no matter what the circumstances, which on any other day irked Kylie to no end. Today, however, it was the absolute last thing she felt prepared to deal with.

“So Kyles,” he started cheerfully, “How’s that hubby of yours..? I’ll bet you guys are well and truly settled into the new place by now..?” She didn’t respond, only propping her head up in her right hand and staring absently into the reheated risotto she was toying at with a fork. Bradley coughed awkwardly but somehow missing the signal, tried again, “It was real nice meeting Dom at the get-together last month, real nice. He seems like a stand-up guy that husband of yours. I’ll bet you feel like a real lucky woman there, hey..?” Finally and all of a sudden, maybe at the sight of the leftover effort or the mention of Dominic, or a combination of the two she found herself only seconds away from bursting into tears.

She quickly rose and kicked out the chair behind her, managing only to mutter, “Sorry, excuse me,” as Bradley looked on in surprise and ran to the bathroom, where she rushed into a stall, locked the door and began sobbing loudly and uncontrollably. She clasped a hand to her mouth to stifle the sound as tears streamed down her face and her mascara ran, and wept openly for what seemed like forever. It felt like she was wrestling against tides of despair, as wave after wave of grief overcame her. Betrayal, inadequacy and worthlessness, fear, anger and nausea. How could she be so stupid..? How could he do this to her..? It was all just too much, and she knew she had to get out of there immediately.

Bleary-eyed, she fumbled for her phone and scrolled through her contact list for a name.

Carmen.

For some reason, she knew that there was nobody else that she could talk to at that moment, nobody else that would know what to say. She was a wreck, and she couldn’t be alone. She finally found the number and dialled, and as soon as Carmen heard her voice on the other end of the line she immediately knew what was happening. “Darling, Kylie, what’s the matter – where are you..? Oh Kylie.. stay where you are, I’m coming to get you. Get your things, I’ll meet you out the front in ten. I’m so sorry, don’t go anywhere.” Kylie hung up the phone and leant her head against the wall of the cubicle, taking long and erratic breaths to try and calm herself down. “Damn him for doing this,” she thought to herself, “Damn him to hell.”

Several minutes later, Carmen came screaming around the corner, almost collecting a cyclist as she did, and flew into a parking space in front of her friend who was standing in a shadowed corner of an alcove outside Findlays, and motioned her to come over. Kylie dropped down in the passenger seat, and the two talked there for almost an hour, Kylie explaining through sobs what she had seen that morning, and Carmen cursing Dominic with every tone and colour possible, and otherwise just listening intently to what her friend had to say. Eventually, Kylie more or less regained composure, and they reached a point in conversation where neither of them could do more than just sit in the car, staring directly ahead and almost cathartically observing the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that stirred in their minds.

After a long and unbroken silence, Carmen turned and insisted she take her across town to her favourite coffee shop for something sweet and a spot in the sun to sit and talk some more. “I’m so sorry to drag you into this so soon after you came back,” Kylie sniffed. “Nonsense..!” came Carmen’s reply, “There’s no way I’d be anywhere else right now. My sister will be starting her shift soon,” she added, “I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to hook us up with something special.” “That sounds great,” Kylie replied, and they finally veered out from the parking space to make their way over.

Nadine had just arrived at work, sporting a grin from ear to ear. She had spent the morning and most of the afternoon at Sebastian’s house, where they had finally for the first time become intimate. She was amazed at how nice his house was, and in such a perfect neighbourhood, too. He was so loving, so tender – so generous. It had been the perfect day, and absolutely nothing could bring her down from where she was. She walked into the break room to prepare for her shift, and immediately her co-workers could tell that something was up. Sarcastically, Lauren called back to her from the counter, “To anyone who just noticed the skinny blonde clocking-on for the afternoon, the one with the dopey grin I apologise – we don’t serve what she’s having!” The others laughed, and so did Nadine as she rummaged through her bag for her spare apron. As she did, her hand came in contact with something unfamiliar. She reached in and pulled out a heavy leather wallet that definitely wasn’t hers. “Sebastian,” she realised, “I must have knocked it off of the dresser and into my bag when we..” She smiled again, and decided she’d text him to let him know.

Before she could however, she noticed a flood of new messages and missed calls on her phone. She opened the first which read, “Nadine, I’m so sorry but have you seen my wallet..? I can’t find it anywhere. If you have it, please DO NOT open it. I’m coming over to see you now, just hold onto it and put it away for me – S.” She was confused, and not sure why he would be so worked up about it. Curiosity quickly got the better of her, and she decided to go ahead and take a quick look anyway, “How’s he going to know, and what’s he got to hide..?”

She opened up the wallet and flipped the inner panel, and froze as her eyes fell upon his driver’s licence: Dominic Tavares – Porter County, 38 years old. She put a hand up to her mouth and gasped, immediately closing up the wallet and taking a step back. “Who on Earth, what the hell is going on..?” she asked herself, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. “Who IS he..?” Just as her mind really began to race, a voice called out from the front, “Get your sweet little ass out here, Nadine – we need a hand..!”

She quickly tied her apron and made for the counter, trying to ignore a million questions that flooded her mind. Just as she reached the front of the cafe to get started, her sister Carmen and her friend Kylie walked in, both looking a little worse for wear. She immediately abandoned her own concerns and bounced across to serve them, asking, “Well don’t you two look like a pair. What can I get you..? It’s probably a little early for anything heavy, but you both look like you could use a real drink.” “Thanks, Nadine,” Carmen replied, “It’s been a particularly bad one. I’ll have an Irish Coffee,” she turned to Kylie, who added, “Yes, it has – some days you’re the pigeon, other days the statue, right Carm..?” She turned to signal Nadine for a double shot of tequila.

A moment later, Dominic burst through the door.

Dawn Roared Over the Horizon..

‘WAYFARER’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

[Harlia, the Outer Claw]

Dawn roared over the horizon like a violet storm as the first sun rose over Harlia, instantly chasing a dry, bitter chill from the landscape and leaving in its place a wet and almost suffocating heat. Gundar let out a guttural grunt and spluttered through his yellowed tusks as he stirred beside the dying embers at the heart of the encampment, eventually conceding as the night’s thick mists began to billow skyward that it was time to wake up and get moving.

Invigorated by the sudden warmth, the rest of his squadron joined him in rising awkwardly up on their hind legs and shook themselves about in such a way as to dislodge their rigid front and rear shells, which had a habit of locking up to preserve body heat while they slept. One by one, he and the other officers in the company extinguished completely the smouldering remains of fires now entirely unnecessary and began barking the morning’s orders at the rest of their number, who were already lining up by rank to receive them.

Heir to the First System and acting commander of the Holy Legions of the Veil, Gundar had been elected on merit to head a special tactical operation whereby he and his hand-picked crew were to deliver a payload to the homeworld of an enemy with which his people, the Threa had been warring for decades. They were to deploy the final state of a top-secret weapon, a biological Doomsday Bomb developed by the best and brightest scientific minds of his order to a dark region of deep space called the Rua’Maat, wherein their arch enemy and the greatest ongoing threat to order and security in the civilised galaxy dwelt; the Skrell.

Instead, the small fleet that had been assigned to protect them had been ambushed at the edge of mapped space, perhaps (he suspected) due to a tip-off from a traitor in their midst, and his own crew left for dead in a crippled ship hurtling towards the strange world on which they now found themselves, demoralised and completely unable to return home under their own power.

The world itself was positioned in a distant binary system between a close but relatively benign red giant and a farther flung but incredibly intense violet star. Any visitors to the surface of the planet could expect to face long days that grew gradually more hot and humid as greater volumes of its stagnant, shallow oceans were allowed to sublimate, and short frosty nights at intervals of only half of what we on Earth might be used to.

The dense, wet atmosphere also had a curious effect on the thick, low vegetation which grew in patches everywhere on the planet’s surface, causing many varieties to sprout scores of tendril-like streamers high into the air by day as a means of extracting moisture from the atmosphere, and to snake those same weird tendrils haphazardly across the ground at night, forming a thick carpet to absorb dew and condensation from the topsoil. Several varieties of scrub had actually adapted to the extreme environment by becoming almost entirely lighter than air, taking root in thick pockets of mist and moisture and floated about the landscape like giant, bilious tumbleweeds. It was a strange world indeed, and stranger still that a well-armed contingent of the Veil had found themselves stranded here, frustrated and anxious to return to the ongoing conflict that had caused their vessel to crash-land several days earlier.

As soon as all of their weaponry and gear had been accounted for and their battalion assembled in formation, Urm, Gundar’s second in command gave the order to continue the long march that they had started-out on the previous day. They were headed towards a towering band of white, glistening mountains that their scouts had discovered lay to the north and in which they hoped to find the necessary ore and mineral deposits needed to repair their battered ship’s engines so that they might resume their course and complete their offensive.

The Skrell, for a visual reference could have best been described as a race of monstrous insects. Bugs in stature almost comparable in size to the Threa (but nowhere near as solid) that had somehow developed a devious cunning and almost collective intellect with which they too had mastered the science of flight and the ability to travel between worlds. So long as he drew breath, Gundar would never abandon his directive and remained driven to eradicating the hated enemy of the Threa at all costs and with a frenzied, almost religious determination. They marched as one, hooves pounding the flailing foliage back into the earth as they went and resolved to cover as much ground as they could before the next nightfall, some fourteen Threan hours away by their reckoning.

They had only walked an hour or so when without warning, and just as the second sun finally crowned the horizon behind them, the haze was split by a chillingly familiar sound and all hell broke loose. From somewhere up ahead, the unmistakeable buzz of a thousand Skrell taking flight filled the air as a massive dark cloud of wasp-like bodies rose skyward in a whirling plume and bore down on the Threa like a swarm of monstrous hornets. Urm quickly cocked his snout back to address the Threa behind him and snorted, “Draw your weapons, three deep and angle high – set full charges and watch your flanks..!” as the cloud bore down and within seconds, the air was ablaze with blasts of high-energy plasma and the deadly barbs and talons of the descending Skrell who were hell-bent on killing as many of the invading force as swiftly as they could.

The battle raged for over an hour, with neither side claiming a clear foothold from the other but both felling more of the opposing force than either could afford. “By the stars – what are they doing here..?” thought Gundar as his troops fought furiously to keep them at bay, “When our ship was attacked, our defenders drew their legions away from us. We weren’t followed to the planet’s surface – how did they know we were here..?” He was now convinced that they had been betrayed, but as more and more of the enemy closed in took up arms with the rest of the group and allowed his instinct and training take over, firing precision blasts at the attackers in a desperate attempt to break their ranks.

Just as the insurrection was complete and the fighting at its most ferocious, from somewhere deep behind enemy lines a heavy tactical spore was loosed which whistled as it flew through a break in their lines before it ricochet off of the side of Gundar’s skull and exploded into a group of Threa several yards behind him. As he lost consciousness, he became aware of the strangest sensation, as though his spirit was somehow ripped violently from his body and hurtled across the entire expanse of the galaxy at the speed of light before darkness finally took him, and he was gone.

[Freehold Hospital, Saturday Morning]

Shortly before midday there came a knock on the door to Monitoring Room 14 of the Freehold Hospital’s Cancer Wing. The noise woke Alex from a long sleep and strange, alien dream and he slowly and painfully lifted his torso up onto his elbows, calling out, “Come in, I was just getting up.” As the door creaked open, he quickly shot a glance at the alarm clock beside his bed. “Shit,” he exclaimed aloud. It was already twelve thirty – he had slept in again and missed his morning check-in down the hall.

Ever since he had been admitted for round the clock observation he’d found himself sleeping longer and longer, something he was warned might happen as his system struggled to adjust to the chemotherapy and the degenerative nature of the cancer which riddled his body. His nurse entered with a trademark frown followed closely by his assigned physician, Dr. Holzer who himself only gazed intensely at a clipboard which held his evaluations of Alex’s condition to date. Alex immediately wondered what sort of information it could have been that had held his interest so.

Thirty-eight years old, Alex had never managed to save any remarkable amount of money, living paycheck to paycheck for the better part of his life, had never married and really lived his life as though he was either just killing time until his ship came in, or that he’d somehow make a windfall winning a lottery he’d never bothered to enter. He had been essentially lazy, coasting from job to job, place to place and moving between cliques until he found himself ultimately broke, miserable and unable to really consider anyone who remained in his life as anything more than just a colleague or a casual acquaintance. He had slowly become the poster-boy for what he saw as a transformed and largely atomised society, and had long since given up on the idea of reinventing himself.

Despite so much encouragement from his parents who had years ago conceded that their only son might never truly find his feet, his diagnosis some six months earlier had all but guaranteed that his mark on the world would stand to be little more than a cautionary tale of wasted potential. A life of excess and bad ideas, cigarettes and heavy drinking had taken its toll, and while he had made what he considered to be many special memories along the way, his legacy was nothing near what he might in his youth have predicted it to become.

In truth, he’d always yearned to become a writer, devouring volumes of Science Fiction and Fantasy throughout his childhood and had always anticipated that he’d one day find the time to tell a story of his own. Unfortunately though as he continued to get in his own way, and in spite of a few promising starts, he had never found it in him to see it through.

“Dr. Holzer,” he began sheepishly, “I’m so sorry – I must have slept through my alarm. The treatments have left me extremely tired lately. If I can reschedule, I’ll make sure to get up and about tomorrow.” The doctor hardly moved, barely acknowledging Alex as he continued to flick through the notes on his clipboard and his nurse walked to the other side of his bed, proceeding to decant a fresh glass of water before removing a tray of scraps from the night before and a bunch of flowers that had wilted at his bedside.

His mother would still bring flowers and gifts at every weekly visit, insisting that hospital wards were ‘cold and unfriendly places, needing as much brightening up as they could get.’ Alex twiddled his thumbs and stared expectantly at Dr. Holzer, nervously waiting for him to speak. Finally, the other man dropped the clipboard down to his side and regarded Alex with a deep sigh and a look which caused him no small amount of distress.

“Mr. Agnew,” he began, “I’ve just been taking a look at the most recent set of results from your treatment, and thought I should come by directly and speak with you in person.” Still nervous, but also a little relieved that the doctor had not stopped by in person just to chastise him for missing his earlier appointment, Alex grunted as if to suggest he continue. “I’m afraid there’s really no easy way to say this, and it pains me to be the one to have to do so. But I didn’t think it was fair to make you wait.”

Alex began to sweat. He glanced at his nurse, who had taken up a position beside Dr. Holzer, and noticed with surprise that her typically hard features had all of a sudden softened into a look of concern. Her eyes would not meet his, instead darting almost nervously around the room as she rolled back on her ankles, clasped her hands together and did her best to otherwise remain perfectly still. “Doctor, what is it..? Is there something wrong with my dosage – will I need to increase the number of sessions we’re taking..?” He was concerned now, and more than anything just wanted him to spit it out already.

“Alex, I’m afraid that the treatment hasn’t taken. Despite having reached you at a relatively early stage in your cancer’s development, it appears that the chemotherapy has had little to no effect in halting the growth of the existing tumours in your chest and lungs. In addition to this..” he started, trailing-off as he considered the best way to share the remainder of his findings with him and Alex, who could wait no longer stammered, “Come on, doctor, what is it – I need to know.”

He continued, “Very well. Our latest scan has revealed a third tumour that we were either previously unaware of, or that has developed extremely quickly in the most recent weeks you’ve spent here with us. To be clear, it’s very large as standards go, and unfortunately in this case extremely malignant. Unlike those we’ve been working so far to neutralise, this third tumour appears to be located directly at the base of your occipital lobe, and given its proximity to vital blood flow to the spinal region is.. completely inoperable. I’m so sorry.”

“The occipital lobe, my.. brain..? I have a brain tumour..?” Alex asked, incredulous that no-one had managed to pick up on such a thing earlier. “Jesus, and you can’t operate, you can’t increase my dosage to treat it now before it gets any worse..?” He asked. “I’m afraid that as your treatment to date has had no effect on those tumours in your chest, any attempt to increase your dosage would prove ineffective at best, and at worst could risk further damage to the surrounding tissue.” His doctor continued, “In spite of anything we might otherwise be able to do for you, we estimate that you have between one to two weeks at most before this third growth reaches a terminal size, and even then it might unfortunately be sooner.”

“We’ve been able to confirm that this is more than likely also the cause for both your unusual sleeping patterns, and for the migraines and visual hallucinations you’ve described to our staff over the past couple of weeks. Due to the location of the growth and the energy that your body will expend coping with it, it’s likely you’ll continue to need longer and longer periods of rest until eventually.. again, I’m so, so sorry. Yesterday’s tests were the first to show, and we’d never have even thought to scan for it if not for the headaches. We’ll do our very best to ensure you’re as comfortable as possible until that time.”

Alex felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach. All of a sudden he couldn’t breathe and fell back into his pillow, just staring at the ceiling. “Terminal..!” he thought to himself. “Thirty eight years old, and that’s it – poof. It’s all over. Terminal.. terminal.” The word bounced around in his head a hundred times before he had the wits to reply, still staring at the ceiling, “Thank you, doctor. I’m going to need a few moments to get my head around it. I’m not sure,” He began, and Dr. Holzer cut him off, “We have the absolute very best grief counsellors here at Freehold who can help you come to terms with your situation, and I’ll be back to check-in again with you later this afternoon. We still have a number of evaluations we’d like to run, and of course to provide you with more information regarding your condition. If there’s anything at all we can do for you, Nurse Piper here,” he motioned to the nurse beside him, still wearing her best mask of empathy, “will be assigned to answer any calls that come through from you. I’d best get back to my rounds and to let this all sink in. I’m sorry, Alex – we’ve given it everything we’ve got.” He forced a last compassionate smile before turning and leaving the room, his nurse close behind with Alex’s tray and once again, he was alone.

Still staring at the ceiling, Alex sighed the deepest sigh of resignation and closed his eyes once more. “Terminal..” the word kept flashing in his mind. “How will I tell Mum and Dad – this will kill them. There’s so much I’ve never done, so much I thought I’d do.” He began to think about the friends he’d let slip away, the opportunities in his life that he’d let pass him by and all of the little things he’d planned to do but for some reason had never started. “I’ll never write that novel, or take that round-the-world trip. I’ll never see the Northern Lights or stand atop the Grand Canyon. I’ll never get to hold my own child, or the hand of the woman I love. I’ll die instead at thirty eight, riddled with cancer, alone, bedridden and forgotten. What a waste,” he sighed again, finding that the shock had completely tired him out, “what an absolute waste.” He decided in spite of Dr. Holzer’s prediction that the day was now more or less ruined and within minutes had once again drifted off into a deep sleep.

[Harlia, the Next Day]

Gundar slowly opened his eye, and as he did a searing pain coursed down the length of the right side of his body. Disorientated by the blow and the residual effects of the spore, he slowly rose to his full height, clutching his bloody head as he did and turned to reorientate himself with his surrounds. He had been instantly knocked unconscious as the weapon exploded and Urm, seeing his commander felled had immediately cut a swath through the enemy horde, thrown his limp and lifeless body over one shoulder and bounded to the rear of the company to deposit Gundar safely behind a hillock before returning to the fray, firing all the while at the swarm of Skrell that were still thick in the air.

The fighting had grown into a frenzy in the minutes that followed, as the Threa became incensed at seeing their leader fall in battle. Within a short time, their bloodlust had driven them to break the enemy lines, and what few Skrell remained after most of their power cells were depleted had soared high into the planet’s atmosphere and scattered in all directions, leaving them to count their dead and set a perimeter as the leaderless group debated what to do next.

When they noticed him stumbling about, half-blind and splashed with the deep blue stains of his own blood, several Threa immediately rushed to support their commander by propping up both of his arms and guided him carefully to the center of the group. Gundar’s hearts sank when they passed a pile of several dozen of his best soldiers’ corpses – friends and comrades he had known from his youth that had been recovered and heaped roughly atop three stout pyres formed from piles of the driest vegetation they could find, and immediately he felt compelled to address the company.

After a quick briefing as to the extent of their losses and the assurance that no further Skrell had been sighted following the attack, he motioned to those beside him to let him stand with a sweep of his right foreclaw and called-out to the rest for their undivided attention.

“My brothers,” he began, “today we have been taken for fools by the enemy, and by our own lack of vigilance have allowed many of our number (he gestured toward the pyres), TOO many of our number to be lost. How they were allowed to take us by surprise I am uncertain, though I fear that their anticipation of our movements in this wasteland and indeed the initial ambush that caused us to be stranded here were too precise, too calculated to have been a mere matter of luck.” The assertion that their part in the mission to the Rua’Maat had been betrayed to the enemy was clear, and caused the group to murmer of treason and treachery loudly amongst themselves.

Gundar went on, “Know this; we have been trusted by the keepers of the Veil with the holiest of charges. Fractured though we are my comrades, we are far from broken.” He pointed to a large metallic urn among their stores which contained the concentrated payload that had been salvaged from their vessel after it crashed into the planet’s surface, and which they had brought with them for fear of losing it to the enemy, “As long as the weapon remains safe and can still be deployed, deployed it must be. Our mission was simple; arrive at that system the Skrell call their home, and deliver the payload to their homeworld. They say that this will turn the tides of war, and lead us to victory in the Great Conflict, and I believe this with every fibre of my being. As long as there is breath in my body, I will see this done. For the Veil,” he barked, “and for the Threa – we carry on..!”

The small force stood stoic, listening intently to the words of their leader and grunted loudly in unison as he completed his dialogue. Without further discussion, the group divided their equipment and weapons and, pausing only to fire the pyres which held the bodies of their fallen, set off once more in the direction the glistening mountains to the north. This time however, recon parties were also sent in all directions to raise alarm should anything even remotely resembling enemy scouts be seen flocking at the horizon. They would not be caught-out twice.

The long Harlian day was reaching its zenith by the time they finally arrived at the foot of the mountain range, which dazzlingly reflected the intense violet light of the system’s primary star. In spite of the fact that the Threan home world was itself stifling from constant volcanism and that they much preferred the heavy humidity over the freezing alien night, the fierceness of the two combined suns above them and their painstakingly slow crawl across the sky caused many of their number to become quickly fatigued.

With near unslakable thirsts they persevered, several of their weapons discharging randomly as they went as their components expanded and triggered in the awful heat. Urm instructed the group to direct their barrels skyward or at the ground to avoid any unwanted accidents, and as they finally entered the shadow of the mountain they stopped to take stock of their arsenal and to erect makeshift humidifiers with which to catch and replenish their water supplies from the muggy atmosphere of the planet.

Gundar commanded several small groups to explore the nearest outcrop in the hopes of finding sufficient ore and the correct deposits of certain elements; particularly organic solids and any endemic silicates and while they waited, requested Urm, his weapons expert Thrang and a security detail join him in ascending the nearest peak of the curious range in the hopes of seeing what might lie beyond its summit. While he was reluctant to spend any longer on that godforsaken planet than absolutely necessary, Gundar felt that given the recent skirmish he couldn’t be too careful in knowing exactly what might lay in wait for them beyond their line of sight. The group took a stock of a small provision of water and extra power cells for their weapons before allowing those that remained to rest and recover while they turned and made their way up the mountain.

The rock itself was covered with a thick, sticky layer of a strange, translucent fungus which seemed to ooze from higher elevations in the range like a slowly melting glaze. It became clear that this was what gave the mountain its highly reflective quality that had beckoned them from a distance. The contingent found scaling the rock face slow going, and in several places at one time or another they all managed to lose their footing, almost plummeting back down to the base of the climb before catching themselves at the final desperate moment.

After several hours, one of their security detail who had managed to pass beyond the others and scout ahead had finally reached the summit where he could get a glimpse of the lands beyond the peaks, and removed a telescope from his belt to get a better look at what lay ahead. Seeing this from below, Urm called up to him jokingly, asking “What do you see, soldier..? Fresh water – a whorehouse in abundant shade, perhaps..?” Immediately the lieutenant dropped to his stomach, and called back lowly, “Shh..! Don’t say a word. By all that’s holy, Urm – you must be absolutely silent. Get up here, right now..!”

The rest of the group exchanged worried glances from their own footholds, and immediately scrambled as quickly and as quietly as possible to join their comrade at the summit, careful too to keep as low as practical and fumbled with their own telescopes to see what it was that had rattled him so. From their vantage point, they followed his gaze across the valley that opened out from the other side of the outcrop, and quietly gasped in shock as they focussed on the crooked spires of what appeared to be an unknown and obviously highly secret Skrell facility, complete with its own bustling hive and several brand new star cruisers armed to the teeth. It was clearly a new spaceport and weapons development facility, one that had only recently been put into commission and that did not appear in any of their previous intel. “My friends,” whispered Gundar with a crooked smile, “It appears we’ve struck the mother lode.”

The facility was several leagues away from where their battalion had stopped to rest beneath them, and the air around it was thick with swarms of Skrell from several castes that were actively engaged both in crude construction and combat exercises beneath the midday heat. Gundar immediately began to formulate a plan with which to approach this new situation, and propped himself up slightly to better examine the sprawling mountain range which separated his force from their foe. A short journey to the east he noticed a wide pass between two peaks in the range that might provide ample cover and minimal duress by which they could move through the mountains with their equipment unnoticed.

Through a long band of thick vegetation they could, if they were extremely careful, reach the edge of the Skrell compound virtually undetected. He mused on his plan of attack for several moments, before deciding that if they might commandeer one of the enemy’s own vessels, if they could apply their knowledge of the enemy’s technology toward utilising their own ship as a means of sneaking into the Rua’Maat unchallenged that they might yet be able to complete their mission after all. There could be no room for error. But neither could they pass up such an incredible opportunity.

He quickly called the others to follow him in returning down the range to rejoin their company, and hearts racing explained to them his plan. “This, commander, is why you lead.” replied Thrang as he gripped Gundar’s shoulder while the others merely grinned and nodded in agreement. Their descent took several hours, and required much greater care in navigating the slick fungus which had nearly caused them to come unstuck before, but eventually they rejoined their comrades below and Gundar shared with them their findings, to similar nods and grunts from the company. He implored them to remain silent and vigilant, insisting that no fires be lit that night and that they bide their time until the first light of the next morning to launch their attack.

Rations were quickly divided and a discreet camp set-up at the southern mouth of the pass as they prepared, charging weapons and settling on a small diversion west of the facility as a means of drawing the bulk of enemy fire from their own number. Volunteers for the honour of participating in such a crucial but high-risk operation were, as always with the Threa, far more than what was needed. Gundar was pleased, and never prouder to call himself a Soldier of the Veil. Once preparations were complete, the company settled-in at dusk for a long and much needed rest ahead of the carnage that was to follow, the air positively electric with anticipation for the promised bloodshed.

[Freehold Hospital, Sunday Morning]

Alex awoke heart-pounding, short of breath and in a cold sweat. The realisation that his most recent visit from Dr. Holzer had in fact been real was only a secondary thought in his mind compared with the vivid, fantastic dream that he had just experienced. In truth, his dreams had taken a recurring theme of late, and as he found himself sleeping longer and deeper as his condition deteriorated, they had become all the more lucid, linear and lifelike. He had mentioned the dreams earlier to Dr. Holzer and even his parents, all of whom simply dismissed it as a probable side effect of the medications that he was taking, and nothing to be alarmed about.

For Alex though, the almost nightly fantasies that he had been engaged in, the strange worlds and creatures that reappeared night after night had begun to really frighten and, in a way, excite him. They had always started the same, and in each of them he seemed to play the same role; some sort of figurehead in a weird, quasi-military culture. He would feel acutely that he somehow belonged to this strange and alien race, and where he had become weak and listless in reality as the sickness took hold, in his dreams he felt robust, healthy – almost completely indestructible.

He slapped himself awake, shook his head quickly from side to side and took a deep breath as he looked around his room. “Still here,” was all he could manage to say to himself as the gravity of his situation slowly edged-out the residual adrenaline left by the dream. He carefully dropped his legs out from underneath the sheets and gingerly set his feet upon the floor. Somehow he had managed this time to sleep right through the afternoon and most of the night, waking up just as first light of the following morning crept around the thick hospital curtains of his ward. He yawned and shuffled his way to the bathroom to shower and shave, brush his teeth and change out of his usual hospital garb and into something more presentable.

It was a Sunday, and as always his parents would be stopping by to bring him a hot breakfast from the cafe down the street (a welcome respite from the usual hospital fare, which he hated) and catch him up on news from the rest of the family. On any other occasion, he might have taken more of a blasé approach to preparing for this, however as he would have to break the news of recent developments to them today, he decided to look and feel as best he was able. In actual fact, he knew that it would be just about the most difficult thing a man could ever have to impart to his parents; the knowledge that their only son was dying and would pass before either of them. Alex loved his parents deeply, and he was seriously dreading the conversation that had to come.

They arrived at the hospital a little after 9am, and after checking-in and getting the usual greetings out of the way, Alex proceeded to sit them both down, wasting no time in breaking the news of his condition. As careful as he was, the moment the finality of his situation sank in it was all that his dear mother could do to stop herself from breaking down completely. Before he knew it, the three of them were in each other’s embrace at his bedside, his parents shaking uncontrollably and his father only able to ask over and over again, “Is that it..? Is there nothing at all that they can do..?” To which he would reply, “Just keep me comfortable, Dad. There’s nothing more to it – it’s just my time.”

He went on at length to convince them that in spite of everything, he’d led a good life, if not a little unexciting and that “While it’s a horrible, terrible situation, we can only make the most of the time we have.” Dr. Holzer joined them after a short while to run Mr. and Mrs Agnew through exactly why things had turned out as they had, and suggested that the three of them speak with the hospital counsellor before they go anywhere as “Awful as this truly, truly is, there are arrangements that the three of you should endeavour to make together, for when the time comes.”

They thanked the doctor as he left, and spent most of the remainder of the day talking. They laughed together, cried and reminisced on just about everything from more recent times in his life right back to his childhood, which Alex had always felt were his best years. So much had simply not come together for him as he got older, but during those early years and on into his teens, he’d truly felt as if he could accomplish anything. He was thankful that they stayed as long as they did, eventually conceding as the evening wore on into the night that they should be getting home to make arrangements and to contact his other relatives that might also want to see him before the time came.

He embraced them two, three times before they did, and they promised to again visit him the next day, when they might be able to stay longer. His mother couldn’t keep from crying as she waved goodbye from the doorway, while his father did his best to put on a brave face. “My son,” he said softly, locking eyes for several moments before turning to leave and reluctantly closing the door to Alex’s room.

As he lay there in bed, alone once more, his thoughts turned again to the life he was leaving behind. He was himself in terrible debt and living alone in a one bedroom apartment outside of town, before his health had really deteriorated. Prior to that he had been working long hours at a job he hated for less than he’d felt he deserved before his diagnosis, spending most of his free time watching television, or otherwise entertaining a black and white cat he’d bought together with an ex-girlfriend that he had planned to move in with several years before. That among other things had never panned out, and so his only real motivation for getting out of bed in the morning had become a need to show his parents that he was capable, independent and to provide some hope that he might still one day get it together.

Now, he didn’t know what to think. He was tired again, and so set about preparing for another long, restful sleep. As he lay awake, and before he eventually drifted off he noticed a strange tingling sensation gnawing at the base of his skull, where the back of his head met his spine. His legs had also begun to grow heavy, as though all feeling was beginning to numb and even as he finally lost consciousness he couldn’t for the life of him stop both of his feet from twitching.

[Harlia, the Morning of the Attack]

The Threa slept soundly through the short Harlian night save for a few that shared the watch, and as the ominous glow of daybreak began to paint the horizon a threatening shade of blue and violet once more, they woke and began to prepare for the short, quick march north to the Skrell facility. The tension in the cool morning air was palpable as they crouched in the undergrowth and snaked their way toward the enemy hive, careful not to so much as snap a single branch or twig underfoot.

The plan was simple; they were to reach a series of shallow hollows at the eastern edge of their base and lay low, and as soon as those charged with their diversion were able to detonate a series of small portable explosives in several key locations across the other side of the valley, they would make for the nearest alien craft with extreme haste. With no small amount of luck, they should be able to overpower any resistance left guarding the facility, and after loading the weapon on board would allow their comrades just enough time to double back and join them before firing up its engines and making for the skies before they could give chase. It seemed like the perfect plan, but nonetheless Gundar was explicit in demanding the utmost caution and care as they approached their destination.

When their battalion had finally crossed the valley and were within yards of the hollows however, their worst fears were suddenly realised as one of their own number broke free of the hollow and ran directly toward the central hive of the enemy, screaming at the top of his lungs and firing wildly into the air as he went. “The informant..!” Gundar bellowed, immediately realising what was happening and cursing himself for not weeding him out sooner. “They’re here..!” The rogue soldier yelled, “Open the gates and let me in – we have a deal..!” He only managed a few dozen yards before Urm commanded a volley be loosed at the traitor, frying his upper body and quickly freeing him from the dishonour of his actions.

The company held their breaths as his body hit the dirt, time standing still as they strained to hear any sign of motion from the compound. Sure enough, within seconds the familiar buzz of thousands of insect-like wings could be heard starting up, as hundreds of vivid yellow Skrell funnelled up and out of the upper entrance to their hive and fanned-out in a thick swarm above the facility, searching in every direction for the source of the commotion.

Just as the last of their number took to the air and they began breaking out in all directions including that of Gundar and his soldiers near the hollows, several massive explosions rang out across the valley from the diversion team on the far edge. “Fools..!” cursed Gundar under his breath, “Did they not see that we’d been given away..? With all of those Skrell already in the air, they’ll be seen and overrun in seconds..!” There was nothing for it if he was to provide his subordinates across the valley with any sort of fighting chance, and so he took to his full height, beckoning the rest to follow and charged in the direction of the Skrell compound with a roar.

“For the Veil, for Threa and by the Highest State of Being – for the eternal glory of valiant death..!” he cried loudly. The rest of the battalion joined him in charging the facility as the huge, dense cloud of Skrell split into two distinct formations; one that immediately swarmed in the direction of the explosions and a second, far larger group that descended on the invading Threa to instigate what would be heralded as perhaps the greatest single firefight against insurmountable odds since the beginning of the Great Conflict.

The carnage that followed could not easily be described. It seemed as though the plume of Skrell that erupted from the hive was endless, and the ceaseless gunfire from the Threa illuminated the pale morning haze like so many thousand brilliant red fireworks bursting into the sky all at once. Somehow in spite of their err, they had still managed to catch their enemy almost completely unprepared, and while many of their number were simply torn to pieces once the swarm reached striking distance, for every Threa that perished, a hundred of the insectoid army were felled from the skies and ground underfoot as Gundar, Urm and their forces continued to advance with the frenzied determination of madmen.

The Threa had soon cut such a heavy swath through their ranks that a clear passage to the enemy fleet suddenly presented itself, and with a final shout of determination they charged toward it as fast as their powerful legs allowed them to bound across the length of the compound. Within moments, Gundar had reached the gangway to the largest vessel, and when two Skrell launched themselves at him from out of the doorway he immediately dropped his weapon, instead wrapping two monstrously clawed hands around what might have been their necks and squeezed with such power his assailants shrieked an ear-splitting shriek and broke clean in two.

They stormed the entrance to the ship and with heavy cover fire, made for the helm without a second’s delay. Urm motioned for Thrang to take the throttle, as he was the one among them most familiar with the enemy’s technology and in no time at all, a loud hum filled the cockpit as the strange vessel gradually woke from its slumber. Before they closed the gangway, Gundar ordered the rest of their number to hold rank outside on the off-chance that at least some among the diversion team might make it back to them.

Seconds felt like minutes as the hail of charred Skrell continued to rain down around them, and then minutes like hours as they waited, squinting into the undergrowth behind them. Sure enough, just as they were about to abandon all hope, plasma fire burst from the treeline, and a dozen Threa, beaten, bruised and bloody sprinted across the facility, the air now thick with fire and Skrell and they too charged the gangway. The door was quickly sealed and the vessel’s engines burst into life, sending their craft hurtling into the planet’s atmosphere and vaporising hundreds of pursuing Skrell in the process.

As soon as they cleared orbit and could finally engage the ship’s hyperdrive, the Threa let out a resounding cheer. They had done it – HE had done it..! Gundar was hoisted ceremoniously onto his comrades’ shoulders as the magnitude of their most daring escape finally struck them. The payload was on board, they were back in space – their mission could finally be completed. Never in his life had Gundar felt such a sense of accomplishment, of pride as he felt at that very moment. He had taken the ultimate risk, seizing the opportunity that had presented itself and had won.

He thanked each and every Threa on board individually for their valour, and prayed fealty to the Highest State of Being for providing guidance and protection during the insurrection, as well as for the souls of those that did not survive. Battered, bloody and still in shock, he dropped down beside a pylon in the ship’s control room, and closed his eye – “Onward to the Rua’Maat, Gundar, onward to victory..!” This was his final self-satisfied thought as he succumbed to exhaustion, and a well needed rest.

[Freehold Hospital, Monday Morning]

It was only the next morning when Alex finally lost all sensation in both legs, and found that he could no longer move them at all, let alone leave his bed. Against his doctor’s generous prediction, the tumour in the back of his skull had quickly reached a critical mass and had begun not only to crush several key areas of his brain that controlled major parts of his body but was now also restricting the flow of oxygen to it. His final dream had been so much more vivid than the first.. the firefight, the Skrell and his own part in it all.

His hallucinations had begun to spill over into his waking thoughts, and within a few short hours he found himself flitting in and out of consciousness involuntarily. It was all happening so fast, and when his parents eventually arrived escorted by his doctor, they just couldn’t understand how he had one day been so lucid, so much like the Alex that they knew and loved and the next, could only stay focussed for mere minutes at a time.

“Mr. and Mrs. Agnew,” Dr. Holzer started, “I know it doesn’t make much sense. When we described to Alex the window of time that was left, we could only be so general. His condition is far advanced, and there is simply no way of providing an absolutely clear evaluation of how quickly his other functions might be affected, nor how soon.. it appears that the pressure that the tumour is exerting on his brain has reached a critical point, whereby there’s very little chance of real lucidity from here on in.”

His mother was beside herself, and once again Mr. Agnew asked of him, “There’s nothing that can be done..? Just what the hell are we supposed to do now..?” Dr. Holzer’s expression fell, and he replied, “As drastic as it seems, at this stage I would strongly recommend placing your son in an induced coma, wherein we might buy time to continue to evaluate the progression of his condition in a stable state and at least he might then, when the time comes, find peace in a dignified end. Once again, I’m very sorry and of course, the call is entirely yours,” he turned and pointed to the doorway, “I’ll be out in the hall while you talk it through.”

He shook Mr. Agnew’s hand and left, and for a long time Alex lay there in his bed, eyes flitting as he mumbled more and more incoherently, for brief moments showing recognition, but for the most part only muttering a great deal about somebody called ‘Gundar,’ a secret mission, and a great ship in outer space. “My beautiful boy,” Mrs Agnew said softly, as she stroked a wave of hair from his forehead. “So young – so much potential. It’s just not fair.”

The two stayed by his bedside for hours, discussing which action to take as Alex drifted farther and farther from coherence and eventually slipped into an almost catatonic state in which no part of him moved but for a constant flicker of both eyelids. Finally, after much deliberation they both agreed that he would want to sleep now, rather than slowly fall to pieces in his final days and gave Dr. Holzer the authority he needed to induce a coma, sending their only son to his rest for the last time.

That afternoon, as they watched from his bedside, the necessary steps were taken, and Alexander Agnew slipped forever from consciousness, into dream and everything beyond.

[Deep Space, Exact Location: Classified]

Like a shot, Gundar’s great eye flew open and he sprang to his feet. He was all of a sudden strangely energised, feeling more focussed and alert than he had ever felt before and he scanned the room in which he found himself as memories of the past few days’ events came flooding back. He was on the bridge of the Skrell battlecruiser, the ship they had commandeered from under the very noses of their enemy. His battalion, comrades that had stuck with him through thick and thin were at their stations, some carefully instructing others how to operate the complex and alien controls of the vessel and many more taking a well earned rest as Thrang and his team plotted a clear course for the Rua’Maat. He smiled as two of them passed him by, bowing their heads in a gesture of respect and moved across the bridge to speak with Urm, his oldest and greatest friend.

“Urm, my right hand,” he began, “what is our bearing..? How long have I slumbered..?” Urm replied, “A full night’s rest, Commander – and well-earned I might say. We have long cleared the Harlian System and bear onward to the Rua’Maat. Thrang suspects we might disengage the vessel’s hyperdrive in a matter of hours. Everything else is on schedule, and perhaps before the day is through we might finally taste the wine of victory for which we have so longed, the Higher State permitting.

“Excellent,” Gundar replied. “Hold steady, see to it that our wounded are administered to and if you haven’t already, send a team to try to find food, water.. whatever these vermin might be hoarding to replenish morale.” He clasped the other Threa’s shoulder before turning to leave the bridge himself. “As you will, Gundar,” Urm replied with a low bow, addressing his own subordinate to relay his commander’s instruction.

“And General,” Gundar called over his shoulder as he started down the corridor. “Yes, Commander..?” came Urm’s reply.

“From now on – have the men call me Alex.”

.. Inspired by a Long Walk in a Dark Forest

‘THE GLADE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

The call finally came at nine minutes past 4am on Tuesday, February 2nd. The ring from his phone shattered the silence in their bedroom and wrested him from a long and beautiful dream in which he was wandering alone in a massive oaken forest, surrounded by tall trees and warmed by golden summer sunlight breaking through the canopies above. Eric was fast asleep, and had been for hours. It was the middle of Winter, and the small house that he and his wife Nancy shared in Brixton, South London was cold and the wanly lit streets outside thick with an early morning fog that rolled down from the river and flowed through them like so many silent ghosts. He groaned loudly and turned, setting his feet reluctantly on the polished wooden floor beside their bed and shook the sleep from his eyes, searching for the source of the unwelcome noise.

The call came from the Royal Hospital in the city, and he was greeted on the line by an elderly man who identified himself as Dr. Morgan and whose nervous tone immediately gave Eric cause for concern. After making sure he had reached the right person, the other man wasted no time advising him that in spite of their greatest care and attention his mother had finally passed, gently and quietly in the night. Although she had been admitted into care several months earlier with little chance that she would recover from a long bout of pneumonia, the shock of waking up to such news caused Eric to break down and the sound of his quiet sobbing awoke Nancy who rolled over and embraced her husband, knowing immediately what had happened. Eric regained his composure and thanked the doctor for doing the best he could before hanging up and again weeping openly in her arms.

It had been a terrible twenty-four hours after they rushed to the hospital to greet the staff that had made Edith’s final days on earth comfortable, and by the time her funeral had finally come around neither Eric nor Nancy felt that they had any emotion left. They stood silently numb as their bishop delivered her last rites and watched bleary-eyed as her body was slowly lain to rest in a quiet corner of an old cemetery, sheltered by the nurturing arms of a strong willow tree. Edith loved the willow, and Eric knew that she would be at peace here in this place beside her husband and his father who had himself passed-on more than a decade earlier. “At last,” he thought to himself, looking out across the field of stones as a soft breeze animated the long, vibrant grass surrounding them, “you and Dad are together again.” The rest of their friends and family slowly dissipated in time, leaving him and Nancy alone to come to terms with the fact that they were both finally gone.

They held a small wake at a house just outside of the city where his Aunt Meredith, his mother’s sister lived and tried their best to put on a smile and talk only of the happier times he had shared with his parents growing up. Eric had become an only child shortly before his eighth birthday, after his younger sister Julia had mysteriously disappeared one night and although this had been an intense cause for talk and speculation at the time, everyone present was still wiser than to bring it up even now. After most of them, particularly the four or five other elderly women with whom Edith had spent much of her twilight years enjoying outings and other various activities had exhausted themselves of all grief, conversation turned to laughter as they fondly remembered her quirks. Eric’s mother had been raised in a small town east of the Lake District in the country’s north where most still spoke their mind, and her sharp tongue and irreverent personality had caused her more than once to land herself (and often too her close family) in hot water.

They ended up in hysterics as they fondly remembered the time she had berated her husband mid-prayer in front of the congregation for falling asleep during a sermon, and how she had almost chased poor Nancy half-way down the street the first time she had met her after finding out that her son was seeing an Irish Catholic girl. For all her odd behaviour, Edith had proved to be the most loving and genuine mother Eric could have asked for, and despite the large group of well-wishers that had turned out to take part in her wake, deep down he had never felt more alone.

He eventually excused himself from the rest of the party at the close of another anecdote and walked out in front of the house where he stood and looked out into the street, sighing heavily and wondering just what exactly he was supposed to do now. As if to answer, a short, well-dressed man in a dark dinner suit also left the gathering through the front door and stood beside him, offering him a quick gesture of respect before pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket, lighting it up and joining him in staring out across the neighbourhood. After a minute, the other man turned to Eric, extending his right hand and spoke:

“George Kaczynski, it’s nice to meet you,” he started. “I knew your mother briefly in the final few weeks before.. until now.” He finished awkwardly. The name sounded familiar to Eric, who finally realised who it was he was speaking to. He continued, “I was asked to be the executor of your mother’s estate, and was hoping I could have a word today to perhaps arrange to meet and run through a few things.. not today, and there’s no rush of course. Edith and I discussed her intentions at length over the past few weeks, and she was very firm in making sure that I don’t..” he chuckled for a moment, and Eric smiled, “that I didn’t dilly-dally around like every other smooth-talking shark she’d dealt with. I was hoping you could perhaps stop by my office tomorrow, if you’re up to it..?”

“Yes, of course – thank you. I know my mother wouldn’t have had it if I didn’t keep track of her things, you know how she is.. was. I’ll stop-in first thing tomorrow, let you get it out of the way.” George smiled a stiff smile as he crushed his cigarette underfoot, shook Eric’s hand and passed him his business card before making his way out into the street and to his car. Eric stood there alone for another several minutes before squinting skyward and sighing heavily once more. “Well, let’s get this over with,” he thought as he turned and made his way back inside, eager to put the event behind him.

He and Nancy met with Mr. Kaczynski early the next morning at his building in the West End, and quickly got down to business. Edith and her husband David had accumulated very little in the way of non-material assets over the years, acquiring little else other than several old vintage cars (Eric’s father had at one time been a mechanic) and a lifetime of furniture and possessions which still filled the large country house they had shared in rural Cumbria in the country’s far north. As their only son, Eric had more or less been given sole inheritance, and their meeting served as little more than a formality in signing their home and contents over to him before he and Mr. Kaczynski shook hands once more and they left with a set of keys and a long list of inventory for larger assets that remained at the property. It was a bittersweet moment for him as he reflected on the many years that he had spent growing up in that old house, and in the knowledge that it is and would remain empty now that his parents had both finally passed-on.

He and Nancy decided to pack their bags that Friday and drive up to the house to begin the monstrous task of sorting, cleaning and clearing through three decades of clutter and belongings that still filled every room. He had decided and she agreed that the longer they put it off, the more difficult a task it would become and at first light they packed a weekend’s worth of clothing and boxes into the back of her cherry-red V60 station wagon and set-off on a road trip that would take them a little over five hours, traffic permitting. The road out of London itself proved to be a long one however, and despite leaving early they found themselves caught in gridlock on the far side of the river for almost an hour before finally breaking free and reaching open road, and the scenic surroundings of the English countryside.

In spite of the solemn reason for their venture north, it was all that Nancy could do to hide her excitement at spending a weekend in the country. The pair had met while studying in the inner-city and spent the next five and a half years moving from share house to apartment, and apartment to condo and had never once had the luxury of anything larger than a roofed al-fresco as a backyard. She found herself energised by the fresh air and wide open spaces, gushing incessantly throughout their entire journey and the only way that Eric could think to put an end to her excited narrative was to suggest they stop at Carlisle for a long-lunch and some sightseeing before carrying-on the remainder of their journey to Wetheral, their final destination.

While they sat and ate at one of a hundred small delicatessens along the highway, Eric’s mind wandered back to his teenage years spent growing up in the country. The green fields and endless rolling hills brought him back to a simpler time in his life where he would while away the hours roaming through the many woods and glens, mapping every brook and stream which intersected the flourishing landscape. He had loved to fish, and sometimes otherwise to just lose himself in the openness and emptiness of being far away from it all. He also remembered more difficult times as a child coming to terms with the disappearance of his younger sister in one such wood outside the family home, and the taunts and accusations made toward him by the other children at their school, and even their parents. He had been the last one to see her alive before she vanished, and the guilt for having lost her, rational or not weighed heavy on him for most of his adult life.

Nancy on the other hand seemed to be having the time of her life, and beamed a wide and beautiful smile after taking a big bite of a thick sandwich from across the table. After struggling to clear the mouthful, she asked, “This is the first time you’ve taken me up here, you know. How much further is the drive..?” He smiled back at her as she wiped a dollop of butter from her cheek, and replied, “We’re almost there now. Wetheral should only be about ten miles east of here. Let’s have a quick wander along here first to make sure we have everything we need, then we’ll shoot over and get started.” They finished their meal and stopped-in at a grocery store for cleaning products and a few bottles of wine before returning to the car and setting-off in the direction of the village.

As they pulled out of the parking space, they stopped momentarily to let a small family pass before returning to the highway. The two of them watched as the middle-aged parents carefully shepherded a young son and daughter in front of the car and down the footpath, and Eric took Nancy’s hand instinctively into his. They had wanted and tried desperately themselves to have children of their own from the day they married, however despite several hopeful starts eventually decided to see specialist who broke the unfortunate news to them that Nancy had inherited a rare genetic condition which left her physically unable to bear children. Despite all of the wonders of modern medicine, it seemed that little could be done to help them and every time she saw other couples out with their own she couldn’t help but hurt. Eric was extraordinarily supportive however, and would simply say that, “If it’s meant to be, it will be. Until then I’ll just have to go ahead and love you that extra bit more.”

It was mid-afternoon when they finally pulled-up at the end of a long, unmade driveway that snaked away from the road and descended toward the property which was nestled cosily at the edge of a wide, dark wall of trees. The scenery overlooking it was breathtaking; the house itself was a rustic two-storey affair built mostly from old, rugged sandstone blocks arranged beneath a broad and weathered thatched roof, and it backed onto the western edge of the Wetheral Woods which towered above the roofline like a black curtain and ran for miles in either direction. Despite being late in the day, a shallow mist rose from the soil at the edges of the clearing and gave the surreal impression that they had somehow travelled out of their current time and back to an old and wonderful page in history. The two sat mouths agape as the car idled for a full minute before turning to look at each other, and without speaking Eric nosed the vehicle down toward the front of the house where they parked and got out for a better view.

The house lay almost completely in the shadow of the woods, and Eric and Nancy both shuddered visibly as the cold country air caressed their skin. “It’s just.. beautiful,” she said, sighing deeply as she looked around to completely take it all in. “The old homestead,” Eric replied, shrugging. “I’ll open up, then let’s get this stuff inside and set a fire. We can take a look around tonight to get an idea of what’s needed and get started on the heavy lifting in the morning.” He fumbled for the keys and unlocked the heavy wooden door which creaked loudly as it opened and returned to the car for an armful of boxes and bags. The two gingerly crossed the threshold and moved through the house, making their way to a large and homely kitchen at the far end to begin unpacking. Eric stacked bottles, sprays and paper towels on the counter and Nancy set their suitcases up in the guest room down the hall. She was astonished at just how authentic the interior of the house had remained, and wandered about touching the fixtures, scarred beams and cornices like a curious child, oohing and aahing as she went.

Eric started a fire in the living room and once they were settled disappeared to the kitchen momentarily, returning with two full glasses of wine. He sipped at one and handed Nancy the other before settling down in an old chair by the fireplace, and the two then talked for hours about his childhood, the house and his life growing up in such a strange and isolated place. Eric had never much liked speaking in detail about his life in the country, save for an occasional complaint and had himself adjusted quite nicely to London’s fast-paced and contemporary lifestyle. Given his obvious reservations she had never pressed him for more on his background, but as they finished their first bottle of red and opened another, he began to relax and spoke at length of his father and mother, and seemed to enjoy reminiscing about their old-fashioned attitudes and almost comical day-to-day experiences.

After a couple of hours and when the last light of day had completely vanished from outside the heavy double-glazed windows, Nancy finally plucked up the courage to ask Eric about his sister, something she had never quite felt comfortable bringing up but had been dying to know about since he had first dismissed the subject years earlier by simply saying, “Julia disappeared when we were very young, near our home. It tore us apart for years, but it is what it is.. it’s not a time and place I want to revisit often, if I can readily avoid it.” Her question had seemingly come out of nowhere, and although he squirmed when she asked there was something in her delivery, the innocent concern with which came the question, “What about Julia..? The two of you moved here when you were only very young, do you mind if I ask what happened..?” that made him feel it was time to at least touch on the subject. She immediately apologised when she noticed the wide smile disappear from his face, adding, “I’m sorry, you don’t have to..”

“No, no.. it’s alright,” he replied in resign, “you and I have known each other long enough, and it’s not fair for me to keep such a thing to myself.” He stiffened, and took another long sip of wine. After pausing for a minute, staring at his glass while the fire crackled and hissed in the background, he began. “My parents.. our parents had bought this place themselves after living in Manchester for nearly ten years. After they were married, and the two of us got older they decided to sell the garage and move us north, away from the city and to what they thought would be a safer place to raise two small children. Dad’s family were originally from Birmingham, and he’d grown up knowing exactly what the bigger cities were like.. the violence, drugs. He didn’t want to expose us to everything that he knew went on if he could help it. I was seven, and Julia five. We were both so excited to be moving to the country – I loved the outdoors and Julia was convinced she’d catch a fairy out in the woods.” He smiled for a moment, before taking another sip of wine and sitting closer by the fire.

A few days after we arrived, and before enrolling in school we had pleaded with our parents to let the two of us explore the woods behind the house. We rarely got along as it was, but when we did band together there was no amount of protest the two of them could put up to stop us from getting what we wanted. Despite it being only late January, we were relentless and after a day or so our parents caved and after warning us to watch out for wolves and foxes and other forest nasties, we rugged-up in our warmest clothes, Julia insisting she wear a brand new tartan dress our parents had bought her, and set-out in the afternoon to get an idea of what was out there. You have to understand that this was quite a few years ago, and we were miles away from the nearest town. They had no reason at all to worry about there being any danger out there to us other than ourselves. We said our goodbyes to the both of them and tore out the back door, running blindly into the tall trees beyond.”

“We ran and ran through the forest, leaping over streams and fallen trees and laughed and laughed the entire afternoon. It was amazing out there,” he recalled, staring into the fire, “We must have covered several miles, and were out there for hours before we finally realised that it was beginning to get dark. Julia became scared when we could no longer remember what direction was home, and as the sky grew darker I decided that I’d better make it to higher ground to get an idea of just how far we’d come, and which way we needed to go. I shimmied up a massive oak tree, and just as I neared the top I finally got my head over the canopy and could get an idea of where we were. I ambled around the trunk carefully, as the branches had become quite thin and despite now having a clear view, all I could see were the tops of more trees in every direction. Julia was calling out to me from the ground below, and I could tell that she was upset.. I had no idea where we were, and the last light of dusk was quickly fading away.”

Nancy was herself growing clearly distressed at the retelling, her face a mask of worry and concern but Eric went on, “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t see a light, but just as I was about to call down to her I noticed a wide, low clearing a short distance away in the other direction. It wasn’t home, but all I could think about at this point was giving her something to focus on, and getting the two of us out of the thick wood and at least to somewhere we could feel safe. I committed the way to memory and climbed back down the trunk of the tree before telling her which way we needed to go. She was so upset, and started to cry. I took her hand and with the last light guided her toward the clearing where we at least had a chance of staying safe before somebody came looking.”

“By the time we finally made it out of the wall of trees, it was completely dark except for a sort of weak glow which filtered down from the moon overhead. It was a crescent only about half its size, but it was enough that we could safely navigate our way through the undergrowth and across the clearing. When we finally arrived, we walked in..” He stopped for a moment and furrowed his brow, as if he wasn’t quite sure how to continue. “What happened..?” she asked softly, “Did you make it out..?”

“Not right away,” he continued. “We walked in, and that’s when.. that’s when we saw it.” He stopped again, a look of confusion mixed with apprehension taking hold of his features. To this day he was still reluctant to recall the complete story of what had happened that night. At first he had been so sure of what had taken place, with no doubt whatsoever in his mind but over the days, weeks and months that followed and by the constant dismissal of his account by everyone he had told it to, he had neglected and almost forgotten the arch and the strange ring of stones that he and his sister had stumbled upon. His teachers, friends and even his parents had eventually convinced him that what he thought he had seen was nothing more than a daydream, a mechanism of his own imagining that he had created to deal with what had really taken place. “How could anything else be the truth..?” he thought to himself, “Julia and I were simply lost in the woods, and were separated. There can’t be more to it than that.”

Nancy was by now more than concerned about her husband, and decided that this might be a good time to lay the conversation to rest. It was late, and they had done enough that day as it was.. it was time to call it a night. “It’s okay,” she said, “let’s finish this another time. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, and we can pick up where we left off whenever you’re ready.” She smiled and held his right hand in hers, and brushed his cheek with her left. Eric looked up at her and as he stared into her beautiful blue eyes, the pain and confusion vanished from his face. “You’re right, as usual,” he replied. He glanced at the empty glass in his left hand and then at the near-empty second bottle of red above the fireplace. “Two’s my limit anyway.” She smiled, and they cleared their glasses and bottles to the kitchen sink before returning to the guest room for a restful night’s sleep.

Eric lay awake for hours however as his wife slept soundly beside him. He was tired and drained from the stresses of the past week, yet for some reason he just could not shut-off his mind to what had happened to Julia. It had been years since he had allowed himself to return to that place, to those recollections that he had tried so hard to forget. Yet somehow as he lay there, once more in the old house by the wood where he had lost her he was again convinced that there was more to the story than he was taught to believe. He replayed the remainder of that fateful night in his head as he stared at the ceiling, trying with all his will to recall in detail what had actually happened;

As he and Julia left the forest wall they had found themselves in a wide natural clearing, the dark silhouettes of the trees swaying gently in the night air around it, and moved forward through the tall silver grasses that glowed almost eerily ahead of them, illuminated by the moonlight. At the centre of the clearing stood a wide and low ring of stones, and at its heart was a structure which neither of them could explain. Even now, the closest description that he could come up with was that it was a tall, grey arch of stone comprised of two wide obelisks set several feet apart and across the top, maybe five or six feet high was set a third smaller slab, which rested heavily atop the two supporting pillars. Although it was difficult to make out in the light, strange symbols were etched down the length of each pillar, and the top of the arch was adorned with words in a language that’s lettering seemed almost more to resemble an intricate pattern than a written dialect. It was to that day like nothing he had ever seen, and by the weathered state of the stones and the tall undergrowth around it had stood undisturbed and silent for an extremely long time.

The two siblings turned to each other in amazement, immediately forgetting their predicament and walked toward the arch which stood cold and stoic against the deep blue-black of the night sky above. They crossed the circle of stones, and together reached out to touch it, if for nothing else to convince themselves that it was in fact real. They circled the structure for a moment before little Julia’s eyes widened in amazement, and she breathed, “Fairies..!” It took Eric a second before the word registered, and he scoffed back, “Fairies, unlikely.. there’s no such thing as fairies. When are you going to grow up..?” Julia scowled at this, and replied, “There is too – these are fairy stones, look at the words,” she pointed to the strange cursive lettering above them. “See..? That’s their language. You don’t know anything.” The wind had blown her thick, red hair across her face, and only her scowl and little freckled nose poked through it to convey her indignation.

Eric scoffed again, but was too busy admiring the monument to shoot her down right away. When he had overcome his own astonishment, he instead turned and called-out into the woods, “Hey, fairies..! Come out if you’re real and prove it, if you’re not too chicken..!” Julia’s jaw dropped and she admonished her brother, who laughed her off and began teasing her for believing in make-believe and children’s stories. He poked and taunted her, and called her a baby for thinking that magical creatures actually lived in the woods behind their house. She fumed, and this only egged him on.

Deep down he loved his sister, but he just couldn’t help himself. “You’re such a baby,” he jeered, “how can you believe such rubbish..?” Eric slapped the cold stone with his palm and again called-out into the night; “Come on, pixies, show yourselves..!” He leaned-in toward Julia, “There’s nobody here but Eric and his gullible little baby sister – and this is what I think of her fairies..!” He then proceeded to hock the biggest loogie that he could, and spat it on the nearest column. This was the final straw for Julia, who screamed, “Stop it, stop it – leave them alone..!” and chased Eric around the arch as he laughed derisively back at her.

The two siblings ran in a wide circle around the arch, completing a full 360 degrees past the opening once, twice and a third time before Julia decided to outsmart her brother and catch him out by running through it. Eric continued around the structure and his sister turned and pivoted, leaping through the opening as he sped-up and went to circle past it a fourth time. As he rounded the far pillar he stopped and turned to face her, tired and finally ready to endure the flailing of little fists he knew was coming, but she wasn’t there. He turned again, realising that she must have doubled-back but she wasn’t ahead of him either. He stilled for several seconds and stopped to listen for her footsteps but heard nothing more than the gentle night breeze rustling through the grass and thickets, and he himself then passed through the structure, looking right and left for her. He scanned the clearing, and quickly realised that she was no longer there – she had vanished.

He looked around nervously, panting from the chase and called-out, “Alright, I give up – stop hiding and come back.” Again, there was no sound to be heard save for his own heavy breathing and the rustling of trees in the distance. He moved out toward the stone circle, and looked behind every rock and shrub in the clearing, finding no trace of his little sister. He panicked, and called out once more, “Julia, come on – where are you..? Stop playing, I’m sorry I made fun.. come back and let’s start home.” Again nothing. She was not by the arch or behind the ring of stones. There was no way that she could have made it out to the tree line, either – she had simply disappeared. In the wan shadows cast by the moonlight, Eric went on to spend hours searching for his sister, crying and pleading into the blackness for her to come back before futility and fear of the dark caused him to finally run out into the forest and away in the vaguest of directions that he believed to be their home.

He had eventually and miraculously arrived back at the old house in the early hours of the following morning, and was greeted by the flashing lights of several police cars and his two parents, by now worried sick for their two young children. He would never forget the looks on their faces when he arrived alone, and in the company of a search and rescue team comprising local police and volunteers had assisted in scouring the woods for days afterward for any sign of her. He had guided a number of these groups in the direction of the clearing, and although he thought he had led them several times to what he believed to resemble the one they had stumbled upon, none of them had contained an arch nor a ring of standing stones – only long, green grasses and nothing else.

No trace of his sister or the strange stone circle were ever found again.

Losing Julia had affected his parents deeply. Her father had taken refuge in drink, and although he could eventually control his impulse to reach for the bottle whenever the memories returned, the damage done in those few short years that followed had taken its toll, contributing heavily to his poor health and an all too early death. Eric’s entire family were plunged into turmoil as word of his sister’s disappearance became fertile ground for scandal among the other families in the small village, and although they managed to endure and somehow get on with their lives, the hushed whispers and rumour of foul play persisted long after the story had grown cold in the public eye.

Eric sighed and rolled over in bed, deciding against feeling to try and force at least a few hours’ sleep ahead of everything he and Nancy had travelled so far to take care of in the morning. It was strange being back in the old house after so many years, but as he lay there wide awake and listened to the noises it made as it settled, a small part of him couldn’t help but feel somehow safe. In spite of how fast life might appear to pass you by in the day to day goings-on of the modern world, time spent in those places of our childhood, for better or worse always somehow seem to feel warm.

The couple awoke to the sounds of chirping birds outside their window the next morning, just as the first rays of sunshine crept over the tops of the trees and after a home cooked breakfast set about boxing and labelling his parent’s possessions. Eric’s father had always badgered Edith to do away with the countless nic-nacs and redundant articles that she would accumulate for little to no good reason other than it being “an awful waste to throw them away,” however since his passing it seemed that she had once again returned to familiar habits. It took them both the entire day just to box up her books, ornaments and magazines set loosely about the place before they decided it was time for another breather. The two enjoyed a nice hot cup of tea as Eric once again stoked the fire, and as they sat in silence admiring the shadows it cast on the walls as it flickered, he decided in spite of his own wariness that they should get out, take a walk and experience the fresh forest air while they could.

Nancy was less than enthusiastic however, arguing, “I’m exhausted, Eric. We’ve been at it for hours now and I’m sorry if this sounds pampered, but I’d much prefer just to sink into a nice hot bath for awhile, and de-stress. You can still go, though – I’d just rather work-out some of these knots and save my energy for round two.” She looked tired, and Eric began to wonder if she too had had trouble sleeping last night. He was nonetheless keen to stretch his legs and in honesty rather fancied the idea of a few hours of solitude, something the two of them rarely seemed to find in London. “I’ll just pop-out for a bit then, try to find a path and get the blood running again. Do you mind..?”

“Of course not,” she replied with a smile, “after the week we’ve had a little ‘you time’ will be good. Now get lost, so I can enjoy a wine in the tub.” He laughed and kissed her on the cheek before slipping on a thick scarf and parka from his suitcase, and pulling a pair of heavy leather hiking boots onto his feet. He could already hear running water and the chink of glass as he called out goodbye, and as he left through the front door and around the back of the house he laughed again. Nancy was as tough as nails when she wanted to be, but even she seemed to be missing the modern comforts of their house back home. His breath hung about him in a thick cloud as he walked brusquely through the cold evening air, and after finding what looked to be a trail worn into the edge of the wood set off in a half-run, hoping the sudden exercise might start to warm him up.

He had left it until late in the day to leave, and although it was only six o’clock the skies were already beginning to transform into a deep and brilliant red as the sun’s dying rays approached the horizon. Nightfall came quickly to the country, and quicker still in the Winter and after running for the better part of an hour, Eric was feeling very warm but incredibly puffed-out. He had run so fast and covered quite a lot of ground in an effort to get his blood pumping, and hadn’t even noticed that he had strayed from the forest track and veered-off into a denser, taller and more ancient part of the Wetheral that was clearly quite far from civilisation and didn’t appear at all to have been visited by anyone in the recent past. He finally stopped running and bent down, placing his hands on his knees as he doubled-over and struggled to catch his breath. “Where in heaven’s name am I..?” he thought to himself.

His heart finally slowed, and when his breathing had returned to normal he wandered around for several minutes trying once more to find the path that had taken him there. It was beginning to get dark, and as the shadows coalesced and the air was filled with the sounds of hooting owls and other forest wildlife he started to think that his chances of getting back before nightfall were slim to none. ”She’s going to kill me this time,” he muttered to himself, and rather than waste more time trying to find the road he turned and started running again in the direction he felt he had come, believing that sooner or later he’d break through the forest wall once more, if not at the house then at least a short walk from it. As he ran he caught a glimpse of a crescent moon as it peeked through the branches above, and he was thankful that as the daylight completely disappeared he still had some way of seeing where he was going.

After ten or fifteen more minutes however, panic started to really set in. “Surely it would start to thin-out by now,” he thought to himself, “I’m such an idiot for not taking my phone.. though I probably wouldn’t get reception out here anyway.” Just as he considered stopping once more to take further stock of his options, he noticed that the trees ahead were indeed beginning to open out, and thirty of forty yards in front of him he could just see the moonlight cutting stronger through the near-blackness, indicating that he was almost where he needed to be. He pushed himself into a sprint, desperate to get out of the woods and back to a tall glass of wine by the fire and within seconds he reached the edge of the forest and bounded out into the open night air once more.

He slowed to a trot as he detached himself from the darkness, and it took him almost a full minute to realise that he hadn’t actually reached the end. Instead, he had stumbled into a wide clearing even deeper in the woods, ringed by the imposing black backdrop of the tree line and which was bathed only in the soft white moonlight from up above, and nothing else. Eric wiped the sweat from his brow and rubbed his eyes as he looked out across the clearing, and immediately a deep shiver ran down his spine. Far-off across the opening, and if he wasn’t somehow dreaming he could just make out the silhouette of a wide ring of low stones which ran along the ground like crooked teeth and formed a staggered circle. In the centre of the circle stood a tall, imposing structure which although he could not readily identify it as being so from a distance, his mind screamed out and he knew that he had somehow once again stumbled upon the same secret glade that he and Julia had visited in their youth, and at its heart still stood that same mysterious arch that they had found on the night she disappeared, more than twenty years earlier.

Tears filled his eyes as his body caught up with him, and all he could say, over and over was, “No, no.. it can’t be..!” He walked across the clearing and as he reached the henge around it he was shaking. It was real, and he was right. Somewhere and somehow, after all these years he had returned. He went to cross the awkward stone ring, slowing as he neared it and the entire forest which had become so animated beyond the trees seemed suddenly to have hushed completely into a cold silence in which you could have heard a pin drop. Even in the pale light, he could still make out the same strange and wonderful symbols which extended across the central arch and down the length of either pillar, and stopped only a few feet away finding himself somehow terrified to even touch it. Memories flooded back, and the pain of losing her, Julia on that night so long ago burned inside him. He considered for a moment turning and running away from the clearing, as far away and to anywhere else but something deep within him forced him to stay and investigate further.

It was just as he remembered. The monument stood tall, grey and cold against the dark skies above it, and when he finally plucked up the courage to reach out and touch it, a soft breeze started up once more at the forest’s edge which gently shook the tops of the trees and chilled the sweat on his face and neck. It was real. He stood before the arch, his trembling hands convincing him that he wasn’t dreaming, and in the clear and surreal warmth of the crescent moonlight he found himself speaking to it without even realising.

“Why,” he asked of the night, without expecting an answer, “Why did you take her from me..?”

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he dropped his head and stood against the pillar. As years of repressed anger and sorrow finally came to the surface, he leant his head against the cold stone and finally allowed himself to let it all out. The loss and loneliness, the sadness and guilt all poured out of him and away into the darkness like an awful, painful torrent. It was as he did that he began to feel a strange sensation wash over him, an idea which grew as a feeling that somehow seemed to come not from the arch or his own will, but that of the stone circle.

He stepped back in shock as a voiceless voice suddenly called out to him from the clearing, as strong and vivid as it was beautiful, and he stumbled and fell to the ground in amazement. When he touched the stone, when he placed his head against it, someone or some thing had called out to him. Still shaking and not entirely sure why, he arose once more and held the arch, resting his temple against the weird runes carved deep into it and this time stayed to hear, to feel just what it was that he was meant to know. All of a sudden, images and sensations flooded his mind – beautiful and haunting visions of dancing people and smiling children from a far distant past which erupted in his head and cascaded down through his entire body like a clear and calming waterfall, and he found that for several long moments and in spite of his fear and trepidation he could not have moved if he wanted to.

The trilithon had stood for so long, silent, alone.. waiting. For an unfathomable time the arch had endured, absorbing the hopes and dreams, the love, joy and laughter of those that came and danced before it, and those that were still yet to come. As he touched it, Eric too was overwhelmed with those same thoughts and images which burst into his consciousness in a flash of intense white light and whisked him away to a place beyond time, space and reality for all of what felt like a lifetime, before it finally let go of its hold and suddenly, somehow he knew what he needed to do.

He drew back from the structure, lined himself up and walked almost impulsively in a wide and deliberate circle around it, halfway between the arch and the henge first once, and then twice. As he walked, the gentle breeze in the clearing became a gale, and then a roar as he finally closed a third and final circle, returning once more to face it head-on, and as he did the same winds again died down and the strange and beautiful aura that the arch had gifted him drained away completely from his body, and simply dissipated back into the clearing. For a long moment, Eric just stood before it, waiting for something to happen. He alone, and the arch inert. Just as quickly as the visions had left him, skepticism crept back into his thoughts and he began to feel awkward, and then angry for having allowed himself to fall for the lure of its mystery and his own nostalgia.

Just as he was feeling entirely foolish and about to consider leaving the clearing, his eyes became drawn a small, dark figure peering out at him from behind the far pillar. He panicked as it moved, and for a split second feared that some small creature had come from out of the woods in all the commotion. He called out, “Hey..! Hey, come here..!” and as his cry rang-out and he cautiously made his way around the structure for a closer look, she moved from the shadows and into the moonlight to show herself.

Eric could not control the flood of emotion then that hit him like a sledgehammer as little Julia stepped forward from the darkness and stared up at him with wide and terrified eyes. It was like a thousand dreams that he had had since that fateful night, as he tortured himself over and over again since she was taken. Still wearing the same blue and green tartan dress and little black shoes, his sister stood trembling before him, and asked, “Who are you, where’s my brother..?”

He stood silent and in shock for several moments, unable to comprehend just what was happening. Somehow, across the infinite expanse of time the arch had returned her. By a blessing beneath the same moonlight under which she was taken so long ago, it had called out to him and he had answered. He knew, and at the same time could never know why or how it had happened, but in what was only the blink of an eye for her and a lifetime for him, somehow it had brought them back together once more. Such was its nature. She was clearly terrified, and he became acutely aware of what she must have felt and so replied, “He.. he’s gone, Julia. He had to leave.” He didn’t know what else to say.

She too had tears in her eyes, and before he could say anything else she spoke again, “We were walking, and we got lost. We’ve been out here for ages, and.. I just want to go home. Will you take me home..?” He nearly broke down completely before every fibre of his being commanded him to stay composed, and he replied, “Yes, darling – oh yes you lovely thing.. come here, let’s go home.”

Still shaking, he reached his hand out to her and she took it, and together they walked hand-in-hand from the clearing, out of the shadows of the past and into the silent woods beyond.

Nancy had finished her bath hours ago, and was now curled up in front of the fire with a book while she waited for Eric to come home. He had been gone now for several hours, and although she had no real reason to worry, if she was being honest with herself the woods behind the old house were a little creepy, and made her nervous. There was something strange about how close the trees grew together, the way the wind coursed through the boughs almost like the sounds of breathing and it somehow seemed as though even daylight had a hard time breaking through between them. Shortly before midnight, she found herself considering whether to call the police when a knock finally came at the front door and she placed her book face-down on the coffee table before rising to answer. “Who is it..?” she called nervously through the glass, her hand tightly clasping the handle.

“It’s Eric,” he replied. “I’m sorry I took so long, but I’ll explain.” She opened the door and was immediately surprised to see him standing there, holding the hand of a young girl with long, flowing red hair and who was wearing the most unusual tartan dress. She was relieved to see him, and was strangely drawn to the little girl who beamed back at her with the biggest and warmest smile she had ever seen. Her joy was contagious, and all she could do was reply through her own, “I’m glad you’re back, I was beginning to worry.. and who is this pretty little thing..?” Julia giggled and Eric reached out to take Nancy’s hand;

“Nancy, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

A Short, Sad Story for a Dark and Stormy Night

‘CLOSURE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

Martin threw his apartment door open with all his might and tossed his briefcase recklessly across the living room. It bounced off of the back of his tattered brown corduroy couch and opened, spilling its contents – pens, papers and wrappers out onto the floor and knocked a half glass of water off his coffee table, which smashed as it fell. He swore viciously before entering and slamming the door shut behind him, and made his way to the broom closet in the hallway.

Things just hadn’t been the same for him since she left, and each day seemed to bring another trial or disappointment, another parking fine to cover or registration to pay. He swept up the broken glass from the floor and threw it in the kitchen bin, collecting a beer from the fridge on his way back as he went to slump on the sofa and switch on the TV, just as he had done every other night that week. He only stayed there for about an hour and didn’t even finish his bottle – he had a splitting headache which was set-off again by the flickering light and the events of the day which weighed heavy on his mind.

Martin had been suspended again from his job as a client representative for a large pharmaceutical company. It was only Wednesday, and he had arrived at the office late for the fourth morning in two weeks, unshaven and still half-drunk from the night before. He had chosen to take refuge in drink since things with Sarah had ended, and his constant mid-week benders soon caught up with him. “Who can blame me..?” He had thought to himself, “Turning up each and every morning to the same dead faces, squeezing budgets thanklessly for every last dollar they can add to their salaries. Who needs it, this is good – I’m glad I’m gone.”

He turned off the TV and tipped the rest of his beer into the sink, setting the empty bottle up on the window ledge with all of the others. As he did, his eyes wandered across to a photo of the two of them; him and Sarah and he picked it up and stared at it for a long while. The picture was taken several years earlier at a time when everything was still new, and only love seemed to matter. They were still just kids when they first met, and were each other’s first true love. He smiled for a moment before fresher memories prevailed – memories of screaming, crying and fighting.

The two had been together for almost four years, quickly falling deeply in love and spending hours simply just talking or walking hand in hand along the many roads and boardwalks by the quay near to where they lived. Their relationship was intense and before they knew it, they were moving-in together. He had a great job, and she seemed happy.

He still couldn’t understand how everything had fallen apart so quickly. It almost seemed as though one minute they were inseparable, alone against the world and completely content and the next, they were shouting at each other, screaming at each other accusations of infidelity, threats and mistrust.. like they had suddenly become two completely different people.

Martin had loved her deeply, still loved her deeply. It had been nearly three months since she had packed her bags and left, and it felt as though his entire world had fallen apart. He was too self-righteous to follow after her of course, too proud to take a knee and apologise for everything he’d said, everything he’d done. All it might have taken was to hold her close, look deep into her beautiful green eyes and be the bigger man. Instead he simply stayed and watched her go.

He put the picture down, tears now in his eyes and took a good hard look at himself in the dark reflection of the kitchen window. It was black outside, and raining. His white collared shirt was crumpled, and slowly morphing into a pale shade of grey. Sarah had always taken care of the laundry, and he never cared to learn. His face was a mess of thick, dark stubble retained from over the weekend which he hadn’t bothered to shave, and two dark circles sat under his eyes, a testament to many restless nights spent tossing and turning in anger and reflection.

After several minutes Martin turned away, pulling a cigarette and lighter from his pocket and sparking it up. He walked over and sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. He had thought that things would get better, that he’d land on his feet and maybe even find someone else. Sure, there were plenty of women out there and he was a young, successful guy – why not..? He had soon however found himself taking home friends of friends and girls from the local strip, none of which he even felt the slightest desire to see again once they were through. It made sense in theory but for him, there was and would only ever be one girl, one true love. And he had let her go.

In his ups and downs following their breakup, Martin had begun to collect ingredients almost subconsciously for what had on several occasions seemed the only solution for the crippling pain he had grown to feel. Through contacts in his industry, he had purchased a small container of potassium cyanide crystals, which could have been easily dissolved into any drink, resulting in a quick and relatively painless cocktail. “Like slipping into a batch of ice-water,” his contact had said. He should have known better and wasn’t often given to such dark thoughts, but on this night he found everything to hit home all at once.

He knew that she would never take him back, not after everything that he had said. He had a sharp tongue when he was angry or upset, and took a small amount of pride in his ability to wound others when the need arose. But never her. The company was deliberating whether to let him go, he knew this. His productivity and success on the job had been on a gradual decline since the separation, and he no longer cared for his job nor the people he worked with. In fact, as he sat and stared into space he had difficulty remembering the last time he cared about anything. He was growing numb, empty and bitter, as though he was disconnecting from the rest of the world.

“I’m just so damn tired..” he said softly to himself.

Dark thoughts filled the emptiness within him and he dragged himself up from the table and wandered out to the laundry, where he opened the cabinet beneath the sink and pulled out a bottle. Potassium cyanide.. tasteless, odourless. He closed the cupboard and brought the bottle back to the kitchen, where he pulled another beer from the fridge before sitting back down at the table, eyeing the two of them off for several minutes. He suddenly felt extremely cold, and his eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light of the living room. “Do it,” a voice called-out in the back of his mind, “jump before it crashes.. there’s nothing left for you here except ruin.”

His heart was racing. He had considered doing this hundreds of times before, but now finally felt like he was truly at the end of his rope. Just as he was reaching for the smaller bottle, his hands shaking he was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Fuck,” he said aloud, the noise startling him. He brushed the small bottle quickly into the drawer at the end of the table and closed it, got up and walked to the door, mumbling as he did. “I swear to God, this had better be important..” He reached up and undid the lock at the top and clicked the handle over, before opening the door and speaking through his cigarette, “Yeah, what is it..?”

It was Sarah. He couldn’t believe his eyes. She was standing there, a small purse slung about her left shoulder as she stood smiling a nervous smile, looking as beautiful then as the day he met her. As beautiful as every memory he had of her. His cigarette dropped from his mouth, a long stem of ash bursting onto his shirt as it fell to the floor and he quickly moved to squash it with his foot to prevent it from burning the carpet. She smiled weakly and said, “Hi Marty, can I come in..?”

He was dumbfounded, and only just had the wits to mumble, “Hey yeah – sure, come on in,” before gesturing and moving aside to let her pass. What in God’s name was she doing here..? He hadn’t seen or spoken to her since she had left, and as the two didn’t share any mutual friends he had no idea that she had even thought of stopping by. He invited her to take a seat in the living room, and cleared away the pile of papers from his suitcase that he had thrown onto the second seat. “What on earth does she want..?” he thought to himself.

Sarah took-off her purse and sat down on the sofa, looking around the room as she did. They had shared the apartment for nearly two years, and she was clearly surprised to see the state that he had let it get to; clothes and documents were strewn about the coffee table, plates, bowls and dishes sat unwashed in the kitchen and the carpet had clearly not been vacuumed in weeks, nor the ashtray on the side table emptied. He sparked up another cigarette, and offered her one which she gladly took and thanked him for. After several moments, she was the first to speak:

“It’s good to see you,” she started, “I was meaning to drop by earlier, but things have been a little hectic. I’m glad to see you’re keeping the place tidy,” she joked, giving him a faint smile. Of everything that he missed about her, her smile was definitely the hardest to live without. She had two dimples either side of her mouth that deepened every time, and when she flashed her perfect teeth he felt like he would melt. He stared at her for a few seconds, taking an exaggerated drag of his cigarette before realising that he hadn’t replied and was beginning to make her uncomfortable.

“Sorry about that, I’ve been pretty busy myself. If I knew you were coming..” He took another drag to calm his nerves, and so did she. He continued, “How have you been..? It feels like.. months.” He felt awkward and unsure of what exactly to say, not expecting to see her ever again, let alone tonight. “I’ve been well,” she replied, “Work is going well, and I’ve been sharing a room with Felicity, on the other side of town. Keeping busy. How about you, I’ve asked around and no-one says they’ve seen you in weeks. Are you still working with..” She searched her memory and couldn’t recall the name of the company he worked for, but Martin could not fault her for that. It was enough that she had put up with his stories of his colleagues and the stresses of his job when they were together without remembering every little detail.

“Harris Davison, yeah. I’m still there, same old same old,” he said, drily. “It’s great to see you again, you’re looking.. you’re looking great.” He managed a weak smile. “What are you here for, is there something you’ve left behind, or..?” He immediately regretted saying this, although he wanted desperately to know what she had dropped by for after all this time. He just didn’t want to give her the impression that she was not welcome, and chastised himself. “Idiot, just let her speak..!” He thought to himself.

“Actually, I just came by to talk,” she responded, taking another long drag of her cigarette, “about us.” Martin couldn’t believe it. His heart raced and his mind wandered as he considered what “about us” might have meant. Did she want to try to patch things up..? Or maybe drive the wedge in deeper – he knew what some women were like. He couldn’t believe however that Sarah would go to such an effort out of the blue just to try to make things worse. He was starting to sweat, and ashed his cigarette before replying as confidently as he could, “Okay, cool – yeah let’s do that.”

The two then talked at length about their relationship, about the problems that they had faced and the way they had handled them. Both he and Sarah expressed their regret at how things had played out, Martin conceding that he had approached the stresses of his job poorly, and how earlier experiences had resulted in the immature way in which he dealt with her friends and co-workers. Of the jealousies and insecurities which caused him to lose his temper and to take it out on her. She too apologised for her distance and explained how she would react to his moods by simply walking out and leaving him alone to cool off, and how she had learnt so much about herself in their time apart.

They spoke for hours, well into the night as the rain picked up outside and flashes of distant lightning from the building storm illuminated the edges of his windows from the corner of his eye. All the while they talked, Martin felt the shadows in the room growing darker. He was tired, supposing that a major hangover and a lack of decent sleep was causing his vision to cloud and he thought nothing of it. As the conversation went on, he began to feel as though maybe, just maybe they were on the road to working out their differences, and he started to relax and even to smile, laughing as they began to recall more pleasant memories of their time together.

Sarah was driving the conversation now, and it became apparent to Martin that the reason for her stopping by was not just because she was nostalgic, or looking for the closure that most women seem to strive for. She had genuinely missed him, loved him and was testing to see if they could once again make things work. He could not have been happier, and talked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He also began to feel a little self-conscious – he was unkempt, exhausted and still wearing the same crumpled shirt that he had on when he was suspended from work only hours earlier. He stopped their conversation to say as much, and asked Sarah if she wouldn’t mind if he popped around the corner for a quick shower, before they continued. “It’s been a long day, and I feel like an animal.” he said.

“It’s okay, Marty,” she smiled, “I’m here now, and I’m not going anywhere.” He smiled back, ashed another cigarette and made his way into the hallway and to the bathroom, his heart still beating at a hundred miles an hour as he searched the linen closet for a fresh towel. As he stood in the hallway however, he again felt the same claustrophobic feeling that he had had earlier, as though the shadows in the corners of the floor and ceiling were growing, and the dim light from the crack of the bathroom door slowly fading to grey.

He was uneasier this time, and the feeling was much more intense than before. He tried to shake it off, and marched quickly into the bathroom where he turned on all the lights and the heat lamp and took a long, hot shower. It was mid-Winter, and even with the heating in his apartment on its highest setting he felt like he was freezing to death.

He leapt out of the shower and quickly dried himself, pausing only to swish a measure of mouth wash around and spray deodorant before rushing back to his bedroom to rummage around for clean clothes. This took a lot longer than it should have, but he found a pair of fresh jeans and a T-shirt and returned to the living room, relieved to find that she was still there, sitting on their couch and reading the TV guide with her two slender legs folded up beneath her.

He sat down beside her once more, smiling as he did. As he leaned in closer, about to speak he felt once more the vivid sensation of fading light and a chill which struck him to the core. He shivered visibly and reached for a heavy woollen jumper that was draped over the arm of the couch. “Are you okay..?” Her eyes seemed to ask. “I’m fine, just a little chilly,” he said, “the body corporate haven’t fixed the boilers downstairs, so the heating is still damn near useless. I don’t need to tell you that, though.” She smiled and he leaned in, and talk between the two began again more intimately than before.

“I really do miss you.” She started, “Ever since we broke it off, it’s all I think about. I’ve tried picturing myself moving on, and I just can’t.” She was tearing up as she spoke, finally letting her guard down completely and telling him exactly how she felt. Martin was moved too, and replied, “I miss you too, Sarah. I just can’t do it without you. I’ve tried, and I’ve failed.. everything just seems to be getting worse and worse the longer I’m without you.”

He stopped for a second, considering whether it was time to completely let his guard down too, and then decided just to go ahead and say it. “I still love you. I always have, and I always will. I’m so sorry for everything.” She cried, and he tried his best not to. “God, I love you, Marty – I’ll never leave you again“ They finally embraced, and as they did Martin could almost feel all of the pain, the negativity and the hopelessness of the past few months leaving his body and evaporating into thin air.

He held her for several long minutes as she shook, still crying now but crying tears of happiness. He too trembled, having dreamt so often of just holding her one more time. As he looked out toward the far window where the lightning flashed, a crack of thunder boomed throughout the apartment and he immediately felt a piercing chill rack his body, his trembling quickly becoming a long and uncontrollable shiver.

She immediately noticed this, sniffed and wiped her eyes, asking, “What’s wrong, are you okay..?” He wasn’t sure right away what to say, and as he moved back, still holding her he noticed that although she was right there, the shadows in the room had suddenly grown so powerful that he could barely make out anything past a couple of feet around them.

Something was definitely wrong, and he looked at Sarah as he continued to shiver, trying to speak. He tried to tell her that he felt like he was suddenly freezing to death, that something was seriously wrong, but the words wouldn’t come out. She just looked at him with a deep concern, and after trying again to speak he realised that he was in fact speaking – he just couldn’t hear a sound. She too tried to communicate, and although he could just make out that her lips were moving, he could no longer hear her words.

The shadows in the room were enveloping everything, and what little light remained had become wan and grey. It was as though he was somehow suddenly disconnecting from reality, and he became more frightened than he had ever felt in his entire life. “No.. this can’t be happening, not now..!” his mind screamed. He tried to reach out to touch her face one last time just as his sight failed him completely, and as she was mouthing one final sentence that he couldn’t quite hear, he was plunged quickly and completely into an icy black nothingness.

Thunder cracked and the doctors screamed at each other to fire-up the defibrillator as Martin finally went into cardiac arrest. It was unusual for a patient that had succumb to potassium cyanide poisoning to last as long as he had, death normally coming quite quickly but they assumed that his ex-girlfriend finding his body and calling an ambulance so quickly had more than likely bought him a few more hours.

He was lying face-down on the kitchen floor of his apartment when she had used her spare key to enter – she knocked at the door for several minutes after hearing him fall inside as she arrived, and had stayed with him ever since. He lay comatose for hours following the event, and Sarah had stayed right by his side the entire time, talking, crying and pleading with him to wake up.

No sooner had those words passed her lips, “I love you, Marty – I’ll never leave you again” before he finally let go of his grip, and fell into oblivion.

A Short Story about a Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away..

‘EMPIRE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

On a cold and distant planet at the outer edge of the galaxy, the stillness of an alien morning was shattered abruptly by the roar of twin jet engines busting through the cloudy grey. A pale white sun, barely risen over lifeless rock and mortar shied against the brilliance of rocket fire as it descended slowly downward from the heavens with a steady motion. For a few brief minutes, dense clouds of ash and dust were thrown into the air as the entire area became thick with an eerie, living mist which all but obscured the spaceship touching down on the planet’s surface.

Christened the Inheritance, its hull was a vast chrome cylinder some two hundred metric meters long by sixty wide, and the skin and bones of the ship were, like most vessels in the industrial fleet initially constructed purely for civilian purposes. As the seemingly unending struggle for galactic order wore on towards the later end of the twenty-seventh century, it had become necessary to register many such practical and trade craft as secondary assets for military tactic and transport. This particular vessel, however had been charged with a far greater destiny.

Hundreds of years had passed, by the old chronology since life had existed on the soil of this world, which for even longer still had been unable to sustain a native seed. Ash, silt and stone flew through the air as forty-thousand tons of titanium collided with the desolate terrain, now as scarred and dry as her once great oceans to the west. To the ship’s crew, this world was not unlike so many other worlds that they had visited in reconnaissance as part of their mission. In the years following the more intense warfare between her districts, the Empire had lost countless outer colonies, outposts and settlements to conflict, cheap skirmish and all-out attacks from the enemy. Federation, order and unity did not come cheap, and the cost of lives had run easily into the tens of millions.

While some worlds and their occupants had fallen easily to the will of the Empire, others merely feigned fealty before returning as participants in a rebellion that had overseen the wanton destruction of many new planets terraformed for future habitation. Whole worlds and systems filled with new and developing civilisations were extinguished completely and, in some cases their chemical elements vaporised altogether. But these were not the shells of worlds sought by the crew of the Inheritance.

Before the clouds of dust had settled and according to a predetermined rotary roster system, the crew aboard the ship had assigned a landing party contingent to arrive at the planet’s surface to begin harvesting geological samples for testing and cultural research. On this day, as history would remember, the contingent comprised a senior commander, three geologists and a young archaeologist named William Taylor. William, better known as Will to the rest of the crew was without doubt one of the youngest recruits selected for the mission, but had already managed to attain significant accomplishment in his field, despite having been drafted directly from the Federation Academy.

Their mission had been devised following the final defeat of insurgent forces a decade earlier at Gamma Prime. The resistance, a massive force comprising various expat species from conquered worlds and led by a small force of Federation dissidents had become a thorn in the side of the Empire’s trading companies at the outer colonies. For engaging in racketeering, incitement and skirmish, the High Council had charged a legion of battlecruisers in the outer district with crushing the rebel forces, who were after a long and bitter struggle eventually annihilated to a man, as Federation policy dictated. With all resistance thus destroyed and homogeny restored to the galaxy, it was decreed that the search for the lost home world, the birthplace of the Federation and her Ethos so many centuries earlier could finally begin.

The allotted mission had been expected in all reality to carry on indefinitely, for very few despite their deepest hopes and a devout faith in the scripture of the Old World had actually expected the mythical Terra as a single point of origin to have ever actually existed, let alone that tangible ruins and remnants of her fabled once great cities had survived the great catastrophe. Almost an afterthought to the conquest of their galaxy and an ongoing political rallying effort for the unity of the Federation, their mission was essentially a one-way ticket into the unknown, and they knew it.

Once on the planet’s surface, it took the better part of an hour for the correct consignment of landing gear to be assembled and delegated to the party. Each crew member was equipped with two cylinders of oxygen to be metered intermittently throughout the expedition, specialised geological assessment kits, medical equipment and a standard armament in the form of a single-shot energy pistol. For any greater threat that the group might encounter, the Inheritance was equipped with ballistic cannons powerful enough to raze whole cities to dust in a single strafe, and sat well within radio range should the situation deem it necessary.

The party, now equipped and briefed on the planet’s environmental composition by the ship’s data computer entered the airlock and began the slow decompression required to withstand the planet’s atmosphere, now all but scorched away through an horrific disaster centuries earlier. This fact in itself qualified it as an ideal candidate for listing for their mission.

In the airlock and finally assembled, the party exchanged pleasantries and discussed the impending expedition: “Ten years and counting,” geologist Troy Harris began, “ten years, thirty worlds and two thousand volumes of next-to-nothing. At least fighting in the crusades gave a man something to write home about.”

“Better to send your family back a sub-space communication than a body-bag, or less,” replied their commander. Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Green was among about a dozen crew members aboard the Inheritance who had previously seen action while locked in fierce combat with the Empire’s dissidents, surviving above all else a five-year tour of duty in the Federation’s ‘Secret Service’ division, administering support to a siege offensive at the rebel home-world which ultimately turned the tide of war in favour of the Federation.

It was during this same offensive that the highest tolls on both sides of the struggle were recorded, as rebel forces were eventually surrounded on all sides and fought back with an almost inhuman viciousness. A fierce aerial campaign was undertaken which culminated in a heavy surface firefight as enemy forces were driven into the ground and finally vaporised completely. The surface of the planet was bombed from space and its upper mantle sublimated entirely by new and advanced weaponry. In the caves beneath the surface of Silica 6 in the Gamma Prime system, both sides had turned desperately to unspeakable acts of cruelty in order to stay alive in those dark days before the war was won.

Often referenced in Federation transcripts as ‘Silica Syndrome’, many of the operation’s most hardened solders were discovered after the siege to have developed crippling mental afflictions whose symptoms ranged from simple tics to full-blown psychoses, the result of months and months spent claustrophobic beneath the planet’s surface, often pursuing insurgents through a vast network of tunnels no wider than a shoulder’s width and which criss-crossed the planet’s surface like Swiss cheese. Commander Green had himself spent six months in an off-world sanitarium following the final push, before finally being cleared to return to military service. Others were not so lucky.

“Let me tell you something,” he began again, addressing the entire group, “I won’t deny that the past few years aboard this ship have dragged-on, and some of us have managed time and again to get on each other’s nerves,” he shot a quick glance at Harris, “but what we have here is an amazing opportunity to be among perhaps the first human beings to set foot on the Old World since expansion.”

“If the Old World even exists, Rudy..” interrupted Ed Turner, second geologist for the landing team and an ever-present voice of skepticism.

“Oh, It exists,” continued Green, becoming more animated, “the one planet from which the vision of Federation and homogeny among the stars was born is most definitely out there. I’m sure you’re all aware of the old scriptures and their histories..”

“Of course,” started Taylor. The stories taught to him throughout his childhood and interwoven through his lessons with the Academy which followed had supplanted firmly within his memory. “The scriptures teach of the ancient struggle for Terra, of the fight for the basic purity laws that became the cornerstone for the Empire and of the great catastrophe which nearly annihilated our species in the Old Age. They teach of the basic principles of improvement and warn against the dangers of false fraternity. Our entire galaxy would have been destroyed had the great civil war ended differently, if the early districts had succeeded in their resistance to the Ethos.”

“Precisely,” continued Green, “History would read very differently had the foolishness and corruption of the Old World and her usurpers’ ways survived. For the Federation and the warning given us by its scriptures, we must never forget the fate of the Old World and we must never, ever forsake our mission to find it.”

Green gazed then through the airlock and into the grey of the terrestrial morning with a thousand-yard stare. After a few long minutes had passed, decompression had at last completed, and the Inheritance’s airlock slowly opened outward with a steady pneumatic hiss and a rush of cold air. It was then that he noticed that the rest of the party too were minds elsewhere, staring absently into the distant streams of history that had coursed them to that moment.

The landing party moved through the airlock with trepidation. It was raining now, a variable the crew had failed to take into consideration as they prepared and so the party moved quickly to detach the rain cloaks that were always fastened at their waists as a contingency. The Inheritance had made landfall at a north-western inland continent on the planet’s Northern hemisphere, chosen due both to a steady climate and high density of what the intelligence team aboard the ship had suspected were city ruins. Commander Green wasted no time in selecting a more heavily fortified structure from the outcrop and ordered his party to erect a makeshift base of operations both for shelter and use as a temporary geological laboratory.

The cold morning rain began to drift softly over the party in steady sheets, growing ever heavier as a mass of darker clouds moved in above them. Far off in the distance a faint clap of thunder could be heard, and it soon became clear to the group, now struggling desperately to steady their shelter that the storm would not pass any time soon, and that they had better make arrangements to wait it out. The commander radioed his intentions to the ship and with a crude shelter adequately assembled, the party sat in silence for a long time, taking rations and performing maintenance on the scientific equipment that they had brought down to the planet’s surface.

After several hours of monotonous routine tests, and when the group began to show signs of boredom Will moved to position himself at audience with the rest of the party and began to speak:

“Does everyone here know,” he began, “the story of the origins of the Old World scriptures, and the founding of the Ethos..?” Will had left the ship on several worlds over the course of their mission, however each time with different groups of people. As always, he was eager to show off what he had come to learn during his time at the academy, and took great pleasure in retelling their histories.

Half seeking respite from the downpour at the edges of the shelter and half in muted interest in a story every child of the Empire had been raised on in their earliest years, the group edged closer to Will and listened regardless with keen interest to his excited and passionate accounts of the elder legends, often punctuating the story with rousing vocal effects and an engaging ability with oratory. The tale was long and wore on until the last light of dusk began to fade behind the hulking ruins of the alien city, looking almost in the dark like crooked teeth on the horizon:

“In the year 2045CE by the old chronology, the Old World from where all the foundations of the Empire had been lain had been gripped by a great and terrible civil war, a global conflict arisen from a centuries old hatred which had been fermenting until the catastrophe that crippled their society. Wild skirmishes were fought between the cities of Terra, and oceans were dried up and mountains torn down by science and weaponry kept secret since the time of the Great Prophet a century before, killing billions of men and beast alike and casting the world into a dark age from which it would take decades to recover. Far beneath the surface of Terra, like a dormant seed waiting for the rains that would always come, the adherents remained in secret and prepared to rise as a phoenix from the ashes of a world lain to waste. They would return and establish a new Imperium, and eventually draft the Ethos that had grown to bear the fruits of their Empire.

Certain accounts of the great wars have varied slightly over time, however the fundamental timeline of events which had brought humanity towards a final reckoning conflict remain the same. In the early years of enlightenment, the Great Prophet had gifted his people with a doctrine that would eventually become the earliest form of the Ethos. The Prophet had come to identify the path to Imperium, and the true form and nature of the enemies among them that would seek to bring about the destruction of the Empire. He had fought a courageous and costly war in his time against the forces of evil, who had proved in the end to be far too cunning and powerful to defeat and so the first and earliest manifestation of the Empire was doomed to collapse beneath the sheer weight of biological entropy.

Of the decades that directly followed the fall of the Great Prophet little is truly known, save that it was by all existing accounts the darkest and most chaotic time in humanity’s history, and one during which all hope of hegemony and cohesion amongst the adherents of the doctrine was very nearly lost forever. Within a century however, and by the one-hundred year anniversary of the Prophet’s fall, a new resistance comprising brave and fanatic adherents had succeeded in consolidating considerable power and influence and by a leaderless uprising against the oligarchy that had administered the chaos that threatened Terra, the Great War finally began.

It was a war not only of adherent and oligarch, but of brother and brother also as so many had already been tricked into the service of the overlords. It was as much an ideological war as a war of weapons, of light and darkness and of truth against lies. Many millions of our strongest and bravest on many colonised worlds, those with the greatest potential to serve the doctrine were killed in that conflict and in a few short years, the fate of their world and ultimately of the galaxy was finally decided.

The New Order was founded in their victory on the core principles of the doctrine, and sealed with the blood of the last of the remaining oligarchs, who were hunted down to a man and put to death in great public ceremonies to the rapturous applause of the survivors that had gathered in droves and on various worlds to bear witness. Shortly after the purification of those worlds that were deemed salvageable and as the constructing of the Federation began, their doctrine was revised to encompass a galaxy and was ratified and sanctified henceforth as the Ethos.

It was the Great Catastrophe that had finally rendered Terra and its system uninhabitable, the price of freedom proving ultimately to be their home-world. Their forces withdrew from Terra and went on to eventually conquer a galaxy, and all knowledge of that irradiated planet that they had come from slowly faded from memory over time, remaining only in scripture and legend.”

At the end of the retelling and after a sober minute’s silence, Turner stirred from adjusting the settings on their purifier and sought to clarify with uncharacteristic interest the story surrounding the Great Prophet:

“The Prophet,” he started, pointing a ratchet in Will’s direction,” you say that he had identified the enemies of the Imperium. I know we can all list with detail the forms and factions of the resistance as we have struggled against it in our lifetime – what can be said of the oligarchs, who were they and where did they come from..?”

“Well,” started Taylor with a sigh, “what little we know of the oligarchs is that they were not so dissimilar to us in form, but the fact that that they were not unlike us in appearance was their most dangerous quality. They had, over many centuries succeeded in amassing vast quantities of wealth, power and influence in our societies and worked to bring them down from the inside. They were deceivers, thieves and manipulators and where adherents to the doctrine sought to create and control, to prosper and to innovate, the oligarchs had only greed and chaos in their hearts.”

“They had nothing but envy and contempt for those who would strive, invent and who desired beauty. It was our naivety, and our compassion that they had exploited, and by these qualities we very nearly risked losing everything. That is why we must never again compromise our doctrine, and our vision. Never again can we allow our people to lower guard against alien blood. Never again.”

“Well I’m not sure exactly how much of what you’ve said tonight is true,” replied Turner with a smile, “but I am thankful for the Empire, such as it is. With things as they are now, I think we can all clearly see the continued existence of our people and a future for our children, for generations to come. No compromise is worth risking that.” He turned and returned to making final adjustments to the machine before turning-in.

The storm continued to rage about them, torrents of cold rain belting against the thin synthetic walls of the shelter that they had raised and in which they had managed at last to reconfigure the air-pressure to a somewhat tolerable measure. It was arranged that one of the group would remain on watch throughout the night, less for confronting hostile life forms and more for making sure that the shelter remained pressurised throughout the night, should their equipment somehow malfunction. The planet’s rotation against its sun and its present seasonal axis would see a night of some twelve to fourteen hours pass, before they could again resume their mission.

The party on the planet’s surface had grown weary from the excitement of setting down on the new world, and from the retelling of the history of Federation. With no predictable end to the storm forecast until morning by the ship’s computers, the group made arrangements to camp on the planet’s surface until dawn when, weather permitting, they would enter the ruined city in the hope of finding answers. They slept in shifts, each of them to a man excited for tomorrow’s journey.

The next morning, the group awoke to patchy cloud and a thick, murky haze, however found that it had finally stopped raining and so after quickly sharing rations, they packed their equipment and set-out once more in the direction of the city. They walked for several miles before reaching the outskirts of what appeared to have been a massive metropolis which sprawled ahead of them. Where there must have once stood monolithic structures and causeways, little more than massive hewn stone foundations now littered the ground in all directions to provide an idea of what once was and make the way forward a difficult one.

The group were awestruck and a little excited – of all of the worlds that they had surveyed so far, they had not yet come across anything like this. Their commander slapped the wide base of what must once upon a time have been a massive pillar, declaring, “Solid stone, ladies and gentlemen. They just don’t make them to last like this anymore.” He couldn’t have been more right, either. Samples from the ruins that they had camped beside the night before had tested to be almost a millennia old, and looked to the group as though they might yet last a millennia more.

They slowly snaked their way along, over and between piles of earth and pulverised rock, following the more established foundation blocks of the city as they grew in size and, they hoped, indicated that they were nearing the heart of the ruined city. Whatever had happened in this planet’s history, it must have taken place right at the cusp of a cultural zenith; the city sprawled for miles and miles and in certain places the landing party were able to catch a glimpse through gaping earth at sections of what appeared to be an extensive underground catacomb, which ran beneath their feet.

After another hour or so carefully navigating the city, they reached what looked to be the remains of a massive central square and the monstrous stone foundations of a grandiose structure, the purpose of which they could only wildly speculate about. The rubble formed piles on the outskirts of the foundation, swept to the side by strong winds and they took a long moment to stand and look out over it before moving on. The atmosphere was a grey and shifting fog, and the sunlight filtered through it in a way that almost seemed to animate their surroundings, bringing them to life.

Gigantic stone megaliths locked-in beneath their feet, forming a wide expanse so massive that it had over time caused the foundation blocks to sink well below ground level. Their hearts were beating heavier now, as the enormity and complexity of the civilisation that once inhabited the planet became apparent and they quickly covered the expanse and made their way toward a dense mountain of stone and rubble that obscured their view of the rest of the ruined city. Will Taylor was the first to reach the foundation of the outcrop, and without waiting for the rest of the party, found a foothold and began climbing to get a better view of the alien world that they had stumbled upon.

Captain Green and the others were several meters behind Will when a sudden yell from up ahead caused them to stop dead in their tracks. He had ascended the summit of the hill, and thrown both of his arms up in the air in the direction of the view, calling loudly and emotionally out to the rest of the landing party. “Oh my god,” he started, “I don’t believe it..!” He placed both hands on his head, and his team could hear him softly sobbing over the communicator that lined his helmet. Still at the foot of the rise, commander Green desperately called-out to him for further intel before he and the rest of the group too threw caution to the wind and ascended.

“What is it, Taylor. What do you see – answer me..!” He was fearful, excited and himself eager to burst into a sprint and join Will at the summit and just as he was about to begin the climb, Will replied, “We did it, we found it. Comrades.. we’re home.” The rest of the group broke into a mad dash to reach him, and as they too caught a view of the ruins that lay beyond, one by one they dropped their arms by their sides and stood in stunned silence, the feeling of home finally washing over them.

The Empire was ready now. The Federation had finally conquered the galaxy, enforcing its doctrine over all and bringing harmony to a thousand new worlds and systems. Its vision finally realised and her true origins reclaimed, a new Imperium could now at last be established that might invite its children out further still into the universe to conquer and explore, to create and destroy – to plant that hallowed flag into the soil of eternity where it might continue forever to serve as a bastion for the one true Ethos.

In the distance, still intact and lining the central esplanade of the ruined city, weathered iron eagles flanked the way towards a solitary concrete arch which once marked the entrance to the greatest hall their ancestors had ever built. Inscribed upon that archway in deep letters that had only just survived the ravages of time, the moniker and closing words of their Ethos still proudly remained, for all of history to see;

“Tomorrow, the World.”

Thomas Wasn’t Like All of the Other Children..

‘THOMAS’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

Thomas wasn’t like all of the other children. From the moment he had been delivered by the midwives at St. Mary’s Hospital eleven years earlier, his mother Kathleen had quickly realised that something had gone terribly wrong. She could tell by the looks on their faces as they held him at arm’s length, several of them crying softly that her son had not been born whole. During an earlier routine check-up, her nurses had told her that there were several minor anomalies that were relatively common, however as her term was many weeks shorter than it should have been and complications during her labour had caused her to be in an incredible amount of pain, she couldn’t help but worry.

Her carriage had been extremely difficult overall, and as the child grew inside her she had begun to feel strange sensations of movement that were abnormal, at least insofar as what she had been told to expect. Thomas had struggled, kicked and tossed in the womb almost constantly, and the terrible nightmares that recurred throughout those months had caused her a great deal of discomfort and distress. She had tried to dismiss her concerns however, just hoping and praying that she would make it through the other side without losing him.

On the morning when he finally arrived, a gale outside the hospital had raged and roared, the noise only drowned out by her own agonising screams as she struggled to give birth to her first and only son. She laboured long into the night, naturally delivering her baby boy just as the winds stilled and dawn crept over the horizon, and when she had finally held him for the first time she too burst into tears. The child had been born with a strong defect – brittle bones and a large hump in the middle of his back and although he was remarkably calm and quiet, the sight of what could only mean a lifetime of pain and hardship for the boy was more than she could bear. Kathleen broke down, and for a long time could barely stand to look at him.

Throughout the pregnancy her own mother had often asked about the father, and every time she would give the same answer; “He was just a gentle stranger,” she would say, “a soldier on leave. I’d broken down on the road north out of town one hot summer’s afternoon, and he’d offered me a lift back to call a mechanic. He had the kindest eyes, and had asked to stay with me until I was back on the road.. a true gentleman.”

She refused to go into any further detail, more so because she was still hurt by the fact that so soon after their brief rendezvous he had simply up and left one morning, never to be heard from again. “Michael,” he had said his first name was, and had never given a last. She had fallen quickly and deeply in love, and had not been able to bring herself to be with anyone else since finding out that she was pregnant. Knowing that the child grew within her even early on had made it feel like he was still somehow close.

Michael and Kathleen had spent the better part of a week together before he just mysteriously disappeared one day. He had rented a room in a motel on the outskirts of town, and had explained to her that he was only passing through on his way back home from a posting on the front line. Kathleen had assumed this to have meant a tour of duty in the Middle East, but knew better than to pry too deep into where and what he had been involved with during his service.

All that he had said of his time abroad was that he had seen more than his fair share of violence and heartache, and was contemplating leaving the force for good this time. She poured her heart out, sharing her hopes and dreams as they talked for hours and hours, long into the evening on their first day. By the second they had found themselves unable to resist growing more intimate, quickly becoming passionately involved and Kathleen felt for the first time that she had finally found a man who could make her feel complete.

She had awoken early in the morning on the fourth day to stop-by the motel and surprise him with coffee and a homemade breakfast, however when she arrived was informed by reception that he had already checked-out a short time earlier. After asking to borrow the key to check his room, she entered to find that the other side of the queen sized bed they had shared was still slightly warm. When she walked back out into the parking lot of the complex and looked up and down the street, he was nowhere to be seen and she realised that he was indeed well and truly gone. He had left nothing at all behind save for a single page from a motel notepad at reception which had read:

“Dear Kath, I’ve received orders to leave this morning and return to my station. I feel that seeing you first would only have made things more difficult – I’m sorry. Thank you for everything, and I hope you can understand. Love, Mike.”

She had asked around town to see if there was anybody else that might spoken with or had an idea of how to reach him without any luck, and cursed herself for not insisting on at least getting a contact number from him. She kept the note, and checked-in back at the motel for weeks afterwards in the faint hope that he might return, before finally accepting the fact that he was gone for good, and she would be alone to deal with the consequences of their affair. That consequence was Thomas.

Her son had found adjusting to life as a different child to be extremely difficult. Not just for the obvious visible abnormalities, but also that his weak bones had meant that he needed to be treated with kid gloves. As with many premature children, Thomas was slight and frail, and prone to moments of imbalance and vertigo, as though he had never quite got the hang of walking.

Sometimes all it would take would be for him to lose his footing, and an awkward landing could easily result in several broken bones and another stay in hospital. He was extremely fair, with white blonde hair and pale blue eyes and almost seemed like a ghost as he softly wandered the halls of his school, careful not to draw any further attention to himself.

The other children throughout his early and primary schooling had quickly decided to ostracise him, calling him nicknames such as ‘Backpack’ and ‘Rickets’ and pushed and bullied the boy whenever they saw him. They would test Thomas constantly, cornering and trapping him in the corridors and hallways of his school and provoking him to fight his way free, thus inevitably injuring himself and not causing any of them to claim responsibility for his broken bones and bruising. His schoolmates were extremely cruel, as children often are, and sometimes made life for Thomas seem like a living hell.

It wasn’t just the other boys, either. Thomas also had a hard time finding the courage to speak to the young girls at his school, who found his appearance to be grotesque and despite his perfect manners and positive approach, not one of them would even give him the time of day. As the years crept by he became isolated, sad and alone, constantly looking over his shoulder only to catch snippets of hushed conversations and the jokes they would make at his expense.

Most of the time he sat by himself and during recesses would try to find an empty classroom to hide in so as to avoid the other children. He would then sit quietly and read until his next class, sometimes books about birds and animals but mostly fantastic stories of far-off worlds and amazing, wonderful people. Anything which might provide an escape from the reality of his own deformities. He also loved to paint and draw, and spent a lot of time trying to recreate those places and animals he had read about, particularly birds in flight. There seemed to be something about how easy it was for them to just pick up and move on at any moment they wanted to that appealed to him.

Often too he had found it all to be too much and would sometimes rush home from school early and burst into tears in front of his mother and grandmother, who would try their hardest to console him. “Why do I look like this..?” he would cry, “Did I do something to deserve it..? I’m a monster..!” He was so clearly wounded by the way that his classmates treated him, and it broke his mother’s heart.

She loved Thomas dearly, and on her own mother’s advice had come to look at his disabilities as a gift – he had in spite of everything developed an amazing empathy and sense of morality, and was painstakingly polite, concerned and well-behaved. “He is every mother’s dream,” she would often say to her, “take it as a blessing.” Deeply hurt, Kathleen would simply hold him close and remind him of just how special he was to her, and that things would get better in time.

Thomas himself found this hard to believe. As the years went by, he found that the hump on his back still seemed to be growing, although he noticed his bones to strengthen a little as he grew. His grandmother would make and alter clothing to fit around the long hunch between his shoulders which ran from the base of his spine and broadened as it reached toward the back of his head, forming a dense and irregular lump that jutted-out and made fitting into normal clothes almost impossible.

He had been forced to wear the same metal braces on his legs that one could expect to be found on a child with rickets, and whenever his class had had to take physical education, his doctor insisted that a special lined helmet and pads be worn, which only further fuelled the teasing, bullying and name-calling he received from the other students.

On the morning of his twelfth birthday, Thomas awoke to find a special breakfast that his grandmother had prepared waiting for him downstairs. It was his favourite – buttered toast, scrambled eggs and bacon, and although his mother had started work early that day, she had also left a small gift for him on the kitchen counter, which he couldn’t wait to unwrap. As soon as he had finished eating, he threw a quick glance at his grandmother who smiled and nodded, and he then proceeded gleefully to tear the brightly coloured blue and green wrapping paper from around it.

He gasped audibly as he held up a packet of brightly coloured pastels and a beautifully adorned sketch book that his mother had herself decorated by hand, with his name embossed in metal leaf on the front cover. He couldn’t believe it, and the smile that her gift had brought to his face quickly spread to his grandmother who told him to “Put that safely in your schoolbag dear, and thank your mother when you get home.” She turned to start cleaning the dishes, and Thomas did as she asked before securing his braces and leaving through the front door, a spring in his step.

As much as he loved his mother, he had grown to develop a strong affinity with his grandmother who seemed always to have the time to spend with him. Without his father around, Thomas needed as much support from his family as he could get and he was always excited and challenged by the wisdom she would impart to him.

She had used to read and tell stories to him as he lay in agony in his younger years, her soothing voice helping to calm him down as she spoke softly of far away places, clear skies and new and different people. While broken bones set and the sting of mockery and abuse burned deep within him, she would always be there to take his mind off of the pain and spirit him away to a world of possibilities.

Kathleen had become quite busy in working alone to provide for him, and with her mother now retired it was a welcome helping hand that she could provide by staying home and looking after Thomas while she was out. She stood by the kitchen window and watched him leave, inspired as always by his ability to smile in spite of his hardship and prayed as she always did for his safety and happiness.

Thomas arrived at school that day just in time to make it to his home room before his teacher, Miss Davis closed the doors locking any stragglers out. He was moving down the aisle between two rows of desks, rushing to reach a seat at the back of the room when all of a sudden his feet slipped out from under him and he came crashing to the ground.

His books flew into the air as he threw his arms forward to stop himself from landing face-first, and as his left wrist connected with the classroom floor the air was split by a sickening crunch as his brittle bones shattered under the weight of his body. Several students gasped and two girls screamed as they caught a glimpse of his twisted left hand, flopping about on the end of his arm while he himself rolled over and yelled in pain.

Thomas lay on the ground wincing in agony, and as he braced his wrist and went to sit up he saw two of his classmates high-fiving each other. One of the two boys, a bully named Mark was dragging his leg back from the aisle as they did and it was more than obvious that he had tripped him up. Miss Davis quickly rushed across the room to look after Thomas, helping him to his feet and asked him what had happened.

Thomas looked up at Mark who glared threateningly back at him, before saying, “It’s nothing, my.. my foot caught on the desk leg. I must have tripped – I’m so sorry.” She frowned, not entirely convinced and he choked back tears as he held his wounded arm close and was escorted out of class and to the sick bay by another student. As usual she had had her back turned to the class when the incident occurred, and as she did not see what had taken place could do little more about it besides calling his mother.

As he sat in the sick bay, Thomas took out his new sketch book from his bag and with his right hand began to draw a colourful scene of a lush green meadow, complete with horses, birds and butterflies. He knew it would be awhile before his mother would be able to stop by and pick him up, and used the time to take his mind off of his injury. Eventually she did arrive and rushed into the sick bay to hold him close, saddened to see her son yet again sitting there, hurt and alone.

“What happened..?” she asked, holding out his wrist, “Did one of the other boys do this to you..?” He then gave her the same story that he had given Miss Davis a short time earlier, despite knowing full well that he had been tripped on purpose. In spite of what had happened, he felt that there wasn’t much point to retaliating and getting Mark in trouble. Thomas then remembered his birthday gift, and kissed his mother on the cheek, “Thank you so much, Mama – it’s just what I needed.” The two of them returned home where he sat and rested under the gentle shade of a tall oak tree in the yard, drawing away while she watched from the kitchen window feeling fearful and concerned.

The next day, Thomas returned to school with his left arm braced and bandaged. It did little good for the school nurse to apply plaster, as if they had done so for every time he’d broken anything he’d never have had it taken off. Luckily he found his bones to knit quite quickly, and all that was needed were a few sturdy steel rods and tightly wound bandages to hold it rigid. He had made it through his home room class without any further incident this time around, although the same boy Mark and his best friend Danny had spent an unusual amount of time staring back at him, laughing and whispering to each other which made him feel uneasy.

Mark’s own parents had recently separated, and this had caused him to look outward for ways to distract himself from what had become a volatile situation at home. He had teased and bullied Thomas in the past, but now more than ever he hounded the boy, finding him to be a useful tool for escaping from his own problems. Danny was his lackey, and seemed himself to take a kind of sick thrill in picking on the weak and vulnerable.

The bell eventually rang for recess, and as usual Thomas waited for all of the other children to leave before discreetly making his way for the door and scanning the buildings for a room that looked to be unoccupied. He wandered across to a long row of classrooms with his book and pastels in hand and peered through a window whilst standing in the garden bed outside. “Yes,” he thought to himself, “no students or teachers – this is the one.” He then turned around to make his way to the entrance and suddenly stopped dead. Mark and Danny were right there, standing arms crossed and staring him down with their usual throng of followers. They had quietly formed a semi-circle around him and as he stood back against the wall, he began to feel fearful and claustrophobic. Mark spoke first:

“Hey Rickets – just what do you think you’re doing, peering in the windows like that..? Are you some sort of Peeping Tom..?” The children around him laughed, and Thomas gulped before replying, “Hi Mark, no I was just seeing if the class was empty, I.. I just wanted somewhere to sit and draw, that’s all.” The other children giggled, and Mark stepped forward to snatch the sketch book out of his hands, causing his brand new pastel set to drop to the ground and several to shatter as they fell. “What have we got here..?” he asked.

He held the book up to the others, saying, “Get a load of this, guys – it’s Quasimodo’s colouring book..! Let’s take a look and see what the freak’s been doodling.” He then proceeded to tear-out the first few pages that Thomas had been working on, laughing as he did and poking fun at the colourful and imaginative landscapes that he had put so much effort into the day before.

“You’re a real little sissy, aren’t you Tom,” he said, as Thomas’ eyes began to fill with tears, “you wouldn’t think someone with a back like yours could be such a spineless runt.” They began to push Thomas around now, and Mark and Danny both spat in his sketch book before hurling it face-down to the ground and stomping on it. This was the final straw, and Thomas suddenly felt something uncontrollable stirring in him that he’d tried for many years to suppress.

It wasn’t anger, and it definitely wasn’t hate. It was a strong and overpowering feeling of injustice at what was happening to him, and although he had become adept at bottling these sorts of feelings up whenever he was being bullied, the sight of his mother’s gift lying ripped and dirty on the ground and the vivid, colourful smear of his brand new pastel set that had been stomped into the concrete caused him to finally lose control and do something he knew would have dire consequences.

Out of nowhere, he balled his right hand into a fist and reached his crooked shoulder back as Mark, Danny and the rest of the boys suddenly hesitated. He swung his right arm with all of his might, and punched Mark across the jaw with such force that he knew even before the feeling registered that he had broken his hand. The blow sent Mark staggering back and as his arm followed through, Thomas twisted to his left and fell to his knees.

An excruciating pain coursed through his arm as he quickly rose again and found his feet, and for a long minute nobody moved. Thomas had never retaliated before when picked on by the other students, not even once. None of them knew just how to react at first, except for Mark who spat a mouthful of blood to the ground and raised the fingers of his left hand up to touch his lip that that had been split wide by the blow.

Nobody made a sound as the two just stared at each other, contemplating their next move. Mark was breathing heavily and was seeing red, “How dare that hunchbacked little freak fight back..!” he thought to himself, “Hit me..? I’ll break every delicate bone in his twisted little body..!” He was incensed and given his troubles at home considered this to be the perfect way to loose his aggression and get his mind off of the reality that he found himself trapped in. He pointed at Thomas finally, saying coldly, “You’re dead,” and turned to the others to command, “Danny, guys – let’s get the freak..!”

Thomas knew straight away that they were going make him pay for what he’d done, and he knew that they would chase him, beat him and there was even the real possibility that they might cause permanent damage. As little as he cared for his own welfare, he just couldn’t live with himself knowing that he would be responsible for putting his dear mother through such an ordeal and quickly decided that he needed to flee. Before the other children could react, he pushed past Danny and the rest and ran as fast as his legs would carry him, through the playground and out past the schoolyard gates.

The other boys were now so worked up that they took no notice that they too were leaving the school grounds, and they ran out of the gate and chased Thomas down the main street and towards the centre of town. He was running faster that he had ever ran in his life, and could feel his lungs burning and his knees beginning to buckle as his feet pounded the pavement. He knew that he couldn’t go on much further, that he would have to slow down and eventually stop moving altogether and so started to look around for somewhere that he might hide to give them the slip.

They were gaining on him quickly, so he couldn’t simply crouch behind a vehicle or run into an alleyway and besides, the last thing that he wanted was to find himself cornered again. He veered off from the road and sprinted through the doors of the local hospital which he knew was a big enough building to hide in, at least for a little while.

St. Mary’s was in fact the largest building in town, and rose six stories high above the rest of the shops and businesses around it. Thomas flew through the doors and quickly slowed down as he approached reception, careful not to attract any unwanted attention. He gave the receptionist a quick and nervous smile which she returned before he made his way over to the elevators – he was often visiting the hospital for one reason or another, and from his already bandaged arm she had just assumed he was in for another routine follow-up.

Not far behind him, Mark, Danny and the others also reached the glass entrance of the hospital, slowed down and casually wandered past while the receptionist’s back was turned. Just as the elevator doors closed and Thomas disappeared from view, Mark pointed and said to the others, “The elevators – he’s going up..!”

They stood by the grey metal doors and watched the panel above them to see what floor Thomas had gotten of at. “1.. 2.. 3..” the numbers climbed, “4.. 5.. 6.. R.” The display stopped there and Thomas leapt out of the elevator shaft as he reached the roof, and he searched for somewhere to hide hoping that the others had been caught in the hospital foyer and thrown back out again.

They hadn’t however, and squeezed into the next idle elevator, pressing ‘R’ for the roof of the building and slapped and high-five each other for their cleverness. If he was in fact on the roof, then he was trapped. Thomas had decided to hide behind a large steel vent on top of the building and when he finally stopped moving, he collapsed to the ground to catch his breath.

His hand was throbbing and he could tell just by looking at it that several bones had been smashed or jolted out of place when he lashed-out at Mark. His left arm was still useless and his legs ached from the long sprint down Main Street. He knew that if he was found up there, there would be nothing that he could possibly do to defend himself, and nowhere left to run.

Mama had brought him up to be religious. She had taught him from an early age of her God, his angels and of heaven as she knew it, and would read to him from the bible often as he lay in bed either at home or in that very same hospital. As he sat on the roof out of view, he looked skyward and prayed that he might stay hidden and if not, that he might find mercy in the hearts of those who sought to do him harm.

Just as he finished his prayer, he heard the unmistakeable rattle of the elevator doors as they slowly squeaked open again from across the roof, and held his breath as he peeked out over the top of the vent. “Please help me,” he said to himself, “please get me out of here.” He was shaking with fear as they left the confines of the elevator shaft and spread-out across the roof of the building to look for him. The winds up there had suddenly become fierce, and several almost lost their footing as a gale swept across it.

It was only a matter of seconds before Danny reached the vent, and after peering around the side of it he turned and called back to the others, “Hey Mark, guys – I’ve found the little freak. Get over here..!” The rest of the boys converged on where he was hiding and again formed a semi-circle around him, trapping him at the edge of the building while Mark wandered over, glaring at Thomas with a fire in his eyes that resembled pure hatred. The long cut on the left side of his lower lip had dried, and he touched it with his tongue as he stood there, sizing up Thomas who was now himself as white as a sheet.

“So you think you’re a tough guy do you, Rickets..? Think you can step-up and hold your own in a fight – well I don’t think you can. I think we need to see if you can take a punch as well as you can give one first, hey guys..?” He threw his arms wide, bobbed his head and looked around the group, the rest of the boys laughing and egging him on. Thomas felt like he was about to be sick, and as he stood there, his hair tussled by the wild wind and waiting for yet another in an endless line of inevitable beatings, his mind wandered to a more peaceful place. He closed his eyes for a moment, and imagined that he was miles away from Mark, his school and its students and high above the town, far beyond the reach of anyone and just looking down at the rest of the world below.

Suddenly, he felt a strong serenity wash over him and opened his eyes again to see Mark pointing at him and laughing derisively. “What’s the matter, Tom, not going to faint on us, are you..?” he taunted. Thomas was tired. He was tired of the bullying, and the teasing. Tired of the names, the beatings and being pushed around by people that he knew would never, ever stop. He was tired of the pointless lessons, of the small town and its selfish people and suddenly from somewhere deep inside him was overcome by the feeling that it was time for him to move on, time to leave it all behind. Time to put an end to it all.

As the others watched-on in surprise, Thomas climbed up on the ledge at the front edge of the roof behind him and stood facing his attackers. As he found his feet, his thoughts suddenly turned to his mother, and his face sank as he somehow realised that he was about to leave, and might not ever see her again. But as the winds once again picked up, he felt sure that it was time. Time to let go.

“What the hell are you doing, freak..?” Mark called out to him, his voice nearly drowned-out by the rising winds, “Are you trying to get yourself killed..? Get back down here and take your medicine like a man.” Mark nodded to Danny and the others to pull him down, and several of the boys began to slowly edge towards Thomas who was standing perfectly still and staring up and out above their heads. They were only a couple of feet away from closing in on him and about to reach out when the most amazing thing happened, stopping them dead in their tracks.

Above the roar of the wind, the children suddenly heard a loud crack and a sound like the tearing of fabric from behind Thomas, and backed away as his face suddenly contorted into a wild and horrible mask of pain. He buckled and screamed a bloodcurdling scream as two magnificent feathered wings burst forth dramatically from the misshapen hump on his back and stretched-out either side of him, billowing majestically in the wind as it coursed over them. None of them could believe what they were seeing.

From somewhere deep within he had always known that this day would come. He had never known his father, yet to him Michael had always been more than just a faceless soldier. He had listened intently to his mother as she read from the New Testament, riveted and awestruck by those tales of angels and names that somehow seemed comfortable and familiar.

The other children just stood in front of Thomas, mouths agape and their eyes staring as his massive white feathered wings flexed and ruffled beside him, drops of a strange amniotic fluid dripping from them as they shuddered. No-one spoke for a long minute, before Mark looked up at him and asked, “What in God’s name..?”

“What indeed,” Thomas smiled to himself, “In God’s name.” He turned on the ledge then and faced the chill wind, smiling broadly he raised his arms and felt it run over his body. Only now could he understand just how important it had been that his bones remain light and hollow, and he took one last look over his shoulder at the other children before flapping his mighty wings for the first time, and taking-off into the clear and endless skies of his imagination. As the others watched him disappear into the distance, they could just make out a second dark and similarly winged figure descend from the clouds to join him before they both vanished skyward and out of view forever.

Kathleen was leaving the cafe in town that she had worked at for most of the morning when she heard the distant beating of wings from the sky above her, and looked up just in time to make out two huge shadows as they flew across the face of the midday sun and away into the distance. “Mike..” she said softly to herself, dropping her coffee as she realised what had happened. Somehow she knew, somehow she had always known and was filled with a profound calm as she stood and watched them go.

The sketch book that still lay in the playground had blown over in the sudden winds, and when it finally stilled the pages had stopped upon a drawing that Thomas had made the day before, a drawing of a pale blue sky above a sea of white clouds, and two winged angels soaring high above.